Here in Vermont, there is a moment of exquisiteness in the turning of each year. It only lasts for a few late summer days, days still warm and sun-filled, the outdoors still richly greened with only a few colored leaves, garden still producing. Yet in this charged moment, there's the slightest breath of fall. These days, close to earthly perfection, are the year's moment that surely possessed strange fey Emily Dickinson, New England poet-genius when she wrote, "Inebriate of air am I."
Maybe I, too, get inebriated by the air at this seasonal juncture. Twice, now, that time has been the time of year when I've had unlooked-for, otherworldly experiences.
The story of these two occurencess is the one that I meant to tell last time, about becoming lovable, not, as I said, lovable in the twee sense but meaning able to give and receive love, love-able. Beanblossom pre-empted that story; yet it is linked to her: by cats, love, presence and absence.
2002: at home on the aquifer
One day in late August, or early September, 2002, here in Vermont, I came upstairs to the bedroom.This room was reclaimed from attic space by my aunt's late boyfriend, Jim Cherry, who opened it clear up to the rough-hewn rafters, giving it a soaring cathedral ceiling, all the more startling because the other rooms of the house are low of ceiling. The bedroom floors are of wide smooth planks, so-called "king's lumber" (because in colonial days every board foot of wood wider than 10 inches was supposed to be shipped back to England; ornery New Englanders refused to send their wide boards and kept them hidden by using them to floor attics). Some of these floorboards in my bedroom are 24 inches wide. (Left, the vegetable, garden, which can be seen from this bedroom's dormer window. This is an early fall glimpse, probably just about the time I'm describing here, taken by David).
Since this room is both opened up and on the western side of the house, it gets afternoon sun, and at times, can be too hot. But not for the resident cat or cats, who love to sleep on the bed even in summer.
The day I'm thinking of was not too hot but at that perfect almost-fall moment. It was three or four in the afternoon. David didn't live here then; we'd only met recently and our connection, though genuine, was tenuous. So this particular day it was me and Z (my first cat post-Beanblossom). Just the two of us, in the old house, once my aunt's summer home, on top of a hill. 35 acres around us.
That afternoon was not quite two years after Ned's abrupt death; not quite a year since I had realized the time had come to leave Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I'd lived for the previous 33 years.
I'd had to leave for reasons including, but not limited to, Ned's death, and I was trying to work out how to live my new life unembittered by the less-than-kind circumstances under which I'd left the old. For some of what propelled my departure had given me many justifiable reasons for bitterness, and yet bitterness is an unsatisfactory state in which to reside, however justifiable. What was I to do with this?
These days, I've come to believe living through betrayal is one of the most difficult, important, and rarely written about of human experiences. For if you come through betrayal and (eventually) work out how to remain open to life and people, you do so as an act of choice, and not because you are innocent, or naive, or a naturally trusting soul. You make a conscious decision. You know the risks; finally, after weighing them, you take them with your eyes open. You take them as an act of integrity and with a kind of regretful wisdom: you know that the world and those in it will sometimes betray you, yet to live without being open to allow those who betrayed you to also make you betray yourself and your life.
But that is another story, not the one I want to tell here.
Two years after a death, the "my deepest sympathies" are long over and done with; one is naturally expected to have gotten back to, or on with, normal life (though 'normal', as you knew it, ended with the doctor saying, "I'm sorry; we lost him.") But how else could it be? This is why grief is an experience inherently which one undergoes, finally, in isolation.
And who the heck would condole you because you feel you have no choice but to leave a town you loved deeply? There's not even a word for that category of grief.
Grief: ultimately you cannot share it any more than you can relieve it. It just has to be lived through. There is nothing to do but walk through it. Step, step, step, step.
The way I did this during those shadowed years was just by occupying my life, my new, very unreal-feeling life, as if I was functional and not hollowed out. By assuming that one day I would feel better. By knowing that suicide was the worst possible thing you could do to everyone you loved, besides being show-offy, pointless, melodramatic, and just generally not an option.
So I made the bed each morning. Did the dishes each night. Kept the bird-feeders filled. Went on walks. And wrote.
What I was working on in 2002, that strange year, was mostly edits of Passionate Vegetarian, a book I had written while Ned was still alive and I was still deep into my old life.
The afternoon I'm writing about, though, was in my new life. Like most days that year, I had been working on PV edits all day. The chapter I had completed had just been picked up by Kevin, the very nice Fed Ex guy, and was on its way back to the editor (who, I think, was clueless about how devastated and barely functional was the writer with whom she was working. And I suppose I wanted her clueless. Fake it till you make it, as the saying goes). Kevin had brought me a new section. But before I got started on it, I decided to go upstairs and lie down , maybe nap. (Right, the final cover that 1278-page long book would end up with. It still blows my mind that I was a cover girl at age 50. And that Ned never got a chance to see this. I think he would have been so tickled, and proud.)
I walked up the stairs. Through the hall and its stacks of things needing attention, by the bathroom, and to the big open bedroom. The air was warm --- not hot, not cool, with that almost imperceptible sigh of a fall-tinged intermittent breeze. Light streamed in the windows, so bright the dust motes were illuminated. If the room had had a sound, it would have been that of a bumble bee: serene, calm, replete.
There, lying on the bed, curled into a ball, was Z-Cat.
I heard myself say, aloud, "Oh, Z-Cat, how did we get so lucky?"
And with that I stopped. Just stopped. Stood stock-still in that dozy room.
Though by natural temperament I had usually felt, and now again believe myself to be, among the most naturally optimistic and up of human beings, it had been a long, long time since I perceived myself as "lucky." Sure, I'd made my gratitude lists, on paper and inside my head and heart, even since Ned died. They were and weren't authentic; it was, again, fake-it-till-you-make-it, the desperate reflex of a formerly happy person who cannot believe what has befallen her. Who, to her own disbelief, is not only presently unhappy but knows that even should she grow happy again, she will now, always and forever, reside above an underground aquifer of grief.
Yet without forethought or premeditation, without talking myself into it, the words had been spoken. Lucky. It hung there, reverberating in the warm, quiet, gently moving air.
To discover feeling good again even just for an instant was as shocking as a sudden blow. I did not know what to make of it. I lay on the bed, aftershocked with anxiety and confusion, trying to calm myself and figure out what had just happened. No nap now. That sweet breeze flapped the window shade. I curled up around the cat, stroking her till she half woke, purred and purred, then went back to sleep. I just lay there feeling, thinking, feeling, thinking, in an atmosphere as calm as I was troubled.
My late father used to say, "Write your way out of it." I got up, went downstairs, made a cup of tea, and went back to work on the next chapter.
Laborare est orare; to work is to pray. That's another thing Maurice used to tell me. Writers write. That's our work. And/or, prayer.
Step, step, step, step.
Lucky? May Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude, writes that the work, the writing, is often farther along than the writer. Something like, "Thus the writing is the arrow of the person, showing us where we are headed." Though I hadn't reread that book since it was first published, in 1973, Sarton's idea had stayed with me. That 'lucky', I thought, maybe it's something like that. An arrow.
2008: on loan
Let us fast-forward to 2008, the second occasion that weird enchanted pause in the year propelled me unexpectedly forward.
I have again come upstairs. It is again late afternoon. It is again that poised moment in the seasonal circle.
The aquifer of grief? Yes, still there. But the person who resides above it has, in time, grown into her new self and her new life. She is again, on the whole, quite happy. She has managed to live through several Vermont winters, a fire, and two book tours. She has made new friends, and yet the old and important friendships, from the good and true part of her earlier life, have remained vibrant. She's grown two of the best vegetable gardens of her life. She has managed to make the staggeringly large mortgage payments and stay one step ahead of the other bills.And David, with whom she had had the most tentative of beginnings, now lives in Vermont with her. Theirs is an amicable, piquant, interesting companionship, deeply affectionate, solid, fun. She is not married to him; that, she thinks, is a relationship she will probably always reserve for Ned and Ned alone. But Ned, it turns out, was her soul mate, but not her sole mate. David is her partner. If David and she walked into love, rather than fell, well, that may be the flavor of loving at midlife, loving as an adult, when you know no one can and will save you (except perhaps yourself), when you realize no one can be or will be able to "be there", as the phrase goes, because "being there" is ultimately not within the power of human beings to control.
So, this last fall, I came upstairs to the bedroom again... the "I" that I am now, no longer hollowed out.
And there, lying in the a patch of sun on the bed, in the precise spot Z-Cat had lain that previous day in 2002, lay one of the two cats who live with David and me now (Z-Cat died in 2006). He, the present cat, Cattywhompus, was curled in that round, pleasing self-contained cat shape of pure sleeping contentment that has pleased artists and cat-lovers for as long as their have been artists, cat-lovers, and cats. (There they are, the two of them, in their Scratch Lounges. Cattywhompus is the one looking up.)
This time I had come upstairs not to nap but to get a book. I picked it up from the night-table, and noted it all with a deep sigh of contentment: cat, sunlight, the intoxicating temperature and air and slight breeze, the room's atmosphere.
I remembered, suddenly, the lucky I'd articulated in almost identical circumstances, six years earlier. I remembered I'd said it to a different, now-vanished cat (the one who had followed the still longer-vanished Beanblossom). I marveled briefly, shaking my head at how very much more resilient we turn out to be when our choices are few (sink, or rise?). I turned and, book in hand, walked out of the room, heading back downstairs.
It was at the top of the stairs that the insight hit with the force of a breaking wave. It felt as if it came not from within but from outside: the moment when the hand of God meets the human hand as in Michelangelo's famous picture.
Except, I hadn't even consciously been reaching up, and I don't even believe in God as such.
I do believe in grace, though.
It was: As long as you want to love, Crescent, you will have someone to love. As long as you want to be loved, there will be someone to love you.
I sat down, hard, on the top step. Hanging on the wall to my left was the gallery of photographs of those I love and/or have loved. It happened that the photographs of Ned, including the one of him and Beanblossom which I used in the last post, was right next to me. I glanced up at it.
And I understood, clearly, that cats come and go, and those who love them come and go, but love stays.
That our friends, our lovers and partners, come and go, that we come and go, but love stays.
That love is love and not fade away, as Buddy Holly wrote.
If one is lovable, if one works hard to make oneself lovable, in the sense I talked about before --- able to love, able to give and receive love --- there is no shortage of those on whom to lavish that love, and from whom one will receive it.
But that, I thought as I sat on the stairs that day, that, wondrous as it is, is not really the point.
It's only part of it. For there's love of, and then there's just love, period. A state.
If one were able to live in that state, well then, though person or cat or circumstance may and must change, one would always, literally, be in love.
somebody to love
This post, and the previous one, began in my mind with an e e cummings quote an old friend of a friend sent me.
"Unless you love
someone," cummings said, "nothing else makes any sense." This sounded so Hallmark-like, I could hardly believe that cummings, the wily rule-breaker word-bender poet, could have said such a thing. Not that he
might not have believed it (as many people do), but that its phrasing was so
un-cummings-like and pedestrian.
But I Googled it, and yep, sure enough, somehow, on some occasion, he said or wrote it. But I knew, too, it was not only the phrasing that bothered me; it was the meaning.
"Don't you want somebody to love?" asked Grace Slick in the eponymous Jefferson Airplane song, circa 1967 (off the Surrealistic Pillow album), "Don't you need somebody to love?". Then she warns, ominously, "You better find somebody to love." There's a distinct subtext to that "You better" -- an unspoken "or else". The lyrics spell out different occasions on which you might want or need this somebody: when the truth is found to be lies, when all the joy within you dies. When the garden flowers are all dead, and your mind, your mind is so full of red.
Well, I have had, at times, a mind, and heart, full of red (which I take to mean anger), as well as a darkness that goes beyond black (by which I mean grief's seemingly endless night). And I am here to say that at such moments, the "someone" you feel you need so desperately is and can only be a temporary fix.
I think it's finally the love, not the somebody. Contrary to what cummings said in that quotation, I think it is the love that allows life and loss to make sense.
I also think cummings knew this truer truth, and stated this clearly in many of his poems. For instance, there's his line "Time is a tree, this life one leaf," which comes to me over and over again. When someone I know dies. When I am walking in the fall color and watching the leaves change. And also, at moments when I am overwhelmed with the great privilege of my new life: the privilege of getting to love and be loved, know and be known, a second time, albeit in a wholly different way, with David. Time is a tree, this life one leaf: what can the sap that revivifies both tree and leaf be but love?
Sitting there on the top step I thought, whether or not there is a somebody, whether or not I feel it at a given moment, I know that love is there.
This leads to the great gift of betrayal can offer, if one chooses to unwrap it: if one chooses to love, and to be in love, the state of love, anyway.
Because finally, what else but that state can possibly make worthwhile traveling this excruciatingly difficult, exquisite life-path, where so much is given and so much is taken away? We say hello and goodbye, we love and lose our dear cats, our companions, our friends and lovers, our parents, sometimes (in what many perceive to be the cruelest and most unnatural category of loss) our children.If we are not "in love", how on earth do we bear it?
Life's outlines are, basically, love, loss, love, loss, love, loss, love, loss, love.
But I would rather end on love, not loss, as the final mode.
And I think that that love is a capital-t Truth and that, unlike the small-t kind kind Grace Slick referred to, it will never, ever be found to lie.
From Wislawa Syzmborska:
I'm drowning in debts up to my ears.
I'll have to pay for myself
with my self,
give up my life for my life.
Here's how it's arranged:
The heart can be repossessed,
the liver, too,
and each single finger and toe.
Too late to tear up the terms,
my debts will be repaid,
and I'll be fleeced,
or, more precisely, flayed.
I move about the planet
in a crush of other debtors.
some are saddled with the burden
of paying off their wings.
Others must, willy-nilly,
account for every leaf.
Every tissue in us lies
on the debit side.
Not a tentacle or tendril
is for keeps.
The inventory, infinitely detailed,
implies we'll be left
not just empty-handed
but handless too.
I can't remember
where, when, and why
I let someone open
this account in my name.
We call the protest against this
And it's the only item
not included on the list.