Belonging.

This piece was written and included musical interludes within the text (noted below) for the 5th annual reading for Harvey. It was held on Zoom this Covid-year and the theme was “Grief To A Beat: Stories With Music That Shaped and Saved Us .” It featured four writers: Anne Gudger (accompanied on the upright bass by her husband, Scott Gudger), Kate Suddes, Meg Weber and myself. As always, even held virtually, it was one of the most meaningful days of my year. Thank you to the writers, the musicians, Chadson Barton who graciously arranged the music for my piece, my friends who gave tech support, and all who attended.

2007 – You Belong To My Heart

Save for Billy Joel, Tom Petty and old-time country, Danny and I didn’t agree on music much. His whiny, white-boy indie rock grated my nerves, especially paired with the grainy pfft, pfft, pfft of the record player he played them on. He was even less tolerant of my queer, feminist, singer-songwriters, as curved and resonant as the guitars they wielded.

When it was time to pick a song for the first dance at our wedding, I searched for weeks for something we both might like, something with the appropriate sentiment, something we could actually dance to. Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson yielded nothing that fit all three categories. I had love song after love song I’d love but he’d hate. Finally, on my way to work one morning, my shuffling iPod landed on a strong contender.

“How about ‘You Belong To My Heart?,” I excitedly asked that night. 

He looked up from his New Yorker, “That Old 97’s tune?”

I beamed and bounced a little on the balls of my feet.

“Yep!” He snapped his hand into a fist, pumped it in the air in the universal sign of triumph and shuffled-danced his way over to me. We had found our song. 

2012 – You Belong To Me

Our toddler dances on her squat, little legs to the music playing in the kitchen. I sway my hips and rounding belly right along with her, as I chop vegetables to roast for dinner. 

I sang to Vesta when she was in my belly. I stood in the shower, feeling its hot medicine soothe the new aches my body had from accommodating her. I wrapped my arms around the skin and muscle walls of her watery home. I sang as I swayed: “My sweet one/I call you my sweet one,/You’re my only true sweet one,” a favorite little ditty by a favorite band, Phish. 

I made fetal Vesta a playlist. As I drove to work each day, Lauryn Hill sang to us about all her love being her infant son now. The Be Good Tanyas and I assured Vesta that “the littlest bird sings the prettiest song.” But it was my beloved Ani Difranco who had the most important message for us. Me, a person who has never been too sure of this world nor my place in it, I steeled myself to show this baby that she belonged here. Hoping she could hear me despite my swooshing heartbeat and all that gooey water in her ears, Ani and I sang: “You’re going to love this world/If it’s the last thing I do. . .”

With so much more to tend to now, Baby Brother, this little guy swishing around inside me, didn’t have a playlist. He didn’t even have one song. He heard Puff The Magic Dragon and Old McDonald in the car for Vesta and the only singing was the lullabies that put her to sleep. But here in the kitchen came this song I kept hearing on the radio: “I belong to you/You belong to me/You’re my sweetheart”. 

“There it is, little guy,” I thought to him. “There’s your song. It’s sweet and it’s true. And the best I can do until you’re here.”

I didn’t hear any of the other words to The Lumineer’s Ho Hey, just the ones he and I needed, just the chorus, while chopping and dancing and growing inside me.

2013 – I Don’t Know Where I Belong 

After he died, I lay in my bed. Empty. My body so recently full of all that blood and all that baby. My arms holding tight around what was left of him: the skin and muscle of my own belly. His only home.

My new friends, mother’s whose babies had also died, sent me songs that had brought them some comfort. Songs about absence and starlight. Songs with an endless ache. 

Willie Nelson and I sang Eddie Veder’s “Just Breathe”: “Did I say that I want you?/Did I say that I need you?/Stay with me/Let’s just breathe.” My baby never took a breath on his own. Never cried or cooed. His silent soul cocooned in his failing flesh. Perfect on the outside, ravaged on the inside. I needed a reminder to breathe.

My uterus had torn open when he was being born. Blood uselessly spilled into my abdomen and away from the placenta, the cord, his body, his brain. Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy. There are no songs about that. No songs about wasted blood and birth accidents. No words to be put to this particular music. 

2013 – You Don’t Belong To Me

On Independence Day, two months after my son died, I drove downtown for a class at the dance studio that was a second home. Autopilot and rote, it was a place I could take the things I didn’t know what to do with: my body and my grief and the way it was slowly and excruciatingly smoldering inside me.

The instructor told us that the theme for today’s class was Freedom, of course. I stood in the shaky shell of my body and stayed on the outside of everything, where I lived now. On the outside of the joy I saw so clearly beaming from the other dancer’s faces, from the enthusiasm of their movements, from the way they sang out loud to the songs the teacher played.

At the height of class’ playlist, George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” came on, loud and in all its pop-anthem glory: “All we have to do now!” George and the teacher and some of the other dancers belted out, “Is take these lies and make them true!”

“All we have to seeeeeeeee!,” My eyelids heavy from weeks of crying, my zombie-body making the steps the teacher made, my lips forming silent words: “Is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong me! Yeah yeah!”

My boney scaffolding collapsed. I hit the wooden floor boards in a crumpled child’s pose. He didn’t belong to me. Not ever. He was not mine to keep, not the corporeal guarantee I thought myself entitled to. I began to loosen my grip on the filaments of ownership that I thought were cement. I began to let my son go.  I howled my prayer from the floor, in tune with the chorus: “FREEDOM! FREEDOM! FREEDOM!”

2014 – You Don’t Belong To Me – Part 2

Maybe it’s hindsight or maybe my memory serves and the way her name leaving his lips sounding like wind chimes on a warm spring afternoon, really did betray him. Or maybe I was listening for it. Listening so closely now to the way he formed his words, each lilt and tone, the way one becomes vigilant for deceit after betrayal. After the betrayal unfolds itself in front of you like a cartoon shopping list, page after page, comically slapping to the floor.

I stood there, suspended in time, her name still quaking the air between us and I knew. In that moment, I saw the exact contours of this new, next woman. The way she would fit snuggly between us. The way, whether or not she was a perfect fit, he would leave this life we had forced our malformed selves into. And, one year and one month after our son died, he did. 

Because I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me, yeah yeah.

2015 – I Belong To You

I didn’t believe in love anymore, not until the whole world tornadoed into my body the first time I saw the woman who soon would become the love of my life.

It wasn’t so much a courtship as it was a remembering. As it was a catching up, as if we had always known each other but had just been out of touch our whole lives. It was a rediscovery of a deep belief in a true and lasting love we had each longed for and, eventually, given up on, figuring it a childish fairytale and settling into first marriages that matched us good enough but not very well.  

Not very long after we started kissing, we started kissing with our eyes open. Relief waterfalled down the front of me. Seeing her up close, finally. Feeling her soft lips puzzle piecing mine, I felt whole again. I felt whole for the first time. 

Cocooned in my room, glowing golden by the shaded lamp, we lay nearly nose to nose, quiet and listening to the playlist she created and continually evolved for us. Quiet and listening to the stories of each others lives told only through our eyes. Breathing and breathless. Our bodies, snug. Curved and resonating in perfect harmony.

In that moment, the song we were quite sure Brandi Carlisle had written just for us shuffled its way into the room. Without a plan, we both began to sing to each other, right there next to each other, up close, and also across all time and space. Across heartbreak and loss and betrayal. Into the now. Into allowing. Into love. We sang:

“If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too

I belong to you now

I belong to you”

Musical annotation:

1. You Belong to my Heart by the Old 97s —— :09-:22

2. My Sweet One by Phish —— :47-:53

3. The Littlest Bird by The Be Good Tanyas —— :53-:57

4. Landing Gear by Ani Difranco ——— 1:09-1:17

5. Ho Hey by The Lumineers ———— :53-59

6. Just Breathe by Willie Nelson (ft. Lukas Nelson) —— :57-1:05

7. Ho Hey by The Lumineers ———— :36-:52 

8. Freedom! ’90- remastered by George Michael —— 3:39-4:07

9. I belong to you by Brandi Carlisle——- 4:14-4:30

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