Friday, December 24, 2010
A Christmas Tree Memory
We have Truman Capote's Christmas tree in our living room.
It is about two feet high and covered with ornaments that were last placed on it by his own hands, sometime before his death in 1984. How it came to us is a long story, but we did not steal the tree, nor did we just find it laying around in some Sotheby's auction catalog and decide we just couldn't live without it. It was given to us.
It's been sitting on top of our china cabinet for about a week, and it has suffused the house with a subtle, charming, mystery. It feels like it's trying to tell us something, impart some meaning... but what that quite is is difficult to tease out. We know very little about Truman's private life and we don't know anything about who gave him the ornaments (some of them inscribed with first names and years) or why they were chosen. We don't know what rooms this tree has graced, what people have looked upon it, or how many Christmases in how many cities it has seen.
It's Truman's tree. A great writer. A cultural icon. A man we never knew. And for some reason, his tree is in our room.
It seems, oddly, a fitting ending to a most remarkable year. This year saw huge shifts of power in my life. Three major areas of my life changed radically, and painfully, with more stress than I've experienced since the mid-70's when I first was on my own. For most of the year the stresses compounded upon themselves, never having the grace to come at me in single waves. I was nearly always battling on two or more fronts, in addition to trying to maintain my normal roles of wife, mother, and faithful corporate employee.
The areas of these three power shifts were, oddly enough, all family related. The balance of power tipped between me and a father figure, between me and my mother, and between me and my ex-husband, which resulted in a balance of power tipping between my children and their father. There were seismic shifts all across the board, above and below, plots and twists of Shakespearean scope and Greek archetype playing out, betrayals and failings and heroism and defeat.
The difference of where I was at the beginning of this year as opposed to where I am at the end, is vast. I am now a trusted financial adviser for my opera company. I am now a trusted financial adviser for my mother. I have just barely survived a huge legal battle that has resulted in a long-overdue formalization of roles and responsibilities between my ex-husband, myself, and our children. Apparently it was my year to finally have my voice heard. To engage in adult undertakings. To get beaten up like an official contender.
And yet despite all this, most of the time it felt like the worst year ever. It has taken a huge toll on me physically. I've never felt so old or run down, and it felt for awhile like I was getting sick just about every other day. But when I look at it in kind of global terms... looking at what the state was at the beginning of the year versus now... I see that the daily stresses were really representing bigger shifts afoot. They were symptoms of larger adjustments that probably also had something to do with my getting married last year, and (going further back) nearly dying a year and a half before that. Like concentric circles rippling outward. I thought I had gotten plenty grown up a long time ago. But apparently there are always more hills to climb, more growth to be pushed through.
Truman's tree is a fitting grace note to all this upheaval. There are so many unknowns contained within these little green branches that it seems to exist simply to add mystery and grace. It coming into our lives has reminded us that serendipity still exists. That surprise is still not only possible, but inevitable. Things can change in a heartbeat and you can go from the plodding footsteps of despair to angel wings with a knock on the door.
So that's what I'd like to share with you on this Christmas Eve. The battles you may be going through could possibly be part of something larger, something ultimately beneficial, some painful kind of growth that it is now your time to endure. But remember that surprise can come at any moment. And we never know what wonderment will come at us through the switchbacks of fate.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 6:10 PM 1 comments
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
Aristotle, by Billy CollinsThis is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her, your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.
This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unsolders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall
too much to name, too much to think about.
And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair, and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 6:04 PM 1 comments
Friday, December 03, 2010
Gods and human beings.
All throwing shapes,
Every one of them
Convinced he's in the right;
All of them glad to repeat themselves
And their every last mistake
No matter what.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 8:01 PM 2 comments
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Ruby SlippersAnd then, there's this.
Two nights in a row. Unable to sleep more than about three hours. I drift off gratefully, sweetly. The blackness of sleep is thick upon me. And then... something happens. The dog, usually. Or something. I wake up, holding onto my dreams, as if they are breadcrumbs leading me back to that promised land. I let the dog out. I let him back in. And then I crawl back into bed.
My mind starts to click off, my body starts to relax. And then...
The stories start. The stories of my life. The schedules and lists, the teeming people, each with their own voice, clamoring for center stage. Snippets of my past, my present, my imagined future drift in and out, a montage of characters and interactions. The consummate rewriter, I work with each little scenario, compulsively. I move someone over to this side of the stage, I change motivations. I see how it plays out this way, then that. Over and over. Until the setting changes and a new scenario begins.
And as I was doing this for the past three hours, for the second night in a row, a few new thoughts started peering out from the wings. Thoughts about actual stories, things I could write. Instead of going down corridors and losing myself in alleyways of the past and present, I found myself transported, briefly, to fictional paths, with new faces and voices and scenes.
I remembered the truth that I came up with a few years ago in the hospital. That there are three main things in life; the three elements that absolutely matter the most. And they have a hierarchy: the body is the most important as, without it, there's not much to work with any more; our friends and family and connections who give us the most amount of happiness and joy, keep us grounded, save us in time of need; and finally, there's art. The consuming and production of it. The art, whether music or theatre or dance or words or crafting cabinetry or painting walls, the art is the thing that ties it all together. The art is the component of meaning. The art transports.
And suddenly I realized, again, that even though life seems very bleak in the dark hours when the veil is thin, the magic of that third element is always with us. Always with me. I can always summon the gods of art and beseech them to bestow their magic once again. The gods are always present and will always serve when called.
The gods, the muses, the art... it's like Dorothy's ruby slippers. Something I forget I have at my command. Something I use functionally, unthinkingly, forgetting its underlying power. And every once in awhile, in a small moment of grace, I remember that there's something else available to me in this world of lists and turmoil and responsibilities. There are those magic slippers. There is the ability to turn to that part of me that creates and say "There's no place like home, there's no place like home."
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 4:59 AM 1 comments