I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2002. In the weeks leading up to the actual, physical relocation, I was driving into the city from Northwest Indiana a lot. Mostly to look for an apartment but also to hang out with a dear friend who lived in Rogers Park, who kindly let me crash on his couch while I was getting all my ducks in a row.
As I’ve talked about before, I’d gotten my driver’s license as soon as I could after I turned sixteen. I needed a measure of independence so that I could help my dad take care of shopping and other chores but also so that I wouldn’t have to inconvenience anyone else’s parents when I needed a ride home from theater rehearsal or other after-school activities and performances. So, a couple months before I officially got my license, my dad bought a car for me to use, a 1994 white Chevy Lumina. I loooved that car, in the way that you really can only ever love your first car, the car that lets you finally feel truly independent. I drove it throughout the remaining years of high school, during summers when I was home from college, in Bloomington while I attended Indiana University (after I was finally able to wrangle an on-campus parking pass), and after graduating college, to and from the job I had at the mall while I lived with my grandmother.
The route that I would take to Chicago from my hometown in Dyer was 394 to 94 to 55, then on to Lake Shore Drive, all the way up the length of the city until the road curved into Sheridan and delivered me into Rogers Park proper. In those days, depending on traffic, it usually only took me about an hour and twenty minutes, and I could practically drive it in my sleep.
One Friday in August of that year, I was taking this very familiar drive in the late afternoon, planning to spend the weekend doing some more apartment hunting and maybe seeing a movie with my friend. It was a beautiful summer day, not too hot or humid, the sky blazing blue. I was cruising north on the Drive, when suddenly I felt a mild jolt. The car immediately lost momentum and rolled to a complete stop. In the far left hand lane. Of Lake Shore Drive. On a Friday afternoon. Just before the official start of rush hour.
With that eerie calm that can sometime accompany deep panic, I reached for my first-ever cell phone and dialed 911. I explained the situation to the operator, and they said they’d send one of the city’s tow trucks out to get me off the road, but that I’d be on my own once I was somewhere safe.
I waited with my flashers on, keeping an eagle eye on my rear view mirror, both watching for the tow truck and wincing with nervousness anytime I saw a driver speed up a little too close behind me, certain that someone would inevitably rear-end me there. Still, I cannot emphasize enough what an idyllically, perfectly beautiful day it was. It was long enough past the solstice that the sun was starting to go down noticeably earlier each day, and though it was still nowhere near dusk, there was a certain autumnal quality to the slant of the light as it bounced off the lake and streamed through my smudgy, fingerprinted windows. The whoosh of the cars whizzing by me was discernibly louder without the sound of my own engine or the car stereo overpowering them, like the sound of blood pumping through one’s own body that suddenly becomes apparent in a still, dark room.
The city tow truck showed up fairly quickly, dragged my car across an off ramp and into one of those beach parking lots that span that stretch of the lake, and then rumbled off again with little fanfare. Safe now, but emphatically stuck, I called my friend to let him know what had happened and to say I would need to be picked up whenever I got my car to a proper garage. I then also called for AAA roadside assistance.
In those weird days when we had cell phone service but not GPS, just because I knew where I was didn’t mean I knew where I was. The AAA operator on the other end of the line asked me, in order to figure out how to help me, for my zip code. “I’m at about 4800 north on the grid in Chicago, in a parking lot off the beach along Lake Shore Drive, that’s all I know.” The person kept pressing me for a zip code, saying they couldn’t do anything for me otherwise. Inwardly, I was freaking out at the absurdity of the situation. What if I’d broken down on a dark country road late at night? How would they have found me then? In desperation, I finally ran over to a snack bar that happened to still be open near the beach. “Do you know what the zip code is here?!” I wailed to the person behind the counter, and they immediately, kindly told me what it was.
With that information, the AAA operator was able to connect me with a local tow truck company, who understood how and where to find me. When he showed up, the tow truck driver, full of smiles and helpfulness, asked if I had a garage I preferred. I said I didn’t know, that I didn’t even live in Chicago. He nodded, then pulled a fat stack of business cards out of the front pocket of his overalls, rifling through until he found one that made him say, “ok, then I’ll take you here.” He got my poor busted car up onto the bed of his truck; I climbed in the cab with him, and we drove off into the streets of Chicago.
It was early evening by that point, the light even more golden, the shadows being thrown off by the taller buildings deep and blue. In my Indiana provincialism, my knowledge of Chicago was still relegated to extremely small snapshots of the city. I knew corners, I knew blocks, but I didn’t yet understand how they all fit together, how neighborhoods merged and bled into each other. I didn’t know where we were, didn’t have a clue where I was being driven. But the driver and I chatted amiably the whole way; he informed me that he usually asked people if they had a preferred garage out of courtesy but that he thought the place he was taking me would be a good match for what I needed (with the implication that it would be relatively affordable, and honest).
We eventually pulled up in front of Marvin’s Auto Service, a garage that was slightly tucked back from the street. And like a scene from a movie, suddenly at least half a dozen garage employee came dashing out in a frenzy of activity. I stood next to the tow truck driver on the sidewalk, both of us watching with no small bit of amusement as one or two of them jumped onto the bed of the truck, popped the hood of my car, and poked something that squirted a stream of fluid into the air.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, a man I’m assuming was Marvin himself evaluated the situation and informed me that he knew what was wrong. “How bad is it?” I theatrically grimaced, bracing myself for an expense that I, currently still jobless, didn’t exactly know how I’d pay for. He shrugged and said, “About $300.” Not only that, but he’d have it taken care of for me by noon the next day. I followed him inside and filled out some paperwork, happy to be in the care of these professionals. I hope I said good-bye to the tow truck driver.
My friend I was staying with had pulled up and parked outside by then, and on our drive back to his apartment, I delightedly related to him everything that had happened, my stress almost completely gone by this point, giddy that what had begun as a scary roadside incident had now turned into something like an adventure full of colorful characters.
Late the next morning, shortly before we were planning to head out to pick my car up again, I called the garage just to confirm everything would indeed be ready by noon. “More like 12:30,” they said, so we pushed back our departure by a half hour.
When we arrived, I settled up with Marvin at the desk in the front office, and I thanked him profusely for his kindness and speed. His English was halting, so I thought something was wrong when he held up his index finger to indicate that there was one more thing before our transaction was complete. But then he reached under the desk and handed me a burned CD that he declared contained “American romantic music.”
My jaw nearly hit the floor and my eyes lit up with delight. The disk was labeled with a sticker that they’d had custom printed with promotional information for the garage, their name and address and phone number as well as an image of a red sports car. There was no jewel case, no track listing, so I had no idea what it was going to contain. I couldn’t wait to pop it into my car stereo.
The problem had apparently been with my car’s alternator, so it wasn’t a huge problem to fix, and everything worked fine once I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key. I pulled out of the garage into the now much warmer and muggier August air, and began to follow my friend back up to Rogers Park. I pressed play on the stereo, and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” blasted through the speakers. I scanned through the other eight tracks, fully a third of them by the Bee Gees: “More than a Woman,” “I Started a Joke,” Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” America’s “A Horse with No Name,” Ritchie Valens’s “We Belong Together,” Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” and “Night Fever.” I was nearly levitating with delight.
When I told my friend about the CD, he was tickled as well and joked that perhaps the garage needed those extra thirty minutes to burn the CD just for me.
Of course they didn’t, but on a deeper level, it really was just for me. As much as I’d been fighting the inevitability that I would move to Chicago, I couldn’t deny that the stars were aligning for me to be there. A friend’s boyfriend had an empty room in his three-bedroom apartment, ready for immediate occupancy with a month-to-month lease. That same friend also knew of a job opening that I applied for, got, and started within ten days of officially moving into my new apartment. In the midst of breakdown, I was constantly being rescued, fixed, and sent merrily on my way, to the accompaniment of American romantic music.
Marvin’s Auto Service has since moved to a new address; they’re now located at 3020 W. Irving Park Road. I hope they’re still sending their customers home with music.
I lived in Indiana for the first 23 years of my life and have only ever lived in Chicago subsequently, so even though I have an internal conceptualization of myself as extremely worldly and sophisticated, let’s face it, I’m about as Midwestern as they come.
In my first couple years in Chicago, I lived with roommates who originally came from Philadelphia and Ithaca, but I don’t think I’d ever met anyone as thoroughly “East Coast” as Brian until he and I started playing music together. He grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the way I always describe my impression of his extreme East Coastness is that I never really felt like I truly got the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.
But it’s not just the seedy, bitchy, casually brilliant aspects of that tri-state area that I came to know better through him; it’s the smallness too. The way that closely guarded generational memory is such a real and present driving force in people’s everyday lives. The way that loyalties and clan kinships form ley lines that define and delimit people’s understanding of themselves. And of course the hauntings too—the unspeakable grief that lurks in the shadows and saturates the landscape. I find it all terribly fascinating, a welcome counterpoint to the bright, open Midwestern obviousness that I grew up with (which manifests even in the Heartland’s own attempts at familial machinations and backstabbing).
I’ve always been very up front about the fact that I have an enormous black hole where my familiarity with the music of the ’90s should be. I was a musical theater nerd as a teenager and basically couldn’t stand much of anything that came out of the Seattle scene, finding it too noisy and abrasive and petulant in a way that didn’t resonate with my own defense mechanism of insistent cheeriness. At the time, I just thought current popular music was not, y’know, for me, the end.
Once I started working at the student-run radio station at Indiana University as an undergraduate, my eventual tip-toe into pop and rock music was still qualified by a preference for Broadway-esque “big” arrangements and “clever” lyrics. Ben Folds Five and the Divine Comedy were in heavy rotation during my shifts and on my own dorm-room stereo. But while working the 4-6 am shift my first semester on the air, I stumbled across the Pernice Brothers’ debut album Overcome by Happiness. It’s one of the first albums that I remember feeling cool and smart for knowing about, not that anyone had asked or cared.
Around the same time that I was discovering this album, Brian was playing guitar and singing in a three-piece band while he was in grad school at the University of Connecticut. They’d actually played a bunch of the same clubs as Joe Pernice’s previous group the Scud Mountain Boys, but it turns out Brian didn’t know Overcome by Happiness at all. I tend to assume that his knowledge of the music of the mid to late ’90s will necessarily be much broader than my own, but he’d somehow conflated the Pernice Brothers with Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers (!) and written them off entirely as not his cup of tea.
As we inevitably bonded over the music we loved in common, we also rushed to fill each other’s blind spots. I gave him Jason Falkner and the Clientele; he gave me Chris Whitley and Mink DeVille. But somehow when I gave him Overcome by Happiness and he gave me Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band, it felt more significant. I was introducing him to an album that had originated in his homeland; he’d even spent time recording at Mike Deming’s Studio .45, where both Overcome by Happiness and Eccsame had been made. Since I had introduced him to an album that had originated in his homeland, I felt like it cemented some kind of karmic inevitability in our own friendship.
I remember listening to Eccsame the Photon Band on my headphones one night walking home from my neighborhood El stop and feeling uncannily like I was somehow listening to shadow transmissions of my own band. The Lilys’ inky black bass lines and thoughtful, whispery vocals are specific to the ’90s, yes, but I can also now hear how very specifically Connecticut they are. They added new context to Brian’s own songwriting sensibility for me. The cavernous drum sounds and dissonant chords that he prefers, coming from this slightly different angle, helped me hear his own past even more clearly than his old band’s recordings did in some ways. I felt almost projected into the past, like I was recalling a false memory of having known him decades before we ever would have had reason to cross paths.
And beyond the glitchy déjà vu, there was a sense of mourning there for me as well. I can imagine how incredibly perfect “Overlit Canyon (The Obscured Wingtip Memoir)” or “Radiotricity” would have sounded swelling from the speakers of my car stereo as I drove late at night down the flat, dark back roads of rural Indiana in my own teen years. If I’d heard these songs then, would they have been welcome medicine, a tether to the reality of that era that I otherwise felt desperate to escape? Or would I have been too stubbornly entrenched in my own taste to enjoy them?
As a Buddhist and a clairvoyant, I make an effort to sit for a few minutes each day in silent meditation. The meditation helps me quell, a bit, my obsession with time. I’m impatient and ravenous for experience and sensation and gratification. I want to know the world, and I want to know my place in it right now. The summer I graduated from college, I made a comically mournful list in my journal of all the things I had to accept that I’d never be and never do. I’d never be a skilled athlete, I’d never be a ballerina, I’d never be a world-famous musical prodigy that released an immaculately wrought debut chamber pop album at the age of 22. Did I actually want those things or was I more bothered by the fact that I didn’t feel I’d been presented the opportunity to choose and/or discard them at my own convenience?
I have to catch myself from feeling this way about smaller things in my life even now—and that includes something as trivial as wishing I’d somehow known Eccsame the Photon Band closer to when it had originally been released. In accepting my present-time experience of this album, I allow myself to find gratitude for its delayed appearance in my life. Sure, maybe it would have sounded great in my car when I was a teenager, but it definitely sounds great on my iPhone in my 30s. Mostly because, here and now, I have a fuller context to appreciate what it means to receive it from someone I love deeply, a grace that allows me the patience to open a window onto his experience of it, rather than being so locally fixated on my own.
This essay originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of the now sadly defunct Maura Magazine and was meant to be read in tandem with Brian Cremins’s essay on the Pernice Brothers’ Overcome by Happiness. It has been lightly re-edited.
The narrative that I often tell about this blog is that I couldn’t not blog.
I’d kept my first pop culture blog for about six years, and then shut it down when I noticed that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I’d grown bored with simply reviewing the movies I’d been watching, the concerts I’d been going to, the books I’d been reading. I felt like I wanted to be more than a rote recommendation machine; I wanted to expand my writing beyond critiquing someone else’s art. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write about instead, only that I wanted to get to a place where my writing was more personal. (I don’t think I realized how extremely personal my reviewing actually was, how much of myself was revealed in my preferences and critiques, but that’s a subject for another time.)
As I’ve talked about elsewhere, I went into clairvoyant training later that same year and quickly discovered that the part of me that was good at giving psychic readings was the same part of me that was good at writing. It stood to reason that as long as I was doing something that involved my third eye, it didn’t exactly matter what the medium was. So I was perfectly content to stop writing for a couple years, just going to psychic school and giving readings there and playing music with my band the other nights of the week. Plus, I’d had a day job in the publishing industry for nearly ten years at that point, and all the reading and editing that I did there seemed to satisfy the part of me that felt most natural with a pen in my hand (or with a keyboard at my fingertips).
But almost exactly a year after I completed my two-year stint in psychic school, I wasn’t giving readings anymore, the band had imploded so I was no longer gigging or practicing regularly, and my job had taken a distinct shift away from editing and into the nuts and bolts of scheduling and budgeting. My creative restlessness was beginning to show, especially in comparison to my boyfriend’s creative output, which was in a phase of huge blossoming and development. He was blogging regularly, writing scholarly articles, and working on his first full-length book. I wasn’t necessarily feeling competitive with him—our strengths as writers are completely different, as are our areas of focus—but I was feeling a bit, oddly, call it, left behind. “Why don’t you just start a new blog?” he kept imploring me. So finally, I did.
But what to write about?
I knew I didn’t want to write exclusively about the arts anymore, but I also knew I would inevitably want to discuss some movie or album that had captured my fancy, so I wanted to make space for that. I had recently taken up perfume as a hobby, and had always loved playing around with makeup, so I thought it might be fun to have somewhere to explore all the ways that I presented and processed my own femininity. And of course there was the psychic stuff. Long before I’d gone through my in-person training, I’d been a religious minor in college and had been attending a Zen Buddhist temple on Sundays. Spirituality had always been enormously important to me, and I wanted to continue to reflect on what I’d learned and how it fit into and influenced my daily life.
So, rather than winnowing any of those things down, I just decided I’d kind of write about them all.
This was in the last little sliver of time when blogs were still a viable way of communicating and building an online following, before social media (in the sense of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook) really took off as the primary way that people not only kept up with friends but also consumed news and reviews. And so I read up on some best-practices for blogging and decided that consistency was supposed to be key. I never kept a regular schedule at my old blog; I posted when I had something on my mind. But all these self-proclaimed blog strategists were recommending that my readership would want to be able to rely on a specific day, and even a specific time, when I’d be posting, so I thought, OK. Let me take those three areas of interest and slot them in for publication on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and then make sure to write something short on the subject every week.
I kept up the schedule for a little while, but it ended up being far too much for me, considering that I hadn’t been actively blogging in close to three years and my writing muscles were way more out of practice than I thought they would be. Writing had ceased to be fun and started feeling like a chore, like something I was doing to keep up with a vision of the me I used to be, rather than a disciplined but ultimately joyous expression of my own constantly churning inner monologue. So I tried to devise ways to make the burden feel lighter. I scaled back to posting once a month and all but eliminated the focus of the three sections, loosely tagging whatever tumbled out of my brain with one of the categories, no matter how little it actually fit. I gave myself fewer restrictions, rather than more, and that somehow ended up being worse. If I’d promised myself to post something once a month, that meant I would start nervously thinking, mid-month, that I really should come up with something to write about, then go into a hysterical panic the last few days of the month as I struggled to write something I could feel remotely proud of that would also be somewhat legible to the handful of people who still, graciously, clicked through to read what I had to say.
So what was the easiest thing that I could come up with to fill the inspiration gap? What could I pretty much always count on if I was at a loss for something to write about? Me. My own past, my own memories.
As you can see if you read the About section linked above or if you scroll all the way down to the footer of this page, I describe this blog as being about “music, film, spirituality, memory, time, love, perfume, and my life in Chicago.” And when I appeared on the “Blog vs. Podcast” episode of A Chatter of Fact, at approximately minute 37, I went so far as to describe what I do here as “memory work.”
I’ve spent literally years writing here and thinking that I was chasing validation from other people who would be interested in what I have to say about a movie or a book or a perfume or cool stuff to do in Chicago. But I finally had to admit to myself that this blog is actually pretty selfish and self-centered. Everything that’s happening here has no pretense of being about anyone or anything but me. I’m finally just now consciously figuring that out!
To be clear—the primary purpose of my writing here has always been to examine and catalog moments and memories and impressions and experiences from my own past. Although I may have tried to connect some of these anecdotes to broader subjects that would be relevant to other readers, I’m mostly just telling stories about myself to myself.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like nostalgia to me; I’m not longing to go back to another time or place that’s now unreachable. For a while I did think it’s because both my parents are dead and there are, in general, fewer and fewer people around who remember me from when I was a kid. I considered that maybe I’ve been trying to foster some sort of personal coherence and permanence through these stories that other people usually get from their families and communities and other long-term relationships. But then I recall that, actually, I’ve always been like this—even when I was small, I loved when my dad would set up the screen and projector in our living room to show old, silent home movies on 8 millimeter film. This fondly remembered ritual from childhood feels intimately related to how I ended up creating this web-based environment for myself in the first place, in that I learned to think about memories not only visually, but also to interact with them by giving them voice.
My mother was a mostly self-taught but very talented photographer. I’m so lucky to have had a thoroughly, beautifully documented baby- and toddlerhood. My father, likewise, was obsessed with self-documentation. He often recorded his band‘s gigs on cassette tape (which I’ve recently been busy archiving on Bandcamp) and was hardly ever present at a family gathering without his 8mm camera and, later, camcorder. These images they captured and created may have been the way in, but when we would look at them later, the conversation and narration they inspired were another art in and of themselves. The images reflected back enough hard data to establish primary facts—who was there, about what year it was, what the occasion would have been—but it was up to us to continually supply the meaning, to tell the story.
