Monday, January 21, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 62 - Willie Nelson

I drive and drive through these hills and mountains of New Hampshire, on the trail, in the summer in ’86, of what had happened to them all – the cousins dead or dying or drugged out or molested – but not just the cousins of my generation in this family I came from but all of them in those grand houses in the White Mountains where everything was supposed to be so in order, though no one in my childhood time seemed to honor much that had happened since the turn of the century except maybe World War I, and the non-Marxist phase of the Russian revolution, covered by my grandfather the writer – which meant there was no room for another writer in this family – these rarefied people in these formal summer houses – where the men tended to have neckties on at breakfast.

That world seemed the enemy now. The cousins, who died, seemed my allies. But the version of the past that had held in these houses I was revisiting – driving and driving that summer – this was more dead than the mere dead bodies of cousin Paul and Cousin Elka and Cousin Margaret, or the battered body of my favorite, Cousin Lauryn.

And yet I had never felt more alive than in this time. I had stopped my writing, which was too controlled to be of any use to me as night became day and day night and gentle places became dangerous places and my mother and brother betrayed me and I too could have died – my brother revealing himself as a C.I.A. man in Manila , where I had been there under death threat dealing with the opposition to the Marcos dictatorship the CIA had helped set up, in this time when the heroes of my writing were being murdered. In Manila , where my brother swore he’d never been. And it was exhilarating too, new freedom, new worlds opening up to me. I had stopped writing but I was about to start painting. In ways I had never considered, never realized were there, I stepped into art – seeing things I had never seen before, from Piero della Francesa to Arshile Gorky – and nature – noticing for instance how it was not just new leaves coming in, the tree were billowing.

I said more than once to new people coming into my life that it would not be all that bad if I died now for now at last in 1986, though I did not feel being in my fifties made me old, at last I knew things I could so easily, like the others in the family I came from, gone to my death never knowing – art and life. It is true I would wake up some mornings in my Chelsea apartment putting all this new knowledge out of mind – the death of the family version and the deaths of the cousins - thinking at first that if I kept it all away, none of these things would have happened – so long as I could hold off remembering. Yet when I remembered it, I was elated.

And then as I drove through New England on this hunt for what had happened, with some side pleasure too, I felt that kind of freedom that I knew goes along with the end of a prolonged dying – like when my father died three years back, deserted by all his close relatives and friends except for me and my about to be ex-wife, whose picture he carried with him in his last moves from nursing home to home care to hospital, to home care, to nursing home to hospital, and on and on. Deserted by all except my then wife and also by me, which may not have counted for I was never considered in step with this family that enclosed them all.

And now I was free. As I drove through New England with Willie Nelson on the tape deck singing songs I knew from my hidden radio in childhood – “Stormy weather,” “Don’t Get around much anymore,” “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,” “Old fashioned love,” “Someone exactly like you.”

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