Thursday, December 22, 2011

December: The Impossible


The Impossible

It’s a truism that listening to someone describe their dreams is excruciatingly boring for everyone except maybe Freud. I know that even as I embark on the following description: There was a thin, haggard man desperately climbing a ladder-like stair with something very ferocious and foul close at his heels; I could feel what the man was feeling—terror and the thinnest hope of escape. He popped out a trap door into the open air, only to find himself holding a leash on the other end of which was a grey housecat about one and a half times his size. Without a moment to even register the strangeness of this, the cat playfully pounced on him, sinking his teeth into the man’s trunk where I was cringingly aware all the vital organs are. The cat seemed to be settling in for a long episode of carefree batting and biting, and the man despaired of his life. Then he was climbing the stair again, bursting through the trapdoor, holding the leash—again and again this sequence replayed in my dream, and each time I noticed more details: the man climbed the rungs with just one hand, the other so mangled it hung only by thin threads of skin; he was wearing a vest, long jacket, and striped trousers; the thing chasing him up the stair was also a man, but simultaneously a beast much worse than the deadly kitty-cat waiting above; and every time the man climbed the stair, he felt less and less hope until nothing but the impossibility of his survival remained to him. That was when I realized that I was dreaming of hell.

And then I was no longer just watching, but there myself, surrounded by people and demons in strange situations, but I felt the necessity to pretend I did not know I was in hell. I chatted with people, glancing at but not registering concern for the agonized heads floating by on an otherwise serene river. At one point I made as though to leave—not sure how I was going to do this, but there did seem to be some kind of door—and someone whispered, “Don’t leave! It’ll only draw their attention to you!” I returned to where I was sitting, and a moment later a gigantic demon hovered over me. Still pretending I wasn’t inhell and there was no demon studying me with alarming appetite, I casually turned the pages of a book that had appeared on my lap. It was a grimoire, each page full of demonological drawings and descriptions, like many of the books on my library shelves. I still had not looked up at the demon, but I thought I might continue turning the pages until I found him in the book. My last oneiric thought was, “Ah, there he is. There’s the demon that’s about to devour me.”

Then I woke up. It’s the early morning of the winter solstice at the end of 2011. I lay in the longest darkness, my mind racing over pre-holiday failures and ineptitudes—hadn’t gotten cards in the mail yet, hadn’t shopped thoughtfully enough, hadn’t put away my laundry or finished my post-semester library straightening. These kinds of thoughts have a way of unfolding into gaping largeness in the dark hours of a sleepless morning. I had awoken from one hell into another, both of them emerging from my own mysterious mind. Note to self, I thought, hell is real. I’m making it all up, but it’s nonetheless real.

I’m not stictly a materialist, but I’ve considered the question and come to the conclusion that I don’t believe in the Christian hell. I am sensitive to human weakness and failure, and when you see it all around you, so clearly in people you love, you are all the more sensitive to your own brokenness, but I don’t believe in evil or sin. I’m not a Christian, and evil and sin are not part of my world-view. I’m not a Christian, and yet I agree with Bing Crosby that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I put up a tree every year and decorate it with my hundreds of ornaments. It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. I can’t stop singing Christmas carols. There isn’t one Christmas tradition I don’t like, from kissing under the mistletoe, to giving presents, to leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. These things nourish my spirit, Christian or not. I tell myself that I’m not really celebrating the birth of Christ; I’m celebrating the birth of a child, any child, the Everychild whose entrance into the world knits the love between two people together into a family and draws all our hopes for the future into a tangible, possible present. It’s a celebration of the family of man, when all our best instincts—generosity and kindness and joy—are activated and at large. The great Christian Mass of the birth of the Son also corresponds with the solstice and the ancient festivities around the rebirth of the sun. It makes so much sense to me that in the darkest days of the year, we light hundreds of little lights and sing songs and wrap things in bright paper and ribbons and walk around joyfully wishing each other Happy This and Merry That. Finding reasons to love and be happy when the world is darkest is proof to me of humanity’s sustaining genius.

All this long, strange autumn, during which time I was not writing my blog, I was proccupied by two things—teaching my courses and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I taught Creative Writing and two sections of Fantasy Fiction this semester, but regardless of what course I’m teaching, the primary lesson I aim to impart is always the same—we make the world with our thoughts and our actions. Of course, we are born into a world and we recieve all of its circumstances and assumptions at birth, like it or not, but we each have the capacity to step into that glimmering world of our fantasy that hovers like breath right in front of us, in our close, possible future. Still, so many people deny the existence of that world, that possibility, with crazy-making statements such as, “That’s just reality.” People accept top-down hierarchies, identifying themselves with Greek letters such as alpha and beta because “that’s just the way it is,” disregarding the possibility of a lateral organization of society. Germaine Greer says, “The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity.” We are brothers and sisters, not masters and servants, not haves and have-nots, not alphas and betas, in the shimmering world that we are about to step into. I’m not talking about the afterlife; it’s the afterlife of injustice that I’m talking about.

Some might say, “Well, that’s just not reality,” but most people wouldn’t know reality if it bit them in the guts. Reality without possibility is hell. The brilliant men and women I admire don’t pronounce upon but postulate about reality, admit the polyvalence and complexity of it, and assume humility in the process of inquiring into such a grandiose subject. That’s one difference between a philosopher and an average person. Philosophia means “love of wisdom,” not “love of one’s own opinion,” or “one’s own voice.”

There must be times in life when everyone falls in love with the sound of her own voice, usually when she has a fantastic story to tell about herself. I can think of two times in my life when I had such stories. The first time was when I returned from my first trip to Europe, where I’d hitch-hiked around, sleeping in fields and abandoned buildings, getting drunk with truckers, gondoliers, and street musicians. This was the best story I could think of at the time (I was twenty-one), and it was about me, and I told it as often as I could to anyone who would listen.  Living that story and then telling it shaped me, filled me with passions and sureties and virtues that would drive me for many years after.

The second story to have that effect on me developed during the anni mirabiles when I first started teaching. Years of miracles, but the miracles weren’t mine; they were possessed by my students—all those precious people who put their faith in me and opened themselves so graciously to whatever I had to show them. I couldn’t stop tears from choking my eyes and throat when I told that story, and I loved my voice, my story, my students, and whoever seemed interested in us. Both of these stories are about connection, I find. I flung myself into the world and found hands that caught mine, and held me, and in that embrace I recognized myself as invincible, unassailable, indomitable.

I don’t believe that people must dominate others in order to be indomitable themselves, and I wonder if the urge to be good and the urge to be great are ultimately incompatible. Ignoring the very concept of a beta, Jesus Christ said, “I am the alpha and omega,” the full gamut, the everything. He wasn’t just speaking as the son of a god, I feel, not as a supreme being, but as a philosopher or a poet who is in a moment of revelation aware of himself as connected to every single existing thing. The first and the last hold dark mysteries, and the trick of transcendence is seeing beyond alpha and omega to the eternal return of cycles of being in which we are all always implicated. Revered poets from Taliesin to Tagore lose subject-object differentiation in inspired moments, and actually become the bird on the wing, the wave on the shore, the star in the firmament. James Joyce says, “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves.”

The subject encounters the object which in turn reflects the face of the subject again, and whether this cycle is selfish or selfless, spiritually boundless or hopelessly circumscribed, is itself a mystery. Either way, it seems to me a healthier attitude toward one’s fellow humanity and surrounding reality than simplistic binary dominance. It irks me to be in situations with people who truncate Christ’s cry of wonder to “I am the alpha,” supporting their claim of superior and inferior people with the statement, “Well, that’s just reality.”

