The Artist. Alex Izenberg.
The darkness has taken over me
Once I see her engagement ring
Alex Izenberg's "Grace" may be one of his most accessible tracks. Piano chords roll under a desperate voice, as strings add a level of sentimentality, coloring the pain in soft hues.
Contrast this with his song "To Move On," and the tone immediately changes. Still recounting a lost love, this track has its softer moments, but is predominantly cheerful, mirroring his perception of his ex-lovers carefree manner of moving on without him.
You don't know what it's like to have to move on
She started dancing to that fine, fine music
It's true, love
You don't know what it's like to have to move on
From a name you despise
It's true, love
Izenberg's album, "Harlequin" is experimental without totally breaching approachability. His unorthodox style shades each track, feeling largely inventive, rather than forcibly avant-garde. For an album promising to move outside what's standard, Izenberg's last release is worth the listen.
Blue skies replace the usual grey. Streaks of red flash as buses pass by the window. Perhaps it would feel more typical London were I to be sipping tea instead of a cappuccino. But I've always been a coffee girl, and that much hasn't changed.
As I eat a bite of banana bread off a delicately patterned floral plate, I peer across the street at people bustling about. They stream from both sides, passing telephone booths, a pub, and window sills adorned with pink and purple flowers. It seems right enough.
Cities are curious in the way they each seem to have such distinctive personalities.
London to me is a contrary old man, stubborn enough about his ways, but quite the charmer when he wants to be. He never pretends to offer more than he has and can admittedly be a bit dreary at times. Catch him at the right time though and it's a different story entirely. You can look past his stubborn and tedious temperament to see his value. He may come across as aloof and indifferent, not seeming to care about you and how you're feeling, but sometimes this indifference is precisely what you need. Feeling small in a city forces you to draw from yourself a way to feel bigger. There's no dependence on affirmation, and London certainly doesn't care to validate you based on the image of yourself you've been trying so hard to sell. There's a certain loss of vanity that comes from a city that doesn't care who you are, who you've worked with or where you've been. His indifference creates a level playing field and a loosening on an obsession to impress—a loosening that allows you to start doing things simply, and completely, just for yourself.
He may not go out of his way to make you feel secure, but strike up the right conversations, and he will meet you where you are.
He'll find you in a cosy little shop where you ducked in to avoid the rain. He'll keep you company as you write there for hours. He'll engage your conversation about the blues bar you love. He'll introduce you to people burning with passion—people who care to make a stand as they attempt to make a difference in this world. He'll talk music, he'll talk film, he'll talk literature, he'll talk politics. And each conversation will bring with it bits of perspective and bits of growth. You can complain about his expensive tastes, but he'll probably simply shrug and push his glasses back. He's old and stubborn after all. And stubborn or not, you're grateful for his company.
After coming into contact with the personalities of many cities over the years, London's character is one I've grown to really appreciate. Under the umbrella of this city's seeming indifference to me, I came to more fully embrace who I am and what I want. Despite my seeming insignificance as I join the sea of people flooding onto the underground everyday, there's still the significance that's created in pursuing the things that add value to my life. And there's still the significance of the people, places and experiences that have pulled me through and colored the days of my passing time.
As I push in my chair and leave my cappuccino cup behind, I know I'll be back, perhaps to write again tomorrow. It's a typical day in London and though my time in this city got off to a bit of a bumpy start, I couldn't be happier to have met this old man.
The Song. "City Lights," The White Stripes
"Will you dig a tunnel to me?"
Released in September of last year, this song was written for the "Get Behind Me Satan" album. It's a shame it didn't make the cut, but there's comfort in it making its way to our ears now, eight years since the White Stripe's last formal release. Simple and soothing, the light guitar picking and minimal instrumentation glide under Jack White's distinctive vocals and carry the listener through the song. The music video is also worth a watch. Michel Gondry's unassuming visual work makes for the perfect pairing.
The Artist. Julien Baker
"And I just let the parking lot swallow me up
Choking your tires, and kicking up dust
Asking aloud why you're leaving
But the pavement won't answer me"
Authenticity. Rare to find at times, but when it's there, it can almost be tangibly felt.
I feel it in the words and notes that spill onto each track of Julien Baker's "Sprained Ankle." Each song is stripped down, with only her electric guitar, silvery voice and candid writing to fill the space. There's pain, sincerity, yearning, and even, surrender, as she pours herself in to the nine songs on the record.
I felt her authenticity far before I confirmed it. I normally don't give a detailed account of an artists background when writing of songs or artists I've come to enjoy, but for her, it brings an even deeper level and meaning to her work. After reading through her interviews and watching her performances online, there really is no doubt left in mind: the piercing beauty of her honest craft is as authentic as it gets.
Baker is 21 year old from Memphis, Tennessee, living in the heart of what's consider the Bible Belt of the United States. She had no real intentions of becoming a recognized artist, and was instead studying literature with an emphasis on secondary education when she recorded "Sprained Ankle" with a friend from her college's audio engineering program. There were no expectations and it was never a consideration to create tracks that would sell. I believe this is one reason her honesty shines through.
She was honest about her pain: pain after a break up, pain after years of destructive behavior, and pain in her search to find God and reconcile what it means to be a southern Christian woman who identifies as a lesbian. She doesn't hold back. It's honesty you can feel. And it's honesty that drives through to the heart of the listener.
An unfeigned, transparent creation by a talented artist, "Sprained Ankle" is truly a work of art.
I stepped outside into bright light. It was a welcomed greeting for a London winter. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the only visible condensation was my breath as it floated before me. Sunlight bounced off the perpetually damp streets and my face felt warm in the rays despite the brisk air. It was 10am and a half moon still hung above the buildings, stubborn and not ready to disappear for the day. An airplane made a clean streak in the clear sky.
On this same clear, bright day, sitting at my favorite café with a good friend, I watched the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States—a man whose rhetoric has pointed toward hate, intolerance, and a blind disregard for marginalized groups or interests other than his own. Incongruence at its finest.
Today, I was greeted by another sunny London morning. This time though, instead of watching an “America first” speech in the hours to follow, I watched thousands of men, women and children march through the streets toward Trafalgar square.
I am not naïve enough to think the simple act of walking equates to tangible change. But I would be lying if I said that seeing such large numbers moved to action was not a comfort. Across the world, thousands are disturbed by the wave of self-interested patriotism searing through the political sphere. From Brexit, to Trump, to Marine Le Pen “hailing patriotism as the policy of the future,” the influence is undeniable.
Though this ideology is troubling on many levels, perhaps most concerning is the associated hate rhetoric and the turning a blind eye to issues that should not be ignored. It doesn’t matter if problems with racism, sexism, acceptance of the LBGT community, aid for refugees, and concern for the environmental well-being of our planet are inconvenient—they still must be addressed.
Blind patriotism isn’t the answer. But, neither is a simple march. The marches of today showed that there are numbers. There are people who are upset, disturbed, concerned. But sheer numbers do nothing. It is only the mobility of these numbers that equate to change.
My hope is that all who marched today will not simply return to life as usual. Brexit and Trump, for the time being, cannot be reversed. But there are still small individual actions that can lead to tangible results. For me, I know I can’t keep talking about my concern with what is happening in Syria, and never do anything about it. I have to get actively involved. Whatever it is that bothers us, whatever it is that got us out to march, it is that which we should act upon. It is that which we should fight to change.
The women’s march today was for more than just women. It was for the deep seeded problems we are frightened to watch grow—problems of negligence and problems of hate. We cannot sit back and idly watch it all unfold. It’s easy to become disillusioned, but there are still bright days to look forward to, even in a spell of grey. That, at least, is the small hope I hold it. That, at least, is the reason I fight on.
The first time I came to London, I felt that I needed it: needed to get away, needed to be somewhere new, and needed a city to breathe life back into me.
I came back from London a month later refueled, but feeling I needed more time: more time to grow, more time to expand... more time to be away.
