"Dolly Parton is a Boomerang"
Dolly is on the T.V. dancing. Her guitar is strapped to her back like an ammunition belt and through my concussion eyes; her red fringe is the long spindling arms of a willow tree, breathing to her Valkyrie call. The scene changes; it's an interview and the fringe has turned pink and is no longer dancing. "Believe it or not," she throws her head back and laughs, "there's a heart beneath the boobs and a brain beneath the wigs!" Concussed and inundated with pain medication, I wrote this on a hospital napkin: Dolly is mother; she is pink Lycra and dollar store sequins. It seems pretty revelatory –
FOR SALE: .95-cent maternal opulence. I broke my brain and healed kneeling at the altar of Dolly Parton. What else if not revelation?
I have to fill dark rooms. With smoke, with songs, with thoughts, or with candles - anything that penetrates these bombazine blacks. Being concussed was months in dark rooms. Smoke disoriented the moments of clarity I had, music sent pain into my eyes, my thoughts were muddled and empty, and candles – I didn't have the energy. It's not that the pain was all that bad; it was that I couldn't make a joke. I couldn't follow a story. In this emptiness, in body strange/mind strange days, I sought reassurance in Dolly's unremitting wit. I kept returning to her. I felt warmed by her love and soothed by her song. In the darkest of shut-eye blacks I see her, bosom lustrous, bridesmaided by glowworms.
in body strange/mind strange days, I sought reassurance in Dolly's unremitting wit.
In 1996, scientists named the world's first cloned mammal, a sheep, after Dolly. On the topic of the name, Scientist Ian Wilmut said, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell, and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's." It may be her generous bosom that makes Dolly so naturally maternal. Despite having no children of her own it feels as though, listening to and watching Dolly, she is rocking me to sleep, rubbing my back, and laying out my clothes for the next day. Upon the release of her first children's album, I Believe In You, Dolly told Matt Lauer of the Today show that fate had led her to be a mother to everyone instead of just a mother to her own children. "God has a plan for everything," she said. "I think it probably was his plan for me not to have kids so everybody's kids could be mine. And they are now." She chuckled and scrunched her wig, "kids just like me, I think it's because I look like a cartoon character or Mother Goose!" I don't know that I equate Dolly Parton with Mother Goose, but I've always been drawn to her consistency. From the other side of the screen, it seems that she always has a fresh tray of cornbread ready, a lap to sit on, and a shoulder to cry into. I know it can't be real, but Dolly doesn't seem to have bad days. She always eats a full and nutritious breakfast, reminds the people that she loves how special they are, writes thoughtful thank you cards, and sleeps eight hours a night. Dolly stays, she's consistent, anything but volatile, anything but me or mine.
I'll explain to a new face that I'm bad at middles. I'll explain that they don't know me but I ride peaks and valleys. I'm a pleasure seeker, I say. "I ride high highs and consequently, low lows." High highs lacks flow but has this necessary redundancy. It's much more than medium. It's hard to explain why a medium is so much worse than a depression, how a medium suffocates. How a medium isn't interesting enough to hide trap doors. Depression is cake when you can move, when you can see people, when you have any agency. I see my depression like an STD that flares up. Curable? No. Treatable? Yes. Two Ph.Ds. on speed dial, a script with flexible refills, and enough coping mechanisms to cheer up a Holocaust survivor. I can handle the pits; it's normality, which eats my motivation and drains my self-concept.
The story goes, with nothing but a cardboard suitcase full of songs, Dolly headed for Nashville the day after she graduated high school. She met her husband-to-be, Carl Dean, on the very first afternoon she was in town. They married two years later in the May of 1966. That seems like storybook luck and Hollywood love. It sounds like the parts you remember when you miss the good stuff. As much as I have learned Dolly, I haven't seen the other side of this story. I haven't read her self-loathing and haven't seen her demons. As far as I can tell, she didn't tell them to anyone, or if she did they didn't peep. "Nobody's happy all the time," she said at 70 years old in a platinum wig and a power-suit. She admits to a stranger with a tape recorder, "I'm not happy all the time. That's Botox!" Due to the lack of scandal in Dolly's life, the tabloids have often made up lies and conspiracy theories about her. According to the gossip rags, she's divorced Carl Dean, he's divorced her, and Miley Cyrus is her secret love child. Slander her and try and lessen her, but like a rhinestoned western sun, Dolly rises. On a Cracker Barrel Back Porch Interview in 1985, Dolly defended her cow-print body suit saying, "I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable, that's the easiest thing in the world to do." She added, "Sure, I look like the girl next door. If you live next to an amusement park."
Slander her and try and lessen her, but like a rhinestoned western sun, Dolly rises.
Dolly's secrets reached mythical status in 2013 when, Jennifer Saunders, an English comedian, told all in her autobiography. She wrote, sparing no detail, of the time when she and her co-star on Roseanne, Roseanne Barr, found themselves in a conversation with Dolly about the myth of her tattoos. With a few tequila sours in her, Dolly, "opened her top and showed us her boobs, which were completely covered in the most beautiful angels and butterflies and baskets of flowers in pastel-colored tattoos.'" On the Jezebel article, "Myth or Fact: Dolly Parton Is COVERED In Secret Tattoos," this comment stood out: "Those aren't tattoos. That's just what Dolly Parton's body looks like. Because she is a magical creature sent to earth to spread goodwill and love."
I think Dolly Parton might be a hallucination, the kind that tricks and confuses you by actually existing. I note painfully and soberly that there is a great divide between the rich inner life I share with Dolly and our divorced realities. I see myself in her and she in me. I revel in our differences; I've found that I learn myself in the things that make me different from her. I imagine our outlines overlaying each other like a Venn diagram. Our similarities are few but potent and our differences, stark and vital. I am not like Dolly at all. We both ran through the woods as kids and we're both tattooed. We both love big hair but mine is the same as my Russian great grandmothers and I came of age in the Seattle kind of mountains not the Smokey variety. I never knew anyone who cared for Dolly like I did, though I knew there were many.
Dolly Parton is a boomerang. Dolly leaves and comes back. She is the change and the un-change. She's tits, hair, and southern hospitality. And you know she'll be all these and maybe only these till she leaves, white patent leather boots first. Dolly said in a Country Music Awards video short that, "if you want dreams to come true you've got to put feet, legs, and wings on them." But I think feet, legs, and wings give dreams far too much power. See, I am my most perverse between un-wake and waking; my dreams are parables of missing information. Under thin green sterile covers, my mind sees a brown-eyed boy dance into a splayed extension cord. Electrocuted into autism, there is a hum sound, it might have been my fault but I realize he is also my lover and we are on the 875th floor of an apartment building with no elevator. His mother blames me but I cannot remember her face. Waking up from this shit alone, I whisper a quiet mantra, "I want to be back in heat." I want to have my ass grabbed. I want to eat breakfast outside; I want to be in Japan. I want to know how lucky I am. I, I want to be Dolly Parton in a glittering suit on stage. I want to be happy with what I have. I want to know I have it better. I want to belt out the lyrics to a song that evades genre and swim in bowls of infinite love.
In 2017 there were massive fires that rampaged the Smokey Mountains. Family homes across the area were destroyed, and the forests that Dolly ran through barefoot as a child were burned to stumps. Dolly put over five million dollars into two respective funds: the My People Fund, and the Mountain Tough Collective. Both lyrical names in their own right. To this day, she sends a thousand dollars every month to each of these families. The fires decimated Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg Tennessee but the curling flames came to a dead halt at the gates of the Dolly Parton theme park, Dollywood. Firemen were dumbfounded at the scorched black ring that made a bull's eye around this American treasure. I think about this and wonder if her superpowers are real or her persona just omits a force field of butterflies and flame retardant. Dolly's apparent magic makes her an inescapable pattern. I turn away and she waits for me. There was a point where I realized I was leaning on a woman who didn't know me, likely didn't want to know me, and I was conscious of my inability to write about anything else. There was a point when I stopped caring.
