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 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.
Well, we’ve reached the last blog post of the year. I might have had more to say, but most of my energy has been stolen by a strep mimic. That’s an AWESOME way to end the year.
I don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, though I do celebrate it culturally. For me, this time of year is the celebration of the darkness returning to light, of the cold to come which leads to warmth, of the death of the past year which will be reborn into the next. Even if the coldest days are ahead of us (and they are, at least in Minnesota), the darkest are over.
Other than “Carolyn’s Party,” there aren’t a lot of great songs for this time of year that really speak to me. So I’ll leave you with a more generic celebration of life and the earth and the cycles that connect us all.
I wish you all a peaceful end to 2018. May 2019 be blessed and beautiful and better than 2018 by far!
(I’m exhausted after the Twin Cities Women’s Choir concerts on Saturday, so this is going to be short.)
Illuminations is always such an important time for me. Since I don’t celebrate Christmas in a religious way (just cultural), my own feelings in the dark of the year are fed not by carols in the street and a hundred lit trees in the mall, but by the time spent with my musical community to contemplate the darkness, the growing shadow, and the light that comes after when the night finally gives way.
It’s an apt metaphor even in bright, effortless days. And these days, when the world seems darker than ever, that brightness has to come from inside us.
So it was worth every sore muscle, every aching inch of my feet, and my very unhappy knee, to spend a day on the risers with 100 sisters singing songs about the colors and lights that fill the world when shadows hang dark and heavy over us. And, yeah, I cried a couple of times because I do that. I’m sentimental. I always cry.
But there’s just something that happens when we raise our voices up together, beating back despair and cold with nothing but will and courage and joy and harmony. Anyone who has performed knows that feeling, and anyone who hasn’t never could. Suddenly, it’s like you are no longer just one. You are every person in the room, singer or audience or director, and you are complete, because your voice is one of so many.
And if I ever catch up on sleep, I’ll have an inner light well-kindled again to get me through the next few dark weeks.
I give you this song by Ann Reed. The choral group singing in the background is actually Encore from the TCWC, Sarah and myself amongst them. We were invited to sing with her for this album, and it just so happened that we got to sing on my 2 favorite songs she recorded. I can’t hear this song without thinking about the choir, or about my group of people who are friends and family and home. And in the dark, they are the light in my window.
“When a small quiet few sat together —
Faces she knew and had spent
A season’s for worse or for better;
She raised up her glass then to them.
And she said, ‘You’re my friends,
And wherever life takes me or when,
You’re my home, that’s the truth,
And the light through the window is you.’
So bring your lamps and lanterns here
On this last darkest day of the year.
Let our hearts be burning bright —
Through the window, I see you tonight.”
There are some things I’ve had to teach myself, some things I’ve had to learn — and then there are the things that have been a part of me from my very first breath. It takes time to comprehend Honor, or to build up Courage. It takes experience to practice Kindness or Loyalty.
But Defiance has defined me longer than anything else.
It was a friend in college who put words around that aspect of my personality. She gave me a CD mix waaaaaay back almost 15 years ago. And she called it “Willful Defiance of the Box.” When I asked her about it, she told me that’s how she sees what I do. It’s not just defying the box. It’s willful. It’s looking at that box and not just saying “no;” it’s saying “HELL NO.”
One of the formative books from my childhood is called Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. I was first introduced to the story when I was 10 years old, and it explained something I had always understood for myself — I learn nothing by doing what others do. I only learn, I only live, by doing things my way, in my own time, even if and when I do them alone. No one learns to fly by huddling on the ground with the flock.
You have to trust your wings, alone, strike out into the sky, prepare to fall, and dare yourself to soar.
So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Everyone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who ground me
Take a message back from me:
Tell them how I’m defying gravity!
Defiance doesn’t mean I break rules; I’m not an anarchist. I respect the institutions of governance and follow laws because that’s part of the social contract that holds a nation together. But there are laws, and then there are the rules of society.
And the latter? Yeah, I break those.
I don’t wear makeup or high heels even though I’m a ciswoman. But I’m not butch or femme, either, even though I’m in a lesbian marriage. I challenge people in discussions rather than quietly keeping the peace when that challenge needs to be levied (yeah, I’m that person who points out when someone is being casually disrespectful or bigoted. Fucking deal with it, folks.). I talk openly about things like depression and mental health, even though apparently that’s still stigmatized? Not around me. I like cartoons even though I’m a grown woman. I write fanfic. I dance in my living room in my PJs. I run errands in sweatpants.
There are these ideas that a grown person does certain things and does not do certain things. And if there’s no good reason to abide by those ideas, well, feel the WOOOOOSH of me throwing them out the window.
Because I am myself. I won’t be less than that.
And anything asking me to step back and deny myself the truth of being myself, fully, joyfully, unapologetically, can go fuck itself with a rusty spork.
That “anything” can come from inside me, too.
When depression speaks up and tries to break me down, sometimes the only thing that shouts louder is my Defiance. When everything, everything, everything else gives way, sometimes the step back from the edge is nothing but pure obstinance on my part. If I let myself believe I can’t do something, that usually becomes the point at which I do it the hell anyway.
Defiance demands an exceptionally high level of self-accountability. Defiance isn’t just refusing to budge for no good reason — it demands the BEST reason. I don’t take random dares just to prove myself. That’s not what Defiance is about.
“Go play chicken with a train! I bet you won’t!”
Yeah, you’re right. I won’t. Even if you dare me. Even if you impugn my Honor or my sense of pride. I’m not an IDIOT. This isn’t me emulating Marty McFly and his pathological inability to stand down from a challenge per BTTF3.
Defiance means I know EXACTLY what I’m doing, and I’ve chosen it as the best, the ONLY course of action which is true to myself. I’ll steal another line from “Defying Gravity:”
You can still be with the wizard
What you’ve worked and waited for
You can have all you ever wanted
But I don’t want it
I can’t want it anymore
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Defiance means knowing that some things are better than others. And it’s easy to say “freedom is better than slavery” but what if “freedom” means social isolation due to being different, setting oneself deliberately apart, and “slavery” means the easier path of going along with the others? Defiance is the spark of eager fire that screams from inside my soul.
BE DIFFERENT. BE FIERCE. IT WILL BE WORTH IT.
And you know what? It is.
It’s the “two roads diverged in a wood” thing. But that scenario is misleading, because there is no one watching the traveler, no one whose opinion can weigh in on the outcome of which road gets chosen. I know for certain that I have not gotten at least one job because I showed up to the interview without makeup. I wore a suit, I was capable, I spoke well, but I didn’t fit the expectation of my gender — and that’s not what they wanted.
It’s really true that when people don’t want you the way you are, you probably don’t want them, either.
The best relationships I have are those when I can be the absolute most myself. When I can be whatever I am, unfiltered, unguarded. Defiance is bringing that truth out from the safety of my closest people and wearing it like a badge of pride.
I spent most of high school alone. I was never popular. I was bullied. I had few friends. I could go a whole week with minimal interaction with my peers that was at all positive. And did the silence and the unkindness claw at me? Yes, it did. But I chose to sacrifice all that for the gain of not having to sacrifice myself. And I’ve never regretted it.
Defiance isn’t just choosing to be an outcast. It’s finding glee in being outcast, because that is the truest affirmation of self.
It’s finding wholeness in the refusal to step back. It’s understanding that victory may hurt more than surrender, but surrender is untenable. Surrender is not death — it is UNMAKING.
And I won’t be unmade. By anything.
I never met an expectation I didn’t enjoy breaking. People look at me and expect me to be soft; I turn around and show them my badass side. People think I’m quiet because I don’t choose to gather with the others; I lift my head up and laugh knowing that I’m having more fun with my own company than I could ever have with them. I’m weird and wild, unconventional and proud of it. I don’t fit in lunchroom discussions of fashion and pop culture and trash TV. I don’t fit, and I love myself better for not trying to fit.
I don’t actually know if this happens to other people. I only know me.
Do you ever look up at a moon, or stars, or a glorious sunset, or a violent storm, and feel yourself burst? Feel like what is held inside your chest making your heart pump faster and faster cannot possibly fit inside your body? That within you lives a soul that doesn’t shout or sing — it SCREAMS. It BELLOWS. And the world roars back like a salute. WE SEE YOU. YOU ARE ALIVE.
Not a song, but poetry this time:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.
Defiance is honoring the star that was born inside my heart, the fire that never goes out. Defiance is looking at a black and white world and refusing to give up on dreams of the rainbow. Defiance is spreading wings and taking to the air, even when I fly alone. Defiance is being myself because anything less is not worth the cost.
Because I would rather be myself, just the way I am, and be alone in that, then stand in a crowd. The crowd offers safety, a place to rest, acceptance, and ease.
But why do things the easy way, the safe way, the restful way, when I can do them by myself, for myself, in my own way?
Of all the decisions I’ve made, and the things I’ve done that weren’t really decisions, to be Defiant was never really a choice at all. It was a necessity. It was breathing.
Because if I can’t be myself, then who the hell am I? And what the fuck is the point of it all?
If I gave up on me, I wouldn’t BE me. I would die off, and some doppelganger would take my place with my skin and my hands and my scars, but none of my spark. We are all, every single one of us, an endangered species. There is only one of any of us in the world.
I’m not going to let the world hunt me to extinction for its convenience. I’m not going to let society silence the song inside me. I’m not going to let my inner fire be quenched. Not by well-meaning friends, and not by antagonistic opponents. Not by those I love, and not by the voices inside me.
I Defy the boxes. I Defy the rules. I Defy the darkness inside me and I burn with light against it. I Defy the assumptions of others and I Defy my own assumptions. I Defy, because I am alive.
And I am stronger for my Defiance. I am proud. I am free. I have no regrets.
So I’ll get a dozen more rejections on the novel. I’ll lose friends, or pass by opportunities. I’ll get weird looks in the grocery store. I’ll make mistakes and hate myself for them.
But I will stand up again.
I will lift up my head and I will grin at the moon.
I will REFUSE TO BACK DOWN.
It doesn’t matter how much it hurts. It doesn’t matter if I stand alone. It doesn’t matter if it tears me to nothing. It doesn’t matter what I lose.
I would rather keep what I have and gain more. Because it will be TRUE. It will be MINE.
And if I succeed at LITERALLY NOTHING in this world, then I will succeed at BEING MYSELF.
No matter what anyone has to say about it. No matter what it costs me.
(Fair warning — this song always makes me cry. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I’ll have it figured out by the time I quit writing about it.)
Someday I’m going to write about “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, but not today. Today I want to talk about one of the songs that gets a little overlooked compared to everything else that happens in that particular musical. “Defying Gravity” is a masterpiece of raw spirit and courage and unrestrained freedom. And it earths into a home in my heart because defiance is a huge part of who I am.
But I still want to talk about “For Good.”
You don’t have to know anything about Wicked or where this song fits in the show. It’s enough just to hear it.
I had some alone time this weekend, which, as being alone usually does, led to some introspection. Also noisy singing. But mainly the former.
I looked around and started tracking all the tiny things that led me to where I am today. All the choices, big and small. Certainly attending Carleton College did a lot to push me here — without that, I probably wouldn’t be in Minnesota, probably wouldn’t know any of the people who fill my life up today. But I got to Carleton by a hundred thousand choices that came first, everything from what I thought I was going choose as a major to emerging from high school as something as a loner and being ready to walk away from everything and start over. I can look and see specific decisions that had leading consequences, but I can also see the small buildup of personality that forged a path just as well.
For me, I think the choice to be myself, unapologetically, unremittingly, has been the most decisive and defining choice of my life.
Which isn’t to say I haven’t chosen wrongly at as many junctures as I’ve chosen well. I’ve made more mistakes than I dare count. I’ve thought I was following my heart when really I was giving in to fear. I’ve thought I was picking the noble path when really it was the lazy way of least effort. It’s all well and good to want to live a life of integrity and courage, and it’s something else entirely to do it.
There’s a line from Jayne Eyre that I often think rings quite true:
“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.”
They say that you become what you pretend to be. I think it’s more complicated than that; you can pretend to be a hero, but still choose cowardice if you’re not careful. Principles, as Jane says, are for the most difficult times — that is when you prove if your principles are set in stone or not. It’s easy to want to be brave, or generous, or selfless — it’s much harder to do that when literally everything inside you would rather not.
I’ve definitely failed at least as many times as the next person — but the times I have succeeded, the times when I’ve lived the life of integrity I want for myself, are some of my greatest triumphs.
But for as much as those choices came from me, they also came from so many, many people around me. And without them, without the presence of so many in my heart and my past and my present, I wouldn’t be looking at the world from the same place anymore.
As the song says, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
The base inside myself changes for lots of reasons, from learning, from experience, from pain, from success — and from what I have gained from a hundred people passing through. Some came and left, some tore their way in and left a gaping hole on the way out, and some would not remember me or their impact upon me (but it happened to me regardless).
My whole life has been rewritten by the people who came and cast stones and songs into my spirit.
Without being bullied as a child, would I have spent so much time reading? So much time dreaming? So much time understanding the quiet voice inside myself? Without the friends that I had in and out through the years, would I have learned to be a friend when it really mattered? Without the random encounters, the unexpected moments of kindness or pain, would I have understood compassion without agenda?
I owe so many debts to people whose names I don’t even know. The group of my peers, four or five men and women of color who sat me down and explained my privilege to me, when they didn’t have to, when I was just another clueless, well-meaning white kid with blinders. The woman who came up to me after my first solo when I was 8 years old and told me never to stop singing, no matter who listened. The first fans who left me comments on my stories before I had the courage to reply to them and turn fans into friends.
And the network expands from there — the people who changed Sarah and set her feet on a path that led to me. The people who were kind to the family I have now, the encounters and chance moments that gave strength and joy to those I love. The ripples analogy is overdone, but accurate nonetheless. There are quantum ripples, flashes of fate and randomness and human agency that redefine a life, or a moment. And every one of those ended with me sitting in this moment in this life.
It is a debt to life that nobody can repay, isn’t it? It’s an accident that we’re born at all and that we become who we are. The good things that come after that are blessings.
At this moment in time, there’s only a handful of people who read this blog, and I can name you all, I think. So this is a luxury, one I can enjoy here in my quiet corner —
Thank you. Thank you for stepping into my life and changing me for good.
Great or small, profound or simple, whatever the impact you had on me, I can never go back to who I was before you appeared. And I could never want to go back, not having seen the view from here.
I do believe I have been changed for the better because I knew you.
And to anyone out there who never finds this blog, whatever we were to each other, I still put this into the internet void for you, too, just in case. Because if you gave my life a push, the least I can do is leave you a wish of my own. I believe that we can put good into the wheel of the universe even if there’s no empirical evidence for it. That what we give to the turn of space and time and eternity and destiny comes from us, even if no one ever sees it, or knows it is there. Love and kindness and good wishes and healing energy and a tiny quantum nudge all play into what we leave behind in the balance of life.
To everyone who had a part to play in helping me find my way —
May a skybird leave you a seed that brings you joy and peace. Thank you for changing me for good.
Not really. But a friend did put together a video about Sarah and I and our band and how our music came to be. I think it sums it up nicely, even if it also makes me cringe to watch myself. But that’s not new.
(Also. Maia hates the guitar. Count the seconds between when Sarah makes to play and how fast she runs!)
This is the first track on our channel from CONvergence 2018, called “The Wheel.” I’m of mixed feelings. On the one hand, I wrote the song and I like the lyrics, and it was nice to debut it at the convention in front of so many friends. On the other, I was never particularly happy with all aspects of the harmony we invented. I have trouble being able to tell where the line is between “intentionally discordant” and “actually sounds wrong.”
There will be more at some point. But it’s a better start than last year, that’s for sure!