Have you ever felt like memories were yours because someone you loved spoke of them so often? This album is like that. It causes deja vu.
I have flashbacks of laying on my stomach in shag carpet beside my mother as a young woman, elbows dug into the ground and propping up our hands that hold chubby cheeks tired from grinning ear to ear. Our legs, bent 90 degrees toward the ceiling, kicking back and forth in idle curiosity with a flexibility we only get for a short time, a symptom of sumptuously careless youth.
These memories aren’t mine but they sure are real when I listen to this album. And song, in particular, makes me miss my mother more than ever.
Last week (or maybe it was this week: Time has become a surreal concept this month), Mary said something to her niece, Sarah, that struck a chord with me. Forgive me, this won’t be verbatim, but she said: “I knew when you came out of the womb that we understood each other.” I totally got that because Uncle Bill and I were the same way.
The more I thought about that, I realized that there are kin and then there are kindreds. There are people you’re related to, share similarities with, and then there are people who are on the same wavelength and I am the lucky girl how had him as both. In fact, many of you have have taken the time this week to acknowledge that, tell me how often he spoke of me and how special I was to him, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. So thank you.
At the core of this connection is the fact that he and I both have soft hearts that love large and wound easily. We’re not specifically religious meaning no organized religion ever added up just right, but we believe in meaning and find it all around us. Cathedrals come in many forms and my uncle prayed at the altar of art and beauty (and baseball), as do I.
And I don’t believe in coincidences. For instance, I subscribe to this listserve called Poem-A-Day from Poetry.org. It’s exactly what it sounds like: it sends you a poem a day. As I sat down to write Uncle Bill’s obituary and this eulogy, the poem “Eve Remembering” by Toni Morrison was emailed to me and I’d like to read it to you now:
I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.
Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see.
I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be.
This poem reminded me of him for so many reasons. His love of picking apples in the Fall, and the fact that our family origins trace back to an apple orchard in Michigan. The way he reached out to grab every moment, large to small, as if he could clutch them in his hand and hold them close to his heart. It reminded me of that twinkle ever present in his eyes, that sort of innate glow that lit up a room, and how that lightness will guide us into tomorrow even if he physically cannot.
But mostly this poem reminded me of how much he loved living, which makes his death all-the-more cruel. I’ve never met anyone who extracted more from a single day and savored every minute the way he did. He was the harbor, he was the breeze that set our sail, he was the summit for so many–elevating us by proxy just by bringing us along for the ride. And my, how we’ve reaped what he has sewn.
When he first started treatment this year, I asked: Maybe it’s time you start a bucket list? And he told me he didn’t have one, that he’d been all over the world and seen what he had wanted to see; all he wanted now was to live a normal life, watch his kids grow up, and have the opportunity to work. A complex man with simple desires, in the end.
And this all can be summarized with one final story. Uncle Bill was always the first to show up and the last to leave, in times of joy and sorrow. After my mother passed, everyone had cleared out of her condo by the sea and it was just Uncle Bill and me, drying dishes after dinner. We had her 66th surprise birthday playlist on shuffle, we’d been drinking a lot of red wine, and one of her favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs came on. I lost it, I started ugly crying and pacing around the kitchen. He settled me down with a tight hug, and I asked him: “What am I supposed to do now?” I had commuted weekly between San Francisco and San Diego for over a year as she battled cancer with grace and dignity, much like her brother, and then relocated there full-time for the last month of her life. The purpose of my last year was gone. Uncle Bill said, “You live your life. That’s what she would have wanted most.”
The worst part about death is the helplessness you feel but if there’s anything we can do for him now, it’s to remember him, speak of him often, keep him present in the present, and live of our lives fully and with intention (keeping each other close). That’s what he would have wanted most.
William Allen Clarke passed away at home in Moraga, California surrounded by family and friends at precisely 1:20pm on November 18, 2019 following a prolonged battle with cancer.
Born in Detroit, Michigan to Roberta and Richard Allen Clarke on September 30, 1957, Bill was the quintessential middle son—a soft spoken mediator flanked by brothers Richard and Robert, all outranked by older sister Janis. The young Clarke family moved their Midwest roots west, following their patriarch, a respected Mad Men-era creative art director, and settled in the Southern California suburb of La Canada.
All four kids grew up there, sun-kissed and creative, in a textbook California ranch home filled with music and art and literature, family heirlooms Bill held dear to his dying day. Every holiday was a production arranged with mid-century perfection by his mother and captured on film with painstaking artistry by his father. Weekends were spent at his big brother’s baseball games or at the beach, where he and brother Bob learned to surf—a hobby that would be a source of everlasting joy and serenity to Bill.
He graduated from La Canada High School in 1975 truly earning the moniker “Big Man on Campus,” a phrase oft repeated in yearbook inscriptions. A natural athlete, fiercely competitive yet kind, he was simultaneously an all-star pitcher on the baseball team and the star quarterback on his school’s football team. He was so beloved that they placed Bill’s football jersey in the rafters of the school’s gym after his senior year, and it hung there until some years later when his coach retired, retrieved it, and returned it to Bill. This is what he wore while watching soundless 8mm films of his time as a teenage Golden Boy on his final birthday.
From La Canada he went into the world, studying design at Long Beach State University while bartending (underage) and later attending the School of Visual Arts in New York. Bill brought beauty and balance to everything he touched, and his aesthetic matured while living abroad in Amsterdam and then Paris, France. He was always pen-in-hand: making lists, moving thoughts from page to page, and illustrating exquisite Christmas cards that now grace the walls of many, framed and treasured all-the-more with his passing.
He followed his father into the advertising business as a young art director in Corona Del Mar, California, further honing his skills at Ogilvy & Mather, Direct, New York, as an Art Director from 1985 to 1987. After working on a children’s animated TV show in Paris he joined his father’s agency, Robinson Clarke, in San Francisco as a Creative Director and became a principal by 1997, successfully steering the agency after Richard Clarke’s death a year later. It was during this time that he met and married the love of his life, Mary Vreeland, with whom he would have two remarkable children: Margaux and Carter. He next launched his own company called Eureka Partners in 2003, working here until the end—save for a stint as Vice-President Global Creative at Twentieth Century Fox Consumer Products. Bill spent his final years imparting what he knew about brand development and consumer product merchandising to the next generation of designers as a teacher at Academy of Art University.
If the measure of a man is the company he keeps, then William Clarke was as tall as the Eiffel Tower and as deep as the Pacific Ocean; every person he met became a lifelong friend. World traveler, art collector, wine enthusiast and foodie without artifice; an exceptional husband, father, brother, and uncle who loved the sound and spray of the sea. He was comfortable and stood out in any crowd, always with a twinkle in his eye as he told thoughtful stories, surrounded by people. There is no way to qualify what we gained by knowing him or what we’ve lost in losing him.
William Clarke was preceded in death by his parents, Richard and Bobbie (Carter) Clarke, as well as his sister, Janis (Clarke) Meldahl. He is survived by his brothers, Richard Clarke of Fallbrook and Robert Clarke of Solvang, as well as his wife, Mary Vreeland, and two children, Margaux and Carter, of Moraga. Interment will be at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California with his sister, near their father. For those who would like to attend, there will be a viewing at the cemetery on November 23, 2019 (Saturday) from 4:00 – 6:00pm, with services at 10:30am and burial at 12:30pm on November 24, 2019 (Sunday). In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.
I Am Here For It
You are not what you see, but what you say and do
As I am not what made me, but what I make happen - now and next time
We are lips and tendons and tastes
And I am yours to wreck and rebuild
If we choose to stitch this life together in sinew and scotch tape
This is temporary
This is everything
I am here for it
I want you to absorb me in my wetness
Drink me and drain me and dry me off
As I love you from a distance, up here
Words coming out wrong, wanting to sound strong
But only managing to graft grammatical particles
In place of the automatic poetry that moves me
Transitions are not temporary
They are everything
I am here for it
So move with it, move on:
One step forward and two paces back
Into this blurred nightscape extending beyond us all
My heart fouled by thoughts,
My brain fueled by feelings;
I am all mixed up
This is temporary
This is everything
I am here for it
Because tomorrow is a mindset we allow
It’s a mechanism used to understand unknowable things
Like God and grace and luck and liminality
Pressed against the panels of a room vented by music
Where people have been before
And here I am, WAITING
Transitions are everything
They are not temporary
I am here for it
Robert E. Lee
(Richmond Artistic Photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The thing about burying the people you’re closest to is that cemeteries assume new dimensions. Every patch of grass is personal and every gravestone a headboard, because you envision the ones you’ve loved sleeping peacefully below ground. Or rotting, depending on your mood. Grief is a gray area: you pray for inconsistency and secretly revel in its constant companionship because as long as you hurt, you’re still connected to those you miss.
In this headspace, two songs have been on constant rotation for me. And I do mean constant. The first is “Churchyard” by AURORA from her album Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1). The album is solid, front to back, but this particular song is blasting from my weak iPhone speakers in the morning during makeup application, through my car’s surround sound on the ride to work, and running through my head as I fall asleep. “He told me I belong in a churchyaARD. He told me I could walk away, but I wouldn’t get FaAR.” It’s the perfect pop song with sneaky substance that functions as the tie that binds. If I were Mary Tyler Moore, this would be my opening credit.
If I’m in a mellower mood, I lean on Soko’s “We Might Be Dead Tomorrow” from I Thought I Was an Alien. I encountered this amazing tune on the dark British comedy series The End of the F**cking World, which has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a long time. Lots of midcentry soulful throwbacks and heartbreaking acoustic currents.
These two songs have been bookends for me this week. Some weeks are more challenging than others, but music is always there to provide context and solace; like when you heat metal–forcing the impurities to surface so they can be cleaned away, music makes the molecules move and friction makes the heat that purifies. As long as the sounds waves vibrate, everything is fine.
I’m just gonna say it: who has the financial capital and industry clout to revive Lilith Fair? With feminism re-entering daily discourse as the #MeToo movement exposes the rank sexuality of power, and as music festivals make moot the role of calendars in indicating the arrival of summer…how has Lilith Fair not made its foregone return?
Somebody please get on that, and, when you do, please make Lisa Hannigan a headliner. Swan is one of her latest, released in June, and it’s lovely. It hooked me from the first line: “And what he wanted was a house, to fill the house with things he loved.” This might be the perfect epitaph on my headstone, with a quick pronoun replacement of course. Somebody please get on that…in the (hopefully distant) future.