One advantage of being into music when you are a psychiatrist is that every so often there is a song lyric that is useful in the clinic. I mean — not that often. But sometimes.
When I get the chance, I like to use a line from a song or a poem or a film to encourage in a patient a sense of being recognised and understood and understandable. The same comforting sense of connection that I got from music growing up and still do. Songs and other texts can provide some concrete proof that a troubling thought or feeling, which may strike one person as idiosyncratic or unacceptable, has been thought or felt by another person, who considered it noteworthy and universal enough to write about.
Recently I was seeing a patient called Róisín*. We’ve known each other a few years through some thick and thin. Róisín told me—among other things that day, and nearly as an aside—that she was experiencing a feeling of unsettling sadness whenever she came across a particular tree. She thought there was something peculiar about this sadness. She didn’t understand the feeling and couldn’t explain it—it wasn’t like there was even anything particularly wrong. She was a little annoyed at herself and this was something she would not have said to many people. Why would seeing a tree make you feel sad? That’s daft!
I was glad Róisín trusted me with this because the feeling she described resonated with me and I did not think it daft. I thought that paying proper attention to the natural world is an emotionally complex act. I thought that fully appreciating the beauty of anything in nature—of a sunset, a snowfall, a songbird, an oak tree—means also reckoning with its transience. What she said reminded me of ‘The Wayfarer’ by Pádraig Pearse, because, though I like to think I can summon poetic verse at will, I mostly summon poems from school. “The beauty of the world hath made me sad,” said Pearse, “the beauty that will pass”. It was that or ‘Advent’.
Around the same time as I saw Róisín, I read Leagues O’Toole highly recommend the new album by Tamara Lindeman’s band The Weather Station, who were new to me. I bought the album, Ignorance, because Leagues has never steered me wrong. When I later read that the core theme preoccupying Lindeman on the record was climate grief, I gave it my full attention. The song that unlocked the album was ‘Parking Lot’.
‘Parking Lot’ is a nimble and careful reflection on the intensity of emotions that the natural world can inspire in us. The song’s context is the degradation of the natural world that is so commonplace that we barely notice it any more. That outline makes the song sound hefty, and OK it is, but it has a lightness of touch that is irresistible — think peak Fleetwood Mac, or The Blue Nile doing Blue Monday. ‘Parking Lot’ is a reflection too on ineffability, on the mystery of emotions that we feel intensely and just can’t account for, like, say, when we pay particularly close attention to a particularly well-loved tree.
Rather than a tree, the focus of Lindeman’s attention in ‘Parking Lot’ is a tiny bird in an urban location that is unnamed but I have taken to be the US West Coast – somewhere dry and unforgiving. The singer starts by describing the scene in the past tense: “Waiting outside the club in a parking lot / I watched some bird fly up and land on the rooftop / Then up again into the sky / In and out of sight / Then flying down again to land on the pavement”. She continues “It felt intimate to watch it / Its small chest rising and falling / As it sang the same song / Over and over and over and over again / Over the traffic and the noise”. Lindeman’s acute attention to the bird’s behaviour inspires compassion. The bird sings to find a mate but the bird cannot be heard and it will not find one. It sings its song “over and over and over and over again”, without hope of success. It’s kind of brutal to witness, which is what the song asks us to do.
Lindeman then changes the direction of her singing and goes from describing the scene to responding to the scene, and the pathos seems to have hit her. She sings in the second person and asks: “Is it OK if I don’t want to sing tonight? I know you are tired of seeing tears in my eyes / But are there not good reasons to cry? / I swear I’m alright / Perhaps you could just let it slide.” It’s not clear who she is asking, but you might consider that the audience for Lindeman’s question is the same as the audience for her singing, and there is something meta about her using her singing voice to ask us to relieve her of her singing duties.
In the following verse, Lindeman interrogates the second-verse emotional response arising from her observations in the first verse. Echoing Róisín’s sentiments, Lindeman acknowledges that the rawness of her response confounds her: “I confess I don’t wanna undress this feeling / I am not poet enough to address this peeling”. The final verse carries on: “And it kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I / You know it just kills me when I see some bird fly / Know it just kills me, and I don’t know why”.
So I like that Tamara Lindeman has made the choice to express this, for a lot of reasons.
In the first place I like that she validates the emotion of solastalgia, which I think is at the core of ‘Parking Lot’—the pain associated with environmental loss, the sorrow we feel when we witness nature changing, suffering, even dying. That climate grief that the Guardian and I mentioned earlier. It needs to be understood and appreciated that if we feel sad and that is the only reason, solastalgia is enough of a reason. Like COVID anxiety is enough, in itself, to be going on with. We don’t need any additional explanations for why we are tired, freaked out, and frazzled, as we sit in rooms wearing masks, as Róisín and I were doing in the clinic that day, so that we don’t virally maim the person across from us.
I like the potential for practical good to be done by this song. Lindeman’s compassion for that little bird, a microcosm of her compassion for all living beings, is going to be communicated to other people, and that transmission of compassion could encourage people hearing the song to act. To be compassionate means to witness suffering, to pay attention to it, and, irreducibly, to work to alleviate the suffering.
And I like that a gifted songwriter and observer of inner worlds like Lindeman has the bravery to say “It kills me and I don’t know why”; that she cannot figure her own heart out sometimes. If she can’t – well there must be times that this just can’t be done. I think it helps people who hear that. I like that she validates a perplexed response to strong emotions and that she models a way of accepting their unknowability.
I particularly like this because I meet a lot of people who are recovering from depression and their emotional experiences have unmoored them and left them constantly questioning how they respond to things. They may have learned, may have genuinely had to learn, that their automatic responses need to be double-checked and unchecked may lead them dangerously astray. This is an important lesson—feelings are not facts, as they say—but constantly second-guessing your own emotions can be destabilising and invalidating and there is a point in recovery when it is important to regain your sense that your instincts are OK.
Songs help us here, I think—they help us navigate emotionally. They set down stable markers. They are guiding lights. Songs that deal in sorrow can help you to relearn that a strong feeling of sadness is not necessarily depressive, not pathological, no longer to be feared. It’s just how a person responds to something sad, and maybe it’s safe to do that again; to feel everything available to you. Pearse concluded, “I have gone upon my way, sorrowful”. Lindeman asks, rhetorically, liberatingly, “Are there not good reasons to cry?”
*Róisín gave her consent for the inclusion of this encounter in this piece.