Double Helix

Josh MacIvor-Andersen


It's late on a Monday, the waning edge of a monumental winter, and I'm in my tiny office on the second floor of our old house ignoring work.

Instead, I'm watching Tool's Maynard Keenan on YouTube's center screen, a live performance of "Undertow" from 1994, his shirtless torso bending and rippling, a kind of drunken crash test dummy with killer abs. He's wearing sweatpants, is both mohawked and mulleted, and three and a half minutes in, he looks like he is being periodically shocked by a powerful battery. His voice defies his stature, defies nature, booms perfect and dark and unforgettable out of such a hunched over, jittery, awkward little man.

But then there is Kim Walker-Smith in the "suggested for you" queue on the right side of the screen, eye-level with that madman. Walker-Smith is one of the forces behind Jesus Culture, a praise and worship band out of Redding, California, whose music is anthemic God-shouting where every song builds and builds into a kind of worshipful hysteria, at times entirely improvisational, and Kim Walker-Smith stands on stage with her eyes closed and arms outstretched and there's not a doubt in her mind, I'll bet, that the music is rising directly to the ears of the living God of the universe, who has the hairs of her head numbered, who rocketed through the cosmos to land here and save and heal and live in the hearts of his followers.

It's a funny braid, Maynard and Kim, a double helix of divergent voice running down the right side of the screen. One screaming at God for mercy and the other simply screaming.

Yet this is where I've landed. All those Sundays. All those Bible lessons. Then those zig-zagging, off-kilter adolescent years where nothing quite made sense except anger and music and a little LSD. Or maybe a lot.

Whatever. Tonight's cue is the culmination of a bifurcated self, crash-landed into a season of loss which, of course, always seems to come in threes:

My grandfather, just shy of a century, turned to ash after a long battle with cancer. The baby growing in my wife's belly—a tiny developing respiratory system, just ten weeks gestating—goes into the ground. And now news of the quiet, brilliant student who sat on the edge of my small writing class, found dead in her campus apartment due to "complications with depression."

And what does one do when the weight of it all kicks over the scale and pins you in those places you've been working so hard to escape?  

Tonight all I could manage is slumping behind a desk and starting a conversation with YouTube. Inviting  the voices, beginning the exchange. Maynard and Kim have arrived singing their different choruses, and we're all here now in this tiny office overlooking Second Street, wondering who will have the next word. And perhaps the last.


I first heard Tool when I worked third shift at a traditional European-style bakery in Nashville. One of the bosses, Pat, was a heavyset headbanger with an angry heart. He scored us a stereo system loud enough to saturate the entire warehouse with music, and then we all fought for airtime. I leaned toward the Grateful Dead, but Pat usually had his way. I would be busy rearranging loaves of sourdough to the oven's hotspots, singing off-key to "Uncle John's Band" only to hear Jerry Garcia's voice suddenly go silent, and within seconds, this murky throbbing baseline and kick drum, a shotgun blast of screeching guitar, and then Maynard's unforgettable timbre, which is both whispery and earsplitting.

Pat would explode from the office where the CD console lived and begin stomping around the warehouse, singing along and jabbing his meaty fingers at all the bench workers. It was like he was trying to speak to us through the lyrics. I think he considered it a management style:

Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up,
you're saturating me.

I had gotten right with God after a long hiatus, a kind of conversion, and was trying to make sense of my recovered faith, which felt like an awkward, ill-fitted suit. I kept adjusting my necktie. Pat would put on the Tool songs most antagonistic toward God (they are numerous), turning them up loud, and I would try and keep to myself at the ovens, disappear in the heat and steam and flour-dusted air. 


We will scatter Grandpa at the top of Superstition Mountain outside of Phoenix, Arizona. But first we need to coordinate the family's schedule. We'll get as atmospherically high as we can, and I imagine the air current will be pretty strong up there. I imagine his ashes going the way of that wind, although I've heard ashes rarely scatter right. Too drifty. Too clingy.   

We'll do our best. Grandpa Marv was ninety-seven. My wife and I were able to fly out just in time to introduce him to his great grandson, who wasn't even freaked out by all the machines or Grandpa's mottled, cancerous skin. I, on the other hand, was a wreck, and had to keep darting from his hospital room to weep in the corridor.

We flew back home with a camera full of digital photos and a few weeks later got the news. I wanted to tell my two-year-old son all about that threshold crossed, that immense severing, but couldn't find the words. Grandpa is gone now, I said. My boy touched his finger to my nose.     


I used to worship God when I was a kid because I went to church in a big renovated barn in upstate New York and that's what you did there. You worshipped with gusto. Arms in the air, the tongues of angels on your lips. Most of the congregation had been swept out of the hippy movement and into the Jesus movement and the barn was a magnet for a new charismatic expression of faith, a pendulum swing away from mainline stuffiness and liturgy toward emotional engagement with the divine—cranked all the way to ten.

It was called Love Inn. I can't say for sure I felt God there, but I sure felt something. The collective hunger, perhaps. Even at five, six years old.

Kim Walker-Smith would have fit right in, although the music back then was more Simon and Garfunkel than the sonic flood of Jesus Culture. She's got the hunger part down, at least. You see it in her face as she sings. She starts solemnly, contemplatively, but there are minor chords building something beneath her, a kind of emotional launching pad, and then everything erupts as the 4/4 kick and snare turn into cymbal smashing, the baseline thumps with urgency, and the refrain begins:

Come be the fire inside of me;
Come be the flame upon my heart;

Come be the fire inside of me
Until you and I are one.

