I have often been moved, to actual tears, by the sight of men’s sneakered feet. Something about ankles in thin socks, about the bulk of the shoes, like foals’ hooves, outsizing the legs above. Something about the hopefulness of that act they all performed in getting dressed, setting forth into a day. Especially the vulnerability of it, of feet, childlike and unpretty. White sneaks in particular hit me hard, but other forms of footwear, too. At least once I’ve had to turn away to avoid embarrassing anybody.
The fiftieth time I watched a certain TV episode in which one man serenades another man, my dog licking tears from my cheeks (on which might also have been traces of apricot preserves from the toast I was eating), I thought: The ill-directed mind is worse than any enemy. I understood that I’d cathected the show with my loneliness, but I was helpless to stop watching. That’s too mild. I had it on repeat, all six seasons. I was willing myself into its version of love.
Coming home with said dog from a late-night walk, I caught the neighbor’s yew tree from the corner of my eye like a hunched specter, like we’d been trapped in a hybrid animation/live-action film, Roger Rabbit or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Except not a cartoon. I kept looking over my shoulder as I trotted up the driveway after my ten-pound pup, I was that scared. (I do watch too much crime TV.) But also:
I remember where I was standing when I first heard someone say “robust” in a context I’d never considered before. Suddenly it was everywhere, in the robust conversations we would have about campus life and the robust discussions someone demanded about curriculum, policies, and personnel. Me—I think “robust” pertains to matter. A camel may be robust, as are a kangaroo’s forelimbs. A Chilean cabernet is robust. Zola, in translation, describes a certain farmer as hardy and robust. Constitutions, surely, and physiques, are robust. Woody stems of certain plants can be robust. Certain styles of architecture.
“Robust” used to mean boisterous, sturdy, and long-lived. Then one day it was uttered in the workplace and now forever connotes the kind of dialogue that academics are exceptionally skilled at inflating toward the preposterous.
These days, it has to be curated to exist. Curate is the new robust.
A poet I know wrote that octopuses will take over the world. She’s wrong, and here’s why: female octopi expend so much energy birthing their babies that they die before they have time to pass along their wisdom, so all that intelligent history is lost. Every generation literally starts anew.
There’s a version of the story that goes: I’m on an uncomplicated jaunt with a hot forty-year-old so now I know I can take that kind of risk again. There’s another version about the hollow weirdness of putting your clothes back on after body parts all over and inside each other and then eating Thai food and not touching at all until you kiss goodnight. That version includes the inevitable transmogrification of the body-that-does to the body-that-is, by which I mean, lying there in its fleshly idleness, sitting across from someone now uninteresting and undazzled. Without hype, we’re lumpen selfness.
The one and only time I took LSD, my high-school boyfriend and I hunkered down in a cave above the freeways of Los Angeles and ate granola bars. When I read what I’ve just written, I realize it can’t be true. Caves in LA? We were somewhere tight and dark, in the woods, maybe. Wherever we started out, we took the freeway home. I remember red taillights streaking and redividing, and a conscious moment of acknowledging how absurd it was for two tripping teenagers to be stuck in traffic in a beige VW Bug.
There was a time when I thought I might collect decorative tins displaying roosters or antique shoes or old-fashioned milk bottles as a bulwark against fragmentation. Miniature mises-en-scène. Trompe l’oeil. The question I’ve been asking in one guise or another for the past thirty years: what are you doing when I’m doing X? Like I don’t precisely grasp how life works. And now that I’m of a certain age, into the last third of it, I wish every day could pare down to the bare and essential.
Did you know that only female mosquitoes need blood to survive, that the males feed on plants and don’t live more than a month? What kind of love could you make in that time? Is it even love at all? It seems desperately sad, but maybe it’s fantastic and liberating, knowing the end ahead of time.
Curare, which features as a plot device in more than one Golden Age Agatha Christie novel, is a poisonous resin that paralyzes the motor neurons.
A curate is a parish priest, “entrusted with the cure of souls.”
At the national museum of Perugia, in Umbria, comprised entirely of religious art, I wonder what it would be like to look at so many crucifixes and nativities if I believed. Would it be like a museum’s worth of a family album, depicting the absolute best and worst of what you’ve lived through? Would I feel awe, envy, relief, vindication? The recognition of birth parents meeting a child they’d given up long ago? Or the relief of a child who’s been found by a mailman after getting stuck in the vestibule of a brick apartment building in Newark in 1968?
A curation of dreams:
I’m in a vat of boiling brine with a friend who wears black platform boots.
I’m drying my clothes in someone’s oven and everything burns.
I’m in therapy with Countess Luann de Lesseps from The Real Housewives of New York but she has to attend a court hearing with a judge and keeps me waiting two hours.
A foreign dictator is giving a riding lesson and I yell at him for hitting his horse.
I need to have a kidney removed and the sous-chef from my ex-husband’s old restaurant performs the surgery.
When my ex-husband said, “We love each other, but we don’t like each other,” he brought the words up from his throat like something disinterred. So I said, that’s hard to hear. “For me,” I said, “the precise difference from prior loves is that I actually do like you.” The marriage counselor meanwhile had an earnest look on her face. She was fond of making circles in the air between us with her hands, like a self-important DJ or a wizard about to abracadabra our love alive.
It occurred to me that we were employing three different definitions of love and that nothing more could happen in that room than an ever-tightening gyre of baffled misunderstanding. The day I couldn’t stop crying, my hands went numb with the futility of it all, and I squeezed my eyelids shut like I was wringing out washcloths.
The metaphysical poets wrote about Christ as a body, not an ideal. They stripped him down to the bare flesh and then fantasized ecstatic union with him—as a human, as a man, wounded and bloodied and robustly alive. They wanted to be battered by him, to suck from his injuries, to be enveloped by the dust lifting from his feet. They wanted to crawl inside that evidence of commonality and ordinariness and be invigorated by it. In full recognition of the sacred individuality of his physical being, they wanted to experience a total disruption of the boundaries between them, penetration as rapturous dissolving. They wanted for once an end to their own rhetorical flourish and to devour Christ as evidence of the real.
One student, in a café, speaking of bookstores: “Displays work for me if they’re curated well.”
Second student, describing her new job: “I curate what I say to people.” (When she says this, I grab her arm in mock-horror.)
A friend, bored by my ranting about it, says, “What about curated meats?” Later she emails me a major retail advertisement that promises we can “bring a curated freshness” to our homes.
“I don’t know what to say” is the worst thing to say to someone who is suffering.
Overheard at a museum: “Why is the woman always naked and the men always clothed?” I elbowed my mother in the ribs because I could tell we both thought it was the most profound question being posed in that vaguely moist, over-crowded room.
In California, my mother watches birds clean themselves in the bath she fills for them each day. She knows that the songs of the east, where I live, are not those of the west, even if she can’t identify the bird who’s singing.
Just after we’d moved from Philadelphia to LA, my aunt in Boston sent me a pine-needle sachet. I used to press it against my nose so hard it would hurt, just to get that scent, like faith in a god, all the way up to my brain. I felt so out of place in the sunshine and ocean air, I spent lunch hours at school curled over my knees and my whole body used to ache at night. It was some time before I could disentangle the way loss and longing heated me up from within.
The day I watched a red fox dart right across the patio, feet from the sliding door where I was standing, my mother was the one I called.
Why do pine trees lather in the rain?
At certain times of day, the sun on the Arno River in Florence shimmers a gold so pink, a light so tactile, you might worry you won’t survive it. On my last trip there, I learned that tiramisu means “pull me up,” as in, pick-me-up: because the more you eat, it’s so caffeinated, the more awake you are. I think, spooning it into my mouth, the more I eat, the better I feel about the poor choices I’ve made in life. I.e., why am I not living in Italy?
The Baroque sculptor Bernini lived to be eighty-two—something of a feat in his day. I got to Bernini through the poet Crashaw, who adulated Bernini’s most famous work, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The sculptor was known for developing techniques to create such nuance of shading and texture in marble that his statues are not merely life-like but life-full, pulsing with interiority. Crashaw—whose poems similarly thrum with barely suppressed intoxicated urgent arousal for Christ, Mary, the bodies of innocents, for martyrs and saints—had a particular obsession with Teresa, her nigh-orgasmic union with the divine.
What stillness: an unexpected minute hailstorm seeming to appear from within the folds of my coat rather than the skimmed milk sky; the way a pine limb looks lying on the driveway after crashing there in a sudden wind. The aftermath of the unexpected.
I worry inordinately every time my dog eschews breakfast and eats grass instead. I worry the drugs I’m taking might be making me stupid. I worry about my friend’s child who is sick. None of this is precisely rational. On a video chat with not-near relations, I try to understand the futility of both our fears and our bulwarks against fear. On my phone: a tiny photo of my house, lit up in April with holiday lights—like a string of illuminated frankincense, ancient symbol of recovering—and a bright round spotlight over the roof that is a supermoon harbinger of spring.
Mourning doves, I think, should be allowed to change their name.