I just got in from driving 250 miles. I cried for about 190 of them. I woke up in Pendleton, in Northeast, Oregon, worked out, did a little writing with the plan that I would leave late morning to drive to Bend—in Central, Oregon—where I’ll be on a panel tomorrow. Before I left, I saw a Tweet that said “Prince, 57, has died.” I prayed to Good God that it was a hoax like the one I fell for when everyone was saying Jon Bon Jovi had died (not that I have any real personal investment in Jon Bon Jovi beyond the fact that he is a fellow human and seems like a perfectly lovely person and the fact that my sister has a major long-term crush on him and I would feel really sad for her). But today, I was annoyed. What kind of craven fool spreads rumors about Prince—or anyone else—for his own pleasure? (Never mind. Don’t answer that. We are in the hot middle of a presidential campaign.)
Soon it became too widely reported to deny, and when I started to drive, I turned my internet radio to “The Current,” a station in Minneapolis I had never heard of but was playing Prince albums in chronological order interspersed with call-in remembrances. I got about halfway through Purple Rain before I was deep into Sherman County and out of cell range. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Oregon, I have never driven Highway 97 from Biggs Junction to Bend. It must be among the epic roads of the West. It goes from the drama of the Columbia River Gorge through the wheat fields of Sherman County—fully peppered with tremendous white windmills—to the distant views of the Cascades to the high desert of Central Oregon. As I drove, it was like the middle of that wide map of Oregon suddenly became vivid and topographical. It made me feel I am a bit of an imposter in my own state. How could it be that I smugly label myself “Oregonian” when I hadn’t even driven that highway at 70 miles an hour—let alone stopped and breathed it in—until today?
After I lost connection with my radio friends in Minneapolis, I started flipping through AM stations hoping to find someone somewhere in middle Oregon who wanted to play Prince and keep me company in my grief. Mostly I found pop country and some very friendly sounding preachers, but no Prince.
What in the world has gotten into me? Because I am a woman of a certain age, these things have happened. Lennon, Jackson, Bowie. But this hit me right in the center of the body, and I could not stop myself from bawling—alone in a car—for about four hours.
Truth is: I am not a joyful person. From the time I was a tiny child, I spent my emotional energy worrying and fretting over whether I was doing the right thing (I recently found a note from my kindergarten teacher to my mother—Maybe if you dressed Wendy in pants more often she would be less nervous.).
I spent middle school and high school and most of college making myself half-sick over all manner of things, some important, some just insecure and self-indulgent. What if Russia launches the bomb first? Was I rude to Mr. McMahon when he said he lost my social studies paper? Did my friends decide they hated me while I was home sick with mono? Is it wrong to drop Calc III because it makes me feel like I am about to have a seizure? What is my responsibility for American imperialism in Central America? Why was I so weak as to eat that muffin?
I was never one of those girls who commanded a room with wittiness or rippled confidence in my body. I was too tall too soon and fussy and introverted and easily annoyed. I was—and am—serious and apocalyptic. But I am also warm blooded. I want to be near my fellow mammals and to take part in celebration and debauchery and unhinged joy. And that’s what Prince offered me.
I will never forget days and nights of those fraught middle years when—for a moment, or a few hours, or the length of an album—I could set down my backpack of rocks and dance and laugh and rattle my hips to suggest more than I was willing to follow through on. And Prince—more than any other artist—offered that up to me and I suspect millions of other awkward, serious girls of my generation. There was just something about the bikini underwear and thigh high boots combined with relentless percussion and morbid shyness that said: you are welcome here.
So today, as I drove relentless miles across the state I love, I fell fully into grief. I grieved for a singular artist who is gone too soon. In ways it never has before, 57 seems like the prime of life. But I also grieved for the loss of those few years—those few hours all told—when Prince invited me to the party, and I accepted the invitation.