Not mine. Not in my friendships or classrooms or casual or professional relationships, in all of which I strive to achieve partnership, communion, alliance, collaboration, mutuality, equality, compassion, communication, and appreciation. I’m a double Leo and quite a loudmouth, so maybe it would be easier to just dominate the people I encounter, but that’s not the reality of my desire and not the reality of my best moments in life, when I have dangled minutely in a radiance that illuminated every passerby, every note of music, every slow second, every bite of bread, every pedestrian object, every piece of stone or dirt or wood or bone or even plastic and poison with the brightest, most piercing relevance and significance, and I was just amazed at my good fortune to be part of it all.

In my worldview, if Christmas is the celebration of a human child, then it is also, maybe paradoxically, a reminder that for each of us, our true parents are gods. We are not merely the flawed progeny of fallible earthly parents, but the sons and daughters of earth-shaping, reality-making divine beings. To a Christian that is impossible and impious, and to a materialist, it is impossible and foolish, but below layers of fear and doubt, you sense it’s true. We share so evidently in our true parents’ divine natures—we create lives and worlds, we act, we love, we destroy. We work in mysterious ways. There isn’t anything a god has done that humanity has not; we create our world, we are responsible for it, and we are the active, shaping links between fantasy and reality.

Let nothing you dismay! Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October Villanelle


October Villanelle

Good thing pen and paper are always here in bed.
After a sleep hard and somber as bone,
Dim morning washes nightmares from my head.

I’ve heard the hour before dawn likened to lead.
Thereon I scratch weak words all to atone—
Good thing pen and paper are always here in bed.

Heat water for tea and then toast some bread;
Glance at computer screen and check my phone.
Dim morning washes nightmares from my head.

Leaves that now are so bright will soon be dead;
October maiden must become the crone.
Good thing pen and paper are always here in bed.

Not one thing I’ve accomplished, created, read
Could have prepared me for when glory’d gone.
Dim morning washes nightmares from my head,

But it’s dreams I want to lose in their stead;
There’s no disaster in being alone.
Good thing pen and paper are always here in bed.
Dim morning washes nightmares from my head.

Friday, September 2, 2011

August, or, First Fruits


 
I’ve always loved August. It’s my birthday month, and even though I’ve had mixed feelings about my birthday from year to year, exuberant one year, horrified the next, assessing losses and gains, it’s always a season for reflecting on my existence, my purpose, why I came into the world early in the morning on August the thirteenth in 1969, especially as I am demonstrably not a morning person. On my birthday, I can do absolutely nothing and still feel special. The year I turned thirteen, I sat on my grandma’s living room floor and watched a storm toss the waters of Lake Erie for hours and hours, aware of paradoxical sensations of solitude and communion. It was a great birthday. This year I had to work a bit harder; I threw myself a party, fried some chicken, and put on a fancy dress. I cried twice during the afternoon, fretting that no one would come to my party, but people came, hugged me, and sat by my bonfire even though we were getting chewed on by massive mosquitoes until raindrops fell late at night. I felt enormously vulnerable and enormously grateful.

August is also the season of first fruits, the earliest crops that will sustain agrarian communities through the winter. I’m drawn to the alliterative and prelapsarian resonances of the phrase “first fruits,” and I also appreciate it because even though it’s the “first,” it’s really the first again and again, year to year in a cyclical continuum of human need and fulfillment. Cycles of desire, fulfillment, and impatience for something different sometimes seem inevitable. We accrue our small, hard-earned lessons and then outgrow them, feeling wise and desperately ignorant by turns throughout the revolutions of our lives. Sufi mystics call themselves “Unknowers,” I think because they’re aware that knowledge can be a trap. It’s good sometimes to not know, to be unsure, even if it’s not comfortable. I relish late summer in part because I’m not completely aware of what winter will bring. For the unsustainable august moment, the grass is greener and more lush, crickets and cicadas sing more beautifully, late summer fruit is sweet and delicious. We have what we need and we’re wise enough to enjoy it.


This particular late summer is especially joyous for my family because my brother got married. For many people, marriage is an obvious step in one’s progression through life, a matter not of if but who and when. I think for Ethan it’s been more complicated than that, and his marriage to Marisa is actually the culmination of his personality, his trenchant and unusually admirable ratiocination at last tempered by a feeling in his heart that defies logic; he’ll do things Marisa wants him to do not because he’s reasoned it out perfectly, but because he likes to see her smile. It’s beautiful to see this emerge in my brother, and if it were possible, I love him even more for it. Days leading up to his wedding, they were surrounded by loving family and friends, everyone pitching in to make the country wedding a beautiful success despite forecasts of hurricanes. The Tempest was on my mind all week, and I wondered how I could weave it into my toast to the bride and groom, such a perfect Ferdinand and Miranda, and that was the extent of my hurricane preparations. We were all so focused on preparing for the wedding, carting all kinds of ornaments and delicacies to decorate a grassy mountainside, that we couldn’t really pay much attention to hurricane warnings, as well. We dealt with it by “positive thinking” it away, and it mostly worked. Loved ones came from near and far, hither and yon, and it was a gorgeous event. I wept and laughed and danced and sweated and hugged everyone who’d let me. Toward 9 pm, most guests gone, it started to pour, but we were drunk by then, dancing and careening and peripatetically cleaning beneath a tent in the wilderness drummed with a fury of raindrops. It was wonderful. We dragged soaking cases of wine up the hill in the storm and collapsed in our beds while the storm raged.

I woke up at about 7? 8? because my father had arrived from his B & B to tell us that we had to get up and go that very moment or else we’d all be trapped. He was shouting and moving with uncharacteristic rapidity. We all tried to shake the hangovers out of our heads. Dennis and Lauren (Eth and Marisa’s dear friends and the major movers in the whole event) had just returned from where the mountain road intersected Rt. 8A saying it was already impassable because of torrents of flooding on the road. There was more to do to clean up at the wedding site, and I think that those of us who were awake thought it would just be a matter of time—a few hours?—‘til the flooding subsided and we could drowsily drive away. It turns out, tho’, that in the whole trajectory of Hurricane Irene, Hawley, MA was one of the hardest hit spots. I thought about Ariel’s creepy little song:

Full fathom five
Thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

Watching Dad tear away in his white minivan made the song more germane all of a sudden. Later, he would tell me that as he was driving down 8A, whole chunks of blacktop were spun away in furious currents of brown water. I have had nightmares like that—the road disappearing before you’re finished traversing it. Dad drove half a mile through a farmer’s field because the road was just gone. Somehow, he retrieved his wife from Shelburne Falls and safely returned home to my house in Easthampton.

Meanwhile, up on the mountain, the electricity had gone out, and then the landline. Cell phone reception was spotty, but we were able to garner some information—the National Guard were in Ashfield, catastrophic flooding throughout Franklin County and Vermont. We felt it more deeply, I think, because we were in the midst of it rather than safe in the valley, as close as that might be. The thirteen of us stranded there managed to make calls enough to apprise disbelieving bosses, get cats fed and chickens cooped, contact airlines, and assure that the State Police knew we were there, not that they could do anything. At about 9 am, we spilled some peanuts on the floor and swept them into the trash, joking about how we’d regret that later. As it is, food supply was not short, but food variety was, and I’m not going to crave peanuts or bagels for a long, long time. We tried to act responsibly, thinking about survival and escape, worrying for those on lower ground than we were. The most pressing shortage was diapers for my 6-month old nephew Forest. My 95-year old Gramma was happy to sit in the window and read, but when we talked about leaving the cars and hiking out, there were obviously some who would have to stay behind.

Forest and Gramma aside, we were still a strange assortment of personalities. My mom and Marisa’s mom, mostly responsible for caring for the baby and Uly, my 10-year old nephew (who has Downs Syndrome and is a handful even in ordinary conditions); Dennis and Lauren, Stephen and Cate, Ethan and Marisa, Marisa’s college friend Bil, me, Nick, and Nick’s friend Luke who I’d hired to tend the bar at the wedding. Not that I’ve ever seen Survivor, but I think the point is that social relationships are a key factor in survival. We could have survived together for longer than we ended up having to, and we would have made it work.

That morning, Bill, Luke, Lauren, and I hiked down the mountain road to look at 8A. On the way we saw trees down, rushing streams, part of a collapsed bridge, and gigantic rents in the blacktop. At the bottom, to the north the road was mostly gone and the waters spilled over the edge. To the south was a flood, an abandoned car, and further down, another collapsed bridge. I have never seen anything like it (well, I guess downtown Manhattan where I taught after 9-11 was a bit worse, actually); still, even tv news cannot always capture shots of such total devastation. We spent the rest of the day napping, talking, drinking wine, seeking information, projecting short and long term plans. I was too distracted to read either the Gulliver’s Travels or the September issue of Vogue I’d brought.  At some point in the late afternoon, it stopped raining and we saw a rainbow, but we thought it was just the eye of the storm and we didn’t thoroughly rejoice. Ethan whispered to me that he thought it was the end of the storm and that we’d be able to leave by the next day. That evening, Lauren, Dennis, and Nick cooked us all a wonderful dinner, and we sat up by the fire playing music and talking ‘til late. We had a few candles and a few bottles of wine. I was bone tired, unsettled, but also paradoxically content.

The thing about The Tempest is that it begins with catastrophe and ends with a wedding and the restoration of all that was believed to be lost. The sequence of our weekend was a little different, but I felt so surely that the emotional outcome was similar. Every wedding should be accompanied by a tempest, I think, because we need for all that old stuff—old hurts and resentments, bad habits, unhealthy family dynamics—to truly be broken down and washed away before a new life can really begin, in all innocence, with hope in our unburdened hearts. It’s time for first fruits again, in all their freshness and sweetness.

The next day was brilliant and serene and gorgeous. Luke and Nick woke early and prepared to hike out. I went with them for the first mile and half or so, and the damage was even worse than I imagined, reminding me of a blitz, of Godzilla, of post-apocalyptic zombie movies. When I kissed Nick goodbye, I didn’t know if it would be for a day, a week, or a month. He and Luke happily strode off north toward Shelburne Falls, about twenty miles away, and I envied their adventure a little bit. A few hours later Ethan got a call from Desi, Uly’s can-do mom, saying that she had driven her car within a couple miles south of our mountain, and was now hiking up to get him. We whooped it up when we met her down the road. True, between her car and us there were two downed bridges and lots of residual flooding, but the fact that she’d gotten so close gave us heart. Ethan, Des, Uly and I hiked back to her car through woods and fields, Uly shouting most of the way because he’s a little OCD and doesn’t like to get his feet wet. We laughed and joked, and the forest trees gleamed and everything smelled pungent and fresh. When Uly and Des were safely away, Eth and I hiked back the long way, over the roads, to see if we could assess the damage. Everyone was standing around outside their houses, and we all exchanged a few words, small stories, smiles, inquiries, best wishes. The DOT guys had already packed down one flooded bridge with rocks and sand, and were working on the second one as we talked to them. It was going to be a few hours, they said, but we would be leaving that day.

I had never fully rested up after the wedding preparations, the wedding, the hurricane, and so I dragged myself up that mountain one last time, Eth and I surveying both the destruction around us and the beauty of the mountain with wondering eyes. Seeing how quickly the works of civilization can erode away and vanish gives you some perspective on things—what you want, what you strive for, acquire, possess, and lose. Such cycles of want and fulfillment. My brother has reached a late summer richness in his life, a fulfillment of love and family and home that he deserves so completely. I was happy to take that walk with him because my divorce and consequent struggles have come between us a bit. I’ve been angry. I know I complain too much. That’s really hard to take, and harder to take in people you love, I think, because their misery pierces you more acutely. But looking around that sun-filled, tempest-tossed world on Monday afternoon, I knew for a certainty that I don’t want to be angry anymore, and I don’t want to complain. If I’ve been unable to change my life, it’s because the season is not right; it’s not my late summer. The phrase “winter of my discontent” fits more perfectly. I am a little broken, a little monstrous, maybe, but like Caliban, I still trust in the generous magic of the world:

Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

As important as decision-making and action are, dreaminess and fantasizing are necessary, too. Rather than working in a restaurant and commuting to Queens to teach, I fantasize about working for the U.N. and feeding the hungry. I want to dodge bombs and educate women in Afghanistan. I want to become a best-selling novelist and cast Russell Crowe in the movie version, helping him to better understand his character in the autumn twilight on the Isle of Capri. These are fantasies, sure, but are they also true? Are they possible? Will they happen? Are they happening now in refracting parallel universes? I also want to live in my apartment forever, painting the front porch someday and working on the flower beds, visiting Beth next door for wine and HBO, working some less exalted but personally fulfilling job that pays my bills and allows me to visit the Isle of Capri for some special vacation. That’s a dream, too. There’s a thin, roving equinox that separates fantasy from reality, I think, from season to season. Reality seems a cocktail mixed of inequal parts of decision, luck, timing, will, fantasy, and fate, finished with a garnish of first fruits. I’ve bellied up to the bar, but the Greatest Bartender hasn’t noticed me yet, and before I take a sip of my reality cocktail, biting into that succulent garnish, I’m going to dream a bit longer.

         ...the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on...

What seems most real can vanish in an instant, and all we have left is ourselves, our dreams of ourselves. The Tempest is the shortest of all Shakespeare’s plays, and accordingly we were stranded just a short while, a long day and a half. The town of Hawley will struggle with the aftermath of the storm for quite some time, and the economic news for the state and the country is not so good. As for me, I think I’ve stopped my own financial hemorrhage, even if it means driving to Queens to teach twice a week. After doing it yesterday, my first Creative Writing class, I know I want something different. Academia has not found a place for me, and I don’t want to be its supplicant, begging for handouts. I need a life that makes sense to me. I’m looking for a new career, and if I have to go back to school, I’m resolved. I’m clear about what I want—good work, a place in the world from which to work my personal magic, and to regain whatever of myself I thought I’d lost in the stormy tumult of the past few years. I have feared that I’ve lost my hope, my heart, my charisma.

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

It’s not complete loss; it’s just a sea change. After the darkness of  Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear, Shakespeare produced his final batch of plays—critics call them the late romances—that testify that loss and death is not the end, that no tragedy is unaccompanied by love and courage and the reaffirmation of life, that whether we deserve it or not, restoration is possible. It’s dangerous to make light of tragedy, to comfort the grief-stricken because hopeful avowals can sound an awful lot like empty platitudes to someone whose heart is broken. Sometimes it’s better to just sit and weep with someone. But happiness is just as valid as grief, and when someone you love is happy, that can dry your tears, straighten your back, and sustain you until your own heart is restored. My brother’s wedding was beautiful, unforgettable, and profound. Though I have been tempest-tost, still I know I won’t be lost...



