Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Late October, Part II: Grief & Praise

Continuation from Part I, found here.

Uncle Jack & Aunt Marita

Clay Etruscan Head
Out of all those journals in those mice-filled boxes, I ended up keeping only two. One of them included a description of a late-night conversation with my Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack - about the ancient Greeks, about a sailor, about Jack's childhood, about the Etruscan language…

In the months after my divorce in the mid-nineties, I spent a lot of time at my Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack's place, showing up unannounced in the evening. They were night-owls and fellow artists and were very accommodating and we'd talk late into the night about everything. Uncle Jack was known for pursuing threads of thought that could extend sometimes for hours. I was usually fascinated. One night, when I got home from one of those late-night conversations, I sat down and tried to piece together what he had said - and there it was in a long, lost journal:

"We started to talk about the Greeks after I mentioned that I'd always focused on The Odyssey and had never read The Iliad…which I suspected said something about me…and Jack talked about Xenophon and the march of the ten thousand soldiers, which led to talk of Schliemann and his discovery of Troy, which led to him remembering a Greek sailor that some Greek Des Moines family had sponsored, who had worked with Jack at Sherwin Williams, was blonde, blue-eyed - unlike most Greeks Jack had met - which led to speculation about how we all come from a long strange history, more interesting than the stereotypes, which led to talk about how the Italians were descendants of "barbarian" tribes that had invaded Rome, which led to Jack telling me how the Romans of Roman Empire fame weren't really the original people there either, which led to him talking about the Etruscans and an Italian man he and his father knew back in the 30's.

"Jack's father would talk with the old Italian sometimes, parking down by the railyard where the old Italian spent the day sweeping the switch tracks of gravel (his job?), and they'd talk politics - both were Democrats, of course - and when Jack's father would talk about some Republican president or governor, the old Italian would nod and say lamia. Jack asked his father what it meant, and his father just shook his head, saying 'I don't know…it's just what he says.'

"But it always puzzled Jack, so when a Sicilian moved in next door Jack asked what lamia meant and the Sicilian said, 'How should I know? There is not a universal Italian. What I speak in this village is different from the village on the other side of the mountain. We've been invaded by so many people - French, Germans, Russians, you name it - that everyone speaks something different in different parts of the country.' But what does it mean to you, Jack asked. 'A woman's breast, to some…or maybe a witch…someone fed on witch's milk, I think.' A magical person? 'No.' A bad person? 'Could be.'

"And then Jack brought out this 19th Century book about the Armenian origins of the Etruscan language. The author found evidence that the Etruscan's originated from Armenia. Jack opened the book, pointed down at a word: lamia. He said lamia was an ancient Etruscan word. It meant 'evil spirit.'"
After reading that journal entry, I was suddenly back in their small living room, Uncle Jack's paintings on the wall (a circus tent…a strange Dali-like limb on an empty plain…), a dim lamp casting shadows across the record shelf that contained a copy of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares Jack once played for me - a lamenting women's choir, diachronic, dissonant - half-western, half-eastern - waiting for my reaction…

"It sounds like sorrow," I said, perplexed. "Or joy. I can't tell which."

And just around the corner was Aunt Marita's office, a converted porch, where I would go to talk when I was young and passing through town, lost, not knowing how lost I was, babbling on about choices (young enough to believe I had more control over my life than I actually did). Once, she'd looked out the window - at the bare box-elder trees, the snow beyond - and said:  "We didn't have as many choices as you have now…I think that might have been a good thing."

Ceremonies: Grief & Praise

So there I was, standing in a garage in New York state, more than a thousand miles from home, brought back to my aunt and uncle's house in the Midwest, thousands of miles away. Both of them were gone, the house sold off. Grief moved through me.

The thing about grief is that it is a form of praise (I got that from reading Martín Prechtel). It is a form of praise because there is something missed. It's about love. To grieve deeply, you have to have loved the thing that you lost. So, to grieve the loss of someone is to acknowledge that they were praiseworthy. Just like life and death, grief and praise cannot be separated from each other.

I realized then that I needed a ceremony. To acknowledge what had been lost. And so to praise it. To acknowledge all the death was a way to move more deeply into the rest of my life. To feel it. And, for that time and place, for that particular moment, it was my antidote against the Trump hate-speech that encouraged numbness, that encouraged not feeling anything at all - except maybe rage. The world of Trump and his followers is the world of death without life (which isn't really about death at all - it's about nothingness, being un-dead). It is the world of numb-silence in the face of loss. But whatever ceremony I came up with, I needed to perform it back at home - in Santa Fe. 
The Journey back from the Underworld

 In the end, what was left? What did I keep? The sketch of a clothesline between two trees in a French campground; a postcard from Tintern Abbey never sent to Marita and Jack; a swatch of linen cradling the grey hairs of a long-dead cat; several boxes of paperbacks; two journals, some files, a box of photos, and a poem in pencil on a torn envelope:

Woman in a blue car
holds a white flower
to her pink face.

She breathes the flower,
eyes closed,
waiting to make her turn.

Leaves open their arms
and fly wild onto the wind.

Nothing can stop the world.

It was time to head home. After the Mississippi River, there was the relief of an open sky. Arkansas shacks and signs telling us what will happen when we die: "You WILL meet God." A threat? From God? Each night on the journey back I'd look into the hotel room mirror and see all the others - all my past selves, the ones who had written in all those journals - standing with me. Those who had found their voice, those who had not (and now never would), those who had loved, those who had not, all studying me with curiosity, waiting, patient, for this "I" to join them. Leaves flew across Oklahoma. Dust sailed the flats outside Amarillo. On the border of Texas and New Mexico, there were fields of wind turbines seen through a dawn haze…and the giant white crosses, always the giant white crosses…

 We arrived home on All Soul's, when the barrier between worlds is thin. That night, out under the stars (the entire sky above again!), I listened to the black sunflower skeletons rattle together in the wind. I could hear the dead parting the stalks, saying: Who are you? Who was I? I built a small frame from fallen apple twigs to use as a scrying window and looked through it - to see the shades move, dark against dark, their eyes black as sunflower seeds, blinking, newborn.

Then I whispered the names of the dead over a crack in a stone - dead poets, old loves, lost pets, Aunt Marita, Uncle Jack, even all my previous incarnations and their words (so many words - now long gone). I prayed for silence, and, at the same time, hoped that something or someone would whisper back…

Have a beautiful Day of the Dead.

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