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It’s All Impossible Without Friendship

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That’s one of my oldest –and best– friends (and one of my favorite people on the planet), Chris taking a picture with his daughter.

This is the type of support you hope for, but with the people you love most you count on, it’s always humbling. Any of us should be humbled that we are fortunate enough to find, and keep, friends who see us through the times that are dark and light and everything in between.

So this is a great opportunity to say something I’ll happily repeat, going forward:

A million thanks to everyone in my life. Heartfelt gratitude to all my friends, you amazing people who helped get me where I am today, and whose solidarity ensures I’ll stay on the right path; the only path.

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Old School, For The First Day of School

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You’ve come a long way kid, I do not say to myself.

            You can’t go home again, the saying goes. Of course, if you never leave, you’re already there. But you still think about things. Today, I can walk past the school that seemed like a skyscraper, circa 1977. That’s the comfort of cliché, and I wear it when I need to, when I can. My hometown—Reston, Virginia—grew up. I grew up. Today, I look in at a classroom I may have sat in during a different century, a different lifetime. I see myself reflected in that window and wonder if I ever could have envisioned seeing this man on the outside, looking in.

You have come a long way, if you think about it (I think).

Think about it: Remember first grade? I was that kid, the pitiful little chump crying for his mother on the first day of school (the first day of the rest of your life, you did not think). It was inexplicable, even to me, on some levels. After all, kindergarten had been a cakewalk: all year, not a single issue, certainly no separation anxiety. So what happened? Stage fright stepping into the big leagues? Latent mama’s-boy syndrome? The birth of an anxiety that would stalk me like the weak and injured prey I sometimes was, on and off throughout childhood? All of the above?

The teacher, as I recall, was as sympathetic as she could be, but the show had to go on. This was old school, which is not to say it was old school: a generation or two earlier and the teacher probably would have paddled my ass and I would have been singled out, then and there, as that kid. I was that kid, but I got over it. Most kids do.

My poor mother. As if she wasn’t having her own problems, watching her second-born child (the baby) go from half-days to full days (the novelty of lunch; the redemption of recess), walking there and back, over a mile each way (this was old school, after all) and taking that next step away from her embrace and into the open if hostile arms of the wicked, wonderful world. Why was her son having issues where her daughter had none? She did what any reasonable mother would do: she figured maybe I wasn’t ready, or that I needed a little more encouragement, or that maybe if we all wished intently enough we could suspend time and it would stay 1977 forever. All of which is to say, it was intolerable to her as a mother and as a woman—as a sensitive human being—to imagine her son melting down once she was out of his sight.

Fortunately for all of us, sterner heads prevailed. Pops would have none of it (he was old school), and he stepped in and assumed the role of bad cop, the role every father eventually embraces with varying degrees of ambivalence. After all, their kids aren’t going to police themselves, are they? Before they can learn the Golden Rule, they have to understand what rules are. (This hurts me more than it hurts you, they don’t say.) And above all, you can’t stand by and do nothing while your son turns into a sissy before your eyes.

“That was a tough one,” he would later say (he’ll say it now if you ask him). “But I knew, if we didn’t make you go to school, we knew…”

He never really finishes that thought and he never really has to. We all know what that would, or could have led to. For me; for anyone. And I’m not talking about ludicrous clichés like becoming a sissy (are sissies born or made?) or crawling back into the womb—metaphorically speaking. Sometimes it’s enough just to be that kid.

I remember him taking me to school that second (and maybe third) day, grimacing at me once the waterworks started and asking me if I wanted him to take off his belt (he was old school). I didn’t want him to take off his belt, and I didn’t want to go into that classroom: my first quandary, a real-time cause and effect not found in a coloring book. The chess game was on and I could barely play checkers, but even a seven-year-old knows when it’s his move. Ultimately the fear of the belt prevailed (perhaps, on some subconscious level, the anathema of becoming that kid also played a part). Old School kicked New Age’s ass, and all was right in the world and the Gospel According to Pops.

The story has a happy ending, but it doesn’t end there.

In the interest of full disclosure, while I was able (or obliged) to make the lonely march into that classroom, I still needed a little time to complete this transition. I’m not sure how it happened, but for at least a day and possibly as long as a week, I latched on to some unfortunate second grader. Naturally, at that age—and all through high school—it’s remarkable how the kids only one year older might as well be an entirely different species. This particular kid (who, in the interest of fullest disclosure, I seem to recall was named David, but that’s a leap of faith giving my memory more credit than it deserves) was taller, quiet, and—I must have instinctively understood—an alpha dog. I followed him around like a puppy, and even as I could sense he was appalled by my desperation, I took considerable solace in the fact that he didn’t deny me. In fact, my simile is apt, because I recall he tolerated me much like an older dog deals with a sharp-toothed and impertinent pup: that look of wary exasperation, the resigned acknowledgment that it can’t cast out one of its own kind. Between Pop’s belt and David’s benevolence, I found the necessary ingredients—and impetus—for advancement: I was on my way.

