Monday, July 29, 2013

The Cobain Chronicles - Part Four: Kurt's Park

I recently drove from Portland to Seattle to go to the Kurt Cobain memorial.  It was originally named Viretta Park, though it is also known as Kurt's Park.  This city park is right next to the last house he ever lived in.  It was twenty years ago that I stood in front of Kurt at one of his last concerts.  I'd been meaning to come visit this memorial for several years...  

People come here from all over the world to leave flowers, mementos, and write messages on this bench - Kurt's bench - where he was seen sitting at different times before the end of his life.  Messages are written to him in chalk, nail polish, spray paint or anything else.  

When I walked up to the park, I was surprised to find myself so anxious - it was like I was going to meet someone face to face that I had not seen in decades.  My heart pounded as I walked up to Kurt's bench.

This is no Graceland.  No shag carpet here, just the sprawling grass.  No chandelier, though on clear nights you can see some stars.  No admission fee, only space for you to walk through and remember.

As an amazing act of love, someone took the time to knit this piece that was attached to the bench when I got there.   It looks like a remake of the red and black sweater Kurt was known to wear. 

I had found these dried yellow flowers in a store and they made me think of Kurt, so I took them with me to Seattle.  I wrapped them in paper and a blue ribbon to leave on his bench.  I did not see the word "Forgiven" carved into the bench initially.  I saw it the same night I came home and transferred these photos to my computer.  The whole journey of taking a look at Kurt's life and going to his memorial was profound and set me on a path of personal forgiveness.

I sat on the ground next to the bench for a while.  I felt waves of sorrow wash over me for all that went wrong.

There's something really beautiful about dried flowers...they don't have to worry about dying because they've have already crossed over to the other side.  Their beauty is delicately invincible.

The wooden slats in the bench get pulled out and replaced every so often and also painted over from time to time with brown paint by the park maintenance people.  That's why you can look at different pictures of this bench taken over time and it looks entirely different.  Under the brown paint you see here, there is a whole other layer of messages to Kurt from pilgrims who came in the weeks before.

People by the thousands fly here each year from faraway countries and drive here from faraway places to come and leave mementos and messages.  The pictures below show messages from people from Czech Republic, and from Iowa.

Pennies and a guitar pick were stuck onto the bench maybe with glue or wax, but then they were painted over....

The day I was there, I saw glasses, gloves, a bracelet, a tea bag, maybe some sort of mint in a silver package...maybe these were all left by the same person, or maybe by multiple people - all pieces that had symbolic importance to someone.

The strangest thing kept happening - multiple times I would put the flowers in the middle of the bench, and then I would see them on the ground behind the bench.  Any time I was walking around and not looking directly at then bench, this would happen - even when I was the only one at the park.  Every time I saw the flowers on the ground they looked like someone had carefully placed them there - facing up.  I got really spooked for a couple minutes until I realized that the soft breezes blowing through the park were probably just blowing it off the bench.  I wondered if the universe was making the point that I wasn't supposed to place the flowers in that exact spot because that's right where Kurt would sit....  The last time I picked them up from the ground, I placed them on the side of the bench and not in the middle.

There are two benches - one that is closer to his house, which is the main bench for leaving messages and mementos, and there is a second bench that is further away from his house with less graffiti on it...

Rest in peace, Kurt. 

The view from just behind Kurt's bench: Lake Washington, the skyline of Bellevue in the distance beyond the water, and blue mountains on the horizon that are part of the Cascade Range.

I hate when leaves start turning the color of Autumn when Summer is just barely beginning.  It makes feel anxious and regretful at the same time.

I pictured coming here for a long time, the way you imagine seeing an old friend for the first time in ages.  I always imagined I would come during cold, gray weather, not during early summer when everything is exploding in light and color.

Purple hollyhocks lean into a path at the top of the park.

The small window on the top floor of Kurt's old house was opened up to let in the afternoon breezes while I was walking around.  This house looks out over the park and is now lived in by someone else - they have it surrounded by walls for privacy.

Beyond Kurt's last house - the vapor trail of an ascending plane.  When our time comes, I wonder if we leave behind something like a vapor trail, however intangible it might be, in the moments when we ascend from this earth.

This white flower kept catching my eye - like it was trying to get my attention.   When I got close enough to take a picture of it, I could then see that right next to it was an enormous, astoundingly beautiful Evergreen with an opening in it like a doorway - you could go in and walk around inside it as it surrounded you with its boughs.

It was like some idyllic childhood storybook scene - some place where the main character would go to seek refuge or solitude.

When I walked inside this ancient looking tree, there were the hugest clovers I have ever seen at my feet - I've never seen clover this big anywhere.  

At times I've wondered why Kurt was chosen as the 'frontman' for my generation - considering all the people that could otherwise have taken that title.  Beyond his extraordinary talent and how he changed the history of music,  it seems it is because so many people felt a connection to him and to his pain through his music.  In living out the quintessential Gen X existence, he experienced and understood our pain. 

So if the frontman of our generation has left us what have we left? To recognize the mutual suffering in one another and to help each other move beyond that suffering.  To look for light when it seems there is only darkness.  To be conscious of what has happened to other Gen Xers individually and collectively and to not forget.

"The sun is gone but I have a light."
Kurt Cobain
1967 - 1994

Photographs of Kurt's Park and Kurt's last home - Seattle, Washington.

(c) 2013 photography and writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved


Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Cobain Chronicles - Part Three: Of Bridges and Brick Doorways

Sometime around 2005, I was rushing through downtown Portland to get back to get work after my lunch break and I caught a glimpse of a teenage boy, maybe fifteen years old, who was huddled up on a step and leaning against a doorway of an old brick building.  I assumed he was probably avoiding school and I smiled because I figured he was having a more fun day than me.  Thoughts of my overly full inbox weighed on my mind and I rushed past him, but I turned around when my conscience told me to reach out to him. As I got closer, he looked like he was most likely homeless.  He was staring down at raindrops dotting the cold sidewalk when I said, "Hey brother, are you hungry?" I could see  from his eyes he was scared and had profound pain.  It was clear that he wasn't just ditching school, he was running from something.   I reached in my bag and got out some food to give to him - he was very polite and more than grateful.  Strangely, it was almost exactly like that moment I'd had with Kurt Cobain about twelve years before at the Nirvana concert where he and I had made some sort of striking unspoken connection.  The dirty fingernails of a kid reaching into my hand to take some food had caused my heart to remember and to ache fiercely. The blue of his eyes were like the blue of Kurt's eyes when he sadly looked at me that night in 1993.  The boy and I spoke a few more words, and when I walked away, that was the moment I knew - I knew that I had some sort of unknown, unfinished business with Kurt.  I knew that at the very least, I needed to go to Kurt's Memorial Park in Seattle.  I put it off for a very long time - for eight more years.  Beyond that, I knew there were some things I needed to sort out in my mind and my heart regarding Kurt.  As an extension of that, I knew there were things in my heart involving some other people in my life that I needed to sort out.

. . .

Just before Kurt died in 1994, my life had become a huge mess.  Things that I had kept below the surface for many years all seemed to explode at once.  I had substantial depression and all kinds of other problems.  I was steeped in some sort of pull between nihilism and trying to reclaim the faith in God I wasn't sure I had anymore.  So I started going to church again after not going for a really long time to try and reconnect with the truth that had once been more a part of me.  I got to a church event early one evening when a lady - a stranger who was most likely a Boomer in her early 40s  -  approached me.  I must have been giving off the "I'm confused and need help" vibe because she looked at me briefly, profiled me, and handed me a tract - a little booklet with Scripture and info in it about how to become a Christian.  It was clearly targeted toward people my age - it had words in it about Kurt Cobain - how he had wasted his life and that he was in hell and that other young people should try not to end up like him.  I was so furious I could barely breathe.  Clearly she had pigeonholed me as some sort of 'lost youth' that needed direction she thought she could give.  I was probably wearing all black (as I still often do) I was probably walking around with a distant or angst-ridden look on my face (as I still often do).  She made a long list of judgments about me in a few short seconds,  yet she was not willing to make a genuine connection with me.  She was quick to hand me printed information about my salvation, but she did not seem willing to enter into a real conversation with me to know who I really was.  She looked at me briefly with a touch of pity mixed with condescension. AND I HATE IT WHEN PEOPLE DO THAT.  I am not sure how I can ever forget that day. What could she really know of my generation and what could she know of all we had suffered? 

Not too long after that, I found myself in a similar situation with someone in my family from the GI Generation who will go unnamed.  He used to corner me and bully me throughout my childhood and adolescence when no one else was around - sometimes about religious issues.  We were at a restaurant one day and everyone in my family had already left except for him and me.  He got right up in my face, and with a disdainful smirk he told me that Kurt was definitely in hell and that my generation was crooked and depraved and that the more I took part in all that my generation was about, the more likely I was to also end up in hell.  I was so angry I wanted to start throwing punches.  But he was a person that made it impossible to fight back - he only made it possible for you to be silent and angry, and resentful.  That moment has stayed with me - I'm not sure how I can ever forget it.  What could he really know of my generation and what could he really know of all we had suffered?  

I've worked hard to try and forgive both of those people, and when the resentment flares back up in me again, I work to forgive them again.  I work to forgive them because I want to free myself from the anger, and because they didn't know the extent to which they were hurting me.  Ironically, they both ultimately helped me - they taught me a valuable lesson of what kind of Christian to NOT be - what kind of a person not to be.  I have made more steps toward forgiving them when I realize that they must have a whole back story of their own - a story of all the monsters in their lives who had bullied and manipulated and damaged them, a story of all the disappointments and heartbreaks and betrayals that inevitably come with this life.  And what could I really know of their generations and all they had suffered?  

When it comes to generational rifts, what I want is what I have always wanted since I was a "rebellious" teenager: to have real dialogue with others about who my generation is and who their generations are.  I feel like if I can just begin to understand what makes people who they are and why they do the things they do, then I can begin to forgive.  I feel like if people at least begin to make an effort to understand me, then we might have potential for true reconciliation.  Otherwise, we may just keep saying the same things and getting nowhere - like we're shouting out against stone walls.

I am only barely beginning to understand forgiveness in this life even though I have worked so hard at it for so long.  A quote that gets me thinking is by the philosopher Blaise Pascal:  "To understand is to forgive." That's a tall order when you are a generation that feels like it's been given the short end of the stick with little to no apologies, and a lot of unwarranted criticism.  That's an enormous task when you have to thanklessly shoulder the mistakes and indulgences of those who came before you.  It's especially hard when you've heard the stories of older generations a million times, and are then chastised because you aren't as "good" or "honest" as they supposedly are (or were).  It's exhausting to be overshadowed.  It makes you not want to forgive - it makes you want to give up.

Kurt Cobain had some things to say about all the damage he saw coming from his parents' generation and how it affected the Xers.  He watched society disintegrate all around him in his youth.  First he saw it happening in his friends' lives, and with barely enough time to brace himself, it happened in his own.

I'm not saying I know how one person can entirely forgive another when the wrong has been extraordinary.  I'm not saying I understand how forgiveness fully works when powerful people take advantage of the powerless and threaten them into silence.  In extreme cases, maybe there is no way to understand.  In those cases, sometimes people miraculously find ways to forgive even without understanding.  I'm not saying I know how one generation can forgive another when all the wrongs added up over time have been incalculable.  When the damage of the selfish choices of one generation are so astronomical that the next generation has to spend their whole lives cleaning up the mess, when the fallout is that bad, I think maybe it changes the very fabric of the universe, and it may only be God Himself who can fully heal that level of damage.   And my finite mind cannot know how that works - I'm only saying that I think I get how to begin to forgive -- I think I may get how to begin to understand.  

I'd had this experience with Kurt Cobain where I saw enormous pain and exhaustion in his eyes and I felt so much empathy for him.  The people of my own generation who I feel wronged me in some really astounding ways have, strangely, had a lot things in common with Kurt.  I've noticed this as I've read about his life and watched documentaries.  I feel that my heart is telling me that part of the work I am supposed to do in my life is to take the empathy I felt for Kurt and use it toward others who have hurt me.  This helps me to begin to understand, to begin to forgive.

You can listen to interviews or read articles about Kurt and get the impression that he was a kind, altruistic person and you can read things that make him sound pretty scary.  People are complex.  On one hand, he publicly stood against various forms of bigotry and violence and used his music as a vehicle for that message. At the same time, he has a story of doing things that many would find pretty shocking.  The only first- hand experience I have is what I saw for myself in the moment that he and I made a connection, and in that moment I saw something genuine.  In that moment, I saw what seemed like a good person.  Just like that booklet I was handed in the 1990s, there are now websites out there that I won't link to that have long lists of Kurt's sins.  I should not and cannot judge him or his life, I can only look at my own list of sins and shortcomings - and it's not a short list either.

. . .

I was a Protestant Christian for a long time, who often had evangelical leanings.  I still love to visit evangelical churches. But I have been an Orthodox Christian now for a decade.  Part of the reason I became Orthodox is because of the two stories above - of the two specific people I mentioned that I've had to forgive as they bombarded me with "religion" that was devoid of love.  Fortunately, I have seen people in every branch of Christianity that live out their religion very full of love.  There are a lot of Protestants, Catholics and others who believe that there are paths to God outside of Christianity.   And that was part of my draw to Orthodoxy - the belief that we can't say exactly who is going to heaven or hell - we just try to focus on our own weaknesses and wrongdoings.  In other words, we focus on allowing God to work in us instead of focusing so much on the salvation of others. By some people's standards, Kurt Cobain met the criteria of someone who would be sent to hell.  At one point in his younger years, he was a devout Christian, at another point he renounced his faith....

Renouncing your faith is a pretty serious thing theologically speaking.  I would like to believe that what he renounced was empty "religiousness" - outward externals that don't have much to do with God.  I'd like to believe that he renounced the judgment and apathy that can come with empty religiousness that can be seen sometimes in unloving people around us, and not God Himself.  My heart and my religion both allow me to believe that in spite of externals it is possible that Kurt may have continued to have a connection with God that no one knows hardly anything about. Christianity taken back to its early roots teaches that we can never put someone in a box - that we can never judge the sum of someone's life or choices because the human soul is infinite.

There were one or two Nirvana videos that came on in my teenage years that would cause me to turn off the TV halfway through the video and exclaim to an empty room, "Is nothing sacred?!"  Taken at face value, some of Kurt's artistic expressions have deeply offended me over the years.   If you look at some of those expressions through a different lens however, it may be he was trying to wake people up - to do the most shocking things he could think of to make us look at the darkness in our own hearts when we become tempted to judge away in the name of religion.  I really don't know where he was coming from with some of his lyrics and images in his videos.  Any hint of a mockery of Christ or the crucifixion is THE most offensive thing you could ever do in my presence or in the presence any devout Christian, so it makes the whole struggle to understand his message difficult at times. 

I still don't listen to Nirvana much.  If their music comes on the radio, I usually change the station, though sometimes I don't.  I don't feel a deep connection with the music other than for how it represents a very important aspect of my generation.  And, looking back on it all twenty years later, I see the significance of how all of it affected me.


All in a moment, you can sometimes see how all of space and time is connected - like how the pain of Kurt's eyes at the concert in 1993 was almost identical to  the pain of the boy's eyes huddling in the brick doorway more than a decade later.  All in a moment, you can get a small glimpse with our finite minds of how infinite the human soul really is.  All in a moment, we can get a sense of the universe stretching out and unfolding lessons for us encrypted in the leaves, and in the sky, and in the waters:  that we can at least begin to understand, and this is how we begin to forgive.  When I begin to forgive, I am on my way to more fully forgiving because I believe God can bridge the gap.  He can help me to be less ignorant of the pain of others.  He can help me be more full of a nonjudgmental love.  I find forgiveness difficult.  I have a tendency to hold grudges when I've been hurt deeply.  But I'm working on that.

If I can just take one step in the right direction, if I can just begin to understand that I am beginning the process - I am on my way, and grace can carry me and take care of the rest.  If even that one first step of beginning to understand people from other generations seems too overwhelming, start with your own generation.  We have an intrinsic understanding of each other, because most of us have experienced the exact same highs and lows.  Having empathy for those you are most familiar with will give you the inertia to understand the back story of other generations - of what has made people become who they are....

Photos above of Lake Washington in early Summer - just down the street from Kurt Cobain's old house - Seattle, Washington 

(c) 2013 - photography and writing by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Cobain Chronicles - Part Two: The Concert

It was the early fall of 1993. Nirvana was on tour and I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.   All of us were in shock to find out that they were coming to our city that coming October because major bands generally didn't come to our city at that time.  Even better, the tickets were less than $20.

The show was at the convention center - a pretty small venue compared to the big city arenas Nirvana could have filled up that night if they had chosen to.  This was a show with no assigned seats, just a general admission open floor -- so if you were brave enough, you could just shove your way forward through the current of the crowd and watch from the very front row for as long as you could hold yourself there.  I ended up seeing a lot of the show from different parts of the front row - sometimes I would be up there for a whole song before I'd get shoved further back, sometimes not. Because they had chosen to come to our usually ignored city and because they had charged so little for the ticket, I felt I needed to show them some sort of gratitude and respect and that was what ended up causing a certain event to happen that night....

It was a Tuesday. October 19, 1993.

The show began, and with it was all the excitement of hearing songs live that you had heard many times on the radio.  The room was pulsing with explosive energy.  Little did we know that night what a profound collective experience was taking place - that this was Nirvana's last tour, and this was one of the last shows they would ever perform.

Some of us were surprised when Krist Noveselic decided to play his accordion live.  I don't think most people in the crowd even knew he played the accordion - a lot of people were just there for some really hard rock and the hope of seeing some guitars get smashed up - not for quirky moments like that. Some rude guy from the audience took off his shoe and threw it really hard at Krist.  It was a rough crowd that night.  I made my way right up to Krist from the front row and looked at him for a moment with an "I'm sorry - we're not all mean people here" look on my face.  He looked surprised at me and kind of annoyed in general, and I don't blame him.

Nirvana played a lot of the songs they were well known for that night.  Many of the songs we heard that night later became known as part of their epic Unplugged performance....

That October night in 1993 was a pretty rambunctious and crazy night. I could feel an amazing energy, but I could feel also a certain darkness there, which was, for the most part, connected to the mosh pits. The epic mosh pits....

Back in the early 90s, as many Gen Xers know, a mosh pit at its best was full of bouncing happy people excited and just having a generally fun time. At their worst, they felt like a vortex ready to swallow people whole. Usually a mosh pit was somewhere in between those two extremes. In those days, many mosh pits were a fair game place for you to shove or in some cases, hit or stomp on other people. It was a place where you could just let out all your rage which is convenient if you were walking around in life angry like most Gen Xers were. You could usually tell what sort of mosh pit it was by the energy emanating from it as you stood on the outside of the circle. When it came to what I call the vortex type of mosh pits, there is something particularly sad about the way people would enter into that space - you know when you go in, that you could get a bone broken, that you could get trampled and end up in the hospital, and that there were always those stories in the back of your mind of those who had been killed in mosh pits.  To enter a mosh pit - a dark and angry vortex mosh pit - means that you have nothing to lose.   I've been injured multiple times in mosh pits - I had scars that took years to fade, and bones in my foot that still hurt sometimes from the combat boot stomps of bigger, angrier Gen Xers. Over time, people and bands started taking a stand against moshing, considering the many injuries and deaths that had occurred over the years. The whole idea of going into a mosh pit can all seem ridiculous unless you are angry - so angry that it overcomes your fear.  In some ways, entering a mosh pit was a rite of passage to prove how tough you were. For some reason, I always used to feel that I needed to prove that.  A lot of it was crazy, but that was the era, and the live music of Nirvana was just connected to moshing.

So the concert continued...songs went on and people went by, mostly of faces I did not recognize, some of them people I knew.  Nirvana played for what seemed like a pretty long time.  I was walking around in the back of the crowd and had just said hello to an old friend.

And then it happened.

It was maybe halfway or more so through the show.  A fast song ended and a slower song started playing (though now I can't remember which one) and the strangest thing took place.  I was shocked to see that no one was standing in front of the middle of the stage.  I could see before me by the opening in the audience that I had the opportunity to walk right up to Kurt.  There was just this enormous hole in the crowd - and I was able to just walk right up to the front of the stage - to the very center where Kurt was.  I can only guess that a mosh pit had dissolved in that spot as the music had gone from a fast song to a slow one.  Surprisingly, people hadn't yet noticed that they could fill in that empty space.

But I noticed.  And I knew that the universe was bending to me in that moment and that it would be crazy for me to not accept what was being offered to me.  So I took the opportunity.

I was not some hardcore fan. Others I knew from school were obsessed with Nirvana, but not me.  I just knew that the music was significant, and that the moment was significant.  I was not some starstruck adolescent girl worshiping at Cobain's feet.  I just felt really grateful that they had brought their music to our city, that had decided to play at a pretty small venue when they could have been playing at some big city stadium and I wanted to show some respect for that....

So I began to walk slowly, as if entering a sacred place, through the empty space toward Kurt who was front and center on stage, sitting down, strumming his guitar and singing.  As I got closer he seemed so different than he had appeared from further away - he was thinner and more fragile than from a distance - like all of his bulk was just coming from his clothes. The stage lights lit up the fuzz on his sweater like some sort of halo.  From a distance he seemed like he was this amazing, larger than life figure.  To be up close I could see how he was hunched over like an old man.   He seemed tired. Horribly tired.  I stood there as he kept strumming his guitar, he was taking a pause from singing and his eyes were scanning the audience from one side to the other until his eyes stopped right in the middle of that vacant space and saw me standing there in front of him.  And that is when our eyes locked.  And that moment will stay forever with me because I did not expect to see what I saw in his eyes.  He seemed to have this profound and enormous pain - so much that it jolted me to my core - way more than I would've expected from someone who seemed to be living this 'amazing' rock-and-roll lifestyle.  People who have had a lot of pain in life can often times instantly and intuitively recognize that in each other.  It was even bordering on uncomfortably long for both of us to keep staring but neither of us could look away for a long time - it was truly as if both of us could sense that we were supposed to be having this moment together at this exact place and time.  This was not some romantic gesture.  This was not a gaze of attraction.  It was a platonic moment.  It was a human moment.  I'd be lying to say it wasn't a rush to be in the presence of someone so famous, but honestly that was very, very secondary - what was important is that it was as if we were recognizing a similar mutual suffering in one another. We kept looking straight at each other until he had to look down at his guitar for a chord change or maybe because it was becoming more than awkward for us to just keep staring at each other for such a crazy long amount of time.

I stood there for a little longer, amazed at what had just taken place and even shocked that the universe allowed me to experience this moment in time. While fans sometimes bring a poster board with a message on it to a concert for the band to read from afar, that was never my style. While some radio contest could have maybe won me five minutes backstage with Kurt where we could've exchanged a few words, I probably would've just said some cliched things he'd already heard from fans a thousand times before.   In order to have made a genuine connection that night, it needed to be the way it was - exactly the way it was - a nonverbal connection.  A friend of mine recently shared her memory of that night and said she remembered Kurt seeming distant, and looking down a lot like he didn't want to be there.  Strangely though, in that moment he seemed so attentive and was willing to connect with me.

I turned around to walk back and find my friends and this bullyish group of guys had been watching me the whole time.  As I walked further away from the stage, the largest bully hit me in the shoulder and yelled, "HEY!!! You and Kurt old FRIENDS or something?" And I lifted my fist to hit him back but my conscience told me not to.  So I hid my fist behind my back like it could come out and strike like a snake any time and I walked up to him with all the fury of hell on my face.  I got right up in his face as he glared down at me and I yelled "NO! I was just showing some RESPECT." And he was so shocked at my response that his jaw fell and he stumbled backward.  And I walked away, feeling like I might be the toughest, coolest girl on the planet even if just for a few moments.

When the concert was over late that Tuesday night, every bone in my body ached, and my ears were ringing so incredibly loud.  There were scraps of trash strewn out everywhere and people's belongings were left behind all over the floor - sweaty flannel shirts, crushed up paper cups, cigarette butts, scraps of paper and all kinds of other things.  Somewhere on the floor was the metal cross necklace that someone had ripped off my neck in a mosh pit but I could not find it.  The show had come to an end, but the energy was still in the room.  I remember getting one last glance at the amps that all the sound had come from, I remember watching all the people pouring out of the building to go back to the parking lot - some people I knew - mostly strangers, all Gen Xers.  I remember thinking to myself how I needed to pause and truly take in that moment.  I knew that the night had been more than significant, though I could not have known that night what a piece of history was taking place, I could only sense it.

And I knew I needed to not forget.

(c) 2013 by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Cobain Chronicles - Part One: The Radio

The first time I ever heard Nirvana was at 6:00 am on a very cold morning.  I don't know why, but for some reason I remember it was a Tuesday.   Little did I know that it would again be a Tuesday that I would stand face to face with Kurt Cobain only two years later.  And little did all of us know that he would die at the height of his fame when he was far too young - on a Tuesday - April 5, 1994. 

In the 80s and 90s, I had this old-school 70s-style wood veneer alarm radio with glowing red digits sitting on my nightstand.  There was that unsettling, electrical sound that the alarm radio would make that was something like thunder, or something like when you accidentally leave a fork on a plate and put it in the microwave. That brief electrical buzz you can sometimes hear when you turn on a radio seemed amplified on my alarm for some reason.  When I heard that familiar electrical sound that Tuesday morning, it was literally the moment on the timeline at which one era of my life ended and another began.  That was fall 1991 - and I was just starting high school.  As I heard Nirvana for the first time, the music had such energy and intensity, and was so entirely new, that I knew that the zeitgeist had changed.  As dawn was trying to break over the horizon that morning, my 1970s style alarm told me that the decade of the 1980s had truly come to an end and the 1990s had truly begun.  I could sense all this even after just hearing a few bars of the music - and even while still half asleep.  Middle school had come to an end and the music that many now call 'canned' or 'factory made' was no longer going to fully dominate the charts.  I was starting high school right as alternative music was becoming more well known - well enough known that it was creating its own subculture.  Two eras of music were split up neatly between two different eras of my life - middle school and high school -  and all the while my music collection was switching over from cassette tapes to CDs.

Everything was changing.

While Nirvana's sound was new and enthralling, I didn't feel the resonance that I did with some other bands, so I only listened to them occasionally.  Yet, from the first moment I heard their music, I knew there was something more than significant about them.   And before the tragic story unfolded that we all now know, I specifically knew there was something more than significant about Kurt. While the timeline that led up to Kurt's fame is a long story full of twists and turns, the timeline between his fame and death was just really a few short years.  He was a quintessential Gen Xer - he had the classic Gen X childhood story of having a good life until his parents divorced which caused him to have to fend for himself from then on.  This, along with many other problems of the era, seemed to contribute to the downward spiral of his life. 

Many Gen Xers ask each other the question: "Where were you when you got the news that Kurt Cobain had died?"  As all Gen Xers remember, in April of 1994, after Kurt's body was found, radio DJs all over the world were making the announcement in between songs.  The tragedy was announced and covered by MTV VJs from the youth of Gen X - Kurt Loder, Tabitha Soren, and others.  There also a mention that Cobain was, on some level, a representation of every young person at the time - that we might all end up like him if no one reached out to us in our darkest hours.  My life had become a train wreck in the months leading up to his death and I very well might have ended up like him.  The week he died, I had been busy with the work of trying to get my life back together. 

It was an April afternoon when I was on my way to an interview for a summer job.  I was driving down a familiar road.  Some Stone Temple Pilots song was on the radio and came to an end.  I had a lot on my mind so I wasn't paying much attention to it.  The local DJ came on and announced the news, which grabbed my attention fiercely, and it hit me as hard or harder than any bad news I'd ever received in my life at that point.  It almost knocked the breath out of me.  I will, of course, never forget that there was this space, like there was this nothingness that I didn't know what to do with....

I could hear that electrical sound my alarm clock would make echoing in my head, like the eerie sound of thunder when you can't tell exactly how close it is.   I would've pulled the car over, but I couldn't risk being late to my job interview.  I worked hard to stay focused on the road.  It felt that my heart was in a vice grip. And it felt like my car was no longer driving on the road, but instead that it was somehow floating above the ground - like I was, for several moments, not connected to the earth but disassociated from it as I drove.  Everything felt surreal.  I had to pull myself together and quickly wipe off the relentless waterfall of tears on my face from the parking lot and act like everything was perfectly and wonderfully fine so that I could go into the job interview.  And while I didn't consider Nirvana one of my favorite bands, I was more than distraught and utterly crushed at that moment.  And there is a whole back story as to why... 

Haunting me still is that electrical sound from the alarm radio - the sound that buzzes through my head in moments when bad news is delivered and life is, at least in that moment, more than I feel can take. 

And haunting us all still is a much larger electrical sound....Kurt changing history as he played his chords on metal strings.  It was the unfurling of the angst.  It was the gritty elegance.  It was the charged up, unconstrained energy of the early 90s.

(c) 2013 writing and photo by Chloe Koffas  - all rights reserved.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Regrets of the Dying

Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware is an article that keeps finding me to teach me lessons I should not ignore.  I've seen it posted by multiple friends on social media over the course of many weeks.  Every time I take a look at it, I think about it for days. While many have seen it, it is the kind of article with so much wisdom in it that it should be read more than once.   It was written by a hospice nurse about the people she cared for who were dying.  She reminds us that all we have in the final weeks is love and relationships.

These were the most common regrets of her patients:

1) I wish I'd lived a life true to myself, not to the life others expected of me.
2) I wish I hadn't worked so hard. 
3) I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5) I wish I had let myself be happier.

For the full article and a fuller description of the previous five points, click this link:

Top Five Regrets of the Dying

I recently stumbled across a memorial page for my high school. I was horrified as the name of a friend caught my eye who had recently passed away that I was right about to try to reconnect with on Facebook.  That's got to be the worst feeling in the world.  Whenever I see the words people leave in social media or elsewhere about friends who have passed on, I see these two common themes: First, they are glad when they had one last chance to reconnect with a person. They say things like: "I'm glad I called her that one last time."  Or "I'm glad we made the time to go have a cup of coffee together since that was the last time I ever saw him."  Second, there is the regret of not having made the time with statements like, "I wish I had taken the time to find out where he was," or "I wish we could've seen each other just one more time."  I actually did see my friend "one more time".  I ran into her at the Walgreens we used to go back when we were kids when we needed to buy nail polish or magazines with our allowance money.  We were both out of high school at that one more time moment and we talked about where we were in life. We seemed to make a genuine and important connection.  I hugged her and I walked away excited for her future, and glad to have seen her, but with a strange feeling.  Now I know why.  My friend was a a young Gen Xer born in the late 70s.  I remember spending lots of time with her in the summers hanging out in the New Mexico sun, having her over to play Barbies, walking home from school with her countless times from the bus stop while we talked about TV, music and other pop culture -- now all considered vintage. She was the quintessential 80s child - the old photo I have of her in my album is of her dancing, wearing a side ponytail.

While I'm glad that such loving and thoughtful people have taken time to add names and memories to my high school's memorial page, I am haunted by it.  The part that haunts me is this:  while I was in high school in the early part of the 1990s, I could feel the past permeating the hallways of my school.  It was as if, on some level, I could feel the lingering joys and sorrows of those who had been been there long before me - maybe even the hopes or dreams of the first graduating class of my school in 1970.  It seemed at times that I could feel the remnant memories of the kids who had been there in the height of all that was from the 80s - the 1984 high school kids who had  seen The Breakfast Club in the theater as they lived that story in real life.  It's strange the way buildings hold the feelings of those who have been inside them, archiving them for those yet to come, whispering to us in the present not to forget the past.  When I look at the list on the memorial page by year of those who have died, there is an especially long list of those who graduated in the early 1980s - these people all would have been first wave Gen Xers.  While I see homicide, suicide, car accidents and other things, many of the causes of death are not listed.  I wonder what all went so terribly wrong.  When I see the pictures of those kids who sat in the same desks I did many years before me, I am strangely relieved to finally see their faces - to finally know what they looked like, because for so long, I could feel what they had left behind - whispering to us in the present not to forget the past.  

I wonder if the kids who go there now can feel the remnants of what we left behind - the 25th graduating class of the school - I wonder if the Grunge Era still floats above busy hallways, if our disappointments still hide below the bleachers in the gym, if my old locker holds the fear I used to feel when I would take my books out - realizing I wasn't going to get into a prestigious college.  It makes me think so much of what we leave behind us - of how important it is to be true to our hearts in this life, of how much time we can spend worrying about things that ultimately don't matter.  And I am whispering to my past self from this present moment, a message to my high school self: Don't live out what others expect of you -  listen to your heart instead.  It's okay to let yourself be happy.  Don't work so terribly hard and worry so terribly much.  Stay in touch with your true friends.  Stay in touch with the true you.  

Remember the regrets of the dying.  Remember those who have influenced you. Be true to yourself and to those in your life.  This means telling people how much you love and respect them, however those words take shape.  Sometimes saying "thank you" or "I'm sorry" is in order, as I find old friends from different eras of my life and reconnect with them.  Say what needs to be said.  If the right moment comes, you may be able to tell someone how they hurt you -- you may be given a new opportunity to forgive or to be forgiven.  Don't just assume someone doesn't want to get back in touch with you.  You might be surprised.  "Reach out to some people." my wise friend Laura told me a couple of years ago who I am now reconnected with because she reached out to me.  "You've got nothing to lose."

(c) 2013 writing and photography by Chloe