Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Emily Scott Robinson -- Traveling Mercies

CW: This post discusses sexual violence

Don't come into this album expecting to leave unscathed. Traveling Mercies is just one of those albums that demonstrates that a single person -- in this case, Emily Scott Robinson -- can, indeed have deep insight into all corners of humanity. The album covers a range of Robinson's experience as she's toured the country in her RV, taking the leap to pursue songwriting full-time.

There's one song that everyone's been focusing on -- and I'll get to that one. But ahead of "The Dress," we have a few other searing songs that equally plumb the depths. "Delta Line" feels like an old-time Appalachian ballad that confronts the intergenerational trauma passed through the women in a family. But there are some lighter moments as well -- "Better With Time" fondly recalls the evolution of a romantic partnership. "White Hot Country Mess" is a boot-stomper that celebrates the high and wryly observes the inherent sexism a women traveling alone endures. "Shoshone Rose" is my favorite kind of revenge tale. "Borrowed Rooms and Old Wood Folds" is the best song about the alienation of constant touring I've heard in actual years.

Honestly, any of these songs would be enough to win my affections, but having six flawless songs in a row shows me that Robinson has a rare gift, one that will become even more powerful with time.

So let's talk about "The Dress." Unfortunately, it's a song all too many people connect to -- myself included. Robinson describes the aftermath of her surviving sexual assault. She uses the dress she wore that night as the central image of the song, contemplating whether to keep that article of clothing, how it was involved (if it all) with what happened, and what to do with it now -- essentially, externalizing her own experiences in this article of clothing.

I remember this vividly. I remember stuffing the shirt into the back of my closet so I wouldn't have to look at it anymore. I remember the way she was intrigued by it, what that meant for my gender presentation as a whole and what it implied about my preferences in the bedroom. I remember wondering if it would be evil to donate an article of clothing with such a terrible past associated with it -- or if it would serve someone better than it did me. (I think I did end up giving it away rather than tossing it. I did, however, sleep much better once I finally got rid of my mattress.) 

I also remember wondering if, and how, what happened to me would reverberate for the rest of my life. I can promise that you will not go forward until you seek help. For starters, I recommend Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are. The book is meant for people with vaginas but other than the chapter on anatomy, it's universal.

Robinson describes her own healing experience at great length but I want to skip ahead a bit to the end:

There comes a time when I no longer wish my rape away, and that’s how I know it’s safe to tell my story. Now I am no longer a social worker— I am a songwriter. I start writing “The Dress,” but nothing about this song comes easy. For four years, I scribble verses in a fever and then scratch them out the next day. I never know if I am getting it right, but I know I need to try. Writing and recording the song turns my stomach into knots and makes me sweat, but I do it anyways.

When I start performing “The Dress” for audiences, something beautiful happens. People come up to me after my shows to thank me. They have tears in their eyes. I hold their hands in mine and they tell me their stories. This makes every ounce of pain worth it. We belong to a family of survivors we never would’ve chosen to join, but here we are. We are not permanently broken and we are not alone.

If given the chance now, I would never erase what happened to me. I am proud of the woman I had to become after my rape. In clawing my way back from the dark, I had to reach deep into my own well. Now I know what I am made of. We can’t keep terrible things from happening to us in this life, but we get to choose how to use them. My story has pain and trauma and darkness, but it doesn’t end there. It keeps on going. I get to write my own ending, and it is full of healing and hope.

Emily Scott Robinson -- Home, Facebook

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