Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Dead or The Not Dead Yet

Dear James Joyce,

I have squeaked through yet another Yule season, I think. It is Saturday and tomorrow is the last Sunday of Epiphany. So I am near.

The book jacket of Dubliners talks about your use of the negative epiphany. I suppose this year hinted at a bit of that, but as far as that goes, I have not quite concluded my revery, like Gabriel in The Dead, deciding whether to turn my back to the window and the falling snow, or face it, since the snow is so general.

What is it that these holiday times reveal in a burst of laughter, in a slice of goose, in a stamp of galoshed feet? And what makes us turn, if we do, to the Gabriels of our better selves and speak with a kinder word than we had intended, to seek that something which may take us, well, through another year?

If the catholicism of Ireland was the gayly wrapped vocabulary you received beneath the Christmas pines of your youth, then mine is the talk of fundamental protestantism. For you, the Trappists tucked at night in their coffins held mythic content. For me, not so much.

I listened to my mother chat with my friend M., mom quite unable to gain the revelation that M. might indeed be seeking authentic spirituality.
"I went on a silent retreat. No one talks, except if they choose to enter a speaking room."
"Why would they do that?"
"We retreat from the confusion and sensory overload of our world."
Later she explained to me, "When I think about spiritual things, I have to talk with someone about it."
No epiphany, negative or otherwise, here.

Yet there were moments of light, father watching the birds and the river from the panel of glass in our kitchen rather than the "dog grooming channel" on television. There were glimmers of the new, a fresh, 17 day baby in my arms, resting, resting, unaware of the either the the palaver or hullabaloo. There were mentions of the old, reverently, as you say, "and if they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least, that in gatherings such as this we shall still speak of them with pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone great ones whose fame the world will not willingly let die." For me the great ones are those who taught me to fix rye bread and pickled herring, who began the tradition of gift tags that make us laugh. (Who would have thought that Blue Man Group would remember my husband with such a nice gift this year?)

And you, James, set the back drop for the end of my year, with the stories of the good folks from Dublin. Enough for more than one epiphany.

Now, another year, and I am glad I'm not dead. Not yet. Nor am I paralyzed, I hope, either by tradition or cold. Not paralyzed by past or tradition, but very grateful for them and waiting with anticipation for more.



Chic Wilson-Bayler said...

Well written! Here is an excerpt from Pigone's "The Ugly" where catholics have become protestants and Gabriell has become Gabriella, but it's still snowing.

"—Very, said Gabby, but above all she was a dedicated mother. The greatest sadness in my life is that she is not alive for me to thank her for what I have become. I might have surprised her.

The others all laughed.

—How did she meet Giles? asked Tish.

—She worked in a coffee shop where Giles was a regular. He ate the same breakfast every morning, sitting in the same bar stool, with the same paper, and the same waitress – my mother. She knew little about him, though she'd seen him park his Ferrari in the lot.

—I think it was a Maserati, said Elisabeth.

—Well it wasn't a VW, said Gabby laughing. Anyway, one day Giles, after a year of "the usual" breakfasts, completely out of the blue, with a fork of eggs still in his mouth, asked my mother out. And she just stood there staring at his ring. Once he'd explained that he was at the end of a divorce she said yes.

—How romantic, said Tish.

—Amen, said Gabriella. So she went out and bought a killer dress, which, believe me, meant putting a dent in the cookie jar. She had him pick her up at the coffee shop 'cause she didn't want him to see how we lived – or perhaps that she had two kids. The other waitresses were green with envy when she got into his car.

They all laughed at the thought of it.

—But Giles loves children. It wouldn't have mattered to him, said Elisabeth.

—He was taking her to Delmonico's, continued Gabby. And, well, you can just imagine her sitting next to him in that car with that dress barely – she had legs, let me tell you – and just looking and smelling so good. Giles could have run over half a dozen pedestrians and never known it.

Gabby did a little pantomime of Giles driving like a fool, staring at her mother.

—At the restaurant, when the cocktail waitress came over to get their drink orders and mom looked up from the menu, all she could see was her dress – the very same dress on the waitress – it was, like, their uniform – and Tory – she died. She told Giles she had to go to the ladies and she ran out the back door and walked home in her heels – four miles – crying all the way. The next day Giles got her number from the coffee shop, called her up and asked her to marry him. And he didn't balk when she told him about me and Conny."

brd said...

I must get hold of Pigone's piece. I read about it, but I haven't read it. Isn't life, um.m.m, real. Thanks for the excerpt.

cadh 8 said...

I didn't quite get the negative epiphany stuff...maybe I need to read the book. But I like what you said about the traditions and memories of people staying with us. You know, I almost did regular tags this year, thinking people must get tired of the silly and confusing things I put on their gifts. But when I went to do the tags, I just could not help it. Blue Man Group, as well as the dogs, and the Yule log and others all just came out as givers of gifts. Fun times!

brd said...

I think that the idea of a negative epiphany is a sudden realization that is in some way negative. . . perhaps seeing or understanding ones own weaknesses.

Joyce gives a definition of epipany in a piece entitled Stephen Hero. It's part of a conversation between Hero and Cranly.

"By an epiphany he meant 'a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany. Cranly questioned the inscrutable dial of the Ballast Office with his no less inscrutable countenance." . . .
"I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin's street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany.

"Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. It is just in this epiphany that I find the third, the supreme quality of beauty."

The protagonist in "The Dead", the story I'm referring to (Gabriel) is a lovely and extremely introspective character whose epiphany, if revealing a failing of sorts, is filled with kindness and potential for growth.

cadh 8 said...

I understand now. I was thinking of the word "negative" in more the sense of "absence" or "removal" like negative space or negative reinforcement. But I see now what you mean.

I was thinking this morning of Grandma not "getting" the silent retreat as described by your friend. But it is funny to me because she takes such silent retreats on a daily basis, sitting in her blue chair under the natural light of sunny windows, book in lap, eyes open then closed where she tip toes in the space between prayer and sleep. This is a memory I will hold of her forever. She and those of her time hold a pureness of sort from the constancy of noise in the lives of my generation. My memory of myself is of sitting on my side of the couch under the harsh light of an incandescent bulb with a laptop on my lap, an ipod plugged in, one earphone to the right ear so that I can watch video on the computer or hear clips of songs on itunes, and the TV on playing a movie or TV show. From that scenario, one longs for a silent retreat. A purposeful choice to enter the world of quiet and natural reverence.
Of course, that is not to say that at time she (and Pap) don't enter the very loud world of technology and TV. But Grandma always did know how to come into that world, shut off a blaring Double 0-7 flick and say "Shut off that garbage and we are all going to play Boggle now!"

brd said...

Yes, I agree re: little Neem. She understands without realizing that she understands. It is those of us in the world of digi-noise who, perhaps, really don't get it.