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now. . . reflecting

When a person is alive, other people form their versions of the person, but the versions are anchored and countermanded by the living presence. When a person dies, though, the versions are suddenly freed. Memorials burble with narrative activity as everyone tells their story of the dead person—tells, retells, combines, refines, and engages in narrative contest, striving to tell the “true” story of the dead.

I have mixed feelings about this. I understand why we do it, I understand the deep need to have a version of the dead person to take with us, as well as the need to wrap up, to finalize our version of the dead person at their death, so as not to lose them. It’s narrative, or rather conventional narrative, that I resist. Living people are full of contradiction. Let me go further: we are animated by our contradictions. Those knots, I’m-selfish-but-I-need-to-love, I-follow-rules-but-I’m-a-rebel, those knots compel us onward, underlying our pivots, creating the shimmer of life on our surfaces. But it takes a skilled narrativist to include contradiction, and most of us are not that. Most of us tell stories about the dead that are really more about our needs.

Is that a bad thing? Children, I think, have special narrative rights over parents. For those of us with children, our children are likely to be the people most invested in our memory and most in need of it; we are their heroes, their monsters, and taking that narrative authority over us marks a powerful stage for them. I’ve seen this with both my parents. My father never used to talk about his father at all, but gradually something shifted. By the time he began to celebrate Russ Darst Day (observed with a martini on January 11, if you’re inclined), he had formed a version of his dad that allowed him to appreciate, sympathize with, even have some fun with a difficult and unfulfilled man.

For myself, I try to hold the contradictions. A friend and a former colleague—and a reader of this newsletter—died a few weeks ago. My friend was right there to be met, she was the farthest thing from a fake, even as she held secret her greatest struggle; traditional to her marrow and deeply restless, devoted to KISS and her church, she kept her questions alive.

now. . . reading

The Care Collective, The Care Manifesto (Verso)
Like all the Verso Pamphlets, The Care Manifesto is a fast read, one of these quick books that offer the reader just-in-time assistance in taking up her critique of modern life. In fact, to be honest with you, I hardly remember reading it. Either it spoke what was already in me or it immediately became what was in me.

What’s sticking with me now, though, is the issue of training in care. We learn in a crash course how to care for people thrust upon us: babies, the elderly. But outside the emergency, so many of us know so little. I noticed the other day that while my daughter is still ensconced in babydom, my son is slipping from me—I’m losing my repertoire of soothing touches for him, and he’s becoming “ticklish,” or shy of touch, for reasons at once obvious and obdurate. How can I reach him now?

Once, reading about bedtime routines on some parents’ forum, I came across one family whose routine for their baby included a nightly rubdown with coconut oil. I’ve thought of this since and wondered when that practice ended, and what distances replaced it. I heard a woman at work once tell how she liked to rub her teenage son’s head, and it struck me as such an assertion of the mother’s prerogative, to touch that way beyond the baby years. To touch a half-grown boy as we touch babies—with no ulterior motive and an assumption that babies like to be touched. Babies like to be touched. Teenage boys like to be touched? Nor is this limited to children. Could I give a friend a hand massage, apropos of nothing? Even between couples, touch is suspect because the default is that touch intends arousal.

The critique unfolds at once, but as keeps happening in this newsletter, being able to analyze your trouble does not bring freedom from it. I want How to Wash Feet, 101. How to Anoint with Oil. How to Give Care, and as important, How to Receive.

now. . . listening

Clara Luciani, Coeur * Julie London * Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue * Anouar Braham * Norah Jones * Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (so, so good; go back to it if you havent in a while) * Dua Lipa in the car if youd rather dance than cry

now. . . living

I’ve had this persistent feeling during the later pandemic that I’m not a person anymore. I used to recognize myself in transit; I existed as a central sliver that I carried about from one situation to the next. Now I am never in transit between aspects; all my aspects live in one place, overlapping. Never in transit with myself, I am unable to recognize a self.

Recently I ran across the idea of a dividual (as opposed to individual) self in Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air, and it resonated with me. Roughly, a dividual self is not extractible from her social relations, her situations. She doesn’t exist or pretend to exist as an essence. Not that she’s inconsistent, but she lacks a private redoubt of selfhood.

There must be billions of people in the world who don’t have in-between time to recognize a self. My old concept of myself, that was sort of a luxury. My mother described feeling something similar in her early years of motherhood—only it was sexism, not a global pandemic, that precipitated her crisis.

Beside which—fuck it, am I right? Who even cares who I used to be. A leaf on the wind. The used-tos, by now those seem to belong to a totally different person, an alternate course as far from this one as the idle daydream of having attended a different undergraduate college. The beforetimes! Those people we used to be, as impossible now as unicorns.

The question, I guess, is who—or how—we will be now.

now. . . writing

After some deep struggle in my writing—not unrelated, in fact intimately related to my struggles as a “person”—I finally stumbled on a form that (when I have time to write) can serve as an envelope for the disparate noticings and feelings and incidents that are my mind at the moment: the sonnet. Why not? Stretched out by centuries of wear, patched and rent and mended, the sonnet offers a lot of help, a series of waystations for the weary traveler, which is how I approach the octet, the sextet, and the volta, rather than as so many twists in my high dive. I’m not striving for mastery here; I’m occupying the sonnet like you might a bed in a hostel—the very narrowness tells me when to get up.

Amid a beginning

She was telling me about her fertility journey, as another friend calls it,
& how there comes a time in a woman’s life when (I hate this beginning)
her egg supply drops off dramatically, and she said,  “And that has happened”
in a clear voice—it was so hard to hear and how could it be, anyway,
that this magical power we mostly did nothing but hold
could shrivel and turn to dust, fail us,
without ever having been invoked—for her, at all, for me, twice only—
if I had an ability and with it I made a family, well that was gone now.

Now I have been trying to learn how to touch
without harm or question or return
could hold the turning of your life in my fingertips
through any stroke shifting the nerve from thrust to pulse, let it happen
that you supply yourself from the spiral of this contact, beginning
ever over again to mother from the other side.

now. . . baking

I’m late to the sourdough fad, I know; everyone else has already made their perfect loaf and dehydrated their starter and stowed it in the freezer. But have you tried sourdough flatbread? Or sourdough chocolate cake (in our house, finished with powdered sugar and smoked salt instead of frosting and fondly called Nobody’s Birthday Cake)? Sourdough rolls? The real wonder of sourdough is how it allows a home baker to produce moist yet marvelously lofty baked goods. Send me your favorites. And if you’re local, let me know if you want a bit of “mother.”

now (& again). . . reflecting

While I was home in Tallahassee recently, I helped my dad go through his mother’s papers. Born in 1916, Josephine came from another world. She alluded to it at times—her high school dance revues, her mother’s house in West Palm Beach (still, then, a place where a middle-class family could live)—but she never made much attempt to explain herself. Her papers were the same—photos with a scratch or nothing on the back; letters kept but mostly not bundled, certainly not annotated; her own teenage scrapbooks so bare we weren’t totally sure who that olive-skinned girl with the slick bob was. It frustrated me when I was younger that Jo cared so little about being in common with us, but now, now I have a certain respect for the attitude of untranslatability, even if it’s mostly not mine. She wasn’t up to communicating herself; she didn’t care to try and fail. And so, she’s gone, and what we wouldn’t understand with her.
Not my grandmother here but her aunt Amy Lee Harris. I love her faraway look.
with the memory of Nancy Hillsman
Copyright © 2021 Lightsey Darst writing, All rights reserved.

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