Hugs and hallelujah
Can someone please give Colum McCann a big hug for me? I heard he lives in New York City with his wife and kids. He’s originally from Ireland, but he’s found a home in NYC. And I’ve found my home in his novel Let the Great World Spin. I’m not a big fan of big hugs, but I can make an exception here. I just want to hug all his characters: the rich and the poor, the lonely and the jaded, the dying and the dead, and all the other “cast-offs of New York—the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless—all of those who were hanging on to [Corrigan, an Irish monk] like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.”
On December 14, 2010, four days after reading the novel, I made the same request in an e-mail to my friend J.T., who works in New York: “In case you run into Colum McCann, please give him a big hug for me. Please tell him I’ve read his novel. And that I love every one of his characters. I lived their lives when I was strapped to a catheter, when I felt my life had stopped—or should stop—spinning. Having known their stories, I felt my heart full, I saw my life worth saving. I saw the world in a different, a more hopeful, light. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Which is why I’ve been avoiding writing here about McCann and Let the Great World Spin: I wanted to spare that Great World all my Grand Mush. I knew I’d be making a fool of myself again. I’d be spewing these icky “emo” bits of writer-worship that would ruin my and others’ reading experience. Which, of course, is merely self-aggrandizing paranoia. Who cares if (or how or why) I grovel for McCann’s attention or rave about his novel? Yeah, the world will keep spinning without me, thank you very much.
Oh, about that catheter (speaking of icky) … Let’s just say that has something to do with the same medical condition (urinary retention) that made me start this blog on June 29, 2012. I was bored, depressed, stranded in the house. I had just survived another emergency-room episode involving an all-star cast of family members, doctors, nurses, attendants, administrative personnel, security guards, and fellow patients—fellow cast-offs—in need of immediate care or consolation or magical thinking. Back home, I was stuck with a catheter for a week. I found it hard to sleep or focus, so I began to tumblr.
This catheter thing is not a terminal illness. It pops up once or twice a year. It’s not contagious, but it can be humiliating and painful. I’ve found some comfort, though, in the fact that four authors I greatly admire have mentioned “the condition” in their books. They’ve been frank about how catheters have occasionally dragged them down or pissed them off or extended the life of someone they love. Read the final chapter of Donald Hall’s Unpacking the Boxes, Chapter 16 of Mary Karr’s Lit, Chapter 11 of Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, and the tenth essay in William Styron’s Havanas in Camelot. Such illustrious company, don’t you think?
On December 7, 2010, I started reading Let the Great World Spin. I was enjoying it so much, but, as I told J.T., “the next day brought another one of life’s distractions. That morning I had to be rushed to the E.R. When I got home in the afternoon, I felt weighed down by the catheter, the urine bag, and all the nasty phantoms that were re-infiltrating my brain. That night I slid back into self-pity. This is it. This is as good as it’s gonna get. This is as far as I’m gonna go. I’m stuck with this body, this life, this world. For the first time in months, I couldn’t sleep. I felt like sinking. I was sinking.”
I did all I could not to hit rock bottom. I e-mailed friends, consulted specialists, did further research, weighed my options, took some proactive measures. I rested. I worked a bit at home. And, with medical props dangling from my belt but hidden in my pants, I went out to strut my stuff and shop at a mall. (What a daredevil artist!) As Gloria, one of McCann’s resilient characters, says, life is “about a refusal to be shamed.” Three days later, I finished reading the novel. I watched all videos of McCann I could find on YouTube, read articles about and by him. He seemed such a genuinely nice guy. In my e-mail to J.T., I talked about his book like it was some bright hallelujah in my own shitbox. (J.T. and I have been friends for almost thirty years, so she can put up with all my shameless drivel. To her and my other big-hearted friends: Thank you, thank you, thank you.)
Trapped in that box at the end of 2010, I could only tell my friend these stories. About books that untether me from pain, about characters who learn to embrace it, to live with it as I have lived with my body’s limits. Then I wrote: “Meanwhile, up next on my reading list is a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace, another man whose writings and life (and tragic death) will keep me in awe of this weird, wonderful world. I wish I could hug him, too—or save him. But I think he’ll be the one to save me. More than any other time in my life, it was this year that made me realize that books are my dope; they’re my medication.”
There are times I still feel like I am sinking. There are accessible palliatives, healthy distractions, so-called relief from the weight of the world, but no amount of positive spin can completely numb me off the sting. Which in a way is good. To be numb would be to fall into depression. As Philippe Petit, the unnamed high-wire artist in McCann’s novel, might say: “We fall—or we keep walking the tightrope.” We may be stranded in our bodies; we sometimes lose our balance. But reading, writing, or just knowing we’re not the only ones teetering on the brink can help us hang in there.