Patron Saint: Stephen Sondheim

Way back when Synchronized Swim was just an idea in a notebook, one of the very first concepts Amy and I knew we wanted to write about was that of patron saints.  Amy followed through immediately and wrote about Madeleine L’Engle; I am just now getting around to it (in my defense, I’ve been dropping breadcrumbs toward him along the way).  I get generally irritated by the notion that anyone accomplishes anything alone – “hustle,” “self-made man,” etc.  Hard work and vision are irreplaceable, but they are always (often outside the photo frame) holding the hand of outside encouragement.  We are more often than not influenced more deeply by people we don’t know than the ones that we do, people who came before us and “successfully” did what we hope to.  I have been holding Stephen Sondheim’s hand since I was 10 years old, when my sister came home from school one afternoon and told me about the movie they’d watched in her literature class: West Side Story.  We have patron saints so that we can know for sure part of the good that lies ahead – someone one (or several) steps ahead of us in our practice, be it writing or acting or chess, and typically better at it, to tell us, “Hey! No one is alone.” (I couldn’t resist.)  Geniuses to look to that say for all you know, you might be a genius too, finding your way into the same family.

For those who don’t know, Stephen Sondheim is a lyricist and composer of musicals who is considered the best in his field, living and perhaps ever.  I’d seen West Side Story and Sweeney Todd during my childhood, but my first real encounter with him came my senior year of high school.  I was 18 years old, crying on the carpet of my voice teacher’s studio after finally making my way through Somewhere without her stopping me.  She told me that after graduation, I should do myself a favor and print out every lyric he ever wrote and put it in a binder.  “You’ll have a 6-month course in philosophy better than any school you end up attending in the fall,” she told me.

She was right.  Lucky for me, Sondheim did it himself and saved me the trouble.  There are two volumes of his collected works: Finishing the Hat, and Look, I Made A Hat.  I can’t even properly touch on half of my favorite songs for the purposes of this essay (Something’s Coming! Opening Doors! Green Finch and Linnet Bird!), and as far as I’m concerned, 6 years isn’t nearly long enough to melt into his lyrics.  The man is unparalleled.  Though of course his lyrics are best taken in when set to music as God and Steve intended, there is something very, very special about reading the words by themselves and just sitting with them, looking at his notes and seeing the reasoning behind choosing one word over another.  It makes sense that I care more about the words than the music because I understand one language better than the other, but if you’re a musician reading this I promise you he has the same effect across the board.  The titles of these tomes are drawn from his infamous (and perhaps most autobiographical) song from Sunday in the Park with George about the pioneer of pointillism, Georges Seurat.  My best friend used to make fun of me for singing the song all the time; I’ll admit, out of context it sounds a little silly.  It goes like this:

Finishing the hat – how you have to finish the hat

How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat

The song’s purpose is twofold: Georges is processing the dismantling of his relationship with Dot, the only woman he’s ever really loved and probably the only woman that could love him, while simultaneously getting caught up in the all-consuming creative process that made her leave him in the first place, which, in his case, expresses itself in painting canvases.  The song ends with the declaration, “Look I made a hat – where there never was a hat.” His joy in creating something that didn’t exist before coexists with his full understanding that it will always keep him slightly at a distance from everyone around him.  To be a genius, you must always be looking for a place where no one else can reach you, which means you must be alone.  I listened to an interview with Steve on my favorite podcast, Desert Island Discs, about a year ago.  It didn’t take much listening to hear that he is a man very much alone, surrounded by exquisite hats – but I couldn’t help thinking that they make for better company.  He sounds so unhappy, despite having come closer to perfect expression through song than anyone else in his field.  The price you pay, I guess, for being able to make a perfect hat.

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Clothed with the Sun, Part II

{You can start with Part I from back in November if you’d like, here, for some background on why I’m thinking about all this in the first place.}

I’m sitting here with one hand-knit sock on one foot, and the other still beside me, half-finished. This year, I’m making my clothes. At least, I hope I will be. I’m planning to. We are halfway into the first month of 2018 and all I have are lofty plans and a nearly finished pair of socks that I’ve been working on for far too long. I’m exhausted, overworked, feeling out of sorts in almost every way, but I have plans, oh I have plans. And I intend to try my best to keep them.

Right now, I’ll be honest, I’m very tired. I’ve worked in the kitchen all weekend because we are in the busy retreat season at HoneyRock and there are 100 extra people to feed here than usual. I’m right now the sort of tired where you just feel like crying for no reason, where you end up staring into space for a while. It’s the sort of tired where you worry that you will always be as tired as you are, that this is it for you and the energy is never coming back. That’s how this whole season feels. The amount of time I have to spend in the kitchen is extremely disproportionate to the time I have to spend on what feels like my real work, sewing, designing, thinking, feeling, etc. Which is why I have my high hopes, why I’m holding them tightly even on my most tired days.

It feels good to have plans. No, it feels amazing. Even though my eyes are crossing as I try to look at the computer screen and type comprehensible sentences, I have PLANS. And I’m here today to tell you about them, to say my plans out loud so as to encourage myself to keep them and maybe also share the wealth. The wealth, that is, of being clothed with the sun, of dressing for work, real work, of finding out that you have agency in the areas of your life that make you blue, the big ones and the small ones, and then taking that agency and running with it.

