Time is much on my mind of late. I have had a setback, albeit a small one, and the result is the urge to write just at the time of night when writing can be at its best. About 2100 this eve I mentioned to Pat that I had a terrible headache, almost a back-of-the-head no-caffeine pounding sort. She sheepishly confessed she felt a similar pain and said she had been wondering if she had accidentally made decaf for our morning coffee. So twelve hours along we made up a pot of the real and quaffed it medicinally, and now at 0400 I am at the keyboard. I am prone to being up - ah, caught you! bad pun! - deep into the night and only fight it halfheartedly anyway.
Insomnia rarely plagues Pat. Sometimes she worries and can't sleep, but it isn't insomnia. Turning 69 last month preys on her, but then I think all the other years did too; maybe each year is slightly heavier than the one before, a slightly greater burden, worth greater fretting. The extra weight would explain the gradual slowing. She believes she sees writing on the walls; I tell her it is only notes I have pinned up telling her how much I love her. I can never fully assuage her. Nor was I meant to. Each of us realizes we live alone, seeing ourselves, perhaps best and most truly? - in the friendly mirror of the other. An intellectually acceptable construct. Emotionally....? There is always that writing on the walls. Another way I can think of us is opposite sides of a two-headed coin; each of us has the other's back, diligently watchful.
But back to time, the ubiquitious beast. An hour ago I was lying in bed, still with a bit of a headache, and my mind wandered back to a night in Ireland when I suffered thru a similar headache in the dark in a strange place feeling rather put-upon to be so far from home, brought by people I trusted into foreignness. I realized that had been 2 or 3 years ago, and in explanation of the gap I imagined time rushing by me like a great black locomotive, invisible in the dark, but so heavily present that I felt compressed by its passing. At the crossing I sit, red lights flashing around me, bells clanging in dissonance, waiting for the endless chain of cars to get by thinking I must surely run out of gas before the caboose appears. That is not the sort of soothing explanation that was wanted. Such a heavy-handed time is not welcome.
A quirkier time is needed; a time that strokes as well as slaps. The time-thing-beast as a density, a thickness around life, immutably still, omnipresently coercive? And my life was what moved, a low slung black car rushing thru, uncertain destinations assured, tires whispering on the pavement of dark streets where soft rain had fallen - my life as noir adventure. Was I the driver, advancing hard, pedal-down, toward the road's end, ever searching the unseeable out beyond the high beam's end? Or was I a passenger, both awed and terrified by my own swift passage? Both, or all three; the metaphor doesn't matter except as a way of attenuating the fear of passage, a little fun poked at myself. I fingerpaint the past and future with frictionless words so that they blur into one another. Then I grasp that the whole works is on a circular track, leading round and round and round. It, all of 'it', the ever-loving it, is whatever I want it to be. My relationship with time is not explained, but I feel better.
We get to the 'I' part. There are an awful lot of 'I's - the eyes have a thousand nights...aubible groan. Several of us, the 'I's, are too fond of puns, silly word games. While I generally find myself fond of those rather simple me's that pun I do wish, sometimes, that there were only one me. But which one? I could not leave it to chance as to which 'I' should supersede all the others and become the dominant attitude and decider of all things good and bad, desired and detested. I could end up permanently in a black hole, suicidal to a fault, or as indifferent to shade and tone and change and love as a loaf of Wonder Bread, or on the constant manic prod, too busy, knowing I was too busy, unable to not be too busy, an abrasive lifeform on the jittery go. No, just one of me, any one, would be a defeat for the walking, talking, coexisting work of art I have become. Where would you be with a Van Gogh if you only faced it one way, head on, never moving around it to see it shift and shimmer as light came off the thick brushstrokes differently from every new angle, the colors changing, the mood coming unmoored? A person is like that, like a layered painting. Things are going on that the artist never dreamed in the process of the making. Things grow and expand, and we don't know why. We are all walking works of art. (I must say from my exalted position as a museum-quality masterwork that I do pity the poor, feeble cartoon-folk around me)
A post script to the list of characters I would fear to follow with any regularity - I went to bed at dawn and it is now a Saturday as bright and shiny as a new gold buffalo. This other fellow who would lead badly is really a simple-minded soul, but a sadist of the first water. A fool with a one-song playlist and an unquenchable desire to spin the vinyl. A day or two ago I was sitting at the computer minding my own business. Pat asked me why I was humming 'Here Comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus Lane'. Not only is it August, but I loathe Xmas. I could, in all honesty, claim I had not been humming, but I knew he had, and if he isn't me then who are we? (Mr. Punny arrives to help out in the nick of time.) We are coexistence at its finest. Better, I thought, Pat should have to listen to him than me.
