August. I used to hate the month. I was almost embarrassed by it. It was a Rubens nude – glistening and fertile; you could almost see the sheen of moisture in the folds of the fat nude’s inner thigh. August was a heavy, fecund woman, lethargic, immobilized by heat and the imprisoning male gaze. It was my contempt, sharpened by adolescence. I lived with my moderate, modest parents in a contemporary, hill-side house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and summers were heavy, humid and policed; turgid with yearning. It was impossible to find the energy even to imagine being active, unless headed, in a car, toward shade and the river. The air in the valley barely moved, and the furnaces of Bethlehem Steel boomed sporadically, fouling the air. I hated Bethlehem. I hated the strictures of my family; even the word itself, family, suggested corsets and straights and a future dead-ending in the Lehigh Valley and bondage and reproduction. That was August.
Then something changed – maybe just fleeing the humid, stale valley, with its all-used-up-feel; fleeing the house of my modest parents and heading west, toward space and danger. Or the way somebody might have said some time about August, “fecund, fecundity,” the words themselves a delight, offering another point of view, as if a word could become a thing, a window I could open and step through into a different way of feeling and seeing what August had to offer – the ripening of many fruits; the readying of all that ripened in the fields, toward harvest, toward gathering and feasting; preparing for the waning light. Suddenly, language proved an agent of transformation.
August triggers my revised thoughts about the fertile and the fecund; that which culminates toward fulfillment, and leads me to the question: what constitutes a rich, full, successful life?
I was volunteering at the Food Bank. It was a rambling, slip-shod place; its façade looked like a Western movie set, and was painted an unfortunate blue, very flat and at the same time, psychedelic. It was a warren inside, cubicles sprung up from a mulch of dirty carpet. One cavernous side of the ramshackle building housed the food bank, teeming with refrigerators and freezers and high shelving and a dozen focused volunteers organizing the mounds of food that flooded in on hand trucks and pallets. On the other side was the clothing bank where I was stationed with half a dozen others. Donations occurred and accrued. Enormous, black garbage bags lined one wall, and we’d sort through them and hang or pile accordingly – dresses and jackets and pants and under things and make-up and broken ersatz Christmas trees and pens that maybe worked and diapers and blankets and duffels and broken shoes and hats.
The Sad, Provocative Pile
The room was wide at the street end and narrow at the sides, leading back to the food bank cavern, and there was a long counter with a closet to the side, behind which we stood, and served the street poor. Regulars came – Stan, pale and chubby, with eczema and green finger nails, waiting to paw through the bra bin, and the tiny Central American woman, with whom I struck up jolly eye contact, who every week asked to see the “bedaahs.” It took a while to understand she was interested in the bra collection, and I would wonder why she needed two new bras every week, but I figured if you were always getting used stuff, it wouldn’t last that long, and she seemed sweet, and unassuming, so I trusted her need. There were the regulars who were kind and gentle with each other, and those who were drunk, unkempt, surly. There was the tall, elegant black man with a halo of white hair and the deepest voice, a well known performer at one time, and still thought himself such, who recited passages from Shakespeare as he “shopped,” but mostly he came to get off the street for warmth, a bit of socializing, and to execute his peculiar form of yoga.
“Shopping” was actually picking an allowed amount of stuff – 2 pairs of underwear, 1 shirt, 1 pair of pants or a light jacket, some cosmetics and first aid, 1 pair of shoes. These rules were posted in various obvious places, and the regulars knew them and were polite – gracious, even – about observing them and receiving their items. The gratitude among them was catching, so that you wanted to stand behind the counter and give away stuff all day.
There was a difficulty, though, with two volunteers, Gloria and Letitia, who would get there early to “shop” for themselves, and this became a problem, not only because it was beginning to be known that they had formed some kind of ring, but because at least one of them had been there for a long time, was a good volunteer gone rogue, it seemed, and it was one of those things we knew but did they know we knew, and they were very loud and jovial, and thought themselves entitled.
That got to be engrossingly weird, but also, I began to feel that my work there was pointless. I wasn’t addressing peoples’ suffering, except to give the tiny Central American woman her weekly “bedaahs.” I was standing behind a counter, feeling zings of guilty power, telling Stan, “No, you can not have that third brassier,” or turn someone away, because they were drunk. I began to notice how we, behind the counter, grew a little swollen with our power of decision – to give or not; “Yes you can, gladly,” or “No, you know the rules.” I began to feel uncomfortable in the face of these little power plays – not that the food and clothing bank wasn’t doing good work, serving the community’s street poor.
Sometimes the misery was discouragingly apparent. Trish, for example, came mostly every week with a large, seemingly cordial man named, Donald. They were obviously linked but it wasn’t obvious how, until I was told, “Oh, yes, they live together on and off. Donald is a drunk and he beats on Trish and she ends up in the E.R. and they drift apart and then they are back together.” The smell of alcohol rolled off them as they pawed through the racks, giggling and ferret-y eyed.
