I dream, as I often do, of water. Great, wide pools of it – brown and blue and green. There is a tightness in my chest when I awaken. I have held my breath too long.
It is still early, still blue black night, and across the way, through the neighbor’s window, I see a man sitting on his bed. His short gray hair is clipped close to his head. I cannot tell whether he is alone, but I wonder what he is doing, why he is awake now, what made him sit upright in the unforgiving fluorescent light of his room in such small hours.
I am anxious. I am preparing for a trip and I feel unready. All around me, people I know are grieving. So many things we have lost. So much we know will pass through our hands, even as we clench them.
I spend a few days at the beach and I take Anne Carson with me. In writing on the “phenomenology of female pollution in antiquity,” she begins:
As members of a human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another – whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.”
It is an essay about boundaries. And about how the view of women in antiquity is as transgressors of these. Also:
Women as wet (Hippokrates: “The female flourishes more in an environment of water…. The male flourishes more in an environment of fire.”)
Women as formless content, without boundaries (Plato: “receptacle,” “reservoir” which is “shapeless, viewless, all-receiving,” and which “takes its form and activation from whatever shapes enter it.”)
Women as shapeshifter, monstrous (Carson: “Mythical women frequently violate masculinity by enveloping male form in a fatal formlessness, as Euripides Klytemnestra encloses Agamemnon in a ‘garment that has no boundaries,’ as Sophokles’ Deianira covers Herakles in a ‘vapor of death’ that eats the form of his flesh….”)
In the evenings, I text my friends, and this is a form of collective grieving. I avoided B. today, one will tell me. B., a man who is not her husband but who at the grocery store, asks her of her days, and they talk there, as the carts roll past them. He is young, attentive, focused; things now that her husband is not. He asked me about…. He remembered this story I told him… When he sees me, he brightens.
Anne Carson again on the representation of women in antiquity:
Emotion is wet. Emotion is a liquid “that pours into people and dissolves them.”
Of all the emotions, by far the most devastating are those of erotic desire, for love combines a liquescent effect with fiery heat.
It’s like he sees me, she says, like he sees that I am there, in front of him.
And another friend, in describing a recent argument with her husband: “I stood there, shouting, do you see me? Do you see me? I am standing right here. Look at me.”
I find some photographs from several years ago and I try to organize them. Here, a trip to Orlando one early spring. It was still cool and the chill in the air took us by surprise. Here we are on the Cape in late summer. And here, our son was so small as he clung to the carousel pole on his molded, unblinking horse.
I remember being so happy. Or am I now imposing a sheen of happiness, at this distance?
I am not unhappy. Emotions come in waves. Although now, in mid-life, it seems a steadier tally of losses – from the mundane to the divine – that can be difficult, at times, to absorb.
At dinner, an old friend catalogues her losses of the last few years. Her mother, her father, her brother. Her best friend’s divorce. An old love who returned to her life after decades, only to leave again.
She says: I can’t get out from under this tidal wave of grief.
In the mornings at the shore, I walk. Overcast hours, gray skies. Light rain. In the distance, by the lip of the ocean, I see the silhouette of a man lifting a child to his shoulders. This simple act. How it buoys me. I am embarrassingly sentimental. “Maudlin,” my mother might have said. (“It takes one to know one,” I would have said back.)
Anne Carson, ibid:
This condition of dry stability is never attained by the female physique, which presumably remains cold and wet all its life and so more subject than the male to liquefying assaults upon body and mind, especially those of emotion. That the female is softer than the male and much more easily moved to tears, pity, jealousy, despondency, fear, rash impulses and sexual desire is a communis opinio of ancient literature, voiced by such widely differing temperaments as Aristotle, Empedokles and Semonides of Amorgos. Throughout these sources, greatest attention is given to the emotions of love. Women are assumed to be markedly more open to erotic desire than men and sexually insatiable once aroused. A long tradition concerning female lechery derives from this assumption, of which a few examples may be mentioned. Aeschylus warns against the “blazing eye” of a woman who has once “tasted man” and deprecates female license as “ready to dare anything” for love. Sophokles observes that even women who have sworn to avoid the pain of childbirth cannot resist sexual desire. The lust of women is a frequent joke in Aristophanes. Alkiphron characterizes female sexual voracity as a “Charybdis,” warning another man that his hetaira will swallow him whole. Both Hippokrates and Plato promote the theory of the “wandering womb,” an explanation of feminine hysteria which is posited upon women’s uncontrollable longing for sex. Aristotle takes female depravity for granted as a consequence of feminine weakness and a reason for marrying girls off not later than the age of eighteen. In the Greek historians, whenever mention is made of a society or state of affairs managed by women, it is assumed that such situations would feature total female promiscuity. For example, Philo of Byblos, accounting for traditions of matrilinear descent in antiquity, explains: “They traced their descent on the mother’s side because women at that time had intercourse casually with any man they ran into.” Philo takes it for granted that, unrestrained by an alternate system, women would incline to complete wantonness.
n.b.: “any man they ran into”
Beware, men: such collisions!