What has been my greatest victory? Caring. Everyone cares, you say. We weep for one another. We feel for one another. Some do and some pretend, and some, like me, have trouble grasping what this caring means. It is possible, even likely, to care for only a few and to be able to see others, outside the family-few, dry up and blow away without compunction. If the world's condition tells us anything it is that we are rabidly tribal. Rarer, I think, is to care for the many, to truly care. And then what minority have only a tenuous grasp of caring? They are, in the extreme, called sociopaths; conscienceless creatures, one step from serial killer status, a plague on the race. As with all things there is no absolute black and white; a continuum exists. You will fall on it where no one else quite fell; your connexion to others in some ways unique, but you will probably understand caring as if it were the juice in your bones.
It took me years to understand that I did not understand. I am sure you could teach a colorblind man much about color, and seeing many shades of gray he would agree with you and call the variety by all the names you chose to give them and get along fine taking tiny clues of shadow that color-seers never realized existed to flesh out the list, appearing to understand color as well as the next. Perhaps it would take him years to realize there was something he was not seeing, a quality ungrasped. Something more. When a lie is the only truth, since no other truth has presented itself, it is believed with a whole heart. There is no lie without the attempt to deceive.
To my chagrin I confess that I was that way with caring. I knew I had a switch in my head that I could reach up and flick off, and someone I had cared about would no longer have any of my care attached. The switch was immediately available and easily flipped. It was such an easy and natural maneuver that I thought every person had one. Some, especially women, did seem more reluctant to avail themselves of their switch, but it took me a long while to realize they actually didn't possess one. They were not wired the same way I was. These people had no choice in the matter of caring. How strange. I think at first blush I felt sorry for them, as if they had lost a choice in life. One that felt necessary and needed, more than just handy, but safe, very safe in the application. What seems safer than saying 'I don't care."?
Parents, school friends, lovers, none of them were beyond the switch. I had a cold streak that was like cryogenic surgery; I could excise with calm precision. The first event that truly placed me on the continuum anywhere up from the completely careless bottom was the birth of a child. Care manifested itself in my mind like a cancer. I didn't much like it, but I was its hostage. I cared for these small beings deep into the labyrinth of pain that we call parenting, as mindlessly trapped as a bug in a jar. I might just as well have been someone's science experiment for all the control I had over my life once my children were born. Any phrase with the word 'family' included is most likely an euphemism for a thing much darker than implied.
The first, and probably only, adult I have graced with my caring is Pat. We were together for years before I was able to inwardly relax and trust. When I did the sensation was physical. I slumped inside as if great walls of rock in my structure had lost the cohesion of their mortar, and I knew myself open to destruction. I trusted. I accepted the condition of trusting, knowing I was opening a door I could, most likely, never shut. The switch receded into another room, was no longer at hand, was not even considered. The fight to reach that point where I would voluntarily trust was like house to house fighting thru the warrens of an unmapped city. I don't know how else to put it. It might sound grandiose, overly self-important, to say that I graced Pat with my caring, but caring should be a grace we confer one upon another. It should be more than the blind genetic predisposition to protect the species. I have come to think that learned-caring is the best sort. It requires constant reevaluation and tweaking. It is an engine that runs deep in my soul.
It has been years, many years now, since that gate opened and caring arrived. I have never had cause to regret it and am sure I will go to my grave as much a part of another human being as is possible. It is a pleasure to me that I have raised myself, however incrementally, on the continuum of caring, up from the reptile bottom. I have said before that I do not think we change, that changing who we are is simply not possible, but that what we do is learn to live with who we are and adjust our actions toward a lubricating kindness. My ability to care is of that nature. The switch still exists. The reptile eye still sees. But I have taught myself the human condition of caring, and I have practiced it to the extent that it is now a part of me. I have not changed. But I have adapted myself to be a gentler presence in the world.
Just in from picking blueberries. The branches drip with their dark roundness and they call sweetly to me, indigo punctuations on the green page of plantlife in a yard in Maine. Refusing to read from the page I turn away. It is my great guilt that I ignore them. Why do I ignore them? Aren't they the one food, according to current myth, that improve memory and slow ageing like no other? And do I not have access to this miracle for the walking of a few steps and the lifting of my hands? But I turn away and drift into my big leather chair where I spend much of my time, my external womb.
For months now a creamy lassitude has enveloped me. I do not mow until the place begins to look abandoned. Detritus lies about that could be policed with a small effort; I leave it and run from the guilt to my womb-chair. Is this a new sort of depression? I fight the idea telling myself it is sheer laziness only. Yet I am not, until now, a lazy person. So preternaturally busy with projects that I flew about the place, building, fixing, rebuilding, drawing plans in the sand - as much as I do draw plans, which isn't much, all the day long. No, never drawing plans; it was more like plans fomenting in my head to the extent that they leaked out my ears and lay draped across my shoulders waiting to be plucked and developed. I shuffled them like a deck of cards. And now I wallow in doing nothing. Oh, I did build the shelves, a couple of weeks of energy-burst, and I did remodel a bathroom, another month of busyness.... And it seems like there are a few other things I have tackled with success lately. Is this, then, laziness? I cannot tell. I feel that I have been lazy. I feel the bitter edges of guilt that seep in from peripheral vision as I see, trying not to note, all that lies undone. I tell the guilt to get fucked, I don't need it, and I retreat to my womb-chair. I don't like guilt, have never subscribed to it the way Catholic friends say they do, do not condone its presence or use. Then why does it stalk me? Tasks unfinished are as ephemeral as this life I lead, which is pretty transient as seen from the driver's seat. I will be gone someday; the tasks will not even have an existence in memory; they will most likely never, ever have existed at all. Nothing lasts. Why the silly guilt? I don't know. I know I don't like it, though.
Pat says I need more exercise. She hesitates to mention it to me who has always been the great advocate of exercise, but feels compelled, for if she doesn't mention it, and she then outlives me - due to a fatal indolence on my part, who will take care of her? A rational point of view. So, I am out picking blueberries - start easy, I tell myself, don't burn out. I am deep in the bush when a thought rushes by that I want to capture and put down in words. It is a man in the witness chair being questioned for his crimes. I can see him. He winks at the judge and says: "Your honor, I would not plead insanity, but there are way too many men in this one body, and not all of them good." And now, back to the blueberries.
A day later. My intimate editor has passed on the above - very likely I think because it reflects well on her - as she says: "what have I done to deserve a guy like you?" Ah, adoration; coin of the realm. I do trust her judgement in things literary. She is merciless with poor grammar, run-on sentences, scrambled thoughts, and my worst sin: purple prose. All would appear to be at manageable levels in the above
I am circling the lawn, my sward, on John Deere cutting back what this summer's incessant rain has caused to flourish, and from my seat behind the wheel I mull this past year. Other than a brief foray on the art pottery page I have written nothing. Even that was the barest mention of my discomfort. Kristina writes back and says she likes the layer of sulkiness and vulnerability there. But then she is a diehard advocate of writing your soul across the sky and would encourage me if I only managed monosyllables and grunts.
I cannot make out not writing for a year, and then suddenly erupting, the opened spigot. In the midst of doing something I must either stop and go write, or lose it. I know I would lose it. I always do. The sentences I construct in my mind's eye are as wispy as dreams. They fly loose too soon and leave only a faint hint of a memory. When I, many years ago, fancied myself a novelist and tried to compose stories I carried about a voice-activated Radio Shack tape recorder. As thought sprang to mind I spoke into it to save the precious words. This was before cell phones made everyone on the street look like a schizophrenic in search of company. I was furtive in my murmuring. Inasmuch as I am not a novelist, as i learned with great effort, and cannot just make up stories and tell them, it came to naught, but now I think of taking the habit up again. I could pretend I was on a cell phone; no one would think me odd at all.
I have done my share of fretting this past year; I know, I know, I said Pat was fretting - well, I can fret too. Fret is a good, simple word. It sounds like a form of needlework, mindlessly repetitive, yet somehow blessed in its continual soothing, boring sameness. My cares, those frets, are sorted and resorted and woven into a strange homegrown fabric. It is supposed that an attempt is underway to make sense of the resultant anxious numbness I encounter in trying to account for my whereabouts and whyabouts. This is almost like religion. But the fretters in my head don't necessarily want me to make sense of their mutterings; like priests in a cave they cloak the obvious in layers of ritual guilt. They prefer I did not solve the pattern as their mission is one of presentation with an edge of anxiety, not resolution. Their power is in their message. Perhaps they are my caretakers, honing me with worry to a sharper edge to be a better tool in a future endeavor. Some worried one-of-me sits outside the cave, works at the fabric, seeking the pattern that simply must be there. And the only answer to the entire conundrum may be no more than that I did what I did for a year and have no idea why. In many areas of my life I have accepted that I am essentially senseless, clueless - why not here, too? That would be allright. The question is asked: what in the empty world were you up to? The question is laid out on the table for examination. Was this year a malignancy? A new lifeform? An addendum to my ordinary life requiring no particular footnote? I don't have to know. Wondering is quite enough.
I am imagining an assault on immortality. Not an imminent assault, just the general sort we all get up once in a blue moon. My stone building in Stitzel was such an undertaking. I could feel that it was with every blister and sore muscle, with every heft of a rock into place, with every pack of mortar into the joints of a wall. It felt like such a crude assault, blown with carbon dioxide emitted at six thousand feet as my lungs lurched for more oxygen, salted with my sweat, tense with lactic-acid-laced muscles pulling across the fulcra of joints in concerted strain to hoist weight and weight again. I loved the crudeness of it. A clean, lively, exuberant crudeness. It was exactly what was wanted at that time in my life. My little corner of immortality in a backwash canyon in the midst of nowhere might stand a thousand years and give pause to another builder a millennium from now; that was all I wanted. That and knowing I worked hard to achieve what could not be achieved. Real immortality was the unthinkable infinite future. What I had in mind was a slightly extended tomorrow, a bit of myself meeting and mixing in a world I would never see, just over the horizon. Writing is similar. It has more grace and style and easy whimsy, but it is a dancer spinning from my eyes to yours, is so evanescent. My crude old stone building will outlast all my words. I don't know that I have it in me to stack rock like that again, but I wouldn't know how to choose between the two, rock or word. The language of stone has an endless alphabet because it can never say exactly what it means, nor can it say it the same way twice. A lovely language.
I look at all this and realize I must be writing for people my own age. Are the young quite so conscious of facing an unknown future? Are they yet ready to fret over lost months and years? No, I think not. Before at least forty, maybe much later, the future is a cornucopia, a basket of delights and triumphs needing only to be earned and plucked. Will my children understand this? I don't know. I do know that somewhere a slightly decrepit and slowing soul will see this and nod and go "uhuh."