I’m writing this in the middle of the night, and I just saw Dar Williams in concert for the first time. Well, I suppose technically it’s the second time, because the first time was at the first Lilith Fair (Montreal edition), but she was up on a big stage at the finale concert with at least twenty other people, and I was only half-aware she was there, and well, it counts, but it also doesn’t, you know? So tonight was the first *real* time.
Listening to her tonight, I was most struck by three things: 1) her voice just gets better and better, richer and richer, over time; 2) her music has been helping me survive for two full decades now; 3) every one of her songs stirs up some very specific, clear memory for me. Sometimes a lot more than one, and not always the same one, but always at least one memory, and one memory that is sharp enough to have not just the usual senses associated with it, but also the more subtle ones that tend to fade out of memories – senses like temperature, and proprioception. At least one memory per song that is crisp and infinite.
So, I thought for my next entry in the series of stories Maribou tells about songs, rather than one song and a whole lot of memory, I would try many songs, all by the same artist, with just one memory each, though some of the memories take a long time to tell. If nothing else, I hope some of you like the music. Maybe you’ll find yourselves in it too.
Every one of these songs is a song she played tonight.
It was November of 1985, and I was about to go to sleep, warm in a borrowed flannel nightgown, under piles of quilts, in the high-ceilinged central bedroom of the ground-floor apartment of the old Victorian building owned by my borrowed second family. Snugged up tight into bed, right next to my Megan, while her mom massaged my scalp gently with her fingernails, part of the same tucking-in ritual she’d done for both of us hrair times before1, and which she would keep doing long after we become teenagers. Time always stopped while she was tucking us in. I remember how safe I felt, how beloved, and how wistful. A second mom is never quite your real mom. My real mom is wonderful, and I love her for many reasons, but it had already been a long time since I could love her because of how she mothered. Even at seven, the borrowedness of my Carol-mom stung a bit. I missed my great-grandmother, who loved me unconditionally, whose favorite I was, who’d died the February before. But mostly, I was just happy, and sleepy, and warm.
It was October of 1996, and I’d just gotten back from the used music and books shop across from2 my favorite bagel place. Stretched out on the ridiculously long, ridiculously narrow, bed in my basement studio apartment, with a purring cat in her usual spot in the extra space above my pillow. The tapes I’d just bought, at two or three dollars a pop, glorious objects which collectively cost more than my weekly food budget and meant I’d be eating ramen until I caught up enough to buy food again, were stuffed tightly into a too-small, stretchy white plastic bag emblazoned with the name of the shop. I shook them out of the bag and the one that landed on top was The Honesty Room. I put it into my tape player, dug a textbook and a scribbler out of the drifts of college-kid clutter on the floor, and started to work. The moment Dar started to sing, in her unmistakably feminine voice, and I heard the words “when I was a boy” come out of the speakers, I stopped working. Once she got to climbing trees, I forgot the book and the scribbler were even there. I held still, rapt, through the entire song, and then I rewound it and started over.
After the fifth time I listened to it in a row, I started to process what I’d heard. Someone else knew about these things. Someone else was *brave* enough to claim them, and sure, maybe she was just talking about being a tomboy but it didn’t feel that way to me then. I’d heard mutterings, mostly on the internet, and read books about people who didn’t fit the gender binary before, and it had stirred up old yearnings in me, to be seen and heard and not to have to lie or hide about who I knew I was. But the people I’d met (yet) who said they were genderqueer were …. very loud about it. Very loud, and very deliberate, and very much interested not in reclaiming something they’d always been, but in breaking apart the pieces of gender, of deconstructing it. I found them extremely compelling, but I didn’t really want all that. I just wanted not to be *trapped* by gender, not to have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, not to have to pretend not to be someone I was. 3
“When I Was a Boy” opened a door for me. I’d always been a gender misfit, always been more likely to initially be gendered male by a stranger on the street, always *known* I was a girl, and a boy, and something other and ineffable besides, but I’d never sought out any of it. I did my best to hide it in elementary school, and to scrub it out in middle school, and to make a secret place for it in high school, but I’d forgotten how to *accept it* before I even got to first grade. After finding this song, I started to live as male now and then, sometimes for days at a time, even a week here and there when school was on break. It was never hard for me to pass, back then – I felt much more like I was “in drag,” being transgressive, when I put on a dress. I started to frequent gay clubs sometimes, and to be accepted by gay men as one of them in that context. I started to research the life stories of drag queens, trans women, and butches in the library, tucked in among the same HQ call numbers I visited multiple times a week to read about bisexuality, and eventually I figured out that there *must* be trans men, as well, and that they must also have surgical and hormonal options, and I started to look into that, mostly thanks to the internet ’cause the library didn’t have any books about trans men. Eventually, as I stopped dissociating away all my dysphoria, I became obsessed with trying to figure out whether I should transition or not. I gnawed at that question like a dog gnaws at a bone some days, and other days I’d kick at it like a cat kicks at an abscess.
I never told anyone about any of this back then. Around my regular college friends, I’d make jokes that weren’t jokes about enjoying being called sir, and they’d tease me (approvingly) about being a baby dyke; with any of the gay men, straight women, or lesbians that I met while moving through the world in masculine aspect, I’d inevitably cut and run (occasionally from their living rooms, once from a bedroom) before anything got too revelatory. I don’t mean to exaggerate: I wasn’t really living a full-bore, balanced, double life. But about one day in five, on average, I just didn’t have to pretend be a woman, which was a huge escape valve for me during the months where I only felt like a woman *at all*, even for a minute, maybe one day in ten. It was astounding, and confusing, and wonderful, and hopeful, and awful, and none of it would have happened the way it did if I hadn’t heard that song. If it wasn’t for that one day, with the cat, and the scribbler, and the CLUNK of the tape every time I rewound to the beginning to start over, I’m not sure I would have survived the attacks of dysphoria that had been plaguing me since childhood, or the overwhelming waves of suicidal thoughts that came along with them.
Despite my stated intentions, I find I can’t really write about any of the memories that come to the call of this song. It’s not that they aren’t there – I have enough to span three decades of my life – but I just don’t want to talk about them. Suffice it to say, the only two Februarys I haven’t had to struggle through were 1997 (the year I first met Jay in person after years of him being my best friend) and 2018. That tells you more than any story could, I suspect, about me and February. Andbut it’s a really good song.
It was December of 2002, a typical sunny warm Colorado winter day, and I was driving along Union on my way somewhere, alone, with the windows open. This song came on KEPC – our most creative radio station – and about four lines in, I pulled over and parked the car so I could pay more attention to the words. I remember writing lyrics on my hand so I could look it up on the Net later to make sure it was Dar Williams and find out what album it was on – I can feel the pressure of the ballpoint on my skin as I write this – and I remember laughing so hard I accidentally hit the horn, and I remember all the things that the song made me remember right then. Mostly, that first time, it made me feel grateful for my mother-in-law, who has so much in common with the Christians in the song, and who has never failed to make the reach to loving me, much as the family in this song loves each other. (If you’re thinking that the pagan women in the song are also a couple, you are not wrong.)
Tonight Dar told a slightly different story than the one she tells to introduce the song in the video above . She focused more on the story of Amber and Jane, travelling from Missoula down to Colorado Springs, on how they felt about each other, and how Amber felt about her Uncle, whom Dar constructed partly out of her own memories and partly out of the relationship advice (surprisingly good!) that she heard on Focus on the Family radio, listening to Christian talk stations to stay awake4, driving through the western part of the Midwest on early tours. It was a good story.
Also, this doesn’t fit into my narrative at all, but the kids in the Christians and the Pagans video are at a Jewish summer camp in Maryland, Camp Moshava, and she is playing there because they asked her to. I mention this only so I have an excuse to link to their incredibly adorable and incredibly excited blog post about it from 2011. Feel free to go down the rabbit hole of their very many enthusiastic videos of the event and not come back. You’ll get nothing but empathy from me if you do.
(So this is just a scrap of a cover of “Teenagers Kick Our Butts,” but for 6 years it was the only version of it on YouTube, and the full-length, not-a-cover montage vid someone uploaded this month is quite explicitly political. There is *nothing* wrong with that. The montage vid fits with Dar’s ethos and she even mentioned it at the show tonight. But it’s not the story I’m telling, yeh? This one suits better.)
