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2012-08-25_11-37-47_970

letters and fragments from the dead

 

Writing is a moral act.

 

Ethics and the psyche are part of every letter that falls from the pen or emerges from a depressed key.

 

This is how we remember it: the shadow falling over the side of the mountain, the side we couldn’t see, and then the sun fell from view and the moon rose. It was almost the last quarter, the day before—we had looked it up—after the full moon, a Super Moon, the previous Saturday.

 

We had gone into a bookstore on our street and seen the newly published novel of a woman we knew years ago. There was a cat in the bookstore but we didn’t see her.

 

It was the first cool day, with heavy, dark clouds but it didn’t rain. We stood on the corner for an hour and a half talking.

 

The dead speak in words, too. They speak through us and with us. There is this life and, alongside, this death. They are wound together. The air is full of breath and unbreath. One time, there was a whole procession of the dead in front of me—they appeared as they would appear in a photograph, dressed up, wearing hats, dark clothing, and carrying bags and purses. Their eyes shone and they had come to talk to me, about becoming unwound from them, letting go, the ritual of unbinding. They said all they wanted was for me to live a free and happy life. They wanted me to let go of grieving for them and for me to know that my place was exactly where I was, not with them. Living for so many years with the dead, I could see them clearly and heard their words distinctly, as they were spoken. Then I wrote them down, here.

 

This day, Friday, was a release. I write for the dead who are long gone, and for myself. There are wings of insects inside me, gray in the light that comes in from the mouth, when it opens to speak, and the light in the middle of the forehead when it expands. Light comes in and the wings are translucent. I write for those who can’t speak and for myself, when I can’t speak. Writing out of the silence, of the silence, taking measurements for the words that will be written from one wall to the other, factoring in shadows thrown by figures that have emerged from the boundaries. Writing as a measurement of silence. Writing moves the water outside the window. Writing collects the dust and specimens from the floor and windowsill and chandeliers.

 

Writing is an act of solace, a movement from isolation to relationship, a knowledge of the world as of the body and nonbody—the corporeal and ghost. We are figures in the emerging dust—sun-day—measuring the tallest building against huts on the beach. Here are my words, and they come from my womb and my bones and my blood, and what I have held and what I hold and what I release. These are measurements as if for a dress or a suit. We know these clothes. We fabricate our stories in the threads and wear them out to important occasions. We have tea. We eat meals with strangers, half-smiling over our forks at half-formed structures behind their heads.

 

This Friday, this particular day, just was. In the being of the day, I could breathe, for once. Real breath that sustained me. Breath that filled the lungs and allowed me to sleep for the first time in weeks. This is the companionship of those who are always around. I found pieces of paper towel all over the house, on a nail, on a screw, behind the toothbrush holder, after she cleaned. They looked like white moth wings. I picked them up and threw them out, noticing their delicate texture and their beauty. There is wholeness that is found when more and more pieces come to us.

 

When was the first time we saw the invisible world? We saw its lights twinkle in deep blue, violet, light blue, Saturn red, Spring grass green. No real forms were present until our eyes adjusted to the eternal twilight. Maybe we were at the top of the earth, true North. We were at the place our souls brought us. Our souls, these creatures of the deep, dark terrarium we called consciousness. That which we were not aware of making hand shadows on the walls. Dictionaries of silhouette and semaphor. And upon arriving at our true North, their true shapes emerged.

 

“We are not shapeshifters in the way you are used to defining shapeshifters. The music is different here.”

 

 

 

August Light

The sleeping dances with images of the Devil. The Tarot cards reveal what has not yet been fully understood. August light is hot and dense, usually—but this summer has been mild, with nights getting cool and we’ve been able to open windows. Insomnia is like this—a deep, dark devil that uncurls itself like smoke. Not invisible, it is seen by the naked eye and startles us as we drift off. This is part of the Dreamland.

 

Here is the part that floats—the burned part of the skin that becomes numb. This is from being hurt one too many times so that all the petals close tightly around the bud. There is still light. There is always light. We’ve learned this. Through weather and trees and autumn and summer and depression and grief. The light is always there.

 

We feel it in our thumbs, as we stretch out our hands after a long afternoon of writing. We visit the wild grasses in times of war. We know war in our bones, the way we know peace. The air is gray with anxiety and the clouds are heavy. The rain comes and lightning and thunder. For several hours in the morning, the sky is bright and baby blue, the color of an innocence that no longer exists in the human realm. But then we come back to the place where the soul starts, an overgrown path, thick with weeds and large, flat, round stones. We make our way through the tall and taller foliage, the leaves are glorious and lush and a shade of green from the time when the earth was just born. This is where the path starts. We hear the low moan of unknown animals.

 

This is the way the earth changes. The earth and the soul. The way the trees bow away from each other to let in viscous rays of sunlight. Honey-thick, they pour down through this newly discovered ancient forest as we get lost on the unmarked trails.

 

The war has ended in one place and begins in another. We are hopeful people. We begin again and again, in a state of peace. We continue to breathe as others cease. Their breaths become part of a blanket that is held between earth and sky, disintegrating into stars and blackness, the eternal dark spaces that hold death.

 

We open up into a noncorporeal form without form, just light. The light becomes brighter and brighter. We stay here, floating and emitting, for a while. Then we return to do our work on the earth.

 

There are three worlds, at least. There are many worlds. We live with our feet on the ground of the earth and our lungs breathing in the air of the heavens. The air of the atmosphere. We build things. We tear them down. We are our own history and everyone else’s. We share heritage and identity and we are our own heritage and identity. We come to a place where it is cold and no one is there. We light a fire on our own in the vast, horizonless tundra. It is 60 below. We have on a parka and the only part of our form that is visible is our eyes, full of warmth and humanity and sight. The fire is bright and warm. We connect with our own soul again.

 

We find a pattern in the snow, in the sand, in the dirt. We trace it with our fingers, with a stick, with a branch. We become fossils. We crumble into the earth. These are our graves. These are our graves, filling with dirt as the people above ground sing and pray. They will bring food they cooked to the house for a week. The family will look through a veil of grief that will then fall apart to let in some light. For a while, the curtains and shades will always be drawn. Then one day, someone will tie them back and pull the string to raise the olive green cloth into accordion pleats at the top of each window.

 

We find a way to hold death against the window as a silhouette, a paper doll taking the shape of the inanimate. The animate taking the form of the inanimate. Sleep taking the form of a kind of death, beating against the windows as rain, as tree branches, as wind. The dead communicating with the living. We drift off to sleep to the sound of cars on the streets outside, idling at the traffic light then engines starting up again, driving away in the direction that all sound moves, toward silence and the dimension that exists beyond human thought. The place where death and life are indistinguishable and we have a cup of coffee on the sandstone balcony overlooking all the cities that have ever been.

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The Living

 

 

When thinking about one’s personal memories, it’s hard to know which to keep inside, to one’s self, and which to write about so that they are out in the world, in a public manuscript, which could be read by others. I am specifically now recalling hanging out as a pre-adolescent in the apartment complex on the edge of the suburban township-Philadelphia city divide. I don’t remember the faces of my friends, the memories are dusky and unfinished, but with deep emotion and formative atmosphere, the kind of whole experience that subsumes itself into one’s being, one’s skin, and is developmentally integral.

 

 

I remember putting pennies on the train tracks and watching the trains barrel over the tracks, then picking the flattened copper disc off the hot tracks. The vibration of those hurtling trains, the stone steps overhung with fragrant honeysuckle, which we used to pick and from which we sucked out the sweet nectar. This was pre-sexual but desire and the awareness of boys rippled through my body. I was on the edge of adolescence, scrawny, fast, with preternatural energy and excitement about everything. One evening, the sky was just growing dark, and one of the older boys, Dan, sat with me on the steps of one of the apartment buildings in the complex. As we sat looking at the makeshift baseball diamond, he asked me if I knew what the bases were then proceeded to tell me what each of them represented in sexual terms. I don’t remember what I was thinking but I know now that he wanted to kiss me and I was blithely unaware. I got up and went inside to my apartment and don’t remember anything else about him. I remember I was reading The Outsiders just like we all were and I imagined our suburban apartment complex as the setting for The Outsiders and all of us as the characters. I remember our apartment being broken into and the police coming and covering everything with white dust, which looked so surreal, and the feeling of fear, but in a muted way. I didn’t really understand what had happened, and was just looking at the police go through the house, in their uniforms with heavy leather belts and guns hanging from holsters, and everything covered in haunting white powder.

 

 

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Are all of these potent and private memories to be kept to myself or is there some value and meaning in writing about them? The girl I was, the skinny, energetic girl who was full of movement and spark, she is important. Because a year later, everything would change for me. I would no longer be carefree and skinny. I would have breasts and hips that made my own body a hindrance to me, and foreign, somewhere I felt I didn’t belong, and I would go through a trauma that would stay with me for the rest of my life. The fact that these two monumental changes happened at the same time glued them together somehow, in a way I have been trying to pull apart for years. The trauma held in my body, as if burned into eternal form by volcanic ash.

 
The Dead

 

 

And now in New York. Walking in the South Slope in Brooklyn.

 

We are all apparitions. We carry the dead inside us. We take care of them. Following the road through the cemetery, we saw headstones and Celtic crosses, big mausoleum stone–the city of the dead overlooking the crazy New York skyline, as if all the souls wandering around are living. The city of the dead overlooking the city of the living. The winding footpaths and lush green of early summer grass–or late Spring, as we’ve been lucky this year to have some Spring–through these resting places. The names burn with the lives of those buried here. The hills of the cemetery. The blue sky and perfect white clouds after a week of thunder and rain. Pouring rain, pounding against the windows last night, furious and banishing all the old spirits who would take up residence here. Today, the helpful spirits were in attendance and walked with us. Such solace and soft footsteps they have, such grace and gentleness. The dead speak in whispers and contain everything, are everything, the roses in their blooming prime, the scent of them hallucinatory, another world created through the glass of the diner where we sat for hours because the waitress had forgotten our order.

