Urban Archeology – The Syringe Piece

This is my all-time favorite piece by my brother. I love it. It’s hanging in my office/dining room. It’s a process piece – total meta hipster shit (DID YOU HEAR THAT, BROTHER?!) It feels like being in his head, in his contemplation, in his cool methodical treatment of emotionally charged items.

The first time Zeke showed me his Urban Archeology series I got chills down my spine and almost cried. His attention to the cruel minutiae of so many ordinary and sometimes hostile lives was as sensitive as it was honest. The artifacts he collected (used syringes, spent bullets, empty dime bags, child barrettes, pacifiers, and stripper cards, etc) were painfully intimate and seeing them presented without oration or commentary was telling in itself. The care with which Zeke collected each item, dating them, labeling them, and preserving them was exquisite.

The narration that emerges is not judgemental of the people whose lost artifacts he collected but definitely makes a statement about a society in which these are the common detritus of city lives. Neighborhoods riddled with drive-byes are also full of children of all ages but all mature beyond their years. The drugs being trafficked are as common as to be no different than an exchange of advil – except for the body count.

I believe there are any number of ways people can interpret Zeke’s intention with his Urban Archeology series. There’s no wrong way, really, except for the ones lacking nuance and depth. My brother wasn’t always articulate with words (he really was, actually) but his greatest subtlety of observation and commentary are in his artwork and photographs. He speaks loudly through them. Loudly but not necessarily obviously.

Everything my brother ever did or said is obviously colored for me by the fact that I grew up with him, that I had a vantage point from which to understand him in ways only a sister can. This vantage point is extremely biased by my personal perceptions of things. Our sister Tara also knows Zeke intimately in ways that others will never know, including me. She has her own experiences with him colored by her unique perceptions.

The amazing thing, though, is that there really is a universal Ezekiel that Tara, me, our mom, his closest friends, acquaintances, and new friends all see – an unchanging truth about him. This is reflected in everything he’s left behind him for us to hang onto. We are deeply fortunate in how much he’s left for us to hang onto.

Today is the first anniversary of his death and I know this is going to get softer as time passes, but it fucking sucks today. For trivia freaks (<— clown spectrum shit right there) he died on August 29th, 2016 but his official date of death according to the Los Angeles coroner is August 30th, 2016 because that’s when she was called to the apartment and pronounced.

Now when I think about Zeke I wonder how much of the work I hoped to accomplish will get done before I die. I wonder if I’ll ever finish the projects that are most important to me but which are the hardest to sit down and work on. I wonder if what I’ve finished so far is enough for my family and loved ones to hang onto, to derive comfort from. I started writing Suicide for Beginners just before Zeke died and I’ve been in too dark a place to face it this whole year. It’s so important to me, if I die before I write it – who’s going to pick up the gauntlet on mine and all of my tribe’s behalf?

Those aren’t productive thoughts. Those are questions with no answers.

For so many years Zeke didn’t find his voice in his art and when he did it was powerful – IS powerful. His photographs and his Urban Archeology pieces are poignant, current, and charged. He found himself in his art through his employment and I never would have seen it coming but he developed a passionate focus he never had before putting up advertising in liquor stores across the country. He was evolving his work into photographs of city-scapes he frequented for work and playing with putting photographs onto wood pieces.

I’m still grappling with some dark feelings going back into the annals of time in which I believed it was my fault I couldn’t keep him safe from abuse and harm when we were kids. I don’t know how long I’ll feel that. It feels atom-deep. I’ve felt my whole life like I let him down. It’s shaped who I’ve become today in a good way, but when it mattered to his scrappy little thug self – I was scared shitless of everything including my own reflection.

Today I’m not afraid to face abuse, bullies, or anyone preying on those weaker than themselves. I’m scared of some kinds of conflict, like returning shoes,  but when it comes to helping someone else, when it comes to standing up for someone vulnerable I’m no longer scared and it’s because I couldn’t stand up for my brother when he was most vulnerable.

There’s no way my brother was universally loved, because no one is, but I’ll tell you something I know for damn sure – Zeke could charm the pants off Satan and get him to pour a cold Foster’s beer. It also gives me great comfort knowing how deeply loved he was by so many people, what wonderfully long and solid friendships he forged in his life. He struggled so hard with so many things but he had no shortage of loyal and loving friends. Friends so wonderful they’ve embraced us too – so much fucking love.

I want to hug my brother more than anything else I want in the world right now.

Instead I’ll keep looking up at his syringe piece and remember how excited he was to be working on this series. I’ll remember how his eyes lit up like they did over art, avocado toast, and music.

My Advice To You, Old Thing

beautiful brother

My advice to you, old thing, is to never stop digging for Roman coins and arrowheads in the fallow fields. Never stop chasing butterflies or running from bees under the hot gold light of late afternoon. Never stop calling the Jerusalem crickets up from the center of the earth or we all might get too comfortable and cease to peddle the earth round in its necessary orbit. Never stop mapping the stars with your amateur telescope or we might all fall from the sky like deflated polyester clowns.

