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:
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.
Lessons from a 4th Grade Organizer
We are three weeks into the fourth grade and my Daughter is already on her second school-based activism/organizing campaign. It’s hard to know what is nature and what is nurture, but neither of these campaigns has been drummed up at home or from conversations with my wife or me. My daughter has just come home and said: this is what I am doing.
The current campaign has just begun: a drive to organize donations from other students in her school to help the flood victims in West Tennessee. On her own, she’s gotten support from the Principal. She’s garnered a teacher sponsor. She and her sister were making signs last night to put up around school. For a couple of days in, she’s got a pretty solid plan and process in place. We will see how it all unfolds.
But, it was her first campaign that was so important and has the most to learn from.
So, my daughter came home one day saying that she and her friends had started a petition that would ease the restrictions on standard school attire for fourth graders. No doubt, a year of being schooled at home makes standard school attire seem that much more annoying. Not to mention, as a fourth grader, she is starting to want to express herself through her fashion and accessorizing in new and different ways that are largely outside of standard school attire.
She decided she could - and should - do something about it. And, despite ultimately canceling the effort – or perhaps because of that – she illuminated some powerful lessons about organizing and life in general:
LESSON 1: Passion ignites action.
Clearly, my daughter and her co-conspirator friend had talked and were feeling strongly about their rights as fourth graders to wear what they want to, and even to be treated a little differently. They felt that as the oldest kids in school and those doing the “hardest” work that some reprieve from standard school attire would just help relieve all of that bottled up stress. While loaded with some pre-middle school drama at its source, I have to say she presented her argument logically and thoughtfully with a level of passion that I certainly wanted to encourage.
LESSON 2: You can’t go it alone.
Not to mention, by the time I even knew anything, she and her friend had already created a petition and enlisted others to help them gather signatures – which was pretty badass. They had even talked with a couple of teachers who, to their credit, encouraged the process the girls were undertaking without dismissing them, discouraging them, or otherwise derailing their passion. But, my Daughter and her friend knew they ultimately had to get the Principal’s buy-in.
LESSON 3: Start with a plan (but be willing to throw it out).
And, to do this, they were going to gather signatures from all of the 4th graders and deliver this petition to their Principal. They had decided who was going to cover which classes and which periods when they could gather signatures without disrupting their coursework. When they had all of the signatures, they would deliver the petition.
LESSON: Stay open to feedback.
So, it was at this point that I finally heard about this campaign. At dinner, my Daughter was so excited and fired up that she talked and talked and talked until I finally had to break in and ask a few questions. I told her I appreciated and supported her action, and was proud of the steps she had already taken, I could tell she had really thought about how to do this, but that I had some questions for her to consider:
LESSON: Back your passion with reason. Do your research.
To her credit and her friend’s, regarding the first question, they decided they couldn’t reasonably answer why 4th graders should be treated differently and they quickly opened there demands for school attire leniency to be more inclusive of other grades. They were no longer seeking change that privileged one group over the other. This was, I thought, a pretty great breakthrough and recognition on their part.
But, more importantly to the second question, a couple of days later, they actually did go to their Principal to ask why standard school attire was instituted in the first place. And, what they learned is that standard school attire is an attempt to ensure no one feels excluded if they can’t afford new, or stylish, or even clean clothes to come to school every day.
LESSON: Recognize your privilege - and reframe.
As she processed this learning, she explored other options. Maybe you could wear pajamas. Maybe a school t-shirt. Maybe if you didn’t have clothes to wear you could just stay with standard school attire. There were several more, but she quickly realized that all of them ended up with the same challenge: kids from lower income families always ran the risk of being spotlighted inadvertently. As we discussed this at dinner and she ran through the possible variations and adaptations of her campaign, she finally just sort of got quiet. She was obviously reflecting – also badass.
LESSON: Don’t be too proud to change.
I didn’t hear anything else about the petition for several days. So, this morning, I asked what they had decided to do. She told me she and her friends had decided not to carry through with their campaign. They didn’t want to do anything that made other students feel uncomfortable or different because they may have less money.
I am writing this having just dropped my girls off for school, loaded with signs and plans and preparing speeches to gather donations to help the flood victims. Campaign #2 is now under way, and I am again proud of her efforts (and her inclusion of her little sister – both kind and strategic).
I am sure there will be more to come, but for now, I couldn't be more proud of the campaign that wasn’t.
* And, for the record, the masks don't bother them at all!
Update: Here’s a shot of the donations for pets (with mine hoping for a ride) collected by her school and delivered to Waverly.
My Dad suffered deeply from Depression. He was sexually abused by a neighbor as a young child. Surrounded by religious judgment. Guilt. Conditional love. He wrestled with these demons his whole life. Ultimately, he committed suicide a day before his 62nd birthday. 15 years ago this month.
The last words we received from him: “I love you all, but I hate myself.”
Thanks to a neighbor who recently shared this video with me - found on a VHS tape in an attic - I just heard Dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, his way with words. His tone. Silky flow. Weather worn. Southern drawl. It could sooth just as it could cut. Eloquence colored by the language of a sailor.
I remember as a small child his reading me Cinderella and the sound and vibration and depth of the clock striking midnight as he slowed for dramatic effect - BONG! BONG! BONG! - my head resting against his chest. Feeling the vibration.
His life was brutal within - those vibrations - but most never knew it. He was charming and gregarious and made you feel like you mattered - no matter who you were or where you’d come from. He knew others’ darkness in ways no one else could understand - ways others didn’t even understand about themselves - and loved them for it. He also fought for those people, his people - in schools, in the neighborhood, anywhere he found them.
He took on challenges - in court as an attorney and in life as a Dad and Husband and as a community activist with my Mom in rebuilding our neighborhood - that just begged him to fail. I actually sometimes think he wanted to fail. It would have proven him right about himself. Fulfill the darkness.
But, he didn’t fail.
Yes, he had failings and weaknesses and flaws like any of us. But, somehow, he transformed his deepest demons into a life of beauty.
Today, amid the noise and all of the activity of our daily - often transactional - lives, we look but we never see. We do but we rarely just be. I am as guilty as any.
There is no nuance. There is no suggestion. We are missing the thrilling contradiction of bold humility, the creativity of belief, and the acceptance and ownership of the battles between our demons and our best selves. We are missing beauty.
But, we cannot have beauty without honesty. We cannot have beauty without vulnerability. We cannot have beauty without tragedy.
This is the truth of the human condition.
This is the truth of my Dad’s life in hyper-focus. This is the truth of my memories. Our lives. This month. A suicide and a birthday. The contradiction. The tragedy. The beauty.
Dad’s words in this video about our violent, crumbling, and forgotten neighborhood - an undeniable metaphor of his inner life - ring profound today as I reflect on it all:
“You’d have to be blind not to see there was some beauty there.”
Last weekend, I went hiking with my wife and daughters. We headed to a familiar trail knowing from previous hikes that the bridge was out where we needed to cross the river. But, we also knew that a couple of trees had fallen previously and created a very workable bridge that we’d successfully navigated before.
But, as we approached, we realized those two big trees were no longer lying across the river. They were gone. It’s early Spring now and we weren’t planning on swimming and didn’t have any water shoes and the water was high and quite cold - but it was the beginning of the hike and we had to get across.
Given that our trees were gone, the next obvious thing to look for were stepping stones - some pattern for us to get across without getting wet. No luck.
So, then we walked up and down the bank a bit looking for options. And, low and behold, there was actually another fallen tree reaching all the way from bank to bank. The problem was that there was no way any of us had the balance to climb across it. That wouldn’t work either.
Ultimately, we all shed our shoes and teamwork-ed it across the river - my kids were total troopers as we slipped and slid and stepped on rocks of all shapes and sharpness while our feet slowly transitioned from painfully cold to numb.
It was not easy or particularly pleasant, my daughter hurt her ankle for starters as her foot slid deep between two rocks, but we crossed and continued on a wonderful hike (albeit with a bit of a limp) that included a picnic at a waterfall.
On the way back, we approached that same crossing and that same skinny tree traversing the river - and a totally different idea came to mind. What if we didn’t try to walk on it but rather used it as a balance rail? After all, the rocks had been even more slick and more treacherous than we realized the first time. We’d still go barefoot but we’d at least have something to hold onto.
As we mulled this option, we also noticed that the river bed was markedly smoother - pretty much one solid rock - at this small section beneath this tree.
We shed our shoes and were across in no time - no slips, no falls, no ankle injuries.
This all left me curious as to why we hadn’t seen this tree and this section of the river as the solution when we first faced the problem that day of crossing the river without a bridge. We had looked right at it!
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. We initially doubled down on our problem-centric thinking. We needed to cross the river and the bridge was out, and now our familiar fallen-tree crossing was out too! We unconsciously processed this as two problems (1. Need to cross and 2. No trees) when really it was still the original problem and the absence of a previous solution. And, we unfortunately started solving for the absence of a previous solution: we needed a tree to walk across because that’s how we’d solved this before, but the one flimsy tree we saw just wasn’t going to cut it.
2. We jumped too quickly to a new solution without creatively adapting the resources we already had and knew. The tree was key to efficiently solving our problem all along - at least on this day - but when we couldn’t find one to walk across, we threw it out as part of the solution. We jumped quickly to the stepping stones strategy and then to the straight-up wading strategy without thinking creatively about how the tree could still be used in a different way to help us across the river.
3. We didn’t fully evaluate all of the variables and possibilities available with a new strategy. We knew the water was cold and we weren’t exactly excited about getting wet at the very beginning of the hike. But, once we believed that was the only option, we just made it happen. We looked at the depth of the water. We looked at the speed of the water. We knew about the cold of the water. We knew the rocks were slippery (not that slipper though!). We knew they could be sharp. But, we didn’t consider the alternative possibility of finding a smooth, solid rock floor that was just 30 feet from us - beneath that tree.
Problems and solutions both build inertia, and sometimes this is critical for efficient and quick decision-making. But, sometimes this inertia sends us on the wrong path or on a more difficult path to the same spot or perhaps even derails us altogether (my daughter’s ankle could have been a lot worse) all because of the initial ease of not thinking much or the comforting familiarity with a known version of the problem and/or solution.
So, if we can start recognizing and feeling inertia in our work and in our lives and committing to pausing just for a moment to take in the situation anew, to make sure we’ve thought of all of the variables, seen them fresh for today, and built our best options from there - rather than yesterday - we will find small moments each day that can transform how we create our way through life.
Listening to your ghosts
My Dad committed suicide 15 years ago this month.
He didn’t ask for Depression.
He didn’t have any control over his sexual abuse as a child.
He had no way to prevent his MS.
He did what he could for as long as he could - until he couldn’t anymore.
Since he died - the day before his 62nd birthday - I’ve been ever more conscious of time and of the things I can control and the things I cannot during my time on this planet.
Choices versus just life.
I have been hyper-aware of my own mental state wondering if and when that chemical imbalance of Depression - surely marked somewhere in my genes - might show up and throw me into a tailspin. Just life.
I’ve been ever cognizant of my aches and pains and weaknesses in my joints, dizziness in my head, wondering if and when MS might show itself. Again, life.
I am grateful every day that I have not yet experienced the physical brutality of MS or that dark hole of Depression. But, I also know that their absence in my life is no more because of my choices than their presence in my Dad’s was due to his.
The last year has been rough on all of us as we daily face new questions and determinations of what is in and out of our control, what is really a choice - doing our best to get through the day either way. We have been stressed and stretched in new ways and like never before. We have proven we are bigger and more expandable and flexible than we ever knew and at the same time more vulnerable.
Nobody asked for a pandemic.
Nobody had any control over a tornado or a derecho or a flood or a damaging 70 mph hail storm.
Nobody could have prevented 2020 in all of its trauma (and 2021 has been mostly more of the same).
Yet, we have done what we can do to get by - and for me, as long as I can do it.
For the first time in my life, I met a mental breaking point in December. I was never Depressed and certainly not suicidal, but something in that experience awoke my Dad’s ghost.
I rebooted for a few days and went back to work and life just as I’d left it. Back to grinding. Nothing changed. Nothing newly controlled. No new light.
I learned that as I kept pushing myself and kept grinding that something in my psyche kept getting ever so slightly darker and dimmer. Will this growing darkness awake those sleeping genes somehow? How long can I stay in this trauma before something in my biology gives?
A shadow sits just over my shoulder. Just out of sight. Just out of reach - telling me I best be mindful of where I come from.
And yet, as I openly and willingly talk about mental health with my children and with others - encouraging them and helping them get help - I find myself tested for the first time and failing. My hypocrisy around my own mental health adds another layer that dims the day further ever so slightly.
I must step up. I must control what I can control. I must practice what I preach.
I must listen to the ghost of my Dad and live the life I can while I have it. I have no idea if or when Depression or MS or another pandemic or anything else may come knocking.
Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Today, I am fortunate to have choices.
I simply must have the courage make them.
At some point late in 2020, I was riding in the car with my wife - an unusually painful process at the time due to a bulging disc - and after a few quiet moments in my own head, I blurted out:
“I haven’t felt this…just…ravaged since Dad committed suicide.”
I’m not one for drama or overstatement. 2020 had taken its toll. The tornado. The pandemic. The school situation. The concern for family. The loss of a dear friend. The economy and its impact on my startup. The extra hours each day of work. Mourning my children’s loss of their school and their teachers. The isolation - without the alone time. The state of politics and discourse and democracy. The state of truth and those conversations with my children. The disc situation.
I felt like absolute dog shit - physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
Within a few weeks, we’d add a Christmas-morning car bomb that rattled my house and an insurrection against our government to the ravaging mix.
It’s been 15 years on April 27 since my Dad committed suicide. I have written extensively about it and have always focused my language around “living with suicide” because that’s what I do every day. But, that experience took a toll on me that was remarkable and long lasting - both confounding and clarifying. It forced a sort of reckoning with my understanding of my own sense of capacity and control - taking and giving me some of each.
I have the capacity to live with suicide.
I have the capacity to prioritize where and how and with whom I spend my time and energy and love.
I have the capacity to create and iterate through my life - even when that includes tragedy and trauma.
I can control where and how and that I allow myself to grieve (just not that I need to).
I can control the kind of people I surround myself and my family with.
I can control who I am as a person and how I live regardless of the circumstance.
I don’t have the capacity to ignore my emotions and just “get by”.
I don’t have the capacity to invest in shallow relationships.
I don’t have the capacity to be all things to all people or to be my best self - especially when I feel ravaged in my very being.
I can’t control that suicide and mental illness are facts of life.
I can’t control people who don’t or can’t or won’t love unconditionally.
I can’t control what life is going to throw my way.
With all of that, I don’t know if my Dad’s suicide left me a little more dead or a little more alive. At the time, it was certainly the former. But, over 15 years of processing and evaluation and prioritizing and growing in my own life and with my own family and with my own capacity and control, I am at least more fully human than I was back in 2006. And yes, sometimes that means more tired and more hurt and more ravaged and maybe feeling a little more dead inside. But, it also means I see life with a longer arc and recognize my own capacity to bend it.
So, I come back to my query as to the toll 2020 has taken on me - and surely on all of us. What capacity has it taken from me? What has it given or shown me? What control has it proven I don’t have? What control has it proven I do have?
Has 2020 left me a little more dead or a little more alive?
I guess I don’t know yet. But, at least I do know that I have the capacity to help define the answer.
See also: Trauma Without Tragedy (The work of 2020 is just beginning)
Last week, my girls (6 & 8) got their first email account through school. They were totally psyched. They felt so big.
They had already found and were “chatting” among friends and neighbors by the time I knew they even had an account. (I’ll worry about that rabbit hole later and I feel certain it will show up in numerous blogs over the coming years.)
But, for now, presence.
Today, it’s kind of awesome just how excited they are.
Today, it’s fun to see them enabled by technology.
Today, it’s about a new tool for connecting with people they care about.
Of course, I wanted in, so I gave them my work email.
Now, they are spamming me…
And, it absolutely makes my day.
It’s a good reminder that the tools we use, whether email or Facebook or Snapchat or anything else, are not the problem. How we use them is the problem. How they reflect who we are is the problem.
As a result, we - not the technology - are also the solution.
So, today, I say email is a beautiful thing, a joy in my life, as it reflects, in the briefest moments of my day, the thoughts and love of my girls in the briefest moments of their day.
Well. It finally happened. My kids discovered Uranus.
Well…their anus…er…your anus…um…Uranus.
Giggling and vibrating like Beavis and Butthead, my two daughters (6 & 8) came home from “school” having spent part of the day learning about the solar system and the Big Bang and how the planets were formed - and, all I could get was:
“Uranus, Daddy! Uranus. (butt out, one leg bent for emphasis, exaggeratedly pointing at their butts as if directing me from a 100 yards away that they’d found something really exciting). Uranus! Like YOUR ANUS! Anus, Daddy. Get it!?”
I feel like maybe this was a beautiful moment in fatherhood. Raising two girls, it’s not that often that a Beavis and Butthead reference is accurate or warranted or endearing. Oh yeah, and planets and astronomy and the history of our world and our tiny place in it too. So glad they’re learning that!
But, URANUS! Get it!?
Aside from a fatherhood milestone, it’s really a developmental milestone. It’s a play on words. And they GOT IT! It’s a warp speed flashback through the galaxy of all those knock-knock jokes they told and didn’t get. Worse, the ones they made up and nobody got! (I actually love those.)
Perhaps most importantly, this moment - Uranus - could well mean the liberation of the Dad joke. The possibility that puns and plays on words may actually land! This seems fundamental to the evolution of our relationship, our maturing mutual respect, and enduring love. How do you build those things without first “getting” Uranus? It may well be the linguistic fulcrum upon which balances the very possibility of fatherhood success.
Am I reading too much into it? Probably. But, I get it. And, I appreciate it. And, it’s awesome.