I believe in dresses, just short enough
Or long, so long you step on them
I believe in making your own shorts
And in shoes you love so much they fall apart before you say goodbye
I believe in surrounding yourself with flowers
I believe dog snuggles make days less lonely
As does hand holding
I believe Sundays are good days for self-love
Saturdays for self-care
Re: The Cure
Thursdays, let’s love again
Wednesdays for the fight
Tuesdays are for brightness
And Mondays are for new light
Though it may seem elusive,
I believe love is in windy days
In early spring and in salt air
I believe love is in alone time and in overwhelming crowds
Love is movement. Love is shared time
Love is the time we take to know us and the time we take to avoid us
Love strikes the unsighted
Surrounds the wanderer in veils
And brings beauty her cloudless shine
Love stitches our distance, shouts our differences, and quiets our fear
Love is an uncomfortable curiosity
No matter how much we feel it, we want more
We’re taught to seek love, yet love lives in us
We are never without love
We are never alone
I have considered that line more that I care to admit. When I began writing about loss and the ways in which dogs show us trust and connection, I felt almost guilty giving so much weight to my relationship with a dog.
After all, it’s just a dog.
Though fido is closer to family these days, downplaying the human relationship with animals has a lengthy history. Keeping animals out of our closest circle makes it easier to use them for sport or entertainment, or to place them in the category of property, not family. Diminishing the relationship can also make it seem easier to accept the finite life of a pet.
Beyond animals, relationships of all types can be reduced to an afterthought.
“It’s just another day.”
“It’s just a pipe dream.”
“It’s just a job.”
“It’s just an ex.”
When we say, “just a [ ],” we diminish the relationship and remove its power to affect us. Keeping our past lives, our current frustrations, and our dreams for the future at a distance also helps keep such thoughts from impacting and shaping our lives.
With technology, our ability to diminish relationships is now even easier. We’re able to block out the bad.
I’m a fan of the mute button, especially after a series of unexpected texts from a number I hadn’t seen it in nearly 10 years, though I recognized it immediately. It was my ex-husband’s.
I panicked. I handed my phone to a friend, asking for help. Without question, she turned on iPhone’s handy “Block this Caller” feature.
“There,” she says. “Taken care of.”
This wasn’t the first time I’ve turned over my phone. Like an addict finally admitting defeat, I’ve asked for help to block people from my life. An ex boyfriend’s streaming assaults on Facebook…BLOCKED. The man I ended things with on poor terms…DELETED. I’ve had friends dig deep into the bowels of my phone, pulling out missed calls and text threads, removing any recognizable bit of that person from my digital life so I can avoid the temptation of reaching out to them.
Too bad you can’t do that with brains.
Even though my ex-husband was successfully blocked, he was still in my head, as loud and as vivid as the day he left. What, though, did I expect, when I decided to use the Internet as my publisher? He’s summarized in my latest writing as “the alcoholic I married and divorced.”
The writer in me wants to defend my statements, to let the reader know this was intentional. It was written specifically to take the focus away from men and place it on my process and what I learned.
The human in me wants to say that it’s unfair to treat people who greatly impacted my life in this way. Each one of those men evolved my heart.
The “high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail” was the first boyfriend I truly loved. He remains one of my longest relationships and the first person I tried to date long-distance, making it quite obvious that I was terrible at being far away from someone I loved so much. We learned about heartwreck together, and I measured every relationship after him against the love I felt I lost.
I remember nearly every moment with the “Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend,” especially the guilt that kept me awake in the early mornings. Keeping that relationship going for as long as I did was a blind and dishonorable way for me to live, and a choice I am not proud of.
The “cover band rocker I took to small claims court” taught me about forgiveness. I found my strength after he left, and I found enough documentation to prove he owed me a good deal of money. I thought getting that verdict was the most rewarding part of our time together, but forgiving him was even more powerful.
The “Jack Mormon” gave me more love than I felt I deserved. After my dog was struck and killed by a car, he read me “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and held me while I cried myself to sleep. He tried to carry all my heartbreak, and I didn’t allow it. I became that pair of ragged claws T.S. Eliot described, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I locked him out. I locked everyone out after that.
“The crier” taught me about the cruelty I contain. “The older man” taught me about energy and how it’s possible to move an entire room with it. The “ski-bum heartbreaker with the broken legs” taught me about total, utter, wild love and my tendencies to be overwhelming IN. The “grass-is-always-greener-architect” helped me heal after being very broken. He taught me how to end a relationship with kindness. When I finally called it, I did so knowing I wanted to still see him and hug him and tell him about my life. That was the first time I considered not burning the whole fucking thing down.
And the “overzealous writer,” well, I’ve been that person too. In the last message I received from him, I did not acknowledge his pain. I only felt my own, and I just deleted him.
Digital life continues on after being blocked. What happens on the other lines is something we may never know, and if we shut it out, we certainly won’t be able to understand how we behave in the process. But we also have the right to block people who choose to use technology to harass us. I’m not interested in being a punching bag for someone’s unprocessed emotions.
It’s more difficult to block pain. It’s not just a dog. It’s not just an ex. These are parts of our lives, for better or worse, which live within the folds of memory and affect who we are right now.
I’ve tried a lot of mute buttons. The acute and immediate nature of our digital lives does fade with distance. There’s nothing, though, that can quiet the memories of lost love. By turning my exes into my own punching bag, I just created more pain.
My new rule for texting exes: If you can’t say something nice…don’t commit it to the electronic sea.
Writing about them? Well…the poet Anne Sexton said it best.
“A woman who writes feels too much, those trances and portents! As if cycles and children and islands weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips and vegetables were never enough. She thinks she can warn the stars. A writer is essentially a spy. Dear love, I am that girl.”
Midnight, January 1, 2016: The ball drops, the champagne pops, and so many kisses! Arms around each other, once-a-year pronouncing: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
“I love New Year’s,” someone says. “You get to start all over. Again.”
A clean slate.
My clean slate started a year ago. Being unable to make suitable decisions when it came to men, I decided to stop. It seemed logical. If I can’t make a good choice in a romantic partner, I won’t make a choice at all. One year. No dating. No sex. Nothing.
“Really? You made it a whole year, no nothing?” My friend raises a skeptical eyebrow.
“I had sex with my ex-boyfriend.”
“I was bored. It doesn’t count if you’re bored.”
Besides, it was incredibly eye opening. It was the first time I felt oxytocin—that magical little brain chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and bonding after sex—in all its glory and did not think I was in love.
I was so very pleased at my discovery. “I love oxytocin, but now I don’t have to think I’m falling in love every time!” I told this to a girlfriend. “It’s just brain chemistry!”
“Well, it’s a bit more than that,” she replied. “You don’t want to close yourself off to love, or reduce it to just brain chemistry.”
Turns out, love is a lot more complicated than brain chemistry.
My decision to stop dating wasn’t rash, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t understood by most of my friends.
“I worry that you’re shutting yourself off.”
“But what if you meet someone?!”
“I just want you to be open to whatever comes your way.”
Problem: I’ve been open to whatever comes my way for a long time. Explaining my dating roster to my therapist was like opening a clown car’s door. They all came spilling out: the high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail, the Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend, the alcoholic I married and divorced, the cover band rocker I took to small claims court, the crier, the older man, the jack Mormon, the ski-bum heartbreaker with broken legs, the grass-is-always-greener architect, the overzealous writer who said I left him, “as empty as a cardboard box.”
The final text I received from a man with whom I’d been romantically involved, when I asked if we could talk: “Fuck no. Fuck no with a cherry on top. Goodbye forever.”
Okay. I must be doing this wrong. So I’m going to stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.
Strangely, giving up men wasn’t hard. It was relieving. It removed the pressure I felt interacting with them. I stopped checking for wedding rings. I stopped marrying men I’d just met in my head. I stopped thinking that any day now, I’d meet Mr. Right.
I was uncomfortable being alone. So I went out alone. I ate at restaurants alone, went to parties alone, attended concerts alone. I tried to become comfortable being alone.
I also stayed home a lot. I wrote and I read. I drank. Sometimes too much. I watched Sex in the City re-runs and drank whole bottles of champagne alone. (Yep, it was awesome).
At work, I became distinctly aware that my job and my soul were misaligned, so I quit and started my freelance writing business back up. I started writing more poetry, mostly bad, but some gems.
I stopped wearing uncomfortable clothing. I donated or sold garbage bags of clothes that didn’t make me happy. I stopped shaving. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing a bra. I began to wash my hair every three days or so. I decided deodorant was a scam. I changed my chemical soaps to castile and traded in my 27 body products for coconut oil in an effort to detox my “beauty” routine.
I smelled, sometimes, but once away from harsh chemicals and makeup, my body found its rhythm. I started using essential oils for perfume. I wore “Balance.” “Elevation.” “Love.” They did not bring me balance, elevation, or love, but I was often told that I smelled nice.
I began to read labels. I cooked more food. I grew food. I bought more organic food. I changed how I shopped and where I shopped so that my money would stay local. I tried not to look at the higher price and instead think of the value. I began to treat my body more kindly. I went on a juice cleanse. I quit after day 3. I went on a tea cleanse (this is how I learned that some herbs can induce sudden vomiting).
I did cold yoga. I did hot yoga. I rode bikes. I crashed on bikes. I walked my dog more. My dog got cancer. I fought his cancer fiercely, and in the process I learned to love so much more intensely than I thought I could. I learned about my sorrow, and how the end of life can be the most beautiful, tender time we have with our animals. I started being more present and alert to the moment we’re in, because it’s the only one we get.
I found new ways to obtain oxtyocin: A hug you hold longer, holding hands with friends, looking someone in the eye when talking to them. I got massages (oxytocin jolts without the sex!). I tried cupping. I tried cranial sacral. I had my brain’s chemistry analyzed and found out why I wasn’t sleeping so well. I tried a natural remedy for stress called “Tranquility,” which made me feel like a tranquilized lion. I switched to “Calm.” I practiced meditation. I studied Buddhism.
I got big tattoos. I wore wigs. I traveled. I went home more. I set up my parents new computer and taught them how to use an iPod. I became an aunt (to a magic angel baby!). I had an I’m-35-years-old-without-children-or-a-husband crisis. I began mourning that life I though I’d have by now, then I decided I wasn’t going to think about that until I was on the other side of 35.
I practiced kindness. I practiced boundaries with unhealthy friendships. I strengthened healthy friendships. I volunteered. I made new friends.
I began to think about the kind of person I would want to date. I would want to date someone who knows me, knows the best and worst of me. Someone who loves me, who props me up when I fall, who carries me on their shoulders like a champion when I succeed. Someone I would want to live with and love with.
Yes. I want to date someone I would consider my friend.
Because, really, how can we possibly imagine a life with someone if we don’t know them? Know how they behave when they’re scared, or broke, or angry, or drunk? Know what their weaknesses are, know their beautiful strengths and also know the places they fear the most?
I need to make more friends.