A lot of people say they write things down to remember them, but I’ve always felt like I write things down in order to forget. To exorcise them, to get the repetition of a phrase or idea out of my damn mind so that it can stop haunting me. During college, I used to stalk around campus with my head down, internally chanting portions of essays-in-progress to myself until I could get a moment to sit down and transcribe it all into a notebook, where I could build on and edit my ideas. This is still how my best pieces compose themselves to this day. And that’s why I often completely forget about things that I’ve written. Once the words are out of my head and exist on a page or a screen, they’re out of my system, leaving space for a new me to arise and get to know all over again. She’s always teaching me to be a better listener.
January is secretly my favorite time for listening to music.
I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit. I’m always listening to music, and there’s no bad time to listen to music, ever.
But over the past thirteen years that I’ve been making mixes in December full of my favorite songs from the preceding eleven months, I notice a curious thing starts to happen to my ears in January after all the selection and curation and analysis is over. My tastes become broad, and catholic again.
While I’m making a mix, I’m of course focused on music that was released that calendar year, or within a year or two prior. I’m also somewhat necessarily focused on making sure that the mix itself flows together like its own cohesive statement. Not only that, but I’m also imagining what it will sound like to other people, wondering if the charms of a particular track will be readily apparent to my dearest friends and other folks that I nerd out about music with. I’ve always got my eye on posterity a bit too, asking myself, “how will this mix sound in the context of previous years’ mixes? How does it compare? Have I still got the knack for making these?” And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I still poke around online to see what other folks are citing as the year’s best music, seeing where my sensibilities have definitively diverged from the indie mainstream, as well as where my taste is falling right in line with what I’m told I’m “supposed” to like. It’s a lot of mental gymnastics!
But in January, all those rubrics fall away. Music doesn’t have to appeal to anyone but me. It doesn’t have to fit in with what anyone else is listening to. It can be poppy or abrasive, barely recognizable as music or laden with saccharine strings. And since there will be plenty of time later in the year to listen to new releases that will be eligible for inclusion on the subsequent mix, age is of no importance during this window of time—a track can be four or forty years old. Music’s main job for me throughout January, especially here in Chicago, is to keep me centered in a sense of delight and the promise of pleasure, even when the weather is forbidding and it’s a challenge, to put it mildly, to get out of my warm bed in the morning.
Having the chance to sit with an album or an artist that’s particularly knocking my socks off is as pure a motivation as I can think of to get me out of my house and onto the train on a snowy, frigid day. When I’m released into permission to do nothing but sit quietly for 30 or 40 minutes while I’m whisked through the city to my office, disappearing into a musical bubble for that length of time is almost more than compensation for the attendant hassle and the stress. I mean, I barely even sit in my own apartment and do nothing but listen to music for that length of time (as opposed to having it on in the background while I’m cooking in the kitchen or putting on my makeup in the bathroom). The fact that the Chicago Transit Authority gifts me with that indulgence five days a week is something I’m not nearly thankful enough for.
One of the albums I associate most strongly with this cold, but potent, time of year, this month that’s often so empty but also so full of promise, is electronic sound artist Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet.
Back in my days of more avidly reading Pitchfork and trawling blogs for hot new shit, December wrap-ups were a goldmine for finding new-to-me music that I’d not heard of or had otherwise overlooked the year before.
Harmony in Ultraviolet was appearing on plenty of best-of lists at the end of 2006, and there was something about the way that people were talking about his work that drew me to it. (Call anything “oceanic” and that’s kinda gonna automatically do it for me.) Even though I’d only previously dabbled the very tiniest bit with what I then broadly thought of as “ambient” music, it ended up being the perfect soundtrack to a very cold, very snowy January.
Hecker’s mournful strings coupled with fat, fuzzy blankets of distortion and blown-out washes of sound felt desolate yet contemplative, mirroring January’s barren landscape. The tensions and dissonances in the music heightened the contrast between the incredibly cold air outside and the coziness of my being wrapped in a winter coat and hat while smashed into a tiny seat on the train, surrounded by dozens of other chilled, sleepy commuters. For all the drama of Hecker’s soundscapes, though, they didn’t remove me from the mundane but somehow situated me more firmly within it. And a large part of that effect was because of the way that the sounds combined and layered together to produce a sense of timelessness.
When I was listening to music that had a regular meter and predictable structure, I knew I could listen to about seven to nine songs between the time I left my home and the time I would arrive at the station nearest my office. Each song with a familiar verse-chorus-verse format became its own tiny, dread-filled countdown to the time I’d have to abandon the solace of my own interiority for the chatter and distractions of an eight-hour workday. I would start being sad about the train ride ending nearly before it had begun, simply because I would look at any given playlist on my iPod and would know I probably wouldn’t reach the end of it before I had to go put on my professional face.
But the formlessness of Harmony in Ultraviolet released me from that pressure. Since I could barely tell where one track ended and the next one began, I discovered that I wasn’t mentally rushing through one song to the next, that I was allowing myself to simply be present with it. There were no melodies to cling to, despite the occasional appearance of the ghost of a melodic hook, so the tracks themselves prevented me from craving the cathartic release of a shouty chorus or an epic guitar solo. Since I wasn’t waiting for the catchy part of the song, and thus unconsciously wishing away the rest of the track (not to mention also wishing away a whole micro-chunk of my morning me-time in the process), my commute started to feel extended, in the best way possible. I suddenly had more time within my time.
Harmony in Ultraviolet, in its own mysterious way, reminded me that I didn’t solely exist to be shuttled from one obligation to the next. It assured me that my purpose for existing wasn’t just my utility in others’ agendas. It inserted me back into the middle of my own life and regifted me with the ability to find expanse in the midst of what otherwise looked like restriction.
My fascination with Call Me By Your Name began, as it did for so many of us, with that clip of Armie Hammer dancing.
Armie Hammer is one of those celebrities I mostly know because of social media, and not because I follow him anywhere, but because the people I do follow have an affection for him and post lots of GIFs of him looking handsome and saying funny, self-deprecating things. (I’m confounded by the sudden and mysterious ascendance of all these extremely handsome dudes, including Chrises Hemsworth and Pine, who are somehow also genuinely, extremely funny.) But then that dance went viral and lots of other people started getting obsessed with him in that singularly social media-informed way that’s beyond just Andy Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame, that instead casts everyone who reaches a certain level of fame as the star of their own fanfic, where they can be dressed up and outfitted with each individual viewer’s very specific and often very quirky desires. That’s the point I knew the movie was probably going to be A Thing when it finally came out.
So I downloaded the ebook of the novel onto the Kindle app on my iPhone and spent a few weeks reading it during this past rainy October.
It’s a lovely, erotic little bit of writing that made me wonder how the film was ever going to manage to convey the painstaking, multilayered interiority of Elio’s sexual awakening without resorting to voice over. It also made me preemptively appreciate Hammer’s casting all the more; there is no one else I could imagine playing the role of Oliver.
One of the things that bugs me most about current practices in film distribution is the way that everything revolves around hype. Not that it hasn’t always, of course, but it feels particularly intensified now. Everything’s a summer tentpole; everything’s year-end awards season bait. I see and feel how easily I’m played through targeted promotion and the relentless unavoidability of advertising, at least for the chosen handful of films that can afford such tactics.
It always reminds me of the summer that I drove from Chicago to Chelan, Washington, with three friends. None of us had ever been to Wall Drug in South Dakota before, even though we’d all seen the bumper stickers and knew the main gist of its legend. But, as we were first setting out and planning when and where we’d take our rest stops, none of us felt any particular need to actually go there. Until, of course, we’d been driving for hours with very little scenery to capture our attention other than Wall Drug advertisements along the side of the road, and suddenly its allure became that much more understandable, and irresistible.
Even after all those times we joked about its omnipresent, single-minded advertising juggernaut, still, after all that build up, we somehow started to feel like, gosh, we kind of have to go now, don’t we? And so of course we did. My actual memories of the place are pretty vague, mostly informed in retrospect by the few snapshots I managed to take with what was probably the last film-based camera I’ll ever own. But, by god, the photos prove I was there!
And that’s pretty much what it feels like to go to the movies now.
I don’t get as excited about an actual film as much as I get excited about my idea of the film. And my idea of the film is carefully implanted in my imagination by a canny and cunning campaign that’s solely meant to get me through the theater door, preferably sometime during opening weekend. At which point my idea of the film ends up not mattering at all after I’ve shelled out my cash at the box office.
And even if a tiny film ends up blowing up beyond its initial projections, it’s ultimately still hype that gets me to see it, when I read people talking about this small great film that’s so winning, so charming. And so many times I leave wondering what the big deal about it was in the first place, wondering why that random film, among so many others, was the one that found its statistically unlikely success.
The big deal, of course, is innocence. It’s the simplicity of a piece of art’s is-ness, before it’s burdened by its audience’s opinions of it.
As I wrote about in my 2016 film write-up last year, I have no head for plot and thus I rarely have ever cared about spoilers. If I’m watching a movie for its mood, for the vibrancy of its symbolism and for its ability to make me feel something, I’ve always thought its plot actually hinders me from contemplating those elements with the depth that I want to. Like, I’d seen Kubrick’s The Shining I don’t know how many times, but it wasn’t until I made my boyfriend, a lifelong Stephen King fan, explain the mechanics of the story to me that I could finally watch it as a piece of art without being breathlessly frightened by every cut to a new scene. I’ve always kind of felt like, if a movie can be ruined by being spoiled, well then, maybe it deserves to be spoiled. If there’s not enough there there for me to appreciate beyond a simple progression from “A then B then C to—whoa!—D,” then it’s probably not worth my time in the first place.
But now that GIFs on Tumblr and micro-analyses on Twitter have become the de facto water cooler chatter where I often inadvertently pick up information about any given movie before I’ve actually had a chance to see it, there’s this new level of, like, emotional spoiler that I have become much more wary of. When some actor’s sidelong glance at a character in a scene in a film can be not just captured, but repeated ad infinitum via an animated GIF, its power, which was maybe so vital, so trenchant in context, becomes siphoned off and turned into this weird commodity, just another way for us to perform our own identities online. Now that there’s this new technologically based ability to extract the very thing that I go to the movies for in the first place, I find that my investment in the anticipation of these moments completely robs me of my ability to feel the profundity of the thing.
Like, when I finally got myself to the movie theater to see Call Me By Your Name after nearly two full weeks in bed with a terrible flu, I was so primed for the moment when Oliver says “I remember everything” on the phone to Elio near the very end of the film, that the moment blew right past me. I felt nothing because I was expecting it to feel like everything. I had read so much about it and was expecting to, like, levitate out of my seat with sympathetic grief and rapture. And when I didn’t, I of course was looking somewhere to place the blame: with myself, with the people who’d hyped that moment on social media, with the film itself.
There has to be a way to talk about the things we love in a way that illuminates rather than colonizes them. And, don’t get me wrong, I fully admit my own culpability here; I’ve written reams and reams about film online since 2001, much of it laden with the kind of emotional spoilers I’ve just spent this whole post deriding. In my own small way, I’ve contributed to this me-first, everyone’s-a-critic discourse that has turned into this monster that destroys pleasure by isolating and magnifying it in the name of critique.
So my small act of penance, my small gesture toward allowing precious things to remain precious, is that I’m not going to tell you about my favorite moment in the film. I’m not going to tell you about the line that made me cry twice, first in the theater and then later again in the car when my boyfriend and I were talking about it on the way home. The moment may not hit you in the same way it hit me; hell, it may not even hit me the same way again when and if I see the movie a second time.
Because, that’s the whole message of the movie, right? Don’t deaden your reactions to life by brushing the overwhelm of your feelings aside or stuffing them down. Or, I might extrapolate, by elevating or otherwise blowing them up as a way of fashioning them into a substitute for your personality. As that devastating final shot of Timothée Chalamet’s face shows us so vividly, it’s entirely possible for love, even when painful, to be an experience of accretion. This brief affair not only restored elements to the character’s life (such as the Star of David that he began wearing again around his neck), it also added to it (he got a secret new name, a deepened relationship with his father, etc.). Love, even when it’s fleeting, is something you can keep.
And until I can figure out a more effective way to elevate the things I’m compelled by rather than flattening them through indiscriminate sharing, I’m choosing to keep what I love close to me for a change.
I put a photo up on Instagram a few weeks ago with a snotty caption explaining that I don’t really watch TV anymore because of technical limitations.
There’s no longer an actual television set in my apartment, so if I want to stream something on Netflix or via iTunes, I have to set my laptop up at the foot of my bed on a barstool, then connect it to a small guitar amp, which is precariously balanced next to it on the laundry hamper. I let the supposed hassle of this rickety set-up stand in for the true reality of the situation, which is that TV makes me sad.
Oh sure, I have plenty of positive associations with TV. It’s not that I don’t get the pleasure of it. Binge-watching Gilmore Girls and Deadwood with my former roommate; having a standing Thursday night date to watch the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with two dear friends over the course of my first year or so living in Chicago; or even discovering Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central during my final year as an undergraduate at Indiana University. I have nothing but fondness for all these shows and the situations in which I watched them. There’s so much joy to be found in the ritualistic qualities of proceeding through a narrative with dogged regularity (or in big gulps of obsessive attention), in the coziness of sharing a meal together and then slipping into that mindset where you’re temporarily unbound from prosaic time and lost in another reality with your viewing companions, where the regular concerns of your day-to-day life are suddenly much less vivid than the plot conflicts of the characters onscreen you’ve come to love. My roommate and I even used to joke about how much we “missed our friends” when we’d come to the conclusion of a season or an entire series.
But behind and beyond all that, there are my more formative childhood memories and associations with TV, which are not as fond or rosy.
I grew up in a house where the TV was pretty much always on. And, yes, of course, there was a lot of stuff that I loved to watch when I was young–the usual kid fare like The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My dad also used to delight in telling a story about how he figured out how to play that iconic opening riff from the Barney Miller theme song on his old Rhodes electric piano, just so that, as a toddler, I’d come tearing into the living room when he’d play it. As soon as I heard those first few notes, I’d start to boogie, and I’d scream, my Ls and Rs not yet distinct in my baby mouth, “Bawney Miwwew’s on!!!”
But after my mother died and a lot of my dad’s vibrance and creative spark began to dim, thanks to financial stress, lack of romantic intimacy, general overwhelm, and certainly undiagnosed depression, I began to notice the way that the TV had become an emotional pacifier for the household.
My dad was never a substance abuser in that he hardly ever drank and had probably rarely if ever used other chemical intoxicants; TV, instead, was his drug of choice. The addiction started off benign, understandable. During the early years of his marriage to my mother, in the years just before and just after I was born, when he was gigging with his band or conducting the pit for a local musical theater production on the weekends, he would come home late at night, wired with post-performance adrenaline, and crash in front of the TV. He’d sit there until he’d come down enough to be able to crawl into bed and finally get some sleep. But this template eventually began to inform the rest of his life. Any time he was desperate to switch himself off, the TV was switched on. It had to have been an attractive option after a full day of work and a grueling commute home to Indiana from downtown Chicago, and especially so on a Friday night at the conclusion of a week spent at a job he needed but didn’t particularly care about.
In the early ’90s, these Friday night veg-out sessions neatly coincided with the “TGIF” sitcom programming on ABC. The ritual became: dad gets home and orders a pizza; he and my siblings and I eat pizza in the living room, sitting in front of the TV for two hours; then we scatter to our individual rooms and go to bed. It started off feeling like a treat (pizza! funny shows!), but soon became a prison.
I’ve always been highly verbal, longing to talk and communicate about everything, wanting to notice any and all glimmers of nuance and meaning in the world around me. Instead, though, on those Friday nights, I was forced to be silent, to train my eyes on the flashing screen, to accept the flattened meanings and prepackaged narratives that I intuitively knew had nothing to do with real life. Yet the propaganda inevitably began to seep into my early adolescent consciousness. I reasoned that these stories must be telling some sort of truth that I maybe just didn’t have access to if they were being presented, so relentlessly, for our mass consumption. It was dissonance on top of dissonance, further compounding everything that I was already starting to feel was wrong about me.
So, instead of us talking to each other about the pain and sadness of living without our mother, we sat and watched Full House, a “cute” sitcom about a fictional motherless family who, in their scripted and sanitized way, were also not dealing with any emotions that couldn’t be tidied up in 22 minutes punctuated with catchphrases, mugging, and the occasional musical interlude. It was the site of incredible psychic pain for me. Last year when the show was rebooted, I grimaced nearly every day as someone on social media would cheer, with varying degrees of kitsch or camp awareness, about how much they were looking forward to the new episodes.
Unlike my experiences in my late teens and early 20s, where I truly felt like I was watching TV with my friends, that we were journeying into these worlds together, TV in my childhood always felt profoundly distancing. It isolated me from the people I most wanted, and needed, to connect to. I wanted to scream about how lonely I was, at how much I resented the way the TV took us away from each other. Maybe it was also partially a narcissistic wound as well, that I simply wished to have that much undivided attention focused on me.
Much like my dad, I’ve never been much of a drinker or drug taker. But I recognize the part of myself that loves to attempt to “entertain” myself away from my problems and pain; these days, it takes the shape of endless, bleary-eyed iPhone scrolling. And I know that if I had a TV in my home, I’d be powerless against its seductions too.
Oh sure, I’d probably tell myself that I’d just be keeping up with pop culture by watching the hot new shows of the moment, that I could blog my thoughts about all the sophisticated narrative techniques and gorgeous production design and gut-wrenchingly honest acting that are part and parcel of these newly prestigious series. And, knowing my nasty little competitive streak, I would also feel like I’d have to know All the Shows so that I’d never have to admit “oh, I haven’t seen that one” when people began freaking out about something new and delicious. The time suck would be real. As would the drain on my emotional health.
So, just like someone who has seen drug or alcohol addiction ruin their family but also knows they have the capacity to lose themselves to the same addiction, I’ve had to go cold turkey. Now it’s easier for me to just watch no TV at all.
Which is of course not true. In the past few years, I’ve seen a few episodes of the Kenneth Branagh version of Wallander, a few of the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes, and literally one episode of Stranger Things. But mostly, when someone gets in my face with truly evangelical enthusiasm to ask “have you seen this show?!” or “do you watch this series?!” it’s just cleaner for me to say, “no, I don’t have a TV” and leave it at that. There’s no simple way in the moment to explain that it’s not the show, it’s me. Of course, there’s the part of me that also sees that, ironically, I’m sometimes actually missing a moment of potential connection with whomever may be asking me that question, and connection is exactly what I’ve been attempting to foster by cutting TV out of my life.
More important to me than any connection with a random friend or coworker at this point, though, is the connection to my childhood self, who can now have the freedom to communicate with me, far away from the distractions of the TV screen.
For at least a decade now, whenever my best friend and I have had to drive from our current homes in Chicago back into Northwest Indiana where we grew up, for weddings or baby showers or, alas, now also funerals, we have a little running joke about it.
We’ll look around at the scenery, usually while we’re tooling down the same roads where we practiced first learning how to drive as teenagers. And we’ll say to each other:
WE’LL NEVER NOT BE FROM HERE. No matter what happens and where else we may go in life, we’ll ALWAYS be from here. If anyone ever asks us, “where are you from?” we’ll ALWAYS have to say Dyer, Indiana.
For some reason, the absolute permanence and finality of that fact always strikes us as hilarious. There are so many ways that we have the power to change and rearrange our lives, but the sheer, literal unavoidability of our origins can never be altered. The nearly cosmic absurdity of it just hits us square in the funny bone.
“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home,” muses Pip in Great Expectations, and, well, not for nothing is it my all-time favorite novel. Though I probably never would have come straight out and said I was ashamed of being from Northwest Indiana, on many occasions have I sniffed something to the effect that it “just wasn’t the place for me.”
And, it isn’t. Or wasn’t. Or.
Suddenly, though, I find myself more simply interested in Northwest Indiana. In the fact of it. In its more elusive, underlying, animating spirit. I guess it’s a similar impulse to when folks get the genealogy bug and start tracing their way through the generations of their family tree. But for me it feels less like I want to specifically reclaim my own Hoosier identity and more like I’m interested in reappreciating the genuine pockets of the place’s uniqueness and specificity that people who grew up in other parts of the country or world would never otherwise know about. A more nuanced take on those clickbaity “You Know You’re From the Region If…” listicles, so to speak.
Part of this, I’m sure, stems from the fact that I’ve been in a relationship for the past six years with someone who was born and raised in Connecticut. In addition to all the other things about him that totally fascinate me, I find his essential East Coastness endlessly intriguing. (My standard line about this is always that I never really got Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground until I met him. Now I get it.)
I delight in hearing my boyfriend tell stories about his childhood in Waterbury. I see and appreciate more deeply certain facets of his personality that only come to the fore whenever we travel there to visit his family. Just the landscape alone tells me so much about his psychology. And that’s not even factoring in seemingly minor but actually super meaningful stuff like what local grocery chains his family shopped at, what TV stations they watched, and whether the elementary schools he and his sister went to stopped at fifth or sixth grade.
And, much like the American who realizes that she too speaks accented English when she hears a Brit or an Australian parrot her own voice back to her, I began to realize that, of course, my place of birth has stories and history that inform the way that I understand and carry myself in the world too.
Like, just off the top of my head, lemon rice soup.
The constellation of context and meaning surrounding this simple side dish is actually so complicated that I’ve been idly doing research on all the contributing factors that make it such a uniquely Northwest Indiana thing. I mean, I’ve been looking up the patterns of immigration of Greek families to the Chicago area, how and why that community found such success as restaurateurs, and what confluence of factors led to avgolemono becoming a staple of those restaurants’ menus. All these details must then also be funneled through a more personal recollection of why everyone I know from my childhood and teen years is obsessed with the stuff. And how it’s now just as much a part of our identities as it assuredly was for the Greek families who most likely nicked their Yia-Yia’s special recipe in order to cook up thick, steamy vats of it to serve their patrons by the bowlful.
Earlier this summer, my boyfriend and I drove from Chicago to Valparaiso, Indiana, to hear Roger McGuinn play a solo concert at the Memorial Opera House. We had just enough time before the show to grab a quick bite to eat at a restaurant nearby. Overjoyed to see lemon rice soup on the menu, I greedily ordered a bowl and insisted on posting a photo of it on Facebook. “Introducing Brian to the ancestral dish of my homeland,” I captioned the shot, and my friends lost their minds. A flurry of comments and reminiscences began unspooling under the photo, and I felt the profundity of that shared point of reference in a way that I don’t think I ever had before. I mean, I’m Polish, I’m nowhere close to being Greek; but it really kind of is the ancestral dish of my homeland.
I’d wanted to share the specificity of that with my boyfriend, to show him this strange, tiny part of my heart, but in a lot of ways it was more about me finally recognizing the significance of that collective memory for myself.
Growing up, I’d often bemoaned the Nowheresville quality of my hometown. I used to think that if I were from elsewhere in Indiana, I’d at least be able to claim a certain sort of aw-shucks Heartland corn-fed wholesomeness that people would understand. Or that, obviously, if I’d grown up in Chicago—rather than an hour outside the city on the wrong side of the state line—every new person I met would have an easy, instant shorthand for the overall essence of where I was from. “The Region,” as it’s colloquially known, always just seemed to me like an unfortunate armpit part of the state that had no true identity.
But in the grand tradition of James Joyce writing about Dublin while living far, far away in Europe, I suppose I’m becoming a similar sort of more local ex-pat who can finally wrap her head around her place of origin now that she’s no longer living there. The absolute permanence and finality of having grown up in Dyer, Indiana, turns out to be a lot less permanent and final than I’d once thought. Just as new roads get bulldozed through farm fields and seemingly indestructible structures like the high school I graduated from get torn down and completely rebuilt, even if the facts of my past won’t change, my understanding of them most certainly can, and will.
In high school, I developed this theory about my personal vocabulary.
The theory went that I was allotted a certain number of words throughout the day, and once I had used them up, they were gone until they regenerated the next morning. I came to this conclusion when I noticed that on days after long theater rehearsals or other tasks that stretched late into the night, I would find myself spluttering to get my thoughts and feelings across, which inevitably led to my swearing like a sailor more avidly and frequently. It seemed to make sense that, if I’d used up everything else over the course of the day, all I would have left by the end of the night was curse words.
(This was well before the current theories on decision fatigue had been documented, so I guess there was some kind of intuitive grain of truth to my otherwise silly notion.)
Similarly, later on in college, I noticed that I would go through these weird phases where I would just straight-up lose words.
The first one I noticed was “thermometer.” I’d have this blanked-out moment of aphasia where I’d be looking at a long glass thing filled with mercury that was divided into evenly spaced units of measurement, and it would take me several generous beats before I could pull the word “thermometer” to the surface of my consciousness.
The next one to go was “report card.” It got to the point where, when I couldn’t wait those extra few seconds for the right phrase to appear out of the depths of wherever it had gone missing in my brain, I’d improvise a close-enough equivalent. I remember having a conversation about grades at some point and breezily referring to “you know, the summary report.” An Anglophile friend often accepted these substitutions with a laugh, suggesting that I should just pass them off, if ever questioned, as obscure British slang.
So, this is just a thing that happens to me for whatever reason. (The reason usually being that my mouth is moving way faster than my brain.)
Recently at my day job, two women in our marketing department were telling me that the new CFO, who was just hired this summer after leaving his gig at a big fancy publisher in New York City, had been scrutinizing the editorial department’s invoices. He was wondering why we’d recently ordered a set of bound galleys from Printer A rather than Printer B. The implication being that we were foolishly wasting money by using Printer A since Printer B could do the job a buck or two cheaper.
This has been a recurring power struggle over the years, and I, as the person in charge of tracking the book budgets, have had to explain to numerous people numerous times that while we do still use Printer B on occasion, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth, despite the relatively minor cost savings. Printer B will take three or four rounds of corrections just to get all the text on the front and back covers right, and their schedules are often unpredictably slow, which causes trouble downstream for our publicists, who are trying to get galleys out the door to their contacts at magazines and journals as soon as possible. So, the extra money that we pay to Printer A is worth it to us, because they get the job right the first time and routinely turn around the finished copies in two weeks or less.
Even though I know the women I was talking to probably knew this, my temper still flared a little bit and I ran them through this basic explanation all over again. Exasperated, I rolled my eyes and assured them, though, that the only reason the new CFO, with all his East Coast bravado, was suddenly bugging us about this was that he was…and here I hit one of my aphasic moments.
Deep in the caverns of my brain, I’m pretty sure I was looking for the phrase “throwing his weight around.” But as I shouted through the climax of my monologue, not wanting to take a breath and ruin the illusion that I was the second coming of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, what I managed to spit out was that the CFO was just “feeling his bones.”
Guys, I am literally laughing out loud about this right now as I type. Feeling his bones! What the! Holy shit. “Feeling his bones.”
Though I knew it made no sense as soon as I heard the words come tumbling out of my face, I was so committed to being professionally annoyed that I couldn’t bring myself to stop and acknowledge the ridiculousness of what I’d just said. But maybe that’s the ultimate revenge of my perpetual inner mischief-maker. Maybe, all along, it’s not that the words necessarily disappear. Maybe it’s that, when I’ve devoted myself to other people’s projects for too long and have ignored my deep inner thirst for pure silliness too egregiously, they’re just temporarily taken out of commission so that I have no choice but to get a little playful with the weirder and funnier substitutions I reach for to replace them.
Really, I’d been planning this trip to Italy since late 2001.
It all began around Thanksgiving-time, the year that I graduated college. I was headed back to Northwest Indiana after several months of aimlessness that saw me go from housesitting for a professor in Bloomington, Indiana, to interviewing for an internship in New York City, to bumming around Seattle for a while with a friend who’d recently moved there for work. I came back both to be with my family for the holidays and to be around for all the last-minute activities leading up to my best friend’s wedding in late December.
The night before her bridal shower, I went with my maternal grandmother to some kind of spaghetti potluck fundraiser being held at a local church. I have no recollection what it was raising money for, or why my grandma had specifically invited me to go. Mostly I remember being in some typical but nondescript church hall or basement, the kind that I’d spent years of my life in, whether it was helping my dad load gear in and out of for wedding receptions, attending funeral luncheons, or performing Christmas carols with various school choirs. Sitting on a folding chair at a long table narrowly butted up against several other long tables packed with folding chairs, I shoved forkfuls of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce into my mouth and stared down at the paper placemat that had an outline of the shape of Italy on it. And I thought to myself, “yeah, Italy. Now that I’ve been to both France and England, that’s the place I’d like to go to next.”
It was a somewhat random thought, likely influenced by a handful of late ’90s/early ’00s movies that were in the air—The Talented Mr. Ripley, Nurse Betty, Life Is Beautiful. I’d even tried to teach myself a bit of rudimentary Italian a couple years before, from an Italian for Dummies book, but I’d way overestimated my prowess for language acquisition and stalled out almost as soon as I began. But beyond that, I didn’t have much of an affinity for Italian culture or history. Even as a film major, I’d never even had a class on Italian Neorealism. Italy had never really been on my radar, until suddenly it was.
As we were finishing up and leaving the church hall, I grabbed a clean placemat from another table and folded it up and tucked it in my purse with the intention of hanging it on my wall as some sort of talisman. Like pinning a photo of yourself in a bathing suit on the refrigerator door as inspiration to lose weight, this would be an aspirational reminder of my next travel goal, which I was sure would come to fruition imminently.
My grandma dropped me off at my dad’s house and then she drove herself the few short blocks back to her own home and that was that.
The next morning I made my way to the wedding shower for my best friend, but a few hours later I got a call from my dad. My grandma had been feeling ill all night and had asked him to take her to the emergency room that morning sometime not long after I’d left for the shower. She was a tough old broad, so this concerned me a great deal, that she’d been feeling bad enough not only to have to go to the hospital, but also that she needed someone else to take her there. Especially since, obviously, I had just been with her the night before and she’d seemed fine. He told me not to worry but that she’d had a perforated ulcer and that while she was in surgery for it, one of her lungs collapsed. She was out of surgery by that point and was stable, but she would need some time to recover and there would be a lot of follow-up appointments to track the progress of her healing.
In the next days and weeks, after a lot of conversation with my dad and my uncles, it seemed to make the most sense for me to be the one to take over my grandmother’s day-to-day care. Since I was back home in Northwest Indiana and wasn’t otherwise employed at that point, I, luckily, would have the flexibility to drive her to her various check-ups and appointments during the day. Of course, right around the time I assented, I finally heard back from the magazine in New York about the internship. They weren’t going to be able to grant me the position after all. I was sad about it but rationalized that, immediately post-9/11, they probably wanted to hire someone who was already living in the city anyway. It made sense that they wouldn’t want to be responsible for flying some bumpkin from Indiana all the way out to the Big Apple just for a couple months of filing and photocopying tasks. So, rather than to the East Coast, I moved into the spare bedroom of my grandmother’s house and embarked upon six months of loose ends and loneliness before her death in June 2002.
So, when, in late 2016, my boyfriend’s father decided that he wanted to celebrate his upcoming retirement by taking a whirlwind tour of several European countries, including Italy, and asked us if we’d be interested in joining him, I waited a demure half-second before insisting that my boyfriend report back to him YES. We would, in fact, be interested in joining him.
This was it! This was my big chance! This was my big chance to FINALLY go to Italy!
My boyfriend’s dad researched a handful of tour group companies and eventually booked us an itinerary that would fly us into London before making additional quick stops in Paris, Lucerne, Venice, Florence, and Rome over the course of eleven days total.
My chance to go to Italy, though, turned out to be exactly that—a chance to go to Italy. It wasn’t really even a vacation as much as it was simply a chance for me to be in Italy for four days before I got back on a plane to fly home to Chicago again. The pace of the tour we were on was so fast and so relentless that essentially all we did was walk past or through the most obvious of tourist-trap highlights, the icons that immediately spring to mind when someone says the words “Venice” or “Florence” or “Rome.”
Although I didn’t do any specific magic for it in the way that I did for my perfect cupcake, all the energy that I’d invested over the years in this idea of “going to Italy” pretty much had the same be-careful-what-you-wish-for effect. Clearly, the fact that I never conceived of exactly what I would want to do or see or experience or feel there meant that the emphasis was on my physical presence in the country and that’s all.
I mean, yes, of course, a lot of the tourist-trap obvious stuff we saw was really amazing! Famous stuff is often famous for a reason! And, bottom line, I got to go to Italy. I’m totally happy about that fact. But still, words matter. As I’m slowing realizing about myself and my preferences for travel, I’m most attracted to experiencing the mundane aspects of any given destination that I happen to be visiting. Staying put in one place for a generous amount of time, wandering through the city streets, finding delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants, poking around used bookstores, basically LARPing what my own life would be like if I just happened to live there instead of Chicago. So, guess what—fast-paced, multicountry, large group package tours probably aren’t the right thing for me. I’ve learned that about myself now! And I can set more accurate intentions going forward for the kinds of trips that do inspire and light me up.
On the final day of the trip, our tour group was somehow granted special permission to tour the Vatican museum before it officially opened its doors. We skipped the line that was already beginning to form out front and breezed right in. It was lovely to be able to enjoy the art without being bumped and jostled by masses of other tourists all trying to take photos of the same things.
My boyfriend and I marveled at the extreme homoeroticism of much of the art.
I nerded out about the fact that there were statues of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in a special display.
I turned on my psychic sense in the Sistine Chapel when we acknowledged to each other that we felt ever so slightly unimpressed by it—and, no wonder—it’s not a place for spirituality at all. It’s basically a board room (for “functionary papal activity” as Wikipedia delightfully puts it). I got the feeling that Michelangelo was like the kid in elementary school that had a knack for art, so all the other kids would ask him to draw sketches of their favorite superheroes for them. Just instead of “Mikey, do me one with Batman punching a shark!” it was “Do me one with all the badass stuff from the Old Testament!” (In contrast, we found his Pietà at St. Peter’s Basilica much more affecting; it seemed very clear to me that he’d worked on that one on his own time to please himself.)
After whizzing through the galleries and St. Peter’s Square, we of course were ferried past a gift shop where we’d have some time to buy trinkets and eat some lunch before the group would be taken by bus to the Colosseum. I picked up rosaries and holy water and candles, then shuffled over with my boyfriend and his father to what was basically a glorified cafeteria.
And when I finally sat down, squeezing myself in at a long table that butted up against a bunch of other long tables, and started to dig in to my plateful of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce, it occurred to me that everything had truly come full circle.
From the first inklings of my desire to travel to Italy that originated in a church basement in Northwest Indiana to the culmination of that desire that brought me to, essentially, the ultimate church basement in Vatican City, there was a comforting continuity to the unglamorous familiarity of it all. It was like some sort of fishes-and-loaves miracle effected not for the sake of a huge crowd, but across sixteen years and two continents, all for the sake of one girl very hungry with wanderlust.
One of the best possible examples that my dad set for me, as a creative person, growing up, was that he collaborated with people.
As I’ve talked about before, it’s hard to explain exactly what kind of musician he was. But the one thing he definitely wasn’t was the stereotype of the isolated solo artist, tortured by the melodies in his head that no one else could hear, pushing people away while he perfected his craft.
Was he a monomaniacal, controlling, obsessive, perfectionist Virgo? Yes. It was his way or the highway, especially if he felt like you weren’t on his level, professionally. He would damn well tell you how the part should be played, how the song should be sung, how the arrangement should be arranged.
But if he respected you as a musician? He actively wanted to collaborate and play together. He was a band guy through and through. Whether it was his trio, a musical theater pit band, or the praise-and-worship musicians at church, he wanted your opinion. He wanted your voice. He wanted your talent. He loved and respected his musical friends with the enthusiasm and ferocity of his entire being. He was not shy about expressing his admiration if there was anything he liked about someone’s technique or style.
For better or for worse, when I was a child, he often treated me like a tiny adult, like his little musical protégé. It’s hard for me to say for certain now, as an actual adult, how much of my musical talent and musical interest was innate and specific to me, and how much of it was just that I learned very quickly that I would be praised and rewarded for demonstrating musical aptitude. Not that it matters much at this point; you can’t unring a bell, as they say, and I’m grateful for the inadvertent musical boot camp that I went through in the years before I turned eighteen. But when I take personality assessment inventories or try to work through journaling prompts that suggest I think back to the stuff that I most loved doing as a child in order to determine where I might find greater joy as an adult, it’s hard for me to untangle the threads of how much pleasure I gleaned from music in and of itself and how much I just wanted to feel like I belonged to something—such as the not-so-secret club of musicians that my dad spent a lifetime gathering around himself. Of course it’s natural for a child to seek a parent’s praise; his was just particularly high octane, especially when it came to his area of expertise.
I would cringe with shame bordering on terror when I botched something while I was still learning to play the piano—not so much because I thought he was going to yell at me (since he was trained as a teacher, he could actually be very gentle with beginners, despite his temper), but more because I hated revealing myself as, frankly, a child. He treated me more or less like a peer, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to rise to the occasion.
I remember once excitedly wanting to play for him a piece that I’d recently taught myself from a book of sheet music. The time signature was 4/4, but somehow I ended up miscounting some of the syncopation, which meant I was playing a few bars in something like 7/4. I was so impressed with myself when I sat down on the piano bench, and then gutted when, in the middle of the song, he straight up laughed at me.
In retrospect, I’m guessing that his laughter wasn’t meant to be derisive. In a weird way, it was probably even tinged with respect, since, how in the hell does some preteen piano-playing kid just accidentally end up bashing through something in relatively consistent 7/4 time? But I was instantly flooded with shame. (I am not a shrug-and-get-over-it kind of person. I go instantly to shame and I wallow there.) I’d revealed myself to be an amateur. I’d overestimated my own abilities and then had been given my comeuppance. He immediately sat down and showed me how those measures should be played, but it hardly mattered. By that point, I hated the song; I hated myself. I was clearly deficient. I should have known better. I should have been better if I wanted to be part of his beloved inner circle.
Luckily, though, since my dad never thought of himself as much of a singer (for as gifted as he was in so many ways, he was a lackluster harmonizer and his tenor range was limited), and since I actually loved to sing, that became an easier dynamic for me to inhabit. Him at the piano, me standing behind his shoulder, the two of us reading the music together, working as a team, as something approaching equals.
