- Sufjan Stevens and How I Taught Myself to Cry
Everything I know about crying, I learned from Sufjan Steven's music. His body of work is one of viscous nostalgia and queer longing—always sung close to a precipice. It has carried me through my queer and trans young adulthood.
Before I started taking testosterone, I had a disastrously thin crying threshold. Spurred by everything from paragraph breaks to break ups, I cried at all opportunities. This is all just memory though—I can't remember the physicality of that old kind of crying—the sensation only comes back to me in abstractions: the feeling of a pink silk ribbon over an open palm, an orchid face pinched between fingers, and, maybe, a fire quelled by a licked thumb.
Around the time I started passing as a man, maybe three months on testosterone, I had a night of essay-writing and overall college stress and I recognized wanting but not being able to cry. Sitting at my clunky wooden desk, I approached the crying ledge and found a wall I couldn't push myself over. My phone lay face down. I had this impulse to call my Mom but I knew I couldn't—I used to talk to her about everything but she'd made it clear she didn't support this "new chapter." I bundled myself up, put headphones in, and took a walk on Collegeville's painfully suburban Main Street. I was on a crying mission.
I played Illinois, Sufjan's third album and one I used to listen to with my high school boyfriend, Giulio, when he'd drive me home on the highways between our two small Pennsylvania towns. When I was a girl and a closeted bisexual, I didn't tap into the specifically queer sadness of Steven's music. I read my and Giulio's relationship into every lyric and slipped into a blissful state of constant nostalgia on those drives—the songs slipped one into another and made me often say "I miss you" to Giulio even though he was right there. All high school romances are a constant state of farewells.
By the time the song "Casimir Pulaski Day" came around on the album, I was far away from campus and ambling past Saint Olivia's Church. Its huge stone walls miniatured me and I stood there in the middle of the sidewalk for the length of the song.
In the song, the narrator sings to his fellow young lover who has died, detailing moments of their brief love and reckoning with his own relationship to God. The almost chipper but broken-hearted refrain "In the morning" contrasted with the deepening night around me. I had only recently come out as a trans man. Becoming your gender is as urgent as a young love and Steven's voice balanced me between sickly-sweet high [End Page 11] school romance memories and my new strange affair with my own body.
The final lines of the song "and he takes and he takes and he takes and he takes" were what thrust me—I saw God's giant hands scooping the young girl from the narrator's driveway. I cried a meager two or three tears and wiped my nose before turning on my heels to follow the sidewalk home, still vibrating in his voice.
I had a phase where I would search interviews with Sufjan Stevens, hoping to find a glimmer or a moment when he'd suggest being queer. I don't know why I wanted this from him. I guess I wanted confirmation that what I felt in his music was really my same gay desires spun into sound. I also loved the thought of him maybe being gay and Christian—something imagined by so many people as antithetical but celebrated in the full vibrancy of songs and lyrics. I wondered then also what it would men if he weren't queer. Did that have to mean his music didn't give texture and body to everything I struggled, and still often struggle, to articulate.
The day before I moved to New York for grad school I got...