My Own Personal Virgil

In 1320, Dante finished the The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guide through the first two parts is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid. At the beginning of the story, Dante, age 35, meets the ghost of Virgil after going astray in the dark forest of sin. I love this part of the story because I feel like it mirrors what I experienced when I was 40. I felt broken and lost after my marriage ended in divorce and I met a therapist who showed me the way to this world’s version of paradise by walking through my version of hell. I frequently think of her as being my own personal Virgil.

Here is the description of that meeting in Dante’s words, edited for brevity by me:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.

And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
“Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man.” And it replied:

“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred

in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises’ noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you–why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy

which is the seat and first cause of man’s bliss?”
“And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?” My voice grew tremulous:

“See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul’s salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me.”

And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
“He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers

before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well

you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain

souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.

And I to him: “Poet, by that God to you unknown,

lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter’s gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell.”

And he then: “Follow.” And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.

The Afternoon Continues

(this is a continuation of the previously-started story)

“Wow,” I thought as I watched her storm off. There was a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach, like I get when someone is really angry at me. It felt the way I used to feel when I was in trouble as a child. My first reaction was to run after her and apologize, but apologize for … what? For saying what I thought about the stupid book she was reading? For upsetting her? I wasn’t sure what I would even say. The buzzing of a far-off locust framed the stillness of the hillside. Although I was definitely ruffled by what had just happened, the perfection of the sunny afternoon drew my attention away from the explosion that had just passed over.

As I sat, the fear held me, but I noticed another feeling underneath. I was amused at the intensity of her response, and I was pleased with myself for provoking her. I laughed quietly to myself. “That was really something. I would hate to be the person who has to hang out with her tonight.” Although it felt like a transgression, I realized I was proud of myself. I hadn’t backed off and I hadn’t apologized. I hadn’t said anything I needed to apologize for and I hadn’t. That was new for me. In the past, I would have done anything to deflect that kind of heat. The feeling of amusement turned curiously into affection towards her. There was a kind of intimacy in what she had just exposed to me.

I sat in a mix of different sensations: the sun on my face, the fear of her wrath, and the warmth of my attraction to the rage she had shown. It was a perfect combination of pleasant, afraid, and exhilarated, and I didn’t want it to dissipate. My evening was clear and the only thing waiting for me when I left was an empty apartment, so I stayed sitting until the shadows started to lengthen and the light started to turn the color of honey. As I walked back towards the parking lot, I realized my feeling of affection towards the woman with the book had grown and swept away the fear. The closer I got to the moment I would drive away, the more I wanted to see her again. When I reached the parking lot, I hesitated. I looked up the hill towards the meditation center, wondering if she were there. If there were a retreat in progress, I couldn’t just barge in.

Later That Afternoon

(please read the previous post below before reading this)

I think walking away from the rest of the group was what I needed to do. All morning I felt restless and fidgety, and I was starting to ache for some stimulation. The first day of the meditation retreat had been fantastic, and I was in a cloud of bliss when I went to sleep last night, but today was different. The weather was perfect and my mind kept drifting to the thought I would be better off on the beach. The silence was exactly what I had come for, but it felt like too much, like it was strangling my thoughts instead of releasing them like clouds drifting across the sky, as the instructor had said so smarmily. I felt even more agitated during the first session after lunch, and I craved a change. Although it felt forbidden, I grabbed my novel and went roaming around the grounds. In a an open field on a hill, I found a bench the monks had put under a tree in a perfect spot.

I dove into my novel and was instantly a million miles away. It was a trashy story about a woman with an endless string of liaisons, but it titillated me in exactly the right way and as I devoured page after page, I could feel the bliss returning, even though novel reading wasn’t exactly the plan. A while had passed when I started to think I should get back before the evening meal, but when I looked to see what time it was, I was annoyed to discover my Fitbit was gone from my wrist. In an instant my contentedness evaporated and I could feel the frustration and irritation I had come here to soothe rising up like bile in my throat.

I stood up and looked on the ground around the bench, but it wasn’t to be found. I looked up the hill towards the path and saw this guy emerge into the field. I didn’t recognize him as being part of our group, and he clearly wasn’t a monk. I waved and called hello and he walked towards me.


As he sat and tied his shoes, I saw his eyes drift to the cover of my novel. “Do you like it?” he asked.

“This?” I said. “Yeah, I’m really enjoying it, although it’s admittedly not high literature.”

He laughed dismissively. “No, definitely not high literature. But it is fun.”

“Oh, have you read it? I thought only chicks read stuff like this.”

“Yeah, I read it, and liked most of it, but I got frustrated towards the end. But I don’t want to say too much and ruin anything.”

“I’m very close to the end now so I don’t think there’s too much you can ruin. What frustrated you? I really like what she did with the story.”

“Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed most of the book. I just got frustrated at the end at the way she didn’t like take control of anything, of her life, and make something happen. It was like she was just passive when the moment came for her to step up. I mean, I get that that’s what the author was trying to do, was trying to show us, that she wasn’t really capable of stepping up, and that’s why all those things she did ended the way they did, but it still left me frustrated. Not really a big deal.”

The way he said “make something happen” and “stepping up” caught me and I could feel my irritation rising. “Well not everybody can just take control, you know, of their lives. It’s hard for some people. Why does every fucking story have to be about ‘stepping up?’” I was taken aback at how hot the sentences came out. And did I really just say “fucking” to a stranger talking about the book I was reading? That was not like me.

“I mean, of course not every story has to be a redemption story. But that’s sort of my point, in a way,” he says. I can tell he wants to back off, that he’s not looking to get into it. “I want to read a book about someone who’s not just the usual everyday loser.”

It’s when he says “loser” that I lose my cool. I started yelling, “What the fuck are you saying? Are you saying that people who can’t get out of their own way and have issues that can’t be resolved in 250 pages are losers? Is that what you’re implying? What if she had a mother who was always on her about not getting married and not having kids, what if that same shitty divorced mother was always criticizing her for not reaching for the things that she couldn’t make herself want? What if? Huh, what if? And what the fuck makes you so high and mighty that you can judge her for not reaching some standard that you set?”

He watches me as I rant with a slight smirk; it looks like he is holding back from saying something. “OK, I see your point,” he says, but it’s clear he’s saying it just to placate me.

“You’re an ass,” I spit at him. “And you totally wrecked my quiet afternoon.” I feel the rage boiling in my veins. I grab my book and storm off with hot tears running down my cheeks. He watches me walk away, and does not say a word.

August Afternoon

There came one of those weekend days that followed a brutal week of working too many hours. I had not had time to return any of my friends’ calls about plans for the weekend, and I was so fried, all I could think about was sleeping in and not having anywhere to be. I slept until almost 1:00 Saturday afternoon and woke up to see it was a perfect August afternoon. I was in a pleasant fog of being not-fully-awake, and didn’t feel like seeing anyone, but I wanted to get out and get a taste of the sunshine. I decided I would ride up to the Buddhist meditation center and walk the grounds.

It appeared someone had mowed the grass trail recently and it looked like a green carpet. It had been decades since I had spent the entire summer barefoot and grown shoe leather on the soles of my feet, and I knew my feet were tender, but I had to feel the grass. I took off my shoes and the path felt like velvet under my bare feet. There were big lazy bees buzzing in the purple clover by the side of the trail and a few fluffy white clouds in the otherwise spotless blue sky overhead. Even though I had ridden more than an hour to get there, I still felt the dopiness of recently waking up, and my head was delightfully clear of any thoughts at all.

Just before I reached the crest of the hill where the trail turns into an open field with a view of the valley, my foot stepped on something sharp. I stopped to look and it was the wristband of a green Fitbit that blended into the grass perfectly. I stuck it in my pocket, thinking I would leave it in the parking lot in some obvious and conspicuous place so whoever lost it could easily find it.

When I reached the field, I stopped at the edge to take in the view of the valley. The sunlight sparkled on the surface of the river several miles off, and the hills on the far side looked blue and misty in the distance. My eyes swept down the hill and I realized there was a bench under a tree about halfway down I had not noticed before. And there was a figure on the bench I could not make out because it was in the shade of the tree.

The figure waved to me and I waved back, thinking it was simply a friendly inmate of the meditation center completing their afternoon contemplation. But as I started along the trail at the edge of the field, a woman’s voice called out, “Hello.” Yelling across the field to her seemed unbearably awkward, so I walked in the direction of the bench, still carrying my shoes. When I was still several yards off, she said, “Hi, could you tell me what time it is? I seem to have lost my watch.”

I consulted my phone and said, “It’s a few minutes before 4:00. But did you lose a watch or a Fitbit?”

“Actually it was a Fitbit.”

“With a green band?” I asked.

“Actually yes! Did you see it?! Oh, that would be such a relief!”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been silly enough to take off my shoes. By the way, do you mind if I share your bench to put my shoes back on?”

“Of course not, here, sit down. Oh, thank you. I’m so happy you found this!”

It’s Come to This

I suppose it was bound to come to this, sooner or later. I had hoped this blog would be primarily fiction, and not just a lengthier version of the kind of extemporaneous thinking I post on Facebook, but here we are.

Last night I posted about the coast of Maine and the ocean, and then I wrote a very short story set on those rocks. I left it up on the blog for about 12 hours and then took it down because I felt too exposed. Well, that doesn’t totally cover it completely. What I was so uncomfortable with is that I took a deeply personal, intense experience and used it in my writing, but I used it in a piece that felt ever-so-slightly like a throwaway piece that I was posting just so I had put a piece of fiction out there into the world. And that did not feel OK — like I want to hold on to that particular experience and only use it for special occasions. I don’t want to lessen the emotional power of it by overusing it, because the emotionality of it is so easily accessible.

