letting them (and ourselves) be real

graffiti in red of a girl with a heart in a word-bubble over her headgood morning good morning! Oh, it’s late here — I set the alarm for 4:30, but when the puppy woke me up after 6, I looked over to see that perhaps that alarm had gone off, but my sleeping self had taken no notice whatsoever. After a full (and mostly offline) weekend, I guess my body took what she needed.

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Write Whole begins again this evening, and April’s Writing the Flood is this weekend (join us!) — lots more coming up, too, including a new daily blog project for May, which I’m very excited and a little nervous about! It’s going to be kind of like NaNoBloMo, with a twist.

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This morning I woke up thinking about my father singing one of his own songs: Dance Dixie Dance Dixie Dance / Don’t miss your very last chance… What a thing, to wake up with your father’s music on your lips, and be glad of it.

This weekend I went on a bit of a road trip with a friend, and she was in charge of picking out music, since I was driving. We wanted music to sing along to, with the windows down and the wind everywhere around us. I only ever do big-voice singing when I ‘m in the car, and I wanted to let something out. We got a little of The Story, Greg Greenway, something else, and then she pulled out a cd that had written on it Dad Songs 1980s. I said, Oh, that will probably be good, go ahead and put that in.

My dad makes mix cds now and again, made one for me when I was on the first Body Heat tour so that we had some good folks music to listen to while we careened, sick and exhausted and delirious, through the midwest. They’re often hard for me to listen to, my dad’s mix cds; the songs are poignant and remind me of him, of the time Before, of when he played guitar for us on the weekends and we knew his singing voice like we knew the lining of our own arms, intimate and familiar and tendering and welcome. I usually start to cry about halfway into the first verse of the first song on the cd, and have to turn it off. It can take me years to listen all the way to music that my dad sends to me. He sent me a song some years ago — Christine Kane‘s “How to be real” — with these lyrics in the first verse and chorus:

Her job was no more than a cubicle / the opposite of beautiful/her soul for a check/but her smile/tells you that she found a deeper will/she didn’t know she had until the day that she left/ amd even though she’s flying high /she can’t help but wonder why/it took her half her lifetime/just to find out / she could let herself learn how to be real / to be radiant / to be elegant/in her clumsy kind of way/oh here’s to how it feels/to be real.

You understand, of course, that I was nearly sobbing by the time she got to the chorus, and I had to stop listening. Maybe it took me four or five tries, after a week, to listen to the whole thing, and just weep on the other side. He sent this to me I think after or in the middle of our most recent struggles, but, too, when I was fully immersed in my own wondering about how I was going to make it as a writer and workshop facilitator who also had this day job that took time and energy but didn’t at all fit into the rest of my real work, a place where I felt I had to shut off my creative/writer self just to sit in a cubicle and play with numbers. This was the underside of my tears: Was he really seeing this part of me? Did he actually understand who I was trying to be? And then this, too: Could I let my father be that complicated, someone who disappointed me, who failed me, who loved me (and who I loved) beyond words and could still see who I actually was, even when I didn’t think I was sharing that with him?

My father is all music to me, a guitarist and singer who wrote songs and shared his voice often with friends and family. We grew up with folk music, the old pop songs, and  his voice. He had his own cubicle that kept him from pursuing what made him real, making music, and that cubicle looked like a family, looked like responsibility, looked like two daughters and a wife and a house in the city and how can you go off and be a musician singing folk songs when all those girls need you to support them? And he loved his work with the schools, and he shared his music with us, with all the family, he pulled up his guitar into his arms like the tenderest familiar and gave us music every chance he got.

So my friend put that mix cd into the player, and the first song was Silver and Gold, another one that my dad wrote: Won’t you give me / silver and gold / don’t want love / the heart grows cold / love won’t pay / the rent when I’m old / won’t you give me / silver and gold.

We were driving through the thick green redwood cover, past Fairfax, on our way to Tomales Bay. I said, that’s my dad’s song. He wrote that song. Who is this? I didn’t quite recognize the voice, got very quiet inside, put my fingers to my lips. Who was that singing? It didn’t quite sound like my dad now — but, I realized into the second song, Dixie Dance, it was my father then, an old recording of all my dad’s songs, maybe his set list, songs he probably recorded himself on the old reel to reel that he kept in the basement of his house in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the important music. There driving through Northern California redwoods, maybe thirty years after those songs were recorded, something in me lit up. I said to my friend, This is my dad. These are my dad’s songs. This is my dad singing in the 80s. I could hardly believe it. Here, issuing from the cd player in my little Prius, was the voice of my childhood, that rich fullness, that guitar, those particular songs. And then I heard new ones, songs of longing, songs of hope: here was some of my father’s creative work, my own backstory. Here was work he did that wasn’t about family or children — here was something of him beyond the man I know as father. What a tremendous gift.

In the car this weekend, my reaction was too deep for tears. I let the music and my dad’s voice push through me, while my friend exclaimed, delighted to get to be with this music. He sang us all the way up through Inverness, all the way to the sea, where she dozed and I played fetch with the puppy.

Again, again, again, I get to complicate what I have believed to be true about my parents, I get to be with and in a narrative less easy and more honest than ‘ they let us down, they gave us to the monster.’ So little is actually that easy, at least in the stories I’m living within. It’s hard to hold all their facets, like it can be hard to hold my own, but that hardness, I think, is just stretching beyond the story I wanted to be true of them, that they were perfect and loved us and would protect us from any bad stuff. That is just one part of our story. And then there are the songs, my father’s fingers on strings, my mother’s poetry, everything behind who they were as parents, that maybe I am well enough, now, to hold, too.

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Thoughts for prompts today: Maybe let yourself listen to a bit of How To Be Real and notice what rises for you in response. What does it mean for you to be real — or, to let your parents, partner, friend, puppy, boss, coworker, characters be real? Give yourself ten minutes, or twenty — and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thanks for your presence today, for the way you breathe into the layers that don’t resolve themselves into easy narrative, for how you hold your own and others’ complications tenderly, even when they frustrate the hell out of you. Thanks, too, always, for your words.