“The worst year ever.” Everyone keeps relentlessly repeating this as 2016 draws to a close. And I’ve got to ask: Are you fucking serious?! Whoops. Well I finally said it somewhere, out loud. I guess these things are pretty subjective. And I don’t mean to be pissy about this, because I get why people are saying it. But most of the people publicly mourning 2016 aren’t even talking about anything they’ve personally experienced. Usually, the ruminations that are spawning those “worst year ever” declarations have to do with politics (admittedly shitty this year, but that “pussy”-grabbing asshole hasn’t really DONE anything yet, so save that shit) or dead celebrities (did you know them in real life?). This year is sucking only in theory for most people. They’re just living in their heads. And… and I can’t relate to the sentiment – not any more than, as a working artist, I can ever relate to all the tired clichés on social media that celebrate Fridays or mourn Mondays. It all has this silly, surface, shallow feeling of false plastic commiseration, for sale cheap, perhaps on a tee shirt at Walmart. Something not felt any deeper than the skin. Such a declaration has all the weight and integrity of a Facebook “like.” And the thing is, there actually are things to really feel in the world. It seems like maybe we should be saving the gritty angst and really good emoticons for things we actually feel.There are people who suffered real tragedy this year, and they are exempt from this admonishment, if that’s what this is. But everybody else? Rightly or wrongly, I’m tempted just to tell you all to get some perspective. It’s not that the continued demise of democracy in America isn’t a real thing, and many of us will indeed feel a lot of pain from this latest iteration of its end. We’re understandably anxious and upset by the possibility. But that’s not really a new thing (where have you been if you think so), and so far, at least, whatever fallout that might come from the recent election fraud is only a theory in our heads. That is SO not the same thing as a real and personal blow, and I do know what I’m talking about there. I know what it’s really like to have to live through the worst year ever, and I’m far from the only one. So maybe that’s why I’m being a little pissy about this. All that public angst cheapens what it really means to be hurt by a life- altering year.
Twenty sixteen has not been anything that would qualify as “the worst year ever” for most of the people saying that. Or if it was, and all they mean is shit that went on with people they never met, then they haven’t lived much yet. To quote Tom Waits, “‘Heartbreak of psoriasis’?! Christ, you don’t know the meaning o’ heartbreak, buddy.” Not to be an asshole, but the possible comparisons shame most of the facile declarations. I mean, something like 100,000 people were killed by US troops in Iraq, many of them burned alive with white phosphorus in Fallujah, in 2004. (While those numbers are ever in dispute due to war propaganda efforts, humanitarian aide workers, with the least reason to lie about it, generally estimate the number to have been about that high.) I know, we all loved David Bowie, but I think he’d be the first to say that a few dead rock stars don’t touch a year that had that in it unless you actually knew those rock stars. And, by the way, Ray Charles died that year too, so….
Now, if you were living in Syria this year, or if you suffered through quiet tragedies of your own, then sure. It was, perhaps, the worst year ever. But most of the people wishing away 2016 don’t live in Syria and don’t seem to have perspective regarding what real tragedy is, and this is the point. Such a declaration demands personally experienced pain, or at least enough empathy with such pain as to cause one to do more than post a little emo over social media. A “worst year ever” really hurts.
I didn’t really mean for this to be about politics and world events, though. The point of this piece is to reclaim ground for things we experience ourselves, personally, in real life, and not just vicariously over phones and ipad screens. I make a plea for some perspective, is all, before we go wallowing in plastic Pain(TM) and labeling poor 2016 “the worst year ever©.” As I said, these things are subjective, and true pain is not usually felt en masse via status updates. It’s more personal than that.
If I were to choose a YearaGedden, it would certainly be 2012: the year of the End of the World. Mine doesn’t need to be the same as yours, but there at least needs to be a reason for binding a year to wish it away. And for me, 2012 had plenty of reasons. My lover, muse and partner in crime died of cancer that year, right before my eyes. That was the year that I became homeless, when the bank took our only home as my lover lay dying in the hospital. It was the year that I was cast out from Eden, the year that defined everything that came before it as being utterly and always, irrevocably, different from everything that would ever come after. It was the year that I died as an entity, that I traveled into the underworld, that I began a long journey toward an eventual resurrection, a stunted little larva, a caterpillar seeking wings again. It was the year that I went thirsty with a thirst that I could not quench.
I’m not trying to compare my pain with real pain suffered by others in some kind of competition. I’m simply asking people who didn’t suffer for real this year to stop appropriating a mantle of affliction over pain not really felt. Because this really was a terrible year for some people, but not for most of you, and all that shallow moaning and groaning about dead celebrities over the top of their real pain is drowning them out. It’s noisy, and presumptuous. Like an Elton John “tribute” to the latest “dear, dear, dear” dearly departed “friend.” I feel like it’s mocking real pain.
A real “worst year ever” is a vivid and personal thing. People who are really feeling it need a little respectful silence to sit with that, out away from all the raucous “Oh my favorite rock star died who’s next” clatter. Because, when you sit quietly, you can find things, even in the darkness.
I did. I’m told that Whitney Houston and Etta James, Maurice Sendak and Adam Yauch, Mike Wallace, Ravi Shankar, Larry Hagman, Marvin Hamlisch, Ernest Borgnine, Andy Griffith, Andy Williams, Richard Dawson, Ben Gazzara, Charles Durning, Earl Scruggs, Jim Marshall (of Marshall amps!), Robin Gibb, Doc Watson, Dave Brubeck, and a lot of other celebrities died in 2012. I don’t remember hearing about any of them at the time. What I remember was Sid, my own dead, and the things that I saw in the dark.
That year, for me, ended in an old SRO, filled with people as broken as I was, all of us trying to live while trying almost as hard not to. This is what I keep thinking about, every time another person dutifully repeats the current mantra, “fuck you 2016.” It’s just… we’ve all gotten so used to just wishing away time instead of living in it, and here we all are again, impatient to end a “terrible” year. Sometimes, though, even a really terrible year has its moments that were worth living through. And unless you’ve been through it, you don’t really know anything about that.
The last week of 2012 brought my first Christmas alone, after Sid died, after the curtain fell, after homelessness, after a strange Odyssey to Mexico that’s a whole story of its own I’ll save for another time, and after finally coming in from the cold streets. I was living, by December, in a tiny hole in this weird, artist- infested compound that had once been a decrepit, 150 year old Baptist nursing home until something like 30 people all died of the flu there in a single terrible week, allegedly some time back in the 1980s. (I painted those flu ghosts once, when I was living there.) (Talk about “worst week ever.”) The place was closed down by the scandalous outbreak, and left empty for years, and then it was brought to life again as cheap housing for impoverished artists, and sometime after that I moved in. I was sleeping on the floor of a closet there in the last week of 2012, heart broken, estranged from my family, alone, forever lost from Sid, hungry and adrift. But even the year of the End of the World had its moment or two.
I spent that Christmas with a boy as broken and lost and drunken and stiff-lipped about it all as I was, and around midnight he and I and a girl with great waves of dreadlocks and voices in her head wandered silently over the road to this cathedral of a park there, a place where homeless people and travelers and refugees could pray to their various drugs of choice and clutch their various means of salvation, mostly in paper bags. For our part, we were clutching candles and like a lot of people there in the Christmas dark that night, we were holding huge, rusty-hinged doors in our hearts tightly closed against grief some could not have imagined, and we were on a mission from a God we were not sure any of us believed in, whom none of us could name.
Sophia and her voices had brought the candles to my room a little earlier that night, and handed them to us, whispering an invitation for us to join her. She told us we were the three who knew what real pain was, that we three each had someone on the other side of the veil whom we needed to be with for Christmas, and she said that she had a ritual she thought we needed to perform together out in the dark. William (I’m changing all your names a little, but you know who you are) and I went with her because we had nothing else to do, and we three were friends, and so we went.
We slipped through the darkness, following spidery shadows through the trees, stepping gingerly around the edges of the dimly lit circles of other lonely refugees who were clustered together around the fires of their own purgatories, out here where the dragons lived at night. When we found the place that seemed right, Sophia lit the candles for us, and instructed us to tell the person we had lost whatever we needed to say to them.
It’s strange that I don’t remember more of the particulars than I do, given the meaning of that night to me. But a lot of that year was smeared in blurry colors like a watercolor beneath a lot of tears. I clung to nothing then, not even the details of a night like that one. So I remember that Sophia spoke to someone whom she missed. Her grandfather, it seems like, but I cannot be sure. I don’t know what she said. And, equally distressing in the lack of clearly remembered details, I spoke to Sid but I do not remember any of the words I used. What I do remember is that I was trying so hard to make it real, to see into his face from across the veil, to hear him tell me that he was all right over there. But I couldn’t make it so, could not pull him out of the night toward me any more than I had been able to call my lover out of the ether in any of the other desperate attempts I had made that year, under the influence of every entheogen and almost every religion you could name. I don’t remember, even, anything I said, except that I missed him, and I wanted him there, and I know I whispered that into the dark as a prayer. But I could not feel him there, had no idea whether he had heard me… Just like I can’t seem to find him in my dreams, even now, four years later, no matter how I try.
Strangely, the one and only thing I remember clearly from that night was how hurt and stricken William was. I remember how he held that candle he was given and tried to talk to his mother, a mother who had failed him in many ways for most of his life, and then died of her addictions (and of the terrible fallout from them) when he was a teenager; someone so remote from him by then that he’d only learned about her death months later, over social media no less. I remember how he tried to express so much to her, and maybe to us, and maybe to the universe that night that words began to choke him, and he began to cry. Tears streamed down his face, and he took off walking, and then running, into the Mythological Night. And we let him. Sophia said we needed to.
Off into the darkness he fled with that little flame, and at first I wasn’t sure what to think, or what to do, but when the softly retreating sound of sobbing did not abate, we eventually went to find him. The woods were thick there in the darkness, and his candle had gone out in the running, and there were a lot of other ghosts wandering in that night, so it took us awhile to find our way to him, following the trail of his grieving.
He was at the far end of the park by then, gulping in air between sobs. A flood of tears and rage and pain gripped him, finally let loose from some trapped reservoir deep within, trailing down his cheeks. I think we re-lit his candle, and at some point we poked all three of them into the ground, and some stoic haunters of the Christmas night looked silently on, and maybe we tried to explain or maybe we didn’t. I envied William’s ability to feel all that right then, to let that out. I have the vaguest recollection that I wondered whether the feelings wrapped up in those deeply expressed tears were real, or whether this was a fantastically rendered, drunken, piece of performance art, enacting the desperately hoped-for catharsis that he needed so much to have. That we all did. I know I felt immediately guilty, at least in theory, about whatever was going through my mind right then. Somehow, I just couldn’t connect with the reality of that moment in the way that I wanted to, the way that he apparently could, and so I doubted the physical manifestation of his inner experience.
That was certainly projection. Because I desperately needed to feel such connection with my own dead, that deeply, right then… and I could not. I needed to cry and finally be quenched with all those drenching tears that had been sucked dry from me that year, locked up behind some dam I could feel creaking and quaking deep within me somewhere but could not access… a deluge I needed so much to feel even as it threatened to sweep everything away and drown me in it, should that dam break.
I needed tears like the ones falling down William’s face, to quench that unquenchable thirst, to water the desert I had become, to put out burning wildfires and to bring me, and Sid, back to life again. But I could not even cry right then, and when I could, I couldn’t feel it. It felt like performance art, like a yawn that won’t come so you keep gaping your mouth open and gulping breath but you feel no relief… and that’s why I wondered about William’s tears. I felt guilty for wondering, and especially for envying him this. What a thing to envy. That’s what it was like there, where I’d gotten to, in the Year of Our Lord, 2012. Such a place that tears were all that was left to long for.
I felt such compassion for this sobbing boy that night. He was someone I had come to care about even when I could not care anymore about anything. My guilt over the inappropriate envy of his tears was tempered with gratitude, that some of those tears of his had sloshed over and watered some small thing in me, some little bloom of compassion in the desert where my heart had been. I felt such a glow of love for both of these souls wandering with me right then. For Sophia, the lost prophet with her lonely voices, a girl who thought plays were sending her secret messages, and who believed an old, abandoned pickup truck outside our building was an omen that she was in danger. And for William, the boy in whom I had honestly confided that I was too shattered to ever love him and who I understood was too shattered to ever love me. After all, that’s why we had chosen each other right then to hang around with for a couple of adventurous months. Our hearts were both broken, and in being broken could not be given out. That made us safe for each other somehow, our bond an island upon which we could float together for a moment, to take a breath in the midst of drowning in a dry, dark sea of lonely and unflowing tears. And there I was, loving both of them anyway, but not in the way one might think. I realized, on that strange Christmas night, that love has more faces than I’d ever seen before, and finding that was to find a great treasure one does not ever need to actually possess to truly cherish. Yes, I loved them both, these souls lost along with me, whom I would not hold next to me for long but I would not forget. In a lonely world, for that moment, we were not alone.
A week later that year ended in the communal kitchen we shared on the second floor of that magical, sinking pirate ship of an SRO where we (mostly mentally ill) artists all lived. William, and Sophia, and me, and Sophia’s voices, and the whole, greater tribe of us all clustered around a big table in that kitchen, huddled together for warmth, all drinking cheap beer and making art to save our lives. All of us had been so hurt and so set adrift, in one way or another, by the events of that year in our lives. Personal pains and tragedies that hit us for real and tore us apart. Our pains were not dead celebrities nor political games experienced vicariously in some bread-and-circuses arena, but affronts we felt intimately, in our real lives. And back then, we could tell the difference. (God, was that only 4 short years ago?)
Around a quarter to midnight, Ethan walked into the kitchen. Ethan was, and is, a hard working artist who sold more of his work than most of us and mostly kept to himself. He had autism, didn’t really show his feelings much, and usually only came into the kitchen to cook meals quietly along its edges and then go back into his room. I had often seen him rummaging around at dinner time, had liked him well enough, but had never known him to expose much of himself to anyone in the year that I lived in that place. But on that night, Ethan’s feelings showed. He did not want to be alone, and he said so.
He came into the room and looked around, stood nervously against a wall to one side for a moment, looking like he had something he wanted to say. After a minute or two, he murmured, “I… I just didn’t want to be alone tonight.” And we could all relate. My god, could we relate. He said he was hoping maybe there might be some way to celebrate that New Years Eve together, mentioning that he usually liked to see the ball dropping in New York City.
Something about the unsure vulnerability in his voice touched me very much. And not just me. Without a thought, William stood up, announced that he had a television, and went off to his room to fetch it. (I think he was the only one of us who had such a thing.) He came back a few minutes later, struggling beneath its heavy weight without complaint. We brushed away the empty beer cans and flotsam of the night, and William set up that television on the edge of the table so that Ethan could watch the ball drop in New York City on its 3-hour, west-coast delay… an official curtain falling, finally, on that terrible, terrible, year.
At first, the rest of us went on with our various pursuits for awhile. We scribbled drunkenly, talking, drinking beer, trying to keep it all beneath our radar. But as the clock ticked off those last minutes before midnight, of the worst year ever, the year that the Aztec calendar had warned us all about, the year of the End of the World, everyone began to grow quiet and we all inexorably began to gather silently around that television with Ethan. As the countdown began in Times Square, all of us stared at the screen like moths around a burning ember. We felt the weight of it upon our chests. It was a deeply emotional moment for most of us.
“Get the FUCK out of here,” I hissed quietly into the ear of 2012, the year that had taken Sid away. And my god, I meant that with every fiber of my being.
“Yeh, no shit,” breathed William, who was standing next to me. Someone else laughed a little, but in that gallows- humor way that isn’t really laughing. It was like everyone knew. And not because they’d read a meme somewhere on social media, not because some rock star they had never met had died, but because we had been broken. Terribly, terribly, broken in that year, and we all knew what we knew, there in that night together, on the edge of the world that had ended.
Slowly, too slowly, that fucking ball finally dropped, and that fucking year was finally over. (Did I mention that this was the first year in our lifetime that Dick Clark wasn’t there to count down the seconds as it dropped, because he too had died in 2012? Probably not. Dead celebrities aren’t what one recalls.) After it collapsed down its rickety pole, it sat there like a dropped egg for a long moment, and there was a long, stunned, silence in our communal kitchen. The crackling crowd cheered through poor reception and time delay from New York City on the hissing screen, but in our refuge in that old, brick building, we were quiet as each of us tried to come to grips with what it meant that we had finally crossed that bar. Eventually, we all began to murmur things like, “thank god,” and “yeh, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out, 2012,” and we cried and we held each other. That, my friends, that, was the end of the worst year ever.
To be honest with you, the next one wasn’t very much better. (The underworld is a long trek, as it turned out.) But I learned, that year, about some of the many different ways there are to love the One Great Thing that we all are, even when I did not think I could love anyone or anything ever again. Love is a hardy little blossom that, it turns out, can grow anywhere. It isn’t always the big and glorious rose you expect to see. Can’t always be plucked and kept in a vase on the table, the way we are taught in novels and by Hollywood. Sometimes, it’s a tiny, Alpine wildflower, growing out of cracks in the cold, grey rock, and cannot survive the picking. And sometimes, when you’re quiet, you know that. So you leave it in the crack where you found it, and live there with it for awhile. That was 2012. A crack in the cold, gray, rock. And these people were a flush of alpine flowers in the hidden spring.
A month or so after that night, Sophia scrawled poetry and ruminations leaking from her troubled yet untroubled head in sharpie ink all over the walls of the room beneath mine where she had lived. She blackened both walls and ceiling with trails of words that couldn’t be easily deciphered, and she left every little thing she owned, piled neatly in the middle of the floor, inviting us all to take what we wanted with a note outside her unlocked door. Then she ditched out through a window, disappearing off into the trees of Cascadia with the voices in her head. William and I curled up in other arms after that and went our separate ways (though I remember him warmly); he getting evicted a month later while insisting it had all been some kind of “mind control, terror-dome experiment,” and me getting evicted the following august not sure that he was wrong on that. I left that enclave of artists and lunatics that we were, but I will never not think warmly of the people that I knew there in 2012, and some of them I’m sure that I will always love.
Twenty sixteen, you had a lot of charms, and a lovely Christmas, a lot of promise that I’ll look forward to learning more about, and some pains that I could do without. But you got nothing on 2012. Don’t even try. 😉