At the beginning of the year, I made the aspiration to read fewer Buddhist and self-help books. I bought and started Just Kids by Patti Smith, but I didn’t get very far. Life-changing things just kept happening. I needed my little daily meditations and other methods of head-clearing. I lacked the focus for much else. So I decided to wait on the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe until I could give it my full attention.
I’ve just been to a Catholic funeral mass for the woman who has been my mother-in-law for over 11 years. It brought up all of the sad feelings I’ve come to anticipate as well as some fragile new hope that I didn’t. Death, a dear friend said to me a few months ago, “can be so generous sometimes.”
This, after three non-religious memorials and a Baptist home-going since last August. On some days the grief is fathoms deep and I do stupid things, like watch “Game of Thrones” (not a good idea when your emotional constitution is weakened) or reach out to people that I know are far too self-involved to practice compassion (also not a good idea — even an exceptionally bad one — when your emotional constitution is weakened).
Other days I recognize stupid moves and emotional missteps for what they are: no big deal. Because I can mitigate any bad day or personal embarrassment with the reminder that nobody died and mean it (although I can’t seem to let “nobody died” leave my mouth without adding “yet,” just in case). I’m like that seemingly insensitive dad guy, shrugging off the horrible, embarrassing thing that happened to you at school because “it’s not like anybody died.” And honestly, on a day when nobody near or dear to you dies, I know with certainty that things could be worse.
For the first time in over a year and a half, I am not acquainted with anyone who is fighting an acute terminal illness (to my knowledge). It’s a weirdly liberating realization. And one I don’t want to be too superstitious to appreciate because things can always change a moment from this one.
So I’m reading. I’m reading a book about the history of cancer because four different cancers claimed four different people that I cared about in the last eight months. There is something comforting about recognizing just how fucking crazy the history of pathology and surgery and radiation really is, how erratic and accidental so many discoveries about cancer have been. There is also something empowering about realizing how many different ways our DNA can get broken, how we can temper the risks of that through some of our choices, but ultimately, like most things, it’s outside of our control.
I’m also reading about rock and roll and art. I came back to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. And damn if it doesn’t feel like self-help. Or Buddhism:
“The things I thought would happen didn’t. Things I never anticipated unfolded.”
It’s a line from Just Kids about the precipice of Smith’s career – the weeks, days, months before her destiny as a poet, playwright and rock goddess began to root.
Now, I go to meetings where people struggle and fight with themselves, sometimes for years, to just let go. To begin to realize that simply responding within the life you have can be so much more magical and rewarding than trying to force the life you think you want to have to happen; to get to “Things I never anticipated unfolded.”
Is that a platitude, or too simple-sounding? Maybe. But I am long since over dismissing things that are true or helpful simply because they aren’t clever enough. I think of all of the years that I gagged myself on cleverness when I could have been happier. There’s really no honor in suffering, especially when you have the choice to not suffer. Happier is better. Happier is more honorable.
Patti Smith grew into her superpowers by surrendering. She and Robert Mapplethorpe used to choose a record to listen to over and over again to let it create the tone of their evening for them. She let her mistakes lead her to the next place instead of withdrawing from the world because of them. She kept herself open to opportunities and took them as they came – like reading her poetry backed by Lenny Kaye’s guitar, which haphazardly landed them in a musical relationship that’s lasted for decades. Smith set out to be a poet, not a rock and roll icon, but the latter evolved because she let it. When she had her children, she let all of that slip away for a while to give herself to the experience being a mother. She seems to have had the inherent wisdom to live inside of the life she had instead of constantly pushing for a different one, as so many of us do.
Then an unfathomable series of deaths slowly brought her back to a public life. Her husband, her brother, her best friend and a dear band-mate all passed away in short order, all young and unexpectedly. But instead of letting it harden her, she surrendered to it. Here’s what she said in an interview with Shambala Sun about 16 years ago:
“I find that sorrow breaks the heart open, makes you more vulnerable. In some ways sorrow is a beautiful state. It can heighten one’s sense of humor. You can find strength and clarity in sorrow. Sorrow is a gift. You have to treasure it. The important thing is to honor it.”
