Carrie & Lowell & Sufjan & Me

The 39-year-old boy, Sufjan Stevens, is bent over, his back almost to us. He is finding the keys and pushing them down, on a piano that looks like it came from an attic and it probably did. The band quietly assembles, accompanying him, but only in presence. The song, “Redford,”* is from an early album, Greetings from Michigan. We are in Wisconsin, which isn’t so far from Michigan, and yet, so very far.

I first listened to Michigan while I was in New York and unhappy, to which Hannah Warren would say, “nobody’s happy in New York, but they’re alive,”** although it’s unclear whether I was that, either. On streets, in head shots, through the casting office, I watched people who had sculpted and hardened and polished themselves into beauty. Inspired, I ransacked the internet for the right diet and died to it, denying myself food and repeatedly purging my system with “natural” cleansing protocols. Then I wondered why my body became a stick figure, my face a red acne bomb and my heart a lead balloon. I listened to track number 13 of Michigan, “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” over and over again, until I was crying, until I was crying and groaning, until the Spirit was groaning for me.

Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I’m afraid to be near you
And I don’t know where to begin
And I don’t know where to begin

And so begins the next song, “Death with Dignity,” first on the album this tour is supporting, Carrie & Lowell, named after Sufjan’s parents, the former of which died three years ago. There are a series of separate panels behind him, like chapel windows, displaying home videos of a family that we know, and don’t: the mother, who battled addiction and mental illness and retreated from her family; the father, who moved to the front line of his children’s lives; the result, a crossbeam with only one support, upon which the children had to balance. But to balance you have to lean on something.

I leaned on my own understanding. After a crash landing back in Wisconsin, I was a survivor who didn’t want to survive. A mild depression dominated for a time and then was disgusted by me, so it departed. Sexual addiction arrived, committed to drug, impoverish and wreck me, ’til death do us part. I pronounce you man and man and man and man and man… you may kiss the lie.

In a bleached-white light, moving through the audience as though a search and interrogation is imminent, Sufjan’s T-shirt, branded with one word, can no longer be ignored: Hustler. His voice, an apparition of a whisper, sings “All of Me Wants All of You.”

Shall we beat this or celebrate it?
You’re not the one to talk things through
You checked your texts while I masturbated
Manelich, I feel so used

Suddenly my eyes are memorial fountains, the water pumping from the past and splashing into the present. The teardrops are shadows on my pants. The pants are not mine. They are from a production of Oleanna in which I played Carol, a student of “doubtful sexuality” who “want[s] understanding.” I went on a gender bender shortly after birth and could not stop until a few years ago, although I had waited until legal drinking age to buy a dress at the thrift store. I packed it in a bag for a trip to Illinois to visit my friend. Upon arrival I asked her to wait in the living room so I could change into it and make an entrance. When I did, she smiled and said something no one else ever had, not even my parents: “I think the dress looks nice on you.” We drank vodka with her boyfriend and watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch and at the end he made a joke and she made a face at him and tried to make me mad at him with her and I said, “This isn’t a movie, this is my life.”

Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

“The first funeral I attended was my great-grandmother’s,” Sufjan speaks, 45 minutes into the concert, for the first time. “She was all made up, like a homecoming queen, like Glinda the good witch of the north…I had this beautiful image of death, of my great-grandmother transcending with the angels…and so I’ve always thought of death as womanly. Maybe because, women sort of have to die to themselves to give birth.”***

Three days before, in group, I said, “I’d like to open my sharing by showing a picture of a polar bear. Isn’t this the saddest polar bear you’ve ever seen? I feel like this polar bear. I’m so sad. I’m so tired of being sad. Finally I understand why people want to end it. I’m not going to, I never could, I just mean, you get so tired of trying so hard. Of waiting so long. To be healed. But things are better, really. I’m not going on craigslist anymore, which is difficult, but good. But I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m recovering from.” Everyone was quiet. The leader nodded. He said, “keep coming back.”

Now the stage is empty, but we are standing, clapping, like schoolchildren trying to create the sound of rain; a rain dance performed by hands, to bring the reign of Sufjan back. Just as the possibility is about to become obsolete, he comes on.

The opening notes of “Chicago” have never sounded so entreating, but nevertheless Sufjan bursts into the beginning and blazes to the end. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he sings. “I made a lot of mistakes.” Behind him, the panels are hanging – still divided – but bearing images of light.

*The song inspired an entire album, Undun, by The Roots.

**From California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon and directed by Herbert Ross.

***Thanks to Piet Levy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a complete review and set list.

The Boys and Girls Next Door

The boys and girls next door come over for the first time on Friday night. They are from Chicago and the youngest girl informs us that it is better than Milwaukee. An older sibling glares at her and translates for us, “no it isn’t, we like Milwaukee,” as if we rule the city and will banish them for treason.

