July 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Edvard Munch. The Storm
As a very young woman, I liked the word “regret.” I liked the way it sounded, its Frenchness. “Je ne regrette rien” comes to mind, of course, but I don’t think it was that song, more swaggering and maudlin than I would have appreciated at 18, that drew me to the word. I see it in print: black on white, the discreet letters with that fat g in the middle. Everything regretted (still desired) lurks within that g. A Google search gives me: “from Old French regreter ‘bewail (the dead),’ perhaps from the Germanic base of ‘greet’ (weep; cry.)”
Regret also sounds like my own first name, though I didn’t realize that until I started writing this. Mostly I liked it because it was a signifier of a lived life and of melancholy, and while I had plenty of the latter—and stubbornly clung to it—the former was still a mystery. One cannot regret without having done something, unless one regrets doing nothing or not enough—and even that seemed oddly appealing to me at 19 or 21: languid, somnolent, poetic. Sometime around then, or perhaps a couple of years later, I read Henry James’ great novella The Beast in the Jungle, which is all about the life unlived, death-like regret, and how it can be created, piece by piece, by a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime.
I had a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime. It was the part of myself I was most proud of. I thought it would take me to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, distant magical cities. I wouldn’t be so foolish as the man in the story, though. I knew that, just as I knew that I wanted to write with as much breathtaking poise and discernment as James, albeit with a bit more sex. And I haven’t been (as foolish, I mean). I have been differently foolish. This is not the place to list all my mistakes, especially because even now I can’t tease out what were really mistakes and what is the ongoing mistake to consider something a mistake. But I am well acquainted with regret.
It is corrosive, unrelenting. It is a constant yammer, the obverse of the self-consciousness of youth, which thinks itself so different as to be monstrous, while regret knows one is so similar as to be banal and will beat you about the head for it. Regret is neither generous nor kind. I associate it with those travellers (in fiction as in life) who fasten on strangers and pour out their resentments and self-pity, hour upon hour, into a time stretched to forever. At best, this is comedy. I think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked over her shoulder. I was never a bible student so I assumed religious people knew what this meant and only recently discovered that there is a bit of discussion about it. Did her action reveal her longing for what was left behind (including her daughters), or did she merely suffer the effect of gazing upon the face of the destroying God? What does salt have to do with it? The story of Lot’s wife’s is akin to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. An utterly human reaction, glancing back to make sure she really follows, means the rule broken and the wife lost.
When I first read them, I found these stories unfair. Not that I didn’t understand they were metaphors; I still found them unfair. It takes age to bring a different perspective, to see the clear and present danger of too much looking back and therefore the need for such tales, opaque as they may be to young readers. The implicit message is: trust God (or the god). I don’t, actually, but I admit I ought to trust something; would be happier if there were an area of life, loosely called the spirit, where I could let go and believe that if this is not the best of times and circumstances, it’s the only one I have and therefore, by default, the best. It is a time infinite until it is over, minutes upon minutes upon hours, and who can say any of us deserve more than this unfathomable magic?
There is a place for regret, perhaps the place I imagined at 20; the older person, standing by a window looking out at the rain, mind touching lightly upon wrong turns, wrongdoing, feeling a shiver of sorrow and something else, something ineffable and French. The older person is beautifully dressed, in a spacious and well appointed library, standing on two healthy limbs, looking at a landscape that does not include leering demons, crazed assault rifle murderers, mutant giant insects, unnamed evil from beyond the stars.
My library is not spacious (it is also my bedroom and work space). There’s no room to stand by the window because boxes of jewelry-making supplies and old notebooks are piled everywhere, and the windows are dirty anyway. And if I did look, because I do look, this direction or that, inside and out, what I see too often is leering mutant evil from beyond the stars.
I regret that.
Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.
August 13, 2012 § Leave a comment
photo by J.W Diehl
Bad relapse of CFS…weak, headachey, swollen glands, neurological problems…and I’m leaving for California in 2 days. What fun. Hard to believe I got through 15 years of this & worse.
