That Little Something
for Li-Young Lee
by Charles Simic
The likelihood of ever finding it is small.
It's like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.
She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself,
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, Not in a million years...
It's one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?
And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late?
Hi! It is Saturday morning and I am listening to the super dramatic music of the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James. I haven't seen the movie but I am reminded of my high school years when I used to lock myself in my parent's beautiful living room (sinky leather couches, deep red walls, shelves lined with old classics untouched for years, and cupboards stuffed with rotating family trinkets - an old gavel, pewter steins, someone's old corduroy bunny) and watch broody movies like Legends of the Fall or The Ice Storm, my limbs lifeless under a heavy blanket, icy Connecticut snow outside, and whole afternoons left to my moody, melancholic disposition.
On the subject of melancholy, I really want to talk about The Enneagram here! But I won't because I have other things to say. My friend Amelia thinks the Enneagram is a comically made-up word. So is the word psychobiography, I think. I discovered this word on Wednesday when I started reading An Emergency In Slow Motion, by William Todd Schultz, about the work and psychology of Diane Arbus.
Any word that forces one to pronounce the long o in psycho is just scary, no? At least the word psychology lets that sound slip into a soft o, and ellipses the frightening term, psycho. Somehow the long o in the word psychobiography sounds just awful to me, and makes me think of a murderer's tool chest.
This not what Emergency in Slow Motion is about, thank goodness. I won't go into the author's definition of the phrase psychobiography, but I have been curious about Diane Arbus and her work ever since Tim's brother bought us a cast-off copy of the movie Fur, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey, Jr., from the Blockbuster sale bin one time that he visited us in grad school. My friend Corinne found the movie comically gratuitous, in terms of its portrait of desire. I sort of loved it for this factor, and still feel a little guilty that I like the movie, but I will honestly watch Robert Downey, Jr. in just about anything - perhaps because of the fact that Zadie Smith declares in her collection of essays, Changing My Mind. Smith declares RDJ one of the biggest screen hogs of our generation.
I have been thinking about Diane Arbus, in general however, because of conversations with Amelia about artistic figures who commit suicide. When I was younger and somewhat confused about what I wanted out of life, I could not read the literary work of people who had eventually killed themselves. It seemed too dangerous, like I could catch their thoughts through the page and one day find myself more lost than I already felt.
Lynda Barry says this in a much funnier way on her awesomely goofy cd, The Lynda Barry Experience, which pretty much sounds like a seventh grader in a closet recording skits on the B-side of a mix tape. In "Naked Ladies" (Track 3 for those of you following along at home) she says: "Around then, you had to be very careful about looking at Playboys, because, you just might be a lesbo by accident! It was like, when you sit by a high window, and you’re scared you just might throw yourself out."
I once confessed my squeamishness about getting too close to the material of people who commit suicide to another friend who responded, "But they weren't sick when they made their art." This may or may not be true, but it worked for me, and I can now appreciate what an artist is trying to say, regardless of how sordid their personal life may or may not be. In short, I don't know if personal lives say anything about a person's work or not, and I now find myself able to mourn someone like Arbus' suffering, and learn about it, without judging or fearing it.
Emergency In Slow Motion makes the great point that art is not "intrinsically therapeutic." Instead, Schultz says, "it can be an immersion in products of self-expression that mirror our troubles back at us so that we see them metaphorically, but still glaringly. Then it's a matter of what we do with this information, what we make of it. We can turn away again, re-repress what we've inadvertently discovered, or try some means of assimilation."
I wanted to write about this, because I felt profound sadness reading an email Amelia sent, responding to my question, "Did Virginia Woolfe kill herself?" (Obviously, I have not seen or read The Hours, and I doodled through too many lectures in high school and college.) Upon my learning that Woolfe did, indeed, drown herself, Amelia wrote, "It's a difficult thing to accept: she seems so NORMAL in her letters. But she never really wrote during her spells of mental illness. That seems weird to type, but that's kind of how they describe it in the the book I'm reading."
At a conference panel, the writer Richard Bausch once said, "I don't always love writing, but I love having written. To write is to be healthy." This is true for me. Sometimes I think of writing as floss for my brain. Without that sort of artistic hygiene, darkness can build. I don't mean to suggest that not creating art will lead to bad things, or that not creating is a sign of bad things already happening. I just mean, these things are mysterious, and complex, and I hope that we all pass through them in tact, or as in tact as we are meant to be.
I have posted before what I love about writing - how it returns the world to me in new light. It helps me to see things more purely, un-fogged by the screens of my own psycho-spiritual judgements. At the same time, it helps me to accept more mystery, to fall in love with people, and events, and places in deepening recognition that what I thought was, may not be. This is a gift to me - a great humbling of my mind and expansion of my heart's eye in the face of everyday, unstoppable miracles.
A New York Times article about Lynda Barry says, "Narrative, Barry believes, is so hard-wired into human beings that creativity can come as naturally to adults as it does to children. They need only to access the deep part of the brain that controls that storytelling instinct. Barry calls that state of mind 'the image world' and feels it’s as central to a person’s well-being as the immune system."
I leapt out of my chair when I read this articulation of "the image world," because I am always looking for different ways to talk about this fact of healing, a fact that feels as clear as day to me.
Several years ago, when my friend Dhara introduced me to her guru, Neem Karoli Baba, I latched on to his loving message quickly, because his big thing was feeding people. He said, "God comes to hungry people in the form of food. Feed people, love people, remember God."
Last night, I skipped Kirtan to go out with my husband's Fed Ex friends, and eat at a silly, beach-themed restaurant in the middle of town. This choice makes me think of my friend Rachael Crawford-Goolsby's definition of freedom, a combination of her own philosophy and that of Douglas Brooks: "Freedom is choosing to bind to what is meaningful."
I love this so much, because what is meaningful to us personally is so diverse, and only we can define it for ourselves. It is empowering to think of life in this way, and this is one of yoga's - or any practice's - gifts: a return to the sanctum of the heart, and the riches there which can never be disturbed, which can only be distracted from or covered over. The definition also paints freedom so accessibly - in the present life - instead of the idea of freedom; a dusty, high-way traveling way of being.
I do love highways, though. Don't you?
Finally, I want to share a fantastic interview that my friend's boyfriend did a while ago with the musician Jesse Sykes. In it Sykes says, "I am an artist and music is my medium." I guess I believe that we are all artists, in our own way, and we all just need the courage, excuse, or self-granted permission to find our medium. This is my prayer, anyway. That everyone finds the medium to bridge their confusion to clarity, their suffering to peace, and their heart's natural hopes for brilliance to the fulfillment of those hopes.
My stereo has switched from the sonic ocean of Nick Drake's soundtrack to the upbeat tempo of Justin Townes Earle's boot slapping on the floor. Tim and I saw this formidable artist in January, on a local stage, turning and sliding around the little oriental rug with his guitar, his slinky back-up singers flanking his intense concentration. It positively looked like a man dancing with his woman in the privacy of their living room, like the audience was an after-thought, a privileged set of onlookers witnessing this man's intense ballad to, and dance with, his love. I held my breath through a lot of the performance, afraid that he would suddenly remember he was not alone and stop his awe-striking activity.
We all have the capacity for this devotion to our gifts, I believe. People like Earle who bring it out of themselves so ferociously take my breath away, and this, I believe, is the gift that artists bestow upon the world.
With this, I say Happy Saturday, beloveds. Go forth and bestow!