ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
One: Impossible Soul
I was introduced to Sufjan Stevens in a banal, millennial manner: the click of a mouse, the tiny white cursor selecting a YouTube link glowing light blue in a chat window. I sat at my computer wearing headphones, my desk near the landscape window of our living room. My younger siblings had computers and desks, nooks in the room as well. We would each surf the internet separately, sealed in with personal soundtracks and intermittently chatting online. The youngest three attended online school while I job-searched throughout the day, writing into the single-digit hours of night. We traded links to manga we were reading, and I mostly related to stories of hikikomori (shut-ins) and NEETs (Not in Employment, Education, or Training).
Every now and then, one of us would laugh out loud, call the others over, respond to text with voice or respond to the digital world through the physical world. All of us would gather around one sibling’s computer to witness some Japanese meme spawning five hundred derivative five-second videos. The brother who sent me the link to Sufjan’s half-hour odyssey, Impossible Soul, called us over to watch a live video of the musician: A boyish brunet strummed a guitar in front of a large band, wearing a neon-lined jumpsuit and a flat-brimmed cap. As the music reached its crescendo, the man revealed the swan wings on his back. The vocalists sang high and the stage lit up.
He will take you...
If you run,
He will chase you.
He will take you.
If you run,
He will chase you.
Cause he is the Lord!
I didn’t understand what he was trying to do.
My brother tried to explain: Sufjan was a singer-songwriter who was sometimes folk, sometimes electronic, hyper-earnest but playfully ironic, mystical but Christian to a level most musicians would hide from for fear of being pigeonholed. He sang about John Wayne Gacy; he sang about outsider artists; he sang christmas songs. He had an album for my dad’s home state and an album for my mom’s home state, but had only been joking about doing 48 more. My brother shared with me Sufjan’s ten-year discography and I didn’t know where to start. I hesitated to wade in deep.
My brother Ibrahim is eight years younger than me and more than a little mysterious. Despite the physical closeness that followed from being a family of eight homebodies in a four-bedroom apartment, we didn’t all understand each other. We used the Myers-Briggs Types as shorthand for personality differences. Ibrahim was the Counselor, Sufjan’s type was also the Counselor, and they were joined at the soul by uncommon names, bohemian parents, deep spirituality, and whatever forces had independently tangled those things together in them both.
My little sister Zuleika, a Healer, was also pulled into the mythology of Sufjan. She got it, much quicker than I did. She and Ibrahim were youngest and second youngest, so maybe that was part of it. Ibrahim joked that he would write a song for Zuleika like Sufjan wrote for his sister Djohariah. Even that familial closeness, of making a band with your brother or making a song for your sister, was something you didn’t see often in music anymore. There was something pure about it, almost corny.
I was an Architect, like Marie Curie, René Descartes, and a bunch of other eggheads. At the time, I was also a geek, an otaku, a loser with no friends. My family was all I knew. My older sister suggested moving to Minneapolis and I let the idea incubate until around 2014. One of the Americorps programs I applied to was in Minneapolis, and they would cover the flight over there. Intending to distance myself from family to force myself to bond with others, I flew off to the Midwest to build a career.
Minneapolis is a city that doesn’t know it’s lonely. I went to events, recognized people who recognized me, and that made it all the more shocking when I had no one to talk to. It gave me cognitive dissonance when people let me down. I was warned that belonging was hard, that transplants tended to befriend other transplants because existing friend groups were nearly impenetrable to outsiders. Still, I attended mixers and readings. I went to concerts and bars, even in negative temperatures. I volunteered, I performed, I supported, I invited, I learned how to use Facebook.
Sufjan released Carrie & Lowell while the city was still thawing. It had been my first Minneapolis winter. After his mother, Carrie, died in 2012, Sufjan began gathering up his fragmented memories of her to build an album titled for her and her second husband, Lowell. Carrie had been troubled; she suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism. Unable to care for her children, she left them in the care of their strict father in Detroit and moved to Oregon where she remarried to greater happiness. She was a living glimpse for how rarely her children saw her—especially Sufjan, the youngest child. Through Carrie & Lowell, he mourns who she was as well as who she might have been, could have been, and everything he didn’t know about her.
Ibrahim urged me to listen by highlighting another life parallel: The album was so steeped in the Pacific Northwest that his words would invoke the year we lived in Washington. Oregon to Washington wasn’t a perfect match, but sure, I would listen. Maybe there was something he understood about our rootlessness—or about my rootlessness. I was alone with a wide-open schedule. Why not go to a concert?
