March 29, 2013 § 1 Comment
Spring is here and it’s lovely: the thought of little boys visiting, of long evening walks, museums and outdoor cafes, April poetry readings and Delilah’s June wedding. Today I wanted to buy a big bunch of Easter lilies and a chocolate bunny (with a lavender ribbon around his neck) but my fatigue has been intense lately–I couldn’t cope with lines—so I just ambled slowly through the glorious afternoon and came home to welcome aspirin and tea, my little family of husband and cats. We have our problems, but no anger. No insanity, except what I carry around inside me, and that’s the price one pays for dreaming too hard, too stubbornly, demanding to be lifted out of the plod of ordinary life.
Even as a child, before the deaths in the family, I hated the limits of the everyday. Not that my life wasn’t also joyous, but I thought it should be that way all the time, and even more so, beauty bursting to orgasm—and if it took magic to make my days like that, then I’d go find magic.
I looked really hard. I learned to look with my eyes closed, which is the only way to find the best stuff. And the pleasures of that blind choice, that addiction, will never leave me, and for that I am very, very sorry.
Or maybe not. Maybe I don’t know yet. Everything ripens. For now, I want to think about the evenings coming up, April and May, walking under the blossoming trees on 9th St and W. 4th, white petals on the sidewalk, hearing music through open club doors, relaxing into this nearly half-century duet.
We’re poor and I’m tired. I can’t write books anymore. (I type that to goad the gods, who live in the murk of my subconscious, lazy as pigs.) But nobody that matters hates me and every day I feel more in love with all the people I love, and the cats, and the books, and the past and the future.
Happy Good Friday, all of you. I don’t believe in Jesus, but it’s a subtle tale, this worship of one who gave his life for the souls of others. There are only a few human stories and the corrosiveness of guilt, the huge power of forgiveness, and the greater power of temptation cover most of the ground. I’m not thinking of the historical (mythical) Jesus, but of those who give the story the strength to endure—the desire that redemption not only be for me but for everyone. It doesn’t happen, but we want it to.
You can probably tell I’ve spent time at the Cathedral lately. I was too sick (Chronic Fatigue) to make it to the Dante reading, but today I could feel the spirit of Easter, and it was both Christian and Pagan, the dead young man and the Anglo Saxon Eostra, goddess of the month of April. She’s barefoot, she strews flowers, and she never, ever dies.
I think I’ve used this poem before, but so what. It bears rereading.
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
March 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
The other day, I participated in a memory study for a pair of young documentary filmmakers. (Actually, one was a filmmaker, the other a fiction writer, but involved in the project.) They’d put an ad in Craigslist, offering a sum of money for an hour of time, and I responded. I met them in Washington Square Park and talked for an hour on camera about a day two weeks ago, an ordinary day. They were interested in all the little details I could remember. I wanted to come up with the details, but found myself editing, because it sounded so boring. “Then I took the subway downtown.” Could I have remembered more about that particular ride? Probably. I remembered more about talking to Charles, but my conversation was in large part a recounting of my day, which I had already recounted to the filmmakers.
That night, in bed, the details that I would have used in writing came to me: the two different yellows of a piece of cake at the Hungarian pastry shop; the softness of a young woman’s features, as if a hand had lightly smoothed over a sculpted visage; the slanted gaze of Lisa signing a credit card slip as a sudden image came to mind of my mother 40 years ago: Grownup.
I hadn’t prepared for my interview in a writerly way. I wasn’t sure what they were doing with the material and I was busy. That’s probably for the best—it’s their material to shape—yet recounting a day’s events, with the self-consciousness any one who knows me can imagine, emphasized my tunnel vision to the point that I felt breathless. I don’t see as much as I used to. I get up and work and walk around and talk to people and the details don’t stick; I discard them without knowing it; I’ve seen it all before.
And of course context: what I thought, what I was reminded of, has such complex roots. Because I work at the Cathedral, they asked if I was religious (no), if I consider myself spiritual. To answer that thoroughly—I would like to answer that thoroughly, for my own sake, but even now, mulling it over, all I have is the beginning pieces: how I was raised, what my mother taught me (fairies, tarot, astrology, the Platonic ideal of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny), what I read and thought in my 20’s and 30’s.
So much of my interior life has been sucked into the hole of “Do I want to keep living?” because if I don’t, none of this matters. I keep deciding that I do want to live, so beliefs and philosophies and goals need addressing. I feel like a house that has been mostly cleared out, contents disposed of, and now the owner has decided not to move after all.
Oh, it’s surprising. Life, books. The plumber grumbling in the bathroom, which is being fixed for the umpteenth time. “Who fired my boy? Damn, that made me mad. What day was it? I can’t remember. Do you remember?”
The other plumber doesn’t reply. Charles wanders in and out. The cats sleep. I was going to go for a walk. My heart feels soft, as if a hand lightly smoothed over the sculpted organ.
Caress, pressure, erasure. I remember myself, who I used to be. But as the young man, Jonathan, said, “Our memories change over time.”
It was snowing. No, it wasn’t.
“I can’t get down on my knees. Goddamn.” The plumber is middle-aged, like me. He complains with workaday joyousness, talking to himself. The other plumber’s gone downstairs.
“Where’d that cat go? I can’t have him going in this hole in the wall.’’
“I think he’s under the bed,” I say.
“I’m-a shut the door. Can’t have him going in the wall.”
“That would be a problem.”
I check my email. Charles asks about dinner. The second plumber returns and takes up the story. “You find that cat? You got that kitty cat? I seen him run. We coulda closed him in like we did in that other apartment. He went in the hole. I didn’t know he was in the wall. You hear about that? Meow, meow, meow. The lady calls…”
Voices lowered. Then, again, singsong, “Kittycat, kittycat…”
He’s under the bed.
The Snowfall is So Silent
The snowfall is so silent,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.
by Miguel de Unamuno
translated by Robert Bly
March 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ve been having a lot of chocolate cravings lately, hardly unusual. What’s irritating is that once I eat the chocolate, the really fabulous brownie from Pain Quotidian, I don’t feel any different. I expect a surge of energy and hope, compassion for the universe of trees, turtles, moss, leopards, snakes and worthwhile humans—and curiosity about the stars, those indifferent hotheads—and reverence for the ancient Mayans. Is this asking too much? I don’t think so.
Charles was in N.H. this week with the too-adorable grandchildren, who now live in a 4,000 square-foot house while their father celebrates financial success by investing in craft beer; I stayed home to work and bask (or rot) in solitude. I enjoyed my birthday phone calls, cards and Facebook messages: thanks to all of you who remembered. Last Saturday, Lisa served me duck and chocolate cake and champagne and gave me a beautiful leather shoulder bag. Our friendship has survived a lot of challenges, which I’m kind of proud of. We both treasure loyalty, even if she has a secret suspicion that one day I’ll feed her to alligators. I won’t.
Then—oh, there are never words to describe this—a depression came in the window and settled over my head and neck and proceeded to poke at me like harpies with shining needles knitting my intestines, while cackling over crude human jokes (like Polish jokes, but worse). It’s so humiliating. I cry and flail about and blow my nose and yell at the cats. I make endless budgets,
daydream about sweepstakes and lotteries, and time passes like ice melting. Like the Arctic ice melting which hardly anyone realizes is going to change our lives hugely very soon. I’m in denial too, it’s just that my denial is fed by learning all the parameters of disaster. I’m allowed to deny hope and feel the saner for it.
After the ice melt (the metaphorical one), there’s the climb back up. I can identify various “problems,” or triggers, none of which by itself is insurmountable, but which combined can seem so…but what can I do? The Little Engine That Could did and spewed carbon everywhere. No, that makes no sense. Contextually daft. Stick to the basics.
The difference between now and 20 years ago (besides the doleful specifics of want and want), is that my brain hates me because I haven’t used it properly. There’s a troll in the very back of the beyond who hoped to be king of…something…and now isn’t, so he floods the front rooms with evil chemicals. What can a first-generation SSRI do against such a being? He eats his own teeth and fashions new ones out of my backbone. My backbone replenishes itself with wads of pale words, sticky with garlic sauce, from commercial dumpsters.
According to something I read, which I am not going to confess to reading, middle-aged audiences are not interested in fantasy. They’re more interested in real life drama: how I made my first billion or why the kids have gone mute. But I like harpies, trolls and other monsters. They remind me of me. I don’t see them as frightening or grandly powerful, like angels. Monsters are just threats and slobber. Company.
