What I Know About Thunder

In my creative nonfiction course this quarter, we do an exercise in which they have to introduce themselves with a one-liner story.  “When people say ‘tell us about the time,’ what story do they want to hear from you?” I ask them.  Then, we write those one-liners as three to four paragraph narratives.  And then, I have them choose a title from a set list of four.  “Don’t pick the one that you think is an obvious fit,” I say.  “Now, write another paragraph that ties that title and that story together.” 

This is what I wrote in class Tuesday.


When I was two, my parents believed I was reincarnated from a poor black child.  I had a heavy Southern accent and would paint myself all black with water colors.  I spoke often of “Tom and Peggy.”  “Who are Tom and Peggy?” they’d ask.  “My parents,” I’d say.  “From my other life.”

One day, the UPS man came to the door, and I answered. “Hi,” I said, looking up at him, a tall African-American.  “We’re all white here—except for my dad.  He’s black, too.”

There were no African-Americans in my western Kansas town.  There were Hispanic field workers and two adopted Korean children.  And my dad wasn’t black.

Years later, I’d ask my dad if he remembered me talking about Tom and Peggy.  “Oh god, yes,” he said.  “That used to creep me out.”  My mom read a lot of Shirley MacLaine in those days, so she was down with the past life idea.  When my grandmother died, I asked my sister how she explained death to my four year-old niece.  “Oh, you know–the reincarnation stuff Mom told us:  energy, moving into anther life.”  We’d grown up Catholic, and the niece was being raised Methodist.  But sitting on my lap after the funeral, she stared hard at a woman wearing all white, consoling us.  “Are you my grandma’s new body?”  The woman smiled sweetly.  “Oh, I’m sure your grandmother has a new body in heaven now.”  “Noooo,” I said.  “She wants to know if you are actually our grandma’s new body.”

What I know about thunder is that it is an indication something’s shifting in the atmosphere.  It rolls across the plains like a finger swiping right on Tinder, starting a conversation:  thunder calls, lightning responds, and then the sky cracks open with the rain.  My “past life” opened me, even as a child, to the possibility that difference was in me, that Western Kansas was not the world, that a black man at your door might be a brother from another mother.  My niece, at four, was looking for a way to give a voice back to the dead, and we had an atmosphere for that possibility in my family.

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style: Why 42 Is the New 24

I should be too old for this album.

But I was in the car, on my way to Ballard some time in October, and I heard this song on its tin-can-line to my soul, the lo-fi production exactly the right timbre for the low-grade discontent creeping around in my life, just like this bass line lurks around the corners of this song.  And the repetitive, somewhat abrasive synth riff was the bright light in the middle, shaking me out of that driver’s spell, and asking me to listen and to care. And some boy-man was singing, with that kind of resignation 400 yards away from actually feeling bad,  “Maud / now you’re gone / now you’re gah ah ah ah ah ah ah ahn.”

The song was “Maud Gone,” a play on Yeats’s fierce Maud Gonne, the band (really just a singer) was Car Seat Headrest, and the album, I would find, was Teens of Style.

Teens of Style.  Teens.

It might be classic to say “I’m too old for this,” but this is my first mid-life crisis.  So, it’s new for me to say it.

Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest, is actually 23.  Will Toledo is a year out of college.  Will Toledo was just signed by Matador Records, the label of Pavement and Modest Mouse—bands actually my own age.  Will Toledo sings lyrics like this:  “I can’t talk to my folks” and “I want to kick my dad in the shins.”

My dad is dead.  I’ve been out of college 22 years, almost as long as Will Toledo’s been alive.  I find those lyrics painfully young.  But too old or not, I love this album.  I love it.  And I think it’s because it helps me see why 42 is the new 24.

Here’s why:  the sub-heading of Collin Brennan’s article “Why Car Seat Headrest is the Indie Hero We’ve Been Waiting For” is this:

Check.  Check, check, and check.

Isn’t that basically the description of a midlife crisis?  This is the final essay in my triptych on the three albums mirroring my year last year (for parts I and II, see Angel Olsen and Other Lives), and I have two things to tell you about loneliness.  Ok. Three.

Heavy Boots on My Throat / I Need Something Soon

“Something Soon” is a song about the anxiety of not knowing what you want next, but knowing that something needs to happen.  I’ve been in that place for about, oh, two or three years.  Perhaps that’s why I write about the past so much.  In the face of anxieties about my career (the dean wanted to cut my position three weeks ago.  It’s safe.  For now), the possibilities I’m letting go of (marriage, children, home ownership), and the patterns I’m coming to accept (what if it really IS just me forever?  What if I always AM going to be this lazy?), I find it immensely comforting to take what’s already happened and mine it for the insight and intimacy I have difficulty accessing as of late. Or, as Will Toledo puts it, “I was referring to the present in past tense / It was the only way that I could survive it.”  THAT’S a GREAT LINE.

The other lyrics are a list of Wants and Needs:

I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

[ . . . .]
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

Heavy boots on my throat I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
I can’t talk to my folks I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
All of my fingers are froze I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
Only one change of clothes I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
My head is my head is my head is

Oh, but the heavy boots are so different now, at 42.  It’s not so much the pressure from others but your own boots on your own throat.  It’s not that, at 24, you aren’t hard on yourself, but, from what I remember, you have that sense that somehow, you’ll be shown the right way, if only you can find the right something.

But that’s it’s own problem:  I have so many right somethings.  They crowd each other and jockey for space; they whisper unkind things about each other from opposite corners in my head.  In one of my favorite moments in “Something Soon,” Will Toledo talks over himself:

I want to talk like Raymond Carver
(an advertisement cries out)
I want to turn down the goddamn TV
(“He should have gone to Jared’s”)

I tell myself I’m not lazy—I did plenty of worthy things this week.  (“Yes, but you also binge-watched The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries for four hours and drove to yoga, instead of walking.”)  I like how honest I am as a teacher. (“But your evaluations are always split—you need to change somehow.”  “But how?” “If you stopped being so lazy, you’d figure it out.  This is why your job is insecure.”)

Ok, so maybe it’s not so much that there are so many “right things” but rather that there are a lot of opposing tendencies within me:  to accept myself fairly completely while also being, like Will Toledo, “painfully aware of [my] place in the world.”


There’s a Full Moon Every Night / It’s Just Not Always Bright

As I say at the beginning of this essay, I heard “Maud Gone,” my favorite song on Teens of Style, in the autumn.  Autumn is the best teaching quarter, any teacher will tell you:  you are convinced you’re going to be better, the students come back, convinced they’re going to be better.  I had great classes.  Professionally, things seemed good.  But I was about 500 yards away from my heart, which is why I love the tinny detachment and simultaneous hopefulness of this song.

It accepts that maybe something is gone (Maud, in this case), but it has enough distance to wonder “when did our heart stop beating?”  It also wonders how to get a grip on the heavy boots from before—in my case, the sense that a fulfilling career isn’t in bed with you at night, which can turn any reflection into a more existential problem:

When I’m in bed
I’m dead
No one to check my pulse
And so instead
My head
Begs not to be so full
and when I fall
which part of me writes the dream
and which part falls
who’s running the machine?

But it also suggests maybe you need to try something different:

I know there’s a full moon every night
it’s just not always bright
but it’s been so long since I saw the light
maybe I haven’t been looking at the sky

So I did.  I looked at the sky, forgetting something Will Toledo says in another song:  “I hadn’t looked at the sun for so long / I’d forgotten how much it hurts to.” I had an affair—a dark, intense, raw release from my head into my body.  He was so different from me that, at first, I found myself quivering, overly sensitive to his criticisms, which seemed strangely almost like compliments. Everything he liked about me also seemed to be something that drove him crazy:  “You’ve got this bubble around you,” he told me once, “that’s almost . . . fairy-like?  And usually, my instinct with that is to try to poke holes in it.  But I can’t find any holes with you.  I guess that’s who you really are.”

He was driven, fierce, strong, dark, masculine, and hot as fucking hell.  He’s a Scorpio.  Does that help?  It helped me—to know exactly why this bad moon was so difficult but also why it kept a-risin.’  We radiated intensity.  Once, in February, we were buried in each other at the corner table of Tini Bigg’s.  The waitress came over and mentioned she remembered us . . . from November.  “Probably because we couldn’t stop groping each other, which makes it hard to take  a drink order,” he muttered in my ear, as she walked away, and our hands moved towards each other under the table.

But Scorpio was not my boyfriend, which is where the tinny detachment comes in.  He was a lover, and he was not mine.  But he eclipsed all others and I could see no other moons, full and bright or otherwise.  And I would watch him walk out the door, always going back to his other world.  And when he was gone, I would wonder whether it was worth it.  But I also had to think again about how much partner I needed, how much intensity itself could be enough, what my real boundaries were.  He forced me to look again at my heart, and he made it beat.  Hard.  In short, he denied me the bridge:

Sweetheart please love me too long
My heart’s too strong
Love me too long
Sweetheart please let me hold on
To these old songs
I’ve loved too long

And whether you’re 24 or 42, you need to know when to learn new songs.  There is such a thing as holding on just because you’re used to something being there:  old songs, old ideas about what you want, old patterns, old ghosts.  Like the moon.

