I can’t settle today. I walk around the house, make tea, forget to drink it, walk some more. This is the behavior of someone in grief, love, or anger—and it isn’t love.
I just learned the entire state of Arizona is under curfew for a week. This surprises me as I stand at the window and look out at my quiet street. It’s so easy not to feel involved, to feel helpless, and to feel that my world is the world under scrutiny for its racism and cruelty, and that I have to find my world to change my world, to be part of the change of my world, and today I don’t know where it is. Is it out there on the quiet street? Is it in Minneapolis with my sister? Is it in New York City with my childhood? Where is my world?
Last Saturday when we had our weekly family Zoom meeting, I told my brothers and sisters that I had no visuals. I have the radio and that brings me the news, but obviously nothing I can see. I said I needed visuals in order to feel immersed in this moment. My strongest memories of the non-violent marches and peaceful protests, the riots and assassinations of the 1960s, are visual memories. The crowds on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The snarling police dogs in Birmingham. The blood of Medgar Evers on his driveway, and the mule-drawn wagon carrying the coffin of Martin Luther King. My eyes soaked in the violence and committed it to memory, and now those images are reemerging, like bloated bodies rising in a river.
And today I have new images—from the Guardian, YouTube, the Star Tribune—but I find myself feeling more lost and isolated, more helpless. We are all sitting alone with our screens, watching the news that suits us, that we are led to by our habits, so there is no one picture, no one iconic photograph that represents this moment to us. We watch a clip of something from somebody’s phone. It’s good we now have the power to publicly witness. In fact, it’s crucial. But it denies us a communal experience, a napalm girl photo, a flower in the barrel of a gun photo, a visual moment we will never forget. The 9-minute footage of the arrest and asphyxiation of George Floyd may be such a moment, or it may be too many moments. Its power is not in delivering a snapshot. Instead, it delivered a galvanizing slogan: I can’t breathe.
But the truth is, this disunification of visual experience makes what’s happening in this time more accurate and real. This desire for one iconic image is the desire to distance, emotionally. If all that’s going on in our country and psyche is able to be contained within the frame of a photograph, then it’s manageable, no matter the brutality of the image itself. But in all the home videos, all the wobbly camera shots taken from ground zero in so many of our cities, I feel dizzy and in the fray, unable to see the larger picture, a picture that might include a future. And this is the very experience of the majority of those who demonstrate. We are bereft of communal understanding in America today, and we can’t see a future. We are isolated from one another by class, race, religion, and gender. My desire for an iconic photograph is a desire for something lost and gone, an American experience we have been moving away from for decades.
I am content not to hear in any of what I watch or listen to, the name of the police officer who is responsible for the death of George Floyd, but if I were to know it I would have to set aside my fixed ideas, and say to him that he is me, and every time I think of him as someone I could never be, I cease to live in a deeper unity and a deeper reality, but instead in a world that creates a wall of separation between what is right and what is wrong, and places me on the right side of it. Is that my world? Where is my world? I am eager to find my place and let change move from me and around me.
Let’s face it, attraction can be very attractive. And disastrous. Right now I’m going to focus on the attractive. My friend, Callie, came over the other day to cut down a tree in my yard. She would correct me here and use the word “fell,” fell a tree. Well, we felled it alright. She did. My job, because I don’t use a chainsaw, was to pull on the rope people pull on in order to get the tree to fall in the perfect spot. So I was the linesman and she was the sawyer, and together we felled that tree that wasn’t really a tree but a sucker from the old apple twenty feet away that looked deathly this spring. I guessed the sucker belonged to it and, like an incorrigible child, was stealing its energy. I’m happy to report that the old apple is leafing out more enthusiastically than before.
When we were done, it was time to sit on the grass and enjoy our accomplishment. It was also time to speak frankly about our lives and listen to what came out of our mouths when we weren’t thinking. I heard myself say: “I’ve lost my ability to be attracted to people.”
“Really?” said Callie. “That doesn’t seem right.”
“I try, but it feels impossible. I miss that energy.”
Maybe it will come back, we decided. Maybe that source of energy isn’t needed right now. After all, there are countless sources. But each has its own set of colors and shapes, and the attraction energy is a color and shape now missing from the spectrum.
