I read two poems for the Quiet Lighting anniversary show at The Bindery in San Francisco, on Dec 1st, 2017
You are here and I am home. Wait to let out light, to swallow. Iris as parted lips. Grab, wild, at shoulders. Trace the lengths of our soft edges to our elbows, to our knees, and back. You kiss my toes and it’s not a cliché. I spider my fingers over the top of your head because I know. As far as I can tell your mouth appeared one evening in front of me at a brewery in Fruitvale. Between train tracks and wailing and beams and breath and breath. As far as you can tell, I grew at your feet. When you are waiting and don’t realize. You turn over wet stones in my palms, capture the writhe underneath. I turned myself into a whisper because I thought I was a ghost. 3am, 4pm, 7:30am. Pacific sunset, stroke of midnight. 11:11. You feel the moon. Tell me I am the tide. We tie our wrists with ribbons; cut them free.
This poem is published in Issue 15 of Unbroken Journal.
On December 2nd, 2016, my dearest friend of 25 years, Chelsea Faith Dolan went missing during the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. She was one of the musicians scheduled to perform at the warehouse that night. A few days later, we learned she was gone.
In addition to being my oldest friend, Chelsea was a lifelong, gifted multi-instrumentalist and composer, known to fans as techno and house producer, live PA performer, and DJ, Cherushii.
In her 33 years she performed music all over the Bay Area, toured the country, and even performed in her favorite city, Berlin. “Good morning desert” is also the title of one of her early live PA tracks.
Good morning desert
Chelsea, we will never agree where to live because I want my arms to be gnarled, reaching Joshua-tree trunks, want my fingers to grasp orange sun every set.
We will agree to spin through the night, agree to greet the blinding hues; to say “hello sun,” after we’ve watched the milky rotation shiver past, disco casting soft points on our faces.
And you, you’d insist we go to Berlin. The city’s monuments, and the dark corners of clubs that are your monuments, where you pray to booming voices from goddesses and gods who’s names I don’t know.
Blink away the last, few technicolor crumbs of dream. Fade into the sharp feeling of skin against wet cement. Into real and out there and really, really out there; the lush fur we wrapped around our shoulders through the milky, spinning night now heavy with fog. Blink into the day, doomed or blessed or both.
In this liminal space, the sun catches your platinum hair. Blink and the ouroboros flicks its forked, blue tongue; strums air and eyelashes; and we see your laughter, for the moment.
We will never agree because I want the desert and you the city. But we both want to time-travel, night-step, and squint in the sunrise.
Good morning desert. Good morning Berlin. Good morning San Francisco; good night.
Chelsea Faith, I will always be jealous of your power.
There is no poetry, no prose, no phrase that moves like music. Your music courses through hammer, anvil, drum; draws your disco glitter map, your dark map, blooms into it’s own bloodstream; roots that burrow past the places we feel pain.
Chelsea, is it working, yet? Am I making music?
Maybe we do share your music language; beyond knowledge of notes and instruments.
“Josey always had a good ear for music,” you told someone once, convincingly. Maybe a new boyfriend of mine you tried to help me impress. Your endorsement, techno goddess, dance floor queen. Who better.
I’m not sure our Marin talent-show circuit performances of “Memory” from the musical CATS—yes, the musical CATS—counts as me having any kind of ear. You picked the song and played it perfectly, like you played everything, while I tried to follow. I’m not sure the fact that we both sang solos in Manor’s spring production of “Dames at Sea” counts, because you were Joan on a “Choo-Choo Honeymoon” and I was Hennessy in drag and riddled with anxiety.
Or when we wore poodle skirts on the Civic Center stage, and you got to sing the fun song in the 60s medley, love like yours will surely come my way, and I was the bummer, blue moon, standing alone. We sang choir together in middle school, except that one of us was gifted, and she was you, and I was there.
I think what you meant by my “good ear” for music is that music is your language, your heart, your hands. Every cell of you and water drop. Every platinum glint over our shoulders as we blink technicolor dream crumbs from our lashes to try and see you better. And that I was always there, and that you understand what I mean when I say this, even now. Speaking in circles, in tandem.
I know music meant more to you than wanting your friends and fans to dance or cry; more than night clubs and day parties; more than tours, and strapping your gear into plastic suitcases checked through to Berlin.
