Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Letter of Note


I love handwritten letters.  This is no secret, it is not unique, it is not surprising.
What is surprising is that pretty much everyone loves handwritten letters, but so few people actually write them anymore.

One of my New Year's Resolutions for 2012 was to "Send one letter a month." 

I am not sure how that ended up shaking out, but, a few weeks ago a mailed out a bunch at once, so maybe the averages are on my side.  
Regardless, I love writing them, I love to get them, and they are such an easy way to reflect, to thank, to make a day better.

One of my favorite websites is dedicated to this craft- Letters of Note. They are producing a book that I have pre-ordered and am anxiously awaiting.
In the meantime, I will continue to write my own, and read old ones like this, that I absolutely treasure. 
It's a card from my great-grandfather, written to a 2 year old me.  

November 16, 1988
Dear Jessica,
Thank you very much for sending me a birthday card last week when I had my eighty-ninth birthday.  And will you thank daddy and mommy for the card they also sent me.

The picture on this card is of a buffalo.  There were several millions of these great animals all over the country a hundred and fifty years ago.  But as people settled on the land where the buffalo roamed they got rid of the big beasts.  The result was that the buffalo were almost all destroyed.  Then people said, "We must save the buffalo from extinction."  Extinction means that there wouldn't be any at all.  So the few hundred that remained were proctected. They have grown in number and now there are a few thousand.  Some day you may see one.
The next time I see you I would like to hug you.
Love, 
Grandpapa



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How a Hurricane Hit Me

I sat down to write an email to some of my best best girls and it turns out I had some stuff to say.  The following came tumbling out of my fingers into a Gmail draft one evening and when I looked up, it was 12:30 in the morning. This is even an edited version of how Hurricane Sandy hit me personally.




It's two weeks to the day since Sandy came to town.

Things are still not "back to normal" in a lot of ways: the city has sanctioned gas rations (if your license plate ends with an odd number, you can fill up on odd days.  If it ends in an even number, you fill up on even days), the trains aren't fully functioning yet - many buildings even in lower Manhattan are still without power or hot water.  In the center of civilization; the hub of human culture; the "best city in the world" there are people without basic human needs.  It's unsettling.  

I have contracted a severe bout of survivor's guilt, as I am sure you can tell from my social media outpouring.  I just felt my heart being tugged to be a good neighbor to my neighbors - if I am going to live in New York, I want to earn it, and I want to be part of the community, so I've been trying my best to get involved.

The first weekend, I clumsily took a new bus line out to Red Hook.  It's the only place that was badly affected that I'd been to before (and only because that's where the IKEA is) and that was easily reachable from my apartment with the way public transportation was affected.  I went alone, mostly because I felt this needling sense of urgency, and also, I desperately needed some time to myself after being in an apartment all week with my roommate and two male refugee guests of ours.

Red Hook is a surprisingly "beachy" town.  It is embarrassing how little I knew of my new borough until the last couple weeks, to be honest.  Like, you could live in some of these cozy, outlying neighborhoods of New York City, and, aside from the stunning views, have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
There are brownstones and bungalows, cafes and antique shops, overgrown parks and a crab shack with faux lawn and picnic tables year round.  Then, on the piers, big brick warehouses - the IKEA, a Fairway grocery store (entirely flooded, the contents of which were strewn across its suburban sized parking lot - the aisles dismantled and set out to be washed and dried, amid literal tons of ocean-logged food), and a community of artist's studios.

The Occupy movement has actually been the most incredibly efficient, first-responding team in many affected neighborhoods. When I got there a line of volunteers wound down the block, waiting to get to the front to get an assignment.  The assignments were mostly being delegated to indiscriminate teams of 10-15 people who just happened to be standing next to each other in line, and were coming from canvassing teams who were walking around the area and asking neighbors and businesses what their immediate or long-term needs were. I got assigned to a canvassing team, and, this sounds silly, but, after a beat of group silence when asked, volunteered to be the Team Leader.  I had no idea what I was doing and had never been to this neighborhood before, but, I volunteered and split the group according to the map, and sent everyone on their way with instructions to come back to me with neighborhood requests, at which point a runner would take it back to the headquarters station, where a team of 10-15 would be dispatched out with proper supplies,and so forth.  It has been a while since I took any sort of leadership role, and again, it was so arbitrary and small and lasted for like, an hour, but it woke something dormant in me: "Oh, yeah.  I used to love to organize and motivate people.  I forgot that I love this- that I am good at it."

