Last weekend I treated myself to Brett Dennen at Carnegie Hall. The tickets were definitely not cheap, but I think I would have paid anything to see him play that night. I bought the ticket with a broken heart. The news of a dear friend’s sudden passing. A friend who came into my life because of Brett Dennen. A friend who taught me that living your life in the service of others is really the only way to truly live. As the beauty of the universe would have it, Jose died while helping another. I can’t think of a better way to go than in the act of one’s truest self. But of course the loss of such a wonderful, caring, selfless soul has rocked his huge community of family and friends. It is hard not to ask the question why. And for me it has been hard to overcome a feeling of regret. You see for the last few months of Jose’s life he was on my mind and I kept meaning to reach out and reconnect with him, but I never got around to it.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, one of my new obsessions, defines the term “dead reckoning- to find yourself bothered by someone’s death more than you would have expected, as if you assumed they would always be part of the landscape, like a lighthouse you could pass by for years until the night it suddenly goes dark, leaving you with one less landmark to navigate by—still able to find your bearings, but feeling all that much more adrift.” Now I am not bothered nor surprised by the effect of Jose’s passing on my heart. What does bother me was my inability to reach out in time. I do feel a little lost every time I look at a picture of him and realize he is no longer with us. I miss him terribly and it is difficult to wrap my mind around the reality of what has happened.
So I bought a ticket to see Brett as my way of honoring Jose’s life. I got dressed up and I went out by myself, but before I left I sat down in front of my altar and had a moment. I trust in someway that this message was delivered to Jose’s soul. The depth of my decision to see Brett play Carnegie and celebrate Jose began to move from unconsciousness to consciousness. As I caught my train, I could feel magic in the air. I seemed to be moving through space with a sense of the divine. I found my seat at the show between a newly in love couple and beautifully aged couple. Brett took the stage and with his opening note brought tears to my eyes. I can’t even remember the song he opened with because I suddenly had nine years of my life flashing through my memory…
September 10, 2004: Hot Buttered Rum was playing at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I had seen them play handful of times over the last nine months and was a pretty solid fan at this point. I was brand new to the Oakland scene and decided to go to the show solo rather than stay home and wish I had gone. And, of course, I can now look back at this moment and know without a doubt that the course of my life was changed by this one decision.
That night there was an opening act. In my memory, it was a solo act. I don’t think he had a band backing him. But honestly I don’t remember. What I do remember is that he was young… I thought 18 max (turns out we are the same age). I remember his ginger hair and his nervousness. But mostly I remember the uniqueness in his voice and his soulful lyrics captivating me. He had my undivided attention and it wasn’t until he walked off stage that I learned his name. Brett Dennen. I made my way to the merch table to buy a cd. I had two to choose from: his solo album or his kids album. If I had had the money I would have bought both, but I was forced to chose. I asked about the kids cd and was told that the music was written for an Outdoor School that Brett worked for called The Mosaic Project. A week long program bringing together a diverse group of 4th and 5th graders from different Bay Area schools, mixing them all up in cabins and groups and facilitating activities to foster an appreciation of diversity, build connection across differences, celebrate uniqueness, manage conflict and be peace-loving human beings. Sold. Life altering decision number two.
Over the next few years, I would play Children’s Songs for Peace and a Better World in my classroom. The songs were catchy and meaningful and it took no time at all for my students to be singing or humming along as they worked on projects or did independent work. I dreamed of someday taking my class to camp. And every year I asked, hopeful that someday I would hear a yes.
Over these years, I stuck with Brett too. I eventually bought his other cd and the cds that would follow. But mostly I remember his live shows. I remember him opening Hot Buttered Rum’s Harvest Meltdown at the Evergreen Lodge in Yosemite Halloween weekend, in a rad 80′s track suit and staying in the cabin next door to me. I remember pop-up, renegade food court impromptu shows late night at the High Sierra Music Festival. I also remember his main stage High Sierra set… barefoot in the grass, twirling in my sundress, beer in hand, not a care in the world and feeling so moved by the power of his words that tears ran down my cheeks. On instagram recently someone hashtagged him #gingergod and I giggled at the truth in that sentiment. Not in a worshipping way, but just in the truth that he speaks, seems to remind me of my purpose. He makes me think. Think about my life. Think about my choices. Think about the world. Think about how I can be better. And then he reminds you to celebrate.
In 2007, I got my first yes. After three years and two schools, I called Lara at the Mosaic Project and signed my kids up for camp. I was ecstatic. May of 2008. My birthday week. I would get to spend my next three birthdays at what I deemed to be “the happiest place on earth.” It was here that I found a piece of myself that I had been missing. It was here that I would meet instant new friends, Jose being one of them, and build relationships that would deepen and grow in ways then unknown. And most importantly, it was here that I would watch my students find themselves in new ways. Each of them grew here, because it was a space that gave them room to do so on their own terms. I remember the last night of my first week, after all the kids had gone to bed laying on the grass under the moon with a few staffers and other teachers and singing a song of Brett’s… I think it was “Just Like the Moon.” I remember in that moment knowing that we are all interconnected in ways that we cannot even fathom. We have these experiences. And we build these relationships. While life moves forward. Some moments stick with us forever in complete clarity and others grow fuzzy and dim. But I never seem to lose the feeling of magic when it touches my life.
In my last exchange with Jose he said to me, “well, you’re family, so…you know where to find us:).” I hope he knows that I have always felt the same way. My Mosaic friends are my family… and that extends to Mosaic family that I have yet to meet. We were all cut from a similar cloth and each of you hold a special and unique place in my heart. We have laughed together, grown together, and cried together. And I want each of you to know how special you are to me. On September 20th, our hearts were all broken, but our memories and stories and love for Jose have brought us together and strengthened our ties to one another.
Live music has always been my church. With the songs like sermons and the refrains like prayers. It grounds me, reminds me who I am, and gives me the confidence to face the difficulties in life with a loving, open heart. My favorite part is that woven into this, is celebration and dance. I danced my butt off last Saturday with Brett, and before he even encouraged the audience to get out their seats and dance I was up dancing. As I walked out of the show, I was overcome by how far we’ve all come. Brett. Myself. Mosaic. So much more. We plant these seeds, sometimes without even knowing it… and somehow against all odds they grow into big beautiful trees.
Rest in Peace Jose. Us earthlings miss you terribly, but we take peace in knowing that someday the future people will all be reunited. Thank you for all of the love, laughter and joy you brought into my life and so many others. Your “No way, Yes way, Maybe so” spirit will live on for generations to come.