Sunday, January 31, 2016

The End of the Innocence

Much as we would like to, it is hard to wipe the slate clean with a new year.  The ominous cycle of life and death has little regard for calendars or resolutions.  This new year, 2016, sounded so sweet--began with a prayer, but seems to have plowed forward with extra vengeance.  Loss is our companion, hope is a short straw in a bouquet of funereal flowers.  I walk my city often on the verge of tears; the blues touches me like an old lover,  and my solitude has become a fragile room of crackled glass.

Mornings wash up on my bedroom shore and bring dream-bottled messages that elude me.  Waking no longer gives me relief; I dread meeting people and the news seems at best ambiguous.  My friends are burdened and sad; the ones that are not seem disconnected and clueless.  Some days I get the sense I know no one, and find less relief in writing.  I am overloaded and grieving for too many.  Love seems futile and disappointing; against my instincts, I expect things and find them only occasionally in books, in lyrics of people who have long disappeared and left their wisdom and old beauty in vain for a world that texts and posts.

The economy is precarious and unpredictable; markets are manipulated by the masters who profit from them; young start-ups are not fresh ideas but opportunities for venture capitalists to line their accounts with even more spectacular numbers, and create instant billionaires while whole countries are in recessions and hard-working people lose their homes.  My neighbor Jamie Dimon earns more in one hour than I earned all year.  Some of those hours are spent at lunch, napping in a private jet, having a facial, shopping, texting his decorator.

I was fortunate enough to preview the SAG award films on disc… a little disappointed by the quality of these in general-- and cried at most of them (except the Steve Jobs)… although my son says I've been crying at Nike ads these days.  Spotlight was especially upsetting; as a truly single Mom I was extra vigilant knowing fatherless boys are ultra-susceptible to any male authority attention, and found myself chronically scrutinizing coaches, mentors, counselors and even older team-mates.

Children are such special and odd creatures… they come out, like puppies--- buoyant and dependent and so trusting… and at some fatal moment, in a soft or hard landing, they are profoundly changed by one experience or other.  We protect them, we nurture them… but who's to say when circumstances-- a fire, a natural disaster, an accident-- brings pain or fear or injury into their lives… unexpected death?  In New York, the 9/11 tragedy was a kind of mass loss of innocence.

Personally I love teenagers--- it's such an incredibly fragile time… and there's that moment, for us girls, when we spread our wings a little and suddenly we are swans-- with legs, and evolving bodies and we feel our power, and a certain radiance-- boys admire us, they touch us occasionally and we are electric.  I had this odd memory of one of my best girlfriends-- we had constant sleepovers as girls of 14-16 often do, finding the company of our families unbearable without our BFF.  I was a skinny teenager, with long colt legs that felt awkward to me, but served well in ballet class.  I felt inferior to my curvy older sister who was sexy like a dark Barbie.  But one night… my friend's Dad stopped me on the way to the bathroom-- in the dark hallway he started describing my legs and blocked my path with his authorial arm.  At first I thought it was a game, but I realized, as I tried to focus on the wall-- his Ivy League diploma in a frame… with a hot shudder that something awful was happening.  I could smell alcohol on his breath, and I thought of his grey-haired wife named Mary who went to bed early, looked chronically tired, had way too many children and was not a great housekeeper.

He released me, but a boundary had been crossed.  I felt weirdly both sickened and somewhere a little flattered; I knew this kind of thing happened to women and it was sort of a coming of age.  When I applied to colleges I skipped his alma mater--- I couldn't erase the sleazy association of being disrespected in the hallway under its name.  And it put a tiny 'cap' on my new-found feminine power… it spoiled my joy and changed me.  I never told my friend, of course.

We women go through life-- not a single one of us is not disrespected in some way-- abused, touched, threatened.  We learn to navigate these episodes for better or for worse.  They taint our experience and cause us pain. We choose to keep them silent or tattle and risk being blighted by association-- hated, passed over for promotion, unchosen.  Boys, too, have these incidents-- the hideous epidemic of priest abuse seems most evil of all.  The really sad fact is these things are waiting out there like traps; our children and babies are often unknowing bait-- and even a small cruelty, a rough hand, an especially harsh scolding-- -these things wreck them and hurt them and confuse and change them, and they are too young and innocent to be able to process this.   I often remember my macho older cousin who used to camp in Death Valley with a devoted black lab; one day I discovered him beating the dog mercilessly-- the dog that followed and watched him with complete love.  It was a lesson.

What am I trying to say here?  That I feel the happy balloon of our world has been pierced and punctured irreparably?  That the paradise of beauty of this world is being polluted and ruined-- the ecology spoiled… I can no longer believe in justice and truth and our leaders are greedy power-hungry narcissists and our music heroes are hocus-pocus businessmen and gangsters?  Beauty is artificial and religion is an argument, God is holding up his hands, palms up, listening to the whistle of a distant freight train which is carrying some lethal message?  I can no longer answer questions, I am losing my faith, unsure that my loved ones will survive the week.  And for those of us in psychic or physical pain, for whom life or the ambiguity becomes unbearable… death is not pretty, and it is inevitable and present.  Our heroes and enemies die, our lovers leave and our children cry, and we are a little helpless.  It's as though the back-current just overwhelms me some days.

And somehow when you least expect it, some fragile slivery moon rises in a black sky like a tilted bowl of golden light and you feel your heart hanging on the edge like a puppet, and the lights of cars on the bridges, entering the city with some kind of hope, like a living toy train set… and you can't look away, or leave… it takes your breath away-- and here you are, between birth and death, between knowledge and ignorance--- and you try to forgive those who hurt you, those who fail to protect you… slightly ruined but still able to cry and maybe even feel some kind of desire for love-- and walk blindly into the cold night.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Man Who Sold the World

Now that I've seen so many, I  begin the new year with trepidation-- with reluctance.  It's not that I hate to leave the old behind, but the acceleration of loss in my life is tipping the balance sheet to the dark side.  Even Wall Street is following the pattern.  But the deaths-- the illnesses, the shocks-- the accidents… January is already a bit of a black hole and the downhill track seems to have taken root in only 12 days.

