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Archive for the ‘Courage’ Category

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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This is part 3 of a series.

 

3

 

 

As I walked, panic-stricken, out of the dentist’s Park Slope office that cold, grey Wednesday, the temporary filling in fractured molar # 14 drilled out and packed with cotton, I thought: This goddamn dentist doesn’t know what she’s doing.  She’s a quack.  After all, she hadn’t told me in the first place how much Ibuprofen I could take.  And why hadn’t she written me a ‘script for antibiotics and Percoset and started the procedure that Friday?  I believed that this woman — this young, serious Russian woman — whom I’d been seeing for almost five years, was a quack, good with the fillings and cleanings but sub-par on the more complex issues.  But that all-too-familiar cold, growing fear rose up again, and my thoughts started spiraling: my health was in terrible danger, and that by instructing me to keep my drilled-out infected tooth packed with cotton she was leaving me vulnerable to a worse infection.  I imagined that when I’d have my mouth open to change the cotton some rogue germ or virus floating around my not-so-immaculate bathroom would somehow alight in the tooth pulp and flutter its way into my system, eventually causing all sorts of dreaded symptoms.  Yes, she’d given me stronger, more broad-spectrum antibiotics, but they would no doubt disastrously compromise my immune system, compounding side effects upon symptoms.  And what toxic ingredients (tested on animals, no doubt) were in the mouthwash she’d also prescribed, and how would they further tax my body? I had absolutely no doubt that I’d be sitting for hours in some crowded, gun-shot-wound emergency room, the harried, uncaring nurses ignoring me as infection spread and I finally had a heart attack.  Or, if not that scenario, then having to run from doctor to doctor for weeks and weeks as one after another tried to “cure” me of the side effects of all the medications I’d tried and then jettisoned.  I’d be so emotionally screwed-up I’d never write again.  Forget writing — I’d never be able to live again.  I’d end up like my clinically depressed brother-in-law, so crippled by anxiety I’d never be able to leave the house.  And then, eventually, I’d be homeless, like my sister.

Overwhelmed by worry, doubts and that cold, pure fear I rushed into another dentist’s office on the way home to get a second opinion.  He seemed non-plussed, like what she’d said was absolutely correct.  Walking out, I wasn’t reassured.  I scanned all possibilities: What if I hadn’t described the problem correctly?  What if I’d been too nonchalant, and in trying to cover my panic glossed over some important detail?  I kept scanning, trying to reconstruct the scene in my mind as I walked toward my apartment, but my thoughts were spiraling too fast.

For the rest of the day and into the evening I paced back and forth through the apartment, alternately crying then trying to meditate and talk myself down.  I obsessively checked my face and the root canal site every couple of minutes in different mirrors, in different lights and from different angles, for signs of worsening infection, for any changes to the swelling, for even miniscule anomalies.  At one point I thought the infection had spread to the other side of my face, and so I called the dentist in a panic just as she was leaving for the day.

“Sharon, please go to the emergency room,” was her response.  “Or take some Benadryl.  It might just be an allergic reaction to the antibiotic.”

I was absolutely certain then that she’d put me in danger.  I was so immobilized by fear that I just sat down in the rocking chair and rocked back and forth, shaking and crying.  When David came home from work I was pacing the apartment, crying, hyperventilating, and calling every friend who’d ever had a dental procedure.  I even called my childhood best friend Georgie Kowalski, a registered nurse, to ask her if the information I’d gotten from my insurance’s 24-hour helpline (which I’d called twice, to compare the advice) made sense to her.  She couldn’t fathom why I was so upset, and at one point she even laughed at me when I told her the pain I’d felt over the weekend made me feel like I was experiencing the suffering of all beings.  She thought I was being funny.  When David saw me examining my face in different mirrors for the millionth time he decided to call in sick the next day because he didn’t want me to be home by myself.  And when it was time to change the cotton before bed and rinse with the mouthwash I felt it imperative to disinfect every bathroom surface that my hands, the mouthwash bottle, and the plastic bag I kept the cotton in would touch; it took about an hour.  Before I went near my teeth I washed my hands, wrists, and arms thoroughly with very hot water, as if I were scrubbing up for surgery. Even after all that I set a paper towel down under the bag, and made sure the hand with which I opened the bag was not the hand with which I touched the cotton, in case any germ that had managed to escape the disinfecting surface spray might’ve attached itself to the bag.  It took four tries to get the tiny piece of cotton inside the tooth because my hand was shaking so much, and after every failure I had to scrub up again.  I went to bed exhausted, and fell asleep right, but then woke up from a vivid nightmare a few hours later: I was about to travel back in time, to the past, to heal my tooth.  But I wouldn’t be able to come back to my present life, and the decision couldn’t be reversed.  I shot up so violently in bed that I woke David up.

“What?  What’s going on?” he asked.

