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October 6, 2014 | Nonfiction

Thumbs

Nicole Walker

Thumbs photo

The first thing you should know about being an artist is that there’s a chance you will kill yourself, either deliberately, with a gun, or pretend-accidentally, with pills and alcohol. My whole life is a list of artists whom I loved, suiciding: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Vincent Van Gogh and Mark Rothko. Virginia Woolf and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison and Ernest Hemingway. Jimi Hendrix and John Berryman. David Foster Wallace and Janis Joplin.  On the Wiki, there’s a great list of suicides, no way comprehensive, dominated by people with great access to phenobarbital and/or shotguns.

Does suicide come from the same place as art? As with art, with suicide, there is a great ability to dissociate from the self. If you can see the self acting as if from above, like watching yourself in a movie, scripting your movie, making your hair cover your brow just right, making your voice shrill or sultry depending on the adjectives at hand, doesn’t it follow that you would like to be the director of your final scene, the author of your final words, the couplet of your own sonnet?

 

In 1948, Sir Fred Hoyle said, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” The first astronaut to rise above the whole planet earth as one coherent ball, to look back upon it to say, that is us. All of us. He will for the first time see how fragile we are. And also how “of-one” we are. How small and how big. The whole of humanity in his lens. The astronaut will try to hold all the humanity in one hand, to capture it perfectly and steadily with his Nikon. The earth will seem so permanent to him. So perfect. A marble to cup in his hand. But this marble is not inviolate.  The pictures of the earth taken in 1969 will not be the same as the pictures taken in 2014. You can see the Kennecott Copper Mine’s swath cut into space. You can see brown where the once green Amazon rain forest used to be. Where once were sheets of ice, now blues of sea. He should have held that marble more tightly. Blew some cooling breath upon it like a wish.

That ability to dissociate—to look from above. You think it would make us save ourselves, seeing the planet from afar, feeling like with one hand, maybe you could fix it.  But like the art of the suicides, maybe the picture postcard was just that. Some way to abstract the self from the self—distant, literally, a two-dimensional postcard. A memory trapped by a stamp. Something made, distant, other. Although for the first time, we could see the whole of us, now we felt in control of it. We could mold it like clay, sculpt it like marble, mix the colors like paint. Once you can see yourself as separate from yourself, you want to meddle with it. Even if it means you might kill it. Once you see yourself from beyond yourself, you are your own god. Choose the ending, artist. Choose the ending, astronaut.

 

Not all artists kill themselves. Some live for a long time. J.D. Salinger and Mick Jagger. Cher and David Hockney. Eudora Welty and Paul McCartney. Presumably, they saw themselves apart from themselves and yet did not feel the need to sound the final chord. Did not want to experiment on the self as apart from the self. Maybe they could see the separation, the image of themselves and still feel part of themselves. Maybe the smell of their own body, their hair, their armpits, kept them tied to themselves the way the astronaut is tied to his space ship which is tied, via radio transmission, back to the earth. Maybe they write and sing and paint strings of lists for themselves to keep them tied to themselves. Maybe everything they see becomes part of them—there is no opportunity for abstraction. I am he as you are he as you are me. I am the eggman.  Of eggs and men.  But if it’s an artist’s job to paint distinctions, it can be difficult to see the egg in the mirror.

 

I don’t think it counts as quite empathy, being able to imagine David Foster Wallace’s suicide. I read it about it like everyone else, in Rolling Stone magazine. I told the students in my undergraduate nonfiction class that he had died. They were sad. They didn’t know who he was but they empathized with me, which is more than I successfully did with Wallace. I pictured myself as Wallace. I tried to buck up even though I was failing. My (Wallace’s) parents called me. I called them back. I told them I was looking forward to Christmas. My girlfriend brought me a philodendron. She knew how I hated flowers, already dead sitting on the table, in a vase made out of already dead sand. I told her I would water it. I promised I would find a good place in the sun but philodendrons are easy to trick. I put it in a shadowy corner. I didn’t water it for weeks. Still it grew. At night, after we went to bed, I told her, I am not a philodendron. Maybe a daisy. A Gerber Daisy. But what girlfriend would take warning from this statement?

I see myself (my Wallace self) walking up the stairs. The polished banister. I would remember this banister forever, the way it felt smooth against my hand as a dolphin. I would remember the dolphin forever. Each step up the stairwell I would remember. I, Wallace, will remember forever, forever. This is the first time I ever felt like I would remember everything. I can see myself, my foot in my tennis shoes, the shoes I actually played my last game of tennis in that I knew then would be my last game of tennis because I am a Gerber Daisy not a philodendron. Each step is less painful than the previous. I am swimming up those stairs. Everything is smooth sailing forever more. Every step is a step forward and up to a forever that will last until I make the noose. Even the noose was beautiful. Life goes full circle. I saw the future and it was as long as a rope. I never told anyone how much I loved the future. As long as I knew what was coming, nothing could stop me. I could see myself, swinging into the future.

 

Shuttle and International Space Station astronaut Ron Garan said, “When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.” What does fragility look like? Fear, I suppose. Breathe carefully. Take the right steps. Fragile is smooth. You think of bulls in a China shop. Humans are all bulls.  Even ballerinas break their toes. Fragile is a super kind of desperation, when you can only see from a super position. Supra. Inside the thing, the thing looks tough. I stomp on the ground, the ground pounds back. I breathe out on a cold, cold day, the cold takes my vapor to freeze. I dig a hole in the sand, the ocean sweeps it flat again. The earth seems to push back. The humans seem to push back. On a one to one basis, feet on the ground, we both seem tough. But then we climb the stairs. Then we make a circle out of a rope. Then we write a sentence with an “I” in it and forget a direct object. Then we venture out to space. With each inch away from the ground, the porcelain begins to crack.

“Anybody else who's ever gone to space says the same thing because,” as Ron Garan also said, “it really is striking and it's really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realize that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically. From the harshness of space.” Paper-thin, the atmosphere. Crack it. Crack the porcelain, a crack in the continent, a crack between self and self. 

I remember when the band Hole played Reed College. I don’t remember Nirvana playing Reed but maybe that’s because they were not NoMeansNo, the only band I cared to see, besides Slack and Lovebutt. My difficulty to predict what is art and what is fame explains a lot about my own ability to see myself, imagining the phone call that says, “you won” and parsing the reality of the form rejection letter. Kurt Cobain knew fame, I think, but fame on the inside never looks like fame on the outside. On the inside, you still have to find your phone. Your kid, Frances, has toys. You have to look for them. You’re the parent. Your girlfriend needs you to adjust her shirt. It’s a complicated one, the kind where you sometimes put the armholes through the head holes. You think that would make you live forever, the image of Courtney Love with her head where her armpit should be. You, Cobain, are still laughing, even in your greenhouse, with the memory of it. You can see Courtney with Frances Bean on her hip singing “Take everything. Take everything. I want you to.” You can see her covering Fleetwood Mac’s Gold Dust Woman. Each song is about the future. You see yourself taking permission from Stevie Nicks. Stevie dances around you like the Gerber Daisies in the greenhouse. She too tells you to “take your silver spoon. Dig your grave.” You didn’t really have a silver spoon but you had a gold record so that has to count. All you ever wanted was respect from the people who sang as beautifully as you. If they could feel the gun in their hand, they could feel the magnet. They wouldn’t blame you. They would understand that the future is always the future. Metal has its own pull.  It leads you away from yourself.

 

From satellite images, an astronaut sees Super Typhoon Haiyan swirl toward the Philippines. Winds of 200 miles per hour hurtle toward the tiny islands. If an astronaut saw the typhoon from outer space, he would push his finger forward toward the earth—reach out to help. He would, like a daughter helping her mother tape Christmas packages, put his finger right there. He would press lightly against the storm, with just enough pressure to make it stop. He would, if he could, dispel, like a God, the winds and water. But his arm is not long enough. His finger not really the size it appears. Parallax confuses. The astronauts, all eight of them, in the International Space Station, sit in their ship watch the planet swirl, melt, burn, sink, strip. They put their fingers to their lips. They ask the planet to settle down. Quiet itself. But what can the planet hear? The thin veil has no grip for ears.

