Tag Archives: Seattle

Kurt Cobain: Beauty Born of Pain

Originally published in April 2015.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Long before Kurt Cobain displayed the depth of his hopelessness to the world by taking his own life, his fans had known he was suffering. Anyone who has listened to Kurt Cobain sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has heard the pain in his voice. Every Nirvana song is built upon a platform of angst—the music, the lyrics, the growls and wails all make the turmoil and drama inside Cobain’s head quite clear and accessible for anyone to hear. This transparency of feeling is what makes Nirvana’s music great and greatly beloved: it taps into a primordial well of anxiety, anger, longing and disillusionment in listeners and makes us feel as if our own personal, raw feelings are being scooped up, wallowed in and worn like warpaint by a rock god for all the world to see.

The obviousness of Cobain’s extreme pain was so evident to millions of people years before his suicide in 1994, so it comes as a shock to watch interviews with his friends and family and see how many cries for help they ignored, how little aid they sought for him, how limited were their resources in guiding him toward hope even after he became one of the most famous people in the world. The very elements of his psyche that made his art so powerful and meaningful to others were the parts that caused him the most misery. His charisma, stubbornness, insularity and difficult personality seem to have paralyzed those who should have seen him clearly and helped him most directly. These same characteristics and his remarkable ability to build a bridge between himself and other disaffected souls brought him a level of scrutiny that made him feel trapped in a dangerous tidal wave of success that he was constantly trying to ignore and retreat from. It’s as if he was hiding in plain sight.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us

All of this becomes devastatingly clear in Brett Morgen’s excellent new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck currently in limited theatrical release and soon to be shown on HBO. The first film about Cobain to have the support of his daughter Frances Bean Cobain (who is also one of the film’s executive producers) and her mother, Kurt’s widow Courtney Love, this documentary could never have been made without their treasure trove of audio recordings, videos, home movies, drawings and family photos and access to Cobain’s diaries and notebooks. All of these elements come to life in stunning animated montages that make us feel as if we’re in the room with Kurt, his mom, his wife, his baby and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl. Sometimes we feel as if we’re inside Kurt’s head as well.

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy

His violent and disturbing drawings, his remembrances of distressing moments in his personal history and the pained, sad stories of those with whom he lived and worked make abundantly clear how lonely, frightened and angry he was from a very early age. But the home movies of him as a baby and child show a heartbreakingly sweet and pretty little boy with a beautiful voice. He was hungry for attention and constantly in need of deep soothing that he rarely received. It hurts to see him so fresh and so loved, and to know that his overwhelmed parents, stepmother, siblings and friends had no idea how to deal with his enormous kinetic energy, his destructive impulses or his lack of self-control. The things he needed most—stability, understanding, unconditional love and safe ways to soothe himself—seemed nearly always out of reach, so he went for one dangerous activity, addiction or relationship after another, and that resulted in self-loathing and mental disintegration.


Two interviews really stand out among those in the film. One was with his stepmother, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. She recognized how abandoned and unwanted he must have felt when he was kicked out of his parents’ houses and moved from one to the other, then went off to a grandparent and moved back around through the family again. She expressed regret that she hadn’t recognized his pain at the time but could only be frustrated by his acting out and worried about the effect of his behavior on his siblings. Bandmate Krist Novocelic, long his close friend, expressed great sadness that he was unaware of how serious Kurt’s problems were during his life even though he saw evidence of Kurt’s rage and watched him self-destruct. He says in hindsight it is obvious that Kurt was in extreme pain and that there were numerous red flags and cries for help, but he wasn’t able to recognize their seriousness at the time.

Novocelic also noted something crucial to an understanding of Kurt’s enormous antipathy toward fame and success: he said Kurt had a huge fear of being humiliated. As we watch Kurt in films and videos and hear his words, it becomes clear that he hid his fears with bravado, dark humor, dramatic performances, drugs and acting out. He derided establishment values and behaviors and deliberately set up barriers between himself and those who might have been best able to recognize and help him. And of course, it is that raw, urgent ugliness inside of him that sometimes comes out in gruesome drawings, in his bashing his guitar to smithereens on the battered wood floor of his own house, or in refusing to bathe or wash his hair for days, or living in squalor and backing out of major tours so he could go home to do little but play guitar, have sex and shoot up for days or weeks on end.

