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Bay CrossingsJournal

Southern Cross

By Bill Coolidge

Stephen Stills and David Crosby don’t tuck their shirts into their pants anymore. Wide chested men, both. They sport their California rags with pride. David’s face has taken on a pink flora patina. Stephen has a raspy beard. His gray hair doesn’t flow in silken white curvelets like David’s.

The guy in the middle, dressed in black, shirt tucked into pants is Graham Nash. Lean bodied, scanty hair in front, stroked back on the sides. He has a pencil thin mustache, barely visible on the giant screen at Walnut Creek amphitheater on the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina.

A misty rain fell and night fog came in at the beginning of the concert, providing a calm and lasting presence. We moved from our blanket seats on wet ground to stand inside the roofed pavilion. At 8:05 p.m., the trio ran out followed by the drummer, the bass guitarist and keyboarder. Tears leapt and dribbled down my smiling face. Tears I wanted to go away because they surprised me. "Why now, what did they mean?" I tried to wipe them off my cheek, but my wife, Karen, touched my eyelids with her forefinger, giving them a blessing. Then she kissed them.

Southern Cross. When was it written, 30 years ago? David Crosby wrote, sang it, and sailed out into the South Pacific. A stubble of a dream for me then. I was jealous; I had two babies, one on each hip. The three of us marched on Saturdays protesting the Vietnam War. Water, vessel, sailing, freedom, a wistfulness. I stood my ground, hugging my babies.

After the long drive back from the concert, I awoke with just a few hours sleep, grateful for my age, the memories of the late 1960s, the pulse of last night’s rock and roll. Karen snuggled in against my shoulder, chest, and thigh, purred lightly. For 30 years, I had wanted to go to that concert. "Before I die," I told myself, "before I die." I smiled as I thought about Crosby, Stills and Nash, the sun lit forest, the hammering of a pileated woodpecker outside my window.

I swayed with my babies as a recording of Crosby, Stills and Nash was amped across the Lincoln Memorial field in Washington, D.C. At that moment, I entered a threshold of a strange mystery that has held me since. Words faded away, anger vanished amidst the half-truths of body counts, victories, the fugued optimism of McNamara and Johnson.

"Get back to the garden," held the thousands of us in an abundant silence, entranced. My daughters shifted uneasily on my hips, looking around, wondering what was next. The rock and roll initiated me into a world that ended my innocence and began my slow awareness of death and loss.

Standing there, I was introduced to mystery. As a third year theology student, I read, preached, ministered. But now a distinct, distant chord reached out to me, muting the interior voices naming my roles and duties, my carefully constructed world of philosophy, belief and an ordered future. The words of the poet monk Thomas Merton came to me, who in a talk to his novices said, "You are to stand on your own two feet, brothers."

After that weekend, on a Monday morning, I left the library forever, ignoring my own confusion and the questioning of faculty and students. I moved into the woods of North Carolina, built a log cabin and never looked back. The following year both daughters were diagnosed, one with a terminal desease, the other with a lifelong handicap.

Karen and I made our way into the isle about 10:00 p.m. We danced while the dew point saturated us, sweat and rain fused. I again entered that door, a threshold into a sanctuary where longing and grief were companioned. We danced, clapped, yelled, and sang until the band took their final bow at midnight.

Karen attended a Crosby, Stills and Nash concert in her hometown, Kansas City, in 1973. By then, my oldest baby was near death, the youngest unable to walk, barely talk. The log cabin that I had built became a shelter from the dark chaos circling, looming.

I became a percussionist, rapping on the lung lobes of my oldest daughter. Rat a tat tat. We’d watch the evening news with Walter Chronkite, reporting in on machine gun fire as the war continued. Rat a tat tat. I smoothed baby oil over her smacked body and whispered little secrets of enduring love and offered the promise of a dessert if she’d eat dinner. Little bargains, staving off death for another day.

Southern Cross. Sailing the Pacific Ocean, guided at night by the constellation. My oldest died after her sixth birthday, quietly, one dark winter morning and then the dream began. I’d sail, climbing the mast searching for her in the wide and empty ocean, seeing neither dolphins or whales, not even an albatross. After a year of those dreams, I came down the mast. Hope relinquished.

After she died, I listened to Marrakess Express on my truck radio returning home at night from out-of-town work. The errant drumbeat caught my moribund body and I’d pull off the road and begin dancing on the black pavement.

Forget ‘A Mighty Fortress Is My God,’ I couldn’t sing that hymn anymore. What I knew by heart was beyond words, deeper than faith. Later, I took off my white clergy collar, the silver buttons, the black shirt and shoved them to the back of my drawer. Later still, my marriage dimmed, two people living together, strangers. Hearts broken, remained so.

Is it only rock and roll that can collapse the walls of an ordered, clinched life? Is it only dance that can lead the body to trust the inelegant wildness of life?

The rituals of rock and roll, fast dance, slow dance and the wordless sailing into the far horizon have become my prayer, the way I enter and live into the timeless mystery of life with and beyond pain and death.

Last year, I purchased a traditional sailboat, a Sharpie. She sits in a slip near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. When I pull the tan bark sail up the mast, I remember my dreams of climbing the mast, circling the horizon with my eyes, coming back down, feeling empty. I look up now, check the fullness of the sail, the wind’s direction, and I feel the swell of the ocean, rocking and holding me. The bow cuts through the waves, one hand on the tiller, the other on the mainsheet. I leave land a bit excited, full of wonder, tempting myself, "What if I keep going south, past the equator, to the southern ocean, at night spotting the Southern Cross, releasing my control of the tiller, passing through the threshold of the world’s pain and my gratefulness for the final time?"