A Lovely Hat

January 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

This just showed up as an ad on my Gmail: You can make a lovely hat out of previously-used aluminum foil.

Of course I can! I can make a lovely hat out of torn panties, lost teeth, a vacuum cleaner bag full of cat hair, a week’s mail! I can make an entire outfit out of the works of Dostoevsky, in yellowing paperback, and wear it only in my apartment while engaging in unmentionable activities before a three-way mirror.

I’m what they call “a creative.” We’re the bastard children of gods and cuckoo birds, first generation; in succeeding generations, ants and dust devils married in. We’re adored, despised, laughed at, kicked and courted. We thrive in the gaps between thoughts, where banished ideas lurk, selling swampland to the newbies. We bleed too much. We believe in blood magic. We know the moon is made of green cheese. We don’t know what we’re talking about but it doesn’t matter because when all else fails, we can make a lovely hat, and a person wearing a lovely hat will find her destiny before midnight.

Have you ever wondered how Creatives live? Whether they have health insurance, IRAs, foot massages? Do you know how many get lost in those gaps between thoughts and are never found again because everyone assumes they’ve taken a powder, taken the veil or taken to not answering phone calls while they write/paint/compose the next great thing? “Oh, she was always a wanderer,” they say, even if she never left  New York. It was the way she talked, as if she’d been everywhere. It was her descriptions of past lives, which sounded like vacations among eccentric and doting relatives. “She’ll turn up when you least expect her, mark my words,” people say heartily as the plot thickens and she’s trapped in its gluey custard, realizing at last that nothing is to be trusted, ideas least of all, that she, who thought herself a treasured visitor, a recorder of secrets, is in fact food for thought and thought gets hungry.

Without us, lovely hats would never be made or even imagined. Hats of any kind would disappear. Previously used aluminum foil would languish in landfills, never again to be humble and useful, bright and flashing, snug around your leftovers or your unexceptional head. You’d miss us, really.



The Blog of Disquiet

January 24, 2012 § 2 Comments

Fernando Pessoa (June 13 , 1888, Lisbon – November 30, 1935, Lisbon)

Someone reminded me recently of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whom I began reading again this fall. I came upon the book by chance, as I was attempting to create order on my shelves, and I opened it with that nostalgic joy with which one greets the books of the truly great—the books I read in youth and which blinded me to so much that one might call the lesser world, which unfortunately is where I’ve mostly had to live.

The beauty of this work that idealizes melancholy, solitude and failure was a comfort to me this autumn. There, you see, I said to myself, being a creature undone at every turn by her own personality is not so bad…look at Pessoa, what he created! I don’t believe that unhappiness is required for genius, and I know from experience that writing eases pain even as it stimulates its recall. But I also know that for those who are not congenitally cheerful, there are ways to live that make extreme pain less likely, and I suspect that they also make one’s best work less likely. One must be willing to walk the mind’s halls without guide or company, and how many of us have minds that are mostly happy, or mostly safe?

I don’t mean there are no guides. There is Fernando Pessoa and his peers; you can make your own list. But they only take you part of the way. They take you into the dark grass at the edge of the lawn, over the first few fallen branches, sun fading fast, into the thorn bush that from the outside looks no bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, but from the inside….They take you to where blood flows and you watch like a girl menstruating for the first time, a girl who’s been told not nearly enough, nothing about the color, the pulse, the flow, or how much is too much.

I had an IUD put in when I was 15, by a doctor in Brooklyn my mother knew nothing about. All that summer when I bled, I bled so heavily I could barely leave the bathroom. Three super tampax and a thick layer of wadded cloth lasted me an hour. It never occurred to me I could be bleeding to death, that there are limits to how much blood a person can lose, no matter the reason. I hadn’t been stabbed; I had my period. I was just sorry I couldn’t go on a hike with my sister and her boyfriend to the top of Rattlesnake Island in Lake Winnepesaukee but instead had to stay home alone, without transportation, on the mile-long New Hampshire island where we had a summer house, bleeding.

My husband believes that IUD made me sterile, and he may be right. That brand made a lot of women of my generation sterile. The memory has always been an indication to me of what I thought, even at 15, sex was worth—sex not as physical pleasure but as the union of male and female, the center of life, the meaning of life, what I had to have or I would die. I should note that I hadn’t even had a boyfriend yet.

I was wrong about what teenage sex was worth, just as I’ve always been wrong about what passion is worth. Yet what is it worth? It doesn’t even count as irony that in the history of life, the emergence of sex made death necessary. Once the possibility of new genetic combinations emerging every generation was realized, it wasn’t long before it became advantageous for the older generation to not stick around consuming all the resources. In the far off days of our beginning, we were all just like each other, cells splitting into genetic replicas, the “death” of an individual not occurring for—what? Millennia? And so when death comes calling, we jump in the sack, “affirming life,” as we say, which is all very well—but you have to acknowledge the other side, too. We pay for sex with death. And sometimes, you can even feel it.

What does this have to do with Fernando Pessoa, who apparently died a virgin? My associations are partly a result of the person who mentioned him to me the other day. But mostly I remember the bleak and utter beauty of his prose, what it was like to read it for the first time; I remember being young and thinking, Yes, I’ll take all the pain, the loneliness, if I have to, to write that well…already knowing enough about pain to know that it actually hurts…not letting myself know I’d never write that well….

Would I do it again? Give up all hope of stability, safety and reward for the thrill of writing and the thrill of love, doing both so recklessly? No. Yes. Maybe. Beyond passion, beyond daring, is the other Margaret, whom anyone who knows me well will recognize.

“To live a dispassionate, cultured life beneath the dewfall of ideas, reading, dreaming and thinking about writing, a life slow enough to be always on the edge of tedium, but considered enough not to slip into it. To live a life removed from emotions and thoughts, enjoying only the thought of emotions and the emotion of thoughts. To stagnate, golden, in the sun like a dark lake surrounded by flowers.”

Fernando Pessoa

Rearranging the Disaligned

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Rake’s Progess, scene in Bedlam William Hogarth

I can’t sleep. And I do nothing with the night except read books of dubious merit and disturb the cats. Last week while we were waiting to see the Wim Wenders Pina Bausch movie, Pina, Adrian said, “There are too many crazy people everywhere,” and I thought—feeling slightly nuts myself—well, is that such a bad thing?

This week? I kind of think so. Details never.

Recently I’ve had a fantasy I haven’t had in a long time—to just pack a bag and disappear, never let anyone know where I am. Dissolve into the metropolis of the world, the dust and crowds, the grasshoppers and raindrops, diners, forests, ski lodges, vacant lots, trains, and cars without mufflers on country roads. Accost strangers for good or ill, spend time with public telephones. Not that it would solve anything, but that instinct to just get away, anonymous in the great American continent, that one of fable before it was crisscrossed by politicians and their pundits, and local and national idiots shown on TV, is still strong.

Yes, there are some smart people. Sometimes I’m one of them. Other times, like most of you, I’m not. Something I’ve been reading, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, by Robert Trivers, is about the deep, evolutionary structure of human (and animal) deceit, which is so much a part of how our brains are wired that we will never escape it. The nub of his argument is that deceiving others offers big social advantages, and to lie while being aware of the truth requires a lot more cognitive effort: enough more that people will likely notice your hesitations, your mistakes. It’s more effective to lie to yourself first and thoroughly, although, of course, there are downsides to this. They fall under the category of Really Big Mistakes.

The scary thing is that the lies put down roots and have families. The truth, which you knew and put aside for a moment, gets covered in trash and hidden for years, and even if you find it again, you don’t quite remember where it fits. It’s become malnourished. It’s too puny to compete with the lies and their minions. It’s too puny to compete with experience, which if you’ve accumulated it with eyes averted, is rogue, greedy, inconsolable…

At dinner Tuesday, when I was talking about writing for money, Jocelyn asked me why I couldn’t write more books like Men, “full of sex.” I didn’t want to say how dark my experience of sex and love has become, so I just said, “I can’t be young again.”

“If you knew how to be young again, you wouldn’t need to write to make money,” Ira observed (Ira’s in his 80’s). Jocelyn said she didn’t want to be any younger than she is (my age). So I asked Ira and June what age they’d choose, if they could be young again. “Fiftyish,” said June. “16 or 17,” said Ira. He asked me and I said 35. “I don’t want to return to my 35-year old self,” I added. “I’d like to be physically that young but I wouldn’t want to not know what I know now.”

“I wouldn’t mind not knowing what I know now,” he said.

And as with Adrian’s remark about crazy people, I’m beginning to see his point.

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Anne Sexton


January 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

Harold Mabern

Since I felt like the world ended last year, but I survived anyway, I assume 2012 will be no big deal. Another birthday, another summer, another election. The war is over. Long live the war. And so on.

To backtrack to 2011 (the good part), on Christmas night, Charles and I went to hear Eric Alexander, Harold Mabern, Louis Hayes and John Webber (saxophone, piano, drums, bass) at Smoke, a small Upper Westside club that I thought I’d been to before, but apparently hadn’t. The music was enthralling—rich, dense, tight. We stayed for 2 sets, and I would have stayed for a 3rd if I hadn’t been tipsy enough already. It was the right moment to leave, with the music still sending electric pulses to my imagination, making story ideas rise with every breath—some of them even remembered in the morning. I want that night again. It didn’t feel as much like Christmas as when I’m with my family, but it was glorious.

We did a little work during the week, had lunch with our darling nieces in Chinatown, and dinner with Lisa and Caitlin at my place. Good food, beloved women. Caitlin, who’d been in Zucotti Park presenting a proposal for funds for OccupyOakland, announced a new desire to abolish gender. I don’t want that. I’d rather occupy it.

On New Year’s Eve we went to the Cathedral for the annual concert for peace. Judy Collins, a Cathedral Artist in Residence, opened the evening. She sang two songs; the first, “Song for Duke” was written after attending Duke Ellington’s funeral at the Cathedral in 1973. There were 14,000 people there on that occasion—the Cathedral record, according to a long-time congregant I was sitting next to. Judy’s voice, a cappella, was an astonishment: as pure and clear as in her youth but with the control and nuance of age.

At the end we all lit the tapers we’d been given with our programs and sang “This little light of mine” as we wandered out. I was a bit scared of a conflagration: it was all to easy to picture a candle setting someone’s hair on fire, and then people dropping their own candles as they rush to help, flames leaping merrily among the celebrants. It didn’t happen, and hasn’t in 30 years. Okay. Maybe I’ll risk it again next year.

New Year’s Day we woke to a little pool of cat vomit containing a dead but intact cockroach. Did Vomit Girl inhale it then puke it up or did the insect choose to die in what must pass for a cockroach cornucopia? This mystery returned us to the humble rhythm of our days.

And now? Charles is printing pictures. It provides an opportunity to hear him use every curse word and phrase in his vocabulary. “Douche bag. Jackass. You dirty little filthy fuck. How can a machine be so stupid?…OK, I jerked it off, now it’s going to do it. You have to be careful with these little shitheads…Jesus! Now what! You bastard! This is going to drive me nuts! This is the one that’s taking me over the edge.”

Meanwhile, Mouchette sleeps with one paw over her ears.

To hear Judy Collins sing “Song for Duke,” click below.


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