A couple of my friends have already ended relationships... Damage control? Some kind of prescient avoidance of rockier paths ahead?  Who knows?  Maybe the unseasonably warm December cooled their winter passion prematurely.  There was something disconcerting and ominous about a balmy New York Christmas Eve-- a sense that we would be punished for the weather oasis.   I did my New Year's Eve gig--- put on my proverbial red shoes and danced the blues-- had a couple of friends over for second-shift pre-dawn champagne toasts, and was so concerned with other people's drama that I forgot to make a resolution.  I mean, my own expectations are fairly realistic at this point; besides promising I'll do a solo gig or release an album,  I don't overcommit.  2015 was a rough year for goodbyes and memorials; I have a little more respect for fate at this age, and a sense of fragility I didn't have years ago.

The post-New Year's sidewalks of Manhattan are lined with deceased Christmas trees, some in some state of greenery, some quite dead.  The irony of having seen these same trees vertical, healthy-- freshly cut and ready to shine for a family just a few weeks ago makes this seem a bit sadder--- they are now horizontal-- end-to-end, like a funeral procession of firs, sadly waiting to be turned to mulch and maybe returned to the ground from whence they came.  The sheer number is a little staggering-- an imported urban forest graveyard.

Dismantling my tree is a solitary and ceremonious task for me.  I always put on some mood music to make the tedium of putting away ornaments and lights just a little easier.  It brings back so many deja-vu Christmas denouements-- my son's first Christmas when I could scarcely afford a small scrawny tree and sat up for 3 nights with my feverish infant while he suffered through his first life crisis.  I was terrified and alone; my gift was his recovery.  Sometimes it's Beethoven or Bach; sometimes it's the Stones or Game Theory.  The Christmas just after Jeff Buckley had died,  I played his Grace and really 'heard' the Hallelujah for the first time.  It seems there's often a late-December death among my friends-- as though someone just can't quite cross over into the next year and succumbs.  I've always thought it's not quite as bad to die in the cold--- in the snow.  The white blessing seems to soften the blackness of death.  We all dread the New Year if we're smart.  From what I've seen, the future has yet to hold a candle to the past.

Saturday night I was already sad.  I put on the remastered Led Zeppelin which has so many associations it is relatively non-sentimental.  I got up on my ladder and managed to get the job done 
before the second cd had finished.  I took a walk up to Harlem at around 11 to shake my blues and buy a few groceries and on 110th Street, I ran into a prophetic figure.  She was tall, with heavy dreadlocks and a sort of black cape-- softly weeping until I passed her, when she began to wail.  What, I asked her… but it seemed the love of her life had just passed away; she'd left the hospital, was blindly walking toward some non-future, and she grabbed onto me.  She was desperate and I was madly searching my brain-bank for anything I could offer someone in urgent grief.  He was loved, I told her--- he was surrounded by the sense of love as he crossed over… how many of us have this joy?  Most of us shuffle from day to day alone and under-appreciated… but in a moment like this everything is a drop of water to a parched country--- it is nothing.  She wept and howled, blew her nose in my pocket-napkins, and tugged at my now-wet coat (the rain had begun-- even the sky was crying) as she sank to her knees and screamed for help.  I won't leave you, I promised.  And I kneeled with her, while the reality of what had happened replaced shock with some kind of violent emotional retching.  Finally we began to walk.  I was beginning to feel exhausted and trapped, in a way, in a well of sadness which had no bottom.  I tried to distract myself with thoughts… of course I'd had the very same loss-- the one human I knew as my great love-- who had suffered and died-- the one who told me he'd never leave-- he'd left me to grapple with lesser versions of love, failed attempts at marriage and family-- a story I could never relive and a dark shadow which followed me in and out of every single year.  

At least you won't witness the first night your husband turns his back to you--  the first infidelity or indiscretion-- the wounds and injuries that punctuate a lifetime of love, I wanted to tell her… but I didn't.  Finally I walked her to a friend's home and handed her off.  We exchanged first names only; we'd shared a moment of unbearable intimacy; I was covered in her tears and secretions, and I would most likely never see her again.  But I knew this was a sign.  I was about to get some terrible phone call; the next loss of the year had been foreshadowed.  I returned home and listened again to the new Bowie release which I'd heard the night before.  It was even darker now that I began to absorb its meaning.  Sorrow, I kept thinking-- ironically went to my computer to watch the great video version of Bowie and Amanda Lear… it distracted and took me into a world I'd once lived in.  The devil's daughter, I thought, as I processed my bizarre encounter on 110th Street…. I'd lived, though.  Twenty-four hours later I received the news that shook our musical foundations-- the loss of losses, for some of us.  Our Genie, our Hero, our Enchantor… 

The phenomenon of public grief is a little easier than private.  The fact that the music of someone like Bowie has rooted in our hearts at various moments of our life-- has taken us from teenage into near-golden years…. is something that may not happen in this new world.  I can't imagine my son and his friends grieving over a fallen rapper the way this death feels so universally catastrophic and sad.  What I do know, especially after the last week--- is that loss and grief are here to stay, in my life… whether I befriend or fear them, the only escape now is my own death, which is inevitable and closer with each tree that I lay quietly on the curb with its memories and sense of past finery.  Whether we are good or bad, kind and loving or cruel and cold, we can create-- we can produce, we can try to make something of this life, but nothing, as our sadly departed Muse understood long ago-- no, nothing will keep us together.