For a good fifteen years now, whenever people have asked me what my favorite band is, I usually say The Divine Comedy.
I attempted to oeuvreblog them a few years ago and wrote an introductory essay laying out many of the reasons why. Though the blog project stalled out after only a few entries, I’ve never really thought of it as failed, merely as on hiatus. I’ll get back to it at some point eventually.
And though I’m happy to see Neil Hannon continuing to collaborate with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash on their “cricket pop” project The Duckworth Lewis Method and working under his own name on live musical/opera projects like Swallows and Amazons and Sevastopol, my primary interest in his creative output remains The Divine Comedy. Though his post-Regeneration albums have become increasingly spotty as far as their being consistently listenable from start to finish, they always have at least one corker of a song that really makes me marvel at his skill as a lyricist. (And I say this as someone who’s notorious for not always listening to the lyrics of pop songs.) It’s rare that I don’t have at least one of his albums on my iPod at any given time.
Coming home from work on the train a few nights ago, “Our Mutual Friend,” one of his post-Regeneration masterpieces off the album Absent Friends, came up on shuffle. As usual, I was in complete awe of its narrative complexity and efficiency, then had the strange thought, out of nowhere, that I actually have no desire to ever meet Neil Hannon.
When I was more avidly going to rock shows in my twenties, I fairly regularly had run-ins with musicians after their gigs, usually just hailing them with a quick “good show” as they brushed through the crowd on their way to the green room or maybe a slightly longer but still informal chat at the merch table. With my combination of extreme excitability and extreme self-consciousness, there was only a brief window of time, between the moment when the opportunity for personal interaction presented itself and when my adrenaline completely pushed my nervous system so far into the red that it became impossible for me not to turn into an insanely spazzy mess, when I actually remained cool enough to have a coherent conversation. (I wrote about this phenomenon way back in 2005 over at my old blog.)
One of my more (relatively) successful encounters was in the fall of ’02 when The Divine Comedy played a full-band show in Chicago at Martyrs.
I’d only moved to the city two months earlier and wasn’t yet comfortable enough going to shows by myself, so I, strangely, bought three tickets. One was for me and one was for my good friend Casey, with whom I’d always bonded over The Divine Comedy’s music. We’d even seen them together about a year and a half earlier when we took a spring break trip to London and took a train to the University of Southampton to catch one of their performances at what was probably the student union. When I couldn’t think of anyone else to give the third ticket to, I ended up giving it to my dad.
My memories of the show itself have become fuzzy, though I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking they’d chosen an agreeable selection of songs from their older albums for the setlist. Neil disappeared backstage as soon as the lights came up, but the rest of the band lingered, packing up their own gear onstage, and I spontaneously declared that I was going over to chat them up.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my dad noted to Casey that I was just like my mother in this regard. My dad sometimes told stories of my mother effortlessly charming her way backstage when they went to concerts together early in their marriage. It was never any kind of groupie thing with her; it was sheer curiosity about interesting people coupled with her own intense, instant likeability and warmth. If I have even a fraction of her boldness and charisma, I consider it truly inherited on a genetic level since these outings occurred way before I was born and were never described to me until many years later.
In a strange way, I often forget that it’s even possible for my mom to have influenced my life at all, since she died when I was only eight. So throughout my life, my heart has always leapt a little in surprise whenever someone would say that I did something “just like Sharon.” It was never surprising when I heard that I looked just like her since, based on photographs, I know that I did. But when it came to behavioral things or mannerisms, that always delighted me most because I knew it was totally unconscious on my part, because it somehow proved that she really was my mother, that she was really part of my body on a level I couldn’t deny.
So, sidling up to the edge of the stage at Martyrs, I chatted with the drummer (I think?) for a bit, and mentioned how I’d been at that show at the University of Southhampton. It was a pleasant enough exchange, and, like I say, one of my more relatively successful as far as playing it cool, though I retroactively have to believe that he was probably more than a bit taken aback by being accosted by this loud American girl when his brain was probably barely coasting along on post-show fumes.
Even at the time, though, I think I was secretly relieved that Neil had made himself scarce, eliminating all possibility that I would be tempted to try to interact with him. Because really, what would there be for me to say to him? Other than expressing gratitude for the years of joy that his music has brought me, I can’t think of anything I’d want to talk to him about. Unlike, say, Robert Fripp, whose brain I would love to dive into and swim around in for a while, I don’t need much more from Neil Hannon than what he’s already given me in his music.
I recognize now that so many of the wearying behaviors of my twenties—like forcing myself into conversations with musicians after gigs—were misguided attempts to assure myself of my own internal worth and viability as a creative person. What I was actually trying to replicate in trying to talk to my indie rock heroes after small club shows was the way my father, not my mother, would have conversations with musicians and actors that he already knew after we went to local theater performances when I was a child.
The glamor of hanging around the auditorium after the house lights came up, standing at his elbow as he laughed and kibitzed with his friends and creative comrades who only moments earlier had been in the spotlight singing and playing for a large crowd, will always inform my idea of what it means to be a part of a larger creative community. And not only to be a part of that community but to be valued for one’s contributions to it. Even when my father didn’t know someone personally, he or she inevitably knew him by reputation as a talented musician and tough but enthusiastic critic and received his praise accordingly.
It’s as if I thought I’d not only permanently inherited his notoriety by association but that it would transfer behind the Northwest Indiana theater community as well. I think at some level I was still operating out of a “don’t they know who I am?” internal programming, even when I was, say, trying to chat up Andrew Bird after a show at the Hideout, like he would have any reason to care that I thought his then-most recent album was his personal best.
As I said last week about learning to reappreciate Phil Collins, there was a point in my life when my sense of my own identity became confused, when I suddenly wasn’t sure if, at base, I was a musician or an amateur music critic. I often still struggle to align myself with what I’ve taken to calling “level zero” of creation, instead of the “level one” of commentary about someone else’s creation. But now that I find myself in a romantic relationship with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite songwriters, and now that I play in a band with someone who just happens to be one of my favorite poets, I’ve had the satisfaction of forming my own creative cohort well outside the bounds of my father’s influence.
More important than even that is the (re)discovery that the pleasure of knowing them actually has nothing to do what they’ve achieved or how our friendship reflects back on me. The success, and the satisfaction, that I’ve so longed for comes not in talking about it after it’s all over, but in living beside and caring for one another as the doing of the thing knits itself into the reality of how we show up for ourselves as creators every day.
I don’t deny or minimize that this has been an exceptionally difficult winter.
The snow. The cold. The stir-craziness. The SAD. The coughs and sniffles and sore throats. The crazy drivers on the unplowed streets. The extra bodies squeezed onto too few train cars. The relentlessness of it all.
It’s hard. It affects me too.
But walking home from the train after work a week or two ago, looking up into the inky black sky of, oh, 6 pm, I glanced at the moon and suddenly remembered.
The moon. The dark. The cold.
It’s all very much the yin to the sunny, bright warmth of summer’s yang.