You Have No Right to be Depressed / You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Like it

I read this morning that whereas the Baby Boomer midlife crisis was about rejecting convention, the Mad Men life they thought they should want, the Generation Xer’s midlife crisis is about agoraphobia:  instead of shrinking opportunities, there are still so many.  And because I haven’t taken up some of the traditional ones (marriage-baby-house-dog), I can see why some might think I am the author of my own crisis, the author now of so many narratives of loneliness and loss.  After the Angel Olsen essay, an acquaintance who has never lived alone in her adult life told me “it sounds like you just really need to learn how to love yourself.”

I want her to listen to Millennial Will Toledo’s new song, “Fill in the Blank.”  You know what he’s so tired of, he tells us?  “Fill in the blank.”  You know what kind of answer he gets when he says this?  “You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”  Will Toledo finds that answer, as do I, irritating.  But he tries to engage with that cliche and acknowledges that, yes, he may not have “seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.”  I want to quote Brennan at length here because Will Toledo and I both get what you’re saying about taking ownership over your own life and want you to know that we mean it, too, when we are ambivalent about that ownership:

Lots of folks would take one look at Toledo and be quick to write him off as a hipster. The songs don’t always help his case in this regard, stuffed as they are with irony and wry cynicism. But anyone who sits down with Car Seat Headrest for a while comes to find that one of the band’s dominant traits is earnestness. Even the ideas that seem silly on the surface (ahem, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”) end up as rousing, tear-jerking anthems that tug on all the right heartstrings.

This is perhaps the most important — and least talked about — aspect of great rock music: the sentimentality that flirts with cheesiness, the absolute conviction that a song can change the world, or at least somebody’s world, for even just a little while. Teens of Denial, on its surface, is the product of a prototypical millennial mindset. “You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” Toledo sings on opener “Fill in the Blank”, a song whose lyrics practically overflow with snark. But undermining those lyrics is a rock beat that straight-up grooves and a squealing guitar melody that wants to be heard over an arena’s loudspeakers.

I love myself plenty.  I’m just trying to answer the ultimate Talking Heads question (“Well, how did I get here?”), without the beautiful house, the beautiful wife, and sometimes, without those markers, it’s even harder to understand what kind of life you’re authoring.  I mostly think this IS my beautiful life.

So, thank you, Will Toledo, for reminding me that wondering aloud about these questions is ok: “I think part of being an artist is remaining vulnerable to human opinion,” he reflects. “You always want to hide away the immaturity with yourself, and I guess for me this is a way of refusing myself that luxury.”

This is me refusing myself that luxury.  2015 was about confrontations and some self-indulgent immaturity and some new maturity and listening to Car Seat Headrest sigh and mumble and scream “you guys got mad skillz / I just got mad.”  And it was boring and peaceful and angry and productive and weird and dark and, sometimes, really, really FUN.  Just like Teens of Style.

Car Seat Headrest’s new album comes out in two days:  Teens of Denial.  I don’t think either Will Toledo or I are in denial about anything.

Other Lives, or Just the Same One, Over and Over Again: Part II

Other Lives is not a band I listen to for lyrics, which says a lot, considering I’m a Word Girl.  Thus, in a year when I felt more inward, more silent, it makes sense that their album Rituals filled that silence with its own quiet movement.  I saw them twice last year, once at the free concerts at the Mural, but once, more importantly, at Neumo’s on a Tuesday night, by myself.  In her review of Rituals, their second album, music critic Kelsey Simpkins describes going to an Other Lives show as such:  “The music rolled through our bodies, beat our hearts for us.”  After the first third of the year, the survival of a break-up, the sadness of deep loneliness, Other Lives ushered me into a different room in the house of myself and beat my heart for me, asking me only to be there.


Come live on in silence,

Everything’s standing out like a loss and feels like I’ve been

I won’t fear my babbles

leave them in the silence

I live in the present

moment to moment

“Reconfiguration” is a ghost call of a song, taking part of its power from one member of the band doing a strange imitation of what seems like a child playing “Indian,” fluttering his hand over his voice to make a sound both eerie and owl-like.  The album itself was a reconfiguration for me:  of loneliness into, for a time, merely solitude.  Emily Dickinson famously says “One need not be a chamber to be haunted,” but for much of the spring and summer, I was only a chamber, a space I was uncertain how to fill.  I was, finally, unhaunted, true:  mostly busy with work, focused on writing, coming to terms with the dark angers of the winter.  I returned to my writing, talking more and more to myself, writing so much that, at times, I felt I’d replaced actual intimacy with these revisitings of my own losses, the babbles of my own heart.  Simpkins also describes the album as “a series of smaller, detailed listening experiences,” and each essay I wrote seemed, to me, like a tiny desk concert, a pleasure best experienced alone.

Moreover, Other Lives is the kind of show you can go to see by yourself and never feel alone.  Usually, when a band plays for its audience, for me, there are these moments of feeling more, not less, separate from them:  they talk to the audience and make jokes; the audience laughs, and the people around you nudge each other knowingly or comment on what’s just been said.  In contrast, it doesn’t seem to me that Other Lives plays for the audience, really—they play for themselves, for each other.  Attention isn’t called to the fact that you have no one to nudge, no one with whom to comment, because attention stays on the music, orchestral, multi-layered, unfolding before you like a thunderstorm coming across the empty Oklahoman plains from which the band itself comes, and the only thing to do is smell the ozone in the air and close your eyes as the first warm drops hit your upturned face, softly at first, until your skin gives over and becomes part of what the rain comes to fill.

I’ve always felt like that—like their music is a coming storm; I was unsurprised, then, to find the image used by Simpkins:

Like dynamic paint strokes, intimate choreography, and electrifying storms, Rituals evokes the aesthetic experience of life itself in its finest moments. The opening track, “Fair Weather,” is the like the gathering of a rainstorm from a long time coming. And Rituals is that rainstorm: spilling its long-accumulated contents on us in a deluge. [ . . .  T]here is a sound of uprooting, of displacement in Rituals, both physical and mental; an unsettling feeling of change since the release of Tamer Animals, and an attempt to redefine oneself anew.

Perhaps, as a former Kansan, I still feel that displacement, understand how the “attempt to redefine oneself anew” will always recall not just the meek and constant rain of the Northwest but the electrical anticipation of the thunderstorms of the Midwest.  Perhaps that is why it was such a surprise to find myself beginning to settle into the solitude, and why I still fight against that feeling, at times.  Change, for me, has always been charged—coming from a place I did not love, looking for things I could not find easily, I have long been unfamiliar with the feeling of life simply moving on.  More often, I have placed myself in the way of the deluge, daring myself to be uprooted:  leaving for Missouri, returning to Seattle, accepting the spontaneous moment, inviting others to do so, in return, turning over the unturned stones to see if glass hearts were buried underneath, throwing my own glass heart at hard surfaces to see how strong it is, to find out what it means, exactly, when glass breaks.

Yet last year was a year in which change did not have charge.  Spring quarter came and went; summer began.  I wrote in spring. I read in spring.  I read what my students wrote in spring, and in summer, I wrote and read what I wrote, again and again, trying to figure out not how to change my life next but how to reorganize what has happened in it, trying to find an order for the book project.  I saw Other Lives again, at the Mural, on a lawn with a hundred other people and my friend Leah.  But still, I loved them more that time I saw them alone, when I was simply in the process of living. “In their element,” Simpkins says, “[lead singer Jessie] Tabbish’s lyrics come effortlessly, like in a dream, and the sounds feel like they’ve always existed.”

And that is why their song “Patterns” is my favorite song on the album.  Although I did not know the lyrics until I began researching for this essay, it is as if I had understood all along, had heard the ironic tension in the song between immersion in the moments of the present and the realization that one is repeating, again, those same moments which have led your heart astray before, experiencing as new those emotional changes in tempo and dynamic, which are, in fact, not changes at all:

 Put yourself first, and feel yourself, and then

I wander in sleep, in a silent tone.

Put yourself far, and feel yourself in mine,

I’m wandering still, falling in love so far

Into your arms, into the void

Oh I should have known.

Oh I should have known better.

But the musical patterns in the song itself are so lovely, so lacey, so intricate, shimmering starlight across the deeper wells of an ocean, that you don’t experience the repetition as such—much as I’d begun to find the return of the same placid day less of a disappointment because it brought no change.  Simpkins quotes Tabbish, saying Rituals “‘was about the spontaneity of travel and being isolated. For the first times in our lives we were moving off on our own away from our families and kind of coming into our own.’”  For me, Rituals played on repeat-all in my chamber as I moved constantly while standing still, as I moved away from one version of loneliness to be, more firmly, in the same place.  Or so it seemed.

But remember—there I was: simply letting their music beat my heart for me, standing alone near the stage, closing my eyes and letting the music itself be what I felt, while lyrics like this were sung to me, whispering into me like the temperature of the rain which you notice, primarily, for its pressure:

The more that you give,

the less that you fear

the less that you fear

“The vision of Rituals,” Simpkins’ review ends, “needs the time to communicate its story.”  Perhaps my own vision does, too—time to be lonely, alone, silent, while the patterns emerge and change me, rain on the sand.







