Category: call and response

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.

The Golden Egg

I have loved fairytales for as long as I can remember.  When I was small, I would go to the library with my mother and sisters and we would each disperse to our section of choice, reconvening hours later.  I always headed straight for the fairytale books in the far left corner on the lower level, decorated with large plush dragons and a life-size cloth doll with long yellow yarn for hair.  I would collect my books into my tiny arms, using the step stool for what was out of reach, and then march over to The Dream Tree – which, as far as I was concerned, was a transplant from Eden.  No matter what combination of books I selected, I always, always, always grabbed One Eye, Two Eyes, Three Eyes.  It’s a German folktale about a girl who gets traded over to a witch by a clumsy father, and becomes the servant of she and her hideous daughters.  The witch has three eyes, and her daughters have one and two, respectively, and they use them to spy on the girl while her goat does her chores on her behalf.  The witch, upon discovering this, kills the goat, but not before the goat informs the girl that she must bury his hoofs and horns and weep over them once he is dead.  This is no challenge for the girl, as she is heartbroken at the loss of her only friend – she weeps over his burial, and a beautiful tree bearing gold and silver apples grows almost immediately, which is in turn spotted by a prince (who I, even at age 5, greatly enjoyed was not particularly handsome) who sees her weeping and rescues her.  One eye, two eyes, and three eyes are turned into stone, and the girl becomes the queen of the land she was taken from.

I liked fairytales then, and am attuned to fairytales now, because they are straightforward tellings of a more ordered version of human desires.  If you take the poetry out of a fairytale, you get a mathematical equation: be beautiful + do good = get what you want; be ugly + do evil = get what you deserve.  Now, wouldn’t that be nice? I am fascinated by how fairytales continue to pop up, across cultures and time periods and generations, providing an alternative version of things in which good, honest people get what they want, in which life is a straightforward series of stepping stones (as if honest goodness is straightforward).  In which the desires of people are reflected in the fairytales they create, where magic makes easier the way of disappointment and life’s troubles.

My personal favorite modern fairytale is Into the Woods, a musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which in itself is a compilation of retellings of 4 separate fairy tales: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack & the Beanstalk, and one of their own creation – the Baker & his Wife.  (I will just go ahead and say now – everything I talk about from here on out is best served by listening all the way through to the soundtrack, which I feel compelled to say even though I know there will be two types of people reading this: those who already know Into the Woods, and those who will never listen to it no matter how much I plead.  But I can’t help but ask – go, listen!)  In the great compilation of all the lyrics he has written, Sondheim explains that the Baker & his Wife are meant to represent the modern fairytale of the average urban couple, as evidenced by the wish they spend their story pursuing: a child (and later, “more room,” aka a beautiful home).  The other wishes are as follows: Cinderella wishes to go to the ball, Little Red Riding Hood wishes for a loaf of bread, and Jack wishes for gold.

I have written about Into the Woods before, because I think it’s the quintessential example, the perfect fable for how “modern” desires intersect with tales literally as old as time.  But – the entire play is about how what you wish and what you want are not necessarily the same thing, and how the aftermath of having your wish granted never looks like you think it will.  The structure of a wish is such that in obtaining it, you ultimately get the thing you want.  The wish is a means to an end; the want is the underlying desire, cloaked in something external and chaseable.  If I get this, then that will be achieved.  For instance, the Baker’s Wife says she wishes for a child, but we learn through the course of the play that what she wants is romance and to be loved by a prince, and consequently to be airlifted out of life’s mundanities.  Sondheim is not even trying to be particularly clever: in the second song of the whole play, a character remarks, “Do you know what you want? / Are you certain what you wish is what you want?”  The wish is merely the thing we pin our hopes on, the external object or circumstance that will improve interior longing and calamity.  But the want – that’s a whole different story.  The Baker’s Wife ends up getting what she wants after a rendezvous with Prince Charming in the woods.  Here’s how she responds:

Was that me? Was that him? Did a prince really kiss me? And kiss me? And kiss me? And did I kiss him back?

Was it wrong? Am I mad? Is that all? Does he miss me? Was he suddenly getting bored with me?

Wake up! Stop dreaming. Stop prancing about the woods.  It’s not beseeming, what is it about the woods?

And to get what you wish, even just for a moment – these are dangerous woods! 

Why not both instead? There’s the answer if you’re clever

Have a child for warmth, and a baker for bread, and a prince for…whatever.  Never! It’s these woods

Must it all be either less or more, either plain or grand? Is it always “or,” is it never “and”?

The woods are, of course, life.  You have to go into the woods every now and again, square up to life and risk something in order to get anywhere.  But that’s not really the point – she gets what she wants and it makes her question everything – her very self – in the wake of it.  She gets the very thing that she wants! If only for a moment.  Only to realize that it’s not what she wanted at all, which she can only sort out after tending to the interior of things.  To get what you want – danger that way lies.  Not because what we want is inherently bad (though of course it sometimes is), but because it can never really sate anything while it’s still wrapped up as a wish.  The exterior can’t do anything at all if it’s not matching up to what the interior longs for.  People everywhere know this!  John Mayer makes a literal list in Something’s Missing of every good thing he has, checking them off, aching to know what’s there just beneath, just beyond.  Creature Comfort on Arcade Fire’s latest album mocks it (though I do think gently) when Win Butler cries,

Please God, make me famous!

If You can’t – just make it painless

Is that not the cry of the Instagram generation? I will be the first to admit that I have thought almost that exact phrase, word-for-word.   It’s awful when you hear someone else say it, and genuinely know the depth of your own folly (I do think Arcade Fire has generally been the best at doing this.  How do they stay so compassionate and simultaneously incisive? How are they famous but so not famous? Are you all aware that the lead singer met the other lead singer his wife by just walking into an art show in Canada where she was singing jazz? What is that about?).   This, of course, gives a little window into my wishes and wants: I have spent much of my life entertaining the wish – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously – that if I were able to acquire fame, I would be able to transcend my own experiences of pain and discomfort through the accompanying wealth, recognition, and opportunity it entails, and that it would somehow also lead me to more secondary desires – travel, the ability to do a thing I love, the type of person I could see myself falling in love with.  The wish is fame – the want is immunity from suffering.  When boiled down that way, it is clearly just that – a wish.  A thing that could not possibly lead to the longing it reflects.  This modern fairy tale – the one of American consumerism, in which the wish for objective financial success will lead to the want of a satisfying life – is further contemplated on Everything Now, the title track of the album, as he laments, “And every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without.”  The fairy tale is flipped on its head – we’ve gotten what we’ve wished for, so why does the longing persist?

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Old News

On Monday, I spent what was supposed to be 15 minutes and turned out to be 3 hours in the waiting room of a Jeep dealership.  Despite the inherent impatience attached to them, I generally enjoy being in waiting rooms because of the truly endless metaphors that come to mind therein.  I almost always imagine I am a bystander in Revelation, my favorite Flannery O’Connor story, and someone is just on the edge of losing it in a room full of strangers.

On Monday, this was not how I felt.  There was a revolving door of strangers, but we were not united by our collective anticipation of something exciting happening.  We were united by our watching of the same broadcast, showing the same clips over and over and over again of a gunman from 32 stories up opening fire on a crowd of people at a country music festival in Las Vegas for over an hour.  In the first several seconds of cell phone footage, nobody really reacts to the sound of gunfire; you can tell that they think it’s part of the show.  And then, simultaneously, the group mind recognizes what’s going on, what nobody ever thinks will happen to them, and chaos ensues.  There was footage of people who couldn’t find who they came to the festival with, people in shock, hospitals overloaded with the hundreds of people injured.  The worst of all was an interview with the gunman’s brother in Florida, in which the reporter asked him how he felt in the wake of finding out what his brother had done.  “How do you think I feel?” he asked incredulously, pacing in and out of the camera’s frame, verbally processing in front of the whole world about the personal dimensions of his grief, the person left behind to hazard a guess as to why something like this happened.  The people in the waiting room with me were audibly swearing, sighing, coming and going as their cars got fixed, ignoring the TV, ignoring their children waiting with them, flipping through magazines.

The reason I rarely, if ever, say anything on the Internet about the news or politics is threefold (when taken into joint consideration of the fact that I am generally desirous of talking about it in the privacy of conversation).  Quite frankly, it doesn’t really do anything.  I think in general most social media activism is self-congratulatory, another slice of the unfilling pie of seeking to form an identity based on what a jury of your peers thinks of your presentation of yourself.  I recognize that this is inherently unfair, that I play the game in my chosen division as much as anyone else.  I know that many people are simply seeking to connect, process, inform, any number of other things, but I personally don’t understand how a space typically dedicated to cooking tutorials and wedding photos can satisfactorily transform into a useful platform for political discourse or philosophical discussion when called upon to do so.  Maybe they are just waving their flags like me – “I am trying,” “I am on fire,” “I am dismayed by the state of the world.” The second is that I don’t think evil is a political issue, and the two are often conflated with each other.  I can’t think of a single person I know who wouldn’t agree that what happened in Las Vegas is evil, heartbreaking, wrong.  There are countless things wrong, countless points being argued in this country, and necessarily so.  I’m by no means condemning those who use public platforms to discuss such things; it’s just never my first impulse.  The third is because – what could I possibly say?  And, in all honesty, what does it matter what I have to say? If a person is going to scroll past your memes and pictures of your pets, they are probably going to scroll past your diatribe condemning gun violence, especially if there is no context between you and the other person on where you stand on the topic to begin with.  It’s trying to have a conversation with 10 people at once that 100 other people can watch without having to share what they themselves actually think about it.  What all of my reasoning and allowances are ultimately getting at is that you cannot publicly comment on anything without then being expected to go down the rabbithole of expressing what you believe about everything; the nature of making any information public is that it consequently belongs to everyone.  I cannot say that I think automatic weapons should be outlawed in civilian use (something I would think everyone would agree with until you remember that obviously not everyone does) without then being pressed to answer on the ethics of war, self-defense, the perceived vs. actual powers of government, the Constitution, and every other political opinion I have, in process or otherwise.  There is significant danger in being able to share your opinion publicly to anyone who will listen on the Internet, because there is the optimum amount of opposition and the minimum amount of culpability.  In the so-called age of information, there are no objective facts.  And so, why bother?

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Yes and No

The Game. 

You stand with your back against the wall. Everyone else does too. It is explained that you are to quietly stand until you’re ready to slowly draw your arms up in front of you until a sudden explosion of a choice. Yes, or no. The no is two arms stretched forward in fists, arms straight at the elbows with energy coursing through, accompanied by a full voiced, “no.” The yes is similar, two arms stretched out on each side, a wide expanse, chest open, palms open, energy coursing through, accompanied by a full voiced, “yes.” That’s the whole game. Standing against the wall, drawing something up, not choosing whether it will be a yes or a no until you do. Yes, open. No, shut. Try again, try again. Each time it can only be one. Each time there is only one choice. You play over and over. You plan nothing in advance. The whole room is a cacophony of yeses and nos. You shock yourself with your choices. You try to empty out your brain. You let your arms whack into place, let your voice say something, forcefully. You let your yes be yes and your no be no, which is what we have heard that we are supposed to do but so often stink at. And you offer no explanation. In fact, you’re hardly noticed by anyone else at all.

No. 

I left college with a vague notion that I should become some sort of theater educator, since theater was what I had always done and what lots of people had told me I was good at, what I’d stood in rooms busying myself with for practically all my life. I left and I spent a lot of time scrolling Chicago Artist Resource, a job-posting website for theater gigs and the like. I scrolled for an accumulation of hours, opening things that I thought I could potentially wiggle myself into in new tabs on my computer. I scrolled and felt myself and my meager marketable skills shrink, watched the number of open tabs multiply far too slowly, watched as my dreams of what could be whittled down into what seemed actually possible which was not a lot. For the few suitable positions I did find, I wrote dazzling cover letters, the best ones I knew how to write, with a growing pit in my stomach, a feeling that no matter how good my cover letter was there was something not right. I received few replies. My even fewer interviews left me for weeks waiting for an email that never came. No, no, no. First, the no felt like it was coming from the world, from Chicago, fists in my face, that humming “n” in my ear. But, soon, the no became mine, my eyes glazing over at the scrolling, the jobs sounding tedious, uninspiring, no spot in the world for me that I wanted to fill. I tried a few things, took a few unpaid gigs, and with each one felt my “no,” fisty and full, rise faster and stronger. No! No! No! Quick, choiceless, reflexive, no other option.

Yes. 

From Zooey: “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.” His mom says it to him. To this I say, is there any other way to live? What do I do about the yesses and nos when I can’t control which way they go, when they rise in me without my meaning them to?

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Choices – A Call and Response

The Game

Someone stands in the middle of the room and points to opposing walls yelling two allegedly opposite things.  For instance, they might begin by yelling, “Daisies!” and then point to the opposite wall, yelling: “Roses!” Everyone in the room scatters to the wall ascribing to the flower they prefer.  Another example – we played this at my 22nd birthday party, Jessie Edition, and I yelled “Going to space!” at one wall and “Staying home!” to the other.  The game is very simple.  You merely follow your impulse, without caution or thought, towards the thing you want.  Sometimes you end up on the side of the wall you don’t necessarily consciously prefer, yet there you are.  You might find yourself standing with lovers of The Rolling Stones when you know your tribe stands across the room with The Beatles, but the game isn’t so much about what you prefer as it is about making a choice.  Which is why it’s called Choices, not Preferences.

choices, 1

Cinderella, Into the Woods: “You think, ‘What do you want?’/You think, ‘Make a decision!/Why not stay and be caught’/, you think,/’Well, that’s a thought, what would be his response?” …”You know what your decision is – which is not to decide.”

This way of thinking is always so tempting.  There are so many relationships with high stakes involved in life, yet it is always romantic relationships that appear the highest.  How tempting to leave things up to fate, to let someone choose you so you don’t have to work through choosing them.  To leave a clue so the decision hangs upon whether or not he is clever enough to solve it, not whether or not you want him to.  If the shoe fits, you stay.  If it doesn’t, well…

It’s maybe my favorite musical because the entire premise is Act I: makes a choice, Act II: deals with aftermath of choice.  How often do you see the aftermath? And wouldn’t you make better choices if you could see it? I suppose not, because we have all read the same fairy tales and still end up going after the same things.

choices, 2

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