Sufjan

I have an email from a friend that is long overdue a reply. I’ve been sitting on it for months at this point. And now I’m writing about it in a blog post before I’m actually going to reply. How embarrassing. Mainly, the reason I haven’t replied is that, like most of my social obligations lately, I only seem capable of remembering about it at times when I can’t act upon it (mainly in the middle of the night). But the other reason is that, in the email, he made a perfectly fair criticism of Sufjan Stevens in the context of our conversation – basically along the lines of his music isn’t that sad – and the one time I did remember at an opportune moment, I looked at that criticism and, in trying to form a response, was so flooded with Sufjan fangirl feels that I couldn’t cope with it and had to go away.

Now, prone to fangirling as I am, I am a person who, when a completely different friend said he felt disappointed with the outro of a Tame Impala song, emphatically retorted, without missing a beat, ‘yeah but that’s how he wants you to feel!’

…Oh really, Yve? Have you discussed this specifically with Kevin Parker, have you? Did you have a nice little one-on-one zoom chat about the minutiae of his musical intentions?

I probably get a bit carried away defending the artists I have chosen to deify as sublime vessels of Universal consciousness. Maybe take it a little bit too personally. So I’m going to catch myelf and not send my friend a long-winded essay on the virtues of Sufjan Stevens. No, apparently I’m going to gush about him on my blog, instead.

This is gonna be a niche read.

There are some Sufjan songs that provide instant, easy access but, for the most part, he demands labour. Which is why, with little spare bandwidth and precious few hours to devote, I had failed to enter the sanctum of his album The Ascension back when it was released in September 2020. What I did do was immediately wrap myself in one single song – Video Game – on a sort of infinite loop. It became my mantra and my armour. A sonic touchstone, orienting me through challenging territory. I listened to the rest of the album a few times, but I could tell it wasn’t reaching me, because it didn’t yet sound like a thing of revelatory beauty. And I for sure had more faith in Sufjan’s ability to deliver that than my own ability to receive it.

Then, the other day, while I was driving to pick my son up, I remembered the forgotten email. So, I decided, not to set up some kind of reminder to email later, but instead to listen to The Ascension. And, heading over the Newcastle Swing Bridge, five songs in, I thought fuck, I want to live in this. Not the bridge, although I do find it charming; The Ascension.

A few trips later, The Ascension now the infinite loop, I realised this was the Sufjan album I’d been waiting for.

I am a Sufjan fangirl for many reasons. His voice is my ASMR. He embodies himself in such a way that he’s fundamentally inspiring to me in his very existence. He’s just kind of brilliant. But also, he is a person who has surely peered into The Abyss. And he didn’t run from it, and he didn’t let its vast horror break him, he just stood his ground, seeing it. At least, that’s my perception. And in his songs, I hear the strength of that, but there’s also always been a fragility. The limitation of trauma, perhaps. Self-aware ego. An admission that he can’t go all the way to where he wants to go. In The Ascension, he goes. Somewhere, at least. Maybe not that place, or maybe not all the way, I don’t know, it’s audacious of me to even speculate this much, but in the right direction. It’s not that everything’s good, or that he’s safe, or that he’s saved, but there’s a subtle shift of that last remnant of fragility to something else. Perhaps to deliberate vulnerability. Which, paradoxically, makes that part of him invulnerable.

There’s a certainty on the album; a directness; a willingness to talk about one single thing and let it be known. Where in the past he defied boundaries and deftly, stubbornly represented a multidimensional view of everything he touched upon, in an almost evasive way, here he is comfortable communicating ‘this is what it is’. And there is something more transcendent about that for me. Like his humanity integrated with his divinity. Like he fucking ascended, I guess. There’s power in it, more than there was in his music before. But he hasn’t sacrificed any of the parts that made his music beautiful to me before.

