July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
July 3, 1947 — May 30, 2017
I have been thinking about my father, who died when I was 20. Nothing that has happened in my life from his death until now can compare with the terrible sorrow I felt, although certainly there have been competing blows.
Back then, though, before I had thickened with callus, it swallowed me whole, that grief, and there was no one in the extended family, not any soul, who even took notice of it much less tried to salve it. I was the frailest of ghosts in a collective of vapors.
Rita, my mother, divorced my father when I was six, presumably because of his philandering. I remember just a very few fragments from that story, which came to me through her. Since she lied more often than not, I do not know for certain what is true here: 1) He had been doing his big-breasted secretary on the west coast while she had been setting up a new house for him some 3,000 miles away, her addled children in tow. 2) She had listened nonstop to Ritchie Valens’s “Donna” and had wailed all the livelong day. 3) He had thrown a heavy glass ashtray at her when the children were sleeping.
I knew my father for just a handful of years—from zero to six, say. After that he was out the door with another secretary, whom he met at a New York City cosmetics company while an advertising executive there. She had recently arrived from England; was some twenty years younger than he was; had become a bottle redhead, like my mother; and was more an athlete than an intellectual. Soon enough they married, and off they flew to Southern California—ostensibly to rid themselves of his verbally violent, alcoholic ex-wife but also, I think, to offload the two children: one an odd and lonely kid who cried all the time; the other her older brother, who by then had become a real rotter.
Through middle and high school, during my winter and summer vacations, I would visit my father and his young bride. I confess to having worshipped her then, and for many years after, though it turns out this devotion was undeserved. Although I have relatively few memories from that time, I can call up several stray fragments from the earlier years. Perhaps they, too, are part fabrication:
1) At a weekend party of adults, except for me, I am sitting at a round table next to my father. Several other grownups are at the table with us. My father has been drinking heavily, and I lean over to tell him he should go easy on the booze. Laughing and glassy-eyed, he turns to me and says, “I can drink you under the table.” I am ten.
2) I am in the bedroom of the party-givers, alone and rifling through a night table drawer. I find a small comic book and discover it is porn: Inside the booklet a hand-drawn couple is going at it in a car parked at an overlook. A police officer shines a flashlight in on them and sees the man’s outsized penis. I see the outsized penis, also. “We’re just necking,” says the man. “Well, put your neck back in your pants and go on home,” the officer tells him. I continue to be ten.
3) I am in a room with one of my only friends. We have come from New York to spend the summer in California with my father and stepmother. We are smoking, and my stepmother walks in on us. “Smoking!” she exclaims—then turns and leaves. I am thirteen, as is my friend, but by then I had already been smoking for four years.
Earlier, I sat down to write a poem for you about the new year, but an hour or so into the process I realized it wasn’t going to be very good. It felt stiff, contrived, and I knew I should scrap it. I’ve never been able to create on command, and I’m always surprised by where the mysterious act of creation takes me — whether I’m writing a poem from thin air or drawing an actual tree in front of me.
From the time I was very small, people have had all kinds of advice about what and how I should write. “Write about what you know,” some have said. “Write about what you don’t know,” a few others have suggested. Upon reading a novel I wrote years back, my brother asked, “Can’t you be a little more cheerful?”
Well, no, I can’t cajole myself into being upbeat. Whatever emerges almost always appears to have its own heart and mind, while I just seem to get taken along for the ride. But, if I could will myself to write something meaningful for you about 2015, it might have some of these sentiments in it: evolve; love yourself and others; live authentically and simply; be kind (or at least stop being unkind, as a friend of mine says); be honest; surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you. Leave suffering and unrequited longing behind you, if you can.
I started this blog nearly three years ago, and, at the time, I had no expectations about what I should do or about how I should do it. I knew only that I wanted to write in a disciplined, thoughtful way because I saw that, for me, a careful, dogged approach to the craft and art of writing was the only path to developing myself.
Though I have done many things in my life — teaching writing among them — I always seemed to run from this slow, steady approach to my own work. Early on here, I began to write sections of a short story and to post them each week. This felt very risky, but your “likes,” “follows,” and comments gave me the confidence to keep on with it. I have since had the piece published — thanks in large part to your support. I now find myself very caught up in writing poetry, which has been a wonderful surprise for me, and I am once again grateful for your responsiveness to this work. I thought you might all want to jump ship if I stopped posting short pieces of nonfiction regularly, but so far only one person has jumped, and perhaps for other reasons.
I often have felt quite sad during the holiday season because the essence of its holiness seems lost on many of us — as does a true sense of wonder and gratitude for the life we each have been given, with every day a chance for renewal and for giving and receiving loving kindness. By staying with me over these years, you have shown me much loving kindness, and I am very grateful to you. During this season, may you all find and keep the peace and love you so deserve.
In the fever dream I mean to write a love poem,
an ode really, but without any edges,
and begin to think how I can sardine together
tender words you would have wanted to hear:
(as a woman might call to a sailor tossed over the bow)
or try and imagine a blue-black ocean crashing waves
of churning conch pearls onto the brown sand and
burying you knee deep in abalone shell.
Hearing the laughter of a Siren from another dark sea
I look up just as she touches your mouth with a fingertip and
whispers something saucy enough to make you
grab hold her hips and quick swim away from me.
In the morning dream I awaken
belly down on a bed of cracked earth
and somehow know that our hot-dim world
has been without rain and bright light for years.
Off to the right stands a ramshackle cottage
where we once lived with our young children —
well kept then, our cottage —
with the front window kicked out across its middle and
looking like a row of jagged teeth.
Just inside sits our long table,
now made of red hickory,
where we ate a last meal together, the twins,
as you may recall,
spooning sweet potato pie onto the good plates
while two flickering honey candles dripped wax
on the turkey platter and our kind but unlovely
Charlotte, your dear girl,
quietly carved her first name into my sideboard.
4. and down
At some point I notice the basement door
and am eager to remember what else we left behind
so slowly descend the wooden stairs though
cannot see much of anything and
missing the bottom step altogether
fall forward into the silent wide open.