Thursday, June 23, 2011

june; or, normal people don't live like this






Patti Smith had the best youth available to an American; of this I am convinced after reading Just Kids recently. She went to New York City instead of college (smart girl), hung out with artists, freaks, and musicians, and became famous herself, finding a new way to speak truth in the world, not an easy feat. I have always loved two of her records in particular, Easter and Horses, which includes one of the best lines in rock and roll history: “Jesus died for somebody’s sin, but not mine!” Metal as hell! Equally metal is her favorite poet, and immediately after reading the last page of her memoir, I got up, went to my bookshelf, and pulled my Complete Works of Rimbaud, one of the small handful of books I have brought and kept with me from my teenage years. I opened to my old favorite, “A Season in Hell.”

I intend to unveil all mysteries: religious mysteries or those of nature, death, birth, the future, the past, cosmogony, the void. I am a master of hallucinations.
       Listen!...
       I possess every talent!

Thus spake the artist.

Robert Mapplethorpe always knew he was one; Patti Smith yearned to be one, and both of them achieved their fulfillment. Maybe that’s why I think she had the best youth available to an American, quirky midnight adventures with fascinating people aside—because she actually did that thing, that rare and wonderful thing, of becoming, actualizing, fulfilling, conjuring, discovering herself—however you want to put it. How often does that really happen? How many people do you know who have taken the fool’s leap into selfhood, really? By selfhood, I mean the thing you want to be, the magnificent thing you know you can be if it weren’t for all the traps and pitfalls and fears we are fraught with in the waking nightmare of everyday existence. That sounds pretty negative and phantasmagoric, but I often think of life as a waking dream, so it makes sense that it should also be a nightmare sometimes. Either way, so much of life is in our heads, and when most people collectively dream the same dream, that is called the norm. It takes a powerful dreamer to resist the norm, and I know quite a few powerful dreamers.

My wonderful friend Jen had a fancy dinner with an investment banker last week, during which he berated her because she’s closer to fifty than forty and has no IRA, investment portfolio, 401K, or retirement plan. He told her she needed to move to a city and earn twice as much money; when she told him that she wanted to be a writer, he said, “Well, that’s not safe. It’s a long shot that you’ll make it as a writer.” Thanks a lot, DAD! She told me that she came away from that fancy restaurant feeling fearful and deeply irresponsible. The grotesque irony that an investment banker had the audacity to make my deeply scrupulous and admirable friend feel irresponsible aside, I hate this story because it’s illustrative of all the ways we fuck ourselves through fear into living lives we hate. I’m not going to sing a paean to poverty or anything—that’s a little naive, I suppose—but I have always found it easy to admire hobos, beggars, street maniacs, and gypsies for their lifestyle choices. I’ve had a special affinity with them that has more than once manifested in my cooking dinner for them while they smoke cigarettes in my bathroom. They have given the finger to “financial security” with their whole lives, all their selfhood.

What is life for? Why do we even have it? Whatever the answer is, I doubt it’s anything to do with being safe, whatever that really means anyway. I mean we’re all going to die, which is sort of the ultimate unsafe thing to do. I don’t want to be old, alone, and poor—how wretched! And I know it’s important to organize your time in the present so as to be the person you want to be in the future (although there’s nothing fail proof about that, as I’ve discovered). But still, I am repulsed by the notion of living a whole life—all those hours at a job, all those decisions about how to spend your money and your time, all the ways these decisions change you, minutely, meaning minute by minute, in barely perceivable ways until you’ve made a monster of yourself, a monster wearing obscenely overpriced pink shorts and talking about golf as though it’s actually interesting...

Oh, God. Oh, man. Maybe golf is interesting and I don’t know it. I’m probably being a bitch right now, sucked into this pointless contest of rich against poor. Jen and I have much in common, and one of those things is we each have much more experience working in fancy restaurants than eating in them. I’ve eaten in my share, thankfully—I love eating in fancy restaurants. I also kind of love working in them, even though it’s not a highly respected or particularly well-paid job. My restaurant right now is in convenient proximity to a very posh boarding school—ok, I’ll just say it—Deerfield FUCKING Academy, and after just working graduation weekend, I’m feeling ornery about rich people. My instincts tell me that rich people are just like us except they have more money, but now I’m doubting that. I think rich people have genetically and culturally modified themselves so as not to be like us. At Deerfield Academy, sixteen-year old boys wear pink shorts without fear of being thought pansies and refer to their dining experiences at our restaurant as “sub-par.” This strikes me as unnatural, but I can’t pinpoint why. Although only about 19% of American women are born blonde, about 95% of the teenage girls at Deerfield have shoulder-length, healthy blonde hair. They meticulously special-order food and then push it around their plates until we take it from them and throw it out. They and their parents are frighteningly tall. They talk about their wealth obsessively, what they’ve bought, where they’ve gone, how their stocks are doing, as though they’re afraid to forget about it for even a second. The most interesting conversation I overheard all weekend was about how the cops came into somebody’s mansion where there was some underage drinking going on and arrested the parents, and this story resolved itself in lawyer fees the size of which literally made my head swim for a moment. Rich people can buy their way out of problems that shipwreck the majority of us on truly desolate shores. More than once this weekend, tight-lipped parents asked me to pour wine for their seventeen-year olds, and although I’m not really averse to kids that age drinking wine at dinner, I don’t want to be slapped with a $1,000 fine and bring the same on my boss. That actually happened to Jen once. $2,000 might seem to these people a reasonable amount to pay to ensure that their kids can have wine with dinner in a restaurant—I should’ve asked. Instead I asked to see their i.d.’s, and was met with frigid, blue-eyed stares from everyone at the table. Fucking WASPS.

I don’t want to be a hater, but my opinion is that people that wealthy cannot help but be fucked up. Lucky me—I have a proven immunity to wealth. Some people in the Middle Ages never contracted the Bubonic Plague regardless of their exposure. Apparently, the ancestors of these people have a genetic immunity to the HIV virus. I myself have been blessed with good health, and the Chinese have a saying that “Health is wealth,” but I seem to be unable to contract even the slightest symptoms of the American strain of wealth. I am, however, quite excellent at getting work that doesn’t pay, the most admiring of bosses, as a matter of fact, regretfully cannot pay me anything at all. I’m volunteering with ESOL speakers, and looking into setting type for free on the antique letterpress in the basement of the Massachusetts Renaissance Center (heaven on earth), and last month I got a great job writing for an online arts and culture magazine called The Free George. Even though they can’t pay me, I am genuinely excited about it, and it feels good to have people who don’t even know me compliment my writing. In the restaurant biz, we call this the “verbal tip.” You know, “everything was wonderful—you are so terrific—thank you for taking such good care of us...” and then they leave a tip hovering at about 12%. My father says that waiting tables is the one job where your pay is in direct proportion to the quality of service you provide, and falser words were never spoken. There are good tippers and bad tippers, and it has more to do with the character of the customer than with the service of the wait staff. I would never leave a tip less than 20% of the bill including wine and tax. That’s not a good tip but simply de rigueur in a civilized society. To leave anything less is stealing, stealing a person’s time and their labor.  There’s something disgraceful about people treating themselves to luxuries and not adequately compensating those who have provided them with the experience. Still, the verbal tip is sometimes acceptable, and it certainly is for me in this Free George situation. I get to publish my writing and build a writer’s résumé, and hopefully I’ll get a paid job writing somewhere down the road. That’s what I want—my fulfillment—to write and be paid for it, and in so doing, create worlds to counter the one in which boys in pink shorts and starving, blonde girls play at being Masters of the Universe. That’s what artists do, like gods in miniature—create new worlds.

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

Sidney says “poet,” but I don’t think he’d mind if we used the word “artist,” since he’s not distinguishing poetry from the other arts, but from the more worldly disciplines of history and philosophy (yes, there was a time—pre modern science—when these were considered the most practical arenas of human thought and endeavor). If I don’t interview well, and I don’t, it’s because I can’t make myself believe in the brazen world of 401K’s, golf, and office politics, and that lack of faith becomes subverted in deep self-effacement, a manifestation of doubt about myself. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. I reign so surely and gracefully in the golden world of my own creation, that I don’t want to intimidate or frighten these poor peasants of the imagination wearing expensive suits and deciding the financial fates of those around them, myself included. After years on the academic market, I’ve been on a hundred job interviews, and not once have I failed to pity the people interviewing me, so my effacement doesn’t come from deep humility (as it properly should), but from a deep belief in my own richness and power, so abundantly evident that I fear it will make others feel badly about themselves. Is this twisted?

Listen!...
       I possess every talent!

I often feel the same when waiting tables; in the restaurant, I am the one with the power. I can contribute to the magic and romance of a few hours of people’s lives while they are ultimately powerless to affect me in any way. My dignity is unassailable, and if they are rude or inappropriate with me, they only screw themselves out of the fullness of the experience I can give them. If they stiff me, it doesn’t matter because someone else is sure to overtip me. Restaurants are magical places; anyplace where nourishing, beautiful food is conscientiously prepared and presented is a place of profound human import and value, and anyone who fails to feel connected to the deepest resonances of life and our essential kinship to one another in such a place lives in a sad and stony castle indeed. As much as I love eating in gorgeous restaurants, when I am working in mine, knowing what I know, I wouldn’t change places with any one of the customers. Sitting at an elegant table with succulent dishes being brought to me by gracious servers of unearthly beauty is great, no doubt, but not as great as hanging out in the back of the house with Michelle, Jamie, Jessica, Paul, John, Lucian, Marc, Hilton, Karen, Franco, Steven, and Nick. Honestly. The back of the house is full of more wit, intelligence, grace, beauty, talent, education, kindness, and friendship than the front of the house on any given night. We have a small serving staff: three gay, artistic men, three independent, hotsy-totsy women, and one ridiculously handsome, underage busboy. It’s a recipe for a lot of salacious humor. One of the things that three gay men and three solidly heterosexual women have in common is that none of us enjoy being on the giving end of cunnilingus—we’ve discussed this at some length. The most onerous task of the servers is to polish the silverware, big, scalding piles of silver sometimes encrusted with gross, no longer identifiable food bits, and given how little we enjoy this job, it’s now referred to as cunnilingus (actually we use another phrase that I can’t bring myself to write here). Cunnilingus is a part of my work night, every night, but still I’d rather be performing cunnilingus with Paul and Michelle, sipping from our wine glasses, nibbling on prawns, and cracking jokes, than working in an office somewhere pretending to be Master of the Universe.

One busy night last summer, a strange, tall woman came up to each of the servers inquiring about a book she’d left on the patio. She described the size of the book and the graphic on the cover but was reticent to name the title. None of us had seen it, but we promised to keep it for her should it surface—what was the title of the book? Reluctantly, she told us: Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Mm-hmn. Ok. She came back about an hour later to tell us with great relief that she’d found the book lying in the middle of the street. So apparently it’s true: normal people don’t live like this—who hasn’t had that thought in the wild disquiet of objective self-reflection? And is it something to lament or celebrate?

       I am a master of hallucinations.

We all live in worlds of our making, some of us rich, some of us poor, some of us deeply and truly grateful even while performing cunnilingus, some of us unable to appreciate exquisite food and ambience when it’s laid at our feet by angels vested in human flesh. I like my restaurant job, but it doesn’t draw on all my talents, and so I am not going to reach my fulfillment there. I suck at interviews. I have a first draft of a best seller—I know it—and this month I’ll get busy on revision, to reveal to myself the beauteous world I’ve created and prepare it for immersion into the wider world. I intend to unveil all mysteries...


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

a may love-spell


There’s something I want you to know. I can cast love-spells. It’s a power I have. Through this power, every ordinary personal grace is amplified to something extreme and angelic. Every coincidence and simple occurrence can seem like superlatively potent celestial bodies aligning unexpectedly above your head. The world takes on lustre and sheen; emotions are rose and violet hued. Cold and heat become parallel appendages to one perfect body of lust, and desire writes the subtext of every action, reaction, passion, and protocol. Have you ever felt your face cast beams as brilliant as the sun’s? Your throat emit lotus-petalled pitches? Your hands stroke as delicately as dove feathers? Your feet glide over earth as though it’s ether? Your heart sing like a drunken diva on her wedding day? Your loins deliquesce in very particular deliciousness? Well, then, my dear, you have fallen victim to a love-spell, but not to mine.  The thing about my love-spells is that they only work on myself.

ok, I’m high. I don’t get high too often because one hit of marijuana is usually sufficient to make me believe that I am Hunter S. Thompson, but I found a bag of pot in my library this afternoon, and I had already had a few glasses of wine since it’s Saturday, and I was feeling aimlessly profound, and I only slept three hours last night, so after having a good cry at about three o’clock this afternoon, I thought to myself, why not get a buzz on and try to make pot-holders? It may sound random, but I have a laundry basket of funky old fabric that’s been screaming for some attention, so it really was the obvious thing to do. Especially since my job search is so patently fruitless, and I’ve gotten as far as I can get by myself on “Fur Elise,” and I’m finally caught up on all my phone calls. One of my calls was to Beverly—if a person could exist with an external spine, that is what Beverly would be to me—and she reminded me how good I am at getting things done when there is something that needs doing. My problem now is that there’s nothing... particularly... so I was sitting tearstreaked amidst yards and yards of musty old fabric when I realized that this laundry basket also held a hank of old photos, my most precious ones, really, that I thought I’d lost ages ago. I had even suspected a certain SWF-type “friend” of stealing my photo album. What a funny, sad, happy, unsettling self-recognition; or, I believe the word for that feeling is “nostalgic.” And in one shot, there was Beverly and I, fifteen or sixteen years old, me in cat-eye glasses and rhinestone necklaces, Beverly in her “soybean power” t-shirt. This was . . . 1985? We look like we just smacked the world and then sincerely apologized. We were standing there in Genetics and Physiology class completely oblivious to whatever else was happening. We may have been high. With our magic we had obviously stopped time so while everyone else in the class was staring intently at pig fetuses, we smiled like Hollywood ingénues into someone’s inexplicable point-and-shoot. Before I had ever thought of love-spells. Before I had ever committed myself to anything.

Twenty-six years later, I’ve committed myself to a few things that have apparently run their course, and I find myself about as uncommitted as a middle-aged person can be in our culture, owning nothing, responsible for nothing, bearing expectations from no one. Unfortunately, I have no idea what to do with all this freedom. The intrigue of drunkenly constructing pot-holders isn’t equal to even one spring afternoon, I’ve discovered. It’s odd to have gotten so far in life and know so little. I blame it on nineteen years of marriage. Maybe, like another Wife, I should’ve learned more about love through marriage.

In felawshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe.
Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.

Any one of my Chaucer students could tell you, paraphrased, that means, “She was very socially competent, laughing and chatting, and she happened to know remedies for the sickness known as love, for the game of love was an art to her.”  Alysoun, that wonderful wife of Bath.  I like to name her—Chaucer does, so why not?—even if critics immemorial have known her as the Wife.  The Wife.  Like the Parson, the Shipman, the Doctor, the Miller—apparently being a wife in the Middle Ages was a profession. I guess I can relate. Until a few years ago I would have openly told you that my single greatest achievement was my marriage, not that I want to talk about that right now, but I do want to talk about being a wife because that is, in part, what I am, husbanded or husbandless. Even with boyfriends who forthrightly confess that we have no long-term future together, I am a wife. I don’t know how to be casual about love.

Alysoun and I have much in common. We are both about forty years old, rosy-cheeked, and fond of traveling. We have both earned a decent living off the rag business. We like new shoes and are not shy to wear red stockings (mine are red lace).  We both prefer our own experience to authority when it comes to questions of how to be and how to live.  We each spin a good yarn (if I do say so myself), and we like fairy tales. As much as that fantastic stuff grabs us, though, our personal narratives wax longer than any fiction we spout, and we accord a high premium to sovereignty, wives though we be. Further, at this strange age—and at 40 you have to smile to realize that magazine articles about “older women” mean women a decade younger than you are—Alysoun and I both find ourselves in thrall to much, much younger men.  Her Ganykin hits her; my Nick, of course, does not.  Ganykin is a scholar entrenched in misogynist literature.  Once, casually, before I ever thought of him as a love-interest, I asked Nick a question I ask most men of my acquaintance at some point, “Are you a feminist?”  Men hate this question.  It confuses them today as much as it would’ve in the Middle Ages. Many cannot hide their resentment at being asked and quickly answer in the negative.  Others—the sensitive and overly educated, often—will register mumbled discomfort and say something like, “Well, uh, it’s uh, a complicated question, isn’t it?  I mean, uh, there are a lot of different kinds of feminists out there, so, uh...” By that point, they’ve lost me. Obviously I’m not asking if they’re man-hating, bra-burning butch dykes, of which type there are so very few, and the bra-burning thing is a complete myth—just because you don’t wear one doesn’t mean you’ve burned it, for fuck’s sake, and yet this is what springs to so many people’s minds at the utterance of “feminist.”  Elaborated, the question is, do you like women as much as you like men? Do you respect them as much? Do you think that women have as vital gifts to bring to the world as men, different though they may be?  After many years of asking this question, I finally received a reply that was unhesitatingly affirmative from a 21-year old death-ska singer with a mullet and a gigantic knife on his belt.  Nick looked me in the eye and said, “Definitely.” It was a good answer. I gave him extra credit.

So our taste in men may be one difference between me and Alysoun, and there are others. The thing that stands out most sharply to me is that

... she koude of that art the olde daunce.

Alysoun, having had five husbands, knows about love as a dance, a game, where you shimmy over to one and then moonwalk over to another. Alysoun is on her fifth husband—a professional wife. I’m a wife as much as she is, but not for quantity of husbands, just for quantity of time—half my life—with one. And in that half-life, I learned about a lot of things, but not about love as a game.  Love was real. Or maybe it was a game, but I played for higher stakes, a lifetime of commitment.

Recently at DiPoalo’s I waited on a couple celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary.  Almost seventy years of marriage.  She was gorgeous—a dove-white bob skimming killer cheekbones—and she had an appetite for laughter and martinis. He was more diminished by the years. Deaf. Unresponsive. Caved into a narrow gut unequal to even a small portion of his designer pasta. Her eyes sought me, and read me, and responded to me as a unique piece of her long experience. He wasn’t capable of that, but he was cute in a small, old, pathetic way. Still, if I were her, I would love him. Time has got to count for something, and even when it takes stuff away, it bestows, too. Maybe not in equal measure, but whatever. Or, as the kids say, whadevah.

I wonder what draws people together, what makes them love one another. Skimming the classifieds, it seems as though people are looking for someone who fits into their overall portfolio just so. “My partner must be attractive, athletic, and a good earner,” or “...sexy, physically fit, and well-employed” (not much variety in the classifieds, really). And maybe this works—just thinking up what you want and then advertising for it. Maybe after a phone conversation and a couple dinners, they actually fall in love. If I had placed an ad last October, though, I would’ve never thought to stipulate someone so much younger than I am—that just happened. I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life hanging around twenty-one year olds, and never thought of any one of them romantically. When I say never, there really isn’t a font big enough to stress how fully I mean that. Of course, I was in their company in the role of their professor, so that adds an extra layer of sobriety to my more characteristic “drunk-with-romance” personality, but that also further inclined them (some of them) to admire and court me a bit. I’ve received very sweet cards, gifts, and invitations over the years, but in my mind there was never any question of actually dating someone so young. When Nick asked me out to dinner, though, I didn’t even hesitate. It wasn’t his youth I was attracted to; it was his Nick-ness, the dissident, wry, respectful self-possession of a tender hooligan. I’d be so much happier if I’d met someone closer to my age with comparable Nick-ness because Nick, being the age he is, couldn’t possibly commit to me in any long-term way, a perfectly reasonable reality that nonetheless Chinese water-boards my future-driven, goal-oriented self. As lovers, as partners, we have no future, and the goal is to . . . enjoy it while it lasts? Yeah, I think so.

The word commitment can be so uncomfortable that most people’s faces wrench in odd ways as they say it. Some worry that commitment to one thing necessitates the ruling out of everything else. It’s limiting, restrictive, binding. It takes sovereignty away and leaves you prone to a set of rules and authority you never wished for.  I’m not just talking about commitment to an intimate relationship here, but now that I’m thinking about it, it occurs to me that I could be having a very different kind of mid-life crisis right now. Instead of being childless, single, and underemployed, I could be manacled to the inescapable demands of spouse, children, and a job, the bloom of these roses having faded a bit, leaving me with the distinct self-impression of an exhausted, puny rodent on a treadmill. I could be enduring the crisis of having too much versus the crisis of not having enough. Instead of drowning in a sea of possibility, I could be suffocating under a fuck-ton of responsibility. If all your waking hours are dedicated to making money and spending time caring in a variety of ways for children and a partner when all you really want to do is drive your car for hours and hours until you get to some beach which you’ll stroll in the moonlight quaffing a bottle of something wincingly strong and thinking about who you really are and what you really want from life, your sense of commitment might be tested. Responsibility can sound like a cartoon dirge, and meanwhile the siren song of ever-present, ever-hopeful special beauty never fully vanishes from our ears:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of--was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they're gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung...

Robert Frost (no relation to Jack Frost, who bit our asses all this long winter...) has used the word sweet three times so far in this poem—he’s talking about something delicious, but not nourishing. We can live off perfumed air, and kisses, and the mere promise of beauty for a time, but not for a lifetime, I don’t think. Still, even when we know how unsustaining these things ultimately are, their enticements don’t just cease. Stung by a rose-petal! The rose may wither and reek and lose all its beauty, but its venom remains in your system forever, reminding you in all your quotidian hours of your own elusive, special, beautiful destiny. There’s been a lot of talk about finding your path—what’s right for you—your deepest desire—blah blah fucking blah, as my cousin Cheri says. From where I’m sitting right now, these are the kinds of questions that really reduce you to a rodent on a treadmill, running fruitlessly toward something so flickering and evanescent it probably doesn’t exist at all. I don’t mean to be discouraging here, or maybe I do, but what if—with the marriage and kids and job and bills and house and stuff—all those commitments—what if that is  the path? What if that is your deep, hidden desire, to love and care for and be with those people and do whatever it takes to maintain your life together and make them happy? The rest of Frost’s poem, “To Earthward”:

Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.      

I’ve loved this poem for years, and have understood it intellectually, but not resonantly. How can joys be incomplete without things like “pain and weariness and fault”? Don’t those things undermine the very quiddity of joy, reversing it to sorrow? I know the feeling he talks about, when you’re sitting on the ground, maybe listening to music, maybe drinking wine and talking to friends, and you’re so absorbed with whatever it is that when you raise the hand you’ve been leaning on, you realize your weight has streaked it with grass-marks and cramped it terribly. It hurts, and why would you long for that feeling against your whole body? How does one go from craving sweets to needing salt? From wanting joy to appreciating pain?

I give much credit to beauty for making life worth living, but even beauty requires commitment, and once you’ve committed, beauty becomes something else entirely. It has to—how could it not? Your commitment has energy, power, magic. With it you cast a spell and everything is transformed. And eventually, there must come a moment when you are so committed to life that you accept, even long for, every single aspect of it—all of it—even death, which is never the opposite of life, but is so interwoven into the fabric of life that it is absolutely impossible to ever separate them. Any commitment made is underlyingly a commitment to life, and ultimately we cannot break with that commitment or change our minds because the path we’ve placed ourselves on, no matter how splintered and proliferated we make it, leads to the same inevitable destination—the end of life. The dance of life and the dance of death are the same. The rose stings and the sweetness of love leaves you tear-stained and hungry. You can pretend you’re not committed, but you’re fooling yourself. The only question that remains is what are you going to commit yourself to?

I’ve been very keen on house-cleaning lately, uncharacteristically. It’s something in my life I can control. This afternoon, two harsh bowls and half a box of wine have altered my attitude about that. Control—agh! Cleanliness—fuck it. My living room is a shambles of fabric bolts and bits, old photos, disintegrating letters, unraveled spools of thread, sewing machine manuals, unopened bills—I suppose I’ll have to clean it up tomorrow.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

but unlike Macbeth, on one of those tomorrows I’m going to locate something else to commit myself to. Something meaningful; something grand. Probably not pot-holders.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

april, or the dangers of crepusculophilia


Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim is my homeboy.  You might know him as Paracelsus, so self-styled to indicate that he was taking medicine beyond the learning of the 1st-century doctor Celsus, and by the sixteenth century, it was about time someone did. In order to do so, though, in order to break the choke hold of ancient-world science on Renaissance heads, Paracelsus had to bear the mockery, enmity, spite, and threats of the established order, the European citadel of authorized knowledge found in the universities of the time. Although he himself had magnificent education by anyone’s standards, he spent very little time within the academic ivory tower, preferring to wander internationally in search of marginalized books and knowledge. One of my favorite quotations comes from him:

Not all things the learned person must know are taught in the academies. Now and then [s]he must turn to old women, to tartars who are called gypsies, to itinerant magicians, to elderly country folk and many others who are frequently held in contempt. From them [s]he will gather his knowledge since these people have more understanding than all the high colleges.

This is great advice, and I’d be eager to chat up “itinerant magicians” and gypsies, but how often does one run into them? In my travels, I have only encountered gypsies once (I think), and unfortunately I cannot remember too much of the conversation I had with them. It was near the famed Rialto Bridge in Venice. I was twenty-one, Nick’s age, and being drunk and upset with a gondolier possessed of wandering hands, I had lost my friends for the evening, and found myself wandering, alone, at midnight, with nowhere to stay.  This situation was entirely desirable to me; I took it in my head to get out of the early spring rain and sleep under a bridge.  The streets were nearly empty.  A man had been following me muttering suggestions in Italian for a while, and every time I turned to confront him, he turned around as though he would walk away.  Then he’d follow me some more.  Finally, sure I could best him if it came to a fight, I kicked him in the ass as hard as I could and that time he kept walking in the other direction for real.  It was 1990, and for some reason, I was convinced that I had AIDS, that the world was about to end in a slow drizzle of nuclear winter, and that I could beat anyone in a fistfight.  None of these things turned out to be true, but I didn’t know it yet.
         The gypsies that I met a few moments later were vehement that I give them money to have my fortune told, and even though I didn’t have much money and we didn’t speak the same language, eventually I agreed.  A few of them pressed on my palms, both palms, and peered with excitement and consternation at the lines there.  They gave me a few sips of the wine that was being passed around.  One woman, maybe about my age, spread out some dog-eared tarot cards on a crate.  It seemed that they were either all talking at once or not talking at all, but it was all the same to me.  I don’t even know what language they were speaking.  I fell asleep hungry, my coat draped over me, and I woke up alone, the gypsies gone.  I guess this anecdote doesn’t necessarily confirm the point Paracelsus was making, since I didn’t gain potent knowledge from those gypsies.  What I gained was a potent memory, under that big bridge with people who themselves seem a bridge between the modern and the old world.  I was at an age, like now, between one life and another.  Bridges make the crossing between one place and another terribly easy, and still, some people get to the middle of the bridge and leap off.  I’m not going to be one of those people.  This summer I am going to turn 42, twice the age I was then.  Coincidentally, this summer I am going to Italy.  I don’t have any money and I can’t afford time off from work, but I’m going anyway because I have to.  I’ve just finished a draft of a novel that takes place in sixteenth-century Naples, and I have to get there.  It’s a dire necessity.
         I thought when I started writing just now that this post would be entitled “Smackademia,” or maybe, “Wackademia”—a complete roast of the present-day American university system that I believed in and labored within for twenty years.  There’s a lot to say on that subject, and maybe I’ll say some of it now, but for the moment, I just feel too happy to be so sour grapes about anything.  Sure, after half a lifetime of study I’m left without a career or a means of keeping myself in the style to which I would like to become accustomed, and the fault is shared between me and a system that is demonstrably fucked up, no doubt, but still, on this morning on the still barren side of spring, I feel happy and don’t want to roast anyone.  The world always seems like it’s about to end, and no doubt it will someday, at least the world we know.  But the other day, Nick and I spotted two bald eagles mating over the Connecticut River, and then the next day, Marisa and I saw a mother fox successfully hunt something fat and furry to bring to her kits.  The world that is passing away has not passed yet, and as we ooze into an uncertain future, we lose nothing of anything that ever was—this is what makes me feel happy even though I don’t know if it’s true—the past and all it possesses belongs to the same body as the future, and it’s impossible for us to ever truly lose anything.
At one time, I dreamed about giving birth to a child.  I favored the name Lola, which was the name of my Irish great-grandmother, Lola Claffey.  I have read that Irish and Scottish names that end in “fey” indicate a family relation to the fairies.  I treasure that association; my own story has some relation to a fairy tale, complete with speaking animals, poor, lovely friends imprinted with perfect gentleness, and the certainty of a happy ending.  There are formulations of fairy stories far older than that particular recipe, however.  One of my graduate students at Queens College wrote her master’s thesis on fairy tales, and we covered much interesting ground together.  “I heard that fairies in the Celtic tradition did not have the benevolent aspect of the ‘fairy godmother’ figure,” she said to me one night.  “I heard they were actually menacing, malicious even.”
         “That’s exactly right,” I was able to affirm.  There’s a tale in the ancient Welsh tradition that tells the story of a young man who whiled his time away at the edge of a lake.  One day, a beautiful lady floats up to him in a boat, offering to take him to a place where age and ache will never bother him.  He had fallen in love, and so, with the urgent voices of his friends behind him, he stepped into her boat and was never seen again.  They lamented his leaving, and they condemned the seductive lady that enticed him out of this world.  And indeed, this world, for all its known evils and familiar devils, is a lovely place, but who can say that when he took that bold step off solid land and into a fairy boat, that long-ago youth wasn’t making the right choice?  At the riverbank, he made a choice, and he left one world for another.  We don’t know how he would tell the story.
         When you’re between one place and another, it’s difficult to tell your story. Where do you start—the middle?  Some people are superstitious about attempting such a thing.  My beautiful butterfly of a friend Zoe, for example, when she was pregnant, “expecting,” as they say, vigilantly refused to talk about her baby for those nine months.  I met her for lunch at Café Colonial one afternoon, and during that conversation I wanted to inquire about baby stuff, the sex, the name, the preparations—topics that I thought were de rigueur when one encountered pregnant friends.  I was thirty-seven, thereabouts, and had managed to remain noticeably un-pregnant, so when it came to what pregnant women want to talk about, I was just guessing.  So many of my pregnant friends, though, had become rather single-minded during this particular nine-month period and beyond.  Not Zoe. It seemed bad luck, she thought, to allot much energy to discussing something so incipient, so not-quite-yet-emergent, as a baby in the womb.  Even to name the thing seems presumptuous on a cosmic scale.  Rather, the chrysalis should be allowed its nonidentity, its not-yet-life in its little sac, and when it comes to be, really passes that threshold from something as interior as a dream into the world of sense and matter, then it can be named, taking its place amongst those of us with basic ontological certitude.  We are.  That sounds like an incomplete sentence but it’s not.  I am, regardless of what precedes ergo.  Zoe’s baby was in between I-will-be and I-am.  Zoe’s baby was not-yet.  Zoe didn’t want to talk about her baby in other sense.
Neither here nor there, I believe, is one way people say that, and that phrase usually has a negative connotation.  The in-between places are wasteland nowheres, and people need to have definite things to say about their lives, their work, their achievements.  It’s uncomfortable, if not infuriating, to try to tell someone about the process of something that isn’t yet, but is in the process of coming to be.  We save these conversations for our intimates, our dear friends, opening up, allowing the yellow light of uncertainty to shine in our eyes, revealing a self that is hesitant, afraid to hope, unwilling to identify with mere possibility, awaiting full fruition.  What kind of story is this?  A dark and dangerous fairy tale.
In his strange and charming book The Celtic Twilight, W.B. Yeats describes walking along the seashore with a girl who claimed she knew the fairies.  Soon, she grew excited to see their fires and hear their music along the shore.  Yeats, too, later claimed that he saw the fairies, heard their music, and—wisely—refused their food, realizing that this ocean-side cave was a threshold into the Otherworld.  In an enlightening moment, he understood how powerful the betwixts and betweens of the Celtic landscape were.  Mists, fogs, dawns, dusks, lakesides, streambeds, dews, bridges, and oceanshores—thresholds all.  These indicate potentiality, the liminal states between one being and another, the possibility of leaving one world and entering a different one.  The magic of the Celtic world, says Yeats, is its twilight, its betweenness.
         There’s danger, too, in twilight.  The young man who left his native shore for an unknown fairy place may indeed have received relief from “age and ache,” but who’s to say whether he ultimately got the better end of the bargain?  Peril lies in any attempt to leave one world for another—witness space shuttle launchings, births, voyages at sea—and there are many fairy stories that describe the misery of those who fall prey to fairy wiles, the madness of being elf-shot, the desolation of never again savoring something as sweet as a fairy feast. What can have created such terror in the folk who perpetuated these stories, and why do fairies range from the whimsical and harmless to the grotesque and horrifying?  In her book At the Bottom of the Garden, Diane Purkiss addresses the conundrum:

A fairy is someone who appears at and governs one of the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death.  She presides over the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another. … She is a gatekeeper, and she guards the entrance to a new realm.  Like all gatekeepers, she is Janus-faced, ambiguous: she has a lovely face, a face of promise, and a hideous face, a face of fear.

In the past couple years, I have seen these faces, fairy faces, almost at every turn.  They tantalize me with hope and, often late at night as my neighbors sleep, ravage me with terror. 
I do not think that my circumstances are exceptional since everyone finds themselves at thresholds at many points in their lives, and furthermore, most people are aware of the tremendous significance of such thresholds.  I cannot count how many times I have heard or overheard words signifying something akin to, “There’s a lot of transition in my life right now.”  We know it when we see it. Have you read Rory Stewart’s exceptional book called The Places In Between?  It’s exceptional in part because of its exceptional subject matter.  Stewart, a Scotsman, walked across Afghanistan following the footsteps of Genghis SomeWhatsit, accompanied part of the way by a couple of alien-seeming Afghani soldiers and part of the way by a more familiar-seeming, faithful stray dog.  People should read his book because none of us will ever have a similar experience, and we read of his extraordinary journey with the kind of gaping expression we wear as we observe the Hubble photos of deep space, or read about Shackleton’s voyages, or observe undersea explorations on television.  These are strange places, foreign and marvelous; we are glad to see them, and we may wish for the courage it takes to venture there ourselves, but we are also (we realize) content to be at home enjoying our mediated experience of Afghanistan, the Eagle Nebula, Antarctica, or the Octopus’ Garden.
But there are liminal places closer to home, which doesn’t mean that they are comfortable, familiar places.  Anyone who has been between jobs, in the midst of a health crisis, poised on the brink of divorce can tell you in colorful language exactly how uncomfortable these places are. No one has to wrack their brains to remember an incident that took courage of the truest kind, a personal advancing into the void, whether it was an adventure sought or thrust upon us.  Donating a kidney to a brother; leaving a marriage; bringing a child into the world when one is happy with life as it is.  When Zoe had her baby, she didn’t tell me many details, only that it had been a difficult birth resulting in a little girl named Hero.  Not a common name, but having read Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I get it.  And I get it in another way, too.  It takes as much of a hero to navigate the birth canal as it does the Suez Canal; just because we’ve all done it doesn’t mitigate the sheer boldness of the effort.  We have all, already, walked between worlds, a genuine shamanic experience. 
My Nick is leaving for Scotland on Tuesday, his first solo adventure into the world.  Perhaps worried about my scanty appetite, he’s made for me a gallon of red sauce and fifty meatballs—one for nearly every day he’s away—as a kind of going away present. I’m driving him to Logan, and at seven pm I’ll kiss him goodbye.  It’s one of those adventures young people have, like the one I had at his age, and I have to say I’m in love with the symmetry of it all.  Nick and I are wondrously compatible, and sometimes I wish he were the man I’d met when I was twenty-one (impossible, I know, because Nick was, um, just being born then...) rather than the one I had met and married.  When I think about my failed marriage, I hover along the edges of regret, so aware of what I’m carrying with me through this transition—baggage, some call it.  What do you pack for these journeys?  What do you bring and what should be left behind?  Nick travels light—I’ve seen his one bag he intends to bring—but he’s so much younger than I am.  I bring everything I can because I think that even the tarnished and old stuff can be restored and made even more useful than it was before. The key to the fairy kingdom must be ancient, passed along from one hand to the next, and I think that somewhere amongst my accumulated stuff that key lies in wait for my discovery. I couldn’t be the happy and whole person I am with Nick without the baggage I’ve brought with me from that marriage.  When Paracelsus mentions learning from people who are “frequently held in contempt,” I think he insinuates we must learn even from those we ourselves hold in contempt.  How rooted, how fixed and stagnant I would be otherwise, if I only learned from those I admire and trust.  If my journey is to continue, if I am to wake up and cross the bridge I’ve been dreaming under, I must make sure that I do not dismiss or lose those lessons I did not seek or want.  Bearing their baggage makes me strong enough to stand on the shore and send my young man off over the waters into the Celtic twilight, his own journey, and to believe that somewhere in his backpack, he carries something from me that will do him good.