Five years ago, Sufjan Stevens’ released the tender and languid Carrie & Lowell. The album quickly became not only his most critically acclaimed project, but a staple in Gen-Z culture. While I admittedly had only listened to Stevens’ songs from the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack, I knew that Carrie & Lowell was a big deal to the gays on Tumblr—so I decided to finally give it a listen last summer. I was home for the holidays, my back blistered from the July heat. Home for me has always been bittersweet. The town I grew up in is a constant reminder of the trauma I endured as a child, and coming home never feels quite right. But I know that I can always find solace in one particular place: my grandmother’s house. A tiny white house, stark against the green forest, was once her own but later became ours.
I’ve always believed I won’t love anyone as much as I love my grandmother. She took me in when I was 17, after I left an abusive household, and since then we’ve become tethered to each other. I call her every morning before work, and every night after dinner. We’ve always been close—I was born a week after her 40th birthday, like God was delivering a late birthday gift—but as the years go by I find myself wanting to be with her, always. No matter if we’re smoking on her back porch or sitting silently in her car, time spent with her feels like more than just time being spent. I picture our laughs bouncing off the walls of that tiny house in the woods, ghosts of us forever present.
The first song I heard from Carrie & Lowell was “Eugene.” I remember thinking it was a love song, and then learning the album was dedicated to Sufjan’s late mother; immediately, it took on a completely different meaning. As Stevens croons “Since I was old enough to speak / I’ve said it with alarm / Some part of me was lost in your sleeve / Where you hid your cigarettes / No, I’ll never forget / I just want to be near you,” I can picture my five-year-old self tugging on my grandmother’s sleeve at a Christmas party, attempting to get her attention away from other family members. I clung to her constantly, afraid of people I didn’t know well and nervous around men. She would try her best to ignore me and go out to the garage to smoke, so I would follow, and eventually I began smoking. It became a way to socialize with her, tendrils of smoke billowing around us, our lungs surly heavy with the weight of it.
I’ve always been afraid of death. Not dying, but death in the context of the person I love most in the world leaving before me. My love for my grandmother is incomprehensible in the scope of the world, and I can’t imagine being able to call this place my home without her in it. In “John My Beloved,” Sufjan pens “I love you more than the world can contain / In its lonely and ramshackle head,” perfectly alluding to how overwhelming the weight of loving someone can be. On her birthday this year, when I thanked her for everything she’d done for me, she texted back, “Love you so much too sometimes it’s scary.” It’s comforting knowing that she finds herself swallowed up by this love between us too, and I’m not alone in it.
With Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens crafts a timeless album about death and love. Sometimes I wonder, if I was treated how a child should be, would this relationship still exist the way it does? Am I so desperate for positive attention that everything in me is harnessed into the love I hold for my grandmother? Sometimes, even though last summer amidst the August breeze she whispered, “You know, you’re not just my granddaughter, you’re my kid,” I can’t help but wonder if she truly understands what she means to me. I tell her each time she leaves the room with an “I love you,” and pray that when the time does come—whether it’s me first or her±that those words translate through time. For someone who was once abandoned by both parents, Carrie & Lowell serves as a lingering reminder of what life once felt like, and the resulting life my grandmother has gifted me.
By Kaiya Shunyata