Is it really possible to toss out a piece of quick fiction, day after day? I mean without repeating the same story over and over just dressed up differently. And not just imagining the stories, and writing them, but actually publishing them, even if only for this microscopic audience. Maybe I need to go back to the prompts from the writing class I took previously.

The Coast of Maine

I was at a wedding on the coast of Maine in May of 2013. I was happy to be there, but at times the pressure to be social, to make polite conversation, felt suffocating. I was delighted to discover that if I wandered away from the celebration into the fog, I was quickly on the rocks at the shoreline. I was dying to sit down on the surprisingly sturdy bench placed there, but to do so would have meant instantly soaking the seat of my dress clothes. It felt daft to be in such a wild place in such fussy clothes, but one has to take such opportunities as they present themselves. The fog formed into droplets on my eyelashes and felt like a kiss.

Being next to the ocean has always simultaneously drawn out of my heart a longing and an excitement. The fog only increases the sense of mystery and anticipation, like some delicious adventure could be hiding just out of sight. The ocean is never completely still. Not only is it always moving, it is always moving vigorously and decisively. If you sample a drop of water with your tongue, there is no wondering if maybe the water is salty. If only all of life could be so alive, so aggressive, so definite.


What It’s Like to be Hooked

There is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “The Birth of Venus.” I saw it a handful of times before they took it down and replaced it with something less memorable. I also photographed it. And then I took the photos home and looked at them and looked at them and looked at them some more. At one point I noticed something I thought was somewhat odd. At first glance, the female subject appears to have her eyes closed, but on closer inspection, her eyes, or maybe it’s just one eye, is open, just barely. There is something about this that hooked me, and maybe I find the slightest bit unsettling.

One of the things I love about art museums is I can gaze at the female figures, whether painted or sculpted, for as much and as long as I like. I can drink them in, trace every curve, every line, over and over again with my eyes, with my imagination. With my heart. My gaze is sanctioned. That is the very purpose of an art museum. But, like I said, Venus watching me is ever-so-slightly unsettling. But no, that’s not quite it. It feels to me that she is enjoying me studying her figure, her extravagant locks, her goddess’ beauty. That she wants to be admired and wants to watch me admiring her. Perhaps this is my projection, but it is hugely comforting to me. Rather than being the perpetrator of the much-vilified “male gaze,” I am a participant in a game of desire, my desire for feminine beauty, and her desire to be seen and admired. And that’s more honest than I care to be.

two paragraphs just to get started

I decided I would treat myself to a bagel for breakfast, which is not something I do very often. The minute I woke up, I threw on whatever clothes were on my bedroom floor and ran down to the bagel shop. As I was rounding the corner, I saw this guy taping a flyer to the light post. I didn’t think much of it as I passed him, but after I got my bagel and was headed home, the flyer caught my eye. The title in big block letters across the top was, “Green Lawn Like a Carpet.” A pitch for lawn service didn’t make any sense here in the city, so I stopped to look.

It was the most curious thing – under the title was a full page of text, like a page from a book. It wasn’t a pitch for anything, or a political statement, or a notice about a missing pet. It didn’t make any sense. The first sentences were, “K lay on her back in bed listening to the rain. She could feel the weight of her body pressing her skin against the sheets.” It seemed like it was from the middle of a story or book, and those sentences kind of hooked me. I stood there in the grey light of early morning reading this story feeling confused. I looked around to see if the guy had posted it anywhere else, but I couldn’t see that he had. Seven or eight sentences in, I decided I was keeping it, so I tore it off the light post and put it in my pocket. I looked around guiltily to see if anyone had seen me, or if the guy was still around, but there was no one on the street.

Smashing Windows

I took a writing class back in 2016 and the teacher gave us this prompt:
Write about the woman smashing car windows. Turn her into a character in a story and explore her motivations.

This is what I wrote in response:
Thud! Ow! It’s not as easy to break a car window as it looks like in the movies. Fuck, that hurt! Not a scratch. I will try my boot. Thud! Wow, that was awkward. Still nothing. I need an object. A big heavy object, hopefully with a decent edge or point. What about a brick? OK, one more try with the heel of my boot. Thud! Nope. OK, where can I get a brick? Over there, decorative brick pavement around the base of that tree. I’m gonna smash that mother fucker. Dig dig dig. Dammit, nothing is as easy as it is on TV. Thwack. A crack! Yes, I definitely cracked it. Almost. Well, scratched it. OK, again. Crack! Smash. Yes. Take that mother fucker! You won’t fuck with me again. Smash. Smash. Smash. Shattered glass like a blanket. Peeling away from door frame. That was MY parking spot. I bet you wished you paid to park in the garage. I bet you will pay to park in the garage next time. Dirt bag.