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.
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?