I'm reading Hayden Herrera's biography of FridaKahlo for the second time. The first time around, I was struck by Frida'sresilience in the face of her horrific health problems. I feel equally struck this time around--perhaps more struck. It's just shocking to read the description of Frida's terrible accident on the public bus:
"The steel handrail had literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it had come out through the vagina."
Herrera writes of the aftermath of this accident:
"Frida's life from 1925 on was a grueling battle against slow decay. She had a continuous feeling of fatigue, and almost constant pain in her spine and in her right leg. There were periods when she felt more or less well and her limp was almost unnoticeable, but gradually her frame disintegrated. A lifelong friend, Olga Campos, who has Frida's medical records from childhood to 1951 says that Friday had at least thirty-two surgical operations, most of them on her spine and her right foot, before she succumbed twenty-nine years after the accident. 'She lived dying,' said writer AndrésHenestrosa, another close friend for many years."
This time around, I'm also struck, again, by just how ugly Diego Rivera was.
Diego, Herrera writes, was "undeniably ugly." Yet: "Part of his appeal was his monstrous appearance--his ugliness made a perfect foil for the type of woman who likes to play beauty to a beast..."
Diego and Frida
I've always found Frida's self-portraits and photos disarming: Even in reproduction her gaze is magnetic. She so clearly reveled in the look of her famous unibrow and light mustache inspiring an evolved sense of feminine beauty. To me, Frida was one of the most beautiful women of all time:
Frida Kahlo: Taken by her father after the death of her mother
But Diego, by all objective standards of beauty,was just plain ugly. That's fine, of course. I'm sure he had a lot to offer. But really, does history offer a more glaringly obvious case of beauty and the beast? Arthur Miller and Marylin? Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts?
I think Diego and Frida are the archetype of this fairy tale.
I would've liked to meet you at eighty. Our busy lives behind us, perhaps we could've watched all those movies we missed. I would've liked to see Hangover II. I would've liked to watch JAWS one last time. I miss you already. I know, we don't believe in Heaven, but tell me, please, when we meet again, somewhere, even if we're just two amoebas sailing over the waters of some new world-promise me you'll notice me. Forgive, my wife, it was I who lost our wedding rings. We never did make that trip to Jeweler's Row. It was I who never had the money. I had hoped to take care of you. I had hoped to buy you a ring. I had hoped to buy you an entire house. I had hoped we might sit in perfect stillness and wait for the good news. I had hoped to take you to Barcelona. We will never see Barcelona again. We will never share ice cream again. Forgive me, I let my illness make me crazy. ***
When I recently received the good news that my uncle Deano, a poet, had undergone a successful heart transplant, I celebrated by re-reading some of his books. At the time, I hadn't read any poetry for months; and, though I began writing, at sixteen, with the ambition of following my uncle, I hadn't written a poem in six or seven years.
This experience-the joy (relief!) I felt for my uncle, coupled with my reading-initiated a new season for me.
Since then, I've devoured poems in the way, post-diagnosis, I've devoured medical information: with an obsessive, indiscriminate mania; as if in pursuit of some transformative antidote. ***
This past Saturday, as evening collapsed on the orangeade drinkers carousing the boutiques, I put my hand down my throat to touch my heart and it stung.
That's a line from my uncle Dean's poem "Dog Toy"--a line, I once told Deano, that I would forever try to commemorate in my own life. The tang of orangeade. The art of carousing. The urge to feel my own heart. The sting of trying.
When I read this line I think of Icarus. In the myth, Icarus flies to the sun, burns his wings, and plunges into the sea. I look at this high-flying champion. I see the self-destructive attitude of the spirit. I see the self-obliteration of a man in whom the spirit is strong. This is spring to me: the season of self-obliteration.
The spring always fucks me up. Recently, I've suffered a flare of my gut illness, ulcerative colitis. Every year, it’s the same: spring rolls around and I experience a fresh slew of autoimmune symptoms.
And yet, I love the lunacy of spring.
