Life is a losing battle! Enjoy it! – Mr. Harold Clurman
Life is a losing battle! Enjoy it! – Mr. Harold Clurman
For my very dear cousin who recently shared an activity she pursued from habit for 2.5 years of her life, and of which struck a deep chord within me which continues to resonate. Bless you, M.D.
In over 150 posts to this blog, I feel as though I’ve failed to pull aside the curtain and let you see what I’ve been hiding.
Just put the lid on the stockpot to simmer and much of the household has gone to bed except Jenni who, like a good night watchdog, checks on me periodically (usually amidst a stretch and a yawn). And while the hour is late, I must finish this post. It’s time to unbutton the years and feel the spring of irresponsibility.
I take the practice and restraint of writing very seriously. Not to seem austere, but, as one callous director yelled at my turned back, “Writing is a very lonely way to express yourself!” Prick.
But what remains true to type is that writing is painful and exhilarating and disliked and poorly reviewed and rewritten and rewritten and rewritten and moving and lucky and dangerous and a coup de grace terminus dissolution seductive lustful adoring and painful. My temperament since eighteen was writer; not a decorated writer but a prime writer. And Blogging? The Practice (writing) and Restraint (never “what,” but always “when”) to lose the fear that my voice is gone.
Written earlier: Wanted It On Paper (or pixels, I suppose):
My desk is a mound of memories threatening my Mac like English Ivy. Buried are unopened envelopes addressed to my brother – heat, electricity, cable – things he felt or used or watched – things that touched him in some real way – and taken for granted . . . except to those left behind to clean up someone else’s party, but in this case they’re the pieces of someone else’s life. The pile reads like those pitiful Monopoly deeds, Water Works and Electric Company. Vacancy ignored the utility’s initial bill. Ignored utility’s send out “Reminders of bills” or “bills” or “past-due bills” or “bills posted by collection agencies,” like rounds of mortar fire.
Written recently: Must complete this night:
I’ve got to stamp Addressee Deceased; Please Return to Sender with a fake heartless blasé poker face, constantly pushing aside cemented memories like freeing a sedan adrift in a blizzard so I can muddle, disinterested, of who or what or when he felt a gap in his comfort; and yet, these envelopes represent the healthy, sound, and clean gaps in his comfort. Then deliberate vague hints appear like indiscreet, taedium vitae lovers pursuing liberty. The utilities remain, but a couple, then a few, then many of these envelopes appear from unpronounceable practices and departments and unfamiliar hospitals and ambulance companies. There’s no curiosity daring me to open the envelopes like cracking open a diary or handling an 8×10 envelope forked-over by a neo-noir gum-shoe. I’ve ransacked his apartment three times looking for impossibly to find documents. A Mid-Way entertainment like curiosity disappeared the night my partner (my partner judiciously picked and packed, while each shirt caught my attention like a bride-to-be in a Tiffany & Co. (except the diamond’s wink promised the future and these shirts promised . . . promised . . . recollections of our past and the further removal of him from his home. I packed a few comforts but my partner shouldered the lion’s share (you know, kid-going-to-camp stuff sans the pair of linty Gobstoppers) for his transfer to an acute-care facility (e.g. nursing home.). Later he referred to leaving the hospital and signing-in to the sub-acute rehab facility as his One-Way Ticket.” ˆMid-day Sunday while we were thumbing through brochures and page after page of smiles: Rented smiles; Directed smiles; “I’m going home after this,” smiles, the truth caught in my throat like a chicken bone as he asked the one question, that one impossible question that I begged the All-Knowing to prevent him from asking, he asked, “Am I going home?” My weakened attempt at steadiness crumbled as quickly as ancient foundations beneath the burden of progress. I must remain impermeable, I reminded myself on my way to the restroom. After a very brief phone call my partner knocked, then opened the door to see me sitting on the floor. Through three decades of sobbing, fractured words, ardent hands he understood: He asked the question! The question to which I dragged and lifted and choked-back and detoured the answer (of which he’d never hear from me. Please, I begged my partner, please go sit with him and chat and blame my expeditious run for the restroom on anything but the truth. Because I can’t stand it yet, and he’ll just die when he finally does here that he’s never . . . never returning home.
In a broad sense, of course. I mean, who can possibly predict someone’s . . . permanence, so to speak . . . not that death is, in any way, humorous, but if we did know, one could make plans . . . which is when I trailed off, consciously fleeing The Doctor’s despairing and melancholic answer which, upon delivery, affirmed my inkling and, at first, felt promising, that is until the import of his answer felt as heavy as a saturated woolen coat.
My disquieting understanding was followed by remorse and the physician‘s shifting of weight left right left right; my attention lost to the ticker-tape listing of buoyant memories; then, hailing from afar like a sea boat captain, a nervous cough interrupts my avoidance with sharp and determined finger-snaps by a now brusque and tidy physician whose demeanor is demanding (disguised as cheerful support) takes the tone of an impatient boss, Is There Anything else, then?
That’s when we resumed our assigned roles of patient and doctor. Long gone was the arm-across-the-back-and-onto-the -other-shoulder fatherly imitation of empathy. Tucking his humanity neatly in a breast pocket below his blue-stitched name and title like first graders whose names are also stitched but for opposite reasons: The Doctor: To tell you who he is and his department (lest you wonder): And first graders: To remind themselves who they are and what they wore.
Upon empathy’s discharge, a muddy silence quickly appeared swallowing the Doctor and I and filling the tiny room with despair, melancholy, and a dreadful load of confusion. It reminded me of a time long ago when a generic teen-age girl gave me the sign to try for home, only to be quickly slapped by my host causing my retreat and a kind-of cease-fire and the same shameful silence which the Doctor cast by answering my foolish question:even though I was all-too-aware of the penalty, I asked the question with the same tentative, cautionary, and deliberate way that I behaved with that tart. And coincidently the responses were eerily similar: the tart with a sharp slap and immediate rejection, and the Doctor with a representational slap and unsettling honesty saying It’s got the moxie, it’s got fervor and doggedness. It’s very rare to be strong and efficient; even rarer still to be too strong and to be too efficient.
His foot steps down the hall seemed to whisper apologies until he turned and they both disappeared. And there I was, alone, all alone, all-by-myself alone except for the damned answer, of which I’d had some degree of premonition. But hearing it in your head isn’t official thereby maintaining a small degree of hope. And then I asked and then he answered and then neither one of us would ever be the same.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) called it Estrangement;
Luigi Pirandello, Nobel Laureate ( 1867-1936)
is often quoted as saying,
“. . . it is only a mask that man unconsciously assumes
in order to adapt himself to the social context in which he finds himself . . .”
What was it that playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and Nobel Laureate and playwright Luigi Pirandello explored and recreated in the 1930’s? Brecht called it Estrangement; Pirandello’s later works were framed self liberation by Disconnection. Both Brecht and Pirandello explored similar ideas through their plays and novels; and both arrived at the same intersection with theories and one fundamental question for audiences: What condition or cause affords us to be estranged or disconnected, i.e. emancipated from a predictable life? Both writers agreed: We (representing humanity) wear various masks, depending on who we’re with, where we are going, for influence, or lust, or determination. They challenged critics and writers alike by writing/directing that actor’s portray a character by imitation, impersonation, and isolation. While they both wrote some of the greatest plays of the modern age, it was Brecht who pursued his theory of Verfremdung, (They both wrote plays which explored their hypothesis: but it was Brecht that had the advantage by writing and directing his plays). Being both playwright and director he had the good fortune to write; test it on stage; rewrite . . . and so on, amalgamating ideas and discarding all but what worked within the Estrangement Movement: the actor isn’t the actual character, but a surreal representation of a character inside the play.
Does that sound, in any way, familiar to you? You’re not really crazy, you’re simply acting out; You’re not really crazy, you’re just vying for attention; you’re not the type, you’re just saying suicide to make me feel guilty. So maybe you’re the shy but lethal type? You stay in your room or apartment or Malibu Beach bungalow. Maybe you have these conversations with . . . the character you play in your melodrama. It doesn’t matter which target you’re aiming your epithets. Most of them don’t make sense any way. In your gut you know you would never say or do any of the hollow threats or cynical promises. Those things belong to the character you’re playing. But the redemption you sought and were politely given isn’t yours to keep. It belongs to that character you play (“a very convincing performance,” someone had said to you).
Your illness, it’s debilitating effects, duration, severity, and recovery provides a pension of patience and politeness. But you’ve become conscious of a hushed and tiny change like a slow drip that floods a basement if ignored long enough. This change, odd enough, isn’t about getting smaller. Indeed! This change or sense of change remains like an irritating allergy. And then, one day, one fine day, one more fine day, not another one fine day . . . you awaken to a certain degree of disorientation; you check your watch for the day of the week; the house has an eerily empty air; as though time simply passed by leaving you undisturbed. You walk to the kitchen and see that the mundane morning rituals were indeed completed and one set of car keys was missing from the hook.
A magnificent change occurred during the night. Quite similar to the fate of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa without all the bugginess. The world stopped interacting with me as a lover, friend, colleague, church member, brother and began to interact with me as an illness. It’s as though a giant magnet simply plucked me out of my life, then delicately placed Mr. Mental Illness, a clone of me with one obvious exception: it lacked me . But this likeness, it was showered with change; attention when I spoke, belief when I discussed my illness, even slowing our pace to a speed I could manage. A World of Magnificent Changes!
But it wasn’t quite the nirvana I’d thought. In this World of Magnificent Changes it was expected that I would welcome the absence of all those decisions I had to make, like going to parties, movies, late dinners (“oh no, he won’t come, he has trouble with evening events,”); brunches, art museums, and botanical gardens (“Yep, both of us. He likes daytime things,”) meeting friends for dinner, spontaneous day trips, “grab your-jacket-we’re-going-to-see-a-show-with-Richard (“He can’t do it, was all he said, he simply couldn’t do it.”) All that life lost because of my illness has been changed to “What life lost; it’s who he is now.”
Like characters that Brecht, Pirandello, and Kafka created in an attempt to understand their cultures, I too, had been hard at work creating mine, and then training those around me, and then Opening Night/Opening Day when I was no longer a guy with mental illness. Instead the world sees and interacts with my mental illness. The old me’s been retired.
One more trip to the doctor.
One more admission of humiliating symptoms.
One more physician‘s persevering uncertainty.
One more hunch about drugs even after repeated failures of 6 week trials.
One more hopeful bottle of toxins to ingest.
One more set of side-effects to endure.
One more crippling debility: Illness’s strong swing of a sharp ax into the pulp of my dignity cutting deeply.
One more intentional assault leaving me with a staggering and teetering propriety.
One more debility before I’m disqualified from sovereignty; stripped of my liberty, freedom, and independence, my self-reliant character reverts to childhood, a time of absolute dependence for survival.
One more obedient abdication of my extinct identities and forthcoming dog’s age.
I was never known to have an aptitude for or interest in any kind of creative expression which involved my hands (with the exception of typing). My friends are surprised by my newly discovered passion for woodworking, and they’re especially surprised that my knowledge has been self-taught. But it’s less about knowledge and more about three things: 1) Curiosity; 2) Failure; and 3) Experience.
I think I’m a builder by nature. There’s no proof; actually there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Many friends are flummoxed by my very recent interest in woodworking. Frankly it’s just a different way to express my curiosity and creativity. I’m drawn to puzzling problems and paradoxical possibilities.
But I’m also impatient, prone to cutting corners, and okay with outcomes expressed by “good enough,” or “that’ll do.”
Why do we dream dreams we want, but are incapable of achieving? Because we plunge headlong into a project long before we fully understand the knowledge or practical training required. It’s only when I encounter a surprise obstacle do I understand the depth of my ill-preparedness. The obstacle can’t be avoided; it requires immediate attention (which in turn demands research and reading and materials) which dampens the initial excitement like a toy that breaks after 10 minutes. Setbacks are a normal part of any project, but patience and an understanding of how your project is assembled helps in the long run.
My self-education in woodworking stemmed from a pen stand a carpenter built into an exquisite barrister bookcase. When I enquired if I might procure a pen stand from him, he replied in, what I was certain a foreign language: All you do is put a half-inch core box bit in the collet of your router, adjust your cut depth, make sure your fence is square and both the in feed and out feed halves are aligned, check your speed, adjust the feather boards, and hit the switch! What?!?!? I sat on the internet for two hours deciphering his email. Eventually I located the things he referenced and purchased them absolutely clueless as to what one does with them in order to produce the aforementioned pen stand. I had decided to entertain my curiosity, put up cash betting that I could figure it out, and enjoyed for the first time in 20 years the brazen self-assuredness and absolute impunity (which, I bemoaned was carelessly frittered away by clodhopping, trust-funded youth).
But I’ve been bemoaning wrongly. It’s not that youth squanders audacious and foolhardy behavior, but that I, when the significance of adulthood grabbed me by the throat and squeezed, surrendered my curiosities like possessions to a customs officer, and drifted farther and farther and farther still away from the entertainment that life could be. That adventure was supplanted by decades of slick marketing campaigns which led to the acquisition of goods the commercials told me I’d like. And then, Kaboom! One hell-of-a-manic-episode and like the iconic Chaplin tramp, I was thrown out of the club and into the street.
And feeling just as I did when my older brother told me to get lost when he didn’t want me to tag along with his older pals, I finally understood that life only looks the way it does, because that’s how I look at it.
So today and a year of days before today I’ve promised to listen to my curiosities, promised to try things I haven’t done, and promised to fail as often as I can because failure assuredly makes curiosity laugh.