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All Souls 2014

Written: December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC

About: November 2, 2014, in Tucson, AZ

My mother called me late at night. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her composure, but the unusual raspness of her voice betrayed the grief. We spoke briefly. She made plans to fly back for the funeral. This was not possible for me.

You always hope that this call would come at a time when you are in a comfortable, safe place. It never does. You are at a birthday party, or eating breakfast, or pumping gas. I was at a laundromat. The phone call left me wiped out and numb, but I had to stay in this place until the spin and dry cycles all finished. It seemed absurd and grotesque that instead of profound, this moment was menial and full of strangers. So it goes.

At least it was in the middle of the night, and I could escape into the empty street for some relief.

A heaving loss was lumbering somewhere beneath the surface of my consciousness, but I could not quite figure out what it was that I had lost. My grandmother had drifted into the fog of Alzheimer’s long ago. Even then, she was left behind that brutal watershed, immigration. In my mind, she had become a fable, and her departure only confirmed her mythological status.

Next morning, compelled by childhood memories, I got up early, went into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun peeked over the roofs and found me with a tall stack of bliny, warmed by the gas stove, as it had often found her. The clouds were turning red and gold, a sight to share with my grandmother. I learned to make bliny by watching my grandmother do it thousands of times.

I have previously been considering going back to Tucson for this year’s All Souls Procession. Now this became an essential, vital need.

***

A mass of humanity – thousands of people – has arranged itself on Tucson’s 6th Street as the desert sun rolled away. It had stoked the afternoon heat, but with the soft darkness drawing upon the city, everything and everyone felt unburdened and refreshed. Filling the streets as a vast flood, we have come for death and remembrance. We have come here not in sorrow, but in unity.

Many carried memories of those who passed away in the last year. Anything from a small pocket photo to costumes to large family gatherings carrying altars adorned with lights and icons. The Urn took up its place at the head of the Procession, filled with letters written to the departed.

Shared sadness turned into great joy. People formed a mad, often bizarre tapestry of costumes, masks, and painted faces. A mesh of music coming from stereos and musicians hung over the gathering. Yet friends still found each other in this chaos. Time passed in smiling conversations, punctuated with excited greetings and hugs. Then by some command, more felt than heard, the crowd shook, the drums kicked up, and we began to move. The sidewalks – the banks of this human river – were packed with onlookers, waving and cheering on those walking.

Somewhere in the thick of it, the pipers of the Tucson Highlanders blew their pipes, lofting that perfect sound of steady hearts and hallowed memories. We followed the thin ghost of their distant sound.

As we followed the pipers, the procession pulled into an underpass beneath a railroad. The entrance into narrow concrete tunnel was ringed with people hanging off the guardrails and the top of the bridge. It was a portal made of humans. The pipers drew themselves up, and launched into Amazing Grace as they descended.

The concrete underworld vibrated and bucked with the power of the music and of the people singing, cheering, whooping, dancing, stomping. The walls beat with our hearts and the lights shined brighter. Sorrow burned and evaporated away, leaving behind only the joy of remembering those we love.

The memories of my grandmother welled up in my chest, too compressed and entangled to pick them apart. Rather, I remembered her, and what it was like to be with her. This feeling pushed out against my bones, burst upward, roaring. I lifted my head and I howled. I howled and I howled I howled, with tears in my eyes, with all the sadness and the longing and the love, until it all emptied out of me, until the pipers led us out of the tunnel, back into this world, back into the crisp night, our river flowing steady between the human banks.

I was in a place removed infinitely far from grandmother. In a foreign country, in a strange desert, a small human in a giant ritual that was unabashedly grotesque and alien. Yet then I was as close to her as I have been in the hot summers of my childhood, on the cool riverbanks, in the green orchards heavy with cherries, in her small kitchen, watching her cook an endless feast for a gang of grandchildren.

Later, in the leery midnight hour, feeling fresh from a monsoon that passed through us, we found a street vendor serving up Sonoran hotdogs, in itself a small tradition. In this safe harbor, we stood around making cheery small talk with the woman while she prepared our food. On the other side of the cart, obscured by a shifting cloud of steam, a beautifully painted Katrina stood leaning on an old cab, another haunt, another apparition.

All Souls 01 (edit 800x480)

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A house jam

Written: June 19, 2011, in DC

About: Tucson, Spring and Summer 2005

On a cool spring evening, I’m walking half a block to a friend’s house. It’s dark. No good party starts until at least eleven anyway. I’m practically bounding down the street and up the stairs. There is a bottle of Jack in my hand. A cloud of tobacco smoke already occupies the porch. Someone, swimming in the cloud, is talking loudly and drinking cheap beer.

This isn’t a regular college party. Some of the city’s best improvisers are gathering under this roof, along with their fortunate friends. It’s a night for a house jam. A few hours ago the word had gone out over texts, and now we are converging. With all the right people, the right time and energy and place the event runs itself. Somewhere there’s a hat with people’s names. We are supposed to be picking teams and setting the show order. None of it matters – everyone brought booze, and everyone knows what’s supposed to happen. No need for rules. Too many people here are practically anarchists anyway.

There is no subtlety in the night’s acceleration. Cigarettes out front, weed in the back, alcohol everywhere. These are the nights when I would drink close to a bottle of whiskey, and others wouldn’t be far behind. But everyone is riding such a powerful wave of spiritual intoxication that all these psychoactives barely touch anyone.

The crowd is around. People standing at the ready, waiting for the moment when everything starts. Eventually, someone gets things rolling, but it’s hardly that person’s decision. The night simply reaches the right point. Some critical mass is found, and everyone collapses into the large living room. There is a pile of chairs and couches. Everything is quickly lined with bottles and cups. Someone leans in through the doorway to watch, holding the cigarette outside.

Improv is feverish and uncompromising. No one merely says “Yes.” We scream it, fling ourselves into agreement. Few teams manage to stick to a structure. Everything slides into montages and freeform. No one stops or interrupts their indulgences. People bring cups of liquor right into the scenes, sometimes shooting straight from the bottles just off-stage. Energy pours out of us like a wildfire. There is no controlling this storm. There is divine focus and precision in this play of wicked abandon.

The house is a deliriously storming sea. Waves of energy crash from wall to wall. Lines and scenes come effortlessly. All is love and brilliance. It goes until the cups run dry, the scenes hit all the buttons, and there is a post-coital smoke on the porch. The night winks out and we glide home.

This was our Woodstock. This was our Paris of the twenties.

Exit, Stage West

Written: April 3, 2011

About: Tucson

I have lived in Tucson for about seven and a half years. That’s the second longest I’ve lived anywhere, and now I’m having the strange realization that Tucson is a place on the road, and no longer home. Well, perhaps it is a bit more than a place on the road. After all, having spent so much time here, I know how Tucson lives. I’ve seen it change. I have stores and stores of memories from here – from heartbreaking to euphoric to simply strange. Still, even though I can never be a tourist here, I’m not quite a local either.

The end of my stay here is not without its poetic moments. Since my new job is not covering my moving expenses, I’ve had to get rid of almost everything I own since I can’t afford to move it. All of my furniture, a lot of my clothes, much of my kitchenware, my computes. The only things which I have pretty much refused to give up are books and music. I have boxes full of volumes and CDs. An attachment that is sure to cost me in the near future.

My dance shoes have finally been worn through. These shoes have survived for about six years – an incredible feat for the kind of abuse that these shoes have taken. And my final weeks in Tucson is when they have finally started showing holes. Another chapter, another chapter, right?

The train of things leaving my hands has been enlightening. It’s been nice to realize that even though I haven’t had all that much, I actually need even less. Whether it’s something I’ve given away, or threw away, or sold, I’ve felt lighter and more empowered with each bit. It is a good feeling, knowing that I will rocket into a new life minimally encumbered. I want to carry memories and experiences, not items.

There is a beautiful and serene view of the Tucson sunrise from the A Mountain, just around the corner from the smoked-through, piss- and beer-stained Buffet. The cool Tucson night, bearing within it the improv and dancing madness – hours and hours of idealists imbibing and sweating their passions. So many stars in this night, an endless field of golden flickers so vast and deep. Cross the Gates Pass and get lost in this infinity, spend a good hour conversing with the distant worlds. Or if you want someone closer, there is Broadway Café and the Grill, always open and always up for a good conversation. What’s better than a milkshake and some hashbrowns to grease your mind and tongue, anyway. I’m walking down a street, bottle of Jack in my hand (my girlfriend), grinning, feeling punk, bounding up the stairs and into the house for an improv jam that will blow everything into the stratosphere. How much liquor have I poured into myself in these years? Enough to keep this burn alive. There’s blues on, and it’s blues like I’ve never heard before. There’s blues on. Someone is so very close, moving with me in comfort and perfection. The tiniest of movements like the loudest of words. My hands are covered in dark oil and tiny specks of aluminum and steel, a sharp and reassuring smell of the cutting fluid. The sun is out, wrapping everything in its fiery embrace. And then there is the sunset under a gradient sky, with the burning red mountains as the backdrop. And all the while, the saguaro whistle their quiet songs in the wind.

I’ve gone through so much here, and I miss you already, Tucson.