It's Not Dark Here Yet
Last month two friends married each other in Taos, in an hour-long ceremony on a cliff in a windstorm. Everyone had sun and dirt and someone else’s hair in their mouth. The ceremony made me happy because it made my friends happy, and it talked about love as something incredible, beautiful, and really hard. At the party afterwards everyone had an endorphin high. My body was sore.
Anyway, the day before we flew into Denver because the Taos airport is for rich people, tiny planes, and emergencies. Waiting for the rental car, I bought John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. The man at the counter said, “Guilty pleasure reading?” and I said, “No such thing, man.” I opened Fault In Our Stars to a page, and it had a quote from one of my favorite poems in the whole world, “Degrees of Gray In Phillipsburg” by Richard Hugo. It was like seeing a friend.
I read Fault In Our Stars—which is about a terminally ill girl named Hazel and a boy, Augustus, in remission—sitting a plastic chair on the second public level of the Denver Airport. Downstairs and across I saw folks coming out of security towards baggage claim. Two men were in service khaki and two mothers were holding mylar Welcome Home balloons, crying, and there was a little boy with a fade hugging people’s knees. I loved Fault In Our Stars, which is maybe the only book that’s made me question (then love) the location of a kiss. It presents relationships as choices. It shows how entering battle fails as a metaphor for living with cancer, however maybe that’s the best one we have (Xeni Jardin says this better). Best, the eighteen-year-olds never argue with death and the book never pretends they don’t know exactly what’s happening.
Before that, on the plane, I brought poems because it was a six-AM flight so I needed a book I could read in multiple directions before falling back asleep. I like reading poems, comics, cookbooks while the day’s changing because sometimes their images pop back up in weird dreams. The book I brought to Denver was Frank Stanford’s collection The Light the Dead See, which I bought because of how many times the book jacket mentions death (though never, appropriately, as promised illumination for why Stanford took his own life in Fayetteville, 1978). Ginny Crouch, Stanford’s second wife, painted the cover: an open wicker chair in a dappled-brown field, lush like shag carpet, with a chlorine-blue sky overhead. It’s not clear what’s rising, what’s setting.
One favorite poem is “Linger,” which kind of starts like “Degrees of Gray” ends: “It’s not dark here yet / I’m just waiting for the bow hunters / So I can run them off”. Sometimes Stanford writes in patterns like children tell dreams (from me this is a high and specific compliment), and he rarely uses periods unless someone is speaking. You cannot always find the speaker’s body, though that person does put lots of things in his mouth: a hand, a blue feather, peanuts that grow in the river and ooze sap. I want to follow this guy, or give him a warm meal and whiskey after a trip.
During my shift for fading into the backseat of the rental car, I watched the sky and looped this song. I’d only ever seen skies and light like Taos in movies. Turning to speak, turning to hear. Open the kingdom!
Day after the wedding was yellow: sunburns, eggs with crayon-bright yolks, and we followed signs into town. At the Kit Carson Museum Sarah showed me a book called Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, edited by Lois Palken Rudnick. The cover is Mabel looking chic, her hair cut like Bushmiller’s Nancy only less frizz, and she’s wearing a collared jacket with hand-stitching, satin, crochet, two round beads, and a safety pin. Listening to someone the frame doesn’t show.
Mabel grew up wealthy and bored in Buffalo, New York, aching not so much for noisy rebellion as power and independence. She came out at a ball full of people and “several hundred dozens of roses, mostly pink and white, and pounds and pounds of violets” but refused to dance with anyone. By twenty-one she was married (her phrase: “the first serious thing that ever happened to me from without”) to Karl Evans, a man she wanted but did not love. By twenty-two she was numbly depressed -- a feeling and chronic condition she writes about with great clarity -- a mother to baby John and, when Karl was shot in the back by his friend while duck-hunting, a widow.
From here Mabel falls in love and want again and again, with men and women and causes, also back and forth into depressions, painting herself not as an unquiet mind but as a lady struggling with focus against “the whole ghastly social structure.” She moves back to New York, where she knows and hosts Gertrude Stein (“She exhaled a vivid steam”), Emma Goldman (“a severe but warmhearted schoolteacher”), and Margaret Sanger (“She made love into a serious undertaking”). Mabel helps fund Isadora Duncan’s dancing school in Croton-on-Hudson, gives D.H. and Frida Lawrence a ranch. She never talks about money, she just has it. She writes about herself at length and heroically, autonomously.
Eventually Mabel moves to Taos -- “my life broke in two” -- which supposedly shook New York so much Broadway Shakespeare productions started to feature adobe architecture. I love this: when you leave, the city notices so much its plays change shape. In Taos she falls in love again, with a Taos Pueblo man named Tony Luhan, who gives her syphilis too. Here she hosts Willa Cather, Carl Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe, others.
Mabel writes about sitting next to Tony in a wagon next to a graveyard and feeling “full of my own life, which was different than his… Nothing could happen to us so long as he was in charge, I felt, and this was a wonderful and luxurious feeling. I glanced sideways at him” -- side-eye of love! -- “and saw how he was at home in the universe and with me.” For Mabel this moment is about trust. The book ends with her and Tony sitting together in the dark.
The lady who sold us the book said Mabel’s house was just down the street, so we walked there. The dirt road turned to pebbles, then we walked up some stone steps and saw birdhouses, a happy tree, windows framed in mud and turquoise paint. You can walk into the house, which is now an inn and conference center after Dennis Hopper lived there a couple years post-filming Easy Rider. There are public spaces like the Living Room, which began by drawing on the ground with a stick, and the Rainbow Room, which has windows stretched long and low, a pastel-shimmer ceiling, and a teen girl ghost. There are nine bedrooms, and the large wooden table where Mabel’s male guests ate breakfast while ladies were served in bed. There is a peacock carved into the door near check-in, and the woman there said Tony probably never saw a peacock so Mabel must have described it to him, also we could help ourselves to tea.
I loved the house, which is home for light and people who need lots of different places to sit while they work and talk. I want to go back. Sarah and I sat in the living room awhile, looking at pictures from when eleven Buddhist monks visited from Drepung Loseling Monastery in Dharamsala. In the pictures everyone is laughing, preparing food, or making a mandala with chalk and sand, for healing. We sat there about an hour, and then we said thank you and walked back home.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. This August she is moving from Chicago to Colorado as a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her first book comes out from featherproof in October 2015.