On April 22nd, 2015, I found my way to a campus auditorium where Sufjan grieved before a crowd, an acoustic guitar in his hand and diamonds of light on the screen behind him on a dark and somber stage. It was a farewell letter so full of love for the departed that it forced me to love those of mine who might go. The song that most struck me was Fourth of July, in which Sufjan sings the things he wished his mother had been able to say:
Did you get enough love, my little dove?
Why do you cry?
Tell me, what did you learn from the Tillamook burn?
Or the Fourth of July?
We’re all gonna die.
I was sad. I would seal Fourth of July inside my head with headphones, the ending refrain we’re all gonna die looping in my head like bird murmurations, and my body seemed filled to the forehead with tears although they rarely escaped. This is what it felt like to love your mother, I realized, This is what a mother’s love should feel like. The music got tangled up in my own concept of family. I started to think beyond my current loneliness to the root causes of it, to my own broken mother.
My mother is alive, although my memories of her as a mother are growing faint. I still call her “Mom” but most of my siblings don’t. Sometimes her motherliness unexpectedly returns, as praise for my writing or admiration of my appearance, or the desire to cook for us, visit us, buy us presents. In her delusions, she reshapes the world to owe us fortune: Publishers Clearing House windfalls, giant castles in England, and long-lost royal ancestors. She was violent to the point that we feared her, prone to verbal abuse and the occasional vulgar outburst.
My image of her as mother had died years ago as her sanity faded. We suspected that at the age of 60+, dementia had mingled with the schizophrenia eating at her brain. I had asked my dad before why he did not divorce her. She was so far gone that I had begun to think that her time was approaching. I thought, guiltily, that it might even be a relief to see her mental descent end sooner.
But Sufjan’s lullaby told me to value what I had of her while I still could. Her voice, her body, even if her soul could no longer be reached. Well, he explained in a Pitchfork interview, love is unconditional and incomprehensible. And I believe it's possible to love absent of mutual respect.
(1) Not his real name
(2) Not her real name
Zuleika, as our youngest, has largely only seen the far-gone mother, the dangerous broken woman who called you too skinny, too fat, too black, a prostitute, a liar, a Capgras imposter. She knows the mother who flees devils coming through the wall and suspects urine in the morning coffee, the mother we locked out of our bedrooms or locked in hers, the mother from whom hid the knives and bleach anything dangerous or precious. I don’t think Zuleika recalls that slight and doting woman who bought me a 101 Dalmatians diary and a bonneted three-foot rag doll for my birthday, ignoring my interests but loving in her own oblivious way. In fact, I think she was always harsher to Zuleika than she was to me—I look the most like my mother.
Zuleika is ten years younger than me, although we confided and conspired like Irish twins. She was seventeen when the house emptied of siblings, leaving her a tired and retired dad and a mother and brother both prone to seeing what isn’t there. Their illness, which I once shrugged off and bore in person, stressed me daily from a distance. My little sister cooked and cleaned in tandem with Dad, but the ones they cared for rewarded them with insults and violence or silence without gratitude.
I called during my midnight, across the two-hour difference, and heard that Zuleika had been grabbed or scratched, that my dad had been threatened or struck. I would pace the first floor of a Victorian house dedicated to communal-living, hushed and in dimness so I wouldn’t wake my roommates.
The police were called once, then again and again until they recognized my parents’ address as a recurring problem. Mom was taken for treatment; Mom was given back. The hospital gave her drugs so she’s home again, she’s calmer. She’s talking to herself right now, but that’s normal. She’s talking to herself, but now it’s scary. We had to call the police. Mom was taken for treatment. Mom was given back. And repeat.
Child Protective Services visited just before Christmas. They wanted to know if Zuleika was receiving counseling, if she was really in school. They tried to gauge her safety by asking how many drugs she could name.
So how many can you name? I asked via text app, and we siblings took turns as a group: bath salts, hookah, Tylenol, coco, grass, Mary Jane, salvia, lilacs, kiva, saliva, caffeine, love, hate, heroine, mugwort, eye of newt.
We joked. CPS had always been a threat to our existence, as they are for every imperfect black family. But the rest of us had largely completed homeschooling and reached adulthood without their intervention. And besides, they didn’t take away sixteen-year-olds. What would be the point? Black kids and older kids were impossible to place.
I tried to imagine it: my honor-society little sister, a petite girl with afro puffs and bright jackets that used to be mine, crowded in some foster home or awarded to some other family in the Low Desert where we lived. Maybe some retired white couple in a modernist Palm Springs house wanted to make themselves feel better by “saving” a little black girl.
What would be the rules for that? Couldn’t she just visit my dad and spend all her time at her real home? Or how would they stop her? Would they write up my dad as abusive or neglectful? Keep them apart with a restraining order?
With their second visit, CPS was less of a joke and more of a threat. Zuleika retreated to a bedroom to listen in, texting us their ultimatum: sign our safety plan or else. Either mom had to go or Zuleika would be taken. They would not say where to take my mom or how to cover the cost of therapy. We had a week to manifest these solutions, or they would return with a warrant to take my sister into custody.
We brainstormed, piecemeal in small groups. I thought Zuleika could move in with our older sister, who was meanwhile telling Dad Zuleika should move in with my older brother. He said he didn’t have the space. CPS had demanded a facilitated in-person meeting with the sibling willing to take her in as proof of the agreement.
Every response we could invent was immoral or illegal: Kick mom out on the street, encourage Zuleika to lie, smuggle her into other homes, let her be ostensibly fostered while taking advantage of her one-year family or government halfway house. I told my dad that if it came to it, he should drop my mother out of the street somewhere. She was the source of too much stress, and sometimes you couldn’t save everyone. Zuleika asked for help saying the right things in the CPS interview. I suggested Fuck you, hypocrites.
While these other factors tried their best to derail her life, Zuleika was focused on finishing her final year of high school. She took AP classes, auditioned for a music summer camp, made plans to visit siblings for the summer. I covered her ticket to see Sufjan in San Diego with Ibrahim. Zuleika was texting me for answers I didn’t have as she rode the Pacific Surfliner south to a campus in San Diego.
Zuleika: “While ASFA is designed to protect children, it also includes provisions pertaining to parental rights. For example, under ASFA, parents have the right to receive supports and services to help them retain custody and keep their families intact. The child welfare system must provide these services according to an individualized plan that has been developed and agreed upon by all parties to ensure parents with mental illnesses are not discriminated against due to their illness. A plan with parental input also helps ensure that, when appropriate, efforts are made by state welfare agencies to promote family permanency, including establishing whether children in foster care can be moved into a permanent living situation.
Me: what’s that?
Zuleika: Sorry, wrong window. I was trying to look up if there's services that help parents with mental illnesses when cps is involved.
She later messaged:
i was crying/shaking yesterday
almost about nothing
do you have time to call? i won't talk about cps this time
today is sufjan concert
It was June 2, 2015. Sufjan was performing at Copley Symphony Hall in San Diego. I don’t know how the performance went. Just as in Minneapolis, he probably told anecdotes about his family’s many pets and the lessons learned when their lives ended. Maybe, he also read the I Ching for his Californian audiences, and told the crowd uplifting fortunes. My sister could not describe the experience because she had been placed on an overnight plane to Chicago in a sudden decision that I didn’t learn until after it occurred.
Oh, but because of the Internet, I know after the fact, that Sufjan’s final encore song of that night was Chicago.
I fell in love again
All things go, all things go
Drove to Chicago
All things know, all things know
We sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind
I had never heard Chicago, Sufjan’s biggest hit until after I’d visited the city. Now it brings up civic pride for me, reclaimed family history, the glint of The Bean or the Sears Tower or the Chicago River. It comes from the album Illinois, also called Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise, which serves as a musical overview to the state’s architectural monuments, historical figures, regional holidays, world fairs, and serial killers.
The restlessness of the song conjures up my family’s wandering, our nights in RV parks, family-size tents, cabins, homeless shelters, or housing projects. When Sufjan sings of crying in a van with his friends, I think of our station wagon taking the highways eastward, through the desert, through the south, to that first snow in Providence. I remember the moving boxes piled high on either side of my backwards-facing seat in the Datsun’s cargo space. I think of the times we parked our RV in big-box store parking lots to sleep overnight. A couple of times the police told us we couldn’t stay. A couple of times we ran in, that night or that morning, to buy bags of red Twizzlers to share.
Chicago, song or city, conjures vastly different images for my dad. He was born it its infamous Cabrini-Green projects and passed on to us childhood stories of escaping riots with friends, of his abusive stepfather catching him in his lone attempt to run away from home, of busing to the majority-white Lane Technical College where C’s got a degrees and allowed you to keep a low profile, of catching glimpses of the nice cars and black suits of his barely-remembered biological father.
My dad left Chicago to live in Miami, Guatemala, California, and many other places. His family—twelve half siblings and numerous cousins, aunts, and uncles—largely remained. There had been occasional calls over the decades, resemblances in old photos, interstate near-misses where we were just one highway exit away. Most recently, they’d begun to reach out through the Internet. The world had grown small with computers, and we discovered that maybe this one cousin would also go to a maid cafe, maybe that one cousin would visit by plane, and hey, that aunt lives only a hundred miles north of us.
When I moved to the Midwest, I’d brought with me the phone numbers of his closest siblings. This culminated in an overnight Megabus south to meet my aunts, cousins, and a newborn grandniece. Suddenly, my family had grown from a tight unit of nine to an uncountable housefull. They joked about my dad’s black-sheepishness, how quiet and unreadable he was, even after the decades.
What about Auntie? I had suggested over the phone to my sister. You could stay with her. I didn’t really mean it. The word aunt was still foreign to my mouth. But when I pitched the idea to my dad, he’d told me he’d long been in contact with the Auntie I’d stayed with, his only full sister in a family of halves with a common late mother. He called in between my calls with her, and she agreed to take my sister in for a while.
Zuleika was still in San Diego when CPS returned, borrowing a room from Ibrahim’s college roommate. She flew to Chicago the day after the Sufjan concert and we joked that the concert had saved her. Sufjan had saved her!
Zuleika stayed with a different auntie, was overwhelmed by a different large family gathering, and later confided over text that I haven't felt at home in a while.
I tried to console her with my master plan:
i need to get a job by end of month,
a house by end of July,
should be good to go by August.
and you can move in w/ me
i want a studio or 1br place for us
and a senior/disabled place for Mom/Dad
My dad never agreed to senior housing nor had he ever visited Minnesota. But Zuleika came up that Fourth of July to set off fireworks with me, meet several acquaintances and a few friends, visit museums, and watch me read fiction onstage. Before and after her visit, I hustled.
I needed more than poverty-level wages of an AmeriCorps member. I took time off work to research legal guardianship. I cried in my office from stress. I was running out of time to figure it all out. When, again, were school enrollment deadlines? How did adults do these things?
I asked around to find a good school for a homeschooled AP student; an affordable, diverse, quality school. This perfect school didn’t seem to exist, and I suspected that this was why our father had originally homeschooled us. The kind of children he’d wanted to raise wouldn’t be produced by the school system as it was. Or maybe the kind of people we’d become didn’t fit the school system as it is.
There is a certain kind of naiveté you see in homeschooled kids, a sort of sheltered innocence that is often retained into adulthood if it doesn’t molder into cynicism and disillusionment. I think I still carry it, naiveté despite the violence and rejection thrown at me daily as a poor woman of color. I think I see it in Sufjan Stevens, whose experience was arts-based Waldorf schooling. His opening essay for 2007 Edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading, is titled How I Trumped Rudolf Steiner and Overcame the Tribulations of Illiteracy, One Snickers Bar at a Time. In it, he confesses that didn’t learn how to read until third grade, because the Waldorf system was:
“holistic, noncompetitive, and emotionally balanced, emphasizing social health, artistic expression, and pluralism in the classroom. In practice, this meant there were no textbooks, workbooks, readers guides, or learning manuals — only paint, clay, knitting needles, and sheep’s wool.”
Sufjan’s parents read him the Book of the Dead decades before mine let me watch Malcolm X, and they taught him reincarnation decades before mine fascinated me with Jannah. But both sets of parents loved herb, both couples were counter-culture to a fault, both were unsatisfied with greater consumerist society. Their goals and views and morals made them misfit to the world.
My family traveled often, and there are years of my life where I learned little more than how to find and best enjoy sun-warmed blackberries, how to find the tiny holes made from clam exhalations in the sand of Puget Sound beaches, or how to lose a Bernese Mountain dog that has caught the smell of the hotdogs in your groceries and plans to follow you home. I had paint and clay and papier-mâché birthday piñatas, but also library chapter books and half-read literature textbooks for grades beyond me.
My childhood was a hand-mixed mud of good intentions watered down by lower-income neglect. We seven homeschooled siblings lived in an innocent anarchy with three buckets of Lego, Little People and Hot Wheels, a cable subscription, and no curfew, no bedtime, no school. Child Protective Services might not have approved of that curriculum, but I don’t regret it.
