11 February 2008...1:41 pm

Would You Like To Play Chess Chess Seriously

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When Susan Sontag knew she was dying–she knew it without admitting it, somehow–she vowed to not write about what it is to die the way most of us will: slowly. That is, she would not speak on what it is to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there.

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Sontag died on December 28, 2004. About thirty seven months later, on January 30, 2008, Kay Coleman died, in a hospice center in downtown Jersey City. Kay spent the two decades of Sunday mornings in which I knew her sitting in the third row of pews on the western side of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.

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After each service had ended, Kay and The (Other) Ladies Of The Third Row would make their delicate ways to my family’s row–the sixth on our most pious mornings. I dreaded The Ladies’ arrival. They always wanted to appraise me, and I never knew what to say while they were doing it.

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When Kay greeted me she would grab both of my hands and clasp them so fiercely between her cold fingers that I was never not ready to catch her when she fell. She would tell me I was beautiful, and that my mother was beautiful and that my sister Hannah was beautiful and then, when she was done, she moved on down the line, to all the other beautiful families. It was a small congregation so she did not ever need to go very far.

Kay was one of my mother’s favorites; Sontag is one of mine. Since Austin gave me a digital camera two years ago, I have become obsessed with the record. When my Hannah was still learning her language she would say obessed in. I am obessed in the camera, obessed in the record itself.

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Gordon is one of the people who hates this manic removal from reality; Ryan is another one. His father is a photographer, I tell myself this explains it. Just be there, he might say, in whatever way high school boyfriends might say it; just be there where it is happening. I can’t be there where it is happening! I couldn’t be there because I never knew what to say.

Kay died differently than Susan; the people who Kay had grown and loved with–her husband, Ed and others whose names we will never know–had already died. She had no children, and I, for one, stopped going to church in 1999.

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My mother loved Kay; I’m not sure why. I never saw them having the kind of conversation Lily and I had on Super Tuesday, when I first wrote this: we discussed something of evanescent import, her take on the state-by-state allocation of delegates and the whole thing ended with me finally understanding her analysis and telling Avery what a superbly intelligent thing it was to critique how one state with virtually no Democrats might influence the others with all the rest of them–but my mother and Kay didn’t talk like that.

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They didn’t talk like me and Thessaly, about poufy shoes and not poufy ones, the pleasantness of the line made by a very diminutive heel and what love means when it happens, not like me and Mary, about families and permanence and what is worth giving and what cannot be lost; they didn’t even talk like me and Hannah, about where the hell the red Converse are, and how I could really give a shit about the purple ones close by.

I think that instead of talking my mother listened to Kay, ingratiating and sincere, looking at her with the same pursed lips and bright eyes that have earned the love of every deluded soul who has encountered my mother and believed it knew something worth saying. I am one of those souls; daughters are usually those souls until a better solution presents itself.

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I believe that my mother’s eyes, sometimes, are fake–they are my eyes too–and that her ingratiation is the result of a deep need to be loved but the listening? Maybe my mother seems wise simply because she is on a neverending quest for wisdom.  Before Kay died she had announced her readiness to “go home to the Lord.”

In my week-old notes for this post, I wrote KAY on dying SONTAG on dying which is a pile of words and a stage direction for two characters I’ve created and allow myself absolutely no control over, as in, I don’t know what I meant, what Sontag on dying? I shouldn’t bother to make notes, ye olde medium we call blog is too ephemeral for that. So instead I will give you Sontag on living: Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you could still be exalted and influenced by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov.

And also Sontag on Jasper Johns:

10. In Memory Of Their Feeling

In the first–buoyant, allegro vivace–painting, this is real flatware that has been painted white. In the second, heavy painting, the artist has cast the utensils in bronze.

Repeating as a means of varying. Accepting as a way of discriminating. Indifference as a form of emotional vitality

Use me as you will.

Savoring non-relatedness. Put the emphasis on savoring. “I am more interested in the facts of moving rather than in my feelings about them” (Merce Cunningham).

Would you like to play chess? Chess seriously.

We were younger then. Who would have thought then–when we were younger; then–that it would be like this?

We met. This could be a dinner party (forks, knives, spoons, etc.)

We say things like, How lovely to see you. I’ve been busy. I think so. I don’t know. That must have been very interesting. (Everything is interesting. But some things are more interesting than others.) Probably not. I’ve heard. In Frankfurt, in Illinois, in London. Next year. What a pity. He’s gone away. He’ll be back son. They’re organizing something. You’ll get an invitation.

We smile. We nod. We are indefatigable. I think I’m free next week. We say we wish we saw more of each other.

We eat, we savor.

Meanwhile, each harbors a secret idea of ascending, of descending. We go on. The plane’s edge beckons.

[Buy Susan Sontag here, and buy BPB here, here and here.  There might be some Jasper Johns for sale here but I would urge you to support your local blogger before you buy any of that.]

5 Comments

  • Have you read the newest book of Nadine Gordimer stories? She has one called “Dreaming of the Dead” where Sontag and Said appear for lunch at a New York chinese restaurant with her and a friend. Not sure how they talk, but you might like it.

  • I haven’t read it! The only Nadine Gordimer I’ve read was , in my memory, a novel entirely about miscegenation and cafes. Also Range Rovers! I am really hoping this Gordimer experience happened when I was, like, eleven, because otherwise you should never forgive me.

    Can I borrow Dreaming of the Dead and redeem myself?

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  • Hey nice site. Anyways chess tips. To become good one must learn from ones one mistakes And successes. Chess analysis pro 7000 I found very useful in helping my chess development. I’d recommend it. Next keep the pressure on. And learn to hold the tension on the board instead of running out of tension with no advantage gained.

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