i have just returned from Houston, and I'm afraid I bring you some
bad news. It is broken. It does not seem to be working at all. Perhaps
it will some day; perhaps it is going to be a hell of a city when they get
it finished. But ironically, in the middle of all that brokenness,
something old inside of me got fixed; and I am not the person I was the
last time I wrote.
I was there last week with the man I love, and at first it was fun and
definitely very distracting to find that the entire city was on the fritz.
It was like being inside a Bunuel movie. Everywhere we went, everything
went wrong. It may have been First Day on the Job Day in Houston. The
city was staffed by stunningly incompetent people by a cheerful young
cabbie with no front teeth, no sense of direction, no map and a broken
radio; by hot dog vendors so unhappy in their work that in previous lives,
they must have been vegetarians, or calves, or kings. We needed to call a
cab at one point from a cafeteria where as it turned out, none of the
employees knew the address; we tried to buy some CDs at a record store
where the clerk would not concede that she did not know how to work the cash
It was cold and rainy and I began to feel very strange. The small
disasters provided lots of entertainment value, but did not cast much light
or warmth. I began to feel both very subdued and very skittish, which is a
terrible combination. I can do one or the other with a certain aplomb, but
the mixed grill effect is a little disconcerting a little more like John
DuPont than I care to feel. I felt like I was dodging something, and it
My usual reaction to this kind of confusion is to pump myself out of
it. Pick up the pace a little; go to a violent movie, have another
espresso, maybe pick a small fight just to get the adrenaline flowing
again. Sometimes it's good to set a small fire; to tell your partner
something especially heinous about your sexual past; or to suddenly get
really honest about the way they kiss, or their one verbal tic that affects
you like tinfoil on a filling. It's all a way of furnishing the abyss, of
dragging in everything you can think of to stay distracted.
But right at the point when I was feeling my most wild and mentally
ill, we ended up at Houston's Mark Rothko Chapel. It is a small,
ecumenical sanctuary designed by the great abstract expressionist, and it
is a deeply sacred place; and it is very, very quiet. The man I love said
it was like being inside the mind of someone whose eyes are closed while
they're praying. There are giant Rothko canvasses on the walls, purple so
dark that they almost seem black, and what at first seems flat, if intense,
color soon appears to have images Jesus, cave paintings pushing through.
It is one of the most exquisitely peaceful places I have ever been in my
life. The silence was pristine, primordial.
Maybe silence springs from the same place in the universe where
they God? The Keebler elves? make space and breath and appreciation. I
felt in the chapel that I was resting in those places, resting in a kind of
hammock; and that turned out to be my mistake. Because it turned out
something was gaining on me, and it caught me there in all that stillness.
The man I love got up to go look at the art in the nearby museum, and
I sat there for a few minutes trying to self-will him into coming back and
keeping me company. "Come back!" I wanted to cry. "Don't go!" as if he
were leaving on a freighter for Greenland, or crossing over from coma to
death. I felt a terrible anxiety, a desire to sew myself to his pant leg
so he would never leave, but I watched him walk away.
It was as quiet as a
tomb in there, as quiet as outer space. I felt very agitated, like you
would if someone put you in a sensory deprivation chamber after you'd had
way too much caffeine. And then this thing started pushing out through
me, from the same place where the Jesus thing and the cave painting thing
were pushing out from. And I suddenly understood that the man I love WAS
going to come back, but that he was never going to be able to come back enough
because I finally got I can hardly say it out loud that my dad was dead.
I understood this in that moment, as if for the first time.
I understood it as if the woman at the front desk had handed me a
phone, with someone on the other end notifying me out of the blue that my
father had just died. It was so terrible, so stark and obviously true,
that I felt like I might start keening. But I was suddenly no longer
alone a younger man came into the chapel just then, and sat down on the
pillows provided for meditation. He closed his eyes, and crossed his long
long legs in a sort of reform lotus position. I wanted to shake him
roughly on the shoulder and tell him my father had just died. But I sat
there breathing, totally stunned.
