something necessary to give

Yesterday my friend’s dad died of dementia and late at night she texted me a picture of the flowers I sent her in her foyer, her bare feet in the frame, and said I was the only one she knew who knew what this was like and I said yeah, it sucks. None of the stupid boxes people think get checked when someone dies get checked. Was it peaceful? No. Was it painless? No. Was there some kind word at the end? No. No closure, no nothing, just an ending. An ending of waiting for this person you love to maybe remember who you are again.

You will never escape these scars, I wanted to but did not tell her. Your family is fucked. You won’t forget who helped and who didn’t. Who looked away. Who handed you stupid useless platitudes and got mad when you had nothing good to say about how they were, how you were. How terrible things were, for years. And the people who escaped, who despite their terrible selfishness and pettiness continue on, unscathed, healthy, able to indulge in their every stupid whim while your good and loving person is dead after a decade of shitty life they never would’ve wanted to have looked like that—you don’t get over that, either.

But she knows me. So she knows all that. And she could describe how shitty his death was knowing I’m not gonna try and spin some silver lining bullshit out of it. Except that, selfishly, privately, I thought of this poem.

The Night After You Lose Your Job

BY DEBORA KUAN

You know sleep will dart beyond your grasp. Its edges
crude and merciless. You will clutch at straws,
wandering the cold, peopled rooms of
the Internet, desperate for any fix. A
vapor of faith. An amply paid gig, perhaps,
for simply having an earnest heart or
keeping alive the children you successfully
bore. Where, you’d like to know,
on your résumé do you get to insert
their names, or the diaper rash you lovingly cured
with coconut oil, or the white lies you mustered
about the older man in the cream-colored
truck that glorious spring day, who hung his head
out the window and shouted, “Coronavirus!”
while you were chalking unicorns
and seahorses in the drive? Where
do you get to say you clawed through
their night terrors, held them through their sweaty
grunting and writhing, half-certain a demon
had possessed them, and still appeared
lucid for a 9 a.m. meeting, washed, combed, and collared,
speaking the language of offices?

At last, what catches your eye is posted large-
font and purple: a local mother in search
of baby clothes for another mother
in need. Immediately your body is charged,
athletic with purpose, gathering diapers,
clothes, sleep sacks, packing them tightly in bags.
You tie the bags with a ribbon and set them
on the porch for tomorrow. Then you stand
at the door, chest still thumping wildly, as if
you have just won the lottery—

and so you did, didn’t you?
You arrived here, at this night, in one
piece, from a lifetime of luck
and error, with something necessary to give.

random poem fridays

From grieftolight:

I particularly like the “later, we try to knock me up again.” The deliberate use of coarse language in an attempt to make it casual, a toss-off, not something you hang your heart on and wait, and wait, and wait for it to come back to you. As someone who carefully cultivates a brash exterior when interacting with others, especially friends who would be too gentle and caring to tolerate were they to know the extent of my anguish, I immensely appreciate this line. Har har, yeah, knock me up, bow chicka bow wow, amirite? and later the tomatoes, and evidence, at last, that despite that brash exterior I cared enough, I cared enough, I cared.

runner

I’m enjoying this immensely. At first I balked at the persistent “I don’t know, it just happened, I guess I was just lucky” explanation for how she won the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc her first time, untrained, naive. It’s the same line Clare Gallagher gives on how she won Leadville—untrained, uncoached, on a whim.

But that is probably just jealousy gnashing its teeth. Here, Lizzy Hawker at least is writing this book to try and find out how it happened. How she ended up as someone who could do what she did. And, ah…if it were a guy writing it (and there are plenty of them who do and who won’t shut up about it), forgive me but you know you’d be knee-deep in shit. Canned answers about being inspired by your war hero grandpa or outpacing your non-running ex or forging your way toward a health food empire and a book deal or something. The men who win these things have MOUNTAINS to say about how and why they did it. You can’t get them to stop. Women, often encouraged culturally to downplay their talents (see: every job interview ever), are less quick with the canned answers. “I was just lucky.” “I just kept going and that’s it.”

It’s not false modesty, it doesn’t feel like, reading her words. She didn’t know how it happened. So she’s writing to find out. That’s not a gimmick. It’s a worthwhile pursuit. Like running 100 miles around Mont Blanc.

boom, most of my 20s

you’ve been there

My dad used to always say “you’ve been there!” when seeing depictions or references to places I could have no way of remembering, since I’d been a baby or a toddler at the time. It got me in the habit, though, of getting stuck on those memories later in life, like a sweater caught on a nail, snagging and unraveling my attention on the present.

This song—

Likely is not sampling this song—

—because that’s a simple riff, and the record scratchiness is an easy layer to apply, and if I were musical the weight of these facts against coincidence would keep me off that nail.

