Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Turn and Face the Strange

1. Planet Earth is blue
   and there's nothing I can do.

Since the news of David Bowie's death a few days ago, I've scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, deep-cleaned the dining room carpet, purged the fridge, and polished every mirror in the house. We may not be able to hold back death or manage the violent upheaval of our own emotions, but there are other ways to control our environment. When I dragged furniture from one side of the room to the other—because doesn't rearranging a room bring order to chaos?—I found a small slip of paper tucked under the carpet.

          In pencil, in my mother's handwriting, was a transcription of a conversation, titled "Sunday Night" and hastily subtitled "Preoccupation with time."

My mother, You've left no evidences of yourself.
My father, Oh, I usually leave something behind.

          On January 14, my mother and I liked to tell each other Happy C-day. That page she'd written on had been torn from a calendar in 1962 and marks the date of my conception. What are the odds that scrap of paper would turn up again on exactly the same date 53 years later?

         It means nothing, or everything.

2. Scanning life through the picture window
     She finds the slinky vagabond.
     ("Young Americans")

When I was a kid, I spent my time daydreaming and my allowance on record albums. The only way I differed from my friends was that I'd also pinch albums from my mother's collection, like Mary Martin's "My Funny Valentine", the soundtrack from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," and stuff by Charles Aznavour. Songs like these will either make you cringe or weep with emotion. 

          Beneath most of Bowie's disguises is the heart of a chanteur, like Aznavour. I think this is why he is irresistible in any guise. Whatever he sings, however he dresses, even when he's sneering, Bowie sings to you and you alone, conveys all his soulful hurt and unabashed longing, intimate, seductive, imparting meaning with every glance and every gesture. 

          Some of Bowie's most beautiful torch songs are: "Wild is the Wind" (Nina Simone's breathtaking version came first, following Johnny Mathis); "Word on a Wing"; and "Nature Boy" (after Nat King Cole's version). Just watch him. 

          As a weird, shy kid, I occasionally worried that it was a prank, that he was making fun of me and my exaggerated emotions—and all the other lonely misfits who suffer that kind of spiritual craving for passion and connection. But watch him sing and it's impossible to doubt his sincerity. It defies logic; he is unsurpassably cool, confident, and gorgeous, but he's still one of my kind. 

3. But I don't want to leave,
    or drift away.

Like so many other Bowie fans, in my grief I consume every word about him, every image, every song. We are insatiable  because he has vanished and we want to hold him back.

          Fans, like scientists of the surreal, urgently attempt to decipher the meaning of Bowie's obscure lyrics and images. One fan, extending condolences to Bowie's wife on her Facebook page, informed Iman that Villa of Ormen is an anagram of Lover of Iman, but with an extra letter L. I had secretly googled it myself, before cleaning the oven, briefly considering the possibility that Villa Orman, a rental property in Turkey, might be significant. (Certainly there's an Eastern influence, and what about the old Bowie song I just discovered, "Yassassin," which means Long Live in Turkish—No? No.)

          Critics are similarly baffled. The New Yorker writer, Ben Greenman, had the misfortune of publishing his review of Bowie's final album, "Blackstar," the day before Bowie's death. The next day, we would learn that Bowie had been ill for 18 months with terminal cancer. In the piece, titled "The Beautiful Meaninglessness of David Bowie," Greenman characterizes the album as "prime Bowie" because of "its willingness to embrace nonsense." 

          After Bowie's death, Greenman was compelled to add a postscript. Determined to stand by his original premise, he suggested that Bowie still may have been exploring mortality as an abstract concept rather than heroically facing his own mortality. He insisted that "the album's contribution to the vexing question of human existence lies in the way Bowie struggles to articulate the human struggle to articulate." 

          Bowie himself gave only one helpful clue about its meaning, via an official spokesperson, "'Blackstar' is not about the Middle East situation."  Thanks, Dave.

4. At the center of it all
    Your eyes.

          Even philosophers have weighed in on David Bowie's death. Emmy van Deurzen, an existential psychotherapist, was interviewed by Zoe Smith for The Guardian's special supplement on Bowie (January 12).
I have already come across several clients today who said they felt incredibly upset because David Bowie had meant so much to them. They use terms such as 'he saved my life,' or 'this song got me through secondary school' or 'the grief I had when I was divorced'...Our assumptions as a society are that it is primitive, or too exaggerated, which is a no-no...We have regimented it all very carefully and cut ourselves off from these emotions. Then when this kind of thing hits, people somehow step outside of that and they rediscover the wonderful sense of communion that we have in grief.
          At the same time, of course, grief is so very lonely. At its core is the terror of rupture, abandonment, annihilation. Because the nature of grief is solitary we strive to share it, and for the very same reason we can't. Grief is a diamond: every death we endure reflects back to us every other parting and each death brings us one closer to our own. And at the center of it all, each of us is the lonely witness.

5. Panic in Detroit.
    ("Panic in Detroit")
"I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude."—Oliver Sacks

So many of us were moved by the way neurologist and author Oliver Sacks shared with us, in realtime, his experience of dying. In "My Periodic Table," one of his final essays, Sacks describes the curious comfort of detachment and the symmetry of how it has linked the beginning of his life to its end.
I have tended since my early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman...The elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
And now at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence—an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence—I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.
That Sacks wanted to share his intimate feelings about dying provides us with comfort. His detachment and lucidity have comforted me, as an ideal of poise I might learn to emulate or perhaps find already within myself when the time comes. But his calm, resigned tone bears no resemblance to my raw experience with grief and loss, which is marked by terror, rage, and cold panic. 

6. You're a flash in the pan,
     I'm the great I am.

The night before my father died, he lay like a statue in a hospital bed that had been jammed up against a window in the corner of the bedroom—a bedroom my parents had shared for a quarter of a century. I remember that when the bed was first introduced my mother tried not to cry. (Later in the hall, she had blurted out in tears, "This is the beginning of separation.") That first day of the bed, when I was alone with my father for a few minutes, is the only time I can recall being nervous around him. 

          "Well, you look comfortable, and you have a nice view here." I  pointed out the window towards a quince tree my grandmother had planted 25 years before. My father did not return my smile.

          "If you like it so much, let's trade places."
My father, posing after a heart attack.
Bowie in "Lazarus"
          Anyway, the night before my father died, he lay still as a statue and, though he was unconscious, his eyes were open. When our bodies are laid waste the fat pads above our eye sockets melt away. The skin of our eyelids shrinks back into the sockets so we're unable to close our eyes. 

           After several seconds, my father's chest would abruptly rise and fall, but between breaths, he was frozen. The shallow, mechanical breathing seemed to have nothing to do with him, as though someone were operating bellows. The statue, the bellows, we had been warned by the hospice nurse that these are signs the end is near, perhaps only hours away.

          The monkey at the foot of the bed had turned his back to my father; he seemed a bit hunched and faraway, chin in his hand, lost in thought. Once in awhile he would hop around on the bed and press his face right up against my father's face, screeching. Then he'd look straight at me, baring his teeth—he may have been grinning—before turning his back and seating himself again. 

          The monkey wasn't real, but it was no hallucination. Something unseen was present in the room, waiting, playing, and inhuman. I don't know why, out of all possible creatures, I saw a monkey. Nor can I explain why I had been briefly convinced my father's spirit was preparing to fly straight out of his open mouth (his mouth stayed open, like his eyes) and up into his self-portrait that hung on the wall behind him.

As the story goes, God introduced himself to Moses from the flames as I am. While everything else in the cosmos undergoes a continual process of change and becoming—we're born, we age, we move, we die, we change our minds—only God is uncreated and unchanging. We're a flash in the pan. Only God is

          That smug bastard. 

          In the song "Blackstar," after a haunting mystical interval—inflected with Middle Eastern sounds, electronic percussion reminiscent of machine gunfire, and something like Gregorian chant, where Bowie plays a scarecrow called Button Eyes—there is a slick, jazzy switch. The bandages and buttons are off, and now Bowie looks straight at us, wearing an elegant suit, just a little disheveled. We recognize him, leering and shimmying, thumbing his nose at us while he croons.

I can't answer why,
Just go with me.
Ima take you home.
Take your passport and shoes,
And your sedatives—Boo!
You're a flash in the pan.
I'm the great I am.

          I know this fucker—he's the same guy who sent the monkey. Oliver Sacks never mentioned this asshole, and that's probably why I pick David Bowie to be my death doula. Rather than minimizing fear or being detached, Bowie faces fear head-on and creatively, with gallows humor. Bowie fully inhabits his fear and we go with him, at times gladly. 

          I often sing when I wash dishes, but I was startled earlier to find myself swaying my hips and singing, I'm not a pop star, I'm not a porn star, I'm a Blackstar.

7. Like the leaf clings to the tree,
    Oh, my darling, cling to me.
    For we're like creatures of the wind.
     ("Wild is the Wind")      
How I spent my summer vacation (Chilmark Cemetery, Martha's Vineyard, July 1976)
My beauty checklist, age 13:
Black attire— 
Cheeks sucked in—
Talcum powder for snow-white tan—
While I've been bingeing on "Blackstar" and "Lazarus" in these days after Bowie's death, I found the need to take a break once in a while—to cleanse the palate, or prevent overdose. I admit I have used Justin Bieber ruthlessly ("Where are U Now") and, according to my ListenOnRepeat stats, "Yassassin" has cheered me up 187 times.

          In thinking so much about Bowie, I realize what had particularly inspired me
 growing up (besides his outrageous music, charm, beauty, and the way he moved). Bowie didn't shake his fist, or whine, or even explain himself. Instead of making grim speeches defending his sexual orientation, he gleefully humped his guitar player on stage. He seemed to have fun exploring the limits of various aspects of himself, and he wanted us to pay attention. 

          In early interviews, he loved to be shocking and irreverent for the sake of being quotable, but I imagine he occasionally permitted glimpses of authenticity. For example, in a Playboy interview from 1976, Bowie says people ask,
"How dare he have such a strenuous ego?" That, in itself, seemed a danger to some people. Am I, as a human being, worth talking about? I frankly think, Yes, I am. I've got to carry through with the conviction that I am also my own medium. The only way I can be effective as a person is to be this confoundedly arrogant and forthright with my point of view. That's the way I am. I believe in myself with the utmost sincerity.
This is a potent example for an awkward, shy teenager. Of course we loved him.

          Nearly 30 years later, Bowie was happily married to his second wife, the supermodel and entrepreneur Iman, and he seemed to have shed some of the old arrogance. In an interview in 2003 with CBS News-60 Minutes, Bowie was disarmingly open about what drives his art.
Searching for music is like searching for God—they're very similar. There's an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the unseeable, the unspeakable. All those things come into being a composer, into writing music, into searching for notes, and pieces of musical information that don't exist...
I guess taking away all the theatrics, all the costuming, all the outer layers of what is, I'm a writer, is what I do. I write. I started examining the subject matter that I write about and it really only boils down to a few songs, based around loneliness, I guess to a certain extent, coupled with isolation; some kind of spiritual search, and a looking for a way into communicating with other people.
And that's about it. That's about all I've ever written about in 40 years, you know. It's not really changed. And I address it in different ways throughout my life. I've changed it, maybe tried to find another approach each time, tried to find another way into the questions—by kind of disarming them [laughs], creeping up on them as somebody else, or whatever.
          I like to imagine that loneliness and isolation were banished for a decade by the success of his second marriage which, by all accounts, was uniquely stable and loving. Bowie stopped touring in 2004 because of a cardiac event he suffered onstage and didn't produce any music between 2003 and 2013. I hope his frenetic drive to create was calmed because he no longer felt isolated.

8. Let's dance!  for fear your grace should fall.
    Let's dance! for fear tonight is all.
    Let's dance! Put on your red shoes 
    and dance the blues.
     ("Let's Dance")

For those of us who grew up with Bowie, there's a feeling that he has chronicled our lives as well as his own, and in doing so he's made us braver, more interesting, and more significant. To carry on without Bowie means, in some sense, that we're on our own. We must depend on ourselves to write our own story and find its meaning. Honestly, life without Bowie is lonelier. 

          The first time I watched the "Lazarus" and "Blackstar" videos, before Bowie's death, I was appalled. I tried, but I couldn't watch all the way through. I took one look at Button Eyes (the cadaverous scarecrow) and that desperate Lazarus figure in his deathbed, arms outstretched, and saw my father. 

          We know now that Bowie had been channeling his own experience of illness and dying directly into his art. He recorded "Blackstar" during chemo and learned his cancer had metastasized in November, about two months before his death. 

          Bowie's longtime friend and producer, Tony Visconti, who worked with him on "Blackstar" said Bowie knew this was to be his parting gift. "His death was no different from his life," Visconti said, "—a work of art." But Visconti also shared that Bowie had called him only a week before his death to say he wanted to make one more album. There were five new songs already.

          Bowie, like Oliver Sacks, had been working right to the end, but was unable to complete his final project. What more did they have to tell us? It's an urgent, almost unbearable question. 
When my mother was just six, she was summoned to the bedside of her older sister, Alice, who lay dying of rheumatic fever. Alice, the bossy know-it-all, beckoned with an index finger. 

          "Come here, Araxie, I want to tell you something, " but my mother wouldn't budge. "Come over here, it's a secret," Alice said, but my mother just shook her head NoWhen my mother told this story in her 80s, she looked just like a stubborn six-year old self. 

          I'm angry and frightened just like my mother but, at times, it's curiosity that overwhelms me.
Photo by Colin Lincoln Holloway
A friend recently shared a mysterious picture he took of shadows on snow. The image appears to be the delicate imprint of an angel's wings. But look closely and you see the imprint was left by a large bird and that dark hole in the center, gouged into the snow between its wings, is the gash where the bird snatched its prey. 

          My photographer friend had the last word. "Yup, sure looks like those things," he said, "but it was a duck. I watched it take off."

"Sometimes the interpretations I've seen on some of the songs that I've written are a lot more interesting than the input that I put in." Bowie once said, and that's really no help at all. But he was never offering advice, just his way of seeing the world at a particular moment.

          At a particular moment, T.S. Eliot writes, "The journey not the arrival matters."

          Another moment, Bowie declares, "The truth is, of course, there's no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time."

          The voices we hear are our own echoes. They mean nothing, and everything. Meanwhile, I must clean my house.

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