Yesterday was a day of confronting two loses. Starting with the completely trivial, I did that thing on Sunday – I dropped my phone into the toilet bowl and that was that. It was a six month old iPhone 6 that I hardly paid any attention to. You could say, I took it for granted, throwing it around carelessly yet, equally, taking for granted that I was entitled to have such a thing without, in literal terms, paying for it, as contracts and upgrades make it so completely possible for us to do. Its top end was only immersed in an inch of water for a count of ten but that was all it took. Long story short but it was only once I had swallowed the reality that my phone was never going to work again that I really digested (perhaps for the first time in my life) how much these things retail at and how pivotal we have made them in our lives.
The ensuing few hours were an interesting learning curve as I was forced to evaluate what this piece of equipment really meant to me; how I had given it such sway over my life whilst overlooking it completely. The experience has been a valuable exercise in appreciation (of what I had in my hands five minutes earlier), re-evaluation (it costs “how much!” to replace and is it really worth that to me?), perspective (how can these tiny mass-produced things be priced far in excess of, say, the far more substantial and complex camera I just bought and why do they seem to be built to fail rather than to sustain the knocks of life – is it because the manufacturers know they have us over a barrel?). Equally, an exercise in witnessing (all those knee-jerk traits, including the urge to throw a hissy-fit, to blame, to regret, to overthink, to worry…), in patience, in proportion (“on the grand scale of things…”), in civility (two helpful people on the phone trying to assist me so why not be pleasant rather than passing on my own Monday-morning frustrations). Then came the gratitude (there is a solution and look at all these epiphanies I’m having), relief and the ability to laugh, with myself, at how “important” access to these modern conveniences is made to seem, as though we can’t live without them for a single second…Hell, I was almost going to turn my day upside down and drive to another town just to get to the only Apple store with an appointment and then I asked myself “Why am I doing this? So what, I’m without a phone for a week, its not the end of the world”.
Going forwards, I know I will appreciate and take care of my phone more yet prioritise and depend upon it far less than before; it is just a communication device after all. Interesting, also, to witness my reactions to life without a phone. There’s the flash of vulnerability, yet also a new sense of liberty when I go out the door for a long walk on my own without checking its there in my pocket. Then there’s the quashed habit of checking endlessly for messages and the need to consider other ways to communicate or, even, whether I want to communicate at all (there’s much more to a phone contract than the one we have with the phone company – by carrying them everywhere we make ourselves accessible to other people at all times of day and night). Then, just now, the light on my walk was just tremendous bursting from thunder-black clouds at the top of the hill, lighting up patches of the landscape like a mystical, emerald other-world beneath my feet yet I had no phone to take the pictures, had to suppress the part of me that is always thinking ahead about sharing on social media; which meant I was released to be fully in that moment, experiencing it all for myself – what a hardship! So, ‘Happy Mercury Retrograde” to me, I lost my phone and a couple of hundred quid but gained so much more perspective!
Eclipsing these circumstances and, now, forever woven into the memory of them was the news of David Bowie’s death. It shocked and physically moved me to receive the news, like hearing about a friend or a family member and that took me aback a little, until I started to hear the same reactions from so many other people, including contacts who I would never would have imagined giving a thought to this man. The whole of the last day seems to have been taken over with the passing of a man whose music runs like a star dust trail through the story of my life, the backing music to so many seminal moments, from the Space Oddity nostalgia of early childhood to the Ashes to Ashes era of my darker teenage preoccupations to Heathen, the soundtrack of my flight to freedom (or at least to Devon) with my baby daughter and huge dog stuffed into the back of my tiny car at the very beginning of leaving my first marriage. His music always seemed to accompany the braver moments of my life, the ones when I dared to be uniquely me and unapologetically so. Seems I’ve always reached for him when I wanted to be a bit edgy, a bit out of my comfort yet more into the genius zone and the flow of innate creativity; interesting that!
It was fascinating watching the world wake up to the news of his death and dipping into the conversation threads on social media; so many varied reactions from huge celebration and gratitude for his life to so much dismay, anger, self-pity and hurt being expressed, like he had been stolen away, a great injustice done. Yet I sensed none of that pathos coming from him; everything about the way he staged his final dramatic moment, perfectly timed with the release of his new album Blackstar (“I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen” speaks one of the lyrics on that album – and he’s right, nobody can steal his thunder on this one) spoke of a theatrical departure that he has a handle on, even now as it plays out exactly as he envisioned it, his star decidedly on the ascent just as he leaves the building.
So, on my walk that day, shortly after hearing the news, I found myself talking out loud to him: “Hey David, thanks for everything. I bet you’re having a blast way up there, how’s it feel to be so expansive and all over the place, a starman again, I bet you’re enjoying the view. At least I get to talk to you directly now, ha ha. And you get to listen to all of us (or none of us – your choice) but you must be enjoying the reactions, how much your music is filling-up the airwaves today, all over the world – how cool is that, what a send-off, you must be so pleased at what you pulled off? You’re out of it all now, you stepped out of all the petty dramas of life “down here” but then you always created your own drama and you even get the last laugh on that one – how brilliant – everyone is so shocked that you left when you did, on the crest of a wave. Thank you for everything you added to my life, I’m so deeply grateful” (as I bowed to him under brooding skies). Then, when I got home, I finally got around to listening to Blackstar and was astounded my the Lazarus lyrics, which could have been the direct response to my funny little monologue on the walk:
“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen, Everybody knows me now…I’m so high it makes my brain whirl, Dropped my cell phone down below…Ain’t that just like me.”
