Our Italian daughter sent two beautiful and poignant photos this weekend, both of the Mediterranean at Piombino. It’s the end of the swimming season, and her titles were “The penultimate swim,” and “I guess this was the last.” Swimming is very important to her and to her man Francesco, who was born and raised in Piombino.
“First” and “last.”
Baby’s first tooth. The summer’s first ear of sweet corn. The first trip to Europe. Your first lover. Do you remember? How could you forget?
“Last” is trickier. Sometime you know, sometimes you don’t. When our beloved little red Honda CRX failed his smog test and we took him to the junkyard for our $1000 Cash for Clunkers payoff, we accidentally looked out the window just as a huge machine opened its jaws and picked him up by the nose, causing his trunk to fly open in a final spasm. We knew that was the last time we’d see Rover.
Last September I made my annual trek to Carnac, the long rows of standing stones in Bretagne. I’ve been going there every year since 2002; 2017 may have been the last time. I don’t know.
In 1996 Conrad’s mother’s health became perilous, and we flew to Harlan Iowa to see her in the hospital. The prognosis didn’t look good, and we were arranging for Conrad to go back again when word came to Philadephia that we were too late. We hadn’t known it was already the last time.
Following the wheel of the year is a comfort to me. Every last thing is simultaneously a first thing. For some, myself included, Samhain (generally celebrated on Oct 31 or Nov 1) is the beginning of the new year, and also the end: the end of the harvest and the time when the growing dark begins to be felt. It is the time for remembrance of those who have passed, when they are closest, when the veil is thinnest.
For the first time I will be bringing pictures of my mother and my father into a Samhain circle. They both left life in the 1990’s, long before I knew who they were. I am just beginning with them, beginning after their ending.
I will carry them with me.
This week was my birthday. I turned seventy-seven. A DJ announced a song by the Indigo Girls. I heard their name as the Evening Overalls. Senility has its perks.
I was born in 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, of which I was unaware, being politically indifferent at the time—my only concern was nipples. My mom was in Denver, my dad somewhere in Washington state, working construction, and the marriage was soon to dissolve, partly due to my existence. My grandmother took the bus from Iowa out to Denver to be with my mom and tell her how stupid she was.
William Butler Yeats had died two years before, but I’d been unaware of that until many years thereafter. Nor was he remotely aware of me, sorry to say.
About age four, my dog Ragsie died. About age seven, I shot a sparrow with my BB gun. Age eight, I saw my step-dad die of a heart attack. I didn’t actually see him die, just saw him make funny faces and deep tormented snores. I didn’t like the guy.
Around fifth grade, a classmate, Kathleen Bogardus, died of leukemia or something I didn’t know the name of. The class went to her funeral and I saw her dead. She was nice but not popular, and I had no feeling about it, but it was maybe from that time that I knew that everyone would die. Since then, I’ve seen much further evidence.
It takes so many years and calories and missteps, struggles and revelations to create a human being, and then in one breath, the data is lost. Birthdays inevitably bring thoughts of the end-parens. This one spurs me, at least, to clean up my files, take photos of all my puppets, finish the next draft of our new novel, and resolve to go to the ocean every week.
And of course you procrastinate from your sworn duty to die. You keep track of blood pressure, go to the gym, obsess on projects, post on Facebook—every symbolic act that promotes an illusion of immortality.
On October 8th, my birthday, an estimated 151,600 died. I celebrated that I wasn’t included: a day of writing, watching the antics of the cats; going out to dinner; sitting by the fireplace and making love with my collaborationist. Most of the time I have welcomed life and looked forward to more of it, despite my search for a parking place, the chronic struggle to open plastic wrappers, and a perpetual longing for people to be kind—myself included.
So, another year.
Turning upside down in order to center. Doesn’t sound plausible, but bear with me.
When we take our normal picnic to our ritual ocean-bluff spot, we look at the biggest rock out west and see the slim black silhouettes of seven or eight or nine black cormorants perched on the top. We call them “The Supreme Court.” Today the rock was completely vacant, and I couldn’t help empathizing with them
However, my objective in this weekly (or bi-weekly) visit to Mama is to accept her majestic and loving presence and let the shit wash off—pardon my language, but it’s the way to express what is sometimes needed. Like today. No need to let cormorant empathy complicate the process.
After the sushi was eaten, after the hot sake was drunk, after the dessert of dark chocolate and crystallized ginger and pomegranate seeds had pleased us, it was time to sit in silence, in the sun, in the warm insistent breeze, and just be on that bluff, hearing the whump of the surf.
When Conrad felt like going back to the car, he asked, as he always does, whether I’d like to stay a while longer by myself. Yes.
I turned my camp chair 180 degrees to get sun on my other side, slumped down until my neck had somewhere to rest, closed my eyes, and began to let all thoughts drain away. That left more room for simple sensations. The sun was warm on the top of my head, the breeze was a soft cats-paw patting my left cheek, the sound of the waves was a heartbeat in my right ear, and the chair and earth under me were a comfy lap. Sweet.
Then an awareness that wasn’t exactly thought crept in. Earth, Air, Fire, Water. I sank into an image of the compass, but came out backwards. If sun-fire was my south, then yes, chair-earth was my north, but then air, the breeze, should be on my right and the water should be on my left. It wasn’t that way. I wasn’t exactly awake, but it still didn’t make sense.
My sleepy mind explored the conundrum. If Air was on my left and Water was on my right, which they clearly were, then Fire should be at my feet and Earth at my head, which wasn’t the case. If I put Fire and Earth in the right place with respect to my body, Air and Water were in the wrong place.
The stunning solution was that I wasn’t on my back, at the bottom of the sphere. I should be face-down, but since the whole front of my body was open to the elements, there could be only one answer. I was indeed face-down, but on the top of the celestial sphere, facing in. Toward the center.
A weekly view of the world we
wake into every morning.
Books and Media by
Bishop & Fuller
Forthcoming, Available for Pre-Order:
a novel of puppets & renewal
50 Years in the Making
A Memoir of the Creative Life
35 Snapshots for the Stage
A Novel of Dystopian Optimism
From Inanna to Frankenstein