My dear friend Sharon died on Sunday Dec. 5th. She has been one of my closest friends since high school and so losing her is evoking all sorts of reflections on life, death, spiritual path, friendship and more. I’m devoting this post to processing this transition. I’m writing it mostly as a focus point for my disoriented experience of loss. This is my first experience of losing someone that had a very central place in my life. I’m not quite sure how to deal with this kind of loss, so am doing my best to just move gradually through each moment, and to write everything that comes to me into this blog. So it’s a longer than usual post and less organized, as I have a lot to integrate.
Sharon Mussen had a kind of transcendence about her. I noticed this from the first time I met her on the corner of Center and Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. She had just returned from a year in Israel and had come back to Berkeley High School for what was both of our junior year. She seemed in culture shock and mostly just observed at first, quietly. But she had a power about her. I associate that power with her very long, very full, classic “hippie” hair. It reached out from her head in all directions, much like the energy that emanated from her at all times. It was an energy of calm, of fairness, of unflinching honesty.
As I got to know Sharon over the course of that year–through countless treks through forests, late night jam-sessions/hang outs and all sorts of other adventures–she became a kind of touchstone for my own integrity and kindness towards myself. Almost everyone who has met her mentions her special presence. I’m still holding reincarnation as a mystery, but Sharon is one of those people that encourages me to believe that our spiritual essences travel through many births, growing with each one–and that Sharon was a particularly “old” soul.
I had a particularly tumultuous year at Berkeley High, and returned to Los Angeles for my senior year. Sharon was the one friend that I maintained close contact with from that time forward. I saw her on each of my trips to the Bay Area, and we each visited each other during our college days. I remember my times with Sharon during my late teens and early twenties as a kind of regular spiritual path check-in. Being with her always reminded me that I’m on some sort of inner journey and that I have fellow travelers to share with along the way. I remember her getting out a guitar each time we reconnected and playing me whatever song she recently wrote or learned. In her music I was always transported to a world existing beyond time and form. She evoked a kind of mythological landscape–ancient, yet totally present and palpable.
Sharon was an artist through and through. I don’t know if she ever even considered art as a career path. But she saw the world through the eyes of creativity and wonder. Her music had a kind of purity that cut straight through to my heart. It rang with the vibrations of forests in the rain, long open paths, stories of long ago told around the fire and the longing for deep connection. And she was always sculpting, painting, welding or creating something that brought together the natural elements and urban living. I treasure the small sculptures she made for me. I don’t think she distinguished between art and spirituality or art and daily life.
Sharon moved slowly and mindfully. Not out of some concept of meditative practice, but rather because that seemed to be her nature. Perhaps if one is to have as much integrity and truthfulness as Sharon has, one has to move slowly. Once she got her brain tumor diagnosis and began her series of surgeries, she slowed down even more. This often took me awhile to adjust to when we were together. My life is so speedy that I had to apply the brakes dramatically when we would spend time with each other. Beforehand I would always think that I don’t have enough time to spend this much of it on something so basic, but then as we talked or walked or sat together, I would drop into another time zone. I would come back to a part of myself that I lose all too easily. I would reboot.
I treasure the memories of my meanderings with Sharon over the last decade. When I first heard that she had died yesterday, I found myself walking slowly around downtown Berkeley, in the rain for a long time. I felt the warmth of her presence each time I reminded myself to slow down whatever I was doing. I remember all the times of walking arm in arm, smiling with the joy of just being together.
I remember Sharon staying with me that night in high school when our group of friends went to the Jimmy Cliff concert at the Berkeley Community Theater. I had fallen off a railing when trying to slide down it earlier that day and was scared to try again. Sharon asked me if I wanted to conquer that fear and I agreed. She patiently walked up and back down with me as I slid the length of one stair, two stairs, three stairs, all the way up to a full staircase. We celebrated together when I could once again slide down a railing with abandon.
I remember a kind of lesson she gave me once at her house on Derby Street. I think I was spending the night, or at least there very late. She shared with me her ritual of pre-sleep snack. It was an improvised combination of things like Amazake, granola, yogurt, kefir, soy milk, etc. It seems to me still to be the perfect dessert to please and calm the body simultaneously.
I remember trekking through the woods behind UC Santa Cruz, in the rain with Sharon and her friend Jennie. We didn’t know where we were going, and might have even gotten lost. But with Sharon there was this sense of “nowness” that made getting lost no big deal. We were together and we could trust that. Eventually we’d find our way somewhere helpful.
I remember going to find her in the audience at one of the performances of mine she came to earlier this year. Her speech was already very broken-up and slowed down because of her tumor, and her body had become increasingly frail. But she joined me onstage for the big community dance at the end, with great joy. I am reminded of a significant lack of self-consciousness that she displayed then, and on so many occasions. Whether or not she knew what was going on or was confident about what we were attempting, she was game to give it a go, with seemingly no concern about how she would appear to others watching from the sides.
I remember the warmth of her smile and the genuine bubbling of her laughter. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting by her bedside, as she floated in and out of sleep and unconsciousness. I had my banjo and was attempting to sing songs to her that I thought would bring comfort. My banjo skills are very limited, and I kept playing the wrong chords for the Grateful Dead song “Ripple.” For awhile I would try to just keep going and ignore the mess-ups, but after awhile I acknowledged that I didn’t know what I was doing, laughing self-consciously. And from her sleep or other-worldly state, with eyes still closed, she smiled and all the tension was completely lifted.
I remember countless walks with Sharon. Walks around her parents’ house
in North Berkeley, around her house in Oakland, around the house I
bought with my brothers that she lived in for a time and around each
place that I’ve lived as an adult. These were like time outside of
time–breaks from my otherwise very hectic schedule.
I remember the house concert I organized as a benefit for my company, soon after Sharon’s first brain surgery. I had asked her to sing a few of her songs, and she got up there with her guitar and then completely blanked out on the chords, the words…everything. And she smiled that smile of hers and let us all know that she wasn’t going to be able to sing that afternoon. We talked a lot after that about what that experience was like, and I based my opening monologue for our piece “Drop” on that event. In the monologue I slowly lose my train of thought until I get to a place of complete blankness and then the lights go out. I thought of Sharon each time I did that and she “got it” in a way no one else could.
I remember waiting in the downstairs lobby during her first brain surgery. We were all so nervous. And then going up to see her after it was done, with half of her beautiful head of hair shaved off. It was a shock to see, as that hair had seemed like something that would never go away. And then hearing about the surgery from her, how they woke her up in the middle, with her skull cut open, to find out how close the tumor was to her brain’s speaking center. Talking about this kind of thing with Sharon was a kind of research for me into the very nature of consciousness.
And in a way it makes sense to me that Sharon was the first of our group (of spiritual explorers that came together quite powerfully at Berkeley High in 1987) to approach death. She was a quiet leader for us always–keeping us on track when we would get too caught up in one concern or another. So I feel so grateful to have spent regular time with her in these last couple of months. Sitting by her bedside, in silence or in song or simple conversation has touched me deeply. Even if I arrived worn out from my week, I felt refreshed by her energy in the room. It was definitely sacred space.
I felt my connection with her stronger than ever once it moved beyond words like that. She would open her eyes every now and then and communicate so much through brief eye contact. I don’t know exactly what she has been experiencing during her in-between time–her many weeks in altered consciousness in that hospital bed. And I don’t know what she’s experiencing now. But I had a strong sense of peace. She gave me the most powerful message about what it means to die during these recent sessions. It’s not anything I can really put into words, besides saying that it seems like such a natural and wholesome process.
This blog post has become a kind of altar to Sharon for me. I find myself writing a little, then going about the other things I need to do, then coming back and writing a few more lines, then doing something else. It’s a container to pour my feelings and questions and memories into.
When I first heard the news yesterday that Sharon had died, I felt a kind of warmth–a mixture of joy and relief. Joy that seemed to be a direct connection with Sharon’s spirit, and relief that her long struggle with this brain tumor had ended. But as the day went on, and then as today goes on, I find myself moving through all sorts of different emotional landscapes. I’m feeling combinations of gratitude, sadness, emptiness, desolation, fear about my own death, curiosity, the meaninglessness of life, the meaningfulness of life, anxiety and a kind of disconnection with myself.
This death is bringing home to me my own mortality in a way that no other death I’ve experienced has. Sharon and I are the same age. We’ve gone through so many important life transitions together. We’ve been teenagers, young adults, middle-aged adults together. As friends we’ve been through psychedelic trips, emotional crises, relationships starting and ending, marriages, a divorce, a brain tumor, seizures, brain surgeries, loss of speech, internal evolutions, and more. I’m 39 years old. Sharon died at this same age. The fragility of my own life is brought front and center.
And I’m aware of how important creative projects are to me. The only thing I can think of to do to help me through this is write about it. Probably I’ll make other kinds of art from this experience as well. I’m struck by how much art for me is about processing all the complexities of living and dying, much more than it is about a finished product of any kind. This writing right now is an outlet for me, a way to plug into my connection with the universe. Whether or not anyone reads it ever, I need to write it. And I need to publish it. Somehow just writing for myself isn’t enough at this point. I need to put my creations out there–and in many ways I’m unattached to it reaching anyone else directly. The important part of the public sharing for me is the sending it out. It’s a kind of acknowledgment and letting go. I say this all the time about performance–that once we put it out into the world we have to let go of it and people will receive it in whatever ways their complex personality structures filter it. But there’s another level to this letting go, that’s more essential than anyone’s reception. It’s the intention that goes into creating something to share. That intention is one of my primary connections to the universe around me. Even if I never share something, that intention as a starting place allows my truth to come forward.
Perhaps there’ll come a time when I don’t need that public sharing part as much. Perhaps I’ll eventually be able to feel that deep connection with the universe more steadily, even when things are private. But for now it’s a lifeline. I think this is why dance, more than anything else, has rescued me from my darkest traps. It’s that moving both outward and inward at the same time, that is I believe one of the most healing parts of art-making.
If I wrote all this in a place I was planning on keeping only to myself, I wouldn’t care so much about how the words and sentences organized themselves. This care is a kind of attention that forces me to stay present with what I’m sharing. This care keeps me coming back to write and rewrite. This care keeps me on track in a way that I have trouble staying in just a diary. I’m writing to you, the reader. But more importantly I’m writing to myself, to Sharon, to a mysteriously unfolding universe. All of creation is an audience, all of the time. But it’s useful still to have deadlines, showtimes, curtains rising to reveal this particular art-moment.
I saw the importance of music in a new way by Sharon’s bedside. My meager musical skills, which might not be enough to keep a large audience engaged for long, were plenty to connect with my friend in her subconscious retreat. Music felt like the only way to really communicate with her. Each time I tried to talk it ended up feeling artificial, or like the words I’ve heard others say at a death bed. but when I played my banjo and sang simple folk songs, I arrived fully into that room, and I felt Sharon’s presence most.