Churches

“I am here to run off the pain. I am here to synthercise the demons. I am here to ring the bells of Chvrches,” Billie tweeted in the lobby of the Riverside Theater, attaching a picture of a T-shirt on display at the merchandise table. Covering the chest was a cross turned sideways and X’d through a dark heart, the logo for Chvrches’ latest album, Love is Dead. Billie got a preview of the shirt just hours before at a Qdoba in South Milwaukee. “Don’t look now,” she whispered to her lunch date, like a character in a Daphne du Maurier story, “but that man is wearing a Chvrches shirt.” The date stopped baling the shredded lettuce of their burrito bowl and stared at her. “What?” Billie was pleased they had obeyed but agitated they were obtuse. “It’s my favorite band and they’re performing in Milwaukee tonight and I am going,” by now both of her hands were splayed on the table, hungry spiders. “Are they a Christian band?” They asked. The spiders twitched. “No,” she replied. “And no.”

“Has no one read Madeline L’Engle? You can’t be a Christian band, just like you can’t be a Christian writer, or a Christian artist,” Billie ranted on a call to her friend Lisa, on the drive back to her office, on and on. “You can be a Christian who has a band, or who writes, or who makes art. In Him we live and move and have our being: Sufjan Stevens talked about this in an interview. It takes the pressure off, it puts us in perspective.” There was a pause, then Lisa replied: “You know, Billie, it sounds like you really haven’t given this enough thought.” They both laughed, then there was another pause. “I just,” Billie picked at her steering wheel cover, “wish you were coming tonight.” Lisa sighed, “So do I.”

Billie had met Lisa and her husband, Quinn, at their parish, St. Rita, which was hosting a neighborhood association meeting in the basement. Lisa looked like a business casual version of Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful and Quinn’s face was the shape of an anime character, though not as expressive. It was only a few years after the subprime mortgage crisis, and unoccupied homes were being ignored, contributing to the decline of value and increasing the crime rate in Milwaukee, particularly in the area south of St. Rita.

The neighborhood association – composed of churches, businesses, nonprofits, residents – was organizing volunteer teams, and attendance was just low enough that to elude participation, or finesse an exit, was impossible. For those reasons, and better ones, Billie, Lisa and Quinn all offered to be on the home evaluation team; once a month, they received a list of residential addresses. They were supposed to visit during the day and circle the house, tracking its maintenance; instead, they cruised by at night, with one driving, one describing anything that seemed shifty and the other writing it down.

Following a few months of perfecting this system, they added to it: drinks afterward at Quinn and Lisa’s condo, which was built in the late ‘70s and had so many half walls and wide doorways that you could see a bit of every room from nearly every spot in the place. Soon, Billie was invited to a party, and then another, until she realized that Lisa didn’t actually like the condo unless it was being used as a venue.

The dining room always became the dance floor, with Lisa as playlister, mixing until everyone was whipped into a frenzy. Prior to every party, Quinn and Billie conspired to suggest multiple Chrvches songs each, in an attempt to force Lisa to include several, but she always stopped at two. “One per customer,” she would declare. When Chvrches came on, Quinn and Billie came on. People gave the floor, and if they didn’t, it was taken. Billie frequently needed more than one floor, more than one room, to fully express how wide and long and high and deep the songs made her feel; or rather, how much they sounded made of her feelings.

“[They] take a highly personal sense of turmoil,” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in his review of their debut album, “and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen.” That turmoil was strong in Quinn, and though there were hints here and there, always at the parties, Billie didn’t quite heed them, or perhaps, didn’t want to? It was easy to assume that he’d drank too much. Lisa made assumptions for years, most of them pardoning Quinn and condemning herself: this was just how men were, she was just too disordered for a relationship, it was just a phase, if she just gave it more time, he was just upset, he was just so sorry. Until one night, when Lisa realized that sorry wasn’t sorry, it was sort of a bad doctor’s note, shown over and over again, excusing the sickness, establishing it as to be expected, exempting it from treatment.

After that night, Lisa moved out, and Quinn moved in on his friends, including Billie. But no matter how he moved, he remained at the center. Any fault was Lisa’s, any pain was his. In her mind, Billie kept seeing a book in her father’s office library, yellow with black lettering: People of the Lie: Toward a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck. She hadn’t read it in over a decade.

Searching online, she found a list of patterns that Peck associated with evil and lost hope as they seemed more and more recent and familiar: consistently self-deceives and, consequently, deceives others; projects their sin onto a specific target; is unable to see from the viewpoint of their victim. “[God] said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor,” Peck writes. “He went on to say, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.”

Billie saw herself in Quinn, a self that she had judged – in her writing, in counseling, in misty-eyed, tight-throated conversations with confidantes – but she could not stop judging it now: the self that, when others were complimented, felt insulted; wanted to be great more than good; traipsed after chastity while looking back at whomever had just whistled; high on oneself, the center of gravity, toppling over, pulled downward.

“Forever” had been one of their favorite tracks, and now, as the lead singer Lauren Mayberry sang it in that “cutting, aching, triumphant, fragile, and weightless” voice, Billie remembered dancing to it with Quinn, thrashing her hair with each forever; the chorus was all forevers. He bought the tickets for the three of them months and months ago. When Lisa decided on a divorce the day before the concert, Quinn e-mailed the general admission ticket to Billie, along with “I don’t want to see you.” The feeling was mutual, but it was not the only feeling; there were others, and they were phantoms, gliding through Billie, resisting grasp, every one sad.

On each side of the stage was a lit cross, tilted sideways, making an X. At the right moment, Mayberry leaned against one with the weight of her entire body and glared at the audience, as if daring them. Billie took a picture and texted it to Lisa. Between every song, she texted, urgently, tersely, as if the concert would no longer exist if it was not made text. The encore was “Never Say Die.”

Weren’t you gonna be sorry and weren’t you gonna be pure?
Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?

Billie exchanged numbers with some cute guy who had stood next to her; she would not call him. Walking down the aisle, she occasionally paused to pick up trash, baffled as to why people did that. Where did they expect it to go? In the lobby, she considered the T-shirt again, but it was just too expensive, so she walked into the night, the crowd behind and before her, until they weren’t anymore. At an intersection, in her periphery, it appeared as if a man wearing one of Quinn’s hoodies was waiting for the walk signal to change. She didn’t turn.

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.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

When the earth was still flat
And the clouds made of fire
And mountains stretched up to the sky
Sometimes higher
Folks roamed the earth
Like big rolling kegs
They had two sets of arms
They had two sets of legs
They had two faces peering
Out of one giant head
So they could watch all around them
As they talked, while they read
And they never knew nothing of love
It was before the origin of love

– this was what Hedwig sang, raising a manhand to her wig. “How’s my hair? Is there trouble in the west wing?” She asked, then pointed to her burly curls. “These are actually my lungs. My Aquanet lungs. They kick in on the high notes. Let’s be serious.”

After being closed down – by an affectionless mother, the Berlin wall, an unsuccessful sex change, a failed marriage and a rock star who stole her songs – Hedwig is opening up. For one night only. Ladies and gentlemen, whether you like it or not: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Hedwig has traveled from Germany to America, from off-broadway to film. It’s a musical. It’s a soliloquy. It’s a stand up comedy routine. It’s an erector set of sexuality. It’s a wrecking ball of rock’n’roll. In the author/director/star’s note, John Cameron Mitchell says, “The script is, at best, a record of a single evening of a single production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We deliberately developed it over a number of years in non-theatre venues – rock clubs, drag bars, birthday parties – in order to keep it free-flowing, improvisational, alive.”

Mitchell probably does not remember meeting me – or actually maybe he does – because I shook his hand like I was going to rip it off and attach it to a key chain as my talisman and I said,

“Thank you for giving us a third option: Man, Woman and Hedwig.” It was a line I had rehearsed. It was dead on arrival. I was already eulogizing the experience.

“She’s quite a woman,” he smiled with a tired grace. A smile nonetheless. And then we, the shadowcast, stood in front of his movie, based on his musical, and made it about us. Mirroring the actions, lip-synching the words, feeling the emotions. We didn’t have a mission so we took Hedwig’s: “I must find my other half.”

Once I accepted that my other half was not John Cameron Mitchell, I hosted a search party – in bars, clubs, social networking sites – until I had searched everywhere but home. I came back to my Wicked Little Town of East Troy, Wisconsin and tried to die. And yet back, back, to the Origin Of Love I was drawn, to a God whom, like a celebrity, I knew of, but did not know –

Well, I am completely dilated tonight. And I digress.

