The Thighs of Bees

        “…in the darkness binds them,” echo the ominous words of Tolkien regarding the One Ring.  I have just finished reading this chapter to my middlest son.  In doing so, I am but one in a long expanse of parents engaging in a timeless exercise – reading the Lord of the Rings to their children.  This line, though, has always struck a chord.  The One Ring, and the terrible places it pulls its bearers, is a kind of metaphor for the dark inner expanses a person can unwittingly visit.
        These places are locations created by our innermost emotional landscapes.  The same chord that the little line of poetry accompanying the One Ring’s lore strikes is also plucked by Francis Bacon’s, Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.  It’s a painting that describes a moment of darkness none of us get to avoid.  We need Tolkein, Bacon, and so many others, we need them to help us navigate things we don’t understand, emotional topographies we traverse, but cannot map.  Luckily, it isn’t only the dark corners of our emotional chasms that defy attempts at description.  It is our brightest as well.  
        From the back of the passenger van, twelve hungover collegiate geology students sing along with Stevie Wonder’s, Superstition.  There is unabashed seat dancing.  In a dark theater at two in the morning a full house of invitees to the premiere of Star Trek: Generations treats a movie screen to a standing ovation.  Overflow crowds in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall who don’t have tickets to the main event stand enraptured as the unseen, but amplified voice of the man who would become America’s first black president unfurls a vision of hope and change like a newly designed flag hoisted on a heretofore unimagined and improbably beautiful vessel.
        What do these things do that regular language cannot?    
        There is a kind of unknowing which is pervasive to the human experience.  It is deep and wild and brutally unfair.  It leaves those of us who sense this unknowing like weavers without looms or bee-keepers without hives.  It is all around, everywhere I go.  This unknowing is linguistic in nature, emotional by character.  I came into this life not knowing how to navigate the vast nomenclature of emotional strata that a human life – my human life – can contain.
        And you probably did too.  We – most of us – cannot say with words what we’re feeling.  Those words we do have are insufficient.  There aren’t words that can encapsulate what losses we suffer, what triumphs of joy are possible.  For this unknowing, there are consequences.  We all pay for it in different ways.  Our lives so often have the characteristic of a good surgery – an activity where anesthetic is necessary.  I sure swallow my share.  Vast swaths of us sway in the thrall of robot controlled pop country radio, life’s-minutes-consuming online tower defense exercises, the latest Marvel adventure, mega-church, Fox “News,” Insta-scrolling.  
        However, as dark as this time feels, I believe that for as many of us who appear locked in the thrall of emotional anesthetic, there are as many who would not be.  I also meet these people every day, I even sometimes turn aside those blue pills of everyday noise myself.  The most interesting, the most surgingly important actions we will take are what happens when the pop-radio station is turned off.  What are we left with?  Where can we go?  When a person decides to trace the topo lines of their own emotional landscape, what happens?  
        In all her work, a common thread that Brene Brown advocates for is dismantling the protections we wear in the world to keep us safe from emotional landscapes that would threaten to drown us.  More specifically, to let down the armor that protected us in our earlier life, but which now no longer serves.  Giving up this armor – the anesthetic that keeps emotional radars keyed down – is uncomfortable in the way that fever is uncomfortable.  Few of us want that.  An inspiring, if fictional, character who desperately wants that is Commander Data.  Data, as an android, is a character who has no emotional landscape, but where most of us look for paths around the overwhelm, Data is a being who desperately searches for one.
        I imagine the two of them meeting – not in a bar –  Brene Brown claims sobriety as her superpower and Data isn’t a human being who can get drunk, but maybe they meet in an antiquated tea-room.  Something about old oak, honey-scented candles, and steaming cups of Earl Gray feels like an appropriate setting.  After some cursory pleasantries, I imagine Brene Brown marveling at the attempts Data makes to create an emotional landscape where one does not exist.  He paints.  He creates poetry, music, engages with literature, and on and on.  His searching is beautiful.  Meanwhile, I imagine Data being at a loss to decipher Brene Brown’s life’s work – her attempts to bring awareness for the vast masses to attenuated emotional landscapes that we all so adamantly tranquilize.  Why wouldn’t a human, filled to the brim with emotional potential, choose to access that?  Why would a person choose to shut that off?  Where’s the overlap in the Venn diagram there?
        Curiosity is a life preserver that can buoy our heads above the overwhelm.  Curiosity is the back-brace that can support a lack of language that might describe unfamiliar emotional topography.  Curiosity can replace defensiveness and shut down self-doubt.  Curiosity can compel a person to seek creative ways to explain joys and darknesses.  Curiosity is the gateway drug to awe and wonder.  Curiosity – real, vibrant, searching curiosity –  can swell a heart.  Why does the Grinch turn the sleigh around at the top of mount Crumpit?  His heart can’t grow three sizes that day unless upon hearing the Whos singing down in Whoville, he first asks the question, “How can it be so?”
        What does it mean to be a person who has suffered unexplainable loss?  Mary Oliver answers:
                To live in this world

                you must be able
                to do three things:
                To love what is mortal;
                To hold it

                against your bones knowing
                your own life depends on it;
                and, when the time comes to let it go
                to let it go

        What does it mean to feel drowning in joy?  On the facing page of the same collection of poems, Mary Oliver answers again:

                But joy does that,
                I’m told, in the beginning.
                Later, maybe,
                I’ll come here only
                sometimes and with a
                middling hunger.  But now
                I climb like a snake,
                I clamber like a bear to
                the nuzzling place, to the light
                salvaged by the thighs
                of bees and racked up
                in the body of the tree.

Why do I love reading Tolkien to my child?  To teach him, for the better I think, how to welcome wonder.  So that when he’s on his hands and knees, ugly-crying for a loss in his life, he’ll have an inkling of how to summon a kind of language that might help him navigate the expansive topography of that loss.  And make no mistake, I will read Mary Oliver to him as well, so that when overwhelming bliss finds him, he might remember the light salvaged by the thighs of bees and he’ll know how to sink in and revel in the exquisite warmth of the joy he’s found.


J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1940s. Wikimedia Commons
Francis Bacon: Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Creative Commons
Stevie Wonder in 1994. WikiCommons
Kirk hands the Star Trek baton off to Picard in StarTrek: Generations. 1994. Creative Commons
The 44th president of the US. WikiCommons
Brene Brown. 2012 Creative Commons
Link is to her talk with Tim Ferriss – minute 35. Holy. Crap.
Commander Data. Photo by the author.
Dr. Seuss working on the Grinch. 1957 Library of Congress
Both poems are in this volume by Mary Oliver: American Primitive. 1978. Photo by the author.

Ceaseless Phantasms

        I asked my father the other day if he was hungry for lunch.  He paused for a moment, considering what I had asked him very carefully, then pointed to an empty part of the room and said with sincere suspicion in his voice, “who are those two people?”  My response as I got up to make some sandwiches was equally sincere: “I don’t know dad, who do you think they are?”  “Well . . .” he replied, giving the question real consideration.  “I just thought you might know.”
        This is how we communicate now.  It’s a perfectly typical interaction on an otherwise unremarkable day.  There is an unrelenting distance between the way he perceives the world and the way I do.  One of the things that caring for someone with advanced dementia teaches you is that really, there is no one true version of reality.  The difference between the kind of reality I share with my father and that which I share with all the other people in my life is only outcomes, and even then, that’s a tenuous link.  I can communicate with my brother or my mother or children or friends in ways that create real meaning in the world and lead to positive outcomes.  I can say to my mother that I’ll take dad to the PT appointment at 11:15, and it actually happens.  This doesn’t mean our realities are equivalent or even similar.  
        If you say to my father, “want to come outside to take the dog to go potty?”  He’s likely to ask which piece of property it is that needs surveying.  The consequences of intersecting with his dementia in this way are many.  If you were a friend of my dad’s in the before-time when he was a successful, and exquisitely sharp legal instrument able to leap complex real estate deals in a single bound, and then met him now, your reaction would be shock.  I work with him every day, so there is no shock.  There is only a long, slow, coming to terms.  And daydreams: horrible, horrible imaginings.
        Working with this beautiful man every day, I am forced to imagine myself in his condition.  I imagine the little bundles of plaque slowly aggregating around my neurons, white, slime-like little snots that tighten and strangle the connections that give my life order and meaning.  They move through neural tissue with malevolent purpose. They attack tiny defenseless capillaries without respite. For my father, the onslaught has been brutal. What remains is mostly perseverating echos of his legal career.
        Perseverance is the circle, the loop, the unending circuit.  It’s a groove that has no exit, that he can never leave.  Perseverance is maddening.  It also has a character that I have struggled all my life to adopt.  Perseverance creates a kind of compulsion, a kind of dedication to an idea, or an action that will not quit.  I’ve made pottery, hand-blown glass, paintings, sculptures, ill-conceived art installations.  I’ve written short stories and even a book or two.  I’ve remodeled, remolded, restored, repainted and repaired in countless iterations.  I’ve never worked with such dedicated zeal as that which my perseverating, dementia-addled father brings to his completely hallucinogenic legal projects.  His persistence is staggering in scale, and utterly horrifying.
        Current best practices in caring for a dementia patient advises caregivers to not fight the surreality of behaviors. To go along with mental wanderings. Keep them safe. Don’t agitate. Don’t fight the nature of their reality. I’m all in for this. It’s clearly what he needs. It means living in a dream world. Who are the people involved in setting up the entertainment business? Just who is going to do the survey work on Bird island? Have we dealt with what the FBI want? What about the IRS? There are answers in the documents missing, missing, missing from the filing cabinet.
        I pray that like my grandmother and now my father, if my fate is to wrestle amyloid proteins, my dementia would not leave me angry or dangerous. I hope, I pray, that if this becomes my fate, that because one of the things I’ve tried to dedicate my life to is making things, my family will be able to set up an easel in the corner and set out some acrylics and just leave me to make strange, otherworldly, perseverating paintings. This is the best possible imagining I can make: to see myself standing there, in front of an easel, hashing out my perseverance on canvas the way my father stands in front of the filing cabinet, sorting through documents, just sure there is a missing power of attorney or an incorrectly signed last will and testament.
        The advantage, of course, is that paintings, unlike legal problems, don’t have to make sense. Paintings that make no sense are routinely celebrated and beloved. Think Kandinsky – whose project was to paint what music would look like. Think Newman – whose project was to recreate actual forms of thought in color fields. Think Dali – whose project was to explore dreamlike surreal landscapes of the mind.
        Canvases will line the walls of my care facility. Nurses will all evaluate them seriously, giving sincere feedback. My children will replenish stocks of blank canvases and paints. When I start to forget to wash my brushes, a stockpile of cheap new ones will be requisitioned. Endless playlists of sad, male folk-singers will be queued and set to play for me. Lord Huron, Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake. Toward the end, someone will have to help me operate a toilet. I will genially wear sweat pants and genuine-heartedly compare my feeble efforts to the gigantic amazingness of Matisse’s end-of-life cutout compositions. Grief and pain will be lessened because my grooves make something useful. I don’t have perceptible rendering skills as a painter, so my works will be expressive, Dubuffet hack-jobs. Objects and people roughly outlined.
        My mind won’t be able to help me unbuckle a belt, but flashes of imagery will persist and pierce the deepest depths of the illness. Cold winter nights when there’s a ring around the moon. The improbability of a group of birds all turning together en masse. A single majestic dark crimson Japanese maple against the blue sky. Sunlight filtering dappled through forest canopy. A lover’s thigh curving into the cold winter bed sheet shadows. Distortions of shallow sun lines under water. And color. So much color. Colors swirled into colors. Made real. Unceasing phantasms of the darkest, at last loneliest, terrible journey made real.


Wassily Kandinsky: Gelb-rot-blau. 1926. Creative Commons
Barnet Newman: Vir Heroicus Sublimis. 1951. Creative Commons
Salvador Dali: Temptation of St. Anthony. 1946. Creative Commons
Lord Huron. Creative Commons
Sufjan Stevens. Creative Commons
Nick Drake. Creative Commons
Henri Matisse: Blue Nude II. 1952. Creative Commons
Jean DuBuffet: Joe Bousquet in Bed. 1947. Creative Commons