What You Didn’t Know

Though I can in no way enforce this, I do you think your viewing experience of my latest video would be much more enhanced if you knew a little bit of why I chose these specific songs and images.

Let me start by saying I put a lot of thought into this. Nothing heard or seen in this is without meaning, at least for me. However, it began as sound. About 6 months after I returned from France (roughly 14 years before this video was made), I sat alone in my dorm room with a tape recorder and began speaking my thoughts into it. I don’t remember exactly what compelled me to do so. Perhaps I meant for it to be a letter, a “talking letter” as my dad called them when we made audio cassettes to send to our relatives when I was a child and all my extended family lived out-of-state. Then, when I was in France, I made “talking letters” for my best friend and my parents. Occasionally I’d take my tape recorder with me as I roamed to capture the sounds of other people’s voices as well. But most of the time it was just me, alone in a room, longing to share with my thoughts with another human being.

The six months leading up to my first bipolar manic episode were, up until then, the most challenging, exuberant, and melancholy moments in my life. There was a constant, unprecedented flux of emotion and, whether it was the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, I longed to tell someone about it, anyone. But once I’d made the decision to live alone in a tiny studio apartment in Montpellier, I came to the instant realization that no matter how happy I was at the end of the day, having no one to share my thoughts would instantly bring me down. And so, with no a computer of any sort, no TV, and rarely enough money to buy more minutes for my prepaid cell phone, I talked into my cassette tape recorder, I prayed and read my Bible until God felt completely real and became my sole companion, and I wrote like mad until I actually succumbed to madness.

Music calmed me in my solitude. I didn’t bring any sort of portable CD player with me because I intended even before I left to buy a plug-in mini-stereo once I arrived in France. Originally, I wasn’t even going to bring my own CDs because I was so committed to hearing French and only French, but at last I caved in and packed a small CD wallet with Christian music, much of which had already brought me comfort over the years. I justified this decision by reminding myself that, as my French friends in the US had informed me, this kind of music wasn’t even available in France. In the end, I was grateful for my decision and all the songs you’ll hear, except the first one, came from that collection of CDs. By contrast, I was actually tricked into listening to the song by Avril Lavigne. You see, in my loneliness I would often wander through the music stores and listen to the samples they had on display with their complimentary headphones. One day, when I was particularly sad and lonely, I saw the name Avril Lavigne, mistakingly assumed she was French, and began listening to her songs in the store when I stumbled upon “I’m With You” and felt as though she’d written the song just for me because that was exactly how I felt in that moment. So I impulsively bought her album and played it over and over again in my studio. Eventually, in the height of my mania, I made a mixtape for a friend beginning with her song and ending with “The Time is Now” by Twila Paris, the song which, as you’ll learn when you read my memoir, was the song that happened to be playing when I encountered God in a mystical, terrifying, and beautiful moment in which I neither heard voices nor had visions but felt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was there in the room with me, reminding me that he was there for me and that I needn’t be afraid.

The order of songs on the mixtape was intended to be a soundtrack to my journey from beginning to end, from mourning to dancing (actually side A was all English but side B was the same idea, but all French music) Thus, “The Time is Now” became God’s words to me as well. A few days later, I’d abandon everything and walk into the unknown only to be intercepted by French law enforcement en route to Spain and ultimately taken to a psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France. Three weeks later, my dad flew to France to bring me home to the States – not that I wanted to go home, but no one gave me the choice. They told me I was sick and that I wasn’t able to think clearly and that everything they were doing was in my best interest. I didn’t believe them, but I obeyed, thinking this was perhaps God’s plan for me after all. After all, did Jesus resist arrest even though he knew he’d be beaten and nailed to a cross to die? No.

I made the audio track before I pieced together the images for this video. In fact, this is a remake of a similar video I did about 6 or 7 years ago. The only other faces you’ll see are people from that time in my life, people who would have been on the receiving end of my emotional outcries. I understood very little of what I was going through back then; they understood even less. But I still count them as friends and, even though we’ve not seen or spoken to one another in what feels like lifetimes, I still hope that, should we ever meet again, the spark of friendship will reignite and we’ll laugh and sing as we did when we were young.

