Category Archives: Friendship

Practice Rooms: When I Didn’t Enjoy the Silence with Amy

Last night, I went to the Tractor Tavern’s annual New Wave Cover Band Night: Love Vigilantes (the New Order band), For the Masses (Depeche Mode), and This Charming Band (Morrissey/The Smiths). It was, frankly, epic. There was a light that will never go out, and people were people on a Blue Monday. I’d been chatting up this charming man throughout the evening, and sometime during “Never Let Me Down Again,” we began spontaneously choreographing little moves.

And that’s when I missed Amy.

I believe Amy played the flute briefly, but this post isn’t about how she practiced music. It’s about how WE “practiced” music together, and why we failed, as friends.

In this case, “practice” doesn’t refer to the honing of skills through repetition; it refers to a state of being, a way of living, like the practice of yoga or the practice of non-violence. Music was a religion for Amy and me. We made each other tapes with obscure songs on them—she would hold the recorder near the record player to capture Bobby Bare’s “Skip a Rope,” and I would hold the recorder near the television to capture bits of dialogue from Singles to put in between songs. We cruised the one mile you could cruise of our town for hours, listening to Erasure and making up elaborate synchronized arm movements we could both do, even while the other was driving. We did that so much. And when I first saw Depeche Mode, on the Songs of Faith and Devotion tour, it was with her. And when he sang the line “I’m taking a ride with my best friend,” we pointed to each other.

And then, in graduate school, she dumped me.

I’ve tried to write about this before. It was the first post I ever made on this blog. We were at least in Facebook contact at that point, but after that post, it seems, it was really over. I would say that it hurt her, but I wouldn’t say I knew anything about Amy anymore by then.

This past quarter, I taught creative non-fiction for the first time, and we talked a lot about the stories you aren’t ready to write. We’d listened to a This American Life piece on “Petty Tyrants,” which, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of what is called “revenge prose” from students, as they wrote their own pieces. “Revenge prose” is when, no matter what the author says is the emotional core of the piece, the reader can tell that the real goal of the piece is to get back at someone, to make them look bad and their own selves look better. “If you feel like you’re trying to defend something or prove something,” I said, one day, “you’re probably not ready to write it.”

I said it because I’d been thinking about the Amy piece, how I hadn’t been trying to get back at her, but how I had been trying both to defend myself and to prove something to myself. I’d been trying to defend myself from my own need for the conversation that never happened after she told us we weren’t best friends anymore. She felt there was nothing more to say—she’d just wanted to say it and seemed ok continuing our friendship in a different form, although she would no longer be pointing at ME during “Never Let Me Down.” So, I wrote a piece in lieu of that conversation. I didn’t even ever think she’d read it. I don’t think it’s mean—I still think what is most clear in that piece is that I still don’t feel clear, that I still don’t understand why we couldn’t talk to each other anymore. But there I go—proving something again. Trying to prove that I tried: to understand, to communicate, but the attempt was clumsy, incomplete, unchoreographed and out of sync.

The charming guy at the show was there with his own best friend, it turns out. “I can’t tell you how much I love that guy,” he shouted during “Enjoy the Silence.” Yes, I remember that: the wordless sense of belonging with your best friend, the way your very bodies would turn in unison towards the same lights and dance the same steps. I have a weird medallion from the Songs of Faith and Devotion show—it’s metal, with the astronaut from one of their videos on it. I keep it in a box with other broken things I don’t seem to want to let go of. Maybe I’ll give it to him and accept that while I may not enjoy it, this story is always going to end in silence.

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 5: My Best Friend’s Best Friend

The Song
“Love” by The Sundays

The Memory
This is not a memory about a lover at all. Instead, it is one of those myriad associations stored up in memory, a link that may seem weak and yet, in fact, makes me feel like there is an ever-stronger web of joy netting me into this life.

When I think of this song, I think of J.E. Johnson’s friend Tobias Becker. There are layers of removal from intimacy there: one of my college best friend’s high school best friends. I probably only ever hung out with Toby under ten times. I know he loved girls wearing sundresses and once made the most beautiful teapot in ceramics class–one with the face of Hermes on it. I know that now, he is happy, with many babies. What was always clear was that he was a gentle soul, and he loved this song, and I remember him singing his favorite line from it, unabashedly:

Well, if yoooooou
don’t have a clue about life
then I’m happy, happy, happy to say
neither have I
although I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and suck my thumb
Thiiiis time

Sometimes, people I adore move in and out of my life with a speed that should make me nauseated. As a teacher, I’m only just now getting used to the fact that students who bond with me during their four years (or even just in their first year) will probably disappear into the ether after graduation, our closeness like a B-12 booster for their growth.

Of course, the opposite is true, too: I maintain many, many deep connections with many, many people.

