Five hours roasting at 150 Celsius or about 300 Fahrenheit and Maillard Reactions abound as lamb bone, flesh and skin browns, fat melts and a wondrous dark, umami aroma fills the kitchen and house. Carbohydrate molecules and amino acids change and change in dry heat as colors and taste merge. Fat molecules with the aid of olive oil add floral, nutty, even thyme-like qualities and keep the meat lubricated and supple swimming in a translucent lake. Mouth and nose call forth a compliment, something for the cook to sample as the cooking proceeds. Yes, something French. Something, Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Alain Jaume, a Domaine Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape Le Miocene Rouge. Southern Rhone blend. Berries, minerals and spice. With cook in glass.
Walking into a room in Houston eighteen years ago to start a weekly regimen of conversation, disclosure, confession and distilling didn’t begin with a quickly improvised decision but slowly shaped itself, warmed and began to cook with a mixture of unhappiness, isolation and self-deceit–all browning and bubbling with voices in my head chorusing around one single, insistent argument–I’m not right, I don’t deserve this life. A never-ending anxiety that I’ll meet myself around the corner and turn away from what I see, and who I am found by myself peering around the corner will hide what he’s been doing, hide behind his hands and eyelids who he is. Anxiety and the uncanny. How I walk, how I drive Houston.
I didn’t live on US 59, I lived right next to US 59 in a one-room apartment. I had enrolled in a creative writing program pursuing a Master’s Degree, while teaching introductory composition and literature courses at the same time. In order to do this, I had left Detroit, Michigan; left a house where I lived with my wife and two young children. To become a poet, I said. To become a university professor, I said. All true, and yet traveling over a thousand miles in order to hone my writing skills and enter the academic profession alone can’t explain why I became a constant caller to the Suicide Prevention Hotline. The separation from my family was becoming a divorce, calls and letters from my wife to me and back again became increasingly upset, angry, confused and despairing. Why was I really there? Why wasn’t I coming back? I journeyed to see them and we would smile and laugh, but when I walked to the door to leave, my daughter and son cried, held onto me. My wife no longer recognized me. Why was I doing this to them? When I returned to Houston and walked into my apartment with its white walls, one armchair and mattress on the carpet in the bedroom, I began to yell, curse and damn myself as voices gathered around me, gathering in volume–this is your fault, your disease.
I add potatoes and tomatoes to the roasting leg of lamb. Sprinkle salt and pepper. Spoon fat and oil, mixed with lemon juice and herbs over the veg. Pour another glass of wine. By my own choice, this distance, this grief. I didn’t just want to study at a particular creative writing program in Texas, I wanted out of Detroit, out of Michigan; and this wasn’t because from the many potholes in the Michigan highway system tentacled out monsters, not because Detroit emptied and receded into abandoned houses, overgrown fields, ever documented by those who came to take wedding photos in ruins, to pose in fascination; no this was about my mind becoming a place I couldn’t live in, that wasn’t safe for anyone; this was about my not wanting to be a person I had been for almost thirty years, detesting that face and voice and wanting someone, anyone new; this was about my changing out clothes and skin, everyday if I could. Years later, my daughter asked me,”What was so much better down there? So much better than us?” “Nothing,” I said over the phone. And that’s true. That’s what I had discovered. Nothing. Only worse.
I often visited the Rothko Chapel. A silence and calm resided in the plaster and ceiling, light spreading throughout and then dispersing with the movement of sun and clouds above the skylight. I marveled at how the colors could change even though often all just seemed black. Watching carefully Mark Rothko’s untitled paintings as though they were alive, I noted the line formed between two colors, between layers of pitch and tar and an almost plum-rich brown forming a horizon. What could be there? What might I see? Maybe myself riding a horse across hills slowly rising above a moor with a treeless sky hanging down. I cast myself back to that young man and find an ache and pain I know is self-inflicted and that I inflicted on those I love most. I can find no needful reason for what has happened, and yet the hollowness inside my chest, the sharp pain in my stomach tells me I’ve caused harm, feel harm and I should . . . should do what? And there I find I wish to change nothing, will change nothing, after all I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to be who I was before, though this, this is no better.
Kicked out of my parent’s house at eighteen, kicked out of my wife’s parents house a few years later, working in shipping and receiving because pity is taken on me, because I have children, because I need to provide. I’m difficult to myself and everyone else. And so . . . and so, I take a class in writing at a university in Detroit and I’m told I have a voice, told I have a way with words. Really? All right, I’ll follow, I’ll follow into another life; except, except I don’t forget what I’m leaving, I don’t forget those I’m leaving and so I stay in a middle ground of needing to get away, needing not to forget. Neither here nor there. Neither husband nor stranger. So I don mask and costume in bars, appear as someone new in faces I long to be seen in, someone new felt in caresses moving from bar chair to front door to bed. And then a goodbye the next day, and another search the following night. Each new falling in love a new mask, each new mask no better than the last and soon cast off. I try to become so many different versions of me in so many eyes that I lose count of my disguises. And yet, at school ever the mindful student, ever the engaging teacher. I read books, listen to music, visit art galleries and museums. I have friends. Yes, I have friends.
I call the hotline. Yes, I tell the voice, I feel suicidal, I feel at an end. I’m crying. I’m not crying. My voice is dry. I cough. The voice asks questions. How long have I felt this way? Why do I feel this way? I give a short summary of the above and they ask if I’m seeking professional help, if I’m meeting with a therapist, if I’m in a support group. Do I have pills? Do I have a knife? Do I have a gun? Do I have a history of mental illness? No, no, you don’t understand. That’s why I’m calling you. I’m not ready to change or do something to actually see clearly what I’m doing to myself and others. No, I just want someone to tell me this is a mess, that I need help, to say here are names and numbers, to say I’m not in control, to say yes, there’s something wrong with my life because I’m still too consistent and good telling myself that everything’s fine, I’m handing it all, everything is working out just the way I planned. I call and call, until they recognize my voice, until the game is up, others need to talk to us, you can’t use this in place of therapy, you need to seek help, until I convince myself that the worst is over and I can just crack on as though I’m turning photograph after photograph in Julia Reyes Taubman’s book Detroit: 138 Square Miles, noting the decay and the beauty of decay, thinking, yes this is where I’m from, this is me, and then closing the book and just moving on as so many say, immediately forgetting what I’ve just seen and felt. Lies. I’m very good at lying. A ballroom gone to seed.
And so . . . my Master’s, my Doctorate of Philosophy in Creative Writing and Literature; my poems appear in journals and I lecture at the university where I studied, teach at a nearby community college; I earn a full-time salary, move from apartment to house and keep a fully-stocked bar; I divorce and then remarry; over a decade I drive or fly back and forth between Detroit and Houston several times a year; there I am for birthdays, holidays, and vacations–I’m part of my children’s lives, part of. Photographs abound of me with family, colleagues, friends and students and all of us laughing, all of us so happy.
When is mental health moral health? To quote John Berryman from his Dream Songs, ” . . . my mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no / inner resources . . . .” But not out of boredom. No. Out of a great not in the middle of me, throughout me, an ample and ever not there, not this, not him, not her, not this that I say, not this that I do. Not a value or golden rule for me, only what storyline, what conjuring of bone and flesh will make me continue into day and night. I should do this or not do that . . . why? I need a bedtime story, a lullaby to sing to myself into a dream, a trance. Yes, at some point I realized I had no “Inner Resources,” I had no inner voice telling me to stop, asking me what the hell I was doing. Was I amoral? Let’s say I wouldn’t have understood the question.
Consider Eugène Delacroix’s Socrates and his Daemon (1838), Library, Palais Bourbon, Paris. Socrates speaks of an inner voice, a daimon telling him when not to do something, a “No” reverberating in his head. I could tell someone I loved them one day, and then the next do the very thing saying the very opposite. I might not hate you, but see what I did, see how I didn’t think of you though I said you were the world to me. All for a momentary pleasure, a temporary respite, a new mask I might hold up to a face I didn’t have so I could be someone, anyone that you might look at, that you might care about. I said the word love, I wrote the word love, but I wasn’t capable of becoming vulnerable to it, of meeting someone halfway in the midst of love and sharing a life. Not at home in my own skin nor at home with anyone else.
Dinner is ready. Gabriela has returned from her workout and Demian has emerged from his cave having gathered Magic cards into earth-shattering powers. We hug and then sit down to a sacrifice for the season. We savor the mix of lamb, feta, thyme, olive oil, and spruce branches. Every day and night I work with me wife and son to prove love, to find love here, though it’s still a struggle to leave my head at times, still difficult to not hear voices telling me how much I’ve failed, how much I still have to lose because I’m not worth the time of anyone around me. As much as I’m dismayed by earlier faces and hands, an ongoing experience of the uncanny, I also know and recognize me. I do love my children, always have. I did try and love friends and lovers. Contrariness and contradictions. Yes, I’ll have more salad. The man in my novel sits down and eats with his dead much as I do with my dead and living. In writing his dead, I’ve come to meet who I was with those who have passed into memories and my words. I’ve arrived at meeting myself in a new world. The earthiness of the wine pairs well with the ten thousand other things that grow in the soil, reaching roots down far into humus and rock.