It is that very grunginess in his personal life that bled, sometimes almost literally, into his music, and made it so accessible, thrilling and fresh to a youthful audience tired of the smooth, highly produced technopop of the 1980s. Cobain’s squalor and literal stink combined with a vulnerability, a gritty poetic streak and a compulsion to create helped him build a dirtily sexy persona, but they also pushed him into a dangerously intense public world that made him endlessly terrified of being exposed, embarrassed, ridiculed, overadored and ultimately used up. So he used himself up in a hurry before life had a chance to do it to him.

I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

The urge to create and the urge to destroy, including the urge to self-destruct, were always living side by side within Kurt Cobain, and his overwhelmed family members shunted him back and forth among houses a number of times during his childhood, recognizing his neediness but experiencing it always as a destabilizing and dangerous force that they couldn’t control and couldn’t stand. He also had a long history of serious and excruciating abdominal pains that caused extreme and frequent pain and sometimes bloody vomiting, but there was little money available until the end of his life for psychological help or appropriate medical care. So he developed dangerous ways of self-medicating with food, drink and drugs that exacerbated his ill health. By the time he had the money for proper mental health support and medical care, his dangerous habits were well ingrained, and his beloved companion and wife Courtney Love was herself so drug-addled, angry and self-destructive that she could only feed into his addictions and his rejection of others’ attempts to offer help. When her eye started to wander and he recognized that even she, the partner whom he thought understood and loved him better than anyone, was on the verge of betraying him, he lost all hope, attempted suicide, and then successfully finished the job with a gun a few days later.

Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint
Forever in debt to your priceless advice

Why would someone want to sit through two hours of this dark story with so many regretful loved ones sitting stricken in front of the interviewer and recounting their memories with wringing hands and guilty eyes? Because the pain of his story, like the pain in his music, is compelling even as the details are sometimes repellent. Some of his memories, words and images are grim and disturbing, but watching the intimate dynamic between him and Courtney, drug-addled and gritty as it often was, shows why they were drawn to each other—admiration, understanding and humor are all evident, as is a certain pleasure in courting death and mayhem. It hurts to watch him hold his baby Frances with such loving tenderness and read and hear his words of devotion, then later  see him  barely able to hold her on his lap, so drugged-out and nearly incoherent is he in one awful scene. It is hard to watch knowing that Courtney, a friend filming the scene and another helping with the baby were all present, and, like everyone else in the film, they observed the clear self-destruction of the man but no one either would or perhaps could do anything to pull him back from the brink.

I saw the film in Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, which is right in the neighborhood where Cobain had his last meal. One block from the theater is Linda’s Tavern, where he was last seen alive on the night before he shot himself through the head. The film is currently in a few theaters around the U.S. and in the U.K., and is garnering high praise for its intimate portrayal of the man and his life and his ardent, nearly compulsive need to create. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a cinema where the never-before-seen concert footage was especially powerful and immersive and the intimate moments felt even more immediate. I’m even gladder that it will be available to so many more via HBO television showings.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, cause so are you
We’ve broken our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care
And I’m not scared

While the film has received mostly very good reviews, some have complained that it is uneven and a bit jumbled because of the lack of a narrator and the sometimes abrupt switches between interviews with those who knew him, private film footage, concert footage, images of his writing and art and montages of animation and recordings. Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film is “impressive in parts, but wildly uneven as a whole.” I found this unevenness and the montage style particularly appropriate for the story of a hyperkinetic, often drugged-out man with serious mental and emotional problems. I might have found the style more annoyingly disjointed had it been used to tell the story of a different subject, but in this case the style illustrates how overwhelming it must have felt to live inside of Cobain’s brain and body. The barrage of images and sounds approximate the cacophany of a grunge concert, a life of rock and roll excess and the disabling and endless waves of chronic and extreme physical and emotional pain he felt. All of that is shown amid reminders of how much love and admiration those around him felt and wanted to share with him alongside the frustration and confusion they felt over his extreme emotions and behaviors.

