Eight Views of Mount Fuji: An Introduction to Beloved Demons
It's all about life.
And in the midst of whatever else we're in, it's always about life.
I had known Amanda Palmer for six months, and we were going on our first date. Our first date was four days long, because it was all the free time we had at the beginning of 2009 and we were giving it to each other. I had not yet met her family. I barely knew her friends.
"I want you to meet Anthony," she said.
It was January. If I'd really known who Anthony was in her life then, if I'd known how much he'd played his part in raising her, I think I would have been nervous. I wasn't nervous. I was just pleased that she wanted to introduce me to someone that she knew.
Anthony, she told me, was her next door neighbour. He had known her since she was a child.
He turned up in the restaurant: a tall, good-looking man who looked a decade younger than his age. He had a walking cane, an easy comfortable manner, and we talked all that evening. Anthony told me about the nine-year-old Amanda who had thrown snowballs at his window, and about the teenage Amanda who had come next door when she needed to vent, and about the college-age Amanda who had called him from Germany when she was lonely and knew nobody, and about rockstar Amanda (it was Anthony who had named the Dresden Dolls). He asked me about me, and I answered him as honestly as I could.
Later, Amanda told me that Anthony liked me, and had told her he thought I would make a good boyfriend for her.
I had no idea how important this was, or what Anthony's approval meant at the time.
Life is a stream: an ongoing conversation of nature with itself, contradictory and opinionated and dangerous. And the stream is made up of births and deaths, of things that come into existence and pass away. But there is always life, and things feeding on life.
We had been married for five months. Amanda phoned me in tears from a yoga retreat in the Canary Islands, to tell me Anthony had leukemia. She flew home. Anthony began treatment. It didn't look as if there was anything real to worry about. Not then. They can treat these things.
As the next year began, Amanda recorded an album, Theatre is Evil. She started touring for it, a planned tour that would take the best part of a year.
At the end of the summer, Anthony's leukemia took a turn for the worse, and suddenly there were very real reasons to worry. He would need to go for chemo. He might not make it. We read the Wikipedia entry on the kind of leukemia Anthony had, and we learned that this was not the kind you get better from, and we were sobered and scared.
Amanda had been a touring rock musician for a decade, and took pride in not cancelling gigs. She called me, and she cancelled the second half of her tour to be with Anthony. We took a house in Cambridge's Harvard Square so she could be close to him.
We had a small dinner for friends, shortly after we moved in, to celebrate the birthday of Anthony's wife, Laura. Laura is very beautiful, and very gentle, and a lawyer who helps people who cannot help themselves. I cooked fish for them. Pat, Laura's mother, came, and helped me cook.
That was a year ago.
Anthony had been Amanda's friend. Somewhere in there, while she and I were dating, before we were married or even engaged, he became someone I talked to when I was lost and confused and way out of my depth in the thickets of a relationship that was always like nothing I'd ever known before. I called him from Australia and texted him from a train in New Mexico. His advice was wise and practical, and often -- mostly -- it was right.
He stopped me overthinking things; would offer hope, always with a matter-of-fact thread of darkness and practicality: yes, you can fix this, but you'll have to learn to live with that.
I discovered over the years to come that many of the things I treasured most about Amanda were gifts that Anthony had given her or taught her over the years of their friendship.
One night Amanda read me a story that Anthony had written, about his childhood, about food, about love. It was gripping. I asked for more.
With a mixture of nervousness and diffidence, Anthony gave me more of his stories to read: autobiographical sketches and confessionals, some funny, some dark. Each of the stories shone a light inside Anthony's skull and showed the reader the view from his past. He was nervous because I write books for a living, and he was relieved (I think) that I liked them.
I liked them very much.
I had worried that we would have nothing in common, apart from our love of Amanda. I was wrong. We both had a fascination with, and a delight in stories. Do not give either of us gifts: give us the tale that accompanies the gift. That is what makes the gift worth having.
Ask Anthony about the walking canes I gave him. The joys of the gifts are in the stories.
I'm thinking about all those signs we put on our walls when we were teenagers and knew that we would live forever, in order to show how tough and cynical and worldly-wise we were:
NOBODY GETS OUT OF HERE ALIVE was one of them. THE PERSON WHO DIES WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS was another. There was one of two vultures sitting on a branch that said PATIENCE MY ASS, I'M GONNA KILL SOMETHING.
And it's easy to be cynical about death when you're young. When you are young, death is an anomaly. It's not real. It only affects other people. It's a bullet you'll dodge easily: it's why young people can go into battle. They really will live forever. They know.
As you stick around, as you go around the earth, you realise that life is an ever-narrowing conveyor belt. Slowly, inexorably, it takes us all along with it, and one by one we tumble off the sides of the conveyor belt into darkness.
A few days after Amanda decided that she was going to stop touring and be with Anthony, we heard that our friend Becca Rosenthal had died. She was 27. She was young and beautiful and filled with life and potential. She wanted to be a librarian.
Just before Christmas, our friend Jeremy Geidt went into hospital for a relatively minor operation. Jeremy was a crusty, foul-mouthed, gloriously funny actor and teacher who had come to the US in the early 60s with Peter Cook's Establishment Club. He had lived a remarkable life, which he would tell us about in booze-tinged anecdotes and perfectly deployed expletives. Jeremy spent most of the next six months in the hospital, recovering from the first operation, and dealing with a tumour in his throat. He died in August, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was old, but he relished life, chewed it like a dog with a rawhide bone.
They fall off the conveyor belt into the darkness, our friends, and we cannot talk to them any more.
In November, Anthony's friends divided up the tasks of taking him to chemo, staying with him, bringing him home again (he could not drive himself back, after all). I offered to help, but Amanda said no.
I met Amanda Palmer because she wanted help in playing dead. She had been pretending to be dead in photographs for the previous 14 years, and now she was making a whole record about it. Who Killed Amanda Palmer, it was called. We met and interacted because she wanted someone to write stories of her deaths.
I found the idea intriguing.
I wrote stories. I killed her over and over again in every story and poem. I even killed her on the back of the record. I wrote a dozen different Amanda Palmers before I ever knew her, each of them dying in a dozen or more inventive ways.
The deaths were inevitable. Of course, sometimes describing and thinking about death is our way of celebrating life. Of feeling more alive. Of grasping life tightly, licking it, tasting it, plunging our teeth into it and knowing that we are part of it. It's like sex, the tumbling into the tugging and pulling of the continuous stream of life. And life and sex are always tied in to death: the erection on the gallows, the final urge to procreate and live before the darkness.
We behave differently when we see the darkness looming. We become creatures of lust and fear.
Amanda pushed and helped him, and Anthony published some of his stories in a collection called Lunatic Heroes. He and his friends Nivi and Paul formed 3 Swallys Press to bring the book to the world. The launch event for Lunatic Heroes, in Lexington, MA, Anthony's hometown, was a dark event in a sold-out theatre: Amanda read her introduction, and I read some of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and most of all Anthony read from Lunatic Heroes.
I worried that he wasn't going to live much beyond the launch event.
I was scared for Laura, Anthony's wife, and scared for Amanda. I knew that any sadness I was going to feel at the loss of my friend was going to have to be put aside while I looked after Amanda, who would be broken and torn by Anthony's death.
It was going to be hard for all of us.
I felt the air from the wings of the angel of death brushing my face at that launch event, that night.
Life has a sense of humour, but then again, so does death.
Laura's mother, Pat, who helped me cook when we first moved into this house, died this year of leukemia.
Anthony, to our delight, got through the chemo, and, with the help of a newly released drug, he recovered. He is in remission -- for now. He beat death, as much as any of us gets to beat death. For now -- it's always a transient win, that one, and the reaper can wait. She's patient, and she will be here when the last of us has gone.
Anthony no longer had leukemia; but now he had a book called Lunatic Heroes.
There were darker stories that Anthony had crafted from his life that had not made it into that first book. Stories of obsession and desire. Stories of loss and fear and hate. The kind of stories that need you to be brave to tell them, braver still to publish them so that other people can look inside your head and know what makes you tick, and what makes you hard, and what makes you cry, that tell you that the hardest battles are the ones you fight inside your own head, when nobody else is going to know if you won or lost or even if a battle was fought at all.
Or to put it another way, and quote the Buddha, who knew about these things,
Though one may conquer a million men in battle, yet the noblest of victors is he who conquers himself. Self-conquest is far better than the conquest of others. Not even a god, an angel, Mara or Brahma could turn that triumph back into defeat.
We win some, but we lose many. We lose a lot. We lose our friends and we lose our family. In the end we lose everything. No matter who's with us, we always die alone. When you fight your battles, whatever battles you fight, it's always going to be about life.
We leave behind two things that matter, Stephen Sondheim said, in a musical I love and Amanda doesn't, and those two things are children and art.
Anthony's children are scattered: they are the people whose lives he has influenced and helped to shape. I count my wife as one of his children. Anthony's art is here, in these pages, waiting for you, as fresh, as sharp, as painful a hundred years from now when I'm dead and Anthony's dead and Amanda's dead and everyone we know is dust and ash and bones in the ground.
This book is a gift: and, as I said, it is the tales that accompany the gift that matter: the stories that show us the joy of event, of the shaping of memories, and the joy of a life lived, as all lives are lived, both in the light and in the darkness.
These pages are gifts, from Anthony to you, and they hold the tales that accompany the gifts, from someone who has walked into the darkness and now stands in the light, ready to tell you his stories.
12 November 2013