It’s no wonder that when I saw her play live ten or eleven years ago it felt like a religious experience. She may be a bodhisattva.
Now she’s added both of her parents and more close friends and colleagues to the list of those she’s lost, but every time I hear her interviewed, she says something insanely hopeful, like “I promise if you listen, you will hear the dead speaking to you.” She shares stories about the ways that the dead now fill her with warmth, how they live within and speak through her as long as she remains open. I’m beginning to really understand this. I am. And it’s nothing I expected or thought I wanted to know.
Outside of the fact that we don’t know when, where or how we or our loved ones are going to die, death is not that mysterious. But there’s still plenty of mystery in rock and roll, in art, in people, in surrendering, in living.
Lately, when I’ve wanted to give myself a laugh in the dark manner that a surgeon’s granddaughter is wont to do, I listen to “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll. In 2009, Jim Carroll died, and Patti Smith began covering his song regularly in his honor, encouraging audience members to call out the names of their dead loved ones in the middle of the song.
Ironically (to me, anyway) this live performance was recorded the day after my 40th birthday, in 2010. The day my stepfather died, died. It is powerful. You should watch it.
It’s not that nobody died. It’s that you’re alive.
For another celebration of our delicate, beautiful mortality, click this:
I’ve run along the periphery of Columbus music for 16 or 17 years, and sometimes right through its center. I’ve written about it, talked about it, consumed it, even married and had a child with one of its central stewards.
Let me tell you, it’s a world full of dudes. Dudes who play, editorialize about, promote, gloat over or criticize, but ultimately love music. Several of those dudes have only ever referred to me by my initials. Why call someone Tracy when you can call her TZT? I’m okay with that. It makes me feel like an honorary dude.
In this scene, there are jerk dudes, frustrated genius dudes, drunk dudes, well-meaning dudes, lecherous dudes, armchair comedian dudes and awkward dudes. And then there are the kind ones. The ones who are generous of spirit and might play in the realm of dudes, but you quickly discover that they are also good, decent men. They are the ones who don’t run away from you when they hear you lost your job or that your grandfather died. They see you out in the city and they walk toward you. They put an arm around you and acknowledge your loss openly, thoughtfully. They say something encouraging or offer a listening ear. The whole thing may last all of five minutes, and you may not see that person again for weeks, even months, but you walk away from a man like that and you just feel happy that you know him. Happy that you walk in the same circles and will surely see him again soon.
The city lost one of those good men this weekend. A man who gave body-crushing hugs and radiated warmth. The news broke last night that Andy “Andyman” Davis – a veteran of local radio – drowned Saturday while on family vacation, and the more that I sit with that fact, the harder I find it to accept.
I’ve seen a lot of friendships made through music. You find out that someone loves what you love, they relate to what you relate to, and suddenly, you are connected. You may drift apart or even have a falling out, but if that person introduced you to a song or artist that’s continued to keep you company, their dearness is never completely lost. Andy is that kind of friend to countless people that he hasn’t even met because he’s been the face and voice of one of our only local, independent stations for so long.
To me, he was a local media colleague and a social friend – someone I probably saw and shared words with weekly to monthly in my twenties and early thirties at my husband’s clubs, Andy’s bar or some other show in the Columbus universe.
He had been a dad for a while by the time I became a mom. Once I made that transition, I only saw him once or twice a year, but our casual conversations shifted. When I saw him at Comfest last year, I got one of his bear hugs before he held onto my hand and stood with me, looking at my son the same way I do – like something miraculous and joyful. He pulled out the pictures of his two boys and told me about his third baby coming. I don’t remember the words we shared exactly, but that feeling of belonging you get when you relate to another person about music? Change that to two music-bound people talking about being parents and the feeling is amplified by a zillion. I love being a mom. I know he loved being a dad. That’s what has my heart caught today.
I’ve been through a fair bit of grief and loss lately, but please don’t feel the need to console me for this one. There are certainly hundreds, likely thousands, who are feeling this loss. Between social media and the airwaves, you can sense our community grieving. My hope is that every one of us who has felt that warmth from Andy, be it first-hand or through the airwaves, can reflect it back to his family — especially his wife Molly and their three sons — and surround them with it for years to come.
