By the time I arrive, he’s already been waiting on the porch for a few minutes, his cigarette burned down almost to his fingertips. It’s cold outside, so I follow him into the debris of the living room, the fallout of heartbreak: beer bottles crowded on the Tibetan black-wood dresser and along the base of the couch, pair-less shoes piled in the doorway like friendly rubble, impromptu ashtrays on every open surface (jar lids, receipts, soda cans), jeans and shirts and boxers strewn in beautiful abstract patterns over the floor, not unlike the intricate mathematical scatter with which water moss grows across the face of a lake. On the loveseat, a few sweatshirts have been shaped into a lumpy pillow. The curtains are heavy and closed; the lights are as low as they’ll go.
“Sorry it’s such a wreck in here,” he says.
“Nah,” I say.
I guess it’s a wreck compared to its former form, but what’s a wrecked room to a wrecked love? Just beyond the living room, I can see the baby grand piano, too big for the tiny vestibule in which it’s housed, a shiny black meteorite in the chaos.
Wes offers me a beer, and I clear out a space on the floor where I can lean against the couch. He sits on the ground facing me, looking a little wrecked himself: stubbled and bleary and streaky. His eyes are windshields in a heavy rain, sheeted with moisture and impossible to see through. I want to make it all dissipate; I want to see the regular clarity in his face, soft and startling.
After a while, he starts talking around his heartache in wide, meandering arcs, mostly avoiding the details. I want to tell him, Take as long as you need to finish this story. I want to tell him, You don’t have to finish this story. I want to tell him, Sometimes your sadness is too big to talk about. He keeps inserting half-hearted jokes and shrugs and “you-know-how-that-goes” and trying not to cry, and finally he asks what I’ve been hoping he’ll ask all night:
“Mind if I play something for you?”
“Of course not,” I say.
He heads toward the piano, but turns right at the last minute and picks up his six-string instead. He’s angled slightly away from me, so it looks like he’s about to serenade the back wall, deep in the red shadow of the vestibule: being heard, not seen. The imprecision of the first steely melody from the guitar is a pumicing-stone to my spirit, rough enough to clear away my deadness and my surplus.
When he starts singing, it comes out like a scream, like a thunderstorm or a flood or an avalanche, everything breaking down and coming apart around us. Loose clods falling from the walls, from his hands. A lifetime of love-gone-wrong encoded into that voice. He’s singing something he wrote himself, but it’s less a song (as in something composed, intentional) than a howl down the years, ricocheting off of everything that ever hurt him, gathering new fissures and marks and dents at every change of angle and flinging itself out into the world now, a raggedy bawl trailing sorrows behind it like the clattering tin-cans behind a wedding getaway car.
Whenever I try to write lately, I feel mechanical and dry. The unavoidable panic quickly sets in: What if writing is always like this from now on? What if I never find another groove? I think a large part of the panic is just the lurking but very real dread of being irrelevant, worthless—the paranoia that if I don’t make something beautiful and worthwhile and lasting, right now or soon, then I don’t have a good excuse to be here. Why should I get to keep consuming food and air and water, when some hypothetical other human could’ve done so much more with the resources they were handed?
I know how to consume beauty—I’m an addict, a glutton—but can I make beauty, give beauty? It’s a question that hounds me wherever I go and whatever I do, and it’s a paralyzing one.
Earlier this week, Caleb met me for dinner at a pizza-and-beer garden in Berkeley, scraping casually into the seat across from me. We talked a lot about creativity and inspiration and the so-common impulse to justify yourself through the things you create—to make yourself significant. Is there anything more basically human than wanting not to be forgotten, not to be overlooked? But it’s also such a small and paltry reason to create anything—building shaky little monuments to yourself, crafting so many desperate forget-me-nots. It’s so hard to escape your own totaling self.
In the chilly Berkeley nightfall that was purple and tender as a bruise, Caleb made this not-new idea new to me: How to rest and even revel in your own smallness and expendability, how to fiercely inhabit your role as audience and appreciator of a world infinitely more wide and beautiful than you.
Maybe we were meant more to be marked than to leave marks.
Maybe we emit the most beauty when we’re just wide open channels, letting creation tear into us and through us, seeking less to form the world in our own image than to admit and honor beauties that are not our own.
“You just have to show up,” Caleb says, talking about art-making. “Let it blow through you like a storm.” I think he’s quoting someone else, but it’s an appropriate metaphor for the man in front of me: my brother, the storm-chaser.
He runs after experiences that will mark him, not thinking about how he will edit or repurpose the beauty he encounters—just letting it bless and remake him, again and again. A few weeks ago, as Northern California’s #hellastorm was on the howling rise, Caleb went surfing off the Marin headlands in the black and roiling sea; he went to be tested and shorn, to be “untroubled in his seeking,” to be beaten and marked.
With Caleb, and with all the very very best artists I know, acts of creation are just outflows of the beauties they’ve known and been altered by: all homages and imitations, offerings and response.
Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse is one of those music venues where the shows begin on time, apparently. Caleb and I arrive five minutes after the start-time for Vienna Teng, and there doesn’t seem to be a seat left in the house. We creep up and down the carpeted aisles in the dark, finally cramming both of our butts into one empty end-row seat. Vienna is already singing–
goodnight, New York / may you be always breathtaking
cold winter, sink your teeth in me / June sun, beat me blind
There’s a full-fledged storm rushing through her, right there on stage. We blink at the smattering of bright hard rain on our faces, shake the unexpected water off our lids. Her arms are rising and rising again over the keys like waves chasing each other toward shore. It feels like the roof of the place has been lifted off, like the top of my head has been cracked open; there is wind in all my crevices, wind charging out of her mouth and leaving the whole room swept and shivering.
In between songs, she becomes human again, sharing background about the lyrics and work-life anecdotes. She’s straightforward and wry and not especially electric. I still love listening to her talk, but god—what happens to a person when they’re making music? She was something else entirely, as ominous and splendid as a tower of black clouds rising up before the skies open.
let your faith die / bring your wonder