Mary Ruefle and Acts of Love
Friday, May 22, 6:30pm
5138 NE 23rd Ave
Portland, OR 97211
By Wendy Bourgeois
At least I’m not the only one. High blood pressure runs in my family, along with alcoholism and anxiety disorders. Scattered across the continent but still connected by social media and genetics, my cousins and I all look remarkably alike, with the same German chin and the same fat, bald babies. My cousin D and I were born a week apart to sisters. Her mother died young and she helps me take care of mine. She just texted me yesterday:
“Got the BP down from STROKE to prehypertension—STOKED”
Now she’s a professional disciplinarian. This means she spanks people who pay her well, with every implement one could imagine, and her clients can imagine quite a lot. Just like when we were kids, the plot points don’t seem as important as the feelings. I just watched a clip of hers for this column where she paddles a sweet old man with twelve different kinds of hair brush. It may sound like a droll domestic cartoon, but make no mistake, a wooden hairbrush, forcefully applied, can do some real damage. He’s obviously old and vulnerable, though you can’t see his face, and she’s impermeable as a sphinx. She’s taking care of him. She’s helping him unscrew the lid on his jar. She looks beautiful, and so, so poised. The lady-est of ladies, and while I watch I can see the power in her witnessing other peoples’ insane tribulations, to take it in and hold still, to transform it with compassion, like water to wine. But I also see the psychic residue it leaves on her. He weeps and screams and rails against the injustice of it all, and it’s obvious that this release is better, for him, than sex, or therapy, or whatever else people use to expunge the bile inside of them. And though I know the method wouldn’t work for me, I feel envy.
She says, “It’s a good job for people with our temperament.”
My dear friend C just told me today her mother is dying of cancer. Dying dying. Six months, maybe a year. C’s another professional caretaker, a nurse practitioner. Her lid’s on tight, too; birds of a feather. She grew up with D and me. We talk on the phone and she’s a soldier, taking care of everything, praying, working to pay for it all, and yet she’s still troubled in her heart because her mother makes her insane and she can’t connect with her grief. She’s what they’d call a “tough cookie.”
Imagine you are one.
You’re straight and stone-sturdy while everything else goes apart around you. You’re crazier than everyone else from always pretending to be sane. It fills you with shame. Because you want to feel as big as you used to, to give your beloveds the gift of your suffering, to experience the empathy that cleanses petty resentments and gives you the delicious pleasure of intimacy. But the act of love, the verb of it, requires that you don’t feel too much, therefore making space for other people to feel more intensely, to be like a child in your arms and know you can take it.
Wendy Bourgeois is a poet and writer. In the winter issue she wrote about lines from Dean Young and Norman O. Brown.