My Buddhism was getting a vigorous work out. My project – to increase the richness and fullness of my life though acts of generosity – did not result in a Volunteer of the Month plaque, or even sustained friendship among staff – kind and dedicated people. It resulted in my quitting. The vastness of the suffering undid me. Observant of it, and the random, raw deals handed to the players, I would go all porous, and freeze. Not flawed so much as possessed by extra imagination, I felt knocked up and walked through, as if the miseries jumped fence to start grazing in my pasture. Mine was a kneejerk response to Need; I felt obliged to apologize and fill it. I became envious of those who could hold their own in the face of Need, and offer what was appropriate – tea; a clean pair of socks; listening, with a discerning heart – all without feeling appropriated. Lacking training, a map, language with which to channel my unruly empathy into supportive action, I left my work at the food bank, a pilgrim still.
An act more of reclamation than present possibility, I will think about desire in the spring, when, excited, I make the bud rounds in my garden. This triggers a wish to re-appropriate desire by using images from my garden in its paroxysm of early spring. But never in my torrid mind appear associations that don’t connote sexual desire, along with all of its attendant, adolescent leitmotifs – the naming of the genitals; the ambivalent claiming; kind warnings from the elders about the huge weather systems up ahead; the very real possibility that then – at 12, 18, and 24 – one could be completely overcome, and yet could also be taught how to manage all of it as a good thing, full of joy and wonder. This material remained un-reviewed in my family. As a Christian Scientist, Mother discharged to God all that came with or related to the body. Disembodied we strove to be, and floundered, in the main.
My first Template of Desire was established when Gary, the bad boy of the neighborhood, lured me into the shed behind the rabbit hutch. This had no name, yet. Names would catch up later. Desire was sown early with a hodgepodge of impressions: the fragrance of the straw on which we lay, somewhat entangled; the rabbits’ restless footing outside in their wire cage; the dusty, twilit air; the lurking fear of exposure. The moment was a net, snagging unique, indelible impressions –straw, the bad boy with honey colored hair, shame, and the grown-ups pattering away in the house a few yards up the path lined with lettuces and zinnias, where we go “to Grammy’s” every Sunday, a day bifurcated into the endless tedium of church, and another endless hour’s car ride after, toward her enormous, Pennsylvania Dutch, mid-day dinners.
I like to believe I’ve learned something about desire from my garden, and that it can be a gateway to knowledge. What is loved leads one to curiosity, and practice. I trust this as theory. But in fact, I do not trust desire. When for example in the early spring I walk past freshly bermed, newly planted baby trees, I find myself less in an admiring and more in an acquisitive frame of mind. Greed screams, “I want those trees in my garden! I want more!” Never mind I have no more space or budget. Never mind I’m too old and tired to maintain the plants I have. I walk in greed, and experience this as an extension of desire. I dwell in the arguments desire instigates between curiosity and timidity; appetite and shame.
The desires of childhood, those remembered, seem clean by comparison. These passionate attachments– to reading piles of superhero comic books; to climbing trees; to flying – how I knew I could if I practiced every night, leaping off the bureau onto the bed again and again, knowing it was simply a matter of belief. Desire drove me West from Philadelphia, where for five years I languished as a poet and playwright, as committed to my Johnnie Walker Red and Pall Mall’s as I was to verse. Desire to regain clean airways and sweet breath moved me toward quitting. Desire to leave behind that sad girl, collapsed in my Center City studio apartment, an Anne Sexton wanna-be, until that career path became altogether too certain.
When the days grow slightly warmer, and life begins to surge again, the buds swell, and bulbs heave the mulch and the soil aside like bedclothes. The Camellia is the first to show. Next season’s buds swell even as this spring’s flowers pitch themselves all over the sidewalk, moist and browning. Its blooming is a calmer side of greed – the surfeit, like household junk put out on the street with its flimsy cardboard sign: “Free Free.” Conversely, the buds of the pear trees are tidy; they are silk buttons tightly balled and wrinkled. Pink shimmers along the edges of a tender green. The buds on all of the maples are hard and red, swelling at the tips of delicate branches like engorged tics. The lilac buds slowly reveal myriad small, tight-fisted, dark purple spheres. The Forsythia, ever un-subtle, is the one in a loud patterned blouse, middle-aged and frumpy, believing herself girlish and full of grace. The yellow screams, “I can make you happy,” while she remains oblivious of the drought that happens every summer.
Before too long, it is all a swollen riot of genitalia out there – the achingly long arousal; the simultaneity of orgasms; the sustained explosion.
3 ~ Love
Which brings one to love.