The Beast and Plans for a Weekend

Starting with this post, the upcoming letters deal with the movement toward my leaving my marital home.  They are thus intense

I have found that sequencing letters in February of 1982 is difficult because postmarks on envelopes during that period are unclear, often unreadable for the date of the month, although I can make out the latter.  So while I can be certain that a particular letter was sent in February, I have to use context to get a sense of the back and forth of our correspondence.  My solution is to look for narrative threads and present them without regard to precise dating.  With that in mind, the following is my response to the ending of Carol’s letter in the last post, with its reference to a “beast,” she thinks lurks beneath my surface.

 

 

Sunday night

Carol,

Certain things are clear, at least at first thought, but others are not, and these threaten to draw shadows over what had been plain and uncomplicated.

The shadows first, where lives the beast who rattles his chains and paces restlessly toward the bars, but rarely tests them ,meditating instead about the identify of his keeper, scratching shapes of likely candidates with razor sharp lines on the stone floor of his cage, unable to dismiss the possibility that he who dangles the keys  to the cage door is the same as he who prowls inside, but this too could be false and maybe there is no cage but of the beast’s imagining, nurtured by him into the idea of imprisonment, an idea that is, on some level, as tangible as iron bars.

Whatever the nature of the cage, the beast live within, for he has thrown himself into Olf’s embrace, has invited him into the cage to break dry bread with him, to watch him turn sweet wine to vinegar.

What is clear is that the beast for some time has yearned to exercise his sinews, and that for too long he had subsisted on an insubstantial diet, which he mostly rejected, but the hunger remained in his belly, a hard knot of need that sustained him even in his hunger.

In shadows or light, the beast draws breath, and he does not seek idle conversation or empty pleasurings.  He hopes he has found someone to trust, someone to/with he can express himself.  Deception not his nature, his changes nothing but the range and moment of his presence.  I’ve been studying  this beast for many years and know his habits and his traits.  He is sometimes shy to show himself, but he needs to, and he will emerge, wants to, and must, the course the same as yours–feeling and meaning–for without these there is no beast, no keeper, and the cage holds nothing but its own sterile air.

Steve

At this time in my professional life, I was involved in the SUNY Council on Writing, a newly formed organization aimed at improving the teaching of writing across the State University system.  What I find in letters from that time is a plan for Carol to join me for a jaunt upstate for a committee meeting I was to attend.  The meeting would be for a couple of hours but my absence from home could reasonably extend for a couple of days. The opening paragraph of this next letter refers to the possibility of that trip together.  The end of the paragraph alludes to a visit to a counselor [the witch doctor] undertaken at the urging of my wife, hoping that intervention would refocus my attention homeward.

Thursday morning

Carol,

At my desk with 2nd cup of coffee, having just dropped off my car to be shod with two new tires, flushed and filled with new oil, and generally made ready for a ride up to Binghamton.  Tonight I go to the witch doctor, perhaps to be flushed and refurbished as well…..

I’m about to go off to a meeting,  to be followed at 3:30 by another, both of which will, I think, concern budget problems, and therefore will be attended by great moaning and gnashing of academic teeth, a very special kind of gnashing  that is more like a constipated whine.

Played tennis last night but think that my strokes were much better last week–might have something to do with my partner, or the court….

I’m planning on using my car, just to round off a thought, next week because one person already called seeking a ride in the college car I have reserved  I said I had business in the city  I’ll tell the next person that my business is a doctor’s appointment to determine if the medication has cured my bubonic plague.  Can’t leave anything to chance….

I’ve just picked up my car on the way back from lunch.  It is ready, and so am I, very ready.

More later.

Thursday night

Have managed to obtain sanctuary of spare room after having been kicked out of bed at 4am last night accused of heavy and disruptive breathing.  I was probably dreaming of you.

[That incident was probably the continuation of dinner time discussion concerning what the marriage counselor and I had talked about that afternoon.  What follows is my summary of that meeting.]

Counselor seems pretty good, and I left in up mood. At this stage, he didn’t offer much reaction, a few pointed and precise questions and observations  He agrees the situation is grim and will be difficult to sustain.  I talked about you, some, and said that you are the woman I would have picked, if I had any sense at 22.  Described my marriage in reasonably objective, but depressing detail.  Did not talk about some important things, like kids.  Next appt. is Monday afternoon.  I asked if he thought that were too soon under the circumstances thinking that perhaps a time for internalization might be recommended, but he said no, under these conditions, not too soon at all.

I expect to talk to you tomorrow and so will stop now.

Toward the end of a long letter about reading Plato’s Republic, Carol turns her thoughts to joining me on my trip.

I’ve been thinking about your committee meeting.  Unless you’ve already set it up, I can’t seem to justify missing two days of school and work, and think that the better plan would be the second one you suggested of coming here to the apartment.  The margin for the apartment being “encumbered” [as with housemate] is great the second week of March, but very slim the first and third weeks.  So slim, I think, that something monumentally irregular would have to occur for me to even begin to worry about it.  But you decide; as I said before, I think the time and need has come for a long night together.

[I have found this undated poem by Carol which seems to fit this situation. Her letter continues below]

Somewhere I can feel little electrical impulses playing with my enjoyment switch about to switch to “off.”  That’s a good indication that one of two are about to be turned on.  One is marked “cigarettes” which begins to flash intermittently if I haven’t gone to the corner store yet, bought smokes yet and had my daily mis-discourse with Italian machoness yet; and the other is marked “Plato,” (another case of missed discourse).  Enjoyment is best, and now I’ve written you a letter, and the other two are outstandingly demanding this morning so I’d best be off to hit the switches myself or the impulses will have a day of it.  Take care–

Carol

[I remember attending that committee meeting, and I recall a trip upstate with Carol before we were living together, but I do not now know if these memories are for the same event.]

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Stresss

Some six months or more into our relationship, the strain of our circumstances, the inability to be with each other, begins to show itself as it does in this letter from Carol in February, reflecting our separation after an afternoon together.  The reference to “Wed.?” might indicate a regular telephone call.

Saturday

Steve.

It wasn’t the time & distance, after all.  It’s the feelings. (I call them the breath of the beast).

My feelings: I’m dropped off rather abruptly to wait 15 minutes in the rain for a train that’s going to be 15 minutes late anyway, and it’s not the rain that bothers me or the train, it’s the look on your face when we parted.

Your feelings (?) You looked like you were either embarrassed or ashamed to have spent the afternoon w/me.

Will you tell me what’s going on w/you?  If you feel things that you think would be rude for me to hear (about us) (or about you)–deceiving me is the worst thing you could do.  I’m left feeling angry and confused about what this whole thing means to you.  I’d rather know than try to interpret looks. –(Wed?)

Emotions are like the stuff of volcanoes are made of: usually just earth & water–until some huge blast in the earth’s depths begin to tremble & move and the volcano erupts w/ the breath of the beast: the combustible elements of fire & air–Best to discover the nature of the beast.

Carol

Here is my response to her letter.

Monday, late

Carol,

Another cigarette and the smoke curls its riddle into the quiet room turning my thoughts back to me in thin gray strands before disappearing, but I can read a shape there, somewhere between red ember and smoke, the figure in the curling wisps, of a woman in the blue of a late afternoon, eyes fixed to mine, marking a beginning, and then another puff, the figure reforming on another late afternoon beneath low clouds, and the eyes, troubled  this time, but only memory tells me this clearly, as sharply etched now as the harsh glare of the lamps–too stupid, then, to understand that good-byes should be allowed to breathe if only a sigh against the rain and the cold and the distractions, feeling more now the distance unwittingly lengthened, the need forced beyond imperfect words that seem as cluttered and useless as these ashes, and as labored as my breath–inadequate to tell the nature of the beast that finds life in soft moments, but floats at others on the swiftly moving surface waiting to dive toward bottom to ride the slower and more powerful currents to find feelings stirred even n0w by the wisp of smoke that gathers in a subtly bending form in front of my eyes just a whisper from my lips, and near enough  to lean a little closer to draw it in again, gently taste its richness once more and perhaps instruct myself how better to cherish it.

Steve

Carol wrote an extremely long (fully four handwritten sides) response which I think worth being presented in full, not least because it reveals how close we were to a tipping point that might end our relationship, something in the midst of the turmoil that was my life at that time I likely did not see.  This letter includes a reference to “Olf,” an incarnate representation of frustration.  It is her word, but I can’t recall when she first used it to describe our situation.

Wed/ PM in the lib.

Somewhere I think I went wrong –thinking it easier for both sides, if I kept quiet.  Easier for you w/ your complex life & easier for me because then I wouldn’t tangle myself in insolvable complexities of emotions.  I should’ve caught the word “easier right off, knowing from long necessity that things are only easier when they’re somewhere you can look at them–not hidden, pushed back into the murkiness of the unexpressed internal mud.  Easier comes after extraction, & w/clarity, not before.  It’s a false easiness that comes before & I’ve known that & ignored it thinking it easier.  Nothing looks easy at the moment  (the hour, the day, the week….)

There’s a man crying at the next study table I’m not usually moved by strangers’ emotions, except, perhaps, sympathy occasionally, but this crying–this quiet crying so that no one will hear him (* by its quietness is even more pervasive) is the saddest sound & I think that I’ll start too if he doesn’t leave off, but the emotion, w/ a subtle twist of complexity becomes sad & bitter in me at the same time & I think ‘You too’–It seems to be a good evening for it & the bitterness is just a little too bitter for no reason–no seen reason. Just a sad one.–

You said once (a long time ago) that you lead a fragmented life & that there’s a necessity for it–to separate (for example) home & professional life.  I couldn’t see why then & it perturbed me (the thought of fragmenting one’s life), but I see why now.

I’ve never led a fragmented life ’til now.  If I became involved w/someone before, it was an open act–perhaps almost political, a declaration of freedom. It was ridiculous, & unnecessary of course,  because it hurt the people I was close to.  In my seeming need for simplicity (to balance, naturally what was never simple) all the pieces & parts of my life had to fit together in some whole manner & openly.  An escape, I think but that’s another thought.  My understanding of the “system” I had set up for myself changed, but the system remained & when I met you I came into supreme conflict.  I still could not justify an act unless it’s an open act, except (the mind circling itself again & again offers a resolution of sorts) the act itself has great meaning & feeling.

That’s where I went wrong.  I mistakenly thought that if we don’t go through any emotional shenanigans & simply enjoy the conversation & the physical, that  that, of sorts, would suffice.  It would be my declaration of freedom & I wouldn’t be pulled apart by entangling, interweaving emotions .  It would be enough, but it’s not that kind of act.  That kind of act has no meaning–or very little–for me.  It’s the emotions, as entangling as they can be, that give substance to the conversation & the physical.  As difficult as it is to separate my life into parts & fragment it, it’s better than trying to live w/out emotion & w/out meaning.  I should’ve known I couldn’t life w/out these two & that it would eventually start to tear me apart.

I knew something of all this, but not coherently, from the start  I knew it better a few weeks ago when I figured I couldn’t continue seeing you w/out feelings beginning to show themselves.  So I made a not small decision–Olf had just shown up in full force & a decision of some kind definitely had to be made.  The decision was to trust you w/growing feelings–knowing it might not be wise w/ all the other responsibilities of your life demanding your attention, thinking that this relationship could very well just be conversation & physical for you, & thinking that you might become resentful if I tried to move it into something that you didn’t want it to be.  So I kept quiet.  (Fear is the calling card–one of–for Olf).  But I was trusting intuition that you didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would live any part of your life w/out feeling or meaning.  But there was uncertainty.  (What is the nature of the beast that lives almost completely out of sight?)  Could a person, you, live part of their life w/out feeling or meaning–but have feeling or meaning–or only a surface meaning–but have feeling & meaning in other parts?  I didn’t know for sure–just thought not.

And the day came–my silence on the subject more glaringly obvious than ever–an outrageous mistake on my part because I was left (by my own volition) to intuit a situation that looked uncompromisingly bad.  I had felt good being w/you on Friday, as I always do, but the distractions on your part were interpreted as unconcern: a lack of feeling & meaning in at least this part of your life & a quick dismissal to back it up.  And I thought by my own uncertainty that I was wrong about you after all: that you could not only fragment your life easily, but live a part of it w/out feeling or meaning.  I felt that my trust had been betrayed & I had been deceived & that after all that decision-making & the growing feelings & the struggles with Olf that there was nothing at all–that I had been wrong again–there was only conversation (good conversation) & the physical (good intimate physical) but nothing more for you–no depth to us, no feeling, no meaning.  I couldn’t live like that or continue seeing you if those were the conditions.  (I thought for a moment, in my last letter, that I could, but I’m wrong–I can’t).  Driven on by my fondness for you I thought somewhere–underneath that surface something grows & shakes its furry coat & stretches a giant lion’s claw toward other human beings to enfold, embrace, to touch, a need for even this creature–? whose own beast stretches, incomprehensibly sometimes, the long distance between wind-blown Ariel & the more deeply embedded lioness who trembles quietly below the surface, who erupts occasionally, bewildered then by her own intense leap for the surface–the need to embrace, to touch & feel & give meaning–the growing recognition of feelings that were already growing important–& she discovers that there’s no other beast in sight–just her own fur ruffling in Ariel’s breeze.  A bitter lioness & a very sad one.

But I was wrong on that score too–& right the first time about the kind of person you are.  Your letter show hints & wisps of need & want & (w/ a little clever detection) I sense just the softest touch of fur on the lion’s back.  But who is this beast–why does he hide so close to himself–like mine, out of fear?  Or has he not been stroked in a long while?  Has no one embraced him because he guards himself too well–the claws, though retracted, still sharp against another’s breath on his cheek; or is there more (which I surmise) that’s not up for offering?

Carol

 

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On Cats & Despair

Carol responded to the cat on the birthday card I sent her with a long meditation on her cat Infinity.  I’ve edited it down for length.  She also included a handwritten note to which I responded with a poem.

