mid-life

such collisions

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.”

and also:

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:

Wantons

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! 

child in a red apron

Didn’t it – for a time – seem like it might never stop raining?

Someone jokes: “We live in rain now,” and the phrase stays with me, a way to think about one day running through the office parking lot in the downpour and then the next, walking briskly, and then the next, not rushing at all, but letting the cool water run down my face, my hair, soak my work clothes. No longer: It is raining as if it were something that happens, an occurrence that interrupts a state of being, but rather we live in rain, a new state of being.

Eventually, it stops. Blue reasserts itself and a double rainbow arcs across the sky, so vivid, so perfectly rendered, as though it is projected directly from a child’s imagination. This tiny corner of earth gasps and scrambles to take photographs. We gaze skyward, holding our breath, hearts quickening. A collective sigh.

And when the light returns the next day and the sun is high in the patchy blue sky, doesn’t it seem like it has always been thus? A gift and a curse that we can forget darkness. That it can drift past us and through us. Clouds moving across the gray sky, obscuring then revealing the vault of blue.

I have taken to walking, midday, across the river to the museum or to the library, for a bit of quiet solitude amid the meetings and the chatter of my days. There are some students still in town, carrying portfolios and cardboard models wrapped in plastic. Suited men make their way between office building and restaurant. Occasionally, I will see someone I know and we will nod at each other or wave our hands in acknowledgement but we don’t linger. This time – untethered from screen and phone – is rare; we allow each other wide berth.

A protracted end to the school year (to accommodate snow days in one case, an excess of social activity in another) and the odd weather has lent a strange unreal quality to this season of transitions. Work in the garden has been sporadic. There has been some unexpected travel. Meandering through these days, wandering through the museum galleries without pattern or order. From one time period to the next without attention to history or chronology. In the galleries, some people take notes. I sometimes feel like I am floating. I sometimes feel like I am watching myself float.

The people who live next door to us argue in the middle of the night. They are out on the sidewalk in front of the house shouting. Someone has been injured in a fight. They are awaiting help. Somewhere there is a child. A woman’s voice: “Do you see what I am dealing with here? Do you see?”

M. stands by the window, peering through the curtains in the dark. I stay in bed, stare up at the ceiling fan, its blades spinning. The flashing lights of the rescue truck glow red through the curtains. And then it is quiet.

I read about other people’s struggles through mid-life and it makes me feel both less alone and then more. I take fleeting comfort  in knowing that my sadness, my confusion, my frustrations are not unique. There is, after all, relief in recognition. But relief yields then to a kind of shame, blurs into it. How small I am, how insignificant my inarticulate grief. One more voice calling out into the vastness, one cry in the cacophony of this human drama repeated through centuries. One life, finite; the struggle, eternal.

Grief changes nothing. It is wearying. I tell my friend that my heart is tired all the time and he says: “Think instead about all that you are able to give.”

I try to, but cannot. I feel greedy. Stingy and petty. “Think about your capacity to love,” he says, but what I feel is the opposite of capacity. I give nothing without expectation. I am disappointed all the time. All the joys of this life, the love, the light in it will never be sufficient.

“Acceptance is a small, dark room,” I remember reading.

Well ok, I think, I will enter, but you cannot make me stay.

At the museum, there is a painting by Berthe Morisot called Child in a Red Apron. A young girl, the painter’s daughter stands by the window of her home, peering out onto the wintry landscape of Paris. It is a personal painting, a quiet domestic moment, the lines and brush strokes of it suggest haste. It has the quality of a sketch. It is full of motion and light.

I stand in front of it for a while, linger there before I have to leave. There is another woman at the opposite end of the small space. The afternoon light is gentle, illuminating the white-walled room and the painting and both of us standing there.

I think of this painter in her studio. How she happened upon this scene, her young daughter, so beautiful, so still. How she was moved to capture it, to layer it down on canvas. Her urgent, quick strokes. A breathlessness. A gesture toward immortality.

This painter, now gone, and her daughter too. How fragile, how fleeting these lives. Our lives. How we build these tiny monuments to what we have seen here in our time, what we have done, how we have spent our days. Who we have loved and how well we have tried to love them.

All we have tried to do and failed. That we have tried.