A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.

The film, which gets its name from a musical collage made by Cobain with a four-track cassette recorder before Nirvana became famous, is no feel-good movie. It is often funny, sometimes darkly beautiful and occasionally mesmerizing, but it is also a very raw view of the life of a dangerously mentally ill and emotionally damaged human being. Even though it shows how difficult and ugly he and his life could be, it also helps us see his vulnerability, humanity and his hunger to create, and it makes clear his devotion to his wife and child.

This film helps to humanize Kurt Cobain without lionizing him. Seeing how far back his deep emotional illnesses went also helps us to empathize with him and feel sympathy along with the disgust his actions sometimes inspire. The film shows how off-puttingly, determinedly filthy, squalid and unhealthy his lifestyle often was (though he and Courtney did sometimes live in luxury hotels in Seattle and elsewhere once they became wealthy), and interviews with his mother and his widow give some glimpse into their own sometimes impaired ability to see how much of a part each of them played in his feeling unsupported and betrayed.

He’s the one
Who likes all the pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun

David Fear of Rolling Stone described the film as “the unfiltered Kurt experience,” noting that Cobain is shown “not [as] a spokesman for a generation,” but as “a human being, and a husband, and a father.” Frances Bean Cobain said at the documentary’s premiere in Los Angeles, “After seeing it, I thought I could only watch it once. But the film that [Morgen] made—I didn’t know Kurt, but he would be exceptionally proud of it. It touches some dark subjects, but it provides a basic understanding of who he was as a human, and that’s been lost.”

I agree.

The Amorous Adventures of Bigfoot

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 12.06.19 AM

Above: A classic story of Bigfoot’s sexcapades from the late, lamented Weekly World News

There’s apparently a burgeoning market for a type of writing that could likely make me a tidy living if I didn’t mind writing sketchy, skeevy stories for money: it’s mythical creature erotica. I could even customize it for different localities and sell it in downloadable format on Amazon. Numerous enterprising young writers are making living wages by doing just that for an array of erotic niche markets: Minotaur erotica, troll porn, stories of hot and heavy encounters with dinosaurs and the ever-popular stories of scantily clad 40-foot-tall women running amok. (The market for stories about giant women is apparently surprisingly large according to David Sedaris.) If I wrote naughty Seattle-based mythical creature stories, I think the first one would have to begin like this:

“Brooke’s heaving bosom strained at the zipper of her olive green REI hoodie. Her pegged jeans were ripped and frayed, and she’d already lost a grande flat white AND a Teva sandal in the tussle with the eight-foot-tall beast. Drizzle was falling on the sculpture park, and the musky fur of the hairy behemoth who had dragged her away from the rhododendrons and toward the water began to curl in the damp air. She twisted and turned in the monster’s grip, and as he held her aloft, the big-footed brute was momentarily blinded by the glare from her septum ring which dazzled his monstrously large yet limpid eyes.

‘Ooook! Ook hmmmurgle’ he growled and grumbled, his breath reeking of salmon. He pulled her down hard into his chest, then fumbled for her iPhone. Grabbing it roughly from her hands before she could text her yoga teacher to ask for help, Sasquatch hurled Brooke’s last connection to civilization into Elliott Bay before he flung her over his matted shoulder with his huge, hirsute arms. Her asymmetrical lavender hair flew into his face, her tattooed fists bashed and battered his hot, hairy back, but he only grunted his assent: he liked his hipsters nice and feisty.”

But don’t you worry—in the end it turns out that our heroine and her hairy antagonist are just heavily into role-play. Brooke uses her safe word, her big-footed boyfriend respects her boundaries, and they put on vintage flannel shirts and then go out for Moscow mules and truffle fries at their favorite Belltown pub afterwards. It IS Seattle, after all.

An Extraordinary Evening with Jessica Williams


[The following essay was originally published in July 2005. This year marks the tenth anniversary of my friend Richard’s wonderful house concert series, which began with a concert by gifted jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Last night I had the pleasure of again hearing Jessica play Richard’s glorious Steinway at another intimate house concert. She became my friend at that first concert ten years ago, and I love her and her music still. In honor of Jessica, who is a remarkable musician and a beautiful human being, I reprint this essay and I invite you to visit her website, JessicaWilliams.com.—LG ]

Two nights ago I was invited to share in a magical, memorable evening of of music. Jessica Williams, the extraordinary jazz pianist, played an intimate and elegant concert at the home of my friend Richard. He had spoken to her after her concerts in Seattle over the years, and had the good fortune to be seated next to her on a flight from San Jose to Seattle some months back, which gave them time to share a friendly conversation. Richard is a jazz pianist himself and the owner of a fine piano, and he and Jessica spoke about the idea of her performing at his home for a small group of local jazz aficionados after she finished her bigger Seattle gigs. Happily, the idea became a reality. Seattle is a great town for jazz; the jazz community is avid, active, and friendly, and small enough that everyone gets to know everyone else before too long. This little group knew Jessica’s music well, and the buzz of delight and amazement that we could all get so close to a jazz master had us all feeling a little tipsy before anyone had a drop to drink.

Jessica is well-known and loved among jazz fans and players; the frequently repeated question is, why isn’t she better known to the rest of the world? She’s noted for her improvisational brilliance, has played with jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Leroy Vinnegar, and has received lavish praise from the likes of Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, and Marian McPartland, on whose NPR radio show, Piano Jazz, Jessica has performed. Her pieces have often been played between interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross; Terry is a great fan of hers and Jessica was interviewed on Fresh Air and performed an in-studio concert for Terry’s listeners in 1997. I highly recommend listening to the 2002 rebroadcast, available free online, which includes pieces by Monk and Gershwin and some of Jessica’s own beautiful compositions.

What makes her playing unique and exciting is a combination of dazzling technical skill and warm, melodic, lyrical feeling. Her touch is sure, she plays with conviction, and she has the chops to knock any other player out of his socks if she wants to. Yet at the same time, she breathes warmth and life into pieces that can feel cold in other hands. She can take an atonal, dissonant piece that others might treat as an exercise to show off virtuosity and find the spirit at its core, the life force behind the string of impressive notes, the hush in the middle of the chord that a show-off performer would miss.

Jessica finds great inspiration and pleasure in playing compositions by Thelonious Monk, who’s notorious for being tricky to follow or hard to get. Despite having written the accessible but wonderful ballad “‘Round Midnight,” Monk can sometimes be rough, bouncy and dissonant. When Jessica plays him, however, she isn’t afraid to lighten him up, play up the humor behind the notes, to show the subtlety in his compositions so one can feel the thought behind the dissonances, and understand why they’re right and not random.

Jessica was classically trained, so early on she still believed that there were rules that couldn’t be broken and techniques that must be followed when playing piano. She told Terry Gross the first time she heard a record of Monk playing, she thought he sounded like he was wearing boxing gloves at the piano. But with continued listening, she grew to love his openness to new techniques. She incorporated some of them into her own playing and has developed other innovative techniques that amplify the feeling in her music without ever getting lost in tricks for the sake of tricks.

Sometimes Jessica reaches into the piano to strum the strings while playing keys, incorporating a sound like an autoharp into her playing, as she did at the beginning and end of “Getting Sentimental Over You” when she played it during her Fresh Air concert. She’s careful not to overuse it, however; she doesn’t want to become gimmicky but likes to explore the variety of sounds that a piano can make and integrate these devices into the tunes to add color. During this week’s concert, she reached into the piano to strum it at several points, and she occasionally shuffled the soles of her shoes across the wood floor to create a sound like a drummer would with a brush, or like a softshoe dancer might. She also likes to quote other jazz compositions when she plays, a common tip of the hat from one jazz musician to another, throwing a few measures of a well-known jazz standard into a piece for humor and as an homage. She improvises these surprises and tosses them as little treats for the audience, each one a lagniappe to lighten the heart when listeners get too earnest and caught up in the piece.