I could not find an open classroom or free school in Minneapolis that was worthy of my little sister, however I said I would. I assured my aunts and tried and tried, but they locked into Plan B and registered her in Chicago while there was still time. My sister would go to a technical charter high school. And my father, who doted on his youngest most of all, would also go to Chicago. Where she goes, I go, he declared. At least until she reached independence.
On holidays, I would bus down to visit them in the swampy suburban food desert where a Walmart was the closest thing to a grocery store for miles. I received occasional phone calls explaining family spats. My father met or didn’t meet with friends and families unseen for thirty years, attending a mix of reunions and funerals. He showed us the Target that had been built over his childhood neighborhood in the newly gentrified “Near North Side.” My sister settled in with the high achievers in class and learned all the music trends a week before I did. I discovered Garrett’s popcorn and sought souvenirs with four red stars bound by blue stripes.
My mother’s illness became less secret with extended family to witness it. She continued to ricochet in and out of hospitals approximately every three days. And because her hometown was right next door, it was only a matter of time before she visited her family.
Four: Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!
Oh Detroit, what have you done to the black man, his wife and kids, his cousins, his music, his hairstyles, his shoes with white tips, his pleated pants, his elbow slung out the car window, his basketball courts, his officers downtown, his nightclub, his shirtsleeves tucked over a pack of Pall Malls, his imagination, his industry, his sense of humor, his home?
Oh Detroit, when you are dead and gone, who will care for your children’s children? They have run wild with the bastard boys around the streets, reckless car rides downtown, rigorous dancing, drug taking, knife-stabbing, pillow-stuffing, tail wagging restlessness. They have been drunk with this for years. They have been out of their minds. They have been left with nothing.
Sufjan may have sought escape in Chicago, but sullen, exhausted Detroit was his birthplace and hometown. Sufjan wrote his home-state album two years before Illinoise, spotlighting Flint a decade before the water crisis brought it to national attention. In his city’s, he describes it as once a great place / now a prison and warns fellow Detroiters to hesitate to burn the buildings.
This album is a catalog of the historical roots I’ve yet to investigate. My mother holds the knowledge of Detroit’s significance, but she has lost the ability to pass it on. Some of my mother’s siblings still live there, as vague bodies I know from discolored photographs where they hold infants that were my older siblings. I know them as a collection of names and traits that bubbled up whenever my mother lapsed into muddled nostalgia and asked to return home.
My mom’s schizophrenia had started as a quirk: She would lose things and claim that people had come in our house and taken or moved them. It was funny at first, when her glasses or purse would go missing and she would declare that someone came in the house.
We would laugh.
You probably just misplaced it.
We would tease her, shrug it off.
Sometimes I almost believed her, although I knew I shouldn’t.
My older siblings taught me the word paranoia before the age of ten, having read it in a book and applied it to my mom. I understood it as a failure of thought that I had to prevent in myself. My mother was the villain in many of our make-believe games. The Mominator, we called her. We turned her palm-sized in the form of a Lego block figure with a pin-and-axle brick on her head to signify her madness. Don’t be a Mominator, we would tease whoever acted the spoilsport, worrywart, or crybaby. Mominator, Mominator.
We picked up more terms from psychology books: persecution complex, delusion, hallucination. We learned of the history of madness on her maternal line. Madness got her mother and her mother’s mother, and now it ran in our blood.
As my mother aged, the People Who Came in the House more actively harassed her. They were poisoning us, they watched through the TV, they had our names and faces and were trying to steal our identities. My mother left soap in cups and on dinner plates to cure suspected contamination in our bodies. She once emailed a state representative to warn or report someone, anyone or everyone. I don’t remember what she wrote, or who she wrote to. She often refused to sleep at night, fearing we were being molested by strangers, or sneaking out to sell ourselves to johns, or cheating with coworkers in the case of Dad.
As Mom grew less reliable, we kids grew more responsible. We shopped for groceries by bus with backpack, mopped and swept in turn, improved on family recipes and shared dinner duties. Mom’s role dwindled to haunting the house at night, often sitting blue-lit by the TV and murmuring back to the 24-hour news anchors or the actors in 1950s reruns. One of us—most often Ibrahim—might stay up to supervise her. He was strong enough to restrain her if needed.
