Here in the time of the great panic, people retreated to their bunkers, the people of the past come forward. Yesterday we found a path at an odd road, named as if after a bad blues song, like Coffinnail Cove: I’m going there to find my beloved. But this was true; at the mouth of the trail, a cheery older man approached, unheeding and wanting to hand us a card about a book he wrote. He no longer cared for construction; he cared for spreading his name out on the waters. His wife looked on skeptically, as if often she had seen him needing to have his writing recognized. He was of an older generation and equivalently skeptical about death.
While this east coast forest was so splendid in its understanding of how death could cohabit with life. Branches fell to climb upward. A bark prince sat on his pillow inside one hollow trunk and regarded us with some idealism from inside a moss-covered pelt.
I am beginning to cohabit with this beau, no longer so new. We are no longer rank amateurs, we are known to each other, microbes merge. The father of my children is rightly skeptical about who comes in and out of this house. The house represents the heart. Is it wrong that I wish more light to enter it than what I knew before?
To be engulfed
Take this as our first premise—we begin with fear.
To be hauled out of whatever is safe and comfortable is what you encounter starting this screed.
Also let us consider the premise of the womb. For our purposes here: my first memory of a mother, carrying me down a narrow corridor toward a gust of cold air. Maybe there was a chain hanging by the door, the first bling meant to protect those inside, but who cares about any of that when memory itself is always that narrow corridor: it reinscribes itself in the brain backward from a premise.
And where does second memory live, where does anyone place it, how much does not get remembered?
Early truths: the need of others, whether tyrant or mothers, can squash. Safety is to be found away; in the unblue light of outside; exile.
More first lessons: the egg of my seventeen-year-old daughter lived in my mother’s body when I too was born, my girlchild with her birthday February 3, a day before her grandmother’s on February 4. This will be daughter’s first birthday without her grandmother, that first home. Less than a year ago I essentially set fire to the world as I had known it; a divorce; three moves; it has been a year of cutting.
Is it possible to learn about love only through absence?
Early on in the relation with X, I kept looking at the marks on my hands and body and thinking: how can I be loved? Would it be silly, he said, if you were all that you were and I let a few lines keep me from that? When you have been my dream since I was young?
The thing we fear with age difference is that we exist on tilted timelines, that one of us will skid into an unlike metaphysical vista, that the core wound—of being fundamentally unlovable, of being bad—will be revealed. Calvinism would say the lack of grace would become evident. Judaism would say that everything depends on works, not faith: hence the melodies that sang through my prior marriage, as in the scene of Fiddler on the Roof. Do I love you, they sing to each other. Bound by peasant work, as if they are fulfilling a dictate given them from a view they did not quite own.
I keep calling him adorable, which is truly a word I never used before. What I mean by this: he lives to be loved, he is like a wise avatar of love dropped to earth, he seems always to be able to see the world from the prospect of the fire tower.
Years ago in upstate New York when I had met but didn’t know him, after my father died, I would walk alone in the woods up to a fire tower, and believe I saw and felt my father, a lover of the evanescent and sublime up in the trees’ frond and fringe. Once a dog got caught up in the fire tower; humans claimed dominion over forest, domesticated dogs, and sought to prevent fire, the excrescence of egoism: the poor dog met at the vertex and vortex of these claims.
How sad to get caught in another’s manifest destiny, as was the case with first nations who every year were celebrated with turkey hand-outlines by misguided tour guides in my kids’ public schools: reverent older white men would appear, triumphant and defaming in their feather headdresses belonging to no tribe.
But to love is to agree, as if a folie à deux, that you are each other’s manifest destiny, some other power led you to drop the veils of civilization, your animal natures are revealed, there is no path, fire tower, or howling dog, there is only eros and mortality.
Hence, adorable. We have these brief spans; might as well love. Your portal opens and there is the loved one.
Why is it some women seem to know how to keep their physical space so orderly? I knew you were neglected, my husband said, I could see it on you, the little girl in you. So many mates have seen this little girl. When the genius therapist asks me to do what a friend who helped me through the bleak years in upstate New York asked me to do, to imagine my current self cradling my inner child, I could not. That particular exercise was always so hard: you must become the adult knowing how to love. Part of the problem with this whole love and intimacy thing was that it was so fraught: I hungered for it, I had disorganized attachment style—the great combo platter, anxiety and avoidance. Craving connection, working hard for it, but then ending up afraid of being engulfed by others’ needs and narcissism, that hard dance. I knew myself most fully as I would stride out from my college boyfriend’s tiny dorm room, with its curated LPs, discarded burger wrappers, the teen-boy funk of it all and out into the bracing cool of another New England morning, and before had known myself most fully even at sixteen, with that 26-year-old beau living in my brother’s room and my pleasure in writing a sonnet railing against the lure of domesticity. I would be in bed with him thinking: okay, now what, how does anyone make this time matter? When you are born into a system in which you feel you must earn your keep, when you must work for love, when you find yourself near those who challenge the idea of love, your system goes a little haywire.
Last semester of college, music boy gone, I had a ground-floor studio apartment with no grillework or furniture, only a stove and sea of clothes often floorward. Easter break, two men fiddled at the window, silhouettes. I woke as if an anxious clerk in a Schwartz story and sprinted down the hall. High, maybe, my burglars took nothing, but stability shook: no room of my own could be safe. That same semester, ringing a friend’s doorbell, I was held up at knifepoint in the lobby. This friend was my consolation buddy: we lay in bed and talked as friends, a guy so raised on Manhattan mores, his speeches about money, power, and a science-diet poodle became one.
The night I was held up in his lobby, I shivered. Don’t blame us, the woman said, holding the knife at my throat, we’re just black motherfuckers. Don’t worry, I said, knowing an odd love for her, feeling the societal screw-up of it all, I get it—just let me have that computer disk from the backpack. Later, though I was at the police station and maybe drove through the city streets, I lacked the heart to identify anyone. Though perhaps I did see something of her in one woman—and not yet knowing I have the tendency toward face-blindness, prosopagnosia, meaning that someone needs to give me a tiny verbal cue so that I know them—I stayed silent.
For both attacks, I blamed myself: men broke in because I was messy, or had not protected my space, and fortunately they jarred me awake. The woman held a knife at my throat because the system was broken. In both cases, I believed I deserved the fear. And what about the people who were demonstrably loved by their mothers, whose mothers were present, who found themselves worthy enough to move through the physical world and create boundaries?
My eyes filled with images, and though I was a painter through most of college, I could not manage the stapling of canvases, and looked askance at a future art-world star crawling with his back smeared with Vaseline on the ground next to me in one of our classes: how did his act of shamelessness work as art, why did it matter?
The truth is so much of art comes from anxiety and how we use or fend it off.
It was not just the Romantics who felt we create art to order the vast chaos of the sublime. The bowerbird arranges its nonessential art and mystifies scientists. The infant plays with her food. Genet loves the smell of his bespattered bedsheets. We seek to create some kind of mark, we matter, we mattered.
A killer I knew as a child lay on a beach next to my friend and me when we were thirteen and scooped up some sand: you see why God created woman first? He was her father, she his daughter, yet she lived in that welcoming home my parents gave us. To create her own home of mobility, she used elaborate creams of rituals of self-care in order to mother herself, and nowadays across a social media platform, her face gleams at me with the smile of a twenty-year-old, as if outside time.
Do people who are well-mothered not wake with this little corkscrew of anxiety? Does the world not look like a slippery place? Do they feel the press of objects near and around them differently? There is a Giacometti image I love: a man in a room, every point on the contour of his being touching a corner of the room.
Which is why it is such a pleasure, on this particular morning, to rise and have as my background the composition my new love performed across the continent—I hear only its livestream, now a deadstream, but one with its sonic particles stirring me awake. In the concert hall, his warm grace welcomes everyone and he mentions the promise of snacks afterward. I am stirred not just by the music but by the fact of his authentic ease, warm congeniality, and understanding about what a moment needs, because he, like many of us, early on learned the unsafety of the outer world in which one must perform.
And so we have this emotional congruity, which I first discovered when we were on a beach, for a day, he visiting for a neuropsychology conference with his mother in California the day before I took the substance—that 15-minute trip which changed my life—which made me see the world as having two choices: the technicolor overburdened struggle or the solitary void, blessed by the ancient caryatid with translucent wings, an amethyst.
Reader, I chose the void.
And from that choice, the pleasure emerged.
The oddest part of encountering a person’s sexuality after years of having been with a different person is that it is like a garden with a wholly different door and key, as if one were indeed Alice having fallen. You see that, ah, they like to linger under this mushroom and then they like to suddenly take flight after this toadstool and then you are sitting at a long table and prating about this and that which really has nothing to do with anything allowed at any former table, and in fact the table is not even a table as such, it is floating over Towlsley Canyon near Los Angeles, hovering, and then you see two deer stop and eye you as if they understand who you are in the great mating dance, you feel a part of nature with this person in the way that another mate might have been more a part of cities.
But then there is this to remember: this new beau with his back which you rode behind on a bicycle in Berlin at night, a city he knew, and you had arrived somewhere you had not even dreamed possible.
It is not that long misery creates joy.
Of course there had been joy, and by declaring the annulment and divorce, it was as if you acceded to some master narrative which said yes, there was no joy, now this is the new script—as psychologists say, you script your life anew. Of course there is grief about the promise of other joy seedlings, now abandoned.
But this thing that happened a few days ago, doing yoga in an overheated bedroom at the parsonage when suddenly a part of my body looked as unfamiliar to me as the concept of a crested butte—what, anyway, is a crested butte?—this is what happens now too. You remember parts of yourself and thus the whole body of your family moves in new ways. And then time will not stop its hungry march, it severs the unneeded parts and keeps on seeking.
She lay down in her allotted five minutes in the women’s gathering and bravely removed her hospital-color bra to show her hospital-created breasts, decided she didn’t want the nipple made from some other cut-off part of her that would rub inside her clothes, said there was one brave little neuron that had made its way, asked us to touch her breasts here, saying symmetry is very important to me, touch me on one side then switch, the ten women gathered for the weekend, her longtime friend asking, if I press here, can you feel it. I had never felt younger or more immature than burrowing in next to my large friend, feeling the animalcave warmth of her, unable to touch her breasts. Feeling not the prohibition against touching a woman but a kind of gentle recoil, related to this: women who had asked to see me naked and I had recoiled, or who had touched me in ways I had not wanted. Women with bodies like the one who first invaded my own repelled me, I couldn’t help it, if they had a certain flop and overextension, I had to flee. How does one rework that neural pathway? Just touch my periphery, I had said, when it was my turn in the retreat, sing, anything. You are held by a river, you are safe, one started, and another began singing a song that means a lot to me, or at least it sounded like the song, b’shem hashem, in the name of the name, this angel is near you, that angel is near you.
And the woman who shared my bedroom that morning had played a video of a man singing I am blessed by the help of a thousand angels, softening my way to you. She overachieves; she pushes; I understand her exactly. Yet when it came my turn to dance something about my interior, I didn’t know how to soften my head; if the spot between my eyebrows stopped its current overfunctioning, everything would collapse: my greatest myth. One sage said long ago we should each have two pockets, each with a slip of paper. One slip says: I am but dust and ashes. On the other: The world was created for me alone, and the secret of living has to do with knowing when it is best for you to reach for either, or both.
One of the most painful parts of writing is revealing oneself. This should be obvious, but it is not. When I was young, I had a relative who consistently read my diary. I can’t help it, this relative said, your writing is so good. And there was the rub. The first reader to like my work had already violated my internal space in more than a few ways.
Later there was a first teacher whose eyepatch made him a swaggering pirate of literature, who said with his friends they talked of agents and the like, but said: write what you don’t know! Another teacher traveled the world and sometimes his work creaked under the weight of his research. When I worked as a waitress in a garden restaurant off the boardwalk south of Santa Monica, a man used to come in, a lawyer, who said: how does a young writer manage to write, work, and live life? I don’t know, I said with rueful excitement, curious about the next adventure. In that period I moved three times over eighteen months.
One of the problems being you could not hide your face. You had the opposite of a poker face. Even if people sometimes misinterpreted your resting face to be that unfortunate sort, believing you were exhausted or annoyed by something which, in fact, you were truly enjoying, in this case you truly disliked one customer at the restaurant, showing unhid distaste at a pimp-looking producer who did not treat his mate well, and then your manager, an older man with a mournful handlebar mustache who had been a Kinsey sex subject in the ’70s, that was his claim to fame, took you aside and said, so sorry, we’re going to have to let you go.
And then there was the publication of some work and a relative of yours was disturbed: you dishonor the memory of the dead, I am used to seeing you as magnanimous, do not write about me or my family.
The revelation of the inner bad self: this is what writing can do too.
For years, the worst thing you had done was read the journal pages of a second beau and told him. But he had read your journal: this was in your twenties. His comment: it is amazing to see how your interior is so confident. That is the rub of writing; you observe and have faith in what the eye knows.
It is the time of the great shutdown and a blizzard falls on the land. People rediscover touch and slowness, there is dread and gold, raised flowerbeds are ordered. At night in the messy parsonage, they sit on the couch covered with cat hair and they make up songs which they decide to send out on the airwaves. As if to sing is to be seen.
I had three beings depending on me and now I have a beau, renters, animals. I stand and nod listening to another man talk about the physical universe to me. You must grade the land if you want to put in your writer’s shed. You must have someone come and take out all the dead trees. At noon, your friend wants you to do a daily meditation with her: you breathe in the black pain of others and breathe out light. Right now your throat is scratchy, your land ungraded, your seminar book unread, your own book unwrit, and to breathe in suffering goes against the tiredness of afternoon.
The dream was of going to the megahealth grocery and then a moment comes in which blackout curtain flaps are pulled down. The store employees have become police. The one checking the sanitation has everyone line up, arms outstretched. You don’t want to touch someone but now we are asked to do so. Disobediently, I see as if in a line dance I can circle the line toward the entrance. Why don’t we just leave? Why don’t we just go to the parking lot? The anxiety is so great, the dream is its reward. Milton says: they also serve who only stand and wait. In our new time, they also serve who, rather than flee, just line up and obey in humility and compassion.
That somebody starts to judge more. That another starts to feel vulnerable to judgment, as the openness of the branches to the wind start to be more solitary, without the human gaze. On the secret paths that thread along the rivers in the university town, the mix of those who inhabit nature changes. The nature now belongs to everyone and so the habits of the city come to the brink. For eons, humans knew the wisdom of the riverbanks. For the riverbanks had no need of the wisdom of humans or any understanding of eons. And now there are trucks hauling the province of the rivers to the mouths of those who forgot how to say thanks. The text from the husband is curt: we want to talk to you about social distancing. They don’t want the beau to be around their son. This is not just bourgeois more. This is old love rejecting the new.
The dreams of that time start to drag you through your past with a willy-nilly intensity. Your dead mother speaks with her sister who ate herself to death. Because you are messy, a man thinks he can follow you into corners abandoned by the populace, a hotel with no one staying in it. Such has been the state of your joy. You return to a journal which you began two years earlier, and though you are in a new place, the hammock of your life conspires to swing in one direction: gratitude.
In the cold outside the body inside is hungry for that which it cannot have. And yet in the middle of the night the body next to you is so beautiful you make love to the idea of beauty itself without waking anyone or touching anything but the way the poisoned air rests astride your cheek, gazing at him.
Families that look happy seem to flow inside a riverbank made up of common rites and assumptions, while other families act more like holograms in which everyone has a strong story projected onto everyone else, and love must find its way among the rays.
In the morning you hid under the blanket in the room where your mother sequestered your late father before she shipped him in his last years out to a nursing home on the water’s edge, the room in which another great-aunt, a great idealist, lived at the end of her life, a room of death which had chilled your beau so he was sneezing the next morning, as you went to the Ethiopian buffet and you all got sick, you, him, your daughter, and you hid hearing another relative talk to the dog whom your daughter wants to steal and take home so that forever you can have a love bomb and be a savior.
Everyone keeps asking: what does it mean to write in a time like this? Your students, friends, you ask this of yourself. Adam in the garden gave names to the garden. In the garden of chaos, is it important to gather names? You provide for your family through two means: packages from the megaboss lie outside, toasting in the sun or freezing. The new animals of the parsonage seem to understand this time as a confusion of inside and outside, and their interiors end up on blankets inside cages when they go in to the vet’s, where you sit in a car while the semi-blanketed nurse lifts up gates and then comes back and smears the virus, which you are taught to think of as glitter, glitter spreading everywhere, all over your door and the interior of your car and your credit card. The rain pours down. She is a hero as are the cats, who just got shots to protect both of them from the penchant of one not to take the edict of being an indoor cat and instead to roam outside. Outside is where danger lives. The nearby students, quarantined, have a habit of blithely petting the cat. They don’t want to stop. It is disappointing, one of them says. They like the outside penetrating in: of course, everyone wants to be loved. To be heard, to read and speak. While your class during this time feels like a front line of intimacy. Everything matters, you tell students, this is why you dedicate yourself to writing. The one album you listen to over and over is by Oophoi, Behind the Wall of Sleep, you play it as you and your friends write together in aeries around the world. You want to read one another and hide together and soon emerge: for this promise of literature we sing.