Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Odd Couple: Sisyphus and Steely Dan

The Odd Couple:
Sisyphus and Steely Dan
Artwork Copyright © 2017 Chelsea Michelle Smith
Odd couple they may be, I have reasons for pairing Steely Dan and Sisyphus. In most respects, they are an odd couple. Steely Dan is a jazz rock band, most popular in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Sisyphus is a character from Greek mythology. The first king of Corinth, he was known for being greedy, deceitful, and crafty. Among his misdeeds was violating xenia (the concept of guest friendship or hospitality) by killing his houseguests. He also seduced his brother’s daughter.
Zeus (the king of the gods) was furious with Sisyphus for violating xenia. When Sisyphus bragged that he was much more clever than Zeus, he went too far. As punishment, Zeus commanded Sisyphus to push a boulder to the top of a hill. Zeus enchanted the boulder so that as soon as it neared the top of the hill, it rolled away from Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned to push the boulder up the hill until the end of time.
When an effort is Sisyphean, it is doomed to be repeated without reward forever. (Unlike Sisyphus, most of us have the option to stop when we realize the futility of our actions.)
What do Steely Dan and Sisyphus have in common? I’ll tell you. I never was a student of Greek mythology, and I never was much of a music person. I enjoy music, but never felt compelled to listen to it or buy the latest releases, unless the music resonated with me in a powerful way.
In 1986, I married a man who did love music. He was a music person, and I’m grateful. Because of him, I listened to Genesis, Prince, Simple Minds, Thomas Dolby, Peter Gabriel, Journey, Foreigner, and more. I also listened to Steely Dan.
The year 1986 also dealt me the cruelest possible blow. My seven-year-old daughter Alexa died on November 2 from brain cancer. It’s been thirty years since that day, and although the passage of time has gifted me with much healing, I know that process will continue for the rest of my life. It is not quite a Sisyphean effort because I continue to move forward and never return to day one. I’ve taken a few steps backward, but my healing has overall had a forward motion. However, I know, like Sisyphus knows as he rolls the boulder up the hill yet again, the healing process will not ever end.
Later in the day and into the evening of that November 2, 1986, I sat in my room, stunned, unable to process the life that was lost to me, to my fourteen-year-old daughter, Venus, and to my then-husband, Ken. My daughter and I sat on the bed. We played backgammon. I have no idea why we played or even if we could focus on the game. Perhaps the game pulled us away from an unbearable present. We spent those quiet hours together, just the two of us. Our neighbor Darryl spent that evening with my husband. I remember Ken washing the dishes and listening to music.
Our neighbor was a musician, but he wasn’t familiar with Steely Dan. Ken introduced them that evening. Ken had several Steely Dan albums, and over several hours, he played each of them.
My memories of that evening are limited, but clear: sitting in my room, playing backgammon with my daughter, my closest friend calling me, and Ken washing the dishes and drinking Foster’s Ale with our neighbor. During those hours, the music of Steely Dan wafted into my room. It was the background of the evening and affects me to this day.
Twelve years after that 1986 day, a poem came to me:

Backgammon and Steely Dan

November 15, 1998

We played backgammon the night of the day she died.
We sat on the bed where her child body breathed its last,
    Where I felt with the palm of my hand
    The final beat of her heart.

We played backgammon the night of the day she died.
We moved the pieces—white and brown—from point to point.
We rolled the dice and moved again.

We played backgammon the night of the day she died.
We listened to the sounds from the other room.
Steely Dan—he played it for his friend.
    Over and over and over.
He drank Foster’s. He washed the dishes.
He listened.

We played backgammon the night of the day she died.
The phone rang. My friend called.
You still carry on, she said.
We cried.

We played backgammon the night of the day she died.
Twelve years later, Steely Dan music—even in the background—pierces me.
I turn away—shrunken in pain.
I still play backgammon.

 I wish I could say that thirty years on, I listen to Steely Dan as well as play backgammon. I don’t. I loved the music, but little has changed about my pain-filled reaction to it—even after thirty years. I know the music didn’t create that November day, but the music is an integral part of it. Music has that elusive quality of pushing through our conscious awareness and into the depths of where the seat of our emotion lies. That quality of Steely Dan transports me to that day. I don’t want to be in that day. I don’t want to relive that day. The act of playing backgammon pulls me away from myself, but listening to Steely Dan pushes me far too deep within myself. I cannot listen to it without searing pain.
A few days ago, I was listening to the radio and Steely Dan’s “Get Back Jack” came on. I decided that my avoidance had gone on far too long. I white-knuckled my psyche through the final note. I felt that it was time for me force myself to listen, that it was a trial, that it was my walk across hot coals. I walked, but I burned my feet.
After listening, I now realize that I don’t have to force myself to listen to it or anything else. I pushed myself to do something that I always advise grieving people not to do: “Do not place any expectation on how you are supposed to grieve.” I was wrong to force myself to take on the near-Sisyphean task of listening to Steely Dan. It is wrong for anyone to force himself or herself to tap into the source of anything painful and relive it. We don’t have to move back into the troubled houses of painful experiences, and we don’t have to fight our self-protective instincts to prove we can do something.
Poor Sisyphus was condemned to repeat a behavior that has no reward. I pity him because he must push that boulder up the hill for eternity. But I don’t have to listen to Steely Dan. It is too near to being a Sisyphean task for me. I’ve grown strong and continue to grow strong, and I don’t have to move boulders to prove that strength.

* * * * *
If you feel forced into doing something painful that is unnecessary for your healing and growth, ask yourself why. Give yourself permission to refuse. We have little to learn from revisiting any source of our pain. Taking steps backward into a time of struggle does nothing to step us forward into wholeness, healing, and a life we are meant to cherish—a life that, aside from loss, offers the opportunity to strive toward wholeness and healing, even from the greatest loss.

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