[This story first appeared in AGNI 75, Spring 2012]
(For J.A.D., whose amazing hands I see everywhere in this story. Thank you.)
To my children, to N, to a few other people who shall for now remain nameless—maybe later I’ll be able to name you, but currently it requires more in the way of moral resources than I have on hand—
We exist physically at the molecular level; we are comprehensible as strings of protein; so, when it comes to my “remains” as they are called, for Christ’s sake, just get on with it, send me to the fires. I’m fifty-four now, with gray hair and gray beard, neatly trimmed for the most youthful effect a gray beard can have, and, to further express my youthful self-state—every middle-aged man’s accessory if he can’t afford a European sports car—a young child, the newest of you, a highly enjoyable three-year-old boy who still speaks of me in generally positive terms. It occurred to me that I should write a little testament and make known to all of you my wishes regarding the usual: the tubes in and hoses out, the interment, and the division of my meager collection of stuff, my items, the things that might be of interest or stir desire. Cash I assume there’ll be none of—you know me—but I’ll mention it later just in case.
First: put my ashes in a silver Illy can. I prefer the espresso grind with the black stripe. You can bury it in the yard, if we ever manage to have a yard. Or, take it out to sea. I don’t think I ever shared with you my distant and lazy fondness for the sea. I read a lot of Conrad, not to mention Melville. Do you know about Hornblower? And Mutiny on the Bounty? (All three volumes.) Two Years Before the Mast? I bet not. The YA novels of American pirates running the British blockades off the coast of New England in 1812—I never forced any of this upon you, not as I did Twain and The Call of the Wild. I still love boats, still wish I could sail. All a surprise to you.
But maybe you’d like to do something more literary. Hire some grad student to spread the ashes discreetly around Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, which is open to the public now. I am what I am, or was what I was, to the extent I ever managed to be it, because of her.
Or—here’s what I’d like best, actually. Take the Illy can to “1020,” the tavern at that address on Amsterdam Avenue at the corner of 110th Street—you know the place, I believe one or two of you have begun to frequent it since I left the neighborhood—and put what’s left of me on the bar in the front corner where the painter, George the Czech, usually sits (he’ll approve—if he’s not in Ecuador where he spends half the year with his twenty-five-year-old mestiza girlfriend and new baby, about whom his divorced wife and teenage children in New York, last I heard, knew not a thing). Take me there and set me up with a Jameson straight up, a cold lager, a notebook, a Waterman, a 2B drawing pencil, a pack of Lucky Strikes, and a Leica CL. Use your iPhones to take pictures of this tableau. Send the images to all my friends.
Memories of booze and expanded time and tea-gold light forcing itself through the street-side windows of the bars I’ve known on empty afternoons. No more alcohol for me, you know. Oh what a story that is. Except it isn’t. It’s just an unpleasant, mildly pathetic sequence of events, the kind that passes through your mind when you’re stepping over a dirty raincoat abandoned on the sidewalk. Whatever the story is, you don’t actually want to know it.
The main point: once you have the ashes, whichever of you takes them from the dyshidrotic hands of the funeral director, probably not old, probably surprisingly young, the business has to have some young people in it after all, do not leave them sitting around and you feeling all guilty because you haven’t done something suitable with them. If you leave them sitting around then just do that. Move them from one closet to another every decade or so until you die. The main thing is, don’t feel guilty. Move on. Memory will speak what it speaks. Memory is the eternity we sometimes wish for. It has enormous vacancies in it, just like the universe—these are the collapsed black gravitational centers of longing. Memory is malleable, as would be any narrative taking place outside time; it, or parts of it, can happen over and over, and, even with different outcomes, all the contingencies will remain intact—I wish I’d been able to see this earlier. Even now, I wish I could keep it in my head. Uncountable alternate universes full of the choices that, in this universe, no one made. But this is just the kind of hey-the-present-lasts-forever momentary revelation you cannot, by virtue of being human, keep in your head. Because, hello, here is life: you still have to sit on hold with the fucking insurance company. You still have to go to CVS and face Drugstore World, where language seems no longer to function as elsewhere, where no one ever understands what the fuck you’re asking for. The products they sell? Never heard of them. Customers? Never heard of them. You still—in other words—have to deal with the daily matrix of enslaving bureaucracies, the enormous exhausting relentless forces aimed, with no admitted authorship, at dehumanizing you and destroying life’s possibilities for meaning. All wisdom vanishes. That’s the point. If you could touch the immanent God in every aspect of the universe, if you could see God and talk to God—and that is what an infinite awareness would entail—would you ever say, hold on, I have to do my taxes? Wait, I have to deal with these fucking e-mails, let me get back to you this afternoon? Would you go to work? Would you come home? No. Wrapped in nothing but the divine, you would howl on the sidewalks and grab people wild-eyed, you would be picked up and taken to Bellevue, you would starve, your teeth would fall out—you would die. God is the sun, life is the glass: you’re the ant.
If none of the above works for you, just spread me out around one of the elms in Riverside Park, north of 105th and south of 116th, if you can manage it, or down on the softball fields near there, by the highway and the river, where Richard Hart and Tom Adams (two properly disheveled sons of New Orleans) and I used to play every Thursday and Friday over the summer of 1980, after late breakfast at The Mill Luncheonette, because none of us had all that much to do—there was a paralyzing recession on, but life was cheap and I remember these days as long hours of freedom, in fact I remember specifically enjoying them as such, noting the freedom, tasting it as if it were a grandmother’s famous sauce, as if I already knew its time had run out. Occasionally in those pickup games I hit the ball off the high wall in left, sometimes halfway up; only twice did I see anyone hit it over, up onto the promenade—anyway, if I’m there, and you ever feel the need to visit, you’ll know where to go. Be done with it in any case. I won’t care. By then I’ll be wherever it is I’m supposed to be. If you can, pray for me. I have for you.
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. When I’m going out—the awful part, the part with various terrifying and disgusting smells and the need for professionals just to clean up—revive me if it’s worthwhile, don’t if it’s not. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific, but that’s all I can say about it really. If you make the wrong decision, don’t worry, it’s not a big deal, because here’s one sure fact: I’m going to die at some point. I’d prefer to go by reason of forces other than the fill-out-the-forms-and-sign-here version of bureaucratized volition. (Nietzsche identified the birth of tragedy but who at any length has remarked its death, its utter exclusion, its impossibility?) If I’m in a nice coma and don’t need breathing equipment, etc., just a discreet feeding tube, then leave me there, because who knows what that’s all about. I might be finding something out. You never know. Caverns of silence. Charcoal darkness. Phosphorescent fish with shallow cavities where their ancestors’ eyes would have been. Skip the big efforts, let me lie there, no one can bother me anymore. A quick twice-weekly phone chat with the nurses will do. Or e-mail. Friend them on Facebook. You don’t have to visit. If you’re worried about the solitude, hour upon hour upon hour of it, don’t. I never worry about solitude. If you’re still worried, tell the nurses to use my room to smoke cigarettes or dip snuff or drink vodka or whatever other illicit shit they might like to do, perhaps they need just a simple place to gather and complain about the others. To play rummy. To fondle (or worse) their colleagues. Tell them I smile upon them. Tell them I’m happy for them. I’ll enjoy the conversation. All those accents. They’ll all be saying to each other forget it all the time. “Forget it girl, it won’t never be no different,” and that last will have all three of its god-given syllables . . . Won’t never be no diff-er-ahnt. If you do visit—please sing. You all have such beautiful voices.
The boy—fifth grade, or sixth, twelve years old, stands before the choir in the apse of the great cathedral, on which low central ground, but for the highest masses, the weekly altar is laid. He sings a Magnificat, “My soul . . . doth magnify the Lord,” in a voice pure and powerful. A high G of piercing beauty. He does not want to be there. His life is a series of oppressions: home, school, choir. He has perfect pitch. His talents, his skills, his various forms of brilliance daily conspire to punish him. He has a flawless calm before the crowd. He sings, perfectly, as once, much younger, eight or nine, he had played a Bach piece for violin, at just that fine cusp of perfection that can still a room. After: no elation. This is what is required? This is what the music requires, what the audience requires, what you expect? Okay. Here.
Death, unconsciousness, stands as relief from the harrowing memories of failure, of humiliation, of almost incomprehensible mistakenness: think of it, these things will be lifted from me, and someday too from you, as when the beautiful hostess takes your coat at a restaurant and smiles.
My funeral arrangements: now, about this, I have to say I’m feeling somewhat particular. Invite all the women. I’m serious. I want them all beckoned—some of them will come—going back to college days. Or, no: grade school. I want a large venue, many speakers; I want you strongly to encourage the comic, the inappropriate, the nakedly sentimental. Invite the hostile: You know, I have to say, he annoyed the shit out of me. There are some people who really hate me. Invite them to speak. Certain mystifyingly successful writers of sodden forgettable sentences. Let them have at me. That’ll wake people up. What a lazy, deluded, superior, pompous fucktard. I hated the fucking guy. Glib and lazy. What did he ever do? I won the Pulitzer Prize for Christ’s sake, what did he win? I want lots of music. I want everyone to sit there and listen to all thirty-two minutes of “Mountain Jam,” from the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Tell people to bring drugs. Make it a party. Everyone should take some Ecstasy. X. In our day it had four letters—MDMA, something like that. Then it was a drug, now it’s a combined degree. Anyway, shock people: make the papers, pass some joints around. Open bar in the rear two corners. . . . I suppose such things cannot happen anymore. Well, someone, before the day is over, at least one poor schmuck whom everyone will later ridicule, should drunkenly insist on a return to freedom. Just for the hell of it.
So: I brought up the women. There are things I want you to know, but not really. I want you to glimpse the silhouette of a few things, that’s all. What do any of us want to say in the end? I lived. I walked the planet. I made a few amusing remarks. I loved and I was loved. For a while after, I was remembered.
And let it be known: I loved them all. Andrea (who by her friends was called, without irony, Cookie), and Anna, and Ruth, and Gabrielle, and Laura, and Laureen and also a Lorene which makes no sense but she was from Dallas; Maureen Noreen Cynthia Deirdre Cathy Katherine Annaliese Karen Susan. Two Susans, actually. The first was a student of mine, the only student I ever fell for; I was only thirty — or thirty-two? thirty-four? in any case a forgivable age for that particular sin. There was a Jenn, with two n’s. Alex, Alison, Oleh. Two Amandas and two Joannas. And two Victorias, both dark-eyed, soft-skinned, proud, ambitious girls.
Tonight I’m at the counter, peeling fava beans, thinking of Debra Kelly. First love. Third grade. I was almost sick to my stomach every day. I was ill with it, literally. She ended up studying in Maine and becoming a dancer, which makes sense, one thinks of the way she stood there: her shoulders straight and her yellow hair clipped on each side and fanned across her back, which curved inward toward the base of the spine, not a sway-backed curve just a subtle perfect line; and the plaid Catholic school skirt centered and holding there on her hips though she was always thin, and then—but what? We were eight years old? Nine? I couldn’t take my eyes from her, except I couldn’t keep them on her either, I felt as if I’d start to dissolve like a lump of powdered soap under a faucet. Her skin was pale and softly defined and utterly unblemished. I decided to write a long note to our teacher, a large woman with a stiff short hairdo the color of gold spray paint, an imposing bosom that stuck out like a shelf, and much, much perfume. Generally stern, she was most kind to me on several fraught occasions, and shocked me once with an iron hug from the desk after calling me up to the front and announcing some score I’d gotten on a standardized test. I asked my mother what it was like, to be in love, and she started quizzing me with altogether too much amusement, so, having no one else, I took it to Mrs. Bross—asking to be transferred to the other third grade class because I just couldn’t concentrate. . . . This had been going on for at least four or five days. Maybe more. Maybe close to two weeks! Such a sweet, slow annihilation. I could not believe how good this form of torment felt, how utterly addictive. But then—wisdom—I decided to ride it out and not give Mrs. Bross that note, which would have been one of those childhood social missteps, a knife in the memory that one regrets right into the grave. I have enough of those already. But this Debra Kelly and I were in a crowd later, in high school, or, rather, she occasionally deigned to join our crowd for a movie or a party, and talking to her remained a matter of taking my palpitating venous sense of identity into my hands and squishing it. (You can imagine the sound.) She was the only tall blonde woman I ever loved.
The next year came Maureen Pappianous. Gleaming black hair. While playing one day in the basement of her apartment building, she was burned badly by a hot water pipe breaking; she was a dark sparkling girl, shy, and kind, ever after with scarred skin along her right side, over her lower neck and shoulder and arm and probably parts of her side and back and who knows where else. She was intensely beautiful, half Irish, half Greek; tonight, thinking of her, it all dovetails nicely, the ten-year-old’s built-in knowledge of enormous shapeless impossibility, and the later version, the midlife, hard-bordered, supremely familiar sense of impossibility: time don’t go that way, brother. The sense of nostalgia and loss—all this makes a fine piece of furniture for the spirit. At such moments one knows one is alive. I sat behind her (blessed alphabet); I liked to touch her hair, ever so lightly, touching a part of her but she couldn’t feel it. I did accents of the world. She and the girl beside me—whom I can’t remember at all, name, face, nothing—loved this; they would request countries and I would do them. All imitations from the 4:30 movies. They could have flummoxed me so easily, what did I know of the world? They could have said Hungary or Tibet or Thailand, but of course they were no more sophisticated than I was—it was fourth grade after all—nor, it occurs to me, did they want me to fail. We men, we want each other to fail, it’s wired in, you fail, I might succeed, or I will look less bad failing. But the girls don’t want us to fail. This is something that men don’t realize, especially after all the cruelties and rejections of adolescence: women would prefer we succeed and will help us to do so, as long as we don’t catch them at it.
Of course, yes, I know, there are always exceptions.
And so, to my ex-wife, I leave a list of ragged questions: Why did we do that to each other? And to our children? Did we believe that we and they would just somehow survive all that violence? I remember only the color red. The rage and blood, you with something sharp, anything that came to hand, and your wild, murderous eyes. Please give your answers to my attorney. He will lock them in a file for fifty years and then they will be destroyed.
As you know, I grew up alone with two women. Two Irish women, who revealed little of the truth about themselves. I suspect this partly accounts for the way I’ve been driven to study women my whole life, read them as though they were difficult books. I am captured by them still—I’m old, but it turns out I’m not over the worst of it—I love to watch the way they move, certain gestures, how they twist around to see the backs of their legs. When you live with a woman—N, this is true of you—you learn that she holds herself differently depending on what she’s wearing. It’s a rare woman who looks right standing naked putting a kettle on for tea. In skirts, with heels, your body, not just your appearance but seemingly your actual self, is different from how you are in pajama pants and a borrowed shirt. In your feet, that’s where you cannot hide: you, every woman, your feet express you in a kind of footy semaphore, minute by minute, small boned, fine muscled, elaborate. And there’s more, of course: the way you tilt your heads back slightly to put on makeup; the way you put a hand up—not all do this, but many—while you’re chewing, even if you’re not talking or laughing and your lips are closed. N, you do it when you speak at the table. My mother (aha! you all say; well, fuck you, aha yourself) sitting with her legs crossed, putting on lipstick or smoking a cigarette or sipping cold whiskey that looked brown and clear as a mountain stream—the ice made a sound like money in the glass. Her hands, small and slender and white. She smoked filterless Raleigh cigarettes and would from time to time pick a bit of tobacco from her lips or from the tip of her tongue, a gesture redolent of adulthood and sexuality. Ah, they fuck you up. It got a lot worse than that, too—I mean that kind of thing is child’s play compared to what came later. There are things I haven’t told you, boys, and likely won’t—you would not feel enlightened by it, and, really, the details don’t matter: it was a complex, impacted, damaging relationship; I had a simpler but just as damaging relationship with my old man. Of course being grown-up entails the long struggle to decide to try to get over it. But first we must reenact it, over and over, repeat the mistake until we know it, until we can see the thing: the outline of the dragon.
He stands in the kitchen in the evening, listening to her put their boy to bed; he is rinsing a plate in soft running water and there washes over him a sense of the extraordinary privilege of the moment, her love of their child, the ease of their gracious apartment and their KitchenAid dishwasher which they use every day, after eating their fill, every day. Behind this thought crouches an abiding fear: that it is, all of it, undeserved, that it is unfair, that it will be taken away.
Him: that’s me. But it’s also not. This scene never happened. We don’t have a KitchenAid dishwasher, that’s just invention; we detest the cheap dishwasher we do in fact have, which came with the place and which, N will verify, is growing some sort of intractable mold around the base of the inner chamber. I’m often at the sink while she is putting our boy to bed but this particular moment of fear, notwithstanding all the moments of fear one endures through the day, this one did not happen. Yet it did happen, to me, in the fact of writing it; because to write something in fictional mode that is at least minimally convincing, paradoxically requires that one experience it, whereas this is, again paradoxically, not required when one writes convincingly in memoir: the simple announcement at the outset that all this really happened lifts the obligation of flawless accuracy. One must only master the voice of memory: In the evenings I stood at the sink and listened to her put our boy to bed, she knew his books by heart, quoted them to him while she washed him and picked up his toys. One does not have to experience or re-experience that moment. In that sentence, in fact, the rituals are out of order, one could not be experiencing it while writing it; but to the reader it is convincing enough, memory is enough: the past has proved itself; the present, contingent, like fiction, has not.
And this, the creation of the real, which is not real but must be real—it’s an interesting way to live. Alas, just as with talking to God, it does keep you from your responsibilities.
Even now, at this late date, I want you to know me. This is overbearing, I realize.
So, what is at the core of life but love? An image I cannot shake: a man, my age, kissing a woman in Grand Central. She was a beautiful woman. I think of it now every time I’m there, in that part of the station.
She was waiting for him when he came off the train; she’d arrived a day or two before from upstate, where she’d been staying, but he couldn’t get away until the Thursday; so they met that day in the famed terminal, at the last ticket booth, which is always closed—most of them are closed now—a curiously private nook of tinted marble and cast-iron window grates in a vast and definitively public space. They stood and stared, searching; a look of pleasure. Eyes alight. Sadness and pleasure. This thing they had, this affair of letters and a few illicit phone calls, was doomed, they’d agreed it was doomed, but here they were at another moment in which loss is built into the fervent anticipation. They kissed. He couldn’t believe her mouth. It had been twenty-five years since they’d met, been introduced—by whom?—and they’d spoken then only briefly, graduate students at the university, standing in the ratty coffee lounge, a room in which he could not remember ever having been unhappy. He was second-year, slightly older than most, twenty-nine, outwardly confident, accomplished; she was young, the youngest person there, a prodigy. Hers was the kind of beauty that is connected to—is inseparable from—an immutable core, a self; her face was a little crooked and animated by a light you were bathed in the minute you engaged with her or saw her smile. She was immediately striking. She had that hair. She had those sad vivid mischievous eyes. She was not that tall and neither thin nor heavy; she was solid, rounded, sturdy, voluptuous. She was not one whose fire needed to be lit; it was burning already. They might have seen each other once or twice again after that, but neither remembered anything except the first meeting, brief, compelling. She told him that she’d seen him and thought, I’d like to sleep with him.
They went to lunch and then to a hotel, expensive and thoroughly adequate. They kept having to heave aside the pillows, which were the size of Labradors and seemed forever to be getting in the way: except then suddenly she’d grab one, with urgency and impassioned expertise, and jam it beneath her in just the right way to ease some conundrum they were working through. He watched her desire, studied it; he had trouble believing in it, but there it was, undeniable. She was in an open marriage. Mainly she dated younger men: they had, she’d said archly, a certain vigor. This irritated him, of course. His irritation made her glad and he knew it would make her glad so it made him glad too. Later he was above her and she began using her muscles to grip him—hard, really hard—and he looked at her and said I didn’t know you knew how to do that, and she laughed and said well I’m glad you can feel it, the twenty-eight-year-olds never seem to notice. . . . He had never felt so at ease with someone new: all his life. Of course, he would realize much later, the person he was finally at ease with was himself. They used condoms. Even this didn’t bother him though normally it would. He couldn’t come but he didn’t mind because it meant they could fuck more. After every respite a new condom. It was comical and vulgar, the wrappers dropped around the big bed. A week or two after she’d returned home, she wrote him that she was dropping her kids somewhere, to hip-hop dance class or aikido or lacrosse; she said they parked, and before anyone was out of the car in this flash moment came a sharp memory of being in bed with him, and she made an involuntary sound, like ooph—but they didn’t hear her. They are both boys, he wanted to say, they will never hear you in that way, but she wouldn’t believe that. A girl would have heard it instantly, would have known there was something in it. But not the boys. Off they went. . . . She’d told him in bed on the second day that she wanted him to fuck her in the ass and he did and here, this, now, finally he was able to come, his broad peasant hand holding the headboard slamming into her. Of course there was lubricant so he left his handprint on the fabric of the headboard, which was not really a headboard but an attractive cloth-covered board attached to the wall behind the bed. Now it was like the caves in France: he had left evidence of his existence there. When she pointed it out to him he suggested he draw a deer and a figure shooting it with an arrow.
And so once again in life he found it necessary to acknowledge a broader definition of love. He loved her; they loved each other; it was insane, after just a couple of months of correspondence and these two days in New York, it wasn’t the way they loved other people but it stood between them, undeniable, this shocking, heated intimacy in a shared language.
Then one day, for her, it was over. Whatever this was they’d been feeling, she couldn’t feel it anymore. He stopped hearing from her. He was stunned at first: no one had ever dumped him before, not unless he’d arranged it. In the first weeks he could hardly stand it: existence. It was awful. It made him sick and then put him in pain and he felt as though every nerve ending along the surface of his skin was mildly burning: he hurt, his whole person hurt. For there was something altered in him in the wake of this intense, passing moment, despite its brevity and unreality; something that was corporal, central, undeniable—no matter the pitfalls we have to call it his heart (yes, it’s a cliché, yes, his heart)—a muscle at the core of him that pushed his blood around and helped him breathe and allowed him to love and laugh and fuck and rarely, once a decade, weep—and a fresh little piece of it was broken off now, spalled, chipped, dead on the floor, lying there, and under this new light he could see not just those fragments but the poor old organ itself: it was cracked in other places and worn; and plainly its new injuries marked one more step in life, one more chunk of time, which kept moving, tumbling, rolling, skidding, toward some inevitable finish, a completion, an ending—which he could not imagine, but which he now believed, when it finally came, he would not fear.
There it is: don’t grow old with an unblemished heart. Be free. Don’t be afraid of dying.
We have not yet spoken of the books or the cameras or the lenses or the nice art supplies and Waterman pens or the four-and-a-half feet of old journals. Just decide among yourselves. Anything someone wants he should have. If more than one want it, add it to a pile to be considered later; trade and barter one thing against another. Divide among you equally my reputation, such as it is, and use it as sunscreen. The language, the images, the rights, the proper disposition: I can see that it will be remarkable to me and others how little interest my work will have for me when I’m dying. I shall assign a literary executor: to this person please deliver the journals, and don’t think about them anymore. If something of them gets published, don’t worry about it. After two weeks it’s forgotten and really, even from the first, no one gives a shit. Secrets are a dream.
Of course, there’s no money, that’s the upshot. You certainly won’t be surprised. I have a nice insurance policy at work, a hefty sum if there were only one of you, but divided four ways it is more like part of a down payment on a house. In a previous decade. Anyway, there’s that. Try to be happy.
(Okay, here: if you’re interested in money, each of you is quite sufficiently smart to make plenty of it. Only self-consciousness and perhaps aesthetic and moral and cultural distaste, as well as raw fear, fear of raising your middle finger to God and humanity, stand in the way of amassing large sums of money. But if money is what you want, all these impediments, moral, aesthetic, blah blah, can be jettisoned. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone who’d made large sums of money, on purpose, who was also imaginative. Just imitate. That’s what they all do.)
In the end, it would be a boon if we were able to enjoy our own existence, as those who’ve loved us have enjoyed us. Let me try to give you that, since as of now, it’s clear, I have little else to give you. Let me tell you that I love you; and that I admire you. That you have sharp minds, sharp tongues, and, best of all, sharp consciences. You love the woods. You can make music. You understand complex numbers and simple machines. You are kind to children. You believe there is beauty in the world, and you pursue it.
Let me, as the poet said, disclose the gifts reserved for age. First, self-forgiveness comes on slowly but pointedly, like a brief, recurring memory of childhood happiness. It’s nice. Second, the treasures of solitude are best enjoyed in youth; I have come to recognize that my drive for solitude, in middle life and beyond, is a poisonous addiction. Third, and related to the second, to seek others and then to push them away is, first of all, mean and unfair; but for you, if you’re the one doing it, it’s like rowing one way with the left arm, the other way with the right. Having gotten nowhere and gained nothing, you’re still exhausted. I realized something last year when I served as best man at the wedding of my friend J. He came, as did I, from an unstable and ultimately shattered set of circumstances. Nevertheless he has made himself into a funny, generous, kind, and only mildly neurotic adult. His wedding took place downtown, one block from the site of the World Trade Center. Over the days before the wedding, as I compressed various thoughts, aiming toward some vague preparedness to make a toast, it came to me that in recent years I’ve gotten to know some young people, decent, smart, talented, likeable, from stable and prosperous homes, and in knowing them I became aware of the basic position of security upon which they stood to face the world: you, my older sons, mostly don’t have it, I never had it, and J, if possible, had it even less; people such as he and I were dropped into our adulthoods and had to face the dilemma of building strong and secure identities—in relation to the world, its indifference, our desires—with nothing at all supporting us nothing beneath us but a sense of horror; whereas some other people have solid ground beneath them. It’s a commonplace notion, I’d just never really taken it in before. And the image that followed was that of Philippe Petit, who crossed between the towers on a high wire the year I came to New York (I was eighteen, recently orphaned, completely set loose in the world). The images of Petit on the wire remained vivid for me all these years, a prominent part of my inner iconography, and suddenly I understood, at least in part, why: this was us, I told J in the toast, this was you and I, hanging between those absurd and beautiful towers; dancing out there in the gray light Petit represented us, achieving our existence and our sense of who we are, with nothing but a hundred stories of air beneath him, facing a forty-mile-an-hour wind.
Flannery O’Connor several times in her letters quoted the French (very Catholic) writer François Mauriac’s advice for the artist: “Purify the source.” That’s a lifetime’s project. The first requirement is surviving your high-wire walk to selfhood. And then, one strategy might be (I certainly haven’t gotten there and can’t say for sure) to look toward what you want. Move toward what you want. But while you’re doing that, work on wanting the right things. Never relent. After you give up, go back. Give up again, go back again. I am often slowed to a crawl by a sense that what I want to do is too hard; I’m too soft; it’s not worth it; it’s futile, it hurts too much, failing hurts too much. Then I go back.
Once we’re older—very few people from middle age onward won’t claim this—youth and its problems seem to scream out for our advice. It all looks so clear to us now, so much more manageable than it is when you’re in it. But the advice we have to offer is almost entirely ridiculous. It’s like telling a drowning man all he needs to do is swim.
Nevertheless here I go.
When people tell you they love you: listen to them.
Don’t dismiss it, or think them foolish. Try to see yourself as they see you. Just for a moment. Realize the dignity you have, struggling in the world, most days with some tangible grace. Realize your courage. See the beauty, your own beauty. Do this just for a moment: you only need a moment. But do it over and over, and over and over, and yet again, as much as you can bear to do it, and you will get good at it. And then, in its full scope, you’ll see it. It likely won’t last, this vision or this understanding, it can’t last, but this is love, this is the original love or something close to it, and you’ll remember it, you’ll know suddenly that the grief can pass, that the rage can fade away, that you can step inside the unchanging capsule of a single moment and glimpse the calm and clarity of the eternal. And when you have that, you can give it to someone else, with love; you can give it away (when people allow you to give it), yet lose nothing; you can give it over and over, give it as much as you can…. There is nothing to fear.
When I was younger, I thought it would cost me something, I thought it would drain me, diminish me, or, really, given my childhood, I thought it would kill me—but I was wrong. Love is infinite and divisible, and almost invariably healing, and my greatest regrets are the moments when I was not giving it sufficiently to you.