On Love Songs and Eulogies: a response to Hanif Abdurraqib’s "On Seatbelts and Sunsets"
There are moments in our lives that make us wonder whether there really is a God looking down at us. This sounds odd, coming from an atheist. I don’t believe there’s a big man in the sky who is condemning us for all of our wrong actions. Why should two people, sinning in the same ways, be considered more or less holy just because one goes to church for an hour or two and the other works Sunday nights? Churches are good for prayer, but so are concert venues, swing sets, basketball courts, garages, playlists, and empty high schools. I do, however, believe that there are angels, spirit guides, and higher powers who guide us on our life paths to learn the lessons our souls were given this lifetime to learn. When I refer to God, I mean the Universe, I mean the stars, I mean the windows-down-screaming-Billy-Joel-lyrics feeling you only get on the first warm day of the year.
Hanif Abdurraqib used Julien Baker’s “Hurt Less” as the foundation of an incredibly eloquent essay that discusses love, loss, and acts of God. You’re taken on a journey of his long distance relationship, and realizations he makes in connection to this love. I don’t know any better way to understand life than through music. And I think he was right when he said there’s a God that gets bored up there, that wants us to return earlier than expected. I believe God likes to make a mess just to see how we’ll get ourselves out of it.
In 2018, I attended my first funeral for someone who was much too young to be an angel, and maybe it was an act of God, or maybe it wasn’t. But I don’t have the willpower to second guess each cruel thing we are put through. Funerals and reunions often feel the same — a nostalgia that burns as much as the salty tears that managed to escape after the third “remember when?”. I find similarities between eulogies and love songs that maybe seem unfair, but I can’t help thinking that maybe if we wrote her more love songs we wouldn’t have had to write her eulogy. Both are more honest when you’re drunk. Both hurt the same when the person is gone.
My senior year of high school, I had an English teacher who, on the last day of classes, told us a story I’ve tried so desperately to remember but can’t seem to despite my best efforts. But the moral was to never stifle your creativity to follow standards set upon you by others, and something about a purple cow. I forgot about this story until I saw him again at that same funeral in 2018. He remembered that her and I sat next to each other in that senior year English class every single day, and I remembered her ability to spread love in every corner of her being, how she never let anyone stifle her creativity, despite their best attempts. That year, I experienced heartbreaks in the form of both eulogies and love songs. I found out she had passed away as I was fighting with someone I loved, who had sung me one too many love songs. And that moment, standing with my senior year English teacher, realizing that I didn’t know if the eulogies or the love songs hurt more, that was an act of God.
There’s something painfully beautiful in Abdurraqib’s writing, the way you can feel the longing for someone who seems just out of reach. The way you share your loneliness with the person you love, who maybe loves you back. I think there’s something beautiful in that. I also think there’s something beautiful in saying goodbye to the person that you thought was your personal act of God. Because love isn’t supposed to suffocate you.
I read somewhere that the wrong love makes you wonder where God is — the right one makes you feel him everywhere. I felt him everywhere, I felt him in the angel numbers, the synchronizations, the pennies I found at subway stops. But what I thought were signs for “this is right” just turned out to be God issuing a warning. I don’t know the difference between an angel and the devil yet, but I’m starting to think it lies in the second verse of a love song.
Abdurraqib wishes for the shrinking of distance between him and the person he loves. Sometimes I wish I never had to learn how many miles away they were in the first place. I can’t count the number of midwestern highways that have heard me cuss out the universe for giving me more than I could handle, the number of window seats that have caught my tears on another flight across the country, back to a home that doesn’t feel like home without the person you’re leaving at the terminal.
I don’t often pray, but sometimes I watch the sunset while driving down broken highways past where someone I used to love is, and I swear I can feel God whispering their name — like maybe he’s the one begging for forgiveness this time. When I do pray, it sounds a lot like a broken record. But the same names always find their way in. I don’t think there’s anything more innocently pure than praying for someone who broke your heart. There’s simplicity in the way it’s just you, God, and the everlasting feeling of wishing them the best, despite putting you through the worst. There’s honesty in hoping they find their peace.
In a small bar in New York, I watched some people I really love finish their first cross-country headlining tour, standing in the back of the crowd with some more people I really love, wishing for just a moment that the impermanence of reality would freeze for just a minute and that moment would last a little bit longer. Outside that same bar in New York, I gave tarot card readings to musicians I had just met, and a few moments later the heel of my thigh-high boot broke. It was midnight and I was walking the city streets with one shoe on my foot and the other in my hand and the band just stared at me as I laughed and told them I could see the future, and they couldn’t help but crack a smile. My friends left me with the opener of that show for a minute and told him to watch over me, to which his response was, “she can see the future, she knows she’s not dying tonight.” And I just laughed, because I knew I probably wouldn’t die that night, but I wouldn’t have minded that being my last memory either. It was freezing cold out but that moment provided all the warmth I needed. While those moments may carry an impermanence to them that seems unrelenting, they live on in the poems I’ve written since. Maybe I can’t see the future. But if there’s more moments like that one, then it’s a future I want to stick around for.
I probably shouldn’t have been at that little bar, or even in New York at all. There’s a lot of places I probably shouldn’t have been, places I find myself anyway, all because I wanted to be there for those people. I think there’s bravery in showing up for the people you love, despite everything being stacked against you. Despite that love being different. Someone once said to me, “you being there is enough. Just being there will always be enough.” There’s something courageous about showing up for someone when it would be easier not to. And I’m not sure if I’ll keep physically showing up, because it’s not my place and hasn’t been for a while. But there are people who I will always be cheering on from the sidelines. My heart and soul will always show up. And I think when you find those people that you would drop everything to show up for, regardless of where you are and how you feel, those are the people you keep in your heart in every lifetime. Those are the ones you keep in your prayers.
“Make it simple.” Someone who has become incredibly important to me gave me this advice. Just make it simple. When I didn’t know where to go or what to do, who to turn to or who to love, it was just that -- make it simple. I’ve never been good at simple, uncomplicated, easy. I’m good at difficult, hard to understand, feeling the weight of the world crashing down around me. I think that person was the only one I would have been able to hear it from. I think he was the only one that I would have fully trusted and believed in that situation. When my heart was breaking over the same situations, when I was losing my faith, I just needed to make it simple. Hearing this from him, that was an act of God.
I am so lucky to have loved and been loved by some of the most incredible people. Whatever that love looks like now, in this moment, I am forever grateful. And knowing that I’ve experienced that love, I know that the rest of my life will be an act of faith. Knowing that I’ll get to experience it again and again, knowing that I’m alive to experience heartbreak, to write love songs, to cry over eulogies. That the same names will always find their way into my prayers in the most simple of ways. Those are all an act of God, and continuing to live is my act of faith.
I don’t know the difference between an angel and the devil yet, but I’m starting to think it lies in the second verse of a love song.