Rat-Gray Seattle Day in the Time of Corona
excerpt from a memoir: PK, Cancer & the Tragic Ruts of Time
It is a new month. These days crossing the threshold into a new month is an extraordinary, welcoming experience. Yesterday I heard projections from a University of Washington study: how many U.S. citizens will be killed by COVID-19 by the end of 2020. If ninety-five percent of Americans wear masks and social-distance—223,00 will die. If some social-distance and do not wear masks—398,000 will die. If everything reopens, no mask-wearing and no social-distancing—then 650,000 Americans will be dead.
It is a cold July day. Rat-gray Seattle day. This cold—PK and I think is the way Seattle used to be forty years ago. And my garden is gorge.
We are amid a world of catastrophizing, and I cannot help myself—I keep entering the state of making art. Today I read the New York Times has decided to capitalize Black but not white. The Atlantic has decided to capitalize both Black and White. I’m with the New York Times camp. I’m serious about white people bowing out for a while.
PK and I stride the alarms of social, political, and spiritual disorder as if we will be here tomorrow to tell our stories. She has an incandescent thinking about it—she carries a chalice of hope.
For my sixty-fifth birthday she gives me a book a day—one under my pillow, one in the medicine cabinet, today one under my keyboard. So far six books. She doles out books as if I will be here tomorrow to read all these books. For every book I now bring into the house, I take one book out and deposit it in the neighborhood church’s Little Free Library box on the corner (I love depositing my Jewish and queer books there). The church now has yellow-line strips on the sidewalk—a block long—so people will social-distance while entering the Assumption Catholic Church.
Today the Supreme Court passed a ruling that states can be forced to fund religious education using taxpayer dollars (goodbye separation of church and state). I’m not down with this. We must also defund powerful religious zealots.
The artmaking—the trajectory of my artmaking. Yesterday I learned that VW (Virginia Woolf), like me, loved to walk. Every writer has a central artery to a writer. Virginia Woolf is my writer. I read all her books and journals in my twenties. Periodically I open Mrs. Dalloway. Before writing, there was photography. B&W images. A darkroom. Dektol. Stop-Bath. Fixer. With the camera, I shot loneliness and my pictures showed an interest in outsiders. The art world around me detested photography as an art—their disdain of photography pushed me even further to see the world in black-and-white. The gathering of shadows. The necessity of contrast. The darkness of history outweighing PK’s chalice of hope.
She is the symbol of brutality and delicacy. Her struggles, her sufferings walk the edge of brutality and delicacy. We have always had a mistrust of people who make the rules—we have always fled from authority figures.
Is identity something you take on or is it a construct you pull apart or is it a persona you erect or is it a side you reveal, a laugh you express, a cry you exude, a fashion you wear?
The blood we keep spilling, the methods of slaughter that swell from age to age—I know them—I’ve read about them—I’ve witnessed some. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Iyanna Dior. Monika Diamon. Nina Pop. Tony McDade. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells. Riah Milton. Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau. I’m not a historian but I see the repetition. The same repeating pattern as a villanelle—when the opening line (the beginning) is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets; and the third line of the first tercet is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets; and the opening line (the beginning) and the third line become the refrain (the beginning and the end) that is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.
The beginning. The end.
Underhum of Unrest and Unease
I stray away from favorites. But when it comes to writers, my favorite, which I have namedropped in this memoir, is Virginia Woolf, and my secondmost favorite is Toni Morrison. Today if she were still alive, I think she would be repeating her words from her novel Beloved—“Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”
My life and my memoir feel as if every hour were a festival of self-reinvention. Writing the past is an exercise of reinvention. The time. The characters who reside beside me. The historical chimes of twentieth-first-century-earthquaking news. The castes. The creeds. The colors. A sense of dread. A sense of near end.
I no longer make excuses for my fierce ability to stay alive among the rightward tilt of everything dear to me. Among the underhum of unrest and unease.
Yesterday I learned of an author who wrote ten memoirs. Who has the nerve to do that? Shouldn’t she be excommunicated from the canon? How self-indulgent is that to hammer the world with ten books about yourself? I imagine if there were a self-like key on Facebook, she would tap, tap, tap that button every day.
The immediacy of finishing this book increases with each summer 2020 day that passes. I don’t make apologies for writing this memoir—and I no longer say excuse me for my existence. Age is a reflector of history. A woman takes on so much horror and regurgitates its out—speaking bitterness, breathing lightness, irrigating the lifeforce. A memoir exhumes these buried feelings.
Fear and insecurity engendering in us create anesthetized members of society. I don’t want to be crossed out by this worldwide calamity. I don’t want to be erased.
The writer notices everything. I stare at everything. PK averts her eyes. It is disrespectful to look strangers in the eyes.
Virginia Woolf said about Leonard Woolf that he was the best husband. She called him Mongoose and said, “I have him every day.”
I see I have PK every day. Of course, it is true there are things we despise in each other. I must remember to include in these pages all the things I despise in her.
The only same physical trait we have is our eyes. We are both brown-eyed. I wear her clothes, but she never wears my clothes. She shaves my neck and cuts my hair. She is the ultimate groomer. She eats brown and white food—meat and white rice. I eat a plate of colorful vegetables and fruits. She doesn’t read books. She reads magazines and all things on the internet. I used to have a key on my diary when I was a kid. That keep-out mantra stayed with me, and I hid my journals from PK. PK has no desire to read my journals. She doesn’t even understand why I keep them.
Like Virginia and Leonard, PK believes in the work—like the Wolves, in times of sorrow, she returns to the work. Her father trained her. When she was a kid doing nothing, her father asked her, “What are you doing? If you have nothing to do, I have a list of things for you to do.” Sometimes I hide from her when I’m doing nothing, when I’m reading or writing.
PK’s conviction is a utilitarian way of life. The Wolves published books. Virginia and Leonard (Jewish like me) watched the Nazis gain power, and they each went to their respective spaces to write. It was privileged, but I would not be here writing she was my favorite, if Virginia Woolf had not gone to her writing shed to write her thoughts, the things she saw with her eyes—her horror.
Story Swipe of My Life
Words climb on to me. The voice holding together my body and my life. The words tear open the windows of my soul and tunnel a pulse through my veins. I write on white paper with black pen. Today my left cheekbone rests in the palm of my left hand. My words are getting smaller and smaller—the size of the words an eighth of an inch. The solitary rails of my imagination are getting larger and larger. Big sweeps of loss of memory—who is the woman Charlene, I ask myself when I see her name on my list?
Isn’t a memoir a warped storytelling form? Isn’t it impossible to truly write someone’s life as it was? Or do we write as we wish it were—feelings once felt now feelings gone underground?
The story swipe of my life, an absoluteness of watching. I watch the words climb onto me. Barefoot they trek across my skin. I no longer hunt for them. I am a magnet of words. Other people have friends. I have roped sentences, knotted sentences, clasped paragraphs of atomic syllables, vowels enjambed into word-lines.
The story swipe of life. Its lore diminished. Its reserves exhausted by the memory loss of age. A bitter fidelity. The luck of one’s life. There is an immigration lottery of 15 million people who long to come to the United States. Only 100,000 are chosen. Our German friend, Kerstin Marx, was picked. How broken-hearted are the women and men, the other 14.9 million not chosen? Why are some chosen and some left to live the destined lousy swipe of life?
I am obsessed with plastic. I no longer—after the cancer—drink water from a plastic bottle. There is a chemical in the making of plastic that is cancerous. It has a scientific name: Bisphenol A (BPA). I use plastic folders for my words. My manuscripts and writings are placed in plastic folders and notebooks.
After the chemo, I usually wear a scarf around my neck. Any wind on my neck must be covered up. My neck, since the cancer, is like an Achilles heel. But he was a warrior. I am everything but a warrior.
Traces of thought come to me when I read books. Helen Macdonald is training a hawk in her book H is for Hawk. Helen forms a fist and feeds her hawk meat. She must become invisible. I, too, would choose the superpower of invisibility over flight if given the choice. The bond between hawk and woman will form if Helen feigns invisibility. The power to connect with the hawk is formed only by watching and feeding the bird with a leather jess over its head.
In my twenties, photographing through my camera lens, I was an invisible person with the Nikon pressed against my skin.
I survived anything the world threw at me. As does PK. We are survivors, not warriors. Our physical shells are different. I am the crab. I hide invisible inside my brittle shell. I can be stepped on at any time on the beach-sand of my existence, but my absolute hiddenness keeps me safe and faithful to the marrow of my love for PK. Her shell is the skin of a dragon, the stealth armor of a samurai. I lie—she is part-warrior.
The horseshoe crab has blue blood. Humans have red blood. The horseshoe crab has existed for 450 million years. We humans are a mere speck in time. Horseshoe crabs indulge in a sexual orgy tearing out each other’s eyes and arms, and we humans drain one-third of their blood for drugs like morphine and antibiotics. We source their surviving blood so we can live on and on.
On December 14, 2006, Charlene Strong’s partner, Kate Fleming, age forty-one, was killed in a flash flood in their Madison Valley basement, trapping her inside the house. At the hospital Charlene, was not allowed to see Kate, her partner of nine years, until an out-of-state relative gave the hospital permission. (PK’s acupuncturist, Sofina Lin, wants her patients, Charlene and PK, to meet. That’s why Charlene’s name was on my list.)
The day I learned I had cancer, I wanted to get married. I wanted PK to be with me as I navigated the medical system. That day—on December 6, 2012—after being together for thirty-four years—we were issued marriage license #357 in Seattle.
Geri Gale is writing a memoir titled PK, Cancer & the Tragic Ruts of Time—a lesbian love story of forty-two years. She is a Jewish-American married to a Japanese-American and lives in Seattle. Her books include: Patrice: a poemella, Alex: The Double-Rescue Dog, and Waiting: prosepoems (Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry, prose, and drawings have appeared in ang(st): the feminist body zine, Sinister Wisdom, Poetry Pacific, South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art, Bayou Magazine, Under the Sun, and other publications. www.gerigale.com