What a whirlwind. It has been over a week since I posted. I overheard a conversation the other day near NYU.
A woman said, "...it was the 1980s, I came to New York to be an Art Star, and accidentally ended up drunk in a bar."
The guy she was with said, "Well, that's understandable. Once in a while we all have too much. Then what happened?"
"Well," she said, "Then it was the nineties."
Life asserts itself like water. We get used to the strength and direction of the tide and then, without warning, it changes. Who knows when or where we'll wash back on shore.
While I can say that I haven't been drunk while in New York, my trip has not played out like I expected.
Four days into my research, I found out a friend in San Francisco got into a serious motor scooter accident. His helmet hadn't been on quite tightly enough and he suffered major brain damage. While he stayed in ICU for this past ten days, all of his family, and considerable number of friends, have all been hoping against the harrowing prognosis for a recovery. I've been on the phone several times a day getting updates. As you can imagine, I've been distracted.
I didn't start writing fiction because I excel at accepting reality. My first stories attempted to make order of chaos during the AIDS pandemic. My villains were purely evil and my protagonists heroic.
So it follows that my fiction was boring.
In the beginning, I used the story as a vehicle to get out my version of what I felt should have happened. I wrote because I couldn't accept reality. I hated reality.
My definition of reality has evolved over the years. It had to (I don't have the energy to sustain hate). Now I believe that reality is simply What Happens. Not what I hope will happen or what could've happened or should have happened, but what is happening now.
Reality is relentless and utterly and completely dependable. It does what it's meant to do. It keeps happening. Reality is also mysterious and it has nothing to do with what I think is fair or just or logical. Therefore it's also fascinating.
If my friend's accident were one of my early fictions I would've made it a comeback story.
Three years ago Shad had reached what he considered a critically low-point in his life. Things had fallen apart and he realized he needed to make some considerable changes.
Flash-forward to almost three years later. Lately our main subject for conversation (aside from both being single guys in SF) was how much better life had turned out than he'd hoped. In the time since I met Shad, he quit smoking, gained sixty pounds, lost seventy, quit eating sugar, started exercising, and even just finished training to run a marathon. And those are just the superficial changes.
I don't think he would have wanted me to portray him to appear saintly or heroic. If I did, he probably would've laughed at me before telling me I was full of shit.
He was more interesting than either a saint or a hero. Like all of us, Shad was exquisitely flawed. He wanted a meaningful and fulfilling life. He felt his freedom and happiness were equal to his willingness to pass along the kindness people offered him when he was in trouble. He worked hard to give that back. He was tied-for-first place for the hardest worker I've ever known. In fact, it seemed to me like sometimes like he was working a bit too hard.
The more good fiction I've read and the more I've written, the more I've become interested in those explorations of the messiness of life, of the mysteriousness of human going ons, and the big unanswerable questions. Stories where good people endure and assholes seem to excel. In stories, dramatic irony makes me very happy. Lately my own fiction has been exploring what happens after things have already fallen apart.
I still want fiction to change my life. Part of me wants it to wholly contain the pain and drama.
I'm not a practicing Buddhist, but I take refuge in any set of ideas that provides it. For decades I have dabbled in Buddhism like a dilettante. My friend Mark often talks about Pema Chödrön, who in an interview with bell hooks, said, "For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death—which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together—seems to be the most fundamental thing that we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part.
We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control. You're never in control. You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it. Training to allow all that to be there, training to die continually. That seems to be the essence of the lojong teachings—to stay in the space of uncertainty without trying to reconstruct a reference point.
We can stop looking for some idealized moment when everything is simple and secure. This second of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it."
I just found out, in the middle of fuddling with this entry, that Shad died.
Life isn't like fiction. You can't close the book.
Writing, the process of creating little worlds, has always helped me cope with the larger world. But it's excruciatingly painful when I've expected it to immune me from it.
I've been such an incredible opportunity with this grant and here in New York. At the same time, as I experience my shock and grief of this loss, I have to remember there's nothing for me "to do" except to work toward accepting the reality. To remember that there may be nothing to understand. It's mysterious. I'm comforted by being part of a larger community and inspired by how my friends have taken care of themselves and each other and have opened themselves to Shad's family. Writing is not enough. I'm grateful to be a part of a family of friends. I need real community.
I was a teenager when my friends started dying of AIDS. I was afraid and I'd grown up with the very clearcut and negative messages about homosexuality. Because of the era, a ridiculous idea was constantly being thrust into my consciousness and while I knew it was ridiculous, on some level it took root during. Not a fiction, but a lie. The lie was that some people deserve to live and others deserve to die. While I know that isn't true, my mind grasps for it, wants Shad to be the one who gets to live.
Stories help me. Good stories have trained me to see beauty in its opposite.
I miss my friend Shad already.