The Stowaway's Voyage
Visions from the Bottom of the Ocean
5 / 7
In grief, we often lose our sense of self control and feel adrift at sea. I experienced ‘visions’, intrusive images and waves of emotional turmoil over long periods of time. Music helped me move with, rather than against, those waves and reach calmer waters.
A typical British summer beach holiday: me at the beach
SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
"Maybe a part of me couldn’t cope with rebuilding the ship and the pain of lost happiness connected to it."
The last Christmas I spent with my mum, she gave me my dream present: a Lego pirate ship with red sails. I actually found it before Christmas stashed away in a bag behind a fold up table. My mother tried to make me believe I had imagined seeing it, or that perhaps it wasn’t meant for me. I was having none of it. That still didn’t take away one drop of excitement on Christmas day when I opened my present, tearing away the paper hardly able to contain myself in anticipation of fitting the first few pieces together.
I had a boat obsession: I drew them, read about them, built models of them and occasionally stayed on one in St Katharine’s Dock in London. I was particularly fixated on the stories of pirates and the cruel sea life they led with keel-hauling, floggings and walking the plank. The sea, too, played a large part in my boyhood. As a family, we often went on holiday to the sea in Wales or Yorkshire and, in the good old British spirit, made it down to the beach come rain or shine.
But after my mother died I somehow lost my love of boats and the sea. After the move up to Scotland, cars, planes, machines and cities became the objects of choice to build. The pirate ship lay in a chest scattered in an ocean of Lego. Maybe a part of me couldn’t cope with rebuilding the ship and the pain of lost happiness connected to it. And in this detachment from my joys and interests, from the things that excited me, began the ruderlessness in my life, drifting along without direction.
The Stowaway's Voyage was recorded at the Old Mill Gallery in Palnackie, on the coast in Dumfries and Galloway
GRIEF AND THE SEA
In grief, the sea is an ever-recurrent metaphor. It holds a powerful place in our psyches with its life-giving force providing sustenance, cleansing, leisure and relaxation. The sea has always been the door to trade, far off lands, adventure, and the great unknown beyond. It seems to offer promises of renewal for culture, health and the spirit.
Yet, in the bottomless depths of the ocean lie monsters unknown. As personified in Poseidon, the sea is vengeful and bad-tempered, its capricious forces capable of summoning death and destruction at will. Indeed, it was the sea’s vastness and indifference that showed man his insignificance long before the realisation that the earth was not at the centre of the universe.
The sea of grief holds just such contradictions. It can be an overpowering, unpredictable and violent experience unleashing krakens from the deep. It can also, however, contain the distant seeds of healing, of renewal, of overcoming and of personal growth – even if that is poor recompense for our loss. In grief, our illusions of self-control are often shattered and, like a sail ship in a storm, when the wind picks up the best option with what control we do have is to go with, rather than against, the waves. In those seemingly destructive forces might just lie a key to moving forward.
In music in Cape Verde the sea becomes a symbol of grief, loss and longing. The sea takes many away from the island in search of work or a better life but brings far fewer home. Sodade is a specific word on the island which expressed a feeling of nostalgic longing, a feeling which infuses much of Cape Verdean music.
REBUILDING THE PIRATE SHIP
In my late-twenties when I was living out in Berlin, when I came home to visit my Dad, I started getting urges to open the Lego chest up in my room and start building. On the third or fourth time I conducted one of these covert building missions, I opened the chest and saw the hull of the pirate ship lying there tragically disassembled. I couldn’t possibly leave it like that. I didn’t have the instructions or even a picture of the original, and some of the pieces were missing, so I did what I could taking whatever artistic liberties I needed to build something resembling original - a whole childhood of Lego is not easily forgotten by your fingertips.
I didn’t much think about it at the time or consciously connect it to my suppressed grief; it simply felt good to do. When I finished it, I set up all the Lego figurines so that they were engaged in battle and then set the ship on a shelf. After that, the urges to build completely vanished. Whatever part of me that wanted to return to the chest was now satisfied with the prized relic of my early childhood restored and one step further towards grief.
