“Nothing turns out like I pictured it / Maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases.” -Julien Baker
In terms of years, 2017 was a bad one.
In the early months, I was formally diagnosed with depression and several anxiety disorders. In the summer I lost a church—one I’d probably lost a long time ago, but never expected to so thoroughly break from. I gained 30 pounds from the depression-eating and because I had to stop running when the panic attacks got too bad. I left my job. It wasn’t a bad job but it was a hard one, a job that demanded a lot from me emotionally and spiritually, and when I left I lost Sundays with my youth, who were only ever grace to me.
I’ve been trying to sum up my year, to find some resolution that sounds like happiness.
I feel pressure to talk about what an outrage this first year of Trump’s presidency has been, but also to sound strong and happy: to present myself as queer, Christian, and thriving, like every comment by some ‘well-meaning’ stranger didn’t hurt.
The truth is I went to concert at the end of December with some people I don’t know very well. I went because I love Julien Baker with my whole heart. Her music is what pumped through my speakers as I drove across the I-90 bridge into the setting sun every winter afternoon, what kept me company at night.
Julien was mostly alone on stage. She had lights behind her, incandescent bulbs in black wire cages, and she sang from her toes, throwing her head back and screaming notes. This was not singing pretty like I’d been taught in choir—this was survival.
I grew up believing my heart was a brush pile, ready to ignite and burn if only the right spark caught it. I thought having a heart burning for God would make me happy, burn the sadness out of my skin; my metaphors were about fire and water, light and darkness.
Maybe it was more complicated than that.
I don’t know. Listening to Julien Baker sing felt holy, which is weird to say about a rock concert but not the presence of the Lord. Swaying with a room full of people, I closed my eyes like I used to do in church and wept in front of strangers. Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and it had been so long since I’d felt blessed.
There were good things this year—grad school, where I cried under bright New Mexico stars and then went inside and danced like an absolute fool, where I smoked American Spirits on a balcony full of strangers and felt whole for one moment that drifted and lingered, diaphanous like smoke, for days. Watching Stranger Things on the couch with my mom. Diving headfirst into the Pacific in my underwear, shivering and radiant with three people who knew my whole heart. Standing on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, cars rattling past and heat haze drifting off the pavement, a muddy river flowing beneath us and a storm rolling in. My best friend kissing her husband, in a white dress on a hot afternoon.
Maybe I’ll always be depressed and anxious, picking at the edges of faith with my nagging doubts. Not burning up but knitting together the ragged threads.
Maybe it’s okay to cry at Julien Baker concerts and be a little sad all the time. To accept sadness for a little while, as some ineffable part of me. Maybe it doesn’t preclude joy. I hope.