Dear Hope: I Can Hear You Now, Thank You

I recently moved my personal office to a bigger room inside one of my business locations. It also freed up ample wall real estate for me to decorate it and I took the opportunity to place some old photos and artwork that hits me straight in the feels when I need inspiration. That wall and specifically those feels are the topic of discussion today,

I believe that there are no coincidences in life and that in order to make one’s way through your “said” life to success it takes a combination of who you are, where you came from and what you do with it all. I’ll go into this further in a bit, but in my family’s long history dating back to our actual records of the early 1800’s, I have ancestors that have built businesses, amassed great fortunes and have mostly lost it all. There was my great grandfather’s shipping business that we believe was confiscated by the federal government due to WWI trade issues, there was a school formed in the south, there was a construction company that folded on another side of the family and also some significant wealth from my mother’s side of the family in Europe. When the aforementioned shipping business failed, my great grandparents “travelled Europe looking for backers in a new business” that failed to get traction.

Within the 2020 pandemic, I’ve been working overtime to save my business. My story isn’t worth a fortune yet but it has the bones to be. I am committed to learning from the past and wind up in a different place.

This past week, we celebrated the birth of the civil rights icon, MLK. One of my favorite U2 songs, practically unknown to all, is the last track on the album “The Unforgettable Fire”. Slow and steady & entitled “MLK”, a synth plays a drone and Bono sings: 

“Sleep

Sleep Tonight

And may your dreams 

Be realized

If the thundercloud

Passes Rain

So let it rain 

Rain down on him”

As a child, and not realizing the imagery or what Bono meant, I used to find comfort in it as I drifted off to sleep. Sometimes I would put it on repeat and wake up to it in the morning. Sometimes I would put it on while I mindlessly cleaned my room. It was never lost on me who MLK was, how he was mercilessly gunned down nor his message. Like many, I keep his story and that song close to my heart.

In later years, I found it suitable to use that U2 song as a hymn to lull my children to sleep, regardless of the meaning. To this day, they remember the late nights and my sweet voice drifting from their siblings room in the dead of a sleepless night, echoing in the hallways and softly caressing their imaginations to slumber without knowing it.

The myth and the man, Martin Luther King, ever the preacher, spoke to his people in words to lift them up and will always be known for it. One such speech, he spoke of “shattered dreams” in a sermon back in 1959,

 “Our sermon today brings us face to face with one of the most agonizing problems of human experience. Very few, if any, of us are able to see all of our hopes fulfilled. So many of the hopes and promises of our mortal days are unrealized. Each of us, like Shubert, begins composing a symphony that is never finished. There is much truth in George Frederick Watts’ imaginative portrayal of Hope in his picture entitled Hope. He depicts Hope as seated atop our planet, but her head is sadly bowed and her fingers are plucking one unbroken harp string. Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?”

I am not meant to understand the deep seeded roots of inequality as a white male in this world having not experienced this incredible cruelty, nor will I ever. The tragedy here is not lost on me, however. This existence we have, this precious life we are given is a gift- and sometimes it’s a dagger. To the well-to-do life is a sweet dream always fulfilled with luxury. To those stuck in the middle, like me, it’s about lifting your life from the clutches of class and to never look back. Lifting your family from nothing to something special takes timed commitment and certainty- all of which I didn’t have. I was and am determined to succeed and pass that success down.

In January of 2007, I was sitting at my desk at my newly opened music studio, rife with ideas. I am the son of working professional parents from Queens, NY and like I mentioned, I don’t have the burden of racial injustice that Mr King would rally peacefully against. Nor would I have the stain of racism to hold my dreams back. I was just a middle class kid without a college degree, without connections or money. I had Dreams. I had it as my will and fire.

I sat there looking out on a huge parking lot while people walked by, peering in at me. Like a puppy on display, I’d wave back hoping the community would adopt me. I had the dreams of building a business I could barely afford at the time and had miraculously put it together with credit cards and a small loan from my mother. I had one thing: hope for a better future. Hope was my currency.

