“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” — William Shakespeare
So, here we are at the end of a year every person on the planet is likely thankful is passing into the ether, and anxious to be able to release a mammoth exhale. I was recently prompted to contribute a thought to the question: “How do creatives continue to create during times as roiling as these? And is it even important that they do?” As this year comes to its end, I am reminded that the things that happen to us may very well have much larger, perhaps unseen, spiritual designs for us. And we would do well to try and truly pay attention.
I have been one of the lucky ones. When we first went into global lockdown in mid-March, I lost every gig I had on the books. So did every musician I know. I lost them all in one day. The Sunday at midnight that California went into quarantine, my closest sister-friend Irma and I were driving back to L.A. from Sacramento, from visiting friends, and literally the whole trip up there I fielded call, after call, after call, from all the contractors who had me booked on gigs, with the news of cancellation. Then I got the call from both churches where I directed their choirs that we were going into a temporary hiatus from weekly rehearsals (which turned out to be not so temporary).
It’s weird; I am a panic-natured individual. Yet some kind of creepy calm hit me, as I turned to Irma, who was doing the driving, and said, “I’ve just lost all my work.” And these jobs, mind you, were going to see me through the giant move I was planning to make in just a few months from then. Under any other circumstance, I would’ve had a full-on anxiety attack, and been incapable of enjoying the 3-day visit to our dear friends David and Keith up in Sac. Instead, for reasons I’ll never understand, but for which I am eternally grateful, I had a blast with our foursome, in spite of my world hinting at falling apart. It was a great weekend. We ate at public restaurants, with no clues at that point that we were mere hours away from everything in the world shutting down. We laughed and reminisced (I even had a terrible chest cold, which, in hindsight, I’ve wondered about, yet still I had the most rewarding time), and then Irma and I found ourselves racing Interstate 5 to get ourselves back to Los Angeles by the time of quarantine, as it was unfolding before our very ears on the car radio news.
From that moment on, I have felt oddly trusting that I would get through this. Of course, at the time, I think we all believed this quarantine — and the lines at the grocery markets, and the manic-hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and having to wear masks everywhere — would MAYBE last a couple of months tops. I don’t believe any of us had any clue we’d be approaching the end of this unbelievable year and still be not only in this pandemic but worse off than just a couple of months ago. We were improving, and then we were declining again. Death tolls became astonishing. The White House became a stupefying conduit of destruction on many levels and toward many issues. But as for my individual and personal life, I felt I would be okay. And I have been.
I made my move, from Los Angeles to Kansas City, in early June, in spite of being in the midst of this pandemic (it was a plan made long before we had any notion this was coming). It was a challenge finding my footing in my new town, with most businesses closed till further notice. I’d come here to infiltrate the live music scene that Kansas City is known for, but there’s been no live music scene to speak of since this virus arrived. And so, I got internal and was forced to slow down in a way I didn’t even realize I WASN’T doing in L.A. What I now know, looking back, is that I was constantly racing the world, and in perpetual fight or flight mode. To be honest, I believe my lesson in slowing down began even before we were in a full-scale pandemic. At the very start of 2020, I spent ten glorious days in Kona, with my dear friend Kelly, who’d given me the trip for my milestone birthday. And I have never felt such peace and serenity, nor appreciated nature more, nor breathed, and read books, and walked groves, and ate fresh food directly from trees, and bonded with a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years…with more presence. It was a shift I felt profoundly, and wanted badly to take back home to continue my life with. This idea that, just maybe, we aren’t here in this life to be in constant motion and achievement 24/7, but, just maybe, we’re here to experience a moment. Breathe slowly. And be moved.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Kelly for such an unexpected gift. And I cannot help but assert that this gift prepared me for what was coming. I got my muscle strengthened to slow down, and to be in flow more than in resistance. And by the way, I’m far from full flow. But the shift and the consciousness about it IS happening, sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back. And for every bit of the messiness of it, I am eternally grateful.
I’ve still never gotten the virus. When so many have not been so lucky, I remain in daily gratitude about that, and find myself being of service in ways I never have before — as a naturally self-centered person — because my blessed fortune continues to stun me.
The very best news on the personal front to happen during this difficult year is that my dear young friend and surrogate son, Hans, to whom I’d given a kidney twelve years ago, and who went into kidney distress again just short of our 10-year anniversary, finally got his second, life-saving kidney this past August. I’m sure he will look back on 2020 in a very different way from most of the rest of the world.
And that is the beauty AND the ugly of this year. It isn’t simple. It isn’t single-layered. It has been rich with stunning complexity, breathtaking ire, prompts to reexamine our lives, and tectonic plate shifts of unimaginable spiritual magnitude (if we’re keen enough to be willing to listen and receive).
If 2020 has felt a bit like the ten biblical plagues, what with Covid-19, a global pandemic, police brutality, vigilantism, economic devastation, and race wars, that’s because it kind of has been. Yet what history has taught us — when it isn’t trying to be co-opted and rewritten by a ruling class afraid of losing its knee-hold on the neck of America — is that a cleansing on the deeply spiritual, paradigmatic level is absolutely upon us. And insists upon our ears.
Let’s start with this War of the Mask-Wearers. Curiouser and curiouser every day, this pandemic and the crucial CDC guidelines has sent the privileged into full-fledged apoplexy and rebellion over their rights. It’s an interesting twist of the Karmic screw. What rights exactly are they fighting and risking your life and mine and their own for? A fair and equitable society? The vote? No, nothing quite so lofty. They’ve been fighting for their right to get a manicure and a haircut. To be exempt from cooperating with a civil society that has been attempting to work together to eradicate this virus. To walk their dog in Central Park without a leash, lest confronted, to chillingly weaponize their knowledge of Law Enforcement’s historical treatment of Black people and of their own privilege, against an innocent man.
As a result of this stunning turn of hubris, while other countries were beginning to re-open and heal, America’s numbers only continued skyrocketing. We are now the pariah of the world, banned from European countries in a move so breathtaking in its Karmic comeuppance that Mexico would be laughing its ass off if it weren’t in such a state of collective heartbreak.
While the rest of the world was slowly beginning to rebuild, this virus — un-reined, unhinged — continued annihilating an American population. So, you know, just to give the pandemic a good run for its money, in a race for the title of King Destroyer, let’s excavate all the dusty old bones of racial discord and inequity, individual and systemic, and start exterminating BIPOC and queer & non-binary people, while we’re at it.
Was lockdown, unprecedented in my lifetime, the final straw that exploded an already simmering pot of entitlement? Or did staying home with nothing to do except face one’s own self reveal a few too many unsettling tendencies, and perhaps the revelation that this virus knows no race, no color, no economic status, no class, no gender, no party lines, and how dare it!? Did the need for foot-stomping, and pouting, and trying to scream at the rest of us, just in case we forgot, that someone still deserves preferential treatment, mean it was time for a slaughter?
This attempted Black genocide has been going on for a long time. This is not new. The only difference between then and now is visibility and witness. Anyone with a cellphone can now change the course of history and bring about a global awareness of what people of color have known, from the front row, for a very long time. And so, perhaps pandemics and quarantines and lockdowns and job loss have made us angrier too. And by “us,” I mean any who are invested in an evolved humanity.
Perhaps it’s no flaw in the cosmic design that two of our greatest Civil Rights leaders and Americans, Rep. John R. Lewis and C.T. Vivian, took their leave of this world on the same day, in the midst of this mess. Both men spent time in the 1960’s, along with other Freedom Riders, in the gruesome Parchman Farm State Prison, where the agreement between the federal government and the governors of Alabama and Mississippi was that these governors would agree to protect the protestors from violence in exchange for allowing them to be arrested and put in jail. You can imagine the treatment they got behind bars with handed-down edicts such as, “break their spirits, not their bones.” Lewis, in particular, was the target of violence a stunning number of times, once being left for dead at a Greyhound station, after being attacked with lead pipes, chains, and baseball bats. At times the attacks were perpetrated by members of the Klan; at other times it was law enforcement. Yet these men never lost their dignity. They lost neither their humanity nor the Prize. They got themselves in “good trouble,” as John Lewis was known for saying. And perhaps their leaving this world during these present roiling times was a way of saying to us: Yours is not the first of such trials, but never lose hope. Change does come.
So, the match has been lit. Lit for protest and action, which we have now seen all over this globe in 2020 in a way we’ve never seen before. AND lit for illumination, which also, like this virus, knows no race, color, economic status, class, or gender. There is a quantum field, and we are encouraged to join a shift in consciousness. The play didn’t stop just because an entire world went on pause. It has been running all throughout this pandemic, a design prompted by the monumental crack in our earth that this human population has wrought. The crack of hatred and solipsism, of the evisceration of clean air and water regulations, of holding people (children!) in cages, of utter disregard for our Star and its starlings. We are a planet in trauma. People are dying without their loved ones at their side. If nothing else, this novel coronavirus has forced us all to wake up to the truth that there is no separation. There is only one spiritual body operating as community, operating as the guiding force we’ve been given the charge for on this planet.
So, what do we do with that?
Health care professionals and frontline workers are saving lives even as they are risking their own. Scientists have worked furiously for antidote and answer. Spiritual leaders, philosophers, and thinkers have pointed the way toward the shift with a cogent map. Activists and grassroots organizations literally jolted a society out of its coma and made known the critical mass of systemic racism and bigotry still embedded in our institutions, and they spurred the population on to join the protests, sign petitions, call congresspersons, and VOTE!
Again, the question that got prompted: How do artists create and contribute through the pain of this global implosion? Because here we are, finally leaving this most challenging of years, and these problems and conditions, while slowly beginning to shift with some hope, are most definitely going into this New Year with us. Midnight tonight marks no magical snapping of the finger and it’s suddenly all vanished. There is a collective trauma the entire world has been enduring for nearly a year. For some, it has been very large and very strutting. For others, it’s been subtler. But still a part of us.
I, myself, as a writer, artist, and musician, have found it challenging in this age of pandemic not to sink into paralysis from picking up pen, brush, or instrument. There are some days when I feel my vocation in this life has been about frivolity and recreation and not much else. What does anyone need with a clever rhyming couplet or an abstract plop on canvas when the world is on fire? Aren’t these just trifles? It may even feel appropriate to be eaten up inside from the saturation of Black murders on round-the-clock news, and Covid curves that keep soaring, and an administration hell-bent on leaving the earth destroyed as it tantrums out of here this January. Yet withering inside from despair is really NOT the nobility we should carry to be able to claim compassion and involvement.
Let me, however, never intimate that there is simply a call you MUST answer, no matter the state of your own trauma. Sometimes we simply can’t. That is perfectly okay. Someone once said to me that creating art is one of the most loving things you can do. That one stopped me in my tracks. Because what I have believed, ever since taking that one in, is that if you can’t create art in these tough times, in any particularly tough time, just take a deep breath instead, and ask yourself, “what is the most loving thing I CAN do today?” And start right where you are. Maybe it’s walking your dog, bringing food to a neighbor, picking up the phone to say hello to someone who needs a hello. These simple but meaningful offerings are where we can begin when we are feeling the paralysis of trauma. And slowly but surely, we do begin to open. Our hearts, our minds, our veins… in order to pour out the art that is within us.
And yes, to counter my own moments of self-doubt expressed above, there absolutely IS a place for frivolity. The place where decompression is allowed to happen and laughter is the medicine. No expression is to be discounted, in times of trauma, from doing the work to heal.
Hear me now, artists of every stripe! YOU are culture’s crucial conduit to making sense of the roiling abstract. In times of trauma, when man can get down to his dankest base very quickly, you are the great balancers. You are tasked with entertainment and decompression, but you are also tasked with enlightenment and illumination. You reflect the culture in front of you — its devastations and its victories. You solder together the disconnects between Us and Them, Black and White, Red and Blue, Privileged and Disenfranchised. You are the open door to conversation. The key to the passage.
Collapse has been happening left and right: People dying from this virus. People dying from police brutality and White supremacy. Resources taxed. Job loss decimating the economy. Systemic racism being denied and rejected, even as we’re seeing it in action with the disproportionate number of people of color perishing from the virus. Yet, as artists, you are always being turned inward toward the expansive, limitless sanctum of your imaginations, to what is possible. The process of creating an expression, AND the process of experiencing an artistic expression, both, bring new understandings about yourselves and the world around you. You, artists, are the re-aligners. The Great Connectors.
Shakespeare asks the question in his 65th Sonnet of how in the midst of all this mess can beauty possibly hold a plea. His poetry then goes on to illumine that time decays everything BUT beauty. And here’s why. Beauty is not prettiness. Beauty is beyond any physicality of a thing. Beauty is anathema to trauma. It is truth. And trauma is the body’s response to any aberration of truth. And so, for artists it’s really a very simple cause-and-effect — we bring truth, we bring healing.
And who qualifies as an artist? She who calls herself so. And then steps forward.
So, let us sing this world into peace. Let us write this world into peace. Let us dance this world into peace. Paint this world into peace. Sculpt this world into peace. Photograph this world into peace. Film this world into peace. Rap this world into peace. Act this world into peace. Conduct this world into peace. Compose and orchestrate this world into peace. Strum and drum this world into peace. Harmonize this world into peace. Narrate this world into peace. Orate this world into peace. Make this world laugh into peace. Jazz this world into peace. Blues this world into peace. Chant this world into peace. IMAGINE this world into peace.
Artists imagine what can be. OR what should never be again. And then make manifest the imagining. We are the howlers and sentinels of a culture. The watchmen. The gatekeepers. We are a whole ‘nother kind of essential worker.
Agitators and integrators, we. So, sing. And KEEP ON singing this world into peace.
And watch shift happen.