In the year since Sarai died I have more than once thought about things I would tell her if I could. I had two lists, “Things I would tell you/her if I could,” and “Things I’ve learned since you/she died.” The lists overlapped, or got confused about their missions–is “it’s not as much fun coming home” something I’ve learned or just a fact I’d tell her if I could? And of course there’s the “if I could”: I can’t. Anything I write, if it’s not just for me (and if you’re reading this you know which way I went), is bound to be opaque, my only real audience dead, her ashes deaf dumb and blind in a box downstairs.
She sometimes said she hated irrelevant trivia I’d bring up. I tried, but I guess I couldn’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped now. So here I am, another pass, in a kind of Ted Hughes-like Birthday Letter, though on the anniversary of the other end of her life (not that far apart those days, birth and death days, less than a month).
Things that have changed around here since you died or, if not changed, have come to my attention:
laundry is never done
I’m no longer surprised when a friend goes down
I’ve learned to make kitchari
it’s not as much fun coming home
the little ways I’ve changed the house disturb me
I talk to myself when I’m alone
there’s still no place I’d rather be
the drought is over
the lake is full
the flag on the “island”
is the Bear Flag now
that Trump was elected
which you didn’t know
if nothing else keep the toilets clean
you feared I’d make a mess of things
that dust would settle everywhere
and cats would run free
Draper and Damon closed
the Radio Shack on the corner closed
the Yardage Town is on final sale
reducing inventory so the owners can retire
no more Passage to India
or Souplantation Sunday brunch
Simple TV went out of business
and with our lifetime subscription
went your Miranda videos
you exercised with
in the bedroom
as many days as you could manage
the bedroom you died in
a year ago today
I can’t disappoint you any more
or try to learn to make you happy
I can’t live our life alone
and freedom just feels shitty
time’s healing power is overrated
time makes nothing easier
time doesn’t heal
A bit earlier today I wrote: “52 weeks ago she had almost an hour left to live; a year ago, a day. It’s how the calendar works, and our trip around the sun,” a little fancy with the unimaginable. Much is still in place, her glasses on her bedside table, purses and belts on their hooks in the closet. I’ll try to make this not too sentimental. One of us goes on, the other doesn’t, nothing else has happened really. I still live in the house. After a while–too soon–I went back to work. Life, and death, continue.
Every relationship begins by accident, even if you meet in kindergarten. You get hired to tutor, you offer a ride home from a party and stick around to walk the dog, there’s a swinging door between your offices, or you meet in the parking lot of a grocery store, you make a date, specificity takes over, and twenty-seven years later, while you’re watching television, one of you dies. That’s how things go. Everything about this is unremarkable to one not living it. Most of the time we loved each other; the details were our life.
The year’s been long and, a cliché, not so long. I’ve moved things around a little, though it makes me feel funny to do so. There’s a bigger TV in the bedroom, one I can see. There’s still no meat in the house. Her studio is mostly as she left it. I have no religion, I know I’m not being watched whatever I do, I know I won’t see her again. I cry a bit. For a while I couldn’t do much of anything. I read her poems–there are a lot of them, unseen, mostly, by anyone but herself while she was alive. It’s conventional to say she lives on in her work. It’s not true, really, but reading I remember, and in some sad ways know more about her than I did before. (There are more poems now on saraiaustin.com, where I’m trying now to be less haphazard and more chronological.)
Grief empties you,
your flesh scarcely
As though you’ve
pound per pound
A frail aging
parent, you lose
half of yourself,
yourself plus half.
laundry is never done
I talk to myself when I’m alone
the little ways the house has changed distress me
it’s not as much fun coming home
it’s not the same, the house, my own
time makes nothing easy
and that’s about it
“What’s important in this life? Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”
Fat chance. Or as the kids say these days, I call bullshit. Pretenders don’t know. Or know something different than what I know, whatever that is. I don’t know. I know what I’ve done since to get on, killing time to stay alive, work, visiting friends and family, music, concerts and dive bars and festivals. Things we didn’t do much together. Good to have people around me. Some of the time.
Not complete bullshit of course. Depends on where you’re looking. When I look back I know what was important, but for living life today that doesn’t help. The worst has already happened. I know what I’ve lost, but that’s not that much help with now.
“So many things I know but they don’t help me.”
Here’s the thing: soon after she died I started saying, to myself and to others, “the worst has already happened.” This was a helpful mantra: it mean we (her daughter and I) couldn’t fuck things up: where or whether we buried her didn’t matter for example; we should make the best choice we could for us (her ashes are in a box next to the chair she sat in every morning), but we couldn’t screw it up. The same for many, mostly less-important, decisions since. But the corollary is “the best has already happened,” the 27 years from when we met in the parking lot of the old Mayfair Market in La Jolla to five minutes before, without discernible warning, she died eleven months ago in our house in Escondido.
“I went to the store one day.”
–Father John Misty
“Grievers use a very simple calendar: Before & After.”
My “after” begin eleven months ago to the hour from when I’m writing these sentences, when the best had already happened, and the worst was taking its place. Not to minimize the importance to me of my daughter, grandkids, brothers, nephews, niece, ex-wife, sister-in-law, various long-time friends, etc., but they were only occasionally, not my constant, daily life. “Before” is not the same as “after.” We carry the weight of what we don’t have with us.
all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain
Years ago I had the chance to hear Robert Lockwood Jr. a few times in a small club in Cleveland. My mother had just died, or was about to, and I was in the midst of a series of trips to be with her and then to deconstruct the house. Lockwood was the same generation as my mother, 91, a few months away from dying, and a link to the past as the only guitarist to have learned to play from Robert Johnson and, later, as a collaborator with Sonny Boy Williamson II. on the King Biscuit radio show. Why he preferred Cleveland to Chicago I don’t know. He’d show up at Fat Fish Blue, several nights a week I believe, across the street from the Terminal Tower (now called Tower Center, where the Republicans had the convention that nominated Donald Trump), sit down, and play. Doing what he did
I saw Big Mama Thornton once too, no longer big, sitting in a chair in the Pub at UCSD, brought there by a local musician friend, to do what she did. Most of the children (I mean college students) had no idea who she was, had no idea what it meant when she sang Hound Dog. I had no idea she’d be there when I walked in looking for a beer, serendipity I guess. And she wasn’t well, she died at 57 and this can’t have been much before that, she only looked old, older than Lockwood when I saw him.
Last week I saw John Mayall at The Belly Up in Solana Beach, the same place I saw X the week before. X had a good time, fortieth anniversary tour, perhaps planning to keep going until at least one of them dropped. Mayall just needs Mayall. These aren’t his glory years, if he ever had them, he doesn’t have Eric Clapton or Harvey Mandel in his band now, just a bass and drums behind him and an organ, guitar, and harmonica in front, sometimes two at once. He’s 83, and I guess you’d know it, or think he was at least 60, but maybe only for his attitude. Here’s what I thought: he has nothing to prove, he just does what he does. And for all I know that’s the way to stay alive.
The contrast with the X show was interesting. The members of X are all about a decade younger than me, Mayall a decade older. (For reference, I’m slightly older than Mick and Keith, and a few years younger–this surprised me–than Grace Slick. If you don’t know who I’m talking about you probably need to ask your parents.) Mayall’s audience skewed older than most I’ve seen at the Belly Up (though Billy Bob Thornton’s audience wasn’t terribly young either): I didn’t feel out of place, and they didn’t pat us down on the way in. X sold out two nights and the line to get in was horrid; Mayall played one night, and it was walk right in. Both X and Mayall are arguably important in the history of rock, but influence is not popularity, perhaps the reverse if the size of Pere Ubu’s audience last December at the Casbah is an indication.
On Saturday I drove to Venice Beach in LA for the Venice Beach Music Festival. I didn’t know what to expect but, as I told a couple of friends recently, I feel as though if I can go from music to music I’ll be fine. I hadn’t been to Venice for about 40 years, the last a time I almost rented an apartment right on the Boardwalk (which doesn’t seem to have any boards, but that’s not important). The drive was bad, the parking worse, I walked a mile from my car to the beach. I didn’t start listening to the Festival music right away, walking the length of the Boardwalk to see if I could find the place I almost lived (no luck). There were musicians everywhere, craft artists, lots of signs that said things like “no free photos,” and a topless protest parade that passed within feet of me almost before I noticed. This group was followed closely by a less attractive group of religious zealots shouting what you might expect. One sign said something like “Ask me why you deserve hell.” Those guys were followed by a few police officers, to keep the peace I assume, and an incidental indication of legitimacy.
After the walk, a bathroom line, and a sandwich, I got back to the festival stage just in time to hear more old folks–my age group, my generation, this time–having fun, Barry Melton’s San Francisco All-Stars. Barry Melton is the “fish” of Country Joe and the Fish. In his band were Greg Douglass (Steve Miller), now a Del Dios resident where I used to live, Denise Kaufman (Ace of Cups), Peter Albin (Big Brother), Roy Blumenthal (Blues Project), and David Aguilar (broad resume). Seeing these guys made me happy. I love lead guitar and harmonica more than anything, and Greg Douglass and Denise Kaufman were terrific. No one played like they had anything to prove, and it was grand.
A little later the Festival headliners, The Strawberry Alarm Clock came on, suffering a little from their repertoire.
And, just because I have it, and because if you’ve gotten this far you deserver it, here’s a photo of The Head and the Heart (a Seattle band my daughter and granddaughter like) singing California Dreaming with Michelle Phillips at Monterey Pop 50.
I don’t usually go in for hearing old bands live, touring with their old material for whatever reason (Steely Dan? and I’ve resisted both chances to hear the B-52s this summer). But X is different: hearing X makes me happy, makes me want to move to Los Angeles, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It could be argued that X is an important band, despite being unknown to a surprisingly large percentage of my friends, influential beyond their popularity, a band’s band maybe, like Pere Ubu.
I first heard X about 35 years ago, give or take, at a small club out Clairemont Mesa, gone now. don’t remember the name, maybe the Bacchanal but maybe not. There were a few rows of seats facing the stage and that was about it. Some drugs in the bathroom, or maybe that’s a misremembered TV show. Last week I attended the second of two sold out X shows at the Belly Up, a bigger venue than that first one but still what one might call “intimate.” Two nights before it was X Day at Dodger Stadium. They’re on their 40th Anniversary Tour.
X is back the same as it ever was, all four original members–Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake– forty years older. X is what we might have called in the late 60s a power trio with a chick singer, though I doubt I’d dare. They have power, straight-ahead punk sound, unrelenting even, coupled with the tight, unforgiving, shout singing vocal harmony between John Doe and Exene. (The only reason I hesitate to use the word “punk” is because they’re so good musically, unlike, say, the Dead Milkmen. And Billy Zoom, perhaps the straightest looking middle-aged musician I’ve seen in a long time, can flat play.) X is rarely subtle, musically, and the message of one of their best songs, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, suffers from it, misconstrued into its opposite so that they stopped playing it for a while (but not anymore). Some of the songs are newer (Billy played a sax of some size on a couple of them) but the sound is pretty much the same, and these guys are still live. Exene in particular–and I know the term is overused–a force of nature.
The audience was a bit punky, pogoing and jerking side-to-side, at least in my neighborhood, people probably younger than the band, but okay, better for me than the screamers at the Lana Del Rey show at the House of Blues. At one point, sometime after eleven, someone in the audience requested a song. John Doe answered, “It’s coming,” and “You were here last night motherfucker, you know what’s going on.” A little later they launched a medley, mostly from their first album, without breaks, Los Angeles, Your Phone’s Off the Hook but You’re Not, Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, Motel Room in my Bed, and Soul Kitchen (a Doors song they do better), and an encore from a later album, The New World (my favorite) and Devil Dog. This is all according to Setlist, I was too busy listening to take notes.
The warm up band, LP3 and the Tragedy, was pretty good too, with a sound that at first made me wonder why X looked so different.
I haven’t been a big concert goer the past few decades. I’ve heard Pere Ubu, Billy Bob Thornton, Father John Misty, Kitty Plague, and I went to the three-day Monterey Pop 50 with my daughter (where we both heard Regina Spektor for the first time), but none of these was a match for the Lana Del Rey experience at the House of Blues in San Diego. The concert was announced four days in advance, with insider ticket sales the next day if you bought something from her site and logged on at 10am. So grandpa played the rules, bought her new album online, and made the will-call list, part of the experience.
On Monday I left work early but not early enough to avoid an hour-and-a-half wait in the will-call line that that went three-quarters of the way around the block, standing with strangers mostly my granddaughter’s age, managing not to need to pee or to faint from dehydration, then it was another line, half an hour and all the way around the block, lapping the will-call line still going strong, to get in the door, past the pat down, and over to the bar to wait for another hour before the singing started. So, will-call line at 5:30, ticket at 7:00, inside by 7:30, singing at 8:40 until 10:10, ending with an instrumental walk-off worthy of the introduction to a Cure song.
I haven’t heard everybody, but I’ve listened to singers my age-mates, and even my daughters age-mates, have never heard or even heard of. To me Lana Del Rey is one of the three most interesting singer-songwriters of her generation (I have tickets to the other two in October). I’ve listened to her songs, on headphones mostly, over and over. I’m ambivalent and enthusiastic, beautiful songs contain lyrics like “Heaven is a place on earth with you/Tell me all the things you wanna do/I heard that you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” (Video Games, her first “hit”), or “My old man is a bad man” etc. (Off to the Races, which she closed with), where she loves that he loves her. But then there’s I Sing the Body Electric, which she opened with: right now I’m all about the night I saw her, not the hours I’ve listened on my own.
The problem, if you can call it a problem, is that she has fans. She has fans like no one else I’ve seen in a very long time. My 49 year-old daughter rushed the stage at Monterey when Phil Lesh came on, and that was something, but Lana’s fans were something else, much younger (than my daughter, and of course me) for the most part, majority female. They know the songs, and sang along, some. Lana encouraged it, pointed her microphone at audience for the refrain “probably a million years” in Summertime Sadness. She has a new album, Lust for Life, not the first album or song with that name (Iggy Pop, collaborating with David Bowie, not to mention the reference to Vincent Van Gogh), so the title could be seen as a statement about her position vis-a-vis these others. Reviewers, and Lana Del Rey herself, think this album, which debuted at #1, is her best, and a new departure; I’m not so sure, to me it seems more like her Nashville Skyline moment (to reference one of her avowed influences), but it didn’t matter last Monday night. Only two of the sixteen songs she sang–Change and Love–were from the new album. The concert, with the fans singing along, holding their phones aloft as a previous generation held cigaret lighters, screaming in recognition as each song started and intermittently throughout, so that the acoustics were better in the men’s room–this concert, this experience, was about the past, not the future or even the present.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved being there, standing in the back by the bar, peering over the heads of the fans who, if not her target audience (she says she’s a songwriter first and a singer second) have at least taken that role; I know the songs too, and teared up during Born to Die, and I’d go see her again (even with the will-call line), but the true experience of her music is alone in headphone space listening closely to the lyrics.
When I was in high school some friends and I sometimes went to a racetrack about halfway between Shaker Heights and Akron. We weren’t old enough to bet, but one of us–Dudgie we called him, though how we spelled it in our minds is uncertain–looked old enough, so we picked horses whose names we liked. I will never forget Happyfellow Bob.
I went to the Casbah a few months ago, my first time out alone after my life changed last October, to hear, as I’ve put it, God, Dave Thomas as Pere Ubu, about which not too much could be said. Tonight (actually, three nights ago now) I went just to hear music, three bands, two with interesting names, and a third whose name I couldn’t remember talking about it beforehand. The interesting names were Kitty Plague and The Digital Lizards of Doom. That latter name in particular was my reason for driving down from Escondido to this dive bar near the San Diego airport.
This is not a music review, nothing like that, just a few impressions from an old guy who heard Hendrix, Cream, Butterfield, and Janis live back in the day. So I’m not complaining about volume. Kitty Plague, a power trio like Blue Cheer, made me think of the Ramones and the Dead Milkmen, and produced a wall of sound more powerful than Phil Spector could have pulled off. I liked them, painful as it was to listen, or want to have liked them, a third my age probably but who’s counting. I was told some of their songs were humorous. I tried not to leave the room. And, to tell the truth, I would go hear them again, particularly if I could get a t-shirt with their name on it. (I saw one tonight, but someone was already wearing it, and it would have been too small for me.)
From three we went to nine on stage, Unsteady, a band I hadn’t heard of but reportedly with a long history in San Diego. But I haven’t been our much the past few decades. They were billed as a ska band–a genre I don’t quite get, something like working class white reggae, but maybe something else–but didn’t sound so ska to me. A trumpet, a trombone (!), and two saxophones in the front row, a keyboard player with a hat the reminded me this was the night of the last day of Comic Con (a Wonder Woman showed up, and a guy in a costume I didn’t understand but clearly a costume). They were loud too, but it was easier to stay in the room, and hear the lyrics. The trombone player looked about my granddaughter’s age, and I pictured her up there, a different kind of life.
I remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix–sort of by accident, I’d gone to Winterland to hear James Cotton or Albert King, who can remember for sure. I was quickly in awe, and amazed that he could make all that sound without a rhythm guitarist. But he didn’t do it without a bass player and a drummer, to keep him grounded, or at least to remind him where to land. The Digital Lizards of Doom was a single guitarist up on stage with some equipment not clear to me. Even if he hadn’t started with a bad joke he would have had trouble. He didn’t fly like Hendrix. He did fill the room with sound, and I tried to appreciate it, but I thought Kitty Plague did it better. I didn’t stay for his whole set, so maybe I missed something, but driving home I remembered that Happyfellow Bob didn’t make us any money.
Nine months ago today, almost to the hour, my wife of 21 years, companion of 27, died in this house, upstairs from where I’m writing, after an afternoon binge-watching Inspector Morse next to each other in the bedroom, a pleasant day until it wasn’t. The suddenness was, not the way the word is used now by ignorant children, awesome. She was here and then she wasn’t, though her body lingered for a while until it became ashes in a box next to the chair she sat in every morning writing. Before and after: everything else was the same, but not the important thing.
Nine months in the house we lived in together, the home she made for us after the Witch Creek fire burned us out of Del Dios, in another October (2007), just less than nine years before she died. Another “tragedy,” people called it, which took most of our possessions but left us, and the cat, alive. I went back to the empty lot today where we lived then, cleared now of brush and dead trees for fire season, picked up a piece of tile from our old walk-in shower, and a shard of a vintage stoneware cereal bowl, all while thinking about these words, and our life there, and the time between.
In another context nine months is time for a new life, but not in this. Most of today I tried to find words, drank coffee and looked out the windows, walked around the house, touching this and that. Dust has settled everywhere I hadn’t looked, and many of the places I had, I can’t keep up, I don’t keep up. She said I wouldn’t keep up if she died first, in one of those hypothetical conversations we used to have before they became real. I said I’d get sixteen cats, but I haven’t. Nine months living with the things she left behind and, it should go without saying, not over it. I have no illusions, I believe I have no illusions, but in a way I’m still inside her life, a different possibly better person than I was 27 years ago, annealed in the fire of our relationship, both of us happy (my belief) just before the end.
It’s not that nothing has changed in nine months. The awesome suddenness imbued everything she’d touched, particularly on her last day, with a patina of sacredness (there may be a better way to put that). Just a couple of examples, the chair she sat in every morning has not been sat in by anyone else, though it’s the most comfortable chair in the house, and the towel from her last shower is still hanging in the bathroom, on the hook where she left it. It wouldn’t bother me anymore to put the towel back into the laundry cycle, I don’t feel, no longer feel, as Joan Didion wrote she felt about her husband’s shoes, that she’ll come back and need it. It’s still sad, but I no longer feel the need to protect it, no longer tragedy but part of life, one or the other of you if you’re lucky enough to have something like what we had. I guess that’s, however slightly, moving on, but truthfully it feels worse, like a traumatic injury where, when the shock wears off (and I’m not saying it has) the pain rises.
This is, as she would have predicted, all about me, all about me missing her, and not about her, the person she was, the life cut short like a bird shot out of the sky (but see www.saraiaustin.com for some of that flight).
Sarai Austin, poet and writer, mother, sister, and wife, died suddenly and unexpectedly four months ago, October 16, 2016. Besides friends and family members and all the detritus of a normal life she left behind a lot of writing, mostly poetry. There are a lot of poems.
We were a bit reclusive these past years: I went to work, and she did too, finishing, in the carpentry sense, decades of writing work. There was no urgency we thought, but she wanted to get it done, and given that writing is only finished when you stop, what we have is what she gave us.
Like Emily Dickinson, whom she mentions in her long poem Cowboys (“I have been asking for a cowboy hat all year / …every occasion, I ask for a cowboy hat/ and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, /but no one ever takes me seriously.”) she didn’t publish much, though not for lack of submitting manuscripts to magazines and little presses at fifty bucks a pop, a brutal and foolish business to someone not directly involved. Publishing has changed in the internet age, particularly poetry publishing, the door moved and the locks changed. She went back to the writing itself, and a few small chapbooks she laser-printed and folded and stapled in her studio down the path to the other side of the backyard of our 118-year-old house. She loved the house, she loved her studio, and she loved her work.
So, here’s a website, www.saraiaustin.com. She secured the domain and did some design, but I’ve taken it over. The layout is mine (I’m learning as I go), the words are all hers: I haven’t changed anything, not on purpose anyway, not even the spelling of Sassafrass, the title of her chapbook of blues poems, nor have I softened any of the moments in her poems that are no more flattering to me than I deserve. (She might say I’m making it all about me, but they’re not all about me.)
I hope she would like this website if she could, like that some of her poems are out now, available to more than the small audience of small press literary judges and recipients of her small batch handmade chapbooks. There’s also a selection of photos. There will be more poems later, as I go through what she left.
In truth, the real reason I worked this website was so that I could have access to these photos and poems wherever I have an internet connection, but I doubt I’m their only audience. I’d be remiss if I weren’t partial, but the more I read and reread her work (she didn’t show me everything, and I’m finding new stuff as I go) the more I appreciate this aspect of the person I lived with for 27 years. I hope—I expect—some of you already or will love these poems too. It’s not language poetry, it’s not poetry I would or could write (though she told me if she died first I’d probably steal it), it’s not political except in the way that the personal is always political, but maybe it’s what poetry is supposed to be if it’s supposed to be anything: wrought from the lived experience of the poet, in this case of a woman born at home on a farm on the banks of the Mississippi, living the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first in America—Missouri, Arizona, Utah, California—married twice but a long-time single mother, a mentor and friend to other writers, and, of course, to me. I miss her, but I hope it’s not too foolish to say she’s still here, in these words and in these photos, in the memories of all who knew her, and of those who meet her here for the first time.