Hope for the Hopeless Romantic

I’m almost done writing the latest draft of my memoir, a story that spans nearly three years of my youth – from age 22, when I was most innocent, idealistic, adventurous, and passionate, until age 25, when I felt most powerless and hopeless.

My story isn’t really a love story, though, at least not in the traditional sense. But there are traces of romance here and there. I rediscover them as I flip through my personal writings and I’ve polished and edited some of those bits for you, too, so that you can join me on my journey to reconstruct a life

Historically, the longest relationship I ever had was with a guy I met while I was still a senior in high school. We were both working at a bookstore together and I remember how hard it was to believe that someone I liked actually liked me back. I was in such a state of disbelief that I tried to destroy the relationship from the start. We’d gone on an evening walk to a nearby park where I told him all the reasons I didn’t think he should date me. I confessed every sin and every fatal flaw I could think of and, to my amazement, he didn’t run away. He didn’t even flinch. In fact, he continued to write me poetry and create thrifty and imaginative adventures for us to go on for at least another year. But by our second year together, our relationship went downhill. I won’t go into details. Let’s just say we both share some of the blame.

Our breakup happened shortly after I turned 21. We were even engaged for a little bit (although it never really felt like it). A year later we met up for dinner. True, part of my motivation was to see if I had any residual feelings for him after all that time. But I was relieved to know those feelings had completely dissolved. I could hop on my plane to France knowing there was no reason to return. I was free.

The time period covered in my memoir was one of the most fruitful periods in my life in terms of personal writing. I didn’t write daily, but I definitely carried my diary with me more often than ever before. Beginning with my study abroad in France, I also developed a ritual of writing semi-regular generic emails, or, what you might call predecessors to blogs such as this one. Of course my writing was nothing to boast of, but at the time I thought it was quite prolific. It would actually frustrate me sometimes to try and write a story or a poem and suddenly face a writer’s block that seemed nonexistent moments before when I was scribbling in my diary. Now I look at those old diaries and analyze my younger-self. Today, I’m trying to figure out how I became so confused about love.

My first three months in France aren’t covered in the memoir. In earlier versions I wrote about them. I wrote, for instance, of the only five men I ever locked lips with in France and, believe me, it went no further than that because I took the whole “saving myself until marriage” thing pretty seriously and it threw some of the Frenchmen I met for a loop. Most Europeans lose their virginity around 17 or 18. I was 22 and still hadn’t lost mine (and wouldn’t for a very long time). It was like I was from another planet. But at least no one tried to force himself on me. At least they were cool with moving into a conversation or leaving me alone entirely. For me, it was disappointing how uninterested many guys seemed once sex was off the table. I couldn’t understand because deep conversation was almost the epitome of intimacy in my world. In any case, once I settled in Montpellier, my kissing days were over (save “la bise” a.k.a. “French cheek kissing”). I had one French guy-friend and I told him in no uncertain terms that the next man I date will be the man I marry. To my delight, those words didn’t send him running. We stayed friends for the duration of my time there. Sometimes he’d talk to me about girls he dated or wanted to date and I was happy to listen and encourage him in his romantic endeavors. My only regret is not being able to say goodbye. But then again, I wasn’t able to say goodbye to anyone in Montpellier, but you’ll understand why when you read my book.

Here are some thoughts from my personal writings about love followed by reflective commentary from more than a decade later. But, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Then, when my memoir is finished and published, you can read it and have a better understanding of the story as a whole.

Here’s a playlist of songs that would have influenced my thoughts about romance back then. All of them are from musicals because musicals are stories and each song is part of a greater story. I love that!

I didn’t know yet to identify it as such, but that weekend I was suffering from major depression triggered by grief. To be alone at such a time in a city practically made for lovers made the weight in my chest even heavier. In response, I turned to God, personal letters, and my journal. I walked alone at night heedless of the catcalls that follow young women far more often in France than in the States. “Discutez avec moi” was never an invitation simply to talk. There were expectations behind those words I wasn’t about to find out.

The French guy in this case had misinterpreted a smile I’d given him one evening. Americans smile at strangers far more often than French people do and I knew that even then. But like any idealist, I believed this guy could change. I thought we’d meet up and he’d be okay with simple conversation. But then he saw the Celtic cross around my neck and realized there was a reason I wasn’t “putting out.”

Since I arrived in Montpellier six months earlier, there’d been no kissing, no hand-holding, and very little hugging. Physical affection had been reduced to the French cheek-kissing ritual known as “la bise” which isn’t really kissing, if you think about it. There is a very light touch of one cheek to another but the kissing itself is mostly in the air. The sound of lip-smacking solidifies it. No actual kissing; just really loud pretend kissing. The above writing came at the climax of my mental breakdown. It was meant to be my last entry ever before I diminished into the world, weaving in and out of different lands and cultures without a name or passport and demonstrating a Mother Teresa style love in every village and every town. Mother Teresa never married. If she could live an impactful and meaningful life without a husband then so could I, right?

I elaborated a bit more on this in my “epistles” from the psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France.

Still delusional, I fought against the very idea of romantic love. In my head the memories of lonely Frenchmen who thought love and sex were one and the same were fresh on my mind. One of my very last memories of such a misunderstanding was a day or two before I left Montpellier. I agreed to help a very tall young man with his English. He told me he was a Christian so I used a Bible verse from either the gospel of John or 1 John (it was a while ago) for our tutoring session. I had him read it and then asked him what he understood. At the end of the meeting, he invited me to his place for coffee. I was smart enough to know that “coffee” was usually a euphemism for sex and so I politely said no to which he replied, “but Jesus said to love your neighbor! Come to my place and make love to me!”

I shook my head and said back to him, “Jesus didn’t mean that kind of love.”

One of my guy friends had professed his love for me over the summer. Before he went away in the fall, he burst into my dorm room to tell me how he felt and request a farewell kiss. But I turned him down. I enjoyed hanging out with him but I didn’t feel the same for him as he did for me. And yes, there is something empowering about rejecting someone’s advances toward you verses being rejected. Besides, by this juncture in the story, I’d been given a diagnosis and I’d researched it extensively. I knew there was no guarantee my medication would always work and I’d never have another breakdown. I wondered if it was fair for me to date anyone.

Rich Mullins never married. He was engaged once but that’s the closest he ever came and towards the end of his life some were dubbing him the “happy celibate.” He didn’t eschew that title either. He said in an interview once that maybe God did want him to be celibate and the way that he accomplished that was by breaking his heart.

I love Rich Mullins and it saddens me at times that I didn’t come to love him until after he died. But I was also still a teenager when he died and he was in his early forties. The point is that, even after death he had such a strong influence on my life that I began to think more and more of celibacy as a gift. Jesus didn’t even marry so why did it seem like everyone in Christianity made such a big deal about marriage?

I recommend you read Paul’s chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at wedding ceremonies, or so I’m told. I actually haven’t been to many weddings. My “touched with fire” reference is both to Kay Redfield Jamison’s book of the same title and the only textbook manic episode I’ve ever experienced. Someone told me once that mania has a way of bringing your greatest desires to the surface. For some that means becoming overtly promiscuous. For others it means going on a wild spending spree or impulsively taking a plane to London. For me it meant living out and sharing a New Testament kind of love. Of the four Greek loves, I’m referring to agape. Look it up.

The rules of love change when you discover you have feelings for someone you don’t want to have feelings for.

Just when I feel like I can accept not falling in love (or at least not being loved in return), someone I’m interested in shows interest in me. It is unbelievably annoying. So does this mean celibacy isn’t my calling in life? Does this mean that the next guy I date won’t actually be the guy I marry? And how much of my story do I tell him? I owe it to him to give him some sort of warning before he chooses to be in a relationship with me. He needs to have a chance to get out while he can!

This becomes the story of my life, at least the romantic end of it. There will be one more short-lived romance before I turn 30. It wasn’t ideal but anyone who knows me knows I can easily fall into self-pity and self-hatred. I see my flaws much quicker than I see my gifts. But when someone loves me and I don’t fully understand why, I begin to think maybe I’m not such a royal fuck-up. If someone I love can love me, then there must be something about me worth loving.

 

The Meanings of Songs

IMG_0913Fourteen years ago I was traveling solo on an old train in France. I can’t remember if I was going somewhere new or returning to a familiar place but I do remember sitting near another solo traveler, a young man. He was listening to headphones and I could hear a little of the hip-hop beat just sitting across from him.

So I got his attention and asked him in my broken French what he was listening to. He removed his headphones and held them out to me so I could hear for myself.

I knew this genre of music and I wasn’t a huge fan. Not that I had any complaints about the style. It was just the lyrics that made me cringe. They were in English and full of racial slurs, f-bombs, objectification of women, and violence. I was disgusted.

After a minute or two, I handed back his headphones and tried to be diplomatic.

“Do you understand the lyrics?” I asked him.

“No.”

“But you still like it? Why? Some of the things said in here are really mean.”

“I don’t know. I just do. It’s cool, you know? I don’t need to know what the song’s about to like it.”

I didn’t quite understand this point of view even though I’d come across it a couple of times before. In fact, it was 2002 and a year earlier, I’d begun collecting those Putumayo CD’s they used to sell at coffee shops. One of my favorites was a collection of songs called Arabic Groove. All those songs, of course, were in Arabic and I guess I was a hypocrite because it didn’t bother me much to listen to and not understand those songs. The CD insert may not have had a word for word translation of the lyrics, but at least it had a description of each song. After all, this brand was marketed to people like me who didn’t speak Arabic.

French music and even Spanish music have been highly effective language-learning tools for me. The year before I studied abroad, one of the international students from France lent me his French CDs and even went to the trouble of printing out the lyrics to every single song for me. Moreover, listening to Notre dame de Paris by Richard Cocciante and Luc Plamondon and watching it on DVD with and without subtitles (over and over again) helped my language-learning immensely.

Of course, now that I speak and understand French, I listen to French music about as often as I listen to music in my own language. Occasionally I’ll include some Spanish music in the mix because I took four semesters of it at the community college and it’s a common enough language in the Southwest that it almost seems wrong not to. But other languages still kind of elude me.

Then again, music is far more than words. Music conveys emotion in a way that nothing else can. Jaime Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love On Her Arms said in an interview back in 2013:

“Music has the unique ability to be honest, and I think it invites us to do the same. There are words we sing in songs that we would have trouble saying in conversation. Music says it’s okay to be human, okay to ask questions, okay to feel things deeply.”

Singer/songwriter Jon Foreman wrote in 2012 piece called Music Lessons:

“In many ways, my life lessons have been music lessons: the song has taught me how to live and life has taught me how to sing.”

After I wrote the first draft of my memoir last year, I began compiling a memoir playlist of songs that meant different things to me at different times in my life. Each song became a part of the emotion of a particular moment, but much more so than a simple soundtrack. The words were inextricably as important as the melody. So each song is a key to the time-capsule of my memory. Play it and the past will flow through me along with all the happiness and despair it contains.

Below are seven songs from my playlist. I capped out at 156 songs in the end beginning with my adolescence all the way to age 35. I like to say my taste in music improved with age but at the same time, I don’t want to betray the younger version of me by denying the fact that she connected with Disney songs and contemporary Christian music.

So here they are. I won’t tell the story that goes with each song here, but I will tell you how old I was when it had the biggest impact on me and where I was living at the time.

18 years old – Listening to my discman while walking home from high school after a bad day.

20 years old – Transitioning from a private Christian university to Northern Arizona University and trying very hard to remind myself why I needed to keep my faith.

22 years old – This song is forever linked with my time studying in France. It was on the radio a lot so it was impossible not to hear it but I also liked the mixture of my language with the language I was learning.

24 years old – back at my parents’ house. All I wanted to do was fly, somewhere, anywhere….

26 years old – living on my own in Phoenix; lost, broken, and wanting to die.

31 years old – I moved back home again and had only just rediscovered my faith.

34 years old – A very emotional year and the last time I had to be hospitalized.

Imperfect

or “Imparfait”

I used to want to be a songwriter so I began scribbling lyrics down for potential songs when I was a senior in high school. I would say I “wrote” songs but writing music implies putting pen to paper, staff paper in particular, and scratching out notes, each one representing a different pitch and a different length of time for said pitch to be held. I could read music effortlessly because I’d taken piano lessons since age 10, but to write it? That was simply too mathematical.

 

Lyric-Collage

Nevertheless, I secretly continued to write. Most of my songs were fragmented, unpolished and unfinished. Songs were a way for me to confront the emotions that most tormented me and I longed to share them but I was afraid to because they weren’t perfect.

The one I was most proud of was the one I wrote between jobs when I was functionally depressed. It was based on memories of all the times I’d sat alone in my room at night, feeling absolutely worthless, as though a God who supposedly doesn’t make mistakes had somehow screwed up big time when he made me. And yet while I contemplated suicide and sometimes even attempted it in my solitude, a thought kept haunting me. It went something like this:

If I die tonight who will remember me?

If I die tonight what will be my legacy?

Am I to die alone in the cold, unfriendly dark,

And how and why and who’s to blame? 

When I first sang it I was standing in the shower and I belted it angrily into the emptiness surrounding me. But then I realized it would have more of an impact if I sang it a little softer and made the surrounding lyrics kind of about everyone.

I had to work fast. I didn’t live alone at the time and so I had to plan my recordings for when my roommate was out. That didn’t leave much of an opportunity for do-overs. So, I hooked up a microphone to my laptop, sat at my piano keyboard, and quickly put this together:

 

Nothing I’ve created in the musical realm has ever come close to perfect. My award-winning choir days lasted from seventh to ninth grade and I’ve no trophies, plaques, or certificates to boast of since then.

 

MusicianshipBut is there a silver-lining to having something that’s not perfect? Can beauty be found in imperfection?

Perfection is basically the absence of flaws. If you are a singer with perfect pitch, then you can sing the note as true as possible without sharpening or flattening it in the slightest. A perfect circle is one in which the radius is constant throughout. If you take a test and answer every question correctly, you are given a perfect score.

Some people strive for perfection and if you’re such a person, you’re a perfectionist. And we need perfectionist, right? After all, the world applauds perfectionism. Competition thrives on our quest to be perfect. Aren’t we always trying to push the limits of what we as humans can and can’t do?

Once I met a twenty-something young woman who’d shot herself in the head and somehow managed to survive. We met in a psychiatric hospital, a place where the broken, the imperfect, and the misunderstood are often thrown together.   The pressure to be perfect makes some people thrive but causes the rest of us to simply shut down and feel worthless. What if I can’t make straight A’s? What if I’m not good enough to be hired for the job I applied for? What if I fail as a human being? I can’t be everything you want me to be. I can’t be perfect.

Still, I believe imperfection permits a certain kind of beauty to be revealed and, despite our best efforts, there will always be a bit of imperfection in our pursuit of perfection. Ask anyone who has achieved great fame for his works. If you manage to rise to stardom, there will always be someone who will bitterly and jealously try to dig up whatever dirt on you he can in order to bring you down. If you’re the star, do you embrace your imperfections once they’ve been revealed or do you deny them? I think a celebrity is much more relatable when she admits she’s not perfect.

 

Selfish-FLast year I received a bit of a shock as well. A professional counselor accused me of being a perfectionist. I looked at her with such disbelief that my expression demanded an explanation. Me? A perfectionist?

Yes. She said. You’re a perfectionist because you won’t finish anything or share anything unless you think it’s going to be perfect.

That’s not true, I said. My Youtube videos and my blogs and my audio recordings, they’re all terrible and I post them anyway. 

You see how you’re judging your work? You don’t feel like anything you create is or ever will be perfect. You’re a perfectionist. 

I guess the perfectionist gets into all of us now and then.

When it comes to friends, I prefer to spend time with people who are flawed and not afraid to admit it. I find such people easier to connect with. It works both ways too. Many times I’ve met another broken person, showed him the scars from self-inflected wounds and suicide attempts on my left wrist and arm and heard from the depths of his loneliness the familiar words: Oh, so you do understand.