I have been struggling with what to say about Michael. Three times in the past two days, I sat down to write his story. Couple of starts, then I’d get distracted, decide to pull a few weeds out of a few thousand out in the back yard, or take the dogs for a walk, or maybe have a muffin — for any of you who are a) writers or b) saw the movie “ADAPTATION,” you know the culinary procrastination I’m talking about. On the third try, I got four fairly good paragraphs down, then failed to click “save.” All was lost.
It saved me from writing something that wasn’t ready. I needed last night to make it work. Last night I went out with a friend of mine, the video editor who edited my book trailer. She’s a good soul, cute, smart, funny, knows how to have fun and poke fun at me. Christina is evolved, having gone through some significant trauma. Really it was a brutal assault, in which three assailants beat her up and then threw her in the trunk of her own car to take her to who knows where to do who knows what. But she fought back with a camera tripod in her trunk and got away. Christina has been able to rise above the hatred and fear that would keep some people hunkered down for life. Instead, she chooses to continue on her benevolent path to a good life.
Last night we were having a few benevolent drinks, at a sidewalk cafe on South Grand in St. Louis. I was sharing my frustration about writer’s block when naked people on bicycles started streaming by.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “It’s the World Naked Bike Ride tonight!” We were suddenly even more appreciative of the first tolerably cool night in St. Louis in weeks and happy that we’d chosen to dine al fresco so that we could enjoy the parade of au natural. It was wonderful: all ages, races, shapes and sizes, some people completely bare, many in their underwear. Was truly inspiring, actually.
That demonstration of honesty, removing barriers, baring your body, is of course, a more literal interpretation of what artists do when they bare their soul. Which takes me back to Michael.
I met Michael W. Hall in a dog park in Philadelphia, in July of last year, just a few days into my road trip, early on in what would become a series of providential encounters with luminous Sirens in my Odyssey, who would not shipwreck me, rather they’d become my channel markers.
I was still getting my sea legs under me, still a bit timid in chatting folks up in dog parks, but Michael seemed friendly, so I asked him about the dog he was with, Frank. Michael said that Frank was a “client dog” and that he had been dog walking for a few years, choosing to scale back his material needs to attend to his creative needs as a painter.
Before being a professional dog walker…
Michael was a train rider, and I’m not talking Amtrak. He’d spent years riding freight trains. “I have very itchy feet (I’ve never lived in a house for longer than five years in my entire life) and a thirst for adventure. My love affair with freight trains was only natural, it’s a free and romantic way to see the country.”
You can immediately see why I liked him, when I clicked on his Website, On the Border of American Vision, I liked him even better.
The day before I met him, Michael had gotten word that he and a friend had been booked for two-man show at the Space 1026 gallery in Philly, a highly coveted location and opportunity. I emailed Michael last week to see how things turned out and how his year has been, since last we saw each other.
“It’s been a craaaaaazy year,” he started his email. First, he gave me the good news. “The show was a resounding success. I had a TON of work in it, and Tom and I both hand-painted enormous murals on the gallery walls. We had a huge turnout at the opening and at all of our events throughout the month. I sold a lot of work, and we got wonderful reviews.”
Then he told me the bad news, when I asked if he had any regrets about continuing to reject the “safe” bet, you know, a steady job with benefits.
“Health insurance would be nice,” he wrote. “I suffered a bad injury to the bones in my face last year. It still gives me pain but there’s just no way I can afford to do anything about it right now.”
Michael continued. “I had an overwhelming amount of personal issues all piling up at once. I was having relationship problems with someone I dearly loved, worries about my family, and a lot of violence occurring around me in Philadelphia, gun shots, car alarms, and random beatings (the facial injury I mentioned earlier came from one of those). It became more than I could bear and I left town as soon as my gallery show came down. I’ve never owned a car so I’ve been mostly hitching rides, sometimes with friends, often with strangers. I’ve been traveling for a little over four months with my dog Pumpkin. If there was a highlight, it was having him along for company. It’s been a very difficult, heartbreaking year for me. I don’t think I could have survived the sadness I’ve been trudging through without him by my side.”
This, of course, breaks my heart, not the mother heart, the artist heart or the gypsy heart in me, it’s the human heart. I write about our human condition in Off the Leash, Chapter Nine,“The Zen of Washing Your Panties in the Sink.” Here’s an excerpt:
We are all the same. We are all just trying to have a life. The people I met on the road at crappy EconoLodges with a foot of mud at the bottom of the pool in Youngstown to the woman at the Motel 6 in Salinas, Kansas who said, “Don’t worry, honey, I’m saving your room,” because Lord knows Salinas was the happening spot on the globe that Friday night and she held the last room in town for me, my last night on the road—these were some of the nicest people I have ever met in my life. And you know what? They didn’t even have to be. They all could have been assholes and still kept their minimum wage jobs, but they were nice anyway. Close to the bone. Maybe it has a way of keeping you real. I’ll bet you all the cheeseburgers from every McDonald’s in America that if you asked them what they really want in life, they’d tell you they just want to be free from worry. They’d just like to know how it feels, just once, to not worry every goddamn day that something’s going to happen to shatter their hand-to-mouth existence. I understand this. I have been living it for years.
And I still do. Since I left the job in May to finish the book, finances, health care, it’s been dicey. But Michael reminded me of a familiar trade-off.
“I realized that when I was working full-time, I had financial stability but no energy left on nights and weekends for any creative efforts. Now, instead, I often barely scrape by financially, but I feel like I have a lot to show for the monetary sacrifices I make. There’s no way I ‘d have completed nearly the quantity or quality of work I have in these last several years if I was working 40 hours a week on something else.”
Amen brother. If I’d kept my job, I wouldn’t have a book ready to release in a week.
I’ll give him an autographed copy and a place to stay overnight if he and Pumpkin come through St. Louis on their way to Austin. He’s moving there as soon as he can fix the windows on his van that somebody broke out last week.
He’s hoping Austin will be good move, he passed through Austin once on a trip to Arizona, ended up staying for a month and never went any further west. “I met a lot of great people really quickly, tapped into an active and vibrant art scene, and could immediately see myself living there,” he said. “The vibe there was just what I’m looking for. Plus, it’s the most dog-friendly city in the country. And Pumpkin and I went swimming every day, so I know he was happy there!”
See how the tide of abundant benevolence continues to ripple in my life? I was so happy to hear from Michael, after a year and a simple conversation in a dog park in Philadelphia. And last night, he sent the key to unlock my writer’s block. I had asked him for the name of this painting. It’s called “Uncoupled.”
And here’s what he had to say about it. “Train couplers serve no purpose when separated, they require one another to function.”
Aside from his amazing insight and creative expression, here’s the other thing I’m amazed by. This young man had the sensibility to share his human kindness with me. His words and example are comforting and encouraging. He reminds me that we are all in this together, we have to punch through our fear, not take ourselves so seriously, try to be brave enough to shed our protective barriers, baring our true selves for all the world to see, as we pedal along our shared path.
***Please hold a good thought for Michael and Pumpkin, say a prayer, light a candle, meditate — whatever it is you do and PLEASE check out his website On the Border of American Vision and his Flickr page. I’m sure he still has art to sell. And soon, very soon, I will have a book to sell! Peace out, y’all.***