“Writing on the Breath” Part II

Below is a continuation of the story I published on my blog in the middle of November.  Several of you showed an interest so I’m pressing on… My friend Jim Jordan died of AIDS in November of 1988; I am honoring that 30 year marker.  I continue to look for a more permanent “home” for this piece,  but in the meantime, it’s taking shelter here on my blog.  

If you need the lead up, back up a few blogs, easy easy…here, we start page 8: 

___

But that was not the only thing I had wrong.

I had theater all wrong.  Would I ever get it back?   What else did I have wrong? What of all those other  beliefs? My belief in myself? This scared me.  It kind of excited me too.

I realized that I had men’s sexuality signals all wrong.

Circle of the Serpent closed and that was that.  No other gigs came to Jim as a result of that show.  All the participants  lost a little money of course, as this is just how it works much of the time – it was for love.  Truly.

I would come to question the meaning of that phrase for decades – still do.

A few more weeks go by.

I get this little note scribbled on a piece of torn scratch paper on my doorstep.  It’s tucked under the doormat so it doesn’t blow away with the wind.    “Come by if you want.  I have something to give you.   JJ.”  ( I  can see his scribbly penmanship as I write this.)

Jim is gay.  I can visit him all alone without giving or receiving mixed  sexual signals…yay.

“Hey there.  Got your note.”

“Cool.”

“Can I come in?”

“Okay.  It’s a bit of a mess around here.”

This is when I notice his surroundings and how different they are from mine. This guy is gay;  isn’t he supposed to keep a tidy house, matching towels?”  God, I’m so full of shit.

“So I wanted to give you this book: Compulsory Miseducation and the Community of Scholars, by Paul Goodman.  I like this guy. He’s pretty smart.

“Thanks.”

I continue:  So,  how did you get so good at writing?

“I don’t know.  I just write a lot I guess.”

“oh.   Why didn’t you finish college anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know.   Seemed like it was a waste of time.”

OH my god!  How could university education be a waste of time?  Wasn’t it the sole purpose of going to school to begin with?  To get to university,  to study, study, study?   To learn.

“Oh.  That’s weird, to me.”

“Yeah.   So I wrote this little book.  Of poetry.  You wanna read it?”

I’m wondering why he is bothering to tell me these things.  I liked his play, I’m a neighbor.  That’s all really.

“You seem to know about theater stuff.”

“Yeah, well I…. I mean… I studied directing.  I guess I’m…well I…”

The sign around my neck falls off immediately.  I suddenly want to confess something I don’t say to anyone really.:

“Well I… I’m not really successful at it.  I can’t seem to get any theater jobs right now.  I’m starting to have serious doubts, you know?”

“That doesn’t matter. Getting theater jobs.”

What???  How can that not matter?

“I’m work at the print shop.  I’m in the union.  Lucky I guess, cause it pays my bills.  I write stuff anyway.”

Anyway?  What’s he talking about?

“Maybe we could do a play together sometime.”

“Uhhh.  Sure?  I really loved your play.  It surprised me, really.  You write with such detail.”

“You wanna see my book?”  He holds up a paperback with about 12 pages of poetry in it.  The Blue Airplane. 

“Cool   It’s published? Wow.”  The goal in life – get published.  He’s published.

“Well, yeah, sorta.  A friend of mine.  Nobody buys poetry anyway, no market really.”

“I’ll look at it.  Not now…I mean, not right this sec.  Later.”

“I like Paul Goodman. He’s a little stiff, but it’s mainly good stuff.”

“Okay.”    I flip through this 35 cent paperback.  It’s coated in pencil marks.

“This has your notes in it.  You sure you want me to read these?”

“Sorry I don’t have a clean copy.  Just ignore all those.”

“You have all these notes in the book.  You read this for a class, right?”  Jim shakes his head.

I look around the room.  Books spread out on the floor, some on shelves. A lot of dirt and dust.  Dirty dishes.   Kirkegard,  Freud,  Neitzsche, Aristotle, Heidigger, Shakespeare. “You have a lot of books around here.”  You must read a lot?”

“Yeah, well… have to.”

“You taking classes or something?  I see you have Poetics?”

“Nah. No classes.”

What?? No classes?  Why would someone read all these books with no classes?

“Yeah, I pick up books at used bookstores, that’s all.”

“Where did you learn playwriting?  You study with someone here in the Bay Area? Take a class in that?”

“I just…went for it. “

“oh.”  OH my god.

I’m stunned.  Big Pause.

“Maybe you should submit your play to the Bay Area Playwrights’ Festival for next year.  Or The Magic.”

“Ya think?”

“Yeah….Well, I gotta run.   Thanks for the book,  I’ll take a look.  I’ve never heard of it before. “

(he stops me at the door with his voice)  “You haven’t heard of it?   (pause)  Doesn’t matter.   Let me know what you think. “

__

I am working at a stupid Corporate Restaurant where I dress in flimsy clothes, serve drinks to men in suits at lunch time.  I chase a few theater gigs here and there. Get a lot of rejections.  Ouch.  I don’t think twice about dressing half naked to serve fresh fish to a bunch of horny middle-aged men their martini lunches while they gawk at my long legs and bare shoulders.  Oh how disgusting it seems now, but at the time, I was ignorant.

God, was I ignorant.

Paul Goodman’s “Compulsory Miseducation and the Community of Scholars.”

After another shift of glamorous waiting  tables,  I throw off my skimpy attire, trade it in for sweats and a tee shirt, I start reading the book.

I wish I could recall the details now, but I do remember the feeling of reading it. It was filled with rage.  Or, was I  filled with rage.    Goodman’s critique of education, the system,  the lack of truth, the lack of freedom in the guise of “academic freedom?”  Mainly, he was afire with rapier prose,  afire with opinion.  And Jim’s notes.  “I’m not sure you got this right.” Or, “bitter, are you?”  “Okay, I’ll give this, but what about this?” These were not the kind of notes I had never seen or taken from a book.  He didn’t underline “key concepts” as though studying for an exam. I was always scribbling summaries to help me quote in a paper, or speed up the time I had to spend preparing for a final.  He just seemed to “talk to the writer.”

I don’t remember now if I was more blown away by the content of the book or by Jim’s comments, or by Jim’s giving me the book, or by the form of the book.  But I was blown away, maybe blown apart.

I had written a graduate paper on content and form in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya;  it was an excellent piece of scholarship and recognized as such.  But I had never really thought about content and form when it came to just reading, just thinking, just being…words like content and form were words to be used in school, in papers, not concepts to live, to breathe, to wonder about. God, did I have it all wrong?  Again?

The overall content of Compulsory Miseducation woke up me up further.  The book is such a poignant critique of higher education, a credo that had permeated my young adult life.  The suspicions I was starting to have about the possible damage my education had had on my on my curiosity, on my creative instincts, even my sense of joy, and risky spirit, were taking hold.  Why had my excellence in university not yielded more creative success and output in the theater world?  Moreover, why was I getting less and less creative these days,  stuck in the morass of critical thinking,  stuck in the canon of worship, idolizing the masters instead of forging ahead with my own vision?  Why and how had I become so paralyzed of late?  Goodman’s book liberated some of this.  I had new ammunition to hurl at my past.  I was not prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water, but surely, something was amiss.

My  scholarly boyfriend from my college years was completely stalled out in the “real” world, his high-minded pursuits completely out of whack with daily functioning, much less getting a decent waged job and supporting himself.  No, he was mired in graduate programs, one after the next, pounding away at critical papers, still incapable of making his own dentist appointments.  But boy could he earn high marks for his intelligence. I still thought he had an edge on the competition.  He was miserable.

