THREE SIDES TO EVERYTHING
In this essay I will. “In” this essay implies an inside and an outside, some kind of boundary. As if the essay were a Boston Cream and it contains filling, a payload made of words. But the essay is both inside and outside. Or at the very least, an inside and its skin.
Some years ago when I went to see an internist, my son said that every doctor who isn’t a dermatologist is really a kind of internist.
A dictionary is a hole in all the words it isn’t.
And an essay is a hole in everything it’s not. Strange how the puddle is the exact size of the water as well as the hole. And what’s this duck doing here?
But this essay hasn’t been written. It is, as they say, early days. And these early days—the sun shining in the front room, the dog curled beside me on the couch, outside some guys in reflective vests doing something to our street—aren’t part of the essay. Yet.
What is it to have lost many relationships with friends and family. It’s not so much a Boston Cream, than a kind of grief. There’s the presence of their absence. Lost for many reasons. Time, distance, death, illness, disagreement, hurt. I’m a hole in everyone I’m not. Or everyone is a hole in everything that isn’t me. Certainly these losses are holes in me, holes that are not just empty, but filled with loss. It doesn’t feel like relationships are ever truly gone, but rather replaced with these feelings.
We know who we are not only because of our little dog, but through the broader triangulation of all our relationships, both past and present. Some are still active, and some continue in the way of half-lives, still radiating. An essay is its words just as we are our relationships. An essay is also the words it is not (cf. relationships.)
I’ve also lost many of the ways that I’ve thought and experienced life. I’ve lost my former self in many ways, but gained this other, this Gary 59.0—I’m fifty-nine as I write this—always a Beta version, functioning with a few glitches, but for the most part operational. The earlier operating system no longer functions as it once did. It’s changed. I’ve had to acknowledge that some things are lost. Or weren’t how I thought they were. Or, in some cases, hoped they could be. I create meaning by what I’m not, this trace that I’m formed around.
We lost that third boy we expected to have—we thought we’d seen him and his boyhood on the ultrasound, but a girl was born. We also“lost” our nephew in the very best way—she’d been a niece all along and it was our great delight for her to finally be able to be herself. But these aren’t losses, and certainly not griefs but happy replacements—futures we didn’t anticipate but celebrate and which entirely eclipse the world we once thought we’d have. Did I imagine being in Hamilton, Ontario for the last thirty-two years—was that my future? No, but even so, my life fits me like a puddle. In this scenario, I’m the water or the hole. The duck.
Like the dictionary, I’m choosing to gather, to notice, record and consider only some things and leave out others.
When I went to see an internist—because I was feeling exhausted—he asked a series of questions that were clearly about determining if I were depressed. In his lilting Irish accent he asked, “And so what would you do if you won the lottery?” I had just returned from a family holiday in Ireland where we stayed at a charming cottage near the Cliffs of Moher. “I’d move with my family to Country Claire and buy that cottage and spend my time writing.” “Ah no, for much of the year, Country Claire is too rainy and cold, it’s Tuscany where you want to be. There you’d be, in a villa on a hill and all those travelling by would point up at you and say, ‘all those novels, how does he do it?’”
Tuscany or Country Clare, I’d take either. Burnt umber and sunshine, or mist and deep green. Or Hamilton, Ontario where no one walks by pointing at me and my ostensibly productive novellife.
I read about how to insert filling into a donut. The usual cake-style donut isn’t appropriate, rather you need to use a yeast-based rising donut so that there is a hollow inside. Then it is simply a matter of using a cream-filled pastry bag with “a small round decorating tip (a Wilton #12 would work well for this). Poke a hole in the side of each doughnut and fill with pastry cream. The doughnuts should be served as soon as they are filled. They are best the same day they are made.”
The Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli cites an “unknown genius” in the epigraph to her essay on Joseph Brodsky: “There is nothing more productive or more entertaining than allowing oneself to be distracted from one thing by another.”
I imagine taking a “donut” and inserting the extra “ugh” like orthographic filling, plumping it up like asides such as this one, filler perhaps, but enjoyable if you like that kind of thing.. Sometimes almost the entire point.
There are friends that I haven’t spoken to in decades yet still consider friends. School friends, old girlfriends, those who more rightly might be considered acquaintances. I watched for news of them on social media or more directly, through mutual friends. Why haven’t we spoken? Sometimes distance, opportunity, change: they might have lack of interest or consider we’ve “grown apart.” A few because of a disagreement or bad feelings, but not mine. I tend to feel that once I’ve made a connection with someone, looked “into their soul” as it were, however provisionally, it is impossible to stop knowing them, or in some way, caring about them. How deep is the commitment? In truth, it is more a feeling than action. There are those I feel this connection with but still do little to interact with them. So many souls, so little time, energy, or organization.
My in-laws’ friends are dying. This is also my parents’ experience, too, though they speak about it less. They all are in their 80s as are most of their friends. As a consequence, the news is often about cancers, heart attacks, and strokes. Sometimes after years of struggle, sometimes shockingly suddenly. They no sooner hear about a diagnosis than a few weeks later, they learn that their friend has died. My mother-in-law used to joke that her mother-in-law who lived until her late 90s and seemed always to be attending funerals, only went because of the free food. Last night she said, glumly, that she now understands. Three friends had died this past week. Her life is filling up with funerals, never mind free food.
I remember the days when it seemed all our friends were getting married. Then a few years later, having children. Then the ups and downs of careers and children and now a wave of retirements for our older—or luckier—friends—teachers, crown attorneys, and so on. Also parents getting sick or dying. Announcements of children getting married, grandchildren being born. Our friends getting sick. I see where this is going.
My parents and my in-laws have friends that they’ve known for seventy or more years. Despite immigration, the world changing, families re-aligning, war and illness. When my in-laws chose to renew their vows in a beautiful backyard COVID-complicated ceremony attended by their children and grandchildren, my father-in-law’s very ill best friend managed to attend. They’d known each other since they were boys. Sixty years before, he was one of the witnesses to the marriage. How moving that he was able to once again witness his best friend’s marriage sixty years after, before passing away soon after.
Midafternoon and the light is pearlescent, the sun shrouded in clouds. I’m back in the front room with the dog curled beside me. I’m not eating a donut, but a hamantaschen, the traditional Jewish triangular Purim pastry. Though the pastry is usually dry and isn’t, shall we say, exquisite, it’s eaten because the three-sided shape recalls the three-sided hat of anti-Semitic villain Haman from the Purim story recounted in the Megillah. Eat the rich. Destroy the pastriarchy. Sometimes the filling is jam—apricot or prune are big favourites—but I’m having my preference: poppyseed paste. Is this supposed to represent Haman’s slurry of a villainous black brain inside his hat? Is it a lesson that hate can taste good, or that victory and schadenfreude (in this story, the Jews won) can be sweet?
It was someone’s Bar Mitzvah and there was a room under the bimah, the raised stage where synagogue services take place: the ark for the Torahs, the podiums for the rabbi and the cantor and place for others involved in the ritual. Sarah and I were both twelve and we went into the room beneath all the adults and kissed. It was the first time I’d kissed anyone or was kissed, except for that one awkward time when I was seven and the down-the-street-lady kissed me on my neck and, with her perfume and warm wet lips, got me worked up, some combination of excitement and shame. But Sarah and I kissed. The next day, we tried to go to a movie on the bus but discovered the movie wasn’t playing. I don’t remember what happened next, but that was the last time I saw her. Later—ten years later?—I heard that she’d died in a car accident in a snow storm. When we kissed, I was too young to know what I felt, but now I look back with kindness, sorrow and compassion for this girl, this tender moment we had, one that, slight as it was, I still think about it, this early learning. Two kids sharing such such fragile tenderness, delicate and sweet.
A donut is an inside, an outside and a hole, which can be inside or outside, depending. Almost everything has an inside, and outside and a between.
But why donuts? Because of pleasure, the discursive, and discussed below, the Jewish pastry used as a euphemism for the female Garden of Eden, to paraphrase Noel Simon.
Jean Cocteau wrote that “A great literary masterpiece is simply a dictionary in disorder.” But a work of literature doesn’t use all the words of the dictionary. Is it possible that by looking at the parts of the dictionary that were not used, you could reconstruct the literary work? The work is both the words that were used and the words that were not used.
Or to put it another way, everything that Gertrude Stein’s dog doesn’t know isn’t Gertrude Stein and so by knowing what the dog doesn’t know, you could figure out who Gertrude Stein is. By knowing something about the hole, you know something about the donut. More and more, I’m figuring out who I am by figuring out who I’m not.
It’s a kind of dead reckoning, a system of navigation that doesn’t rely on absolute position but on. figuring out where to go and where you are by measuring the distance and direction from where you’ve been.
Who I am is both inside and outside my life. In my life. Around my life. Through my life. During. Despite. Because of. What, I wonder, is the apt preposition?