Monday, July 11, 2011

My father, Jimmy and Me

So how long ago was it that I promised that every week I'd post something here that I'd written as a part of my Summer Writing Project? Yeah, I promptly failed at that, didn't I? But, you know, all that about the horse, and if at first you don't succeed and whatnot...
Lately I've been writing about James Baldwin and my father. They were only acquainted in the way that you're acquainted with a writer you've never met but deeply admire, and I blame my father on my affection for James Baldwin, and my formation as a writer. The first collection he ever gave me was Going to Meet the Man, and a story from therein, "Sonny's Blues", has resurfaced in my life, and now makes its way into my material. This blog entry refers pretty keenly to it, so if you haven't read the story, it's so popular that the odds are good it's in an anthology you have in your house somewhere. After you read this, go check it out, it'll give you a greater context, maybe.

The story ends with a heated, complicated conversation between the two brothers, talking about the perfect storm that drives a man to heroin addiction as best they can, which is to say talking around the subject. The teller is so full of fear and misunderstanding that he can't just wait for Sonny to tell him the how and the why of his life's rough, ruthless journey. At the center of this conversation is the misery and fury and passion and desperation of the human condition: and all the things people do--legal and illegal, moral and immoral, humane and in humane--to avoid feeling it. Heroin sometimes supplies a necessary feeling, Sonny says, a feeling you need just to live, "...to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.. in order to keep from shaking to pieces."
Are there many of us who can give this kind of understanding to drug addicts, recovering or otherwise? What about alcoholics? What about abusers, or wife beaters or rapists or pedophiles? I don't think so. I think our society punishes men and women who channel their misery into these kinds of behaviors. We can't understand it, why someone would hurt other, or hurt themselves, would behave ways that are so obviously destructive. Why would someone be so cruel, so disgusting, so horrible, so self-destructive, just trying not to feel what they're feeling? The narrator doesn't understand it either. He says to his brother, "'But we just agreed..that there's no way not to suffer. Isn't it better, then, just to--take it?'"
"'But nobody just takes it,' Sonny cried, 'that's what I'm telling you! Everybody tries not to. You're just hung up on the way some people try--it's not your way!'"
This sentence lands on me like a Mack truck. It is perfectly true that some methods of hiding from, denying or ignoring, this suffering, society benefits from, and that we reward. At the end of the day, though, we're all just running from our own demons. There aren't enough places we can go that will help us hold our feelings or process them or acknowledge or feel them. If we're fortunate, we channel our suffering into a life devoted to the Church, to finding a cure for cancer, to championing the rights of women. If we're banal, we turn it into crocheted hats and decoupaged coffee tables and loaves of banana walnut bread. If we're weak or vulnerable, we snort it or we shoot it or we smoke it or we fuck it. And if we're psychotic, we make others pay for it with their safety, their humanity, their lives.
Sonny found two ways to hold his misery, his suffering: heroin and jazz. The story concludes with him playing in a club with other musicians, men who understand some part of Sonny that his brother does not. Sonny sits at the piano with a scotch and milk on top of it, looking, says the teller, like the cup of trembling, hovering over his head. This metaphor is an allusion to the cup of trembling mentioned in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 51:22: "Thus saith the Lord thy LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, 'Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again.'"
As far as Old Testament books go, I just love Isaiah and Jeremiah; I like to think of them as tortured confused dreamers, men who just want to be left alone to paint or write or make clay puts, whom the Lord seizes as his poets and messengers to take warnings, metaphors and ideas to the Israelites. They're the artists who can never seem to get their rent or bills paid, yet Something always takes care of them. And their lives are absolutely wrecked by the visions and the words of this god who consumes them as his own.
I'm not trying to make the case that all heroin addicts are actually prophets with divine messages, and we ignore them at our own supernatural and everlasting peril--although the latter statement may be true. I'm just saying it's no accident that James Baldwin put this phrase in the mouth and mind of one character in order to describe another. Finally, in the last lines, our teller can see that Sonny has been spared the portion that was his, the wrath of God that caused him to stumble and fall. But he can also see that this cup is only a heartbeat away. It is easy, almost effortless, for Sonny to be doused in the thing that threw him into the pit out of which he has just crawled.
I don't know if my father ever crawled out of this pit, a stinky, funky, slimy, moist hole of hopelessness, deception, darkness, fear and abject loneliness. I don't know if he watched anyone else climb out of it, or if he looked into it. I tend to believe he's been acquainted with it somehow: I watched him go to and from work, walk around the house, as silent and morose as Grief, and as mysterious and disconsolate. Whenever i asked him what was wrong, he would tell me nothing and retreat even further away from me, further into himself. Somehow, he felt the need to suffer in silence, at least silence with me; my mother might have had some clue about his burdens, but with me there was always a wall between us, a wall we both knew was false, but nonetheless was immovable.
What troubled him, on so many days of silence and loneliness? Was he thinking about his father, who'd left him and the rest of his family in tight, aching poverty? Was he thinking of his mother, who raised all her children and who had now buried whatever feelings she had for her dead deserter of a husband underneath the blessing that all of her seven children were alive, healthy and had never been in prison? Was he thinking of his work, the meetings and the projects and the documents and the tests and the relentless pursuit of results that left him ragged and exhausted? Was he thinking of his own family, of his trouble with his wife, who always, at every turn, seemed dissatisfied or unhappy with things, and how easy it might be to just get into a car and drive away? What was it that troubled him so, what wrath and trembling was his alone to drink from?
I don't know. I will never know. If ever I ask him, he will smile his tight-lipped grimacing smile and tell me everything is fine. There might be language about the race and how work is work and how the challenge never ends. But the thing that is shaking my father apart, against which he is braced like a levy, that thing I will never see or know.

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