Writing fiction (about people!) used to keep me company. Sitting down at my typewriter in the morning I felt the very antithesis of lonely. Creating characters and making them talk was a quietly ecstatic event: like a dream of flying, like a summer party after a few drinks, like a walk in new, deep woods, the path winding. Now I bring my coffee and laptop to bed, check email, surf, read the papers, chase job listings & clinical trials paying money, a million other things…and hours pass and I need a walk and then lunch and tea and now chocolate and here I am not really writing again.
Y’all see this as writing, I know. Thank you.
Sometimes I read blog entries by other writers talking about the pleasures of middle age—the honed struggle and deep satisfaction of writing, the sweet/sad of parenthood, the lessening of anxiety. The kids are smart, the husband kind, the drinks cold. The gentle fifties are a golden, gauzy letting go of terror, and I think: Yeah, that’s great, but you call that a life? This is a life, battling on the knife-edge, the cliff edge, the doom edge, still seeing my creative potential as a magical snow-globe village almost too far out of reach.
You understand, I only entertain this odd perspective about twice a year, so I’m not questioning it.
I know exactly what it’s like to be a young writer testing her talent and getting praise for it. I know what it’s like to be older and think, “He/she isn’t nearly as good as I could be if I wrote as well as I’m capable of.…” It’s a delicate balance here, the cliché of regret not yet firmed, shivering like chilling jello. I’m not caught in it …I don’t think….
Seeing Charles after an absence makes me feel young again. He comes in with love pouring off his face—the phrase “wreathed in smiles” makes more sense when the face is older—and this is so familiar; I remember many reunions when he looked just like this from the 90’s 80’s, 70’s. I’m also involved in a top-secret 6-week clinical trial that’s youthening* my skin. The doctor said he thought I looked a lot better than two weeks ago. Charles said, “Your skin looks younger but it doesn’t look like your skin anymore. It’s like there’s a fake, smoother skin on top of your skin.”
He’ll never leave me for a younger woman.
* I coined this word; you’re welcome to it.
The Glass Essay
Mornings when I meditated
I was presented with a nude glimpse of my lone soul,
not the complex mysteries of love and hate.
But the Nudes are still as clear in my mind
as pieces of laundry that froze on the clothesline overnight.
There were in all thirteen of them.
Nude #2. Woman caught in a cage of thorns.
Big glistening brown thorns with black stains on them
where she twists this way and that way
unable to stand upright.
Nude #3. Woman with a single great thorn implanted in her forehead.
She grips it in both hands
endeavouring to wrench it out.
Nude #4. Woman on a blasted landscape
backlit in red like Hieronymus Bosch.
Covering her head and upper body is a hellish contraption
like the top half of a crab.
With arms crossed as if pulling off a sweater
she works hard at dislodging the crab.
It was about this time
I began telling Dr. Haw
about the Nudes. She said,
When you see these horrible images why do you stay with them?
Why keep watching? Why not
go away? I was amazed.
Go away where? I said.
This still seems to me a good question.
But by now the day is wide open and a strange young April light
is filling the moor with gold milk.
I have reached the middle
where the ground goes down into a depression and fills with swampy water.
It is frozen.
A solid black pane of moor life caught in its own night attitudes.
Certain wild gold arrangements of weed are visible deep in the black.
Four naked alder trunks rise straight up from it
and sway in the blue air. Each trunk
where it enters the ice radiates a map of silver pressures—
thousands of hair-thin cracks catching the white of the light
like a jailed face
catching grins through the bars.
Emily Brontë has a poem about a woman in jail who says
A messenger of Hope, comes every night to me
And offers, for short life, eternal Liberty.
I wonder what kind of Liberty this is.
Her critics and commentators say she means death
or a visionary experience that prefigures death.
They understand her prison
as the limitations placed on a clergyman’s daughter
by nineteenth-century life in a remote parish on a cold moor
in the north of England.
They grow impatient with the extreme terms in which she figures prison life.
“In so much of Brontë’s work
the self-dramatising and posturing of these poems teeters
on the brink of a potentially bathetic melodrama,”
says one. Another
refers to “the cardboard sublime” of her caught world.
I stopped telling my psychotherapist about the Nudes
when I realized I had no way to answer her question,
Why keep watching?
