Dirt: Postcard from June
"Our phones are minds, and we are their walking sticks."
Laurie Stone on Hamlet, cows and watching movies.
This morning I recited the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet to the man I live with and afterward it applied to everything in the day. Especially the part about thinking being so seductive, you forget to do anything else—
…thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.
The green of spring was erasing death. The copper canister housing my father’s ashes looked important and like it could explode. Today we spread compost produced from kitchen waste across raised beds we’d made from the frame of an old couch. Yesterday I spoke on the phone with a friend who was a feminist, an old feminist friend, and I felt washing over me a sense of peace. She said she had told a group of young people about an abortion she’d had before Roe. To them it meant trauma. To her it meant I can do anything from now on. I hope you can feel I am speaking with kindness.
On a recent trip, I met a man who said a cow had fallen on him. Actually, half a cow. The man’s hair was white and his face was pink and a different age from his hair. I said, “The top half of the cow or the bottom half?” I imagined the top half would be worse because of the head. You would be face to face with death, while you might be about to peg it at the hand of the head. The man said the cow was sliced down the center. I said, “Like a Damian Hurst sculpture.” He didn't react to the reference.
I liked him and the awkward camaraderie of strangers at a party. We were drinking free wine and eating free falafel, and he was talking about his days as a union organizer. The cow had become unhooked from a swiftly moving rack when he was working at a meat packing plant. The cow, weighing 900 pounds, had injured his ribs and back, and shortly after the incident, he was fired. He remembered how sharp the knives had to be. If a knife wasn't sharp in the heavy work of cutting up a cow, you risked chopping off a piece of yourself.
I wanted to know how the cow looked, the heavy feel of it on his body, the sounds in the plant, the emotions that would rise up in such labors, the sense of competency in the work, and the stealth of being there for politics that had to lay low. It was not how his mind worked. The way his mind worked was to throw itself in the path of wrongs that swallowed people up in wrongness machines.
He had also studied Nazis and what had happened in Vietnam. He studied what people were willing to know and what they were willing to forget in the name of events they didn't think about with depth or with the awareness that anything atrocious people could imagine doing to the bodies of other beings could very easily happen to them.
At another party some years back, I met Mart Crowley, author of the play The Boys in the Band (1968) and the screenplay of the film of the same name (1970). Mart was terrifically warm and fun to talk to. We were in a back garden in Manhattan, where the idea alone of such a place makes life surprising and glamorous. Last night the man I live with and I streamed the film—about a world of gay men seesawing between self-loathing and the thrill of their secret lives. It's enjoyable to watch, all these years later, because the characters are connected to each other, and it’s a giddy throwback hearing everyone called, “Mary.” The thought crossed my mind how much easier it would be now for everyone to call everyone “Mary” and dispense with pronouns altogether.
The sense of solidarity the characters feel makes a more vivid impression than their bitchiness and the racism-meant-as-teasing-that-never-is-just-teasing they permit themselves toward the one Black character. The Saturday night party we look in on, at Michael's snazzy, Village duplex, repeats every Saturday night, we come to understand, the way Martha and George nightly perform their what-the-fuck ritual of attraction and repulsion in Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In Boys, every Saturday night, regardless of the sturm and drama, will end with worldly Harold saying tenderly to acid-tongued Michael, “Call you tomorrow.” I found myself wondering who would clean up the sodden food and broken glass left out on the terrace in the rain, and I thought if I had been at the party, I would have put it all back together for the play to go on the next night.
When you see a movie set in a past that is part of your past, you remember who you were in that period. I came of age at the crossroads of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. Back then, it seemed not only that a generation came of age but the whole society came of age, unzipping itself from the repression of the 1950s and sailing off toward freedom. We were able in large numbers, collectively on the streets, to end the war in Vietnam and topple a presidency. Two, actually—Johnson and Nixon. Can you imagine something like that happening now? We were wrong about society as a whole, choosing freedom. We were gloriously wrong.
Do you find yourself rethinking your relationships with people? I have been doing this, lately. It’s like having a second life. In the second life, I see I was wrong about what I understood while I was living the first life. I was wrong about what people felt about me. I couldn’t read social clues. I still can’t. I employ the man I live with, who knows what people want and how to give it to them. I employ him as a form of extended mind, like a walking stick, tap tapping to show you where you are. I ask him what happened after someone has visited, and he will say, for example, “Kathy wasn’t as thrilled by the gardens as you think she was. She was being polite.” And I will say, “What’s not to like about the gardens?”
My friend Bruno is writing from New Mexico, where he is spending a month in a rugged outpost. Yesterday he discovered a black widow spider in his medicine cabinet and a mouse in his house he was told could be carrying the hunta virus. I admire his adventurousness but would not say he is brave. Usually, when a person says to another person, “You are brave,” what they are really saying is, “I would never do that.” I understand when people feel bad about feeling good while the world that never was whole is suffering right in your face. That is a new thing, the immediacy of suffering we see on our phones these days. Our phones are minds, and we are their walking sticks. At least once a day I have to remember the dead would want more than anything to have the aliveness we sometimes forget to love. — Laurie Stone