After our group had thoroughly taken care of our designated blocks, a bunch of people had to leave, but, a guy named Billy and his girlfriend and their friend and I stuck around for another task and got sent out to one of the studios on one of the piers.

It was late afternoon and already starting to get colder down on the water.  We walked as a group, chatting a bit about our stories (the girls work directly for the designer Nicole Miller.  Billy owns a bar in the West Village - The Brooklyneer. I've never been, but have heard of it) and found the studio - cavernous and cold, built of brick, and already in the process of being demolished by another volunteer team up front, busy with activity.  We learned quickly that it was an architecture studio, owned by Ben and his wife, Chrissy, who also used the place as a personal storage facility.  She was crouched over a plastic tub full of water, with hundreds of old pictures bobbing around in it.  One by one she'd peel one out, look at it, speak the memory aloud- ask her husband if he remembered such and such or where so and so was these days.  Their best friend was there, too, and seemed to be the only one with any kind of anchor in reality - he assigned us to tasks, and was audibly trying to keep Ben and Chrissy on task: "is this bag okay to throw out? "  "Have you had a chance to go through this?"  "You already looked through this one, I am going to put it in the Final Trash pile, okay?"  Ben wandered around in a daze, kind of staring at the 5 1/2 foot water marks on things - the brick wall, a plywood shelving unit, a wall of tools - while Chrissy pored over every minute of the last 40 years of her life.  It was so sad.

Billy and I got assigned to, of all things, rinsing the negatives of those pictures off, and hanging them to dry. In case Ben wanted to reprint any of them. Someday.  
It was evident that we both thought this a silly waste of time even without saying anything, because we reminded each other lightly, unprompted, that "isn't this just the nature of volunteering!"  Meaning, you show up with your arms widespread, no ego and no agenda and you just have to say, "what will help you the most right now?"  The temperature was dropping, and our job was to dip our fingers into cold water, over and over again in this negative-washing process. We strung them up onto paperclip hangers that I bent into shape, and clotheslined them up to dry all around the studio like creepy party decorations. A garland of memories of negative space.

We had no cell phone service and when I realized it was already 5, excused myself and said goodbye to everyone, with a half-assed promise to get to The Brooklyneer soon.
Leaving the warehouse was a shock: there was still no power, aside from generator-run electricity, in Red Hook, so it was DARK.  The IKEA glowed off in the distance, a beacon of normality and safety, so I clomped over there in my squeaky clean Danner boots and waited for a bus while I checked my phone with frozen fingers - my 2 best guy friends had made it there too, and I learned from texts had emptied out someone's basement that had suffered a sewage leak, but were already home and showered and did I want to go to dinner?
Yes. I did. More than anything.
Nothing feels as safe and relaxing to me here in NYC as a night with these guys.
We had a typical The Three of Us dinner at a great Italian restaurant, Lil Frankies, and talked about the day, about how the dinner was a nice way to wrap up our week together, and how it felt weird to know we had to go back to work the next day.
Last Week: Back to "normal" 

In our Monday morning status meeting, I suggested that we all go as a group on Saturday to volunteer somewhere, and that I'd be happy to coordinate it, and that we should invite our clients. It was well-received, and then I stressed out about it endlessly.  This was really important to so many people, but needs were changing daily, and part of the problem with volunteering is that you get all these volunteers and no one to lead them.  So, of course I signed up and attended a Disaster Leadership Training on Tuesday (after VOTING!), spurred largely by my experience the prior weekend in Red Hook and reminded myself that I could do this, and be good at it, and help people all at the same time. (I made the mistake of going from the emotionally intense training to a very drunk election night party and left in a horrible mood, so mad at everyone... except Drunk Diane Sawyer.  Drunk Diane Sawyer is my power animal and my buddy).

