Actually, They Can Take Anything Away From Me

December 1, 2012 § 1 Comment


Charles is in Montauk today, shooting a music video, a jazz concert. Not much money in it, but he’s making a start and working with excellent musicians, people he greatly admires.

So I’m alone, which I haven’t been for a whole day in quite some time.

It’s a lovely feeling. Don’t mistake me—I wouldn’t want him to move out. Our marriage is slowly knitting together, the feeling of two-ness seeping into my bones. Passion has been and gone, but all the other things people talk about when they talk about intimacy are skittishly blossoming. I like to observe his attachment to the cats, which is far more intense than mine. He tracks their eating and sleeping, broods over their fights. He talks to them a lot, as I do. That’s a problem when I’m in the other room and say, “Honey, what do you…” He thinks I’m talking to Fitzroy, even though I never call Fitzroy “Honey.” I call him You Handsome Thing, Mountain Lion Puss, Big Pig Cat, Bad Kitty.

The whole point of being a couple is to have a human you can call Honey or Sugar. Though I do reserve Sugarlump for Mouchette. That’s just what she is.

He laughs at the bad temper that erupts when I’m frustrated or not feeling well. He warns my cats that they might love me best, but I’m the one with the monster inside, the one entertaining desires to fling the whining beasts across the room. Cats are such splendid foils. To do that with kids would be seriously fucked-up, but cats? You can assign them any role you please.

He’s very good at spending no money, eating beans and peanut butter if don’t cook a meal, but when I rebel against our budget, he doesn’t object. We go to a local joint for music and a glass of wine, or go to hear poetry.

If I fall into a slough of despond and he finds me crying he urges me to talk. What I say hurts (as he knows it will), so when I’ve said my piece, he talks. I don’t want to hear it, I want to keep talking about me—obsession can tell the same story over and over—but his story distracts and calms me. I ask questions; I climb up the cerebral tree and make analytic pronouncements; I start feeling that thank-god-I’m-smart-they-can’t-take-that-away-from-me feeling, which is a threadbare shield but a necessary one. He picks up the wadded-up tissues, makes me a cup of tea, and Fitzroy wanders back in—cats desert you when you cry—and I plunge my tender brain into a book.

We both cook dinner, or not. We argue over where to put things, and I let him rearrange the dishes, the scissors, the scotch tape, because at this point, who cares? It’s only when I’m angry to start with that I get testy, but now I can apologize and he’s not upset anyway. His Margaret baseline includes snapping and kicking. A huge change from the 80’s and 90’s, when I believed my anger at him was all his fault (and so did he) and he was cowed and hurt by it. We tried but couldn’t really talk. And then his anger came out, and it wasn’t pretty. Living apart ten years makes a considerable difference. And his loyalty shines in the darkness.

But what I started to say is, I love my periods of solitude. I feel bigger inside. I feel like there’s more time in the day. I want to do things. I’m the me nobody knows and that one has fingers in every memory and is able to love the world like a saint. (Anyone can, for a few minutes.) Solitude without loneliness is precious and versatile. It flips you from loving the world like a saint to seeing the world as your canvas, every experience your paint. Your brush strokes are effortless.

Something about Charles tamps me down. It would happen with anyone—not exactly the same thing, but some unshakable influence. I used to think Philip would give me pep and drive. But I never reached a point where I wholly trusted him, so mostly what he gave me was excitement, brief hours of contentment, fear. I have no doubt that living with him would inhibit me drastically. That’s the reality, as much as the missed smile, eyelashes, etc.

It’s much easier to think about all of this when I’m alone. It’s much easier to contemplate writing the whole experience, the long marriage and the other guy, probably in short pieces. I’m having dozens of ideas but this isn’t the place for them. This is the place where I say I’m happy it’s winter. I need to shop, walk around the park, then make a hamburger casserole with black beans and yellow peppers, and a sweet potato pie. Most of all I need to remember that if you write, a failure is never a failure. It’s all gold. (OK, not quite. It’s gold-ish. You have to hew to the love of the word–or the music–because everything else dies.)

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Jack Gilbert

Miss Pussy

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

Maddy and Molly Got Married

September 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

Botanical Garden, Madison, Wisconsin

The area around Madison, Wisconsin is beautiful—fields of harvest gold, family farms, lakes. The corn was in, and pumpkins were on the vines—or rather on the ground, attached to their vines, like lopped off heads that managed to reconnect. That only works if you’re a vegetable.

Apple pie in one of the older college cafes was homemade and excellent; the used bookstore had, on one shelf to my right as I entered the door, every single novel I read in my 20’s, both classic and contemporary. It was a little spooky. I burrowed further in and bought by Retreat from Love by Colette, which I may or may not have read before.

It’s hard to remember my 20’s, though much easier than remembering people I met last week. I do know that I didn’t have as many bright and charming friends as M & M do—a seemingly endless supply of deliciously smart people. I didn’t meet one friend of theirs I didn’t like, which is humbling considering I’ve had so many friends in my life that I didn’t like.

But about the brides. Brides are always beautiful, they say, though I’ve seen quite a few who weren’t. These two qualified. Molly was radiant and calm, Maddy a little self-conscious and surprised—even after all the planning—that there was a real wedding going on, all these people from her and her parents’ lives, and from Molly’s and her parents’ lives gathered in one place, just for her and her beloved. Andree, mother of Bride No. 1 (alphabetical), sang a song Jay (father) composed, and the young women made their vows in the early evening sun. Molly’s twin sister and the friend who introduced the two read from John Donne and The Song of Solomon. Then drinks, dinner, toasts, dancing, in the large country house that pretended, reasonably well, to be a private residence.

It was my first gay wedding, and for various reasons that have nothing to do with the brides, I found it soothing. The four parents were happy that their daughters had found love with a kind and trustworthy person. I liked the drift of memory that wasn’t too much—either in my knowledge of the families or the trigger of ceremony. I wasn’t in the mood to be assailed by the past with its infinite regrets, and the quality of newness was just right for me. Of course marriage is always new to the wedded pair, and seeing that is what uplifts us. The shyness of intimacy made public—and acknowledging a love so deep you want to be with the person forever is very intimate—awakens tenderness in the guests, along with a little fear.

When I got married, I was under no illusion that things would be perfect or even close to that. I was making vows while living in the moment. I’m not a good poster child for life (though I’m still married). But I see it in others— an expectation, not of perfection, but of a union that never happens, or rather, that happens differently than can be imagined. I‘m not saying Maddy or Molly has this expectation; I have no idea. They are private people. But I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it in myself, and I wanted to give it to them—as if I could. I wanted the sweetness and solace of the wedding to go on and on: people of several generations, work and troubles put aside, making friends, eating cake, listening to music.

The cake was especially good.

What Was Told, That
by Jalalu’l-din Rumi
translated by Coleman Barks

What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.

What was told the cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was

whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever

was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them

so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is

being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.

The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,

in love with the one to whom every that belongs!

Summer of Love

July 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve been trying to write a blog entry for a couple of weeks, but it can only be about pain and danger, which I was trying to avoid for the sensitive among you. Can’t I write about something else? I have the whole city at my feet. But you must understand, there is nothing else. Not now. This is the summer of lead, of life-in-death, of agony by the window and fervent pill-counting; this is my father rising.

What else is there? The government is insane. The climate war is over, and we lost. Millions will suffer and die, in storms, floods, drought, thirst, hunger, and despair, yet I cling to my love poems (I’ve written 12), the only good to come out of my farcical & endless story. Love poems can survive a thousand years and nobody remembers how the world then was being driven to ruin—or cares who the man or woman was; he/she is just any old beloved.

My goal is to become the sort of woman who doesn’t fall in love. Who loves largely and thinly; who writes. Who has done something alchemical with her heart, or simply forked the devil in the belly so the black blood curdles on the floor; and then is sweet as a meadow of star-white flowers, a meadow with no beginning, no end, no center.


Bite back passion. Spring now sets.

Watch little by little the night turn around.

Echoes in the house; want to go up, dare not.

A glow behind the screen; wish to go through, cannot.

It would hurt too much, the swallow on a hairpin;

Truly shame me, the phoenix on a mirror.

On the road back, sunrise over Heng-t’ang.

The blossoming of the morning-star shines farewell on the jewelled saddle.

Lǐ Shāngyǐn (812-858)

The Greatest of These

August 30, 2009 § 2 Comments


Aldous Huxley

Teddy Kennedy’s funeral was very moving. It reminded me of the Catholic funerals I went to in my teens—my uncle and my cousin? I can’t remember. So many people died in those years—my cousin in a car crash on the night of his high school graduation, others by illness and suicide—but I do remember that two of the funerals were Catholic, long, beautiful, with music and incense.

None of us had fathers we could talk about as Teddy’s sons did about him. We all wanted to. We remembered the good things and tried to make them be more than they were, as well as sometimes exaggerating the bad. Then I grew up, sort of, and watched my husband be a less good father than he should have been, and felt complicit because I was.  I was distracting him with youth and sex and freedom, and felt like I deserved his attention because his kids at least had a father, and I didn’t. If I were Catholic I would have gone to confession over that.

I try to respect faith; it awes me sometimes. But listening to the priest talk about Teddy being in Heaven with Jesus, and being with his dead siblings, I think: how is that not more delusional than my beliefs about romance that make me feel so stupid and sad?

The obvious answer is that if Teddy’s wrong he’ll never know it and while he was alive he had the comfort of it. After all, if there is no God and we die into darkness, how does believing this help us bear it? All I have is my cat, jumping up here now to present me with his amber and white furriness, glistening and clean, not quite angelic but pleasingly tangible. His small head and swanlike neck. His stupid, beautiful, tawny eyes.

I suppose the purpose of God is to be pure. Nobody we love here is. God can betray only us by not existing, and then it’s not anyone betraying us. But I can only say so because I don’t believe. If I did—if I were absolutely certain there was a God who saw and spoke and could change things, if I were like my Aunt Vera or Teddy, thinking all the doctrine was absolutely true—I’d want to kill the crazy bastard in a nanosecond.

My friend Philip thinks I don’t understand religion. He thinks I’m a Godless Unitarian hippie nonbeliever. But I savored faith early on, studying Aldous Huxley’s collection of sacred writings The Perennial Philosophy, which remains the best of its kind. He made me understand the sweet potency of a belief no human power could shake. I remember especially (from another book of Huxley’s) a description of a martyr holding fast under torture. Huxley made me see that once you’re in the place of torture, faith is all that will keep your mind in one piece. To renounce it in order to stop the physical pain is a false bargain. Your soul splinters.

This doesn’t apply if your faith is slim and you’re not being tortured. Huxley’s words didn’t make me believe—not on that level—but they made me understand the mechanism.

Still, I had radiant months and days of a faith that didn’t know quite where to land, that was looking at the worlds’ doctrines like a girl looking to marry. Trying to choose wisely. I had love and devotion to spare.  But I was like Eve. I wanted to know what I wasn’t being told. I got kicked out.


But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

June Tune, Soon Done

June 26, 2009 § 2 Comments

anniversary_cakeYesterday was my wedding anniversary. Today is the anniversary of my first date with my lover.

This is not coincidental. Nine years ago—when my marriage was in tatters after a long buildup of anger neither of us had the tools to address, and my husband was unemployed, and I had confessed a brief affair with the brother of my recently deceased close friend Ann, who’d been dying of cancer all spring, and whose memorial I had just attended, a service my husband didn’t attend because of the brother—nine years ago, my wedding anniversary consisted of the two us eating spaghetti with bottled sauce and no grated cheese (why bother?) on our laps as we watched TV.

I think we remarked on how pathetic this meal was, but perhaps not. It didn’t seem to matter. We were too numb. I had begun to spin away.

The next day, I was scheduled to go to our country house for a week alone, but woke up so depressed I impulsively called the office number of a man I’d been chatting with online. He invited me to lunch. He told me how pretty I was. He said he’d like to touch me. I took his hands. We sat like that, a two-handed grip in the white tablecloth Italian restaurant, and if this were a romance novel I could say whole centuries passed and you’d get the point without fanfare.

Centuries didn’t pass and we didn’t know we’d found love, but something happened and soon my shoe was off and my foot in his crotch. (I was being a show-off, yes, but it was good.) He carried his astonishment and pleasure well, a slight adjustment of body and expression conveying a hard-earned sophistication. I was 45 and felt like every girl Sinatra’s referring to in the classic, It Was a Very Good Year. *

And then all the rest of it. Other days and nights, other years. Broken dates, broken hearts, marriages melted down and cast into strange new shapes. We each live apart from our spouses, but our spouses remain primary. My husband was just here from Florida and we celebrated both his birthday (a week late) and our anniversary (4 days early). We went to hear Junior Mance at Café Loup. Charles went up to Junior afterward and said, “I’ve been a fan of yours since the ‘50’s.” I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie though it’s only the ordinary passage of time. Charles is older than me by more than a decade, but still. I remember when the ‘50’s were 20 years ago.

