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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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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.

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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.

 

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.

 

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This is part 2 of a series. 

2

The infected root canal was a ridiculously minor trigger, but as a tipping point it definitely had its precedents.

On May 25th, 2010 (the same day I had a flarf poem published in the Wall Street Journal —  yes, a flarf poem in the Wall Street Journal!) I received news that my Fulbright Specialist candidacy was about to move to the next, much-desired, level: a school had requested me.  I would be teaching in a small town in Russia called Orsk, on the border of Kazakhstan, thirty miles west of Siberia.  On my original grant application I was asked to pick two global areas where I’d prefer to teach, and I chose Eastern Europe and Asia.  Teaching in Orsk would be a dream gig because of its location on the Ural River, across which stretched a famous bridge with signage indicating “Europe” on the western side and “Asia” on the eastern.  I was ecstatic, and started making preparations, even though I wouldn’t be traveling for a year: I researched Orsk, Siberia, got a Rosetta Stone Russian course, began formulating my lecture series and started drinking vodka to raise my admittedly wimpy (for a writer with an Eastern-European ancestry) tolerance for the “little water.”

By September, though, the details of the gig began to get convoluted and the preparations frustrating.  First, the date of my teaching stint, agreed upon by the school and myself, had to be moved up (the wording on the grant summary regarding the start date wasn’t very clear), and so instead of traveling to Orsk in April, I’d be going in mid-February — yes: almost-Siberia in February.  Next, my travel agent refused to sell me a plane ticket because she didn’t think flying over the Ural Mountains in the dead of winter on a regional airline she’d never heard of before was safe.

“And they just had that big Aeroflot disaster,” she whispered, “right over the Urals . . .”

Her voice put the fear in me for the first time.  It felt like a cold fluid moving quickly up my spine and spreading out inside my brain – the first presentiment of the anxiety that would soon take over my life.  I seriously decided (for about ten seconds) that I would tell my American program officer, Alice, that I couldn’t reschedule for February because my school wouldn’t allow it.  But who turns down a Fulbright?  Riddled with anxiety but determined, I explained the situation to the school, and found a Russian travel agent by half-jokingly asking the students in my fiction workshop (on the day that a tornado touched down in Brooklyn, by the way), “Anybody know a good Russian travel agent?”  Not only did someone have a ready answer, but the agent she knew turned out to be a practicing Buddhist.  I had taken refuge as a Buddhist the year before, after my sister’s death, and so I figured this was a sign — not only would everything work out, it would work out Buddhistically!   But it took the agent, Izabell, a week and a half just to get a purchase confirmation for the plane tickets — she’d actually tried to buy them when she was in Moscow — and I spent my 50th birthday anxious and worried that the whole thing might fall through, but trying not to dwell on it because I was on a three-day silent retreat at a Zen monastery with my husband.  Things got even more complicated when I got back: my Russian program officer, Natalya, mentioned in an email that the school I was to teach at, a local branch of a state university, hadn’t gone through the proper channels or done the proper paperwork to procure a Fulbright Specialist, and that was why, a month before my scheduled departure, the “Letter of Invitation,” which I needed in order to apply for a business visa, still hadn’t arrived.   Visa processing, I learned, could take up to eighteen business days, and the Russian Embassy would be closed for the first two weeks of January, for Orthodox Christmas.  Natalya told me not to wait, but to just go ahead and apply for a tourist visa instead.  “At least it’ll get you into the country,” she wrote in an email.  I took her advice, but when the school found out I had a tourist and not a business visa they said I couldn’t legally teach  — or even stay — on the campus.  When I put the emails between Natalya and my contact at the school in Orsk through Google Translate (Natalya hadn’t bothered to delete them) I discovered the only place I’d be allowed to stay legally was “the infirmary” of the campus sports complex. I’d already spent a considerable sum on warm clothes appropriate for a Russian winter (not reimbursable by Fulbright) and the Rosetta Stone course (also not covered).  And then there were the five months spent researching and writing my ten lectures on “What American Literature Shares With the World”  — and how was that time to be adequately reimbursed?  When the letter of invite finally did arrive — a week before my departure — David suggested that I say nothing about it; if they didn’t know I had it, I wouldn’t have to go.  But, again: who turns down a Fulbright?

