Saturday, August 2, 2008

Downward Dog

High mid-summer; high church. Cicadas the choir, a synaesthesia of the sensation of heat melded with the look of white sun and the sound of buzzing. Together, and forever, they have meant "summer." When I was a child, I wanted to lay eyes on the source of this noise, but I never succeeded in finding them. So I decided that it was simply the sound the summer day made.

I can be back in Ohio, lying on the grass of the lawn, staring up at the slowly moving sky--the sudden erasure of an intervening lifetime--at the sound now of cicadas, starting up, crescendoing, chk-chk-chking to a close.

Right now, the most vibrant thing about the present is the past.

For some reason, as I sit on this bed in Ulster County in a late-July 2008 room, memory is pulling at me, practically gnawing my flesh. An ache of nostalgia has descended on me, and I don't know why, and I can't stop it, any more than I could stop a broken bone from hurting. In a way, the grip of memory is a broken bone in the body--you are imprinted physically by the past, knocked heavily into by the years.

Today, I ache for New York City. I am on a street, the Lower East Side, and I see a certain cast of light. Pictures are coming to me, and I don't know if I lived them, or I'm viewing them from collective memory, just as powerful; I don't know if they're specific (I was there: March 19, 1983), or if they're an amalgam, like pressed leaves, of all the days and months I spent wandering there. Lafayette Street in a late dusk, streetlights to the vanishing point. The ancient gray wooden floor of a shop in Chinatown.

These memories, coming unbidden, are almost a sickness that has come over me. But why? Why is a whole slide show of this meaning-laden place forcing itself on my inner eye, without telling me why it has chosen now to press on my chest with such insistence?

Have you ever had memories so old you cannot place them come back to life, so they are before you, both young and old in the same instant?

The first yoga class I ever went to, maybe ten years ago now, I used to go with a neighbor whom I didn't know very well. Yet it was immediately apparent that she carried a heavy weight of sadness wherever she went. After a while, she stopped going to the class. I saw her on the road one day and asked her why. "I don't know what it is," she said, "but at some point in every class, I'm suddenly taken with the urge to cry, and it hurts too much."

I know what she means. In some mysterious way, yoga knocks something away from you, some armature that's holding up a careful construction. Bang, the supporting pillar goes, and suddenly you feel pure grief wash over you. Is there a hidden spring of it always inside, always bubbling up from underground? Sometimes, doing yoga, a little clot of memory is knocked loose, and you just can't stop thinking about one thing.

For the past couple of years, I can be doing a spinal twist and the next thing I know, I am washing in an image of the Diamond Grille, West Market Street, downtown Akron. I see its blonde wood interior, the booths, the warm circle of its glowing lights. It's a marvelous place, unchanged since the forties, very conducive to memory-dream.

The funny thing is that I never went there very much, and never as a child. Only a couple of times, fairly late in life.

To a Skinnerian, yoga class was accidentally connected to an idle thought I had there once--hmmm, maybe we should make a date to go to the Diamond Grille when we go back to Ohio on our next visit--and now it's a conditioned response to being in yoga class. A well-rehearsed one.

But maybe there's something more than just that. (Yes, I think Skinner was one hundred percent right; but Freud was about eighty percent right, and both can fit into the same world of experience.) Yesterday, my therapist and I were discussing various schools of thought. I want to know how and why--though certain of my friends are clearly disapproving of this quest. They think it mires me in the past; I think it is the way out of it.

So I persist. A book the shrink recommends, for some nuggets of interesting information, is I'm OK--You're OK. Well, if you say so. (Wasn't this pop balderdash? Perhaps so, but I'm now less inclined to dismiss everything on the basis of appearances.)

Chances are the library wouldn't have this old and disparaged book on its shelves anymore, so I'd probably have to get it from interlibrary loan. I open the door to the library's foyer. And my eye falls on a large stack of books that have just been placed in the giveaway bin. On the top book. I'm OK--You're OK.

What does this mean? That the universe wanted to me to learn about Transactional Analysis? Or that there are just too many damn copies floating around of a former bestseller that no one wants anymore?

In it was part of the answer I'd been seeking. Everything we experience is stored inside, printed on us because we are made of such light-sensitive emulsions. All there, laid down in order. Some unprocessed, from the time when we were unable to do anything but take in events, feel what they made us feel.

Now I just have to figure out why New York City, why now, in midsummer. Why the summer cicadas of this fateful time, a one-year anniversary, are calling forth these memories of a time that was filled with hope and expectation and sensation. And longing. Deep, aching longing for something I did not have. The desire combined with the sights of a beautiful city that itself expresses hope and longing in every vista down every street. Downtown New York. Why haunt me, you city, you ghost?


Catherine Seiberling Pond said...

Melissa, what a resonant post, as always. I swear sometimes that we were separated at birth--or before.

This quote really got me, this time of all times, as we (re)settle back in Kentucky betwixt and between, arriving to a chorus of cicadas and katydids (particularly loud here!). The sound of summer that as a child I thought came from the power lines that threaded each suburban house together with the other.

"Have you ever had memories so old you cannot place them come back to life, so they are before you, both young and old in the same instant?"

Yes, all the time. What is it about we who dwell in the past and where we have lived? Are we just old souls? I'd like to think so.


PS Mentioned you in today's blog, in fact, which is why I was prompted to read yours (which I often do).

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Ah, Catherine--we're either old souls, or just *old*!

No, I think some of us are like open channels: the water is freer to rush through us. And I for one don't want it to stop. I like the frisson of sadness mixing with longing: it feels a little like joy.

I have a suspicion you were one of those youngsters people were always admonishing as "too sensitive." Am I right? But is there such a thing?

Catherine Seiberling Pond said...

Oh yes, most definitely. I was also often cautioned to be careful "not to wear my heart on my sleeve" in a long well-composed typed letter from my dear Grandpa who erred on the side of conservativism in all things (but loved him dearly). I, however, never heeded that advice even though it has gotten me into some trouble at times. But better to have had the joy with the pain, that's for certain. Wouldn't have it any other way.

But heart-sleeving, I also think, leaves one open to criticism and insensitivity from those who don't get it. Who would rather attack the soft spongy heart person than understand them. Do you find that, also?

Perhaps poets and writers are more prone to such a state of being. Like melancholia, too. But I'll take the sweet with the sour. It's delicious.

And dogs, they understand us.

And there is Emily, the gushing jubliant soul who dies at the end of OUR TOWN and returns and then says to the Stage Manager: "We don't even have time to look at one another...Doesn't anyone ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?"

The Stage Manager responds. "No. Saints and poets, maybe; they do some."

And then, sigh, Emily gushes: "Oh Earth! You're too wonderful for anyone to ever realize you!"

I weep everytime I hear it or read it or write it. Words to live by.