… and I’m sad about Glenda.
I AM SCANTILY CLAD AND ON MY HANDS and knees in the middle of the night, but on this particular occasion, curiously, there’s no one else here saying, “Hey, pig, fancy a toot of this?” or, less encouraging, “You were a lot thinner in your pictures!”
I’m known for my high standards, which I outsource to everyone else so I can be disappointed more easily; but I’ve decided it’s time to start on-boarding Muggins McMe with this grown-up whatsis agenda I keep hearing about.
I am going to, as they say, own this.
That’s why, at 2 AM, I’m on all fours, wearing nothing but a baby blue bath towel and accessorized with a simple, large-yet-tasteful bucket of scalding hot water and lavender-scented Pine-Sol, would you excuse me for a sec?—
Hi mom! Are you listening? They have Pine-Sol in flavors now! And I’m so glad you died because that means I didn’t have to! —
—as I was saying: A bucket of scalding hot water and Pine-Sol, plus, from The Busy Bee— my local convenience store—the cheapest available sponge, which has about as much relation to a once-living creature from a coral reef as does a politician compare to the dimply, cooing ingenuousness of their two-year-old former self, before they learned to hide the peas by stuffing them up their nostrils then deny they ever got served peas.
And I’m rubbing and scrubbing my kitchen floor, an unlovely checkerboard of once-white tiles flecked with black, in a dogged, circular motion. I suppose the tiles were meant to suggest Carrara marble to people who’ve never seen it, but as they were left unsealed this has allowed them to soak up every splotch of ketchup, every dollop of pesto or splash of coffee, every dribble from my bursting bladder relieved in the sink, damn the fine china, I’ve got anti-bacterial Palmolive. My kitchen floor is a grimy, garbage-y sixteen-year palimpsest of condiment spills, pretentious dinner parties and avoidable crises.
I’m thinking as I scrub of my favorite Kate Bush song, “Mrs. Bartolozzi,” treating as it does of a forlorn housekeeper wiping up mud from boots and dutifully, wearily, scrubbing the floor “until it sparkled…” Although my adoration of Ms. Bush only grows year by year, it is despite, not because of, her poetry, which I usually find too reminiscent of a cliché teenage girl’s lyrical diary (“It was just so beautiful, it was just so beautiful, it was just—so —beau-ti-ful!” are the words which nearly cause me to run screaming from the room and ruin the second half of “Aerial” for me) but this song is different.
This song is full of pregnant pauses, this song has a perfect and serene depiction of the washing machine, washing machine and its soothing mechanical splishy-sploshing as it gets “the dirty shirty clean;” the aching emotions—loneliness, sorrow, yearning—of its ritornello transport you to every moment you’ve ever spent doing work you detest, every moment when you wished your life away.
This song is not really about the never-ending drudgery of daily life, that unending cycle of banal routines that I endlessly chafe at. It is about the ripple, the dazzle, the shimmer; the unveiled reality that suddenly manifests and evokes our gasp of recognition.
Mrs. Bartolozzi has a laundry epiphany:
“I watched them go 'round and 'round
My blouse wrapping itself in your trousers
Oh the waves are going out
My skirt floating up around my waist
As I wade out into the surf...”
— Kate Bush, "Mrs. Bartolozzi", from Aerial (2005)
And a shirt on the washing line, waving in the breeze, becomes the arms of—who is it? Lover, husband, son? “And it looks—so alive…”
Kate Bush understands that a strangled cry at a phantom on the washing line, or a guttural growl of Wow, are necessary colors in the singer’s spectrum. And it’s just—so—beautiful.
ALICE MUNRO, ONE OF THE TWO OR THREE greatest writers of short fiction now living, is Canadian. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, and I imagine she must have an awards room, the way Imelda Marcos had a separate building for her shoes, so many has she received. So you could say, without much fear of contradiction, that Alice Munro is no slouch in the writing department.
The other day I asked someone if he liked her stories, and he said, “Who’s Alice Munro?”
Who’s Alice Munro…
If this were Japan, Alice Munro would be like Mount Fuji, or the person who invented life-sized sex dolls, or the one remaining Buddhist monk who can explain how to dye silk using vegetables according to a one-thousand-year-old method.
She would be made a “Living Treasure” and would be revered “by young and old alike.” Every Canadian would be proud of Alice Munro; we would have read all of her stories, voluntarily, and stage adaptations would be common. We’d attend the premieres of these plays, and afterwards go to a coffee shop and argue about how faithful it was to the original.
We’d wear Alice Munro T-shirts while gardening, and we would understand how Munro has recorded a uniquely Canadian angle on life that is as subtle as Chekhov, also as funny (because in this fantasy we also don’t say, “who’s Chekhov?”).
On the day the Nobel Prize was announced a national celebration would have occurred. Children would have been given the day out of school; window washers and bankers and kids on skateboards and those down on their luck, and everyone’s wife and boss, if they had these, would have had a holiday, too.
Alice Munro would have been the centerpiece of a grand parade, with her own float, a parade heading from Christie Pits, all along Bloor Street then down Yonge and ending up in Nathan Phillips Square. Little girls dressed in white would have accompanied her, throwing flowers at the spectators as she passed by.
She would sit on her special throne on the float, wearing bright-colored slacks, Spectator pumps and a plain white blouse with a big bow in the front. Her silver hair would be beautifully layered. She would look genuinely pretty, with a touch of coral lipstick her only make-up.
She would look like the first generation of women who called themselves “liberated” (which they were only in comparison to their mothers); the first generation to dare to wear pantsuits to work, where they worked mainly if they wanted to, or even to make a point, but not always because they had to.
She would smile rather shyly and wave at the crowd with sincere affection and you would sense she might want to cry from overwhelming emotion, but would not indulge herself; you would understand that she is a writer and would be observing the occasion a little more than she would be participating.
You would sense that she was deeply honored and aware of her responsibility to her fans, but also thinking, “I’ll be glad when this is over and I can go home and take off these damn shoes.”
That evening, in Nathan Phillps Square, after the fireworks display, she reads her latest story, broadcast nationwide. The audience listens in enthralled silence; children are told, “You’ll remember this when you grow up!” At the end of the story grandfathers wipe the tears from their eyes; women weep openly.
Then a great roar of appreciation and hats in the air: Our greatest living writer!
When she appeared in public wearing her kimono we would rush up to her giggling and prostrate ourselves, and she would laugh and say, “Who do you think you are? Arise!” And when she passed on, which could be tomorrow, because she’s really old now, we would go into mourning nationally and cry uncontrollably, like the traumatized Parisians watching Notre-Dame’s spire collapse in flames, and we’d be given time off work to deal with our collective grief.
But this is not Japan. This is Toronto, the city without a soul, where we say, “The Arts generate a lot of money! That’s why they’re important!” in a really chirpy voice, while condo developers roll their eyes then check the latest stock prices.
GLENDA JACKSON IS ANOTHER cast member in the ongoing sixty-four-part epic, vast, eclectic cultural survey and revamped Mickey Mouse Club that is my life; another name that evokes blank stares from Young People whenever I try to explain who she is and what she did, what she is still doing, why they should care even though they won’t, and how she underpins my favorite movie: Ken Russell’s masterpiece,“Women in Love.”
(Of course, there are far too many concepts here to absorb, at least for a Young Person’s mind unused to absorbing more than one concept at a time, and especially concepts that do not have immediate application for getting someone to cook dinner for you or that involve anything that happened more than six months ago. This pile-on might approach trauma-inducing levels if you’ve mentioned that you “own this movie on DVD.”
(The panic in their faces is heartbreaking, which you will notice if you’re lucky enough to catch them during the daily ten-second window during which they look up from their device and blink.)
Women in Love may well be the only movie that’s actually greater than the book on which it’s based, or, alright, then, if you must, as great as.
Glenda Jackson’s presence is elemental in that movie; her voice like the chalumeau register of a clarinet, measured, honeyed, even as she torments Oliver Reed (as Gerald Crich, a wealthy mine owner who’s besotted with her); torments him until, nullified, he curls up in the snow under a brilliant, indifferent Alpine sun. Only suicide in the icy embrace of Mother Nature can numb the agony of his emasculation.
Jackson as Gudrun Brangwen is the quintessential femme fatale but translated into Anglo-Saxon terms, torturing her hapless male, despising his servitude yet refusing to leave until his destruction is complete.
(Her response to Gerald’s death? “I think I’ll go to Dresden. For a while.”)
One of the most vivid and astonishing scenes takes place during a garden party on the Crich estate. Gudrun and her sister Ursula (perfectly portrayed by the exquisite Jennie Linden) ask Gerald Crich if they can escape for a while; he sees they are provided with a picnic basket and the women find a secluded spot. All is peaceful English pastoral until the two women are suddenly menaced by a herd of bulls.
What happens next is unforgettable: Gudrun confronts the beasts, enchants them and chases them off with a transcendent, improvised dance that is a celebration of female mystery and power. Jackson invests what could have been laughable with such conviction that we believe in her magic. The message is clear: male energy is plodding, boorish, anxious, all blustery show; female energy is mercurial, teasing, unpredictable, hornet-like. No contest. The bulls scatter, a ton of trouble conquered by a wisp of a girl.
As she half swoons in a kind of spent, solipsistic afterglow, Gerald rushes up to save her. But he’s too late and already irrelevant; she’s drunk with her victory.
“How are they your cattle,” she says, with palpable contempt; “Did you swallow them?”
She gives his face a swift, unexpected smack with the back of her hand, and the gesture is all the more demeaning for its spontaneity. It’s the way you’d brush away an annoying insect, without any energetic investment or sense of struggle.
Women in Love, from 1970, presents Jackson in her youth; last week, I called up the New York Times online to read about her celebrated turn as King Lear (she’s returned to acting in her eighties, after twenty years in the British House of Commons as Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate) and I experienced the shock of seeing her for the first time as an elderly woman.
Glenda Jackson looks like a sock puppet that’s been left out in the rain, then dried on a radiator. Her unconventional but undeniable beauty, in her twenties composed of equal parts dewy English rose and bovine sensuality, has contracted, no doubt in part to her smoking habit, into a loose, sagging face that’s an accretion of wrinkles.
With most people you can trace how they’ve traveled from there to here, still unearth the familiar features, but Glenda Jackson is unrecognizable in a way that defies all my attempts to connect my youthful memory of her and how age has since worked her over.
Her face is a desert scored by cracks and fissures, an arid landscape Edward Burtynsky might photograph; her face is an apple that you’ve stuck in the fridge and forgotten, retrieving it a year later to find it brown and withered; and from that face she peers at us with an expression that is part amazement, part defiance.
I’d give anything to see her turn on Broadway as Lear, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of her voice of righteous anger, in full throttle arguably the least maternal and comforting sound ever to issue from a woman’s body. I’m afraid of what she has told me about how the most beautiful can turn monstrous and alien under the pressure of time.
I am sad about Glenda Jackson, and you will not need your psychology degree to understand that that is another, less blatantly self-interested way of saying I’m sad for myself, about getting old.
You looked a lot thinner in your pictures.
That’s why I continue scrubbing the floor, in a dogged, circular motion, with my sponge dipped in near-scalding water and lavender-scented Pine-Sol and my soul dipped in regret for every moment lost. I will redeem myself. I will persist at this chore that I previously despised and I will prove my housekeeping critics wrong. I will get this done.
How should I spend the rest of my life? The question now haunts me. I’d been a blissed-out swimmer in a sparkling endless ocean of allotted time. I hadn’t noticed until recently the thin mark of the shoreline on the horizon as I drift towards a destination I never chose.
Every minute now is consciously spent or squandered. Housekeeping or writing? Practising the piano or caulking the bathtub? Why would I watch Game of Thrones when I’ve never read “In Search of Lost Time”?
When I’m on my deathbed—
—a rather extravagant, even cinematic, concept that assumes I don’t plunge to my death upside down in a Boeing 757 with someone’s vegetarian meal shoved up my nose, and everyone texting; or fade away five seconds after I smell burning and see, through a curtain of blood, my limbs flying across the subway car and my guts spilling out all red and blue, which is the moment I realize that a suicide bomber has—
—whatever happens, if I have the time to fade away graciously (I’m thinking Melanie in Gone With the Wind for the total ninny factor), I’m fairly sure I won’t be clutching my lace handkerchief and thinking I’m glad I washed the kitchen floor.
I’ll be thinking:
I’m glad I wrote a book that made people laugh. Maybe slightly less than they might have had I not explained all the jokes to them for two years, but, in the end, laughed. I’m glad I took beautiful pictures, and so what if they turned out to be placemats. I played Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Opus 126, in my dotage, impressing beyond all description my houseful of young thugs who’d never heard anything but rap.
I’m glad I said kind words when I could have said unkind ones, and instead wrote down the unkind words for worldwide publication and universal consumption.
I’m glad I forgave again and again, because you never quite know how much forgiveness you’ll need for yourself. Think of the people you forgive as your forgiveness bank account.
Sincerity? As if!
I reckon I’m a good twenty years from that tasteful cough and final exhale. Right now, tonight, I’m on my hands and knees at two AM, alone, in my kitchen, cleaning up my mess.
No one told me to do this. There’s no one to criticize me, or pat me on the head. There’s no one here to help me; no lover to give me an excuse to procrastinate, no one to kiss, no one to entertain or comfort or argue with. It’s taken sixty-four years, but I’m finally the designated adult.
Under my right knee is a sliver of glass or possibly a very hard English muffin crumb. A cockroach, the first I’ve seen in months, scurries along the baseboard and slips into a crack that’s thinner than a hair. My hands sting when I plunge them into the hot water and Pine-Sol, the fumes make me squint.
Splishy-sploshy wishy-washy. Scrubbing the kitchen floor is not a task I’m engaged in until real life comes along; it is real life, every sweat-stained second of it.
The kitchen floor will be clean and sparkling, so that everyone will notice it and say, “That is, unmistakably, David’s floor.” I’m determined to be ready for that unspecified day fast approaching when I’m not around to defend myself.