And so off to Italy I went, where I did grow and I did expand.
For a while, traveling was an escape of sorts for me. But, when I started preparing for London this summer, I wasn't viewing London as a coming escape. This go around, it was a challenge, rather than something I expected to be my saving grace.
I am more than excited for my time here and I can already tell that I will leave this city, having fallen for all of its wonderful subtleties. I can also tell that the people I meet here and the relationships that unfold will be beautiful and have irrevocable value.
But that doesn't mean the transition has been easy.
As I prepared to leave Nashville, I didn't feel the need to leave anything behind. In fact, I was leaving a place that after four years had really begun to feel like home. I have relationships there I wouldn't trade for the world: people I care for immensely and invest in, and so many people willing to do the same for me. I have my spots there: my favorite little nooks and atmospheres, places that feel, in part, like my own.
I found myself landing in London a week ago feeling a dizzying cocktail of emotion. I was excited, sentimental, enthralled and anxious.
At first, I was rather annoyed with my own sentimentality. But now I'm realizing it's quite okay. I should honestly be thrilled to be a little sentimental. It just means that I fully understand and appreciate what was left behind while I'm away.
And now I have the opportunity to make the most of the coming twelve months.
The culture and art scene within London is one I cannot wait to explore. I have a small laundry list of the places I would like to see and all of the things I would like to do. And with each new relationship I make here, comes the opportunity of learning new perspectives--especially when considering the wide array of international students at my university. And what's more (the real reason I'm here to begin with), I can already tell that I will love my classes. Although it's early, I can still see their application within the field of journalism and publication. I'm already excited thinking on how this year will hopefully bring me one step closer to having a career I'm really passionate about.
Looking forward, looking back and simply enjoying the now seems to be a fine thing to do.
It'll be nice to look back on this year, feeling sentimental once again: fully understanding and appreciating what I had during my time in London. And I think it's fine now that I'm in a sentimental mood.
The city lights pushed through the haze in the distance and the mountains’ shadows loomed just beyond.
I’d forgotten how far away the stars could appear. And just how small they could make me feel.
I found myself on the roof of the guest house where I'd been staying for the past two weeks.
My head was racked with more than I could really process, so I tucked headphones into my ears and just lay there, taking in all that surrounded.
Everything’s so much bigger than me—the sky, the world, the problems of this country and the problem of not knowing my place in it all. In the grand scope of things, in the entirety of my smallness against the world’s immensity, how can I really expect to have a place, a small hole designed for me to fill?
The wind that blew through the mango trees beside me and cooled my body as I lay there seemed to be the only thing that could bring me down and out of my own head. The breeze felt the way I imagine God's hand might feel if he was easing me back to the present.
In that moment, I found a sliver of understanding in my sea of unresolve as I noticed a line that played in my ears—a line I’ve heard a million times, resting inside one of my favorite songs.
“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I think I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
The song reminded me of something I've known to be true:I want to serve a greater purpose. I’ll never be bigger than the problems I come into contact with, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a small part in something bigger than myself.
There’s no blinking sign, telling me just what to do to fill that role, but I have a strong feeling I’ll find it.
Here in Haiti, I’ve felt entirely alive. I’m alive when I take a picture that I hope brings both me and maybe another closer to understanding a culture outside our own. I’m alive when I write the stories of these people and the lessons they’re teaching me. I’m alive when I play with kids who speak a different language, yet we're still able to connect. I’m alive when I interact with people in this country pushing towards hope, compassion, peace and change—people who inspire me to do the same.
There's no therapy quite like being under a sky full of stars. In the moments when I feel entirely small, I'm reminded I want to be a part of something bigger.
“But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be. I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.”
The people and culture here are difficult to understand. A city of contradictions. Both people and place are wrecked yet withstanding.
I look into the streets and see a people willing to do anything it takes to make ends meet: their resiliency captivating and inspiring me. Yet, talk to some of the people here and there's a different story. One man speaks of all the men he's seen who've all but given up, playing cards and begging to pass time, letting the rest of the family fend for themselves.
