There is a depth of love that is most easily noticed by the way it breaks your heart. Not in a bad way but in that breaking is a way of being fundamentally changed. I know exactly who in my life I love to that depth. It’s a gift of middle age to be honest. Not that I didn’t experience it when I was younger but I didn’t really know what it was or how completely that love exists regardless of almost anything…it just continues to exist. There is almost no rhyme or reason to this love, it just is and it takes my breath away.
Category Archives: Essays – Non-Fiction
Today I am 30 years sober.
That seems completely impossible since I only feel about 30 years old inside my head but in truth I’m 52 years old inside and out.
A friend of mine used to say you had to be pretty damn sick to get sober right before the holidays (she had done the same thing) and some years I know she was absolutely right.
I’m grateful for my life today. I’m grateful for my family and friends who are shining miracles of light and love and absolute saints for putting up with me. I’m grateful for all the amazing people who walk through this life with such courage and joy showing me how it’s done. I’m grateful for the people who walk through it all with me as we find our way together.
I’ve been struggling with some broken heartedness recently. A dear friend is in a brutal battle with cancer and despair is lurking around every corner of my heart. She’s fierce as shit so I’m trying to be too. I can’t afford despair and she deserves much better than that from me. So today I’m taking it heartbeat to heartbeat and I’m leaning on the warrior women in my life so I can send all our love and magic and support to my friend. Staying out of the future, even the future of later today. Right here, right now…making sure that my cracked heart is letting the light out, not letting the darkness in. Because broken isn’t shattered.
I read this morning that Steve Dillon has died. You might not know that name. To be honest I wouldn’t have recognized it if he hadn’t been identified in the headline by one of his more well-known books, Preacher. He was a comic artist who worked quite a lot with Garth Ennis. They worked on Hellblazer together, another favorite of mine. I’m not a dedicated reader of comics or graphic novels but I do like the ones I like, even if I haven’t read them from beginning to end. Years ago a friend of mine who works in the comic industry suggested I read Preacher. He said he thought it was something I would like considering something I was writing at the time. So I picked up Book One which included the first twelve issues of the comic. It was gritty and darkly funny with a foundation of anger and melancholy. That appealed to me. So when I had to fly up to Oregon to visit my parents I took the book along and was happily reading it on the plane. One of the flight attendants stopped by my seat at one point and quietly asked what I was reading. I smiled and told him and he gave me a conspiratorial grin, telling me it was one of his favorite series. He then told me a story about a flight that Garth Ennis was on and how he was the only person who realized who Ennis was and totally fanboyed out. We laughed and enjoyed connecting with a fellow lover of comics in an unexpected place.
Steve Dillon adapted Preacher for television recently and the first season is out with a second season having been ordered. That’s a wonderful bit of unexpected success for a comic regardless of what you might think from the giant Marvel and DC movies. Books like Preacher are deserving of the same level of attention and respect but they are not quite as mainstream ready if you will. I haven’t watched the show so I don’t have any opinion about it but I had this quiet little feeling of happiness for the book creators that it was made at all. These people are astoundingly talented and they work so freakin’ hard for very little monetary success and often not a lot of public credit. Clearly it’s changing but most of them are still living pretty tight and only known within the subculture of comics (yep, still a subculture when you compare it the world at large).
According to Garth Ennis in the NY Times Steve Dillon died of a burst appendix. This is absolutely tragic and heart breaking. He was only 54 years old. A bright and creative light has gone out.
I’m in the middle of reading a New York Times article about Michelle Obama. It’s titled “To The First Lady, With Love: Four thank-you notes to Michelle Obama, who has spent the past eight years quietly and confidently changing the course of American history.” I had to stop after reading the first one to write this because with one line it brought me to tears. Sometimes a writer manages to put something into words that is one of my most deeply held thoughts, hopes, wounds, resentments, and fiercely fought for beliefs. These words made my heart stutter, made my breath catch and I had to work hard to control the tears because it showed me I am not alone in these thoughts even though I live in a world that insists this belief is not true and worse than that…it’s hateful, it’s sinful, it’s blasphemous, it’s so wrong that in some parts of the world we would most definitely be punished for speaking it out loud possibly killed for it.
But you know what? Fuck that!
Here’s what connected me to someone I’ve never met today and reminded me that if there is a God…a God that deserves to be called God…then It certainly has no issue with this truth written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:
Michelle Obama was speaking. I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.
She was informal, colloquial, her sentences bookended by the word “see,” a conversational fillip that also strangely felt like a mark of authenticity. She seemed genuine. She was genuine. All over America, black women were still, their eyes watching a form of God, because she represented their image writ large in the world.
There’s a whole lot there but what got me today was the ringing truth that the amazing woman who has been our First Lady for the last eight years is absolutely “a form of God”.
Woman as a form of God, much less black women as a form of God, is an idea that makes the big three Western religions squirm and whine and get very, very angry. Their efforts to erase women from their rightful place as an equal image of God has unbalanced our society in a way that we may never recover from in my opinion.
Michelle Obama shines one of the brightest lights of fierce, intelligent, powerful, thoughtful womanhood ever to walk the public stage. She does that as a black woman in the face of intense opposition to both her womanhood and her race and yet she continues to shine.
She continues to show us the face of God.
I tend to write about or mention my Dad quite a lot. My Dad did some really amazing things in his life and he was a pretty brilliant example of the kind of person I hope to be on a daily basis. But this weekend I was thinking a lot about my Mom. See in our house growing up Dad was the acknowledged Thinker Of Big Thoughts and Mom was the Doer Of What Needs Doing. Now that doesn’t mean that Mom didn’t, doesn’t, think big thoughts or that Dad didn’t do all manner of things that needed doing. But they had their specialties and respected each other’s dominant talents. Mom’s thinking abilities were, are, just as good and deep as Dad’s but she tended to focus them in different ways and areas…and thank all the gods she did. Otherwise I’m not sure we’d have grown up with as much safety and security as we did. See Mom was the person who insisted we live within our financial means. Mom was the person who insisted that if the roof needed fixing then we’d just have to fix it ourselves. Mom was the person who refused to buy new living room furniture because paying for music lessons and dance lessons and ski trips and theatre tickets was more important. I’m pretty sure I was out of college before my Mom bought a piece of new living room furniture and she is still using some of the bedroom furniture that she’s had since she was in high school. My Mom was in high school in the early 1950’s.
Now this isn’t because Mom is super crazy thrifty, though she sort of is…but it’s always for a purpose of paying for what she thinks is important. So when it came time to buy a house it meant she and Dad bought a house they could afford without being broke all the time. So we didn’t live in a fancy new house in the fancy expensive neighborhood. We lived in a fixer upper (and trust me when I say it needed some fixing when we moved in to it) in a decent middle class neighborhood where people drove Fords and Chevys and eventually Toyotas and Hondas. It meant we didn’t eat out except for VERY special occasions. It meant we did our own car repairs to the best of Dad’s abilities (I was QUITE good at assisting with fluid changes and brake pad installs on a 70’s era Chevelle). It meant holiday weekends were camping in the local mountains and vacations were spent camping in the Sequoia National Park. It meant that Mom and Dad did without a LOT of things they would have liked to have so that my brother and I could grow up having a lot of really amazing experiences.
To be honest Dad would have had a hard time making those kinds of decisions consistently on his own, but for Mom it was just what you did, you prioritized what was truly important. New carpet or sofas or clothes or a fancy car was just not important when stacked up against having enough money to pay your bills and still be able to take your kids to the theatre and rent them a trumpet and a flute. No one appreciated Mom’s ability to keep Dad in check more than Dad.
I didn’t really realize what an amazing gift all of that was until I was much older. I didn’t realize how little I had to worry about as a kid simply because Mom was willing to be the Doer Of What Needs Doing. You never doubted that you could depend on Mom to show up when she said she would and would do exactly what she said she would. I have thanked her for that because I realize now it’s not so easy to be that person in a family. It often makes you a bit unpopular. But Mom could take it. Eventually you get old enough to put the pieces together and realize exactly who it was that made sure there was always enough of what was needed and a shocking amount of what was wanted.
Now, the other thing about Mom…she was, is, the Bringer Of Courage, Play and Imagination. So if you were trying to figure out the meaning of life you’d go to Dad and have some long deep chat about…oh you know…stuff. But if you were trying to figure out what to do with the life you had…in the microcosm or the macrocosm you went to Mom. So…bored on a rainy day go see what Mom can suggest…usually reading or coloring or playing with the Lite Bright (she would join you in ALL of those). Not sure if you should marry the person you are engaged to, go see Mom (she’ll give it to you straight and love you no matter what you do). Not sure if you can really do that thing you really want to do…well to be honest both Mom and Dad were pretty great about encouragement. But Mom is the absolute best about helping you keep shit in perspective. She’s always saying things like, “Well yeah maybe it’ll be a bust but won’t it be fun trying?”
I’ve always felt pretty damned blessed to have the parents I’ve had. They gave me a fine solid foundation, they let me screw up which I did plenty of and in some pretty serious ways, they loved me but didn’t incapacitate me by fixing everything for me and between the two of them I’ve learned to keep my feet on the ground and my heart filled with hope and humor. So guess as much as I hope to be like my Dad I also hope to be like my Mom.
Some days are harder than others.
Some days everything makes you cry.
Some days it’s impossible to breathe.
Some days I can’t see the way out.
Some days I can barely keep the screams behind my teeth.
Some days I despair for us as a species.
But then I remember my Dad telling me that giving into despair is a cop out.
I remember that I have a responsibility to care for my head and heart and spirit because if I don’t stand up and shine a light in the dark, then I’ve betrayed every good thing in the world.
I remember that we are only as good as the good we do when it’s hard and terrifying, when all we want to do is curl up on the ground and vomit because the horror is beyond imagining.
I remember something I learned in the early days of the AIDS crisis…
SILENCE = DEATH
This is something I wrote back in 2010. For some reason it’s much on my mind today so I thought I’d share it again.
You have to make a commitment to heartbreak to do certain things in this life. If you are going to volunteer to reach out your hand, your heart and your soul to those balancing on the edge of a long slide into oblivion you have to know that most will refuse; many won’t hang on hard enough; lots will, once standing on solid ground but still in view of the depths, simply turn around and dive right down; some will get confused and lost and go back to the only place they know well enough to find in the dark; and a very tiny handful will continue to walk the path away from that oblivion with you. If you become hardened to it all you won’t actually be able to do it anymore. If you become broken by it all you won’t actually be able to do it anymore. So…how? How can you make a commitment to heartbreak and not be hardened or broken by it? Well from my experience I only get to keep what I’m willing to give away. I’m not talking about my stuff. I’m no Mother Theresa and get your eyes off my books! I’m talking about my spirit, my heart, my very essence. I have to be willing to expand spiritually beyond my fears, beyond my insecurities, beyond my certainty that there isn’t enough. Because every now and then I look around me and I see these sisters, walking with me, who know what it is to stare down into the depths, who know what it is to want to succumb to that darkness but who, instead, held on and walked away and who in turn have made their own commitment to heartbreak. That is how. Most of us don’t make it, that’s why we do more than most.
(The Above Photo Added because Tianana’s comment reminded me of one of the funniest moments she and I shared with me at a piano)
So a while back I discovered Street Pianos or the Play Me I’m Yours project. It was started by a British artist, Luke Jerram. You can find out about it here. The first time I was aware of it was when someone posted this video on Facebook. I was captivated. Not just the fact that the guy playing is doing a good job but the whole thing. The painted piano, the public location, the inherent generosity of shared art, the immense courage to sit down and play music in a public space, and most of all the overwhelming joy of unexpected art and music. It’s a quieter, more personal (and less commercial) version of the well-rehearsed but still incredibly joyful dancing flash mobs. Check out all the smiles on the people in the crowd during the flash mob. It’s wonderful.
The thing I find fascinating is how riveted I am by the whole thing and how emotional I get watching the videos. It speaks to something deep inside me, something very personal, eliciting very strong feelings from me.
I grew up in a house where music was played and studied and celebrated. My brother and I were expected to play music, and we did. Various instruments at various times in our lives. My Dad was a musician. I’ve come to realize that the way we experienced music growing up was not necessarily super normal. By that I mean music wasn’t just for the professionals. Music was something everyone could and should participate in to some degree. You might not be great at it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was you should know how to play some music. As a result of that the casual playing of the piano was constant in our house. It was what my Dad did when he was waiting for the rest of us to finish getting ready to go somewhere. It was what you did when you came home from school. It was what you did when you discovered a new pop artist that played piano. It was, quite simply, something you did just like everything else you did…read a book, watch TV, clean your room, play some music, get ready for bed.
Historically music, and many forms of fine art, were something that everyone practiced. Everyone learned to make some music. Everyone learned to draw and paint a little. Everyone learned to dance. Everyone learned to do a dramatic reading. Everyone, dear god everyone, attempted poetry. This kept art, music, creativity in general, within the grasp of everyone. Most importantly it allowed for everyone to connect with themselves and others in a creative space…it made the home a creative space.
But something happened when we gained the ability to record art in various ways. As a society we gave away our active participation in music and art to the professionals. We stopped practicing music and dance and art ourselves and became an often distant and intimidated audience only. I remember at the age of 5 or 6 being asked by a teacher to draw a picture that would show what my Dad did for a living. I clearly remember saying, “OK, but I’m not good at drawing.” I also vividly remember that picture. It wasn’t so bad for a kindergartner using Crayons. It included my Dad complete with mustache and glasses with a pretty decent Apollo rocket in the background. But my Go-To response, even that young, was to lead with a qualification that it wouldn’t be very good. I feel like this is something that has invaded our society much to our detriment.
So I think that is one reason why the Street Pianos move me so much. I’m sure lots of people sit down at them and do not play anything wonderful. I’m sure the videos I’ve posted are videos because they were impressive. But the truth is the most impressive thing about them is that while one or two of them might be people who make their living playing music, there are many that are just regular people who play music. They are musicians because they play music, not because they get paid to do it. The Street Pianos create an opportunity for music to happen in an unexpected place at the hands of…well maybe that homeless guy, or those two guys in Liverpool, or these two guys in Paris.
It just feels like a good and powerful example of how close art and music always is…all we have to do is reach out for it, put our hands on it, stop comparing our ability to anyone else’s ability, and stop judging ourselves and others so harshly.
Sometimes I wonder if we were a more courageous and compassionate people when we regularly practiced the courage and compassion of art in our own homes.
I live in Los Angeles. I work roughly 25 miles from where I live. The commute, by L.A. standards, is not bad either in length or as a result of general traffic patterns (traffic pattern being much more important here than distance). But if I leave for work right in the midst of the worst part of rush hour things can still go awry during my commute. Luckily these days we have Google Maps and Waze.
Now my only problem with Waze is that it seems as though it always sends me wandering about town, turning here and turning there, as though I am a sailboat desperately tacking into the wind in an effort to get where I’m going.
Google Maps does not seem to do this quite as much. Which I appreciate.
Both of them take note of traffic issues along the various routes that will get me where I’m going.
So I’ve taken to starting up Google Maps Navigation when I start off for work. Usually I head for the freeway the way I like and let it adjust as it always wants me to make a left where I make a right to head towards the freeway. The other day I took its directions and it led me to a different onramp of the same freeway and it was quicker to get there for a variety of traffic-y reasons. Big win!
So this morning I followed its advice again, but quickly realized it was taking me somewhere else…still on a route towards my ultimate goal, work, but not the way I expected. So I just sort of did what it said, singing along to my playlist, until I realized it was leading me to….THE FUCKING 101 SOUTH? OH NO YOU DIDN’T!
Now if you don’t live in L.A. you may not realize the HORROR of this realization. The 101 South heads right through Downtown L.A. I am not going to Downtown L.A. I want to avoid everyone who IS going to Downtown L.A. But…the freeway I DO want to get on runs NEXT to the 101 South for a bit and thus you can use one to get to the other depending on where you are starting out. But it’s just generally a bad idea in my experience.
So now I am in the lane of no return. I cannot make a different choice. I am cursing Google Maps. It is still saying I will make it to work by 8:15 but I do not believe it, not for one second. It has led me to the dreaded 101 South for gods sake. I declare, over the Mozilla song that is playing, I am THROUGH with Google Maps that we will be breaking up. But for today I have no choice but continue onto THAT freeway.
From the street I can the freeway on the overpass. It’s moving, but slowly. Now that isn’t particularly telling, slow is the norm for this time of day on MOST L.A. freeways. But I KNOW it will get worse. I KNOW it will come a screeching halt and I will have to muscle my way across multiple lanes to get to the freeway I want, fighting morning commuters who have no intention of letting anyone merge or change lanes.
I sigh. I make peace with how long it will now take me to get where I’m going. I feel deeply betrayed by the fact the Google Maps is STILL telling me I will get to work by 8:15. I get on the freeway.
But…it’s not as I anticipated. Once I get past the initial merge the whole thing opens up quite nicely. I move easily across four lanes to get into the lanes that will put me on the 134 East. I am actually driving at the speed limit. Soon I am no longer even side by side with the 101 South and find myself heading over the hill between Glendale and Pasadena with only one slow down (the usual one in Glendale, no idea what that is about but it happens every damn day) and then I am on the 210 East moving at a good clip.
I now feel a bit guilty for all the evil things I shouted at Google Maps. I wonder if it will let me take it all back. I don’t want to break up, especially not when I make it to my exit from the freeway at exactly 8:10, meaning that, depending on stop lights, I will likely pull into work at exactly 8:15. I glance down at Google Maps to see if it’s gloating or glaring at me. Luckily Google Maps is quite forgiving and simply tells me to turn right at the next light. I declare that I will never again doubt my beloved Google Maps…even if it directs me to one of the more dreaded freeways in Los Angeles.
Unless it directs me to the 405 for no good reason. If that happens WE ARE DONE!
So it’s been a rough start to 2016. So many great artists lost in the first two weeks of the year.
I continue to be amazed how personal these losses feel.
The first time an artist I loved and had been deeply affected by died was when John Lennon was killed. I was in high school. My Mom even understood how deeply I would be affected by this loss because the news broke while I was out somewhere and when I got home she simply said, with great gravity, “You need to go talk to you brother. He has something to tell you.” My brother is five years older than me and at that time was my guide in the music world. I have always appreciated that my Mom understood that I was going to truly grieve the loss of John Lennon and that I needed to hear the news from others who also understood the magnitude of the loss.
There have been many since that night. Some great actors, some great musicians, some great dancers, some great painters, some great writers…people die. Artists are people…thus artists die.
I have to agree with this tweet by Juliette@ElusiveJ: “Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”
Exactly. So when they move on to whatever the next adventure is after this life, we feel the loss deeply, intimately. We are usually a bit embarrassed by it as well, but we shouldn’t be. Artists are often, not always, but often a type of shaman. They guide, they inform, they clarify, they focus, they heal, they push, they demand, they hold us gently as we work desperately to become worthy of their efforts.
So here we sit, dizzy from loss at the beginning of this new year. Trying to make sense of our lives now that some of our greatest shamans have left us. But they left their work, they left us bright lights shining along this path to guide us on our way. It’s up to us to do the walking.