Featured Image: BILL BRANDT | IRIS MURDOCH AT HER FRONT DOOR, STEEPLE ASTON, OXFORDSHIRE, 1963
Where I live, the wind blows carelessly, in every direction, furious and mostly blind. It nurtures and chokes the world as it wrestles with it; its frenzied ire placated only long enough for red-veined clouds to fill the sky with complex shapes, useless, of course, but much too intriguing to ignore as they quickly drift away, back-alley thieves up in the sky.
There’s nothing wrong with you, I’m told. No point in worrying about things out of your control. Things can’t be that bad . Think positive. Is dinner ready yet?
As it happens, dinner’s always ready in 2020, when cooking is about putting food on the table night after night. But it is also about wrestling a measure of control over the uncertainty of day-to-day living. Something is always baking in the oven, or bubbling in the pot, or cooling down in the fridge at any given time. Each meal made is a lesson on how to slow down and live, each dish served is tangible proof that my children and I are not only managing to survive but can also build wellbeing with & for each other.
At a glance, cooking together in our cozy kitchen in the white picket fence house in a sunny slice of suburbia, we seem rooted in idyllic mother-child interdependence, running our little cookbook pastoral, as we do, on milk and coffee.
“We’ve got to simplify things. One has got to simplify one’s life.” *
–The Nice and The Good (ed. 1968)
Like cogs miraculously come-to-life in a Cornell box, we slice, heat, broil, and bake our days away in an apparent daze.
Looking closer, there are problems. Nothing but a stage set prone to disintegrate overnight if I don’t guard it carefully, Change is due. But change is a serious matter.
“I might take this opportunity to tie up a few loose ends, only, of course, loose ends can never be properly tied, one is always producing new ones.” *
–Severed Head, The Black Prince, The Sea, The Sea (ed. 1999)
I’ve always seen myself as a small dot lost in the vastness, much like a cloud in the sky. Trying to understand which way to go, I’ve become fed up with my soft sentiments, sick of the diluted weepiness that has started to drown my brain and leak into all my intimate gestures, my private thoughts, my displays of affection. A new resolution is (vaguely) shaping up.
Next on the list, figure out how to pack all emotions away when dealing with my children’s meltdown over my refusal to help them make my nana’s meringue lemon pie, even though they ask and ask and ask, and life has surely put plenty of lemons in our basket.
My grandmother was not a particularly good cook, except when it came to her famous lemon meringue. The sense of abandonment with which she whipped egg whites until foamy is imprinted in the sentimental architecture of my childhood, even as the actual taste of the desert has faded away like so many other memories. Except for my mother, she only taught me how to whisk like a pro, but not for very long.
As it turned out, she couldn’t beat Alzheimer’s into submission as effortlessly as she did the egg whites. In the end, my nana – the one who helped raise me – would look at me, look some more, then look away; no one but a stranger stroking her hand. In a cruel turn of events, a few years later, at the age of sixty-one, my mother also surrendered to Alzheimer’s. No longer able to pluck the right words to whisper in her daughters’ ears out of all the noises the world made around her. The perfect meringue lemon pie recipe wouldn’t be the last thing she shared with my grandmother in a lifetime of flawlessly working in concert.
Dementia is a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to waste away and die. It is a terrifying disease, not least because there is no simple test for it as it is complex, easily mistaken for other neural disorders, and can only be absolutely identified after death. First one and then the other, they crumbled into unrecognizable shapes of their old selves sinking without a trace into the abyss. They forgot faces and names; they forgot where they were, their place in the world, their loved ones. Themselves. With no points of reference, they were stuck in the middle of nowhere, monuments to what was. Escalating mental and emotional chaos became the only possible outcome. The end.
Predictably, I fear one day I will also join the ranks of those who are forced to abscond the throne. Who will play my unremembered part? Who can make sure a kernel of my selfhood will survive to the end? The terror of it causes my heart to spasm uncontrollably even though, most days, I manage to distract myself from the horror of losing my bearing and blurring the lines in the fog of forgetfulness. I carry the markers for Alzheimer’s disease. While the average American has a 7% chance of developing it before age 80, my increased risk factor stands at 73%. This deep-seated fear, which I carry as calmly as I can, has become my natural habitat. At times, it has a blinding effect. Although there is a distaste for mothers acting like people, rather than how they should even if they are fearfully adding “retrogenesis,” a cognitive return to birth, to their to-do list.
“Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling.” *
–Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (ed. 1999)
In my studio, I stare at my paintings with an eagle eye trying to catch the first glimpse of change. I’ve never striven for depictive accuracy and realism, but with each passing year, I am extra vigilant about the sort of abstraction and symbolism my canvases convey. So far, nothing in my work has changed in the use of depth, or in the quality of the brushstroke, or compositional balance, or texture. Yet, this is of little reassurance. The latest research finds that conceptual more than formal perceptual attributes are susceptible to change after neurological illness. I have no choice but to stay on guard for the moment when my marks on the canvas will leave the knowable behind.
“One should go easy on smashing other people’s lies. Better to concentrate on one’s own.” *
–Henry and Cato (ed. 1977)
At the reading nook, I look at my old books and compare the titles on their cracked backs to the newest one on my e-reader. Do they still speak the same language? Indiscriminate is as good a word to describe my reading habits as any but I still take care to stay clear of Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, or Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, or Diane Keaton’s Then Again, or Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (the film, too). Even as I hunger for the possibility that a few fundamental qualities may ultimately survive under all the rubble of a permanently altered self in a radically disrupted future, in my mind, Alzheimer’s is not an occasion for a journey into the past in search of the real self, waiting to finally come alive in all its previously thwarted potential. I don’t want to dismiss lived experience and medical facts in favor of wishful metaphors.
“Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too.”
–The Sea, The Sea (ed. 2001)
In the kitchen, I cook delectable meals aiming for the sort of redemption they cannot provide. Surrounded by bundles of fresh herbs and dried meats and earthy aromas and shiny fruit, it’s easy to believe that nothing can be forgotten, not really. Still, who knows how long the memory of a lived moment can last? How long before the condition of letting go starts taking center stage? Each time I start dinner, I think about these things. Mostly, to distract myself from the tremble of my hands as I chop veggies, silently searching for mementos that won’t slip through my fingers and disintegrate at the first sign of distress, remnants of a former life forced to eventually end its days in a memory-free zone. Automatically, as if in a trance, I take picture after picture of my children helping with dinner, carefully measuring, mixing, cutting, baking by my side. There is nothing special about these pictures, except, the very act of taking them fills me with a peculiar sense of security. Although they are not meant to be glowing statements of a life well-lived, they capture precious moments of equanimity and, just like that, I am able to explain to my children, with the kind of steely calm required of mothers, how the best form of survival is in recognizing that every day must start anew, sometimes unpalatable, at other times jolly. Take an inventory: who and what and when and why? Love is in the details. The devil, too.
“Anything that consoles is fake.” *
–The Sovereignty of Good (ed. 1970)
At present, I pledge my loyalty to my past. Away from it, my own self feels too much to bear, a reluctant survivor slumping through the world with no protective chrysalis shielding it! It is easy to pinpoint what the lesson here is exactly. Or maybe it isn’t. Foreseen loss forces my hand to mourn what might come to be alongside what it already is – the wish to remember and remember and remember…even though it is impossible to remember everything and most of it is neither good news nor genuinely good, anyway.
Life is too much for the mind to carry. It rarely offers closure. There’s only continuing – and, of course, the desire to do it all over again. Mine has mostly been about fully understanding who I am – signals of shore and home – just in case a great gust of wind comes and takes me away while I’m making a lemon pie.
* ― Jean Iris Murdoch was one of the most acclaimed writers of the twentieth century. Her first novel, Under the Net, was published in 1954. In 1978 she was awarded the Booker prize for The Sea, The Sea, and in 1987 was created Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her contribution to British literature. A prolific (26 novels in 40 years) and highly professional novelist (a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text) she showed signs of slowing down with her final novel, Jackson’s Dilemma published in 1995 and written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease.
Neuropsychological assessments in 1997 showed that she was losing a range of cognitive abilities. A brain scan performed in the same year showed profound shrinkage in the part of her brain associated with memory, the hippocampus – a finding typical of Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis was confirmed after her death in 1999, where a post mortem found a high density of plaques and tangles throughout her brain, with particularly severe involvement of the temporal lobes, areas critical for the storage of word meaning.
From Wikipedia: Murdoch’s husband, the novelist John Bayley, chronicled her struggle with the disease in his memoir, Elegy for Iris (1999; adapted as the film Iris ). A selection of her voluminous correspondence was published as Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 (2016).
Murdoch’s novels typically have convoluted plots in which innumerable characters representing different philosophical positions undergo kaleidoscopic changes in their relations with each other. Realistic observations of 20th-century life among middle-class professionals are interwoven with extraordinary incidents that partake of the macabre, the grotesque, and the wildly comic. The novels illustrate Murdoch’s conviction that although human beings think they are free to exercise rational control over their lives and behavior, they are actually at the mercy of the unconscious mind, the determining effects of society at large, and other, more inhuman, forces.