Or, from a more mystical perspective, it’s the feminine half of the year counterbalancing the masculine half. It’s the season when we’re invited to slow down — a lot. And look at what a struggle it’s been for so many of us.
Our overdriven impulse to keep producing and participating at top speed is in direct opposition to how nature itself is compelling us to feel and behave. We grimace and complain about how hard it is to get up in the morning or how little we want to do in our spare time on nights and weekends. As if any of that is a problem! This has always been the time of year for rest and introspection and solitude. We do ourselves a disservice to fight it.
We do ourselves a disservice when we ignore the call to be still, to live in the mystery.
Even in such a seemingly small way, it’s important to push back as much as we can against the pervasive cultural imperative to privilege the more traditionally masculine modes of expression and behavior. If left unexamined, it’s easy to fear the power of darkness because it’s so feminine, so elusive. But, our worth and our priorities can’t be exclusively tied to how much we can do, how much we can achieve. These qualities have to be balanced with a healthy respect for quiet receptivity and an intentional honoring of the times when we’re not doing much of anything at all.
So I’m trying to be mindful of all that myself right now. Instead of resisting the slower pace and colder temperatures and lack of visible progress in my life, I’m doing my best to notice the moments when my body wants to stop moving, when my mind wants to wander off into uncharted territory. I’m making more space to be OK with my life feeling a little mysterious, even a little unhinged. There will be plenty of time in months to come to reengage with achievement and activity, when progress seems easier to manifest.
But for now I am claiming space for sleep, for contemplation, for my darker emotions, for my ability to let thoughts and fancies percolate below the threshold of my conscious awareness.
I recently attended an astral body healing workshop, and the instructor told us that she’d left her day job not too long ago. I forget now the exact words that she used, but she said something to the effect that she did so in order to have more time to care for things.
And that phrase hit me like a ton of bricks.
The notion of having more time in one’s day in order to more deeply care for things just sounded like the most obvious, sanest, richest way to live.
Like so many people, I’m prone to overwork. This fact is also exacerbated by my tendency to feel overly responsible for other people and their agendas instead of my own. And when my schedule starts getting packed and the pace of my daily life gets frantic, I find that I start to half-ass things.
And I don’t just mean that I start making silly mistakes, like typos and miscalculations (though that’s certainly a part of it). I also mean that I start half-assing my interactions with other people. I don’t attend deeply enough to conversations, I don’t take the time to remember to be kind, I spend less time interacting with any one person, instead spreading my attention out to perhaps dozens of people so that no one ends up feeling a sense of satisfaction about our encounters (least of all me).
It’s a quietly soul-deadening way to live.
I am an ambitious, multitalented person, so it’s in my nature to want to do a lot of different things. (Not for nothing do my personal business cards read “writer, editor, musician, clairvoyant.”) So, clearly, I’m in no way advocating, least of all for myself, a life of unstructured wandering.
But this idea of having time to care for things suggests a different kind of spaciousness. It’s a spaciousness that somehow feels directly related to whatever sense of mission I may have on this planet—which, as close as I can tell, is just to love. To spread love, to experience love, to cultivate love, to shower people and things with love, to be love.
Like I’ve mentioned previously, I operate as an empath, so that desire to love more deeply can often get used against me if I’m not mindful of separating myself out from other people’s thoughts and emotions and energies. It’s easy for me to get sucked into providing advice, support, and resources in ways that leave me feeling drained, mistaking those efforts for love. (I’m reading Doreen Virtue’s book Assertiveness for Earth Angels: How to Be Loving Instead of “Too Nice” right now, and it’s promising to be a game-changer for me.)
But when I’m operating from my own personal power, and not acting as a doormat, it stands to reason that I would be able to make good use of some more time and space to care for things in the ways that I genuinely want to. It’s the best argument I’ve heard yet for saying no to activities, invitations, expectations, and commitments that are well and truly optional.
Even as a young girl, I always had the sense that I was going to be an awesome old lady.
Perhaps a weird thing for a 10 year old to think, but after my mom died, my primary female role models were my two grandmothers, so that was who I spent the most time around, other than my school friends and cousins around my same age.
It’s probably telling that “woman” was not really a phase of life that I ever much considered or aspired to. It was like, in my brain, I would go straight from being a little girl (or maybe, if I really strained the limits of my imagination, a teenager) to being elderly. The whole vast range of experience of being an adult female was invisible to me.
It just goes to show how ridiculously formative family-of-origin issues can be. I was obviously surrounded by plenty of adult women—aunts and neighbors and teachers and my dad’s friends’ wives—but I never thought to imagine myself into their shoes. There was just enough distance between us that I couldn’t fathom it.
Of course, in many ways, I had already fashioned myself into some kind of juvenile burlesque of a grown woman. “Mature for her age” or “wise beyond her years” or whatever other euphemisms were used to describe the fact that, without an awful lot of consent on my part, I was thrust into the position of being a confidante for my father and a mini-mother for my siblings. Strongly empathic long before I’d ever even heard the term, I instinctively “knew” that I had to help out, had to pitch in, had to keep the routine of daily life running as smoothly as possible.
As the years progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to find much common ground with girls my age. I faked it well enough, and was never exactly lacking for friends, but there was always a weird shadow dogging me that made me question the veracity of my own emotional experiences. Getting upset about a boy or a snub from a popular girl, or coveting some then-stylish brand of clothing or shoe that we weren’t really able to afford, I could hear a whisper in the back of my mind, “Isn’t this a little ridiculous? Isn’t this kind of beneath you? Aren’t you supposed to be better than this?” So I taught myself to deny my feelings as frivolous or inconvenient.
And I know that so many other girls felt this way too! Patriarchy does not exactly allow a lot of room for displays of “girlish” emotion . . . or grown women’s “shrewish” emotions for that matter.
Nevertheless, perhaps this is why I longed to project myself into an early old age. Even though my own grandmothers were hard-ass bitches in their own ways, I still though of them as essentially mild, beyond reproach for their occasional outbursts of frustration. They’d seen it all and then some, so if they were mad at us—or at anything—surely they had a good reason for it. But they were also representative of surpassing softness and indulgence and mirth.
My childhood vision of what I’d be like as an old lady was probably something like the Chinese figure of Budai, the Laughing Buddha, all giggles and potbelly. There’s freedom and wisdom to be had in this guise, of course—but I know now that the sweetness of it can only come after genuinely experiencing, feeling, and learning from the extravagant messes of being a woman, through and through, first.
“So if you’re looking for your big, breakout single, you might wanna put a bid on this one tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Because we are talking to Phil Collins’s people, right? But then again . . . aren’t we all?”
As I mentioned in the notes that I wrote over on Tumblr to accompany my Best of 2013 mix, in recent years I’ve distanced myself from the Pitchfork-approved musical hype machine and have tried to reconnect with artists that genuinely bring me pleasure. And part of the pleasure of this shift has been to honor my instinct to privilege musical skill over enthusiastic ineptitude. (I am the daughter of a former music teacher, after all.)
