Archive | January, 2016

StarGrief: What it means to lose our rock heroes*

15 Jan

In the early morning of January 10, along with millions, I began texting the close friends I knew would be affected by the sad news of David Bowie’s demise. One fan was sobbing: “Don’t you feel like he was your friend?” I was struck by that question and have spent my commuting hours this week pondering it and the role that rock icons play in our lives.

Just as the death of a pet affects us in a way that is more difficult to explain than the death of a person, so the powerful effect of the death of someone whose work we intensely admired—and whose persona became larger than life through the media—is intangible and near impossible to articulate. I remember breaking down at the breakfast table on April 8, 1997, when I heard the NPR announcement that Laura Nyro had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. I had loved her music from a young age, read her biographies and felt so close to her through my admiration that I was wracked with grief. I know I will be an emotional wreck once more when the time comes for others of my most revered singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Tweedy, Pete Townshend… the list goes on.

2014DavidBowie_Getty101818565_210314.article_x4Yet fame, as Bowie wrote, “puts you there where things are hollow.” It is a barrier, on one side of which are the devoted fans who appreciate and identify with the artist’s work so much that they can mistake the emotion for a love of the artist himself, though they only know a version of him from the persona he’s created, amplified by the media. On the other side of the fame barrier is the artist who, while enjoying many pleasures most people only dream about, is also isolated by his status, never sure whom to trust, and could not possibly have enough energy in one lifetime to truly connect with the millions who imagine a connection with him that is powerful and real.

While I most certainly have shed a tear in the past several days—listening to favorite songs, watching YouTube footage, playing Wes Anderson’s iconic Bowie tribute in the form of The Life Aquatic with its other worldly covers rendered by Sue George—the bottom line is that David Bowie was not my friend. How could he have been? What was he then to me and to so many others, and what are all our special musical stars, to elicit such a powerful reaction?

Starting in the 60s, music became an acute expression of the political alignments and social mores of our era. It did that so well that the music itself began to take on epic proportions. Thus the period of music in which we live has created a powerful and unique historical culture of its own. It has come to play a central role in many of our lives, acting for some almost as a spiritual conduit.

In Roman times, there were household deities that looked after people and their homes. One of these household gods, the “genius” was the individual incarnation of the divine in every person, place or thing. Not unlike our concept of the “guardian angel,” the genius would follow each person from birth until death. I see our rock icons as an incarnation of the genius or deity that we have created and chosen to accompany us on our life’s journey. We each have our own personal cultural genius, the rock-n-roll paragons who define us and inspire us, dead or alive.

So, since we didn’t really know Jerry Garcia or Freddie Mercury or Lou Reed or David Bowie, and we still have their canon of music after they are gone (which is all we really ever had), why are we all so profoundly affected when they die? Where does this type of grieving really originate?

I think their passing represents the very special connection we share with our contemporaries, made even more poignant during a crisis like the death of a musician we loved together. I first experienced this collective consciousness of sorrow back in August of 1977 when, at age 12, I mourned the loss of Elvis with my slumber party girlfriends. I felt it again in 1980 when, as a high school sophomore, I watched in horror as the TV news reported John Lennon’s assassination. Sans Facebook, cell phones and texting, we all reached out to each other then, just as we do now.

article-1027216-012A9ED500000578-778_468x480_popupThe end of a rock idol also represents our own passage into a time when we are not as connected to each other as we were in those earlier days when music held a more central place in our daily lives—when we danced ecstatically to Young Americans, sang along to Fame and Heroes in our cars or first shared Ziggy Stardust with a friend. Our strong identification with those who championed our culture was central to our home and hearth. We basked in the glow of the artists who represented the creativity, diversity and brave new inclusiveness of our epoch. Back then, we each shared the music of our icons in an intimate way with our friends, probably some of the very same ones we texted on Sunday morning.

Did I feel like David Bowie was my friend? Well, no, not really. But I can understand the sentiment—and I think he would have appreciated it too. As our genius figures pass, we are reminded how truly fortunate we are that the music and musical heroes of our era express our unique and inimitable culture, perhaps more accurately and passionately than at any other time in history.

 

*This piece was first published under the title “David Bowie was not my friend,” which seemed to be misunderstood to the extent of turning away potential readers. So, here it is again with what is, hopefully, a more palatable headline. 

 

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Epiphany of a normal day: Keep being you

5 Jan

On this Twelfth Night, eve of Epiphany, when my mother would have turned 85, I reflect on the fact that many of the people I am closest to today—both geographically and emotionally—I did not even know in January of 2011.

At that time, I was in Kentucky, and suffering terribly because of a breakup a few months before that had left me feeling completely ungrounded. I had temporarily lost my identity in another, one with whom I finally had to sever ties in order to regain my self. I remember sobbing in my friend Candace’s bedroom, “I’ve had to break up with Bruce, and I’ve realized I have no idea who I am!”

During my time of healing, I sought counseling and found, through a trusted friend’s recommendation, a wonderful therapist who I will call Ryman. I saw him only five or six times, and I shared my story and brought him texts that I wanted to use to help me weather the storm until I found dry land again. They were passages from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and Melody Beatty’s The Language of Letting Go. Ryman and I made recordings of his voice and my own that I would play in solitude, reminding myself how to get back to center, where I needed to be.

Ryman was a huge help in keeping me on course, though he constantly told me that I was the one steering the boat—I was doing all the work, and he was just there to watch and listen. Months passed. I reached the shore and regained myself… just in time to be of some comfort to my mom in her final months.

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by Warren Lynn

Now, living in North Carolina, I have a whole new social pathway, but I keep in touch with many friends and acquaintances in Kentucky and the world over. I reach out to Ryman about once a year, and he always sends a message back to tell me a bit about his life. During the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, I wrote a note to him, and his response left me reeling. Unbeknownst to me, during January last year he lost his wife, his soul mate, to a sudden illness.

“It has been a year filled with sadness, joy, thanksgiving, longing, some despair, etc., all fine and part of the process,” he wrote. “Your experience after your Mom passed was part of a continuing reminder for me that she is alive and well in my heart and in every part of my existence and everything around me.”

I responded: “I can tell between the lines that you are allowing yourself the privilege to be fully immersed in ‘the luxury of grief,’ which is a very individual experience, as unique as your relationship was. I can say nothing that will help, but only to allow all this to flow over you and into you like a river, without trying to map its course. I feel that at the 3.5-year point since I lost my mother, I am actually done with grieving because I have always allowed the grief to overtake me fully and take me wherever it wanted me to go.”

I thought about what it really was that helped me get through the first year after my mom’s death. I remembered that I felt the most lost and bewildered on the first Mother’s Day (which was almost a year after she passed) and that I wished to be able to be counseled by Ryman, but I was far away and alone.

“I read a lot of things but really, what’s helped me most was just listening to my own heart and staying tuned in to my mother through common friends and through my writing about my grief,” I wrote him. “Something that helps me that I’ve never really tried to write down is the notion of how we experience time as linear, when truly it isn’t. Because of that, it seems that one person has to ‘go’ before another, but actually, we are all already everywhere together at once. During this horrible time of separation, you are forced to remain in this linear time illusion, while she is actually free of it. So as much as you can join her in that knowing that you are truly still together, the more free you become.”

Ryman responded the next day: “I just read your email and thanks so much. I copied it onto Word and made a copy to keep in front of me as a reminder about getting centered with this experience. Today, I have been sad and had moments of feeling sorry for myself. It’s of course all okay, but I want ‘to allow it to flow over me and into me like a river’ and be open to creating something new and different. I love your ‘linear time illusion,’ which nails the reality, leading me to say, ‘Oh, I forgot about that!’ Thank you for reminding me!! So much of what you said was a reminder of what I sometimes forget. One wise person said, ‘We teach those things we most need to remember ourselves.’ That has always been true for me.”

I’m overjoyed that I could be of some help to this person who helped me remember who I was at a crucial time of self-doubt.

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by Warren Lynn

Even though now I am so much happier and centered than I was five years ago, I still have days of frustration and need reassurance. On one of these, recently, I received a wonderful message from my new colleague, Tina—one of those people I didn’t even know five years ago, but who is now a treasured friend—who texted me:

“Just keep being you: dedicated, visionary, warm, professional, deeply caring, funny, experienced, creative, kind, with a smile and laugh and deep heart that naturally just draws you in… what struck me when I first met you, then played out deeper as we started to work together is that you do all these things with poise and class. Keep being you…”

One of the coolest things about that message was that while I read it, I felt somehow disoriented and seemed to travel back in time. For an instant, I thought I was reading a description written long ago about my mom—but then I realized, this was about me.

When I start to take any aspect of life for granted, I want to always remember Ryman and how he helped me get back in my boat and get back to shore in late 2010 and early 2011. I want to remember how sudden was his loss and how effervescent his ongoing resilience. I also want always to remember being with my mother in her last days and hearing her say, “I would give anything if I could just get out of bed and come to greet you when you get home from the grocery.”

A message came to me today from someone I don’t even know, as part of a chain of uplifting quotes:

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.
One day I shall dig my fingers into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or raise my hands to the sky, and want, more than all the world, your return.”

~Mary Jean Irion

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