Home Sweet, Nebulous, Home

Looking Homeward“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Loss is nothing but change and change is nature’s delight.” – Marcus Aurelius

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” – Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

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I.

What does it mean to leave everything behind? To leave one’s home thousands of miles behind. So far in the distance it cannot be seen only remembered as though it were an island you once passed by on a ship at night or a place that was part of a long elaborate dream that caused you to smile upon waking.

And like a dream, that home is intangible – has become intangible now that you are not within it – a place in which you have stopped the momentum of its essence into your psyche like a high speed train suddenly emasculate on the tracks so a haggard man with ruddy skin and ghostly hair can stumble vertiginously back into the darkness.

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And it will never be the same. Now that you’ve left. It will always be a slightly foreign place. That home which once was a place where you lived with a slight level of unconsciousness – because you could – because you knew where everything was and how to get there, and you knew many of the people and their names and their children’s names and where they dwelled and their intimate stories – and you could make your way through the streets with a bandanna tied over your eyes.

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And in addition, you loved the city where you resided. Was there any place on earth like the Paris of the South?167

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And you loved the people with their fresh faces and audacious ideas, their ornate bicycles like whimsical piñatas speeding through the streets, their dense forest mountain paths full of fiddlehead ferns, trilliums and deciduous trees that in the fall look like the most extraordinary display of parrot feathers; their gypsy jazz and traditional Bluegrass, the rhythm of contra and clogging and hollers so green -so, so, green and contained content worlds in themselves- the youthful itinerant anarchists with their dogs and washboards and banjos, worn out fatigues and body odor; the woman who plays spoons on the street who would be beautiful were in not for her missing teeth, the persistent smell of hops and yeast with hints of citrus as the sort of eau d’ cologne and live bands of every sort in the street – 057Afro-pop, punk, experimental rock, electronica – the dolce vita flows as easily as the drinks and everyday life can be like the most gorgeous Felinni scene and just as surreal: an orgy of food and drink and friendship and fun, with an eccentric  purple bus that jets around its route each day, with laughter and music blaring from open windows, and a cross dressing nun on a tall bike as part of its shtick.

II.

In what felt like an instant, it would never be the same: the child’s bedroom, the family car, the dreams for the landscape we tended and pruned and poured over and petted for over a decade.

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We left our residence of eleveIMG_1949 (2)n years in a quick three and a half weeks: the house where we conceived our son, labored, planted fruit trees for him to climb and eat from (to nourish him) that we thought he, and I suppose we as well, would grow along side. Trees to grow old with, to love. To observe. To be in awe of how fruit grows from flowers where bees orchestrate their usual miracles.

The Buddha left his home and family to be unfettered. How would things have been different, or even the outcome of thousands of years of human history, had he taken his family with him, so that he would have been half-fettered or partially tethered? Could he have done it with them? Become enlightened that is.

I don’t stand a chance.

When I was eighteen a boyfriend wrote to me in a postcard, “Home is where I set down my backpack.” Somehow I never forgot that line or the sentiment of ecstatic freedom I sensed he felt when he wrote it. The open road, no roof, few possessions, bringing him fully into present.

The places where I set down my bags, now, full of mixed-up wrinkled clothes that are thrown on hastily each day with little care or pleasure, do not feel like home.

If anything my body is the closest thing to home – the shell that carries me from place to place and allows me to embrace those I love so that I can feel my arms around them and squeeze them to bring us heart to heart, to feel the rhythm of the organ that pumps blood and warmth through us, to feel the tributaries, rivers inside our bodies that are the same as those outside in the landscape our bodies are moving in now.

There is a great wilderness, wildness, openness to the wide-eyed sky and Sonoma coast where fault lines remain invisible to the naked eye under the earth, under the sea from this vantage, where we stand now, rolling hills dotted with tribes of cows, so far from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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When I was in high school my parents lost everything, our home and their livelihoods, in what felt like a sudden whoosh once the eviction notice was stapled to the front door. We drove around recklessly, we had no where to go: no home, no place, no money. We were looking for a miracle, a handout, a roof over our heads – who would be the benefactor of such a great act of compassion?

“Maybe I should just go the Yogi center and make yogurt,” my mother said as we drove down the bumpy gravel road in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I couldn’t stop laughing but I was so sad, and the dust of the road rose up behind us like smoke, and I felt elated and light like I was levitating above the gray-blue Volvo station wagon the further we traveled from the cherished shelter of my youth and all the memories that resided there – all the joy and everything else in between.

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Meditations on Grief, Death and Senseless Acts of Violence

“Yellow crime tape hung on the wild rose . . . Death had left for me its imperishable mark on an ordinary corpse of trees in my front yard. Never again would I look out my kitchen window at that lone cedar on the prow of hickory forests in the same way as I had before. I would never be free of the memory of what happened there. But would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later somehow sense the sad, lost secret of the place, the sanctity of this death-inflicted soil?” – Sally Mann, Hold Still

It is impossible to watch leaves fall to the ground, crudely or exquisitely, depending on my mood, without remembering my father’s broad tall frame doing the same, beginning to grow back, shrink down into something skeletal at this same time of year thirteen years ago.SubstandardFullSizeRender

Last week, I sat at the bar of a café and tried to finish the last chapter of Hold Still and came upon Sally Mann’s Body Farm photos, carcasses unabashedly decomposing buck naked against the earth. I closed the book abruptly so as not to disturb the patrons beside me at the café, seemingly on vacation, happily sipping their cheery cappuccinos with perfectly foamed leaves and hearts etched into the rich brown brew.

While attending the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics, under the tutelage of Bhanu Kapil, I began studying the body and anatomy as part of a book of poems about the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For research purposes, I went to a public screening of Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, a film which documents autopsies, to more intimately know the boundaries, textures and depths of the body.

After three days of labor and three hours of trying to push my son out of my body, my midwife asked my husband if he had heard about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. She knew his mother would be traveling from Boston for the birth and just saw the news on the t.v. screen, in the waiting room, while grabbing a cup of coffee. I lay there, on my back, focused, staring ahead as if into a void, as if I didn’t hear what she said, due to my commitment to let go and not engage in worldly matters, while simultaneously wishing silently to myself that a massive attack on human beings wasn’t brought up while trying with every muscle of my body to release a new life, full of flesh and blood and vitality, into the world; wishing I could remain ignorant about the malevolence and wretchedness of human beings, if only for this moment, to feel that I was birthing my son into a world of security and sanctity.

No other poems embody the pain of experiencing mass senseless acts of violence and death, or can be more grief-stricken than Paul Celan’s. He invented an entirely new language to speak of the surreality of genocide, as disjunctive as sudden death, and no one can touch it or recreate it. If we are lucky enough to never experience this sort of mass destruction, and may we all be, we can stand outside the poems and recite them, and step inside them, as if in a museum and just remain in awe of them and feel a shiver of ice down our spines at just the sight and bitter taste of them. Many even look skeletal on the page, but are like spirits speaking from the grave, like little prayers, recollections, from the voices of the dead. “Graze the debased coinage,/ the scale of my temporal bone.”

Place names, these place names will never be the same after a mass shooting – Columbine, New Town, they can never be separated from what happened there, but as Sally Mann asks, “Would a stranger, coming upon it, say a century later . . . sense the sad, lost, secret of the place . . .? New Town – where my aunt and uncle lived and raised their three children. Their house on the market at the time of the shooting. This would be their horrifying last memory, after so many happy years, in a place they called home.

Two years ago my mother-in-law lay in surgery at Bingham and Women‘s hospital, hooked to a machine that kept her breathing, her chest open, heart exposed like Catholicism’s iconography of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, light streaming out it (in my vision), a young meticulous surgeon, Dr. Davidson, weighing over the intricacies of her vital organ, bringing her enlarged heart fresh life, like an alchemist, turning what is silver into gold, performing the miracles of modern science, at once common place, routine, and, yet, extraordinary.

While my husband slept beside her at the hospital, as she recovered, we spoke briefly and intermittently. I asked, “Do you like the doctor . . . How old is he?”

“I really like the doctor,” he said without pause,”He’s young, Jewish, about our age.”

Less than a year after her surgery, there was a shooting at Bingham and Women’s hospital. A nondescript man, without an appointment, went into the waiting room of the Watkins Cardiovascular Clinic and asked repeatedly to speak with Dr. Davidson. When available, the doctor lead him to exam room number fifteen.

As my mother-in-law’s strength, endurance, and vitality only grew, her doctor’s life was taken from him suddenly, violently, unexpectedly and unrepentantly on an ordinary day  -his wife pregnant with their fourth child – an infant whose skin would never feel the warmth of her father’s flesh.

A few weeks ago, I could not get the image of two missing women, blithe lovers by all reports, twenty and twenty-two, out of my mind; their blood stained, bullet riddled car left visible, like an evil monument, partially submerged in the French Broad River, just a quarter mile from my home.

There was an investigation on my street in connection with their disappearance, caution tape strewn across the dead end road, where thick broken car glass, aquablue in the sunlight, was unapologetically strewn.

For many days after their disappearance, torrential rain fell causing the river to rise in a swiftly flowing murky current. I couldn’t bear to be near the river or to walk the path around my neighborhood

One day, while leaving the house at least twenty-vultures flew overhead. Everything seemed marked by an eerie bleakness.

The effect it had on me, I think, was made worse not only by the fact of its proximity to my home, and the utter senselessness of the brutal violence, and that these women resembled so many friends I’ve had over the years, but that for several weeks I had been reflecting deeply on the French Broad River, intimately thinking about its geology and history – the beginnings of a piece about one of the oldest rivers in the world whose vein, near my home, divides the central and west parts of the city.

One night, as I switched off the light to go to sleep, I took a sip of water in the dark. As I reached to set the glass back on the side table, a nightmarish image of their 1980s royal blue VW flashed in my mind, and the glass of water fell and cracked into thousands of shards beside me. I could do nothing but lay beside the ruins until sleep took me.

And while I grieved for these women who I never knew and would never know, as the stories and photos of them in the media started to mesh into the fabric of my internal thoughts, search parties dove into the depths of the French Broad River soon discovering them and pulling their young bodies from the weedy depths.

A week later, my mom called and said, “Something happened in France. Don’t listen to the news,” she warned, knowing I was already rattled.

I immediately texted my friends in Paris, want to make sure you two are safe and sound, thinking of you. As if the Atlantic didn’t separate us, in less than a minute they wrote back that they were safe and that the city was shut down. They were at their hotel suspended, stuck in a moment in history.

Bombs strapped on human bodies in public squares, the ultimate defilement of the sanctity of the body and humanity. A man shot during the November Paris attacks said something like, “When you see the destruction a single bullet does to the human body, it is devastating.” His phrase, a single bullet, struck me as incredibly poignant, during a time that a single bullet is so rarely reported.

Then more reports in the news this week, a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California… every few days another announcement. And another and another.peace 2

At a children’s music celebration the leader sings, “We feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming, we feel that peace is coming for everyone.” I’m struck by the optimism and hope and all the contradictions brought out in the irony of this simple wishful prayer. My son later that afternoon sings it to me while smiling. Is there a more beautiful and impossible sentiment? But I so want this to be true for him, and for all children, not a fairy tale, not something that can never be.

Last night, while driving, my husband informed me that an acquaintance’s twenty-two year old son died a few days ago while kayaking in Ecuador. I felt a pang run through me. I hit my fist to my chest, primitively, and made a quiet guttural sigh.

In temple, later that night, the people in mourning stood for a moment amongst themselves before the rest of the congregation rose in solidarity beside them as the words Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, (Holy, Holy, Holy) slightly echoed into the vast space of the high, wood beamed, ceiling.P1130401

 

 

Nietzsche 101 for Toddlers

Karl Ove and NietzscheMy two-year-old saw The Portable Nietzsche beside my bed, which bares Nietzsche’s image on its cover, and asked, “This, Karl?” (referring to our previous conversations about writer Karl Ove Knausgaard). Not expecting the question, I laughed abruptly, “No,” I said, “This is Nietzsche.”

“Oooooh, Nietzsche,” he said as if he knew exactly who Nietzsche is, and now clearly recognized him, which made me laugh more.

So our first conversation about Nietzsche, it turns out, is when you are two, I think to myself.

He belted out the name, “Neeee-chuuuuh!” a few more times because this new recitation brought pleasure to his lips, mouth and vocal chords, but also because he could tell how much it amused me.

Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Ove Knausgaard: a resemblance?

Then I see what I had never noticed before, which my son in an instant must have recognized: on the book covers of The Portable Nietzsche and My Struggle: Book Two both men are photographed in black and white, both look with heads turned completely to the west with a determined, pensive gaze; both have their right arm lifted. Nietzsche rests his head on his hand, propped up on bent elbow like Rodin’s The Thinker; Karl Ove’s arm, and bent elbow, is lifted to bring a cigarette to his lips. Nietzsche has an impressive thick wooly mustache, and Karl Ove a modest beard. They both have tasseled hair because when you are a person who prioritizes, above all else, thinking and writing it will always take precedence over making sure each hair remains in place.

A couple weeks later we are traveling in Boulder, Colorado. I unpack my bags, set a couple books beside my bed, including My Struggle: Book Two of course.

Seeing this my son said, “Oh, Karl!” and then, “Where’s Nietzsche?”

“Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.”

“Oh, okay.”

And then uncontrollable joy comes over me and laughter that makes me rush to him, scoop him into my arms, squeeze him and kiss his luscious cheeks over and over again. A huge smile of confidence, half aware of his cleverness and how pleased I am with him, lights up his entire face.

Yes my dear, dear, boy, Nietzsche didn’t come with us to Colorado.