I got a surprise in the mail the other day: a check for $36.31, a rebate awarded me as the result of The Affordable Care Act. My insurance company (back when I had health insurance) didn’t spend 80% of revenues on claims, so now must refund us all…it’s a nice feeling, though what can you buy for $36 these days? If you add in a Groupon (I’m all about Groupon these days), a dinner out at a restaurant nobody likes. A month of Fresh Step unscented kitty litter. A ticket and a half to a play at the heavily subsidized Signature Theater.
Last week, Charles and I saw Heartless, Sam Shephard’s newest, which is your basic 20th century dysfunctional family drama with a heart transplant from a murdered 10-year-old inserted into the slot incest, madness, and alcoholism traditionally fill. I knew what I was getting into—the play was part of a subscription package or I never would have gone—and it had its moments of effectiveness, but I kept thinking of how much more interesting it would have been without Ma, Sis and absent Pa. (The mother was brilliantly acted by Lois Smith but aging, nasty, narcissistic parents who won’t shut up need to take a 100 year leave of absence from the American theater. Yes, we get it that they’re more human than anyone else. So’s my cat.)
I would put the lady with the grave-robbed heart into a Christopher Durang play where she’d try to fit in with the other suburban mothers drinking martinis and trashing their husbands but her real life would consist of running her fingers up and down her fabulous scar in mall dressing rooms. Of course, she’d never remember to pick up the kids, who’d be played by a changing cast of naked dolls.
The best part was when the murdered girl, Elizabeth, who naturally lives with the family as a symbolic wound, tries to fuck the new boyfriend just to see if he’ll notice. Now, why interpret this psychologically? Isn’t it a better story if this is a real ghost and that ghosts can and will fuck your boyfriend if you leave him alone for five minutes? Especially if you go so far as to dress them up in a nurse uniform and make them do household chores?
Elizabeth was my favorite character but that was probably because she spent the last half of the play with bloody feet and I kept looking at those feet, marveling how real the blood looked, and wondering when she was going to get around to washing them. (She rubbed and rubbed with a washcloth but the blood didn’t come out. Was that symbolic too? Or did the director also find those bloody feet inexplicably cute?) And I thought Delilah would be perfect for the role.
New York’s had hideous weather lately, which I’m assuming will continue for the next thousand years. An article in the Times not long ago was taking about NYC being underwater by 2100, and not just financially. It will happen before that, I think. My city, which I’ve seen change so much over 50 years, will only have time for a few more incarnations before it becomes a vast fishy ruin, with coastal squatters left on the high ground: those with nowhere else to go, old ladies refusing to go anywhere, wild Pekingese.
If I live another 30 years—but wait, I won’t live another 30 years, and not just because I don’t have health insurance. Long before that the climate will be biting ass-sized chunks out of civilization and the younger generation, in fear and loathing, will force-march us to Las Vegas. We’ll be locked inside the casinos, no AC, slot machines spitting Indian-head nickels, nothing to eat but Big Gulps and fries. “Scarlett,” the old man will whine, “Is there anything else but potatoes? I’m so tired of potatoes.” (This is a paraphrase. I don’t have my copy of Gone with the Wind anymore. It fell in the bathtub once too often.)
Or they’ll put the assault rifles inside with us, and that will be all she wrote.
Grade School’s Large Windows
weren’t built to let the sunlight in.
They were large to let the germs out.
When polio, which sounds like the first dactyl
of a jump rope song, was on the rage,
you did not swim in public waters.
The awful thing was an iron lung.
We lined up in our underwear to get the shot.
Some kids fainted, we all were stung.
My cousin Speed sat in a vat
of ice cubes until his scarlet fever waned,
but from then on his heart was not the same.
My friend’s girlfriend was murdered in a hayfield
by two guys from Springfield.
Linda got a bad thing in her blood.
Everybody’s grandmother died.
Three times, I believe, Bobby shot his mother.
Rat poison took a beloved local bowler.
A famous singer sent condolences.
In the large second floor corner room
of my 4th grade class the windows were open.
Snow, in fat, well-fed flakes
floats in where they and the chalk-motes meet.
And the white rat powder, too, sifts down
into a box of oatmeal
on the shelf below.