Monday, July 21, 2014

Bury Me With A Banjo (And Other Things That Matter)

People who love music in the way that they can't separate it from the rest of life have certain bands and songs that define their existence in a way - if not their existence, at least their way of relating to the world. People with that kind of deep love of music can't separate songs from moments and people and eras of their life in a way that is more emotional and unbreakable than people who just enjoy music. (Not that there's anything wrong with just enjoying music. I mean, it is certainly probably more sane and less painful.)

For me, that band is The Avett Brothers. So much so that I can't really talk about them here or with very many people. I will just say that the first time I heard them play was in a tiny place down near where they are from and I had no idea who they were, but I knew my life would never be the same. And it hasn't been. And that was a whole lot of years before their fame and massive success, which they so richly deserve.

There are a handful of non-Avett songs that I feel similarly deep feelings about - the kind of feelings only a rabid music lover will understand. The only emotional comparison I can make is to the passion of book lovers, but I'm sure there are other examples. Those examples would just be foreign to me. One of those songs is Wagon Wheel. Wagon Wheel was first released (in its completion) on Old Crow Medicine Show's EP Troubles Up And Down The Road (2002, I think) and then on O.C.M.S. in 2004. I love that song. LOVE. It has deep personal significance to me.

First, one of my two best friends in the world is the reason I love Old Crow at all. OCMS and The Avett Brothers are basically the soundtrack of our friendship. Hell, they are the soundtrack of the better part of our last decade.

Second, it is the first lick I learned on banjo. I learned it (with help) before I even left the shop.

Third, I have the lyrics tattooed on my body - the line 'My baby plays the guitar, I pick a banjo now' is etched on my shoulder near the wing of a large sparrow. The opposite side of her carries the Emily Dickinson line, 'Hope is the thing with feathers.'

Fourth, though we have others, Wagon Wheel is, above all, the single song that defines my relationship with my husband. I had those lyrics on my person before we ever met. It is a true line for us. It seems to be a sort of fate.

I said all that in a sort of defensiveness, I suppose. It is a hard thing to love someone's else's art deeply. On the one hand, you want everyone you know to understand why it is so perfect. Or why its imperfections make it perfect. Why it MATTERS in the big sense of the word. On the other hand, when that thing becomes popular, you get defensive of it. You don't want it to be ruined by people for whom it is simply a flash in the pan, however appealing a flash it might be.

Wagon Wheel is not a Darius Rucker song. He was still Hootie when Ketch took that song from Dylan and finished it. And I don't care how many people cover it or try to make it sound like pop music or love it and then get sick of it, I will be humming that song when they carry me to my grave. Hopefully they bury me with a banjo.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Not Grown Under My Heart, But In It

A long time ago, my son decided I was his Mommy. It was before his Daddy and I were even engaged or married. Our souls just matched up. Little souls imprint on their parents no matter from whose womb they emerge. Some people think my son looks like me. But that doesn't really matter. He is gorgeous. He looks like his father and his aunt. He looks like all parts of his biology. He looks like himself. He looks like my heart.

I can't really go into detail about the last 14 months of trying to adopt him. I can, I guess, but it doesn't feel fair to him. He is completely unaware of any of it. He doesn't know his adoption was finalized Friday. His life is business as usual. In fact, when we came home from the courthouse, overflowing with joy, he wanted to know why he hadn't been allowed to play his Batman game yet. All he knew about that day was that a lot of people who adore him were there at the same time and he got to drink chocolate milk and two Dr. Peppers all in the same day. (We paid for that later.) I'll just say this: It has been a long, trying 14 months. We have relied on our friends and families a great deal. We have completely lost it more than once. Yes, the adoption process has been long and painful. But, I'm told, so is childbirth.

Part of the adoption process was a home study. Part of that home study was a list of questions, one of which was "What are your hopes and dreams for the child you are trying to adopt?" Rather than answer the question directly, I chose to write a letter to my son. I've been asked by a couple of people to share it, so it follows here. I think, like any other mother, I am incapable of explaining my feelings for my child or my feelings about becoming a mom. Maybe some day I will be a better writer and I will be able, but probably not. I'm too close to see it clearly. This letter is probably the best I can do.


Dear A---,

I hope for you happiness. The kind of happiness that is in your bones because you are living the life you should be living, that doesn't go away even on sad days – at least not at your core. The kind of happiness that sits underneath everything else to remind you of all you have for which you can be thankful. The kind of happiness that lets you smile through pain and hold your chin up at the end of a long day, because it is real and lasting and not only about whatever great thing you just acquired or accomplished.

I hope for you the kind of heartbreak that teaches you, but not the kind that cripples you. Because there will be heartbreak. I hope for you the heartbreak that gives you the wherewithal to recognize real love, authentic friendship, and profound opportunity when you it comes your way. I hope we have taught you a work ethic to make the effort to nurture those things when you have them and a way to show all the love that is in your great big heart to them and the tenacity to fight for them when they flounder or slip away or don't come so easily.

I hope for you a partner who is for you what your father is to me. Someone to spend your life with. Someone who doesn't mind if you are high maintenance because they like maintaining you. Someone who thinks they hit the jackpot with you. Someone who makes you feel like the luckiest man on earth. I hope that when you find that partner you are at a place in your life where you are ready to embrace them. If not, I hope they are patient enough to know you are worth waiting for.

I hope for you a passion. At least one. Something for which you are willing to work your fingers to the bone. Something worth staying up all night over. Something to sustain you and your mind in the alone hours. If you can turn that passion into a job, then wonderful. If not, then I hope for you a job that allows you the time and money to pursue that passion outside of work.

I hope for you a connection to God and the Universe in which you live. I hope you find a way to be at peace with the force of things bigger than yourself and a way to connect with God. This doesn't need to be on my terms. Whatever terms you find between yourself and God, I hope they make your soul grow and give you even further appreciation for your life.

I hope for you a long childhood. Maybe a little too long. There will be plenty of time for chasing girls and worrying about bills and spending too much time on the internet and 12 hour workdays and all the troubles that seem to accumulate through years. May you have a few extra summers of catching fireflies and few extra springs where your biggest worry is which toy to take outside with you to play.

I wish for you success – but a little failure too. Because I don't want you to be one of those people for whom things come too easily. They fail to recognize what beauty and profundity can bloom only from hard work and little mud.

My biggest dream for you is this: Big dreams. I hope the life you make exceeds all I can imagine for you. I am quite sure that within you dwells more possibility than I have ever known. I hope you make the most of it.

But along the way, please be kind. For we are all in this together. But do not be afraid to stand up for yourself either, because you are, as the bible says, worth more than all the feathers on all the sparrows. And if we have done our jobs, then you will be kind and strong and whole and you will know that whoever you grow up to be and whatever you grow up to do, you have two parents who love you unconditionally, a home where you are always welcome, and a deep deep well of belief in you that will never run dry.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pete Seeger Has Died — And Other Hard Truths

Like most serious readers, there have been moments in my reading life where a section of prose or poetry affected me in just the right way at the right moment in my development so as to seem to change the way I saw everything after. In those moments, the words seemed to sear themselves into my memory with no effort.

One of the earliest of these I can remember is from Anna Sewell's Black Beauty:

There was a dreadful sound before we got into our stalls—the shrieks of those poor horses that were left burning to death in the stable—it was very terrible! and made both Ginger and me feel very bad. We, however, were taken in and well done by.
I heard horse screams in my sleep for a while. I have remained preoccupied with the suffering of animals and with the absurdities of chance ever since.

In high school, Mrs. Petrovich, my English teacher, loaned me a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. The entire book blew my mind wide open. One of my favorite passages:

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
It was the first time I really thought about power — who had it and who did not — and was pivotal in my development as a feminist and, frankly, as a girl who would learn to think for herself. The book terrified me. It felt imminent. It felt very real and very personal and it offended me. I was good and pissed off at the idea that someone had the nerve (!) to think they had the right to control women's bodies. I was too young to realize the realities of this already in place.

Somewhere on my timeline between Black Beauty and The Handmaid's Tale, I saw a poster hanging with this bit of poetry by Martin Niemöller: 

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I think I was in middle school. I felt a rush of simultaneous guilt and sadness, outrage and indignance. I wanted to be the person who would speak up before whoever this person was, but I was secretly very afraid that I was, in fact, the one who would be left standing alone.

This particular piece of writing has been on my mind heavily in recent weeks, and, I must confess, dear readers, that I think I have become the one who would be standing alone. I have realized that I am not an activist. Not when it is difficult. Not when I would have to speak without reinforcement from others. Not when I might offend people I love.

I am not being self deprecating. I don't think I am a bad person. I certainly have opinions on matters that require activism — and no problem voicing them within certain circles. But mostly I preach to the choir. I volunteer — but with no consistency. I am not an activist. Alice Walker says activism is the rent we pay for living on this planet. I think I am behind a few payments.

Here is how I know:

A couple of weeks ago a story was circulating that marriage might cease to be recognized in Oklahoma. I am not an idiot. I know the internet will tell us anything. The validity of the story is not the point — the point is my reaction. I was pissed. How DARE someone tell me that I can't have the piece of paper that makes me wife to the man with whom I want to spend my life? 

And it hit me. This is a taste, just a tiny little taste, of what it is to be a homosexual person who wants to be legally joined to their partner and can not. 

The revelation wasn't that I all of a sudden thought gay marriage should be legal — I already believed that 100% and still do. The revelation was that I was the person who saved my outrage for when "they" affected me. Just like Niemöller in the poem. And it made me ashamed.

Oh, sure, I will tell someone who asks that I support gay marriage. I'll look at bigots with disgust. I'll click "like" when other, braver people speak up. But I don't speak up. And I was sure as hell ready to speak up when it was my marriage.

And Pete Seeger died. Pete Seeger, the champion of activism through music died, and left behind both a legacy and gaping void waiting to be filled with a chorus of determined voices.

I loved Pete. He remains a personal hero. Pete would not have waited until they came for him, this we know.

I am not famous as a writer or as a musician, clearly. But I have a microphone and a laptop and a voice that has remained silent for too long. Not just on matters of equality, either. 

It stops here. I am going to pick up my banjo and pick up my pen and make noise. I am going to keep the folk in Rowdy Folk

I am not going to wait until they come for me. I am going to try my best to be one in the chorus of voices carrying on the legacy of Pete Seeger and making him proud.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mean People, Well Meaning People, And A Body That Does Not Belong To Me

I remember the exact moment I started hating my body. I was 9 years old. My uncle asked what I wanted to be when I grow up and my answer of the moment was a ballerina. He said:

You aren't going to have the build for that. 

I had been taking dance classes since I was 5. It was the first time it occurred to me that I had to be built any certain way. I was not a chubby kid. I quit dance for the next 2 years. Ballet class, when I returned to it, became an exercise in cataloging my inadequacies.

Age 16: Some boys on the track team called me Popeye and teased me for my muscular legs. I could squat more than most of them and my legs were really muscular. I was 5'7" tall and the largest size I'd ever worn was a size 6. I thought I was a giant.

Age 20: I was on the dance team at my University. We danced at halftime at basketball games and in competitions and that sort of thing. I worked out hours every day. I ate breakfast in the morning and then at night I ate 3 breadsticks and a smoothie. I got a lot of positive attention for how I looked. I loved it. I thought I was the fattest person on my dance team. I wasn't. And not a single one of us was fat anyway. Not by a long shot.

Age 23: I started taking a form of birth control that is now illegal and had a pretty big lawsuit brought against the creator company. It messed up my hormones terribly. I gained 70 some odd pounds in a matter of a few months. Both a doctor and a nutritionist accused me of lying in my food journal and looked at me with disgust. I was not lying. I got really depressed and gained another 15 pounds or so. It would be several years before I would get off that birth control and take the drugs to correct the damage of those drugs. Then a few more before I recovered from depression enough to lose all that weight. I spent the last 2/3rds of my twenties fat and depressed and feeling crazy because no one believed me.

Age 30: I woke up. I began losing all the weight. I got back down to a "pretty" size. A number of female friends who had become my friends when I was fat started hating me. The husband of one of them told me that she told him he was no longer allowed to hang out with me because I might try to seduce him. I threw up in my mouth a little.

Age 31: Someone attacked my body because it pissed them off.

Age now: I've been married 10 months. I've gained 20 pounds. That's 2 pounds a month in case anyone is counting. It kind of creeps up on you. IT SUCKS. I'm not used to cooking three meals a day for a child. I'm not used to not having 3 hours a day to work out. Recently I was warned not to "let myself go" because it would destroy my marriage and my music career. So, I am, of course, trying frantically to lose weight. Because I want my jeans to fit - and that's all me. But also because I'm terrified of what my fat body might mean for other people.

I don't know how I feel about my body, because I've spent 2 of my 3 decades obsessing about how other people felt about my body. I don't know how to stop that. This isn't a blog post where I come to a conclusion. I haven't figured this all out. People tell me to love myself regardless, but people do not love me the same regardless, despite what they say. I've seen it in action.

This isn't the most important thing in my life. Please don't misunderstand. But it does affect me all the time. And that only makes me feel sad, because I want my life to be focused on only things that really matter. This shouldn't matter. Should it? Maybe it should. Because maybe it's less about vanity and more about being pissed off that my body is a matter of public debate. That my body does not belong to me, but instead belongs to the opinions of other bodies.

I want to own my own body.


I want to be a better feminist. I want to tell people to fuck off because I don't care what they think about how I look. Except I do care. Too much.

I really hated when those boys called me Popeye.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Know When To Hold Em

There are things we trade. There are people who will tell you never to compromise; you can have it all. That's bullshit. Everyone gives up something. The trick is knowing what to trade. What to hold. What to toss. When to go all in.

Once, I traded who I was for proving something. The first big trade. I'm not sure, still, what I was trying to prove, except that I had it all together and hadn't been stupid in the first place. Except I didn't. And I had. But I held on. I am a hanger on. Quitting was a cardinal sin in my family growing up. Quitters were vile. Hell, liars were better. So, I lied. I faked happiness. I faked a lot of things. And it worked on most people. Not that it took that much skill - I spent years living far away from anyone who really knew me or cared about me. Never staying anywhere too long makes it easy to cover the cracks. The funny thing is, anyone who knows me will tell you I'm a terrible liar. And they're right. Except I'm a decent actress, and despite what you might think, that isn't the same thing. Actresses don't lie - they play pretend. I'm a book nerd and a daydreamer. I can do pretend.

Until I couldn't anymore. What I had to trade stopped being worth it. Going to graduate school and getting my Masters of Fine Arts in Writing is where I started realizing that, mostly because I woke up.

“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.”  ― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
For me, the shock treatment was writing. And once I came out of hibernation, I wanted to stay awake. So, I traded. 

I traded security and hatefulness and misery and superiority and control issues for freedom and authenticity and joy and never having to play pretend again. I gave up a lot of exhausting misery and self-loathing, so that was good. People who had known me from before I made the first big trade said things like you seem like yourself again and I'm so glad you're back and we thought aliens had abducted you. People who only knew me in my pretend years were very, very confused. Unless they had really paid attention. I no longer lived with a bully (a story for another day), I no longer pretended to like things that bored me. I was awake and I was on the road and I was poor. 

All of that was before I met the man who is now my husband. I had traded a life of comfortable unhappiness for a life of financial insecurity (understatement), art, and authenticity. I had traded fake friends for real friends. (It's funny how you realize who your friends are when your happiness starts to piss them off - but that, too, is a story for another day.) I traded knowing what was in store for being glad I didn't.

My husband and I fell in love fast. When you know, you know is one of those things I used to think was a total lie that people tell - until it happened to me. We were married in a fever. A quiet, joyful, white hot fever. 

We are still poor. We honestly wouldn't make it if it weren't for a tiny handful of very specific people who believe in us and what we are doing. 

These are the things we trade: money, ease, routine, being understood, respect in some circles, certainty.

But the things we gain.
Oh, but the things we gain.