After breaking down my song “lately” a few weeks ago, I wanted to share some thoughts on another song, “could be,” from my latest album my anxious age. This song is the thesis statement of the album and, in my opinion, is the best song I have ever written, as it captures most of what I have ever tried to say on record. In its four verses, I try to capture the complexity of life by zooming in on my own personal history before zooming out to reflect on where I am now and where I am headed. My hope, in telling my story, is that the listener or reader might hear something of their own story, or at least find the courage to start telling their own. Below, I break the first verse down.
I often try and fail to explain to people why I trace much of who I am back to the sixth grade. During that year, I was bullied relentlessly for being different from others. Although I sometimes feel like a broken record for talking about just one year of my life, my story would not be what it was if I had not experienced firsthand what it feels like to be mistreated by others for no good reason (there is never a good reason, after all, for treating others as less-than). I am one of the fortunate ones, since I was only targeted for one year before the bullies moved on to other people. Even still, this experience stays with me and shapes my best and worst moments.
Origin stories are a popular narrative in our culture, and for good reason: without knowing where someone came from, we will never know why they are who they are, and in some ways, we can never really know who they are. No human has ever escaped their upbringing, not totally. We may renounce old ways of thinking and living, rebel against our parents’ and teachers’ words, or move on from terrible tragedies, but the past is shaping us still. In order to truly reckon with ourselves, we must look who we were in the eyes to see what we wish to recognize and what we don’t. At its best, my experience of bullying led me to educate my students on the harmful effects of bullying, to raise suicide prevention awareness at my school, and to pursue justice work in my future career. At its worst, my experience led me down a lifelong path of social anxiety, two bouts of depression, and a host of self-esteem issues.
I rewrote this paragraph over and over to try to say something I have been trying to say for some time, but it boils down to this: I don’t believe that people grow each other unless they are in relationship with one another. If someone does not know my sixth grade self, what effect it had on me, how I was hurt and “got over it” only to be hurt by its lingering effect again, they can never really know me. They will always only ever know parts, but not the whole human. I can name a very small handful of people like this, but to know I have them is all I need. If anyone outside of this small group tries to change my thinking, I am cautious if not defensive and wary of such attempts.
Don’t mistake me for saying that we should all come together to hold hands and make peace with people who disagree with us, or worse, who don’t believe in your right to exist or have a fair shot at opportunities denied you. I am of the opinion that if someone is questioning your right to live (or live well), you owe them nothing. You may have the courage and desire to work with them, but they are not your responsibility (I strongly believe allies of marginalized groups have this responsibility, since our privilege lessens the potential hurt). You owe yourself the peace to find the people who want to hear your whole story, and know you as a whole human. I might be cynical, but I think all of us are only ever going to have a few people (if we are lucky) who truly want to know our whole selves. To those people we owe our lives. To the rest, we should know when we are growing together, and when we are trying to uproot a plant that is not growing with us, doesn’t want to, or is even trying to chop us down.
At different times in our lives, we are the ones who have closed the books of other’s stories. We must learn to ask for the full story from the ones we claim to love. We must listen carefully, not interrupt or try to edit, but to really listen. Only then we will know each other, not in the weak sense of the word that we toss around in this world today, but in the complicated way that knowing becomes synonymous with loving.
For many churches I know, this means to stop trying to tell LGBTQ people about their own stories and actually listen to their stories for once. For white people, this means to stop telling people of color what they need to do to have success and hear their experiences with discrimination and outright oppression. And yes, for people divided along party lines, this means to stop yelling into echo chambers to hear the sound of your own song. Our country isn’t progressing just because you’re standing on the “right side of history.” We must find news ways of being and living together, or we will continue to spiral down a path of self-righteousness that kills at the root what might have been the seed for growth. There are people who shouldn’t be in office, who need to not have the platform to spread hatred among the masses, who need to learn how to coexist or keep to themselves. There is a difference between walking away from the people who can’t love us fully, and fighting those who use that lack of love to deny certain groups access to basic rights. But too many of us are drawing lines in the sand against people who might be on our side if first given a real chance.
All of this is complicated and none of this is simple. Such is life, and such is what makes our stories so difficult to tell one another. The way to begin is to ask yourself who you really love, and who loves you back, then open the pages of each other’s lives. It is there we might learn what it will take to leave our past where it is and start making the future.
Listen to the song “could be” on SoundCloud, and purchase my album my anxious age, which includes “could be” and 10 other songs, along with a 24-page full color zine featuring lyrics, stories, and poetry. Follow my blog to read my breakdown of the next three verses of “could be” in the coming weeks. As always, thanks for reading.