Skeletons Warming Themselves

I didn’t know three people who died this week.

On Thursday, my meditation group mourned a parishioner who was shot by the police.  I never met her.

They talked about how okay Ms Danner was when she was okay, how you would never know she was ill.  Someone held a piece of her knitting, just as the priest would at the service the next Sunday, a cloth they use to dry you after baptism, and you get to keep.  It has a cross knitted into it.

Ms Danner wrote of “a strong support system in my church home dealings.”  Churches have plenty, plenty, of problems, but I have seen many mentally ill and disabled people well supported by their churches.

And she wrote, “What if my medication fails me? I ask myself, will I know if it does? Will the illness overpower its effectiveness? When? Where?”

If my medication failed me, I don’t know what I would do.  To even imagine that my SSRI and my rescue meds would stop working makes me imagine I would drink constantly to function.  And all I have is a little anxiety disorder.

In New York City, apparently, there are special officers who are called to help people who seem mentally ill and dangerous.  (I have difficulty separating dangerous people from the mentally ill, wanting to hurt others or yourself seems to me the definition of mental illness, but you know what I mean.)

Sunday morning, the priest spoke about Ms Danner and social justice, and action, and the woman in the pew next to me silently cried and cried.

After church I waited for the subway back to Brooklyn.  I read a book.  I closed my book and walked down the platform, I don’t know why.  Waiting for the train is one of the things that sometimes plunges my brain with anxiety, but I wasn’t anxious, just restless.

“Liz?” someone said.

It was a friend I ran into– just as randomly, far from either of our homes or workplaces– about a month ago.

He was on his way to a funeral.

This death was also brain-related– odd– cancer this time, though.  The father of our mutual friend, who pulled me through many tough spots, long days, mostly with funny stories and playful energy, but also with one enormous cookie I still remember greedily.

The moment you go from being alone to hugging someone in Manhattan is a moment I have always loved.  It’s a tiny salvation that happens again and again.  My sister approaching the Natural History Museum as I ate an apple.  My curly-haired friend and her curls coming up Park Avenue, me going down, the restaurant where we’ll eat in the middle.  Tumbling down my building’s steps to open the door for a beloved face.  Very small salvations that one hopes add to the well of what we can believe in.

At my stop, I said goodbye, the train went on, I climbed up and out, and walked around a beautiful city autumn day with my chest feeling so open and so bruised.

The third: a friend whose sister was mentally ill died.  I had followed this story at a far distance, frustration at lack of help, limits of care.  I knew the facts of it.  It had eerie and terrible inevitability, at my distance.  One day, we both had sisters who were alive, then he had a sister who was dead.

It’s a time of death.  The beautiful autumn day included walking past many brownstones with skeletons hanging out.  We have a festival of death, of winking at it, and it’s here.  People with children think it’s perfectly okay to have representations of dead people dancing across their lawns.  It is.  We need to.

Skeletons have no softness, no soft parts, no brains to misfire, no minds to have or to lose.

At meditation this week, I saw myself floating down a river, a small river, an Ozark river, that is where people float, back home, and it is not athletic in the slightest, it is stepping into the current.  Paddling over to someone you want to talk to, letting yourself drift away from them.  People get so drunk they can hardly stand up, and yet I’ve always been amazed: they rarely drown.  They look after each other, the current is usually slow, manageable, they get wet, break ankles, but stumble out and recover.

Image: a longtime favorite painting of mine, James Ensor’s “Skeletons Warming Themselves,” Kimbell Art Museum.


On September 11th, we are supposed to remember. People intimately involved with the events in 2001– people who lost loved ones or were injured or worked on the site– they, of course, don’t have to be prodded to remember.  It’s the rest of us I wonder about–why are we remembering, and what are we supposed to accomplish in remembering?

Based on the latest lunatic rantings in the media, I suspect it’s partly so that we can blame everyone who is Muslim for our current problems.  Why is the economy so bad?  Those Muslims are out to get us! Or we have to remember so we can protect ourselves from Something Terrible happening again.  I would be all for that– if it were possible.

I’m not at all sure what remembering does for people who are dead.  I’m as much in the dark about dead people, and how to deal with death, as anyone else alive.

I laid down and breathed deep as the endodontist got a good grip.  He wiggled and wiggled, and I thought, this isn’t so bad.  Then he yanked a little, and I sat up and screeched, as much as a person can screech with a mouthful of cotton and fingers.  So now I don’t trust novocaine, and I’m three times as freaked when I go to the dentist, except that three times zero would be zero, but ignoring that mathematical reality: I’m nervous now.  On edge.  I also know to ask for more novocaine before we even begin.

When I see my ex-boyfriend, I want to take a bite out of my own stomach.  Being that irrational, and causing myself so much pain, would turn my response inside out.  I don’t think my teeth are sharp enough, and I’m not that flexible.  I do know that the memory of him makes me reluctant to form even a minor bond, like noticing the name of my checker at the grocery store.  It isn’t healthy for me to remember.

The memory of pain may make you empathetic and wise, but Doestoevsky has a great line about this: “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.”  I could be a kind person without having a live tooth yanked out of my head or having my heart broken.  I know I don’t have to remember my pain to be kind to people with broken legs or cancer or divorces.  I am gentler with them, I think, and a better listener.  Not that I would choose the pain I’ve had.  I never would.

It’s wise to acknowledge what your memories of pain are doing to you, to keep an eye on them, and I’m grateful to forget when it’s time.  I’ll let them search my bags and body scan me at the airport, but I don’t want to remember September 11th a minute more than I need to.  Terrible thing happened to people, as they do every day.  People got crazy and got violent with each other, as they do every day.  That’s not worth remembering.  I’m willing to remember President Bush telling us we weren’t at war with Islam, and how hard people worked to try and save each other.  That encourages me and is another memory that makes me gentler and more ready to listen.

March to April

In March, I went to the computer to subscribe to the New Yorker, and found out one of my students had been shot.  He was dead.  I was having another one of my seizures of certainty that I could not be an educated person, a writer, a worthwhile human being, without subscribing to the New Yorker.  And now he was dead, which was hard to believe, so I had to call someone and tell him the news, to try and convince myself, and the New Yorker was sort of a nonissue.

My sister came over that evening and we watched “French Kiss” on television.  I had never seen it before.  I thought it was terrible.  I could not for a minute believe that Kevin Kline was French.  He’s clearly British, I argued to my sister.  Um, no he’s American, my sister said.  Later my boyfriend came by and showed us the new lens he had bought for his camera.  It was a high-powered, long-distance thing, and someone referred to it as “the elephant cock.”

The following Monday, I sat on the bleachers in the gym, next to the senior class.  I had taught them twice, their freshmen and junior years.  I had known them three and a half years.  The kid who had died had been a senior.  It was incredibly quiet in the gym that morning.  Usually we have to scowl and threaten to get the kids quiet for assemblies.  On that Monday, you heard every foot shuffle, every kleenex swish out of the box.

I felt like I could hear the hum of eyes staring, the static of eyes sliding around dumbly.  And then one of the senior girls started sobbing like she couldn’t stop.

I held my coffee cup.  I thought, I’m not allowed to bring coffee in here.  I looked up at the school mascot painted on the wall.  I looked at the places where the wooden floor had been clumsily patched.

It was hard to tell the story of what had happened, because people might be freaked out that our school was dangerous or our students were dangerous.  And just to hear about the death of a 17-year-old kid is scary for people.  But someone said to me, “You know, when my daughter was in school, they went outside to take their 8th grade graduation photo, and saw someone get shot to death right across the street.  It was horrible.  It was just horrible.”  This story, oddly, served to encourage and comfort me.  I was grateful for it.  It was hard to fall asleep.  I had two violent nightmares.

In April, I drank a giant glass of a latte, and then I walked down the street to hear Victoria Williams sing.  She sang wearing ugly brown linen pants and a giant white blouse that went down almost to her knees.  Her voice wavered between sweetness and country whine, and she flapped her arms like a chicken while she sang.  I thought, this is what makes her good.  How weird she is.

And I went home and wrote a little about what happened with my student, and about the Monday after he died, when I sat in the school parking lot and I knew I had to get out of the car and go inside, and I really thought that I couldn’t.

More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.