What's worth keeping?
What I've secretly held onto, and why I'm writing publicly again.
“Help the terminally ill,” the subject line read.
I can do that, I thought, nursing my second hot toddy. It was near-midnight at the Spiderhouse Cafe in central Austin. I’d been up late scouring Craigslist for cheap bandmates when I got bored and migrated to the Volunteer Opportunities section. I was young, not yet 22, and in the first year of learning to be a self-employed musician. Writing songs, booking brunch gigs, begging everyone and their cousin to pay $7 on a Tuesday to watch me sing breakup ballads at a dive bar on 6th Street. It was an exciting but frenetic time. I was running from some deeper pain, but couldn’t yet place my finger on the pulse of it.
Something about the Craigslist ad tugged at me. It said: Here.
The volunteer program was run by a nonprofit called The Care Communities. I could go to their 6-hour seminar and they’d teach me how to support a local community member who was dying. The next training was that weekend. I shot off an email, downed my toddy, and made the winding drive home.
I was bad at death. At all confrontation, really. At 13, my best friend Zamia died of Leukemia. The day she called to tell me the treatment had stopped working, I was standing in line at Bath & Body Works with my other friends. The healthy ones, covered in body glitter, tearing at Auntie Anne’s soft pretzels and gossiping about boys from the neighboring junior high. I said nothing to them and went about my afternoon. Her father, a 6’5’ truck driver, later drove across town to tell me the cancer had progressed, sobbing in my parents’ entrance, asking if I would come see her. I had never witnessed an adult crumble like that; it horrified me. I said I would call, that of course I would visit—but in the months approaching her death, I never did. I didn’t know how to face grief. My house was filled with a sadness we couldn’t touch. Me, running from the pulse of it.
Then Zamia died, and a part of me crumbled, too.
I was just a kid. Of course I know that now. But some parts of our identities get fused for reasons beyond logic.
I saw that Craigslist ad and thought: I can do this differently. I have to.
To learn to work with the dying, 15 potential volunteers gathered at The Care Communities office in a strip mall by the airport. We got clunky three-ring binders with laminated inserts on the stages of grief and loss. We filled out questionnaires about our hobbies and weekday availability and were told we’d be assigned a “Care Partner,” a person with a serious illness who needed assistance with tasks like grocery shopping and cooking. The day-to-day labor of living. Then they screened the introductory video.
That’s when I met Ana. Her smile electrified the screen. She was Peruvian, an Afro-Latina in her 60s with Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer. Ana wore wind chime earrings and walked with a hand-carved wooden cane, lived in a house covered in art she’d painted herself. She spoke with warmth and self-possession, teared up at the mention of her care team. I was rapt. I completed the training and waited for my volunteer assignment, hoping to be paired with someone like her.
By some gift of the cosmos, a volunteer on Ana’s care team left for graduate school, and I was assigned to replace him. The day I learned the news, I called Ana and introduced myself in a mishmash of Spanish and English, hoping to impress her. She told me she was a poet, I talked about my music, and we giggled like girls at our excitement over having been paired with one another. Then her tone intensified. If you do this you cannot leave, she said. I can’t lose anyone else.
C’mon, I’m an artist! I said, jokingly. I’ve got abandonment issues, too.
Deep down, I feared that I would fuck this up, too. It felt as inevitable as the half bottle of wine I drained each night before bed. I promised to stay, and we arranged a big brunch at her house so I could meet the rest of the team.
The day of the brunch, I woke to a slew of missed calls and voicemails from Ana. It was late afternoon; I’d gotten drunk the night before and slept through it. I was always getting too drunk and sleeping through things. Hot with shame, I avoided returning her call for days. When I finally did, she said: Remember what you promised.
A few days later, Ana was admitted to the hospital with an infection, and I mustered up the courage to visit her, bringing my guitar and a card. I was petrified as I approached her room. You're kind for not bringing flowers, she said. No one thinks about how you’ve got to care for them until they die. She was curious about my guitar, but I demurred when she asked me to play, too shy. Alright, she said finally. You can pick me up for acupuncture on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, I arrived ten minutes late. Don’t be late again, she said, and then dove into raving about the book she was reading. We chatted nonstop, gesticulating and laughing the whole ride to the acupuncture clinic. About the war in Iraq, our shared love of Arundhati Roy, Latina poets like Gloria Anzaldúa, who I pretended to know but wouldn’t truly discover until much later.
I would, of course, be late again, flinging promotional CDs and flyers into my backseat moments before she opened the passenger door. Each time, she chided and then forgave me.
Ana fascinated me. She was an artist and community activist, and the first openly queer elder I’d ever met. She had two adult children, had been married to a man and lived with her ex-wife, long before gay marriage was legal. I met my first girlfriend that year, and though I couldn’t even begin to imagine telling my conservative Christian mother, Ana welcomed the news with delight. Of course you’re bisexual, she said and laughed. Have you seen the way you walk in cowboy boots? I felt so fully myself with her, so seen.
I stopped showing up late. I understood that my role was to ferry her and to listen. She could speak frankly about her illness, her art, her ex-wife, whom she was still madly in love with. She didn’t care much that I was a mess, that I was kind of gay, scrambling to find my way to myself. I was spending whole days in bed then, only getting up once it was time to drive her to chemo. Hiding a budding addiction to booze and a secret shame about having dropped out of college to chase my dream of being a touring musician. Ana saw something in me.
One afternoon, I arrived with books stacked to the ceiling of my car.
Skipping town? Ana asked, gesturing to the backseat.
They’re from school, I told her. I’m selling them.
They’d cost hundreds. Texts I prided myself on owning, like my Qur’an and collection of Naguib Mahfouz. I was no longer a Middle Eastern studies major, it felt like a lie to keep them. I told her I’d only hung onto a select few, the ones that still brought me joy, that I hoped to revisit someday.
I love clearing house, Ana said. There’s such wisdom in deciding what’s worth keeping.
Ana’s health seemed to be improving. While I delivered her to and from appointments every week, we rarely spoke of cancer. She and her ex-wife had me over to dinner, where I played for them for the first time. For her birthday, she wrangled the rest of the care team to see me perform with my band, in one big celebratory show.
Sitting at a stoplight one afternoon, she told me the treatments had stopped working. They said six months, she said. My gut bottomed out. I realized I’d been in denial the whole time. Like a clerical error in selective listening, I made believe she wasn’t dying. I sourced whatever wisdom I could from that clunky three-ring binder, and listened. After I dropped her at home, I pulled into an empty parking lot and wept.
I waited until Ana was admitted to Hospice to plan my first tour. I told her I would eventually leave, record an album, but not for several months. She understood what I meant.
The day she died, I sat by her bedside, plucking through a song while choking back tears. I played at her memorial service, in a room so packed I had to lug my guitar case above my head to squeeze through the aisles. I was still a wreck, still eons from becoming the woman I wanted to be—but I’d kept my promise.
After she died, I sold the rest of my possessions and recorded my first record, Things Worth Keeping, a reminder of the conversation we’d had in my car that day. I hit the road, and stayed there for ten years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the old parts of identities we hold onto. The beliefs about ourselves no longer serve us, but we think protect us from some greater loss. I am no longer the girl who drinks too much and sleeps through things. Who is bad at death. I’m also no longer a touring musician, a college dropout.
I’ve had to let these parts go to make room for bigger, richer parts of myself: A writer, a student, an empathetic witness. I let go of being a touring musician and went back to school to study writing. I let go of being a full-time writer to snag a dream job helping trauma survivors heal. Each identity shift scared the crap out of me. But like that Anais Nin quote, the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
For me, each blossoming has begun with some small, gut-knowing. A call coming from inside the house. Like that Craiglist ad, something lights up inside of me and says: Here.
I miss Ana so much. But knowing her—letting myself feel all of it—was the greatest gift. She showed me a grace I didn’t yet know how to show myself. It was the first of so many moments that would propel me toward change.
Through all those changes, I’ve held onto a few things that brought me joy, and that I hoped to revisit. Namely: This list of emails, and the secret hope I might write to you again someday.
I started this newsletter fifteen years ago to promote shows, uploading one handwritten sheet at a time. You very well may have filled out one of those sheets somewhere inbetween Seattle and Berlin. And though you may not know it, you helped me rewrite the story of myself. You gave me a place to reflect on the lessons the road taught me.
This is not a music newsletter anymore, though I may eventually release new music. Since I stopped touring in 2018, I have been writing almost every single day. Some of those stories have been published, but many I’ve kept to myself. Editing them into infinity, waiting for some major magazine to give me permission to publish them. That’s what I thought legitimate writers did.
This year, I’m clearing house of that outdated belief. Fuck asking for permission.
So I’m launching a brand new newsletter. Every other Friday, I’ll release a new essay about the bold moves that liberate us. About finding the courage to confront monumental fear and take the backroads to healing, seizing delight every step of the way. What’s happened when I’ve told the truth about who I am and what I want, no matter how terrifying.
Most of the stories will be free. The ones I worked hardest on—weeks, months, sometimes even years—will be paid subscriber-only. To access those stories, hit Subscribe and select a paid subscription below:
I’m inviting you to join me on this journey. And hopefully, you’ll re-discover some of your own courage, too.
Maybe there’s some outdated belief you’re working on letting go. An action you’re taking toward a bigger, truer self. Consider this a tiny invitation to give it some attention. When you let your fear fall away, what’s left?
What’s worth keeping?
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