Memory works in strange ways. In one brief moment, an act is intense, organic and erotic. And like a “cloudburst, sultry and dense”, it dissipates in the mind, shedding density (and importance) to fade to almost nothing. It is only when the atmospheric pressure again changes that the mind wanders to stores of memory to find that moment again in the ever-expanding archive of moments.
Because no words suffice for this cry
it lives as a blood-colored syllable.
And circles a ring of desire
like a cloudburst, sultry and dense:
red sulphate of quicklime, a secret sun
opening and closing the genital doors.
You know how it is: as soon as you have a conversation about something you will see information about that thing -whatever it is- everywhere. A few weeks ago it was fruit flies, last week (or possibly earlier this week) it was aging/living longer lives and this week it’s stress.
The voices tell us:
- Severe stress = memory problems
- Stress leads to making bad decisions
- Stress = bad sleep… and we know what poor/lack of sleep does!
And how does stress manifest? How does it serve?
As a child, I internalized all the anxiety I felt around me; I worried constantly. I did not know – and could not have – that this was ‘stress’ until a doctor diagnosed it as such. It took many more years before my own brand of ‘fuck it’ developed, and even as recently as ten years ago, there were situations that could push my buttons. Life, of course, was more stressful then – moving to a new country, starting a new job, figuring a lot of things out all alone, etc. But first I coped, then I conquered.
I don’t feel anything resembling stress now. I wish I could give that gift to everyone I know.
Technology has erased some massive inconveniences and hurdles. I doubt anyone would argue with this. It’s funny that I am not even going to go in-depth enough into the topic to highlight how very many advances have been made in so many fields, and will restrict my rambling only to the topic of immediate communication. I am thinking mostly about the once-exorbitant costs of local long distance phone calls. I don’t know if this has changed on the surface, i.e. does the local phone company still charge insane rates if you just pick up the phone (assuming you have a landline at all) and dial? Do you need to have signed up for some special plan to make all calling free or next-to-free? I mean, these are stupid questions that I don’t need to know the answers to – the whole landscape has changed to such a degree that the answers to these questions are moot.
Years and years ago, in my youth, I got into a small amount of debt because I was talking to people who lived in the next county: the most expensive kind of long distance at the time. I once knew someone who got into considerable (tens of thousands of dollars) debt because of just-out-of-range local phone calls (i.e., out of his local (free-of-charge) calling area). The funny thing, back in the “old days”, is that there were a lot of solutions for calling state-to-state or even country-to-country that made it quite inexpensive and economical to do. Early in the 1990s I think I was able to phone England or even Australia for less than calling over to the next county in my home state. You can see how this might lead to insane phone bills. Users were gouged constantly but had very few alternatives, other than perhaps, getting in the car and driving to see the person they were calling (it was after all local long distance, so most of these calls were probably to people within a 50-mile radius).
When I think now about all the money that we had to pay for these ridiculous phone bills, I can only laugh. I don’t need to rattle off all the free, instant, mobile and convenient ways we can pretty much call anyone in the world now. It boggles the mind, though, how comparatively fast this shift took place, even though it didn’t seem back then like it would ever change. We were just going to be held in the grips of the telephone company’s monopoly forever.
Birthdays are a funny time when you hear from people you never hear from; often people you have never heard from or actually talked to in your entire life, thanks to the wonders of invasive Facebook (of course it is only invasive because I let it be).
A guy with whom I had no actual acquaintance in junior high (and even less in high school), never sharing so much as a single one-on-one conversation but perhaps shared a handful of sarcastic group conversations, mostly arguing the (non-)merits of U2 (with whom I was abnormally preoccupied as an adolescent, steeped in the mania of the freshly released Joshua Tree album), popped up in my Facebook messages.
Back in junior high, my then-best friend and I were certifiably obsessed, and preached full-on religious zealotry like televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at their zenith: Deliver U2 to the ignorant heathens: “THROW YOUR MONEY AT THESE IRISH LADS!” (I find these ‘lads’ in their past-middle-age incarnation to be rather sanctimonious, just as they were then – but a 12-year-old girl can’t see shit through the rose-colored glasses and distant, mystical music that plays silently when you mentally mythologize the Irish in any context.) That’s not to say that I don’t find The Joshua Tree to be an end-to-end marvel of aural achievement – only that my interest in U2 as a group dissipated along with most of the persistent drilling of teenage madness. Never again have I been as fervent a defender or ardent fan of anything, despite my wide-ranging passion for music. Perhaps after the U2 period, I moved fluidly into a ‘Madchester’ and shoegaze phase, but the musical palette continued to expand (and continues to this day), so U2 is a kind of speck on the horizon, even if they were the spark toward painting that multi-hued horizon. (And are, apparently, atop the list of anodyne sounds programmers report listening to while they work.)
But the point, though, was that this barely-an-acquaintance guy, who seems as an adult to be a genuine, cool and lovely person, but who had seemed in our youth, however vaguely I ‘knew’ him, like a too-cool, textbook-definition total dick (but this may well have been surface-level bravado; how many times have I written about the surface versus what’s underneath? We were all assholes at times, me included.), wrote to wish me a happy birthday and added: “U2 is still touring and playing the Joshua tree album, I was wrong in 8th grade and you were so right.”
In some weird way, I was touched, and this (here I am laughing) ‘vindication’ of my aggressive passion (he and his friends slagged off U2 at the time, but I don’t know if that was just to be contrary the way teenage boys are when they don’t have any idea how to actually communicate) was like its own happy little birthday present.
“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?” –Before the Fall, Noah Hawley
I Feel the Dead
–Sophia de Mello Breyner
I feel the dead in the cold of violets
And that great vagueness in the moon.
The earth is doomed to be a ghost,
She who rocks all death in herself.
I know I sing at the edge of silence,
I know I dance around suspension,
Possess around dispossession.
I know I pass around the mute dead
And hold within myself my own death.
But I have lost my being in so many beings,
Died my life so many times,
Kissed my ghosts so many times,
Known nothing of my acts so many times,
That death will be simply like going
From inside the house into the street.
Sinto os mortos no frio das violetas
E nesse grande vago que há na lua.
A terra fatalmente é um fantasma,
ela que toda a morte em si embala.
Sei que canto à beira de um silêncio,
Sei que bailo em redor da suspensão,
E possuo em redor da impossessão.
Sei que passo em redor dos mortos mudos
E sei que trago em mim a minha morte.
Mas perdi o meu ser em tantos seres,
Tantas vezes morri a minha vida,
Tantas vezes beijei os meus fantasmas,
Tantas vezes não soube dos meus actos,
Que a morte será simples como ir
Do interior da casa para a rua.
Life, as we know, can be tedious and brief. What else is life? We think it owes us happiness and that our job is to strive for that. But is happiness the same thing as finding meaning? And how does one find – or define – meaning?
This tedium and brevity is illustrated, but also upended, in the S-Town podcast, which has been quite popular and quite… human. The man who is the focal point of the podcast is complicated. Early on he talks about sundials and how all sundials have mottoes engraved on them. He mentioned “Tedious and brief” as one of them: “All sundial mottoes are sad like that.” And yes, sundial motto or clever tattoo, “tedious and brief” is what we experience, with temporary and memorable bright spots deposited throughout the otherwise tedious (and brief) journey.
…When I returned from being away for a few days, I looked out into the field and saw that hordes of birds had gathered in a huge swarm in a field near the road, not far from home. Upon closer inspection, one could see the twisted carcass of a picked-apart deer. It’s more common to see a fox in this roadside state of non-being. But here, the picked over remains of a deer, a feast for avian life, made me consider life – in general. And how inconsequential its endings. To end up dead in a field for ravenous birds to pick at.
A realization that someone from high school had died some time ago, someone I did not know well but remember in the mind’s eye – these bright memories that form the spine of all the silly stories of youth and even inform the way I came to identify myself (the eternal, calm counselor to heartsick friends). I’ve reached that age when people either start to die or unspool the threads of their tidy lives into tangled knots of midlife crises. And then it’s the stark contrast between the graveyard (metaphorical or not) and the musical chairs game of midlife.
“The interim is mine”
Never mind all the things we do in the interim before reaching death, fooling ourselves. (The word “interim” now always reminds me of a scene from Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors. Jason Patric’s character boasts about something he had done, “The bitch deserved it. She never understood me.” “Don’t you think you’re going to have to pay for all this in the end?” “If there ends up being a God, probably so. But until then, we’re on my time. The interim is mine.”)
In this interim that belongs to you, or to me, or to us, we can live for the little deaths, whether it’s the small, crushing disappointments that erupt under all the surfaces of our smooth-going, gliding-along lives, or the orgasms we covet (la petite mort, in the purely French sense), or all the bad habits we accumulate but brush off until they kill or damage us, which we instinctively know but still act on, and literature chronicles for us:
“An alcoholic, his blood no longer able to clot, who bled to death into his joints and under his skin. Every day, the bruises would spread. Before he became delirious, he looked up at me and said, ‘It’s not fair—I’ve been diluting my drinks with water.’” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
“In such a state, the philosopher and writer Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, ‘One cannot get rid of anything, one cannot get over anything, one cannot repel anything—everything hurts. Men and things obtrude too closely; experiences strike one too deeply; memory becomes a festering wound.’” -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Maté
I’ve thought about mortality a great deal (it’s human to do so, after all) from so many angles. I am not sure why it comes to mind so often right now – maybe just as a counterbalance to pettiness. Maybe because there is frailty everywhere. Maybe because it seems meaningless to end up dead in a field (even as a deer), which makes me, as a person, think that even though I won’t leave an indelible mark on the world when I die, I like the idea of at least affecting or influencing those closest to me, which is not really possible if there is no one close to you during this fleeting, brief “interim” that belongs to me, to you, to us, to those who exist in this particular window.