Music was more to you than the melodies you composed on piano, the songs you wrote for accordion or guitar or bass, your harmonies. More than the sets you crafted with all those machines I can’t name. I know that I don’t know your tools and instruments. I know enough to know it’s more than that.
We found each other at age 8. You were number 24 and I was 23, somehow alphabetized by last name. You were always beaming; my bright, other voice.
We were too tight not to stretch, grow too-loose around our teenage wrists. Brittle plastic. Bread mold. Maybe we tried to break us, at some point, back then; maybe I did, more likely. But you kept playing piano for me, and I kept telling you stories, and it was impossible to break us.
Here you are, and here I am, and I hear you.
You still know all my secrets, and I don’t mean the ones that we tell bar-stool strangers by mistake when we’ve had too much bourbon; not the kind that come with champagne-ached temples, nauseous texts, the next morning.
You know my secrets that no one else will ever know, because they are still inside of you and they will always be.
The secrets we whisper over my left shoulder, beating-heart side. Platinum, in a flash, as we speak in our frequency. You will always know that my secrets are not made of music or of words, or of anything that can be translated by flesh.
In the quarter-century we were here together on the ground we built something.
A place to rest with sap and bees. Thousand-ring Redwood forests. Art films that were really just plastic toys melted in the microwave.
We moshed to terrible music at embarrassing concerts, which was mostly, ok all, my fault.
I wouldn’t say you grew up to be someone who could shift a room’s axis, because to me, you always did.
Do you remember Girl Scout camp? The girl in our tent who wasn’t really allergic to bees? Do you remember how much we hated camp? Is this the part where I try to lighten the mood?
In the quarter-century we were here together we built sandcastles in the foamy surf at Stinson, moats filling as waves rolled in.
More recently, we built in the Basement. While I cut lemons and limes into grooved sixths and you revised signs advertising “Taquitos!” for $1, we chatted about boys and friends and how your album was coming and how my book wasn’t; part-time jobs and gigs. Our quiet corner from 6-7pm on Mondays for a few, short months. Before the bar opened, before the music. My citrus hands and sweat and ice; your fans, which you were still getting used to. “You know Cherushii?” They’d say. My 25 years making up, I hoped, for my poorly-made Manhattans.
And I’d tell you, Chelsea, or text you later, and you’d blush through blue bubbles.
“Josey is my oldest friend,” you’d always introduce me, then add, “not oldest as in ‘old,’ oldest as in, the friend I’ve had the longest.”
Me alone in the front at your gig. Me, not knowing how to dance. Especially to my oldest friend’s most secret, secret messages. You, the goddess they called you on the dance floor. Me, but I knew that all along.
Is this the part where I lighten the mood and talk about our olive loaf obsession? When Chelsea and me were little kids we played a game called “olive loaf doorbell ditch,” which is exactly what it sounds like. I have no idea why this was and is still funny, but I am sure that it is, and especially, to Chelsea.
Chelsea Faith: Is this the part where I say that no one else understood me the way you did? That we’ve both had many loves in our lives, different kinds of loves with different kinds of people for all different reasons, all real and raw and valid. But that no one else will ever understand the importance of olive loaf doorbell ditch?
No one else can build what we did, out of sand and salt, over decades.
Good morning desert. Am I saying it right? Good night San Francisco. Good night, sweet Fairfax. Good morning Berlin.
All our monuments are made of water now. Our secret creek is lined with glassy, dust-colored pebbles. We sit in the dirt, under the surface, and look down. At all the booming rooms where you made their hearts beat, made them breathe.
Chelsea, are you proud of me?
Can you hear the songs I wrote you?
Can you feel them?
Are my words music yet?
Tell me in our language.
This poem is published on Elephant Journal.
I read this piece for the first time at Chelsea Faith Dolan’s memorial on December 17th, 2016, at Public Works in San Francisco. I was also honored to perform this piece at a special “At the Inkwell” reading to benefit Ghost Ship fire victims on December 19th at Alley Cat Bookshop, also in San Francisco.