I can hardly write that without choking up and I'm not even sure what it means. But it is abandon and it is beautiful and it eats at you even if you don't want it to, the absolute yearning and need and directional desire aimed straight at God's ears. You shoot it there with your voice and energy. You know he is listening because you believe it so deeply—I mean, how could he not hear such things? How could he not be moved by this? How could it not cut him?—and all of you are doing this together, so synchronized, and then by some alchemy, usually halfway through the song, always connected to the cymbals, you suddenly know he has heard, know that your singing has found a home in his heart, and you sing even stronger and louder and you shake your head back and forth, just like Kim Walker-Smith, because you can hardly believe that he has heard, that he listens, and you inflate to the point of bursting.


My wife and I had to break through the frozen Michigan ground to bury the baby we very much wanted to meet. The snow in the back yard was three feet deep. We trudged through it to the yard's edge and buried the tissue that was to be our baby in a small box with notes from Mommy and Daddy, which is what our young son has taken to calling us, albeit with a slurred speech recognizable mostly just to us. We imagined our new baby doing the same.

There wasn't a ceremony that felt like it fit. No prayers, no words. We just stood there. It was so cold and there was light coming down from the street lamps on Third, and then the snow.  

The winter won't end this year. Every week we get a few days of spring-like respite only to get smacked with another long stretch of cold and snow and rain. I imagine blocking all forecasts to simply not know. To not have to anticipate.

All communication, even. A barrier against ten day weather prognostications, a wall against late-night emails from the provost telling me it was my student found in that apartment. Anything to not know.


"Complications due to depression" is tidy nomenclature for a messy truth. A more accurate description might be all those years seeing a monochromatic world, which is how my student described her illness: everything black and white. When she was feeling better, she would see—literally, as she looked around—a kind of deep turquoise. It was the kind of turquoise you might find in the cracked paint on a sun-drenched door in Portugal. Or maybe in a robin's egg. It meant she was slipping out from under the veil a little. She would paint with it when she was feeling better. Maybe she hadn't seen it for a while.  

Her parents asked me to conduct her service, which was weird, but I said yes. I'd be honored. She was one of the best students I've ever had. Her work was a draft or two away from publishable, but I got the sense that bylines didn't matter much to her.

I facilitated things at her service, did my best. Other students from our class came to say goodbye and grieve. Some turned to the urn that held her ashes and spoke directly to it, as if she were inside of the ceramic, listening.

It was sweet and simple and at the end, we went outside and lit one of those paper lanterns that drift away with the heat from a burning wick. It took a while to get it going. It was cold and windy. We had a tiny Bic lighter, one of those awkward little lighters that feel too small in your fingers. We all cupped our hands around the flame to protect it.

We lit the lamp and it glowed, then abruptly caught the wind and flew away.


It was challenging trying to be a Christian again as an adult. I went to church and figured I had to be a missionary or something, after such a radical turnaround. What else could I be? I felt like I owed God. I had a lot of making up to do.

But I couldn't stop listening to Tool. It was easy to retire my Grateful Dead bootlegs, over two hundred hours of live music left in a basement to collect dust, but I started craving Tool's murky dark angry songs and what they made me feel like inside, which was a kind of tightening, the way your muscles contract when you know you're about to receive a punch or administer one. A bracing for the blow.  

I was worshipping again, too, that old charismatic kind where sometimes you fall to your knees without even caring what you look like (it's the cymbals that do it) and you throw your arms up and it's the most open, thirsty, longing posture. A pleading for God to show up, to do something, please. A physical unfurling of need.  

It lasted awhile, that posture. Almost a decade. But even after an adult conversion where I made promises I intended to keep, I slowly, year by spiritually-challenging year, slipped into the standard agnosticism of folks who look around at the world and end up with something like post-traumatic stress disorder instead of messianic hope.

I hate this about myself, the evolution of it all. But like so many of my once-evangelical friends, the blip blip of my faith flatlined somewhere in the World section of the New York Times. Probably halfway through an article on Kosovo.

I took one last feeble God-breath, set the paper down, and then exhaled all the divine.  


It's late and Maynard and Kim are still talking. Back and forth, back and forth.

I set you as a seal upon my heart/as a seal upon my arm, says Kim Walker-Smith, referring of course to the God she adores. For there is love/that is as strong as death/jealousy demanding as the grave/and many waters cannot quench this love. She says it with a level of sincerity that makes me want to turn from the screen, a YouTube moment so intimate it feels like I should give her some privacy.

I'm back down, says Maynard as he flings himself around a dark, pixelated stage. I'm in the undertow/I'm helpless and awake in the undertow/I'll die within your undertow.

It's amazing what this man channels with his body. A brutal ballet,  pure aggression mixed with brokenness. A manifestation both grotesque and beautiful.

But then I close my eyes and listen and let the conversation expand. These are the moments I used to lean in for God's whisper, waiting tautly for that internal flicker I was convinced must be the Holy Spirit. Instead, tonight, I hear the whole house groaning in wind, my wife moving around the kitchen downstairs, the suction of the refrigerator door opening. The greediness of its closing.

I hear the echo of Grandpa Marv's refrain: For crying out loud! It was his mantra when good things happened and when bad things happened. I never understood what it meant but it seemed to apply to everything: the state of affairs in Palestine, the crispness of a Fuji apple.

I hear a loop of my wife's scream—a sound I had never heard her make before—when the bleeding began. It tore through this same office not long ago. And my own weak voice: We'll try again, I eventually said. We'll be okay.

And I hear the soft inquisition from my student that one day, asking if I thought the essay was good, if it could get better. Maybe it can always get better, I said. With a little more work. But you could tinker forever trying to get it perfect. The trick is to know when to simply set it down and let go.