10 May 2008

Breathing Me ...

Friday afternoon I took the elevator down from my apartment to my trusty bicycle. When I unlocked my bike, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring down my helmet and gloves. I debated going back upstairs, but I decided that I would do what I’d always done when I was growing up in Ironwood and biking on my second-hand ten-speed all over town: no helmet or gloves would do. I hadn’t done that in years. I had long waited for the weather to warm up enough for a leisurely bike ride around the Chain of Lakes (Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet are all linked via continuous bike trails), and the sun’s warmth seemed fortuitous, precious even. Earlier that morning I had taken the last of my things from my ex-boyfriend's duplex. That chapter of my life was indeed over.

With Sia’s song “Breathe Me” on my old iPod nano blaring into my ears (I have enough residual hearing to enjoy music albeit at a louder volume), I burst into an explosion of sunshine onto Aldrich Avenue South. These days I’ve been thinking a lot about the extraordinary last nine minutes of the TV series Six Feet Under’s finale, particularly because of the way Sia’s song “Breathe Me” was integrated perfectly with the visual edits, such that it was not just another musical coda. It was literally a goodbye to end all codas!

Sia sang helplessly and yet tenderly in the beginning of “Breathe Me” (the full lyrics are easily available online elsewhere):

“Help, I have done it again.
I have been here many times before.
Hurt myself again today,
And the worst part is there’s no one else to blame.”

As I pedaled south on Aldrich, I saw the apartment building where my brother Kevin once lived before he met his wife Holly. The windows of his garden-level apartment were blinded. I wondered about the squirrels that once came up to his windows. They were certainly in evidence, chasing each other up and down the tough trees lining the block. They, and full-grown rabbits brazen enough to sit upright and openly on front lawns before bouncing away, are the main reason why my dog Rocky loves walking around this neighborhood. His ears perk alive, his nose licked with anticipation and his paws poised to break free should I ever drop his leash. I thought about Rocky as I pushed my bike up West 22nd Street. Yes, I thought, I myself should strive to be alert and alive as he is whenever he is outside.

I turned left onto Bryant, swept at last of its winter gravel. With its parked cars gone for the day, it was as if the hard crystals of tears had finally caked and fell off my face. People on the sidewalk waved at me as I sped past. As I turned right again up on West 24th Street for Colfax, I saw the artist John Largaespada’s house where I met him for a ride to his preferred frame shop where I chose the frame for his brilliant digital photograph homage “New York Movie,” a vast improvement on Edward Hopper’s painting of the same title, a month after I moved to Minneapolis. It still hangs next to my desk.

There, ahead of me, were a block-long artillery of tree branches already filling out with the plumage of bud and bloom standing guard as I felt the blood of wanting to be alive again in my calves as I spun my pedals. Not just a mere “alive,” but the never-afraid-of-life alive.

At the corner of Colfax and West 25th Street, I saw Mueller Park. I thought of my ex-partner Tom’s mother, whose married last name was also Mueller. I hadn’t seen her in a few years, but Tom had told me that she was struggling with cancer, and that he would be with her in Ohio this weekend. I felt happy that I was able to bring a smile to her face when she learned that my film Ghosted, in which she appeared as a ghost, would be dedicated to her memory.

As I had Sia’s song on repeat, she continued to sing:

“Be my friend.
Hold me, wrap me up.
Unfold me.
I am small.
I’m needy.
Warm me up
And breathe me.”

Up on West 25th Street, I looked up at my old apartment on the third floor, which I’d loved so dearly and left for a man who eventually ended the relationship five months later. (We had been together for 15 months.) A young woman lives there in that apartment now, and her blinds looked a bit uneven. I thought of the slightly eccentric caretakers there, and how they’d turned very cold towards me once I left the building for the last time. It was almost as if I’d betrayed their faith and trust in me, as if I’d become flesh against blood.

I sailed west, past Emerson Avenue for Hennepin. As cars whizzed past, I waited for the lights to change and looked at the bus stop where I’d frequented for my buses downtown. Cars and trucks slowed down to a grudging stop. I zipped across Hennepin and headed over to the gas station where they offered free air. My tires had become flabby after sitting quietly in the dark of garages all winter. I pressed the tiny notch in the air pressure valve against the tiny tube of each tire, and felt the tire's plumpness turn solid. I was good to go.

I restarted my iPod and continued on West 25th Street. The houses became tonier as I flew down and turned left for the Lake of the Isles. I looked both ways as I glided onto the bike trail. There was almost no one out even on this bright and sunny day, so I glanced at the expansive (and expensive) houses which faces I’d memorized ever since I’d made the mistake of walking past the Euclid Street turnoff when I walked around the lake for the first time. (This happened at night.)