Rest in power, my loves.
here are three ways you being gone has changed the chemical makeup of me in 6 months:
- i used to be afraid to read at literary readings and now im not. it sounds like a lie but it isn’t. all relationships distill down to the mythology behind them, anyways: childhood best friends. quarter century of being nerds and dorks and artists and weirdos and rejects and not and lovers and fighters and melted into one person and barely speaking and bleeding and crying and laughing and drinking this new cocktail you just learned about at your current favorite bar on valencia and rolling our eyes at the world and searching the sky for shooting stars-friends. 25 years of ebb and flow-friends. josey is my oldest friend / not oldest as in old / the one ive known the longest-friends. your family is my family-friends. our fable our fairy tale our sad short-short starts in the 3rd grade: the tall musical prodigy, the anxious writer with red-rimmed glasses. and we grew and grew (I mean “they” did). and they stayed who they were (friends). i have not been shy since middle school but I could only stand to read my work out loud to walls and cats I was so scared and hated everything about it, the performance. “they” (everyone, well-meaning, those who know, us who grieve, who mourn, who’ve travelled, who’ve screamed at the empty space where you our loves left gaping voids in our bodies). “THEY” say no one is ever really gone and I believe it: when you left, when you left us (why) I think I swallowed some of your atoms. maybe you gave them to me. maybe I asked, don’t remember asking. we recite a dream from one of your journals. we are playing out now, a scene, we are showing them your future-past lives. CHELSEA FAITH: GUESS WHAT? I can read now! to people! and it’s not scary. thank you for lending me your voice for three and six and eight minutes at a mic so I can be who you knew I could (be).
- …but the embarrassing thing is i cry every morning in the shower. you hate personal essays, this isn’t one, maybe a whisper too confessional for your taste, but im sure you’ll stop me if you need to. my theory is that water makes water. maybe this is the practical, virgo part (of you, in me now). [maybe I should try swimming again, even though ive always flailed like a loser in pools and stayed on the blanket on the shore with the bottle of wine to watch eveyones’ shit while they frolic and talk about how awesome the lake is on the hot day.] maybe you gave me water. grace and faith under waves. when does it end, i wonder, the water-water-tears. and what will i do the day i don’t just start crying in the shower?
- i have always been and always will be one month and one day older than you. so this is weird but remember how you were (are) so brilliant at finding the strangest videos of like, a guy singing badly in a car or something that I can’t make not sound lame, but was really actually so funny and clever and touching cause you always cared the most and at some point he sang or maybe there were titles along the bottom in some cheesy-ass font like, “josey” or “birthday” or “happy” and you’d post it on my wall and—ok here’s the weird thing that’s not that weird—i used to treat facebook happy birthdays like a goddamn morning ritual, like, coffee + shower (now cry-shower) + facebook birthday greetings. to everyone whether i know you or not. and now i just can’t, like it almost hurts or something or my hands don’t move that way anymore, except once in a while they emerge from wet sand, shell-shed away lead from knuckles and then i can type and i do the minimum. but mostly i don’t do facebook birthdays anymore and im just wondering—what that’s all about?
so these are three things i wanted to share because i thought you might think they were funny or they might make you proud of me. and i don’t know how else to really show you cause i talk to you a lot when im alone (i mean, when WE are) but this feels more like, special. to post it somewhere and be vulnerable cause life is short, dude.
anyways, we all miss you a lot and it still hurts to breathe sometimes. especially today.
I’m a big fan of memoir and personal essay, which are shooting-the-shit-over-a-couple-drinks’ (an activity I’m also a fan of) slightly-more polished cousins.
When writing (what I’ll term) “personal stuff,” we tend to mine for topics our tough times; the unhappy milestones most of us—all of us?— experience. Death and illness and abuse and heartbreak. Loss of all kinds. Maybe it’s a childhood. Maybe one indelible moment. On and on and on.
No matter your topic, the point is: to make an impact on your audience, write the uncomfortable story. Don’t assume you know what others will find profound. Don’t assume you know yourself where the heart of your story lies until you start digging and dig past—way past—where you expected you’d stop.
Throughout the painful process of separating from my husband I told myself, I should write something about this. I wrote (literally) 10s of 1,000s of words and all of it was trash. I wrote poems. I wrote personal essays. I wrote something I thought might become a memoir. I wrote non-fiction disguised very poorly as fiction. All of it was garbage. But I came to realize it’s because my approach was all wrong: I didn’t humble myself enough to write honestly about my role in the split, the ways I hurt him, the ways I embarrassed myself. I had to dive into the mess and the myriad grey areas, write about the parts I never wanted to reveal.
There are a million divorce stories out there and what makes the moving ones moving are the details, the writer’s personal and unique perspective. My divorce story (and poems and essays) sucked so hard because I wasn’t digging deep enough. In some vain and semi-subconscious attempt to protect my ego I was writing a story both boring and cliche. I had to write the uncomfortable story.
(A group I’ll term) grown-ups tend to be critical of today’s youths’ over-sharing, TMI culture—the personal details in their status updates, the endless selfies. As an early 30-something on the eldest edge of the millennial generation, I’m torn between critiquing this behavior and kinda-sorta-sometimes joining in the fun.
But maybe the kids are alright. Maybe if we look deeper at the public personal reveals, curated as they are, we can see this over-sharing—well, some of it at least—as inspirational. While admittedly the voyeuristic part of me (don’t judge) wants to read your day’s daily details, maybe there is something valuable here for even the non-creeps among us, amidst the party snaps and emojied vaguebooking. We all have friends and family who see nothing wrong with broadcasting their every emotion, including their darkest days, on Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram)—and you know what? Go, them. From them maybe we can learn something.
Write the uncomfortable story. Delve into the greyest areas, the places where right and wrong blur, bleeding into one another, the stories where there’s no obvious winner and loser. Dig deep. Write the thing you don’t want to write, the story you thought you’d never, ever write. Over-share. Give ’em TMI. Because that stuff’s powerful. That’s the kind of personal writing that moves people to feel things. And you know what? It’s good for you, too.
“That’s one of the great things about music. You can sing a song to 85,000 people and they’ll sing it back for 85,000 different reasons.”
You can show a drawing to 85,000 and they’ll think about 85,000 different things. You can dance for 85,000 and they’ll feel 85,000 different emotions. You can cook pancakes for 85,000 people (ok this one doesn’t work as well since you can’t also do it literally. Not like, easily, anyways) and they’ll remember 85,000 different chilly mornings in 85,000 different kitchens where 85,000 people flipped pancakes for them driven by 85,000 of their own unique motivations, their own chilly-kitchen-memories.
You can recite a poem to 85,000 people and they’ll see 85,000 different scenes in their mind. You can share a story with 85,000 and they’ll have 85,000 reasons why they love it or they hate it; 85,000 different ways they connect (or don’t) with the protagonist.
Everyone’s process is different. But when I write for myself I often arrive at the page with no expectations, or only an abstract set of emotions, colors, and sounds I want to express. I decipher the (real) meaning only after—and learn this often, at least in part, from anyone I’m able to trick into reading my stuff.
When I write for work I have specific intentions; specific goals I want my writing to accomplish, driven by what my clients want to accomplish. Maybe I want my articles to teach people things; maybe I hope audiences will think deeply, laugh, or get misty-eyed at my copy. Maybe I want to make people feel a certain way about a brand, product, or idea. Or maybe there’s an action I hope they’ll make after reading a blog post or tweet.
That doesn’t mean people don’t experience this writing differently. That doesn’t mean it’s not conjuring a plethora of varied feelings and thoughts and emotions and impulses and ideas for a multitude of different people. Who come from different places and love different things. Who live totally different kinds of lives.
But so what? So we see creative stuff differently, so we experience and interpret art and ads and poems and pancakes differently based on our pasts; based on the grooves snaking through our different brains and the metaphorical blood beating through our symbolic hears—how can I, the creator of said-ads and poems and pancakes use this understanding to make something better and more resonant?
Being aware opens doors. When you think in terms of layers and symbols and double-meaning and depth—whether you’re writing your memoir or ad copy for cat food—you find ways to allow all of this into your work, find ways of cracking your skull open (figuratively!!) and letting the light shine down on that big, beautiful brain of yours in ways it never has before.
From 85,000 different angles.
Dayshift: we hear spy planes circle low over the bay and see their shadows climb across the tops of the three metal bridges. Dayshift is where limbs turn to pins and needles and eyes nod no. A wet scream from a mouth with no tongue. The spy planes fly through the napes of our necks and emerge through our open teeth.
Dayshift: in the back room, the bass breaks behind the velvet curtain. Nails break and the ice rattles in its glass toward open lips. They warm in cold chairs, in terry robes, and in draped-blankets fuzzy with bright-eyed cartoons. The bass breaks at his voice before she fills with white smoke and purses red lips to grease the mirror. A happy birthday banner, half-fallen, skips further down the wall with each clicked step. Each letter its own page. The bass paints brown eyes black, and winks, and glides back out into the darkness.
In the back room the bass ate a burger with bacon and cheese and a slice of orange tomato. A sheet of lettuce tucked the meat tight into the bun. She discards limp strings of white onion on the side of her plate. She throws up in the black plastic bin by the door and cries that the bacon was raw when she knows it’s the vodka’s fault. In the flickered back room bass spits Listerine. And in the dark boom she confesses her morning bottle to a stranger over Chardonnay, and the bass breaks.
The tapping is enough to drive the spy planes away. We shout at the phone on her desk like it’s a lion. Our ankles twist and crack in unison and the spy planes forget what waves and salt and seals are and dive at their shadows mistaking them for enemies.
Dayshift: She sucks her sixth White Russian through a straw. She curls her feet beneath her body so everyone can fit together on the gray and neon couch. In the dark room the spy cameras train their glassy eyes on hers and she waves, and she breaks, and she breathes the white smoke, and she rises and glides across the soft floor. The bass breaks in the back room and is born in the darkness.
I embarked on my first bender because I got dumped. Even when you know it’s coming, when you’re nineteen—and maybe, when you’re not—it sucks. After pleading and crying and empty threats, I called some friends, went to the Greyhound station, got hit-on by a dude on his way to a Job Corps forestry program, and tearfully rode the bus to Santa Cruz, where I wallowed in cheap vodka, puked up cheap vodka, and might have at some point eaten a burrito. I stumbled through five misty, hazy days before catching a ride home. Splitting headache and trembling hands aside, I felt much better than I had before I left. I felt cleansed.
I embarked on my next bender for every graduation, promotion, win, completion, or triumph. Birthdays and weddings and new apartments in San Francisco with working fireplaces and picture windows with crane-necked views of the Bay Bridge and the bay (happy housewarming).
When we tied the knot, we toasted with guests and shots of Black Maple Hill bourbon poured into square glasses printed with our initials. I celebrated with white and red wines, and club soda spiked with vodka or bourbon, through the midnight reception, until almost sunrise. We cheered and spilled and sang and shattered glasses and bendered because we were happy.
After a death, after the blood drains from behind your eyes and the world rushes past and is frozen at the same time, there are drinks. Numbing the exposed, while hugging the fresh pain close. Memories and tears cascade steady with each swig, the glass bottle bottom a story’s end. Pour a little out on the asphalt or the dirt.
Wit chases drinks. Now there is talking to strangers who are no longer strange. There is that song, that one song, and that thing that happened one time that you both think about a lot when your minds wander, when you are alone. And there is far, far less fidgeting, and arms uncross and hands gesture loudly. If you’ve panicked, you’ll know that feeling of tight-chest and pressed-against. And you’ll know that sweet booze is the deepest breath.
When new love is found or fake love is gone or decayed love falls away completely and our raw, wet selves are exposed, when we are lost or have discovered exactly what we are looking for—this is when we drink. When we must drink.
And sometimes there is nothing. There is the morning. Or the sunset, or the almost-sunrise. 12:34 or 5:13 or 7:06 and it is not-bright or too-bright or it is a dim room or it is not a room at all. There is an outside-your-fluttering-blinds where it’s not hot, or it is raining and there is thunder. Or it is one weird week of sticky Portland in December snow. Or there is fog, because it is San Francisco and there is always fog. Blinking away last night, or the last 10 hours of crisp-eyed-awake, or your last-seen 10 am, you press your neurons to spark and feel the day or night ahead and still there is nothing, except a bender.
There are always drinks. And after drinks possibilities rise like after-rain steam on sweaty sidewalks, from your warming body in the dark or the sun or the dim room with the blinking bright numbers. And you are alone or you are with someone who is so a part of you that you are basically one, one alone, or you are alone, alone, and don’t feel alone. The sweetest smoke spilling from the coldest fire that grows as you sip, and then you swig, spilling.