A beetle makes its way across the otherwise spotless carpet. Not a particularly large specimen, it waddles in a characteristically militant and somewhat jagged rhythm. It reminds me of Bryan Devendorf’s opening drum barrage in “Squalor Victoria”. It’s from The National’s Boxer, if you’re unfamiliar.
“Hi, Jonathan? Sorry to keep you waiting. Come on in.”
My sister is sitting beside me, arms clasping mine. A bit too tightly, if I’m being honest. But I don’t really mind. I’m glad she’s there with me.
It’s August, 2012. Two weeks earlier, I had planned and attempted to take my own life.
The psychiatrist ushers me into her office, and looks at my sister with some hesitation. “She’s with me,” I say. We enter a sterile, classically boring office bedecked with advanced degrees from good schools and a few books that I recognize on an overstuffed bookshelf. I always check the degrees on the walls of the people who are administering any sort of care to me. Either because I’m an academic snob or because I desperately want to make sure I’m in qualified hands. Not really sure. Maybe both. A small fan waves air at me from the corner of the room, which seems weird to me since the cicada-like hum of the central air system is cascading from the ceiling. My sister and I make our way to the chairs across from her desk.
“How are you feeling today, Jonathan?”
“Um… I’m doing okay, thanks.”
She flips through the file on her desk.
“I’ve heard that you’ve been having a pretty rough go lately.”
I actually chuckle at this.
“That’s one way to put it, yeah.”
“Well, how comfortable are you with talking about what happened?”
A slight pause.
“Okay. So let me ask you a tough one right off the bat: Why don’t you want to be here anymore?”
That’s a long story. A tale that involves a lot of mental neglect on my part, biological tendencies in my cranial region, personal heartbreak and deep sadness, and an overwhelming sense of never being adequate in anything I’ve ever done regardless of measurable success. I don’t know where this mental maelstrom came from. The genesis of my dark night of the soul to this day eludes me. But here I am, talking with a mental health professional about something I never imagined in my life that I would attempt to inflict upon myself. And for some reason, all I can think of is a line from “Mistaken for Strangers”:
Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over / Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t want to watch / Another un-innocent, elegant fall / Into the un-magnificent lives of adults
Fast forward a bit. It’s June 20th, 2015. I’m standing at an altar, which is positioned in front of an absolutely enormous cask of wine imported from Spain. It’s my wedding day, and around sixty of our closest friends and family members are stuffed into a small wine room. Fitting, because I want to get drunk right now and not have to deal with all the hoopla a wedding entails and just get straight to the part where we’re married, on a beach, and sipping margaritas. My niece struts about relishing being the flower girl by acting generally cute, my tiny nephew looks literally every person in the room directly in the face as he makes his way to the front, and my brother plays guitar softly in the background. All is going according to plan. I’m not particularly nervous. I don’t really know what I am. Just there, completely in the moment, waiting for my bride to make her entrance.
Then, much like true peace, she enters the room softly, gently, and with a true beauty that commands the entire room to pay heed.
Everyone stands. Traditional wedding music begins to serenade the room. But there is no sound in my mind but Matt Berninger’s voice from “Slow Show”:
You know I dreamed about you for twenty-nine years before I saw you / You know I dreamed about you… I missed you for twenty-nine years
There has never been a greater happiness in my heart. Not once.
It’s July, 2016. An elevator ascends, traveling to the 22nd floor of a skyscraper in Denver, Colorado. It’s my first day of work with a start-up tech company. Which is great, except I’m a liberal arts major. How is this happening? Why am I here? What if they find out that I actually don’t know squat about pretty much anything? I feel that distinct pang of inadequacy creeping its way to the forefront of my mind. If “Impostor Syndrome” has a picture in any encyclopedia, it should be of my dumb face in that elevator.
In short, I’m a nervous wreck.
The elevator begins to slow, and I can feel my pulse pounding in my temples. This company is making a huge mistake. I don’t have skills. WHERE ARE MY SKILLS?! Oh lord god almighty sweetest baby jesus cross yourself boy do it now.
Through all that internal racket, a sweet baritone lilts into my mind from “Racing Like A Pro”:
You’re pink, you’re young, you’re middle class; they say it doesn’t matter / Fifteen blue shirts and womanly hands, you’re shooting up the ladder / You’re mind is racing like a pro now, oh my god it doesn’t mean a lot to you / One time you were a glowing young ruffian, oh my god it was a million years ago…
I don’t know why these lyrics came into my head, or what part of my subconscious loves me, but there are few moments that have ever seemed more fitting, more appropriate, or more real in my life.
The elevator doors open, and I walk into my future.
The National is that band for me. There are no major moments in my adult life when their music has been absent. Falling in love for the first time, the subsequent meltdown of a break-up, discovering myself as an independent adult, finals weeks during college, late drives through Denver after hanging out with friends, traveling the world, marrying the love of my life, those nights where I laid on the kitchen floor and sobbed uncontrollably not knowing what was wrong with me… their music has been a monolithic presence in my life for a decade. Since May 23rd, 2007, in fact. The day after Boxer was unleashed upon we unsuspecting mortals.
As music fanatics, we often use the language of movement to dictate the trajectory of our interests. I’ve been “following” certain bands for a long time, but only once has a band followed me; their music coiling through my subconscious like a life-giving rope, ready at any moment to calm my mind, settle my heart, and rescue me from the bleakest devices of myself. This is music that I don’t need to play out loud to hear. It’s in my head, heart, and soul now. I am incredibly grateful that this album exists. I am well and healthy in part because this album exists. May it follow me forever.
Thank you Matt, Aaron, Bryce, Scott, and Bryan. Your music has changed my life, and for that I will be forever grateful.