My friend and I were talking about love and loss, writing blocks and flows, the psycho-therapeutic process (specifically what frustrates us about it), emotions and embodiment and various other things. This was our collaborative preamble in advance of getting to the topic that was the purpose of our meeting yesterday afternoon. At some point during our pre-ambling a book appeared from her bag, Glass, irony & god, by classicist and poet Anne Carson. My friend asked me if I had read it. I hadn’t. She recommended I check out the first piece, “The Glass Essay,” a strange long-form poem which she felt I would resonate to because of its bold approach to human complexity. It turns out that the poem/essay is about relationships, relationships between daughters and mothers, between lovers, between the past and the present, between time and place and space, between the reader and what is read.
The poem is epic, but not so long that it couldn’t be read in one sitting, which is usually my approach to reading poetry, short stories and essays – I like to immerse myself in them, read from beginning to end without interruption except perhaps to make a cup of tea, as you can continue to read while you do that. (Though you should see the nasty burn I acquired on my right wrist from reaching my arm across the stream coming out of the boiling kettle in order to grab my favorite green mug. You know you aren’t as situated in present awareness as you need to be when you don’t know that you’ve burned yourself until someone – let’s say your daughter — asks you – let’s say on the drive to school — what happened to your wrist and you realize suddenly that you have a big angry blister, and once you actually acknowledge the blister’s existence you realize that it hurts, and not just a little. Then, like a forensic scientist, you have to search your memory for evidence of the incident leading to the injury. Oh! The steam coming out of the tea kettle! You remember you were reaching for your favorite mug while reading an essay. Mystery solved.).
So, I just finished the “The Glass Essay.” It took me a total of seven hours, give or take, from start to finish. In between starting and finishing reading Carson’s essay I read something else, meditated, showered, ate a small meal, washed dishes, vacuumed and swept the floors, folded clothes, did some online teaching, ran to the market, took a nap, ate another small meal, worked on updating my mommy’s resume, and engaged in various conversations via texting, email, Facebook, and phone.
It took me seven hours to read Carson’s poem because I could only stay immersed for so long without beginning to cry or rant about love and loss. I could only sustain my attention on her carefully wrought words for so long without feeling like my heart was going to burn a hole through my chest. At first I felt bad that I couldn’t abide with the poem for very long, but I figured that Carson would rather I read her poem how ever long it took me rather than not read it at all (that’s how I imagine I’d feel, if I were her, and if she were me), so I read it in the manner I was able to, and despite the arduous emotional journey it took me on, I’m glad I read it, I’m glad my friend suggested to me that I read it. I found it to be incredibly inspiring and I feel less isolated in my love and loss than I was before I read it. I look forward to reading Carson’s poem again in one fell swoop now that I know what’s in store for me (but only to some extent, because even when I re-read a text with which I have an intimate relationship I still discover new things about it and myself.).
I wish I could write such a thing, a poem called an essay that is at once deeply personal and philosophical, which takes on big perennial ideas and the immediate messiness of human experience. I wish I could thank Carson for helping me suss some stuff. Oh! And as I write this it occurs to me that my friend may have had at least one ulterior motive in suggesting I read the poem! So, instead I’ll thank her—Thank you, friend.
Before my time with my friend yesterday afternoon I spent the morning with my mommy. She’s had to leave a job about which she cares a great deal (and fought to keep when the agency she previously worked for closed abruptly) because her older client, who is increasingly unable to control his behaviors due to a degenerative disease, couldn’t keep his hands off her body. And because bathing, cleaning up after, and caring for him, and being at his wife’s beck-and-call, was completely exhausting for her.
My mommy is an elder taking care of even older elders and as much as she loves being a caregiver, bringing happiness and comfort to others, the costs are exceeding the benefits. But my mommy has no choice but to work part-time for pay in order to be able to make her rent and have a semblance of comfort in her “later years.” So we spent the morning together strategizing and problem solving and catching up with each other.
Our first task was to take a field trip to the downtown Portland Social Security office. My mommy didn’t realize until I mentioned it to her that she qualifies for spousal benefits given that she was married to my father for twenty-five years, with the proviso that 50% of his benefit is more than the benefit she receives based on her own employment history. We discovered that in fact her current monthly benefit exceeds 50% of my father’s monthly benefit. Given how small my mommy’s monthly benefit is, the news that my father receives so little that 50% of it would be less than what my mother receives in full was a bit sobering, but it makes sense, given his employment history. Bottom-line: No additional resources to be found courtesy of federal entitlement programs. (Sometimes it pays to have a gerontologist in the family. Sometimes it does not.)
To discover this news my mommy had to supply certain information to the Social Security personnel – my father’s name, social security number, birth date, and place of birth. She didn’t have his social security number. As she gave his birth date, I realized about a beat before she turned to me to tell me that today, March 16th, is his sixty-eighth birthday. My father and I are what in common parlance is referred to as “estranged.” We haven’t seen each other in over twenty years (I am not sure of the exact number, but it hasn’t been since I was in my early twenties, before my mother divorced my father). We haven’t spoken for three years, and he’s never met my daughter Isobel.
After our trip to the Social Security office, my mommy and I brainstormed for awhile about other kinds of work she might like to do. My favorite of her ideas was “Running fast with little kids.” We did some searches on the Web—Portland Parks and Recreation, a couple of job search sites. We also created a Facebook posting and put it on each of our profiles, asking our friend to keep their eyes and ears open for opportunities for my mommy. We’ve already received some fantastic ideas!
After we attended to our tasks my mommy wanted to walk home from my house to her apartment, so Happy and I ambled with her as far as the edge of the park. While we walked we fantasized about how cool it would be if we were a non-profit and everyone we knew could contribute $20 per month (or at whatever level worked for their budget) to support my mommy in working as my personal assistant. The only problem is that we aren’t a real non-profit, so there wouldn’t be a tax benefit to our generous donors. Nonetheless, this little fantasy has particular resonance given that my mentor, who has expertise in consulting about fundraising with non-profit organizations, has referred to me affectionately and in jest as “a small non-profit.” You know, I’m only five foot two inches tall…
Today is my father’s birthday. And I’m working on my mommy’s resume to help her in her job search. And I’m thinking about love and loss.
I’ll end with some of Anne Carson’s “subtle and surprising” words:
What is prior?
What is love?
My questions were not original.
Nor did I answer them.
Mornings when I meditated
I was presented with a nude glimpse of my lone soul,
not the complex mysteries of love and hate.