But part of Valentine’s Day for me is always about the time-lapse film of connections running through my head. It could feel like a string of losses. Or–and this is what I like more–it could feel like the end of Cinema Paradiso: a reel of all the good parts, spliced together, separate from their narratives but beautiful all alone.

The Sundays – Love

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 4: Meow Meow Meow

The song
Made-up songs we sing to our cats.

The Memory
Alright, this isn’t really a memory, as much as it is a daily activity. And I do think I make up and sing more songs about Judy than any other cat I’ve ever had.

The most common one is a short ditty: “Judy / the Wonder Cat / not too tall and not too fat.”

The other morning, the first words out of my mouth were a spontaneous song to her, celebrating our differences: “You are made of furrrrrr / and I am made of skiiiiiiinnnnn / Your name is Judy, and my name, dear, is Bryn.”

Real love songs aren’t always good because they’re true or profound. They’re good because you want to sing them, to tell another living creature your heart fills with music because they are near.

Interlude: Ordain Me Now

This post is actually a mini-essay I discovered on my hard drive today. I must have written it in 2002 or 2003, years on my mind right now, as I reconnect with people from that time. What strikes me now is my distance from intimacy in it, the doubt in myself that clearly inspired this. I don’t feel like that anymore.

For many prophets and gurus, their calling comes to them in dreams, a voice across space and time, a light that fills them so suddenly and fully that others respond and follow. For others, it is the conviction in charisma, a sense of self that goes beyond self. When my best friends Erin and Blaine called me one month and asked me to perform their marriage, I took the calling literally and went to the website of the Progressive Universal Life Church. Whereas Satan sat Jesus on a pinnacle and promised him death or power, I was presented with similar but much easier options: Cancel or Ordain me now. I chose the latter.

You can ordain yourself for free with the Universal Life Church, but for $19.95 to the Progressive Universal Life Church, you get a certificate and a wallet-sized card, which my friend promptly laminated for me. The laminated card is important; it is what I pull out to remind me of my duty when times get hard or when someone questions my credibility; and, in a pinch, I can stick it through the collar of a black button-up shirt to double as a priest’s dog collar.

It took me seven years to finish my doctorate in Victorian literature. In five minutes, I was the Reverend Bryn Gribben. In fact, I am the Reverend Doctor Bryn Gribben. Like Martin Luther King. “I can be like Martin Luther King!” I told myself. And it’s not the doctorate that will do that. It’s the “Reverend.”

You can tell when something transcendent is about to happen, sometimes, when the ground on which you stand starts shaking. Sometimes, this is an earthquake; sometimes, it’s the clouds parting. For me, the year I became a minister had been a hard year—all those years in graduate school, if nothing else, make you tired of living for the future. But, like most major religions, they also convince you that in the sweet by and by, there’s manna in the desert. I needed that manna. I’d experienced the ever-humbling double whammy of being terribly in love and of being in my fifth year of teaching. The nearly unbearable sensation of being loved unconditionally holds within it the sneaking certainty that there has to be a hidden condition somewhere. Teaching creates the nearly unbearable realization that, at some point, especially if you’re an English teacher, you are a martyr to budgets and students who view education as a faulty product they want to return before they even open the box. Morever, you’re convinced that this martyrdom is both good and inevitable. How Jewish is that?

And while some say true love and a true vocation are the solid ground on which to plant your feet and find yourself, I was finding my love of teaching and my love of being taught pushing across each other like the plates of some kind of psychic continental drift . . . with the result more like Marx rather than Hallmark: “all that is solid melts into air.”

So when Erin and Blaine asked me to marry them, I felt like I’d been lifted from my sinking ground to a different plane, a better one. Only old friends, who remember you when you were cocksure of your own uniqueness in college, could or would ask you, their last single friend, to perform their marriage, give you credit for knowledge about things you haven’t done. And that means you need to figure out how to be special again.

Combatting egotism is a hard and necessary battle, it seems, for any chosen one. “My God, my God,” wails Jesus, “Why have you forsaken ME?” This, to the god who has it second in the Ten Commandments that “thou shalt not have other gods before me,” who kills nations for what we’d now consider healthily multicultural elementary school displays of mixed idols. When I was 20, one of my male friends insisted I was a goddess. Granted, we were drunk, and he was also insisting he could tell this because he was of “the darkness,” but when my friend Suzanne asked me to baptize her baby because I was the “most spiritual, secular friend she had,” I thought about what it might mean to be a secular priestess without being completely ridiculous about it.

In earlier times, I could have been a contemplative nun, shut away to roam cloisters where doubt was a secret as long as your vow of silence lasted. I could have been St. Theresa of Avila, a contemplative who voiced her criticisms of the Church , paving the way for “contemplative” as I now understand it: as a state in which you analyze it until you can’t stand it anymore and you insist that something must change. But just because I understand my contemplative nature in that way doesn’t mean anything changes, and my doubt never returns me more fully to any god. It just stays full.

