Writings

Singing the Red Dress Song

I roll over to turn off the light and address a silent prayer to my deepest part, to the Holy, to my unconscious, to whatever or whomever prescribes the nightly play that goes on when I slump into sleep: May I please have some joy in my dreams tonight?

I’ve been tired, bone tired. The recent big crisis is resolved, at least for a while. But crises never really end, do they? When the immediate situation gets better—someone gets out of the psych ward, someone gets into treatment, someone finishes chemo, someone dies after the long illness—then the dam that held everything back starts to leak. The feelings start: the tears, the sadness, the heavy darkness kept at bay by the need to just keep going.

It’s not simply that crises don’t really end. It’s also that when life settles, it never settles back to how it was. I’m changed. There’s a bit more of a broken heart; if I do my work, there’s a bit more tenderness too.

And as I have been occupied with the suffering in my immediate bubble, the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East go on, the executions in Iran go on, the discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous children goes on, the killing of black men in the US goes on, the destruction of the environment goes on. All those bass notes of despair sounding in the background.

Hence my plea for joy.

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I am in a room, a performance space, sitting in the back, watching a musical contest. Every entrant—me included—is supposed to sing the same glorious song. The original is utterly light, pitch perfect, sublimely beautiful. Think Jacob Collier at his best. Everyone loves to sing this song.

            Hanging from the stage is a swing dress: bright red, short, covered in tiny lights. The lights are linked to the notes of the deceptively simple and haunting chorus. On the right side of the stage there is a line of contestants that goes on forever. Each one will put on that scarlet dress and sing; the lights will glow softly as they hit the notes.

Each and every contestant is killing it.

When I say that the contestants are killing it, I don’t mean that they are doing a great job. They are singing their hearts out, it’s true. They are also singing off-key, off-tempo, off-everything. I’ve never heard worse singing in my life, including and especially my own awful attempt. It is so unbelievably bad, it’s killing me. I fall out of my chair, laughing. Looking up at the One who organized the contest I say, “I love you so much! Thank you for organizing this—it’s so much fun! I just love you!”

I am laughing so hard that I wake myself up.

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Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley recently published findings from a study examining common triggers for awe. The research collaborators found that humans experience awe most deeply when in the presence of moral beauty: when we see other humans be courageous, truthful, and generous, when we experience someone motivated by purity of intention and action. Moral beauty inspires us. This is true regardless of the culture in which we live, the age group or social niche or financial class to which we belong: other people’s goodness breaks us open. It takes us to a place vast and mysterious, full of joy and awe.

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            Here in Canada, red dresses carry deep significance. They serve as a reminder of murdered and missing indigenous girls and women; they also serve as a reminder of life. Red symbolizes vitality as well as violence. Traditional culture says that red is the only colour spirits can see. To hang up an empty red dress is not only to remember the dead, but to invite the spirit to reconnect with the living.

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It took a while to fully understand that dream as more than an occasion for hilarity. The meaning arrived fully formed, dissolving me into laughter again, but also into tears.

I saw that each of us has a melody planted within, a deep invitation to wholeness encoded in flesh and bone. Donning that scarlet swing dress is the way we say, “I’m showing up for my life, body and soul.” And each and every one of us fuck up that song, royally. We butcher the music in our very own, entirely unique way. We go up when we should have gone down, we prolong the staccato note, belt out the pianissimo part, miss the sharp, add a flat. We can’t hang onto the rhythm, and we forget the chorus. We are wholeheartedly awful.

But by God, we are wholehearted.

How courageous, how endearing to stand up in that starlit, scarlet dress and earnestly sing our hearts out! How can hearts not crack open, awed at the effort that we are each putting into this impossible task? I howl with laughter while the tears run down my cheeks, gasping at the sheer beauty of everyone who is trying to heal the world, heal ourselves, find our way.

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