There is a before and an after. I have always suspected as much but it was David Bowie’s death and revisiting his music these last couple of weeks that made this crystal clear. Just one more gift that he left ~ this one for me specifically.
I can absolutely remember the color of the sky on a summer afternoon in 1970-something; and even the scratchy feeling of the backyard crabgrass against my skin while I examined it. I remember the sound of distant lawnmowers co-mingling with Young Americans wafting through the next door neighbor’s window. I could probably describe the stitching on my culottes that hung in my closet. Or recount the pattern of the shadows that my gingham curtains splashed across my bedroom wall each evening while my brother and sister dueled with Bowie’s Suffragette City on vinyl from the basement vs. tracks from Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. Mom just turned up M*A*S*H to drown it all out. I can hang on to these things and step right back into a given day - the smell of my father’s guitar strap, the tear in the neighbor’s pool lining while playing Marco Polo, or the sound of the rippling creek in Beech Woods. Life as I knew then is still accessible to me now.
The early ‘80s ushered in my Junior High School years and what we fondly called “dances” at Johanna Perrin School which were really nothing more than dim-lighting in the cafeteria, a few streamers and ample chaperones. Still there was music and, if you were lucky, a first slow dance. The techno-twang of Ashes to Ashes was funky and about as close to ‘slow’ as any 7th Grader was willing to let herself go. Aside from REO Speedwagon’s Keep on Loving You which was really the reason we all squeezed into our Jordache jeans and put that one long curl in our hair on the side that wasn’t already pulled back with a barrette. And Bowie’s Under Pressure gave us just enough permission during our most awkward phase of life to be outwardly weird like Bowie himself. (Of course, only because everyone else was, too.)
The album Let’s Dance was released in 1983 just as I moved over to Fairport High School. I could describe the Shed House cargo pants I wore that year along with the feeling of how far up my ass they actually rode. High heels and bobby socks. The butterflies I used to get knowing I would pass that cute boy with the dark brown eyes in the stairwell between English and French Class. The bitter cold of a Varsity Soccer field in early November. Just a host of unbelievable memories. China Girl. Let’s Dance. And, oh my God! Modern Love. The first time that I no longer cared if others were feeling the music the same way I was to this very song in the Gym. I moved with my eyes closed and with no concern for whether or not I fit in or I didn’t. Modern Love was arguably the first time that I lost myself to anything or anyone. I can still sense the color of the lights on the far side of my closed lids. I can still feel the heaviness of the bass on my eardrums and in my chest. I can still remember the feeling of possibility.
1985 brought my graduation and Live Aid which underscored my raging optimistic belief that the world was fundamentally good.
Then it all went dark.
My Colgate friends have been posting about Spring Party Weekends on Whitnall Field with Bowie blaring. Younger friends of mine have been talking about Labyrinth references during that same period of time. I don’t remember any of these at all and I haven’t even been stoned once in my life yet. (Yes, that is immensely sad but also true.) Unlike the others, while I am certain these memories are there, they are not accessible to me at all. They are locked in chambers. They came after the post-traumatic stress. They came after my understanding that the world is not always fundamentally good. And certainly long after I lost myself and something very dear to me to my rapist.
Maybe you can also feel this before and after gap in the way I write about these two periods of time. Two vs. three dimensions. Sepia vs. vibrant. Less life.
The simple point of this blog is to highlight that a single traumatic event can change a person’s relationship with everything – with others, with themselves and, in this case, with memory. And just as I am getting ready to post this today I see that Lady Gaga is using her recent Oscar nomination for her song Til It Happens to You to highlight this very same point.
I am not a rape victim. I am a rape survivor. And I am not locked in my story. Rather, many of the beautiful stories of my life are locked away from me instead...for now. And the only thing I did to deserve any of this was to trust someone who invited me over for spaghetti.
Since I cannot change it I am choosing instead to embrace this challenge as a gift of sorts. It forces me to be attuned and aware. It keeps me in the present moment even if this moment, too, may soon be inaccessible to me. But, I am also looking forward to the day when I have a master key to all of the chambers and can unlock them simultaneously. Just imagine the festival as they all pour out onto Memory Lane! I cannot fathom just how colorful it will be when that happens but I do know this much…the soundtrack will be Dancing in the Streets.
Thank you, Mr. Bowie, for helping me to understand myself through your music in the most unusual way; I suppose I should have expected no less. I owe you a debt of gratitude when we dance on the other side.