Clothes feel like much more of a challenge than quilts do to me. When sewing an article of clothing, I often feel impatient. Quilts are such a big process that you get lost in the length of it, not expecting to finish anytime soon. A garment feels small, simple, like it could be done in an hour or two, when really it needs more like four or five. I want to practice patience. I want to not make sloppy mistakes. I want to finish all my seams beautifully, to make clothes that will last a very long time, to do as good of a job as I know how to. This will be difficult. But it will also be worth it. It will be worth it to adorn my body, to treat myself with respect. I want to sew the clothes from the patterns and then make them even more special, with embroidery and applique, tags and topstitching. Small things to add up to something big. Clothes made by myself for myself.

And then, once I make the clothes, I want to wear them. Perhaps even almost exclusively, we’ll see. It’s an experiment in joy, in doing what I set out to do, in practicing what I preach and paying attention to myself as I do. I’m sure I’ll still cringe when I walk past a Madewell, I’m sure I’ll still windowshop online, imagining all the women I could be in all the beautiful clothing. But maybe I’ll also feel a little more confident about the woman I am, the things I carry around within, the plans I make and carry out, little acts of bravery, of power. I hope that will be the case, but for now all I have are the plans. Plans and my own tired body, clothed in something not-quite-bright, yet still luminous. A tiny sliver, like the morning moon I’ve been seeing as I make my sad frozen walk toward serving breakfast. Morning moon, shocking against the blue of dawn. The moon is clothed with the sun, quite literally lit by something outside itself, waning and waxing, full and new in turn. That is how I want to be. That is how I will be. That is how I am. A season for everything, for the moon and the sun, for making your clothes and buying them, for mending and tearing. For making plans and carrying them out. Stepping out in bravery with an armload of fabric, a needle and thread, your own living room, a stack of papers, and hope.

Read on to see what I’m going to do:

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Secrets

“There’s no strangeness you can imagine that is more strange than the lives of apparently conventional people behind closed doors.”

I read that in an interview with Daniel Day-Lewis in the New York Times on New Years’ Eve while my family and I did the Sunday Times crossword, and it’s been lazily looping through my head since.  The idea of being private in public has been camped out in my brain for about 6 years now, ever since my first acting class in college where we did what’s called a BOE – basic object exercise.  I think the actual prompt for the exercise has something to do with at least 3 minutes interacting with 5 or more objects, but the real focus is being able to recreate a private moment in front of other people.  I’m pretty sure I only succeeded at it once in my four years in the program, but the notion stuck.  We are so very mysterious without intending to be.  Think about the first crush that truly made you swoon – didn’t you just want to know what they did in the time you didn’t see them? Completely ordinary things that may as well have been classified Pentagon files.  That’s the stuff BOE’s are made of – the moments spent sitting in your room thinking, or brewing a cup of coffee and bringing it to your desk as you write, spraying your perfume before you walk out the door.  The events that are only commonplace to you.

I don’t think that’s quite what Daniel was getting at, but it’s the intersection between the two ideas that I’m interested in – the idea that much of what we do when alone is generally not that different from what other people do, and the idea that much of what we do when alone is so different from what other people do that we don’t talk about it.  For instance, crying.  I have no problem crying in public, meaning I obviously don’t have a hard time crying in private.  I recently saw someone I have known nearly my entire life cry for the first time, and it was only because I heard it behind a closed door and opened it.  Oftentimes, even if you are a comfortable public cryer, the first thing you say to a person that catches you crying is, “I’m sorry,” despite it being a universal human experience that someone else just happened to catch you in the midst of.  I had a teacher in high school who was notoriously sensitive, almost always aglow with holy emotion.  He taught biology, but every class began with a devotional, and every devotional ended with him crying because he is easily moved, and every single time he started to cry he would dart his head down to the right with a flustered smile and say, “Sorry,” even though we had seen him do precisely this thing every day before.  

In my experience, most secrets are revealed in a similar way – involuntarily, followed by an apology, despite being a universal experience.  “I’m so lonely – God, I’m sorry, why did I say that.” “I’m not very good at this – I’m sorry, I’m not fishing for compliments.” “I’m still not over it – I’m sorry, I don’t know why I brought that up.” It’s these accidentally public sentiments that drive our private lives.  Anything that’s happening behind a closed door is bound to clumsily appear out in the open it’s the loudest thing you’re lugging around with you anyway.  TBuried Child is about a Big secret, a secret that could legitimately ruin every relationship of every character in the play.  That terrible Girl on the Train movie is about a guy with a Big secret.  Murder is a Big secret.  There are secrets that exist simply because it’s no one else’s business but yours.  There are secrets between former lovers and former friends, and neither should be divulged to anyone but the people they pertain to.  There are secrets that are just plain embarrassing.  There are secrets that need only be kept for a certain amount of time, and can be casually divulged past their expiration dates.  But I think the ones most people are keeping close to the chest are generally less precious than they appear.  “Objects in Mirror Are Less Precious Than They Appear.”  Strangeness is often cultivated by fear, not unshared experience.

In that same acting class in college, there was a quote from Frederick Buechner written on a white board in the periphery.  “I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition – that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are – even if we tell it only to ourselves – because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.

I particularly love that bit about coming to view our own selves as the edited version.  Does anything sound more dangerous?

It’s not really tipping my hand to say that I think most secrets ought to be told.  For instance, love.  I think in general you ought to tell a person if you love them.  I think you ought to tell someone if you’re mad at them, and I think you ought to let someone know the bad thing that happened 8 years ago that you wish you were over but you just aren’t and yes, sorry, it’s still affecting you.  Here is a secret: I still sleep with my baby blanket.  Here’s another one: I’m self-conscious about my arms.  I have punished an innocent party for the behavior of a guilty one, and I have posted something on Instagram for the benefit of one person’s viewing it.  The pseudo-strangeness that goes on behind my closed door – but surely no stranger than yours.

figure-eights

Today I went skating at golden hour alone. I went knowing, or thinking at least, that I’m not a good skater. In almost every instance I can remember I’ve felt the whole time like I was about to fall, wanting to leave after ten minutes of wobbling around in pain somewhere around my ankles, bracing myself for impact. I don’t think I’ve ever before skated by myself. It’s one of the crazy graces of this year in the woods, this strange, singular year that we have found ourselves in (since we have decided that we will not be staying for the three we originally thought), that I can quite literally walk one minute from my door to an idyllic frozen lagoon of my very own. Or I can cross-country ski on untouched snow through well-loved wilderness any day of the week. I grabbed my skates on a whim today, practically running out my door, a sudden impulse to try again. It’s too beautiful here, so much that it doesn’t really compute. All the snow, the pines, the sun in all seasons. I hardly know what’s beautiful anymore, what’s real, where my body really is, how to move through it all. I live in these woods, this is where I am, there are other people here too, now in 2018, but I am alone within my own woods, cavernous, different with different light. My own lagoon, not even borrowed, owned.

I took off my mittens to strap on my skates. Cold hands. The way down the bank of the lagoon to the ice was slippery and uneven, treacherous, I’d call it. I fell right away, the sort where both feet fly out from under you at once. I landed squarely on my tailbone. It felt like a bad omen, it made me sigh and think myself silly. I was thankful every minute that no one was anywhere near the lagoon, greedy for silence and space, the romance of it, the chance to fall and not be seen. I expected to fall more, to not stay very long, to change my mind and go home.

Once on the ice, I just began. Small steps, just practice, my mind graciously clear. Short, slow glides, one foot then the other, finding where the ice was the most smooth, thankful for Greta who had cleared some of the snow off the lagoon yesterday when she wanted to practice her hockey. I found a little lane to stay in with a few clear cracks shooting across it, ominous but seeming to be relatively sturdy. I skated, rocking my arms back and forth, surely looking clumsy but with no one to see.

What amazed me was that I didn’t want to stop. Never once. I just kept skating, back and forth, back and forth, up and down, always deciding to double back and go again. Time was gone, my phone dead in my pocket within moments of stepping out on the ice. Me, be-mittened, wearing a sweater I had knit myself, favorite blue jeans, vintage parka from the Rhinelander goodwill, Isaiah’s hat, perfectly-fitting skates saved from the lost-and-found, radiant in the golden hour sunlight, absolutely alone.

At some sort of midpoint in my practice, I recalled figure-eights, remembered they were a thing to try, a thing skaters did sometimes. A circle that goes round about itself. I made one, a slow, lazy loop around and around, then another, then another, with the curves as the best part, but maybe also the straights. No clear place or reason to stop. Infinity to trace over and over again. I noticed my skating getting more sure, my body relaxing, my heart softening behind the zipper of my coat as I looped.

I thought of nothing, and when I did think I thought just about skating. Simple thoughts. I imagined myself a different person entirely, Hans Brinker or Jo from Little Women or a girl with a pond that freezes over every winter in her backyard throughout her childhood. I thought of professional figure skaters and their mothers. I felt like I was doing, suddenly, something I was born to do. A body made to glide, to spin when she chooses, to stop and look. Someone weightless, cutting, making lines on the ice. A beautiful woman alone. I looked as the tracks multiplied, as I cut through fresh snow straying further and further, making perfect curves around, right and left. Pure comfort, joy.

I was in the middle of something I knew I would remember, the sort of thing you think about when you’re sad, thinking “if I could only go back there, to the figure-eights on the lagoon.” I thought of another time like that, a time under a willow once in Chicago, when I didn’t want to leave, felt almost like I couldn’t, like there would never be a right time to leave that place, that moment. Another infinity. It happens to me sometimes, rarely but surely, getting caught in loops of grace. It’s almost a sort of mania, a wonderful kind, where there is no better thing than the thing I’m doing, no happier thought, no reason in the world to stop or leave. I become a sort of madwoman, skating or sitting under a willow, back on my island of madness which is a sheet of ice or a shelter made of leaves. Trapped and happy, arrested by the moment, pinned down by something outside of myself, playing out something planned long ago, an ancient thing. Being in exactly the right place, making loops, in motion. It’s possible that I am making something big out of something very small, but that’s what makes it so cutting, so deep. It is a feeling that absolutely cannot be manufactured or chosen or created by me. It is a feeling that is entirely a gift, a gift preceding all action. That is not a small thing–eternal life suddenly on earth, gently, carried for a minute by me, a clumsy girl alone on skates. Incarnation.

It is a frequent grief of mine to feel out of place. It’s been plaguing me often lately, a thorn in my flesh. The feeling that something is not right, that I am not right, that I shouldn’t be where I am but there’s nowhere to go. That something is cosmically wrong, that I have nothing to say, no choices to make, no doorknob to turn. Friday night that is where I was, feeling very, very anxious, absolutely trapped, like I was caught in a bad loop, one I couldn’t get out of, seeing weeks stretched out in front of me full of things I didn’t want to do, places that weren’t the right ones. If only someone could have told me, “but you’ll do figure-eights on Sunday.” If only I knew of the grace to come, of the way it always, always ebbs and flows. It is a flaw of mine to continuously doom myself to things I’m not doomed to, forgetting that there is both doom and glory, that one is my inheritance and one is just a sometimes-place, a momentary affliction, a byproduct of something in me that isn’t actually mine, not anymore. Glory is mine, eternal, doom is just sometimes. This is what I always forget. This is what I need to be reminded of.