When thinking about it later, after we jumped Callie’s truck, or tried to, and she went off to buy a new battery, then went on her way, I realized I’d spent most of my life occupied with attraction, and for some years now I was actually quite happy to be free of it. I didn’t really think about its absence until I articulated it as a loss. We don’t notice until we do, and often that turning point comes at the moment we feel an emotion about something. We attach an emotion to an event, in this case sadness to lack of attraction, then we’re programmed to think we’ve just located an emotion that was always there. Sometimes that leads to a heightening of the emotion, which is like throwing a welcome home party for a shy person who’d really rather hide in the closet. It was strange, this sudden sadness, this acknowledgement of loss. If a certain energy had gone missing, where was it now?
Swimming has always carried the energy of attraction for me. It’s sensual, slippery and visually beautiful, especially that chlorine-blue view from underwater in the pool. Its movements are alternately predictable and wild. People engage in swimming with practically nothing on, but surprisingly, that makes for less attraction rather than more. People under wraps leave us guessing, leave us to dream. Very rarely does a modern bathing suit leave me to dream. I stroke across the pool, feeling at home in my body, wrapped in a kind of aura of attraction. It’s not personal, but pleasant. It doesn’t demand a doing, but reflects a being. As beauty itself is calming, so is the ability to feel attraction. We think the opposite, but remove the urgency (of youth) and underneath, there’s a quiet lake waiting.
Writing is a source of that energy of attraction, too. Is it the ability to feel at home in my mind? Is it the groundless feeling of being lifted into language, into the telling of someone else’s story? Is it the respite from self, the floating, the flying outside of time? It’s a sound medium, full of aural pleasure and play. On its best days, the work and act of writing soothes my longing to be heard. It’s a profound way to offer myself, intimacy without the stickiness of reality.
But attraction to people? Maybe that’s not what I need anymore. And yet, a few days after Callie came and felled the sucker, I saw a photograph of someone I’d once known, name withheld, and recognized that little buzz of breathlessness, that little sting of longing. I looked up and said to myself, “I’ll be darned. That’s attraction.” Is it back? Is it here to visit? I must admit I kept my enthusiasm in check, for fear of frightening it away.
In this week’s blog I’m passing along a story and photograph from Michael Collier. To go with Michael’s photograph, which goes with his story, I’ve posted a story of my own.
"Annie" by Michael Collier
I’m curled around my sleeping cat, Annie. Her sleep is troubled.
Three or four Decembers ago, Rosey and I camped at Montaña del Oro on the coast near San Luis Obispo. It was birthing time for the elephant seals that brood near Año Nuevo lighthouse. The bulls can weigh 5500 pounds--one ton more than a typical car. The females, weighing only 2000 pounds, are more dainty. But the greatest threat to their small bodies is hypothermia from the cold Pacific water. Their mothers corral them up the waves to dry warm sand.
I walked a few hundred yards down the beach and away from the shutterbug crowds the day we were there. A storm had recently roiled the water. I watched as the pounding surf rolled a pup back down from the beach. Its mother barked and flapped to no avail as the pup tried to gain dry ground only to roll waveward again and again. The mother was frantic, unable to help. From fifty feet away, it was hard to be a cold scientist observing evolution and survival of the fittest.
The bulls see other males, even younger ones, as a threat to their harem. If disturbed, the bulls have been known to crush hapless pups as they scramble back to the sea. But on the contrary, what I saw was a bull swim up and haul himself comma-like around that flailing pup, preventing it from washing out to sea. The waves were held at bay. I wanted to cry with relief.
Annie doesn't eat more than a bite of cat food at a time now. She drinks a lot of water. She sways without much strength when I pet her. Her eyes drift in and out of a submissive alertness. Once in a while I hear a faint purr--which of course brings a smile and breaks my heart. The vet was probably right when he said that she's in kidney failure. But I don't think about that much when I'm curled around her, trying to keep her from washing out to sea.