Another, Peter, seems to say the same. Then he tells me there's quite a lot people of Haiti can learn from the woman before us, Jocelyn.
A red couch cushion supports her back. Her legs are tucked underneath her, wrapped within the black material of her dress. Sweat sits on her brow, but she never slows from her work to wipe it. White dust from bags powder her bare feet. Feet that can no longer carry her. She's been paralyzed now for well over ten years.
She dismantles strands from empty rice sacks to weave into rope. She has her own little process. A large fistful of individual strands tied together at the top, making a tail of sorts. Three tails then braided together to make the rope. She clenches the end of the rope between her teeth for better leverage as she wraps the cords tightly. She moves deliberately, meticulously.
I've spent the last hour watching her work, diligently weaving her rope as Peter translates my questions and her answers to each of us, back and forth. She tells me that for her, this passes time. Making rope that will sell for less than a dollar each helps her forget.
There's no sense of resentment with Jocelyn, no broken spirit or bitterness pervading her being. She chooses to be joyful.
"There are people worse than me," she tells me. "If I can do this, it is a grace from God and I am happy."
After I finish speaking with her, Peter talks with me further, speaking of the garden she keeps, the life that she's made for herself: the resourcefulness, persistence and joy of this woman. To him, she is in stark contrast to others in this city.
Though Peter seems quick to, I could never call the people of Haiti lazy.
I see the circumstances: the brutal cycles of poverty, corruption and brokenness. Slivers of hope they cling to would likely slip through my fingers. Who's to say I wouldn't give up?
If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that no situation can be judged.
I could quickly condemn the orphanage mother who lets children starve to death for the sake of a few who can now go to school. I could quickly retort that I would never let a child starve and become a living sacrifice for the chosen few I want to get an education.
But Haitians use their resources in ways that may seem foolish, removed from their situation. Reality in Haiti is often full of contradictions- death to a few in order to bring hope and life to a handful.
It's hard to say if Port-au-Prince is beautiful or desolate, lazy or resilient, hopeless or hopeful. The good and bad here seem caught in some grand dance.
But, when I see a woman like Jocelyn, hope gleaming in her eyes, I can't help but feel the potential that lives within this city.
Your strength becomes mine
I forgot I had it in me
Yet I feel myself fill up
I feel myself reminded
You are strong
You are beautiful
The world will never get you down
Yet I so easily fumble
I was handed life so easily
While you were given nothing
No life is void of suffering
You know that all too well
I have my pains
You have yours
But the world will never get you down
Why do I so easily fumble?
Maybe your air is a facade
Maybe your strength is only feigned
Maybe I shouldn’t thank you for your front
But I do
It reminds me of the strength we each hope we might possess
And I thank you for that, I simply have to
For the world will never get you down
I hope that I won't be so quick to fumble
The Haitian airport was just as chaotic as I expected. Men impatiently crowed around the baggage claim, hoping their fingers might land on someone’s bag who was willing to accept help—someone who could spare a few dollars in exchange for helping the bag out to the car. When so many Haitians only make $300 a year, you can understand why every dollar counts.
In the city, trash is everywhere. No space is safe from its presence. Plastic bottles push through the overgrown grass. Gutters are a river of garbage, with brown stained water snaking its way through the crevices between aluminum and plastic. People tip toe around the mounds of shredded garments and the waste that sprinkle the pathway. Men balance baskets on their heads with even more bottles resting inside—bottles that are likely to join the litter on the streets.
Walls too are everywhere. A walled city with walled neighborhoods and walled homes beyond that. Guards and dogs and barbed wire all meant for protection. Safety has left its ideal form, but to the people, it’s protection none the less.
Walls and trash. I realize that I haven’t painted an alluring picture of the city at all. But the highlights are only as valuable when the lowlights stand beside them: a beautiful contrast that shows the city for both all that it is and isn’t.
As I passed yet another mound of litter from the back of the rickety bus that carried me to the compound, the image before me was not one of desolation. A single, black flip flop poked through the trash. Behind it, a girl was walking just beyond the garbage. She looked strong, beautiful and perfectly at peace with the place around her.
There’s an embrace of simplicity and an acceptance of life in its beauties and shortcomings that exists. Beauty created in its juxtaposition with the mess. Bright, vibrant walls standing out against the barbed wire that decorates them. Bright, vibrant people standing out in the environment of pollution and litter that surrounds.
The city is fiercely alive with its people—a people of strength. They don’t seem broken or worn down. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. There’s a sense of pride and a soft resilience hidden in the crease of a smile. They are the people of Port-au-Prince: a beautiful mess of a city.
My thoughts they can't be quieted
They're so much louder than before
My aching pain won't go away
It's all too impossible to ignore
I feel the strength within myself
As it slowly shrivels away
And the voice inside me's silenced
The one that's saying it's okay
No comfort seems quite comforting
No soothing really soothes
There's an emptiness within my core
And a weight I can't remove
I never thought I'd feel this way
So defeated and so used
These feelings keep resurfacing
Suppression's a crutch I try to abuse
I doubt I'll ever understand
The meaning of this world
The pain enclosed within it
Destroying beauty at each turn
There's corruption and there's brokenness
We've all heard that before
But what we've also heard I pray's not a lie
I really do hope that there is more
For if there's not then what use have we
For the turning of each day
When all that waits is misery
And a pain that won't go away.
Kinda dark, right? There's a reason I never like sharing my poetry. It's vulnerable. It's not always happy. And it certainly creates a dissonance between the perfectly filtered, perfectly captioned and perfectly happy looking me in the picture I just posted.
I see the pictures others post and it's largely the same. There's a picture of a friend of mine laughing, enjoying herself on a night out. There's a picture someone took on a morning hike: a mountain side littered with trees who can't seem to decide whether or not they're ready to lose their leaves for winter.
These moments, these pictures are undeniably beautiful.
But I'm starting to find beauty in things that don't traditionally fit that category.
There's a beauty in brokenness. In humanity. In the small reminders that we're not alone.
I was reminded of this about a month ago, today, after hearing a haunting, beautiful journal shared by a girl I didn't know.
I may not have known her, but still, I felt her pain. I felt the desperation she felt. I felt the hopelessness. I understood the sting of seeing a loved one slip away from both who they once were and who the two of you could be together, when you were with them. I understood the panic of feeling yourself slip away, too. The out of control sense of desperation. The deep desire of wanting to pull yourself out of the depths. And the deep despair of not knowing if you're strong enough to do that. As I listened to the words she spoke, I found myself.
And it was beautiful.
The human experience is not one to always be viewed through a rose colored lens. There's a whole spectrum of emotion we each experience, but don't talk about. It's easy to bring up the happy moments. And while I'm not suggesting we all embrace our inner Eeyore, Squidward, Scrooge, or whatever you want to call it, I do think it's important to not discount the less pretty side of our emotional spectrum.
The better we get at hiding the pain, the weakness and the darkness that weaves its way in and out of our lives, the more alone we feel when it finds us. You see the happy pictures, the Facebook post about the new job position your friend will happily accept. But you don't see that the people in the pictures or posts or smiling back at you behind the counter of your favorite coffee shop are each fighting battles of their own. Just like you are.
These battles are dark. These battles are messy. But there's comfort knowing others are fighting their own. We can share in our battles and our pains and can connect, really connect, with each other when we let these things surface: when we share with others and let them into the world we would rather keep hidden. And it doesn't matter how we share. It can be through a song, book, poem, conversation, work of art. It doesn't matter how we express it, as long as we expose it. That's when the connection happens. That's when the beauty of shared humanity unfolds.
So, I'm not perfect. I can have anxieties and fears and feel moments when darkness seems to overpower everything else I feel. But, I can also share in these moments, overcome in these moments and find beauty in the moments.
It's important to not be so damn perfect all the time. None of us ever really are.
Enjoying and learning from this chapter as the pages turn