And now we are 4
Please tell me, winter moon or god or sun-at-dawn,
how am I to possess this
tight breaths – intake, release,
the pause between –
and bring to fruition
in the effulgent
and Deserved Joy
of Life Unfolding
am an etching incomplete
portrait of a Solitude
a more generous god
only during those
precious… slow… breaths.
how shall I be
their marbled wisdom
A Letter to my Teacher
The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.
— Keats, in a letter to his brother George, 1819
A couple of days ago you gave a dharma talk. It was primarily about aparigraha, or the cultivation of intense focus that leads one closer to Realization, or at least a glimpse of it. In your singularly wry manner you mentioned the fact that your guru, Mr. Iyengar, believed that with disciplined practice and total dedication, it should take one about 3 and a half years to master the entire canon of the asanas. And although your students treated this statement with laughing disbelief, the idea of mastery, what it means, and perhaps more importantly what it does not mean, caught my attention enough that I have thought of little else since.
It is commonly thought that the creation of a ballet dancer, particularly a girl, takes a full 10 years, and these 10 years must have behind them almost impossible prerequisites of talent, correct character, shape of limb, length of muscle, resistance to injury etc. When I think of the technique necessary for the speed, the lift, and the precision of ballet, it does seem true that Terpsichore more than stage mothers grant the gift of this art.
Here, however, is the poignant tragedy of dance, and, perhaps, almost all art: a girl at 18, perfectly trained, is ready to dance. But she cannot understand the secret meanings within technique; these are insights granted only with the passage of time, the softening and opening of the mind as it passes from the ecstasies of narcissistic youth to a slower pace that makes way, if one is lucky, for a comprehension and appreciation of the subtleties of art and existence itself. Such awakening is available only to an intellect that has the capacity for patience, for stillness.
Great dancers who have the luck and temerity to make it to “the end,” never later than her mid-40’s, often say the same thing: My mind understands now, and my body cannot express the understanding.
This is, of course, a parable for the manner in which we all live and age, no matter what the gifts of our life: first the coming forth, then the shading of color between the lines of character, personality, a life lived; then the fading away, often just when the colors seem their richest.
I think this is one of the exquisite jewels of the yoga given to us by Mr. Iyengar and, now, by you. Perhaps a practitioner, armed with great intensity, ego, vigor, physical capacity, can master the asanas presented in Light on Yoga, but the essence of the practice does not align itself with physical mastery so much as the far more difficult inward (some, myself included, would say spiritual) understanding of what the practice is, why it is, and in how many infinite ways it can be approached, no matter one’s age or health. In an odd way, the yoga you teach, as sophisticated as it is, and as demanding as it is of one’s physical and spiritual attention, is also the most open and embracing, despite its reputation for exactly the opposite qualities.
Yoga seen from its purely physical perspective is analogous to many of the arts that have a poignantly limited life. There are the inevitable failures of the body, even as sensitivity deepens. Taken as the truly internal practice it is, however, and the fading away of the body, of health, of the people in one’s life, finally of life itself: this is the vast, intricate tapestry of Yoga. And in this way, the practice you teach is an encompassing one, like an ouroboros: here is the body, what insight can we gain from it; here is the breath, what can it teach us; here is the departure, and what have we learned, truly, as we leave it all behind?
your student, R
I am looking at pictures of Palmyra.
The astonishing before
the devastated after.
If Palmyra was a ruin –
uncut jewel in the palm
of time –
what is it now?
The agora has been raided, again.
Palm trees looped the city
like a dancer’s arms
the smell of lemons
drifted to the theater
and the chorus lifted
its curtain of sound:
and warning –
Upon my curled legs
a small child sleeps,
lashes long as a peacock’s
tail, fine and glistening
It is midnight.
Her breath steady
as a tidepool
and her small body
(all scuffed knee and rounded belly)
is a living shadow of Love,
Divine and Perfect
as a memory.
I read this:
our skin, the flesh underneath,
is imbued with stardust,
and once a child arrives
in her mother’s womb
it is the same: cells within
cells, so the blood remembers
what the mind cannot.
Within the dead
shines the deathless particles,
and the secret arc
Aramean to Greek,
Roman to Arab,
mother to child,
When she was four her mind perceived little, and so later, as a girl, then a woman, her memories of the youngest years were mainly absent, more collage of dream than story. She knew there were happenings, and for some period, to her, as her woman’s understanding transmuted all childhoods to myth, she saw her tiny body as having been alone, alone for enough time that time itself stretched, and sometimes she did not know if she had always been alone, or if it had been a minute or a year of nebulous danger.
After Miriam died, she went through her studio apartment, unpacking and then quickly reassembling handcrafted walnut boxes that fit together like well made Matryoshka dolls; “nesting,” she thought to herself, as she realized that the names “nesting” and “Miriam” ran in almost comically opposite streams. Miriam was her great friend, her protectress; she was a small lonely girl’s perfect template for dress, (wrinkled rose silk caftans that she herself would split up the middle, second hand cashmeres that smelled of cigarettes, tiny bracelets on tiny wrists that gestured, constantly, outward, as if reaching); for movement (soft, deliberate, iron moving like water); for voice, for conversation, for hair, for the needlessness of truth if something better were at reach.
