Deterioration

I wrap myself into my quilt like a burrito. I’m sleeping on the couch which, while not overly comfortable, doesn’t induce the same anxiety as having an argument with myself about going to bed. Instead, when I become sleepy, I close Instagram, blow out the candles, turn off the salt lamp and roll over.

I am not sure why going to bed holds such angst for me but it always has. At least, until I met G. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to going to bed because I felt safe. Held. Loved. I try to replicate this feeling now while he’s not with me but the best I can do is to stay awake until it is impossible not to sleep.

In the last week, there has been another infection, two surgeries and blood counts that still aren’t following the predicted path. My OCD has fixated itself on his illness and now intrusive thoughts of blame drive all manner of compulsions, day and night. If I haven’t given him covid, I must have given him cancer.

Life is random and unfair, I tell others. Bad things happen to good people for no reason. And while I almost believe that is true,  intrusive thoughts still swirl that this is somehow my fault. My punishment. For what exactly, I haven’t determined. It could be a range of things and my brain is providing plenty of options. As a result, my anxiety is out of control. Today I had a telehealth appointment with my GP who has recommended blood tests, an ECG to check my heart which has lingering issues from my years of being underweight due to anorexia, and some medication.

“This is the only prescription I will give you for this medication,” he tells me, “due to it having addictive properties. You must be sparing in your use but it will help with the panic attacks and anxiety. I will give you a second prescription for something that you can use long term but the effect won’t be noticeable for two to four weeks.”

It’s been seven years since I took medication for my mental health and while I suspect I need it, a new fear has surfaced during the pandemic and my husband’s illness which will likely prevent me from doing so; I cannot take any medication for fear of the masking of covid symptoms or because I may have a bad reaction requiring treatment. I will no longer even take paracetamol or ibuprofen, pain killers I have taken for years, especially when I have severe cramps during my period but now I am afraid they will mask the symptom of a fever and I will never know if I accidentally acquire covid. I will not take new tablets, not even vitamins, in case they cause some sort of reaction where I have to present to a hospital because the more places I go, the more likely I am to come into contact with someone with covid. My anxiety is pushing me towards never leaving my house again, unless it’s to travel to the hospital where my husband is having treatment. Home. Hospital. Home. Hospital. That is the extent of my world right now.

And all of it seems justified.

Fate

Fate, Federal Court, Moon
by Anne Carson

The fate of the earth. The fate of me. The fate of you. The fate of Faisal. The fate of the court where Faisal will plead his case. The fate of the court’s bias. Every court has a bias. It sifts to the surface gradually. The fate of whomever we drink to after court. The fate of that branch of mathematics that deals with ‘dead-end depth’. The fate of Yemen where Faisal will probably never return. The fate of the engineering job Faisal had in Yemen before the events in question. The fate of the ‘simple random walk’ and its difference from the ‘homesick random walk’, concepts from a mathematics textbook I read once about dead-end depth. The fate of Montreal where Faisal lives now. The fate of his family, the ones still alive, back in Yemen and the fate of the bridal couple, still alive, whose wedding was the target of the drone pilot (a mistake). The fate of the others, not still alive (a mistake). The fate of the moon that rose over us as we drove through the mountains of Pennsylvania to be present at Faisal’s day in court. The fate of the silveriness of the moon that no words can ever describe. The fate of the bright sleepless night. The fate of our phones, which we decide to take to the courthouse at 9 a.m. and relinquish at the door. The fate of two guys doing a job interview in the cafeteria where we stop for coffee on the way to courtroom 31. Been around the block, says one guy. Army does the billing, says the other guy. The fate of so many men in suits and ties. The fate of being lost in marble corridors. The fate of being much too early at courtroom 31. The fate of the knot of lawyers who surround Faisal as he enters in a new suit. The fate of congratulating him on his new suit. The fate of his smile. His smile is great. The fate of the numerous clerks who pour glasses of water for the judges and generally fuss around. The fate of the appellant whose case precedes Faisal’s, which concerns a warrant ‘so lacking in probable cause’ that [something to do with ‘Garcia’] [something to do with gangs and ‘a constitutional path’]. The fate of the pearls worn by Judge Dillard, who sits on the far right of the bench, which curve like teeth below her actual teeth. The fate of straining to hear what Faisal’s lawyer, with his back to us, says to the judges. The fate of him perhaps saying that the government is asking the court to refrain from judging, asking the court to step back without knowing what it is stepping back from. The fate of proportionality, a matter of context. The fate of what is or is not a political question. The fate of the precedent called ‘al Shifa’, with which everyone seems familiar. The fate of a publicly acknowledged programme of targeting people who might be a danger to us. The fate of inscrutable acronyms. The fate of me totally losing the thread of the argument as we distinguish ‘merits’ from ‘standing’. The fate of what Faisal is seeking, which is now given as ‘declaratory relief’ (new phrase to me). The fate of ‘plaintiffs who have no chance of being harmed in the future due to being deceased’, a wording that gives pause. The fate of how all this may depend on her pearls, her teeth. The fate of the sentence, ‘We are really sorry, we made a mistake,’ which Judge Dillard utters in a hypothetical context but still it’s good to hear. The fate of the government lawyer who is blonde and talks too fast, using ‘jurisdictional’ many times and adding ‘as the relief sought is unavailable’. The fate of wondering why it is unavailable to say, ‘Sorry’. The fate of Judge Dillard’s invitation to the government lawyer to tell the plaintiff how he might ‘exhaust all administrative avenues of redress’, as the government claims he should have done before bringing this case. ‘Where would he go?’ Judge Dillard asks with apparent honest curiosity. ‘If you were he, where would you go?’ The fate of our bewildered conversation afterwards about why she said this, whose side she is on, what she expects Faisal’s lawyers to do with it now. The fate of the tuna sandwiches eaten with Faisal while debating this. The fate of his quietness while others talk. The fate of his smile, which seems to invite the soul, centuries ago. Serving tea, let’s say, to guests. The moon above them. Joy. The fate of disinterestedness, of joy, of what would Kant say, of not understanding what kind of thing the law is anyway, for example in its similarity to mathematics, for they both pretend to perfect objectivity but objectivity is a matter of wording and words can be, well, a mistake. The fate of the many thoughts that go on in Faisal when he is quiet, or the few thoughts, how would I know? The fate of the deep sea diver that he resembles, isolated, adrift. The fate of him back in his kitchen in Montreal next week or next year, sitting on a chair or standing at the window, the moon by then perhaps a thin cry, perhaps gone. The fate of simplicity, of randomness, of homesickness, of dead ends, of souls. Who can say how silvery it was? Where would he go? Sorry?

Published in the London Review of Books
Vol. 39 No. 6 · 16 March 2017

I was once given this poem as the introduction to a writing exercise. Write or re-write a paragraph of your work-in-progress beginning every sentence with the fate, our tutor said. Notice how commencing with these words changes the way you shape your story. Notice what impact fate has on your narrative.

I do not like fate. I refuse fate. I want to scream at fate to fuck off.

I do not want to think about the fate of the earth, the fate of me. I especially do not want to think about the fate of you.

I do not like fate having an impact on my narrative.

And yet. Here we are.

The fate of me. The fate of you. The fate of the hospital where you are having your chemo. The fate of the doctors. The fate of the nurses. The fate of the specialists who are administering your treatment. The fate of the apartment in our COVID capital. The fate of the foundation that’s provided our accommodation. The fate of my psychologist who keeps asking “are you eating?” but how could I be eating? The fate of the words intensive protocol, neurotoxicity, and treatment related complications. The fate of having to learn another medical language in the middle of a pandemic after already learning the language of the pandemic. The fate of how all of this depends on limited evidence.

And so, I say.

Fuck fate. Fate will not shape my story. Or yours.

Music Monday | Sleep Baby Sleep – BROODS

A friend I haven’t heard from in a while got in touch today. Our contact is sporadic but consistent. I have loved him in all the ways it’s possible to love someone over the last 21 years. I love him still. He’s had a rough month; a sliver of the hard news, his cat passed away in his arms a few weeks ago.

I once wrote a poem about her. Or about him. Or about us. Whatever it was about, it was called:

His Cat

His cat is whoring herself
out to anyone
with a warm lap.

She chews on a belt loop
and looks up
disgruntled
when prodded to stop.

She sighs, stands, turns around and
returns to sleep.

It is surreal
or perhaps just
unreal
to think that life could be
like this.

It can’t.

She wakes again
his cat
murmurs and bathes
without leaving my lap.

Circa September 2010

Sleep, baby Piper. You were loved. You will be missed.

Music Monday | Outside the Lines – Birdtalker

After running a Spotify account for about two years, I’m finally starting to use it in a way that doesn’t involve just searching for my favourite songs and listening to them. Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the recommendations and last week stumbled onto this gem.

Birdtalker’s debut album One was released last year after an EP in 2016, and a new single came out just over a week ago.

When I met G, I sent him a list of my flaws; number nine of fifteen said “I listen to too much indie folk music.” Birdtalker’s debut One may not fit as neatly into the indie folk music genre as their EP Just This but it is still largely reminiscent of that soft, folksy Americana that draws me in.

But what Birdtalker has, in addition to sweet sweet sounds, is something magical in their lyrics. There is an existential heartache in their songs; the search for meaning and purpose by a couple who’ve deconstructed from Protestant religion. Perhaps it’s their rejection of exclusionary dogma, a mirror of my own trajectory, and the unpacking of the baggage of religious narratives that I resonate with. Perhaps it’s the way they challenge traditional hierarchies while they examine their role in maintaining such systems. Perhaps it’s that their songs sit in a liminal space I’m far too familiar with. Whatever it is, I love it.

In an article with Billboard prior to the release of the song I’m posting tonight, songwriter Dani Green said: “I was pretty angry when I wrote it, but I don’t think you would know that from listening to the song.”

Dani, who co-fronts Birdtalker with her husband Zack Green, tells Billboard about the gentle, harmony-laden folk song. Organized religion was Green’s intended target, but “Outside The Lines” carefully encompasses hypocrisy on a broader scale.

“I was tired of feeling like people in that arena could — because they say they’re believing in good things — treat people really poorly,” Green explains. “That just stirred up a lot of anger in me. The language of the song, the words, are very flowery and elevated to poke fun at the elevated, flowery language of religion, the ancient texts. It feels like it’s deceptive. That language, because it’s so nice and flowery, is like a shield you could put up in front of you, but then you go and treat people in ways that’s not at all reflective of the things you said.”

“Outside The Lines” is, however, representative of Green’s lyrical approach on the album’s 11 tracks. “It’s sort of a snapshot of a period of deconstruction and having a lot of open-ended questions,” she says. “It feels pretty open-handed and like it asks a lot of question and sort of targets mainstays or institutions, things that are kind of an unquestioned part of your life — until you decided to start questioning them. So it feels like a lot of questions, with a little bit of resolve.”

The Last Exhale

You breathed out slowly
longer
softer
than a sigh.

And as you did you wondered why
I don’t know why you like me, you said
But it wasn’t a question.
Instead
it was a statement. (A feeling of regret?
Did you think you were breaking my heart? You weren’t. I’d need to have one for that.)

Would you rather I didn’t? I replied, thinking you wanted to end that non-thing we had.
No. (You stop. Whisper, softer, again.)
I just know it will evaporate one day and I need to not rely on it.

You’ve said more since about friends and other lovers (not that I count myself as such)
who were there, then weren’t, or weren’t enough or, probably, just couldn’t be bothered
and left.

But it was all too late
I’d breathed you in
and haven’t breathed out since.

So now I pretend that we’re just friends
with nothing to convince
me otherwise
as we scramble round the edges of half-made thoughts and silent glances.

You’re complicated. You’ve said. I know. It doesn’t scare me.
But love does. Love hurts. (Apparently.) And you’re the first I’ve found who might, maybe be able to break me.

So I’ll hold this breath for as long as I can and you’ll have to leave me, not the other way around (but you’ll like that too, I know full well.)
I’m not going anywhere, no matter how hard you make it, too bad, so sad. (Ssshhhh. Don’t make a sound.)

And in the end when I finally breathe you out (turns out I do have a heart)
that last exhale
will be
my
last.

2 December 2011

Tribute

Warning: this post contains gratuitous Mary Oliver references and poems.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

Earlier this week, I posted two pictures on Instagram as part of the #10yearchallenge that is making its way around the interwebs. In the caption, I mentioned that I haven’t posted a selfie in a while because all I see are the same tired, empty eyes and the same strained smile as 10 years ago.

I had forgotten what it felt like to be this depressed. How nothing feels like anything and everything feels like nothing.

The difference, I said, between the two women was that one of them — thirty-year-old me — didn’t know she’d survive the depression she was in. And she didn’t want to. Forty-year-old me, on the other hand, knows that she can survive anything, and she will.

But I left something out. Something critical. There is also another major difference. Forty-year-old me has support that thirty-year-old me never had.

In late May 2014, I met G at a work conference. I flew out for the USA at the end of that week and, for the six weeks I was away, we somehow managed to find up to five hours a day to Skype. At one stage, while we were chatting, I was in a library, looking for a book of poetry.

“Poetry?” he repeated, as if I’d spoken another language (and perhaps I had).

“Yes,” I said. “Mary Oliver.”

I found what I was looking for and sent him a picture of the page. It was The Uses of Sorrow.

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver

When I arrived back from my holiday, instead of going home to Sydney, I jumped on a flight to Melbourne. We needed to know if this thing we had developed and nurtured was Real. True. Lasting.

Picking me up at the airport, he gave me two gifts; a set of pens from my favourite stationery store, and a copy of Thirst by Mary Oliver, containing the poem I’d been searching for.

I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver died this week. She was 83. I cannot remember how I first came across her; which poem it was that struck me, in all the ways her poems have struck me since. But I have a number of her books, and read them when I need reminding how to be human.

Poets, I find, know this intrinsically. And I am still learning – how to be a poet, and how to be a human. Because being human; being gentle, kind, loving, compassionate, and patient in this world is hard. Knowing death comes for us all is hard. Feeling dark things is hard.

When Death Comes

When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me,
and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measle-pox
when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver

Although Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984, the National Book Award in 1995, wrote 15 books of poetry and essays and was described by the New York times as America’s best-selling poet, she was still largely criticised as being too simplistic, too accessible with her plain verse and lack of typographical gimmicks.

As if that’s a thing.

Where most people find poetry confusing and convoluted, never fully grasping what the poet is trying to say, Mary Oliver used the natural world, interior revelations and small, daily observances to reach the reader. In a radio interview, she said that “poetry wishes for a community”. She wanted her words to find us.

Tonight, G found me struggling with anxiety. It was a state I’d hoped he’d never see me in. Not there. Not like that. And while it must have been a shock for him, his compassion and gentleness in the face of it made all the difference. He doesn’t yet know how much he helped.

There are things other people can do for me right now, and there are things only I can do for myself.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

It is fair to say that Mary Oliver, much like Leonard Cohen, has shown me how to live. Her words speak to you directly, straightforwardly, kindly and earnestly.

In sixty-nine days, G and I will stand in front of our friends, say some lovely words to each other and commit to continue to nurture this incredible relationship. We both know what it is to be betrayed and it makes us all the more grateful for second chances, love, and joy.

Don’t Hesitate

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Mary Oliver

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