Mary Ruefle, “Sent to the Monk”

Last night I watched a man who could barely take a step without struggling to breathe buy cigarettes.

I don’t want the image to leave me. Dark, pronounced lines marked his features. They emphasized his verticality, his fight to stand upright and walk. He didn’t talk much—what I mostly heard were wheezes and gasps.

For me, the last few days have been really good. Lots of walks, reading and writing, even winning at video games. I have been thinking about growing older, alone, and in large part I’ve been thinking about people who I feel didn’t age well. What I want most as I grow older is the right attitude, regardless of who is or isn’t in my life.

To see someone suffer so much entails realizing that my own reasoning is so damn privileged. A debate about considering risk factors or making “better” life choices does not do justice to that line of Jane Kenyon’s: But one day, I know, / It will be otherwise. The word “otherwise” does a lot of work—it cuts off trying to think through future adversities, as you can’t know what will hit you or how what afflicts you now will hurt. I’m privileged to be able to make choices now which benefit me in some small way. I’m privileged to be able to believe that I can heal, that I may be able to avoid or mitigate some future trouble.

I’ve been staring at Mary Ruefle’s “Sent to the Monk” here and there the last few days. I use Twitter as a scrapbook, and one of the virtues of having to revisit a timeline of captures is that I have to see things I wasn’t originally looking for. Ruefle’s poem, which features withdrawal-like symptoms from what one supposes a meditative experience, is raw. The past can swallow us whole, if for no other reason than our having no concept of the future:

Sent to the Monk
Mary Ruefle

Night falls
and the empty intimacy of the whole world
fills my heart to frothing.
The past has trudged to this one spot
with a flashlight in its mouth
and falls into the stream.
Ancient tears beneath the surface
rise and scatter like carp,
while an ivory hairpin floats away
like a loose tooth going back in time.

What should be a blank slate, a landscape neutral if not good, instead creates panic—the empty intimacy of the whole world fills my heart to frothing. The emptiness is too much, too close. The thought or memory that one could be loved overwhelms.

More than overwhelms, it drowns. The past has trudged to this one spot with a flashlight in its mouth and falls into the stream. When I panic about being loved, I ransack every image in my head, every part of a memory. Every regret I had or could have floods my mind. Questions of love are taken as questions of worth. Questions of worth entail trying to assess one’s worth immediately.

For Ruefle, griefs long forgotten come to life, creating an ecosystem she will dwell in—Ancient tears beneath the surface rise and scatter like carp. The fish must be found, as she brought them into being, after all. The last lines, where an ivory hairpin floats away like a loose tooth going back in time, describe both the futility and necessity of her project. Going back to solve riddles from one’s childhood can set one back years and may never resolve. Should one try to identify conflicts from long ago? Of course: anything that helps you understand your sensitivity can be good. Still, to identify such a process as a challenge would be an understatement.

Ruefle steps away from the “empty intimacy” of the world because it causes the past to roar back with a vengeance. The gentleman I witnessed struggling to breathe is caught in an exceptionally vicious present, one in which imagining a future is a luxury. And myself—I’m not a middle road between these two. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a moment where I can think about what my sufferings mean. I can understand that being alone feels terrible, and there have been plenty of moments where it felt like I would lose control. I’m not in the midst of that right now, but I would say that is luck more than anything. And it is pure luck that I have my health and can do small things to help better it. I don’t know what to think about aging except, as much as within my power, to bear witness to the whole world, embrace its empty intimacy when I can, and breathe. There is some kind of quiet dignity in simply being, but what a privilege to be healthy enough, or to feel loved enough.

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