Gratitude and Faith at 61

Sixty one is a lot of years to be alive, but not too many, and hopefully there are plenty of good ones left in the cosmic stash.

The more spins I take around the sun on this big, rotating blue dance floor, the more I’m reminded of how melancholy and gratitude are such close dance partners. For instance, I’m grateful for the time I’ve had, but sad that I’ve wasted a lot of it. And I’m sad that so many people who have wished me happy birthday are no longer around, but really grateful to have known and loved them, and to have so many other wonderful people still in my life.

My father left the planet more than 30 years ago and I miss him fiercely, particularly on special days, like birthdays, and on hard days, when I could use his strong, supportive presence. But my 90-year-old mother is healthy and happy and also strong and supportive, and I thank goddess for her, and think about how much I love her every day, and we talk often, so I get to tell her that.

And though Covid and my son’s health issues have forced me to stay close to home, away from Mom, I’m so grateful that we can see each other on Zoom (welcome to the future, Jerry) and so glad every time I hear her voice, which is the first voice that I ever knew and recognized and loved.

Mom gave me the best birthday gift I’ve ever received, the very first one, delivering me safely to the world’s embrace, then caring for me and loving me all these years. What can possibly be better than mother’s love? Nothing.

So, the second best birthday gift of all time? This day, today, which I get to spend at home with my son, Joe, and wife, Jane. We just got home after four days in the hospital with Joe, who had hip surgery. So the gratitude magic is strong right about now (though it is mingled somewhat with anxiety over trying to play catch-up at work while helping Joe in his rehabilitation).

Can’t remember what I was thinking or seeing here, but it obviously made me happy … either that, or I just farted.

Still, though. Joe is sitting beside me in his recliner, dozing comfortably (he has some good drugs), with the Grateful Dead playing in the background on YouTube (Springfield, Massachusetts, March 1973, for any Deadheads keeping track). But there’s that word again: Grateful. We are home!

Yes, caring for Joe is a monumental challenge. It can be scary, and back-breaking, and temporarily soul-crushing when he’s having a really hard time. But right now, in this moment, with dawn breaking and Jerry Garcia’s twinkling guitar harmonizing with the birds and Joe’s snores, and that bright patch of sun in the woods outside. Happy birthday to me!

But, the third best birthday gift of all time is probably the one that I gave myself two years ago, September 26, 2019, when I turned in the manuscript of my book – The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton – to the editors at the University of Georgia Press. I can’t describe how great it felt to have everything in place, digitally speaking, and hitting that blue “send” button. What a rush that was!

Now the book is out in the world, like a child, and I haven’t given it near the love and affection that my mother has given me. But I do love it, and I am proud of it, and this birthday message takes me around to the subject of the book, my friend Bruce, for whom birthdays were a big deal, a kind of recurring synchronous theme in his remarkable life.

He was always a bit elusive on the circumstances of his own birth. Sometimes he claimed to have come here from another planet. And sometimes he claimed to have two birth certificates. And his birth name, Gustav Valentine Berglund III, was radically different from the name he lived and died with. Then there was his unusual knack for guessing a stranger’s birthday upon first meeting. He did this all the time, and usually he was right, or close to it.

I’ve seen him do it. Point at a person and tell them their astrological sign, then their birthday. Sometimes to the minute. Sometimes he was way off, but in my experience, he was always on target, or very close.

When we first met he said, “Grillo, you’re easy, typical Libra. You’ve got the same birthday as Trey Anastasio, Sept. 30.” With 365 days to choose from, he wasn’t far off, but I winced slightly, and was about to say, “mmm, not quite right” when he stopped me and said, “no, wait – you’re closer to Virgo than Trey, Sept. 26.” Then he correctly guessed the time of day when I was born, and my father’s astrological sign.

But, is it guessing if he already knew on some level? Too heavy to think about this early in the morning. Bruce had a good grasp on how astronomical phenomena influenced our lives, on how the stars and planets in the sky define who and why we are on Earth.

I don’t understand it all but I know some smart people who can inform me in these starry matters (my friend Deborah Coons and my sister Barbara come to mind). Plus, I’ve got faith. A little bit of that can go a long way. It’s gotten me through 61 years and keeps me looking forward hopefully to whatever comes next.

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