It’s been hard for me to find my voice in the last week. I have been relying on more fierce and more eloquent friends to parse what I am feeling. (Even that sentence borrows from a friend of mine.)
It is perhaps fitting, then, that yet another voice, helped me see a path toward hope. It is the iconic, legendary voice of Dolly Parton.
Since a murderous American religious radical mowed down more than 100 LGBT men and women and their friends in Orlando, killing 49 and seriously injuring 53, I have been searching myself for something meaningful to say or to write that doesn’t merely duplicate the growing litany of essay-length Facebook posts. I have found myself inadequate, mute, dumbstruck.
As a human, I’m angry. As an American, I’m ashamed. As a gay man, I’m traumatized. What more is there to say that won’t defeat me further?
Better get to living
You don’t need to know anyone directly affected by the Orlando massacre to be deeply affected by it. You don’t need to be LGBT to understand. But the infiltration and desecration of a safe space by naked terror, blind loathing, and unabated cowardice — and the divisive commentary that has followed — does a lot to wear down my faith in our present course, let alone the future.
Of all the things I have felt — pissed off, pissed on, exhausted, sad, small, impotent, furious, stunned, distracted — nowhere among them is fear. I try to find some small comfort in that.
And then there is the comfort of Parton herself, with a voice like a hug from my mother.
Wednesday night, at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, basking with dear friends in the presence of the formidable musician and long-time LGBT ally on her “Pure and Simple” tour, I glimpsed what unity might look like in America.
The city skyline spread out before me, University City’s glass towers glowing with rainbow colors, I was surrounded by old and young; walking and wheeling; queer and straight; male and female; beige, white, and brown; religious, atheist, and agnostic; Democrat and Republican. What a cross-section of America! Not even everyone there was a country music fan. And we made it for two whole hours without argument, without protest, without cutting each other down.
It gave me hope for the first time this week that maybe there really is something that can bring us together.
Each of us, despite our prodigious differences, was drawn to the light by a woman who is so full of love that she literally shines. It’s not just the rhinestones, though they do help. (And there were many.)
That’s not to say we all must agree on everything, or even anything. Rather, we must respect and even embrace our differences. She said several times between songs that no one should ever be ashamed of who they are or where they come from.
“What’s this world coming to?” she asked the audience late into her set. “An end,” she said, if we don’t find a way to love each other better.
Islands in the stream
A Dolly Parton show gets a little churchy, a little Christian. To say that she is influenced by her pentecostal upbringing is like saying that the tide is influenced by the moon. When that old-time religion comes up, I get suspicious. Religion so often travels with a thinly veiled condemnation of a love I know to be, as Parton herself might say, pure and simple.
But she is not preachy. From her, faith comes as a revelation of inclusion. When she talks about God, she is talking about everyone’s God.
Her faith is a source of joy and mystery to her, which fuels every good thing she does. And she shares that joy as she knows how, by speaking to us in a language that we all understand: her songs — which animated and illuminated every soul in that auditorium.
She said nothing about guns. She said nothing about gay rights. She said nothing about Islam. She said nothing about terrorism. She revealed not a word of her own political opinions, but she did say a great deal about how we need to do a better job of making room for each other in this world.
Witnessing her at work amidst thousands of strangers, I felt like I was at church — not in a religious sense, but in a communal sense. The connection she creates between her fans is a sacred thing.
I thought to myself: Thank you, Dolly Parton, for giving America something to be proud of. Thank you for reminding me that there is love and light and inarticulable beauty in the world.
Maybe it’s all just a show. Maybe her sweetness and light is as real as her impossibly blonde wig and her ample rhinestones. If it is, it’s a show that I need. Maybe it’s a show that we all need.
A clear, blue morning
Among my favorites of her songs starts out like this:
It’s been a long dark night,And I’ve been waitin’ for the morning.It’s been a long hard fight,But I see a brand new day a-dawning.I’ve been looking for the sunshine’Cause I ain’t seen it in so long.But everything’s gonna work out just fine.Everything’s gonna be alrightThat’s been all wrong.
“The Light of a Clear, Blue Morning,” which she did not perform on Wednesday, is relevant to every variety of social justice. For me, in this moment, it is certainly a promise of better days ahead for my tribe.
But it’s important to remember that praying for the future is worthless without action. So let’s speak with some intellectual honesty about gun laws in this country, whichever side you land on. Let’s teach our children that there is more than one way to be a man, more than one way to be a woman. Let’s stop pretending that one religion is superior to another. Let’s lead by example and respect difference, not eliminate it. Let’s reward good ideas rather than good television. Let’s refuse to be driven apart by demagogues playing with our lives. Let’s actually deliver on the promise of freedom — for every American.
The United States is paralyzed by hatred and imprisoned by fear. To paraphrase the same song from above, this country is like a captured eagle. And an eagle is born to fly.