Monday, January 11, 2016

The Stars Look Very Different Today

When a much-loved, long-time celebrity dies, those who know me have heard me say that "another chunk has been ripped from my childhood." When I woke this morning to news of David Bowie's passing, I thought to myself, "Ripped? Try ruthlessly gouged."

I can't much remember my life without Bowie's music. Space Oddity intrigued me as a little girl, especially because I have a brother named Tom. I remember listening to it and imagining what it must be like to be floating in space with no hope of return. Oddly, it was a feeling that I could understand - that feeling of distancing, of not being part of the "normal" world.

However, it wasn't until the release of Diamond Dogs in 1974 that I fell head over heels in love with Bowie's music. I was 13 and at the age where I was beginning to make my own music collection. I bought the record and I played it to death in my bedroom on my plastic portable record player. To realize the impact that Bowie had on me you have to understand that the album was a vast departure from my usual fare. Until then, I had steeped myself in the likes of John Denver and Neil Diamond. Suffice it to say, anyone looking at my record collection back then wouldn't have seen Bowie as the next logical step.

I bought it because I liked his name. Seriously - David Bowie - what a cool name! I also liked how bizarre the album cover was. I knew nothing about the music. To my credit, this - buying an album or book based on its cover - is how I've discovered some tremendous music and literature, as was the case with Diamond Dogs. I brought the album home, spun it on my shabby little "stereo" and got completely lost in it. It was different and Bowie's voice had that come-with-me Pied Piper quality. I would have followed him anywhere.

And I did. I bought nearly everything he released over the years. The forms changed from records, to cassettes, to CDs, to mpg downloads, but the music remained sturdy and steady. I never grew out of his songs the way I have with some others. They come back to me and make sense to me in different ways at different ages and moments in my life. That, friends n' neighbors, is true artistry. His recording of Little Drummer Boy with Bing Crosby made me love a song that I thought was utterly boring. He put out great rock n' roll tunes and then did a feature movie with muppets, Labyrinth, which I loved. Come on, muppets paired with really cool music and dark, creepy undertones? Nobody but Bowie could have pulled that one off.

The list could go on. It comes down to this: My love for Bowie's music and his sometimes peculiar brand of genius spans half a century. So, I sit here in tears as I type this, feeling as though something tremendous in my life has been torn away. And yet, it hasn't really. I still have all the music. I still have access to that genius. I have all the words and songs and images to feast on, and what a feast it is.

A mash up of two different Bowie tunes sums up my feelings this morning,

As the world falls down...
Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.

Thank you, David Bowie, for the impressive soundtrack you gave to my life. "I'll stick with you baby for a thousand years."

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ten Things to Take With You on the Ride Through 2016

I first posted this list in 2009. It's a list that has stayed with me and is now well-used, crumpled, worn, and torn in a couple of spots - none of which has any effect on its usefulness. So, I present it to you again, slightly reworked and revamped, but still intact with respect to its original spirit and thought process.

I wish you all a very
Happy New Year!

Now, without further ado...

Here is my basic Life Toolkit - also known as Ten Things to Take With You on the Ride Through 2016. I promise, you'll be equipped to deal with pretty much everything if you keep these in mind.

  • Never mind that the word kindness is a noun - it is an action, and it requires action. No one was ever accused of being kind who sat in a corner doing nothing. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, Time does not heal all wounds. Nature does. Surrounding oneself with natural beauty reminds one that everything shares an interconnection and that sometimes the big heavy stuff (while seeming to require a mental forklift on our individual parts) is but a grain of sand in the grand schema. That doesn't mean that we or our lives are in any way insignificant - keep in mind that a single grain of sand can change everything (ever get one caught in your eye?). 
  • Laughter is a requirement, particularly the ability to use it while looking in the mirror. 
  • Significant events in life will happen if you're ready or not. Keep these emergency supplies handy: observation, openness, at least one good friend (with two good ears), inventiveness and/or creativity, sense of humor, water, and chocolate. 
  • Love, while a useful tool, is not a possession. Give it away. The one who dies with the emptiest toolbox wins. 
  • Music is as essential to survival as food is. It can change an attitude. It can fix a mood. It just plain feels good to belt out a familiar tune, or dance (even if it's alone in the living room), or close your eyes and escape to whatever desert island awaits (I hear Bob Marley and I don't care how cold it is - I'm puttin' on a Hawaiian shirt!). And so, as the man sang, "Lively up yourself. Don't be no drag." 
  • Physical Fitness, Mental Fitness, and Spiritual Fitness are a triad and require strength on all three sides. Therefore on a daily "nutritional" basis:
Eat Well - We all know how to do that, I don't need to expound.
Think (outside the box will give you the best workout) - Learn something, feed your head.
Meditate - dream, pray, whatever you want to call it, so long as you take time to nurture your spirit.
Get daily exercise - Walk, get outside and get outside yourself!
Experience - give your heart a very long leash, remembering the words of Rilke: no feeling is final.

  • Connect with Innocence, whether it's a child or an animal. Seeing the world through unblemished, unjaded, non-judgmental, unconditionally loving eyes is a joyful thing. If you don't have a child or a pet, visit one - generally speaking, good parents and good pet owners are happy to share. 
  • Sometimes the person you need most in your life is (still) a stranger. Sometimes the person they most need is YOU. Say hello (with a smile, damn it!) to people you don't know. 
  • There's no rewind, there's no fast forward, there is no pause. There is only Play or Stop. Take care to keep it on Play - you're needed more than you know. (Oh, and there are no subtitles either, so speak up!)

Monday, October 26, 2015

We Spin the World

We Spin the World

We, the dreamers,
we spin the world,
a constant dance
of thought, nod and doing -
a whirling flamenco,
staccato, but unbroken

We travel this space,
shattering stars
to spark fire -
lighting shrouded
leaving trails
we've wandered blindly.

We dream,
we write,
we sing,
we build,
we paint,
we dance,
we spin.

We spin the world.
~bb 2015

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Oh, Death!

Pen shell stamps courtesy of Fred B. Mullett

I've come to the conclusion that it isn't death that surprises us, but the grief that follows.

We're actually very used to death. We are, after all, born dying. Every day cells in our bodies die and slough off. We watch as Summer changes to Autumn and the gardens we planted wilt and join the earth from which they sprouted. We shed a tear for the elderly when they pass and comment that they lived good, long lives. We hear about death in the news every day.

We let our dreams die--whether by choice or by circumstance. We pronounce death in marriages and relationships that don't work. Inanimate things break and fall apart and we declare them dead. Even the food we eat (unless live guppies are part of your diet) is dead.

Death is no stranger to us. We see it coming from nearly every angle. Sometimes death is a good thing. We chop up dead wood and use it as fuel to warm us. We harvest tomatoes and zucchini from dying vines. We've even learned how to transplant organs from a dead person to a living one to improve chances of survival and quality of life.

I've had great fortune to have lost many people in my life to death. Oh, I'm not callous about it. I use the word fortunate because each time I've had to say goodbye forever to someone, I have learned from it. I've learned, not only how precious is this life, but about my place in it. I've learned to live from those who have gone. For that, I am thankful, and grateful and, yes, fortunate. I feel much like Celie in The Color Purple, "I'm here. Dear God, I'm still here!"

The last time I was surprised by death was when I was in my teens and my beloved cat died. Since then, I've lost (curious word to use there... as if I've simply misplaced someone) many people in my life--beloveds all--people I was attached to whether by blood or by Universal force. The deaths didn't surprise me. Granted, many of those people were sick or elderly, so the inevitable was glaringly obvious, but still... With each of them there was a moment, just before, when I thought, "Prepare yourself. It's coming." And, as much as anyone can be prepared, I was.

So, the deaths themselves didn't shock me. It was, and continues to be, the grief that surprises me. Initially, for me at least, grief is like a vast undulating sea - I always forget how exhausting it is. I always forget those first feelings of everything feeling so weighted down and hard to breathe and seemingly unending. Like treading water, there's a frantic feeling of desperately wanting to lie down on a sandy shore and sleep, but all I can do is keep waggling my feet back and forth and hoping to come out of it eventually. 

And I always do. I wake up one day and realize that it's easier to breathe and it doesn't hurt to blink. Suddenly I'm capable of making decisions again without feeling like I'm blindly throwing darts at a board and hoping I don't take out somebody's eye in the process.

Then the rogue waves* begin. Those never go away. Not ever. There's no telling what will trigger them and there's no warning. Rogue waves are the real surprise of grief.

I lost my father well over 30 years ago, and to this day, a cold, damp, smokey Fall day will make my eyes sting with tears. I lost one of my dearest friends over 20 years ago and I still can't pick up a book by Amy Tan without feeling my lip quiver, because she gave me her copy of The Joy Luck Club (which I still have) to read. My beloved mate has been gone for over 8 years and Yes's song Roundabout nearly flattens me when I hear it because we used to sing it loudly as we drove around Lake Sammamish, looking for glimpses of Mt. Rainier shining like a diamond through the clouds. "In and around the lake... mountains come out of the sky and they stand there..." The other day I had a question about my Hungarian heritage and thought, "I'll just text Mom and ask h.... damn it. Who's going to answer these questions for me now?!"

Rogue waves, man. Rogue waves. They will knock your boat sideways and leave you dazed and wondering which is the way back home. We can handle death. It's the sorrow that comes after that's the kicker. It's the sadness that springs from almost nowhere that gets us. But I've learned from that too. I've learned that when a rogue wave hits, all I can do is let it hit, let it wash on over, wring everything out, take a deep breath, and keep paddling.

*Rogue waves are large, spontaneous surface waves that occur far out in open water. They are defined in oceanography as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height. Rogue waves are not necessarily the biggest waves; however, they are unusually large waves for a given sea state.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Goodbye - A Eulogy

She put Mercurochrome and Band-Aids on my scraped knees and grounded me for playing where I shouldn't have been. She checked my forehead for fever with the back of her hand as she scolded me for going outside without a hat. She put Tabasco sauce on my tongue as a punishment for sassing; I returned the favor by learning to love spicy food. I never did learn not to sass.

She made sure I had piano lessons and was disappointed when I played anything but classical music (in her words, "Stop that banging!"). She praised me for being wise beyond my years, but told me there were certain things I couldn't understand. I learned them and understood them anyway.

She is largely responsible for me becoming a writer. Although the constant grammatical and spelling corrections were eye-roll inducing when I was a kid, the lessons stuck and they stuck for good.

She loathed swearing and despised sarcasm. Although there was much else about me, especially in my adult life, that she didn't approve of, she never failed to tell me that she loved me and believed in me.

We were diametrically opposed in terms of religious belief, but I value the solid set of morals she instilled in me.

Because of her, I have a love and basic knowledge of classical music and opera, plus I know all the words to all those old musicals. Because of her I've had a love of reading since I first discovered words. Because of her, I have loved discovering words, their meanings, how they join together to teach us or take us down a path.

She would say it's not so, but I know my stubborn streak is from her. She was downright mulish when it came to her truths. And she was fiercely competitive when it came to playing cards... as am I.

Thanks to her, I know how to cook, put up canned goods, bake pies, cakes and cookies from scratch, and, when pressed, how to clean properly.

There were things that didn't work in our relationship, as in any relationship, but we made it good. In my adult life, we enjoyed trips together and theater, and discussions about books and travel. In healthier times, she traveled the world - Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and all over the USA. Just last Wednesday I sent her a text message as I was wandering around the Olympic Peninsula with my nephew and his family. She replied within a minute, "So happy to hear from you!! My love to all!"

Early this morning my Mom (I've never called her Mother, and, dear gods, never ever Ma!) passed away. I will remember all these things about her. All these things and more. And I will, as ever, walk with pride that I am her daughter.

In memory of Kathleen R. Black
February 12, 1928 - July 9, 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015

Kill the Competition


I am weary of the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition that‘s been at the forefront this past week or so.

The truth is, it takes a great deal of bravery for any and all of us to be exactly who we need to be. In a society that holds us to task via its own set of expectations, as well as in our individual family microcosms, standing tall and declaring, “this is me” is often something that takes courage beyond what we can fathom even as we are doing it.

I know. I know, because I've been there and I've done that. Did I expect laurels and medals and accolades? No. Did I compare, much less expect that anyone else would compare, what I did to acts of courage shown by the men and women fighting for this country’s freedom? I did not. Did I ever once allude to the notion that what I did was as difficult as battling cancer? Never. Did I declare that I was going to change and then follow through with changing my gender, thus going through countless painful surgeries, procedures, and emotional torment? No. Did I expect that people I knew and loved would make a show of moral outrage simply because what I did went against what they believed? That I did, and that much I got. Did I expect that some of the people I loved would understand and say, “good for you, Barb… good for you”? I did, and I also got that.

But I didn't go into it thinking, “Gosh. I’m feeling so brave. I think I’ll flip my life on its ass and do something radically different just for shits and giggles.” The fact is, I didn't feel brave at the time. I didn't have a vast reserve of courage (much less self-esteem or some buried taciturn resilience even). Some people, the people who championed me changing my life, cheered me on, telling me I was brave. For me, the choice was, make a move or die. Some people saw what I did and told me I was their hero; others made it known that I was communing with the devil. All I saw was that I was trying to live my life and be the best me that I could possibly be.

What did I do? Nothing plenty of other people haven’t done. I walked out on a “perfectly good” marriage. I moved across the country with 4 suitcases and $300 dollars to my name. That’s it. I was, depending on who was doing the talking, crazy, brave, ridiculous, uncaring, courageous, ballsy, morally bankrupt, intrepid, or… the adjectives were endless. I got tired of saying, “Gosh, thanks…” Or just, “But…”

It wasn't until over a decade later that I saw what I did as bravery, that I acknowledged it took a certain amount of courage even if I didn't feel it at the time. Somebody once told me, “Courage is turning and facing the dragon even if you’re trembling in your boots.”

Courage is the 16 year old kid who stands up to his father and says, “You’re destroying this family with your drinking, Dad.” Bravery is the 3 year old being wheeled off to another round of chemo, saying, “Don’t worry, Mommy.” Courage is the 22 year old woman who does her first skydive jump in training to be a paratrooper. Bravery is the 38 year old man doing his part to keep peace in a foreign city. Courage is the shaking addict standing up in front of a group of strangers, saying, “I can’t live like this any more.” Bravery is a 65 year old man weighing the balance between fear and dreams and deciding, “This is not who I am. I am going to be a woman.”

Courage was a 36 year old woman, walking against the tide of every so-called truth she’d ever been taught, saying, “I can’t be this person. I am leaving and I am going 3000 miles away.” I may not have been part of some major battle that changed the face of the earth, or a personal battle won or lost on the whim of cells reacting to chemicals, or crawled from the wreckage of a natural disaster and helped a displaced neighbor look for their lost dog. But, who are you to compare? Who are you to judge what it took for me to do what I did? Who are you, and what is so very wrong with you that you can’t simply love a fellow human and say, “I might not agree with you, but I love that you were brave enough to be you.”

When you judge a person based upon their personal bravery and when you compare their courage to that of others, you are judging us all. Every one of us.

Because, the thing is, we are all brave. We are courageous every time we step into a slippery tub to take a shower, or crank the ignition in the car and pull out of the driveway, or strap on a pair of skis and fly down a mountainside, or put on a pair of combat boots and march into a war zone, or put ourselves under the knife for any kind of surgery, or propose to the love of our life, or face cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, heart failure, etc. We are human and for all our frailties, we gird ourselves with our hopes and dreams and desires and we move forward.

So. Can we please stop with the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition? It’s bullshit. We can be so much better than that.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Set it on Fire

Something has been bugging me for a couple of weeks. Usually two weeks is my limit before I know I have to write it out or implode.

I was watching the American Pickers TV show. I like it because there's a profound lack of wankiness found on so many other "reality" TV shows, plus, I like the cool stuff that they find. Anyway, Mike and Frank were picking some guy's place when Mike asked the guy, "So, what do you do?" The guy shrugged and replied, "Well. I don't really do anything, so I guess I'm just an artist."

That's when I started swearing at my TV screen. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it included "...shittastic attitude and profound lack of fucking passion... artist my ass!"

I took huge exception to his statement. According to Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd, my father housed, clothed and fed a family of seven by not "really doing anything". Mister J-H Turd couldn't be more wrong. My father may have had his issues, but he also worked his ass off. Work ethic was something I learned from both of my parents - from my "not really doing anything" father and from my "just a housewife" mother.

Yeah. Because saying an artist isn't really doing anything is right up there with calling a 24/7 hard-working woman "just a housewife". (Oh, step off. I'm well aware that the job a wife and mother does is far more essential than art work. That's not the point.) When I was a nanny, I was often given the raised eyebrow and the, "Oh, you're just a nanny... do you ever think about getting a real job?" treatment. Had there not been children present, I might've become a bit stabby.

And now, here I am, an artist. A paid artist even. I typically work seven days a week. It's rare that an entire day goes by without me doing something in my studio. When I'm really into a project it takes over the day and then some. I'm still thinking about it when I fall asleep. I dream about it. I jump out of bed in the morning, look at what I've done, and think about it some more as I scrub the sleep out of my eyes. When I'm out in public, I look at everything around me for clues into some new project, for inspiration and color and, oh, how can I capture that tiny moment of wonder. When I watch movies I ignore the characters and look at stuff in the background - what's hanging on their walls, catching the light on their dresser, and look how the sun dapples the leaves in that scene.

I'm an artist and I'm never not working. And I love it. I'm passionate about it even when you see me sitting quietly and reading a book. When someone asks me what I do, I proudly state, "I am an artist." Because people seem to find artists fascinating (even those of us who are slightly less than eccentric), they always ask, "Oh, what kind of art do you do?" That's when they get the full force of my passion. I'm passionate about what I do because I love to do it - every day of the week, of the month, of the year of the decade, world without end, Amen.

The thing is, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd wasn't without talent. He had some cool stuff sitting around that he'd done. But he sure was without the necessary passion to carry it.

Right around the same time, I had posted a quote by Pablo Picasso. A friend made a self-deprecating comment that basically said she wasn't intelligent enough to appreciate Picasso's work. I got riled.

I don't appreciate Picasso's work either, but it's not because I lack the intelligence to appreciate it. I get what he was shooting for. I just... don't like it. The same way that I'm sure that while liver and onions are delicious to the right person, they just aren't for me. There are lots of artists whose work I love, but I couldn't really tell you why. There are works by certain artists that I love and yet other works of theirs leave me wanting.

None of it is about intelligence. None of it is about an artist's abundance or lack of talent. It's preference. Some folks like wine, some like beer. Some won't drink anything but white wine; others give you the evil eye for even suggesting anything but red. It's personal. So is art. Art is about making people feel something, so even if you feel revulsion, the artist has, on some level at least, succeeded.

But. Passion. It has to be there. Without passion it's just talent. Talent is nice and it helps pass the time (as, no doubt, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd will attest), but it won't set your mind on fire. Me, I prefer a nice warm blaze.