While those around him savored the renewed warmth and light of spring, Melville, unused to the sun and habituated to daytime reclusiveness, wrote to a friend that “like an owl I steal about my twilight.” During the days, he sat alone, as Hawthorne wrote of him, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Mount Greylock looms upon him from his study window.” The second-floor study of his house was Melville’s sanctuary, a bright corner room filled with morning light streaming through its eastern window and affording a view of Mount Greylock framed in a second window that looked north over an expanse of fields. Despite her best efforts, Melville’s wife later recalled, he sometimes worked on the book “at his desk all day not eating anything until four or five o’clock,” and then, according to his own account, retired for the evening “in a sort of mesmeric state.”
Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work, Vintage, New York, 2005: 140.
Night is a ghost on wings. I write letters to myself and to friends who no longer exist, friends who are dead or friends with dead parents like me. I write letters from those friends to their dead parents and sometimes from the dead parents to their living children but I never send them, I keep the letters in a safe place to reread as I age. Aging is hard but not in ways my young self imagined. Aging is hard like remembering is hard, it is uncomfortable and strange, even as being in one’s body grows more familiar with time. Aging is the accrual of experience. I write letters to my future self about experience and accrual and pain. Perhaps one day I’ll read them. I write letters to my living friends and almost always send them. The letters contain recent anecdotes of irony, whimsy, severity. Perhaps someone should write me a letter, someone other than me. Write me in a language other than English. Write me a letter from my dead father, tell me about his recent bets, his meals, his whores.
There are parts of me all over this city. A fingernail chewed and discarded furtively onto the carpet of a Cherry Creek department store. Snot blown into a paper towel now buried in a dumpster somewhere in LoDo. My spit on a sidewalk in the Tech Center, my spit in Boulder Creek, my spit floating upon the surface of the South Platte. Spit in the neighborhood streets of Aurora. My DNA lives bunched upon wasted cigarette butts on Capitol Hill, in Lakewood, in the Highlands. Hairs strewn about the foothills, hairs abandoned and sunk into the Earth somewhere on Colfax. Everywhere on Colfax. Dried piss in a men’s room somewhere in Highland’s Ranch, in Littleton. Eyelashes, dead skin cells in Fort Collins. Fragments of me transferred from money or my credit card and now embedded into cash registers across town, parts of me digitized and spent by others. McAvoy as legitimate trade. Parts of me cluttered upon the flesh and in the mouths of the wandering women of the world, all of whom I had met here or somewhere close-by, women who enchanted and puzzled the younger me, all of them now charted upon their own foreign paths. A tart drop from a nostril now dried and crusted to the bottom of someone else’s shoe, someone else’s pant cuff. Tracking my remains in all directions. McAvoy as pandemic. Somewhere, everywhere, all-where. Random registers of my being ride the wind across the icy plains, they carry their own deranged voices out to the frigid canting West Slope. Microscopic and profuse treasures, wasted and worthless traces. I think about all the parts of me dispersed across the world and I wonder where, truly where, is home.
On March 29,1832, 28-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was 17 when they were engaged, 18 when married, and barely 20 when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright blood of Ellen’s coughing.
Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of. At least two of Emerson’s contemporaries did the same thing. […] Emerson opened not only the tomb or family vault but the coffin itself. The act was essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead. He was still writing to her in his journals as though she was alive. Perhaps the very deadness of the body would help a belief in the life of the spirit. […] We do not know exactly what moved Emerson on this occasion, but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. This is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own. […]
Emerson’s own journal entry from this March day was terse: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” They had been utterly in love, and for a moment, on September 30, 1829, their wedding day, the future had seemed clear. Notes and letters flew back and forth. They traveled and wrote verses together and laughed at the Shakers who tried to woo them to celibacy. She intended to be a poet, he a preacher. He had accepted a pulpit in Boston and they set up a home that became at once the center of the Emerson family, as both his mother and younger brother came to live with them. Now, a little more than a year after Ellen’s death, Emerson’s life was unraveling fast. Though he was a much-loved minister in an important Boston church, he was having trouble believing in personal immortality, trouble believing in the sacrament of communion, and trouble accepting the authority and historical accuracy of the Bible. The truth was that Emerson was in a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He could not accept his ministerial role, he was unsure of his faith, and he felt bereft and empty. He was directionless.
At Ellen’s grave that day in Roxbury in 1832 Emerson was standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than 10 years had passed since he left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing. […]
In the months immediately ahead he continued to walk to Ellen’s grave every day but now his concentration on death was broken and he reached a major watershed in his long struggle with religion. He would live no longer with the dead. “Let us express our astonishment,” he wrote in his journal in May, “before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss.”
Before the year was out, Emerson had resigned his pulpit, moved his mother, sold his household furniture, and taken ship for Europe. He set out on Christmas Day, 1832. A northeast storm was on its way as the ship sailed from Boston, plunging into the grey expanse of the North Atlantic.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Richardson, Robert D. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995: 3-5.
Following my interview of him, he said: “I’ve got to get up from this wheelchair to shower and prepare to speak at an engagement this evening. They grow on me, the bacteria. They grow within me. I am largely made of them. The bacteria-man. I may be wheelchair-bound but I have special powers that allow me to mutate into other creatures made of bacteria. For instance, I can mutate into cows and peanut butter and women who make marmalade. I cannot, however, mutate into a whale, nor most sea creatures. I cannot mutate into birds until they are dying, infected with the bacteria of other creatures seeking to devour the life and essence of the birds. I can mutate into other humans, those that don’t make marmalade, but why would I experience that torture? I would rather mutate into a ghost but that is impossible. So my special powers as the bacteria-man are generally worthless but sometimes fun if the weather is nice.”
“Do you need any help?” I asked, referring to the shower, though I regretted the question immediately.
“No thank you. It is nice of you to ask. I have a special shower that allows me to move about the bathroom, seated in my chair, and still enjoy the spray of the shower, the seven heads of which follow me around the room via infrared monitoring devices. I move freely about the waterproofed room and am able to clean myself from all angles, destroying the bacteria on my body’s surface, at least for the time being.”
I looked at him and tried to imagine the room.
“I would happily show you the bathroom but it is currently dangerous due to one of the shower heads disconnecting from the network and going rogue, so to speak.”
“No that’s okay, thank you,” I said. “Perhaps I should be going.”
I walked out of his apartment and heard him chanting quietly: “Key misfortune, key misfortune, key misfortune.”
This barstool ain’t big enough for the both of us, my brother used to say. We were toddlers. I was into vodka back then because of all the spirits vodka most closely resembled water, which was what I really wanted. I couldn't speak many words, just grunted, pointing to the bottle of water behind the bar, croaking and banging my hand on the bartop for the bartender to bring the bottle and drip-drop it into my sippy cup. I got used to the flavor and grew to like it. Later I diversified, pointing to a different bottle, grunting at a shiny beer tap, choosing whatever I liked and nodding when asked if we wanted to charge the tab to our mom's room.