The Art of Disappearance

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The problem — or at least a problem, I’ve been told — is that I am not very concerned about being missed upon any of my exits, not the ones that are voluntary nor the ones that swoop down without warning to cover me in a quilt of dark feathers. I think about this often, and if there is a remedy for it. I read the sometimes long, sprawling announcements people make when they leave or take breaks from social media platforms, or I watch someone announce that he or she is departing on the way out of a crowded party, and I sometimes find myself puzzled by the practice. I slip out of parties unannounced. I make up excuses for why I didn’t make the rounds, or say goodbye. I see the concerned texts, I tell myself I’ll reply later and sometimes I do.

I am indifferent about being missed, which isn’t to say that I don’t believe that I have been missed, or will be missed again. It is very likely that there are people missing me right now, reading this admission and shaking their heads at what they’ve always known, even if I wasn’t bold enough to explicitly speak it out loud before walking out of a door that I’d never again be on the better side of.

This feeling is acute during the long, endless-feeling Ohio winters, when leaving a physical space is scarcely an option. This is most challenging in late March, when temperatures can barely rise above the 30s and snow is still accumulating. During that season within a season, when hope tails off, spinning into the still-early darkness, I return to the music of the cult favorite singer-songwriter Connie Converse. When I am most seduced by the idea that sunlight might be a cure for an emotional descent I can no longer trace, I return to the same song: Converse’s “We Lived Alone.” Clocking in at just over a minute, it’s both an ode to contentment with loneliness and an expression of intense longing.

When the song begins, Converse is reveling in her own isolation: “We lived alone/my house and I/we had the earth/we had the sky/I had a lamp against the dark/and I was happy as a lark.” She describes her beloved stove and window, and the chair wearing a “pretty potato sack,” and the roses blooming around her doorstep. And then, right before the listener is evicted from the tune, there is the Volta: “I had a job/my wants were few/they were until I wanted you/and when I set my eyes on you/nothing else would do.”

I first heard the songs of Converse in 2009, five years after Gene Deitch, who initially recorded Converse’s music in his kitchen with a Crestwood 404 tape recorder in the 1950s, played a cluster of recordings on WNYC. The songs were compiled and then released as the 2009 album “How Sad, How Lovely.” The release ignited a fascination around Converse, whom most people had never heard of. There are few things that seduce like scarcity — the reality that you can briefly traverse a single small world built by someone who left, and then built nothing else for the public to find or access. These were the only songs Converse ever recorded: She disappeared from Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1974, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

If Connie Converse were alive today, she would be 98. On the internet, she is mostly assumed dead. Written of and spoken of in the past tense. For some, it might be hard to separate the shock of how her story ended from the songs themselves, but there is an abundance of brilliance in the work. Converse mastered the art of sparseness, relying on her ability to create a tiny chamber in which all that could survive is a voice and the pin pricks of a guitar’s strings, moving along inch by inch.

It is very possible that even if nothing about her disappearance were spectacular beyond the disappearance itself, even if she spent decades in the mountains or forest, or simply driving from place to place, the years might have accumulated, her body might have reached its limits. But I find myself uncomfortable with the assumption of finality.

I realize that I am projecting. Converse was someone who, it seemed, made a path for her life, post-music, that was rooted in refusal. A refusal to be known, a refusal for access. Her musical legacy suggests that an exit — both the life it leaves behind, and the elsewhere that it hints at — can echo, be endless. An elsewhere can offer relief, or at least an idea of relief, whether that desire for an elsewhere leads one to consider death, or whether it leads one to simply exit her circumstances and seek new ones, seek a place where she is unreachable. I am drawn to Converse because she offers a model for these questions that I have weighed and carried in the past, questions that I will almost certainly be confronted with again. I live with multiple anxiety disorders and depression. I have, in the past, had to do hard math around the subject of staying: staying alive, staying present in the place that I am, the world I know best.

I have found myself newly sensitive to the art of disappearance, and how it is not — or at least not always — aligned with death. Sometimes a desire to be gone is simply a desire to be gone. It may be foolish, but there’s something comforting about imagining Converse living, moving through the back end of her ninth decade, in defiance of the dissatisfying “here” that haunted her over 40 years ago.

Connie Converse is a person with a life ripe for the writer’s gaze. There are incompletions, large holes that can be filled only through imagination, through wishing, through myriad projections, for better or worse. But there are, of course, some concrete facts.

Converse was born Elizabeth Eaton Converse in Laconia, N.H., on Aug. 3, 1924. Her father was a minister, and her mother ran a strict Baptist household. She was the middle child, sandwiched between two brothers: Paul, nearly three years older, and Phillip, four years younger. Converse excelled academically and earned a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was continuing a tradition — her mother and grandmother each graduated from Mount Holyoke — but dropped out abruptly after two years and moved to New York City. It was there, working at a printing house in the Flatiron district and living in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village, that she shed the name Elizabeth and began going by Connie. She started writing songs and playing them for friends. She also took up drinking and smoking, which reportedly enraged her religious parents. Still, Converse gave in to the joys of reinvention.

