The bar is called heaven*

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Dear Tom,

At the time that I post this it will be one year since I bought a one-way ticket to Denver to say goodbye to you. It feels like yesterday. It feels like last week.

One of the greatest gifts is that I got to spend such concentrated time with you in the final eight months of your life, and to talk to you openly about mortality and the afterlife. You asked me to help you figure out how you could come back as a benevolent spirit, but I don’t think you need any help. Your energy is palpable to so many of us; you are with us constantly. So many of us have received signs from you in the past 365 days, from Buffalo nickels found on the ground to train whistles piercing our sadness at unexpected times. Songs on the radio (I’ll keep it old-school for you, you who eschewed technology and the rolling suitcase), license plates and graffiti bearing your name, and dreams, so many dreams so vivid they had to be you.

Like every single person who was packed into the Capitol Theatre for your memorial, there are things I miss about you that are specific to us, 25-year-old jokes, shared experiences, and the characters we created. We were Ringley and Laura, star-crossed family friends who wrote letters and postcards to each other as we waited out “that blasted war” in the summer of 1944. We were Smoky and Sweets, the blue-collar 1950s sitcom couple whose every episode ended with an adorable mishap. And we were us, the real us, you who saved me from a runaway horse in Half Moon Bay, who invited me right back into the fold whenever I felt I had been ousted. So many adventures, and so many meals. Dining with you was one of the great pleasures of my life.

That you gave me such a prominent seat at your table in your final months is something that will forever impact me. It was an honor and a privilege to be by your side when I could. It was a different version of our friendship, to be sure, and it wasn’t always easy, but it was always important. It was doctors’ appointments and procedures and efforts to eat more healthily and to dial it back on the evenings out. It was Laverne and Shirley marathons and meals of pierogis and kielbasa—occasionally, and always followed by those healthy shakes in the morning. It was big “family” dinners surrounded by puppies. It was a visit to Cheyenne to tour the steam shop, and a Kentucky Derby party that turned out to be a crawfish boil. It was trips to Ace Hardware—my goodness you loved that place—to make your home more beautiful. I have your phone, and I found a picture you took of me on your back porch after we hung those lights. I love this picture. 

There was so much laughter in those final months. And there were a fair amount of tears. Yet you never complained, never bemoaned your fate, you who comforted the woman on the bike next to you in physical therapy by pretending you were riding through Paris together. I know you had regrets, we talked about them, but I think that you ultimately died as you lived some of the best parts of your life, surrounded by friends and music and beauty and love—including the love of a beautiful woman to whom I will always be grateful. The sun setting on the Rockies, John playing guitar, all of us holding you and loving you as you took your final breaths. To say I am profoundly shaped by that experience would not do it justice. 

*Do you remember all of us singing this song in your hospital room? It was late Friday night. It was your last party on earth. I’m certain there are many, many more wherever it is that you are now.

A few weeks after you left us I had dinner with Erik and Gib and we talked about our TVaught-inspired goals for the next year. I said that one of mine was to finally finish my book and I said I’d aim to do so by your birthday. Gib suggested I aim instead for the anniversary, as that was likely more doable. He was right.  I’ve just sent out my first couple of queries. It is out of my hands now. I know you’d be proud of me.

In our final phone conversation, the Monday before, when you were getting ready to have surgery, we talked about how we’d visit New Orleans together once you got better and find me a little house to be my writing retreat. You named it the Jewel Box and in it you designed a sunken living room—my writing room—which you named “The Cat’s Paw” because it would be, somehow, shaped like one. When I showed up at the hospital four days later, I leaned in to say hello to you, and you opened your eyes briefly and said my name and smiled. And then you mumbled something about a cat. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized what you were probably talking about. 

If I am to believe that you are around still, and I do, then you also bore witness to the upheaval your death brought to all of us. You saw the unraveling of relationships that were held together by a bond that you created. You saw the wheels come off as we grappled with our collective identity. In your absence, some of these longstanding connections no longer made sense. And that is okay. 

But oh, that memorial. What a beautiful, perfect event that was. And on that day, none of those differences or conflicts mattered; all that mattered was you.

When you came to New York in July, over lunch we talked about your timeline. You said, “I don’t want to die around the holidays and ruin them for everyone. But then after the new year things are already kind of depressing so I don’t want to do it then.” At the time we had no reason to think things would take such a sharp turn. At the time I said, “I was at those doctor’s appointments with you—you’re not leaving us any time soon!” And I truly believed that. And now here it is, your anniversary, November 3. How fitting, somehow, days after Halloween and the Day of the Dead. It will never be “fitting” that you are gone, but within the confines of that brutal reality, the time of year you chose makes some sort of sense. 

Alas, my love, there will never be a way to end this letter that feels “enough”. And I talk to you constantly, you’re with me constantly, so ending this letter isn’t all that consequential. But I wanted to write it to mark this day. I recognize the irony in writing about you on that newfangled internet thing, but just as you are still with us on an alternate plane, perhaps these words will find their way onto parchment and into your hands.

You know that I love you, and I think you know how deeply I appreciate you. You continue to inspire and influence me in the most beautiful ways. Thank you for that.

Always,

Laura (Sweets)

 

As time goes by

It’s the first day of 2019 and I realize that I am carrying a lot over from the year that’s passed. Of course I am; two of the magnificent male presences in my life left us in 2018. I’m not comparing them; the losses are entirely different, yet there will always be a connection. The first time I visited with Tom post-diagnosis, one night I got a little teary and said, “I’m sorry—for some reason I’m really missing Lou right now,” and he said, “Of COURSE you are! How could you not be! He was a huge part of your life for 16 years.” He got it, and I didn’t need to feel self-conscious mourning my dog in front of a man whose mortality had recently become fact. Later that night, after he’d gone to bed, I sat in my room and sobbed, about Louie, about Tom, about everything and everyone I’ve lost and will lose. At this point in our lives grief is cumulative, though each and every occasion that dredges it up is entirely new.

Perhaps one of the things that helped Tom cope with the end of his days on earth is the fact that he, like me, chose to believe in an afterlife, chose to believe that this is not all there is. Chose to believe that, as he said, he could come back and “haunt” us as a benevolent spirit. And in my estimation, he’s doing a fine job of this.

It could all be coincidence. I know that.

The other night we were out to dinner and I was wearing one of Tom’s scarves around my neck. My mom  commented on it and mentioned its provenance to my dad, and we had the briefest of conversations about the sartorial splendor of Tom Vaught. I realized I was on the verge of crying and so I turned away, fooling no-one,  and in that moment, in a restaurant in Paris that had been playing jazz, a Grateful Dead song came on. Just one, and just then.

It could all be coincidence and in that case, what a joyful and comforting coincidence it was.

I am in Paris where I spent Christmas and celebrated my birthday and now the New Year. I was not meant to arrive until this past Friday, the 28, but a last-minute glitch in the plans of other family members compelled me to reroute and come straight here to spend the holiday with my folks. And I am so very, very grateful that I was able to; we had a lovely time, and most important is that we were together. I am still here for another week+ and while at first two weeks felt quite daunting, now it feels like barely enough. I’d lost sight of how much I love this beautiful city, and of how different it is once you figure out how NOT to eat every meal and drink every coffee in a restaurant, and how NOT to feel compelled to do something rich and cultural every day. Sometimes just sitting still in a place helps you to embrace it.

Someone asked me today if I make New Year’s resolutions, and my answer is that I do not. I make goals. This time of year is a conflation of events for me – my birthday is right before the new year, and the Western new year is followed by the Chinese one which, culturally, has always played a role in my life. Rather than make resolutions that I can break and restart, I set goals; that they are often the same from year to year (finish my book and exercise more) is not the point. Goals not met can be aimed for anew, while an unmet resolution challenges the veracity of one’s word. So among my goals for this year: to once again and finally finish my book, to record some songs, to spend more time writing and less time wasting it. And many, many others that you don’t need to read about.

I made some mistakes in 2018, took some enormous missteps, and so another one of my goals ties into this. It’s certainly not to learn to forgive myself—I’m very good at this—it’s to arrive at a profound understanding of how and why I’ve taken these missteps in the first place. In starting to write about Tom, I’ve inadvertently started to study this. I don’t know that my writing about Tom (beyond what I’ve posted publicly) will be seen by eyes other than mine, but it is serving many purposes.

I have two incredible muses now. Two more.

And so while I start this year with a huge hole in my heart, with an aching for one being to whom I knew I’d someday say goodbye and from whom I was not at all prepared to part, and with another who I somehow always expected would be out there somewhere, I embrace the changes that have been foisted upon me and those which I’ve set into motion.

I love you Louie. I love you Tom. I love you 2019; I will take a cue from Tom and find significance in every day.

 

And you who had the honor of her evening …

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I’ve been thinking about this post all day and I’ve been wondering whether or not I’d write it. The title here is from Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” a song that, like so many others, breaks my heart in the most beautifully devastating way.

Kate Spade. I think many of the women I know who are my age-ish have at one point been familiar with her wares. I knew very little about her; I was gifted one of her handbags in the early-to-mid 90s and I wore it proudly, always aware that I was handbagging out of my league.

She killed herself this morning. And of course the social media-verse is full of “WHY?!?”s … and that is a valid question. The answer, I’m certain, is fairly complex. When we try to distill the why’s of suicide into explanation we fall short of the bigger picture which, more often than not, is my old friend and foe depression. Family things may well have been happening, business things may well have been challenging, but what drives someone to take one’s own life is rarely quite so tangible. “But she had …!” and “But she was …!” don’t apply. I am not diagnosing her, I do not know that she was clinically depressed, but I do know that some variation on depression plays into many suicides.

And I also know that depression does not care whether you are young or smart or famous or rich or beautiful or powerful or none of the above. Depression, like cancer, chooses its path quite democratically, and while there are things one can do to stave off both, there are no guarantees.

I know what it’s like to feel alone while surrounded by people, to feel stuck despite options, to feel empty when the judgmental voice inside tells you you shouldn’t. And I know the value of facing these possibly tamable demons and coming out on the other side.

If you are reading these words and you feel empty, alone, despondent, suicidal, please know that there are resources available to you. If you need to, reach out to me. Ours is a very challenging existence. As one of B’s photos from Love City says, “Don’t jump. Somebody, somewhere, is waiting to love you.”

Very few things are insurmountable. If I can help you to realize this, I will.

I come from the land of the ice and snow

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This image is in the window of the Susan Inglett Gallery in Chelsea, which is currently featuring the work of Benjamin Degen. I’ve no connection to either other than proximity, and this caught my eye when I walked by because I am a snowflake.

I feel like I need to take a break from Facebook. I recognize the banality of writing this on a page that will post directly to Facebook, and I know that you know that I won’t be taking this break any time soon. But I will restructure my relationship with it. And by “it” I mean my personal page, not the other one.

The reason is not just that it is a rabbit hole, because many positive things have come of this rabbit hole—friendships, freelance projects, crowd-sourcing to find the best vacuum cleaner for my budget, learning that the color of my shirt + the last thing I ate = my indie band name. (Black Muffuletta). And don’t get me started on birthdays!!!

The more pressing reason is that it has become a repository for our collective gloom and I am an emotional sponge. In person, this doesn’t always mean that I read the emotions I’m perceiving correctly, but on Facebook it is all right there. Or at least a version of it is. And as annoying as this may be, I can’t help but care.

We’re going through stuff on the home front, as you know – the Louie situation would be challenging no matter who were President and no matter what else was going on in my life, and I am not at all sure that those were/was decisions were correct. But the Louie situation is a drop in the ocean of the things people I care about are going through right now.

I have a fairly large bandwidth when it comes to emotional support, I try to have one when it comes to practical support, but I am not always able to. So if we are Facebook or real-life friends and we are in the midst of a conversation, please know that this is not at all about you. But just skimming the site one can’t help but absorb the fact that the world is in pain. The Vague-booking, the Go Fund Me’s, the re-post this if you care about thats, the senior dogs who were abandoned with their favorite toy, I can”t help but latch right on to all of that, as though sadness were iron filings and I a colossal magnet.

I’ve had disturbing dreams the past couple of nights and have woken up feeling gloomy. And that ain’t fun—there is plenty to be gloomy about without this ambiguous, generalized angst. It is CERTAINLY not all because of Facebook – life is a difficult journey (eyeroll) under “perfect” circumstances –  but I can’t help but think that I am absorbing even more than I realize.

like supporting others. I have spent a fair amount of time with depression and uncertainty and grief, and I refuse to believe that this was all in vain; I’ve learned a lot and if my experiences can in any way help anybody who is going through anything, I am honored to be able to share them and offer whatever wisdom I can.

Upshot: Call me if you need me. I’ll see you on Facebook.

 

 

 

Years gone by

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I think about 9-11, in some capacity, every day. I still dream about it, but certainly not to the extent that I did those first several months after the fact. That day and the day my friend Laura died nine months later are the two most acutely traumatic experiences of my life. Though the pain and shock are diminished and the sadness muted, neither is ever terribly far from my thoughts.

I remember details of both days in stark relief; I could piece together the events of 9-11 very accurately, as all of my senses were on high alert then and in the weeks and months that followed. The day Laura died was different—the shock phase of that grief process cycled quickly into profound heartache, and though I recall who was around me, the details are foggy. But as to that clear September day the autumn before (technically late-summer … why must I be so damn literal that I can’t let the poetry of “the autumn before” stand without an editorial note?), I recall what I ate, who I spoke with by phone and in-person, tones of voice, snippets of conversation, and so on.

I wasn’t sure I was going to write an anniversary post this year, but it’s become one of the few rituals since I began this blog in 2013. So here we are. I wasn’t sure I was going to write because at this point I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anyone wants to hear my version of the sequence of events, or my experiences on that day, because everybody has their 9-11 story. Sure, I was here, so that puts me closer than some, but it really doesn’t matter; we were all here.

With the exception of a relatively tiny handful of people on this earth, 9-11 succeeded in bringing people together across the planet and regardless of race, religion, socio-economic factors, education levels, stations in life, and any of the myriad ways that we divide ourselves. That is the collateral beauty* of that horrible day.

*This phrase, which I recently encountered, is apparently the name of a 2016 film of dubious merit. I like it, though, and am keeping it.

On a macro- global- historical- political- level there is much to be learned from 9-11. On a micro-level, there is this: we actually really, truly only have THIS MINUTE. The old “I could get hit by a bus” maxim has been upgraded to “I could get hit by a plane,” but the point is the same … this is all we have. We can not count on “some day.” There is no “I will get it together once _____” or “I just need ____ before I ____.” That is bullshit. That is not being kind to the you who is here today. What an existential shame it would be to deny today’s you her/his full potential because you were waiting for tomorrow’s you to show up.

I could go on and on and on and on about the importance of living life now and loving yourself always and being in the moment and believing and learning and caring but I am so tired of having to convince so many of the people in my life to live their lives that I am going to give myself the rest of the night off. I’ll be back to it soon enough.

May whomever is in charge of these things bless those we lost on 9-11 and those who remain.

Love yourselves. You know you deserve it.

 

The lazy Mississippi

IMG_5110If you are lucky enough to know what it means to miss New Orleans, then you likely recognize the area where I took this photo, Jackson Square. Yes it’s the heart of the Quarter and yes the Quarter is riddled with tourists but some of my closest friends who are not tourists live and love in this historic part of town.

If you pay attention to this blahg you may have noticed that, until today, I’ve posted quite minimally since 11-8. It’s been really difficult to do anything since then, and I’m one of the lucky ones. My life will not change dramatically because of what is going on in Mar-A-Lago on the golf course in D.C. But life, and any semblance of security that many of the people living in this country may have, has and will change dramatically, and this is what I now fight for every day.

But I digress. I have not written in FSP much because I’ve not really been inspired to do so, and now, having made my first trip of the year to New Orleans, I am inspired to do a lot.

This was my 13th visit to the city, and it was wonderful. I saw some of my favorite people and made new friends. I played among the Mardi Gras beads and stray cats that line the streets. I know that the city is far, far from perfect. I know its political and social and infrastructural problems are many. And I know that when I visit there, I feel creative and I believe a little bit more in the magic that I so want to believe in.

I love that, on this trip, I met a woman who has a pet pig, and that on hearing this, I asked , “Oh! Do you live on Frenchmen?” and she replied, “No, my pig doesn’t get along with the one who lives on Frenchmen.”

I love that I was invited to conflicting crawfish boils at 4pm Sunday, and that when I didn’t go to either because I wanted to stay in and write, no one questioned me.

I love that people I barely know and have not seen since last July remember that I’m “the one from New York who’s writing a book.”

Speaking of which, I’m almost done with said book.

This time around I didn’t feel sad leaving New Orleans, because I know that I will be back soon. I left there looking forward to my life and loved ones here. And I look forward to getting back to my life and dear friends there when I can.

Thank you all. You know who you are.