Posted Saturday, March 24, 2018 (Image from Freepik.com)
From the workshop at UNH’s Browne Center we walked in silence to the lotus pond: a heartless drowning of trees, the cannibalization of a once proud wood lot. Here blackened trees disintegrate, their crowns falling into the basin, their necrotic limbs dropping. At last, every decapitated tree will collapse into the pond’s shallow silk and reigning pink lotuses, with their retinue of companionate birds and amphibians will blossom more grandly, as if they had always been there. They will claim and bless the soft scarf of sky from which the trees had reached patiently, some for over a hundred years.
Call me the queen of unmindful happiness. Often, I revel in patches of thought that grow weedy and blur as I jog or drive past cruel beauties like the lotus pond. Neither mindful nor present, the Zen of my nose, my eyes and my ears dull to a trance. In a somnambulist’s haze, I drift on rafts of ideas, buoyant, and sedated in the half light of walking, showering, or waking to the dawn lit lake. I have not achieved oneness with anything, only disappeared entirely: slipped from my body, moods, and orientation in time and space. In the here of this consciousness, a spider weaves silky connections between disparate experiences, visions, unexamined tales, dream sequences, long gone songs. This worm hole of metaphor, neologisms, shadow and innuendo, the illegitimate child of a fully awake consciousness, attracts me–its stupor, its quiescence.
“Aware” and “awake” blink green for mindful living—that much extolled aliveness in the moment where past delights and foibles no longer have narratives, and someone has turned off the neon lights of if-only and when-I destinations. Engage your gaze, open your ears, and breathe in the scents of now, and silence that “monkey chatter,” because the brain, apparently, does not know what it is doing! It needs to shut up. Mulling, musing, rolling around in the manure of thoughts may even hold our transcendent happiness hostage, offering the lesser three-star rated version only.
Of course, a miraculous duct work of senses connects us to our surround in the most intimate, vibrant way. We have bodies. Bodies house both the sensory infrastructure as well as those mischievous minds that sometimes stay up all night and shiver or party, and then expect us to function the next day.
Bodies ebb and flow within a relentless tide of discontent and satisfaction. We want food, warmth, movement, sleep, refreshment, contact, entertainment, a great half-pounder of something meaty and profound–with or without the bun—sometimes well done, sometimes rare. Who does not fill and empty, wake and sleep, focus, fall into distraction, apply effort, relax?
“The essence of man is discontent, divine discontent; a sort of love without the beloved, the ache we feel in a member we no longer have.”—Jose Ortega y Gasset
My mother died mid-sentence. She thought she had a few more years, so left the world unprepared, determined not to finish what she started. Amazon had received her order for the next book club title, two Sunday papers—the Boston Globe and the New York Times—came as always to the stoop outside her front door, and she had penciled in an appointment for one of her few remaining therapy clients, as well as her piano tuner, for the week following her death. She’d even circled the Matisse exhibit on the MFA circular, though it would have meant attending in a wheelchair. At 88 she still had ambitions: baby showers, marriages, graduations, holidays to celebrate; new books; interpreting the political turbulence pre-election; courses to take at the lifelong learning center; and lots more conversations with us about technology, history, literature, music, and how was your week dear?
“Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there’s time, the Bastard Time.” –John Steinbeck
She floated away like a helium balloon let go by accident. No goodbyes, final words, last-minute wisdom. Just her small arthritic fingers lightly on the covers; soft hair—some white, some honeyed brown–fanned on the pillow. The bookcase clock facing her so she could know the time of day or night when her body had given up meals and routines.
At several minutes past nine on Wednesday July 26th I walked out of my office. As I approached my car a woman pulled into the nearly empty parking lot in a silver Volvo sedan and pushed open her door. Leaning against it, she looked up; then at me.
“Look! The international space station is passing overhead.” And sure enough, a barely discernible dark shape with a dazzlingly bright light arced noiselessly overhead.
“My friends think I’m a little crazy,” she said, to which I responded: “Maybe that’s a good thing, a little craziness.”
“I’ve done this before. It only takes six minutes for that space station to cross the sky.”
As I drove home I thought of Keenan, telling me that afternoon about stopping at an adult book store on his way home, where a woman caught his eye. He perused the store and circled back to catch her gaze again. They went into a booth at the back and had sex, just like in a movie. So, as anyone would expect, who works these kinds of conversations for a living, we talked about goal gradients–the way anticipation quickens the pulse and thickens the breath, adds weight to your foot on the gas pedal as you near. . .the cheap tacos I lusted for on my way home, tasting minimally better than their grease stained wrappers, those crisp corn clefts layered with runny meat, wilted lettuce, shredded cheese and a lopsided blob of sour cream. I should have brought with me shelled pistachios and banana, my stomach retaliating with pricks of guilt.
Only six minutes to cross the sky, to have sex with a stranger, to fill a fast-food hunger. A little crazy. The length of time to bait or quell temptation. Oh, restless passenger, desire. You appear wherever you see an empty seat, a blank page; I could go on and on.
As long as my mother lived she kept a one pot coffee maker, and in the guest bathroom a box of tampons for any visiting woman in need. My mother was a woman with whom you could cry or bleed. Three days before she died the hospice social worker, Marianne, came to visit and they sat together in the bedroom. I heard Marianne ask, Do you know what’s happening? My mother nodded, but as their visit ended, asked, Will I see you again?
Marianne said she’d like that. In the living room Marianne spoke with me and my sisters, and when she got up to leave, had left a bright red stain on the white couch–a midcentury piece of furniture bought shortly after my parents moved into their first home, but that had been reupholstered twice since then. Embarrassed, she had begun to menstruate just then.
“It’s perfect,” I said. My mother would be happy for you to have this. I got her a tampon and daubed at the blood on the white couch with cold water and dish detergent. The blood disappeared more quickly than I hoped possible. But so many disappearances in life seem faster than I imagine.
This is one of the reasons I write. A lot. A physical thing, like chewing gum or fiddling with hair. My hands tap-tap on the keyboard. Much fumbling and tripping occurs, but occasionally a piece of choreography feels like real dancing. All the tiny muscles of the hands coordinate, their actions attenuating through biceps, shoulders, and neck. The words hold on to a transpiration as best as words can hold on to anything.
Two days before my mother died she said again, but this time grabbing my hand, “I’m not ready.”
I gently massaged her hand. “I know.”
Frances Mayes’ ‘Sister Cat’ so purr-ely, places our noses in the quintessential scent of divine discontent.
Cat stands at the fridge,
Cries loudly for milk.
But I’ve filled her bowl.
Wild cat, I say, Sister,
Look, you have milk.
I clink my fingernail
Against the rim. Milk.
With down and liver,
A word I know she hears.
Her sad meow. She runs
To me. She dips
In her whiskers but
Doesn’t drink. As sometimes
I want the light on
When it is on. Or when
I saw a woman walking
Toward my house and
I thought there’s Frances.
Then looked in the car mirror
To be sure. She stalks
The room. She wants. Milk
Beyond milk. World beyond
This one, she cries.
We, seers and seekers, antithetically propertied, toggle and slip, delay and propel. To love such brinksmanship, yes. . . happiness.