“If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?“
“I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” -from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalinithi
Remembering the man, losing the details
I have written before about the passing of detail with the passing of people – how we don’t know what we will want to know from the people who have died before us. We don’t even preserve their histories and details when they live to a ripe, old age – so how can we hope to gather all the detail from people who die at 30, for example? My mom lost her brother last year, and she has come to realize that not only is she the last one left from her immediate family, her brother was the keeper of all the details. She had counted on being able to ask him about things from their childhood, or about things they had experienced ten years ago. When he died, she lost not just him but that last link to the shared history, to the details. And death looms over the life – and its details – that passed.
“What we remember lacks the hard edge of fact. To help us along we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. This is obvious to me. If it weren’t for these structures, art would be too personal for the artist to create, much less for the audience to grasp. Even film, the most literal of all the arts, is edited.” -from The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosiński
Tedious and brief – and you are not to blame
“Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.” -from Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Yes, death is inevitable. It’s coming for all of us, some sooner than others. Life is “tedious and brief” – and does not care for you. But at some point, it is no longer seen as a game of chance or a hand you are dealt. It is no longer abstract. And if you don’t live to a ripe, old, senile age, somehow you are accused of moral failure. It’s your duty to try to stay alive as long as possible.
“Premature death, particularly if it’s due to terminal illness, is no longer seen as lucking out in the divine lottery, but as a personal failure, like a self-induced bankruptcy.” -from Karaoke Culture, Dubravka Ugrešić
And yet if you overstay your welcome in life, you are anticipating death, perhaps impatiently and angrily, while others either want to hasten your death or force you to keep living even when you don’t want to, falsely selling the idea of prolonging youth when in fact old age is all you can prolong at a certain point:
“The problem was her death: it simply wouldn’t come. If it had crawled in through the central heating system, she would have gladly given herself over to it. Death doesn’t smell. It is life that stinks. Life is shit!” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“‘Why don’t you dream up a way of dispatching old people comfortably, instead of tormenting them by dragging out their old age?’ Pupa emerged from her slumber. ‘Forgive me, I don’t understand …’ ‘Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!’” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
“All primitive cultures knew how to manage old age. The rules were simple: when old people were no longer capable of contributing to the community, they were left to die or they were helped to move into the next world. Like that Japanese film in which a son stuffs his mother into a basket and carries her to the top of a mountain to die. Even elephants are cleverer than people. When their time comes, they move away from the herd, go to their graveyard, lie down on the pile of elephant bones and wait to be transformed into bones themselves. While today hypocrites, appalled by the primitive nature of former customs, terrorise their old people without the slightest pang of conscience. They are not capable of killing them, or looking after them, or building proper institutions, or organising proper care for them. They leave them in dying rooms, in old people’s homes or, if they have connections, they prolong their stay in geriatric wards in hospitals in the hope that the old people will turn up their toes before anyone notices that their stay there was unnecessary. In Dalmatia people treat their donkeys more tenderly than their old people. When their donkeys get old, they take them off in boats to uninhabited islands and leave them there to die. Pupa had once set foot on one of those donkey graveyards.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Also in this interminable interim: “As we grow older, we weep less and less. It takes energy to weep. In old age neither the lungs, nor the heart, nor the tear ducts, nor the muscles have the strength for great misery. Age is a kind of natural sedative, perhaps because age itself is a misfortune.” -from Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić
Part of this indeterminate-in-length waiting room that is life – and it really is a waiting room, even if that makes it sound most mundane (but a lot of life is misery and the most mundane of dullness) – is the part where you are actively waiting to die. Perhaps the medical industry – kabuki that it can be – is trying to extend your life, but at whatever stage of the process you’re in, whatever age you’re at, it’s still kind of a ‘waiting around to die’ ride at the fair: ups, downs, twists, spins, loop-to-loops, and even some maneuvers that turn you right upside-down.
Yet, even with the knowledge of the expected end – that we and those around us will die – it is something we do not know how to handle or prepare for. I again use my mother as an example here – she lost both her parents, her sister-in-law and her three cats (each of which was over 16 years old) all within a short span of time. To say she was devastated by grief would be an understatement. It didn’t matter that her parents were in their 90s, that her sister-in-law finally didn’t suffer any longer or that, as many insensitive souls said, her cats were “just cats”, she was heartbroken, and the hits just kept coming.
It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?
“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter