Big Mike loved Jackson Pollocks. Paint like rain. A palette of chaos. In life, art was just one of his many havens.
Soccer was another, but not in the Thursday night barstool sense. He enjoyed watching his son, my friend Matt, coach high school soccer.
I did not know Big Mike well enough to name his other altars, but anyone could see he was a good man, gone too soon. Two boroughs away, I watched a Brooklyn community celebrate his life through a computer screen.
Like first raindrops and their rap-rap and tap-tap, early cases arrived in pulses on our wide American window. And when those windows whited out, flush from the downpour, we couldn’t bring ourselves to gaze through them. It was March when April showers brought funeral flowers.
I had recently been handed my own little calamities, but those were null and inconsequential to the loss of life engulfing the globe.
At home, I saw clouds hang over Van Cortlandt Park — even when they weren’t there. They hung over the space I had between time online. They nucleated in places I never expected. In mood, in appetite, in music — the whims of foul weather absorbed my choices.
From thrice more a drink than usual, to an anxious undercurrent swimming through conversations with family, and a gluttonous obsession with lyrical darkness, I could not escape the colorless sky. In those early days, none of us could.
I listened to Tom Waits for the first time. I found the pestilence present in his songwriting timely and fulfilling. His mangled covers, like Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love,” or Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” were even better. I cackled cynically with Leonard Cohen, and I contoured my longer idle stretches with cycles of fusion.
No Weather Report rabbit hole on YouTube was too deep for lockdown. Songs like Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” — which I once shared exuberantly with close friends — had diminished “the hexagram of the heavens” to a pentagram of purgatory. We were all locked inside, and Amelia was still at the bottom of an ocean.
Sometimes I was so spellbound at those skylighted grays, I really couldn’t unfix myself without a beat or a break in the song.
Spring was a beat I couldn’t ignore. The clouds loomed no longer. Life in Van Cortlandt, flora and fauna reanimated. Virulence remained omnipresent, but people returned to their recreational habits, even if only discreetly.
I thought about where I uncovered my joy, both indoors and out. I had been drawn to musical gloom and doom, but I had also consumed an astonishing volume of new material during lockdown. I couldn’t remember the last time I listened as intently or frequently. My tunes kept me ticking.
Come winter, I felt prepared. I understood how to weather the hanging clouds a second time. Lockdown may be trying, but it offers the opportunity to know ourselves for the better. We are simple creatures, crafted from flesh and blood. But we are also the tender handiwork of the humanities and the arts.
Small, energizing exchanges with music, literature and art remind us why finding joy is so critical to our well-being. Without them, coping with loss or isolation is nearly impossible.
So as omicron turns the world inward for a second consecutive winter season, I am ever hopeful we will find our solaces sooner. The cloud will always return, pandemic or not.
It’s how we chase them away that matters.