My father-in-law from the country of the dead
sends me a gift, my inheritance:
an envelope stuffed with banknotes,
and a purse burdened with coins.
The banknotes rustle in sepia
scrolled in Cyrillic alphabet.
Maybe it’s Tzarist rubles,
or money from beyond
the ghetto of time.
See, he gives it back:
his passage to America,
the slaughterhouses of Chicago.
I weigh the purse in my hands,
afraid to look inside:
will be on those coins?
Still the coins should be worth
the trouble of dying —
even coppers dropped
into the blind pools of beggars’ caps.
Pa, the old miser, starting with a crate
of horseradish hawked
on a street corner in Milwaukee —
From his butcher shop he kept
the tall white scale to weigh the souls.
Those too heavy with regret
are hung from meat hooks to forget
that bundle of love letters
before they married someone else.
Those too light from thinking life is a joke
are pressed with stone like sauerkraut.
With frost-red fingers he taps the coins:
“The best deal in town —
you can have these for a song,”
he says, hoarder and herder,
his voice cracked
with millennia of hardship
and drink, worn out
with the passage from shore to shore.
And all our faces on those coins —
see, he gives them back:
each coin the story of a life.
~ Oriana © 2014
Ah, the stranger-than-fiction stories of our lives . . . But how would we summarize them? I pondered this question as I viewed the stern command of a writing exercise:
SUMMARIZE YOUR LIFE IN TWO OR THREE SENTENCES
Need I say that I went on for pages and pages? I’d write one short paragraph, but soon see a new one bubble up like a golden koi to the surface of my mind. Everything depended on the point of view. Should I present myself as a recovering Catholic or a recovered depressive? An immigrant recovering from the bitterness and the immigrant trauma of which most people know nothing: the loss of the familiar? Or should I rather present myself an achiever dropping ambition in favor of unbridled hedonism (even in the best-case scenario, there are no restaurants in heaven)? A reluctant convert from poetry to prose, and much happier for it? One way or another, it’s a story of liberation.
Or the story of disappointment. It’s funny when it’s not tragic, the way all my expectations, big and small, have been pulverized by the wrecking ball of reality. Sometimes the reality turned out to be larger and more interesting than the fantasy. Sometimes only shattering.
But, unexpectedly after so much shattering, the fulfillment of one dream: a big house all to myself, filled with art and beautiful plants.
Which more accurately summarizes my life: the shattering of dreams, or the fulfillment of dreams? My life as a story of disappointment or a story of liberation? Apparently both.
DRAMATIC CHANGE is one central theme; A SHIFT TOWARD OPPOSITES (Jung would like that — enantiodromia — typical of the “second half of life”). From ambition to hedonism, from living for the future to living for the now; from poetry to prose (a more spacious and permissive medium), from tormenting myself to nurturing myself; from religion to atheism and thus from pie in the sky to trying to create a micro-paradise here, in my patio.
Let me try again. My life revolves around two extremes: dramatic change and invariable stability. On the one hand there is a devout Catholic becoming an outspoken atheist and a chronic depressive turning into an unbridled hedonist (by my own intellectually promiscuous definition). On the other hand, there is invariant stability since childhood in my love of reading and learning, and love of beauty and the desire to create beauty — only the outlets have changed (latest: beautiful plants — the return of coleus, the arrival of rex begonias).
I realize that someone could say that Catholic versus atheist isn't really an opposition, just two sides of a coin: my capacity for a whole-hearted dedication to any ideal. The "coin" is my passionate intensity, easily subverted by the Catholic cult of suffering (“god sends suffering to those he loves” — oh yeah?) But the depressive to hedonist shift cannot be subsumed that way: it took a life-changing insight (and it also took an insight to make me step out of the medieval stench of the church into fresh springtime air -- it's one of the most beautiful memories of my life).
Insight: perhaps my intellect saved me after all — from my misdirected, passionate intensity. But then even my rationality is fervent.
