depression, faith, things that make you sad

The Deepest Silence, Part 1

For three days running now, I (Ben) have sat down to write a follow-up to Monday’s post. The response I got — online and offline — was very encouraging. Friends who I know have struggled with many of the same challenges wrote to say thanks. Three other friends who I had no idea have battled with mental illness shared their stories. After a tremendous amount of apprehension, I felt glad — and relieved — to have written the post.

On Tuesday I was faced with a choice: Continue writing about depression, or write a post about — as Matthew Leathers succinctly put it — Vincent D’Onofrio and poop. I carefully weighed the merits of both. All things being equal, I’d have preferred to write about Mr. D’Onofrio and poop. But I couldn’t do it.

So Tuesday night I sat down to write about faith and depression, since in my life the two have become so inextricably joined that I cannot talk about one without talking about the other. I couldn’t find the words though. I started three different posts, then scrapped each of them. I’d start over on my day off.

I did the same yesterday. Starting, stopping. Always running up against a wall. And, as has happened before, feeling increasingly helpless and defeated that I couldn’t shape depression into words. This, as has happened before, fueled an already dark mood.

This morning I woke up and something had lifted, slightly. I could write today, but only if I started by acknowledging why I couldn’t write before. I realized this after talking it through with Erin last night. I had a strategy now, not that different from the spiritual practice of confession, really: Name it, put it out there, and then release it. Which I have just done.

Later today I’ll post that faith and mental illness bit I’ve now written five times. Before that, I wanted to explain how I got there, and to acknowledge that while Voreblog won’t be all gloom and doom from here on out, we’ll at least follow this for now and see where it goes.

More later.

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depression, things that make you sad

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

During our College Summit trip a week ago, I (Ben) found myself in a tough spot. My writing group was playing it safe. We had gone through a morning and afternoon of free writing and no one had risked anything on paper. There were obvious reasons for that. All the students knew they’d be reading their words aloud, and you can’t blame a teenager for thinking twice about being vulnerable to a group of strangers.

Naturally, what they were writing landed on the page with a thud. A few were brave enough to tiptoe up to the edge and peek over the cliff. But then they scrambled for safety, content to use words that concealed the words they really wanted to use.

The goal, our writing coach had told us as volunteers, was to identify the student’s heartbeat and steer her toward putting that on paper. Frederick Buechner called his favorite authors “vein-opening writers” for spilling their lives right onto the page. I knew no one in this group was going to do that unless someone else started. So I did.

I told them that nine years ago I admitted myself to a psychiatric hospital for major depression. I told them that I didn’t want to live anymore. I told them how painful it was for my family, and for my dad in particular. Here he was a doctor and he couldn’t fix his own son. In time I’d learn more about the genetics of mental illness — how they burrow down the root system of one’s family tree. I told them how ashamed I felt, that I didn’t have the freedom to shave because someone confiscated my razor since I couldn’t be trusted with it. I told them how I healed, slowly, enough to leave the hospital after a week. I didn’t tell them about the uphill climb from there: the stigma of mental illness, especially within some Christian circles (though I should say my immediate circle was incredibly supportive); the days that had been wiped clean from me, lost to marathon sleep sessions; a run of days so empty of feeling that I couldn’t imagine it ever being otherwise. I remember sitting in a busy coffee shop one day and thinking that the real me was sitting across the room, observing and taking notes on a stranger.

I shared this because those students needed someone to go first. And I shared it because the one pact I made with myself when I left the hospital — other than that I would never go back — was that I had to share my story. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I understood the word “depression” applied to me. And yet I can pinpoint my first memory of the illness at eight years old. I can’t make up that ground anymore, but I might help someone else do it.

I’ve come to the stage where I’ve made peace with my depression. It wasn’t until years after the hospital that I made a sobering discovery: I would never be cured. My situation was chronic. What I had to do was live with it. And so I’m trying.

I was a year and a half into youth ministry when I went into the hospital; when I came out, it felt like day one. Only it was better. I discovered what Henri Nouwen meant when he wrote about a wounded healer. Little by little, I stopped pretending to be someone who was in control.