I want to ask Sufjan if it was like this for him. Was I right to be scared? Was simply I ungrateful?
The imagery and lyrics for Sufjan’s album Age of Adz is based on the art and writings of schizophrenic outsider artist Royal Robertson. Robertson’s rants are like my mothers—they scare me too—but Age of Adz has made them both sympathetic, beautifying their pain and mania in a way I cannot manage to do. Sufjan has indicated that he identifies with Robertson.
I want to ask Sufjan if he was also scared. Is he also afraid of losing his mind? His mother, I think, was at least more of a mother than mine. He said in an interview that, Carrie was evidently a great mother. But she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason. But when we were with her and when she was most stable, she was really loving and caring, and very creative and funny. This description of her reminds me of what some people have observed about my work and my manic contradiction of aesthetics: deep sorrow mixed with something provocative, playful, frantic.
The best of Carrie sounds like the best of my mother. The way her blood influenced his art may be also true of my blood and my art.
And to outsiders, my mother appeared maternal. I remember having to wrest the conversation from her as I applied for high school in her presence, needing her consent from the administrator. She probably came across as charmingly soft-spoken and frail, maybe a bit absent-minded but still sane as she subtly demeaned me, my father, our treatment of her. Strangers often took her side—that was the power of a mother. It was a given that she knew more than the child and loved more than the father.
Once, my mother called her sisters to complain about injustices we’d never inflicted upon her: My dad was cheating, her kids were imposters, there were people watching her, and so on and so on. I don’t know if they believed it, but they called the Californian police all the way from Michigan and suddenly lights were flashing red and blue outside our front door. They interrogated my dad, who knows, as well as any black man, how to handle police.
My dad has grown skilled at averting the assumptions they make of his blackness. It takes a dangerous level of nonviolence, a measure of self-sacrifice. He must let my mom strike and scream. If none of us women or children stops her, then no one stops her. Anything else would be domestic violence. Hit her once, and then they’ve got you. Around that time, she could not stop talking about Detroit, and so we urged her onto a plane and sent her to live with her sisters.
It was Zuleika, the youngest, who most wanted her back. So she came back to California. But Detroit continued to recur in her rants, and so it came up in serious conversation as a place to return her.
Detroit came up again while the family was in Chicago. Maybe Mom should live with her family. Maybe she was being a burden. I received a call on Zuleika’s birthday that invited me on a last-minute trip to Detroit. I was told to drop everything to jump on a Megabus or take a flight. My father, mother, and siblings were already on their way there!
I broke down crying in the middle of a writing workshop, confused and overwhelmed. I couldn’t go. I didn’t go. Zuleika alone met my mother’s sisters, my mother’s mother, and now carries firsthand knowledge of that difficult city.
But I have little more than the stories from Mom and Sufjan:
Public trans, public trans
Auto cars, auto cars
Five: Fourth of July
When Zuleika finished high school, she was accepted by the New School, where Sufjan studied creative writing. She chose instead to fly back to California for college, and where she went, Dad went. I attended her graduation from Chicago. The rest of my family packed up and swept out westbound within three days, with no home. I should have been used to it, but I was still surprised.
On Saturday, July 16th in 2016, Ibrahim and I met up in Chicago to see Sufjan perform on the final day of Pitchfork Festival. Our newly-discovered aunts, uncles, and cousins were just a phone call away, but we are too shy, too busy, too certain of what we want and uncertain of what they want to call them. I remember telling Ibrahim that my favorite artist, FKA Twigs, was headlining Friday while his favorite artist was headlining Saturday—it was the perfect festival for us to bond over. I wouldn’t quit catching Pokémon at every Chicago landmark, however, and my brother said that it meant I didn’t value spending time with him.
Unlike the subtle darkness of his Carrie and Lowell set, his Pitchfork set was busy with color, crowded with his band. He wore neon again, like in that first video I saw. Wings equipped, he began the set with the mysticism of Seven Swans, his voice seeming to weep and buckle in fear of an Old Testament god. The shivers up my back told me that maybe he believed in something similar to the amoral pantheist force that I believed in. Maybe he also had misgivings about the kind of god that would treat our families like that.
Sufjan smashed his banjo to conclude the song. At some point during the concert, he said that he was on a break from singing songs about death. He and his backup singers bounced on their feet, gesturing, syncing, interpolating Beyoncé and Prince with affection, animating the acoustics of Carrie & Lowell with choirs and synths. By the end of the performance, I realized he had become the single most meaningful artist in my life.