The tiny islands on my right had already starting to flesh out from their dull wintry grays. I wondered what they were truly like but they were completely off-limits as they were wild life habitats. They were the sort of places I loved exploring as a child back in Ironwood; their private nooks and crannies stoked the ashes of my imagination back to life and again. I recalled the priceless look of fear and exhilaration on my friend Paul’s face when he and I dared to walk across its frozen surface one February.

Up and down the incline, I stood on my pedals to coast over the jaggy bumps under the greenway for Lake Calhoun. Once past the bridge the path suddenly became an unbroken ribbon, repaved at last. I exulted in its smoothness by sitting fully in my saddle. The sun lathered its kisses all over my face.

I coasted into the wide mouth of the bridge holding up West Lake Street, watching the narrow path in the dark and glancing behind whenever possible to ensure that there weren’t any bike speed freaks zooming up from behind. Even on hot summer days when I biked around those three lakes, I adored the bracing coolness whenever I went from Lake Calhoun to the Lake of the Isles. It always felt like a splash of water on my body.

Up and around I reached for the start of Lake Calhoun’s regular bike path; the lake has long been renowned for people watching and people walking and running to be watched. As I passed its boathouse, I ducked and nearly lost my balance when I saw a hummingbird flounce seemingly at me but turned away for blooms unknown. To say that I felt startled by the hummingbird was an understatement.

Dogs of all kinds and sizes, panting, bounced along with their owners, and I thought again of Rocky, how fortunate I was to have him in my life. One of the reasons why I’d loved dogs so much growing up was their unconditional love and acceptance of what I was at a time when no one at school wanted to be my friend. I was this deaf ugly duckling boy with ungainly hearing aids. Dogs never cared about any of that; they were simply there. They wagged in the now, and more so if I stroked their heads. I’ll never forget how Rocky leaped onto my lap on the sofa, which I’d expressly forbidden (and still do), when I unexpectedly broke into tears while trying to apologizing to him for letting him down during the chaos earlier this year. He kept licking at my face until I had to stop crying and start laughing when he leaped off and returned with a stuffed squeaky toy that he wanted me to throw so he could fetch. The eagerness in his eyes made me remember that I had a life before the man who’d left me, and that I would do so after him. In fact, Rocky was demanding that I throw that dang toy across the long living room again! And again! And again. Dogs are so wonderful in the sense that they are a constant reminder of how life must go on, and a celebration of the seemingly mundane. Just ask their noses.

I slowed to a stop for a few gulps of water from my bottle. The walls of my insides, once parched, felt almost doubled in joy. As I inhaled the spritely lake air, I looked up at Lakewood Cemetery where I once zipped about on my scooter before getting caught the summer before. I truly had no idea that scooters were not allowed in the cemetery, but then again, I suspect the dead never liked noise too much anyway. Then I thought about how the cemetery had inspired a poem I’d written of love lost for the gardener-artist I’d fallen for a month after I moved into my new apartment, and how incredibly steadfast he had become as a friend. It had taken an unusually long time to compose each line; I had to prove to myself that in spite of my struggles, I still had the chops to craft a strong and memorable poem.

Sia sang again in my ears:

“Ouch, I have lost myself again.
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found.
Yeah, I think that I might break.
I’ve lost myself again and I feel unsafe.”

As I started again, I vowed to keep moving without stopping. I pushed my pedals with gusto on the flat trail before turning left for the steep hill leading up to Lake Harriet. As I allowed the melodic thrusts of Sia’s song to influence the timbre of my pedaling, I reflected on how Claire Fisher, the Six Feet Under character who was driving away to the ebbs and flows of the song like I was, had to deal with the demons of doubt as an artist in the making. Was she self-centered? Of course. All artists are. How could they not be? It is their very perspective that enables them to stand out and remind everyone else that conformity is a curse. Artists are true warriors. They fight conventionality so that others don’t have to.

I was surprised by how little effort it took me to conquer the hill, which was always the most difficult part of my three-lake ride. Perhaps I needed to feel solidarity with someone who truly understood what I had gone through, even with a fictional character filled with far more truth than some people I’ve met in my life, in order to feel inspired.

As I crossed the bridge, I caught sight of the empty trolley tracks. I reminded myself yet again that riding the trolley between the lakes was one of the things I must do, however seemingly trivial, if only to say that I’d done it. I did not want to die on a bed of regrets. I must keep trying new things I'd never done before.

