Monthly Archives: December 2012

My Ruinous Thoughts

“The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place…sounds which could now only be recalled by imagination–tears of penitence, which had been long since fixed in fate” (Radcliffe, 15).

Today my mind has declared itself to be the Gothic ruins of an abbey, long since deserted. Although sounds ring from one hemisphere to the other, calling out memories to work with creativity to bring about cohesiveness, they’re hollow sounds. If, perhaps, an outer force were to push open my rusty gates, that force might find a working intelligence in the ruins. As it is, no hand acts on my imagination but my own hands-off approach.

It’s difficult to be in ruins, but there it is. I don’t know what else to say. I’m caught in suspense, as La Motte was as he approached the ruins in The Romance of the Forest: “La Motte paused a moment, for he felt a sensation of sublimity rising into terror– a suspension of mingled astonishment and awe” (Radcliffe, 15).

This used to be a place where superstition lurked–a place vast with ideas that led to a mental purgatory. This used to be a place where ideas waited to form themselves into creatures of the spirit or air. This used to be a place where words could do such things.

But this is my mind now–today, when I’m soaked in December rain and the sun is setting early behind the mountains, and desert brush stills to the wind that ceases for a few moments. It’s nearly dark, and I’m hedged in by the tangle of the scenery. After all these years of desiring only to be a Gothic heroine, it’s come to this–this mind of ruinous stones.

Someday, I might expel the ghosts, but not this evening. This evening, my husband waits for me to take my not-so-heroic self to his Christmas party, where spirits might wait, but not of the kind that haunt Gothic ruins. And so this frail excuse for a post must end now. He’s looking at me–giving me that look of intense impatience. Oh, well, he’s never quite intense with me. I’m the intense one, who has nothing further to say.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest 1791. Oxford University Press 1999. Ed. Chloe Chard.

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Cabaret Singer, Lost Inside

Falling in love with a cabaret singer isn’t for the faint of heart. At points in my love journey, I closed my eyes and focused on an image of the man on a dark stage, dancing in a circle of light, his face a mask of black and white. But, in reality, he didn’t do much dancing. Rather, he sat at his black baby grand and played for hours with his eyes closed to me.

It hurt. True, he had more important songs to bring to light and air than the ones involving me — that I had written for him, of course. Somehow, even as a nobody, a woman second-class, I knew we had more than just a simple connection. And so I waited at the edge of the shiny wooden dance floor, which was always devoid of couples. As far as I could tell, although my cabaret singer was both talented and sought-after, he played for nobody on a nightly basis.

Rumor had it he was searching for a woman, or that his entourage did the searching, framing photos of eligible bachelorettes and sliding them to him while he sat at his instrument. He shooed them away, again and again. In my imagination, he didn’t prefer to have framed images of women dotting the landscape of his piano; he wished he could rattle them off. I detected a dismissive look in his eyes, and that wasn’t imagination. And, oh, were his eyes ever dismissive! They flitted past me, as well as the rest of the late-night stragglers at the dance hall. Making music — that was his primary job in this world, and who could convince him of anything else?

One night, I entered the hall to find my cabaret singer utterly changed. In addition to his usual tuxedo with the tie undone, he’d added a white pancake make-up to his face, red to his lips, and a set of disgustingly thick and black false eyelashes to his eyes. He was beautiful with that look — I couldn’t put my finger on why it suited him so well, as though a charmed blending had occurred. Overnight, he’d become the musical Emcee from Cabaret, and I half expected him to sing, “Beedle dee, dee dee dee, two ladies! And I’m the only man, ja!”

When I took up my usual corner vigil with my roommate — I always slouched my shoulders in the corner opposite his — he stopped playing to give the photograph parade a serious perusal. My heart jittered with nerves, and I pressed my hand to my chest and wondered if the three shots of Jack had depleted my potassium. I turned to the side and glanced his way out of the corners of my eyes, and then, when he spotted my obvious attempt to appear as though I didn’t care, I searched the glare of the waxed-over-scuff flooring. My roommate, whom I’d dragged with me, chucked a finger under my chin.

“You’ll survive,” she said. “I’m sure he’s not interested in any of those women. It’s hard to fall in love with a photograph.”

I might have believed her, but the man’s womanly face suddenly crumpled into a sad state, his full red lips pursed. He batted his eyelashes and couldn’t blink away the few stray tears that coursed black rivulets down his white cheeks.

“He’s fallen in love,” I said. “And not with me. I’ll be forever separated.”

My roommate seemed annoyed. She was one those invisible girls, far more invisible than I was — and I was nearly a ghost — and, hence, I tended to use her as my emissary. She did it without my asking. “Do you want me to go look at the photo for you, see what she looks like?”

“Please,” I said.

She slid across the floor, and I watched as she turned her frail blonde, invisible angel head to the framed image in my cabaret singer’s hand. While sliding back, she smiled in her sly way.

“It’s a picture of his mother,” she told me.

“How do you know?”

“Because of the resemblance. It’s obvious.”

“Oh.”

I raised my eyes to the piano, and I saw he’d brushed all the photos aside, and his entourage was packing them away, but he hadn’t yet begun to focus on his sheet music. Instead, he stared across the dance hall at me and my roommate. His shoulders were about as hunched as mine were. For five long minutes, he sat in silence and didn’t move, and he stared at us, the invisible females, as though he’d spotted two ghosts and didn’t know what to do with the vision.

Finally, he rose, gestured for another man to take his place on the piano bench, and crossed the room.

“Dance?” he said, holding out his hand to me. He sighed. “It’s about time, anyway.”

The new singer-player dashed out a folk waltz. I took my singer’s hand, and he pulled me into a swinging one-two-three.

“Beedle dee, dee dee dee, two ladies! I’m part of you, and you are two,” he sang so that only my ear could hear him.

You are two. I never saw him after that night because he disappeared at the end of our dance. For some reason, I no longer needed to see the man whose songs I wrote in secret. I never returned to the dance hall, and neither did he. Rumor had it, he’d found a better-paying gig. I heard his voice, though, especially in my dreams: I’m part of you, and you are two. I framed the song in my mind and kept it.

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Memories! You’re Talking About Memories. Or Dreams.

A story can never end with a simple image. I take that back. Yes, it can. The writer gives her story the potency to be what it will. A weak writer may not endow it with enough power to live on its own without a respirator or feeding tube. That’s the trouble with humans playing God. We’re not shams exactly; we’re made in the image of, and all that. But where does that leave us? We aren’t mini-gods. I don’t need a biological or theological or theoretical education to know this truth in the core of my being. I’m not a god–so why do I play one as the author of my mini worlds? Yes, I know, they appear epic after the word count climbs over 90,000, but they’re tiny enough to slip into my braincells as places and people and adventures already visited, worlds already put to rest.

In my dreams, I see buildings–tall thin ones that scrape the sky, narrow oblongs that rest directionally to the horizon, and two-storied places with pitched roofs that cry for families. My rooms are inevitably messy. I’m a mess internally, so this isn’t surprising. Sometimes these buildings are hybrids, places whose windows I climb from, only to reenter again into dark basements. When I add, combine, and quantify, the dwelling I love the best is the one with the pitched roof like a spring sky. Blue roof–white shutters–yellow siding. This is the atmosphere of spring. And spring is meant to bring new life, as the agricultural world affirms–one could call it the scientific world, even if it does dwell down on the farm–and the religious world confirms spring’s delivery, as well, in its rites of cyclical death and rebirth. As a Christian, I recognize the fulfilment of my rebirth through Jesus’ death and resurrection. What that says about my interior spaces and their lack of order may or may not be unrelated because I’m a believer in Jesus, not spring cleaning.

I am a house. My rooms are messy. I have a blue roof, a slate roof, a red roof. My outside is composed of solid timbers, and timbers that are as frail as old, flaked paint. Sometimes, I live on an air-gasping, head-woozy floor in a tiny apartment filled with borrowed objects. Elevators and escalators send me up and bring me back down. At my workplace, I descend into the basement to drop my child in a womb-safe daycare, and then travel up and up to my small office, inside a larger office, inside a complex of offices in a building that was designed for medical offices. Up here, on this floor with a swooning view, I feel safe knowing my child is tucked away in the basement. On with the paperwork–or whatever it is I’m hired here to do.

The papers tucked away, I remember the house with the slate roof. That’s the one where my colleague and I–this time we’re medical examiners–climbed from a first-floor window, from that hinged, old-fashioned kind, onto the rain-soaked grass. We were frightened to be there; I can’t recall why. Memory creates an illusory image when attached to emotion. Or, I should say, memories are more vividly remembered when attached to strong emotions, but the cause and effect may be lost in the recall, such that the emotion and incident combine in the flash of a moment–a photograph left out of its packet. There’s no context, in other words, until another flash occurs, revealing another image connected to fear. Something is chasing us, and we’re ducking down in the shadows, where we can smell the mud of the grass and the dank, catty smell of the basement, and we lower ourselves through an unlatched screen back into the very same house we have just escaped.

It’s dark down here. Empty boxes sit stacked by our entrance route (and possibly our only escape route). My colleague insists we’ll be safe here, and he pulls me into a mesh box, and pushes me to a crouched position in the corner of the box. We hear a click, and it’s too late. The fear–the concept of shadow–is manifest. It has locked us in a cage of our own choice, our own hiding place. We peer out. How disconcerting. A single bulb swings above us, haloing a woman and a man in lab coats, holding clipboards. They’re examining us. We’re the specimens.

I should leave you with the spring house, rather than this cage deep inside the bowels of an old one. I should leave you with its hope, but I don’t yet know how. The last time I entered the house with the blue roof and yellow exterior and stark white shutters, it was littered with the detritus of guests–dirty plates and bulbous glasses settled with sweet wine. For now, it’s a house only the swallows will find, and they’ll build their mud houses up under the eaves. That’s a lovely image, but it’s not where I’m at.

I’m in a basement. Trust me when I insist that this is not only the proper way to end this–whatever this godlike creation of fictional worlds is–but it’s also the way to begin. Beginning on an upper floor is absurd, to say the least. No one can begin there. So I’ll start at the deepest place my dwelling dips. I’ll start at the beginning and end at whatever floor I manage to climb to before the story’s over.

I’m in a cage in a basement. That’s my simple image, and its potency relies solely on the hope of spring and its ability to unclasp locked doors.

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Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)

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