I’m a poet. I write my body and soul with the desperation of a prostitute. But when I sit down to describe my illness… I am on the edge of nobody’s empire. My words fail me. It’s like staring into the void. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is a complex, multi-system chronic disease that feels like having a persistent flu and leaves you utterly exhausted, both mentally and physically.
I found Belle and Sebastian last spring, right as my symptoms started to worsen. Bedridden with nothing to do except listen to music, I fell in love with the band’s lyrics. Their songs were delicate, gritty explorations of life’s glorious triviality. In a poetic tribute, depressed by the pandemic and my failing body, I wrote: “My dearest Belle and Sebastian, you break yourselves into pieces so casually/ such casual living is beyond me.”
It wasn’t until later that I learned that Stuart Murdoch, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, also suffered from ME. Songwriting was Murdoch’s way of accessing a world he wasn’t able to fully participate in. In an interview, Murdoch talks about how though ME had permeated many of his songs, “Nobody’s Empire” was the first time he attempted to write directly about his illness. I understand his hesitation; the void our illness creates is terrifying. Writing “Nobody’s Empire” was a truly courageous act. The song is helpless and helpful, hopeless and hopeful. Being ill is a lonely experience. It’s cathartic to empathize, but it’s especially exhilarating when that empathy comes in the form of an escape. Through “Nobody’s Empire”, Murdoch makes our disease beautiful. He embraces the emptiness. He allows it to be filled by fluttering, tender moments of love and pain.
I told myself I would not let my disability define me. But here I am, writing an essay about my musical medicine. The truth is our limitations do define us. They sculpt us. They form our contours. They help us choose our heroes. In Nobody’s Empire, Murdoch’s hero is a friend who is sick alongside him. He addresses her with poignant, defiant acceptance and love: “Lying on my side you were half awake/ And your face was tired and crumpled/ If I had a camera, I’d snap you now/ Cause there’s beauty in every stumble.” Sometimes I think I may have found a hero in Murdoch. I will never be superwoman, but I can tell stories, create metaphors, take a camera and capture humanity as we stumble towards a better future.
*Lyrics in Italics and quotations are from Belle and Sebastian’s song Nobody’s Empire, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
(this poem has also found a home on Write the World)
Zinnia Hansen is a seventeen-year-old essayist and poet from Port Townsend, Washington. She has a tendency towards abstraction, but a deep love of the idiosyncrasies that make us human. Her work has been published in several magazines. She was a participant in the 2020-2021 Hugo Young Writers Cohort. And she is the 2021-2022 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate.