An Insufficient Response to the Death of a Great Artist by thom caraway

Dear Mr. Jones,

I won’t say I’m the saddest, or that you were my favorite artist. I don’t own all your albums, I haven’t read books about you. But maybe of all the artists I’ve ever thought about, you were among the few who, even not being an intimate fan of your work, I was just glad existed in the world. You didn't influence my art, I don't think, but my concept of what art does. You always made us listen, made us look harder, closer. You changed and made us change.

I’ll admit my first appreciation of you was superficial. I was born in 1973, and there were few adults in my childhood who didn’t call me, at some point, or often, Major Tom. It was nice to have some significance built into my name for me, so thanks. I was also a very thin blond boy and young man, perhaps even, when my hair was long in a conservative town, a bit androgynous. With somewhat abnormal, even severe facial structure. I thought I was odd at least. I didn’t really look like other boys my age, so in the 80s, when I’d see you in music videos, I thought, well, that guy is odd looking and everyone loves him. I felt less awkward about feeling odd. If I’d been attuned enough to know your Thin White Duke persona, I certainly would have adopted it. But as with many things, I had a hard time seeing past myself. And of course, not everyone loved you. Upon your death, I imagine there will be small-minded responses of something like satisfaction. One less of “those people” in the world, whoever “those people” might be. I know plenty of folks who are perfectly willing to write off an artist like Willie Nelson, because for so long he advocated so stridently for marijuana-usage. And I’m sure folks like that aren’t willing to forgive you for loving whoever you loved, or even for looking like you looked. You weren’t a proto-typical Man, certainly not by American standards, if such a thing ever existed (and if it did, it was likely John Wayne, who was of course just a character). But, you know. Fuck those people, that attitude, the kind of culture that produces or supports it.

It always appeared as though you said, without asking anyone or looking around at what others were doing, “This is what’s cool.” And then it was. It was probably the case then as well, though it seems more pronounced now, that such daring is increasingly rare. It had to have been rare then, as well, too? One need look no further than any avenue of pop culture to see the sort of overwhelming sameness that is the antithesis to your youness. I’m not sure there is any such thing as a quintessential David Bowie. The best thing going about in tribute to your life is a gif of 15-20 chronological iterations of you. And I can place a song I love of yours in most of those iterations. And they were all different. I love “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and “Let’s Dance” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” and “Strangers When We Meet” and “Black Star.” And they are all so different! I don’t know how you managed it, to remain innovative, good, and you at the same time.

In my early thirties, I imagined starting a magazine. Each issue would feature an extensive interview with one artist, and some corollary articles. History, discography, etc. Mostly it was a way for me to talk to great artists. Yours was the first name I came up with, really the only one. I spent weeks imagining the interview, what friends we’d become. I might’ve been backstage with you during the awards show when you performed with Arcade Fire, which remains one of my favorite collaborations or guest appearances ever (your cameo as Tesla in The Prestige is up that list as well). Of course, the magazine never went further than my head, and I doubt even if it had flown, I wouldn’t have had the courage or connections to assail your walls of celebrity or privacy. It wouldn’t have been much of a pitch. “Yeah, would you be willing to let me, you know, just hang out with you for a week or sixteen? I’ll ask you some questions. No, nobody knows or cares who I am. The magazine doesn't exist. What do you say?”

I’m listening to “changesonebowie” on vinyl right now. There’s that moment in “Young Americans” when the back-up singers sing, sort of parenthetically, “I heard the news today, oh boy.” I love that. The song didn’t need it, it barely had anything to do with anything. You just liked the way it sounded, I think. I love that you didn’t just riff or sample other artists. It was always homage. The duets, the collaborations, the cameos. You always seemed like you were having the best time. Bing Crosby, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Queen, Annie Lennox in tribute to Freddie Mercury, Trent Reznor, Arcade Fire. So many others. At the end of “Wake Up,” how were you the one saying, “Arcade Fire, ladies and gentlemen!” like they were the big deal? (I just had to change the verb tenses in those sentences.)

You just loved the music. Not your music; music. Art. Life. I think maybe they were inseparable for you. I think you loved it when others did beautiful things, even if you were the other. There were so many personas, so many versions of David Bowie, and behind them all was Davey Jones, a guy who was maybe a little odd, and who appeared to find every way he could to make that just fine. You made that oddness, my oddness, everyone's oddness the whole show. You weren’t afraid to fail, or at least you weren't afraid of risking failure. 