Jim Jordan, on the other hand, appeared joyous and free to follow his intellectual passions.  Moreover, his intellectual passions only fed his creative drive and instincts – he read the masters, but still cranked out beautiful poetry, a beautiful play that knocked most of the other new plays, written by freshly polished MFAs, out of the ballpark.

I finished Goodman’s book, did a little homework on his life.  The whole endeavor brought a little water in the dessert of my life.  I read carefully, responded to the ideas,  and felt a surge of renewal. I did all of this on my own time.  I wasn’t reading and writing for school, nor was I reading and writing to catch a theater gig.   I wasn’t reading and writing to impress Jim Jordan really, what did he have that I needed or wanted?  Nothing at that point.  I was not in the business of seducing him to my bed—he was gay, I figured that was not part of the equation (I’d discover differently down the road a few years).   I found myself reading and writing for the pleasure of it,  for the sense that I was being opened up from the inside, introduced and welcomed into the world of ideas, of rebellion, of fire.

I still have that  paperback in 2018, wrinkled and a little moldy now;  it’s more valuable than my wedding ring.

It happened again.

And again.

Coming home for my stupid job, I found another note, another torn piece of paper tucked under my thread-bare doormat.  “I have another book for you.  JJ”

The next day, another scrap of paper.  This time with more words, equally messy, quickly penned.  It was a poem of 4 lines.   I called it a poem then, and I call it a poem now because it was written with broken lines, the use of white space.  No rhymes or even meters,  just a few pen marks flying over the torn paper:

The torn wind of yesterday. 

The blue chair.

A coffee-stained cup.

Silence.  I am taken.

__

What the fuck? How long had it been since someone sent me a poem?  I had gushy verses in adolescence, but what was this?   I didn’t claim to get it.  But I received it. On my porch.   “Who is this guy?  Why is sending me poems and reading suggestions?”   I don’t get it.  He had plenty of friends – he couldn’t be lonely, what did he want with me, a failing theater artist who worked at corporate restaurant, dressed like a baby-doll, serving drinks at lunchtime?  What could I possibly bring to his table?

I needed to write back to him.  I needed to write something, anything, and put it on his porch.   And I needed it to do immediately.  My blood cells were widening, I was awash in urgency,  I almost held my breath in anticipation.  I grabbed a piece of paper in my house —

This was not yet a staple always within reach.  There was no typewriter on my desk.  No books strewn on the floor or pens scattered on the tile countertops – I scribbled quickly:

The printed upholstery on an overstuffed chair that sits in my living room stares back at me. I wonder if it has anything to do with my life?I have plants too.

Well, it was an attempt.

What did I know about poetry anyway, save for a few analyses I had written of the Canonical Masters?  But somehow this did not keep me from breaking the lines a few times, playing with the white space.  It just felt right.  I rushed to tuck it under his doormat.

Oh god, I’m suddenly vulnerable.

What if he reads it and thinks, “augh, what was I thinking?  I’m done with that  little twit.

An excruciating 24 hours passes.

Again, I climb the stone stairs of our building in my stupid clothes and my stupid high heels in the afternoon.  Ah ha!  I spy it.  Another scrap of paper.  Tucked in the same corner of the doormat. Another poem:

She rises.

He folds. 

The bee always in search of honey.

The light changes.

He wrote back?!?   My ego relieved.  But, what does he mean by any of it?  I don’t understand poetry. Still, the urgency returns immediately.  Another piece of paper, but the same pen, I scribble my response:

Confused and still,

I wonder what these words bring? 

PS  I like your poems and I hope  we can keep being friends.   RL

I shove it under the mat, return to my apartment, second guessing myself.  Oh my god, that last sentence is so incredibly banal.   Why did I write that?  I’ll go fetch it and change it.  Too late.  It’s gone.  He’s picked it up.  I’m such a loser…I had resorted to what I was most used to, a plain old note asking someone to be my friend?  What am I? 10 years old?

The next day, another piece of paper.  I’m tickled…no, I’m thrilled really.  This feels like something from my high school days, I’m a little dizzy…the excitement of letters, of notes tucked under a school desk in my math class.  Moreover, all those letters I used to write to boyfriends.  Love letters, fully in bloom with beautiful prose, urgency and ink, making love on the page.   I’ve always been a sucker for a good turn of phrase.  I’m relieved again, that I hadn’t said something so totally childlike that he’d stopped dropping me little tidbits.  “I have another book for you:  I and Thou by Martin Buber.  And Alan Watts autobiography, In My Own Way.

The next day he leaves the book on my porch, along with another inky poem:

He saunters into the winter sunlight,

Without a whisper of loneliness

choosing

Isolation

Which is never what it seems

What it is appears to be.

His sits in a rickety aluminum chair.

I cannot help myself.  I pick up a pen and scribble right back:

The wind is cool today

and your voice lives inside of it.

I start to see Yellow in a new light.

 

We bump into each other, again on the stairs.  “You get the books?” “yeah.  Thanks.” Pause.  I don’t know what to say. “See ya.” And that was that.  Oh god, I’m such a talker, why can’t I talk to him?  Fuck!  We’ve shared poetry and little notes.  Why can’t we talk to each other?

__

A few weeks pass – no notes.  I read Watts.  I start to read Buber.  The Buber is hard for me.  I look at Jim’s highlighted sections and read his notes instead.  He’s really taken by these words.  I’m taken by Watts.  I’m starting my exploration of Buddhism,  eastern thought;  it soothes my raging demons who constantly taunt me with fears of failure in my chosen field, which remains the theater profession.  I’m out of work, of course, and I’m suffering self-doubt.  How will I ever break further IN?  why isn’t anybody listening or paying attention to my work?   Oh yeah…Jim Jordan is doing both.  Buddhism helps, it soothes me,  but mostly it opens me to new territory that is long overdue in my course of study.  It feels good to be reading such mindful books again.  I’ve sated one of desire– to be intellectually stimulated again, something I was losing fast, serving swordfish to men in suits, while they looked lasciviously at my breasts.

My boyfriend starts to ask questions: “ So, what’s up with your relationship to Jim?   He leaves you those notes and books.”  “He’s gay, don’t worry.”  “Yeah, but what’s up?”  “He’s got boyfriends.”  “okay, but why all the books and notes?”  “I guess he likes me.”   “Oh.”  “Why?”

Ouch.    What, am I only likable if I’m fuckable?   I would soon begin to see myself in this light, in terms of straight men.    Oh, what happened to thinking I was just more than that?  Was I really only tits and ass just like at the restaurant?  How could it be true?

I am really taken by Watts…I begin to think it’s a book that is changing my whole life.   After I’m done with it, I return it to Jim, apologizing that I hadn’t got to Buber.  “Keep Buber as along as you like.  What’d you think of Watts?”  “I loved it.”  We begin talking about specifics (add here).  Jim leans over in his raggedy old chair and stares intensely at my eyes.  “Can’t you hear the whine in his voice?”

Silence.  I’m thinking, what?

“He’s led a charmed life, don’t you think?” That’s not in the book.  I didn’t see anything about a charmed life.  I didn’t see anything about whining.  “I like his thinking, but he pisses me off.  He has no clue about real work, real suffering of the working class.  He’s privileged , you can hear it in his voice. He’s smart, I grant him that, and you can get some good info from him.  In fact, I sorta like him. But he makes me mad. He is such a whiner, listen to this.  He reads aloud to me.  “Well? “

I am dumbstruck.

I am about to have a revelation that would alter my life forever.

Jim is not referring to the words here, he is not analyzing the text at all. Jim refers to the book as Watts himself,  “I grant him that,  he’s a good reference, etc…”  He’s not saying, “the book does this or that, the text is this or that.”  He says that Watts, himself, is this or that.  Jim is mad at Watts?  How can you have a feeling like about a writer himself?  Where’s the analysis?  The critical thinking?  The good essay?  The paper you turn into your teacher?  What’s he doing, talking about his feelings at all?  “oh YOU…there you go again, with those assumptions. You make me so mad, get off your high horse.”

Jim Jordan is in relationship to these writers.   His books are personal notes, letters even,  to the authors themselves.  His notes are not summaries for quick study, his notes are not the quotes he’ll need to insert into his essay.  His notes are not even contextual.

He’s talking to these men. (they were all men, true.  I’m not sure it’s even appropriate to bring up gender equality in reading lists at this point.  He didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it. I’m sure we’d both agree, if it ever came up, that reading a diverse body of work is good.  But in truth, he read mostly dead white men.  Philosophers, novelists, essayists, poets, most from 1850 to 1960 ish so yes, white and male.  Most of the writers about Eastern thought were Western thinkers…)

Jim Jordan was in relationship to them.

He taught me how to read.

I had known how to read the words on any page, comprehend, summarize, analyze. In fact, I had considered myself a good reader, especially skilled at gleaning motif, big ideas, even details of rhythm and syntax.  But this was altogether different.

For 25 years, I had been wrong about so many things:  My assumptions about sexuality and personal affect,  my assumptions about education and literacy,  and now, the very basic building blocks of reading.  What was next?

The notes of poetry,  commentaries on books, observations of the weather, the rocks on the hillside,  kept coming to my doormat.  It was fast and furious.  I was writing back just as fast, filling my scraps of paper with lines of poetry.  Where was it all coming from?  From his notes.  I just responded.  In kind. A note about the wind?  From me, a note about the water.  A critique of Kirkegard?   From me, a series of comments and questions.  Underlined text, I started to talk to these men, but I really just talking to Jim Jordan.

But we didn’t talk in person.

When we were sitting in the same room, which was rare between 1985-1987,  it was so awkward. For some reason, we just had a hard time getting any flow of ideas, any flow of warmth, really, even though we had been signing all our notes with “Love…”   Why?  What was up with this?

2 possible explanations:  First, my boyfriend Michael.  Jim later confided in me that he just didn’t know what to do or say around straight guys.  He confessed to me that talking to straight men  he instinctively fell into some kind of macho competition.  The body language of sitting straight and tall, knees wide, Levis and plaid shirts, planting one’s male feet in a stance of a duel.  He hated all that.  When I told him that Michael was not that sort of guy, he refuted, “it doesn’t matter.  They’re all like that.  Straight guys.”    Hmmm.  Not sure I agreed with him on this.  But then again, I was a woman, and my default mode in those years was to flirt with straight men.  It was one of the beauties of my relationship with Jim.  I didn’t flirt.  Or at least, that’s not how I thought of it.  But we were in the process of  creating a more intimate relationship with each other, than  either of our lovers.  Yet, we could not talk easily.  Second, I chalked our awkward silences up to a lack of basic social skills on Jim’s part.  He just didn’t know how to be warm about unimportant things, that were actually important.  He never noticed my lovely décor, or asked about my family,  or made any small talk whatsoever.   I remember sitting across from each other, silently.  “so… so…you get that note I left about Neitzsche?” “yeah.”  I saw that cutie, Juan, heading up to your door the other day.”  “Gotta run. “  He’s out.  I remember thinking, “for all of his keen intellectual abilities,  where was the more feminine side of him?  The one who might talk about my new linens,  my kitchen tile.

I did not find any theater work for almost a year.  But something else was happening and happening fast.  I had an old Underwood typewriter out on the table and was starting to type my notes to Jim.  I was starting to write my poems.  Before heading out to my very very stupid job, I came to the typewriter to send a note to Jim.  He had started to do the same.   The paper was now plain old 8 ½ by 11, no more torn up little scraps.

Now, we have more to say. longer poems.

I ask him,  “how do you write like that? Those poems?  They are so free.”

“I write on the breath.”

I wonder,  what the hell is he talking about?

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