“Birth Ritual” | Field notes from the Pacific coast

When Chris Cornell died it was the same as with Johnny Cash. I woke to my 6 AM radio program and they were playing a Soundgarden song, then a second one (which was strange), and by the third one I knew he was dead. And it was the same as Johnny Cash, I thought there’d be some renewed appreciation for him. I was cynical about that before: I was working at the Starbucks corporate office when they started selling CDs and ran into the president in the hallway that morning when Cash died, and we made small talk (Starbucks had just started selling a Johnny Cash CD that week), and then his eyes lit up and he ran off saying he had to talk to someone in Supply Chain. I thought that would happen with Chris Cornell, that right now someone (or many) were trying to get film rights. But I wasn’t cynical anymore. I wanted something good to come from it, for more people to know about him, and his family to get more money from his art. And more importantly for people to take another look at depression and suicide, and get more help to those who need it.

Friday, 26 May 17: finally warmed up after a good, long swim in the creek, my feet in the hot sand and a beer in my traveler mug, still cool somehow. On the rocky outcropping by my camp an orange butterfly’s wings as it sits in the dirt, they beat like flaps on a heart valve. Will always think of that man-made heart, that larger-than-life replica of it, plastic, in the Ben Franklin Science Museum, downtown Philly, the time Dan, Drew and I were there and out of our minds one Tuesday none of us had to work, and some black kid was stuck in the valves of that heart and Drew, who looks like a bald, circus strongman, just yanked him out like a cork, and the kid’s mom said thanks, and they all stared at us and we laughed, and moved on—that was the last time I saw Dan on the east coast for a while, before he came to see me in Seattle and I took him to the Sound Garden sculpture near Magnuson: and I didn’t know it then, but Dan was debating a gender change, probably had the whole time I knew him and we lived together in Pittsburgh, but he never said a word. And he was a big fan of bands like Metallica and Soundgarden, of metal. It made me wonder if he identified with those masculine themes, if he was trying to get a hold on that somehow for the other feelings he had, to be a woman. And it was strange to think, and how hard, identity.

That day with Dan and Drew in Philly I took them to my favorite dive bars and we rode the El, and almost got hit by a car coming out, where they shot the famous Rocky scene, by the art museum: it was then I learned the trick to defeat pee-shyness: we were in the men’s room at the museum with a row of guys lined up trying to go, and Drew saw I was struggling, and whispered “count in multiples of four,” which I didn’t get…but Drew studied Psychology, was here in Philadelphia giving a talk on it, in fact: he said you need to train your mind to think about something else so you can relax. And now I do the phonetic alphabet when I have problems like that, and everything’s fine. It maps back to that day with the heart replica and the little boy stuck in it, ’96.

I was upset when I heard about Chris Cornell but part of me just chalked it up to a slew of rock and roll, pop star deaths that all seemed premature and ill-fated, even though they lived a hundred more lives than I ever would and part of me envied them that, or was desensitized by it, and how the media would gather around afterwards in search of the real story, the real person behind the image (“what they were really like”)—and then they’d be judged afterwards for the people they were rather than the art they made, which I didn’t think was fair.

But I was naïve about the suicide, I didn’t even consider it, and when I heard that later in the day, it got me in the gut. Maybe it was the idea of suicide that’s been weighing on us with a recent TV show about it, the fact our oldest daughter Lily and her friends seem transfixed by it…the same with this newfound acceptance of shifting gender identities, bi-sexuality…like it’s trending with kids coming into their hormones and all of it, a new salad buffet of options, which seems liberating on the surface but it’s strange, and different to me—and disturbing to think that suicide would be another option with the other choices to reconcile one’s self, though I suppose it always is. And there’s something natural about it, and strangely choreographed, in the case of Chris Cornell.

And for this thought that gender can be fluid and with it, identity, I was suspicious—and Lily’s interest in it all, how she was trying to figure it out herself. But identity is best left to oneself to define, and better not judged.

I came out to the coast because the spring had finally come to Seattle, a five-day royal flush of suns heading into Memorial Day weekend, and I could get out of work scot-free for a time, go somewhere familiar, figure things out for myself.

On the beach coming out there were already some lean-to structures built out of driftwood, some little shelter areas: what my friend Loren calls implied rooms, and it made me wish he were here: how Loren would always gather driftwood logs and rocks, make exotic sculptures—installations—it got architectural, angular and strange, the shapes he made: but they were always, distinctly ‘Loren’—pagan, alien, Celtic: all of it, combined. Funny, that who I imagined he was came through in the things he made.

Now there are ants all over me as I try to write, coming up my pant legs and circling where I sit in the hot sand—it got socked-in for a while but it’s burned off again. I swam about a half an hour in the creek that lets into the ocean—I’d only planned to bathe in it but got used to the cold after a bit. And while it was so cold it burned and stung my scalp, my armpits—I thought it would be good for my aching joints and little wounds, though when I came out and dried off I suddenly got really cold, like a delayed hypothermic reaction when a breeze came through, and even the hot sand on my feet didn’t help—I had to get in the bivy sack and hole up for a time. Other parties came by, eyeballed me and my camp, probably envied it: it was stretched out on a flat area against a cliff between the confluence of the creek and ocean, and part of me had the instinct to offer to share the space since I was all alone and had so much, but another part of me said Fuck it and didn’t wave, I acted deliberately weird to frighten them off and it worked, no one came. My traveler mug smelled like coffee but tasted like beer, an odd sensation, not unpleasant. 

Photo by Loren Chasse, Charlotte, Oil City 2015.


Categories: identity, Memoir

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

16 replies

  1. Chris Cornell is no Johnny Cash. No offense intended. Still awful.

    Our schools and community boards were on fire with that suicide show. Made it seem glamorous or desirable. So far, no spike in deaths. Maybe we should give the kiddies more credit?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps there’s lines with entertainment that shouldn’t be crossed. Wasn’t that a thing with films, that you couldn’t show harm being done to a child? Good reason for some lines. But inevitably someone will go across, for entertainment (or “art”) sake. No offense taken with the Cash/Cornell comparison. I favor the ladder, but like them both.


  2. Our school sent a warning around about the suicide show as well. I understand it was graphic about what it showed and the thought of that bothers me…why put that image in anyone’s minds, especially young people (some will carry it differently). I don’t want my kids desensitized to the pain caused by suicide. It’s a larger conversation to have.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If someone is suicidal, it is part of an illness, or that person is in a genuine situation where death seems preferable–which also isn’t a ‘natural’ situation. Haven’t seen the show talked about. But I’m sure of what I say here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I get you, it’s a show called “13 Ways” or something. There are bad strains of conversation and behavior going around at our oldest daughter’s school. I struggle with the notion of it being natural. Part of me believes that: does it occur in nature, with other animals? Or is it really a cognitive/ego thing we have that makes us a different species? Probably his family wouldn’t agree it’s natural, would prefer he had gotten more help and was around still. I am working the topic out live as I write this, appreciate you reading and telling me how you feel about it. Thanks Joan. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ll hold off on too much of a rant here, though Lord knows you raised a number of issues which could provoke one. This trans-business and suicide talk seem to be symptoms of a very sick, most likely dying civilization. I think we have become so detached from our roots that we are manifesting these illnesses. Anatomy and biology are not a choice. Girls can wear jeans, boys can wear dresses, sure, but we shouldn’t be encouraging anyone to chop off their sensitive bits. There’s something real insane in both the critique of feminist theory which desipises historical gender roles, but then supports those with mental illness assuming those roles. In other words, if being a woman doesn’t mean you have to wear dresses or whatever, then why do trans people go on and assume all these characteristics? The reality is in our suicidal and desperate need for acceptance, we are manufacturing mental illness on a societal scale. Just let your kids be kids! Stop with the freaky sheep skins, Daddy is a mommy, policing pronouns, bullshit!!! Okay sorry, feeling very ranty lately.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are welcome to ranty and off-gas here any time Austin. I haven’t had to worry about troll-like comments or distracting discourse, but if I had to set boundaries I’d say no hate, no violence…debates OK. Swear words, sparingly. I’ve not seen my friend Dan since he transitioned to Dana, but we were good friends and lived together a few years. I phoned him after he made the change and left a message, but I got lazy and was probably fearful what it would be like to see him as a woman. I know he struggled though with it, and likely used alcohol and heavy metal to try to tamp down those feelings he didn’t understand. So there’s that. “RITUAL>>>>>>!”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good stuff. That’s my point, with someone like Dana, or whoever, I just wonder wouldn’t they be better served by some quality life-coaching, therapy. Get off the hooch, change the environment, commit to a life role/career that’s makes them happy. And mb you find out you still like make-up and dresses, but I would bet if they did some heavy self work they would discover it’s not really about that, that like their saying those things don’t really matter. But I’m just a cis-male normie misogynist, who likes musicals, ice skating, and am a stay-at-home Dad…wait a freakin minute…


  5. When thinking about suicide, even as a philosophical idea, a long swim in an ice-cold creek seems like just the right thing.


  6. i love you scaring off others and i remember waking up to john lennon music one day –

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This piece has my thoughts careening off the canyon walls. Echo!
    I’m acting right now with a young boy who was a girl when I first met him. I’m certain I’m the only cast member who knows this. I’m fascinated that he’s made this decision at such a young age and hope it’s the right one, but, as far as I’m concerned, we’re just tenors together.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice (and thanks for sending the poem yesterday). I know, you wonder about that at such a young age. My friend Loren had a student like that. I’d favor a law requiring they wait to a certain age but I’m not altogether familiar with the concept much. Just seems like one of those irreversible moves. Avoiding the tattoo analogy is hard. But Ok that belittles it. Good time, always a good time, for me to shut up.

      Liked by 1 person

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