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What’s going on this morning? I can’t remember my dreams — in the dream I wish I’d had, my grandmother, one of them, or maybe both, came to me. we were sitting in a city park, on a dry bench, and they were holding hands. They looked like I remembered them, washed grey permanents, slightly bent bodies, deeply kind faces, my father’s mother’s face a little more open than my mother’s mother’s face, but still both so very much there. They pat the space between them, want me to sit down there. They tell me things I need to hear, they tell me about the time when I was gone, the time when their families were missing two grandchildren — this is what the holidays were like, they say, this is what it felt like to miss you and your sister. The space didn’t fill in around you, they say, there was just a hole. We didn’t talk about it much, but we all knew it was there.The wind blew against our faces, gentle, and somehow they were sitting next to each other and also around me.The air was blue, fresh, the sky was open. There were other people, far away, walking. My grandmothers explained about their lives, they told me how to go forward in my own. They opened their hands and let me put mine there, they let me see how our hands are so much the same. You see, they said to me, look at our hands. You belong to us. You’re home here.
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Night before last, I went with a good friend to see Erasure, a band whose music saved me when I was coming out (and when I say that I mean both coming out as queer and also coming out from under my stepfather; these are always intertwined for me). I want to tell you about dancing, about dancing there in the way high seats at the Fox theater with my friend and hundreds of other people, about opening my mouth to sing along with a favorite song and realizing that hundreds of other people are also singing, about not being ashamed of loving something this much, about letting my body explode with and into this intertwining. At one point, when I was singing and all these other people were singing, and we were hollering for the artists who made the music, people we would never meet, who would never know us personally but whose work had touched us, had maybe made us feel heard and understood and welcome at moments when we believed (we knew) no one would ever really welcome us again, I understood sports fans. Just a flash, but it was there: this was a place of communal celebration, a place of connection — because we shared a love for those artists on the stage, we could share a love with one another.
Erasure takes me back into the very early 90s, full on, to the time when dancing saved me more than anything else ever could, because he had never had his hands on dancing. He’d had his hands on everything else I loved, every other spot of possible escape, including writing, even including alcohol, but dancing was all mine, and like swimming, I could get lost on the dance floor, alone and also intimately interwoven with the bodies and energies around me.
Yesterday I unpacked all my Erasure cds, both to share with my friend, and to copy back into my life — I uploaded them to my music playlists, haven’t listened to them much since moving to California. Somehow, being in San Francisco was like having Erasure, all that bouncing queerness, all around me. But, of course, San Francisco I’ve found is less bouncing queer and more please I need a job or a gig so I can pay the rent so I can have some time to do my art, and under the weight of that pressure, a little Erasure (I mean levity) must come.
As ever, I’m thinking about radical self care, and about paying attention to what works for you, what self care looks like and feels best for you. Other people, back in those early days, for instance, went to the gym, went jogging, lifted weights, took boxing classes — I took the very best care of myself that I could on the dance floor; the dance floor, for many years, was the only safe place, where I reminded all the inner selves that, yes, look, we can be all the way in this body and be full of power, be a brilliant, explosive thing, be connected to something outside ourselves (that music, yes, that rhythm) and in each one of those steps, we can also be connected to these people around us. We can feel desire and let that live all the way in us, right here, just here if you want. Yes, body, we can feel delight and be safe, even powerful, in that delight. Powerful? Yes– that was it. I didn’t just feel safe when I was dancing, I felt wildly in control, both loose and firmly present. This was my meditation, my strength, my power.
I want you to understand, I want to find the words for you to be able to understand, what it meant to have something like that, a place like that, after living for a decade with a man who had made me believe that he had access to everything in me, who had shaped my insides to his own liking, who had crafted the perfect vessel for himself in me, not just in my body, but in my thoughts. In my thoughts. He didn’t have access to this place — even if I’d tried to share it with him, and once or twice, I probably did, in words, over the phone, long distance, coast to midland, doing the work that he’d trained me into: heaving all of myself into his hands, because that was the only way I could be made acceptable and worth anything — even then, he couldn’t really touch it. This was more than a miracle, more than self care: this was a crack in the thing he had made. this was the fissure I would escape out of. One time, when I was home on a school break, and I was in the home office (either working on the software application that our family business was supposedly producing for college students, or transcribing his notes for a new article about child sexual trauma), when I believed I was home alone, I put on some music, some something, and danced barefoot around the office (which had been my own bedroom before I went away to school). I turned the music up loud, I was taking something for myself from this house, allowing myself to be me, just for a few minutes, before he or my mom or my sister came home and I had to reshape into the scapegoat gnarl that lived only because she begged forgiveness or battled them every second. I was laughing to myself in that dancing, laughing out loud, I flung my arms out, sang along to the music, and then noticed that he was standing there in the doorway. I froze, flooded with adrenaline and terror, and shame, then stammered and went to turn down the music. He wasn’t paying me to dance, of course (let’s have a different conversation about waht he really was paying me for); we had to go downstairs to the living room and sit for an hour, more, talk about my priorities, my work, my psyche.
I think he saw, in that moment, what he couldn’t touch, what in me was already free.
There was nothing to replace that feeling, the work that dancing did for me, the work that dancing and I did together, when I stopped going, when I started drinking more, when the depression took me over for all those years. Here’s the thing: I can’t drink when I’m dancing; alcohol makes me sloppy and makes the dancing a mess. And so, for a long time, the drinking brought more oblivion than the dancing did, and for awhile, the oblivion was more important. Safer. No need to have any connection with others in the oblivion. I don’t write about that time much.
Since moving to CA, I go out maybe once every few months; with a full work and workshop schedule, plus needing morning time for writing, latenight dance parties are difficult to make and the dancing slips way off into the wayback machine. But every time I go, every time I fit my body back into that necessary place, I remember why it matters, I remember and am flush with gratitude for what dancing gave me, which was life, no exaggeration. And I make plans to go out again, and soon — even just monthly, couldn’t we make that happen? It helps to have dancing friends, one of whom was there at the concert with me, had shared his tickets; dancing friends know this place of resilient safety through connection with music and sweat and other people’s energy — they get it, and so we can call one another and say, ok, tonight? and they say, maybe, yes, tonight, and we go out into the world and make it a little more safe for ourselves and the others, the nineteen year olds there among us in bodies of all ages, the ones who are finding the space of safety that we had believed would never open up for (or in) us.
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This is the prompt: tell me about the music you loved when you were nineteen (or the music your character loved), a favorite song. Where were you living then? What about that song was alive for you, what drew you to that song or band or type of music? Who else loved that song? 10 minutes: take me there, then follow your writing wherever it seemed to want you to go.
Today I am grateful for house music, for synthpop and techno, and grateful, too, for all the music you loved that saved you, the stuff that streamed into your walkman, the music that you met yourself within. Thanks for allowing that to happen, for sharing it with others, for continuing. Thank you for your words.