Dancing into Detachment
When I was young, I learned to hide. Our home was filled with alcoholic chaos. I knew my parents loved me, but I couldn’t trust them because I never knew when there might be another outburst, disappearance, or explosion. There were only so many closets, garages, and attics I could retreat to. I was a child. I didn’t know how to detach emotionally or how to protect myself from the physical and emotional abuse I was confronted with. I have a memory of someone falling down the stairs. I don’t remember if it was me or my brother Tim, but I do remember it happened during an attempt to escape my father’s rage. Years later, because of the uncertainty of the memory, a few people told me it didn’t happen, including my youngest brother who had not yet been born.
I have come to see that the people that deny the incident are likely blinded by their own trauma or rage. I did the best I could at the time. I learned the best place to hide was in plain view. I acquired the ability to shut out the world, to present a mask. I lived in two realities: the physical world with the people around me and a fantasy world, just as real, that no one else could even imagine, much less access. The problem was, that behavior took me out of the moment. I spent a lot of time consumed with the past and future because my life then was so challenging.
I did have two close friends during those early years, that brother Tim, and the daughter of my mother’s best friend. Outside of those two, I experienced a profound isolation, including a conscious separation from God. I walked away from God when I was five. It must have been November because most of the leaves had fallen, the trees nearly bare, the sky cold and gray. I remember standing on the slate walkway that led up to the imposing wooden side door of the church. The door was set in a harsh stone wall, built as if to keep me out rather than invite me in and protect me. I believed in God but couldn’t trust It for the same reason I couldn’t trust my parents. As a young boy, I was aware of the immense suffering in the world, and how intimate and personal that suffering was. How could I trust a God that was perfectly okay with all that violence and despair? I set out on a spiritual journey of my own, one that included deep exploration of such matters. It has been a bumpy road, and I had a lot of help along the way, but over time I came to really appreciate the nature of the spiritual experience known as Life. The good, the bad, and everything in between. My life is not free of trouble today, but it is certainly not dominated by my past. If you live in a family like mine, there is help here and here.
But even with years in recovery, there are still times I want to hide. A lot of human behavior bothers me. Like, seriously f*#king bothers me. I know such behavior is rooted in their fear, but sometimes I need a break. One of the spiritual directions I received along the way was to find recreation and hobbies. Sounds normal. A lot of people don’t seem to have an issue with this. They go to movies, listen to music, collect baseball cards, and do all manner of things to have fun and relax. It is a natural part of their lives, but it has always been something I’ve had to work at. Not that I don’t know how to have fun, like the man says, I’m way past twenty-one. But, for a long time, I felt guilt and shame for “indulging” in these distractions. In my family, I took on the role of being the good son in an effort to keep the rest of the family from flying apart. I tried to take on this same responsibility with the world at large. God sure wasn’t measuring up. There were small victories with individuals or families I met along the way, but I wasn’t able to fix the world at large, which just made me try harder. But recreation and hobbies are not hiding. They are a form of healthy detachment from the false belief that I even need to fix my family, or the world. Further, they are more than a healthier version of the closet I used to retreat to as a child. They are one of the things I have used to become more myself, to let go of some of my old ideas, to explore personal freedom, and to experience joy. They are more like sabbaticals or meditations on what it is to be human.
Some of the recreations and pastimes I explore in this journey towards inner peace include baseball (here, here, and here), comedy (here, here, and here), and fantasy art (here, here, and here). My favorite pastime though is the Grateful Dead. When they were still touring, I used to go to as many shows as I could afford, and some I couldn’t afford but still found a way, usually with a group of friends that included my brother Tim. It was some of the best fun I ever had. Music has been a refuge and a source of joy and inspiration since I was young. I have listened to, and played, all kinds of music, but the Grateful Dead are special to me.
The Dead used to let their fans tape the shows. No two shows were ever the same. We would go to three nights in a row and never hear the same song twice. Most of these shows are available on the Internet Archive. I have curated and downloaded over a thousand shows from the Archive. Before the internet came to be, I traded tapes with friends and acquaintances and ended up with a collection of a couple of hundred shows. As soon as the technology allowed, that trading community gleefully went online. Collecting and trading the shows is fun, open hearted, and engaging. There is a world-wide community that I am a part of who share a love of this music. I frequently share my collection with others, especially those who want to listen to shows, but don’t have the time or inclination to do the work of sorting through the various recordings on the Archive. But, collecting also helps provide a sense of order to a crazy world, even if it’s just for a few hours.
Some of my favorite shows include:
6/14/85, Greek Theatre, Berkeley (my favorite show, I don’t know why)
5/8/77, Cornell University (a very popular show)
12/28/79, Oakland Auditorium (it’s just good)
The Grateful Dead are, at their roots, a dance band. They play improvisational music that is fun, intimate, vulnerable, and in wonderfully magical moments, transcendent and pure. Not everybody likes what they do, which was great when they were touring because it meant more tickets for the millions of us who love them. If you are open to an adventure, listen to one of the shows linked above. My suggestion is to put the music on a good box, turn it up, and let your body do the rest. Always remember, if it’s worth playing, it’s worth playing loud.
Whatever God may be, I believe It wants us to live rich and full lives. I still often struggle in my relationship with God, but I have found the struggle itself to be an expression of faith and trust. Despite my doubts, frustrations, and despair, I keep coming back to the prayer. If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is. As much trouble as I have experienced and seen, there is a lot that’s right in the universe. That realization led me to the understanding that my job is not to hide, but to experience life, to live it, as it is–to be a part of the show, whether I’m onstage, dancing in the aisles, or even waiting out in the rain trying to scalp a ticket. I did not understand this when I was young. It took me a long time to learn that a spiritual life can be a very messy life. The Grateful Dead helped me a lot with that. Their process was very messy, yet the outcome was spectacular. These meditations saved my life. They help bring me into the present moment which is the only place I experience the wonder and beauty of the universe. In this way, the physical world and my fantasy world have become one and the same.
Dance a little. Love a lot. Enjoy.
Robert Kirwin is a writer and multi-dimensional human with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. He is working on the second draft of a novel that more clearly needs a third draft with every passing day. He has been rejected by some of the most prestigious publications in the world and continues to submit work wherever and whenever he can. He lives in Los Angeles, CA with his beautiful and tolerant wife, their dog, and two cats who keep a watchful eye on everything, particularly their food bowls.