Morning before Mysore
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;
– – Keats, Ode on Melancholy
“I cry so much I could turn to drops.”
“You’d just roll into the waves…”
— from “Moonlight,” Tarell Alvin McCraney
First Thanksgiving in solitude. First Thanksgiving without A. in almost 17 years. First Thanksgiving, of course, without my children. Between Donald Trump, the depression of my middle child, my own middle age, missing the vision of the toddler I dressed this morning in sheaths of gold and silver bows, red sequined shoes that I would certainly click three times if I thought it could wake me, wake the country, from this wretched state…. She is gone, though, and has taken the shoes, along with her fat little gold-dressed Buddha-belly, to dinner at the home of my estranged husband’s brother.
I am unhappy. Deeply unhappy, and not in a wild, romantic sort of way: it is an unfamiliar unhappiness of dullness, of worry without end, of knowing that divorced middle-aged women with three small, rather complicated children and not much money don’t usually wind up taking long midnight walks through Dubrovnik in late spring, or getting into epic Liz Taylor/Richard Burton rows in Venice, or even just having sex. Occasionally. This haunts me because in my youth I was lovely, my ex used to describe me as having the sort of face that would cause college boys to have fist fights in parking lots; it is difficult, then, to let go of beauty (which I always identified as lacking), youth, and my marriage, in what feels like some drawn out but oddly simultaneous moment of Hell.
Like all other thinking people, I am devastated daily by the living nightmare of Trump. The take over of conservative white nationalists in this country makes me want to leave. Portugal? Southwestern France? Buenos Aires? But I will not leave. I cannot leave, not because I am committed to staying but because A. would never leave, not even Denver.
After we separated I begged for a compromise: I have stayed in Denver because of his career. “Let me go, let me go, let me go,” I begged. To the East Coast, where I most resonate with others; we discussed Eugene, Oregon, where it is beautiful and inexpensive and the ocean beckons, the wide grey waters of the Northwest.
I am made of water and air. In Ayurvedic terms one might say I possess much vata, the energy of air, of lightness, of dream. I find it horribly horrible to be grounded. I hate to stay. My mind is in constant play with images of the past, of dream, of beauty and myth. Sometimes I think Artemis is walking next to me, and when I set myself free, as I am doing in this essay, the quality of my thoughts are weightless, but glimmer like sun-peaked waves. Discipline is hard for me, and joy is often short lived. Everything cycles through me. Including, apparently, my marriage.
I worship water and green things and hidden places. Great cities and country fences that stretch for miles along borders of Kentucky grasses. Empty beaches and old white farmhouses, feral children running nude, ruining my Guerlain lipstick, knees bloodied and fingers raw from a deep-red football.
Finally, North Carolina. “Yes,” he said. I found a farmhouse, a real one, on four acres. White and huge and renovated, with outbuildings and sheds. A gazebo down a little lane, already in place. It was a house for children to ride scooters in, and get lost in the dark, carrying candles. I had dreams of homeschooling and long train rides to New York City, short car trips to the coast. The Outer Banks, springtime in Savannah, visiting the Martin House, owned by my family for many years, in Blowing Rock.
It seemed an odd but perfect landing spot: it would be loathsome to be around the conservative South, but I have had people there, on my father’s side, since before the Revolution. And I am expert at creating and finding bubbles, whether they be political, personal, aesthetic or cultural. I wouldn’t be alive without them. This is not a happy admission, just a true one..
That white house, with its original wood floors and untouched oak filigree filling the arches that separated endless rooms, the 13 foot ceilings and the windows that stretched the height of whole walls – it became my obsession. I had visitations of vision upon vision: the wet winters, the nights of storm, mornings all steam and heat and bloom. Outdoor and indoor cats, a few huge dogs, my children wild with play in the afternoon, books left on hammocks in the afternoon rains. I could see the covers run, ink stains of purple and orange. There, on the first floor, a living room empty save a grey linen loveseat and a couple of swing chairs. Next to that, the former parlor, now my library and study, where I visit with Virginia Woolf and my greatest friend, Henry James, who entirely approves of this arrangement, given his own itinerant homeschooled life. A house mainly empty, all space and wood, with music everywhere, all the time: Mozart quartets at dawn, Coltrane at 5:00, dancing to the layers of disco and hip-hop of Kaytranada in the dark.