On Monday night, she began with a piece by John Coltrane, “Wise One,” followed by “The Very Thought of You” by Ray Noble, “Paul’s Pal” by Sonny Rollins, and two pieces by Monk, “Ugly Beauty” and “Nutty.” I’ve never enjoyed Monk as much as I did that evening. She has said that record producers have often pushed her to show off more of her impressive technique, focusing on speed and flash, and playing Monk certainly allows her that, but she plays him with more subtlety and insight. There’s intelligence in her playing without cold intellectualism, an awareness of exactly what note, what chord, what sense of space is necessary to make a phrase work while still holding the meaning of the song, its essence, the point of it all, in her heart. For her, the most satisfying playing involves a spiritual element. As she told me, she can emphasize flash and technique when she’s playing in a wild or distracted venue or on a bad piano that can’t hold up to subtlety; she can adapt and please the audience when that’s what’s called for. But when she is in the right space with a good instrument and a receptive audience, this nuanced and spiritual essence of her playing emerges, and a thrilling pleasure in being right there, right then, with her, in the palm of her hand, fills the audience, or, in the case of someone lucky enough to own her CDs, fills the listener sitting alone at home if she or he gives her pieces the attention they deserve.

Jessica’s playing is so lovely and lyrical that it’s more accessible than many jazz pianists without ever crossing over into that scary “lite jazz” territory. She began her second set with Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” from the musical Annie Get Your Gun—songs don’t come much more accessible than that. And yet in her hands it was anything but trite; it was fresh again, and as pure as it was when Berlin wrote it. One of my favorite moments in the evening came when she played Dexter Gordon’s “Don’t Explain.” I’ve always loved Billie Holiday’s version, so it’s hard for me to give other artists due credit when they play it, it’s so associated with Lady Day in my mind. But I was right there with Jessica, note for note. Her love for Dexter Gordon the man, as well as for his music was evident in her playing, and it was an emotionally rich piece.

She followed it with her own eloquent ode to her friend, “I Remember Dexter,” and two more of her elegant compositions, “Poem in G minor” and “Sheikh.” She ended with a gorgeous rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” that left me so touched I had to compose myself before I could shake her hand and tell her what a wonderful evening it had been. Ellington himself would have pronounced her performance “beyond category.” At the end of that second set, I realized I’d been staring rapt at her hands the whole time and hadn’t even looked up once to see the faces of the other people sitting around me. At the end of the concert I saw the same grateful wonder in their eyes that I felt, that we could be sitting 10 feet from greatness and share in this experience.

Before the concert, I had the pleasure of talking with Jessica in the kitchen. For all her skill and mastery, and despite all the swooning and kudos afforded her by fans and fellow artists, she is anything but a diva. She was humble and gracious, and she spoke of the pleasure she takes in her art and in sharing life with friends, of the places around the world in which she’s lived, of the kindnesses shown her by several jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon and his wife. She’d never met me before, but asked me about myself as well, and listened and cared about what I had to say. She was there, standing in a kitchen with a stranger, present in the moment and open to the experience. She showed a respectful, commonsense kindness with me and everyone present which I wish was shared by all people of such accomplishment and fame.

Jessica’s lived courageously and taken risks, turned corners when she was told what a mistake it was and been true to her heart, her music, and her passions. She’s been open to new techniques, to new styles, to resurrecting older ideas or creating new sounds that resonate with her heart. The result is a lovely, gracious, multifaceted woman who creates beauty and cares about the world around her and the people in it.

Andrew Gilbert wrote beautifully of Jessica and her art for the San Jose Mercury News: “A tremendously assured musician, Williams marks her style with ravishing lyricism and daring improvisational flights. But what really sets her solo performances apart is her gift for seamlessly weaving together various jazz keyboard styles, encompassing the highly syncopated stride school of the ’20s and ’30s, the light, effortlessly dancing approach of the swing era, the jagged single-note runs of bebop and the rhythmically diffuse sound perfected by Bill Evans in the ’60s, all integrated into an organic whole by her compelling sense of narrative flow.”

Jessica’s well-put-together and satisfying eponymous website, www.jessicawilliams.com, features links to some of her pieces, to interviews, photographs, and, best of all, allows one to order her CDs, some of which are only available through the site. On her homepage she quotes one of her favorite musicians and people, John Coltrane: “I want to be a force for good. I know there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly good.” This quotation is so apt for Jessica; she lives her life in a way that brings pleasure to others, and shares her remarkable talents and hopes with others through her musical gifts. She lives her values and speaks through her art. What an extraordinary person.

Art History and Destiny Join Forces


“Manifest Destiny” by Michael Paul Miller

On the first Thursday of every month, Seattle’s Pioneer Square art galleries throw open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. and hordes of art lovers rush in to admire (and often to buy) fresh works of art. Most galleries time their new exhibitions to open during these First Thursday Art Walks. Last night at the Linda Hodges Gallery I saw Michael Paul Miller‘s post-apocalyptic painting titled “Manifest Destiny” and was excited to recognize his inspiration right away. Take a look at Jules Bastien-Lepage‘s portrait of Joan of Arc:

Joan of Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painted in 1879, it hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it has always been a favorite of mine for Joan’s pale-eyed, thousand-yard visionary’s stare  and the barely visible images of saints in full armor floating above the ground and delivering their messages from behind her in the trees.

Michael Paul Miller’s “Manifest Destiny” clearly reverses this same visionary woman and shows her having a powerful experience that we can’t fathom, but it seems her destiny has become manifest before her. She grasps at a plume of smoke that originates far behind her but miraculously also appears to extend to the spot upon which she stands, seeming to indicate that she has an ability to reach into other dimensions, perhaps the future, perhaps the past, and to literally grasp things that others cannot. The destiny the title refers to is not the land of endless opportunity that 19th century expansionists envisioned when they coined the term “manifest destiny” and used it to justify their push westward across North American, smug in their belief that they were entitled to dominion over all the land’s riches. Instead, this seer stands amid the destruction and desolation left in the wake of those who “advance” by using their technology and greed to seize and destroy rather than to build, refusing to work within existing systems or integrate into the world around them.

I admire both the painting, difficult as it is, and the clever visual quotation within in it. Just as jazz (and classical) musicians often quote other compositions in their tunes, playing a quick riff that adds to the overall complexity of the piece and provides a fun in-joke to those in the know, artists often make reference to other artists’ works both in homage and to tease new meaning out of old tropes. It is this sort of technical skill and richness of symbolism that makes a study of art history so profoundly moving and rewarding.

My understanding of the history of art has enriched my life daily since I studied history and art history at Mills College decades ago. That is why I become upset when I hear people being so quick to dismiss art history degrees and castigate those of us who believe in the power and importance of exploring and understanding the creation of visual art. Even President Obama derided the attainment of an art history degree in a speech recently, joining in with many who seem to believe that any non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or business-related major which does not lead directly to a $100,000+ annual salary in a technical field is  inferior and unnecessary to our culture and economy. Some colleges are even considering dropping their art history classes because students feel that anything that doesn’t lead to a likely increase in their earning potential does not seem important. (And who can blame them when a private undergraduate college education can cost $60,000 per year, and most students need to find remunerative jobs ASAP upon graduation to pay back their crushing student loans?)

The facts that such artistic studies enrich their hearts and souls, help them to better understand other times and cultures and allow them to make connections among disparate subjects and styles mean nothing to arts denigrators, even though studies show that people with a well-rounded liberal arts education not only benefit from their STEM studies but also benefit from their studies of the arts, since those studies make them better writers, researchers and synthesizers of information, all of which are skills in great demand in more technical fields. Many articles on this topic are popping up in popular media recently, including this one from the Washington Post.

