‘I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.’ —Shakespeare’s Richard II (III.iii.171)
‘Everyone is ordinary.’ —Terence McKenna
This morning, a scene as common as dreaming yourself naked in a public square, only less anxious-making and, like nudity for some, concerned with liberation. If only I’d slept longer. While most people with upbringings like mine dream it in their late twenties or early thirties, here I am, pushing sixty. I’m teaching my students the medieval politics of the The King’s Two Bodies. Richard the Second serves as our model. One of his bodies is natural, which is to say ‘corporeal’ and ‘mortal.’ The other, the body politic, is pristine, mystical, positively eternal. A phone rings an antiquated ring and, passing amid not a few ardent essayists and at least two furtive chess players waging war on their devices, I start for the back of the room to pick up. Only it’s sixty boys now, writing out my rote description of the body politic as the same body passing from king to king—an animating spirit to make kingships Christic—thus rendering the body natural impervious to any defect of age or illness that could mess things up for him. The voice on the phone belongs to my old friend Tim Kane. “Ivo,” it says, “You gotta come down here and get your dad. He’s making everyone uncomfortable.” Of my late father I say for the first time ever, “I’m not going anywhere, Tim,” and I mean it. “Do you hear what I’m saying?” When he doesn’t answer, I say it again: “Tell him what I told you. I’m not coming for him until I’m done here, and maybe not then either.” Silence. “Tell me you understand,” I say. “Say it back to me, Tim. I need to hear you say it. Tim?”
I’m not blaming Nancy. It’s tempting, but I won’t. To blame her would be to poison the air. It would be not so much to poison the air as to blow my cover. May no one’s cover be blown tonight. May the air we breathe remain fresh and ample.
I’m not dancing with Nancy. It’s tempting, if for no other reason than to mirror someone good at letting go. I’ve always wanted to be better at letting go, but to dance with Nancy would blow my cover and lead people to think I was mocking her. This is not the night for imitating a wild nature. I must never mock Nancy for her wildness. One may or may not fall in love with Nancy, but one mustn’t be seen to mock her.
I am not playing the blame game or doing a blame dance with Nancy. I will dance near her. Everyone dances near everyone in intimate clubs. This club falls somewhere between intimate and dispersed, as it is less a club and more a dance hall lit like a club. It is dispersed enough for me to spin self-consciously in Nancy’s general vicinity without her taking me for anyone other than a relative stranger. I will incorporate a number of generic spin-moves into a dance style some dub dull and others dub idiosyncratic, making Nancy but one of say thirty people I spot with each rotation. My gaze will sweep the dance floor like a searchlight with no incentive to shine a light on any one person. This is of course nonchalance deconstructed. I could spare myself such details if they didn’t help me piece together a sad story about where on the spectrum of knowing someone I land with Nancy.
I will not rest with Nancy after hours of vigorous dancing, but I will rest when she rests and close my eyes for a moment to thank God I am able-bodied. I will rest on my own and once rested I will rise. In the time span of a breath, I will look at Nancy one last time and take a mental snapshot of her as I turn and walk away. I will greet the temptation to look back at her with the picture in my mind. Because it is realistic and unromantic, and because it captures her looking happy, she might not mind my having it.
On my way home, I will not contemplate Nancy in any other way than one contemplates the unknowable life of a person just being. ‘I saw her,’ I will tell her brother Mel, and I will collect my fifty dollars. ‘She’s dancing the night away as we speak. In my informed opinion, she will return home tired and without blame, and she will appear, I suspect, well rested.’
Just because you feel unworthy doesn’t make it so. Yes, the feelings are there. No one denies you’re having them. But when they lead you to this sense of self-annihilation, they are reliable only insofar as one can say with confidence that our illusions control us. The big ego you get when you do something spectacular like beating out gold into a bowl or a ritual mask, or casting tin-bronze into ingots to smith into bracelets, derives from your fear not so much of feeling as being worthless. Funny how that works. When we stop doubting ourselves, the illusion dissipates to show us that the Self is no power monger. But your suspicion that you are a failed Cyclops creeps back in, doesn’t it? You again try to prove your uniqueness by heaving a boulder or scaring the crap out of a wayward adventurer. You rule out (without consciously ruling anything out) that the man you waylay on his way home to his wife and children has his own inner turmoil. Forgive yourself for this by thinking of it now and and taking no action whatsoever. Know that like everyone else you are an original, modest and true, with your famous brow and bulging eye to blink away the grime of daily living. If you have begun to suspect that you are one-eyed by reputation alone, let it in like letting light in, while paying attention to your inner Cyclops and your growing desire, in the parlance of shrinks and neurologists, to re-groove your brain. Whisper to yourself now as your mother whispered then, “Stop worrying.”
It was to be a win/win but not so perfect a one as to mean the same quality of win for each contestant. It was to be not so lopsided a win/win either, as is often the case with wins of this nature, but would yoke together into a single standing one win from the past and one promised a future winner.
The past winner, whose exuberance exasperated the field like a manic child, was not only used to winning, but she was the most mature marksman on the circuit. As with all (what we used to call) Type A Personalities, and I know I’m one, she treated every stage of training and the contest itself like a literary death match. Incidentally, she was a coder by trade, who saw code as the national literature.
The future winner, who was the usual loser, and whose wins were somehow always misplaced before they could become part of the permanent record, expected the whole thing to be called off at the last minute. She was, after all, not meant to win but must stand as an object of contemplation for those who felt time passing too insistently. A mid career language arts teacher, she envied those coders their mortgages while loving her students the more their sublimated dramas.
Though this usual loser was awkward with her rifle compared to the usual winner, always the artful shooter, she could persuade herself in her cinematic daydreams that she was a legend in the secret hearts of spectators or, wrapping herself in green, lapse backwards into greenery to weep there, suspicious of her admirers’ sincerity. But not really. She was a Citizen of the West, after all, who had not a lot of money but enough to get by on. Her game face included a little rouge for lips and cheekbones, while the usual winner animated her face with intricate scenes of people doing yard work and pushing shopping carts and leaning down to tie a child’s shoelace. Probably autobiographical. She made herself up with the conviction that all actions had a spiritual motive behind them not unlike a soft hammer driving down on soft metal heads. This is not a praise-be-to-god thing I’m describing but something more elemental.
If this speedy improvisation suggests an easy winner, I don’t mean it to. I don’t follow the sport. I know not one contestant personally. I am no sports writer but really (what we used to call) a diarist. If it seems like the usual loser (future winner) should be the one with the pretty tableaux painted across her face, I’m practicing writing against type. If the past winner is off-putting for being egotistical, I will defend her to the hilt because she reminds me of my twin sister, Gina. She too champions chipping away at the myth of mediocrity. “This is a crucial message,” she’s always telling me, “even if you don’t know you’re sending or receiving it: Everyone is incredible.”
Such a sentiment reminds me of the time I trudged up an endless hill to see what all the fuss was about. I was leaning on my stick to steady myself, when my shortness of breath reminded me of the brevity of life. Suddenly everything around me came into sharp focus and every texture (stepping through ice-crusted snow) and odor (pine forest) intensified. The past and future winners were present and, sad to say, at each other’s throats. I’d never before experienced a moment of such clarity, and I haven’t since. It transformed even the athletes’ bickering into a work of nature. O sister, how beautiful the sounds of funny people bitterly complaining!
The poem “Gentle Readers” appears on page 23 of my new book of poems Too Bright to See (Simi Press 2021). Unfortunately, it appears as “Gentile Readers.” This poem is not about people who are or are not Jewish. It is about gentleness. Future copies of the book will carry the corrected poem.
Two young friends read a single book at the same time, together. One of them sits at a table while the other stands behind him, reading over his shoulder. The problem is that the one who is sitting is both a much faster reader and the one who turns the pages. The problem is solved without a word spoken. The one sitting rereads passages, while the slower of the two, so as to match his friend’s pace exactly, only pretends he is reading. He prefers the closeness of his friend to the unfolding story.