Both hands, please use both hands. Oh no, don’t close your eyes. I am writing graffiti on your body. I am drawing the story of how hard we tried. I lay on my top bunk in the tent atop thinning Strawberry Shortcake sheets, boxed in by wooden planks, staring at the off-white canvas ceiling as my camp counselor, Becca, sang these words by Ani DiFranco. Her voice was like a delicate thread stringing the words along. Becca’s friend Alex, a counselor from a neighboring tent, plucked the strings of her guitar in accompaniment, the chords resonant beneath the timbre of Becca’s voice.
There were ten girls in our tent, all about to enter seventh grade. Every night our eighteen-year-old counselors would perform a nighttime ritual before kissing us and heading out for the evening. I loved this time: exhausted after a day of activities in the hot sun, every ritual exacerbating the already full well of feeling. No doubt during the day I had engaged in some form of intense emotional bonding with a fellow camper. Maybe it was the day Sara and I walked to the soccer field talking about our concerns about kissing boys. Or it was the day Jessica and I sat under a tree after lunch and discussed our equal hatred of our bodies.
By bedtime, I felt raw and introspective as I awaited the ritual. Our counselors often read poems, sang songs, or told stories. Occasionally we all sat together in a circle on the tent floor and shared fears or hopes or dreams or embarrassing moments. But that night, it was the singing of “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco. The tent was dark except for Becca’s flashlight. I watched the white splotch on the ceiling getting smaller and larger as the ceiling swayed gently inside the night wind. And I’m recording our history now on the bedroom wall and when we leave the landlord will come and paint over it all.
The song was about a doomed romantic relationship, rich with references that, as a not-yet-twelve-year-old, would take me years to fully grasp. Still, there was a resonance to the song that burrowed into my chest and settled there, marking the beginning of one of the most potent long-term relationships of my life—with a woman who had no idea I existed.
At the time, I couldn’t have predicted the songs of Ani DiFranco—indie folk-punk feminist cult heroine—would score my life for the next sixteen years, that I would scrawl her lyrics across every notebook I ever used in high school and college, that her music would bond me to myself in powerful ways, that her personal evolution would parallel mine: from depression and destructive relationships to self-acceptance and love.
For my thirteenth birthday, my mom drove me to Tower Records in La Jolla Village Square where I intended to buy just one CD, the one with “Both Hands.” My mom went off to examine the musical theater section and I scurried through the Pop/Alternative section to find the Ani DiFranco slot. I eagerly thumbed through the CDs, flipping them all over searching for the song. I found it on the back of the third CD I picked up, titled Like I Said, a compilation of re-recorded songs from her first two albums, released in 1993. I turned it over to look at the cover—a black and white photograph of Ani with a shaved head playing an acoustic guitar on the floor of an empty room, looking down at her fingertips against the frets. The photograph was intimate and arresting, qualities I would soon find reflected in the album’s songs. I remember feeling slightly shocked but mostly intrigued by Ani’s appearance as androgynous. I had never seen a woman with a shaved head before—it struck me as supremely brave. As an insecure girl of thirteen beginning to layer on the black eyeliner and thrift store outfits, I wanted to be brave too.
When we got in the car, I practically shook as I tore off the cellophane wrapping and opened the booklets to consume the lyrics and artwork. As soon as we got home, I went into my room, closed the door and lay on my bed for my first listen of Like I Said. Lying on the floor four stories high in the corridor between the asphalt and the sky, I am caught like bottled water, the light daughter…
I listened to the entire CD, mesmerized by the clarity and simplicity of this woman’s voice, poetry and acoustic guitar, and crying through “Both Hands,” longing for my summer camp community.
The purchase of the first album led to an insatiable appetite for more. I was thrilled to discover soon after that she had released eight albums since 1990. I slowly accumulated the entire collection by saving up lunch money and on occasion asking my mom to buy one. With each new album, I invoked the same ritual: shaking and tearing off the wrapping in the car, rushing to my room to lie on my bed and drink it in. Ani continued to release a new CD nearly every year, and I almost always bought it the day it came out. While every one inspired me, my heart still belonged to Like I Said. It had the courage and vulnerability of a young woman first singing for the world to hear but not yet sure who was listening.
