Spalding Gray: The Power of a Dandelion
A dandelion: symbol of hope or a weed? You decide.
Posted April 25, 2011
Gone.The word reverberated in the silence of a hotel ballroom, despite the almost 900 people who listened. Gone. Spalding Gray, on the screen, recalled the story of when he learned about his mother's death by suicide. A bottle of tequila. The one word description his father gave. The image that formed in Spalding's head - a dandelion, the seeds blown away in a quick exhale. Gone.
For me, that morning was the fifth day of the American Association of Suicidology conference in Portland, OR. It had been a long week. I went early to participate in a two-day crash course in suicide prevention. Despite the fact that I talk about depression and suicide most days now, a self-imposed, strange penance for past behavior, I was exhausted. So many Survivors told their stories. Survivors, not people like me who had attempted suicide and survived, but people like Kathie Russo, Spalding's wife, who was left behind after Spalding killed himself.
When the word "gone" echoed through the ballroom, I pulled my book, Struck by Living, from my bag. On the cover a promising light shines through the image of a dandelion, full but for the first few seeds set adrift. My publisher's designer told me my book was the first book she ever read when she designed the cover. She was young enough to not realize how horrifying that statement might be to an author. I was old enough to be charmed by her naivete. She picked the photo because it seemed like "you were trying so hard to keep your life together and it just came apart." She had me at hello.
The photo appealed to me because like the title and most of life, the meaning of a dandelion completely depends on one's perspective. A dandelion is a symbol of hope or a weed. One can be struck down by living or struck in awe of life. I inscribed a copy of my book to Kathie Russo. Then the argument broke out in my head.
Spiritual Julie insisted that I give the book to Kathie after her talk, in an intimate moment, a point of personal connection. Marketing Julie had a logical counter. I'd been to talks like this before. After the talk, Russo would be mobbed. I'd be able to hand her a book, but she'd likely never look at it. Plus there were 900 people in that room. All needed a success story. All might buy a book. By that point in the conference I'd sold one book, a pathetic sales level by any measure. I squirmed in my seat. Plus I was speaking that afternoon, the last session on the last day. If I didn't speak up, I might be talking to an audience of one. I found myself walking toward the microphone.
In front of the crowd I thanked Kathie for giving us her husband's stories and for giving me a new meaning for a dandelion. My voice caught. I didn't plan that part. I held up Struck by Living and gave her my interpretation of my hopeful weed. Marketing Julie looked on in disgust when I forgot to say the title of the book or my name, but just handed Kathie a copy. Kathie seemed genuinely touched and said my name for me. She had cared for someone like me. Her husband's story ended in a river, but was resurrected in her act of love. Not gone, just transformed.
I'm sure Kathie Russo would rather have Spalding back instead of the film or the play she's helped to produce about his life. Survivors don't get that choice; they simply survive. She misses him, but she's not bitter. Kathie chooses to see the light shining through the dandelion. She refuses to get stuck in the weeds.
SIDENOTE: Steven Soderberg and Kathie Russo collaborated on a new film about Splading Gray called "And Everything is Going Fine." Here is the trailer: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/and_everything_is_going_fine/trailers/11128968. Kathie also mentioned that she has created a play from Spalding's journals, but I am still searching for where this play might be seen or where the script might be purchased. Please comment if you know. Will talk about the conference more over the next couple of days. For upcoming events in your area, check out my website: http://struckbyliving.com/content/events/