Jubilant crowds take to the streets with no other design than to enjoy living. Young couples kiss in full view on the crowded streets. Old ladies eat fruit on the corners. Old men bound up steps, two at a time. Everyone’s making important decisions and making the exact opposite decision the next day. The weather, echoing the mood, changes erratically, hour to hour.
This past Saturday I was walking with Karen down 17th to Rittenhouse Square when we came upon a massive black man strutting in orthopedic shoes, wearing fat, old school headphones, and singing Tears for Fears at the top his lungs:
Something happens and I'm head over heels I never find out till I'm head over hee-ee-els Something happens and I'm head over heels Ah, don't take my heart Don't break my heart Don't, don't throw it away
He seemed to have a foot injury, something that made him lunge forward, on one foot, then the other, from side to side. He didn't really walk; he bounced. And yet, somehow, he had made of his foot injury a swaggering style. He was all confidence. His voice, high-pitched and somewhat melodious, was flawed, yet he sang without inhibition, with the fist-clenching braggadocio of a diva.
The man infected me. I've always loved Tears for Fears. I couldn't help myself: I sang along at the top of my lungs.
The street was jammed with the tipsy affluent people you'd expect to see on Rittenhouse. We walked through the crowds, down 17th, singing, past Bleu and Devon, past the glamorous line of wood tables outside Parc. Two springs ago I sat at one of these tables with Karen, Suzanne, and Andrés. We drank too much wine. At one point, I bolted up from my seat and challenged the entire street to a bet.
"I bet I can run around Rittenhouse in three minutes!"
A few people flashed five dollar bills in the air. Andrés set his watch.
"Ready?" he asked.
I took off.
Whenever I feel ill, I lie in bed and daydream about a different life: a different body, a fresh hack at my twenties, my thirties. I'm not sure why I just can't lie in bed and simply think about my life as it is. Someday, I hope to no longer dream about being anything or anyone or anywhere different. Someday, hopefully, I'll just dream about being me, as deeply me as possible, alive to my triumphs, my failings.
I will recover from this latest relapse, no doubt. And then, sometime, I will relapse again. When will I actually accept this cycle?
"We must change life," writes Rimbaud.
Following this dictum for years, I've played the role of a change-pusher.
"This book changed my life," I've said. "Read it!"
"This mango changed my life!"
"Eat this mango! Read this book!"
But what’s the point? To be different? To go elsewhere? I've spent a lot of time trying to change. What if the point is to merely fulfill, not change, life?
That night I sprinted around Rittenhouse, a warm, early June night, I wore boots--big brown boots. I'm not making excuses for my performance. Just saying.
Anyway. The transit around the square took longer than expected.
When I breathlessly arrived back at Parc, Andrés called out my time. "Three fifteen!" I had lost the bet, but everyone agreed that, in trying, I had won. I was sore for days.
I suppose this is why Spring fucks me up so much: my soul feels inspired to riotous action, and yet, my body feels compelled to nap. I walk around sticking my hand down my throat to touch my own heart. I make stupid bets on drunk enthusiasm. I pay for all this with my blood. What, exactly, have I inherited? How much of this is inevitable?
By the time we reached Parc, the black man's tune had changed. He now sang a new song, another eighties classic, from Toto:
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do I bless the rains down in Africa Gonna take some time to do the things we never have
The tipsy waved and clapped. And this massive man, seemingly oblivious to the tumult he was inspiring, just bounced along, singing at the top of his lungs. For a moment, the entire street seemed mobilized by this solitary voice crooning into the dusk.
The tipsy cried from their tables: "What is that one?!"
"Does anyone remember that one?!"
At the end of that poem, "Dog Toy", Deano writes,
What are you
waiting for? You've already
been given your free gift.
Inspired by the solitary crooner, inspired by every single person on the goddamn street, I couldn't help myself: I sang along at the top of my lungs. Spring had arrived early, it seemed, and I had no choice but to welcome it. Others joined in. Soon a chorus accompanied this man: a slew of people singing along at the top of their lungs.