Miriam drank. And took a cabinet full of vitamins, “for the skin and for the liver,” she would wink at the young almost-baby girl staring up at her. The child thought her mother had sent Miriam to her from Heaven, or at least from the expensive au pair company some of the mothers of her few friends used on the Upper West Side. But by the time she was nine she understood, she never could remember how, that Miriam was just a babysitter, and had sat for many children in the neighborhood as she submitted poem after rejected poem, went through lover after discarding lover. And so Miriam fell to earth, and the girl began to treat her with the same distracted contempt one might possess for an old, once furiously loved doll. This was an alteration in their relationship, she remembered (with blushing clarity), that made Miriam smile with some kind of secret tenderness the girl found both strange and off-putting; by the time she herself was dating she had no use for Miriam or her silks.
And so when Miriam died she returned, filled with regret and shame for the absent years, to the familiar apartment, mostly unchanged since those days of raw earliest girlhood. She saw the studio, finally, for what it actually was: the tiny abode of a solitary woman with exquisite taste, little sentiment, and an apparently unending love for fine, beautiful books. Every book, and there must have been close to two thousand lining the shelves in perfect, dustless rows, was a hardcover, its encasing paper as crisp as it had been upon arrival from the printing press.
There was no couch. Three old and highly polished cane chairs surrounded a Moroccan blue-tiled table, low and glowing like precious lapis. Under the table and chairs lay an old woven rug, thin and silken and fine, depicting the leap of the great Monkey-God Hanuman to Lanka, preparing his rescue of Sita, whom the viewer could just see in the lower left corner of the faded thread. She reached down to touch the fabric. It felt cold in her hand.
Under the one large window, facing East, was a small double bed, perched on a platform of bamboo. The sheets were old, the white not quite white anymore, but the cotton was pelt-soft, and when she lay her cheek to Miriam’s pillow she could smell the faded perfume and, she was convinced, some variant of medicated sickness and age. Next to the bed sat a table that was a small match to the larger one, covered in the same blue tile that her uneducated eye could not distinguish as either precious jewel or mere stone. Books piled high: a history of the sonnet, a French guide to reading Stendhal untranslated; a perfect hardcover of The Red and the Black in English. And, incongruously, two gossip rags, picked up, she wondered, by a sympathetic visiting friend bringing flowers or, frighteningly, by Miriam herself as she became too tired, too sad, to keep company with her great printed companions.
Her fingertips moved like fireflies over a small set of champagne glasses, a decanter with an exaggerated, arced neck both phallic and swan shaped, the stopper the thinnest raw crystal she had ever seen. There were no more vitamins, and the refrigerator was empty. Above the glistening blue-glass countertop she opened a pale grey shelf. On the lowest shelf was a large black box of chocolates, wrapped in cream ribbon, from Jacques Torres, and, next to the elaborate, elegant box, a round antique tin, out of place with its chintz-shine, filled with envelopes, medical bills, unopened letters and packets of paper, photos, the odd paperclip.
She took down both, carefully, as if she might be caught. She opened the chocolates as slowly as she could, and she thought of Miriam’s elegant, wrinkled hands receiving them from a nervous old friend or sympathetic employer looking at his watch. She lifted the box and inhaled the sharp, dark beans, the cocoa, the sweet cane sugar, the almond ganache; on one she smelled lavender so strong it was as if a bath oil had implanted itself deep within the small bark-brown skin of the truffle. Spice and salt, a long caramel dipped in coconut. The encasing silver foil. It was beautiful. And she knew Miriam had never seen it or cared. She slipped the box in her purse. Later, she might give it to her lover, and watch him eat, and watch the spell fall over him like mist. She smiled, her smile now almost identical to Miriam’s tender, secretive round red lips.
In the back of the small closet she found the silk dresses; in later years Miriam had apparently begun to wear thin wool sheaths as well, which seemed foreign to her. She could not imagine her babysitter, her keeper, in anything but those swaths of taupe or pale pink silks. She took one, the one she most recognized, and slipped it around her neck, like a scarf, like a noose. It encircled her blue veined collarbones with a coolness that grew quickly warm, then almost hot, as she next reached through the dying light of day to the dozens and dozens of perfumes, oils, and scented waters on her small walnut dresser. Chanel, Dior, Joy de Patou, even an unopened Banana Republic lime eau de toilette – all the usual scents one could buy at Sephora or Barney’s or duty free. Mixed in with them were the strange, nameless or unrecognizable oils and hard waxes of musk, ylang-ylang, pure rose, crystal bottles from out of the way narrow apothecaries in Dubrovnik. She had never fully believed Miriam’s stories about her travels (“The year I spent in Mongolia, learning how to ride without saddles or reins;” “I once knew an old, old man who had survived the carpet bombings in the jungles of Vietnam. We became great friends when I was working at a cafe in Auckland. I was with him when he died and he gave me an amulet. But I’ve no idea what’s in it because he had me swear on every honor not to open it..”). Perhaps she had been too cynical even at the age of four.