I was fourteen when I attended my first Ani DiFranco concert. I went with my friend Gina at Spreckels Theater in Downtown San Diego. Walking through the lobby, I was quickly immersed in a community of pierced tattooed women with hair of varied colors and lengths, boots of all kinds, and more proud lesbian couples than I had ever seen in one place. I smiled; we had all been brought together by the music of this incredible woman who was about to appear before us.
Suddenly the first punchy strums of Ani’s guitar erupted through the lobby. We turned and ran into the theater. I jumped over a seat, knocked into a man with long dreads, apologized, and then started flinging my body in time with the song’s rhythm. Bliss. A screaming wave of “ANI, I LOVE YOU!” echoed through the concert hall. Her long purple and white dreadlocks swung around the stage, as she wielded her guitar like a chainsaw, kicking her black platform boots into the air. Throughout the show she transformed from fierce to soft in a flash, transitioning effortlessly from songs of rage to songs of love. She was magnetic on stage, bantering with the audience between songs with such joy and ease, making it feel like we were all her close friends. Her closing song was “Both Hands” and I felt like it was meant for me.
I moved to New York City when I was eighteen to study theater at NYU. Ani also moved to New York City at eighteen, around the same time she founded Righteous Babe Records and produced her first album. Having reached that age myself, my admiration for all she had accomplished by then was even more striking. She was an emancipated minor at fifteen in her hometown of Buffalo when she began writing songs and playing shows, then moved to NYC to expand her life experience and performance base. Many of the songs on Like I Said are about being a young woman new to the city.
Upon moving there myself at that age, those songs sank deeper into my subcutaneous tissue. Late at night, I drunkenly trolled the streets of the village with headphones on my ears pumping lyrics like: In this city, self-preservation is a full time occupation. I’m determined to survive on this shore. You know, I don’t avert my eyes anymore. I auditioned for a play performing her feminist spoken word poem, “The Slant.” I learned to play “Both Hands” and “Gratitude” on my guitar and played them incessantly. Craning my neck to look up at the city’s tall buildings, I absorbed the words of her poem “Not So Soft”: In a forest of stone underneath the corporate canopy where the sun rarely filters down, the ground is not so soft. My last year at NYU, my roommate had an abortion. As she lay in her bed in the next room, moaning in pain, I lay on my bed listening to “Lost Woman Song,” terrified that it could ever happen to me. I opened a bank account when I was nine years old, I closed it when I was eighteen. I gave them every penny that I’d saved and they gave my blood and my urine a number.
I am twenty-eight years old now, living in New York City where I balance my time between jobs as a yoga instructor, massage therapist, and teacher while I pursue my passions for performing and writing. Ani continues to be a potent force in my life, inspiring me personally and artistically as I pave my own path.
Recently, my boyfriend Tyler accompanied me to my fifteenth Ani DiFranco concert. Twenty albums later, Ani maintains a strong connection to her early songs, much to my delight. She blasted open her set with “Anticipate,” the first track on Like I Said, and the audience was transfixed, the energy exchange powerful. She moved gracefully through selections from her oeuvre, transitioning from funny folksy song intros to aggressive political tunes to soft melodic love hymns. I hung onto every word, movement, laugh, strum, emotional shift, hooted my lungs out and clapped until my hands were sore.
As fate would have it, her second encore was “Both Hands.”
“This is the first song of hers I ever heard,” I whispered to Tyler. He squeezed my hand.
She took her final bow, skipped off stage, the house lights lifted and the audience started clearing out. I hugged and kissed Tyler, stared longingly at the stage, then grabbed his hand and headed into the aisle. I pulse with rapid shape shifting emotions every time an Ani show ends—first awe and inspiration, then painful nostalgia from all the memories I relive through her songs, then the aching desire to achieve the kind of success she has in my own right as a performer and writer, followed by the longing to talk to her.
“How you doin’?” Tyler asked.
“Good,” I said, “just kinda feel like I have a hole in my heart.”
“You know, she’s an incredible lyricist and a really great performer. I enjoyed the show a lot. But I think my favorite part was watching you watch her.”
I had been so engrossed in my own experience that I hadn’t considered what I looked like from the outside. Maybe that was precisely what he’d enjoyed so much: seeing me swept up in transcendence and communion with the woman who changed my life so much.