I didn’t mean to slip into blog silence territory last week, but things with the house and condo are moving so fast, something had to give. And it’s got to give this week, too. And probably next week.
I’m just giving myself permission to go dormant on the blog while I figure out everything else. But I’ll be back, probably with tales of moving adventures and Many Feelings about leaving the house behind.
Until then, I need to work on everything that gets me to that lovely point of post-moving reflection.
Well, life sure moves fast. At this time last week, I was figuring out how to finalize preparing the house for showings. Today, the showings are done. We got 2 unbelievably strong offers in the first 3 hours of showings, and now we’re working through all the paperwork and approvals to get the house sold. On the plus side, that means a minimum of people wandering through our house! On the minus side, it’s a lot of extra worry to try to get everything in order, from bracing for the invasive inspection (which we hopefully pass) to negotiating all the little stuff like closing costs and move-in dates.
At the same time, we’re starting the process of packing and purging, trying to cut down on the “stuff” we have and keeping only that which we want or need or use. Sarah and I are both habitual packrats, so we keep a LOT of stuff. We also have a habit of forgetting what we have, sticking it in a cupboard or box and losing track of it. The move to a condo forces us to downsize, and also to have more awareness around what we really own and how much space it takes up. Some things, like books, we will keep 95% of the time. Things like VHS tapes? Yeah 100% of those are going away unless there’s a really, really good reason to preserve one or two. But overall, it’s helping us get organized and it’s helping us reduce our stuff.
Not that that process is any fun.
Somewhat accidentally, this week also corresponds to me sending my 50th query on the current novel. 50 was the goal — I promised myself I would send the novel out 50 times before I gave up on trying to publish it. Thus far, I’ve got no bites from agents who want to represent it. However, many (if not most) agents have a 4-8 week turnaround on responses, so there are certainly no shortage of agents out there who may yet look at my query and jump on it. But, on the other hand, this may be the end of the process for now.
I actually did get one R&R, a revise and resubmit, and when I can breathe and think creatively at the same time again I will probably make the changes requested and see if that still appeals to them. I’m not 100% convinced that such changes make for a better story, just a different one, but, on the other hand, publishing isn’t about ME AND MY ART AND THE PURITY OF MY WORDINESS. It’s a business. Publishing is about selling books and making money. And if I want to publish a book the traditional way, then I need to be willing to set my story aside and make the changes that will sell. I don’t necessarily have to feel them in my soul; I just need to be flexible enough to make them real.
So, what now?
Well, it is spring, the time of new beginnings, new growth, new life.
I start over.
The current novel is not the first I’ve written — it was the 21st. It won’t be the last, either; I’ve written 2 since then and am working on the third. It wasn’t even the first original novel I’ve written, and it won’t be the last. I have ideas for a dozen new original novels. That’s the nice thing about writing so much — no one story, one novel, one work is the be-all-end-all of who I am and what I do. I do love this novel. I love it and I want it to be in the world.
“But wait!” you say. “Couldn’t you just self-publish it?”
Yes, but not really.
Is it technically possible for me to format the novel, get some kind of artwork, put it into a downloadable format, and sell it on Amazon or Kindle or whatever? Of course it is.
Is it a good idea for me, personally, to do so? No. No it is not.
Self-publishing works well for certain people and certain genres. Romance, for example, does better with self-publishing because of the voracious appetite for new books that readers of romance possess. But even then, the successful authors who actually make money through self-publishing do a hell of a lot more than just formatting the book and making it available for a dollar. They do self-promotion through social media, reading groups, conventions, message boards, podcasts, etc. They put in a huge amount of effort to get their books in front of audiences. They work with other authors to cross-advertise for one another. They network until they have thousands of followers who will loyally retweet and reblog and share their efforts to get their books read.
It is a metric fuck-ton of work. And you know what? I’m probably not cut out for most of it.
I have been a Marketing Analyst. I know about SEO. I know what it takes to get people to click on your site, and to get them to stay there. I know how social media networks disseminate information to one another. I know that you might need to get 10,000 “likes” before you get even 1 sale. And so the amount of work needed for me, from my laptop, to do all that is disproportionate to the amount of interest and patience I have in doing it. There’s a reason I am no longer a Marketing Analyst, and a reason I was never an “influencer” on social media.
So, yes. Technically I could self-publish it, but I’d be doing myself and my book a disservice. I am not cut out to be the single mouthpiece shouting into the void to get readers. I can support the professionals in it, can maintain my Twitter presence and my blog, can show up where I am told to go, but I can’t generate that much content, that much presence, that much effort on my own. It would take spoons not just from writing, but from living.
Therefore, no. It’s traditional publishing for me, or maybe nothing at all.
It’s sad to put the novel in a drawer, if that’s what happens, but it’s not the end of the world. I gave it a good shot. I didn’t give up or get disheartened, and I made it all the way to 50+ rejections (and one R&R so far). I learned what it feels like when those rejection emails come, and I got used to filing them and forgetting about them. I got my query letter read, but the novel wasn’t the right fit. So I’ve learned a lot about the search for an agent, even though it will probably end in failure.
But that failure will serve the next novel, and the next. And the ones after that.
Because I’m not giving up. I’m already an author. I’m an author because I have written novels. I’m a writer because I think about writing ALL THE TIME. I’m not published, but publishing status doesn’t make me any less an author or writer. It just means I’m still not getting paid.
And who knows? Maybe in 3 weeks someone will email and say “Hey, finally got to your submission and hells yeah I want to rep you!” Maybe the next novel will be the right fit that this one wasn’t for the market or the agents or the random swing of what is currently popular. Maybe the novel 2 or 3 from now will sell and my agent will say, “Hey, do you have anything about dragons I could work with?” and I’ll be able to pull it out of a drawer. Maybe something I can’t even imagine will happen.
So I’m not sorry for having gone through this process even though it has been unsuccessful. I’m not in the slightest sorry for writing the novel, even though nobody bought it. Writing is a journey, and I’ve learned from everything I’ve ever written, every short story, every novel, sometimes even these blog posts. If the answer is that I need to learn a little more, or find slightly different timing, I’m okay with that.
It’s not like the ideas will dry up in my head any time soon. In fact, I’ve got about 30 more ideas to write than I will have time in the next year or two. And since I get a new and usable idea about once a month (and many, many not-usable ones every day), that deficit will continue to grow. Which is how a life based on producing art should be, in my opinion. The day that I run out of things to write is the day I quit breathing.
Except not, because at this rate, I’ll still die with 30+ unwritten stories on my list.
It’s like trying to put the thread in a sewing machine when it’s already running. And in this, I am just fine with always being a few steps behind. This isn’t a race I can ever win. It’s not a race I ever WANT to win.
And if this particular sprint to publish is over, then I guess I need to go find the next one.
(Possibly after figuring out the whole house-selling, condo-buying, stuff-purging, moving thing.)
Okay, so I’m more than a little swamped trying to deal with the house thing. As I ranted at length on Twitter, turning your house into a space that will sell to someone else means basically depersonalizing it to the extreme. Not only does it have to be scrubbed floor to ceiling, literally — I actually washed freaking walls this week — but it means the house has to take on what I call MAXIMUM CONFORMITY. No nerd pictures, few personal items. No clutter, even when that clutter is a representation of self.
Do we remember me talking about Defiance? About being myself no matter the cost?
I HATE THIS SOOOOO VERY MUCH, FOLKS.
But there’s also about 15 things I need to get done, like putting paint on my ceiling where it got spots from, you know, life. So I’m going to go do some of that.
I know I missed yesterday. Sorry. My brain is just ALLLLLLL over the place these days, particularly with choir and CVG heating up and now this house-condo thing. I’m DREAMING about condos now. It’s pretty weird.
There’s a big mental shift that I’m working on making that has to do with space and ownership and identity. The American Dream (™) is really about the 2 cars, 2.5 kids, dog, picket fence, perfect yard with the hand-painted shutters thing, and it’s not just an ideal state; it’s kind of the default assumption of success and adulthood. Living in your apartment in your 30s? Oh, you must not be grown up yet or fully ready for the responsibility? Prefer to live in a high rise in an urban center? Oh, you’ve chosen your career over a family environment.
The judgement isn’t from people close to me, but it’s certainly there in society. This idea that “a man is king of his own castle” and therefore no man is complete without a domain that can be measured in acres and a flawless green lawn. In my case, I’m no man, but I feel a similar pull. There’s something deeply embedded in the sinews of my chest that says “Claim territory! Own a piece of land! Four walls shared with none!” And it’s hard to ignore.
I have absolutely no idea how much of this is some kind of innate instinct left over from our days in the caves and how much has been programmed into me by the society in which I live. Given the sheer numbers of people who live very happily in apartments and such all over the world, I’m kinda thinking it’s the latter.
I get caught up thinking about the tree out front of the house. It’s a river birch with 3 forks, which is just so very appropriate for me spiritually. It’s MY tree. How will I feel when it’s no longer my tree, when it is someone else’s tree? When someone else might cut it down? How will I feel when there is no tree which is MINE?
But then I stop and I wonder — why do I need a MY tree at all? Why can’t I make friends with any tree I pass? I’ve certainly had trees that weren’t mine in the past, trees at summer camp, at college, at homestays abroad, that I loved and leaned on and let go. Why do I need MY tree and MY yard and MY little patch of earth?
And what I’ve learned about myself is that I think it’s a security thing. I think the idea of “this is my land and I own it and no one else can tell me what to do on it” eventually translates to “here I can be safe and nothing can threaten me that I don’t control and I could live off the land if I had to” — which is a total lie because one third of an acre can’t support any human being, let alone two, and half our yard is rocks. But it’s a feeling, almost primal, this sense that the boundaries of the territory mean security and safety, and to give those up and live in the sky with neighbors a wall away is to invite danger.
When, really, the opposite is kind of the truth.
Sure, there won’t be land to grow our own food, but we don’t do much of that anyway (and Sarah will grow tomatoes and kale on any balcony for me because she is the BEST). Sure, I’m sharing a wall with others, but I’m not sharing my LIFE with them. The wall is cement and not going anywhere. And the truth is that home invasions are a much greater risk in a detached property, no matter how nice the neighborhood, than they ever will be in a secure building with finite tenants.
And, yes, a condo means a Homeowners’ Association, which means HOA dues and the HOA being allowed to decide things like what color the front door is or if we’re having all the windows washed today. But they can’t decide to take my home away from me. They can’t decide to tell me what kind of furniture I can have or prevent me if I want to put my bedroom in the middle of the kitchen. The building is shared, the amenities are shared, the decisions about upkeep are shared, but the space within is still mine. It’s just not the whole castle anymore — simply one room in the keep.
It’s still a loss in some ways. I’m going to miss MY trees. I’m going to miss the family of ravens that hangs out, and the murder of crows that regularly fills up every tree on the block. I’m going to miss the generations of mixed gray and red squirrels that have lived in our backyard — we’re up to the 5th, I think — and their antics. I’m going to miss having certain dedicated spaces which I never had to share. I’m going to miss having space to spread out when I really need it.
But there are other things to gain. A condo means a pool and a workout room. It means a green space maintained by others. It means a view of the river, and that heals my heart just by itself.
And what I have to keep telling myself is that the space really isn’t any more or less mine in the first place — it was always mine and Sarah’s. And if she let me take this corner for my space, or gave me that area to meditate, it was always shared and agreed upon. And that won’t change. We’re probably going to steal a tiny bit of money off of our down payment to buy a wall bed (the kind of bed frame where you can fold the whole mattress up into a cupboard and get back all your floor space) not for guests, but for ourselves. Because then the bedroom can still double as that space of mine — I just need to fold up the bed and it’s big and open once more. It won’t be as simple as just going downstairs, but it also means I’ll sleep surrounded by the things that make me really feel safe.
Similarly, Sarah is giving up her dedicated space, kind of her version of a man-cave with her comfy but ugly chair and her Nintendo. But the Nintendo can go out in the open and the chair can live in the den with my office and ALL THE BOOKS and that’s okay, too. Because she needed a place she could isolate herself when there were too many people, but she’ll still have that. And she’ll also be able to hide in it when I’m actually working, or writing, and not be 3 floors away. She might actually use it more often because of that.
And we’re also gaining more of an open layout than we have. We’ll be able to cook dinner while watching hockey, or lounge on the couch while others are playing games at the table. Right now the split between our kitchen/dining room and our living room is a constant source of wanting one thing in the other place. This will fix that.
But maybe the biggest thing we’re going to gain is time and freedom. We won’t have to think about shoveling and snowblowing a driveway. We won’t have to remember to plant flowers so our yard is appropriate, or mow the lawn when it’s long, or check the siding for storm damage, or watch the trees to see if they need to be trimmed. The stuff that makes homeowners’ insurance so expensive is the stuff we really don’t like about having a house in the first place. I won’t have to wonder if our basement is going to flood, or if the ice on the sidewalk is too thick to break up. I won’t have to plan time for breaking up fallen branches to put them on the curb.
Bad stuff can and does still happen in a condo — the neighbor leaves a bathtub running and it floods the unit below — but the building deals with it collectively, which takes the onus off the owner. And bad stuff can happen anywhere; it actually feels better to me to be in a place where the community as a whole is responsible for it rather than just Sarah and I.
The downsizing of stuff, eliminating furniture we don’t want or need in smaller space, is hard in a different way. I’m a HUGELY sentimental person. If you give me something, no matter how stupid it is, I kind of assign all the meaning YOU have in my life to the plastic cheap thing that was just meant to be a joke. It makes it hard for me to let go of things, because it feels like betraying the person who gave it to me. But I’m going to have to.
In another way, this is a relief. Stuff is a weight, a worry, too. Sarah and I both do better when we live by the rule of “you can’t bring it home if you don’t know where it’s going to fit.” We’re not hoarders, but we’re generally only semi-tidy and we like our level of lived-in clutter. Our space will never be in any magazine, good or bad, but you can tell from any angle exactly who lives here when you look around. Paring that down, first to sell the house, then to fit into the condo, is a stretch for us both. But I think it’s healthy.
No, we’re not watching that show on Netflix. But the concept applies.
In the end, the things we truly treasure aren’t going anywhere. Gifts from beloved friends and family will still be displayed just as prominently — if maybe more strategically. The bookshelf my great grandfather hand-made for my grandmother because he was so proud of her interest in reading will be with me until I die or it falls to pieces. We’ll lose some excess end tables and shelves and sweaters and books (maybe) and little fuzzy silly things and knickknacks, but we’re not going to lose anything important.
And we’re not losing anything important when we leave this house behind, either. I won’t have MY tree, but there will be trees on the property or down the street or in a friend’s yard that I love, too. I won’t have MY yard, but I also don’t spend any time in my yard, so I’m not going to lose much even if I miss it on a conceptual level. I won’t have yards of open air between my walls and the next person, but I’m not sure those yards of open air ever made me feel safer.
There will be a loss. There will be grief. I will absolutely, certainly, without a doubt cry when we drive away from the house for the last time. But I also know myself. I know how I adapt. I know that my heart can ache for a loss and just as quickly rejoice at something newly gained. And I know it won’t be long before I’m looking out at that river from my window and feel nothing but wonder and security and peace in my new home.
It isn’t living the American Dream (™), but I’ve never intentionally aspired to it. What I’ve aspired to is finding a home where Sarah and I felt safe, could live with relative comfort and ease, and involved minimal stress for us both. The house we love, for all its good points, doesn’t necessarily answer that need. So that means we have to make the leap and try something new. It will have its own drawbacks and uncomfortable surprises, but at least I won’t have to dodge wasps while trying to help Sarah weed a rock garden.
George Bernard Shaw wrote something I have almost always found to be true: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something.”
Of the somethings I stand to lose, none of them are myself, and I am interested to learn which ones I never really needed in the first place. This house has been my home, has given others a home at times, and I’m going to miss it. But home doesn’t lie in the bricks and walls. It lies in the heart.
And my heart is very much ready to build a home high in the sky, overlooking the river.
I should have a lot more to say right now, but, honestly, I’m still pretty tired. Two weeks on the road crowned by 12 hours straight of driving (including 5.5 hours where we didn’t even so much as stop for gas or a bathroom break) plus getting the ACTUAL GODDAMN FLU made for a pretty exhausting experience. But ultimately good, and I’m glad I did it.
I’m more glad to be home, though.
Maybe next week I’ll get Sarah to type up the Chicago swearing list from this trip and I’ll post it, if I want to immortalize my profanity. Maybe.
For now, though, I give you this song. It’s probably in the top 15 songs of all road trip anthems for Sarah and I. The “Hits” album by Phil Collins is one that we regularly played in my first car journeying back and forth in our initial years as friends when we would visit one another during breaks from college. That CD, and Phil Collins in general, became symbols for our hours in a car together, singing and laughing and talking. Before we were anything (everything) else to one another, that was a CD that kept us company.
The last track on the CD is “Take Me Home.” Different people think it’s about different things — being under a totalitarian government, or in a mental institution. But there isn’t that kind of darkness or eeriness in the original video, and if that’s how Phil Collins wanted us to understand the song, he’d have made it clear, I think. (You CAN read that into it, if you want, but I choose not to.)
To me, it’s always been a song about the push-pull of wanting to be elsewhere, and wanting to be home. The push-pull of being trapped somewhere, and of leaving it. The complexities that make home troublesome even when home is where you belong. And, in the end, it’s about accepting those complexities, making the journey, and still wanting to find home afterwards. It’s about that sense that makes home different from anything and anywhere else in the world, a sense that other places counterfeit, but only belongs to one.
Sarah and I used to sing this at the top of our lungs missing Carleton like a limb. We were fine in our parents’ homes, but we were better there in the world we had defined for ourselves. We felt trapped even when we were happy and welcome in the towns of our births, because home no longer belonged to those places of childhood — it belonged to our futures. We used to sing this song and count the days until we could go back to Minnesota and recapture that feeling of home that was the new place we wanted to belong.
This time, we sang it about Minnesota again, but with less longing and more intention. There is nothing wistful about it anymore — we aren’t stuck waiting for a summer break to end before we can undertake a journey to where we belong. We choose when to leave, and we can choose to return. And we can choose to make our return all in one long day, speeding across the miles that keep us from where we feel at home.
And we don’t mind leaving, knowing we can return. Even if we do, temporarily, forget what makes home feel so uniquely special, and that forgetting drives us to return ever faster so we can know in our bones once more that we are back. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and there is nothing quite like walking into our house after 12 hours striving to reach it, and knowing we can finally and truly rest, safe and secure in the place we made ours alone.
We traveled thousands of miles, scores of hours, to reconnect with where we began. Now we’re home, where we belong.
And at some point, I’ll stop being so damn tired. But it’s a worthwhile tired. It brought us home safely, in spite of everything that happened along the way.
My whole life has been full of music. My parents tell stories about my dad’s rock band (apparently as a toddler I tried playing his drum kit), about my propensity to sing along to anything I heard from the moment I could control the sounds I was making, about the happy hours I could spend with a single record or tape playing over and over again.
My parents were into rock music in the 70s and 80s, bands like the Doobie Brothers, Boston, the Eagles, The Guess Who, REO Speedwagon. Also Genesis and Phil Collins — dad being a drummer and all. I knew Beatles music, or Elvis, but it was the next wave of rock music that was the soundtrack to my early years. Long before I was old enough to care about the radio, even before I was drawn in by the siren song of Disney soundtracks, I was finding myself in crashing, harmonious, soaring rock music.
For most of my life, my anthem was “Music is the Doctor” or “Dangerous,” both by the Doobie Brothers. Those two songs and “China Grove” were the perfect songs to capture exactly how it felt to be alive to bitty me. Not necessarily the words, but the feel. Although, the older I got, the more music meant to me, and the more I could feel the burning recklessness in my veins that makes “Dangerous” such a fantastic song. Music taught me at an early age to shout, to dance, to dare to be loud and insistent, to feel the drum make my heart speed up to meet it.
Every significant step I’ve ever taken has had music in its wake. Not just that songs continued to speak to me, that music helped me understand my feelings. But every time I took a leap, there was music. When I got in the car to drive to college, knowing in my heart of hearts that I would never be the same, I chose my tunes carefully and they carried me to Minnesota. When I needed to gather my courage before a daring admission, I cracked up my best songs to give me the edge I lacked. To this day, when Sarah and I set off on a road trip, the very first thing on our list is music. Even before Diet Coke.
Songs come and go; those I couldn’t live without 5 years ago are a fond memory that I find easy to skip now. New music demands to be played over and over, old music rediscovered like a lost friend.
But there are some that are permanent.
“Don’t Look Back” by Boston is one of these.
“Don’t Look Back” was on the second mixtape my dad ever made me, and quickly converted me into a full-fledged Boston fan. I’d had “Rock and Roll Band” on the first mixtape, but something in “Don’t Look Back” was ready for me when I was ready for it.
It’s a deceptively simple song. Not a lot of lyrics for something around 6 minutes long:
Don’t look back
A new day is breakin’
It’s been too long since I felt this way
I don’t mind where I get taken
The road is callin’
Today is the day
I can see
It took so long just to realize
I’m much too strong not to compromise
Now I see what I am is holding me down
I’ll turn it around
I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind
It’s a bright horizon
And I’m awakin’ now
Oh I see myself in a brand new way
The sun is shinin’, the clouds are breakin’
Cause I can’t lose now
There’s no game to play
I can tell
There’s no more time left to criticize
I’ve seen what I could not recognize
Everything in my life was leading me on
But I can be strong
I finally see the dawn arrivin’
I see beyond the road I’m drivin’
Far away and left behind
Oh the sun is shinin’ and I’m on that road
This is the song that helps me take a deep breath, close my eyes, and lift my head up. The song where I focus forward on what is coming, on what I want to create. The song that helps me let go of my fear, my doubt, my insecurity, and just take a step.
It goes quiet and soft in the middle. Everything drops but the barest guitar and drum beat. Stillness before motion, patience before determination. And then the song bursts back to life. It flies and dips and wheels like a freed bird. And it doubles down on the message once more.
The whole message is about being strong enough to keep going. Being strong enough to make changes, even fundamental ones, to keep from being trapped and pinned down and unable to fly. “Everything in my life was leading me on, but I can be strong.” I can break free. I can look at the road unwinding at my feet and walk it, even not knowing where it leads.
Next week, we begin a road trip that will last almost 2 weeks. No idea if I’ll be posting while I’m gone — kinda depends on what sort of Mondays I’m having, I guess.
And as with all adventures, there is always a chance at heartache, or struggle, or loss. There is a chance that I’ll take one step too far and lose something precious. But the trade-off is this: if I don’t take the steps, if I don’t make the attempt, then I lose myself instead. Risk versus reward isn’t just for the stock market or sports games. It’s for life.
And sometimes you have to take that step. Sometimes you have to stand up and start walking and never look back, even when everything around you wants you to hold still. Sometimes you have to trust to your own strength and let it carry you. Sometimes you have to dare leaving everything behind to find out what you really have, where you really are, and where you belong.
I’ve made so many choices in my life that were good and bad. That worked out in some ways, failed miserably in others. But I try so, so, so hard not to live with regret. You can’t go live a single second over. You can’t get back the ones that are lost. You can’t get a do-over, no matter how badly you want one. So I make the choice in the moment that I can live with, and damn the consequences. I couldn’t live with myself not taking chances, not giving my all, not fighting for that next step forward.
Everything I’ve ever gained has come because I left something else behind.
I’m sure I’ll miss my house when I’m sleeping on spare beds and in hotel rooms for 2 weeks. I’ll miss my cats, my people, my routine, my ability to relax in my own space. But it’s an adventure still, with the future unknown. And I won’t be sorry I’m going, no matter how it turns out. Because there is something to learn on the road out there. There is always something to learn.
Most of my best insights have come while behind the wheel of my car, facing an endless stretch of highway, Sarah at my side, singing at the top of our lungs.
Watch my Twitter account if you’ve a mind for it — all my one-liners get worse and Sarah dutifully transcribes them for me. If you poke me, I may or may not respond, depending on where I am and what little adventure we’ve stumbled upon this time. If we have any odd encounters (burning trucks, flooded roads, that thing with the pigs), I’ll try to remember to include them in an entry when I get back.
Every change, even a temporary one, is worth the risk. Every breath taken free and fierce and fearless is worth the cost.
Next week, I’ll be breathing free, singing loud, and finding myself on that calling road one more time.
I had a very long weekend including an emotionally difficult concert, so I’m not even going to try to string words together. Here’s one of the songs we sang. Honestly, I’d have to listen to our recording to be sure, but I think ours came out better. Theirs is more technically accurate; ours had a lot more soul and passion and heart.
Either way, the message stands.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred. Only love can do that.” — Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr
Since “RENT Live” aired over the weekend, this seems like a good time to tackle this song. Before I go into my own side of it, I want to make sure I acknowledge some of RENT’s major failings, specifically around intersectionality. RENT is a cornerstone for LGBT representation in media, but it has some big, big blind spots where it comes to race. As I saw @mollybackes put it on Twitter, “RENT treats Joanne and Benny as white people who happen to be black, and so disparages them for committing the ultimate sin of selling out without ever considering the fact that selling out might mean something different to POC tan to rich white kids from Connecticut.” I am not qualified to further break down the point, but it is valid and worth reading up about; check out @mollybackes thread on Twitter for more.
That said, there is a lot of positive in RENT. It doesn’t do enough, but it still does good. And if you can watch all the way through it and not come out crying, then you need your emotion circuits checked. It’s a powerful, human story, and what it does to lift up the LGBT community cannot be overstated.
But the first time I ever heard of it, I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was “Seasons of Love.”
If you happened to be in any choir in the late 1990’s, you probably know the song. I sang it every year in high school, and at least once in middle school. It became the anthem for “what do we put in our final concert of the year to sum up the end of school?” And, taken out of context, it’s a sweet song about using love as the benchmark by which you grow, by which you mark time. Taken out of context, time and love exist as comfy platitudes.
Put it back in context.
I’m not talking about the context of RENT. I’m talking about the context of the wider LGBT community.
RENT first showed up in a workshop production in 1993, ending up on Broadway in 1996. 1995 was also the peak year of deaths of HIV/AIDS according to the CDC. To a middle schooler, or to a person looking back more than 20 years, it’s easy to forget that RENT was telling a very, very prescient story at its time. And while the focus may have been on love, that love was inextricably interwoven with grief.
I wasn’t there, but I have heard the stories.
People kept books of names — their friends, their neighbors, the people they saw in and out of daily life — so they could track which were alive and which were dead as the AIDS epidemic swept through the LGBT community. People were attending funerals several times a week, sometimes, for those who got funerals. So many died and had no service, either because family wasn’t willing to have an open ceremony for a victim of AIDS or because funeral services wouldn’t handle AIDS-positive bodies. Women in the community, particularly the lesbians who were less impacted by the epidemic, found themselves as the only support network left after a man’s friends and partners were all dead; some dedicated themselves to bedside vigils because there was no one left.
Think about that. Just think about it. Imagine if something was killing all the members of your community. You’re already marginalized, already stigmatized, already on the edge of constant disdain and violence and mockery. You hold tight to those who are like you, because that is all you have; sometimes even family and old friends have turned their back. And now you are dying, one by one, horribly.
And no one cares.
The government blames you. “It’s being part of this group,” they say. “Be something else, something not so different, and you’ll be safe.” The pundits scream that “THIS IS WHAT YOU DESERVE” for being deviant. The doctors don’t care because you are an expensive burden with no hope. Society as a whole gives a big shrug and figures, “well, at least it’s happening to people no one will miss.”
And still your friends are dying.
Eventually, but far, far, far too late, people wake up and realize that this isn’t just happening to weed out the undesirables — this is happening to PEOPLE. HUMAN BEINGS are dying and suffering and there is no explanation. Eventually money is allocated, political resources bring pressure to bear, advancements are made. But the damage is done. According to the CDC data, more than a quarter of a million people in the US died because of AIDS just in the years between 1987 and 1995. That’s 28,347 a year. 78 people every single day in the US alone.
Honestly, I cannot imagine it. I cannot imagine the pain, the helplessness, the fear, the grief. The sheer magnitude of the crisis. This now-famous picture is of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was taken by Eric Luse in 1993. He captioned it, “The men in white are the surviving members of the original San Francisco Gay Men’s choir (sic). The others represent those lost to AIDS.”
Luse released the same photo in 1996, saying, “The Gay Men’s Chorus posed to illustrate the impact of AIDS. Those dressed in black, with their backs turned, represent those who had died. Today, all their backs would be turned because the obituary list is now 47 names longer than the chorus roster. For each man singing these days, more than one chorus member has died of AIDS.”
Or look at the AIDS Quilt.
Per the aidsquilt.org website, “The Quilt was conceived in November of 1985 by long-time San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones. Since the 1978 assassinations of gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, Jones had helped organize the annual candlelight march honoring these men. While planning the 1985 march, he learned that over 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. He asked each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt. Inspired by this sight, Jones and friends made plans for a larger memorial.”
Looking up how big it is now, the website reads, “As of June 2016, The AIDS Memorial Quilt is composed of more than 49,000 panels on 5,956 blocks (blocks are the twelve foot square building blocks of The Quilt seen at displays). Most blocks are composed of 8 separate panels, remembering the lives of eight individuals lost to AIDS.”
Here’s the AIDS Quilt laid out on the National Mall:
The scope of it all is just staggering. How much generational knowledge did the LGBT community lose in less than a couple of decades? Our elders, the ones who had survived far worse stigma, far worse violence, taken from us in silence. The Stonewall Riots were in 1969 — how many people who were there in those years of activism are with us still, and how many were taken before we even knew how badly we need them?
What’s the quickest way to kill a rebellion? It’s not taking away rights, or starving people, or punishing the ring-leaders. It is, and always has been, silencing human memory. When you take away those with knowledge, those with experience, those who gained scars in the name of their cause, the people left behind have no choice but to start over. It puts them at a constant disadvantage against the power.
Now, back to “Seasons of Love.”
Think about that song and realize that the LGBT community in those years were measuring their years in death, in funerals, in loss, in new diagnoses.
“In truth that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died.”
And it ends on the line, “Remember the love.”
It is a fucking miracle that the LGBT community held together in those years, and held together so strongly that they could lead the next generation in a new wave of rebellion and activism and change.
But that miracle? That isn’t a miracle given by a deity or some inhuman act.
It is a very human miracle. Perhaps the most human miracle of all. Because of those who survived, those who remained, not all of them ever recovered. Not all of them ever returned to living the way they had been before the blight of AIDS in their lives. But those who did, those who found their voices in the chaos, those who fought and kept fighting, those who loved and kept loving, their power, their strength — THAT is what cannot be measured.
Because they remembered love. They remembered those they had lost, and promises they had made. They remembered the truth of being themselves. They remembered the tiny points of hope and humanity in amidst the horror.
I sang this song at the end of every stupid concert in middle school and high school and never knew. My sheltered life meant I barely knew of the existence of the LGBT community until college. I had NO IDEA the damage done to my own people, the ordeal with which my would-be peers and leaders and elders had been faced.
I sang this song and thought I understood love, thought I understood “moments so dear.”
Now, I’m not sure I understand it at all. Because I don’t actually know if I could live even one year like that hell and come out the other end able to sing “remember the love.” I don’t actually know if my own heart could remain intact after decades of grief. I don’t know if I have the fortitude to be one of the survivors.
And yet the song begs you to try. It begs you to measure life in love, because that’s the only thing that matters, the only way forward, the only light in the darkness.
And then, tellingly, it ends. It doesn’t end triumphantly, with a grand final chord and a golden sound. It ends abruptly, softly, into silence.
Maybe that’s the silence left in grief. Maybe it’s the silence left of hope. Maybe it’s the silence waiting for the future to create the next sound.
For me, it’s the silence of the question to which I still have no answer.
More than ever, I think the only way for me as a person with the privilege of white skin can respectfully approach remembrance for Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr is not to speak, but to listen. Racism is real, it is pervasive, and it is incalculably damaging. As a white person, it is my responsibility to make space for non-white voices, to listen to them, to heed their insight, respect their experience, and learn from their wisdom.
So, in respect and solidarity, to celebrate this remarkable, brilliant, sorely-missed man, I offer only this:
There are so many things in the world you can’t change:
Your loves, your fears, your yesterdays.
They aren’t choices, weaknesses, failures;
They just are.
You’ve heard the poem, or maybe a prayer:
Grant strength, courage, wisdom,
But like all prayers, it falls short
When it forgets to keep going.
To know what you cannot change is only a beginning
And the least useful part of the journey.
It’s too easy to stop
And never keep going.
You can’t change your yesterdays and their glorious mistakes,
And no prayer will ever make them easier to recall,
But they are past.
And no one else will ever care about them the way you do.
You can’t change what turns your mind to screaming mud
And makes impossible everything but fear.
Forgive yourself. Breathe.
Fear passes in time.
You can’t change what you love, or who you are.
So love. And Be.
There are so many things in the world you can’t change.
But so what?
Those things you can’t change can’t change you either
Unless you let them.
Don’t let them.
We all know I’m really, really bad at poetry, right? Okay. Just checking.
But, just because I am bad at it doesn’t mean I don’t have the same human need to produce it as those who are masters of the form. There’s something about poetry, the expression of it, that fills a gap in me left by any other creative process. Even songwriting doesn’t quite do what poetry does. Good, terrible, cliche, useless, it doesn’t matter. I don’t write because it’s *good.* I write because it’s *me.*
And sometimes the words that get tangled up in me won’t come out in the prose of a story, or the nice meter and rhyme of a song. Sometimes I just need to let my disjointed inner soul-scrawl find its way out into disjointed, slightly vague lines. And that’s okay, too. The human need to create is important, the most important of all our impulses. Not just creating more human beings so the species doesn’t go away, but creating that which never existed before. Creating new art — songs, stories, paintings, sculptures, knitted masterpieces. Creating new ideas — scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, philosophical insights. Creation, adding to the world, is what, in a very real sense, we are here to do.
I have believed all my life that what we put into the world matters, even if it happens when no one knows or sees. If I sing a song about freedom and hope, even one no one hears, the vibrations of that song still touch the molecules of the air. They still resonate with the wind blowing outside. And maybe one quark of that impact will vanish only to fire in the mind of someone who desperately needs the ghostly memory of a happy song. And every time I put that song into the world, I backed it up with more deliberate action. I invested in more art, found more sources of inspiration, lifted up other singers to hear their songs. Did my song touch someone? I’ll never know, and that’s not what matters. My song made me better, and the better me turned around to better the world.
Life right now is pretty stressful. I’ve got a lot going on, and much of it is difficult or scary. I retweeted something today that said “When you don’t have time to cry because all that does is take away time from you figuring it the fuck out.” It’s an apt summary.
For me, the very first thing that helps me when stressed is to piece problems apart and solve them; breaking them into component parts and manageable pieces is a critical part of the process. But I also can’t survive solving problem after problem after problem with no respite. That’s a really quick path to burnout.
Sometimes I just need to stop. Breathe. Feel. And let whatever is bubbling up inside spill out in whatever capacity releases it from me. Today, that was poetry.
Did it solve anything? No and yes. It didn’t fix what needs fixing, didn’t decrease my to-do list or give me more hours in the day. But it gave me a moment of stillness in myself. It gave me a chance to listen to my own feelings, to let them be heard, to meditate on them and find focus and energy in them.
And the answers are right there in what they were trying to tell me.
I can’t change a lot of what I’m dealing with right now, but I don’t have to. I just have to keep going, keep dealing, and and keep fighting to prevent these things from breaking me down. However it all ends, if I can do that much, I’ll emerge fully intact. And that’s about all I need.
That and about 2,000 more words of writing done today. Because it’s a day ending in Y, so of course there is writing to be done. And now that I’ve gotten the (not good, I know, doesn’t matter) poetry out of my system, I can focus on prose and narrative and characters and how THEY feel, rather than how I feel. So it served multiple purposes, and that is worthy, too.