"Shirley" by Margaret Erhart
She was a Nubian, with long ears and a long pensive face. I used to say she looked like Lauren Bacall. She was black and tan and gave good creamy milk. Once, when my family came to visit the Iowa farm where I lived, she ran from the other side of the pasture, lowered her head and butted my mother hard in the belly. I never saw her do that before or after. She wanted to let everyone know she was my champion.
She grew up in Tucson, in a Maytag washing machine box. She was a wobbly-legged little thing when we first met her on a ranchette outside of Prescott. My girlfriend, Mary, had woken up that morning saying, “Let’s get a camel.” That seemed an unlikely prospect so instead we answered an ad for a goat.
At home in Tucson, Shirley lived for a time in the box, then when she outgrew it I cobbled together some pallets to make a little yard for her. Everything went well until weaning time came around. When goats are hungry they do just what human babies do: they bawl at the top of their lungs and don’t stop until food arrives. We reduced her thrice-a-day bottle to one small feeding. We offered plenty of delicious timothy grass and alfalfa and even demonstrated how to eat it, but she would have none of it.
Weaning does happen eventually, and at the end of that painful ten days, Mary and I decided our neighbors had earned a Golden Nipple Award. We dipped Shirley’s obsolete bottle nipples in gold paint and attached them to a small square of wood also painted gold, and these we handed out to our three closest neighbors in thanks for their patience during the prolonged ordeal.
Shirley grew and grew, and at the end of the summer Mary loaded her into the back seat of her sedan and the two of them drove up to Iowa City. Mary, at least, was bound for the Writers’ Workshop. Her passenger was bound for a real pasture in bona fide farm country. But before they left, there was an incident worth relating here. On the night before their departure, Shirley went missing. We looked everywhere, in every alley, in every back yard around the block. Finally, in desperation, I knocked on the door of our nearest neighbor, an Hispanic man with a withered arm whose name I no longer remember. He called out for me to enter his home, and I did. He was watching television and next to him on the couch was my goat. Later, he told me she had been bleating and he felt sorry for her, especially after her memorable ten days of bawling, so he let her out of her enclosure and opened his door and in she came. He wasn’t expecting her to hop on the couch, but it was companionable and he didn’t mind.
A few months later I moved back to Iowa City and joined Shirley and Mary. We bought a little farm and got a few more goats and one sheep who’d been abandoned at birth. He was the only boy around and we called him John. Shirley was definitely the herd mistress, and she did figure out how to open the door of the farmhouse so she could come in any time and pee on the bed. I won’t spend long on this part because it makes me too sad, but she died on a clear, warm Labor Day after opening the door to the feed room and lifting off the lid of the bin where we kept the grain, and eating until her stomach started to burst. She cried in pain for two days, then finally died in my arms. Her big heavy head lay on my lap. We buried her up on the hill above the farmhouse. A few good friends came out and helped us dig her grave.
I moved from the farm, and Iowa, shortly after that.
As a country, as a people, as Americans, what we lack is balconies. We’ve all heard the stories and seen the visuals. Some of the most poignant images I have from this pandemic are from Italy, a country I love, and more so as it goes through its devastation. There is nothing stopping the Italians. Even a virus. They have always and will forever sing arias from their balconies as the sun goes down. And the Parisians, from three stories up, applauding their medical workers at shift-change. And in Spain, a man on the street improvising a dance with a bag of garbage as he walks it to the bin, while above him, La Scala-style, his audience goes wild.
These balconies are the portal through which apartment-dwellers pass in order to share community. These balconies provide a call-and-response, which is the basic function of community. You say or do, and I reflect you. You sing your aria, and I join you. (Or I throw rotten tomatoes.) Without balconies we can only be observers. Life gets very internal and imbalanced.
My friend Gretchen who lives in Paris learned, from her balcony, that her neighbor cries at eight o’clock every evening. Her neighbor comes out on her adjacent balcony to weep, and at first my friend withdrew, wanting to give the woman privacy. One day the woman called across to her: No, please stay. We are more than two meters apart. May we talk? She told Gretchen her husband had died of cancer in early March, a few days before isolation was imposed, and she has had to grieve alone.
