Fears, Bears

(May 4th, 2012)

I.  The dark. Heights. No options. Too many options. Death. Turbulence. Growing old. No control. Manipulation. Ghosts. Many-legged creatures. The dark. Self-denial. Cancer. Disease. Failure. Driving. Crashing. Audiences. No control. Unconsciousness. Drowning. Falling. Infinity.

II.  There’s something about the dark that inspires in me a fear that is similar to my other more existential fears. When I can’t see, I’m afraid that I will come upon anything that is possible within the imagination, or outside of it. The fear that anything possible can happen, the vertigo of infinite options. That it only takes my imagining it to call it into existence. It’s the uncertainty of not knowing what is there, of not being able to confirm with all the senses the presence of normal things — a table, a counter, a bathrobe.

I don’t like to hang articles of clothing on coat racks because in the dark, they might transform into something else, something breathing. I want to make sure nothing can change, and to do that I let in light from the street when I sleep, and I welcome the brightness of morning. When I was younger, I used to make out faces in the dark, faces on wall patterns, posters, stucco, blankets, wood. Everything could morph into a face. My grandma had to sit outside my bedroom every night with the door wide open and the hallway light on, knitting silently on a chair.

A nervousness still invades me when I’m alone fumbling in the dark, the two seconds traversing the unknown territory of the hallway, rushing to switch on the light, any light, a slight panic gripping my senses, making dark corpses bloom in bathtubs, drag themselves down the ends of corridors.

III.  There’s a story my grandma once told me on a summer night, an old Chinese folktale about a hungry bear who overheard on its rooftop perch that the mother and father of two girls were going away for the weekend. The parents called the girls’ aunt, who agreed to come look after the sisters. The clever bear went to the auntie’s house and locked her in from the outside, then dressed up in women’s clothing and put on a hat before ringing the doorbell of the house where the two sisters lived. The parents had already gone.

The older sister opened the door and greeted her aunt, whose face was hidden under a large floppy hat and big sunglasses. The darkness of night made it even harder to make out the figure in the doorway, but the young, trusting sisters didn’t doubt for a second that it was their aunt. They ushered her into the living room and made to turn on the lamp.

“No!” cried the bear. “I’d rather it be dark, since my eyes are quite sensitive. I can’t bear the light.” So the sisters obeyed and left the lights off. They prepared supper and sat down in the dark at the dinner table. But the auntie didn’t touch her rice bowl.

“You see,” she said. “I’ve already had an early dinner, so I’m not at all hungry. Go on, I’ll just watch you girls eat. Eat as much as you can; both of you must grow. Look how skinny you are!” She chuckled with an evil grin.

So the sisters ate heartily while their aunt sat waiting, watching. After the sisters had finished their meal, washed up, and put everything in its place, it was finally time for bed. The auntie said that she would sleep with them in the same big bed to ensure their safety. She told the younger sister to sleep in the middle, while she herself would sleep on the outside to make sure nothing would happen to her. In reality, the bear liked young meat and preferred the little one.

So the two sisters fell asleep when the moment finally came for the bear. She quietly ate the younger sister as the older one slept on, unperturbed. At some point, as the bear was finishing her meal, the older sister woke up with a jolt and felt a strange wetness on the bed in the space beside her. She asked her auntie, “Why is the bed so wet?” And the auntie said, after swallowing the last bit of the younger one, “Oh, it’s just that your sister has wet the bed. She had a nightmare and was frightened, that’s all.” It was really her sister’s blood.

And the older one fell back asleep. As the bear was about to make her move, the older sister woke up suddenly again and felt in her hands hard, knobby things beside her on the bed. “What’s this?” she cried. And the aunt said, “Oh, they’re just peanuts that fell out of my purse as I was sleeping. I was hungry so I’ve been eating them. It’s nothing to worry about. Go back to sleep.” But they were really the small, fragile bones of her sister.  And the older one slowly realized something strange was happening. Her sister was missing, and it smelled like bear. She began to suspect her aunt wasn’t who she said she was.

So she quietly devised a plan. “Auntie,” she said. “I have to use the bathroom. Will you let me go?” And the bear said, “Only if you wrap this rope around you, so if anything happens, you can find your way back to me in the dark.” So the older sister agreed, tied the rope around her waist, which unravelled from the hands of her aunt, and went downstairs. She took the rope off and slipped it around the doorknob of the bathroom. Then, she took a pair of red slippers that were lying around and brought them out to the garden.

There was a deep well in the ground whose covering she took off and replaced with a red rug, on top of which she placed a red plastic chair. And in the grass in front of the rug, she placed the two silky red slippers, which shined in the moonlight. When the auntie tugged on the rope and found no response, she knew something was wrong. So she came downstairs to find the girl, but she was nowhere in sight. So the bear went outside into the garden, where she was suddenly distracted by the sight of the shiny red slippers and the cute little chair.

She couldn’t resist and momentarily forgot all about the older sister. She squeezed the red slippers onto her big furry paws and proceeded to sit in the red chair. As soon as she sat down, she fell with a cry, tumbling into the deep, dark well.

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The Art of Letter Writing

Photo: Letter from Federico García Lorca to his friend Melchor, about his “poetic mission”

Good movies inspire the kind of conversation which make afternoon walks seem airy and timeless. Especially through the charming neighborhood of Chamberí, past its old-fashioned bars and its streets full of madrileños going about their Sunday routines. We had just seen Woody Allen´s latest film “Midnight in Paris” with José and Juani, a Spanish couple in their 40´s who have never missed a single good movie.

Speaking of being transported to the past, the nostalgia of previous epoques, a city whose heart in its younger times sparked a special and intimate fondness that is sometimes difficult to revive… Jose talked about a Madrid that was his, some twenty-odd years ago, when he first moved here in his youth. He also talked about the desire to write, which in his younger days was something so essential and yet whose flame is unsustainable these days in his life as a family man. Put out by a lack of inspiration, by the greater necessities of adulthood. The balance that living life with another person can give you, so that the alone-ness, the melancholy doesn’t urge itself anymore onto paper.

How did you two meet?  I find that that is always an interesting question.

One day 26 years ago, Juani randomly caught a train to Aranjuez with some friends, where José was living at the time, a grungy teenager with long hair and a rebellious soul, like all teenagers. He was lounging around the streets with his friends that Saturday afternoon. Juani and her friends asked his group of friends for sight-seeing suggestions around the city. They walked around together, had a coffee, and became immediate friends. Before Juani departed on her train to Madrid, they exchanged mailing addresses.

I always find it difficult to imagine these past encounters; the images are always lit with a movie director’s videocamera, the hairstyles and clothes and actions are all props created for the spectator, who never will have seen this moment. Their friendship continued with letter writing, long letters with multiple pages, back and forth between Madrid and Aranjuez. José was a writer and idealist. He believed in this singular necessity.

Lord how times have changed…even in my days as a kid I still received handwritten letters and postcards in the mail, I sent cards and parodies of newsletters to my best friends, I kept everything safe in my small world of shoeboxes and drawers. Now we hardly have time to respond to emails, and the pressure of speed defeats the purpose of snail mail.

José talked about lacking a driving force which compels him to write these days. I said writing isn’t only about creativity and moodswings, it’s also time and work. Not the sludgery of a job in writing but the consistency that’s always needed to progress in anything. I believe in Muñoz Molina’s blank page of the notebook which is always kept close at hand, and which is like “the negative of the printed page:” that one writes because the necessary tools are within reach, because “the white pages inspire the desire to write, to anotate, to discover.”

I’m on a mission to keep handwritten pages alive, and traveling.