bluets

(1) After the others have gone to their beds, I sit at the bar, waiting. I drink tea, listen to the conversations of the men at the table nearby. They are talking about sugar. They are talking about art. There is a low buzz in my head, at the base of my skull. It radiates white heat.

(2) In my dream, I wander a garden, overgrown now, neglected. An iron gate around which vines have wrapped tendrils. The great oak trees are dying branch by branch. You are standing at the gate. You say: Who will tend this garden, these trees? How will the birds know where to land? 

(3) I think I will shut myself up in a faraway place. I think I will wrap myself in blankets and watch the world swirl by from my window. I think I have had enough of this - collecting stones, mowing lawns, stacking the dead branches of trees. I will let my hair grow long. I will furrow my brow. I will compile a glossary of all words and phrases related to the sea. I will let my eyesight grow weak. Write letters that I will never send. 

(4) A finch at the feeder. The curtains on the window in my sister’s house parted. Her son taps at the glass and the bird flies off but returns. White curtains yellowed by the sun. Flies off, returns. 

(5) The hotel mirror exaggerates my form. I fall exhausted to my bed but do not sleep. I smell bleach and citrus. I hold myself and exhale loudly, just to hear the sound of my own breathing.

(6) Night, in its insistent stillness, astonishes. In darkness, waking from a dream in which I wandered a dense maze of overgrowth, I bring my hands to my face, press my fingertips against my skin. I reach for water, bring the cup to my lips. It is sweet. 

(7) I think when I awake, these days will have been a dream. I will rise, begin again, as one year slides into the next. I think of what I have seen and felt, the breadth of it. Of all that I have yet to see. Won’t a flock of birds wake me with their chatter? Won’t I make my way home to you, this tired heart a map on which nothing else is marked.

the nature of the panic, 1

We know how this will end. How the heart will slow, then stop. 

I stand at the entrance to the park in darkness, the trees creating a black curtain and I pause for a moment, fearful of being alone. But the streetlamps just beyond the gate beckon and I see that there are paths near the roadside.

I enter. I walk deliberately. I look up at the moon, shrouded by clouds. I stay on the well-lit paths. I avoid the tunnels. I scan the ground for shadows approaching from behind.

The year we flew over Borneo. The smoke hanging motionless over the forest canopy, which from above resembled moss. He said: Imagine the fires, which sometimes burned for months. Imagine these fires and what they have left in their wake. 

What waking. What urgent dream draws us from one state to another. We stood agitated by the roadside, blackness behind us and before us, far below the bottom of a gorge, the fire was whipped up by the wind - racing, leaping, and already climbing the deep slopes.

Several times, we were forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain. Several times, we pressed forward only to discover we were where we had begun. 

In exhaustion, I lay my head down on his lap. He tugged at the shoulder of my jacket, which was torn there. He stroked my hair. He told me I was beautiful. He told me I was incapable of acting with restraint. 

I left the hotel in the early morning in the dark. I walked the wide avenue, quiet. A man was spraying the sidewalk with a heavy coil of garden hose. As I approached, he stepped aside so that I could pass. I walked gingerly across the wet pavement. 

Once he asked me why I was petty, so possessive, so like a child. I took his finger into my mouth and bit down on it gently until he pulled away. 

Ask yourself: What is the color of a jacaranda tree? And what of it now, engulfed in flames?

Coaxing the ground into submission by fire, by burning whatever will burn. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a tea cup, we march across the earth reducing all that stands to embers. 

Like our bodies and like our desires, all that we create has a heart that burns. Who is to say for how long? Who is to say with what heat? For now, for this moment, still alight through the long cold nights. 

For a time, there was another woman. I saw a photograph of her, taken from the distance. She was looking away. Was she wearing sunglasses? Was she shielding her eyes from the sun? Was she smiling? I can no longer remember. 

In front of a row of benches, I can see the outlines of children’s chalk drawings on the ground. Even in the dark, I can see that there are pinks and blues and yellows. I stand on this site where hours before, children played and squatted here to draw. While their fathers looked on. While their mothers held out their arms. 

If he asked me again, now after all these years, I would say: Perhaps it is different for orphans. Perhaps we are still waiting to be chosen. 

