thank you for your steady flame,
i will strive to carry it
It's extremely fitting on the day my grandfather died I found myself locked inside a graveyard, which I only escaped by climbing a tomb and hopping a fence while the wind lifted my short skirt above my waist—much to the honking celebration of passing traffic. My grandpa would've fucking laughed his silent chuckle so hard until he was rolling on the floor.
That man had a sense of humor. Slightly dirty. But not too dirty. He was an elegant man. A simple man. A stoic clown. A man of the theater. A director, an actor, an organizer, an idea man, a quiet man—he played it all from the backfoot. Father of the coyote and the jester—my mother and uncle. I hope he is reunited with my grandmother. She was the loud one—ever laughing—bursting with joy and drama. She had the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard.
When I was a child, I would ask him to paint my face—he'd retrieve his make-up kit from the basement—it smelled like a few generations of stage makeup, and dozens of backstages and green rooms—a rich perfume of oil and powder and heavy black curtains and glitter gathering like cobwebs in corners, tinseled ghosts summoned through this ritual, stirring up the magic with each dip into the rouge or the blue cream or the white base. He used a stipple sponge on my cheeks. He put the flesh of his pinky into the red and white and patted it just so onto my lips. I'd ask him to draw stars on my cheeks.
After I danced or sang or pretended I was this or that fairy—semi-conscious remembering of prenatal knowledge, I would probably ask him to read a story. And I would sit in his lap and he would do the funny voices, of the Elephant's Child or Fox in Socks. And when he wasn't making me laugh and laugh, I would stroke his soft wrinkled skin while his voice—an elastic gargle, somewhat soft, wrought with gentleness—would spell all that was good and kind in the world.
I don't have much more to say about grandpa right now, or “g'pa” as he signed his cards for the latter half of my life. . .
I continue writing, two days later. . .
He had a commanding presence of peace and surety. He never liked anyone to cry. He always had a soft smile and a gleam in his pale green eyes. He wasn't flashy, but he was elegant. He wasn't brash, though a bit naughty. He wasn't loud, but he'd make the crowd roar. He didn't talk much, but when he opened his mouth, it was always at the right moment, it was always what was needed, always natural, and always seemed like the only thing worth hearing. In the right afternoons, any afternoon, any time of day, he could unfold the stories, wrap you a spell of tales, hilarity, hijinxs, and mystery, for five minutes to the hours. He was a magic man. A deep, wise, patient, radical artist. I learned love from him.
He wanted to see me in New Orleans. I face-timed with him a couple days before he died. He saw me on the streets of New Orleans. He was smiling. He couldn't talk very well. The call upset me so very much—I hadn't planned to call—I had meant to do something else with my afternoon—after the call I wept for a couple hours on the street instead and then went and improvised a song on a piano in a coffee shop. I am glad I called. I am glad a song found me. I meant to call him again. I didn't. But the last thing anyone could understand him saying was “I love you” to me. I asked Mama later: did I say I love you back? Yes she assured me, yes you said I love you back. The couple days before he passed, she would play again and again the recording I'd made of the improvisation, and read him a poem I wrote about him. He liked both very much, she knew, in the way of his nodding and the raising of his eyebrows, when keeping eyes open was too much for him. Mama told me she and Uncle John sat in the dark and sang him songs until they knew he had passed. I am so fucking lucky to have had an amazing, absolutely incredible grandpa.
He was a warrior of love, and a warrior for art.
He weapons were kindness and patience and laughter.
Yep. He basically taught me everything I know about how to exist. He with the green eyes, catalyst for creation in my family. Listen to this song I wrote for him on Friday. Click file below to hear the improvisation as it happened. I'll post lyrics later . . .
. . .some people came inside to listen to me and hugged me afterward, for indeed by the end of the piece, tears were falling as I played. Gosh, for someone who doesn't cry much these years, I've sure found myself crying a lot on this trip--mostly from being moved by connecting to strangers. I am blessed by love everywhere. Love is everywhere, like little weed blossoms in the sidewalks, leaves gathering in cracks, vines along a rusty chain-link fence--everywhere love spilling over, ready and waiting for you, for us, I want to give all my blossoms away, all my songs, all my hugs, take them, take them, have them, and thank you. . .
. . .
The night he passed, I was improvising more music at a celebration at my poet-artist-clown-friend Asa's house—for a short time, late at night, folks told stories of psychic events they'd experienced. I almost told the story of a dream my grandpa sent me in the fall. I didn't share it though—my thoughts faltered and I thought: I wonder if he will come to me when he passes? It may have been in that moment he did pass. The next day, I saw I'd missed a call from my father at 2am—and I rose and walked outside to receive the news.
Asa and his household let me wail and cry. I announced to those generous witnesses: his name was Donal Kieth Sexson—he was an actor and a director and a kind man and he was great story-teller and a great man! I wailed in the bathroom: grandpa grandpa grandpa I love you I love you I love you. . .
He lived a long life. A gorgeous, poetic, brave life. He taught thousands of people how to open themselves onstage—he taught people how to overcome their stutters and speaking fears—he put on circuses—he was a friend to every child and every person who needed a smile—he taught people how to be generous to one another, as artists and fellow humans. Please remember to be generous to each other. Remember laughter and peace and patience is all that matters. He had a very open mind. He was never a naysayer. Anything was possible in his view—if you asked him—for he was not one to preach a thing. He was available. He would help those ready to receive help. He never tried to change the things he couldn't. He lived altruism. He was elegant. He never complained. He kept himself happy. He lived by example. He didn't dwell on things. I heard new stories every time I sat by his chair. He made me smile and laugh every time by his side. Just thinking of him I smile. Through my tears I laugh. My grandpa was proud of me—he knew I was magic—I will be sad I didn't get to hug him one more time and feel like I didn't tell him enough how much he meant to me. But I think he knew. I know he knew. And he didn't need to know. But he knew. He knew so much. He had nothing to prove and gave as much as he could to all.
If you read this far, you are probably a good friend of mine—and if not before, you are now a good friend of mine. I know my grandpa was somewhere near to laugh with glee as I mooned traffic escaping a graveyard on his deathday. (I don't know how the gate got chained and padlocked behind me, but it did!) Later that day, I ate chocolate pistachio gelato with real raspberries in his honor, and drank chicory coffee which he loved. I just gotta eat some hushpuppies before I leave Nola for his sake too.
Most importantly I will continue to fight for myself and my dreams—he lived his dreams—he followed his callings unquestionably—and didn't give a fucking damn what anyone else thought of him. He fought for love and art. I continue his legacy. Every time I feel insecure, I'll think of him and his living example of self-love and “fuck em” attitude to the naysayers. (I never heard him say the f word tho.) And every time I feel the sparkling power of shining my starlight for an audience of any size, I will feel fiercely the joy of knowing his kindred influence. Any time I feel sorry for myself, I think 'well, shit, that's stupid' because he taught me how to keep on keepin' on. He taught me not to dwell. He taught me you don't have to be overbearing to have huge influence and change the world around you. He taught me not to question other people's processes—to trust that all happens as it can happen. But he was also an example of how to persevere for what is good and right and progressive. He would break rules if he thought it benefited his community. He was a quiet rebel. He could keep a secret. He had good, brilliant, wise, hilarious, loving parents who taught him he was worth his dreams and he has passed that belief on to his grandchildren and his thousands of pupils and artists he directed and to whom he gave his time and humor—he saw the gentle joke in everything—he entered a room with a positive step, a gentle smile, a confident head nod, and the sense that anything could happen, anything was possible, but it will all end well, because it is well, and we're all in it together, because we are it together.
I hope you follow your callings—and damn the naysayers. I am with you, my friend. Call me anytime. I am cheering you on. Love and Light, baby. We are all in it together. Death, birth, rebirth. . . What do you want to do before you die? I believe you will do it. Look in the fucking mirror and know you are a a miracle capable of who fucking knows what. What do you feel called to do? The world needs you right now! The world needs us! I love hearing about people's dreams and how they are fighting for their path. Send me a message about your current journey. You deserve to fulfill your calling. You deserve to laugh—you deserve to be the clown and the clownee—we all need to take turns prat-falling and playing the fool and holding each other and making up a song as you go along—you are ringing right now in the song of life—you are a love warrior, and I feel our dance growing stronger every day. Thank you for dancing with me. Thank you for fighting for yourself and the paths of love in all the ways you do every day. Keep doing it.
My ma texted me a picture of a quote today:
“To travel alone, I learned, isn't to rely on yourself. To travel alone is to force yourself to depend on others. It is to fall in love with mankind.” --Ken Ilgunas
I replied: “oh fuck yeah” and then “i meet marvelous strangers all the time and it affirms my feeling deeper and deeper that we are all connected just waiting to be friends”. I joke sometimes that all my best friends are strangers.
Just yesterday I stopped to talk to some strangers on a stoop. Turns out they were performance artists and magicians. They tried to teach me some magic tricks and I laughed with glee. I hung out with them for three hours at least. We sang songs together and made each other laugh and laugh. They fed me. Crawfish and chicken. Love and light as the sun went down.
The other day I met a woman on the sidewalk, maybe in her late forties? She asked me about my friend Clay's Sh'zambulance—I told her about the social-change circus work he does—from entertaining orphans in Mexico to helping distract traumatized refugees living in tent cities abroad. I told her I hope to figure out how to do a similar thing some day—bring joy through clowning. She told me she believed in me. She told me she liked the sound of my voice. She told me I was already doing it and that I was going to be a ukulele playing clown and that the world needs me. She was one of the angels I meet every day. She was living in her car, been traveling alone. She reckoned she might stay in New Orleans for a while—it doesn't feel like anywhere else. We talked for about twenty minutes about love and war and laughing and music and cosmic coincidences and embraced. Her solemn belief in me had tears in my eyes and her authentic sharing got me good in my gut. Just a coupla lone wolves howling each other onward on our paths, meeting on the sidewalk, exchanging a few words and worlds of love.
In my grandfather's name—or your name—or the name of all mankind would do just fine—consider donating money to Clowns Without Borders or Clay's Emergency Circus or name your own price purchasing my personal music as a way to support my own journeys about the world trying to figure out where my powers can be most effective for battling the of war in the world, how I can best help heal the world where love and laughter is most needed. Or consider donating time, money, presence and support to any artful outlet of love that calls you.
Most of all, consider for yourself the joy and wonder found in your world, the exquisite beauty in those near and far from you—in your kindred and the strangers—what you share in common with those in your neighborhood and those in refugee camps—we are all humans wanting to love each other, we are all humans just trying to survive and to help our brothers and sisters and children and parents—we are all made up of the same stuff—all the same kinds of heart and soul everywhere in the world—every person a wonder, and each of us worthy of joy and peace—hold onto this and foster your wonder and joy in any way you can as much as you can—and when you make a mistake, laugh it off and keep rolling in this glorious miracle of life—and if you are afraid, it's okay cuz everyone is sometimes—and you ARE brave and you ARE beautiful and I KNOW you can do it—YOU know you can do it!
Remember we are all connected.
Remember I love you. :)
Karen Mary Joan-of-Arc Magic-Music-Magic Unkel Kunkel
PS: here are the words to the improvised song for my wonderful grandpa. music—like any art—is like love—there is an endless well flowing all around us—sometimes it seems difficult to tap into—but the well is bottomless—the flow is always there—tap into the shared reservoir and you hit the place where all our souls are one. . . that is to say something encompassing the following the thought: I don't know where the songs come from—but I am so thankful. Another good quote for the day, an excerpt from Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”
ok so here are the words from the flow for g'pa:
The song from Flora
through the dark
you are a meadowlark, you are a meadowlark
you are a riverbed, you are a riverbed
what we all will become
oooh all your channels
all your blood vessels
are drying up
you hold five million billion cups
of the finest green stardust
steady, steady, steady, steady
oh steady steady rhythms
from your ancient stone
to the newest shell
you knew about all the magic
you know the spectacle of hell
putting everything just so
you kept all the sparkles
in a nice jumbled row
oh puttin on your stage makeup again
oh youre puttin on your satin
takin of your linen
never have a bare head
keepin your hat cocked just so
and a ring on your finger and a bow
walkin with a soft shoe
carrying no canes, carrying no props
takin a stage name
ooooh all the world is a stage
you inviting all the children to play
I can see you
sittin by the river
playin at yer mark twain
knowin it holds all our names
knowin you hold our names
black and silver gold and blue and green
oh you with the cat eyes
ridin the troupe trains
oh you're a wiley father of the coyote
father of the stage
father of my uncle
father of dionysus
father of the jester
oh it's time
to go/to hold
i'm not ready
i'm not ready for the show to be over
and the show is never over
oh you will take another name
I hope your spirit
finds that songbird flying over your head again
nesting in your arms
. . .
and then I tried to write more that day . . . but you don't need to read this last bit--I mostly just wanted you to listen to the song : )
The Poem after the song
Grandfather is in the river
written in the flora
sung by the meadowlark
in the banks of love
grandmother is the moon and sun
they dance a slow waltz
her laugh could blow your blues away
candles on a cake
tinsel from the rooftops
sweetness in the spring now
everyone take their place
the joke is written poorly
delivered like a king
the prince and fool
share a dance with their kin
everyone is laughing at what went wrong
and everyone is overjoyed
like a child's summer song
for everything is going swell
and everything is alright
and everything is good magic
at grandpa's every night
the children are a blessing
the food was really great
and if love the bounty
we'd always have a full plate
grandmother's hand inside his
in lawn chairs on the patio
their outside arms hold cigarettes
and the smoke is sacred peace
the backyard is a field
yellows gold and green
the hills are smooth
yield apples and nectarines
every day a little circus
and in the morn he'll tip his cap
in the afternoon he'll drink ice tea
and take a little nap
afterwards he'll kiss his queen
and then ask me what I need
I'll probably do a little dance
and then ask him to read
and he'll do the funny voices
and make the funny face
and I'll tug on his ear so soft
born knowing what he gave to me
tell the stories, tell the stories,
make 'em laugh is how to be free
He never dwelt on sorrow
he never spoke of anger
indifferent to tomorrow
waltzing through the day
never in a hurry
elegant is he
born in the springtime
with parents strong and witty
from the pasadina playhouse
to the shore of galway
to the streets of spain
and wenatchee valley
traveled like greta garbo
no words can compensate
for the steady love
the curious mind
of one so magnificent
a simple man
a wise man
a kind man
a sexy man
a teacher an actor a believer a skeptic a psychic of the comedic and the tragic a poet, director, lover
grandfather artist bohemian professor trickster punk feminist social changer radical liberal
he had a quiet power, and bright twinkle is his eye
he played from the backfoot
but he always hit the sky
he knew how to weave a spell
discreet and sometimes wild
he knew how to charm the charmers
and to play fool to a child
my grandfather is dying
he is like my father too
I don't know what to do
I want to sing to him one more time
and hold his beautiful hand
and listen to a story
and the record of a swing band
I want to see his pale green eyes
looking into mine
and know that he is proof