writers

Juniper, arrival

I come to Amherst for a week of writing, reading, thinking. I make the two-hour drive in bright sun. It is a warm, glorious afternoon. 

I pull up to the dorm and there are two men sitting on a bench in front of the building. One has gray in his hair, in his beard. The other is smoking. They are wearing t-shirts and sneakers. Pants cut off mid-calf. I recognize them immediately: writers

I unload my bags and bring them up to the third floor suite where I will spend the week. There is a small kitchen, a common area with a couch and two chairs, a low coffee table. My bedroom along the hallway has a lock and a key. A narrow bed, a desk, a wardrobe closet. 

On the bed, there is a thin wool blanket, flat white sheets and two white towels folded flat and wrapped in plastic. I tear this packet open, spread a sheet across the mattress. 

I tell my husband: I am here. I have arrived. 

first love

Sometimes, when I am asked how I came to be in Providence, I like to say that I followed a boy here. It is not true, really, but it is not entirely untrue. That boy left New York for Boston and I didn’t make it quite as far, but I came close. It wasn’t much of a romance, most of it in my own imagination, but there was one summer – a heady, crushing few weeks of heat – that sparked a long, slow burn.

At lunch one afternoon, we talk about men. The women with me are all single. One asks another: Do you have a “type?” There is talk of flannel-shirted mountain men. We laugh. Of men who are handy, can build things.

And you? They ask of me.

It always starts with language. With writing. With M., I remember the moment I knew I would love him. A passage he wrote about a woman, standing in front of the kitchen sink, her back to us. She was washing her bra in the sink, and it was night, and he described the slope of her shoulders. I was reading it in my apartment, for class, and I called my friend G., read it to her. “I think I’m in love,” I joked. But already, there was truth to it.

As for the boy I followed north the year I turned 18, we spent some time together in Boston, in Providence; occasionally even back home in New York, on breaks. It is hard to know when we began, when we ended. Throughout though, we shared language. On one of my first visits, he took me to a poetry reading: Lucie Brock-Broido who was in residence at the time. She read from a collection called A Hunger. I remember a poem called “After the Grand Perhaps.” An excerpt:

    After what is boundless: wind chimes,
fertile patches of the land,
the ochre symmetry of fields in fall,
the end of breath, the beginning
of shadow, the shadow of heat as it moves
the way the night heads west,
I take this road to arrive at its end
where the toll taker passes the night, reading.

   I feel the cupped heat
of his left hand as he inherits
change; on the road that is not his road
anymore I belong to whatever it is
which will happen to me.

 

During those years, those on-again, off-again years, we read James Joyce together. We talked about the Catholic Church. We read each other poems about love. Occasionally, he’d send me a title or two – an obscure drama or poetry collection and I’d hunt it down, devour it. So that even at a distance, we could share language.

At lunch, we talk about the men we have known. This town is small, few secrets remain so for very long. “I have to leave the state,” one woman says, exasperated. “I know too much about the men in this town.” I am grateful that the men I have known have moved on from here. I used to think it would be a wonderful, important thing to remain friends with those you have loved. I thought, how could you be so close to someone for a time and then simply not be? But this was before I understood the cruel sadness of accidental encounters in downtown parking lots. Better, perhaps, to have one’s memories.

We talk about what we require of love. I am reminded, as I often am, of Rilke’s Letters on “Love and Other Difficulties:”

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.…”

This of course, is easier said than done.

After Boston, the boy went back to New York. I did, too, eventually, but by then he had moved west. He talked about the life we might have together, at some future time, under some as yet unknown circumstances. And I said yes, of course, of course. We made easy promises: ones that neither of us expected to keep.

Back in that first summer, we’d sit in the sun and talk about the path our lives might take. “I want to spend some time in Northern Ireland,” he told me. “I want to write about what’s happening there.” I thought he would laugh when I told him that what I wanted was to be a “happy novelist with a big, rambling house and a garden, somewhere near the ocean.” But instead, he cupped my chin in his hand, and said, “I can’t imagine anything sweeter.”

Those early loves shape us, I think. They sketch out the parameters in which we organize our understanding of love, of desire. Our expectations. Long after the desire has faded, when you can no longer remember the places you went, the things you said to each other, what you wanted from each other, you can remember, perhaps, a handful of details that can still surprise you, even decades later: His sharp intake of breath when he first saw your body. That first line of the poem he wrote for you, while you slept with your head on his shoulder on the bus back to Providence. What he whispered to you on the train station platform before the doors closed the last day you spent together. And then the long silence that followed. 

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