The Only Thing (Stopping Me): Why I'm Listening to Sufjan Again
It was the summer of 2015. Being in love looked like winding Tennessee roads, it smelled like country breezes through rolled-down car windows, and it sounded like Sufjan Stevens.
It felt like sitting in the passenger seat, hair wind-whipped, with the first guy I ever said “I love you” to sitting at the wheel—one hand resting on it and one hand resting in mine. We were driving from Maryland to northeast Tennessee, where he would soon be starting his last year of college.
Such a drive required a good soundtrack: Noah Gundersen, old Mumford and Sons songs, all the staples. But we were saving Sufjan for the right moment. Obviously, we agreed, all 43 sacred minutes of Carrie & Lowell would have to be played in order, without pause.
It might have been nearly midnight by the time I actually pushed “play” on its first track. We talked a bit during those 43 minutes, but mostly, we sat in silence: silence soaked in the contentedness of something so perfectly sad, perfectly beautiful.
In just a few days, as he started school, I would be flying back home to the West Coast. I glanced over at him every so often as the melancholy notes drifted from the car speakers, seeing how his face looked (hopeful? contemplative? peaceful?) when he listened to these songs we’d gushed about over text and FaceTime and now got to hear together.
I gave him the Carrie & Lowell vinyl for Christmas. We broke up a few days before Easter.
It’s amazing what we can’t wear or listen to or watch after Something Happens. The simultaneously best and worst thing about our senses is how they can etch memories into our minds like hand prints into wet concrete. I found that Carrie & Lowell was etched there in the shape of that Tennessee night, and the thought of returning to it hurt. But I love Sufjan. And I love that album. And I wanted it back.
I want to be in the business of redeeming things. By “things” (a terrible word but also a nicely vague one), I mean songs and clothes and smells; all the wonderful objects and sensory signals that get stained by the stuff we’d rather forget.
I’ve been thinking about this particular kind of redemption and reclaiming quite a bit recently, as I’ve clicked on that Facebook “On This Day” feature to see what I was up to a year (or two or three) ago, as I’ve caught up with friends I haven’t seen since Things Were Much Different, as I’ve noticed the shirts and dresses in my closet that I’ve avoided wearing because they just make me think of the last time I put them on.
Of course, the little works of transformation I’m hoping for don’t happen out of some sheer willpower to make things right and whole again. Sometimes the catharsis comes packaged in the most inconvenient of moments—like during a yoga class.
Most Wednesday nights, I go to yoga at a nearby college. The dimmed lights are calming, the instructor’s voice is gentle, and the music she picks is somehow always right. One Wednesday, I was stretching out my arms, my burning legs shaking slightly on my mat, when a too-familiar, too-soon series of notes plucked on guitar strings wafted through the room from the speakers, followed by Sufjan’s hushed voice: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car…”
The instructor was telling us to inhale, then exhale, but for a moment, I wasn’t breathing at all.
Here’s a frustrating reality about yoga classes: it’s not exactly acceptable to raise a hand out of whatever pretzel pose you’ve somehow wound yourself into and say, “Excuse me, this song might shred my heart into teensy pieces, so can you please skip it, thanks?” I was trapped on my mat, my body frozen into some pose resembling a tree or a dog or an eagle, and I would have to hear every word.
“...in a veil of great surprises, I wonder did you love me at all?”
I hadn’t listened to Sufjan in months and months. Now the notes and words and melody lines washed the room, with little mind to my thoughts of “Please, stop.”
But here’s another yoga reality: someone will always be telling you to breathe.
So I did. I inhaled—“everything I feel returns to you somehow”—and exhaled—“blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart”—I was back in that car, back in Tennessee, back in love.
“...should I tear my heart out now?”
(Maybe I should.)
But then it was over: the song, and the class a few minutes later. I crossed the dark parking lot back to my car with a heart that was heavy—yet a heart I found I could (strangely, somehow, surprisingly) still carry.
A couple days later I was on my phone, tapping and swiping and putting Carrie & Lowell back in my library. Because I loved that album. And I wanted it back.
C.S. Lewis wrote a sentence in Miracles that continues to stand out to me: “[A]ll events are equally providential.” I’ve come to believe that “all events” do include Wednesday night yoga classes.
Not everything can be made right and new, wearable and listenable, again. I’ve given plenty of shirts and dresses to Goodwill. There are some songs I don’t think I’ll ever push “play” on now.
But I’m thankful for those things I can redeem. And those moments of providence that bring them back can be beautiful, too.