February 17, 2013 § 1 Comment
On Thursday, Charles opened the champagne he bought me for Valentine’s Day and filled the glasses. My sister gave us these champagne flutes 30 years ago; they have outlasted all our other breakables, even the avocado-green mixing bowl from Charles’s first marriage, which I thought would be buried with us.
We were sitting on either side of the stubby, stained coffee table, surrounded by boxes, piles, stacks, shelves, cat-hair-covered black tee shirts, socks, towels, pens, knives, dental floss, two guitars, three cats and assorted detritus. This is Charles’ room. Mine is colonized by chocolate wrappers, books, papers, jewelry apparatus, lipstick and cat vomit. I lifted my glass and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
He lifted his glass, thought a moment and said, “Let this be a lesson to everyone who thinks falling in love will solve all their problems.”
“This” being us, our life, etc.
“Can I put that in my blog?”
“Of course. I never remember what I’ve said until I read it in your blog.”
We drank, listened to Bill Evans, talked about the things we always talk about. Is it like this for you? Each time you relax and have a little wine, the conversation finds the old grooves, the child Goth merry-go-round, no matter that each person is (face it) bored by the other’s tales and obsessions?
Charles used to say he didn’t mind hearing my stories over. And over. Philip never remembered that I’d told him before. I’d say, “I told you that” and he’d say very forcefully “No. I would remember,” or sometimes he’d try, “Well, your family is so weird I can’t believe half the things you tell me and so I forget them.” My family was especially weird between 1966-1980. Not in the grand scheme of things weird, but weird to an Italian boy from Staten Island, whose own family suffered no deaths, divorce, untoward sex, over-indulgence in alcohol, or Southern relatives.
My family’s not so weird now, if you don’t count my mother’s home décor. But Charles and I make up for it. My peculiarities are well known to my readers, and Charles thinks the cats talk to him. “Mouchette told me I had beautiful eyes,” he said today.
He also dreamed last night that he was making jewelry out of dead bodies.
A cousin I hadn’t seen since childhood died this week. I didn’t really respond when I heard, but it affected me. I’d rather it didn’t. When you have suicidal thoughts with depressing regularity, the deaths of one’s peers seems so unfair. I would have taken that for you, I think. It would have been my pleasure to barter my remaining time. Why can’t that work?
I’d always meant to connect with those boys (men), my father’s nephews, but was for so long nervous about any connection to my father, who gave me the crazy gene and then made sure it was fully expressed, that I kept putting it off. And then there were other family dynamics I won’t go into, but I missed out on Mike.
His brother Arthur I knew a lot better because he came to New England as a young man to see a specialist for his diabetes. He was a wild boy, and it killed him eventually. But when he was in his early twenties and I was maybe 19, we had a few drinks together and then kissed in my brother’s room (the only downstairs bedroom in my mother’s house in Newcastle, N.H.).
Arthur said, “We can’t do this! We’re cousins!” I didn’t really see the problem, but we stopped. I kind of regret that, though I wouldn’t have wanted to make him feel like a pervert. On my side of the family it was a badge of honor but Arthur was raised Catholic in the South.
That’s all I know of Mike: his brother. Not really anything.
I was talking to Charles tonight about the Cathedral, and various people in religious orders. He thinks religion is on its way out, like the pope, that people are sick of it. I think that will never happen. I said, “I understand why people like religion. Believing that some deity cares, that their lives matter. It would be comforting to believe in Jesus, but I can’t.” I took a thawed chicken breast out of the fridge, stared at that bloody slab of meat with its caul of yellow fat and wished we could go out to dinner.
Then I noticed my cat. “Look at Fitzroy, “I said. He was curled up on the couch like an animal from a storybook, all neat curves and shining fur.
“Fitzroy will always mean more to me than Jesus,” said Charles.
Song to Celia
Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
And Ile not looke for wine.
The thirst, that from the soule doth rise,
Doth aske a drinke divine:
But might I of Jove’s Nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath,
Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered bee.
But thou thereon did’st onely breath,
And sent’st it back to mee:
Since when it growes, and smells, I sweare,
Not of it selfe, but thee.
December 3, 2012 § 3 Comments
So I made a great sweet potato pie, with lots of spices and vanilla and a tablespoon of strong black coffee; and the casserole/chili thingy was delicious too. Charles didn’t get home until past midnight. It should be noted he was vibrating with joy. New friends, great music, a singer singing Silent Night in Spanish, which made him cry…The cats and I flocked to his side, took his hat and coat, shoes and socks, rubbed his feet (not).
I said, “This is just like the old days—you say you’ll be home mid-evening, don’t show up for dinner or call. I wait and wait…”
“I thought the concert was at two, but it didn’t start until 7. I thought about calling, but I was using my phone as a second camera.”
“I know I could have called you. I wasn’t upset, it just reminded me.”
“You wouldn’t have gotten through if you had. I had it on airplane mode so it wouldn’t ring during filming.”
I feel a frisson of annoyance. I made a fucking pie. I could have written a poem. “A quick email…?”
“You know how it is when you’re running around doing three things at once. Is there anything to eat?”
“Let me see. I think there’s DINNER.”
In the old days, which is to say 1973-1982, this happened regularly and I never got used to it. The first year, I still lived with my mother and she kept me steady. I was so young, too, just 18, and still awed by love. He was living in Connecticut, coming up on weekends, a five-hour drive.
When we moved to California, Charles drove all over the East Bay and San Francisco for work, and also went to jam sessions at night. He said he’d be home by 6,7,8 and I would cook. And wait. The roast dried out, the chicken overcooked, the vegetables got cold, I ate the tarts, I had a glass of scotch, I cleaned the kitchen again. I didn’t have a cat. Well, I only had a cat one year before he was hit by a car while following us on a daytime walk though our relaxed, residential, fruit-and-flower-filled Berkeley neighborhood.
Every time, there came a moment when I was sure Charles was dead on the highway: trapped in the twisted metal, speared by shattered glass, burned in the fire and explosion. It began as a panic high in my chest, bending up and around up to cup my face in darkness. It was like the constant shiver of foil, like a hundred pistons starting up. This is the engine to carry you across that awful boundary, the one where you can scream all you want, nothing will change. Of course it’s an engine, with its foul smoke. Did you think a being of flesh or earth would carry you?
Charles never understood—he couldn’t understand— that when you experience family death as a child, especially two within four months, you enter the Twilight Zone; you see death around every corner, under the bed, in the light fixtures, in the family pet. (No, I made that up about the family pet. Too much Stephen King. Dogs have never hurt me.)
It didn’t help that I knew several people who died when I was in my teens, all suicides, adult and teenage, except for my cousin who died in an auto accident on the night of his high school graduation. A friend also died in a traffic accident a few years later, not long after her aunt, whom I also knew slightly—she intuited that I was as disturbed as she was and she warned everyone at dinner one night, like an oracle, her hands on my head—committed suicide. It wasn’t quite like going to Iraq or Vietnam, but set up certain expectations.
I was a ghoulish, morbid girl at 18, wildly sexual. I wanted sex right away so I could connect to the young male animal, still actually or relatively virginal. Minds were treacherous, honed by the brutal hierarchies of family, school and the world: I was coming them too late. You know how it is at 18—so much is already over, lost for good, hopeless, you’re not young anymore…
I thought there were two kinds of gods: the ones who brought lovers to romantic, poetry-writing acolytes and the kind that ate people. I paid homage to them both, exalting love while looking at my dear ones with a cold curiosity as to how and when they’d be snatched. I never worried about dying accidentally myself. I was sure I’d be a suicide or murder victim.
When there wasn’t any death for a couple of years, then five years…No, wait—the aunt I was closest to, the lesbian feminist writer, died of cancer when I was 25; she was in her early 50’s. I went through the visit while she was still normal-looking and the visit when she was bald—she urged me to feel her smooth skull, always denying the easy sentiment—and I was taken in by it, thinking she was really unafraid. I endured the family gathering where her open coffin was off to one side, not in the center to be sobbed over, but not to be left out either (her wishes). But when there weren’t several deaths in the next five years, I grew tense, waiting for the hungry bastard to finish his meal, refusing to be caught off-guard.
And Charles said, “If I’d gotten off the road to look for a phone, I would have been home that much later.” Dark roads, unmapped exits, phones hard to find, the disconnectedness we took for granted, while feeling very modern with our televisions and airplanes.
I’d think about whom I’d call first, when the cops called me. My mother, of course, and then his first wife, who’d tell the kids. And what kind of funeral? He always said Just toss me in the yard, put me out with the trash (he still says shit like that) but really? Would I see the children again? Would I spend $3000 on a coffin? How would I live without him?
Last night, I thought none of that. I ate dinner at 9:30, and read a crime novel, worrying only that the crunching sound in the other room was Fitzroy eating pie-crust, which of course it wasn’t. I was overly proud of that pie. If Charles hadn’t gotten back until today at noon, I wouldn’t have worried. Maybe by tomorrow…
I’ve been through a bad depression in the last 20 months (which I think is beginning to lighten) and I’m too wrung out to worry about others’ deaths, even though plenty of family deaths have happened to those around me. My friend Andree has lost her father and two brothers in the last several years. A number of mothers have gone. What a shock it will be, when it picks up again in my life. I love too many people.
That doesn’t stop me from putting off calling my mother, my friends, my siblings, all of whom I miss already. There’s something inside me that says I can’t make phone calls until I get my writing done, and I never get my writing done because I’m bitter about the publishing world and life in general, terrified self-publishing will be another dead end…so I write this blog instead. My mother says, “Your style has gotten so loose and swingy! I feel like you’re right here, talking. Can’t you get these pieces taken by a magazine?”
If I thought that way, they’d never come out at all.
Likes? Comments? Action?
Here’s an excerpt from as essay by Emily Rapp, newly divorced writer, whose son is dying.
To let go of the thing you most want to hang onto is to experience desire with all its unmatchable threads, its sharp and feathery edges, its weird geometry and turbulent mathematics, its dark corners and wacky, spontaneous bursts of light. To say that someone is the love of your life is to admit that if they are taken from you, your life will be unfathomably altered and there will be a hole that’s impossible to fill. What I’d like to say on a date: “To love is to burn. You dig?” And then wait for the answer before asking (or not) for the check. I do not want solutions, platitudes, or promises. I want to cry in the dark. I want to cry in the car. I want to pound my fists against a surface and scream. I want to listen to the rain on the roof, that slow and steady rhythm that is so like the beating of a heart, so unmistakable, so easily changeable, so ready to stop. Everything will stop. The heart will stop: Ronan’s, mine, everyone’s.
You deserve a poem, too.
After all the days and nights we’ve spent
with Starry Messenger, with Dante,
with Plato, his temperance
painted as a woman who pours
water into a bowl but does not spill,
after particle theory and the geologic time of this quartz
gilded beneath the roaming gone,
composites of limestone calculated down to the animal
that laid upon it and quietly died,
after hearing how camels carted away the broken
Colossus of Rhodes, showing us how to carry
and build back our destroyed selves,
hearing there was once a hand
that first learned to turn
an infant right in the womb,
that there was, inside Michelangelo, an Isaiah to carve out
the David, the idea, the one buried
in us who can slay the enormities,
after all visions and prophecies that made the heart large,
once and again, true or untrue,
after learning to shave the gleaming steel down—
the weapon, the bomb we make,
and the watercolor made after
of the dropped-upon crowd, thin strokes
over a pale wash—
after all this, still
one of us can’t know another.
Once under an iron sky I listened
to a small assemblage of voices.
Two by two broke off into the field
to strip down the unbroken flock of starling dark
between them. The ceremony of the closing in,
the hope each to each might not stay tourists
before the separate, chiseled ruin of the other:
The unspeakable, illegible one before us—
this is what the linguists call the dead, isn’t it?
But how are you, we say,
meaning how have you been made,
what is wrong, what
happened, we ask, how long have you been waiting,
are you on my side, can you promise to stay,
will you keep
the etchings clear on my stone
and come visit me, your never-known,
will you lean over my ghost
how we leaned over the green pools of the Japanese garden,
a cluster of lanterns blowing out above us
wisp by wisp, a school of koi pausing at the surface,
letting us look all the way in
until we saw each eye
was like a net heaped on shore.
Just like our eyes, weren’t they? all accidents, wastes,
all saving needs filled and unfilled, the cracked shells,
the kelp fronds torn from their buoys, all caught here,
the seven we loved, the six we lost—
seaglass the living
and the human, alone.
November 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
My friend Meg was going to name the imaginary cat-mascot in her new cat/writer blog the name I came up with: Miss Pussy. Instead she chose Moon Pie, from the novel In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason, when Bobbie Ann Mason suggested it. When your favorite writer offers a character from a favorite book, what can you do but sigh in delirious gratitude? So I’m stuck with Miss Pussy, who now has no home, but has slid a delicate gray paw into the world. Her claws are sharp and glitter in the lamp light. She is not pleased at being summoned into existence only to find herself unwanted.
“It’s not you,” I say. “It’s them.”
She tilts her head, regarding me from eyes that are closed but for a seam of fire. “Tell me. Am I a lady or a whore?”
“Where did you hear about such things, Miss Pussy? You’re barely born.”
She yawns, the pink ribs of her mouth so tempting—the white teeth so alarming. The yawn lasts a very long time. “The point of being an imaginary creature is that I am complete from the start.”
“You’re not complete. I have only a fleeting sense of you.” I can’t see her hindquarters or her tail.
“You haven’t decided whether I’m a girl’s school headmistress or a brothel madam catering to imaginary beings.”
“If you mean fictional characters, there’s no need. They fuck each other all the time.” And the writer, alone at her desk, compels each fornication. She can’t stop even if she wants to.
“You forget the minor characters. Everyone does. The nosy upstairs neighbor, the woman in the flower shop, the second cousin. They’re fully alive but without obstacle or climax. What would you do in that situation?”
As if she doesn’t know. “So you are a madam.”
“I am Miss Pussy. I provide feline services for deserving writers, in their heads.”
“In their dreams?’
“In their heads. I lick their brains.”
“That sounds unsanitary.”
“You haven’t seen my tongue.”
“It’s starlight and sandpaper, exactly the temperature of water when you’re trying to decide if the heat is running out or coming back.” Her whiskers twitch with satisfaction.
I don’t know why, but this exposes the weak place in me, where only paper keeps out the cold and the dark. “I think not, Miss Pussy. You sound like me when I’m trying too hard. Goodbye.”
It’s so easy to kill them. I make them; I kill them. Sometimes I only make them partially and leave them like that for years. It’s debilitating, knowing they’re all waiting, mute, without their final pieces, accusing: why don’t you love me anymore?
Come back, Miss Pussy. I didn’t mean to kill you.
But the one who comes through is not her. It’s the man whose wife put a voodoo doll of me in the freezer. Maybe if he hadn’t told me that—they say voodoo works by the power of suggestion. Or maybe if I knew what he did with it, if he deconsecrated it or just stuffed it the trash….
Someone picked it out of the bin, a street person. I can’t tell if it’s a woman or a man. He/she keeps it with him/her, telling it all the things nobody ever wants to hear. The doll is like a woman with advanced Lou Gehrig’s disease, that last moment when nothing can move but the brain hasn’t stopped yet. She’s been burned by the crack pipe. She’s been gnawed by rats. She’ll last a long time, unless she’s dropped under a subway train.
“Miss Pussy? Can you talk to the other imaginary ones? There’s a kind of shapeless doll-margaret-like thing…”
She sits on my chest. “Describe ME.”
Miss Pussy, lithe and smoke gray, has silky hair that never mats, and seven toes on each paw. She’s got the face of an Egyptian goddess: a narrow chin, slim black nose and whiskers as strong as piano wire. And her eyes—
Oh, Christ. Fitzroy’s got his teeth in the back of Mouchette’s neck again; he’s pinning her down. It’s all my fault, letting the demons out…I have to go….
He’s not in the apartment. Perhaps he’s left me for a woman shaped like a guitar, without a head. It would be no more than I deserve. But he said just yesterday that he’s happier than he’s ever been. What a peculiar world.
There he is, in the hall by the elevator, patting Lola who appears to be having an orgasm on the carpet.
Missy Pussy, we need a governess.
She’s disappeared, all but the whiskers. You run into those in the dark, you could cut your throat.
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were–I have not seen
As others saw–I could not bring
My passions from a common spring–
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow–I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone–
And all I lov’d–I lov’d alone–
Then–in my childhood–in the dawn
Of a most stormy life–was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still–
From the torrent, or the fountain–
From the red cliff of the mountain–
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold–
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by–
From the thunder, and the storm–
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—
–Edgar Allen Poe
November 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
I read in the Sunday Times abut the new survivalists, reacting to climate change by hoarding food and water, batteries, seed, gardening and medical supplies, guns. That doesn’t work so well in the city. No place for the Jeep, the ax, the semi-automatic, the solar-powered washing machine or the 2000 cans of tuna, beans, condensed milk and pumpkin. I looked into a battery-powered generator—the kind you carry in your car trunk—but you can’t use them indoors. I do have a case of Perrier and a big bag of cat food in the other room.
Anyway, that’s only for the next hurricane. Long-term, I’ll probably bypass the craziness. (I’m hoping it is long-term or at least medium-term.) “Don’t waste the food on me, young’uns. I’ve climbed trees and mountains; skinny-dipped and water-skiied; published books; visited Paris, the Great Barrier Reef and the Greek isles. I saw the young Barishnykov and heard more great jazz musicians than I can name. I remember the Beatles, the moon landing, LSD, Watergate, my wedding, the Berlin wall coming down, Oval Office blowjobs, 9/11, a black president, menopause, gay marriage, Romney clobbered. I’ve been in love disastrously and woken up hungover in strangers’ beds. I bore no children but have 6 grandchildren. I’ve forgiven grave offenses and been forgiven in turn. I’ve taken a lot of naps.
“So now I’ll just sit here in my rocking chair, reading my favorite poets in the old editions. And afterward, I’ll host the insects and carrion birds, lose a tibia to a wild dog (once someone’s beloved pet), and what’s left of me will continue to occupy the rocker as the soft wood-pulp pages fall apart, and words decay between my bones.”
Wow, that sure is fancy writing. You kinda want to stick a giant dildo and a clown nose into that picture.
My friend Karen grumbled on Facebook about why couldn’t Marco Rubio, as a man of faith, feel safe standing firm about the age of the earth? I responded, “Who wants a god that old…” going on to imagine such a thing, God senescent, Heaven left rudderless, until I scared myself and I don’t even believe. It’s just that death is that place where all the poets have left their marks, and my friends and family are there, and I will be too, so how can I resist imagining it a thousand ways?
It’s a mirror, but not a clean or safe one. It’s tinted and scratched, dull and heavy, hung with moth-eaten feather boas and jet bead necklaces possibly coated in cobra venom.
There I go, decorating again. I really can’t help it. It’s the subject of death that does it (besides my affinity for the mandarin in literary style). Death has always had a carnival appeal, while remaining less scary than life. Life can be lost and death can’t. Death abides. This only makes sense to writers. Or maybe just to me.
Back to climate: the weather is charming right now, mild and sunny with a clothy texture, like the skin of an apricot. All those leaf bits getting into the air, all those fallen and axed branches. Sandy still lingers. (My dead brother once liked a girl named Sandy. She had sandy-colored hair and wore saddle shoes. She was 13.) Sandy is a warning, if you assume any force in the universe cares. Even in acute disrepair, the earth will be more beautiful than our eyes can take in. Nothing changes that.
Meanwhile, the pork roast in the oven—marinated in chenin blanc, almond oil and thyme—smells delicious: the onions and parsnips nestled around it are getting soft and pig-juicy. I recently read about a tick that can make you deathly allergic to pork and beef…enough. I’m going to have dinner, sharing with the cats, and then read my new books about climate, food, forests, persuasion, Patagonia, psychopaths.
weary to the bone,
dancing in the dark with the
the Suicide Kid gone
ah, the swift summers
over and gone
is that death
no, it’s only my cat,
April 10, 2012 § 3 Comments
The park was indescribably beautiful tonight. Or this evening, rather, before the light was gone—when it was going, but not in a blue swoon or the slow filtering in of black ink; no, the light was going green, lima bean green, the green of sick on a face, the green of sage. The green of new life lifted from the walked-upon grass, from the curving branches of the old trees, from the in-bending wire and wooden fences. There was green in all of those things, and that green lifted up like a curtain rising from below to make the evening apparent, to remind us that there is no beauty more terrible than the beauty of endings, though beauty numbs the terror and you only feel it later. The earth knows secrets that are so far beyond our puny human self-importance that all fears of harming the “biosphere” recede as I remember how it harms us by being, by leaving, by making us leave, by taking what we have, little by little.
On the way home, with milk, chocolate cookies and catfood, I look at the absurdly big tulips that are everywhere in the city now, their heads the size of eggs: hard yellow, Easter purple, a clear red edged in delicately curling white. The reds take the light the best; I stare at them for minutes. I want to eat them. I want to fold my body inside those red cups, then roll around like a stoned 15-year-old.
The white fringe, on the other hand, is too easy; it reminds me of Bolo’s white feathers as she incessantly groomed herself or preened, tilting her flirty head. Bolo was my friend John’s cockatoo who sat on his shoulder, who pecked little bird-holes in his arms and torso at night—“I have scars all over my body,” he said cheerfully—who was the love of his life.
John was murdered not long ago by a human being, so now, of course, he’s the one I want to spend the evening with, though we were neighbors more than friends and had a meal alone together maybe three times in 20 years.
But I’m not only thinking of melancholy things (okay, maybe I am. Go Twitter if you’d rather). I’m grateful at how open I was to the beauty, which is not always the case anymore. When I was young, beauty flung itself in my face every day; I had to fend if off; I never imagined a time when it wouldn’t be pursing me with insistent seduction, trying to take me to that invisible barrier it hides behind, rubbing my face in the fact that I couldn’t have it. Now weeks can pass when I don’t see beauty as more than a postcard. It’s a lovely day; wish you were here. Oh, I’ll get there sometime.
That green haze in the park, the escape of evening from the earth, which happens exactly as the sun goes down (but who can really say the sun has anything to do with it?) doesn’t ask me to surrender as beauty used to do. I suppose I’m too old. My vitality is gone; there’s nothing for the otherworldly ones to steal, no lover to vanquish.
Lisa said the other night that we must always remember we’ll die, die and be forgotten. I was trying to enjoy my duck with pears. But she wanted to talk about this—she very often wants to talk about it—so we did. There’s something she can’t explain to me; something I can’t explain to her.
Because I know I’m dying, know it as I know what sunlight feels like. I’m not the 9 year old who stared into the mirror the morning after her brother was killed, seeing for the first time the million million cells ablaze with life, feeling all the tender parts of being and was greedy for it, that dance of life and self. She’s gone, that child; I’m dying. Today, tomorrow. Life is hard; death is easy. Thinking about death is hard; others’ deaths are hard; that’s life.
Lisa said that when she’s in bed she stares at a photograph on the wall of a great aunt, childless, and thinks she’ll be like that and I’ll be like that: no claim to the young crawling up the forked paths in the genealogy forest, saying Great-Great-Grandmother, who were you, what was your world like?
But the famed writers and warriors, explorers, philosophers—the spiritual, the daring, the craven, the mad—have left us their books, letters, diaries, grocery lists; and I don’t think I know what their world was like. They adorn my world. They are mine absolutely, and yours absolutely; they are not themselves.
Once I wanted to be famous, “immortal,” as they say (and the earth laughs, knowing that Shakespeare and Homer are like the black ants on my porch in upstate New York, one evening 20 years ago; do I remember the special ones?) Now, alive, it makes no difference if people are thinking of me; if I imagine they’re thinking of me. I’ve had some practice imagining this, trying to wring pleasure or comfort from it, but it makes no difference. What makes a difference is if someone speaks, if someone touches me.
So I’ll be forgotten. I only mourn that I won’t keep forgetting. This is a poem I once knew by heart.
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
March 10, 2010 § 1 Comment
I’ve been on the outskirts of people’s grief lately: serious illness, death. Perhaps because of that I dreamed of my friend Ann, who died of lung cancer 10 years ago: she’d gone back to a shady ex-boyfriend and was coming to stay with me (in a cramped house I lived in with my husband, sister, mother and others I don’t recall). Then it seemed she was only leaving her notebooks.
She did do that: leave many diaries, which her brother gave me because he couldn’t face reading them. When I sold my house in the country I went through them ruthlessly, throwing out ones that were mostly empty, or that contained only lists of all the things wrong with her, which she noted extensively elsewhere.
Her diaries were so much like mine that it made me feel hyper-real, as if her death had blended her into me. For the first (and only) time I understood viscerally the idea of eating one’s dead, taking in their qualities.
For this to mean something, there has to be a strong belief in the likeness of beings. I had had such a moment with her, right before she went into the hospital for good—a dinner during which we came as close as she could to speaking of her death. What she said was much less than what some people can say easily, but because it was so big for her, I felt the opening of the channel, her heart flowing into mine.
This is something I’ve felt—lucidly, consciously—only a few times, and the other partners have been lovers or animals. Because of this I miss her, and because her death was both slow and quick (3 months from diagnosis) and I was at an age when mortality is constantly, if softly, knocking, her death has become “the” death for me, the template.
The others, the first ones, were shock and awe.
Since I was old enough to understand the concept, I’ve been aware that the ground of existence (whether you think of it as the nature of consciousness, the consciousness of the divine, or the spilling-over noise of bacterial networks) is always very close to me, very much available. And yet I don’t get too close. I did when I was young and it was thrilling, like certain drugs. Then it got more serious and I was afraid.
All I know about what I’m afraid of is that death is at the heart of everything. The Buddhists are right about that. The enlightened being feels death shining as strongly as life. We are all dangerous bundles of energy. To feel oneself unmade by the process of dying is horrific; to get used to it ahead of time is either very wise or like trying to breathe underwater.
Some have done it. That doesn’t make me want to. I just feel like, I could. I can’t race motorcycles or give a speech, but cross a little into death’s territory and come back—yeah. I have what it takes. But you have to pay the toll, if you do that.
Eyes Fastened with Pins
How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death’s laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death’s supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address is somehow wrong,
Even death can’t figure it out
Among all the locked doors …
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death’s side of the bed.
March 22, 2009 § 1 Comment
Death has been on my mind. Natasha’s Richardson’s accident was heartbreaking; a close friend of mine was working with a member of her family, which is not much of a connection but it lit up my own memories of her performances. I also saw Liam Neeson on Jon Stewart a few months ago, and went through the requisite envy—Natasha Richardson has everything—that one remembers at moments like this.
The flip side of that is I’ve been feeling desperately unhappy about my own life: a stalled career, no money, a 9 year love affair that is a perpetual misery machine shot with moments of transcendent joy, hours of quiet happiness—the seductions that keep one from turning off the machine.
I have health, loving friends and family, brains and talent. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that thinks: I know nothing of Natasha Richardson’s inner life, but if it matched what one saw from the outside, 45 years of that seems better than 145 of my own life.
This isn’t about fame or a sexy movie star husband. It’s about depression, which has systematically wrecked the many opportunities I’ve had. It’s about my father, who taught me that the way you deal with severe pain is to kill yourself. My mother taught me that you deal with it by tapping your inner strength, and that’s what I’ve been doing for 54 years. The appeal of my father’s way is you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. I remember a little wooden placard he had, the kind you buy at a tacky gift shop. Written on it was, “If at first you don’t succeed, to hell with it.”
I was struck by that not just because it appealed to a kid’s natural anti-piety, but because it seemed so in character for him, and I hadn’t consciously recognized that part of his character before. My father rarely talked to me so any tidbit I learned about him was powerful. Any connection was powerful. I didn’t believe in that slogan, and still don’t: I’m more of the school that if you don’t succeed after trying for 54 years, you should strongly consider saying to hell with it.
I’m not talking about my particular goals. I know I didn’t try hard enough in my career, didn’t do what people told me to do and what I told myself to do. I didn’t try hard enough to walk away from a hopeless romance. (No, not hopeless. I can’t even say that now. Seemingly hopeless.) But the reason I didn’t wasn’t laziness, though I have more than my share of that, but depression. I’ve never liked that word, but none of the good words—despair, anguish, terror—carry the same implication of longlastingness. I have to trust you know the ferocity and multi-dimensional nature of the beast. I’ve spent at least half my life’s energy fighting it. When I read about women juggling family and career, I relate. Tending to the demands of relentless needy creatures is wearying.
Everybody’s beast is different, though, and what I can say about mine is that it’s never been that flat, affectless grey goo that so many people describe. I’ve been in that place, now and then. It was restful. Not pleasant, but restful. But I can see why it results in suicide so often. If nothing is reliably differentiated from any other thing, even death loses its mystique and becomes as harmless-looking as a sleeping pill.
Death has never looked harmless to me. I first encountered it as a murderer taking those I loved. I’ve never gone a week without moments of joy or contentment, without appreciation of the beauty of the world that death will steal from me, sooner or later. So I have to do things my mother’s way and manage to enjoy life even though the demonspawn upstairs are going crazy and may soon erupt.
You know language is inadequate when this translates as ‘hope.’