The Progressive Universal Life Church insists that its only tenant is that you accept everyone’s chosen path as valid and useful for them. This is the part I have trouble with. I’ve tried to get around it by focusing on the semantic: if someone actually “chose” their path, then I might be able to roll with it. This immediately exempts anyone who’s merely continued along the religious pathway of their culture or family from my ministry, as well as born-again lunatics who insist they were touched by the spirit and couldn’t help but join the Lord. Those kind of sneak attacks don’t count as choice in MY Progressive Universal Life Church.

Years later, I still can’t explain the oddness, the fullness of choice I felt as I clicked on “Ordain me now.” I felt like I’d made a real decision, a decision with weight. I would try, I said to myself—despite the doubt I felt in my abilities, both intellectual and emotional. And I felt special—that suddenly, I had made ground materialize from the air, that somehow, when I said “by the power invested in me by the Progressive Universal Life Church,” it would stick. Or at least, I’d always have the card.

Day 7 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook, a Meditation Challenge: Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad

Oh, look at that—it’s months later, not, in fact, one day (or even one week later). Perhaps one of the trickiest thing about trying to develop a writing practice is that, in writing, you tend to lose yourself in time, which results in a heightened sense of Time as a Construction. We think we “lose it,” we think we never “have enough” of it, but really, as all writers know, it’s about “making it,” making Time, like you’d make a pie or a cold rice salad.

We return, thus, to The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook challenge, and on this final day of the “week-long” challenge, I reflect on Sullivan’s Cold Rice Salad. Sullivan was the grandson of Thisbe’s/Erin’s grandmother’s neighbor, and their visits to their grandmothers coincided enough to make a friendship of sorts evolve. (How often we make something out of what we have: mountains out of molehills, love out of nothing at all, friends out of random boys when there’s nothing else to do.) When their grandmothers’ neighbor Myrtle died, the authoress and Sullivan found themselves reunited, sitting shiva together, sharing the food brought by other mourners and their collective, if limited past. Erin/Thisbe brought Wacked-Out Will’s Chicken Wings (another recipe in this cookbook), and Sullivan brought a cold rice salad. It sounds really good—it contains almonds (I will eat anything with almonds), and, best of all, it makes use of leftover rice. You always have leftover rice. The authoress insists that it went extremely well with her chicken wings, which led her to contemplate whether she and Sullivan would have gone well together romantically, if things were different. But they weren’t, and nothing romantic ever happened, and so they grieved and ate together.

Moral of the story: Making do can be more than enough, but we always wish there could have been more.

As the super moon last week drew near, the man I’d been dating the past six months broke up with me. Just as the distant, shining globe of a moon pulled itself closer, an urgent partner interrupting a slow dance, Dan came suddenly into contact with the realization that he was done with our own dance. We’d orbited together, illuminating hours of the night I’d known only in insomnia instead with hours-long conversations and acts of intimacy. As the orbit drew its nearest to the earth, though, he noticed something he hadn’t in awhile: other girls. And it was time to go back to that world. He did it gently. “Please don’t tell people I broke up with you just so I could see other girls,” he groaned, and I know it wasn’t just that. He wants to be present for his age and the experiences it brings, instead of in a private universe of two. I miss him, but I don’t fault him. Whenever you date with a considerable age gap between you and your lover, there are some things you accept—not as inevitable, but as probable and possible.

But I’ve been surprised by many friends’ easy dismissal of this relationship. We began dating shortly after my major break-up, and to some, it might have seemed that he, like Sullivan, was simply sitting shiva with me, a lover found simply by looking to the side and picking who was there rather than by a vetted and careful deliberation about suitability and shared interests. Even Dan shared this perspective, to some degree: we first kissed over the drinks we were having because he’d heard about my break-up and wanted to check in on me. We had a lot of drinks. But we also discovered we went really, really well together—like chicken and rice. We are both quick, both curious, both able to shift topics and make connections in ways that create new things, instead of just fragments.

Primarily, though, saw himself as a companion to me during a difficult time, a fragment disconnected from the larger wholes of our separate lives, visitors thrown together, like children visiting their grandmothers. When I asked him, near the beginning, how he imagined our relationship ending, since neither of us envisioned a longer-term relationship with each other, he said, “I imagine you will meet a Spanish intellectual who will whisk you away and be the partner I can’t be. And I’ll find my ax wench who wants to live in a basement and play D and D with me, when we both don’t need five hours of alone time.”

