Thursday, October 31, 2013

Living Hearts of Compassion

Beannacht - John O'Donohue

n the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

After months of anticipation, my copy of William Todd Schultz' newest book, Torment Saint, a biography of the beloved musician Elliott Smith, arrived last weekend.  I stayed up many nights reading it, rapt in the story of a gifted artist and his arsenal of demons.  The book itself is a feat of research and devotion.  It is lovely.  You should buy a copy and send up a prayer for all the sensitive souls who find this world too much to bear.  

As extreme as many parts of Elliott's life were, there were parts of it that gave me real pause, as they reminded me of my own struggles through the years.  As I read about Elliott's onslaught of depression in his adult life, I kept thinking, Do all artists have trouble accepting who they are?  Do we create because we feel like weirdos and we need a place to be, a place where we feel safe and in control?  Or do we feel like weirdos because we see things differently and feel in constant need of connection? 

Honestly, I don't know.  What I do know if that I've felt like a weirdo my entire life, even and especially when I was a little girl.  Sometimes I think focusing on your differences as signs of weakness, rather than simply signs of who you are, is a human condition.  Very few of us are immune to bouts of self-doubt.  At other times, however, it seems to me an artistic state of being - constant questioning, constant unrest. 

On a different end of the spectrum, I somehow managed to stumble upon a GQ photo shoot with the band Fun recently, where Nate Ruess, speaking of the band's success (and speaking to GQ, no less) said: "There is a part of me that feels like we will never belong...and I hope that doesn't ever change."

It made me blink, hard, because earlier in the day I had been watching an interview with Elliott Smith in which he said something like, I'm the wrong kind of person to be a big rock star.  He was no doubt alluding to his perception of himself as either a regular guy or an anti-establishment artist, but the truth is, he was a prodigious talent, and like it or not, he was a star. 

I don't mean that as an indictment of anyone's reaction to success, although I think it's safe to say that Elliott Smith did not have an easy relationship to it.  I just mean, geez, I wish he could have seen himself the way other people saw him, which, according to Shultz' was: generous, compassionate, and hilarious, though troubled.  

In any case, I appreciated certain allusions in the book to depression as a breeding ground for compassion, and I related strongly to the feeling of being able to love others unconditionally while sometimes with-holding that devotion from myself. 

Which brings me to my point: it's funny how much I need my friends to show me who I am.  Sometimes, while talking to a good friend, emotional topics will pour out of me that I had not been aware of holding back at all.  I will realize I had been waiting for a safe place for my words, my story, to land.  And when I find those places in others, in someone who accepts the whole of me, someone who sees and still loves the painful parts, the wounded parts, someone who can in the same sitting show me the funny parts, the glowing parts - that is quite a healing. 

I once read somewhere that as you age it becomes increasingly important to stay in touch with the people you knew when you were young.  (I might have read this in AARP the magazine because, in addition to meticulous biographies about tormented artists; I also love me some AARP.) 

I think of this advice now when connecting on the phone with friends, or seeing my brothers, trading old jokes when we are together.  There is a wordless and deep remembrance that happens in the company of these people.  What am I remembering, exactly?  Perhaps who I am, or who I once was. And perhaps I am remembering what I knew before I grew older and sprouted adult concerns: that love is the ground for grace in my life - it is the one thing I am here to get right. 

Driving the dark, leaf-strewn streets of my town two nights ago after leaving work late, I listened to a good friend's voicemail and felt myself in disbelief at the kindness pouring through the phone.  I thought: this is what I need from friendship, and I am so so lucky to have it.  I have friends with whom I am in mutual disbelief, dazzling gems who remind me who I am inside, with whom I trade devotion back and forth with giddiness and gratitude, and I now believe true friendship should be no other way.   

Todd kept writing in his book that music was everything to Elliott, and when I listen to his music, I feel that so completely.  I stop in my tracks when I hear his voice, and it pains me to think that all the people who had the same reaction, the people who bought his albums and maybe considered him a big rock star, were not enough to convince him that he was a gem.

The saddest thing in life to me is the inner environment we are all contending with, the minefields we must walk on our journey to psychological and spiritual health.  Then again, some part of me believes that we are here to heal, simply and purely, and that wounds are invitations, too.  At the very least, when held with care, they can teach us to hold holy the souls around us.

To all of you, and the art in us all,
With love,


  1. Parts of this post reminded me of Kahlil Gibran's The Madman a little. The twelfth story in that volume really gets at why it can be vital - if very hard - to be different, i.e., to retain our health and not take in poison. My own comment, if this is but to myself on this topic, is that since it is so hard to do what one sees fit, it is possible to feel ever less threatened by others who aren't doing the same - kind of like Kelly Clarkson in this interview excerpt. (She says of another: I have no idea of what her life was like or what she goes through".) Is that health - not drinking poison, but not judging those who do?
    These were the thoughts your post inspired, so I thought I ought to share in return. Love to you, too, from one of your older readers from before, but with a newish moniker.

    1. Hi! How beautiful is that parable by Gibran?! I also love the Clarkson article and think you are right about the best way to not take in poison is to also not worry too much about others who might be doing so.

      In other news, how is the new moniker treating you? Thanks for saying hi!

  2. O Elliott. I love him. For that reason, I'm not sure I can bring myself read his bio. You know those people whose work you stretch out because you do not want it to be over? This is why I haven't yet gotten to know the two discs of NEW MOON. That way there is still more Elliott out there for me.

    I love the photo of the bright stage.
    The last time I saw Elliott was at the Vic in Chicago.

    Could you add some Ts to his name for me? Two Ls, two Ts, pretty please?

    1. Ha! All T's have been added now. And I absolutely know what you mean about not extinguishing the mystery and promise of having more out there, to hold someday.

  3. I had to skim through this post after that first paragraph because now I really want to read that book!

    Did you know that I could have walked you right by the house he and his girlfriend shared? In fact, I pass the house on a regular basis. :( :(

    Looking forward to coming back and reading this later!! xoxo

  4. Yessssss. More long-distance book group!! I thought of your pad whenever "we" (meaning the book narrative) were in E.P. It's okay I didn't get the reality tour, although I think Tim was pretty bummed Matt wasn't up for a Beverly Hills reality tour. Maybe another year? :)

  5. Thanks Kara! Lovely words about my book and about Elliott. Hope all is well with you! Todd

    1. Hi Todd! All true - your book is beautiful. Thanks for dropping in.


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