By Laurie Stone
I am bluer than blue today, a feeling without meaning or need for adjustment. The characters in Beckett’s plays blurt things. Enough disconnected blurts and a world forms. Here we are: intimate, anonymous, clumped, estranged, tender, alien, suffering, in love with each other, deadened. The erotic jolt of certain words still startles me.
Yesterday I ate two kinds of cake. At the dump, I asked the attendant lifting out my bags, “Do you need help?” He said, “Not unless you’re a shrink.” A friend on Facebook reminded me it was Yom Kippur and that he was fasting. He wanted to know what kinds of cake I’d eaten. I said, “Sara Lee frozen cheesecake by hacking out chunks with a knife and a frozen lemon layer cake made by Pepperidge Farm.” His interest stirred my cold, dark heart.
People don’t really give away power. They may feel a moral obligation to do it and grudgingly try. But more and more I think change happens when people who have power in any framework become bored with themselves and what they thought the power could give them. It’s like falling out of love. They just don’t care anymore about being the thing they thought they were supposed to be, the thing they were raised to be. Suddenly other kinds of people look interesting, look creative, look important, or at least new.
I think part of the success of Black Lives Matter is that white people are bored with being white. I don’t mean white supremacists. I’m talking about white people who have enjoyed the world of whiteness without thinking of themselves as white supremacists. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. But the magical, transformative moment happens when you really couldn’t care less about continuing as you were.
It’s hot again. A golden rudbeckia is poking up over the railing of the deck. The tomatoes are beginning to pack it in, the smell of their leaves fading. We drove to Hudson to pick up test strips for Richard and on the way back passed a chair on the road. I thought it might by the kind of lawn chair I am always looking for, made of bent metal. It took everything in Richard to turn the car around for a discard. The chair was white and made of plastic with a mesh seat, and at first I thought, no, too ugly. Then I pictured it in the backyard, covered with colorful cushions, and loaded it into the car.
At home it looked like a broken tooth in a tidy mouth. I placed it near the stone patio. No, awful. I placed it on a hill and tried sitting in it. It was low to the ground, a chair you would be placed in during an interrogation.
I went inside to prepare dinner, and what was staring back at me through the window? The chair was more starkly white than before, a glowing, poisonous white against the grass, electrified from hours of rain. Never did the backyard’s fanciful bird bath and flower-stand stumps stand out in more touching relief than against the grotesque chair. I moved it to the back of the house, that was desperately untended. Nothing had been planted. You could see the cinderblock foundation, and still it was degraded by the chair.
I grabbed it up and carried it to the road. Richard made a sign that said “FREE.” Poor chair. No sooner rescued than again abandoned.
I am observing the conviction, in the wake of RBG’s death, that we will lose our right to abortion. It has a ring of fatalism, like the wish on the part of some people to gallop to apocalypse rather than allow it to overtake them. I wish they would stop it. Just fucking stop it. I can count on the fingers of one hand the men I have known over the many years I have been observing the world’s distaste for women, the number of men who have fought shoulder to shoulder with women to secure women’s right to abort unwanted pregnancies. The left-wing men I have known have fought for the rights of gay people and trans people. Included in these categories are male humans. Men. That’s not so hard. But to sign up for the rights of women and girls, for a category that includes no men—for the vast purposes of this argument!—to sign up in effect to fight on the girls’ team and thus feel something slippery in the gut, unselved and fishy, not required, not in my backyard. How many men now, reading these words (ha!), can say they have stood on a picket line or protested specifically for the right of a woman to have an abortion? What’s your plan, men, if this prediction of doom proves correct? Will it still be our problem?
Last night I was awakened by the smell of skunk. I smelled skunk in my dream and in the room when I opened my eyes. I whispered in Richard’s ear, “Are you awake?” He said, “I am now.” I said, “I smell skunk.” He said, “I don’t smell it.” He went downstairs. When he came back, I said, “Did you think it might be on the porch?” He said, “Or in the house. No skunk.” I said, “Do you smell it now?” He said, “No.” We went back to sleep, and when we got up, the smell was gone. Richard said, “You dreamed the smell.” I said, “Can a dream smell linger when you’re not dreaming?” He said, “Apparently.” He opened his closet and said, “It smells funny in here.” I went in. It didn’t smell any funnier than usual. I said, “If there was a skunk in the closet, you’d know it.” He said, “A wasp is crawling down the window. Do you think it’s inside or outside?”
I once admired a pair of ankle boots worn by Melania but was afraid to mention it. Warhol was nearly right. These days, everyone’s fame will consist of fifteen minutes when they are savagely denounced on social media. Were people always so worried about being right, or is it now because the stakes of being wrong are so high?
I find myself more interested in the natural world than in things with minds. Squirrels have invaded the bird feeders. I don’t care. They are squirrels doing squirrel things. A tomato has two hundred seeds, any one of which will make a tomato plant that will yield a hundred tomatoes. That’s not the thing. It’s the absence of scheme, motive, justification, blame, judgment, and categorical thinking I have grown to loath. Today in contrarian opinion: The unexamined life is worth living.
No one I know says Melania is beautiful because they hate her. They mention her awful clothes that must give her enormous pleasure or else how could she? She wears a terrified, frozen expression in most photographs, but she’s beautiful, and I’m always surprised by her slanting eyes and wide cheekbones. Many very ugly people, Donald Trump among them, wear their inner decay on the outside. With Melania, there is a disconnect between what she looks like and what she is. Inconsistency is her contribution to us.
Amid the slim pickings of TV shows we haven’t already streamed, we have taken to watching Away (Netflix), about a female astronaut, starring Hilary Swank, who has a toothy smile and no sex appeal. Sorry, it’s true. Josh Charles plays her husband. Josh Charles played Will Gardner on The Good Wife. He is a sexy man who is not terribly good looking, with his jutting beak of a nose, and he’s not as slender as he once was. None of that matters.
Hilary leaves her teenaged daughter and husband to fly to the moon and then to Mars, a trip lasting three years, in the company of a Russian actor, who was snarly and aggressive in Homeland and is snarly and aggressive here. You can tell he misses playing opposite Mandy Patinkin, the same way Josh Charles misses playing opposite Juliana Margulies and Archie Panjabi. How did Hilary get the part? I don’t think she looks that great in a space helmet, which is a little like a face filling a TV screen.
At one point before the blast off to Mars, Hilary learns Josh Charles has had a stroke as a consequence of a congenital illness, and Hilary’s daughter pleads with her to come back and ditch being the commander of the Mars mission, and mom says she will, and then the female chief of NASA pleads with Hilary to continue the mission or she’ll set back the liberation of women by decades, and Hilary snaps, “Don’t give me any of your feminist bullshit.,” and you think this is meant to show us that deep down Hilary is the kind of girl you can look up at in the sky and believe is risking her life for a calling higher than the truth of complete personal pleasure.
I keep imagining how great it would be to leave earth, which has become like a single body we’re tied to. You can’t go anywhere on the planet and forget the reality of Trump. The people who love him want a world that is ruined because it was always ruined to them. There is a scene in the Mars show when one of the astronauts removes a sock and a piece of his heel comes away from his foot and floats up to his face, and he looks at it with horror—the way we look at our lives in the Before.
I am thinking of two books that are great concerning the subject of suffering: Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number (1981), a memoir of his imprisonment and torture as a journalist in Argentina; and Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (2003), a memoir of facial deformity as a consequence of Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw. In both books the narrators do not say their experiences hurt. They describe them in such sharp detail the reader feels the pain and the conditions pain arouses, both social and psychological. They do not think suffering is a school with information an individual needs to get through life. Suffering teaches nothing in their view and mine.
I have been noticing a false note about suffering on social media that’s probably a thing elsewhere and maybe not a new thing, but I don’t go to elsewhere much these days. So many people are suffering, and they want their suffering to mean something, and the thing I have noticed is a tendency to convert suffering into an opportunity for growth or something like that. A tendency to say the terrible thing that is happening to them is teaching them something that is enlarging their lives. To set themselves up as a model for others to follow? To believe nothing bad is all bad? I have no idea, and I don’t mean to hurt the feelings of anyone portraying their suffering this way. It feels like another formula for how to rightfeel and rightreact and rightinstruct. If I were undergoing one of these ordeals, I would not believe a word of it.
Right now I am not suffering one of these ordeals. I am suffering in a different way about the social and political reality directing our lives. It’s a commonplace suffering, and I have nothing novel or insightful to add at the moment. The one thing I do find consoling is telling the truth, the raggedy, beautiful, horrific, funny, weird, treacherous, exhausting, fruitless, terrifying, repetitious truth of our lives.
I miss the dead. Even the dead I did not miss when they were alive. The light is beautiful fading into trees that soar seventy feet into the air. People wave as they pass on bikes and on foot. Even drivers wave from cars. I wave back. We’re saying, “I see you,” the way each day the Boy in Waiting for Godot assures Gogo and Didi they exist.
Stanley Crouch, the author of Notes of a Hanging Judge and The All-American Skin Game, among many other books, died the other day. We hadn’t been in touch much the past few years. I’d heard he was sick. I don’t know from what. I felt sad and shocked. Sad. I always liked him. We got along. People like you, and you think, Okay, I like you too. The biggest smile when we crossed paths at the Village Voice. He liked me and Paul Berman in some special way. He liked that we were Jews. He thought there was such a thing as a Jewish writer. I didn’t, but it made me smile the way he thought this, and he could have explained and maybe he tried to on more than one occasion before I said, “What are you talking about?” I think what he liked about me and Paul was the shape of our sentences. Their smell, their roundness. Paul wrote great sentences from the heart. I was always learning. Stanley had so much confidence. Paul knew a lot. I had feminism, the logic of this analysis that was sharp and unassailable. I think Stanley got that, or maybe he just liked the look of me seeing his face. Stanley, I’m so sad you have died.
I don’t know why something goes right or wrong in the garden. I have adjusted to failing and succeeding in the dark. It will be absurd to pot and maintain as many plants as I will try to save over the winter, but I will pot them and become their slave. On the phone a friend asked if there was a future, and I said there was a future with a narrative that has been broken. In the narrative that has been broken, people ignored the way profits in capitalism require the suffering of others. Now, it’s harder to ignore this, and everyone is suffering in one way or other. We’re on a train with fogged windows.
I miss drinking in a bar. I feel I know you, although I’ve never met you. The wind is rustling.
Laurie Stone is a regular contributor to the Women’s Review of Books. She is author most recently of Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, which features several essays that originally appeared in the WRB. In a New Yorker review, Masha Gessen noted the book’s reframing of “the personal is political” to describe “our current predicament—everything that is not personal has vanished” and praised how Stone “suggests a way of thinking sharply, imaginatively, beautifully, from right here.”