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  • Aarik Danielsen

Soothsayers Speak

Watching a child self-soothe dredges a bed of mixed feelings.

Typical, tiny techniques almost go unnoticed. Clinging to a beloved stuffed creature and reflexively sucking a thumb amount to childhood rites. Sometimes you bear witness to a more complicated act. Your little one twists a slight strand of hair or rubs a small plot of fabric between their fingers till the softness of the rhythm ends in dreams.

Every parent needs to embrace the axiom “Don’t take it personal.” But the truth falls away in moments when a child plays both their part and yours. Absent your ability to usher in a state of calm, they take over and you wonder, Am I not enough?

Self-soothing doesn’t stop at childhood. Coping might as well be the official verb of 2020. Without any other trauma or troubles–and who can claim that?—the combined weight of a pandemic, visible racism, and barbed-wire politics leaves us all managing the best we can. Which is to say, not nearly well enough.

What do I want from my nightly ritual? A little certainty and a little conversation. The chance to bear witness as someone not only survives, but walks to the edge of thriving.

Not all coping strategies are created equal, and mine rate low on the scale of self-destruction. Most nights, I sit before a screen and spend time with one or both of the following: live concert footage and clips of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert sparring over movies.

The former seems relatively normal. With nearly all live-music venues shuttered for the foreseeable future, that electric charge is hard to come by. The latter lands a little stranger. What possible comfort comes from two late, great film critics running down the worst movies of 1993 or identifying the beating heart of a Scorsese classic? And yet I experience them all like soothsayers.

Mere nostalgia can’t explain away my pursuits. Checking in with Siskel and Ebert, or watching clips of Radiohead, Pearl Jam, and Counting Crows as baby bands, I never revert to a younger version of myself. I just feel like me again. Milton’s kindred dare not base an epic on my nightly binges; this is no case of paradise squandered or innocence misplaced, but normalcy lost.

What do I want from my nightly ritual? A little certainty and a little conversation. The chance to bear witness as someone not only survives but walks to the edge of thriving. Watching someone do what they do best makes one feel alive again.

I breathe slower as Michael Stipe takes his odes to unrequited love and ennui from studio to stage, breaking out of his candy-coated shell. The humanity comes in waves when The National’s Matt Berninger plays every damn one of his cards before a Sydney Opera House crowd, amplifying his inner monologue and confronting every twisted phrase.

For a few seconds each night, I pause to worry, remembering God watches along.

And yes, everything about the Siskel and Ebert experience eases my mind. From the sleek, saxophone-heavy theme song to the pleasure of watching friends disagree about the least- and most-important matters in the world, it’s all grace. A direct address to the camera resembles a miracle in this distant day. More than this, the knowledge that there’s always more episodes ahead permits me to hope—that another moment is coming, and another one after that.

What strange mercy to realize that even these experiences—especially these experiences—settle me down. They leave more well with my soul than not.

For a few seconds each night, I pause to worry, remembering God watches along. Like a damaged father, does he ask, Am I not enough? Then I think maybe late-night liturgies and their attendant “amens” precede a new morning’s mercies. Maybe the God who called creation good finds pleasure when we use, rather than abuse, his gifts to calm our souls. Perhaps this is how he soothes us.

Worry gives way to wonder, and I catch myself fingering a bit of fabric as YouTube loads the next clip. At a reasonable time, I climb the stairs and into bed. Better prepared for survival with each passing night, thriving seems a bit closer than it did the night before.


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