How Vivian Gornick Saved My Life: A True Story




At three in the afternoon, I pass a man who is yelling into the air, “Help me! Help me! I’ve got four uncurable diseases! Help me!” I tap him on the shoulder and cheerfully confide, “The word is incurable.” Without missing a beat, he replies, “Who the fuck asked you.”

— Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City

 

IN FEBRUARY I ruptured a spinal disc. In the past, I’d had herniated discs and bulging discs. For that sort of pain, I’d taken Advil or the occasional codeine and used Biofreeze and spent ungodly amounts of cash on Pilates three days a week. A ruptured disc, however, is a new level of pain. (This phrase, “a new level of,” always makes me think of Bergdorf’s in the early 2000s, when they moved their cosmetics section into the basement and put a sign above the escalator that said, “A NEW LEVEL OF BEAUTY.” A new level, one you could not previously have imagined existed but that must be superior to an old level! [I had once been the sort of person who liked leaving the house, a person who did not order her cosmetics online.]) This was a kind of suicidal pain. If you had to endure it long enough, either physically or mentally, there would be no way to go on.

Rupturing a spinal disc is an excellent excuse for not leaving the house. It is also a good reason to have your publisher send you free books. My publicist at FSG sent a galley of the new Vivian Gornick, the now-released The Odd Woman and the City.

¤

On Upper Broadway a beggar approaches a middle-aged woman. “I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I just need —,” he starts. To his amazement, the woman yells directly in his face, “I just had my pocket picked!” The beggar turns his face northward and calls to a colleague up the block, “Hey, Bobby, leave her alone, she just got robbed!”

No good can come from leaving the house. I love to say this, and I tend to pick friends who agree with me. What good could come? Embarrassment, boredom, death? Instead: have your groceries delivered, climb up and down the stairs for exercise, find a hairdresser who does house calls, use the telephone if you must or — much better — text and email and never speak to anyone unless they’re funny. Live your life inside books (or TV, or whatever).

Unfortunately, there are not enough books so good that you want to live your life inside of them. When you find one, one that helps you live, one that reminds you how to engage with the world when it’s impossible to engage with the world, you must read it over and over, because it has instructions for you.

¤

In the 1940s, Charles Reznikoff, a New York poet, walked the streets of his native city. Reznikoff was not a solitary — he was married, worked at a social agency, had literary friends — but the lucidity in his work comes from an inner silence so keen, so luminous, the reader cannot help feeling that he wandered because he needed some reminder of his own humanity that only the street could provide.

I have not always been the sort of person who dreaded leaving the house. For nine years I lived in New York, in the same apartment on the Upper East Side. I would walk to school in Morningside Heights. Then I became a bartender, and I would walk from 73rd Street down 2nd Avenue and through the village to my job on Bleecker and Carmine.

Two things happened simultaneously: I moved to Los Angeles, and I began to make my living as a writer, working from home.

In Los Angeles, here is only part of what often happens when you leave the house, in order of when/how I learned it:

1. You are flattened by a car while crossing the street.

2. You go to a stunning 1920s Spanish revival mansion on a cliff in Santa Monica for a party where you know everybody already and you know you can’t tolerate even one of them.

3. You get hit on by an elderly fat journalist with red-wine-mouth.

4. While hiking, your dog is kicked by one of those self-satisfied people running uncontrollably downhill, and so jumps into the moldy, muddy, algae-lined water bowl at Runyon Canyon.

5. A woman wearing a straw hat and bikini shouts at you for letting your dog jump into the water bowl.

6. You accidentally rear-end someone while reversing to get a parking space at Trader Joe’s.

7. You rupture your L3-L4 spinal disc just by carrying groceries.

I don’t mean to say I don’t love Los Angeles; I do. There are people I love who live here. There is sunshine every day. There are tamales you would not believe, and for practically free. There is year-round tennis at beautiful, always-available public courts. There are hills and canyons so close, I needn’t get in my car to hike with the dog. There is plenty I love about Los Angeles. I just don’t love leaving the house.

¤

Standing here on Fourteenth Street, a Con Ed drill blasting in our ears, Victor croons at me, “Dahling, sweetness, beautiful girl, how are you, still living in the same building?”

“Yes,” I reply.

“Still doing journalistic work?”

“No, Victor, I teach now.”

He pushes his chin out at me as though to say, “Tell me.”

I tell him. He listens intently as the words fall rapidly from my mouth, nodding steadily as I speak of the deprivation of spirit I suffer living for months at a time in one university town or another.

“It’s exile!” I cry at last. “Exile pure and simple.”

I have always had affection for Vivian Gornick. When I was very young and didn’t think about my financial credit, I went to Breadloaf. Breadloaf is a writers’ conference at Middlebury and has this bizarre class system, with instructors at the top who get paid, and then teaching assistants called “fellows” who don’t get paid but come for free, and then students called “scholars” who get part of the cost covered, and then “waiters” who go for free but have to wait tables. Then, at the very bottom of the social order, like the English treat the Gypsies, exist the “contributors,” wannabe writers who pay outrageously to go. I was a contributor. No one ever has any money, and who knows this more than a writer? So why has this group of writers conspired to take money from other, poorer writers, in the form of this crass pyramid scheme, shifting money from those who have little to those who have a little bit more? It all seemed so deeply flawed, on a personal level.

At Breadloaf there are parties every night, and you will hear about them from your friends the fellows and the scholars, but if you are a common contributor, you are forbidden from attending. You must go to bed early, listening to the party-shouts from your sad Middlebury dorm room.

I think the only person who hated Breadloaf more than I did was Vivian Gornick. Later, her negative comments would be published in The New Yorker, but I wouldn’t know that for months. She walked around refusing to speak to anyone; if you ended up at her table for meals, you could not expect a conversation. I did eventually manage to get myself into the exclusive fellows/scholars parties because someone found out I had a big jar of Vicodin, but I never saw Vivian Gornick there. She seemed, to me, outside the Soviet order of the place, a dissenter.

One morning, after she had pointedly ignored me and the other contributors at our breakfast table, she turned to my workshop instructor Lynn Freed and said loudly, in disgust, “When do we get paid for this?!” She may have slapped her head into her hands.

I loved her.

Her unabashed misery at Breadloaf was just the first time Vivian Gornick showed me I might not be completely alone in the world. If anyone was getting shot for not being part of the program, it would be Vivian first, leading the revolution.

When I returned to New York, I had to get a hold of everything she’d written. Nothing, though, reached me quite as strongly, at exactly the moment I needed to be reached, as Odd Woman and the City.

¤

Leonard and I are having coffee at a restaurant in midtown.

“So,” I begin. “How does life feel to you these days?”

“Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw,” he says. “I can’t swallow it and I can’t cough it up. Right now I’m trying to just not choke on it.”

The best books, like the best friends and their best emails, like the most intimate and comforting conversations, make us feel understood. They make us feel like home is home. The Odd Woman and the City can be read as a guidebook for how to exist: how to exist while walking on the streets in the city where you live, how to exist inside a friendship, at a bizarre dinner party, how to exist in a world of strangers close by.

These kinds of books, when you find them — and they’re so rare — you must carry around with you all the time for months on end. But you must read them bit by bit, in tiny parts, so you don’t use them up too quickly. They’re still useful on second readings (and the third and fourth), but there’s nothing quite like the exhilaration of reading them for the first time. I got to read this book for the first time three times, because the first two I was high on a cocktail of Vicodin and Valium.

¤

At Forty-Second Street, a man in front of me — skinny, young, black — suddenly lies down spread eagle in the middle of the street just as the cars are beginning to move. I turn wildly to the man walking beside me, who, as it happens, is also skinny, young, black, and cry out to him, “Why is he doing this?” Without breaking his stride, he shrugs at me. “I don’t know, lady. Maybe he’s depressed.”

The neurosurgeon I saw for my back told me to stay in bed for two months. After two months, he would reevaluate whether I required surgery. “It’s a tiny little surgery,” he said. “I just go in there and clean it up.” This neurosurgeon is a friend of the family. He is a brilliant man with a broad forehead and weirdly clear eyes and people come to see him from San Diego to Seattle. He said, “I don’t do surgery for pain. I’ll do surgery only if there’s a risk of paralysis.” My left leg had gone completely numb. When he tapped my knee with his red rubber triangle, nothing happened. Still, I was determined not to have this genius I trust put me under and slice me up with a knife.

¤

Here is what Vivian Gornick advises for pain: “[N]othing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city.”

Here is what doctors advise for pain: wet heat, ice, and narcotics.

¤

It was through the discovery and exploration of the unconscious that Freud made his major discoveries, chief among them that from birth to death we are, every last one of us, divided against ourselves. We both want to grow up and don’t want to grow up; we hunger for sexual pleasure, we dread sexual pleasure; we hate our own aggressions — anger, cruelty, the need to humiliate — yet they derive from the grievances we are least willing to part with. Our very suffering is a source of both pain and reassurance. What Freud found most difficult to cure in his patients was the resistance to being cured.

I learned in my exhaustive/obsessive web searches for “healing a ruptured disc” that acupuncture may be helpful in reducing the inflammation around the released nucleus, helping the exploded disc to “shrivel,” which is what my surgeon had told me we wanted to happen.

My acupuncturist is called Noel (like Christmas, not Coward). His bone structure is equal on all sides. He’s so handsome that at first I could hardly look at him. Our initial session, he put two needles in my leg and I started crying so hard that my abs hurt later. When Noel said, “Does that hurt?” I couldn’t speak to say no. I opened my mouth and all the crying filled it up.

This happened again the second session, and the third.

I asked, “Have you ever had anyone react like this?”

“Well,” he said. “No.” Noel has been practicing for 15 years. He said, “You have some remarkably blocked chi.”

Los Angeles!

¤

Days passed, then weeks and months in which I dreaded waking into my own troubled head. I thought often of Virginia Woolf’s phrase moments of being — because I wasn’t having any.

For two months I couldn’t play tennis and couldn’t hike with the dog and I couldn’t sit at the desk to work. I couldn’t focus through the haze of the drugs. My devoted spouse, the one person I’ve ever met who makes me feel like home is home, now did everything for the both of us: he did the shopping and the cooking and the washing-up. He did the laundry, he exercised the dog, he fetched every glass of water and brought coffee in bed with the milk heated the way I like it. (Every time he did, I had to sing that Squeeze song, “Black Coffee in Bed,” which he also tolerated.) This was the sickness part of in-sickness-and-in-health. He never complained, not a word, not once.

Still, my mother became worried that The Loved One would grow tired of caring for me. So halfway into my bed rest, she came to Los Angeles and took me back to Fresno, to the house where I grew up, to give him “a break.” (Maybe Mother was, possibly, slightly, and in a minor way, jealous. And maybe she was a little like Vivian Gornick’s undermining mother, hungry for control.)

¤

For many years I walked six miles a day. I walked to clear my head, experience street life, dispel afternoon depression. During those walks I daydreamed incessantly. Sometimes I daydreamed the past — idealizing remembered moments of love or praise — but mostly I daydreamed the future: the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become. Ah, that tomorrow!

I lay prostrate on a chaise at my parents’ house in Fresno and read The Odd Woman and the City, a book about walking and friendship, a book about how the city where you grew up is inexorable from the person you are.

This has been a recurring theme for me, in life and in my work: how inseparable are you from where you came from? How much of your person is place? For me, from a place I’m at odds with, an agricultural community too large to have the charm of a small town but too small-minded to be a city, this is an alarming question. I left Fresno for school when I was 13, three thousand miles away. I have been trying to get away from it ever since. I always seem to be back there.

I became obsessed with The Odd Woman. I finished it and immediately started it again. I googled “Vivian Gornick Breadloaf” and read an interview where she hardly talked about Breadloaf but said to Jessica Gross, “I have always enjoyed so deeply the encounters between strangers in the street.”

Encounters between strangers in the street: this is my great dread, possibly even more than I dread encounters with the people I know. Maybe this is (in fact!) why I moved from New York to Los Angeles, where life happens inside houses and restaurants, public tennis courts and cars. Maybe this is why I started weeping and could not stop when Noel put those first two needles under my skin just barely, just as a test, he said. Maybe this is why I found Odd Woman so enlightening. It reminded me of a person I had been once, a person I liked being.

Noel had told me all my back problems came from fear (the gall bladder and the kidneys, he said, according to Chinese medicine). It seems so obvious it’s embarrassing to even type it, but it took Vivian Gornick’s account of her encounters with strangers and acquaintances and friends to remind me, to help me realize a person could become a person just by walking around.

¤

My friendship with Leonard began with me invoking the laws of love: the ones that involve expectancy. “We are one,” I decided shortly after we met. “You are me, I am you, it is our obligation to save one another.” It took years for me to realize this sentiment was off the mark. What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other the border reports.

I have a friend called Matthew. He is one of the people I love in Los Angeles. Like Vivian and Leonard, Matthew and I share a closeness, but at times we must keep away from each other, or else we indulge the feelings of hopelessness and pessimism in the other. Sometimes we must refrain for days from texting, to recover from the guilt and bad feeling of writing each other really vicious texts about people we barely know.

Matthew is so similar to me in thoughts and opinions and taste, we have a joke — so many friends have this joke — that we are the same person. “About 72 percent the same person,” Matthew says.

This is how you feel reading Odd Woman.

And by you, I mean me.

I spent most of my time on a chaise in the hot Fresno shade, rereading the Gornick or speaking to The Loved One on the phone or texting with Matthew.

I began to heal, and I didn’t even notice the healing. Gradually I needed less of the pain drugs. When people would ask, “Do you feel better?” I answered, honestly, no. But when Loved One came to visit, he remarked how much more I seemed to be moving around, almost as if without effort.

There’s nothing like two months of bed rest to make you desperate to leave the house.

¤

The street keeps moving, and you’ve got to love the movement. You’ve got to find the composition of the rhythm, lift the story from the motion, understand and not regret that the power of narrative drive is fragile, though infinite. Civilization is breaking up? The city is deranged? The century surreal? Move faster. Find the story line more quickly.

There are certain reasons for venturing out into the streets, even if it means you will be run over and must speak to boring people at parties and will injure yourself past the point of human function. There is a connection out there, a fundamental understanding, like the one you get from books.

My final visit to the neurosurgeon was just a month ago. He was floored by my improvement. “What have you been doing?” he asked.

“I stayed in bed,” I told him. “I had acupuncture and I juiced a lot of turmeric.”

He rolled his eyes at the acupuncture and turmeric. “Whatever makes you feel better,” he said.

“What’s next?” I said.

“I want you to start walking,” he said. “Gently, every day.” When he tapped my numb leg with his rubber mallet, it gave a little kick, like a blip. “But be careful,” he said. “Go slowly. You’re not out of the woods yet.”

For such a brilliant man, he uses terrible clichés.

¤

Katherine has won a Pushcart Prize and the McGinnis Ritchie Award for Fiction and is the author of Valley Fever and Rules for Saying Goodbye.


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