Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"This Is It, Joel."

Last night, I dreamt that Katie needed the aerial off of our old Focus. I wrote the whole thing out as soon as I woke up, but I still couldn’t remember enough to make much sense of it. In the dream it was winter but not cold. I felt a kind of gnawing panic at our interaction, which involved basically standing in a parking lot long enough for me to jimmy the joint of the aerial and hand it to Katie. According to my notes, Katie was impressed by my ingenuity and gave me a big hug, and when I hugged her back my fingers stretched the whole around her back. So, maybe my dream took place in a Michael Gondry movie. I woke suddenly, realized I was in Indy, and felt weirded out enough to get up, write for a while, make a first cup of coffee. After a couple of hours, I crawled back into bed and slept through the late morning, and when I woke up again, I had forgotten I’d had the dream at all until I saw it written out on the computer screen.

Last Sunday, I drove up to the nature preserve. When we spread Katie’s ashes last July, I didn’t realize that when I turned over the box, the ashes would fall out all in one magnificent clump, which they did. The moment turned out to be an endearing and memorable one, as Judy then invited everyone to come forward and take turns scooping handfuls and scattering them further into the preserve. Eleven months on, I can still spot the spaces where some of the piles hardened on the topsoil. On Sunday, I spent a good while trying to break down the clumps into dirt. They were like concrete on top but surprisingly soft underneath. I sat down next to the path and figured I’d zone out a while, listening to iTunes and thinking about Katie, when Sara McKelvey called on the cell phone. She had read on the blog that I was going back to Romania for a visit, and so was calling to ask if I had indeed lost my mind.

I was trying to explain to the Chicago doctor last night that the timing of my being in the preserve and receiving Sara’s phone call at the exact moment of my sitting down was remarkable for me. I used the phrase “a religious experience” to try to convey the sense of complete shock (and, okay, awe) that accompanied my answering her call. I remember only checking who was calling because Judy and I had been playing phone tag. I don’t want to drag Sara much further into my blog world, so I’ll just say that it was wonderful to hear her voice, and to talk through some of the thoughts and feelings related to Katie’s death and its anniversary, as well as to explain to her that I won't be making the trip to Bucharest after all: too much, too soon, even for something I want very much to do. It's just not the right time.

Warren Zevon chronicles misfortune with more sincerity and honesty than most songwriters (and, for that matter, poets). “The French Inhaler,” “Searching for a Heart,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” are among the best of many unusual songs written and performed by this former student of Stravinsky and devotee of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Kelly put “Dirty Life and Times” on a mix she sent along last July. I would walk around town feeling oddly hopeful whenever I heard the first two lines of that song: “Some days I feel like my shadow’s casting me. / Some days the sun don’t shine.” The song is from The Wind, an album that Zevon wrote and recorded after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003. At the time, he refused treatment, fearing it would incapacitate him too greatly to appreciate what little life he had left to live; instead, he went into the studio and got to work. I like two other songs from that album very much, the headlong-tumbling-into-oblivion “Disorder in the House” and the elegiac “Keep Me In Your Heart.” I was listening to the latter this afternoon, driving back from teaching at IUPUI. It’s a song that means a lot to me, that makes me feel very happy and very sad, and that reminds me of Katie, although I get all self-conscious whenever I put it on. Like running through a blizzard with no clothes on, you gotta really want to feel it to listen to that song, and then you’ve got no one to blame but yourself when you catch cold.

Katie being taken away has forced many of us to be different people, to rearrange our various interdependencies, and to be dependent sometimes on people we might never otherwise have needed (or wanted to need). I believe that this restructuring for more complexity is a kind of blessing, that if there has to be a net change in the balance of things, then it’s toward the positive. The last memory (framed, hysterically, by the dysfunctional back-and-forth of David Cross and Jane Addams) to get erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the moment that Joel and Clementine meet, at a barbecue among mutual friends on the beaches of Montauk, NJ. Having spent the entire movie witnessing his memory being wiped clean (in reverse chronological order) of their relationship (as revenge for her having previously done the same), Clementine meta-reminds Joel that their knowing each other is about to be lost, and they agree to try to enjoy the moment of undoing. But even this doesn’t quite work out: Joel keeps doubling back to the insecurities he felt the first time through, and wishing he had acted differently, while Clementine barrels forward, impressive and oblivious.

The brain is a savvy and fickle organ. It protects us, I think, more than we realize, in so many creative ways, allowing us to get through a lot that might otherwise fry the circuitry. Last summer, I would sit down, put on some sad music, think about Katie, cry a lot, and try to write. Like working out, I needed to feel like I could quantify grief in very definite terms: 2 hours today, 105 minutes yesterday, etc. It was the right thing for me, but I always felt very self-conscious about the ritual, how it was so intentional an experience of grief, which I always thought should be more organic. Now, I understand that it was what I could handle: a lot of flicking the switch on and off. In Antioch, last July, someone said to me, kindly, “In a couple of years, you’ll be able to say her name without crying,” and I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, watch this: Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie.”

I need to believe that there is continuity to life, not that things happen for a reason, but that something happens next, and that sometimes that next thing in the sequence is good. Last night, Emma asked me to field her volleyball serves. In the backyard, she worked her overhands from the property line near where Chloe, Beth, and Ed planted a garden last weekend. It had just rained, so the grass was wet, there was a late spring chill in the air, and everything smelled like clean earth. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to try to do too much, just grab the serve and toss it back over the net, which we did until it got too dark. I got to thinking of Katie, and how the first reason I get to be here at all is because of her. It felt like as much of a theology as I could handle in the moment, sad and happy, poignant and understated, simple and eternally complicated. I know that being a good person doesn’t make life any easier, but being alive at least makes it possible to bear witness.


Kayla said...

I like how you said
"loosing katie has forced us into different people."
and changed our independent-ness.

Allison Landa said...

Hi John:

I'm a friend of Marcus Banks, who pointed me in the direction of your blog. I'm so impressed with your writing and your ways of putting emotion into words, and I hope that we're able to meet when you move here for the Stegner. (Congrats, by the way!)

- Allison

KATE EVANS said...

I like the way you baldly & boldly talk about grief here.

I didn't know that about Warren Zevon. I'll listen to him differently now.

I had my first dream of my father last night (he's been gone more than a year), and in it he was very weak, and my mom was trying to get him to dance with her.

I wish it had been more like Doty's poem "The Embrace"--but I'll deal with what I'm given.