Around this time, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States and what was striking about the man besides the fact that he would be the first African American president, was his oratory. He spoke of hope and how we need to be the change we seek. This language isn’t new, but borrowed and cleverly and astutely put together. Like millions around the world, My wife Melissa and I followed his words closely because of what they meant to us. Our future was so uncertain and the path was completely unclear. The words were comforting and the politics took a backseat. It wasn’t necessarily the man but the ideals that guided me forward. I wrote a song about those ideals and dreamed of a day where I could have that same impact. This is something that stays with me still to do this day, engrained like a hot iron on my soul. The beginnings of his message of inspiration and hope are ingrained in the culture of my company.

Obama’s first introduction to the nation was a few years earlier where his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention had passages like this“…the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too… (sic) We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?

… (sic)I’m not talking about blind optimism here… That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. The hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta. The hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead. aren’t a nation of blue states or red states- we are the United States…” 

This speech rallied the convention to a fury and caused all the pundits to take a second look at the man who would eventually have the courage to run. This speech resulted in a manifesto from Obama, “The Audacity of Hope” and that speech was about hope in things to come; no matter the circumstances. To this day it moves me.

Obama’s inspiration for the speech & book stems from a sermon by Reverend Wright, who borrowed King’s inspiration from that same George Frederick Watts painting that inspired MLK. That painting is called “Hope” and is depicted here below.

The tragedy of humanity is that we are self aware, meaning, that we are the only species that we know of that is constantly aware of who we are, what is happening to us and in a constant feedback awareness loop of our feelings, desires and outcomes. Other than simple mammals, say my dog Harley, that not only does not understand that he is a dog, but doesnt know he exists or why he does anything.

Suffering, it can be argued is necessary; without it life would be boring and mundane. Ironically without suffering, hope doesn’t exist. We have to be aware that we are suffering at times in order to find hope.

There are also concepts, philosophies and constructs that we as humans have created to explain the unexplainable. This idea of Hope is one.

Hope is the idea that there is something on the horizon that is better and man. There is the idea of “hope” all over biblical texts so it’s no wonder why the faithful take to the idea.  Psalms 91 is God’s way of telling us that whoever runs to Him and seeks His divine protection will be saved from calamity and destruction. 

Nothing is saving us from anything, sorry. You yourself have the power to create and destroy.

So this suffering, albeit conceived short or bleak, long and sharp or painful and extended is the result of action. Actions untaken, taken away or given to you.

Humans, therefore, are forced to endure endless suffering if we aren’t careful to look for hope. But if we take stock in where we came from to where we are today…maybe, just maybe we will find inspiration and solace… and hope.

Art conveys suffering more often than not in the physical form and in music. Vincent Van Gogh and his long suffering mental illness became real life art with his self portrait of his bandaged head covering the ear he had cut off in a fit of depression-rage. Beethoven reportedly suffering from bipolar disorder with his only solace: composing music. It’s in art that feeling is conveyed to the indifferent. It’s so that those that feel pain can transmit it to others in code so we can wrap ourselves in a deeper understanding of our own purpose. 

It’s so that I can listen to music and feel joy or pain then lose myself in a visual art to find deeper meaning for me. Suffering is selfish and so is hope.

Perhaps suffering could be perceived in the pursuit of achieving success. Donald Arthur Mattingly is a long standing baseball favorite here in New York City and played for the NY Yankees; a both love and hated franchise known for their success in the mid 20th century. Sports, like art, has its champions, talents and failures. It also commands to have leadership and inspiration which is why Mattingly is so beloved. He was an immense talent during my childhood that lifted an ailing team and made us believe in bringing a championship to NY again. His promise was cut short by injury and his hope of raising a championship flag as the leader of an organization was realized a year after his retirement. To this day, the swing of his bat and the sound of the thundering crowd as he hit his only postseason home run echoes in my mind. The camera shook as he rounded the bases and everyone in NY cried as their baseball son tried to reach his dreams.

I am a strange mix of artist, type A personality and a completely competitive athlete. A lot speaks to me and it comes from my upbringing and my ancestors. Sports, it seems, comes from my fathers side of the family. Art comes from my mom’s side.

So borrowing from Obama’s line in his “Audacity of Hope” speech “The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores”, I come from a long line of artists stretched from all over the globe. If it wasn’t for America, there is a good chance that I wouldn’t exist in 2 ways. 

  1. I physically wouldn’t be here- I am a mix of Spanish, Irish, German, Italian, Scottish and Eastern European roots. The beauty of America is in the blood we keep not the blood we spill.
  2. I wouldn’t have a voice and the ability to express myself because without these people, art may not be physically in my DNA

The ancestors on my mothers side ironically were mostly well off. Digging deeper into 3 generations before me, there seemed to be wealth, despair and the loss of that wealth as I mentioned. They, in turn, looked for a better life and came by sea to find it. They searched for hope in a free society like billions of us have for generations.

 

On my Mothers side, we can go as far back as 1840 when Isabella Imbrechts (from Scotland) was born in the mid 1800s and was traveling from Columbia to South America where her Father was the British Consul back in England. Turns out the ship she was on sunk killing almost everyone onboard- except for her. She was 18 years old at the time which is telling of our culture today, isn’t it? We (not me) barely let our children out of sight into the next room while we “helicopter parent” after them. After rescue, Isabella was to stay in Cuba until arrangements could be made to bring her back to the UK but as fate would have it she fell in love with the British Consulate Tomas Cabellero.

Isabella had a few children, one of them Tomasa Caballero who married James Rhode, a German educator who had moved from Europe to Mexico then to Havana Cuba in the mid 1800’s. Ironically, James died of a cold later. Coronavirus in it’s earlier more silent cousin.

Tomasa & James had 7 children before his untimely death. One of them: my great grandmother Amanda. Her sister, Zoe was a painter and the mystery of her life in particular is one that has been haunting my dreams as of late.

Not much is known about Zoe other than those paintings that have survived her. Many are oil on canvas and have survived through the years having been kept by my Great Aunt Sylvia and upon her death distributed amongst the family. Many were reproductions of famous paintings at the turn of the 20th century and had a desperation to them that couldn’t be described. I remember as a child staring up at what seemed to be a huge work depicting a woman running in a field desperate to, what looked to me, run away from something. The image of her face etched into my heart to this day.

Or the florals that should bring light into your life but rather, seemed to scream isolation and darkness. Having found a picture of her recently (here to the right), her portrait doesn’t scream depression or any sort of artist but it’s interesting to me to have connected the face to the art.

Separately, music was rampant in the family. Carnegie Hall, performances for famous people of the time, instruction at the highest level and at the best facilities were common for her family members and generations removed, I feel this is where I have gotten my own love of music from.

I can relate to the darker side of art and understand where my propensity to push my limits in that darkness lies. My art was in music and I always pushed myself to go there and scoop out the sadness and like a producer-friend of mine had described to me, “Be yourself- the best artists in the world are naked” meaning- don’t hide what you truly are. In the end though- all of my songs sounded the alarm of hope through my voice.

I kept works of art in my house that were inspiring and dark at the same time. A Picasso reprint that I’ve had in my living room for 20 years “The Old Guitarist” depicting a blind old man sitting cross legged and playing guitar is one. Turns out that there is a connection between Watts (Hope painter) and Picasso. Even though Watts’s work was seen as old and too out of touch by fellow artists of his time, his use of “symbolism” and “expressionism” garnered respect from the European Modernists, notably the young Picasso, who copied Hope’s intentionally distorted features and broad sweeps of blue in “the Old Guitarist” seen here. 

This brings us to the present day, a few days ago. I was sitting in my office and taking a breather from the mountain of work I had placed upon myself. The man that had started a business in 2006 in that small, freezing cold studio looking out on the world has given rise to an impossible story it seems. A life-changing company with multiple locations and limitless potential at times. My ancestors are looking down on me with a photo album in their hands of all the mistakes and lost fortunes. Do they hold a map of a journey to start anew? Was this was the point of all that strife?

I sat there looking at artwork that I had brought from home to hang on my walls thinking that sometimes it takes generations to achieve goals. Was it my great great grandfathers dying wish to have his business reincarnate into what I have today? Is it like a seed dropped from a plant that over time evolves into that flower that it wasn’t meant to be?

In particular, I had brought three recent pieces to my office. The reprint of the Picasso painting seen above, a 100 year old oil painting Zoe made that had been in the family and a framed Don Mattingly jersey.

That one painting in particular that I had taken from home was painted by my Great-Great Aunt Zoe and was a fit not only because of it’s hue- but also because it calmed me. For whatever reason I decided to text my mom about it: I needed the name of the painting.

As I waited for the answer, the conversation went on with some pleasantries and then this:

Once I googled the name of the painting, I immediately found the background on it and was floored.

I mean, chills up and down my spine. 

It seems that my life had come full circle in some ways.

The 100 year old painting passed down to me, that was sitting in my office, painted by my ancestor was one of significant meaning not only to the family but had inspired generations of leaders and conversation. It, perhaps, was one of the few oil on canvas reproductions left! 

It had emboldened a young black man to have the audacity to speak about a country where people were treated equally in a sermon to his faithful. Then years later to the man who would become President, the hope to inspire the imagination of a just future including me, my vision of my company and the future for it.

To me, it was a representation of the future and in it, one of the few times that you see something like this from period pieces, the woman holds a musical instrument Lyre with one string left. So symbolic considering where I am in life- a pandemic has brought my music business to its knees and has faced a reckoning; a possible sentence.

So today I stand here with all of this non coincidence- my affection for the song MLK, his story and his sermon about hope, Barack Obama’s inspiration by a reverend’s sermon, inspired by MLK and which resulted in the love for the painting. It also inspired his message of hope and the fact that my family had an artist, like me, who painted her “hope” on a canvas to rid the demons she probably had inside & encapsulate it for me to place it on my music studio wall for generations to come. To make the impossible more impossible, “Hope” by Watts was the inspiration for the Picasso painting “The Old Guitarist” which I’ve also had in my possession and have hung them up…

side by side. Without prompting… without knowing the significance of either.

If there are no coincidences what are the odds of that happening?

There is no greater accomplishment than discovering meaning. Life itself is random and fledgling while being impossible, incredible and fulfilling because we are just simply alive.

What if my moment exists because I am meant to just continue the story my ancestors started or like our nation’s forefathers have asserted: “To form a more perfect Union” only the “union” in question is the my unity in the grand story- not just mine?

In 100 years when I am gone, how does my story affect my great grandson? How do I make sure that any future riches I obtain is the family’s to keep and not stories left to the annals of time as a waste?

Mostly: how do I use this moment of awareness as the vehicle to take me to that perfect union of destiny, purpose, meaning, and definition?

If there are no coincidences, then surely my whole life is a result of energies that I could never understand nor try to. My life, our lives, are predetermined by our willingness to be open to possibilities, by the mistakes of our past generations and our passions to build better lives than what was left for us. 

Yes, poverty is a weight and absolutely it defines generations. But what if you can look to the past and discover that what is inside of you is there for a reason and it is up to you to tap into it? 

Every day, there are clues hung that you are on the right path or the wrong path. I think I have found the clues that tell me I am on the right path. 

This feels like an eternal truth.

It is up to us to be aware that they exist and listen for clues. Look inwards for the beat, outwards in your environment for the path

Hope is the hymn that will forge my future. Thank you Great Great Aunt Zoe.

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