Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anti-Saint

Death is in the house this week.  Not that he is ever anywhere else-- I often feel his cold breath on my right hand, reminding me not to take my eighth notes for granted.  Some nights it is my left ear-- like he is whispering to me in some weathery language: Listen to the rain, he says… or Notice how the fog speaks-- how it blurs lines and descriptions-- yes, this is his language, his courtship-- his entry…

Last week I sat with him by the side of my friend.  He taunted me-- She's mine, he said; she's been mine for years now… this is just the final approach…  Then stop the suffering and have her, I scolded him…  Ahh but don't you enjoy this time with me, he asked?  You and I and Jesus-the-cat in this lonely dark apartment, you with your silly rosary beads and your sympathy?   Me just having a rest in the city-- usually I must be quick and urgent here.  Exhausting, these urban hubs-- with the hit-and-runs, the shootings and overdoses… the jumpers and depressed, the muggers and murderers who beat me at my own game.  Then I have to consider revenge.  But you-- you're so quiet here…you the writer of my music… you're so facile with the language of gravestones and black winds… it's so peaceful sitting with you in the dark, watching…

This is the way Death spoke to me while he also watched my friend writhe in her extended agony without emotion.  He was quiet, he was cold.  I left him for a few hours and he finished the deed, left his mark and no sign that there was peace at the end.  My vigil was clearly over, and I ended up without a souvenir, without closure-- on the other side of the hideous yellow police-tape which was used to mark off her doorway.  No answers, no autopsy; without a will or testament, she is legal property of the city medical examiner's office, another cold corpse in the morgue awaiting the appearance of some kin or family who never showed up during her illness-- so why would they want to pay for a funeral?

There is little I can do; after all the nights and days of fear and diagnosis, treatment and suffering and anxiety… the questions and tears--- decisions and research… I cannot even be certain of her name.  She is another mystery-- another open wound in the sequence of human experiments for which I have somehow enlisted, my friends tell me-- out of some genetic defect which continues to prompt me to turn around every time someone says 'help'.  Or 'Mommy'. Or even 'Mami'.

I can't seem to sign up for lucrative jobs-- me, who turned down a Harvard Law scholarship-- the sore thumb of my family, with the ivy league black sheepskin.  I refuse to gig in club-date bands or even tribute projects which might compensate reasonably enough for me to afford groceries like a normal person--  to take a taxi every once in a while,  to see a movie that's not on free TV, have a coffee I didn't make myself… to buy anything that hasn't been used by someone else.  I admire your conscientious deprivation, Death commented-- As thought you're preparing for the next life-- when all bets are off.  And he has spared me, once or twice--- or many times-- when a city bus brushed so close as I crossed an avenue-- when a plate glass window fell 60 stories and sprayed me ever so lightly with the tiniest splinters… he's definitely loaned me a few free passes.

So how do I explain my attachment to a no-win situation-- a doomed patient who was not particularly loving or nice or even appreciative, although at the very end she did express some tough gratitude, and I assured her it was my privilege to have been able to be there? Was it my privilege?  Was it my own personal penance, my perverted version of twisted sainthood to atone for all the mistakes I've made-- the bad marriages and the failures?  I definitely identified somehow with my poor deceased friend, who had paid a lonely price for a pile of bad choices.  Was that it?

The truth is, I love my life.  I cling to my bizarre stoicism and spartan lifestyle and I manage to produce something I feel is worthwhile.  My distractions are emotional and empathetic ones; my path is often lonely and without luxury.  I read a description of middle-income housing  qualifiers last night and was shocked to discover the low-end cut-off was 10 times my annual income.  I am not just low, but below poverty income-qualifying.  Who is going to sit by my side at my end, with no prospect of reward or inheritance?  I have yet to come across my own double.

Still, I know I would have made the same choices, again and again.  We can't take all this stuff with us, and I have plenty of meaningful stuff, although I have no fortune.  No, I did not ask Death for a bit of extra time for good behavior, although maybe that is what I intended, subconsciously.  I have work to do-- things to leave behind that someone some day may value.. not in dollars, but in worth.   There is no closure at the end; there was no relief for me, and I feel the spirit of my friend wandering the dark streets--- after all, she is in the morgue, a kind of urban  purgatory; she did not help herself or me with any information or truth that might have made the process easier.  I, too, am stubborn and have some pride; I might have wanted control of my own end, when I had lost all else-- even if it meant dying like an abandoned dog, in pain and without loved ones-- only some version of me, which in itself is doubtful.  What separates me from my friend? I leave my poetry-- my music-- I make cds and books-- my 'calling'.  Do people acknowledge even the artistic version of sacrifice?  Occasionally there is a comment, or praise, or 'likes'… but in the end, it is another item for the loss column, on the balance sheets of pragmatism and poor financial health.  But I will continue, despite lack of closure.

