The Chicago doc and I have been talking these last few weeks in political metaphors, as the post-election euphoria has given way to a kind of tentative optimism at what the future will bring. It’s a lot like how I felt last spring, after I found out that I got the Stegner: amazement, satisfaction, then a kind of wonder at what would happen next. Relocating to San Francisco has set in motion so many good things in my life, but most of all, I’m in love again and what an amazing thing that is. Here’s how I should probably say that: over the last several months, I’ve slowly, then pretty quickly, fallen in love with my friend, Cait Drewes, who also lives in San Francisco. Cait knew Katie, when we were all Peace Corps volunteers in Bangladesh, she attended our wedding, and was present at Katie’s funeral. Cait has been a good friend these last eight and a half years, and especially so these last two. I know that, in loving her after Katie’s death, I honor and share the best parts of our relationship, and it makes me happy to know that I learned a lot about being a good partner from Katie. I also honor the incredible fortune that makes Cait a part of my life, and that makes her choose to be in mine, as well as the amazing, patient, loving woman that she is. I am, and we are, incredibly lucky.
This American Life recently rebroadcast selections from Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, his 1971 oral history of the Great Depression. They’re really worth a listen: so many perspectives on the nuance and individual manifestations of epic collective tragedy. One disturbing comment that I wish didn’t resonate so clearly today, comes from a Southern restaurant owner’s son, who notes that in 1971, as opposed to the Depression, “you’re dealing today with a different breed of cattle…when I was sixteen, I was afraid to die. Today’s sixteen-year-olds aren’t afraid to kill.” I admire President-elect Obama for his commitment to political ideals that feel new and important in my lifetime. Sacrifice, renewal, and the collective good deserve serious consideration, especially in opposition to the more profit-minded individualism of the 80s, 90s and aughts. With the current economic, political, environmental, and civil rights crises, it seems as good a time as any to consider our priorities, and how we hope to get through our own coming hard times.
I’m a big fan of FDR, and like that other iconic Democrat of the 20th century, his legacy has taken something of a beating as historical revisionism has tried to knock them both down a couple of pegs. In this line of thinking, FDR’s New Deal was an economic failure; it was only the advent of World War II that got moving the mechanism of big industry and brought the economy back to life. Which, on paper, in equations, makes sense. But this interpretation leaves out entirely the non-economic situation of Americans during the 1930s, in particular the optimism, faith, and patience inspired by FDR’s leadership, without which, one could argue, the nation might never have made it through to fight in World War II. Consider William Manchester’s survey of pre-election 1932 America, as he catalogues alarmingly frank Communist and totalitarian sympathies in statehouses and union labors in Mississippi, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, New York, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania (whose Senator Reed declared, “If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now.”): The evidence strongly suggests that had Roosevelt in fact been another Hoover, the United States would have followed seven Latin American countries whose governments had been overthrown by Depression victims (p.66).
There’s this new movie coming out that I’m all excited to see, The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Mickey Rourke. Good sports movies follow a predictable plotline—failure, inspiration, training, near-redemption—and apparently this one is no exception. What makes the movie (and it’s trailer) so exciting for me is Mickey Rourke’s performance, and the sense that if anyone can get right the subtlety and beauty inherent in the blunt decay of aging athletes/warriors/performers, it’s Rourke. Rourke is the sort of actor who oozes last shots at redemption, and the uncertainty of their outcomes. You just know does his best work when falling short. It’s as though, once the acid’s washed over, the people who blow the big picture sometimes have an easier time than the rest of us, who keep hoping, illogically, that the good things won’t slip away.
Cait and I haven’t watched a lot of movies these last few months. We have gotten out into the city and surrounding places: Muir Woods, Crissy Field, Half-Moon Bay, Pescadero, the Stanford Hills, Land’s End. We’ve been to the opera with my folks, who visited last week, and to the symphony the week before that. Mostly, though, we stay in, make dinner, see friends, do our work. I’m especially interested in writing hybrid elegy-love poems that sort of honestly account where my head and heart are these days. It’s an interesting project, to find the common thing(s) in seemingly very disparate experiences.
I like to think that the act of writing elegy is never-ending: as my life changes, expands, contracts, evolves, I will have new things to understand, and so to say, about my life, Katie, and her death. I suspect that elegies are sometimes unconsciously communal, that we are writing the same poems together, in response to a series of obvious questions whose answers are never satisfying. I have no way to know that that’s true, except to take it on faith. Loving anyone is an occasion for poetry, and also for happiness, regardless of the circumstances. Coming to the end of my first quarter of the fellowship, I like to think that I am forging some of those connections that, together, will make for a rich and meaningful life, professionally and personally. It does seem that, whatever precedes us, we’re perpetually picking up where someone has left off, and building on what they have taught us. After his death, Larry Levis’s Elegy was published to great acclaim. His friend, the poet Philip Levine collected, organized, edited and published a manuscript that, Levis had told him, was “all-but-completed.” One of Levis’s poems that I admire very much, The Widening Spelling of Leaves (the title poem of a different collection) contains these lines:
The leaves were becoming only what they had to be--
Calm, yellow, things in themselves & nothing
More--& frankly they were nothing in themselves,
Nothing except their little reassurance
Of persisting for a few more days...