Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Whole Wide World

The last of the repercussions
died off real slow.
The sky was still;
the cold sun sank down beneath the snow.
I hung by my hand
from the tree outside
 and I looked on
The whole wide world

    -- The Mountain Goats, "Whole Wide World"

What are those famous Susan Sontag lines about illness? Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Most of us, she writes, make our lives in the kingdom of the well, until and unless we are obliged, at least briefly, to call ourselves citizens of that other, darker place. 

But what about the border town? the nowhere-land between the two? the hazy, dilapidated strip between the now leaving... and welcome to... signs?  Mostly it's a place you pass through-- spend a night, or at most a few weeks, sweating it out in some low-slung pastel motel -- and then drive on into the proper provinces of illness or health, where, whatever the state of affairs, there's at least some sturdy government, and you'll  know the pattern of the flag and what currency they'll take.

But even the border town has a population. The ones who keep the motels, and the greasy-spoon, and the 24 hour Cash-for-Checks & Currency Exchange place  up and running. Who know the backroads and the menu of the one bar by heart. Who live whole swaths of their lives in the in-between. 

Illness is not a metaphor, Sontag says. And maybe she's right. But I was raised-up in the border town between illness and health, and I'm here to tell you -- it's where metaphors are born.

Thank the Lord, rarely in my life have I been truly sick. But I've damn sure never been well. Not from my earliest blue moments in the hospital incubator, failing to breathe, and then doing it badly. I'm not dying any faster than most of us. There's no foreign invader in my blood, no fatal flaw in my heartbeat. I can't claim  a visa into illness, really, and I shouldn't.  But every time I try to cross the border into wellness there's a reason they won't stamp my passport. Pick one: high muscle-tone, absence of motor control, chronic pain, lack of balance, graceless gate, scar-tissue, bruising, muscle weakness, general fatigue. Even beyond my body they claim brain damage, lack of spacial awareness, persistent depression, severe anxiety, lasting trauma.

I get sick of this list, and sick of the fact that I know it so well.  Everything grows banal if you repeat it too many times. Even pain becomes bureaucracy. 

No entry for the damaged, darling. 

So I make my life between hills of barbed-wire. I have a permanent room in one of those stucco motels, and I've taken the bad oil paintings of ships down off the walls and filled the room with typewritten letters written from hospitals and orchids somebody snuck in for me from the land of the well. I'm near the ice-machine and the one balcony where you can see the sky, and the boy down at the diner knows how to make my coffee just right and that I like crab cakes for dinner. 

But here's the thing about nowhere, in-between, border town: there isn't enough there to keep you alive.

This spring I become inexplicably convinced that I am, indeed, dying, and now. I can't breathe or keep my food down. My ankles swell and my heart is like a bottle-rocket in my chest. I shake in the sweat-soaked covers of my bed, I shut myself in the bathroom, light every candle in my place and pray. I bite my lips raw and bleeding. I beat on the gates of the kingdom of the sick: let me in, in, in. For three nights I sleep on a friend's couch and try to cry softly enough that I won't wake her children.

Oh Molly, stop it. My father begs on the telephone. You'll waste so much time feeling like this...

The most awful thing is that he's paced his own years in the border town, is pacing them now, maybe. I hear his echo alter: I've wasted so much time feeling like this...

From the kingdom of the sick, they send small pale pills in increasingly high dosages. From the land of wellness they send water and chocolate, and small pale pebbles the color of my thumb. From everywhere they advise breath.

In my room in the border town I have a desk. At my desk in the border town I write a poem to the mind I fear I'm losing. It is roadkill, a milk bottle, a lover, the water, my body, a disobedient boy. I write through a whole day, Godbless it. In the border town there isn't enough to keep you alive; Goddamn it, you have to conjure it up, out of muted-florescence, and gasoline, and faith. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Suppositions: An Interlude

If you keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
If you just keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
I feel certain of it now.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Noche del Guajolote

I suppose there is indeed a perfect text and the writer’s job is to struggle toward it, hoping that at best he will manage a kind of approximation of what he ought to have written, the way an umpire can call a strike on a pitch that’s in the neighborhood of the plate – an inch or two high or low, outside or in, of the strike zone – the batter’s knees buckling when he fears the curveball or slider will hit him but instead arcs back over the plate and the umpire contorts his limbs into an approximation of the martial artist’s deadly attack, while the fans groan or erupt, depending on whether their team’s player has thrown the strike or taken it.

And these the ingredients in the bitter recipe of tortured romantic ardor: mother, child, and angel; pulse, twist, and wretch; terror and longing, prayer and regret. Home, lost. Home, alas. Home, oh terrifying angel. Home, oh mother to the man become brother of the chosen, unchosen himself, the terrifying angel wrecked and torn. That’s all Rilke, I suppose, locked in the chains from which he cannot release himself.

I will say this about my eye troubles: I have come to understand the precise ways in which our vessels and nerves are nothing but vines wrapped around muscle and bone, shaped according to sinew and skeleton, how a sharp stitch in the eye can stab not simply at spine and scrotum and bowel but at the ball of a foot and the cord of a finger, at temple and ankle and crook of the arm, knee, or neck. Thus, I suppose, we see not merely with our eyes but our entire selves. How else would we detect the dull beast squatting on his matted, leathery haunches in the dark field behind our home?

I suppose there are certain things you can’t take a picture of, like the yellow orchid in the west-facing kitchen window at sunset. Oh Susanna, don’t you dare cry for me.

Fourteen years ago, in Spain, in a stone castle dangling above a magnificent cliff, and in Wales, among the gorgeous ruins of Tintern Abbey and on the rain-soaked hills, and at thirteen, seated for hours against an oak tree in Lake Vista, and on the Lake Pontchartrian seawall at seventeen, and at dawn, at my desk, more mornings these days than not, and seated driving in my car. There. There. There. I suppose there is indeed some perfect moment to be captured, but in what manner? At what expense?

I suppose I assumed that by my fiftieth year I would have a firm grasp of what appears to be going on with, you know, life, love, suffering – the whole lot of it. Not joy, though. I don’t believe I ever expected to attempt such a difficult calculation.

If I keep quiet, I suppose, it will stay like this forever. My good eye. My bad. The knot on the tendon of my right hand. The impossible beauty of the late afternoon sun in the west-facing window. Rise, rise, rise.