We will meet at the park, before the sun goes down. We will meet at the lighthouse in winter. We will meet by the roadside ten years from now, or more. Say anything you need to say. My only defense is silence. 

On the way back, I stop in a little grocer’s shop. I stand there, bewildered like I have arrived from another time. 

I see the shelves and aisles through a wash of color, like through a veil of jacaranda blossoms, from pale lilac to deepest purple. I hear the distant spray of water as it splashes on the pavement. I see his form as he disappears into the black curtain of trees. 

All those trees he planted, burning now. Burning. 

I suppose we have always known how this would end.

invisible horse

“It often happens that we count our days, as if the act of measurement made us some kind of promise. But really, this is like hoisting a harness onto an invisible horse.”
 – Maggie Nelson, Bluets


Well then: Take what you must. 

The rain clouds have dispersed and so we walk after dinner as darkness falls. 

Only the lighthouse with its shining glass cabin still catches the luminous rays that slice in from the western horizon. 

Take this: The minaret rising from the courtyard of the building into the azure evening sky. 

The truth is we did not come out here to talk of battle. Of the so-called fields of honor. 

Or of glass beads strung on a necklace – one and another and another.

Or the house next door, abandoned for so long now inhabited. A dog, kept in the basement, barking late into the night. 

We count the days. We speak by telephone. 

A string of pearls. A silver bracelet.

I wept until I aged myself. 

We stood on the rocks and looked out over the water: How great a distance from where we began – thousands of miles – through ravines, gorges, and valleys; across ridges and slopes and drifts; along the edges of great forests and wastes of rock and shale and snow.

Apricot sky. Shading our eyes with our hands against a dazzling sun. Take this: There is nothing I would withhold. 

Though I am told I can be distant. Though I am told I pull away when I fear I have come too close.

A ridge of bone on the back of my skull, an aching there. I don’t remember striking it but when I press it feels bruised, as if the memory held there is tender, the vision of the men who went down with their ship, gesticulating on the afterdeck as the flames encircled them. 

There are times when I sense quite clearly, the earth’s slow turning into the dark.   

Take me if you must: Take rooftop and crossbeam. Take copper pipe and bone. Take bird and canvas bag. Take this blue. This deepest blue.

When we reached the beach at last, you spread a blue tarp and we knelt on it. We thought we saw people in the distance, approaching, but the truth is, we could not possibly have made out human figures this far from where we began. 

Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY

(for E.P.)

“All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”
     – Maggie Nelson, Bluets

1. I had contacted them in advance - RTowne Fitness - to tell them I would be on vacation for a week and I would want very much to use their bicycle. I will come in, ride your bicycle for no more than one hour, and then I will leave. It is what I do. And a courteous man wrote back right away and said, yes, please come in. I will sell you a punch-card. So, I said great and thank you and I will see you on Monday. 

2. Monday morning, I drive out the long, winding road that runs alongside the long, winding lake. A woman behind a desk greets me. Oh, I know who you are, she says, I know all about you. It takes her a long time to enter my information into her database. I spell my name out for her, my street address, but she gets it all wrong. It doesn’t matter. She asks me, where are you staying and I tell her. We have rented a house near the lake. She asks me, what will you be doing here, and I tell her a family reunion. There is a wedding. And there are my husband’s parents, who are frail and in a great deal of pain. So there is that, too. 

3. The gym is empty. The machines sit unused. While I am waiting for my punch-card, a man comes in and he walks on a treadmill in his khaki pants and long-sleeved button-down shirt and it is as if we have caught a glimpse of him heading down the hallway from his cubicle on his way to the staff kitchen to make a cup of tea.

4. I ride their bicycle. There is a long narrow window across the room and through it, I can see the strip mall parking lot. A few cars drive by, but not many. 

5. I am getting over something. A little breakdown of the mind. A kind of illness, I suppose. I do not mean to overdramatize it, but I also do not mean to minimize the effect it has had on me these last months. A kind of unraveling. I am winding myself back up. 

6. In this strip mall: a dentist, a real estate office, a fitness supply store. A few cars scattered through the enormous parking lot. 

7. So, I am winding myself back up and I am reading and I am doing the things I am supposed to do, like riding on this bicycle and not eating too many bagels and maybe on a Friday night, I will have a burger and onion rings, but I will probably feel badly about it later. I will not turn down a glass of wine even on a weeknight, but wine is good for you, you know. All those antioxidants. 