 

The glass of the window looking out onto 5th Avenue like a mirror or telling glass—fortune-telling, spun from angels’ wings—through this glass, I had a déjà vu—and knew this was one of the moments of my life that was fated. But, in the absence of such direct experiences, the divine is always present. And in the ravel of experience, we glimpse beyond the glass another world that exists alongside this one, where the dead love us and watch over us and hold our dreams for us when we no longer can. Our strength returns and we remember who we are, the wind, the ground, the sunlight, the fury of the rain, and we return to ourselves. Our true selves, filled with light and power and connected to the divine. Able to recognize those divine souls that travel with us, that sew the cloth of our lives with us, those who see our souls and love us in all our anchors and jetties.

 

LadyLiberty

 

Fear of the Air

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I read a gorgeous article on Art Blart recently about the photography of Walker Evans. In it, he cites an article by Thomas Sleigh about Tomas Tranströmer, Too Much of the Air (see links below).

In it, Sleigh writes:

My first glimpse of Tomas Tranströmer was many years ago in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he ducked his head under the metal lip of a twelve-seater plane’s exit door, then stepped hesitantly down the stairs to firm ground. He seemed a little shaken, his long face blanched, his features reminding me, when I think of it now, of the circus horse in a late Bonnard painting: gentle, wary, potentially sad. “I don’t mind large planes or middle-sized planes (his English was slightly gutteral, his intonations lilting in a mild brogue), but small planes—you feel too much of the air under you.” That remark, direct, plainspoken, but also flirting with the metaphysical, has seemed over the years a keyhole into his work: a void; a sense of hovering above that void; the nerves registering each tremor with precision; the mind fighting back the body’s accelerating fear.

Thomas Sleigh’s article:

https://www.poets.org/m/dsp_poem.php?prmMID=19009 

Art Blart:

http://artblart.com/2014/02/20/exhibition-walker-evans-american-photographs-at-the-museum-of-modern-art-moma-new-york/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ArtBlart+Art+Blart

The void always there, hovering—our bodies.

And how, my whole life, I’ve been afraid of things being taken away. This is a pretty natural fear, primal, human, animal—everyone has a survival instinct for both themselves and whom they love. What made the difference in my life was that people told me this would happen. That I would lose everything and everyone. The way this was presented to me was that this was a fact. I was very young when people started telling me this. And as I write this, it sounds like the beginning of a good detective novel or a psychological thriller, exciting, terrifying in the way of terror when you’re lying cozy in your bed, reading or watching TV. But when people you trust tell you that what is happening on the screen will happen to you if you don’t do certain things, that you are patently unsafe because of who you are, who you were born, that instills a habitual terror that never quite leaves you. Or that you spend a lifetime confronting and healing, over and over again.

The body reveals what the conscious mind doesn’t.

My nerves fighting with the air: delicate underbelly, sky’s reaching. I was never certain what was air or ground. These are terrors, fully embodied, but unspoken for many years. And it is raining outside now.

Of course, it is not raining inside.

Get it down on paper. This refuses the chugging blood pressure as the plane soars upward.

The red brick of the brownstones. Rain comes down on snowed-in cars.

When days change you, you give them space, give yourself time and space around that day. I spent the next two days after lying in bed, watching TV and resting. The first day, I wash the dishes. On the second day, I take out the trash, clean out the fridge.

Some days change you. I bought a battery-powered radio with my uncle on Tuesday. I put it on the tray I have on the heater on the side of my bed near the windows. The seated painted-black Buddha is in front of it, along with a red velvet box containing condoms, earbuds for the Roku, and Chapstick, a tarot deck, four remotes, a coaster.

It has been a week of seeing behind the veil of things— one veil, plural things. Got my blood drawn for annual tests on Monday, went through old papers and calendars and maps belonging to my great uncle on Tuesday. Maps of Africa and Poland and Europe and Maine and Peak’s Island, where his son now lives, a lobsterman, and where he and two wives used to summer. We found Xeroxed, stapled papers with a typed family tree, done simply in Times typeface with lines and arrows, and going for maybe five pages, each generation going further into the present as we turned the pages. Along with this very basic family tree were some marriage records from Bialystok, Poland, and three handwritten pages in Polish, in beautiful script. Inscrutable because neither of us know Polish. Lists of things to do, to buy in his late wife’s handwriting, business cards, typewritten lists of her paintings, with name and price, letters from her gallery about sales, the letter from the gallery of two paintings sold at her last show, put on after she died. Letters from about twenty organizations, human rights, animal rights, environmental, asking for money.

The deep, good heart of my great uncle, the way he cares about the world, really made an impression on me. I’ll never forget it. I see my father in him, see where in the bloodline this connection to the world comes from, this faith that ties us all together within the same fate, animals, humans, continents, lands. This knowing I grew up with and never doubted that we are all one and, that if one suffers, all do. This has been in me since before I could articulate it. The week of lost things. Lost things returning. Things we don’t even know are lost. He warmed up coffee from the morning, left on the coffee maker, and turned the machine on to heat it up. It was very good, actually. Tasted strong. What a strange, strange world we live in and our lives, too, are weird because they’re so intense and overwhelming, we fade in and out of them, hallucinate, remember and experience at the same time—memory and history and the present all at the same time—my legs ached after a while, standing at the table we were clearing for hours. At some point, my uncle sat down, exhausted by the standing as much as the weight of history.

We had a beautiful conversation that lasted all day. We talked about insomnia and waking up in the early morning—he said he listens to the radio, BBC News, news from around the world, and it makes him feel connected, even though a lot of the news is sad and sometimes awful, it makes him feel like he’s not giving up on the world. I will remember this for the rest of my life.

As we do, we change. It is inevitable. It is this inevitability that moves us forward towards grasp and branch. The dusk of forefathers and foremothers. Where does it say that the window’s light is not the breath of land? We are the open of the land. We creature permanency. There is no permanent redaction of the past. It holds us, trembling, in its little-bird branches. We are sewn into it. Sunlight picks through the underbranches creating force and catapulting loss into new fields. These fields of light destroy. Packed-in dirt from centuries of war and blood cold now, Addresses of the Wild Permanency, home now. We are not dead. We have lived with the dead for too long now. We let them go into a place we can’t follow. We look after them, as they blend into the surroundings, becoming less and less physical, to abandon all light by becoming part of the light. These creature-fields.

We are torn apart by light. We are torn apart by war.

We taper like candles.

Things have been really intense lately. Coming boom boom boom. Like firecrackers, leaving me deaf and blind for moments after the blasts, seeing rings and stars. Quavering and indulging in solitude. Processing or, more accurately, letting be what life is. Minutes pass gently, in relative silence. The rain helps. Opened all the windows and let in the fresh, clear air. Spring is coming!

Life is changing shape again. Shapeshifting. It does this. And every time, I’m sad, I resist, I feel such a deep sense of loss that I think I’ll fall into it. It’s hard, these changes. A lot is lost. Illusions, relationships, ways of seeing myself and the world. Right now, I’m at the beginning, or maybe the middle, of acceptance. I’m aware and I accept that certain things will never be the same.

Maybe this pain leads me again to where I need to go. Maybe with this mouth—with this dream—expressed without malady.

I’ve lost so much. Sometimes it seems everything is loss. The sky protrudes with it, the belly bloats with it, the speaking crows rebel into flock-dragons in a separating sky—where all separates into light and dark and the divine opens into itself, the huge mouth of destiny. I build and build and long periods of tearing down. I try to build things steady and strong, with brick-and-mortar foundations—all of this is impermanent and breaks my heart over and over again. Flocks of seabirds, city birds. The kiss is fleeting. Lips touch and fade. Bodies come together and break apart. This is what happens. A simple fact. All of this is certain. There will always be loss. But of the times in between that loss, the brightness is almost blinding. Loss and brightness make a whole—sweet as an egg—nest—

Poem or prose, it comes out the same. I’ve realized this, after months of writing against my natural grain—or what I thought was against—in sentences, that sequester lines—the problem is not form, but truth—where truth holds banister and crows—but the windows hold strong, the glass is steady in them, when it rattles, the wind always coming—I still have a house—language.

Stacey Harwood shares some Hump Day Highlights at The Best American Poetry blog and links to these amazing essays!

http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2014/02/hump-day-highlights.html

5

 

 

Then, the last week of May, I got an email: “Benedict Wisniewski wants to be friends on Facebook.”  Not the Benedict Wisniewski, I thought, the boy who presented me with a red plastic ring with a white knight on it in first grade and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage”?  Not the Benedict Wisniewski who gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album as we stood with our moms on the steps of St. John of God Church after our last graduation practice on a blue-green early summer evening, and said, “I got it at the best record store in all Chicago — Yardbird Records.  They have the best selection of bootlegs in the area.  And,” he whispered conspiratorially, “they also have head supplies!”

I didn’t know what “bootlegs” or “head supplies” were then, in 1974, but Benedict, a misfit like myself, the butt of classmates’ taunts (he for being fat, me for being skinny, both of us for being “different”), really knew music.   We both loved rock and roll with the passion of outcasts whose loneliness had been redeemed by it.  I needed to find that store.  But I’d forgotten where Ben had said it was, if he had said.  But three years later I finally found it, as my dad drove Georgie and I back from driver’s ed, and from then on I hung out there every weekend.  Then during the week.  Then I dated one of the owners: Arnie, eleven years older than me.  My mother constantly threatened a restraining order, but she needn’t have worried.   We never really dated until I was about to turn eighteen.  Our first “official” date, in fact, was May 6, 1978, a few months before I turned eighteen.  When he picked me up on the corner of 51st and Ashland (I told my mother I was going over by Georgie’s house) the digital clock in his Datsun B210 read 12:34 — our first date had commenced on 12:34, 5/6, ’78.  It would prove auspicious, too, as Arnie introduced me to the tiny but dedicated Chicago punk rock scene, centered on the north side.  He was my ticket out of the south side.  He died in 1979, at 29.  It was because of him that I learned that it was the north side, and then New York City, upon which I should set my sights if I wanted to pursue artistic goals (writer? painter? actress?).  But it was Ben who had pointed me in that direction in the first place.  And now, all these years later, I could thank him.  I wondered what this had to do with my mental state, if anything.  Deep down I knew it was probably everything.

By email we described what our lives had become:  Ben was chief operations officer at a big stock trading firm located in Chicago’s Board of Trade building, with a corner office and a staff.  In other words, he’d made it.  I was embarrassed telling him about my life — I was making less than half of half what he was making.  He’d also opted to stay at home and take care of his mother, and I felt guilty — now — about leaving my parents to go live in New York.  Wanting to connect with this living, breathing link to a past I was so desperately trying to bring back (or at least understand), I asked him if he wanted to talk on the phone.  We started talking regularly on Thursday nights, and our first conversation was about our revenge-through-success fantasies.

“My bête-noir in those days,” he said, “was that guy Johnny Grundy — remember him?  With the rotten teeth and greaser hair?  Greaser hair . . . in the Seventies!  He made fun of me every single day, tried to trip me in the hall, ripped papers out of my folders, put my books in other kid’s desks, put gum on my chair . . . he thought he was cool ’cause he was in a gang, you know?   And so, dig this: it’s years later, I’d just gotten out of college, I’d lost a ton of weight, I was working for the city so I had a damn good paycheck, and I had a date with some girl.  I was all dressed up — designer sport coat and tie, dress pants, the works — and I had my Mustang then, this little candy-apple red Mustang coupe.  Totally hot car.  Guys used to pull over at red lights and ask me about it.  And so I took it to this car wash at 60th and Western, and I pulled in and got out — this was back in the days when they drove it through the cash wash for you — and I’m standing behind the glass, watching the guys work on it, and I’m looking at this one guy and thinkin’, ‘Man, he looks familiar …’ and dammit if it wasn’t that fucking low-life Johnny Grundy!  And when they were done I went over to the car, and he kept looking at me, and I kept looking at him, and I knew he knew who I was, and he was looking at the car I was driving, and looking at how I was dressed — and he was in this raggedy old t-shirt and jeans — and I didn’t say a damn thing to him.  I just drove out of there with a big smile on my face thinking, ‘This is what happens in the real world, you son of a bitch.’  ‘Cause I was the fat boy that nobody wanted around.”

“And I was the skinny girl that nobody wanted around.”

“And now I’m sitting in my office with a view of the lake, behind a $2,000 hand-carved executive desk, with my butt firmly planted in a $500 leather chair, thinking those kids that made fun of me — where are they now?   Wiping down cars, making shit money.  And look at you: traveling around the world, reading your work in foreign countries, getting published, doing what you love … that’s what ya call payback, baby!  Don’t it feel good?”

It didn’t.  Because I wasn’t successful — I’d just forfeited a Fulbright.  I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and I was going to have to start my 3-week adjunct summer teaching gig in a week.  I was a mess.  Plus I still hadn’t gotten my revenge-through-success on the clique of girls who’d tormented me.  And now I was in the grip of something that was taking my last chance at even moderate success as a writer away.  I was still a loser.

During one of our conversations, Ben told me about a Facebook page created by two former St. John of God Grammar School alums.  But he said to beware — everyone was discussing the demolition of the church, which had just begun.  I’d been following the final days and closure of the church for years; my mother had sent me newspaper clippings describing the parish’s struggle to keep going despite its dwindling — and then barely existing — congregation, its famous crying Virgin Mary statue, and its final Mass in 1992.   I’d wished I’d been there for that final Mass, to see the priest and altar boys leave the altar for the last time, to have one last look at those four pious kneeling angels, the painting in the dome that had inspired such peace in my soul, and the shafts of colored light pouring in through the stained glass windows at the beginning of three months of summer.  I’d even had a crazy dream of writing a coming-of-age novel so powerful it would revive interest in our historic neighborhood (the first American grass-roots community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, had been founded there, by activist Saul Alinsky in 1939) and the archdiocese would re-open the church because of overwhelming demand from the influx of new parishioners.  I’d make the local and national news, Oprah would choose my novel for her book club, there’d be an interview with me in front of my old house.  Artists and urban pioneers would flood into the neighborhood because of the cheap rents, yuppies would follow, and newspaper articles would be describe the “new diversity,” never-before-seen on the “white flight” south side of Chicago.  I actually did write the novel — Greetings From Jag-off Land —  but the handful of agents I’d sent it to turned it down, so I shelved it and went back to writing poetry.  About joining the SJG Facebook page, I was uncertain: I didn’t know if I wanted to embellish my despair over the demolition of my life with despair over the demolition of the church.  The idea of that beautiful church with its graceful, lace-like twin spires, its high and airy vault — my childhood sanctuary — being torn apart was just too much to bear.  But curiosity got the best of me, and I joined the “St. John of God Parish and Grammar School” page.

