In February of 1963, Sylva Plath laid her head on an opened oven door and turned on the gas. Her two children were sleeping in the other room, but she had painstakingly sealed the kitchen with towels to prevent the fumes from reaching her baby son and daughter. An astonishing poet. Dead at 30.
My mother also had an infant son. I was just shy of five. No towels sealed off what had happened in the bedroom, she left the door open. My mother took a handful of barbiturates and washed them down with alcohol. She had wanted to be an actress, but she left behind her beginning career and got married. She was dead at 32. Sylvia Plath loved her children and my mother loved us, but both had fallen out of love with life.
So much promise. So very dead.
I have never written directly about my mother’s death. I didn’t mean to today. I started writing another blog post entirely. But my memory has been leaking lately, little drops of another time, other scents, different light, creating pools where I find myself reflected. It has to do with the memoir I’m writing, of course. Still, there’s not one day that goes by that my mother’s influence, or lack of influence, on my life doesn’t in some way float in. Her death has shaped and informed all my days and my every creative endeavor.
For the longest time, I never wanted to write about my mother’s suicide. I was afraid of spilling the beans–that baring my soul would steal my mystery, give readers too much to speculate about, poke at what might be autobiographical, what might be pure fiction. I don’t feel that way any longer. I know now that seeing the blankness of death at an early age gave me the gift of realizing the full color of life. I am more empathic, I hear, smell, taste, and exist differently as a result. Would I appreciate light if I hadn’t known darkness? Would I love darkness if I didn’t know that light was coming? I would not love permanent darkness. That I know.
If my mother hadn’t killed herself, maybe I would have become an astrophysicist, or married that New York lawyer who said he loved me, have three kids now, and drive a new Lexis. One thing I’m pretty certain about, I probably wouldn’t have made all the self-destructive bad decisions that shaped my earlier life. But I did and those bad decisions have also informed my creative life.
This little essay is not about the devastation of suicide. My memoir is about that—and other things. It’s not about turning that frown upside down, glass half-full, half-empty kind of crap either. It’s about the first source of creativity. Creativity is often born of tragedy, yet it is also born from joy. All of us have had those maybe I should put my head in the oven moments. Sometimes it seems it might be better to get the hell out of Dodge, not have to deal with disappointment, with regret, with sorrow or despair. Those days when you think, will I ever? Can I? Good god, I’ve tried so long and so hard. I’m so damn tired. Does anyone care what I write, sing, paint, create or even think? Nothing is working and it feels like our spirit is breaking too.
I had a friend in New York back in my Goth period. We were actors, constantly penniless and pale as meal worms. Neither of us was making much headway in either the acting world or life in general. But we were a tag team—I was up when he was down and vice versa. The up part of the team had the responsibility of making the other see how absolutely retarded they were when they felt like giving up. The inevitable result was we would both end up laughing, the down one through tears, wiping a runny nose with the back of a hand, but cracking up with laughter. Look, if you can still laugh you simply cannot kill yourself. You see that it’s just too ridiculous. And, you realize, if you’re dead you can’t create—anything at all.
My mother gave me this burning fire, this invaluable gift of learning early that life is so very precious. She inspired me to work out a way to share this. We all have something that lit the creative flame inside us—maybe not a dead mother, maybe something far more tragic, far more devastating, or, perhaps, something so seemingly insignificant that no one but you recognized it. It doesn’t matter what it was, you remember that moment when the spark was lit inside you.
The way I see it, the way I feel it, is I have a responsibility to fight those Head-In-the-Oven-days. I have been given the gift of the value of life, no matter how hard, no matter what, no matter if no one else cares. How could anyone give up sun on your face, having chapped lips, the smell of wet dog, the sound of thunder, the icy saltiness of cold beer when sweat sticks your shirt to your body? How could you give that up? I can’t. I have the fire. It’s in all of us and just awaits ignition–not from an oven but from our souls.
Believe in your fire, from wherever it is inspired. I’m going to create for better or worse until I climb behind that bony man on his big black horse. That’s what the living have the opportunity to do. Be alive.
Here’s what Paul Simon has to say: SO BEAUTIFUL OR SO WHAT
- IT’S BRILLIANT/IT SUCKS–KEEPING ON
- PACKING UP MY GHOSTS