gall and gumption

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Merely Personal

I was living in Nevis, had been living there for about five months. For most of those months I had my head down, working almost alone to produce a newspaper every week. The newspaper office was in a building at the end of a dead-end road just outside of town. On production nights I'd be in there all by myself, with the door open (it wasn't air conditioned at first) and swarms of bugs coming around the lights. If I closed the door it got suffocatingly hot. I was sending copy to St. Kitts, to my friend Roger, who was the page designer, and then sending each page to the printer in St. Maarten. Some nights I wouldn't get done until 3 a.m. Then I would drive back to my little apartment in town. I was still getting over the attack, and I remember that one night I came home and the gate to the property didn't look right. I called the police and had them do a look-over of the apartment and the yard before I would even enter the gate. I did not have any debate with myself about this; I simply didn't want to get attacked again and if I looked like an idiot then fine. They found nothing, and I was all right. Then the donkey spider moved in. This is a spider approaching the size of a tarantula. And I don't know if you've noticed this but spiders are fiercely territorial. My apartment had two bedrooms, one on each side of the living room. The one on the side that also had the bathroom was the bigger one, and that was where I'd been sleeping. This donkey spider decided that he (she) liked that side. So I'd be getting ready for bed and there would be this spider, the size of a mouse, rearing up on its hind legs at me. I let it have the big bedroom and moved into the small one.

Chickens came into the back yard in the mornings. Once I bought some cracked corn and scattered it for them, whereupon they all took fright and didn't come back for weeks.

Over this four months there was little time for anything but work on the paper. But things began to let up at last, and I began to get out and meet people. One night I was out at a popular beach bar, drinking with some locals and tourists. The tourists were this English couple, middle-aged, very droll and kind and full of good humor. In the group was also the Crazy Englishman. He sat listening, silent, through most of the conversation. I only remember one contribution he made to the conversation, but it was memorable. He suddenly announced, a propos of nothing that I can recall, "I can retract my testicles into my body--AT WILL."

Well, then we were running into each other other nights, and pretty soon we were going out, because he was really funny, and he had a sort of rough gallantry that was charming. Also he got along with the locals, which a lot of expats didn't know how to do. Pretty soon we were a regular item. And then one day he just pulled the plug. I was crushed. Totally bottomed out. And I still had a newspaper to run, stories to report and write, and the whole ordeal of production. On one of the nights when we would have gone out, I found myself alone at home.

I had moved from the tiny apartment to a small house in the hills on the windward side of the island. It was fresh and cool up there, you got the benefit of the trade winds but without the harshness and salt you would get if you were down at sea level. It was green, too, lush, quiet. Across the street was a rum shop, a nice rum shop run by a father and daughter. On Sunday afternoons I could hear the slap of dominoes from my porch. Next to the rum shop lived my friend Quentin the BeeMan. I knew other people in this neighborhood, which was so beautiful, and I felt safe there. So did Sweetie, who made friends with my downstairs neighbor Mike, a gentle person; she would flirt with him for hours. In the mornings I had my coffee watching the clouds chasing each other across the sky, and the way that it made the blues of the sea constantly changing, all shades of blue from silvery to purple to green, this continuous movement of color. That sea lay between Nevis and Montserrat. I could see the sunlight bounce off the tin roofs of the houses on Montserrat, and the plume of steam from the volcano.

But I was alone that night with this sadness and pain, and the wind was howling all round the house. And without going into a lot of detail, here's what I got out of it:

I thought falling in love was the way to it. I'd meet that Right Guy and we'd be all in all to each other and it would be perfect and I would never feel insecure or have the desire to bolt again, or all the irritating ambivalence in between those two extremes. But Right Guy somehow kept turning out to be Wrong Guy, with much blood spilled. The one thing I never did was ask myself what I wanted. "I want whatever you want, [insert name here]!" would have been the answer. Except I didn't want what he wanted.

There are people who think they won't be happy unless they get enough money to be able to buy all the things that supposedly make people happy. I've never believed this; I always figured that the best resource I had for making me happy is literature. Because for one thing then you can learn that a lot of the things that make you happy don't need money to realize them. Money buys security and luxuries, that's it. But happiness comes from relationship--to oneself, to other people, to nature, to being. If you wait for money or some other shit to get solved you're cheating yourself of the happiness that is mysteriously folded into almost everything. Well, I understood this about money but I didn't understand that it is also true about "love." But I began to understand it that night in Nevis, when I found myself very very alone and in much agony of spirit.

All these things Right Guy was supposed to get me--why couldn't I get them for myself? Since then this has been the big question for me. And I don't just mean material things. Do I want loyalty? How do I get loyalty? By offering loyalty. Do I want some space around me, some solitude to think and work in? Then make that space. Do I need to write? Write now. Paint? Go out and paint. Do I want kindness? OK I'll practice being kind. Want someone who can forgive? Then forgive people. Want someone to whom I can express my feelings about things? Then speak my mind truthfully and see who listens. Whoever it scares off, let them go. I needed to provide these things for myself, or else I could never have them from anybody else. It was up to me to make this world my home. Life in Nevis after that night improved almost immediately. Of the entire time I lived in St. Kitts and Nevis that was the happiest stretch of it and it was glorious--totally insane but glorious. In some ways it was one of the happiest periods of my life.

In addition Crazy English guy came back into the picture, but by the time he did so I had given up any attachment to him--it had simply fallen away. We still went out and played together, but it was for fun. We went on hikes; we explored ruins; we went to rum shops; we went out dancing; to Sunday dinner at another beach hangout; we drove down to the big pasture where someone kept a herd of tame and very beautiful Brahmin cattle, and admired them and petted the big, tame, gentle bull. We went to the races. It all felt very normal, even when he got crazy jealous and acted like a maniac. At those times he would try his best to frighten me and I would stubbornly refuse to be frightened. Something genuinely friendly persisted. Once, after one of these jealous fights, he invited me, with great remorse and formality, to dinner. I went to his house, and he had made these little open-faced cheese and ham sandwiches and carefully cut each slice of cheese into the shape of a heart. I think it worked because I wasn't "in love" with him and because, crazy as he was, you could trust him, you knew that he knew what loyalty was. I had identified loyalty as one of the things I wanted to have in my life. And loyalty was not complicated between me and him; it was simply the mutually acknowledged right of one to shake the truth out of the other for the sake of getting along.

I had begun to define what I wanted, and this seemed to change the whole field of play. Bad things still happened, and it wasn't always comfortable there, but I was all right. What you want in the world you have to imagine and make. The work wasn't finished but it was begun.

Once when I was in grad school I was talking to Al Stephens--whining to him, I'm pretty sure, about my miserable failure to be a disciplined writer. "What you need is a subject," he said. That was more than 20 years ago. I still struggle with subjects. I rarely seem to have anything given to me. I think my subject is literature; literature as an object of experience, not as an object of knowledge.

Literature as an object of trade gossip, or as an object of the attentions of middlebrow cliche-slingers, is of no interest to me. I don't find I share anything with these people--not even the same universe probably. I mean, Do you see me voluntarily associating with the sort of people who need Stanley Fish to "keep them honest"?

I suppose there's politics. There are people who have really strong political instincts and see the world in a terms of politics and write well about it, and this is very useful. I am not sure I could do that, because I am lazy, and then I realize that the only political writing I like is the kind that has literary qualities. The rest might as well be reports from Dow Jonse. My lit major way of looking at things keeps prevailing over every other way of looking at things. What I always seem to get at the end is literature. And literature, like all experience, happens to one person at a time. I write in defense of the point of view of that one person, or in celebration of it. It's the ground of everything. That the person, a lot of the time, in these pages, happens to be me is only a function of the quiet tenor of my life, the fact that I don't get out much. Sorry!


At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

kia--i think i might have a lot of comments (i sort of hate that word)about this one and they may come out over the course of the next few days. this seems like it could be either at least 3 pieces or a fleshy outline for something much longer. you've got lots of great things going on here (narration, description, commentary, etc). of course all those things go together but i want more of each of them or at least a break between them. does that make sense? it's like 25 years of thinking and realizations and they are packed pretty tight. PLUS--the story around the realizations. i just get into a section, like it, want more, and you've moved on. i have lots of questions! like, it seems that these very smart realizations (about need vs. desire) just pop out. but they didn't--they came over years and at a high price. however, people live through crap all the time and STILL don't get it.
so, i want to know how you came to these realizations. i'm not saying you should include it as it's probably personal but still, as a reader, i want to know. is it literature (you pretty much point to that) but it could also be learning from experience, or it could be your sensibility. a need to figure out why. or age--hopefully at some point, one does get a little wiser. could be a
good shrink. so i repeat--these aren't questions to answer as blatantly as i ask them it's just that the writing raises lots of questions. you've got a small typo near the beginning, i can't remember the paragraph. this is big, dense, very smart. i tore through it. i hope you don't mind if i continue to look around and send more thoughts. this reaction is probably too quick to send but here it comes anyway. anne

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