I’ve been dwelling a lot on karma these days, maybe because it’s too hot to do anything more productive – like contemplating or considering or rejecting karma. It may not even qualify as karma, but I’m referring to the kind that goes like this: if you make up a story to get out of a bind that story will end up coming true.
What this has to do with mermaids is this. Many of you know that I am one, have been long before Disney merchandised the whole concept with that cloying Aerial. But for the past two months I’ve had to stay clear of the river that flows in front of my house because of a small but pesky open wound that may or may not have started from a spider bite. For a mermaid, not being allowed to swim is the equivalent of being grounded. I’m not the only one. A mermaid sister of mine, Lolita, has been grounded thanks to a nearly-broken back. We’re both miserable. Which is why I’m wondering if karma is to blame. I can’t speak for my mermaid sister’s case, but I may have had it coming.
About three years ago I invented a story. (Okay lied.) I told my inquisitive nephew Brandon that the reason he couldn’t see my tail anymore* is because I was grounded by mermaid management. It isn’t necessarily permanent, but until the powers that be say so, I am no longer a mermaid.
*The tail he once saw (full disclosure here) was a costume I rented before his little brother could walk and before his little sister was born. On a visit to Florida, I wore the costume in his bathtub and posed for this picture. This does not prove that I am not a real mermaid. It was simply easier than auditioning for the Weeki Wachee mermaid show or giving up my voice to marry a prince. I’ve been Auntie Mermaid ever since.
I come by mermaidenhood honestly. I wanted to be a ballerina but I wasn’t tall enough. As I’m explaining in the book I’m writing for Joggling Board Press, my mother conveniently taught swimming lessons at the Hillsboro, Oregon indoor pool. Here’s a little sample (not yet edited):
“I spent hours each summer day cross-legged at the bottom of the shallow end, holding my breath and trying not to puff out my cheeks too much. Through the stinging, chlorinated water I looked up at my mother’s legs, treading water, and resolved never to look like I was riding a bicycle. I squeezed my legs together instead, pointing my toes and bending at the hip to propel myself under the struggling students. Blowing tiny bubbles from my nose, I could undulate across the entire length of the pool without coming up for air. I refused to wash my hair with the special chlorine rinse my mother used because I wanted my blonde hair to turn green, like the moss tangled in the illustrated Little Mermaid’s locks.”
I loved that my nephew knew me not as Teresa but as his Auntie Mermaid. But once he reached about ten the questions started coming fast and furious.
Q: Why doesn’t your tail come out every time you swim?
A: I have special lotion (sunscreen) that I always put on my legs to keep my tail invisible.
Q: Is Gary a merman?
A: No. He’s not a good enough swimmer.
Q: Can’t you make him one?
A: No, I love him too much to drown him.
Q: We won’t tell anyone. Can’t we see the tail again?
A: Sorry. Mermaid management found out about the first time you saw my tail and that’s why I’m grounded.
See what I mean about karma? The story I told to get out of a bind has actually come true, just ten years later. Swimming in the life-giving, organism-filled waters of our tidal ecosystem is a recipe for flesh-eating bacteria. I didn’t just ascertain this from the tabloids – actual doctors concurred. Wait until all broken skin is completely healed. No matter how hot and humid it is. This weekend marks the all-clear mark when it’s safe for me to swim again. So for the sake of karma, don’t mention it if you see a mermaid’s tail break the surface of the water.
If our car’s leaky battery cooperates, we’ll be spending a week at a friend’s rental farmhouse property near Ashville North Carolina. I’ve had more than a month to prepare for this week; my laptop is packed and I still have a chapter of “Dancing with Byrne” to write even though we’ve declared it a vacation. But still, I’m a little at odds over the fact that there is no internet where we’re going. If you know me, this is a ridiculous apprehension – I am not far from a techo-dolt and my cell phone is definitely smarter than I am. I’ve literally driven to the end of the earth (well, at least as far as its possible to drive, Tierra del Fuego) without “connectivity” beyond internet cafés every couple of weeks.
The thing is, the foothills of Ashville don’t seem far enough away for my body to enter isolation mode. I know there are earth-friendly, vegan wi-fi hangouts next to every micro-brewery; a download is only a drive away. So my brain is refusing to call up the skills I’ve developed over a life-time of solitary ventures. What will I do when there’s a fact about 1930s New York (where Byrne came of age) that I need to know, even if it’ll never end up in the book? I’m so used to having the internet as a decompression tool, a procrastination ally, that it’s a tad more intimidating than I’d like to admit to go for a week without it. It’s like dieting. I can do it if there’s nothing tempting in the fridge.
So, as usual, I wonder what Byrne would make of my conundrum. And then I laugh. She and Duncan used to retire from Beaufort summers as hot as this one every year. Not to Ashville, but to Connecticut – another of their stopping points on the fascinating journey of their married life. Byrne didn’t stop working during these summer breaks – she just taught dance and spread “womenisms” to different students. Duncan managed to keep writing because he couldn’t help it. And all of this transpired in a house where there was, of course, no internet but in a house that didn’t even have electricity or running water! Their two daughters slept in a tree house and Byrne bathed by well-water. Duncan took a wonderful photograph of her, in a perfect modern-dance spiral position on the ground, pouring bowlfuls of water over her naked body. I love how comfortable she looks, as though this was nothing out of the ordinary. It is natural – if only for such an extraordinary woman.
So the hell with the internet – I’ll write from within my own life and mind. And who knows, maybe there’s a well on the farm somewhere.
One day I will write the greatest love story of all time, because it will be about the love affair between Byrne and Duncan Miller. It will not be a sappy romance, or always happy. But as everyone who ever witnessed the magnetic field between them will attest, it will be riveting.
Just a tease then, of that someday story, drawn from what might seem to be a trivial detail. When I was in my twenties, Byrne told me that an established New York editor once compared Duncan’s writing to that of Thomas Mann. I had never read the Nobel-prize-winning German writer so it seemed a bit of unnecessary name dropping at the time. I had no need of external validation – I never doubted Byrne’s biography of the husband she adored. He had been a copywriter in Manhattan’s golden age of advertising, grown tired of copy writing and dedicated the rest of his life to novels.
Byrne and Duncan’s first “date” was a meeting of a writer’s group in Manhattan that Byrne joined to improve her technique. Duncan walked her home and over the course of the fifty city blocks, convinced her to quit the group because real writers don’t need groups. He also convinced her to marry him.
Their sixty-year romance was well chronicled in the journal Byrne kept for her two daughters, now housed in the Special Collections of the Beaufort County Library. “Duncan and I agreed that we each should have a chance at a career,” Byrne wrote. “He would have first try – writing at home while I earned the money.”
The next part, to me, is the very definition of love. “I edited his day’s writing and re-typed it. In ’34, Duncan submitted his “Sit in Dark Palaces” to the Atlantic Monthly. It did not win the prize, but one of the ten big editors said he’s the only one this side of the Atlantic Ocean writing like Thomas Mann.”
By the time Duncan died, Byrne had edited and re-typed six complete novels by Duncan, all of which ended up in bankers boxes under the home-made sofa in their living room – unpublished. There were also hundreds of rejection letters – the early Thomas Mann glimmer of hope was the only one of its kind.
I’ve always wondered how she did it, how she kept encouraging Duncan through six decades of disappointment, how that single reference to Thomas Mann managed to keep them going. So this year I read several stories and novellas by Thomas Mann, searching for similarities to Duncan Miller.
“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”– Thomas Mann
What I found is that that anonymous editor didn’t lie. In his attempt to let Duncan down gently, he may have encouraged a lifetime of futility but there are similarities. They both wrote in many modes: Mann from everyday realistic to surreal, Duncan from political to paranoid. Both were heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Mann so much that he rarely abandoned the theme of the artist as outsider, “a dubious figure, a creature of sickness and longing for death.”Duncan shared with Byrne what would become her favorite quote. “Life is hard to bear, but do not affect to be so delicate.” – Nietzsche.
A major theme in Mann’s work is homoeroticism. The scholar Jefferson S. Chase describes “Death in Venice” as based on a true-life, same-sex crush Mann developed while on a vacation with his brother and wife. He never established a clear moral position in regard to homosexuality. Neither did Duncan. Byrne wrote that the first of his six novels, “Sit in Dark Places” was the story of a boy with a sexual love for his mother. His final novel, “Regiment of Woman” was about a soldier who had a sex change to prove that women feel more than men. In a handwritten note Byrne asked, rhetorically I presume, “What does all this add up to?”
The answer wasn’t the one she wanted. Byrne said her one regret in life, was never getting Duncan published. I think it telling that she didn’t describe this regret as never seeing Duncan published. But I suspect Thomas Mann would understand.
“A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.” – Thomas Mann