They don't tell you that healing from surgery takes your body from you. They don't tell you that you will trace the incisions and not be able to feel the pad of your finger. You bloat in areas you shouldn't, you avoid mirrors, sex is the last thing on your mind, your disgust at your own figure is a quiet, profound shame. The image of Dolly's body is a goddamn American canon. The woman is fake, tits to toes, but emits an aura of genuine warmth. It's this that deifies her in my eyes; she's escaped authenticity, the trap of all that is real. Dolly has created a caricature of a woman and decided to be her. But somehow she's also still Dolly because she does all of this without doubt, purely and passionately. Maybe we can all be our cartoon clones. Maybe behind the steel doors of the Gypsy Wagon, Dolly's tour bus, she grabs at her bicep batwings and cries over her thinning hair. Maybe she's outwardly unapologetic for all of us to think it's possible. Maybe it's not for her at all.
I'm trying to be root. I'm trying to use my feet like steel beams and change spirits while planted. Dolly, it seems, is many people in one. She is the Smokey Mountain Songbird, the Iron Butterfly, and Queen of Nashville. She is also a sex icon, a God icon, and an American up-by-your-bootstraps icon. Dolly grew up in a wood cabin in a piss poor town in the Smokey Mountains. She slept in a bed with three or more siblings and tried, and failed, to teach her parents how to read. In a Playboy interview from 1978, Dolly said she woke up every day covered in pee. "The kids peed on me every night. There were so many of us." Under a picture of her in baby blue overalls holding up a platinum album, her quote read, "That was the only warm thing we knew in the winter time. That was almost a pleasure – to get peed on – because it was so cold. Lord. It was as cold in the room as it was outside." Sometimes in special moments with particular people, I am overcome by a warmth. I am momentarily outside of my body watching myself touch something close to eternal. Since I was a kid I've gotten that way, watching Dolly. It's strange and uncharacteristic but I'm not the only one. In 2011 a Canadian coming-of-age movie came out called, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom. Set in Manitoba, Canada in 1976, the film follows an adopted 11-year-old girl who comes to believe that Dolly Parton is her birth mother. Dolly lent her voice for a cameo and her songs for the soundtrack. The feature film got lukewarm reviews but I watched it over and over after the house had gone to bed. Me, Dolly, and a glowing screen.
I'm trying to use my feet like steel beams and change spirits while planted. Dolly, it seems, is many people in one.
It was by way of this film that Dolly gave permission to six Canadian singer-songwriters to cover her songs. One of these six was Martha Wainwright, who wrote three years after the film, "Poetry has no place for a heart that's a whore/I'm young and I'm strong but I feel old and tired." I'm terrified of being a bleeding heart, in the literary sense and the life one. Dolly writes about breaking but she's not broken. She sings about pain but hers is not an open sore. I know she has a big scar on her foot from where a glass bottle almost sliced off her toes, I know her breast tattoos cover augmentation marks, but in my eyes, she remains unscathed. I often fall down rabbit holes of nostalgia, back to the time before the breaking in my own life and in our world. I am obsessed and drunk on these moments of ephemera. Like nothing with any permanence could satisfy. I feel this way and wonder, what the fuck is ephemera anyway? Must it always be fleeting? Does it ever have the capacity to stay? Can ephemera linger?
I think Dolly is an act of ephemera. She is always behind a blurred screen living in bygone time. Dolly is just out of my arm's reach and I like it that way. The real Dolly doesn't know me; she doesn't see me like I see her. My Dolly is pixels and laugh tracks, she is Lycra and sequins and not in my world. In a hospital bed, after I broke my own brain, my Dolly is the first to hold me. I am fated and wrapped in her wigs, ethereally soothed by her song. In the warm hand of morphine, my room is not empty and I am not alone. On the other side of a Sinai Hospital napkin, I ask of the middles and the moments: "Please, unearth me roots and all. Displace me despite me. Dress me in red fringe and let me wander, charcoal and flickering shadows."
Sophie Lipitz is a native of Vashon Island in Washington State. Temporarily captive in Boston, she is a failed butcher and a feral food worker.