Top down, blind man navigating, high 70s, ice cream dripping onto overalls, sunburnt lips, skin touching accidentally on the stick shift, laughing at nothing, no radio, the man who never married, the woman who is newly engaged, the old and the young, getting lost on backroads in upstate New York.
the displacement of anger
We are running through a living room, on the north side of the house, unsure if this is a game or a real life-or-death situation. My sister has my bead container. It’s this plastic box with tiny compartments for each type of bead, and all of my treasures are inside it. THIS BOX CONTAINS EVERYTHING I VALUE IN THIS WORLD, AND I WAS ABOUT TO MAKE THE MOST EPIC NECKLACE EVER, AND THIS TINY 6-YEAR OLD IMP IS TRYING TO STEAL IT FOR HERSELF. The fucking nerve.
Anger billows up out of my armpits, my shoulders, my knees. I sprint faster, finally gaining on my younger sister, who, in a flash of inspiration, runs up the stairs.
NO. The hot pressure sticks to my ribs, threatening to detonate. A word blooms in my stomach, burrows up through my esophagus, gets under my tongue, digs deep into the crevices of my jaw. I’ve said this word so many times before, in thousands of ways. Sometimes it comes out soft, gentle, imploring, but other times it comes out fighting, harsh, terrifying.
I see what is happening in slow motion. That’s not even the right way to describe it. It’s not slow motion. It’s focus. Detached focus. I see what is happening with a focus so clear, it’s as if I am a monk meditating in a Himalayan temple. I know I am about to scream. I know that it is going to be so loud that it will hurt my throat to do it. I know my sister will not be happy about it. I know I will do it anyway.
“MAYAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” I bellow.
Everything stops. She stops running, I stand breathing heavily. The anger dissipates. She comes down the stairs, full of genuine innocence and hurt. She is deflated, I is deflated, the moment is forever deflated.
Now, the memory is blurry here. I’m not sure what happened to the bead container. Did she give it back to me? Did we string necklaces together? All I remember is that she was sad.
In that moment, I decided that I didn’t want to experience her sadness that way. I didn’t want it to be my fault. The blame was too much. So, I made a pact with myself. I would never scream at my sister again. No matter how angry I got, I wouldn’t let my anger escape from my body like that.
I kept that pact for years, almost perfectly, not just with my sister, but with everyone else in my life.
Recently, I have been blaming young Siena. She was too weak for the world. She didn’t stand up for herself enough. She didn’t say no when she didn’t want something. She didn’t say, “give me that,” when she DID want something. She let people in. She exposed us to danger. She didn’t protect us. She was a coward, a phony, a pussy. My trauma was her fault. The abuse I experienced was her fault.
But, remembering this story made me realize something: the anger didn’t disappear. The “NO” never went away. It was simply displaced. I was always pushing back.
I wrote long journal entries about anger. I played angsty piano octaves on the piano as I performed Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy. I acted out angry characters in theater productions. I sang. I mimicked the faces of actors as I watched movies. I danced. I made myself heard. I made myself safe. I rejected the world in my own ways. My sensitivity gave me wings, won competitions, got me into small competitive circles. I was strong and took care of myself masterfully. I was a hero, a human, a warrior.
In fact, I’m now realizing that I have been counteracting the dominant figures in my life the WHOLE TIME. Maybe I wasn’t screaming at them directly, but I was sure as hell screaming in other ways.
I have always said every single thing I needed to say. I said these things loud enough for people to hear. I was never weak. I was never defeated. I knew exactly how to take care of myself. I was Queen of Myself. I was a fearless leader, a wise nurture, a great intelligence.
There was not a lack, but rather a redirection of strength.
This was always the plan. I was meant to be right here, right now, right as I am. I have never been anything different. I was never feeble, although for a long time I thought I was. I am simply learning where to place my anger.
a springtime view out the window
The silver pole peeks out from my neighbor’s roof, still, in the late-spring sunlight. Midnight blue wrapped thrice around it, deflated and confused. Looking at the stars, I feel sad, as if I will suffocate under their weight. Below, the red and white stripes float lazily in the breeze, mirroring the newly-arrived leaves on the tree opposite the porch. The confident stripes feel oppressive, indifferent, terrifyingly unfeeling. I can only see the very top of the flag, and the very bottom, but just the outline of it gives me the heebie jeebies.
To our neighbor, though, does the flag feel different? He is a Vietnam war vet, a Black man, a retired Kodak man, a king of the streets (his words, not mine), a loyal husband to his wife since 1976. When he bought the house, he erected the flag pole himself, carefully placed the United States’ flag on it, let it wave in the wind for all to see. The proud silver rod is the figurehead at the prow of his porch.
According to the Royal Museums Greenwich, a ship’s figurehead embodies “the spirit of the vessel, offering the crew protection from harsh seas and safeguarding their homeward journey.” Protection. Safeguarding. Spirit. Home. These words form such a stark contrast to the words that brew in my chest: Scared. Unsafe. Chaotic. Defeated.
Is it our age that separates our very different reactions to the flag? Is it our communities? Is it the time we were born? What is it that makes him want to raise that flag proudly and call it home? What is it that makes me want to wrap it up tightly, put it in a box, and never see it again?