So what is it: dramatic change or astonishing stability? Apparently both.
Since I already mentioned Jung, I might as well quote what he said at the end of his life: “I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all those things at once and cannot add up the sum.”
And since I'm in the mood for quotations, there is of course dear old Heraclitus, who saw the battle of opposites everywhere: Polemos pater panton ~ contradiction begets everything.
TWO OBJECTS OF GREAT VALUE
Such, then, is the morass of trying to summarize oneself using abstractions. The wisdom of imaginative writers is the use of images instead.
I’ve inherited two antique objects of great value: my father-in-law’s gold pocket-watch, which I keep next to my computer as an amulet, and a plastic fly swatter.
The watch doesn’t work; the fly swatter does.
The watch is 14-carat gold, monogrammed, embossed with art-nouveau flowers and a butterfly with delicate antennae. “I could sell it for you,” C said — so typical of him. But I want to keep it. If I bought a matching gold chain, I could wear it as an unusual pendant. But would I really want to wear it as a pendant? No. I pick it up now and then and fondle it, a yet undiagnosed form of deviance.
The fly swatter, on the other hand, which probably cost a dollar or so when bought some decades ago, works beyond expectation. The wire handle is the perfect length; the swatting part curves at just the right angle to deliver a deadly slap. You could say it’s over-engineered.
It’s a product of the Laidlow Corporation in Metropolis, Illinois. Metropolis, IL has a population of 2,000. There is something incredibly American about this little town being named Metropolis — in all earnestness, I believe. It’s part of the pioneer tradition to use grandiose names like “Olympus Drive” or “National City” (which isn’t even a city).
Metropolis, IL has a statue of Superman as its main civic monument, and the Superman Museum, since Superman was said to come from a city called Metropolis.
But I digress. It’s likely that fly-swatter manufacture is no longer the leading industry in Metropolis. Much of the population lives below the poverty level. The Superman Museum, devoted to a fictional character and pretending that this is the Metropolis where the Man of Steel was born, is the only attraction. A fake hometown of a successful figment of the human imagination — oh weep for Metropolis.
Of course the real weeping should be for the millions killed in the name of this or that figment of the imagination believed by “the faithful” to be the one true god.
Now, I don’t mind the slow buzz of two or three flies making their overpasses, delighting me with unexpected harmonizing. But four is a crowd, and one is, for some reason, unbearable.
Ah, and the aerial combat, followed by the survival of the fittest. And then the last mad waltz of the lone survivor, the last buzz.
Wait! The following day, as you contemplate the kitchen tile strewn with corpses of flies, the fittest of the fittest silently glides by. Yes, silently. This is the newly evolved stealth fly that has learned to hide well and fly low without buzzing. How can a fly fly without buzzing? Doesn’t it use a simple on-off rotary micro-motor that causes inevitable buzzing? Don’t ask. All I offer is personal testimony: the stealth fly exists, I have seen it and failed to annihilate it.
I’ve even written a poem praising flies, and I suspect it’s the only such poem in the both the known and unknown universe:
IN DEFENSE OF FLIES
What I miss in screen-shuttered
America is flies. The blue harmonies
of their companionable buzz.
and pear-loving flies,
gemlike in sapphire richness.
Flies are not mosquitoes —
they do not whine like the Furies.
They do not bite. A slow fly
on a Sunday afternoon
is a Symbolist masterpiece,
a perfection of provincial boredom.
Flies walking around the great sad eyes
of horses and cows: one of the most soulful
sights on earth. The flies’ own
fabulous eyes —thousands of facets,
tens of thousands — a fly
is a kaleidoscope with wings.
And is there a child
whose heart does not leap up
when she beholds a fly
marching straight up a wall,
then upside down on the ceiling —
or flies like planets inside a lamp shade?
Dear Teacher: When we get rid of
flies, children develop asthma.
~ Oriana © 2014
In spite of this tribute, I’ve become a skilled user of my humble fly swatter, my only weapon of mass destruction.
Which object is of greater value? Utilitarian Reader, I see you shamelessly raise your hand to vote for the fly swatter. And, Capitalist Reader, I hear you offering to sell the watch for me — maybe ten years from now, when the price of gold hits a new high and the watch is one hundred years old — or more.
But the only truth is that I need both the watch and the fly swatter. A woman doesn’t live by gold alone — nor by a plastic fly swatter in its brief glory of slap-slap, then sagging in a kitchen corner.
As for the symbolism of the pocket watch — it’s beautiful but it doesn’t work — I don’t see it as negative. My watch is timeless.
PS: A DEAL WITH GOD
“My gold pocket watch is unique,” I said to C. “There is none like it in the world. I would never sell it for money.” “But,” I continued, “if it were possible to make a deal with god, then I'd sacrifice the watch in exchange for the Pulitzer Prize.”
“It’s not only the watch that you’d sacrifice,” C replied, “but also the fly swatter.”
“Oh no,” I said. “If I sacrificed both the watch and the fly swatter, I’d want the Nobel Prize.”
PPS: THE CHAIN OF GENERATIONS
The fly swatter has been extremely durable, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it last and last: a low-tech classic that has its own class. The pocket watch, needless to say, can last for centuries, and that’s just where a certain melancholy steals in: it has outlasted my father-in-law (how wonderful that he didn’t sell it during the Great Depression); it has outlasted his son; it will outlast me.
And it's strangely symbolic that I detached the chain. Loosed time from the chain.
But sometimes I suspect I'd love the tiny seconds hand run around and around.
I’d love to give it to someone who will treasure it — not only because of the gold and the art-nouveau embossing and monogram, but because of all the history it represents. I can’t imagine anyone treasuring it as much as I do, precisely because I have a sense of history as well as an appreciation of beauty and symbolism. I’d like to meet someone who is in some ways a younger me. I’ve even had the outrageous thought that if I’d found the watch sooner, I would have been spared years of depression. A counter-thought is I found the watch at precisely the right time of my life. It shows me a connection with the stream of time. So much has happened — oceans of grief — yet beauty remains and keeps saving the world.
WHICH YOU ARE YOU GOING TO BE?
Wonderful dichotomies here. Is this like Freud’s “divided mind”?
Freud used the concept to account for resistance to therapy. A part of us wants to be healed, while another part loves the suffering. Popular culture seized on this: the thin person inside the fat one, the miser inside the rich man. The hyper-achiever inside the slacker. The calm wise woman inside the drama queen (oh, hello!).
What’s going on here? I think it’s competing neural networks. For me the beauty of it is that we are more sane than we think. We know more than we think. It’s a matter of recognizing and reinforcing the preferred networks. For me, this happens in solitude. I must have a complete quiet and respite from social harassment (even if it’s pleasant company) to gain clarity about the great squabbling parliament in my head. If I don’t like the thoughts I hear, I know that opposite one will rise up if I simply remember there is no single, coherent me: a reason to rejoice because then I can decide which me I'm going to be.
But perhaps it’s wrong to be fixated on the self. It’s rather something out there that we connect with. On a shamelessly slim pretext, let me quote this poem:
near Lassen Volcanic Park
In the morning I like not to know
who I am, which me I’m going to be.
One is an artist only for a moment.
The rest is fumbling.
A life of fumbling,
and how exquisite!
Over the ruddy lava ridge,
jet contrails like a lucent centipede.
“There is no poem,”
a friend announces like a prophet.
“There’s only the delight of failure.
” Note the lure in “failure.”
Note, at night, the crickets
around the lily pond,
a field of pulsing love;
the moon like a medallion
hung in tallest pine.
There is no poem:
there is only the aerial
moment of divine surprise.
A cat leaps, the soul is found.
Meaning not self, but beauty.
~ Oriana © 2014