The Mind


as Satan observed, “is its own place and of it self/ can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.   Here is where madness resides, where Blake and Bosch hung out and confusion reigns, sometimes interrupted by sudden illuminations of joy.

It’s partly due to medications. The chemo that’s infused into me, which my blue-eyed Michael friend (part Pan, part Hermes) calls “pouring a bottle of Clorox into your system,” and the pills against pain which must compete with the ones meant to bring on sleep.  Hell is a cocktail of pain and panic, terrible twins like Scylla and Charybdis, disease and cure.

Cure.  The word takes me past curare, the ancient poison of the Amazon, used to coat the tips of arrows for killing large mammals and introduced  to civilization (England) in the late 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh: and then on to fish, fresh salmon from the North Sea cured with brandy or Armagnac, a light vegetable oil, salt, pepper, a touch of sugar and bunches of fresh dill, laid down for a week or more, turned twice a day until the back complains or a day slips past.  I made my gravlax at Christmas time for the party we’d have on Boxing Day or sometimes closer to the new year, when the oddest people showed up, the tree was shimmering and the cats sat under it, purring loudly, blinking into the fire, proud of the warmth and what their home had to offer.  They didn’t touch the gravlax but everyone else did and no matter how much I had made and  sliced paper-thin on small triangles of hard brown bread with the mustard dill sauce, (a bottle of Aquavit standing nearby), it was all consumed.

Cured fish is cooked by marination just as we burn out the cancer by radiation, not fire. Clorox in your veins, Joan of Arc in the brain cells. ( Rouen, Rouen, Est-ce qu’ici que je doive mourir? were her last words.)

And following gravlax my mind takes another turn, to my friend Eli from Finland and the summer I met her in Grenoble, when we both going to summer school at the university to improve our French and lived as paying guests with a family named Perret whose daughters had beautiful names, Monique and Genevieve. The six of us regularly ate together, a meal that inevitably included a jug of really abominable wine, a jug of water and a bowl of sugar, these three ingredients to be combined in our separate glasses according to taste.

Eli had a broad, pretty face, hair the color of wheat and eyes of blue. We became instant friends; she told me many stories about her country, about the crayfish festival at midsummer and the white nights, and the following year I visited her out in the country beyond Helsinki in Kallvik, in her dacha with sauna in the woods.  She was nine months pregnant then and walked barefoot amidst the trees to the lake, where she hauled out a rowboat and rowed us both across, pulling the oars and quoting passages from Joyce as she did.  When we came back to the house she showed me her jars of fil, the yoghurt she made and lined up on the inner windowsill of the kitchen.  When a thunderstorm threatens, she said, all the fil of Finland turns.   She had married a wealthy Swedish-Finn like herself, a man I have never met who seemed wildly eccentric.  Among his habits were traveling to little known places in order to learn their languages.  In winter, in their dacha, he would chop down a tree and drag it into the living room to feed the fire, letting it consume itself at considerable risk to the entire building, not to mention the surrounding forest.

I remember Eli from that time, a young wife, freckled in the sunlight – and then after a hiatus of many decades, when we found each other again through an extraordinary coincidence.   The terrible French teacher at the Alliance Française where I was taking a course didn’t show up one day and we students introduced ourselves to each other.  One of them was Finnish and I asked the question that idiots have asked forever, expecting the only person they know in all of America (or even limiting it to the West Coast, say) to be known to the American they happen to be speaking to.  But this time, of course, it did work.  My classmate turned out to be the best friend of Eli’s sister, and so we took up again, Eli and I, and flew across the ocean several times over the years to renew and maintain our friendship.

The mind skips and jumps. Cure, fish, Eli, France.  Back to the high meadows of Grenoble where I, then 18, liked to wander alone, with my Camus or Baudelaire or Corneille (not in any way a linked trinity, but all decidedly French), feeling very free, liberée and existentialiste.  I took the bus up to the woods and meadows of Prémol and there wandered, and read and stumbled upon a farm where I stopped for fresh cheese and coffee.   Back in Grenoble, France’s glove-making capital,  I looked out from my balcony at the people moving below and saw them as targets, moving pieces of a pattern, any of which could be eliminated.  It was not a very thorough understanding of freedom or philosophy, but it did make me feel sophisticated and alive.

And back again it goes, tense and spiraling, ribboning out to this moment here, in New York, where I am unslept and thinking that maybe it should all stop, not the people walking on the streets of Grenoble in the late 1950’s, but me, the seeing eye, this place from which it all proceeds. The medications, the chemo, the radiation to follow, resistance against the inevitable.  Mainly I am feeling that my mind is a strange thing, that it exists apart from me just as much as it is nearly all of me. It does what it does, goes where it goes – in a flash.  The great hurricane bearing down on Florida where an old school friend lives alone swept me up and I transferred my fear to her because I am vain and it suits me to think that I am not simply concerned for myself.  I am afraid of tomorrow, of the radiation oncologist, and then on to another test of my brain, making this the 7th or 8th of these procedures (MRI’s, CT scans, Pet scan) I have undergone over the last weeks.

            The mind is its own place. . .

But perhaps the strangest aspect of the mind, as it appears to me now, is its quicksilver tossing, rearing from sudden exhilaration to terror, as if someone turned a switch. Last Thursday, accompanied by a good friend, I saw the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, remarkable women both, who decided to “manage” my care, and set up something like a swat team – the two of them, the Greek spinal surgeon who had operated on me some months back, my oncologist, the radiation oncologist, an internist (at last!), a neuropsychiatrist (to deal with medications) and a social worker.  I left there slightly delirious with joy, as if, instead of having just discussed whether the first priority was the cancer in my spine or the lesions in my brain, we had come to a joyful resolution.  The euphoria remained for a long time, and even though I felt it was unseemly, I couldn’t get rid of it.  Floating on air until the crash came and took with it not only the joy but all calm, all control.  From order to chaos, heaven to hell.

I exchanged emails with the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, who wrote, in response to my enthusiasm: Great things happen when strong women come together in one small exam room!  I was feeling it, disembodied joy, like Blake’s.  Like the joy of Keats’, bursting against his palate fine.  Joy like laughter, because life was funny and meeting someone you liked and admired, someone who clicked, was about the best that could happen.  Or for no reason at all.

Keats wrote his “Ode on Melancholy” shortly before his death at 25.   What we are made of is illusion; the world is a reflection of the mind, and the mind is a giddy thing.


Dark at the Roots



When the time came, she often said, when she was older, she would let her hair go gray. But the time never came, and her hair colorist continued to dye her graying roots to match the rich auburn of her younger self.

My mother kept many secrets, and though some of them wounded me and made me hate her at times, on the whole she kept them beautifully. Some had to do with her personal habits, others concerned her actions and interactions, those I witnessed and those that came at me from out of the past.  Still other secrets had been thrust on her beyond her control: names she had to keep hidden to safeguard lives and also her own name, given her before her parents or ancestors or anyone in the world knew that the man’s name hers was derived from would become synonymous with evil on perhaps as great a scale as the devil’s own, because though she was always known as Dolly, they named her Adolfina.

I didn’t know her birth name or her actual age for many years. I learned how old she was on a  day my father’s mother came to visit, a rare occurrence because my mother never cared to entertain her.  My grandmother mentioned that Dolly had me at 31, though I’d thought she was currently 29.  When I later confronted my mother, she explained that she couldn’t tell me the truth because I would have told my schoolmates and then everyone would know.  I nodded sagely, thrilled to be given such an adult (and mysterious) explanation, and never afterwards told anyone her age or – when I learned it – her birth name.

In other ways too, I went on lying for her, because she demanded it. When she was dying of multiple myeloma, cancer in the marrow of her bones, she insisted I tell her friends that she had a “bellyache.” She believed cancer was “psychological” and was ashamed to be caught with it.  But she was also dying quickly, in the hospital and at home with round the clock nurses.  I hated having to lie to people on the phone; I was embarrassed for them, for myself, ashamed of that childish word  “bellyache,” ashamed of the knowledge I had, the dead certainty of what was going on.  I couldn’t tell anyone, and I couldn’t stop what I knew.

Everyone has secrets. I don’t believe, as my mother did, that cancer is a sign of repressed rage or repressed anything else. My cat Corduroy, who was also my best friend, died young of cancer and his rage was never repressed, nor his love either, shown in the way he tried to feed the family, bringing in headless squirrels or birds he’d killed and placing them beneath my seat at the dinner table.  But there are other secrets, so big that people spend their lives and countries go to war protecting them.

America’s secret is racism. It is the darkness at America’s heart.  Though it can be set aside (look at our President!), it continues, since it’s easier to blame whatever’s wrong (in your life, in the country) on others than on yourself.  (This may be one reason to get married, though not a good one.)  If other people don’t look like you, it becomes even easier.  Hitler had to tag the Jews with big yellow stars because they looked (and thought and felt) like other Germans. The star provided a target for German rage, which in truth had little to do with Jews and was mainly caused by devaluation of the currency and loss of jobs.  But an enemy is a handy tool for an aspiring megalomaniac dictator.  Especially for the newly-blond Donald Trump (who is dark-haired in photos of him in youth and middle age, and whose hair resembled an orange dishrag earlier this year), with his family tradition of racial intolerance, a father and grandfather who didn’t like dark people, didn’t rent to them, and who were drawn to the ideology of white supremacists.

Trump picks up on the American secret and adds the terror of the unknown. All murders are now the fault of foreign darkies, whether or not they had anything to do with it, all part of a world-wide conspiracy against blond white (straight) Christian men.  In Trump’s hatred of M folk – Mexicans, Muslims, menstruators, minorities –  he rounds up a lot of dark people.  Women make it into the core of his publically-proclaimed nemeses by being biologically different from other people, in that they ovulate and menstruate, two cycles that Donald Trump would never in his life engage in, and therefore finds disgusting.  Different is the bugaboo, and to Trump there is no reality outside of Trump.

He presents us with a caricature of the two greatest dictators of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler (né Schicklgruber) and Josef Stalin (born Jughashvili), with an added dose of pure American hucksterism. Like Hitler and Stalin, Trump is his own creation, in his case a blown-up cartoon of The Big Male with scowling face, broad chest, lots of sawbucks, lots of broads and a grunter’s vocabulary.  He’s the entertainer, like Hitler in Brecht’s play Arturo Ui and also like P.T. Barnum, prankster galore, who toured America with his freak show, entered politics in Connecticut, made millions, lost them and then made them back again in the firm belief that, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” (though the quote varies and is sometimes  attributed to H.L. Mencken).  Barnum said of himself: “I am a showman by profession . . . and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” which shows a great deal more insight into his own nature than Trump has ever demonstrated.  His personal aim, said Barnum, was “to put money in my own coffers.”

The huckster, snake oil salesmen, slimy politicos and purveyors of hype that dotted our frontier probably were natural outgrowths of America’s wild Dream: to invent yourself, to become anyone you wanted to be because the old rules no longer applied. It didn’t matter who your parents were, where you went to school (or didn’t) or any of the values that cosseted Europe in its old ways.  Being American was a god-given passport to fun and freedom, to children who refused to eat their spinach because “America’s a free country,” and, on a more deadly note, to the necessity (for keeping the myth alive) of making sure some of the people are not included as people. The secret remained.  Be white, be powerful, and the Dream is yours.

Adolf Hitler said: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Trump also resembles Stalin, particularly in the penchant for putting his name on everything (remember Stalingrad? if things go rotten in November, New York could become Trump City.) To every proposed building during his years as Chairman, he added steeples that transformed them into secular churches erected to the greater glory of himself. Stalin, like his latter day successor Vladimir Putin – a man much admired by Trump – did not believe in negotiating with perceived enemies.  He had a quicker solution. “Death,” he wrote, “is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.”   Putin seems to agree.

What is great in America is that this country took in my parents when it did; that it welcomed immigrants throughout its history because it is, on a grand scale, a nation made up of immigrants, a tree with many roots that finds its genius in difference. Americans are optimistic and flexible.  We’ll try anything, which is why we’re such rich fodder for entrepreneurs.  (P.T. Barnum: There’s a sucker born every minute.)  But if we screw up in November, we might lose far into the future, with a Trump Supreme Court meting out its justice.

Hitler: The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Truth is a moveable concept to Trump, who controls it as he controls everything around him. The Don sees himself as Czar of this country, Czar of czars, which is as czar-y or crazy as it gets.

N.Y. subway: If you see something, say something.

Donald Trump.

[Note: this blog was also published by the Huffington Post]