To Sheila

Adoration Revisited, part one

Welcome to Not Knowing How: Adoration Revisited, a capsule newsletter by Lisa Locascio Nighthawk in sixteen parts. Names have been changed. The version of events is my own.

We park in the Methodist lot and share a jar of mezcal in the car before beginning the walk up Highland. I’m nervous, excited, embarrassed, telling stories that boomerang against each other.

My husband and I are new parents. Our fourth trimester—the first twelve weeks of our baby’s life—has just ended. This is our second night out together alone since his birth, the tickets a thirty-eighth birthday gift from my father. An opportunity to meet up with my former self.

We pass the American Legion Theater, the concrete house that looks like an early 2010s dispensary, and that particularly desolate Holiday Inn Express, climbing up into the curve of the Bowl. In my first Los Angeles life, I sometimes walked here from the apartment I shared with my first husband, a picnic and a bottle of Trader Joe’s wine hanging off my shoulder in a reusable grocery bag.

In Chicagoland, where I grew up, the equivalent to the Hollywood Bowl is Ravinia, I explain happily to my husband, in the north suburb of Highland Park, which is also the location of Madame Zuzu’s, the vegan coffee shop owned by Billy Corgan, the frontman of the Smashing Pumpkins, who we will see tonight.

Once, when I was very young, I built a shrine to him on the internet called Adoration: a website dedicated to the majesty that is Billy Corgan.

I discovered the Pumpkins late in their classic era, two and a half years before they broke up, but for me they were the beginning of everything. My passion for the band’s music and the man at its center launched me into an ecstatic and terrifying coming of age, an initiation that birthed the sensibility and practices at the core of my identity as a writer. By drafting a story, revising it, insisting on it, I grew up and achieved many of my goals.

Then, when I was thirty-five, my mother died after a medical crisis that was both sudden and brutally drawn-out. Surviving my deepest fear left me stunned and woozily optimistic. I had always assumed that if my mother died, I would die too. To go on living was a surreal surprise.

Although writing had always shown me the way forward, I now felt that I did not know how to write about anything, especially not the topic I most wanted to capture and explain to others: my life with my mother. Not Knowing How is an attempt—experimental, informal, mortifying, loose, mine—to regain the narrative authority I lost to grief.

When I was thirteen years old in 1998, I loved Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, vampires, IRC chatrooms, cats, and my new best friend. I taught myself to build HTML websites and wrote ambitiously plotted, perpetually incomplete fiction and poetry. I was on swim team and in CCD. I wanted to be a goth but didn’t know how to get the clothes and makeup. I’d bought CDs, gone to Lilith Fair with my parents, listened to the radio every night, but I’d never had a favorite band.

Then I turned on the radio and heard a man singing about twilight.

I listened to Q101—Chicago’s Alternative in the evenings, when the Top Nine at Nine aired right before Loveline. But it was daytime when I first heard “To Sheila,” the opener of the critically and popularly reviled album Adore. I remember the milky light in my window. Shadows and motes on the pink carpet.

Immediately, even before I knew his name, I was with with Billy. He became my imaginary friend and unseen betrothed, a doomed soldier sending me letters of devotion from the front. I felt his music described my life and taught me how to live it. Being close to him in my mind shaped my world, my decisions and longings, carrying me out of childhood and into adolescence, out of middle school and into high school, from innocence to experience, to the band’s five-hour farewell concert at Metro on December 2, 2000, after which I found myself on the snowy street in a wig and secondhand ballgown at three in the morning, dazedly talking to a man with a video camera who claimed to work for the band. I had been sixteen for a week.

After, I knew my grief sounded stupid. A teenage girl hung up on an idol, terminally unimportant, and I’ve never been able to bear being unimportant. I moped around, moving on. I went to college, graduate school, more graduate school. I wrote and learned how to teach writing. I got married, I got divorced, I worked and tried to get more work. I published my first novel and fell in love again. Sometimes, to charm, I offered the tale of my Pumpkins fandom. A sweet, slightly humiliating origin story. Something you couldn’t tell by looking at me.

On the phone from Chicagoland, River Forest, my parents told me that they cried from missing me when “1979” came on WXRT. “It reminds us of when you were in high school.”

After my mom died, I married again. I decided that I wanted to have a child. Instead I had two miscarriages, one right after another, in the span of three months. I met with a fertility specialist who wanted to know how much vigorous exercise I did in a week. I switched to a functional nutritionist, scraped my excrement into a vial and sent it off to a lab for analysis, took fistfuls of supplements every day. When my third pregnancy made it past the twelfth week, people who had stared blankly and changed the subject when I told them about my miscarriages wanted to know: Are you so excited?

I had a ready monologue about ambivalence. I hated the term “rainbow baby.” I enjoyed bumming everybody out. I worked from home in soft pants, counting myself lucky that I could dash to the bathroom when I experienced the phenomenon someone on Reddit called “the pee vomits.” My body changed and I needed new clothes and I feared the coming day when I would have to confess my pregnancy to my employers. Exhausted, I nestled into my six-foot long body pillow, put my earbuds in.

I still knew all the words.

Baroque lyrics delivered in an adenoidal snarl, in a hushed mumble, in a shriek of gothic self-importance. The oft-mocked unpretty voice I had devoted myself to like a child nun in the cult of a tubercular saint, the sound almost every man I’ve ever loved has proclaimed unlistenable. 

I don’t care, I insisted. I like it.

How happy it made me to be with Billy again. Brow furrowed, rage alive in my chest, in the grips of great change. I remembered this.

When I was pregnant all I wanted to do was listen to the Smashing Pumpkins. When my son was born, his lullabies were the only songs I knew by heart. “Will you please sing that beautiful song again?” my husband asked me one day as we were putting our baby to sleep. “What is it?”

But I didn’t buy tickets when the Hollywood Bowl show was announced. My renewed interest had also reignited the vague shame I felt about loving the Pumpkins. The intensity of my remembered devotion to Billy bore an aftereffect, a burn.

Then my dad offered me the tickets. I was shocked by how much I wanted them.

Yesterday, to promote this newsletter, I posted on Instagram a picture of myself taken on November 29, 2000, on my way to the penultimate Smashing Pumpkins farewell show at the United Center. It was a hit. People sent flame emojis, lit up my long-dormant account with interest. I should not be surprised that she still has many fans and admirers, that teenage sexual terror in the dress her mother bought her at a store called Medusa’s Circle. People remember her boldness, her intensity, the charismatic way she made her appeal community property. Even I thought I knew her.

I have a famously (at least in my own life and circle) good memory. But when, in the comments on that Instagram post, a friend from high school recalls “you announcing in French class that you spent every penny in your bank account on tickets to that [Pumpkins] show,” I must uneasily admit that not only do I not recall doing this, I am horrified by the idea that I did. I think it is something I would never do. As if I have always been a room-reading, learned-restraint-the-hard-way, self-marshaled woman in her late thirties.

A recent New Yorker article described the categories of “divider” and “continuer”:

Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall. […] Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character?

If you have the former feelings, you’re probably a continuer; if the latter, you’re probably a divider. You might prefer being one to the other, but find it hard to shift your perspective.

Describing this piece to my husband, I proudly announced that I was of course a continuer. I have always been myself. I have always known myself.

But now I’m not so sure. I pull up my old website and wonder who wrote it.

In eighth grade, I bought a woman’s entire carefully preserved Pumpkins collection on eBay. Years and years of magazine clippings neatly arranged in a folder. Pictures I’d never seen before, articles published when I was in first and second grade. A whole VHS tape of videos recorded off MTV. The seller’s name was Lily. She wrote in an email that the song that bore her name on Mellon Collie meant so much to her. “Lily (My One And Only).” I wish I knew her surname so I could look her up now.

That’s a habit of mine. Remembering people from the past and tracking them down. Figuring out where they are now.

That was my idea of an ending for this first installment. But last night I asked my husband to proofread it. He said I needed something else here, a connection, a thesis, along the lines of Who was that girl who apparently spent every last penny in her bank account on those tickets? I’m going to try to figure it out. 

This was a reasonable suggestion, but it was late at night and I am not reasonable.

I became moodily silent, displeased, panicking. The newsletter was a bad idea, I told him. I have too much going on. I’m trying to hold it together, finish my book, become a working parent when my leave ends at the beginning of January. Maybe I will fail.

Once again it descended, the creative crisis that has paralyzed me for much of the past two and a half years. Grieving and complaining and protesting and revising. Longing to tell teh story.

We went into the bathroom, my husband trying to puncture my sullenness with loving words that met only the gloomy sound of my electric toothbrush.

Once, a friend and I were looking at the social media of a person we didn’t much like. Their profile picture was from their high school yearbook. “I hate when people do that,” my friend said. “Use pictures of themselves when they were seventeen.” And because I am suggestible I made this comment a kind of self-law. No pictures of me as a hot child. I’d done enough of that when they were current. When I posted the picture yesterday, I enjoyed the response at first. Then something darker took hold. Was she better than me, this former self? More wanted? More fun? She knew something I don’t, didn’t she?

The third-to-last place my mother was treated was the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, a beautiful spaceship in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago that is supposedly the best rehabilitation hospital in the world. She said her view of the tall windows of skyscrapers reminded her of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

Three years ago this month we were gathered there, in the white cell we’d filled with Christmas decorations and soft blankets and books and stuffed animals, all the colorful detritus of home, looking through the massive unsorted collection of photographs of our family life. I showed my mother one I’d never seen before, circa 1985, of her holding me in our old apartment. “This is such a nice picture,” I said.

When she was dying my mother kept a brave face for us, staring into the middle distance, patting our hands and issuing encouragements as we wept at her bedside. We were greedy for these efforts. Anything to defer the present. Examining the photograph, however, her expression became distant, then almost angry, and finally confused. She looked away.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’m not that beautiful woman holding a baby anymore,” she said.

I felt she had rejected the nice thing I offered her, and I was annoyed, the same way I had been annoyed when she visited eight months earlier, before we knew she was sick, and called me at ten p.m. from her hotel room in tears, saying, “I don’t really know who I am!” She needed to focus on getting better. This was no time for an identity crisis.

But now I’ve got nothing but time. Twenty-two years ago tonight, the Smashing Pumpkins played the show Billy claimed would be their last to a packed house at Metro. I fought my way through the crowd to a spot just behind the people perched at the stage in head-to-toe “Tonight, Tonight” video costumes, assuring them that I really respected that they’d waited in the cold overnight to be the first ones inside. I definitely won’t try to get in front of you, I promised. Then I got in front of them and pressed myself up against the stage and there was nothing between me and Billy but a few inches of charged air.

Here I am again, now. Getting ready for the show to begin. The lights are going down.

This is the first of sixteen installments of Adoration Revisited, which will be released every Friday between December 2, 2022 and March 17, 2023. If you enjoy my newsletter, I’d be honored if you share it with your friends. And I’m always interested to hear about your obsessions and memories.