On our last hike, we trudged cheerfully up the winding route in a breathless, rain spattered exchange of ideas. By the time we reached the summit, serenely detached from the miniature city sprawl below, it had become clear that this was our life right now: our ideas, where they had come from, and what we would do with them. On the way back down, a question arose. How would we tell our stories? How could we capture the electricity? We decided to share our process with each other, as a way to reduce overwhelm and make something of it all. So I began a letter to you.
On Wednesday, April 12th, 2007, Shane Gooding passed away. He had richly influenced my music and my life path. I had thought I would spend my life with him. When he died, we had been dating for a year and a half and were in love. Seven years later, after living in New York and the Virgin Islands and being found again by love, I started a new phase of my life in California, with a husband and a career. And yet Shane is a part of who I am now, and I’m constantly reminded of that. I work just steps away from where we first met.
On Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 Barry Spacks passed away. Professor, Artist, Poet Laureate, friend. His classes were the best I’ve ever taken, and he was my writing mentor for ten years. By example and through gentle and patient instruction, he shaped the way I treat words. He had known me before, during and after Shane. On our coffee table is his wedding gift to my husband and I – a simple crystal frame with an etched lotus, below which floats a tiny drawing and the words:
Marriage is even sweeter than peaches and cream.
On Monday Feb 10th, 2014, Shirley Temple Black passed away. She was my childhood idol and the first reason I ever wanted to perform. With my grandmother’s help, as a young girl I had built a collection of cherished Shirley Temple antiques – dolls, books, fan club pins, etc. I’ve been working on a one-woman show about how she inspired me through her film roles, in which she personified kindness, autonomy and bravery. Amidst my own childhood blighted by physical and mental abuse, to just see a picture of her set my mind a-sparkle.
When Shane passed away, I felt like creating a narrative was the only way I could honor his life and our relationship. Something must be published, something comprehensive enough to let anyone reading grasp how important and special he was. My resolve resulted in an abandoned novel of fictionalized letters, based on my journal entries; a sealed box full of his writing, lyrics, lists, scribbles, receipts, etc., which I at one time promised myself and others I would transcribe and scan to create a digitized collection; and a sense of guilt and failure – on top of the strain of guilt and failure that already can accompany losing a loved one, and often accompanies a writer’s unfinished novel or poorly organized work. It was an uncomfortable couple of years until I began to forgive myself for my inadequate work, my unfinished work, my process.
Meanwhile, I unwittingly wrote an unreleased album’s worth of songs (and some released ones) within those first couple months that for me, satisfyingly capture how important he was and how difficult it was to lose him. Because it came easily, I didn’t get the sense of accomplishment I was looking for. When it came to writing, my feelings of inadequacy had caused enough suffering to give me resolve to handle writing about loss differently in the future.
Shane practiced Buddhism. His paternal grandmother was Chinese and kept an ivory Buddha on her dresser – a small sculpture that his uncle gave to him for strength when he became sick. The more that cancer weakened his body, the more strongly embraced the practice, along with qi gong, which later became a big part of my life and increased my capabilities as a Reiki practitioner. When I was overcome with despair, Shane would often remind me to be calm and be still – a message that echoed in my head the moment I knew he was gone.
When I first learned of Barry’s death, I felt compelled to write something. The more you think about it, the more relative the terms become: Loss. Gone. Even death…. That’s about as far as I got, and then I suppressed the compulsion as a means of pain avoidance. Not pain of loss, but pain of failure, as a writer. I didn’t want to even begin to fail as I felt I had with commemorating Shane’s life.
Barry was also a practicing Buddhist. The practice found its way into much of his poetry, and from his example I learned a Buddhist approach to writing, if there is such a thing.While visiting him and his wife Kimberly at their home, I had gazed upon a tapestry of White Tara that hangs above the couch, and I’ve spoken to both of them at length about the practice. Kimberly wrote a beautiful book called In Buddha’s Kitchen, about cooking for seven years at the Buddhist center where she and Barry met.
These two great teachers have pointed me toward Serenity. Breath. Non-attachment. Non-resistance. They have shown me the end of suffering.
Minding these spiritual lessons and what had caused me suffering while trying to write about Shane, I resisted writing about Barry. Or rather, I decided that I didn’t want to. Sure, my mind was madly drafting, but I wouldn’t indulge. Nor would I go through our hundreds of emails and pull gems for a “Best Of” retrospective – another impulse I had. Author, friend and fellow Barry mentee Thai Carmen went through her emails and described it as cathartic, as I knew it would be. For the past ten years, we’ve been sending him our work and receiving warm, articulate, forthright feedback. We have long known what a treasure his friendship and mentorship was. I began archiving and organizing our letters years ago and have gone through them on many occasions.
But now, I didn’t go looking for his very first email to me, although I thought of it immediately – brain racking back in time to his first response to my work – much like his last just weeks ago – warm, insightful, heartening. I would do no archive spelunking. I would be still about it all. I would quietly celebrate Barry’s life and profound influence on my writing, but I wouldn’t write. I would simply look forward to the memorial service and remain quietly inspired. I would end the desire to write, so as to end my suffering about it.
And then I read a published tribute to Barry, and an impatience arose in me – the impatience of a frustrated creative. Goodbye stillness, hello Alice. Our hike happened, and I began to write about Barry, and saw that through a letter to a friend, I might distract myself from my writing fears long enough to do pieces on Barry, Shane, and Shirley – and other topics near and dear to me. Since moving back to California two years ago today, I’ve had trouble writing personal essays. A fear of writing, a fear of not writing. You know some of the details of my challenge. I’m grateful for your “listening ear” in helping me piece something together. Having a reader has always helped me write, even if it’s an imaginary one. Incidentally, my unfinished novel about losing Shane is modeled after The Wind Up Bird Chronicles – a novel composed of letters to a reader you never meet. My working title was Letters to Mr. Featherspacks, and my imaginary reader was none other than Barry Spacks.
The posts are forthcoming. The challenge hasn’t been what to say, but what to leave out, so as to make it a good read. Writing about a great writer and teacher is a curiously meta experience. Much like composing music about a musician who profoundly influenced my music. Or trying to write a one-woman show about the actress who made me want to be an actress.
Alice, the horizon is laden with love, loss and learning. I need to make medicine of it. The spirit world is becoming full of my friends – a cloudscape vast and thunderful, electrifying, gleaming and bruised. I didn’t know how I would capture it in my medicine bottle. Thank you for the funnel.