I ran this past my girlfriends when I still had six months on my sentence.
“You know, you don’t have to do this for a whole year. I worry you won’t be open to it, if it comes to you.”
“Okay,” I assured them. “If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be open.”
But I wasn’t. My energy was bound up in me, in building a more self-aware, self-confident, self-controlled human.
That’s okay, one friend said. “He’s doing exactly what you’re doing. He’s getting clear. He’s got his head down. He’s focused on him.”
January 1, 2016.One year ago I gave up dating. Do I feel clear? Nah, but I’m closer. Do I know how to pick Mr. Right? Nope. But I do believe that we don’t pick. We’re just colliding molecules. We’re big brains with animal instincts.
But we do get to choose who gets close to us, what we share, how we share, and when we share. We contain the ability to open ourselves up for the right kind of connection.
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Every person that leaves an imprint on our heart brings us that much closer to the right connection. Every day presents us with a moment for renewal and a clean slate—not just on New Year’s eve. It takes deliberate self-work, and it’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable but completely worth the investment, because no one will ever take better care of you than you.
The rest, well, it’s up to the universe’s twisted sense of humor. It’s a bit oxtytocin, a bit chance, a dose of timing, and a whole lotta self-love.
The magazine pitch: Always the bridesmaid. The gist:“All your friends are getting married. Talk about weddings from your perspective…like getting fitted for a dress you will hate, or helping plan a party, or how over weddings you are…trying to be happy for your friends while you reserve your sense of inevitable doom,” assigns my editor.
My face: Pursed.
My initial reaction: Oh, you want the 30-something divorcee to weigh in on marriage? Over my dead body.
I’ve got nothing against marriage. I think everyone who wants to get married should have the ability to do so. Not everyone who has the ability to get married should.
I reference my marriage rarely. Like a knee-jerk reaction, it comes out socially only when I’m trying to relate. “Oh, it was a great wedding,” I say. “I’d do it all again, just pick a different guy.” This usually nets a few awkward chuckles and sympathetic glances.
I recall with mysticism myself as a 20-something, ready to say, “Till death do we part,” especially given the way we were able to revoke those vows. Turns out, marriage for us was, “Till death, or we part.”
It’s in the Secret Meetings of the Bitter Divorcees where I feel most comfortable discussing what is often labeled as a failure. “Failed marriage” survivors, I’ve found, have many of the same relationship fears and regrets. We didn’t get married thinking it would end or that we picked the wrong spouse. We ponder how the life we once lived, which started out so blindingly good, could be diminished to a paper trail. Untangling one’s self from exes is painful. Untangling from a marriage is downright nasty. My ex still shows up on my credit report.
This is not to imply that I’m “over” weddings, as my editor implied. I love love, and nowhere is it more abundant than at a wedding. I’ve been on the sidelines and at the altar, been a therapist, officiator, photographer, florist, caterer, and confidant. I’ve cried joyfully, and I’ve given a few cry-worthy toasts to some of my very best friends at weddings. I’ve talked a tequila-filled bride out of the bathroom on the eve of the wedding. I’ve safety-pinned the gaping bust of a wedding dress closed seconds before the first dance. I’ve been the last one on the dance floor and the first one to the clean-up party.
Never have I seen more love and happiness in one place than at a wedding.
I’ve also seen my fare share of these weddings last. Many still have that new car smell, being less than a decade in—a feat I do not take lightly as I didn’t even last half that.
It’s as though the Internet algorithms want us unwed folks to find Zen in the relationship stewpot. Yet, to wed has long been part of our social expectation we’ve been practicing for thousands of years, but that pressure to marry may be easing.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, for the first time on record, single American adults outnumber married ones. According to the Pew Research Center, American adults above the age of 25 who have never been married hit historic highs 2014. Twenty percent, about 42 million people, have never married, compared to 9 percent in 1960, attributed in part to emerging gender gaps, marrying later in life, and cohabitating or raising children outside of marriage.
Marriage may be on the downtrend, but to wed or not to wed remains a point of contention for Americans. The generally held belief that society is better off if people marry and have children continues, yet each year young adults become less likely to marry (even while living with a partner). And for the been-there-done-that adults, only one-in-five currently say they would like to wed again, estimates Pew.
Is marriage going out of style? As younger people render it unnecessary, the ways people approach and talk about marriage has shifted. Waiting to marry can provide an individual opportunity for financial independence and gives them more time to understand the ways they love. Whereas, marriage was once seen as a way to provide stability and family, the contrary is beginning to evolve: to marry and have a family, one must be stable.
What comes with a divorce is the ultimate realization that no one is going to take care of you. You’re left to look out for #1. Yet, is this any different for the married population? At the end of the day, there’s no guarantee this person will love you forever, regardless of legal tender that binds you.
Perhaps the overwhelming sense of failure that some divorcees experience isn’t so different from the incredible pressure that some married folks endure: Their marriage could, like so many others, fail.
The question then becomes not about marriage, but about trust. Can you trust this person to have your back? Is this an emotionally safe relationship? We all want to feel safe, satisfied, and connected in all our relationships, and we want to avoid fear, frustration and heartache. When we attach to others to fulfill these needs, we engage our brain’s limbic system—the center of emotion, motivation and bonding.
Happiness, in part, is made through a cocktail of brain chemicals, specifically four neurotransmitters of the limbic system: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals are linked to different aspects of happiness.