It takes me to this, to a psalm, to “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.”  Lines cut into ice, walking on water, heart full of light, mind full of peace, clothed with the sun. That is who I am, who I was created to be. I started 2017 in Rwanda, of all places, sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat in front of forty kids, saying those words out loud to them, with them. “The lines have fallen for me…” We lay on our backs and traced lines through the sky with our feet, we practiced closing our eyes and looking at the blackness, making symbols out of the things I wanted to remember, hoping it would be good for them too. Then I said those words at Annie’s wedding, shared them with Margaret and Jessie, the four of us joined together in declaring hope for ourselves and for Annie’s marriage, for each of our lives and the ways they were changing, feeling tears leaking from our eyes, speaking the truth with full voice in front of other people. I have carried those words in my body through unbelief and fear and sadness and shocking anger, through long days that didn’t feel right, that made me want to run away and never stop. And now it is a new year and I see now that the lines are figure eights, always have been, pure grace, my body gliding, unearthly. It is the answer to the question I shout at the sky over and over again, “where will I be safe???” In the figure eights, under the willow, right in the middle of the grace, its endlessness. I’m knocked over by the gift of feeling it, of knowing it to be true, of finding myself caught in the best sort of loop, a strange mirror to the loops of anxiety I have come to know better and, sadly, to expect. Feeling myself somehow right within lines drawn by God, heavenly eights. The shock of promises actually being kept. This is a sign, this is a wonder, skating in January in Wisconsin. What wondrous love, where the thunderous things are silent, where the mystery is what is true, where time stops and shifts, where the doom is momentary but the grace goes on and on and on, round about itself, infinity. The sort of thing you didn’t even know to yearn for.

I stopped skating when some other people came to skate. I think it had been an hour, maybe more. I wasn’t angry that they came, I just knew it was time to go. I did one or two more loops then I waddled off the ice, made small talk, felt quietly transformed. I went home and grabbed my computer to write. I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

I know that I spend more time thinking I am caught in doom than reveling and breathing in grace. I know that one day’s skating will not solve tomorrow’s fears. I am not out of the woods yet, nor will I ever be. But now there are the figure-eights to remember, to revisit when I need to. A new holy thing, a new thing to practice, a brand new sacrament belonging to me, something so ordinary turned into fire. Something I couldn’t forget if I tried. I have it in my mind now to try to skate every day while there is ice on the lagoon, which I am sure I will not do. I will definitely decide not to go, be tired, sad, misremembering how it felt, living in doom instead of light, thinking a big thing small. But the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I was made to glide in grace. I am in infinity. This is what is true. This is what my body knows, and can now remember in a new way, forever.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been my favorite song since the moment I heard it. I discovered it in high school, used to listen to it over and over. It is the one song I would keep if there could only be one song to listen to for the rest of my life. If you don’t know it, the refrain is, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” In a strange sort of fever-dream, I made a theater piece about it in college, a sort of dance piece where I wore roller skates and made for myself a path made out of light. I performed it only a few times, chose it as my final farewell to the theater that had meant everything to me, to a place that felt something like heaven. That theater piece is one of my favorite things I have ever made, something that carried its own sort of holiness, something entirely without rationality, a thing created by my spirit instead of my mind. For all my loving “River,” I never knew why. I couldn’t articulate it, except that my body knew it somehow, that I carried that song in my soul, that it somehow belonged to me. Prophesy, strange and ordinary! Now I know why. It makes me shake my head to think of it, the uncanniness of it, that clear connection years in the making, something so simple, so almost silly. A deep, personal promise planted in me long ago and now fulfilled, still so cloaked in mystery. Small things made big! Towering! Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? I cannot attain unto it! I’m suddenly at the peak looking out, but only for a tiny moment. What does it mean, except that everything is connected and I am a part of that? What does it mean except that I have a river, a beautiful inheritance, and the lines are in pleasant places, loops of eternity? What does it mean except that the earth is mine to skate on even though grief is all around, and I am made of golden light?

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

The month of January is typically reserved for post-holiday blues and sludge-trudging, but, truth be told, it is one of my favorite times of the year because it means I get to go to the movies about once a week and not feel bad about it because THE OSCAR RACE HAS OFFICIALLY COMMENCED.  All of the contenders come out to play around the same time, as though they’re collectively nervous that if they’d decided to release in March the Academy would forget about them (which, it seems, they do). I remember the January of my senior year of college, when I went to Birdman and Foxcatcher and Whiplash with various cohorts of pals in what felt like an endless barrage of really good movies after several years where there, like, weren’t any.  Though I tend to prefer seeing movies alone, I love nabbing whoever I can to share the screen with this month, to look over at each other dumbfounded or crying at the end of whatever the heck just happened.  When I have a semi-respectable space to do so (not presently), I love to host an Oscar party and print out ballots and shush all of my guests while watching all the pretty people thank their mothers and be told they’re extraordinary.

I love going to the movies; always have.  When I was in elementary school, the greatest treat was when my mother came and picked me up early from school to see a movie (particularly when that movie was The Lizzie McGuire one).  She had excellent taste, and gave me my very first viewing of Pride and Prejudice at age 11, a gift I can never repay.  Movie theaters are the hallowed halls of middle school group dates spent itching to hold hands, or solo voyages when you need a good cry in the dark.  They are perfect for rainy days, or when you’re living in Holland and going stir crazy in your host family’s house.  The best is when you luck out and get a theater all to yourself – objectively, it sounds like it should be spooky, but experientially it feels very luxurious.  I used to keep every movie stub I acquired in a pile by my bed, until it grew to a size that required containment.  There are still little boxes of stubs in my childhood bedroom and an ever-growing bouquet in my wallet because I can’t quite seem to kick the habit.

