Only the Ecstasies of 2020 (Because Spelling out the Agonies is Salt in the Vivisection)

On January 4, 2020, we took a jaunt to take in Yayoi Kusama’s Fireflies on the Water and to explore the Toledo Museum of Art. We’d been to the museum a few years prior for the Kehinde Wiley exhibition and it’s truly an impressive place, worth the trip for the modern room alone. Seriously, when it’s safe to do so, hop in the car, drive to Toledo, walk straight to Alison Elizabeth Taylor’s Kitchen and stand in front of it long enough to realize what’s happening and you will transcend the understandings you have habitually held about art and then turn around and watch it happening to all the folks around you. 

Starting the year in an infinity room, in retrospect, was necessary and appropriate considering what was headed my way (and our collected way, obviously) over the course of the year. I stuck my flag in art on January 4 and set up shelter there. I didn’t know then how ideal that site would eventually be for withstanding the weather.

So here, in no particular order, are many of the arts that fattened me up for the haul, that kept me lubricated and rolling through every harrowing or demoralizing or even just irritating moment of the past year: The Ecstasies of 2020.

Midnight Gospel / Duncan Trussell Family Hour I came for Pendleton Ward’s whimsy and dynamic use of color, stayed for Duncan’s existential spright party. Duncan’s genuine curiosity is incredibly appealing, and his bald vulnerability has helped me stare down some of the ghastliest demons that have bubbled up from my long buried denial graveyard this year. Most merciful, perhaps, has been his gift for eroding certainty. Hare Krishna, sweeties!

As Is / Nick Cave Cave taught me to allow myself to be inspired by a thing without scrutinizing it, to follow what pulls me without needing to know why. As someone who has historically not written a story until I think it all the way through to its conclusion before I even begin, this was the owl pellet that contains the seeds of freedom. And who doesn’t need more freedom.

And speaking of seeds, unexpectedly receiving a package of Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds in the mail tops the list of our household’s Bizarre Moments That Turned Out to Be Wholly Glorious.

While I tended to rely on old favorites for music footholds for sanity, Susumu Yokota’s Sakura came across my radar — mostly likely resulting from my obsessive cycling between Brian Eno records — and was immediately comforting. Likewise RTJ4, a love at first listen.

Old Favorite Music Footholds for Sanity included The Breeders’ All Nerve, a record I am in the mood to listen to at any time of any day, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, which lowers my blood pressure, Fugazi’s End Hits, which raises it but I don’t even care.

I finally read both Mrs. Dalloway and Housekeeping this year. Believe the hype on both. Good goddess.

While I’m intentionally shying away from filling this list exclusively with things to watch because it’s not as though we don’t all have a surfeit of recommendations from everyone around us all year telling us to watch everything they liked, Homemade was the first content I watched in 2020 that was created in the context of the pandemic and the lockdowns. A collection of short films made by famous and amateur directors all over the world, it was surprisingly comforting for film/tv to come into the dystopian present, as early on in the pandemic watching content in which folks were gathered together gave me psychic vertigo. Because there has been a glut of stuff to watch this year it seems Homemade has gone largely unnoticed, but it stands out in my memory as a powerful moment in art this year.

OK but taking into account what I said about not making this list all YOU HAVE TO WATCH, but you really have to watch Pen15. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have achieved something courageous in its strangeness, monumentally loving, and skin-crawlingly funny, a feat of both vision and execution.

Actual Collaborations with Other Human Beings. Talking to other artists about process and inspiration. Connecting with others finding their footing in building something independently. Supporting and being inspired by rather than comparing myself to the work of other artists. Practicing, coming back to the work over and over again even when it shames or doesn’t yield.

Early in the first lockdown Chafe told me about a conversation with a longtime friend of ours who has consistently made their living as an independent fine artist. They were saying they’ve given up a lot of material excesses and sometimes comforts in that pursuit but that every time they assess that decision they wind up back in the same place: “I’d rather be an artist.” The fear and pain and isolation of this year was balanced, at every turn, by art. Whatever it means, I’d rather not stare into the void to see what I might be without it. I’d rather be an artist.

Bet your sweet bippy it’s here

Last night’s getting lost walking around our own neighborhood in a snowstorm  —

because none of us had our glasses on, 

critiquing varied holiday light and blow up displays and mistaking one yard scene for Santa’s coffin and gravestone, 

considering walking straight through a stranger’s house Ferris Bueller-style after being surprised to find ourselves at the unhelpful end of a very long cul-de-sac, 

wet mask encrusting with ice as my pockets fill up with snow, 

staying up late (PAST 10 PM), 

dusted Jack Russell in rust-orange coat,

yelling “CAR” and “GAME ON” and employing the buddy system,

under the last full moon of our bloated zombie year,

and it’s like cocaine is falling from the sky for how exhilarated it makes me but exponentially more exciting in that it won’t likely ruin my life,

and I can’t stop thinking about Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God and her wrenching depiction in retrospect of the last snow and not fully appreciating it before anyone could know it would be the last snow and then I wonder if I’ll have to keep moving north until all winter is over forever,

a friend saying, “I may be succumbing,”

feeling both ancient and newborn having barely wiped my eyelashes before they’re covered again,

a dancing blow-up snowman with a Halloween skeleton still hanging from the tree over his head spinning in the gusting snow and aren’t we all just walking around with skeletons hanging idly over our heads,

cackling into the wind because it hasn’t yet bested us and we still have snow and friends and a new year is imminent

— slid in a scant 50 hours before the deadline — sorry — “lifeline” (thanks, Rod), to clinch a respectable ranking on my Impossibly Best Hours of 2020.

For v. Against

Yesterday I left the house mid afternoon to pay a visit to a dog. It was finally mercifully cold in a way that will not be ignored, a state of weather that brings me a molecular peace I cannot fully describe. Winter walking is high maintenance and I come correct. My orange coat is for below fifty degrees and above 20 degrees (while my blue coat is for below 20 degrees), my thinner cap is both warm enough and fits nicely under my earphones, my plaid scarf is small enough to tuck into both the high neck of my coat and my pocket should I find it too warm. In addition to the clothing, tolerating the out of doors when it is below forty degrees means, for me, something on which to blow my nose, and in This Our Year of COVID it means a cough drop or two in case I am in public and find, in terror, I need to cough. And a mask of course. Always a mask. 

This route is highly trafficked by vehicles but for a full mile I passed no other pedestrians. Passed the grocery store, passed the intersection, passed the elementary school, passed the playground, passed the field in a bucket valley where we played glow-in-the-dark frisbee, and saw not a single person. 

Lately I’ve been trying to listen attentively to a new-to-me piece of music every day, so I loaded up Bill Orcutt’s Odds Against Tomorrow. Orcutt had been recommended to me many a time by my bandmate Neal and for some reason ended up in a bin in my brain reserved for Someday, Whenever. Yesterday was someday, whenever. The long and short of it is that the record is a dream of a heaven I want to live in. It’s Dylan Thomas’ Child’s Christmas in Wales. It’s the Tree of Life. It may not be Lake Michigan, but it’s definitely a lake in Michigan.

So there I am on Whites Road in my bubble of transporting guitar — far from the only bubble proximal to anything called Whites — and remembrance of night frisbee and on my way in the cold to pet a friend who happens to be a dog then swinging by the bookstore to maybe buy my 2021 calendar, an errand I wholeheartedly enjoy. I’m floating on magic. My nose turns on like a faucet. I pull off my soggy mask and stuff it in my pocket while I blow my nose again and again and again. Bill Orcutt plays Moon River and I remember standing around my friend’s grave with a small group of his family and friends and singing Moon River to his newly buried ashes. I forget to put my mask back on.

Past the golf course as I approach the stop light a man rounds the corner. He’s older, seventies maybe, and wears expensive and thorough winter gear — a silver gray puffy coat, waterproof pants, a performance fleece hat, boots with a sturdy if pristine tread. I admire his preparedness, smile at him. A fleece neck gaiter obstructs the bottom half of his face but I can see that he is saying something to me. I pull the earphone away from my ear and say, “Pardon?”

“You should wear a mask!” He is yelling through the gaiter and I see now the knotty vein trickling down his forehead. I don’t have the context to tell if his anger is sudden or if I’ve just entered its room as it was ongoing.

Of course he’s right that I should wear a mask. I usually do. I want to say to him that I have been so careful, that I have not hugged my parents this year, that I have only hugged my child once and that was when their grandfather passed away, that I cared for my mother for months while wearing a mask and keeping the windows open and the air purifiers on full blast  and slept in hotels while BYOB (bringing your own bedding) so that I could go home to my immune compromised partner and not kiss him for weeks because just in case. I want to say that I simply forgot in that moment, had only just been blowing my nose and hadn’t replaced it, would not want to endanger him or whomever it is that he loves and hopes to protect. 

I want to say those things but instead because he is a man and he is yelling at me I scoff and say, “I am outside and nowhere near you,” because I am a far deeper well than my best intentions and are we ever fully healed?

And now on days between 20 and 50 degrees when he is out and catches a glimpse of a bright orange coat he will see not a woman enjoying a winter walk, exploring new music, grieving a friend, anticipating a friendly dog exchange, but an asshole who indignantly refused to wear a mask. And, however bizarro that orange-coated asshole alter-me is to the reality of my pandemic year, he will be right.

Thatsa lotta ham!

On a walk this afternoon I passed a UPS guy heading up a driveway with a hand truck loaded with 6 honey-baked hams. He flashed me what I perceived to be a coy smile. By the grace of brain chemicals or my nightly prayers to Dolly Parton it occurred to me in just the nick of time that there is no tone in which “Thatsa lotta ham!” won’t seem sexual. Pickle narrowly averted.

Today I texted a friend for help and went into a shame spiral during the few minutes it took for them to respond, flagellated myself for not finishing an essay draft, didn’t do enough laundry, didn’t even put a dent in a new project I prioritized to start today, flayed myself for not finishing the revisions on a short story, have put off doing yoga even though I know it will vastly improve both my day and my life, got irritated for no actual reason at all, second (third fourth fifth)-guessed my value as a partner (friend parent person), sulked about Christmas, went into a new and improved shame spiral about feeling sorry for myself when people are dying alone from COVID and people are dying from trying to save them.

Then I did more laundry, went for a walk, was inspired by a guy with hams, listened to the Amélie soundtrack, lit the Dolly Parton candle my kid gave me, remembered this picture of the stained-glass banana a friend gave me for my birthday, thought about how long it would take me to explain why this stained-glass banana is enormously significant to me and how I’m not sure I could, thought about the time Chafe and I were walking and I was puzzling out a prospective story and I said I don’t even know how you would go about making that work and then he said You would probably have to write it to find out, thought about how fiction is a resource, remembered that action absorbs anxiety, and got back to work.

Thatsa lotta ham!

Hoping only hurts a little

(I really hope I am not alone in this but) Why do I not know how to walk toward someone on the street after 47 years of passing people on streets? Why do I not know where to look or when to make eye contact or for how long? Why does it get harder the closer we get? It feels as though we should by now have figured out a standard operating procedure for strangers crossing paths, such as not making eye contact till the final moment then a glance and an eyebrow raise and an upward chin nod, or maybe a nod when you’re within the range of focus and then a disconnection of eye contact. This feels like something the French and the Japanese probably have figured out that Americans have too many conflicting puritanical and xenophobic tendencies to reconcile. Or probably folks who live in big cities have this down, they have their patterns of touchpoint because they pass tens of people every day, whereas I pass maybe four. It’s probably easier to keep one’s eyes to one’s self, to default to no greeting whatsoever, but that feels like setting a baseline expectation of disconnection, too cold and lonely for sustaining life.

I can’t be alone in missing whole human faces in front of me in physical space. After embracing denial for the first six or so months of isolation, missing things is sneaking back in, twinging my heart. But missing in 2020 feels more like honoring than lacking. 

I didn’t play music during the month of October. A month is a long time for me to not play music and the lack had left me feeling squeezed out and empty. Prior to pandemic the band I’ve been in for many years was preparing to make a new record, honing songs and chiseling out time to escape to the wild north to record and stick our toes in Superior; and the other band I’m in had just played our first show and were getting feet under us. And then there was the Great Pause. Chafe and I have continued to write and play together, a luxury no doubt, but we’re starved for that regular raucous communion of drums and loud guitars, the alchemy of togetherness, why harmony makes us feel like we suddenly have more nerve endings. Like in the moment the back-up singers come in here at around 1:50, I’m reminded we can be better together, that together is a better state. As we begin to end this year I’m conceiving of a 2021 in which we are less virtually together and more actually together. Here’s hoping, and hoping never hurts (or when it does it only hurts a little).

Because of all the sand which is there

When I stopped fighting the snakes with my freeze and my flight, they taught me. This isn’t a metaphor. I mean actual snakes.

When I didn’t prune the bushes, the birds came. Also not a metaphor.

Let what is coming come.

This thing of middle age, of being in the middle, is a prism that splits all thought and emotion into facets I couldn’t see until I shone light through it. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a metaphor because I was a poor student.

And I’m in the hamster bubble filled with the miasma of my buried middle school trauma and aging parents and puritanical shame and increasing hunger and I bounce up against you in the grocery store or in a virtual space (it’s virtually a space!) and you’re in your bubble and we’re both too polite to mention we’re floating around in our miasma and whatever assorted fluids we’ve accumulated over this life.

I would very much like to know who first called middle age a sandwich. Sandwiches are delightful. They’re straightforward: Put together a few things you like to eat, wrap some sort of edible container around them, experience satisfaction. 

Middle age is no sandwich. Middle age is sedimentary rock cooked in the furnace of time and weather and motion. The fore generation is metamorphic, the core and foundation. The aft generation is igneous, lava newly birthed and hardening around my edges. And I can’t be certain — in part because I’m generally uncomfortable with certainty and in part because as noted before I was (am) a poor student and got this passing understanding of geology from a Science-for-Kids website — but it’s my understanding that each stratum evolves through the phases, propelled by other strata and (perhaps?) gravity (which, in the case of this metaphor if that’s what it is, might be time?). The metamorphic will become igneous and the igneous will shift to the sedimentary and that which was sedimentary will be compacted into the metamorphic and I believe that compacting begins with cleaning and sorting your parents’ belongings, sitting in a water-damaged basement deciding which of your grandmother’s typing certificates and grandfather’s letters to his postal workers’ union rep and mother’s letters home from college and father’s resumes from the ‘70s and your own flaking and musty preschool art and clear-eyed high school papers on world peace you will keep for your child to eventually weed through and which will be tossed into a landfill where they will enter another unending cycle of evolution. 

Let what is coming come. Meet it when it arrives. Wave as it pulls away. And repeat.

Testing. Testing.

That the mass was circumscribed was a tentative positive. That the sun was circumscribed was a looming negative. A day in the balance between cancer and wildfires.

“Tongue-tied and twisted just an Earth-bound misfit, I.”

And I’m meditating and yoging and walking all the steps and using too much plastic no matter how I try and mindlessly tearing leaves from stems as we hike the preserves. And, even in unemployment, there is not enough time to meditate and yoga and walk the steps and cook healthy food from scratch and arrange my life to be free of plastics and be mindful enough to never tear leaves from stems and keep the house clean and play the instruments and do the writing and read books and sleep and be profoundly present to every person (human or otherwise) I encounter. Or maybe there is enough time but there is a leak in the time container and it steals away in drips and trickles (and episodes of Antiques Roadshow).

That I’m feeling more divorced from reality initially alarmed me but now seems like the only reasonable path. We can’t alter a context we can’t see outside of. Anything other than the present is pain. And sometimes the present is pain. Everything passes through the present and changes, even pain. Change comes in drips and trickles and oxygen molecules and oceans, and pain doesn’t stand a chance against oceans.

Sometimes

Sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of your partner of 25 years leaving you for no other articulated reason than “It’s time” as you sob “I’m not ready” while your boss from 20 years ago looks on from the hearth of a glowing fireplace in benign curiosity and sometimes anxiety dreams come in the form of you wearing a floaty ball gown (with pockets!) that does the spin lift better than any dress you’ve ever worn and has a jeweled broach in the design of a fried egg while you run all over a warehouse with your old friend so she can help you find a dozen eggs so you can be Egg Queen for the costume parade and sometimes both of those dreams come in the same night while an electrical storm is happening so you get to wake up and read about the crumbling of the empire intermittently while light bursts and crackles outside and your immobile partner snores and your dogs tremble and burrow deeper into your limbs over and over and over and over and over again.

It is the time of the goldenrod and soon will come the pokeweed. I feed the last caterpillar of our season as the rest are in chrysalides or have launched. We go to the woods to offset fear and dread, to take into our eyes and noses and ears as much life as we can before the light wanes. We have had to grow through these six months, but that was made easier by the world greening and blooming around us. Now we begin to smell the sweet rot of decay on the trails and life yellows to brown out. We will need to make our own light, increasingly, in coming months, to burn the brush.

And then these thistles in transition remind me of cotton and I’m a goner.

Because every time I think of the fact that there’s a Senator whose name is actually Cotton who is working to be sure that The 1619 Project — US history that centers the legacy of the enslaved and their descendants — is not taught in schools that leads me down the path to the fact that the POTUS is a guy whose name is actually Trump whose entire platform is winning and domination and that lends a hair too much credence to the theory that we’re truly just living in a simulation and I can’t believe a simulation this advanced couldn’t hire better writers. Cotton? Trump? Hack shit.

I have started listening to 1619. I put it off for a year because

I know.
I know White supremacy is real.
I know White supremacy was and remains brutal.
I know it pervades every part of our society.
I know individuals participate passively by claiming innocence.
I know I participate both passively and actively. (Let me count the ways.)
I know there are parts that are mine to fix and parts that are not mine.

I know, I know, I know.

Knowing is its own goal, the trap. When we think we know something, we feel we can set it aside. Whatever is set aside we have neither impetus nor duty to dismantle. And that’s when stopping at knowing creates an unbearable stasis of complicity.

When I try to think I know White supremacy, when I try to think I can draw its reach and its edges, when I try to define my part in it, it becomes an ever shrinking web around me. The more I struggle to understand, to learn, to grow, the more enmeshed I feel. And then on a walk I’m stopped by the radiance of the goldenrod in the golden hour and I notice the thistles are turning and I think of cotton and Cotton and thistles are brambly and the intractable grip is like being caught in the brambles and the fight to get out pulls us deeper and what does that remind me of? What analogy from my childhood perfectly describes that feeling? And it comes back to me that it’s the tar baby in the briar patch and BOOM: The hand of the programmer. We don’t know anything. We were made this way, and the only way to unmake is to not know.

I need to not know so that I will be open to learning. I need to not know so that I can build my awareness and compassion. I need to let not knowing radicalize me and break me of the hand of the programmer, break me of supremacy. I need to not know so that there is somewhere to grow.