One year, one month, and 11 days passed during three clicks of the shutter on my iPhone. My phone gained hundreds of photos during that time, but only three were after a Sufjan Stevens show ... well, one each after three Sufjan Stevens shows. They were three evenly spaced out shows (June, November, July) that evenly spaced out some major events in my life.
I have done things in the past one year, one month, and 11 days that I would have never imagined would happen to me. I got really angry, then I dug myself out of a depression so deep I thought my soul had died (after a command from the back of a record, you may already know that story). I found out about joy. I poured my soul out into a Google Docs file and what resulted was actually worth sharing. I held hands and talked about bunnies with my most favorite person in the world and he smiled at me the whole time, even while we leaned against each other in the picture he asked me for (not the other way around), and I was genuinely living in the moment for the first time in years. I found out Bryan Devendorf, the drummer from The National (my favorite band), is the tallest man in the world. I went to therapy a lot and questioned everything in my life and found a surprising number of answers. I learned to be present; Kanye was right, being present is indeed a present. I got my first real sound system for Christmas from my parents to celebrate my return to listening to music, and I cried as I heard my favorite albums for the first time a second time. I shared my soul and my thoughts more and more, and people reached out and responded and thanked me for being brave, when really all I was doing was being honest. Unexpectedly, a professional writer deemed my Google Docs file excellent storytelling and writing, and a goal I’ve had since I was a teenager was realized when she published my horcrux/essay in a series about how music impacts lives. People called something I wrote required reading and my heart soared. I got validation from my entire social sphere and beyond. I felt like a rock star. I got on a plane a few days later to fulfill a wish I had even longer than to be published; I was going to Red Rocks, a mythical distant planet that radiates life and music that I have dreamed of visiting since I was a little girl. I have actually come to believe dreams can – and do – come true. Sure, day-to-day life is still boring, even shitty sometimes, and I’ve yet to have fame and fortune thrown at me, but I enjoy my waking hours and I am proud of the dope human being I have honed myself into during this little over a year.
I don’t believe in God or fate or predestination. I have a vague theory that life is simply organized chaos and humans want to find patterns, so we do find patterns. Having said that, I have always clung to the Ancient Greeks’ idea of the Fates: spinners of yarns, tying people and places and events together, with some wisdom we don’t have access to as humans. I find the Fates provocative. I have also always wondered if perhaps storytellers, the mortal spinners of yarn, know something the rest of us don’t, too. Master yarn spinner Sufjan Stevens’ life got tangled up in my life on June 8, 2015, and while his daily life is not what I have been twisted into nor mine into his, his presence has been a common thread in my journey. Some people scoff when I talk about him, some people tell me I’m too obsessed in a joking-but-not-really way, some people just stop listening because they never cared in the first place. But a lot of people want to hear more, they want to know how a few words managed to be the catalyst for the biggest change and move forward of my life. What is this tapestry seemingly woven just for me?
The words “despair is a choice” were woven in gold onto my soul by the Fates that Monday night. I cried because that needle hurt. My $35 mascara stained my cheeks, but to me it seemed like darkness was finally being let out in the form of tears. “Visible catharsis,” I would say to myself later as I looked at the photograph I took in a rare moment of foresight that I may actually want to remember something so painful later. I actually laughed after looking at it, as the tear stains over my freckles reminded me of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art girls, so two-dimensional yet hold their own against opulent pre-Raphaelite Ophelias, and all the zephyr-blown Venuses and radiant Virgin Marys from every era. I felt like just another sad girl in the history of sad girls, some of whom get a portrait for their troubles.
(An aside: art makes pain seem beautiful when it is anything but. That’s something I came to accept as a fact that night as I squirmed in my chair while beautiful music about pain stabbed me a thousand times over. It was confirmed by the stinging pain of having expensive mascara in my eyes as I sobbed once I got home.)
I’ve told the story of the only time Sufjan Stevens pissed me off and how I learned to enjoy my rabbit so many times now that sometimes it feels more like a motivational speaker’s anecdote rather than events that actually happened to me. My little black bunny, Persey, is now gone; her thread was 12 years long, and the Fates were kind enough to me to tie my thread back to Sufjan’s before Persey’s was cut away so I could have something to hold on to in my mourning. Too soon, I lost the rabbit I had learned to enjoy, and I knew I could not let that lead to losing the lessons learned and ground gained. But instead of painfully weaving words into my soul, my second fate-filled encounter with Sufjan was like being wrapped in a personal crocheted afghan, made of soft golden fleece, warm and beautiful.
Sufjan’s golden advice to me that night didn’t hurt the way “despair is a choice” did; it was protective and felt like healing. It was winter and it was a Friday the 13th, but cold and unlucky are the last words I would use to describe how I felt. I realized I would be ok, though I knew my little black talisman was nearing the end of her life, and enjoying my bunny would have to become something more in her absence. I held on to that second picture taken after a Sufjan Stevens show like a shield against the dragon of despair. When I couldn’t move forward, I would bear down with my shield, protecting myself until I could stand up to find joy again.
If all of this sounds dramatic, it’s because it was. Meeting Sufjan was unexpected and something I had waited for so long that I had given up on it. Afterwards, I ran through the streets of a city I didn’t know yelling and jumping on benches and laughing to the starry sky like in a movie. Our threads ran parallel with the occasional tangle before, but a knot was tied as I told him how his words changed my life and we discussed the importance of choosing joy over despair and mused over our shared love of rabbits, face-to-face and hands-in-hands. (“Rabbits are sacred.”) He considered my words and returned advice, I did the same for him. We remarked on how alike we are, which led to both some moments of non-awkward silence, as well as laughing so hard I thought I would have an asthma attack. I was reminded again I’m not alone, my experiences are not wholly unique, and as Sufjan said about 80 million times during his poignant rambling monologues that defined the Carrie & Lowell tour, “It’s important to understand that you have the capacity always to accommodate for immense sorrow and immense joy – which is not just the pay off – it’s part of the whole experience.”
The whole experience definitely includes sorrow. Just a few weeks after the overjoy of meeting Sufjan, I spent my last night with Persey. She was my daemon, my constant companion, and I felt her frail body was ready to rest as if it were my own feelings coursing through me. I never knew my soulmate would end up being a tiny black rabbit with long eyelashes and eternal patience – all I know is I have a thread, as does everyone else, and I’ve learned trying to guess how those threads will braid together is a fool’s errand. We spent the night in bed, warm and together. I sang to her, I told her I loved her, I cried into her black fur, and she kissed the crook of my elbow where her head was resting. The next morning, I checked on her. She looked like she was just asleep. Knowing she must have passed away peacefully was the only comfort I could find other than it felt right that I had been able to tell Sufjan about her and learning to enjoy her while she was still alive. I wondered if maybe that was fate, or maybe in some preternatural way Persey knew that meeting was to come, but my grief overtook any philosophical crises I could have had when my next door neighbor/adopted grandpa Clair died a few weeks later. Losing two of my best friends slammed me back to Earth and I feared all my progress towards contentment would be lost. Despair seemed inevitable, but I knew I had the capacity to find immense joy for I was actively experiencing my immense capacity for sorrow. I purposefully set out to find my joy in memories of them; I had 30 years' worth with Clair and a decade’s worth with Persey, and I refused to let grief dull the beauty of the life I had woven with both of them.
Well, I told myself I refused. Ideals and reality don’t always overlap. If my life story was an actual tapestry on an actual loom that I had access to, I would have probably pulled out the rows that reminded me of Persey and Clair. That would have ruined it, but the grief I felt was staggering and complicated by being 3,000 miles away from my brother (he was even closer to Clair than I was), Nancy (Clair’s wife), and our happy cul-de-sac that was my entire life until I was 28. Oregon may as well have been another galaxy away from Virginia based on the distance my grief seemed to stretch. I reminded myself that we all die, Clair was 93, Persey was 12 (very old for a rabbit), my brother and Nancy would be ok without me. I reminded myself I had gotten to talk to Clair one last time to tell him how much I loved him (“more than the moon loves the earth, and more than all the stars in the sky”), and my brother told me Clair responded he loves me that much too, for Clair’s voice couldn’t carry loud enough through the oxygen mask he had over his face in the hospital to be heard over the phone. I thought often of singing to Persey and her relaxing, reminding myself to be glad our last night was beautiful and calm. I had to constantly remind myself I was lucky to have closure with them both.
