In an uptown coffee shop, I am covered by a chill reminiscent of early morning Venice Beach air. With no jacket to warm me, I hold both hands against my latte, lift the ceramic to my lips, softly shut my eyes and indulge in its taste. As my lashes flutter against the highest points of my cheeks, the coffee tastes sweeter, and the speakers sing louder. Here in a space where your cappuccino is more than often accompanied by the best of nineties alternative rock, it seems on this day, the shop had decided on a different musical lineup. The playlist of the moment was deeper and darker than usual, and dated further back than tartan plaids and Doc Martens. A playlist with songs spun from sorrow and notes dipped in blue, tear stained guitar chords and voices that make you wail on the inside. The golden age of soul was streaming through the small room of stucco white walls and lily white faces. And although I love Radiohead as much as the next nostalgic millennial, on this day I am happy to be cloaked in the familiarity of my childhood soundtrack.
These are the songs my mother would play in moments of love lost, moments where we were too short on rent, in times of remembrance and of grief, and other moments that caused her to smoke and to sob with the same breaths. I heard the Chi-Lites asking if we’d seen her, Smokey Robinson cried tears of a clown, and The Temptations went on for nearly seven minutes about their rolling stone of a papa. Somewhere between Marvin and Deniece Williams, Frankie Beverly and Al Green, The O’Jays and Roberta Flack, I am reminded of my absolute favorite song of all time.
Donny Hathaway, troubled man that he was, gifted the world with a soulful ballad in 1973 entitled “Someday We’ll All Be Free”. Really more of a gift to Donny himself, songwriter Edward Howard had hoped to pen something that would be encouraging to the artist as he witnessed him stumble through his many bouts of depression.
The first verse tells the us to:
“Hang on to the world as it spins around.
Just don’t let the spin get you down.
Things are moving fast.
Hold on tight, and you will last.
Take it from me, someday we’ll all be free.”
It is a short, yet passionate song, and being aware of Donny’s mental state during the period of time in which it was recorded, only makes it that much more difficult to listen to without becoming emotional. Not long after the release of the “Extension of a Man” album, where the song can be found on it’s A side, Donny soon faded into oblivion mainly due to his illness. Somewhere along the timeline of his stardom, he had been diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia. However it has been said by those closest to him, including his wife, that Donny rarely took his medication with the frequency advised by medical professionals, and was often hospitalized because of his erratic behavior.
On his way back up the charts and back into the spotlight five or six years after a long disappearance, Donny began recording again in New York, working on a new album of duets to be released later in the year. During one evening session in January of 1979, he once again began displaying paranoid behavior, convinced that White people were hooking up wires to his brain in attempts to steal his music, and were also plotting to kill him. The producers decided to wrap the session early that night so that Donny could get some rest. It would only be hours later that the artist would be found dead below the window of his 15th floor Essex House hotel room. Although the internet is littered with conspiracies of foul play, his death was almost instantly ruled a suicide. Some of us, not unlike Donny, reach moments in life where we come to believe that the only way to find freedom in this world, is to remove ourselves from it.
I do not remember how I found this song, or rather how the song found me, but I do remember when. In the early summer of 2012, I was alone in a hole of a studio apartment on the corner of Fairfax and Olympic Blvd. I’d flown 3,000 miles from home to chase a dream and a man that was busy chasing his own, entirely non inclusive of myself. Coincidentally, (or maybe not so much), in the same space of time that I’d come to know this particular song lyric for lyric, I had also come across the only novel ever written by poet Sylvia Plath.
Although most often categorized as a work of fiction, The Bell Jar is also widely known to be semi autobiographical, finding itself in the genre of Roman a clef, a category coined by the French in the 17th century as a way to describe a story told with true characters and true occurrences with a facade of fiction. An easy classification, as the narrative considerably mirrors that of the author.
Again, I have no clue as to how I ended up with such a dark piece of material. Nevertheless, I dove into the text and floated through it in just one sitting. I’d hung dark sheets over the windows, duct tapping them around the edges, further damaging the already shotty paint job of the sole windowed wall, a desperate attempt made to hide from the L.A. sun that was oh so persistent and ever intrusive. But some secrets I wanted to keep to myself. So there I was, pouring through the Bell Jar, acquainting myself with main character Esther Greenwood, stumbling through her own troubles of being both white and woman in the 1960’s. (I mention both her race and sex not to discredit her woes, but to paint the historical backdrop as a reference for those unfamiliar with the story.)
As an academically ambitious female writer, Esther finds herself unenthusiastic about her options post schooling. She worries she will marry without love and be ushered into motherhood, saddled with a lackluster career as a stenographer. Although constantly plagued by depression, she maintains her dreams of becoming a writer. She interns over the summer with a major women’s magazine in New York City, much like Plath who interned with the Mademoiselle publication in 1953. After the completion of the program, Esther solemnly returns to her mother’s home in Massachusetts. Upon her return, she is met with the news that she has not been accepted into a writing course taught by a widely acclaimed author that she excitedly anticipated. This too is parallel to the life of Plath herself who was rejected from a summer writing class at Harvard.
With her plans now halted, Esther spends her days sinking further into depression and plotting ways to end her life. After several attempts at suicide, she is hospitalized and later “cured” and released, presumed to have gone on to live a happy life. The author herself however was not so fortunate. After several suicidal attempts of her own, Sylvia Plath was found kneeled with her head inside of her kitchen oven as her two sleeping children were partitioned off in other rooms of the house. A death self inflicted by carbon monoxide poisoning at just 30 years old.
In the same way Donny, Plath and her Bell Jar heroine weighed out suicidal options, I too have had similar conversations with myself, sorting through the matters of both ease and complication that would accompany whichever chosen method. I hated the chalky taste of pills, so an “accidental” overdose was unlikely. I was taken to a shooting range once in Inglewood, and was too frazzled to pull the trigger on even a paper made man, so guns were a no go. I was also too afraid of heights to jump from anywhere higher than the curb, and a sprained ankle does not a suicide make. So I was stuck, trapped inside of my loathsome existence, fingerprints staining the glass walls of my very own bell jar.
Being that this was not the first nor the last time I had contemplated taking my own life, once years before, I figured I’d finally found a solution swimming within the not so holy waters of an afternoon bath. Sinking slowly beneath a moving blue gray surface, I anticipated an oncoming peace. But before I could ease myself all the way under, a force came over me, (to this day I’m convinced it was an evil spirit of sorts), pushing me down and holding me beneath the water until I felt my chest begin to burn with hellbound death. I jerked upward panting, screaming, crying, and flung myself over the shallow porcelain walls landing on my knees, naked and drenched, facing the same blue gray surface that had almost claimed my life. I vomited myself empty and delirious, right into my bathing waters atop my own reflection, and laid on the floor for hours trying to still the spinning room.
If you’ve ever survived an attempted suicide, (and my hopes are that you have not had this experience), the feeling of relief does not immediately follow. In fact, it may not arrive that week, that year, perhaps it never appears at all. To some, a failed attempt at suicide is just that, a failure. It is yet another frustrating deficiency to add to a host of others, implying the fact that they were not “brave” enough, that their plan lacked forethought, that they were too imbecilic to even pull off something appearing to be as simple as killing themselves. It does not feel like the joyous occasion one would assume it to be. And so you mourn. Your mourn until you are angry. And you are angry until you are embarrassed.
You think to yourself, “Why would I ever do that?” “That was so stupid of me.” “That was so selfish of me.” “What would my pastor think?” “What would my colleagues think?” “My family?” “My kids?!” Unbeknownst to him, my son has chased away more suicidal thoughts than I care to count, more times than he should be held responsible for. At the end of the day, I know all too well of what it feels like to walk around with a mom shaped hole in your heart, and I would never intentionally leave him on this Earth looking for ways in which to fill it. I have caused enough damage already, and I cannot yet afford therapy for the two of us.
I am grateful to have been delivered from thoughts of suicide and of self harm, grateful that they have been replaced by a powerful peace that reminds me everyday how valuable and worthy my life is. I recognize now that every morning I wake up, that my victory is already claimed and that it alone is enough to rejoice in, and surely some days it’s all that I have. Every debt of mine is not yet paid, I have bad deeds that karma has still not gotten around to addressing, I possess a heart that still inhabits past traumas, still, I am here. And it is here, that I vow to remain.
Alexandra Jane, also known as A.J. is an essayist hailing from the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. Her current writing topics are woven from personal experiences dealing with Black femininity, pop culture, and motherhood. You can find her in your local coffee shops taking up more space than necessary.