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Posts Tagged ‘Forgetting’

There’s a poem by the late poet Jane Kenyon that runs through my mind on mornings like these. “I got out of bed/on two strong legs,” Kenyon writes. “It might have been/ otherwise.” She goes on to write of flawless peach and birch wood, of laying down for a noontime nap with her love, of having dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks, and finally acknowledges how one day—in spite of her plans and the dreams she has in her bed in a room with paintings hanging on its walls—it “will be otherwise.”

I first read the poem in the late-90’s when I was a graduate student and teaching poetry at Goldwater Hospital. It was the first time I had been around so many people with physical disabilities, and the presence of all those disabilities unnerved me. My first months working there, I often found myself on subway platforms walking in tight circles and being fully aware of the strength of my legs, of the tightening and lengthening of my hamstrings and quadriceps, of the give of my calf and the arch of my foot. “Two strong legs,” I would mumble to myself, over and over, disappointed that for so many years I had taken those legs for granted.

It was around this same time that I traveled down to Washington D.C. to visit a friend and went for my first and only time to the Holocaust Museum. We had walked around the city for hours and hours, and we made it to the museum just before closing time, allowing ourselves not nearly enough time to take it all in, or maybe it was just enough time; maybe all the time in the world would not have been enough, would have been too much. The museum’s impact was heart-wrenching, so heart-wrenching, in fact, that I still find myself caught off-guard—my breath catching in my throat—when I think about it.

It is the shoes that have stayed with me, thousands of them, shoes from the Nazi’s victims—piles and piles, large and small, ornate and simple, men’s and women’s and children’s, leather, cloth, hardly worn, worn through the soles—and I remember standing in the empty place between the piles and thinking of all the feet that had been in those shoes; feet that had blistered, that had been rubbed by a lover; feet that had kicked balls and had turned back home; feet that had soaked in the tub and walked through strange streets and gotten damp from puddles; feet that had danced; feet that belonged to legs; feet that had bones with marrow, that had veins with blood pumped from a heart.

And that is where it always ends for me: the heart.

On Wednesday, Stephen Tyrone Jones, a security officer at the museum, went to hold the door open for an elderly man. The 88-year-old, James W. von Brunn, who as a self-proclaimed white supremacist had a history of anti-Semitic efforts, then opened fire on the museum, fatally wounding Jones. A photograph outside the museum depicts the inadequacy of mourning: a few lilies stuffed inside a water bottle, their petals already falling. I think of those who will walk by that water bottle today, think of the legs that will carry them, of the breakfasts they ate, of the rooms they sleep in.

My husband kissed me when he left for the office just a bit ago; my daughter is napping; my hands are lemon-y from the sponge I used to wipe the counter; and now, like Jane Kenyon, like Stephen Jones, I do the work I love. These days—especially with the death of a dear friend’s husband a couple of months ago—I am more aware than ever that it will some day be “otherwise,” but it makes my heart sick to think that sometimes that happens because of the sheer disregard for human life displayed by von Brunn and far too many before him.

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In college, there was a guy I was crazy about. He worked at the computer café, and I would go in day after day to print out poems and type up papers. It was the first I had ever heard of an “internet” or a “cappuccino,” and while I wasn’t brave enough to go onto the “World Wide Web,” I was brave enough to sit around making whole meals out of lattes and muffins, all in hope that this man would notice me.

Nothing. Not a smile or a hello—or, if I was lucky, maybe a half-smile and a quarter-hello—but still I’d rip up pink packets to pour into the latte or bite on the end of my pencil or wrap my hair in a bun only to have him turn away from me as quickly as he had turned towards me. I mention this because I truly ached for his affection. I wanted it. Badly. It was such unrequited love, and though it pained me, I found myself time and time again, going back for more.

After college, I did my best to forget about him, but I was reminded of him several years later when I walked into a classroom to teach poetry to children with autism. Suddenly, I was in a room whose very walls seemed made of unrequited love. I felt lost and useless, and I’d sip my deli coffee and hand out pencils, all the while longing for the affection—or even just the attention—of the children.

Around that time, I read a heartbreaking story by a mother of a child with autism. The family had taken the boy to the beach, and the boy, who was four, was searching for sand dollars. So intent was the boy on finding those sand dollars that he walked away from his family and though his mother quietly followed him, she let him wander as far and as long as he wanted. The boy searched for over an hour and, the sky darkened with dusk, and in all that time, the boy never looked back. Not once. He never looked to see if his family was still there.

Yesterday was Autism Awareness Day, and for the tenth year in a row, I found myself in a classroom of students with autism. This year, instead of feeling hopeless, I felt delighted and intrigued, lucky even. (Life without dreams, one of them wrote, is like a pencil without wheels!) In all these years, I’ve learned a little about unrequited love, and I’ve realized so much of it is just a shift of focus. Some of those loves (ahem, “computer guy”) are barely worth the paper they’re printed on, but it’s the other loves—the ones that aren’t simply reciprocal but are, in fact, far deeper, far more complicated—that clench my heart.

I think of the mother who followed her son; how she finally went to him; how she strapped him into the car, brushed his salty hair out of his eyes, and took the long road home; but even more than that I think of the boy and his love for the sand dollars. I imagine a whole canvas bag filled with the ocean’s currency and how—even though a sand dollar could never love a boy back—the boy must have reached inside the bag as the stars flashed by the car window, and for the whole trip home, he must have run his finger along the ridge of one of those sand dollars, over and over again, letting its sharpness make an indent in his skin as he told it stories that not even his mother could hear.

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My first literary magazines were comic books.  This is a stretch, I know, since the adjective literary seems, at best, misapplied to most comic books and many of the ones I’m remembering in particular.  Let it be said here and known forever more that Web of Spiderman (as opposed to The Amazing or Spectacular Spidermen, which had their moments) never contained anything within its pages that might be mistaken for literature, and despite the gender studies-larded dissertations that must have already been written about Archie comics, I’m not sure appending that adjective to the title of anything that ever contained Jughead is worth our while either.  In fact, their very un-literary-ness is some of what made comic books seem so great back in those years when it was hard to realize I was enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird even though I had to read it for school.  I followed the adventures of Scout and Boo Radley in good part because I wanted to do well on the predictable pop quiz.   Comic books, by contrasts, were simply pleasurable and, in the truest sense, wondrous.  Each flimsy page’s status within the canon (even before we know that word we understand one exists) wasn’t at issue; I read them to find out what happened next. And because I loved some of those images.   Much of this territory has been well-trod by the Lethems and Chabons of the literary world as well as the Wares and Barrys of the grown-up comics world .  I don’t mean to suggest I’ve discovered the appeal of comic books (especially for a certain sort of adolescent boy) and what that says about the identities we went on to form.  In fact, a lot of that sort of analysis seems hollow or maybe simply about as relevant as the wallpaper.  Sublimation of alienation, no matter the idiosyncratic trappings, isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  All I’m really noting, I guess, is that I learned to be eager for the next installment; to evaluate the month’s offering in comparison to others’ to cultivate a taste for certain artists and a disdain for others all of whom were creating right then; to understand that these various publications were talking to each other, and, better, talking to me, from comic books.

I got thinking about all this while trying to figure out why I don’t read literary magazines all that much these days.  To be fair, except for a brief period after college, I’ve never been a particularly voracious reader of lit mags.  Thing is: I don’t really read comics that much anymore either.   That urge to keep up with a particular artistic vision has dissipated.  Again, I assume I’m not all that exceptional in this respect.  I visit TalkPointsMemo several times a day, and I hit my regular op-ed pages, Twins baseball scores, the Lords of Apathy.  You maybe frequent a few blogs, a few facebook pages, a site or two that curates the best Youtube videos.  And we know what this is all about because we are told all the time: the death of print, the ascendance of celebrity gossip; the shrinking of the American attention span.  All of that seems pretty undeniable, but I’m not sure it really answers the question: why did we (and I mean I, of course) substitute thirst for a certain kind of brand-new information with a habit of perusing another?  How can it be that I get from Obama inner circle gossip what I used to glean from new-to-the-world poems and stories, and before that, the drawings of Jim Lee that explaining the stories of Chris Claremont?

Surely I don’t.  But I don’t miss my old comics, even if at times I miss the feeling of dying to know what the next one will be like.  That’s not the same feeling as wanting to know what the Watchmen movie will be like (answer: about as proud and unreasonable as was the comic), since the end of a comic movie is nearly as opposite, in its finality, as the end of comic book can be.  It’s also not quite the same as picking up a well bound lit mag and wondering if there’s anyone in there you didn’t realize would make you jealous, so piercing is her prose, so devastating are his lines – but it’s much closer.   Maybe we should all try to cultivate that yearning a bit more than we do.  I’m guiltier than others, I know, when it comes to letting impatience overrule the willingness to slog through to something great.  I suspect, however, I don’t read literary magazines (or comic books) for the same reason most people don’t – because so much of them isn’t great, because so much of them is attempting something interesting, instead of, what?, creating it, justifying it, simply succeeding?  We feel that we don’t have time to sift the imperfect gravel to get to the few jewels.  And we’re right, since those few jewels don’t outweigh so much of that truly awful stuff.   But the search for the jewels is wrong-headed, or rather, the focus on the jewels themselves is.  Instead, I should probably be reading for the feeling of anticipation itself.  Maybe this will turn into a great poem, have a great line, do something I didn’t know I wanted to see done. Maybe I’ll be glad I read this only when I get to the next issue.

This morning I spent a few hours trying out a new (to me) comic book series, The Walking Dead.  It’s a version of the now traditional zombie narrative, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with bigger muscles, more characters, and more episodes.  It is at times quite gripping, at others predictable or overblown.  Rarely, if ever, is it all that profound.  Being in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would suck, it says, and it would suck in different ways for different people, it adds, between hatchet blows to zombie skulls.  It would – THWAK – force you to do things you never knew you would or could.  I know that TWD will disappoint me since, in the first twelve installments, it has already begun to force the same characters to do many of the same things.  But at the end of the last book they found a zombie prison, and I’m glad to say I can’t help but want to know what happens in there.  And so I’m off to Barnes and Noble to pick up trade paperbacks #3 and #4, containing issues 12-18 and 19-23.  Maybe while I’m there I’ll drop a few dollars on a literary magazine I’ve never seen before.  Maybe I can wait a few more hours to hear more about the AIG bonuses.  Maybe someone has written something for me, something I don’t yet know to miss.

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