The names of almost-forgotten, now vividly-recalled kids from various grades scrolled before me: Kubicki, Wroblewski, Dombrowski, McGuire, Glow, Walczak, Shedor, Faro.  I could see them, and many others, making their idiosyncratic ways up and down the aisles during Communion at 8 a.m. Mass: the girl who developed early and knew it, and rolled her skirt and left the first three buttons of her blouse open, the one the boys called “Bouncy”; the boy whose mother had died and whose shoes had soles that were half off, and so he dragged his feet, making a shushing sound; the tough gang girl who liked to fight, and shot dirty looks from under her blunt-cut black bangs at other girls in the pews.  The names I didn’t recognize were girls who’d gotten married, I figured, so I clicked on the links to their pages and it became clear who’d they been back then.  Two of my teachers were also there, including Mr. Urbanek, my seventh grade English teacher, my favorite, who’d first encouraged me to be a writer.   The names brought on an internalized feeling of the shape and space of the school: light brick, modern, L-shaped, two floors, long windows, two sets of red double doors along the front, and a white cement Lady of Fatima statue, with three kneeling children and a couple of sheep, on the grass behind an iron stake fence.  Inside, the shiny marble floors of Kindergartens A and B (upon which I’d napped next to Ben on a rag rug) inlaid with the alphabet, numbers, friendly animals, a clock that looked like a sun.  In all the classrooms were high, wide windows that had to be opened with a long pole, and low bookcases containing red Thorndike-Barnhardt Scholastic Dictionaries.  In front of Sister Principal’s office (where I went with Billy Peak in Kindergarten because we fought over who had colored their Thanksgiving turkey drawing more prettier) sat a big, plush German Shepherd, placed there by my classmate Melanie Rybczinski, whose mother was the principal’s secretary.  I could smell the mimeographed paper we used for cursive writing practice in the lower grades, and feel the curvy orange Palmer Penmanship Pen we used later (and also my continual irritation at not being able to make those wheat stacks look the way they were supposed to).

But also there, as I feared, were photos of the church in the process of being taken down.  At first, I couldn’t look at them, but, again, curiosity got the best of me, and there was the mural of Jesus with the children, now with nothing but clear blue sky behind it and raw plaster all around it.   The vestibule was in ruins, and rubble littered the winding staircase that led to the choir loft.  A linked youtube video, called “Goodbye, St. John of God Church,” made by the daughter of a woman who’d graduated the year before me (and whose brother had been in my class), lovingly lingered on the details of whatever remained amidst the rubble and the mold-damaged, peeling walls.  The murals of peaceful, pious, kneeling angels flanking the altar were chipped and fading behind dust and mold, though they still continued to display, to the best of their ability, and for whatever eternity remained to them, the censer, St. Veronica’s veil, the chalice and Host, and the Crown of Thorns.  (Now, I could finally see their faces and tender expressions up close — it made their imminent destruction even more tragic.)  The pews had been removed and an inflatable basketball hoop and backboard put in, and garish blue and yellow protective plastic padding covered the Stations of the Cross paintings.   A cheap digital scoreboard had been added to the wall below the choir loft — the church had been repurposed as a gym for the community center that was our old grammar school — and a sign affixed to the outside of the church read “William J. Yaeger Memorial Gym.”  The lofty white marble and gold main altar had basketball-shaped puncture holes at the bottom, and the alcove where the statue of St. John of God once stood, holding a pomegranate surmounted by a cross in his hand and looking down tenderly, bemusedly, was empty.  Remaining atop the main altar were the two white marble figures, seated, looking down protectively; they now looked down on rubble-strewn floors, and an inexplicable car tire.  The dome painting that I’d loved so much, of St. John of God ministering to the sick man, assisted by an angel holding a vessel of healing liquid and the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus seated on clouds, remained poignantly intact.  Outside, the two slender bell towers, stripped of their exterior bricks, looked like stockyards’ smokestacks.  At the end of the video was a quote: “‘What the heart has once known, it will never forget’ — Author Unknown.”