Finally by the end of the week, an opportunity perfect for our 17 confirmed volunteers presented itself!  We were going to team up with a media agency who happened to have an extra 15 passenger van for us, and caravan out to the Rockaways to help sweep the sand off of...everything, essentially.  

This past weekend: Back to Sandy, nothing is "normal"

We had an awesome group of people head out to the Rockaways, which, if you look on a map, is pretty much as far East as you can get from Manhattan, and in the summer, is a lazy, old timey beach town you can take the train to for day trips. I had never been to this beach before yesterday, so I couldn't tell how different it looked, but, the fact that the ENTIRE wooden boardwalk was just.. missing... off of the concrete pilons was  jarring in itself.   Even on the way out there in the van, we passed small communities, one after another, surprisingly far inland, that had boats piled up in the middle of the street, cars parked wonkily because that's where the ocean had unceremoniously dropped them.  And really, nothing is sadder than shit that is spray painted onto plywood: "Broad Channel: the forgotten town" or "Sandy, you broke our hearts" and "Looters will be crucified" (I am sure you saw some of those images going around online).

When we got to the sort of "town square"/main intersection of Rockaway Beach,  I was surprised to see Home Depot there doling out free shovels, brooms, and buckets but there was really no overarching organization who seemed to be directing anyone.  It didn't matter, because within minutes we'd started a conversation with a guy who was like, "how many people do you have?  Come with me to my street. We have a few basements that need to be emptied out."

So we went with him to a cute street, one side of which was fruit colored condos - like something you think you would see in Miami- the other side of the street bungalow style homes we were told were totally flood-damaged, the residents displaced, their homes ruined. 

A big guy met us at the front door of his home- Ron, an NYPD sergeant- and thanked us for coming and warned us that his basement hadn't been touched yet. We said no sweat, let's f-ing do this, and so, for the next 4 hours, we trudged through his mud-blanketed basement (which wasn't just a basement, it was just the lower level of his home: his son's bedroom, a bathroom, the laundry room, closets) full of all the things that are in all of our homes, and it was all absolutely destroyed.  We got right to work, first getting the waterlogged mattress and box spring, then the broken tv, then the washer+dryer, out.  We shoveled at the floor, 7 of us, for hours, scooping up bedding, action figures, family photos, Christmas decorations, bits of the boardwalk, mud, sewage, reeds, remote controls... just, you name it, we shoveled it into 5 gallon buckets and hauled them up the stairs, out the door, and dropped it on the sidewalk.  Their mound of possessions and memories, now rendered junk, just sat in an evergrowing heap, drowning in mud, waiting for the National Guard to come by and pick it up, and haul it off to who knows where.

By 1:30 we had the basement completely emptied out, and you could see the floor all the way around.  We had gotten started on their first floor, which wasn't as bad, but much of the furniture had sustained water damage so, out went the leather couches.  Out went the pillowtop mattress and boxspring.  "OH MY GOD." Ron's wife, also NYPD, wailed from her bedroom. "OH SHIT YOU GUYS. Oh my GOD!"

She emerged to all of our stricken faces holding a shoebox.  "Look at this, oh my GOD, bone dry." and as she pulled off the lid, we saw a first communion ribbon, her marriage certificate, graduation and birthday cards.
The stuff you can't replace, and it was all fine.

I walked up the street to tell some other members of our group who were helping in another house that we had to get going, and I just started heaving tears.  Totally snuck up on me, didn't mean to cry, it was just an adrenaline crash, and too much emotion I didn't know what to do with.  I was SO proud of my coworkers - one Long Island native, whose Marc Jacobs sunglasses had gotten trampled into the mud and bless her heart said not a word until we got into the van.  Our male fashion editor, who showed up to volunteer in skinny jeans and a denim jacket, was indefatigable with a shovel and even helped big Ron carry a watery mattress up the stairs.  My two best boys, one of their brothers, a girl from my softball team who works in media and saw on Facebook that we were heading to the Rockaways and asked if she could come with us, and brought a friend.
Even now, recalling it, I am tearing up at the total love that came pouring out of these wonderful people.

When Ron and his wife said goodbye, they got all of our names and contact information, insisted on taking a picture with us, and have already invited us to a summer barbeque once they get back on their feet.
We all rode back to the city mostly in silence, reeking of God knows what, feeling really grateful, and sad.

I got into bed at 6 PM and didn't move until 10 AM Sunday morning.

This week, we got the go-ahead from our VP to take a day off at our discretion to use in further Sandy relief efforts.  Everyone is still checking on each other- every cab I get into, the driver asks me if I'm okay, if the storm hit me.
I lost no power, no electricity, was lucky enough to have a big enough apartment to host 2 extras, but yeah - it hit me.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

WHO RUN THE WORLD?

Here are the women who are currently making this day smileworthy rather than just barely passable:

Sam Gordon
http://www.buzzfeed.com/copyranter/nine-year-old-girl-dominates-boys-football-league


No big deal, just a 9 year old girl beasting her way through a boys' football league.



Aaliyah

Okay, so we all make mistakes and get married to R Kelly when we're 15 from time to time, but,  I am memorializing her awesomeness with what is currently my #3 favorite Pandora station of all time: Click to listen to Aaliyah Radio



Drunk Diane Sawyer

The only watchable part of the atrocity that is Presidental Election Night tv "coverage".  God bless her... and if I had to choose which god, I'd go with Dionysus.



                                              

Monday, October 15, 2012

Losing You?

Who knew Bey's sis had it in her?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Inspired - Oct 2012








A Labar of Love: Autumn With Andy Vol I by Jessica Crowell on Grooveshark

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead

Sunny September Saturday, skipped down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass from what I didn't know was soon to be my new apartment, stopped into a record store.



Saw this book, read a page, decided I needed it.  Bought it with cash, asked the clerk about the neighborhood.

Despite wearing gym clothes head to toe, decided the gym wouldn't miss me, and that the Brooklyn Bridge would instead benefit from my company.


 Started the walk alone, came out on the Manhattan side with a young man from North Carolina who also decided he would benefit from my company and asked for my number.

Heard from the boy in the requisite three days, finished the book in a week.

Still hanging out with the boy, but, done with the book and ready to let it go!

About the book:
Neil Strauss is a veteran journalist, who, from what I gather from this book, is easy to talk to and can gain the confidence of strangers (nervous and famous and self-conscious and unknowns alike) and get them into a really revealing space.  This book is a collection of some of his favorite moments over the years from his interviews and encounters with some of the most talented, fascinating, influential musicians and celebrities of our time (including, but not limited to: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Pete Townshend, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Snoop Dogg, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Rick James, Madonna, Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears...).

Knowing these names has been mostly the extent of my education on many of their contributions to pop culture, but reading about their process, their experiences, their tragedies and the simple way with which they interacted with Strauss during the interviews completely captured my attention.

It also totally piqued my interest in the work of many of these artists that I wasn't familiar with.  So, when you read this book, here's a sampling of the music being discussed.  It's not organized very well and isn't comprehensive, but, it's a decent cross-section with which to acquaint yourself:

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Jessica Crowell on Grooveshark

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Steam Heat: September Playlist


Steam Heat by Jessica Crowell on Grooveshark

My cousin gave me a mix CD once with no titles on it at all.  He said sometimes it was better to listen that way.
I nodded like I agreed and then spent the next six years trying to figure out what all the tracks were.  So they're all labeled. 


Monday, March 5, 2012

Summers

Summer is a strange season.  Even when the weather doesn't get particularly nice, a hazy laziness descends on motivation, a specter from our school-age days.  There's an entitlement towards vacations, an aversion to long working hours, and a general shirking of the shackles of adult standards:  we drink more beer, we wear less clothing, we slink into the office later. 

I get more nostalgic for summers past than any other season, and I think it's because they vary so greatly.  My winters, falls, and springs tend to revolve around the same things, but my summers have been more unique - which I think makes them easier to recall, or more likely for memories of them to pop into my consciousness, especially the summers after high school.  As a kid, they all blend together into one ice-cream-man-muzak-soundtracked, sticky-popsicled, outdoor-playing, skinned-kneed, fort-building, chlorine-soaked dream.

A nannying summer:

I drag myself into my old Ford Explorer, and even though I'm only 17, there are two car seats in the back.
I drive to my aunt and uncle's house, grunt a morning greeting to my uncle on his way out the door, and curl up on their sofa to watch tv until The Boys make their way downstairs.  Little boy sleep hair, sticking up all around, crust of Sandman sleep in the corners of their 6-year-old eyes dragging soft blankets behind them.  First Mike, then Jeff, always.  We watch cartoons half-asleep until I make breakfast - always sticky with Mrs. Butterworth's.  By the end of summer I can make perfect silver-dollar pancakes.
Paper airplanes, play-doh, Matchbox cars, bikes and sidewalk chalk.  Crustless sandwiches and skinless apples and water-wings.  Every park in the Portland-Metro area, the ever-present smell of sunscreen, the sound of Velcro sandals.  Jeff's red shorts (ALWAYS red shorts), his uncanny ability to identify helicopters by their faint chopping through clouds, and Band-Aids.  Long rides on the MAX train, children's museums and the zoo and Mike's afternoon pouting.  Blanket forts, and bribes, and only one bloody incident with a plastic leaf blower wielded as a weapon.  Irrational fights, dancing around the living room to "Honky Tonk Woman," a lot of tears (some theirs, some mine).
Rosy cheeks, bare feet on hardwood floors, firetrucks and Whoopee Cushions and lisps and exhaustion and little boy gales of laughter.


A Nordstrom summer:

I am always sore from standing in heels all day. I get really thin from sprinting around a store room looking for a hot pink boot with a 3" heel, or a nude sandal in an extra-wide size, or those stupid Keen sandals that were so popular that year.  Every co-worker is a character.  I get invited to birthday parties, to hear people DJ on the weekends.  I meet Lindsay Bozanich.  I spent most of my money in the department in which I work.  I spend a lot of lunch hours on the phone with my boyfriend.  I become intimate with the food court at the mall.  I learn the art of the sale.  I internalize a deep appreciation for, and expectation of, customer service.  We make up a game in the stock room called "Secrets" that involves lookouts, a rubber-band ball the size of a grapefruit, a shoebox, and a point system.  When I get home at night, I cannot speak to anyone and I zone out in front of the tv.  I pray for the princess shift (11 AM to 7 PM - no opening duties, no closing duties).  I drive down to Eugene on free days to see the boyfriend. When he goes home for a few weeks at the end of the summer, I fly to Minnesota and spend my birthday with him and his family.  Thunderstorms, and a lake, and a state fair.  A bucket of cookies, an ear of corn, an electricity in the sky and our hands.


A Moroccan summer:
It started as an academic excursion and then loomed on the horizon as an escape.  There was a promised land in that distant place of exotic language and food and shapes, away from a hurt- far from the suffocating pain of betrayal.  I ran away to a new family, to new friends, to a new ocean.  I ate french fries with every meal and slept on a stiff wool couch with a new little sister.  I got new hair by never washing it- it is glossier and wavier and screams about freedom and lightness.  I learned new words, I spoke old languages, I read books on a beach.  I drank green minty tea and ate honeydew for dessert and walked and walked and walked.  I got a phone call about cancer, and I cried in an internet cafe.  I forged new relationships, in person and connected via the internet, and along with that, formed a new hope for myself, for love, for the coming year back at school upon my return.  I missed hot dogs, and the American flag, and domestic beer.  The maze of the medina, the smell of saffron, the color of the sky. Paris, and champagne, and Montmartre, and Monet and Degas and croque monsieurs.  Madrid and sangria and shopping and siestas and bullfights in the rain.  Goya and Velazquez and Picasso and a cloying hangover when I land in Rome.  Wandering, the Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, pizza, so many little tile-floored hotel rooms with their white sheets, their complicated shower heads, their friendly men at the front desk.
Trains, and bottles of wine, and the coast of southern Italy, and me alone.