My advice to you, old thing, is to float your goddamn boat among the crowded crocodile waters without flinching or waving, like you’ve always done, hiding in the obvious infested waters until the cavalcade of teeth has gnashed itself so thin you can swim in your smooth fragile skin without a scratch to the island with the best coconuts. To the island of drums and gongs with no repercussions. To the island where your pale skin never burns and the sands always catch your bones in soft protective squalls.

My advice to you, old thing, is to play the whole song out to the bitter end. This is the place where golf balls disappear into the ether, the place we want to look but can’t even reach with flesh and bone because it’s two inches past the living. This is the place where Barbie dolls are abandoned for sick crowns of dense brush pocked with burrs that will bite into our skulls so hard we’d trade our souls to escape the pain. But those who hold fast, who play out the whole song to the bitter end, they’re the ones who reap the truth, the ones who will get to sleep the good sleep.

My advice to you, old thing, is to let your shackles crumble down around your spirit, let go, let it all fucking go now and don’t carry anything with you to your new life. You’ve watched attics burst into flame, you’ve felt citadels of trust crush down into layers of pain so bad you couldn’t speak of it again but in dissected parts. You invested in the silence like you invested in other people’s hopes and dreams. The truth kept coming, kept coloring your walls, your film, your canvas, your wheels. Let it all go now, let it all drift off like rain evaporating in the hot dry valley of death.

My advice to you, old thing, is to know the worth of your bones to those who are still living. The weight of them in our arms is heavier than the whole of the earth without you in it.

Blood is the Dual Source of Life and Strife

the fight night

I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is on realizing fresh that someone you loved will never walk through your door again and being abjectly sad about it. I’m tired of it already. But every time my life starts to feel almost normal again I realize it’s because for a second I forgot my brother is dead.

Then my brain chants “my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead” and I want to shout this at everyone around me and I want all this to be over with. How people deal with loss like this over and over and over again is a huge dark mystery to me. One I know will visit itself upon me if I don’t die before everyone else at this point.

I’ve known many people who’ve died, folks, but I’ve never felt this way about it before. No anger, no feelings of unfairness or anything like that. This shit happens every day, and yet, this time it’s my brother and a part of me is also dead because of it.

This is the story of life, right? Everything about it is normal, rational, ordinary, and necessary. We all gotta do this thing where we let go of our skin and bones and become something new. Air, maybe, dust probably. We feed the fishes or the flowers or we pollute them with all the chemicals we’re pumped full of if we’ve been embalmed in the modern way. This is not an ad for ecologically sound burial practices, but it could be. My brother was cremated without being filled with toxins first.

I don’t want to cry any more. I know I’m going to cry some more. I know this is normal for most people. This is the story of loss. Our feelings erupt out of us at inopportune moments, we jockey for privacy and concealment in grief because it’s uncomfortable for everyone.

Zeke’s memorial is this Saturday and I’m terrified of it. I’m so tired of grief and realizing at weird moments that he’s dead, as though I hadn’t totally realized it before and my brain chants “my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead” until I want to give myself an Appalachian lobotomy*.

It’s only been a month and a few days. Pretty fucking fresh still.

I love that my brother and I shared a taste for taking candid and distressing pictures of ourselves bleeding.

bramble legs

I have so many pictures like this I’m too tired to search for. Me bleeding. Anything bleeding. The Scenes my kid has left me to find where I’m looking for bodies stuffed in closets because of the giant pools of blood spatter he leaves me courtesy of his epic bloody noses. We both loved to take pictures of the underbelly of life. Around us, but also using ourselves as absurd disturbing subjects.

what's left at night

There’s a great photograph of Zeke sitting on a toilet outside with his pants down and smoking a cigarette. I love it. I don’t have a copy of it, but I cherish it because it captures his enjoyment of the natural theatrics and humor of life without an impeding vanity.

I admit that I will take a hundred selfies to get one that’s flattering. That’s vanity. But I also have taken and shared a million unflattering pictures of myself for the humor of it. Life’s a stage, so have fun with it and with yourself. Take yourself too seriously and you miss so many opportunities to let go and laugh, to discover and rediscover and then dig graves for our ability to revel in the ridiculous.

I’m not crying right now, for anyone who’s curious. I’m listening to Bob Dylan while I write this and am simply enjoying counting the things I had in common with my brother.

I have other brothers I will never know the same way.

I don’t have room to be sad about that right now. If any of them were to seek me out and want to know me I would throw my arms open to them, my world of little brothers, but I am separated from them by an expanse larger than mere oceans.

I truly thought I would be able to handle this mourning better than I actually am.

I’ll tell you what, though, it’s constant balm to me to know how deeply loved my little brother was by so many people.

I have to believe that he always knew, his whole life, how much I loved him because I never lost an opportunity to tell him and show him. Except between 1987 and 1989. I have to believe that he knew there was never a moment I didn’t value him and love him and wish I was cool enough to spend time with him outside the family paradigm. I wasn’t. He never chose to spend time with me outside the family paradigm.

It’s okay, it’s alright.

Goodnight.

 

*A quarter of my ancestors were uneducated Irish Appalachians so fuck you if you feel all offended. My mountain people were ignorant and seriously unhappy people who enjoyed visiting their misery on others almost for sport. So fuck them too.