A great Oscar mystery, rooted in legend and the 90’s

Here’s what I’m tryna see this month in my first round at the theaters before February:

Phantom Thread – bonus appeal: final film performance of Daniel Day Lewis </3, king of my heart; deterrent: looks scary!

I, Tonya – bonus appeal: I tried figure skating for two weeks when I was 7 years old and I’m eager to learn how my life could have turned out!, coincides beautifully with Sufjan Steven’s Tonya Harding singles, so I’m already emotionally prepared

3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – I want Frances McDormand to win all accolades possible, including for her supporting role in Something’s Gotta Give

The Greatest Showman – because of who I am as a person

Here are the movies I saw throughout 2017 that I just have an opinion about and hope will at least get some vague nomination, i.e., Best Cinematography

Baby Driver – I don’t really know what it could be nominated for (best writing? Cutiest trust fund boy-turned-actor-boy? Idk) but it’s still my fave movie of 2017

Wonder Woman – mostly just to ensure national exposure of the first 20 minutes in which the Amazon women are generally kicking all of the asses

Get Out – unlike any movie you will see this year and also ever

The Shape of Water – I normally hate the phrase “grown-up fairytale,” but it absolutely applies to this one, and it’s beautiful

Lady Bird – I didn’t love it as much as everyone else but I love that Greta Gerwig directed it and would like there to be 5 women alive who have been nominated for Best Director so!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – well, duh!

Here are the movies I know I’m supposed to want to see but feel totally! ambivalent! about:

Call Me By Your Name – saw one other Luca Guiadagnino movie and am too scared to see another one (but will probably cave bc peer pressure and bc important)

Darkest Hour – love Gary Oldman, love Winston Churchill, the math just isn’t there! (but also if someone paid for my ticket I would more than likely rally)

How crazy is it that over a hundred movies get made every year and there are some that only a handful of people see when there are thousands of people (this blimp included!) trying to make them?  And every year someone has to win, even if it’s not as good as the winner from the previous year?  It makes no sense! Emma Stone should not have won for La La Land! There, I said it! Cat’s outta the bag and running towards 2018!

Please do let me know if there’s something missing from my list – I have 6 glorious weeks to add to it, and I #dontwannamissathing.

New

I’m writing this on the last day of 2017 but you’ll read it on the first day of 2018. Quite the span, or so it feels. Hard to know which side to write for. Maybe better to span the line, straddle the divide, stand in both at once. Hello, goodbye.

This morning, I sat on my couch with my coffee and my quilt reading Ecclesiastes in The Message. It’s one of my many goals for 2018 to read through the Bible again, this time in The Message, Eugene Peterson’s often frustrating but also endlessly fascinating modern translation. Reading in The Message helps me to get out of my head, my trying to decode meaning. It helps me move more lightly through, grasp what’s happening and see throughlines rather than get tangled in language, in poetry, in symbol–which I love but sometimes find cumbersome. In The Message, I get tangled in language in a different way, often feeling at-odds with Peterson’s choice of word, wishing to write it myself instead, wondering if maybe I should. (A project for my forties? Fifties? Seventies?) It will be interesting to try to read the whole book this way. I wonder if I’ll make it or if I’ll get fed up somewhere in March. We will see. The promise of a new year, new things to commit to and put aside. A time to tear and a time to sew.

Here is what I read this morning, on the last day of 2017:

“What was will happen again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.”
(Ecclesiastes 1:9-10, The Message)

Not quite encouraging as we stand in hopefulness at a crack in time, after a year full of injustice and weird people in charge and confusion. That is how every year is. That is how every year will be. Every person, every generation, lives in a world that does not make sense and never will. Like it says in The Message‘s Ecclesiastes 1:15, “Life’s a corkscrew that can’t be straightened, a minus that won’t add up.” No one knows what the heck they’re doing. No one feels 100% safe or sure or calm. We are united with all of history in our flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants, making choices that feel uncertain, opening doors to passages what lead somewhere unknown.

Right now we are all reflecting on our year, who we were, what we did, and looking forward to who we want to be and what we want to do. I look back at 2017 and the year feels LONG. For much of it I felt like I was slogging through the same old crap, the same old dragging days. Isaiah and I keep saying that it feels like we can’t catch a break, and honestly it’s possible that this year had more of that than past years. But maybe not! I could look at each year of my adulthood and see multitudes of times when I couldn’t catch a break. When you couldn’t either. Every year the same old thing, nothing new on this earth, under the sun.

Except.

So many things happened to me, things I’m surprised at now but that didn’t feel all that surprising at the time, while I was walking through the muck feeling like I couldn’t catch a break. I traveled across the world. I quit jobs and started new ones. I said goodbye to dear friends. I learned things about my past that I didn’t know. I made a TON of quilts and became a pretty dang legit sewist. I decided to start a small business sometime soon. I wrote a lot of blog posts right here. I started journaling again. I bought an expensive sewing machine with my own money. I moved to the woods. I battled anxiety and depression and then got better. I became even better friends with my husband. I wore clothes I made myself. I wept and danced, alone and with others. I said “no” a few times that I should have said “yes.” I talked with God.

None of these things are new things. None of these things have never happened before on this earth. They’re happening all the time to all the people. But here’s where I start to push against Ecclesiastes (or maybe line up with it perfectly). Though none of these things are new in the world, they are new to me. All of life is new to me! Every step, every mile, everything that everyone in all of eternity has had to deal and will always have to deal with is absolutely new to me. Life in its slog is full of freshness, of joy. There are quilts to be made, songs to be heard for the first time, things to discover and uncover and claim as my own that don’t belong to me at all. My life is borrowed, I can say that confidently, and I am endlessly grateful. I stand in the face of my own groanings of “I can’t catch a break” with colorful cotton all stitched together, beautiful music, books to read, things to laugh about with my husband, friends! Life is the same as it’s always been for everyone and I get to try it for myself! Magnificent! That alone makes me hopeful for a new year. That alone makes me thankful for the year past. Nothing new but everything new to me. Every day, hard and soft all at once.