More than anything, perhaps, you risked the story. Your characters developed, even if they only lived in one song. Every song, every album, every appearance was a story. And there was such gorgeous joy in the telling of those stories. Thank you for that. Thank you for everything.



a fan

House Fit for a Lobster by thom caraway

Weve been looking at houses again. My wife and I do this from time to time. Mostly in the early years of our marriage, and usually, the searches involved the dream of buying land outside of a city, or some sprawling five-bedroom monstrosity in a quiet part of town. Sometimes, those dreams have included altruistic ideas about artist retreats (building a bunch of little cabins on the land, and letting artist-types come use them)[1] .. But really, they were exercises in escape. Lani is a hermit at heart, and I have periods where I want isolation. Not too much. Im a much more social creature, but still, a life in the country, away from noise and cars, where we could raise chickens, goats, and maybe a pig or something: this has appeal.

Those searches were always fanciful. Through the twelve years of our marriage thus far, Ive either been in grad school or working as a lecturer (full-time teaching load, minimum-wage pay). Ive made more than $30,000 a year twice. Lani has been unable to work more than a part-time job, and the last two years, shes been unable to do that (chronic pain and fatigue, a whole other story). To make ends meet, we sublet an apartment in what used to be our garage and every spare room in our house. There have been housemates who were unable to pay rent or buy their own food. Its always tight, and we are frequently overdrawn. Our kids pick one sport or activity each year, because we cant afford them all. We have help. People send us gift cards to grocery stores. We qualify for state food assistance. Grandparents take us all out to dinner, or on short weekend vacations to Silverwood or camping. Despite Lanis hermetic tendencies, we mostly enjoy living in community, and doing so is an important part of our call to mission. Still, it can be difficult. Laundry requires a schedule. Meals have to take food allergies or other requirements into account. The dishes always need to be done, and housemates rarely help clean. Walking through the house naked is definitely out.

Ive recently been hired by the school Ive taught at for the last seven years to teach the same classes Ive been teaching, only for double the pay (there is tremendous inequity in the adjunct and lecturer labor markets nationwide. Again, another story). But now, the house-seeking is a bit more urgent. We wont be living below the poverty line, for the first time ever, and buying a house is a realistic option. Weve started to think about concepts like “disposable income” (what an awful phrase), about where we want to live, rather than where we can afford to live.

Looking at houses in Spokane provides some interesting historical insights. You can essentially track the expansion of the city through the decades based on the homes that occupy the various neighborhoods radiating out from downtown. The city center, including downtown, the lower South Hill, Brownes Addition, and West Central (our neighborhood the last eight years) are packed with homes built between 1900 and 1920. Old Victorians carved into four-plexes, big Colonials, sporadic farmhouses, and lots of Craftsmans,. Cape Cods,  and brick bungalows. Between 1920 and 1940, Spokane spread outward. Corbin Park up to Garland, Audubon and Emerson-Garfield. East toward Market and north toward Wellesley. Little box houses. After that, you find the introduction of the rancher. In the twenty blocks bBetween Wellesley and Francis, you can see the rancher begin to take over, and by the time you get to Five Mile, theres little else. The last forty years have pretty much been split-levels and McMansions, the bland cookie-cutters of the suburbs leaking north toward Nine Mile and Deer Park, old rural villages gradually being absorbed into city growth-management areas.

When youre too poor to make choices, living simply is unavoidable. When we first got the official news of the new job appointment, we looked around our house and started mentally upgrading. Second-hand chairs and bedroom furniture: replaced. Our couch and bed, bought new fifteen years ago: gone. Yard sale area rugs and end tables: history. No more lamps we pulled out of dumpsters and bought new shades for. I even fantasized about replacing all the bookcases in the house, which Id built years ago. We worked our way up the chain of stuff. After wed fantasized about the furniture and appliances, it was our cars, as second-hand and run down as our chairs. Finally we landed on the house. We could replace our house. We could move somewhere that wasnt filled with the sound of sirens and barking dogs, where every tenth house wasnt boarded up, condemned as a meth lab, or burned to the ground. Where people just threw away or recycled their old appliances rather than putting them on the front porch, or in the alley for scavengers to pick over. We could finally afford to get away from everything, from everyone.

It took a couple weeks of this before I finally thought about what we were doing. Wed constructed our lives in a way wed felt called by God to live. Community, simplicity. We didnt value stuff; it was starting to feel like we’d just never had the money to value stuff. I closed all my search windows, open to $3000 refrigerators and $1000 rugs. I think Lani reached the same conclusion, because she stopped sending me pictures of couches and dining room tables. We never even discussed it. We just stopped.

People always tell us that were difficult to shop for at Christmas. One might call our tastes “eclectic.” A friend recently said, “I love your house. Nothing matches. You could put anything in here and it would fit.” This year, Lanis grandmother got me a metal lobster. Im sure she just looked for the weirdest, tackiest thing she could find. It went right on the wall, at home amongst some of my other favorite things: a blue plastic horned cow piggy bank Ive had since grade school, an old typewriter, a weird ladybug thing. We decorate with copper measuring cups and fancy cutting boards. As weve looked seriously at buying a home, its hard to imagine some of these things in, say, a 1960s rancher or a 1995 California split.

Theres something very settled about West Central. Aside from the crime and poverty, its a neighborhood we love. And really, not even aside from those things. Because of them. Its a real community. We know our neighbors, we look after each other. We all need help. Theres no pretension. Some people take care of their yards; most dont have the time, energy, or resources. The need to keep up appearances has long since been revealed as ridiculous. A new housing development has been going up across the street for the three years weve lived in our present house. The contrast is striking. Kendall Yards residents haveis an HOA, so there are contract landscapers, lawn mowers, and sprinkler systems. Our side of the street is mud and dirt, hundred year old maple and walnut trees. Weve got chickens and piles of old tires. Theyve got Pottery Barn and flagstones. But part of us wants to be on that side. We want green sod and outdoor kitchens, new cars in functional garages. The allure is strong. How nice would it be to live in a house that doesnt leak air heat out hundred-year old windows, that doesnt have four or five different configurations of plumbing and electrical?

The old plan was to buy the house we live in when we could afford it. Some day. We know the owners and have been friends with them for years. They were staunch neighborhood advocates and activists who fought for economic justice, against gangs and drug dealers for decades. Then they picked up and moved to Whitefish, Montana. That was disconcerting, and a whole other story as well. Theyd built community the way we want to. Theyd helped for as long as they could. . Then they just left. West Central activism has a pretty high burnout rate, even among the most dedicated. Idealistic Christians and other well-intentioned activists have moved here hoping to make a difference,  and but fledleft quickly. Business owners have had enough and moved north or south, away. Young couples leave as soon as they can, hoping to raise their kids in safer places. We try not to, but we judge them, smug and self-righteous. To some extent, we also envy them their unbarred windows, their undamaged door locks (most of ours have been jimmied at some point, and bear the scars of the screw drivers and pry bars of past burglaries). We take pride in our lives of seeming deprivation. Its an on-going problem.

Our house contains us perfectly, just as the neighborhood does. In my carport is a broken dryer. I put the oldest of our couches in the alley last fall. Scavengers have taken the cushions, the hide-a-bed mattress and frame. Part of me admires those scavengers, their resourcefulness. Nothing goes to waste. But Im also chagrined by my privilege, saddened at the necessity of someone dragging a sodden, stinking, crummy mattress down the alley because its better than nothing. When I think about moving to a “nicer” neighborhood, I think about the busted freezer on the back porch, our homemade chicken coop and compost bin. The complaints “nice” neighbors would have about the noise and chicken-shit smell when it rains. About the shabbiness of our things. I like shabby things. I am a shabby thing.

I don’t know what God wants. I have no gift of discernment. But when we were broke, God brought us to West Central. He brought us into contact with the broken and lost, people who have lived with us after fleeing drug abuse and abusive relationships or when they were on the brink of homelessness. Or when they were (or are) just broken. As we are broken. Nothing about living here is easy. Evangelicals love to use the word ‘intentional,and thats what this kind of living requires. But when you live in the middle of it, it isnt intentional, its just hanging on, just life. Theres no getting away, only various forms of running from it, ignoring it. I have no gift, but I cant imagine that hiding from conflict, from trouble or difficulty, is what God wants. In fact, it seems to be the exact opposite of what He wants.

