My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun
The rule I made for myself most days was that I had to leave the house and smile at least three people that I didn’t know. I had to make eye contact and just say hello, which is to say even if I was shaking or had been throwing up from all the anxiety all day long I still needed to walk out on Claremont Blvd. and face the world.
This was the rule on weekends but also on weekdays after I’d get home from teaching at Stanford. I was doing great at Stanford. The students were fabulous, I was busy, I could make it through the day teaching my ass off and if I felt my heart start pounding I could breathe my way through it. I could get in my black Jetta and drive all the way home: over the Dumbarton bridge with its deep smell of algae, along the 880. By the time I’d get onto the 24 I might really be sweating or maybe crying a bit but it was okay, I could make it. I could get up the wide craftsman stairs and into my apartment and just make the bathroom before throwing up. I’d look up to see our sweet cat, Clemente, who had started to wait there for me to come home.
No matter how bad the day was or if it was dark I still had to walk back out the door. Turn right on Ashby and walk to College or keep walking down Claremont and go into Star Market and just say hello. To Nick, the owner. To the butchers. If I was on College I could go into Manpuku and get some miso soup and say hello to each person behind the counter. And then I was allowed to go home and throw up a few more times before going to bed.
Once I said hello to three people I needed to make my way home. Which was harder than you might think. I was so afraid I was going to begin hearing things that all I did was hear things. The doctor said, “You haven’t gone crazy. You’ve had a panic attack. You’re perfectly sane.” One of the branches on a giant rosemary bush would scratch my jacket and I’d have to sit on the ground with my head in my hands and beg my God not to have this be the start of the end of me. I remember how the eucalyptus trees smelled even in the coldest months in Berkeley. I remember how huge the spider webs were. Those were the things I focused on and breathed while saying to myself, “You are healthy and full of light. You can do this. You can get home.”
I needed another rule. Or I needed a companion. When I tell my students that I am terrible at memorization I’m not kidding. I can’t remember ten lines if I say them one hundred times over. It may be something to do with my nystagmus. I’m not sure. In other respects my memory is muscular and accurate to the point of distraction. I’m not sure how I came up with the notion that memorizing poems by Emily Dickinson would be the way to get myself home. And in the end there was just one poem, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.” It took all the months of my shaking and not killing myself to get the poem down. Took the distance from College to Claremont and along the fire trails and up the hidden staircases in the Berkeley Hills. Over and over, “It is as a Vesuvian face” as I walked back from my analyst’s who said, You have to be like the bamboo. “It is as a Vesuvian face” at the bank and in the movies and with the steam from the soup dumplings hitting my cheeks. One poem for a year and now like a friend in every dark time.
Why did my mother kill herself and I didn’t that year and have not? This is a question I ask myself almost everyday, though never during moments of despair. The thought never comes to me then. I ask myself at the farmer’s market when David shows me the black radishes that I use in risotto or when Sarah takes me to the ranch and the horses press in on me so I’m nothing but warmth and breath and their snot on my hair. Is it this? Is this the reason? I ask myself at the rodeo and the rowdy square dance when the rain starts to fall. I don’t mean for it to sound romantic. I have questions about what keeps us alive. I don’t believe it’s a phone call or trying harder. I don’t believe it’s an act of cowardice to take your life. Or that it’s brave. I think it’s the most natural unnatural thing in the world. My analyst said, You have to decide her story is not your story. Even if it’s the last place you know to find her and you really have to say goodbye.
Over the next year, instead of writing the Sports Desk, I’ll be writing about the year I didn’t kill myself. Which is every year so far and one specific year and I think we probably all have one. And I’d like to start a conversation.
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun (764)
By Emily Dickinson
My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
This week Gabrielle Calvocoressi will be writing every day. After that the column will appear on a bi-weekly basis.