 

Dickinson’s poem “My Life It Stood a Loaded Gun” is the song I sing to myself at night. You can sing all of Dickinson’s poems as hymns. You can also sing them to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas, which I do, but by the time I get to:

To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -

None stir the second time -

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -

Or an emphatic Thumb –

I have stopped humming. I hear the actual Emily speaking to the mountains in the voice of a gun. She is yelling to the ducks, who she shot, and to the deer, who she wounded. She’s telling them to listen to her and to be silenced by her and this is Dickinson’s best gift. To be herself and not herself at the same time. The poem ends,

Though I than He - may longer live

He longer must - than I -

For I have but the power to kill,

Without - the power to die –

 

This gun carrier—God, willing her to live, animates Emily-the-gun like a Pinocchio. Emily, the powerful shooter who cannot shoot herself. Emily, who may not be Emily at all. She’s a gun. She’s an eye. She’s a thumb. She’s part and parcel. Separate. Giving up free will is deadly to others but not to the self. Giving up free will might be the thing that saves you. The Master can still shoot the gun. The power is there, in his finger. You gun, extend him. You gun, carry on. He must live longer than I, dear God, or I will live forever. In the equivocation—“though I than he May longer live, he longer must than I,” the “may” hangs upon the “he.” The He can’t live forever. The “he” will die; the gun will live. The loaded gun eternity. The loaded gun is as god as the god does live. An inanimate, animated God. And if he’s not a God? Just a guy out on a walk, finding a gun, becoming a hunter? Then who lives so long? And even with the full power of the gun, forever is a very long time, especially if the Yellow Rose of Texas is stuck in your head and no thumb parallactic enough to blot out the sun or now way to stop the specter of God, your master, coming into your house, (did you remember to sweep?) picking you up. Now you are the guard, one consonant heavier than God. It’s a heavy life, protecting your God’s interminable head which you must do, without will, but alive and a part of the world, with thumb, doe, and eider-down.

 

The phrase “Physician, heal thyself,” is from the New Testament, Book of Luke. As in the Dickinson poem, who is speaking to whom? The subject becomes its own direct object. There’s separation between the third person—a schizoid bit of advice-giving. The distance from speaker to self, self to speaker conveys a distance. Who is talking? I’m always mumbling to myself in the grocery store, extra firm tofu? Filet or Ribeye? I really should give up meat. The cows. They step on salmon. They trample the desert. They add methane and carbon dioxide and suffering. These decisions make me want desperate. Maybe I can compromise. Are tofu and steak a good pair? What kind of sauce? Didn’t I just see the tarragon? It’s crazy to talk to the self but at the grocery store, who else are you going to talk to? The vegetables? That’s crazy.

Nearly four-hundred physicians kill themselves a year. Some because they now have diseases they’ve tried to cure in others. They know that the cure is worse than the disease. Some because they have good access to phenobarbital. Some because they, like all of us, are depressed. Some because med school is hard. All of them do it because they see themselves as apart from themselves, and simultaneously as themselves. They point to their shoulders, their heads, their hips. That is they, they say. Who ever wanted to be a they? Who wanted to see themselves as a separate planet? Not even a vegetarian. Not even a vegetable.

 

Writers look at their own hands. They watch themselves type. The fingers curl around a pencil. An age spot between the thumb and forefinger in the webbing of the hand. Rub the dry skin from the knuckle. Peel the fingernail. It barely hurts. Fingernails are as separate from the writer as their words. Hunter S. Thompson wrote a suicide note which appears to be talking as much to himself as anyone else.

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 More than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.

 

You have to talk yourself into suicide. It takes external means. Something has to come between you and yourself—most likely a gun but sometimes pills. Elliot Smith stabbed himself in the stomach, hari kari. Wallace’s rope. The implement is between you and yourself. You use it to come between you and yourself. Come together, he who wants to live. Stay apart, he who wants to die. You are always bitchy. You aren’t as fun as you used to be. You and I cannot live together. I will take the pain away. The gun is the only one left talking. Ask Emily Dickinson.