“I’ve known you for twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen you this anxious. I thought this was supposed to be a positive experience.  Are you just doing this to have something to put on your CV?”

At this point, yes, I thought, as there certainly was no joy left in the project.  On the other hand, I didn’t want my five months of preparation to be for naught, so I applied for the expedited $350 business visa (also not covered by Fulbright, per policy), which wouldn’t be ready until the day before my departure.  Izabell, sensing how stressed-to-the-breaking-point I was, suggested that I go with her to her weekly meditation session and dharma talk with a well-known expatriate Tibetan monk, Pema Dorje, on the Lower East Side.  I agreed, and we met for dinner before the session at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue.

I’d never met Izabell, only talked to her on the phone.  She had a soft, measured, thoughtful voice.  And so it was a delightful surprise when a gorgeous, dark-haired woman my age (her birthday, in fact, fell on the same day as my sister’s death), entered the restaurant in a swirl of beige and ivory wool scarves and delicious perfume, and embraced me like a long-lost friend.

“I was thinking,” she said as we sat down, “when I was driving here — and I drive from New Jersey, so I have lots of time to think — that I just do not understand why you’re having so much trouble with this.  When I travel to Russia with my husband — he’s American — they treat him like the Dalai Lama or something.  They fall all over themselves trying to outdo each other to make an impression on him.  And this is a government agency?  There’s something wrong here.  Can you back out?  Or will you lose all your money?”

“At this point,” I said, “I don’t even care about the money.  It’s the time.  I have literally spent every day — almost all day — for five months writing these lectures.  I can’t just give up, with all that behind me.  I could’ve been writing other things.  But there I was, you know?”

She sat back in her chair, and looked at me intently through narrowed eyes.

“Okay, listen: after the dharma talk, and when the meditation is concluded, I’m going to introduce you to Pema and we’re going to ask his advice.  He is very wise.  He’ll tell you what to do.”

The dharma talk took place on the third floor of an unprepossessing walk-up on First Avenue and Second Street, next to a McDonald’s.  Who knew that secreted away in that dull grey building with the fire escape on the front was a shrine room decorated with icons and thangka paintings, a tall, golden altar at its center? As I got comfortable on a cushion on the floor next to Izabell, seven or eight people came in, greeted each other with bows, settled onto their meditation cushions and waited until tiny Pema Dorje entered and began the session.  After the meditation we chanted prayers, and then Pema gave a light-hearted talk about the significance of the night’s new moon.  When the session concluded, Izabell took me by the hand and introduced me to him — he was no taller than my shoulder — and explained my situation.

“Ah, you know,” he laughed, mischievously, “we always fear our obstacles, don’t we?  We want to fight them — overcome them!  But our obstacles are also there to teach us.  You understand?”

“Yes,” came a deep male voice from somewhere behind me, “obstacles have often saved my life.  Pay attention to your obstacles.”

“That’s right,” a woman said, from another corner in the room.  “Your obstacles are serving you.”

Again, the cold fear up my spine.  But still, and even against the advice of a monk (and everyone else in that room, it seemed), I remained determined.

At the eleventh hour, the school in Orsk generously agreed to pay for my expedited visa, and as our plane skimmed a patch of very Russian-fairy-tale-looking snow-tipped fir trees near Sheremetyevo Airport, I was relieved and ecstatic to actually be in the country with David by my side (traveling at his own expense, to make sure I actually got there).  We checked into our hotel in Moscow — a Marriott! — and took a nap.  Afterward, refreshed and happy and looking forward to seeing some of Moscow before dinner (despite the 10 degree temperature), I got into the shower and promptly slipped and hit my head on the back of the porcelain bathtub.  I didn’t see stars, didn’t lose consciousness, but the pain was incredible.  When David called Natalya, my program officer, to get a reference for a doctor, she told him rather diffidently there were a couple of clinics I could go to, but didn’t provide phone numbers, or any Embassy or Consulate medical contacts.  I wasn’t surprised, actually; this was the same woman who’d instructed me to get the wrong visa.