So, we had dinner every Monday and Wednesday night: pizza and gin or Thai food and white sheets and cool white wine. We were reading Tennyson’s Idylls of the King together; we were up to “The Marriage of Geraint.” We had a cafe and a place to get Stockholm Buns, which we’d eat as we walked on Golden Gardens beach on Thursday mornings. I made him CD’s, even though he said he didn’t like music, and he made me a Valentine, which he walked over to deliver to me on Valentine’s Day proper, even though I wouldn’t be getting home that day until much later and wouldn’t see him. I wrote him poems. “Brynny! I deserve humorous limericks! Not beautiful poems with complex rhyme schemes and intricate imagery,” he wrote in response to the poem at the end of this piece.

But that’s what happens sometimes. The person you thought was simply beside you is a real person, and I love real people. I found that I loved this real person: full of confidence, able to make me laugh uncontrollably by imitating his dog becoming suspicious while eating, someone who claims to be bad at conflict but who was often first to offer a useful solution, the deep voice in the dark night, a man already, despite his own ambivalence and the hobbies he claimed would always keep us apart.

At some point, we all think that what we DO is who we ARE; we believe our hobbies and beliefs MUST be shared, in order for someone to prove they know us well and that they approve of what we know. How else would we know how to play, when we are small? I have Barbies, and you have Legos; it can be hard to share a landscape, even in imagination, so we begin with what seems most obviously to hold us together. But what I know at this point in my life is that it’s not the toys that make the landscape: it’s us. And even if we start out side by side, accidental friends in our grandmothers’ apartment complex, sometimes we find the way to real love, our differences complementing each other, as do spicy chicken wings and cold rice salad. We need others—not just to define who we are through difference but to have our own flavors enriched.

Rice salad alone . . . it’s ok, I guess. But, having had enough, I would rather have more.

“Terza Rima for Dan”

Once-near star, his lost light
lingers, fixed by all cold space,
still, vast, and endless as a blight.

New star, I look upon your face,
our constellation from a different sky,
now shining in this place.

The Southern Cross is flipped
like a light switch. I’m in darkness there,
on fire here, an ember dipped

into the ether. Your hair,
my legs, our lips erase
the stars, leaving this night.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Day 6—Love Can Never Be Junk Food

Today’s story: We meet today Ralph, of “Ralph’s Popcorn Cake.” Firstly, I find it incumbent upon me to remind everyone that these are not my stories. This cookbook is an ACTUAL cookbook by Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen, who, my friend Catherine informed me, teaches at her university in western Michigan. (And look at Thisbe’s super-cool notebooks on osperies! She and I should be friends.) Thisbe has a Wikipedia page; Erin does not. Oh, writing: it’s hard to determine what makes someone visible in the literary world. They both did MFA’s at Iowa—the very Iowa to which Hannah from Girls was accepted. On the show, they act like it is a big deal—and it is . . . but it’s not like being in the Mafia, where you can become a “made man.” One thing I find hard, with flashes of finding it wonderful, is that every time you achieve something big, you think you’ve got it made. Sometimes, one big thing opens you up to other big things. Sometimes, you (meaning me) hit it big and then simmer. I hesitate to say “recede.”

This leads us to Ralph. Apparently, Ralph made one of the authors popcorn cake, and she fell in love with him for it, only to “spend the next two months trying to extricate yourself from a relationship that was suddenly not what you thought it was.”

I had a popcorn cake for, I think, my seventh birthday. Or ninth. It was good—think “bundt cake-shaped popcorn ball, with M and M’s.” This version includes gumdrops, which seems like overkill, and pushes it into that category of Midwestern “delights” that you make for a coastal potluck, years later, and can’t believe you ever ate multiple pieces of something that sweet.

The lesson: One big hit does not equal a lifetime of love.

Jerry Seinfeld put it another way:

Of course when you’re a kid, you can be friends with anybody. Remember when you were a little kid what were the qualifications? If someone’s in front of my house NOW, That’s my friend, they’re my friend. That’s it. Are you a grown up.? No. Great! Come on in. Jump up and down on my bed. And if you have anything in common at all, You like Cherry Soda? I like Cherry Soda! We’ll be best friends!

Yeah. I still do that.

If you’ve been reading my “Music and Intimacy” essays, you KNOW I still do that.

I offer my love for a song, literally, pretty often. When I was at Kansas State, a guy drove me out into the country and played Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” for me, while we lay on the warm car hood and a cool summer breeze blew over us. It was the first time I’d heard the song. If you didn’t fall in love then, you are made of stone.

Other times, it’s a sentence a student writes that shows they are moved by something in the world, or a sympathetic look someone gives you at a party that makes you think that even though they don’t know you at all, they totally know. One of my favorite UW students, Nicolene, told me about her deep bond with a friend over a misreading of a line in The Catcher in the Rye. My own best friend from high school, Amy, and I often ended conversations with the words “You know?” “Yeah, I know.” As if tacit understanding was all you needed.

But sometimes, it is. Why does this lesson usually have the implicit moral of “and so, don’t do that again”? It’s true that the “Running Up that Hill” guy wasn’t as spiritual as I thought he was; he was just Christian. Also true is that the student’s beautiful sentence doesn’t always bespeak a complex intellect and struggling soul.

I don’t care. I think I could count on one hand–maybe even one finger–the times those connections really weren’t worth it. Is it really wisdom to start mistrusting those small offerings, those tiny gestures that reach you, even if that person wasn’t reaching out? Are you shallow if you respond equally to a shared secret and popcorn cake? Last week, I told my already-wonderful, brilliant British literature class that I had started watching Game of Thrones. Later in the week, one of them was talking about Heathcliff or Hareton (almost same diff), how he was both part of the family, yet not part of the family, and I said, “So, he’s a Greyjoy?” They erupted in laughter. I swear to God (on all the gods that be!!) class has been even better, even livelier.

I think of my beloved Walter Pater, whose conclusion to The Renaissance inspired the title of this blog: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” This is why I will never be the kind of cool that listened to punk rock. Although (of course) I love the Ramones song, I don’t wanna be sedated. I want to be ignited—even by the tiniest of matches, even if, like Hans Christen Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl,” the flame burns out quickly. She is left colder than before and dies, when her matches run out.

I will never run out of matches.

The Dreamer and the Muppet

Today, I woke up with this song (see below) in my head. It is a song, I might add, to which I have not listened since college. I wouldn’t insist you listen to it, as I would, say, Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” or the Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #3.” Eighteen years later, it seems schmaltzier, less beautiful . . . and this is coming from someone who loves, LOVES, the Christopher Cross song “Sailing.” But I think I thought of it because thinking about people to whom I was once so much closer brings up two categories of those people: college friends and former lovers.

Matt was kind of both. He seemed hilarious, I am hilarious, so we briefly dated and were terrible, terrible, horrible together: crabby and cranky and unpredictable. So, we stopped and happily spent the rest of our college years together in plays, musicals, choir concerts, and, for one summer (see The Summer We Knew We Were Young), housemates. Once, when I was in a David Mamet play and had to play a chain smoker, Matt took me out back of the fine arts center and taught me how to smoke. He took great pleasure in that—particularly because I didn’t.

Matt loved screaming. Matt had an Irish fisherman’s sweater that my mom still talks about fondly. Matt seemed to be the leader of a pack of wild Lost Boys and was responsible for some of the more ridiculous pranks on campus, always involving large phallic structures.

Matt and I were both DJ’s at the college radio station and spent many silly hours singing very, very loudly and intentionally not always well in the booth together. Our favorite was Juliana Hatfield–how 90’s is that? In reality, Matt had a beautiful singing voice, and he married another dear friend with another beautiful singing voice. They have a million boy children now, a new pack of Lost Boys for Matt to lead.

The last time I saw Matt, it had been years, and I was with his wife in his house, when he came home for dinner. “HI!” I bounded towards him. “Oh, hi, Brynny,” he said, hanging up his coat and walking into the next room, away from me. For some people, you’re always the irritating little sister, sometimes enlisted in the hijinks, sometimes merely tolerated. Here are two songs from the two sides of Matt: the Dreamer and the Muppet.




The Summer We Knew We Were Young

Have you ever lost intimacy with a whole household?

Each summer draws nigh, and my students get their summer living situations together with each other, I miss so deeply the Baumgartner House, the house in which I lived the summer between my junior and senior years of college at Bethel. It was a pink Craftsman Bungalow with a big front porch, built-in bookshelves, and an electrical system so dangerously old that when you ground coffee, the light would flicker. I lived in it with Lost Erin Scott and my friend Liz, who would fall in love with her future husband all of that summer, leaving me the ten-window bedroom all to myself. Our friends Matt, Stephan, and a loaner-cat named Honey lived in the basement.

We all played guitar.

We all had jobs we liked but didn’t really care about: I was repainting the college a shade called “Industrial Almond,” Liz actually did something meaningful but I can’t remember what, and Erin was the cool Godfather’s Delivery Girl Who Drove a Red Convertible. She came home from work one day and told, with tears of laughter, of the six year-old’s birthday party to which she’d delivered that day. When they saw her car, the birthday girl had exclaimed, “When I grow up, I wanna be the Pizza Girl!”

Everyone came over to that house that summer. Since my job started early, I’d come home at 3 to find half our friend group already on the porch, playing Uno and drinking beer. We spent Erin’s tip money on bags of cherries and would eat them all, driving around in her convertible. I kissed the Message in a Bottle Ryan for what I thought was the last time outside of that house. One night, both floors of the house stayed up and watched somewhere between four to eight hours of Sting / the Police videos. When I got the letter from Ryan announcing he was going to pursue a relationship with that other Mennonite girl, I went out into the living room where everyone was gathered, said “I’m hot,” and cut off my hair–from waist-long to my chin. (I sent him a piece of it. I know.)

Every day was tomato and mustard sandwiches, wearing each other’s dresses, spontaneously driving to Oklahoma City. Every night was the pleasure of fresh bread, the solace of friends when a lover was lost, the coming in covered with mosquito bites from making out in the warm Kansas eve.

Moving out was chaotic, as any disruption of paradise should be. Honey the Cat had a terrible case of fleas, with which we’d coped temporarily by wearing thick woolen socks when we went down to get the laundry. On moving day, though, we had to pull mattresses out, flea-bomb the whole place, swearing at the friend who’d foisted Honey off on us for the summer, and hating the poisons tainting the end of this glorious tenure.

We all moved back into the modular apartments on campus, probably 500 yards away.

The family from whom we’d sublet the house moved back in, and so it went. I knew while I was there that I would never have another summer so golden in my life–that it had been the most perfect expression of being young and hopeful and free. Every day, that knowledge both had saddened me and had made me that much more committed to being as intimate with the moments of that house as I possibly could. If anyone finds that tragic, they are wrong. That sadness etched that summer into me like light fixes the image on a photographic plate, so deeply that I can call up my 20 year-old self, as I near my 40th birthday, as easily as pulling a file from a folder. Easier–and with more pleasure.

We listened to this album a lot. It’s a kind of music to which I no longer spend much time listening, the music of that young woman I was just becoming, in that time of infinite ease and gladness. The video is so terribly pure, so incredibly innocent in its low-production value, that it could not more perfectly represent this summer.


Searching for Erin Scott: When a Friend Becomes Tangled Up in (the Long-Lost) Blue

No one I know from college knows what happened to Erin Scott. This is something we all hate because Erin was probably one of the best, strangest, most darling people I’ve ever known, and she was one of my best friends in college. She was the best friend of a lot of people in college. How is it that not one of us knows if she’s ok?

Because there’s always the possibility that she’s not. Upon first meeting, Erin gave one the impression of a quivering rabbit: soft, adorable, bright-eyed, heart beating like a trip hammer. Her father had been killed in an accident while she was in high school, which meant she had life insurance money and a deeply painful psychic scar. She wore a pair of diamond stud earrings and the same dingy pink tee shirt for days. One day, I looked at her and said, “Erin! Your hair looks so incredibly beautiful today,” to which she replied, startled, “Thanks! I brushed it!” There were periods in which “self-care” seemed as remote a possibility for Erin as her turning into an actual rabbit, even though my friend JE once witnessed her staring deeply into the eyes of one near the Administration building.

And there were other reasons to worry. Once, Erin was in the shower, while I was brushing my teeth. “But you’re not here anymore,” I heard from the shower. “What?” I said, turning to look. Two wide eyes peered out from the curtain’s edge. “Did I say something?” “Out loud,” I replied, unnerved by the look of fear that crossed my friend’s face, a look that indicated there was a conversation to which I was not privy but for which I would need to start listening, if I was follow my friend into that fragile space her rabbit heart was making of her mind.

In the years that followed graduation, though, she seemed better, psychically happier, as she bounced from organic farm to organic farm. She was proud of her ability to do physical labor, to find her way through Mexico City on her own, to sleep alone on a beach—all actions that proved she was not “Baby Erin,” as another friend called her, someone who needed taken care of. For awhile, she returned to our college town and lived with a pair of friends, waitressing and taking pride, again, in the blue-collar labor, more akin to her father’s life than to her own liberal arts college degree. While a waitress, Erin met Blaine, a guy biking his way across the U.S., pulling a collapsible lawn mower behind him to make money on the way. They married; I performed the ceremony, which included them standing in the broken bicycle rim that had forced Blaine to stop in town, finding his way, magically, to the café where Erin worked. It seemed as if his misdirection re-directed her, delightfully, towards in no particular direction but happiness. She didn’t need a man to save her . . . but at least, she wouldn’t be alone with the voice inside.

If I’ve painted too much a picture of Erin as lost, an unstable, delicate creature, I have left out what made Erin magical. Erin knew ALL the words to ANY song, and the absence of her singing, in my life and in those lives of our friends, is what makes the radio silence of her absence an anxious one for me. It’s not unusual, the loss of connection with a college friend, the end of the intimacy of late-night conversations, the sharing of developing selves, the connection faded because of distance or time. But perhaps because Erin was never really, fully in the same place with us, fully in time with my friends, with me, we worry. And we miss her because the other place in which she seemed to reside was full of songs, so many lyrics, so many words crowding her inner life that surely a few had to escape as if in conversation with what we could not see. If one of us isn’t there to hear her, how are we to know she is still able to sing in reply, isn’t drowned out by the other voices in her head?

I went to see Erin and Blaine once in North Carolina, and Erin confessed she was going to have a psychiatric evaluation, at the suggestion of her husband’s psychiatrist father. I haven’t heard from her since, but I hope, we all hope, she is still there, happily married and singing all the words to Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” particularly. “Tangled Up in Blue” is the song of a journey between worlds, between lives. The protagonist falls in love with a woman “married when [they] first met / soon to be divorced.” He sings that he “helped her out of a jam” but speculates that he “mighta used a little too much force.” We learn how to love our friends as we learn to love ourselves in our youth, which means it is sometimes difficult to decide if you are being overly protective or if you aren’t alarmed enough, when you should let go and when you need to intervene. In the song, the narrator leaves when things get messy: “she froze up inside,” and he escapes, withdrawing because it is “the only thing [he] knew how to do.”

I didn’t withdraw, but I often wonder if Erin’s “changed at all, if her hair is still red” because my past, like that of the protagonist in the song, is always close behind me. I always feel the need to check back in—but it’s not because I don’t feel like I took enough care of Erin. I think it’s because, like the man in the song, “all those people we used to know / they’re an illusion to me now,” and Erin’s strangeness is still more beautiful to me, more loved than many of my stable, untroubled friendships of today. Erin had access to a world that I loved to lean against, and I want to know if it still exists, if it is possible to exist half-magically in this world . . . or if you have to go crazy. Erin introduced me to the song and world of “Tangled Up in Blue”: a world in which synchronicity, beauty, pain, absence, and hope co-exist and return, again and again. It is one of those songs I’ve loved so long that, if I didn’t link it so closely to Erin, it would almost be too hard to find the origin of my love for it—almost as hard as finding the whereabouts now of Erin Scott.

Skip a Rope

My childhood town was so small that you spent most of your school years in class with the same 25 or 30 people. We all did kindergarten together, and then about a fourth of the class disappeared back out into the prairie to the two smaller elementary schools, where their dads could drop them off on their way to the grain elevators or where the buses could more easily run mud routes during thunderstorm season. The High Plains school was barely more than a shed, although the lunches were the envy of all the town kids; the mothers who lived nearby doubled as the school cooks and certainly never would have condescended to anything as lazy as store-bought bread. Marienthal was the German Catholic town: “Marien” as in “Virgin Mary,” and “thal,” a suffix meaning “valley,” despite the radical flatness of the land. The church was next to the grade school, which meant they could attend Mass easily before classes. The Bluebird, the bar on the other side of the block, was the second most-visited building in town, though, of course, not by the children.

My sister told me recently that both schools are now closed, a testimony to the ever-shrinking population of the area. My graduating class was 38; my niece was one of 22. But when I was in junior high, seventh grade marked the return of the country kids to the town school, and that’s when I met Amy.

My mom says that, in kindergarten, she and Amy’s mom watched us play together on the playground and that she had said, “I hope Amy and Bryn are friends. Amy seems brighter than the others.” Amy’s mother, Donna, was a thin, dark woman with the bright blue eyes and wide mouth possessed by all five of her children. Amy was the fifth and last: her oldest sister, Theresa, left for college the year Amy entered kindergarten. Amy’s father, Pete, was an old man; Donna was also old but eerily well preserved. Amy and I joked that her mother slept in ForeverWare, a reference to an episode of a television show we found hysterical, Eerie, Indiana, in which a mother would put her twin sons in human-sized plastic containers to keep them young forever.

We had a joke for everything. For most of junior high, we had the words “ignoramus” and “enigma” confused and called people either with impunity. In high school, we formed the one and only Twin Peaks club in town—indeed, we were the only ones who watched it. We each took on a character name from the show for the club meetings: Amy was Donna, in honor of her mom, and I was Audrey Horne. Donna, the best friend, though not of Audrey Horne—Audrey, forever with her unrequited crushes. We recruited a few additional members, crafting more and more elaborate induction rituals for each. For one full school day, Cynthia had to spin in circles whenever anyone said, “Lucy Lucy Lucy!” A few of our teachers caught on and would shout it at her as she passed down the halls. Together, we were benevolent ringleaders. Each year, in Spanish class, we produced a more and more ridiculous piñata to sell for the class fundraiser: one year, an iguana; the next, a rabid rat, with yellow teeth and strings of blood-red crepe paper hanging from them. We wrote haiku by the pound, mostly in biology class.

We drove miles—the same mile over and over again—in my car, cruising first west to east, then north to south, and again. We walked everywhere one could possibly walk. Once, we walked through all of the alleys to de-familiarize ourselves with our town, long ago mastered. Once, we drove, slowly and carefully, in reverse through the entire town. We lay down in the middle of my street—the last street on the edge of town—and waited to see how long it would be before any car came by. Amy lived so deeply out in the country that she usually spent the whole evening after school at my house until midnight or one, when we would wake up my dad to jumpstart her pick-up, which always needed jumped. One Christmas, my dad wrapped up an old set of jumper cables and presented them to her, as a gift. We continued to wake him up.

And music—music was always and everywhere. We created dance routines for every Erasure song, which we would perform in my car, as we drove. Secretly, we coordinated my Sundays to play piano for Mass with the Sundays on which Amy’s family came into town for church, rather than attend their regular Marienthal service. I could collapse Amy in silent laughter with my choice of the post-homily instrumental music: say, the theme song from Twin Peaks. We went to see our first concert together in the summer after our freshman year of college: Depeche Mode, our favorite band, both agreeing, virgins though we were, that if we had the chance, we would probably sleep with Dave Gahan, even though we’d probably get a disease. We drove around silently, listening to OMD (Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Sugar Tax), after Amy was crowned Homecoming Queen, much to her dismay. Justin Enderton, the king, had had no choice but to follow the hetero-normative tradition that defined so many small town rituals, by which I mean he had to kiss her. It was her first kiss, and, as we stood alone in the teachers’ bathroom afterwards, the first time I’d ever seen her cry.

Near the end of high school, Amy put Jimmy Dean’s “Skip a Rope” on a tape for me, recorded from a scratchy old record, belonging to her dad. It’s true old country: social critique, rather than the blindly patriotic schlock of today’s country:

Stab ’em in the back / that’s the name of the game
And mama and daddy are the ones to blame
Skip a rope / skip a rope / listen to the children while they play
It’s not really funny what the children say / skip a rope

“You know?” one of us would say to the other, more of a statement than a question. “Yeah, I know,” the other would reply, the agreement implied, the rationale unspoken.

Life really mattered to Amy and to me, and maybe that’s why her sudden rejection of our friendship hurts me with a pain undimmed by time, incomprehensible, despite my best efforts to understand. Our schools initially close enough to permit occasional visits, we stayed friends through college and early graduate school, though it was usually me going to see her. Then I moved to Seattle to finish my Ph.D.; she stayed at the University of Kansas for several more years in the sociology program before transferring to UC Davis. But before she also moved west, she attended a conference in Seattle, and, of course, she stayed with me. It was not a fun visit. I asked her questions about her project; she implied that I couldn’t really understand it. I referenced a critic who crossed disciplinary boundaries; she frowned and argued that the literary use of that theory was inadequate. On the last night, she told me that I was treating her like we were still in high school and that I had to know we weren’t best friends anymore.

This is all I can tell you of this night—this and that I cried. I cannot remember more details, despite my unusually strong memory for them: I, who can remember what jacket you wore in kindergarten, the names of your first five kittens, although I could never remember the name of your dog. But I can remember that I thought it was, still think it is, unfair, still think that it was unfair—that she was unfair. Even now, I want to say bitter things to fill in the blanks of that evening. I want to say I had always known we were different and never expected us to stay exactly the same, that I had always been the more flexible of us, anyway, in terms of understanding life, that if she felt like I had never changed how I treated her, it was because she never shared how she was changing. That if we were not friends anymore, it was not because of me. It was because of her.

Amy didn’t stab me in the back; she stabbed me squarely in the front, and even though she once sent me an email apologizing for telling me in the way that she did, she asserts to this day that I was treating her like we were in high school. What could that possibly mean, I wonder? Treating her like life was important and funny and beautiful? As if we still had important things to say to one another that the other would value and understand? She emails me once in awhile, to explain why I’m not invited to her wedding (they’re eloping), to tell me that she and her husband are moving to my state this year (the other side). But I don’t feel like I can really tell her anything anymore, you know? Do you? Because I don’t. I don’t know.

All I still ever need is one best friend, one person with whom to create and share a private world. But a best friend can be like uranium: an unstable but powerful element, with as much destructive capability as a lover and a half-life that will linger on well past its seeming disappearance. Of course, I am speaking of best friends who are no longer one’s best friends. I have had other best friends more affectionate, more responsive, even, in the grander scope of things, more important. My remaining best friends are bound to me in compounds that change form without ever changing content, hydrogen and oxygen moving through our happy cycles indefinitely. But a best friend who is no longer . . . there is no sadness, no jagged hole like that created by such a loss. Time does not mitigate it, and Nostalgia cannot stitch it back together into a simple, non-reactive chain that remains unaffected by the violence done. It is unsurprising, then, confused as I still am, that I find myself mixing my metaphors, those last resorts. The tissue around the wound thickens, a raised map of injury that refuses to blend into my skin, a sensitive place that remains volatile, a half-life still active, although it seems as benevolently dormant as an empty nuclear factory.