NOTES ON BEING ALONE
Notes On Being Alone is a runner up in the 2017 Birdwhistle Prizes.
. . . the courtyard has no space for my graveyard antlers . . .
. . . I can no longer drink from a flowered glass . . .
. . . When the turtle dove weeps, turtle dove weeps, the little bird calls, little bird calls . . .
—LINES FROM “THE BOY CHANGED INTO A STAG CLAMORS AT THE
GATE OF SECRETS”, BY FERENC JUHASZ
The generator hummed that morning. But aside from that there was an easy-enough stillness. Or maybe it was . . . that nothing was still, only the motions were so slight that you could almost start to uncover the presence of air itself: its body gently nuzzling against each thing, tousling the trees like an older might in a tender moment do to a younger sister’s hair, absent-minded, as the younger sleeps, as my sister did before she left me.
[Where do they go? our sisters, when they grow]
Then a red thing flashed at the base of some foliage, pulling my eyes into the shadows:
A veces, los pajaritos tienen todo el poder de Dios.
I had gone outside to the back of the rental house, where the generator hummed from behind the hydrangea bush. I had gone; leaving an emptiness in the house and lugging a fullness elsewhere.
Do you feel that too—the physical bulk of being in a place, the weight of all your
conflicts, your history, the teeming unlived life?
—Now I was away from the big front windows facing the bay, away from where there would certainly be an eagle crossing the sky or herons in their grace or the great arched rock asserting itself through mist.
The house was all windows but—
I had foregone all of these pleasures for some moments alone.
And, in being alone, I was outside the view of any person who might diminish me categorically, that is, who might perceive me as an entity aligned with a social existence. Ah, there it was: then I could simply exist.
I hate to be seen! To be slathered up by an eye.
But then alone, what to do? There was the weight to contend with. The stillness all around me buzzing in my bones. It was morning; all possibility festered in me. Where would I start, trapped here in the back of the house, away from the water the herons the eagles the great stones rising from the mist?
In the back, crouched beneath the outdoor shower-head, I stared into the thick of bushes and began by listening. I didn’t know what else to do.
The smaller birds.
They made uncanny electronica. One in particular: the tune patterned and echoed itself in a diminishing triplet as if pulling backward through the tubes of an old video game console.
[I must rethink the term ‘electronic’. Or am I thinking that only now, as I write
As an aside, another aside (all thinking is an aside, sort of): I think sometimes I write in the past tense because the present is dizzying. The tremendous edge of it against Nothing. I truly don’t believe in the future. The edge of the present slips down into the abyss that rides beneath being, and so we must almost always put a bit of ourselves behind even as we live it . . . As the nausea is creeping up—here I will return to the past—
See, the day before I had lost my footing. So to speak. I mean, in the presence of others, I had forgotten something about myself and had slipped back into formlessness that often comes in the midst of social moments, such that an empty puppet of myself stayed propped up in my place. There was nothing unlovely about the company. Only discourse itself was oppressive. The polite sport of response-response-response-reponse.
[“I’d rip up the trees/with my stag’s teeth” says Juhasz]
Am I talking in circles, or is the circling where truth is? Here’s the gist of what happened, before: the one had made a pun and the other cackled. One of them had called me a Mexican, once, twice, then a third time, and it was some kind of a joke, and yes I laughed and pretended to understand. But truth be told, I hold so dearly to what is Guatemalan in me, whatever’s left in my blood that belongs to my mother and the entire history of her life and my grandmother’s life and the entire history and suffering of a people. Guatemala: the one small name I hold, the way I hold Stephanie, the way I hold my own teeth in my skull, not that I understand them, not that I know how to let go, not that I know how I got hold of them. Do you understand? Some things in our privacy of self are not to be made fun of.
But these were friends and these were light words and in compliance with being that most lonely beast [that poor, kind, smiling thing] I pulled back my lips and made noises akin to laughter, though it was not laughter, not truly, and thus made a sign on my face recognizable as a smile.
Ohhh god. Now why did I exist that way, why not be honest?
I wondered this all day and into the night and into the next morning, and have always wondered this, but have never found an answer. The best I can say is that the contract is written more deeply in me than I am able to scry, and against my knowledge of its secret workings, it enacts its terms on its own accord. Can anybody help it? The social instinct is deep, is in the blood of the blood of the blood.
So: a joke is made, I laugh but it’s not funny, I fester, I smile, I leave.
[“don’t call to me—/if I went back / I’d eat you up ? I’d wreck the house”]
This being alone is a kind of fire. When I depart from myself, the puppet remains, and when I depart from the thing that makes me depart from myself, well, it burns there too.
Then suddenly amid too many puns and the cleverness of dialogue and the linearity of simply conveying information, there I suddenly find myself in the pillory, my neck at the guillotine and the lever in my own hand—and everything on high red alert, high burn, high unsureness, high detachment, high guilt, high sorrow, high nothing. Lástima.
And all this just trying to explain how I came to nearly suffocate on a Saturday morning in my own thoughts, alone. How I found myself hiding from friends in the back yard and nearly shaking and devouring the birds with my eyes.
Let me tell you how quiet it was.
Let me tell you what Hell was like.
Let me tell you how “I couldn’t breathe” really meant that I was not easy in my body and whatever muscle pumps the lungs without thought now was thought-ful.
[Imagine if the heart had thoughts]
First ring: My brain hardened and shrunk to the likeness of a walnut fruit, that much I knew. Because feeling is the most real thing to behold. The tough flesh breathing but barely.
Second ring: I lay those days on a wasted Japanese floor mat and my hips and my feet and my thighs were always stiff by morning, stiff by night, always stiff by whatever measure. When it was time to move, I ambled down the stairs, grasping the walls, acutely aware of all the blood in me, the softness of the blood in me, the sac-ness of my body.
Third ring: When did I last do anything that mattered? Day by day I tended to the decay of something precious. I let my dear ships adrift and cut their cords myself.
Mi mamá lloraba.
Mi papá no quiso llorar.
Mi hermana lloraba.
Mi hermano no quiso llorar.
Fourth ring: I did nothing to relieve it.
Fifth ring: I was alone
Sixth ring: I was not alone
Seventh, Eighth, Ninth: ————— eh. More the same
I have this memory of swinging. I was swinging high at the old park. Lair Hill. How many years?—who knows. On the red rubber seat. My hands understanding how the chain will bite them—who cares. I swing, I swing, thrusting myself past the sawdust floor and high, high, dangerously high into the air. Not knowing if it is truly for pleasure or just a sickening curiosity about the positioning of my body in air. I revise: knowing it is a sickening curiosity that is more about endurance than pleasure. Being alone and swift in the air with everything turning inside. The head tilts back, the stomach lurches, the throat receives the gut, the world upside down—
That was years ago. That was another body of mine, the body of another ghost. She is one of the ghosts that lives in me. Dying and dying and piling my little house with their wretched putrescence. Their innocence stinks between the walls. Their little voices in the vents—growing older, older, stranger, stranger, growing this way and that way, crooked things.
con un ojo cafe y el otro verde,
ojos oscuros, ojos de la selva,
ojos que a veces encienden
amarillos, llenos de cristal.
Another thing that happened while I was alone: in the car the other day suddenly my eyelids were closing. But they were not the eyelids on my surface, those I held wide open, but another set of eyes, inside, were closing. I became aware only in that instance of their existence. I battled against the closure as an amputee might fight against the sleeping of an arm that wasn’t there. I struggled to lift the dull, ghost-muscle that kept them open. At times I did not succeed and I would find myself hurling shut the distance of the car in front of me, then would hammer my foot on the brake, my head swing back, the world hurled back.
This was the first time I ever nearly fell asleep in the car. I realized with a bit of agony that I had become so accustomed to the machinery that I could sleep in it, traveling at great speeds and against great odds, whereas for the better part of a decade I had been unable (or unwilling) to drive because of some acute awareness and dreadful, jolting wakefulness I had. Now the motions had become mechanized in the body. Some relationships are like this, I thought. It was a sad thought: after some time passes, the inside-eyes begin to close and nothing, nothing you can do can keep them open.
I have a lazy eye. Is that the same word as acedia? The spirit lying down. My favorite author, a witch, had a lazy eye. It forgets that is is human and stares out like a shark, black and moist. I have an eye like that. It is weighted, a heavy thing trolling the bottom while everything else lives at the top.
Six months in to the sessions I thought had looked at every last feature of the waiting room: the silver oxide bowl with a truss of dried lavender, the gold handles of the cabinet which held the four ornamented teacups that belonged once to my therapist’s grandmother (I had only dared to use them once, when I was quite suicidal and forgot my shameful propriety) the dark-red corners of the room, the thick alien limbs of the succulents on the side table, her one small spoon her sugars her black bin her tea and New Yorker magazines.
But that day my eyes were angry and uncomfortable with the wanton light coming into them off every little thing in the room and yet wanted stubbornly to be open. I sighed, my head fell back, and like so I discovered a tiny hole in the ceiling. A black slit just the length of an eye.
Everything resolved itself there—
En mi soledad encontré un ojo vacilante y maravilloso, un gran orbe de cristal que me miro sin luz—o digamos que no me miró tanto como me tomó totalmente entre su presencia y me acompañó cuerpamente en esa hora de la oscuridad.
It was not a metaphor. It was not a symbol for my helpless inner being. It was not The Animal. It was not The Other. I thought: the hunted bird is speaking to me.
It is true I was deeply alone.
It is true I am always deeply alone.
But in my silence I could speak with the Silent.