Living Out Loud

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Two days ago we were at the water table in the Chicago Children’s Museum. I left the room for exactly five seconds to tell Scott something. When I got back, there was a knot of confusion and yelling around Tariku. I ran toward him and found an incensed grown man screaming at my son, while the other parents stood by mouths agape.

“If you touch my daughter again,” he yelled. “I will call the police”

I said, “Do not threaten my child.”

I wanted to throat punch him. Instead, I composed myself and said, “This is a conflict between children. Let’s see if we can help them handle it.”

I looked at Tariku standing there confused, head hanging, frightened, embarrassed. I shook with adrenaline.

T said, “I wanted my boat to go under the bridge and her boat was under the bridge and I asked her to move it and she said no and so I knocked it.”

I said, “Why don’t we apologize and then you and I can talk about how to make a better choice next time.”

Y’know…Because that’s how you talk to children. You don’t threaten to call the Chicago P.D. because a little boy knocked your kid’s boat out of the way.

Tariku apologized to the little girl’s back, because the man was already stalking out of the room, dragging his daughter behind him.

I imagined for a moment that I was seeing T’s future- my child’s minor transgressions answered with fear and fury due to the color of his skin. I didn’t sleep well that night.

I’m writing this from the front lounge of the tour bus, during the last hour of our drive from Nashville to Dallas. I like the longer drives, because when we wake we’re still on the road and get to see the scenery, as opposed to the usual drill of driving through the night and waking up in an amphitheater parking lot.

Today, the scenery contains a lot of flags flown at half-mast.

Today, I roll into town not with my usual curiosity and anticipation, but rather with sorrow and trepidation. I’m hyper-aware of the unique dangers of living in public as a trans-racial family.

Scott and I long ago accepted the fact that our family will never fit in. We look weird. People look twice; they look a third time. The carnival of the rock tour is about as close as we’re going to get to a utopian bubble of belonging and safety. We thrive in our own little ecosystem, here where we know everyone, behind the tall fence that encloses the backstage parking lot.

Outside the fence, the world is decidedly less sweet and secure. That world is crushing my heart right now. Driving into Dallas, I’m filled with cold fear- a mother of black sons.

I try not to make assumptions about what I’m going to encounter in any given area of the country, because I’ve found that my expectations are often challenged by experience.

Mostly, I find that we’re embraced wherever we go. We’re lively and funny and we’re nice to people and we tip well. Plus, my boys are still little- still round faced and bright eyed. I like to think people get a kick out of us. But there are times I absolutely feel eyes on us in a more aggressive, fearful way. We’re different than the norm, and difference invites suspicion.

And let’s face it- my kids live out loud. They’re big spirits, impossible to ignore. They roil with wild energy. They holler and run and dance and swear and hide under tables and act like dinosaurs and make fart noises with their armpits. They make their fingers into guns; they make pool noodles into guns; heck, I’ve seen Tariku make an American Girl Doll into a gun. They’re boys. But because my oldest is now a tall eight-year-old black boy, he’s on the cusp of losing his cuteness and turning into someone people are afraid of. I tell him you cannot make gun noises, gun gestures, gun anything at all in a public space. And then I pray he’ll comply and I know he won’t entirely, because he’s human. I watch it all unfold with a sense of helplessness and dread.

As we drive into Dallas, I’m mourning. I’m praying. I’m hanging tight to my boys. I’m grateful for our strange blessed life of music and wandering and adventure. I’m deeply saddened by the events transpiring in the world right now, but first and always I’m holding hope and love in my heart.

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Everything I Need To Know I Learned from Rock and Roll

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In some ways, tour is anarchy- the boys are up late dancing to crazy loud rock music, giving each other dinosaur tattoos with face paint, and smuggling forbidden Fruit Loops into their bunks. They spend their days scootering around parking lots, chatting up the other bands, riding questionable attractions in sketchy roadside amusement parks. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of their micro-managed urban lives at home. We’ve seen a lot of fascinating, educational stuff, like the Atlanta Aquarium and the Boston Tea Party ships, but the road is rife with wild cards. Already we’ve been on a New Orleans ghost tour that wound up stopping at a former brothel. “What’s a brothel?” Well, son…

But within the atmosphere of heightened chaos, I believe the kids are learning valuable life lessons in a unique and memorable way. Here are the top three:

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1.THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

There are no sick days in show business. The life of a performer may seem glamorous, but it takes a heck of a lot of grit to get up there night after night. Some nights it’s inexplicably off and disappointing. Some nights it’s so ecstatic and transformative you wish it would never end. Some nights you have the flu, or your girlfriend just broke up with you, or your dog just died. Whatever the case is, you still pin your shoulders back and go out there. And when the curtain opens, if you’re any good at all, you offer your whole heart.