Rarely did Miriam read aloud, except for little poems by Milne, which acted like a sweet soporific during tantrums and those nights when she was too exhausted to sleep. Miriam told stories instead, which were either true or not true or perhaps a little bit true or perhaps mainly true. Or were made true through the telling, the transmuting whisper to the small ear of the small girl, falling asleep in her arms. Miriam used to rock her in her long, El Greco thin arms. Her mother had never rocked her, and never would, so Miriam’s arms were, to her, the wings of grace, and peace, and the deepest sleep.
She left the apartment abruptly, as if called. Outside the spring air was lit with an elongated sunset, and she knew not far away the oiled waters of the Hudson, the restless waves of the Atlantic, were lit with the dark, dancing rainbows of passing light. Like Miriam, she loved light that danced, she loved anything, actually, that moved.
She walked with the sunset, and then she walked with the dark, and then she walked with the settling night, starless, of course; she walked with the city as it woke to the night, and she marveled, again (how is it possible, the magic remaining with the repetition) at the living body of the city, how its breath changed with the hours, with the seasons, and how it seemed to writhe, constantly, both with and against itself. The City. Miriam told her she had lived everywhere, but the City was her home, even if she had no home there, even if she was gone for three or four or five years. “It’s the only home,” she would say, petting hair damp from a bath. “You will know. You already know.”
But her memory. From those years, her memories were scant and filled with blurred impressions. Miriam did not say those things. She is saying those things to Miriam, in her death. Yes? How is it possible that she remembers nothing, except the alone-time, but knows about the stories, Miriam’s hands, her silks? Her legs grew tired, and the further she walked from Miriam’s apartment, from her secret block in the heart of the West Village, the more confused her mind became, memory mixing with wish, wish blending with stories told to her second, third hand. She knew her Miriam. She knew that she had been alone (for how long?), and she knew that after the aloneness Miriam came. That is all she knew.
After crossing into Alphabet City and then heading North, and then West again, she made her way, exhausted, into a tourist bar by the Park. She sat at a darkened booth and took out the old strange tin. As an afterthought she took out the chocolates as well: if she fed them to her lover later that night, she wanted them to be new, and to smell like Miriam, not the tired leather of her purse.
Gently, as if handling a relic of infinite value and delicacy, she removed the tin’s bright top. She sifted, gingerly at first, and then with more force, through the envelopes, the trinkets, the poem fragments, the letters (one was from Auckland, she vaguely noticed), the small packets of bills, reminders, bookmarks from Paris and Quito. She was looking. Suddenly it was upon her, the hideous fact of her looking. Her search was a greed, and she was looking for something that she knew already was there, but some part of her mind – the stupid part, she thought – had to see, had to see proof of something never to be proven. Her hands dove into the tin, and the tin, she was sure, grew deeper with her reaching.
She got up, her legs restless, her face on fire, her body hot from the layers of silk woven like thick waves around her neck. As she rinsed her face in the bathroom, she gazed, hard, into the bright mirror. Her eyes were blue, “dolphin blue,” her first lover used to say. But as she looked she was sure they had turned the black of a moonless sky. They were the eyes of ink and earth. It is a trick of the mirror she thought, or it is a trick from Miriam; Miriam with the white Irish skin, the black Russian eyes. That, she thought, is a problem to be solved later or not at all.
As soon as she returned to her place at the table, three watered vodkas pushed to the side, she pulled up, her hands like harpoons, the prize that had for hours eluded her. Two photographs. Two photographs of similar shape and age, both shredded slightly along the edges, the images the faded-orange color so unique to family portraits of the 1960’s and early 70’s. She smiled, her lips red, and the men around her looked up from their drinks and their phones, suddenly alert to the double-presence of beauty and of danger. Her neck smelled of roses from Madagascar.
The first photograph was of her. Just her. Her mother had never taken a picture of her, and she had no idea what had happened to the silly school photos, the fake trees or swirled purples in the background. Had she ever had a school photo? But she knew of this photograph, this one proof of her small girlhood. She only knew because Miriam had mentioned it, casually, just before their last gathering. She had wanted horribly to see it, but she dared not reveal such need, such ache. As if, she thought now, as if Miriam did not know; she was simply waiting to be asked.
She did not recognize herself: wild blond hair to her shoulders, eyes huge, far apart, not blue like a dolphin, more blue like an empty sky that sees no rain. Hungry eyes, small mouth, a mouth unsmiling, eyes fearful, eyes of poverty, eyes of want. She grew up, she knew, on the Upper East Side. She went to the park with her Miriam. She played dress up and had dolls from Madame Alexander and stiffened Steiff teddy bears. One Christmas her mother’s boyfriend presented her with a dollhouse twice her size, to the embarrassed satisfaction of her mother and her own confusion over her somehow reduced place in the family. Were they rich? In the photo, she looks like a child from the woods of West Virginia, and even her striped turtleneck looked second hand.
She had always been told that she had been a beautiful child, and now she could see it. But the beauty was rooted in deprivation, in hunger, in some sort of nameless want. Is that still beauty, she thought? As she looked at the photo of herself/not-herself she went cold: there is nothing here, she thought. Nothing to be found, or seen, or admired or even loved. A beautiful hungry child. And that, she thought, is the most common thing in the world.
It was the second picture for which she had spent her life waiting, wishing to prove, to know, to see, and then to hide or burn. Could she burn it?
It was a photograph of her mother, taken about a year before her one, regretted pregnancy. She knew this photograph existed but she did not know how. She knew even less how Miriam came to be in possession of the image, or how she was so acutely assured she would find it in Miriam’s apartment. What does the mind know, anyway, she thought? Useless…
If she was a beautiful child she had only her mother to thank. Her mother was beautiful in an inhuman manner; it was a beauty that was the defining disruption and dictation of her life, and could never be otherwise. In profile her brow arched upward as if in permanent, questioning contempt; her nose was slightly sloped but thin from the front, and her eyes were wide as an alien. Or an angel. Or, as her lovers used to often conclude, a demon. Her mouth was as large as her jaw was delicate, and her lower lip looked permanently bitten, even a bit raw, and when she smiled her teeth glistened in perfect small rectangles. Side to side, forehead to jaw to neck to breast, she was only symmetry, a symmetry simply unseen and unknown among human beings. Women were usually not envious when they met her: they simply stared, surprised, stunned to silence. Only later, much later in the evening, or the next morning, hung over, sad, would they look at their own freckled skin, their stomachs soft from children, or one eye slightly smaller than its mate, and feel an ugly sort of shame, and her mother’s image would be a spell of remembrance: “you are not this you are not this you are not this…”
Her mother’s eyes, however, had a wry, mean glance, and this more than anything kept her beauty from being dulled to unmoving sculptural perfection; her sharp gaze, like an animal of odd intelligence, made her beauty something fluid, and, to those who lived close, something frightening and loveless.
In the photograph her mother was wearing an unusual gown designed by Charles James. The skirt billowed out in circles upon circles of cream and lavender silk, with an overlay of the finest chiffon that one could barely perceive in the faded light. Her gold hair was swept up in a complicated chignon, and instead of a tiara, as other women in the background wore, the top of her head was crowned with a ring of jeweled flowers so delicate they looked real.
Whoever took the photograph had clearly asked her to turn around: most of the image captured her back, the swiveling tiny, corseted waist, and the strapless cream silk bodice of her complicated gown. The camera had caught – “captured, at last,” she thought – her mother’s huge laughing smile, her arched cheek, her heavily lined eye, as she turned her head around just enough for the photographer to press, to click, to steal, the briefest moment of her strange, mysterious, and long life.
It had been a costume party, she thought. It must have been. The late 1960’s. A Charles James dress from the ’30s. Her hair done up like Diana Ross. She stared. Her mother, free. Her mother… a winged creature, cruel and oddly devoted. Her mother, empty of love but free, and the freedom somehow replaced the love. At least until that time, was it a day? A year? Ten minutes? The alone-time, and then Miriam, and then she, the winged mother with the cruel laugh men loved, was gone.
She remembered a story. At least, she thought she remembered it. Was it a story? Or was she seeing for the first time? Miriam had told her, she was sure. Yes, she was sure it was Miriam, and that she was not seeing this in the photograph. Or perhaps she was seeing it in the photograph and it reminded her of what Miriam had told her? Her eyes blurred, and an ancient, patient tear emerged from her weaker eye, and that tear was quickly followed by others, and her face became like a map, where one could point, and say, “Here, this river is created by solitude. And over here, one finds a tributary created by canyons of false friends…. the territory is beautiful, isn’t it? The land is soft, the water is flowing, flowing, down into the gorge of neck and breast. The rivers will not dry now, not for a long time, now that the sight has opened and the clouds have gathered.”
Here, then, is the story: “Your mother, my child, have you ever seen her naked?” Miriam was quiet, but serious in a way the child was unused to, and she became cold, her little fingers, nails filthy from the playground, turned blue. “Have you not, my dear? It is so strange, to not see one’s mother, especially a mother as knowing as yours, undraped and revealed. You must see her. My love, you must go to her, when she is in her dressing room, and you will see. Look for the spine first. Do you remember that word? S-P-I-N-E? Yes? Good. Look for her long, long spine. Notice, if you can, how much longer it is than most ladies… Have you ever noticed that? It is not her posture my dear, that makes her spine so long. You must know this. Because I love you, you are my treasure and my keep, and one day you will not have me, so you must see, even if you are too young.
Find your mother’s spine. And look. Make sure she does not see you. Her anger… her quick body… make sure you are quiet and unseen. I know you are already very good at that. Practice, and then find her.”
Her mother, she knew, did have a dressing room. It was carpeted, and it was a place children were not allowed to enter. Neither were their babysitters… how did she, how could she know?
She is certain that one night, before the time of the aloneness, she found her mother. She crawled, quiet, and, she was sure, invisible, to the edge of her mother’s dressing room door. Her mother was sitting at her large white vanity, brushing her hair, over and over and over, not looking in the mirror. Her mother, so beautiful, so far away.
She found her mother’s spine. And she looked. And then, she is fairly certain, she looked away. Quickly. And blinked and blinked. Slowly she turned her head, and looked again. There were two small cracks next to her mother’s spine. They looked so painful, so raw she wanted to cry out, as if she could feel the cracks in her own body. There were droplets of the reddest blood slowly seeping from the cracks, and, just beneath the drops of blood, what looked like pure translucent white feather tips. As she looked, her mother’s spine seemed to grow, and the feathers were not tips anymore, but looked as if they were growing, or emerging, she did not know, how could she, such a small little child, a child with so few memories. She is sure, now, that she looked away again, and that when she looked back her mother had stopped brushing her hair, and was staring, with cool eyes, huge and dark, into the mirror that reflected back to her a small child on hands and knees at the entrance to her chambers.
After that came the alone-time. And then the arms of Miriam. Of this, she was sure. She looked again at the picture. Her mother’s smile. The gown. And she could not tell, through her tears, if through the dress there were two tiny spots of blood. The photograph was old, one can never be sure of the truthfulness of an image.
Or a memory from smallest age. Or, for that matter, of a story.
LSD with M
I do not remember which came first –
the storm of serotonin or the spring rain
that was first a soft dance and then
a stomping torrent and then a thundering flood.
The hopeful boys were there, trailing after you,
picking up the crumbs, turning scent to secrets.
I think even now, during slow days, fast years,
our faces turned to the West,
those boys remain boys
when they think of you
and your inviting laugh, impossible hair,
wild eyes blue as lupines
in the high mountain sun.
When the flashing joy took hold
and shook us out of the little sense we had
you grabbed my hand, or I grabbed yours,
and we tripped into the rain,
asphalt gleaming like satin ribbon.
It is only ascent, that crease through
the center of the right hand. It cuts
the life line clean in two: there is only
the before and the after, her taste
in his tired mouth like the steel
of an old machete. When he sleeps
he feels himself drift on the soft slope
of her collarbone. “Clavicle,” he thinks
upon waking, and it pierces him. It is
so simple, this conjoining, this unity,
bodies turned to thick green vine.
No winter, there is no winter, there is
never a winter, only a cleaving
so sudden as to be almost delicate.
Later, many shadowed years later,
her thighs, her teeth, her midnight eyes,
come to him like a sweet echo
he could hold in his fractured palm –
For love has more power and less mercy than fate,
to make us see ruin, and love those that hate.
I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly in vain,
since I am myself my own fever and pain.
– – John Dryden
She tells herself it’s all her fault
She doesn’t love she just devours.
– – Kate Tempest, “Grubby”
Florence for the historian, Florence for the aesthete, Florence for the newly rich Chinese, Florence for those who use the phrase “bucket list” (and therefore do not deserve to be in Florence); Florence for the High Romantic, Florence for the poet, the musician, the teenage hippie traveler. Florence for the Texan gold addict, the Ponte Vecchio her dealer, Florence for Italians on holiday, Florence for lovers, Florence for those who wish that all the world looked and smelled like the Mercado Centrale on a rainy day.
Yesterday I saw the tomb of Donatello, and above him, in the perfect cube of a Brunelleschi basilica, a high arced ceiling depicting an early July night in 1442. Running through the middle seam of the fresco, a lively crab with the eye of a diamond sun, a writhing serpent beneath her. If the gaze can stay steady and long enough, the body slips away, and becomes, for a time, a Florentine, 600 years old, at rest from a day’s work in mid-summer, staring up at the midnight sky.
The sky is a secret vortex, like all art of the finest sort: one looks and looks, and the trance that results removes the noose of time and boundary. The sensation of immortality imbues the skin, the very cells, and time steps away, the river stills. This, then, is the gift of art and observation.
There is no where in the central part of this city to go without being offered an embarrassing abundance of time’s gifts, and the still perfect, matchless art that was the cultural standard here for hundreds of years. Today I spent a long time in a bistro that utilizes as its space the double arched ceilings and tile flooring that were in place four hundred years ago. It was a bit like eating in a cathedral, which of course is appropriate for the hand made bread and Tuscan specialties (no thank you to the tripe) coming out of the open kitchen. In the next room there were vendors selling flowers. Scent of rose, scent of basil, of lilac and warm bread, taste of sea salt on the tongue.
Almost two years ago I came here as a sort of celebration: I was alive, with an actual pulse, after a long, long period of sickness. The sickness was in the brain, like some sort of inoperable tumor, and the diagnosis, at times, was fatal. Even with my children, I often didn’t know if I could pull through. With drugs, time, a shrink who is more like a surgeon than a therapist, and my children, particularly baby Isadora, I saw glimmers of light that occasionally turned to sun.
So on one cloudless day I took a plane. Here, to Florence. And then a train to Venice. I listened to the Well-Tempered Clavier and read a fine translation of Petrarch’s sonnets. I had the Italian next to the English, and would try to make out the words, line by line; just seeing their rapid confident beauty gave me shivers of pleasure. During those days I knew more joy, more awakening, passion, curiosity, rest, gratitude and relief than any single person has a right to in one lifetime. The deluge. That, really, is what it was: the deluge of Life coursing through and back into me.
Now, less than 24 months later, I am here in heartbreak. The cells that were mainly killed off, or at least shriveled to inconsequence during the healing of my breakdown, have shown troubling signs of reemergence. Depression can often metastasize, and although it might be weakened, a drastic change in one’s life can resurrect the demon, and one doesn’t know the creature’s strength until the middle of the battle.