How shortsighted and indeed stupid it is to assume that arts are mere fillers meant only for bourgeois, time-wasting rich people! The same people who disdain art historians often pay thousands of dollars per year to buy video game consoles and new games to play on them, and they download films and go to action movies that they enjoy specifically because the visuals are arresting and meaningful. They spend hours online each week looking at animal videos or comedy sketches, hungry for quick impulses of emotion that come from enjoying endearing visuals that provide instant sensory gratification. Because visuals matter. The arts in general matter deeply to people even if they don’t always recognize this. People listen to three-minute long songs at work or in the car or while running because they know that the power of acoustic arts gives them a rush, inspires a feeling, changes their attitudes and makes them feel more connected to the world or to their feelings. These are all arts created by sensitive people who believe in the importance of following their aesthetic dreams whether or not that leads to monetary riches, and we are all better for it.

If you are tempted to denigrate artists or those who seek to better understand them (such as teachers of poetry or professors of ancient Indian statuary),  remember that all of these arts and the appreciation of them are signs of mental and emotional advancement. They are the signs of a sophisticated civilization. They are the underpinnings of new thought, forms of expression and connections between people, times and cultures. These arts are what ancient civilizations (and the founders of the United States, incidentally) saw as signs of a great society. These are the fields of study that they believed proved that their cultures were truly great and not just concerned with how to put food on the table but also with how to see, feel and think with greater precision and insight. A world without art is one I would not want to live in, and a culture that does not honor its artists is at risk of losing its soul.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every large city has parks or plazas where people in difficulty congregate. Some go there to commiserate with others who feel down and out; others go there looking for escapes from their pain. Drug deals clearly take place in these parks; it’s not unusual to find drug paraphernalia scattered around in some of them. Of course, not everyone who frequents such parks goes to them to break the law; people who gather there are looking for different ways to feel connected with others, to pass the time, to lessen their boredom or frustration or pain.

I rarely see women in these parks. It is easy to imagine that the men who spend their time there often feel disenfranchised and powerless, so when they gather in parks or plazas they often posture in front of others, commenting on the women who pass through their midst, calling out to females in the cars that drive past and generally making us feel, if not unsafe, then at the very least uncomfortable. There is a noticeably macho atmosphere in such places, so showing respect to women is less common there than are displays of sexual attention and bravado.

In Seattle, there are several downtown parks like this where a woman walking alone during daylight hours might feel uncomfortable. When I walk past them I don’t feel endangered, just conspicuous. When women walk by, all eyes turn to us. The men there make comments when I walk by, just as they do to most women who pass within a half block.

Last weekend I was in the part of the city that gave the world the term “skid row”—what is now Yesler Way in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle was originally a “skid road,” a path along which timber workers skidded logs in the 19th century. This part of town boasts many attractive Victorian buildings converted into art galleries; it also has many bars and missions that serve the large numbers of homeless and poor people in the area. While I was in a Pioneer Square building, I became flooded with difficult memories. I was so overcome that I needed to walk outside to avoid drawing attention as my face crumpled and tears began to well up in my eyes. There was no nearby alley to duck into, no public restroom, no bench to sit on or doorway to enter that wouldn’t expose me to strangers who would notice my distress. But there was a park a half-block away, and I walked toward it in hopes of finding an open bench where I could sit for a few minutes until I regained my composure.

This park is an open plaza without much in the way of benches since public seating tends to encourage homeless people to look for a place to sleep, and city governments tend to discourage such behavior. The only place I could find to rest that wasn’t taken was a large flowerpot with a rim big enough to lean against. I saw that there were clusters of men in the plaza but I assumed that if they saw me with my head down they wouldn’t bother to speak to me. I was wrong. One tried to make conversation with me from a distance but I didn’t look up from my handkerchief. He sounded slightly offended when I didn’t respond, as if he thought I’d entered his territory and then hadn’t had the courtesy to acknowledge him. He came closer and made another comment, this one about my looks. It was not unkind but not what I wanted. I realized that I’d entered his turf and I was the odd one out in that situation, and that if I didn’t respond in some way I might attract more attention or hear negative comments about what might be seen as my arrogance or contempt. So I wiped my eyes and looked up.

