by Leeah Swift
Leeah Swift is a transsexual glass of water, moving through her days as a cartoonist and musician. She has lived in New York, Vermont, Minnesota, and Virginia. She is often covered with and fixated on the color blue, though it is not her favorite color. She loves dogs, Amy Winehouse, and yelling. She is currently pursuing an MFA through The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT.
Total Sincerity Forever
It’s September 2020 and I’m on the phone with my friend Fiona, mourning a mutual friend, weeping and screaming. In the years preceding our friend’s death, she’d in many ways become a monster we couldn’t recognize, unable to take criticism without escalating and unable to recognize her capacity to cause harm.
Fiona says to me, “it is such a harsh indictment of the last part of her life that the only reason anyone thought to check up on her was that she hadn’t tweeted in two weeks.” Her body had been two-weeks decomposed, slumped against the door by the time someone thought to come by.
Fiona and I struggle with an intense guilt that we did not have the emotional constitution to withstand her personality enough to get her to own up to her mistakes and change.
I choose not to tell Fiona I’ve been repeatedly playing Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #2 (XO)” on my acoustic guitar, taking the line “I’m never gonna know you now / but I’m gonna love you anyhow” and bathing it in my grief.
Out of breath between weeps, I admit that I keep searching my mind for a nice little conversational bow to put on this so that we could each hang up the phone with some semblance of peace, but that the box containing grief’s baffling complexity was too gargantuan for any such bow to wrap around.
I interrupt the silence we’re sitting in following my admission: “Wait I’ve got something! So, my friend Evan has written this album called Total Sincerity Forever, titled after the opening song, itself with the same title.”
I’ve certainly got a degree of bias when it comes to Evan’s music, I’ll admit. Nonetheless, I think this album is incredibly rich, and there are so many things I could say about it, but I’m going to focus on two specific repetitions in the album: the idea of “saving” someone’s life and the twice-conjured line, “I want to show you all the time that I’m glad you’re alive.”
Throughout Total Sincerity Forever (henceforth TSF), two lives are saved. The first line of the eponymous first song strikes up a conversation with us: “You know Celine Dion saved Elliott Smith’s life?” And in “Touch,” a window into a moment of vulnerability and physical intimacy, the speaker say to their lover, “you put your hands on me and it saved my life.”
“Touch” also introduces us to the title of TSF’s final track: “I wanna show you all the time why I’m glad you’re alive.” That final track itself, essentially a love letter to Evan’s partner (though many moments in the album, most obviously “Love Prayer,” can be described this way), gives us a moment where they leave Evan a voicemail asking gently for information on his natal chart.
Evan and I have known each other since 2011, when we met in undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College. As one can imagine, this time is not a flattering period of life and personal development to know someone.
One of the main points of tension in our friendship has been Evan’s dislike of my so-called “suicide jokes.”
I say “so-called” because they were barely ever jokes; to cope with overwhelming suicidal ideation and the onset of a habit of self harm, I would occasionally say something like “well, whatever, I’ll probably just kill myself,” and chuckle.
Evan would play it off somehow in a way that didn’t make me feel rejected, but also didn’t approve of the sentiment. I can picture him now with a closed-lipped smile, saying, “mmmm, don’t like that.”
Catching up over the phone in the summer of 2020, I was telling Evan about finding love for myself through my two-year-old nephew’s eyes. I told him how playing a hand in raising him and my newborn niece for the preceding six months through the pandemic had bolstered my self-esteem in many ways, and he says, “well, you know I’ve always been of the opinion that you could be kinder to yourself.”
For some reason, this is the first time I’m really emotionally struck by how difficult it must have been for Evan to hear, through my “jokes,” that someone he cared about was in such pain, and that there wasn’t anything he could do besides be a friend.
I attempted suicide a few times in 2019 and came pretty close in early 2021, though I ultimately saved myself by thinking about my nephew and the destructive and traumatizing power of grief. I can’t want it anymore because my love for him won’t let me. Kids have a way of doing that.
I don’t really make suicide jokes anymore and am trying not to, unless I am trying to show someone else who is suicidal that they are understood and I’ve been through something like what they’re going through. In such a moment, I can consider a suicide “joke” a kindness.
Any other time, however, the jokes just hurt to say as much as I imagine it must’ve hurt Evan to hear them, and I just feel great guilt for putting my friend through pain to escape my own (which the “jokes” arguably didn’t even do).
Coming back to “Touch,” Evan conjures his line “I wanna show you all the time / why I’m glad / you’re alive,” and while this song and the closing track are clearly talking to his partner, I personally cannot think of a line that more succinctly describes Evan’s presence as a friend.
Evan played music with me and it saved my life. He groaned with me at Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds albums and it saved my life. He went to see Sharon Van Etten and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds with me and it saved my life. He quoted Bad Lip Reading videos with me and it saved my life.
He drank whiskey with me as the 2012 election results came in and it saved my life. He showed me Neon Bible (an album incredibly influential for him that was kind of boring to me) in March 2013 as I was driving us down to Richmond, Virginia through a flash snowstorm we could barely see through, enthusiastically explaining its significances, and it saved my life.
He’s been a friend to me and it’s saved my life.
Fiona is a patient friend and is ready for me to monopolize the conversation with my analysis of TSF and its titular track: “In the song, Evan talks about the hours before the 1998 Academy Awards, wherein Elliott Smith was consumed by great panic and anxiety, and an interaction with Celine Dion backstage calmed him down.
"Some versions of this story tell of her placing her hand on his shoulder. The re-tellings vary, but the common factor of each one is that she showed him simple kindness and care and that was enough to alleviate his stress.
"How Evan recounts this moment in his opening line is ‘You know, Celine Dion saved Elliott Smith’s life?’, but we all know he killed himself, right? So how did she save his life?”
I go on to tell Fiona the meaning I take from this is that “saving” someone’s life is actually a collaborative effort, a cause we all share and owe to each other, a cause made up of millions of instances in which people face the pain of others with protective acts of love and kindness.
In some more ideal version of reality, Fiona and I could have been some sort of Ideological Superhealers who were able to reverse the trauma that being trans in this world had thrust upon our friend. In this reality, however, us two beleaguered trans women had exhausted the capabilities of our love for her, and she was left with many who did her the unkindness of encouragement in her worse impulses, not to mention the cruelty heaped upon her by those who disapproved of her very existence.
“In the end, I think it’s just all of our jobs to be kind and sincere with one another. You and I did our part, if not more than our part, so while this feeling of guilt is probably unavoidable, you should not shoulder the blame for failing her, because this was everybody’s job, and not everyone does the work.”
I start crying again. “I don’t know if that actually helps or if it’s just super corny, but—“
“No, no, it’s great, you’re right,” she says.
“Total Sincerity Forever, Fiona.”
Fighting tears, she says back to me: “Total Sincerity For-fucking-ever.”