In 2008 I made a deal with my New York landlord. He (or rather, they) knew I wasn’t living there, and were preparing eviction proceedings, but the department that renews leases had automatically renewed mine anyway — they sent a renewal lease, I signed it, they countersigned it. Their lawyer was so pissed. The market was still going great guns then, they could probably have taken both my two studios and gotten the full market price of two for them instead of less than the price of one. (How I came to have two tiny skylight studios, side by side, for such favorable rents is one of those New York real-estate shaggy dog stories you really don’t want to hear, unless you’re a New Yorker, for whom this stuff is like porn; but it involved the kind connivance, back in the ’90s, of my surviving neighbor, who had her 98th birthday this fall). The landlord’s left hand had basically screwed the right hand by signing away two more years on the one that has a lease, because it is rent stabilized. My other studio was rent controlled, which meant I was a statutory tenant. I had moved into the building in May 1971, one month before rent control ended. What can I tell you, I have a real estate guardian angel.
I went up to New York for just a day, because my home health aide was turning into a crackhead. (The one visit with friends I didn’t cancel, providentially as it turned out, was this one.) I shocked the landlord and his lawyer by telling them the unvarnished truth (something that possibly no one in a landlord-tenant proceeding had ever done before): yes, I wasn’t living there; here’s why; here’s where I live; here’s what I want. Long story short, I gave up the rent controlled studio I’d lived in since 1971 in exchange for one more two-year lease renewal on the rent stabilized one, the one where my beloved neighbors, two women, art-book editors, had lived and painted and partied since 1939.
It was a hassle and expensive, in time and lawyer’s fees, to pull off that deal, and many times in the years since I have thought it was a costly sentimental folly, though understandable. My homesickness for New York gradually faded, or so I thought. It seemed as if Jacques could go on indefinitely — well past the end of my last New York lease — and I was so fine with that. Ready to go on indefinitely with him.
The deadline was February, 2011.
Sometime in October, when J was already so sick, my subtenant up there informed me that the landlord (presumably his left hand) had once again sent me a renewal lease — no doubt again by mistake. (The landlord owns a lot of buildings and has bigger fish to fry.) I signed it, and sent it back, and waited. I was still hoping against hope that J would live on, incidentally sparing me what seemed like a tough decision: to move back to New York, or not.
When he left this world, my feelings changed. For one thing, there wasn’t a place or a sight or a gesture in Chapel Hill that meant anything to me but taking care of him. Everywhere I turned, everything I did, stabbed me like stepping on broken glass. For another thing, he would want me to go back to New York. As far as he was concerned, we had never left, and I figure he took off for there immediately if he hung around Earth at all. (Someone asked if I had felt his presence around me since he died. “Not until one night about three weeks later,” I told them. “I think he had trouble finding Chapel Hill.”) And finally, it seemed to me that if I was presented with the chance to live semi-affordably in New York City for a few more years, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse and would never forgive myself if I did. There’s all kinds of full-circle, or maybe spiral, stuff going on.
So I waited to see if the landlord would execute the renewal lease — by mistake — again. If that was going to go off automatically, I didn’t want to rock the boat by notifying him prematurely that I was coming back. Any vestigial impulse he (they) had to fight it (they couldn’t have won, but who needed the anxiety?) would, I reckoned, crumble before a fait accompli.
I waited . . . had they caught their no-longer-a-mistake?
Finally I texted my subtenant, “No lease, time to notify landlord? :( ” The next day I got back, “Hi Annie, good news!!! lease finally came on Monday. Sorry flew out to Seattle same day visiting family got caught up. Will send to you when I get back.”
So today I took another step on that foggy road ahead: I wrote and mailed this (address redacted for privacy).
To whom it may concern:
Regarding my tenancy of West 4th Street, Apartment 5B, which I agreed in a negotiated settlement (in May 2008) to vacate at the end of this lease period (February 2011) if my husband’s illness prevented me from returning to 5B by that time:
This is to notify you that my husband died on November 19th, 2010 (I will be glad to send you a copy of his death certificate on request), and so, somewhat to my surprise, I will be returning home to 5B as soon as I settle my affairs here. Accordingly, I have signed a renewal lease for 5B, which has been executed, and am in the process of changing my legal residence, driver license, etc. back to that West 4th Street, NYC address preparatory to returning.
Thank you very much.
Woke up in the country on Christmas Eve morning, feeling extraordinarily good — so much so that I jumped out of bed and worked out first thing in the morning. Maybe it was the air, maybe the view out my bedroom window from this high house surrounded
by plunging ravines full of plumbline-straight beech trunks, so that it feels like it’s in the treetops; maybe it was the roaring fire in the huge fireplace, the Christmas tree sized to match, the warmhearted and welcoming company, the flowing eggnog and wine, the challenge of wrapping artistically classic Christmas packages
… it might have been my first springy step on this new road, except that the phone rang around 4 P.M. and I happened to answer.
