On Thursday, I caught a ride to work very early with a friend; we got there so early that we had to wait for the building to open. I sent some e-mails at 7 a.m., and I was amazed at how quickly my colleagues answered them.
I was there early because I was going to catch a flight to Richmond at mid-day. Somewhere in there, Prince's body was discovered. I didn't hear the news in real time, the way I have with other deaths of famous people. We were waiting at baggage claim, and my mom asked a woman if they had figured out how Prince died.
I thought, Prince Charles? One of Diana's boys? And then it dawned on me. I said, "Do you mean the musical figure, Prince?" My mom nodded. I did quick calculations. Was he that much older than I thought? Had he had some disease I didn't know about? And I felt that blow: one more amazing, creative person gone--will this year never end?
I was offline much of the time between Thursday and Monday, and I felt strangely disconnected. I was fairly sure what would be posted on Facebook--the same kinds of things that my friends posted when Bowie died. I missed that aspect of communal grieving.
I don't have any Prince albums. I couldn't have spent the whole day revisiting the past that way, which is a shame. The music of Prince, like the music of so many others, was a backdrop to many of my most formative years. I remember a hot summer morning in 1984 when my boyfriend (who would become my husband) reached over to turn up the radio. "This is the most amazing song," he said about "When Doves Cry."
I thought about Prince, who wrote what seemed to be the essential party song "1999," a year that seemed impossibly long into the future when I was in high school when the song came out. The music and the movie from the Purple Rain period seemed a change in direction--and it was and it wasn't.
As a teenager, what both scared and intoxicated me about Prince, and about David Bowie, was that sense that they didn't buy into the dominant cultural message about how we must be men and women. And I still find that aspect deeply compelling. That undercurrent of androgyny in the 70's and 80's seems an important development to getting us where we are today. It's also important to getting us where I hope we'll be some day--while we've made progress, many of us still find gendered expectations to be more like a straightjacket than a smorgasbord of choices.
In my later years, I've come to appreciate both Prince and Bowie as artists who never let the dominant culture tell them about how we must be artists. That message, too, is one we sorely need.
Too often, we let ourselves become experts in one art form, and we ignore the yearnings to try something new. We tell ourselves we're poets, so we can't also write a novel. We're writers, so why invest in fancy markers? On and on we go like this. And some of us might add the soul deadeners of "I'll never master this, so why start?" or "I can't make money at this, so why bother?"
Or worse: I'm too old, it's too late.
In this year of deaths that startle me out of my lethargy, let me use this unsettled feeling to return to the work that is important--and to remember to play with abandon. Let me do some of both each day. And let me be delighted by both.
And let me remember that the work that is important may come disguised as play that has no apparent purpose other than joy.
This Year's Summer Reading List: Take a Look!
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