Life has been so full lately. You got your broken eyeglasses, you got your vandalized car antenna, your lump in the armpit, your continued gastrointestinal disturbance without a gallbladder to blame it on, your “area of concern” on the latest mammogram, your carpal tunnel toe. You got your endless tome on immunopathology to edit, your continually crashing Internet connection, your hairball-expectorating cat, your estimated taxes due. You got your iron-poor blood—can’t even give it away.
In the plus column…. let me think…. well, the lump was nothing…. and I expect the “area of concern” will be nothing, too. (I’m reminded of one of my father’s favorite songs: “I got plenty a nothin’, and nothin’s plenty for me…”)…. and I survived the latest heat wave, which only lasted about a day and a half but felt like forever. It was easily 100 degrees upstairs where I spend most of my time—95 degrees on the downstairs thermostat, and as I walked up the stairs it was like going from the frying pan into the fire. I was so concerned for my computer that I shut it down around 5 p.m., a personal sacrifice on my part since it meant no more e-mail for the rest of the day. I tried to think how to cool off Pookie, but I couldn’t figure out the logistics. One enormous, hydrophobic cat versus me and a cold, wet towel? Forget it. Then, to my surprise, the heater came on! I thought maybe it had a secret air-conditioning feature that only kicked in when you really, really needed it—like a special surprise from the manufacturer. But the air coming out of the vents was hot, and the temperature went up another 5 degrees in 15 minutes. I had visions of being cooked in my own 3-bedroom oven by a furnace gone berserk. So I called PG&E, and they told me it was just the fan and how to turn it off. I slept on my big purple couch downstairs until 4 a.m., woke up with a complaining back, and grudgingly ascended to the still-stifling second floor to get a few more winks before the sun came up to torture me again. Did I mention I don’t like the heat? And my friend Barbara, whose motto is “No such thing as too hot,” is over there in f-f-frigid San Francisco, coveting what is making me miserable. Life is strange.
on hearing robert pinsky, poet laureate, read his poem “to television” on television
With all my petty and sundry complaints, I’ve been rather depressed, and my self-medication, in addition to the obvious quadrumvirate (it’s a real word—I’m as surprised as you are) of caffeine, sugar, salt, and fat, often takes the form of watching TV for hours at a time, zoning out with the remote in my hand, clicking away, creating my own diverse programming, the endless loop of odd and compelling snippets that I race through from channel 42 (Bay TV) down to 2 (Fox) and back again. I know where all the treasures are likely to be buried, so I hurry past the C-SPAN and foreign-language channels between 28 and 21 hoping to find anything but another John Candy movie on Comedy Central. Often, of course, the channels that are most likely to produce an amusing divertissement are showing commercials when I click by, but no worries, I’ll get back to them in the next go-round.
I can’t deny that I often get into a zombified state doing this, especially if the pickin’s are slim, as on Friday or Saturday nights. I’ll find myself watching things I would never choose to watch, simply because I landed on the channel and some small shiny-object-of-a-detail catches my attention and holds me until I realize I’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes watching liquefied fat being drained out of a man’s body and rising inexorably in a glass jar, and some dim shred of self-respect fights its way up from the depths and I click onward.
But the tendency of the cable channels to rerun everything to death provides unexpected benefits when they’re rerunning something I’d like to see again—like the guitarist Laurence Juber playing a mesmerizing version of “I Saw Her Standing There,” which I caught four times. I think that’s the record, but it’s amazing how many times I’ll come upon a rerun of a show I’ve never seen in its entirety and they’re showing the same scene I saw 2 weeks or 6 months before—giving me the eerie feeling that I’m in a Twilight Zone episode in which a socially isolated woman becomes so attached to the remote that she becomes the rerun while the TV watches her.
You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery channel. —The Bloodhound Gang
If you are what you eat, then you probably are what you watch, too, which may or may not explain my delight in happening twice upon an otherwise forgettable movie right at the scene where a 13-year-old boy is masturbating Laura Dern, the actress who played Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend in the coming-out episode, to a crashing orgasm. Now that was a great example of TV viewing as a found-art form. (I prefer that term to “channel surfing,” which is so, I don’t know, pre-Internet.) I haven’t seen much else of a sexual nature that appeals to me, including the barely dressed young women on MTV’s ubiquitous spring vacations. As Ronald Reagan famously said about the redwoods, you see one (thong bikini), you’ve seen ‘em all. And I don’t know what the Bloodhound Gang is watching on the Discovery channel, but I’m picky about which mammals I choose to see in compromising positions. But let’s leave the topic of how polymorphous is my perversity and move on to satisfactions of a higher nature.
What really makes it worth trilling up and down this do-re-mi scale of continually renewing imagery is that sometimes I’m jolted out of the mindless loop of political talking heads, music videos, so-called reality shows (“reality” being defined as human criminality, degradation, stupidity, or emergency), old obscure movies, new obscure movies, quiz shows, nature shows (Pookie enjoys seeing the close-ups—2-foot-high hummingbirds filling the screen as his eyes widen in wonder), late-20th-century sitcoms that have ascended to the perpetual motion machine of syndication, early-21st-century sitcoms that will never ever be shown again if there is a God, so-called women’s programming that seems to specialize in rape and child snatching as if nothing else could possibly be of interest to the fairer sex, proof of the origins of the universe and/or the existence of aliens in our midst (science fact/science fiction—equally implausible), biographies of increasingly obscure celebrities and reformed rock ‘n’ roll druggies, infomercials touting the yin-yang of gadgets for losing weight and other gadgets for making the food you shouldn’t eat taste better, screaming talk shows, news news news, sports sports sports, earnest pledge drives, stock market analyses, legal analyses, weddings, live births, continual retellings of Janet Reno’s or Bill Clinton’s latest exploits, and—BAM—unexpectedly, I’ll come upon Adrienne Rich, Fran Lebowitz, or Molly Ivins casting their pearls before swine (oink oink), or Coleman Barks speaking his version of the words of Rumi from 8 centuries ago, or Emmy Lou Harris singing “The Price You Pay,” something in her heartbreaking voice reminding me of my father and making me weep uncontrollably, or Drew Carey, dumb old comedian, on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, winning $500,000 for the libraries of his childhood, or stories of gay couples, struggling farmers, or black kids in the projects, and it’s all worth it, I get to laugh or cry or be mesmerized by the beauty of the human heart. This is true interactive television. Human contact is where you find it, and where I’m finding it in this moment is listening to the poet laureate of the U S of A read his tribute to the small screen (“Homey miracle, tub/Of acquiescence, vein of defiance”), from Sid Caesar to Oprah Winfrey, as he finds life and legitimacy in this most scorned form of American media, followed by a poem about Jesus that has me reeling, not the Bible story Jesus but a powerful evocation of this centuries-old mystery by a Jewish poet master, and I am stunned by the brilliance of human thought and language and the sheer ubiquity of divine love and fully glad to be alive.
I saw a few of my friends from the painting group soon after the first issue of the mary’zine came out, and they told me how much they loved it and how much they looked forward to the next one. I was on cloud nine.
The next day I went out for groceries, and when I got home I noticed I had a little headache. The headache kept building, even after I took some aspirin. It felt sharper and more persistent than my usual sort of headache, and the worse it got, the more my mind went reeling in the direction of “brain aneurysm.” I even had some imagined genetic justification for this, because my uncle Ronnie died of one. I learned about his death in the usual way. I came home from school one day and immediately headed down the hall to my room. My father stopped me in my tracks with: “You know your uncle Ronnie?” I knew immediately he was dead. In my family, every death is announced with that ominous preface: “You know your aunt Edith? You know your friend Francis?” Anyway, he said Uncle Ronnie, who was barely 40 years old, went bowling one night, came home complaining of a headache, and was dead within hours.
Headache or no, I had work to do, so I sat down to edit a chapter called “Sizes of the Escherichia coli and Human Genomes.” With one part of my brain, I pondered the ponderous prose, and with another part, I planned my memorial service and all the wonderful things my friends would say about me. I thought how cruel it was that I would die so young (if 53 can still be considered young, and I think it can), with just one issue of the mary’zine off the presses—hardly a major mark to have left on the world.
I was thinking all this as matter-of-factly as if I were composing a grocery list—while continuing to make little superscript marks and deletions and coding the headings for the printer—spending possibly my last day on earth trying to decide such weighty matters as whether to use caps or lowercase for the index entries. And I wondered if maybe all those nice comments of my friends the night before had literally gone to my head, swelling it beyond endurance. Maybe I would be the first person to actually die of self-aggrandizement. I happened to be listening to bluegrass gospel music at the time (what—you thought I was an opera buff?), and Ralph Stanley was singing, “Jesus on the mainline, tell ‘im what you want to,” and I thought, “Jesus? Is that you? Are you a-comin’?”
I’m so curious about death—what it’s going to be like, how and when it will come. I’m fascinated by news stories of sudden death, especially when it could have been me… like the woman driving on 101 in Marin whose car was smashed by a truck that fell over the side of the overpass…. or the woman who was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge when a man having an epileptic seizure crossed the center line and hit her head on. I’m not so curious that I want to kill myself to find out—don’t get me wrong—but I’ll be very interested to see if I wake up from this life as from a dream. There’s so much we don’t know about consciousness (like—everything). The physical world is so incredibly detailed and complex that consciousness itself—the dreamer that created this world and creates our experience every moment—must be even more so.
A hundred years ago, Einstein proved that the world is not what it seems. The physics of Newton’s time—the falling apples, the balls rolling down boards, the feathers dropping from towers—was forever changed. Yet most of us still think of ourselves as separate entities moving around in the obvious three-dimensional world of our senses. Except for the crazy goings-on in outer space or down at the subatomic level, what we see seems to be what we get. You push me, I fall down go boom. But despite how solid our tables and chairs, our roads, the earth itself may seem, science tells us that the molecules that make up these things are only miniscule nonentities—now a wave, now a particle—spinning in vast regions of space relative to each other. There is literally no there there.
It’s as if we play-act our drama called Life on a remarkable stage set—so multidimensional, so convincing, so bloody real. But what if all this glorious detail exists only at a certain frequency—just as we tune in our radios and TVs to receive transmissions that exist only on that channel or at that position of the dial at that precise time of day? We have become inured to technology, we think nothing of watching events on TV that are taking place half a world away—we know that the New Year’s Eve celebration we’re seeing in London is not happening in our living rooms; and if we see a replay of the same event the next day, we know it is now “in the past.” And these tricks of space and time have been created by us barely evolved humans—imagine what consciousness itself is doing!
What if our senses are the filters that allow us to distinguish only the “things” of this frequency—just as we see a solid oak desk in front of us and not a bunch of swirling electrons? Death may be just the turning of the dial to one of an infinite number of other frequencies, other “realities,” other universes with their own laws, their own physics, their own variety of consciousness. And dreaming may be our practice for encountering these other realities.
OK, let’s come back to earth for a little bit. When my mother was dying, I stayed alone in her house for two weeks—she was in the hospital in a kind of waking coma; that is, she couldn’t communicate, and we couldn’t tell if she understood what we said to her. Also, she would cry at almost anything. I had lots of dreams during that time, some of them involving earthquakes and waterfalls—pretty obvious images for the emotional turmoil I was feeling. One night I dreamed I was in bed, in the room I was actually in, and I wondered about my father alone in my parents’ room—Who was taking care of him now that my mother was in the hospital? I went in there (still in the dream), and he was sitting up in bed, looking absolutely beautiful. He said, “I’m healing,” and my heart melted. When I saw my mother the next day (in waking life), I told her the dream. When she cried, I had no way of knowing if she understood, or if the tears were a result of the cancer touching into some emotional center in her brain.
My father had been dead for 20 years. Was the dream image really him, finally healing after a lifetime of strife and illness? Or was time healing my relationship with him? Or was it my mother, one parent removed, borrowing his image to convey the knowledge that she was “healing into death,” in Stephen Levine’s phrase?
The morning after my mother died, I woke up with a feeling of ecstasy. It’s hard to explain, and it didn’t last, but in the peaceful relief of her long-time passing, I experienced the warm, sunny June day as a world in which she was no longer trapped in suffering. I didn’t feel her absence; on the contrary, I felt her immense presence, all around me—and not her cantankerous lifetime presence but the life force that had propelled her, that was now liberated into wholeness.
I remembered this experience years later, when our friend Dot died. I wrote the following to the painting group:
One of the rafting people who spoke at the service said he stood on the cliff near where Dot had drowned and felt her spirit expanding so that she was as big as the cliff. The truth of that hit me hard. I had been thinking she had disappeared, but in fact she just got bigger, encompassing everything. What a wonderful way to see the death of an individual manifestation—that the specificity of the form expands to the universal—as if we are all God scrunched into our quirky, separate selves until the mold explodes and we become the One.
As I petted my mother’s cat Charlie, who rolled over, back and forth, in a pool of sunshine, I was pierced with the knowledge that, in some fundamental way, nothing had changed. There was no rent in the fabric of reality; the world was still seamless, nothing missing. Obviously, my mother’s death had a profound effect in my little world, but in life itself, there was no loss. No gain with birth, no loss with death. Not a closed system so much as an irreducible whole.
And I felt acutely that Charlie knew this truth. I know that most people would say that Charlie was merely a typical self-centered cat who didn’t even notice that his human companion of 10 years was gone. One female person with access to a can opener was as good as another. In the popular imagination, cats are euphemistically “independent” to the point of complete indifference. I say we don’t know a damn thing about cats, or any other animals—or much of anything else, for that matter.
In the first months after my mother died, I dreamed about her often. At first, she appeared very confused, as if she had completely lost her bearings. More than once, I had to break the news to her that she was dead. In one dream, I tried to tune in a car radio to reach her, and she asked for help but then we lost the connection. Another time, I had died and got lost in a large building with no windows and went up and down in elevators and through long hallways asking, “When do we get to die?” Obviously, I didn’t know anything about the world she was in, either—but I always felt, on awakening, that I was providing some kind of stability or guidance for her. In life, she had been very involved in church affairs but was not spiritually inclined. It was as if she saw the church as a form of community but had no patience for that “holy” stuff, the romanticism of the Roman Catholics. Maybe that’s the legacy of Martin Luther, a kind of anti-religiosity, all bare-bones practicality. Though she was a stalwart warrior in life, I can’t imagine anyone less prepared to wake up in the afterlife.
One night I had one of those dreams that feel completely real. In the dream, I got out of bed and went downstairs, where I heard some people talking. My mother was sitting on the couch. (I knew she was dead.) She looked very uncomfortable, as if the light hurt her eyes. She said she couldn’t do this for very long. Some other people were there, including Michele, who I thought of as my spiritual teacher at the time. Then my mother was sitting in shadow under the stairs, where she seemed less exposed, less frightened. I asked her if she had sent me a message the other night (in another dream). She asked, “What did it say?” In that dream she had “run away” and left me a message saying, “I’m sorry I’m gone—it’s a journey.” So I repeated the message to her in this dream, only I said the message was, “I’m sorry I’m gone—the journey is over.” When I told her that, her face lit up and she said, “Yes, I said that.” Suddenly—poof! she disappeared, and I started screaming—keening—with my whole being. Michele calmly offered me some comfort food from my childhood, canned Mary Kitchen’s Roast Beef Hash.
Over the months, I continued to dream about my mother, but less and less about her death; it was as if we were both making a transition, adapting to a new reality. One night I dreamed she was happily playing right field in a softball game (I would have thought she’d be out in left field—ooh, that’s mean) and singing a song called “It Was a Good Thing.” Later, I dreamed I was looking into a dark house through a screen door. She appeared as a little flash of light (like Tinkerbell) that moved rapidly toward me and through the door over my head. I said, “Mom?” and reached up, trying to go up with her, but I stumbled. She said my name, in the most loving voice I had ever heard, and was gone.
Finally, I dreamed that I was driving a car and saw her in my rear-view mirror, driving behind me. As I watched her in the mirror, she turned off, waving gaily at me. It felt like our journey now was truly over, that she—or whoever “she” was now—had moved on.
Maybe all those dreams were just reflections of my own grieving process. Maybe I wasn’t guiding her after all, maybe it was just about me traversing this new terrain of motherlessness. Maybe I was the one who had moved on. I just don’t know. Death is a mystery, and aren’t you glad you read all this way for that pearl of wisdom?
As my reverie passes, so too does my headache—no brain aneurysm for me today—and I go downstairs for lunch. I turn on the radio and there’s Bob Marley singing one of my favorite songs, “Could You Be Loved,” which we danced to on our painting groups’ “prom night” a few years ago. So I take five minutes out of my day (my memorial service already forgotten) to dance wildly in my living room, in the bright-eyed company of Pookie, spiritual descendant of Charlie… imagining myself giving a public reading of “the best of the mary’zine” and performing my own dance numbers for the parts of my story for which there are no words.