Dexter Filkins, divorce, eating disorders, free-form essay, history, imagery, Las Vegas gunman, Mos Def, motherhood, personal history, photography, poem within an essay, poetry, politics, suffering, Trump, Wallace Stevens, war
It is autumn. An unexpected solitude. Children, gone to play on the hills outside my mother’s summer cabin. Friends disappeared, for the most part, along with the marriage. The husband is an X, still so strange to pronounce. He’s been gone for centuries I think. My hands will grow to gnarled claws. Aloneness a relief, but hollow.
When I was young and first introduced to Plato (Formal as a King’s Ball, my gloved hand in his lined ancient paw), I was enthralled to the ring of Gyges and its power. Common questions: ethical limits, temptations of greed, the never ending invitation to live fully, exclusively, in realms of Id and desire. But also: what does it mean to exist unobserved? Then the questions become existential, not ethical, or enters a territory in which the two mix like tangled river beds.
A beautiful married woman becomes an aging divorced mother, wears that ring like a noose.
It is a living poem, for one to observe those who cannot or do not care to return one’s gaze. But as any fairy tale or moral philosopher will tell you, there are no creations given freely; something must die along the way.
This evening I went to a bar. I was loaded down with headphones and Thucydides and Dexter Filkins. My hair is short, no longer white-platinum, my eyes weary from days and days of toddler tears, sleepless nights. I drank vodka scented with lavender.
A birthday party of beautiful Korean women got louder at a nearby table. They had long hair and red lips and seemed like true friends. Next to me sat a couple enclosed in a womb of New Love. The woman’s skin changed by the minute, growing flushed, darker, her lips full. The bartender was out of a film: perfect skin and gold hair with a voice to match. I thought vividly of bedding him without telling him my name.
The once observed is now the observing. The wind blows against my bones. There is no cover, the little deceptions that were the great comfort of marriage, of youth, of babies and beauty and all the fecundity of children, family, husband – gone. There is no comfort. This is an evolving fact, if such a thing exists: a life without comforts can lead to infinite possibilities. Or at least a satisfied eccentricity.
Noisy solitude, nameless yearning.
And then I picked up Dexter Filkins. He knows something of bones, and strength, and pure observation. Fallujah, 2004, black night lit not by stars but artillery, advancing yard by blood-smeared yard. Kabul, before the U.S. invasion. Men and boys murdered, slowly, with showy imprecision, in reluctantly filled stadiums, orphans gathering by the dozens.
Orphans. I thought of this. The plural, that devastating s. Orphans. The heart twists, lurches to the unimaginable void of the word.
There are many types of solitude.
“I do not know which to prefer
The beauty of inflections
or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
or just after.”
– Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
I had just turned 18. My addiction to “thin” had just turned 8. To this day I adore the feel of my hip bones, and the sense of my spine emerging like some amphibious spiked creature when I bend at the waist. Deprivation, for some, is safety. The calm of fleshless limbs: so many of us know it, and only belittle the need without comprehending the benefit. Everyone wants for refuge.
Even if that refuge takes shape as its denial.
Speeding in a black sports car, leather jacket, cigarette permanently attached to bony fingers. The best friend circled her hand around my thigh. “Too much.”
I did not look. At her, at my thin (not enough) exposed leg.
And I said, “I cannot have anything extra. I want my life to be utterly spare. Clean.”
She curled her mouth in that charming, wise way she had, even in elementary school, and even now, all these decades later. “I understand,” she said. “I understand that.”
The sweetness of this brief memory arrives almost daily, finch at a windowsill. The irreplaceable understanding between girls… She still knows my interior, but our lives are lived far apart, territories rarely joined. And I’m still the girl who wants to roam, loveless but somehow safe, all through the world. Untouched.
Understanding. Necessary futility. Filters, mirrors, want, needs real, needs imagined. My husband (X) knew something of me. Didn’t he? Once we danced on a graveyard in Pennsylvania.
There are many types of understanding.
“And we are alive in amazing times
delicate hearts, diabolical minds
Revelations, hatred, love and war.
And more and more and more and more
and more of less than ever before…”
— Mos Def, Life in Marvelous Times
My life is a shadow.
The shadow moves, sometimes, but is for now changeless.
The stagnation will end when the shadow grows weary of itself.
Through brute foreign masculine strength I must ensure that the shadow is not replaced
by another one.
There are children who surround me. They are my own, of my own making, of my own
force – their faces reflect parthenogenetic antecedents that are both royal and primordial. X, in our case, never marked the spot.
They are part of the shadow, the poor small aliens. They are too beautiful in their grief, their anger and dis-connection. Look: they are blind. I weep to see their small fingers explore this new habitat.
Cruel cruel land: uninhabitable for a child’s evolution of dream and waking. “Catch Up” – catch up to our insanity, our anger, our incompetence, demands the warring lord and the deposed queen. Race through heartbreaks that should be slow, and I will catch you as you leap, though there are but two arms now, weak from the lifting.
Our Earth has a sickness, a fever. Only she will know its resolution.
This morning: I am in a park crowded with dogs and sleek running women.
Visitations. Sometimes they linger, and some unnecessary part of me is killed off. Surgical. Often it is so quick I don’t know the pain.
See the slaughters infinite: Duterte, the Rohingya, Boko Haram in North Nigeria, the new (old) right wing power in Germany. The ruin of Syria, elegant Damascus, with its scholars and long boulevards; see the ancient stones bombed to ruin, while the North chokes on toxic air. Once women wore miniskirts in Kabul, and they lit cigarettes after dropping their children at school.
Trump sitting happy rich and stupid on his throne, this ugly spoiled child with a new toy. He brought his crayons to work, made his House White again. His eyes are small as a sunning lizard from the years of counting, hate, and keeping secret score. Power is an Etch-a-Sketch, and he will erase the wisdom and grace of the Black man who lived there once, in a time long, long ago….
A madman sits atop a hotel, aims his gun(s), watches the bodies fall like puppets. He loves the lights on the Strip. American life is a video game, thrilling wildly to itself and numb, all at once.
Stillness. A rare visit now – snow leopard heavy on a branch – it vanishes before the mind can capture it. Imprint. This stillness brings a small gift. A man, just a man, sitting in a clearing. Whittling. Blackbirds overhead. A man. Silver glinting blade, tiny, efficient. Quick hard fingers. I cannot see what lies between hand and knife, patient on a table. I see only, for that flashing moment, this quiet man, silent in his creation. It is an act of discarding, and a bringing forth. Then he is gone.