The Angel and the Fury

We were gathered around the fire in the rain and Sara, who had accompanied Christopher, asked me, “How long did you know her?”
Barely given a chance to answer, Christopher interjected, “Forever.”
There was suitable, universal truth in it that really negated any answer that left my lips.

It was either Will or Janet who added that Kim and I were hetero life-partners. Christopher laughed and said he was going to say the same thing. I also spoke up and said that no matter how you wanted to define it, my relationship with Kimmie was definitely its own love affair.

She was so protective of me on many levels and I recall a time my RV was parked at her parent’s house and I was living with the whole family. I had gone on a second date with a man I met online. He was a circus saxophone player that had a strange obsession with the fact that I lived in an RV. Kim drove me to the bar where I was meeting him and dropped me off.

I didn’t realize that she was waiting for me to call her and tell her when I needed to be picked up. I had a few drinks and stayed engrossed in conversation until we closed out the bar. There might have been some kissing in the parking lot and we grabbed an Uber to get dropped off at our respective homes.

The next morning when I came in for my normal visit for coffee and breakfast, I was facing Kim’s fury. She was mad that I hadn’t called her to be picked up. I explained that it was late and I didn’t realize she had been waiting. I felt as if I had stepped into a trap.

“Did you sleep with him?” she asked me from the opposite couch where we sat in the mornings.
“What?” I was surprised. “No, I didn’t sleep with him!”
“Are you sure?” the force and power in her voice only carried the lasers from her eyeballs.
I was completely taken aback. As if I wouldn’t know if I had sex with someone “Yes, I’m sure! Why would I lie to you?”

It was during that exchange that I realized how much her mama bear instincts were coming out and with my terrible track record and her witnessing the total disasters my relationships with Mike or Brendan were, I couldn’t actually blame her.

However, there did come a time in our relationship where I did lie to her.

Kim and I would often talk of esoteric things that contained mysteries of the universe. She would frequently refer to me as the Oracle at Gel-i instead of Delphi and put a lot of weight in my “knowing.” In her trips to the clinic and the weeks of chemo weighed on her I would tell her that I saw decades in front of her. For a time that was true.

Then came the spring of 2017 and we were sitting outside in her back yard. In many instances, she had to wear a helmet because a piece of her skull had been removed from a complication of infection from one of her brain surgeries. It was a beautiful sunny day and I could see her struggling with the heaviness of being a professional patient.

“Do you still see decades?” she blurted out.
“Yes,” I didn’t hesitate, “so many decades. DECADES!”

The weight of the lie settled upon my heart and I cradled it and purpose behind it. I would never kill the hope that continued to keep her alive. As the months passed I made plans with Kim for when she got better. 

I would take her to the top of Bell Rock and she would see how beautiful Sedona was. She would get to experience the strangeness of Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. There would be a time we would be independent artists meeting up in Paris at a cafe and we would even grow old enough to sit on a porch and have fights about nothing to make ourselves feel alive.

Even as I held on to those narratives I watched as her spirit, tethered to her body, kept drifting farther and farther away. Even Kim would talk about how disconnected she felt at times and I would justify it by saying it was how she was protecting herself. I began to wonder if she could see through my stories and was just pretending along with me.

When December arrived in 2017, heralded by her birthday on the 1st, I made a trip to her house. This time there was no energy for karaoke, or a trip to the Pacific Ocean and Hoh rainforest in the RV, or a trip to Los Angeles like we had done in previous years. I brought her a balloon, plus pictures in frames of a photo shoot we had done with Fischer by the Mukilteo lighthouse before he passed of lymphoma that September.  We ate cake and ice cream and I watched as that tether had become ever so tenuous. When I left for my own home, complete with a single tiny surviving dog, I cried. I had this inescapable feeling that it was the last birthday we would share together with her here.

Even with my past experiences in loss, I’m stumbling and fumbling around. Was it right for me to lie to her in that way? Should I have been more honest or was the exercise of pretend and imagination just as important as the act of living? I may never know.

I do know that Kimmie earned her way into my heart as one of my best friends. She carried me maybe more often than I carried her. The friendship she shared with me is one of those love affairs that so many people hope to have but never get to experience. I’m grateful to have walked through the intensity of joy and sorrow that only a deep connection like that can bring. I loved her and I still do.

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Remains of the Future

 

I found myself there once again, struggling to breathe with the realization that I was mourning the future that would never be. I got the message late on Saturday night that one of my closest friends had passed away. I sat there stunned, wondering how many more times in my lifetime would I feel this particular strike against my heart and weight upon my body. Too soon. It’s always too soon and I felt like I was unfairly left as the one still standing.