Now, some of you who have read my books know that my father actually
died in l979, when I was 25, in our little family cabin on the
Pacific coast, of brain cancer. He had brain cancer, and over a two-year
period, he was transformed from a tall handsome brilliant writer funny,
political, musically devout if not gifted to a husk to the sickest a
person can be and still be alive. It was the end of the world; Nagasaki
meets Old Yeller. My brothers and I and our friends took care of him.
Luckily we were all still drinking at the time. We stuck together, and
that was pretty great, to be together with my brothers in something so huge
and devastating and beautiful. It was at once the worst possible death,
for someone so young and cerebral as he; but also maybe the best possible
death, to have lived with such love and commitment for your kids, then when
you became sick, your kids want to do for you what you'd done for them so
many years before.
I wrote a book about it, about my father's illness, where everything
turned out a lot better than it did in real life, and it looks at the end
of the book like he is going to live forever. I believed that he was
immortalized in this book, by my having written it, and sold a draft while
my father was still well enough to understand this news. It brought him
great joy and pride as his life wound down to know I had found a niche in
the publishing world.
He stopped breathing one night at our cabin after a couple of months
in a coma. It was just about the most amazing thing I've ever seen, second
only to the first glimpse of my newborn son. My father, my handsome
father! I don't think I would have been more surprised if he'd suddenly
changed races before my very eyes.
I cried a lot over the years, but I was always drunk or hungover,
always on the way to one of those two states. Then I got all these books
published, including the one where it looks like my dad is going to live
forever, and along the way I had millions of social drinks, lots of drugs
and men, a little fame, endless distractions and a lot of anesthesia. I'd
cry in bars about losing my dad, but I'd also cry about having had to have
our dog Lllewelyn put to sleep when I was l2. I walked into saloons in
North Beach, feeling dewy with emotion, and people would say to each other,
"Don't get her started on her father, or the dog."
Then I got sober and I started coming back to life, but early
sobriety was like being someone with frostbitten limbs, who begins to feel
real tingling in the fingers and toes, the kind of tingling where you
wouldn't think, "Oh, wow, this is GREAT" Where instead, you'd look around
very quietly, and think, "Uhhhh-oh." Then three years into sobriety, right
when some serious thawing was underway, I got pregnant. My dad had been
dead ten years when my son was born. And right around the time when I
first started to feel pierced by the desire for my father and son to know
each other, my best friend got sick. Two years later she died; and by then
my dad had been dead for l3 years and my son was three and I was old and
tired and had bigger fish to fry.
It was pretty confusing. The men with whom I was involved, whom I
collectively always referred to as the police line-up of boyfriends,
occasionally wondered out loud if some of my ferocious disappointment in
them might really be old, unresolved dad stuff, and I would explain very
nicely that, NO, I didn't have them mixed up with my father, because he was
tall and handsome and kind, while they in fact were repellent, perhaps even
And I always sort of assumed that one day I would really GET that my
dad had died, but I assumed this with the same lack of urgency with which I
believed that one day I would take up a musical instrument. I was not
ready for it to happen, alone with a strange man meditating on the floor
20 feet away from me; was not ready to release my father's body bag to
the proper authorities. But this is in fact what happened.
I kept looking
around the chapel, at the sense of Jesus pushing through the purple-black
canvas, the feel of cave paintings pushing through all that flat color, the
sense of rhythmic labor. I felt like I was going to be crying for awhile,
which proved to be true, and I felt like something inside me was becoming
more permeable. The light in the Rothko Chapel was very beautiful, and the
face of the man who was meditating was soft and rosy, like he was giving
off the chapel's light. The thing about light is that it really isn't
yours; it's what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from
reflectiveness if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and
then you can give it off yourself. The young man's legs were impossibly
long and yet he continued to sit crosslegged, silent. I thought about my
father's legs. My father had very long legs, too, and he loved to hike. I
tried very hard to keep up with him when I was a child. That's how come I
naturally walk so fast, and why I can walk forever.