The past gets you tomorrow

She drove to the cemetery. With no experience with the military or even death, really, she drove into the national veteran’s cemetery feeling overwhelmed. Tears hit her at the first site of a bank of white gravestones.

Finally finding the one she sought, she knelt, and tears poured fourth. It wasn’t a man she knew, not in this lifetime anyway. But the emotion was undeniable.

The hate was undeniable, the promise to give other victims a way out.

Her entire life, folks had told her to stay put. That day, crying on the grave of a seeming stranger, she knew why she’d never respected that attitude.

If someone is hurting you, you have two, maybe three choices: kill, sue, or run.

Maybe that explained why America, a country of cowboys used to settling battles with a six-shooter, had become so litigious.

That bastard in grave #930 had long ago given up the privilege to be sued, and so, all that was left was hatred. Looking back at her life, it was hard not to think some forms of hate simply turn your heart to ice.

She drove north to Taos.

A strip mall of tourism, the Southwest commodified, Taos turned her off. She kept driving. Meditation had said, Just go to a town with a Q. Weeping on that grave, she’d thought, just go till you see the metal crescent moon.

She drove to Questa, and went into a shop with a sign that said, “For your Spiritual Journey.” Inside it seemed everything was two or three dollars – talismans, incense, crosses, cards.

There was a wind chime hanging in the window, metal, a crescent moon with Tibetan bells hanging from it.

She bought it and some other trinkets that had long ago lost any value. As the woman rang her up, explaining her nonprofit mission to feed those who had nowhere else to go, she fought the sensation that she was high. She fought the very real sensation that she was two or three feet taller than this woman.

Getting back into her rented truck, with her Tibetan bells, a donation behind her, she put the truck into drive. She didn’t breathe, really, until many miles west, when she stepped her toes into the Rio Grande.

Maybe it’s John Wayne’s ghost, or Dean Martin’s. Maybe you just need water. But the weirdest experiences are baptized – or simply soothed – by water.

You can fight the crazy all day long. But one day you will reach a point where you will realize that sane, as currently defined, is full of shit.

On that day you will dip your toes into the water and you will know the simple truth: Life is unknowable. But you can find joy in trying to know it.

the fire pit

They sat in the sagging bellies of nylon folding lawn chairs. The sky behind them was blue-meets-black and before them the fire crackled orange and gold. Slumped, exhausted, hoodies from the garage over ruffles and thin tops, they gazed into those shifting flames.

Two sisters, now in the years where fifty meets sixty, and two silent husbands. Between them, where gazes met flame, were four decades of memories. Babies. Setting up first kitchens. Phone calls about Mom. Learning what marriage meant and how they would each cope with that.

Each carving out a role in the family – how she or he would each concede to the parental will, and when.

My grandpa is dead. He left a week ago. His body collapsed upon him and he slipped as gently as our modern medical system will let someone go, into that good night.

His wife was in the emergency room two days later and now snaps in response to questions – the dreary aftermath of loss. One sister is welcome and two are held this far away. The stresses of helping their mother build over their heads.

My mom and my aunt, my dad and my uncle, will sit around the fire, slowly drinking and smoking. Contemplatively. They will ponder the future of their mother and they will mark the passing of their father. It will not be a sentimental conversation. It will be oddly clear in spite of the smoke.

As a member of this clan, I believe that in the light of the fire pit, only truth is spoken. The truth may not be beautiful, and it may not be what Grandma would want to hear. But what happens here, in this quiet time, is a setting aside of the roles and the drama and the grandeur and the bullshit.

What happens here is simply four adults taking a moment, and a good long drag, to touch ground. They may not know it, but they are in the huddle.

So that, let it never be said, love tore them asunder.

a commodified soul

Asking myself big fluffy questions about art and my art and art as story versus art as craft… yadda yadda… it finally occurs to me how deeply inauthentic my work has been in recent years. Like a forgotten early 80s James Taylor song, my paintings and videos and photographs are so impersonal they disappear.

In my desire to tell moving stories, to inspire and even at times educate (many of those efforts can’t be found on this site because, hey, they kinda sucked), I kept trying to create a product. A brand name, a handle, a message.

Intuitives said: Think about who you are rather than what you do. But I couldn’t stop.

I wanted to create soul balm, vanishing cream for shame, a spray-on remedy for hopelessness. Not a terrible endeavor, but the harder I tried to document my beliefs in order to share them, the less clear they became. So I tried harder, pushing myself to codify my homegrown spirituality in some digestible form.

I didn’t want to package my ideas because it would make them more accessible, I wanted to because that’s what you do.

We live in the age of the personal brand. The lifestyle blogger, the influencer, curator, the hashtagged name. The way to excellence, today, is to pick a subject and a look and stick to it with every meme you’ve got.

And I wanted to do that about god.

Here’s the terrible truth: I have no idea why we’re here. I don’t know if there is a bliss to follow. I’m not convinced that it matters how you eat or whether you save for retirement. I’m not sure that personal growth is even possible for a lot of people.

I don’t know if anything happens after you die except the biological process of decomposition.

I do know that kindness tends to make life more pleasant, and I know that the line between kindness and weakness is perpetually shifting.

I was watching Manifesto tonight, a wonderful, very artful, movie, and remembered, Oh yeah. Artists and philosophers have only been asking these questions for thousands of years.

Questions like, Why am I here? Does any of this matter? Do I matter?

These kinds of questions are often waved off as depressing or “existential.” They are big, amorphous, dusty as the inside of a cave and dark as a starless sky. They serve no purpose, lead to no known target.

These kinds of questions will not be summarized in a hashtag.

After spending two years questing for a fresh-when-frozen, microwaveable meaning of life to sell the hungry masses one pithy tweet at a time, I am abandoning the pilgrimage. I have no answers. The existential question is all I’m left with.

And ironically, from that giant question mark in my heart, I find my voice. Simply to ask… What do you say? Why are we here?

where it begins

where it begins

It begins with an angry woman in a city gone mad. It begins with Amazon and poverty colliding, with immigrants driving for the first time in their lives alongside homeless people migrating across the city in dilapidated trailers. It begins with your mother calling, asking, “Were you caught in the shooting?” and you saying, “Probably not, since I’m afraid to leave the house and am not bleeding anywhere.”

It starts with you pulling over on the side of the road on your birthday because one too many cars have honked in one too many ambiguous traffic conflicts.

You pull over
and cry
and cry
and cry.

You do not go out, on your birthday, or try to have fun. You do not get shots with friends, you do not enjoy a slice of cheesecake at a restaurant with a view, you do not put on a red top. You just wipe the mascara-stained tears from your face and you drive home and Netflix it because what is the fucking point.

And in the midst of all this, what is left of your beating heart is asking itself, in a desperate tone Captain Kirk might have used during the climactic scene of an old Star Trek episode, Think, Scotty, think. There has to be some reason you were put on this earth and crying on your birthday is not it.

Try to remember.

Remember what keeps your heart beating.

They tell you, doctors and biology teachers and boring health articles tell you that your heartbeat is an automatic function. Your body just does certain things without you having to think about it. But you get high enough some night and on a bad trip you will know that your heart does not beat on its own and your lungs do not expel air on their own and your blood does not circulate on its own.

They do these things because there is a piece of you, albeit a very quiet, not-yet-discovered-by-doctors piece, that wills them to. That says, Keep going fellas. We’re still in this thing.

And sometimes that little biological memo doesn’t come through as often, or it comes through wrinkled or copied on old neon paper no one can read. What is this and why is it lime green? You start to forget why you’re here, and start asking a terrible question: Why bother?

“Why bother” was the question on my mind when I answered an ad on Craigslist for a two bedroom apartment on an island you can only reach by ferry. I answered the ad and made an appointment to go see it, but that night there was a storm. The woman showing the unit called and said, “Don’t come.”

I took that as an omen that I shouldn’t pursue it further, after all, who would knowingly move someplace where a little wind and rain can make it hard to get home to your bed?

But that night I went to sleep in my bed, in my cement tower, that overlooked a park where people gathered to yell at each other, because yelling at one another at home would be too boring, so let’s go to the park and yell there. When the woman with the island rental called again the next day, I agreed to give it another try, and I got on the ferry. I drove out in the dark over winding roads. The sky was big and blank over trees and fields and little houses on large pieces of property.

Sometimes you have to go mad to forget what everyone else wants, or thinks you should want. You go mad to remember what you want, even if, especially if, what you want is very, very inconvenient. And when you do, when you’re done crying and driving and eating cheesecake alone and listening to shots fired in the street, when all the unhappiness finally just bores you to hell..

You wind up standing under that big blank silent sky, listening to your heartbeat.