At the last minute, we stayed.
We stayed here, in Denver. A city alien and huge to me, dry as death, polluted, overcrowded, flowing with second tier hipsters and second rate museums. A. has a career here, a family, and not much need for newness; he is a fairly content person, which makes him far wiser than I, with my visions and fancies and this hidden life outside of Life.
I dislike cities unless they are Great Cities. I would gladly live in and raise my three children in Paris, New York, even Boston, but I am not wealthy and without wealth any city, even a Great one, becomes a Great Prison. So, as I speed toward middle age and beyond, I yearn for the rural. For a life of sweet slowness, some village close by with a bookstore and a good cafe, and a decent small school. A home with a bedroom window that looks out on endless green, tops of trees, and nothing in the distance but hills and space and sky, and, if I am truly blessed, water.
Existence at this moment, both politically and in the most intimate manner, is utterly charmless. This word, “charm.” Its Latin root, carmen, is a song, an incantation. One might think of Orpheus, and the mesmerizing music he created and gifted to the human race. Or, the music with which he charmed all those lucky enough to hear him. Charmed, then, also means to be caught in a spell, and this meaning is found as far back as the Old French of the 12th or 13th Centuries.
How can one live without charm? By this word I do not mean a casual insouciance – though this element of life, too is necessary – but more that a life without the spell of music, of lightness, of civility and intelligence and wit, is…. empty. Barack, my huge and only political hero, possesses more charm than any person has right to own. Charm, in its old sense, the sense of the cultivated melody that delineates a life thoroughly lived, is leaving the White House, and has already left my house.
However, there are moments. Aren’t there always? Moments. Just moments, and when we are awake I suppose they occur despite Trump, despite a departed husband, despite the abandoned white house on the hill.
Two days ago I woke my children early so that I could attend a morning Ashtanga Mysore practice.
I took my smallest child, a little girl with a 70’s shag and a sort of verbal precocity that exhausts her companions by 11AM, and asked her to “use the potty.”
“Oh,” she said, with some surprise. “No that’s OK Mama. But thank you for asking.” And then she laughed, as if aware that a small creature who is still in diapers should not be using the Queen’s English to speak with such eloquence about her own incontinence.
After finally corralling all three small beings into our large car, my eldest, who is 8 and has been immersed for weeks in British books, heard me speaking to his grandmother about a playground.
“No,” he bellowed, in his usual ear-splitting tone, “I do not much fancy going to a playground.” I looked at the child to see if he was kidding, or if he was aware he had just used a term that might well get him an ass-kicking on a school yard, but he was utterly without self-consciousness about his gorgeously arcane phrase. This child, my son, happens to be particularly brilliant, particularly complicated, and hearing him adopt the language of his chosen world, found in pages upon pages of the books he reads obsessively and everywhere, brought me a momentary joy so large I forgot, for a spell, how bad things were all around us. The charm of this child, his brilliance and anger and confidence, swept me in and held me suspended in time and love. Charm, then, cultivates the greatest gift: gratitude.
We were almost to our destination when my deeply troubled and depressed middle child blurted from her booster seat: “If I am unconscious am I asleep?”
This sparked a rather amazing 10 minute dialogue on the different states of consciousness the brain is capable of occupying, from dream-state to manic awareness and everything in between. We talked about synapses and eye movements, drugs and surgery and dreams and what it feels like to wake up. We talked about death.
“That is right,” I said, trying to keep it technical, knowing the neurosis of my little girl’s mind. Then he said, as if he had been up for three nights reading Keats:
“Death, Mama, is an everlasting sleep.”
I looked at my son, with his long lashes and alien wide eyes. His hair is wavy and dark and his body is lithe like a baby panther.
Yes, my charming son.
Be good for your Nana.
I love you.