I felt less shy about asking for his help in that capacity, asking for him to count me out a rhythm or asking for a suggestion for how to finesse the feel of a certain idiom. Though there were many, many fraught aspects of my childhood, especially after my mom’s death when the stresses of single parenting made his already hair-trigger temper extra sensitive, there was also a lot of joy. And filling the living room with music, often just for the sake of amusing ourselves, was the surest way to create and sustain that joy.
In my 20s, when I went through a long stretch of being single and would moan about it absolutely any chance I got, a friend once tried to cheer me up by telling me that she could imagine me ending up with a music teacher. “I could really see you with some cool young music teacher who plays guitar.” I inwardly cringed when she said it, thinking, oh god no, I don’t want to be the cliché of the person who ends up dating someone who resembles her own parent, subconsciously attempting to replicate the familiarity of her early childhood imprinting.
But on the other hand…yeah. It had always been easy for me to gravitate to creative people of all disciplines. It never surprised me to meet people in some totally square context and then discover that they could shred on a Flying V guitar, that they had won piano competitions as a child prodigy, that they were semi-professional stage actors on nights and weekends, that they had an MFA in photography. Those were just my people. I found them, they found me, we routinely found each other. And I just expected it. It seemed second nature to me after the example that my dad had set with his crew. I also couldn’t deny the appeal of getting back to a life where I could share and collaborate on music as a matter of course; this time, though, hopefully a little bit more on my own terms.
Happily, the past six years of my life have been just that, thanks to Brian, my perfect cupcake, a guitar-playing teacher after all. Our most recent co-creation is the soundtrack to our friend Gene Kannenberg Jr.’s asemic graphic novella Qodèxx.
What is an asemic graphic novella, you ask? Feast your eyes (and make a purchase) here. Qodèxx has been praised as a masterpiece by none other than Emil Ferris, author of the hugely popular and successful graphic novel My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, and has also recently been featured on Nebraska Public Radio.
On Saturday, July 29, Brian and I will be playing a 20-minute-long set of completely new and original music at the Qodèxx release party in front of a slide show projection of the interior illustrations from the novella, almost like the organ accompaniment to a silent movie. A full downloadable recording and a physical CD will subsequently be made available as well. (Think of it as the contemporary version of a Power Records book-and-record set.)
Brian and I have spent the past month working through the songs together, bolstering each other’s weak spots and leaving plenty of space for each other’s strengths. Learning any new song is always still frustrating for me; I just want to know it already, to be well into the meat of the thing, where the real magic can start to take shape. So though the days spent hashing out the arrangements were necessary, and satisfying in their own way, it was once we’d gotten the basic parts nailed down and then started tearing them apart again that my spirits truly began to soar.
For several days, we fell into a delirious, delicious routine, where I’d come home from my 9 to 5 day gig to find Brian sitting on the living room floor, hunched over the digital recorder, brows furrowed in concentration, headphones on his ears, surrounded by guitar pedals and other miscellaneous gear.
After listening through what he’d spent the afternoon recording on his own, we’d have a bit of dinner and then get right back to the music. I’d track a vocal line, he’d ask if I could invent a harmony, we’d play through everything a few times and smooth over any rough bits, and suddenly full-blown arrangements existed where there’d once only been acoustic sketches.
As my life feels increasingly fragmented by all the identities and duties that impinge upon me, from work to family to friends to my own health and even meditation practices, it was thrilling to get to concentrate so intensely on one thing for hours at a time, several days in a row. How does this sound? Can we make it better? What should it sound like? Can we simplify it even further? Even our cat Rosie knew something special was happening in the living room and would sit quietly with us, more peaceful than she almost ever is.
There is a quality of listening that activates in my head when I’m deeply engaged with musical creation and evaluation with someone I trust, approaching that vaunted state of flow, where I’m momentarily free from shame.
TO LEARN MORE
About Terry Felus, click here.
About Qodèxx the graphic novella, click here.
About the Qodèxx Happening at Creative Coworking in Evanston, click here.
About the soundtrack to Qodèxx, click here.
About previous recording diaries, click here.
Back in 2015, when my boyfriend and I were planning on moving out of our apartment in Lakeview and we were going to be looking at a new place we hoped to sign a lease on in Rogers Park, I took the the red line up to Loyola to find that Rogers Park was just really Rogers Parkin’ it up for me.
It was a beautiful spring day, one of those first utterly perfect days of the year when Chicago absolutely comes alive. Blue sky and sunshine blazing overhead, the first thing I saw was an adorable cupcake truck selling treats on the corner nearest the El! Walking a few feet down the sidewalk, I brushed past a woman wearing the most gorgeous emerald green sari! A few feet beyond that, two happy-looking pups were tied up outside the Chipotle on Sheridan, greedily eyeballing everybody’s tacos! It was such a Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood moment. It was all just heart-meltingly perfect.
And yes, a few weeks later, we signed the lease on the place we’d been there to look at, and we’ve been happily ensconced there ever since.
I’ve always had an affinity for Rogers Park. As an eighteen year old, fresh out of high school, it was one of the first neighborhoods I spent any time in, before I knew much of anything at all about the different sections of Chicago. I vividly remember being taken for the first time to what I now know was the Heartland Café. I was there with one of the writers whom I was working with on an ambitious but ultimately doomed “sitcom on stage” project called Higher Grounds. (Long story for another time.) I felt cooler than cool, lunching with this professional comedian, talking about the craft of writing, dining on some sort of vaguely healthy sandwich-with-fries situation, being waited on by a gorgeous hippie-punk goddess with armfuls of tattoos. This, as far as I was concerned, was it.
And then again after college, in the no-man’s-land year I spent living in my hometown after graduating but before getting my first big-girl job, I spent endless hours driving into the city in order to hang out at a dear friend’s grad school apartment, which was, yes, just a couple buildings down from the Heartland. Rogers Park consequently became one of the main places that convinced me I didn’t know as much about Chicago as I thought I did.
Having grown up just an hour outside the city in Northwest Indiana, I was super jaded about it. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I immediately wrote the city off. “Eh,” I thought to myself. “I know Chicago. I belong in New York or London or someplace glamorous like that.” My dad had worked downtown for most of my childhood and often brought me into the city for the Taste of Chicago or to see touring productions of Broadway musicals. Of course my elementary school had frequently taken us on field trips to the museums, and in high school, my choir even performed at Soldier Field as part of the 1994 World Cup opening ceremony. I, naively, figured these experiences had shown me all there was to see in the city. But once I finally spent an appreciable amount of time in Rogers Park, I realized there was so much more to Chicago than downtown and Grant Park. My “eh” turned to an “ohhhhh….” As in “ohhhhh, there are all these neighborhoods!” I fell in love with the city, and its magic, for real at that point.
After I officially moved into my first apartment in the city, although it’s almost inconceivable to me now, I would make the long trek between the Ukrainian Village and Rogers Park on public transportation at least once a week…Chicago Avenue bus to the red line, red line up to Morse, and then back again at the end of the night…just to hang out at my friend’s apartment on Lunt watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD, eating greasy Chinese food from the takeout place on Glenwood, and reveling in the freedom of being, blessedly, young and independent.
Or, as the narrator puts it in chapter 25 of Great Expectations:
“Herbert was my intimate companion and friend. I presented him with a half-share in my boat, which was the occasion of his often coming down to Hammersmith; and my possession of a half-share in his chambers often took me up to London. We used to walk between the two places at all hours. I have an affection for the road yet (though it is not so pleasant a road as it was then), formed in the impressibility of untried youth and hope.”
After over a decade spent living in various other (very charming!) parts of the city, even though I’d never actually lived in Rogers Park before myself, when my boyfriend and I signed the lease on our new place off the Loyola stop, it felt like a homecoming of sorts to me.
In that spirit, then, I’d like to present my highly biased, nostalgically informed, and personally skewed Guide to Rogers Park.
Holy shit, the lake!!! My boyfriend’s dad, who’s lived his whole life in Waterbury, Connecticut, and thus harbors a passionate, lifelong animosity for New York City, always marvels at the accessibility of the lake here in Chicago. And nowhere is it more accessible than in Rogers Park, thanks to the fact that you don’t have to cross Lake Shore Drive to get to it.
Sitting on a bench near the shore at dusk on a beautiful warm summer evening (or even a chilly autumnal one) is one of the great rewards for making it through a dreary and confining Chicago winter, and the fact that it only takes me about six minutes to walk there from my front door continually blows my mind.
Energetically, I always feel the lake as the feminine counterpart to the masculine energy of the Chicago River. Whereas the river, in all its reversed-flowing glory, divides the city and contributes, I feel, to all the many ways that Chicago is deeply, often disturbingly bifurcated, the lake holds us with a more catholic embrace.
And though yes, of course, everyone in the city flocks to the lakefront at all different times of year, the denizens of Rogers Park seem to take to it a little more avidly, thanks to their easier access to it. Between the Artists of the Wall event that paints the seawall with beautifully colored murals every year over Father’s Day weekend, the crowds that gather to watch the fireworks exploding over downtown on the Fourth of July, the families that prepare elaborate picnics and tie up hammocks between trees, and the Loyola students that get stoned and toss frisbees to each other, the beaches in Rogers Park come alive as very obvious representations of the way that so many different communities inhabit the neighborhood, so successfully.
THE ARMADILLO’S PILLOW
6753 N. Sheridan
Although there are many other bookstores in Chicago that I absolutely adore, the Armadillo’s Pillow has become my favorite for a certain kind of bibliomancy.
Mostly I mean it’s the kind of place where I always find something, usually on the jumbled front table in the main entryway, that I had no hope of ever finding or that I had no idea that I needed.
My boyfriend and I will often stop in there on a Friday or Saturday night, after dinner or before a movie, or just if we need a destination to get us out of the house for a bit. Like any self-respecting used bookstore should be, it’s soaked in the scent of incense, and they often curate a completely bonkers selection of music on the soundsystem. It’s right next door to a place that teaches kung fu, so you’ll often hear a muffled thump-thump-punch through the wall.
I eavesdropped on the most amazing conversation in there recently. A high school-aged kid, completely in earnest, came up to the clerk at the front counter and said, “I’ve never been a big reader, but I recently read one of Elie Wiesel’s books in school, and now I want to start reading a lot. Can you recommend any other stuff like that to me?” What a bookseller’s dream! I didn’t see what the kid left with, but the clerk engaged with him enthusiastically, showing him a good handful of places to start, with both fiction and nonfiction. I couldn’t stop grinning about it for hours.
NEW 400 MOVIE THEATER
6746 N. Sheridan
Apparently this four-screen movie theater dates back to 1912, and for a while in the early 2000s, its age really showed. I remember going to see Minority Report there in the summer of 2002 and literally sitting next to a bucket that was catching drips from the ceiling (let’s hope from the air conditioning). And although it’s been remodeled in recent years with a slightly nicer lobby and some slightly less rickety seating, it’s still pretty rough around the edges, which makes me love it all the more. Gorgeous temples of cinema with reclining leather seats and fancy snacks have their place, of course, but more often than not, I’d prefer to give my money to a neighborhood joint like this, where garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbusters feel a little more appropriate, where the ambiance of the theater itself is not somehow trying to fool me into mistaking the latest superhero franchise installment for anything resembling high art. Which, in turn, actually makes whatever garbagey mainstream Hollywood blockbuster I’m there to see just that much more viscerally satisfying.
I’ve had some of my favorite recent moviegoing experiences at the New 400. It’s where I saw the Denzel Washington version of The Magnificent Seven, the John Wick sequel, the unexpectedly devastating final Wolverine movie Logan, and, of course, Get Out. We don’t currently have a TV in our home, so if I find myself in the mood to watch something, the choice is to squint at a download on my laptop or walk a few minutes over to the New 400. I just inherently love going to see movies on a big screen and am delighted to have this squalid little gem right around the corner.
6764 N. Sheridan
Don’t let the name fool you–this is more than just a cozy little coffee shop. Royal Coffee also has a pretty amazing food menu, most notably its selection of Ethiopian dishes. If you’re in the mood for tasty injera and perfectly spiced lentils, but don’t want to commit to one of those insanely huge platters that you’ll get at some of the other well-known restaurants nearby in Edgewater, Royal Coffee is the perfect, lighter compromise.
Memorably, my boyfriend and I ended up here the night of the anti-Trump protests in Chicago this past January. I’m pretty sure we were the only people in the restaurant other than the proprietor, and we all quietly watched the footage together on the television on the back wall. It felt somehow right, to be engaging with this very Chicago moment in a public yet intimate space, sustained by the goodness of local community and true diversity.
7000 N. Glenwood
The one, the only, the legendary Heartland Cafe. If you’ve lived in Chicago for any length of time, chances are you’ve been to the Heartland at some point. If you’re visiting or new to Chicago, chances are someone will suggest the Heartland to you if you’re asking for good local places to eat. It’s been a mainstay in the city for the past 35 years, and though a financial crunch almost shuttered them for good back in 2010, they eventually pulled through and kept their doors open. The next step was to hire a new executive chef in 2013 to revamp the hippie-style menu a bit, and then they further updated the physical space by bringing True Nature Foods under their roof to replace their own in-house general store.
Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it–the Heartland can be a disaster. They will inexplicably be out of menu items that they should never be out of. (No tofu, at all? Huh??) The wait time for food will often be way out of proportion to the number of people in the dining room. The service can be surly, and/or non-existent. (We once went there with friends for brunch on New Year’s Day, and some of their scheduled servers flaked on coming in, so there was only one poor person, just sweating and apologizing for their entire shift, waiting on an entire roomful of famished and/or hungover customers.) They will often forget a portion of your order, especially if you want a smoothie, which is apparently made in an entirely different part of their kitchen from where the entrees are prepared. And on and on.
But, like, that’s part of the charm?
Because, make no mistake, this is a neighborhood joint. I feel like it’s supposed to give you the same kind of vibe you get with family or good friends whom you love with all your heart, who will also drive you up a wall with all their peculiar little tics.
Besides, when the Heartland is on point, their food is also some of the tastiest vegetarian fare you’re going to find anywhere (even if there are actually fewer vegetarian options on the menu than there used to be). The servers can be the fucking coolest, funniest, most helpful and attentive, endearingly weirdest folks you’ll run across. And overall, the place just feels like a true hub for the neighborhood. It’s been there long enough that it feels like an institution while implementing just enough changes to keep things fresh and forward-moving.
I’ve been pooped on by a bird on their outside patio. I’ve eaten a bison burger there as a prelude to a road trip across the country to Chelan, Washington. I’ve played music there with my band. I’ve celebrated my birthday there with my best friend and her three-month-old firstborn child. I’ve sat there, rapt, while a friend narrated the story of his incredible secret elopement in New Orleans. Now that I live within walking distance, I can never go too long without sliding in for a bite of whatever my current menu obsession happens to be. I repeatedly fall all over myself suggesting to friends who are in from out of town that I take them there for a meal. The Heartland, in the best possible way, will always be synonymous with Rogers Park to me.
I wrote a short post on social media this year saying that Mother’s Day bothers me less than it used to.
In contrast, though, the anniversary of my mom’s death, on May 26, affects me more, and more deeply, every year, the farther I get away from it. This year, I’m 30 years away from it. I’m sure that a lot of the nature of my reaction is that I’m finally safe enough to feel, in my body, the overwhelming sadness and confusion of it, in a way that I couldn’t at 8 or 18 or 28.
So, in one sense, that’s great. That means I have a great life. That means I’m thriving. But it also means that I’ve been having panic attacks all week.
I’ve always been an extremely trusting (some might say gullible) person. I take things at face value; I believe what people tell me. I have believed it, for my whole life, when people tell me that I’m strong, that I’m brave, that I’m a big help to my family.
And yes, it’s true–I am strong, I am brave, and I am a big help to my family. But the new revelation to me is how much I needed to hear from someone, and never did, that things were not OK. A lot of things sucked, and were hard, and were sad. But because I never heard that, because I believed that I was supposed to be strong and brave and helpful, I experienced my own not-OKness as wrong, and therefore profoundly isolating. And, empathetic little sponge that I was, I also then felt responsible for trying to process and make everyone else’s not-OKness OK because…it was all supposed to be OK. All that processing has been exhausting for me. Trying to be nice and polite and not make anyone around me wrong takes an awful lot of effort.
And I get it, I do. Who wants to tell an eight year old whose mother just died, “hey, guess what? The bad things that are bad? They will continue to be bad.” But, all I can see now is how much that wish to save me pain in the moment has only postponed, prolonged, and obscured it.
Writer and tarot reader Angeliska Polacheck wrote a stunning blog post this Mother’s Day about her own experience as a motherless daughter. Our stories are quite divergent in many ways. I’ve never wanted to have children the way that she has; my dad never remarried, so I didn’t have the complexities of a stepmom relationship to negotiate; I know with absolute certainty how much my mother loved me. But so much more is remarkably similar–our mothers’ difficult labors, the young age at which we experienced that irrevocable loss, the bottomless pit of longing to be loved and resulting anxious attachment, the years of persistent effort that have gone into making sense of what’s true and what’s not in the tangle of memories that dictate how that lack has shaped us. I sobbed while reading her words the first time and have kept the post bookmarked for the past two weeks, just because I find it comforting to know that someone else out there knows what it’s been like to survive this, emotionally.
I do my best to comfort my friends who are losing their mothers now. I do my best to sit, and listen, and let them know that their not-OKness is OK. I try not to rush to spiritual or philosophical commentary or bullshit platitudes. I also know that I fail in this often. Because, what do I know about what it’s like to have had a genuine relationship, no matter how potentially fraught, with a mother? I’m hamstrung by the fact that my loss is a child’s loss, not an adult’s. My frame of reference is in growing up without that bond, not in having had it and then needing to remake my world without it.
My devastation is a major part of me. But I hate having to learn to live with it. I hate that I don’t get to be a shimmering rainbow of unicorn sparkles all the time, or a coolly detached scientist of emotions who sees and understands Human Feelings without needing to deal with them personally.
The other story that always sticks with me from the time that I spent with extended family in rural Indiana in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death is that, one night, I fell asleep watching a movie with the other kids. I awoke to being carried up to bed by my dad’s cousin’s husband. Desperately embarrassed, I faked being asleep until he tucked me in, turned out the light, and left the room.
All I can see now is the kindness of it, how natural it would be for a father of two girls of his own to extend his care to poor, bereaved little me. The fact that this family had let me stay with them for however many days, cared for me, included me in their daily goings-on, attempted to give me some normalcy after the chaos of the previous days, all the while certainly managing their own grief, completely floors me with its generosity when I think about it now.
But at the time, I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to leave no trace of myself, and my human needs, behind me. Over the course of my mother’s cancer treatment and multiple hospital stays, I’d clearly internalized that the highest virtue, my greatest contribution to the family, was self-reliance. Not being tough enough to stay awake while watching a movie meant I was a failure, that I was vulnerable. I hated that I needed help doing something as simple as going to bed. I would have preferred to have been shaken awake and told to walk upstairs on my own.
When I was in clairvoyant training, I once explained to my classmates that the way I psychically visualized my own emotional range was like a piano with all the middle keys missing. My feelings were all the high tinkly notes and low boomy ones–not so much in a manic depressive or bipolar way, as that I didn’t really know how to live into my own everyday humanity. It’s a combination of denial, and repression, and profound embarrassment.
The tears and yowls and hiccuping sobs and red-faced keening that I’ve unleashed on my boyfriend in this week leading up to the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death have been unavoidably human and horrifyingly embarrassing. They are also the long held-back truth of my life. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to be OK with my own not-OKness. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to let myself be carried.