The last four shows went like this: excellent, terrible, very good, and alright. The corresponding cities – three in Idaho and one in California – were, should you care to line them up: Boise, McCall, Sun Valley and San Rafael. At this moment, writing on a third cup of coffee with a sleeping cat at my feet, I wonder if one’s physical proximity to an event is connected to the erasure of its details, because here at my friend’s house in California, the Idaho shows are already fuzzing.
I remember opening the first night in Boise with a piano song, because I thought it was funny that the piano was, like me, white and over-exuberant. The McCall show was bad because I was playing at the same time as the local hockey team, so the club was empty for my entire set. Once again culture is bested by a sporting event.
I could elaborate on the box score of the particular shows, but I don’t think it’s very interesting. With live music, you were either there or you weren’t, and no amount of florid or enthusiastic description will do much to change that.
Better to write about what happens between the shows.
In Boise, before the White Piano affair, I talked my friend Jen into helping me shoot an audition for a film I’m interested in. I found the room in her house that had the best light – the bedroom she shared with her husband Ray. At first I felt awkward asking if we could shoot there, but then I remembered: art makes no apologies! I can’t help it if the sunlight deflecting through the south-facing window and off the white bedspread was best suited to my purpose. I set up the tripod and I was grateful she saw it my way. She read the lines from behind the camera and I responded to them from in front of it. It was a good audition.
An hour later I was at the YMCA lifting weights (you can’t really tell). Between sets I watched this skinny girl with veins popping out of her arms lift dumbbells twice as big as mine.
The next day, Friday, I drove a forgettable rental car through the Boise forest, winding through the mountain canyon along the Payette River. I made several stops to pee on the side of the empty highway. There were broad golden meadows. There were silhouettes of long-winged birds hanging in the no-cloud sky. I took pictures. I smelled the pine forest and listened to the wide rush of air push against the mountains.
In the town of Cascade I stopped at a tiny grocery store where bananas, fried chicken, and flannel shirts were available for purchase in the same aisle. Next to the grocery store was a tiny house whose bright yellow paint failed to mask the impression that the roof was suspended in a slow collapse. The sign out front said it was a coffee shop. I like coffee, also strange experiences, so I made my way across the parking lot and up a set of steps sinking sideways into the earth. I opened a pink door to the strong smell of potpourri and the thin sound of harp music emanating from tiny speakers. Wait was this a massage parlor? No, I saw muffins. I walked toward them, distracted by the presence of two old ladies to my left having what appeared to be a prayer meeting over whipped coffee drinks. They looked up at me angrily. The lady behind the muffins took my order with a suspicious expression. “Just coffee?” she asked, like perhaps she wasn’t catching my meaning. I said yes please, and watched her place a plastic melita over a cardboard dixie cup, drop in a paper cone and a large scoop of ground coffee from a can. I was finding it hard to make conversation because I could hear the old ladies muttering behind me. After a full minute, the barista asked, “Is there someone coming behind you?” I thought I misheard. “I’m sorry?” I said. “Is there SOMEONE coming behind you?” “No!” I said, dumbfounded. The woman looked at me flatly. “Then could you please close the door?” I turned around and looked. Sure enough, a four inch gap of bright light and hope from the outside world was plainly visible. I made haste to correct the offense. One of the ladies from the prayer meeting made a show of hunching her shoulders. “It’s COLD!” she scolded.
The internet doesn’t work in the mountainy part of Idaho, so while I drank my potpourri coffee and drove my forgettable rental car, I listened to the latest Radiolab episode. It was great. If you’ve ever read Oliver Sacks, you’ll know what a charming human being he was, as well as a celebrated writer and neurologist. Here, in his eighty-first year, diagnosed with a terminal cancer, he and his partner Billy elect to record some of their conversations – little snippets of Oliver talking about his impending death, his writing, thoughts on family. One of the most compelling moments on the podcast features nothing more than the sound of a fountain pen scratching paper and Oliver murmuring to himself the sentences he works to create. In these closing moments of a life well-lived, you can’t help but think bigger thoughts about your own life and whether your present course is moving toward a worthy end.
The podcast concludes with Oliver reading aloud a passage from what would be his last published essay, which appeared in the New York Times August 14, 2015. It’s called Sabbath. In it, he discusses his upbringing in an orthodox Jewish family in a suburb of London in the 1940s, how, despite his parents’ busy professions (they were both surgeons) the Sabbath Day was “entirely different from the rest of the week.” There is a touching description of his mother breaking away from work on Friday afternoon to make gefilte fish and beetroot jelly. And later, just before the sun had set, lighting the ritual candles, “cupping her hands around the flames”.
Later Mr. Sacks describes the terrible moment when his mother learned that her son was gay. “You are an abomination,” she says to him. “I wish you had never been born.”
The remaining paragraphs summarize his life’s journey, which was famously scientific, yes, but also, a very personal attempt to square a secular intellectual disposition with what he still found valuable in his Jewish upbringing. It is a moving story, with a conclusion worth repeating:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
At this very moment, approximately twenty feet away from where I now sit, a woman not yet sixty is lying in her death bed, the life knocked out of her by lung cancer. I have never met her. I just know she is there, a neighbor in the adjoining house in this quiet suburb in San Francisco. She might as well be a universe away. What is she feeling? What is she thinking about?
I only know about her because yesterday, having freshly arrived here on an airplane from Idaho, the dying woman’s husband met us – me and my friend Michelle – on the porch, holding the remains of a store-bought coconut cream pie. It was what you might call a Ruse of the Elderly – a few minutes’ worth of conversation purchased with an offhand gift. Handing Michelle the half-eaten pie, he told her the situation was dire, the medicine didn’t work, they had stopped chemo, hospice had been called and would be joining the household later this week. He relayed the information without gravity; the tone of his voice was almost cheerful. I would describe his facial expression except that I couldn’t see it because I was listening from inside the garage. I had been holding my guitar, en route to the the house, walking just behind Michelle. She went through the side door and I heard her say, “Oh hello John!” When John immediately jumped into the story of his dying wife, I stopped in my tracks and listened with a cowardly discomfort.
I keep thinking I should go over there. Play them a song or something. I have to finish this first.
What I think of when reading Sabbath, what I feel is that, would tomorrow I find myself a few days from death, I would not express an Oliver Sacks-esque peace.
Rather than dwell on it, I’d rather examine why. I’m not the first person to go through a Dark night of the Soul; maybe I can write my way through it. The goal, after all, is a worthy one. Who doesn’t hope that someday, slouching unwillingly against death’s door, he would yet look back and feel that, unpleasant though it is to depart, he at least spent well his time on earth?
I just spent the last three hours trying to write more about this but I deleted it all. I don’t really know how to do it. Plus I have to promote my shows for this weekend, which means putting on the shiny, posting something that makes people want to do my thing rather than someone else’s. Oh my god I’m not sure I can do it.
…mostly I want to acknowledge that yesterday would have been Shay’s second birthday.