“She’s no help,” David said, disgusted.  “I’m going down and asking at the desk.”

The hotel concierge, more helpful, called the paramedics, and they came to my room — a thin, dour, Harry Dean Stanton-looking man, and a husky, efficient woman — and checked me out: it didn’t look like I had a concussion, but I’d have to watch for symptoms (nausea, headache, vomiting) during the next twenty-four hours.  Naturally, Natasha Richardson came to mind.  The woman touched the bump on the back of my head and declared, gently, “маленький” (“small”). As I signed my name in Russian on the medical report I asked (via the hotel translator) if they thought I’d be okay to fly to Orsk the next morning.  The woman laughed and said (via the translator), “If you can sign your name in Russian you’ll probably be okay!  But just keep watch over yourself, especially if you have symptoms.”

The flight to Orsk the next morning was at 6 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I was, of course, in the cab en route to Domodedovo Airport with David.  The concierge packed our complimentary breakfasts up in plastic “lunch boxes,” so we’d have something to snack on while we waited at the gate.

“So where are you traveling to so early in the morning?” she asked, cheerfully.

“A place you’ve probably never heard of, even though you’re from here.  It’s called Orsk, and it’s right above Kazakhstan.”

“You’re right,” she laughed, “I don’t know it.  But I do know that it’s very, very far.  Very far, indeed.  So be careful, you know, because of your head.”

Her words so did not offer comfort, and the familiar chill arose.  And halfway to the airport I began feeling nauseous and headachey.  And panicky.  There was no way to tell if it was because of what the concierge had said, the overheated cab, the lack of a proper breakfast, an attack of nerves about flying over the Urals in the dead of winter on a regional airline that my travel agent mistrusted, Pema Dorje’s advice, or because I really did have a concussion. I looked at David and said, “I really feel sick.  I don’t know what to do. What the hell am I going to do?”

“Alright, I’m putting a stop to this nonsense right now,” he said, and the decision to turn back was made, on that dark, empty, snowy Moscow highway.  Natalya had never suggested helping me reschedule my flight so I could rest up for a day, so I knew that turning back would be forfeiting a Fulbright — the thing I most did not want to do, the one thing I had pushed and pushed against for all those months.  After we arrived back at the hotel and rebooked our room I called Natalya to tell her what happened.  She was sympathetic but not helpful, though she did suggest I try to get a free dinner from the hotel since I had fallen in their bathtub.  When I told her I didn’t feel right doing that she said, “Yes, they are probably accustomed to American tricks.”  We flew back to the States the next day and the day after that I saw my doctor.  Everything seemed okay by then.

Disappointed but resigned that the Fulbright was obviously never meant to be, but happy to have five months of pressure and worry behind me, I got back to what I’d been working on before I’d had to spend every spare moment on grant preparations: a very emotional  “prose poem story” about my sister Renee’s death in November 2009. On Wednesday, February 16 I read it at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan.  The response from the audience was unexpected and overwhelming, and some people came up to me with tears in their eyes.

