I am haunted. Some days, more than others. I suppose we all are. We all are inhabited by apparitions of one form or another. Loss. Grief. Anxiety. Failure. Confusion. Rejection Self-loathing. Depression. Loneliness. Shattered hearts.
I was thinking about all of this shit today as I took a walk, the comatose Midwest spring resisting it’s perennial resuscitation.
I am deeply drawn to art that dances with loneliness and melancholy. It is sewn through much of my own short fiction. The short story collection I am wrapping up right now (tentatively titled The Shadows Behind the Trees) is infused with these themes. The allure of desolation and melancholy is one of the primary reasons I bonded so tightly with Ray Bradbury. He was just like me. He understood loneliness. He sought to articulate it through his stories. To connect with others who felt the same. He dared to look at the beauty in sorrow.
Of course, the Japanese, in all their linguistic brilliance, have a word for this concept, that pensive waltz with sadness—“Wabi Sabi.” Roughly translated into brutalist English, “Wabi Sabi” means the acceptance of imperfection, transcience, and serene melancholy.
My favorite creations, from literature, to music, to visual art, more often than not, take on the aesthetic of “Wabi Sabi.” It is a theme I connect with very readily. I have had enough deathbed vigils. I held my Mom’s hand when she left this world. I watched her last breath taken.
I have said goodbye to so many people who I loved without reserve, inclucing Ray Douglas Bradbury.
I have held my beloved dog in my hands at the vet’s office as his little yet endless heart found its last beat.
I have walked away alone enough times in my life, that I seek solace through art that makes me feel, somehow, someway, less alone.
Ray Bradbury got all of this. He understood it with the wisdom of a venerable and wise Buddhist monk. Perhaps the greatest paragraph the man ever wrote was in his classic short story “The Fog Horn:”
One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, “We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I'll make one. I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life."
So many of the Bradbury stories that call to my soul speak to my sense of isolation, melancholy and loneliness. Walking today, late November in Chicago, I thought about other artists who have similar sensibilities. And I realized that the two artists, outside of Bradbury, who continually speak to me, have tremendous thematic similarities.
Painter Edward Hopper and punk rock bard, Ginger Wildheart. Strange bedfellows, indeed, but here me out. I realized today, these three, these three are the poet laureates—at least to me of loneliness.
Edward Hopper is one of the great mid-century American painters. Born in 1882, he is, perhaps, best recognized for his iconic 1942 late night diner magnum opus in oils, “Nighthawks,” a tourist mecca at the Art Institute of Chicago. But really, Hopper’s entire oeuvre is equally, if not more impressive than his best known painting of lonely late night urbanity. Hopper captured the desperation of American life, the anxieties, and the loneliness. The subjects of Hopper’s painting, shadowy flip-sides of Rockwellian American, show that we all, are indeed, haunted.
Punk rock raconteur Ginger Wildheart has the same uncanny ability for bottling the haunted. And I’m blessed to call him a friend.
Front man of the seismically underappreciated Brit-snot-punk-metal-120 DB-earth-mover, the Wildhearts, Ginger’s songs (Both with his band and in his eclectic solo career) are often raucously deceptive meditations on what it means to be desperately alone. The song, "Daylight Hotel," off 2018's Ghost in the Tanglewood, sums up a stay at an English mental hospital with beautiful aplomb.
We had lunch in lower Manhattan a few years ago and we walked around much of the day and he told me that he didn't like going home in the evenings. The evenings, with the darkening light, they troubled him. I have never listened to his music quite the same. So much of it contends head-on the solitude of the impending night.
And this was Ray Bradbury’s chief thematic modus operandi.
Sure, he wrote of book-burning dystopias and the scourge of planetary colonization as allegory for westward expansion. He wrote of good versus evil in the autumnal Midwest. He pondered child ghosts and time-traveling dinosaur hunters and kids who kill their parents for turning off their beloved entertainment devices. But like Edward Hopper and Ginger Wildheart, Ray Bradbury’s primary milieu was one of heart-breaking desolation. One look at his 1946 story “The Homecoming,” or 1942’s “The Lake,” or the blue hills of Mars in The Martian Chronicles, or any number of other tales and you see that Ray Douglas Bradbury well-understood, contemplated and dared even waltz with solitude.
We are all alone at some point. We are all haunted. The people we love leave us forever or go just go away for a few days. Either way, stories and music and paintings remind us that it’s okay. That, in the end, we really aren’t alone. As Ginger Wildheart said:
“You are not alone, you’re only lonely.”