After that we went to a bar and had too many drinks and the next day Fitzroy was upset because I didn’t get out of bed at the usual hour. He walked on my back, up and down, then settled between my shoulder-blades, meowing. Get up Mom. What do you mean, you have a hangover?  Moms don’t get hangovers.

I got up. Eventually.

Tonight I’m celebrating with Philip. I have 24 red roses on the bureau I’m trying to keep the cats from eating. I’m wondering if I should have taken over the restaurant planning. I’m thinking June is a bitch. But I don’t regret getting married, and I don’t regret that day nine years ago. Life is an unwieldy machine.

*It Was A Very Good Year

When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen

When I was twenty-one
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls
Who lived up the stairs
With all that perfumed hair
And it came undone
When I was twenty-one

When I was thirty-five
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls
Of independent means
We’d ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five

But now the days grow short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
And it poured sweet and clear
It was a very good year

–written by Ervin Drake in 1961 for the Kingston Trio. Sinatra’s version won him a Grammy in 1966 for Best Male Vocalist.

Lady of the Flies

April 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Love on the flyPeople are frequently interested in my romantic situation (husband in Florida, boyfriend in over his head). It is peculiar and not without advantages, though the good stuff tends to add up while the bad multiplies, but the oddest thing that’s happened, and this concerns me as a writer, is that I’ve wrung so much drama from the past 9 years (or it’s wrung me; I haven’t always been the prime mover of the theatrics), that sex, love and romance, while still powerful in my life, are no longer the heavyweights in my imagination. I’m far less curious about what other people are up to, about the ‘mystery’ of someone’s marriage or arrangement. I don’t think I know everything—I just think I know everything that matters to me.

And having said such a vainglorious thing, I’m not sure if I want to be right or wrong about this. It’s nice to think the future holds surprises (she said tepidly, sitting in a hardback chair on the stage, hands folded in her lap, as abysses yawn and monsters stalk), but then surprises aren’t always nice, are they?

From one of my favorite science blogs—this is about flies—

“The influence of crowds can even sway a female’s decision based on completely arbitrary factors. To show this, Mery dusted two groups of males with either green or pink powder, creating bodies that no female would ever come across in the wild.  She placed a voyeur female in a glass tube, and in an adjoining tube, she put a coloured male and a second virgin female. Inevitably, the two flies mated, providing a sex show for the lone female to study. Later, the couple were replaced with another pair – a male of the other colour, and a female that had recently mated and wasn’t up for it. 

After all this voyeurism, Mery gave the solitary female a choice between pink or green males. She found that the female was twice as likely to mate with males from the colour that she had seen having sex before. If she watched green males getting lucky, she favoured green males; if pink seemed to be the colour-of-choice for other females, she went with pink. If the partition between the two tubes was opaque, so she couldn’t see the neighbouring shenanigans, she didn’t have any preferences for either colour.”*

Fashion always wins. The other woman knows something you don’t. We’re all confused about what we’re supposed to find attractive. Choose your lesson.

It’s interesting how science, which would never have advanced so far so fast without our hyper-rational, individualist civilization, is quickly tearing down the intellectual foundations of same. The human brain, not much more advanced than the fly brain, is impulse-driven, fast and sloppy, and expert at making up justifications after the fact. This is the rule, not the exception. Economists have just learned this; it’s a big eureka moment for them. No wonder the market doesn’t work! People are nuts!

Reason and considered choice are on the way out as the trusted foundation for human behavior. We can handle this for now. Scientists can genially say they don’t believe in free will, in the self, or even in consciousness, yet have no problem using those sturdy constructs to function and thrive. Apples and oranges, they say. My work, my life.

Because they are scientists, and not writers or artists, this isn’t hard for them; they tend not to have spent so much time hanging around with their demons. They haven’t given them names and histories, or ceded them territory; haven’t created symbiotic relationships to coax a win from a lose; they haven’t, in short, fooled themselves that they’ve corralled their irrational side into a binding agreement (renegotiated every one to three years).

Once those of us with the big crazies stop believing in progress of the emotional kind, in incremental acquisition of control, once we realize we’ll always like the guy with the pink dandruff if the other females do, and no power in heaven or on earth cares, or thinks it’s fate, or is saving us jewels of happiness for later—then I think we’ll storm the laboratories, grill the scientists for dinner along with their experimental animals, and erect temples to Asmodeus (lechery), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Belphegor (sloth).

And the whole thing will start again in several hundred years.

* Ed Yong, flies get the buzz on sexy mates from each other


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