“I envy your ability to expiate,” one friend — a journalist-commentator for National Public Radio — said.  It had been immensely difficult to write, and twice as difficult to read in public, as I was revealing the secret that lie at the core of my family’s own “breakdown”: that my father might’ve molested my sister.  Back in 1984 I walked in, after work, on a “family meeting” that she’d called, to make her announcement.  (Why did she do it while I was out of the house? I always wondered.)  Renee and our parents had been sitting around the kitchen table, and as I walked in the door my mother had said, “Your sister says Dad molested her when she was little.”  The discussion ended with her saying that it actually never happened.  Later, I told my parents I didn’t believe it, and I told Renee that I did.  Because I had seen something, when she was eight and I was ten, that had remained with me: as I was coming into the living room from the hallway I saw Renee and my dad on the couch, and he was whispering into her ear.  She had an odd, unidentifiable look on her face, a combination of boredom and annoyance.  Our dad was always sneaking up behind us and saying “Boo!” or whispering goofy things in our ears like, “Hey, how did that wheelbarrow get up there?”  There was no way of knowing what was happening, so I stopped and tip-toed backward to the bedroom and sat on the bed, scared.  As an adult I couldn’t help but wonder if molestation was the reason, along with abandonment by her birth mother (Renee had come to us as a foster child in 1968, and we adopted her two years later), for her nightmarish life of addiction and homelessness.  She’d died in a nursing home, and I didn’t find out until three days later, by which time one of her natural sisters, with whom she’d been reunited years before, had had her cremated.

The evening after the reading, while eating granola cereal before bed, I felt a sharp pain in my tooth.  I knew I’d probably broken an old filling.  The next day I went to my dentist, and she said I’d fractured the tooth and would need a root canal, which she wanted to begin right then.  I have no idea why, but I asked her if it could wait until Monday — I needed to take antibiotics before dental work because of a mitral valve prolapse diagnosis.  I don’t know why she didn’t just write me a prescription, have me fill it at the drugstore down the street, pop two pills and get back in the chair — maybe she had appointments the rest of the day.  Whatever, she said she’d see me on Monday and to take ibuprofen if the pain got to be too much.  And it did indeed get to be too much because she never told me how much ibuprofen I could take.  As I drove to our house in Pennsylvania on Route 80 a day later the pain was overwhelming; it was that singular, nightmarish, deeply acute dental pain that feels like the suffering of all beings focused tightly on one tooth.  When we got to the house David called the dentist’s office and spoke to her partner, who gave me better directions regarding dosage.  Finally, with a combination of 3 Advils and deep breathing, it abated.  The procedure commenced when we got back to the city that Monday.

By Wednesday I noticed that the lower left side of my face was swollen, but figured it was because of the root canal. I called the dentist to ask her what the best way to bring the swelling down might be because I was starting to look like the Lady in the Radiator from “Eraserhead” (at least on the left side).

“The swelling is on the bottom?” she said, sounding surprised.  “Well, it’s probably infected.  Can you come in now?  I have no appointments the rest of the day.”

And that was what set the two-year breakdown off, at about 2:30 in the afternoon on March 23, 2011.

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 had the quiet and, out of the quiet, music rose.

 

I’m reading the Stories and Essays of Mina Loy. I look at a lot of photographs of Leonora Carrington’s paintings and sculptures. The way is illuminated by the women who came before, who saw strength and light in themselves and kept going. The path is foggy and we are very cold. Then there is only me, puttering through the icy fog, slowly, making sure of my footing on the slippery ground. This is what making art is. This is what making a life is. Is making love like this? The eroticism of a snowstorm. Last night, I was walking alone in subzero temperatures in my dreams. I was sleeping soundly, but dreaming, so a part of me was awake to the sounds and sensations of the dreamworld. The dreamworld is made of lightly connected dots that stabilize into images in the sleeping eye. I saw a wolf in the fog. It was a lot of fog, dense and bright at the same time, like northern lights swooping over the northern sound like wings. The channel erupted with smoke and canon fire. The Bay grew silent in the gathering storm.

 

I was thinking about feeling guilty and feeling the pain of the world and personal responsibility, where they connect, where one of them ends and the other begins, because they form a pattern and the way you conduct yourself within this pattern determines your fate. Determines whether you are successful or depressed. I think a lot about what it means to take care of myself first, not in a selfish way but in a sustaining and generative way. I think about being depleted. I feel depleted. I am exhausted. I am full of energy. The polar magnets of existence.

 

Days and dreams. You held me in certain harmony in the bell of your palm/hands/translucence. –this thought while paging through Loy’s stories, I felt you, your presence

 

Our nest, our subconscious rules the boat, water a divine force.—maybe, a divining rod.

 

The bell is at the center of things. The light is at the center of things. The soul is at the center of things.

 

We rest and have our being forever and ever more. The bulb. The fortress. The filigree on the autumn window. The bell and the Vajra. Nirvana. Letting go of all that ails us. A mantra, chant, trance, opening, descending, ascent, Orpheus, Icarus, the sun, the mountain, the jewel, the theremin. The difference between a and the. When one becomes important. Music. Music and light. Patterns in the thread of light, in the minuscule strings of being—the body, his body emotion as physical presence, as rock and bone, as words and movement. Emotion is physical, the motion of a hand, lips, language, nerves—  coordinating response and lettering of the anchor, and ancient trellises. The mind is physical. The mind and heart are also ethereal. We occupy space and time that exist beyond us, other worlds, multilevered neurolinguistic pathways through physical and non-physical space. We are aware of dimensions beyond ours, in our bodies and consciousness. We know everything that everyone has ever known and we know nothing.

 

We rest in the center of things. Lately, I have given up the edge—  in a certain way. The edge is still there but it makes itself known in gentler, and also fiercer dimensions. There is a place of rest in my life now that wasn’t there before. I had been consumed by stress, or what they used to call the vapors, or nerves. There is so much stress and pressure to continue to do things all the time, to barrel through even when your mind and body and heart are exhausted beyond themselves—  becoming entrances into other beings, ghosts of themselves, even though armored in defenses. Defenses are exhausting too. Insomnia plays a part in the whole of this non-rest and it pushes the human body to its limits without real emotional or spiritual or intellectual gain. I’d argue with that. There is some strange gain there, a perch from which we, embellished and adorned, watch the procession of madness in the streets. We are the madness and the streets. We are the throng and the crowd and the glittering eyelashes that look like birds. We mimic the sound of birds in our sleep.

 

In order to reach new ground or old ground, the ground of our being that is always there, like a stone, we must rest. See the light burning through the periphery of the eyelids as the eyes close. That is fire, and rest, and dimension and hope. That is the ethereal wing of the field. The eyes close on a momentary death, darkness we control but do not control. All of the fears of childhood and adulthood present in one lowering motion of eyelids. Morion. Schists. The equivalency of being. The natural shape of things—  areas, errors, broad views, landscapes of unknown lands, the periphery of which is autumn. Then winter. Our passages in boats. Our legs floating. Water or land. We move forward in the gut of things, into a future that feels like the past only sometimes and then it feels like itself, like a concascadent present, coiling in on itself like so many black beads, like the fortune of the subatomic, non-gravity-bound. We are fortunes like that—  desperate, confident coils, breathing, fog, water, disaster, lumen field.

 

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Fever is composed of now, a starlight apocalypse that hasn’t happened yet. It is beautiful and tempting, the way death is. Death stands by the door, with food and love. The afterlife is hidden. It falls under trees and leaves, like so much moonlight. Recovering from death is heartache and prose, summarizing branches into lines of fortune. The stars go blind. The night sky collapses in so much mesmerism. Where facts hold sway and water. There is no tune that carries in this sky. The night is silent.

 

Instead of focusing on the next year or month, plant energy in the day that surrounds you. The ground holds so much water. The water is today and only today. The flood.

 

Intention & Magic

 

Surplus energy makes us feel vulnerable and sometimes lonely and afraid. That emptiness is an illusion of water. There is no emptiness. The fullness of the way time measures itself against one’s openness. How long does it take and how courageous we must be to follow not our habitual patterns but our souls. Needing to fill that space of longing, assuage that restlessness. The restlessness makes us feel so open, these fields of burning wheat and stakes.

 

Talismans are tools of intention and focus and faith in what might not yet be seen except in glimmers. Magic and intention must be paired with the hard work of making them into concrete entities in the world. These glimmers of faith in what is coming into being are powerful resources. There is no magic without right effort.

 

A miracle happened last night. It was one of those miracles with and without words, with bodily weight and light. Weightlessness and gravity as centrifugal and freeing forces.

