Last year, I brought Odd Salon, the SF cocktail lecture series that I co-founded along with two partners, to my weird little hometown. Once the boomingest boomtown, Grass Valley is now an adorable tourist trap in the Gold Country, a refuge for musicians, artists and eccentrics, and my favorite and least favorite place on earth. I don't really know why, I just had a feeling...this would be the perfect place.
My partners thought I was nuts, but I convinced them that a pop-up would be risk-free. Worst case scenario, I would personally eat the loss. I batted my eyes and stomped my feet and lay down on the carpet illustrating how I would probably die if they said no. They agreed to humor me.
|That's me, standing in front of more high school boyfriends than I care to admit.|
I wanted a testing ground. Since I knew I could guilt enough of my friends to attend to at least break even, I thought it would be the perfect place to experiment.
We packed up and headed to the foothills with a combination of local and ringer SF speakers. After two weeks of promotion, we brought GOLD, MURDER, & SPIRITS to the Holbrooke Hotel...
...and we sold out.
The venue loved us and invited us back anytime. The audience was pleased, and I was rewarded for my leap of faith by enthusiastic insistence that we do it again and again. While it didn't seem feasible at the time, it was obvious that Nevada County would be a fantastic place to create a salon-inspired community project like ours.
|Sean Sanford extrapolating on Black Bart's softer side|
One particularly meaningful accolade came from my friend Len. Len's opinion was very important to me. He was a very serious, quiet man who didn't drink or smoke, and always had valuable practical advice, pulled no punches, and inspired the people he cared about to be their best, even if what he had to say could sting a little in the dignity department.
He told me how impressed he was–he hadn't known what to expect, but he hadn't imagined a drinking-related night of intelligent discourse. (even though he could have done without the foul language) He explained how hard it was for someone like him to meet other people. Shy, sober, unable to engage in small talk or mindless chatter, this type of event could change his entire view on developing a social life. He said we really had something very special.
"Glowing" isn't usually a thing I am, but I know I was.
Fast forward several months later. I am giving my first Death Salon lecture on suicide, a topic very significant to me for many reasons that I'm sure will be touched upon as this project forges ahead. I was a little nervous, but I knew my subject well.
"By comparing Mount Mihara and the Golden Gate Bridge, we’ll look at the conflicting ideologies surrounding suicide in Asia and the US, using these popular suicide locations and their prevention solutions in each locale as focal points to examine not only the opposing cultural attitudes, but how they are evolving from opposite sides of the philosophy spectrum and beginning to “meet in the middle” with concern and compassion."
I did okay. Not my best, not my worst. I would have been much more prepared had I not been so distracted. I was relieved when my talk was over, and now my heart was pounding in anticipation for a fellow speaker's topic that I had previously glanced over with only a casual interest.
Today, Beza Merid had my full attention as he gave his death-related talk on the same podium I had just vacated. What he had to say was vitally important for me to hear now, because it was about the only thing I'd been able to think about since my OBGYN had called two days previous, leaving a kindly short voicemail with my biopsy results. Beza's talk was called Stand-up Comedy and the Popular Culture of Cancer.
It is the only talk I remember hearing that day, everything else was static. My bilateral mastectomy would take place a few weeks later, as soon as my pregnancy was in it's second trimester.
|It was a very long year.|
While I was recovering, we received a call telling us that our sincere, earnest, wonderful friend Len was dead. He had taken his own life, no one knew exactly why. I still have the voicemail he left me, telling me that I had something special, and I had a duty to share it with others. I listen to it when I don't think that's true.
|Whew! That was getting awkwardly heavy. Let's move on.|
Fast forward several months.
I am in full remission, and have a beautiful baby boy that is perfect in every way. I have moved home to Grass Valley to be closer to my family, and slow down the breakneck pace of my life as it was in the city. I am peaceful and grateful, but I am...disappointed. I loved what I was doing. I loved my work, and I loved Odd Salon. Cancer stole a lot of things from me that I could live with, but my career, just as it was exceeding my own expectations? What the cock was that? I had worked harder than I ever had, given up so much...and it was paying off! It was crushing, to be honest.
It remained too awkward and painful to be said out loud. I will always be a founder, and my voice and my mark can still be seen woven into the patterns of the voices of my partners. We all pretended like I would have this triumphant return, but I knew, and I assumed they knew as well, that I could never come back.
I was three hours away, had a newborn, and I was still very tired, and very affected. The salons had matured and improved in the year I was gone, and I had changed. I had spent years writing articles and telling knee-slapping stories about death and dying, but my interests had shifted, and mortality had stopped being a "story". My last talk with Odd Salon was dark. A lot darker than I intended. People stopped seeing me as vitality incarnate.
They started seeing me as someone death had brushed by.
I had never once considered that death would come around to heckle me just as I was warming up, using it as fodder. Was this some sort of cosmic joke? HAHAHAHA. Good one, universe.
I was lost and unsure of where to go with my career. I still wrote for the same places I had always written for, but I missed working with other people, curating topics and interacting and sharing ideas somewhere other than spreadsheets.
I had more insight into the topic of death now, too. My perspective had shifted, I was no longer gazing in through safety glass, I was all up in it, advanced directive and all. Where were my death homies? Where were my people?
One day I opened up my Facebook to an invite to a local Death Cafe. I had attended one in the area a year previous, and was impressed with the turnout. Even though Death Cafe tends to operate with more brevity than I'm always comfortable with, they were still my people, so off I went. That's where I met Mr. Tim Lilyquist, the mortician in charge of the event's venue, Chapel of the Angels Mortuary.
|I just steal these photos off of Tim's Facebook. I don't even ask. He seems fine with it.|
"Blah blah I think death is rad."
"Yadda Yadda, so do I"
"I'm pondering setting up a 'thing' here, kind of like a salon, but with some more variety, to appeal to a few different aspects. Like the industry! But I don't know much about the industry."
"That would be so bitchin'. Hey...I know all about the industry, and I have opinions and stuff too..."
"GET. OUT. OF TOWN. We should totally do a thing. We're doing a thing."
So, here's our thing. The other things and their influences will be apparent, but it will be it's own unique thing. Because the thing I do now, is much different from the thing I did then, in the "before" times.
I hope that Len was right, and this is something people want, maybe even need. I hope Tim can tolerate me. I hope you will want to be a part of it with us, because it's gonna be so extremely, ragingly bad ass.
Len said so. He wouldn't have referred to it in such foul language, but I know that's what he meant.
|Len's memorial garden. The skull says "Godspeed Len" in fancy silver paint pen. As it should be.|