The first day of 2019 began in the emergency room.
This round, I was the one in the gown. I’d spent much of the year prior pacing in hospitals, slumped over in oncology offices, tethered to hospice beds, holding hands, swallowing hard, saying what needed to said, saying goodbye. 2019 had a crude switch-up in store.
By age forty-four, I could have counted on one hand the number of times I’d vomited. It’s a basic knowledge, starts with an ache at the base of one ear or the other and swiftly, here come the warm alkaline salivary jets.
Deep breath, closed glottis, raised larynx, and then – forceful everything, all of it, all at once. An expeditious escape, a diving projection, a burning release.
It was easy to think that 2019 was coming for me. I started the year exhausted, reminding myself that calendars are lit differently depending on which corner of life one inhabits in a given moment. They offer structure to encourage, the soft scintillation of the yawning, open space ahead, suggest the promise of change. Other times, they set countdowns we’d rather they not; they remind of what was and is no longer. They’re time maps.
That whole month, Nick Drake’s bewitching music kept showing up with all its difficult, somehow hopeful loneliness. His 1972 song “Place to Be” is how I’ll remember January 2019.
Nick Drake’s music entered my world sometime in 1995 – in a shed behind a house one odd night in Tucson, Arizona, at a party at Forest Dunn’s house.
I was hardly twenty when I met Forest. We were two of very few men who worked at Buffalo Exchange – a second hand clothing store based out of Tucson. Forest was a couple-few years my senior and a bassist in Tucson’s beloved local band The Resonars. He had a sweetness I wasn’t used to in a man and struck me as awake and aware.
He threw a party some weekend or weeknight and at some point pressed through the crowd, grabbed my arm, said, “Lar, come with me.” And so I did. He lumbered across his back yard and I followed in quick step. He led me to a freestanding shed and it was the first time I knew he lived somewhere other than the house. It was a simple space fashioned as a studio. There was a record player, tape player, cd player, a receiver, a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft books.
Still so clear: that goofy handsome grin, his right hand sweeping his hair behind his ear. “This is totally you. Seriously, man, you need this.” Me, perched on the edge of the bed corner.
Not “you need to hear this”. He said, “You need this”.
He dropped the needle on Five Leaves Left . We listened in silence to “Time Has Told Me”. Him with a whiskey and me with a Coke, both smoking something or other.
Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mindAnd time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore
The music was alive and bright and weighted in knowing. It’s so effortless for me to access the memory of that experience.
Forest died in 2008. And twenty five years on, the connection he made for me that night has continued through the decades, through hundreds of hours of Nick Drake playing through each and every speaker I’ve owned since. We spent such little time together during a small shared period on this earth. Late night trips to Gates Pass after midnight with Sarah and Tali – four spirits in their becoming, laying in the bed of my pickup, counting constellations and listening to the snorts of javelinas pressing against the truck’s tires. A few too many beers with me and Shannon at long-gone 4th Ave haunts and far too few cups of coffee past 3am the Grill downtown. What he saw in me or why he made the effort that night, I don’t know.
But he plugged me in to a beauty.
When he died, I scribbled in some long-forgotten online obituary site: “I was terribly shy at the time and for reasons I couldn’t understand, you took to me instantly. It was like befriending a rock star – I even told my mom about my new friend in a band – ‘they even have a tape, Ma’. I remember thinking, ‘this guy really has no idea he’s exceptional’. And you didn’t. And that was undoubtedly one of your greatest charms.”
The reverberations of Forest’s warmth and kindness circled back ’round again in January.
Just on the other side of a bout with norovirus.
Such long sonic arms.
My friend Katie Rose and I have been creating language together professionally for a good fifteen years now – we work on messaging and materials promoting services for people with disabilities in Oregon – and when her father died, we shared a new knowing. Doug Rose grew sick in late 2018 and he passed away in February.
I didn’t know Doug well, but I knew well enough that he was the genesis of much of what I adore and love about my friend. They share a glow.
As she and her small circle asked themselves what it was they could or should or would do to celebrate his life, I raised my hand and offered what I could to create a visual remembrance of him. Katie sent me songs Doug loved and photos from each phase of his too-short life. Our exchange floated in a cellular space. I was honored, but nervous. Unfurling the story of another, especially those who’ve just lifted up and out, comes with a weight and responsibility. I’m terrible at greeting neighbors or managing small talk – things that come easy to most – but a process like this drew me close quickly.
“Morning Has Broken” was the first song she sent my way. Cat Stevens. Apparently a song that the rest of the world knew and I didn’t – until I was reminded that I did. My husband said it was a common song during church services when he was a wee one and we’d sung it at his mother’s memorial service in 2006.
The opening just flattens you, the lyrics a gift to understanding, the music shifting keys no less than four times in the span of hardly three minutes. Listening to it feels like waking up with a clear, joyful mind. The first time I played it, every hair from my neck to my wrists lifted.
Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world
As the video opens in darkness, the piano rises. The face of a young, handsome boy in black and white fades in. We swim through the life of a man of seventy-something, culminating in an extended shot of Doug holding his first granddaughter in his arms, looking up and out at a waterfall rushing its way down, the water rejoining. The two, embracing, watch just long enough – maybe one extra beat – then turn, step away, move up a hill toward higher ground, and exit stage left. Heading for the next adventure of whatever the day might have held in the back-then.
Seeing this version of his story projected on a screen that sunlit afternoon at a church in SE Portland was stirring. A family vibrating with loss, a congregation lifting up memories. Humans raptured in the gift of having been connected with this man, with this energy.
Our stories, they’re it. Our what. Our why. We are most beautiful illuminated.