I spent the long weekend catching up on sleep, playing an impromptu game of volleyball with about a third of my Operations leadership, and continuing to turn the condo into home. I also started swimming again, and I’m up to 500+m of swimming in a session, which is a good start.
Which also means I’m very tired and my brain is all over the place.
Therefore, I just leave you with this. I love this song, and what it stands for, and everybody who contributed to it.
And also — the Doubleclicks are coming to CONvergence 2019! So if you want to see them live, be in Minneapolis in July!
“so walk your path in your own shoes
send off what you stand to lose
cause you can let it be
or let your destiny
become the one you choose”
These lyrics are by my dear friend and acquired sister Beth. They come from the first track of her newest album, The Hero’s Journey.
And now I’m going to tell you why this album is FUCKING EPIC and you need it in your life.
The concept of the hero’s journey as written by Joseph Campbell was the original inspiration when Beth began on this journey of her own more than a decade ago. It’s a structure more than a trope, a monomyth that underpins so many, many,many stories in our culture. You can tell the story of Jesus, Ahab, Jane Eyre, Frodo, the last unicorn, Spock, Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, and a gazillion others under this model. Roughly, it’s been illustrated this way (thanks Wikipedia):
It’s a natural subject for an album, especially for someone so deeply embedded in music and filk culture as my friend Beth. But Beth’s perspective is always unique and I find it no less so this time than I have on any other song project.
(Look here for Beth’s rewrite of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” No, seriously. And look at the lyrics. When you finish laughing your ass off, you’ll thank me.)
I’ve known Beth for more than a decade as well. We started as friends of friends — I was pulled into her group by a then-roommate who was regularly at her place for roleplaying on Sundays. Before long, I became a fixture at their table, and those Sundays were my escape from everything. Then I became a player in Beth’s game, and there was pretty much no going back from there. The people at Beth’s table became my friends, and ultimately many of them became family.
Sarah and I had tried doing music in the cities a tiny bit before we met Beth, including one hilariously disastrous Christian music competition (spoiler alert: being married kinda played against us). But we really didn’t know anybody, didn’t know where to perform, didn’t have any contacts or anything. One night, though, Sarah came up with me and we jammed with our guitars with Beth for a while, and she thought we might have something worth sharing. Not long after, we played our first gig at a bar.
(The only people who showed up were our friends and Beth’s band. But that was our biggest audience outside of a dorm room so we were more than pleased.)
For a few years, Sarah and I did some light gigging around the Twin Cities. We didn’t really seek it out for ourselves — but if Beth was performing with her band somewhere, a lot of times we could sign up to open for them. It was fun. Her bandmates are fantastic, and as often as not, they’d end up on stage with us jumping in to back us up.
Then, in 2010, Beth was performing at CONvergence but her usual backup singer couldn’t be there and she asked me to step in. Singing with the full band was amazing, but I got a lot more that night than a neat experience rocking out with Beth and the Player Characters. That was the night I spent at my first CONvergence, and when I crawled home at 3am, I woke Sarah up to tell her that I had just discovered our community and we needed to go to it the following year.
So, really, everything that’s come since then for me and CONvergence can be traced back to Beth.
In 2012, Beth and Dave (her producer, engineer, and originator of all the weird guitar noises) helped Sarah and I put together a 4-track album of our own. We only ever sold about 5 copies, but the experience was great for us regardless. And it meant we were a lot more prepared when we started performing at CONvergence ourselves.
But all the while, as Sarah and I figured out our style, and what sort of performance schedule worked for us, and what songs we could share versus which ones we kept for ourselves, Beth was working her way through this album.
Beth’s songs always seem to speak to a part of myself that I don’t always remember to listen for. She does things with music that would never occur to me. (Dave calls it the “key of Beth” and Sarah and I have to agree. It’s that thing where a level of mastery means you can break all the rules; Beth just does it naturally. It’s amazing.) She can hear combinations, melody lines, arrangements that my brain just can’t grasp. But she also writes lyrics that are so strong, so beautifully crafted. What she does putting language together to create meaning always leaves me in awe.
Like the hero in her album, Beth’s made her choice to walk this journey, but she does not come to it empty-handed. She’s not the plucky hero who has nothing going for her but a quip and dumb luck. She embarked on this journey well-supplied with talent and experience and allies and clarity in her eyes.
As an author, the hero’s journey is an important motif — knowing it, knowing when to invoke it, knowing when NOT to invoke it, these all help me create narrative. But I use it as a tool. I don’t think I could have done what Beth did here. She didn’t just tell a story. She turned the journey into an emotional one.
Not without help — the Player Characters really outdid themselves on this album. I will never get tired of listening to what they can create when they unleash their massive talents.
I’ll admit it. I am more often than I am happy with thoroughly intimidated by Beth and what she can do as a musician. Her style, her skill, her raw talent, her lyrics, her drive — there’s really no part of me that feels I could ever do what she does even remotely as well. But then Beth invites me to sing on her album, and all my feelings go WOOOOOOSH.
Sarah and I both sang on this one. We’ve sung on others, too, but this one was so much more. It was a project that was close to Beth’s heart and soul, and it was a project we watched eagerly when Dave gave us access to the files, because we could feel what it was becoming. The chance to be a part of this journey, well. There was no way we wouldn’t happily sign on to be a couple of side characters for a few steps of the quest.
You’ll hear us singing backup in a few places, but the ones that had the greatest impact are the Crossing the First / Crossing the Return Threshold songs. They’re some of the finest and most well-crafted pagan invocations of the elements and directions I’ve heard put down, and we got to be part of them. Sarah sings for Fire, and I sing for Earth. And when I think about standing in the studio next to Sarah and Beth, putting these verses together, I am humbled by the trust Beth put in me to sing this all-important set of tracks with her.
There is nothing easy or simple about letting someone else into what you hold dear and giving them the chance to ruin it. And I wouldn’t ruin it, if I could help it. But there was always the possibility that what I would contribute would not be right, would not be enough, would not fit. (Between Sarah and I, I am the one who is super lousy at harmonizing, and I have to really, really work at it to get something respectable together.) But Beth didn’t worry about that. She trusted me, and she invited me into her heart to get this project done.
Besides the music — and, believe me, the music is enough ALL ON ITS OWN — there is also some absolutely, positively stunning art. The artist made art for all 17 of the songs. They’re very difficult to describe. But they…I mean, they just LOOK like how the songs sound.
Talk about fanart. That is just the ULTIMATE in fanart.
So. Now that I’ve gushed at length about Beth, and her art.
Why did I want to put this in today’s blog?
Well, first. Because the album is out, and I have one, and I love it, and you will love it!
Second, because wayyyy back when I began blogging in the first place, I had always intended to spotlight people who were making things, people who deserved an extra boost of attention. Not that I have a wildly robust readership here, honestly. But if I have a thing, I share it, regardless of how big or awesome it is. I have this small blog, and this small audience, and if that’s all I can offer to a person who has been friend and sister and supporter and source of wisdom and kindness and help, well, then that’s what I’m going to do!
Last week I wrote about my own writing and inspiration, about the relationship between me and those who contribute to my creative process.
Beth is one of the most supportive people in my life when it comes to my own art. She has always helped Sarah and I with music, has believed in us, has offered us opportunities to perform or grow or learn. But she also can understand my investment in fanfic, can ask me about writing and genuinely care how I feel about it. We approach writing differently, but she has never been far from my list of trusted people I could talk to about stories.
What people do on AO3 with comments, on Twitter/Tumblr with fanart, Beth has done for me in person for the better part of a decade.
I don’t talk about my friends, my family, my Clan very often. Many or most of them are private, and I try to respect that. I don’t give many real names, nor links to ways to reach them. (Sarah is different; she’s always up on YouTube with me.) But promoting Beth, spreading her music and her message and her talent as far as I can is not an invasion or an unwelcome peek into her life on the interwebz. I have her enthusiastic consent to make known to however-many people read this thing how awesome she is and how you should buy her CDs.
While writing this blog (and also working), I’ve had the album on repeat. And I finish writing it feeling like that first time I’ve stepped into a new situation, a new place, a new adventure, and I’m breathing in that new wind and looking up at the new sky, and I am ready to start walking.
She actually captured that feeling for me, that feeling of taking a journey, of stepping into one’s best and truest self, and thereby finding the way home.
“so I’ll depart for more adventures
but know they’re only for a while
though my journey goes on, I am anchored
I’ll come back knowing I am free
I am awake
I am awake
I am awake
I have always been awake.”
My journey as an author is my own. My journey as a musician is bound always to Sarah. But Beth has been there for all of it for a decade. And now that I get to experience her own version of that journey, feeling what she has felt and hearing her heart in her words, all I can do is grin and feel my own heart soaring in return.
I put a lot of music in this blog. Rarely does the music mean as much as this does.
Beth let me step on her journey for a bit, and I am the better for it.
So, I’m still pretty wiped out after the concert this past weekend. Due to personal stresses, I ended up not singing in it at all — instead, I opted to fill in as stage manager, logistics master, and general get-shit-done-person behind the scenes. I always do a certain amount of that before concerts; now I just did them during as well. It wasn’t as mentally or emotionally satisfying as actually singing, but it also wasn’t as mentally or emotionally exhausting. However, it was AT LEAST as physically exhausting, so there we are.
Rather than ramble with half the energy to do an entry justice, however, I offer you this song. I came across it a little while ago and it makes me happy. Partially because it is SO TRUE. Every Minnesotan, born and/or raised, that I have made listen to this song agrees as to its accuracy. I’m a transplant, but I’ve been here almost two decades, and I can confirm that this is very much the Minnesotan experience.
Also, it makes me laugh.
The TCWC concert was all about home, and what home means to people. Home has been on my mind, too, as I move in and unpack and turn this condo into home. Home is also the people around me, like Sarah in the next room or a person who is some mix of dear friend, brother, and platonic life confidant sitting on the floor of my den. Home is not just brick walls and windows, but the society surrounding it, the people and culture, the rhythm of the land and streets and skies.
One home has recently changed, another never will. And the third is Minnesota, in all its weird and wonderful glory.
Well, the hiatus is over and we are finally home.
Shifting from a house to a condo has been an interesting process, with no few adjustments that came easier than expected. Honestly, it’s a relief not to have to think about picking up branches, pulling weeds, planting gardens. At this moment, I really only miss one particular space, and I’ve been too busy to think about it much. That space, of course, is my quiet, sacred space. It will end up being shared with the bedroom, and when I pull it together enough to set it up, it’ll probably be fine.
But otherwise? Dropping from ~2,000 square feet of space to 1,272 hasn’t felt like a great loss, really. Sarah and I never really needed to be spread out that much. We’re enjoying the open layout that lets us snark back and forth from kitchen to couch without having to bellow. Being downtown is hugely fun; already we’ve walked more than we ever did in the suburbs. Groceries, going out to eat, visiting people — it’s all an easy stroll instead of needing to drive (at least when it isn’t freezing!). We’re part of the world now, not just sitting in our individual cookie cutter house.
The condo is 12 floors up, which means we have a beautiful view. We face northeast, both the direction and the neighborhood, so we can see the place where the Mississippi curves from north-south to east-west when it hits downtown. Funnily enough, the view is also a perfect metaphor. We’re across the street from the top of the nearest building, so my windows are directly across from their big air conditioning thing. But I literally just need to look past the obvious in the foreground to a beautiful background. Every single person who has come over wanders out to our balcony, and they just stay there. They go out to “take a peek” and vanish for 5-10 minutes. It’s pretty fun to watch.
Once we started moving stuff into the condo, we immediately felt that we had come home. It was surprising to me how quickly we adjusted. Parking in the underground garage and riding an elevator became normal, even comfortable. It was going back to the house to clean it out that seemed strange. We walked the house on the last day and wondered why we ever thought we wanted or needed so much space, so much yard, so far away from the heart of the city. Really, I think a lot of it comes down to lifelong assumptions and expectations. The American Dream is still kind of the standard in the communities in which we were raised, and that means a house and yard kept immaculate at all times. That’s how you progress, right? You go to college, get married, buy a house and a dog or maybe have some kids, and you live in a good neighborhood where you can drive into the city sometimes for special occasions.
You don’t have to deconstruct that scenario very far to see the many implicit economic, social, and racial biases. (Also ecological impact of individual homesteads instead of more efficient communal living.) And we weren’t as knowledgeable about these things ten years ago, but we are now. And once you see the system, once you see the barriers raised to those who don’t have the same levels of privilege, well, I think you probably only have two options. You apologize for being part of the system, or you opt out of it. And Sarah and I have white privliege acting for us, but we’ve been on the wrong side of the privilege power dynamic, and we are always happier defying it.
But we didn’t just move to make a political statement. It’s just *better* for us here. The yard was a huge stressor for both of us, as well as various aspects of home maintenance. Being 12 stories up in the air with no yard to mow, no trees to trim, it lets us focus on other things. Having a built-in assumption of walking means more regular exercise as well as more time in the urban community. And there’s such a different experience looking out the window and just seeing the house across the street from looking out to see half of the city, the mighty Mississippi, and a humongous sky.
(It’s taken me 2 hours to write even this far, because I keep getting distracted staring out my own window. I think I could look at that river view for the rest of my days and never tire of it.)
The thing the house gave us wasn’t status or security like it gives to others. That’s not what we wanted. It did give us space to host our friends and family, but we just have to be a little creative and we can recreate that space just as well. This condo has places we can reserve to host parties bigger and more comfortably than we could at the house. (It also has an indoor pool, which I fully expect to make use of during some of those parties.) What the house gave us was a home base for the people who fill up our lives. And that is something that isn’t tied to an address in suburbia; it lives with all of us everywhere we live.
Which isn’t to say that we are sorry for the years we spent in that house. In our almost 9 years there, we loved that house. But it wasn’t the right fit anymore, and that’s neither bad nor anyone’s failing — things change, we change, the world changes, and priorities change. Add it all up, and the time had come for us to move.
Of course, living here will be far easier than *moving* here. Until Saturday, the room I am currently sitting in was wall-to-wall boxes. Storage won’t be a problem once we get it all organized, but in the meantime it’s a DISASTER. But we make some progress every day, and with everything we set into place, we’re more sure that this is where we belong.
It’s not that different to me from settling into Minnesota after being from New York. It’s a change, for sure. But the adjustment fits against my edges — not identically, but equally easily. Louise Fitzhugh wrote, “There are as many ways to live in this world as there are people.” (I think. It’s hard to be sure when my copy of Harriet the Spy is in a box somewhere. It’s close to that, anyway.) And, for me, there are right ways and wrong ways. This condo, this is the right way. The house was the right way too, for a long time. But now it would be wrong. The suburbs would be wrong.
Frankly? Anything that doesn’t give me this view of the Mississippi would be wrong.
This coming weekend is the TCWC spring concert and it’s theme, appropriately enough, is “home.” All the songs are about finding home, or losing it, or creating it, or not knowing where it is. And while the choir community has long been a home to me, this time when I sing those songs, I’m going to be thinking about my place halfway into the sky, with the river to the north and west, the sunset streaking across the balcony, and the room that was mostly boxes and is slowly growing itself into a den.
I have very much come home, once more.
(However, even if I have found my hallelujah, I sure can’t find anything else! Time to unpack more boxes!)
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 leave you with this, because why not?
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.
How do you measure a year?
How do you measure a life?
What will you remember?