by Craig Young
The Hour of Magic and Loss
I was once told that the best way to gain an audience's sympathy was to start off by telling the saddest thing you could think of. After that it's a cakewalk...or so they say. From the same source came the following joke: Man goes to doctor and says, "Doctor, I'm depressed. Life seems harsh and cruel. I feel all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain and what has been left behind seems cold and distant. The love I've known has been relinquished in the name of self-protection and I've slept with indifference like a jealous lover. Where once a heart beat now is but an empty hole stuffed with tattered newspaper. What am I to do?" The doctor replies, "Easy, the treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. He'll find your laughter for you." The man bursts into tears, says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci!"
Snare drum. Curtains. Everyone laugh.
There comes a time in everyone's life where we are regrettably forced to confront loss; the loss of life, the loss of friendship, the loss of love, the loss of hope...the loss of innocence. Separate or in innumerable combination, there arrives a point where as much as we'd prefer to hold onto "The Hour of Seduction" and forever rest nestled inside the warmth of her inviting bosom, we cannot. Time moves forward, gears turn with aching precision, and we inevitably are forced to face the fact that there will come times when family passes on, friends grow old, and love grows apart. When that happens it's difficult to console oneself with the knowledge that what we are experiencing is not a unique event, that we all will pass through loss at different points in our lives, that we all will share these
same feelings of emptiness and hopelessness. But that's small consolation and does little to ease the burden, even if you're the great clown Pagliacci.
In Arctic Dreams, author Barry Lopez writes: "How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life? When one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light."
Or, as Lou Reed sings: "What's good? Life's good--but not fair at all." And it is upon that thesis "The Hour of Magic and Loss" begins.
The album from which the song--"What's Good (The Thesis)"--comes from is his 1992 release, Magic and Loss; an amazing self-examination into the heartbreak and loss death brings from one of the most renowned musical poets alive today. Lou Reed unflinchingly bares his soul in an attempt to reconcile these contradictions of love and loss, to come to terms with and accept the irony in its unfolding. "Life's like forever becoming / But life's forever dealing in hurt / Now life's like death without living / That's what life's like without you." The album has always had a powerful affect on me, but I didn't realize how much I would be re-examining, relating and utterly releasing myself to its spirit until four years ago when the first in a series of events would lead me through the lives of four people, and ultimately into the heart of my own. Between "What's Good (The Thesis)" and "Magic and Loss (The Summation)," Reed tells his own story of loss and redemption, and it's between those same bookends that I share my own.
In the summer of 1996 I found myself back in the small university town in the northeast corner of Utah that I had grown up in. I always had a love/hate relationship with the place. While the beauty of the surrounding Rockies upon which the edge of the city rested was awe-inspiring, life there was not. The town consisted mostly of lower-middle class conservative Mormon families who had roots sunk deep within the valley's farming heritage; the rest were university students passing through and passing time, waiting to board a bus to someplace better. The friends you made there were friends for life, and the only reason to return to the town was to see them. Passing through on my way back from the sandstone and sage of the southern Utah desert I stopped in the clothing boutique of a friend whom I'd not seen in several years and spent an afternoon catching up with her. Seated on a bench with my back to the front window of the store, and watching the long shadows of the afternoon sun slide down the far wall, I listened to her talk as she rocked back and forth in the comfort of a huge, handmade pine rocker. We spoke of times past and friends long since departed. We joked about traveling together to Europe (I had friends in about every country in the northern half, she had friends throughout the south), and we talked about the spirituality of the desert ("God's Country," Edward Abbey called it) and how it was always our escape from the doldrums and pressures of life to a hidden peace within.
And then at one point her eyes lit up and she offered a confession: she was in love. She had found someone who genuinely made her happy and she was hoping to sell her store and move to Colorado to begin a new life with him. As I listened to the rocking chair strain and creak as she moved back and forth, and as I watched the sun patiently slide along her happy face, all I could do was smile. It was a perfect moment; life was good. Little did I know that would be the last time I would ever see her. I never said goodbye--it wasn't my habit. The memory of her in the rocker would forever be imprinted in my mind. But that fateful day was still yet to come, and between the magic and loss of that friend I would find and lose a love of my own.
Ingmar Bergman's 1957 movie The Seventh Seal is an allegorical commentary on the age old question: Does God exist? Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a disillusioned knight returning from ten wasted years in the Crusades. The movie opens with Death approaching von Sydow. Able to survive the horrors of the Crusades that have shaken his faith but unable to escape an impending mortality, von Sydow invites Death to a friendly game of chess in the hopes of learning of the true existence of God. Unfortunately, Death stays mum and offers no advice other than this simple truth: no one escapes his icy touch.
As interesting and compelling as the primary story of The Seventh Seal is, the true heart of the movie lies in von Sydow's squire, Jons (played by Gunner Bj÷rnstrand), who has no illusions as to the doubt of a higher power and whose commentary throughout the movie supplies another story altogether outside of von Sydow's ongoing chess match with Death. While consoling a local smith whose beautiful wife ran off with another man, Jons quips:
"Love is another word for lust, plus more lust and a lot of cheating, lies, and other kinds of fooling around."
"But it hurts anyway."
"Of course. Love is the blackest of all plagues. If one could die from it, there would be some pleasure in love. But you don't even die of it!"
Shortly after returning home from Utah, with the warmth of a happy friend in my heart and the heat of the desert sun upon my spirit, I too found myself struck down by that blackest of all plagues--and it felt wonderful! I can name on one hand the people--friends, lovers, others--who've touched my life in such a way as to create such an intimate bond, and without doubt she has been one. I was head over heels lost inside "The Hour of Seduction," and between the time it would take for her to say "yes" and the echo of her voice to fade from the room--and the time it took for the rush of blood to subside from my ears--whole worlds were explored inside her amorous embrace. This was not misinterpreted sentiment nor misrepresented lust. I've been fond of people before. I've been in love. But very little in the life I've walked has made my heart go "boom-boom-boom" the way she did. We started off slow, with childlike steps, and I can still remember the night in that park in Wedgwood, sitting on a blanket and watching the clouds roll over a half-filled moon, like it was yesterday. The way she looked, her inviting smell, and the long deep sigh that escaped her lips as I moved to embrace her for the first time.
In Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (to which I often turn to for spiritual
salve), a townsperson bids Gibran's character to "speak to us of beauty." The Prophet replies: "Where shall you seek beauty and how shall you find her unless she herself be your way and your guide? And how shall you speak of her except she be the weaver of your speech?" Hers was that beauty. She understood me intimately and was one of very few people I could completely relax with and open up to. Hours were spent in the warm confines of an inviting bed talking about
anything and everything; tracing the soft lines of her body while Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Talk Talk's The Spirit of Eden, Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Peter Gabriel's Passion played on in the background.
But, of course, every up has its down, and our relationship found its dark side in time. The circumstances under which we met were strained (to say the least), and even though the last year we spent together in intimacy was on our own terms, in the background I could hear the gears of Time slowly straining forward. And like von Sydow's chess match with Death, you can only play against an obvious outcome for so
"I'm inside, I'm outside / I'm with you, without you / Don't love
me, don't leave me / Don't trust me, believe me / Embrace me, release me / Deny me, then feed me / I love you, then lose you / So distant, so near me." --Dot Allison, "Message Personnel."
The obvious stared me down but I refused to understand. I honestly felt (and still do) that our love could overcome any obstacle. Our intimacy was genuine and I thought in the face of that all else was temporal habit and could be changed. I thought if I waited patiently she would come back 'round. I was wrong. In the midst of contradiction I stumbled and struggled to hold on to what we shared while she, with Irish pride held high, refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, only misgivings. She continued on the path she walked and set herself free by giving me and the love I had for her the most
unkind cut of all. It would be two years until we spoke to each other next.
"You've worn out your welcome / but it's better than the hell of being alone / You've worn out your welcome / you've become someone you wouldn't even want to know / Cradled in your January arms / as cold as the farthest star / I don't want to waste my whole life waiting for you to come alive / waiting for you to see some sick sign." --Juno,
During the final days of our relationship I received a phone call that I wish I never would have answered. Some months previous, my friend from Utah had moved to Colorado with her fiancÚ; they were in love, they were together, they were starting a new life and she had found out she was pregnant. They married during the ninth month of her pregnancy and on the day after the wedding, complaining of unrepentant headaches, the husband drove his newlywed to the hospital. Suffering from a massive brain aneurysm, she died while being administered anesthetic. The doctors performed an emergency
Caesarian and delivered a baby boy to a mother who would never hold it. She wasn't even thirty.
Of all the people and of all the ways, I never thought that would have been the way she'd go. In the group we ran around with years previously my friends and I did some really stupid things; abused our bodies in a variety of ways and never blinked as to what the consequences might be. I have had friends die before--friends overdose, friends wrap their cars around trees while driving drunk, friends botch suicide attempts only to (ironically) die by their failed effort--but I've never had one die in so unfair a fashion and seemingly without reason. Those long and wasted days were far behind us; life and endless potential lay ahead. Then my phone rang. In the back of my mind I can still hear the sound of her rocking chair creaking back and forth, still see the way the sun lit up the smile on her face.
For the next year I struggled to find the magic in both losses. I came up short every time. I would often find myself playing Jeff Buckley's heartbreaking version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." "The only thing I learned from love was how to shoot someone who outdrew ya." I'd had the extreme pleasure of seeing Buckley perform several years previous in the upstairs of what was then Seattle's CafÚ Paradiso. It was about a year or so before Grace would be
released and he would begin his fast climb to public acclaim, but that night it was just him and a Fender Telecaster in the cramped confines of a hushed coffeehouse room. When he sang "Hallelujah," hearts crumbled and angels cried. What a terrible loss. I kept
playing Magic and Loss, but the moral still escaped me with each listen.
"I see the Sword of Damocles is right above your head / They're trying a new treatment to get you out of bed / But radiation kills both bad and good, it can not differentiate / So to cure you they must kill you / The Sword of Damocles hangs above your head." --Lou Reed, "Sword of Damocles (Externally)."
Several months after that dreaded phone call another female friend of mine, complaining of numbness on her left side, was admitted to Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle only to discover she had a brain tumor. A few weeks before I'd watched her score her first goal on the soccer pitch--she was so jubilant! Several days after surgery I went to visit her with a friend. Head completely shaven and with giant staples tracking the scar where the doctors had cut with as much mercy as medicine would allow, she looked like a baseball whose stitching had gone horribly awry. Still, she held her ground. Kind,
caring, generous, always bringing out the best from those she encountered, she was the toughest nut I'd ever met.
Twice more the tumor would return, but only once more would she fight it. The last time she knew...and so graciously allowed Death the game, who in return took her peacefully on a rainy night in January of 1999. This time I had the chance to say goodbye, but I chose not to. Instead I wished her hello with every opportunity.
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