"Whatever part of me that wanted to return to the chest was now satisfied with the prized relic of my early childhood restored"
"I experienced what I can only describe as visions"
VISIONS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN
A few months after beginning to grieve, I was experimenting with fasting. At the same time, I was in the throes of the most intense period of grief, with massive surges frequently washing over me and leaving me struggling in the undertow. The physical weakening from fasting, combined with the intensity of grief, led me into a mental state where I experienced what I can only describe as ‘visions’ – or, perhaps, incredibly vivid semi-waking lucid dreams. I was immersed in the images that came, but was also awake and able to make decisions.
Previously, I had been a person who had had minimal subconscious intrusion in life. I rarely dreamt and - apart from musical activities - seemingly spent the vast majority of life in the rational sphere. Grief, however, massively activated my subconscious and I very quickly learnt to explore what was arising, even trusting that that exploration would lead me towards answers.
In one of these ‘visions’, I was being swirled around in a vast whirlpool in the sea like that which Ursula stirs up in Disney’s Little Mermaid. After swirling around the edge for some time, I was eventually sucked down to the bottom, where I entered into a narrow spiralling vortex, like a spindly tornado, which sucked me rapidly down its shoot miles below. I popped out at the bottom of the ocean into very murky, silty water over a muddy sea bed.
I could only see a couple of meters in front of me so I started swimming around to see what was there. There were one or two creatures of the deep, a few strange fish, a dangerous looking shark passed by uninterested.
Something caught my eye on the sea bed and I decided to swim down. There I started digging through the thick sea mud. To my surprise, I began to dig up objects from my childhood, all symbols of the happy times spent with my mother. The Lego pirate ship was unearthed, a red jumper that I had always worn, the mini guitar my mum had given me just before she died. Then suddenly as I dug, my mother appeared through a window of a metal hatch in the sea bed, her water bloated face pressed up against the glass. I couldn’t tell if she was dead or alive. I recoiled in horror.
The pirate ship rebuilt (with a few artistic liberties taken)
I knew I could break out of the vision at any time, that I could open my eyes. But I also knew that if I did that, I’d be stuck powerless with this horrific image that had been foisted upon me. If I stayed in, I could act. So, I did. I broke the glass and tried to rescue my mother. I took her to the surface and on to a beach, still not knowing if she was dead or alive. There I tried to resuscitate her. Then I opened my eyes.
The whole experience left me shaken. It felt wrong, uncomfortable in so many ways, even a violation. But I stayed with it just long enough to experience what was happening and to act on it and am glad I did. That way I maintained agency and was not solely a victim subjugated by my own uncontrollable thoughts.
In the past, I also used to get flashes of how my mother would look now in her decayed state in her coffin. I used to be horrified by these tormenting images. I’d try to push them away as quickly as possible. But they kept coming back. Eventually, I tried the opposite: when the images came, I stayed with them, I explored them. Surprisingly, the images quickly lost their horror and I soon stopped being able to concentrate on them as the happy memories of my mother alive kept knocking at the door pushing the coffin images away. The coffin ‘flashes’ then disappeared.
I find the best way to understand these visions and intrusions is as indications from the unconscious, the place where, for me, all the suppressed memories and grief somehow stored themselves for twenty-five years. The unconscious often communicates in a more primordial way, in non-literal images, symbols, memories and emotions. I came to understand the image of my mother in her coffin not as literal but as an indication of the state of her memory in my head: I had neglected her memory and so it was buried, skeletal and undignified. The antidote, too, was provided in all the happy memories that were the counterpart to the coffin.
Much as in the vision from the bottom of the ocean, I needed to face the void and try to revive her memory, even if it took digging around at bottom of an unconscious sea, unearthing and resuscitating that memory. In the physical world, I translated this into talking to those who knew my mum, visiting the places we used to visit, looking through old photos, reminiscing, asking the difficult questions and playing music that connected me to her. At bottom, I needed to hear about her and expressing her memory while being able to smile when doing so.