Some people watch, that’s all I can say.
There is nowhere else to go,
no ledge to climb up to.
Perhaps I can explain this to her if I wait for the right moment,
as with a very difficult sister.
“On that mind time and experience alone could work:
to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable,”
wrote Charlotte of Emily.
I wonder what kind of conversation these two had
over breakfast at the parsonage.
“My sister Emily
was not a person of demonstrative character,” Charlotte emphasizes,
“nor one on the recesses of whose mind and feelings,
even those nearest and dearest to her could,
with impunity, intrude unlicensed. . . .” Recesses were many.
One autumn day in 1845 Charlotte
“accidentally lighted on a MS. volume of verse in my sister Emily’s
It was a small (4 x 6) notebook
with a dark red cover marked 6d.
and contained 44 poems in Emily’s minute hand.
Charlotte had known Emily wrote verse
but felt “more than surprise” at its quality.
“Not at all like the poetry women generally write.”
Further surprise awaited Charlotte when she read Emily’s novel,
not least for its foul language.
She gently probes this recess
in her Editor’s Preface to Wuthering Heights.
“A large class of readers, likewise, will suffer greatly
from the introduction into the pages of this work
of words printed with all their letters,
which it has become the custom to represent by the initial and final letter
line filling the interval.”
Well, there are different definitions of Liberty.
Love is freedom, Law was fond of saying.
I took this to be more a wish than a thought
and changed the subject.
But blank lines do not say nothing.
As Charlotte puts it,
“The practice of hinting by single letters those expletives
with which profane and violent persons are wont to garnish their discourse,
strikes me as a proceeding which,
however well meant, is weak and futile.
I cannot tell what good it does—what feeling it spares—
what horror it conceals.”
I turn my steps and begin walking back over the moor
towards home and breakfast. It is a two-way traffic,
the language of the unsaid. My favourite pages
of The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë
are the notes at the back
recording small adjustments made by Charlotte
to the text of Emily’s verse,
which Charlotte edited for publication after Emily’s death.
“Prison for strongest [in Emily’s hand] altered to lordly by Charlotte.”
March 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
You know the “editor” part of your consciousness has taken over far too much mental territory when after watching a hilarious and deeply enjoyable play, you make a few nitpicky remarks to your husband (that part’s okay), but then dream, not about the play, but about those remarks, how valid they are, etc.
Do you want to hear my nitpicky remarks? I didn’t think so. The play was “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang, who is tied with Tom Stoppard as my favorite living playwright. Stoppard is smarter, but Durang is the one I’d like as an escort to the party at the end of the world.
This isn’t Durang’s best play—not as dizzyingly absurd as The Marriage of Betty and Boo,” or as merciless as “Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.” It’s just (just!) a very solidly constructed farce with glorious riffs and sly theater references, a perpetual pleasure machine. Chekhovian neurotic gloom has been comic fodder forever, but Durang does it the way only someone who’s been through the looking glass of mood disorder can. If you’ve ever fallen into a duet of escalating self-pitying whine (the real pain version) with a close friend, then ended up laughing hysterically, you know what I mean.
David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Neilsen (Vanya and Sonia) play a brother and sister in their fifties who stayed home to care for their demanding professor/actor parents through their twilight years. “When Father had Alzheimers, he would take off all his clothes and go sit in the neighbors’ car and wait for them to find him.” For no reason in particular, they were unable to have any sort of life during their caretaking years or afterwards, although Sonia’s explanation— “I’m a wild turkey”—is perhaps sufficient.
Their narcissistic movie-star sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) has supported them throughout, filming sexy serial killer movies in Morocco while they changed the parental diapers. When she comes home for a visit with Spike, her terrifyingly physical and clueless boytoy (Billy Magnussen) who’s also partial to taking off his clothes at every opportunity, it’s no surprise that she announces she’s planning to sell the house. There are, after all, cherry trees on the property, though no one’s quite sure how many. The very funny (if sometimes cringe-inducing) voodoo-doll-wielding black cleaning lady, Cassandra (Shalita Grant) warns against every danger, though her truths are often lost in a flood of dire and familiar pronouncements. “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”—not so helpful; “Beware of Hootie Pie”—yes, indeed. And then there’s Nina (you knew she’d show up), but she was more of a plot device than a character, although the ethereal Genevieve Angelson does a lovely job.
I won’t give away any more details, though it’s tempting. Go see the play, if you can. Kristine Neilsen is a gift from the gods. David Hyde-Pierce is merely brilliant. Sigourney Weaver’s not in their league but she’s a pleasure to watch, regardless, and Magnussen has a great future ahead of him if he doesn’t fall off the stage and break his neck.
Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted.
Finally he said, “Do you like chocolates?”
They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”
The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,
but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.
As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
March 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
I heard a talk last night at the Cathedral by an Irish woman, Lorna Byrne, who sees and chats with angels and has since earliest childhood. The angels told her to keep her mouth shut when she was small, as she was already considered “slow” and talking about the angels at the table, hearth, bedside, etc, could have landed her in an institution, or at the very least in trouble with the church. But now she’s nearing 60, it’s the 21st century, she’s written bestselling books, and 600 people came to hear her speak. Many waited over an hour to receive her blessing.
It’s hard not to be interested in someone who says they are seeing angels at the very moment she is speaking to you, that the angels are wearing red, possibly in honor of the new pope, and that there are two of them at the back of the Cathedral waving American flags. (She’s of that generation of Irish people who have a special regard for the U.S., though what she said was it’s God who has the special regard. NYC audiences are not the most receptive to this sentiment. We feel, to put it bluntly, that we’re being ass-kissed.)
It’s also hard not to feel, when a person says God picked her up and took her into his eye so that she could see the world as he did, that if you really believed this happened, you might feel more than a twinge of envy.
I got no sense that she was lying or crazy, though listening to someone answering questions for an hour is hardly definitive. I have no idea what her experience means, but what I find of interest is that the longing for proof of God’s existence—and of the existence of guardian angels and Heaven—is so intense that someone who offers no new insights or charismatic presence or uncanny knowledge, who performs no miracles of healing but simply says, “I see them physically. I see your guardian angel behind you right now,” can have such an effect on people. She sees them, hears them, has been granted a tour of Heaven and has no doubts that God is a real being of endless love.
Lucky her, I think. But why is it that just because she doesn’t appear to be a con woman, doesn’t act crazy, people assume that therefore she’s correct? What about the thousands of people who have said similar things throughout history—if their words do not convince or comfort you, why this woman?
Because she’s one of us, no glamorous personage like the Dalai Lama. Because of the homely yet reverent details about her angelic friends (though we all wanted more). A good story needs those details. A good storyteller knows not to give too many details, like a good liar knows not to come up with three different explanations. And because she seems sincerely humble, and she delivered one part of her message brilliantly. God carried her up and stuck her in his eye, she said—I can’t get over that—but still, if he appeared right here and now, she’d run and hide. She’s a simple Irish lass who doesn’t know why she was chosen.
Nor do I. I can think of many people who could carry the message of hope and love more effectively if God felt he couldn’t simply pick up the phone and hold a worldwide conference call. But He moves in mysterious ways. (“God’s not only a man,” Lisa grumbled, “he has an eye.” My friend prefers the pure energy deities.)
I always want to believe these stories, whether its angels, fairies, aliens or werewolves. I spoke to a woman on the phone today about mental illness, for a study, and she asked me if I ever saw or heard things other people didn’t. “No, but I attended an event last night featuring a woman who sees and talks to angels,” I felt like replying, “and she’s got three bestsellers.”
Best not to confuse things. I cheerfully described all my mental symptoms and complaints while Fitzroy and Mouchette crawled around under the covers, brushing me with soft tails and prickly paws and stiff whiskers. I decided that, if I had to choose, I’d rather see cats than angels.
click here for Lorna’s experience of last night.
Questions About Angels
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes,
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?
If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
It is designed to make us think in millions,
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.
She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.
March 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’m feeling sad so I will write about what I love.
The full moon on an empty road in the country, late at night, when I’d walk out on the light-drenched road, empty of cars or other walkers, aware of every movement in the underbrush and trees. The stream was to my left, down an embankment: sometimes rushing with rain, sometimes quiet. Even when there was no breeze and the stream was dry, I could hear the moon tuning the earth, a thrumming surroundsound like crickets—and maybe it was crickets, except that I also heard it in the winter.