I’ve been amazed in the past ten years how many other people have been on this road too. I have never regretted sharing the fact I have depression with anyone, but I’ve also kept that circle pretty close. I share it now, to an impossibly wide circle, because — simply — I feel compelled to. There is a new tab up top entitled HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE (now changed to BROKEN PLACES). It’s the title from a book by Michael Greenberg about his daughter being struck mad. I haven’t finished the book yet, but the words have stuck with me for their lyricism. Words have saved me from my illness, and I suppose that’s the reason why I continue to put words to paper about it. To the extent you’re comfortable doing the same, this could become a conversation.

After I shared with my writing group, they turned back to their blank pages. Some began scribbling furiously. Some frowned at their papers. Some looked for split ends. After five minutes, one walked to the front of the class. She was crying, and after she handed me her paper she went straight out the door. I waited a few minutes, then slipped into the hallway so I could catch her before she came back. I read what she wrote, which was the beginnings of a story much like my own though on a greatly accelerated timeline. After a few minutes she returned and sat down next to me. I asked her how she felt. “Awful,” she said, sniffling. Then, “But now that that’s out of me” — she nodded at her paper — “I feel a lot better.” “Have you ever written about this before?” I asked. She shook her head. “Never. I never wanted to.” Then she smiled and said, “But now it’s out.”

marital tension, movies, music, things that make you sad, this day in Vore history

This Day in Vore History: May 28, 2003

Part three of a four-part series recounting the romantic origins of Voreblog. Part one and Part two.

 

On June 2, 2003 — the day after Erin Beers flew back to Nashville after a five-day trip to Pittsburgh to visit Ben (and attend Mike and Beth Werkheiser’s wedding) — Ben cracked open his journal and wrote, “I think Erin Beers made a mistake.” He considered this for a while, reading and re-reading those seven words, before adding, “It’s not an irrevocable mistake. I am still confident of that.”

——————

Six days earlier, on Tuesday, May 27, 2003, Ben awoke with a ruthless headache. He was home in State College, PA, to celebrate Memorial Day with the family. It wasn’t much of a celebration though, as he spent most of the day in bed with a fierce migraine. He went to sleep Monday night thinking it couldn’t get worse. He woke up Tuesday and it was.

Ben’s parents refused to let him drive back to Pittsburgh that day, not that Ben would’ve attempted it. But Ben had to find a way to be at the Pittsburgh International Airport by 12:57 p.m. on Wednesday, the 28th, the time at which Erin Beers would be landing for a five-day visit. The ostensible reason for the visit was a wedding. Mike and Beth Werkheiser, camp friends, were to be wed in Beaver, PA, that Saturday. Erin returned her invite with the “and guest” box checked, then booked her trip. She’d spend four days in Pittsburgh prior to the wedding, then fly back to Nashville the following day. All Ben had to do was be there.

——————–

Ben woke up on Wednesday and felt like a human being again. He drove back to Pittsburgh that morning, and three hours in the car allowed him ample time to plan out the crucial details of Erin’s reception. Ben plotted what album would be playing when Erin got in the car (Gemma Hayes, Night on the Side). (Ben had visually associated Gemma and Erin since he thought they looked alike. Plus he had a crush on Gemma. Plus Ben hoped Erin would pay special attention to the lyrics of song three on the album, “Let A Good Thing Go,” a lament for, as the title suggests, letting a good thing go.) He visualized which details of the youth room at Shadyside Presbyterian he would point out to her, details which — if carefully selected — would evoke shared memories of the prior summer at Summer’s Best Two Weeks when Erin and Ben met as co-counselors of the kitchen crew, comprised of twenty-some high schoolers who occasionally did bone-headed yet endearing things like try to mail camp forks to friends (this is you, Chris Tolles) or parade around camp during optional playing the bagpipes (in kilts, no less). Ben was concerned about the state of his apartment, which he had not had time to prep given his delayed return from State College. Had he accidentally left his frog-print boxers in the common room? Carefully arranged his Paste magazines on the coffee table as potential conversation-starters? And the right books beside them? And the right CDs? He’d have to wing it when they walked through the door, assessing the situation like a field commander and moving like a hawk to correct any incriminating details that might suggest he was not boyfriend-worthy.

