I’m embarrassed to admit this, but you can render me to a liquid state by strategically deploying the Starfish Story—an excerpt from Loren Eiseley’s essay “The Star Thrower” whose meaning has been shifted for the benefit of motivational speakers and to sell inspirational posters. For those of you who’ve somehow made it this far without hearing the story, it goes like this: a person (sometimes a little girl, sometimes a young man, sometimes you fucking guessed it, JESUS) stands on a beach where hundreds of starfish have washed onto the shore and are slowly dying. The person is walking down the beach, methodically picking up starfish and flinging them back into the ocean—and s/he happens upon another person who points out the futility of the effort: one person can't possibly save all of these starfish; all the time and energy you’re spending on this ultimately doesn’t matter. The starfish thrower picks up a starfish and responds, "It matters to this one" before tossing it into the sea. Simplistic and emotionally manipulative in the highest order, yes—but I’ve never cared about that because embedded in the story’s treacly preachiness is something we all hope to be true: that our work is meaningful—and by extension, we are meaningful—even if one person(’s work) alone can’t fix a problem.
For obvious reasons, many of us are thinking about the meaningful or meaningless impact of one person and his/her work these days—and, for equally obvious reasons, I’ve personally been thinking a lot about how so much of what threatens us and terrifies us about the years ahead is, at heart, about the terror of being rendered meaningless. Meaningless at the hands of erased progress won over decades of hard work and sacrifice. Meaningless at the hands of those who decide your life, safety and well-being are not important. Meaningless because you and what you represent matter so little that you don’t even register as a threat, or anything at all. The threat of meaninglessness leaves us in a bind: if the way to tackle this problem is for us to tell the world we mean enough and matter, does our work have any hope of making an impact if those in power have deemed us—and by extension our work and words—meaningless? It's not a question any of us has the luxury of answering no, but it's hard to answer yes without harboring doubts. Thankfully, people who are worth less in the eyes of society are used to working harder to achieve less. To celebrating absurdly small steps toward progress. To facing how difficult it is to believe in your agency and the power of your work while its worth and impact are being devalued or ignored every step of the way by people poisoned by a system that usually hates them, too. Invisible people do a lot of thankless work. And they have to be heard over and over again before they’re seen.
I love Patty Griffin because she understands this. Her songs give a voice to the voiceless: the secret, strange 3:00 a.m. thoughts, the dreams you gave up on a long time ago but can't let die, men who feel cheated by life and misunderstood because they can't tell people how to understand them—and most especially, women playing the role written for us centuries ago: to serve those who neither recognize nor appreciate our efforts, then to be forgotten when our work is no longer useful to them. Griffin articulates the pain and loneliness of invisibility like no other songwriter, and she sees it everywhere and in everyone—because it is everywhere and in everyone. Each of us spends a lot of time feeling misunderstood and invisible, no matter how or how well we express ourselves and are loved and appreciated by those around us. Griffin sees the bones beneath the dirt; she unearths them, dusts them off, and arranges them into a skeleton facing you: see, this is what holds you up. Patty Griffin understands how you got here, girl—and no one is more attuned to the particular invisibility of women's work than she is.
From the persistent male/female wage gap, to study after study after study confirming that nothing about gender dynamics in relation to housework or childcare changes when women work outside the home, to the cresting wave of insight into the amount of emotional labor women are expected to perform and the toll it takes, to probably a billion examples from your own life or the lives of women you know, it never feels untrue to say that women do more work than men, and that that work often goes unrecognized and rarely yields equal reward. We understand “women’s work” to be essential, that it keeps the fabric of our homes and societies from unraveling—yet we don’t reward or recognize it like it has value because it is performed by people we don’t truly value. What happens to women, their self-perception, the way others see them and the way they see the world when that is the role defined for them? Griffin asks that question over and over again—and explores the answers the way they deserve to be explored: from every person’s perspective, because they all matter. She’s interested in answers from women of all ages: the teenager whose sexuality is her savior and the noose around her neck in “Wiggley Fingers”, the young woman rendered a ghost in her own life in “Florida”, the mothers hemmed in by the loneliness of self-sacrifice in “Mary” and “Mother of God”, the tragedy of outliving your usefulness in "Making Pies."
Those last three songs are absolutely singular because they represent perspectives historically left unexplored in pop songs. Her songs about Mary, Christianity’s most put-upon woman and the poster girl for unreciprocated emotional labor, are some of her most affecting: an intimate glimpse into what it feels like to be the foundation for someone else’s greatness and for your only reward to be worshipped via people unburdening their problems to you. “Making Pies” shows us the earthly end game of an identity defined by work done in service to others and the role you play in their lives: lover, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother. What happens to you when you’re too old to perform your role? You could cry, or die, or just make pies all day. Age renders all of us meaningless in the eyes of others, but cruelly makes plain that we value women for who they are in relation to other people. It makes her most-used metaphor for women—women as birds—all the more poignant and accurate. We admire them most when they are free to soar across the sky, but love to cage them for our own enjoyment. We prize them for their beauty and for how delicate they are, forgetting that they are capable of flying thousands of miles in a matter of weeks.
Patty Griffin’s greatest strengths as a songwriter are her empathy and even-handedness—and she shines a light into how damaging the roles we create for men and women clip men’s wings, too. The effort our society asks men to put into relationships often amounts to a performance of love and devotion: to say the right words at the right time, to perform the right actions at the right time. Several weeks ago, my boyfriend astutely pointed out that men are taught to understand saying "thank you" is enough work to qualify as a Good Man™. You’re doing it right when you use social media to acknowledge everything your wife does for you and your family (instead of doing the dishes or watching the kids), or say “thank you” after eating a Thanksgiving meal women shopped for, cooked and served you, trotting off to watch football while the women do the dishes. In being encouraged to simply recite a line from society’s script, we neglect to encourage authentic expressions of love or appreciation—and that cripples self-expression in other ways, too. Patty Griffin’s masterful "Top of the World" is written from the perspective of a man in a doomed marriage, one where too much was left unsaid, too much work left undone and too little love or appreciation shown. He understands how it held her back and understands that it destroyed their marriage. And like "Long Ride Home" and her cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Stolen Car,” it’s an admission of guilt, of complicity and an expression of sorrow—but not a promise to do it differently or better or kinder next time. It’s self-awareness that stops short of the willingness to sacrifice the self.
The best, most honest way to show appreciation for effort made is to match it with effort of your own. This is the work the world demands of us now: women's work—tough, thankless, emotionally draining, no guarantee for success or of reciprocity. Mirroring action honors and sanctifies it. That's the way we give people and work worth. Mirroring action amplifies action. That's how we get all the starfish back in the ocean. That's how we protect people who need us and the progress we’ve made. That's how we win.