Death, Dying, Life, and Living

Image of peace sign.


We are born to die. Not that death is the goal, just that we are not meant to live indefinitely. Generally, most of us, want to stay here in this thing we experience as life, in this consciousness, this earth walk.

I’ve heard some folks say they want to live forever. But we have an expiration date. Like flowers and vegetables in a garden. Except, we live longer than a rose, longer than a tomato. Though some don’t make it past infancy, have a shorter lifespan than a flower or a berry. My cousin lost his firstborn to “crib death,” sudden infant death syndrome. And my sister lost her baby before it was born–the placenta, apparently, detached from her womb. These are horrible experiences for a parent. My cousin, forty years later, still feels the horror of finding his lifeless infant in its crib. My sister was beside herself, and the doctor told her that sometimes God knows there’s something wrong with the infant, so he spares it from suffering by taking it before it can be born. She accepted that. I’m glad for her, because it helped relieve some her grief. Poor thing. (I would’ve asked why does God pick and choose. But that’s me, and that’s another subject.)

I don’t know about heaven and hell. Except what I experience here on this earth. I don’t know about reincarnation. Though, I don’t disregard it. I just don’t know. The energy, or life force, the spirit, or what some call “the soul,” leaves the body, or just goes out, like a light, poof! and the body disintegrates. Only the bones remain. That’s all I know for sure.

When people die very old, which to me is past 85, even if it makes me sad, I generally take it in stride. “They had a good run,” I might say. But not everyone gets to grow old. That’s why I think getting old is a gift. In my book, it’s a blessing.

When John, a family friend, died of cancer ten years ago, I was devastated.

Photo of woman looking down at her pet cockatiel sitting onher chest.

Romie and Estela, photo by John Taylor. 2005

He was vibrant, healthy, smiling, joking, singing, snapping pictures. He had bought himself a camera and started taking snapshots of everything and everyone. Family and friends nicknamed him Paparazzi. Then, out of the blue, cancer. Four months later, gone. He was 44. I was stunned. Talk about feeling helpless.

Picture of man with camera at a baseball game.

John Robert Ward Taylor, aka Paparazzi, at Oakland A’s game, 2005.

The professor/poet with stomach cancer passed away a couple weeks ago. He was much loved in this community, where I now live, and where he once lived, and where his heart seemed to remain. He was 61. He died less than a month after his cancer diagnosis. Man, 61 is still too soon to go. Too soon. But Death determines when it’s time, and she hands us our Pink Slip. Ready or not.

I don’t want to fear dying. I do. But I don’t want to.

I once heard a (mediocre) poet say she didn’t agree with Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and she read her sentimental poem sentimentally about going out “gently.” It just struck me as hilarious, and a cynical, “Hahaha!” jumped out of my mouth. I was glad to be sitting toward the back of the room, because I really didn’t mean to be rude. I quickly put my hand over my mouth, and said, “Oops.” The (former) friend I was with shot me a mad dog look. I don’t think I’ll “rage against the dying of the light.” But going out gently hardly seems right. I hope to at least have courage.

A.D. Winans just turned 80. He’s still writing. Sometimes he sends out new poems to an email list, and I’m glad I get to see them. In fact, he sent one last night. It’s called Dream Poem. “Your smile hovers over me like/a hummingbird,” he writes. It sounds rather like a love poem. But it also expresses anxiety, “nightmares dark as eyebrows/do battle with the ghost eaters of night.” I know he struggles with insomnia. He had some wild days in his youth, which he’s written about. He drank with Bukowski, and he used to drink at the same bar as Richard Brautigan, my two most favorite writers. I recently re-watched the documentary, Bukowski: Born into This, and I saw Winans in it, a figure there in the background. I’ve watched this documentary so many times, and every time wondered who that man was (is), who seems to be a close acquaintance or friend. Now I know. What’s interesting to me is that when I watched this film, I wondered about this man in this particular scene, and I never would’ve guessed in a million years that one day I’d meet him, that he and I would both be invited to read at the same reading. Of all the poets I’ve ever met, Winans is the one that means most to me. I love his poetry. Love it so much. To me, he’s the real deal. (As opposed to pretentious academics, or mediocre MFA’ers.) A natural poet, like Bukowski. He has his own style and voice, though. Naturally.