That live performance of Fourth of July is the most beautiful performance I’ve ever seen. The chorus that had haunted me before had been elevated into a choral chant that urged everyone who heard it to live: We’re all gonna die, We’re all gonna die, We’re all gonna die! He called out to the audience with specificity: I’m going to die, and you’re going to die. Your mother, and your father, the person standing next to you.
Never before had death made me joyful by contrast. Of course, I know I have an end date, but my mind is not wired to believe that. I don’t believe it, I really don’t, but then I listen to this song and I know it is true. There’s something Sufjan understands about America, something that he captures that music normally shies away from. It’s something that I needed.
The most common topic in music is romantic love, but why not sing about mortality?
Why not create biographies?
Why not chart the declines of American cities?
Why not make our own myths?
Why not blend the epic with the banal, the public with the personal? In a world without a reliable god, we need some way to pull it together and create meaning—Why not see the music in a concert as equally as spiritual as the hymns and psalms of church? I felt more alive then, more awake to God and myself in that crowd than while reciting from a pew of the Unitarian Church.
Sometimes, I will listen to the live Fourth of July at work or whenever I want to be more awake, more grateful for the everyday. I set my mind to praying while I do spreadsheets, just enough to keep my brain alive, just enough that I don’t take its clarity for granted.
About a month later, Zuleika and my dad saw Sufjan perform in Los Angeles, her new home. Ibrahim took one the job of watching my mother at that time, giving them both a bit of respite. More recently, Ibrahim and I have stopped talking to each other, for reasons I don’t remember or understand.
Six: I Want to Be Well
The many conflicts I’ve touched upon continue, and may continue until I die. But since the events in this essay, a number of related things have occurred:
My sister transfers into a service-oriented dorm to do good work in the world.
My dad is hospitalized. My brain, so full of leitmotifs, plays Should Have Known Better as I bike from work because I should have pushed for him to see a doctor before it became an emergency.
Sufjan blogs, releases more music, performs, collaborates, performs, smiles at something I cannot see because I do not know him.
The Sufjan Stevens Facebook groups I’ve joined share memes and photos and cry daily. They come out of closets and fall in love and weather trauma and some must take pills.
I also must take pills.
In some Midwestern housing project, a parent slaps their child, but the color of the hand is not what makes it painful. The child falls and cries, but hopes to be loved and forgiven.
Another little brown girl packs up all her belongings into a black trash bag and lugs the bag down the halls of the foster home she leaves behind.
Ibrahim begins to study neuroscience in graduate school.
I pray, at most three times in a year, but don’t expect God to listen to me. He/They/She doesn’t and the 45th president is elected.
Sufjan compares the 45th president to Donald Duck.
A homeschooled kid finishes his times tables early because he’s smart and they’re fun. He takes a nap in the living room while his mother fixes lunch in the kitchen.
Call Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino remarks that Sufjan is one of the greatest American artists.
Six black children load into the SUV of their white adoptive mothers.
My mother’s mother passes away on February 12th, 2018, the day of my mother’s 63rd birthday and two days after my 30th birthday. I never get to see my grandmother’s face.
A malnourished teen escapes the house where her twelve siblings are held captive, a home in California that CPS will only notice too late. Their father makes twice as much money as mine does, but his wife is also a homemaker. His children are also homeschooled.
Someone fills journals and paints canvas after canvas with the visions only they have seen and truths only they believe.
Mothers and fathers die every day, in every city, at any age, for no reason.
Something goes wrong in a brain weakened by constant toxic stress. The spirit housed in that brain first hears a second voice, and it is angry.
Someone in Oregon places Age of Adz on their high fidelity sound system. The light reflects off the black vinyl as it spins, singing:
I want to be well, I want to be well
I want to be well, I want to be well
I want to be well, I want to be well
I want to be well, I want to be well
(I'm not fucking around)
well, I want to be well, I want to be
well, I want to be well, I want to be
well, I want to be well, I want to be
well, I want to be well, I want to be
Maya Beck is a lapsed Muslim, recovering otaku, part-time hermit, Cali transplant, broke-af blipster, socially-anxious social justice bard, and genre-confused writer. She is also a 2017 VONA alum, 2017 We Need Diverse Book mentee, 2017-18 Loft Literary Center mentee, and Paper Darts story editor whose fiction and nonfiction has been published by LitHub, Revolver, Mizna, PANK, Pollen, and more.