“Yet better thus and known to be despis’d, than still despis’d, and flatter’d.” In King Lear, the innocent son Edgar, accused of plotting to kill his father, disguises himself as the mad beggar Tom, then takes a keen look at himself. In contemporary language it might be, “Better to be a bum on a Philadelphia heating grate and see faces turned from you in disgust than to be a rich twit and find your ‘friends’ dissing you on Facebook.”
Although born a Brooklyn bastard, I was raised in affluence by my adoptive family. My mom discovered that I had an unusual memory and taught me the names of all forty-eight state capitals by the age of two, and I would be trotted out at parties of their friends to do my show tricks.
And when I taught myself to read way before school, that was another trick—stump the kid. I was given something to sight-read at a party, and it referred to the goddess Psyche. Not having any acquaintance with Greek pronunciation, I did my best: Pea-sick. It brought down the house, and I ran to the bathroom.
Fast-forward to our country elementary school, where I was immediately put in the second grade. The third-grade teacher, upon learning that I could read well beyond my age, had me come into her classroom, read a page from their reader, then told all the third-graders to get down under their desks in shame. I kid you not. I was not popular.
You can get ten fabulous reviews for a play, but it’s that other one, ripping and sneering, that sticks to your skin and burns like napalm.
Looking at the other face of the coin, the lack of respect from certain urban elites for those who scrabble to put together a modest living, who adore all things Nascar and don’t wear designer clothing—that burns too. Now the shoe is not only on the other foot, it’s halfway up your bum.
More than ever, I find myself embodying both sides. I love feeling trim and fit and vigorous, cringe whenever I find myself snacking or drinking compulsively—and do it anyway. I have three novels I look forward to reading, and am spending half the morning on Facebook. I love living in clarity and order, while leaving shit all over the place, and hate myself for doing it. Am I being Poor Tom, inching toward being a pudgy slob so I can take refuge in disguise?
Reading what I have just written, I think that along with finding the comrades and pathways where I can give full energy to resistance, I need to reach out a hand to myself and yank myself up to the same level. Me and me, we’re all in this together. If I can be daft enough to wrap bungee cords around the two halves of my old plum tree to keep it together, I can find bungee cords for my soul.
This morning on Facebook we learned that an East Coast friend has died. From his posts, kvetching about hospital indignities, I expected it. In a way, I felt he expected it. I hadn’t seen him since shortly after moving to the West Coast, and the distance was doubled by the divorce of this couple to whom we were close. I felt his own sense of guilt—not only for various incidents but as an ongoing theme of his being—set an insurmountable barrier to long-distance friendship. I tried to find the words, but the words were hard to come by. At several points I had urged him to write about his life, but he too couldn’t find the words. I do know that he felt a lot of pain and that he produced a lot of pain, and that he felt the pain he produced. He had soul.
If I can’t bring myself to paint the standard eulogy, it’s not from a lack of love for my friend. To me, it would be a disrespect to the man to dwell only on his harmonies—like removing all the discords from Mahler or Shostakovich—would be a betrayal of the diverse chords that made us friends, being that I don’t expect rampant, non-stop sweetness in my friends. Those were the words, I guess, I should have told him.
So here I can write not about him but about myself. We’ve lost a number of friends, in the last year or so, down that always-gaping maw. That’s an occupational hazard of getting old, to be sure, though almost all of these people have been younger than us. Our older friends seem to hang in there like rock-climbers, but I guess that’s only the ones who haven’t fallen.
But finding the words to speak to those who remain waving goodbye to the flown or fallen one, that’s on the order of writing a sonnet in Pig Latin: even if it’s good, it’s weird. What came to mind was a passage from our recent novel Galahad’s Fool, concerning a puppeteer whose wife/partner of many years has died:
Widowerhood seemed to evolve in your friends’ vocabulary. The first month after Lainie’s death, you would hear “Omigod, Albert, I’m so sorry! Damn! If you need anything, just call.” A month later it was “How are you doing, man?” Now it came to “So how’s it going?” Which meant that after nearly fifteen months you still bore the stink of death, but it wasn’t for friends to mention.
He had read those sardonic articles cataloguing the condolence babbles endured by the bereaved, and now he could add his own. He stifled the impulse to respond, “I’m bloody awful, you asshole, I want to die!” or “Fine, except for the hassle of my wife being dead,” or “Fantastic! I’m free!” But he knew he’d be just as baffled in finding words. A simple response of “Pretty well” did the trick. Grief forced you to have great compassion for your comforters’ dilemma.
Perhaps it’s even harder to find the words to speak to myself. Do I truly feel grief, or am I putting up an expected show? Will I think about it next week? Is my main concern—whether grief flows copiously or simply freezes the eyes for a respectful moment—a desire to armor myself against thoughts of my own demise?—the terror of worms under the varnish of civilization? What comes to mind, of course, is Hopkins’ poem: a young girl Margaret crying over the fall of autumn leaves, concluding—
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
May you live in memory, friend. The deep roots live when the leaves are long gone.
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© Bishop & Fuller 2016