Monthly Archives: October 2012

Autumn and it’s Theme of Loss

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

Rainier Maria Rilke
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)

This morning I sat on my sofa and glanced up to the window on my front door, where the orange fire of Barbara King’s glorious maple tree one yard over filled the frame. I love this tree, and until two days ago, it was at peak color. This is a tree of elegance and stature, tall, a single trunk with branches that form a rounded point on top and seemingly trimmed to a perfect ovoid shape. Patient to a fault, its leaves are slow to lose their chlorophyll coating, allowing the base colors to show. While other trees seem to rush fully into the change, Barbara’s begins at the very tip with a few yellow leaves, and by and by, it’s almost as if slow buckets of first yellow, followed by shades of orange-to-red spill slowly over the green, all the colors present until peak. Until two days ago, there were no fallen leaves on the ground; yet winds and rain over the weekend have coaxed a slow fall, a balding, as it were by degrees. Yet many hold on, the blaze still evident through my front door window. By weekend, I will see only the skeletal remains until next May or so, when, as e.e. cummings describes, its leaping greenly spirit returns once again.

From that same spot, Ground Zero for being on the computer, watching TV, even eating supper while watching TV, I read an essay on the Talking Writing site in which the writer spoke of her tendency to hoard details always with the intention of using them one day in a piece of writing. (http://talkingwriting.com/hoarding-the-flesh-house/) The same can be said of visual artists when it comes to stuff, the ephemera, ideas and concepts, each precious in the moment, inspirational, even, yet the collection burgeons, requiring more and more storage space. That someday never seems to come. Yet the thought of discarding these materials is abhorrent, even, I dare say, paralyzing, for the fear of an emptiness never to be filled again.

I am a hoarder. Not the pathological variety with narrow paths between towers of putrefying stuff, but I do hold on. Tightly. Loss, whether it be the last blazing leaf on a tree or an actual death of someone close, is merely a matter of degrees on a spectrum, and my spectrum is weighted toward the higher number. It would be fair to say that my disposition is elegiac: I wear loss like a blanket around my body. That’s why Rilke’s poem holds fast my soul, filled as it is with impending loss associated with winter: Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . These are the images that sound the death knell of hope. And the interminable New Hampshire winter is not to be trifled with.

Except for having my daughters stay with me Wednesdays and weekends and six weeks in the summer until they left for college, or one or more sisters sharing my home temporarily, or a three-year co-habitation with a boyfriend in the mid-Eighties, I have lived alone since 1973. Come March 10th or thereabouts, forty years. Solitude used to be scary; now it fits comfortably (although, it would be nice to have someone help hold up this heavy tent). I have never been truly homeless, out-on-the-street homeless. That said, growing up, I felt homeless in the chaos of our family, and I left after graduating from high school at seventeen, never to return. Still, Rilke’s Whoever has no house now, will never have none/Whoever is alone, will stay alone . . . resonates, particularly since I live on Social Security, and that doesn’t cover my bills. It wouldn’t take much to cause me to lose this rented home, tiny as it is.

The imprint of loss is indelibly engraved on my soul, as if part of my very DNA, and was the theme of both maternal and paternal lines, back to my great-grandparents, at least the ones I knew, and even if not, their legacies were filled with losses. Two World Wars, the Great Depression; my father losing his mother when he was three; my maternal grandmother losing a daughter to pneumonia when a toddler, a son stillborn; maternal grandfather losing his father when he was barely a teenager, and his sister at 22 of a septic abortion; my mother giving birth to me, her first child, seven hours after my father left for the War to name a few. The elements of scarcity and fear were modeled and taught like the alphabet.

There’s a good reason I’m the family archivist: the loss of generations of memorabilia is unthinkable, and when a family member dies, their rich repository of memories goes with them.

Buddhism teaches that attachment to things, people, anything, really, is the root of suffering, and to be able to let go frees oneself from that pain. (I would never make a good Buddhist.)

But what is the price of my holding on to so much? Perceived perpetual scarcity, the fear of never having enough to replace what’s no longer there? Is that fear rooted in fear of never being enough? Which then brings me to Fear’s companion, Perfectionism.

Bingo.

How does one rid oneself of that, for Pete’s sake? Such a loss would be beneficial, no? As a writer and visual artist, I take pride in aiming for the perfect sentence, the perfect piece of art. If you’re going to do something, do it right, my grandmother’s dictum echoes still today as it did when I was growing up. How does one find a harmonious balance?

When I was in Jungian analysis, my analyst asked me what it would take for me to free myself from this fear of scarcity. First thing out of my mouth was, “A Ph.D from Harvard.” Without skipping a beat, she said, “Trust me, that is no guarantee.” Today my answer is, “Being on solid financial footing.”

I have no answers, even after spending almost three hours writing this. A litany of affirmations doesn’t do it for me, frankly, but occasionally listing things I’m grateful for helps. I find at least five before I do my reading at night; still, when I open my eyes in the morning, fear of loss is the monster lurking about, always ready to pounce.

Where is that MacArthur fellowship when you need one?

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A Certain Slant of Light

There’s a certain Slant of Light (258)

By Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons–
That oppresses, like the Heft
of Cathedral Tunes–

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us–
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are–

None may teach it–Any–
‘Tis the Seal Despair–
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air–

When it comes, the Landscape listens–
Shadows–hold their breath
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death–

Hold that thought for a few moments.

Today I encountered, across the broad greensward of a 19th century graveyard in Bradford, NH, fall’s golden slant of light that set the long row of yellow maples aflame and provided shadows in the recesses of the low gray stone wall. The air was newly crisp, after a week of what seemed as if New Hampshire had switched coasts with the rainy aspects of Washington state, and the intensity of the color, and the languorous, but steady, descent of leaves were nothing short of breathtaking.

But first, some back-story. Must always have back-story.

In 1993 I graduated from Goddard College with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, after spending three semesters working toward an M.A. in Feminist Art History. I’d got bitten by the writing bug, and when I told people what degree I was working on, I got only blank stares or “What are you going to do with that?” I thought about that question, so I switched disciplines. Four years earlier, in 1989, I earned my B.A. in Liberal Arts at Goddard (Concentration in Visual Art), a seventeen-year process wending backwards from SLU before Goddard, to Tulane, and Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY, where I completed an A.A. in 1974, Liberal Arts (concentration in English). It was while at RCC (the Summerhill-like–read hippie–off-campus College A, as it was called) that I was bitten by the shutter-bug. I carried a camera everywhere, and after several years of practice, developed my signature style of shooting with black and white infrared film, printing on Afga matte paper, sepia-toning and selectively hand-coloring the prints. Infrared film enhanced my love affair with light because of the hazing effects around highlights and living tissue, and my images were serene examples of the intersection of time and light.

All this is by way of explaining that when I encounter the waning, golden light that ramps up color intensity, I stop in my tracks, overwhelmed by visual and literary entreaties to document it that aren’t easily quieted. In fact, my creative juices try to outshout one another: capture it on film, write about it, until I’m ready to shout myself. I don’t carry a camera anymore–in fact, after earning a living as a photographer for twenty years, I no longer enjoy making art photographs–and I’m slack-jawed, struck dumb by what I see. Words–other than that particular phrase about light’s golden slant–don’t come.

When I was a novice writer, I recall showing something to a friend who had a doctorate in English (I’m pretty sure it was she and not one of my advisors at Goddard), in which I referred to fall’s “golden slant of light,” and asked for feedback. “You can’t use that phrase,” she proclaimed, and I, who worshipped at the feet of those with doctorates, was defensive.

“Why?” I asked. “How else can you say what clearly is a slant of golden light?”

“You just can’t. It belongs to Emily Dickinson.” It belongs to Emily Dickinson? No one else can describe light that way? I was too embarrassed to admit my ignorance of the poem or the fact that the maiden from Amherst, MA had a copyright on those four words. As I said, this was when I thought persons who had doctorates lived on tall pedestals, high above us mortals, particularly this mortal who’d not graduated from college until she was 46. And didn’t even know of Emily Dickinson’s poem, for Pete’s sake!

Nevertheless, I took the commandment to heart and never used anything close to “golden slant of light” again.

