The Experience of Being Alive

Chapter 12 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, available on Amazon and B&N.

TheWriter_CoverPJ produced a new piece about intuition. “As you know, I’ve made a study in quest of the meaning of the word: intuition. And I came to understand that it begins in childhood unconsciously, and it is a totally unconscious process; nobody knows anything about it. In other words you’re in a situation and the issue is stated and right away your reaction is instant, and positive. But people can spend the rest of their lives trying to rationalize what they did. Did I explain that clearly?”

“You do,” I said. “Very well.”

PJ’s new definition of “intuition” as integral to human motivation and behavior interested me. He showed its operation in his own life in The Writer.

At thirty one, the young artist made a decision, known to him at the time but unknown during an interim of years until the writer reminded him of it. At that early age, when most young men are seeking a profession which will pay them well, the young man determined that he would never again work for money.

He lived by that resolution, too, while in the competitive society in which he found himself. He did later work on salary. But that was for bread, the landlord and the utilities. He lived to learn that there is no money in living “for the joy of it.”

Then youth to old age, with intuitive perception, he lived for the experience of being alive.

“This phrase, intuitive perception,” I said to PJ, “how can that work with your new concept of intuition?”

***

In the church’s front office, I picked up a book, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. He summarized Kierkegaard’s “lie of character” as being “built up because the child needs to adjust to the world, to the parents, and to his own existential dilemmas.”

Not very specific, but it was a summary after all. Becker went on, “It is built up before the child has a chance to learn about himself in an open or free way, and thus character defenses are automatic and unconscious.” Then the person “becomes dependent on them and comes to be encased in his own prison, and into himself … and the defenses he is using, the things that are determining his unfreedom.”

Isak Dinesen, though, said there are ways to escape this prison, this slavery to the accreted self, and create one’s self anew and form new identities at will.

PJ felt he had been forced to create new identities. In each identity he found “a clean slate.” Studying his own identity, he began to think about the adjustments children make.

“Now, presume that a child begins life innocent and amiable and feels no guilt,” he said, “until the first time someone punishes him. Then the child feels anger and guilt. Although later, he may learn to mask hostility with an amiable appearance, there will never be a time of complete amiability again. The hostility may be disguised so well that the person does not know he experiences it himself.”

“So the cause of hostility,” I said, “is that rebuke to your innocence.”

Yes, he nodded.

“Isn’t there one more ‘station’ between impulse and action?” I quoted Voltaire: “’I believe that with the slightest shift in my character, there is no crime I could not commit.’”

He smiled. There was a last stage one’s reactions go through, he said. “You see, character gives a temper point, having something to think about, argue about.”

I liked the way PJ’s theories were specific and not sterile, incorporating emotions such as love and anger, and the palpable senses of guilt and innocence.

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Existent Death

Chapter 8 of Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press

At PJ’s the three convened to work on Tender Branch [an excerpt of PJ’s account of his “death and renascence” in mid-life]. Whenever Rogue and I talked about PJ’s invented words, odd style and his way of separating sentences with three dots, PJ looked annoyed. Rogue was curious about PJ’s “new” words, engaging in word play with him, while I tended to accept them whole.

It was hot inside his apartment, with only a fan to cool the three of us, and when we were almost finished editing, Rogue and I decided to go outside and enjoy the day. PJ, reluctantly, let us go.

Coming back from the park, PJ met us on the corner and ambled back with us to the street-level door. Rogue waved and went on his way. I followed PJ upstairs.

“Rogue is deliberately taking you away from the work,” he fumed, “because he does not want The Old Man to accomplish anything.” He went on to say that Rogue wanted him to remain handicapped and helpless. “The Company, he could see, would never work, because Rogue was determined to subvert it.”

I assured him that Rogue said he would finish the typing later that night. But PJ felt Rogue would find some reason not to do it. “He’ll find one excuse or another, because it has never been his intention to help PJ.”

His assault on Rogue appalled me. If he kept harassing Rogue, wouldn’t he leave?

As soon as Rogue came back, PJ attacked him. Rogue shrugged it off. He took the pages home to type. Leaving PJ’s apartment, he and I agreed that it was “all exhausting.”

