Rest in Peace

 

 

From the first time I heard your voice (age 8, on the way to school, sitting in the back of Mrs Tuominen’s car), I was enthralled. You knew something I didn’t know yet — lots of mysterious things. I could hear that. You’ve been, unwittingly, my constant companion throughout the years. An inspiration, a source of bravery, a reminder that I never had to be anything anyone expected me to be. That being myself without explanation was a perfectly viable way to live. That reinvention could be like oxygen.

I’m gutted. Utterly gutted.

Rest in peace, you marvelous creature.

Thank you for everything.

Some Thoughts on Compassion

Even in a world where journalism continues to reach new lows on a near-constant basis, there can be compassion.

Compassion means seeing beyond your (my) own precious feelings to the truth of any matter: that we are all human, and that we all need one another, and that kindness is vital. That love is the only real thing.

I’ve been struck dumb by the way some of the press have handled the death of Nick Cave’s son Arthur*. At the heart of the matter is this: a child has died. Two parents have lost a child. A twin has lost his twin. Older brothers have lost a younger brother. Friends and family have lost someone they love.

A child has died. What we think about the father’s art or opinions or behavior has nothing to do with anything. You are/I am sorry, so terribly sorry, for such an indelible loss. Period.

And if you can’t be that, it’s time to examine the gaping hole in your humanity.

*The Times of London have taken down their story with terrible headline. That it was ever published is appalling.

But I was so much older then

A few weeks ago I found some old photos of you. I’d never seen them before. They were of a you that had ceased to exist by the time we’d met. You were utterly recognizable: those eyes.

You’ve done a good job of keeping yourself inaccessible. You’re nowhere, really, save these photos, which feature a kid who’s about to become something else. Right on the cusp. And he knows it: it’s in the squint and in the slight sneer. That same sneer was what I saw that night just before I left your house, wanting to run but knowing I couldn’t, not until I was close enough to the car. Hair on my neck and arms raised, gait slow and purposefully casual, stomach roiling, I got to safety and marveled at a biology that would warn me, even about a person I loved. (Or idolized, as the case may be.)

I spent a long time being angry and disgusted — first at myself, then at you. (We’re trained that way. It is our downfall.) It’s faded, of course, the way a lot of things do, given enough time. But I still thought I’d recoil, seeing those photos of you. Maybe feel the slow burn all over again. (And why? That’s another downfall, I suppose.) Instead, after a brief punch in the gut, what I felt was tenderness.  You were so precious. I suppose you still are, in the way that each of us is, in spite of how awful we are.

It’s done, and I’m glad. And I wish you love.

Clementine

Pulling apart tiny segments of peeled citrus, I picture jelly-candy oranges, their simplified, stylized shapes so pleasing to tiny hands, the clean bite leaving long rows of teeth marks in their smooth, perfected centers. Juice seeps through the napkin and I worry, briefly, about the wooden desk beneath the paper — but orange oil, good for wood, no? — but the acid, bad for wood, no? — and then I remember accidentally slicing into a wooden table my first week in a new place, in a space that would later be yours. And I think of you, smiling and shaking your head at me. Which didn’t happen then, but happened many times after that. No one knew I’d done it, except for one person, and she never told. I was so protected there. When I think of that time I forget the rage, the fear, the abject humiliation. The tears. I remember warmth and grace, and a protection that seems incredible, in hindsight. I try to eat the segments slowly, but each taste is a shock: so full, so bright, so sweet, so tart, and I want to be overwhelmed by all of it. Instead I let each piece overtake me, or two or three at once, and I remember.

Impressionable

I remember meeting A. for the first time when I was not-quite-three years old. Although he’s my first cousin, he’s only two years younger than my father, which would have made A. twenty-two, then. There was something dangerous and a little sad about him, it seemed to me from hushed conversations I’d overheard. But he wasn’t dangerous himself: He was a sweet boy who’d done dangerous things. (Drugs, and jail time for said drugs, I would later learn.) Blue eyes blazing, he came to visit our aunt’s apartment, wearing a pin-striped suit with a pastel-colored shirt, shiny black Stacy Adams shoes, very short, gold-burnished hair, and sideburns.  He practically crackled, he was so phenomenally exciting.

I have a vague recollection of being introduced to him, of his being sweet to me, of sitting in my aunt’s living room and listening to what, in retrospect, must have been a whole lot of unsolicited advice from people who were only slightly older than he was.

What I recall with utmost clarity is the photograph.

It was time for us to go, and I desperately wanted not to be separated from A. I recall big feelings that protested going home, and the certainty that I had no way to get the feelings out of my chest and into words that would make sense to the grown-ups. And then my mother said she wanted to take a picture of me with A. We stood near the top of the stairway that led to our aunt’s door, and my mother went down onto the patio below. She told me to stand a little closer to A., for which I was glad. He put his hand down, gently, flat onto my head, and I remember feeling like there wasn’t enough room in my body for all the crazy joy that flooded me. And I knew later I’d be able to look at the photo and remember.

 

(A. remains a badass.)

The Big Sleep

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Yours, mine, and the way that we relate to death in general. This is obviously one of those topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable. (Which is to say, it’s one of those topics that tends to make people say and do really stupid things. More on that later.) But that’s never made any sense to me, probably because my experience with death is long and deep. How long? How deep? Here’s a timeline for your reference.

  • 1980: my grandmother (76)
  • 1985: my favorite uncle (38)
  • 1987: my grandfather (86)
  • 1988: my aunt (40s)
  • 1989: my great-grandmother (80s)
  • 1990: another uncle (40s)
  • 1992: my cousin (15)
  • 1992: a next-door neighbor I grew up with (15)
  • 1993: my aunt and her baby (30s; not-quite-born-yet)
  • 1994: my best friend from elementary school (19)
  • 2008: another cousin (40s)
  • 2008: yet another cousin (40s)
  • 2011: my favorite aunt (70s)
  • 2012: another cousin (40s)
  • 2013: a dear friend (50s)
  • 2016: an uncle (80s)
  • 2017: another cousin (60s)

That’s a lot of death. A lot. (This may not come as a surprise, but I spent the years between 1992 and 1998 assuming, whenever anyone was late, that they were dead.) For a long time, I experienced this overabundance as something shameful; a curse, if you will. Over time, I’ve come to see that, for however awful these experiences have been, they’ve helped me to accelerate a particular type of learning. Primarily, I’ve learned to live in such a way that, if I die tomorrow, no one that I love would be left wondering how I felt about them. But it’s also given me a sort of rare privilege: the ability to make myself useful when the people around me are faced with death.

We’re all going to die. Right? We know this. But because we’ve had the luxury in the West of removing, sterilizing and/or ignoring the things that cause us discomfort and pain, we walk around pretending we’re not going to die. Or worse: we think about it and make reference to it in hushed, faux-pious tones.

Death is imminent. All the time. Everywhere. It takes so very, very little to make it happen. Which makes it (rather automatically) unmysterious. Common, even. And yet: when it happens to the people you care for, it never is anything less than painful as hell itself. You get used to the process, which is sort of helpful; but that’s it. The pain is new every single time.

Death is messy. It’s embarrassing, awkward, ugly. It’s definitely inconvenient. It never, ever feels right. No part of it ever feels right. And it brings out the worst in people; those directly connected to the deceased, and those around you with whom you might need to share the news.  When my cousin died in 1992, it was completely unexpected. It was accidental. He was 16. I went to school the day I found out (figuring that doing something normal would be the best way for me to cope with it during the shock stage), and I told a friend of mine what had happened. She opened her mouth in surprise, closed it again, and walked away from me. And then she never mentioned it afterward. A couple of years ago, the brother of a dear friend of mine died suddenly, and although I hadn’t known him, I was stunned to receive the news at work. I got up from my desk, and the first person I saw was an office mate I trusted. I told him what I’d just heard, and he grimaced, chuckled a little and said, “Well, that’s fun.” (Amazing, the similarities between a 15-year-old girl and a 46-year-old man, no?)

Here’s what people need when someone dies:

  • To be held
  • To be heard
  • To hear that you are waiting to help them in whatever way they need help
  • To be checked up on
  • Silence
  • Space
  • To be fed
  • To be reminded to sleep
  • To be told that however they are grieving is normal
  • Safety
  • Respect
  • To laugh
  • To cry
  • To slip back into their regular lives and selves for a bit, even (especially) in the midst of grieving
  • To never have to hear (or never again have to hear) dumb-ass platitudes like, “Well, she’s in a better place now,” or “He would have wanted you to be happy.”
  • To not be expected to be back to normal after the funeral

That last one in particular gets to me. The first few days, everyone descends upon the bereaved with cards and phone calls and meals and visits. Once the funeral is done, people start frowning upon signs of your insistence not to get back to life as we know it. If we’re honest, we can say that other people’s grief is not terrifically exciting, and that we tend not to see beyond our own level of entertainment. That is to say: our own level of comfort. We are small, small creatures.

But we aren’t so small that we can’t push past our silly little cubicles and pigeonholes and scheduled me, me, me time to provide a service for a fellow human being. Reaching out to others is risky. It’s awkward. It doesn’t always feel good. And hey, guess what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all what it feels like to you. Because by being a willing participant in the grand, arch, cosmic joke that is life on this planet–that is, by being willing to bare yourself in a way that we never really do anymore in this great Western culture of ours–you begin to see that maybe, just maybe, there’s a bigger picture. And that the bigger picture goes beyond life and death. Because once you get beyond that, you begin to see that the little things are huge, and the big things are tiny. And nothing is ever the same again, really, after that. And you won’t mind.

I promise.

5 Tips For Sounding Smarter (And Writing That Way)

Like most everything else on earth involving humans, grammar is prone to flights of fancy. We all remember when you used to be able to say “Ain’t” ain’t in the dictionary!, right? Well, some things remain solid and unmoving. Those things are important to know. Here are five of them.  Smart chicks will dig you. Smart dudes will dig you. Grammarian snobs will sleep more soundly at night. Win-win-win.

1. Learn when to use “I” and when to use “me.”
Here’s what I mean:

Alex is going to meet up with Claire and I. Really? Hmm. Let’s see if that’s true.  Take Claire out of the picture.

Alex is going to meet up with I. Nah.  Sounds odd, right?

Alex is going to meet up with me. And since Claire had long since planned to come along (he’s a bit rash, that Alex, always changing his mind at the last minute)

Alex is going to meet up with Claire and me.

Voilá. It takes less time to do this in your head than it did to read all of that. Promise.

2. Admit you don’t know something.
We all want to be considered with-it. But what if next time someone brings up a topic that you only know from a headline somewhere–whether it’s a political situation, a band or whatever–what if you said, “You know, I don’t know much about that at all! Tell me about it.” Ooh! Controversial. Refreshing, even. (PS, That blank look rats you out anyway.)

3. It’s would have, should have and could have.
Not would of, should of and could of.   “Have” can sound like “of” sometimes, but that’s where the similarities end. Two different words, those. With two different meanings.

4. It’s voilá.
Not wah-lah. So you don’t speak French. Big deal. But if you’re going to use a word, you probably ought to know how to do it right, whether you’re saying it or typing it.

5. Is there a smaller word you could use? Use it. Economy is everything. Sometimes, for the sake of being funny, obnoxious, pompous, and/or all three, verbose is the way to go. But most of the time? Nuh-uh. Keep it simple, sweetheart.

Remember, it’s a wise person who does not fear looking foolish–but it’s just plain dumb not to know what you’re talking about. Right? Right. Consider it value-add. For the world around you.