Florence is still Florence: perfect. And perfectly held in time, or out of time, like a frozen kingdom in a fairy tale, a raindrop in hardened amber. It is of course what one brings to perfection that can change the view, or even the sense of place. I still wander around in a stupor of wonder, but the stupor is accompanied by hugely rolling tears, and a loneliness well beyond my usual romantic ennui.
I realized suddenly today, while watching a new-to-love, beautiful couple in front of the facade of the Duomo, that I have never been alone. The lovers were in the addict’s stage of erotic love, that part of love that causes the world to pale, making even the Duomo invisible, as the beloved is placed in a sharpened, charged central focus. Most of us know this part of love, its beautiful illusion, the way it feeds us until we come up empty, realizing that our sustenance was, after all, just another person, a mirage of one’s own hopes and needs, and not truly a divine being or saving saint. But during the period of intoxication no drug can equal love’s pleasure: the shiver on the skin, that empty feeling in one’s core, from spine to loins, the brightness of color in winter trees.
I have always chased this drug, partly because of the sheer joy it brings, but also, perhaps mainly, out of what I fear constitutes Love’s opposite: isolation, joylessness, not just a loveless life but an unlovable soul. So the seeking became, as it does for many, the search for a kind of triage.
Picture yourself in a kitchen. It is late on a Friday night. Bright lights overhead, no music on, and you are alone in a new apartment, hardly unpacked. You are making a soup, and chopping the onions that bring blurring tears. Suddenly, the mild shock, then a distant awareness of the surprisingly quiet, deep slice of your thumb; the onions slowly turn red with warm blood. What ensues, of course, is the frantic run to the linen closet, then the bathroom, then back to the kitchen to wrap the thumb to stop the bleeding while you look for band-aids that may or may not be there. You just moved in, after all, and you are alone and not totally prepared.
The search for love, or companionship, can feel like this. We will do anything to stop the bleeding.
These are the thoughts that came to me as I wandered from the Basilica of San Lorenzo to the Ponte Vecchio and up toward the gardens holding the unbearable majesty of the Michelangelo sculptures. Night fell, I looked at the stars. A winter sky. A Christmas sky. All around me, silence. This, then, is “alone,” I thought. It is an aloneness of my own making: the search and need to stop one’s own pain and blood letting must eventually slow, must eventually turn inward, so that a beloved, were one to ever know this drug again, is only the beloved, and not nurse, handmaiden, and protective keeper of the gate.
I ruined my marriage with my neurotic need for protection, my loneliness, and my quixotic ideals that fall hopelessly out of step with the forward march of the rest of humanity. The loss of A, of my family in its completeness, has brought me to a grief I’ve not known since my sweet sister died, many years ago.
The end of a marriage, particularly one with children, is a living death. We must drag the corpse of our love behind us as we make room for an inherently false cordiality involving the well being of our children, the innocent recipients of our anger, of my ridiculous standards and expectations. We love our children, this we share as one body. And now, as every parent who has divorced knows, our work lies in creating two new families, and somehow splitting the single seed that was meant to support only one tree.
In Florence I was exhausted. One day I slept 13 hours and missed my bus to Sienna. By the second day I began to wonder if it had been a mistake; why am I here, I thought, if I am fated to sleep the sleep of myth and fairytale? My body was dipped in Lethe, the sleep was drenching, it was storm and foreign irresistible muscle. Fatigue, heartbreak, the isolation of looking into a future without support, friends, lovers, husband, a complete family – I was a wounded animal, like a deer shot through with a fine arrow in a Renaissance tapestry.
There is Mercy in the world, Mercy in the heart.
On my third day in the singular city, I was walking down Via de’ Ginori, a busy lane close to the Duomo. The sun emerged from all cloud cover. It was a brilliant sun, unadorned, almost painfully naked in its intensity. A summer sun, maybe as the Florentines knew it that July day in 1442.
I felt the penetrating warmth and light on my chilled face. I felt the warmth travel over my always-cold limbs. Apollo paused his chariot, stilled his horses, and reached his tapered fingertips, white and hot, to my cheek: I woke. I woke up to the sounds, the smell of leather and meat and spice, so wonderfully particular to Florence, all around me; I stopped in the middle of the street to feel the pure pleasure of travel, the too often wasted gifts of time and health.
Travel is a Mercy. The mind absorbed with the freshness, the otherness, the open world of travel – this is a Great Mercy.
It is a beautiful word, a word one intuits carries within it the richness of a complex, even cruel history. Mercy. From Old French, as far back as the 12th Century, “mercit,” meaning a gift, or, beautifully, pity. (Does this make the Blake poem a redundancy? Mercy, Pity, Peace, Love… all the same..) Or from the Latin “mercedum,” which has as one of its meanings, appropriately, “wages.”
The payment for our suffering, for submitting to suffering, accepting it without filter, is Mercy. This is a Catholic belief; it is also a Buddhist one. Perhaps it is just a human one.
The source, finally doesn’t matter. Mercy fell on me, I knew the brief visitation of a tender god. A god of pity, certainly, a god of Mercy. I am a solitary wounded animal, and the touch of a pure, mysterious love brought me back to my children, so that with them, when needed, I morph from blooded doe to woman, Madre, strong bone, unbroken flesh. Mercy gives them exactly what they need.
An Ending: Paris
I was in Paris for a long time in February. It rained every day, and the chill sliced one’s skin open, leaving the body naked, wounded, despite the layers and layers of scarves, wool, fur-lined gloves. I loved it. I loved it because I am solitary, and something of a masochist, and because people were so busy hurrying away from the weather I could take my time watching them, and watching the buildings, wet limestone glistening in the dim grey light.
One evening I was walking home in a knife-like drizzle. It was impossible to comprehend that the drizzle wasn’t snow, the cold was so deep, so encompassing. It was early, but dark. Headlights doubled in the streets, and cell phones glowed, and stores shut their lights. I was walking toward the rue de Seine, where I was staying in a small lofted studio. I had chocolate and wine, and I had been walking for hours. My feet ached, or I think they ached, but I could not feel them. I passed a small square and a movement caught my eye. No. It wasn’t a movement. It was a spirit. A phantom. Or pure prana, as my spiritual practice might name it.
It was Joy.
There, hard to my left, was a beautiful man. His hair was chic and short, he wore the expensive wool overcoat of a conservative banker – certainly someone in finance, someone with wealth. His shoes were perfect, unmarked, and his narrow, fashionable pants hung in magically dry creases down his slender shins. Handsome. Confident. A person one would notice almost anywhere.
But on this evening, and who knows, if the world is lucky enough on every evening – even the nights Paris is bombed, or Nice is bombed, or the hard nights of the streaming refugees from the Jungle of Calais – on this night he had headphones in his small ears. He was dancing. When I say he was dancing I do not mean he was listening to hip-hop and his head was moving to the beat.
No. This man, so well dressed in the freezing rain, was moving with a feline practiced grace, taking up extraordinary amounts of space with amazingly few steps, his feet sliding into pas de chats, his hips circling like an Ailey dancer. His arms were slightly lifted, giving just enough space to his torso to keep the rhythm in check. Reader, I tell you it was a vision. It was beauty beyond beauty. This man, dancing with himself, or with his own private sorrow or new love or lost love, no matter; he was dancing in the dark in the rain. The oddest thing, too: no one noticed, or stopped, or even glanced up; it was is if he was invisible to all eyes save mine.
People who know and love Paris often encounter gifts like this, gifts one knows, instantly, will stay forever, and become part of the mosaic of memory, of how one defines joy, and when joy departs, how one defines its absence.
When I think of this man, and the striking, clear love for the Moment, for humanity, he evoked in me, and then I think of the events that later unfolded on this trip, and continue to endlessly unfold, like an unwanted, hideous cloak from a wizard in a cruel fairy tale, I find myself wondering at the nature of joy.
What is joy? Perhaps because it is so totally absent from my life, and has been almost from the day I witnessed the man in the rain, I can think of joy with some distance: joy as concept, joy as a philosophical toy to be played with by the mind, held to differing angles, histories, stories.
The world in general is a joyless place, particularly right now. A lying carnival barker leading the (now not) free world, Barack departing the political stage to the sorrow of those who love him, and know that if it were not for the sickness of our country this great man could have accomplished ever so much more. Racism ascendant in every corner of our planet, from the Buddhist monks in Burma to the nationalist Hindu government in India to the formerly tolerant societies of Northern Europe. The Middle East burns, North Africa is worse, and the United States is quickly turning into a banana republic, an embarrassment to the rest of the world, and becoming unbearable to inhabit. Fear and violence, one cannot the latter without the former, are the defining characteristics of the human race.
The macrocosm of our society, from what I can see, is fundamentally hopeless, despite the valiant efforts of a brave and enraged few. My own life, the tiny little microcosm that has meaning only for me, is much the same way. Depression, a true and old depression, one that has the consistency of granite rock and the familiarity of a dull dry face one has stared at for far too long, has returned to my body, has taken my body, and inhabits it, leaving me shelled, face down, waiting for a departure that doesn’t come.
Have you ever read the great and terrifying Yeats poem “Leda and the Swan?” Depression is something like this: the angry god descends, the young girl lies helpless in the field.
So, Joy. I think joy is primarily a stunning of the senses. And when the senses are both paralyzed and brought into line all at once, as if by some electrocution, the ego dispenses itself, and what remains… what does remain? The emptiness of pure observation. This capacity to see, to witness, and in the witnessing take part in a Moment not created by a small self, is, I think, Joy. In a way, the beautiful title of C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece on Christian faith, “Surprised by Joy,” possesses an element of tautology: Joy cannot exist without surprise. How else does one approach the wonder of God, or a beautiful man (perhaps a god) dancing in the rain?
Remember when Woody Allen was a genius, and he created Manhattan? Remember at the end, when he sits on that old couch, and speaks into a recorder? “What makes life worth living,” he asks. Groucho Marx, Louis Armstrong, the Jupiter Symphony, Sentimental Education.. the list is perfect, though I would add to it. A lot. But I think one could dispel the list to this: what makes life worth living? Joy. The joy of brilliance, the unexpected vision, the higher realms that occasionally open themselves to us, as when one catches a first glimpse of Venice at dusk. Joy is granted by a generous god, but a fickle one. And what the god grants the god can take, leaving an abyss of absence.
Not long after the evening I saw the dancing man, I spent part of an afternoon, one of many, wandering around the courtyard of the Louvre. I love the light created by the elaborately carved limestone facades and tall glass windows of the square: it feels as though one has entered a delicate music box and the lid has just opened to the sky.
On this particular afternoon I was fighting, bitterly, with my then-husband. He was in a fury: my passport had been stolen and he blamed me for it, and couldn’t believe the extra work of phone calls and bullshit I had handed to him. He was in a fury that I was in France, he was in a fury to be with our children, and working, and totally overwhelmed. He had supported the trip during one of our ever shrinking moments of affection; by the time the journey came to pass his regret, I believe, was total.
I looked around the courtyard. There were happy tourists milling around. Paris! Uncrowded Paris! The Louvre and friends and drinks later: what more could one want?
My headphones on, looking at the sweet laughing faces and beautiful stone surrounding me, I took out my phone to take pictures. I am fairly good with a phone camera, it’s the only reason, really, to even have a phone. The photos were quickly forgotten, though, when I saw The Texts. My husband had let loose his rage, and the rage could be felt, read, in real time, an ocean and half a world away.
It is not necessary to repeat the content; everyone is entitled to pure anger and the details only distract… even though it is details like the words on that phone to which I return, in my grief, often and too much. All around me, cinematic joy. And suddenly, violently, the private misery of my marriage encircled me like a noose, from which I have yet to see any escape or relief.
It could have been a moment of grand, romantic reckoning: “Here I am, in Paris, with no passport, my children far away, my husband clearly out of love and done. I can take a lover. I can be reborn and release myself from these years of suppressed rage. I can come home, call a lawyer, and file for divorce. I can be strong.”
It was a moment. But it was not grand, and it hasn’t lead anywhere but to this slow, hideous, increasingly lonely dissolution of a 17 year affair. Children, property, “assets.” If I hear the word “asset” one more time I think I shall go deaf. There’s not time even for grief, it’s all taken up with the trivial problems of housing and the profound, irreparable suffering of my children.
Joy. The memory of joy is inversely proportional in pain to the happiness of knowing it. Each day, for me, is a precarious balance, knowing that the depression within my body is caught and held by a thin net of phenelzine (thank the gods for chemicals), and if the net fails all will fail. Actually, all has failed, but the failure must be a secret, and my children must see this change as chaos, as difficulty, something malleable, workable, but ultimately resulting in the steady reborn happiness of two shiny new homes, as if we had planned it all along.
There is no reckoning, no grand conclusion to the end of my marriage. I have been a housewife, taking care of my children, a lost late pregnancy before that, for ten solid years. Housewives often have the worst of it when a marriage ends: there is the great, private grief, indescribable in depth; there are the children; there is the total loss of love and reliance on a sweetly imagined future of age and the mutual support needed through the passage of time, change, death, disease, suffering. All these things must be set aside, however: a newly single housewife must re-imagine herself as a person, a woman, in the world, capable of taking care of her children, making money, managing finances, ensuring the stability of her children’s financial, educational, and emotional future. She must become father, mother, worker, therapist, caretaker, organizer, all at once and immediately, with no gap.
I am old. I have three children, two of whom have unusual needs and minds. How many hundreds of thousands, millions of women have gone before me in this exact situation? Did they reinvent themselves, or just get through it? Did they know joy again? The dry new territory of true solitude and age: what is the nature of the terrain? Does even the occasional mirage of sex disappear? Where is the refuge for women who must suddenly be everything, and so become, within, nothing?
This past summer I spent nine days in New York. Like everyone, I adore New York. It is probably one of the most photogenic cities in the world. I was there to practice with an Ashtanga teacher. And to take pictures of the city at dawn. Somehow, I’m still not sure how, I forgot my phone.
Who among us is not
a hollow space, prayers
sung to leafless branches
and the shocking light of dawn?
There was a child in Florence
his hair a vine of blackened split rope
woven in knots, brushed back
by small impatient hands.
His face was a moon,
white, smooth, often in shadow
as he hurried the familiar cobbled route
from the Mercado Centrale,
carrying bread for the week
and a few precious pieces of salted meat
to his black-eyed mother.
She waited, knowing her only son
was safe: she taught him where
the thieves lingered, and how
to use a small knife on a large throat.
She was a high-flamed fire
love and rage
in equal parts, which,
is another name for wisdom.
I know this child well.
He looks exactly like
my daughter, who is small of limb
and holds infinity in her palm
She is the universe,
she is but a particle
in empty space –
she is a boy in Florence
six hundred years old.
Soon she will be three.
The party will be loud and fussy
and she will hold court
rather like the Florentine aristocrats,
all power and secrets, from centuries ago;
the boy caught glimpses of them
as he ran through fog, fighting thieves.
written for my youngest,
who is brave and too beautiful,
and who on dia de los muertos
will be 3. A monumental age indeed.
Je suis desole, mon amour, pour le depart
de votre papa (et maman).
Toujours et toujours et toujours.