Endorphins, which mask pain, act as natural painkillers. Dopamine, released in enjoyable, repeat behavior, activates the reward center. (It’s that warm feeling you get when you’ve accomplished something.) Serotonin provides feelings of value and is tied to self-confidence and pride. Oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical” or “love hormone,” is a bonding molecule. It’s released by touch and physical intimacy, and helps create feelings of trust, reinforcing relationships.
These neurotransmitters are managed by the limbic system, often called the reptilian brain. This primal part of the brain was the first evolutionary leap in our cognitive development—a reward center to train the brain. From an evolutionary stance, dopamine and oxytocin produced by love and sex contribute to survival of the species. Success at a task produces serotonin, a sense of pride that trains the brain to seek more success. Endorphins produced during exercise mask pain, helping the body with its survival mechanisms.
When the brain is in a stressful environment, cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is released. Cortisol functions as the body’s early warning system (fight or flight), originally useful in keeping us alive. In a modern sense, cortisol is manifested by anxiety and stress. For many, that cortisol drip keeps us in a constant state of paranoia, which interferes with our body’s ability to balance hormones.
When we extend trust and have each other’s backs, we’re releasing happy chemicals and reducing the cortisol drip. Essentially, to love is a survival mechanism. To connect is to be human. What we do with those connections is the tricky part.
After my divorce, my need for connection didn’t go away; it became heightened, but I lived without confidence. I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.
I forgot what it felt like to trust like no one ever broke it, forgot how to love without fear that I wouldn’t be loved back.
Yet, as I waned from the cortisol drip and let the limbic system drive, my paranoia declined. My ability to trust amplified, and pretty soon I was wading back into love, getting my happy chemicals from the trust I extended to others.
Relationships, regardless of rings, require incredible amounts of trust, gratitude, and grace—for you and for others—none of which I fostered in my wedded life. Marriage was a net that made me feel, no matter what, I was safe. I believed we were statistic dodgers, a couple who could make it against stacked odds that we would be thinking on a trajectory that led us down the same path.
Problem: We loved the good parts and didn’t talk about the bad. We didn’t allow space between us to grow independently, nor did we help each other in the messy underbelly of life. We didn’t have each other’s backs.
Were we too young? Not ready? There’s no science to the right time to marry, rather a longstanding expectation that if you’re in love, it’s what you do. I don’t fault the institution. It’s not so much age, rather life’s lessons that I lacked. In avoiding loss and rejection and only seeking peace and love, I was avoiding the bigger parts of life, the ones that—if you’re paying attention—prepare you to make better decisions in the future.
This time around, I’m more conscious of the kinds of people I spend my time with, and when we make messes (love is messy), I’m a bit better at figuring out how to resolve that conflict, or know when it’s time to move on.
We’ve all been wounded. We’ve all crashed our hearts for someone we truly believed in. And we’re in this human stew together. How you treat yourself will set the tone for how others treat you. Love, and be loved. Give, and receive. Trust, and be rewarded. It’s in these steps toward connection where love’s chemicals flow into the neural pathways that link us together.
We exist because we love. We love because we’re human. We’re human because we connect, and break things, and make messes. We will have many great loves of our life. So belly flop into love. Face plant for it. Cross continents to get it. Do a double take, a head-over-heels NASCAR crash, an Olympic-swan-dive-karaoke-belting-traffic-stopping-carpe-diem grab for it. Your brain will reward you.
Spring, this brassy procession from Winter to Summer
lingers like early morning rain on branches.
Quivering leaves drip apprehension,
uneasiness in this change of season.
Pale and drawn, Spring’s first pipers shed their cloaks.
They tease us with announcements of warmer days ahead,
rediscovering their voice with the songbirds of sunrise.
April’s cruelty will soon become a distant memory.
Yet there are some of us who return to Winter’s well-worn path,
wearing lockets with memory neatly contained.
For we are still in mourning;
The Boy Who is in Love has died.
The Amorist, one who is in love or writes of love, feared the forgetfulness of others.
He was unable to leave the consequence of his life on paper.
Rather through suffering he worked each day for joy.
Through every moment of immeasurable pain he continued to be in love–
In love with winter’s silent snows and the swagger of spring,
in love with the swelter of summer and the cool nights of routine,
each furthering an unappeasable cancer through his bones.
He loved every day’s demise, even while knowing it brought him closer to the dead.
In these parades from beauty to bleakness, darkness to warmth,
it’s hard to believe he was afraid we’d forget–
Forget his tussle of his hair each time it re-grew.
Forget the warmth of his presence and the rogue curve of his smile.
Forget the sound of his pain, the ebb of his disease,
taking pieces while he continued his love of living.
When The Amorist passed onto the invisible beyond,
into the whitewash of painless days,
His wave goodbye came with a promise:
That death is not an ending.
That he’d returned to the expanse of the sea.
Through the churning of sand and in ripples against the shore,
he built sandcastles to hold our fear.
Our scars dissolve slowly with the each breath of morning,
drifting like threads across placid skies.
Across each season’s tease I find The Boy Who is in Love.
He grows under our feet, tickling our bare toes in the revival of spring.
He cools us as the shade trees of summer,
and holds our hearts in the dead of winter
as roots holding the earth in place.
Trey Owens came into my life as he did so many others: a chance encounter followed by a run-in at a coffee shop, a pleasant exchange, and then quite suddenly, he held my rapt attention. Naturally charismatic, with quick wit and magnetic properties, Trey possessed a remarkable ability to quickly cut through social niceties to expose the heart of a conversation.
Trey was 17 when doctors identified a rare cancer eating away at the bones his left leg. Cancer’s continued presence in his body, despite extensive surgery and repeated chemotherapy, heightened Trey’s thirst for connections, his quest for knowledge and universal truth, and it accelerated his pace of life. Trey lived each day knowing he could die, not of old age with a lifetime well spent, but at a tragically early age.
In early February, I received a phone call. Trey’s voice on the other line was ragged, and he struggled to talk. He explained his cancer was spreading. It had grabbed at his core, wrapping around his trachea while expanding throughout his thoracic cavity, but he wasn’t going to do chemo. Not again. Not this time.
Trey knew his body better than any doctor or x-ray ever could. He was finely attuned to his internal structure and sought out literature on life and death, consuming vast amounts of theology to aid in understanding his shortened life cycle. “I know that a body in motion stays in motion,” he told me, “and that a body at rest stays at rest.” Trey had reached life’s finale, and he wanted to share his story.
A Life’s Sum
In 2008, Trey was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer that strikes often in bone or tissue during teenage growth spurts. The first indication of a problem occurred while Trey was horsing around with his buddies. His mother, Deb, said her son came to her looking quite pale and feeling pain on the inside of his left leg, near the knee. Trey could see the pain, almost like an open wound, but Deb couldn’t see what was making her son hurt. Sensing this pain was abnormal, Deb took her son to Billings Clinic where doctors x-rayed his leg.
Deb’s concerns heightened as the frequency of x-rays increased. “I knew something was really wrong,” she said. Trey was referred to orthopedics, where they were told he had cancer. If left untreated, he might make it 30 days.
Of all childhood cancers, osteosarcoma is rare. The American Cancer Society estimates that half of the roughly 800 new cases per year occur in children under the age of 20. The cause is unknown.
Trey was referred to a specialist in Salt Lake City. A biopsy confirmed he had osteosarcoma in his left femur, and an aggressive chemotherapy regiment was established back in Billings to shrink the tumor before Trey could undergo surgery. He returned to Salt Lake in January 2003, where doctors cut bone from his femur to his tibia, including the knee, and replaced it with titanium parts. To kill any of the disease that remained, another intensive six months of chemotherapy in Billings followed. Trey’s cancer went into remission eight months after his initial diagnosis.
Cancer deprived Trey of his entire senior year in high school, but he made the choice to return the following year, still on crutches and recovering, to obtain his diploma. He lived cancer-free for nearly five years—a milestone for cancer survivors—before needing a second surgery. The cancer had not returned, but the titanium inside his leg was chipping away at existing bone, requiring a more substantial implant.
While osteosarcoma can be treated with surgery alone, the disease tends to manifest in other parts of the body. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital estimates more than 80 percent of patients relapse. The same was true for Trey. Seven years after the initial diagnosis, his cancer returned.
Catalysis for Connection
Trey was known as a man of conversations, and he furiously studied the beauty and tragedy of life. He was intently tuned to the joy and pain of others and found a way to emotionally connect with every person that he met. Nate Petterson, poet and close friend of Trey’s, dubbed him “The Coffee Shop Shaman,” a title Trey earned by spending countless hours at Off The Leaf. A cozy coffee shop on Grand Avenue, Off the Leaf is often filled with students and patrons reading, working, philosophizing, and just spending time with one another.
“Trey and I spoke for hours there and elsewhere about all manner of everything,” Nate said. “From the comedic to the serious, the morose to the immature, we covered it all.” Their discussions flowed from quantum mechanics to the spiritual, universe dynamics to chaos mathematics. “He loved it all,” Nate said. “I think he might have loved everything.”
Kate Olp, another close friend and confidant of Trey’s, recalls the first night they met. “He asked me very bluntly, ‘What is your philosophy on life?’” They proceeded to chase each other down a rabbit hole of philosophical conversation. “It’s pretty rare in life that I can say to someone, ‘I think that the principles of entropy and gravity govern social organization, and they can say, ‘Absolutely.’ But Trey was right there.”
To describe Trey’s quest for knowledge, Kate shared the ancient Indian parable of three blind men who came across an elephant. They had no knowledge of such an animal, therefore no reference to explain what they’d discovered. The first blind man grabbed the trunk, claiming he’d discovered the elephant and described it as a long, sinewy object seeming to float in the air. The two remaining blind men made similar claims, though each described a different piece of the elephant. “All three of them are right, but they’re also all wrong,” Kate said. “They are only right if they listen to each other and accept that there is a much grander reality than what they’re each individually able to experience.”
Trey approached life similarly, trying to grasp as much of the elephant as possible. Conversations with Trey were substantial, often weighted with theory and questions about what happens when we die. “If you ever spent time talking to Trey, even if was just for 5 or 10 minutes, if when you were done with that conversation and you didn’t feel inspired or motivated, then you weren’t listening,” Nate said.
Trey was also vivacious, witty, and charming. He had a playful component to his personality that kept his friends guessing. “He still makes me laugh,” said Nate, recalling Trey convincing him that someone had responded to his Craigslist ad to fulfill his fantasy of having sex with a 500-pound woman.
“I will never stop laughing,” said Trey’s mom Deb, thinking of the many times Trey goofed around with her. Whether he was trying to convince his mother that he had no idea who David Letterman was, or that he’d recently been arrested (for being too good looking), Trey was filled with good humor.
Kate recalls Trey’s playful nature, even when it came to philosophy. “I’m a person who likes to get straight to the heart of an idea, whereas Trey would be like one of those birds floating in concentric circles around it. Just when you think he was going to veer off into another dimension, he’d get right down to the heart of things.”
This lighthearted, playfulness that Trey contained gave him the unique ability to consider his pursuits for knowledge as play. “He was having fun,” Kate said. “He didn’t plod through ideas, he danced with them.”
