Heaven? I’m in heaven?
—Prior Walter in Act V of Angels in America: Perestroika, Tony Kushner
We sang Vaughan Williams’s “O how amiable” surrounded by dozens of panels of the AIDS Quilt, we noshed on Keen’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, we contemplated Paul’s cryptic “I heard it from a cousin who told his friend” commentary on “the third heaven,” whatever that is—that is to say, I was back at church for the first time in a month, my longest stretch without church proper in years, and it was as good and jarring of a homecoming as I could have wanted.
I had actually been in the courts of the Lord already the previous evening for Quilt: A Musical Celebration,Judsonite Mark Perry’s benefit show for the Callen-Lorde Health Center and Frontline AIDS. Mark had arranged for a sizable showing of the quilt itself, which I’d never seen in person. I texted a picture of Freddie Mercury’s panel to MaryBeth; I shuddered with a sort of bilious grief at Roy Cohn’s, emblazoned with the legend “BULLY-COWARD-VICTIM.” But the panel I won’t be able to forget is the very first one that was made, Marvin Feldman’s, by Cleve Jones, who conceived the quilt and the NAMES Project. In the panel, Johnson is slight and serious, with round glasses and a moustache; he is surrounded by a Keith Haring-esque corona of bold dashed gray lines; and he holds a small gray tabby cat.
On Wednesday nights, when Judson becomes an arts venue (always free for both artists and audience, always live, always uncensored), the Meeting Room looks different. The LaFarge windows only suggest the saints and angels within themselves; there are more shadows, the Vignette on the Instagram turned all the way up; more ways to be ambiguous, more ways to hide and then emerge.
In the dimmed room, as the Judson staff and the artists of Undiscovered Countries worked together to set the stage for the show, I was reminded of why Judson Arts Wednesdays are so important, both for us as a faith community and for the artists who come to work and perform there. There was the lighting, the sound system, the microphones carefully placed and adjusted; the infrastructure often barely visible to an audience, but so important for artists to be able to access as they grow their art and the audience for it. Before the show even started, I was grateful just for that, for the columns holding up our aging building, for the people who take such good care of both it and the people who take spiritual, artistic, and religious shelter within it.
After we saw Amazing Grace,we decided we’d be total fools if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to see national treasure, living history, wildly talented musician Mavis Staples perform live for her 80th birthday at the Apollo Theatre. And we weren’t disappointed, of course; in addition to Mavis herself, she was joined by a coterie of other terrific musicians (like Valerie June in that fabulous lime-green number at left). And it was more than a show; in both the songs and the stories Mavis shared, the evening was a testament to the power of music to change hearts, sustain social movements, and bring meaning and purpose to life over eras and generations.
Matt said we should see Amazing Grace, the long-hidden documentary film about the making of Aretha Franklin’s gospel album of the same name, in the movie theatre, which turned out to be exactly the right call. A film that’s billed at eighty-seven minutes, but feels, in the best way, much longer, Amazing Grace is transporting musically, spiritually, and politically.
No one has to explain Aretha Franklin’s talent as a singer, and I won’t even try to do it here. I will say that it’s thrilling to see her in the context of an actual church, playing and singing church music, and the ways in which she attends to that context with such reverence and in a spirit of community with the other musicians and congregants. Technically all the artists are incredible, and the common purpose with which they imbue both of the concerts depicted in the film is palpable.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library maybe half a dozen times now; it’s one of my favorite New York museums because of its small scale (see also: the Frick Collection and the Tenement Museum) juxtaposed with its vast collection of books and antiquities held in a space that was once the home of J.P. Morgan. You can tour his private study and wonder what it must have been like to own everything he did, to consider your immense holdings from a room wallpapered in red damask and hung with a giant portrait of yourself wearing a red cape. (All real details from the Morgan.) We had gone to see the Tolkien exhibit, which consists of many of his personal photographs, letters, notes, and artwork from The Lord of the Rings and beyond, but I wanted to write a bit about the motif of the divine feminine in the Ancient Near Eastern Seals and Tablets collection.
Will it, though? Probably not. At least not the way you think. Change is hard and slow, and it usually isn’t a single process. To really change your life, you need to rewrite your programming, and if you operate on Shame.0 (there are no other versions; Shame.0 is a primitive, miserable program upon which improvement is not possible), coming out about who you really are and what matters to you is especially difficult. But I’m becoming convinced that it’s the only real project, I who do love a good project, at the same time that it’s dawning on me what a long project it has been and will continue to be.
This (***waves hand vaguely***) is part of the project. About a year ago, I realized I couldn’t last much longer pretending I didn’t write, pretending it wasn’t still so important to me. I couldn’t let my words sit unread and unremembered in my journal anymore. I had to try to put them out in the world. I prayed about it (and still do); I read The Artist’s Way and started doing morning pages; I took time off from work specifically to finish a book I started writing in 2013; I finished a 50k first draft of a new book during NaNoWriMo; I asked Dakota to help me set up the domain name he bought for me a few years ago so I could have a website. And when I wondered how in God’s name I could get into the spirit of publishing something cohesive with regularity and rhythm and accountability, I figured I could start blogging about church (and cheekily name my church posts after a Hozier song fairly critical of organized religion), since I had been taking notes on church services for years, and share poems from time to time. At the beginning of the year I also started to make a concerted effort to write about art. And here it is: an occasionally awkward project, still a fairly small project with a fairly small audience (thanks everyone), but a project nonetheless.
So: I’m not going to tell you that the Hozier show in Orlando changed my life. And I’m not going to write about it like a music journalist; this isn’t a “review” of the show, per se. But it still felt like a cairn along the path of change that told me I was going the right way.