Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Attention, Like Stone

She wore a large ring on her left hand, its black and silver bulk reaching to the first joint. She wore it on her ring finger, but she had bought it herself, and every day she slid it onto her ring finger because it fit no other to her satisfaction. Only infrequently did she look at the ring and wonder what it meant to other people, sitting on that finger.

It was obviously a cocktail ring, of onyx and marquisite. Handsome certainly, but not a ring that could be mistaken for an engagement ring; there was no gold, no diamonds, no fiancé. She loved its bulk, its antique lines and its square black stone. She loved it because she had bought it in the City in which she felt most herself, at a time when she had been free to wear her heart on her sleeve. For the first year of the ring resting on her finger, the significance of its place on her left hand was irrelevant as so many other things defined her to others. Her life had been expansive and full, unbounded by thoughts of needing or finding a companion, so innocent of the trouble a ring, or lack thereof, on her ring finger could bring. It was the years following it that had changed the meaning of the stone that reflected the world on its black face.

A year after she bought the ring, she bore it back across the world to the Town in which she was born and to which she had no choice but to return. This flight from bliss to bewilderment was the first time in her life that she had failed to obtain her hearts desire, for she wished to remain forever in the City. It was also the first time she was conscious of the ring, heavy and unique, on her ring finger. It occurred to her that it could signify her undying love for the City while she was in the Town. It was a melodramatic answer to her reluctance to move the ring from her left hand, but it suited her ambivalent return home to the Town and her family.

The return home was difficult and finding her place again was a suffocating experience. The boundaries of what may be in the Town were close and strong, and she was susceptible to their imposition. At first she found her much restricted life closing around her, closing her ribs around her heart and her lungs like a corset lacing tighter. It was a corset of love and care, the lustrous satin of the easy life, the imperious stays of friends and family, the strong laces of jobs and fast approaching adult responsibility. As she learnt to breathe shallower and walk slower, she finally looked up from willing her reluctant heart on and found herself further separated from the Town by a veil. The black stone on her hand disappeared against the black web of the veil as she searched for an edge to lift for escape.

The veil shielding her from her surroundings was thin but precious, a filigree lattice that sparkled and glinted, admitting the tiniest glimpses of the Town to her eyes, allowing the shy dark to see the painful light. The veil was flecked with diamond hard experiences of return - family, obligations, tradition, real life, inevitability, acceptance of what is and what could not be. Mostly she could not see the diamonds until she was upon them, and she was away before she can absorb any warmth from their fire. Real life was now a guerilla, now a terrorist; welcoming her home or spinning her off into a roaring vacuum of formless homesickness. She loved the people of the Town, but she loved her self when she was in the City, and there was no neat ending to secure her lasting happiness. When she had been in the Town long enough the veil dissolved and she could cope with the Town without shock, but at her heart was always the black, reflecting the world back true and dark.

Turning inward to escape the unshielded realities of the Town, she surveyed the black heart with the desperate attention of the terminally bored. Perched on a precipice of her polite social self, she measured the nothingness in her mind by her heartbeats. The black hole of boredom had its facets too. If she looked at it as a whole, it was flat and boring, no mountainous goals to climb, no vast herds of obstacles to slaughter, no bright rays of immediate inspiration and release. But if she started to focus on the minute of life on the barren plain, she could see herself changing, one scurrying bug of embarrassment or stealthy snake of revelation at a time. As she recorded small and smaller in her journal, her ring rested on the page and held her image in the black.

The ring on her finger became the sullen black excuse of its last days with the gradual change of time from frontier to boundary. The Town had expectations that she had been confident of outrunning when young, and could not care for as she got older, no matter that they were held by those who loved her. From an observer of the black she had become an inhabitant as the borderlands of her social self retreated before the assumptions of others. Time spent in the Town restricted the possible, and acceptable, horizons of her life and she retreated to the black to avoid the shrinking vistas of her dreams, goals and achievements. She would not discuss the things that she wanted, those things that were no longer allowed to one such as her, and she was ill with the black. When you love something and bite your tongue, all you get is a mouthful of blood. And blood, when swallowed, turns black inside you.

She did not want to leave the Town, but she could not be away from the City, and the inertia of this tragic ambivalence in her outward world appealed to the soul sitting in the black. Then, when the bile of her situation spilled from her lips and her heart with no restraint and no sound, she forgot to put on the ring. It was not a conscious omission, but a matter of circumstance, for she had left the Town and her social life behind for a short time to see her Country. She had taken the familiar terrain of her black heart to another place, lain back upon her sorrow and raised her eyes to the sky. The sky, waiting so long for her to notice it, wore its finest galaxies and sang its loudest silences. It trailed colours from earth to air and left her to float between the elements. Long fingers of heat stirred elegant phrases, beloved memories and forgotten symbols in a slow dance through her veins. Sadness and anger were left to smother beneath a heart still and sated with the voluptuousness of change. The ring became too heavy and uncomfortable on the hands that needed to smooth happiness across her skin.

The moods and the tides, the superstitions and the mythologies that had surrounded her life with the ring became entrapped within it, unable to be anything but the history of the object, no longer a story unspooling, but a past recorded. Absent from her hand, sitting face down on the black, the ring and its history were the moon at midday, a thin, curved promise of the dark. But the promise of the dark is not the dark. Like the ring, the sky follows you; but unlike the ring, what you see in the sky is only yours. Hers was a life again lived from and for the interior, the black at her back, the social borderlands no longer her concern, her lips curving in a smile against the sky.

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot's pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I've known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

Emily Dickinson