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five from the land of first and forgotten things

The first bell rings. There is a slam of a heavy door somewhere that echoes through the church. It's probably not part of the service, but what do I know? Everything is symbolic here. I do not understand most of the words and I do not know these songs and I do not even want to be here, no one does, but the alternative is that he would be suffering, somewhere, in a bed, staring into a corner or sedated or throwing a keychain and refusing to submit to an injection. And I do not have a choice and neither did he, so we are a few feet away from each other and he is colorless and still and bedecked in finery. I stand for hours and listen to the men sing for him, sing him home, beg forgiveness on his behalf.
*
Winter blew in and froze everything and it feels like Winnipeg again, cold as Mars. I forgot my gloves on Saturday. The wind blew through two layers of pants and two layers of tops and a massive parka, through my skin. It turned my bones blue. My hands barely escaped frostbite. I shoved them into my pockets and paced until the bus came. Fifteen steps east, fifteen west. I stop the processing and grief for a minute because I cannot think of anything else except the cold and how my brain has forgotten it from last January. What else have I forgotten? What was first? 
*
I send an email: It's kind of amazing how some things never change I say, and I know the woman getting it will hear the fury beneath those words, even though they sound almost winsome out of context. I send an email: I love you and am glad I do not have to talk about dementia with you anymore and these are true things, but I do not trust brains anymore; they feel capricious and half magic and I wonder if I even remember how to talk about other things. I send an email: I was up in the middle of the night so I have been Bowie-sad since then. It is just a further thumb-press on top of the already existing FIL sadness and I do know the difference between the two and I am the kind of person who loves to press her thumb on bruises, so here I go, pressing.
*
First was this: When I was little, two years old, I asked my mother: Daddy come home now? Daddy come home now? When? She was 22 and had to explain over and over that he was not coming home, what dead meant. And I would get sad and then I would ask again. When? At some point I stopped asking and maybe it was a relief and maybe it was worse, maybe it was all downhill from there.
*
At the newspaper office, Myron drops off the obituary and a photograph. A woman tells him that the year ahead will be a year of firsts. First Easter, first birthday. You know. The first without. And yes, she is right, but to have watched Papá change over the past years--from the first time I saw him pray, at our wedding, until he became the man who played with my hair when I stood beside his hospital bed--is to have been clocking firsts all this time. The first time I lost my temper with him, the first indignity of an aging body, the first time I was sure I knew the difference between the slipping of memory that comes with aging and the slipping of self. Each one rang their own bell. I remember their pitches and their trailing tones, first, first, first, again, first.

these are pearls

Full fathom five thy father lies; 
    Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
                   --from Ariel's song, The Tempest

That quote is too on the nose. But if there were ever a time for noseness like this, it's the last day of a long year, while I am thirty-six hours stunned, while his eyes are still so clear in my mind. I can only remember life with a dead father; now Myron is in the club

The thing, the truth, the cliché about dementia (one of so many), the one that you remember over and over again as if you're learning it the first time, is that the person you love is both there and not-there, playing peekaboo and juggling your love with a pair of fireballs. Or maybe not playing peekaboo but surfacing after longer and longer periods full-fathom-five below, not waving but drowning. When Papá showed himself after a period of not-there, I would seize on it and try to enjoy it as much as I could, because it was as ephemeral as everything else in the world is. But though these moments felt desperate to me, they didn't feel that way to him; he didn't gasp for air like a drowning man because he did not remember there were sharks circling. 

We brought him to the hospital not because of the dementia, but because he had fallen and couldn't walk. His heart, lungs, and other necessary systems were doing fine, especially considering his age. Between us and his doctors, we were planning for recovery and much more time with him. And when I say I am thirty-six hours stunned, it is because I still cannot believe that he is gone. How does it make sense that I thought I had more time with a ninety-one-year-old man? I did, though. And so another cliché, the one where I say it does not yet feel real, because it doesn't.

To face death at the end of a year is to do it with the knowledge that everyone around you is looking ahead to arbitrary freshness and possibility. (This is not my first time doing this.) Instead, I ponder the cool, quiet silence full fathom five might bring to a man whom you could believe might just have gone deaf in self-defense, to shut out the things that didn't make him happy. I ponder the pearls that were his eyes because they twinkled, blue like a baby's. I am considering the necessity of sea change, for all of us, and wondering what can possibly be more rich, more strange, than what we are already doing here, year in and year out. I am working that piece of verse like a good English major and trying to find some solace before the fireworks go off.

I hope 2016 brings you loveliness. And largeness, and wonder, and the company of good people, and laughter. I hope it brings you insight and nerve when it brings you pain, because it's bound to do so. I hope it surprises you, and brings you pearls.

for you

November did spawn a monster; it was a good thing to call this project thus instead of going with a portmanteau. I have so little to say these past few days; my brain is a little island in a fog and all the idea-boats sail right past it. I'm uncreative and I'm craving stimuli--feta and gorgonzola, viscous port, even the cold on my arms. Sensation feels good right now. I couldn't find enough of it to write anything last night, which is ridiculous because have you seen these posts? They are not exactly deathless prose here. It's not like I have to meet some high standard. Still, it's more writing than I've done in this space in a year and if I've missed a few days, well, I've missed them. Today the monster has a thousand tentacles and no head to speak of.

The thing I have thought about today, in between every other passing non-thought, is the article that went wide yesterday, Claire Vaye Watkins' essay at Tin House called "On Pandering"--it is, I have to say, required reading for everyone, whether you write or not. Even if you do not write, you have a voice and you interact in the world and you shape your own experience--the telling of it to yourself, your own memory--both purposefully and accidentally, you shape it. And if you do not write, you read (or I would probably not know you), and you should know how the sausage of our current literary world is made.

(I write this, knowing that there is practically a 100% chance that if you are reading this, you are a woman, that I cannot imagine even now, while I am thinking generously about myself and my writing, a man arriving at this space and giving it more than the most cursory glance. It makes me feel vapid and insignificant, even after reading the article.)

The reading of this made me think of so many things, not least of which is the question of whom I write toward, whom I expect to read my writing. I am not talking about the blog, which is a weird hybrid thing that has both all audience and no audience, an echo chamber and a stage and the little closet in my childhood bedroom that was all of about two feet wide. I am talking about the writing I do that goes nowhere at the moment but into Scrivener and to a couple of beta readers. I once wrote toward a short man with an epic beard and cowboy boots, the man who first treated me like my writing was work and not a pastime. (I haven't done his memory honor; I haven't written enough or hard enough or carefully enough.) There was a time I thought I wrote for Annie Dillard, but I was wrong; I could not see enough of her to know where to aim these words even though I have read as much of her writing as I could find. (She knows how to keep secrets, Annie Dillard, and I respect her for it.)

I cannot write for everyone. I have to choose. In my heart, I may have done so, invented a mental reader who would get it the way I want her to, who would be generous where I find flaws and critical where I'm indulgent. That ideal reader will only take me so far, and so I widen my view and put you in there, you who have reading desires I cannot fathom, you who will pick up a book for any one of a thousand reasons and give me the benefit of the doubt for a few pages, weigh her engagement, and read on or close the cover and walk away. I am rolling dice when I think of what might please you, and I have spent all my luck on being born in the first world in a healthy time with white skin, with parents who didn't damage me to excess. But how incredible will it be to please you, if I can? This is a thought that makes me want to work.

And now the music:

about that.

Yesterday I said something like "autumn is not ready to let this city go" because threatened snow hadn't shown up. It came overnight and I am doing that thing where I tell myself it is beautiful and fight to see this beauty, the way I have to when I look at art I don't understand or try to read a book that isn't grabbing me. 

firstsnow2015

My parka hasn't been taken out of storage yet so I shoveled in a waffle top, fleece, leggings, jeans, and a wool peacoat. I also put on Myron's dad's giant Soviet fur-lined hat. Desperate times, dude. The wind pushed me around and went through me so cleanly it's almost amazing that I don't have holes afterward. 

I really do talk about other things besides the weather. Or I try very much to. Today there was nothing to photograph, nothing to think about except the 2015-ness of this year, which is what the first snow really makes me think about. I get self-reflective early enough that by December I'm sick of looking back. Did I get enough done? Never. Did I do anything new, anything that mattered? I think so. I think about the way Papá used to be, how vibrant and with-it and even kind of snarky and at the same time, almost childlike in his pleasure with his possessions and his collections and in Myron. I think about the way he said by golly at the end of a sentence, when he was really and truly stunned by something, a politician or the price of a prescription or the persistence of a telemarketer. He said it like he meant it, like it had a meaning. There were times this year when I was of use to the man he is now, when I either didn't take his bullshit or when I did. He is not unrecognizable from the man who chopped down those trees. But there is so little of that man left that you can't help seeking it out, scanning for it always, the way you look at a night sky and can't process the darkness, just the scattered little bits of light.

more than this

I think I have probably called ten or so posts "more than this" in my time of writing online, or maybe wanted to call them so and then said no, because (a) cliché (b) risk of people hearing Robert Smith in their minds instead of Bryan Ferry, not that Robert Smith is ever truly a wrong answer (c) "More than what, exactly, you never did say." The urge is back again.

A thing that happens when you neglect a blog for a year is that you have these ideas that maybe you could hang a post upon, and you tell someone I am having blog thoughts and they say, as is tradition, Good! or Nice! or Yes! or similar. No one is ever not supportive. But it's almost as though saying that deflates the urge to write the actual post, as if you have done the work already, and then you get busy with digging a path through three feet of snow so that you can get the recycling out of the house.

I read Life after Life years ago--while the blog was still being somewhat regularly updated!--saw this, and stowed a slice of paper there so that I could find it again. I told myself during The Dry Time that when I came back to writing here again, I would type it in for you.

"Fred Smith? What was he like? Do tell!"
"Disappointing"
"How? In bed?"
"Gosh, no, not that at all. I've never... like that, you know. I think I thought it would be romantic. No, that's the wrong word, a silly word. 'Soulful' perhaps."
"Transcendent?" Millie offered.
"Yes, that's it. I was looking for transcendence."
"I imagine it finds you, rather than the other way round. It's a tall order for poor old Fred."
"I had an idea of him," Ursula said, "but the idea wasn't him. Perhaps I wanted to fall in love."
"And instead you had jolly good sex. Poor you!" 

(To have a friend like that is a marvelous thing.)

It's so naked, to admit "I was looking for transcendence" and, by extension, to admit you didn't find it. So much of what passes for the personal internet these days involves garbage inspiration and sunshine stupidity; I find it infuriating and wasteful, even though I know so many people respond to it. I wonder about the difference between life coachery, typeset shreds of text (I can't call them quotations because who says this stuff, I mean really) meant for repinning and regramming and reblogging, and a character in a novel admitting that she had aimed for a goal, failed to meet it for whatever reason (let's not malign Fred here just in case), and found herself without anything more than the ordinary. 

It's possible that I keep wanting to use "more than this" as a title because I was looking for transcendence, too. I always am! If we could manufacture that shit we would all do it. And we would do it all day long like junkies and we would never do anything else. Who wouldn't want to freebase Life+? It's not practical but neither is so much of what we do, anyway, that we call living.

There are so very many exclamation points and italics in this post, possibly because I am not having it vetted by my own personal Millie. Possibly because it is wonderful--it is!--to write such a thing as this, without an answer, without Five Steps to Finding Transcendence, without any advice at all except to say that a thousand times a day, I am looking for it myself. This is how I know that whatever part of me did not want to grow up has gotten its way, and that I still live with wonder and expect to be amazed. I am on the lookout for more. I respond to the parts of other people that are looking for it too, and finding it in places I would not expect, and then writing about it.