There were discussions about the church that echoed my own feelings:

— Has anyone gone back to “our” church to see how it looks? I don’t think that I can, I’m afraid my heart would break in a millon peices

— I was looking at the pictures on the site…is that a scoreboard where the choir used to be?? Wasn’t the church blessed at one point?  How can there be basketball games going on in a sacred place?!!!

— All our indestructible memories, amid the ruins . . .

— OH MY GOD!!!!!!! It’s a gym????????????????????? That is horrible!! I can’t believe someone allowed all of this to happen.

— I went past there about two months ago, showed the kids where I grew up and the size of the school compared to where they go. The church is still standing but it just looked deserted. When did they tear down the “old” school? Remember doing the plays there or using it for a lunch room?

— God bless our home.

But there was actually hope.  Reading more recent postings, I learned that St. John of God wasn’t exactly being wantonly demolished.  The beautiful Renaissance Revival facade and some of its exterior were being transported, brick-by-brick, to Old Mill Creek, Illinois, a town on the Wisconsin border, to become part of a new church, St. Raphael the Archangel.  The interior of the new church would come from another closed Chicago church.  This was something that had never been done before, apparently; the Archdiocese of Chicago had an epiphany: a recycling apotheosis.  In a photo of the new church going up, I could see the beginning of the familiar collonade that would shelter the massive front doors.  In a video, the foundation-laying ceremony included putting St. Raphael’s corner store on top of St. John of God’s.  I recognized that cornerstone — the date, in Roman numerals, had been chiseled incorrectly originally, and some smart-ass had written the proper way in underneath, in chalk.  The chalked date had been erased, and now it would apparently remain awkwardly calculated forever — I liked that.  My former fellow schoolmates were just as encouraged:

— Whew!  My childhood memories are just . . . . moving.

— Heard about this move. Sounds like a great idea and a way to continue the beauty of this church in a beautiful church.

— If by moving it it will continue to be of use, I say bravo, Archdiocese of Chicago.

— My sister already contacted the pastor at the new church and the old St John members are invited to attend the “opening ceremonies”. Thought it would be a great way for the old St John family to symbolically hand over the building to the new congregation. Any thoughts out there??

— That sounds like a great idea to attend the opening ceremonies. I would love that. Anyone else?

— Absolutely! I went past the new location recently and took these photos of the limestone bricks of “our” church waiting to be pieced together . . . Although these are waiting to be reconstructed, somehow just being among them, made me feel at home! :)

The shape and color of those piles of bricks brought back the palpable and familiar presence of the church.  I could feel myself, so vividly it surprised me, walking up the wide steps, standing at the entrance to the church, under the collonade, with a glance cast to the side, to the trees that surrounded the church, just about to grasp the door handle and enter the vestibule on a mild spring morning.  In the background of the photo the unmown Midwest prairie grasses and tall trees of its new home on the Wisconsin border recalled Sherman Park.  It occurred to me that the church had been moved to the kind of bucolic location that Sherman Park was designed to suggest — it had been moved to a beautiful, peaceful place, away from the violence that had been done to it.  It would never be the same without its original interior (which had been ripped wantonly away — why couldn’t those beautiful murals be saved?), but it had been moved so that it could serve a new purpose for a new community.  Had I wanted it to remain where it had been, serving no purpose except to be a useless symbol of a long-ago time?  There was something to be learned from what was happening to St. John of God: at 50, what was my purpose?  Was I just clinging to a long-ago time that could never serve a real purpose?  And hadn’t I been de-constructed recently, hadn’t my insides been ripped away?

I knew there was something to be learned from that, and that all this was in my life for a reason, but could I emotionally deal with it?  If I started posting on that page, and people responded, what other wounds would be reopened?

 

Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.

Dark, Terrifying Places, and What I Learned from Leonora Carrington, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker and Emily Dickinson

 

To know that human beings can do evil to each other almost breaks my faith over and over again. The almost is pivotal. Part of faith is doubt and to face this is important. The paradox of beauty and terror is something I wrestle with on a regular basis. This seeming impossibility of two powerful forces calls into question all of my beliefs about humankind. To accept that there are people who can do such horror is beyond comprehension, but also, I am drawn to trying to understand.

 

For me, it was learning about the Holocaust that triggered the all-too-human terror that exists in all of us. The specific trigger is important up to a point. What matters and what lights our way along this very dark path of navigating fear is that we all feel this, we all struggle with mindless horror, and our stories all contain a memory, a trauma, an experience that stays with us throughout our lives and makes us confront our startling vulnerability and mortality. How we move through this fear, this grief, this anger, this desire for things to be different than they are defines us—we develop survival mechanisms, avoidance techniques, addictions, and also courage, strength and a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of the human race on this earth at this time.

 

Just before beginning my adolescence, I found out about the Holocaust. Not only did I find out about this horrific history, it was told to me in a barbaric and traumatic way that would haunt me for the better part of my adolescence and twenties. I was away from home for the first time, at summer camp. That same summer, my best friend decided to be best friends with another girl in our grade and left me alone, lonely and alienated, during this time when I desperately needed comfort and love. The fear and despair this all instilled in me was potent, a deep trauma that I have spent a lifetime healing. There was something of that fear that became a fear of being who I am inside, deeply, as a human being, as a living creature. This was my first intimacy with suffering.

 

For most of my pre-adolescence and into my teenage years and my twenties, I was obsessed with tragedy. I read countless books about the Weimar Republic and World War II, looked at photographs that Lee Miller took after the war, read about families that saved other families, tried to understand how this genocide of so many could happen. This dovetailed with my fascination with and adoration of tragic heroines, those women who suffered at the hand of fate and created art that was so beautiful, it set the world on fire. The fire was bright and its sparks cascaded down to earth in a silent parade of the invisible, of those who were erased, who disappeared and then reemerged in a torrent of color and dream, pain transformed into beauty.

 

Leonora Carrington’s paintings and life encapsulated all of this, her and Max Ernst’s tragic love and the deepest suffering that she bore and couldn’t bear anymore and went mad and then lived a long, long, long life after tragedy and the war, during which she continued to make sculptures and paint and set the world on fire with her beautiful creations, with her beauty. I bought tons of gorgeously plated art books on the women Surrealists and read the work of the male Surrealists, because at that time, I couldn’t get my hands on the women’s work. Then I discovered Mina Loy, who shone like a newly discovered planet in the solar system. She was my lighthouse through my twenties. She also had a tragic love life.

 

This obsession of mine with women artists who all seemed to have tragic love lives started with Emily Dickinson, whose love life can be seen as tragic, but that is not the way I see it. She made a decision to remain unmarried at a time in which that was virtually unheard of and created her life around her passion. This is not tragic. So first there was Dickinson, then Loy, bringing me to a center of my soul I had never known before. They made their own language. Then there was Carrington, whose characters and surreal settings in her paintings were like the images in my imagination and dreams. They were my soul mates and guides at a time when I did not know either of those existed.

 

In my second stint at college, I read Lorine Niedecker. Her poems and life story hit me the hardest. I cried my way through the entire semester, reading her poems, so bare and lonely and real. There was a truth in them that I had never confronted, that love and loneliness go together, that we are all alone in our deepest struggles, and that nature feels this with us, feels this for us. And that words are incantations, calling forth the hidden spheres with their music and plea.

 

Natural Light

 

These women taught me how to be myself. They taught me that feeling pain is okay. That there is beauty in the world and in the darkest times. This saved me and continues to save me. Being able to write and draw (I drew many pictures of trees and birds, sitting alone and quiet in the woods) and have hope was life-affirming and strengthened me in ways I didn’t even know at the time.

 

I think about how all of these women had tragic love lives. The four women I admire most in the world of art and language. Does that mean anything? In my time now, I don’t think so. But I used to. Those definitions of being a woman artist. What does that mean for your personal life? I used to think it meant a lot of things, including the necessity to endure pain and live a life of extended monologue superimposed on passionate dialogue, neither of which were clear or understandable. I used to think it meant being alone. At the same time, I thought it meant having an intense love affair that included bonding on a bone-soul level so that our bodies and hearts and minds were subsumed ecstatically in each other. This electric bonding happens, chemical, whatever else bonds one to another in passion.

 

Now things have evened out—I trust myself to be in a committed relationship with a man without losing myself. This has been hard-won. Crazy hard-won, as the forces exerted on women and men to lose themselves are volcanic and atmospheric. And human. What it has taught me above all is that I can survive and endure, feel deep pain and face the world, myself and others, with truth and courage. And that I can make beauty out of all of it.

 

The darkest time in my life led me to discovering the deepest beauty and courage and hope. There is hope in our actions, in our creations, in our compassion and love.

 

I have no answers to the paradoxes. I have learned to balance opposing forces for small amounts of time, struggling with them, accepting them, fighting against the darkness, entering the darkness. I have trained myself to keep coming back to that part of myself that tells me the truth. What am I feeling right now? Is this true? This is core awareness, the center of my daily life. Within this is love and washing dishes and feeling lonely and feeling cranky and being mad and ecstatic and in love and the outside world and the inside world and writing and lights.

 

All of it matters. The strange beauty and terror of life right now, right where we are.

 

The impossible

gathers twigs–  or feet

that follow it.

 

Air

 

ethers of language

pulled taut      or released.

 

Earth on Fire, dissolved battalions

pouring metal from the sky.

 

The battle begins

on the afternoon of the full moon

on beds of grass and wild flowers.

 

Our Love    grows in its belly.

 

Beasts tear   at the fierce opening

until we are bruised.   And then

 

Language lifts us up

reversing gravity —-

 

into a startled leaf bed

born in silence.

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