Archive | Quoth the Raving

The Farewell Symphony, Across Space and Time

As Joshua’s words come echoing across the water and down the years to me, I can’t help thinking that his life was not just his finest thoughts about poetry and friendship, expressed in a style that rejected forcefulness in favor of sympathy, but it was also comprised of his long mornings in his dressing gown with his telephone, newspapers, the Hu Kwa smoked tea and the little sterling-silver strainer that sat in its drip cup when it wasn’t straddled across a cup catching leaves. His life was made up of his pleasure in the morning glories as well as his hilarity ….After [his death] I looked through all the letters I’d ever received from Joshua and I realized I’d been unworthy of him then, that he’d been sending them through time to me as I would become years later. –Edmund White, The Farewell Symphony

Maybe it’s this unyielding time of year, but lately there’s just been so much death all around me. Rather than feeling shocked by these losses, I have begun to accept them as commonplace, albeit painfully so. Herein lies what Jane Smiley once termed the Age of Grief. That point in our lives when those who served as our grownups begin to sicken and fade, leaving us to step into their shoes. When we lose the only ones who remember us as little and effortlessly dear, the only ones who forgive us our sins as youthful folly–who regard us with the hope and fear and involuntary affection with which every generation regards the next. I suspect most of what these people taught me I only roughly comprehend now. And I hope fervently that someday I, like White, will become the person whom their best selves were already addressing.

4/28/16 Note: I wrote this post more than eight years ago, when almost all the people I’d lost had been members of the preceding generation. Since then, I have lost so many peers: dear friends and lovers, estimable colleagues, cultural heroes, even frenemies whom I didn’t know I cherished until they were gone. The sting is just as strong if very different. Closer to home, closer to the fabric of daily life–closer, period. The rebels who shared your causes, the horizontal (not vertical) allies, the casual companionship and shorthand, the luxury of taking each other for granted, the shared delusions of immortality and shared firsts, the bodies, the bodies you shared: These losses are so core. I am saddened to recognize that this White passage resonates on new levels but even more awed by what he captured.

Why I Embrace a Woman’s Thirties/Why I Embrace Schulman at Any Age

I watched her skin, primarily, and the way her wrists moved. She had the manner of inner grace and intelligent beauty that women only begin to realize in their late thirties. Everything is texture and wise emotions. It was in her voice, her gestures, in every habit. A certain familiarity with obstacles. She glanced, not fleetingly from side to side, but up and down, to herself and then back to me. Her eyes were deep and tired with wrinkles from the sides like picture frames. Beatriz’s veins stood away from her neck and those thin wrists, so beautiful — there I could see every sorrow and useful labor. I got excited for the first time in a long time, realizing that this was in my future as well. Not just knowing her, but myself, becoming that beautiful. It had been too long since I had such hopeful imaginings.

–Sarah Schulman, After Delores

Just when we women become salty and beautiful is when the real Ophelia Syndrome kicks in, and it’s just so unnecessary. I’m tired of even talking about it, honestly, but since we female-identified persons (not just biological women) climb into true adulthood ever-apologetically, I am grateful when I stumble upon a passage or a song or a person that reminds us that our daily iridescence only becomes a matter of fact when we’re old enough to know who we are. Schulman does so in every line of her work.

She has an ability to nail truth; a passion for lowdown New York as if it were as distinct from the rest of the globe as the Earth is from the rest of the solar system (and as if leaving it were as difficult); and a love of women that is specific and fierce and generous and still, somehow, not self-obliterating. There is something crummy and self-pitying about her characters until you grasp that the misery and sisteroutsiderness they channel are necessary to produce their steady onslaught of insights. The full-frontal honesty that has been deplored in me exists as her finest attribute so I cling to her baggy Levis as if she were a spiritual big sister. She writes in a series of snapshots that connect to each other through the pussy and the heart, and their timeliness and timelessness read at first as casual but turn out to be irrevocable. I challenge you to connect to all of it. To try, at least. Just the effort will sneak up on you worthily.

On Drinking: A Love Story (Caroline Knapp, 1960-2002)

I’ve been rereading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, for a gig, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:

There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid….Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.

These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often really aren’t to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read that passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthesias, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, that I deferred to rather than simply trust myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.

Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker. I still believe, however, that it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have even liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me running to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. The beauty of a really skilled memoirist, though, is that through her perspective you can connect with a person whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how gifted Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never once met her while she was alive. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for the life she did manage to live.

So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.

There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:

It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I’d never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I’d spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I’d just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy