Letting Go

January 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I have strayed far away from my roots in poetry. Neglected the vague for the purely visceral. Yet there is nothing vague about the poems by Sharon Olds in Stag’s Leap, or any of her other previous works. I’m pleased that she won the Pulitzer Prize for this release. She truly deserves it.

Stag’s Leap confronts the shreds of her life as she moves through the process of a divorce. Olds never hides behind her words. Instead, she uses them to strip herself bare to us. Embraced by her raw vulnerability, we find ourselves. We find parts that we didn’t know existed. She is teaching us our human condition. This is how poetry achieves relevance in a world that seeks to distract us from our inner core.

I’ve heard that the most difficult aspect of divorce is losing two combined minds. My husband, Michael, is a natural people person. He’s taken over all the social aspects of our life that I tend to lack the energy for. At work, people naturally trust him, and he feels fulfilled by solving their problems and dealing with confrontation. As for me, this sort of work gives me a lot of anxiety. I run the internal workings – the daily chores at the building we run, the budget, the groceries, the smooth flow of our home, most of the cooking, and random work that provides extra income. While I work hard to write almost every morning, I spend the afternoons doing my share to contribute.

Our balance doesn’t always work perfectly. There is often a lot of pressure for me to bring in more money, but I’m doing the best I can for now and trying to figure out how I can do better. Michael’s lack of balance comes from neglect around our apartment. He doesn’t realize that all of the piles of things he leaves undone end up being finished by me. Instead of contributing to my efforts, he multiplies the amount of cleaning that I do. Those small issues, however, rate low next to the chaos we experience without the other bridging the gaps.

“… When he loved me, I looked
out at the world as if from inside
a profound dwelling, like a burrow, or a well. I’d gaze
up, at noon, and see Orion
shining… (Unspeakable, Olds, 4).”

In marriage, a cocoon is woven. For years, we fought against it, held it back, and kept going out every night as though we were still single. Little by little, we began to find that the rest of the world really annoyed us. Why should we waste our time on excess baggage when our favorite person was right at home?

Our social life went from quantity to quality. At first there was imbalance – spending a lot of time with people I didn’t choose, who didn’t choose me either – Michael’s friends. I appreciate our differences, but when I talk about the things I love, their eyes glaze over. It shifted when we began to cultivate friendships as a duo – finding people who enrich our interests and vice versa. Now I can appreciate all of the people in our lives because my needs are being met.

I still look at my husband and think, ‘Who is this person that I’ve chosen to spend my life with, and how did this happen?’ It’s still a mystery to me. We are completely opposite and yet exactly the same – a complete contradiction. In the beginning I thought we’d never run out of things to talk about. That’s still true, as long as we keep living our separate lives, coming home with fresh energy to share. To be happy as a duo, you first have to be happy as a solo.

Michael is certain that we will never get divorced. I say, that if we ever separate, there’s no point in getting a divorce, because I will never marry again. If that were ever to happen, I’d probably end up right back with him. His ridiculous quirks, daily dramas, sensitivity, and jokes – I’ve become so accustomed to all of him that I’ve forgotten what life looks like without his presence.

There is the other running scenario, further in the future. The one where, being sixteen years older than I am, he passes away, and I’m a widow with a lot of life left to live. He’s certain that I’ll move to Paris, start smoking cigarettes, and surround myself with young protégés. I don’t know what I’ll do, but maybe I would move away. Even though Seattle is my home, there would be too many memories to live with.

When someone dies, someone who feels like your right hand, you’ve got to find whatever method you can to not die right along with them. Some people think it’s romantic when a spouse dies a week after the loss of their partner. I personally, find that to be depressing and the sign of a life turned too far inward. The only way to move forward is to rebuild your life completely.

I used to fear coming to this point in our relationship, when one of us has to say goodbye. I’m no longer afraid. I trust in my abilities of reinvention. I’ve spent enough time alone to know what it’s like, and I don’t really mind solitude. The thing that helped me let go of the fear was a documentary that follows several older women in London. Some of them have been without their partner for over twenty years. They haven’t succumbed to stereotypes of age, they’re not afraid of starting over, and they live passionate, exciting lives. Their style is a way of life. In short, they show us that growing old can be very beautiful, opening us up to new facets of life.

Unfortunately, the full-length documentary has been removed, but here is a taster and a link to purchase the full-length film.

http://www.wellparkproductions.com/filmography/fashion.html

“So the men are gone,
and I’m back with Mom. I always feared this would happen,
I thought it would be pure horror
but it’s just home, Mom’s house… (Telling My Mother, Olds, 10).”

We are lucky to find our best friends and lovers. Their presence makes pesky details less abrasive. They distract us with pure joy at having someone who really understands. They often present the challenge of ‘how do we grow with each other?’ The comfort of their arms is like a sedative, the struggle to retain the self, sometimes immense. Yet they are the only true source for our personal growth. Through them, we expand beyond ourselves.

“… I am glad not to have lost him
entirely, but to see him moved
at the whim of the sky, like a man in the wind,
drawn as if on a barge resting on
updrafts, mild downdrops, he is like
an icon, he is like a fantasy… (Slowly He Starts, Olds, 74)”

In our culture, we are taught to avoid grief, to pop a pill and be done with it. But you can never get to the happy well-balanced place unless you work through your full range of emotions. Masking a feeling only prolongs the ache. Separations, death – these are not experiences to be afraid of. They are a time to search the self, and begin again. As long as you are alive, there is time for new beginnings. Even at the point when you feel lucky to have made it this far. In fact, I feel that way already.

As the years pass and Sharon Olds moves through the steps of letting go, we realize, her ex-husband remains mapped onto her body and through her mind. He no longer exists in the way he did before he left her. But his presence is permanent. Distant, but always a part of her – joined through their children and their thirty years together.

“… We fulfilled something in each other –
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did not leave me,
I freed him, he freed me (What Left?, Olds, 89).”

Have you experienced the loss of a partner through separation or death? How did you cope, what did you learn in the process, and how did you come out on the other side? What was the positive that came out of the negative? Please share below.

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The Birth Of Frankenstein

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had a dream the other night, that I was one of three siblings.  One sibling had stripped our father of his skin to see how we are made.  He was laid out on a gurney, and we looked at the red layers of muscle, studying how they fold and overlap.

Our father was invincible and extremely angry.  Maybe it was the process we had put him through, or maybe he was that way before, but he was insane and out to get us.  Wherever we went, he followed – all over the world.  We were on the run, and the situation was dire.  We couldn’t kill the father, because the father was within all of us.  But he was out to destroy what he had made.

You could make some religious allusions to all of this symbolism, or you could say that this is nature.  I did not play myself in the dream, and the father and siblings were not my own.

The imagery stems from a slide show that Camille Paglia displayed in her talk last week at the library, of Leonardo Da Vinci’s private notebooks.  In it, he studied the structure of muscles, and a fetus inside a dissected womb.  If anyone had found out, at the time, that he was dissecting cadavers, the church would have severely punished him for it, maybe even put him to death.  The drawings give us a sense that he is looking at things he should not be seeing.

This week, I read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  I love her for being such an emancipated woman, born to radical parents in 1797.  Frankenstein is not my kind of book.  I only read it because it was on a list of the greatest books ever written, and it’s so obviously influenced our culture, where science (or philosophy as it was called in Shelley’s day) can go too far, producing something gruesome and disastrous.

“So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein – more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked.  I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (Shelly, 33).”

But once Frankenstein achieves his obsession, he is horrified as the creature takes its first breath.  He realizes his mistake and deserts the monster.  But after a series of murders of all those closest to Frankenstein, the creature gets a chance to tell his story.  He began his life with love, but everyone he met hated and reviled him, turning his pain into a need for revenge.

Around the time that the novel was written, Mary had lost her first baby and had just given birth to a second, named William.  Her half-sister committed suicide, and her partner, Percy Shelley, still had a wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine.  Mary then lost a third child.  After the novel was finished, she lost her son William, gave birth to Percy Florence who survived, and had a dangerous miscarriage after that.  In the summer of 1822, Percy, her partner, drowned with two friends in a storm off the coast of Pisa.  The badly decomposed bodies were burned, but Percy’s heart was removed and eventually buried in Rome.  Mary was only twenty-five.

Reading her story in the introduction was much more horrific than the ghost story she wrote while summering with Percy and Lord Byron.  The natural reaction, especially with losing a child, is to think at first that they will come back to life.

I edited a novel once, where a mother lost her baby and couldn’t let go of the little corpse.  It had to be pried away from her.  The writer was Australian, and was certain that American audiences wouldn’t be able to handle it, since in our culture we choose to be so far removed from death and dying.

Becoming a mother is to also face the possibility of ultimate loss – the chance of miscarriage, the chance of failing to protect your child from a world that is full of struggle, disease, and danger.  For Shelley, bringing a corpse-like creature to life is the ultimate revenge against nature that takes away.

My strange dream of the father stripped of his skin reminds me of seeing the Bodies Exhibit.  All those parts that make a whole, the muscles and organs frozen in time, not quite life-like in their preserved state, but disturbing because they were alive once, now frozen in space, dead, and there for our voyeuristic fascination.

In an art class, the students were told to spend twenty minutes drawing my head, and twenty minutes drawing a skull placed directly behind me.  They moved in a circle alternating between death and life.  For some reason, that day, all the students drew me to look much older than I am.  I looked decrepit, as they over-emphasized the sagging lines of my face.  I wished I had never looked.

I have reached that age, my thirties, where you begin to realize that you’re never going backwards.   The physical body has changed its chemistry completely.  I’ll never be tiny and thin again, my metabolism has slowed down, my liver throws back all the toxins I send its way, my immune system is sensitive to any disturbance.

But beyond my body, I’ve grown much stronger.  My spirit feels invincible, unbreakable, my sense of discipline is becoming as solid as a rock, and nothing but my body slowly breaking down, could ever stop me at this point.  It’s not quite as much fun as being young, dumb, and out of control, but this is the season for building my life.  Knowing how quickly it all passes, I push harder each day to express in words and art the things that make us feel alive and well.

Life Is Never What You Expect

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I once had a professor who said, “You live one life, but you have many lives within it.”  The same can be said for a book of short stories.  They are all unique, but each story is connected, and wouldn’t be complete without the others.

Aryn Kyle’s collection “Boys And Girls Like You And Me” is honest and full of humor over the sad circumstances of life.  Her characters all want to really live, but life is never what they expected it would be.

“That was the real bitch about time: Everything true would become false, if only you waited long enough (Kyle, 123).”

I am hard at work, putting the finishing touches on my memoir.  In the last week, three people who are a part of those stories have died.  Two of them were shot and killed in the Seattle shootings.  Drew Keriakedes and Joe ‘Vito’ Albanese.  I first saw them when the show, Circus Contraption, started about eleven years ago.  As the bandleader, Drew wrote all the whimsical music.  The show went on to New York City (where I was so homesick I went to see them three times in a row) and performed internationally as well.  When Contraption came to an end, the two were in a band called God’s Favorite Beefcake, and performed once at a friend’s wedding.  The day of the wedding I wanted to tell them how much they meant to me.  But I didn’t.  I got shy, even though I had spoken to them before in New York.  Their music was genius in that vaudevillian sense.  There was no one else like them.

The last thing I ever thought would happen was this.  The last thing that should ever happen to beautiful artists who spread joy and laughter and music throughout the world is violence.  And all because some mentally unstable guy got out of the house with a gun and decided to go on a shooting spree before he shot himself.

All moments and all people pass away, but art gives us the remnants of what once was.  I realize more than ever, the importance of capturing these moments in my history, and all the beautiful people I have known.  My generation has such a limited experience of death.  Death is a reminder that my introversion is a waste of love I could have given.

Life is short, life is intense, life is funny and sad and unpredictable.  We’ll only make it through if we hold each other up.  It just takes being vulnerable again, to learn how to try.

In memory of Arthur, who also passed away last week, I would like to share this poem I wrote about him ten years ago.  He was a beautiful man. 

Arthur’s Kiss

Smooth into me

like butter, you ooze

flicker glisten skin

glide cross fingers

no angles pointed joints

just round solid

foundations formed

through anticipations

refused content.

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