021. Blow Through Me

I. WES

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.

*

II. CALEB

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.

*

III. VIENNA

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

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014. Addis, Remake Me

Early yellow light on the yellow walls of the room. A small room, a just-enough room. Three stories above Kenenisa Street, and I cannot find the edges of myself. I am totally formless, just spirit and not even that–undefined, borderless, in the most disturbing of ways. Unable to stand, as I am lacking legs. Unable to breathe in the exhaust-smeared air, as I have no lungs. I feel myself everywhere and unformed, just an endless web of connections, agonizingly bereft of a nucleus. Just try to walk down the stairs as an immaterial being. Just try to splash water on your face.

Oh, there. Coffee brewing on the hostel patio–that familiar sting at my nostrils–thank god, I have found my nose. This nose, just sprung into being. Created in involuntary response, as are most created things. This one olfactory edge of my being–found, to my great relief, on the front porch.

Mombella (regal hostess of the hostel) had blanketed the porch with foot-long strands of new grass–unbearably green, their sinews still flowing with soil-water. She had just finished roasting and grinding the coffee beans whose crumby evidence could be seen under her legs, and was poking a small open stove, where the beans were stewing to a tarry medication.

Addis Ababa was so beautiful. Part of me winces to remember it, it was so beautiful. After many dark, swirling, haunted months on the Swahili coast, I finally found this thrumming city-of-sunlight where I didn’t know the language, and began breathing quietly. I lost my tongue, found my lungs. The streets of Addis were filled with small tin cars, like toy cars, painted in the colors of schoolroom blocks: sky blue, lemon yellow, apple red.

There was so much smog sometimes that at the end of the day, the insides of my nostrils would be lined with black grease. I wiped it away in front of the bathroom “mirror,” just a square of glass lined by reflective silver paper, and rinsed my fingers under the tap. An American doctor I met said he knew he was taking years off his life by breathing in the Addis atmosphere– “The same as smoking a pack a day, at least.”

One day it rained, and then there were just mud rivers coursing through the city’s street-veins, the fumes washed right out of the sky and down into the packed dirt, the streetside mannequins getting soaked to their plastic skins, their silk magenta dresses bleeding dye in the downpour. Taxi-buses wouldn’t stop for anyone, they just slowed to a gentle roll. Passengers rode with their hands out the bus-door, holding open umbrellas. I sucked a popsicle in my seat, my hair in strings, soaked inside and out.

I cannot help but react hungrily, even violently, to God–sometimes I think I was born in pure reaction, a concavity shaped around God’s good creation. I’m a plaster mask on a face I adore–my contours owed fully to the life forms around which I’ve been molded. Any beauty in me emerged only in response to much greater beauty: this desire, this hurrying-towards, this feeble imitation.

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