These words appears to be written as a premonition of what it would feel like when he was dead – and now that had just happened, and he was there, he must know what that feels like and, it struck me, how odd to hear those lyrics, for the first time, just a few hours after it became de facto. If his premonition was accurate then he had, metaphorically, dropped his cell phone “down below” the day before (you could say, it was no longer needed where he was heading; he’s left all those gizmos, the ties, attachments and perceived responsibilities, the things we carry around with us in our pockets wherever we go, that we protect and make so important, right behind…) Right on cue, I had dropped mine “down below” that day too, straight into the not-so metaphorical toilet; how bizarre, the synchronicity of that happening but then we all read our own personal messages into lyrics, into all true art, don’t we? And, of course, the critics and papers are going mad for his lyrics now (where, a week ago, they were labelled “crazy” and “obscure”). Through their obscurity, he threw them all a bone as his departing manoeuvre and is up there watching them all scrambling around on the ground, trying to make sense of it all (“it means this”, “no, it makes reference to that” is all across the internet today) whilst, we can also be sure, there was method in his “madness”; that he knew exactly what he was saying when he penned those lyrics, as he always did. I feel I have my own, personal, sense of what his parting lyrics are “about” and that’s all that really matters; is all that ever mattered to Bowie himself. As a parting shot, with a giant nudge, he had reconnected me with my raison d’être as an artist…and that’s one heck of a gift.
To seal the synchronistic deal, a video (click image) popped up in my feed that very evening entitled ‘Painting in the Dark: The Struggle for Art in a World Obsessed with Popularity”, which is a video essay by Adam Westbrook (and well worth the watch if you are at that juncture of knowing that making art for yourself and for “success” are, often, two very differently motivated things, with far different outcomes). It particularly draws on the motivations of Van Gogh, another artist considered to be completely “crazy” and “obscure” in his time, and it couldn’t be more on theme for me, or with the life of a recording artist such as Bowie who only ever toyed with the popularity genre (because it is a genre, a subset – if, currently, the dominant one – of the creative world as a whole) yet never took it at all seriously. On his new album we find him declaring “I’m not a popstar…I’m a blackstar”, one who only ever followed his own star – “I’m a star’s star” – shining in the dark (as did Van Gogh), quite oblivious to whether an audience had turned up to fill the dark seats around him or whether he was, effectively, talking to himself, playing to an audience of one (which is how my world – and the world of so many driven artists – so often feels). He knew he was down here on planet earth for a visit, to play a game, to do it his own way, to have fun with it all, to explore, not to conform or dance to anyone else’s tune, but always to follow his own creative urges and to laugh…to make fun of it all…and then to move back on up to where he came from when he’d had enough; the eternal starman. No less are we all star people (though we tend to forget it) and things are never as serious as we make them out to be “down here”; but he really knew that, and navigated by it, whilst playing the game of life on his own terms. He wasn’t asking for pity and sadness at his demise – why does anyone think he kept his illness to himself; he didn’t want everybody else’s “stuff”, their woe and sympathy, loaded on him during his final months; he was playing with it all to the very last and he did it entirely his own way. The best way. The only way. I choose to be one of those women who “kneel and smile” (Blackstar) as he moves on…
So, a day of two loses on a very different scale and yet all strangely synchronistic…joined together by a lyric…and both with a gift, an insight and a nudge towards a version of myself that does it completely my own way. That’s a “me” that always sees the bigger picture, that laughs and doesn’t take herself too seriously, that remembers not to put importance on little (pocket-sized) things or get tied down to other people’s stuff and what they determine to be important; a me that (always) does it – whatever it is – for me first and foremost, because following that bliss is where my inspiration, my motivation and my true creativity lie; compared to which nothing else really matters as an artist, not even popularity or “success”.
If there’s one artist that has come to embody that way of existing over the last forty or so years, which is most of my life, its Bowie and there’s nothing like the loss of a living artist (though their offerings go on and on…) to bring their work and motivations sharply into focus as we are suddenly inundated with a retrospective of their life’s output via every cultural means, every media outlet, so many of our conversations; its like everything they were about is suddenly distilled down into an extraordinarily potent brew that we all get to take a sip of (if we choose to). So, maybe being temporarily saturated in the mentality of an artist who never feared his most obscure offerings being ridiculed or rejected is just what I need right now as I step into a year when my own motivation and inspiration have never felt less mainstream, more obscure and yet more inherently “mine and therefore, more worthy of my exploration. That’s one heck of a gain from the so-called loss of a man – may we all aspire to leave such a potent elixir behind when we move on.
I’m still very unsure where all my creative pursuits are leading me this year, in fact have never felt less able to predict what’s coming but I’m no longer seeing this as a loss of direction or inspiration but an opening up of potential and a reminder not to seek the kind of commitment that would tie me down again. In fact, since writing this post, I’ve decided my new mantra for 2016 is simply to paint like there simply is no audience, like I’m in a dark room and there’s only me to “please”. In there, I strongly suspect, lies my best work.
Like a firefly in the night sky (see the video below), I suspect its time to focus on generating that inner creative light without having to know who, if anybody, is out there looking!