It’s going to take awhile to process this death. It always takes awhile to process the death of someone under 40. There are so many ways to think and bleed and cry through Farrell’s death. There’s the tragic loss to the community, his tribe, his family. There’s the tragic loss to art and literature. There’s the personal loss of knowing those of us who knew him in a particular way will no longer receive the midnight phone calls–sometimes angry, sometimes maudlin, sometimes sweet.
I first met Farrell in a class he was teaching on Maidu. I tried to follow along and stayed long enough to be able to write a paper for a language acquisition class. I was intrigued. He was strikingly handsome, tall, solid. And dressed that day with casual purpose—he looked as out of place as I usually do. He was wearing a button down shirt not tucked in a town of t-shirts and light colored pants in place of jeans. Like he was a throwback to a bygone era. That’s what comes of spending a childhood hanging around old people. I recognize that. I spent my childhood doing similar things and collecting the stories I heard at their knees.
He was suspicious of me. And then somewhere a long the way I proved to him my intentions were good. I wasn’t going to be sanctimonious with him about drinking, nor was I going to enable it. My intent was to see beyond it to his brilliance.
And he was brilliant. We bonded first over writing. I was writing short stories and he was writing a novel in which Coyote came back to the mountains unable to assimilate back with the people now his legacy. THey were his people but they were strangers and sometimes the character couldn’t recognize them and often they were so stuck on Jesus they couldn’t recognize him either.
It was a difficult book for him to write and even a harder one for him to read out loud. THere was too much there. So much sadness and no real solution to stitch together a way to go forward. BUt it was brilliantly written.
He didn’t finish it. He took up painting again. When he was broke, I bought him paints. He didn’t want expensive paints, he wanted any paints and any surfaces. Sometimes I stood in as model. Sometimes I stood in as sounding board. And sometimes I slunk back to my family frightened by his rage or his beauty or the many demons he struggled with.
He painted the interior of his house a passionate red. When I’d stop by after dropping the kids to school there’d be broken glass, stale cigarettes, empty bottles, and something beautiful created.
I was happy to know him in any almost but not quite completely safe capacity. We would argue. I wasn’t a real artist, he’d say, because I can leave it and make dinner for a family. I wasn’t real because my demons didn’t crowd the house at night. In silly vanity I would defend myself. I’m older, I’d say, I’ve done this already. But we both knew that while I’d been homeless before and incapacitated myself with drugs and alcohol and men and screaming inside my head at all the secrets that childhood weighs one down with, that I had the ability to leave and walk into the crowd unnoticed as different.
Farrell Cunningham though. He was the very definition of difference. He couldn’t hide it. And admirably, he didn’t even try to. Every once in awhile you meet someone who seems to be walking this incredible invisible line between worlds. He was spirit and flesh at the same time. He was all that was greatness and all that was troubling. His mind went places that hardly anyone’s ever does.
I grew up with difficult people. I gravitate towards them. I know they are going to be trouble. But he often overwhelmed me. Perhaps in another time in my life I would have fallen in love, but I didn’t view him as a lover so much as I saw him as a part of me that I was afraid to acknowledge. This is the you you’d be if you truly let go.
How does one live in this world having let go of this plane of existence??
And then he would do something beautiful like take me to gather willows to make a basket, hang out with me and the kids and the husband and teach us things. This world things. Things like gathering of plants, naming off animals and plants with their real names, their Maidu names. He would be of this Earth. Mired and dirty in it. Grounded completely.
And then he and Coyote would be somewhere distant, somewhere where mere humans could not go.
We liked many of the same authors and books. The Grotesque particularly intrigued. One day I was re-reading Carson McCuller’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. Her friend Tennessee Williams wrote the introduction to the book and illustrates these side by side planes of existence. He writes that those in the mundane every day world plane see the world in a particular way–and that is fine–but they/we regular folk have no right to judge those of us living on the other plane, fighting the other battles and demons and living in the spirit world the only way we know how. Williams is right. We cannot smugly judge and say ‘we’d have done it this way.’ We don’t know crap about the sensitivity and overwhelming sorrow it is to live on that other plane. Sometimes I feel like I know what it is like to live in both places. I’ve seen both. But Farrell man, he took up residence. He built a house there. Brick and mortar. He fucking lived it and we’re all just tourists.
You can only stand close to a fire for so long before you’re consumed by its flames. I chose to back off. It’s a hard for an artist to love a friend and walk away. But mother artists walk away. Wive artists walk away. They have families to protect and nurture. A place to channel all that energy when the art isn’t coming the way you want it to.
When he moved away I was happy to see him go. Go on! You’re young still. Explore the world. Come back for us, all of us. It can’t be easy shouldering a whole world. He was coming back. He was calling again. Sometimes at midnight. He nearly got hit by a car last spring as he ran to hug me as I was going into my office. And I was so glad to see him. And to see him looking so well.
We were still friends. Midnight conversation friends. I’m there if you need me friends. Championing each others work friends. This life, this town, this century is all bullshit and we know it friends. You and I , Farrell, we are in on the joke. We own the joke. Everyone needs people who get the joke without the joke being explained. Having to explain yourself, well, that just leads to fucking anger and a fist through a wall.
Farrell, my dear, who I hadn’t sat down for a cup of tea with in more than a year or so, I count my family lucky to have met you. Me lucky to have known you. I will continue to champion your work and love and miss you, the man who lived between the worlds, fiercely.