It's been a tough year. So far we have lost Prince, David Bowie, and my friend's dad Merril Bingham.
I don't mean to minimize the grief of the people who knew these guys personally by talking about what they meant to me as someone who never met them, but they did mean a lot to me. I can imagine how much they meant exponentially to their close friends and family.
First we lost Bowie.
For whatever reason—his presumed other-worldliness and immortality?—this was a jolt. Stardust, dead? Radio silence. I cried a lot. It surprised me. You rarely realize the things that have been the most formative in your life—things like Rocky I-III, primary songs, cereal commercials, and Fashion.
Bowie was singular and his vision is truly unique. In a world of Star Trek reboots and Ghostbusters makeovers, we forget what original concepts look like. Sometimes they look pretty weird.
I've been watching MTV since day one, so Bowie invaded my psyche like Snuffleupagus invaded my imagination. When you think of it, which one's existence is more likely?
I don't know why, but I never saw Labyrinth until I was an adult. (I picked sides as a kid: Coke, not Pepsi. Burger King, not McDonalds. NeverEnding Story, not Labyrinth.) But David Bowie's music videos are just as fanciful and formative—Blue Jean. China Girl. (If I like their race, how can that be racist?) Modern Love is my favorite song from that time period. But I went back (and you can go way back and it's all good). His songs are like stories and kids love stories.
I knew Bowie was a wild man. The stuff I heard about him was harder to imagine or understand than his vision of the earth in his song 5 Years. Says Bowie of his early life, "I was very promiscuous."
But I find the arc of his mortal life beautiful. Married to Iman for the last 24 years, settled into fatherhood, still creative, still prolific—he aged and he was interesting. He wrote a lot of music that is important to a lot of people. His song about a spaceman went to space and came back to us via satellite like this. Whut? Bowie was the real deal and he left a mark.
Here's what I learned from Bowie:
Wear what you want
Middle age and beyond can be a creative and defining time
Pursue what you like (I joined a roller derby league the day Bowie died, for example)
If you feel like a freak (or a kook) you're not alone
Different is fine; different is lovely
A few days after Bowie died we lost Alan Rickman too. Also sad, but this didn't really effect me. I had already mourned Snape's death in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
In February my friend Josh's dad passed away unexpectedly. I didn't really know Merril Bingham. Initially, I experienced the sadness of his loss only through Josh and for Josh. I didn't lose anything—I never even met the guy. But his life and death profoundly changed me at his funeral, which was beautiful.
Brother Bingham was neither rich nor famous–a father of 8, a city engineer for Provo. I don't think he was a perfect man but he lived a meaningful life and within his sphere of influence he was beloved and helpful. He changed the world—one guy from Provo changed the world for the better just by being a nice guy, working hard, serving in his church, and loving his family. All 8 of his children spoke at the funeral—their different personalities highlighted charmingly (Josh is clearly the funniest one) with each short talk. Merril Bingham was beloved and important and all he did was his best. That's all it takes to make a legacy and it inspired me. I left his funeral sad for those who knew him, but personally motivated to be a better person. Merril Bingham was a devout Mormon who served his neighbors and ward his whole life. One of his friends eulogized him this way:
"Is the Gospel true? Look at the man."
Here's what Merril Bingham taught me:
Love my family
Spoil my grandkids (when I have some!)
Make my city better
Serve willingly, happily, and with style
Pay attention to people around me and help them
If my legs were thin enough I could wear one pair of tube socks taped up around my knees and another pair over them (but they aren't so I don't need this tip)
Last week Prince was found dead at age 57. His death is so tragic because he died alone in an elevator in his house from a presumed accidental overdose of prescription medicine. Ugh. Poor Prince. I love Prince.
I imprinted on Prince in the 80s just like a baby duckling imprints on her big sister's Purple Rain album and the Purple Rain VHS tape her mama duck buys her. Prince was a marvel. Prince was a presence. Prince had a very dirty mind.
For me loving rock stars helped me understand that loving—and I mean really, deeply loving and genuinely caring about—someone isn't the same thing as endorsing their behavior. It also isn't not that. Loving and caring is on a separate plane from judging or condoning behavior. It's a weird thing to say because my love for rock stars is kind of immature, but I think they've taught me an important lesson. Of course I love my mom because she's hardworking, takes care of me, and has always been an example to me and done right by me. But I also love Prince, who has "earned" my love by virtue only of being Prince. Why do my imaginary relationships teach me as much as my real ones? Who cares. I love Prince unconditionally, Darling Nikki and all. I know how to love unconditionally in real life, too.
The mortal arc of Prince's life is beautiful to me. I think what I'm finding out is that everyone's is.
You all know Prince and his royal badness. There's much about his experience that I can't relate to. He was a virtuoso musician, successful and rich and insulated from the "real world" to some degree.
But later in life he famously quit swearing, using a swear jar at Paisley Park. He became a Jehovah's Witness and actively proselytized for his faith. He struggled to reconcile the conservative views of his church with its tenets of compassion and acceptance of other people.
I know how that feel, bro.
Prince taught me a few things too:
Give people the benefit of the doubt, you never know how much pain they're in
People can change
Even if people don't change you can love them how they are
Give, donate, help, and serve quietly without a lot of fanfare
Ask yourself, "Is there anybody I'm afraid of? Is there anybody who if I walked into a room and saw, I'd get nervous?" If not, you're cool.
(And a few other things that are beyond the PG rating of my blog)
Rest in peace Bowie, Bingham, and Prince. The world is better for you guys being in it. I'll see you on the flip side.