Plus, there are straight up love songs here. Like, I’d say To Be Alone With You from Seven Swans is a straight up love song, but we can be fairly confident that it is, at least partially, specifically about Jesus, and I like that it’s about Jesus, but, I don’t know, it creates a sort of tangential feel. Futile Devices from Age of Adz is a straight up love song, but the fragility of it is excruciating; the love so acutely felt yet so self-denyingly understated it’s nearly unbearable. I have been waiting a long time to instead hear Sufjan Stevens sing “come run away with with me…and I will show you rapture“. You’re damn fucking straight you will, Sufjan, own that shit you magnificent Christmas Unicorn. And after traversing the desolate abyss I was so sure he had peered into on Tell Me You Love Me, the exaltation of hearing ‘I’m gonna love you anyway’ is everything I ever wanted in my life. And yes, I do mean I want someone to say exactly that to me. And yes, I do mean I want Sufjan to say exactly that to somebody. And yes, I do mean just the sound of it was exactly what I wanted.

I read some reviews of The Ascension while I was writing this, because music is inextricably tied to my most crippling insecurities, and I instinctively believe I have no right to comment on or participate in it, despite it being such an important, enduring part of my life. So I was seeking validation for my point of view. And I started panicking a bit, to be fair, that I was hearing stuff that isn’t there. Because no-one’s talking about love songs; they seem instead to be focussed on the pessimism; the anger; the politics. And even Sufjan himself, in interviews, was alluding mostly to that. And there I am, saying I want to fucking live in it! But then, at the very end of the last article I was permitting myself to read, I found him say

“Maybe the one takeaway is love as a light at the end of the tunnel, because I’m using a lot of those expressions of love as a point of reference. We’re all in this together, sure. But we all just want love, and to be loved, and we should all just love one another. If we can just focus on that, at the very least, maybe that’s a start.”

sufjan stevens

And so, I think I can be comfortable that at least part of his intention was to convey what I so keenly felt upon hearing The Ascension, and perhaps what I have so keenly been longing to hear. That, even as the world around us descends, as it has been for so long, and as we face the barren blackness of The Abyss; the more we choose to ascend through Love, the more beautiful, more powerful, more actualised we become.

Rather than exploring love in its many boundless forms as a subject, a study, or even a confession, on The Ascension it becomes a goal or destination. An aspiration. No. A commitment. And that’s what I’ve been waiting for. I don’t know why, exactly; I just want to hear people commit to Love. People who have some understanding of what Love truly is. People who know the risk, and see the peril, and Love anyway. I never doubted that Sufjan loved, but that’s exactly why I’ve been waiting to hear him say it like this.

So, maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’ve completely missed the point, or muddied it beyond recognition with my own biases. Maybe this is a sign I’m starved of Love in my everyday life. Or, at least, starved of a certain kind of Love. Maybe this is really fucking boring to read. But maybe my view is valid regardless of whether any of that is true. So maybe I should just post it anyway.

Making it something

Lately, just as an exercise to prove I’m not self-obsessed, I’ve been trying to think of posts I could write that don’t start with ‘I’. I’m not very good at it.

Maybe all I’m good at is airing my dirty brain laundry.

I’ve also been thinking about ways I can introduce additional streams of income into my life, and one of them would be to try to make this blog something. To try to figure out what it is that makes some people like it, and do that more, and show it off, and find more people, and then…I don’t know, make some t-shirts? Solicit donations? Sell a fucking writing course? That last one is a funny joke for myself.

But it’s probably a good job this blog doesn’t have a large readership. Because I’m clearly using it as a form of therapy, and I quite like the feeling of speaking into the abyss. I know people see it, I enjoy getting the odd like, and I really appreciate it when people reach out directly to tell me that they’ve read it, and that it was an enriching, or entertaining experience for them. And I also quite like that that doesn’t happen all that much. I quite like that I don’t really get comments on my blog, and I wonder if I somehow repel them, because at one point, quite a long time ago, I started getting a few, and my entire being got all spiky and wanted them to stop intruding on my life. And I felt guilty about that for a while, because I felt obligated to want comments, because this is a blog, and that’s what blogs have. And then I reminded myself that this can be whatever the fuck I want it to be.

If I made it something, though – if a lot of people were to read it – it probably couldn’t be whatever the fuck I want it to be anymore. I wouldn’t just get the odd nice message, I’d get opinions and judgement and demands. And I’d get spiky, because I wouldn’t be able to ignore them.

All of this is assumption. I don’t really know what would happen. But I think about it. And that’s a problem I have. I think myself out of things before I’ve even given them a chance to exist. Before I even know if they’re viable. Because I’m scared they will be, and that will mean things have to change. And I’m scared I can’t handle it.

But maybe I need to start finding out. At long fucking last, maybe I need to try anyway. Maybe I need to risk success.

Waiting for the shoe

I ran again this evening – I’d mapped out a 1.6 mile loop from my house and I did that and a bit extra and then I walked to the shop. I took it easy, because I don’t know how to run properly, I know most people don’t run every day, and it especially doesn’t seem to be recommended for beginners, but I’m starting to feel like I’m doing this wrong.

Honestly, when I promised to run every day I kind of expected to be resorting to five minutes on my mini trampoline, and of course there’s plenty of time for that yet, but the run (or rather what I imagine was in fact a very slow jog) tonight wasn’t nearly as taxing as I was preparing myself for. It was more of a light stretch. Which calls into question, well, a lot of things, actually.

I was expecting this to be hard already. I was expecting not to be able to run a mile in the first place. I was expecting today to be worse than yesterday. I was expecting this to suck a bit. And it doesn’t. A lot of my body is aching, and the idea of skipping the run this evening was quite appealing. But then I put my leggings on and I got fucking excited. And I wrapped my cheapy earphone wires around my neck to stop them falling out en route and that was me fucking sorted. Bloody lovely. There were no knee niggles or toe woes, everything was fucking fine again. I’m getting suspicious.

Am I being too conservative? Do I need to go faster, or further? Or, on the contrary, am I being too gung ho and will I suddenly, unsuspectingly, be flung into a pit of misery after a couple more days of this, because, no, I shouldn’t be running every day?

…OrrrrrAm I actually doing something right?

What a dangerous fucking thought.

Holding hands

I try to live my life believing that if I do what feels, to me, like the right thing, something good will come of it. It may be invisible, it may be tangential, but it will be; something, somewhere.

That’s not the kind of thing a human like me will ever be able to prove. And it’s not even the kind of thing a human like me can always remember to believe. But it’s a choice I try to make.

One thing that felt right for me to do was to train as a Reiki practitioner. That decision changed the trajectory of my life to the extent that it’s pointless to speculate on whether it was good or bad.

But one specific thing that happened not long after I finished my certification was that my grandad had a stroke.

I got a call from my mother after the last of my night-shifts at a job I’d just quit and she said I should probably come, so I did. He died in the night not long after I arrived, but I got to see him before he left.

And because I’d just done my Reiki certification, I felt empowered to do some Reiki on him. Now, Reiki is Reiki, it’s neither here nor there in this story, because regardless of whether Reiki did anything for my grandad, the important part was that to do the Reiki, I placed my hands on him. I held his hand in one hand, and placed my other hand on his arm. And this felt totally alien to me, and a little bit silly. Because we never really touched in my family. And if I hadn’t become a Reiki practitioner, I probably would never have been bold enough to touch my grandad on his deathbed. And what else can you do, really, to comfort a dying man who’s lost the ability to move or to communicate, whose mind is swimming in chaos as his synapses drown in blood?

My family in the room commented that he seemed to be responding to the Reiki. Maybe he was. Or maybe he was responding to something far less esoteric.

I was watching Me Before You the other night, and a scene where one character is holding another character’s hand in the hospital triggered this memory to bubble up. Because of course they were. Of course that’s what you do. Of course it is a basic human need and a basic human response in scary, sad and perilous times to physically reach for each other.