8. Sometimes a book will land on you and perhaps that is an inelegant way of expressing what it feels like when the book you are longing for appears and you are holding it in your hands and it is like a miracle that the book found you or you found it, or perhaps you and the book are creating a new reality together and there is nothing to do but let it worm its way into you, a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart, says Maggie Nelson, herself a beautiful bird. 

9. She is not talking about a book; she is talking about a person. And perhaps I am, too. 

10. Maybe it is not useful to say that I was unraveling. Maybe we come apart and put ourselves back together all the time along a broad continuum and the distance between one point and another is a matter of semantics. What I mean is: We go on. Raveling and unraveling. There is a bicycle and we get on it, or we don’t, but a certain distance is covered nonetheless. 

11. The wheelchair my mother-in-law needs to go even short distances weighs more than I imagined it could and it is unwieldy, does not fold or collapse easily to put into the trunk of the van we are driving. And by chance, in its relentless indifference, the door to the trunk jams shut so that to get the wheelchair in, my husband has to fold down all the seats and haul this leaden machine into the back through the passenger side door. The rest of us hover around and watch. When he is done, he slams all the doors and thrusts the van into gear having barely uttered a word. 

Lately I have been trying to learn something about “the fundamental impermanence of all things” from my collection of blue amulets, which I have placed on a ledge in my house that is, for a good half of the day, drenched in sunlight. The placement is intentional - I like to see the sun pass through the blue glass, the bottle of blue ink, the translucent blue stones. But the light is clearly destroying some of the objects, or at least bleaching out their blues. Daily I think about moving the most vulnerable objects to a “cool, dark place,” but the truth is that I have little to no instinct for protection. Out of laziness, curiosity, or cruelty - if one can be cruel to objects - I have given them up to their diminishment.

13. The unraveling began at the start of my fortieth year. You may say that age is just a number and forty is not so old, after all, but turning forty was like hearing the chime of a bell rung near the end of a long exam. This is your ten-minute warning. Now there are five minutes remaining. And now there are two. 

14. It is later in the week when I finish the book. My punch-card nearly filled. I climb on the bicycle and face the narrow window. There is no one on the treadmill. There is no one else in the gym except the woman sitting behind the desk. It is quiet. I hold the book up close to my face so it is steady even while I am pedaling. There is only the noise of the bicycle, whirring.

15. Later, you tell me about your own memory of reading Bluets. You were sitting in a cafe that you had not been to before. You were reading and taking notes. You read a passage that you particularly loved and you paused there, taking it in. 

16. When you looked up, you saw that the ceiling was painted to look like the sky. A wide expanse of blue, with clouds.

It often happens that we treat pain as if it were the only real thing, or at least the most real thing; when it comes round, everything before it, around it, and perhaps, in front of it, tends to seem fleeting, delusional. Of all the philosophers, Schopenhauer is the most hilarious and direct spokesperson for this idea: “As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected.” You don’t believe him? He offers this quick test: “Compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”

17. If I were to list the pleasures I have known, I would include on it: reading the closing lines of Bluets, my skin damp with sweat, tears forming but not falling, pedaling furiously on a bicycle in an empty gym, facing a narrow window looking out on a strip mall parking lot. 

18. I drive back to the lake house like I am floating through a dream. When I arrive, everyone is down at the dock. I go down there, too and take my son into the murky water and we wade through the swaying weeds and grasses holding hands. 

“One thing they don’t tell you ‘bout the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on fallin’ ‘cause there ain’t no bottom,” sings Emmylou Harris, and she may be right. Perhaps it would help to be told that there is no bottom, save, as they say, wherever and whenever you stop digging. You have to stand there, spade in hand, cold whiskey sweat beaded on your brow, eyes misshapen and wild, some sorry-ass grave digger grown bone-tired of the trade. You have to stand there in the dirty rut you dug, alone in the darkness, in all its pulsing quiet, surrounded by the scandal of corpses. 

Do not be overly troubled by this fact. “Nine days out of ten,” wrote Merleau-Ponty of Cézanne, “all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration.”

In any case, I am no longer counting the days. 

I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world. 

But now, you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”

All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.