|The Author circa 2003 at Kathleen's apartment on 26th and Dupont
“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” – John Berryman
This morning I saw a guy walking through Loring Park. It was 7:45 in the morning and he looked to me like he was walking home after a night of carousing. I wondered where the night had taken him, and dropped him. Maybe he was leaving the house where he’d partied and crashed, or a woman’s apartment, or a man’s, an ex’s, maybe a park bench next to the playground where my daughter often plays.
I haven’t blogged in a while. I was thinking of never blogging again. I was thinking of deleting this log, as it contains a great deal of personal information, of trial and error, of confession. It contains some admissions and revelations and lyrical musings, so, frankly, a lot of crap. When I began writing “Careergirls” [sic] I was in my mid-twenties. I was in graduate school. In Philadelphia. Working a desk job during the day and pounding out my novel at night. I was writing a purely fictional story of a young woman who travels from the Midwest to the east coast, to study literature and write, coincidentally, a coming-of-age novel; a girl who spends a lot of time in bars, alone; a girl who meets a bad man—a man of letters; a man getting his Ph.D. in critical theory; a man who’d gone to Princeton; a man who presented himself as a fellow lover of the absurd and the arcane. Our girl is lonely and this man is warm. It takes just four months for him to show himself for who he is, but by then it is too late. Years of tribulation ensue. The novel was alternately titled Book of Jane or Jane’s Book. And, the truth is, the novel sucked. In the final chapter, after Jane extricates herself from the unholy union with Foucault-Man (he breaks up with her), she either goes to therapy or meets a barista or takes a vacation with her family. All told, the novel was a hot mess. With a deafening thud of an ending.
The man in the park this morning was dressed like your average man, like a puppet from a J. Crew catalogue scene: young and upwardly mobile people cavorting on a catamaran. He wore a slightly faded blue polo shirt and plaid-print canvas shorts. Boating shoes. No socks. His hair was short and sandy and slightly molded from the couch cushion, or lover’s or stranger’s pillow. How old was he? I want to say he was my age, 36, but I want to say that everyone is my age. In reality, he was probably 28, 29, 30. So, too old. Too old to be staying out all night, sleeping somewhere not his bed. I knew this feeling. How many times did I say, in my mid-20’s, “I’m too old for this.” At three in the morning, when we stumbled through Uptown avenues to Kathleen and Dennis’s apartment, to put on a Debbie Gibson record, open a bottle of wine for the road, and dance with gay friends until we crashed in a pile on an open chair.
Why am I telling this? Why am I writing it down? I frequently think about our drive to log, to process, to share, to teach, to learn (to prove?), to list. I feel good after I’ve written ‘it’ down. It’s a good feeling, a satisfying feeling. To say what’s on your mind. It’s almost physical. As though you’ve picked up an object and moved it somewhere else, somewhere you don’t need to see or visit. Whatever it was is out of sight, out of mind. You’ve dealt with it now and you’ve put it away.
When we got close to the edge of the park, the man pulled out his phone. He was typing something. A message to work? “Car trouble…going to be a little late.” A message to the ex who’d woken up and found him gone? “Great seeing you last night. Hope your meeting goes well.” A message to a friend? “Do you have my keys?”
In my 30’s I stopped saying “I’m too old for this.” When I’d go out for a drink with a girlfriend and it turned into five. When I traveled to France and fell into the shower of the pension, pissing off our hosts. When I commandeered the audio at a friend’s wedding and played Ween on repeat. I didn’t say “I’m too old for this.” I didn’t reprimand or tease myself. This was too close to shame. And shame was a vile feeling, almost as vile as the hangover. (Kingsley Amis calls this the metaphysical hangover.) We don’t like shame. It isn’t instructive. It’s only good for wallowing in. Sometimes, after sufficient time passed, I took out pen and paper and I wrote it all down (well, not all of it, but enough). Then I pressed “post” and sallied away, away from the computer and the memories and the reflections and all of it. But – oops – it was not away. It is never away. It is always still there. As John Berryman says in one of the Dream Songs, “Nobody is ever missing.” Turns out what we think we’re doing or hope we’re doing -- when we position a memory or thought or fear in writing – is not what we are doing at all. We are not burying it or even simply deactivating it. I thought we were. I thought I was. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. The thing, whatever it was, comes back. And often with a twinge, or a shudder, or even a gasp. The thing we were trying to put away has returned. And it feels icky, bad--shameful. The truth about shame is that as much as it one-hundred percent sucks, it is necessary, I think. Discomfort and pain are necessary. As a wonderful doctor once told me, as we reviewed the ultrasound of my left breast where I’d been having stabbing pains, “pain is a part of life.” And, I think, it can be instructive. If we are willing to stop. And listen to it. Often we are in such a hurry to outrun it we don’t have the opportunity to listen to it. And learn from it.
Franz Wright said, of John Berryman, “I believe [he] realized when he did get into recovering that his best work, The Dream Songs, had become like a textbook of what it’s like to be an alcoholic. He didn’t know it while he was composing. You’re two people when you’re an alcoholic, two distinct personalities, and since Berryman was always drunk, he was that personality and wrote that book. That same book, when Berryman looked at it with sober eyes, appalled him. It wasn’t the work he thought he had written, and I think that contributed to his suicide. He was sober for eleven months when he committed suicide, and at the autopsy, there were no drugs and he had no alcohol in his system. He was pretty broken down, but I think he fell into a suicidal despair. My theory ,which I’ve heard other people say who knew him, is that he realized that the greatest work he would ever do in his life was a description merely of what it’s like to be insane. He might have dealt with that and thought, ‘Okay, this can be used in that manner. This is what it’s like for a brilliant genius to express what it’s like to be insane.’ But I think it must have depressed him so much that he wasn’t able to get beyond eleven months of recovery. If he’d waited three years, I think he would have gotten through, because I see people all the time who take three years to come out of withdrawal and depression […] If Berryman had been able to go through that, he would have been okay.”
This morning, a man crossed the street, and disappeared back into the world. I don’t know where he went. Or where he came from. I don’t know what will happen to him, if he’ll be OK, if his friends and family will be OK, if any of us will be OK. I know I walked into the Hyatt, on time for the conference I was attending, and I poured a cup of coffee. Then I sat at a round table in the conference room, said good morning to the other attendees, and put pen to paper, remembering and wondering…
What a relief it will be, won’t it—stumbling out once more
to see the morning street with its familiar
million strangers streaming past, you standing
there watching them part with blind eyes
around you on either side, God bless them,
every one, everyone who’s not going to hurt
you today, all the strangers, how you love
them all at once, how close you feel to them.
Because the soul is a stranger in this world.
- Franz Wright, from Entries of the Cell
|The author and one of her sisters in South Dakota, 1989