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JUST Chatting with Melissa Etheridge

July 18, 2009

“Hello, this is Alyssa.” “No, it’s Melissa.” “No, it’s Alyssa, you’re Melissa!”

So started my chat with Melissa Etheridge. I’m a fan. Though I don’t think I can name one of her songs – there is one about a window, I know that much – I’ve always really liked her. She has always seemed to embody what I look for in people: courage, honesty, strength, humor and a serious disregard for the shallow. And a singing voice, the thing that I most covet and do not have, at all.

I had been concentrating very hard on a list of questions, so that I would stay focused on the issue at hand, which is breast cancer. But I know myself, and think I’m a bit doomed. I’m about as chatty as they come, and my ability to focus is matched only by my ability to sing.

Melissa is currently giving her time and talent to the Hard Rock Cafe’s Pinktober project, aimed at raising awareness and money in support of breast cancer research. She’ll be touring the country hosting Pinktober parties at Hard Rock Cafes.

Naturally, I asked her about her activism. She’s a working mom, who has only recently kicked cancer’s ass, so how does she – how can we all – find the time and energy to actively support the causes that matter to us. Her answer was deceptively simple. She suggested that all it’s really about is just standing up and telling the truth. How hard can that be?

“I decided a long time ago,” she tells me, “as I was starting down this path, that I would stand up and say, ‘hey this is my truth.’ The first time, it was about gay issues. And I found that the minute I opened that door and stood in my truth, it was perceived as  ‘giving,’ as being an activist.  I thought, ‘wow,’ just speaking one’s truth is an act of activism.”

In my heart, I knew she was right. But all I could say was, “wow, that’s kind of sad!” In a world that is going a thousand miles an hour and fed a steady diet of expectations, simply being true to yourself – and saying so out loud – can be a very hard thing.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Melissa’s 2-year-old daughter is running around in the background, and the telltale sounds of family are coming through. She’s being potty trained, something I remember well. I cheated, I told Melissa. When my daughter was almost there, I told her that we ran out of diapers and we couldn’t get any more. But it worked. Melissa and I both laughed – there is an understanding amongst mothers that we’re all imperfect. That is it’s own liberating truth.

We’re already getting off track a bit. I tell her that I was largely raised by gay guys. My father is gay, and when I was growing up, that was a very strange thing. This was long before Will & Grace and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy made it trendy.  I would find myself not bringing it up when I was young, or not admitting to it, because it was so misunderstood. It was the 80’s, AIDS had just broken on the scene and there was this scary mentality that somehow the gay people were going to cause the next plague. I knew my father, I loved my father and his partner, and I knew it wasn’t a problem. But as a child, it was something I could make no sense of. So I avoided it.

As an adult, I have become a strong supporter of gay rights, because it is my truth. I stand in it proudly. I remember, vividly, the role that Melissa played in normalizing it for me. I actually bought her albums – and KD Lang’s, and the Indigo Girls’ – not because I wanted the music, but because I wanted to show the producers that we support them in spite of – more accurately, because of – the fact that they were standing up and being honest in a way that would benefit countless people. I never listened to any of them, that wasn’t the point.

“Yah, that’s the sad thing about the state we live in, just standing in your truth can be so hard. So that was where I started – my first truth was that I was gay,” she explains.

The kids are running around at her place. I love that sound. And it becomes very clear that she is just a mom. Just a person. We all have to potty-train our kids, you don’t get a pass for celebrity, or cancer.

“Then, it was breast cancer,” she continues.

“How did you find it,” I asked, feeling a little strange asking her about her breasts.

“In the shower. Just doing what they tell you to do, and there it was.  I knew right away. It was huge. I went right to the doctor and that was that. I had cancer.”

Indeed, from the moment that you are diagnosed with cancer, it starts to seem like a defining characteristic of some sort. I can almost see it as the initials one gets after achieving a graduate degree: “Melissa Etheridge, BCS.” (Breast Cancer Survivor.) There is no way to “fight” cancer without fully letting it into your life and accepting that it is here, a powerful force, and something has to be done.

Melissa, from all appearances, did what she always does. She stood in her truth and said, “I have cancer.” She lost her hair and was open about it. She went through it as if it was yet another truth that she would add in to the mix that would become a part of who she is.

Cancer is a strange thing. We discuss the language around cancer. “So and so was struck with cancer.” We laugh an uncomfortable laugh. It’s cancer, not lightening!  Or you hear that someone is a “cancer victim.” That doesn’t ring true either. (Melissa is quick to point out that cancer can be a wake-up call, an invitation to claim your own life.) But, just as being gay had become an early truth for her, now living with cancer was her truth. And as she had done before, she stood up, stood in it, and got on with it.

But let’s be honest, breasts are strange territory to stand on. They’re so public and political. They’re seen springing out of bikini tops to sell beer, but when we catch a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s nipple for less than a second, our whole television broadcast system gets censored. We give them a thousand pet names, but heaven forbid someone breastfeed in public. It’s as if they don’t belong to the person from whom they grow, but belong to some giant media-made comic universe of breasts, like the Twin Towers or something. All hail!  All fear!

So, I have to ask, “do you think that dealing with breast cancer is made harder by the fact that they’re breasts, which have such a confused and prominent place in the American psyche?”

“Absolutely!  I pull out larger – it’s the struggle of the feminine in our world. We are full throttle into patriarchy. Where are we going to put the feminine?  Then you have breasts. They’re worshiped from a sexual point of view, but they’re supposed be young and perfect all the time.  We, as women, have to stand up and say ‘I’m in charge, I’m a woman, I own them.’ We have to be there,” she laughs. “You know, life is a metaphor. Breasts are a metaphor.”

We can’t seem to move past this idea that, somehow, simply being what you are and saying what you believe is an act of heroism, or activism.

I ask, “What does that say about us? What does it say that we are so afraid to speak the truth?”

Melissa is distracted, she’s praising the big-girl underpants on her daughter. I know, in my heart, that there is a metaphor here too. This little step along the way to being potty trained is worthy of praise. Of embracing what your body does naturally. This child is not afraid of anything at this moment. Her truth is that she’s in big-girl underpants, and that’s the coolest thing in the world. And her mom knows it.

“Hey, when you were growing up,” I asked Melissa, “what were the big examples of ‘giving back’ that resonated for you? Your parents? Something in the news that made you take notice?”

“By the time I became conscious of things it was the late 60’s, so activism was huge, it was just something that America did.  I grew up in that whole storm of ‘lets move America forward’ and equality.  It was the ethos of the era.”

What happened to that? I grew up in the 80’s, the ethos of acquisition and shoulder pads.

“No, really, what happened to that,” I ask. “I feel like people are so afraid of standing up for what’s right, you know. Like saying ‘no, I don’t need a fancier car than that guy.’ We seem so disconnected and lost in a way.”

Let me note here that talking to Melissa is like talking to the mom we all wish we had, even though we’re pretty close to the same age. In her uniquely wise voice, she says to me, “We are coming to a place in our history, in our time on this planet, where we are recognizing the oneness – that what happens here, to me, does effect someone in Africa. And what happens to someone in China effects me.  There is no division and no separation. When you can look at another person and see yourself in them, then you can find the similarities of humanity – when we all get that, we will change overnight.   All this trying to ‘fit in’ doesn’t’ mean anything.  There is no ‘in’ to fit into.”

“Okay,” I ask, “so you can stand in your truth and fight it, that’s you. But what do you think are the most common struggles and obstacles that we, as a society, can work to alleviate for people with cancer? There’s lots of research going on, but I have to think that when you’re suddenly told that you have cancer, it’s a different game. I don’t want to get all touchy-feely, but it seems like those invisible supports might really matter.”

“We have to stop pushing aside the touchy feely,” Melissa responded immediately.  “I would say that we have to step back and understand what health is. We can’t just look at it as cancer in isolation, it doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Does it make sense that I have lived more than 30 whatever years, eating fake food and sugar, don’t give my body enough water and rest, put it in a pressure cooker and think its gonna work? No. We’ve got to get out of the ‘I’m indestructible’ mentality, it doesn’t work.”

Although no one would “blame the victim” for getting cancer, it does seem like an undeniable truth that we have just gotten so unnatural about everything in our lives that our bodies are taking the brunt of it. We’ve got to stop for at least a moment and look at our lives, at what matters, and focus on that.

Which is a timely thought as I, once again, hear the kids running in the background, and the sound of applause and cheering. She’s calling me from her home because that’s where she wants to be, her family is what matters to her. The cheering makes me smile, though I’m not sure what they’re cheering about.

“When you think about your kids growing up, what is the world that you want them to live in?”

“I want them to understand that they are responsible for the world that they live in. That their attitudes, the choices that they make, create the world that we all live in.” It’s very matter of fact when Melissa says it. “It’s a basic thing that I wasn’t taught, that still isn’t taught – life doesn’t happen to you, it is here for you to create and create in.”

It’s all about teachable moments.

Like a road trip that she took with her family in 1968. They were driving from their home in Kansas to a vacation spot in Florida, but pulled over in Alabama for one of those 8,000 potty-breaks that are an inevitable truth of driving with kids.

“We pulled over, and there were three restrooms, one for men, one for women, one for colored people,” she sounds a bit aghast retelling it. “I had to ask my dad what it was, what it meant. He explained it to me, but it still made no sense.”

Separate restrooms for “colored” people seems ridiculous now. But that was very recent. That said, we both watched this last presidential election with our children, and still saw some of those old issues.

I’m not sure where we were in the election cycle when my own daughter and I were discussing the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But I remember stepping back and realizing that this was the first presidential election she’s really aware of, and it was between a woman and a black man.

I did cry when Barack Obama was elected president. My daughter thought I was crazy when I said I never thought I’d see the day when a black man was elected president.  “I don’t get it, why wouldn’t he be?”

That’s the future we’re creating. The day when such notions are utterly ridiculous.

Melissa Etheridge, at the end of the day, is doing what we all can do. She is creating a future by living her life openly, honestly and courageously. Sure, she’s a celebrity, but that may make it even harder to be honest about who she is and what she’s going through. After all, no one is really paying any attention to what you and I do.

As much as I hate to admit it, the simple act of standing on stage and being a lesbian, or a bald woman with breast cancer, might be the act of a hero after all. At least a role model.

By the way, all the cheering in the background at her house was for a good reason. That was the day that her daughter successfully used the potty for the first time. And that’s just cool. And she did so with a family that cheered her on. Hopefully, it set the foundation for a life in which she can be proud of her body, what it does, how it works and it’s place in a population of people on this planet who are all connected by the fact that we all need, and do, pretty much the same things, no matter how different our lives may look.

____

This interview appeared in the August / September issue of JUST CAUSE Magazine. JUST Chatting is a regular feature in every issue,

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