A quick shout out to David, wherever you may be (and whatever your name actually is): I thank you for letting me cling to you like a remora as we cruised the halls and cubbies I would soon become comfortable with. Perhaps your example gave me an early appreciation for underdogs and those amongst us who just need a little encouragement, a little solidarity. I hope, if you have kids, they are well-adjusted and independent and have a healthy dose of old school. And if they aren’t, I hope they seek out a second grader as patient as you were, back in another lifetime when you unwittingly held the keys to the kingdom.

*Excerpted from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone (available next week!)

And, in case you understandably about to puke at the shameless sentimentality of this song choice (probably my least favorite from the great Rumours album); I actually looked to see what the #1 hit song was in the first week of September, 1977 was. It’s out of my hands, folks.

August 30

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August 30, 2002. I thought: Everything that is good about me is because of my mother.

I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I served its first-ever mass as an altar boy. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

My father said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

How did you get through it, friends and family asked.

Answer: I don’t know.

***

 She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

***

 Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

***

 How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sanctuary

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I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It is not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a short cut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The lake where I once caught sunfish; where I swam and drank my first beers. The lake where I skinny-dipped with the girl across the street, not knowing what I’d do without clothes on dry land. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflecting up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

*excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

Toast to Moms on Her 70th Birthday

Seriously bright moment.

Grateful to share this toast with my excellent friends Randy, Julene and Matt.

Cheers!

Toast to Mom's 70th

For My Mother on Her 70th Birthday

I’m scared, I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You know I’ll never leave you, right? I would never leave this place without you.”

How many times did she tell me that? How many places did she need to remind me that even if I couldn’t see her, she was still there? In the grocery store, the shopping mall, a swim meet, even a restaurant. Parents typically didn’t use words like agoraphobia back in the late ’70s. Maybe they don’t use them today, at least around eight-year-olds.

“It’s okay,” she would say. “You know I would never leave you.”

And I did know it. I believed her. It wasn’t the fear of being left alone (even an eight-year-old knows it’s irrational, even if he can’t explain it); it was the fear itself. It’s the fear itself, I didn’t say, because how can an eight-year-old articulate a concept he can’t understand? How do you convey the dread, bubbling up like blood from a scraped knee, brought on without warning or reason—the inexplicable consequence of chemistry? Only once it’s become established, a pattern, do you remember to expect it, even if you still don’t understand it. Anticipation of a word you haven’t yet learned and a sensation you can’t yet articulate: anxiety.

I’ll never leave you, she said.

And I believed her. It was never quite enough—in that moment—but it was all she could do, other than never leaving my sight. Even I could understand that. Years and too many close calls to count later, I finally figured out that I had to go through that moment, alone, and then it would never be the same. The fear disappeared and everything would be okay. It was the dread of not knowing, yet being aware it was always inside, that made those moments so difficult to deal with. I had to experience it, get past it, and then this ineradicable fear would subside.

Like her mother, she eventually became acquainted

With the white-walled world of procedures

And all that happens—before, during, after, and beyond:

Hope and fear, faith then despair—the nagging need

To believe in men and the magic of machines.

Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

There were three pictures above the fireplace: her wedding, her daughter’s wedding, and her son’s high-school graduation. So many of her friends’ marriages had ended in divorce, even the marriages she had admired and envied. So many of her friends’ children required separate sets of photographs for special occasions. They had done it, she reminded herself. They lived up to every reasonable expectation, for their children, for themselves. This was a comfort, even if it also caused an indescribable sorrow at times. Nothing lasts forever.

She sits alone by the window.

She hears the old clock, spinning above the fireplace as it always has, serving its simple purpose. Above her, a picture, a moment secure in time. In her mind, in her memory. The man, a lifetime of work and fatherhood ahead of him. And who is that woman smiling back at her? What thoughts were in that hopeful bride’s head? The same thoughts that are most likely behind every face that knows the assurance of love. What would she tell her younger self now, if she could? Everything? And to what avail? She would not have believed it; this is the redemption of youth. Who should think about anything else when all a young woman knows is the security of a healthy heart, the shuttle that spins life and expedites the enduring labors of love? She would say nothing. She has no regrets; she has done the best she could.

She closes her eyes and hears her mother: He’s beautiful. Yes, a girl and then a boy. Perfection, completion. Her prayers answered both times. She sees her daughter, married and once more a mother (a girl and then a boy; all of their prayers answered, again). She sees herself, a grandmother, but still a mother. A woman, a wife.

She considers her son and focuses her energies on his evolving design, the visions he shares with her, the way he sees himself, the way he hopes he can be. She prays it will happen, she wishes it might happen for him as well. He hasn’t found a soul mate yet but she no longer worries about him; he has found himself. His writing keeps him company and it helps keep her alive; their discussions, the things they love and share, the things he still wants to learn. Hopefully he will live that life and find ways to record what he sees.

She envisions the future and sees her husband, alone or at least without her. He would have to learn new routines, she knows. He would also have the time to recall some of the things work and married life have prevented him from pursuing. She hopes he will feel contentment if he reconnects with things that matter only to him. Mostly she prays for him to find peace, without her and for himself. She prays and worries for him, and then for the people she knows and the people she has never met. And, eventually, for herself.

Who will remember us?

This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or Anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that can’t be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after we’re gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we’re no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or hadn’t happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?

 

She said: I’ll never leave you.

Neither of us realized, then, that in addition to comforting me—like she always did—she was also preparing me for this moment.

Any time I need to be reminded that I’m one of the lucky ones, I look at the picture taken of me and my mother the day I was born. The pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one frameable shot of the post-delivery adoring gaze. Or, every child fortunate enough to have been born in a hospital (or home) under safe conditions to a mother who welcomes the moment and, most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. Surprisingly, even the week that presents a triptych of raw remembrance, comprising her birthday (August 23), and the anniversaries of her death (August 26) and funeral (August 30) have been bearable. These have become prospects for celebration, however somber, and I’m mostly able to channel that grief into gratitude for the times she was around, the time I did get to spend with her.

How do you get over the loss?

That’s the question I asked a former girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. Hearing these words, you can acknowledge—and appreciate—the sentiment; you can easily empathize with how inconceivable it is to possibly heal from that kind of heartbreak. But it isn’t until you experience it that you comprehend the inexplicable ways this reality is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you could ever envision, but if you’re one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will seldom pass when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And more, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Excerpts from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

Art and Life (One Year Later)

(2003)

Every so often I can’t help hoping that there will be a knock on my door and when I open it, who is there but my sexy soul mate, a beautiful woman who heard the blues music every time she walked by, and wondered if, according to her own fantasy, a sensitive, erudite dude had been right there all along, waiting for her, waiting for happily ever after. And after a while, she could no longer ignore the siren song escaping from the small space under the front door and came knocking.

Of course, this illusion presupposes three things, in descending order of unlikelihood: one, that there are such things as soul mates; two, that my soul mate happens to live in my building; and three, that anyone actually listens to—much less enjoys—blues music.

(2012)

Sometimes art aspires to attract life, and sometimes –all too seldom– life responds.

Sometimes life manages to surpass art: life is where the real art happens, if you are open to it; if you are paying attention. Or if you are lucky.

And sometimes a dignified and generous gentleman (you won’t use his name and you can no longer call him a stranger) surprises you.

“I love music,” he says. “And I walk past your door and always hear your records playing.”

He is holding a pile of records.

“I hear jazz and blues, and those are my two favorite types of music.”

He holds up one of his records, and it’s an artist you both admire.

“There are not many people I know who appreciate this.”

Not many people appreciate jazz and blues, you don’t need to say.

“We should listen to music together sometime,” you say.

“Well, I would like that. I’m caring for my wife and I don’t have a chance to listen to music like I used to.”

You just summed up everything I’ve been trying to write about for the past five years, you don’t say. (You can’t begin to explain, but you think about connections, omens, gifts and messages, and all that this week signifies. And what this encounter may or may not mean, and how it need not represent anything other than what it is: that elusive, soulful human touch.)

He would understand, though. And maybe you’ll get there.

For now, he’s left you with a pile of records.

“I want to find people to give these to,” he says.

I can’t tell you how much this means to me, you say.

And although he is obviously a dignified and generous man, he could not begin to understand how much you mean these words.

Bright Moments & Me (Part One)

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Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music. Not when it comes to jazz music.

How to talk about jazz music? Well, perhaps it’s better to determine how not to talk about jazz music. Hearing is believing. That’s it. And if you hear something that speaks to you, keep listening. Whatever effort you put in will be immeasurably rewarded.

Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. (For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression. It’s not possible to remain neutral while listening to Charles Mingus, who, after amyotrophic lateral sclerosis confined the colossus to a wheelchair, was obliged to literally sing his songs, composing them with his mouth when he no longer could lift a pen.)

The great Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there: when you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.

This is what jazz music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use jazz as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure; it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, usually as readymade escutcheons for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.

(When all else fails (and all else always fails) there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002 was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall (or half-recall) the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: driving from father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The emotions and sensations would become overwhelming at times, and there are those interminable hours when you are not even certain what is real or who you are. During one of these episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I had not been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.)

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such a beautiful, irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Which is why I make a request to my friends, family and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m already in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.

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“Sean Murphy writes of his loss in a way that is compelling and insightful. Anyone early in the process of grief should hear his message—that you never get over the death of a loved one, and that’s as it should be.”

—Elizabeth Rogers, Social Worker, Advanced Illness Management Program

May 27, 2015