“The feelings that hurt most,” opined the famed Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa regarding the dilemma of unrequited love, are those that are “absurd” and “create in us a painful landscape, an eternal sunset of what we are.” About ill-fated and one-sided romantic affairs, Virginia Woolf similarly stated in the modernist classic To the Lighthouse that there is nothing worse than “to want and not have–to want, to want.” In her past, she confessed, these instances had often been so devastating as to have “wrung the heart and wrung it again and again.” The initially exciting yet ultimately self-abasing arc of unrequited love is known to most of us, if not through personal experience, then because much of our art derives its relevance and poignancy from such predictably heart-wrenching reversals of fortune. In the newly released single “Waiting,” Toronto-based songwriter Alyson McNamara is the latest such artist to contribute to the continuous palimpsest of distress and affliction that so accurately symbolizes this unfortunate condition.
Through the use of soft melodies, mellow percussion, a doleful cello, and cathartic harmonies that include a male counterpart, McNamara paints a picture of a person living in a constant state of emotional isolation and detachment. For the speaker, “patience is an empty tomb,” as she spends her time obsessively waiting for what’s either a long-lost or a would-be paramour to make an unlikely return. Either way, the conclusion remains the same: the person she ruefully agonizes over is no more than a dim memory that looms menacingly over her, effectively distorting her relationship with herself and her surroundings. At one point, the protagonist’s grim mental state is contrasted with that of the “happy people” who pass by her window, thus indicating a seemingly unbridgeable divide between what presently is and what ought to be. And confusion and disappointment likewise make an unwanted cameo, as McNamara wonders whether she should “look up or cover up my eyes” upon hearing the voices of strangers living out their seemingly untroubled lives in the uninvitingly carefree outside world.
Fortunately for her, however, her instincts of survival and self-preservation kick in just in the nick of time, and the pressing need to put things in perspective promptly infuses the situation with much-needed clarity. “We’re not meant to be,” emphatically declares McNamara’s speaker during the song’s liberating refrain. “Maybe we’re (something) useless looking to be used,” she states as she embodies a bittersweet mix of acceptance and relief. This cathartic moment is, in turn, followed by a call to action via the song’s mantric maxim: “Gotta come to/ gotta come to,” which serves as the number’s suitable rhetorical conclusion. Ultimately, it’s impossible to know what becomes of the speaker or how successful she is at overcoming the inner misery she’s suffered at the hands of an abiding memory. But one can hope that despite the wounds caused by a love that turned out to be impossible, that she can nonetheless recapture the zest and desire to take the type of risk that, in the words of novelist Carol Rifka Brunt may allow her to “feel the same impossibility over and over again.”