Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shameless


The world changes, 
love stays.
~Charles Aznavour

I don't know why I've been thinking of it again. Not thinking, exactly: The memory flashes for just a second or two, a few whispered words in the dark, a slight movement caught in a spotlight. The feeling of exposure. It was so long ago, but it's just that this image intrudes more and more—while I'm doing ordinary things, like washing the dishes or petting the cat or turning out the lights—and there must be some explanation.

          My mother sat beside me in a dark theater, looking pissed off and resigned; I was only seven and didn't know what to expect. Charles Aznavour, the world-famous chanteur and protégé of Edith Piaf, was in town to do a show and my mother's cousin Levon was his lighting guy so we had free tickets and an invitation to come backstage after the show. It was supposed to be a great honor except my mother hated him, the way she hated Chopin, because his music was embarrassing and self-indulgent.

          Forget Edith Piaf, or the accolade "France's Frank Sinatra": Aznavour is to the Armenians what Barbra Streisand is to the Jews. For Streisand's cross-eyes and big nose, Aznavour has no discernible upper lip and is barely five-feet-three-inches tall. These two simultaneously confirm and absolve every ethnic slur.

          At a low point early in his career, Aznavour had gotten drunk and written a list of his deficits, "My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality ... I am incorrigible … I say ‘merde’ to anybody, however important he is, when I feel like it.” When he sobered up, he realized the only way to succeed would be to channel his shortcomings. In every song you will find his bluntness, his lyricism, his existential grasp that we're always in the process of losing what we love most, his street-savvy arrogance, his small, expressive body and his languid, direct gaze.

          My mother was right; Aznavour was embarrassing and self-indulgent. But he was also shameless and unapologetic, and when he sang to us, when he sang to me, spoke to me in his rich, tremulous, heartbreaking voice, he also spoke for me. Which is a little strange because he was a man in his 40s then, singing songs, mostly in French, about the passing of time, love and grief, how memories mix with desire, but mostly, he sang about sex. He ends his song Toi et Moi, for example, with the words, "Pleasure me, make love to me." I didn't understand the words, but I felt them.

          Singing isn't precisely the word for what he does. He uses his body, as well as props; a cigarette (he smokes while he sings), a white handkerchief, a chair. He turns the chair the wrong way and straddles it, resting his head on the chairback, as if he's too tired to fight it anymore, this woman, these emotions, time itself. He lights a cigarette, exhales smoke, and begins to talk. (In a recent interview, when asked if he thought he was the end of his musical lineage, he answered that rap, when it has the feel of street poetry, is the new chanson.)

          He speaks English with a heavy French accent, and although most of his songs are in French, the one I remember was in English, and the part I remember is when he stops singing, mid-song, and begins to talk to an imagined lover.

          What he does next is incredible—as he's telling his phantom lover how he wants to hold her when they dance, he turns his back on the audience and begins to dance alone, embracing himself, miming the hands of a lover. He murmurs adoring words to himself. While his hand reaches around to caress his shoulder, his hair, the back of his neck, he becomes both lover and beloved. The audience applauds.

          I could barely breathe; my mother called it kitsch.


When we went backstage, cousin Levon sent us to the back of the line so we could stay and chat. I watched women of all ages blush and stammer as Aznavour shook their hands and signed autographs. In the end we approached and stood before him like the wretched before God himself. In the middle of the empty room, under a glaring light, Aznavour was seated on a high stool. It gave him a taller appearance as long as you didn't look down at his dangling feet.

          Aznavour said something in French and Levon handed him a towel. After he rubbed the sweat from his face and hair he tossed the damp towel back to Levon, who made our introductions in English.

          "Speak to me in Armenian," he said to my mother. They were about the same age and though neither had been born in Turkey, both of their parents had been Armenian exiles so Hayeren had been their first language.

          "That's artificial to me," my mother said. "Why should we speak Armenian when can both speak English?"

          "It's not artificial, it's natural. It's only artificial when you make it that way." My mother looked like she wanted to slap him while he, in return, just seemed amused. They understood one another, but they spoke different languages—he continued to speak in Armenian but she answered in English.

          "Do you like my music? Tell me your favorite song?"

          "You're putting me on the spot right now."

          "Yes, I am."

          "I suppose ... Yesterday When I Was Young," she said.

          "And what about you?" he asked me. I answered truthfully that I liked all his songs.

           Aznavour reached over and picked up a record album and a pen from the table beside him and signed the album cover for me. He offered my mother a cigarette and lit both his and hers with a single match. He took his time lighting it.

          "It has been a very great pleasure meeting you," he said in English, extending his hand first to my mother, and then to me. Right away, I slipped my hand into my coat pocket and made a fist, to hold onto his touch.

          As soon as we were in the street, my mother dropped the cigarette and crushed it under her heel.

          "Well, I'm glad that's over with!" she said. "He's so full of himself. I just can't stand men like that."

          That first time I had disagreed with my mother we became complete strangers for a moment—but only I knew that. For the first time, I had a secret. A real secret.


If to love is to recognize yourself in another, then love is both a doubling and a uniting, is both dependent and independent. When a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? When I love and my beloved isn't there, does love exist without that person's presence? Logic has no place in this conversation; besides, we know the answer already.

          Before my mother died, she told me I would find a box of love letters written by my parents to each other before they were married.

          "It will be very interesting for you to read," she had said. "But not now."

          After her death I found the box of letters hidden in a closet. She had labeled the box for me with her customary attention to detail, but I've been afraid to open it without her. My tough, pragmatic mother had been a closet romantic all along. Her unwillingness to share her secret until after she'd reached the relative safety of death makes me feel indescribably lonesome.

          Tonight I drive past the hospital for the first time since my mother died. I would gladly go out of my way to avoid it, as I've been doing for the past three months, but there is no other way to get to my destination. Because dying is pitifully hard, lonely work, we lived out the last eight days of her life in that hospital together. All its windows are lit up now with the suffering of new inhabitants, but this also suggests to me the continuation of my mother's suffering. Her anguish is no less real for me now than it was during her final days. For anyone to say "she's not suffering anymore" is offensive and inaccurate. I drive with a vengeance, tunneling through the air as if I'm mining a world of pain, drilling through solid rock, just to get away.

          After a while, when the hospital recedes and my mood clears, I catch a glimpse of Curt, my first love. Just a flash of him, the same way I flash on Aznavour turning his back. I summon this image of Curt again, and then again, till the sputtering flash of still pictures assembles into a moving reel. I drive through this projection as gladly as a bird flies.

          When I started seeing Curt again a couple of years ago, after decades apart, I'd felt as if a germ had entered my body. I'd wondered if I had the flu. Later, when I began to understand, I told myself it was irrelevant, nothing to be troubled by, that wanting to touch him was as natural as breathing, and had only to do with sex.

          But what better description is there for love than a germ entering the body? To deny love because it's impractical or unrequited is logical, but it's absurd. The world changes, love stays.

          Loving Curt is a curious kind of self-love. The thought of kissing him, which won't happen again in this lifetime, always gives me an exquisite belly ache. I kiss him over and over in every conceivable way, to my heart's content. But my heart is never content and the reel is on an infinite loop.

          I recently overheard a playful conversation between Curt and a lovely Asian girl less than half our age. "Love," he told her, "is a risk worth taking." He is shameless. I was so angry at him, so terribly hurt, but how can I disagree? Pleasure me, make love to me. Or not. Either way, I will love as if my life depends on it. I give myself such pleasure by loving him, although that pleasure is equal to the pain. Love, every kind of love, is always exactly worth its weight in grief. [Applause.]
Aznavour's Les Bons Moments and Dylan's Cover

Aznavour interviews in Armenian.
She starts by asking, "How are you?"
He answers, "I'm tired. But I'm 80, that's to be expected."
Eventually, Aznavour lapses into English.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Magpie


When I let Curt inside, he snickers and tells me he almost picked up some gravel just now on the way up the path. Every night for years Curt used to come to my parents' house after dark and throw pebbles at my window, and every night I crept downstairs and let him in. More than once he scaled the chimney and climbed in through my bedroom window, more than 20 years ago.

          Curt sits down at the dining room table and strokes one of my mother's slim Siamese cats. They're mine now, along with the house, since my mother died last year. At first the cats stayed in my mother's room, just meowing and waiting for her return. Now they follow me around.

          Curt's 6'4 and although it's something I love about him, I always forget just what a giant he is until he's up close. The ceiling is too low; he's too big for my flimsy chairs and wobbly dining table. He overwhelms the crowded, messy room. I love it.

          He pets one of my mother's cats and tells me that in Australia his mother had a very large cat until recently. It was fond of preying on magpies, which are about the same size as cats. Even after the cat grew old and slowed down, it still chased the birds. But then one day it was devoured by magpies. First they picked out the cat's eyes, Curt says, and then they picked the rest of it clean.

          Curt smiles at me awhile, massaging the neck of my mother's cat, whose blue eyes close with pleasure.

          I experience his love most keenly when he punishes me; it's taken me some time to remember our routine, to remember that's why he's here. Nothing as pedestrian as physical violence or even sex. We start off gently, slowly. He is charming and attentive, a true gentleman. When he disappears, as cleanly as a soap bubble, I wait him out. Because when he reappears, he's always a step closer. Until he's inside my head.

          A psychologist wrote somewhere that other people are only real for us when they are frustrating, which could explain why opposites attract, and why the divorce rate is so high. So I could excuse myself because I'm hardwired. I think of everything about him that drives me nuts—he's uncompromising, he's moody and judgmental, he's obsessive, dismissive, selfish, bombastic, unpredictable—and then I picture his face at it's most contemptuous. All I want then is to kiss him into submission, to make him laugh, or come, or love.

          The Australian Magpie is one of the few animal species able to recognize its own reflection in a mirror. No wonder it gouges out the eyes of its prey.




Saturday, March 8, 2014

How to Polish the Mirror


If you could get rid of yourself just once,
The secret of secrets would open to you.
The face of the unknown, hidden beyond the universe
Would appear on the mirror of your perception.
~Rumi

And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.”
~Confucius

Phenomenology is a con ... we think we can do it but it is impossible!
~Gifted existential therapist

It's not easy to get out of our own way. As soon as something enters our perception it becomes assimilated, like food or air, and we are no longer distinctly separate from it. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Does anything exist independently? While the conditions for sound may exist in the forest, if there's no ear within earshot, there's only the concept of sound. How real is an idea? And how real is that idea without a thinker to ponder it?

          Contemplating the great philosophical and spiritual questions is always like falling through the looking glass, if you're doing it right. The world is no longer as it seems, nor are we, and any apprehension of 'reality' or 'truth' is short-lived as you tumble into new understandings, misunderstandings, and more questions. 

          A respected existential therapist I know has tried explaining phenomenology to me, to no avail. When he explains the philosopher Edmund Husserl's idea of 'bracketing' we both end up in fits of laughter, dabbing tears from our eyes. The distinction between consciousness and phenomena (or Us versus The Material, Sensual World) is only possible, Husserl contends, to the extent that we are able to 'bracket' all assumptions about the existence of an external world. I imagine patiently peeling away the layers of an onion till I observe its innermost core of nothingness—except there's no end of layers and patience eventually turns to panic. The truth is, if there's still a self left with which to observe, bracket, or peel, then you're not done bracketing.

          I'm sure a gaggle of philosophers could easily argue against me here—and I'm pretty sure I've got a lot of my facts wrong—but I think self-awareness is probably an oxymoron.There's no fixed self we can pin down, just a changeling we only partly apprehend at any given moment before it morphs into something different. Husserl says, "We would be in a nasty position indeed if empirical science were the only kind of science possible." But isn't he also making an excellent case for the supremacy of subjectivity? Was there a touch of irony when Husserl, the father of phenomenology, bestowed the process of 'phenomenological bracketing' with the fanciful name epoché, alluding to the ancient Greek Skeptics' notion of abstaining from belief? Is doubt the opposite of belief, or is doubt the only valid belief?

          Husserl's concept of epoché is probably as much at odds with empirical (inferior) science as it is with theoretical (idealized) science. If it is true that wisdom always leaves room for doubt, then scientific conclusions, whether empirical or theoretical, are probably bullshit. Believers and atheists are equally suspect; only the agnostic deserves our respect.

          But I flatter myself shamelessly now, since by nature I doubt everything; my only certainty is that we can be sure of nothing because it's obvious we can't know what we don't know. Most people confuse doubt with stupidity, but that's only because they're too stupid or insecure to explore doubt as a viable option.

          I'm full of self-doubt (the highest form of self-flattery). Most recently, since the death of my mother, I've been exhuming my guilt feelings and examining all their microscopic detail. But at what point do I stop? I could peel that onion for the rest of my life and never even come close to the blank essence at its center. In a lightning strike of self-doubt, I start to wonder if guilt is just a distraction from the blank futility that's central to what it means to be mortal. I am nothing without my brackets. The nearer I come to that truth, the more distracted I tend to become.

         Around the time I began to contemplate what I am without [fill in the blank]—without my mother, without my job, without my house, without my friends, without my youth, without my kids, without my books to read, without writing or readers, without passion—I was throwing myself at a (very polite) man who has absolutely no interest in me. As I proceed to abase myself, I detect the queasy tingle of déjà vu, and then I get really reckless. I hear myself and I sound drunk, but I'm not. I remind myself of a lecherous old perv, and that makes me even more reckless. I'm not thinking, but if I were, I might be coaching myself to take absurd risks to feel truly alive.

          But I don't think and I take no risks. Humiliation, horny self-pity, and humor distract me from the empty heart, the futility at the center of everything. Again and again, I rush to fill up the little void—fill it before it consumes me like a black hole. It can be filled up with anything—food, booze, sex, drugs, obsession of all kinds—but most readily it fills with anxiety.

          Optimism is a trait some people are born with, but it can also be a choice. Two thousand years before Husserl contemplated phenomena and consciousness, Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." This way of understanding Us versus The Material, Sensual World can answer so many of our troubling questions about the world and our place in it while offering a sense of hope and empowerment.

          Not being an optimist by nature, though, I'm afraid of depriving myself of the organic reflex of doubting. Buddha's words do offer comfort, but for a person of my temperament, they also suggest the need to repress my feelings, moods, and questions and replace my habitual angst with a brainwashing formula. Hypnotism, affirmations, and mantras can reverse our cravings and overcome habitual negativity, and perhaps offer us happiness, but at what cost? Isn't happiness and peace worth everything—including refraining from doubt? Ask anyone who's suffered from debilitating depression or suicidal ideation and he'll tell you, "Antidepressants saved my life—I don't care about the cost, whether in terms of sacrificing my authentic identity or my dwindling bank account." But to reprogram oneself to be happy by abolishing negative thoughts feels at least very a little like self-denial and, at worst, a kind of metaphysical suicide.

          Like Phenomenology and Buddhism, Islam also recommends a kind of thought control, in the form of prayer. Mohammed said, "There is a polish for everything that takes away rust; and the polish of the heart is zikr, the invocation of God." Zikr, which is translated as 'remembrance' or 'invocation,' is often a silent form of devotion in which the the name of Allah or his attributes is repeated over and over throughout the day. Sufis, in this way, fill the void with prayer.

          The Sufi master Al-Ghazali wrote, "Dear friend, your heart is a polished mirror. You must wipe it clean of the veil of dust that has gathered upon it, because it is destined to reflect the light of divine secrets." It makes sense that to fully eliminate the filth we must first acknowledge it, and perhaps even gain some compassionate understanding of our negativity.

          The oldest holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died last week at the age of 110, had something to add to the conversation. She was a pianist who had spent many years in a showcase concentration camp designed to distract the public from the starvation, gas chambers and all the myriad atrocities taking place on a grand scale under the Nazis. The lives of professional musicians and prodigies were spared only because of their talent, so they could give death camps the deceptive appearance of being civilized.

          Music saved Alice spiritually as well as physically; it was an experience of freedom and beauty that could not be taken from her. Even if she had been forbidden to play the piano, Alice said, she could always silently invoke the music of Chopin, hear it in her mind, and be moved by its beauty.

          "Even the bad is beautiful," she said. "It has to be." For Alice, then, the void was always filled with music, as it can be for all of us, if we choose it.


“In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die: 
Ever drifting down the stream- Lingering in the golden gleam- Life, what is it but a dream?” 
~Lewis Carroll

“Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you.” 
~Lewis Carroll