"I needed to face the void and try to revive her memory, even if it took digging around at bottom of an unconscious sea, unearthing and resuscitating that memory."
THE STOWAWAY'S VOYAGE
I wrote The Stowaway’s Voyage at a moment of stagnation in grief, where I felt stilted and stuck. It started life as an exploration of a technique using three fingers on the right hand in a triplet picking pattern moving up and down the strings. It wasn’t meant to be part of this series; it was going to be some sort of Chopin-esque etude - a musical piece focussing on a specific technique.
However, as the technique became fluid under my fingers, I began to speed it up and, at one point, I could no longer concentrate on the individual finger movements, instead playing the technique in a sweeping motion. I needed to let go to let it flow. As I did, it started to feel like a wave crashing onto a shore, foaming up the rocks and then receding, or, like a boat on a rough sea with the waves lifting the vessel high out the water before dropping it back down. If I
The sea of the coast of Dumfries and Galloway where The Stowaway's Voyage was recorded
imagined the waves while playing, the piece of music flowed like the water, my fingers becoming the waves.
Playing the piece transported me, took me out of myself and to some distant primordial sea away from the daily grind of grief. I found comfort there in the sense of my insignificance in the wilful sea, of not being in control and of having to go with the waves in order to stay afloat.
Then, loosing myself in distant waters somehow simultaneously connected me back to my boat filled childhood and the seas I used to love. On the rough waves in a far-off sea, I was now in my Lego pirate ship, not steering the ship, but as a stowaway below deck.
I found myself returning again and again to this piece of music. I felt at home in the sea’s unpredictable and contradictory nature. I was trying to escape my emotional state, yet the sea was somehow also my grief and a link to my happy childhood. I was learning to go with it, to ride the cleansing waves.
"This combination of music with symbol and image is capable of helping us to find relief from our physical grieving body, to find a place of meaning and a state of mind where we can experience catharsis and healing"
MUSIC, SYMBOL AND GRIEF
Music can take us out of ourselves, out of our problems, give us some peace or transport us to another place - this is one of the reasons why so many people listen to and play music in their everyday lives.
Consciously or not, music can connect us to powerful symbols that affect us in many subtle ways; music makers the world over have known this and sought to use music to conjure land and symbol. Through memory, association, words or just the feel of the music itself, music can connect us to our home, to a landscape, to a feeling, to a person, to our childhood or to a period in our life. It can give us either power and energy or serenity and relaxation.
In relation to grief and loss, this combination of music with symbol and image is capable of helping us to find relief from our physical grieving body, to find a place of meaning and a state of mind where we can experience catharsis and healing. That place somewhere in the next room, away from our immediate physical environment, can be a place where we can connect to ourselves on a very deep level, transcend our everyday experience and experience healing over time.
Religious and spiritual practices the world over have ever recognised and utilised the combination of music, image and symbol. But this is no less available to the non-religious; there is just no well-trodden path to follow and the individual may have to find what tools they can to create meaning. For me, music was my guide and way in when grief confronted me. Just as following my urge to rebuild my pirate ship or exploring messages from my unconscious allowed me to move forward, so did following my musical proclivities. Eventually, I found my own combination of music, image and symbol using the age-old sea to find that place of transcendence.
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The Stowaway's Voyage
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This is the 6th video/single release in A Musician's Journey through Delayed Grief - a seven part musical and textual series by Douglas MacGregor exploring the connections between music, loss and healing arising from his personal experience of delayed grief twenty-five years after he lost his mother to cancer at the age of seven.
These are songs from the deep, meditations and manifestations of loss...and a hymn to hope in disguise.
I have so few direct memories of my mum and yet she was ever present throughout my formative years. Maybe the feeling of her surrounding presence, warmth and love – all those ungraspable feelings – are the sweetest memory in themselves.