Chasing down the Dance
Last night, one of those moments of beauty which life delivers at the most unexpected moments, one of those moments of complete understanding between complete, disparate even, strangers... A seemingly undeserved moment of reprieve that has come during unrelenting medical antagonism and academic stress; during flatmate (who has not yet forgiven me for missing part of her birthday; but I have faith in her goodness) & boyfriend (who has forgiven me) alienation; during this time of starvation when I have no time nor resource to refuel my exhausted mind, when tango even ceases to give me peace as my body fades, when what I crave most is to sit quietly, even silently, with good friends across a table of good food and let their presence fill the cracks in my own. Despite my downfalls, last night, life fed me -
I went (a wrecked ship), last night, to the Blues Brothers show at the Royal with my boss, who apparently asked me along because a) I'm as close to Chicago as he's ever gotten, and b) he knew I would dance with abandon, which I of course did - for the entire 3 hours. This latter meant leaving our cramped seats in the center of the stalls & moving to the side aisle where we wouldn't block our (incredibly disgruntled) neighbors' view & where we could actually dance. Out there, I met a couple of guys who actually work with the show (one, a 15-year-old, has been traveling with the Bros. for 12 years & will be the "new Jake" when the current Jake retires - what amazing lives people live!) - when they learned I was from the Chicago area AND danced swing/blues, I was named a "soul brother" & duly included in their previously double side-act.
Out there, I also noticed a young man, sitting with his father on the edge of the row, right on our aisle, with Down syndrome. A young man whose unadulterated rapture with the show, the music, the lights captured me (esp. after the late-middle-aged British priggishness of our row - "You know you've given up your seats for good now!" they snapped at us as we excuse me'd and apologized our way over their knees between songs). It was so pure - the entirely unselfconscious smile on this man's upturned face - such happiness - suddenly everything else seemed so unimportant next to this.
But one thing. As the music got louder, more and more people stood to rock & clap to the rhythm - except this man. He sat, rooted in his seat, hands gripping its arms; he still smiled, but occasionally, I saw conflict flit across his eyes. It wasn't until I saw him see me that I understood: I tapped into some of my swing footwork, my black&white saddle soft-shoes flashing - and I saw his eyes follow my feet up the floor and down again, and then - sensing I'd caught him watching - he looked into my face, and he grinned - I could only grin back - I understood. I didn't stop dancing the rest of the night, and waited to meet his eye again and again to smile again and again at him -
Until he at last stood up from his seat. He started slowly. He stood. He let his arms drop at his sides at first, then swayed them back and forth a bit, his smile tightening in concentration. Then his brown eyes wandered over to me again. I started rocking back and forth to the music, clapping first on the left and then on the right - and he rocked with me, to the left and to the right. And suddenly we hit the rhythm together - left, clap; right, clap - and his grin came back, and mine. By the time they closed with "Everybody needs somebody to love," he didn't even need me anymore, only the music.
And when the curtain dropped and as he was leaving with his father, he stopped to shake my hand, but I felt so much more that I should be shaking his for reminding me again of that unadulterated joy in dance, that connection (so strange yet so perfect that a complete stranger standing several feet away from me should do this), and that peace that comes when you finally chase it down, all the way down to the end of the world which you find suddenly, unexpectedly, is at your innermost center...
A public elegy
An email from my mother early this morning (GMT)/late last night (central time): my grandfather died. A multiplicity of reactions:
The first, to do unthinkingly what I had to do this morning. A strange blurring of time and place and lives. The first thing I had to do was go to the hospital this morning, but for my own unresolved (and seemingly unresolvable; I mystify my doctors; I will have to go for more tests) medical issues. I ducked soundlessly out of the dark hushed flat, already running (literally) late for my appointment, roommates still sleeping, even Jess's cough quiet finally, and into the purgatorial fluorescent hall, elevator, finally plunging out the back door of the building into the cool grey day, still quiet and surprisingly clean for Brighton - perhaps there was rain last night, rinsing the car exhaust and bar fumes from the streets? I hurried out the gate, where I ran past Ray, the insufferable day porter (a bit of background: the man comes to our flat to shout at me [last, when our tap was dripping and I was concerned for the waste of water] & threatens that he'll have no more maintenance complaints from our flat; confrontations with him have triggered seizures in me, and so generally I avoid what I consider a presence noxious to my general well-being, though sometimes the inevitable encounter, such as this morning...) - he makes some comment on the morning, I don't even understand what, I nod my head as a response, hardly looking, and keep my stride. He shouts something at me, something rude and uncalled for, I can tell by his voice, though I still cannot process language yet... I turn and shout at him: "My grandfather died this morning!" I shock myself, there on the street, blurting it out - shouting it - to Ray - how funny, after everything, that Ray, intolerable Ray, is the first person I should tell. And funnier still: when I look, I find sympathy in his face. I've lost use of my language again; I put on my big dark glasses (indispensable for every doctor's appt, to the point where I pack them the night before) despite the clouds & run off for the bus. By this point I have a near-silent Rasheed on the phone; I've told him the news; I get nearer the bus stop: it's closed for construction. Having no idea where the next closest stop was and knowing I'd never make it to the hospital in time if I walked, feeling so pressed for time, and feeling, somehow, too, the press of mortality, I ran to the nearest cab corral & threw myself in the backseat of the first in line. At least it was quiet here; I could hear Rasheed on the phone now, at least his silence, and I felt for just a moment that he could help somehow, if I could tell him what I needed; I filled him in on the details, but when I had run out of them, and we lapsed into silence, I realized, looking at the brown and grey brick buildings go by outside, the futility of it - and so I arrived at the hospital to meet one of my doctors, and there found a waiting room full of old men, dying men, men in wheelchairs and men who slouched skeletal in cramped waiting room chairs pushing their dentures in and out of slack gums, and one old man who had come along with his middle-aged daughter & waited for her when she was called in to the office (he stood when she stood; "Are you fine waiting here, Dad?" she asked, and he sat) - and none of them were him - it was as if I had rushed to the hospital to be with him before he died, and I was too late - then, suddenly, I had no idea what I needed, if anything at all.
I was directed to another waiting room, where two old men were the only other occupants. They sat together - friends? They joked like they were, but maybe it was a generalized brotherhood amongst old men; maybe there is a universal language amongst old men who find themselves in hospitals (whereas we young people keep quiet as to cover ourselves from the curious, pitying stares of the old). I took out my book, but began to think instead. The nurse called me; I didn't understand my name; she called again. When I went to her, the men smiled kindly at me. I gave her the information she needed, sat back down, put my book away, and let myself think instead...
He is not the first I have lost since being here. It's so surreal a loss, the loss you will never know because you were not physically there to experience it. In a way, it is no loss at all. Mr G, Steve, Cookie (though she was a dog, she counted as human, at least counted herself as such), and now Pop - they all are both doubly lost (because even the losing has eluded me) and not lost at all to me - there is no closure. Pop will be the first for whom I write a "public" elegy. So, too, will we here give him our own service - a service on the sea, because he served in the Navy during the Second World War.
But it is important to avoid sentimentality. Pop and I had by no means an ideal grandparent-grandchild relationship. We saw eye-to-eye on very little, if on anything at all aside from our mutual love for my mother's Christmas sticky buns. There was his sexism; there was his racism. There was his joke about the old telephone he had picked up in a ruined Japan during the war which now sits on my father's bar; pointing to the Japanese characters on its face, he asked: "You think it says Jap-bell?" A joke my father has appropriated as his own. There was the day my mother had to physically drag me from the room after I had disagreed with him about something: it was not my place to argue with him, she chastised me; besides, she continued, he was old and too set in his ways for me to change him.
But, as he aged further & I matured, our relationship - or at least my feeling for him - softened. He softened, even so much so that I felt safe introducing Rasheed to him. I began to spend a few hours beside my grandmother on their couch before each "leaving" (whether to Champaign or Savoy or London or Brighton-via-London) going through old photographs. But more, I began to identify somewhat with him. My grandfather was one of those tough old bastards who just don't die. Though understanding it as inevitable, I think I never quite believed he would. After surviving heart attacks and heart surgeries (yes, that's plural), he kept on. In his 70s, he took up roller-skating. In his 80s, he was still driving. After my own surgery, I began to understand what this meant in a way that I couldn't as a child, when his surgeries actually happened (though his scars running purple and snakelike down his white chest chilled me as a child when we all went swimming in Sunday Lake; I suddenly recall him standing waist-deep in water, putting the pier together at the beginning of one summer). Against all bodily probability, he continued to live. And not only live, but do. He continued, after his surgeries, for many years, to take trips up to Sunday Lake with the family, where he fished & sometimes swam (and largely, sat in the sun or at the campfire, ate, drank, & generally enjoyed life). Mortality, be damned!
I recall my last meal with him. Beef-a-Roo (for all of the Illinois natives) at the last house he and my grandmother lived in together before she moved to her own apartment and he was put in a home as she was unable to take the care of him that he needed. He had onion rings, and tempted me to eat them with him; I ate the fruit salad my grandmother & I made together. (Mortality, be damned, up until the last!) We ate off paper plates. I teased him ("Have you been behaving?" "You know I'll hear about it if you're up to your tricks!") - as so many old men like to be reminded of their scruffy boyish glory days, making him smile and laugh his worn-out laugh. I told him about my plans for England, shouting, so that he could hear me, but I don't think he paid too much attention. I wondered where his mind was: maybe revisiting his own trip to England (one of a few, I think), decades ago? He had come on business, with my grandmother (the trip that gave her all her ammunition to protest very vehemently against my coming; better to stay at home, get married, and have children) - they had driven "on the wrong side of the road" with one of Pop's work friends who "drove way too fast!" and who had in a restaurant ordered my grandmother a "just terrible" dessert, "thinking he was giving her a real treat" - said she. I wondered what Pop remembered - I realize now I'll never know. I wonder what streets he wandered here; what pubs he drank in with his work buddies (because I know he would have). But, leaving that day - I stood on the step, in the doorway, to look back one last time - he was unable to stand up from the table, and I looked back into the room, into his face, and into his eyes which were suddenly a bright, clear, blue - the bluest I had ever seen them, as if a light beamed through them; it lit his entire face which was suddenly smiling ever so slightly, childlike, but knowing. And standing there on the step, looking back into his eyes for what must have been only a few seconds but felt like long minutes, I knew then that it was the last time I would see him.
Though there are so many other things (his 50th wedding anniversary; summers at the house on Belvidere; the war; the painting) - I will end here for now. There will always be more to be said, and somewhere, another elegy by the sea, a novel, I will say it.
The honest truth? Here it is: California (especially southern California, and even more especially LA and...Irvine) scares me. I do not think that this is because I am a particularly fearful person; indeed, there is really only the one big thing. Nor do I think it is because I am afraid of change: no, I packed up quite cheerfully for Champaign for university (granted, this was only 3 and a half hours drive away); and, just over four years later, packed up again for London in perfect faith (in God's will, Rasheed's love, my quick decision), making my first international flight alone, quitting my job and leaving family, friends, and my dearest professors behind. True, I was loathe to leave London for Brighton several months later, and even now know that my heart is still in that city, but Brighton, while ugly and irritating at times (I'm thinking of the masses of tourists & the obnoxious mobs of disgusting drunk teenagers choking the streets day and night; the street fights; the drug deals and break-ups that happen in my alley; the audacity of the children here, like the 16-year-old kid who sexually harassed me at my last catering gig & then was brazen enough to try it again not a minute later), was never scary.
Why, then, does California terrify me? (Though I wonder: when the time comes down to it, will it scare me still? I somehow doubt it.) True, it is partly because I am not yet done with Brighton; I feel instead that I've only just now gotten into it (maybe because for the first few months, I was still largely living in London, spending half of my long weekends there with Rasheed in our former flat, and when not there physically, certainly spiritually, memorially...). Suddenly it is as if, just when I've fitted the last piece together, my flatmates are starting to leave (Sari first; we went to her last Shabbat dinner here in Brighton together last night), and then I need to wrap up my dissertation (which I will never feel digs deeply enough), and then, I am asked to leave these places and people I am only just coming to know in real ways? I only just discovered that modest churchyard cemetery in Hove last night...; I begin to realize that I will likely never dance the tango on a rooftop above the beach of Brighton again in my life; and, though not Brighton, but London, I've only just now begun to make friends with the people I dance with at the 100 Club. (It's true, I've only just recently gotten a phone!) And Kirsty, who first remembered my name, a kindred dancing soul; Neil, whom I have watched learn to dance like watching a child discover the world (because it is its own world, the music, the space hollowed between one dancer's shoulders and another, against a chest & beneath a chin), and whom I have tested to that end; Zsolt, whom I knew by the freckles on his nose that we would be friends, who taught me how to tie a tie (unsuccessfully), and with whom I talked books at my second day of work; Sue, so ebullient and young, so brilliant - our friendship cannot end here, I wait for her return from Paris; George, who moves with the powerful grace of a horse, and in whose large dark eyes I see the knowing wisdom of that animal, so reminiscent of Michael, patient, strong, broad-backed and certainly stored with greater knowledge of the world than a 17-year-old me clung lightly atop his steady body, George, for whom I have no time to know better; and finally Rob Hawke, a face like his name, whom I have left behind already.
But this cannot be all; there were people left behind in Illinois, all left for the one in London. True, most of these people were family (or near enough), and I knew that no matter where any of us were, we were never "left behind"; rather, we move together still in parallel lines that, when we are lucky or just plain determined, occasionally intersect. It was, however, to my occasionally over-dramatic sensibility, near-tragedy to part with some of the swing dancers, some of the people at Pages - people a few of whom I am lucky enough to hear from occasionally or to dream full rich dreams about (last night, I was at a family gathering at my Auntie Kay's - their old house at Colorado Ave, but decorated like the Cherry Valley house, and with its porch, where I found my aunts & my cousin John in the sunshine, eating soft pretzels off of white paper plates, and where I knew instinctively that my mom was in the kitchen pouring lemonade - they were not at all surprised to see me there - happy, but not surprised; and countless times have I dreamt myself onto the swing dance floor in Champaign, literally [thanks to time zone differences] dancing with that group again, 10 pm their time, 4 am mine). My fear leaving these people was that they would forget me, who would never forget them & who dream about them still. Not an egotism, as I have been accused. No. If two people remember, there is still togetherness; if one forgets, the thread is broken.
So, I have separated from people before (Rockford & area for Champaign & area for London for Brighton) - it cannot be this that so spooks me. No, I think it is the place itself. California; LA; Irvine - they none of them seem real places to me. For weeks now, I've looked up information on the internet, I've read articles & looked at photos in magazines and newspapers, I even met a woman at Buckingham who grew up in Irvine (but who had been living in London for over a decade) - nothing can convince me that there is a substantial place that is California; that beyond the name there is landscape and buildings and people, and finally, a small home, a room, even, somewhere in the midst of this empty space for me.
You may point out (and logically so) that it can never be real to me until I am there. But I will counter (completely, utterly irrationally so) that London was always real to me, even before I had ever arrived. Sometimes I couldn't believe I was really there, but London was always Real, and from that moment on the train when I rested my head on Rasheed's shoulder somewhere between Hatton Cross & Hounslow and looked out the window at the grey, sleeting sky, it was Home. It was Real & it was Home even when I was neither. At a time when I myself was Unreal - during the worst stretch of post-operation seizures, medical misdiagnosis, soaring and plummeting blood sugar, drug disrealization - it was a comfort (more than that) to be, even if a ghost, even if only the faintest beat of blood in thin veins, even if sucked under by sudden seizures with little or no warning, it was a comfort to be surrounded by a Real city; to put my feet on real streets; to follow where Virginia walked; to sit in the green deck chairs at Hyde Park & watch the dogs romp without leads & stand by Round Pond, feeding the starlings; to put coins on the base of the statue of Gandhi; to dance at Holi and again at Gay Pride; to row in Regent's Park & drift round the back of the island. If I was transparent - the city was stone. If I was ephemeral - it was eternal, somehow.
Eternal - somehow. True, not eternal, but lasting - old - older than perhaps anything else I have known. This, I think, is what scare me most: California is so new. I imagine (mistakenly, the rational side of me knows) a film-set city-scape which will fall at the least puff of breath. In California, I imagine I must be real, and unflinchingly so - I will not have the protection, the security of a history that allows - indeed forces - me to whisp unsubstantially through its solid streets. I find, though, that this has always been true of me, even before the surgery. The more I travel east of Rockford - London, Paris, Budapest - the more solid the world feels. At my childhood home, I was comfortable with the earth, the space of the skies & fields & trees, but not with the house itself, whose walls tremble in the winds, nor with most of Rockford, especially as it develops still. In Champaign, I was comfortable on the Quad, amongst its oldest buildings, regardless of the fact the two I spent the most time in (Lincoln Hall, my sculpture studio; and the English building, of course) were rated by the fire department as the two most structurally dangerous buildings on campus; I was most comfortable in my longest-standing apartment, and was never quite at ease in my last in Savoy, a cardboard building only a few years old. No, I am terrified to leave a country who has known the ways of the Woolves, who has known and survived plague and fire and war, who changes and accepts that change (itself time-won wisdom that my natal-land, at least its current govt., has not mastered); I am terrified to leave a country whose skyline even before I knew it was built of stone, and on the downs, of earth, and to leave it for a space which to me has always been empty, a flimsy paper-and-lights world. The truth: it terrifies me to leave the place that filled in my own empty spaces.
But, optimistically, I still have time to fill the Unreal spaces of myself as solidly as I can before I leave. Today, I go to Knole (to Vita, Orlando, and beyond). Today, I fill perhaps the space between two ribs, perhaps the nook behind my knee, so that I will be at least that much more substantial when I leave for California.
[A request I have of people who have known California: not "visited" nor "touristed," but known in a meaningful way: will you tell me your stories? (I'm thinking esp. of Holly, whose story is perhaps the most lasting story I have known to come from California: will you retell it to me?) Pictures, even, cannot make it real to me, but your words & the depths in your voices can.]
Waiting for inspiration...from my inspiration
In one of several installments of his autobiography, Beginning Again: 1911-1918, Leonard Woolf recalls the way in which his wife Virginia's mind often worked: for days, weeks, even months, she would sit starting out the window, at the fire, at her paper, contemplating "the problem," until, in a sudden flash, she would solve it, her pen dashing across the page so that she could hardly keep up with her own voice - she finished The Waves with "such intensity and intoxication," she recorded.
Perhaps because I know this about her, my own writing about her fluctuates between contemplation and fulguration. True, I experience those "flashes" of inspiration (who doesn't, regardless of vocation/purpose/hobby?) in my other writing (fiction, epistolary, even email, even here [today not being an example of this]), and in my critical writing about other subjects (most notably Joyce, with whom I have a love-hate relationship; trapped in a dead-lock with the man/author/myth for weeks, until suddenly, either he or I give, and the words landslide down page after type-written, single-spaced page) - but with Virginia, the struggle is more exhausting; the inspiration, purer. Perhaps all Woolf scholars like to imagine this sort of intimacy with their subject, but I like to think that after years of reading and reading about Virginia, writing informally and more recently, formally, about her; after listening to her voice in the only existing recording of her at the library; after deciphering (rather unsuccessfully) her hand in the Monks House Papers; after visiting most of her homes (and her sister's) and haunting her neighborhoods and favorite walks (Regent's Park, St. George's Gardens, the downs, etc) - I like to think that after this, I have absorbed something of the essence of this presence who still permeates London, Sussex, and that this will in turn inform my writing of her.
Unfortunately for me, however, I have not the luxury of months to contemplate - nor even weeks. 3 September, work schedules, health concerns & autumn living plans inform my writing now. I become impatient with my research; and worse, with my writing. I push unprepared into unexplored territory, and naturally, lose myself in the brambling complexities of Virginia which are otherwise part of what I love best about her. And I finally find my way only to be heartbreakingly interrupted, never to lose sight of her in the thick, but rather, to lose my way to her. Only a few weeks ago: working steadily, writing well - then, a vague email from my doctor that my blood results have come back "abnormal"; he thinks kidney problems, but isn't sure what it means. A week of nearly daily doctors' appointments combined with at-home observation throws me. Then: the weekend. Relief: doctors don't call or email on weekends; there is no post on Sundays. I work again. Monday: a provisional "diagnosis" ("in all probability," they say - thank God it's not my kidneys; rather, it's miscommunication between my pituitary gland and my kidneys, it seems) which I continue to work under, unconfirmed and untreated as it is, waiting for the doctors. I work. Then: a week-long visit from my mother. We slog through a week of rain in London and Brighton (at least she got the "authentic" British experience! Jane Eyre: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.") which leaves me sick for days after she's gone. My writing still has not recovered, exactly a week after she's departed. The ideas are all there; I write and rewrite; I cannot organize, which is why I have come here, in the hopes of, as if I were casually batting ideas around with you, as if you were here in this room with me (a time when a woman wants anything but a room of her own!!), the form will organize itself in my mind:
In this chapter in my diss, I am looking at Night and Day as one of Woolf's most important war novels - a novel which is often overlooked in the Woolf canon, and even charged with "deliberately looking away" (Briggs) from WWI, during which it was written. At this moment, I mean to be discussing the structure of repression (and the equally dual nature of that repression: both of the war experience & civilian "madness") practiced by the novel - at once contextual (the architecture within) & textual (the "architecture" of) which Woolf parallels from the opening pages (we enter the novel as Denham enters Cheyne Walk). Further, it is temporal repression on several levels: Mrs. Hilbery & Mr. Fortescue in the novel look even further backwards, thus highlighting the novel's own self-conscious awareness of its location in the past, which at moments threatens to erupt in masked references to the present. ... Sounds easy, right? I think I need a pen & paper for this one. And a moment of inspiration, as I've been staring at this for a week now...