For a long time I misunderstood the chorus of David Bowie’s song Changes – I misheard the lyric “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)” for “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strain)” and went on singing and dancing to it in my bedroom at 1AM, fully dressed and fully awake. And I LOVED that misheard lyric – it was about pushing myself out of my comfort zone, wading through mud to get to a better version of myself.
I noticed my mistake after Bowie died, when I pulled my headphones over my ears and listened to the song at full blast. I heard the “ge” and had a little pity party for my belated understanding. There was a physicality to that lyric that I mourned when I learned it wasn’t the right one. According to Google, strain means “to force (a part of one’s body or oneself) to make an unusually great effort” – that’s the type of motivation my masochistic, overworked brain likes to hear!
After the Great Lyric Debate (POSSIBLY heightened emotionally by the first fortnight of January and its unrelenting reminder that death is inevitable), I started asking myself whether I pushed myself TOO far. Was I facing the strain so often I made my life purposefully uncomfortable? Or was I doing what Bowie would do, which I’d long decided was the RIGHT thing to do.
First, I wanted to know who this better version of myself was. Who was this girl? Why was I trying so hard to become her?
In terms of appearance, she wore a lot of dress-boot combos. She cut her own hair and wore lipstick, and she always looked ready for something BIG. I modelled this new girl on Celaena Sardothien, the badass female assassin from the Throne of Glass series, Jane Austen’s Emma, in her many iterations, and Elle Fanning, in everything. I wanted to embody the lyric “Look out you rock ‘n rollers”. That would be my mantra.
But this was never entirely a surface thing – the look was superficial. What I really wanted were lists: lists of goals, achievements, publications, interviews – whatever I could get my hands on, I wanted it in dot point form. I needed something physical to point to when I was feeling totally drained of self-worth.
Here’s the funny thing: when I started resting my self-worth on how hard worked, I created a feedback loop that could never be satiated. Because I could always be working HARDER.
I took a creative writing class my first year of university where I came across my first Writer – capitalised to emphasise that this person didn’t just write, they looked the part, they had gravitas. He was spindly, greying, and student-like. He gave us a list of advice that has since been both my saviour (queue God-like hymn) and my downfall (crash, burn). It was Step Number Five that got me – “Write towards and through discomfort and anxiety” – and it stuck to my brain like moss. It was another way of saying “Turn and face the strain,” another set of words to latch on to, to heighten the stakes of my existence.
For a long time I lived in Step Number Five. I lived towards and through discomfort and anxiety, like I was wading through a crocodile infested mote trying desperately to get to the castle on the other side, to the girl who looked the part.
This made consuming art super strenuous – I became a combative reader, sometimes towards the creator, more likely towards myself. Reading was a reminder that I wasn’t creating. I couldn’t focus on the triumphs of a book or an article because all I could see were my own downfalls, and it made me feel so SELFISH to not be able to look past my own insecurities. I’m an Appreciator, it’s basically my full time occupation, so when there came a time when I could no longer do that, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Becoming this new girl was painful, and that didn’t seem right to me. It didn’t seem natural.
I thought I had to work my butt off to be worthy of something. I was hyperaware of the privileges I had: higher education, a stable family, the freedom to choose, the chance to prove myself. I made an unusually great effort to pay off a debt I felt I owed the world for being in it.
There’s this book called Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm – in another valiant trudge through discomfort and anxiety I bought it at a bookstore not knowing a thing about it. Schlump enters WW1 optimistic, falling in love with everyone and everything, and he exits it much the same, though completely bummed out about the German army. Throughout the war he changes so much, but his optimism and romanticism are impermeable. When I finished it I thought, Wow, okay, change doesn’t have to take anything away from me. That doesn’t mean that self-improvement isn’t something to work towards, but I was done feeling guilty – I was done sectioning myself off from the creative world because I had forced myself to feel less. I’m not a troglodyte. I can’t grow without all that manic art around me, it’s like water.
I need to listen more: to myself, to the world around me, to Bowie especially. When he changed, it was thrilling, not painful. Not on principle, anyway. The song is upbeat for a reason.