By day’s end, an event Ben had anticipated for so long (Erin! in Pittsburgh!) came and passed … normally. When Ben spotted Erin at the airport, all the little details of her face, hair, build, gait came back instantly. When they toured Shadyside, Ben feared that the youth room — rather than inducing camp nostalgia — may have alternately raised Erin’s potential doubts of Ben as the stereotypical churchy youth pastor. When they reached the apartment, Erin — tired from her trip — dozed on Ben’s bed and drooled on his pillow. That night, after Ben dropped Erin off at a friend’s house in Squirrel Hill where she would be staying for her visit, he drove back down Negley Hill and saw — as he always did from that hill, when he was paying attention — a panoramic view of Pittsburgh at night, stretching far and wide in all directions. One other detail Ben had incorporated into the day was the glorious view of Pittsburgh that greeted drivers emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel, a view most spectacular at night but even at midday still a pretty good way to introduce the Steel City to a visitor. (Pittsburgh is “the only city with an entrance,” sayeth the New York Times.) When they had emerged from the tunnel that afternoon, Ben rolled down his window, stuck his head out and yelled, “She’s expecting big things, city!” He repeated that line, alone in his car, with slightly less gusto, as he descended Negley Hill that night.

——————-

The template for the next two days started with leisurely mornings spent sipping coffee at Jitters on Walnut Street (Ben, in his pre-coffee days, getting a chai instead), enjoying a light breakfast, then going for a long walk or run. This was still three months before Erin, running for the first time with Ben in Nashville, nearly blacked out from a combination of fatigue and nerves, the latter being the result of her fear that she couldn’t keep up with a boy. While Erin sat down on the 21st Avenue sidewalk to regroup, Ben — slightly panicked and doused in sweat — ran into the nearest convenience store. “My girlfriend almost passed out and I need to get something for her,” he told the clerk. “Are you going to pay for it?” the clerk asked. “I don’t have money,” Ben said as he grabbed the closest granola bar and apple juice. “I’ll come back and pay you, honest.” The clerk shook his head. “You can’t take both,” he said. Ben put the granola bar on the counter. “Ok,” the clerk said — resigned, probably, to taking $1.09 out of his paycheck as the price to pay for enabling a possibly life-saving intervention, if not an unusual new shoplifting technique.

But, again, this act of small heroism would not transpire for another three months.

On Thursday, Ben and Erin drove south and east to visit Fallingwater, then to Ohiopyle, another site intended to evoke fond shared memories. (Camp rafting trips down the Youghiogheny River launched from Ohiopyle.) They parked at Cucumber Falls and hiked downstream to Cucumber Rapids where they found a big, flat rock to stretch out on and just rest, eyes closed, below the sun. On Friday they explored the Warhol Museum with its balloon-filled rooms and Campbells soup can trinkets in the gift shop, then sauntered around the North Shore and its wading pools. They talked of the upcoming summer at camp, when Erin would return for two terms (a month) and Ben would overlap for two of those weeks, his first — and only — post-youth ministry plans once he wrapped up four years at Shadyside. Where he would move that August — be it Nashville or Chicago or, less likely though still a possibility, out West to regions unknown — was still up in the air. Ben hoped to have a better idea after Erin’s visit if there was a green light on Nashville. But for the first three days of Erin’s stay, no talk ventured too far down that uncertain path. 

——————-

Neither Ben nor Erin remember much about the wedding, except that they were slightly late arriving because — depending on who you asked — the driver either missed a turn or the navigator misread the map. This would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.

What both remember happened after the wedding, in Ben’s car, parked on Elmer Street just outside his apartment, with the engine off but the power still on so Erin could enjoy the smell of a Honda Civic’s A/C, its own little aromatic madeleine. It started raining, first a drizzle and soon a downpour. Inside, Ben and Erin were still all decked out (though Erin had removed her shoes and put her aching feet on the dash), both reclined with their seats back, watching the rain patterns on the windshield and talking, finally, about where they stood. (The kids today refer to this as the DTR conversation.)

Erin said she didn’t see a green light when she thought about a relationship with Ben. It’s not that there’s another guy in the picture, she said. It may be about the timing, she said. Everything lines up, she added, ticking off items: musical and artistic interests; athletic interests; shared religious beliefs. That’s what I’m looking for in a guy, she said, almost apologetically. But no green light.

I’ve never met this Green Light guy, Ben thought, but God help him if he ever crosses my path…

Ben had a hard time believing Erin. He considered the evidence from the past three days and saw only good things. He couldn’t bring himself to believe Erin wasn’t feeling something good too, although there was always that nagging doubt — cultivated from numerous misreadings of relationships past — that Ben simply didn’t get it the way other people got it on matters of the heart.

That’s when Erin said, There’s something else. She told Ben he had always been a good thing in her life, and it occurred to her that this may be something to consider.

“I don’t think it was just my optimism that wanted to hear ‘yes’ when Erin said ‘no’,” Ben journaled after the fact. “I think it’s because her ‘no’ was a ‘yes’ in the making.”

Later, both of them would recount the other doubts that went unspoken that night in the car. Erin’s visit had reminded Ben, who had been single for quite some time, what the harder parts of a relationship might be: the listening, the yielding, the silences. Erin, for her part, had some misgivings both large — about what Ben would be now that he was done being a youth pastor — and small — about some of Ben’s fashion tastes, particularly his choice of black suede dress shoes for the wedding. (This would fester in silence until, a month after they were married, Ben saw those shoes and certain other items from his closet in a Goodwill pile Erin had started. “I could let it slide until we were married,” Erin said. “Now I’ve got to put my foot down.”) 

Because they could not talk about “us” before an “us” existed, Ben and Erin had the more immediate conversation about where Ben would move in three months. Nashville? And if so, to do what? And for what reasons? Neither one suspected that the fragile possibility of a relationship could survive the expectations that would come with Ben moving to Nashville for no other reason than that Erin was there. Ben found himself wondering, Where would I be and what would I do if Erin Beers wasn’t in the picture? Would I be doing us harm by moving to Nashville? Is it really just a matter of timing, and we just hit it wrong?

——————-

The first letter Erin wrote to Ben after returning to Nashville included a folded copy of the cover of New York magazine’s June 9, 2003 issue. The headline reads “What Are You On?” above a counter of pills, ranging from Paxil and Zoloft to Ritalin, Viagra and Vicodin. Such was one outcome of their visit: Mental health issues were not just out in the open now, but fodder for comic relief. “Yeah! Drugs!” Erin scribbled on the cover. This was the kind of thing they couldn’t have joked about nine months ago.

“It’s fun to spy on your life and to put together a few more pieces to the puzzle of knowing you and not knowing you at all,” Erin wrote in her letter. That’s before the missive went completely bipolar. Erin first wrote, “I stand behind everything I said to you last week … I cannot say things to you that I don’t fully mean & have you move here & then be disappointed,” then — half a page later — “When I think about you possibly moving here and having things go well and I imagine us together or whatever, it makes me think that it would be final. You would be it. If we dated then we’d probably get married, pros & cons. And that FREAKS ME OUT. I wouldn’t want you to be someone on a list of failures.” Later in the letter she wrote, “When I think about the future, I know I’d be happy with you. There isn’t one good reason why I wouldn’t be.” 

——————–

Ben would not receive that letter until after he saw All The Real Girls at The Harris Theater downtown. He saw it alone, as he usually preferred. The film is a beautiful, note perfect account of all-consuming young love in a small North Carolina mill town. It is brutal, and it is honest. “I just want to make sure that a million years from now I can still see you up close and we’ll still have amazing things to say,” Paul (Paul Schneider) tells Noel (Zooey Deschanel) in one scene. It is a line that only the very young could say and mean. 

Leaving the theater, all Ben could think about was Erin. He was sad and forlorn and elated and confused all at the same time. He was in love and didn’t know if he was loved back. Standing on top of the Smithfield Street parking garage, Ben called Erin to tell her he’d just seen the film and how much he’d enjoyed seeing her and how he couldn’t wait for camp in less than two months. That was it. It was a good conversation. And the next day Erin mailed the letter.

books, music, things that make you sad

An Ode to Jay Bennett

H/t to Mark Hoobler for pointing us to this tribute to the late Jay Bennett (who died in his sleep this weekend) by NPR blogger Bob Boilen.

If you’ve seen I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, you know the gist of Bennett’s creative differences with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. (Greg Kot’s excellent Wilco: Learning How To Die goes into more detail. You can read a review of the book here, penned by one-half of Voreblog for the Nashville Scene many moons ago.) Bennett has a not-very-flattering scene late in the documentary — after he has been let go from the band — in which he uses the phrase “To quote myself” during a self-absorbed lament bemoaning his dismissal. (We occasionally use this line to spoof ourselves on those occasions when we fear we’ve taken ourselves too seriously.) “Jeff was threatened by me, it’s clear,” Bennett adds before launching into an I-was-going-to-break-up-with-you-until-you-broke-up-with-me-first explanation of his final, unhappy days with Wilco. Watching concert footage of the band performing “I Got You (At The End Of The Century)” shortly before Bennett’s dismissal, you catch glimpses of why Jay no longer fit. While the rest of the band tackles the song straight on, Bennett seems more self-conscious of himself as a rock star, given to exaggerated posing during a guitar solo. 

The thing is, Wilco was always better with Jay Bennett than without. The band’s heyday lines up with Bennett’s stint as a multi-instrumentalist. Bennett played, among others, guitar, banjo, bass, mellotron, pump organ, drums, synthesizer, harmonica and Wurlitzer. Someone in the documentary refers to Bennett as a “mad scientist” in the studio, and like many mad scientists, he had a certain genius. Bennett may not have been Tweedy’s equal (he wasn’t), but without him the band has yet to release anything as fantastic as Being There, Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

R.I.P., Jay. And thanks for the tunes.

——————-

Back in February, Glorious Noise came up with 21 Reasons Why Jay Bennett Should Be Back In Wilco, one of which is simply “dreadlocks” (because it “helps balance Tweedy’s inherent honky-ness”). We have no comment.

retail, things that make you sad

Tragic Moments in Retail History

CINCINNATI, OH [AP] — A customer at a local retail establishment approached employee Ben Vore today and asked him where the Bibles were shelved.

“Right over here,” Ben said. “Let me show you.”

As the two men walked to the section Ben asked the man if he needed a specific translation.

“No,” the customer replied, “just something small. I’m burying it with my cat today.”

faith, friends, things that make you sad, this day in Vore history

This Day In Vore History: November 21, 2002

The courtship of Erin & Ben picks up four months after we last left off, when 569 miles (the distance between Pittsburgh and Nashville) and another man, “Rex” (booooo!), stood between our protagonists. 

PROLOGUE: When Ben and Erin parted ways at SB2W camp in August, neither knew what — if anything — would come of their two week friendship. Ben, while hopeful, was sobered by the existence of an offstage boyfriend (dubbed “Rex”). And the fact Erin would be moving to Nashville. Where Rex lived. Nine hours away from Pittsburgh. 

     Things brightened up once the two began exchanging letters. Erin’s first letter to Ben ended with the line, “If you are ever in Nashville or somewhere close by, give me a ring or drop a line. I expect to see you again.” This was enough hope to last a month on. I expect to see you again! Ben plotted the possibilities by which he could somehow casually be in the greater Nashville area. The key word there was casually. He could not be desperate. He could not crush a young friendship with the weight of romantic expectation. He also had a boyfriend to contend with. He needed an excuse to go to Tennessee.

     As a youth director, Ben planned to attend the Youth Specialties National Youth Convention in Pittsburgh that fall. Until, that is, Scott Guldin announced he would be getting married in Ohio on the same weekend. Ben considered the other convention dates and was struck with an epiphany. The convention would be in Nashville the weekend before Thanksgiving. Ben (casually) floated a trial balloon to Erin in a letter: Might be in Nashville in November. Cool, Erin wrote back.

     And by the way, Rex and I broke up.

     Ben immediately switched his registration and booked a flight to Nashville. He also called up Seth Swihart, who had a fold-out couch with Ben’s name on it and a neon Cubs/Bud sign to sleep under. “Your room and board consists of watching Hoosiers with me at least once,” Seth said.

     The plan was set.

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 21: Erin was waiting at the Nashville International Airport baggage claim with a sign that said, BEN VORE, VISITING HIPSTER. She immediately gave Ben the tour of the Nashville hot spots, from Percy Warner Park to Hillsboro Village, home to Fido’s, Bookman and The Belcourt Theater, where Erin worked part time. That was where we watched I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that night, which Erin had already seen twice but told Ben she had waited to see with him. The day’s proceedings — coffee, movie, walking and talking — were so long in the making, and yet so … ordinary. Ben went to sleep that night bathed in the glow of the Cubs sign, surprised but not displeased to realize how very normal the reunion had been, as if now that it had happened it had gone exactly the way he pictured it.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22: Seth gave Ben a Nashville tour before dropping him off at the convention center downtown, where the conference began early afternoon. The minute Ben stepped into the convention hall he did not want to be there. It was loud, noisy and unbearable. A Christian rock band was blaring contemporary praise. Everyone looked incredibly happy and psyched to be there. Ben sat down toward the back of the hall, with a backpack stuffed full of fliers and notebooks and freebies and a schedule jam-packed with seminars, activities and speakers. He didn’t know a single soul in that auditorium full of two thousand people. And as the worship ended and the main speaker stepped to the stage, Ben was surprised to discover there were tears running down his face. Where was this coming from? 

     The first and only other time Ben had set foot in Nashville was in April of 2001, for a retreat called Sabbath. That experience had begun in no less terrifying a fashion. When Ben arrived with thirty other people at the Scarritt-Bennett retreat center just outside Vanderbilt’s campus, he was disturbed when he looked over the schedule from the security of his own room to realize that most of the upcoming four days would be spent in silence. Participants were not allowed to speak until noon each day, and there were wide open blocks of time set aside for prayer, solitude and contemplation. What the hell am I doing here? Ben thought at the realization that he had no place to run for the next ninety-six hours. No distractions. No TV. No mildly diverting entertainment. I’m not sure I can do this, Ben thought as he set the schedule aside and stared at the blank wall of his monk’s cell.

     It was a different kind of terror in the middle of that jubilant convention hall, but Ben knew he still had to get out. After the speaker finished, Ben went straight out the door and began walking west on Broadway. He still had his luggage with him and a backpack bursting with resources that would make him a smarter, savvier youth director should he seize the days to come. But just then he couldn’t get far enough away from that. So he lugged his rolling suitcase and switched his backpack from shoulder to shoulder as he trudged four miles to the West End Borders.

     “What are you doing here?” Erin asked when Ben walked up to her in the second floor children’s section. She was sorting books in a manner which looked a lot like pleasure reading.

     “We’re done for the day,” Ben said. “I just thought I’d come say hi.”

     “Did you take a taxi?”

     “No, just walked.”

     “Oh. That’s like–”

     “‘Bout four miles. My shoulder’s a little sore. I think I’m going to get a chai and sit in the cafe.”

     Erin said later how strange it was to walk down the staircase and see Ben sitting there in the cafe, looking homeless with all his bags strewn about, staring out the window at who knows what. A good strange, Ben thought later. At least he hoped.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23: Mike Yaconelli, one of the founders of Youth Specialities, had given his typical pre-convention welcome the day before with the usual subversive charge: “If you’re burned out, don’t go to a seminar on burnout — take a nap! If you’re having marriage problems, don’t go to a seminar on fixing your marriage. Get your spouse, grab a bottle of wine, go to your room, lock the door, and don’t come out until Monday. Just buy all the tapes on your way out!”

     This was advice Ben wanted to take to heart but which also went against every fiber in his body. Didn’t his church shell out big bucks to send him here? Shouldn’t he be going to every seminar and general session? Shouldn’t he be living and breathing “Junior High Ministry ‘Til You Die” and “Ice Breakers and Games” and “Understanding Youth Culture”? Most of all, shouldn’t he feel guilty for sleeping until 2:30 in the afternoon at his hotel? Maybe, except for the fact he awoke feeling more rested than he had in months.

     Ben looked at the schedule he had not already slept through and then called Erin to propose a night out together. She was game. They had dinner at a Thai place. That’s all either of them remembers now.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24: Guilt caught up with Ben and he spent a full day at the convention center. He cut out early again to trek down Broadway to Borders. Erin seemed less surprised to see him than she had two nights earlier, but soon she was dropping off various reading materials at his cafe table for Ben to enjoy, some sincere (such as Empire of Conspiracy, by her former professor Timothy Melley) and others ironic (Everyone Poops). When Erin made the closing announcement over the intercom, Ben did his best to make her laugh by pretending to be thoroughly fascinated by the magazine Guns & Ammo, which he lifted up to reveal Thrasher magazine, which he lifted up to reveal Needlepoint Now, which he lifted up to reveal Muscle & Fitness, which he turned sideways as if admiring a centerfold of some grotesquely muscled and underclothed specimen of human meat. He stroked his chin thoughtfully and Erin had to pause for a moment to collect herself before finishing the announcement. Things were looking up.

