“All Apologies”: Finding the Meaning of Nirvana

“I’m going to single-handedly save this marriage!” blasted itself into the void during our final years together. My brain just couldn’t last a second, at the end of the marriage, without wondering what new and inventive way I could come up with to fix his unhappiness. Because he was definitely unhappy; I knew that much. He told me all the time by criticizing the meals I cooked, the food I bought, the way I cleaned the house, and handled the kids. The gas I put in the car. The way I watered the grass. My ideas. I was surviving from one critique to the next in a mode where you don’t have time to get ahead or reflect and each day is silently punctured as if predated by the same animal who’d expect you to have sex later.

And initially I knew that wasn’t the way I should be treated and stood up for myself. Would point out that he had unrealistic expectations and that he talked disrespectfully to me. For a few months, I even stopped cooking altogether to teach him not to criticize my meals. But my defiance didn’t last. Some of us just can’t do it. The world is looking for targets for which an endless supply is found in the tender folk, and those who by personality won’t fight back. But I’m (pathologically?) easygoing, and as the oldest kid of two young 20-something parents, was born intuiting tension and calibrating my day towards relieving it.

And anyways we know when we’re up against an unreasonable foe. Because nothing works except our own hope that things will change and so I let go, and wafted through “easygoing” and “oh well whatever nevermind” until fighting for equality in my marriage turned into listening to his complaints and trying to be “better.” Doing what I could do to change myself—insidiously—until finally the inevitable happened and he left to be unhappy somewhere else.

At the end, though, I was gasping from the impossible task I’d assigned myself, and an event from February 2007—right before he first mentioned the word “divorce”—has become an emblem.

It went like this: our Dyson vacuum had pulled up some of the new Berber carpet that had just been installed in our remodeled basement. Berber carpet is hooked into tight loops and anchored to the bottom of the backing and, during vacuuming, a foot long strand had unraveled, making a noticeable gouge in the new carpet.

And I knew he’d be so angry at me. So I called the carpet place—in a panic—to tell them what had happened, and see if I had recourse. But I didn’t, she said, because right in the Dyson manual it says not to use it on Berber. And I was freaked out. Told her that my husband was going to be so mad at me. And she was very apologetic and wished me luck before we hung up. Then, Thinking quickly, I grabbed my hot glue gun, gathered the pulled up strand of carpeting and tried to fix the carpet back into place. It was near the futon; he might not even notice.

A few minutes into my glueing, the carpet place called back. I was in a hurry to finish the job before he got home—burning myself with the hot glue as I used a bamboo skewer to push the carpeting back into place–but answered anyways. It was the same woman I’d talked to, who now—sounding concerned—asked, “I just wanted to call you back and make sure that you were okay.”

She wanted to make sure that I was okay.

And it was weird to hear the worry in her voice, reflecting back to me the panic that had inflected my own. It was weird to only experience concern and worry for myself inside the voice of a better-visioned stranger.

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What else should I be,

All apologies

I wasn’t a rabid Nirvana fan when Kurt Cobain was alive so wasn’t lost inside the falsity of idolatry. Which I’m guessing is what killed him. The visceral sense that he was disappointing everyone (because just being himself wasn’t enough) and people going out of their way to misunderstand—wielding their critique to even whatever emotional score they’re keeping track of—is a suicidal ideation punch card.

But the Nirvana song–All Apologies–calls me home to my marriage.

Kurt favored poetry over obviousness

I take all the blame, aqua seafoam shame.

and with soft chords leading to reflection and sorrow, orchestral strings juxtapose against roughed-up voices and lyrics, placing the song as the preamble to his suicide. “All Apologies” is knowing that folks only liked him for what they could get out of him. A feminist who hated racists and homophobes—regularly told both to fuck off—he was bought, sold, owned, and controlled by depression created by body chemistry, emotional isolation and a world where “Tell someone!” suicide prevention campaigns are blasted to HD TV sets playing fake life at unnatural volumes, Creating the void within which true feeling doesn’t register.

And everything about those days with James were an apology. I was sorry for what I did, didn’t do, was sorry for the girls, my inadequacies, for his unhappiness. Then after the divorce was sorry all over again for different reasons.

I didn’t yet know how we carve ourselves up. How we vulnerably write songs to impart our crimes to an angry world not listening, and leave Krist Novoselic searching for left-handed guitars after blasting our chins with shotguns.

I didn’t know the world invited us to jump into the maw, screaming at us for more and more, never once even seeing how sad fingers pluck.

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“Suicide doesn’t stop the pain, it just moves it” is what I commented on a Reddit post the other day. And I didn’t invent the quote but share it widely because I’ve been in that mental space and need to be reminded that the pain I thought I’d escape doesn’t end; it keeps going; whatever demons we’re running from will endure and trauma will hold our hands until we make friends with it.

And it’s 1 million years past being with James; after my marriage I had to get angry to keep the wrong people away and had to be alone to fully value events. I had to be quiet, and bear the unbearable, and clutch my vulnerabilities and disgust in equal measure like a treasure. I had to discover that “Tell someone!” was missing the entire first and most vital step of gathering tender folks about you.

In writing this song, Kurt’s asking us to remember the tender folk who too quickly get lost inside this madness. And in listening to it, I’m answering him, and as I do, feeling the stiff Berber under my knees and hearing the siren call of my better angels asking if I’m okay.