The middle brother admits he likes to draw and we bring out white paper. There is trash talking and telling us to bring more; it is now a game of Pictionary and each is determined to win. One doesn’t draw at all, but keeps writing our names in different fonts and sizes, as if to commit them to memory. Mine says “boy” on the left side, “Ben” in the middle and “man” on the right. I quite agree with the placement.

When the pizza is ready, we become like flight attendants, giving instructions that they don’t quite listen to. We say: there is pizza with meat; with just cheese; these have marinara sauce; this has white sauce. They don’t understand the white sauce. We try to explain it to them. They don’t eat it.

After they lose interest in drawing, we are left to our own devices – iPhones and iPads. A housemate finds music videos of Willow Smith, who whips her hair into a fireball, dressed like Janet and Michael and dancing like neither of them. “Whether it’s black stars or black cars,” Willow sings, “I’m feeling it.”

One of the girls asks to “use it,” and on the way to the bathroom, passes the monolith photo album that also functions as a refrigerator. She sees a snapshot of Meldon, our former housemate. Mel is the type of phenomenal woman that Maya Angelou wrote about: smart, soulful, mischievous, gorgeous. “Why y’all friends with dark-skinned people?” The girl asks. “Why wouldn’t we be?” I ask back. “I don’t know,” she says.

As we reenter the living room, everyone is riding the roulette wheel of childish whims and YouTube suggestions, somehow arriving at Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” We all sing like we always will. I remember the people who said she didn’t have soul, and my mom, who said that to sing like Whitney Houston was her idea of heaven. As I watch one of the girls lean into my housemate for a hug, I think this might be something like mine.

The Civil Wars

We are waiting for the music.

Before it was even written we were waiting, without knowing, like deer frozen in the woods, ears twitching.

The music, bewitched and betrothed and bitter. The music, a snake slithering around a cross, sickness and healing. The music, a Flannery O’Connor story as told by Over The Rhine. The music, divinely inspired, divinely possessed.

We are waiting for the music and the waiting, the waiting is like Russian dolls wrapped separately that we rip and open and open and rip.

In a moment, in the shapely and shifting sea of darkness, a stagehand appears, his flashlight a mobile lighthouse, leading two figures toward the front of the stage. The closer they come, the louder we scream and clap, playing a crazy game of hot and cold – yes, hot, hotter, we’re on fire, we’re melting –

The lighthouse is switched off and daylight floods the stage, exposing them, self-conscious and smiling, somehow larger and smaller and closer than I expected: individually, they are Joy Williams, a nymfairy with butterfly hands, and John Paul White, an early 1800s philosopher in need of a drink. Collectively, they are The Civil Wars, dressed in their Sunday best and blackest, with the gothic whimsy of a Tim Burton film and the passionate reverence of a Southern Baptist Funeral. Through the raucous waves of our adoration, they keep their balance, keep their smiles.

And the music begins.

My Kind of Town

My relationship with Chicago? It’s like Scottie and Judy in Vertigo. I keep trying to make her into New York. She tries too. What else are we going to do on a Friday night?

Now, I am not most people. I am not some people. I am not even those people. I am a person. A person who enjoys the pre- and post- more than the experience itself. Preparation and retrospection, these are the pleasures. So! A night on the Chi-town. I have taken out three potential sweaters and spread them flat on the bed. Which one will make heterosexuals, homosexuals and bisexuals want to get sexual with me? Or want to be me? Coveting is humanity’s only hobby.

The contestants are: a pink one with black French words and squiggles (100% acrylic, which means if I stand next to a heater I’ll start on fire), a green one with huge gray numbers on it (I’ve always said it looks like something a character in a 1992 Spanish textbook illustration would wear – his name would be Amador, don’t you think?), and a striped v-neck looker that belongs in a Patrick Nagel print. I’m not that international tonight, so I pick the third one. Actually I pick the second one until I’m about to leave; then I change into the third one.

It is fuckin’ cold. The weather is a spiteful monk who has decided everyone should be indoors meditating, not outside titillating. I walk the downtown streets, keeping my coat open as long as possible to give optimum exposure to my obscure style.

All dressed up and no one to be.

The more certain I am of God, the less certain I am of myself…a tall ladder leaning against a building, waiting to be used, but grateful for something strong to rely upon. I remember when this started: God squatted down, put his hands on my shoulders, looked in my eyes and said, “I’d like for you to come with me. Would you like that?” I was thinking about nodding when I spotted a box of donuts behind him. After eating them all and throwing up, he asked me again and I said yes that time. But now, two years after, I still tell myself I want the donuts, even though I don’t…I want to know what I am and what I want, and go for it.

I have been walking for an hour and a half, in steel-toe boots (which would be suitable if I was playing kickball with a bowling ball) and a v-neck sweater (my v is numb)…while the cold hunts down my body heat and has its way with it. Why aren’t I in bed, not dreaming about Chicago? 

It’s time to leave. I don’t like this city. It wants to be something it’s not.