"what is it
they say can turn even this into wisdom
and what is wisdom if it is not
in the loss that has not left this place"
W.S. Merwin, "The Indifferent Stars"
As I last foresaw on this blog, I did make off to Vermilion, Ohio last week to write in a beach house there, just across the street from where I lived my first year out of college. The weather was perfect, mid-seventies and sunny, I wrote mornings, walked afternoons, read evenings, just like summer had been in 1973. With one exception. I did not have the dark cloud of depression and suicidal thoughts hanging over me, not even on Sunday, when it rained all day.
And as I was walking the mile and a half to the library, as I did often 1972-3, feeling rather content, as it seemed I never felt back 40 years ago here, W.S. Merwin's poem "The Different Stars" came to me, nearly whole:
...pain having gone from there
so that we may well wonder
looking back on us here what tormented us
what great difficulty invisible
in a time that by then looks simple
and is irrevocable
pain having come from there...
What was all that pain about then, I wondered, looking down River Road, where I had actually considered just plunging my car off the edge two specific afternoons. What was the deal?
When I graduated in the summer of 1972, I had wanted to come back home, but I could not get the job I wanted. My local school board had interviewed me, and I thought the interview had gone great, then I heard nothing. Eventually, a former teacher told me the new (and short-lived) superintendent had thought my skirt was too short. I was devastated, having spent four years of college getting a five-year degree with honors in two majors and a secondary teaching certificate when I could have just bought a longer dress!
And I had to take a job two hours away from home in a rural farm community. The kids were great, but most of my co-workers mistrusted me as the only person not "from there." The curriculum was appallingly bad and boring and there weren't enough textbooks to go around, so I bought books and wrote my own curriculum to cover the district's and still do my own thing.
I taught well: two of my Spanish students placed in the top three in the state tests that spring. And I just loved my students. I started a Spanish Club and when the kids taking German felt bad they didn't have a German Club, we made it a "Culture Club" and went caroling in German and Spanish. We had a paella dinner and drove to German Village in Columbus for lunch. I was sophomore class advisor. We read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, and they helped me pick a trash bag full of dandelion flowers to make dandelion wine. The head of curriculum showed up to observe my class unannounced and said it was the most exciting he had ever seen.
And back in my own life, I had found this great apartment right on Lake Erie, in Vermilion, which itself was not all that friendly of a place, but I had the beach and the seagulls and a great walk to the library. And I appreciated all of that.
But I overworked myself to the point of exhaustion, and I was lonely. I tried joining a theater group, which just became a monthly gripe-about-Vermilion session. I had my one friendly colleague and her family to dinner on Friday evening. And after they left, I felt so bereft, I took a whole lot of pills and alcohol...which I slept off and woke, the next afternoon, quite surprised by the beauty of the very late afternoon sunshine.
Looking back on me there, I do wonder what tormented me so, as Merwin says, what great difficulty invisible plagued me? Merwin is talking about the breakup of a relationship, but it certainly applied and applies to the breakdown of my psyche just then. I can say "exhaustion," I can say, "loneliness," but really I have been just as tired and lonely since then and did not feel so very desperate as I did in my early twenties.
It may be that the answer to Merwin's question, "What is it...can turn even this into wisdom" is just "go on, live your life, don't die. Choose life. I guess it didn't hurt that I found the poetry of Adrienne Rich to read alongside Plath and Sexton and those great lines of hers:
..all the time nursing, measuring that wound.
Well, that's finished. The woman who cherished
her suffering is dead. I am her descendant.
I love the scar-tissue she handed on to me,
but I want to go on from here with you
fighting the temptation to make a career of pain.
(from 21 Love Poems)
This past week, I walked across the bridge at McGarvey's Landing, and I saw that pain has gone from there. The house I stayed in last weekend had a plaque above the kitchen sink that said, "And they lived happily ever after."