A love letter to the rain

A love letter to the rain
a portrait of my desk in the morning. controlled chaos

I need another week before I can write anything here. I tell myself this every morning. Just one more week. Just one more. Very recently, I lived up to the looming threat of my responsibilities and filed the first rough draft of my debut book, The Dad Rock That Made Me a Woman, coming (?) from the American Music Series at the University of Texas press.

I imagine it's gauche to write about writing, so I'm telling myself that this isn't what I'm doing, that instead I'm writing about desire, or about the ideas that haunt us until we confront them. I’m lying to myself, but aren’t we all?

They froze all my assets once, the day I was supposed to take possession of a new apartment.

In or around 2015, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment above a haunted electrical supply store in downtown Whitehorse. Behind the Ford Dealership in the shadows of cliffs that lead to the airport. I was so severely in debt that the CRA had frozen my bank account, taken what money I had left hiding in a chequing account; enough for a damage deposit, first months rent and part of a balanced diet. I had to borrow money from my mom to pay my rent and maybe, if possible, eat.

You know how embarrassing it is when your card gets declined at the McDonalds drive-thru? Creating lies to assuage your own guilt and the perceived judgment of someone making minimum wage behind a window. You swear there's money in that card if they’d just try again. Taps not working, try the swipe maybe? You know what, it’s probably the magnet. Now imagine that guilt, but you’re in your mid 30s, an adult by every standard in the book, borrowing money from your mom to pay rent because your entire bank account has been taken away from your control. I swear there’s money in this life somewhere.

I borrowed a little more money for Kraft Dinner, a little extra to buy a bottle of something brown to drown out the lingering regrets and crippling weight of the decisions that conspired to ruin me. As a drinker, I was a fatalist; paranoid, self-sabotoging and a little bit broken. I borrowed money from my parents who themselves are only ever just getting by. But this is what they do, they help. Bless them for it.

I got my bank account back eventually, mocking me with its zero balance. I reopened my construction company, desperately tried to get contracts off the ground and projects in and money back in my account. Worked long days until my body felt like a single knotted rope soaked in kerosene. Wound forever and eager to burn away.

When I was finally frayed and gone, I left home. Moved to Toronto. Started over. No skills or training or education to rely on. Talked my way into consulting on a government project that ultimately went nowhere, made just enough money to survive. Kraft dinner and brown liquor.

I made plans to fly home in the late winter of 2019 to visit my family, fully intending to hide from the familiar faces walking down streets of my now former home. Hide my shame and all the ideas of myself I had done my best to leave behind. Hide from all the failures of my past I was running from.

I walked into a bookstore in Toronto the day before my flight, desperately searching for something to do on a plane for the 6 hours it takes to journey back to a home I had fled. I picked up a copy of Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib in February of 2019, the week it was released. Pocketed that, a copy of The Believer, a pack of spearmint Trident. Gum should always be in sticks, never the little cubes in a blister pack that feel like medicine.

I prepared for the worst.

Planes are little metal tubes of terror for me. As someone who has spent her whole life passively suicidal, you would think I might welcome the opportunity to fall from the sky to certain and spectacular doom, but I'm scared to fly. I don't want to go out like that, it’s never been the plan. I know how my intrusive thoughts want me to go, and it’s not surrounded by strangers watching last year’s Oscar contenders on a 9” TV.

This is why I needed a distraction. A book, a magazine. Another cup of free shitty coffee served at thousands of feet. The change of atmosphere and recycled air conspiring to mask the flavour of hot brown water peppered with caffeine. my hands shaking just a little as I reach out to grab it.

I was never a drinker on the plane, I was always a drinker before and after, and it’s hard to adjust to confronting death with no filter. I don’t tell a lot of people this, because it makes me seem silly, or weak maybe. And my whole life I have been worried about being seen as silly, or weak maybe. Because fear of perception was beaten into me at a young age. You can forget about the hits you absorbed sometimes, until you write them all down in a book and move through the way each blow left a mark forever on your body that no one could see.

Go Ahead in The Rain saved me. Changed what I thought writing could be, this effortless mastery of poetics and language and turns of phrases. How Abdurraqib can write through the story of this band with language that feels conversation and instructional all at once. How you can be invited into the world as he sees and experiences it.

I grabbed it because of my lifelong love of A Tribe Called Quest, from the first time someone played the Beastie Boys track "Get It together" from a shitty boombox at a house party the I was in high school. I remember asking who the other voice on the track was. Someone yelled Q-Tip. Someone else burned their fingers trying to light the last dying fragments of a roach.

He's the guy from Tribe someone yelled across the room like the analog avatar of Wikipedia well before we even had the internet.

I remember acting like I knew what being from Tribe meant. Went to a record store and asked for the new Tribe record in the casual words of someone who knew what she was doing, just like I had practiced at home in the mirror. The burnout working the counter laughed a little at my little ruse and sold me a used copy of Midnight Marauders for six bucks.

I will go to my grave telling you that is the best Tribe record, because it was my first, and because it closes with “God Lives Through”, which is perfect for a thousand and one reasons, not the least of which is Phife Dawg’s line my best friend Steven at the Home Depot.

Q Tip was the guy from Tribe, but Tribe was nothing without Phife, without being the sum of all its parts. A perfect machine we were blessed to behold. I loved Q Tip because he was my entry to the group, but overtime Phife became my favourite, his casual delivery, the weight of his voice, his uneasy confidence. His playfulness, the way he pronounces baw-ston in “8 Million Stories”. Q Tip and Phife felt real, in a way that a lot of artists often didn’t. You could close your eyes and see the world they painted on Tribe records. The stories of their work lived in like novels you can’t remember the name of.

I read Go Ahead In The Rain cover to cover in a single movement, reading and moving through pages like a hummingbird at a feeder. Moving so quick and focused you might think I hadn’t moved at all. I didn’t think about anything but words on a page. Barely able to clench my fists at the bumps of bodies in seats as we encountered pockets of air, or the mysterious whirring of unknown machinery that emanates from out on the wing somewhere.

The subtext of the book is love letters to a group, a sound, an era. Letters threading through the story of a band that painted a world full of stories for lives to find themselves in. I adored the way Abdurraqib wrote with such love, such thoughtful and pained understanding. I had mostly failed high school, and have always thought of myself as being lower on the scale of gathered thought and cultural understanding, and so maybe it’s a failing on my part that non-fiction writing could appear like an essay, but move like a poem. That words could gather in sentences that sang and danced. That lingered in your mind.

I was gripped from the opening lines typed onto the opening pages:

In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning, before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it.

A lead paragraph that snuck into my brain and nestled there, took up residence and haunted me. That out there somewhere was a world, painted with words on a canvas I didn’t know was ever there. I read that book cover to cover and as out plane descended into Vancouver to catch my transfer flight the flight attendant sitting in the awkward seats flight attendants get on bigger planes where they sit facing you if you’re in the emergency row. She saw me clutching it in my hands, told me she wanted to check it out, and so I passed it on to her after I turned the final page.

I have bought this book three, or maybe four times, and each time I have passed it on to someone who told me they wanted to check it out.

That trip home in February of 2019 I thought about learning how to move on for the first time. I had been writing a little already at that point, but I was a trans writer, in that I wrote about trans stories. This bad thing happened to trans people here, here’s how this thing is hard for trans people there. It’s good, hard and necessary work. But I was struggling to find my voice in it.

I got back on a plane, flew back to Toronto. Quit drinking in March of 2019. Started to work towards building a life, not just surviving in the wreckage of one I had left behind. Wondered what future there might be for someone like me, no skills or connections to speak of but possessed with a desire to be heard, to be granted the opportunity to write about the integral words and music of a life.

I will be the first to tell you I have been heavily influenced by Abdurraqib’s writing. When I bought Go Ahead In The Rain for the second time I also bought a copy of his 2017 collection of essays They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us., and I read through every line in that a thousand times as well. I thought about possibility.

What stands out for me in this work is in the love, in the tenderness on the page even through hardship, even through difficulties and painful memories. Music and artistry as these grand foundations of our lives, the songs that carried us here, the names of artists yelled over crowded tables in the long lost memory of a house party in some day when we were all younger than this.

I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write through the words and the notes carried on the wind that have helped me survive all the days that have gathered together into the present. This is all a long walk to say that when I began to think about a book, after I trusted myself to let go of being a trans writer and try and write about music in a way that I could understand, I wanted to write a book like go Ahead In The Rain. I just didn’t know how, and I didn’t know if I could.

I’m not a journalist, I’m not particularly educated or connected to a lineage of writers. I didn’t grow up working in newsrooms. I’m a third generation journeyman glazier who didn’t know how to do anything at all but was eager to fail as many times as it would take to learn how to grasp at success.

I’m grateful to the people at the University of Texas Press, grateful to the mentors and the writers and the music and the words that have allowed me to believe I could be in this space too. I often don’t feel like I deserve it, I don’t believe I have earned it. I’m too new to the work but too old to the world. But I’m trying all the same. Never too late to try, never too old to start.

If all goes well, my debut book will be out in 2024. I’ll be 42 when it publishes. It’s a love letter in a lot of ways, even as I read through edits and had my partner move through it to find commas and spelling mistakes that I missed and we found all the parts that were hard to write down and move through. This work is a love letter to learning how to keep going. How to start again, how to imagine new futures.

It is an honour that I am publishing with the American Music Series, as it is the house that opened a door to a world of endless potential. And I don’t believe I deserve to have crossed the threshold but I’m here all the same, despite all my failures and the times I have fallen I’m still able to stand and be heard and there’s some kind of quiet beauty in that.

I cannot recommend enough that you click through and check out the books in this series, a collection of some of the greatest and most impactful writing on music and the world impacted by it. Like Quantum Criminals, on Steely Dan. Margo Price's excellent memoir Maybe We'll Make It. Lynn Melnick's beautiful and moving look at Dolly Parton, trauma and persistence I've Had To Think Up a Way to Survive. Kristin Hersh's Don't suck, Don't die on Vic Chestnutt. The list goes on.

This year is the fifth anniversary of Go Ahead in The Rain, and maybe you need to read it again, or for the first time. Maybe it’s the book that will fix you, shine some light in some dark place you might believe there is no exit from. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, we might all always believe ourselves to be collections of failures falling apart, but maybe it is the falling apart that builds us back into pillars of strength. Maybe that is what these words are love letters too.