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.
* The critics thought and wrote about him even through the years he wasn’t publishing his work. There was a fascination with him, an infatuation among his contemporaries. It wasn’t just the work they were interested in. They wanted to know about him, what he was thinking, what he was doing, what he was working on. He released nothing, but no one knew he was writing like always, tucked in his basement office as the seasons changed. Not even his editor knew. The dog lay there, her warmth curled around his feet as he sat writing away the time. His body did not change but the mind whirred, carving passages into realms present and distant. He disappeared from public following his wife’s death, gracious for the consolations but evasive, in retreat.
* He wrote his first story at age nine. The process electrified and elevated him, separated and dissociated him from himself. His identity shattered into pieces—a rivulet bubbled up, flowed, accelerated, eroded importance in everything else.
* When she presented the novelist with a local award, the mayor smiled for the cameras and shook the novelist’s hand without having read his work. She did not say from her prepared statement that the novelist had meandered into middle age healthy and productive, his name gathering readership worldwide. A drug habit sustained him when his work and marriage weren’t enough.
* He was born into a segmented world: subdivisions, suburbs, siblings. His parents had their lives and he had his. They left the novelist home with the other children to watch television but he read prodigiously and one day discovered his true self in the words he composed.
* His death occurred swiftly and without warning. Early on a Sunday with daylight breaking at his window, he lay listening to birdsong and thinking about his latest work, almost completed. His heart beat three times in rapid succession and then burst, a cataclysm in his chest. The thoughts about his unfinished work were his last in this world.
* Night provided his greatest inspiration. He climbed from his office to the backyard for stillness and quiet and to admire the sky. His wife often joined those midnight excursions when healthy. They held hands with the Earth churning beneath them, eyes fixed starward.
* He never had children of his own. He loved kids and made them laugh but secretly was terrified of them stealing time and focus from his work. His wife had interest in motherhood early in their marriage but the interest tapered with age. Before her death she regretted to the novelist that she’d never be a grandmother.
* All dreams point downward, he once wrote. They keep our bodies moored to the Earth. We would levitate and float away if we lay there dreaming our dreams up into the air.
* Public readings were a necessary evil, though he did enjoy traveling the world to greet his readers. They were passionate and dedicated. The majority of of them resided in his home country of the United States but his work was admired the world over, translated into 20 languages. His first trip to China felt to him like a journey on another planet and inspired his novel Red Sea Sleeping, a tale of conspiracy and psychosis written in the novelist’s signature style and use of language but set in Beijing.
* The first novel he wrote (An Unstable Game) became the third he published. His publisher asked him to revisit that first manuscript and add more to the story, clarify items and explain some of the novel’s mystery. The writer nearly re-wrote the entire manuscript in two months and returned it to the publisher, who, upon reading the new work, shivered and emailed the author immediately.
* Marriage isn’t for everyone but the novelist truly loved and admired his wife. They met in college, when the novelist was 30 and she 24. She played cello and sewed her own clothes. Her widowed mother invited him for Christmas and he accepted, telling jokes all weekend to counter the woman’s devastating sadness. The old lady’s misery extended to everyone in her presence, including her daughter. The malaise evaporated once back at college, and the novelist’s future wife returned to her customary easiness. The novelist proposed marriage as spring blossomed on campus and his time there ended. He wrote two unpublished novels while at school. His editor discovered the manuscripts on the novelist’s hard drive and published them to wide acclaim two years after the writer’s death.
* Cold Moon Below, the novelist’s fourth published work, won him the National Book Award and carried him to the highest levels of American literary prestige. The night he received the congratulatory call, he repeated to himself that he would only ever be as good as the last thing he wrote. He spent the remainder of the weekend in his basement, writing without sleep. He emerged from that chrysalis having finished a rough draft of The Magnificent Gaucho, which would later be published on three continents and catapult the novelist into international discussions.
* His editor worked alongside attorneys and against the wishes of publishers and others vying for the writer’s library and estate of papers. The editor fiercely protected the novelist’s works and honored his own arbitrary estimation as to what the novelist may have wanted. He quickly became overwhelmed with mounds of rewardless work and grew disgruntled with the late novelist for not properly securing his estate during his lifetime.
* Our time here, the novelist once wrote, referring to our time on Earth, is limited only by our flesh and bone, our blood. What we create between the bookends of birth and death immortalizes us.
* The editor secured the novelist’s library of work at a nearby university, thereby absolving himself of most of his responsibilities. He shrugged away the burden with relief but also regret, for it was his last lifeline to the dead writer, whom the editor admired, loved like a brother. He cried in his car in the university parking lot, having never truly mourned the novelist’s untimely death. The vast majority of deaths are untimely, he thought, and he started his vehicle and drove into another sunlit afternoon.
Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”
Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”
Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”
George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments.
Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.
Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.