I propelled myself even faster towards Lake Harriet. As I turned left onto its bike path, I suddenly remembered meeting a straight couple late one cold January night on the same spot when my ex-boyfriend and I were out on a walk. They were walking a huge Wheaton terrier. Rocky hadn’t come into my life then, but the tenderness in their eyes was apparent when I took off my mitts and petted their dog. His jaw was caked with ice clumps of snow. I had been worried about how things would work out between Rocky and me, but they said not to worry. How so right they were! As I pedaled on, more and more people came out with their dogs; the afternoon sun had cranked up a few degrees.

Up ahead on my left was Lake Harriet's bird sanctuary. I had to smile at the memory of stealing an incandescent kiss with a handsome date one morning, and how comforting it was to embrace him, there, alone amidst the din of birds calling out to each other. It was a déjà vu moment from 1989 when I was dating a Republican lobbyist who’d moved from Washington DC to San Francisco. He took me up to the Muir Redwoods Forest. The giganticness and tallness and majesty of these trees took my breath away, and he nuzzled my neck as the mists dropped angelic sighs all around us. He thought he himself could take my breath away too, at least enough to convince me to relocate to San Francisco, but I eventually chose to stay put in New York.

I glanced at the infamous rose garden in the short distance where on one summer day I took my DeafBlind friend John on a rented tandem bike around the three lakes. The roses were in full bloom then, and it was both touching and wonderful to see how my friend could detect by nose whether a rose was natural or a hybrid. I simply brought his hand to a new rose, and he’d bend down to sniff it. I’d look at the sign next to the bush, and he was always right which kind of rose it was. But right now the roses were not out in full force yet, but I made a mental note to myself that I would bring Rocky there when the roses bloomed. It is always a joy to see his tail wag.

Of the three lakes I biked, Lake Harriet with its far more tree shade was always the coolest. As I slid into the cocoon of buds ahead, I suddenly saw a flashback of my friend James from behind, how simply he pedaled without moving much of his upper body, the week I didn’t know I’d see him last. He was happy with all those trees surrounding him as Dallas didn’t have a whole lot of trees on the magnitude of Minnesota’s.

I imagined James lying there in his casket, buried back in Dallas, and how I never got to give him a proper goodbye. Wasn’t he supposed to stay around forever? All I kept thinking of was the last time I saw him: He stood still, his bearded jaw jutting out, rising up on the escalator at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport for his flight back to Texas. I didn’t know it then, but if one wishes to believe that Heaven is above us, then he was already headed for parts unknown.

“Be my friend.
Hold me, wrap me up,
Unfold me.
I am small.
I’m needy.
Warm me up
And breathe me.”

Yes, I wanted to breathe him, as I had wanted to breathe in all that I loved. I kept pedaling, not dwelling on how thirsty I was or how much I’d ached for all those people whom I knew and who had died. I’d shed enough tears, damn it! As I headed closer to the Lake Harriet Bandstand on my right, I saw a Basset hound puppy roll over on her back and rub it against the grass, chortling all the while as her owner laughed at her antics. I thought of Elsa, too, but then I chuckled at how Rocky had always done the exact same thing on the carpet in my apartment once I took off his neon orange vest. It was startling yet true how life does give you many gifts in such moments of clarity. It’s a matter of finding them in the most unexpected places. Those make for the best gifts, because they remind you of the continuity between life and death. Seeing that Basset puppy, I also saw both Elsa and Rocky flailing about happily in the same moment; just as Elsa had died, so will Rocky. (I do not believe that it’s a cosmic accident when, in less than 48 hours of Elsa’s death, I got my first email about Rocky along with his picture.) I embrace the eventual certainty of his death as much as I accept his feisty joy and energy into my own being. I accept that he will one day die as much as he is, every day, living. I must enjoy and love him now even though I know full well that I will be truly inconsolable for a long time whenever he goes. In order for me to be strong, I must also be weak. They are the two sides of the same coin. One cannot appreciate strength without weakness.

I pushed up the short hill from the Lake Harriet Bandstand, which led to my favorite part of the ride around the three lakes: the coasting from top to bottom back to Lake Calhoun. In that moment of letting go of my pedals, I forgot all about everything that had come before but the sheer motion of my body flying through space and time down that steep hill. I thought nothing else but the wings of my bicycle carrying me forward to parts unknown, imaginary or not, beyond Lake Calhoun. When will I ever finish Ghosted? What other new city would Rocky and I visit? Who would become my next love? Would I have a great summer? How would I get my creative mojo back again? Why bother being an artist in the first place? The answers to these nagging questions of my life didn’t matter so much anymore, because I knew I would rediscover what it means to be an artist, and that I would learn to trust my heart again. Breathing in all of life itself, I simply had to enjoy its questions more.