Language of Thought
Philosophy was just one of Trey’s many native languages. He spoke through multiple channels of poetry and the written word, freestyle lyrics and the language of hip-hop, and through his love for life and people.
“Trey was a dying breed when it came to DJs,” said longtime friend and fellow freestyler Charlie (Chucc D) Stripling. “He was one of the last people I knew who still scratched discs. He taught me to freestyle your heart out, to never give up.”
Deb bought Trey his first set of turntables when he was 15. He had no formal training or education on mixing beats and was proud to be self-taught. After a few years of scratching, Trey moved toward digital technology. He played shows around Billings under the moniker NuWae of Life and became a professor of sorts to fellow hip-hop artists and DJs in the scene.
“Trey was incredibly passionate about beats,” said friend and fellow hip-hop lover Joslyn Moses. “He was my KRS-One. He inspired me to become a better lyricist.” When Joslyn found out Trey had passed, she was legitimately afraid to listen to hip-hop again. “I was scared of how much it’d hurt to miss him through every beat. I hear the music louder now because I know he’d be mobbin’ with me, encouraging me to turn my levels up.”
Reflecting on Trey, Chucc D said, “Trey once told me it wasn’t just a song, it wasn’t just a beat, it was the MC who was on it, the spirit behind him, the movement behind him, the spirit inside of him, and the soul that pushed him to do what he wanted.”
“He was always searching for the truth with everything,” said Trey’s mom. “The books he read and the knowledge he had were just amazing.” She described Trey’s quest as a constant search for perfection, knowing that cancer was his imperfection.
Cancer often outpaced Trey, but he continued to search for love with the ever-present fear of the disease growing within his body. Each day brought him new connections, more pages, and new songs. “He was a young man with so much talent,” his mom continued. “Trey wanted to be married, wanted to have kids. His sadness was that he could never keep moving forward because he kept being setback. Yet he was giving. He was selfless, and he was always trying to find love in his quest.”
Nate describes Trey as a genius, a warrior, and a poet. “He was The Amorist. He was the best of us.” Trey had long identified himself as The Amorist, a person who is in love or who writes about love, and he pressed his friends to find their Amorist within.
Though Trey’s cancer wasn’t a choice, he was given a choice in the way he handled the disease. “It required a strong will and a great strength of character for Trey to choose over and over again to be the person he was,” said Kate, “because he could have chosen otherwise.” To Kate, such choices defined Trey as The Amorist. “Each of us—in the face of all of our daily struggles—has the choice. Are we going to become bitter, are we going to be come callous, are we going to become mean? Or are we going to make the incredibly difficult choice to remain open to others, to remain open to love?”
It was this love within Trey that allowed him to stay openhearted and led him to work at A.W.A.R.E. Inc., a group home helping physically, mentally, and emotionally challenged youths with their lives. Trey had great passion for his work at A.W.A.R.E., and his natural compassion for others was rewarded tenfold by the connections he made. In the autumn of 2009, Trey continued his quest for knowledge and began school at Montana State University Billings.
Trey was happy, his mom recalled. He had finally moved forward in a positive direction away from the setbacks cancer had caused him. Yet in early 2010, seven years after he had been declared cancer-free, Trey’s left lung collapsed. Doctors found and removed a cancerous spot on the collapsed lung. The cancer moved swiftly this time, and the following year another spot was discovered and removed. After finding a third cancerous spot, Trey underwent four months of intensive chemotherapy and then on May 1, 2012 doctors removed the entire left lung, parts of his chest wall and several ribs from Trey’s his back. The lung’s removal did not stop cancer’s devastation, and soon the headaches began. Cancer had metastasized into Trey’s upper mediastinum underneath his trachea. Doctors told Trey that this time, it was inoperable.
“This is it,” Trey said. “My life is over.”
The Compassion of Pain
Cancer’s final return was not met with chemotherapy or surgery. Trey knew he had limited time. He could have chosen toxics to slow its progression, to again lose his hair and suffer the emaciation of chemo. “But he chose otherwise,” said his mom. “Trey was a grown man with limited future. It was his choice.”
Throughout Trey’s life, pain was constant. Cancer slowed his gait, and he walked with a cane. Often he was hunched over himself, instinctually protecting his fragile body by holding his arm against his torso. Because of his many surgeries, Trey suffered nerve damage that caused weakness throughout his body.
To deal with such vast physical pain, Trey was on incredible amounts of pain medications, taking upwards of 30 – 50 pills a day. Many were narcotics, which created a sense of numbness throughout Trey’s body and caused him to lose touch with his sensations. But Trey was a renaissance man, one of those “beautiful people that you read about who stopped to smell the flowers,” said Joslyn. Yet Trey’s medications prevented him from such sensory pleasures. Joslyn recalls Trey consciously accepting even more pain in his life by detoxifying from his meds. “He would stop for weeks and months at a time, just to show himself that he could still feel,” she said—still feel the sensation of goose bumps, the grass on his skin, or the wind upon him. This seemingly boundless pain was part of the reason Trey felt such endless love and compassion. It brought a sense of urgency to his life and heightened his need to love unabashedly.
In similar ways, Trey considered laughing and crying as one in the same, a philosophy that closely aligns with the works of Kahlil Gibran. A favorite author of Trey’s, Gibran believed death’s secrets lie the heart of life, and that only in the greatest depths of sorrow can one feel unbridled joy. Gibran’s books were a great source of comfort to Trey, as he could have easily turned his pain into anger.