It’s a terrific lesson to bring home and apply to school or music or sports or family chores. And later to everything else in life.

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2.YOU CAN’T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

I like to think I make an effort not to spoil my children, and to instill in them both an awareness of their privilege and an appropriate sense of the value of things. In reality, we live in a world with a million choices and I say yes more than I should. I try not to capitulate to tantrums, but I do sometimes just give them a corn dog if they won’t eat dinner. Or get them those Pokemon cards for no good reason other than it makes them smile. Or give them an extra 15 minutes of screen time because I want to talk on the phone. I stock our house with all their favorite crackers and bath products and the right color play doh, and while they certainly don’t get everything they want they sure do get a lot.

Tour is not that kind of environment. They may not carry just exactly the right kind of animal cracker in Duluth. You may leave Tigey in a hotel room and never get him back. You may have to wait until the stop at Grandma’s house to get the paint refills for the spinart. Mommy may leave your favorite bedtime book on the bus by accident (totally hypothetically) and you may have to make do with Rolling Stone that night. Because tour is NOT ALL ABOUT YOU. It’s a machine with a thousand moving parts, and it’s a miracle it works at all. The reason it does is because everyone involved takes one for the team now and then. Which leads me to…

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3. IT TAKES A VILLAGE

There are about 90 people supporting this tour, and every one of them is working their ass off. We so often see the shiny outsides of the world, and don’t always stop to think about how much work goes in behind the scenes.

Tariku gets up early, puts on his own clothes, and goes alone to eat breakfast with the bus drivers still up from safely delivering us to our destination during the night. The drivers are on a mission to get him to try the biscuits and gravy, made by the outstanding caterers- I actually have no idea when they sleep. On his way back he says hello to the crew already setting up the stage.

I’m glad the kids get to see the enormous amount of effort that goes this flash of magic that’s over in a few hours, only to be torn down and put up again in the next city.

When you travel in close quarters with a large group of people, you see not just what’s behind the curtain on the stage, but also what’s behind the masks we present to the world. No one can be on their A game 24 hours a day, after 4 show days in a row. You see people putting on their makeup over the printer, losing their cool at the delivery guy, hanging their show clothes out to dry over the handles of a stroller. You catch the most dazzling performer slouching exhausted over a pizza, the cheeriest production assistant walking the hall with a secret grouchy face. There’s an intimacy and a realness to it I deeply appreciate.

And I hope they boys are experiencing and appreciating not just the larger organism of the tour “family” but also the solidity of our little unit within it. Learning that we can move and change and have this fluid kind of life and still be together and permanent and safe.

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Life on the Road

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Woke up this morning in Atlanta, though the view from the bus window looked exactly like the one in Tampa, Miami, New Orleans, Houston…

Cloudless blue sky, sun turning the asphalt into a skillet, rows of trucks, camps of buses, sweaty crew guys with creative facial hair heaving around huge road cases, laminated signs with arrows: production, dressing rooms, catering.

I’m probably mental for bringing two small boys along on a two-month rock tour.

This grind- this repetitive life of packing and schlepping and losing your toothbrush every four minutes and peeing on a moving bus in the middle of the night- is hard. There’s no doubt. There are a million inconveniences and hours of boredom and late hours. Not exactly the ideal life for two kids with PTSD, who thrive on early bedtimes and routine. Not ideal either for someone who wants- no, needs- to spend hours a day alone writing to truly understand my life.

It’s also the stuff of legend for a reason. A life in the arts is an immense privilege. I wanted my kids to have a chance to live it.

Not to mention that in the course of one whirlwind week we’ve taken a ghost tour of New Orleans, swam in the Florida ocean, seen an Atlanta Braves game, and connected with far-flung friends and relatives of all stripes.

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Every morning the members of our extended, crazy, traveling circus family stagger out of buses and wander the gauntlet sleepy-eyed and sometimes still in pajamas, in search of cereal. We pause to gaze out at the rows and rows of empty seats and the bright green lawn beyond. You can almost hear the hum of possibility out there.

Over the years, I’ve grown to cherish the luxury of invisibility that being a rock wife affords. I love being able to observe the goings on from the borderlands between the stage and the crowd, not exactly part of either. The edges of things are often the most interesting.

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Last night I waited for a friend outside the box office and watched the throngs of people entering. I wondered whose night would be unforgettable and who would wind up heartbroken. All the faces: every size and color, expectant, insecure, arrogant, lovely. The young girls: wearing too much eye makeup, arms crossed awkwardly across their bodies, probably rethinking that midi-shirt. They all seemed so fragile. We’re trying so hard.

I thought about the people walking into the club in Orlando that night, full of hope and high spirits. I haven’t had much time alone, so I’ve mostly been stuffing the waves of tears that keep swelling and breaking, swelling and breaking in me. I gave up and let them spill over, mascara be damned.

Later, as I watched the show with my kids, the cheering hit me like a wall, the love practically levitating my body off the ground. I will never stop being awed by what my man does out there. There is always, always something hopeful and healing in music, in art, in the way we insist on creating in the face of impossible horror. It’s a joy to be so close to it. That’s why I’m stealing a writing moment in dressing room while my kids scooter around a perilously raked amphitheater in the Georgia heat. And that’s why we’ll do it all over again tonight.

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Death by Book

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As I approach the finish line of this new memoir, my response to the question How are you? has lately been, This book is killing me, or (in the style of the Wicked Witch), I’m melting! MEEEELTING! And other cheery and not-at-all dramatic stuff like that.

Then, right before Halloween, my best friend Julie in upstate NY called to tell me her husband just had emergency heart surgery. If they hadn’t caught the blockages, he would have been dead within the year.

After I hung up the phone, I vowed to slow down, to be in the moment, to be present for the miracle that is my life. Forever more. The end.

And then I used that vow to flagellate myself for the next few days because, as usual, I was unable to accomplish this goal in any significant way. Until I finally just said forget it and tossed the vow out of the window of my car, while texting at red lights, blasting The Shins, crying and eating an emergency taco on my way to therapy.

When I got home from therapy, I (not at all slowly or mindfully) stuck T in front of Phineas and Ferb, while I packed two suitcases for NY. In the morning we left to meet Scott and see an Everything Will Be Alright in the End show. The next few days were a maelstrom of activities and meetings and rock shows and no sleep. By the time we were in a rented car heading over The George Washington Bridge to go upstate and visit Julie and her family, I had been running nonstop for so many days that my whole body was vibrating.

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When we got there the air was crisp and smelled like rain, the grass phosphorescent against the grey sky. The last of the fiery foliage still clung to the trees. I began to breathe as we wound through the country roads that I recognize in my very bones, from having spent every summer of my childhood there. I hurried us all into our half-assed costumes (Frankenstein, the Mummy And a fortune teller, fyi), then met Julie, her sister and their kids in the hippie haven of Woodstock. It was adorable night, with exuberant trick-or-treating punctuated by lots of old school drum circles. Without even trying, there it was in front of me: the wonder of my days.

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When we got back to their house after the candy carnage, Julie’s husband was resting on the couch, waiting for us.

Scott asked him, “How are you feeling about all this, Man? Are you anxious?”

He replied, “I’ve never been calmer. Nothing matters to me anymore except this.”

The “this” he was pointing at included six children racing through the living room on plasma cars, screaming with laughter and leaving chocolate fingerprints on every available surface. The youngest of them toddled behind, yelling “Tarikoosh! Tarikoosh!”

Ah yes. This.

Writing is hard. Mothering is hard. Sometimes keeping both balls in the air does indeed feel like it’s killing me. But it’s not. Ultimately, it’s nourishing me. My family and my work both give me much more than they ever take out of me.

The book is called Everything You Ever Wanted. It’s a motherhood memoir for the slightly less traditional moms among us, about going from being a member of a harem to a member of the PTA, and it comes out in May. It is almost finished. So close. I can’t wait to share it with you. I am wicked stressed, but it is not killing me. Not at all.