Saturday, November 27, 2010


Lately I have been given to recalling how I lived not in this world but in profoundly sensed others a long time ago. The reason I now remember is that boy out there, visible through the verticality of bare trees in the woods. He is slashing his invisible enemies with swords that are transformed from sticks to glinting metal, indomitable in his hand alone. He is not playing; he is truly there, in the unearthly din of battle (only supplemented with those shkk-shkk sounds from his mouth), loacating himself at the extreme edge where death and heroism meet. Childhood fantasy is big. It is as big as Wagner and Beethoven and Jackson Pollock put together. It is not made of small things; it is the biggest thing there is. It is the only thing.

Psychologists tell us it is the way we arrive at theories, in the safety of our tender youth, of how we are to exist in this strange community of others. Fantasy is formed of pure logic, but painted with colors so vibrant they would hurt the eyes of adults. And the child is always in the very center of the maelstrom of his own making.

Sometimes these take the form of "paracosms," imaginary worlds replete with systems of economy and governance.

I do not remember having imaginary playmates; I was too desirous of real ones. Oh, the yearning for friends, fast and yearning in return to be with us, only us. But I did live inside places that fairly quivered with passion--that was where I belonged, oh boy! Blood and cries, cannonballs and bandages, horses wheeling and tattered banners whipped by the fury. Every moment a moment that tested one. I wanted to be tested. And, in my imagination, always to pass. (I was not the one with the skirts flying, by the way; I was the dirt-smeared soldier, falling to rise again and face the minie balls.)

At another point--or perhaps the same one, since that is the way it works when you're very young, no limits to simultaneity--I was utterly convinced I would one day live in the Newport mansion The Breakers. This constituted not just heroism, but heroic levels of wealth, so long as robber-baronial tendencies could be allowed in the truer world of the dream (they could). This may have coincided with the period in which I knew I would become an astronaut, visiting the moon on my way to farther reaches of the universe; this small imagining came courtesy of not just watching Lost in Space but inhabiting it. My first visit to a planetarium drove the belief deeper into the wild subconscious, where at will I could feel the loneliness hurtling by my rocketship at vast speed. How many lives did I imagine I had, in order to follow these disparate lines of work? Perhaps I would arrive home from a journey to Pluto and drop my bags in the marble hall of The Breakers, I don't know. Nothing made sense in that way, but it did make certainty.

That was it: certainty. There was a heightened sensation in these fantasies that I do not believe I could conjure today, even with drugs. I now live in a pastel world, reasoned and reasoning, with clean bathrooms. Every now and then, I mean.

Now that I am all grown up--too grown up, a very hard place especially for a woman, walking this bridge from the desirable to the . . . what? I don't know what to be, and that is the problem--does it mean I have figured it out? The theory supplanted by the pale real, no need for further questing. No more inhabiting the great hero of the mind's imagining. No living there, in the thrill of what I might call Deep Imagination. The place that echoes with cries and blurs with color, brilliant red and blue and hard grays. At least I can view it afar: through the window when he is out there, learning who he is among the trees that hide opponents, the ones to vanquish, always and soundly, vanquish.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanks for the Gratitudes

Gratitude--the meanest and most
sniveling attribute in the world.
Dorothy Parker

If I had a nickel for every time in the past week I’ve overheard someone saying that Thanksgiving is their favorite holiday, because it’s solely about being with others and not about buying things (though I’m waiting for the American inevitable), then I could buy my cranberry sauce with the accumulated change.. We are wired, as primates, to cooperate, to gather together, to aid and assist. At least as much as we are wired to stab each other in the back, literally and figuratively. Go on—count the wars and tribal hostilities that are currently occurring worldwide. (Here's help: Twenty-seven military conflicts at present count.)

It is difficult to pause and mentally list all the things we might feel grateful for in our present moment—as hard as it is to practice any Buddhistic mindfulness, and as mystically rewarding—but it suddenly feels necessary. A psychotherapist explained to me this week something about how it closes a circle, or maybe it was something else that did; I am not grateful to have a waning memory, though I am grateful to still be around and able to bemoan its deficits. See, nothing is perfect.

As I clambered up a rocky trail with Nelly earlier in the departing light of the day, to stop and turn, greeting the sight of the mountains wearing the diaphanous silk of mist in what others might find a depressing gray-and-dead portent of heavy winter, I organized my gratitudes. They fall into three categories: the immediate world in which I live; the people who walk alongside with me in it; the fears that I am privileged to spar with, as challenges that will either kill me (they haven’t yet, yay!) or will propel me to an as-yet unknown new spot on this weird trajectory called life. At some point I know I will fall into the ocean at the horizon, like a rocket trailing sparks. The sizzle as the fire is extinguished will be heard for a moment, then gone.

I might have been born in Afghanistan, and I would wear a burqa. It would never occur to me then, or even be possible, to engage in a small struggle with creating things out of words, because I would be busy with a great struggle to create something out of beige sand and rocks. I would be struggling to stay alive.

Instead, I live in a place that offers multitudinous possibilities every day. Which of several internal-combustion machines I will take down which road. Which sight I will see among the mountains and the small towns. Which meal I will put together out of the endless variety that spills from the cupboards and the grocery store bins. Which trail I will walk, to be alone with thoughts and leaves.

I am grateful for any opportunity, never in equal measure to what I receive, to give back to the friends who have, inexplicably, stayed with me as I walk the rocky trails I have chosen to walk. By all rights, they should have stayed at the parking lot, waving as I stumbled upward into some lonely wilderness of my own choosing. But they did not: they have remained at the end of the phone line, the email message, the opposite side of the table at bar or café, while I laid out the dilemma, the worry, the tearful expose. I am filled with gratitude for every moment in their company, and every evening they have closed with laughter that began in despair. I am grateful for every cocktail, every peanut and olive, in their sunny company.

I am grateful for the complex riches I live among—at this moment, the laptop on the floor in front of the fireplace, the glass of wine and the radio giving out the sound of music, an infusion of pure emotion mysteriously crafted from a sensual mathematics—but what they all do at base is simple. They deliver connectedness: to others, and to the temporal pleasures of living in this body, in this moment.

Luck this big is stunning. I try to grasp it, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: it shivers, alive.

That is perhaps where gratitude to strange, unnamed fears comes in. Odd as it is, from this remove, I sense I should thank those long-ago hours spent trembling on the sofa at the front of the apartment in Brooklyn, awake in the middle of the endless night, a black dog asleep but still watchful at my feet. They brought me to the very edges of life, sharp, unyielding. They gave me the chance to come out the other side, back into momentary joy, the only kind there is. The wondering, the whys, the decisions. The ephemerality of everything, tears and a brilliant taste of something delicious. None of it lasts. I have it for a moment, it all goes, and in looking back, I feel this smooth ecstasy that is being enclosed by this skin, which feels everything—the warm touch of others, the cold of aloneness too. I will be thankful for all of it, and all of you, and for smashed potatoes on Thanksgiving.

It seems strange to think of Dorothy Parker and Josef Stalin as bunkmates in the same camp, but here they are: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs,” said Stalin. I consider the source, and would feel grateful to be a dog, so long as I was not a Russian dog in 1932.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lessons for Arriving

If you think of every disappointment as an "opportunity to learn," it goes down a lot better. You might still cry with frustration, but then you gather yourself up and give yourself a stern talking to: No, this has provided something you needed to discover. A bonus!

Besides, is any day on a motorcycle a disappointment? Even if you never reach your much-anticipated destination?

He who travels alone travels fastest. Ignoring that was my first error, on October 31, 2009. I called a riding friend when I learned, at the eleventh hour (or at 5:45 p.m., to be more precise), that the universe was giving me Part I of a multi-part gift, in the form of a friend who volunteered spontaneously to take care of the Child and the Dog the next day so I could go to a joint BMW/Guzzi meet in eastern Connecticut. I had felt so childishly frustrated: the date I'd cleared in the calendar had been moved for weather, and now I was not free, though the weather was. Then this angel (actually, a mermaid in a blond wig) appeared in the middle of the rain-soaked Woodstock Halloween parade. I could go.

At 8:15 a.m. I was ready to roll, heated jacket plugged in. The sun was breaking through the cloud cover as we headed east. Although my friend, whom I had little experience riding with, had a GPS, I led. That was my second error; not bringing a map, my favorite little traveling companion, was my third.

At the junction of 199 and 44, there were no directional signs, just "Amenia" one way, "Millbrook" another. The bike seemed to want to go one way, so that's the way I went--forgetting that my motorcycle had been perfecting its role as a crafty teacher. It was whispering questions to me, and I was neglecting to shut off the constant droning in the brain that prevented me from hearing them. It was whispering very, very quietly now.

After stopping to fumble with the GPS for a while (it was not mounted, but carried in the map pocket of the tankbag, which doesn't really work, we found), and our two sets of middle-aged eyes being unable to quite make out whether that was an "E" or a "W" on the sign behind our shoulders, I suddenly laughed out loud. "The sun! What terrible cavemen we would make. Just follow the sun!" And indeed, at 9:30 in the morning, the sun was hanging low, right over there. East. I felt both dumb and pretty smart at the same time. Away we went.

And in twenty miles, discovered we had made a large loop, and now needed to turn around.

Stoplights are suggestions. I may be the world's slowest impatient person--I still couldn't figure out how others could replace ear plugs, zip zippers, fasten buckles, and pull on gloves in a fraction of the time it took me to do the same--but once I was underway, I wanted to go. A yellow light appearing overhead in the near distance caused a warning beep in my brain: Get through! Get through! Red lights are terrible things. My riding partner did not feel the same way, however. Indeed, he felt the opposite. After a couple of times pulling over beyond the light to wait for him, I soon learned to expend some brake pads when a light was about to change. It was a hard thing.

Nutritional standards go back on the shelf for the duration of a trip. I am sincerely OK with a meal made from a cookie that was first placed in cellophane around the time of the last Bush administration. This is eaten (after the dust is quickly wiped from the package) while standing next to the pumps at the gas station. But my friend's eyes widened in horror at the idea. My dismay matched his: Egads, a sit-down breakfast? On the road? Breakfast, dammit, is a granola bar shoved into the mouth while doing the pre-ride light check before leaving home. My heart sank, but I could not tell an already slight man, who had informed me he had neglected to eat, that he needed to wait till past noon. So I found a bakery cafe that would be a bit faster, I hoped, than a New England diner on a Sunday morning.

Be satisfied with what you have. Or else, I hear my internal anxiety warning system booting up, you may lose it.

At four and a half hours later, in the Rite-Aid parking lot in East Hartford after venturing through the epicenter of the stoplight industry in the northeast, we conceded defeat. The Vanilla Bean, in Pomfret, Connecticut, was still an hour away, and I realized most people were probably already gone. I almost wanted to cry, thrash my fists. But this was the gist of adulthood: control in the face of impulsive desire. "All is change. All is change," I repeated to myself in the manner of the yoga instructor.

This is enough. We turned around and headed home. It was a pretty nice ride.

All except the stoplights.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Date with Eternity

What does it feel like to know it is coming?

I mean, really coming, death. That final blankness, beyond which there is . . . nothing. Not in the way that, when you're thirty, you can sagely tell everyone within listening radius how profound you are by expounding on this brief lease we are given, or the fact that the moment we are born, we begin to die. Ye-ah, we know. You can say this in such a knowing tone because you don't really believe it at all: you are going to live forever. You are the one who's going to finally beat this bum deal.

Because it's way too enormous to actually comprehend. Know why? Because you comprehend stuff with your brain, that bowl of blood and gunk that makes your head weigh something like ten pounds. And when the blood ceases to flow, so does your comprehension.

I'm wondering if there's a moment when you can realize that you're living on borrowed time. (Borrowed from who? What's the interest rate?) Is it every moment after the median age of death for your gender, in your milieu? Hit 73, say, and from then on know that by rights you ought to be dead, so if you aren't, you're pretty happy with the world? I mean, when does denial end? Does it ever?

I am wondering this because my mother, this past week, in the words of the sister who was there to witness it, "dodged the bullet, this time." The unspoken remainder of the thought concerns the notion that, at eighty, in already fragile health, the strength it takes to keep throwing yourself sideways out of the way of speeding projectiles remains in very limited quantities. Slowly but surely--have you noticed this yourself?--you don't bounce back "like you once did." In college, remember? How you could so utterly abuse yourself, staying up all night, washing down your stimulants with soporifics, skip breakfast and go straight to dinner (for breakfast), then repeat the whole death-defying deal the next night--and still look dewy fresh. Others your age would want to have you for their next meal, and vice versa. It just didn't take it out of you. As for chronic worries of various sorts, the back troubles, the incipient arthritis--huh?

At fifty, that crap starts catching up with you. Or rather, it has outraced you, and you watch its back disappear down the track up ahead, while you, winded, limp along at half the speed in which you so easily used to do the fifty-yard dash.

I recall my stern Presbyterian grandmother, who raised five boys singlehanded after her husband died way too young (my father remembers his father going on medical calls with nothing but beer in his cancer-riddled stomach, the only sustenance he could tolerate), grasping my hand as she lay in bed in the old-age home into which she checked herself early. She did not want to be a burden on anyone, so she took it upon herself to do it while she was still mobile. She made my hand hurt in hers, the iron of her grip, as if to say: You're not going anywhere, because I have something to tell you. It is pressing. She had to pass on nothing less than the narrative of her life, then she would be ready to go. As if I was going to do something worthwhile with it. Me.

After the long, long stories that at once frightened and bored a small child--stories with morals, the most important things, which I hope I absorbed on some level, though I fear I will one day bore some other small child with something similar--she would fall back. "I am tired. Tired of living. I am ready to stop."

I wonder what she saw coming. A relief? Maybe she was tired of resisting it. Denial takes as much out of us as dancing ourselves into a salty wet mess at 2 a.m. I wonder what it would feel like to welcome it.

I know that my mother is, right now, depressed. How it must feel like it was waiting behind the basement door. She knows it's there, but she's not ready. I don't know how to be ready for it. I don't know how to watch it coming, and say, Well, come on, then.