 

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Imagine mornings are boats.

 

Sleeping boats.

 

Morning startles and is gentle. Saturday, there is no noise from construction, only passing cars. Now a ball bouncing and the sound of a father’s voice. Animal and human beings support the world. And plants and dishes. The physical world sleep and buttress.

 

All the revolutions that enter into a single decision. The world is near.

 

Intuition and the physical world: important distinctions. Distinctions are not separations. The world is not separate from itself. All different modes of knowledge work together.

 

 

The Body

 

The body is in the body.

 

What is held in the body—

 

There is some deciphering and then also creating a whole of language in which to listen to the body —

 

What are we afraid of in the body?

 

 

Music

 

I lived with a man who played guitar and our house was always filled with music, even when it was quiet. His music ran more deeply than mine, as in the end, I chose poetry, but the grief and home of music never left me. I haven’t sung for a long time. The other day, I sang (and I use the word generously) along with a Songs: Ohia song and my heart just broke. Sometimes the ache for music is so deep. My friend and I once said, talking about poetry, that melody is everyone’s downfall. It is also a rising that gathers everything around it. I want this music in my home again.

 

 

Saturday

 

I am wondering what to do with my day.

 

It is half-overcast but the autumn sun is still bright.

 

Proof, evidence and truth are not all the same thing when you’re trying to make a decision. When you make a decision based on gut, you sometimes have to wait to see if it was the right decision, leading you in the direction of growth and health and right action. You can’t make decisions based on the future. Trust your intuition but also allow space for the unknown. This is a constant juggle.

 

Becoming stuck in assumed preordained patterns is not intuition. It’s stories. There are helpful stories that give us ground and hope and tradition and cosmic consciousness and there are stories that limit us. Open to the mythic and archetypal, look for passion and heroism in the stories of life — these hero journeys are powerful and all of us are on our own journey. But the stories that we repeat over and over, on auto-pilot, that reinforce the disappointments and hurts in our lives are just broken records — these do not move us forward, they hold us back out of fear and an inaccurate self-image. We can work to see through to our core of heroism and courage.

 

It’s also a way of honoring the present and being where we are.

 

When we don’t feel the need to walk super fast and get somewhere quickly, we slow down and stop rushing. We enjoy what we’re doing instead of having a flight or fight stress response.

 

Life doesn’t stop. It goes on gloriously. So we’re not stopping. We’re letting life rush through us instead of rushing through life. We are open to being changed by experience. New synapses form.

 

 

A Surveyor Comes to the Outskirts of —–

 

We navigate by our stories — but we also need to let them go to let life be what it really is.

 

Freedom: what comes unbidden.

 

Listen for messages. They’re in everything. Look for what comes up not automatically, but naturally, out of an unbidden place. Not habitual thoughts and perceptions, but thoughts, ideas, sensations, images that seem to come out of nowhere.

 

Tarot and journeying, all kinds of divination practices, are ways into that receptive, intuitive place. A way of setting aside time and space to enter the dreamworld with an anchor in the physical world. Setting lines and boundaries around sacred space, delineating areas of being in a continuum, a continuous circle of being.

 

 

Absorption

 

In this case, the emotional follows the physical. The laws of physics, of absorption rates, apply to the emotional space of letting events and experiences sink in. Just as water doesn’t absorb into a paper towel immediately, experience is not absorbed into the psyche right away. We need time to absorb and integrate our experiences.

 

 

The Sewing of Time

 

The healing art of Mending.

 

Mending implies that the garment exists and is still whole. We just need to mend some tears in it.

 

There are folds in time where important events have happened and you can go back there. They are continuous, a seamless dreamtime, ceremonial and sacred. Time doesn’t exist in these places the way we think of time. These are dimensions that are created by our sacred attention to the vibrations of our experience and their resonances.

 

We all have Guides – maps, spirit guides, human and animal guides. Most of all, we have our inner compass. In the quiet, we enter the dreamtime and give birth to our new stories, the ones that will deepen our lives and bring us to love.

 

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