Thursday, March 31, 2011

FRIDA KAHLO: THE SUICIDE OF DOROTHY HALE















SURPRISED BY MY OWN BREASTS

           
Suicide fantasies – that night I had them
like a meteor shower. Too late, I thought:
I should have done it

the time I stood with a Polish artist
on the roof of an abandoned factory.
I saw the leap, I saw

my body falling, falling
onto the grimy street below,
a wino sleeping under cardboard,

the desolation of America
pulling me down like gravity.
The painter called me by my

childhood name, its three clear
vowels a Baltic seagull
against the polluted sky. Why

couldn’t I respond? Was that the year
I threw myself at an alcoholic
Vietnam veteran? I already was

a fallen woman, might as well
sleep with artists. Eros has
a twin brother, the one lover

who will never leave you –
one who kisses like the wind,
one who whispers: Die. Leap

into the night and shatter
in a million stars.

*

But in the morning when I woke up
I was surprised by my own breasts –
as if I saw them for the first time,

soft and female and defenseless,
the nipples like wild strawberries –

Why have we been of little use,

they seemed to ask, aren't we sweet?
Warm from sleep, in tendrils

of morning light, my body 

waited – as if my life
had not been a mistake.
I’ll keep you, I nodded to my breasts.


~ Oriana

**

The thought that “It’s too late for suicide” was one of the crucial steps that led to my decision not to be depressed (since obviously it was also too late to be depressed).  My poems were actually ahead of me. The one below is several years old, but the awareness expressed in it did not translate into a true change right away.

ALDEBARAN


The only philosophical
question left,
a French writer said,
is whether to kill yourself.

But that is the question of youth.
In my twenties, I could never look
from a high window or a roof 
and not feel a gathering leap.

Middle age asks two questions:
How much time left? and
How to spend what wakefulness
remains? Now I look 

out the window, and the deep
magnolia gives two answers:
the morning light
glistening in the crown,

and the wreath of shadows.
And the layered wind
does not rustle To be or not to be
Each leaf silvers Hamlet’s

forgotten reply: Let be.
It’s too late to renounce
the privilege of surprise;
centuries, it seems,

since my father told me
not to worry about the universe.
“That’s Aldebaran,”
he pointed to an amber star.

When the universe shall ask
the final question, like my
father I’ll point: Aldebaran.
Great light seen only in the dark.


~ Oriana © 2011


**


Something struck me as I thought about “Aldebaran,” and of my past suicidal imagery in general, mostly jumping from high places. I knew I’d fall, but actually I wanted to fly. That was the frustrated wish underlying the despair.

Not to fall, but to fly – to live out of my greatness rather than out my wounds. And, unwillingly at first, I realized that it is a choice: regardless of circumstances, we can still make that choice and it will make a huge difference. It took the pressure of mortality to give up on escaping life, escaping backward into past trauma. Instead, I decided to open myself to that choice outlined already in Ecclesiastes: “whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

Or, to put it less grandly, working hard was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to be happy, but I knew how to write. At first I had to do it blindly: blind work like “blind faith.” I couldn’t afford to ponder why I was writing, or for whom (my depressive vision was zero audience, now and forever ). I couldn’t afford to think about purpose and meaning – that way lay brooding and crying fits. And those would be no more. It was too late in life to be wasting life.

How did I break my addiction to depression? First, I had to realize that it was a behavior: call it brooding, overthinking, or delectatio morosa (the term used by Milosz). And a behavior can be changed. Like Milosz (see below), I decided to throw myself into work. Greater connection with the beauty of nature also helped.

ESCAPING FORWARD

Here is Milosz, first on his regaining the connection with “the beauty of the earth,” and then on throwing himself into his work as an “escape forward”:


The classic result of all sudden ruptures and reversals is the rumination on one’s own worthlessness and the desire to punish oneself, known as delectatio morosa. I would never have been cured of it had it not been for the beauty of the earth. The clear autumn mornings in an Alsatian village surrounded by vineyards, the paths on an Alpine slope over the Isère River, rustling with dry leaves from the chestnut trees, or the sharp light of early spring on the Lake of Four Cantons near Schiller’s rock, or a small river near Périgueux on whose surface kingfishers traced colored shadows of flight in the July heat–all this reconciled me with the universe and with myself.


