Shelter in Playlist: The End of “Chaos”

Last year, I made a hobby out of putting together playlists and writing about them. This is the fifth and final entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of this playlist, start here. Normally I write about one song at a time, but it’s time to put this list to bed and begin a new one. This entry features:

“5 Year Plan,” Chance the Rapper
“Ultralight Beam,” Kanye West
“Maybe This Time,” Liza Minnelli
“Better Days,” Graham Nash

Eight months have passed since I last wrote about Liv.e and despair, and nearly a year has disappeared since August of 2020, when I first started writing about “Chaos.” I had to stop because I took a new job. My personal writing took a backseat to lesson plans, emails about missing assignments, and the long-winded reflections on pedagogy required for my teaching certification program. Worried that I would be abandoning my fiction, I assured myself when I took the job that it would likely be temporary.

It was, at first. I told my students they could count on my presence until the end of December, but no further than that. We went online, back in person for a bit, then online again. One day I looked up and it was February, and when I learned we would be heading back into the building for (what would likely be) the rest of the school year, I found myself using my time off to cut out paper shapes for the classroom walls, to haul in my own books and plants, to set up an oil diffuser in the corner because my students had complained of a musty smell I could never detect. It was becoming my classroom. I was becoming their teacher.

It is a beautiful and impossible thing. Every day love and terror and boredom and impatience whip around me like weather. In the storm I can’t hold anyone’s attention, and when I do, I feel like I am a giant with a glass figurine in my palm. Too many virtual classes in a row and I start to have nightmares about bright, silent screens. In the dreams I’m responsible for a code that unlocks some essential level understanding, but I can’t spell, or I am speaking to a crowd through a translucent digital wall of mucous. Back in person, I get sweaty. I march up and down the room, reciting words to the lines I wrote but I can only half remember, invoking my audience’s participation in a one-woman show no one asked to see. When I write, I get to delete 99% of what hits the page. As a teacher, on the other hand, all of it hangs in the air, all my mistakes and negligence and confusion, and I can’t hide behind multiple drafts, tinkering. This job is a different animal. I am a different animal.

Chance the Rapper’s “5 Year Plan” typifies the general tone of the Chicago rapper’s work: self-reflective, uplifting, and Christian. I chose it for this playlist back in August because of the song’s focus on deliberation, holding both uses of the word. Deliberate in the sense of gradual, slow-moving, careful. Deliberate in the sense of doing things with intention, making all gestures toward a visualized endpoint. The song even concludes with the ghostly voice of our old friend RANDY NEWMAN, visiting from earlier in the playlist, raising what seems a perfect question for our time: “How have so many people lived through things like this?” And the answer, as encouraging as it is vague: “You can get through anything. Almost.”

In August, this song was wishful thinking. Those who paid attention to science were bracing for the impact of the virus in colder weather. It was likely we were facing four more destructive years under the whims of a fascist demagogue with a spray tan. To be deliberate felt out of reach.

And yet, the repetitive, slowly ascending chord pattern suggests the slow-moving work of waking up with the future on one’s mind. Chaos theory posits that random states of disorder are actually governed by underlying patterns, patterns that are highly sensitive to initial conditions. This sounds a lot to me like a curse. I have spent the year wondering about the origins of my discontent, and the discontent of my country; what I did wrong, what was done to me, what we did wrong, what we do wrong to keep our wounds from healing. Since I first added this song, armed insurrectionists and white supremacists have attempted a violent takeover of the government. Elected officials have openly stated that their legislative agenda aligns with the plot of a sensationalized, crowd-sourced, fictional story about an international pedophile ring. Meanwhile, in hospitals, people are insisting with their final breaths that the virus that is now eating their lungs is the real fiction, that a video someone has made in their basement is more honest than the person standing in front of them, holding their hand. Over the year, I have gone through two therapists, three boyfriends, and lost thousands of strands of hair. I have seen the high desert of Central Oregon, the banks of the Mississippi and the Maquoketa, the quarries and caves of the Smoky Mountains. I have adopted and abandoned a gratitude journal, only to adopt it once again. Once, for the first time since I was a child, I went back to an initial condition I thought no longer existed. I prayed to someone in the middle of the night.

Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” starts out by appealing to a higher power, a “god dream.” “Deliver us serenity,” he pleas. “Deliver us peace.” The addition of this song to “Chaos” started out merely as an aesthetic continuation of Chance’s work. After all, Kanye mentored and collaborated with his fellow Chicago rapper. Both artists have a colloquial, playful style; both draw deeply from Black gospel music. And the crescendo of voices that are “looking for more” seem, too, like a logical step forward in our playlist’s journey. First, the songs were about acknowledgment, reckoning with the tangled, toxic stories we tell to keep myths alive. Lies we tell to control the chaos; those lies, in turn, breeding new chaos of their own. Then, we embraced this complexity. We let two things be true at once. Love and hate. Love and hurt. Peace as an internal state rather than an external condition. Now, we use our new knowledge to set a course to—as Kirk Franklin’s choir sings it—”somewhere I can feel safe, and end this holy war.”

Again, we bow to time rather than intention as the essential force behind these words. Just as deliberation felt out of reach in October 2020, safety, too, feels like it’s pulling away. I’m glad I am doing this, making a record of the whiplash. When I sat down to work on this draft six weeks ago, I was breathing easier. Then, the choir’s geyser-like cries sounded less desperate than ecstatic. Then, all the odds were in our favor.

In the Liza Minnelli rendition of Sally Bowles’s Cabaret favorite “Maybe This Time,” maybe was always the operative word. I love this song, as I do many things in Cabaret, because of its big ol’ sparkly sadness. Setting aside that we know from the narrative that Sally Bowles has been more lucky in lust than in love, the very fact that she sings—so wide-eyed and sincere with Minnelli’s fake lashes—the words “maybe this time I’ll be happy” sets up for the audience an expectation of failure. The very fact that there seems to be a pattern of unhappiness—implied by the repeated “this time”—cues us to pity her before she knows why. Sally, wait! I want to tell her, you’re speaking too soon. Dramatic irony is arguably built into the very structure of Masteroff’s arrangement—the clarinet that flutters before and after Minnelli’s more drawn out notes seems markedly sadder and more savvy than the hopeful singer, making more dramatic dips as she swells, almost shaking its head at her naïveté.

Now, here we are, with cases and masks back up, all our deliberation be damned. Hackles are raised in the red states. Fires ravage the west. Here we are again, fighting.

There’s a part of me that thinks, how dare we wish for better. How dare we complain about the heat from behind the windows of our carbon-spitting boxes. How dare we decry the rising price of bottled sky, of liquified dinosaur bones, of invisible lines on the land. How dare we ask to return to normal while squandering the very potion that could, like magic, bring us there. And yet here we are, doing these things. Somehow, our contradictions have not canceled us out.

So, we stay. Despite all our efforts, we’re still here. When you think about it, the story of America in this new decade might actually not be too complicated, after all. Maybe we are still here because we are nothing. We lost nothing because there was nothing to lose; there were no initial conditions. Maybe there was never a vision toward which to toil, to wander. No Pilgrim’s Progress, no democracy, no commitment to one another, no collective dreams of utopia. No country at all. In “Better Days,” Graham Nash sings, “Now that you know it’s nowhere, what’s to stop you coming home?”

The problem is, to come home in America is to keep looking. It’s possible that we have only ever been a bunch of individuals “chasing mirrors through a haze,” chasing our own desires or trying to survive the desires of others, and that is all we ever will be. If we were ever balanced, ever satisfied, if we ever had enough, we wouldn’t know it if we saw it. Why are we like this? What’s going to happen to us? I am looking so hard for an answer that I can’t stop. My desire enters the fold alongside everyone else’s, looping and bouncing off of others, all of us an eternal set of actions and reactions traveling to no destination, let alone a shared one. Perhaps anything we have ever had in common is proximity, or simply a pleasant or disastrous coincidence.

So, here’s to that. Here’s to coincidence. Here’s to the good ones, anyway.

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