Every evening now they bring their suppers out on their balconies. They eat together, drink a glass of wine, and talk. Suppertime is the time this neighbor misses her husband the most, and Gretchen asks about him as she eats her arugula salad with brie cheese and a chewy baguette. What was his job? Did they always live in Paris? How did they meet? Were they married long? Are there children? Questions lead to answers, and answers to memories, and memories assuage our longing for those whose hearts stop suddenly and irreversibly, as his did. Balconies create the possibility of response to our call.
I grew up in a New York City apartment. New York is a city without balconies. It has front stoops where people sit, and windowsills where people lean, but no one I knew had a balcony. John F. Kennedy was president at the time and he preferred the Carlyle Hotel whenever he visited the city. The Carlyle was right around the corner from where we lived, and the excitement of my young life was to hang out the window of our third-floor apartment to watch the presidential motorcade go by. Kennedy sat in his bubbletop car, the top of his head clearly visible to me and my brothers and sisters. My older sister had once thrown a roller skate out that window and blamed it on my younger brother. In other words, it was a window with history. Kennedy came by once or twice a year, and though our parents had voted for Nixon, we kids thought of him as “our president.” To our way of thinking, we owned him. The top of his head wasn’t seen by many, precisely because America lacked balconies.
My friend Laura lives and teaches in Sofia, Bulgaria, and her balcony connects her to the world. Below her on the street, the older men of the neighborhood gather every morning. They stand in a circle, leaning in to hear one another while drinking their coffee. The circle gets smaller and tighter as the morning goes on, until finally they are all in a kind of embrace. She can look down from her balcony at the human scrum, or up and out at the beautiful old buildings of that Eastern European city. These days, the view from where she stands is of her neighbors doing exactly what she’s doing at that isolated moment: drinking coffee, looking out, finding others who share her world: a woman watering her plants; a man feeding a piece of bread to his dog; a mother stepping out to smoke a cigarette. Different lives, connected and divided. The streets are empty but the air is full of balconies.
How do you define "creative nonfiction"?
Creative nonfiction is often considered a stepdaughter of The Truth. But all nonfiction, and certainly the best nonfiction, uses the potential to be creative. Creative is often translated as “make believe” or “not true.” This is unfortunate. And nonfiction is often considered to be real or true. Also unfortunate. The term “creative” can refer to the content of a narrative, as is usual in fiction, or it can refer to the shape of a narrative, which applies to both fiction and nonfiction. As for the meaning of The Truth, that’s another term with many unfortunate translations and even more value judgments. Most fiction writers I know will swear to you their stories are true, and by this they mean they are creating situations, characters, settings, and scenes to reveal recognizable truths. Nonfiction writers engage in similar strategies, the difference being the situations, characters, settings, and scenes they create are pulled, in a more literal way, from memory.
How are you finding motivation to be creative during this time of global pandemic?
It takes no motivation. This time is a gift. I am healthy and have shelter and food, so all the time in the day is mine. This is rare for me now, though when I was writing novels it was exactly what my days looked like. Now, with an open schedule that allows me to dive deeply into another world, the fictional world I’m creating, I can do what I love to do, which is to tell stories.
What childhood book had the greatest influence on your perspective?
When I was a fourth-grader I checked out Jane Eyre from our elementary school library. What Jane Eyre was doing in our library is puzzling, though the school I went to was woefully oblivious to age-appropriate teaching and learning so it should not have been a surprise. I read thirty pages of Jane and moved on to other things, including a long period of young adult historical fiction in which the protagonist, usually a boy my age, sometimes a girl, saved the island of Manhattan from British attack, or grew up among the Iroquois, or worked with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. I wanted to learn about history through story, and I guess I still do.
As a writer who works in numerous forms (novels, articles, short fiction, short nonfiction) could you discuss which you prefer and why?
Though I’ve tried to stretch my skills and enjoy stretching them by writing in other forms, especially personal essays, novels are my passion. There’s nothing like being caught up in a great big baggy monster (John Gardner’s words) to consume your days and nights and give you an alternate world to occupy. Is it because I prefer to control the course of things? I don’t believe so, because one of the things I love best about writing fiction is that it actually writes you. You think, oh I’ll make this happen and then this and then that, and then you understand the story’s headed in a different direction altogether and it’s willing to reveal itself to you if you just listen and trust it. This is a kind of magic to me. For the magic to work, things have to get very quiet inside and around you. I deeply appreciate the call to quiet that every kind of writing demands of me, but especially the call of long fiction.
