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Until You Can’t See Land

The first time I heard the band Frightened Rabbit was eight years ago, on a cruise ship in the gulf of Mexico. My husband and I had joined another couple on a five day Carnival cruise. We spent one day on the beach in Cozumel, and another visiting ancient Mayan ruins in Progresso, but the rest of the time we were on the ship. The main attraction for most cruisers is the ocean view, but for those who aren’t interested in wild seascapes, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had inside. And from the casino, to the dining hall, to the nightly shows, there are always drinks to be had. But on this particular trip I was the only one who hadn’t committed to abstain from alcohol, so we never ordered any. Until the last night after dinner when we were walking around looking at the ocean (again) and I decided to treat myself. I got a pina colada and walked to the bow of the ship to drink it by myself. My husband gave me his iPod and earbuds, with the perfect song cued up for me, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.”

I remember how the music sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Epic ballad bands like Arcade Fire and fun. were still in the making back then, and while Frightened Rabbit was never really part of that scene, they still have the ability to sweep you away with one song. Part of their charm is Scott Hutchison’s heavy accent, but the music itself is haunting, blending mechanical and machine like sound with honest lyrics of everyday life. And while my romantic setting helped, there’s something about repetition that allows a line to really sink in. The last two questions rang in my head for days.

“Are you a man? Are you a bag of sand?”

Obviously I’m a woman, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never imagined myself floating alone into oblivion, on waves that stretch into eternity, like some indiscernible grey blob, apt to sink at any moment.

A few weeks ago, Scott Hutchison walked out his front door and never came back. On purpose. Because he didn’t want to be found. I don’t know if he drove off in his own car, if he had a destination in mind, or simply set out on a walk alone. Other than his final tweets, he left no substantial clues or a notes behind, and though his friends, family, and fans held out hope for two days, his plan of self destruction ultimately succeeded.

We all know people like Scott. They may not be artists, or write songs, or play guitar, but we’re still privy to their stories. They’re our friends, our brothers, our distant relatives and our next door neighbors. Sometimes they’re famous people and sometimes they’re just regular joes. Sometimes they’re candid about their struggles with depression and suicidal tendencies, and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they wave white flags of surrender as they depart from this world and sometimes they disappear silently.

We live with the knowledge of such hopeless endings and still, when someone we care for goes missing, we can hardly imagine this will be their story. So we send out calls for help as soon as we discover their absence. We cobble together timelines and eye witnesses. We search everywhere we can think of. We pray for miracles and angels and courage. We rally around the ones left behind and we wait, hoping to hear good news, crossing our fingers and banishing tragic endings from our minds, until we know for sure. But with every passing hour our hope fades, with every new phone call or false lead we begin to imagine the worst. That this temporary upheaval is now a permanent change.

Which is where we find ourselves now that Hutchison’s body has been discovered. Now what, we wonder. I don’t know Scott personally so I won’t speak for his family and close friends. I can only speak as a fan.

I’m sad the world will never hear a new song written by Scott Hutchison, or see another new drawing he’s made. I’m sad I’ll never get to see him perform again. I’m sad that his work and legacy may be overshadowed by the final choice he made. I’m sad that people who knew and loved Scott are hurting now, feeling confused and shocked, numb and angry, perhaps in danger of following those muddy footsteps themselves some day.

Grief. It’s not easily measured in five predictable stages. It’s longer, messier, and more sorrowful than we want it to be, and the more we run from it the more it overwhelms us. Which is why I’m writing about mine now. That doesn’t mean I won’t have any left when I’m done with this essay; it just means that for now, I’m going to keep swimming.

People battle depression and lose, not because they gave up or didn't fight hard enough, but because it's a disease, and even those who seek treatment and publicly share their struggles can still fall victim to its clutches. Janna Barber

When I went to see Frightened Rabbit last summer, the crowd was made up people I don’t normally hang out with. I felt old and square in that group. Most of them were young and single, but there I was with my husband of twenty years—who works for a church—at a run down tavern lately turned concert venue. It was dark and dingy, and the air smelled of stale smoke. Everyone in the room was standing and we were merely ten feet away from the band performing on a three foot stage. There was one older couple down front, but they were quite the opposite of myself and my husband. For one thing they were Scottish, and they spent half the show yelling at the band members like they were long lost sons, finally come home for a visit. You could tell they were having a great time and that they loved the music, but they were messy drunk and emboldened by shared cultural history with the band, in a room full of (to their minds) foreigners.

The most telling moment of the night came when the band played “Keep Yourself Warm” and the crowd joined along with a passion Sunday morning worship leaders would envy, as we sang, “You won’t find love in a/ Won’t find love in a hole.” The song makes obvious and graphic statements that on the one hand don’t need to be said, but on the other hand singing words like that out loud, with people who may or may not share the same values as me, lends prophetic depth to the lyrics. 

And that’s the real gift Hutchison gave to the world, truth. “Here’s what life is really like,” his songs seem to say, “for me, and lots of other people you know,” and because he never shies away from the grit and horror of the world, when hope shows up in one of his lines, it’s all the more powerful. Hutchison’s songs often decried the hypocrisy he saw in organized religion, but the hearts of the characters he painted long for redemption, for sacrificial love to be real, and I can only pray that Scott experienced that kind of love for himself at some point in his journey.

I hate trying to pick favorite songs, but one I’ve listened to over and over is called “Nitrous Gas.” I love it because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to find happiness. How sometimes happiness feels like an outside entity, a foreign substance you can only ingest every once in awhile, when you stumble upon the good fortune of finding a full tank to hook yourself up to. Yet the singer confesses in the second verse, “Oh, where love won’t grow/Oh, I’ll build my home,” hinting that perhaps he’s somewhat responsible for his own state of affairs.

It’s tempting to turn Scott’s story into some sort of cautionary tale, but I think doing so is a disservice to people who struggle with depression as well as those who love them. Like the music of Frightened Rabbit, real life is not simple, and there are seldom easy solutions. People battle depression and lose, not because they gave up or didn’t fight hard enough, but because it’s a disease, and even those who seek treatment and publicly share their struggles can still fall victim to its clutches. Suicide is the ultimate tragedy, and we wish we had more control over it, so it makes sense that we should use these situations as reminders to be vigilant; but I can’t be too proud to say that “but by the grace of God, there go I.” As one who’s often tempted toward despair, I no longer have the luxury of pride.

Instead I try to live my life one day at a time. I do not feel like a dead bag of sand today, but there’s no guarantee tomorrow will be the same. And if it’s not I’ll have to decide whether or not to ask for help, whether or not to ignore the pain and hope it’ll go away, and whether or not to seek solace in a good place or a bad place. I wish Scott had chosen differently, but through tears I choose to believe the most hopeful line he ever wrote is still true. “All is not lost,” friends. I hope you can believe it, too.


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