But this afternoon, when I gaped at such a sight, I finally came to my senses. “Fuck that!” If Ms. Dickinson wants to come back from the grave and admonish me, well, I’ll deal with it when it happens. Meanwhile, Goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight, goldenslantoflight . . .

Turns out, did you notice that she’s writing about winter’s slant of light, and how ominous it is with it’s clarion call of Death? Far different from my riotous autumnal rays, still lively and gay.

So, there I am in the graveyard, connecting this fall with those past, particularly the sight along the narrow road to College A, flanked with yellow maples, or the breathtaking colors of an autumn residency at Goddard in central Vermont. I approach the headstones, shuffling through a thick, crispy layer of dry leaves atop a springy carpet of emerald green plants no more than one-inch tall with tiny needle-like leaves; I read names (wife of . . . daughter of . . . son of . . . ), their age at the time of death, and the year. The carvings on some headstones are illegible, worn with age; many are askew, a few broken off, others still tall. The earliest burial I find is from 1802. There’s hardly a car that passes on this lonely stretch of road marked by a bronze plaque, Bradford Center. I’m alone, and playing hooky from my incessant need to keep up with household chores, errands, garden demands, and writing and making art. In fact, I have to give myself permission to be there, and even then, the demanding voice of “You have work to do!” invades my peace.

I’m torn. I want to obey the voice–there is so much I need to be doing–but the small, quiet voice within wants me to linger, to step outside kronos into kiaros. It wants me to play (like the kind of playing we all used to do back in the day, much of it stoned). In fact, it really wants me to find a place to lie upon those leaves, away from view so as not to alarm anyone seeing a body lying in the graveyard. (After becoming alarmed, would they deem my lying there disrespectful?) I scout the area, dousing, as it were for the perfect spot. It has to be fairly dry, not directly in the sun, not upon hidden twigs or stones.

I find that spot behind several tall, close-together headstones near the entrance, and I lie down. Oh, God, it feels so good; my body craves contact with a surface. I look up into the tree above me, about half-bare of leaves; I watch the dance of those falling, take in their signature scent, feel the earth supporting me. I listen for voices of those under me, imagining their lives in what was a very difficult climate and time, honoring their own supine positions; the best I come up with is to understand their suffering, and grasp the strength it took to live in rural New Hampshire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I look over my feet toward the wide swath of decked-out yellow maples, see the brilliantly blue sky, marvel at all the beauty. And I want to nap. In fact, nothing would please me more than to savor the bliss of waking to an even more golden light, a little chilled, but rested, grateful for the enormous gift of falling asleep of a fall afternoon in a peaceful churchyard, where those long-ago fallen lie.

Alas, I cannot allow myself to do that. After about ten minutes, if that long, I rise and walk toward my car. On the highway home, I promise myself to seal forever the sensory memory, there to dip in whenever I need it. Writing about it makes that possible.

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Love’s Mystery

This morning as I walked along the seashore,

I fell in love with a wren

and later in the day with a mouse

the cat had dropped under the dining room table . . .

 Billy Collins, “Fleeting Love”

 

Once upon a time, I had a religious experience when I fell in love.  Not the sort that comes with burning bushes or clay tablets, or even sounds of erotic bliss in the night, but filled with awe nonetheless.  I was leaving our only bank in Abita Springs, Louisiana, one that pays architectural homage to the iconic nineteenth-century white-steepled Lutheran church a block away, when I spied a praying mantis sitting on the bank’s long white porch railing.  I don’t think I interrupted anything liturgical when I stopped to greet it, as its hands were firmly planted on the railing.  But of course, one never knows when it comes to witnessing prayer, since it manifests itself in sometimes surprising ways.

I figured my sunglasses would frighten the little critter, so I removed them when I bent forward in greeting.  “Hello there,” I said.  “You’re a mighty handsome fellow.”  (As a Southern woman, I live by the rule that it is always polite to make favorable comments on another’s appearance.)  Anyway, he—and I shall use the masculine pronoun to simplify matters—turned to take me in, folding up his elbows in the process.  There were pinpoint black dots in his eyes, which continued to regard me, cooing away as I was on the excellent quality of his coloring and his fine appendages. And oh, how captivating were his eyes.  

That’s when it happened. He put his hands down on the railing and began swaying from side to side in a steady rhythm to music barely perceptible to my ears and yet familiar.  Whether it was “Beautiful Dreamer” or “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” I cannot say for sure.  “Such a flirt you are,” I said, clearly charmed, unable to break away from his dance.  We stood like this for a while, he swaying, me watching intently, but too shy to join him.  Finally, he began moving slowly forward, sashaying down that railing in a strut so irresistible as to render me speechless.  I had a brief pang of regret as he left.  I almost wanted to call out, to beg forgiveness, saying that I wouldn’t be so reserved the next time.  

Now, I recognize a mating dance when I see one, and I want to tell you that I felt truly honored by his efforts.  In fact, I fell in love. Who was I to spurn such a suitor—especially one so spiritual in nature?  Yet I wondered if our relationship would be problematic in the long run, coming from such radically different cultures as we do.  So, I simply beamed my gratitude and bid him adiós.  He continued down his path, and I mine, heartened by the fact that I’d been invited to dance along the way, a little wistful, nonetheless.

It might have ended there.  Yet the mystery of our encounter lingered and, flawed human that I am, I wanted proof of his love, even if our relationship was fleeting.  Did I mean anything to him, or was I simply a convenient mirror for his narcissism?  And why malign mirroring in the first place?  Wasn’t the pool equally smitten by Narcissus?  I wanted The Real Truth.  Closure even. 

A letter would have been nice. 

Entomologists, with their bright lights and dissecting tools, would likely inform me that my experience was not at all what I thought.  “It was just gas,” the chief entomologist would rant in biospeak, not even bothering to conceal his hard-science disdain for what he regarded as my romantic foolishness.  Any child could tell you not to pay much heed to that kind of poo-pooing.  An analyst—not mine, of course—would stroke his van Dyke and pronounce, “All projection, my dear.  Now tell me, what does a praying mantis represent to you?”  The abbot of the nearby St. Benedict’s Abbey would intone in Gregorian chant that one should not ask pointed questions, that close scrutiny of Love and Mystery isn’t always wise. “Sometimes it’s best just to let things be,” he would counsel.  Rilke would take a different stand.  He would tell me to learn to love the questions, and not to concern myself with needing answers.

 Nevertheless, I know the Dalai Lama would agree with me.  I can just see that beatific smile wash over his face and merriment twinkle in his eyes when he says, “You remember, don’t you?”

            See, that’s the thing.   Even if karma assigned me to be a mantid in this life, wouldn’t there still be the problem of our dissimilarity?   With his almost Calvinistic, if elegant, spare green attire, my little suitor clearly embraced the clerical; and I, undoubtedly, would be one of those secularly-entrenched, flamboyant flower mantids with enough ruffles and excess to make Carmen Miranda envious.  Showy would not be too strong a word to describe my raiment.  While he might be content to do a modest sway on a bank railing, I would want to tango on Tahoma with moonlight bathing the snow.  Wouldn’t what is obvious on the surface reflect that which is innermost?

Who knows?  Maybe my concerns were completely unfounded and we could have found ample occasions for communion. 

I hate to admit it, but I suppose the abbot could have a point about putting Mystery under a microscope.  The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”  Having savored those pleasures and accessing the Divine, we want more.  And yet, when one opens the door to Eros or any other of the gods and goddesses, one had better hang on to the doorframe.  Look at what happened to Psyche and Semele.  They wanted to know for sure and what did they get?  Ants and a pile of seeds and all that business with smelly ram fleece was only the half of it.   And turning into a pile of ash?  I mean, who needs it?

A niggling thought lingers, though.   What if it really were something else?  What if I had completely misread the situation and projected my yearning for the Beloved onto him, when his strut bespoke the killing he’d just made on his Apple stock? After all, he was leaving the bank.  Or perhaps he was simply an angel in disguise, sent with a message a different sort, one that has yet to reveal itself.

It is about Love’s Mystery.  That much is certain.  And in that alone, I recognize the Divine.  

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