On Time: One Year’s Diary of Small Truths
by Jasmina Tesanovic
My name is Misery and I don’t mind my name, because I know about time and timely things. I was born old and wise, I was never young, as my mom used to tell me.
There she was, my wise mother, flesh of my flesh, carne della mia carne. I felt more than smelled the kitchen aroma of her new baked bread. Serbian bread out of the oven, “hlebce,” what a mouth-watering thrill for a child.
She was sitting next to me at the kitchen table, chatting, laughing with that familiar intimacy that cannot be put into words. A child’s timeless contentment, a bliss, yes, but I couldn’t devour a whole loaf of it. I took maybe a slice.
I found happiness as hard to endure as misery. I couldn’t surrender myself to the thoughtless glee of youth, it was too miuch. Never a child!
My first boyfriend said the same thing to me, and then my husband said it. They said it because it was true; I was born old, but, given that, I may become younger as the years pass. Maybe the same goes for everyone, but I can see and feel it, Cassandra that I am, the kidnapped Trojan priestess and slave who to wants to be carefree and foolish…
Her words to me, in the language of my mother and her mother, too. After thinking in language, we must hand over language to those who are to come. Boys, girls, gaffers and crones, they all disappear eventually, fading away into the black and white of memory, like silent movies, so oddly alive although no one makes them any more. Silent movies, full of memorable theatrical gesture, but no one audibly laughs or sings, nothing smells good.
I imagine my mother alive today, very old and without me, still stuffing her handbag full of petty wisdom that we women treasure but nobody properly cherishes. As women, wives, widows, whores, nuns, the priestess, the prophetic sybil, nobody is perfect.
I am still hanging in there, sunrise to sunset, like Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, Elisabeth Taylor, the silent Italian divas on display in Turin’s National Cinema Museum… and so many women who write. Writing for themselves, in a diary, silently. Invisible, not wanting to be visible.
I had a happy time travel dream. Amazingly, it was only lightly tinged with death however, and only a couple of tears.
All my beloved people were alive with me. We had gathered in some rambling Spanish palace where we were cheerily eating, drinking, and planning our future together.
Then, in the dream, my daughter told me: Mom, you will die someday, and I won’t be able to bear it. She had tears in her eyes and the long sad face that I’ve known from her childhood.
At that point, my actual daughter knocked at the door of my bedroom and woke me up. She was an adult woman, and she will probably cope with my eventual death with her usual sturdy efficiency. Inheritance has spared her my gloomy and petty obsessions.
We don’t exist as copies of our parents we are chimeras of the cultural and the genetic. I am not turning into my father any more than my father can turn into me. However, he was a thoughtful and worrisome character, trending toward the hypochondriac, and his legacy as a ghost tends to lunge for my throat. I will fight the ingrained habits of family trauma, the tracks of all the false steps. Even if I had a Spanish palace, I could not shelter the dead in it, all I can do is miss them. I must try hard to benefit from the passage of time, and not endlessly circle the gravesite. I require wisdom, so I can find peace, and let others rest in peace.
The taste of my own blood. How does time feel when you have run out of it?
Warm blood, pulsing heartbeats, happiness… good feelings, satisfactions, chores accomplished… I love the roar of aircraft above my head. Will they get faster, more efficient, more silent… Or will the skies of my future be thick with strange aircraft, beautifully noisy things, musical drones?
The sun and this planet’s sky, wherever you may go, there you are… My own blood, red and aromatic, stinking of iron, my reeking body, off I go, bloody, leaking out of my own flesh… A melodramatic rehearsal, a silent film diva, dying of love on the silver screen, “but my love does not die”… Yes, there are people I still love enough to die for, a few of them anyway, I don’t know why …
I left you there in that time-hole, alone, a coffin-like hole that meant death.
I despair about that moment, and now I tell myself that the episode was really you, despairing for me. An ugly grey hole of time, and yet so sweet, for it gets me drunk on nostalgia, like a rediscovered solo from a long-dead saxophone player.
You asked me to take you to the coast, just to smell the sea. It’s only a five-hour drive, you told me. We will come right back, together. Just one hour there, to smell the sea, to smell the love that we took for granted and that ruined everybody, ourselves too, but, well, mostly them. Love has a high price sometimes, we are lucky we are both still alive after that. Those who sweep across the threshold of love, entering love’s house, they forget about everything else, they are lost, I am lost, you are lost…
I forgot the time and date of my flight back to the present day, and instead, I decided to stay with you in that hole of the past. Every moment there threatened us with imminent death, but every moment was sweet. I could not refuse you or abandon you, I despised life and safety, I sat next to the furnace in the house of love and I stoked it, I fed the flames. There was a vivid fire in that house and it was poetry.