But mostly it was summer then. I walked barefoot. The road ran gently downhill and around a bend; I was walking into a bigger bowl of sky. I didn’t care if the moon was a rock or a goddess, or if there was a difference. Her presence pulled at me. I used to make wishes on a full moon.
I wish I had my house, the mountain at my back, the deer in the roses. I wish I had that little slab of concrete porch where the mint grew wild and we’d eat steak and corn, bowls of string beans, homemade ice cream.
Not in the winter, though. In the winter, I stayed in the city, worrying about the house in the snow and rain. I waited for my birthday in March, the shock of turning 39, 40, 45. Life was still a package to be unwrapped, the great, terrifying gift in Plath’s poem.
What else do I love?
The dead mice of yore, whose little lives made mine so much roomier.
Daffodils, their shape and color.
The word “daffodil.”
My darling friend from France. “She brings tenderness to our life,” said Charles. “I’m tender,” I said. No, I didn’t say that. I was feeling that special kind of happiness you feel when someone you love is appreciated by someone else you love, and you think how easy it is to do nothing but love all day and all night.
Fitzroy and Mouchette, who, like every great couple, are exponentially better as a pair than individually. He’s a big lug, she’s a slim girlchild; they remind me of every older brother, little sister I’ve ever known, but feline so married as well (we pretend). I turn in delight from one to another; her snowy paws and black/white zigzag nose, his humped rug of a back, his forehead that smells of chocolate. He puts a paw out when he wants me, flexing his claws. She sleeps on my back at night like the child who never leaves home, or a very dedicated bodyguard.
Lola’s rage when she attacks Mouchette, her tail stiff as a toilet brush. Mouchette wails in warning, but when Lola doesn’t come, doesn’t dispute the territory—my boudoir where Mouchette rules and is imprisoned by her own fear—Mouchette goes looking for her. The enemy is seductive. Hate is as sticky as love, but with the unfocused strength of youth.
Love is so old, it often falls apart. You have to glue it carefully. It hurts to look at.
Glass, stones, pearls. I made a crystal necklace that sent a school of light-fish swimming around the room, and Fitzroy watched the new mystery.
The sound of the wind turning corners.
Jaden and Jack and Daniel. Hannah and Myles and William.
Grilled asparagus with lemon.
Imagining America before the Europeans came, especially the abundant forests and rivers.
Portugal, Ecuador, Crete, Argentina, the Arctic Circle and all northern places where the ice is disappearing. My stubborn belief that I will see these landscapes.
My mother’s library.
My brother’s photographs.
My sister’s garden.
Charles, for loving me when I am unable to love myself; for loving the cats like children, which makes them more like children; for loving his music and never minding, as I do so much, whether there’s any reward for effort. For being pure of heart.
Language, which will still be here when we’re all gone. Language and music, gifts for the next brainy species.
I used to understand that fear was love inside out. That was when I was tender. Before.
A Birthday Present
What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?
It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?
I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.
When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking
‘Is this the one I am too appear for,
Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?
Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules.
Is this the one for the annunciation?
My god, what a laugh!’
But it shimmers, it does not stop, and I think it wants me.
I would not mind if it were bones, or a pearl button.
I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
After all I am alive only by accident.
I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.
Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains,
The diaphanous satins of a January window
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath. O ivory!
It must be a tusk there, a ghost column.
Can you not see I do not mind what it is.
Can you not give it to me?
Do not be ashamed–I do not mind if it is small.
Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam,
The glaze, the mirrory variety of it.
Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.
I know why you will not give it to me,
You are terrified
The world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,
Bossed, brazen, an antique shield,
A marvel to your great-grandchildren.
Do not be afraid, it is not so.
I will only take it and go aside quietly.
You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle,
No falling ribbons, no scream at the end.
I do not think you credit me with this discretion.
If you only knew how the veils were killing my days.
To you they are only transparencies, clear air.
But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.
Sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,
Filling my veins with invisibles, with the million
Probable motes that tick the years off my life.
You are silver-suited for the occasion. O adding machine—–
Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole?
Must you stamp each piece purple,
Must you kill what you can?
There is one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.
It stands at my window, big as the sky.
It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead center
Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.
Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.
Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty
By the time the whole of it was delivered, and to numb to use it.
Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death
I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.
There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.