“I don’t want to have to travel back to the past to heal my tooth!” I screamed.

“You’re just having a bad dream,” he said, reaching out to hold me.

I shook him off.  “No!  I have to leave in four hours!  What time is it?  How can I get out of this?  I won’t be able to come back!”

“You’re having a nightmare!” he repeated, and I realized he was right.  I got up and took a Xanax, fell back asleep and had another nightmare: I was back in my old neighborhood, visiting the house of my former bully Lori Kruliszewski.  It was after midnight, and I had to walk back home along Racine Avenue, now a dark river of tall, thick prairie grass under a brilliant Big Dipper.  I turned around to go back to the house I’d just left, but a pair of hands grabbed me from behind, under my arms, and lifted me off the ground.  I knew the person who’d grabbed me was Pluto himself, abductor of Persephone, and I was going to end up in the Underworld.  I bolted upright in bed again, and this time stayed awake, pacing and checking my face, until the scalding morning light came blazing through the kitchen window.  I couldn’t bear the light, and so locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the floor.  Next to the toilet was a book I’d been reading (years ago, it seemed) called Pluto: the Evolutionary Journey of the Soul.  Just then I remembered something: my astrologer friend Brant had told me I was going to have something called a “Pluto transit.”  What was that? I tried to remember, but couldn’t quite recall its meaning.  And he’d said something about a Jupiter-trine-something-or-other on March 23.  What was all that?  I knew I’d researched it when he told me, but it was just a foggy memory that I couldn’t wrap my mind around.

By the following week the infection had cleared up (along with my tongue, which had turned black from the mouthwash — an additional source of panic and constant checking, and occasion for more calls to my insurance’s helpline), and the root canal proceeded normally, twice a week for a month.  But the anxiety continued, and worsened, until I could only leave the house for the dental appointments.  Walking to the dentist along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, I was wishing that our landlord would decide to sell the building — an idea that had been floating around since he’d given up his private accounting business the previous winter.  The look of Fifth Avenue between Degraw Street and 9th Street, where the dentist’s office was, kept reminding me of my whirling-mind trek between those two points on March 23.  Plus, I could no longer function normally in the apartment: instead of waking up in the morning as I normally did — slowly, reluctantly, begrudgingly — a rush of adrenaline would pop me up like a puppet.  The sight of approaching daylight through the kitchen window heightened that feeling of cold dread, whereas it had once brought ideas for poems and stories: mornings had always been my writing time.  If I didn’t want to be reminded of March 23, I really didn’t want to be reminded that I’d lived a “normal” life (as normal as life can be for a poet) before that.  I had loved the look of the afternoon light through the bay windows in the living room, through the sheer green curtains, but now I kept the dark blue shades pulled down, and avoided as much as I could the bright kitchen.  I had loved that kitchen window so much, with its view of unobstructed sky, low Brooklyn rooftops and the Williamsburgh Bank clock tower, referenced by Patti Smith in her song “Gloria” — I always got a kick out of living so close to “the big tower clock.”  Now, though, I couldn’t even bring that song to mind.  I couldn’t bear music, and I couldn’t even look at a newspaper or magazine.   And forget books.  It hurt just to have them in the same room.  I remained curled up in bed, ate packaged soups and slices of bread, watched old TV shows on a rerun channel all day long and kept the magnifying mirror close by, to check for unexpected changes to the root canal site: if the swelling had returned, if my skin was turning yellow (I’d read on the patient insert that jaundice was one of the side effects of the stronger antibiotic); if the blackness on my tongue had come back.  I called Georgie almost every day and ran “what if” scenarios past her as they occurred.  I called my friend with the psycho-pharmacologist + therapist + internist for advice (which made the panic worse; I soon stopped doing that).  I began picturing myself watching Lawrence Welk reruns with my brother- and mother-in-law.  My mother-in-law asked nothing of Tom, never even suggested he make an attempt to get out of his own head, and in my fantasy she also asked nothing of me, and I’d spend the rest of my days in a void of comforting changelessness, my limited travels conveniently, comfortingly demarcated by goat paths.  Nothing unexpected or threatening could possibly happen, ever again.

 

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.

 

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I was told for many years, by many people, that I wouldn’t survive. There was no doubt I wouldn’t make it. I wasn’t safe where I was, ever. When identity is based on this kind of fear, how do we move through this to a place of power? I have spent my life trying to answer this question, as well as many other questions associated with the discovery that there are horrific events in our world. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we continue to live, to survive? How do we deal with the guilt of being survivors in a world where so many of us don’t make it? These questions create a gravitational center from which radiate the many aspects of truth that make up the circumference of meaning. The meaning is not found in answering the unanswerable, but in asking the questions over and over again.

 

The nature of fear is to consume. It’s like a flame. A flame can be destructive or life-giving.

 

I have come to learn that my fear has saved me as many times as it’s brought me to my knees.

 

I have brought this fear, a fear I know intimately, like the palm of my hand, with its many deep lines—the palm readers say I will have a long, interesting life—with me everywhere I go. It is with me when I sleep. It protects me and knows me like a lover. Of course it does, because it sleeps next to me every night. This fear sits next to me when I eat, follows me into the restaurant when I am meeting friends, orders coffee at the end of the meal. For a long time, my fear stood outside my writing—I could not even bear to bring them together in a conscious way. But, little by little, my fear started to inform my writing, make it face itself, make me face my own darkness in words, made me have a conversation with it through my writing.

 

This allowed for a third ghost to enter the picture—a witness. I became my own witness to my thoughts, sensations, beliefs, and stories about Fear.

We don’t just want to write something good. We want it mean something. One of the scariest things is to think none of what we do matters. Writing is about connecting—to ourselves, others, the place where body and mind meet, our own stillness and silence that is part of the world’s stillness and silence, from which strength and courage and truth and love come in unlimited supply. To touch that, even for a moment, with our writing, with words, actions, intentions, is meaningful. Every second we experience our lives is meaningful. We deepen our own awareness into acknowledgment of that meaning—it is a task, every day, to do that.

 

Meaning is the antithesis of fear.

 

*

I’m worrying a lot right now about being honest in what I write. So much is coming up for me and it all feels so raw. I want to write about it but it feels too scary. I can barely talk about it.

 

I can barely talk to people who’ve known me my whole life, who know me and know this fear, know my fear.

 

And I realized that that’s exactly the place to start, so I start at the not being able to talk about it, what that feels like, that place between feeling and expression.

 

That is part of the fear—and the freedom.

 

I want so much to be free. To feel free and safe. I want this for everyone in the world.

 

It shouldn’t be so hard to feel safe and that has created a grief that has been inside me for as long as I can remember.

 

We want to be known. And we want others to be known. We are fierce, fearless creatures who inhabit a haunted, beautiful, scary world.

 

When we know our own personal fear, it’s a weird intimacy, because we know it, we sit there with it, watch TV or read, or do the countless tasks we do throughout our day and night, we sleep, wake up at 3 in the morning, and there it is, the fear, sitting on our chests like an animal from another realm. So we know it, it’s like a friend coming to visit, but it’s a friend who talks to us about all of the things that haunt us and upset us and scare the crap out of us. And we sit and have coffee with our friend, who’s listing all of the catastrophes and tragedies of all time, because fear is timeless, isn’t bound by time, so it knows everything about every horrible thing that’s ever happened in the history of all humanity and all life and all death and all of the extinctions and all of the genocides and wars, and we’re sitting there on the couch, drinking our coffee and wondering whether or not to offer coffee to this friend, who says they’ve traveled for miles to see us, but we know they live next door or in our bathroom or in our bed. And they know every inch of us, everything that makes us exhausted with fear, just totally tired, but talking with them and hanging out with them makes us feel better in a way, because it’s a conversation between a witness and a child, or a witness and a scared adult, or a witness and fear itself. And this is the way we face fear.

 

*

 

This winter, the weather is haunted. We watch as snow piles up on our windowsills and presses against the screens. We watch the weather reports, 10 degrees, 20 feels like summer.

 

*

 

Just as I’m getting used to appearing and reappearing, I disappear again into fear. Fear takes hold of the mind and the body responds, the chest tightening, lump in the throat, thoughts darting around like hunted things, blind and terrified. Fear is not easy. It’s not rational and, while it can be attacked somewhat rationally, there is an element of it that is like the center of a flame, unreachable and primal. The need for safety is universal, as is the instinct for survival. When these are threatened, fear digs in and constricts a wider view—whether the danger is real or imagined. What is the way out of this?

 

When we are in the midst of it, feeling the constricted pattern of the fear, thinking, writing, muttering, talking through the fear we’re feeling, then sitting silent as stones, we somehow, through all this, move past the paralyzing stage of the mind playing out scenarios that seem as real as the room we’re in.

 

My Buddhist teacher says to ask, is this scenario in my mind real?

 

When we are afraid, the lines become murky and foggy between what we’re afraid will happen or is happening and what is really happening. It’s easy to convince oneself of the worst. We don’t know how to polish things up and end writing or end a trail of thought or conversation with some kind of flourish or optimism or something to turn to or lean on—courage is the ability to come back to and be present in the room. We are in the room or park or supermarket, we know and are aware that our bodies are here right now and we can be witnesses to the mind tightening in the grip of terror. Trying to be as present as possible and name things: I am feeling terrified and scared and unsafe. My chest hurts. My heart is beating fast and then it’s barely beating. My breath is shallow.

 

And that is all there is, until the next moment.

 

*

The way time moves. On certain days, it dictates. On others, it runs smoothly parallel to the mind, to the beating heart. And we don’t wait for things, we feel time as a gentle presence and boundary that moves things along like breath and baking, heating up leftovers, resting. This is resting, when time moves like this, when we are aware of it like this.

 

Resting in the discomfort, in the fear, we open up space. We see and feel ourselves standing in a field with weeds and visual access to the horizon. We can breathe.

 

*

 

The winter hopes. It is long. I am tempted to pull out the string in the back of it to make it speak or tell fortunes. Where is it that we leave our playthings when childhood is taken from us like specks of dust in the light as the light thins and then disappears altogether? We’re haunted, all of us, by this dimming light. Sometimes the haunting has words, unintelligible and in different languages, their sound lilting or suspicious or frank. The dotted lines marking the map to oblivion. The chest pounds. We are all afraid of what might happen, and we drown ourselves in the aftermath of probability—how many scenarios of the Apocalypse, of the impending destruction of our perfumed lives can we view, as if on a screen, before we listen to our hearts beating, right now, inside of us, and acknowledge life is this? Life is the beating heart, the fast or slow breath, the tired muscles in our legs as we walk at the end of the day, the energy we have for those we love, we keep going, going, in spite of fear, of harsh predictions.

 

This evening I allowed myself to feel empty and spacious, having no plans for the rest of the week save one dinner. This isn’t rare for me. I try to keep an open schedule so I have space and time for myself and writing. For myself to just be, in unscheduled time, and for my mind to be at rest, or to be reading, or thinking in a spacious way as to allow new thoughts to come in. And tonight, I was reading a bit and watching Endeavour, and taking breaks to just walk around my house and drink water and pet the cats, and I felt empty and peaceful. And then a tinge of restlessness. Rustled the water a little. The clear lake becomes the tiniest bit murky as the silt is stirred up, the undersurface of the water. And I decided to call my great uncle and check on him in this cold and made a time to see him this week. I understood even more clearly than I had that giving myself this space and not just filling hours with work or TV or social engagements lets what is truly important rise to the surface so I can then take right action. It is a deliberate result.

 

*

 

There is a deeper peace, and a deeper silence. From out of this acceptance as things are arise right ideas.

 

*

 

Reading The Hunger Games as Katniss drops honeysuckle nectar on her tongue, this visceral memory comes back to me of my pre-adolescent body and what it felt like— energy coursing through me, through my muscles— everything bright and new, glistening, reflecting sunlight, bright, bright sunlight, and being excited about everything—  my best friend Sherri’s apartment, and her mom, who was a single mom, and the peacock-back wicker chairs… I remember the apartment complex we lived in and the honeysuckle that grew by the train tracks and the smell of the honeysuckle and eating it and hanging out with a group of boys and girls whose names I don’t remember and flattening pennies on the tracks. This feeling of being in my body, part of nature, and city, being outside in the air.

 

*

 

Maybe what I think of as claustrophobia in a place of fear is actually closer to freedom than I think. I think it is a cramped room. I think it is a place from which I can’t escape. But the very experience of fear makes me human. The struggle with all of this makes me human. The fact of the struggle, this medium or median translating dust and fog into constellations— that is purpose and meaning. And does this give rise to hope? Does it create fertile conditions for hope and presence to grow? Maybe it does. Maybe the sensations and thoughts and visceral experience of being afraid and staying there for one second, with the tight chest and barely beating heart and stopped breath, create freedom.

 

In the end, we don’t know. We are tired from not sleeping enough or waking up too early, in the dark, unable to get back to sleep. So we wander in the darkness of our houses, before the sun has come up, to boil water in old kettles. And now I am thinking— I really should replace my old beige kettle. I want a bright red kettle, not bright in shade, but a rich, deep red. We make coffee. This is the promise of a new day. We begin the movement forward, in time, of this day. Time moves and seems to splinter, burns together, when we focus on what we’re doing, and maybe we get satisfaction from that. And these moments are blessed and whole. We embody them.

 

I have stayed in my house for two days because it is so damn cold. I really need to get over it. I need to go out. Then, the next day, I go out. It takes half an hour to get ready, put on all my layers. I have lunch at my favorite diner. They are playing Men at Work, and people are talking, and there are coats, scarves, hats piled everywhere. I see a friend from the food co-op as I’m leaving. I go buy some coffee and salad greens. I come home and take off my wet boots, my sweater, my second shirt.

 

Over the weekend, I go out and walk along the park and take pictures. I take off my gloves to hold the camera and my fingers freeze. My thighs are numb. The park, the trees, the monuments around the entrance to the park at Grand Army Plaza are ghostly. I take pictures of the ghosts. The trees are thin-limbed, their dark branches bones against the silver-gold of the sky. The sun is magical, bright behind the veil of winter. When I come home and look at the pictures I’ve taken, they are of another world. They are beautiful, and make visible the line between worlds.

 

This is freedom. I am completely entranced in the magic of winter.

 

 

 

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This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it,

Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone.

No, it begins again.

                                            — Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

 

 

This is Part 1 of a series.

 

1

 

 

 

“It’s not really called a ‘nervous breakdown’ anymore,” my downstairs neighbor, Jack, laughed — a little condescendingly — when I told him I was having one.  I’d just gotten home from my final day of struggling through teaching a three-week summer fiction workshop, and we were sitting in our Brooklyn back yard on one of the cooler evenings that June.  Twenty-five years earlier, when I first moved into the apartment, the back yard had been nothing more than a cracked cement patio with a dirt trim, a couple of ghetto palms and a vista of old lady panties on clotheslines as far as the eye could see.  Over time, Jack’s partner Chris had transformed the concrete-locked square into a shabby-chic sanctuary where we’d enjoyed, along with my husband David, lovely summer nights (and a few lovely dawns) drinking, grilling and talking under twinkling Christmas lights twining up the honey locust trees.  The old lady panties disappeared as the old ladies passed away and affluent young couples moved into Park Slope.  Sadly, I hadn’t taken much advantage of the backyard that summer — my last summer in that apartment, as it would turn out — because the “nervous breakdown” (or whatever the proper clinical term was) that had seized control of my psyche on March 23, 2011 made it impossible to be outside in bright light.  To be in any kind of light.  To be anywhere, everywhere.  It had made me a prisoner of my mind’s most primitive fears and anxieties.

I quickly reassured Jack that, oh yes, this most definitely was a nervous breakdown: every familiar thing about myself and my life had been broken down, broken apart, utterly deconstructed over the course of three months by the constant, unrelenting anxiety of what felt like a 24-7 panic attack.  It felt like my flesh had been flayed, my façade stripped, every nerve exposed and vibrating.  The way an angle of light crossed a building made my heart palpitate; the music I once loved to listen to made my hands shake; every morning an adrenaline rush would  pop me up in bed and, as the day wore on, make me want to commit suicide so it would stop.  I couldn’t even remember the way my mind had once worked.  The onset of all this?  It was ridiculously, unbelievably minor: my dentist telling me over the phone that my root canal-in-progress had gotten infected.  Once the words were out of her mouth, a mountainous wall of panic arose and blocked all other thoughts, feelings, experiences.

“Makes no sense, does it?” I asked Jack, shaking my head and looking up at the sky, which was just beginning to (thankfully) take on the longed-for indigo that would finally obscure the setting sun’s searing orange.  It was the moment I lived for, every day, when I could finally relax a little, knowing that the bright horror of daylight would soon be swept away by merciful, concealing Night.

“No, it makes perfect sense,” he said, which didn’t make me feel any better.  He himself had had a psychotic break a few years before, which was why I was confiding in him.  “No one really knows why the psyche finally decides ‘Okay,enough.’  There’s a series of stresses, and you get through those, but then there’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.  That’s what happened to me, and I’ve seen it in the literature, too.  That’s pretty much how the DSM describes it, actually: ‘acute reactions to stress that do not resolve after removal of the stressor’.”

“Yeah, but the stressor’s been removed — the root canal’s way finished — and I’m still feeling the same panic and horror and fear that I did three months ago.”

“I told you before: this isn’t about the root canal.  It’s about something else. I think it’s your sister’s death.  You know, two years is nothing.  You’re probably still processing it.  The DSM says that ‘mental breakdowns’ — which is really the correct term — have some aspects of ‘mixed anxiety-depressive disorder.’  Which is what I had.  There’s also some relation to PTSD.   But those are chronic; what I’m seeing with you looks like it will probably be short-term, because it’s so intense and sudden and so out of proportion with the trigger.  And I wouldn’t try to figure out what caused it.  You’ve been through a lot, starting with your sister, and then your accident in Moscow.  And then forfeiting a Fulbright?  Come on.  Just try to get through it, then maybe figure out what caused it when you’re in a better mind-space.”

But therein lies the problem: how to get through it? At some point early on I’d made a decision to eschew anti-depressants, despite Jack’s advising getting on SSRIs, as they’d saved his life.  My gynecologist had also suggested anti-depressants, in addition to hormone replacement therapy.  “Basically, when the estrogen goes away,” she’d said, “the adrenalin comes out to play.”  Actually, before she said that, she pretty much yelled at me: “You need to be on anti-depressants!”  But I was resolved not to go that route.  I didn’t want my mind-body chemistry altered even further by the medication merry-go-round I’d observed in several of my friends.  My conversations with one particular friend would often commence with her saying, “So I talked to my psycho-pharmacologist yesterday after I saw my therapist, and I told her that my therapist and also my internist had suggested that I should maybe up the dosage of … ” After that, an exhausting-to-listen-to description of drug combinations that had failed, and so were jettisoned for new combinations (which, at some point, would probably also fail and be jettisoned as well).  About two years back this same friend had triumphantly debuted her effusive poem, “Celexa” at a reading; a year later she was on the Web researching how the drug, now ineffective, could be combined with another, and visiting (and reporting back to me about) the psycho-pharmacologist’s recommendations.  Also figuring into this was the example of my clinically-depressed, born-again Christian brother-in-law: the most Tom could manage in a day was navigating the goat paths from his room, his childhood bedroom, to his mother’s room to watch Lawrence Welk reruns with her every evening.  He couldn’t leave his room before 5 p.m., and needed to build up to it by watching television in bed all day.  The last time I’d seen him, Christmas Eve 2004, after not seeing him for maybe two years, he looked like he hadn’t changed his jeans in all that time: the seat was coal-shiny from constant wear (even to bed, I imagined), and the sour milk smell emanating from him made me nauseous.  During his twenty-five years on medications he’d been gradually increasing their strengths, and now his high dosages of Seroquel + Geodon + Cymbalta, plus six Klonopin to get to sleep (and a couple extra to keep him calm whenever he had to manage new situations), had caused dyskinesia: involuntary movements of the limbs.  Opening the door when David and I arrived that Christmas Eve, he stood stock-still in front of us, unblinking, his right hand configured like he was holding a gun, his legs oscillating back and forth like a little kid pretending to be cold.

“Hi, Sharon, Hi, David,” he said without inflection. My feeling, in better days, was that his real problem was a combination of shame at being gay, compounded by a stifled imagination and curiosity: once, when I’d suggested he take a look at Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul, he’d thanked me but demurred — he said it was against his religion to read something by a Catholic.  There was also, I thought, as he stood in the doorway, a performative, acting-out aspect to his situation, a commandeering of family attention by creating a persona of total incapacitation, perhaps as a kind of vindictiveness: “You all can take care of me now because you made me this way.”  He once told me he’d never really had proper role models as a child (“deprived of guidance” was how he’d described it), and believed that that was the source of his depression: his inability to effectively navigate his own life.  He was still hurt by a first grade classmate who’d ratted him out for being in the wrong line — the girls’ line — for the bathroom after lunch.

“Sometimes I wish I could find that woman and make her apologize,” he’d said.  “I wonder if she ever thought about how she affected my life.”

I’d wondered if he were hanging on to that ancient hurt to fuel the feeling of victimhood that in turn fueled his ability to create the persona of a special person needing special considerations, someone who was denied guidance and was now, as a result, too sick to be expected to function normally.  I’d been severely bullied and emotionally wounded by my grammar school classmates myself, but once I discovered rock and roll I adopted role models like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, former misfits and outsiders who’d created powerful, charismatic personae based on being special in a different way: brilliant and fabulous precisely because of their quirkiness. They’d used their marginalization (actual or imagined) to become observers.  And so because I was odd and had no friends I spent time normally devoted to socialization on reading, writing, listening to music, researching what I wanted to be in the adult world: proud of being extraordinarily different, and thus extraordinary.  By the time I got to college I was dressing punk and taking lots of shit for it in Back of the Yards, my working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, named for its proximity to the infamous Union Stockyards.  It hurt, but I just kept imagining myself at my 30-year grammar school reunion (did grammar schools even have reunions?) giving a speech wherein I called out Lori Kulikowski, my main bully, reminding her that she’d once called me “Palsy,” “Nigger Lips,” “Titless.”  Then I’d whip out my shiny Pulitzer (in my mind it looked like an Emmy) and say, “Make up a name for this, loser!”  Of course, I was using my woundedness like Tom was, only in a different way: to fuel my ambition.  But as the anxiety tightened its grip on my psyche, I understood more clearly why Tom had withdrawn from the world.  I was doing the same thing.  I was even fantasizing about watching Lawrence Welk with him and my mother-in-law in her bedroom at the same time every day.

In all honesty, I was wondering who that “I” was.  This new “I” was not the same person who drove from Chicago to New York in 1988 with $500, a box full of books and a granny-square quilt to study with Allen Ginsberg in Brooklyn College’s MFA program, who once trekked for two weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas in ill-fitting, second-hand Keds purchased from a street vendor in Kathmandu.  And it certainly was not the same person who once kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the groin.  It most definitely was not the person who had written the poems “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “I Never Knew An Orgy Could Be So Much Work,” and “A Unicorn Boner for Humanity.”  That person had been buried by whatever force had taken control on the afternoon of March 23, 2011, when my dentist told me over the phone, with a matter-of-fact sigh, that my root canal had gotten infected. The feeling of continuity between one day and the next had been destroyed, and concentration on anything but the anxiety and pure fear was impossible.

