existential vulnerability at the office, black magic, and one blue moon.
I was every day out of step with myself last week. It began with a fall on the trail one morning. I was running fast, fell hard, the bones in me rattling around, settling uncertainly, making guesses at what the prior arrangement had been. Amateurs. My left flank bruised, my hip jammed. My left wrist and paw hurt most, the pain sickening. My dogs took a sniff of flattened me, and ran off into the old grass. An elderly woman came to help me up. I wanted her to go away, to stop involving herself in my embarrassment, but she wouldn’t leave me alone there, lying first on my back, then on my side, then my rump.
At last, because she wouldn’t take no, I allowed this kind, tiny woman to help me to my feet. As I took her hand, I inhaled the lightness of her, the feathery dryness of her fingers, so much blood gone out of her, and she yet walking the yards. I became self-conscious of my own weight and juiciness, the heaviness of my relative youth, my innards doing their wet work, my flesh still memory-foam, warm and un-warpable. Hers, the tenderness lived out of it. Crackling. Changing. Bright. If I let this developing angel help me, I felt, my sturdiness might drag her down top of me and kill us both.
We managed to get me up on my feet. Are you alright? she said. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?
I was pretty sure. So, we said goodbye and I chugged slowly on. The dogs came back around me, and we chugged together. I cried and cried. It was about 6 AM.
Maybe my wrist was broken. Maybe not. Sprained, l thought. I don’t go to hospitals if I can help it. I wrapped my wrist up nicely. Got dressed using one hand to zip and button my trousers, tucked in a pull-over shirt. It took everything I had. I was sweaty and determined. I went to work.
I’d been having a nice time there lately, felt recognized and appreciated. I produce marketing and advertising films for a living. This is not important work, not compared to fire-fighting or neurosurgery or painting wonderful pictures. But everyone in the business behaves as if it is.
Once in a while, we look at ourselves, at the long hours we keep, at our life and death devotion to what much of the world could care less about, and we shake our heads and smile together.
It’s only advertising, we murmur, it ain’t brain-surgery.
And then we press ahead, marching toward another brink, another deadline, complicit in our self-abnegation for the good of the collective. Because it is the collective we are supporting, the people right around us and tangentially connected to us, across our agencies, our creative partnerships, our clients and their factories, thousands of persons. In my particular corner of this world, the advertising corner, you’ll find all sorts, many of them overeducated, some having families, some dimwitted, a few sensitive monsters, some goodly-hearted, most of them loaded with talent, pluck and energy, and many who were told by some career counselor somewhere, sometime that marketing was the way to go if you’re artistic and you want to approximate a middle-class life in this country.
Middle-class or not, the success of a collective exacts self-abnegation — Google says the word means this: the denial or abasement of oneself.
Here’s an example of it. My best friend was dying in his bed, I was bidding an enormously complex international advertising campaign for a blue-chip company. I had employed myself lightly in the years of my friend’s illness, and now I was broke and needed the work. So, there I was, at my dining table, poring over numbers, chatting to producers on the phone, to a cost-controller, to art directors and writers and account people, working toward my deadline, keeping an eye on the texts scrolling in, as my friend meanwhile breathed, slowly and more slowly, up in his home in the Berkeley hills, working toward his deadline.
A text came in from his husband — it’s time. I was making a deal with a post-production producer — I said, excuse me, my friend is dying. I hung up. Drove to my friend’s house, where eleven friends, family members, and his dog gathered around his darling self, like twelve apostles around their Christ, Huma said later. I watched as he drew his last breath. Don’t be scared, I said to him as he left us. You’re safe, dearest.
After his body was prayed over, after we laid on the unguents, after he was dressed in bright colors, in embroidered fabrics, after the rose petals were laid over his eyes, after his doctor pronounced him dead, I took a nip of scotch, drove back home and finished the bid. I did not stand around and cry, not for long. I did not let the truth enter me that my world had just ended. I went immediately away, and did what needed to be done to keep the marketing collective fed.
Self-abnegation. It’s part of the culture of marketing people. Every single initiative is a forced march through the countryside of one’s own life and no time to look right or left to take in the view.
The morning I fell on the trail. Maybe my wrist was broken. Maybe not. I went to work.
The next four or five days were extremely busy, the gang working toward a presentation deadline, and beyond that, a live date.
Deadline. Live date. Advertising is not like life at all. Everything is back-timed.
And, as I said, I was out of sync, somehow. The chaos and the press of the work, the gush of awkward planning that had got us all into another mess of rush and push and running multiplicities of scenarios to get us to the goal, to make sure we didn’t fail, working for 10, hours, then 12, then 13 and 14 hours with a month of weekend work before us, and no stopping.
I grew tired. It showed.
And someone said it showed. He said someone else said I seemed stressed. And then someone else said someone else said I seemed stressed. And I realized I had failed the first rule of corporate professionalism, which is to appear authentic while concealing the truth about one’s truth.
So — I went from feeling appreciated and accepted at work to feeling unappreciated and at-risk. I was an injured gazelle.
And I had been spotted.
I freelance. Freelancers are expendables. We have to be perfect all the time, or we get taken down. Once the pack sorts you out, you feel very alone.
I wrangle loneliness a lot. I’m an only child, with aging, long-divorced parents who have only myself to look after them. My best friend is dead. Many of my other friends have left the Bay Area. The advertising agency I loved most and where I worked longest is gone. My arts community has dissipated. I’m divorced. And I asked my gentleman caller to stop calling.
So, my workplace community is what I have. It matters to me, very much, for a living. But for a living that includes contact, laughter, emotional exchange and intellectual interest.
I learnt I had exposed myself as seeming stressed at the end of a Friday’s work, at the end of a grueling week, my wrist mummied up in elastic gauze, my hip aching, a migraine rumbling. I sank into a dreadful sadness.
A month ago, a producer I knew slightly, killed himself. I don’t know the reasons for it. But, reading an obituary about his gentle life, I came to know that he — like me — lived a split. He, like me, had supported himself in commercial production. And he, like me, had a small, serious career in the performing arts. He’d been a professional dancer, had worked with the famous. He worked as a healer. He wrote, and his writing was thoughtful, philosophical. He was handsome and dear. A love.
Where was his limit drawn?
What was his deadline?
Several weeks from now, I’ll sing at a friend’s wedding. I will sing his first dance with his new husband, the two of them green and fresh in their vows. Somewhere during the instrumental break, the parents will join the dance. Then the rest of the party will stand, cling to one another, and sway.
I’ve been preparing the groom’s song request, taking coaching from a pianist. I was very glad, feeling as low as I did this weekend, to have that coaching on the books. Singing makes me feel better.
Leaving the pianist’s studio, I drove through the rain, and parked outside a little, women’s clothing store I visit once or twice a year. It’s a pretty place to drift, to be enchanted, to touch the clothes. Looking at colors and patterns, inhaling newness, a distracting balm.
The rain was heavy outside, the sidewalks empty, and no other customer was there.
I’m so lonely!
I turned, and smiled at the proprietess. She was a handsome woman in her mid 60’s, beautifully dressed, all honey highlights and gorgeous make-up. She was old-world elegance. Impeccable. She was charm.
I’m so lonely, she said again, in an accent, rich in humor, that — to my crudely tuned ear — sounded Russian.
No one is here. The rain.
I’m here, I said, we’re in this together.
I continued my tour of the shop, humming my tune.
Are you singer? I can tell you are singer. What is that you are singing?
That Old Black Magic.
Sing it to me.
And I did. I sang to her in her empty shop. We stood, facing one another squarely. Just us two. Her eyes, pale green. I sang and she listened, both of us in perfect attention. I sang her the whole song.
Then we were quiet a moment.
That is beautiful, she said to me, you are beautiful.
She said, I used to sing.
She said, I used to, before this –
She pointed to her throat, to that little hollow there, nested at the collarbone. Her suprasternal notch.
I said, what do you mean?
I said, what happened?
She was a professor at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She was raised in the Ukraine, living and teaching at university there. She said, when the accident happened, the profs were told to send the young, the students, to Chernobyl to help.
She was a working scientist. She calculated the outcomes.
She sent not one soul.
I bought a short-sleeved jacket from her. We embraced before I left the shop.
Five minutes later, a friend texted, inviting me to join a family who’d be breaking their Ramadan fasting at a favorite Pakistani restaurant that evening. I said yes. Eight of us sat down at 8. The sun set at 8:15. The food had been pre-ordered. The plates landed on the dot. The teenagers at the table did not waste a moment with praying, but fell to. The adults passed the dishes ‘round without hesitation, speaking the prayer only because I asked them to.
Oh, Allah, I believe in you, and I fasted for you and I break fast with your sustenance. Thank you for the hands that served the food, that cooked the food, thank you to the hands that raised the food, thank you for the building where we sit, thank you, thank you, thank you ….
Outside, above the rain and the deep murmur of clouds, a blue moon rose. Later that night, a painter texted me a shot of it, snapped through her high window in Williamsburg.
Blue moons really are blue.
Today is Sunday. I don’t go to mass. I write this instead.
Monday morning, I’ll be back at the office. Covering my hurt paw. Hoping the pack doesn’t notice the next time I break my gait.
©2019 Amanda Moody, all rights reserved