Steve,

Your friend on the cover of the card is just like a cat I had once named Infinity.  I had her for the entire three years I was in Minneapolis and she was the smartest cat I ever knew.  All my various housemates always had a lot of cat and none of them survived.  They were lost to the frozen city–either ran away, were kidnapped.  One of them Infinity took a dislike to and took it for a stroll one day; you can guess who came back and who didn’t.  I always left my window open no matter how cold or dangerous (actually it was open only so far) so she could come and go as she wanted.  We co-existed.  Neither one of us was given to these affection embraces, cuddling, smooching or petting that cats and caretakers are given to doing with each other.  It was a most unique relationship.  We both demanded our freedom and distance, but both needed each other.  She, for me to feed her and me for her company, as quiet and aloof as it was.  This cat reminds me of two things she used to do.  One is that whenever someone brought a new cat into the house, Infinity would go through her act of “you don’t love me any more” and would promptly go out in the middle of the street (fortunately not a very busy one) and lie down and wait for cars to run over her.  She’d wait until they got right up to her ears and then rush away–not back to the house through the window, but up to the nearest stranger and this was the look she gave strangers: no one loves me; want to take me home?   The other shit, she never would have gone with them (they tried sometimes).  The other thing is that she’d go, in summer, and lie in the middle of the neighbor’s garden.  They had flowers…some beautiful, beautiful exotic, some beautiful, just ordinary.  Infinity would lie right on top of them, immerse herself in the scent, and then, in anticipation of some wonderful juicy game flitting by like butterflies or crickets or even just bumblebees (her favorite, even though they used to sting her in the mouth when she caught them) she’d honestly, sincerely believe she was invisible–that nothing was aware of this pure black cat in the middle of a garden of pastel colors.  Well naturally, when I took her to the farm and she discovered the exotic aroma of my father’s greenhouse, she promptly refused to come to New York.  Itwasn’t anything she said or did, it was simply a look in her eyes  that very plainly stated that unless we were on our way  to a tropical flower jungle she was not coming along.  She has since taken up residence underneath the night-blooming cereus, the most exotic, potent flower in the greenhouse, and is probably snoozing right this minute in anticipation, dreaming of when the greenhouse doors will open in the spring and she can go out about the business of bee-catching….
Well, this is a long way around to say I like your car.  Thanks for the inspiration–
Carol

[I never met Infinity, but some years later I bought a black Burmese for Carol, which she named Sappho, who lived with us for some twenty years.  What I recall about that cat is that she would hide and refused to show herself for some days after we returned from a trip
In the same envelope, Carol sent this note:

https://stevesblog.stephenlewisonline.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Copy-of-tDespair-5-scaled.jpg

 

To which I responded with this poem:

You ask
if ever I wrestle with despair
and I suppose you mean
(in my egocentricity and utter lack
of seemly humility)
do I ever despair of holding you in my arms,
enough,
of tasting the sweetness of your tongue,
enough,
of melting your flesh into mine,
enough,
of feeling the brush of your hair on my skin,
enough,
of stroking your soft places, and your
strong places,
enough,
of lying sweetly by your side,
enough,
(in whatever nameless place,
at whatever timeless time),
and yes,
I do despair,
but I know that
I need you,
enough.

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January ’82

For this post, I’ve edited down a very long letter from Carol, which begins  by placing herself for some reason in a building at SUNY at Stony Brook (SUSB).  It’s likely that the friends she mentions visiting toward the end of the letter had some connection to that university.

6:45 Friday

Steve,

I’m sitting upstairs in the chem bldg @ SUSB watching a very quiet, very frozen campus.  A few people trickle out of the elevator occasionally–they all look very purposeful, carrying briefcases w/a sturdy walk & sturdy looks.  They glance at me, my back against a brick wall, Descartes’ meditations on the floor beside me next to two cigarette stubs, one knee pressed against a cold windowpane, pen poised–a pause as they go by that anyone would be here but me.  I think they look at me & think nothing.  I look at them & wonder what academic forces bring them here to invade my space (how could they?)

The letter moves on to recount a meeting she had with a very good friend, whom I would meet down the road  The meeting occurred at Reese’s, a name that means nothing to me.

My tail bone hurts from sitting on a wooden plank over the radiator @ Reese’s, gnashing my teeth at Marsha.   Two stereotypically  true artistic temperaments hard at work trying to make a damned good, difficult relationship work.  All ended nearing well.  I think NYC must be filtering something into my blood these days–relationships get more difficult & complex & a hell of a lot more rewarding.  They always were to some measure before in my life but this! Between you and Marsha I keep wondering if I was saner before I knew either of you, or if I’m saner now because of both of you.  I feel like I’m testing myself, especially w/ you, but for what purpose?  If it was just a test would it be to see if the rewards could match the difficulty?  I suppose if it was just a test, that would be a good answer, wouldn’t it?  But I think Friday morning gave me the sweetest moments I’ve had in a while & tucked away a lot of indecision.  I can be so self-righteous sometimes, you know–why should I (Supreme Indignant Being) have to put up w/all this nonsense?  As if Indignant Being didn’t know an answer was lying softly side by side that morning.  Next week (week of Feb. 1st) Stony Brook starts again.  Best times for conversation are Tue. eve late–after 9–Wed. til ‘3, Wed. night late–9:30 or 10 or later.

I’m not out job searching yet—you can probably reach me Tues. & Thurs. days ’till I start working.

In case I can’t tell you over the phone this week, I had a rather exciting time after I saw you last.  Went Sun. evening to see a friend (football time) & about 45 minutes later was in the emergency room @ Mather for severe abdominal pain….

