Friday, June 11, 2010

Reasons To Survive June

Four years ago, upon my arrival in Bucharest, Katie and I commenced a whirlwind two weeks of watching World Cup Soccer. Europe was frenzied in a way that I think I've only personally witnessed once in the United States. In the final week of competition, that frenzy became singular and astonishing. In those intervening three weeks, I went from a neophyte to a Zidane-loving every-night-of-action enthusiast. Romanians would congregate in over-crowded beer gardens around all of the major parks in the city, to watch the matches on temporary big-screens set-up with rear projectors. We drank Ursus by the tall glass, ate pizzas and freshly-popped popcorn, sat tipsy, warm, and curiously satisfied under the tall trees and open skies, next to the big lakes. I remember thinking that Bucharest was a beautiful, vibrant city, full of emotion, appetite, post-Communism cynicism, capitalist optimism, and much, much cigarette smoke and exhaust. I loved it all, and I loved being there with Katie, who had adapted her European co-workers night-owl lifestyle--dinner, World Cup soccer, disco, espressos and crepes, in bed around 4 and back at work around 10--and showed me the ropes. Waking up around noon, heading out into the city for a long walk, exploring some historical place or museum, then meeting up at her office to walk or cab it home and head out on the town again: fun summer.

The last two Junes have been challenging, and this one is shaping up to be more of the same. I struggle with understanding how to keep the memory of Katie's death date in a way that seems significant, respectful, honest--and manageable. How to encompass the day, the events before and after? Life before and after that day? June is also a month of intrusions, of horrible things witnessed directly, of sudden bouts of nausea, of strange and sometimes bad dreams. These intrusions are not new. I know they are there, that they are coming. I'm rattled, but I'm not impressed by them. But they do impress upon me. I can't ignore them. Something simple, direct, and controllable--a memory--becomes something ambiguous and chaotic--remembering. Too much attention paid directly to the situation of Katie's death feels indulgent, seems to invite more awfulness.

This afternoon, I'm sitting in the cardiology clinic at Stanford University hospital, having just finished my every-six-months echocardiogram, waiting to see the doctor in a couple of hours, to discuss the results and get my check-up. In two weeks, Cait and I are moving out of San Francisco, into the garden apartment of the big house at 770. Cait is 29 weeks and 3 days pregnant, which means that we can start another kind of accounting: 10 weeks and 4 days until Spartacus's due date, which coincides exactly with Cait's grandfather Zait's 99th birthday. Roughly four weeks after that, I start my new job at Stanford. On faculty at Stanford, where I live with my wife and our first child! So freaking awesome! So incredibly unreal. What is fortune? How can so much good fortune follow bad fortune? How is one ever mindful of all aspects and all potential outcomes of all kinds of good and bad experience?

I would like to say here that I've figured something out, or feel close to figuring something out, but the truth is that I what I understand is how to endure and be grateful. On the morning of June 23rd, I will get up, drive down to Stanford, teach a middle school creative writing class into the afternoon. I don't know how I'll spend the rest of the day. I'll probably struggle trying to understand what is the proper way to spend the day. That I'll get through the day is a different kind of comfort than knowing what's right. Probably, whatever I do on June 23rd, I'll do pretty much the same the day before and after. The last two June 23rds, I've found the week leading up to the day much harder than the day itself, the weekend before especially challenging. I'm not trying to evoke sympathy, here. I'm not much of a moper, and my generally positive outlook tends to keep its shape, despite intense intrusions of intense emotion. However things go, they'll resume a larger shape, eventually, too. June 2006 was World Cup soccer, reunion, dark beer, travel, unique and unusual fun. June 2008 was the beginning of a transition to this life out West.

Here are two poems that I admire very much, that have given me some strength during difficult times these last three years. Dave Cashman read the first poem, by Mary Oliver, at Cait and I's wedding last July, in memory of Katie, and all of our loved ones who are no longer with us. The latter is by Tony Hoagland. It is quite the vogue to say that both Oliver and Hoagland are sentimental dreck-masters, that a kind of heartfelt, direct poem that they sometimes write is, by default, wrong-minded. Fashionable critis dismiss Mary Oliver as the Denny's Restaurant of American Poetry (consistent and banal), because she is widely read outside of the usual poetry circles (read: other poets), is accessible, and writes directly and deliberately about experience. Tony Hoagland suffers a similar kind of neglect, for writing poems that some critics feel are boring, impolite, anachronistic, and lonely.

It is easy to name, in someone else's public expression of or reaction to private experience, the inadequate, inappropriate, insincere, etc., aspect. In simply approaching this territory, one can dismiss it for trying certain things (to communicate, to feel) that many say poetry just shouldn't do. If we're lucky, a certain kind of expression can find the common and communal, and so comfort. It seems awful, to me, to concede that such territory cannot exist. But it's entirely understandable that we maybe over-measure that territory, and expect too much of it when we meet each other there.

The Summer Day (Mary Oliver)

from New And Selected Poems (Beacon, 2005)

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down,

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Reasons to Survive November (Tony Hoagland)
from What Narcissism Means To Me (Graywolf, 2003)

November like a train wreck—
as if a locomotive made of cold
had hurtled out of Canada
and crashed into a million trees,
flaming the leaves, setting the woods on fire.

The sky is a thick, cold gauze—

but there's a soup special at the Waffle House downtown,
and the Jack Parsons show is up at the museum,
full of luminous red barns.

—Or maybe I'll visit beautiful Donna,

the kickboxing queen from Santa Fe,
and roll around in her foldout bed.

I know there are some people out there

who think I am supposed to end up
in a room by myself

with a gun and a bottle full of hate,

a locked door and my slack mouth open
like a disconnected phone.

But I hate those people back

from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure,

and my happiness would kill them

so I shove joy like a knife
into my own heart over and over

and I force myself toward pleasure,

and I love this November life
where I run like a train
deeper and deeper
into the land of my enemies.


sara said...

Beautifully written, John.
I often miss Katie.
I'm glad you are able to keep her alive in memory, and I'm even more glad some good fortune has come your way. Congrats on the job, marriage, and the little one!

PS: I also love The Summer Day. :)

Anonymous said...

Hang in there, John, we're all thinking of you at this time. Your Friend, Don

Linda S. Socha said...

I am glad to be able to read of your life today and I offer gratitude that it is yours. You deserve. Yes. You have made the journey and done the work.