Mac Miller, Pope John Paul II and the puzzling experience of loss
Mac Miller’s death hit me like a Houdini trick.
Disbelief. Confusion. The Eerie Sensation of Unknown. Not sure what happens next.
Do we leave?
Is the show over?
Do we wait for him to come back out for an encore?
Is this a weird joke?
I thought that it wasn't true. That he’d pulled a huge stunt.
That he’d be back from this disappearing act.
I was in the middle of a month long bout drowning in his new album, Swimming, when I got the news that he’d passed. Actually, I was literally sitting at my desk singing his retrospectively implicating lyrics, overstuffed with allusions to death, mediocrity, and being lost, when I found out. Only in looking back do those cries for help seem real, like Easter eggs hidden for his fans in the wake of a true artist. And that's the heaviest part, this overwhelming feeling that he knew it was coming all along and was able to leave a trail of puzzle pieces.
It’s been a couple weeks now and I’m still drowning in the album. Still picking up the pieces of what it means to lose someone in this strange distant misunderstood scenario.
And as I reflect on the album itself, I find evidence of so much foreshadowing in the lyrics, in the tone and sounds, and in the artful story that the whole album tells. The more I drown myself in it, the more I recognize this ubiquitous mysterious thematic element. It’s on par with the way someone recently described my yoga offerings being ‘more than just a class, but about creating an entire experience.’ All these layers woven into this otherwise straightforward thing, are what make it art. And even though in this case those woven layers are about death, overdose and battling demons, I’d like to claim it’s his best album yet- a true work of art.
Just before he ‘overdosed’ he interviewed with Zane Lowe. He sounded so grounded and as sparkling as ever talking about the work that it is to produce an album and that him and his ex are better because of their experiences together and that all is good. And I connect with what he says and how he says it. And when I saw that video, or his tiny desk concert before he died, I felt real proud of the guy, I felt connected even more to this guy that I don’t actually know.
But then I remember he’s dead now and that eerie feeling kicks back in. And the ‘accidental overdose’ and the foreshadowing words, and the music video where he is in a coffin carving in the familiar phrase Memento Mori, and that sense of shock, like a disappearing act. Like a 2000 piece jigsaw that I can't even find the corners to get started.
And then other questions surface, like: How do you mourn the death of someone you don't know? Or someone that you know, but doesn't know you? Or of someone that you still feel unclear as to if they are really gone? If what seems to be a sham, a slight of hand trick, a diversion, is really true?
I’ve been a long time fan. Felt a strong connection with his music since way back in 2009, such eloquent lyrics tied together with great vibes.
Mac Miller was a peer. And the first celeb to pass away that I truly connected with as an artist. Or at least can admit I have a lot of strong feelings about.
I remember being pumped when I first heard his music. His work inspired me. His cheeky wit and rebellious spirit. His cavalier way of knowing who he was. And being confident about it. And dancing like such a white boy in his own rhythm. I dug it. On more than one occasion I may or may not have slid into his DM's to let him know as much.
I once saw him at the mall and got completely and shamefully star struck. I had a very visceral response: my brain got cloudy, I couldn’t really say anything or think logically about what to do. So I followed him around the men’s department- obviously out of place- staring from a ‘respectful’ distance.
There was a moment where he looked up. We made eye contact. I awkwardly waved. He gave a small nod, and continued doing his thing.
That was it.
It was unremarkable, surely forgotten before he looked at the next table of merchandise. It was the sort of tiny exchange that would have meant absolutely nothing if he weren't famous. Definitely meant nothing to him, because I am not famous. And yet, it was enough of an exchange to convey something. Even more so now, when I think back to that moment, it just adds another element of disbelief and confusion. The cost of fame. The cost of having it all and losing your anonymity in the process. Losing your sanity. 'I paid the cost to see apostrophe's' he sings.
How come we crossed paths that way. What does it all mean? So many strange pieces to this puzzle.
While Mac Miller was out there dying, I’d been tasked at my day job with cataloging photographs of the Pope.
Here is a figure who connected with a lot of people. Albeit in a very different way, and for very different reasons. But nonetheless, just like Mac Miller, Pope John Paul II toured the world, filling out venues, drawing crowds from near and far, never a single moment alone. Not sure which direction this comparison should go really, who is more like who. If you asked Mac, who denied and belittled his fame, the Pope obviously was more famous to more people. And that might be true. But there have been 100’s of Popes. And just the one Mac Miller.
Every one of the photographs I’ve cataloged is this gentle-faced man with a funny hat and a robe. In every single picture he is surrounded by crowds of thousands and thousands of people. Not an exaggeration, he is literally in a crowd of thousands of people. Each person with the hope to catch a glimpse. A smile, a blessing, a tiny moment of exchange- like a nod from Mac Miller while you casually pretend to be interested in men's socks.
