Monday night on the way to work, a young woman tapped me on the shoulder and told me a train was coming. I was standing on the platform, reading; she smiled at me. Was she flirting with me? It's not often you get this kind of courtesy from strangers… am I getting old and she worried I was dangerously absorbed in my book? Was it Maggie Nelson, the author, that prompted this? Or maybe I was wearing my earplugs, ready for a night of loud music… and she mistook me for a deaf woman? She was a lovely person-- I could read her spirit-- and I behaved like your typical New Yorker-- insulated and cold.
At the end of the year, the media takes stock of celebrities who have passed away over the last 12 months. Personally I hold my proverbial breath because it seems someone always dies on Christmas.
I've lost a few friends recently, have been to more than my share of funerals these months… and I just learned that 2 acquaintances suicided on the same day-- both jumpers, same zip code. Astrological, neuro-biological coincidences suggested themselves-- a bad anti-depressant prescription, dispensed at the same pharmacy? Finally a poem begins to evolve in my head with each of their psychological 'ropes' intertwining like strands of DNA. Somehow these desperate people are linked in a sort of ironic coda.
I was kind to one of the jumpers. I'd reached out to her after a less-than-stellar performance-- I encouraged her and praised her effort. This was sort of a relief, because we are not always generous enough to one another-- especially we musicians who are wrapped up in our own stage issues, our unmet expectations, equipment malfunctions, audience failures, club politics, inadequate compensation, etc. We have our petty bitternesses and frustrations, all of us… we are uncharitable and cranky. I admit to this. I try to make resolutions to be a better person and bandmate; I take stock of my flaws with a degree of scrutiny-- I come up short.
Funerals and memorials are often a sore point with me. When you are a musician, people want to honor you post-mortem by performances-- jams, concerts, fundraisers… some of these are moving and emotional, but many of them are just an opportunity for groups to showcase before a captive audience. Personally I would want nothing but maybe a Bach organ piece; and I'd rather dedicate some music or an evening from a regular gig where my thoughts about someone inform my playing. But it remains true that death is a kind of attraction-- the idea of it, the shock of it-- the spectacle of a funeral that is not ours still fascinates. We read obituaries over and over, we tweet and post, we fantasize things we might have done with this person… and some of us actually embellish and invent anecdotes. Journalists comb and autopsy information-- leak and reveal. But most of us want to deify the person who has passed. George Michael-- the most recent-- seems to have more than atoned for any sins he may have committed. He seems to have evolved into a saint in life, an angel in death. I never admired his gifts the way I loved the legacy of Prince, Bowie, Leonard, Sharon-- but his talent was huge, his success was undeniable, his fall-from-grace painfully public. He more than redeemed himself with kindness.
We are so immersed in celebrity information and imagery that we feel connected to people to whom we have no connection whatsoever. We adopt them, we feel we understand them; we make more effort reading their stories and learning about their likes and dislikes than we do vis-à-vis our actual friends. We know what is in their closet and on their nightstand. Some of us feel betrayed when these people pass away; we feel wounded and sad and personally derailed by these public deaths. For me it seems amazing that death is so finite and precise. After 9 months of germination, our moment of birth is recorded and celebrated-- the starting line-- this makes sense to me. But it seems that death should be more of a fade-out-- a winding down after a life of complexity and millions of moments-- of schoolwork and football games, of things we painted, shopping lists-- meals, births, tears, books-- lovemaking, ceremonies-- quarrels and pain-- illness, accidents-- cruelty. But there is a precise recorded moment, a finish-line, a clocked check-out. Today it was Carrie Fisher-- she was hanging on in an intensive care facility-- vacillating, still dreaming and breathing… her family and her public reached out, sent love-- and then she was gone. Now we are here; now we are not. Some of her fans felt betrayed-- what could we have done? How could we have kept David Bowie alive, made him well? My friend Jimi-- if he was a rich man, if we could have raised enough money-- would he have been sent home with a new heart? And the jumpers-- more than anyone, we feel betrayed by these people who chose to pilot their own kamikaze flights and trick fate altogether. They shocked and devastated us, robbed us of an opportunity to reach out and replaced it with yet another obituary, another funeral. We learned little.
I feel betrayed by my country, in the wake of this year's election. It is like a kind of death for me; I keep regretting I did not do more to prevent the outcome-- and it feels incredible that after the interminable months of contest-- like a 2-year-long football match-- just like that, it was done, and the winner was the loser. The worse man won. It feels like the death of humanity, the end of hope and democracy. As we go forward into yet another year, we are well aware that some of us will not last until 2018. We will crash in planes, we will become ill, we will jump. As the new political regime assumes power, I am especially anxious. I am trying to find the lesson in this turn of events, and trying to resolve I will try to seize opportunities to prevent bad things, to thwart maybe one of the jumpers or cutters or overdosers. I will try to remedy my flaws, temper my bitterness and impatience, my critical nature and my futile frustration with the state of our culture. The lucky among us will log another year. No one of us will escape tragedy or loss or failure and few of us will foresee the accidents which will devastate our lives. As humanity grows older and more complex, the trillions of past deaths do not dilute the impact of that one which has just occurred. Let us remember this as we look around the world and see universal grieving and trouble. There is celebrity and fame, and then there is the individual human heart which starts and stops and is virtually indistinguishable, one from another. Amen.