PJ said that Rogue was attracted to handicapped people. In PJ, the handicap was his age and illness, his “decrepit body.”

I received a letter from PJ:

The old man gave the kids their freedom after dinner and came to his squalor, was lonely, far too, went out into a light drizzle. Sixth Avenue had become a street theater. Couple guitarists, amplified, and a wailing sounding instrument were blasting country music; seated in a shelter, a large circle had gathered for audience and the guitar case was full of coins and bills. Good for the old man. He could hear every note, feel the rhythm. A young woman in street clothes danced, her feet, body and arms punctuating the sound. The old man felt an anguish of pleasure, stayed and watched for an hour.

The dancer was a cripple, at last she took an abandoned cane and shopping bag and limped away. So, we’re the existent dead. Moments of diversion, sound in the rain, then back to our evasion (however) of life. The old man returned to his lonely bed, after pills, with a wish for sleep/death.

“I don’t think you’re one of the existent dead.”

“No,” he said, but at times he experienced it. He handed me several pages.

I read, “Existent death is a phase of variable lengths of time. The existent dead live without consciousness and completely through rationalization, a thought process by which we evade evaluating what is happening in our lives. Everyone goes through periods of existent death, and of being renewed, into times when we are more conscious of what we are doing and pursuing what is valuable to us.”

He wrote what I thought was succinct, with a provocative ending:

Existent death is a state of being in a functioning body, by one’s self and in relation to others, but evading consciousness of experience, especially the memory of eternity in the present instant.

PJ stayed up late cutting the pages and pasting them up for his booklet. Coming in I saw him lying on the bed in a state of exhaustion. At the work table Rogue and I had set up with its strong overhead lamp to aid his poor eyesight, I looked through the pages. Some were slightly crooked, but easily fixed. I had to admire the job he did.

At the bottom of the title page, though, he had cut off the last lines. I told him and he nodded, yes, he thought so. He wasn’t sure, because his eyesight was so poor.

He had asked me to make a number of copies of each page in case he made errors, and I selected the best one of that page and cut it carefully and correctly, aware that he had done this as a professional in his earlier life.

My assistance made him look dejected, but simultaneously hopeful. When I finished he barely glanced at the work, as if to say I know it’s all right, but I couldn’t do it, don’t rub it in. So I moved on quickly. He acted resigned, but as we collated the pages he livened up.

We put the cover on the mock-up and he was enthusiastic again.

“The old man has been thinking we three might promote the publication of PJ’s million words.”

Tender Branch was out, he said, and before that a blurb on “World’s End.” The writer had hundreds of pieces. The three of us could print, bind by hand, and mail them.

He wrote to me:

The old man’s efforts at promoting the writer had been weak, for the lack of concept how to. Tender Branch had shown the way.

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Remembering poet Virginia Ruth Scott

This excerpt is from  my memoir, Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1 is on Scribd.com). The time is summer of 1981, and the setting St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, Manhattan, NYC.

I was almost finished with Gore Vidal’s Two Sisters, and I told Virginia Scott about it when we were talking in the downstairs theater for a couple of hours. Virginia was interested in playwriting and getting away from editing and publishing, but her press had recently been given three grants from the NEA, so she had to work on those books.

Discussing our publishing adventures, she said, “You are a poet who has made a commitment to publishing, and it’s quite a commitment.” She went on to say, beside what you have to give up, people abuse you, use you, judge you.

In her year’s sabbatical, she wanted to learn about play production, from the manuscript to the final production. “St. Clement’s is just the place to do it.”

Our “negative space” [a reference to the book about film, Negative Space by Manny Farber] was filled with poetry. The physical space was filled with the pungent aroma of food. While we planned the October 25th benefit for the Poetry Festival, I went to the kitchen to investigate. I had $5 in the bank and spare change in my desk drawer. With a cup of tea in my hand and a muffin left over from Sunday lunch, I came back, telling Virginia, “I couldn’t get Robin Morgan at Ms today. No answer twice and then she’d just left.”

“If you can’t get Gloria Steinem or someone just as big,” said Virginia, “forget it. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up to Robin Morgan.”

“I do.” I wanted Denise Levertov and thought that she would be a good draw. But where is D.L. in August? All the big hitters left the city in August.

Who to ask?

“Ginsberg,” we sighed.

“He could’ve been a force,” she said, recalling the literary world twenty years ago. “I picked up the first issue of Partisan Review the other day and the names were impressive: Sartre, for instance, and even the lesser ones, like Stephen Spender.” She compared it to a recent issue and was appalled. “Aren’t there any great intellects in the 1980s?”

“That’s what Gore Vidal said in his book.” And my friend PJ: “There’s no intellectual leadership in the world today.”

We stopped to watch the crew work on the set for the next play.

“This is what fascinates me,” Virginia told me, “the behind the scenes work, set design, building a set.”

I thought, she sounds like me when I first came here.

I introduced her to Anita [Anita Khanzadian, Theater at St. Clement’s] and they seemed to connect. I hoped Virginia would hang out at St. C’s, as she said she would.

Traveling to Greenwich Village was a journey into another life. My negative space was filled with good vibrations. Elaine Fenton’s Manhattan Poetry Review publication party at the Speakeasy made me feel like a traveler who has discovered new lands and cannot go home again. Elaine was gracious, smart, funny; for her I made this trip. Friends swam out of the crowd. I smiled and dove in. Kathy Nocerino pointed to my new Hell’s Kitchen tee-shirt. “See, she’s telling us who she is.”

Virginia Scott was reading September 13th. In late August, in the downstairs space, Virginia and I sat at a long table, talking about women writers while she looked through scripts.

“You are the sexton?” Virginia laughed. “You could change your name. Mary Sexton.”

“Anne Sexton had a play done here,” I told her.

“Really?”

“Yes. Wait, I know. My middle name is Ann. Mary Ann Sexton.”

And I rolled my eyes and we both laughed.

Read more about Virginia Scott.

Ladders of Flame

Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen
Copyright 2014 by Mary Clark
All rights reserved. For permission to use any portion or all of this document or photographs, please contact me at my Facebook Author page:
https://www.facebook.com/maryclarkbooks

Excerpt from
Chapter 2 Ladders of Flame

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

Watty Strouss 1981

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”

In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars. Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street: This is the fire, this is the glow as flames rise in the core, heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms, almost human, they flow along fire escapes: angels, angels walking on ladders of flame.

Deep Winter

Excerpt from Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, 2013

pj3

A month of deep winter, near zero weather, and PJ in his cold Village garret was sick. I brought him a foot warmer. The nurse heaped blankets on his bed and set up a space heater.

“What are you doing here?” PJ looked up from his bed. “It’s four degrees outside.”

One evening I became ill, and by morning was struggling to breathe, painfully, as the congestion deepened into my lungs. For three days, I was in bed, getting up to change sweat-soaked clothes and to attempt to eat. By the third day, I was hallucinating. I seemed to be two people, one sick and the other well: the sick body and the rebellious mind?

I had a muddled sense of this and the split was not exactly clear, but one part of me was holding a conversation with another part. I dreamed of fire, then of a building on fire. I was on the top floor with my brother. My paternal grandparents, both actually now dead, were on the sidewalk below waiting for me. I had promised to go to the zoo with them, but first asked them to wait a minute because I had to go to the store, vaguely like Jake’s bookstore, and take something upstairs. So I did and when I was up there, I heard fire engines and people shouting. My brother and I looked out to see people pointing up at us and smoke pouring from one of the floors below.

I went to the door and started to step out, but the stairs had been burnt away, all the way down. Someone on a floor below opened their door and I shouted to them not to go out, the stairs were gone. No one came out and I began to devise schemes for our escape, when the phone rang.

I picked it up and someone said, “Hi, it’s me.”

“Who is this?” I asked.

“I’m the one who never calls anybody.”

“Who?”

“Jake. It’s me, Jake,” said Jake.

“Jake who?”

“Oh my God,” he said, “I can’t believe this. Jake who. My store just burned down and I call my best friend for sympathy and she doesn’t know me.”

Jake told me that there had been a fire on the second floor of the building his store is in. It started in the apartment above his store and there had been some smoke and water damage, ruining most of his books.

