Jessica Hendry Nelson’s Joy Rides through the Tunnel of Grief is one of the year’s best memoirs; inventive, profound, and almost impossibly moving and inspirational.
Leslie Jamison wrote of the book:
“Jessica Hendry Nelson’s Joy Rides through the Tunnel of Grief is a stunning, hilarious, propulsive book―somehow breathless and thoughtful at once―that I’ll remember for the rest of my days. It is ruthlessly insightful but always merciful, never precious but always profound―written with a close, awestruck attention to the lush particulars of this world, its unexpected provisions of grace. It is full of surprising love songs―to gatherings of women, acts of caregiving and strange community, fraught friendships; to students and strange lessons; to various fruitful forms (the list, the letter, the shard); to the condition of loving flawed and self-thwarting people (all of us), and―most of all―to the terrifying, saving entanglement of suffering and wonder.”
Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief covers a huge swath of time, but particularly a ten-year stretch between my twenties and early thirties. It deals with experiences of anticipatory grief—waiting and watching while my brother moved through the cycles of addiction again and again and again, overdosing countless times—but also moments of profound joy and love through which I found meaning, urgency, and big, unanswerable questions. Why do I feel this joy, right here, now, while he suffers? Is his imminent death part of the urgency I feel to have a baby? Who would I be as a mother and would I be worthy of the role? Why do I feel such intense wonder and what can I make out that creative energy if not a child? Then, my husband left me and these questions became temporarily null, a tunnel of grief swallowing what was once a world of possibility. When I finally emerged from the tunnel, my world was brand new, and so were my questions. The songs on this playlist each channel some element of this period of my life and the uncertainty and awe it elicited. They’re also just really good tunes when you need to shake some shit loose.
Faces, “Ooh La La”
This is the only song I name in the book, and it comes up one night while my mother’s visiting during one of many dark months spent mourning my marriage. I was curled on the couch, despondent in dirty pajamas, nursing a glass of red wine and near catatonic in my despair. “Get up,” she suddenly demanded when this song came one the radio. “Get up and dance. Right now.” Her tone sparked some old obedience in me and I did as she ordered, ever the abiding child. I danced, half-heartedly at first, and then faster, bigger, harder, because damn it, it started to feel good. It had been so long since I could listen to music, every song was either too nostalgic or joyful or painful. But then, that winter night in front of the woodstove, I danced with my mother and felt something small but breathtaking crack open inside me. “I’m reclaiming music!” I shouted at her, and we laughed and then I cried. But it was a start. A shift.
James Taylor, “Sweet Baby James”
When I imagined the love that might emerge in motherhood, it was to this tune, Taylor’s love song to his infant son. Now, my three-month-old daughter bears the middle name James, which is also my partner’s middle name, so we sing this song to her and dance in the kitchen sometimes, full of impossible joy.
Jodi Bensen, “Part of Your World” (The Little Mermaid soundtrack)
I write a lot about friendship in this book, and particularly my friendship with Jessie, my oldest, best friend. We met as chubby, curly-haired seven-year-olds fighting over an innertube at the public pool and bonding over our shared love of The Little Mermaid (the old one, of course). We often took turns kicking up out of the water and flipping our hair back, thus creating a plume of spray behind us, just like Arielle. We still know every word to this song and will sing it shamelessly after a couple of drinks, much to her husband’s chagrin. And we giveth not a fuck.
Alabama Shakes, “Don’t Wanna Fight”
This song was our one request of the band who played our wedding, and in hindsight, I find it hilarious that we missed it because we were busy bickering in the cornfield during their set.
Sufjan Stevens, “Should Have Known Better”
It’s true, I should have. But I do now.
Sharon Van Etten, “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”
This is one of those songs that I misinterpret to fit my own emotional needs. I’m not sure what the song means to Van Etten, but the lyric in the chorus that goes, “Every time the sun comes up, I’m in trouble,” never fails to remind me of the last years of my marriage during which I felt constantly admonished by my ex. I couldn’t do anything right, not the dishes nor dinner nor the frequency with which I put oil in my car. I did not take care of our stuff and I didn’t call enough when I was away for work, or else I called too often. I was too loud and clumsy and my friends were the worst. When I hear this song, I remember what it felt like to never be enough, and such gratitude for the self-worth I feel now.
Hooray for the Riff Raff, “Jealous Guy” (Cover of the John Lennon original)
Coming from Alynda lee Segarra, I feel deep recognition when I hear this song. I was the jealous guy in my marriage. I was. When Segarra sings, “I was dreaming of the past/And my heart was beating fast/I began to lose control,” I flush recalling the last year of my marriage and the ways I let my insecurity influence my behavior. I was like a child throwing a tantrum, suspicious of every woman with whom my ex communicated. In part, it was a reaction to an earlier indiscretion of his, but it was also my own fear of abandonment. I was the girlchild whose father had left her, then died. When I sensed my husband pulling away from me, it manifested this way. I’m not proud of that woman, weepy and distrustful, but I have empathy for her now.
Phosphorescent, “Song for Zula”
This song, to me, is about the exuberance at the end of love. It’s calibrated to the joy I felt when I emerged from my post-divorce depression. I chronicle some of this time period in the book, when I was alone for the first time in fifteen years and living in a new city, perfectly content in my own company. What a thing, to walk into my apartment and feel the space carved out by his absence as pure possibility. The final chorus captures the almost-violent joy I felt as a newly single woman:
So some say love is a burning thing
That it makes a fiery ring
All that I know love as a caging thing
Just a killer come to call from some awful dream
And all you folks, you come to see
You just to stand there in the glass looking at me
But my heart is wild, and my bones are steel
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free
Ane Brun, “You Lit My Fire”
Brun’s feminist anthem makes me want to weep with appreciation for all the women who have fought for our freedom and agency. If this book is anything definitive, it is an ode to the women. Friends, strangers. The women in my life who have demonstrated unconditional love and support, and daily do the hard, muscular work of loving well, both themselves and those lucky enough to stand inside their orbit.
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, 2014) and the forthcoming textbook and anthology Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury, 2021) along with the writer Sean Prentiss (Bloomsbury, 2021). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Columbia Journal, PANK, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Her new book is a collection of essays about women and wonder. More at jessicahnelson.com.