For my friend there is perhaps burial-- or cremation, or scientific autopsy-- but there are still dreams and memories, and a past somewhere-- customers who drank what she poured, men who made passionate love to her-- cats and pets who slept at her feet.   And then there is me, the sleepless writer who will continue to commemorate this woman's poor life, to try to find some meaning and beauty, perhaps rescue something from her self-imposed obscurity-- martyrize her anti-heroics and pedestrian eccentricities, make some attempt of poetry out of the raw materials of disease and squalor.  Then-- like the rest of us, I will wait for my hour to look Death in the eye and say.. Remember me?  This is what I have done.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ad Lib

A late-winter snowstorm gives us all a chance to breathe-- and even though I knew this one was going to be a let-down, I still took the vacation day and binged on TV films.  On the heels of International Women's Day, I've thought a lot the past week about women in the arts.   So my first choice was Within the Whirlwind-- the autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg, a professor of literature who was sentenced for 18 years to a gulag in Siberia during Stalin's reign of terror.  Ginzburg, played poignantly by Emily Watson, managed to survive inhumane conditions of extreme cold and starvation and-- a little like Patty Hearst, I couldn't help thinking-- fell in love with the prison staff doctor.

The other film was from 1975-- an early Chantal Akerman work called Jeanne Dielman--  a nearly 4- hour masterpiece showing 3 days in the minute-to-minute life of a middle-class Belgian woman.  Without much dialogue or drama we follow her tedious daily routine--  hours of washing-up, meal prepping, shopping, shoe-shining… occasional baby-watching, and brief daytime prostitution with the same prim, emotionless attitude and clean-up as the housekeeping.  By the third day, subtle small things begin to go awry… and unexpectedly and without drama, she kills her afternoon john.

Evgenia eventually wrote her memoirs which were published abroad and which document her heroism and bravery.  Separated from her sons and her husband, she used her survival instincts; not least of these was her beauty, which appealed to the doctor and earned her better treatment than some of the women inmates.  She was nevertheless selfless and compassionate and courageous.  The film, written and directed by women, celebrates her intelligence, her art and her strength.

Watching Jeanne Dielman, I couldn't help seeing my own mother-- with the perfectly coiffed hair, and the lipstick… the well-tailored skirts and nylons and elegant shoes--- putting on aprons, gloves--- delicately scrubbing the stove, cutting vegetables, setting the table, pouring coffee, straightening papers, emptying ashtrays…  the daily shopping trips dressed in fashionable coats and scarves… the relentless claustrophobia of domesticity that made me swear every single day I would never get married.

Obviously the act of murder was a kind of emotional breakdown, a disconnect… a shocking climax to a drawn-out hour-by-hour monotony with very little insight into her psyche or mental state.  It is hard to even feel sympathy for her…  and then it ends,  with the heroine sitting quietly at the kitchen table, fresh blood on her hands and mouth.

What we are capable of-- we women, what is expected of us-- it is a different trajectory than that of men, no matter how equal or even superior we may be in so many ways.  We have children, we clean up, we care for sick friends with much more frequency.  We rebel and rock and roll, but so many of us inherit these expectations from our mothers, and we carry out these chores with or without resentment-- because it's simpler to do it than to ignore and feel incomplete.  It's part of being a woman, to let things go sometimes--- children are watching or listening, and we learn to gloss over with silence things that should be argued or protested.

I visited with a woman today who is clinically depressed, who is young and lovely and intelligent and cannot seem to accept being on the brink of middle age… even though her husband is devoted and loving, and she is 20 years younger than I am; she is blind to what we see, and unable to find her footing.  For some of us, life events intervene and force us to appreciate whatever years we have as a gift-- as luxury.  We stop obsessing about our own image and find our context.  For others, the mirror is their confidante.  They scrutinize and compare, worship physical beauty and attractiveness as their gauge of worth.  The culture seems to encourage this.  It also encourages people who are apparently blind to their own image, and deaf to their personal noise.    I watched a photo shoot in Harlem on Friday-- a woman dressed in a blue fur and a blonde wig with way too much make-up… voguing and pulling up her dress.  What version of beauty is this?  What role model for the young girls passing with their schoolbags and plaid skirts on the way home from the Sojourner Truth school?

I am old enough to realize I now am what I do, what I create.  The 'I' visual is no longer relevant or iconic or memorable.  I am one of the army of women who try to find meaning in their life and leave something behind for our daughters and little sisters.  Chantal Akerman suicided in her mid 60's.  She was depressed; perhaps she'd run out of ideas-- she'd been teaching in Harlem.  Today I long to speak to her, but can only find her work.  It seems important that I watched Jeanne Dielman and that it was shown without commercial interruption on a free television station.  It is difficult to explain to my young friend that these things are enough for me-- that the slow snow day of solitude and black coffee and rice is fine, but maybe not enough for tomorrow when I will resume my place by the typewriter, by the window of my brain and the weather of my ambition, where I will avoid the feminine prison of domesticity and self-devaluation by forging my own path forward, scripting as I go.