Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Letter To A Good Book

My Dearest Book, My Beloved,

I know I have left you alone for a long time now. Before you give up on me completely, let me explain.

My actions, I understand, are hurtful. It is only natural that you feel abandoned; it would be odd if you didn't. I have abandoned you--in the way you conceive of abandonment. I have left you alone. I haven't taken you out in a long time. I have barely touched you, and when I have thought of you, it has always been with the heaviness that comes of imagining how hard it will be to console you, and to reestablish an ease and peacefulness between us. You are too smart and know me way too well for me to hide this from you--your telepathy sees through my defenses and excuses, my sophistries and lies. I can't hide from you--nor do I really want to, no matter what I may say to myself some mornings. I want you; you know it. We can both count on that.

But that is unfair! you say. That lets you off so easily.

I know. I want to see how much I can get away with. You know that.

Stop it! I'm too smart...

I know what you're going to say. That it isn't enough for you to be the only one who really knows me--that's for teenagers. But you are the one who really knows me; I'm the one who is trying to know you. That's no easy task. You keep telling me you are simple, but I find you as complex as they come. You seem all over the place to me. Your looks, your mood, your tone, your behavior--everything has changed in the time I've known you. You are a challenge! Yes, I want that. Yes, that attracts me. I want to know you as well as you know me. When that happens, I believe other people will see us as a couple that couldn't be kept apart, in spite of the difficulty it took for us to be together. We have to be brave. You have to be brave enough to wait for me. I have to be brave enough to set everything else aside for you. Together we have to be brave enough to do what is necessary to become as one. We have to lock ourselves in a room. We have to put each other first.

I know this. I want this. But I am not ready.

Please, Book, try to understand. I knew I wouldn't be able to give you the attention you deserve during the semester, that too many other responsibilities would keep us apart. I have also learned that spending time with you under those conditions doesn't work out well. I am too distracted, and can't keep all of you in mind, as you deserve. You deserve, merit, require my full and undivided attention. When I cannot give it to you, when I can only touch part of you, I get confused. I start to pull you apart. I rage at you. I want to stay away on purpose! You, of course, feel all of this, and you ask for an explanation of my behavior. I, in turn, get frustrated. Why are you so impatient? Haven't I told you you are the most important book in my life? Haven't I promised I will never leave you? Haven't I assured you I am always thinking of you even if I can't be with you? Why can't you remember my reassurances? It's me who has the problem, not you. I need to work it out. Yes, I do feel better when I am with you. But from here to there is a long way--or so it feels. My better self knows it is not.

I know you wanted to spend time together on Christmas. Well, I'm sorry. But Book--don't you know that we will have our Christmases together in the future? Please have faith in me. I love you, even if I don't always say so.

My dearest Book, we love each other most, and therefore want most from the other. You behave toward me the way you want me to behave toward you, and vice versa. You ask for more of my attention, greater consistency, whereas I want to be carefree with you, and come and go as I please. Pick you up and put you down on my time, not yours. Yes, I could reach out to you everyday, if only in a sentence--but I don't want to! Not now. I want to be with you without care--freely! I know you think these are my terms, but they are a luxury for me, and I appreciate them. You are so steadfast. 

Listen, Book--I've never had what we have. Never trusted any book to do this for me. Always felt like I had to perform in order to be safe and loved. You love me deeply enough and are courageous enough to grant me this space. I know it is a lot to ask--especially as you legitimately need me to be with you. I understand. You say you will never be able to reach your potential--we will never reach ours--under those conditions. I know you are right, even if I argue against that. I will do things with you, make you central, take you to bed with me, even if I protest that I won't. Just not yet. Please let me do things my way for now without putting up a fight. I have never been able to do that before. My file drawers are filled with books that have left me, or that I have left because I was afraid they were going to betray me. Please let me have a long leash right now, knowing you are with me. I really am with you and you alone. I may entertain the idea of other projects, but that doesn't mean what you think it does. I am wholly yours.

Book, it has taken me a long time to begin to see you clearly, and I am not there yet. I am trying. I was scared of you for years, because I knew you'd demand of me what I've never done before; to tell the truth. But you--you give me the strength to do what should be done--what I have always wanted to do. Do you have any idea what that means to me? Of course you do. Maybe better than I know it myself. You are so often ahead of me.

Book, I know you want to be with me now. I promise I will spend some time with you during this break. I want to tell you about Aristotle's Poetics, which I just reread. It applies to us. Let me show you what I mean about this. Let's draw a map together, all right? Won't that be fun for us? I want to do something to make you happy. Something you can live off of for...a while.

We have so much between us, so much feeling, so much comprehension, so much love. Trust me. I'll work this out. Soon it will be all about us. Don't pay attention to anything you may hear about me. You know me. You get me. I will get you, too, I promise. That's all that matters.

Love, Your Person

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I have always defended a person's right to commit suicide, if it can be called a right. Or a choice. It seems so when people seek out a Dr. Kavorkian to help them. I believe that there is a biological imperative toward suicide in mammals that sits inside the genes of some of us. It is a cousin to the death that sits inside us all. We don't have the choice whether or not to die, and some of us don't have a choice about whether or not to commit suicide. It comes, and is carried out.
Yesterday I learned of the suicide of a person I once knew well. It wasn't a surprise that he killed himself; I still have his ID card from Shepard Pratt. He wore that caul all along.
I have always talked about him from the perspective of the end of our relationship, when he was heading for a breakdown, and violent. He threw me down a set of stairs through a glass door--thinking I was his mother, and hurling at me (hurling me) the rage he felt toward her. "You loved Betsy more than me!" Then he tried to run over me with his car. My best friend was with me, and we still speak of it often. Yesterday, when we were remembering him, I reminded her that I had seen him a couple of years later sitting on a bench on Locust Walk, at Penn. I was seriously ill, on my way into the hospital where I'd remain for 10 days on an IV drip of antibiotics. He wanted to talk to me. I couldn't stop. My friend said he probably assumed I didn't recognize him when he wasn't behind the wheel of his car.
Dark humor. That was a joke he'd have laughed at.
He was the most charismatic, wittiest, coolest boy in our college. Older than me. Irresistible and wildly destructive. I have a picture of him that portrays his characteristic style: a faded blue shirt, khakis also faded worn low on his hips, an alligator belt, his face pointing toward the ground, hands pushed into his pockets, his hair cut in curls around a long thin face. Louche and slouchy. Absurdly thin with veined arms that made you want to be a vampire. Somehow he always seemed to be on the post office steps. You'd say hello, and that lowered head would raise like a horse's heavy head, and in a moment he'd be laughing from deep inside that concave chest. Did I mention the cigarette? There was always a cigarette, dangling from his mouth or pinched between the tips of his fingers.
He groaned when he read. He was picky, and poor writing tortured him. His female fans wrote his papers for him. We all had a laugh when he became a successful magazine editor and writer. Who was his ghost then?
He took me to Disney World when it first opened. Can you imagine going there with a person like that? It tortured him, too. Yet it had to be done. He was from Florida and he had to exorcise Florida. He became a New Yorker, in with the in crowd.
He took me to Martha's Vineyard and disappeared every day. Finally he told me he was going to the gay beach, just out of curiosity. There were many women after me, before he became gay. Perhaps we were all a curiosity too.
I don't think it means anything to describe him.
There was an explanation for his suicide, but those explanations always come from the rationalizations of the living, to make the mystery of self erasure less confusing.
Suicides of sacrifice are far more accepted than suicides that seem to be made of sorrow. One unselfish, the other private. We are terribly afraid of what we don't know about another person, or ourselves. The idea that this lives inside is so threatening it is literally criminalized.
But maybe they are coming, coming from the beginning, like all of death.
I have written all this down the way I always write this blog, in a fast unfurling of a skein I've yet done nothing with. This is only partly elegiac. It's also about something else.
It's about being thrown through a glass door, and feeling ashamed of it. I tell the first part of the story, but not about that feeling. It's sickening, sad, and confusing. Like knowing a person is gone.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Sweet Boy

Tuffy Loved The Beach
Animals find you. Cats, always: they choose.
But dogs, too. Dogs charm their way in. They know
You're a sucker for a big-eyed grin, a lick on the hand.
Animals find you. They don't just appear in your home
By accident. They come out of the woods, out of the wild,
to be close to the hearth. You think you don't want a pet.
You say you want to travel light, unencumbered. You're free
To stay out late and never know the number of a vet.
You think you're smart not to take on all that work.
Or you think maybe someday, when life is dull anyway.
But an animal chooses when and where. Ask Eve. One
minute you're all alone, and the next, moved by the blink
of an eye, a skyward smile, a flicking tail, you're owned.

My husband called me from work. "I'm looking at the Internet and I see that someone is giving away a schipperke in New Jersey."
"That's weird." It was. Schipperkes are rare. Most people don't even know what they are. We had one called Edie, and I had been asked if she were a wolf, a fox, a pig. The breed isn't related to any other. They look like miniature Belgian sheepdogs, but they aren't. Their story is that they were bred to live on boats and to work as ratters, but this may be a myth.
"I'll bring the ad to show you."
This was meant to be for purposes of curiosity only. We had Edie. We had cats. A child. A small house. Enough already.
He brought this ad home, and swears now the accurate version of what happened is that the next day he came home from work and the dog was in the house.

I had called the number and had a long talk with a young woman who had to give her dog away. The story came out over several weeks but it was this: she had gone to a car dealership to buy a car so she could go to Rutgers where she had been given a full scholarship. The car dealer, a man in his late forties, had romanced her on the spot and she started going out with him. (Oh boy. She was eighteen.) He took her to a pet store and bought her an $800 dollar puppy. (I didn't tell her about puppy mills. She already had this ancient boyfriend--bad news enough.) She and Spaz, as she called the puppy--too young to coordinate all his motions--then moved in with the boyfriend, who once he had bagged her felt a rivalry and a hatred toward the dog. (To understand the monstrousness of this, take a look at some YouTube videos of schipperke puppies. Yes, all puppies are cute, but these are like little toys come to life--irresistibly so.)

The dog had to stay locked in a room and was NEVER ALLOWED OUT. Never went outside. Never sat with the girl while she watched TV. She went to the back room to feed him and change his paper, but he was utterly alone. (She didn't go to college, but got pregnant and was basically stuck in the apartment herself.) She realized this wasn't a good life for the dog and decided to find him a home. I am grateful to her for this.

So I took him. It wasn't that simple, though. We kept him for a week and then my husband insisted we give him back. He was wild and anxious and peed everywhere. I didn't mind, but I have been told I have a high tolerance for crazy. We drove him to the depressing apartment. The skeezy boyfriend glared. The girl put him back in his room and we left, with me heartbroken.

I kept talking to the young girl about him and her boyfriend was threatening the pound--so I took him again, with clearance this time, for a two month stay, during which I would train him and find him a home. He was completely unhousebroken and had never been outside. He knew nothing.
This was in January of 1998. January! House training a dog when there are no scents on the ground, in the snow, in the cold, twelve trips outside a day (I have never liked crate training)...but Spaz, quickly renamed Chaz (somehow I couldn't see walking around the town parks yelling out Spaz! and anyway, if names are destiny...). But the dog was an easy and sweet boy who wanted to learn and please. He was utterly open and would go right up to the scariest dogs in Mills reservation with a big smile on his face, all curiosity and bright expectation, and they'd look at him like, are you fucking kidding me? I am a Rottweiler. What planet are you from, you friendly moron? I had to explain to him what was up and soon enough he got the idea of watching my other schipperke, Edie, who was street smart and cool; when those big dogs passed her she turned around and gave a little nip at their heels, just enough so they'd swing their heavy heads around to look, because they'd felt something...but she'd be playing innocent by then. She got away with it every time. Chaz, whose name morphed through a series of changes into Tuffy, never wanted to be like that, but he backed up Edie while she did it. He never stopped looking after those he loved.
Two months passed, and I found a very good home for him. He was here until a couple of weeks ago. His last night he wanted to stay in bed with me, very uncharacteristic of him; he liked to guard the house at night, either sleeping down near the front door or on the steps on the way upstairs. He could not breathe. He'd had cancer for several months but had been doing very well until that night. All three of the rest of the pets stayed in the room too, to be near him.  I hoped to take him to his vet in the morning but when it because clear he was deeply distressed and uncomfortable, I drove him to the emergency vet to be euthanized. He kept his head outside the window the whole way, both having his last look at life, and gasping for air. I was able to tell him he was about to die, and would be comfortable very soon. When he got the shots he collapsed into my arms. He isn't here anymore, and never will be. The house has lost an anchor.
The other night I was driving home from work and when I was thirty seconds from my driveway, I had the clear thought, "I am about to see Tuffy." I probably had that thought a thousand times but never noticed it. It was part of the background, as he was, in many ways--the least demanding of anyone in the house. "I am about to see Tuffy. But, no, I'm not."

I have had many animals with me in my life. It is a privilege and a mystery in every case. They grow and change in ways people don't, and they remain the same in ways people don't. The language of communion with animals is as complex as the human is willing for it to be. The vocabulary is truly endless. The death of the animal is part of that vocabulary and always present; knowing their life span, every day is a memento mori. So the life is vivid and fresh. Every walk is taken in Beginner's Mind.
Our other dog, Jesse, is still in mourning. She was his companion all her life and utterly bonded to him. Her grief has been deep, and I have tried to spend as much time with her as possible. She is beginning to adapt, just now.
I didn't take Tuffy's ashes as I did for Edie, and for Rupert, a great cat. Their ashes are on the shelf, and rather meaningless.  Instead I have an epitaph, something my son proclaimed: Tuffy is Gentle. He was.