Another reason to cut off an ear (music as oracle, Christy edition)

Last night was amazing, in the sense of a true, wonder-struck sense of life, and the capstone was music, so I’ll write about it here.

My post will be long, and possibly rambling, so grab a fresh cup of coffee and pull up a chair.

The root of the matter

This part is depressing, so let’s get it over with. One of my closest writing friends — my writing soulmate, if such a thing exists — and one of my favorite friends, in general, is being consumed gradually, and now less gradually, by inflammatory breast cancer (IBC).

Christy is strong, brave, tough, straightforward, which makes her sound like a powerhouse, and she is, but she also is beautiful. She sparkles. She’s in her forties. And soon, she will be gone. It’s so fucking unfair.

Becoming Vincent

Last night, I met with a group of writing friends that Christy founded a few years ago with another friend, Robyn, who died in March 2013. The evening may or may not have been our last time all together in that way. It was an emotional evening, kinda beautiful.

The way the meeting works is that we go around the circle, and everyone shares an update, and then everyone reads a bit of work in progress.

The first update was Christy telling us about her status. I stayed composed; I’d had a sneak preview and already cried about this information in private.

The last reading was by Therese, a poet, reading about an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in late 2012, called “Becoming Vincent,” as in Van Gogh.

I was struck by this as our closing, because I remember that Christy was diagnosed with her cancer in early November 2012, just a few days after she visited the Van Gogh exhibition. After the Van Gogh show, Christy posted this quotation on Facebook, which I’ve viewed as a touchstone for Christy’s journey through IBC and her commitment to her writing life:

“I feel such a creative force in me: I am convinced that there will be a time when, let us say, I will make something good every day , on a regular basis. . . . I am doing my very best to make every effort because I am longing so much to make beautiful things. But beautiful things mean painstaking work, disappointment, and perseverance.”

(First cool thing: I told Therese this after our meeting, and she said she was at the art museum in 2012 when she received Christy’s email disclosing her diagnosis. That day, Therese remembers returning to the exhibition to write a poem for Christy.)

I’m glad I didn’t die before I met you

After the meeting, before I started driving home, I pulled up iTunes and hit “shuffle.”

My iPhone has about 6,500 songs on it — enough to serve an oracular purpose at times, and last night was one of those times.

By the time I turned the corner, the first song was underway:

I couldn’t help but smile. This song is special to me. I mean, it’s about love, but it always reminds me of another writing friend who introduced me to Bright Eyes. He’s since been lost to me (not cancer — he just moved to Chicago), and to me it’s about the beautiful people who come in and out of our lives. So tears followed my smile.

I know you’ll be back

Then it was as if the shuffle player felt a little bad, because next it played not one, but two songs in a row by Owl John, the side project of Frightened Rabbit‘s Scott Hutchison. (Frightened Rabbit is my totem animal, and I’ve tried for ages to get everyone I know to love them as much as I do, and if you don’t, well that’s your problem, isn’t it?)

Anyhow, so “Cold Creeps” and then “Red Hand,” right in a row, off the same album even, as if to tell me everything is going to be OK. Like a weird, disembodied, musical hand patting my back awkwardly while I sobbed.

Drinking from the lion’s mouth

Then it got even weirder. Once I’d quieted down, a Mountain Goats song began, from the intense and wonderful The Sunset Tree album:

I started laughing out loud (and spraying tears) when I heard this song, because:

  1. The album was shared by the same good friend above, my lost writing friend (Hello, Chicago!).
  2. The Sunset Tree has always reminded me of writing and my writing friends, specifically a short story by another writer friend of mine, Josh. (Not to mention that Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle is a fiction writer himself, with a well-received novel.)
  3. But above all, one of Christy’s most evocative blog posts about her story is a photo of herself as a little girl, drinking from a lion fountain — drinking from the lion’s mouth, which for her is a metaphor about diving right in, taking risks, doing what one must.

Or in Christy’s words:

I’m not one who gives up or backs off when trouble rears its ugly head. . . . I’ll stick my head in the lion’s mouth and trust I’ll be OK, knowing I have you all not just to encourage me but to pick me up when I get bit. Life can eat you alive if you let it. But I still have some drinking to do from the lion’s mouth.

Not so different from hanging on to the lion’s teeth for dear life in the song.

Another reason to cut off an ear

Finally, as I cleared Colorado Boulevard, almost all the way home, I heard the first few notes of a song by Einstürzende Neubauten, the group that has been a sort of touchpoint for my life for 25 years.

This is not one of my favorite songs, but last night, I heard every moment of its beauty, every instant of its profundity. It’s about flowers, but it’s also about secrets we hold inside, secrets planted in us by nature. The essence, perhaps, of what makes each of us.

Most profoundly, last night, the lines:

“For you, I’d even be a sunflower”

— one of our friends sees sunflowers as a visual metaphor for Christy’s shining quality, so this struck me especially, but then, it came back around to this:

“Do you hear my enlightened laughter? Another reason to cut off an ear.”

That’s right — as I was about to pull into my driveway, I came full circle, back to Van Gogh, back to the mysterious beauty of nature, the mysterious poignancy of loss, the way life pulls us to and fro.

What do we know?

We know nothing. We know everything. We know one second of love, one minute, one lifetime, and that is all that matters.


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  1. March 10

    Wow. I love the power of shuffle sometimes, seemingly random yet so suggestive it’s eerie.

    I’m sorry to read about your friends’ battles with cancer. Back in the fall I learned about a friend who had died from cancer months earlier. I was on a big Frightened Rabbit kick at the time, which I think you can appreciate.

  2. Andrea
    March 11

    This is absolutely beautiful, Susanna, which is so fitting because of Christy’s fierce loveliness. Thank you for this…

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