Do you want to dance?

November 4, 2010

My body was sprawled on the roof outside my window on an unexpectedly skirt-wearing short-sleeved day in late October, letting frustrated life questions reverberate from my chest to the open blue sky above me: Are my decisions worthwhile? Should I be more practical in my future-attempts?

My dad has this story he told me when I was seven years old about trying to decide whether he should leave his successful financial career to go back to school for teaching. As he was contemplating this dilemma, whispering prayers for guidance to the corner of the room where the wall meets the ceiling, he put on his headphones and immediately heard Michael Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror” directing the phrase “Go ahead, make that change!” into his eardrums. He listened to Michael. (I reminded him of the way Michael changed his life on the event of Michael’s death, and he seemed slightly embarrassed that I remembered a story he told me when I was a kid. These days he’s cycled back around from teaching to finance.)

This morning, the church service I went to was a drama of the scene where Jesus comes to visit the home of Martha and Mary. Perhaps my favorite story in that giant book. The one where Martha tattle-tales on Mary because she’s running around doing all the work while Mary sits with Jesus and talks. The famous “one thing needful” is to spend that time in simple presence. “Stop taking yourself so damn serious and be present with me,” is pretty much what Jesus says.

So there I am glued to the roof on a perfect autumn day, trapped in suspenseful anticipation for my mind to reach an answer to my questions, trying to contemplate my life decisions with big words because I have 500 more words to learn for the GREs, and Sufjan Stevens crooning on my computer sings to me:

“It’s a long life. Everything is chance. Does it register? Do you want to dance?”

The song saying to me: Stop taking yourself so serious and enjoy the presence of unexpected beauty. The silly is salvation from the ultimately overserious.

I imagined myself whirling around the sky dancing, present and imaginative on the sun-warmed roof, needful.


It was a stage set with a singer on one side, a poet on the other. I listened to the song that tasted like a strawberry and found myself entranced at the poem that made me freeze and had an aftertaste of swiss cheese.

In the past, I’ve found that when I read two poems in sequence, they are often unexpectedly magnified with the collision of two poem’s words inside my mouth or head. The often unexpected, yet magnificent crash. The way it feels when you put down a book and carry its message into the immediate movement of life.

At the WYEP studio tonight, there was a call-and-response type concert between the singer Joy Ike and the poet CM Burroughs. Both are local Pittsburgh artists and gorgeous women, and both have the capability of filling a room with sounds that echo across ears with the insight of each somehow amplified by the other. I could have kept listening until I was drenched.

You’ve watered them already, he says.
I water them again. I water them
until each leaf is weighed with
water, until each stem drowns from

-CM Burroughs

a key unfoundIn church the group of children gather in front with the woman wearing a churchy hat. Her soft girlish voice instructs them, “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and she begins outlining a letter U in the air to the beat of an imaginary song: “Ready, set, sing.”

Fifteen small mouths obey and start singing on whatever note their voice finds in its opening.

My mom is stationed at her every Sunday seat: sloppily at the piano, one leg folded underneath her and slouching over the keys she knows how to navigate so well. She waits there all morning for hints that a moment needs musical accompaniment.

She deciphers this moment as one and tries to slyly press keys in search of which one their voices could migrate to and stay awhile. We must make wrong sounds to uncover what’s right. Jesus loves the (PLINK) little chil(PLINK PLINK)dren (PLINK)… And it goes on, interrupting the barely-song with blatant sounds of WRONG FALSE FAILURE PAIN

until that moment when she somehow suddenly knows. That slight switch of knowledge released by her pressing a key that opens something inside her, invisible to all the onlookers cringing with each bad note, lets her shape every finger made new into perfect chords, drawing the dissonant child voices into an accord for now. Tricking voices singing into sounding like song. Immeasurably better than before she started. The wrong notes that carried her there fade into backs of minds.

I am my mother’s well-intentioned searching fingers. I’m dissonant and intrusive and can’t wait until things fall into place so I can just play.

beneath the floorboards

April 9, 2009

“That guy who killed the Pittsburgh cops this weekend,” my co-worker said. “Everyone they interviewed kept talking about how nice he had always been to them.”

“There’s no way he was nice. There was nothing good, nothing good, nothing good, about that man,” someone interjected.

At that moment Sufjan Steven’s song John Wayne Gacy Jr. floated through my head.

That song has haunted me lately. It’s incredible how pristine Sufjan can make the acts of a serial killer sound by describing it in light images within the context of a gorgeously chilling ballad. But the part that really gets me, and probably gets to most people who spend time listening to the lyrics, are the last few lines:

And on my best behavior I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.

I looked up the lyrics on and was sorely disappointed when I browsed through the explanations that people provided for the song. They ranted about how Sufjan could never really be comparing himself to a monster like Gacy, or, alternatively, they tried to label his lyrics as overtly Christian by offering that this line refers to the way we are all sinners in God’s eyes. floorboards

It’s becomming increasingly evident to me as I spend my days working with drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless, the abused, people with mental health diagnoses, and ex-convicts, that these labels I just listed off do not define any of those people. That people are not equal to their worst behaviors. That the man who recently shot the police officers in Pittsburgh did a horrible thing, but it was one action, one day in an entire lifetime. And he will forever be defined by that day. That short period of time has eternally replaced his identity in other people’s eyes as a person for that of a killer. Such a title oversimplifies life.

Reading John Wayne Gacy Jr.‘s story is disgustingly painful, but I can’t help to see through it all that although he did things that make him seem absolutely disgraceful and inhumane, he was still a person. He had a family.  He swung on swingsets. He laughed.

We all cause other people pain. But I can’t think of anyone who would want to be defined by the worst they can be.

It’s too easy to overlook that we all have a best.

a watch-worthy combination of lyrics, music, and images in Brett Dennen’s music video for his song “Aint No Reason”: