All day yesterday I cowered in my condo. That’s what you do when you are waiting for a post-tropical cyclone to cut a destructive swath up the entire eastern seaboard and you live alone, are alone. But, I wasn’t alone, really. Some 60 million other people were also cowering in their homes.
Inside a unit so small I can see every room from my couch, I watched Fox News from morning until night. Although I can’t help but feel disdain for a station whose on-air personalities include Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, and Greta Van Susteren, I had no choice but to watch it: my cable box remained stuck on Channel 5 after the Emergency Alert System broadcast a noisy warning, and I wasn’t able to figure out how to fix the problem until just before the power went out. I confess, though, that there lives in me a daft conspiracist who thought perhaps there had been some kind of backroom deal between the greedy media giant Comcast and the ultra-conservative station that left Comcast customers with only one option if they wanted to watch the storm coverage.
It is not a good idea to watch the news while you are waiting for the worst to happen because it gives you terrible new ideas about what that worst event could be. For me, it was the possibility of a splintering utility pole crashing through a roof that feels like it sits a few feet above my head.
Nor is it a good idea to avoid the news when you are waiting for the worst to happen. Staying glued to the set gave me the sense that I had a modicum of control over my fate, which made the possibility of impending doom easier to bear. Perhaps that is why I felt a great sense of relief when my street, and condo, went dark at around 11 pm and candles began to flicker in the windows of my neighbors. I no longer had to worry about when, exactly, I would lose power, and I fell quickly to sleep.
The gestation period for an elephant is 22 months, apparently so it can get its brain right. I’ve been wondering about what we could do if we had 13 more months to grow some smarts: Reverse global warming, obliterate all disease, eradicate famine, put an end to war? Not likely on this last one.
I have seen too many nature shows, have known one too many baboons, and have been made to bear my own darker impulses all too often to believe that we humans are capable of transcending our baser selves–at least not without a lifetime of intentional struggle in that direction.
Everywhere we are in conflict with our brethren: in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. And, where we are not engaged in an active fight we are spoiling for one. Alas, we are hardwired to beat our chests and scratch our underarms. Afterall, we have babies to make and mouths to feed, and there’s just so much viable sperm and fresh kill to go around.
Since Wednesday, I have been at a conference in Richmond, Virginia, and I have found that I can be very charming. In-drawn and shy by nature, I get to practice safe extraversion at these kinds of events, and, when this exhausts me, as it inevitably does, I can sneak back to my room and hole up.
Yesterday, I had the bus driver all to myself for a ten-block ride, and we were the best of friends by the time I got off. I learned about his hapless son, and he learned that I could be a sympathetic listener. Once at the Convention Center, I chatted up two gentlemen from Ohio, and, when I saw them again this morning on the bus, I shouted “hi, you two” as I walked down the aisle. If you knew me, you would laugh at the thought of this easy-breezy familiarity.
Then, at dinner last night, I withdrew behind my sunglasses and prepared for a solitary meal, which it was but for the young waiter who, when he handed me the menu, commented that I must be a movie star. This drew a delighted giggle, and I said something to him about trying to hide from my adoring fans. It was a more genuine kind of openness, mine, one where I had been so startled by such a sweet exchange that I didn’t have time to assume a pose.
When he gave me the check, I saw there was a separate slip of paper with only an X and a _________________________ on it. I signed my first name, wrote “Have a wonderful life!,” and said, “Please don’t tell anyone else I’m here” when I handed him my autograph.
Years ago, when I first read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, I was stunned by it. I was especially affected by the disembodied voice of the character at the center of the novel, Addie Bundren, and was compelled to commit to memory some of what she said. “I feel my body, my bones and flesh beginning to part and open upon the alone,” she tells us, “and the process of coming unalone is terrible.” The last words of this line are themselves terrible, and somehow, even then, I understood through poesy what I would not have been able to bear otherwise.
Last night I watched a Smithsonian documentary on Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund and perhaps one of the most original, if not most talented, figurative painters of post-war Britain. Gone in his portraits is any effort to idealize the human form. If anything, his obsession with painting the nude had more to do with finding its essential fragility.
Though I was interested in his work, I was more interested in learning about the kind of man he was. From a number of interviews given by his “sitters,” some of whom were his wives and lovers and others of whom were his children (he had 14 known children by different women, but he was rumored to have fathered as many as 40), I learned that he was an unapologetically selfish philanderer who had little interest in sustained intimate relationships–least of all with the mistresses and daughters he seemed to have grieved so thoroughly.
Having rent many a blouse over men like this, I felt a certain contempt for this darker aspect of Freud, but really I was much more taken inside myself when learning about his single-minded devotion to his art and about his devil-may-care attitude over what others thought of him and of his predilections.
I found myself wondering about what my own writing, and painting, would have amounted to had I been capable of the same selfishness and dogged, day-in-day-out focus and what it could be from here forward were I to somehow acquire this capacity.
The house behind my own is a group home for men and women with severe mental disabilities, and the backyard where residents often gather is just a shout from my bedroom window. But, I never think twice about it since I figure we are all on our way down that particular road and some are just farther along than others. I wasn’t too alarmed, then, when I was awakened this morning at 6:24. Frequently, I will be roused from my sleep by loud, and often angry, voices coming from over the fence.
I can’t say his was an angry voice, though; it was more one of agitated bewilderment made all the more agitating to me because he was holding forth in Spanish and, for the first hour or so, I was annoyed with myself for not understanding him. The words were like swarming bees, and the sound came and then went as he, himself, took off down the alley and doubled back.
Suddenly it came to me that maybe I would sound like that if those listening were not able to put meaning to my words. Next I thought about my writing and about how extraordinary it is that when I sit down to start I can find even one queen amid all that high-pitched whining.
I am aging in measurable and accelerated ways. I have more lines and rivulets on my face and décolletage; more brown spots almost everywhere; and thinner, grayer hair. Even with glasses I no longer see well.
My spirit has gone gray, too. When I was younger, I believed it was my responsibility, if not my destiny, to endure burden and suffering wherever I might find it, and, to that end, I invited all manner of person and experience into my life. Nothing has aged me more profoundly, though, than the betrayals I have experienced over my years. Had I known from the very start that they would accrete and eventually hobble, perhaps I would have been more careful about the people I allowed to walk through my front door.