sorting pages, smelling September again…

Where there once was an abstract landscape                                                                           crossed by quietude, nostalgia, perhaps                                                                                        insufficiently sophisticated but deeply personal ideas                                                           poetic loneliness in doorways, chips in curbstones leaking words                                        visions of the Virgin over floodlit parking lots                                                                            now there are photos of favorite writers- Didion, Colette, Baldwin, Lorca-                          taped up on the wall.                                                                                                                  Insecurities and petty bloodless blood-feuds of a smattering of Others float,                glowing particles, in a neutral pool of days I must traverse.

 

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“I have lived in equatorial America since 1935 and only twice had fever. I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined Anthropos. I studied under Kroeber at California and worked with Lévi-Strauss at São Paulo, classified several societies, catalogued their rites and attitudes on occasions of birth, copulation, initiation , and death, did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Matto Grasso and along certain tributaries of the Rio Xingu, and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all. Let me go further. I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.”

-Joan Didion, from the book of common prayer

 

“What I am trying to conceptualize with the help of the philosopher is that which I have already intuited” -Charles Simic

 

“The poet of the Kosovo cycle rebels against the very idea of historical triumph. Defeat, he appears to be saying, is wiser than victory. the great anti-heroes of these poems experience a moment of tragic consciousness. they see the alternatives with all their moral consequences. They are free to make a fateful choice. They make it with full understanding of its consequences. For the folk poet of these poems, true nobility and heroism comes from the consciousness of the Difficult Choice.”

-Simic

 

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Finger-worn and foot-buffed steel and linoleum. Deep knowledge of the insides of occupational objects….

 

I see the Paysage of my near-decade of choices                                                                      it seems a system                                     of baked ochre and orange canyons, entered almost by accident.                                                                                               A place of occasional tedium, doubt, self-doubt, where thirst                                                     has sometimes summoned a feeble, ice-cold spring.                                                                   Twice while wandering up the side-cuts I stumbled on a hanging garden so extraordinary, Edenic, revelatory, that I cried out.                                                                         I’ve learned to smell and listen, to observe and follow wiser, smaller creatures.                   I received a proffered word: Survival.                                                                I picked out a trail when there wasn’t one, and it took me years- seven and a half, to be exact- but I made it to the deepest point, a descent of many fathoms.                                                    I drank my fill from a wide and swiftly running river and then                                                              I rode it                                                                                                                                                   out.

 

 

 

*Drawing by G.F Marlier (the old College Ave. Safeway, right before they tore it down)

 

Cheat Lake ’93

The plastic basins sit in the sink. I would say “kitchen sink” but there is only one sink, spring-fed, in the cabin my father and uncle built with their friends on the first backwater of the Cheat Lake in West Virginia almost 50 years ago. The basins are now used to soak crusted egg off the white plastic plates with their pea green and yellow floral design. The plates, like the colored glass lamp hanging over the table and the embroidery of mushrooms on the wall, are relics of 70’s beer and cigarette bacchanals, before us kids, when the place was still called “Mecca South”.

The basins, however, date from the early 90’s, and before they were used to soak breakfast dishes they were used to collect my father’s excess bodily fluids, mostly bloody phlegm, as I recall, brought up by long bouts of a painful, hacking cough.

They came from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and are still, 24 years later, the easily identifiable (at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals) hospital pink that they were in 1993. My memory of my father’s facial features has faded more- much more- than the color of these plastic basins.

The pink is very tasteful, actually, which surprises me when I go back to the family place once every year or two and re-discover them. One of my aunts built a house on the property and lives there year-round now, and the past few years my cousins have been bringing their small children for impromptu family reunions. I always find the basins still here and notice again that the pink is not a bubble-gum pepto-bismol pink but rather a dusky, purplish-pink, somewhere between blush and bruise.

That summer, the summer of ’93, my father was hospitalized for a month (or a little more? or a little less?) with a septic knee infection (I think this is what it was? All I really knew at the time was that the knee was the size of a grapefruit, and it was very serious). My older brother was in Mexico visiting Aunt Julie and Tio José, and my mother, panicked and doing a less expert job of hiding it than she generally did, mostly stayed at the hospital. That left me largely at the cabin with a dumb Brittany Spaniel named Calvin and a field mouse-obsessed orange tabby tomcat named Popcorn, listening to the same mixtape cassette (Duran Duran, U2, SWV), or top 40 country music on the radio, eating toasted and buttered english muffins when I got hungry.  I also learned how to meditate by following the instructions in a worn paperback called “Yoga Meditation”  which I had purchased at the used bookstore in Morgantown. The cover had a photo of a lady in a white leotard with long blonde hair sitting in lotus position with a tall candlestick burning in front of her.

I would walk the narrow path hacked into a ridge of the steep hillside, following the shoreline of the backwater below, until I got to what I had designated as my meditation spot; a boulder protruding out over the long drop to the lake, with a small, quiet stream running beside it. I would sit cross-legged, close my eyes most (but not all) of the way, count and concentrate on my in-breaths and out-breaths, and try to notice my thoughts as they came up and dismiss them, like blowing a soap bubble out towards the lake, watching it drift and pop. My favorite type of meditation was 360 degree listening meditation. I focused on individual sounds, and then gradually learned to notice them together, to be aware of the spontaneous symphonic qualities of sound. The stream running close by on my left, stillness as it fell over the ledge and the splash on the rocks below as it continued on it’s way down to the lake. Wind in the thick,  bright green foliage all around me. A cricket somewhere behind me. a distant jet-ski’s roar and stop. An outboard motor idling as someone pulled into a shady fishing cove on the opposite bank. loud laughter from the Graziani’s dock, echoing over the backwater. The hum of a plane overhead. By the time I was back at the cabin, changed into my bathing suit, and wading, then diving into the cool, sun-dazzled green water of Cheat Lake, my mind was often nearly empty. It may not be an accurate recollection, but I do not recall feeling lonely or scared.

At some point, after maybe two weeks or so, Grandma came down from Pittsburgh to stay at the cabin with me. She brought white bread, chipped ham, mayo and iceburg lettuce. She brought milk and Frosted Flakes. She brought a semblance of normalcy, and a flurry of activity. To every day, it’s project. We hiked up to the bright, sunny pastures at the top of the property to pick blackberries. Grandma with a kerchief tied over her silver hair. We tried our hand at fishing from the dock. We collected firewood. We built a “handicapped ramp” up to the front porch of the cabin out of clay that I dug out of the lake by the bucketful and large flat stones that I dug up all up and down the shoreline, and hauled up the path in a little red Flyer wagon. Grandma explained that the ramp was because my father was going to get out of the hospital and come back here, but would have no flexibility in the knee, and would certainly be using a walker or a cane, if not a wheelchair. I see now that my grandmother conceived of this project as a way of occupying my time and distracting me, as a way of giving me some structure (little did she know I had done fine without it), and to give me Optimism writ large, as a concrete thing I could feel and hold, even build myself, one stone, one handful of wet clay at a time.

Optimism was sort of a moot point for me, though. It really did not seem conceivable to me that my father would die. When I was near him I was enormously, inarticulately concerned with his suffering. I felt his suffering physically, in my own knobby, twiggy wisp of an almost-pubescent body. But at that time his death, his inevitable death, for a full-blown AIDS patient in 1993 had virtually no hope of survival, simply was not real to me. His death belonged to the realm of impossible- I should say impermissible– things, and so did not concern and pre-occupy me as it has off and on in all the years since it did occur.

When Grandma drove down to West Virginia from Pittsburgh and hiked in to the cabin with groceries, straining to haul her petite body over fallen trees that blocked the path, she may have brought, tucked in with the groceries, a fashion magazine. I can’t remember, but it strikes me as likely, because both my mother and my grandmother bought me fashion magazines as a form of reward or comfort. My mother always gave me the hulking behemoth September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Grandma may have brought me the July, or the new August Vogue.

Decades later, it is with the eyes of an aesthete, a now confirmed devotée of Fashion (studied at Parsons, apprenticed to a bespoke tailor, etcetera), as well as for many years a practicing visual artist (Junior year of college painting in a Paris Atelier, etcetera) that I see the darkish pink of these hospital spittoons in the sink. I think, “I would like a linen dress in that color. A cashmere tunic with big pockets and a scoop neck. Silk lounge pants. Suede high-top sneakers.”

I am well aware of what they are and how they came to be here. He did insist on leaving the hospital, despite the doctor’s warnings that it would kill him. As my mother never tires of reminding me, I get my stubborn, bullheaded streak, as well as my temper, from him. My father came back to the cabin on an old pontoon boat, ferried in by loyal, deeply good, gutter-talking, chain-smoking, large, loud-laughing mountain neighbors who had known him since he was a child and loved him. He used the ramp that Grandma and I had built. He was not well and I distinctly remember him, after having insisted on going out sailing and getting caught in a storm (that stubborn streak again- Death be not proud!), lying on the sofa under an electric blanket and a couple other blankets, shivering, irritable. I lay down beside him, put my arm and leg over him, and lay my head on his bony, caved-in chest, determined to give him whatever warmth I had.

We returned to Boston when the scent of Fall was on the air, just in time for the start of school. He survived for almost two more years after that summer; an incredible feat considering that he had no functioning immune system of his own at that point, only a sister who was a blood match, and who was willing to have white blood cells sucked out of her body and pumped into his body to buy him a little more time.

Sometimes I think any normal family would get rid of those pink plastic basins. But then I realize that “normal” doesn’t mean anything. There is no “normal family”, just as there is no “normal person”, no “normal life”.

 

 

castles like this

Fingernail pulled down                                                                                                   the side of a bookshelf                                                                                               There isn’t enough time                                                                                                              to tour the place                                                                                                                  My kind of people                                                                                                                can’t feel at ease                                                                                                               in castles like this                                                                                                                and I don’t know                                                                                                        where your kind of                                                                                                                 people                                                                                                                                   feel at ease

Ashby + Otis

Yesterday, out on the porch after work with a quesadilla on the plate in front of me- mixed mexican queso, avocado just a little under-ripe, vegan cilantro dip, lime, salt, smoky hot sauce and sour cream. The Belcher on Otis Street let out a terrific, huge belch which resounded down to the Thai Temple and back, and brought our conversation about which friend, family member, pet you would eat first (if forced to due to a massive earthquake) to a sudden stop. I kept right on eating, remarking simply “oh, the Belcher’s at it again”, only to discover that my housemates and visiting friends had not been privy to events on this special low frequency. They were having a brand-new experience. Only later when we left on our bikes for the bar did I happen to notice that another character around here- let’s call him “motorized wheelchair man” for the sake of clarity and simplicity, and because that’s what we call him- was sitting in his wheelchair with a brown-bagged beverage at exactly the spot on Otis, in front of the Meth Laundry Lesbian’s place, from which the epic belch had emanated a short time before. It seems increasingly possible that the Belcher and motorized wheelchair man are one and the same person.

the future

Remember the first time you opened your eyes inside an ocean wave?

Do you remember what dim expanse your eyes beheld in that moment, and how they smarted?

That was the future. The past, as well. You have seen all Time and known it.

But that was so long ago.

 

 

*painting by Cynthia Estep

“Mother’s Day”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about babies. No, not because I have them. Also not because I want them, though as a 35, soon-to-be-36 year old woman who is not a mother but who is married to a man, 99% of the world seems to assume that I do, that I must, and quite pointedly that I should want to be a mother, and should be pursuing motherhood as an urgent imperative second to none. No, I have been thinking about babies because my friends are having them, because the children of my mother’s friends and of my parents-in-law’s friends are having them, and because there is a lot of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing a life without children, in accepting a life in which your children choose not to have children. There also seems to be a whole other load of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing to have children, but that’s not my area of expertise.

The other, bigger-picture reason why I’m thinking about babies, and about women’s reproductive choices and access to family planning is because I am living in the U.S.A in an era when fewer and fewer women have access to health care at all, and when access to resources such as contraception and safe and legal termination of unwanted pregnancies are specifically further and further out of reach for huge numbers of women. I could conceivably wake up one of these days to discover that my health insurance provider has been forced by the government to stop covering the benefit that allows me access to the birth-control pill that’s allowed me to avoid an unwanted pregnancy for almost 15 years of having sex with men. The pill could become a luxury- an out-of-pocket cost I can’t afford, if it’s available to me at all, to the inevitable detriment of my emotional well-being and my stable and happy (voluntarily child-free) marriage. And I live in deep-blue California. This lack of access to reproductive health care is already a reality for women all over this country and is bound to become more and more dire. I read something a couple days ago about what “back-alley abortion” could mean in a potential (dare I say “probable”?) post-Roe world. Very likely it would not greatly resemble what was commonplace pre-Roe. More likely it would mostly involve drugs ordered off of the internet to chemically induce miscarriages. One would like to claim this would be safer, however, many women who have miscarriages, self-induced or otherwise, require medical care and support. A few months ago I read an article about El Salvador, where all abortions, self-induced miscarriages, etcetera are legally framed as homicide. Even a miscarriage that is suspected to be in any way self-induced can lead to a woman doing years of jail time. This situation basically results in women whose pregnancies terminate avoiding those who could give them medical care they need for fear of being turned over to the authorities, slapped with homicide charges and railroaded through a criminal justice system rife with misogyny where they are presumed guilty based on nothing more than the testimony of neighbors, bitter exes, abusive partners, family members or physicians who can have no presumed objectivity (and don’t need it to be taken at their word). I hear some of you saying “but that’s El Salvador…poverty…corruption…backwards… ” and so on. Here’s the thing though. If (when?) Roe is overturned, we could easily find ourselves in a not dissimilar situation. The difference is there may be wild variations from state to state or even county to county. Example: two college women in post-Roe America. One is a Sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. One is a Sophomore at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Both wind up with unplanned pregnancies and for any number of legitimate reasons (lack of resources, desire to finish education and establish career, income, stable, healthy relationship before having a family, or simple lack of desire to be a parent), both of these young women use the internet to order pills to induce miscarriages at home. Both develop alarming symptoms, fever, hemmorhaging, etcetera, get scared and seek medical help, whether at a campus clinic or a local E.R. Chances are any doctor is going to look at this scenario and know immediately what is going on. The question is, are any of the medical personnel involved in stabilizing this woman- keeping her alive and healthy- going to call the cops on her? Is this more likely to happen at Bob Jones or in South Carolina than at U.C Berkeley or in California? And lastly could there be a mental affect- a fear of criminal proceedings- that could prevent either of these young women from seeking medical help, thus potentially risking extremely serious lasting complications or death?

Are we going to see a whole branch of the FBI dedicated to cyber-surveillance of purveyors and purchasers of the drugs that are used to induce miscarriages? Are we going to see sting operations to round up and arrest those staffing underground warehouses that ship these drugs to desperate women all over the country? are we going to see women spending years in jail for ordering these drugs on the internet?

These are the things I think about around Mother’s day. The never-ending war on the rights of women to decide if and when to have children. The tiers of pressure and coercion. The first tier is the soft coercion of the way girl-children are socialized. The dolls and the “playing mommy” and the toy kitchen, and the expectation of play-caretaking which is designed to lead to a life of caretaking, i.e unpaid work, in particular the unpaid work of motherhood. Incidentally, if my mother wanted me to produce grandchildren for her, the first mistake she made was basically allowing me to be a genderless feral child and do whatever the hell I wanted to do when I was very young. I didn’t have an inborn interest in playing at being “mommy”, I was never made to or even especially encouraged to play “mommy” and I never developed an interest in being “mommy”. I think these things are related. I don’t doubt that there are some children, and some people, who have a natural gravitation toward the role of being a parent. I also feel fairly sure that there are many many people who only become parents- and specifically women who only become mothers- because of a combination of early coercion in their socialization as children combined with enormous pressure to become mothers in their child-bearing years, all topped off with lack of availability and/or affordability of reproductive health care. Put it this way- the fact that I have a cat and I love her does not mean that I want to have a baby- (though I wouldn’t mind a possum. Or better yet, a baby sloth).

So why does the government want to force me to have a baby human being? It has occurred to me that there may be a simple answer: economics and demographics. Late capitalist economies require constant growth. Economic expansion is not possible without demographic expansion. You get demographic expansion in one of two ways: Babies, or immigration. In countries that are sour on immigration for any number of reasons (hewwo, Brexit, hewwo, Trump’s America), the attempt of legislators/pols/patriarchal stringpullers/old white guys to keep the old engine of capitalism chugging away and hopefully stave off fiscal disaster as the baby-boomers come into their long stretch of waning dependent years is to stimulate demographic growth by taking away women’s access to reproductive health care and forcing us to have children whether we want to or not. 

and we find ourselves full-circle, right back where we started, pre-womens movement, pre-suffrage, pre-enlightenment, pre-mass female literacy, pre-women in the professions… right back to the beginning of civilization where a woman is nothing but a uterus to be locked up, guarded, bought and sold and discarded if not in proper working order and so on and so on. This is the premise upon which all these efforts to pressure or force women to have children (and to groom little girls for motherhood) are based: the premise that for women, biology is destiny. You are not a human being. You are an object. An incubator/milk machine. A Uterus that will serve at the pleasure of state and patriarchy, which happens to exhibit some very human characteristics at times. The ideology is so pervasive (and so important a component of the algorithm of capitalism) that it even has girls and women pressuring each other, using the ancient instruments of ostracism and shame to coerce compliance. I feel grateful that I actually live in one of the least oppressive places in the world (reading this article today about the situation my sisters in Saudi Arabia find themselves in snapped things back into perspective), but I see the erosion of what’s been built up over centuries of progress and I regularly experience the toxic effects of continued patriarchal and capitalist control of society’s ideas about women’s autonomy and about the legitimacy-and legality- (or lack thereof) of the choice female-identified humans may make to not be mothers. We cannot afford to harbor any illusions about how very far from innocent and how dreadfully consequential the ideology of required motherhood is.

Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the heavy existential shit. I intended to talk more about it, but then I started going on and on about all the other stuff. Luckily, it can be summed up briefly. It is tempting to have children because we human beings are the only animal (as far as we know) with an awareness of, and therefore an unshakeable fear of, our own mortality. We are going to die, and we know it, and this scares the shit out of us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least create another person who looks a lot like us, who will still be alive after we die, who will remember our stories, pass on our legend? wouldn’t that be kind of like not dying? Better yet, if that person could make another person who might look kind of like us, who will be alive even longer… We do it all “for the children”, but hey, they were saying that back when I was a child! (As Norm Macdonald says on this topic in his new standup special, which is hilarious: “I recognize a Ponzi scheme when I see one”).

yup, the problem is having children doesn’t actually solve the human dilemma, which is awareness that we are going to die and ultimately, everything we do will disappear without a trace. Knowing that, how can we attribute meaning to anything we do in life? Having a child may make you too busy to think about it, at least for a couple decades, but it’s not going to make it go away. Having grandchildren is not going to make it go away, either. Personally, I’m hoping that reading and re-reading Epictetus and Lao Tzu and Yeats, for 80 years if I’m lucky, may help me to make a dent in this smooth hard wall of nothingness. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, because none of it matters, anyway, and I’ve got this furry zen master curled up in my lap right now, showing me (again, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating) how to just fucking relax.

 

 

for Marshall Mancuso (1980-2016)

In a blue-bell’s dewy center I spied                                                                                             your astral eye                                                                                                                                     the child you- the one I never knew, but guessed at.

Dis-embodiment, one may have slurringly suggested –                                                              in your days of healing sculptures; quartz and copper hanging                                           from the ceiling over prostrate forms of revelers                                                                        in Drum+Bass nights of E and K and Xanax                                                                               before Heroin –

“Dis-embodiment will free us, Death’s a friend, man-”                                                              the twin of birth                                                                                                                                 and dark is day and shadow                                                                                                             just a ray of sun you’ve stared too long at.

That last long-distance phone-call I stood in my kitchen and your voice came splintered and syrupy through the line saying you needed a ride to the other side of Boston to pick up a sculpture and you were lonely and you regret that we never slept together and all I could say was well I’m married so it will never happen now but I’m your friend Marshall I’m in California Marshall you’re supposed to be a healer, remember? Marshall there’s nothing I can do I’m 3000 miles away right now I’m 3000 miles away

I remember us swing dancing in the band room in the basement of the theater building at Roxbury Latin during a dress rehearsal for the Pillars of Society                                       you were 17 blue eyed dark haired handsome Italian kid from Millis introduced me to P-funk and taught me by example how to properly tell a story                                                   I was 16, tow-head tomboy Dot-rat rolling over your broad back and laughing you made it impossible to hate myself

Now I want to ask you                                                                                                                       what is Nothingness?                                                                                                                         does it resound, the Void? Can you eavesdrop                                                                               on its self-interrogations?

And since you’re there forever can you build                                                                                  an infinite machine                                                                                                                               to heal where Time is torn and to                                                                                             restore a past of earnest speculation

to cast out Morpheus and Loki and begin again?

 

 

 

*painting by William Blake (The Goblin)