Albuquerque 1991: a location on the space-time continuum now blowing around my memory like the Siberian Elm seeds lately clogging up the curbs and culverts of this city. It was an odd year, wasn’t it?
For me, it really was an odd year, even more so in the metaphorical sense than in the mathematical one; a year of radical changes, awesome events, and bright light.
That year led to summer and that summer led to an unfurling that comprises a now that is constantly peeling and peeling, revealing layers that are thin as an onion skin and as complex as any living and cellular structure you can imagine.
In that thin year, I lived north the university and it so happened that the weather did not get really cold until the end of January. There were patches of ice on the sidewalks near my house and near the apartment of my friend, Kenneth W. Seward.
Seward was a lighting designer whom I worked with at the University of New Mexico. I had recently graduated from Art School and worked at Keller Hall, in the department of Music. Seward studied in the Theatre department and held a part-time job at the concert hall. We had become good friends, collaborating on multi-media projects, discussing literature and music, generally encouraging each others reading and art-making.
Listen: Back then, Ken was dying of a brain tumor. At the end of the previous summer, he had come into my office and complained of numbness in his hands, a dark circumstance for a manipulator of lights and electricity. In my concern, I suggested he go to the student health center. One thing then led to another. By mid autumn, he had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly type of cancer.
By January he had lost the ability to walk and manipulate tools and therefore, to work. His parents were in California. He had become estranged from them because he was gay. He had loads of friends in Burque though, and everyone pitched in to help him. We all took turns keeping him company, taking him to UNMH, and finally, feeding and bathing him. When his parents finally arrived to make peace in February, I resignedly noted that his father looked more like Ken than Ken did.
Kenneth W. Seward died in early March and they had a glorious memorial service for him in Rodey Theater.
I kept a picture of him on the crew bulletin board at Keller Hall. In the picture he looked young and full of life, holding a crescent wrench in his hand, smiling up towards the bright lights that beckoned him.
Soon after Ken died, I broke up with my long-time girlfriend. She was a classical musician and played the clarinet. I'd like to believe that we drifted apart during Seward’s illness, but the truth was much simpler and profoundly more tragic. I was hip; she was square.
Spring came, anyway; it was warm again and the grass was green at the duck pond. I kept busy by painting large, abstract, confusing, loathsomely bright pictures and managing the concert hall.
Sometime in April or May, the news went around the Fine Arts Center that the Dalai Lama was going to be visiting the university and would be speaking at Popejoy Hall.
I knew little about the man. The organization Friends of Tibet had occasionally visited the college, had brought around a group of touring monks to entertain and perplex the patrons of art and music who haunted the foyer, mostly on the weekends. These followers of the lama performed traditional dances and chants and were magically entrancing to those who had the privilege of attending.
Coincidentally, my room-mate, David Sonenfield, a graduate student in Art History, was a devout Buddhist and filled me in on the concepts and events which related to Tibetan Buddhism and the consequent preeminence of the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Somehow, through a bit of unexplainable synchronicity, it came to pass that the Dalai Lama and his entourage needed a place to camp out before his speaking engagement. These were in the days before UNM renovated the Fine Arts Center and much of it was a rambling old place. That included the Popejoy Hall green room, which was mostly a place where the technical crew hung out.
Owing to the fact that Keller hall was a genteel venue where chamber music was performed, its green room was chosen as a headquarters for the visitors. The Keller Hall Green Room was clean, quiet, well-furnished and looked out onto a small garden.
I remember when I informed my boss, the Chairman of the Department of Music ( a man with a doctorate of music, for crying out loud) of this decision, he was not exactly sure who the Dalai Lama was. Further, he seemed agitated and offended, in the most parochial tone he could muster, that a non-musician of unknown reputation would have access to all the glorious accouterments offered by the department.
“Well he did win the Nobel Prize", I said to that former band director from Portales New Mexico, with a vacant smile and a wink. And so began to make my preparations.
When the day arrived, the Dalai Lama was driven to the loading dock in back of UNM art museum, in a limousine. He was accompanied by advisers, a meteorologist with magical abilities, members of Friends of Tibet, and a small press corps. Though he had recently won the aforementioned notice of the Nobel Committee , he was not nearly as famous as he is now; the issues surrounding Tibet had just begun to creep into the public’s consciousness.
He was immediately whisked to the Keller Hall green room, where different dignitaries, including the President of the University, came and went, presenting him with fresh fruit and prayer shawls. The chairman of the Music Department sat in his office and glowered and grimaced. He left early that day, to hit the links one supposes.
Sometime later in the afternoon, I noticed that there was an empty space on the couch next to the lama, so I went over and sat down next to him.
He looked me over and said, “You are brave! Then he put his arm around me, said something in Tibetan to the monk sitting next to him and continued, “Don’t worry, he said, everything will be fine”. He laughed a deep and happy laugh, looked me in the eye and hugged me tightly, as a father might a favorite son.
Then motioned to one of his advisors and the two got up from their seats. The lama needed some time alone, to eat and meditate, the advisor told everyone in the room. The Dalai Lama waved at me, then retired to the downstairs lounge in Keller Hall. Later I was asked by one of his aides to join his procession over to Popejoy Hall. I didn’t have another opportunity to speak to him, though. He and his followers left soon after the event was over.
The rest of that spring and then the summer seemed to zip right on by that year. The old chairman retired. I finished a decent painting and then welded together a sculpture that held a bit of Ken’s ashes inside of it. In June, I got a tattoo from the legendary J.B. Jones. In August, David and I decided to rent out a room in the house we shared.
The ad we placed in the Daily Lobo was answered by a group of exchange students from Britain. They were named Rachel, Jo and Kirsty. They were beautiful and full of life and wonder. Two of them would end up living in the house. The third, a mystic wanderer from Wales, would, in the years to come, share a journey with me to the place where Nepal borders Tibet, to a river that climbed up a long valley into the kingdom of Mustang, the place where the lamas dwelt and walked among the buckwheat and dusty trails, in search of light.