Tears came anyway and I let them. I could have filled an ocean before I was finally able to start replacing grief with the memories of joy. Seeing the same blue of Clair’s eyes in the sky started making me smile again; before I thought maybe it would be better if I never saw any blue again. My mom’s beautiful silver curly hair stopped making me get upset about never again seeing Clair’s beautiful silver curly hair, always combed back into waves and the perfect compliment to a face that stayed handsome all the way into his 90s. All of the things that reminded me of him (the list is endless, I can’t remember not knowing Clair, our families were so close that we didn’t even knock when coming into the others’ houses) were now gossamer winding around me instead of needles in my heart. I had experienced a lifetime of unconditional love from a man who could have easily just been my neighbor, but chose to be my family and my friend. I decided to focus on that instead of despair, though it was hard to accept I would never see him again, nor could I even visit his grave if I visited Virginia because he was buried in his family’s plot in Pennsylvania. Even that upset me a little – it was hard for me to imagine him as belonging to anyone other than my brother and me, but all real love comes with accepting you’re not truly the center of anyone’s universe, I think.
As I coped with these two major losses, I found a part of me that I’m not sure I knew existed, a level of being able to feel that I had never tapped into before. I have dealt with illness and death my whole life, many of my earliest memories are in hospitals or at funerals. I learned how to cope with uncertainty and loss when I was very young. Persey’s death followed so closely by Clair’s death unlocked a desire to truly experience life as it was happening and take it all in and process it. I thought of all my time with them and how we lived a full life together, and I wanted that for everything in my life. I never wanted to waste another moment or take my time with the people I love for granted ever again.
Mindfulness of my emotions in moments of grief and in contentment opened up a new courage I hadn’t had before. I wasn’t magically never sad and I definitely felt depressed given I was in mourning, but I realized I had to live my life and I could not just fall in my own grave. Around the same time, I got an email inviting me to a special Easter tea party with a local therapy animal group called Bunnies In Baskets. I RSVP'd and when the day finally came, my dad drove me across the city to the church it was being held at and I got to pet bunnies for the first time since Persey had died. I did cry when I saw one who looked like a big version of her, but I enjoyed myself immensely and while I was sitting talking to one of the owners, a lady who had overheard us sat down and introduced herself. She had heard me say I had interest in fostering a rabbit, and she works for the nonprofit Rabbit Advocates, which facilitates just that. We exchanged information and about a month later, I got an email asking if I was ready to be a foster mom. You can guess my response.
Between then and when I was interviewed to prepare to be a foster mom, Sufjan announced a show at Red Rocks in Colorado. To put it mildly, I flipped my shit. I had wanted to go to Red Rocks since I was a little kid and Sufjan had never played there. My friend Amy got the tickets, I scheduled flights, and we impatiently waited. In the meantime, my foster rabbit Ginger arrived. She was terrified and sat facing the wall in the kitchen for days. I didn’t know what to make of her; she was nearly 15 pounds (compared to Persey less than 2 pounds), shy, and kind of traumatized. I was told the home she came from was chaotic and noisy, with loud parrots constantly squawking, and she didn’t have a very large area to live in, which was especially bad given she’s huge. Using music I knew Persey liked and patience, I eventually got her acclimated to this new place she was in. We practiced socializing and having floor time, something she hadn’t had before. Soon Ginger was happily exploring the entire apartment and even learned she could jump up on the furniture. She started waking me up for her breakfast on days I slept in, which made me laugh forever. It was a joy to see her bloom into someone with a personality! I felt so fulfilled and so proud that all the training work I had learned working with Persey was now paying off with this foster bunny who would someday make a wonderful pet for a lucky family ...
... LOL. Yeah, right. As I was trying to type up her adoption profile I started sobbing at the idea of giving her away, I really came to love this giant silver rabbit. I sheepishly asked my foster coordinator Karen if I could adopt her as my own and she gave me an ecstatic yes, so here I became a bunny owner again. I had no idea a new silver thread would been woven into my tapestry so soon after losing Persey, but I had a bunny and tickets to see Sufjan and life was grand.
During all of this, I had been submitting essays and poetry to litmags and series to no avail. I was getting used to getting no responses when a friend pointed me in the direction of an author named Kelly J. Baker looking for writers to do a series called “Albums,” and to my shock, I got a response to my submission. She loved it. She told me she had other submissions to go through but was definitely going to include my essay. I have an excellent vocabulary and I’ve yet to find the word that describes how I felt finding out I would be published and turning in the final edited draft. I had been dreaming of being published since high school and never was, not even in the litmags I was on staff for. “Dreams come true” was constantly running through my head as I waited for the date “The Only Time Sufjan Stevens Pissed Me Off And How I Learned To Enjoy My Rabbit” would make its professional debut.
On July 8, 2016, I had a 6th row seat ticket to see Sufjan Stevens at Red Rocks in my possession, a new giant silver bunny who adores me and her new home, and a published piece of writing that happened to be what I consider the most important thing I’ve ever written. My brother was in town visiting, so we also had a celebratory breakfast at Mother’s Bistro, our family favorite, with our parents, and truly, life was good. I requested everyone refer to me as Published Author S. Amanda Clevinger (no one did) and enjoyed eating too much, coffee, and my three favorite people. I was in the moment and I wasn’t even trying. Nothing plagued my mind, everything was simply joy. I had no loose ends, I finally felt like perhaps my life has a design after all. I was finally living a life I wanted to live.
Nine days later, I had already been in Colorado at Amy’s for a few days. I was sitting at the dinner table making neon gaff tape wings on the back of my shirt, turning nervous energy into a really fucking cool design while Amy and her best friend Elizabeth gave me thumbs up or down on colors and shapes. We were all excited about the show at Red Rocks the next day, but I was about to nearly come out of my skin thinking about finally going to this amazing venue that I had dreamed of for decades. The next day, we all got dressed in our neon regalia, I did my makeup so cool that I know Prince would have immediately inducted me as a member of the Revolution, we piled in the car, and we went to check the last thing off my bucket list. I started to cry when I saw Red Rocks off in the distance, but “Amanda! You’ll ruin your makeup!” cried out by my friends got me back to just being excited without tears.
I’ve debated about whether or not I should do a review of the show. I decided that’s not the point of this piece. Yes, the show was incredible, Sufjan was so happy and so excited to play such a legendary venue for the first time, there was even a double rainbow. More importantly though, I was present, completely. I could have been the only person in the entire place and I would have had equally as good of a time. I wasn’t distracted, I wasn’t thinking about other things, I was solely enjoying seeing my favorite person play my favorite music at this dream-come-true venue. I was happy, really happy. I was so happy I barely took any pictures because I was too busy enjoying myself. A gold thread was sewn through my heart once again, but this time it didn't hurt at all. All it did was confirm that despair can be defeated by joyous noise.
One year, one month, and 11 days before, I had wanted to get up and leave. My mind was a million places, none of which were the concert I was attending. I was uncomfortable and hurting. I was angry. I cried myself to sleep. My face was stained with mascara and my eyes burned. I took a picture of it not knowing one year, one month, and 11 days later, I would call out to Amy as we left, “Hey, wait a minute! I forgot to take a picture with one of the Red Rocks!” and I would be vibrantly alive and smiling. I like to think the Fates aren't as cruel as we believe and were holding up that picture, admiring how well they recovered their handiwork.
© S. Amanda Clevinger