So. Once I was home, I had to leave. I found a second home, 45 miles away: Milwaukee.

And it only took 6 years for Hedwig to catch up with me, via Smithereen Productions, a local theatre company.

Their elected Hedwig ambassador was Jordan Gwiazdowski, a young actor with a nose as formidable as his talent. His performance was a tower of strength and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He drew me close and then drew blood – I wanted to give blood – plasma – a heart.

Once I accepted that Jordan Gwiazdowski was not my other half (he was moving after the show closed), I wanted to restart the search party in the usual kinds of places, all of which were within walking distance of the theatre. But I was with a good friend who would not leave me alone until it was too late to do anything but go home.

Days later, I was at my church’s children’s after school program. Kevin, one of the Pastors, who is one of my roommates, until November, when he will become one flesh with Brianna, read from my favorite version of the Bible, the Storybook Bible. “God wrote ‘I love you’ – He wrote it in the sky, and on the earth, and under the sea. He wrote His message everywhere! Because God created everything in His world to reflect Him like a mirror…”

That night I got Hedwig from the library, where she was waiting between Heaven’s Gate and The Heiress. Halfway through the film, trapped by a too-close-up, Hedwig looked into the camera. Kevin walked in and looked at her, then at me. I looked from her to him. I searched his eyes and thought about saying something, but I stopped when I heard Hedwig singing –

Know in you soul
Like your blood knows the way
From you heart to your brain
Know that you’re whole

Recycling

This post and its comments were originally published on Transformation City Church’s blog.

 

“Does Milwaukee recycle in winter?” I snapped at Kevin, who was about to throw a wrapper in the trash. He paused.

“Yeah?” He murmured, still holding the wrapper.

“Then why,” I tromped over to the window and jerked a finger downward at the driveway, “Have they not emptied our recycling bins? It’s been weeks. No, months. The bins are overflowing. They’re foaming at the mouth. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Um, I guess I didn’t notice,” he blushed, “But then, you always take out the recycling.” He lowered the wrapper into the trash, set it there, and stared at it.

“Not always,” I smiled.

But almost always. He hangs out with kids, I take out the recycling. If we reversed roles, I would probably end up putting the kids in the recycling bin and he would let the cardboard and cans accumulate around him until he couldn’t move anything except his tongue.

“I’m calling the city,” I declared, drawing my phone and spinning through contacts.

A representative at the Department of Public Works had several interesting theories for the lapse in recycling pickup, one of which was holidays. This was compellingly plausible until I remembered that the only holidays in the last two months were New Year’s, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington’s Birthday, none of which were 8-week jubilee celebrations necessitating the shutdown of all local government.

Finally, I had to contribute: “I don’t mean this to be pretentious…” We always say we don’t mean before we say what we mean, so we can be mean without being seen as mean.

“I don’t mean this to be pretentious, but we do tend to recycle more than most people in our neighborhood,” I paused. “We recycle more than we throw away,” I laughed. Yes, I’m good-humored about my goodness. Really, I don’t even think of it as goodness, it’s just a little habit I have, being good.

“Oh yes,” the representative laughed. “You know what? I’ll put a note here to have them do a pick up a week before they were going to. Also,” she said, “once it’s warmer the schedule will be more regular.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking. “Good bye.”

Once it’s warmer. Last spring and summer, the neighborhood kids had a favorite game, which confused me for a while. Standing about 15 feet from one another, they threw the ball back and forth, but didn’t catch it; they tried to hit some flat shiny objects on the walk. I couldn’t figure out what they were, so I got closer. They were crushed empty soda cans.

Anything Good

This post and its comments were originally published on Transformation City Church’s blog.

 

Right after Ben and Megan had been robbed for the third time, we all sequestered in the kitchen, like hostages. We watched as two police officers poked through their personal belongings – the violation following the violation.

“My guess is it’s somebody you know,” one officer said, freeing a notepad from the oppression of his belly-tight belt.

“We know that,” Megan said, making them feel stupid while making it seem like she was making nice.

“Well, we can dust everything they might have touched, but that probably won’t prove anything,” he said, then smiled, “It’s not like on CSI.”

How do we hire them? I thought, glancing out the window. Recently, our neighbors had the eco-friendly idea of hanging tinsel on their outside bushes; within minutes the wind had strewn it over the street and our yard. Soon the squirrels would be pooping silver. Still, it sparkled pretty, provided you knew it was tinsel, and not sharpened razor blades, which, in this neighborhood, was a more reasonable conclusion.

The other officer walked by a desk and stopped. “They didn’t take the computer,” he puzzled, peering into the dark monitor, as though it were a Magic 8 ball that would give him an answer. Just then the screensaver started, a slideshow of community house pictures: us smiling, neighborhood kids smiling, staff smiling, volunteers smiling; everyone smiling as though they had discovered a really good secret.

“Thanks for being here,” Megan said to Kevin and I. We shrugged and shuffled our feet, unsure of where else we should be but here.

Ben braced Megan from the back, his arms resting against her ribs, hands cradling their unborn baby. Last Christmas they played Mary and Joseph. This Christmas they are not playing. Their baby will be born in the ‘hood, in our stable of bachelors, in the awe of little wise kids. And her name shall be called Cadence Grace.

When one of the disciples, Philip, told his friend, Nathanael, that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael exclaimed, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Philip smiled and responded, “Come and see.”

Domestic Dispute

This post and its comments were originally published on Transformation City Church’s blog.

 

Some weeks we have Bible Club. Some weeks we have Bible Fight Club. This week was definitely BFC, hot and crispy.

In our meeting beforehand Kevin outlined the lesson plan, which was about Joseph. (Not the one who got to be Jesus’ father, but the one who got a multi-colored coat from his father.) Kevin was concerned that the story was too long and its moral too vague for the children.

He needn’t have been concerned, because he never got to tell Joseph’s story. Instead, the children acted it out. They boasted to, argued with, and betrayed one another. Kevin preached about forgiveness and forgave them all. And somehow it was all right. We all walked away from it like the survivors of a plane crash, giddy, grateful.

That night, above the groaning of my air conditioner and the heartbeat of my stereo, I heard shouting. A limited vocabulary of expletives conveying a broad diversity of hatred. I was sure it was right outside my window, in the backyard, some spontaneous angry cookout, assault with a spatula. But when I opened the blinds no one was there. Walking out of my room I found Kevin, who was darting between watching the basketball game on TV and watching out the front windows.

“What’s going on out there?” I barked, as if the question had the power to restore sanity.

On the balcony, our opera box, we peered at the drama below. Shadows of men and women grappled and shoved. One streetlight respected their privacy and refrained from illuminating.

“I’m going to call the alderman and get him to fix that streetlight,” Kevin scolded, “and I did call the police, but they take forever to get here.”

A siren responded to his accusation. 12 cop cars raced in and cops bounced out of them. They surrounded the scene, dedicated extras awaiting a director’s cue. Then something gave – they engaged – grabbing and separating, commanding and escorting.

Kevin shook his head and sighed, “None of this would happen if people just watched the game.”

Some nights later, as I was driving down our alley that the city calls a street, two cats rolled in front of my car, clawing at one another. Swearing, I slammed on the brake.

They leaped apart and glared at me, eyes glowing green. They were going to kill each other. I was getting in the way.

Dye

The week before Easter the rain descends upon the city. It gathers everything in its toothless mouth and gums until everything is glop. Across the street from our house, in a tree, there is a pale plastic bag hung on a branch. It looks like the shroud of a ghost. It sags as though it once carried something heavy and now is empty.

The local newspaper’s website reports that publicly funded food assistance is a fraud. Some recipients sell their food cards for cash. Some for drugs. The newspaper subscribers comment about what should be done.

A detective knocks on our door and warns of a young man in a dark hooded sweatshirt who has been abducting young women and assaulting them in abandoned garages. “Have you seen anything out of the ordinary?” He asks. I look around the neighborhood. “What is out of the ordinary?” I ask.

At Bible Study the children attempt to dye eggs and succeed in dyeing their hands; it looks like they have strangled rainbows. With water and soap they rinse and wash and rinse and wash but the stains are still there.

The week after Easter the rain descends again upon the city. Most of the bag is gone; a few tattered strips are the only evidence of it. Something must have carried it away.