Sitting at breakfast
this Sunday, Hacienda Jalisco, 9:15, I spied a blue bus approaching
from the I-74 cloverleaf. First thought: evacuees? Or just
some tourists on a chartered excursion? It’s all coming
apart, watch and see. Or is that mostly a projection?
Yesterday a reporter in New Orleans was saying, he thought
the lesson of this flood disaster recently was that no matter
what’s happening “in your little life,”
these folks had it much worse.
Well, yes and no--although I admit to saying the same thing
to myself, the usual cliché. There are all kinds of
torment, material, spiritual--varieties of misfortune. “Troubles
by the number, heartaches by the score.” (“Hold
‘er, Newt, she’s a-rarin’!” I’m
gonna get country-western mellow dramatic, just wait and see.)
Now I’m a-sittin’ here at the computer, in the
abandoned community college. Maybe there’s a cordial,
security guard who can come down and let me in to the printer,
housed across the hall,
in our division secretary’s office. For some reason,
I don’t get one of my own right hyar,
next to my computer. Maybe I’m dangerous. My ex-gal,
after all, starry Stella, did call the cops to tell them to
put a restraining order on me. Ah, yes. I suppose. Elmer Fudd,
the fearsome stalker. And she’s a wascally wabbit,
how can one doubt?
One problem is, I’m not sure where to put things. I
guess you can read that lots of different ways. What I had
in mind, however, was the IVth piece in this thing, the poem
I wrote for the abandoned animals from the flood, the little
furry evacuees. (In this present context, we’re not
supposed to use the word refugee: it has too many
And as to this confusion, this chaos of distraction (where
to put things?) the same could be said of all the pieces,
uneasy peaces, I’ve been writing for the past several
months. Even before the split with Stella, something wasn’t
right. True, I was desperate to get out of my writing slump,
but it was more than that. It was more like a man drowning
in some psychic or psychological sea of troubles. And you
use whatever you can to save yourself: the typewriter, friends,
your job, anything that feels like you’ve got a handle
or a tool that might help you to keep floating, keep breathing,
maybe paddling a bit, maybe moving a bit closer to shore.
Now all kinds of metaphors swap around and mix together on
my plate, so to speak:
the promised land, the further shore of enlightenment (when
you’re supposed to leave
your raft, your skillful means, behind—for good), or
just dry Terra Firma, some sense
of basic security, resting on the bosom of Mother Earth.
I also realized just lately why, in Bishop Hill, and various
other locations here about, traveling with Stell, I’d
sometimes get a chill from mother nature. I had thought it
was merely some childhood ‘reaction formation’
or ‘engram’: some impression stored deep in the
cells, or in the subtle body, the chakras, or whatever
the hell. Like the chill I got from that term “separation
anxiety” Stell used when I told her about waking up
around 3 a.m. the night after I had to call 911 for an ambulance.
The night my mother was held over night at Cottage Hospital,
two blocks south of where she lives with me, on Dudley and
Kellogg streets. I even thought about walking down there to
check on her, as I went around turning on lights so I could
get back to sleep. And as it turned out, that would have been
fine. Mom was up prowling the corridors, getting into mischief
with the night staff. Her girlhood friend in Wataga, I’ll
call her Ruth, was also awake, and so was Stell, I found out
later. All four of us. We could have been a Lonelyhearts Club.
We could have played cards or something. Made chin music.
But back to the wilds of nature that were freaking me out
at Bishop Hill and elsewhere. I think the real reason I was
experiencing some petite mal on those occasions was
Stella’s insistence that it is natural to shoot squirrels
when they rob your sunflower seeds or tear up your garden;
that it is natural to leave your mother off in some apartment
or care facility (that it is like a baby kitten being forced
by the wise Momma cat to leave the nest); that it is just
fine to swallow the hemlock when life gets too much for you
towards the end; or that we spend ‘way too much money
on maintaining life (existence, anyhow) when it’s time
for the elderly person to call it a day: to call it a good
life, and check out.
I’m not sure she’s altogether wrong about all
this, mind you. I’m just saying, whether right or wrong,
it sent a chill up my spine from some one or other of the
lower chakras, or whatever the hell. I want to put
in a plug for humanity, gathering around the fire in the cave,
that kind of kulchur, I guess. Gingerly, at least.
I want to suggest that if I’m a drag (and I am, I can
feel it, this cloud of moroseness following me around, this
mopiness that is so hard to kick and let go of), so’s
she, with her vigorous walks in the park that I can’t
keep up with (no use even trying), her love of nature to the
exclusion of “co-dependency” with a special friend,
a significant other.
But I promised myself when I came in from the freeway not
to dwell on my gut pain and panic and compensating anger …
Too corny. And here I’ve gone and dwelt on it all over
again. Hell’s bells. I guess what I should do, while
the chorizo and hot peppers balance out the goddamn shingles’
aftermath and residue (o yes, I neglected to mention all that…well,
later I will put it in, somewhere, though I don’t know
where things should go), is just to go ahead and type up my
notes from last night, when I sat typing back home on the
old mechanical Adler. And worry about the editing later.
Back there the week of Mom’s TIA: that’s Transient
Ischemic Attack (mini-stroke), I guess: I found out I had
shingles. Two snapshot-like memories may serve to convey the
irony. Assuming I’d merely thrown out my back moving
stuff around at home, I drove with Stella to Peoria. Parking
a block from the church, I acted demur, less than eager, when
she wondered if I’d like to take a walk. “You’re
a trip,” she laughed.
After the service, we joined our friends (hers, originally)
at a fish restaurant on the Illinois River. I must have groaned
or something. Then I had to refrain (or so it seemed to me),
refrain from explaining to the friends why I had not asked
Stella, to check out my back. I think I assumed--or I was
conditioned to assume--that I had to hide my sense that Stella
would prefer not to care. Or to care for someone. Me, or anyone.
Mainly, though not exclusively, males. Her mother. Her parents’
elderly friends. Her former clients, patients, husbands, or
what have you.
Stell did examine me, after her Peoria friends asked her
if she had. I didn’t want her to; I didn’t want
her to come visit Mom in the hospital; I wasn’t sure
I should go over for supper that night--and probably shouldn’t
have. Because Stell was a nurse for 20 years and then found
that she wasn’t really in the profession she wanted
after all. And she views care-giving with some degree of alarm.
And I didn’t want to push it. End up being regarded
as needy. Codependent. Trying to count on her too much. For
common intimacy: us-ness, mutuality: we-ness, my former shrink
used to call it.
The good doctor. Stell didn’t like him much. Maybe he
sort of had her number. Her act. But in fairness, any interpretation
is bound to be unfair and partial, incomplete, slanted from
some human point of view. Right now that’s all water
over the dam or through the broken levee.
All I want to do right now is get it out there, then worry
about the hyphens and commas, dotting the i’s, crossing
Anyhow, after she examined me, on her massage table, she
advised me to go to OSF (Order of St. Francis) and have it
checked out. She said, “I’ve never actually seen
a case of shingles, but that’s what I’d say it
She was right. But I was wrong. My first thought in Peoria
was the right thought: No, don’t let her examine me
at all. No good deed will go unpunished, whether it’s
from my side or hers that the breaking down of her walls occurs.
Anything that is loving and considerate will puncture the
charade, the film-psychology (as Lawrence called it in his
novella, ST. MAWR). And this actress has been locked into
her role for far too long to let that happen without a fight.
No, I was wrong to have shingles. Mom was wrong to have a
TIA. God would take care
of us, or anything. But don’t ask me to come down off
my high horse and help out.
She’d even put her own horse down, after hiring a German
trainer to teach him waltz steps. He’d turned on her
one day (the horse, not the dance master). Tried to bite her.
She’d gotten the hood over his head, got him safely
back to stable. Had him fixed.
I guess infection set in to the penis after the bollocks
were removed, I don’t know.
Maybe it was a necessary mercy; perhaps he was incurable.
But he got deep-sixed, anyhow, after a 30 year relationship
with Stell (can horses live thirty years?). And was by all
accounts her best friend, animal or human, in life.
My energy was too low, a drain on hers, Stell informed me
a night or two after my Mom came home from Cottage, having
been released the very next day after her arrival.
She’d had trouble sleeping the previous Sunday, after
looking at my back on the table.
I felt almost back-stabbed, assaulted, and not for the first
time. (Et tu, Brute?)
Hey! Didn’t she think she was a drag sometimes too?
And why pick the week all hell had broken loose to kick me
when I was down? I wanted to know what this meant. Was this
the end of our relationship? The next day she called to tell
me she had some fun ideas to talk over at Cornucopia after
her class—the class I’d semi-arranged for her
to take, in my course in Bioethics; that she hadn’t
intended to end the relationship altogether, just to alter
it a little. Foolish, blind as ever, I swallowed another hydrocodone
pill (the heavier of the two pain medications Doctor Valerie
had prescribed for the shingles), put on an extra Lidocaine
patch over the lesions that occurred, three or four of them,
from the spine around my spare tire to the right, ending up
at my belly button, and revved up my green Honda to go down
there, for some kind of a conference, if not showdown, at
the Cornucopia corral.
As I knocked over my cappuccino, and got down on the floor
with napkins—the waitress was a bit slow arriving with
her mop—I learned what Stell’s plan was for salvaging
our thing, the thing of our relationship. It was that there
would be some mutually agreed upon ground rules. For example,
I was not to talk about my mother. Hmmmm. I thought of all
the times I had listened to Stella, held her hand, while she
talked of her family, sometimes in tears, as I helped edit
her journal, WILD FLOWERS & WEEDS. But I guessed that
was different. I suggested to her a rule of my own: That there
be no rules. She didn’t say anything at all to that
idea. I wasn’t too sure what had transpired as I left
Was it a meaningful encounter? God only knows. That night
Stella called to thank me for meeting her. Again, I felt somewhat
as though something was left unsaid. Was there an option?
I was in the dark. Perhaps my move should have been to refuse
to meet her.
Now I think “it’s been over a month since we’ve
seen each other.” I think, ”Maybe it’s a
good job I’ve been told by the police that I’ll
be arrested if there’s any further contact; and to ‘let
it go’.” Also that they complied with my request
to call her with the same message. Otherwise I’d probably
be over there, or at church or some damned place or other
(her turf, of course, trying to renegotiate. In spite of hell
or high water.
They say (and maybe this is just an old wives’ tale,
I dunno) that if those shingle lesions go all the away around
yr tummy until they meet one another, you’ll die.
There are worse things than death, I suppose.
II : Why?
En route to Denver, after I got over the shingles that had
lasted from June 13th till about the end of June, and then
five days later, en route back home—those train window
views were hard enough to enjoy—hell, even to abide,
let’s face it—under my ongoing delusion, my foolish
liebestraum. And so what, then, is life to me now?
The answer is easy to say, not so easy to act out on a daily
basis, I’m learning--and maybe (God only knows) that
was why she and I had to meet and lock horns after all. She
for her lessons, I for mine. That’s certainly her theory,
the last I heard, i.e. August 5th, the day I called her Bitch
and told her Go to hell. Out at her walking grounds by Lake
Believe me—I insist--that was out of character. I’d
hate to repeat that scene. I’d want a new play, different
The answer? Easy. A continued challenge of displacement.
A chance lightly to practice the arts of service: a happy
interest in the Other. (Several “others,” one
assumes.) More of the same, actually. Perhaps a further, deeper
sense of crazy non-attachment. (Chogyam Trungpa: “Disillusionment
/ is the greatest teacher.”)
Oh yas, yas, surely this dizzy sorrow shall dissipate in
As Sylvia, Stell’s girlhood friend, said to me on her
farm, about an hour after the “drama queen” explosion,
the split-up at Lake Storey, “Stella has been looking
for something all her life. She knows what it is, she just
can’t act on that knowledge.” And we agreed that
love and justice have nothing in common, and when I guessed
that “time heals all wounds,” she chimed: “I
can’t resist adding, it wounds all heels.”
III : Varieties of Rejection
If starry Stell was indeed about to cut me off, why the train
rituals? Why bother? Seeing me off at the Galesburg depot
(I told her to take off, I’d handle my baggage, but
No, she said, she’d stay to see the train depart). Greeting
me upon arrival, when I’d hoped to simply call a cab,
go home and rest, see her later. And just a day before leaving,
the fourth day in Colorado, saying, “I’m glad
you called”? Perhaps she was putting off the clean break,
getting the timing right, with an impeccable zenlike sense
of unplannable perfection.
A clean break was what she’d toyed with in December,
tell her pastor she
was thinking of dropping a note through my mail slot, threatening
me with the notion of a police action, a writ of restrain.
And for why? As the Anglo-Saxon or Middle English phrase has
it, for whee? Simply for dropping notes of plea, of reconciliation,
mail box. (Is this the way Love is? Well--I hope to shout.
It’s a god damned one-way street with Stella Nicely.
If I called her Bitch and told her to Go to hell at Lake
Storey, was I angry. I’d just been sobbing on the phone
with her friend, who looks after my mom, takes her shopping
(starting with the trip to Colorado) for about an hour, after
the Dear John letter told me
her terms of friendship and collegiality, which I was to honor.
I think my 93-year-old friend, who knew Stell back when…,
has it right: “You are a wounded beast.”
But I digress. Writing is rewriting, as Jim Crumley told
us in ’72, at Colorado State University in the fiction
writing program. And certainly as I type these last night’s
notes, I keep adding on and adding on. Regressively, in psychological
terms; progressively, in terms of writing (?)
Another reason she may have held my hand the night before
the break-up, all the way back from the church in Peoria where
we talked about the bullshit of Unity, the
wisdom teachings of Chas. Fillmore--? Maybe what she calls
Friendship. I was to accept her terms. Consonant, blended
with that, may have been the aura of performance, or film-psychology,
as I said before, citing D. H. Lawrence. (Women in Literature,
I taught at Denver Univ., 1976 or ’77, used that book
of his, ST. MAWR.) My friends
M & M, married nearly forty years now, mused on this note,
wondering, as did I, why,
just before bringing over the Dear John letter and handing
it to my mother (I was away,
here at the computer at school), why only a week before had
she suggested dropping in at my cousins’ house, at Sunday
dinner. Was it to have an audience?
And also as part of Friendship.
Neem Karoli Baba, in Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Miracle of
Love (chapters on Attachment, Anger and Love, p. 187 and following,
p. 251 and following), may offer good cheer, much joy—a
spirit of glad tidings, and the consolation of philosophy
philosophy and beyond!), surely: edification. But what good
does that do?
It is she I miss. Not some dream. Not the chance to learn
Not the good times. Certainly not the bad! (The choke chain
still pinches my throat.
The cells still seem to recollect.)
‘Twould be false to proceed by some sort of calculus,
some kind of utilitarian addition and subtraction. False to
say the good moments, the almost Olympian, heavenly times
of concourse--such as, for example, conversations in our favorite
setting, the Landmark Café & Creperie patio garden--were
worth or were NOT worth, the bad.
Of course, when I say ‘heavenly’ that is only
my point of view. It is possible, for example, that she’d
just as soon have been there with someone else, or alone,
rather than with me. “One never knows, does one?”
(Thomas Fats Waller)
Get out the violins. And the damned crying towel.
‘Tis her I lack, I miss, yes—let’s face
it. Then move on.
IV : Tongue Lolling, Heading Out …
I saw four animals in cages today at the mall as I left the
Weight Watchers meeting. Fully grown, two dogs, two cats.
They appeared to have been recently bathed and groomed. Shining.
I speak for them now.
Miracle of boils, miracle
of dog bite to the 3rd chakra,
Meow, miracle of abandonment,
new owner, here safe from
the broken levees, in the drought-
dry fields of western Illinois …
O god cat dog, o
time to finally get it,
till one cackles at the
total joke, the grandeur
of all this at last to no,
no, utterly, no
the beautiful pointlessness,
up or down,
loved or lost,
drowning or saved.
Today my mistress holds me,
tomorrow she forgets my dish.
There’s never a safe bet,
ever + always some
Neem Karoli Baba is right!
God does everything.
And sexy Scarlet O’Hara said it,
too: Tomorrow’s another day.
I wanted to take them all. Their
eyes open, credulous.
Such beauty and innocence!
I name them now,
I call them,
Black & White,
V : Self-Pity
I shall no doubt maintain discretion: a shy yet, at times,
giddily boisterous camaraderie,
feeling that, if I cannot quite “get over” my
conviction that my ‘doom’ is to be an outsider,
yet I can go on consorting with angels, at armslength –
like Yancy, Gwen, Susan, and others. Not to mention email
pals I’ve never even met, like Mia, Dr. Rati Saxena,
Kathryn and so on. Self-pity may stain the crotch like mocha
coffee from the Innkeeper’s, like egg on my sleeve.
Tainting the persona a bit. A great glittering batch of dishonour,
surely! Self-love (in the positive sense) may require a sense
Not godlike, necessarily, but light enough, none the less.
(We are so silly, to paraphrase Auden’s elegy for Yeats.)
Beyond this short-term remedy, why hope? Perhaps we all
live earthly & finite lives, after all. If so, I’ll
be sixty two in October, and maybe I won’t live too
much longer, after all. From the conventional point of view,
at least, it’s finite.
Entropy rules only a designated portion of the field, marked
off by some ego or other,
surely. This lawnmower, that rake, shall rust. The moth shall
corrupt my new suit of clothes. Sooner or later, dust to dust,
and so on. Grandma Louvelma Russell Bloomfield used to say,
“Jimmy, a hundred years from now, none of this will
matter.” And John Keats wrote his own epitaph: HERE
LIES ONE WHOSE NAME IS WRITTEN
Well, I’ve tried to tighten this, as my editor suggested
(one of the email friends I’ve never met: she and Kathryn—at
Ravenna Press—in particular).
It does meander. I don’t know much. It’s February,
and doesn’t the past year since last Valentine’s
seem to have gone quickly? Or is that just me?
Like the time, after I got out of the Air Force, I wandered
into a lunchroom in Chicago, and some guy said to me, “Where
I said, “I’m an American,” and he said,
“Well, that’s you.”
I said to him, ‘Yeah. You got that right, mother-hummer.’
Stella waved the other day. It was just two days short of
six months since I’d seen or
heard from her. I was talking to an old friend in front of
his business, and she came
out of a shop across the street, Seminary Street, and saw
me and Jack standing
there, and waved. Before I could think of anything, one way
or the other,
I waved back.
My friend laughed and said, “What did you do that for?”
I said, “I don’t know. D’you suppose I’ll
He said, “Maybe it was a trap.”
There’s almost nothing that I know.
I’m sitting here at my office computer.
I just put together a six-piece journal with poems, like
a Japanese thing or maybe a piece of WCW’s Paterson.
I call it “Risk.”
Listen: Stella’s better than she sounds.
Breton’s Nadja, he said, was not so much a personality
or a personal entity, as a catalyst--like electricity. She
was the effect she had on others.
Stella never promised a cozy ride.
The white picket fence dream, let’s say, with roses.
The first piece she exchanged with me at my friend’s
‘Landmark’ café, outside in the
patio garden, that chill, late August day when we celebrated
our new friendship, was a
piece of animal mythology : a chapter on disillusionment.
My friend Susan, a friend married to a friend, said to me
several months ago, “Yes, but you can feel sorry for
Stella’s no rattlesnake.
But I guess that’s the effect she’s had on me.
Copyright © 2006 Jim McCurry