A Portland summer:
I live in an apartment in downtown Portland.  I can walk to baseball games, to bars, to concerts.  We have no air conditioning, but I know a guy with a pool.  One unbearably hot stretch of days, he opens the pool  all hours to everyone he knows, and we form a sort of refugee community, hiding out in his backyard, our legs dangling in the water while we sip Sessions and talk about film and swat at mosquitoes.  I go on dates with grown ups, because I realize I am supposed to be one. I learn that I can cook.  I get my first speeding ticket on the long golden drive to Eastern Oregon.  I spend July 4th there in cut off jean shorts, tan and wild at the rodeo.  I get the sense I am still running from something, but at least I am looking forward now in the running, and am not so much at risk of breaking my neck by looking over my shoulder the whole time.  Our apartment is sleepover central - I love waking up on a Saturday morning with friends already there: it is like college, but, we have (some) money, now, and no homework.  We learn happy hour menus by heart, we drive around the West Hills eating ice cream sandwiches and smoking menthols, singing loud.  Concerts, and weddings, and reasons to celebrate that we are young, and we are learning to be adults, but don't need to really commit to that yet, so let's go out for one more beer.  Let's wear rompers and red lipstick and listen to techno and eat Taco Bell and sit on the patio at this bar and meet boys and go to work with a hangover.


A New York summer:
There is no reason to wipe the sweat away - it's a permanent fixture and we're all in this, together.  Go in hunt of the smell of freshly cut grass and only end up in one place: Central Park.  Stare longingly up at the sky on the way to the subway in the morning, and walk the whole way home.  Maxi skirts and very little makeup.  The sacred spaces of the rooftop, the fire escape, the back patio.  Desperate human need for flight on the weekends - to the Hamptons, to the shore, to a horizon of water.  Fireworks in the same skyline as the Empire State Building.  Yankees games, Mets games, buckets of Coronas on the Frying Pan-  an old boat anchored off the West Side highway.  Slow long walks around Prospect Park, and sticking to your seat everywhere you go for brunch.  Rooftop parties, rooftop parties, rooftop parties.  Tank tops and a hurricane party, and texts and that one perfume I bought in Brooklyn.  The city smells like hot garbage.  I eat frozen yogurt twice a day.  I play softball on the Upper West Side in the crowded heat, in summer rain. This city of the ambitious and the grown turns into a playground.

...But today it is March. And I am in jeans and boots and a sweater and my nose runs and the wind bites and I think I have pneumonia.  Sounds like last March. And the one before that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Communion

I can't imagine how the practice of Communion must look to anyone not familiar with it.  Even once marginally acquainted with the context and purpose, it could easily be construed as cultish and superstitious - the symbolic (or, for Catholics, literal) elements representative of the Christ's body and blood, to be shared and consumed by believers in remembrance of his perfect life and perfect sacrifice?
Even seeing it in words make me squirm.

But it is consistently the one thing in this world that brings that burning sensation to my sinuses, makes the tear ducts well, makes my chest swell, and brings me to my knees - more often figurative but sometimes truly.  It is something about which I get emotional.  Emotion, the inarguable way of knowing something to be true- the very base expression of our self - this is affected and stirred in me by the act of Communion.

Raised Presbyterian as a little girl, Communion was served on the first Sunday of every month.  On the occasion I was in the service with my parents rather than in Sunday School, this was a dire situation, as it just added more stuff to sit through.  This was, however, mitigated by the promise of a tiny snack; the passing of those delightfully small-person sized cups; a bite of soft white bread; the fleeting inclusion in the Things The Grown Ups Do.  I remember the solemnity with which I accepted the charge of passing along the tray of grape juice to my pew neighbor and bestowing upon him, with a hoarse and formal whisper, "This is Christ's blood, shed for you." I remember stuffing my tongue into the plastic cups to extract every last drop of Welches Grape Blood.  I remember recognizing that it was a serious but warm event.

