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"People would not react if I went out and carried on like Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger or David Bowie. People do react if I go out and carry on like Bono. And I like that."

-- Bono

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Like a Song: Miss Sarajevo

@U2, May 08, 2013
By: Tassoula E. Kokkoris


Like A Song[Ed. note: This is the 76th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]

My world in the autumn of 2006 was very dark — I'd recently lost the love of my life, was burnt out on my fashion-writing job of seven years and felt a terrible sense of loneliness. Of course I'd suffered breakups before, but this was different. The person who had at first made me feel as if I could take on the world instead validated every horrible word my internal dialogue had ever spoken. And he did this without warning or provocation. 

My inherently optimistic nature eroded to the point that I had no faith in anything — love, God, humanity. Though I sought help from a therapist at the time, her advice wasn't doing much (and it was costing me a fortune). 

Furthermore, everyone was telling me what I already knew to be true — when you're in a sea of negativity, you'll only attract more darkness. It was a very self-destructive pattern to follow, and one I was becoming more and more skilled at perfecting each day.

One of the only lights in my life at the time was, as usual, U2. 

I was the lead on the Edun campaign at my day job, so I had the privilege of writing newspaper ads, catalog copy, event invites and window displays about clothing that spoke directly to the U2 audience. I even got to attend an event with Ali Hewson down in San Francisco to launch the first wave of ONE Campaign T-shirts. She was wonderful and I was honored to be involved.

But coming down from that event, I arrived at my lowest point. I foolishly invited my former love to hurt me again and he delivered. I wasn't sure if I could recover. In fact, most of me didn't want to recover. I had a cab driver who was taking me to the Golden Gate Bridge to sightsee pull over and let me out in an unfamiliar neighborhood because I didn't trust myself at those heights. I'd never been depressed in my life, and I had no clue how to manage the pain.

Holed up in my hotel room, and then later with a cup of coffee in the café downstairs, I devoured the book I had delayed in reading. It was Fools Rush In by Bill Carter.

I'd purchased the book when it first came out, but was infatuated with my boyfriend at the time and made little time for reading. Months after he broke my heart, I finally turned to Carter's Miss Sarajevo DVD, hoping for a sadness that would match my mood and easily found it.

Having no context for the song until I paid attention to the Missing Sarajevo documentary on U2's Best Of 1990-2000 DVD, it absolutely wrecked me once I learned of its significance.

The words began speaking directly to me, as many of U2's songs tend to do:

Is there a time for kohl and lipstick?
Is there a time for cutting hair?
Is there a time for high street shopping?
To find the right dress to wear?

My job in the midst of all the pain in the world seemed very superficial. I told myself for years that fashion could boost self-esteem in people, and clothing was obviously a basic human necessity, but I could no longer justify the luxury of what I was selling through my writing. I longed to find work that made more of a real difference in people's lives. 

As the river, you say that love will find a way
But love, I'm not a praying man
And in love I can't believe anymore
And for love I can't wait anymore 

I don't speak Italian, but the portion of the song that was sung by Pavarotti always moved me. When I learned what the words meant, I was a goner.

Bono's soothing voice contrasted with mental images of war made for a brutally emotional combination. Songs such as this, which contain notes that correspond to something inside your soul and open it up, raw to the world, have the ability to heal. And that, along with Carter's book, started to heal me. I finally turned off my breakup song ("Ultraviolet") and turned on "Miss Sarajevo."

As I listened to it over and over again, and made my way through the pages of Fools Rush In, I realized I could find peace in my situation, and got the perspective I desperately needed. People survive things far more horrible than unsatisfying jobs and failed relationships every day. In the face of what those in Sarajevo endured, I was ashamed by how deeply I had wallowed, and how long I had subjected my friends to my sadness. After all, I was mourning the death of a partnership — not the death of a human being.

After finishing the book that same day, I felt compelled to let the author know just how much it touched me, so I sent him a message, which I'm sure in retrospect was embarrassingly long. I don't remember how much I shared about my life at the time or if I was completely honest with him about how much pain I was experiencing. Knowing me, I probably shared too much, but I wanted him to see that his words, and his film that inspired this beautiful song, really did change my life. He would tell me later that I came to the book and film "when I was supposed to," and he was right. The universe places things in our path when we need them the most: both the good and the bad. We can never grow if we don't learn from our pain, and we can never heal if we don't find a way to get past it. Thankfully, this story got to me at the right time, and when I returned to Seattle, I slowly began transforming back into my authentic self. The happy, confident girl I once was.

Two years later I met Carter in person for the first time, at an event for his second book, Red Summer. Over cups of tea in the basement of Seattle's famous Elliott Bay Books, I learned that he was in a good place — he was married, enjoying fatherhood, and again working on various projects that promised to make the world better. I was proud to tell him I too had moved on from the dark place I inhabited when I first wrote to him. I quit my fashion job to work for a nonprofit, began dating a new man and devoted my free time to things that brought me joy. Though he'd just met me, he seemed to genuinely care.

As I got to know Bill a little better over the years, it came clear to me that U2 has some sort of divine assistance in finding the most extraordinary creatures on the planet with whom to associate. There are millions of good people on this earth blessed with charisma; and then there are people who have such a magnetic presence and inherent kindness that they draw everyone in their path in with an infectious spark of something intangible. I've only met a few people in my lifetime who possess that, and Bill is one of them.

I distanced myself from the pain of "Miss Sarajevo" in the years that followed, but it was never forgotten. Each time I heard the song, I was reminded of that horrible time in my life, and Carter's powerful book and documentary. 

Fast-forward to April of this year ... I was thrilled that he had accepted the invitation to speak at the U2 Conference and would be delivering a keynote about his time during the siege. However, like many of my fellow U2 fans, I thought that his presentation would be "old news."

I couldn't have been more wrong — his storytelling hooked me from the moment he opened his mouth, and instantly I was back in the zone, reuniting with an experience I can't genuinely fathom, stunned again by what those amazing people endured. 

I'm in love with the romantic way that Sarajevo has recovered, and have been planning a trip to visit for years. I think the timing of this story being again front-of-mind is telling me that I need to book that ticket sooner rather than later.


© @U2/Kokkoris, 2013.

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