Friday, September 11, 2009

Releasing the Clamp

Now, in Vienna there's ten pretty women
There's a shoulder where death comes to cry
There's a lobby with nine hundred windows
There's a tree where the doves go to die
There's a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the gallery of frost
Ay, ay, ay, ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

--from Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen

If nothing else I have learned of tragedy is that one never knows what is the right thing to say. Or for that matter what is the right thing to do. So we walk around with clamps on our jaws. Some of us-- and I am talking about me-- puts a clamp on our hearts too.

Of course, generally speaking, I have a lot say. But I have been overwhelmed by it lately. Mostly what I have wanted is for it to go away. It isn't going to go away. I know that. It will just dim but I think it is going to pull at my insides until I unclamp my jaw, my heart.

Last Saturday I did my regular 3 hour run. This is my favorite run of the week usually. I get to spend 3 hours doing what I love to do and listening to my favorite music. Certainly being tired or something hurting or crappy weather can put a kink in my good times but generally if I can find my rhythm and get my head in the right place it all works out. On Saturday, the song Take This Waltz by Leonard Cohen found it's way in my 400 song shuffle. I love this song. It is one of my favorites. Here listen, if you like:
What I love most about the song is the amazing poetry. The song is actually Cohen's very liberal translation of Lorca'spoem Little Viennese Waltz. Straight translations from Spanish to English rarely work so it is hard for me to compare fairly but I actually prefer Cohen's song to the straight English translation of Lorca's poem.

I have long puzzled over the precise meaning of Cohen's lyrics but have mostly assumed it a love song about a passionate and tormented love affair. Basically I have long thought it was just a "smarter" version of this song by James. I like that song a lot too.

But on my run the other day I kept listening to Cohen's song over and over several times, compelled by the complex imagery and metaphor-- wanting to figure its meaning out. I'm a Lit nerd; poetry in particular. I like to do stuff like that. Besides, it certainly made the miles fly by having something to occupy my mind and distract me from how tired and sore my legs were after all my runs earlier in the week. It began to occur to me that perhaps it wasn't a love affair with another person but maybe it was just about life and the struggles we all face there--passion, despair. Certainly, as is the case with many great poems, there can be multiple meanings and only Cohen-- and I guess, ultimately Lorca-- know the true meaning. I just get to have fun trying to figure out the metaphor puzzle but never really get to know the true answer. Huh, just like everything else in life. . .

On Sunday afternoon I came home from a happy afternoon with my family to learn some very tragic news about an old classmate from high school. And ever since then I have grappled with the death of my old friend Spanky. I haven't seen Spanky since high school and had no idea of his struggles. The more I heard from friends who were close to him the more saddened and more horrific the news became. Emails and phone calls have flown back and forth all week. Everyone who knew Spanky is heartbroken for his family. My good friend Dogwood Girl blogged about it too. I will direct you there for specific details as I don't want to repeat what she has already said better than I could.

This morning I woke up, shuffled my kids to school and went straight out to run in the wonderful misty gloom on this eight year anniversary forever and always sad day of September 11th. Today's weather is my favorite kind of weather to run in and you would have thought my heart would be singing with every footfall.

My heart, my mind though were heavy; bereft even and mostly I was just trying to keep it together. I've been running with this despair all week. I've been methodical about it though. Keeping it locked down. I will feel the urge to cry rising and I will think: I will go run 20 miles and that will make me feel better. You know: just shake it off my shoulders; right out of my head. I'll leave it in the sweat; I'll liter it on the side of the road; toss it in the woods and wring it right out of my clothes afterward. However, whatever-- I will rid myself of it.

(I guess I just like to think that I have a better handle on my emotions than other people. And you know, if you've read anything on this blog, that I tend to think that a little running can solve just about every problem. Hence: because I run I've got it all figured out. Completely laughable. Not the running part--the part that I would have anything figured out.)

I didn't want my run to end. I wanted to keep running until I ran myself out and left once and for all this heaviness on the shining wet road. Leave it for the rain and the mist to carry and dissipate. I wanted most of all to find myself a few hours later sweaty, spent and hot in the sun. I wanted to be so exhausted, so bodily wasted that I could no longer cry, be sad or held in this tragedy's embrace. I know. That sounds like a lot to ask from an act as simple as running but sometimes the miles they can do it. It is rare that they have let me down. It is, after all, the thing that I do. Unfortunately I couldn't run myself out of the darkness today. Instead, I had to cut my run short and quickly dress myself for Spanky's funeral.

And I was so grateful that Leigh sat with me at the funeral. I had thought it didn't matter if I didn't have anyone to sit with. I would be okay. Let me just say this--if you go to funerals alone you are an insanely brave person.

I don't get to see Leigh much but she is always a comforting and calm person to be around. Pretty much the antithesis of me. Leigh and I managed to find some of the last seats at Roswell First Presbyterian in the balcony. Below and above it quickly became a standing room only funeral. And to that I can only say that when death finds me I hope the community will rally together for my family as it came together for Spanky's. Roswell has become such a big town but it is nice when you find those small town roots triumphing over the sprawl.

Since Spanky and I were not close and I had thought I had gotten my self purged of tears on my runs this week I thought I would hold it together. Also, admittedly, I do have a hard time keeping my mind focused in church; no matter the occasion. But as soon as the family filed in my stomach started knotting up and I began tying to think of other things to keep it together. It sometimes is easier to put and keep that clamp on when you just read words in an article or think of the tragedy in removed terms.I was no longer removed.

As soon as the readings began I began sniffling. I fanned my eyes with the program. And suddenly, Cohen's song was in my head. I have listened to it so much this week-- trying to divine the precise meaning-- that I am constantly hearing it, even seeing the lyrics. That first stanza in particular read like the scene I was looking at: Except instead of Vienna it was Roswell. And instead of 10 pretty women there was over a hundred women weeping, dotting tissues on the corners of their eyes--leaning on shoulder's, pews. And not quite a lobby with nine hundred windows but a church with many giant windows. And not a tree but a cross. But clearly to me was the piece that was torn from the morning; Spanky and his father. A family torn in half, not just a piece. And there I was with that damn clamp.

Too much. Too much. Understanding suddenly and not understanding it at all. How is that possible? It knocks the breath out of you.

Bless Leigh for passing me that tissue when the jaw, the heart came unclamped. You'd think that I could have at least brought my own tissues with me to a funeral but again, I had thought I would be okay.

Yes. I know I will be okay but I am forever heartbroken that Spanky was so consumed by an addiction and that addiction has irrevocably taken and damaged the lives of the people I know he loved. I am just sad. So sad and I feel terrible that I couldn't stay long after the funeral to say hello to all my old classmates or give proper sympathies to Spanky's family or even really say goodbye. It was just too hard. It was too hard to see so many people I have not seen in a decade or two and smile when I was so crushed; so undone by it all.

I can say no more about this. Cohen is right; it is all that there is.


  1. Sorry about your friend, and your week.

    I miss you. Hi to Stick for me, too...

  2. Hang in there, Nat. Running is a great way to heal the soul; leaning on friends/family is even better. Even the toughest gals aren't strong ALL that time. (((HUGS)))) to you.

  3. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. You really do have a way with words!