Essays

Fending Off Madness


February 2015. My life in New England consists of the following: waking up, coffee, an evaluation of which of the day’s tasks demands immediate attention. Usually writing. Then battling winter’s onslaught of obstacles: the mound of ice at the entrance to my house which is obscured by huge lethal-looking icicles, so powerful they have locked the screen door in a position that only allows me maybe a foot of width in order to get in and out. Sometimes I have to cram packages–on my way to the antiques shop or to the shipping center–through this unforgiving passage, down icy stairs, onto the icy driveway and eventually into the back of my truck, which has suddenly started doing strange things like remaining in four wheel drive though I haven’t selected it, and, worse, refusing to start at all, usually after a long work day when it is dark and I am hungry and there is no one around to provide a jump except the horrible, belligerent husband of the psychic across the alley who reluctantly agrees to assist me once I have pulled my jumper cables from the unopened packaged and he sees the wires are so long he can not come up with an excuse to refuse tapping the battery of his brand new, limo-length white Cadillac idling in the spot next to my dirty pick-up.

My house, which was once tidy and inviting, is always a jumble of cardboard packages, shipping materials like Styrofoam peanuts, sheets of bubble wrap always popping underfoot, broken brass antiques I am trying to repair because I feel convinced of their intrinsic value and entitlement to another stab at relevance. Too, there are books along with jewelry I take off at the end of the day and leave in little piles everywhere, finally gathering them on my day off and placing them at the bottom of the stairs to my bedroom, where they remain and remain until I notice them and finally carry them in my open palm upstairs, dumping them into an old toolbox in which I carelessly house my small collection of earrings and rings, watches, and a couple of necklaces. There is no order to this existence, nothing about it seems to reflect my philosophy–possibly because the specifics of that philosophy, which I recall only as a wonderfully melancholy winsome, has been deleted from my memory like a file I forgot to save. Was there ever a philosophy? Or was life just continuous and taken for granted along with the inevitable change of seasons, an adequate supply of oxygen and water, and the illuminated low tire pressure symbol in my truck, which I ignore, resulting from a malfunctioning electrical system.

Writing was always my reason for being, along with my dog, once a German Shepherd mix named Zen, with whom I lived for 15 years, my longest and most successful relationship. Now I live with Pluto, a 9-pound Jack Russell terrier who daily exceeds all my expectations, confounding me with her profound sensitivity to my emotional upheaval. She echoes my boredom at the shop these days, suddenly refusing to greet customers as she has reliably seemed thrilled to do, instead opting to sleep on the antique furniture rather than settling for her little bed under the cherry table in the corner. Suddenly she is incorrigible and rebellious, and not charming the customers like they expect, externalizing what I feel inside but can not show, especially at work. At home she seems sad, watching me as I wander through the micro-world of my little cabin on a hill, trying to pay bills I can’t afford and carry more logs in, clean the kitchen over and over, decide whether I am presentable enough to answer the phone–never mind the door, though it is rare that anyone in my town shows up unannounced. I have not lost my vanity; that is the problem. When you lose your mind but your vanity remains intact, there exists a formidable dilemma that can keep you trapped in the house all winter long, or until someone contacts the authorities.

In 2012, the year my mother died, my first novel, which features a lesbian protagonist but attempts to address themes like art and mental illness and the destructive power of family and social convention and popular culture… to name just a few topics I hit upon… was published by a small lesbian press that was trying to do the right thing, to widen its focus. It all seemed good, seemed to be what a writer hopes will result from years of hard work. But I soon learned that I was expected to participate in all sorts of strange rituals–relay blogs in which faux interviews with others of the publisher’s authors would be posted on my blog and I would, in turn, give them things to put on theirs, as if we’d had a friendly conversation or even read each others’ books. Worse was the requisite Facebook Overexposure and appearances with other lesbian authors whose writing was more tailored to the press’s readership–happier, lesbian-focused work that for years has been gobbled up by readers who are devoted to this particular genre called “lesbian romance.” The back of my book was marred, in my opinion, with a reductive blurb written by the publishers, which I did not have the sense, experience, or confidence to read before it went to print. Over and over I see people in my shop pick up the book, which is beautifully designed with an intriguing title and photograph on the cover, read the back blurb, and put it down again, assuming it is not literary, but rather genre-pulp. This is not the future I wanted for my writing.

I wanted to write about a lesbian, because for the most part, that is one descriptor of my person, but I also was writing about being an artist, about suffering, about the absurdity of artistic criticism and the insistence on suffocating art with fabricated meaning where the true meaning is unknown, often because the artist is dead. We love dead artists. We love that they could not do it, could not do what the rest of us manage to slog through. They may have been brilliant at their art, whatever it was, but they sucked at life and this is why we prefer them to living, successful, seemingly unscathed artists. Dead artists are mysterious and almost like seers–we look to their work to tell us what we can’t figure out. But they are dead–which is kind of like being itinerant and blind in a Greek tragedy–and probably, when they were alive, no one thought they had much to offer in the way of higher, ethereal knowledge. Somehow death elevated them and their art.

These days I listen almost exclusively to Gospel music even though I am a Jew. My siblings, who have a different father–I don’t know why I feel the need to say that–are what I call “Jewy Jews.” One is a cantor; one is a professor of Jewish history. Though the latter is non-observant, he is fervent and takes Jewishness seriously. Both are partnered with non-Jews; like me, they never go out with Jews. I think this is interesting and speaks to a neuroses of some sort, or perhaps it is simply an effort to escape a family comprised almost entirely of fractious, miserable people who, in the end, realized they really wanted nothing to do with each other. Each person in my family exists in relationship to the others as a satellite, and like satellites we are rotating around the same planet, preventing any of us from ever meeting up or breaking away. Perhaps all of us everywhere are satellites, slaves to something.

I listen to Gospel music–mostly Mavis Staples, a CD given to me by my friend Barb (little did she know it would become the music I listened to in my truck, in my shop, even through a little speaker as I try to sleep at night). The songs, for example: “No one knows the trouble I’ve seen. No one knows but Jesus…” or, my favorite, which describes what a mean miser receives upon his arrival in heaven: “Rusty old halo; skinny white cloud; second-hand wings full of patches … robe that’s so woolly it scratches” often begin slowly, the organ coming in as it would in church, then break into full rocking celebration. It is so upbeat, so rhythmic, it is–or was, until recently–capable of lifting my mood from its trench of despair. These days, perhaps because I played the record too many times, I boost isn’t as dependable; the celebration of crushing despair does not always seem to apply to me. Yet I keep listening; what other options do I have?

I begin another day in February in New England. My goal is to take Pluto for a walk–something I hate to do when the temperature is below 20 degrees. Then I have to get myself to the RMV and try not to collapse as I face the tired and hardened inquisition of civil servants. But I have this Shasta camper, l961, gutted on the inside, for which I overpaid, that I want to register because I have this idea that I can live in it. It is only 12-feet long and will be pulled by my malfunctioning truck, which I suppose is another thing I must attend to. But if I live in my little hippie camper can I finally be free of whatever it is that has me chained and bound? Or is the prison inside me? I tell myself I can escape because I have to believe something will take the terror away. I write, of course, but I’ve seen where that leads… so I opt for a far-fetched and impractical dream which I can embellish and modify as needed in my desperation to fend off madness.

 

One thought on “Fending Off Madness

  1. Pingback: Managing the Sadness | I Can't Go On... I'll Go On

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