…along the way.”
That, as you may recognize, is the unparalleled song No Woman, No Cry by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Contrary to what some figure, the title does not mean “If you don’t have a relationship with a woman, that’s great—your heart won’t get broken”; rather, it refers to a “government yard in Trenchtown”, Jamaica where the poor, huddled masses were trying to survive in what was obviously a horrible economy and conditions of stress and privation. The man (the narrator) is looking back on the time he decided he must go find work or some other opportunity, and when he was leaving, his wife or whomever was crestfallen and worried. His reassuring response was, “No woman; no cry!” which is basically a pidgin-type English/Caribbean dialect for “Please do not cry.” The reference to “good friends we had, and good friends we lost along the way” is part of Bob’s reminencence, with his woman, of all the good and bad things that have occurred to them in the refugee camp (or whatever kind of camp it is). It is shortly followed by the inimitable line: “Everything’s gonna be alright!” I picture him wiping her tear and then turning to head off to the “far, unlit unknown” (Rush’s phrasing in Subdivisions, a song that I consider a tear-jerker). No Woman, No Cry is a somber tale about the storm and stress a life tends to bring at one time or another, and the perceptive listener might just feel pangs of empathy and loss in their own memory, as I usually do.
When pairing that song with this picture (below), a tear comes, unbidden. I feel a heady sense of pain for good friends I’ve had, and good friends I’ve lost along the way.
Like Marley, I try to remember that in this great future, you can’t forget your past, and so I will dry my tears and write about the pain.
The photograph, though it has a horrible glare and is out of focus, evokes a wave of memory and emotion for me.
The man hugging me heartily, that night in downtown San Diego, my birthday in 2003, is J.J. Dickinson (let’s call him).
“No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever.”
My story is one in which I perceive myself as losing friends and loved ones, 90% of the time in a non-consensual way. That is, the missing friendship feels like a loss. It has happened over and over again. I do get that I might be predisposed to feel that loss, due to either my family’s divorce when I was 16, or some kind of genetic tendency toward broodiness and obsessive thinking. I also can say that with many women I have had some kind of relationship with over the years, I was probably responsible for 60-70% of the “break-ups” (or at least, the cessation in dates). But, having said those two things, I do feel like there is something to this phenomenon. I don’t think it’s “all in my head” or me being self-pitying. I believe myself to be a good and committed friend. Thus, it feels absolutely clear to me that loved ones and cherished friends either die, abandon me, or become uninterested. I also have a bit of a sense that I have inadvertently or semi-unintentionally made folks feel somewhat ashamed or that they didn’t measure up. At bottom though, I am plagued by a sense of ongoing withering friendships and love relationships.
I’ve been known to kind of just lose time staring out a window, listening to Sting’s Fragile, Rush’s Time Stand Still, U2’s Bad, or any song given to me by J.J.
Ah, J.J. I just got the chills to write his name. Let me see if I can give you a short version of the story, since it would take half of a book to relate the robust history of J.J. and me.
I met J.J. at a Renaissance Faire in about 1994. He attended with his then-girlfriend, a woman I think he quite loved. I was dressed in Portuguese garb, as a friend David and I started a little troupe that went to five or six “faires” along the Southern-Central California coastal circuit every year for a few years there. J.J. was fascinated by our whole shtick, and that a 19-year-old would put that all together and essentially act. We became fast friends, me going down to San Diego (from L.A.) to have lunch or something. At the time, he was with Sandra, was a pretty competent internal sales rep for a company I think called Healthline Systems, Inc., and was very religious. A very competent pianist and keyboardist. Loved music of all kinds. His father was a man’s man, a contractor and former Marine of large stature; his mom was his everything. He also had an extremely close friendship with a guy nicknamed “Augustine” (also of the birth-name Jason).
He was remarkable for his cheerfulness, humor, warmth, consistency, and creavitity. J.J. could be described by those who knew him as having a lust for life, and just being inimitable. He was “J.J.”, and no one else was.
“A tree is known by its fruit and a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost, for he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”
J.J. made his own kilt for the Ren Faire. He took photos at my college graduation because he was a competent photographer (that note, above, was from the little album he put together for me to commemorate the occasion). So many good memories!
Shakespeare referenced: “To be, or not to be—that is the question;/ Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing, end them?’ (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1). The Bard was asking whether it is better to commit suicide, or to stay alive and persevere. It is with a somber feeling that I reflect on the life of J.J. Dickinson.
In the course of the next twenty or so years, I would witness the highs and lows of J.J. in real time and in vivid color. His mother died. Augustine jumped off a bridge. He partied a lot. He realized that he was gay, so he parted ways, sadly, with Sandra, and also with the cultish church. J.J. lived a pretty wild life at times. He was predisposed to alcoholism, and it got the better of him. Clearly, he left Healthline Systems and cobbled together marginal work.
Gone were the Scottish festivals, the Ren Faires, the latin jazz concerts, the lunches, the trading music, the just hanging out. We were very close, and I’m sure I was his best friend once Augustine committed suicide. He went to jail quite a few times for things like public intoxication. He couldn’t hold a normal job. The poor guy was “gay bashed” by a group of three or four ruffians who were out, drunk and disorderly one night, and they knocked out his front teeth. I assume he picked up AIDS along the way somewhere, too.
Here is a story to illustrate the depth of the horrible effects alcoholism on the poor lad. So, he was just getting out of county lock-up for some damned offense. He had no place to go—no apartment, and his dad wouldn’t want him to come back home—they had fought one night and it led to fisticuffs, and though his former-Marine-father was quite competent and even abusive (verbally and at-times, physically), he was over 67 or 68, and thus, a mark J.J. left on his father’s arm was considered “elder abuse.” J.J. must have been drinking or I guess his father wouldn’t have called the cops. He was plagued henceforth by that fateful incident, that’s for sure. I think they both just never got over the loss of their beloved mom/wife.
Anyway, he was out and had no place to go. It was not going to be possible for me to let him stay with me due to both the alcoholism and also the fact that I’d moved 3,000 miles away by then. Well, I decided I would pay for a motel for two nights. Maybe by then he could find a SRO hotel or some kind of tolerable homeless shelter. I worked with the uncomfortable motel manager by telephone to pay for the room and put down the security deposit even though I was not going to be staying there that night.
How did the night end? Did J.J. take advantage of the peace and quiet, use the shower, get some food, and just relax and plan the next move? Of course not. I got a call from the motel manager, frantically advising me that the occupant was naked in the lobby and that he was calling the police.
I hung up, looked at my wife, and uttered “That son of a BITCH.”
Not long thereafter it just became clear that he was not a friend to me anymore. It was a one-way street, and I kept getting my foot run over by cars.
“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”
My wife and J.J. met once when we were visiting San Diego. I told her that he had been beaten up and had constant problems as a poor person with no dental insurance and good implants costing $3,000-$5,000. Yet, it was hard to not feel very sad seeing one of his big incisors missing. It was, I hate to say, pathetic. I left feeling just so crestfallen.
I decided in the following months that it would be better if I considered J.J. lost and gone, rather than to be there for all the pain and the alcohol-fueled, homelessness-exacerbated problems. The lies and the flaking and the feeling I was being used, it was all very hurtful. It’s very difficult to stand by an alcoholic in decline. I feel a deep sense of loss, and a bit of guilt, and anger, as I reflect on my friendship with J.J. Photographs are amazing things, if you think about them—they capture a moment in time, and a place, that will never be experienced again in eternity.
I don’t know where things fundamentally went wrong—the death of his mother and Augustine, his abusive father, gay/identity/self-acceptance issues, genetic predisposition to alcohol, poor choices in re: to lifestyle and substance use, guilt, shame, anger………or a gross combination thereof.
Here’s to ya, lad.
Jared, I hope that if you are alive, you found normalcy and prosperity, though in that case I would also feel a bit of betrayal. And if you’re dead, that you finally found peace. I suppose the worst option would be that he is still alive, but terribly mentally ill after years of marginality and alcohol abuse. Ω
“Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.”
Below are the lyrics to Time Stand Still. To me they are filled with regret, pain, beauty, meaning, and profundity. Then I will share a few quotations about friendship.
I turn my back to the wind
To catch my breath,
Before I start off again.
Without a moment to spend
To pass an evening
With a drink and a friend
I let my skin get too thin
I’d like to pause,
No matter what I pretend
Like some pilgrim —
Who learns to transcend —
Learns to live
As if each step was the end
Time stand still —
I’m not looking back —
But I want to look around me now
See more of the people
And the places that surround me now
Freeze this moment
A little bit longer
Make each sensation
A little bit stronger
Experience slips away…
I turn my face to the sun
Close my eyes,
Let my defences down —
All those wounds
That I can’t get unwound
I let my past go too fast
No time to pause —
If I could slow it all down
Like some captain,
Whose ship runs aground —
I can wait until the tide
Make each impression
A little bit stronger
Freeze this motion
A little bit longer
The innocence slips away…
Summer’s going fast–
Nights growing colder
Children growing up —
old friends growing older
Experience slips away…
“A man of active and resilient mind outwears his friendships just as certainly as he outwears his love affairs, his politics, and his epistemology.”
So far as I have observed in this life, ten men have failed from defect in morals where one has failed from defect in intellect.
Life can bring almost indescribable pain. No one gets a free pass. They didn’t come up with the phrase “Life sucks” for no good reason. Sit with that. Then reflect on it. Then endure it. Hopefully it will enlarge your compassion, your willingness to risk, your appreciation of the good times. I’m not sure if there is any meaning to life in the cosmic sense, but one can either stick with it and create some kind of meaning, year after year after year, or if the pain is too much, I would not blame them for seeking an exit. I wish we had ultimate and God-given answers, but I don’t believe we do. It’s absurd, but it is what it is.
“One of the characteristics of good relationships—love relationships or friendships—is that they have a mutually enhancing effect on feelings of self-worth.”
Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit.
“There are, in fact, few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one’s best friend.”
“We are an arrogant species, full of terrible potential, but we also have a great capacity for love, friendship, generosity, kindness, faith, hope, and joy.”
The company of just and righteous men is better than wealth and a rich estate.
“While money is not a root of evil, love of money surely is. Greed or sudden wealth can stir extremes of bad behavior in people. At bottom, Rudyard Kipling’s parable is also about the worthlessness of money compared with a family, community, love, and friendship.”