Category Archives: Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angel Olsen:  Burn Your Fire For No Witness

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

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

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

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

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

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

—“Unfuck the World”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s so wrong with the light?







Practice Rooms: Blood Memory–The Brothers and the Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to make him a mix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

Message in a Bottle: Meaning / Mistake

There’s an essay called “Metaphor as Mistake” by semiotician and novelist Walker Percy in which he explores the cognitive phenomenon of mishearing a phrase and why that mistake strikes us with sudden emotional potency. For example, says Percy, there was the time when,  as a child, he heard an African American man describe a bird as a “blue dollar hawk.” The child was fascinated, believing he apprehended something ineffable about the bird in the name, something evocative, true, specific to him somehow, as an encounter with the divine might be.  I know this moment, I think, as I read.  It’s an experience similar to what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “instress”: the moment in which one apprehends what he calls the “inscape” of another being, its innermost self in all its transcendent glory. It is a spiritual moment, Hopkins says, and we only achieve it when our own nature goes out to meet another, a godly namaste, an encounter with pure and perfect knowledge. It is a moment in which love for the world both mirrors and creates love of ourselves.  I am a big believer, if not in God, in this.

But then Percy, the child, is told the bird is, in fact, a “blue darter hawk.”  Rather than a moment of deep recognition, there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, the  older man’s dialect slurring the second word into something more mysterious than it really is. Thus, argues Percy, the potency dissipates immediately upon the correction of the error.  But, for one moment, the child feels the “truth” of a phrase as if he has bypassed language.  And for the moment in which we all make such mistakes, we do:  we generate the phrase mostly in our own heads. Metaphor is mistake, both true and untrue—science and poetry, an attempt to assert authority over mystery, to make it closer to something we understand.


In college, my junior year, I fell in love with the first of what would be many Ryans to come. It was an uneasy and unofficial relationship:   I wasn’t Mennonite or German, both of which were important to him, and he wasn’t very free, which was important to me. But loving him was my first experience with grown-up love, the kind in which you listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change each other’s minds, and respect differences instead of pushing them away.  There was, with him, a truthfulness and an attempt to connect deeply that set a healthy precedent for me, one I still honor every time I set myself aside and hear what someone else is trying to say.

But look. See how I go back and forth, even now, the trial of rewriting rejections into peaceable histories? I’ve made the man a metaphor, when there was so much neither of us could hear at that young age.


The truth: We had always known each other but had never spent much time together.  I was a hippie at the corner table, in a broomstick skirt and an over-sized feminist tee shirt; he participated in chapel and wore his shirts tucked in.  But then we drove from Kansas to Ohio, spent a weekend together, part of a large group at a wedding.  We’d talked more on the drive there than we ever had in three years; there were jokes exchanged and looks. We coordinated our turns driving home so that we were together in the front seat for four hours, talking, listening, asking the questions you only ask in college, when any thoughtful answer might really reshape what you yourself might think. I call it “dangerous listening” to this day.


And this is where the mistake, or love, begins.

The VW bus breaks down—is it surprising this is the kind of vehicle? Or that it breaks down?  We talk all night in a 76 truck stop in Troy, Illinois, share stale but free apple pie, snuck to us by Lorna, the waitress, who feels sorry for us or notices how our two heads lean in closer, while everyone else tries to sleep. We talk about God, of course, as you do in college and the dark, which means we also speak of love and art and books that sound pretentious now (The Stranger, The Fountainhead)  but, at the time, are not. They never are, at that time, that age.

Back on the road, we wordlessly seek out the darkness of the backseat, let others take their driving turns.  I curl into him; he lets me.  I feel the body of this man under my cheek, hear his heart beating so quickly, think I know it now.  “Blue dollar hawk,” the child hears.  I turn my head up to face him, notice how sweetly our lips will fit together. “I can’t,” he whispers.  Blue darter. I lower my face, pretend to be asleep, keep my cheek against his heart, despite its still-rapid beating.


Over and over, in the next few months, moments are sensed by me, rebuffed by him:  gazes dropped, then resumed, held, dropped again.  Sometimes, he comes down to have tea and talk about books.  I give up, go out of town, go out with someone else. When I come back, he comes to my dorm room that very night, lifts my face.  How sweetly our lips fit together in that first kiss three months after the refusal in the van.

Unlooked for, unsensed by me, these moments come with increasing frequency as his graduation looms.  We disappear to sit on rooftops after leaving the bars with friends, talking still, listening still.  He learns how bright the moonlight can be upon my pillow.  His heart still beats so quickly, and he laughs one night, lying his head upon my chest.  “Your heart’s beating so quickly,” he says, and I kiss his head.  The moon hangs like a blue dollar in the sky.

On graduation day, somebody takes a picture in which it is clear my heart is breaking:   his arm around me and both of mine around him, his head straight ahead and mine on his shoulder.  He is smiling; I am, too, but in that way that means I am about to cry. I wear his blue and yellow flannel, given to me just the night before.  It is 80 degrees, and I will not take this shirt off for weeks.  One minute before, I meet his mother for the only time, my arms full of irises after moving myself out of the dorms all day. I am sweaty and hot, stained with the ink of all those irises.  She puts her arms around me, hugs me close.  “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says.

Blue dollar?  Blue darter?  What has she heard?  What did he say?


The day he drives away from college, we make out for most of the day.  Our faces look again like they did in the picture two days before, but this time he can see my tears.  He is going to see a Mennonite girl with whom he thinks he might be more compatible.  He isn’t, it turns out, he tells me in a phone call, laughing, later that summer.  He promises to write,  though he promises me nothing about our own compatibility.

He writes me, it’s true, the first email I will ever receive, but mostly he writes me letters. Letters—no one raised on email can ever know the adequacy of letters from the man with whom you are still in love, no matter what they say, as long as they do not say “no.”  I am so young, too young to hear that word lurking in every line.  Still sharing, still talking.  Blue dollar, blue dollar.  How sweetly our lips press now the back of each envelope, I imagine.

Pressed on the back of the first is the phrase “Message in a Bottle.”

The Police song, of course?  What is he saying?  I am listening, as I always have. I’ve heard the Police and liked them, but now I immerse myself in a more intentional Police phase, listening so I can find its meaning for this man. I listen as anyone listens to music they believe to be a portal to the mind they love, as if the song is a secret written in many keys and one key will let me in for good, prove that we speak in code, bypass the language to the meaning, recognize the god in me as the god in you.  In him.

In the song, Sting is sending out an SOS to the world. He sounds urgent. He must be answered. I am listening. I sing along: “I should have known it right from the staaaaaaaaaart.” I sing, knowing what this song, now, really means. And what it really means, inside my head, is this: “I need your love, I need to talk to you because talking to you is love.”  And my heart beats faster again, singing it back:  “he needs me now, he knows it now at last.”

The phone rings, and though this is before caller id, I know it’s him. “Did you catch the reference on the back of the envelope?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, my head on his chest in the recesses of my mind, his head on my pillow in the blue dollar moon.  “The Police song.” “No,” he says, “The Bertolt Brecht story, ‘Message in a Bottle.'”  Blue darter.


That bottle, then.  The German one instead of the sexy one. The bottle, I think, confused, then, less like me, more like those things so dear to him:  German, contemplation rather than urgency, a kiss that can wait three months to happen, even though I am looking up in the dark right from the start.  I have been wrong; I cannot read his very mind; his heart still beats, but now it is too far across the continent for me to understand him.

But I look up the story again, and in its first lines, I hear myself, and him, and understand at last to whom I have been listening: “I am twenty-four years old. People say that is an age strongly inclined to melancholy. All the same I don’t think my melancholy is a reflection of my age. My story is as follows. At the age of twenty I got to know a young man in whose vicinity I felt lighter.”  And this young man, who lightens with his presence even in the dark of night, he too abandons the woman.  Perhaps it is for someone more compatible, but the reader never knows.  For he too gives her a letter, asks that she open it after three years. She waits and opens it, finds, in the end, a blank piece of paper. And the final words of Brecht’s story are pure Walker Percy, the muddled intersection between meaning and mistake, between metaphors which clarify and metaphors that simply make clear that only mystery remains:

As you know, there is such a thing as magic ink, which is legible for a specific period and then disappears; surely anything worth writing down ought to be written with such ink. I would also just like to add that about a year ago — that is, roughly two years after giving me the letter which is only a blank piece of paper — my beloved disappeared completely from my sight, presumably for ever. After waiting patiently for three years for a message which was less and less meant for me, I can only say that I always thought that love was outside any lover’s control, and that it was the lover’s business and nobody else’s.

In later calls, he will tell me about his new girlfriend and how important our time together had been to help him engage with her more openly, to appreciate her difference:  “I really was in love with you last year, and without that, I don’t know that I would have been as open to her.” At the time, it made me angry to find that he had come to think of  loving me as preparation for loving someone else, and the blue dollar moon had been replaced by the real name of blue darter hawk.  Sometimes, I was angry that those letters, those messages, were not an SOS, calling for my help, my love, a recognition of my inscape.

But as I look at us in that photograph, his steady gaze, my own eyes just about to fill, I know there was less mistake and more metaphor—that more and more, I see the messages he sent me, even before he left, were never really meant for me. They were to a young man trying to learn about himself, in a language only he really spoke, talking and writing to discover the self he wanted to become.  How could we listen well when we did not know yet what we most wanted to say?  More and more, then, that means that any messages I got from him were messages, somehow, I wrote for myself.


Here is the other bottle, the one in which I put my love for a time:

Why Can’t I Be You?: Great Women I Admire, Qualities I Don’t Have

This interview series was inspired by my growing awareness that comparing myself to others is–surprise!–not useful. Often, our admiration of others is mixed with envy, the slightly irritating feeling that if only WE had their chances, we could be successful / more creative / happier, etc. My experiences in graduate school and, to some degree, academia, reinforced the even more insidious notion that only certain qualities, certain kinds of personalities are useful or valid. Obviously, certain qualities are suited to certain jobs (you don’t want an irritable yoga teacher, a clumsy dancer), but I was finding myself dismissing my own perfectly useful, perfectly individual ways of being and wondering why I couldn’t be a whole range of things I actually had no real desire to be: more of a perfectionist, more of a workaholic. Ah, but then you run the risk of sour grapes: I would never “want” to be like that person, have their success at that cost. This interview series intends to listen well, to honor those I admire and to figure out how they found their paths in their own ways, while accepting and interrogating my own difference so that, through conversation, I can learn again to listen well to myself.

Interview #1: Carrie Simpson

Who She Is: Carrie is a playwright and poet, new to Seattle via Turkey, where she spent four years teaching English at international schools in Turkey and one year in Barcelona, Spain. It was in Ankara, Turkey, she met Stacy, my friend from our high school days at musical theatre camp; Stacy suggested Carrie look me up. As of yesterday, Carrie had a fourth interview with Alps Language School on Broadway in Capitol Hill. She was offered a high school teaching job elsewhere but hopes to get the ESL job since it would be a new kind of school and teaching for her, and it would give her more time to do that for which she came: to write.

Why She Seems Hard to Imitate / Why I Chose Her: Carrie seems particularly bold, self-possessed, and free, without that taint of escapism that sometimes marks those who’ve spent their lives teaching abroad or moving about. Originally from the East Coast, Carrie spent eight years in Whitefish and Missoula, Montana, in addition to her time abroad. What makes Carrie seem unique—and not like me—is that she doesn’t seem to see travel or moving around as “taking a break” from her real life. I know many people who want to travel, even many who don’t care if anything comes of their journeys particularly; they see travel as a sabbatical from “real life.” I’ve done that. Or I’ve traveled to achieve a very specific outcome: a job possibility, language acquisition, or freedom from another situation. But Carrie seems to combine that carefree curiosity with career-building, to mix devil-may-care with I-care-deeply as she simultaneously works on a play about her father’s death and volunteers to write high school curriculum for the World Affairs Council on the current unrest in Syria. Carrie has no one home base but in no way does she seem at a loss, lost, searching for a path. She’s on one—it just seems to evolve as she moves. To move forward as if it’s ALL real, all part of the plan, without resorting to the cliché of “everything happens for a reason”—that seems to be what Carrie’s about. But I don’t believe in that cliché, either—so, why can’t I be her?

The Questions:

Bryn: How do most people get to your current life position (note: this may refer to your cool job or state of being), and how did your path differ from that? What might some consider unusual about how you got where you did?

Carrie: I follow whims felt in the heart, rushes of feeling that shout, “I want to do that!” Is that called following your bliss? As I move along a certain path, I will have an experience or meet someone who introduces me to a new adventure I never thought of, and if the idea of it rings or shines, then that will become the next step in my journey. You can say I am future oriented, but because I always have just one step ahead of me planned, I am also very much in the present and open to changing that path, looking out for signs pointing to the next step.

Bryn: Ok, part of that sounds like me: I have the clarity of vision, moments that “ring or shine”—that’s a nice one, Carrie. And I can be at peace with the “one step planned ahead”; my job as an adjunct professor has required that I come to peace with that. But I don’t think I embrace that in the way you do—it’s not so much that only having one step ahead makes me anxious, but I think I see that as more of a necessary compromise, instead of a life choice. And maybe that’s why I don’t always feel like I have time or room to notice what “signs [point] to my next step.” Walk me through an example of how one sign pointed to another for you.

Carrie: For instance, while getting my Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, a friend of mine I admired told me of her summer experience as a naturalist for the Student Conservation Association. That sounded fun, reminiscent of my family’s summer vacations visiting national parks out west, so I applied to SCA and was placed as an interpretive ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota during a college summer. From that experience, I decided that after graduation, I would do seasonal work all over the U.S., seeing the country through its national parks. When I graduated college, I landed a seasonal job teaching outdoor education outside Glacier National Park, Montana. However, I connected to the place and the people so much, I worked there as a teacher-naturalist for four years and ended up staying in Montana for eight.

Bryn: Totally get that connection to place creating the next steps. Once you find a place you love, it’s often just about figuring out what you can do to stay there. I did that when I realized I needed to quit my tenure-track job in Missouri and move back to Seattle. What I did was still important, but it became secondary to staying in Seattle. What I also see in your story at this moment, though, Carrie, is an alternative possibility: that deep attachment to what you want to do can lead to a security no matter where you’re at. Sometimes I feel that way about teaching, but clearly, in the case of Missouri, the love of teaching wasn’t enough to counter the love of a good fit for me, regarding place. You’re starting to remind me of Dishwasher Pete—a man who decided his goal was to wash dishes in every state in the union:

Carrie: During [my Montana] time, I began to long for a more creative life again. My writing self was pulling on me. So I went to graduate school to become a high school English teacher. While there, I focused my thesis on working with an at-risk population, which led me to student teach at a therapeutic boarding school in The-middle-of-nowhere, Montana, and it was there that I learned about the world of international teaching. My mentor had taught abroad in Pakistan and Japan and brought his rich experiences into the classroom through stories and slideshows. I decided immediately and with certainty that that was exactly what I wanted to do, so after learning that I needed two years of teaching experience in my own country before applying to international schools, I did just that at a high school in Montana.

Bryn: Ok, THAT’S probably where most of us would get stuck. “I need two years of teaching experience? Sigh.” Or we’d start the teaching and then become afraid to leave the U. S. job . . . although I haven’t taught high school. Maybe two years is all anyone can bear.

Carrie: After two years, I attended an international job fair in Seattle, very open to where I’d end up, and landed my first job in Ankara, Turkey. I thought perhaps I’d enjoy a two-year contract there then return home to Montana, but loved my experience living abroad so much that I stayed three years in Ankara, one year in Barcelona, and one year back in Izmir, Turkey.

At the moment, I’ve just returned to the U.S. to focus on my writing for a concentrated spell, as again my writing self began to pull on me (a theme in my life). I am here to see theatre in English, meet other English-speaking writers, go to writing conferences, all the things I have not been able to do while living abroad. I have a feeling I will return abroad again after a year or two, but I am also open to the possibilities waiting for me in the people and experiences I have yet to enjoy in Seattle.

Bryn: See, this is where the “traveling isn’t a break from real life—it IS my real life” thing comes in. In order to lend solidity and peace to this life style, it seems like you have to accept that you may not be in the “final” place. To some degree, your choice to give up teaching for a “concentrated spell” reminds me of poet and memoirist Nicole Hardy, who quit her high school teaching job to work as a waitress so that she had more time per day for writing. However, Nicole knew that was a life change she could and wanted to make permanent—at least for quite awhile. And she stays in one place. I wonder how much differently I would live if I knew for sure I would be changing careers and locations at least seven times.

Carrie: I am certainly not following a predetermined course; my path unrolls before me as I go. I would never have imagined at 20-years-old, while studying creative writing at Emerson College, that I would one day be in a writing group with other ex-pats in a bar in Spain, celebrating getting my first poem published in a Barcelona literary magazine. However, when I look back from my current position, I can connect the dots and see a solid path.

Bryn: Even though the point of these interviews is to identify and celebrate your unique individuality, do you have a personal maxim, or another’s words to live by?

Carrie: I discovered the poetry and teachings of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi while living in Turkey. Rumi was a poet and the founder of the Whirling Dervish sect of Sufi Islam who lived in
Turkey in the 13th century. Many of his maxims, such as the one below, entail the kind of surrender and faith that I try to embrace in my own journey:

“Are you searching for the river of your soul?
Then come out of your prison.
Leave the stream
and join the river
that flows into the ocean.”

Bryn: What is most important for you to have done or to feel at the end of each day?

Carrie: That I’ve planted seeds. That is, that I’ve put myself out there in good ways so that by the laws of the universe, good things will return one day. For instance, lately I’ve been reaching out to acquaintances, hoping they will return the initiative and friendships will grow.

Bryn: Like me! Good job, Carrie!

Carrie: Because I’m job searching, I also reach out to prospective employers and volunteering opportunities. These particular examples are very indicative of the stage I am in within my current journey: the beginning. A seed that I plant every day regardless of where I am in a particular journey, is that I write every day. Some days it’s not much. Maybe I’ll only have time for a half an hour of writing, and maybe what I write will be so bad that I will spend the next day erasing it. But even a half hour a day adds up to something, and before I know it, the first draft of a play will grow from these daily seeds I plant.

Bryn: Flannery O’Connor used to sit at her typewriter every day for two hours, “just in case anything happened.” It’s universal—as a writer, you have to accept that production is not always about quality but rather the sheer exercise of the desire to care, every day, that something might happen. Another poet friend of mine, Emily Beyer, said that she doesn’t write every day but that when she is on a more regular writing schedule, she feels like she’s “better—a better person.” You become more aware of your own possibilities, the ideas you didn’t know you wanted to care about. That’s what starting this blog has been doing for me: I tend to get bogged down in the generalities: “I’m not like that person. I don’t do that much.” But when I start writing about a long-lost friend or someone cool like you, I find I have more interesting reasons, deeper perspectives on why I am the way I am. In short, I find my own story wasn’t that obvious.

But onto question #3: What’s one compromise you’ve had to make in order to achieve that sensation of a day well lived?

Carrie: It’s not a big compromise. Since I write first thing in the morning, the compromise is that I sleep a little less or go to bed a little earlier.

Bryn: Discuss a particular event you consider a triumph, a failure, or an obstacle that might surprise others.

Carrie: I find transitions really difficult. This may surprise others because of how much I move. I do love change, but every initial landing is always very shocking and full of doubt and loneliness. However, I’ve learned to just acknowledge those thoughts and feelings and have faith that they will lessen each day and finally pass.

Bryn: Why can’t I be you? (You can answer this in one of two ways: a) Based on what you know of me, how are we most different? or b) What’s a defining quality of yours to which you’re more strongly attached than most people?)

Carrie: I’d say the qualities to which I am most strongly attached are a hunger and excitement for the present opportunities around me, [the ability to develop] coping mechanisms for the hard times, and faith that if I live my life well in the present, the future will unfold just fine.

I rarely fear the future or that I’ve made the wrong decision in the past, which helps me enjoy the present. I can throw myself in 100% to the life(style) I’ve chosen for the moment. I have a knack for finding the new or the different or the hidden adventure in most places and situations. I have lots of interests, and can always find plenty of reasons to get out and explore.

In difficult times, I can remember that this, too, shall pass. I have the initiative and courage to make choices that will get me out of hard times, and the coping mechanisms to help me get through them. When looking back on difficult times, I can always find the positive aspects, whether in friendships made or lessons learned, which helps put me back in the present.

Bryn: Ah, the George Harrison answer: all things must pass. That is such an important one. I’m curious and adventurous, too, but it seems like I’m always slightly saddened by the past as it’s passing, always slightly more worried about whether there is a “through line” in my life, if I’m staying true to a kind of personal integrity or if I’m getting sidetracked. I guess one way to find peace is to accept that all lines are “through lines.”

Bonus questions, Carrie:
What movie character do your friends think you’re like?

Carrie: Christopher Robin—the accepting one who’s in charge of all the others. That was, at least, how my friends saw me when I was younger.

Bryn: What movie character do YOU think you’re like?

Carrie: Max from Rushmore—the kid who starts all the clubs. Or Jim Carey from Yes Man.

Next month, I interview Rebecca Brinson, author of the column “Hustle and Prose” on the website The Toast, co-founder of the online editing service NW Essay, and former development director for the Hugo House. She’s responsible–so how did she live abroad for six months? And why does no one seem to irritate her? These mysteries and more–in October.

Walter Pater, You’ve Sometimes Made It Difficult

This post is a preface to an upcoming series of interviews I’m currently conducting called “Why Can’t I Be You?” Each interview will center on a woman I admire but who seems radically different from me in temperament. Look for Interview #1 soon!

In Studies of the Renaissance, Walter Pater concludes that the secret to genius is to discern, at all times, the most private qualities of one’s experiences—to revel in the process of experience for the individual, rather than in the “fruits of experience,” what others can see or what benefits you later. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” he says, and, in doing so, he ignites the Aesthetic movement, the philosophical and stylish doctrine practiced and extended by Oscar Wilde and others for most of a decade.

I read this first in college, as a senior. I don’t think I actually understood all of it, really. But I do remember thinking that his writing, that phrase, particularly, was the most beautiful reading experience I’d ever had. The fusion of “burning” with “hard” and “gemlike”—the geological solidity with the sparkling of the gem . . . the image stood out, apart from my college reading, and I heard someone who understood how deeply marvelous I thought life was. I burst inside, my own mind a disco ball illuminated with pleasure that this timid man, an Oxford tutor who preferred to entertain privately, found words for what I felt certain ruled each of my movements made in this world.

I burned all through my twenties when, I still maintain, it’s most crucial to do so. I burned, got burned, and sparkled and drank and tasted and kissed and bought plane tickets too expensive for me. I burned into my mid-30’s and read as much Pater as I could, but nothing’s ever been as good as that one line, as effective at exciting that part of me that knows how important it is for me to know that burning is true, that living so intensely is the only real way to live.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about lines later in the same paragraph as the gemlike flame line—this line, actually: “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.” And I think of this line because it is often raining in Seattle, and it is cold, and dark, and I am almost 40 and because I worry, more often than not, that I am sleeping and not burning. I get overwhelmed by the tragedy of the “tragic dividing of forces on their way.” I feel myself reaching painfully out to hold onto those things that are leaving, that exceed my reach. Or, worse, I simply look at the frost and sun and cannot discern why I should reach at all. And yet, I am not sleeping—I lay awake at night, most nights, worrying about how to be greater. Really, what I worry about most is why I don’t want to want more. I try to tell myself that letting go of wanting more—of being more productive as a writer or as a scholar or as anything else I want to be, partially—letting go of anxiety about producing is exactly what Pater means when he says that “it is not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.” I want to believe that I am still burning, but burning in ways that illuminate smaller things, tinier gems—that I am discovering, in my late 30’s, the crystalline structures of an atom, instead of the crystal palace of my 20’s.

Why do I have so much capacity for experience, and so little desire to sit alone and write? Why does writing sometimes make me sad? Is it because I cannot stop burning long enough to write something beautiful, or is it, instead, because I am not burning brightly enough? To really, truly live Pater, I am going to have to walk through these fires, even as I am the flame itself, and pray that, in all that heat, something fuses that can fuel me. Pater says “only to be sure it is passion” that drives me to experience, and that those experiences produce a “quickened, multiplied consciousness,” I am giving myself all that I can, but I wonder what he told himself in the middle of the night, and what it felt like when his flame was low.