The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light.
—Sufjan Stevens, “Fourth of July”
IN APRIL, I went to see Sufjan Stevens at the Palace Theater in Albany, New York. For one reason or another, I had not been to a concert since my son was born ten years ago. The venue was too far away, the babysitter was too expensive, or I was just too tired to stay up late. I even had tickets to a few shows I wound up not seeing. But there’s no way I was missing Sufjan, who was on tour to promote his new album, Carrie & Lowell.
As the name suggests, the Palace Theatre is a gorgeous, majestic place. The bespectacled, bearded hipster guys with their similarly bespectacled girlfriends in ironic dresses are making their ways up the side streets to the Palace, moths to a fancy bunch of lightbulbs. Everyone looks slightly familiar to me though they are probably not. We settle into our seats and there’s an opening act that is fine as far as openers go. I mean, who wants to see an opener? No one. But she whispers halfway through her set that Sufjan’s show will not disappoint us. Cool. I start to get a good vibe. Hopeful. The stage empties and other musicians enter the stage and take their places. And then he, Sufjan, the man himself, shuffles shyly on and takes a seat at the piano.
I remember my brother saying goodbye to my mother for the last time. A new father living in Chicago with another baby on the way, he’d flown out to Connecticut to see her. He was crying, and he is not someone who cries easily in front of others. He knew it was the last time they would see each other. My mother didn’t understand. She said to him, sincerely puzzled, “What’s wrong, son?” Was it her mental illness that had her in denial of her imminent death, or was it a higher understanding that we’re all going to die but that we’re all together?
I too cried after she took her last breath – when I knew I’d never see her again. A kind of cry I had never cried – like a guttural animal-instinct cry. Not because I missed her. Maybe because I never had her. And for once I knew she was going to be ok. Whatever force brought her into the world had now taken her out. I didn’t have to worry about her anymore.
Sufjan looks like Archer – the cartoon character. He’s beautiful. He’s singing the first song on the new album, called “Death with Dignity.” And I had heard it once before but I’m not familiar with the new album yet. I realize that he’s going to be playing the entire new album, all 11 tracks, in order.
He’s got images on a split-three-ways screen above. They look like home movies of a 1970s/80s childhood. Beaches. Laughter. Cakes. Prom suits. Caps ‘n’ Gowns. He’s the boy or teen in a lot of the images. I do not realize at the time of the show that the album is about him dealing with the death of his mentally ill mother. At this point, I feel pangs of envy. Often if I see images of happy families’ home movies, I am reminded that I didn’t have that experience, and not just because we didn’t have a home movie device. Most of my childhood I don’t like to revisit – the years when I wore special shoes and an eye patch, when I had a bad shag haircut because no one could get a brush through my hair, when I hated my ugly self. But as I’m listening to the lyrics, the pain is evident. I see that Sufjan’s was not an idyllic childhood either. And he quickly wipes his eyes at the end of the song. Like a boy who does not want us to see his tears.
“What’s wrong, son?”
I was mourning for a connection I hadn’t had with her since I was very little. Supposedly she was good with me as a baby. But according to my dad, when I started to walk and talk and have my own free will, she couldn’t handle me. I had steeled myself against needing her for good after she “left to go live at the mental hospital” for several months when I was five. My whole life I have always been haunted by the memory of going to pick her up upon her release. I was aware that I wasn’t excited to see her, nor was I happy to have her home. I recall saying, “Welcome home, Mom.” But only as a gesture that I knew she’d like to hear. I had grown to like having just my dad during those months. Dad as the bad cook, his white t-shirts and black socks while mowing the lawn, his bungled attempts at trying to wash and brush through my snarled, thick knotted hair. A true 1970’s stereotype of the working dad who has to take over the woman’s Mom duties. I liked his extra attention and care. I remember his careful awkwardness at giving me a bath, something that was my mom’s territory. He asked all about our days every day. He burned the dinner and then would take us out instead. He cared about what I did that day at school. His worry sustained me.
Every weekend we would visit my mom at the hospital. I had a crush on a young man named Norman who was also a patient. I would write him love notes on the yellow lined paper and give them to him when I’d see him. He would look down at the note and smile. I remember he looked like Chico, from Chico and The Man, maybe because he had the same mustache. I would find out later that Norman eventually killed himself. I remember feeling almost embarrassed hearing this, as if Norman wouldn’t want me to know. (Ironically, Freddie Prince, who played Chico in Chico and The Man, also killed himself.) Sometimes when we would visit, my brother and I would be whisked off to “play therapy” where we’d make these really cool ceramic ashtrays and talk to a nice lady with big glasses who looked like Joni Mitchell. We would talk to other people who would say to my Dad that we, my brother and I, were doing “just fine” despite our mother’s schizophrenia. At home, I would talk on the phone to my mom once in a while. Once she cried on the phone because she missed me, she said. I believe that she did miss me. But I didn’t miss her. And I worried there was something wrong with me that I didn’t miss her. But after she came home from the hospital everyone went to their separate places again. My brother outside to play baseball with his friends, my dad to work, my mom to the kitchen with her cigarettes, coffee, and notebook that she would write in all day long. I was invisible again.