It was May of 2012, and the first set of student workers who were “all mine” — as in I had decided to hire them on my own, trained them, and supervised them for all four years of their college career — were about to graduate. There were a trio of kids among that year’s graduates – I’ll call them J, K, and H – whom I’d been particularly fond of since their first semester, and whom I was going to miss more fiercely than I would have thought possible before taking the job. And it seemed massively unfair that I was going to lose all three of them *at once*. My usual presents of a book each just weren’t enough somehow. I wanted to do something more. I stewed for months.
This song was the something more that came to mind, two weeks before graduation. I posted it on the library’s Facebook page as part of a congratulations message to all the college’s graduating seniors (“hey, you aren’t teenagers any more but I think the spirit of this song still applies!”). More importantly, it formed the seed for a mix CD that I made my trio. It was a weird moment, sitting at my desk tilted back in my chair and staring at the ceiling, pulling this song up out of my memory banks, realizing that I now heard it from the perspective of the singer, rather than the audience. Not bad weird. Satisfying. I finally felt like a grown-up, right there, right then. I mean, it didn’t *last*, of course. But it was the first time I’d ever felt that way. 5
J and K are academic librarians themselves these days, and H is halfway through a PhD in Maths after several years of teaching English in Korea. They’ve all had their own students by now, and watched those students graduate. Sitting in the audience tonight, singing along to this song, I wasn’t just feeling like a grown-up. I was feeling like the people who first made me see that I was a grown-up are now grown-ups themselves, with young people of their own to nurture. I’ll never be a parent or a grandparent, but that feeling tonight? I suspect that’s as close as I’ll ever come to knowing what it means to be an ancestor.
It was December of 2012. My dad had been in jail for two months. I hadn’t spoken to him in three. I’d just been taken out of work until January for “acute situational anxiety” and the worst case of viral pinkeye the urgent care doctor had seen in 40 years of practice. I couldn’t really do much of anything. I drank water. I poked at the internet. Once in a while I’d sleep for a couple of hours.
A friend in another state went to a Dar Williams concert. She posted a video of Dar singing this song on stage, afterward, and wrote about how much it meant to her. I remembered that I’d always loved the song. I hit play and settled in to sing along. The two of us, me and Dar, got through the first three lines okay, but when I hit, “Well the whole truth is like the story of a wave unfurled,” I started to wail as if someone had just died. I don’t remember how many times that month I listened to this song, but I’d guess it’s in the thousands. I also don’t remember how many more times that month I cried when I listened to this song, but I know for certain that it’s exactly the same number as the number of times I listened to it. I know it because from that day to this, I have never once gotten all the way through this song without tears.
And that initial wail, along with all the desperate messy unhinged grief that followed after it, was what I’d been waiting for. It was what I needed to start living again.
The second-last time I saw my father, the last time I saw him before I had to stop pretending I didn’t know how dangerous he was, I was on the beach where I grew up, my grandfather’s beach. Well, technically it was the province’s beach, part of a provincial park. But when I was a child, my Poppy still owned a meadow on the low cliff above the shore, and since he’d given the parkland to the province some decades ago, and since he lived at the top of the mile-long hill we’d race down, along a dirt-red road, every time we needed to be in the water, and since if you were at his house, looking out his enormous window wall at the ocean, it was his land, his fields and his forests you’d be staring at, his fields and his forests we always had the run of, even though technically, legally, he’d sold most of them off to young families for peanuts long before we were born? It was his beach.
Poppy was never rich in a money kind of way – alcoholics seldom are unless they come from money, and Irish Catholics with enormous families and complex kinship ties are rarely very wealthy unless they come from money either. 6 But he’d bought, early on, an undeveloped and ridiculously cheap parcel of land he’d fallen in love with while canoeing his way around the province, back when that part of the Island’s southern shore was nearly uninhabited. Through the hard work of his hands (and his kids’ hands and his wife’s hands) he’d turned it into land wealth, and in the heyday of the sixties, a tourist resort that paid the bills for his big family, but not much else.
He was a pretty terrible husband, and a terrible father, and since my father had no boundaries, I’d been hearing stories of what a terrible husband and father Poppy was for my whole life – but he was the best grandfather any kid could have asked for. Some alcoholics improve like that, if they manage to mostly stop drinking. And somehow, someway, maybe through taking refuge in song and story, he had managed to stop. On his own, very very slowly, without benefit of clergy or twelve-step program – but it stuck. By the time I was four, he was not just my best beloved, but also the best beloved granddad of all the families who had taken root on the sides of the hill he lived atop. I *still* meet people who find out I’m his granddaughter and immediately need to tell me all about how he was really their grandfather too. I never mind it.
He wasn’t easy on us in some ways. He expected discipline and intellectual rigor, and he had no time for squeamishness even when teaching a five-year-old how to skin a rabbit he’d just shot. Still, he had a soft spot for kids of any age so wide you could drive a truck through it. And he would back down my dad when my dad was in a rage. Something that no one else ever did. Something I’ve still never seen anyone but myself do. 7
So I felt safest when I was with him.
And by association, all the land around his house, the road down to the shore, the park itself, became holy ground for me. Sea and sky and forest and shore, tides and blizzards, foxes and rabbits and grasshoppers, sandstone and seashells and armfuls of red clay – for a country kid who loved everything alive, it was probably going to be holy anyway. Still, my relationship with my poppy consecrated it. Nothing bad, I believed, could happen to me there. Even when he died, he did so in a hospice in town, and it was his house, his land, that we fled to for the wake, where we laughed and cried and argued and I stole away to the pine grove to say a prayer – not to God, but to him. And then ran back to Montreal with a few of his books, and a leprechaun I’d made him in third grade, and every one of my letters that he’d saved, and just enough money to get me through college after I lost my scholarship.
But all that is prefatory.
It was August of 2015, the first time I’d been back to the Island since my father got out of a Northern Californian jail in 2013 with time served plus deportation, and promptly moved back where we came from. He did this despite having sworn to a few of his siblings that he would only come back for a week to gather up some of his stuff, and then move to St. John, where he’d have a probation officer and he’d cause no threat or struggle for anyone. He was, of course, lying. I told those siblings of his, my aunts, that he was lying, and that also I couldn’t – not wouldn’t but couldn’t – help them help him, and they didn’t believe me, and one of them didn’t talk to me for a few years after that. But some of his siblings did believe me, and they were kind, and they helped us, and it was all mostly okay. It was okay enough that I finally felt safe to visit the Island again. Just for a week, and only because I could stay at my sister’s in the city, never have to leave the room if I didn’t want to, and fly back early if I couldn’t stay, but even so. It was finally okay to come back.
On the day this song makes me remember, I’d been in town for a few days already. Read some books. Visited my second family. Hung out with various immediate and/or maternal-side family members. And all the time I was doing those things, I’d yearned to go back to my beach. To go to my grandfather’s grave at the top of the hill, and then drive down to the water so I could really talk to him. But I was frigging terrified.
My father *owned* my grandfather’s grave, by then, you see, having talked his siblings into selling the land it was on to him some years before. He didn’t own the beach, of course, but I knew how often he used to go there. As I mentioned above, the last time I’d been happy in my father’s presence, it was at the shore. It was the only place on earth that only held good memories of him. And my body just wouldn’t let me go there.
My body knew safe, it knew not-safe, it knew what desecration was, and it was damned if it was going to risk a visit, if that visit might lead to him desecrating our memories of that beloved and holy place. In case I thought otherwise, well, it had some flashbacks for me, more of them than I’d had at any point since I started therapy. Would that maybe help clarify things a bit? Make it easier to understand why we needed to stay in the cage of town, rather than roam around where we might run into him and *anything* might happen? 8
I fought to get to that beach like I’d rarely fought for anything before. I fought and fought and fought with my fear, to get there. The number of times I drove past the park entrance, without being able to stop, became ridiculous. Eventually, I managed to pull up to the park gates after closing and sit in the dark under the stars. Then, finally, two days before leaving, I managed to pull up to the park gates after closing but before dark, and walk down to the beach. I trembled the whole way, tears running down my face, jaw set hard. But I kept walking. Over the grass, through the playground, under the pine trees, down the low cliff, onto the pebbles and seaweed and red sand of a clay beach at high tide.