But there’s something else too. The whole time I was reading Ecclesiastes, I kept thinking, but wait! But wait! There, right in Isaiah, and honestly all over the Bible:

“Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.”
(Isaiah 43:19, The Message)

Here it is! God is doing a new thing! Something actually new! Something actually paradoxical! It’s the thing at the center of me that feels like fire, the holy mysteries, the part of the world that doesn’t add up and shouldn’t! The things we actually have yet to experience, the things that will literally crack us and our world in half. Roads through the desert, rivers in the badlands, water where there shouldn’t be water at all. We say, “there’s nothing new” and God says, “there is where you’re human, there is where you’re wrong!” God is new, and we get to live in God. 2018 will be another year of this impossible earth, the same as any other, but we, in God, get newness. Fire within us to change us, rip us out of the monotony, show us impossible things that we can’t make resolutions about. God is making the whole earth new, which includes us and our very own souls, the contents of our years, our days. It’s slow and fast, big and small, and we get to be a part of it if we want to, if we are willing to let go of the slog that sometimes feels like the only real thing. I’m not good at this, not at all, but I want to be better. I want to be better at keeping my eyes open, at not dooming myself to things I’m not doomed to at all.

I have resolutions and goals for 2018 like everyone else. I want to write a haiku every day, I want to design new quilts nearly every day too, I want to quit my day job and sew full time, I want to make so much more art and tell more of the stories I have to tell, I want to be more available to the people I love, I want to be stronger and healthier, I even maybe want to become a vegetarian. But I feel reluctant to even commit to these things, to say – “this is my next year, this is what I will make it be.” Instead, I want to open myself up to new-ness. I want to feel everything that happens to me as something fresh, mine. I want to experience life as something beautiful and precious though it isn’t novel or special or unique at all. I want to mark what is new, say it out loud, point at the mysterious things and call them holy, God’s. I don’t want to presume what God will do. My wish for this year is for something new. For things to happen to me that I don’t expect. For angels. For wisdom. For fear and trembling and thankfulness and joy. For more life. I want to hear God say, “Amy, I’m doing a new thing in you,” and, more than anything I want to respond with a whole-hearted, “Yes.”

Green Light

I was desperate to find a church service on Christmas Eve because I was feeling sort of generally desperate, which is what propelled me to the stoplight on Keystone and 96th Street.  My sister was in the passenger seat next to me; we were listening to Hard Candy Christmas.  I was in the left turning lane along with 4 or 5 other cars waiting for the green arrow. The normal straight-driving green light turned once, and then twice, without the arrow popping up after it.  Green light, but no green arrow.  By the third time, two or three of the cars switched out of the turn lane and either decided to go home or figure something else out.  Those of us that remained waited for the fourth round of no green arrow, finally convinced it was never going to happen before we inched out into the intersection to simply wait, then yield.

In looking at my most played songs on Spotify this year, Green Light by Lorde is in the top ten.  I must have listened to it a hundred times, most frequently in the house I lived in for 3 months that was the result of a very humbling mistake.  I would loop it over and over and over again and dance, sometimes beautifully, sometimes in a sort of awkward anger, wishing there were other people to dance with or that Lorde herself would knock on my door and say, “Yes, that’s it exactly, Jessie.”  I listened to the rest of the album incessantly, too, but nothing matched the fevered pitch of dancing in my living room to the very first single. “I’m waiting for it – that green light, I want it.”

Personally, there were a lot of false starts this year.  A lot of very beautiful things that perhaps will remain that way in memory because they never got past the beginning.  Things that appeared to be one way and then very abruptly became another.  I find myself thinking (not uncharacteristically) of the infamous line from Rent – “How do you measure, measure a year?” That song is corny as hell if you want it to be, but when they start talking about daylights and sunsets and midnights and cups of coffee, and you start to think about the specific iterations your own year contained, it is actually an incredibly useful manual for measuring.  The cup of coffee I had in Portland at the very beginning of January, sitting across from my little sister who dragged me and my older sister there because she saw it on Instagram and wanted to go.  The countless cups of coffee brewed in the countless homes lived in, in the tiny machine my grandmother sent me when she found out I was moving into an apartment in college.  The free cup of coffee I had at a church that was so bad I couldn’t finish it.  Pourover made in Amy’s basement apartment.  Two cups on the morning of Kelsey’s wedding.  I could literally measure my whole years in cups of coffee, and I don’t even drink coffee that much.  Beginnings, endings.  It is so temping to align things by calendar in order to decide how best to proceed, so innate to want to find meaning in everything that happened.  To mind-palace your way back to January 1 of 2017 and retroactively realize all the things you didn’t know would happen.  To remember the exciting or very painful things; much harder to remember the days where nothing much happened.  A new year gives you a shot at reordering the old one.

