Thursday, December 03, 2009

Song Shower

When I get an invitation to a baby shower or a link to a wedding registry, I fall into a pile of awe, bewilderment, slight panic and insecurity. A while ago, a friend mailed me a card to announce that he had gotten married. I hadn’t seen him in years and had never met his new wife. In bold cursive font, their card urged, “Instead of giving us gifts to celebrate our new marriage, we ask that you send checks toward the purchase of our first home.” This seemed overwhelming, stuffed with the couple’s sense of entitlement. Did I, an apartment renter, have enough to help someone else buy their own house? “How can they ask for money so easily?” I wondered. “Why do they expect the members of their community to show up for them like this?”

All of this to say, it’s not easy for me to ask for money. It goes against my every instinct. It challenges me to phoenix up out of the ashes of my history.

I grew up in Cambridge Massachusetts, in the projects, in buildings built next to worn train tracks and a cemetery for car parts. In high school, given the freedom to hang out with friends, I discovered that many of my classmates lived in tall, wide houses. I lived with bold roaches and brazen mice. My mother used colorful food stamps at the supermarket. When times were especially tough, she skipped the market altogether and stood in long lines behind City Hall every two weeks to collect a small cardboard box packed with powdered milk and canned food. I hid in the back seat of our car, dreading familiar faces. My friends had no clue what my circumstances were. I wore cool, quirky clothes (scored from Goodwill) and shiny (Payless) shoes. I read thick books and recited Shakespeare. I passed for middle class. It cost 30 cents for students to ride the bus home from school. Often, I didn’t have a dime so I walked miles, across the city, peering into people’s lit windows. It never dawned on me to ask anyone for change. I didn’t want to be teased or pitied. I was ashamed to not have money. Somehow, I had inherited the “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy. I distracted myself from hunger by practicing theatre. I read books and memorized song lyrics: food for thought.

One of the reasons I became a writer is because imagination, pencils and paper are relatively cheap. I write stories and lyrics about identity, love, damage, displacement, the struggle for freedom and self-naming. I write when I have enough money to pay the rent; I write when I don’t. Generally, I keep my financial struggles to myself. It feels more important to share my craft, not bore my readers with budget woes.

But every now and then, I meet and fall in love with a concept. I make a commitment to create. I plan. I gestate. I give birth to a new play/poem/essay/song/album. I do as much as I can all by myself until it becomes obvious: there’s only so much I can accomplish alone. Then I call out to my community for support. I invite actors to audition, audiences to see, readers to read, listeners to dance. I invite investors to kick-start a beloved project.

All grown up, I realize: it’s OK to ask for help. Artists, like newlyweds, shouldn’t be ashamed to reach out to their communities for encouragement―financial and otherwise. For me,
The Expatriate Amplification Project is like getting married or giving birth. I’m calling you to help me celebrate all the love, passion, creativity and labor it takes to make new art. If it helps, you can think of this CD as a first home, a rite of passage, a huge step forward. It’s my baby shower! You’re invited. And I appreciate your gifts.