Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Giraffe/Peach Paradigm

Was it really just last week that I made that entry about Mothers' Day, and the twisted meaning it's always had for me?  It seems so much longer ago than that.  But now I remember -- the choir I sing with in New Brunswick was on duty that day, and there was a particularly lovely pink hat on a woman in the congregation, toward the back, stage left. 

Well, bringing up all those old memories, those layers of my personal history, has had a different impact than I would have expected, at least in the sort term.  I don't know why I didn't anticipate this psychic backlash, but it has nonetheless caught me somewhat by surprise, and I'm still staggering a little.  The image that came to me this morning, as I was dragging myself around the house, was that of a man, walking down a country road one afternoon, with the sun shining and the trees all leafed out and providing the occasional bit of shade as he passed them.  And then, out of nowhere, comes an enormous, seventy-foot wave of cold, murky salt water, knocking this man off his feet, taking his breath away, and turning him head over heels in its surge.  There's no way for him to regain his footing, and he can't even tell, in the green swirl, which way to struggle, toward air and light.

And that's kind of how it's been, this week, really.     

Now, I want to make it completely clear that I'm not trying to compete for the title of King of the Sad People, who I imagine holds court under a bridge somewhere, with a crown of wet newspaper slapped onto his head.  I find myself constantly trying to combat the emotional state in which I find myself with rationality -- seeking to prove to myself, over and over again, that I should be happy, that my life is a miracle, that things are so much better for me now than they ever were when I was a kid, and on and on.  But as demonstrably true as all these things are -- and this is only a mini-fraction of the things for which I am grateful indeed -- holding them up and examining each precious blessing does, unfortunately, exactly nothing.  I might as well be trying to reason away the existence of a giraffe, by holding peaches up in front of it.

If there were some scientific discipline such as emotional chemistry, I might try to express what I've got all over me as Sh2Gu3 -- the tarry salt produced by the interaction of shame and guilt.  Though invisible at room temperature, it is nonetheless one of the densest, most burdensome of the known emotional elements, and one of the most durable as well.  The only known solvent is alcohol, and that working only temporarily, before the stubborn and pervasive substance recreates itself.

The guilt comes from telling the truth.

Once, when my Dad was home for supper, and was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, while my brothers and I, having already eaten, were playing in the living room, I casually leaned over in my dad's chair, and pushed over a stack of wooden blocks my brother Glenn had built.  He recreated his tower; I nudged it over again.  Glenn began to cry, and complained to my parents.  I said I hadn't done it.  My mother, who had been watching, said that, yes I had.  I remember looking her square in the eye and saying, 'No, I didn't.'  I remember, still, how daring and how necessary it was for me to say this, how important it was for me to tell the truth by telling a lie.  Hadn't she lied to me, over and over again, about more important things than a stupid pile of wooden blocks?

She turned and said a few words to my Dad, who then took me into the bathroom, sat me down on the closed toilet seat, and slapped me across the face so hard that, just like in the cartoons, I saw stars.  "Don't you ever, ever let me hear you call your mother a liar, do you understand me?" he said, wagging a finger in my face, and speaking in the most vicious tone of voice I'd ever heard.  Of course I nodded, still a little dizzy.  I wouldn't ever call her a liar again.  Even though that's exactly what she was.

A few months later, after we'd moved to a different house, I was on a shopping trip with my mother, and we had stopped in a parking lot, when she saw my father across the way.  "Hurry, hide," she said, and pulled me down out of sight in the front seat.  I wanted to call out to my father, and run to see him, but she seemed excited by somehow fooling him, or by escaping something -- there seemed something soiled, to me, in this game of hers, and I didn't like being part of it.  But I was part of it.

The shame comes from the truth being true.

In spite of all that I knew, about what was going on 'backstage' as it were, in my parents' marriage, I was still only a boy of nine when the family cracked into two segments, and then the segment to which I was attached was deposited at the orphanage.  In later life, I came to understand that, when children are institutionalized, they always assume the blame.  It is always the child's fault, no matter how hard the truck hit the car, no matter how flattened the house was by the tornado, no matter how many bullet holes one adult pumped into the other.  This mantle of shame and guilt is a pathetic grasp at somehow exerting, in retrospect, the most feeble thread of control, in a world that has otherwise proved to be unreliable, treacherous, whimsical and cruel.   And in spite of all the best-intentioned self-help books in the world, no child believes that bad things happen to good people, when the worst things in the world have already happened to that child.

We all of us, in that institution, were like vermin in a dumpster -- hating ourselves, hating each other for reminding us of ourselves, and then hating ourselves some more.  And the 'real' kids -- our classmates in the schoolrooms down the hill, who sat in desks next to ours -- knew there was something wrong with us too.  No one had to explain that to them.  There was, I guess, the scent of Sh2Gu3, that we could never wash off ourselves, or rinse from our clothes -- we'd become so inured to it that we didn't even smell it on each other, back in that big industrial dining room where we were reminded, every Sunday, to shine our shoes.

Now, at this point in my life, I honestly can't tell whether remembering is better than forgetting.  I don't know whether unreeling all these griefs is a wiser choice than otherwise to let them rot in hiding.  It does appear unassailable, however, that like the chemical model to which I allude, the facts and histories both generate woeful, unproductive emotions, and also serve as a kind of framework onto which these dismal feelings will crystalize without much apparent provocation.  Sometimes all it takes is a particular angle of the light, or the smell of pancakes, or a few notes of a song, and --hey presto! -- a fresh crop of shame is availablle, whether you like it or not.

I try, on a more deliberate level than ever, to 'normalize' my life experience, by referring in conversation (and appropriately, I hope) to 'the time I was in the orphanage', if the subject turns to growing eggplants, for example.  Or how often you buy your children new shoes.  But even now, there's a chill that sparkles through the talking, and if anyone does make a remark, it's invariably a semi-accusative 'Why were you there?'.  Because everyone knows that bad things simply don't happen to good children.       

So.  This has been the main struggle in my life, I think -- both to own, as my heritage and the basis of my identity, my peculiar history, while simultaneously attempting to shield others from the more troubling truths of how I've managed to survive, in such redundantly cruel surroundings.  I think that, without being at all aware of any inner bargaining, I had hoped that, by succeeding somehow, at something, my very real past would be transformed into some other story -- one to which I could point with pride.  But nothing I've managed to do has made even the smallest retroactive impact.  And even this imagining, having taken place in secret places in my heart, about which I obviously know so little -- even this imagining gives me a twinge of shame.  How could I manage to be so stupid?
Another week begins.  I'll try my best to crank up something approaching enthusiasm for something, for whole moments at a time.  Too close to my own surface, though -- too close for comfort -- sits the cold realization that none of this matters at all -- none of these pretended enjoyments will fix the things that could never have been fixed, from the moment they became reality.   All of this tangle is my own particular mess, and there's no one to clean it up but me.  A cleaning which, really, will make no difference, whether it's successfully executed or not. 
Oh, there's that stupid giraffe again, and the little basket of peaches.  Take care of it, would you mind?

 ©   2012            Walter Zimmerman    

Sunday, May 13, 2012

'That Day' Again

Well, it's 'that day' again.  And, as these things go, this one hasn't been as bad as others in the past.

For one thing, she's no longer some dream figure, hovering out in the San Francisco area.  I've seen her, at the door of her dilapidated double-wide trailer that faces onto a two-lane road outside a tiny town in rural Delaware.  Her bath robe -- a blue one this time, instead of the pink one she wore, all those years ago -- was filthy, smeared with brown steaks down the lapels. She refused to look me in the eye.  She later told my sister that 'he'd changed so much'.  Forty years will do that to a person. 

She also told her husband, finally, that yes, she had had other children besides the daughter he knew about -- that she'd disowned me because I 'turned out to be gay'.  She also admitted that she'd 'had some other sons', much the way one might admit to having gone to a fast-food restaurant from time to time.  That casual, that unimportant. 

