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 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 Minelli’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.

The Kansas Diaries

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A mural in Minneapolis by Xena Goldman, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Hernandez.

One day, I came across a singular, thoughtful voice with a heavy Australian accent, narrating everything she saw as she walked down the street, the sound of evening insects and sprinklers behind her. I was struck by the quiet sincerity of the tone in this portrait of a small town, the complete lack of plot. This was The Fitzroy Diaries, a radio series written and performed by Lorin Clarke. Jonathan Mitchell’s The Truth guest-featured two episodes out of Clarke’s eight episodes, which was originally produced by the Australian Broadcast Corporation.

“A woman walks, baby strapped to her chest, through the streets of Fitzroy and Carlton,” the episode description reads. “As she walks, she notices the way the skyline edges upward, nudged by the cranes of developers. And she notices the history of this place, ever-present, despite those cranes.” That’s it, on the surface. Just a woman trying to get her newborn to fall asleep on her nightly strolls, noticing details about her neighbors, strangers sparking curiosity, documenting the comings and goings of people on the streets of her town.

Under the surface of any public observation, power structures flow like a river. The senses that capture the city belong to a body that has a certain place in that city; in my case, a privileged place. The institutions that claim to keep the peace on our streets are actually state-sponsored mechanisms of control, sacrificing the lives of Black, Brown, and poor people for the perceived “safety” of the wealthy and the white. It means something different for a white woman to walk through her American town than it does for a Black or Brown person of any gender. Simply driving (Sandra Bland, Philando Castile), walking (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin), going for a jog (Ahmaud Arbery), sleeping in your own bed (Breonna Taylor), playing (Tamir Rice), going to the grocery store (George Floyd) is reason enough in be accosted, arrested, and killed by cops in America, or in Arbery’s and Martin’s case, American citizens who fancy themselves cops. Almost all of these killings are state-sponsored murder. Exceptional thinking or individual rationales cannot dam the larger fact that we are paying the salaries of those who shoot and kill our own neighbors. It doesn’t matter if someone’s friend or sister or father is a good person on the local police force. It certainly didn’t matter to Minneapolis officers whether or not George Floyd was a good person when an officer murdered him in broad daylight, in cold blood. He was a friend. He was a father.

Like many cities large and small in America, Lawrence’s residents are asking themselves to whom their city belongs. Progressive pockets of Kansans are asking themselves whether their radical abolitionist and anti-war history does any work for the current needs of their most vulnerable citizens. They need to wonder, often and loudly, who their tax dollars protect, and who their tax dollars kill. These questions will show up in public space. These questions will be asked and answered in protests, press conferences, and on ballots, but they will also ripple among quiet conversations, through small acts of kindness or aggression, flashes of civic pride or disappointment, on a handmade sign in a yard.

With the limited subjectivity of my senses, I have spent the last two months trying to witness this as Lorin Clarke’s narrator does, brushing my hand across the surface of my new city, touching tips of root systems and rot and resilience. I take daily walks. Homemade Black Lives Matter signs dot the sweeping lawns of former hippies and tenured University of Kansas professors. Their children write it in chalk on the sidewalks. Activists camp at 11th Street, blocking traffic. I walk through them wondering who to ask how I can help. I pick up trash. Weeks later, my father drinks wine from a thermos in the park. My mother gives me a jar of her sauerkraut, but warns it’s powerful, that I should only take one spoonful at a time. Sitting six feet apart, we watch a group of unmasked white men playing frisbee. Across the street, I CAN’T BREATHE is graffitied over a shuttered ice cream shop downtown. On Sundays I sit with my parents in their backyard in Topeka and we argue about the effectiveness of voting versus protesting. We talk about disenfranchisement and suppression, and what it actually means to “defund the police.” We water the church community garden. Dad shows me the songs he’s been working on in the basement, where my bedroom used to be. I sing along to “A Day in the Life” under my mask, smelling my own breath. On Saturdays I talk to Kansans on the phone in Osage County about a rare Democratic Senate candidate, helping them make a plan to get to the polls. One man tells me he wants change, and that Washington is corrupt, which is why he supports Donald Trump. Another woman tells me to stay out of her business. I sit with my mother on the steps of the state judicial building and tell her I can’t canvas for the Senate candidate anymore. When she asks why, I tell her the candidate is too moderate. We sweep up the discarded ends of the green beans we’ve been eating. I check out the candidate’s new opponent, a recent graduate, a leftist. On his website, he pledges not to use Facebook to advertise. On the path along the river, I pass by farms. Sometimes I just stand and watch the horses. I send a message to my online therapist, canceling her services. When the prompt asks me why, I click ‘financial’ and type: health insurance gone. I consider canceling my dues for the union in Mississippi, too, but I don’t. I won’t. In Kansas City, the air is smokey on the Fourth of July. I stand on the bridge over the highway on 56th street, drinking sparkling water out of a can. Gold explosions pop all the way out to the suburbs. Just a few blocks away, the baby of my childhood friend is falling asleep in the house she and her husband bought last year. I didn’t tell her I was here.

