Tag Archives: relationship

Center Stage

The stage of the Chicago Theater went dark after the opener took its leave. But after the customary amount of fiddling time—for folks to grab concessions and get back to their seats—a disembodied musical progression could be heard throughout the theater, building up to Colin Meloy’s entrance. Finally, center stage awash in the spotlight was Meloy in a three piece costume, a guitar slung around his body like a prop. Slowly the mise en scene grows to include the rest of the players in the band, as they perform the opening song of their latest concept album. And, to help literally set the stage, two angelic humanoid creatures lower into the backdrop space, followed in a minute by what seems to be a gigantic drawn quilt, with cut-outs just so as to see parts of the angels. The quilt, of course, is also the cover art of the album.

Everything about a Decemberists’ show has evolved into a meta performance. Performance aware of itself as performance and loving it. Watching, no, experiencing one of their shows is different from that of their contemporaries. Whereas many folk rock musicians appeal to the sense of Artist we take from the Renaissance geniuses of old—men made special by a higher power but still men—whereas they play for you and showing their soul for a brief moment on stage to make a human to human connection, whereas they ask you to see them as mere people with gifts or talent, The Decemberists know better. They want us to see every element of the show as part of a performance. And perhaps they are more genuine then—with this no fuss attitude about what we’re getting.

As this shenanigans was all starting, my mind was still back in the opening act with a group called Alvvays. The lead singer of this band, from my vantage point in the first balcony, was wiry and bleach blonde. She had a deep side part, and I remember thinking about how much time I was spending looking at the top of her head. It was a strange vantage point for a concert-goer who’s used to swaying among much taller patrons on the ground floor. In my experience, when I’m looking at a musician, I’m looking up. So this particular woman, with her baggy dress and spindly legs, with her sheet of hair, deeply parted to one side, struck me as familiar, even from hundreds of feet away. This woman, with bleach blonde hair, and no discernable facial features to me, reminded me of my childhood best friend—who neither had bleach blond hair nor a rock career.

In 1990, we’ll call her Tiffany, and I played soccer together at recess, we rode bikes and played with dogs, we ate with each others’ families on Friday nights, we planned birthday parties for her younger sisters. We painted our nails and talked on the phone about crushes. And then suddenly to me, four years after we met, it was as if we were strangers overnight. A wall had gone up and there was nothing I could do to destroy it. We were too teenage girls playing the parts of teenage girls in a drama about ______? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know exactly what role I was playing, but I knew it had something to do with falling from popularity. I clung to my good grades and extracurriculars as if they could  shield me from disappearing each time the bell rung and I stepped into a hallway.

Only after I had changed school districts, suffered through a three-year depression, and started anew, did I realize that what probably happened was a rumor that I was gay, or a lesbian. I’m not sure what terminology the fourteen-year-olds were using back then in suburban Texas, as I wasn’t too much aware of a terminology myself.

I always assumed that as she grew up, Tiffany would come to her senses and realize that queer or not, I was still me and she had broken my heart. I felt that one day, we’d speak again, and she’d be sad about all the lost time, but I wasn’t sure what I’d say or do. I wasn’t sure which role I wanted to play in the future I created.  I didn’t want to think of her as a cruel person, choosing something else over our friendship for the rest of her life. A loss that big at a age that young ended up defining my adolescence in a way I’m still slowly coming to understand. I did get over it, and in 2010 I’d more than moved-on. I was standing in D’s and my first floor Wisconsin apartment, making the bed, when I got a phone call from a man whom I’d known in junior high, one of the friends I grew closer to after the split with Tiffany. Dan was calling to tell me that Tiffany had died. He wanted me to hear it from someone first before I saw it on social media. Her body was found away from her purse. It was ruled officially a hit and run.


I hadn’t thought about her in what was probably years, since the last time my brother or father (still in Texas) had mentioned that they’d seen her working a Italian chain restaurant. There were only a few times I had seen or heard of her since we were in the 8th grade, and I did get my wish. I do remember her trying to get my contact info from family to make a mends. I can’t remember if they gave her my phone number or if they gave me hers—but we never spoke again. In our youth, I had exited stage left long after she had left the building. But perhaps in our adulthood it was me who left her center stage, holding a photograph of us, with identical side parts.