The more and more of the indie stuff I listened to, the more and more I realized that no one really knows how to write songs anymore. Sure, it’s possible to isolate catchy hooks here and there, but I’m talking about legible, satisfying harmonic and melodic structure. (And yes, I realize that this puts me firmly in the crabby old lady realm of “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”)
Nevertheless, one of the unexpected results of my refocusing on craft is my rediscovery of Phil Collins.
I know that, post-American Psycho and in the hopefully waning days of hipsters’ kitschy obsession with so-called yacht rock, there’s almost no musician as ready-made for sneering punchlines as Phil Collins. And I would have been ready for a quick takedown myself in years past.
After my back went out for the second time in college, a dear friend made me a “get well soon” mix CD that unironically included “I Can’t Dance” on it, and I was secretly embarrassed for him about it for months. How hopelessly uncool, I thought.
Another friend of mine, who’d spent a couple summers during college painting houses, used to like to say that the best days were when, listening to the local soft rock radio station for hours on end, he would hear a Rod with a Phil chaser. I loved this anecdote because it exemplified exactly what kind of radio station that was and because, at the end of the ’90s, anything that smacked of ’80s culture was immediately suspect, immediately to be derided.
So, it’s been quite a shock to me in the last few years when I’ve heard a Phil Collins or Genesis song on the radio in a public space and realized, “wait a minute—this stuff actually sounds terrific.” As their former ubiquity has diminished and as we’ve now graduated to making fun of the popular sounds of the ’90s and ’00s (have you listened to Interpol lately? It sounds absurd), it’s finally possible to hear those Collins songs for the impeccable pop songcraft that they represent.
And yes, there appears to be a small groundswell currently advocating for a reappraisal of Collins’s work. A quick Google today turned up a couple pieces: “Is Phil Collins the Godfather of Popular Culture?”; “We Will Rock You: A Spirited Defense of Phil Collins, Part 2: The Reckoning”; “Telekinesis’ Michael Lerner on Phil Collins, Dave Grohl, and his other favorite singing drummers.” I’m sure there will be others soon enough.
It’s safest, of course, to say “hey, his early stuff with Genesis is actually really cool and sonically challenging” or “do you realize that he played drums on a handful of Brian Eno’s legendary solo albums?” as a way of distancing oneself from the still-tainted ’80s pop hits. But, fuck it, I’ll speak up in favor of those pop hits.
Though at a certain level I understand that familiarity breeds contempt and that people (especially self-styled cultural critics) hate nothing so much as massive mainstream success, I’ll never understand why catchy pop songs get such a bad rap. Do people not realize how difficult it is to write something that sounds so simple and connects with so many people?
Take “That’s All,” for example.
For whatever reason, it’s the song that always comes to mind now when I want to build a case for Collins’s unique genius. (I know it’s a Genesis song, and was coauthored by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, but it’s clearly of a piece with the poppier direction that Collins was taking the band in the post-Peter Gabriel/prog rock days.) He’s mentioned that this song was an attempt to write something straightforward and Beatles-y, and it succeeds marvelously without sounding like a straightforward Beatles homage the way countless power pop acts do. Plus, the reference is not just sound; it’s not just relying on certain guitar effects or vocal processes to indicate its influences/inspirations. There’s an honest-to-God song in there, too, packed with satisfying hooks and hummable melodies.
The combination of the opening piano riff and the dead-simple kick drum/high hat combo sets the stage for the most immediately memorable part of the song, that “A” section. Collins sings the melody through the first time down one octave, giving a slow burn quality to a song that, intentionally, starts out with a lot of air in it. For a band that’s notorious for their complexity and precision (and, again, often mocked for it), there’s a looseness here that really makes you, as a listener, lean into the groove, seduced by where it could possible go next.
The B section of the song shifts to a major key, with a kind of oompah rhythm in the bass line and a calliope-esque keyboard part that establishes a neat tension with the minor-key A section sandwiched around it. And with the return of the A form that we heard at the top of the song, Collins takes the melody up an octave, which, as it strains the upper limit of his vocal range, lends that immediately identifiable, shouty intensity that he’s perhaps best known for as a singer. Snuck in underneath that signature sound, however, is, as Brian pointed out to me, the elaboration of an increasingly Ringo Starr-esque drum part (especially check out the fill before they go back into the major-key B part, and the fill that takes them back out of it).
The C section/bridge is perhaps the most ’80s-ish part of the song, with the slightly bigger drums fills between phrases and slightly more R&B-inflected vocal runs in the melody line. It whizzes by in a flash, though, bringing us to Banks’s keyboard solo over the chords from the A section. He embroiders the basic melody tastefully, never letting the filigree distract too long from the hooks. And the keyboard sound itself is delightfully, bizarrely reedy.
The rest of the song repeats the familiar form that’s been established—BACA—before letting Rutherford solo out over the remaining ABA fade. And though the form remains consistent, the accompaniment gets a little more frenetic with the addition of a tambourine, handclaps, more backing “oohs” and “aahs”, a repetition of the basic melody line on the keyboard, one startlingly big cymbal crash as the volume starts to cut out, and one last one for good measure right as it’s fading down to nothing.
The very clear structure here is incredibly satisfying, giving you as a listener just enough repetition without ever letting you feel bored or lulled into sing-songy sameness. It also takes incredible restraint to let a song build so incrementally over the course of four and a half minutes, without blowing its wad too soon or too dramatically. It’s just incredibly sophisticated musicianship all around.
So, I’m happy to be in a place personally where I don’t feel beholden to any cool factor when it comes to really grooving on the things that sound good to me at any given moment. I think a lot about something that Travis Morrison said in an interview with Vice last summer. When asked if there was ever a time when he felt self-conscious about his musical taste, he responded: “Not really, no. I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t think musicians think like that. Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste, if that makes sense.”
I suppose that’s the conflict at the heart of what I guess I’d call the tourism I was participating in through music blogs ten years ago. I was trying to consume like a Music Person, rather than letting the bedrock of my own musicianship inform my ability to listen, appreciate, and fall in love with the sounds and songs that spoke to my heart.
We all have those splinter spots in our lives where, if we’d gone in another direction, the trajectory of our lives would have been radically different.
One of my favorite takes on this concept comes from Hawaiian shaman and author Serge Kahili-King. In his book Changing Reality, he talks about working with and sending healing energy to a parallel version of himself:
Just before I was discharged from the United States Marine Corps, I was confronted with two major choices: to go home to finish my education and marry the woman I loved, or to buy a boat with a friend and sail the South Pacific. Well, in this life I made the best choice and I’m still happily married. Years later I decided to explore the alternate choice in the context of a parallel life and discovered myself dead drunk in a bar in Samoa. Years later I went again and found myself dead. Years after that I went into the same parallel life a few minutes before dying, convinced myself to make some better choices, stopped drinking, and continued with a more productive life in that parallel experience.
I tend to think about my own splinter points a lot, mostly because I think they would have taken me to some similarly self-destructive places.
One of the big things I didn’t mention in my post about my long-distance relationship with my high school boyfriend who moved to L.A. is that, the year after he left, I applied to the same program that he was in. And, I got accepted. I was over the moon about the idea of skipping my senior year of high school and going to live in L.A., without really stopping to consider if, y’know, I actually wanted to go live in L.A. It was purely a means of escape. I wanted out of Indiana and out of my father’s house. I wanted into the more glamorous, worldly, sophisticated, urban life that I thought I should be living.
Ultimately, though, I couldn’t afford it. When I finally was able to review my financial aid package, and compared it against my own meager savings and what my father would be able to contribute to fancy out-of-state tuition, it was clear that it just wasn’t going to happen. I returned to my high school for my senior year, abashed, my tail between my legs.
Years later, when I was finally able to joke about the situation, I often liked to say that it was for the best that I never went out there, because I just would have developed an expensive drug habit. Now, aside from some very cursory and mild experimentation in my 20s and early 30s, I’ve never had much interest in drugs, so I don’t really know where that conjecture is coming from. Is it just a joke? A piss-take on what supposedly happens to innocent Midwestern girls who get taken in by the City of Angels?
Or is it an admission that some part of me knew I wouldn’t have been happy out there? A sinking feeling that if I had gone despite the money problems, I would have wound up self-medicating to manage the stress of that wrong decision? It’s probably worth a meditation or some dreamwork at some point to try to explore and discern. I have a feeling that that other version of me, wherever she is, could probably use some love and encouragement.
My other main splinter point comes just a few years later, when I’d interviewed for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City. My interview had, earlier in the summer, been scheduled for what turned out to be two weeks after 9/11. Though of course there’s the chance they wouldn’t have given it to me anyway, I sometimes fancy my chances were reduced, in that understandably hyper-I-[heart]-NY time, because I didn’t already live in the city. In the alternate reality where I did get the gig and did move to New York, though, what would have become of me?
I don’t have a funny, pat answer for this one. Mostly because, more than 10 years on, I’m relieved I didn’t end up shackling myself to the vicissitudes of entertainment journalism. (I thought I wanted to get into it to write pop film criticism, but, let’s be real—I would have been working in entertainment journalism.) As my interest in writing straight-up film, music, and TV reviews waned throughout my twenties, and as I grew more and more exhausted with the idea of keeping up with their various hype cycles, I was so glad that I had the freedom to let my essays about those things just die off naturally on my old blog, since I had no other real professional imperative to keep up with any of it.
However, I remain tantalized by the more recent revelation that I could have met my current boyfriend way back in 2001/2002 if I had moved to New York. Between his own contingent life possibility where he could have opted to go to NYU for grad school and the actual reality that, commuting back and forth from Connecticut, he was spending a lot of time in the city making art with his experimental theater friends, there’s a small but distinct possibility that we would have run into each other a good seven or eight years before we finally did in Chicago.
The possibilities multiply exponentially from there. If we had met, would we have liked and fallen for each other? Would we have tacked those extra years on to our romance? Or were the intervening years that it took for us to come together actually necessary to our development as people, so that when we finally did meet, we were really and truly ready to become such good friends and collaborators and eventually lovers? Without the benefit of the different paths we ended up taking, alone, during the bulk of the ’00s, would we just not have clicked? Would we maybe have recognized some glimmer, some spark, between us as spirits, then been unable to build on it or pursue it?
Romantically, I prefer to imagine that of course we would have found a way to come together, but really, it’s anybody’s guess what might have happened, given where we both were in our lives at the time. I could just as easily have missed out on this relationship that warms my heart so much, all because I would have been in the right place for my ego but the wrong place for my soul.
Though I often give myself a hard time for what I perceive as a lack of glamor and adventure in my current life, maybe I need to make peace with the fact that this version of my life is the right one for me after all. It seems like the choices between L.A. and New York are sort of my own personal Goldilocks and the Three Bears moments—too hot, too cold—whereas Chicago has turned out to be, basically, just right.
Like many women who were teenagers in the ‘90s, I overplucked my eyebrows.
I remember I was just shy of my sixteenth birthday when I first attacked them, after reading an article in Seventeen magazine about how best to shape a perfectly formed arch.
There were instructions for how to achieve the proper angle, by using a pencil to indicate a line from your pupil to the midpoint of your brow, but I certainly wasn’t that methodical about it. I found a small pair of tweezers from a cheap Swiss army knife (seriously–my femme skills have always left a bit to be desired) and just started thinning everything out.
Photos of my mother from when she was a teenager and in her early 20s likewise show her with…unrealistically shaped brows, shall we call them. And, I have to wonder, if she’d still been alive when I decided to take matters into my own hands, if she would have discouraged me from doing so. Or if she would have taken me to a salon where a professional might have been a bit more gentle with the approach toward reshaping them. Or if, y’know, she at least would have recommended I use a slightly nicer tool for the job.
But, since I’d committed to the endeavor with my typical never-look-back, never-say-die attitude (I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that I was terrified of looking like an idiot or that I didn’t know how to do something or even that I was completely in the dark about the so-called right way to be a girl), I just kept tweezing and tweezing and tweezing. Alone in my bedroom in the evening after school or on the weekend, I would stare into a mirror and compulsively try to straighten everything out, which of course usually only made matters worse.
None of the older women in my life ever said anything to me about it. Maybe they didn’t notice? But, I kind of doubt it. I was simply left at sea about it, as I was in so many other areas of my life.
Throughout my twenties, I always had the nagging thought in the back of my mind that I would need to have a professional help me fix my eyebrows, as best as could be managed after so many years of overplucking. My fear, though, always got the better of me whenever I would seriously think about going anywhere. I rationalized that it would be too expensive or too painful, but I was really most afraid that I’d be laughed off the premises — for the unruly state of what was left of my natural brows or for the lamentable way that I’d maintained them, I’m not sure.
I was equally afraid, though, that my oddly shaped brows were secretly earning looks of derision from fashion snobs and other beauty-conscious women that I knew or ran into on a regular basis. With something as unavoidably visible as one’s eyebrows, about the best I was able to do was draw them in a little more evenly with dark brown powder, but it wasn’t like I could exactly hide them (like one can do with most other undesirable flaws).
But for all my perception of myself as a worldly, sophisticated aesthete and intellectual, I knew I would dissolve into a puddle of shame instantly if anyone were to look askance at or make an oblique comment about my grooming. I know the secret twinge of shameful identification I feel when I look at an older woman with ridiculously shaped or drawn-in brows and think, “my god, is that how I look to everyone else around me?”
I eventually got up enough courage to have my eyebrows threaded at the little “Perfect Eyebrows” salon in the Century Shopping Center at Clark & Diversey. (The first time I tried to go, I tell you the truth, I got so scared that I turned around before I even entered the shop and left the building altogether. Reader, I was 33.) The woman who runs the place is completely no-nonsense, and the Yelp page for the business is full of praise for her quick treatments and low prices. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences there, and though my hair grows so fast that I’m often left with bristling caterpillars on my face on the in-between weeks when I can’t make it for a treatment, my eyebrows do, in general, look a lot better than they used to.
I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’ve probably done permanent damage to the way my eyebrows will grow in for the rest of my life. I will continue to look longingly at my friends who have perfectly full, Jennifer Connelly-style brows and envy them for their teenage foresight in not messing with them.
There continues to be a gap between how I see myself and how I live my life. When I think of my aspirations to be a world-traveler, and then look at the reality of how infrequently I’m on a plane these days, I have to reckon with where I’m leading myself astray. Is the miscalculation in the dream, or in the reality? The same goes for my physical presentation. If I have the desire to look a different way, yet achieve the effect only haphazardly, is the failing in my effort or in my attempt to effect the change in the first place?
But rather than stay wedded to these black-and-white distinctions, I’m trying to find a way to blend them a little more seamlessly, to approve of where I am right now so that I’m not shocked when I arrive somewhere else in the future and haven’t become a different person entirely.
I don’t remember when I first consciously realized it, but I am a devotee of The City.
And though of course I love my current home of Chicago, I don’t mean the Windy City exclusively.
I am devoted, and probably even addicted, to the energy of urban spaces. To the cityscape and all its people and possibilities. Any connection that I’ve felt with wild or sparsely populated areas—such as the deserts of New Mexico, the coastline of County Kerry, the mountain passes of the Cascades, and the hills of Southern Indiana—usually, ultimately, stems from the way that nature gives me the opportunity to disconnect from the things that do irritate me about city living. That cleansing then allows me to realign myself to that which truly matters to me about urban space when I finally return to it.
In my early years of living on my own in Chicago, I was always surprised by the very palpable sense of relief I would feel getting off the commuter train at the Randolph Street/Millennium Park station after spending an afternoon or weekend with my family in the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. More than just escaping poisonous and demoralizing family dynamics, my return to the city always felt like a return to a rhythm that my body intuitively understood.
Emerging from the underground station to see the beautiful architecture soaring into the sky, to feel hundreds of people bustling past me without giving a damn about me one way or another, to hear the whoosh of cars and buses and the rumble of the elevated train—the embrace of all of it made me feel so comforted, so at home, so at peace. People often talk about the excitement of a city, of the sense of possibility that anything can happen here, and I’m sure that’s part of it for me. But there’s also an indefinable sense that I know how the city works.
My body understands, on some preverbal level, the way cities support, encourage, and even thrive on intensity, whether it’s the intensity of achievement, creativity, restlessness, high-stakes risks, or the ever-present opportunity to find love (be it the kind that lasts as long as a locked glance with an alluring stranger or the kind that lasts a lifetime). I resonate with the overlap of historical grandeur with of-the-minute invention, with the prosaic beauty of functional spaces like alleys and fire escapes, with the permission for hardship and breakdown to be enacted in full view of passersby, with the tenuous togetherness inspired by local sports, music, or political heroes.
My passion is mainly intuitive, so though I love reading about cities, too, I’m far from being any kind of amateur scholar of urban studies. I’ve picked my way through bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities without ever actually finishing it and am currently doing the same with Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the best damn things I’ve read in the past 10 years. But I’ve never so much as picked up a copy of Devil in the White City. Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography has been on my to-read list since its release a few years back. I’ve likewise been meaning to read Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue since hearing artist and writer Edie Fake mention it last year as an important reference point for his incredibly moving gallery show Memory Palaces.
But, when I learned that Delany himself, currently Critical Inquiry‘s Winter 2014 Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, would be giving a public lecture on Friday, January 31, I thought I’d better at least dip into the book before heading down to Hyde Park. Though I’m not quite halfway through with it, it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. But the joy of seeing Delany speak live belongs in a category all its own.
The fact that I even had this opportunity to attend his lecture, with only about a week’s notice, is yet another testament to the endless opportunity and variety inherent to city living. But when the man himself is such a towering figure of erudition, compassion, and radical sexual politics, I found myself moving beyond the self-satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time and into the realm of “I needed to be here today.”
It wasn’t just that I found my brain stimulated by his reflections on what his literary legacy may or may not be. It’s that I felt both inspired and privileged to behold a person so at ease with himself, in mind, body, and spirit. And it wasn’t just me—I felt a shift in the room over the course of his talk, as the audience of intellectuals realized that it’s possible to strive not just to be smarter or more widely published, but to be a better person, living a more joyful, more connected, and thus more meaningful life.
He explains in his writer’s preface to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:
I hope these two extended essays function as early steps (though by no means are they the first) in thinking through the problem of where people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, tourist and indigene, transient and permanent, with their bodily, material, sexual, and emotional needs, might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore. (p. xx)
And in the spaces between reading that, and hearing him speak, and driving home on Lake Shore Drive, with the exultation of Chicago’s skyline rising up in front of us, I was grateful to have my commitment to The City not only renewed but reinvigorated by seeing how much more there is for me to learn here.
As mentioned previously, I went into traditional talk-therapy in the summer of 2004.
In keeping with the general trend toward serendipity in my life, I had my first session with my therapist one week before my father had a massive stroke.
My guardian angels, as it were, had clearly lined things up for me so that I would have a solid support system in place during that crucial, challenging time.
After a little while, knowing how lonely I was, my therapist encouraged me to look for a spiritual community to join. I knew it would be good for me but was nervous, as I always am, about throwing myself into a new system where I didn’t yet know the ropes.
I attended a Science of Mind service in a conference room in a chain hotel here in Chicago, and just . . . no. It was totally not the kind of place I needed to be.
Living northward on the brown line, I could see from the train a building that had a giant sign painted on the side advertising meditation classes. I couldn’t read all the text, but with some creative Googling, I eventually found the website for the place.
They were starting one of their five-week introduction to meditation courses that following week, so I signed myself up for the session. After the five weeks were up, I remember thinking to myself with almost a shrug, “well, I guess I’m just going to start going there on Sundays now.” And, I did.
Slowly integrating myself into the membership of the temple, I started showing up regularly for Sunday services, and sometimes for their special Wednesday night meditation sittings as well. I even signed up for two days of my first-ever silent retreat later that winter, which was an exercise in fortitude like nothing I’d intentionally put myself through before.
Basically, a silent retreat is just hours and hours of meditation every day, with breaks here and there for food, stretching, walking meditation, and work practice—aka, chores—all done in complete silence with extremely minimal eye contact among the practitioners. My brain felt like it started to eat itself at some point, and I remember thinking, “well, it’s too bad I can never come back here ever again after this is all over.”
But, of course, I made it through the rest of the retreat, and of course I came back to the temple again. In fact, I felt more part of the community than ever after that.
Within the next year I was asked to be on the temple’s advisory council, which meant that I would help out with extra chores around the building, help with fundraising efforts, stand at the door as a greeter before Sunday services, and generally be closer to the heart of the regular goings-on of the community. As an editor, I was even pressed into service to help assemble their periodic newsletter.
As I bonded with my fellow advisory council members, it felt like I was Doing a Good Thing for myself spiritually, even though I also learned to swallow the anxiety that resulted from knowing I’d inevitably be corrected by the temple priest for doing something wrong—putting the dishes in the wrong place in the kitchen, arranging the meditation mats and cushions out of their proper order, calculating tax incorrectly on the haphazardly priced items available for sale in the bookstore.
I wanted so badly to prove to myself that, yes, it was good for me to be part of this community, that I assented to being on the advisory council for a second year in a row. But, about halfway through my second term, I started a yearlong training program to develop my clairvoyant reading abilities. I was able to juggle both the temple and psychic school for a while, but as my commitment to the advisory council started winding down, I found that I was getting crabbier and more lackadaisical about my remaining commitments there.
I just had too many things going on in my life—this was all in addition to a 40-hour-a-week job, band practice, and making time for my then-boyfriend—and something had to give. I needed at least one morning a week to sleep in and relax, and since I was usually scheduled for practice readings at psychic school on Saturday mornings, that meant Sundays at the temple got jettisoned.
I’d given so much to it and wasn’t sure what I’d gotten in return. I didn’t want to be mercenary about it, of course, but the more I felt sucked dry by their expectations for generous donations of time and attention, the more I was feeling myself sliding into a familiarity-breeds-contempt kind of attitude. I wasn’t too sorry to let it go.
I was also ready to take a break from the hovering cloud of judgment that always made me feel like I was doing something wrong (or worse, like I wasn’t doing enough). And, it was a relief to disengage myself from the subtle sense of competition that always seemed to arise among the other members—sly jockeying over who could sit longer or do more prostrations or who was having a more pure and transcendent feeling of oneness during meditation.
I attended a few more services here and there, but ultimately just stopped going altogether late in the spring of 2011.
I completed my year of clairvoyant training just a few months after that and then rolled into two more consecutive six-month-long programs at psychic school, which pulled me further and further away from not only the temple’s Sunday services but their whole philosophy as well.
In the summer of 2013, finished with all my clairvoyant schooling for the time being, I thought it might be a good time to dip my toes back in the waters of Zen meditation. I decided to visit a different community one Sunday morning and was startled by how viscerally I ended up hating it.
I wrote in my journal later that night:
I think I’m done with Zen-style meditation for a while. Aside from all the bullshit, California-macho male energy and my complete lack of interest in hearing anything an old white guy has to say about anything spiritual anymore, and aside from the total lack of joy in the way the discipline is being practiced, I think the thing that became most apparent to me is that I’m no longer interested in a spirituality that makes me smaller. I don’t need any help forbearing unpleasant circumstances. I am a maestro at sitting patiently and quietly until something that I hate finally comes to a conclusion. I’ve lost more than enough time to that kind of behavior, and I don’t need a spiritual discipline that’s telling me to do that on a regular basis.
That was several months ago at this point, and I’m nowhere near having any kind of answers or any better sense of where I want to go, spiritually, next. I’d like to be giving professional psychic readings on a more regular basis, and I’ve developed my sub-site here in order to start to attract more readees. But, that clearly will still be a solitary pursuit, even when I do get it up and running.
I’m still, as I noted last week, looking for my sublime tribe.
I’ve been noticing more and more lately that the answer to so many problems in my life is that I just need more of me, of my own life force and energy back in the mix. So, I’m fully open to the idea that instead of looking for a tribe, I should instead be looking for ways that I can show up for myself more powerfully.
And maybe that’s the wisdom I was attracted to in the Zen center in the first place—having the time and space to sit quietly in the fullness of myself, surrounded by dozens of other people doing the same.
Do you know what’s actually probably the single most detrimental thing to my self-esteem?
The fact that I think I’m actually pretty awesome.
It’s a classic case of opposing forces: my occasionally crushing self-doubt and self-loathing set off against the narcissistic self-regard that fancies I’m not only rather brilliant but dead sexy to boot. My self-consciousness about my self-regard then turns in on itself as I attempt to tone down its intensity, adjusting it too far in the other direction, finding myself suddenly dialed back to the point of utter lack of self-worth.
Nowhere does this conflict get played out more clearly than with my simultaneous attraction to and avoidance of selfies. (Not that the internet needs any more think pieces about selfies, but.)
My mom was a fairly talented amateur photographer, so, as the oldest child in the family, I’m lucky to have scores of beautiful photographs of myself as a baby and young child. My father was always obsessed with documentation, so he was hardly ever without a video camera of some sort in his hand (silent 8mm back in the ’70s, camcorders thereafter). So, from a very young age, there was no shortage of ways for me to get used to seeing my own image. As a natural born ham comfortable being the center of attention seemingly from birth, it’s not like I exactly shied away from the spotlight either.
As I grew out of the adorable-for-the-sake-of-being-adorable phase, I grew into the awareness that achievement would get me attention. So, there came more photos of me at school plays, concerts, awards ceremonies, and the like. And on the heels of all that, there was the teenage exhilaration of just being alive, man, which garnered more photos taken by friends at odd hours, or in odd situations, all of us hugging and grinning and pulling faces full of equal parts glory and stupidity.
In my early twenties, before a summer spent studying abroad in London, I made sure to buy a nice enough point-and-shoot camera to record my adventures there. Though totally untrained, I had a good enough eye for framing and detail (perhaps hereditary, perhaps due to many long hours watching movies as a film studies major) that my photos came out pretty well, and it wasn’t long before I found myself, even back in the States, incapable of leaving the house without a camera in my purse. After finally getting a digital camera some years later, I twice committed myself to photo-a-day projects (you can see the first year here, and the second year here).
Though my affection for the tableaux and the people that I captured in these many years of taking pictures was completely genuine, there was the sneaky, shadowy part of me that always wished I was in the frame too. Not because I needed to be reminded that I had participated in any specific event; I have a good enough memory not to need photographic evidence like that and was a dedicated journaler for many years besides. No, I reasoned that if I wanted to show people how much I loved them by photographing them looking beautiful, then, if someone loved me and thought I was beautiful, they would naturally want to return the favor.
Self-regard has never been a problem for me, but self-love is a different beast altogether, and it very rarely occurred to me to turn the camera on myself. It was inconceivable that I could photograph myself through the same kind of lens of love that I turned on my friends; it felt necessary, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate even just a few years ago, that someone should want to turn the camera in my direction and shoot me from his or her perspective. That would be the only way to get a valid photo of myself looking wonderful.
I have plenty of these kinds of photos, of course. I’m not exactly lacking for lovely photos taken of me by other people.
It’s the voraciousness, the desire for parity simmering not so quietly under the surface, that stands out for me now. In my loneliness, I wanted to see myself through someone else’s eyes so that I could have some sort of assurance that someone was looking at me with something like love, or perhaps even seeing something in me that I hadn’t previously been able to see myself.