Trey’s miraculous story is of his compassion for others. From Trey’s first diagnosis, his father, Fred Owens, watched his son connect with everyone he could. “Whether they were 8 or 80-years-old, Trey was reaching out to them. He was love in action,” Fred said.
Compassion itself is derived from suffering. “Compati,” the word’s Latin origins, means to suffer with. “Pain leads to compassion,” said Lyon Virostko, a philosophical friend of Trey’s. The two met at Off The Leaf. “Compassion is the endurance of one’s hardships. When I suffer with another person, I’m there with them, able to see them.”
Lyon describes Trey’s cancer as the catalysis that amplified his ability to love and his ability to suffer, intensifying the qualities that Trey already possessed. Kate described such qualities in Trey as a concentrated color, where the pigment becomes much brighter, sharper and clear. “Everything that was Trey just became concentrated into this person and into this time period,” she said.
A Wealthy Man
Trey’s life was plagued by a seemingly insurmountable writer’s block in his poetry and music. Trying to compress an entire life into a limited period of time, he furiously consumed knowledge, yet struggled to put pen to paper or finalize a beat on his hard drive.
“It became this thousand mile journey where it was really hard to take that first step,” said Kate. Perfection became Trey’s enemy. “He wanted perfectionism but knew he wouldn’t have the time,” said his mom. “This is why he constantly struggled.”
Joslyn estimates that Trey deleted a large portion of the music he created, but he was constantly working on his rhythm. “He would plug his laptop into my car and produce a beat in a gas station parking lot that would be 15 seconds pure beauty,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t get to hear that, but Trey was a phenomenal producer.”
Lyon visited Trey several times in the weeks leading up to his death. In these visits, Trey lamented how he was unable to preserve his thoughts. “It seemed that he could endure that physical pain, but the pain of not being able to write was literally agonizing to him.”
Trey’s physical pain did keep him from leaving behind a legacy on paper. “Trey lived in his heart,” recalled his mom. “If there was ever a moment when he was not in pain, he wanted to be with people, he wanted to be out sharing his love and his search.”
Nate described one of his last conversations with Trey, which circled around the idea of Karma. “We discussed the true meaning of the word,” Nate said, “and that it translates, simply, to doing. Where you are in life is your Karma: it is your doing. It’s not some system of checks and balances for good or bad deeds.”
Trey talked with Nate through another one of his regrets—not pursuing fame or success, and he felt he would be leaving this world poor. “I told Trey that had he pursued wealth and commercial success, he probably could have had them… but he didn’t. Trey pursued meaningful connections with other people because he knew that meaningful connections are all that really matter at the end of the day, at the end of the road, at the end of everything. In this way, Trey left this world a really wealthy man.”
A Fish in Water
Trey did leave tangible bits of his life behind—scratchy recordings of conversations between friends, clips from his many years of mixing beats on his computer, marginal notes scribbled in books passed onto friends.
Deb played me one of Trey’s recordings she found, a muffled conversation between Trey and one of his friends captured on a car ride. His voice on the recorder was calm, almost soothing. He talked extensively of this idea that poetry should remain in a constant state, like perpetually swimming. “When you’re swimming, the point is not to get out of the water. The point is to be in the water. And when you finish a poem, you’re getting out of the water,” Trey said, an idea he attributed to 18th century poet John Keats.
Trey felt the same of music. “While you’re sitting there with a base line for 25 minutes and you haven’t come up with anything, indeed you have. You’ve been in the essence of what it’s all about: Existing.”
To Trey, existence was the constant movement forward, the pull of life and death, the cycle of a laugh, the spirit inside us that is forever swimming. “When you face mortality and beat the odds that many times, you live to exist,” Joslyn said.
“The greatest thing about being an artist is not the finished product and what people will pay for it,” said Chucc D. “It’s the process of doing it and going through and making something yours and your own, because if you stop, there’s no room for progression anymore.” Trey never had his hands on the trunk of the elephant and said, “I’ve got this figured out.” He was continually reaching for more.
“The most important thing for Trey was finding as much of the elephant as possible,” Kate said. “When you put something down on paper, you’re making a declarative statement that implies a universal truth. As soon as Trey put something down, that implied the portion of that search for truth was over.”
An Inspired Life
Trey’s story has unfolded to me like a Salvador Dali painting I had the good fortune to see in person: Gala looking at the Mediterranean Sea which at a distance of 20 meters is transformed into the portrait of Abraham Lincoln. As I stood in front of this massive painting, struggling to see the full scope of the work, it was obvious I was staring at Dali’s wife, Gala. Yet her body formed the eye and nose of Abraham Lincoln. This spectacular trompe l’oeil, or double image that Dali created is best viewed from afar. Yet I found the most substance and detail in the pixels only discernable up close.
In similar ways, each piece of Trey’s story forms a sum greater than its parts. But the pieces convey its essence, like the painting Whitney Marie Donohue created from a photo of Trey lying in the grass at Pioneer Park. She captured an essential quality of Trey—his contemplation. “He always had that look on his face, like he was up to something,” recalled Whitney fondly. She credits Trey with her renewed passion for painting. “Trey is a hero of mine. There’s no better release and no better way to feel 100 percent happy as when I’m painting, and Trey brought that out in me.”
There are hundreds more stories like Whitney’s. Trey inspired Lyon to become a philosopher. “I was too afraid to put myself out there, but Trey brought it out,” he said. In Chucc D and Joslyn, Trey lives on as their internal MC and teacher. Fellow hip-hop artist Joshua Tree, who called Trey his little brother, said that Trey taught him to start loving people again. “I’ve been burned before,” he said, “but Trey reached outside of that. He challenged me to reach out of my comfort zone and get to know people.” Trey inspired Kate’s journey of compassion, and in myself, he rekindled me with the written word. I recently chose a path that led me away from writing, but in pursuing his story, my faith in the power of creating has been renewed.
The Last Word
In one of Trey’s final recordings, I believe he finally found his voice. Reverberating behind piano keys and laid behind a sultry beat and a lone trumpet, this voice was raspy, urgent. “It’s been a hell of a year. But I can say that it’s been more like a whole life…I’m almost at the end of the line…It’s been one hell of a sound.”
Life to Trey was getting into the water. He never wanted to get out. What remains is the essence of swimming, a life immersed in moments. In death, Trey left behind so many warriors that carry his spirit and his boundless love forward. I’ve seen him on the walls of galleries and the tips of paintbrushes, heard his story in the voice of hip-hop artists who called him professor and on the tongues of poets who talk of love personified. He is embedded deeply in the mosaic of our community like a quilt where we’re all sewn together as one. He lives on through everyone he found on his quest to love. With spring’s sprouting flowers, his seeds are growing; his voice has been given wings.
“I’m never going to die,” Trey continued. “I’m timeless. I will never ever rot because I rock and roll.”
I should have been an airplane carcass,
Wing roots severed, tail cut away
Body resting upon the ground
An empty cavity, blue in death, is all that would remain.
My belly would heave the memory of flight:
Of archaic men neatly smoking,
dropping silver ash into armrests—
each shortened breath yellow.
Of seatbacks and upright tray tables
and glamour girls inserting a thousand metal buckles
into the disarray of delays and failed flights.
If I were an airplane carcass
I would have seen this western expanse,
towered over the wild west,
and skimmed across the Great Salt Lake.
I would have followed the glacial pace of the night sky
and awoke in white mornings, bringing the certainty of goodbye.
I would already know a stranger’s touch, a lover’s cry, a dead man’s weight.
Would be able to take this hollow core—
Paint it with the pain of everyone I’d sheltered
and wipe away the stench of loss with each passing day.
I should have been an airplane carcass,
then I would have been ready for you.
Ready to shelter your quietest pain, your creeping sickness,
hold you during the darkest flights.
I’d find us a home among the tiny squares of land that had passed below,
One parcel of possession where sand blows like snow across the roads
Where wind would rip our clothes, rain would seep beneath our skin
And gales would catch our fall.
As though levitating in the wind could remove all sorrow.
I would have been ready for every bad decision
Every trip that led to loneliness, to misery, to joy.
In time gained between layovers
I would have danced in all the oceans, filled my pockets with shells,
Homeward bound with soggy, sand-covered boots on my feet
I would have known my destruction was imminent
Long before I met you.
In silence I place your memories—
Tiny paintings of melody
It makes me calm.
I cut away the pieces of loss you carry,
hide them in a weathered music box
that becomes lost in a mess of paperwork and dishes,
in the distraction of late night stereo and sharing keys.
Clumsily we shuffle through winter;
Our hearts lie dormant as spring’s first blooms.
Flashy robins, their red breasts bright in the morning sun
bring us from hibernation.
The season’s first sunburn follows as tulips droop toward the ground,
their fragile necks bending slowly as the days grow longer.
We pretend the yellowing walls and arching sun
don’t contain us to memory, bind us to routine.
Yet our creeping sadness follows the span of sunlight
passing across rooftops as sunburns fade.
Heartbreak impends like the march of a million ants
trying to find their way indoors.
Amongst unpacked moving boxes,
I hear a tiny twang of that forgotten music box.
Its covering is shabby, soiled with fingerprints of youth.
I once as a child filled it with treasure
and buried it to later discover the contents remained unchanged;
Only the meaning had been lost in routine.
Our hearts, like music boxes, are opened so rarely
As if the melody would sour, as if heartache would spread like an infection
Become a gaping wound, ripped open by a peckish lover
who begins to lap at the tissue, chew on ventricles until
slowly we become a cavity void of the songs that made us love
In the first breaths of morning, when the songbirds are the loudest
I hear those pieces of loss I cut away
scratching on the music box’s insides
Clamoring to be let out.
Upside down on a highway
Broken glass beneath my fingertips
I pull at my roots.
Between windy screams
I hear your voice splinter in zero degrees
Clouds cut sharply the mountains by half
I whisper, is there more?
I want so much more.
Like chunks of dish blond hair
golden weeds tumble through air so thick
it tastes of sandboxes.
It tastes of childhood.
Within our breathing bodies
this warm blood slows until touch
is remorse, collapse is sensation,
longing is the only feeling.
I reach for your cold hands
Break your legs and
cover you with dust.
With the cardboard bison I place you
between cracks in hills
and bury our fears in dirt as dark as night.
When you awaken from the swells of hibernation
I place my hand atop your mouth
Feed you dinner platters of sawdust and sage
Cover your casts with signatures from all your lovers
and we embrace like old friends.
In towns between towns
where forgotten dogs are buried
in beds of dirty drifting snow
Cloudy skies catch in our throats,
shifting guts and freezing nerves.
Relentless winds heave memory like black ice—
The tangled wreckage ripping across
miles of lonely pavement.
The way your fingertips transcended skin,
transferring blood from limb to limb.
The sound you made when you said we were through.
The bits of me that stopped moving that day.
I wish to capture all those thousand little deaths,
Suspend them between the advancing dark
and the morning after.
Build sandcastles around us at the Interstate’s end.