One Sunday when we couldn't get out the door in time, my parents opted to hold a small family church service in our living room- a short substitution service of the reading of a few passages and prayer time together.  I wanted to contribute, to make our little service an even more pleasing stand-in to the Lord, so I ran to the kitchen and returned with a bag of sandwich bread and a can of grape soda.  Despite my efforts to line a wicker basket with one of the nice cloth napkins, my good intentioned inclusion of the sacrament was halted humiliatingly by my father, and I was indignant in only the hot and stubborn way a child can be embarrassed.
Lesson learned, though: it was in that way that I came to truly appreciate the sacredness and the import of the act of Communion.  It is surely a big part of why it's so special to me today.

The act of a father in relation to the teaching of Communion figures as a main theme in one of my favorite and most-treasured books, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  The narrator recalls

I remember once when I was a young child my father helped to pull down a church that had burned.  It rained the day we came to pull it down.  The pulpit was left intact, standing there in the rain, but the pews were mostly kindling.  There was a lot of praising the Lord that it happened at midnight on a Tuesday.  It was a warm day, a warm rain, and there was no real shelter, so everybody ignored it, more or less.  All kinds of people came to help.  It was like a camp meeting and a picnic.  They unhitched the horses and we younger children lay on an old quilt under the wagon out of the way and talked and played marbles, and searching out Bibles and hymnals.  They would sing, we would all sing, "Blessed Jesus" and "The Old Rugged Cross," and the wind would blow the rain in gusts and the spray would reach us where we were.. It never rains, but I remember that day.  And when they had gathered up all the books that were ruined, they made two graves for them and put the Bibles in one and the hymnals in the other, and then the minister whose church it was - a Baptist, as I recall - said a prayer over them.  I was always amazed, watching grownups, at the way they seemed to know what was to be done in any situation, to know what was the decent thing.   
The women put the pies and cakes they had brought and the books that could still be used into our wagon and then covered the bed with planks and tarps and lap robes.  The food was all pretty damp.  No one seems to have thought there might be rain...The ashes turned liquid in the rain and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another.  My father brought me some biscuit that had soot on it from his hands.  "Never mind," he said, "there's nothing cleaner than ash."  But it affected the taste of that biscuit, which I thought might resemble the bread of affliction, which was often mentioned in those days, though it's rather forgotten now. 
"Strange are the uses of adversity." That's a fact.  When I'm up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it's nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it's as though I'm back in hard times for a minute or two, and there's a sweetness in the experience which I don't understand.  But that only enhances the value of it.  My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience.  Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature.  I remember my father down on his heels in the rain, water dripping from his hat, feeding me biscuit from his scorched hand, with that old blackened wreck of a church behind him and steam rising where the rain fell on embers, the rain falling in gusts and the women singing "The Old Rugged Cross" while they saw to things, moving so gently, as if they were dancing to the hymn, almost.  It was so joyful and sad.  I mention it again because it seems to much of my life was comprehended in that moment.  Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father's hand.  I remember it as communion and I believe that's what it was.  

I can't tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me.  I can't tell myself what it had meant to me.  But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me.

 Communion is a blessed sharing between us.  In a lonely broken place the world so often is, it's a moment of pure connectivity and generosity.  It's a time of clearing away the distraction of days and filling ourselves with goodness.  It's a physical reminder of a metaphysical truth.

When I grew up and returned to Portland after finishing college, I started going to a different church than my parents.  There, we took Communion every Sunday, and, being old enough to not regard the elements of bread and juice (now, wine) as breakfast Part II, it came to be my favorite part of attending service.  At this church, Communion was simply laid out at the front and back of the antique high school auditorium in which we worshipped, the sunlight streaming in through tall glass panes and tumbling over the empty high balconies into our laps.  Music would play and, once you felt ready, everyone in attendance was invited to the table.  You'd stand in line and witness the most heartbreaking acts of love at the communion tables as families embraced each other before partaking, holding each other in communal hugs and praying together.  Some people would approach alone, and kneel, and breathe, and think.  Young couples  stood together and fed one another - a piece of bread, the Body, dipped in the wine, the Blood, from her hand, to his mouth, with whispered assertions about the nature of the elements.  "This, Brian, is Christ's body, broken for you.  And this is His blood, shed for you."  The closeness achieved by being able to say those words to one another makes me ache.  Standing in line, waiting for my turn, watching, it felt almost like an invasion of these special relationships, but I know it wasn't.  Their acts of togetherness and sharing and my bearing witness were all part of the experience of corporate Communion: the churches I have attended and been a part of believe Communion is for everyone.  All are invited to the table.