I stood there for a very very long time. I remember thinking about a lot of things, and talking to my Poppy out loud, but I also don’t remember all of what I did or said or thought. Mostly I remember staring without thinking, just being in the salt air and the ocean and the nearby marsh and the little scuttling creatures and the tall soughing trees, the same way I’d always been able to be in them. And as I stood there, being, I made out a figure in a yellow jacket making his way down the path to me.
Part of me cringed then, fearing the inevitability of the story I’d been led to expect my whole life – the story with my father at the center of it. Was it him? What would happen? But my body, my stubborn, wise, crazy body, that had only just barely let me get to this place at all – my body knew I was safe. That whoever this was, it wasn’t Dad. That whatever was about to happen, it would be okay.
So I stood there, squinting, until the man approached. He was maybe 10 years older than my parents, maybe a bit more. Grizzled but clean-shaven. Shorter than me, not by much. Wiry. He looked a little bit familiar, but mostly not, and he said hello in the Island way and stood a respectful 5 or 6 feet further along, also staring out at the ocean.
After a bit, without turning his head, he said, “Aren’t you a Reddin then? You look like a Reddin.”
I said, “Yeah, my poppy was Bill.”
He said, “Well, I’ll be damned. I bought my property from Bill back in the 70s. He sold it to me for almost nothing, because that’s what I had. I live just up yonder.” He gestured up to the top of the park, at the house across from the gates. He told me his name.
“Oh,” I said. “I used to cut through your land all the time as a kid, I think.”
“Yes,” he said. “All you kids did. It never bothered me, even when Bill and I were pissed off at each other. We could get royally pissed off. One time we didn’t talk for three years.”
“Huh,” I said. “I think I remember you. I’m Maribou.”
“Don’t know. Don’t care.”
He paused for a full twenty seconds, then he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, I never liked him anyway.” He shifted his gaze back out to the sea. We stood there. After a bit he said, “Your grandfather though, he was alright. Stubborn old fucker, but a good man.”
“Yup. And he loved this beach.”
Then we went back to staring at the ocean. After a few minutes, he took his leave and walked off. And I stood there on the shore, thinking about my Poppy. About how thin the veil felt right then, and how funny he would have found it that of all the people in the world I could’ve ended up talking to on this particular beach, I ended up with this guy. I could nearly hear him chuckle.
And this song, the one sitting wayyy back up there where I started telling you this story, this song about the ocean and loneliness and hope and despair and determination, is the song that came to me then.
This song, and a series of clear, strong memories of all the times I’d faced down hard things, and held my crew together, and kept learning the sea.
It was enough.
I was home.
If you made it this far, either you’re as much of a Dar Williams fan as I am or you’re *really* interested, I guess? So either way, you might like this bonus track: A complete concert of hers from nineteen-ninety-fishing-four. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m thinking I’ll love it. You might too. Especially if you remember the first Lilith Fair.
(Image file is from Wikimedia Commons, released into the “public domain” (not literally, but so claimed, and effectively so).
- seven was the year I fell in love with Watership Down [↩]
- next to? around the corner from?? they were both still there in 2012, I can tell you that much [↩]
- It’s hard for me to remember, now, how ashamed I was, how afraid I was, and how much even gender expressions – let alone identity claims – were policed back then. When I heard this song for the first time, I’d literally never heard anything even remotely like it in my life. [↩]
- it’s a good trick, if it’s likely to make you angry!! my friend Laura and I did the same thing when I helped her drive a U-Haul from northern Wyoming to Iowa City… [↩]
- They all loved the mix CD. No one had ever done that for them before. Which didn’t make me feel grown-up, but did make me feel old. [↩]
- Our ties to the country squires we’d descended from had stopped having financial capital behind them sometime in the middle of the 19th century. [↩]
- Someone else in the family fought him, physically, once, and won. But that was long after I’d moved away, and the person in question doesn’t like to talk about it. [↩]
- I was more afraid of killing my father than of being hurt by him. But only just. [↩]
- I’m brave, not stupid. [↩]
- “How’s your father?” is a traditional greeting where I’m from, and everybody is acquainted with everybody at a separation of no more than two degrees where I’m from, so I’d already dodged this question gracefully a dozen times since I got back. Actually, it started in the Halifax airport before I’d even gotten to the Island… [↩]