On the same day I saw “Avatar,” a film about worshipping Mother Earth and all her goddess archetypes; an artwork so mind-bending and thought-provoking it will outlive us all; a cultural moment so profound it has been embraced by every country in the world and described at the Golden Globes by its maker James Cameron as a film that “asks us to believe that all people are connected to each other and the earth,” Mother Earth hiccupped and killed the equivalent of the city of St. Paul in Haiti.
Both things took place simultaneously. Heaven and hell, if you will. To the tune of Sparklehorse’s “Sad and Beautiful World,” that jarring juxtaposition is what I was trying to wrap my head around the next day at the bar/restaurant where I work, a cozy cubby where the fortunate come to let their hair down and forget about their and the world’s problems. The only conclusion I could come up with on my own is that life is absurd and the best we can do is look out for each other.
A worthy lesson, but somehow even that felt insular, archaic. So as I walked around the joint, cleaning up after the diners and drinkers and reveling in the act of serving others and making sure that their chosen port in a storm met all their sensory needs, I started asking questions. First up was Brandyn Herbold, co-owner of Sigh, the yoga studio that sits across from Annunciation Catholic Grade School. Sitting by the window on Grand Avenue, she smelled of hot yoga sweat and lavender, and was wielding a how-to spirituality/creativity book called, “How many people does it take to make a difference?”
With no knowledge of my quest, Herbold — whose fiancé Mario saved her life by donating a kidney to her a few years ago — picked up the book and showed me this quote, from the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck: “If you knew that you were going to die tonight, or merely that you would have to go away and never return, would you, looking upon family and friends for the last time, see them in the same light that you have personally seen them? Would you not love as you never yet have loved?”
I jotted down the Maeterlinck quote and showed it to the pub’s co-owner and bartender for the night, Molly Barnes, a mother of two who lost her brother-in-law to tragic circumstances three years ago. She took in the words slowly as she poured a beer, then brightened and said, “Oh! I was just thinking about that Flaming Lips song.” Meaning, of course, that she had the chorus to “Do You Realize?” running through her head: “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die/And instead of saying all of your goodbyes — let them know.”
As I wiped down the bar, my inner iPod shuffled to the version of “Do You Realize?” by the New Standards, whose leader Chan Poling recently survived the death of his friend and former Suburbs band mate Bruce Allen, and whose wife, Eleanor Mondale, is fighting cancer. Then I moseyed over to a table by the 46th Street window and chatted with Sandy Parnell, wife of Brad Colbert, the public defender I wrote about in this space last week.
She was sitting with some friends, and I barged in to ask about a harrowing experience she had two summers ago, when she and her daughter Maddy and some friends were shot at by seven gunmen in the jungles of Guatemala. When I asked her if the experience changed her, she fixed my eyes and said, “Three thousand percent.”
A couple nights later, I recounted all this to my boss, Samantha, whose husband was brutally murdered three summers ago, but who, remarkably, possesses the calm demeanor of a mother, small business owner, and seer. Her reaction to my little pain sojourn? “It reminds me of that Onion headline,” she said, laughing so hard she could barely get the words out: “Massive Earthquake All Part of God’s ‘Works In Mysterious Ways’ Campaign.’”
The next night at work, I overheard a woman say to a couple of her friends, “I’m afraid of dying.” As I passed their table, I pardoned my eavesdropping and offered up all of the above. Her eyes filled with tears. When she left, I shook her hand and said something I say all the time in parting; something I’ve said since I was in high school, when I first heard an MTC bus driver say it, over and over, to his riders as they’d descend the bus. He said it softly, like he meant it, and that’s how I say it — to my family and friends, to the diners and drunks and delighted as they leave the bar, to the homeless I see in the lobby of the Salvation Army, to everybody, really. Today, as the world spins madly on, I say it to you, with feeling:
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.