I would quietly take photos of myself sometimes, in my bedroom or in the bathroom at a restaurant, but in the pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook days, these photos mostly quietly lived on Flickr, without my necessarily drawing much attention to them. They just felt like part of the fabric of the world that I enjoyed documenting, and I felt like I was getting away with something if I happened to come away with a photo that felt like an accurate representation of how I wanted other people to see me. As quirky or cute, or, more likely, cuter than I thought people gave me credit for being on a regular basis. (“Take that! I am cute! See!!”)
As technology started to make it easier to both take self-portraits and to show them off online, I caught myself feeling judgmental of the people I knew who seemed to take a little too much advantage of this capability. Like, who gave them permission to just blast their faces all over the place? And, isn’t it somehow unseemly to basically admit that you want people to look at you? I mean, it’s an obvious bid for attention when you’re splashing photos of yourself into everybody’s line of sight.
I was afraid of betraying what felt like my own bottomless capacity for vacuuming up any little gift of affection or validation offered up to me, and ashamed that I felt that way in the first place—like, shouldn’t I have grown out of it by now? Shouldn’t I have left that in the past with the pink sunglasses and the yellow windbreaker? So, by way of self-protection, and something approaching self-denial, I think I must have decided that anyone brazen enough to just flaunt themselves like that must have been, in some way, taking something away from me.
So, I don’t often post photos of myself online, except for when they’re taken by someone else. There’s the reasonable part of me that fears the repercussions of simply being a woman visible on the internet with all its possibilities for vitriol and even abuse. But, more than that, I’m far too wary of seemingly like I’m begging for attention. (It’s like Louis CK says in his stand-up show Chewed Up: “Forty’s a weird age. . . . You’re not young enough for anybody to ever be proud of you or impressed. They’re just like, ‘yeah, do your job, asshole. Nobody cares.’”) Because, I think that fear of looking like I’m begging for attention is actually more a fear that, even if someone is looking, I’ll be dismissed as nothing worth paying attention to. I don’t think my own lens of love is clear enough yet for me to be OK with that.
My first boyfriend skipped his senior year in high school to start early as a freshman in a fancypants program at the University of Southern California. He left for Los Angeles at the end of the summer we met.
In many ways, it was the perfect relationship for 16-year-old me.
I got all the romantic pining and pre-e-mail love letter writing with none of the daily negotiations of when we were going to hang out or any other reality-based buckets of cold water that would have quashed the highly romantic narrative I adored being the center of. We lasted about two years this way, and I have no regrets about any of it.
Well, I guess except for the typical regrets that come with simply having once been a teenager and thus having lacked the emotional intelligence to handle highly charged situations that inevitably become a bit easier to manage when one gets older.
He came back home to visit his family often enough that first year, but going into the second year of our relationship, which coincided with the beginning of my own senior year in high school, I was feeling squirrely and ready to declare a bit of my independence. So, late that fall of ’96, I decided that I would fly to L.A. to visit.
Looking back on that trip, I know I was an emotionally voracious wet blanket. I was especially pouty and sullen any time I was expected to interact with large groups of his friends. I wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and didn’t know how to communicate my crushing disappointment when it became clear that he wasn’t going to allow me to, you know, lock him in a quiet, dark room with me for two or three days straight. He welcomed me to join in his revelries with his friends and, rightly, felt no qualms about proceeding about his business when I feigned jet lag and went to bed early the night of my arrival.
I fared a bit better in the ensuing days in one-on-one interactions with his roommates and other closer friends. It being USC, at least one of them was studying filmmaking, and happened to mention how much he’d enjoyed a new indie film that had just come out, in limited release, from Miramax, called Swingers. The title went into my mental Rolodex for the next several months.
Fortuitously, that following spring of ’97, I saw that Swingers was scheduled to screen at the late, lamented Town Theater in Highland, Indiana, the place where I saw so many great things that year of my own burgeoning interest in film. I don’t remember much about that first viewing, only that I instantly loved it and knit the film into my personal pantheon of films that felt like they truly belonged to me without having first been passed through my father’s tastes. I’d felt the same way about Pulp Fiction when I first saw it two and a half years earlier and would feel the same again when I saw Rushmore two years later. And there were countless others, of course. But Swingers somehow felt special because I’d first heard about it from some college kid in Los Angeles, at a time when I was busy fashioning myself into the kind of person who knew cool people that knew cool things.
I watched the film repeatedly in college and even had a poster of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau hanging on my closet door for a period of time. I was fully in my “one of the boys” phase of life, and few things made me feel more IN than taking this film to heart. All the inside jokes and clever lingo and the revelation of how regular-seeming but impossibly witty guys related to and bonded with each other was irresistibly appealing. I couldn’t get enough. For from feeling like an outsider, like one of the unknowable girls these characters lusted after or found otherwise elusive, I felt like I was part of their clique, part of that group of tight-knit friends. (And clearly, so did many, many other people, as the recent delightful oral history of the film over at Grantland makes clear.)
Even though, in real life, it was challenging for me to, say, fly to L.A. and find a way not to be an awkward spazz around my boyfriend’s friends, Swingers nevertheless succeeded in seducing me into riding along to Vegas with these screen-friends on their us-against-the-world adventure.
Recently, my now-boyfriend brought home a copy of the Sammy Davis Jr. live album The Sounds of ’66.
Even though I actually am a performer and have played in my fair share of late-night, high-energy, never-to-be-recaptured shows, I find myself resolutely not identifying with any of the musicians on this album. Least of all Davis himself. When I listen to this album, I am completely surrendered to his showmanship. His masterful command of the band, his voice, and the crowd delights me like few things have recently. At the slightest provocation, I will repeat his opening remarks, “Any noises that come from the audience or any of the people or any side noises you might hear, know that they are NOT canned—they are LIVE” like it’s a mantra.
I listened to the tracks during my morning commute on a particularly jam-packed train car last week and felt instantly completely immune to the stresses of the situation. It was like Davis was creating a magical, protective bubble that extended not just to his audience of showgirls and high rollers who’d come to let their hair down after hours at the Sands but to any of us, at any time, with any need to be elevated out of the mundane. Such is the force of his talent and charisma.
In this instance, though, it’s actually those invisible, unnamed showgirls populating the audience who I am most compelled to identify with. Hearing them clapping and cheering and just generally losing their minds (particularly whoever’s really going nuts at the end of “Once in Love with Amy”—a woman named Amy, perhaps?) touches me for the way it conveys that, yes, Vegas in the mid-60s really was as swinging as we’d like to imagine that it was. They were there to take full advantage of all its glamour in all the ways they could. But in many ways their pleasure is the actual aspirational part of the recording for me, a reminder to enjoy my own lived moment as a woman, without either hiding or persisting in my old belief that being one of the guys is the only game in town.
It’s hard for me to be out about my psychic skills and spirituality in my everyday life.
Despite the current trend toward all things witchy and woo, it’s a trend that I mostly see and participate in online. With definite exceptions, it’s not especially reflected in my daily friendships and associations.
Though many of my oldest and closest friends are intensely spiritual, their spirituality is often centered around Christianity. And though there are many aspects of Christianity that I still resonate with—particularly when it comes to social justice—I personally have always felt more drawn to Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Which, living in Northwest Indiana until my early twenties, meant that I gained most of my information about these traditions through books.
After I moved to Chicago, I certainly had more and better access to all kinds of Buddhist temples and meditation centers, and eventually felt myself pulled toward expanding my psychic abilities, learning reiki healing, and working with crystals. Recently I’ve also been devouring Doreen Virtue’s books on angels, goddesses, and fairies; Sera Beak’s impassioned explorations of the (re)emerging Divine Feminine; Serge Kahili King’s wonderful writing on the Hawaiian Huna tradition; and the idea of “core shamanism” as defined by Tom Cowan in his excellent book Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life.
Even in a big city with so much to offer, though, why is it that so much of my knowledge is still mostly gleaned from the written word? My stereotypically Aquarian standoffishness is not particularly well served by the intense intellectualization that comes from so much reading without being able to integrate all that new information into my physical body in the context of any kind of long-term community.
And even when I do attempt to engage with other like-minded folks, it either tends to be online (such as Drucilla Pettibone’s Faericology course) or extremely short-term (such as a weekend workshop at Chicago’s Equilibrium). These are better than nothing, of course, but don’t exactly do much to combat my brain-in-a-jar tendencies.
I supposed this furtive behavior is also somewhat compounded by my irrational fear of being judged by the handful of scientific brainiacs and atheist intellectuals I also count among my friends. Whether it’s the brilliant editors at my day job or casual acquaintances who work at science labs or as university professors, I often find myself in a mild panic when I consider what they might think of me if they ever found out I give aura readings, connect energetically with the faery realm, or occasionally communicate with spirits who have passed away from this physical plane.
Part of my difficulty here stems from my inability to reconcile my intense spiritual longings with my equally intense curiosity about the hard sciences. As a middle schooler, I remember sitting through science classes and thinking, “why aren’t science teachers and scientists the most religious people in the world?” The extraordinary wonder of the natural world just seemed too beautiful to be approached with anything other than complete reverence. As an adult, I still do believe that privately, but often want to hang a gigantic asterisk over my head to inform all my techno-pals, “yes, I may give aura readings, and yes, I may be intensely in tune with the energy of people, places, and things, but I’m not some sort of floaty, brainless starchild. I stand by the scientific method, too!”
I know it’s not an all or nothing proposition, and I know that I should trust other people’s capacity to enjoy my company while disagreeing with me at the same time. But this is where I feel my lack of community most keenly. In wanting to be accepted by any sort of larger group, I’m essentially willing to hide or minimize the parts of myself that connect me with the largeness of the sublime.
A woman I used to work with was using a jokey hasthtag on Twitter the other day: #femmeolympics.
With it, she was gathering female-identified people’s stories about putting on makeup in outrageous circumstances or walking in high heels in less than ideal conditions.
I know it was all meant in good fun, but my inner not-girly-enough sensitivity got a bit tweaked reading them. My panicked train of thought started spinning out: I can’t remember if I’ve ever gotten dressed or done my hair in exceptionally challenging circumstance. But, if I’ve never put on false eyelashes while driving in heavy traffic, does that mean I’m less femme than someone who has? Am I failing at something I never knew I was supposed to be aspiring to? Have I lost the Olympics without even playing?
While waiting to cross the street to get to my office Tuesday morning, a conventionally attractive woman stood a few feet in front and to the left of me. She was tall and thin and blonde and was dressed so impeccably she belonged, aesthetically, more in New York than Chicago. Even her winter gear was sleek—black serial killer gloves with a sexy peekaboo detail around the inner wrist, luxurious looking black knit legwarmers emerging from the tops of her fashionably severe knee-high black boots. It was like all of her beauty was further highlighted, heightened, caressed by her outerwear.
In my puffy lumberjack coat, with my hair sweaty and matted down under my trapper hat and earflaps, crisscrossed along the length of my torso by the straps of my oversized purse and tote bag containing my lunch, with my feet stuffed into clompy beige snowboots, I felt likewise highlighted by my outerwear. Just in the opposite direction. I was more awkward, more frumpy/dumpy/lumpy, more haphazard and mismatched.
I am obviously the only person responsible for buying my clothes and getting myself dressed in the morning. So, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for me to start buying outfits that would make me look like a German rocketship stewardess from the year 2150. I have no one to blame but myself if I’m unhappy with the state of my wardrobe. But obviously, even if I bought the exact same clothes she was wearing, I wouldn’t look anything like that woman. And not just because I’m shorter and more voluptuous. The whole effect of her tall-thin-blonde-elegant otherness stemmed from my response to it as an observer. I wouldn’t look that way to myself, inside myself, even if we were twins.
Partly, though, some of my perplexed fascination with her stemmed from the sense that she intended to look like that. Her self-presentation seemed too cohesive not to have been intentionally curated (god, I hate that word). Which means, she had the idea of what she wanted to look like—both in the morning when she was getting ready to leave the house and whenever she bought the individual items of clothing—and then found the pieces to match that mental image and merged herself with it.
This boggles my mind! To have so powerful a sense of oneself that one can not only articulate it internally, but then also actively go about purchasing and wearing the clothes that will accurately achieve the desired effect? As someone who has been known to casually throw around terms like “magic” and “witchcraft” and actually mean them, sartorial talent at that level seems less like voodoo to me and more like straight-up applied mathematics.
I find myself going through different looks, of course. There was the time I gave up pants altogether and started wearing skirts and dresses with leggings exclusively, the time I wore stripy knee-socks every day, the time I just kept putting my light leather jacket on over all my tops like a cardigan. But mostly these are accidental phases that I don’t realize I’m in until I’m well inside them. “Oh, I haven’t been wearing jeans as much as I used to. I guess that’s a thing that I’m doing now.”
I’m fascinated by fashion and have enough visual sense to be able to achieve basic effects with my clothing choices—but it’s all still ultimately a crapshoot. I’ll luck into finding functional pieces for my wardrobe at resale places and consignment shops and even Target and Old Navy. I don’t tend to go out in search of anything specific, though, for fear that if I did, I’d never be able to find it, never be able to afford it, never be able to pull it off.
I’m utterly enamored of the current raft of body-positivity bloggers who insist that we all have a right to wear what makes us feel good. There’s so much amazing creativity and resourcefulness being put into their “outfit of the day” posts—and that’s not even mentioning the niche bloggers who focus exclusively on underwear, hair, makeup, nail art, perfume, etc. It’s a varied, beautiful landscape of self-expression and self-presentation. I support it and endorse it and adore it.
But when I find myself feeling like I’m falling short of even this free-for-all, anything-goes spirit, I have to wonder where, why, and how I’m blocking myself. Is it the time, the effort, the money? Clearly not. Any of those things are surmountable. I think I’m most worried that I have no vision, because I know that means I’m avoiding looking at myself. Whatever it is I’m afraid to see (or not see) when I look certainly can’t be as horrible as convincing myself that I shouldn’t bother at all.