If I were to throw a party commemorating my induction into the fifties, you’d think I’d wash my hair first, right?
Having just received a response letter from my adviser, I learned that the following piece is not exactly the kind of thing one would publish, that it is rather personal, perhaps not meant to be shared.
How perfect for a blog!
And how strange it is that while I am able and willing–eager even–to share my innermost passions with all of you in this venue, I am truly a very private person. It bothers me when my neighbors know my comings and goings. They know too much about me as it is. Their tendency to gossip is bothersome, and it creates a lifestyle for me to which I do not wish to ascribe.
Anyway, hopefully it will format properly.
It is there when I sit down and try to write. It creeps into everything I write no matter how hard I try to leave It out. It even appears in my fiction and certainly all my nonfiction; It appears in my critical writing; It taints my reading; It tints my eyes and changes everything I see. I am forced to look through these glasses made of It and nothing looks real to me; I am removed from the tangible world; I am a ghost. It affects the taste and smell of my food; nothing truly tastes good anymore; radishes gone bland, tomatoes white, bananas have lost their sweetness. An ant no longer creeps; It stands still. It is there when I put my jacket on when leaving the house and It is there when I hang up my jacket upon coming home. It follows me on my walks with my dog, and hovers over me when I stoop to pick up my dog’s shit. It follows me to coffee shops where I buy my beans, but the beans aren’t as pungent as they once were; they seem flat and meaningless. It thwarts my concentration; It leads me to sadness; It opens up a hole in existence where there is nothing, no substance, no life. It follows me while I dress. “I guess I’ll wear this shirt. No, he would have liked this one better.” It follows me to beautiful places, like the waterfront at the University, sailboats nearer, now farther away, the wind whipping my jacket around my sunken body–when I think of that beauty, when I remember that beauty, It is there, It taints that memory.
It followed me closely that winter, freshly killed, I shuddered, I winced, I cowered from its pungent, vermilion poison and I could not write. It held me rigid during the deep freeze: twenty-five below in Vermont, and I could not write. It thawed and drooled like an intravenous drip into my veins; I wrote about a widow who made watermelon sauce by the ocean; I could not write; I could not write; I could not write, and when I look at all the writings now that come out of then, they reek of It.
It followed me while I wandered the desert for two years. I was empty, fallen apart, nowhere, pieces scattered like stones in the dryness; I could not mourn. What sense was there in mourning when It permeated everything so thoroughly that there was none to compare to It? There wasn’t much sense in writing; I could not write. There was no emptiness because there was nothing to fill, no fullness because I was full of It, and I could not write.
Now, I can write. I should be happy, but I’m not. It is still there, and I’m not. Now I can write, but I’m not, because I stink of It.
People ask: “Is this all you have to say, this ‘It’? We are weary. You are breaking our ears, heavy on our shoulders; our eyelids are closing. When you write fiction, It is there; when you write nonfiction, It is there; you cannot even write about your dog without writing about It–
“Let It go, for godsakes! Let It go! He is dead!”
He is dead. Yes, he is dead. Yet he comes back to me in dreams sometimes–in clusters of a few days at a time, then he is gone for several months. He is dead and I cannot control dreams. Some of the dreams are comforting; others are only dreams, and he is dead.
And I yearn for magic to break Its back; I yearn for a potion to kill It. What I would do for one day, just one day, that I could live without It, that I could go to a beautiful place and It would not invade my heart, that I could drink coffee and not grieve passionately for him, taste his food and not overwhelm myself with sadness, refrain from beating myself drumming to the beat of his music.
Perhaps I can lessen It with the pen. Perhaps, instead of trying to stuff It into a sack, push It into a corner, hide It in a drawer, I need to bring It out and caress It with my words. Perhaps the swelling will diminish if I stop punching It. Maybe I need to put away my knife and pick up the brush. No amount of ammunition can kill It–why shoot? Guns are useless; I will write; I can write, I will pick up my shit and write. When I get dressed in the morning I will wear whatever is on top of the pile. I will write about the desert. I will write about the scattered stones. I will write about not being able to write. I will write this piece. And if anyone tells me, “Let It go!” I will tell them, “I am letting. I letting It. I am letting It write.”
Somehow, I managed not to exhaust myself.
As QB’s birthday approaches, I am becoming very sad.
Lately, also, I’ve been having a hard time grieving for Joe. I miss him and it sucks that he’s not around.
My neighbor was “taken out” (our little expression here in the building which means transported by ambulance) to the hospital over the weekend and now he’s having an operation. I just found this out yesterday. He is the only neighbor of mine who is a friend as well.
Those are the only reasons I can think of for why I had trouble last night.
I’m not sure what happened because my perspective is skewed, but I remember noticing my mother seemed very confused and unfit to travel to Greece. She is leaving this coming weekend on an Elderhostel trip. She is 81 years old. Mazel tov. I called my brothers. Then I was the one confused.
I started getting messages from the radio, all kinds of messages, some originating from certain people and some just from radioland. The DJ’s or interviewers would say something and it meant something just for me, a special message that had meaning for me, or instructions. Sometimes I listened very carefully to the radio and other times I wanted to block the sound out of my ears but was still very fascinated so I didn’t shut the radio off.
Then the voices started. The voices were at first instructional. They told me “Meet me in an hour,” things like that that I could ignore. When I got near my living room desk where I keep my pills, they told me, “Feed Puzzle (my dog) your pills, one after the other!” Thinking quickly (or as fast as I could in that state) I put her in her crate and shut the bedroom door, where she would be safe from any pills. I told the voice to fuck off.
The most horrible thing that the voices do is to tease me and mimic me. When I think something, they say it out loud immediately after. Only they say something that’s deep in my mind. It’s very embarrassing, because although I know nobody but me can hear the voices, I feel deeply shamed hearing my own thoughts. Or I worry needlessly that the neighbors can hear my inner thoughts. I am so shamed in fact that it is torture. It is like being ripped apart, having my head split open for birds to feed upon.
My therapist called me (on my request) and we talked for a bit. She denied sending me evil messages. I took some extra Thorazine with my bedtime meds and some extra Abilify this morning. I do feel better. In fact I feel totally back to normal.
Time to feed the dog. She just reminded me.
Center for New Words
7 Temple Street
It is the same building as the YWCA.
If you are traveling the T, get off the Red Line Central stop.
www.centerfornewwords.org check website for updates.
I will be reading new works.
The CNW readings are called “Mouthful”
It’s always great to hear about two people with mental illnesses hitting it off, even getting married. Congratulations Princess and Dude! I wish you a happy and healthy life together!
THE GRANDEST SOUND EVER HEARD
“Is fourteen thousand francs enough?”
So began the composition of Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts, otherwise known as his Requiem Mass. It was 1837. The first performance would take place at the Chapel of Les Invalides in Paris, where Napoleon had been entombed, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1830 July Revolution. At this time, many composers were competing for commissions, so Berlioz felt honored, though pressured to pull this off. The chapel was large, so Berlioz thought it important to consider “architectural” constructions and mass effects.
“Music is at once a science and a sentiment,” writes Berlioz during the construction of his Requiem. “It must not solely satisfy the ear by correct and artistic combinations of sounds, but must also speak to the heart and the imagination.”
Berlioz attacked the project with a fervor, sometimes writing in a self-devised music shorthand to capture all his ideas before he forgot them. He envisioned a huge orchestra and chorus, with an extensive percussion section and four antiphonal brass choirs that would be situated in the corners of the cathedral. The project’s scope would exceed any piece of music that had ever been written.
In April, 1977, I was honored to perform this piece at Avery Fischer hall in New York City, along with 450 singers and 150 instruments. I played second trumpet in “antiphonal choir number one,” off to the right of the theater as one faces the orchestra. Efforts of five colleges were combined to produce this project, sponsored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Admission tickets were fifty dollars and one hundred dollars. It involved what Robert Sherman describes as a “mass migration” of students, mostly from the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, to New York for the one-time performance of the Requiem, “on the scale envisioned by the composer himself.” Even the four performances of the Requiem in Paris during Berlioz’s lifetime were lesser by comparison; for instance, Berlioz was only able to recruit eight brass players for the antiphonal choirs, whereas we had fifteen.
Berlioz writes, “I flung myself into its composition with a kind of fury…my head was ready to burst with the pressure of my seething thoughts.” And so we tackled the Requiem, the excitement building with each rehearsal. The antiphonal brass choirs were extracted from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) brass choir led by Walter Chesnut. You had to understand Professor Chesnut to realize just how vivacious we were about the assignment. Each of us practiced at least three hours a day, seven days a week, in addition to long hours of rehearsals, and, if we had the time, sessions of duets and other musical forms of goofing off.
Among the brass at UMass, “chops,” or “embouchure”–lip positioning–was everything. The majority of brass players were male, and they would joke about playing “mit kech,” or, “with balls.” (The responses of the ladies varied.) We encouraged each other to play as powerfully as possible without the loss of clear tone and sensibility of style. We learned proper breathing to get the most power into our playing with the least amount of strain.
All this led to a kind of “inbreeding,” or, perhaps better put, the formation of “cliques.” We “class of ‘79” trumpeters were a tight group from freshman year on, with the exclusion of Jamie S., because he didn’t fit in; he studied with a different teacher and earned special privileges because of his extensive background as a conductor. He was also fat (until he went on a massive diet one summer) and that led to much teasing behind his back. I didn’t like it, nobody did, but it was there and no one had the power to stop it. But for the most part, things were rather chummy between us all.
The consequences must have been amusing to an outsider. When Steve Salbu contracted pneumonia, we all stood outside his dorm room, and, making general fools of ourselves, serenaded him to the tune of “We wish you a merry Christmas.” Gary R., a trumpeter a year ahead of us, dated Sanaye, a flutist. Sanaye and David Ertel, who we called Ertle, were close friends, and they invented a cocktail popular in our circle: the “Sanertle Sling,” which created enough hangovers in its day to keep the entire department in bed with hot water bottles on their heads. Sanaye went on to date a pianist; Ertle dated a French horn player before he got hooked up with another trumpeter, the French horn player then dated Gary, and Ann Marie dated Jim, who was–heavens!–from outside of the department.
One can see that it was an environment where gossip exceeded what it should have been, and when Jamie was finally fully accepted into our little clique, I was pushed out. By the time of the Berlioz performances–one at UMass and one at Smith College before heading to New York–I knew the others were talking behind my back; I became reclusive and spent increasing amounts of time alone.
The night before the big performance at Avery Fischer Hall, the five sophomore trumpet players, including me and a few others, barreled into our New York hotel room and blasted our trumpets indiscriminately without regard to other hotel patrons, laughing and carrying on as if we had the whole next day to sleep it off. Curt B, the TA who played beside me in antiphonal brass number one, was busy toking reefer and would remain stoned for the rest of the year. But the day of the performance, the rest of us were a sober bunch, nerve-wracked about the massiveness of what was about to happen.
The hall was huge; its size exceeded the size of cathedrals in Berlioz’s day. Berlioz writes, “The consequence of such vastness of scale is that the listener either misses the point altogether or is overwhelmed by a tremendous emotion.” Berlioz even left sound breaks in the Requiem music for reverberations in the Chapel of Les Invalides; these spaces were certainly needed at Avery Fischer Hall. It is easy to see how the music represents the Last Judgment. Still, Berlioz writes, “As for the perceptions that the writer himself owed to the hearing of music, nothing can convey their exact character to one who has never experienced them.”
When music reaches such a grand scale, subtle errors, on stage and off, can mean disaster. For the debut performance in 1837, the singer Duprez was chosen to perform the tenor solo in the Sanctus. Unfortunately, he was a poor actor; he gesticulated while he sang, which was disturbing to some; he was considered an inferior musician to Adolphe Nourrit, who had been expected to be assigned the role. The crowd went wild over Duprez, leaving Nourrit miserable. Berlioz and an Irish friend both tried to calm Nourrit, but the poor fellow was never the same. He killed himself by jumping out of a window at age 37.
During this 1837 performance, the conductor put down his baton momentarily to take a pinch of snuff, as was his habit. Unfortunately, he missed cueing in the brass, but Berlioz, alert to the potential disaster, signaled the brass himself, and the rest of the piece went well. In our performance, conductor Bruce McInnes made an about-face during the brass fanfare sections of the piece, facing the audience and those of us in the far corners of the auditorium, which was so large that unless one was sitting in the center of the audience, there were rhythmic discrepancies due to the slow speed of sound.
There was no question in my mind that I would always play to the be
st of my ability; my efforts would be channeled one hundred percent toward the proper playing of my part. What amazes me now that given my rebellious nature, I never blew a performance deliberately; that is, it never occurred to me that I could easily blast “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid” while we were supposed to be performing Haydn, or, worse, chime in with Led Zeppelin during the Requiem. It never occurred to me to leap from the corner balcony onto the stuffy concert-goers below. Now I realize how easy it could have been.
My parents, aunt, and grandmother all attended the performance, and as usual, embarrassed me. My grandmother was mostly concerned with my physical appearance, and all four of them fussed over me excessively. At my age, nineteen, I wanted to shove my relatives out of view of my classmates, who by then were laughing at me among themselves, or so I believed.
During my next year at UMass, I felt so discouraged by the academic and social scene in the music department that I chose to attend part-time while working at a bagel deli restaurant, and when I got fired, I left UMass and took a job in Vermont as a live-in nanny. I had always aspirted to live in a rural area, a romantic teenage dream. The unpaved driveway leading to the family home was a half-mile long off a winding country road. When it rained, the cows would break out of a nearby dairy farm and graze on our lawn. Mostly, though, I was surrounded by the overwhelming quiet of the place; the only sounds anyone heard were occasional flocks of birds and nightly crickets; there was no traffic buzz or mayhem of city life or whispering classmates. I realized the reality of silence, that surely it was the grandest sound ever heard.
Here’s something I wrote in 1999. It’s based on Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Street Haunting.”
JOGGING IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD ON A SPARKLY OCTOBER MORNING
he wonders what it would be like to have the name, “Baby,” and she knows she will be repulsed if anyone, anytime, ever calls her that again, and he gets off of her and she turns away and gets out of bed, and looks at him all shriveled up like a newborn and waits until he sleeps, which he will do in an instant, and she takes a long, warm shower, washing off the filth of what he called love, and sleep on the couch, and you know tomorrow she’ll weep like a mother who’s lost her child, and the next week he’ll send her roses, and she’ll retch at the smell of them and wash them down the garbage disposal, but for now the lights are off in that house, and it passes by, or you pass by it, and grieve for the young girl and her dignity, and you feel the pain in your gut for any girl who’s 17, or 16, or 20, who hasn’t yet felt the knife of rape and prostitution sear through her, and a loss so great that her beauty will never be the same, and you don’t have to put her out of your mind, you know her, and embrace her, for she is in the sweat that is you, as the Walkman, which has Auto-Reverse, flips the tape and you hear the other side of dear Steve Winwood with the beat, and round the corner pretending that you’re in Copley Square and the crowds are cheering, and you feel the muscles in your legs; they are hard and taught, like the hide that’s stretched across a drum, one of many drums, as your dog stops to take a poop, which fortunately is right under a street lamp so you can see it and pick it up, and you wonder how you got to this corner so quickly — was it the new shoes? you wonder, and you are reminded of how folks always say, “That camera takes good pictures,” which is about the stupidest thing you can say; after all, it’s the person who takes the pictures who deserves the credit, but no, no, never admit that your friend is talented, lest you get jealous, and jealousy is a sin, of course, coveting thy neighbor’s wife, one might say, but really, the backbone of all this religious dogma is decency; surely we don’t need the ten commandments if we were only to make the rule, “Be polite,” because if we are grateful when one does something for us, and share our goods, and give the bad waitress a bigger tip than the regular ones get, then we are doing our job and can be right and would never consider killing another person, simply because it’s not polite to do so, and you’re thinking this as you pump one foot in front of the other and thankfully the dog isn’t lagging too much, as you round another corner at the condo complex where some emaciated 30-year-old is shooting heroin, waiting for the next welfare check, and you think about your muscles some more, and how lucky you are, as a dark-colored car whizzes by and the dog tries to chase it, and you quietly tell her to be polite, realizing she will never grow up and will never sin, and you think about growing up and remember how some of the young school kids said they grew up fast because their parents got divorced, and you want to laugh and cry with them, because they are part of you, whether you approve of their idleness or not, and you realize that if you’d been asked the same question, you’d have said you had been a late-bloomer, that you didn’t grow up until you turned 40, and even now, you’re afraid you’ll suffer through yet another lesson like a monster would move through lace curtains and feel the pain of the fragile cloth upon its skin, which is your skin, which is sweating, as you breathe evenly but not coordinated with your steps, which you’re not noticing anymore, and you start to wonder what’s best: runner’s high, writer’s high, intellectual high, or the simple joy of looking out a window at a woman jogging with her dog at 4:30am in October, and wonder: could that be you? and if it is, you know it is, but you’re watching yourself occasionally because you are that person in the window, too, and as you throw your dog’s poops into the dumpster, you hope that you don’t have to pick them up and throw them again if you miss, but you don’t, so you turn into the side door of your building, and here comes what you set out to find in the first place: a little sweat, and you know you must feel this sweat from all angles, smell and taste it as one would taste a wintergreen leaf, and capture that feeling — if you can — in words, so that it becomes more than fleeting, and can never be washed off.
That was then! This is now:
Have a nice day!
However, everyone sees the world through lenses. If one doesn’t wear glasses or contact lenses, there is the lens in one’s eye that one looks through. We see the world through the camera lens, on TV and computer screen; as they say, one shouldn’t look for too long or too close or one may wither and go blind.
A writing teacher told me that fiction is a lie and an exaggeration. Memoir is a big lie and exaggeration, the biggest of all, for “I” is taller than “you” or “she” or “them.” There is no such thing as “creative nonfiction” or even “nonfiction” without lies because of the lenses we see through.
Hypergraphia is a symptom of writing ability. Writing is a way of deciphering what we see, and rehearsing our lives. The Bible is a work of creative nonfiction. Someone needed to decipher what he or she saw, and needed to rehearse his or her life. We read the book. Religion is belief in something that cannot be scientifically proven to exist.
Delusion is belief in an unpopular idea. Some say people with mental illnesses are simply looking through the wrong lens. They argue, “Who is to say which is the correct lens? Perhaps the world is topsy-turvy!”
My answer is this: Everyone looks through a lens or lenses. A person with a mental illness wears an ill-fitting lens, a lens that hurts. Perhaps the lens was scratched early on by poor handling. The lens curvature or size could be wrong, or the lens could have dust or dirt particles on it. A person with a mental illness may have a scratch on the cornea, on the “I,” that only time and patience will heal; for others, a lens correction is necessary. Mental illness isn’t an alternative. There may be more than one way to see things, but if the lens hurts, I want my money back.