You can find information about a memorial fund that’s been established for them at the CD101 web site.
I wish I felt comfortable writing my way through this time.
I’d like to tell you about the fact that my son and I have been living at my mother’s since February because I needed to separate from my husband. I needed things to change. It was excruciating for a while and it is still not easy. We’re at a crossroads. We take things day by day. Sometimes I’ve only taken them moment by moment. We still plan on doing another radio show together. We are still family, connected by this amazing person we created — this person that I wouldn’t want to deprive of his father’s love or the ability to know who and where he comes from. One way or another, a new life will be built. I just have no idea what that life will look like.
I’d like to tell you about the remarkable meetings and support groups I’ve found for the families of addicts and alcoholics. About the evenings when I find myself in a room with people I never imagined knowing, let alone being vulnerable with, and how they humble and lift me. How this 78-year-old woman heard me state the facts of my life, asked to hug me, and, once I agreed, whispered “that is one heavy load you are carrying.” She closed her eyes and pressed her hand over my heart with a prayer. Her warmth thawed my many years of cynicism about Al-Anon meetings. She helped me to hear what I needed to hear, to take what I needed, as they are so fond of saying, and leave the rest.
I’d like to tell you what it’s like to live with a stepfather who is dying and has Lewy Body Disease, which combines the debilitating physical symptoms of Parkinsons with dementia. About the things I can’t see that are apparently here, like cars that keep pulling into the house, dead dogs lying around, men moving freezers, people with scissors and family members that have long since passed. How, before he stopped being able to walk a few weeks ago, he showed up in my room one morning because he couldn’t find my mother. He thought he had to hold his breath for as long as she wasn’t in the room with him. As I watch my mother try to manage each day, I see just how brutal the business of caregiving can be.
I’d like to tell you what a house feels like after hospice swoops in, about the book they gave my mother that details what to look for in the last weeks, days, hours and moments before a person dies. About how strange and refreshing it is to experience health care that probes a family about its mental, physical and spiritual well-being and looks for ways to help. About being the bearer of bad news to my stepdad’s sons with each clear and dramatic decline, especially the brother who has been my close friend since I was 19 and has a baby on the way this summer. About how generous the heart of my stepdad’s paid caregiver is as he shows up every morning and evening (on the days he’s not working) to carry him from the hospital bed to a recliner in the family room and back.
I’d like to tell you how vulnerable my son was before all of this. How frighteningly perceptive and unfairly aware he is of the world around him, of cells and stardust and disease and disaster. Or how often I feel like I’m on a razor-thin line, some days thinking that this experience, this period, could be a profound opportunity for him to understand more about life, relationships and death, other days terrified that all of this will screw him up, scar or emotionally maim him because it’s all so, so much for someone who is freshly five to carry.
I’d like to tell you about my uncle who passed away this past Sunday after his years-long battle with cancer. And I do mean battle. He fought for every moment he had on this earth, and didn’t fail to live each one that he could. During one early remission, he traveled to Africa and nearly got himself killed by leaving the tent when hippopotamuses were around. I would know so much less about what a strong, loving family man looks like if I hadn’t known him. I would know less about what a self-actualized, truly indefatigable person looks like. I also wouldn’t know how hostile to humans and dangerous a hippo can be. While I’m not planning a safari, that seems like an important thing to know.
So I’m telling you.
It’s been months now that I’ve felt like a person walking around with an oozing, emotional gunshot wound on her chest, visible only to those who know me or know what’s been going on because even as I avoid writing about it here, I say these things out loud when I’m out a lot. I have to. Friends — especially so many beautiful, generous, supportive moms — cautiously ask me about how things are going, and I keep disappointing them with clammy, sad facts, because I’ve become lousy at sugar-coating things. I had started to feel like I’d suffocate if I didn’t say what felt true today out loud, so I do it, and almost always immediately feel lighter because there are so many people who can understand or relate to some piece of what’s going on here, no matter how small. They honor me by listening and offering help and I feel totally selfish each time they do because I am so overloaded with my own stuff right now I don’t listen the way I usually do. I usually pride myself on my ability to listen.
Life feels inverted. I cry the most when good things happen. Each offer of help is a salve. Each small solution that I see hospice offer my mother chokes me up. Joyful moments make me so, so grateful. Each expression of love and friendship, each person who has said “you are doing better than you know” to me, each person who looks at me like I’m hemorrhaging but knows she isn’t a surgeon and offers some small kindness to me anyway has been a gift this year.
I’m turning 40 in three weeks and I don’t remember a more difficult or uncertain time. I also don’t remember feeling more blessed or more open-hearted. On bad days, I feel very alone, but on the good ones, I am less alone than ever. I am more grateful than ever.
A couple of Sundays ago my stepbrother put my little, strangely nonfunctional family unit on the guest list for his big music festival. The three of us saw Michael Franti and Spearhead, who we’ve loved for a long time. The band brought little kids onto the stage for the encore, “Say Hey,” and my son danced, jumped, pranced, twirled, sang and ran next to Franti, apparently without an iota of fear or apprehension in his body. He told me looked for me but couldn’t find me in the crowd, where I was smiling so hard that my face should have cracked open.
When he came down from the stage, he asked, “could you hear my little tiny voice up there? I was singing as loud as I could so you would hear me.” And while I couldn’t literally hear him, I could hear him, and see him, and feel him up there, so fully himself, there to enjoy more than perform, so full of energy and faith and confidence that he is, in fact, loved. That he was certain his mother was out there somewhere listening for his voice made me feel like a pretty good mom.
The next morning, I woke up with him clinging to me the way he has every morning since we’ve been in this place — like a life preserver. He snuggled up to my ear and sang the song, punctuating each line with a hug around the neck: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
Have you seen this wandering tribe? Since they are a caravan, I assume they are wandering and not still standing on this golf course lined with rainbow flags, but I’m not sure. Who wouldn’t follow a love-preaching guy with this protective jewelry and waistline anywhere that he asked you to go?
Like so many things from the 1980s, this is something I never knew I wanted to remember. The song and the video are awesome in completely different ways — it’s like an archeological dig that’s turned up sweatbands, day-glo fingerless gloves and the cartoonish international archetypes that early music videos embraced so shamelessly.
I’m hopeful that the Isleys have set the crowd straight by now, because the shoulder-padded huddled masses’ sense of rhythm is atrocious. If I find them, I’m bringing a set of klavés.
P.S. I’m your brother.
P.S.S. Watch the whole thing. It out-mesmerizes the Trolololo dude.
I never had my own pair of roller skates with hand-made pink baby pom-pons draped over the laces. I don’t remember wanting them. The scuffed gray rentals with faded red stoppers on the toes were good enough. United Skates of America (USA) was a dim place, and the nuclear orange, black-lit flames of the “Disco Inferno” balcony where couples would go and look down at the skaters were far more mesmerizing than anything you could wear on your feet.
We were a displaced, split-up family, displacing our cousins out of having their own bedrooms for a summer while mom looked for a job and a place where she, my brother and I could live in Ohio. The chance to live with our cousins seemed like a dream come true for my brother and I, but it was as hard as it was fun. We became a house of five kids and three adults who sang a lot of “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by a Taste of Honey in the living room. We drew chest hair on brown grocery bags, wore them like tank tops and danced to “Macho Man” by the Village People for our parents, who laughed hysterically with their hands over their faces. We all fought about stupid things. My mom left my brother and I there for a couple of weeks while she packed up our childhood house on the Jersey shore because she didn’t think we should see it empty. I got in trouble for putting my fingers too close to the electric egg beater when my aunt made a cake. We made massive forts out of bar stools and blankets. I turned 9. We put shoes on our knees and sang “Short People” by Randy Newman (really, what kid didn’t in 1979?).
We got to go roller skating at USA, where it seemed like nighttime no matter what time it actually was. We did laps together, holding hands in a line when Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” came on. We were too young to care about boyfriends and girlfriends so when couples ironically paired off under the disco ball lights during “She’s Out of My Life” my cousins and I skated into the island in the middle of the rink and pretended to sob along with Michael. My aunt or uncle bought “Off the Wall” on vinyl and it gave us a new crop of summer anthems to dance to until my mom started a job and found us a brick house with a lime green master bedroom and a neighbor dog named Thor.
My brother had the jacket from the “Beat It” video and he made awesome, tough-guy faces when he wore it. I remember MTV (and therefore my girlfriends and I being 13 or so) treating the time Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during a video shoot like the most important breaking news story of our time. I remember watching him moonwalk for the first time on the Motown tribute show and feeling like it looked way more magical than anything Doug Henning had ever mustered. I joined a record club without my mom’s permission soon after that so I could have the 4-record 25 years of Motown collection and boy, I got in some big time trouble but boy, do I still love that music.
I remember thinking “We Are the World” meant that celebrities were good, generous people. And seeing the weird Captain EO movie at Epcot when I was 16 and at Disneyworld for the first time. And pretending that “Man in the Mirror” would inspire my friends and I to march on Washington in college. And thinking that the King of Pop was tragic. And thinking he was crazy. That he was a jerk when I read about how he bought the rights to the Beatles catalog out from under Paul McCartney. And how much I loved his face on the cover of “Off the Wall” and wished that he did too.
In the mid-90s, I was the only female among a bunch of reporters that showed up at a strip bar where his sister LaToya lip-synched to a recording of herself, singing his hits and some kind of Casio-driven medley of Edith Piaf songs. The entire audience was press because it was also the night of the NCAA finals, except for some kids in the parking lot who begged the police officers there to get an autograph for them. The cops obliged, which was kind of dear but also weird. Being that one degree from Michael seemed like the real thrill the kids were seeking.
I was surprised how sad I felt when I heard about MJ’s untimely demise today. I had just watched my son spend the afternoon with his cousins – hugging, swimming, laughing hysterically, sneaking candy and having important arguments over whether “good guy” balls made out of wool felt should be flushed down a fake toilet (also made of wool felt, and actually a bowl) or not. I drove him home just before a chain of thunderstorms hit the house, hugged his dad, cranked up “I Wanna Rock With You,” on the stereo and danced with them the way I did when I had fake chest hair in my cousins’ living room.
We’ve had a concert here all morning yesterday. It featured extended thoughts about all the planets in our solar system, but we had to listen to it through the bedroom door. Somebody gets self-conscious while performing in front of his parents.
I did manage to get him to tell me some of the words, which I wrote down:
“Song about Jupiter with Clouds… about Jupiter”*
One little place with a Halloween cloud
It’s a place with the place with a birth it’s Jupiter
Boing ba ba boing ba ba boing boing boing
It’s the place with the clouds that will make you look scary
Make you look scary make you look like a berry
Boing ba ba boing ba ba boing boing boing
http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=3231678&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=00ADEF&fullscreen=1 Earth song from Tracy on Vimeo.
(He’s been singing this for days, although I had no idea until today that it was supposed to be about Earth. How unsettling.)
Last night, Dan and I went out to see Citizen Cope. Since we were told (on what we thought was good authority) when the show would start, we thought we had everything taken care of for our first time out alone together to see live music in ages.
We arrived to a nightclub door still sealed over an hour after it was supposed to be opened, froze in line a for several minutes behind a smoking guy and a spitting guy. (What gives, spitting guy? You didn’t seem to be chewing tobacco, just spitting every 45 seconds.) We got in and looked around at the crowd. Five years ago, at a show like this, we would have known gobs of people. This time, it was two people. We just stared at boys in knit hats and the $70(!) sweatshirts for sale and the malingering guy with the Lowe’s race car jacket. We leaned on the embossed, cracked, gold-painted plaster behind us and shaded our eyes from the illuminated advertisements all over the room.
About an hour and forty minutes later than we were told the show would start, it started. So we stayed for about forty-five minutes and left, having heard several songs we like, save one (sun is misspelled on the playlist – it’s meant to be son):
The bass was too loud. The neighbors were nice enough to babysit, but they have jobs & can’t stay up all night on a Sunday. I know there are people who could tell us stories about the times that shows didn’t start when they expected at my old man’s old live music joint, but he would have apologized. Mostly, I’m old.