I wasn’t there for a lot of my grandad’s last days. I didn’t see how the rest of my family behaved in that time. Maybe I missed the parts where they held him or stroked his hair. But what if I didn’t? What if, aside from all the utilitarian stuff, that was pretty much all he got?

I fucking love touching people. It’s probably my favourite love language. But it just wasn’t done in our family. So, watching Me Before You, I had the terrible thought, what if that was all he got?

And what if, trapped in his reeling, disorganised brain, that was the only thing that reached him? What if, lonely, frightened and confused, what he needed more than anything was for someone to hold his hand?

It’s probably best not to wonder. But I’m glad I learned how to do Reiki.

Manifesting cars

The car I own is a dark grey 2009 Volvo C30 1.6 DRIVe. I don’t know if that’s a confession or a weird flex.

I like cars. I know fuck all about them if we’re being candid, but what I lack in knowledge I make up for in enthusiasm based upon, frankly, arbitrary points of interest.

Part of the reason I know I like cars is that some of them kind of turn me on a bit. Not quite to this extent, I hasten to add. But appealing aesthetics are a…driving factor. If a car catches my eye, I then take it upon myself to research it with a heavy confirmation bias, to find out all the other reasons I like it.

As far as aspirational cars go, a C30 isn’t exactly top of my list these days. When I bought my C30 I was lusting after a Toyota C-HR hybrid. That’s since been replaced in my fantasies by a Polestar 2.

BUT, when the C30 came out, back when I was 16, every time I spotted one it was a cheap thrill. Even now, the lines of that era of Volvo make my pupils dilate. Seeing Robert Pattinson driving my favourite car in Twilight may well have been the spark that ignited a passionate crush I stand by to this day, because Robert Pattinson is spectacular. I’ve written him two fan letters. But I digress.

Edward Cullen’s C30 inspired me to head to the Volvo website to design my own. Colour? No question, dark grey was my favourite colour for anything. Engine? I had no fucking clue of the implications…but I liked the environment so, naturally, I chose the ‘eco’ option – the 1.6 DRIVe. The year was 2009.

Did you ever hear Noel Edmunds going on about cosmic ordering? I did, around about that time. From what I remember it’s a basic Law of Attraction type concept. You just had to make your wish, and wait for it to be granted. There was this website where you could type in your ‘order’, and when you submitted it, it added a virtual star to a virtual sky. I enjoyed that idea. It’s quite likely a C30 made it into my virtual sky, although I can’t corroborate the claim.

When it came to buying a car this time around, I was having difficulty. It had been a minute since I was last in the market, and my affiliation with diesel was now frowned upon. And my budget wasn’t exactly expansive. At first, I’d been excited to buy a sexy high-miles Volvo diesel estate. Which is a preposterous statement if ever I wrote one. But my son’s dad sucked all the fun out of it with his talk of air pollution. So then I looked at all the reasonable petrol alternatives, and none of them aroused me at all. I went round and round in circles trying to land on an acceptable compromise, until I didn’t want a car anymore.

But I needed a car.

I was so tired of car shopping, I wished I could just have a car delivered to my door and not have to think about it anymore. Dejected, I made a deal with the Universe – either deliver me a car that I can be really excited about owning this weekend, or I’ll cave and buy a Honda Jazz or something, just to be done with it.

Enter The C30. The exact car my 19 year old self had ‘ordered’. Low enough emissions that I could live with indulging my guilty diesel pleasure for one last hurrah. Nearly 140,000 miles on the clock so it felt worldly (I’m not kidding that was a selling point for me). Delivered to my fucking door.

Why do I tell this story? Because it emerged into my consciousness as I was taking a walk today. And it was such a peculiar culmination of disparate threads, a bunch of which I haven’t even mentioned, that it invokes a healthy questioning of reality. And I want to make sure I remember it.