I passed away from life again into a delirious state, becoming more dissociated from myself. I thought I was three people, each one belonging to a different part of my face. One part belonged to one nostril and one to the other nostril and another to my mouth. Only the mouth was working. I kept asking, why have they abandoned me? Why don’t they work?

I felt myself floating down a river, and this went on for a long time, inexorably to its end, which I became slowly and in some pinpoint sense keenly aware of, but still I let myself go with the gentle but insistent flow. At last I felt myself buoying up, resisting the flow, and coming to a greater awareness.

Rising, I recovered enough to go to the hospital and be given medicine my mother later told me was used to treat Legionnaire’s disease.

Jake and I shared a laugh about my delirium when I was sick. “I knew you, but not exactly,” I said. “One part of me was telling me who you were and would have been able to talk to you, but I was almost unconscious. Everything was jumbled up. I also thought you were my Uncle Jake calling to tell me my parents’ plane had crashed.”

“Wow.”

“They were fine.”

“But my store did burn down.”

Together we moved through the water-soaked remains of his books and magazines. “I’ll get it going again,” Jake said.

During my illness, I experienced the hysteria and helplessness that PJ must live through daily. It was more than physical suffering and damage to the body. I realized that the mental aberrations and changes in consciousness caused by physical illness could become permanent. That would explain PJ’s “disintegration” and intensified “multiphrenia” and paranoia.

“You cannot experience my descriptions of my sickness with immunity,” PJ said. “You fell sick in a paroxysm of empathy.”

I had fallen beneath the weight of his narrative of despair, pain and helplessness. After this, I knew I could not witness his constant talk of pain and illness. I resolved to distance myself more from PJ. Suddenly, I wanted to find a way to be independent of everyone.

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Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen (Part 1)

In this “docu-memoir” I re-collect my first years in the midtown neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen (officially as Clinton). In the beginning I worked at St. Clement’s Church in the theater and poetry program as a volunteer. Later I ran the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, begun by poet and small press publisher Richard Spiegel a year or so before my arrival. From 1978 to 1983 the Poetry Festival was a great part of my life, as it still is: something we come to know as we grow older is that the past is always part of the present. Many poets, actors, and other artists appeared in PoFest productions. While I was working at the church, I came to know some of the neighbors and began attending local group meetings. Into The Fire is the story of how I found a place to call home.

This is an excerpt from Into The Fire, Part 1: 1978-1979

Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.

A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.

Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”

“There’s beauty under the grime.”

“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”

A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.

“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”

In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”

The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.

The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out the altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.

So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.

Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.

From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars. Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.

I walked into the street:

This is the fire, this is the glow
as flames rise in the core,
heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms,
along fire escapes: angels, angels

walking on ladders of flame

Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life – The Book

hksolcover

In 1999, I published Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life, a collection of stories, poems, and art from Manhattan’s famous West Side neighborhood. Hell’s Kitchen is bordered on the east by Times Square, the Broadway Theater District and Fashion Avenue, on the west by the Hudson River, on the north by Columbus Circle, and on the south by the Chelsea neighborhood. I lived in HK for twenty years, working for community organizations. In January 1993, I started a monthly newspaper, the Clinton Chronicle, which I edited and published until early 1998. These stories, poems, essays, photographs, and artwork are drawn from editions of that paper.

Fiction includes Darryl Croxton’s “When Eagles Scream & Roses Bleed” about an unforgettable former Follies dancer, Forrest Clark’s feline adventure “The Broadway Cat,” and Chris Brandon’s edgy take on HK living, “The Kitchman.”

Non-Fiction includes Carrie Amestoy’s “The Color of Difference,” and Clayton Brooks’ “10th Avenue.” George Spiegler wrote of the infamous murders of neighborhood teens in “The Capeman Murders.”

Poets included are: Chocolate Waters, Shannon Mullen, Jameson Currier, R. D. Thomas, Raymond St.-Pierre, Marc A. Thomas, Bernie Steinman, John Newsome, Forrest S. Clark, and David P. Duckworth.

Artists: Raul Manzano (see his watercolor of The Broadway Cat), Cyn McLean, Forrest S. Clark, and Philip Levine.

Originally published in 1999, a second edition is now available for free download – Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life on Scribd.com – or in print form – Hell’s Kitchen: Slices of Life on Lulu.