William Giraldi: Say Unto This Mountain
(from Issue Seven)
1. The Arrival
DRIVING FROM NEW JERSEY to Colorado in 2000, I realized that Jack Kerouac’s ecstatic romance of speeding cross-country belonged to another time. Neal Cassady was just a quick spark of his Byronic imagination. I didn’t think that today’s American highway held much promise of delivery, of rapture, of grace. Manifest Destiny, like the American Dream, has always been misleading. It was the first time I had driven cross-country, and from the road I found little to see in Kansas or Nebraska but the doleful flatness; Indiana and Illinois were indistinguishable. The little towns tucked away just off the highways did not offer insight into the mysterious depth of the American soul. No, driving cross-country is mostly a constant, Herculean effort to keep your eyes from slamming shut. Robert Louis Stevenson had had a more inspired experience than I did. Passing through Nebraska on train, en route to meet his new wife in San Francisco, he noted the “exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven.” Perhaps one needs to be religious to feel this way about Nebraska.
I hadn’t seen Adra in over two months, since her melancholic devils had forced her to drop out of college the previous semester. I wanted only to embrace her now, whisk her off to the nearest mattress, delve into her with every last bit of vigor I could summon, then sleep like the slain. From a distance on the highway, I could see the dark out-line of the mountains that loom close over Boulder; but when I finally arrived at midnight, I could ascertain nothing of the city. I was so disoriented and dumb, I could hardly speak. I’m not sure exactly how long it took me to realize that Boulder was a special place. The invigorating altitude, the pristine 70-degree weather, the beautiful people from Denver and Utah and California biking and jogging along the Boulder Creek, the used bookstores and restaurants on Pearl Street, the new redbrick buildings, the innumerable yoga studios—it was the loveliest town in America. Within days, despite the mild disorientation and my own nagging devils, I started planning the rest of my life in this place.
Adra was still a god-awful mess, suffering from the severest melancholy I had ever seen, the malady that had forced her out of school in Jersey and away from me. Her shrink tried every week to get her medication right, to find the mixture and dosage that would finally gain effect. Most afternoons, I biked to her job at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and we ate lunch on the steps in the sun. I received a small check in the mail each month from my father’s estate—my father had been dead for nine hellish months, killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of 47—and so my time was my own. Everywhere, everything around me was just born, and I felt the excitement you feel only when you arrive somewhere new.
But Adra felt no excitement. One evening, she handed me this note:
Walking around today I saw people out in the sun with a certain joy about them that right now seems unattainable. I am totally depressed, in the most honest interpretation of the word—pushed down, pressed down, underneath some force. I can understand why some people say “demons” when they try to describe their depressions—because it feels like I am surrounded by some thing, some terrible, relentless monster. I try as hard as I am able to right now to imagine a happier day, to want health and be in the sun. But I can’t make it there; I fall short. The only thing I can do is go to sleep and hope that when I wake up I will feel rejuvenated or else not wake up at all.
Demons, monsters, the sunlight not getting in—this was our life then.
2. Werner Herzog
WE BEGAN WATCHING films every day, sometimes twice a day on weekends: Kubrick, Wenders, Woody Allen, and later Kurasowa, Antonioni, Visconti. This was the beginning of Adra’s obsession with film, an obsession that would, a couple of years later, lead her to ambitions of becoming a filmmaker herself. The Boulder Public Library held a Werner Herzog festival not long after I arrived, a festival Herzog himself had helped arrange. We attended a screening of the German documentary Was Ich Bin, Sind Meine Filme (All I Am Is My Films), in which the interviewer asks Herzog what scares him. He replies: “This question of being afraid or not being afraid means nothing. You have to ask yourself, What is your relationship to your own death? After that is answered, nothing matters. Nothing matters anymore.” If there’s ever been a more intrepid filmmaker, I’ve never heard of him. This is a man who walked halfway across Germany, over mountains, to ask his wife to marry him.
I remembered hearing a discussion with Herzog on the radio a year or two earlier in which he spoke about his own existential dread. He said he would never unload his problems on a therapist or seek the help of medicine because an artist has an obligation to suffer; that without his black moods, his films would lose their edge and depth. He claimed that this blackness is intrinsic to the human being and that trying to exorcise it is akin to dehumanization, to death. This sentiment is not new—the Greek tragedians had it, and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, William James. But the Romantic logic is faulty. I don’t want to presume that Herzog’s pain hasn’t been severe enough, but perhaps if it had been, he wouldn’t have been so eager to equate art with anguish. When you’re debilitated by melancholy, you’re not capable of going to the Amazon with a lunatic like Klaus Kinski in order to make almost impossible films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.
In Paul Cronin’s book Herzog on Herzog, the director tells Cronin, “I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I’m just not made for it…whether I am happy or not does not count that much.” Is this Herzog’s condemnation of the plastic American conception of happiness, our birthright as narcissistic chosen ones willfully confusing Jefferson’s “pursuit” with “guarantee”? Herzog might prefer the term contentment because it connotes quietude and requires steadfast work, whereas happiness is always immediate, ephemeral, close to a junkie’s fix. Or is this more Romantic posturing from an artist who has reason to believe that anguish is holy and satisfaction anathema to creativity? The rest of us find anguish uncomfortable and time-consuming, and Adra found it nearly fatal. We both admired Herzog more than any other living filmmaker, but should I have told her in the midst of her suicidal despair that happiness doesn’t matter? That she should, like Herzog himself, turn her melancholia into artwork? Try that the next time a suicidal loved one is lying face down on the bed, a razor in her pocket.
3. The New Plan
THEN ADRA’S SHRINK tried a new plan: an experimental drug cocktail of stimulants. By August, her melancholy would disappear, never to return. This chemical cure and her newfound happiness would have consequences for both of us that I couldn’t have anticipated then. I wouldn’t have thought emotional health capable of so much carnage.
What was it like to have her healthy for the first time since I had met her? I nearly wept with joy and gratitude. The stimulants—30 milligrams of Adderall and 100 milligrams of Lamichtal—curbed her appetite and allowed her to shave off the pounds she did not want. Her energy increased; her facial contortions relaxed. She could think and remember clearly; the inexplicable sobbing vanished. The heavy shroud that had draped her and kept the world’s stimuli from getting in evaporated—she could taste and feel and smell again. She had returned to the earth, to me, to herself. Gone were what Coleridge called “viper thoughts” and “reality’s dark dream.”
Adra’s notes and letters from this period—she was still writing to me at a furious pace, even though we lived together and were never out of each other’s earshot for more than eight hours—reveal someone who had just emerged from a burnt-over country and was now prepared to survey all the land behind her, all the land ahead. A card from September 28 reads: I’m not sure what has kept you by me, waiting for my health. I want you to know that I recognize what you’ve done for me—that you’ve loved me beyond reason. And now I feel as though we are traveling somewhere new together, some place much better and easier. All love is beyond reason.
Another letter speaks of her plans for our wedding, a ceremony she wanted to have near a brook, under the trees, in the mountains, just us. Adra’s new optimism put me in mind of Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” a poem that would have been better served by the title “Joy: A Prediction,” since much of its power lies in its looking past dejection at inevitable recovery. The second stanza laments, A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, / A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, / Which finds no natural outlet, no relief, / In word, or sigh, or tear. But in the final stanza are lines I wished I had written for Adra:
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!
With light heart may she rise,
Gay fancy, cheerful eyes,
Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice;
To her may all things live, from pole to pole,
Their life the eddying of her living soul!
One night, a meteor shower was due to rain over the west. Adra insisted on seeing it, and at two o’clock in the morning, we drove to the remotest spot in the city, a sandy road beside acres of vacant property. I shivered in the car while Adra sat on the front bumper, beaming in awe as those alien rocks burned quick lines into the canvas of the black sky.
4. Mine Own Bile
THE BREAKDOWN I suffered in early February was my own fault; I had abruptly stopped taking Clonazepam after more than two years. I wanted to cut the drug because I didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford it. As with any breakdown, it was a slow crawl to the fissure. Within 10 days of stopping the drug I felt the auditory problems: small popping sounds deep within my ear canal. I grew ultrasensitive and suspicious. Adra and I fought bitterly at my senseless instigation—about various men she talked to at work, about the long hours she put in. Memories of my father barraged me like so much artillery fire, and I was frequently overcome by crying spells I could not stop. Convinced that every spat between Adra and me signaled the end of our relationship, I tried to tighten a net around her, which of course she resisted. The worst episodes of this break were marked by my convulsions and sobs in bed as Adra attempted to squeeze me together. I could actually feel the faulty chemicals in my gray matter, the synapses misfiring; they sparked like a fallen power line against wet asphalt. It took me weeks to figure out that this lapse was physical, brought on by the effects of Clonazepam withdrawal. From our balcony, we could see the khaki and green mountain range lumping along the city’s border, close enough to grab if we jumped.
A FEW WEEKS into spring, we began couples’ counseling with a family friend named Bill Ford who charged us half his regular fee. This was Adra’s idea—she believed that the attrition of communication, however slight, precipitated failure. I was locked in a bear hug with my own anxiety at this time, and during the first few appointments in Bill’s office I sat on the sofa, stunned and blank. Bill had recently lost his teenage son in a horrific car wreck: The boy and his friend collided with another car head-on at tremendous speed, and when the crash ignited, both boys were charred beyond recognition. Bill was forthright with us about his own marital problems, about the possessiveness and jealousy he had fought for years to overcome—his wife was a big-breasted beauty who attracted every man thirsty for milk. My heart did anguished somersaults for the wreckage he was forced to endure.
My letters from this month stress, for the first time in three years, a pointed fear over the possibility of losing Adra. I didn’t think it was a particularly good sign that we were in couples’ therapy. She had mentioned wanting to go to Italy for a summer by herself, and this struck me as calamitous: an entire summer without her? Who wants to go to Italy by herself for that long unless she’s trying to escape? Adra had been taking Italian lessons for two semesters at UC Boulder. It wasn’t the first I’d heard about Italy—when she wrote to me from Georgia O’Keefe’s ranch in New Mexico a few years earlier, she’d mentioned this desire to soak in the art and architecture of that country, the land of my ancestors. I couldn’t fully comprehend now that Adra’s health made her ecstatic about experiencing everything she could. A person released from prison after a long, hard sentence has a 10-page list of things she wants to do. Her wellness had turned her into Magellan.
In early May, I was accepted at Boston University to do graduate work. We’d be moving again. Adra was excited about Boston and it was time to scale the next peak, whatever that was. We spent the summer mostly in anticipation of the move, the next phase of our life together. It would be the last. The ferryman who delivered Adra to the shore of wellness wanted his fare now, and it was I who had to hand it over. In Boston, she would discover a fresh set of souls, filmmakers and artists who whispered to her about possibility, about distant lands and all the candy there. She simply fell out of love, simply replaced the o with an i and disappeared. I crawled into a black hole and didn’t emerge for nearly a year.
When I think of Boulder now and my time there with Adra, I think of the weather and rocks and altitude, the invigorating scent in the air, the colorful people, the shops, my love—all that birth on the horizon. And I remember Werner Herzog’s question: What is your relationship to your own death? Answer that and nothing else matters, he says. The obvious retort is: No, the question you must answer is about your own life. What is your relationship to that? Same thing, he would say. But they’re not the same. One has mountains.
William Giraldi is the author of Busy Monsters. He teaches at Boston University and is the senior fiction editor of AGNI.