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 25: Seth picked Ben up at conference’s end and after tossing the pigskin at Centennial Park they went back to Seth’s place to watch Hoosiers, the lines of which Seth knew by heart. (He chastised himself when he couldn’t quote Myra Fleener’s early demurrals of Coach Dale with word-for-word accuracy.) Later they watched the real life Hoosiers play UMass in the Maui Invitational while Seth dispensed newfound, hard-won marital wisdom. (“The hard parts are harder than I imagined but the good parts are even better than I imagined.” What were the hard parts? “Oh, having every character flaw you’ve ever had exposed and magnified times ten.” Hmmmmm. “And once you get married, you realize how much of a sinner you are.”)

     Erin came over to the Swihart’s for dinner, and Miriam Swihart indulged everyone an evening’s worth of Summer’s Best 2 Weeks small talk, with Seth reinacting his famous Lower Back Pull stretch as he hobbled around the kitchen, groaning. Later we went to one of Erin’s favorite haunts, 12th & Porter in the Gulch, for the traditional Monday night “Twelve @ 12th,” an open mic night for primarily local artists. Erin and her sister Bevin had discovered several new artists there, including Mindy Smith. “You’ll hear her name more soon,” Erin predicted. That night’s line-up was hit-or-miss, with the highlight and lowlight being a painfully sincere, emo/hard rock act called Hurts to Laugh, which performed its smash single, “When You’re Gone, You’re Gone.” (To this day Seth and Ben continue to amuse one another with those three simple words: hurts to laugh.)

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 26: Ben’s last day in Nashville was largely spent with Erin. They hung out at a coffee joint called JJ’s, then purchased art supplies and groceries for a night in at Erin’s apartment at Brentwood Downs. Ben grilled chicken for dinner, then they watched The Royal Tenenbaums before having arts & crafts time at the dining room table. As they were painting Ben asked Erin if her feelings had changed since August. Yes and no, Erin said. She wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, but she still had some feelings she needed to figure out. They agreed the timing was far from ideal. They agreed long distance relationships sucked. And they agreed to stay in touch, to keep writing letters, to be open and honest about where they stood.

     Driving Ben back to the Swihart’s that night, Erin remarked that she hoped what she said earlier hadn’t been discouraging. Which Ben didn’t think it had been at all. He had made do for four months on far less than what they had shared that night. So what was another four months? Or eight? Maybe they’d be reunited at camp the following summer. It was just a case of learning to appreciate and embrace the waiting. Now, at least, they had another reservoir of shared time and memories to draw from to fuel their correspondence. It was sad this little chapter was coming to an end, but not despondent or despairing sad. It was the kind of sadness that holds within it hope as well.

EPILOGUE: Back during that Sabbath conference in spring 2001, one of the exercises Ben participated in involved shaping a piece of clay as a form of prayer. More explicit instructions than that were withheld. I have no clue where to start, Ben thought as he found a sunny spot in the courtyard. He liked the clean lines of an undisturbed block of clay. Why did he have to alter it at all? Whatever I make, Ben thought, is going to look like a first grade art project.

     First Ben made a man. He was barrel-chested and his arms were lumpy and his right foot kept falling off. So Ben smooshed the clay back into an amorphous blob, aimlessly working it with his hands and wondering what to shape next when he realized he had something that looked an awful lot like an ear. He hollowed out the top of the ear (the scapha) a bit more and used his fingernail to make indentations for the cartilage. Then he turned the ear on its side, reshaped it ever so slightly, smoothed over the cartilage and hollowed out a circular, depressed center. It had become an eye.

     So Ben made a face. An irregular, misshapen face with two eyes, a nose and a smirking, upturned set of lips. He spent a moment or two rearranging the eyes, bending their angle to produce different expressions, before settling on bemused. Then, since it was getting hot, he went inside to change into shorts. He left the face lying flat on a sheet of tissue paper and set his name tag down beside his bag.

     When he came back out five minutes later, the face had changed. One of the eyes — the right one — had shifted a little bit. Then Ben noticed that his name tag was not there. Had he taken it inside? Was he still wearing it? No, he had left it right there. But it was missing.

     Irrationally, Ben’s first thought was, Will they still let me get into meals? He was annoyed and uncomfortable, and just wanted the security of the name tag back. That’s when he noticed the slight breeze blowing through the courtyard. Had it been blown away? Unlikely. But then a gust of wind sent leaves skittering by. Ben watched them whisk past, trying to determine what path his name tag could have taken. He looked up at the entire courtyard stretching out in front of him. 

     That’s the moment he suddenly realized why he was in Nashville. He was there to listen. He was there to play a game. The ear, the face that changed expressions, this quad before him now a garden of mysteries. Faith, he realized, was a state of perpetual anticipation and watchfulness. It was looking at a certain scene and seeing it both as it existed and as it might exist under different circumstances. That someone told Ben later what had transpired when he went inside — a bird landed by the clay face and picked at it before grabbing the name tag in its beak and dragging it halfway across the courtyard — diminished nothing. We don’t choose the roads by which we come to faith. But we choose how we see the road we’re on and where it could take us.

      That’s what Ben’s second pilgrimage to Nashville was about too. It was a prelude to nothing and a prelude to everything. It was spending six days with Erin as a friend and seeing it as the next six days in something far beyond a friendship. So which would it be? 

     After breakfast at Pancake Pantry on the morning of Wednesday the 27th, Erin drove Ben back to the airport. By now they were comfortable around each other again, and conversation flowed easily. Erin had introduced Ben to Grant-Lee Phillips, and he had become sufficiently obsessed with the song “Spring Released” to play it on repeat for the full duration of the drive. (“There are other songs on the album,” Erin noted.) As they unloaded at the airport curb, Ben pulled out what he referred to as The Trump Card: a sealed letter, postmarked August 28, that he had written shortly after camp. This letter was inspired by Scott Guldin, who had advised Ben to play it cool in the feelings department, seeing as Erin was already in a relationship. But write the letters you want to write her anyway, Scott said. Just don’t send them. Hold onto them until the day comes when she’s ready to read them.

     So Ben wrote them. Then he mailed them to himself and left them sealed. He said everything he was afraid to say in the open. What’s the worst that can happen?, he thought. Erin marries the other guy and disappears forever and I burn the letters. No harm done, aside from the crushing heartbreak, of course. Except now, somehow, it had come to pass that Ben was giving Erin the first letter, which was not a love letter so much as a prelude to a love letter, a sort of What if we did fall in love? kind of letter. Wouldn’t that be a kick? Which it was, Ben thought, after they hugged and he disappeared into the crowds while Erin pulled back into traffic and the two of them again went their separate ways.

books, Friday Recommends, music, television, things that make you sad

Friday Recommends: Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives


We do not consider ourselves experts on quantam mechanics or theories of multiple universes, but we like The Eels and we especially enjoyed NOVA’s recent “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives,” about Mark Oliver Everett (also known as “E”) and his father, the brilliant, remote, hard-drinking Hugh Everett III, whose controversial Many Worlds Theory proposed that other universes are continually being created out of everyday reality. As you might imagine, this made for an interesting father-son dynamic in the Everett household. “He was a physical presence, like the furniture, sitting there jotting down crazy notations at the dining room table night after night,” says Mark, who was frequently upstairs pounding on his drums. The science gene did not pass from father to son: Mark flunked ninth grade algebra, and admits to barely being able to calculate his restaurant tip.

The program follows Mark as he interviews his father’s former colleagues and physicists today who champion Hugh’s theory (which was discredited by Niels Bohr). It’s also a sad saga of the unraveling of the Everett clan. Mark’s father died of a heart attack when Mark was 19 (he found the body). His mother died of cancer in 1998, while his sister committed suicide, saying in her suicide note that she was going off to meet their dad in a parallel universe. (Electro-Shock Blues, the album the Eels released after Mark’s mom and sister died, is one of the more uplifting concept albums about death that you’ll ever hear.) On top of all that, Mark’s cousin Jennifer was a flight stewardess on 9/11’s Flight 77. Mark is the last remaining Everett, yet there’s something life-affirming about watching him trace his father’s career and grapple with his ideas. By the end, he has essentially met his dad for the first time.

Watch the program here, but do it before October 28. PBS will take it down after that due to rights restrictions. A warning to cat lovers: Scooter Thomas had to look away during the grisly animation sequence explaining the graphic experiment known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” It is not pretty.

You can read an excerpt from Mark’s autobiography, Things The Grandchildren Should Knowhere.

And this is an excerpt from Hugh’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton, using amoebas as a metaphor to describe his concept of splitting “observers.” If it makes a lick of sense to you, you should consider quantum mechanics as a day job.