But it was not the same as it had been in America; it was not only nature that cured me. Europe herself gathered me in her warm embrace, and her stones, chiseled by the hands of past generations, the swarm of her faces emerging from carved wood, from paintings, from the gilt of embroidered fabrics, soothed me, and my voice was added to her old challenges and oaths in spite of my refusal to accept her split and her sickliness. Europe, after all, was home to me. And in her I happened to find help…
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Tiger 2,” Native Realm, 293


Do you know what the gravest sins in your life are? – I have made too many mistakes to trust my ability not to err now when thinking of my past.

I am not what I am. My essence escapes me. It is a durable achievement of existential philosophy to remind us that we should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. In other words, my past changes every minute according to  the meaning given to it now, in this moment.

Jeanne [Hersch], a disciple of Karl Jaspers, taught me the philosophy of freedom, which consists in being aware that a choice made now, today, projects itself backward and changes our past actions. That was the period of my harsh struggle against delectatio morosa to which I have always been prone. Monks suffering from delectatio morosa would plunge into meditation on their sins and found it a good way to shirk their daily tasks. The philosophy of freedom, practiced by existentialists, took over the classical methods of confessors and spiritual guides, precisely in that it advises us to direct our sight always ahead, not backwards. Largely thanks to its counsels, I stopped meditating and set about my work, which has always been to me an escape forward.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth, 121-122.


**



Mary:

Wow. Beautiful poems. How often the complexity and beauty of living beings has kept me going too. In her poem "Having It Out With Melancholy" Jane Kenyon talks about the beloved physical presence of her dog saving her life.

Oriana:

Thank you, Mary. Yes, I know that Jane Kenyon poem. Cats and dogs are great therapists. True, dogs are more reliable for unconditional love, but when I need an image to soothe myself, I think and holding and petting a cat – the silky fur, the purring.

Here is my translation of Milosz’s poems on “doghood” – in the second stanza, with us as “dogs” to the “powers above us”:

The warmth of dogs and the unknown essence of doghood.
And still we feel it. In the hanging out of the wet tongue,
the melancholy velvet of the eyes,
the smell of the coat, different than our smell, yet kindred.
Our humanity becomes more distinctive then,
common, pulsating, licking, hairy,
even though to dogs we are as gods
disappearing into the crystal palaces of reason,
busy with incomprehensible actions.

I want to believe the powers above us,
while engaged in tasks we cannot comprehend,
sometimes touch our cheeks and hair
and feel within themselves this poor flesh and blood.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Oriana Ivy

I don’t think the analogy works all that well – since we humans are not as loving and lovable as dogs. But I know that Milosz’s point is rather this: just as the dogs can’t understand what it is that we do in our “crystal palaces of reason” (he takes that from Dostoyevski’s Notes from the Underground), so we cannot understand divine actions.

But going back to the subject of depression, long before I quit “cold turkey,” I had an episode of very deep depression, the stuporous kind. But an internship in a school was given to me (I was in college), and affectionate first-graders were my healers. 


Why are pets and small children such effective “anti-depressants”? It’s their affection and physicality, I think. They make us “get out of ourselves” and give back the affection. Nor do animals and children like awake worrying about the future, or the mistakes they made in the past. They certainly don’t suffer from overthinking.


Michael:

I am moved by your poem “Surprised by My Own Breasts.” So smooth and rhythmic and beautiful and filled with wisdom.

Your poem is familiar so I looked back at our correspondence. On June 10, 2009 you sent the poem to me. And I wrote:

6/11/09

“Surprised by My Own Breasts” is a masterpiece, Oriana. A masterpiece. Rilke wrote:

To me it seems as if I were at once
infant, boy, man and more;
only as it circles am I complete.

Ah, the cacophony of our souls and when all is rumbling and senseless to be drawn back to the body by the body, so simple, so warm, so mine, so right, so grounded.

I think Rilke once called making love 'that most difficult act' (in Letters to a Young Poet?). I get that. What is more complex than the intersection of body, sexuality, mind, soul – shoot, throw in all the psyche's labels – and yet a touch, a kiss, an hour making love, a look at one's breast, a touch to the penis, brings chaos to a halt. For a moment. What mystery. I'm greatly impacted by your poem. Blushing, yes. But only because you let me see into the very private place of your soul. I wish I could respond with the same beauty with which you gave. So who feeds the poet?

I was moved then, I'm moved now. Very nice...

And then you wrote:

My intuition is long-term depression is an addiction, but outside of the dopaminergic reward system. Maybe the reward is not struggling. Non-action. The abatement of the testosterone-driven will to action, will to power (so exhausting, and then of course one might fail). It could vary with the individual what the reward is.

Claw or vampire? That love affair . . . The defenses against any threat to depression are strong. We want to sink deeper in, into stupor. The fury when some incident causes a jolt of adrenaline, and then we want to sink back in, and we can't.

But that's perhaps valid just for me, and I think now I have it right: for me depressive thinking is what drinking is to an alcoholic.

But it's too late even to write about depression.
**
And I think you were prescient – your journey worked out that way.

Oriana:
That wonderful June of 2009 was precisely the time of my commitment to not being depressed. It was too late in life to keep wasting time in that manner, and the opportunities for joy – and if not joy, at least contentment. Now it seems to me that until that June, I was still an adolescent. And then, “in a twinkling of an eye,” a true adult, finally taking responsibility for my state of mind and my ability to contribute to others.
As with all paradigm shifts, there was a long period of incubation – including the “prescient” poems. On the neural level, a new master circuit forms and takes over in microseconds, so the change seems extremely sudden. Only when you reflect, you see the gradual preparation.  And the wonderful thing about a paradigm shift is that once your perception changes, you can’t go back to the old behavior, even if you acted a certain way for decades. That behavior no longer makes sense, and you really have no choice except act in a new mode.
For me, it was not a change from depression to happiness. As I must have said several times, it was from overthinking to action, from depression to throwing myself into work. I have not had any slidebacks, but I had moments of slight resentment: all that work! It’s exhausting! But that resolved itself too. I noticed that I enjoyed writing prose a lot when I did it slowly, in small chunks, taking breaks. In fact, I am happiest and most serene when writing prose.
Poetry is not as controllable, but fortunately I don’t feel any tormenting need to write new poems. Also, a friend gave me a motto that also became a minor paradigm shift: “It’s only a poem” (thank you, Megan!) When I get stuck in a poem, I know I need to take a walk. Or take a shower. Or start cleaning the house. The cognitive-creative unconscious (a mouthful, but I don’t want it confused with the Freudian concept), all those automatic “back-burner” neural pathways, work best when we let go of conscious effort. Kafka and Rilke both knew that “ripeness is all.” Sign over Kafka’s desk: Warten (“wait”).

4 comments:

  1. Oriana, thank you. I like being suprised by the bodies God gave us ... as surprised as we can afford to be while still functioning.

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  2. That morning my breasts struck me as so completely good and innocent, any self-destruction would be like killing a kitten or a puppy . . . impossible.

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  3. Revisiting this particular blog a year later, I also think that the body is to some extent "the other." It is that innocent animal -- troublesome at times, but essentially innocent. And we are responsible for keeping this animal, being good to it. I wonder about people who are cruel to their dogs -- do they hate the human body as well?

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  4. And I also wonder: why do religions typically hate the body and sexuality in particular? Is it too much competition, perhaps, taking power away from the so-called holy men? The idea that life is joy as well as suffering is already a threat. The crime, to have been taught as a child to hate my own body . . .

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