I think about my metal lobster in the entry way of some carpeted rancher, someplace already remodeled or restored. I dont know if that lobster would work anywhere but in our beautiful old clunker. Scuffed floors and narrow doorways, turquoise bathroom tile and close-in neighbors. It looks pretty good right where it is.


::This piece was originally published on Cara Strickland's website, "Little Did She Know."

The Wall is You: Entering the Kingdom by thom caraway

originally published on How to Talk Evangelical, the website of the fabulous Addie Zierman.


As the editor of Rock & Sling, a literary journal that publishes work that engages faith issues, the relationship between writing and God is often at the front of my thinking. I look for poems that seek not the easy platitudes of Proverbs or Psalms quoted out of context, not that which avoids the central conflicts of faith and doubt (not that the Psalms are easy, of course, but when you take one sentence and put it on a poster or say “God has a plan,” I tend to become uninterested in a hurry). I want to publish work that is taking faith issues on in beautiful and meaningful ways. Work that isn’t certain or doesn’t have all the answers.

But in my own writing, I rarely wrestle with these issues, explicitly at least. I wasn’t a Christian when I started writing, coming to faith only in the last few years. And while it was partially through poetry that I was able to access and understand the beauty of God’s creation, those issues still stayed out of my writing. I find as much spiritual guidance in the work of Wendell Berry, B.H. Fairchild, Marilynne Robinson, and John Hodgen as I do in the Gospels. But I can’t seem to do it myself.

It’s just too big. I still feel like an infant Christian. I didn’t grow up in a church, so I don’t have decades of King James rhythms, hymns or sermons bumping around in my memories. I am not fluent in the language (I came to Addie’s blog the first time legitimately looking for ways to talk evangelical), and I feel at times a bit like an imposter to Christendom (though I often still feel this way about my poetry, as well).

But a year or so ago, my church asked a few of us writers to compose a series of responses to Psalm 23. Even I knew which one that was. That’s got all the big language. Like, all of it. “The valley of the shadow of death…” That’s heady stuff, and I was already intimidated, so of course I said sure.

The assignment was essentially ekphrastic. My poem would be a response to the tone and feel the Psalm inspired in me. I could handle that. While I see many poems that respond directly to various Scriptural passages as Rock & Sling editor, I knew that I should avoid certain pitfalls. My first draft, of course, fell into all of those pits. Through a drawn out process of revision, I started to mold it into a shape I liked. Here is the result: 

Shine, Imperishable City

When I close my eyes, I’ve seen
the shimmering city—light,
gold as the harvest,
heard the distant wash of music.
But the city was walled, black stone,
and I could not enter.

“The wall is you,” he said, “you
are the wall.” I knew that what was in the city
was not for me. I knew that inside,
my enemies ate at my table, knew
that there were no enemies, not even me.

It is no simple thing to enter the world.
First, we depart these angels
of our common love. We give up
the shadow of a thing for the thing,
the shining city, this meal and cup,
this terrible oil, anointing me beloved.

Surely, this is the kingdom.
Surely, I am black stone.
Surely, the city is for you, for me,
and the wall becomes glass
and the kingdom erupts, surely heaven
surely earth, angels and cup, world without end.

(published in InTouch magazine)

The poem draws in several elements that had been working in me. The first is the vision, a recurring dream I’ve had most of my life. A city I always understood as heaven, with yellow light and symphonic music emanating from inside, but the walls were too tall and thick and I could never find a way in. I’d told a friend that story one day, the day I became a believer, actually. And he said what he said. Sometimes the Spirit speaks poetry into your life, and you receive it. I’ve learned to feel blessed rather than lucky.

From there, I try to get close to some of the psalmic language, to ramp up the rhythm and build a crescendo, which includes the contrasting emotions I have about salvation. This is the “terrible oil” line. Salvation and grace are awesomely freeing but also terrifying. If you aren’t terrified by your salvation, I don’t understand you. The scope of it is beyond comprehension. ‘Humbling’ is too small a word. But it’s there, and we’re in it, and I wanted that heavenly city to erupt. That’s how I often feel about God, that He’s erupting into my world, both destructive and saving.

And while I am still looking for ways to engage my faith more explicitly through my poetry, I have faith that the Spirit will lead me there, in His time, when I’m ready. And I’ll take the fleeting glimpses in the meantime.