Hope the High Road.

I love end of year lists. I love the neat wrapping that tells me we can put a button on a year gone by, which is not unrelated to my love of endings and fresh new beginnings, however arbitrary; and I love the summation, the sense that things were accomplished, that in reviewing those happenings we assert our right to give them meaning. But personally all I ever manage at year’s end is a cursory backwards glance, and a summary that amounts to, “Well, that happened.”

Instinctively, however, I have one wrap-up, one neat bow that lands at my feet, usually unbidden, towards the end of each year; towards the end of each year, I generally realize some song is the song. Of the year; of my year. Some song gets so to the heart of the thing, makes me feel such a sort of way, that it becomes That Year’s Song. Thus designated, these songs, when heard, call those specific years and feelings to mind, and I cherish them.

This year’s song goes to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – one of my favorite artists and bands – with “Hope the High Road.” The song is off their album The Nashville Sound, and there’s a case to be made for calling the whole thing the Album of the Year, and an argument to be made for nearly every song on it. My husband and I sang “If We Were Vampires” together at our wedding, and featured a line from “Molotov” in our program. “White Man’s World” is a fairly obvious choice given the events of the last twelve months as they’ve unfolded, and “Anxiety” so poetically, lyrically captures the experience of losing out to the sensation of a fist wrapped around your heart, with caught and turned phrasing like, “You’ve got to give me a minute – cause I’m way down in it, and I can’t breathe so I can’t speak,” and contextually wrenching meditations like, “Wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream.” It gets to the root of a feeling of a year in which my sense of time has collapsed under the urgency of the present lived moment. Everything is always happening, and I can’t breathe so I can’t speak.

But it’s “Hope the High Road,” released in March of this year, that gave me what I needed when I needed it, and continued to carry through and soldier on through the longest and in many ways most difficult and most successful year of my life, and cemented it’s lead when it was the first song the band played when I saw them at the Ryman in October for the venue’s 125th anniversary. From the early line “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown – I myself am on the brink,” which has allowed me to laugh and scream and cry when needed, to “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well – uninspired and likely mad as hell,” which allowed me to feel known and understood, to the later imagery of a crew of like-minded people possibly riding a sinking ship, but together and determined to go down trying, this is the song I rode out in 2017, the one that made me feel, all-importantly, less alone in this.

In 2017, I officially launched a business with my best friend, quit finally any semblance of a day job, and scraped together an actual living as a freelancer, writing and editing. I was interviewed for CNBC and a local society rag, named to a board of directors, put in uncomfortably close proximity to Matthew McConaughey. I married the love of my life; we dropped into the ocean that had apparently been lurking all this time just beneath us, and we found that the water was fine. I made new friends, held new babies, and I laughed a great deal.

But in 2017 Nazis killed a girl in my country, and confederate flags hung a little more boldly in my sweet neighborhood, and we suffered several of the worst mass shootings in history. My friends and I and people across the country fought tooth and nail for reproductive rights and safety for immigrants and LGBTQ people and families and the best we could do was hold the line and most of the time we were losing ground. Between climate change and racism and sexism life got worse for a whole lot of people, and mine is not as simple as a white person’s empathy – I am a queer Jewish woman who lives in the south, and I know that it can get much, much worse.

So I hoped the high road. I looked for the best in people and moved on if they couldn’t offer it because we can’t waste any more time. I gave money to good causes and I danced at my wedding to the sweetest man I’ve ever known. I snuggled my dog and yelled at the vice president’s dumb motorcade and called members of Congress and signed people up to vote and wrote some things that I liked and worked hard and drank some very fine and very expensive bourbons. From here I can’t tell what 2018 looks like, but I can start it for everyone else, as well as for myself, with both a wish and a blessing:

Wherever you are

I hope the high road leads you home again –

to a world

you want

to live in.

 

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You Don’t Have to Own Anything by the Time You’re 30

I speak on a few things I am qualified to evaluate and a few that I am not over at The Financial Diet, one of my favorite sites:

You Don’t Have to Own Anything by the Time You’re 30

Measure in Love

Today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish faith. I’m a middling Jew. I came into it late and adopted what made best sense to me in the context of a spirituality based on a lot of things we have no better name for than witchcraft as I went along. It’s a long-term exploration that lets me go a little deeper each year, learn a little more; faith is, in that way, much like life. And my life and my faith are coalescing, slowly, towards the same goal. Put simply, the goal is love.

I would posit love is the easiest and most fragile feeling, the easiest and most fragile theoretical object we ever hold in our hands. Love is a Rorschach test: what people see when they see it tells you more about them than it does about the thing itself. It’s real and it’s a construct. It’s a word for a lot of things that are not the same thing. And it is, in all of its expanse and breadth and depth, the thing I have chosen as my particular undertaking, and the thing I measure myself against each year on this day. How am I doing, I ask, at love?

I’m doing fine. Better than before. Not nearly as well as I could be. My love is sincere but sometimes scatter-brained. When faced with the challenge of unkindness, my love falters to anger, a significantly easier emotion for me to access and one that served me well, for a long time, as a shield against the painful vulnerability true love requires. Life is not unlike a video game in many ways; conquer one level, feel good for a moment, and the universe will often hand you a new challenge to overcome, one that makes every previous challenge you sweat so hard seem laughably simple. And so in the last few years my capacity for love, my ability to love, has been challenged in new ways, and I have often faltered and often failed, although to my credit, I do get back up and try again, although to my detriment, I don’t always do it with any particular degree of grace.

Sometimes life will hand me back one of those “laughably simple” challenges I longed for when new ones arose, and sometimes I manage to fail at those as well. Those ones hurt; those ones are like being a high school junior and failing one word on a third-grade spelling test. “I just blanked!” I think to myself, but it’s human feelings on the line, and relationships I’ve worked long and hard for, not a school grade, and even the occasional slip and failure won’t do. And yet, in my slips and failures, my friends and family find their capacity for forgiveness, and their forgiveness reminds me to love.

And so, in the liminal space of the days of awe, when we simultaneously look back and consider the future – no neat “Happy New Year!” clean-slates for Jews – I remember the admonition to measure in love. Go with me on this: the admonition, or invitation, is from a musical called Rent. If you were a 90s theater kid nerd you knew all the words. If you ever loved theater or were a nerd you knew all the words. And as a lost, intermittently lonely, nerdy kid, they were the kind of words that saved me: exuberant, meaningful, joyous. With time and a little perspective, that measured word for “enough space to be embarrassed by the process of growing up,” I’ve come to think of it as corny and sweet. But like everything else that holds real meaning – like love – it is many things that are difficult to simplify. It is a musical; it is a call to arms for weirdos; it is one of the earliest examples of successful diversity in theater; it is written by a white man; it is written by a Jew. It is written by a young man who died suddenly and without warning at the height of his earliest success, whose last call to arms was a call to love. It is a reminder, both in the creating and the telling of it, that time is limited and precious and that deciding exactly what we will do with it is our most profound daily challenge. And when I look back on this past whirlwind year, and when I look back on however many I have to come, I will try, in fact, however corny, to measure in love. I have very little else to give.

Wild and Precious

B and I are at Navarre Beach in Florida with his family for a week, taking the closest thing we’ve had to an actual, full-fledged vacation in nearly four years. I did work, but it’s been more relaxing than anything else, more listening to the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the kids running around laughing and eating seafood than looking at my phone. We also went to an alligator farm and we all got to hold a very, very small alligator, which felt surprisingly pleasant. His squirmy and resigned sort of demeanor reminded me, oddly, of our dog.

One of the books I brought with me is Mary Oliver’s “Felicity,” her apparently long-held, secret stash of something nearly like love poems. She’s maybe most famous presently for the line regarding the grasshopper, asking, “What are you going to do / with your one wild and precious life?” but I found another one last summer that I got stuck on, that reminded me of the beach, and those few months when B and I were hurtling towards each other with all the inevitability of gravity, and that echoes now with this summer barely past, that seemed so weirdly endless:

What This Is Not

This is not just surprise and pleasure.
This is not just beauty sometimes
too hot to touch.
This is not a blessing with a beginning
and an end.
This is not just a wild summer.
This is not conditional.

Re-reading it sitting by the water the other day, I flipped to the back cover for the first time; I’d only recently found out anything about Oliver personally and wanted to know more. The author’s bio wasn’t much, but it mentioned that she was from Ohio and – upon the writing of “Felicity” – resides in Florida. That would be an awesome coincidence, if I still believed in those.

They let me write about BUFFY.

BUFFY, Y’ALL. Buffy.

I may have officially peaked.

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and the Humanization of the Superheroine

We’re Staying Here.

My neighborhood goes completely nuts in the spring. Windows open, dogs out for long walks, kids playing basketball, and everything blooms all at once. I noticed before we got a dog, but now I spend time outside every day, wandering the neighborhood, and I’m knocked over by how gorgeous it is. Germantown is largely turn-of-the-(20th)century homes, in varying degrees of grandeur – from four stories extending back half a block to one story shotguns lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with a foot or less of space between, and nearly every front yard has a tree or two going wild right now. Along the sidewalks someone has planted what I think is a sort of cherry blossom – the flowers climb the branches the same way – in purple, one every few feet, so they form an archway over the sidewalks. Low stone walls out front of homes are lined with ivy and gardens have daffodils coming up, low bushes are an insane riot of color. It’s beautiful and every time I walk outside it feels genuinely good, like the world is waking up and I’m a part of it.

Inside our home, everything is familiar, and comfortable, and right where I like it. I’m undertaking a massive spring cleaning and – unusually for my all-or-living-in-filth approach to housekeeping – I’m doing it in stages, but the deadline is the end of this month, because we’ll be having a friend stay with us for a little while, and this house is entirely structured around two people, and needs to shift over to accommodate three.

But that’s the thing – it will be wonderful with three, equally wonderful when it goes back to two. Either way the wood floors will gleam and the light will be stunning in the afternoon and my books will be where I can find them and the front porch will be just right for morning coffee. We’ve got the most perfect little home we could ever imagine, for who we are, and where we are, and our lives right now, so we’re staying. We’re signing a year-long extension to the lease and we’re just not going to pack up any of our boxes, still neatly stacked in the basement, and we’re just not going to rent a moving truck, and we’re just not going to have a single thing to concern ourselves with except living where we like and how we prefer. I haven’t lived in one place longer than a year or so since I left my folks’ house at age 18, but we’re at a year and a half here, two in October, and all told we’ll be at least three. I can’t tell you how wonderful not moving is. How wonderful to leave all of your things right where they are and have a house without cardboard boxes around, peace and no chaos, security and stability, the pure pleasure of being able to find what you want or need in the place where you like to put it. So we’re staying here, and I am so very glad. The gift of the one is the absence of the other, so the flip side of staying here is that we are not leaving, and not leaving is its own lengthy rumination on a theme that may just comprise a great deal of the waking moments of whatever constitutes the rest of my very pleasant life.