One afternoon, standing in the sun on the rooftop by myself, as a movie crew on the street set up for a car crash, I had my big ideas.
In The Sheltering Sky, the heat overwhelms, decimates, desiccates. The desert. And in Lot 49, the story keeps coming back to the energy.
Oscar Wilde said the aim of life was to find expression, and art gave us beautiful forms to realize that energy.
I felt aware of both the light of the sun and the discomfort of the sun. The pulse of blood through my eyelids, which would happen as long as my heart kept beating. Living was just a little uncomfortable every moment, because your heartbeat stimulated you out of a brief stillness and that stimulation was just the mildest recurring shock.
Didn’t the pulses also stimulate thoughts, feelings with each small charge? Then, to ignore the pain, your body dulled its senses, leading you to feel less happiness too. It just kept you in the middle.
But if you released the energy stored up physically, you could release some of the painful charges, too. Channel them instead of suppressing them—suppressing caused the pain. And once you’re not holding back the pain, you’re not holding back the happiness either, the full energy inside, and it flows. That’s when you fully feel and express who you are.
So to become yourself was about the energy, and the books were about the energy and they were helping to guide me.
What happened, then, if your energy was blocked? And isn’t that happening throughout Sheltering Sky and Lot 49? A blocking and unblocking of energy (the circuits, the message, the light) equating to a blocking and unblocking of truth?
“The shifting colors that played on the sky from behind the earth before the rising of the sun.”
“Never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold.”
“Pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky …”
Whereas in the past I might have approached a sparkling and come back down, this time I was moving forward into knowing something all the clues pointed to, feelings flowed through. Kafka’s quotation before the last chapter: From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached. So simple, energy. It’s so big and so obvious — the sun! — it almost slips through your fingers talking about it.
My thesis was aligning. As in an adventure story, two light beams converged at the sacred sculpture, passed through the eye and struck the hidden lock that opened the door.
The word “eye” itself may even be winking at you.
It’s the nature of language that objects and words so easily transpose, the fabric separating them is so fine …
I wrote quite a bit, went to bed, woke up at 4am and wanted to return to the roof. In the past I would have waited till the next day, that was the problem. Always holding myself back. Now I followed my impulses.
The air was cool up there. City lights, the bridge. A dark roof with jutting columns that could conceal a robber or a creature. I imagined who could jump out, but made a game out of staying. I had to stay, be strong. Follow what I wanted and stay till I knew nothing would jump out, because I was going to learn something out in the night.
I looked up and saw three stars. The rest of the galaxy couldn’t be seen, due to the light projected from earth. The darkness, rather than blocking, acted as a gateway. Why not have lightness when it was light, and darkness when it was dark? Now all the billions of stars couldn’t reach us.
At Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, you walk into a dark, silent room and gaze up at all the stars.
It could be when you died you became a star in the sky. Your light survived, your only way to communicate. And so humans on earth needed to pay attention.
My mother’s sister Stella, who had been so mean to her as a kid, had heard voices, spent time in hospitals and homes. They were the children of immigrants in the Bronx. While my mother tested into good schools and became a teacher, married a nice accountant (my dad), and played word puzzles with her kids, the few times I met Stella, she was heavy, slow and sad. She was brittle and she smoked. Apparently, as a girl, she was the family beauty.
Looking up, it was Stella, as a faint star.
In the future, after I went as far as I could and came back, I knew our family would need to talk about Stella. About her suffering, and my mother’s, which we rarely saw, except when she abruptly hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table.
Once, my mom told us, after there had been a fire in her family’s first apartment, they moved to a new place. Stella chose her own room first, but they changed rooms twice again, after Stella suspected my mother had gotten the better one.
Now that I had identified the star, when I looked elsewhere across the roof, across the water, at a train passing beneath the Manhattan Bridge, and then looked back to the sky, I returned to it. The star was still there.
I could watch it till it faded into the morning. As the sun rose, each time I looked away I looked back up to see it paler, more merged with the light, so little contrast, but still there. Could I catch the point just as it disappeared?
I watched and watched. The star dissolved into the light. But I still knew where it was, hidden.
Having followed the star into the daylight, I knew I had crossed over and went back to bed. And after I slept, the atmosphere recharged and I understood myself to be the protagonist all along. I saw The Crying of Lot 49 with new awareness, as my handbook for decoding the world.
A question that I didn’t ask then—was Pynchon testing if a novel had the power to drive you insane? Or was he tempted to? Did he plant a control in his work to pull someone back from the brink? But you could never trust that it would work.
His short story “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna” puts it out there in all its moral suspicion. When the main character whispers “Wendigo” to the man he’s talking to at a party, knowing it will trigger madness, he then walks out of the house to the sound of gunfire.
By the way, is Virginia Woolf a real name? Or is it the virgin and wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, two opposing figures magnetized to each other?
Kit and Port. Are rich people’s names also nouns?
I glowed that day, wasn’t speaking of it yet, just looking like someone who knew about a surprise party. Feelings took on a religious tenor, no longer even feelings, they were so invulnerable.
I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to meet a friend, fully basking in the summer sun on a passage over water, the archetypal threshold, then, at dinner, alluded to something major happening without spilling everything. I also paid attention. My friend, and everything he said, felt vivid and meaningful, I saw his beauty without jealousy and I listened well.
Liberation from jealousy! And doubt! Despite my grandiosity, messianic burgeonings, a well of appreciation for others also flowed.
Back at the apartment under the bridge I had a lot to say, knowing that I’d go back to school with nothing stopping my conversation. But that didn’t please my sister either, because it would turn people off. Written in my journal, she said, “You attack me with your ideas.” It didn’t faze me.
I took the subway home to Queens, buoyant.
The ad on the train for Elle magazine.
makes anything possible
suddenly you slip something on
and say something you’ve never said before
People look at you in a different way,
and surprise, it’s still
To see that right then.
I held my bursting feeling. I had the reflex to know that believing what I was starting to believe sounded outlandish and I couldn’t tell my parents. I didn’t know how I’d face them so lit up.
How did I arrive home from the train station? Did I take the bus?
I turned the corner in the hall, walked into my room, put my bag down, and turned the switch on the standing lamp next to my bed.
At the first turn, a faint light came on. Second click and then a third. Weak light just in the corner of the lamp, the room dim.
Outrage for the child me. Who held back anger about it from the start, couldn’t even feel it and forgot it. Who dulled her instincts, gave up what every living being thrives on (light!) and reflected the dimmed energy back to the world. Why did my parents put me in that room, just like putting a child in a basement?
Furious, crying at my parents. So many words about the hurt of that room. Don’t plants need light? Don’t children need light? What does it do to a person to grow up in the dark?
(If I’d known at the time, I would have added that tenement walls were made illegal in New York City in 1879; a room in which a person didn’t have a window, the overcrowding of an apartment, was not fit for human life.)
What kind of daughter did they want, what could they have wanted for me? Why didn’t they want a daughter who wanted the light, felt she deserved it, who didn’t even need to want it because it came to her? A daughter who would shine.
My father hugged me. “God, I’m sorry.”
He drove me to buy a halogen lamp (and it may sound as if I was accustomed to screaming for what I wanted, but I never did). By the time we were driving home I felt clear and calm and eager for the future. The stuff had emptied out that had blocked me my whole life. I was ringing inside.
I told my father the world was like a dream, and if you became aware of the dream, you could change it. As we were getting out of the car he said he didn’t see where it got you, to see the world as a dream.
When we arrived home my mom was on the phone with my sister and handed it to me. My sister asked me why I was scaring Mom. She added, with a bit of annoyance, now they were talking about taking the wall down. I asked her if she thought someone who grew up in a room painted black would be different than someone in a room painted white, and she said yes.
We assembled the halogen lamp. As it did for my dorm room, it lit my bedroom to a full, completely new brightness.
After I had been angrier at my parents than I’d ever been—actually I’d rarely felt angry at them at all (what a sense of self required for anger! what a ready defense!)—something released. I was freed of a concern for their feelings, and felt free in general, and even more expansive. I’d never felt I could talk for hours, have so much to say, but I did just that, sitting in a chair in the living room while my parents sat on the couch.
Maybe people going unhinged act in a selfish way. When else was I so selfish? Couldn’t I have an hour or two? Some people talk for many paragraphs, even pages, at a time, and they’re listened to as if they’re giving instead of taking, and that’s what I felt and did.
I don’t remember what I said, it must have been about literature and energy, and how energy changes from sunlight to the body to language in a continuing flow. But even though my mother was shaken, my father listened. He told me he couldn’t believe his own daughter was speaking this way, had these ideas. He was looking down and I knew it affected him. The kinds of talks I had in college, the arguments I built in my papers, weren’t what we normally talked about.
So I believe that I broke things down in a logical way and was absolutely right. And it might be, too, that my father had never seen me speak so fluidly, with such assurance, so centered in my perceptions, so aware of this very moment, with the power to move him.
My parents had plans to leave for their trip to Cape Cod the next morning, and while my mother worried about whether they should leave, my father believed I needed space from them. That’s what I wanted.
I went to sleep in the bed on the other side of the wall, the bed by the window, and woke up in the sunshine. Looking outside, the world opened up to me.
I wrote a sentence on my bedroom wall in three separate parts in three separate places, because eventually I would fill the wall and had to leave the clues, that was urgent, but you also needed the near impossibility of deciphering it all because resolving was the end. I didn’t only know it but felt it, the need to slow its culmination.
“The mutability of thresholds / makes any change / possible.” Broken into three and written in diagonal fragments on the wall.
In mystical Judaism, the cosmos shattered before we came into being, the shattering brought about the universe, and it’s our task to put it back together. (What happens then?)
The act of storytelling might be an act of postponement. Scheherazade wove the tale of the 1001 Arabian nights to escape death.
The horn—apocalyptic call?—in The Crying of Lot 49 is muted.
God broke one language into all the languages so people would fail to build the Tower of Babel to heaven.
And so, with ascending comes the sense of a threat. An intelligence has left the clues, scrambled them, and you’re tasked with detecting and following and documenting them. And the more you uncover the more you yourself must both express and break up the truth, because it’s calling to be found, it’s compelled to be traceable, but to find it is to die.
Writing the densest book packed with references no single person will ever decipher, even tucking away a reference to your coffee that morning that no other person could ever know (but might!) is one way to do it.
A literal doorstop.
But you could even achieve it in a masterful haiku. Three lines that resonate forever, never completely graspable, a tuning fork that’s never touched.
My dad believed that his father stayed away for so long as an army doctor because he wasn’t ready to be a father. My grandfather, who died before I was born, never hugged my father. And while my father didn’t hug my brother—as adults they’ve always shaken hands—he hugged his daughters. Sometimes as I sat doing my homework in the living room, my dad would kiss me on top of the head and say, “I love you.” My parents had my brother, then my sister, whom my brother was mean to, and then me.
When we were little, the three of us played a game called FOOTB, First One Off the Bed, or “footbuh.” We all used to watch TV after school on our parents’ bed, and then that turned into pushing each other to fall onto the carpet, and whoever was left at the end won.
My sister and I always teamed up to throw my brother off first, then my sister would throw me off.
Years later I laughed when I told a boyfriend of mine about it, but he said it gave him chills.
My brother and I talked on the phone, and we had the most personal talk I’ve ever had with him, before or since. When he was little our parents were more strict, and he listened to them. Our father wanted him to be quiet in public, and he was, he kept to himself. But Dad preferred our sister.
I often saw my brother as a little left out. Left out from the family, and especially from my sister and me. But maybe he saw me as left out in a different way.
I wanted the family to get therapy.
On the phone, my brother told me he always believed the Pink Floyd lyric, “Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.”
Nearly a decade later at his house, I watched my mother holding my baby niece. “Don’t cry, no crying,” she said. “We don’t like sad, we like happy.” I went home and bawled.
My thoughts on the roof held true. If you couldn’t express your pain you couldn’t express your joy. Either they’d both get withheld or you’d spill everything at once.
At the end of World War II, my grandfather was part of the army sent to liberate the concentration camps. He photographed what he found. My grandmother later burned the pictures.
But they didn’t disappear, because everything goes somewhere. Nothing escapes the rule, energy is neither created nor destroyed. She burned them into us.
The last dinner I made, I watched TV from the couch, The Simpsons. Grandpa Simpson said that in his day the nickels had bumblebees on them and you’d pay with “two bees,” and he wore an onion on his belt because it was the style at the time. No matter how far out I went, I knew I’d be safe because I got the Simpsons.
I took my journal everywhere in the house to put down every thought that kept coming. Once, when I couldn’t find it, I believed the universe may have taken it back, to keep it from revealing what was inside. And then I found it. I remained tethered enough to know I’d just slipped into believing something that didn’t make sense.
A book covered in silky dark blue fabric with embroidered Chinese images (branches, blossoms, a temple). Opening it now I see the rush of ideas I anticipated, as well as a surprising orderliness. It may have been a highly orderly state, no traffic jams at all. But I can also see the repetitiveness, the push to reach the next level, to transcend. The handwriting condenses as the pages start to run out. By the end the print becomes tinier and tinier, to fit the pages I have left, so minute and crowded it’s unreadable.
I was sleeping naked. Then I wrapped myself in a sheet, like the ancient orators and goddesses.
I’ll note that the great philosophers in their togas talked to the pigeons if no one else gathered. If you depend on others to listen before you talk, or sing, where does that leave you?
And I wanted to be all the elements: air, fire, earth and water. Unwrapped and wafted the sheet like wings so the fabric rode in waves, and I jumped. Higher next time, suspended for a moment in the air.
“Rain” isn’t the most famous Madonna song, but the video looks the way rain sounds, the word rain. In close-up, she gazes gently right into your eyes, her eyes aquatic blue, her hair glossy black, the images fluid, and, meanwhile, the artifice all around her on display.
One thing stirs its opposite, and so “No Rain” was released at the same time. An odd name for a song. It’s also about sadness, the misfit bumblebee girl, object of derision, who finally finds her friends when the gates open to the bumblebee world.
“Runaway Train” … this is, yet again, a sad song about not fitting in, soothing in its chords. The singer looked so close, trembling as he sang, as if he were coming a bit undone himself. “I can go where no one else can go, I know what no one else knows …”
It’s a very literal video about runaway teens. Though when I watch it online now, it’s followed by a weight-loss ad. How dare they do that to the girls seeking it out? My teenage outrage all over again.
“Everything seems cut and dry, day and night, earth and sky, somehow I just don’t believe it …”
And commercials. Blue skies, Clear Eyes solution.
If 49 was screeching before it reached 50, a Levi’s ad solved the riddle: leap over zero to 501 on the other side.
Relentless promos for the“MTV Video Music Awards.” It was telling me where the announcement would take place and I must be there.
Later, with its pulsing visual distortions, “Insane in the Brain” (“going insane, got no brain”) was disturbing to say the least.
The science of this state, I’m venturing, is the sheer volume of oxygen that you’re burning to feed the fire.
(Carried, I’m guessing, by expanded blood vessels. It’s all about physical expansions and contractions.)
The psychic core is to follow your impulses.
But it turns scary. Maybe it turned when I lay in the empty bathtub. My knees closed together and then fell against the sides. As I lay there, my body fell into the shapes it took as if rolling in a slow kaleidoscope. I began to feel that unconsciously I was following the steps to unlock a combination. Then, lying back against the end of the tub, I saw the +x eyes of the faucets. A long crack through the bathroom tile, as if the silver eyes and faucet trunk were an elephant charging through the wall. I jumped out of the tub.
I knew there was no elephant charging the wall. I mostly knew.
It grew dark in the living room, with just the TV on, and I was thirsty.
Forgetting to eat and drink turned into a game of not eating and drinking because I needed to prove I would survive the Holocaust. The image of my grandmother burning the black-and-white photos into our memories didn’t appear for nothing. The books weren’t written after World War II for nothing. And I would survive by becoming so still and small and able to slip through the gaps in a fence I would not be seen.
The glass water bottle I took out of the fridge, four-sided with rounded edges, had a tapering neck with a mottled texture for gripping. Sitting on the floor of the living room in the dark, I turned the fogged glass in my hands, watching the blue light of the TV shift through the bottle as I tipped the waves back and forth. Why is the light from TVs so blue? It changes abruptly as it moves through the water.
Seeing the connections among things may not be hallucinating. Remembering the conversation I had with Matt before I left for Spain, when he said I could live my own “lucid dream,” with a wink—that may not be hallucinating either.
But quietly, he and I sat cross-legged facing each other, looking at the flickering bottle. We both knew it could be a magical object.
“I mean, you could drink it if you want,” he said.
It was so like him to be a guy hanging out, to casually say you could take the pedestrian option, but knowing that if you did you weren’t really living. You were stopping short, and hadn’t you done that for too long?
The friend taking you on a nighttime walk, who eggs you on, who always survives a jump from a high wall without a scratch.
I touched the bottle to my forehead to let it drink.