 

Unlike Dickinson’s one emphatic thumb that can erase only one gun-sight object at a time, from space, you can obliterate the earth with one thumb in front of one eye. All seven billion people gone with one parallactic gesture. All the frogs. All the movies. All the bears. The remaining ten tigers. Both of the wolves. Even Iceland. Move your thumb away and the earth and its frogs and the now-only-one wolf come back. Magicky, Magic, Zoe, my daughter, who comes from the future, would have said at age three. The whole planet returned to you through the movement of a finger. Magic. Is that powerlessness or power? Your fingers. They move. Intransitive. No need of a direct object, the subject is everything. They, the humans, the wolves, the Zoes, move stuff. Transitive. Transfer the power from the thumb to the wolf. Unlock the trap. Humans. Do something. Let the animal lick his own wounds.

 

Here’s what the suicidal astronaut should do. Go back to earth. I know it looks bad from up there from above, you can locate the trouble—you can see what wrong with the sentences. The white tops of the blue planet are smaller. You can choose to sit in front of the control panels, analyzing the distance of star and planet to contemplate the vast unknowns. You can measure the world against your finger. But maybe you can turn that ship around. Full speed ahead. You might have to quit eating meat. You might have to give up your car. You might need to learn to love direct objects. You might have to chain yourself to the redwood tree or the last undammed river or the locked gates of the oil refinery. To get back to you, you’re going to have to put your feet on the ground. Do not let the noose lift you off the floor. You might have to remember verbs are your best friends. Do keep walking. Walk not into the river Thames. Walk not into the oven. Walk on regular, non-sinkholing ground. Land your ship on the oil refinery in the middle of the gulf. Obscure it with your space station. Down on earth, the refinery and your craft are about the same size. Find that oilman. Measure your thumb against his. Yours is not bigger. Nor is his. Thumb to thumb, you can put some ice back on that shelf. The you and he. You share some DNA. You share some of the particles of the big bang. You share the ground you’re standing on just like the lilac bush and the bats and the oil, the space ship, the refinery, and the polar bear. It’s nice to have thumbs, but it’s not everything. Everything is a verb and we nouns swing around like electrons around a nucleus. Give him a postcard of earth. Hang on.

Borges wrote, I wrote a story once about a man who began a very large picture, and therein was a kind of map—for example, hills, horses, streams, fishes, and woods and towers and men and all sorts of things. When the day of his death came, he found he had been making a picture of himself. That is the case with most writers.

 

To heal the suicide, you have to stop speaking to yourself in the third person. Speak in the second person. The second person point of view will take care of you: Come here. Bring yourself to me. I will cradle you like a baby. I love you so much, you say to me. You have been too set upon swimming. You’re a protester, I know. You’re against the melting planet. You’re against the bombs. You are against life as it so dumb. You say, life is boring. Life friends, is boring, said the also-suicide John Berryman. But your thumb isn’t boring. The writer keeps looking at his own hands but they are still your hands, even if you use them to blot out the sun. They keep typing as if without you. The split is inherent. You were born already reading what you once wrote. It’s hard to reconcile the self with the self as you see yourself inky against the white paper. How does the you get back to the you? Move the thumb. Put it to work. Put the gun down, release the thumb. You need it for the space bar. You need it for perspective. You need it to play thumb war with the oilman who matches you pound by pound, inch by earthly-measured inch. You need to be both you and your someone else at once.

To help those with phantom limb syndrome, therapists hold a mirror facing the remaining limb. The patient moves their leg or their arm and their symptoms decrease. The pain lessens. The need for opioids diminishes. Even the sense that the missing leg is there begins to go away.

In a poem of Cavafy’s, he understand the problem and the potential solution:

But the old mirror that had seen so much
during a life of many years—
thousands of objects and faces—
the old mirror was all joy now,
proud to have embraced
total beauty for a few moments.

 

Look for the total. All joy now. Tether. Foot. Space station. Face. Artists hole up a mirror to the earth. There it is they say. What seemed un-seeable is now seen. Now, artist. Try to get yourself into the mirror. Hold it at a kind of angle, so you include a picture of an oil rig, a tree, your spaceship, your typewriter, a train, and a side of your face. There you go! You are simultaneously marble and holder of the marble. Patient and therapist. Image maker and image taker. You wrote your memoir while you showed the world the world. Keep your face tethered to that mirror.  Who is that mirror? It is you. All joy now. Save the planet by putting a blueberry in your mirror. And every time you save the planet, you save yourself. You are you, planet. Tug the tether. Come back here.

 

image: Tammy Mercure


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