A Basket of Clams

“The primary organs of the immune system [is] the thymus, a soft, pinkish-gray triangular gland above our heart. (It resembles a thyme leaf, hence its name.). It is one of the few organs that grows smaller after puberty, the point at which many of our immune cells have been made….

“When our adaptive immune cells meet their first antigen, or bit of foreign matter, they go through structural and chemical changes. Imprinted by that antigen– as if via a kiss… the naive immune cell becomes an enemy specific to it.”

As I tore apart my dining room, the laptop played a man looking for Genghis Khan’s tomb and King Arthur’s anything. I pulled up the rug, a hand-me-down from my dad, and dust and cat fur blew up and around. Months ago, my dear sweet cat Tybalt had claimed a box and some of my mittens, and I’d let him keep his fort all winter. When school ended, my brutal cleanse began. It all had to go. “I’m sorry, son,” I said.

Hours later, he sat on the exact spot, where there was now bare floor. I knew how hard he had worked to imbue everything there with his own comforting, beautiful scent. But it was spring? In a way?

I stress paint. I use a brush instead of a roller just to work harder, more. I paint a glossy white in my kitchen, over a dull white. I paint glossy white in my hall. I don’t change my clothes, then I turn t-shirts and pants into only-at-home t-shirts and pants.

The floor is dripped. Stage two is on my knees rubbing in circles with a damp rag. Step three is picking circular drips, now dried elastic and cheerful like stickers. If I use a dropcloth (trust me), I’ll step in a paint drip or puddle and then track white everywhere.

I scrub the stove and oven. Pre-covid, I think I cleaned my stove and oven twice. I further mourn for those who never have time to satisfyingly clean up their own messes, and grieve for those who could but think such work is meaningless.

The immune system is educated and inspired by mess, and possibly needs enough to do, not too little, not too much. The immune system is possibly not best understood as a system, but components that do affiliated jobs.

The laptop dies, its cries for juice unanswered. I address the edges of the maps on my walls. Some have come unaffixed. I don’t have three or four maps up, I have a hundred in a patchwork on all four walls. I realize I have painter’s tape, and that the color of it could make a nice blue border. So I started making skinnier and fatter borders and my wall looked a little less like a disturbed person had gone crazy with maps and scotch tape, which is actually what happened. Taping Mongolia to France and a Canadian campsite to Venice. The New Orleans streetcar route to Ohio. It’s making sense.

A trash bag swallows a litter box and I shake. I sort purse stuff, bag stuff, books never read, books being read, books given up on. I sweep again and again, fur, crumbs, schmutz.

I combine trash. I combine recycling. I take it out, and remark to my neighbor that it is humid. I am feral and uncombed but making order.

The immune system is perhaps broken down by living with so many new, flashy chemicals that the United States government has no interest in getting to know better.

The immune system perhaps is too easily convinced that there is danger all around.

I put on “Carousel.” How had I never seen it? It’s pretty terrible but true. Dumb people do dumb things because human choices are limited, and then they die. It makes little sense to me. If “South Pacific” is good coffee, “Carousel” is a caffeine headache and trouble spelling. I experience “If I Loved You,” which though it changed and moved theater, I don’t buy. The man playing Billy reminds me of Emile, Emile by opera singer who made me sob in public. Emile wanted Nelly, Nelly was into him but scared. Emile had already tried once and suspected life might be terrible. Then he lived and it wasn’t, so much. For a while. All the other soldiers, though. It was a bad war. Life has been more “Carousel” than “South Pacific,” which means I am oddly comforted by it, and annoyed with it, as well. Where “South Pacific” was sad and whole, “Carousel” is cramped. I believe Emile and Nelly love each other. I believe Billy has an angry bull of a brain. I believe Julie Jordan lies to herself for something to do.

I’m not sure if I think (anymore) that Emile can make World War II a story with a catharsis, or that Julie Jordan could be anyone else. Some people in “South Pacific” have money and leisure time and energy, even if it’s used to make war. People in “Carousel” have few choices, stuck in New England in 1873.

Grant is president. The Comstock Laws are enacted, Levis and barbed wire are invented, the Women’s Christian Temperance League is founded, Coors begins brewing in Colorado, Central Park is completed. The Panic of 1873 has led to what was called, at the time, the Great Depression. Later it would, obviously, lose this title to another Depression that was Great-er.

No one is sure if the gold standard (or lack of it), or the Second Industrial Revolution caused the Panic of 1873, or if it was even important at all. I couldn’t live with the certainty of knowing what now means now, and I struggle to be continually creating a meaning for what is happening. As humans, we must. I think? I crave knowing what people in 20 years will think of 2020. I want to know that people will make a sense of it that won’t hurt me more than these years have already hurt me.

Developed expertise in flinching for expected pain in hard times: side effects? Hunger to live just as one has, not worse, rather than imagining bigger or healthier or happier? “When,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote, “had I last yearned for something other than simply feeling better?”

When might I? Days of getting up, measuring the coffee, sitting on the porch, hearing a neighbor speak Spanish to ease my weariness of American English, already setting in. And my nature as an animal leads me. Animals move toward health even when they think they don’t want to.

Image: detail of “A Basket of Clams” by Winslow Homer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1873.

Quotes from The Invisible Kingdom by Meghan O’Rourke, Riverhead Books, 2022.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s