It’s so easy to forget that I am an artist. I get buried underneath the bullshit, the piles of papers to file, the social media momentum to keep up, the correspondence to maintain. I pale. I curl up. I sleep too long. In the midst of all that, it’s so easy to forget that when I step in front of a microphone, I unfold. My trauma is held. My sadness is alive. My joy is palpable. The thing, that core thing, the singular thing I am always chasing, emerges in front of a microphone. It’s not love, or friendship, or even nature that facilitates the unfurling. It’s art. Art is impossible to ignore. It demands. It invites. It needs.
fifteen years old
I am 15 years old. I have been having dreams about death. In my dreams, someone is holding me at sword point. I am locked in an embrace, 10 feet under water. I watch tiny kittens writhing on the floor. I feel the noose around my neck, the chair kicked out from under me, the pained eyes of my mother watching helplessly from the sidelines. A bullet lodges itself in my chest and I collapse into the sweet-smelling grass of my childhood backyard. I accept death. I feel nothing but relief.
we are the subject, not the object
I was afraid.
I was listening.
I wanted to be free.
I came across myself many times over.
I felt myself forgetting.
I wanted to be good.
I needed everything.
I conducted ceremonies.
I climbed up, even as I dreaded jumping off.
I made myself jump.
I wanted wholeness.
I knew I would always be leaving a version of myself behind.
I lived anyway.
slim, at a month and two days,
safe in the ground now
talking about the weather
What’s wrong with talking about the weather?
the people want more
Onstage, we feel everything we are not supposed to feel in real life. Onstage, we sigh and gyrate our hips, using love to manipulate. Onstage, our worst memories are applauded. Onstage, we are unmasked. The shit-show of humanity is on display, and the people want more.
just got home
I just got home from performing on a radio show. My head hurts (for some reason I always get a splitting headache after performing), I’m craving chocolate cake, and I am so grateful for the cathartic experience performing offers me. Often, it’s the intimate shows that are the best: the ones with you and just a few other people in the room, people who really care about you and your music.
The studio was only a six minute drive from my house, located in an ancient, sprawling Rochester 1930s building, resplendent in old brick and numbered doors. Two women wearing eyeliner and jeans met us at Door 3. Their swaying hips sang of multicolored memories and Cleopatra-style voyages as they helped us haul our gear up to the second floor.
Once we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms by the outgoing female sound engineer, and given small bottles of water. We set up our instruments and amps while chatting with the three radio show producers. How many songs should we expect to play? Does this mic go into my amp, or directly into the board? How do you pronounce your last name?
Then, it was showtime. They asked us questions that I found challenging, but fun, to answer. Getting interviewed is such a skill, one I’m still honing.
Who would you collaborate with if you could?
-Brandi Carlille and Lianna La Havas.
Who has been an important teacher and mentor for you?
–Mr. Baker, my 4th grade teacher.
How much do you practice, and what’s your practice routine?
-I try to practice 4-6 days a week for at least 10 minutes. Keeping it doable for myself.
What’s your creative process for writing songs?
-For me, it’s a meditative practice. I usually write songs at night, when I’m tired and feeling a lot of feelings. Then I’ll collapse at the piano and just start playing and recording song ideas.
Then, we played. My collaborator was Kelly Izzo Shapiro, a singer-songwriter who I deeply respect. She and I have been building up our sound over the past year, developing trust and a unique musical style. We played Carol King, a few of our original songs, Alicia Keys, and Jill Scott. I railed on the keyboard, and she played guitar. A few of the songs were the best we’ve ever played them. We listened to each other, got in the flow of it, and never once fell out of “character:” two artists who are very good at what they do.
I love how much I can trust Kelly, and visa versa, while we’re performing together. The radio show producers sat, mesmerized, while we played, and clapped after every song. They were noticing all these lovely, specific things in our music, including how complementary our voices were for each other and how Kelly’s guitar sounded cyclical in one of her original songs.
I’ve done radio shows before, and each one has its own voice. The smell of the studio might be musty or clean or flowery. The questions might be brief or deep. The offer to play might be eager or casual. But the one thing they all share is: genuine care from the producers/hosts. So far, all I know is that’s how it is everywhere.
There were more questions, more music, and then it was over. We unplugged all the quarter inch cables, folded up our mic stands, put our instruments safely in their cases, and dragged it all back down to our cars. We said goodbye about 10 times, and thank you about 100, and then drove off in the rain to our separate houses to do our separate nighttime things.
I feel wrung out, like I am a sopping wet towel, and someone has twisted and squeezed me until the stream of water becomes light drops, and eventually ceases altogether. I feel like this after every performance. It’s an empty feeling, like I have nothing left in my body. There’s no words left, no smiles, no movements. It’s all in the music.
Back when I was in the throes of my PTSD symptoms (they’re still here, but now I have lots of tools to manage them), the emptiness after performing felt infinitely terrifying. I was convinced that, once I emptied out, I would never replenish my resources. I felt that I would be stuck in the wrung-out state forever. Now, though, I recognize this feeling as the mark of a true performance, one that I can stand behind and be proud of. I know that my resources will replenish, and that I will survive the catharsis. All I have to do is take care of myself. The body is a miraculous thing.
So is music.
The radio show tonight was a pearl, a moment. One of many, but truly all its own.