She describes the procedures she underwent in some detail, at one point comparing the experience to being in a Woody Allen movie, perhaps Sleeper because of all the technology involved.  Promises that she will tell me about the “chandelier effect” caused by the examination leading to a diagnosis of severe Pelvic Inflammatory Disease for which she received “massive doses of penicillin, prescriptions for antibiotics & codeine

,,,& four hours later I went back to friend’s (fortunately having missed the football game, but they got to watch it in superb color at the hospital.  Anyway, I don’t think it would concern you physically–the dr. said he couldn’t say for sure until my cultures come back on Friday.  They don’t know how long I had it before it erupted–but considering we’d been together Fri. & Thurs. I’m sure I had it then.  So if you develop some kind of symptoms it might be worth checking out.  The nasty side of this is that occasionally, depending upon the kind of bacteria, I can transmit it.  Anyway, although I don’t like this nasty side of it, I thought I should certainly tell you about it just in case–Well, another ailment to add to my increasing list of ailments for a person whose worst sickness used to be an occasional hangover….Well, I’d best be off to dinner–there are advantages to being ill I think, like lying on the sofa listening to music, writing to you, while dinner is being cooked w/out my participation.  Not a too small joy that one.  Talk to you soon.

Carol

Don’t know who was cooking the dinner, perhaps Marsha, but the comment reminds me that neither of us particularly enjoyed that job.

  I imagine we managed to talk about this incident on the phone.  Fortunately, the infection was not transmitted to me.  It would have been interesting trying to explain its source.  Our next correspondence is pictured below: the card I sent  for her birthday on the 30th:

      

Jan. 82

Carol,
My warmest best wishes on your birthday.  I think my friend on the cover catches part of  what I want to say to you.
                                                                     Steve

Preview: Carol’s typewritten  meditation on cats , accompanied by a brief handwritten note followed by my poetic response to it.

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Brooklyn and Two Poems

The correspondence I have presented thus far is one-sided because my letters to her, to which she refers, were sent to her parents’ house in Old Mission during her annual summer visit there and before she moved to Brooklyn.  I have no doubt she kept them, but they remain hidden.  Among Carol’s strengths, an orderly filing system of her papers was not one of them

This post begins with a brief letter for which I do not have an envelope. It is clearly from September, 1981 as she has started taking classes at New York University.  In it she describes an early semester encounter with a professor from whom I had taken a graduate course some fifteen years earlier. 

She provides  her new Brooklyn phone numbers as well as the best time to call.  No doubt these times correspond not only to her own schedule but also to when her house-mate would not be home. .As she states in the first sentence, circumstances  obliged us to carry on our relationship through “pen-palism.”

I  wrote my dissertation at NYU on Edward Taylor, a seventeenth century New England poet and minister.  I guess she was checking up on me now that she was also attending that university.

Monday

Steve,

Well, it looks like pen-palism is the going thing here despite all my protests.

Harrier is just who you said & more.  He wouldn’t let me in to the first class because I wasn’t “approved.” (By whom?)  I had the feeling he would like us all to be ordained as emissaries of the Great English Author gods before daring to tread on his carpet.

I wanted to give you my phone #: 212/624-1693.  Tues. & Wed. eve’s are good times to find me here.

And who is Edward Taylor?

Carol

The date on the envelope of the following poem is unclear except for the year of 1981, so I received it that fall. In the poem she seems to be both celebrating, and struggling with, the implications of our developing relationship.

Steve,

I wrote many things & tossed them before I knew I had to write it in poetry.

Lovers
w/a world of difference
and a world of similarities–
it couldn’t be any different
if I tried to put it in novel form–
instead of poetry.
Where it’s going
I don’t know–
a difficult beginning
(I sensed you waiting)
just a middle
w/little to offer
but conversation
in words
but a conversation
that has always excited me
satisfied me,
When the physical side came
it was like another conversation
exploring the mind of the panther
–my body would not be controlled–
it trembled
wanted
received
w/a passion unbounded by restraint.
That panther’s eyes,
though it was male,
were my eyes
staring deep into my own reflection–
the reflection
changed by the element of water
mirroring
what the panther could not see
w/out it.
A poetic nature–
intuitive
sensitive
but also strong
very much its own.
I wondered what place I had in that reflection
because it was not just me,
but him,
looking
at his own reflection.
And I think
w/constant reflection
what good could we possibly do each other–
each our own Narcissus
settled in curious yellow eyes
hugged by a taut cat’s body,
coiled,
always ready
springs regarding every action–
Restraint not my nature–
his.
Is this creature just a function
of my imagination–
a body that wants to restrain mine,
a curiosity that doesn’t exist?

I don’t  know when I received that poem, but my poetic response was sent in late December.  The brief letter,  mailed to her Brooklyn address, is self-explanatory.  As for the poem, it begins with a kind of self-mocking of my ambition to move up the administrative ladder, a possibility at that time.  Fortunately, I was passed over for a deanship, and I wound up working for the rest of my time at Suffolk, as I had started, as a classroom instructor on a satellite campus a much preferable alternative.  The poem moves to a recognition that our relationship was bringing me back to myself.

12/29/81

Carol,

Still rough (the writing, not the feelings).  We’ll know next week about the “three-piece suit.”

Hope you have a Happy New Year.

See you soon.

Steve

Even before
(and if, after, it will continue)
the three-piece suit sealed
the accommodation,
the deal had been made.
Even before,
the surface had been trimmed,
the manner almost perfected,
like a chimpanzee wearing an usher’s
peaked cap,
ridiculous, yes,
but plausible.
Even before,
though,
the disguise had worn thin,
and a hairy paw would protrude
through a frayed cuff,
or a lunatic gleam in the eye
signaled the life within
was not dead,
but only in chains of softest thread,
waiting,
and then finding
an energy, at least as strong
as its own,
capable of waves of intensity,
an excitement
almost forgotten,
an all consuming gulp
from a yet full vessel
that caused the suppressed
song to reach
its own liquid
hot note
in celebration
of chance and circumstance
and fretful overtures
and scales played
to tune,
the rough melody
discovering its ebb and flow.

Constrained by time and space,
only,
the ineffable moment snared
and worth more,
by far,
than the endless warp and woof
through which are stitched
the colorless days,
a shared rip in the web
rends the useless fabric
and asserts itself,
themselves,
a healing wound,
a letting of good blood,
an unstopping of blocked passages
and constricted ways,
to be cherished,
nurtured,
until,
unless,
the waters no longer flow.

But the ocean always
moves to the moon’s rhythms,
and only fools
rest content
in the full and sterile glare
of the sun.

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Late August, 1981

This follow-up to her description of  working with her family on the cherry harvest offers a meditation on woman and machine as well as a paean to her roots.  My guess is the machine in question is a cherry shaker, as she was proud of her status as the first woman shaker driver on the Peninsula.  Monk, in her closing, is a character in a series of my short stories.

Steve,

I’ve been covered w/ grease & dirt & working in  the HOT orchard sun for two days trying to erase the winter’s wear on this piece of hulking technology that seems to be my responsibility.  I think there’s a story here somewhere on the strange & intimate relationship between woman & machine.  It begins w/ the ultimate emotion of frustration & digs into those stranger feelings brought about by a broken fan belt on a highly sophisticated machine that is entirely irreparable by the intuitive process. I think the story ends with the inevitable: machine continues its life span on into the future (where it belongs) & woman, in 95 degree temp. dies of HEAT.

In the cab of the cherry shaker

But Lake Michigan, in its purest form is only 15 steps from my parents’ front door & midnight swims cure most ills.  It’s 2AM now & the house &  inhabitants sleep while the lake & I ponder or perhaps I’m untrue to the lake–it always does–personification uncalled for–& I write.

If you’re into writing letters, send a letter….If you’re writing fiction instead of letters, send some fiction in an envelope–Monk’s latest tale?

Carol

This one, which is dated August 27th, has Carol writing from Lake George in upstate NY where her house-mate’s family vacations.  It opens with a reference, again, to a letter I don’t have.  In it apparently I mention the publication of a fun opinion piece I wrote on the “Personal Notices” in Newsday, the major Long Island newspaper.  And I must have responded to her critique of the chapter in my novel.  Her humorous comment toward the end of the senility she hopes to attain at  60 is bitterly ironic considering the early onset dementia that shortened her life.  She mentions her desire to write a novel, an ambition she never lost.  She started and worked persistently on one dealing with the French fur traders and natives in the 17th century and another set during the riots in Detroit.

Steve,

A second reading has deciphered your scrawl–except for one word on the last page which may demand more thought before it offers up its meaning.

Hard labor is not compatible w/writing, is compatible w/sleeping, and is exhausting.  It’s only invigorating for two days and then effort is the key to maintaining an acceptable form of sanity.  Staying w/my family for a month may lead me gently toward the edge too.  I seem to thrive on isolated or semi-isolated households.

I’m at Lake George again–no relatives this time.  Have been to the city & secured an apt. in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn.  ….I may be on Long Island again for a couple of weeks since the apt. doesn’t open up until Oct. 1.  If so I’ll give you a ring….

I can imagine it must be frustrating to follow the Personals in Newsday.  Are you making a comment on public opinions of Newsday writers?

You are right of course about the importance of sexuality.  It’s very easy for me to wander around the walls of justice when it comes to women and forget about human emotions.  Lois is in perfect character form as a prostitute.  I’m not sure what that has to do w/making love that inspires aspiration, but then it is not my novel, and to change her character  in my mind would be for me to write my own novel of someone like her and the two men.  I find more & more that I want to write a novel, but it’s that fact about myself that still stops me  The narcissistic walls of justice are sometimes too high to see over.  Or in truer terms, my own high-blown ideas don’t often make way for other people’s thoughts or a different way of seeing.

Congratulations on being 39.  I hope you celebrated well.  I’m waiting to turn 60 (a few years or more) so that I can feign senility at which point I will be excused for my earlier irrational disorder….

Take care.

Carol

 

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First Letters

Introductory Comments

I believe I have almost all of this correspondence, but a couple of the letters such as this one indicate they are in response to one that I have not found.  There is also a peculiar gap between August ’81 letters and the following December when the exchanges picked up again and continue with a steady flow.  I am not sure, now forty years later, why this seems to be the case.  Perhaps there are letters still hiding in the vast amount of unsorted stuff in this house.  Or it is more likely that circumstances provided difficulties, obliging us to rely more on phone calls and occasional personal interactions.  One possibility in that direction is that Carol and housemate had moved to Brooklyn, and since housemate was still a presence in the new apartment it would not have been a good idea for me to send mail to that address.

A couple of other observations.  First, Carol seems to have been the more energetic correspondent both in volume and frequency.  Second, not surprisingly, she gave voice to her emotions more than I did.  I don’t know if we are talking about gender or personality differences, perhaps a little of both.

Finally, I will offer dates from postmarks.  I adopted Carol’s habit of indicating dates as in “early Monday,” followed by “Later.”  I did the same.  For almost all of the letters, I have the envelope in which they came.  For a couple of others, I can rely on context for approximate dating.

August 3rd, ’81.

[This letter offers an exception to the dating stated above because Carol inscribed an exact date.

The letter describes in some detail Carol’s participation in the cherry harvest that summer.  She routinely did get back home to help the family with this vital chore  I suspect she also wanted me to more fully understand this element in her life  In the second half of the letter, she offers her critique, from an admitted feminist perspective of my novel in progress, which was published about ten years later by Walker as The Monkey Rope.

Steve,

I apologize for taking so long to write back.  We just finished an outstandingly chaotic cherry seasons.  Frustrations & disputes among the two 9-member crews raged every day from dawn to dusk.  And there’s always a scapegoat–usually one of the loudest talkers on the crew.  Seems like every one gets to be a scapegoat for the others sooner or later–except for family members.  We somehow–perhaps because we’ve been through the heat & the monotony & the physically long hours–find other things to do & excuse ourselves from the bickering….

I read, Doris Lessing & The Golden Notebooks.  It rained so often during the last three weeks that the whole book swelled up & broke into 5 parts, 2 of which fell off the shaker & were smoothed irretrievably into dusty nothings by a 200 lb. tire.  So now I have no idea what happens between p. 182 & 319 & p. 321 & 411.  It was interesting–she thinks, or suspects, that many people’s political interests & choices are actually a result of, or at least deeply tied up w/ their emotional & personal lives.  I don’t see how it could all be separated anyway (one’s life divided into neat, concise compartments? ha)

I read Ch. 3 & your plans for Lois.  I’m still disappointed w/ her character.  She’s a strong character (w/out that sharp edge) & I can’t exactly figure out what it is that makes me think  that there’s just as strong & mysterious bond between she & Seymour as there is between she & Junior.  Of course, you can go so much further w/ Seymour.  Not that it’s bad between Seymour & Lois, but it’s always a complex issue–Am I vague?  I think so.  I think it would be more difficult to establish a mysterious link between them because I think it’s easy (I’m being harsh, no apologies) for people writing about men & women to leave the link between them at a sexual level.  Whether Lois is the victim of a father-rapist, or a prostitute by choice you’ve still left her at that sexual level.  She has potential for more personhood.  There’s something revealing in her character when she comes to see Seymour at his office–there’s desire, but there’s other  things.  What?  Her concern for Junior saves her a little bit, but what about her concern for herself?

I know you’re not writing it from Lois’ point of view.  I also know it’s very easy for me to be extremely one-sided about women in defense of them

[At this point in the margin appears “rampant loss of control over pen” next to words scratched out. The idea that her pen is an autonomous force within her appears regularly in her letters.]

However, I’d best get some sleep.  I haven’t written anything in a while & I can get a trifle long-winded in letters when pen & heart have had restrained contact.

Two more weeks here helping my brothers manage the farm back into shape & I should be rolling east again  May be a while before I see Suffolk County–2 weeks when back in NYC to find an apt. before school begins.  Horrors.  And in August too.

Write.

Carol

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A Light of a Different Nature

A Light of a Different Nature

In its previous incarnation, this blog ended on the funereal note of the death of my wife Carol from early onset dementia.  I worked it into a book,  Dementia, a Love Story, which was a finalist in the non-fiction category of this year’s BookLife competition.

I found that sharing my pain with others faced with losing a loved one to this merciless disease helped me deal with the huge hole left by Carol’s death.  In the same way, I hope this continuation will further the healing process.  In the form of our letters to each other, it will present the bright dawn of the relationship that sustained us through those dark, last days.

The Beginning

I saw her sitting there, as though she had been waiting for me, which was of course ridiculous, and yet was what her wordless glance said.

It was forty years ago.  I had paused for a long minute as I walked past the writing center in the Islip Arts Building on the main campus of Suffolk County Community College on Long Island.  As chair of the humanities division, I had lobbied for the creation of the center to help students with their writing assignments. Leaving the faculty office area, I would pass the converted classroom several times a day.

But this time, perhaps just to see how things were going with the center’s program, I strolled into the room. Behind a table that served as her desk in her role as tutor sat the woman who would become the fixed center of my life.