Once, I brought my parents to this church, and instead of taking Communion alone, we were one of the families who took it together, arms wrapped around each other in love, sharing the symbols of the very basis of our familial love together.  I loved it.  I love the memory.  I love that even though I live in New York, I went to church today, and I took Communion. And today is the first Sunday of the month, and if my family goes to church today, in the church in which I was raised, in the place with the people that helped mold me as the woman I am today, they will also take Communion, and though we are not in the same place to wrap our arms around each other and share the pieces of promises we believe in, we are bound and connected by the sacred love from which it stems.

For me, Communion has transformed from a noun into a verb.  It may have even started as an adjective - a way to describe that kind of Sunday.  It excites me that it could continue to evolve for me; that the communing continues to connect me in new ways to God and to loved ones.  That it is a sort of powerful mystery that will go on to reveal itself through unique expressions of intimacy, grace, and love.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Swanlights

I can't remember, now, how Antony Hegarty and his ethereal yawping came to be a permanent fixture in my music collection. But it's there, on my succession of iPods, embedded in playlists, marked on my womanly heart. The band, Antony and The Johnsons, is sort of an outlier of my tastes, but some days it's the center of my music-soul and everything else shifts to make it the sun. Some days, I have ears for nothing else.

 I had a conversation the other day with someone about how kids can sniff out authenticity, and I think every once in a while, my music sensibilities do the same - Antony and the Johnsons melt like a lemon sorbet between courses, clearing the palate of distraction and chaff.

 In most of the articles and interviews I've read about Antony, the same few descriptors surface repeatedly: otherwordly, haunting, a gentle-giant, passionate spirit, environmental, transgender. For someone who so easily defies the constraints of simple categorization, it's kind of depressing that journalists continue to use the same restrictive language in discussing him, to make it easy to digest and understand him.
Well, I can pretty much say I don't understand him, and I love that. Never moreso than last night when, on my first trip to Radio City Music Hall (which is flooringly gorgeous, by the by) to see him and a 60 piece symphony perform Swanlights - "such an ambitious production!" replete with Nico Muhly arragements, lasers, a gem-like mobile, Ohne Titel muu muu costuming, a Beyonce cover ("Crazy in Love") and lasers. Did I mention the presence of LASERS? So much laser.
{Photo: HuffPo}
I regret to admit that halfway through the first few songs of the piece, I was trying to make Antony make sense to me. I was suddenly VERY interested in how he does his laundry. Does he have an in-house washer dryer? Does he dry clean the muu muus, or hand wash them? What day of the week does he do this laundry? Does he send it out? I so wanted him to be a real person, and not a 6'2" pillar of feminine power on stage in front of Bjork, and Tilda Swinton, and Rufus Wainwright, and Michael Stipe, and all the other New York art-elite. (Fairly positive that will be the last time I can say all of us were in the same building at the same time, ever).

And then I gave up, because a) I was distracted by the lasers and b) I wanted to let myself get lost in the art of it all, and just experience the questions the piece was asking.

 So I did, and it was really great. Just lovely, and inspiring, and magical and authentically weird. Very glad I got to be a part of that celebration, and hope to carry on a little bit of that with me.

Also, time to get myself some lasers. If intrigued, my fave interview of his is here.
I'm 37 now, and as you get older, you revisit the issues that sit with you in the course of your life. I always felt so self-conscious, and I didn't let myself be beautiful for so many years, but by the time you've made your face worthy of being looked at by anyone, you've abandoned yourself in the process. You show up with a pretty face and an empty heart. Life's too short to be slaving around to other people's expectations. We should put on a little make-up to honour the specific dignity that we have within ourselves, but I'm never putting a spot of make-up on for a man again
And, a slightly more accessible song that I lovity love McLoverson: