Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Suicide Times

I recently took a book out of the library, one I came across by chance, a thorough and recent study of suicide. What a bleak book to borrow, I thought, imagining what others would think if they saw my choice. It has a dark cover, blacks and navy blues. I have watched myself be interested in the phenomenon of suicide for many years. I read an article once that described how people jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. It fascinated me. I read how one person survived his jump and described immediate regret the moment he leapt. And yet what I learned from the library book was how regularly and intensely the typical suicide feels excruciating mental pain, and I know now, after reading a new biography, that this is what Virginia Woolf experienced. And I have learned that although I spent many years thinking about suicide, telling myself it was my only choice, going through the motions of it once, my symptoms did not match the extremity of what I read about.

And yet I thought as I drove to work one more morning the other day, driving across the Rhinecliff/Kingston Bridge from which people regularly jump, that one of the things I don’t want to forget about or make light of is how desperately and consistently unhappy and uncomfortable I was for many years from 12 years old, increasing intensively through high school, excruciating through college and then Los Angeles, until the first little yoga cult in Manhattan gave me a straitjacket that calmed my nerves, after which the big yoga cult was a country club, and then the finding my way into a life where art and writing and relationship have started to take their rightful places. Not that all the answers are lined up in a row now, but I am not the desperate 20-year-old I once was.

I think of writing to the boyfriend of that time and asking him to send a DVD of the 20-minute black-and-white 16mm movie we made in the mid-seventies, just so I could watch myself as a 19-year-old. He wrote the script in one night on his electric typewriter that was on a small table pressed up against the wall right by the door of his scruffy studio apartment on a poor street in New Haven. Everything he owned or was part of seemed extravagantly more important and delicious than anything I had or knew. His electric typewriter, his own apartment, his cotton smocks from Guatemala given to him by a stepmother. The way he stayed up all night to write.

Making the film together is not really the right phrase. He wrote the thing then told me what to do when the camera was on me, which was all the time. I was the only main character. In the movie I am a girl who plays Russian Roulette and go to a shrink alot. It was demanding going through all the scenes, getting the props, showing up. His movie dominated our summer. It hadn’t started out that way.

I was going to spend the summer in Manhattan, live in the empty apartment of his childhood, work at the front desk of the newly opening U.N. Plaza Hotel, a fancy hotel that I had bought two suits for with my mother in the White Plains Macy’s – a white linen suit and a navy blue one, tailored and trim. I was going to make money, but Jeffrey careened when I told him. We had been together a year, though always apart because of school. Now he freaked on me, grew cold, wove a sticky impervious web around me the only way being to quit the job before it began, signing up instead for summer school at his campus where he was going to be because he wanted some film credits – his school being the one school my father had wanted me to attend because it was the only school my foreign father knew, my father such a stranger still after 20 years to American culture, only knowing Yale because his uncle something, something, something – somehow my father in his earliest years in the States, in his twenties, had washed up in New Haven, had a mentor there, had found a little community there in grad school for awhile, met my mother during that time, overdosed on pills there but survived. Always talked about this school as the only school and so of course when I suggested summer school there, there were no questions.

Just ease my boyfriend’s angst. Just quiet him down. Just get it back to how it was before I got the hotel job. It worked kind of. The immediate crisis stopped. I gave in.

I had been giving reading lessons to a man in New York City in the abandoned apartment of my boyfriend’s childhood. I told the man that I would have to stop the lessons because I wasn’t stayed after all. I was going to go to my boyfriend’s school. The man looked confused and I knew my story didn’t hold water. I had spent my mother’s money on two suits that now I didn’t need. She shrugged. I was a teenager. They’re crazy.

Friday, September 26, 2008

This Morning

I am sitting in the driver’s seat of the white Toyota while it rains heavily. I arrived 15 minutes before opening time at Michael’s where I am to buy an overpriced item that someone at my job thinks is necessary but which I think is not. I haven’t said this to him. I am just a gopher in this situation. Mousie did not come home last night. Fred left the kitchen door open for him all night. I feel that I did not give Mousie enough affection the last few months. There were times when I did, but I noticed myself withdrawing, though always very happy to see him, always relieved when he ate, but not very demonstratively affectionate. Not like Fred who really seemed to spend time with him. /there is a hole in our home though with Mousie gone. Maybe he will come back. Maybe this is a false alarm, but we have been waiting – or at least I have – for, or anticipating his departure for a year or two as he got thinner and thinner. If we don’t’ see him again, it will be like he walked out into the field and into another dimension, walked through the membrane from one life to another. I would rather it went this way. I would like all my animals to go like this. I wrote Fred a note this morning and left it as usual on the counter. I like to leave him a little good-bye in the morning. He often leaves me one at night. Usually our notes are little exuberations of love, with sometimes something practical tacked on. With Mousie’s absence so present I couldn’t leave my usual big heart drawing. I tried to write something about how I felt, the sadness. I noticed how in writing it I worried I’d say the wrong thing, make a mistake. It is hard not to hide.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


I haven’t spoken to my mother in about four months. I wrote to her one morning a note I had been thinking about for some time. I wrote it on a card, one of those free ones that the Nature Conservancy or Unicef sends you, sort of bland note cards with a picture of plump blue birds or robins on them. I said that I’d like to take a six-month break. No calls. No letters. If she needed something she could call Fred. And I said, thank you for your support. So it wasn’t a mean note. I wasn’t feeling mean. I felt like I was gasping for air.

I told this to one woman a few weeks ago and she looked puzzled. “Did you have a big fight with your mother?” she asked. “No,” I said. Another woman spoke confidently about how she went through a phase of being estranged – that was the word she used – from her father, but that now etc. etc. And someone else said how most people do what I’m doing when they’re teenagers and that I never did it as a teenager so I’m doing it late.

No, I answered to him. I don’t know anyone who’s doing what I’m doing, or who has done it.

Except maybe Philippe Petit who is the man who strung a wire between the two twin towers, the World Trade Center, in 1974 and walked across, back and forth, for 45 minutes. He described in his book how when he had one foot – his left foot -- on the wire and his other foot – the right one -- still on terra firma, how his right foot was still attached to all he had known, the world as he knew it. He described too how just before he moved his right foot to the wire there was an inner scream, a mad desire to run away – after having toiled for years to make this dream come true.

This summer I took a trapeze workshop one weekend. I work at Omega and I get one free workshop as part of the deal and I signed up for trapeze. I’d never thought about trapeze before, but after leafing through the catalog 100 times it was the only workshop I wanted. I’m not a jock. Why did I want to take a trapeze workshop? I wanted a new experience, something that would take me outside my world. And I wanted something physical.

But it was terrifying. It was literally one of the best weekends of my life, but it was terrifying, awful in ways I had not at all anticipated. It’s one thing to say “I want to break through” and another thing to actually do it.

It was terrifying to climb that narrow skinny ladder, feeling at any moment I could fall backwards. And then to climb up onto this tiny fucking platform that wobbled three stories up. “How high are professional trapeze rigs?” I asked Tony, the old trapeze artist on Sunday at lunch, when it was all over. “Same height,” he said.

But there’s one moment in the trapeze process that sticks in my mind more than anything.

You stand, toes at the edge of the platform. Sure, you have cables attached to you, but to the brain they mean nothing at this point. You’re holding to some kind of firm bar with your left hand and with your right hand you’re holding the trapeze bar, which, by its sheer weight, is pulling hard. Just before you jump off the platform you have to let go first with your left hand and bring it to the bar. For me, that’s the scariest. To have that open space.

Anyway, these images are in my head as I think about what to do with my mother. It is one of the main things I think about.

A couple of weeks ago on a lovely Sunday I almost got in the car to go down and see her. This was the kind of day when we could walk around her garden and she could show me this shrub that she’d thrown in last year and how it was doing, and how the string beans came up this year. My mother’s gardens are always messy and unprofessional, but there’s always a lot going on in them. She grew up on a farm – a real farm way out in British Columbia during the Depression where if you couldn’t grow your food you were in trouble – so she knows dirt and plants and how sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

I almost went. I thought about it and it seemed real and okay to break my six-month fast early and go. And then I told Fred what was on my mind. He didn’t say much, but the strength of the urge to go began to fade, like a pimple that had swelled and swelled, and then popped.

Since that Sunday I have felt stronger in this urge I have to say good-bye to my family of origin. My mother is the hardest one. My two sisters live in California – far away – and stopped talking to me about 18 months ago, so there’s no challenge there. And my father lives even further away in Europe and he’s pretty easy to say good-bye to too. But my mother, an hour’s drive away, and in many ways less conflict-laden is harder, really hard. To say good-bye, and I mean really say it, end things, is terrifying and yet it is the step that feels so important to take.