Laurelyn Dossett & other NC musicians sing out for equality, and I tell you a little story
I’d like to tell you a story which came to mind while watching the above video.
The first bit of long fiction I ever seriously attempted became a novel called Life and Death. I wrote it over the course of a couple of years. It was a life story of two women – Grace and Abra. Abra is dying. As she watches her partner die, Grace narrates the 40 years of their relationship through a series of disconnected memories, the way memory happens – a muzak version of an old meaningful song; something someone says, which sparks something else; a call from an estranged son; etc. Abra dies in the middle of the book and what had been a loose, confusing, disconnected tone becomes stark and shocked, present. Grace spends the second half of the book dealing with the couple of days after Abra’s death. The whole main story lasts about a week. The book reaches across 40 years.
One day I’ll rewrite it and give it its due. Certainly I was a little over my head writing this at age 21-24. But it felt like something I must do.
I was touring in the southwest – one of several weeks-long routes I did by myself back when I was doing the singer-songwriter thing. I had a day off in Albuquerque, so I sat at that old school diner – what’s it called? – with my Lonely Planet USA, trying to decide what to do with my one day off of the whole tour. My corner booth sort of faced another, where an older man and his wife sat down across from me.
The waitress knew them, both by name and by their “usual” order. Through the questions she asked, I figured out that the woman had just had a stroke. She’d just come home from the hospital. She was ok. Her husband was coping. They’d like as much coffee refills as the house could afford, please. The doctor had encouraged her to find a morning routine which didn’t include cigarettes. She’d moved on to coffee.
At some point, she went to the bathroom and her husband looked around and tapped his fingers on the table, checked his watch. (There had been some quiet bickering before she’d left the table.)
He asked me if I was a teacher. No, I told him, just a songwriter reading a travel book.
Maybe because I was from out of town, he felt inclined then to spill his beans on me. His wife is blind now, but she’ll get her vision back. The doctor predicted she would be dead by December. It was late June. “What do I do with that? We just retired, the kids are gone. We’re just getting to know each other again, just getting to spend time together again. What do I do with that?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “I’m 22.”
He asked if I was married. No, I told him. Did I have a boyfriend? No, girlfriend.
He sat further back in his chair. If we’d been standing, he probably would have taken a step back. He said, “Oh.”
He said, “Well, that’s good. You’ll probably never have to know what it’s like to be in my shoes.”
“Because you can’t get married.”
I was floored. I didn’t really know how to respond to that. Because, from the perspective of 1999, it was unlikely any state would ever recognize marriage equality. Therefore, I wouldn’t ever have to lose a spouse.
I started to wonder if that was true. If I were to spend 40 years in the relationship I was in at the time, would it be less devastating to lose my partner than it would be if we had been married? I was enough of an honest and inquisitive kid to admit to myself that I didn’t really know. What does marriage do to people that a lifelong commitment, not sanctioned by any legal authority, cannot?
So I wrote a book.
By the time I finished it, I was living in New York City, a little older and wiser and more world-weary. Making a lot more music. Thinking of writing as more of a hobby than any legitimate way of spending time. I let my ex read the book which was loosely based on our relationship. She didn’t exactly love it. I shelved it and it’s been collecting dust ever since.
Now and then I think about pulling it back out and giving it another spin. After all, I’m now living in a time when marriage equality is happening. My former homestates of Oregon, New York, and Washington all recognize it. Here in North Carolina, meanwhile, we’re battling a constitutional amendment which would take the existing law and write it, basically in stone. (That existing law disallows people like me the right to get married, meaning things like rights to our children and end-of-life rights are things which we must secure through lengthy and expensive legal bureaucracies, whereas our neighbors in relationships with people whose reproductive systems are different from their own can hold a legal marriage and change their minds ten days later, and that’s perfectly acceptable under the eyes of the law).
I tell you all this for a few reasons.
First, in one decade, we’ve gone from a nation which, for example, believed Ellen DeGeneres needed a “Parental Advisory” warning on her sitcom (because she might hold a woman’s hand – gasp! – there was no sex on that show) to one which rallies behind her en masse when a fringe group seeks to boycott JC Penny for naming her their spokesperson. In one decade, we’ve gone from a nation which asks gay servicepeople to do anything they can to keep their personal life a secret as they are asked to attend the weddings of their fellow soldiers in military dress, to one which welcomes anyone interested in enlisting and serving, regardless of who might be waiting for them when they return from duty. The America of 10 years ago watched as a young gay man was kidnapped and beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead, then local law enforcement was denied access to federal backup because the US did not recognize crimes against LGBT people as “hate” crimes. Now, “sexual orientation” is included in the language of what constitutes a hate crime.
When I wrote Life and Death, I thought it would be one avenue through which I could show people what an actual gay marriage looks like – that it may involve children and two parents with careers who love each other deeply but are also deeply flawed individuals struggling despite everything to be the best partners and parents they know how to be. It might include that couple watching their own parents die, and how that might impact their relationships with their children. It might include them seeking solace in one another as they try to deal with the reality of becoming adult orphans. But nowhere in there is anyone a pedophile or a porn addict or interested in turning their own kids on to the “gay agenda” (in fact, both of Grace and Abra’s kids turn out to be straight, as most kids of same-sex parents do).
Now, I feel like the whole point of the story is irrelevant. We’re a nation which embraces gay rights. A majority of Americans believe folks like me should be recognized equally under the law. Yet, most of our states still prohibit it in some form – whether by having laws on the books dictating against gay marriage, or whether they’ve written it into the constitution as North Carolina is now attempting to do with Amendment One.
Of course none of that has anything directly to do with music. Except that musicians live in the world too. Musicians travel around the world and meet its people and cull stories from their experiences, which they then put into songs. Had I truly been a songwriter back then, I would have taken that experience and written a song cycle about it. I should have taken the hint that my means of processing was storytelling, but I continued to pursue the music thing for another half-decade.
There are people who do that, though – see the world and process it through music. Sometimes those songs come out as statements about love and loneliness, and sometimes they come out as statements about fairness and justice.
I’m about to attend a weeklong institute at the Highlander Center in Tennessee (where Zilphia Horton – the woman I’m biographizing, for lack of a legitimate word – lived and worked from 1935-56). We’ll be talking about what artists and the arts can do to keep the world changing toward more secure equality and the realization of our universal truths.
We humans, after all, tend every now and then to hold up our compulsion to believe love should conquer all next to our fear of the unknown. We try to reckon these things and sometimes the fear looks a little more pressing than the love. Sometimes we test each other by putting forth ideas about inequity which can be based on a number of things, but are rarely built on love and fairness and understanding and peace.
Music, however – much like my old dust-collecting story – is always an attempt to understand, to answer questions without judgment. To achieve some sort of consensus.
Take, for example, that video I posted at the top. That’s a song written by Laurelyn Dossett – a songwriter you may know better through her songs. They’ve been performed by folks as variant as the late and amazing Levon Helm and the newer and rising Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dossett took a look at what’s happening here in North Carolina and the impact it could have across the south, and she got her friends together to make this song and video happen.
Sure, it’s a little bit political, but it’s mostly just a song, like any song, about something which someone felt moved to share.