But what I couldn’t have guessed at the onset of the anxiety, and in the horrible bald-bright months that followed, was that time would bring unexpected, perfectly-fitted gifts, and deeply-held wishes fulfilled.  Looking back now, I think some part of me understood that, and fit itself to that hidden truth all along, eschewing medication in favor of having faith in … something … and being a witness to what was happening.  I’m not even sure I know now what pulled me forward.  I call it “being mindful,” but it was connected to something so deeply held within myself I lacked conscious access to it.  But I foresaw none of that that evening in June with Jack in the backyard.  It’s hard to see the path when you’re on it.  The big surprise?  That renewed contact with my grammar school bullies over the destruction of something we all held precious could provide the healing and the continuity with the past that I so desperately longed for.  The even bigger surprise?  That myths of descent could be as true and vital today as they were thousands of years ago as long as I stayed mindful of the markers along the journey’s unmapped twisted path.  The not-so-big surprise was that poetry was there, too, as it had been all along, even though I’d pretty much buried the things that drew me to it in the first place, in order to make a living.  Those things took center stage.

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.


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What is the language of kindness, the one that has no words but resides inside us like a body within a body?

 

I am starting to live in this place. The one of kindness, not of fear and worry. I wonder so much about stability and impermanence and what they mean, how they show up in life. Why is it that we can feel stable and can’t build stable structures? That life sometimes feels as if it’s built on quicksand and crumbles regularly? Is this impermanence? Is this the soluble nature of things, that they sustain for the period they are meant to and then dissipate, dissolve, decay and become something else entirely? The becoming something else entailing a shape so alien to what was before that there is no comfort there, the body is still the body, animal, plant, human, breathing, gravity-bound, but the emotional attachment has nowhere to go, floats in space like an ache of itself. This is grieving, this is loss.

 

In spite of this loss, this amassed loss gathering in the heart, I am starting to live from courage, not fear. Living from fear amounts to not living, living halfway, stuck in a place, half-body. Who wants to live like that? I am finally consumed by what is most important and what has always been most important to me—to love. This has been a conscious goal. Loving is its own thing. It exists in all permutations and even outlives the dead. Because we still love the dead.

 

Their voices, once remnants, ashes found after everything is burned to the ground and the ground becomes itself again, in previous incarnations of dead ground—the sound of what remains, how it holds presence over us until we find some way of speaking for these ashes. And then it’s like this also—that we give our voices to those who are silenced and have no voice. This is also what it means to witness; to give voice to; to tell the stories of the voiceless.

 

I take the words of other women as strength. They make me strong. They shelter and they light. I am strong because of all the women before me who were strong. This is lineage and bequeathing and legacy. The mesh of inner worlds leaves ashes in its wake. The secret voices and letters and pains that connect us. The pain we don’t speak of, or maybe we half-speak of, or maybe we tell it all, an egg, cooked to where the shell breaks. We break so openly but sometimes the invisibility of our breaking makes it seem like we’re still whole and we want to believe that so much, we boil water for tea and go on as if nothing is removed or torn from us. We are whole in this place—this place of silence and speech that is our freedom. We make wilderness out of terror and courage—we are Home in the landscape. We prepare for wars but devote most of our tongue to peace. How does this work after a while, after the tunics and flags are stretched so taut, they show the outlines of faces and bodies and ghosts? How does this work, to remain silent when our bodies shudder for want and desire? What is this desire? Where in us does it live? In the shadow between fortresses, between ribs, aching and melancholy in the spine, in our tendons and bones, we reach forward out of not occupying space as partial recompense for drawing breath and having been born, to occupy our bodies and lives as fully as moths and otters and the light and water they seek. We are our own nourishment.

 

*
We toil in emptying our heads of ashes. Mothers and fathers fall asleep every night before cooking for their families.

 

When did these beings become so elusive, Light as fireflies trapped in a body. Fireflies in glass backs. We can see them flying around in there.

 

More and more, I am surrounded by strong, clear-voiced women, standing in their own bodies and their own power. They have a quiet about them and fire seems to burn off their skins. They are warriors and move with a stillness that can only be the stillness of conscious movement. They are their own counsel but listen deeply and with the utmost openness to others.

 

When women are ghosts. What refuges are left? Truth sustains us. Occupying our bodies sustains us. Love sustains us. But how do we recognize these? How do we know they are not transmogrifications of pored- through atoms that are so porous, they have ceased to exist? Sometimes the things that have ceased to exist are the most powerful. Death sustains us and gives us the language to use to start expressing ourselves from the bare skeletons of life, from the blood aches that make our hearts beat. Grief sustains us, measuring time in loss and conscience. We feel for one another, we console, we gather empathy as browning flowers from a field, knowing their beauty at every stage, now, when they’re fading away from themselves.

 

Our mothers taught us to be a strong women. Our fathers taught us to be strong men. We are confused about what “strong” means and are always considering the ways to be “strong.” Does it mean it’s your duty to bear all the hardship around you? Does it mean knowing when it’s not yours to bear and witnessing it but not hauling it around on your back? And how do you tell the difference and, once you tell these different loads and weights apart, how do you maneuver, how do you distinguish and measure, what are our responsibilities as witnesses? How much of life’s horror do we carry around with us?

 

There is so much we can’t write about, have been forbidden to write about and we honor that prohibition—but it’s like balancing the weight of ghosts that don’t have any weight. This prohibition is a link between us and our family, those whose secrets we have sworn to keep. But it is not easy keeping secrets. They weigh and bow inside, attribute mass in semaphoric patterns–but we love them and keep our promises. It is hard, though, as we reach parts of ourselves, our memories, our desires for the future, and think about and experience harder, deeper and more traumatic subjects and life events and heritage without being allowed to reference the origins. We can open these up with honor and respect and still keep our inner lives.

 

In this vein, I am wondering how to write about the raw places, reading Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds, about her mother’s blank journals like an extra heartache after a first death. What is voice? What is silence? Feeling sad and not letting the sadness settle because we are sick of this particular sadness, the ache to be with the people we love, with a love as passionate as the earth, where our bodies are the earth, their bodies are the earth—and looking for them as they disappear over and over again. We can go through life restless and frustrated and, mostly, exhausted. Tired of pretending we are upbeat all the time, when some days, we are just knocked down by the longing. We feel an active longing that is searching for those lost to us, doing the work for us, but we lie in bed awake or asleep or walk or rearrange our cupboards or closets, our hunger to be settled—if not in a place, then with those we love—constant because the ground under us shifts and shifts again.

 

As we find our power as women, as we find our power as men, the people who are our hearts find their way to us. This is the way it has to be. We see them because we have found our place in the world and own our own power and sustain ourselves there. We are our lives and our bodies, and because of this, we learn to love, over and over again.

 

The people who show up in our lives day by day and are there, the people who go through our lives with us are the people who matter.

*

They are the living proof of the curtains between worlds, when the windows are open. There is snow and the light is water, becomes water and returns to its remains.

*

Nothing less than the world.

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Fire

Opening to vulnerability is hard, there is always resistance and magnetic force towards the center that is vulnerable. Tension is created by these opposing forces. Accepting the risk of impermanence is part of everything we do—vulnerability is power. Accepting that risk of every small death, every emotion that rises and falls, is to be aligned with the core of nature. The other day, I was looking up at that continually running digital clock in Union Square, counting minutes, towards what, I’m not sure. I stood, looking at the big, copper-colored building and all of the buildings surrounding Union Square and everything looked absurd. Instead of buildings, I saw what was there before anyone built anything on that land. Not even a hut. On the subway that morning, as it headed out of the tunnel to its two stops above ground, I felt the same thing, thought the same thing. What have we done, building on top of open fields? All of these solid buildings will fall away at some point, will decay and become part of the cycle.

 

The thing for water to do is water. The thing for water to be is water.

 

Emotions and attachments have the same cyclical nature.

 

Loneliness and loss are active forces, not voids, the way we sometimes experience these aches. Living archives, maybe of bones or fossils— maybe of dead, passed away things, and always moving towards something else, becoming something else. Loneliness and loss are magnetic forces. Being conscious of what is being brought in is important, having discernment and awareness of those elements gravitating towards us. There is never a vacuum, emotion, the heart, the will, the body pull in what we need. There is no void. There is action and stability in that forward motion. Time, at least at this point, cannot go backward.

 

How sadness bears the truth. How it can bury it. How it resembles a life of moving objects. Set trajectories that are all unlivable and not fated so the course of life itself seems to shift but it’s only the rearranging of molecules to preserve the natural integrity of things— of the way things actually are— not the way they are seen but the way they are penetrated and penetrate us. This involvement and attachment is the opposite of sadness but is also made of it— of all we’ve lost, all we’ve ever had, our homes, buses, scattershot, bruised, tenable with the right map. There are flowers in the field and we pull up stakes in the Spring to let the trees run free. Of their own magnetism— and gravity. The gravity of leaves sets the world on fire.

 

Sadness builds a city, and then some. Its walls are ether and glass, impenetrable except by light and seeing.

 

Not knowing is part of the truth. We walk straight into the sun. Half- blind, we keep walking. Yesterday, I walked into a café, gold-black spots dancing in front of my eyes until my sight adjusted to the slightly dimmer inside light, where the young barista was playing Jason Molina, Songs: Ohia, which can instantly turn a busy street into an empty field. Drawn in by his iridescent melancholy, I had a chai latte and enjoyed the falling light in the window and his sadness filling the room. His sadness is so big, it doesn’t turn into joy but it is beautiful in a way that resembles joy and life, a voice from the grave, singing soulfully into the arms of angels. One of the most perfect late fall days, where the light seems to come down from heaven, because it is so bright, human eyes can’t bear it, and it is tinged with the iridescence of a shell’s interior, invisible normally to the naked eye.

 

 

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