I met Kimmie through music. I played for Seastar and she played for Below Blackstar and our bands shared the stage enough times that I became acquainted with her. As outgoing as I might seem to people on the surface, I was not and am still not someone who immediately opens up to new people. I can credit Christopher for fostering and encouraging Kimmie and I to get to know each other and when my brother was killed seven years ago I leaned upon them both heavily during that dark time.

In some ways, Kim was witness to me rediscovering my sense of self. We would spend hours philosophizing about the ways of the world. The talk would got to religion, God, and I would tell Kimmie that it was easy to see that she spent a lot of her time in the angelic realm and she was only tethered here by a string. We would explore nature and peer through portals of space and time, checking in with each other to see if we were letting our imagination get the best of us.

She stood by me when I made terrible decisions about relationships. The first one, she knew I was making a terrible mistake and so did I. We even had a conversation where I told her that it was something that I needed to step through and she agonized when I did just that and withdrew from the rest of the world. When I returned, I promised her that I would never cut myself off like that again no matter how ashamed I might be of my decisions.

During this time that I knew her, she was conscious about the lump in her chest. I didn’t know or hear about it until we had started to go to hot yoga together. The lump had hardened and she was seeing discharge. I encouraged her to go get it checked out and she pursued natural medicine until it hemorrhaged. Then it was her turn to withdraw from the world. I didn’t hear from her for months and by then she had found Dr. Chu who was a unique doctor with a blend of western and eastern medicine that refused to see stage IV breast cancer as a death sentence. I couldn’t imagine the nightmare she had been living during those months of her initial diagnosis.

I have so much to write and so many stories to tell. Kimberly got four more years after that initial diagnosis! There was even a point in time where the hope was so blazing we thought the cancer had been chased away. I’m sure that she’s still going to be in medical books for all the daily miracles she pulled out of her from that angelic realm. I am so grateful for that extra time to know her and even live with her and her family for a short time. I’m heartbroken that I didn’t get more time with her and am devastated that she left with things she still wanted to do in this life.

I am mourning a future that will never be. I mourned that Kimmie never met my brother, Paul, or Susan. I mourn that many people that I will meet will never know Kim and her laughter. We won’t make up songs any more using our animal’s accents as plot devices or tell funny stories about our fathers. I won’t have her at my back as my warrior, sizing up anyone that could break my heart. Those quiet walks around the block, into the woods, or weeping around a medicine wheel at the earth sanctuary are now things of the past. For the brief period of time we knew each other, we grew incredibly close. Now, I have a giant hole in my heart.

I know Kimberly’s family is reeling in a worse way. Reaching, stumbling, as they try to understand and make sense of the whole situation. I’m sure it feels unreal, unnatural, and completely unfair. All I can do is offer up my heart.

People ask me if I’m okay, and that’s never a good question for someone grieving. The answer is always no. I will find my way back to okay but the truth of the matter is: I’ll never be the same.

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Passthrough for the Darkness

I think it registered in my unconscious mind first before the rest of me began to wake.

I couldn’t tell if it was a television or a baby crying, but the hysterical edge to the muffled sound resonated with me in a way that made me remember. I heard the expletives and the “are you serious?” carry from the ceiling above me. The frantic feeling of distress carried far better than her words. Then came the murmuring of the male voice accompanied by the female screaming. She was yelling with every fiber in her being like increasing pitch and volume would suddenly make her heard. It was as if her own feeling of voicelessness could be resolved by becoming more frenetic and distraught and providing the onslaught that could not be ignored.

There I was in the stillness of my own bedroom bearing witness to the emotional storm going on above my head. Silently, I projected the thought: “He can’t hear you,” even as I heard her through my ceiling. My own heart clenched as I re-lived some of my own experiences of being in a relationship unheard, on the edge or falling into my own level of hysterics.

It was a place I had been. Looking at the golden light of the man I knew he could be. Trying so hard to make it work, and completely drained because he knew how to activate my self-doubt. I began to trust his words more than I trusted my own intuition and feelings. I drank from his dark well, thinking that I could purify it at the same time he poured more poison into the water. I thought I could help. Instead I got sick and my voice got weaker.

There was one night he made another “joke” about my weight and insinuated I looked ridiculous for dancing and I was only making him look like a fool by trying to dance with him. It was in the moment, I shut down and decided I was just going to leave the music and the party and go back to my bed. I said nothing and just left.

Hours later, he appeared completely intoxicated and turned on all the lights. Accusing me of being unreasonable. I told him I didn’t appreciate how he always made fun of me and that I felt he was almost ashamed to be with me. He started to explain that I was being too emotional. I was the one overreacting. He would show me how to be rational. It was the same sticky script of manipulation that minimized my feelings and put him in control. I told him it was too late to talk about it. I wanted to go back to sleep. I wanted him to leave.

He wouldn’t leave. He kept barraging me with words, logic, and feelings of shame. I sat up in my bed and started to yell, “Get out, get out, get out.” He looked like he was about to start another tirade of why he was a good guy and I was wrong. I reached up and grabbed large swaths of hair in my fists and pulled. My screams reached the edge of hysterical, “GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!” as if by the sheer force of my actions I could drive him away. He fled without another word and I was left sitting in the awkward silence of the bright room with chunks of my own brown hair resting on my palms.

In some ways, I was a pass-through for his darkness. I used his poison as a distraction from my own. Thinking if I helped him, it would help me emerge from the sadness and damage my past had inflicted upon me. All I was doing was creating an unending loop. Instead of glowing like the sun, I had turned in on myself. In my desperation to reach out and help I created an inescapable hole that ate and encouraged darkness. This is what an imbalanced relationship does. No one feels heard and the emotion can explode in a physical way.

I thought of the chunks of hair in my hands that day and remembered my childhood. The holes in the wall or punched through the door, the claw marks raked across my calf, the bruised fingerprints on my arm, or the reddened skin from the belt that made it impossible to sit down. No, I suppose that wasn’t normal.

As I lay there with my heart seized and reliving these triggered, emotional memories, I had to stop myself from going upstairs and knocking on the door with an offer to help. Instead, I confronted the child in me that felt trapped and unheard with nowhere to go. I held her and I whispered, “I hear you now. I trust you and I hear you.”

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The Ache of the Missing Present

The ache of the missing present.

I feel like sometimes that’s what grief is. The realization of what you imagined to be never taking shape. I think that’s why some of the happiest people are the ones that only see the present for what it is and take inventory without expectation. “I don’t know why they don’t just choose to be happy. It’s what I do.” The echoes of my older brother’s words after our youngest sibling, Paul, died often ring in my ears.

I lost Fischer, my dog of 13 years, at the end of September. It is in no way the same thing as losing my little brother of 25 years, but it sure strikes so many of the same chords and soft spots that were left in the wake of my brother’s absence. Imagine an injury in the same place of an older injury that leads to the discovery of old shrapnel that needs to be extracted. Having just passed the three year anniversary of Susan’s death and fast approaching the six year anniversary of Paul’s death, I’m starting the feel the stack of grief like a badly played game of Jenga.

Slinky remains. In his own dog way, he’s present and still holds space for the routines that Fischer brought into his life. He won’t sleep on Fischer’s old bed and leaves one of the water dishes untouched. Slinky doesn’t worry about when Fischer will return and takes full advantage of what it means to be the only dog. He doesn’t grieve because he doesn’t understand the absence of the future that was. He knows now.

Now, I think about how Fischer didn’t follow my plans. How his diagnosis of lymphoma in April had me re-assess what I wanted out of life and how I could support him for the rest of his. Odds were good that with treatment Fischer would go into remission for a year and have that or more time. Fischer, in his traditionally stubborn way, did not play by the rules.

In so many ways, Fischer was a reflection of the stoic self that I present to the world. Five years prior he became paralyzed. It was almost a physical manifestation of my own self, paralyzed in the grief of losing my brother. When he suddenly stopped being able to walk I remember the way he looked up at me without uttering a sound of his discomfort or pain. “Why isn’t my body working?” seemed to be the unspoken question. Surgery, a few weeks in intensive care, and months of rehabilitation in a sling had him walking again with his three legs.

He took to his treatment for lymphoma with the same quiet acceptance. Some days he had more energy than I had seen in years, and other days I knew he was struggling even if he kept quiet. Fischer would have a way of stopping to ask to be carried ever since his back surgery and as treatments continued for lymphoma he asked more and more of me. It was after alternating over half a dozen treatments without success that he would begin to shake when we came to the clinic for our weekly visit.  It was the second shaking fit that decided me. “Okay, buddy,” I comforted him as I whispered in his ear, “No more chemo.” He stopped shaking and I continued to carry him.

Fischer’s lymph nodes started to overtake him on his neck but his spirits were high. His appetite had come back for baby food and he even had a good day where he was playing with toys. “He could live like this for a while, right?” I asked the oncologist. She turned to me with the softest, gentlest eyes I had ever seen. “I don’t want to mislead you. He might have 2-4 weeks.” I took in the information, but didn’t really accept it. I think there’s still a part of me that still hasn’t accepted it.

He had so many good days, but it was a few weeks later that he had the night that he couldn’t breathe because his lymph nodes were so engorged. For hours he was wheezing, panting, coughing, and gasping for air. I kept thinking that I could go to the clinic in the morning. They could try another treatment to relieve the lymph node size, even though I had just spent $500 five days earlier on that same treatment that hadn’t really relieved him at all. It was 3am when I suddenly had the flash that there was no good time… but it was time.

I gathered myself up, collected Fischer, and left Slinky behind to find my way to a 24 hour vet nearby. I decided that if they couldn’t offer him some form of immediate relief, it had to be time. I arrived to a completely empty clinic which the tech at the front desk said was unusual. They collected Fischer and put him on oxygen and started asking me questions since they weren’t my regular vet. They said they could leave him oxygen and I could contact my oncologist in the morning. I told them what I knew, the prognosis, and started listing out the drugs that we had tried. Vincristine, vinblastine, doxorubicin, mustragen, lomustine, prednisone, L-spar, cyclophosphamide, and CBD. I think it satisfied the vet that I was not here to dump a very sick dog. I was here because I loved I very sick dog.

They left me in a quiet room with Fischer to say my goodbyes. He already had an IV set up on his front leg and they moved the oxygen tank in the room with us. Fischer kept pulling his head away from the oxygen tube and then wiggled to get out of my lap to head for the door. Even between the coughing and gasping, he was ready to make a break for it. I laughed and pulled him close and when the tech poked her head in, I told her it was time.

The vet came in and I sat on the floor with Fischer. He explained the different syringes that he had. That one was going to put him to sleep first and the other would stop his heart. When he went to touch the IV, Fischer lunged away and I could almost feel the sense of “No more chemo!” I stroked his back and I said, “It’s not chemo, buddy. It’s time to rest.” He seemed to accepted that with the utmost trust and put his head on my hand suddenly breathing quietly. One syringe and he drifted; the second syringe and he took his exit. I knew long before the vet took his stethoscope against his still body and pronounced, “He’s gone.”

It wasn’t until the vet left me alone with Fischer’s remains that I felt the body-wracking sobs cut through me. It wasn’t until I was out in my car that I began to wail loudly. My own experience with grief has told me that it will pass but it will always be a part of me.

When Paul died, I didn’t have the benefit or understanding of seeing him go. With Susan, she waited and gave me the gift of watching her pass. With Fischer, he placed the decision squarely in my hands and has given me the opportunity to decide what to do with his remains. With Slinky, I have given thought to what to do after he passes. With me, I am making plans for my own demise. No, not suicide. But I will die. I am making plans for what I want to do with my life and what makes sense if I were to die at any time.

I am stepping through the ache of the missing present.
I am mourning the absence of the future that was.
I am forgetting the presence of the future that cannot be.
I am forging the life of the living present that is built on the joys of a past remembered.
I am living and happy in the body in which I will die.

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A Little More Certainty

I wake up to sounds.

Some days it was hearing the trickle of a creek next to my window or the rushing roar of a hot air balloon. Other days it was the quiet stillness of a midwest prairie with the hiss of the wind rustling the grass, or the steady crash of waves as the Pacific Ocean jumped its way onto the beach. The sounds were only one of the dimensions that came from living in an RV.

Recently I am waking up to different sounds. City sounds.

Super Mario is playing as someone’s alarm, a woman is giggling from the courtyard below, and another little dog starts barking so my own little dog wants to start a conversation. It’s strange to find myself in an apartment again.

I traded in my RV for a little more certainty.

After finding out just after Easter that Fischer had lymphoma, I couldn’t just let him go without trying to treat him. When treatments started, he was doing really well but the problem was that the treatments weren’t cheap. The life I had chosen as a full time musician was not always paying the bills and I would often have to make hard choices on the things I needed. Super gluing my glasses over again because I couldn’t afford a new pair and I was out of contacts. Or living without a fridge because it would cost too much to repair on what I was making. Little things that started to wear on me. Fischer was the big blow that made me decide I was ready to change my choices. So I started looking for a job.

Strangely, the decision to stay and to find a full-time job outside of music opened up more musical doors. Not only did I find an office job that I love but I suddenly had the opportunities to pick up gigs in the local area with wonderful musicians in a collaborative way. Ironically, those gigs starting paying better too. I started to feel like I was no longer trapped in the hamster wheel just trying to get by. I was enjoying life again.

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be living in a city apartment and loving it, I might have laughed at you. But here, I can walk to work in ten minutes and not spend hours of my life in the car. I can come home and see my dogs at lunch and give them my love. I can stretch out my arms without knocking on a wall, flush a toilet without worrying about the next time I have to empty the tanks, take a hot bubble bath to relax, cook full meals in a kitchen, and not worry about whether the battery will last in the night to kick on the heater in the dead of winter. I can have house plants that won’t get knocked over because I’m moving my home, and I can walk around without worrying about rocking the foundation. Best of all, I can take care of Fischer.

It’s in those moments of waking up to those sounds that I feel content. The noises are different with cadences and rhythms all their own creating a tapestry of the lives that are just on periphery of mine. Sometimes movement is necessary for experience but there are other times when it’s good to stop, sit still in the moment, and just inhale.

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State Lines

Remember when you called me in Fort Wayne?
Three states between us
   and you wanted to hop a plane
Telling me things would change

There was such a need in me to make believe.
So I gave it another go
   and drove back to Buffalo.
As the miles rolled over
   you promised you’d get sober.
Even as the landscape changed
         You never did.

Was it something I said?
Was it something I missed?

It was the way you screamed
when you found out about New Orleans
that shattered my need to make believe.

I started to let go
somewhere after New Mexico
when I heard you drove back to Buffalo.

As the miles rolled over
I knew that October
   was not your month to get sober.
Just as I remember
   that December was not your month either.

Was it something I said?
Was it something I missed?
Was it a mistake to kiss that tall boy
   from one of the Great Lakes?
Was it the love I gave that made you misbehave
   to create those hot tears
   to streak
   down my worn out cheeks?
Was it the need in me to make believe
   that made me weak?

As the miles rolled on
I knew it was over.
   regardless of renewed promises to get sober.
Because even as the landscape changed
        You never did.

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Let It Snow

It was a moment of disbelief when I didn’t even have the time to be stunned.

Two days prior I had been in the 100 degree heat of Moab, UT sweating just to stand still. If my future self had told my past self that two days later I would be braving a snow storm in the middle of May in the mountain passes of Colorado, I don’t know if I would have believed me.

Brendan and I had just left Moab that afternoon and were looking for a free campsite that had been listed off of I-70, about ten miles down highway six. We started climbing the winding mountain road in the RV, also known as Thor, towing the little Toyota Corolla. There were steep grades that varied from 6% to 9% and Thor was re-enacting the story of the Little Engine That Could as it faithfully carried us, the two little wiener dogs, and most of our earthly possessions up the mountain.

“Woohoo!” I would exclaim when we reached a speed higher than 25 miles per hour. “We just hit thirty!”

It was slow going but we made it to the designated camping sites that could be seen just off of the highway. There were a couple of RVs already parked and they looked like a handful of dirt plots scattered along a dirt road. Sometimes the free camping sites that other people are kind enough to share have you staying next to the flow of the Columbia River, in the local fairgrounds with running water, or in a dirt patch on the side of a state highway.

“What do you think?” I asked Brendan. He looked unimpressed, so I continued, “I’ve still got wind and we’ve still got daylight, do you want to keep going? According to the map, if we keep following this road it will intersect with I-70 again.”

“Yeah, let’s keep going,” he replied.

The map showed a few twists and turns in the form of a couple switchbacks but it didn’t prepare us for the reality of the mountain climb.

We started the trek again and began going past ski condos and ski lifts with snow on the ground. Soon we found ourselves going higher than even the lifts and snow started to fall from the sky. The roads were clear, but I slowed Thor down to 25 mph for safety’s sake instead of worrying about taxing the engine. There were no guard rails and the steep white slopes were not something I wanted to try off-roading in the RV.

“I can’t believe this is happening again,” Brendan said. “In May.”  He has another story of traveling Colorado state highway 550 on his way back from a road trip to Austin that he should be the one to tell, but this wasn’t his first white-knuckled, white-out rodeo. “New rule. No Colorado state highways… ever,” he pronounced.

Thor continued to wind its way around the roads and we spotted signs that warned backcountry hikers of the avalanche risk of the area. Apparently natural avalanches weren’t enough but they might also be triggered by “remote weaponry.” I suppose it’s better to know when an avalanche is going to happen, rather than guess. Another sign told us that we had crossed the Continental Divide and as we began the descent down the mountain we discovered that we had just made it through Loveland Pass and were about to merge back onto I-70.

There was a brief moment of relief to realize that we had made it off the mountain alive and away from highway six, but the realization that we were now on the “other side” and that I-70 was just as treacherous with the snowfall now coming down thickly kept me gripping the wheel tightly.

The windshield wipers that had handled the rain on the Olympic peninsula of Washington and endured the thunderstorms of Salt Lake City were suddenly choking up on the wet snow that was piling up on the glass. “Um…” I was trying not to let the edge of panic completely overwhelm my voice. “I’m having some trouble with visibility,” I told Brendan.

“Here,” he spotted for me, “pull over.”
The “No Parking” signs glared at me and I hesitated. “No parking,” I said, hard wired to follow the rules.
“It’s an emergency,” Brendan insisted. “Now is the time to break the rules.”
That’s one of the things that I’ve learned from Brendan in my staunch stance of following the rules, even to my detriment. There are times when those rules not only should but need to be broken.
Brendan jumped out of the cab and took a paper towel out to wipe off the accumulating slush from the windshield and we were on our way again. 

“I think we should spend the night in more normal weather,” Brendan said as we passed the rest area we had thought we might use as our backup should the earlier campsite we had scouted fall through. So we pushed on until the clouds parted, the sun had set, and we found ourselves a mile high in the sky in the city of Denver.

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The Work of Living

It was an unexpected and wonderful open mic night in Portland.

Brendan and I were in town finishing up some gigs he had secured in the local area when we decided that we wanted to experience more music before we left for Eastern Oregon the next day. After a false start at a dive bar named after a potato, we decided we would try this other open mic instead. With a name like The Nest Lounge, how could you go wrong?

We arrived later than the posted start time and followed some other late-arriving musicians up the stairs to our right. The upstairs branched off from the upper level of pool and Ms. Pac-man and we found ourselves in a low-ceiling lounge that contained black vinyl seats and an assortment of flat surfaces to place your drink, one of which looked like a giant boomerang turned coffee table.

“Hey… those guys!” a familiar voice called out as we ducked into the entrance. The voice belonged to a familiar face that we had become friendly with two nights before at the Goodfoot open mic on Monday night.

“Oh hey, Tim!” I replied with surprise. He was a fellow songwriter from upstate New York that juggled being a high school English teacher with songwriting. Open mics were his way of trying out new material. We settled into the couch next to him and started chatting while one of the musicians we had followed in the door and up the stairs started setting up a modest sound system in the lounge.

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Our host was Mark and after setting out the sign-up sheet that filled quickly he opened up the evening with some of his songs. The unusual combination of an acoustic bass, a loop pedal, and his voice brought everyone in the room to hush and listen. It set the tone for the evening. I realized that this might be one of the first open mic nights that I had been to where everyone in the room was present to listen, not just wait their turn.

A few more musicians went, then Tim, and then Brendan and I as the Strangest Ways got up to play. “A band!” someone exclaimed as we were setting up. Most of the musicians were there as solo performers so the violin and vocal harmonies got a little bit of extra attention.

We stayed to listen as the night went on. Everyone who got up there was well worth listening to.  I remember Derek with his heartfelt lyrics, wistful falsetto, and songs that he owned as he played. Or there was also Eric with his steel guitar and slide that got everyone in the room stomping and clapping. Later, Brendan would confess to me that it was humbling to be in a room with so much talent. “It’s a good reminder that you can’t just walk in anywhere and be the best one there.”

It’s work being a musician. It’s work to stay on top of your game. It’s work to listen to the next note and to play a song you’ve played a million times as if it was the first time you’ve ever performed it. It’s work to promote yourself at every show and hope someone really hears the music. It’s work to scour through dozens or non-answers or rejections to find the gig that pays you enough money for gas to get to the next gig. It’s work to load up everything all over again to spend most of the day driving to then play songs for another 3-4 hours.

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It’s also rewarding to be able to feel like I’m on the right path. To be able to park next to a river for a few days to hear the birds and the lapping water and call that place home for a little while. To be able to step into new towns and experience the songs and the siren calls of other people as they are discovering new expressions of themselves. Just as I am.

It’s been just about a week since we set off on this staRVing Artist Tour and it feels as though I have passed through several lifetimes already. Portland was great and we are continuing our trek east into Pendleton, then Boise and onward. Brendan is saying that we are on tour “indefinitely.”  I laugh and say, “Let’s just make it to Buffalo.” And so it goes.13123073_552425888259189_6761560621931868200_o

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Everyday Home

I keep finding reminders of the life I’ve left behind.

As my time living in Seattle draws to a close I keep finding things to stumble upon.

My house is on the market at an asking price that will put me at break even after the nearly $20,000 in agent commissions and fees; I’m trying not to bite my nails. Worst case scenario will leave me financing an RV at 1/6 of the cost of my mortgage. Which, when I consider that it gives me a place to live and the mobility I need to continue to play music around the country with significantly reduced expenses, isn’t worst case at all.

I’m renting a room in Greenwood (North Seattle to those not down with the local lingo) for the first week my house is on the market. My next door neighbor has sent text messages while I’ve been away that basically say, “There are strangers in your house right now and I don’t like it.”  After seven years of sharing a wall, he doesn’t want me to move and seeing my house turned into an exhibit hall is probably just as hard on him as it has been on me. I have found myself over the past several days thinking, “I just want to go home,” and finding myself in tears because that home is out of reach and will soon be disappearing. It doesn’t feel easy but it feels necessary.

The dogs are with me on this little adventure. The disappearance of the dog door has been an inconvenience and has caused me to be hyper aware of their needs. My host doesn’t have dogs but he had a moment with Slinky Sunday morning when he picked him up and held him to his chest. “I can feel him healing me,” he said.

“Are you sick?” I asked.

He looked up surprised, “No I just think I’m tired and overworked.”

Never underestimate the power of the snuggle of a dachshund.

I found out that my host was working on something for a conference. He’s a data scientist so he’s looking for patterns in data and analyzing trends; establishing formulas and algorithms that can explain this to the layman and show the patterns easily on a report. I used to work a lot with data in different fields like litigation and advertising so I asked him if he was using SQL or R.  A startled look from him and the response, “I use R. That’s refreshing… nobody usually knows what that is.”  Although he spends his time researching and thinking towards resolving issues with diseases in third world countries, so not quite the same as lawsuits and consumerism.

I miss talking tech. I miss solving problems and getting excited about those eureka moments after chewing on a string of numbers or steps for several weeks. I miss having something tangible to show someone and say, “I made this. I solved this puzzle. I have these beautiful concepts spilling from my brain in a simple explanation.” So much of what we peddle these days are ideas, hopes, dreams, and concepts in yes or no on a computer screen.

Working as a musician to make something tangible, I am realizing this is an interesting time to decide to make that my full time career. It’s unstable, challenging, and there is rarely a product to actually sell. Some people might say, what about a CD? The truth is that no one buys CDs any more. It’s often taken as a symbol to buy a CD to support an artist, but how many people who buy CDs actually open them up and listen when they get home. Nearly anyone under the age of 25 these days doesn’t buy CDs. iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and any other digital service is the convenient way to go as a consumer. It’s not the way to go to support the artist financially.

So the truth about professional musicians is that it is no longer an industry of product. It is now a service industry. You have to put on a great show. Put on that smile, nail those harmonies, wear that tight shirt, and wrap everyone in your magic from that stage or that street corner.

Musicians rely on patrons. The people that recognize the music for the magic that it is and want to support the artist. The majority of my earnings over this last year have been more from tips or house pay from a venue than they have been from selling any merchandise. (I know because I happen to like analyzing data.)

I was telling a musician friend of mine earlier that it was possible to make nearly $50 in an hour an a half at a farmer’s market in tips. It was a matter of talking to the passers by and engaging the kids to dance and sing.

“You weren’t by yourself though, were you?” he asked.

“Is there something about being a duo?” I countered.

“I have a theory about talent versus novelty,” he replied. “The most talented guitar player might get ignored because there is someone down the street playing a didgeridoo. It’s about having a schtick.”

I laughed, “Oh, so now I’m a schtick!”

“A well tuned schtick,” he laughed in return.

I knew he was right. As the singing violin player, I had seen a boost in response with nearly any musician that I paired up with. Maybe the product I need to sell was me. Geli Wuerzner, at your service, sir!

It’s a non-mathematical problem, but an interesting one to solve.

I’ve made it outside of the corporate world for a year now and I’m working out how to live the life that makes me shine and causes people to say, “You look amazing” or “I wish I could do that.”

I still have variables to fill in, like the house sale.

Even as I sit in the bed I will sleep in for the night my phone sends me the notification of the “last bus home.” The data collected and trying to fill in the blanks. I suppose I’m not typical in this regard. I may not always be predictable. Oh, Google, thank you, but I am home.

This is the everyday.

I may not know where I’ll take my next shower or where I will lay my head to rest come the evening time. Even with the reminders of the life I have left behind, I will be fine. I may be rootless but every day I will find my way home.

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What I Want

“It’s just the sheen,” she said as we looked at our options in the sand ahead of us.  I thought it had looked a little wet from the rain, and possibly the tide. I wasn’t sure if we should continue our advance upon the sand.

In the sand

The day was one that I had officially taken off. No working, no shows, no practice. Just me, my friend, Kimmie, and the two little dachshunds to take off in my car and head out to the Washington Coast in the pouring rain. Kimmie had never been to Ocean Shores before and this was the journey meant to inject us with the salty energy of the ocean.

About three weeks prior I had found myself in LA again for the third time in the last two months chatting with one of the musicians after the show. “What do you do?” he asked.
I replied with my typical, non-typical answer, “Whatever I want.”
He pulled his head back, “What are you, some kind of trust fund hippie?”
I laughed. “No nothing like that.”
I realized that my reply of “whatever I want” was the truth but also not exactly the truth.

I don’t have a guaranteed source of income. I still have to worry about paying the bills. I still have a mortgage payment which can feel pretty steep on the months that I don’t happen to have a roommate. I have adult things to worry about like filing my taxes on time and replacing the flooring in my home because my dog tore apart the carpet trying to get to a rat that decided to lounge about in the crawl space.  But these are all things I choose to worry about. These are the responsibilities that come with “whatever I want.”

I don’t work in an office any more but I work nearly every single day, usually for a lot less (or no money). Whether it’s a musical rehearsal, a show at a club, a set of music on the street at a farmer’s market, words written on paper, traveling to another city, giving a a ride to a complete stranger, or walking someone else’s dog… I’ve got work to do.

While this is all work that I want to do, I’m beginning to feel like my plate is full. The juggling act between getting work done, making tangible money for the bills, and also having a few moments to relax in the bath is sometimes becoming a struggle. I know that once I start feeling the tension of the push and pull, something has got to give and hopefully not my sanity.

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Nearly a year ago, I left my comfy, rewarding, and well paying spot at the office in downtown Seattle. The plan was to sell my house and live in a van. I had even bought the van I was going to live in and had cleaned it out as well as insulated it. Market conditions on my house brought forth the reality that I couldn’t actually sell it without owing money on things like agent and title fees. Then a couple nights in the van brought forward the reality that I didn’t really want to live by myself with two dachshunds in a Dodge Ram van. What hadn’t changed was my desire to travel more and play music to anyone who was willing to listen.  So over the next year the van came on several tours with me with several bands as I tried to expand my world of music by playing with more people in more places.

In a world where a lot of who you are perceived to be is based on “what you do” I wanted to be able to continue to tell people the answer “whatever I want.” Which, of course, means that I am constantly asking myself, “What do I want?”

I could look back and spout the things I have done, the list of accomplishments and the resume of activity that shows I am fully capable of taking on the world. I could talk about all the things that I want to do and what I can do, but those are just wish list items of a person that doesn’t exist yet. The two questions I continue to hold up in front of myself are “What do I want?” and “What am I doing about it right now?”   

So those same questions approached me when I found myself on my rainy day off with Kimmie on the beach of Ocean Shores. I had stopped the car and we were facing north with the beach to our left the the shine of the sun leaving the horizon behind the clouds. It’s a rare thing, but you can take your car onto the beach in Ocean Shores and drive your way around designated areas.

“It looks wet,” I said. “Maybe the tide has come in.”
“It’s fine,” Kimmie said. “It’s just the sheen.”
The sheen of the sun on the wet sand showing us the shine that was in front of us.
“Let’s do it!” I said as we drove forward and within a few minutes the Toyota Corolla came to a halt with spinning front tires.
“Um…” I said, pressing on the gas and feeling the engine whirr along with the tires. We stayed stationary with the engine grumbling underneath us. “Ummm…” I said again, realizing that the engine on its own wouldn’t get us where we wanted to go. The sand was too soft and we had sunk about six inches into the damp sand.

I looked at Kimmie with her slight frame, fuzzy hat, and the stylish wig that whispered the story of her cancer and told her, “Here, take the wheel and I’ll push.”  What choice did I have? I needed to get the car out of the sand and the action necessary to get “whatever I want” was to get out and push.

I got behind the car at first and realized that centimeter by centimeter, I was pushing the car further into a mire of wet sand. “Wait!” I called out from the backside of the vehicle. “Put it in reverse. We have to go back.”

With my hands placed firmly on the hood, I pushed. There was no clearance and Kimmie was hesitant to put her foot on the gas. “I know it’s weird,” she admitted. “It’s in reverse but I’m afraid of running you over!”

A small amount of coaxing and coordination found me with my knees in the sand using the tops of my thighs as leverage on the grill along with my hands on the hood. The car began to inch backwards and then started moving by the foot without any of my grunting and groaning.

Once free of the sand trap, I started giggling. Even though I was the one that drove forward and got us ensnared, I was relieved and amazed at what the two of us could do together when there was no judgement or anger. Cooperation and a common goal united us in the steps it took to take to set us free. The dachshunds were deliciously oblivious to their near peril.

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I took it as a lesson.
“You always do,” Kimmie laughed when I told her that out loud.

Chasing after the sheen. Looking at the clear, yet perilous path and becoming ensnared in the idea that we have to just “keep moving forward.” Sometimes you need a friend to take the driver’s seat for a moment and push with all your might to go back just a few inches. It’s not giving up, it’s getting out and gathering up.

So while the last year hasn’t gone exactly as planned, I’m inching backwards to gather myself for the next forward leap across the gap. Maybe it’s not in that Dodge Ram van but I’ll see more of this country, share more of my music, and speak more of my words out loud to actively listening ears.  Whatever the plan, I’ll do what I do. It’s up to me to take from this life whatever I want. It’s what I do.

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