Noa 2I am sitting in my home, listening to Rickie Lee Jones’ magical and haunting piece called Traces of the Western Slopes from what is arguably her greatest album, Pirates.
Take me now
From the blue and pale room I’d follow
Through the faces and the traces of
Treasure I keep hearing inside me
Noa is playing it on a vinyl record, on his new turntable which he got for Christmas. His mom (and my ex) Susan gave both it and the album to him. The album has a special place in each of hour hearts, and I remember weeping in her arms when we saw Rickie Lee in concert at the Mann, as she banged out the first chords of We Belong Together, the first song on the album. If there is an artist of love and heartbreak in my life, it is Rickie Lee Jones.
Twenty years earlier, I listened to the album incessantly during my freshman year at Yale. Two people in my life then were also obsessed with it: my roommate Clay, and my girlfriend Starr (yes, her middle name, which she went by.) I remember feeling certain that a mad and consequential transformation was happening to me in that fall and winter of 1981 and 2. Just being at Yale was disorienting. It felt somehow unreal and magical. I am certain that my experience was what going to Hogwarts feels like, an experience to be written 15 years later.
Starr and I would play Pirates and have those extraordinary and soul-searching conversations that you have when you’re 18, and gorgeous, and brilliant, and you’ve just started having sex. That song, Traces of the Western Slopes, induced a hallucinatory state. I remember giant waves of fear, longing, and disorientation sweeping over me in the wee hours, with the snow falling in New Haven, outside the tiny room containing me and my new love. I remember the song following me from class to class and I couldn’t shake it. I began to think the song cursed those who listened to it too much, as it took them over and drove them slowly insane.
So I am having a foundation-rattling flash back here, in 2017, at 54 years old, listening to my 14 year old trans son spinning Pirates on a turntable in his room, echoes of my own transformations rising like smoke.
Madmen throw their voices
From pretty boys
And from the best ones
You pick up connections
As they hand you your directions
To the Western Slope
The record player is upstairs in Noa’s room, which is a wonder. It is a visual blank slate, an empty page, a minimalist environment in which he can discover himself absent any cultural signifiers. When we moved here in 2008 and Noa was Ella, we told both kids they could choose the colors we would paint their rooms. Noa chose pink and lavender. For the next couple of years, his room filled up with the trappings of girlhood: dolls, makeup, glitter, Taylor Swift posters. Then suddenly, around the time he announced he was gender fluid, he asked to re-paint his room white. His mom and he did so, and now it is literally a neutral space, beautifully simple, where he can become the boy he has chosen to be. Over the past year, Noa has done a methodical job of getting rid of stuff from his past. I will come home to find the guest room, which is next door to his room, filled with garbage bags of his old stuff. Even his books, which were talismanic in their import to him before, have been culled.This is a 12 – 14 year old transgender boy doing all this. Not directed by any adult or authority figure. Not following directions from a book called “How To Rid Your Life of Misgendered Markers and Begin Again.” No – this is from his own brilliance, courage and creativity. I am quite simply in awe of him. And him? Non-chalant. Blasé. More relaxed and happy than he’s been . . . ever.
Noa is an actor, it turns out. As the children of actors, my kids have both had to endure years of “So when we gonna see you on stage?”, as if acting was a family business and they were in a line of succession. Noa has been focused on drawing, but lately acting has become a focal point for him. He regularly spends weekends with his mom backstage, while she performs in a holiday musical. He loves the outrageous warmth and acceptance theater people have (most of us.) And now, he is following his own creative leading. It was through acting that he really zeroed in on becoming Noa, describing his confidence on stage as being an aspect of that identity. Last month he was cast as the male lead in the middle school musical, James and the Giant Peach.
In my book The Actor’s Way I describe acting as an identity laboratory for young people. How desperately I needed it in college, when I was struggling to explore my own feelings and history. The disorientation brought on by Rickie Lee’s song had as much to do with my own internal upheavals as it did with The Western Slopes. The fiction of the role provides a safe creative space for a young person to explore, with no fear of harm to himself or others. It was so with me. I have seen it with my students and fellow actors. And now, in a dizzying display of bold casting, I am witnessing the identity laboratory in full effect in my son Noa.He had a sleepover recently with his two friends Emily and Melanie. His close friends are all female, and his crushes are all male. So for this cis, straight dad, there is still something undeniably feminine in his behavior. Or is there? I associate a sleepover with two girls who giggle at the cute guys in the TV show they are watching as, well, as something a group of tween girls would do. In other words, I can’t imagine Griffen at 14 – cis, straight – having two girls over and behaving this way. What does that mean? Maybe all it means is that I have an opinion about what constitutes masculine and feminine behavior. Maybe all it means is that the transformation Noa is on is one that takes place in slow motion, over years, the way most profound changes happen. Or maybe it means that I am witnessing the appearance of a new kind of man, a creature I have never encountered before, who behaves in ways I am not accustomed to men and boys behaving, but who is a boy none the less. After Starr, I met and fell in love with Kate in my sophomore year. She and I had a whirlwind, alcohol fueled, manic love affair that lasted on and off though my first year of graduate school. Despite all the drama, or maybe because of it, there is no question that we left an indelible stamp on each other’s hearts. How extraordinary it was to learn a few years ago that she and her family of five live five minutes from my father’s house in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Even more extraordinary, her eldest two children are identical twins a little older than Griffen, assigned male at birth. Walker is now a beautiful young woman named Emmie. Caleb and Emmie are both actors too. They are writing an original musical designed to be performed by trans actors, and Emmie just completed surgical confirmation. The story of Kate’s amazing family can be read in this issue of National Geographic. When we go to visit my dad, we always like to hang out with Kate’s family, and have a little trans connecting.
My faith instructs me to read my life in divine patterns. See the pattern? I need not ask “What does it mean?” I need only say, “I see You.” God is everywhere, and is reaching for us with a fierce and loving urgency. Out of the crucible of my own love-transformations, when I was beginning to understand who I was becoming, traces of creativity and memory powerfully endure. People who I am inextricably linked to reappear in my life like a deus ex machina, bringing profound insight and synchronicity. My child shows me the way to the future.
Digging under the current
Someone’s trying to get back
But who’s qualified to retrieve
The soul’s enduring song?
From the grottos of her eyes
And the clashing stars
Excerpts from “Traces of the Western Slopes,” by Sal Bernardi & Rickie Lee Jones
PS: shout out to Rickie Lee Jones. She is one of a handful of musicians who have accompanied me through every year of my adult life. She is a creative genius and rebel, restless, damaged and uncompromising. She is a survivor, and more than once it has landed in my heart that Pirates was written in the painful aftermath of her extraordinary love affair with Tom Waits. Out of her heartbreak, she made beauty. She is my teacher, one of many, and I am deeply indebted to her, and grateful for her.