So it can't be a great wonder that, even as a very little boy, I wasn't sure of her love.  She did tend to me when I was sick, I can't deny that.  But otherwise, there was, I think, always a sense that she was about to disappear -- there was an air she had, as she ran the wet laundry through the hand wringer in the basement at 222 South Jackson St., in Belleville IL, before taking another basket of flattened garments out to hang in the back yard, an air that this was all only temporary.  I think I sensed the sort of tension one might feel, watching an escape artist, underwater, struggling to free herself of her bonds, finally to pop to the surface for a breath of fresh free air, and run away. 

And then, poof -- she did.  She disappeared.  The treachery she'd promised, she delivered.  "I'm going to take one of you with me," she'd said, over and over.  And she did.  My brothers and I were dropped off at an institution, where women pinched and beat and sexually abused us.  And when my father remarried, we heard about her from other cruel women.  "She never loved you," they would tell us.  "She only wanted a girl," they would say.  "She never wanted you in the first place," they would tell me and my brothers -- this, in spite of the fact that none of these women had ever been in the same state at the same time at any time in their lives, let alone met and talked about their preferences in children.

I saw her again, in 1969, thirteen years after the divorce.  She and my sister were living in a little trailer, in a little suburb outside of Philadelphia.  On my ride to meet them, on the train and the bus, I was certain that she was there, watching me, deciding whether or not I looked like the sort of son she'd want to own.  When I saw her, coming out of the pet store that was our rendez-vous, I recognized her instantly, we look so much alike.  And my sister too, I recognized, because she looked so much like my father.  How ironic, I thought, that each should have taken the child that looked the most like the divorced spouse. 

We walked to the trailer -- she, much shorter than me, my sister trailing behind us -- where there was a simple dinner, and of course, awkward conversation.  Did I even mention the orphanage?  I don't remember.  I do remember that, because the trailer was warm, I took off my necktie, folded it, and lay it on a little end table beside my chair.  At one point, while my sister was telling me some high-school tale, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a hand slyly reaching across the little table, to the folded necktie, and flipping the end up, to check the label. 

I went out to the little suburb two more times.  On the last visit, as I was leaving, I was given a slim little gold-plated pocket watch.  "You know I love you," she said, and then shut the door.  I had a bus to catch, so I didn't have the time to ask just what that meant.

The watch was a piece of crap she probably stole from the jewelry counter where she worked as a sales clerk.  When I tried to reach her again, after I'd returned to college the next spring, there was no response.  When I called her parents two years later, to tell them that I'd gotten through school, and had a BS, they said she'd remarried and moved to California, and they didn't know how to get in touch with her.  I ran across town, in search of my best friend on earth.   I ended up at the door of other friends we had in common, and I broke down in front of them.  Heaving sobs, incoherent.  Unable to breathe, except to force out more tears.  These men brought me into their apartment, and let me cry for a while. 

"You can always find her," they said, meaning well.  "She's probably just as afraid of rejection as you are," they said, putting to use their Psych 101 class.  I think it was then that, finally, I was able to say something that made sense.

"I don't need a mother now," I said, emphatically.  "I need to have had a mother."

(The word, as you can see, is laden for me.  As it is, I'm sure, for my brothers, none of whom has laid eyes on this woman since 1956)

And it puzzles me, that the older I get, the more deeply I feel this retroactive wound of not having been cared for, not having been cared about, not having been acknowledged (after the divorce, my sister was strenuously told that those boys she remembered playing with weren't her brothers -- they were just boys from the neighborhood.  Until she believed it), of not having been valued.  And I have to say that, no matter what sort of accolade I might stumblingly allow myself to earn, no matter what accomplishment I might back into unawares, no matter what credentials I might have earned while disparaging the very effort involved -- none of these things seems to have any appreciable impact, in terms of balancing the great void of not-having-been-loved that is, it seems, the center of my being.  No praise, no kiss, no dollar amount, no number of column inches, does anything but tumble over the edge, into the abyss.  As I get older, my external defenses and interests and diversions shrink and pale and thin out, and the abyss, by comparison, seems to expand.  Intellectually, I know that I am unimaginably fortunate; the abyss, unfortunately, is a cold, implacable place that eats up rationality just as easily as it swallows degrees and exhibition credits.  

So.  I've decided that, given my bent for things grammatical (I don't need a mother; I need to have had a mother), next year I'm going to think of the second Sunday in May as 'Happy Mothers' Day.  And leave it at that.   

©  2012     Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Fasten Them If You've Got Them...

Why, what's this I see before me?  It looks like an imaginary sheet of blank paper.  I know I've seen imaginary sheets like this before...   And there was that thing I did, like I'm doing now, wiggling my fingers and making little marks... 

I think it's apparent, to me at least, that when Lent reached its culmination with Easter, it might have been better if I'd continued with some sort of, perhaps less rigorous, but at least regular writing regimen.  I've felt out of sorts, and kind of mentally flab-i-fied, if you will, since Easter, what with having various thoughts on various things, and not remembering that there was a place I could conveniently stash said notion.  (The likelihood of someone actually reading these many thoughts wasn't actually all that attractive, difficult as things have been of late...)

But today -- because I have far too much to do in the time allotted, and because I'm dealing with a very minor physical challenge that is consuming my focus and energy -- of course today I'm deciding to re-enter the pool of blogue-land, if only at the very shallow end.

So I'll start with my elbow.

My right elbow, for the accuracy-minded.  Although I can't be sure when my current challenge began, I suspect it might have been on an artist's visit and lecture that I gave, at Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, about a three weeks ago.  I'd been asked to come speak with the glass students at Tyler, visit the grad studios, and maybe do some glass blowing as well.  After the talk (which wasn't the dynamic success I'd hoped for, in my opinion), I allowed myself to be talked into working in the hot shop.  There, the first thing I did, to my eternal amazement, was to show off my t-shirt (from the famous Wet Dog Glass studio, formerly of New Orleans, and operated by a former school-mate of mine, Eddie Bernard), and then... I took the t-shirt off! 

Of course, I was wearing an athletic shirt underneath, as I always do, but I'm still quite amazed that it occurred to me that these college juniors would be at all interested in looking at the pacemaker scar in the skin of someone old enough to be their grandfather (and to spare, year-wise...); they seemed, if not shocked, at least intrigued as I told the story of the little spiral-ended wires burrowing into my heart -- nothing quite like bringing your own horror movie with you wherever you go, I guess -- and then I got dressed again, and made some glass pieces, to show these poor kids just how ugly an otherwise voluptuous and sensual material can get.  And so quickly too!

I worked, pretty much alone, as is my habit.  I hadn't done any hot shop work in over a year, and I'd been afraid I would break down sobbing as I took my first gather of hot glass.  Or maybe it would be as I was shaping it at the marver.  Well, in any event, tears did not flow, but sweat certainly did.  And there were those physical stresses unique to glass blowing.  After doing my little show'n'tell, I went back to my little show'n'hotel, and changed clothes for dinner out, spent a night worrying that the alarm wouldn't go off in the morning (which it didn't), and after a brief couple of student visits, I came back home again. 

I noticed that my right elbow was a little irritated just a few days later, but thought nothing of it.  Bought an elastic elbow brace (to go with the elastic knee brace.  Soon, I'll be shopping for the elastic 'whole right side of the body' brace...) and went on with life as usual.  Actually enjoying my return to the gym, after the post-pacemaker interim period had finally passed. 

But that right elbow kept getting a little sorer, and more prominent, and finally I went to see my doctor -- which visit being overdue, since she needs to know about the pacemaker too, I suppose.  But in a change from the usual run of things (you know -- you call in to work sick, and then instantly feel better?), when I took my shirt off to show the doctor the offending elbow, she looked shocked.  It was actually noticeably worse than it had been earlier that day.  She gave me an antibiotic shot, a prescription for more such medication, and referred me to a specialist in rheumatism and arthritis.  She also took a blood test, for possible gout.

The rheumatism doctor also seemed impressed when, the next day, I exhibited my own personal traveling freak show (Guaranteed Never Before Seen in North America, folks...); he decided to drain off some of whatever was... in... there, and said I should come back on Monday, if necessary.

Well, blah blah blah.  I did have to go see him again on Monday, in his office in another North Jersey city in that seamless conglomeration of human habitation hugging the Hudson at that latitude.  (Who knew there was a West Kennedy Boulevard and an East Kennedy Boulevard?  Where I'd lived, there was only... Kennedy Boulevard.  So much more refined)  Found the doctor.  Showed him the activity, which had extended to swelling of my right hand and upper arm.  More... material removed, perhaps to be tested for... something.  But the doctor said he felt fine, and that I had nothing to worry about.
Continue the medication, hot compresses.  Live long and prosper.

Well, now it's back, and in my opinion, worse than before.  I went back to the cheery rheumatologist, who confided that he felt he has the best job on earth, and that he loves his life, while I was wondering if I could still get over-the-counter rat poison at that little family-run Ace Hardware on Duncan Avenue.  He was surprised I'd only been given a week's worth of antibiotics (because surely, a week of having your intestines scrubbed on a daily basis isn't really long enough in this vale of tears), and called in a three-week supply, cheerily waved me on my way, and went back to the best job on earth.

So.  I'm now tethered to a heating pad, which works intermittently at best.  I had to improvise a means of actually affixing said pad, because the 'designers' have only attached some decorative cotton ribands (sic) with which to hold their wimpy product close to the human body presumably in need of such warmth as their 'product' may decide to supply -- perhaps they thought that no one ever needs to heat an upper limb?  Or, that everyone purchasing their product has live-in help, and after the farthingale has been tied on, what's another couple of bow-knots in the grand scheme of things?  I used something I think I saw in the second section of the Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn, after the wild warg ride (which didn't happen in the book) fell to his near-death in a river (never happened), only to be rescued by his preternaturally savvy horse (guess what -- didn't happen), so he could ride back to the seige of Helm's Deep.  Which, in a rare departure, actually did happen in the book.  (Only differently)  And as he was riding off on his oh-so-smart horse, he was loop-knotting a bandage onto his left arm.  Aha!

So, I've used the arm-loops of an athletic shirt (could it be the same one I showed off in the Tyler hot shop?  Stranger things have happened) to lash this whimsical heating device to my right arm, and I'm about to embark on stage two of the deepest housecleaning of several years, to prepare for... houseguests.  Who Must Never Know.

But I don't want to talk about that whole issue at present.  I want to mention a realization I had last night, as I was, once again, relashing the soi-dissant heating pad to my arm.   I was thinking of a themed group art exhibit in which I participated, some time ago, in a Hudson Street gallery that was later turned into a shop for maternity wear, when babies became fashionable again.  In the deep recesses of the pre-pregnancy period, the gallery liked to show off-beat and 'edgy' things, and the curator suggested that we contributors think about the writings of Jorge Luis Borges as we made or selected our works for the show.  As I happened at the time to be in something of a Jorge Luis Borges moment in my life, this seemed singularly apt.

So I made a wall-dependent piece, featuring three average-sized (think, your usual adult liver) pieces of blown glass, all of which had been made at different times in what was then the recent past.  In something I found truly uncanny, given the unpredictable way in which I work, two of those pieces seemed to have undergone exactly the same sort of blistering damage to their outer surfaces -- the only difference being that one of these looked older, more fragile and decrepit than the other.  I found a slightly smaller, fresher-looking glass thingie, which practically oozed the stupid optimism of youth, and voila -- Section Two was born!  It evokes a kind of hospital ward - scientific lab kind of feeling, with three slant-topped shelves each holding one of the glass pieces.  Left to right, we see: optimistic youthful slightly sickie-looking one; mature, more inured, definitely sickie one; old, broken open, hopeless one, with a stained bit of cheesecloth under it.  The three separated from each other by two stained plastic curtains, also affixed to the walls.  More stage-dressing is involved -- tangles of wires under each shelf, mysterious circular metal basins covered in plastic; towels of differing degrees of cleanliness.  That sort of thing. 

I thought it was brilliant, and I rarely like my own work.  It helped me talk about past/present/future, all at the same time, all in one piece, Something, I thought, Sr. Borges would have liked, fond as he was of playing with concepts of human time and space.

But not all viewers agreed.   Oh no, my precious.  They didn't agree at all.  One man was very angry because, in the listing of works provided by the gallery, my piece was listed as the ninth work he would see.  "But what are all these two's all over the place" he asked, "if it's supposed to be number nine?  How am I supposed to know what I'm looking at?"  He wasn't going to buy anything anyway.

And there was another group -- two women and a man, as I recall, who reached a certain point along the floor of this long, narrow gallery, and then stopped.  Stopped cold, even though the wine was beyond my work, out on the back patio.  Even the lure of zinfandel could not entice them any closer.  They had their heads together conspiratorially, as though they were electing a pope.  And at moments where the background hum of the chain saw chewing up a bowling ball died down a bit, I could pick up bits of their hissed conversation.  "Excrement"  "Bodily wastes.  Urine"  "Disgusting"  Then, to my recollection, they left.  Not having bought anything either.

But their comments made me think, somewhat sanctimoniously I now realize -- did any of them have someone they loved?  Did any one of them suspect, in the least, that someone they loved might become ill, or injured, or need some kind of physical caring?  Were they only prepared to love their loved ones if there wasn't anything wrong with them?  In an odd way, this bit of art-provoked psychodrama on their part (which, in my own defense, I don't think I misinterpreted at all) helped me feel more assured about the sort of work I had been doing, and continued to do.  What do you do, when the worst things happen?  How do you react to these ordinarily subcutaneous realities, when they come spilling forth, unceremoniously and having no consideration for schedule or my narrow convenience?

As it happens -- and perhaps this is due to my being the oldest in a family of seven kids, with two being, at 12 and 13 years younger, practically my own children -- I don't generally have much trouble, that I've noticed, with the occasional eruption of this or that 'unpleasantness' (to borrow from Barbara Pym); Generally, I tend to the calm rearrangement of proprieties, along with the usual soothing noises and the odd hot or cool towel as needed.

But.  No.  Such.  Compassion.  For.  Me.

And this, (whoever out there is still with me, this is for you), this is where all my orotundity has been leading -- to my very recent head-on collision with my own very deep, very passionate, very unflinching lack of sympathy for my own body and my own physical failings.  From the way I'm reacting to this elbow drama (a staph infection, though from one of the more common types, not the one in the movies with Dustin Hoffman) you'd think I'd grown a second head that sported a singularly unpleasant complexion and badly-aligned teeth.  I don't feel safe when I'm sick.  I don't feel valuable when I'm not capable.  I feel unacceptably vulnerable if I can't hold my grocery basket in one hand, as an older woman shopper noticed me doing the other day.  And this mind-set is not amusing, because the temporal waters into which my little physical bark is headed has the worst rapids I will ever have faced -- and I've already almost died twice in my life that I know of.   Three times if you listen to the hysterical cardiac specialist...

So, this is where I am (plus I do have to finish, so I can run to the bank, to get money so I can pay the handyman for mowing the lawn, so he won't come asking for cash at 10 o'clock at night because his grandmother died again); If I'm willing to be so judgmental about people who can't approach my artwork (which, by the way, is totally composed of man-make, inorganic materials, and only refers to the ideas which the viewers themselves create), without getting nauseated and offended, might I not think about trying to scrounge up a little bit of sympathy... for my own physical rendition?  I made fun of the pacemaker, as a defense against its terrifying message.  It's cute to show it off, because the scar is so negligible, and it looks like  I've got an emergency saltine stashed under my skin, just in case.  But this red, rude swollen joint of mine, with the skin peeling off, and my right hand looking like it belongs on a 300-lb version of yours truly, with which I can't even touch my own face, not that I would want to, with a hand like that -- with this, I find, it's much more difficult to have anything even remotely resembling acceptance, let alone sympathy. 

In all probability, this infection episode will pass.  (Either that, or I'll need a prosthesis.  In which case, stand back)  But this does, nonetheless, feel like just one of the very first bumps.  And I don't think there are any seat belts in my little canoe.              

©  2012       Walter Zimmerman