When Changing Nothing Changes Everything by Laurie Polich Short, Free for CAPC Members
In her book When Changing Nothing Changes Everything, Laurie Polich Short gives us insight into living life fully, whatever our circumstances.
Scott Hutchison’s body was found in Port Edgar, Scotland, Thursday night, the tenth of May. The singer of the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit had disappeared the day before. He posted two tweets and left his hotel. The tweets read:
“Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.”
“I’m away now. Thanks.”
He was 36.
Hutchison formed Frightened Rabbit in 2003, named after the childhood nickname given to him by his mother because he was a shy child: “chronically so.” The name was a way of reclaiming that identity, embracing the shivering scared parts of himself and mounting a small skirmish against feeling trapped within his fears. He could tremble and still roar. It began as a solo project, just Hutchison and an acoustic guitar. The first show he played out of town, he had to take the public bus. He drank too much that night out of nerves and excitement, and installed a firm two drink limit for himself before shows from then on. He’s said in interviews that he loved the thrill of being a rock star, but he loved the music itself more. He was 21.
He joined with other Scottish musicians to create Fruit Tree Foundation, an indie folk supergroup associated with U.K.’s Mental Health Foundation. The Foundation (mental health organization) aims to “raise awareness of mental health and challenge perceptions of mental health problems by creating great art.” The Foundation (band) released an album in 2011 that wrestled with these themes, shedding light on the problems by narrating them. Their songs often emphasized just how impossible it can feel to climb your way out of the deep wells of desperation and anxiety. On “I Forgot the Fall,” Hutchison sings, “These bones do break / Boy, learn from your mistakes if you don’t want another cast around your arm… We’ll walk for years just to find a way here again.” He was 29.
In a 2013 performance at End of the Road Festival, Hutchison stops to address a baby chirping happily in the front row: “It gets so much worse.” He laughs. “Someday, someone’s gonna break your heart.” Then he starts “Modern Leper,” a song that finds him warning his lover that she is “coming back for even more of exactly the same,” that she must be a masochist to keep loving someone who has crippled himself by repeating the same mistakes. Don’t expect something different, he warns. You’ll just have to learn to love the leper. He was 31.
On “Floating in the Forth,” the penultimate song on 2007’s Midnight Organ Fight, he describes sitting alone “vacuum packed / shrink wrapped out of air” after the final departure of a lover. By the next verse, he is asking himself, “Am I ready to leap? / Is there peace beneath / The roar of the Forth Road bridge?” When the oxygen is sucked from your life and everything begins to cave in on itself, finding a way out of that life feels like the only option. But Hutchison envisioned his escape not as an end, but a passage to somewhere else: “On the Northern side / There’s a Fife of mine / And a boat in the port for me, / And fully clothed, I float away (I’ll float away).” It’s not Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind vision of the end where we are sucked from our clothes into another life. Hutchison doesn’t leave this world but, still dressed, climbs into a boat and gently drifts to a bay where this earth is kinder, softer. Seagulls call out to him: “It’s okay / Take your life, Give it a shake / Gather up all your loose change.” He’s not sinking in the river. He floats in the Forth.
As the song crescendos, Hutchison intones, “I think I’ll save suicide for another year.”
He was 26.
I don’t know how old I was, exactly, when I first heard Frightened Rabbit. I was a teenager, living at my parents’ house, driving home from my job in the grocery store produce department. I was listening to the local hippie college radio station when the voice of the obviously stoned student DJ interrupted the music: “This next song has some… questionable language… but there’s a lot more to it. Try to listen to the emotion beneath it.” After a long pause (trying to find the play button, relighting the bowl, who knows), a warbling organ began to cycle through three notes, followed by the driving JUN, JUN-JUN of a solemn eclectic guitar. The song built and built until it couldn’t be restrained any longer, exploding into churning guitars and synths and drums that thundered like judgment day. And, absurdly, in the midst of the beautiful cacophony, came a crass, stark refrain, repeated like a mantra: “It takes more than f—ing someone you don’t know to keep warm.”Hutchison didn’t believe in anything beyond this life, but when I talk about light that emanates from his songs, I call it spiritual. He saw a daunting, cold world and set about doing what he could to breathe warmth into it, to strive against his pride to love unselfishly, to rage against the idea that we must accept the earth in its broken state.
This is the blueprint for many Frightened Rabbit songs: facing the crass, painful, harsh truths of life by embracing them, leaning into ecstatic yearning. Hutchison charts a topography of loss in his music, but not without wonder. The music is indie folk at its roots, layered with triumphant, gorgeously arranged instrumentation: keys, string, and horns, a marching band in a van careening down the highway at 90 miles an hour. Life is a mess, and so am I, he says on almost every song. But his constant insistence that all is not as it should be pointed to something larger—a desire for a world where things could be as they should be.
Hutchison had a reputation for writing sad songs, and Frightened Rabbit frequently trod pretty dour territory—broken relationships, loneliness and jealousy, the guilt and anger that come with mistakes you can’t unmake and lost time you can’t get back. In one particularly gut-wrenching stanza, Hutchison says, “I’ve been working on my backwards walk, there’s nowhere else for me to go.” But the roiling center of the gray cloud was always filled with flashes of lighting: defiance, a clenched fist raised against the hopelessness. “I am armed with the past, and a will, and a brick,” he sings on “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms.” But his solution ultimately isn’t a violent one: “While I’m alive,” he sings in a voice that sounds light and resolute, “I’ll make tiny changes to earth.”
He was decidedly not a religious person, and his songs have an antagonistic relationship with a God that Hutchison views as capricious and vengeful, but his lyrics evidence a person striving to bring heaven to earth, to create a better world out of the mess of the one that we’ve currently got. No matter what happens at the end, there’s a lot to get to work on right now. Even in his darkest songs, the light up ahead is always some kind of action, some step toward setting things right.
It wouldn’t be at all accurate to try to spin Frightened Rabbit’s catalog as upbeat, however. Hutchison’s songs paint the world in swaths of heavy color: gray, red, black, and more gray. Frightened Rabbit’s oft-overlooked first record, Sing the Greys, might have been a bit too aptly titled. The Blues, the deep and soulful mournings of the American South, told stories of lives buried in prejudice, circumscribed by unjust laws and raw violence. But blue is also the color of night, of deep water, of the mystery that we can only see the surface of, and the hope that bubbles up. Hutchison, living in an entirely different time and place, looked blearily into the future and saw only gray, so he sang that. His main fear was not that which is inflicted by others, but the blank monotony of a life marked by repeating the same mistakes.
This is the part of Hutchison’s message I didn’t—couldn’t—grasp when I first heard Midnight Organ Fight in high school. As a teenager, you understand the basic concept of loss, its shape and its heft, but what you can’t possibly grasp then is its dimensions, its endless plunging depths. Everything in the early years of adulthood rushes by with such speed and noise that you can’t tell what’s going to fade into memories held together by photographs and stories you retell, and which things will settle in and make themselves at home in your chest. You tumble out of college and into your adult life and suddenly everything takes on a new urgency; where did all that time go? Hutchison calls it the little drum that “behaves itself until you turn twenty-five / And then it strikes us all. / We’ve lived this long and only ever half alive.” A clock starts ticking audibly: What have you TICK done with your life? What will you be able to do TOCK with the time left?
In college, I know I had disappointments, pains, and problems, but the years melt down the particulars until all that’s left is a shapeless sorrow that, by the time you find it, has already set down roots and gone to seed. It ceases to need a reason, existed for and subsisting on itself. Hutchison puts it plainly: “I woke up hurting / though I can’t quite say why.” My mom calls it “bending toward blue,” the kind of sadness you can’t find the source of, an emotional hangover that comes in like a migraine, unwanted and unannounced. Some days, getting out of bed becomes an act of bargaining with the universe. As the poet Hanif Abdurraqib puts it, “Sometimes it isn’t what we’re battling that takes us, but simply the battle itself.”
Robert Frost’s perennially misinterpreted poem about paths diverging in a yellow wood is so frequently misread because the misreading—the idea that a single choice could make all the difference—is hard-wired into how we understand our own lives. I’m 27, not yet at the midway point in my life, but I’m not a teenager anymore. I’ve had enough time to watch the consequences of my choices play out and collect interest. And I can’t shake the feeling that if I had just chosen the other paths, I could have escaped much of the pain and guilt I carry with me. It could have all been so different.
As the branching paths of my choices feather out, it becomes less about any single choice and more about the sick, heavy dread that many of the decisions I made were the wrong ones, that I’ve already missed the junction that could have put me on the optimal paths, the ones where I’m happier, better, more fulfilled. As Frost tried to explain before being shouted down by decades of freshman English essays, this is not the truth: our decisions impact our life in myriad and inscrutable ways. We can take many paths to the same destination, some “just as fair” as others.
But the lingering pain, the beating of the little drum, isn’t a result of the paths you chose; the pain is the existence of the other paths, the knowledge that other versions of your life could have existed. And just because Frost tried to assure me that I can’t fret every fork in the road as paramount, doesn’t mean that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with this fear cleaving my dry tongue to the roof of my mouth.
In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer says, “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” Did I make the most of my short life? Does the ache of regret ever dull? Have I missed the last exit off this road that seems to lead me further and further from my desired destinations?
In Scott Hutchison, I found someone who not only understood these fears, but was brave enough to say them out loud. One way to dispel what haunts us—or least to put it squarely in our field of vision where it can’t sneak up on us—is to name it. I didn’t understand this at first, and I don’t pretend to understand it all now. But I have a companion to walk with me through all of it, someone who fought like hell and went down still swinging. I was 22, I was 27, I was 24, I was 17. His songs kept me warm, and made me brave. Hutchison didn’t believe in anything beyond this life, but when I talk about light that emanates from his songs, I call it spiritual. He saw a daunting, cold world and set about doing what he could to breathe warmth into it, to strive against his pride to love unselfishly, to rage against the idea that we must accept the earth in its broken state. And that, no matter its origin, is a holy pursuit.
Twenty-sixteen’s Painting of a Panic Attack, the album that would turn out to be Frightened Rabbit’s last, found Hutchison similarly haunted—song titles include “Death Dream,” “The Wreck,” and the aforementioned “Woke Up Hurting”—but resigned to the process of healing. The list he has been keeping of his failures isn’t doing him any favors, and it’s time to let it go: “Tie your ragged f—ups in a neat little knot / And put it on the shelf behind the picture we bought”; “I have a long list of tepid disappointments / And you should burn that too.” You don’t have to absolve yourself to be able to forgive yourself. You can wake up hurting and still keep moving. You have to. No matter how dark the moment seems, we have to realize “it’s not the end, it’s an uncomfortable pause.” When I bend toward blue, approaching my lowest points, the unavoidable valleys of despondency and regret, I think of the last lines of “Wait ‘Til the Morning”: “We are all designed to wax and wane / The light will come back on again / Just wait…”
He was 34.
Be so good to everyone you love. Know that you are loved. The light will come back on again.
In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
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