I introduced myself.  I can’t be certain what other words we exchanged.   In those primitive days, people still smoked, even in classrooms.  One of us might have asked for a butt or a light.  I am making that up.  But what I am sure of is that a light of a different nature had absolutely risen in that classroom.

In retrospect, I think I can surmise what I saw in her that first time.  Her face radiated gentleness, but her abundant, red tinged brown hair projected strong emotions.  And between face and hair, her blue eyes shone with intelligence.

I think now, so many years later, that those three attributes do define her.  Of course, I don’t know what she saw in me before we even spoke, but it was clear that there was something to which she reacted strongly as well.

A connection had been formed.  That connection would obliterate the obstacles provided by our disparate backgrounds, she having grown up on a family fruit farm of several hundred acres in rural northern Michigan, I born and raised in Brooklyn as tenants in a two-family house, she a failed Methodist, I a largely secular Jew.

That connection faced even more formidable difficulties.  She had come to Long Island to accompany her live-in companion of seven years, now pursuing his graduate education up the road from my college at SUNY Stony Brook.  That relationship was approaching its breaking point.

As was my seventeen-year marriage, sustained only by my concern for my two young daughters.

On that day, I don’t think either of us was contemplating leaving our troubled situations.  But neither did we resist the force of the mutual attraction, which would not be denied, and which only strengthened as we got to know each other, until we both recognized that it was stronger than any remaining scruples we might have.

We were both writers, I older and further along in that part of my career, she as a non-traditional student approaching thirty, just getting an academic gloss for her formidable natural talents on her way to becoming an award-winning short story writer.  For her, as well, the physical act of writing was as necessary as breathing.  With a pen in her hand, she wrote what bubbled up from her depths.  She simply had to write, preferably by hand although she was expert on the keyboard.

I have found a huge quantity of these handwritten thoughts on all sorts of surfaces, such as bound journals, legal pads, pages torn from notebooks, and one extraordinary paper napkin, to be described below.

Being compellingly drawn to each other but living apart, we closed the space between us with pen and ink letters.  I was reminded of that correspondence when one day not long after she died, I was searching in the closet in my office, which contains various technological detritus, for a power cord for an ancient reel to reel tape recorder, then on loan to a techie friend.    I didn’t find the cord, but I did stumble across a thick manila envelope containing a stack of letters Carol had written to me over about an eight- or ten-month period stretching from late 1981 into the next year.

Because Carol saved every scrap of paper that contained anything she might need or want to remember, whether a playbill or a reminder of a family obligation, even old planners containing ancient appointments, she would have kept my letters to her.

I found them in one of a half dozen cartons that had been sitting undisturbed on a high shelf in the garage where they were placed on the day in January of 2002 when we moved from New York to Old Mission, a short distance from the house in which her parents at that time were still living.

I now have our correspondence during what was a pivotal period in our lives.  These letters crackle with intensity, frustration, joy, occasional despair but  leavened with humor and determination.  With some necessary editing to retain narrative focus and provide context, I will be offering this correspondence in occasional posts to the blog reading world.

From Musings on a Napkin

Going through Carol’s papers, I have found that she frequently wrote drafts of letters, some of which, apparently, she never sent, as well as what appear to be journal jottings. Whatever their intended purpose, they were on lined paper.  This is the only one I have come across on a napkin.  I imagine she must have felt the need to get some thoughts down when no other paper was available.  The apparent timing would suggest that possibility.  These jottings were written as our relationship had moved into a new stage.  I had established myself in an apartment, and she, having transferred to New York University, had moved to Brooklyn with her companion, but he was often not home and was on his way to being permanently out of the picture.  Our new living arrangements enabled us to call each other more freely and to spend regular time together, so we would no longer need to depend on letters.

The Napkin

You have to think of my upbringing—raised up with beer drinkers, truck drivers, and farmers in a WASPishly small town in northern Michigan.  What would you expect from a talented country girl? To find herself in New York writing poetry and finishing her senior year at New York University, thinking about law school, having exchanged her mid-western bohemian lovers, as beautiful as they were, for a Jewish professor with two kids and a house in the suburbs….The bohemian laughs in sparkling amazement and goes to dances with a gay friend, still feeling the void of having left the irony and joy of walking away in the parking lot of an apartment complex (where he lives in separation), saddening at  the loss of connection

 

Four years later, when after tedious negotiations my divorce was finalized, and we had been living together in a rented house, we married and bought our own house where we lived until I retired and we moved back to her home turf, that small rural town in northern Michigan.

 

 

 

 


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DEMENTIA, THE BACK STORY

Revived and Renamed

Coming soon, a continuation of this blog, now titled “Dementia, the Back Story,” presenting  in epistolary form the beginning of the love relationship that sustained us through the early dementia and death of my wife Carol.  The first post to arrive on or about Oct. 3rd.  Check back then.

 

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Now, Dementia, the Book

 

All of the posts in this blog are now gathered into a book to be published by Mission Point Pres under the title, Dementia: A Love Story, available for pre-order at Amazon.

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