When I was in my early twenties I lived in Portland, Oregon. While it was a beautiful city, and still is, the rain was hard to get used to. Now you’d think a girl from Alaska who was used to the shortness of days in winter would consider Portland’s effortlessly warm rainy days a welcome respite but I did not. You see in Alaska, at least in the part of Alaska that I am from, we had sunshine during the winter. It may have been a cold sun that shone, but at least it was sunlight. Alaskans know the beauty of spending a morning wrapped in a blanket with a book and a hot mug of tea at a window, watching the snow glitter in the sunlight. Or charging through the ice and snow down a mountain on skis, racing to beat the oncoming afternoon sunset. Don’t get me wrong, Alaskan winters are tough as well. January and February are so cold and the days so short many of us use sunlamps to counterbalance it and if you don’t have proper winter gear these months are a misery. My girlfriends and I long for the day when we can pull our heels and skirts out of the back of the closet and throw our boots where they used to be. The Holidays have passed and for many of us depression looms. The Anchorage homeless shelters overflow during this time with the people who usually occupy the the midtown and downtown street corners. The hardiest and most desperate of them are still at the intersections though, mustaches standing out in a white frosted fringe, eyes barely visible beneath fur lined caps, layers of ill-fitting old winter clothes beneath tattered coats. Some of them openly drunk as much to ward off the chill as to feed their habit.
Once Nick and I were driving somewhere and we stopped at a midtown red light. There was a couple there holding signs asking for food or money. They teetered in the cold wind, their bottle of whiskey barely visible in a nearby backpack. “I always feel sad when I see that,” I said wishing I could change the world for the millionth time that day.
“If I lost it all I’d be drunk all the time too.” Nick is not one to mince words.
How do you know the drinking didn’t cause it?” I asked him, loving his oddly worded compassion.
“You can’t know, that’s the thing.” He said matter of factly.
“No I suppose you can’t.” I watched them start to argue as the light changed and we drove past the couple without giving them anything, their cardboard signs trembling slightly in the wind.
So as I said, however fleeting and despite the cold, at least there was light. In Portland it was the grayness, the heaviness of the clouds and the never-ending moisture which seemed to seep into my bones that I could not tolerate. Portland’s summers were indeed gorgeously green and lush, a true gardener’s paradise but for me, the winters were unbearably depressing. It was during one such spell of seemingly endless rain that I fell in love with Elliott Smith.
It was a typical Portland winter and my ex-husband Ian and I lived in an apartment together. I wasn’t working at the time and he was, I had yet to figure out how to belong in Portland and as it turned out I never did. I’d wake up in the morning and try to be productive, while each day it rained I became more and more depressed. I felt my insides turning as grey as the clouds above me. That winter it rained for 90 days straight. Three months of rain and I saw no end to it. One day Ian brought home a cd that changed my life forever. It was Elliott Smith Either/Or. At that time I didn’t know anything about Elliott Smith, I didn’t know he struggled with depression, drug use and alcoholism. I didn’t know his music was rife with references to his drug use to escape his reality, his ongoing battle against his inner demons and suicidal ideation. All I knew was that his lyrics were passionate and deep without being drippy. That his harmonies were beautiful, that I identified with his music on a level I didn’t have words for. That despite his sadness I could hear a vulnerability and a yearning for something more that was so pure it was impossible for me to ignore it. His observations of the human condition were so astute and poetic I was literally blown away. I clung to his music like a castaway clings to clean salt-free water. I felt so alone and so confused by what was going on with my own depression that Elliott Smith’s music became my refuge. He created a world that understood me, that I felt like I belonged to. I let his music carry me through those months and when the real sun finally shone again I was in love.
Fast forward to 2003 when I was pregnant with my second son. It was just a few months before he was born, and I was pushing through yet another winter. This time I was in Alaska and Portland’s rainy winters were a thing of the past. Ian and I were living in a trailer on his parents’ property. I had been out with my mom and she dropped me back off at home. I walked in and Ian who had just found out told me the news. “Elliott Smith killed himself.” I felt like someone had just kicked me in the stomach. I ran into the bedroom and started started crying, softly at first then harder and harder. I couldn’t believe he was gone, that he would no longer make music. It seemed so remarkably unfair. That something-someone so precious could be stolen like that…never to return.
Suicide is an impulsive act. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, in a study from Diesenhammer Department of General Psychiatry, when a group of survivors of attempted suicides were asked how long they contemplated suicide before attempting it, 48% said within 10 minutes of first thinking about it. A Houston study interviewed 153 survivors of almost lethal suicide attempts of people aged 13-34 and found 24% deliberated committing suicide for less than 5 minutes before attempting it. That’s 1 in 4 people taking less than 5 minutes to decide to kill themselves. It leaves me wondering how Elliott Smith was feeling that winter, if he was still battling his demons of addiction and depression but tragically they had snuffed out his light like wet fingertips closing around the flame of a candle.
The coroners report leaves open the possibility that either he had help committing his act or he was murdered. His loyal fans come up with new ideas all the time, conspiracy theories abound. He sang about depression, addiction and suicide and although less than 4% of the population are able to kill themselves via stabbing he died from a stab wound to the heart, the placement of which was consistent with a self inflicted wound. Either he killed himself or someone else killed him. Either/Or. The album that saved me that rainy Portland winter. The question with an answer only he knows. His legacy is his music; a beautiful, tragic, haunting reminder of how precious life really is. It wasn’t long after that someone asked Ian and I what we were naming our next son. “Elliott.” I said without hesitation. Because although Elliott Smith himself battled so much darkness, during those months I was drowning and all I could do was pray for a day without rain, he was and forever after will be my sunlight.
From the Tower Window
Believe it is so and it is so
Believe it is so and it is so
She held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut
Believe it is so and it is so
She saw the edges of reality begin to soften
She felt the rush of air, the hum of divinity
There IT was. The saddest ending. She SAW the flat brick of doubt moldy and damp at the edges, hot and cracked at its core.
She FELT the serpent of intellect poised to strike at her dove of faith the instant the brick fell onto her heart.
She KNEW it would hurt when all of her dreams came pouring out, the blood of her imagination spreading in a scarlet pool.
And still she jumped…
With both feet into his arms for all of Eternity because it was LOVE… and what else could she have done?