Category Archives: Pay-Offs

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

I should be too old for this album.

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

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

Teens of Style.  Teens.

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

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

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

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

Check.  Check, check, and check.

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

Heavy Boots on My Throat / I Need Something Soon

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

The other lyrics are a list of Wants and Needs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Come live on in silence,

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

I won’t fear my babbles

leave them in the silence

I live in the present

moment to moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Put yourself first, and feel yourself, and then

I wander in sleep, in a silent tone.

Put yourself far, and feel yourself in mine,

I’m wandering still, falling in love so far

Into your arms, into the void

Oh I should have known.

Oh I should have known better.

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

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

The more that you give,

the less that you fear

the less that you fear

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







Divorce Closet: Songs that Are Not Yours to Sing


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The book comes in the very next day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this not how the story goes?

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

Washington, D. C.

it’s paradise to me

It’s not the people doing something real

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

It ain’t no famous name on a golden plaque

That keeps me that makes me ride that railroad track

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

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

By which I mean I snoop.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dodging the Bullets, By Which We Mean Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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 Musical History of Why We Failed): Jason and “Big Love”

“But Bryn,” some might say, “isn’t that what the whole blog is about?”

No. The whole blog is about music and intimacy.

But it occurred to me, as I was explaining to someone why I might be willing to give Fleetwood Mac a try, that I had the musical answers to some romantic questions raised by almost every boyfriend I’ve had. No need to tell me I’ll find love again, blah blah—I’m not just practicing what I preach. I’m watching how they practice. Because I’ve realized that the way they practice music is the sonorous foreshadowing of the problems we might have—the Hitchcock-like ominous violins building, just before the shower curtain is pulled back, and a vulnerable body is stabbed through the heart, among other places.

Let’s review:

Jason and “Big Love”

While I have never loved Fleetwood Mac, Jason did, and he converted me to at least really appreciating “Big Love.” Jason could belt it out like nobody’s business, but the Lindsay Buckingham guitar part is, by Jason’s own admission, a bitch. Fast, hard, and ever-changing in its rhythmic emphasis, the guitar murmurs intensely, a schizophrenic muttering on the bus, before it bursts, an intricate attack, and the chorus promises to leave your Stevie Nicks ass in search of REAL love. Big Love.

When Jason first saw Buckingham play that song live, he thought, “I’ll never be able to play that song.”

When Jason first met me, he was 19, and I was his 29 year-old grad assistant professor. When Jason and I fell in love, 11 years later, he was a wreck—a single father with a chronic illness, an addiction to multiple kinds of smoking, living at home, and still suffering, clearly, from the PTSD of his last, unhappy relationship with a narcissistic make-up artist. But we both (foolishly) thought, “But why can’t we be in love? We’ll just take it day by day.”

“But then I thought: Why can’t I learn how to play that song?” Jason told me, as he sat strumming it on my couch. “If I at least start practicing it, a little bit every day, I’ve got to be able to do it at some point, right?”

I loved him on that couch. I loved him everywhere.

We tried to date, despite the fact that he worked from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and I worked among the living. I tried hard to accept that his smoking and his preference for Red Bull to real food were not deal-breakers. He tried to believe me when I said I believed in him.

After practicing the song for over year, Jason could still only play about halfway through. He could play it really well, really beautifully, but at some point, he’d have to stop, shaking out his cramping hand. “My arm gets tired,” he’d say to me, sheepishly putting down the guitar. “I just don’t have the strength.”

We fell in love so hard. “I can’t stop thinking about you as my wife,” he said one night at a party, pulling me aside and holding my face. Behind him, I saw a green flash—like a giant green light from the universe telling us “GO.” I later found out it was a meteorite. I saw both it and his face, lit up with its own celestial energy. He saw only me, his back to the cosmos.

Within a month, he’d stopped speaking to me, finding excuses not to come over, to leave my birthday party after two hours. At first, he blamed me. I’d said something cruel and cold that reminded him of the narcissist. I’d said it in response to a cruel and cold statement of his own. But eventually, when we broke up for good, he said it was not because we had been foolish but because our love had been real. “It’s TOO real,” he said. “And I’m not ready.”

The last time I heard him practice “Big Love,” Jason realized he had been playing the whole thing too fast–that, if he’d slowed it down, he was actually pretty good. “But it’ll still be awhile before I can play the whole thing,” he said.

Yes. I think it probably will.

Check back later this week for “Eli and the Bands He Couldn’t Quit.”

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 3: PJ Harvey and the Cosmos

The song
PJ Harvey’s “One Line”

The Memory
The night before I started my move to Missouri, the Final Ryan and I went to Golden Gardens beach. I did not know my move would be temporary, that I would not be able to stand being away from this city, much less this magical beach, which is scattered liberally with the glass hearts of others for the weeks after Valentine’s Day. He had already broken my own glass heart once that summer when he told me he wasn’t physically attracted to me and then, mysteriously, continued to want to be with me for the rest of my time. More mysteriously, although perhaps not, given my own fragile state, I let him.

We split a bottle of prosecco and an iPod, and in one of his more boyfriend-y moments, he put his sweatshirt on me, since the night was cool. We could hear another couple making out nearby us, and we couldn’t stop giggling. Then we were silent for a long time with the stars, and this song came on: “Do you remember the first kiss / stars shooting across the sky?”

I kid you not. We saw a shooting star. And Ryan, who was not as in love with me as I was with him, gasped, grabbed my arm and kissed me.

I called him the “Final” Ryan even at the time, not only because I’d dated too many Ryans in a row but because I knew, even if I didn’t want to know, that while I might see him again after I moved, this was really the end. I also knew he was syndecoche for all of Seattle. What I still don’t know is what I was for him.

You Remind Me of the Babe: Labyrinths, Tegan and Sara, and Going Nowhere With Love

“That is what I HATE about American Buddhism,” my friend Sonora says. “Everyone thinks they’re detaching to GET something, instead of just BEING.” It’s true—we even need to make NOT getting, not going, a kind of getting and going. It’s “growth,” it’s “moving towards enlightenment.” My favorite Buddhist saying reflects the futility of trying to make meaning of one’s own growth in the moment it is happening: “Oh, my friend, going in circles—you may enjoy going. But not in circles.”

So the saying . . .goes.

As much as I hate the name “Tegan,” smacking as it does of made-up sorority girl names, there is one Tegan and Sara song I think of, with terrible regularity: “Where Does the Good Go?” Its chorus refuses Buddhist detachment and demands an account of feelings remaindered like unpopular books: “Where does the good go?” While other clever lines clarify the singers’ losses, what sticks out is simply the repetition of this refrain, always calmly, as if it were not a desperate statement.

I often pass, while on my way to work, a church with a bulletin board that periodically invites you to walk its labyrinth, an invitation to meditate while walking, meeting obstacles as they come.

Is that labyrinth, too, supposed to “go” somewhere? Or are you just supposed to know, with each false turn, each dead end, that God is waiting in the center? Or is he/it walking with you, “Footprints” style?

I make no claims to believing in any guiding force, but I don’t mean it as a theological (or anti-theological statement) when I say I’m coming to think of Love as a labyrinth with neither Minotaur nor Goblet of Fire in the middle. (And, frankly, if you’ll recall, the Goblet of Fire itself was actually no prize but a trick, a monstrous, deadly trick of a port key.) When the obstacles aren’t glaringly obvious—red flags of ivy and of thorn (he has no career! he has no hope!), they seem to grow up in front of you, almost of their own accord, Harry Potter-style, with no purpose but to block your way. “Try again,” they whisper, and so you turn around, try to remember which routes you’ve tried and which you still have left.

Is this growth, this retreading of old ground? Is this blog, with its obsessive reconfigurations of the past, the story-boarding of my life with an ever longer soundtrack, a discography of singular moments of intimacy and B-sides of my heartbreaks . . . is it growth? Or are these several loving walks down Memory Lane ending, again and again, with the same sign at the end: Trail ends here. Turn around.

Where does the good go? The literary soul in me feebly makes the case for Roethke’s claim that “we learn by going where we have to go.” But that, too, turns all that desire, the deep pleasure in a former loved one’s face, the feeling of their hand in the dark, into a roadmap going somewhere—turns all that glorious love into mere accumulation, the shadows of some greater “There.”

In a movie from my childhood, Labyrinth, David Bowie plays the Goblin King and talk-sings a little ditty with some now-forgotten creature:

Bowie: You remind me of the babe
Creature: What babe?
Bowie: Babe with the power.
Creature: What power?

In that labyrinth, the search is for the thing you think you didn’t love until it was taken away from you. In this one, this writing of my own emotional maze, its hedges taller every turn, I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’m searching for, too—as if, somehow, by revisiting myself as the babe with or without power, I could find out where the good goes.

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 Meditation Challenge: Day 6—Love Can Never Be Junk Food

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

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

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

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

Jerry Seinfeld put it another way:

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

Yeah. I still do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will never run out of matches.