I had been laid off my second tech writing job in March 2002. They shut down the whole development department of this small company, stopped funding it, laid everybody off. Exactly one week later my dog Linus died. That was one of those moments when life divides itself, as if a great river suddenly sundered the land into two shores, the Linus period of life on one side and the non-Linus period of life on the other. I wasn’t unprepared for it, as he was almost sixteen and had been failing. But for three weeks I really did almost nothing but mourn. And then I wrote him a love letter, a thank-you letter, a letter promising that I would never forget him. He was only a dog, he couldn’t read, he certainly couldn’t read when he was dead. But I couldn’t resume writing just as if nothing had happened. So I bought a new journal, and started it with that love letter to my old dog, and then I could go on writing.
It was some time after that that I had the first round, so to speak, with the ex. It didn’t work out, the sting of rejection occurred, and I was very hurt, but I was on my way away. So I was counting the days, packing, saying my goodbyes. I did have some
experience with “away.” I had tried it out on smaller occasions but never really thought about it. Like years before, during a particularly painful period in a long-term relationship I was in in grad school, I just drove away without telling anybody where I was going. I mean, instead of waiting around and being anxious for him to resolve the situation, as I had been doing for weeks, I just packed a bag, bought a
big bag of fresh English peas, drove up to a motel in Solvang for the night, turned on the TV, and caught up on weeks of overdue Russian homework assignments and then kept going, munching on raw peas, very fresh and sweet they were. Had breakfast alone with a book, went for a drive around the Santa Ynez Valley, and got home late in the afternoon. I felt no hurry to get back, for all that I had been so weepy and preoccupied for so long.
In those weeks before I moved to St. Kitts, clearing out my apartment, I was hardly eating anything, drinking way too much coffee, had the shakes etc. and still grieving the loss of my old dog, and, besides, the sting of rejection taking up all the space in my brain that was left over, I used to listen over and over again to this one song. I have a recording of it sung by these old Cuban ladies, Las Faez
. They must have been in their seventies when they recorded it, two sisters, who sing these songs with their creaky but confident voices as if they have never forgotten what it was like to be just sick with longing, to feel that it takes over your whole life and leaves you empty. The song is by Felix Luna and Ariel Ramirez, it’s called Alfonsina y el Mar
", and it’s based on the true story of a poet, Alfonsina Storni, who walked into the sea and never came back.
Along the pale sand washed by the sea
Her small footstep no longer returns.
A solitary track of pain and silence arrived
At the deep water
A solitary track of mute grief arrived
At the foam
God knows what agony accompanied her
What ancient pains silenced her voice
So that she would stretch out, lulled to sleep
By the song of the sea-conch;
The song that in the dark depths of the sea
The sea-conch sings.
You go, Alfonsina, with your solitude.
What new poems did you go to seek?
An ancient voice of wind and salt
Has taken hold of your soul
And is carrying you, away, away,
As in a dream, asleep, Alfonsina,
Dressed of the sea.
Five little mermaids take you
Through streets of seaweed and coral
And phosphorescent sea horses will dance
A rondo at your side
And the creatures of the water are going to play
Lower the lamp a little more
Let me sleep, nurse, in peace.
And if he comes, don’t tell him I’m here,
Tell him Alfonsina will not return;
If he calls, never tell him I’m here.
Say that I’ve gone away.
(Rough translation by yo si misma.)
Well, I didn’t want to walk away into the sea and not come back, but I did want to walk away and take my time coming back, come back with something I had claimed for myself, just experience, experience I could have without waiting for someone to give me permission, without waiting for someone to give me a piece of their experience after they took the first bite. (e.g., the boyfriend who surfed, while I sat on the beach) And I went to St. Kitts and I did that.
To have things of my own: it seems huge. A few days ago I was listening to this old John Prine song that has a line about a place “where the air smelled like snakes,” a phrase I like. And then yesterday I took Sweetie for a walk along Little Seneca Creek and we stopped at an even littler creek where there’s a place where she likes to get her feet wet. The deer cross there. There was some sort of webbing along the side, recently put in, to prevent erosion I suppose, and she stepped onto this in her tentative, dainty way, ears up, sniffing warily and then it was like she had hit a wall. Something she smelled made her rear back and back away up the bank, where she stood, peering over the edge, looking alarmed and disgusted. Well that’s about when I noticed the discarded snakeskin in the water, and I noticed the smell all around us, and I knew, right away, that that was the smell of snakes.
Now, if you hear that you might think, "Big deal!" But I had only read in books about those snaky places. It’s like having an idea that changes from interesting language to interesting experience, mine in my own words. And so I have this draw to the experience of “away.” It didn’t have to be the sea but I was always at home in the Caribbean sea. So the sea had that draw. When I swam along the reef there was usually nobody else out there. It wasn’t very deep, I doubt it was much more than 20 or 30 feet at the deepest points.
It used to happen in Brooklyn when I walked there with Linus, the strangest things would prompt it. Like coming round a corner in the last ungentrified bit (watch out! Black people) near where I lived, and a little storefront church was holding a service or celebration in the middle of the street. They had moved the pews and a sound system into the street and these gospel musicians were rocking the block. People were dancing. Or one night when I was walking around the jail and the whole place erupted in a great chorus of roars and shouting; they were watching the Yankees in there. I mean these things would happen and give me this sense of the world being blessed, at least for the duration of the walk. I had seen it, for a few minutes, it was out there. I felt it very strongly in Brooklyn as if its human landscape was, for me, beyond my imagination the way the sea was. I feel that way walking Fulton Market, or looking in the windows of the cheap department stores and seeing all those things. Oakland, CA, makes me feel that way too.
Sunday afternoons when we’d take those long walks together, me and Linus, the afternoon light would move me, the whole place seemed suffused with this romantic glow. I felt it again in this last weekend, when I took a cab home from the play and had it drop me a little short of my destination so I could walk. Once upon a time this would have frightened me, to be walking in a strange place in the middle of the night. But people were out, it was busy, it all seemed so rich.
More and more, I see what I want. It isn’t a thing or a place. It’s a state. It’s really a state of being in love
, but with being
. (Don’t let the Christianity frighten you, just pay attention to his feelings.)
After this my sense of divine things
gradually increased, and became more and more lively,
and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance
of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it
were, a calm sweet cast, or appearance of divine
glory, in almost every thing. God's excellency, his
wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in every
thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds, and
blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water,
and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I
often used to sit and view the moon for continuance;
and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds
and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these
things; in the mean time, singing forth, with a low
voice my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.
And scarce any thing, among all the works of nature,
was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly,
nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to
be uncommonly terrified with thunder, and to be struck
with terror when I saw a thunder storm rising; but
now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, so
to speak, at the first appearance of a thunder storm;
and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to
fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the
lightnings play, and hear the majestic and awful voice
of God's thunder, which oftentimes was exceedingly
entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my
great and glorious God.
And of course no one can give that to you, you have to seek it for yourself. I had to learn this. And of course “knowing about it” is not the same as “having achieved it.” I don’t stay in such a state all the time, but I try to at least make it the context of feeling. The sanity clause, what I’m after. I have
these images of happiness and peace, these experiences, they seem like a kind of impersonal glory. I like that it’s impersonal, though I suppose that's all in my head.
At work today I was having lunch with this guy named John, and I mentioned buying books for my niece, who was just finishing up the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For her birthday last week I bought her a copy of David Copperfield and three P.G. Wodehouse novels. She’s 10. She can totally handle these. I explained my choice. “I’ve got one brother, the ostensibly sane one, a grown man, a navy flight instructor, who reads those ‘tits and swords’* novels, and I wanted her to find out about this other stuff. I said to John, “How do they do it? How do they turn out just such reams of that stuff? Why can’t I turn out reams of anything?” I added, “I suppose they just live there.” John thought about this for a minute and suggested that anybody who wrote a work of fiction had to live there. John is very just, not like me. He was right. I myself would not choose to live (or spend 10 minutes) in a place where people spoke the dialogue you get in those books. It makes me think of people who say things like "The Renaissance Faire – it’s gone totally commercial now…" But I’m trying to live somewhere in my head too. I’m “working on a building” as the gospel song says, and though it isn’t the building in the song, mine is beautiful, and it is made of real places and real things. I look out through the windows and see infinity, on especially clear days.
And of course no one can give that to you, you have to seek it for yourself. I had to learn this, it’s basically part B of the project, learning that I can do it for myself. I used to have trouble distinguishing this longing to be in love with being from my feeling about the men I fell in love with and that I think is why when I fell, I fell so hard. It’s reasonable, really; those two longings are twins.
P.S. I am not actually that fat.
*phrase possibly stolen from someone over here
and then mangled.