A New Internet

When I longed for my future, I never thought about a fixed name. I couldn’t see myself as mother or writer or wife, more just floating through different atmospheres, a sensory montage of days that begin by waking up in a high-ceilinged, long-windowed room in an old building, ending with the slow carousel of a neighborhood as it passes on an evening walk, belly full of spaghetti. Cut with faces bathed in blue night, head banging, rib cage vibrating bass, the feel of a full pack of American Spirits that aren’t dry yet, a silent look between people that means the night isn’t over. At worst, these visions sound like a Getty Images search of the term “youth + joy.” At best, I guess, this has all happened at one time or another. My future as I fantasized it a decade agodisjointed, loose, rich in pan-flashes of sadness and ecstasy, full of smells and tastescame true. I’m realizing to fantasize is the not the same as to want.

I have no child, no partner, and a sporadic rotation of commissioned work, the most steady of which has been a graduate assistantship at the University of Mississippi, which will end when I receive an MFA in May. Since college, the years have felt like a Goldilocks-like exercise in picking up creatures and objects and tasks, examining them, and dropping them if they didn’t quite fit. Though I worry about impermanence, I see this curation as good. I have retained what is essential, and for this, I give thanks. To whatever it is that hasn’t killed me, I thank for shelter and food and water (access to the first two hasn’t always been easy). I’m also grateful that most of my beloved friendships and familial relationships are still intact, even as they’ve changed shape. So much has grown, too, out of what I’ve dropped: savings from where alcohol used to be, time enough to work four jobs out of a lack of Facebook, years of cigarettes giving way to deep, uninterrupted sighs.

I took a step away from Twitter and Instagram this summer, too, though I’ve returned to the latter platforms, finding myself spending hours each day in the consciousness of others. I don’t think this is an inherently bad thing; I’m a fiction writer, it’s my job to be inside brains and eyes. But I find I have a hard time leaving these constructed worlds and returning to my responsibilities and needs as a body—this dry-skinned, thick-muscled, anxiety-prone, nap-averse, sensitive vegetable that needs much more care than it used to. Other apps, on-and-off “tech sabbaticals,” deleting the the bright little squares from my phone: I tried them all and I was always pulled back in, plunging into hours-long binges like someone falling off their crash diet. In a strange, ironic dance, I like to listen to myself, but I really don’t like telling her what to do. That’s a Gemini for you.

My (unproven) theory is that the more I drop, the more room my fixed names, my future, will have to reveal themselves. I am a writer because I write, yes, but I don’t yet know how I’m a writer in relation to the world, in relation to the people close to me. I was going to say, “And I don’t think I can find out online,” but that’s not quite true. I’m still here, and I still plan to visit everyday. In any case, online and offline are merging, and what we find on social media is as much a mirror of human behavior as it is a product of technology. We have always consumed each others’ lives (or more accurately, the stories we’ve built around our lives), always trolled, always hearted. Now, I have lost the ability to consume these stories responsibly from such distance, with such speed, with such volume. I no longer want to tangle my love of learning about other people, and my accountability to them, with addictive behavior. So, I’m letting go of social media.

I’m ready to tether myself somewhere IRL, even if I have to weave it out of house payments and a fickle garden. I want to care for a patch of the Earth with the limited time we have left with it, and be a part of a community, using my skills and my vote. I want to be relied upon, and to help. I want to read more, think more, visit more museums and parks. Go on more dates, I guess. Other wholesome things. I hope this blog will be a way to give others space to consume and digest a consciousness, and do it slowly. Mull it over as you take a nice walk after dinner. Drift through a quiet, online-offline place, and take your time.