One after the other, pictures of the Pope in Japan, in Prague, in Guatemala, Korea, Germany, Washington D.C., India, Guam. In large impressive Cathedrals, in temples of worship of all faiths, in city squares, sports arenas, conference rooms, prairies, schools, empty fields, even on boats, and in his iconic Pope-mobile. The man was surrounded on all sides. Always.
He was drowning in people. Or Swimming, depending on your vantage point, I suppose.
Among impressive shots of enormous crowds, one photo stands out in particular. The Pope in a third world hospital for sick and dying. PJPII is seen with Mother Teresa praying over a corpse. A sign on the wall reads ‘I am on my way to Heaven.’
Here is this man, for reasons I am not privy too, tasked with literally embodying godliness and delivering blessings to the entire planet of human beings- dead or alive. All while being endlessly and publicly hazed in his funny clothes. All without a moment alone. To ground or re-calibrate or just be quiet. No anonymity, no escape, a feeling of, 'shit I don't recognize these faces.'
A lot of pressure, a lot of people counting on you. Hoping it will be them that you nod at.
And now Pope John Paul II is long passed, may he rest in peace. But the world filled the void of his loss real quick. That godly figure was replaced within the year. As a matter of fact, since PJPII, there have already been 2 Pope’s inducted into the role of benevolent godly figurehead. Is this what Fame is about? Being easily replaceable? Is this the cost of having it all? You give up your soul for your 15 minutes?
And what about Mac? Does he get a replacement? Who else can I drown out the endless whirling of thoughts in my mind with the album on repeat? Who is gonna kick incredibly dope shit our way? Or drop unbelievable puns in rap songs like this guy did? Who is supposed to carry on his legacy while he’s in heaven, smelling the Nag Champa? Why isn’t he so easily replaced? What is the shape of his puzzle piece and how does it fit into the bigger picture?
Now Mac is gone and I think back to that moment of our paths crossing. That one glimpse, that one experience of being in the same time and space. Like somehow that moment makes it all okay. Like that was a symbol. A clue. A piece of the puzzle that I can’t yet understand from the limited vantage point of where I’m standing. Perhaps an equally cloaked Easter egg. A culmination of the disappearing act. Like the way maybe all those people who lined up to see PJPII felt when they got to look into his sweet blue eyes, or hear his prayer or touch his hand. Like maybe it was my turn to be blessed. Even though, I’m left puzzled by his loss.
And I think of his video in the coffin. And the unusual coincidence of the Memento Mori phrase appearing mere weeks before he died. It translates to: remember you will die.
And the puzzle just gets more complicated.
A few days ago, got some sad personal news: my childhood sweet puppy Lulu went to heaven. She didn’t know a lot of people, sell out stadiums, draw crowds, or write music, but she did touch the hearts of a few of us. Her happy and fearless disposition. Her sneaky way of jumping onto the table and stealing the Thanksgiving Turkey. And hunting for lizards, offering the dead ones to us like gifts. Her spunky style of waiting for Dakota to fetch the ball, then when got close enough, pouncing on top of him to snatch it.
And I feel the loss of that sweet pup.
And it feels a lot like the loss of Mac Miller.
And it feels like the way I would imagine it feels when you stand next to Mother Teresa and pray for a corpse on it’s way to heaven.
And suddenly the fame seems less important, less relevant.
And whether we lose a puppy due to cancer, or a revered celeb to ‘accidental' overdose, or someone we never knew at all but can connect with them on a human level, loss is loss.
And it's more pieces to the puzzle. And simultaneously less pieces, like the few that are always missing from the box that make it that much harder. Like no matter how many times we experience loss it won't get easier. Or more clear. Like sometimes the figures -famous or not- can be replaced and sometimes they cant. And how puzzles get complicated with more pieces and smaller sizes and intricate patterns. And sometimes the pieces are so specific they can’t be replaced, and other times they have a more generic shape and it works if you jimmy-rig it a little.
And that inducting a new Pope, or eventually adopting another puppy doesn't negate or replace the sadness or loss of what once was. Like if and when a new grade A musician presents them self and I dig the vibe, and the cavalier style of knowing exactly who they are, and the silly white boy dancing (or what have you,) I can slide into their DM’s and not feel like its betrayal. Cause it is all just part of the puzzle. The giant mixed up puzzle that is life. And what it means to exist in this lifetime. And what it means to lose. And that loss is an implicit part of this life thing. That it is existence itself that is the cost of having it all, not the fame.
And that there is a cost associated with life. With having it all. With being famous, with being well known. But also with having nothing. With being no one. With being small and insignificant. That it is existence itself that is the cost.
It’s just a pool of puzzle pieces. And they’re everywhere and anywhere with no rhyme or reason.
And you gotta jump in to swim.