For ten years, probably longer, probably since we learned we were pregnant with our first child, I have imagined the conversation when I would share with my daughter that her grandfather, who she’s named after, died by suicide. His grandfather moniker was “Bugsy” for the older cousins. She never met him.
It was never about shame or anything like that, it was just about figuring out what would be the right time and age to process it in a healthy way. I even wrote a blog about it when she was just 2 years old.
Over the years, I have worked to set up this conversation by talking about mental illness, by talking about how Bugsy died from a “disease of his mind”. Talking about his life.
Yesterday, as I picked her up from school, she was excitedly describing how she had been Googling members of the family and among other things, had come across an article from years back recognizing and celebrating my Mom. We talked briefly about what an extraordinary person my Mom is and what meaningful life she has led. And, then I asked my daughter if she had read the whole article. She said she had skimmed it.
“The article talks about how Bugsy died. Did you read that?”
“Well, it’s important that you hear it from me and not from finding it in an article anyway. I’ve just been waiting until you were old enough to have the conversation. Your Bugsy died by suicide.”
Holy shit. It was out. A 10+ year mental narrative now written, looking and sounding nothing like I’d imagined and being unceremoniously delivered on a drive home from school.
I again talked to her about mental illness and explained that Bugsy’s mind was the thing that might have saved him but that it was actually the thing telling him he was an awful person and a burden to the rest of us. That he felt terrible about himself despite how much we loved him and how much he had accomplished. That’s the thing about mental illness. That he had gotten help and taken medication and done all he could do for decades until he couldn’t anymore. It was Depression that killed him.
I reinforced that it was never about keeping his suicide a secret from her. It was just about her being old enough to process it and to ask the questions she needs to ask. We don’t do secrets and no question is off limits.
I explained to her that if she chose to tell others - friends, teachers, etc. - that they may not understand. That they may try to judge Bugsy, say he did something wrong, say he was weak. This is not our truth and it is not his story. So, if she gets that kind of response, she has to know the truth.
Of course, I told her she could talk to any of the family if she had questions, when she has questions. That we talk openly and honestly about our lives and his life and his death.
She didn’t have any questions at that point, in the car, on the way home from school. Just another day. She now living with suicide too.
The car got quiet. I turned up the Christmas music just a touch.
“So, how was your English quiz?”
The Wisdom of Winter
Wisdom isn’t inherent in our darkest days, but these days are our clearest path to it.
Perhaps it’s only in the darkness, or at least in the rationing of light, that we can come to appreciate it. Appreciate what it does for us. Appreciate what it makes of us. Appreciate what we are in it.
Recognize what it does to others, what they do to it. Who creates it? Who consumes it?
The darkness asks us different questions than the light.
What does it feel like to be cold? To stay ever damp, the light never coming to dry or to offer warm reprieve? The cold and damp merging and wrapping us and dissolving us?
What does it mean to be starved for light? To believe ourselves to be desperate and in need but still knowing the sun will proceed with its plan? No control. Fewer hours. Shorter days.
How does gray feel? What are we supposed to do with it? It is a thing, this grayness. It cannot be ignored or explained with - or in contrast to - other colors. We must own it for what it is.
What happens when life skins us of our perceived beauty, or our defenses, the leaves that sway and flicker and distract with their color and charm? What’s left? We are merely who we are. What do we do with that?
What happens when we feel our bones? The deep ache of brokenness? That dull, radiating sense of being lost, exposed? Bare.
These are not questions of death or desperation or darkness. This is life. This is winter.
In winter, it is our ability to see what is, not what was, or what could be, or what should be that lets the light break through. The warmth. The growth.
In the dark and barren and broken and matter-of-fact of the season, we may see more honestly the layers and cycles and phases of light, of life, of death, of time, of distance, of our place in it all.
This is the brutal wisdom of winter.
Self Portrait: A Walk in the Woods
25 years ago, when I learned to paint and draw, the learning process had nothing to do with technique. In fact, by most people’s standards, it had little to do with painting and drawing at all – at least if I was doing it right.
I was being taught to see. Once I could see, I could paint.
And, while I don’t paint or draw at this point (someday again), I keep this lesson with me in every aspect of my life. To create, to find meaning, to communicate that meaning, I must be humble enough and patient enough and open enough and diligent enough to see myself and my world in its essence, to understand what it is offering and telling me – and then to create from there.
I took a walk in the woods today, and everywhere I turned nature was asking me questions. It caught me off guard honestly. I just wanted to get out and get some exercise with the dog, but the woods wanted me to do more. They wanted me to see. To paint. A self-portrait.
To be clear, I didn’t paint a thing – except in my mind. I tried to see what nature wanted me to see; myself, reflected in her. And, in her own constant changing with the wind and the water and the light and the seasons, she made it clear that my portrait was transient too. I am ever becoming a new self, seeing a new self, if I’m willing.
So, here’s what she asked. 9 simple questions I should probably answer every day:
What color are you today?
Color is a vibration. It is the perception of energy, wavelengths. So, what is yours today? Is it what you want it to be? How do others see it?
What colors do you surround yourself with?
How do they blend or complement or contrast with your own? What frequencies do you absorb? What bounces off?
What’s your texture today?
What coarseness is unavoidable at your age, given your life, experience? What strength can be created in the layers? What wisdom? What beauty?
What’s your light source?
Where do you find your light? Do you run toward it? Look askance? Turn your back? The light is there and it’s bigger than you.
Where do you cast a shadow?
How long is it? Is it getting bigger or smaller? Who is in it? What thrives in its cover? What fades or dies by it?
What’s your background?
What past wraps you in stories without words? What blurs and fades? What defines your form? Your sense of shape?
How much space do you take up?
Do you fill the empty space? How much positive space? How much negative? Are you the right size in your world, for your world?
What is in front of you?
What lies beyond the canvas? What will you see in tomorrow’s portrait? And tomorrow’s tomorrow? Where you look determines what you will have the chance to see.
Do you accept the beauty?
She didn’t ask where I find beauty or what I find beautiful. Its ever-presence was implied in her question. The question was whether and where and how I am willing to accept the gift.
When an artist dies
When an artist dies, the path we travel through the woods toward remembrance and celebration softly, fully thuds beneath our feet, the peaty, pungent soil reminding us it has been formed over millennia through life and death; it is solid; we are solid. But, we should step forward with intention.
When an artist dies, the wind rustles the treetops soaring above us, flickering the earliest yellows of Fall against an azure blue sky, whispering a message without words that she is still with us. The wind is now ours. We must make the meaning; we must deliver the message.
When an artist dies, the sun darts through the trees casting light on her work so we can see her hands in it; we see her labor; we see her mind; we see her heart. And, there it all is, right there before us. The artist is among us. She is not gone.
When an artist dies, the air cools in contrast to the sunny warmth of the light, enlivening and spiriting our bodies from head to toe, reminding us we are alive. We are still here. We have love to share, miles to travel, things to create, life to live.
When an artist dies, the doctrines and diocese and dogmas of the world’s religions come home to find their essence in the woods, among love and loss and celebration, with friends and family, under the gaze of a god you understand and who understands you.
When an artist dies, her work lives. In the untethering from the life of the maker, her art takes a life of its own, creating stories and memories and inspiration for all who encounter it - organically, in the universal life and narrative we share as people, perhaps along another’s peaty path toward remembrance and celebration.
Through her art, the artist reminds us that it is indeed what we do - not what we say - and what we create – not what we consume - that give form and meaning to our lives, that connect us to the regenerative spirit of the world, that give us all access to the eternal.
In loving and creative remembrance of (Aunt) Peg Van Brunt, whose life was art and whose art lives on.
May 27, 1941 – August 2, 2022
Last night, I pulled my kids back out of bed so they could come outside and see the fireflies that were practically swarming in the fields around our place. I wanted them to see the wonder, but what I saw felt far more profound.
After they finally went to bed, my mind swirled with what I’d just witnessed as they bounded and ran and jumped and laughed and frolicked and screeched through the near darkness.
The wisdom of my children and the fireflies they chase:
Create, Destroy, Connect: Digital Health's Creative Undercurrent with Anderson Williams and Kane Harrison
I was out walking my dog the other morning and as he started to slow his gait and do his extra-intensive sniffing, head down, gravity causing his lips to flap open to show his fangs, I knew he was about to do his business.
Circle. Circle. Squat. Avert eyes!
And there, as I looked away, in a lawn full of clover, a big, glaring four-leafed clover is staring right back at me. I ponder a moment to pass the time...
Dog business complete. Steam rising. Bag over hand. Well, you know the rest.
My business now also complete, I looked back to the four-leaf clover still glaring back at me. I picked it to take home to my daughters. You know, share the good luck!
And, as I walked home with a big bag of shit in one hand and a four-leafed clover in the other, I felt there had to be some life learning in the symbolic contradiction and absurdity of the image.
So, here we go:
1. Hold on carefully. Throw away intentionally. We best remember what we have in each hand! Hold on to the correct one. Throw the other one away. How we hold a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit with a loose grip, a tight grip, a couple of fingers minimizing any possible transfer to bare skin, a couple fingers gingerly trying to protect and save - this will remind us in our bodies what we are holding onto even when the mind wanders and life moves on. It will remind us what we need to let go of. We need to pay attention to how we hold things.
2. Clover with a pile of shit in it is still clover. A pile of shit in the midst of clover is still a pile of shit. Our circumstances don’t define or redefine us as we move through the shitty or clover-y parts of life. We define who we are and how we are in the world and carry that with us wherever we go – come what may. We also know this to be true for others. So, we should always recognize shit cloaked in clover for what it is. We also shouldn’t be blind to the clover just because there happens to be some shit around it.
3. Own your shit. We don’t have a lot of choice as to whether or when we have a four-leaf clover or a bag of shit. As with my walk, most of us have some of both most of the time. We can’t just drop the shit for someone else to deal with because it stinks, it’s gross, or we just want to pretend it’s all clover. We have to hold on to it carefully until we can dispose of it. It’s ours. Own it. But, get rid of it as soon as possible.
4. Seize the clover. We also don’t always have the choice to just focus on the clover. Sometimes, shit rules. Focusing on clover doesn’t magically make it disappear. So, when we do have the choice, we have to claim it. If we stop looking for the clover and holding carefully onto what we find, the shit just gets that much heavier and more stinky. Carpe clover.
5. Avoid pattern blindness. Look for the misfits. The four-leaf clover is a misfit. In the land of three-leafers, it’s probably ridiculed and bullied. But, when we look at a field of three-leafers, our eyes eventually blur and we don’t see much of anything specific or nuanced anymore. And then, the four-leafer jumps out! Our senses awaken and we start looking more closely, looking for more like it. We become curious. We become explorers. We look at all of the clover differently.
Today is not what it seems
The other day I had this idea for a blog. The next day, it wrote itself.
You see, every year around this time, I try and write something about living with suicide, my Father’s suicide, 16 years ago on April 27.
I was thinking the other day about who I am (versus who I might appear to be) every year on that day (reflecting on tragedy and loss). And, then who I am on the following day, the 28th, which was his birthday (celebrating life and love and missing that). And, then again who I am the day after on the 29th, the anniversary of the day that my life was forced to begin reconstituting, redefining, re-framing with part of its core missing (recognizing healing is a process).
Despite 16 years, I am rarely who I seem on these days. I am at work, but I am distracted. I am laughing but I’m hurting. I’m smiling and engaged but, as soon as I turn away and am back by myself, I am often bleary-eyed and exhausted. You may never see this. Those who know me well will sense it. I am not particularly good at hiding it.
As I reflected on my experience on these three days in particular, I was also mindful of a close friend and colleague who has shared his own experiences with me, those certain days of the year – the birthday, the death anniversary, the times around family holidays – when life is hardly endurable. You may never see this. Those who know him will sense it.
These days, regardless of the passage of time, are often too tender to talk about, especially at work. There is an emotional recovery period that often just isn’t practical and some work relationships you’re just not sure are ready for the transparency.
But, sometimes it’s helpful just to know that other people know that my random Wednesday in April is not the same as theirs. My Wednesday can be brutal even if the sun is shining and everything else seems normal. I don't have to think about it. Somehow it is imprinted on me now. My body knows.
Then, one day last week as I was thinking through my own experiences, remarkably and tragically, I was teaching a virtual leadership session and one of the leaders of the group stopped me before I got started to share that the team had lost a colleague the previous night to suicide. I read the faces in the little Zoom boxes as quickly as I could. I could see a couple who I knew were struggling. Many had their cameras turned off. Some turned them off at that moment. Today was not what it seemed.
I could have taught that session without ever knowing this information. I could have delivered what I wanted to deliver and felt like it was a success. And yet, without this information, without having the chance at least to acknowledge it, to pause in recognition of where people are, the session would not have been what it seemed. And, given the news of the death, without the opportunity and willingness to empathize by briefly sharing my own experience with suicide, the session again would not have been what it seemed. Not for any of us.
Every day, people are mourning, dealing with stuff, and sometimes just getting through the day without ever feeling that they can share where they are. Settle the ground. Stop hiding. Stop pretending. Ease the white-knuckling. Ask for help. Ask for space. Ask for silence. Ask for some acknowledgment. Ask simply for a little empathy.
Until we open ourselves and allow others to do the same in a safe and supportive way at work or anywhere, until we stop trying to hide our struggles and pretend they don’t exist, until we neutralize the presumed judgment of our vulnerabilities, tragedies, and very lives themselves, today will rarely be what it seems.
A friend in deed
It’s April. The month of my Father’s birthday. The day after his death. Suicide. It’s kind of a shitty month. Thank god for Spring - and friends.
I write something every year around this time out of a commitment to talking openly about suicide, Depression, and sexual abuse – no fear, no shame, no judgment. But, this year, I’m feeling reflective in ways I am not ready to express despite the 16 years that have passed. I am good, but I have thoughts that haven’t yet coalesced as to my own Fatherhood unfolding and the conversations I’ll be having before long with my daughters.
So, here I am instead writing something that has been on my mind for all of those 16 years since Dad died. Long overdue. Finally ready to be written.
It’s a story about a friend, a term redefined in this experience. Not an action story. Perhaps an inaction story. A story about something deeper. Silent. Eternal. Strengthening.
When my Dad committed suicide, in celebration of his life, we welcomed hundreds of people into our house. They were literally lined around the block. People who loved my Dad. Loved my family. People who were seeking solace themselves. People who didn’t know what else to do but show up. And, for hours, the line continued. Hugs. Tears. Confusion. Sympathy. Incoherent thoughts and reflections.
I ebbed and flowed as I greeted people. Strength coming as I consoled the old classmate or previous neighbor who never knew Dad suffered from Depression. The long hugs from those who whispered quietly in my ear that they too had been sexually abused as a child or suffered from Depression. The moments of despair when I collapsed in someone’s arms, not knowing the specific trigger, but unable to take any more in that moment. This was a community of people, of love, of trying to come to grips with suicide, with loss, with the contradiction of a powerful and confidant and formidable external persona and the person who couldn’t find himself worthy to live.
I don’t remember a lot of details of that day, or really that time for that matter - months - but I do remember this general scene as if I had watched it from the ceiling. And, I do remember my friend, vividly, the friend I met when I was 10, playing All-Star baseball at Shelby Park (the picture is a few years later, I still look 10 and he looks 17), the friend with whom my connection had been immediate, grown deep and personal over time (20 years then, 36 now), intuitive, and yet at times distant as our lives followed divergent paths, a friend who stood there in the front room of our house, hands clasped in front of him, button-down shirt, for untold hours, right there beside me.
He stood there seeming only to move when he knew I had the strength to be still, and being still when he knew I might collapse under the weight of the moment. An exoskeleton.
For hours, I never saw him leave. I never saw him eat. I never saw him go to the bathroom. He didn’t muster much conversation with anyone. He just stood there, steps from me, never leaving his post. Still. Upright. Guarding me. Protecting me. Sustaining me. I can see him today as I could see him 16 years ago.
I know he was a wreck too. I know how much he loved my Dad. And, yet.
I have no idea what I said to him that day. I have no idea if I thanked him for being one of the first to arrive and last to leave. He couldn’t know what his presence looked like, felt like, to me as I found myself looking to him - as he only looked forward - to find my strength, to find my backbone, to know that something was solid in this moment of loss and world-shifting fluidity.
For 16 years, I have held this image of Andre standing there, by me, with me, for me, as me, when I just didn’t know how I might do it myself. Not doing anything. Not needing anything. Not knowing that you were doing anything other than what you should be doing. This is the gift. This is the offering of healing from a friend when healing was yet to begin.
I have never had the courage to write this. The gratitude is easy. The writing is difficult. But, the time is finally here to say thank you. I don’t know what else to say. It feels insufficient, out-of-date, and yet as deep and profound as I can offer from one human being to another.
And, 16 years later, unsure of my words for today, April bringing a new season, a new year without my Dad, it is in long-overdue gratitude that I find my voice and continued healing.
Thank you, Uncle Dre. I’m sorry it has taken so long.
In Life and Art and Back Again
This is a curious 25+ year story of the first work of art I ever showed publicly and the first work I ever sold.
In 1995, I made my first print, a linoleum print. I was a senior in high school. I made it from a black and white image of a black man, maybe a young man, in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt, who appeared to be taking a test of some sort, or reading a sheet of paper anyway, sitting at a desk. I won an award for that print at a statewide high school art show. The linoleum block and the print still hang in my house. It also became the first piece of art I ever sold. My teacher suggested $35 dollars because the woman who wanted to buy it worked for a nonprofit and that seemed a good price for the cause. It was a moment the details of which have never left me. It was a moment when art first started shifting from something I enjoyed to showing me something about who I am.
Fast forward 7 years. I have finished college and an MFA and have returned home. I am having my first solo art exhibition of my career. It had nothing to do with education and didn’t include any linoleum prints. My sister had invited a woman named Jane who worked at a nonprofit organization called Oasis Center where my sister was on the Board. My sister thought the world of Jane. I had met her only briefly and hadn’t heard of Oasis Center. Jane came to my first solo art show.
Fast forward 3 years. In addition to teaching art, I am now doing community organizing and education advocacy with a small nonprofit that works with marginalized youth in East Nashville – the tie to that first image and artwork is not lost on me. The organization I work for called Community IMPACT is becoming a part of Oasis Center – a larger youth-focused nonprofit that could support our work and our young people more holistically. I was having my first meeting with my new boss, Jane. I sat down in her office and looked at the sliver of wall to my right above the narrow table and there was a linoleum print of a black man, maybe a young man, in a plaid, short-sleeved shirt, who appears to be taking a test of some sort, or reading a sheet of paper anyway, sitting at a desk. Jane had bought my first work of art 10 years prior. I was shocked. She was shocked. Jane had finally met the artist, or at least made the connection. We both remembered the story.
Fast forward 16 years. Jane is retiring from a life dedicated to creating opportunities for young people. My journey has been more meandering, but always rooted in what I learned in the arts, creating, communicating, connecting. I haven’t seen Jane in years except occasionally in passing somewhere along Shelby Bottoms Greenway. Out of the blue, I get an email from a former colleague who still works with Jane. It turns out that in an office move somewhere over the years, Jane had lost contact with my print. They had recently been surprised to find it in the art studio at Oasis and Jane had shared this story with her. Jane was apparently moved in seeing it again, which, of course, moved me in reading about it.
So, here we are 26 years later. My print is being cleaned up and reframed to be given back to Jane to celebrate her work and retirement - reminding me that I am an artist and that the things we create have lives and journeys and meaning far beyond us. So, today, I am writing in celebration of Jane’s journey, her gifts to the world, the possibilities and stories she has helped create, their interweaving with my own, and acknowledging a simple linoleum print that has been a curiously common thread between us for almost three decades.
Congratulations, Jane. Thanks for all you have created.
Much love. Always.
Anderson Williams (Class of 1995)