The Mind

as Satan observed, “is its own place and of it self/ can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. Here is where madness resides, where Blake and Bosch hung out and confusion reigns, sometimes interrupted by sudden illuminations of joy.

It’s partly due to medications. The chemo that’s infused into me, which my blue-eyed Michael friend (part Pan, part Hermes) calls “pouring a bottle of Clorox into your system,” and the pills against pain which must compete with the ones meant to bring on sleep. Hell is a cocktail of pain and panic, terrible twins like Scylla and Charybdis, disease and cure.

Cure. The word takes me past curare, the ancient poison of the Amazon, used to coat the tips of arrows for killing large mammals and introduced to civilization (England) in the late 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh: and then on to fish, fresh salmon from the North Sea cured with brandy or Armagnac, a light vegetable oil, salt, pepper, a touch of sugar and bunches of fresh dill, laid down for a week or more, turned twice a day until the back complains or a day slips past. I made my gravlax at Christmas time for the party we’d have on Boxing Day or sometimes closer to the new year, when the oddest people showed up, the tree was shimmering and the cats sat under it, purring loudly, blinking into the fire, proud of the warmth and what their home had to offer. They didn’t touch the gravlax but everyone else did and no matter how much I had made and sliced paper-thin on small triangles of hard brown bread with the mustard dill sauce, (a bottle of Aquavit standing nearby), it was all consumed. Cured fish is cooked by marination just as we burn out the cancer by radiation, not fire. Clorox in your veins, Joan of Arc in the brain cells. (Rouen, Rouen, Est-ce qu’ici que je doive mourir? were her last words.)

And following gravlax my mind takes another turn, to my friend Eli from Finland and the summer I met her in Grenoble, when we both going to summer school at the university to improve our French and lived as paying guests with a family named Perret whose daughters had beautiful names, Monique and Genevieve. The six of us regularly ate together, a meal that inevitably included a jug of really abominable wine, a jug of water and a bowl of sugar, these three ingredients to be combined in our separate glasses according to taste.

Eli had a broad, pretty face, hair the color of wheat and eyes of blue. We became instant friends; she told me many stories about her country, about the crayfish festival at midsummer and the white nights, and the following year I visited her out in the country beyond Helsinki in Kallvik, in her dacha with sauna in the woods. She was nine months pregnant then and walked barefoot amidst the trees to the lake, where she hauled out a rowboat and rowed us both across, pulling the oars and quoting passages from Joyce as she did. When we came back to the house she showed me her jars of fil, the yoghurt she made and lined up on the inner windowsill of the kitchen. When a thunderstorm threatens, she said, all the fil of Finland turns. She had married a wealthy Swedish-Finn like herself, a man I have never met who seemed wildly eccentric. Among his habits were traveling to little known places in order to learn their languages. In winter, in their dacha, he would chop down a tree and drag it into the living room to feed the fire, letting it consume itself at considerable risk to the entire building, not to mention the surrounding forest.

I remember Eli from that time, a young wife, freckled in the sunlight – and then after a hiatus of many decades, when we found each other again through an extraordinary coincidence. The terrible French teacher at the Alliance Française where I was taking a course didn’t show up one day and we students introduced ourselves to each other. One of them was Finnish and I asked the question that idiots have asked forever, expecting the only person they know in all of America (or even limiting it to the West Coast, say) to be known to the American they happen to be speaking to. But this time, of course, it did work. My classmate turned out to be the best friend of Eli’s sister, and so we took up again, Eli and I, and flew across the ocean several times over the years to renew and maintain our friendship.

The mind skips and jumps. Cure, fish, Eli, France. Back to the high meadows of Grenoble where I, then 18, liked to wander alone, with my Camus or Baudelaire or Corneille (not in any way a linked trinity, but all decidedly French), feeling very free, liberée and existentialiste. I took the bus up to the woods and meadows of Prémol and there wandered, and read and stumbled upon a farm where I stopped for fresh cheese and coffee. Back in Grenoble, France’s glove-making capital, I looked out from my balcony at the people moving below and saw them as targets, moving pieces of a pattern, any of which could be eliminated. It was not a very thorough understanding of freedom or philosophy, but it did make me feel sophisticated and alive.

And back again it goes, tense and spiraling, ribboning out to this moment here, in New York, where I am unslept and thinking that maybe it should all stop, not the people walking on the streets of Grenoble in the late 1950’s, but me, the seeing eye, this place from which it all proceeds. The medications, the chemo, the radiation to follow, resistance against the inevitable. Mainly I am feeling that my mind is a strange thing, that it exists apart from me just as much as it is nearly all of me. It does what it does, goes where it goes – in a flash. The great hurricane bearing down on Florida where an old school friend lives alone swept me up and I transferred my fear to her because I am vain and it suits me to think that I am not simply concerned for myself. I am afraid of tomorrow, of the radiation oncologist, and then on to another test of my brain, making this the 7th or 8th of these procedures (MRI’s, CT scans, Pet scan) I have undergone over the last weeks.

The mind is its own place. . .

But perhaps the strangest aspect of the mind, as it appears to me now, is its quicksilver tossing, rearing from sudden exhilaration to terror, as if someone turned a switch. Last Thursday, accompanied by a good friend, I saw the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, remarkable women both, who decided to “manage” my care, and set up something like a swat team – the two of them, the Greek spinal surgeon who had operated on me some months back, my oncologist, the radiation oncologist, an internist (at last!), a neuropsychiatrist (to deal with medications) and a social worker. I left there slightly delirious with joy, as if, instead of having just discussed whether the first priority was the cancer in my spine or the lesions in my brain, we had come to a joyful resolution. The euphoria remained for a long time, and even though I felt it was unseemly, I couldn’t get rid of it. Floating on air until the crash came and took with it not only the joy but all calm, all control. From order to chaos, heaven to hell.

I exchanged emails with the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, who wrote, in response to my enthusiasm: Great things happen when strong women come together in one small exam room! I was feeling it, disembodied joy, like Blake’s. Like the joy of Keats’, bursting against his palate fine. Joy like laughter, because life was funny and meeting someone you liked and admired, someone who clicked, was about the best that could happen.

Or for no reason at all. Keats wrote his “Ode on Melancholy” shortly before his death at 25. What we are made of is illusion; the world is a reflection of the mind, and the mind is a giddy thing.

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