But I’m not musical, and I encountered the first song on someone’s amusingly labeled Spotify knitting playlist whilst trying to keep myself awake enough to in fact knit, and then I say there wandering in circles in my memory, trying to figure out where I had heard that intro before. You’ve been there, you’ve been there, you’ve been there. I have not, and they have not, but when I finally sorted through the musical fog memories and found what this sounded like, it was a relief. Some memory finally gifted back, amidst so much taking.

(I try to reverse engineer such thinking, standing on a cliff or under a tree and telling myself I could be here in ten, twenty years, I could be hugging a child who doesn’t exist yet at this exact spot…but I can’t feel the pull, the unraveling, because the nebulousness of that future seems so natural and practical that it’s hard to get hung up about it. In this I am opposite my friend, who is made to feel small and lonesome by views of the Milky Way, and who said as much, standing on a dock staring up at it a few days before her wedding. But space, like the future, is so far off and unknowable to me, so naturally alien, that it has no pull, no horrifying fixation. I’m more moved by geologic history, the thought of giant sea creatures flapping tails and splashing and dying atop the dusty outcrop where I now stand. Of mountains jutting up and then whittling away, streaming down their own flanks and then obscuring the damage behind a screen of trees and flowers. You’ve been there. And so have they, back when they were the there, and now they are scattered and unknowable to themselves. And that’s a far more accessible loss to me.)

your googling is showing

I’m reading Apeirogon. I do not want to read Apeirogon. For the same reason I didn’t want to watch A Little Chaos, but also because it seems too on the nose right now, and because it seems a disservice to turn for experience, even wreathed in lyricism, on this particular conflict from a white guy from Ireland.

But then I figured someone who was a journalist in Ireland in the 80s probably has a little more knowledge of shots rattling through kids walking to school than others. And also I figured that because I did not want to read this book, I should. So in the first outing to a physical book store in months, I bought it.

But…

I love Colum McCann. I’ve read every novel of his except Dancer, which I was saving for a rainy day. One of the magical things about his writing is the connectedness of everything revealing itself, like a creature rising out of a pile of leaves you’d thought was merely part of the landscape. But it’s happening too soon. This is page 21. If it was poetry it would be a little more palatable but in prose? Just thrown out there, demanding to be acknowledged in its cyclicity? It feels forced. It shouldn’t. If it is a gimmick—if it is meant to bend the normal arc of his writing into a cruel and tawdry ornament, a cheap cylindrical twist of barbed wire, then it’s doing that. But I don’t think he means to do that with someone else’s grief. He respects it too much.

And make no mistake, this is a book about grief. These people are real. The two main characters are real people. Their daughters are dead. I don’t know that taking your greatest gift and warping it into a googled trinket-y imitation of itself is how you try and assist the grieving. And I assume assisting is what you’re doing here. Why else take pen to paper? Their pain isn’t yours. If you’re going to take it on, you’d better be trying to help. Even it’s just trying to keep the same thing from happening to others, by exposing as many people as possible to that grief.

a little chaos

I haven’t watched a single movie this entire pandemic. I’ve been pleased with this state of affairs. I hate surrendering hours of my day to passive absorption, where I’m shown everything and get to imagine nothing, nor participate in it. But I was grumpy and tired of the soundtracks Spotify was sending me, so I reinstalled Netflix and it recommended a movie called A Little Chaos, of which I knew absolutely nothing. Its header image, though, showed Kate Winslet looking tired and pensive. Kate Winslet, by far the most sexualized body of my childhood (uninterested in pop stars I may have been, but blind to Titanic and its similarly-sized cultural impact I was not), always has my attention when she plays women her actual age, who are tired and nervous and suppressing something.

I respect her for looking less than pristine. For refusing to starve. For refusing also to talk about her divorce, since she said one day her kids would be old enough to read whatever interview this was (years ago?) and she didn’t want them to hear any of it from a tabloid, she wanted it to come from her. The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Ammonite—all of these say there is someone worth portraying beyond the pretty young thing in the period piece. I’m not of the demographic who needs that said to them but I appreciate that she says it anyway. So I clicked.

But, ah…the absence in her character’s life, the hole, is palpable, and like in Arrival and Gravity I don’t want to look. I don’t want to know how her child died. Long before I had a child of my own that seemed like an abyss from which I would not return, were I to get sucked into it, and I don’t like watching it happen on-screen to others, either. The tired woman who is tired because she is burying herself in her work to forget her loss. Whose clothes are fraying at the hems and who chews her hair because there are no little hands picking at the seams, tugging on her braids. Long before I even wanted children I feared that. Because I had a mother who was frank about how much she loved us, and I didn’t understand how the sudden violent ripping away of such a current you’d been splashing out of yourself for years could leave you anything but a dead sea inside. A Map of the World, The Deep End of the Ocean, The Face on the Milk Carton (why did so many book club books fixate on the loss of children in the aughts?), the most powerful parts of Olive Kitteridge, every other short story in The Interpreter of Maladies or Half In Love…all of them make it plain that this is one of the worst things that can happen to you. And I believe them. And I don’t want to watch someone try to climb their way out of it, because I don’t want to have to know how to do it. I don’t think I would try.*

I came into this movie bubbling with half-remembered passages from the capacious outdoor gardening sections of Devil In the White City. Clashing with the obsessive Roman and/or Renaissance repetition! Fighting for a bit of tumult in the order! Rogue bushes! Throwing off the shackles of the bonsai tree! I was on board!

But not for a tour of loss. After a year of lockdown that’s the only trip we’ve been allowed to go on. I don’t want any more brochures.

*not that they shouldn’t be trying! But I don’t want to watch. It’s like movies about dementia. There is no way to make it dignified, predictable, or manageable. Someone is being destroyed in front of you, slowly over time, and you will never get them back. No gauzy net of epilogue will lend it an air of elegance. I don’t want to watch the attempt.

green hills and harpstrings

From Menolly of Pern to Triss Merigold to, oh, 70% of LOTR Mary Sues, Ciara the High Poetess of Ireland is built to a specific standard which I am 100% here for. She checks all the boxes: able to enjoy her drink, flaming red hair, harp, goads assholes into attacking her, brassy and jovial exterior folded carefully around a core of loss (see: the journal entry about her mother). I suppose it should be embarrassing, at 34, to still be so predictably on board with so alchemically reproducible a type, but I rather doubt anyone else has changed all that much either. They’re just not willing to admit it to themselves. It might also be a bit juvenile to be unsure whether you want to be the archetype or be with them, but that doesn’t concern me overmuch, either. It’s like with The Oracle’s Queen: I’m glad I didn’t read it when I was younger; I would have felt like a plot device.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Wrath of the Druids update is deeply, deeply my jam. My stomach flipped at the title card’s landscape; I recognized it from The Princes of Ireland. I immediately went gallivanting off the main quest to stumble onto Tara, the high king’s seat and the fulcrum of I don’t know how many historical novels I read as a kid. I leapt to the map and despaired that we couldn’t reach Galway; I’d’ve liked to have seen the hometown of Gracelyn O’Malley, pirate queen. I scrutinized every trace of paganism stuffed into every hollow and abandoned farmhouse (the game is loaded with these), wondering if they’d focus mostly on the much-railed-against-by-Julius-Caesar-and-thus-somewhat-questionable human sacrifice or also cover the more cheerful territory of sex magic and, if so, were we supposed to think it bad?

There’s no reason for my fancy; like some huge number of Americans my great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland but there’s no cultural memory of the place; I have his fiddle and that’s it. I wasn’t aware how much of a trope Guinness-swigging, Blarney Stone-kissing Americans are over there: I gather we are something of a plague, swaggering around claiming connection to some place we looked up on a free trial of Ancestry.com or something. But my interest isn’t motivated by blood real or imagined, or religion, or any epic reason, really: I read a lot of books and listened to a lot of Riverdance (itself a highly produced American product of the 90s intended to manufacture and then make money off of that misty-eyed nostalgia, I know). I’m infinitely aware of the shallowness of my tether here. But the tether remains.

Sometimes I just stand on the muddy flats of Dublin at low tide, thinking of Stephen Dedalus. Or I lug another shipment of supplies up to the top of a decaying hill fort and think back to John Morris’s note that such fortifications, in Britain, could be ideal for calvary, even against ridiculous infantry odds like in that crazy smoke fight in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. I’ll pause for a landscape shot—there are so many pauses for landscape shots—and think that this glen looks like the one in Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You, that dimly-remembered book from adolescence that seemed, at the time, to forecast the only, lonely future obtainable to me.

There is also the obvious fact that no one can travel right now, and while with a baby those particular green hills were never on my itinerary anytime soon, I can’t even visit any closer surrogates, since they are in all likelihood peopled by anti-vaxxers who think the election was stolen from Jesus’s earthly representative or something. So when I say I stand in the virtual surf watching the virtual sun set I mean I do exactly that. I don’t mean that I keep it on in the background while listening to a podcast or chatting to someone over Zoom. I’m just there. As much as anyone can be.

Plus there is everything that already made Valhalla enjoyable. The alliterative Adam West Batman-like asides, delivered so gruffly that you can’t help but laugh. “Ah, the Book of Kells. Now to get out of this ghastly grotto.” The way Eivor, played by a woman, can make eyes at all the women she meets—a choice, an allowance granted due to the dual gender playability of Eivor, but in context you can ignore that and just enjoy being able to do so. The way Eivor the woman is allowed to laugh and get drunk with her male buddies around a campfire, reminiscing about dead people from your shared pasts, and then wake up with a wicked hangover only: no unwelcome bedmates splayed across her like a wet blanket. The low stone walls like the ones in the Hobbit that you can easily jump on your horse. The wildflowers everywhere.

I still haven’t finished Valhalla the base game and I don’t really care if I do. I never come to these games for completion; I come to always have that door open. But I may complete Wrath of the Druids. If only to go all the places and hear all the stories.

It’s not a one-and-done zone, anyway. You can always come back. I will.