Winans doesn’t seem old to me. But it’s all relative, though, isn’t it? When you’re twenty, 30 is old, 60 is super old. Then, if you’re lucky, you turn 50, and you realize you don’t feel old. In your mind, you are the same as always. When I see myself in the mirror, that’s when I remember I’m no longer young. I might say, “Oh, yeah. Shit.” Because no one likes to age, have their hair gray, thin out, and their skin wrinkle. But I’m really ok with it, at the end of the day, because I’m alive, and in fair health, and I have poetry to write, and read, and hear. For me, living is an art. I haven’t particularly done it exceptionally well, like I once did drinking, and despairing, and self-hatred, and self-destruction. But I’ve gotten better at it, and I love it.

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Big Dog

A brutal cold bug has bitten me like a big dog. I’ve been sick nearly a week.

Framed poster of David Bowie.

Framed David Bowie poster hanging in my room.

No more chills, at least. Headaches and sore throat have eased, though my throat is dry and sometimes a coughing fit feels like I might choke. Feeling shitty. And it’s been raining. At first I was happy, happy, happy — Yay! Rain! Now, I’m like, shit, more rain. It’s damp, everything soggy, the sky is gray, mud everywhere. It looks dreary, and I feel dreary.

And this morning first thing I learn is that David Bowie died. My son told me. I said, “Naw, don’t tell me!”

“Yup,” he said, nodding his head sadly. “He planned his album around it,” he added.

“Yeah,” I said, “No doubt. That’s exactly what I’d expect.”

“He went out with a performance,” my son said. “That’s Bowie. He loved theatrics,” he says, a little smile of admiration crossing his face.

I smiled too. “Yeah. He had such genius,” I said.

“Yup,” my son says.

What a loss. But he leaves us a gift, his brilliant art. R.I.P., Bowie. I salute you.

Last night I woke at three in the morning from a dream of debauchery. Seconds later, a poem began to stir in my head. I sat up and grabbed a piece of scrap paper and a pen, which I keep at the foot of my (queen sized) bed, just in case, and began to jot the words that already were beginning to fade from my memory. I tried to net the gist. I hope I can shape this into a good poem.

On Sunday there were two poetry readings I wanted to attend, the type that come around rarely, the can’t-miss-it type, and I couldn’t go. This week is poetry week, the monthly second Tuesday and second Thursday readings, but I won’t be going, not with this bad dog of a cold. Hell.

I wondered if Freddie Freeloader would attend this weekend’s big reading. The American poet laureate  was going to be there, and I know anyone and everyone who thinks him/herself someone would want to be there and rub elbows. A professor/poet was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer and they are friends, as is our SF poet laureate, and they have history here in this neighborhood. It was a reading to honor the ailing poet, to send love, prayers, and good wishes. That’s the only reason I wanted to attend. Oh, yeah, and a friend of A.D. Winans was one of the readers, Neeli Cherkovski, and I was hoping to go up and meet him. He also knew Bukowski, and in fact wrote a Bukowski biography. It’s been many years since I read it. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go.

If I had gone, and Freddie was there, I’m sure neither one of us would have acknowledged knowing each other. That’s if we even recognized each other after all these years. Hell, I’d know his energy, his smug ass trying to act like his shit don’t stink, the lying, conniving, self-serving, manipulative exploiter. He prob would’ve had his ball-busting bitch with him, that ugly dog. It would’ve been slightly awkward, but I would’ve liked for him to see my aloof ass there, just to know that I am doing all right, living my life on my terms.

It’s quite possible he totally forgot about me. But I really doubt it. Really. Because of the writing. For no other reason than that. Drunk and abusive, he told me my poetry was shit, that I was a wannabe, that so-and-so (won’t name him) hated my poetry, that I wasn’t going to amount to anything.  In a poem I wrote:

You tell me to eat my dreams.
I take a hard drink,
and eat you.

I feed on the shit he hurled at me, after I treated him with love and tenderness. He left me feeling like Alanis Morissette, and the fucker oughta know. ‘Cept, of course, I was glad when he was gone, even if I was a wreck for a while. He will forever disgust me. And I guess I will forever feel disgust at my own self. I didn’t tell him to fuck off, like I knew I should. I was too in love with self-destruction.

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End of 2015

Well, it’s midnight on the east coast. In California, still waiting for the the New Year. I’m watching Jools Holland, with this little gal on my lap. Her name is Isabel. She’s a short hair Chihuahua mix. We think she might be part miniature Pinschre. I was supposed to go to a Patti Smith concert this evening, but I can’t leave the puppy by herself. She is extremely fearful, and has panic attacks. I’ve already been hearing explosions. It’ll be really noisy at midnight. It always is on New Years here.

Photo of black and brown Chihuahua mix dog.

Isabel, Chihuahua mix we got from SPCA.

We’ve had this little dog for two and a half weeks. She’s a rescue from SPCA. I think she’s a PTSD dog. SPCA described her on their website as “a delicate flower,” which was really a euphemism for “extremely fearful.” They didn’t mention that she’d had her little knees replaced. She had “floating kneecaps,” or luxating patellas, which I have learned is common in tiny dogs. She’s only about a year and a half, and she weighs six and half pounds.They told us they got her from the dog pound, who found her roaming the streets of San Francisco. If she had been more accurately described on the website, I would have passed her up. But I saw her picture and I instantly loved her. I paid $25 bucks for them to hold her for us. I had already decided I wanted to bring her home. They were all surprised that we still wanted her after they told us about her little knees, and she didn’t exactly run up to us when we went to see her. Later, we would come to realize just how scared she is. She runs to me, and when I pick her up she shivers in terror. Sometimes she buries her little face in my arm, and whimpers. Lord knows what she’s been through. It brings tears to my eyes. I’m glad we have her with us. I love her so much!

While still at SPCA, my son took her picture, and posted to his Facebook, “She’s misanthrope like my mom, and she’s got replaced knees like me.” (My son has rheumatoid arthritis.)

I said, “Hey, did you really say I’m a misanthrope?”

And he goes, “Yup.”

I said, “Don’t say that. I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t hate people. I’m just. Fussy.” He gave me a look. Didn’t say anything, just stared. “I don’t hate people,” I repeated. He sighed, and held the look. “Oh, leave me alone,” I said. He shook his head and took another picture of the puppy, and posted it.

I looked up the word “misanthrope.” The list of synonyms were: cynic, doubter, egoist, egotist, hater, loner, recluse, skeptic, isolate. And I’m like, uh, well. OK. So, I’m most of those. Well, shit. But I don’t hate people. I hate shit. And where’s there’s people, well…

Isabel is incredibly smart! And stubborn. With a bad attitude. But, of course, that’s a cover for fear. I walk her and she shies away from every person we pass, or objects, like a tarp-covered motorcycle, or a discarded mop head lying in the middle of the sidewalk. Every noise startles her. And cities are noisy. Cars pass by with a whoosh, and sometimes honk, or have radios blaring. Buses hiss, and beep. Children shout. Sirens wail. People talk enthusiastically. Doors slam. She’s already gotten better, though. She trots along, at least, without cowering low to the ground like on the first day. But she’s hyper-vigilant and looks around, wide-eyed, worried and scared, poor baby. She needs to get rid of this bad attitude, for sure. She challenges every dog she sees. “Arrrggg, arrrggg,” she growls. “RRRRufff, ruff,” she barks. She’s saying, “Stay away from me, or I’ll kick your ass.” But it’s all talk. She’s bluffing because she’s terrified. That pit bull she stirred up today would’ve shredded her. Fortunately, the guy handled it well, and he moved to the curb, putting distance between us, held his dog’s leash firmly and kept walking. But I saw the startled look on his face, and I suppose I had the same look. But I also held the dog leash firmly, pulled Isabel toward me, and kept walking.

My son laughed when she snarled at him. Because it’s a little tiny mouth, a teeny, tiny snarl. He held a treat up to her, while she sat on my lap. She didn’t like him getting up that close. She prefers if he tosses the treat to the ground and steps away. Then she’ll timidly approach and quickly gobble it up, then runs to a safe place, like under the table, under a chair, the couch, or into her crate. She only comes to me. No one else. But I feed her, take her out to do her duty (doody), walk her, hold her when she’s scared. My son is at work all day, and he goes out on weekends, not to mention sometimes after work. He’s not a misanthrope like his mom.

Charcoal drawing of Patti Smith.

Patti Smith, charcoal drawing by Estela,

My son is at the Patti Smith concert. I heard Michael Stipe was going to open. It’s gonna be awesome, I know. I never dreamed a day would come when I would pass on a Patti Smith concert. Oh, well. Little Isabel needs me. She takes priority. She’s a lot like me. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Sometimes I have nightmares. I wake up screaming. I startle easily. I used to have a bad attitude, but I’ve learned to let things go. When I think back on it, I can see how my insecurity made me bark and growl like that. Whoo, I could be such a bitch. Well, I still can be. But only when I’m disrespected. That’s something I don’t put up with. I think that’s fair.

Well, there they are. The firecrackers. It’s midnight. It’s been the best and worst of times, an age of wisdom and absurdity, light and dark, despair and hope. May the New Year hold more love and light for all.

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Write to Be

Over 20 years ago, I said to a poet friend, “I don’t know how to be.”

I didn’t. Still really don’t. But I know, to be, I have to write. When I read, I become the work, the poem.

Graphic of Christmas card with ornament.

Happy Holiday Card.
Graphic by Estela.

When I write a poem, or a story, that I’m pleased with, I feel happy. I feel proud, like a cat who caught a mouse, or a dog that caught a gopher.

To be published, would be like being petted. “Good girl. Look what you did.”

Emily Dickinson says, “Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –”

She might’ve had an aversion to publishing, but surely she felt ambivalent. After her death, some 1800 of her poems were found bundled into hand-sewn books. I think creating her art, writing poetry, was primary. It mattered more than being published. Her writing defined her, who she was, what she was about, her purpose: Emily Dickinson, poet.

I attended a poetry reading last Thursday. It was Dec. 10, on the day Emily Dickinson was born, 185 years ago. Hadn’t planned on going up to the mic, but I was asked to. Too few  signed up to read, for a change. “You’re a strong poet,” M. said to me. She really wanted me to read. I was happy to. It was a good day for poetry.

This time of year is generally difficult for me. Doesn’t seem too bad this year. Maybe healing has gone deeper, I don’t know. Or maybe because we’re getting a little dog. We’ll most likely get a Chihuahua mix or terrier from SPCA.

Yellow cockatiel sitting on top of her cage.

My little Romie.

I haven’t had a pet since my little Romie got sick and died almost five years ago. I loved her so much. She was the sweetest thing, with a hell of an attitude. She’d stamp her little foot, shake her head, and squawk at me. It amused me that she called the shots. She made me smile, she made me laugh. She was a joy. This little piece of pure poetry.

It hasn’t been a bad year. I featured three times. I met A. D. Winans. I open mic twice a month. It’s been a good year.

But it’s been a sad year too. My son’s best friend died of cancer. He passed away only two months after we learned he was ill. Last week we learned that a professor/poet we know was taken to the emergency. A couple days later, we learned it is stomach cancer. A couple days after that, another woman my son and I knew died of cancer. She was in her forties. And Sunday morning, we learned about a woman from this community, who was a performance artist, passed away. We were shocked. I think only her family knew she was ill. Again, cancer. Not to mention, John Trudell, a man I so much admired. Fucking cancer. “It’s too much,” I said to my son, “It’s just too much.”

This makes me want to live more than ever. I mean, to be. I want to be. No Plathian erasure. Courage and adamant insistence, persistence, like Dickinson. I want to be poet and storyteller. I hope some magazines will accept my work.

About thirteen years ago, I woke up one morning and heard a voice. It came from inside my head. It was so loud, I could almost hear it with my ears, as if someone were in the room with me. It said, “You have no reason to live.” I believed it. That terrified me. I heard a disembodied voice. That shocked me. It was as if a ghoul had crept inside me during the night, maybe slipped in through my mouth, and parked itself in my brain. “You have no reason to live,” it kept saying.

“I know,” I told it, “But there might be something better up the road.” I decided I needed to just make it to the end of the day. That’s all.

For months, I rose with the sun, burned sage, said a prayer, every morning. The voice was persistent, “You have no reason to live.” I kept busy. Just get to the end of the day, I told myself. My little Romie was with me. She helped me get through it. It took about eight months, before I noticed the voice was gone. Now and then, I think, “I have no reason to live.” But writing gives me a reason.

I’m so looking forward to having a puppy.

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Graphic of green smilie with tongue hanging out, called "Shit-faced.:

Graphic by Estela.

We both drank. We were both drunk assholes. In the beginning, it was great. We laughed, pointing out absurdities, which this world is full of. We were cynical, sarcastic, sardonic. He was a skeptic, a pessimist. So was I. We were amused when we heard, or one of us came up with, a good line. “That was a great line,” he’d say.

“Yeah,” I’d agree. And we’d roll.

He was great at coming up with a good line. I admired that. He was a good writer. A very good writer. I admired his talent, his skill. When he gave me props for coming up with a good line, I was a proud puppy.

It was great, until the drama started. Then it got ugly.

He saw me through his own self-disgust, and projected his self-image onto me. He thought I was a drunk like him. But I didn’t drink myself into a stupor, wake up, unsteady with inebriation, grab the bottle, take a swig, and pass out again. That kind of drinking isn’t voluntary. I understand that now.

I saw him through my foolish, misguided Romanticism. I was reckless. I threw caution to the wind. We both dreamed of becoming great writers. “Great writers,” mind you. Not just “writers.” Wasn’t drinking part of that picture? All my faves drank hard–Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Raymond Carver, Richard Brautigan, Bukowski. I imagined we might have “the love of the century.” Our story would live on in perpetuity.

That’s laughable. But I’m not laughing. I squirm to think about it. What a fool. What a dork. I chalk it up, though.

We were both arrogant. We both had our insecurities too. In retrospect, his arrogance was greater than mine. My insecurity was greater than his. At the time, I thought it was the other way around.

I gave. He took. Oh, man, the many times I heard, “Buy me a beer. Buy me a beer. Buy me a beer.” He didn’t shut up until I bought him a fucking 40 (oz.).  And the many times I heard, “I’m hungry. You got anything to eat?”

My ex-husband and I had owned a house, which we sold five years after our divorce. We split the equity. So, I had a bit of money in the bank. Freddie knew this. Several months into the relationship, I mean, the deception, he said, “Let’s take a bus to Reno. Do you gamble? They’ll give us free drinks.”

Freddie wasn’t really a gambler. He was looking for a little spontaneous adventure. And free drinks. I knew this. But I didn’t know he was desperate for money. I learned that later. He says, “I don’t have an ATM card. Can I borrow some money? I’ll pay you back.” It was a Saturday evening. The bank wasn’t open.

“Sure,” I said, “I’ll take out a hundred. Fifty for you, fifty for me.” That was the first and only time I ever took fifty bucks to gamble. Casinos don’t interest me. I’ve gone on invitation a few times in my life. Passively. It’s been over ten years since I was last invited. I declined. I don’t care that people love to gamble. I got no problem with it. It just doesn’t interest me.

For me, the adventure was being with Freddie. I’d never taken a bus to Reno. I knew folks who enjoyed doing that, though. Sure, I was game for the experience.

In the year that Freddie was in my life, he asked me for food, beer, cigarettes, a roof over his head, a ride to and from work, a ride someplace else, my phone to make long distance calls (pre-cellphone days), and money. I didn’t want to be selfish. But I am selfish now. A healthy kind of selfish.

I had a good time with Freddie. He had personality. He was charming. He was a kick. I guess that trumped his being a freeloader. Until I learned he was a liar.

I didn’t win any money at the casino. Freddie had a great time. They brought us free drinks. He was in heaven right there. And Luck kissed his ass. Freddie would pull the lever, and bing, bing, bing, bing, bing! Woo, woo, woo! Psssshhhhh, coins poured out. He filled two buckets. He won a few rounds at the Keno table too. He quit while he was ahead. We took his buckets filled with coins to the window. He walked with a little bounce in his step, his long braid swinging side to side. The woman behind the glass took his coins and dumped them into a machine. She read the tally. She counted out the bills, as she laid them out on the counter, in that quick and skilled manner they have. Phft, phft, phft, phft. “Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty…” Freddie won over two hundred dollars.

“I’m hungry,” Freddie said. “You hungry?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Let’s go get a hamburger. I’ll buy.” On the bus they’d given us a book of coupons. One of the coupons was a discount for a burger and fries at the cafe. “Gimme your coupon,” Freddie said. It’s the most money he ever spent on me in that whole year that we kicked it. “Here,” he says, handing me two twenties and a ten. He paid me back my fifty bucks. He was all smiles. Then we marched to the casino’s cafe. Freddie got us a hamburger and fries. And a beer. After we ate, we got on the bus, and headed home. We got back at 2:00 am. He was happy as a five year old with a new trike. I was happy he was happy, like a doting mother.

Graphic of a heart, within a heart, within a heart.

“The Layers of Love,” graphic by Estela.

A couple days later, Freddie was telling his friend about our adventure. He said, “I was relieved to win that money. I was able to pay Estela back, and have some money till next payday. My bank balance was at zero.”

I said, “Wait a minute. You mean, when you borrowed that money from me, you didn’t have fifty dollars in the bank?” He shook his head. “You had no money?” I asked again, to make sure I heard what I heard. He shook his head. “No money?”

“Uh, uh,” he said, shaking his head.

“Nothing?” He nodded. “Zero?” He nodded. I couldn’t believe it. “If you hadn’t won, you wouldn’t have been able to pay me back?”

“Uh, uh,” he said, shaking his head. The expression on his face was like that of a naughty child copping to some mischief. I looked at him. He looked at me. I couldn’t believe he played me like that. “You got your money back, so don’t worry about it,” he finally said, changing his tone. He’s now looking stern, as if he’s some tough guy, and I’m a nagging bitch.

I dropped it. Not because he’s putting on this tough guy mask. He was no tough guy. I knew this. He knew this. I dropped it because I was absorbing the revelation. He was a liar. He was a liar? Oh, my god. This had never occurred to me. He was a liar. This was the beginning of the end. It was the first lie I learned about. In the final weeks, more would surface.

He quit drinking. He had to. He was a terrible mess. Trembling, hallucinating, confused, frightened. He checked himself in. That was the end of us. I was heartbroken, but relieved.

When he got out, he called me. We talked about it being over. “You lied,” I said.

“I never lied to you,” he said, adamantly. There was a short pause. Then he says, “I just didn’t tell you everything.” That wasn’t a lie. That’s how he lied.

I don’t get drunk anymore. Nor do I drink my two or three or four beers on the daily. I don’t drink on the daily at all. I drink socially, but never uninhibitedly, or recklessly. I’m not a prohibitionist. I fucking hate prohibitionists. If you can’t handle it, don’t fucking drink. But you ain’t gotta fucking moralize, man. Drinking doesn’t have to be a problem. Being drunk can be. It’s fun. Until it bites you in the ass.

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RIP John Trudell

Image of two John Trudel CDs and a documentary DVD.

RIP John Trudell. Your words remain in the air.

“My ride showed up,” someone wrote for him on his Facebook page, at his request, as he neared the end on his hospital bed.

Awe, man, the many times he was nearby, and I never had the honor of crossing paths with him. He was just like right over there, just around the corner, just a few blocks away, and I was over here. I’d learn about it later. The missed opportunity always so disappointed me. I know people who did meet him, and they all say he was down to earth. He was not aloof, or full of ego. At all. If you never heard of John Trudell, here is a pretty good article about him on CounterPunch.

John Trudell was a brilliant man. He told the truth. That’s why some people hated him. He told the truth not only about how Native people were targeted, but about how all humans are endangered by the deranged who lust after power and wealth. He warns that they mined the earth for her minerals, and now they mine our souls for our essence. I have no doubt there are some who cannot fathom this. Just as they cannot fathom Noam Chomsky’s idea of “Manufacturing Consent.” It’s the same thing.

You can check out John Trudell on Youtube.

Image of four Sacred Directions, circle with four colors, black, red, yellow, white.

Four Sacred Directions.

I had heard he was ill. I knew this was coming. Still, I’m rattled at the news of his passing. I don’t know of anyone, ANYONE, I admired more than John Trudell. Rest in peace, brother, great warrior, philosopher, poet, actor, artist, activist, human being, indigenous man. Your body is lifeless, your spirit has passed on, but your words remain in the air. May they reach many more ears, may they continue to enlighten all people of earth, may they continue to give us indigenous folks strength and courage to continue living in a good way. Peace, love, and light.

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The Mystery of Being Human

I was watching The Voice recently, and Sia was the guest performer. I said, “Well, there’s that chick

Poet dressed in black reading a poem.

Mission Cultural Center Aug 2010–I was reading dramatically, “performing” the poem. I tend to dress in black. Have for nearly thirty years.

with the shaggy dog hair gimmick.” She killed with her song, her voice, her singing. I’ve seen her before, but I hadn’t paid too much attention. The only thing I remembered was her gimmick, the hair over her face. I sort of recalled that she sang very well. I decided to look her up, find out more about her.

Oh, yeah, Chandelier. I like that song. I like it a lot. I found an NPR article. According to that article, Sia became “the celebrity she didn’t want to be” after releasing a song called Titanium, so she quit showing her face. She’s performed with her back to the audience, and she’s been known to put a bag over her face. That reminds me of the Unknown Comic from back in the 70’s. He was corny, but entertaining. My ex, my little kids, and I got a kick out of him. It doesn’t make sense to me that Sia covers her face. I mean, it isn’t as if that makes her less famous. On the contrary. I guess she wants to be only art. Not a person, just art. At least, in front of an audience, in front of a camera. Her songwriting and her singing kill. Even I, who hadn’t been paying attention, hadn’t been aware of this superstar, had been aware of some of her incredible songs. Now I know who wrote them.

You know, I think I get it. Sia wants the focus to be on her art, not on her. O.K. I get that. Like H.D. She got upset with Ezra Pound, because he published a picture of her. She wanted to be a disembodied voice.

Years ago, a creative writing instructor told me if I wanted to make it as a poet, I needed a gimmick. He said there used to be some poets who performed naked. (I think he said Ginsberg, but I don’t remember for sure.) He laughed, and shrugged his shoulders, as if he thought it was ridiculous, but amusing. He also told me getting published was just about who you knew. He said he and his friends published each other. He and his friends had (I suppose they still do) lit fame and professional success.

I never really understood what he was getting at when he told me this. Was he downplaying the idea of being published? Of being a poet? Back then, I thought he was all that. He could do no wrong. Everything he said was perfectly true. If I disagreed, I assumed something was wrong with me. Today, I see him in a different light. I think he’s sometimes full of shit. I guess it’s kind of like falling out of love: the thrill is gone. He’s just a man.

I think getting published is more than just who you know. The work matters too. And luck.

I’ve been thinking about gimmicks. Generally, I dislike them. But I guess I’m not always opposed to them. Sometimes they are the brand. Ozzy Osborne, Alice Cooper, come to mind. Johnny Cash, dressed in his signature blacks. Kiss. Grace Jones. Amy Winehouse with her big hairpiece. Elton John, Liberace. Does Marilyn Manson still perform?

Elton John has toned down the props and glimmer, hasn’t he? But I think he’s still known for the specs, isn’t he? I like some of his songs. What I like most about him is that he brought Leon Russell back into the spotlight, performing again, getting his due props. I love Leon Russell.

I always felt that Lady Gaga relied too much on gimmicks. I’m not really a fan, per se, though I do recognize she’s got a great voice. I like her. I think she’s a nice person. I’ve never met her, but my daughter, her husband, my niece, and her husband did. My son-in-law’s cousin is the “cool Nebraska guy” of the song You and I. Of course, he and Gaga have both moved on since then. I asked my daughter once if I could post some of the pictures they took with Gaga, but she ignored my email. Obviously, that was a, “No.” O.K. Whatever.

I suppose my dressing in black can be thought of as a gimmick. Freddie the Freeloader once told me he thought my dressing in black was boring. Asshole. He liked insulting me. I think he got off on it. I hate myself for having allowed it. I always told myself, “He didn’t mean that.” Of course he did. But at least I learned something about myself: I needed to raise

Graphic art, a black rose outlined in white, with white leaves and stem.

Black Rose – graphic by Estela

my self-esteem.

I don’t really know why I dress in black. I’m just drawn to it. When I was a kid, my aunt’s husband died of cancer. She moved to California, where we lived. She was dressed in black the first time I saw her. Widows wore black. (Is that a thing anymore?) Two years later, her family got on her about it, telling her she had to let it go, start living again. She was only thirty.

Seeing my aunt dressed in black made a big impression on me. I was about seven. I sometimes wonder if this is why I’m drawn to black. I don’t really know. I was thirty when I got divorced. I was in my mid-thirties when I started wearing more and more blacks. I don’t know if there is some unconscious thing going on. I only know I don’t feel right if I don’t wear black. Some people get on me about it. My daughter says it’s boring. Well, hell.

“I’m in mourning. I mourn the sins of man,” I once told someone. Mind you, I meant males, specifically, but I didn’t tell him this.

Dressing in black doesn’t make one an artist. But some artists dress in black. Some artists wear white. Flamboyance doesn’t make an artist. But some artists are flamboyant. I like black, because I’m drawn to mystery. The mystery of life. I’m drawn to deep and dark. The only black I don’t like is black magic. The mystery of being human fascinates me.

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