I filled in the lyrics past cups of coffees and sunsets for myself.  For the last week or so, I have been trying to remember the books and conversations and geographical locations of travel and sorrow that occurred.  That’s all very good inventory for me, but perhaps the thing that you yourself can relate to is the overall feeling of my year.  I felt very, very stuck, as is clear by much of the writing on this website.  Stuck has slowly thawed into stalled during the last quarter of 2017, so it’s easy to want to camp out there and say that’s the truth, I didn’t really feel stuck, I just couldn’t see things clearly or some other sweep-away statement that keeps me from remembering things as they were.  But, meandering through January, February, right on through August, amidst a lot of some really exquisite happenings, the interior stuckness I felt cannot be ignored.  I know I’m not the only one, because of those conversations and books and geographical locations of travel and sorrow.  There is so much talent and vision and goodness that gets improperly channelled for a hundred different reasons, chief among them the feeling that any choice could be the wrong one.

It’s also very natural to look to the new year for new chances, resolutions and the like.  I’m all about that, improving and concrete progress and chomping on life, but I find myself thinking that perhaps the energy is better spent on trying to stay a particular way in the coming year in the wake of events of the year prior.  My only real resolution isn’t new; it’s resolve.  I have lists of goals and ideas and plans, but the only thing on my so-called resolutions list is to stay soft.  Plain and simple.  It takes a lot of work, and no one else is going to do it for me.  To be clear: when I say soft, I mean a braid of hopefulness, gentleness, and unabashed vulnerability in a personal and communal way.  “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”  A commitment to undoing things that have been done to you by forgiving what has not been apologized for, to staying a little longer in a moment that’s terrifying, or reconsidering what might be humbling to change.  Staying soft when everything suggests you should be a big blue meanie who is miserable and disillusioned and disappointed.  To borrow from The OA, keeping your invisible self alive and well and not invisible to your own self.  Every year there is less reason to remain soft, which, of course, means that every year you need to a little bit more.

Here is my wish for you: that 2018 is filled with green lights all in a row, the kind where one turns green and then the rest up ahead do too.  Green light after green light after green light.  The answer “yes” perhaps more often than even you think you need to hear it, bathed in the sweet green glow of permission.

December

{I’ve spent this month of December writing a haiku every night (per @inandof‘s work and idea), and I think I may continue on through 2018 if I can. A resolution of daily making and remembering, celebrating and standing on my own feet as much as I can. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, friends. Jessie and I are so thankful for you, for all of us living our little lives, walking softly, measuring heaviness and lightness, regarding the moon and weather.}

1.
I said just what I meant,
then two eagles fighting, loud,
above as I left.

2.
Sewing flags on my
island of madness while I
go slowly insane

3.
Oh that you would rend
the heavens and come down, or
else what will I do?

4.
This morning, got so
mad that I threw an eggshell
at the floor, cracked more.

5.
O magnum myster-
ium. Danced in my kitchen,
I know every phrase.

6.
Maybe if we wait
it will happen without our
even trying much.

7.
lassitude: (noun) a
state of physical or men-
tal weariness. Me.

8.
Late night drive to Trig’s,
snowy, and I just want to
drive with you always

9.
What if snow was blue?
we wondered as we walked, im-
agining new worlds

10.
Where do the deer go
at night? Snowy nest? Cold earth?
Invisible house

with shutters and a
place to wipe their hooves before
coming on inside?

11.
I want just to break
open my alabaster
jar over God’s feet.

12.
I don’t know what to
write because I’m tired from
my crazy flag days.

13.
We sat on the bed
and talked a while because we
hadn’t talked all week.

14.
Leaving for Christmas,
pressed the “defrost” button in
fridge–anxious mistake.

In trying to make
something better, I maybe
made something worse–wet.

15.
Husband beside me
in childhood bedroom, and
maybe I’ve been moved.

16.
Being surrounded
by great clouds of witnesses
may be the best thing.

17.
Found an apartment
that I want to live in but
cannot live in yet.

18.
Talked about light and
dark in a room with other
artists, full of hope.

19.
When in your hometown
for Christmas break, avoid the
mall like it’s the plague.

20.1
My first biopsy
making me repeat again
“My God is faithful.”

20.2
The old familiar
sadness covers me up like
quilts I’ve made myself

20.3
But where are we now?
I couldn’t point to it on
a map if I tried.

21.1
Pennsylvania,
where I came from and where I
also am going.

21.2
Five dollar pizza
with the couple-friends we need
in Philadelphia.

22.
Sometimes the sadness
you can’t shake off sits on your
shoulder, heavy friend

23.
A light shines in the
darkness, and we are starting
to see through the clouds.

24.
Every Christmas
Eve of my life I’ve slept in
this room, feeling small.

25.1
All eternity
on the head of a pin, and
me, baffled, singing.

25.2
How silently, how
silently the wondrous gift
is giv’n forever.

 

 

Home

When I walked down the alley of my building the other night, the lamplight from an apartment caught my eye.  The mantle was decorated with stockings and tinsel, and the walls were artfully covered with photographs and fixtures and taste.  The lighting was warm and the furniture I could see suggested a cozy interior, with couches and chairs at angles towards one another for optimum space and comfort.

This looks nothing like my own apartment.  There are currently two refrigerators in my roommate and I’s kitchen, one broken and thus emanating a mysterious smell, the other swiped by the handyman from a vacant apartment to replace the first.  Our living room is haphazardly occupied by an admittedly beautiful Ethan Allen couch from a thrift store and a table that has a monopoly on most of the space.  The walls are bare, with the exception of the Nice Jewish Guys calendar my roommate bought for me last Christmas.  Our one truly decorative piece hangs in the bathroom: a shower curtain populated by various cats with the face of Nicolas Cage superimposed on their lumpy bodies, purchased with money we raised on a GoFundMe page in college.  There are no Christmas decorations, as neither one of us felt like buying one more thing we didn’t know where to put.

