still life with roses, orchids

There are five of us around the table. K. has made lamb. The small apartment is warm, the scent of rosemary, faint trace of mint. The table is set in browns and reds and golds. One of us offers a toast. We raise our glasses. We talk about our work, our friends in common. M. tells us about her ex-husband, forlorn. How she meets him for breakfast and he tells her he is sad all the time. She says: I cannot be all these things for you. I cannot be all these things.

They share homes, still. One here and one on an island. She takes her friends down to the island home every winter and they lay out on the beach all day and go dancing at night. Sometimes, in the summer, he will bring the woman he is dating to this island house. But he has not been dating now for some time.

I wake from a strange dream in which I watched a man plummet to his death. He was a scientist. I had traveled far to meet him. I had crossed a wide desert in the dark. I had climbed a stone staircase in a stone cathedral. He was waiting for me there. As I approached, breathless and dizzy, he leaped. There was no sound as he fell, just the falling. On the ground beneath us, snow. His broken body arranged on it. A still life with roses.

K. talks about the man she has been dating. He works all the time. It is difficult for them to see each other. He has a daughter. He has a mother whose health is failing. An ex-wife, an ex-lover. All these require attention and time. K. says: He wanted to spend the afternoon here, but then his daughter. She does not finish the sentence. I stand up to clear the plates.

I drive home in the dark. It is cold and the wind is fierce. As I merge onto the highway, I am overwhelmed by a sudden, sharp sadness. It fills my ears and mouth. It makes my hands tremble.

I am halfway through the draft of this novel, but I should be further. I write around it now, on scraps of paper. I scribble phrases. Questions I will ask myself and not answer. I sit at this desk and hold my head in my hands. I make grocery lists. I examine the stitching on my sweatshirt. Gray thread on gray fleece. Tiny flawless stitches.

I see the forlorn ex-husband all over town. We all do. At opening nights at the galleries. At the new restaurant on the west side. In front of the bookstore on Westminster. Sometimes, he will be with R., sometimes with someone we don’t know. But most often alone. This city is so small. How grateful I am that everyone I have ever thought I loved is far from here by now.

Years ago, walking in another city in another life I can barely remember, I crossed the street in front of the library and bumped shoulders with a man I used to know. It was like a scene that had been staged. The light turns, the clusters of people spill out into the crosswalk and one man and one woman cross in opposite directions. The woman’s hair is longer than it once was. She is small and walks quickly with her shoulders hunched. The man’s gaze is at some point in the distance, but when they make contact, he turns to look at her. In the moment of recognition, the background music swells and they are frozen there with the swirl of people all around them. She walks across the street with him. They stand on the sidewalk and embrace.

Perhaps the stage directions say: They hold each other not so much out of love, but of recognition. A familiarity, a glimpse of one’s past self, which gives its own sort of comfort.

They bought the house together and imagined wintering there each year. The white sand beaches, the mountains, the waterfalls. The orchids. How the orchids alone could make your heart ache. She does not speak of how they parted or why.

In the dream, the scientist had been calling for me, but I do not know why. I only know there is urgency and so in dream logic, I trudge across the desert until I come to a glowing city. I have walked all night. I reach the cathedral at first light. There is snow on the ground. It is cold.

I ascend the stairs, slowly at first but then fall into the rhythms of climbing. The steps are endless. The staircase narrows then widens. It opens out to a small balcony from which more stairs beckon. These are steeper than the others and barely wide enough to accommodate my body. I climb higher. There is no sound except my feet on the steps and my own breathing, growing labored, growing short.

The stairs end on a wide balcony. There is a low wrought-iron fence and my scientist is leaning against it. I reach the top step and run toward him. He turns to face me for a moment, then he is gone.

slowly, slowly

I’m trying to figure out why a strange sort of sadness washes over me while I stand at the kitchen counter, washing brussel sprouts, peeling carrots, trimming the ends of celery stalks.

These days, darkness falls early. So much of the day spent in darkness. But it is not simply the darkness that creates this sense that I have lost something that I don’t understand. This growing unease as the sink fills with the bitter ends of things.

At night, in dreams, frustration: I am standing on line in the grocery store and the scale breaks down as I approach. I am running at the track by the stadium and I fall, unable to rise. I am driving downtown and a hole in the earth opens up – traffic stops. Always, something is holding me back. I am poised, but consistently thwarted.

My friend K. sends me a message about the man she said she would not think about until January. The one she fell in love with before she knew she would leave her husband. They’ve spent an evening together – a lovely one – and I ask, “so what now?” And she says, “We are taking it slow, slow.”

I tell her yes, of course, you must. But the truth is that I have never understood how this is possible – to go slowly in that early blush of love. How is it that you keep from trying to swallow this person whole? To devour him where he stands?

Patience – I recognize – is not one of my virtues.

I can remember past winter afternoons, at the counter, preparing a meal, when this same sense of sadness has crept in. Sometimes, it would take the shape of nostalgia and I would call my aunt to ask for a recipe of my childhood. In this way, I learned to make chicken stewed with tomatoes and onions (simmered so slowly and for so long that the meat falls from the bone); caldo verde (at table, add a splash of red wine); salt cod (soak it overnight and change the water at least twice, then simmer gently in milk). And attempting to replicate these dishes would for a time, give me focus, and keep the sadness at bay.

But tonight, I don’t make the phone call. I plod ahead on my own. There is nothing of my childhood in tonight’s meal: curried carrot soup, roasted brussel sprouts, celery stalks braised in butter and white wine.

The poet Elizabeth Bishop met poet Robert Lowell at a dinner party one winter evening, and this meeting began a correspondence between the two that would span the thirty years until Lowell’s death in 1977.

I’m reading their letters slowly – painfully slowly amid the swirl and pull of other professional and personal obligations. I am struck by how conversational and chatty their tone – the early ones, at least. But also by their intimacy. How they offered each other up these glimpses into their lives.

In her second letter, Elizabeth begins to write about a review of another poet then interrupts herself – and when she comes back later, she explains that she had been called out to see the birthing of a calf. And she describes a bit of the scene for him: “…after several falls on its nose it was standing up and shaking its head & tail & trying to nurse.”

These days, it seems, we are all writing about our lives all the time. We offer up these glimpses through our status updates and our twitter feeds, but we are projecting those with a megaphone from a stage, it seems, to a noisy crowd.

But when Lowell writes this to Elizabeth, after his divorce is finalized:

“It’s funny at my age to have one’s life so much in and on one’s hands. All the rawness of learning, what I used to think should be done with by twenty-five. Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing. I suppose that’s what vocation means – at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction, so I’m thankful, and call it good as Eliot would say.”

It is evident, I think, that this is a private conversation between two people who are beginning something of a journey together – of discovering each other, of discovering self.

Why is it, I wonder, that we do this? That we broadcast these stories of ourselves in our lives – that we create this projection of who we think we are, who we might want to be? What is it, then, that we expect, when we send bits of ourselves out into the world?

A sense, perhaps that we are not alone? That something in us is recognized, recognizable? That the darkness that surrounds so early in the day – that pauses the hand chopping carrots at the counter to stare wistfully out the kitchen window – is the same darkness that at times settles in on you, no matter the distance that separates. And perhaps the knowledge that the thread – invisible, fine, but strong – that connects us, one to the next, in ever enlarging patterns, will lead us back to the quiet, intimate things – if only we will pause long enough to allow them. 

where it was, there you must begin to be

I meet a friend for a glass of wine after work and we talk about the sadness that creeps in around the edges of an afternoon, this particular afternoon.

Well-schooled in therapeutic language, we ask each other: What are the triggers? What are the strategies to manage the sadness?

We sip our wine. We cannot remember triggers or strategies. We’ve forgotten our tools – the lists we make of ways to keep the sadness at bay. In any case, on this particular afternoon, the familiar tools are inadequate:

Take a warm bath

Take a walk with a friend

Read a magazine or a book that you enjoy

Go shopping!

Where are the lists that say:

Sit at your desk and hold your head in your hands. Weep until you cannot hold your head up any longer. When you hear someone walking down the hall, toward you, mash tissues into your eye sockets. Then stand. Smile. Say: Yes?

It is not as bad as all this. We laugh at our own melodrama. We are offered more wine, but we hold our hands up and shake our heads. I tell her about someone I used to know who – for weeks at a time – could not get out of bed. Could not drag herself out of bed to stand at the counter, make herself tea. 

I have been reading excerpts from the journals and notebooks of writers. I take some comfort in recognizing familiar preoccupations, anxieties.

Where it was, there you must begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages. Freud’s geological model implies that last year is deeper in memory than last week, which we all know to be untrue. The memories we value are those we have given the qualities of dream and narrative, and which we may have invented. – Guy Davenport 

My friend suggests that it is some sort of planetary alignment. Some planet returns into its orbit, another leaves. I remember hearing this explanation for the strange madness of my early thirties. Every thirty years or so, I was told, Saturn returns. It fucks you up. Great shifts in your life can happen. You can go a little crazy. Again, like the fortune teller’s promise (“a brilliant match”) this idea lodges in my head and becomes its own truth, its own seed of false hope. I want to believe: There are explanations, there are forces larger than us that move us on this path or another. What a relief it would be to know that not everything is our responsibility to determine.

Another friend of mine writes to me about her spiritual practice. About the discipline of wanting less. Craving is a source of suffering, she says. Want less and you will not be unhappy.

I admire this. Yes, I think I really do admire it. But I do not understand it, in a useful, real way.

Dream: Sticking safety pins in my stomach, and then closing them as if it were natural. In China. Everybody leaves houses because there will be an earthquake. Thunderbolts come but fall from the sea. City is saved. Someone tells me Henry is dead. Tremendous grief. I look for him everywhere. – Anais Nin

In the evening, when we talk about our days, I tell M. that I am feeling a bit low, but that I know: not every day can be a day we buy tickets to Paris.

I am embarrassed, baffled by the fullness of our lives. There is something unsettling about having the things that you want, and still wanting. I have already said too much.

Last night, I dream that I am having a dinner party. It begins as a small one, and then suddenly, it becomes larger – thirty, forty people now are coming to my home. We look for chairs – old lawn chairs come up moldy from the basement. The office chair on wheels. Shards of glass are floating in the soup. A man I used to love is wandering through the hallways, looking at the photographs of my family. I am running toward the kitchen, but as I run toward it, it recedes like an ocean wave pulled back to the sea.

Morning. I walk, I don’t cry about my life, but cry because of its fullness. The road is dry, kiln-dried with the glaze cracked or is it porcelain without a sheen? The birds’ flight grows effortless as the drought continues, pulls the drawstring of moisture. In the colorless sky – what is there? – the geologists visit again and I turn groundward from shifting shadows and heats, changing breezes, wafting sounds of another drainage; choke cherries ripening and the grass dying and the squash growing obscenely large in soil that cradles shallow seas and submitted to the ash that fell continuously for ten thousand years…  – Gretel Ehrlich