Girl, You Can Get Up Again

By July Westhale

It is 2013, and I am sitting in front of Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier. I am at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I have been sitting on this unforgiving stool for two hours, staring, not blankly, but at blankness. The bench is white. The walls are white. My knuckles, gripping a pen from a hotel my ex and I had vacationed at the last time I used this purse, are white. And in contrast to the prostrate man in the painting, I am sitting tall and erect, as if trying to be a bench myself. It occurs to me, as I recognize my own body in relation to the painted one, that perhaps I am trying to be a bench.

I want to be sat on, I think. I immediately think of an episode of “Nurse Jackie,” where the girlfriend of a patient going into organ failure is instructed to sit on her boyfriend so he won’t try to flee the hospital, which would surely kill him. I think about the weight her body must have had on him, and I feel The Cello Inside.

The Cello Inside is a feeling I’ve gotten, sporadically and somewhat arbitrarily, since I was a child. I have most often explained it as homesickness. Sometimes, I explain it as guilt. But it is disconnected from actions that would cause either homesickness or guilt.

A few moments that have caused The Cello Inside, in no particular order:

2012, morning. My friend Leah waking me up from my spot on her couch, holding a bumpy zucchini. “Yo, Westhale,” she is standing squarely over me in a hot pink negligee and combat boots. “You want a scramble?”

2014, middle of the night, wide open after kinky sex. My sweetheart smiling gently at me, saying, “I can see you have one foot out the door.” Leaning back and yawning, then assuredly, so certainly, adding, “It’s OK. I’ll keep showing up.”

1995, early evening parade — do they still throw candy from floats these days, or is it too much of a liability? My mother has a hot dog with mustard on it. The mustard is applied in a perfect squiggle, but I refuse a bite when she offers. “I hate mustard,” I say. It’s a lie. I don’t know why I say it. I cry all night at my missed opportunity to share our love of mustard.

Have you seen The Flower Carrier? Most people have. It’s highly reproduced, on prints in art centers and health clinics and therapists’ offices all over the world. A man, prostrate under a basket of purple thistle-y flowers, his wife helping to tie the load on. They are both positioned so that they cannot admire the flowers, which are variably muted yet sharp looking, like the yarn stars made by kindergartners. It has occupied the memory space of so many homes I’ve been lucky enough to darken the doorstep of, and in my nearly 30 years of life, has become an institution itself.

It was painted in 1935, but now the year is 2013, and my notebook, unlike the hard Masonite, is gentle. It could give, if I asked.

This is but one in a series of outings a friend, also going through a dark time, and I go on to help us relieve the doom and get us out of our brains a little. We smoke a joint barely outside the entry of the museum — I think it was the last time I got stoned — and part ways to be have profound experiences of art.

But instead I am having a profound experience of organ failure, and I want someone, or something, to lean heavily on me. A person who understands better than I do what I need, or a gargantuan basket of yarn star flowers.

I write:

How heavy are the flowers how heavy is woven wicker how many vases would it take how often does this woman take on the weight and pretend he has done it

And also: what is the moral weight-lifting involved in allowing a man to take a woman’s credit, and to reap from it?

I am, of course, thinking about my breakup, because it is 2013, and I have Breakup Goggles on. I am thinking, in 2013, that my current reality will always be my reality, because grief is insular and stupid (I think here of that Bob Hicok line, “grief is punch-drunk stupid, that’s why we get along” — then something further about both being like a scarecrow challenging lightning to a duel). I am, of course, thinking of myself as the woman in the painting doing the tying, and my ex partner as the one getting ready to sell. I am too punch-drunk stupid to realize that we are both both — the weight is distributed evenly, the roles are similar.

In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner talks a whole lot about profound experiences of art. Ben Lerner is hella smart (and so nice, and his wife is so pretty, which is just unfair, you shouldn’t get to win a MacArthur Genius Grant and also have the most beautiful woman in the world as your wife, I mean, c’mon), but I think to simply state profound experience of art is vague as hell.

The depressed and traumatized and just moderately blue would do well to think instead of art as a grand intersection of the personal with the global. I’m thinking here about each great movement of literature — think about it a moment. Humor me. Every moment was not only trying to self-correct for the movement before it, but also responding to the national landscape. If you need even one example, think about Cubism (both literary and in visual arts). I mean, what the hell, right? Cubism can only be a response to something, a kind of pluralism as a reaction to fragmentation.

People work similarly, as it turns out.

“What is the role of poetry in a discounted world?” I once asked an old mentor. He’d paused — I could hear him cognitively stumbling, not because he didn’t have an answer, but because he had so many. And as a poet, his job was surgical, concise — so what was the answer?

“To make meaning of said discounted world,” He said slowly, “Or, I mean, to encourage thinking.”

If every moment seeks to self-correct (and I believe this applies to generations, too), it is also true that we find ourselves in a constant flux of structure/anti-structure. This can mean that we can, over multiple periods of our lives, expect to both follow/create rules, and destroy/break rules.

What a motherfucking comfort that is. Especially to a body sitting on a hard bench, wishing to be the bench itself because she cannot fathom knowing if her organs are actually failing, or if her ways of thinking about wholeness are simply shifting. How have nations dealt with the loss of leaders and figureheads, poets and artists? How have we readjusted to the size of a bed after a lover has gone? The answer is duplicitous but can be, for our sake, reduced: we’ve broken the rules, and built them again. We are Robinson Crusoe. We re-learn how to read. When we aren’t sure how to do it ourselves, we find painting and scores and plays and poems and mentors who have some kind of template that we can use until we are able to get up again.

Because, girl, you will get up again.


Lead image credit: Joaquín Martínez, Flickr

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