My Year In Three Albums. Part One: Angel Olsen and Loneliness

There’s nothing like making a list at the year’s end to make you believe you understood what just happened.

But certainly, it seems significant to me that this past year was primarily set to three albums:  Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Other Lives’ Rituals, and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Style.  My 2015 was defined by two things:  it was the year in which I’d entered more comfortable with the idea of myself as a writer, able to fully commit to my book project as a real project, and it was the year in which, as I wrote more and more about intimacy, I faced the possibility that this loneliness I feel is permanent.

This loneliness . . . it is difficult to express without sounding morose and fatalistic, delusional even, given the many and wonderful people in my life, the time I spend with them, and my own relentlessly cheery nature, even in the face of darkness.  But something inside me shifted this year, and I found myself trying to understand intimacy on a deeper level, to confront any obstacles or illusions more bravely so that I can live, if not with a loving partner, then at least more honestly with myself.  At times, in my writing, I reached bigger insights about the love I’ve felt, and I would finish an essay teary, grateful to have the chance to understand what I’ve felt or who I’ve loved differently.  Sometimes, this experience gave me great peace.  Sometimes, it brought back the loss so clearly that the profundity of my errors humbled me—nostalgia means, as Leslie Jamison says, “the twinge of the wound.”  Sometimes, that humility facilitated more vulnerability, and I felt more capable of being more present for others, as with my students; sometimes it made me feel the best any of us can do is simply to give what we can and try not to damage each other too much.

At one point this summer, I realized that the writing of these essays itself had replaced romantic intimacy for me, that I WAS, in fact, in a relationship:  with myself, with these songs. It felt good—but how couldn’t it?  What better way to protect myself from my own heart than to stop giving it to someone?  I was in control of all the conversations, never had to address the needs of another; all the negotiations were always made in good faith because there was only one bargainer in the deal.

Still, rather than read last year as mere retreat, I wanted to honor where I was, to think about how these three albums functioned as all good relationships do:  how they gave me solace and insight, how they wallowed with me, how they moved me into different emotional spaces, revealed alternate possibilities, and how, in the end, they taught me something about myself.  Listening to whole albums is an increasing rarity—at least for me—and having three full albums in a year that mattered . .  . well, maybe you don’t need to be in love to keep learning about it.

Angel Olsen:  Burn Your Fire For No Witness

I quit my dreaming the moment that I found you
I started dancing just to be around you
Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more
I kept my mouth shut and opened up the door

I wanted nothing but for this to be the end
For this to never be a tied and empty hand

If all the trouble in my heart would only end
I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

—“Unfuck the World”

I’d first heard Angel Olsen’s “Forgiven/Forgotten” last summer and bought the album without realizing that song was by far the most optimistic on the whole thing.  “Forgiven / Forgotten” is about two minutes long and I loved it because it was like a cheerful theme song for one of my long-standing problems:  a tendency to continue to take emotional risks, even when it’s been established that there will be no pay-off.

In one of my favorite movies, The Anniversary Party, Kevin Kline and his five year-old daughter reenact the rocky marriage of the couple (Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose anniversary it is:  at one point, he pushes her dramatically away from him, and she walks sadly away, only to turn and rush back, to fling herself back into his only partially extended arms.  I cry every time, identifying with the five year-old.  “Forgiven/Forgotten” went on the last CD I made (and will ever make) the Camp Romance, a last-ditch attempt to forgive someone who didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, who wanted, moreover, to be forgotten. Why did I do it? In “Dance Slow Decades,” Angel Olsen seemed to know:  “I dance because I know this one.”

More recently, I was trying to explain a questionable romantic entanglement to a dear friend and her dear husband, together since they were fifteen.  “I mean, who’s it going to hurt, other than myself?” I said blithely.  Foreheads simultaneously wrinkled, and they looked first at each other, then at me.  “Exactly, honey,” she said.

But the rest of the album isn’t about that—it isn’t about self-destruction, about flinging oneself at all.  It’s not about risk as much as it is accountability:  that quality most essential to a risk, without which a  “risk” is merely carelessness.  It’s an album about facing loneliness and choosing to be oneself.  “If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone / Burn your fire for no witness / it’s the only way it’s done,” Olsen sings in “White Fire.” The Pitchfork review of the album agrees:

“Hi-Five”, the third song on Angel Olsen’s second album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, has got to be one of the most cheerful songs ever written about being lonely. [ . . . ]  “Are you lonely too?” Olsen warbles. A beat later, her band’s back in full Technicolor, and the next line hits like a title card in an old “Batman” episode: “HI-FIVE!/ SO AM I!”

When 2015 began, I was still recovering from the Barback, and I found a new theme song:  “Unfuck the World,” quoted in its entirety at the beginning of this section. It’s the first song on the album, and it sounds like the kind of song a sad girl would write alone in her bedroom.  Since I was a sad girl writing alone in my bedroom, I curled into it like a cat curls into a small space when it’s feeling insecure.

I was suffering to a degree clearly disproportionate to the relationship, feeling an anger I sensed was not about Jason.  And when I heard this song, I knew why.  I really did love the Barback, but I also loved that he seemed ready to give me everything I had wanted . . . with Eli.  Once, in the first month of our three months together, I’d mentioned that even after three years, Eli was never comfortable talking about getting married.  The Barback turned to me.  “How long do you think is rational before we move in together and get engaged?”  I looked up at him, startled.  “Two or three years?” I said, weakly.  “Well, I’m thinking six months to a year,” he responded.  “Eli didn’t know what he had.”  Maybe he didn’t, and maybe the Barback didn’t either, or maybe I’m just that good at inciting the one unpleasant confrontation that will end even the most committed of relationships.  But Angel Olsen knew—she knew what I had.  “I lost my dream, I lost my reason all again.” 

My heart wasn’t just breaking—it was being rebroken, in all the most sensitive places.  My grief over the end of my relationship with Eli had only reached the bargaining stage by the time I met the Barback, and I saw him, his readiness to talk about big things with me, to actively love me enough to want a future with me, as part of the bargain:  maybe if I just make the strong choice, maybe if I break up with Eli even though I love him, I will still find a lover who chooses me without hesitation and get what I want.  “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end.”  

And it wasn’t the end.  The next relationship is not the reward for “doing the right thing” in the last one.  There is no reward.  Maybe there is no right thing.  And that awareness unleashed the next phase of grieving:  anger.  It’s the emotion your friends least want to hear about, the emotion you least want to feel towards someone you once loved most.  But what I learned about anger over the first five months of this last year was that it is a motivator.  In “Enemy,” Olsen gently confronts her own disillusionment and comes to terms with the tricks her own mind has played on her:

I wish it were the same
as it is in my mind
I am lighter on my feet
when I’ve left some things behind

I knew (and still know) the anger I felt was less about either man and more about having to force myself to move forward to face being alone—really, really alone.

And I hate it.  I still hate it, mostly.  I enjoy my own company, and I do meaningful things, but I really am an extrovert, and it’s just not fun for me to have as much alone time as I do.  This essay isn’t going to end with me finding out how much I loved being alone.  The anger has dissipated somewhat, but it’s still there sometimes, although it’s changed directions (why can’t I better appreciate what so many wish they could have—this intimate time with oneself?). I still know I would far rather have a partner than be singing soft songs to myself in my bedroom.  But this album repeated to me, again and again, the soft song that would be more useful to sing:

It’s not just me for you
I have to look out too
I have to save my life
I need some peace of mind

I am the only one now
I am the only one now
I am the only one now

You may not be around
You may not be around
You may not be around

You’d think this would have been obvious—we all die in our own arms, anyway.  But somehow, this was the year in which I really understood that I might not even have someone there near the end and that I might want to start getting used to that idea.  And even though I don’t like it, this awareness feels meaningful.  Again, the Pitchfork review offers me a way to think about this meaning and grow:

Olsen knows too well that dreamers are usually loners. Not that she really minds. If she seems unafraid of—even superhumanly amped about—loneliness, it’s because her songs find an almost beatific peace in solitude. “If you can’t be psyched about your own thoughts,” she said in an interview a few years ago, “Then how are you supposed to have a meaningful interaction with anyone?”

I’m in the process of growing right now, of trying both to be open to emotions as they come, without turning them into dreamy narratives, and to stand up for myself and what feels useful, if not good.  If this year began with track one of Burn Your Fire for No Witness, it seems apt that it has ended with me thinking more about the final track, “Windows.”  After a whole album of confronting oneself and others, Olsen reminds me that all the confrontation is also not just for the sake of self-awareness—it’s so we can feel better.  I spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts last year, and some of them were powerful.  The meaningful interactions were there, too.  And I hope I can keep feeling better.

We throw our shadows down
we must throw our shadows down
we live and throw our shadows down
it’s how we get around

What’s so wrong with the light?








Divorce Closet: Songs that Are Not Yours to Sing


I am in the Corcoran in Washington, D. C.  Everywhere, I am surrounded by the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, A Photographer’s Life, and everywhere, I am undone by the evidence of love.   There are, of course, the famous Rolling Stone images, the ones loved by the world:  giant prints of naked John Lennon and clothed Yoko Ono, Meg and Jack White as circus performers with Meg strapped to a wheel and Jack aiming a dagger. But this exhibition also contains the photos of a dead Susan Sontag:  of Annie taking care of Sontag, of Sontag being wheeled onto planes to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, and, finally, controversially, of her corpse, alone.   I look at that thin, still body, the signature shock of white hair, and I know that all of these images are love.

But I am newly in love, and death is far off in the background of my world.  I’m still in Act One, and Mortality is merely a dusty prop in a dark corner, to be exposed once, only, in the very final scene, the very last act.  I know that I see love, but my love has never died—will never die, I think.  And so, I have to round the corner before I find the photograph that undoes me and brings tears of recognition.

Small, square-framed amidst two or three other minor works, it is a picture of a handful of seashells.  “Susan’s Shells,” it’s called.  I weep openly.  Strangers look over to see if they are missing another picture of the corpse, squint at the tiny image, glance sideways at me.  After all the chemo and bones and death and pain, Annie Leibovitz took pictures of her lover’s things.  She took pictures of the shells because Susan was loved, and because Susan loved them, the shells are loved.  The shells are love.  I am surrounded even here by love:  these images of what the lover has left, in the end.  The beloved, the beloved may be dead, but still her objects remain, and anything she touched with her notice has become love:  all that it was and all that remains.   I am surrounded by love.  And because I am in love, I feel this, and I weep.


I go back to Alexandria, Virginia, to my beloved’s home to which I have a key, and I feel it again.   I am here again from Missouri, and I let myself in with this key his hands have touched.  I feel it again in his closet.  Sam’s shirts.   Surrounded by these artifacts of him, imbued with their “him-ness,” the smell of him, I am surrounded by this love of him concretely:  tactile, viscous, the densest reality of this man with whom I am in love, perhaps more than I’ve ever been.  I sigh with happiness to be this close to him, even amidst the merest traces.  He seems so present that I turn, instinctively, to look for him in the doorway.  But he is on a business trip, and I am here in his closet, looking through his stuff for evidence, the proof that his divorce was the best thing ever to happen to him and to me.


I am a snoop. If you are in a relationship with me, and I have not yet sounded out the depths of your heart, unpacked and analyzed the degree to which you love me, I will secretly read your diary, pour over your photo albums, maybe look under your bed to find, among the dust bunnies and crumpled, mislaid receipts, the measure of your love for me.   It is not that I am empty, low on self esteem and skittish in my trust, but rather that I cannot accept “enough” when I could find out “more.”  I am a museum with a permanent source of funding; I am the curator herself, rubbing her hands with glee over each new acquisition, considering its possibilities, reconstructing the exhibit again and again.  I know each love is a story with the details missing, with multiple threads, and the fuller I can make the story, the more of it I can tell.   And feel.  And tell again.

This story, the story of Sam and Bryn, has infinite possibilities and has borne infinite retellings—a strong initial framework, rife with blank spaces, waiting to be filled with evidence:

We meet in Kansas, 1994, both in separate graduate programs, but he walks into the used bookstore where I work, and he smiles at me.  I think to myself—I really do:  “He is the handsomest man I have ever seen.”  He approaches the desk. 

“Hey, do you have a copy of The History of Saturday Night Live?”

In my head:  “Oh god, and he is funny, so lovely, the man of my dreams.” 

Not in my head:  “No, but if you leave your name and phone number, I can call you if it ever comes in.” 

The book comes in the very next day.

We become friends of a sort, despite his girlfriend, on whom I ask him to cheat before he returns to New York; he will say thank you and gently refuse, in the third email I ever receive.   I will receive one email from him every year, and so, we stay in touch. 

And when he visits me in Seattle, 2003, just before they get engaged, I am mid-way through my doctorate and my own happy relationship.  It will not seem so strange, although I have my suspicions, suspicions confirmed years later, in bed, when I ask him why he visited then, why I was not invited to the wedding.  Sam turns to me and holds my face.  “She wanted to get married, but I couldn’t sleep.  I couldn’t sleep, so I came to see you. And you seemed so happy.   I wanted to invite you, but you were the hope, and I couldn’t bear to see you.”

We are that story:  old friends with bad timing.  It bears retelling.

We decide to retell it.  I am a professor in Missouri when she leaves him 2007, and the email I receive is, somehow, not entirely surprising: “I’m getting divorced and will be in Kansas in May.  Want to meet up?”

It is not surprising—is this not how the story goes?

We meet again in Lawrence, Kansas—not the city of our meeting but the city in between that of the business trip bringing him back to Kansas, and the small, depressing university town to which I’ve willingly exiled myself, not fully anticipating the loneliness of the single, small-town professor.   We decide to meet at his hotel room.  Between us, we have eleven years of unconsummated desire, an implicit agreement that we are soul mates, permission newly granted.  And we meet at a hotel room.

Is this not how the story goes?

We begin to fly back and forth between Missouri and Washington, D. C.  I take to singing the Magnetic Fields’ song “Washington, D. C.,” joyful in its specificity, how it’s about him, it’s about me:

Washington, D. C.

it’s paradise to me

It’s not the people doing something real

it’s not the way that springtime makes you feel  no no no

It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque

That keeps me that makes me ride that railroad track

It’s my baby’s kiss that keeps me coming back

Occasionally, he has more business trips—one or two days during the three or four I visit.  I stay, rather than return to my miserable town, consider these days in D. C. without him my chance to try out being the second wife.  I prowl the rooms, feel out a space for myself in this home recently abandoned by the first one, familiarizing myself with his neighborhood, his life, his things.

By which I mean I snoop.


Still in the closet.  The mother lode is behind the shirts.  I push aside a box of files and find a giant document, beautifully illuminated with scrollwork, elaborately framed.  It’s the first ketubah I’ve ever seen, but I recognize it from the mini-lessons in Judaism Sam’s been giving me—an explanation of a blessing here, “you cover the bread so it doesn’t get embarrassed,” a definition of a word there, a “lulav” is a palm frond.  I gather in the lessons greedily:  Sam’s faith.   I laugh when others ask if he is trying to convert me.  “No,” I say.  “Not yet,” a part of me whispers, hearing the echoes of the not-yet-ex-wife, the phrase “cultural differences.”  But here it is, this ketubah, her explicit agreement that even if she is not Jewish, their children will be . . .and that she will love him forever, as will he. I find his signature (Sam’s signature) and read the lines:   “And I, Samuel Edward, say to my beloved, Sara Renee . . . .”

It is beautiful.  But I am the beloved now.  It moves and irritates me, these words of forever dismissed after two years of marriage.  Our story is just as long as theirs, and our marriage will be longer.  Is that not how the story goes?

I set the heavy frame aside, impatient, glimpsing the wedding album stacked in the corner.  This object better fits my need for evidence, contributing to the details of my collection in a more satisfactory way.  Images never lie like words.  These photographs are sepia-toned, as if from an event well in the past, one for books closed, books of mistakes not likely to be repeated.  There are many posed family portraits and few candids, and the curator inside likes this:  the “not us” portion of our love’s retrospective.  I will give it not even a full wall, this marriage never meant to be, a function of convention, John Lennon and Cynthia, Jack and Meg White’s brief marriage before the real fame came, the youthful, unquestioned “next step, later justly questioned.

The curator ignores the fact that it is the wife, the first one, who did the questioning.

Beloved, beloved . . . the writing actually on their wall.  “I, the beloved, promise to break these solemn vows, beloved, once loved, I will no longer love.”  Even as I look through this album, this bride’s face looks happily out at mine, and I know she is beginning life again with another, the bad one; they are the cheaters.  I know this from her blog.  My search is not limited to this home.  An academic knows to diversify her sources.  A curator will accept an anonymous donation, if it serves her purposes.

I close the album, full of his pain, giddy with the pleasure that I know it now.  It’s not enough, and I want more.  And then I know it’s here, somewhere.  If all these things were kept, there is another object in this house.  I will trace the failure of this marriage to its first object. I will find it and know it all.  Love him fully.  And somehow, I will know that I am, too.  Loved more than her.

I look for some place small.  Like me, my lover believes in ritual, and so, I think like him.  That’s how it is, in these stories:  two hearts, one mind.

And I find it sooner than you’d think:  in the small, shallow drawer of his valet.

His wedding ring is placed inside another circle—a bracelet of beads, protecting it from further harm. It is a gesture so Sam, I catch my breath.   Sam’s gestures.  I pick it up, note the two diamonds inside the band, and (I do), I put it on.

It is, predictably, too big for me, but there’s a coldness to this ring.  I feel less, not more.  I feel, in fact, so small:  smaller than this world I’ve made of Him and Me, smaller than a shell.

Even if this ring did fit, I know with sudden clarity what fact this evidence supports.  I am not inside this circle.  In fact, I am so far out of it that it embarrasses me. I need to be covered, like bread.  This is the truth.  It’s not the truth I meant to find.  It is, however, the truth that must be faced, and for now, there is no other corner to turn and find my face in love.

This is what it means to go through a divorce.  You exit a life that has been years in the making, and you leave it so fast, you leave a wake—not breadcrumbs leading you back to home but the pieces of the home itself. They’ve led me to see that you are the one who never wanted to leave, the one who can’t yet break the circle.  I have presumed that I could break it, reform it in my own image, simply by looking to understand you, my love, my darling, by feeling out these crumbs of a home and thinking they were mine.  But they are not mine, just as no collection of you can ever make you mine.

This is the end of this story.  Beloved, beloved—there is a blank space in another story not my own, a story of you, a stranger, this quiet hoarder.  Here is all the proof you’ll ever need that, once, you were not loved enough, not even enough for her to take the wedding china or these photos and save you from the things that were your things together. I know now these things will never be my things.  This is not my story.  I will not be the next wife.

Dodging the Bullets, By Which We Mean Hearts

One year ago this month, I dodged a bullet and ran straight towards another; one year ago this coming month, I dodged that one, too.  I’ve had a strange love year, this year, and what I’ll most remember about it is that sentence:  “You dodged a bullet.”

It’s meant to be reassuring:  a friend’s arm around you, a deep sigh, as you’re steered away from the scene of a great emotional crime or the hot mess of a person.  The chorus of Broken Social Scene’s “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” warns us against the hubris of taking on too much, the danger of engaging with others’ grotesque failings:  “And if God is what they made / cut their hands off, believers / Don’t get high on what you create.”  You end up on a couch with someone, recounting all the red flags:   the smoking, the rehab, the silence about the future, the over-promising about the future, the annoying friends, any fact that didn’t seem to want to touch you, etc.  “I knew those things bothered me.  I knew it from the start,” you say, confused.   And your friend pours you more red wine and pats your hand.  “You don’t have to care about those things anymore.  You dodged a bullet.”

But every time I hear that phrase, I feel bad, for a lot of reasons.

Because it puts me in a superior position, and that feels a little . . . superior. And does this bother me because I don’t feel better than someone else or because I do? 

I know I’m not a perfect partner:  I don’t make much money, if that’s important to you.  I’m a little helpless when it comes to technology and more than a little lazy.  I always want every dead horse beaten to a pulp, by which I mean I can never let anything go. I make irritating generalizations about men.  I have the occasional drunken outburst; at least twice, boyfriends have told me they don’t enjoy having to pour me into a car after weddings.  But it’s also true that my life has so few concrete, “big” complications:  no child, no lurking ex, a stable career and a job I love.  My physical health is fine.  I am emotionally happy, for the most part, and have been for years. No one’s coming for me—creditors, former lovers, etc.  But that’s mostly just Doing Life and either not having made some of the Big Choices or having managed their consequences by this point in time.  I hate writing this paragraph because it sounds like bragging.  And maybe that’s why my friends want to say it for me:  “You dodged a bullet.  That person doesn’t have himself together.  You do.  And you deserve better.”  I get that it’s good to be met as an equal.  Why do I still feel bad about asserting my own togetherness, much less the relatively high-functioning nature of that togetherness, as a standard by which I will search for others?

Because it makes me too aware of generic definitions of togetherness, and I hate the generic?

But “having yourself together” . . . there’s got to be some mathematical term, some biological concept, for a series of evolving wholes.  The Barback once told me his ex-girlfriend thought he had it together because he had a car, a child, a cool apartment, and was going back to school.  “I told her, ‘Yeah, but I’m just THIS CLOSE to it all collapsing, to not having it together,'” he said.  Life, for him, was always just one step away from going on hold; it would take just one attack of his chronic illness to eradicate a new path.  At least, that’s what he felt. And I thought THAT was a red flag in and of itself:  that he saw Life as a series of infinite dangers, that if one block crumbled, the whole wall would fall and there’d be no rebuilding.  It was a red flag because this belief was predicated on another red flag:  he had no faith that anyone would stick around to help him rebuild.  He wouldn’t let you.  That is, he wouldn’t let me.  One unkind word from him, two unkind words from me.  He claims I was the bullet.  I claim he was the gun.

While I do like to think my form of togetherness has a sustainability, a resilience, I do understand how wholeness itself might be, at times, circumstantial, a fortuitous intersection of the right conditions with one’s desires.  Deleuze and Guattari, in fact, saw the body itself as a fluid whole, ever becoming, a shifting series of plateaus (a “thousand,” in their most famous work), rhizomes spreading out, forming subjectivities, plural.  What could it mean to be “together,” when one’s own criteria for being (much less those of another, imposed upon one) change as we age?

What it could mean is that one is possibly both the target and the bullet.

Because when someone tells a woman she dodged a bullet, there’s a kind of reinforcement that the smartest way to be in a relationship is to maintain a level of emotional safety, to choose only partners who won’t require excessive care from you.  And that seems . . . like the worst version of the worst masculine stereotype.

I Googled “dodged a bullet,” just to see what came up, and it was pretty awful, but it was mostly pretty awful because it seemed like there were a lot of links for men about “crazy women” and how a guy could know whether he’d dodged a bullet.  I won’t provide links to these.  They were callous, and they were cruel, but the overall tenor of them was this:  you dodged a bullet if she’s “making a big deal” out of something–the relationship, the break-up, etc.  “Making a big deal,” “causing drama” . . . all these seemed like euphemisms for “caring,” to me.   But instead of “caring,” the word these sites used was this:  “insecure.”

If you’ve read my other essays about The Barback, this conflation of vulnerability and insecurity might sound familiar.  And it does still anger me—not, I feel certain, because I am “insecure” but because he judged my admission of vulnerability from a place of distance, when he had been requiring that his own admissions be met with love.  His vulnerability was “self aware” and “rational”; mine was “insecure” and “dark.”  Leslie Jamison’s beautiful essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”  thinks through the myriad ways we in academia are taught to avoid excess, to refine our feelings and thinking while rejecting refined sugar in any form, aesthetic or otherwise, as if, in doing so, we can prove our superiority to feeling, that we’re better than simple emotions leading us to clear-cut disasters of feeling, smart enough to know what  feelings are worth it and which are not:

We dispatch entire works, entire genres in the clean guillotine strokes of these words: saccharine, syrupy, sentimental. It’s as if sentimentality is something we don’t need to define. We only need to hate it, shield ourselves from it, articulate ourselves against it—thus asserting that we are arbiters of artistry and subtlety, an elite so sensitive we don’t need the same forceful quantities of feeling. We will subsist more delicately, we say. We will subsist on less.  In this, we make sure we’re not mistaken for the rest of the world, whose sensibilities are too easily moved by crude surfaces of feeling or meaning. We don’t examine the contours of sentimentality, we simply eschew them. We don’t worry about the fine line between melodrama and pathos, we simply assert that we’re camped on the proper side of the divide.

In one strand of the essay, a younger Jamison eschews “girly drinks” for whiskey, a strategy to look tougher, smarter—to look, frankly, “male.”  It is a strategy of which I am guilty—as if whiskey will inoculate me against the bullet I’m clearly courting, a way to have my deep feelings and still seem “securely” invulnerable from them.

Near the end of “Ibi Dreams of Pavement,” the lyrics link “dodging a bullet” to not only vulnerability but to love and, particularly, women’s love:

And if love is what they gave,
Turn wives into healers
Don’t get high on what you create
Or it might just steal ya

Excessive caring is “feminine.” Taking care of yourself and not caring are “masculine.”  And the gendering of it all—of avoiding those who will “cause drama” or who aren’t as “together” as we are, the cautioning against a wife becoming healer . . . it makes me think that what troubles me most about the phrase “dodging a bullet” is that it encourages us all, women and men, to think of caring about those who need care as involving oneself in an act of danger, an obliteration of the individual self.

Which, in fact, it is.  Or, at the least, isn’t there is an alteration of the self because it has put itself in the way of vulnerability, in the path of something fast moving and vital?

But isn’t all vulnerability a risk?  And don’t we cringe at that cliché because we want to believe someday, we will understand fully all the warning signs in advance and do everything just right, as if the signs don’t change as often as what counts as danger for us as we grow, our thousand plateaus shifting?

I know that there are risks and RISKS.  I don’t want to take care of someone who won’t take care of me.  I don’t want to be with someone I cherish but who won’t mirror back the courage I try to have when I stand in the way, willingly, of what makes them crumble.  I don’t want someone who will not sweetly, graciously catch me when someday I also fall.   A yoga teacher used to end class by encouraging us to “protect your heart with wisdom—give your heart with courage.”  I’ve thought a lot about the first part of this . . . but isn’t it painful to think of so many people as bullets, of ourselves in need of so much protection, as if giving weren’t, itself, eventually to be the result?

Don’t I carry within the barrel of my own heart, a bullet I hope, some day, someone won’t dodge?




Poetry Dance Break!

We interrupt this series of musical meditations because the author took a poetry and photography workshop Saturday with Sierra Nelson and Rebecca Hoogs, and it felt so good to write poems again.    

I have a theory on poets versus prose writers, and I’ll share it here, at the risk of irritating the prose writers:  whereas prose writers are, whether they like it or not, on the alert for a good narrative, poets are interested in the moment and only find it come together as they write it.  Maybe that’s true for prose writers, too, but I like to think I’m a poet at heart, loving the way the language feels as I find it, not always knowing or caring where it takes me.  That’s why I still think of my essays in terms of Walter Pater—episodes of burning with the hard, gemlike flame, instead of sacrificial offerings to the pyre of a good story.  

Recently, a friend asked me if it seemed like maybe these essays would turn away prospective suitors.  I told her about how Jason once emailed me, the year before we dated, to tell me he’d been reading my essays.  We weren’t active friends, hadn’t ever hung out—we’d run into each other at an event, and he added me on Facebook.  So I was surprised to find he’d been reading the essays, that he looked at my Facebook world at all.  “For what it’s worth,” he wrote me then, “I really like them and think you’re doing something worthwhile there.”  A year later, when I wrote an essay about us falling in love, I got another email:  “After years of reading these, it’s so moving to have one finally be about me.  Thank you so much, you sweet woman.”  That essay still seems like a poem to me:  incomplete in its insight, fragmented, merely time spent, in writing, with the feeling we both were having, a feeling neither of us thought would end.  

I would write two more essays about him because we thought we had a narrative, but we were wrong.  

So maybe I should have stuck with poems.

If this all sounds like an elaborate defense for these prose essays, it may be because all writers face that moment when someone wonders aloud if your writing records your life or if you’re using your life (and the lives of others) to seek out the good story.  I made a mix tape once for a guy, with liner notes for each song, and he broke off things with me.  “I get the feeling I’d just be another flavor on your emotional schmorgesbord,” he wrote.   I can only hope those I’ve loved believed, as Jason did, those moments were for burning, not for research.  If it seems I move through hearts in search of the next story, be kinder to me:   I’m just a poet who can’t keep it short.


The Poems

With that, here are two poems from the Poetry and Photography workshop.

Prompt #1:  Use a photograph from your past (or one that was never taken).  I used two photographs  taken of me and a college friend in Spain, at the Prado.  Who wants to come over and help me figure out how to scan them into this?

“Photo Album, Age 20, the Prado, 1994”

One picture has us, backs turned,

before a painting of which I no longer know the name

(her green parasol, his red hat)

our waist-long hair like the “before” pictures

in make-over-gazines.


Your blonde hair will get a lot of whistles; we’ll learn

“Sueca” is the word for “easy Swedish babe.”

My red hair’s not my own:  you too can have this color,

but I’m the only one who does.


Still, we are so innocent, big sweaters and round faces,

in awe of flesh tones and Velazquez.   Even

la Infanta Margarita, age 5, looks wiser than we are

about where men’s eyes go.


But I am alone with Goya—

you’re back with Bosch in the Garden of Earthly Delights—

and it’s just me and her,

la Maja so Desnuda.


She knows I understand at last her gaze,

all pillow talk and stop-talking-now,

the one that you won’t know until

your wedding night three years from now,


and there’s no photograph of this,

except the postcard that I buy, in secret, then,

and send to him.




Prompt #2:  We will pass a series of images to the right; you have 30 seconds to write a word or phrase before passing it on.  We will do this for 10 minutes.  Then, pick a term from this glossary of photographic terms as your title.  (This one is crazy—but it teaches me a lot about how I do move towards narration or synthesis.)

“Correction Filters”  (for Sara Wainscott)

Grotto of the foxes, still and gray,

the dime store photo booth reveals

the picnic that my best friend thinks she had,

but no Norwegian eats those onion rings.


Hands off!  The cake is mine (I hope),

but I don’t know which end to plant.

We’re going to save those books,

no matter what sharp knives it takes.

Let’s slice up the sky—how raw.

Let’s stick it all on poles.


You cannot drag your own eye socket down, you fool,

and there are easier ways to give a cat a bath.

They’ll turn out all too fluffy, much too full; their

ears will grow three times, then melt.


Why you have to look so sad, my friend?  There’s

still dirt enough for all.


I cannot keep a straight face in my coven

with all these horns.
Take this, bitches!  I’ll ribbon up your wishes

for the fox back in the grotto:

their fuzzy tails amoeba like,

their Goldies locked (wrong story now, wrong beast),

but the debris cuts me to pieces now

(it used to tie me down).


This isn’t what we meant to do with moss.


All the damned birds want condos now,

except the pigeons—but who else can rest

on all those nails?


Nobody’s fooled—a palm tree, by another other space, is still a lie,


what we all cry for is real.


When even I find it to be too much,

the lounging carpets on the walls,

the rabbits turned to ottomans,

I’ll wrap my ribbon ’round a sword

and pray to Mary, foxes,

or whichever beast leaps nearest

to the gods.



Golden Moment, Red-Headed Architect

Within 15 minutes, Brady turns to me and says, “You want to get out of here?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I do.”

We are in Rome but have, somehow, ended up in a German bar with students from both our programs.  Though he will go on to be an entrepreneur, he is with the University of Colorado architecture program, and I am on the UW poetry program.  I will go on to be me.

Walking back through the Campo di Fiori,  we wind through the other pairs of dark-eyed lovers filling the square.  They kiss casually, unabashedly, leaning against the statue of hooded Bruno, in the center.  Bruno was burned at the stake in the 16th century.  Brady and I are burning in another way.  I look at the lounging lovers and feel the flush of recognition I’ve felt so often this summer.

We climb the endless stairs to his apartment, climb the short ladder to his upper-bunk bed, and lie together, side by side, holding hands.   The balcony doors are open, and the sounds of the Campo float in on the warm air, like ashes off a fire.  Brady has the first iPod I’ve ever seen, and he scrolls through with a touch now familiar to my body. “Here,” he says, holding out one of the earbuds,” this is a really good song.”

In one year, my friend Solange will frown, listening to her voice mail.  “What’s up?” I will ask.  She’ll turn.  “Did you know I saved your voicemail from New Year’s Eve?”  I freeze.  “Why did you do that?”  “Because I knew that you would want to forgive him, and I wanted to make sure that you would have some way of remembering that you never, never have to forgive him.”

I meet Brady in Naples, sharing a tour bus and a Belgian tour guide with whom we will drink grappa.  The UW poets shame the CU architects by answering all the questions he asks about the city planning as we walk the Herculaneum.  When we all stop for gelato, it is so hot the whole group simply stands there silently, the melting sweetness dripping unheeded onto volcanic soil.  “I want to marry that guy because of his tee shirt,” says Becca, coolly gesturing with her head to the left.  Brady wears a teal Huey Lewis and the News tee shirt, and his hair is shaggy and the most beautiful true red against the green.  He looks miserable.  I find him stunning and move towards him; the heat reduces us to basic impulses, always.   “My friend wants to marry you because of your tee shirt,” I tell him, bold even in this heat.  “Oh, where is she?   We ought to get that going.”  He barely blinks, licks his popsicle, and only then looks at me.

We both like Yo La Tengo, both like Bottlerocket, both miss nachos here.   When we return to Rome, get off the bus, I ask him if he wants to go have Chinese with us.  At first, he says he’ll meet us later, after he takes a shower.  But he then catches up to us before we turn the first corner.  Later, in bed, he’ll tell me, he wanted to go home, recover from the heat, “but then I thought, ‘If I don’t go right now, I’ll never see that girl again.”  He pushes my hair off of my face, behind my ear.  That girl is me.

Solange hands the phone to me, and I hear sobbing.  The sobbing is me.  “I am so stupid, so stupid, Solo. I brought this on myself.  This was the worst, worst thing I’ve ever done.”

We spend every day together.  We give each other assignments to combine our programs:  “Write a poem as a triptych with a pediment.” “Design a seating area that poses a problem and a solution, like a sonnet.” We ride scooters in deadly traffic, nearly dying on a turn near the Janiculum.  We walk daily to San Crispino to get gelato and once watch a man propose while standing in the Trevi Fountain.  We cheer with the crowd as she steps in as well, boo when the carabinieri walk down to fine him.  The lover doesn’t care and pays them on the spot.  Every lover watching cheers again, and fifty couples begin to make out in solidarity.  The rose vender insistently taps our knees with roses, but we are laughing as we’re kissing.  We are here for this moment, and nothing could be more lovely.  We are here, and we are kissing.

I visit Denver and Brady for the first time only two weeks after we return.  When we show up at happy hour with the other architecture students, they are delighted.  “What are you doing here?” crows Matt, hugging me.  “Why would I be anywhere but with Brady?” I say.

I adore him. He is brilliant.  We are brilliant together.  Each visit, there are more assignments; we like solving problems together.  We build our own Hadrian’s Villa in his backyard with all the broken door and window frames he’s found.  We make our own sushi.  We go to Casa Bonita, the obscenely pink Mexican restaurant that rises from a strip mall on Colfax.  It seats a 1000 people, has cliff divers, a Wild West shoot-out, terrible food.  “I want to get married here,” says Brady, wrapping his arm around my waist.  “Me, too,” I sigh.  His best friend Paul looks over, cocks his head, says nothing, notes that neither of us said to whom.

“Most people think I’m kind of an asshole,” Brady tells me, as we wait to hear the INXS cover band on the Tiber.  Yesterday, he showed me the video he and Paul made for the band Of Montreal:   still shots of pictures from a children’s book corresponding cleverly with the lyrics.  Today, for class, he designed a bridge based on dancing couples.  He shows me how the supports will twist, as if they’re arms intertwined.  The computer program shows the blueprint, then superimposes the dancers on top.  I tear up.  It’s beautiful.  It can be hard to be creative, to not have others understand you.

In three years, I am living in a Missouri farmhouse when I get the seventh text.  It’s been two years since I’ve seen him.  “I’m sorry I wasn’t good to you.  I’m different now.  I can’t imagine not knowing you.”  I try to write the email that will show I take the blame—that I cannot forgive him because I cannot forgive myself.  That I was the one who wouldn’t see when it was over, that I know changing my ticket to be with him on New Year’s Eve was an act of desperation.  That, despite all this, it was still humiliating to find he had a date, to spend the day crying until he drives me to the airport.  “I may have over-reacted,” he says, looking miserable.   I see him as he was in Naples on that first day:  uncomfortable, detached.  At midnight, I look out across the tarmac as the fireworks go off over Las Vegas.  I start crying and laughing at the same time, and no one taps my knee to offer me a rose. I send the email, hoping I have been kind but firm, honest about my pain while owning my part in creating it.  He doesn’t like it.  “To not forgive is to live in hate.  I’m sorry for you, and I’m blocking you from now on.”

It’s a puzzling response, but this has to end.  “Why can’t you forgive me?  Just because I didn’t love you?  I always want to know you,” he writes the month before.  But that’s just it:  it is just because of that.  Because you didn’t love me enough to save me from myself.

But it is Rome, and the air is thick with spells, the sounds of lovers loving.  Brady puts one headphone in my ear, the other in his own.  “Listen to this song,” he says.  “It’s a really good song.”  There’s a sound like an ocean rushing, and my breath catches.  “You call me after midnight / It must have been three years since / we last spoke.”  Kings of Convenience—I have not heard of them.  I had not heard of Of Montreal, which will become my permanent favorite band, who I will love for so long that I will forget who introduced me to them.  I had not known such kissing underneath a bridge, my heart beating with that of a city.  Later, I will not know such deep humiliation nor understand what kind of friendship can exist after such a mess.  But I do not know it now, and this song is a really good song, this moment one of the best, I know, I will ever have in my life, even if I knew what would be coming.  The song advances and retreats:  “You changed into somebody / for whom I wouldn’t mind to /put the kettle on / Still I don’t know what I can save you from.” And still, I hear no warning in the words themselves, will only ever know, when I listen still years later, that I am lucky to remember what I do:  the air, the dark, perfection in one moment, the pressure of his hand.


Practice Rooms: Blood Memory–The Brothers and the Silence

My first draft of this disappeared when I hit “publish,” and I started crying.  I don’t even want to rewrite it, but I feel too sad to do nothing.  This won’t be as good.  You know it won’t be.

Once upon a time, the man I would fall so passionately in love with that it could, on occasion, make me sick, this man was walking through Volunteer Park, playing his bass. He was probably wearing a tank top, probably had smoked some weed, and probably was humming serenely.  His eyes were sort of hooded and he had a small, mysterious smile that made him look like George Harrison, my favorite Beatle.  He, too, was a Quiet One.

Anyway, this man heard drumming—good drumming—and he followed the sound, coming finally upon a curly-haired, Muppet-like guy with his full drum kit set up under one of the ginkgo trees. The two locked eyes, nodded, and jammed together for twenty minutes or more without speaking. They knew when to finish the song, just because they both felt when it was done. “I’m Ryan,” said the man whose love would feel like a thick cord between my heart and his. “Hey, man,” said the Muppet drummer. “I’m Jay.”

This is how Jay and Ryan met, and this is how the Brothers of Max Catharsis began. And this is how Ryan practiced.

Ryan didn’t play music.  He felt it.  He intuited it from the ether.  A friend told him about modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s phrase “blood memory,” and he wrote a song about it, calling it, instead, “Blood Music.”  Like dancing, that song makes form fluid, runs deep into the spaces of the body that are beyond words.  The Brothers were, after all, an instrumental trio, and they didn’t need words—they ran deep enough on their own.  When I met the third member, Joe, and asked him what he did, he stared at me and replied, scornfully, “You mean, for money?  I’m a waiter,” and I felt ashamed. The three of them would build songs together, listening, responding, finding their way through the music like blind men touching bolts of silk.  When one of them would improvise for an extended period of time and really “get it,” they would nod at each other and ask, later, “You go to Havana, man?”  “Going to Havana”—that place beyond words. They put out two CD’s, but they didn’t really care who heard them.  Once, I went to a gig and was the only audience member.  They laughed and played and played, until they were all in Havana, and it didn’t even matter that I was there.

That was how I felt, at first, with Ryan:  I couldn’t always tell if it mattered I was there because, at first, he wouldn’t tell me how he felt.  He lived upstairs from me and took to hanging out on the porch when he knew that I’d be home.  That was how I came to know he liked me, and I was ambivalent.  “He never really talks, and I don’t like his goatee,” I’d tell Gretchen, wrinkling my nose.  I thought I’d give him a chance, though, and so, I did what I do with all quiet people:  I asked him questions.  What was your favorite birthday party?  When was the last time you were really afraid?  How do you feel about your mother?  And Ryan resisted—or that’s how it felt.  “Aw, man, that stuff will just come out,” he’d say, stretching his limbs out across the couch we kept on the porch.  “Let’s just hang out.”  Let’s be in Havana.

But that was how I hung out.  I was a high-wire act, rushing out into adventure and vulnerability, with very little underneath me, no net, and even less of a sense of how far down I might fall.  I was a graduate student who made her living analyzing other people’s dialogues. Words, for me,  were at the crux of all intimacy.  I don’t fall in love—I talk myself into it.  I talk myself out of it.  I find out what I’m feeling not by feeling it but through processing it out loud.  Leslie Jamison, in her essay “In Defense of the Sacchrin(e),” clearly agrees, since she says, “This is how writers fall in love.  They feel complicated together, and then they talk about it.”  I wanted a 1000-word essay from each lover on why he wanted my eyes to open on him every morning.  How could I sit on this couch in silence?  What could I feel with that?

A lot, I found.  While I never stopped needing the words, Ryan was persistent, patient, and we fell.  He’d George Harrison smile at me, reach for me, and down, down we’d go.

There was one word, though, that Ryan used a lot with me.  That word was “No.”  I’d suggest we go out for drinks.  “No,” he’d say, “let’s watch a movie.”  I’d ask if he wanted to take a walk.  No, it was cold—and he had that new song to practice.  Brunch before the Market?  No, and he’d be hungry at 3:00, that witching hour when all restaurants had stopped serving lunch and hadn’t yet started serving dinner.  Once, angry at him, I accused him of being Balkan.  “You ALWAYS say no first when I suggest something, even if you want to do it!  It’s like it has to be your idea, or you don’t want to do it.  Why, Ry?  Are you from the Balkan States?”  He laughed at that, and then said, “No.”

I see it now—that he said no because he couldn’t easily express a lot of what he wanted to say, that, like me, he was in love and frightened by the depth of the feeling, afraid, as I was, that we didn’t “get” each other.  He said no so he had some sense of control, some way to find a place in this thing that rushed, like the ground, up to meet the falling.  But then, it felt like rejection, and it felt like I was being shut out.

When I cheated on him with Johnny Horton, it was because of words.  Johnny was a poet, and Johnny had so many words, so very many words and so many ways to say yes.  And I couldn’t say no.  So I didn’t.

Ryan and I would break up five more times, over the course of two and a half years, but how Ryan and I made it past that first break-up into a better phase of our relationship taught me almost all of the words I would need to understand love, even now.  I learned that silence didn’t have to mean it was over, and he became more open, more able to talk about his fears and hopes for us. Once he came home from band practice, giddy with the pleasure of self-awareness:  “Brynny!  Guess what?  We were trying to decide what to work on, and Joe wanted to start a new song, but I said, no, we should keep practicing the old one, and he said, ‘Man, why do you always have to say no first?’  I am a Balkan!”

We were never on the same page, but that was because I wanted a page, a place onto which we could write our story.  And Ryan was a musician.  But I did learn how to feel.  Really feel.

When he moved out, after living together for one month, our second-to-last break-up, Ryan left me a list of all the things he loved most about me, all the precious things we’d given each other during our years together.  One of them was this:  “Thank you for leading me out of the Balkan States.”  So many words, in the end.  It brings tears to my eyes even now, as I write this, and sometimes, still, I am so sad thinking of him, wishing I could have sat quietly next to him forever, humming along to those songs without words.

Practice Rooms: A Girl and Her Guitar . . . Sometimes

I’m feeling a little woeful, a little contemplative: the Charming Man from This Charming Band is off to Europe for six weeks, and despite a flurry of texts about possible times, we didn’t manage to get in a second date before he left. I’m going to take him at his last words (“Oh, and I think it’s hot when a woman takes the initiative”) and believe he did want to see me again before he left. Time just ran out. Also, and this hurts my ego irrationally and shows how incredibly reliant I am on what I am told is my “magic,” I am, after all, just a woman he’s just met.

Ego, insecurity, trying to gain perspective. This is the optimal time, then, to turn my investigation of practice styles and love on myself.

I’m on the first date, a picnic date, with The Charming Man. We lie in the grass of the arboretum, and I split an iPod and a bottle of wine with him. “Here,” I say, “you’ll love this band,” and we listen to Kishi Bashi, the clouds racing like microfiche across the sky. Charming closes his eyes and holds my hand. “I like it,” he says. “There was so much music I wanted to see with you this summer. I wanted to play with you,” say I. This moment—the music, the hand-holding, the wine, the air—this was what I was ready to have for the rest of the summer, and despite my better self, I am internally cranky. Of course I meet him before he leaves for six weeks in Europe. “Six weeks isn’t really the whole summer.” He smiles at me, rolls over on his side to touch my face. “And there’s lots of music we can go to in the fall.”

That sounds like a promise of dates to come, but I am good at hearing what I want to hear. Even a year and a half later, I can still hear the couples therapist say the words that will make me realize I have to break up with Eli: “Bryn, he’s not saying no, but he’s not saying yes. So, why do you still hear ‘maybe’?” I am so afraid to be on this date, afraid I will feel something and he won’t, or that we will both feel something and I will do all the work, or, worst of all, that I will feel nothing—not because I don’t like him or because I’m not attracted to him but because I have, finally, been hurt enough to approach dating with so much skepticism that I still will go through the motions but without any hope of something lasting. I am trying so hard to let this date be just that—one date. Followed maybe by another. Maybe I’ll hear from him when he gets back. Maybe I won’t.

He spends an inordinate amount of time explaining how he’s usually over-committed and how he could only see the last girl he dated once a week during the school year, between graduate school and teaching. He seems honest and thoughtful, but what’s a girl supposed do with all the caveats? I ask him, directly, “Why are you on this date, then?” Charming looks startled. “Why not?”

This doesn’t really explain why he is giving me so much backstory on how little to expect. I want to ask him more about what he thinks he wants, but it seems like there’s already been enough of that kind of talk—and not even from me, for once. The night we meet at the Tractor, sometime during “How Soon is Now,” he tells me he always tells girls two things before he asks them out: 1) that he doesn’t have any money and doesn’t care about it and 2) that he isn’t ready to have children. I feel the skepticism setting in—is this really what dating looks like now? We don’t even use lines on each other to attract one another; we make it a practice to use them to turn others away. “So, you’re asking me on a date?” I say. He kisses me, and we go back to dancing and singing.

If it’s not clear already in this blog, I love music. No, I mean I really love it. I love it so much. I plan my days around how to fit more of it in, sit down once a month with my daily calendar and computer to look through all the venue listings and write down which shows I want to go to, console myself with being stuck in traffic by making playlists. I still make CD’s for people—when I like someone, I have to hold myself back from making them one after one date. I want to make them mixes as much as I want to have them over for dinner.

I want to make him a mix.

But this brings us to the current thread’s focus: what my own ways of practicing music reveal about my issues with love.

You know how I practice music? I don’t practice.

I sing a lot, loudly, in the car and in my home, serenading Judy and perfecting my Joni Mitchell octave jumps. But I haven’t picked up my guitar in three years.

When I do, though, that’s all I want to do. I leave the guitar for so long it feels like a recession, a financial crisis where everyone has to develop new skills to face a changed world, for so long that it feels like rejection. I won’t play for so long that you’ll think I forgot how or that I must not want to anymore. And then, I’ll pick it up, and that’s all I want to do for months.

I’ve tried to become more disciplined in my practice habits. In high school, I played both flute and piano, and while I was more diligent about piano than flute, I had to trick myself to maintain the regime, promise myself ice cream if I did 50 minutes or remind myself how much my mom loved hearing me practice while she made dinner. As a child, I would try the tricks suggested in the ancient piano books of my mother’s: trying to balance quarters on the tops of my hands to keep them even and arched (very hard) or following in the footsteps of Mozart, who would start over entirely every time he made a mistake (maddening). But practicing was rarely something I did for myself, really, and that’s why, despite my performative inclinations and minor vocal talent, I could never imagine being a musician for a living. It’s never the singular passion to which I want to return, day after day.

The Charming Man and I lie in the grass, and I want him to kiss me and tell him so. He does but then tells me he wants to move more slowly, and I realize, for the first time, how uncomfortable it makes me to have to wait, to not have the power a kiss gives a spell, to practice patience. He looks at me, hand on my face. He seems to mean it when he says, “I am interested. This is how I show I’m really interested—to want to get to know you more before we get more physically involved.” I wonder how I can manage this, if I can re-imagine slowing down as anything other than the slower death of passion.

There’s a side effect to my practice of music that bears unpacking: my singular passion is language, my love of words. You know what I don’t feel like doing when I AM into playing my guitar? Being in language. Writing poetry. Considering the arc of an essay. Even when I’ve been writing songs, somehow, the immersion into one universe seems to require that I exit the other. It’s hard for me to leave that place in which I feel myself “selving,” as Gerard Manly Hopkins called the act of being oneself, of enacting one’s “inscape.” In language, I know myself and I can reach out to others.

But when a guitar fit comes over me, I cannot help it. I leave language and find my fingers cramping into their old positions, the F chord mirroring the frustration akin to arranging a second date, the pads of my fingers developing callouses more quickly than my heart. I will practice and practice the same songs until suddenly, I can sing and sing with them, walk down a chord as easily as walking down the block. I play it and play it, and while I might learn a new song here or there, I never really get any better as a musician. As Peter Buck once said, of the young men who hovered close to the stage to see what chords he was playing, “Guys, I hate to disappoint you, but it’s C, D, C, E.” It’s passionate, but it’s simple, and it’s the same stuff you already know.

Sometimes, I feel like this is how others might see me as a lover: returning over and over to the same songs, the same four chords, and they wince to think of how I have to develop the callouses all over again, wish I could break my old habits and learn better, more sustainable ones, improve as a musician and a woman.

But practicing for others is something I don’t do anymore, and maybe I still don’t do it for myself, in terms of how to improve. Maybe this is just how I do it: I pick up the guitar, I fall in love, after long absences from both, and that’s all I want to do for awhile, not so I can get better at either but because the feeling comes over me, and it’s what I want to do. And when I’m good enough at the basics to sing along, I sing and sing.

But that’s a bit self-congratulatory, isn’t it? Is this “singing alone in the dark” some kind of Keatsian nightingale hang-over? Aren’t songs meant to be sung with another, mindful of their rhythms, of the adjustments needed for their range, their abilities, their desires? The first time I was ever disappointed in Jason was when we first sang a song together: while he was an excellent guitarist and we sang Kishi Bashi’s “Q and A” (“our song”) passionately, he never once told me I had a beautiful voice, and I never felt like I was an important part of the singing for him, that he would really rather be practicing “Big Love.”

I wonder if slowing down could be, perhaps, a way of maintaining both language and music: the clarified understanding and the blinding immersion, the sense of fully selving with another while getting into that broader space beyond myself, the one I feel in music. What would it mean for me to get to know someone gradually, building up to the bar chords, while still allowing myself to burst jubilantly into the chorus?

I don’t want to think of “going more slowly” as an “improvement” on my way of loving. I like my way of loving.

But maybe it’s hard for someone to stay in that song with me. I can see how much fun it is to join in lustily at the chorus and just as easily how it’s not fun to feel like you’re just the side kick, the back-up singer, never in charge of any verses. I ask so many questions, and, without intending to, I direct the conversation. Maybe that way of falling in love feels more like being put under a spell than creating a collaborative connection. Maybe that’s why Charming is resisting my magic. Or maybe, he’s asking me to do something new, something that involves choosing to practice differently.

I have a lifetime of getting to the good parts—not because I can’t do the work but because the good parts are good, and I know how to get there. What would it feel like to not know the song at all, to not know what the good parts were? How will I know how to hold on until they come? What if I practice and practice and never get any better?

We walk back to the car from the picnic. We are holding the picnic basket between us, one handle per person, and I joke that I wanted this picnic to be a “collaborative effort.” I am jittery; this must be what people feel when it’s been a good date, instead of magic.I have only his word at this point that, despite the impending trip, he wants to see me again. I feel like I have asked a lot of questions, so I ask him to ask me a question. Charming Man turns his head and looks intently at me, asks it: “You seem like you’ve had a lot of love in your life. If you don’t do online dating, how do you meet people?” I have to offer what I can, demystify myself, even if it means I’ll break what remains of any spell. “Well, a lot of people think I’m magical. But really, I just ask them questions, and I care about their answers. I guess most people don’t get that enough.” He nods, as if this is answer enough for now, and I hope inside that I get more time with him, more time to practice, even if it doesn’t make this, or me, perfect.