Cameron Dezen Hammon

Cameron Dezen Hammon earned her BA in Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University. She has contributed articles to Nylon, and Houston's 002 Magazine. She is a worship leader and songwriter at Ecclesia Church in Houston, TX where she lives with her husband and daughter.

Channeling Affections: Whitney, Modigliani, and Me

I keep thinking of things I’d like to read, eat, or clean today, (Lauren Winner’s new memoir! Roasted Tomato and Eggplant Cous Cous! The guest bathroom!) instead of doing what I know I should be doing– writing.

In the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time and energy talking to artists of faith about their process, about the importance of showing up for their work, even if, especially if– in that day, or that hour, it isn’t any good.

But today I am squirming; I am doing everything I can think of to avoid just that.

Here’s the thing– if I’m honest, I’m terrified of writing something “not very good.” And I’m also afraid of writing something really good. I’m afraid of being corny, or revealing too much. I’m also afraid of revealing too little. I’m afraid my work matters, and I’m afraid it doesn’t. I’m afraid this essay isn’t as good as my last, that you’ll see the truth about me- that on my best day I’m quite mediocre.

The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

Even though we were both Jersey girls, I never met Whitney Houston, though some of my childhood friends did; her spectre loomed large in our small, North Jersey bedroom community. Back then she was one of a kind, the only female artist who could seamlessly blend the vocal gymnastics and conviction of gospel with the catchiness of pop. I sang her songs each night into my bathroom mirror, slicking back my hair in imitation of her first record cover, heart longing and prepubescent voice straining to emulate this beautiful, powerful woman.

As I sit here in my pajamas two decades later, avoiding my work, I cannot imagine the mounting pressure Whitney Houston experienced with each profound achievement. Back then it seemed each song, each album or movie was more wildly successful than the next. And with those successes came our scrutinizing glare. No matter how much we claim to love our artists, our culture doesn’t allow them to fail– not creatively or personally. The one thing we obsess over more than building an artist up is watching them fall apart.

After decades of unfathomable success, in the last handful of years Whitney Houston’s personal demons, her abusive marriage, and struggle with drugs and alcohol, threatened to eclipse her triumphs. It was like watching a train derail, and most of us, no matter how much her music meant to us, preferred to look away.

I recently watched a film called “Modigliani,” about Italian born artist Amadeo Modigliani. It was an interesting time to watch such a movie, all about the struggle of a profoundly gifted artist to survive his addictions, to keep up with his more successful contemporaries (Pablo Picasso) and leave a meaningful legacy. And though he left behind a magnificent body of work, his story, his difficult life and painful death, is one of the most tragic in modern art. Someone once told me I resemble a Modigliani painting– and so when I went to the MOMA in New York to see a collection of his work I was shocked by what I saw. Not by the paintings resemblance to my features, but by their resemblance to something unnameable in me I thought I was doing a good job hiding from the world. Modigliani’s paintings saw me. And obviously, I am not the only one who feels this way.

“I Will Always Love You” came out a few months after a high school friend of mine died in a car accident. I was sixteen, and I remember listening to that song over and over on my headphones, walking each day to the subway that would take me to my classes at the High School for the Performing Arts & Music & Art. With my broken heart lodged firmly in my throat, I found it very hard to sing in those days. But something in me resonated when I heard her sing. Something in her voice elevated my grief above the black and white and grey of everyday. Something in her voice, in that song, heard me. And of course, millions around the world felt exactly the same way.

I’ve been singing since I was a child, and for much of my life music bordered on obsession. So when I first moved to Texas almost ten years ago, I decided to ‘fast’ music, in much the same way one might fast coffee or meat for Lent. The previous year I had performed a lot to support my first CD, one that took me forever to record and absorbed all my meager savings. I hauled my cheap keyboard up and down the east coast on the Chinatown bus, sometimes playing to 100 people, sometimes 10. A song of mine was being played on an influential college radio station in Boston, and its success struck me with terror– how could I ever repeat this? Music was my golden calf, I had no doubt; it was something I worshiped in the place of God, something I loved even though it couldn’t love me back.

When I stepped away from music the ugliest parts of me came out. I was paranoid, I feared I would never make another record, that I’d missed my window of relevance, that I’d ceased to matter as an artist. I scrutinized my songs, convincing myself they were never very good to begin with, but deep down I feared I was worthless without them. It took some time– about six months actually. As I waited for God to give music back to me, I learned a lot about myself. And when He did give it back to me, it wasn’t in the way I’d expected.

I remember standing outside the double glass doors of the church on the rainy, Friday evening, sweating, heart pounding in my throat, trying hard not to run back to my car. I had never sung in church before, and feared I would be struck by lightening. I hardly thought myself pious, and I was a new Christian, but I’d accepted the invitation to sing, and later as I did, I experienced peace for the first time in a long time. The pieces of my musical identity that had been so scattered, so painful, seemed to fall directly into place. A small voice whispered to my heart, “This is what you were made to do.”

As artists, our relationship to our work is complicated. I am still often guilty of foisting unreasonable expectations on my creative work, of expecting it to tell me who I am, to tell me that I matter. It’s only when I step away, when I pause to listen– not just to my own hopes and fears, but to God, that I learn who I truly am; I am more than my work. I can only wonder what would’ve happened, what songs and painting and stories we’d have from the artists we’ve lost too soon, had they stepped away from it all, had we let them, even if for just a season. What would’ve happened if the songbird from Newark, or the Italian-Jewish painter, had stepped away from their work before it consumed them?

A friend once described worship leading as “channeling affections;” of drawing the love of the people for God and reflecting it back to Him. I am convinced this is just what artists must do, no matter what their medium. When an artist channels the affection of her audience back to God, never letting it rest long on her, then and only then can she escape being crushed under its weight, under the pressures of its successes and failures. Perhaps then will she have the courage to see herself as God sees her; not through the lens of her last song, or painting, or essay, but through the lens of the Great Artist, the Creator, the one for whom she is the greatest masterpiece.

photo by: KUUNSTKUULTUR

Tuesday

For Matthew Yarnell

 

1.

How appropriate, those two “ones” in eleven

standing side by side, the left only slightly longer. Like a left leg is slightly longer.

Or two haystacks standing side by side

one burning more quickly and thoroughly, the one that got the first match.

 

Korean grandmother beside me on the R train

Nose deep in her paper and sticky bun

feels the meteoric fireball warm her plastic window.

She glances up then turns back to Page Six.

 

I mumbled under my breath

I trust you with my life as I walked to 25th street station.

Steps from Greenwood Cemetery the almost ghosts of firemen screamed

up the Avenue, disturbing my reverie. I thought of the firemen I pulled groggy

from their beds to rescue a brood of half dead kittens pinned beneath scaffolding.

 

Later, drunk on gin and tonics I saw the image of the Virgin in soot;

human flesh and fax cover sheets carried on the breeze

to my brother’s front yard in Brooklyn. Financial Projections, Interoffice Memoranda,

singed at the edges, but otherwise perfect, unharmed.

 

2.

1986 Honda Civic, light blue, with Terrapin Station bumper sticker parked

under gathering trees. Pot & patchouli, Tijuana blankets in the backseat; forbidden

from riding in it I headed home. The next morning

it was wrapped around a telephone pole.

Then that next summer there was another car, a truck,

I traced its oil rainbows with my toe in a puddle outside Pasquale’s Pizza.

This time it was a boy I liked. Streets lubricated with summer rain, an unseen ditch, and ditchweed. Two teenaged

drivers lit like Roman candles on Christmas.

 

Only it wasn’t Christmas or even night.

It was Tuesday; clear and blue and beautiful.

You were fast asleep in the back seat of Kate’s dad’s

brand-new Passat as black ice pounded us for 6 hours on the New Jersey Turnpike

and a blazing, neon cross sneered from the grill of an 18- wheeler riding our tail.

 

I chewed my mouth to ribbons, a pocket-sized bird thrashed in my chest.

I recited the Lord’s Prayer (I made it up, I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer),

and smoked. You slept, then the rain finally stopped.

 

The highway was about to end at Pittsburgh

When ice, or was it glass, shot out in a perfect arc, mid-air

It was the impact of a crash 30 feet in front of us.

Just keep driving baby, I said, just keep driving,

and we did, and the glass fell softly all around us.

But you knew nothing about this

You were asleep in the backseat and why would I tell you?

Should I have?

 

 

3.

Then so many year later, all that glass and fire and metal;

I saw the smoking carcass

(My brother and I’d walked 14 blocks with a wine buzz)

but I didn’t think of you immediately.

Or for days, even. I called your voice mail.

 

Then I remembered the view from your office

and how there aren’t any other buildings

with 103 floors. There aren’t any other buildings like that one,

from where standing and looking just right you can see

all the way back to your parents house in Jersey.

You can see all the way back to tiny cars and trains,

snaking one by one over the river and through the tunnel,

taking us, innocent as doves,

from one place to the next. From this life, to the next.

 

 

photo by:

Lost and Found in the Texas Hill Country

The bucolic journey, which started as a rare time of togetherness for my Texan husband and me, turned into a tension-filled, stressed out drive when we took a wrong turn at Kerrville.

“Did you read the directions?” I asked.

“I know exactly where it is,” he offered, “don’t worry.”

Attending this retreat was a minor miracle in itself. We’d gotten a babysitter for the weekend, and were going to spend three uninterrupted days with other artists, writers, and musicians in an idyllic, distant corner of Texas. And we would be together, alone. Amazing.

When we pulled over at a friendly-looking restaurant so I could ask for directions (note: I was asking, not my husband), we were nearly to Bandera. The wrong way on the road that didn’t turn into 71 like we’d thought. It was getting dark.

The GPS on the iPhone found a windy little road through hills that felt like mountains, with hairpin turns that demanded we slow down to 10 mph. We were seven hours into a drive that should’ve taken five.

I was frustrated, tired and hungry, and noting all this, I thought to myself in a rare moment of optimism, Maybe there’s a reason we’re lost and late. Maybe something good will come of it.

We called the lodge’s front desk at least four times before we got deeper into the canyon and lost phone service. I tried not to sound like the neurotic New Yorker that I am, and the woman on the other end of the line kindly and patiently described the unusual route from the main highway.  I could overhear the excited greetings of the other guests meeting up before dinner. I was anxious to get there.

When we finally made our way to the river road, I began to relax. We gingerly dipped the wheels of our small SUV in the shallow water, and following the directions of several hand-carved signs, (“Yes, you drive IN the river!”) wound our way down to the lodge. It glowed a warm welcome. We opened the sunroof and all the windows as we drove; the sky was a silver dome with pinpricks of black between the stars. The night air was clean and cool and clear.

We stumbled, mesmerized, to the front desk and immediately met Edwinna, the woman from the phone calls. Well into her 80s and exuding vitality, she welcomed us with hugs and kisses (we’d never met her before this moment), and asked if we were hungry. Our grumbling stomachs gave us away.

“Well I’m just glad you kids made it; I was so worried!” she said, smiled slyly, and stuck her hands on her hips in mock irritation.

Kids? I thought, confused.

I paused, then exhaled deeply, silently vowing not to resist. I’ve often misunderstood familiarity for kindness in Texas, and been stung when I expected sweetness. But I decided that this time I would simply go with the flow and hope for the best. We followed Edwinna into the lodge’s kitchen where she gently nudged us toward the beautiful table she had laid. Hot, fresh bread, and cold iced tea. Fresh cut flowers in a handmade vase. I sniffled, hot tears blurring my contact lenses; I was exhausted and emotionally raw from a long journey. Not just from the comedic foray through the Texas Hill Country, but from far too many years of intense work without stopping. Growing up, hospitable kindness was not the currency of my busy, broken family. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was six, and I never met my father’s mother. My own mother was a single parent for most of my life and worked, a lot. So I work, a lot.  I don’t pause. Work is what I know how to do.

I considered asking Edwinna to adopt me. Though I’m a grown woman and a mother myself, and had known her for only five minutes, it seemed like a great idea at the time and still does. In a flash, I could see our life together — I would finally learn to cook; I could cry on her shoulder; she would teach me to crochet. As I dreamt she chatted cheerfully, making us feel less guilty for keeping her awake until after 10:00 pm.

“Oh, I don’t go up to bed until late!” she cooed in her sing-song soprano, winking at me.

Though I thought she was just being polite, I also somehow knew she was telling the truth. Staying up late, caring for road- weary strangers, heating up food, and making small talk all seemed like the exact thing she had been looking forward to all day. Like the exact thing she was made to do. She served us and hovered, making sure everything was just right. My husband and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. When she left the room for a moment, I whispered, “Is she real?” I thought it was altogether possible that Edwinna was an angel, some sort of divine messenger armed with an arsenal of mystical, life-changing carbohydrates.

Before leaving us with a Tupperware full of homemade cookies, Edwinna innocently asked if we’d like to try the Russian sweet bread.

“Is that what it’s called?” I asked, as she looked pointedly at me with a slice of fragrant bread cradled in a napkin in her outstretched hand.

“Russian sweet bread?” She asked again. I gulped, trying not to choke on my iced tea.

Edwinna didn’t know this, but I am Russian, or at least half Russian. It’s the artist half, the writer half. The half that insisted, after years of neglect, that I make this trip. The half that demanded, beginning with this weekend, that I begin the long arduous journey back to it, to myself, before it’s too late. Before it slipped away, between appointments and haircuts, dance recitals and Sunday dinners, river rocks and canyon roads.

Edwinna also didn’t know that there would be no way I’d hear “Russian sweet bread” coming from a tiny, elderly woman, in a remote canyon in the middle of the night, and not shiver with a chill of recognition.

She said “Russian sweet bread” and I heard:

This is for you, not the other 40 people at the lodge this weekend, not even for your husband, but just for you. This kindness, this love, this food, is just for you.

I knew it was a good thing. I knew it was divine. I knew I’d been lost, literally, and now was found. And full. Yum.

West Indian Gold

When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with gold cross necklaces. I was about 8, and Jewish for all intents and purposes, so naturally this caused a stir in our house. We had a nanny, Mary, who lived with us.  She was from the British West Indies and wore a light blue nurse’s uniform. Her skin smelled like gardenias and cocoa butter and she did Bible studies in her room at night, when I was supposed to be in bed. Sneaking glimpses of her Bible and notebooks, I zeroed in on the cross emblazoned on them. Bingo, I thought.

While Soul Train played on her small TV with the sound turned down, Mary would read Bible stories to me, eventually giving me colorful, illustrated versions from her church’s Sunday school archives.  I acted nonchalant, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to talk about Jesus. Mary knew, much better than I did, that my Jewish father would likely object to his only daughter being evangelized under his roof. And my Jewish father had a temper. We kept our lessons low key, but they were anything but. I was trafficking in contraband.

My motivation was less than noble – a glittery gold cross that teased from the throat of my classmate, Allison Scully. Allison was allowed to wear ripped jeans to school, had blonde hair and a tan-all-year-round complexion. She was not Jewish and I wanted to be her. I was eager to learn everything I could about this exotic object, this cross; so casual and glamorous, winking at me from Allison’s collarbone.

Chhhh . . . ” Mary sucked her teeth in frustration, after I’d asked, again.

“Child, cha gonna getcha necklace when ya finish your studies!” she sighed, leaning over me in the bathtub, pouring cups of water on my baby-shampooed head.

“The gold from my country, is sooo beeauutiful,” Mary said, getting a far off look in her eye, her musical voice dipping with each inflection.

I envied that place of aqua ocean and sun-warmed metal so far from our Jersey suburb. I was a half-breed and I knew it; precipitously wedged between two cultures and two parents. One, scarred by nuns and guilt. The other, chasing skirts instead of Torah. Mary proudly showed me her cross, tucked discreetly behind her powder blue collar. She had something I wanted and it was more than a necklace.

When the day came and I’d correctly filled in all the blank spaces in my workbooks, I casually approached my mother in the kitchen after she’d gotten home from work. Mary told me that I couldn’t wear the cross if I wasn’t a Christian, and to become one I would need to ask my mother’s permission.  Easy enough, I thought. I was a good student, loved by my teachers. Student Council Secretary. Star of Princess and the Pea. I wasn’t used to hearing no from my mother. That was my brother’s milieu.

Poor Mom.  Working her her tail off at Macy’s. Sitting in traffic on the George Washington bridge, worrying about my father’s inability to keep a job, and my brother hammering his kindergarten classmates. The last thing she needed was a grenade packed with religious identity issues, smuggled into her home, and lobbed from her daughter’s 3rd grade hand. If I’d been gay, or a terrorist, that would’ve been better received than “Mom, I want to become a Christian.”

As the words left my mouth, I was hushed and pulled to the dark of the front stairwell. My father was in his usual spot, with his usual drink, in the den across the hall. “Whatever you do,” she whispered, “don’t tell your father.”

I felt the pit of my stomach drop. My mother was a lapsed Catholic who’d speak fondly of midnight mass at Christmas. We always had a tree. My father called it the Hannukah bush. Surely, she would support my decision. She left me in my reverie to rescue my brother, who was dangling from the second floor landing.

Who did I think I was anyway? I thought, Olivia Newton John? Farrah Fawcett? Allison Scully? Or some other ne’er do well blond, blue-eyed goy with scrapbooks from first communion. What did I think was going to happen if I had that necklace?

When I think of it now, I am moved by my mother’s act of love for my father. There was a time when they were in love, but it was long gone. I saw it in the pictures hidden in boxes in the cedar closet; a beach vacation, my mother’s bottle blonde hair nearly to her waist. My father’s dark tan and athletic build. He was 17 years her senior; he had already had a wife and family, a family he left in Westchester to be with the twenty-three year old shopgirl. They were exotic to each other, and it fueled the complete remaking of their lives. Then something happened to them, I don’t know what. I remember walking in on them one night in the den, watching TV and silently drinking. I watched her pick up his long arm and drape it around her shoulders. He scuttled away without a word.

For whatever reason, that night on the stairs she took great care to protect him. To protect his Jewish-ness, that foreign element forbidden from her white-curtain Irish upbringing. Maybe the one thing about him she still loved.

Recently, I phoned him from my office at the Southern church where I work.

“You know what,” he said, “when you were a kid, you begged me to send you to Hebrew school.” I could hear him smiling through the phone.

I did? I thought, and waited breathlessly for some additional revelation of my childhood self. “Why didn’t you?” I asked.  Silence.

“Well,” I retorted, half sarcastically, “blame yourself I’m not a Jew.” He calls me “The Jewish Minister.”  When I visit,  I’m careful not to wear my cross. It keeps things light between us.

I kept prodding about the Hebrew school comment, fascinated with this part of my history. “Well, your mother wasn’t interested.”

“Dad,” I said, “she was far more interested in your Jewish-ness than you were.”
“I never knew that,” he said, his voice strained.

“I never knew.”

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