Moving the Earth

The essay’s engine is curiosity; it’s territory is the open road.–Cheryl Strayed

I was having a particularly awful set of days last week. Thursday morning was all minor set backs and fits. It took a couple of hours after waking around 5:00AM for a the desolate mood to set in. I had a slew of meetings to attend, to prep, to run, or to observe, as I had had every day for the previous two weeks. And I was nearing the end of my push to observe twenty-two of my student staff hosting review sessions for various classes around campus. The observations themselves weren’t the main factor keeping my mind-heart balance in a funk. Maybe it was the full moon. Maybe seasonal depression was finally catching up to me–since it was March and still below 20 degrees. Maybe it was all the things that I’ve been forced to realize in the last year about my life and relationships–you see, this is how dramatic it felt. Like I was some sci-fi extra waking up from a dream-reality to realize I’m sitting in a pod of primordial ooze. Like I’d been foolish to think life was on track.  And yet, even though I could reasonably see and feel that I was simply focusing on the wrong things and that nothing had really changed in the last two days to warrant this sudden jarring of my positive outlook, I couldn’t unthink the things I was thinking. My mood didn’t lift until sometime Friday night.


And nothing was ever the same again.

Cheryl Strayed guides her students with the idea that this is the “invisible, unwritten last line” of every essay–that as writers the goal is to move our readers by shifting the earth around them. I like to think of reading experiences–the really good ones–as keys that unlock something inside of us. Something that once unlocked, can’t be locked again.


D had been on the side lines of my terrible, horrible, no good very bad day all Thursday, and when Friday morning wasn’t showing signs of being different, she texted: “Seriously. Do something for yourself.” She was trying to get me to take a half day and visit a friend who was enjoying a day off herself in Chicago. I settled for leaving right after my last meeting of the day–which ended at 3:00PM.

I was on the open road by 3:30PM toward Ravenswood and my friend J, armed with my will to be happier and an overnight bag. At some point in the evening, J and I decided to turn the music off and step away from the crackers and port wine cheese. We moved our beers from the couch to the kitchen table and swapped reading material. We were talking about our nonfiction origins and loves–pieces that had awoken something inside of us when we read them, the ones that had stayed with us ever since. I told J that my students had recently read Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in preparation for a sentence workshop. I told her that I couldn’t say anything else about it until she had read it herself. She sat me down with a copy of David Quammen’s “Strawberries on Ice.”


“Joyas Voladoras” was not assigned reading in my graduate studies. I read it only after I’d purchased the Best American Essays 2005, years after graduate school, on a hunt for fantastic nonfiction reading assignments for writing students. I can see myself, in my upstairs office at school, during the last weeks of summer sun pouring in through the broken blinds, books piling up on my desk in preparation for the semester’s syllabi. I was assigning “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog”–a whimsical essay by Kitty Burns Florey remembering a time in American school life when diagramming sentences was king–and there it was. Doyle’s flash essay precedes the Burns Florey piece in the book’s line up. Looking at the table of contents, a mandatory ritual after any Best American purchase, the Latinate title was a flashing sign that said Danger, beware of boredom up ahead! I didn’t recognize Doyle’s name. I was worried that whatever the topic was, it would be out of my realm of interests. I was nervous that the prose would be laborious. I was assuming that I wouldn’t enjoy it. (So, basically, I was thinking like a typical under-motivated student.) And, I was wrong.

Once I had read the first sentence, I couldn’t stop until I devoured the thing whole.


D met up with J and I last Friday at some point and we had a family evening–making food together and enjoying the laughter of people you love. I was amazed that only hours before I had felt the world spinning off into a dark place I’ve been before.  With “Joyas Voladoras” as it is with other pieces close to my heart–pun intended (read the piece)–the element of surprise is the main delight. This piece embodies the way nonfiction can start logically, interestingly, and firmly rooted in verifiable facts and concrete science only to shatter the expectations of itself it had just built to end up somewhere abstract and deep in the emotional world. I knew I wasn’t out of the woods, as they say, but I had to marvel at how human expectations are so easily upturned and how a good piece can move the earth ever so slightly into place.