I said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble today.” With that, he and another young man walked up to me and immediately said how sorry they were, and how they hated to see me crying. One walked close to me, and as he spoke I saw that he was missing his two front teeth. He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old; the other, taller man was about the same age. The toothless man said to me that he wished he could cry, but that he couldn’t anymore; he had clearly seen so much pain that he felt all cried out. I wiped my eyes and told him I was so sorry that he was hurting. He thanked me and nodded. I said, “There must be a lot of pain in this park, huh?” And he and his friend nodded and said, “Oh yeah, a lot of pain.” Then he said that I needed to know that things were going to be getting better, and that there were people who were going to be there for me, and he spread his arms wide, swooped in and gave me a big hug. I told him I wished things would get better for him soon and that I hoped he’d find comfort. Then he smiled and walked away, and his tall friend came closer. He said that he could see that I just needed to have faith, and that he could tell that things would be better for me soon, and he blessed me. I said “Thank you, sir, for your help. Bless you, too.” He said he was glad he could be there for me, and he wished me well as I walked away.

I keep thinking about those exchanges, and how for those moments in time, our ages, our races, our genders, our economic circumstances made no difference to us. These young men saw me hurting and came to comfort me. I acknowledged that their attention was kind, and they gave me respect and courtesy. They treated me not like an outsider who didn’t belong but as a human being who deserved dignity and help. In many places in this country they would be reviled and assumed to be thugs or criminals because of their appearance, but the men I spoke with were gracious and gentle. They’d seen trouble and understood sadness, and they didn’t judge me or assume that my difference in personal circumstances made me undeserving of sympathy. Our exchange was all about honoring the humanity and dignity in each other, recognizing that we have no right to judge what causes others pain, and that we can all do something to help others to bear their burdens. I felt a little embarrassed showing pain in their presence because it’s not hard to imagine that the circumstances of their lives have brought them more suffering and frustrations than I am ever likely to know. But not for one moment did I feel that they judged me unworthy of their compassion, nor did they ever show the slightest bit of disdain or outwardly assume that my troubles were less pressing than theirs.

These young men showed empathy in its purest form. They didn’t ask why I was sad; the reason didn’t matter. They didn’t need to figure out whether I was worthy based on my situation. To them I was worthy of help simply because I was a human being. They gave me, a total stranger, the most beautiful gifts they could: honor and compassion. Merely acknowledging the people around me in a public park elicited such kindness from them. I’m grateful that they were there for me and that they reminded me that my troubles were temporary, and that there are good people all around us.

At the end of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois descends into madness, and as she is being led away to the insane asylum, she famously, pitifully says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t we all?

Even those of us in penthouse suites or gated communities, ivory towers or walnut-paneled boardrooms depend on the social compact to keep strangers from breaking down our doors or threatening us on the street. To stay safe, warm, well-fed and employed and to get around and go where we must we depend on strangers not only to avoid harming us but to go out of their ways to help us do what we need to do. We worry about violence and tut over stories of criminal behavior that we hear on the news, but for most of us, being a victim of crime is an uncommon occurrence. We are sheltered, we are lucky, we are, most of us, trying hard not to hurt others or be hurt ourselves. We all depend upon the kindness of strangers. We just don’t realize how much effort is made by others every day to make room for us in a world that is more theirs than ours. We are each only one of seven billion, after all, and nearly all the others in this world have less invested in our health and happiness than we do. Yet, we we live alongside each other and make way for the needs of strangers every day.

This weekend two kind strangers proved how much invisible goodwill surrounds me. I was humbled by their kindness, but also elevated—by looking up into their faces I became part of something greater than myself. I felt disconnected and hollow when I walked into their park; they reminded me that even on Skid Row, one can find connection, beauty and mercy.