I woke up this morning with a Dar Williams song stuck in my head, which is never a bad way to wake up. The specific song dredged up by my subconscious was Iowa, one of my favorites from her. The internet informs me that it came out in 1996, which was a pinnacle year in my life for a number of reasons – one of which was that I started realize that I…wasn’t exactly straight. I’m not sure if I first heard this song in ’96, or when, but I’ve been listening to it for years.
Here’s a video, for anyone interested. At its core, the song is about suppressing things you long for. And it’s queer. Not the Williams herself is, but her music is a queer haven. And her lyrics are just…really, really great writing. I think we forget that lyrics are literature. They’re writing, just as much as poetry or novels or essays.
Growing up in a small town in the midwest, the second stanza of the song resonates really loudly –
But way back where I come from we never mean to bother
We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern
And we walk in the world of safe people
And at night we walk into our houses and burn
Four lines to describe an entire experience, which can translate into many different types of experiences that many different types of people can understand. Longing for something that’s not socially acceptable, or that you don’t know how to navigate publicly. Longin for something you’ve been told not to long for. Longing for something outside of your lifescript.
For me, it’s decidedly queer.
I knew a few other queer kids in that small town, and this seems especially true for kids like us, who knew we were different. A lot of your adolescent experience takes place in your head, in private space, perhaps with a few trusted others. There were no socially acceptable dating rituals or spaces in my smallish town in 1996, or in the Christian I attended, or within a family that was very sold on a certain lifescript and was very clear that I shouldn’t deviate from it.
I spoke to a few other queer adults about what it was like to be a queer in the 90s, and the one experience we all had in common was that we were careful how we talked about it – where, with who. And likely it was a very poorly kept secret, but I my experience with smallish towns in the midwestern region is that people maintained a certain facade publicly, and whatever went on behind closed doors stayed there. I know my own family was less concerned about my soul, or my happiness, or my wellbeing, as they were about how I appeared in public. Which was to say, how I reflected on them.
It ended up taking me the better part of 40 years to figure out what the hell type of queer I even am. And in talking to others in the same age range, our experienced varied from “I knew what I was but had no way of talking about it/expressing it” to “I knew I was different but wasn’t sure how.” I didn’t have labels in 1996. But I did have a hell of a lot of queer music -where it intended to be or not – from the singer-songwriters who emerged during that time. I did a lot of exploration via song lyrics, a lot of pulling out convoluted phrases and a lot of feeling euphoric about the ones that were more obvious and a lot of thinking, there is a whole WORLD out there and there are people who are describing what I’m experiencing.
This is how Iowa ends, and it still gets me today, in my 40s.
For tonight I went running through the screen doors of discretion
For I woke up from a nightmare that I could not stand to see
You were a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa
And you were not thinking of me
The “screen doors of discretion” image is simple and brilliant. If home is the place where we go to let our passions out, and we pack the away again before stepping outside, then to run through the screen doors of discretion is a radical act.
I used to think that the last two lines meant that there was some sort of loss and permanent estrangement, but now I realize I misinterpreted it for a long time. What’s really happening is that at the last, the narrator realizes that this other person, this subject of her affection, would eventually just move on if she keeps her feelings to herself, so she decides to pursue it.
In thinking about my own life, my own writing, I steer my characters in similar ways – toward some threshold they need to cross. This concept is one that works so well artistically because it’s something that translates so smoothly to real life. We all have our screen doors of discretion. We all have doorways we need to walk through, lines we need to step over, boundaries we need to crush.
So what does that look like when it happens?
And what does it look like when it doesn’t?