In the months after she got back, I did a lot of sneaking around. I remember actually leaving my own sixth birthday party unnoticed. I went outside and thought to myself – I’m not happy. This isn’t right. I don’t like this. Something isn’t right. And I remember going back in, past the party, up into my parents’ bedroom. I picked up my dad’s Ban roll-on and thought if I drank it, I’d die. Or go to a hospital. But I couldn’t open it. So instead, I licked it. And waited. Waited for something terrible to happen. And nothing. I didn’t die. I didn’t even get sick. I remember picking up a pencil and thinking that maybe I should eat the lead. Isn’t it made of lead – isn’t lead bad? But it was kind of hard to eat a pencil. I can see the flowered sheets on their unmade bed and their wicker headboard. I see my mother’s black and yellow pills, plastic toy bees in the garbage can underneath the tissues on top. I think about eating them. She didn’t like taking her pills. I know these are her pills because I see her take them in the morning. And these are the same pills that I sometimes see in the garbage disposal. Somehow I give up on this self-poison quest. I return the pencil to the crossword puzzle and I instead look through my mother’s jewelry box, try on her clip-on earrings. I go to her closet to try on her fancy metallic silver shoes. I never find anything, no answers. But I want to know what is going on – who are these strange people in my house.
He sits at the piano with his back to us and does not face us. I wonder, is this what the whole show will be like? Will he speak? For the first hour or so, he does not speak between songs. I am entranced by the music and the images and the tone of pain and honest vulnerability without being overly any of these things. But I feel a slight calm and of being transported and also welcomed into his aura. That’s the best way I can put it.
Then the show shifts and he has a banjo. And he speaks. And his voice is gorgeously low and gravelly. I’m so glad he’s speaking. He’s nice. Grateful. Humble. He starts to talk about death. A dog from his childhood dying but it’s funny somehow. Or it’s funny at first and then surprisingly sad – but we’re all still laughing. And then a cactus that he killed by loving it too much; he gave it too much water.
He never talks about his mother dying, her mental illness, her addictions – I learn this later on, in the days after the show. As he says in an interview with Pitchfork, “It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.” What he does talk about at the show is that people need each other. He quotes Orson Welles: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” He declares that this is hard way to get through life. That he truly believes that we’re not alone. That we are all connected at all times. “I don’t believe in loneliness,” he says. “I think it is a lie. There are so many heartbeats in the world.”
And this reaches me somehow; it’s something I need to hear. And then after a few songs, one of which he very humanly messes up and can’t remember how it starts— he elicits the help of a very plainly not trying to impress, so-not-hip-that-he’s hip, older guitar player in his band to play the guitar part he has blocked out. And it’s beautiful and he just sings. And we all love him for messing up and forgetting. I love that his voice cracks sometimes. I love that he asks his bandmate and comrade to play the guitar part that he forgot. Isn’t this why we see live shows? For the relatable non-electronic, non-digitized human element?
And then they launch into a jam that only gets hinted at on the album. It’s a quasi space jam of sorts with a trippy light show and images on the triple split screen; a response to the quiet and the reserve of the first part of the show. This orgy of sound and sight builds and builds to a point where I keep wanting more, getting more, and I’m starting to feel a joy and high I have not felt in years. Or ever. I’m so thankful I’m not on any drug because it is totally and completely music induced. For moments I think I may have even left my body. I want it to keep going and it does. It just keeps building and building in ways that are unexpected – more layers – more building. I’m thinking, it’s got to end – right? This is the climax and then it will end. But it doesn’t. It somehow keeps building. And building. It finally does resolve but by then I’m transformed.
And I ride this special high for a few days after, as if I had been altered somehow.
I keep wanting to recreate this but it can’t be done. I try to find it on the album – but there’s just a snippet of jam. I even think about going to a show by myself in Brooklyn. Then I start to question my reality when I see someone on a thread on Facebook say that the show was “yawn.” And I see there is a minor hipster backlash toward Sufjan for showing us more vulnerability – even comparing him to Tori Amos (!). I find this all a little disturbing. I know that Sufjan unapologetically talks about faith and religion and that he is the exception to the rule. Hipsters like him anyway. But he’ll also question faith, like in “Casimir Pulaski Day” – the boy questioning his faith due to the loss of his friend with bone cancer.
I’m not religious really at all, but my mother would get very religious when she was off her medicine. So I’ve always associated strong religious belief with mental illness. But I don’t feel that way about Sufjan. I guess because he’s not saying it’s an absolute. But I did have a connection that night at the concert; some kind of mystical experience. A religious experience, even. And that he’s right; we are not alone. I don’t feel alone. Even if there’s no God, I don’t feel alone. We’re all in it together. Exchanging energy. Whether it’s at a concert or witnessing the death of our mentally ill mother on her hospital bed.