My beloved, said the poem, I will never forget one atom of our past, I am your slave, the moment you leave I will follow you to your pyre.
Right now, though, I must live, here in the present.
Ten years of living with a poet. It was like time travel to the 18th century, it was a Romantic joke, but truly theatrical.
I just dressed to follow the code, and behaved like the female lead of a historic novel. It worked. I always wanted to become a great actress, but written scripts bored me. Art is life, but someone else’s art can never be my life, so I had to improvise my lines and make dramatic scenes in real-time.
Time and culture, travel with a poet, uprooted from time, but rooted to a space. Me, being contrary, uprooted from that space, but rooted to time. What a thrill that was. Never a boring moment, not one problem that was “realistic,” every possible poetic problem from all of time and space fell like volcanic ash on our shoulders, with only the picks and shovels of the present to dig ourselves out.
Those years were so edifying. I have tears in my eyes when I see movies from a century past, all those perky handsome young people, now ashes. Every movie, reel by entertaining reel, overstuffed with conflict and dramatic crisis. I have been known to actually live like that.
And I didn’t just cry in a tissue in my theater seat. On the contrary, I studied cinema. I admired and envied the way the actors coped with the screenwriters scripted situations. Classic Hollywood even had strict codes and rules, an American censor’s socialist-realism about what is good, what is bad, for American viewers.
But if you wrench those characters from the silver screen, bring them fifty or a hundred years ahead, they would be lost zombies, the bewildered undead. Handsome, good-looking Dorian Greys, but comical, archaic, unable to function.
Now if you do the very opposite, go back, while still alive, to the dead rules of life a century ago, it’s just as surreal. I lived like that for ten years, along with the supporting cast of a husband and a small child. It lasted while it lasted, but not forever, because we broke down. Our time machine collapsed under the pressure of our living bodies in a contemporary society.
We managed to keep the trouble inside our doors, behind our windows, sharing it only with few trustful friends, but still, we collapsed. It was our passion for life, real life, not theatrical performance, that crumbled our dream. Of poetic license and creativity, hic et nunc, just us.
I don’t even know who broke down first, maybe we just broke together slowly, but we certainly didn’t fight over it. We knew it could not be maintained; he took it badly, I took it sadly. He suffered shame, I suffered pain. He got lost, I found myself. Eventually he died, I am still surviving.
He was just a gentleman and a poet, never the profane realist. Made of dreams for dreams. I like to think that he was lucky he had me for ten years, to make his dream come so nearly true. I know that I was lucky to have him, and his child.
Our fantasy was not a flop or box office disaster. It was not even a tragedy, although the male lead died rather young in the end. It was an effort worthy of us, it had precious moments, set-pieces that were masterpieces, even. I don’t measure and judge our lives together by a single rigid code, with a censor’s scissors.
A mayfly lives, flies and breeds for just a single day, but what a day that is. Mayflies as an insect family are ancient, older than dinosaurs, and they live all over the world.
But there were moments when I felt trapped in amber. The past and future both passed me by, I felt miserable. Maybe that feeling, of a mayfly congealed in a golden drop, made me become a dragon, like a dinosaur revived. It took me decades to understand that leaving any cage, even a golden one, even abruptly, always makes me happy. Freedom is never less than freedom.
Once you frame painful, nostalgic memories in time, they become an artwork. Maybe a masterpiece, the black swan from the ugly duckling. Give memories a meaning, a personal point of view, an understanding, a wisdom, a structure and they will get off your back. They become an anthem of freedom, and you may march to that song, or not.
To me a clock is a companion that tells me I am alive in time, and not spell-bound in a cave like the Emperor Barbarossa, sleeping through the centuries.
My daughter, as a child, was in competition with me, she always wanted to outdo me, be smarter, prettier…and was upset to learn that mother and daughter can never become one another. Nowadays, many years later, I do my best to step-down from the maternal family throne, but my effort is almost as futile as hers.
Once, that throne of the materfamilias was strongly possessed by my mother, and I never wanted to fight for it. I disobeyed her edicts in many ways, but I never engaged in a family coup d’etat so as to boss her around.
I suspect that my daughter’s attitudes are a consequence of this, a new dispensation that makes us rather more like sisters, less nailed into place by hierarchy and biology. My mother was the scientist among us, the rational doctor. But always very female, and very aware of which rank, which class, which gender, properly bowed the neck to whom. No sand in an hourglass could ever change rules carved in stone.
