Category Archives: Influence

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
asleep
which part of me writes the dream
and which part falls
asleep
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.

“Reconfiguration”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

maja

 

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,

and

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.

 

 

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 Two–How 80’s Music Ruins Our Lives

Day 2
The Song: “For Just a Moment”–the Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire.

The Memory
This isn’t a love memory for me as much as it is a memory of driving. During high school, I took piano lessons thirty minutes away, in another town. There were no towns in between my town and that town. There was a feedlot and some scattered roadside farm houses. Every week, I would drive myself to piano and, since it was the early 90’s, I listened (on tape) to SO MANY love songs. I preferred sound tracks , in those days, and this love song, I would argue, is typical of the kind I favored: a song about lost love, nostalgia for a time gone by, or simply the pain of growing older, time passing as we speed towards death. (Others of its ilk included “Separate Lives” from White Nights and a song from a movie called Stealing Home, which I watched obsessively on HBO, every time it came on.)

I was 17. What did I know of love at all, much less love lost? I was always moving towards pre-emptive nostalgia, missing the thing before it had happened. Did all those songs prepare me for the worst or prepare me to let go too soon?


The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge. Day 2: Immersion as Blindness

Today’s act of bibliomancy centers on an entry titled “Jared’s Holiday French Toast.” Apparently, Jared made over $1,100 in 3 weeks playing Santa in a department store but lost either Thisbe’s or Erin’s interest shortly thereafter. (You really must get The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright –it is truly fascinating how these escapades belong, ambiguously, to both co-authoresses, as if to insinuate that, hey, it could have happened to the best of us–or all of us.) Why? Because he kept role-playing Santa, insisting that she sit on his lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas.

The lesson here, I decided this morning, might be that obsession or immersion are admirable things, but we can’t expect others to stay immersed with us for very long. Too soon, the joke becomes old; the game becomes creepy. Personally, I’m just not that into French Toast, and romantic breakfasts of sweets alone become tiresome when one begins to crave the savory dish, the less predictable. Thus, we must be mindful of our obsessions, remembering that no matter how much you love it, not everyone will want it all the time.

It didn’t take long today for this particular meditation to sink in, turning to the random page, as I was, on my way out the door to have coffee with my sometimes new lover. The thing is, I’m not very good at the “sometimes.” Ironically, we are starting Wuthering Heights tomorrow in my class, and I have spent a lifetime trying to convince students of what I can never fully convince myself: that such a love, rooted in possession, mired in misidentification, is not love. Merged souls? Bad, bad, bad. Or, as Nelly Dean answers Cathy, as Cathy tries to answer why she has chosen Edgar over Heathcliff, “Bad . . . bad, still . . . worst of all.”

Yet here I was, trotting out hand in hand with someone who cannot be my partner, who, while fond of me, does not love me as, at times, I find myself wanting to love him. This is not news. This was the deal from the start: a role-play of a relationship, a chance to experiment with an old acquaintance in a different way. I’ve sat in his lap and (forgive me) Christmas has come more than once a year. We are not made of the same material. I will never haunt him. I have loved and lost so many that I put Tennyson, who coined the phrase, to shame. (He took seventeen years to write In Memoriam; I took twenty to really accept that my first love had been little more than one person’s chemicals dressed in the sheep’s clothing of romantic murmurs. See my post “These Arms Were Mine.”)

But I don’t go by halves–not even when they’re half my age. I never have. It’s why my first love still calls me when he’s in dire straits. Why my students don’t understand how hard it is for me to cut texts from the survey course, accept that if I teach Wuthering Heights, it means they might never read Jane Eyre or, worse, never read Villette–all texts, by the way, in which there is one speed, and that is All You Have. It’s why I teared up this morning, while having a perfectly good time with the sometimes lover, because I wanted to know again what it feels like to be part of a pair so immersed in the other that there’s no question of what you’re doing that weekend–you’re going to be with each other.

The famous lines from Wuthering Heights, of course, are these:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable . . . .

It’s disgusting. It’s the paragraph that has warped love for millions of readers, probably young women, who thrill to the notion of immersion in another. The Santa hat stays on forever, and Jared serves French toast for every morning. It’s the paragraph quoted in Twilight, for God’s sake. So, as I drop off my sometimes lover back at his house, I shake myself by the shoulders inside and whisper, “This is not your whole world, and it will never be his. There’s a time to strut and fret your little part upon the stage, but your life is not a stage.”

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge

The Literature Review
(Warning: This post gets fairly academic–some days, what I teach consumes me. Note how I can’t resist starting to do proper MLA citation and everything, after awhile. I’ll write about cats or something tomorrow.)

If there’s one thing this blog represents truly about me, it’s my need to turn everything, ANYthing, into a map towards meaning. This is, perhaps, ironic, today, as I finished teaching Byron’s Manfred, in which the protagonist disdains all orderly pursuit of meaning and states “I know not what I ask, nor what I seek: I feel but what thou art–and what I am.” However, he also states, “I would not make, but find a desolation.” If my life, at times, lacks meaning, it will not be without some effort to practice, at least, the Paterian–to discern, as best I can, the bread crumbs between my mind and the universe . . . even as I drop the crumbs myself.

But I digress.

Welcome to Yet Another One Week Thought Experiment. Needing focus and inspiration, I will turn, each day this week, to a story/recipe from The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright at random and try to take lesson from that story/recipe. (Note: This cookbook contains stories and recipes from ex-boyfriends, not recipes for how to cook them.) In doing so, I take a page (this pun is funnier by the end of this sentence) from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, in which Gabriel Betteredge practices a kind of bibliomancy, turning at random to a page in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe when in doubt. The implication here is that any text can readily replace the Bible–and in that sense, I bring together both Manfred and Pater, who both believed that we are, ourselves, the location of all meaning. Right? Can’t go wrong. Later in the day, I will post what experiences seemed to resonate most with the call.

Day One: David Goldberg’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
Apparently, he was a complex and contradictory man. The authors describe him as “an Earth First-er who smoked Menthols.” Appropriately, I think Passover is this week.

Morning: My guess at the lesson: Easter / Passover season requires us to accept contradictions, expect the unlikely. Today, I will try to be even more open to experiencing opposites neutrally.

Evening: Did I mention I just taught Manfred ? If the Romantics are interested in shattering habit, Manfred, as one student aptly put it, shatters the habits of the Romantics. If, for Percy Bysshe Shelley, “the great secret of morals is Love, or an outgoing of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action, or person, not our own,” Byron’s Manfred, knowing not what he seeks, predictably, then, finds only himself, becomes, in essence, his own sublime:

The face of the earth hath madden’d me, and I
take refuge in her mysteries, and pierce
to the abodes of those who govern her–
but they can nothing aid me. I have sought
from them what they could not bestow, and now
I search no further.(2.2.39-43)

It’s not the beautiful, exactly, but Manfred’s triumph is that he controls the terms of his own dying, the glory of his own limits. As spirits command him to “Prostrate thyself, and thy condemned clay, / Child of the Earth! or dread the worst” (2.4.33-35), Manfred replies, “I know it; and yet ye see I kneel not” (2.4.35-36).

If I’d written this last week, I would have spoken of Keats, whose ability to hold together discordant elements, irreconcilable opposites, leaves him wrapped in his own mystical ambivalence: “Was it a vision or a waking dream?” But it’s this week, and Byron reminds me that

the mind which is immortal makes itself
requital for its good or evil thoughts–
is its own origin of ill and end–
and its own place and time [ . . . ]
I have not been thy dupe, nor am I thy prey–
But was my own destroyer, and will be
my own hereafter. (3.4.129-140)

So much for embracing opposites neutrally. This is basically a more empowering version of “we all die in our own arms, anyway,” modified to “HELL YEAH, I’m going to die in my own arms.” This is starting to seem like some kind of bizarre Byronian pep talk for the single girl I am. Come, spirits!

I suppose another way in which to interpret this chocolate cake recipe is to consider why the description of someone as “complex and contradictory” moves us so quickly from a Zen-like balance of Life as containing Whitmanian multitudes to contemplating the exhilarating, self-willed death of a protagonist who both deeply repents that his love has destroyed the woman he loves and repents not at all the incest committed. But that interpretation would lead us right back to the same conclusion: met neutrally or fervently, on either end of the Zen-to-Byron pole, we meet a new puzzle, a new sense of what cannot be fully understood, of the sublime, of so much meaning and so little that we don’t create fully, all by ourselves.

Devo Made My Sister Cool

Bob Casale, “Bob 2,” of Devo died this week. Since I’m 40 now, I was clearly not in their target audience, though what child wouldn’t take “time out for fun,” be completely entranced by these strange men in their red flowerpot hats? Though I was under 10 at their peak, I had that most powerful of all forces shaping me: a cool older sister.

Amber and I define “closeness,” as many sisters do, in complicated ways. I could say that we are close in that we share a range of comic facial expressions only we find hilarious. We can guess the joke the other one is heading for at any given moment. I could also say we are not close because of the many ways in which we are different, in all the most stereotypical ways: I left for the city, while she stayed in our home town in Kansas. She got married and had two children, while I went to graduate school. Once, when visiting me in Seattle, she saw the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on a friend’s bookshelf. Turning to my friend, Amber asked, casually, “Don’t you think that girl is SO much like Bryn?” “She’s a . . . sociopath,” replied my baffled friend. (I have no tattoos and can do almost nothing with computers, for the record; additionally, Amber shares exactly the same percentage of Swedish blood I do.) Of course, these differences generate conflicts over the years, and I know I am also to blame. Amber would say we are not close because I am terrible at calling and miss all the important life events of our family since I moved away. I send presents late or not at all.

We are distant, in ways both physical and emotional, and because she was six years older, we weren’t as intimate as many sisters growing up. But grow up together we did, and, like catching the flu, influence is often spread by sheer proximity, and her musical influence on me had less to do with emotional connection than with thin walls and access to her record player when she was dressing like Jennifer Beals in Flash Dance. I would sneak in while she was at pom pom practice and listen to Asia, to Foreigner, to Sukiyaki’s “Taste of Honey.” But most of all, I listened to Devo. At age ten, in Kansas, what could be stranger, sillier, more fun to dance to, more intriguing?

When I speak of Amber’s influence, though, I speak of it as one always does: in the past. Now, I am inoculated against the non-stop Mariah Carey Christmas album every other Christmas, when I do go home. She thinks my music is boring; I favor walls of guitar or atmospheric dream pop. Though we are both strong singers, when I am at home, she always beats me at Guitar Hero or Glee karaoke because I simply do not know any of those songs in the fashion required. (You have to sing “Don’t Stop Believing” exactly as some character sings it, and they just don’t have an “indie” version of those games yet.)

But this is why I love my sister, and why I like to think we still count for each other: she loves music. Really, really loves it. She taught elementary school music for years. Her Christmas programs were creative, engaging. Once, she put on a Christmas musical called Elfis, complete with an Elvis-impersonator elf and hula-dancing reindeer. Children would actually follow her around town, as if she were a more benevolent Pied Piper, waving excitedly at her in the grocery store. When she quit for upper administration, she bemoaned the decision over the phone to me. “But this new job could be a great opportunity for you,” I said. “Nooooooooo! I want to sing and dance and roll on the ground, like I did in my old job!” she wailed.

She loves music. And even if it means a very Celine Dion Christmas, I can appreciate the need for 24-hour sound.

And once, Amber’s tastes were quite avant-garde, for a ten year-old. My first taste of “cool” came from listening to her Devo records, and Devo still captures best why I insist we will always be, sometimes, the same: they were funny, they were fun, and they were weird. We are Devo.

Devo – “Time Out For Fun”