While at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the end of this summer, I was reading through the program and landed on a profile of the festival’s production of Mary Zimmerman’s The Odyssey.  She saw the story, as so many do, as the most basic human quest, in which there is “the longing for the journey, but the ultimate longing is to go home.”  When Odysseus comes home to Penelope after twenty years, it’s with a lot of sexy stories to tell marred by the shared awareness of 20 years spent apart.  The gratitude for coming home is always compounded by how long you’ve been away.

Her quote is clearly rife with metaphor, but let’s stick with the literal for a moment.  In terms of your first home, you don’t choose it.  In Meet Me in St. Louis, Tootie, a five year old, says, “How lucky am I that I was born in my favorite city!” I was born in Carmel, Indiana (which has since been voted, hilariously enough, the best place to grow up in America multiple times, despite its biggest attraction according to the Internet being a very long walk), and felt decidedly the opposite.  Even through the magic haze of the 90s and a relatively miraculous high school experience, I always wanted to live somewhere else later, which was more than a little influenced by the fact that I was raised by gypsies who met in California and spent years on the road as musician and manager.  I was born into forward momentum, at least geographically.  I grew up across from a cornfield that doubles as a soybean field in the appropriate harvest years.  I grew up learning about these crops in school, how it’s good for the soil to change crops during a certain rotation so that the nutrients are not entirely sapped from the soil by these respective plants.  I grew up learning about the peony, the state flag, and William Henry Harrison, but never Michael Jackson or James Dean except when I went in search of them.  I grew up in places John Green writes books about now, with people so funny I often double over in laughter by myself from a memory.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about musicians and other celebrities who, for all their successes, choose to keep their home base in their original hometowns.  Bon Iver (who I mostly actively dislike but cannot ignore) chooses to live in Eau Claire, WI, which is about the most boring place I’ve ever been.  The members of Sylvan Esso stay in Durham, North Carolina, and the members of The National in Cincinnati, Ohio (perhaps because the lead singer was in marketing up through his 30s).  Chance will never leave Chicago, and I don’t think anyone has ever been more enthusiastic about living somewhere than LeBron James has been about Cleveland.  I am fascinated by this, that people with so much momentum and opportunity choose to stay where they came from, or at least leave a leg in it.  That forward momentum and changing geography are not mutually exclusive.  I used to think the only place worth living in America, or the world for that matter, was New York.  Part of me still feels that way – who knows if it always will – but a growing part of me cannot ignore the pull of the homes we didn’t choose, the places where the deepest longings were cultivated and therefore either the most satisfied or the most disappointed.  It is the place where the comparison of all others begins, a decision that informs so many others made completely out of your hands.  Geography isn’t so much a place as a feeling.  I think this every year when I watch It’s a Wonderful Life and see George Bailey get thwarted again and again every time he tries to leave Bedford Falls.  I don’t know what it means that he never leaves, if we’re trying to come home to somewhere we’ve never left.

I grew up other places, too.  Philadelphia, Connecticut, Chicago, Holland.  I shouldn’t say grow up because it’s not limited to childhood.  Spent my childhood? Came of age?  These are the places I came from, come from.  I think what Mary Zimmerman is talking about is, of course, more the longing for the place we will feel safe, or the ultimate home of heaven.  There are plenty of people who genuinely hated where they grew up, and hated even more the people they grew up with.  I don’t think she’s talking about the tension between the actual geography of where you grew up – the literal streets and landscapes and buildings you spent your time in – and what you longed for it to be either.  We make our homes everywhere.  If I had my way, I would live out of my suitcase on the run, returning to the tiny homes I’ve made and building new ones.  I’d haul around the essentials, but I would also carry as cargo the conversations that have been homes, too.  I’d run and run until I remembered what a dining room table looked like and would maybe consider not running to set one of my own and then I would probably look at the moon and not do either thing.

From the notebook: Magnificat

{An Advent poem, the moment after annunciation, scrawled in journal in bed in Pennsylvania childhood bedroom with sleeping husband beside, 1 am}

 

 

 

 

 

 

My soul doth magnify that which
now is encased
in it. My soul doth–
When did I open my mouth? It hangs ajar.

My soul doth
weep
and scream–contained in pin-point eternity,
the knife of this moment,
slit.
I’ll never leave this room again without being torn in two.
And my spirit doth
hang open like an empty bag,
the fruit having all tumbled out
when over my shoulder I saw
something out of place–moon and stars in full day,
a thick shadow, crack in
the floor where I tumbled too.
I am alone, I am undone, divided by euphoria,
sliced by my own unblinking answer to–

Oh, please come back. I am the handmaiden of
I am that I am that, please. I’ll say yes
a thousand times, don’t mind my trembling if
you’ll only come back.
Regard me more. It hangs ajar.

I’m sitting in the dirt.
I’m sweaty with colors behind my
eyelids and terrible ringing in
my ears and I’ll feel this way forever,
how could I not? An apple, bruised,
rolled far under the table and it’s all I
can do not to crawl to retrieve it and
put it back, to put all of them back
and then crawl out the door with
them–stand up and run.

Or leave the apples to rot. What do I sing?
Where do I write it down, what is there to say with my dry mouth, thick tongue?
Skin soft and inside-out, unrecognizable, glowing.
When did I open my mouth?

My soul, my soul, my soul, my soul doth
open wide, and I don’t know any other songs.
I’ve already forgotten the me I’ve been
because I can’t be anymore. This is
where I live now, in
this body full of fire.

I sit still on the floor the rest of the
afternoon, practice breathing, watch
the sun disappear, see a candle flickering
on the table, a candle I did nothing to light.

 

(Study for a Panel, 1890/1897, Charles Sprague Pearce.)