My mother held female family power, against time, against all odds. She had to fight bravely to assert herself in times of war and revolution, she almost didn’t survive. She had entered her world of family politics as the last-born daughter, the littlest one, with no great expectations. But she persisted and even prevailed in the teeth of male chauvinism, collapsing aristocracy, and a new power elite of armed male Communists.
Once she won her throne, as doctor, wife, party functionary, then I came along. When I grew up to make my own way in the world, she never let me down in public, but she never supported me in private. She gave me advice, but never her sceptre.
I was all right with that, I still miss her strong voice that made things so clear, black and white decency and ideology. But I can’t forgive her for recruiting my daughter as her ally: for pulling rank on me, across the generations. I still feel that pain, and imagine that it was my fault for letting myself be sidelined and humiliated.
Of course my mother had her reasons for strongly asserting her values, because she thought they were eternal, but love is blind and dependency makes us stupid, especially if we are women.
I find that I am spitting out my rage, guilt, envy… in my time-encapsulated dreams. Nothing is the same anymore, nobody is the same anymore, the circumstances that created these feelings are long gone.
I wonder how I find the strength to face these things as baldly as I do right now. There are days and nights when I lack the strength to raise my voice. Every event that created me in my youth has faded sideways, the present day is brilliant, shiny, colourful… but today is awaiting its own time to fade into sepia, and reveal truths that I can’t see yet, cold truths that will arise, strike me, wound me… Me, the tottering zombie of my own life, slowly and rather cruelly nibbling my own brain.
Why is there suffering, what is it that people do wrong? I know that I see too much, I feel too much. I use the shallow surface of the present as my shield against injuries. My pains, my times.
Just being there, for so long, being-there and being-there, which, in lived experience, can only mean the sensation of being here… Do not panic.
I noticed the expiration date on my medicine. It tells me that ignores this tranquillizer for a year and a half, a security bottle of calm that I carried around the world, just in case of trouble… I somehow imagined that I’d bought it yesterday.
Since I haven’t used it, I must be on top of my troubles, if not on top of my game. My life sped by like a work of performance art, never recorded or released on video, you simply had to be there… It seems I am cooler now. I am exorcising the past, which is hard because my ghosts arise from times when my life was most vivid.
I came to terms with my guilt, for guilt is the luxury of us people over fifty. “Only the young die good,” but, even if I do have a colourful and checkered past, I am not legally guilty of even minor crimes… Mostly I want to expiate the sins of omission, or things that seem to me important, that I failed to do.
My mother’s idealism, my father’s activism — I remember how these things drove their lives, but to me they are only dreamlike, background props, comforting notions…. and last but not least, I have a mother’s guilt. Somehow I let my sweet little daughter become a real woman, and live her own life. When she comes back to my arms it will be on her own terms. I’m still guilty about it, though I never behaved any differently and probably never will. A mother’s best effort is never good enough with a beloved child.
There are stark moments when I understand all the lunatics in this world, all the suicides, all the dark secrets. Then I need to stop the madly spinning world and find asylum in the moment. Not to be ecstatic with happiness, just to be calm, to feel becalmed.
Some people do that for me, their physical presence slows me down to some essential moment.
My time diary is becoming more concrete, a cement made of grains of sand, which once loomed like the mountains in my life.
Bells ringing furiously in an old Catholic seaside town: they sound righteous. A mortal woman cannot stop time, the bells tell me, memento mori, be aware death is everywhere, ask not for whom the bells toll, for the omnipresent God numbers every falling sparrow.
However, I do not trust God’s bookkeeping, and I trust myself even less. When I dabble my womanly fingers in the streaming sand of the hourglass, I don’t create divine eternity. And soon I notice that my dainty fingers are dusty and granular, unpleasant to the touch.
When I was a child I had odd feelings of tactile disgust, even cosmic nausea. I used to dread white medical cotton, fluffy, cleansing my little hands, insinuating itself between my childish fingers.
In instants this disgusted sensation of dread would grow gigantically, my clenching jaw felt stuffed with the evil white fluffiness. At the touch of that too-soft cotton my flinching skin seemed to leave my body and expand fit to cover the universe, leaving no possible nook or cranny immune to the cotton’s dreadful caress.
I am trying to stop the universal banging of the holy bells, but they stop on their own. In the dreamlike absence that ensues the friendly sounds of breezes and sea-birds give me context. I cherish those Adriatic sounds in lonely dawns and dusks. If they were not fleeing and momentary, then they would not be so precious to me.
I must earn to cherish the flow and fly with the tides, be faster and brighter and merrier, less heavy-hearted, less material. It’s hard to free myself from my own dross and tarnish, but I must.