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.


Hair and Fake Hair


“Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” was an article I wrote many decades ago for Seventeen, a magazine for teenagers whose mothers subscribed to Vogue and whose older sisters read Glamour.  I was in my twenties then, awash with hair, most of it piled on my head in a kind of jungle, thick and kinky and requiring my constant attention, much as if I owned a particularly neurotic dog.  It had to be made straight and smooth despite its nature; it had to be cut, bleached and colored (but I’ve written so much about blond, blondes and becoming one that I’m satiated with the topic & won’t go into it here) and it cost me a fortune, at least $1500 a year, which in the 1960’s still counted as money and not just a tip at Mar-A-Lago.

I also paid much attention to the removal of hair, plucking my eyebrows or the area around and between them every day, after having watched my aunt Lisa, who was living in sin with my uncle Max, do exactly that on a beach in Truro on Cape Cod.  It was called sin in those days simply to share a lodging with someone to whom one was not legally tied; those innocent ice cream soda days when Coke meant a drink in a green bottle and when it was not necessary to bribe, steal or murder to be labeled a sinner.  Mere sex could do it, which added to the flavor, naughtiness being the spice or shot that transformed something simple into something transgressive.  Lisa, who studied dance with Martha Graham, plucked her lovely eyebrows in the sunshine on the sand peering into the mirror of her compact.  She had to do it every day, she explained, because every day new hairs appeared.  It may have been her imagination; she was militant about cleanliness and possibly saw hairs where none had yet grown.  But perhaps that was a by-product of  having spent four years in Auschwitz.  My mother, on the other hand, whose hair was as bushy as mine and a flaming auburn, never tweezed – or at least I never saw her do such a thing.  But she was a more private person than Lisa, more aware of what can and can’t be done in front of the servants and children.

Then there was the hair that grew under arms, hair on legs, hair in the crotch. My mother never shaved her underarms, as most European women did not in those days.  I, being first-generation American, needed to be as smooth as my classmates.  I shaved, though rarely, and because my body hair was blond (there it is again!) I didn’t really need to shave my legs, though I did it for form’s sake and often enough that eventually I actually had a stubble to get rid of.  My mother used Sleek on her legs, plastering them from knee to foot and then, after the white cream had set, scraping it off with a wooden spatula included in the package for this purpose.  Bikini line had not been invented yet (neither had bikinis), at least not among ordinary people, though I am sure those women whose profession included exhibiting the genital area might have trimmed here and there.  Dyeing of pubic hair was also not heard of yet, at least not by the average typist in Utah, and not even by Francesca, my up-to-date  hairdresser in Great Neck near the railroad station.

But hair was definitely a problem, whether absent or present. Bald men tried to cover up their patches however they could, at least until Yul Brynner came along in The King and I (1956), swashbuckling his way into virgin American hearts and convincing the millions who saw the film that bald was as sexy as you could get this side of the Devil’s abode.  Around this time it was proclaimed a Scientific Fact that bald men had more testosterone than others and when I had a prematurely balding Welsh boyfriend in the early 60’s, I was quite the object of envy at the parties we went to.  (Deservedly so, I could add.)

By the seventies, grooming had changed, hair weaving was in for those men who could afford it. Bald was out because it signified the advance of age and people were becoming more interested in money than in sex.  Men also began dyeing their hair (though keeping it secret) and plastic surgery helped both sexes remain in the “game,” as the making of money was referred to (perhaps on the model of Monopoly) until they were past retirement age.

Hair, which had always been a symbol of strength for men (see Samson & Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles – 1949, Cecil B. DeMille – or read the Book), also served a double purpose for women, beguiling and concealing.  This makes sense when we think of how women were/are forever depicted in stories, books, movies, art: the Virgin/Temptress, Eve/Mary, Mother/Bitch whose hair, falling below her shoulders, modestly conceals the beauty of her upper parts, in particular those breasts that give suck, and not only to infants.  Lady Godiva was a heroine, riding naked on her horse through the streets of Coventry to protest unfair taxation – but (as the paintings reveal) she rode out clothed in her modesty, her purity and her long hair.  It doesn’t take Freudian training to understand that Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, is a cry for the charmer to abandon herself to her would-be lover.

Paintings of Mother Eve usually show her naked, smooth-skinned and with long flowing hair. She is the temptress, born of Adam’s rib to tickle him with her locks and curls and entrap him in her (usually) blond tresses.  John Milton, who wrote all about Eve in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, was a trichomaniac; that is, a person manic about hair.  (He was manic about other things too, and had his wife sleep in a drawer that pulled out from the bottom of his bed when she was having her period – or so it is written by Robert Graves in Wife to Mr. Milton.)  Eve’s hair is man’s downfall, never mind the apple and the serpent.  If Eve had been bald we wouldn’t have sinned, and therefore would not have had to be redeemed, which would have made the writing of Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained unnecessary, since the epic is an elucidation of the Doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, which says that man sinned so Christ could rise and save us.  It was those damn locks and tendrils of hair, the ones Milton couldn’t get enough of, sinuous tresses like the long hair that proclaimed a new generation in the late 1960’s when the musical Hair was first produced, the Age of Aquarius was upon us and young men started wearing their hair long and singing about peace and love and understanding.  We still see these men from time to time: white-haired hippies with flowing manes or tiny ponytails, holding fast to their dream.  It is by hair that we are known: hair tells others if we’re young or old, sexy or not, employable or ready for the trash.   Hair, real or fake, has been the world’s obsession since the world (as we know it) began.

And never more than now. I would wager that in the last year and a half more words have been spoken, spewed and written about a certain head topped with an orangey hair-like covering than have been employed in the cause of human suffering during that same time.  I, who once was plagued by a barely governable mass of hair, now wear a wig.  Chemotherapy keeps me bald.  I don’t disapprove of wigs.  On the contrary; I depend on them – and love them too, for the way they can transform a young actor into a character stepping out of history, or make a judge out of a lawyer.  But I do know the difference.  There is hair and there is fake hair.  There is truth and fake truth, which we call lies.  There are men and fake men, those we call imposters if not something far, far worse:  men who ally themselves with something – a country say – and hide their allegiance to another.