#5: Julien Baker and Grace

#5: Julien Baker and Grace


14 August 2018

(note that this whole letter has a trigger warning for medical stuff)

I have spent a long time thinking about grace. I wrote a whole chapbook about it, I have the word in Latin tattooed both as something I aspire to, and as something I want to make note of when it appears in the world. It's one of the words that makes my ears perk up when I hear it. 

For these reasons, Julien Baker is one of my favorite artists, a modern-day saint in my canon, if you will. She's a young, queer, Christian singer-songwriter from Memphis. I went to my first concert of hers with my roommate, and we ended up standing there in near-holy silence with 200 other people in the same packed venue where a half-hour earlier we had been bouncing along to Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz. At different points in the show, Celia and I both cried, it would not have felt out of the ordinary to hold hands with her or anyone else in the crowd like we were praying together. The silence in the venue lasted all the way home on the train that night, across Williamsburg and into Manhattan, through the Q train taking us back across the darkened river. 

That night, the moment I cried, maybe even gasped, was when Baker sang a line from a song that was at that point untitled and unreleased.

"there is nowhere i can hide
from your humiliating grace." 

This seemed to be it, the thing I had been working towards in my study of grace, the thing that was slowly pulling me back into Christianity while also making me circle it like a wary dog. I don't really want to explain that any more, or go into it any farther, because I'm not sure I have more words for it, or because putting words to the thing feels like scaring it away. I'm not quite sure which. Julien Baker is someone who seems to have a similarly complicated relationship to both grace and God as I do.

I had a surgery last week. It was a small surgery, non-emergency, but still one that required an IV, general anesthesia, breathing tube, the whole nine yards. It was related to the mystery pains I've been alluding to for a few letters, now no longer a mystery. I have, at the very least, a name for them, and some temporary relief, but along with that, the knowledge that it's a more-or-less lifelong, not-dangerous-but-chronic kind of thing. I'm mostly fine now--moving around slowly, treating myself gingerly, unfamiliar to myself--but fine. I can touch my toes, reach my arms above my head.  

The song I first heard at the concert would later appear on Baker's second album, Turn Out the Lights, with the title "Happy to Be Here." It's a song about being fundamentally miswired for success in the world, about showing up at therapy every week with at the very least the conviction that there has to be enough grace and healing in the world for you. It's a song about being mad at God for your brokenness anyways. 

Surgery, for me, was deeply humiliating, or maybe I mean humbling, or maybe I mean both. I cried when they couldn't put in an IV the first time, and sobbed straight through until finally, four or five tries later, they were able to tap a vein and "send me to space," as the anesthesiologist's nurse put it. When I woke up and was discharged, the Uber driver that drove my mom and my partner and I home drove as slowly and smoothly as was probably safe, told me he hoped I felt better when, with help, I climbed out of his car. I was completely at the mercy of nurses' gentle efficiency, my mom taking care of me like she hadn't had to in decades. There are other specifics I could list, things I can't decide if they're too embarrassing or too small or too big to put them into words. 

I think this is something Julien Baker gets at also, in "Happy to Be Here." The song says complicated things about being broken, about acknowledging that pain in the face of a God we're told is omnipotent but still allows bad things to happen, about who gets the blame for all of it. It says something complicated about free will, or stubbornness, or the insistent desire for healing. I think what the song is yearning towards, what breaks my heart every time as her voice careens up the "then why"s that make up the chorus of the song, each iteration rawer than the last, the thing she's asking for, is the same thing I got this in this week of recovery. It is that immense gratitude you feel when you're taken care of for something you know isn't your fault but feels like it anyways, the moment that someone brushes away your thanks or apologies and just does the thing that's going to help you, and you let it work.