If there is an afterlife, what items/objects/animals would you want buried with you that you could use in that afterlife?
Wow. An afterlife. There’s a concept. I guess if I’m going to spend some time in an afterlife I’ll need my teapot and enough Irish breakfast tea, or English, to get me to the other side of the other side. I wouldn’t mind a watch with a second hand, either.
What type of body of water do you most prefer to take a swim in?
I recently wrote a character who swims. He swims in large bodies of water, like Lake Michigan. I’m always afraid of a fish touching me, or a crawdad, or a snapping turtle, which puts me off wild water, whether it’s a pond, a lake, a river, or an ocean. To swim, really swim, I like doing laps in a pool, especially if it’s a salt water pool. I love clear water, tinted an unnatural blue. I like to swim underwater and look up at all the bodies racing past me, like they’re flying.
It’s easy for me to bury my feelings in a fictional world. And fiction needs the color of our emotions to flesh out the line drawings of our imaginations. But today I want to withdraw for a moment from the world I am creating here on Grand Canyon Avenue, and speak about the world I am encountering. Sometimes I create in order not to encounter, but this never lasts long.
I am here in the spring of northern Arizona, sharing a very small house with a friend, a former partner, who is experiencing the grief of growing dementia. We are, all her people, experiencing that grief but of course her experience comes from the inside while we are only helpless observers. Helpless not in the extent to which we can cook and care for her, remind her to take her pills, to brush her teeth and take a shower. But helpless to lessen her suffering when she finds she can no longer remember how to use her phone, her lifeline to others. “Like this,” I say, and tap an icon. She shakes her head and knows that when she cannot do this anymore, when the tapping becomes yet another puzzle to decipher, the world will no longer open at her fingertips and she will be, in a way she never imagined, utterly lost.
She is sheltering here as long as the sheltering goes on, because she can’t be alone anymore and the person who shared her house lost their job and moved away. So she is sheltering here, in fact, as long as the sheltering goes on and longer. She is here with me until we can arrange help for her in her home in a different part of the state. A “companion” is what we’re looking for, and my friend says, reasonably, “How can someone I don’t even know be my companion?” This word ushers in a different stage of the illness and we both know it.
As long as I see my role here to be positive and cheerful, I am denying the great scope of sadness we both feel. This house was built in 1898 and has a calm and peaceful feeling to it and draws in the light through every window at different times of day, but still, there are few doors to close and my friend’s presence on the sofa in the center of the house is undeniably heavy. She is stricken at random times throughout the day and cycles down into some darkness I can see and feel. How to help? How to honor the suffering and stay close to her? I am a Buddhist practitioner and this, I can tell you, is the heart of the practice: To accompany someone and their suffering. Not to change it, but to witness it and share their heart. I love my friend. Her diminishing is a shock and it demands that I keep current with who she is right now, and moments later, who she is now. Her ability waxes and wanes throughout the day and there is no rhythm to it that I can decipher. I don’t know from one minute to the next what I will be called upon to respond to. How to turn on the shower? To remind her of the name of her son? Or the mysterious workings of her phone. Uncertainty surrounds her in such a profound way. My wish is to make things more certain, but the reality is that in order to be with her, really with her, which is her need and desire, I must join her in her experience of uncertainty and the painful impermanence of all things. We’re essentially looking at death together, through the lens of dementia, and it’s frightening. And heartbreaking. And to wake up each day in this little house and know there can be no lifting of the feelings of dread and loneliness, well, we are suffering. I wanted to tell you that, just that. There is suffering here. Let’s be honest.
Welcome to the blog! This is a space for conversations, questions, answers, observations, and more..... All visitors to the blog are invited to engage with the discussions found here.
A place to discuss writing or anything on your mind. All visitors are invited to join the conversation by commenting on posts, asking questions, and joining the newsletter below for even more opportunities to connect and converse!