It was my cat care person; she was in tears. “One of your cats has passed away,” she said.
I would have been totally shocked if it was anyone but Dito; but it was him, of course — going on 15 years old, on meds for hyperthyroidism, showing signs of kidney atrophy, and suffering from bad teeth because after I lost my job I could not afford veterinary surgery — I’d been aware of his pain and looking forward to soon being able to take care of it at last. He’d been uncomfortable but not remotely terminal. Something sudden happened to him, the feline equivalent of a stroke or heart attack or pulmonary embolism. The chronic inflammation must have been a contributing factor. If I could have done his teeth in time, he might have lived another year or two, especially with subcutaneous fluids for his kidneys. But he was not young.
Chris said, “Well? He was Jacques’ cat.” Nathan, who rescued him as a tiny kitten from a Korean mountainside with us in mind, speculated with me that one way to look at it is that Jacques waited till I was out of the way, then came and got him.
I groped in the empty space where Jacques should have been to share the sadness with.
The jazz great James Moody, 85, followed J into the wild blue yonder by 20 days. At that link are several great renditions of his wild takeoff on “I’m in the Mood for Love” — “Moody’s Mood for Love.” Here he talks about the song’s inception:
George Benson’s rendition was one of J’s and my favorite cuts:
Jung’s “strange definition of God”:
“This is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path…all things which upset my subjective views, plans, intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.”
[Letters, Vol. 2, 5 December 1959]
* * *
The box is also psychology: not psyche, but the ‘ology,’ that parasitical suffix that sucks the psyche dry. Long before there was psychology there were tales, old-wives-tales, grandmother’s tales, oral accounts of origins and great deeds, theater of tragedy and comedy, the gossip of the day carried by messenger, lessons learned at the foot of a teacher, stories all passed down rich in the ways of the world and the ways of the soul. Long before psychology there was the bedside observation of physicians, of captains on the field of battle, painters of portraits, breeders of animals and trappers, of midwives and judges and executioners. Psychology’s case reports are too often botched attempts to continue the story-telling tradition. Too soon we draw theoretical conclusions obliged by ‘ology’ to package psyche in a box. We would win from every story the trophy of meaning.”
~ James Hillman
This haunting folk carol was sung at the church last night before the performance of A Christmas Carol. I knew it very well, but couldn’t remember why, until I came home and tapped Google, our collective cultural memory. The song was covered by Sting more recently, but I like this version better.
I’m being shown a good time, shlepped along to all sorts of exotic entertainments and parties — exotic to me, anyway. Yesterday I was taken to Chapel Hill’s 17th annual Cow Raising, an absurd pseudopagan ritual that involves winching two life-size fiberglass bovines netted in Christmas lights into the trees, while singing “cowrols” with rewritten, cow-related lyrics. (You hadda be there, and even then . . . it was one big in-joke that had ballooned over the years like one of those 100-acre underground fungi. It felt like being a new freshman in a high school most of whose occupants had been together since kindergarten.) Tonight I was taken to another annual ritual, a reading of an abridged A Christmas Carol in an Episcopal church by the novelists Allan Gurganus and Michael Malone.
Which brings me to my real subject. The performance/readings were delicious, but the real star of the show was Charles Dickens’s prose: witty, vivid, beguiling, moral. His words, as alive as the day he wrote them, buttonholed you, got up in your face, made you see, made you laugh, made you feel. There was a boy of eleven or twelve sitting next to my friend in the pew, his eyes glazed over. He’d admitted to her before the performance that he’d seen the Muppets’ version; she figured that was better than nothing, at least a place to start. But I pitied him for his inability to hop aboard the fast-moving train of densely packed, intricate words and be carried deep into his own imagination.
Young people are served up ready-made images. Even in videogames or MMORPGs, where they can assemble their own avatars, they are given ready-made, modular elements to choose from. As magical as modern media are, they’ve got nothing, but nothing, on mere words. No other medium recruits the recipient’s brain to the same degree, making you not just a consumer but a cocreator. When you read, you must dream up your own visuals and characters — no mere metaphor, because the process is as spontaneous and inexplicably fertile as dreaming. Reading exercises the muscle of the imagination like nothing else — and with such economy of means!
And with so little, great writing does even more. It engages you visually, emotionally, intellectually, and morally all at once. (Words can even evoke kinesthetic and tactile sensations, tastes, and smells.) It transmits the texture of experience as a multimodal whole, the way it is lived. What a magical medium, and how it elaborates your inner space and trains your power! I really do feel pity for people who don’t read — and gratitude to J. K. Rowling for almost singlehandedly saving this rare form of wizardry for another generation.
marched away from you
with Time’s rifle in my back
on the Trail of Tears
- a womb raw from giving birth
- a mollusk with retracted “tongue”
- a candle flame pale in daylight
- a forced march into the future
- the turning world as continuous passive motion machine