Friday, January 30, 2009

When Good-time Charlie's Got the Blues

[video from Purelistener on Youtube]
Sometimes it seems that the worst happens to us, like a painter who is stricken blind. Such a thing is a change to accommodate for one person, a disaster for another. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Losing,” which says she can tolerate anything but losing her partner. That partner later committed suicide.

Loss is tolerable in proportion to our internal statements. “I love to paint” is so different than “I am an artist, painting is my life.” There’s one of those “I am” statements, in which we try to define and capture our identity permanently. But no identity is permanent.

We all lose that most precious thing, our lives. I have felt lucky to have to face death through a series of health misfortunes, and then a handful of chronic disorders that represent the wearing out of my body. As these conditions came upon me (all of a sudden, a broken foot, or gradually, kidney failure) I had to give things up. Actual activities, like driving, or dreams. I think we all know that giving up dreams is harder. You always thought that someday you’d visit Greece or be struck by the thunderbolt of great love; maybe both at once.

At 66 I am at the age of watching people die, first the generations before me, now friends my age. The most wrenching death was my mother, though she was in her eighties and had lost much of her self to dementia. She did not want to live after my father died. Still, she struggled against her own death for years, even as she was partially paralyzed and deaf and her veins were breaking down. She talked until the last morphine shot in a hoarse, unintelligible voice, unwilling to give up talking. I think she saw her voice as her very self. Alcoholics lead increasingly isolated lives, as they relate more and more obsessively to their desire to avoid pain. The brief, haphazard connections made at parties and bars are no substitute for being authentically woven into the fabric of life. Putting your own feelings first leads to an essentially lonely life.

Years ago I took the song “Good-time Charlie’s got the blues” from an album, and learned to play and sing it. It captures the sadness of the alcoholic lifestyle into which I was born, and actually, the kind of moment we all face now and again.

Maybe it is also very Zen. Charlie is not wallowing in his sadness, especially not in Elvis’s country rendition. He describes himself with the detachment of the third person at a moment shaped by many forces: “Everybody’s gone away.” He’s still got pills to ease the pain, but “Can’t find a thing to ease the rain.” There is a sense of accepting that. Sometimes you can’t.

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