Today I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I took a six hour class about James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read that dense, complicated novel a couple of times when I was young and in college, had a seminar focused solely on that fictional one day wander through the streets of Dublin. My professor was an Irishman whose attic classroom floor housed a miniature model of the city. We students could truly visualize the movements of the book’s characters, in a’70’s version of a virtual stroll. I’ve always remembered that unique experience and even recall a few lines from the book itself. I don’t know if I really understood the whole thing, or even if that matters. What stuck with me was the rambling stream-of-consciousness writing style and the recognition that in the course of a single average day, a person goes through countless experiences, thoughts and emotions, many of which are so minute that they barely register in our minds. But they’re in there somewhere. I’m fascinated by this subterranean activity which our brains manage, along with the basic requirements of existence like breathing and digestion, to name a few. How does all this work? I know I have a background conversation with myself which goes on constantly, below the surface of my daily life. Then there are all the little tasks I perform, the humdrum ones requisite in an average day. Do most people make note of the laundry-folding, dish-washing, toilet-flushing, bill-paying parts of their time while they’re thinking of something else? Or is it those small jobs which get all their attention while quietly, in some other space they’re wondering how long they’ll be alive? I can’t really say. For today, I’m going to allow myself a disjointed ramble before all the loose threads in my head wholly unravel and slip away. A brief respite from the relentless, massive problems of the world.
My cousin Eliot’s birthday was this past week on January 10th. He committed suicide when he was only twenty-seven, having been in a mental health struggle since his mid-teens. I always write his sister, my cousin, now the only surviving member of her family, on January 10th. She told me that I’m now the sole person who contacts her on his birthday – to everyone else he is forgotten. Sad, sad, sad. How could I forget that boy, only eight years younger than me, although back then, the gap felt wider? He was part of my youthful landscape, at all our family gatherings from his earliest years to the end of his life. One time he told me that he knew I understood him well because we were so alike. I shrank back from that statement which felt deeply unnerving. I was empathetic, but never fully experiencing or sharing his dire emotional place. I still ponder how that time arrives, when a person’s internal balance shifts so profoundly that relief from devastating, unremitting mental pain is more desired than anything life has to offer. He missed so many possibilities, this bright demonized young man. I started sorting through old photos to remember him and suddenly found myself staring at my own siblings before any breakage happened between us. Half of us are gone too. All the losses. All the losses. Sad, sad, sad.
Aside from the preponderance of my time which I spend alone, I am mostly with young people. When you had a partner but now have no partner, social structure changes. Most of my friends who occupied my adult life are still paired. With rare exceptions, I no longer feel comfortable among them, in my role as the “third person.” Their lives are still within the couple realm and since the beginning of the pandemic, contact diminished greatly anyway. Aside from the few individuals, mostly the women, with whom I occasionally share a meal, I am primarily in the world of brief contact. This happens with those I call the satellite people who work in spaces in which I place myself, like the lifeguards at the pool, or the wait staff at a favorite restaurant. With them I have friendly, short conversations. Incidental interactions. The rest of my companion time is spent with my children and their children. Or my sister. Or my children’s friends. Or the young people I’ve found along my way. Like the lovely young woman who helped clean my house and who babysat for my dog, and over the years, became part of my personal life. The time is limited by our various obligations along with the intermittent isolation required by endless Covid. I’ve pushed away a significant number of my peers in the almost six years since Michael died, people who were once seemingly permanent fixtures in my world but who frequently disappointed me, hurt my feelings, or were otherwise simply alien to me. I don’t have the patience for draining relationships like those any more. I don’t miss any of them. I wonder why I was involved with them at all. Partially because of Michael. He was more likely to ignore the annoying behavior of people than me. Now I no longer compromise myself. Anyway, being with younger people keeps my mind nimble. I’d like to stay that way, as long as I’m still hanging around.
Almost every day since her birth, I am close to my granddaughter’s face, locked in eye contact with her. Babies on the cusp of daily discovery can make those intense connections, without any shyness or discomfort. Those direct looks so often become diluted with age, when eye contact can become a mere glance. Aside from my own babies and theirs, I have only stared for hours on end into Michael’s eyes, and his back into mine, as we silently explored our magical connection with each other. When we were young we did that for hours.
I can still look at him that way even though he is long gone. At least the corporeal part of him. So strange, I’m not like this but I’m like this. Grounded and yet floating in space. But back to this baby. When I see the mutable expressions on my granddaughter’s face as she sleeps, or even while she’s awake, her mind is clearly roaming through a whirl of emotions which play across her features, I am suddenly thinking of Proust. Remembrance of Things Past, or rather In Search of Lost Time, his staggering novel about the exploration of involuntary memory. And I’m wondering what we really know about the brain. How can this little baby in her small universe already display such feelings? Was she born with components of memory? Or are the sets of human feelings simply innate, coming to the surface in her subconscious mind and expressing themselves rapidly during sleep? All of which seem like impossible contradictions. I am so curious, so, so curious. Is she feeling what she appears to be feeling? Is she dreaming? What do infant dreams look like? Or sound like? Tiny sounds are coming from her now. Are they part of her sleeping mind? Or are they all part of her rapidly developing consciousness? I’ll never know the answers to all my questions. I do know that this phase of life is endlessly fascinating to me. How can people think that little ones are boring?
February’s arrival will mark three years since I was last sick. That’s when I had still-unnamed Covid, during which I felt more dreadful than I ever have felt with any previous illness. I am left without much sense of smell which has both up and down sides. I can’t smell any wonderful aromas which is rotten, but I also don’t smell anything rotten which is sort of okay. When I want to complain about that, I tell myself to bite my tongue. So many people are suffering far worse consequences of this malady, up to and including death. Yes, bite my tongue. And speaking of biting my tongue – are there any new phrases which have yet to be written? Seems like every time I mutter one to myself, I find out its origins are almost always Shakespeare or the Bible. Have I ever said anything original? Who knows?
Can I still be in the now if I don’t listen to podcasts? My commute from upstairs to downstairs to outside is pretty fast. When I took long roadtrips, I listened to books on tape but even then, I opted mostly for music. Am I old-fashioned because I prefer reading rather than having someone talk to me about almost any topic? I’m usually busy thinking. Music is energizing, stimulating, an accompaniment to my thoughts and emotions. Would listening to a story be better? I don’t think I’m going to jump on this bandwagon. I have to read. I have to listen to music. My mind’s exercises. I don’t feel well if I don’t do both of them every day. Maybe that makes me old school. Don’t care. The only rules I care about now are the ones I make for myself. How luxurious.
My friend Chris and I were exchanging messages about all the deaths of our old friends. Although he isn’t a big fan of his work, he sent me a Philip Roth quote. “Old age isn’t a battle – it’s a massacre.” Sometimes life feels that way as we older people navigate our way to the head of the line. When all those ahead of us are gone, no more buffers between us and the inevitable. And today, another phone call, kicking off the new year, and another friend gone. Goodbye, Stafford.
One foot in front of the other. That’s what’s real, at least for me.