the fool's journey: 2010-2019

reflections on the ways music interwines lives, from the natural bridge of a new decade

I found out David Berman died a day after the rest of the world. I was sitting in the passenger seat of my own car, barely upright, still incredibly groggy from top surgery the previous day. I was wearing Steph’s shirt, several sizes too big for me, because it buttoned up over my surgical drains. It was August, hot and claustrophobic-humid, and we were listening to Silver Jews’ American Water on the way to my day-after checkup. “I didn’t want to tell you yesterday because you were so out of it,” Steph said. “Did you know he was living at Drag City?”

The Drag City offices aren’t far from my apartment, which Steph and I moved into together under considerable duress in early 2013—we’d been kicked out of our previous apartment because our landlords wanted to give our apartment to their son and his wife, and we’d been given something like three weeks’ notice in the middle of winter to do so—and in which I now live by myself, with most of their physical possessions. They live in Oakland. We still love one another fiercely; they had come back twice in 2019 to take care of me, once during my first attempt at this procedure in February and again this time, when it finally took. 

I should back up, I suppose. Steph and I met around Christmas of 2005; I had moved to Chicago on a total whim a few months prior, just because my best friend lived here and could give me a free place to stay for a hot second while I figured out whether I liked the city. I had needed a change very badly; I was 26, after all, and had lived in the same area for most of my life. They had just lost their mother, suddenly and tragically, and had gone through an abrupt breakup. I bought records from them at the store they’d worked at then; they’d recognized me from a messageboard we were both on. A few days later, a mutual friend pushed us into going on a date. We were outwardly a cis man and a cis woman then, two bi queers to whom hetero relationships felt alien if not socially legible. We were both vulnerable, emotional, complete messes who locked together immediately; both of our lives revolved around independent music, too. Our birthdays are one year and 364 days apart.

We spent the next few years breaking up and getting back together because something so immense felt incredibly wrong at that point—but also unavoidable. In 2009, on my 30th and their 32nd birthday weekend, we decided we couldn’t live without the other person. In early 2010, we moved in together, and in 2012 we got civil union-ed. In 2013, the bottom dropped out of both of our lives. There was the apartment stress, and I was laid off from the job I’d been at for nearly eight years. Both of us were struggling with deep gender and body dysphoria. In 2014, they made the decision to quit their job. 

In 2016, I switched careers and had to move to New York for my job; after a very fraught six months, I figured out how to remain at my job to come back to Chicago to be with them, but they were unhappy here, frustrated, unable to find work that fulfilled them beyond part-time bartending. My leaving so suddenly had created a rift. We struggled through all of this to be kind to one another, to communicate honestly, to love one another truly. 

I somehow stayed clean, and struggled to continue growing and getting better, learning about myself, trying to work through the chronic and complex PTSD that enduring multiple violent sexual assaults during my childhood and young adulthood had left me with. I was suicidal for most of my life. I was still suicidal when I met Steph, and went through bouts of major depression and suicidal ideation for many years into our relationship. I think 2015 was the last time I had one; four years is the longest I’ve ever gone without one.

When it came time for Steph to go, we both knew it. I pushed them gently and for a while: “This is what you need to do, for you. You’re stuck here.” And so they got themself unstuck; it saved them, and us. 

David Berman was born 12 years before, but not so far from, me; he spent his childhood in Virginia, while I was born in DC and grew up just over the city line in Maryland. We had deep depression, turbulent early lives, Jewishness, poetry, and music in common. We never met, but our lives touched in all kinds of intimate places. I remember hearing American Water for the first time vividly. My friend Becky, who I was close with through high school and college (we are still friends, though our lives have diverged), was the Queen of the Pavement Messageboard (a band I had never really gotten and continue to not really get), and she’d made me this tape of a “Malkmus side project” I’d heard in her car and liked. I was visiting my parents in the DC suburbs. I don’t remember why I was on a local bus, but I was on a local bus going back to their house from … a show? Hanging out with a friend, maybe? Who knows. At any rate, the song “Buckingham Rabbit” hit right as the bus rattled past the park where I’d been raped in middle school. 

And so the rent became whiskey
And then my life became risky
And so the rent became whiskey, whiskey
Shattered dogs on the rocks, shattered dogs on the rocks

When you know how I feel, I feel better
When you're fifteen, you wanna look poor
You do unto others and run like a mother
I don't wanna look poor anymore
No, I don't wanna look poor anymore

I thought about how writing about what I had gone through, talking to people after years of holding it in, had opened up a whole new world of activism and connection for me. I thought about the vast chasm of pain under my breastbone; it felt limitless. I thought about how I couldn’t have sex with a man without being trashed. I thought about how I needed to be fucked up to do most things, even though I was trying not to be fucked up. I was 19; the album had just been released. It was nearly winter. I felt immensely thankful for the song and all of a sudden there I was, tears streaming down my face, a hand clutching the off-brand Walkman I’d had since I was a kid, crying and crying and rewinding and rewinding and taking the long way home from the bus stop so I wouldn’t have a face that looked like a mottled tomato by the time I got to my parents’ house. I’ve always been a crier.

Jesus in a runaway shelter
Said, "The deaf have pictures of you"
From the digital fountains to the analog mountains
Let the mirror express the room
Let the mirror express the room

Now I was sitting in the passenger seat of my own car, 40 years old, with my wife who lives on the other side of the country, having just had a surgery I’d wanted since puberty but was too afraid to talk about for a long time. We were listening to that same song. The person who had written it, who had been so close to my home without my knowing it for the last couple of years, had killed himself. And somehow I was still alive. I wasn’t supposed to still be alive.

Steph is a big part of the reason I am still alive. Nobody had ever loved me so ferociously, in my fullness, in my weakest moments and my strongest ones. We had always seen the better angles in one another. (Let the mirror express the room.) “I wish you could see in you what I see in you,” we had said to one another, over and over and over again. Two stubborn Pisces. Two people who were either the same person or the polar opposite and nothing in between. They reached over and held my hand. We listened to the record the short rest of the way to the doctor’s office, and let it start over again on the way home. 

Steph and I have both fallen in love with other people, too, though it has not lessened our love for one another. We both have girlfriends, and have moved from being less whatever primary partners are supposed to be to one another to … a sense of enduring family. We will always be in one another’s lives in some way or another. The fact that we can be this to one another is a very intentional miracle. (Berman, interestingly enough, is Steph’s girlfriend’s favorite musician.)

“The thing that makes me so angry,” Steph said at some point that afternoon—I think we were still in the car, but maybe not—”is that I was reading some interview with David Berman and he said that people didn’t ever tell him they loved his music. And I know that’s not true.” 

“This is what depression does to you, you know?” I said, still cloudy from the previous day’s anesthesia. “You know what I was like in my worst times? And what you were like in yours? How we could never hear another or see how much the other person loved us?” Their hand, so much larger than my hand—I thought about how they used to fold their entire fingers over mine, because they could—squeezed mine.

And later, they said: “The other thing that makes me so angry is that he could have just hung on one more day. He knew how to do that. He was about to go on tour. He was about to see that he was wrong and that people loved him. He could have just hung on and gotten over that hump and gotten away.”

I wonder, in some ways, if that was part of the catalyst for Berman’s death. Purple Mountains, which is an incredible record, was getting rave reviews—as it should. There would have been big crowds of adoring fans at every show, ready to tell him how much he meant to them upon this occasion, his emergence from nearly a decade away from music. When you are at the bottom of the pit and your self-concept is shattered by undeniable love, you can either run toward it or away from it. You can start to let others in, or you can shut them out completely. And when you shut them out completely, that’s when death starts to feel really appealing.

I don’t know if this had anything to do with Berman’s death, of course; I can only speculate given my own experience at the precipice. I struggled, but I ultimately let love in—not just Steph’s, but the love of so many friends, many of whom have been by my side through all the worst parts despite my shittiest efforts to push them away. My new girlfriend, my parents, my colleagues. It changed my life, my self-perception, everything. I started out this decade as one person, a person in deep pain in a shoddily put-together mask and costume that those who loved me could see through, and ended it as myself. Not perfect, still growing—always—but thankful I stuck around. I wish Berman had too.

The “fool’s journey” is a method of reading the major arcana of the tarot, loosely based on Jungian psychology, which psychologists regard as largely bunk these days but which undergirds a fair amount of 20th and 21st century English-language storytelling (thanks, Joseph Campbell). It’s seeped into the water of popular narrative, and distilling it seems, well, a fool’s errand. (I am not religious, but one absolutely cannot dismiss the Bible’s impact on popular narrative and literature either. My mom, also non-observant, made me read the Old Testament in high school because she knew how much I loved writing and other people’s writing, and I hated it, but I’m really thankful for that now.) 

All of us, writers or not, are always telling stories about ourselves and the world around us. Methodology and audience may shift over time and culture and technology and personal context, but this is what we have always done, what we will always do. How else to make sense of things?

Berman played the fool often enough; his songs are full of self-effacing wit and absurdist, dry humor, very Jewish-American (“The implicit ability to construct a perceived environment which is bound neither to reason nor to logic, is seen as the last line of defense for an oppressed minority whose other options have been denied,” write Samuel Juni and Bernard Katz of Jewish humor). It is why I have always been flip about myself especially in the darkest of times, that humor, which was certainly passed down to me. And I have often been a fool too, stumbling headlong into mistakes and trying to grow and change based on the lessons I’ve learned. No narrative trajectory is linear, no love is linear, perfection and stability are myths, we are all searching always, we are all liminal. I’ve found that as a trans person accepting a state of always being in between is especially key to accepting myself. 

Psalm 90, which is one of the psalms commonly read during periods of Jewish mourning, reads thus:

O God, You have been our refuge in every generation.
Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.
You return us to dust; Your decree: “Return, you mortals!”
For in Your sight a thousand years are as yesterday when it has passed, as a watch in the night.
You engulf us in sleep; we are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; at dusk it withers and dries up. The span of our life is threescore years and ten, or, given strength, fourscore years; But the best of those years have trouble and sorrow.
They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness.
Teach us, therefore, so to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom, Turn to us, O God!
Show mercy to Your servants.
Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love
That we may sing for joy all our days.
Let Your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory by their children.
May Your favor, O God, be upon us.
Establish the work of our hands that it may long endure.

American Water closes on “The Wild Kindness,” which has been stuck in my head for months now, a rippling reflection of Psalm 90, a song of comfort, of mourning, of hope, a hymn unto itself:

Grass grows in the icebox
The year ends in the next room
It is autumn and my camouflage is dying
Instead of time, there will be lateness
Instead of time, there will be lateness
Instead of time, there will be lateness
And let forever be delayed

I dyed my hair in a motel void
Met the coroner at the Dreamgate Frontier
He took my hand, and said, "I'll help you, boy
If you really want to disappear"

Four dogs in the distance
Each stands for a silence, yeah
Bluebirds lodged in an evergreen altar

I'm gonna shine out in the wild kindness
I'm gonna shine out in the wild kindness
I'm gonna shine out in the wild kindness
And hold the world to its word.

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