By Valery Lanotte
By Amy Roth
The last time Dan talked to me he recommended I learn about grieving and how the people you love come together again. In the hospital the last time he told me “It’s going to be ok, Truckie”. I thought I was there comforting him but he was concerned about reassuring me instead. I think everything he did and didn’t say in the last several years was to avoid causing pain. What you resists, persists, he said, so he let it out in art.
He was a good, beautiful, understanding, accepting person. He made me feel accepted. He loved his cat and loved animals especially dogs and wolves. He had a frontiersman spirit. In the hospital he said he loved people and wanted to make an effort to reach out more. He said much in art that he didn’t say in life, but the truth is out there if people want to go down the rabbit hole with Dan. His last film sketches were an interview with his family mixed with literary musings and there was a puddle that talked and absorbed people. He used to make his belly talk for me too and I miss Belly too... he had me convinced it was a separate entity, but Belly was kind of a bully and got Dan into trouble.
I believe Dan was in love with his family, friends, the creative process, and the quest for truth and freedom. His second to last film he summed up in the word “acceptance”. I didn’t realize how much he yearned to be loved and accepted, as we probably all do, and don’t say. Maybe it also refers to accepting what is, or possibly the last stage of grief. I’m really not sure. He put it in words in a director narration for Indie Forest Film Cafe, which he shot straight out of the hospital after brain surgery. He did many takes. I bought him a second-hand jacket which he wore for it and I accidentally destroyed it in the laundry and he said it was perfect because it worked for the character. Dan played with riddles a lot, but his film actually does make sense. There’s also a soundtrack with a ton of songs.
Dan poured his (sometimes bleeding) heart into his spirituality and creativity trying to live true and authentic. He was so allergic to pretense and fake BS, but it’s so hard to live free in this society. For a while he thought the answer was in Colorado so we moved him there... and then moved him back a few months later. Dan was kind of from another planet, and I mean that in the best way. He was a creative and musical genius who had little interest in refinement because it was about the experience, not the result. I think refinement was stifling to him, which took me a long time to understand. He was always changing and rearranging things. I hope everyone can benefit from the works he left behind. With his family’s blessing I think it would be wonderful if Dan was heard and seen and felt long after death.
My only comfort in all this is realizing that he always had one foot in the spiritual realm and only used material things as tools for truth seeking. Long ago I calculated he wore his t-shirts inside out and/or backwards about a fourth of the time. He was/is so extraordinary and unique and if there’s one thing I hope dearly it’s that he felt love much more than indifference. I think everyone needs reminders more often...
Even in his last year Dan was prolific and hard working. He just kept going and didn’t complain. I hope I can channel my own sadness and sense of loss into creativity, art, music and soul seeking and not let it take me down. I want to sing and play and dance again but I don’t know where that person went. I know what I should do but it feels so hard and heavy. He called me Truckie, short for Fire Truck, because he thought I had a tendency to want to put out fires and treat things with a sense of urgency. In my view I have a passionate need to help and hope it is accepted. But it comes across as taking things too seriously even if they are ‘serious’ things. Dan helped me let loose and improvise, and feel confident telling stories. We felt comfortable with each other but “the light made its own rules”. A couple months ago I asked Dan’s runes about his health and I drew the Laguz rune, reminding me of how often Dan put the word River and Water into his songs. It basically told me to “go with the flow”, which was the last thing I wanted to hear. I still have a coffee stain in my old carpet and now I’m sad for a different reason. But it’s ok because Chris and Juli have a big butt print through a woven chair back.
By my interpretation based on what he said in his narration, the conclusion he drew about life is to dance and be lighthearted, moving forward and unattached to the result because you never know where it will take you, except to an inevitable death, and then eventually ... deeper answers and enlightenment. When he first escaped death Dan suddenly loved life. Nearing the end, he listened to a lot of Robert Thurman. Friends tell me that Dan is probably thrilled to now be experiencing the answers to life’s big questions and there is no reason to be sad, except for ourselves because we miss him so much. Why does it take impending death to see what actually matters? His goofiness was disarming. His child-like nature was endearing. He was mindful of ego. He was a surprise. He was actually afraid of crowds and performing but did it anyway and brought people together to hold space. He had many transformations to his credit in his life. Around him there was music, comedy improv, The Artist Way, the paranormal, movie making, writing.... Dan always loved to organize programs for self-enrichment largely because he wanted to attend them.
I would give anything to go back in time and show him more love and appreciation but I can’t. All I can hope to do is pay it forward, honor his memory, and somehow allow myself to be happy again because otherwise I’ve missed the whole point of what he was also striving to achieve. Dan was one of the most impactful, sweet, sacrificing people I have known and I know he wanted the best for me, and treated me accordingly. I don’t know why events unfolded as they did but I am grateful and happy that Dan let me come around.
I wrestled with what to say in these few moments I have to speak about my friend Dan. So I asked him.
Dan, I said, “What would you like me to say?” In my head, I thought I should talk about his many admirable qualities – his ability to make you laugh or think or act like a goof in an improv class or during one of his impromptu videos.
I thought I should talk about his fantastic songwriting. Maybe quote a few of his songs or a few of his favorite authors.
Those things weren’t in the cards, though. We all know very well that Dan’s personality was truly, truly one of a kind. That the hole he left in our lives will never be filled. That he was intelligent, sloppy and devoted to his cat, Pumpkin, his songwriting and his movie-making. He loved being a librarian and planning programs that made people think and laugh and sometimes cry.
But I learned he didn’t want me to talk about those things either. The thing he wants me to say is much more painful than all that. In the last few months of Dan’s life, he began to push away those of us who were closest to him. He didn’t complain about his headaches or his lack of appetite or his nausea. If we asked, he told us, but he didn’t express self-pity at all.
You see, Dan knew his prognosis was not good. Yet he was hopeful. He even bought tickets to a Kurt Vile concert coming up on Dec. 22. But he knew what was happening, even as those around him hoped and prayed for a miracle.
I don’t know if his decision to separate himself from his friends was deliberate or instinctual. But those who knew him best and cared for him throughout the last year of his life felt him pulling away. We think he was trying to make it easier on us because he knew he was leaving us.
I remember the day that it happened to me. I was sitting by his bed at Chris and Juli’s house just scrolling through Facebook on my phone. He appeared to be dozing. But then he said: Will you do me a favor? Of course, I said. What do you need?
Will you leave? He said. I thought I had misunderstood. But then he asked me to leave again. I was heartbroken. I left the room and literally dissolved into tears. I didn’t understand what he was doing then, but I do now. He was telling me I had done what he needed me to do and now I needed to go do my life without him. I guess you could say it was his way of thanking me.
I think he really would have wanted to continue to embrace the life he had with each of us, but he was tired. All of this is background to what Dan wanted me to say. The night before I wrote this, I had a dream. He came up to me and gave me a big hug. This is something that he never did in real life. I mean, I gave him a couple of hugs when he was in the hospital ready to go into surgery. And I held his hand after his initial diagnosis of colon cancer as he cried with a sadness I think I’ve never seen before.
But he never initiated a hug. Now, my friends, he is. What he wants me to say is that the one thing he would do if he were here today, the one thing he wishes with all his might he could do, is to give each one here a hug.
So if you don’t mind, please accept your hug from Dan.
Know that Dan loved you. And whatever part of your life you shared with him was precious to him.
Remember his songs, his laughter, his searching and seeking spirit.
But in the end, remember that of all the things he embraced, the most important ones were you.
Good Evening. I want to personally give my thanks and gratitude to everyone who has made time to help us Celebrate Dan’s life this evening. For those whom I have not had the pleasure to personally meet, I am Jeff Smolla, Dan’s brother. To the Aurora Public Library and Staff members --- your gracious act of allowing us to use this wonderful facility to Celebrate Dan says a lot the impact Dan had on the library itself and the community it so well serves.
Dan was the fifth and final child of our late & beloved parents, Harriett and Richard Smolla. I shared a bedroom with Dan from about the age of 7 until my early teens. A few years older than Dan, I could not have asked for a more imaginative, loving, creative and influential room-mate growing up. He was a role-model of what a brother was. Although we had some standard sibling spats----they were inquisitive and competitive in nature, never mean-spirited.
Dan was somewhat precocious, extremely verbal, and so very in touch with himself, with his wandering imagination. At a very young age, I watched Dan as he began to immerse himself in reading books. While this was the age before smartphones and the internet and reading books was not that unusual--- Dan was not just reading Juvenal mystery books that I was hooked on.
He was reading EVERY book that had been written, or so it seemed to an impressionable soul like mine. Books on mythology, poetry, Woody Allen’s early comedy’s, and books about nurturing your soul. It’s perhaps a tribute to our beloved mother, herself a volunteer librarian, that he found his love for the written word. For reading. For exercising and expanding his mind, and developing an early philosophy on life.
As a little time passed, I noticed another quirky trait of this younger brother of mine. He started to write. I’d walk into our shared bedroom and find him scribbling ecstatically onto some loose leaf notebook papers. I'd give him a quizzical look, and I'd plop on my bed and go about my own business. A few weeks later, I walked into our shared bedroom and then it happened. A pure burning bush moment. Dan had a fiery look of inspiration glowing from his eyes. I look back and think this was the moment the Sea of Destiny parted for Dan, a moment that would foretell Dan's future path.
For there sat Dan, with a microphone up to his mouth. It was connected to a Panasonic cassette tape recorder. Dan was talking into it, reading from those loose leaf notebook papers that he had been scribbling in the prior few weeks.
About a week later, I again walked into our shared bedroom, and Dan was again talking into the microphone, but this time he was reading in the voice of different characters, different parts. He looked up at me with a sheepish grin and asked me if I wanted to be the voice of a skit he had written. The skit featured four of our favorite stuffed animals. He handed me one of his pieces of paper and described how I should do the voice of my animal character after describing in subtle detail the plot of his skit.
Here it was before me, before he was a teenager, Dan the movie maker, the director, the man SO in touch with the magic that is Imagination and Spirit left to roam and explore life itself. At a very early age, Dan had found his love, the thing that would fill most his life for the next 40 years or so....the love of creating. The love of writing, the love of performing.
So I've been wondering of late, was this one of the traits of Dan that endeared so many people to him? Why was Dan so loved and admired, and why is he so missed now? While I suppose every one of you out there can answer that question in your own way, let me share just a few of the ideas that been ruminating through my mind lately.
I begin with what I hold to be a universal and self-evident truth, that all Animals and Children loved Dan. It’s true. Any child or animal that spent any meaningful time with Dan quickly grew to love him, without exception, without hesitation. And if you think about it, that’s about as fine a thing that might be said about anyone. Because Animals just know things that we humans don’t. They have that special sixth sense about who they can trust. And Children connect with fellow humans most readily with feelings—they can feel in their heart who really loves them, and can recognize instinctively a loving soul, a kindred spirit.
Second, Dan was a spiritual First Responder. If you were at a down point in your life, Dan would meet you at YOUR crossroads. He would listen attentively to what you had to say, and then so gently and poetically give you his take on your situation, usually with some Eastern Philosophy sprinkled in, and very frequently with an offhanded, quirky little burst of humor that would just lighten your load, that would help you see your little drama with some light-heartedness.
Valery Lanotte summed this ability of Dan as a First Responder.
“The last time Dan talked to me he recommended I learn about grieving and how the people you love come together again. I thought I was there comforting him but he was concerned about reassuring me instead. I think everything he did and didn’t say in the last several years was to avoid causing pain. “What you resists, persists”, he said, so he let it out in art.”
Finally, Dan was one of the most authentic, pure, kind hearted souls that has ever graced those of us who knew him. There was really NOTHING you could find to dislike about him. Not a mean bone, not a mean spirit, not a mean thought in him. There was no pretense about him at all. He lived a simple life, and in fact had very few clothes. His friend Valery has jokingly observed that fully one fourth of the time of the time Dan would wear a t-shirt inside out or backwards.
One of my favorite quips of his was KIP. Keep it Positive. If, in the presence of Dan, he sensed you going down a path of negativity, he would spout it out. KIP! Like a Zen Master mentoring a monk.
Valery Lanotte also had this observation about Dan:
"Dan poured his (sometimes bleeding) heart into his spirituality and creativity trying to live true and authentic. He was so allergic to pretense and fake BS, but it’s so hard to live free in this society. He was a creative and musical genius who had little interest in refinement because it was about the experience, not the result. I think refinement was stifling to him, which took me a long time to understand."
While those are some of the enduring traits that so drew people to love and admire and follow Dan, I know each and every one of you can add your own private thoughts on this. And as I close, think to yourself about just one trait of Dan that so endeared him to you. We can then collectively carry on with an energy and Spirit that Dan will be proud of.
For let’s all keep Dan in our hearts for a while. He'll sense it, he'll feel it.
So KIP everybody, let’s all keep it Positive for Dan, for ourselves.