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

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