Credit…Photo illustration by Itchi. Source photograph: Courtesy of the estate of Elizabeth Eaton Converse.

When we speak of artists as being “ahead of their time,” we often mean that they were operating in a time, place or space that was not prepared for them, and wouldn’t be prepared for years or decades to come. A very specific ache in the Connie Converse story is that she was ahead of her time, but by only minutes. Or, she was ahead of her time but unrecognized as an innovator perhaps because of immutable factors: her gender, her personality. In New York, before the enormous success of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Converse got in good with the right crowd, rolling with a crew of budding young folk musicians like Pete Seeger. In 1954, she played songs on the CBS “Morning Show.” In photos from this moment, she is sitting next to Walter Cronkite, who leans in while Converse answers a question, her arm slung over her guitar, a half-grin on her face.

But then there was nothing. The TV appearance came and went with little interest from the public. The work to get her music in front of producers and managers yielded no results. She was considered too hard to sell, according to Deitch. She would mail her brother Phillip some of her recordings monthly. When her listener base didn’t expand as she’d hoped, she moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1961, in part to be closer to Phillip. She worked as a secretary for two years before taking a job as the managing editor for The Journal of Conflict Resolution in 1963. She stopped writing songs altogether, seemingly content with her newfound life of relative certainty. By that time, the folk scene in New York had taken off, bursting with singer-songwriters who were aligned with the work Connie had already done.

By the end of 1972, The Journal, which she had helmed for nearly a decade, left the University of Michigan, where it was housed, and was acquired by Yale. This was an inciting event for Converse, whose loved ones saw her growing increasingly depressed, bored and burned out on the routine of work, though it seemed to be the routine that sustained her. Friends pooled money to send her on a sabbatical to London, where she lived for around half a year, though it didn’t appear to have an impact on her demeanor upon her return. When she did return, her mother coaxed her into taking a trip to Alaska. Converse, who was by now drinking with noticeably more frequency, was not interested. But that trip, too, just furthered her dissatisfaction.

In a quote attributed to Converse from 1974, she reportedly told her brother Phillip, “Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it.” Shortly after that, she placed her meager belongings into her Volkswagen Beetle, left behind a batch of goodbye letters and vanished, entirely. In the interview, Phillip says that he didn’t know where his sister was. That he wouldn’t know what to say to her even if he knew where to find her.

In the 2014 documentary “We Lived Alone,” Phillip reads a letter his sister left behind. The language in the letter is much like the language in her songs, poetic and direct. Speaking of things as they are, not as she dreamed they could be: “I’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of Ann Arbor, those I know and those I don’t, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and I felt a detached admiration for their energy and elegance. If I ever was a member of this species perhaps it was a social accident that has now been canceled.” In another letter, she wrote: “Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t.”

Beautiful and jarring and haunting as it may be, what has most remained for me, in the back of my mind at a low hum, is its opening: Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t.

About a decade after her disappearance, Converse’s family hired a private investigator to find her, or to at least confirm whether she’d taken her own life. In the documentary, Phillip says that the investigator declined, telling the family that even if he did find Connie, it was her right to disappear. He couldn’t bring someone back who didn’t want to return to the place from which they fled.

To drill down on the definition of “being alive,” I have always come to a core definition that I can understand and make peace with: being someone who participates in the ever-shifting world. But I have no control over the world, and I don’t mean only the world in the sense of a blue rock twirling along endless dark. I also mean the smaller worlds. The worlds of the country I live in, the worlds of my city, the worlds of my neighborhood. There are edges of these worlds simultaneously sharpening and softening, even now, and I do not know which edges they are, or when they’ll come for me or comfort me, depending on their intent. And so I decide that living, then, is also a contract. I’ll stay for as long as I can, and I hope it is a good, long time. I’ll stay as long as staying gives more than it takes.

In the times I’ve not wanted to stay, I have been showered with familiar platitudes. I’ve been told I have “a lot of life left,” or I’ve been told to think about all the people who will miss me when I’ve gone. Once, a doctor who was tasked with keeping me alive for longer than I wanted to be at the time told me to envision my funeral. It didn’t work, because I’d buried enough people I’d loved by that point. I had begun to believe in the funeral — at least as it serves the still-living — as a portal. Something you enter with one understanding of grief, and exit with a newer, sharper understanding of grief. I began to believe the funeral as a simple moment of transience, not of any grand enough consequence to keep me grounded in an unsatisfying life.

I have still not gotten good at explaining this to anyone who has always wanted to be alive, or at least people who have rarely questioned their commitment to living, but there is a border between wanting to be alive and wanting to stay here, wherever here is to you, or whatever it means. It’s a border that I have found to be flimsy, a thin sheet overrun with holes. But it is a border, nonetheless. Similar to the border between, say, sadness and suffering. All these feelings can intersect, of course. But I have found it slightly more confusing when they don’t. When I maybe want to be alive, but don’t want to be in the world as it is. When I haven’t wanted to be alive, but want to cling to the varied bits of brightness that tumble into my sadness, or my suffering, which isn’t the same as a temporary haze of sadness, or a rush of anxiety. I mean suffering that requires a constant measuring of the scales between staying and leaving. Suffering that requires a consideration of how long the scale can tilt toward leaving before it becomes the only viable option. There are a lot of things in any life that aren’t left up to the people doing the living. If there is anything for a suffering person (or any person) to self-determine, it should be how they live, or if they choose to live at all.

There are few thoughtful bits of advice for those who drift between those borders, or those who have a foot on each side simultaneously. And so, in a bad week, I turn my phone off, and then on again. I play piano in a quiet room. I look at maps.

I admit, of course, that there are many intersections of Converse’s story that allow for me to map myself onto both her apparent frustrations and dissatisfactions. This is, I’m sure, why I’m here again. Why I have been here before, picking apart her old tunes and searching tirelessly for more and hoping that she is somewhere, alive, and away from anywhere that reminds her of any ache she has carried. I feel some compulsion to defend against the dominant idea that is attached to her songs: that they are terribly, poignantly sad. I bristle at this, not only because I know sadness to be a shorthand description for deep, vibrantly aware feeling. What Converse seemed to aspire to was a removal from the world on her own terms.

From what is known about the time leading up to her disappearance, Converse was seeking newness. Her close friends pooled money to send her on a six-month trip to England in 1973, and she returned home, her mood unchanged. Not long before her disappearance, her mother pushed her into the Alaska trip, which worsened her discomfort and depression. These are the gestures people make when they love us, when they see us suffering. The idea is about what can be done to fix a person gripped by a sometimes unexplainable condition. Someone who is folding further into herself, and becoming seemingly unreachable. There is something I understand about the letter Converse left behind. She wanted to be let go, perhaps not only for the sake of not feeling like a burden on loved ones, but also to figure out, on her own, if the world was worth living in.

I am sure that no small part of me takes some offense to Converse being referred to in the past tense is because it rushes to a conclusion about her motivations and fate — neither of which we have access to — and assumes that what seemed to be her relentless dissatisfaction was a form of selfishness. In the words she left behind, it seems as if she was most eager to be gone, away from a world that dissatisfied her, that had failed her after a half century of living. But to live in a world that often can’t make sense of someone self-determining their own exits, death is the easiest presumption to make.

Credit…Photo illustration by Itchi. Source photograph: Courtesy of the estate of Elizabeth Eaton Converse.

What I hear fighting its way to the surface in Converse’s songs is a type of questioning discontent, opening up to a sky of insatiable desire. In her songs, her voice doesn’t sound weighed down by grief, or weariness. It doesn’t sound as if it is nested in some web of dilemmas from which it can’t untangle itself. It tends to leap at the end of each line she sings. It’s a playful voice, a curious and constantly seeking voice. It splashes in the gaps of silence left by the space in her sparse guitar playing. It is almost a child’s voice — which, yes, can sometimes be sad — but is often trying to make sense of the otherwise unexplainable world that is newly coming into focus.

I hear longing, and something that seems like hope.

What stands out most is a sort of eager dreaming. Exuberant wishes that aren’t as sad as they appear on the tracks themselves, but maybe became sad for her as the years accumulated and she continued to seek them. What Converse seemed to know in her songs was that there was somewhere better, or a little more satisfying. And then, when she was done recording, she spilled back into a world where all of that satisfaction became increasingly out of reach.

I am aware, more often now than I used to be, that I am up against time, same as anyone else. I can work to be happy where I am, and I do. I can work for my satisfaction with what I have at my disposal, which, to be clear, is a life full of privileges and sometimes pleasures, even if it is difficult to make that clear to myself some days. But in my wishing, my satisfaction is endless. In my dreams, I want to live forever. To come back to earth, swept into the many jagged realities of the present, is small damage. It accumulates, though in my case, that accumulation is met with other moments that make survival worthwhile: A pink flower that didn’t grow in my front yard last year pokes out of a brown patch. My dog, somehow, still excited to see me when I walk through the door. It didn’t rain when I wanted to go shoot ball and I made a few shots in a row. But even those pleasures work against a clock. Everything is a balance.

When I think back to “We Lived Alone” and what I love about that song, I am grateful for its celebration of building the world you want amid life’s wreckage. It’s a song about understanding that what some people might see merely as absence is not only that. Like most of Converse’s songs, it is an ode to the delights of small pleasures, the things worth staying for.

It might be hard for some listeners to hear this aspect of her music. I find myself uncomfortable with how people — not just in the case of Connie Converse, but broadly — tend to flatten the idea of what sadness is, or looks like, without considering its varied face. The music of Connie Converse teems with longing, desire and relentless dreaming. We are to believe that the outcome of her life is sad; therefore, she and her music have retroactively been branded as sad. But Converse reminds us that sadness is a complex color, a result of other, primary colors intersecting over time. I’m thankful for Converse’s vanishing act, even if I’ll never know its destination. She wrote and sang of all the places she hoped to go, and I listen to her songs now and hope that she got to where she wanted, even if it wasn’t where the people who loved her wished that she would be.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to Speaking of Suicide for a list of additional resources.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a contributing writer for the magazine as well as a poet, an essayist and a cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.

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