The bleakness I felt at the start of 2018 resulted, in part, from the problem I had had ever since Martha died: having no purpose in life without her.
"Melinda's Tops," the first painting I made after dedicating my life to beauty in 2018
For a year, I had been wanting to accept that Martha was dead, but to do so with no alternative point to life made for desolation. My idea of writing a book on madness had entertained me for a while, but as often happens when I am writing books, I had reached a point when my interest waned, and now I didn’t know what to care about. My life seemed empty. All I did was work and sleep. Nothing made me happy.
I tried to think about the happiest days in my life and what, if anything, had made me happy on those days. I found nine things:
Happy memories were associated with all these things, but now they had run dry. I couldn’t see how to advance my life in any of these directions. After thirty years of marriage, the thrill of romance with Melinda seemed pretty dulled, and romance with other women was forbidden. Besides, there was no other woman in whom I had a strong romantic interest. At work I liked Esther, with whom I sometimes had lunch, including one on Valentine’s Day. I even had a couple of erotic dreams about her, and found it odd to chat with her clothed in the office by daylight when I had seen her naked in my dreams at night. But Esther was a strictly religious Jew who would only date Jewish men, so there was no path by which I could imagine an affair with her. Even fantasy affairs require some basis in reality.
And so on with all my other happiness generators. I was no longer creative—it had been two years since my last burst of short story writing activity. I liked science fiction, fantasy, and horror movies, but that seemed a pallid interest. Mass attendance had grown boring, something I mainly did to please Melinda. I had few friends. I was no longer a father. My job gave me little freedom. And my taste for knowledge and beauty was mostly gone.
One evening at work when I had to work late to meet a deadline, I thought about beauty and recalled a moment during my year as a full-time volunteer at the Catholic Worker in New York City. During that time, as a young man in my twenties, I lived and worked at a house of hospitality for homeless people on the Lower East Side. It was a grim, austere sort of life, voluntarily sharing the poverty of the poor, making ascetic sacrifices for God, pursuing left-wing causes. We used to wake up early every Friday morning to protest at a nuclear think tank in midtown. One such Friday morning, while preparing to get in the van to go to the protest, I happened to notice the orange light of sunrise on the side of a building, and thought it was beautiful. But I suppressed the thought, thinking, Beauty is bourgeois. Beauty would not bring about nuclear disarmament, house the homeless, or do any of the other things that were important. Beauty had no place in my life.
Now an old man in my fifties, I stood alone in my office while the sun went down, looking out at the midtown skyline, and noticed the orange light of sunset on the side of a building. It was beautiful, just as the sun’s light had been thirty-four years earlier. And again I thought, Beauty is bourgeois. It would not help me meet my deadline, bring back my dead daughter, or do any of the other things I now considered important. Again, beauty had no place in my life.
And yet the light was beautiful. It had been beautiful in 1984; it was beautiful in 2018. It accomplished nothing, changed nothing. But it pleased me, and it itself was without change, immortal.
I posted this experience on Facebook, noting, “If I had made a world where beauty WAS my life, that would have been something.” My friends liked the story, but several of them upbraided me, saying that it sounded like I thought my life was over. It wasn’t over, they insisted; I still had time to make a world where beauty was my life. At first I resisted, thinking, They don’t know my life is over; they don’t know I died with Martha. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was wrong. My life wasn’t over. Martha had died, but I was still alive. Maybe beauty was just the purpose I had been looking for since Martha’s death.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, I dedicated my life to beauty. By this I meant all kinds of beauty: the beauty of women, of course, but also art, literature, music, and nature. I even included the beauty of the ugliest things so long as they are seen clearly, because that is truth, and truth is just beauty under another light. As a Thomist, I accepted the unity of the transcendentals—beauty, truth, and goodness—as aspects of one thing, being. Beauty is being insofar as it gives pleasure when sensed; truth is being when grasped by the intellect; goodness is being as that in which desire rests. And since God alone is pure being and the source of all created beings, which only exist insofar as they reflect him, to love beauty is to love God.
From now on, I told myself, I lived to create, appreciate, and spread beauty and be in its presence. This excited me deeply. All my five selves were excited and were unusually united by their excitement. The beast liked it because beauty includes sexy women. The genius liked it because he loves to create and appreciate art and, as an intellectual, knows truth and beauty are one. The saint liked it because he knows God and goodness are beauty. Even the lost soul appreciated the beauty of sadness, horror, bleakness, and loss. And my fifth self, the outer self who negotiates with society, liked it because beauty is a respectable purpose for living; he could tell others about it. And the happiness it gave him was the outward look he preferred.
In the months that followed, I told friends and a few people at work that I had dedicated my life to beauty. Some of them looked at me funny—generally people don’t talk about how they’ve dedicated their lives to some purpose, especially when all they’ve been asked is “How are you?”—but no one could deny that beauty was a good purpose to have. No one was anti-beauty.
Yet the main point of dedicating my life to beauty wasn’t to please other people. It was to concentrate and direct my energies in a way that made me happy and made my life meaningful, and beauty did that. Almost immediately, I rediscovered my interest in creating visual art, which had been dormant since my teens. I bought art supplies—a sketch pad, pencils, canvases, paints—and started drawing and painting. I drew naked women, cheetahs and chimps, people running and jumping, boxers, dancers. I sketched a bamboo plant that grew among photos of Martha by a living room window, and one day, fancifully, I tried to represent it as a sexy nude looking out the window. I stopped, disturbed, when the nude woman turned out to have Martha’s face.
Still, that didn’t prevent me from reclaiming my artistic self. When I sat at Starbucks waiting for Melinda to be done with her haircut, I drew people sitting and drinking coffee or walking past the window. I painted a picture of Melinda’s tops piled in a corner of our bedroom, an almost abstract composition of colorful sleeves and neck holes. I drew a series of sketches of the Virgin Mary in unusual poses—fighting demons, breastfeeding Jesus, sitting depressed against a wall. I became a photographer too. I took photos of people walking on the streets, homeless people begging for change, cute women showing their legs. I shot videos of commuters dodging each other in a pitiless dance for space.
Since I had last been a visual artist in the 1970s, social media had appeared, and I took advantage of it. I signed onto Instagram and posted my drawings, paintings, and photographs, getting instant gratification as my followers clicked the “like” button. I shared my art on Facebook and Twitter too.
Early in my writing career, in 1982, I had had a poem published in the Chicago Literary Review, but I had written little poetry since then. Now that my life was dedicated to beauty, I resurrected poetry. I wrote a poem about my dreams of Martha, “No Second Chance,” and started circulating it with other new poems to various literary journals I researched on the internet. The long poems I submitted to journals; the short poems, four to six lines, I submitted to social media, getting the instant approval of “likes.”
I gave as much care to appreciating beauty as I did to creating it. I researched the latest artworks on social media and the internet. In daily life, I paid attention to the scenes of beauty presented to me while I waited for trains on commuter platforms or waded among lunch-hour crowds. It was harder to find beauty during the workday. It seemed to me that the right angles and bland spaces of office buildings were designed to drive out of the employees’ minds all distractions that beauty could provide. But even in those spaces, the bodies of mortal employees, whatever shape they were in, were beautiful.
I have never been musical, and I hoped, in my new rage for beauty, that perhaps I would learn an instrument—maybe the piano. But in the meantime I kept listening to music on iTunes, and listened also to the music of the streets (horns honking, people talking) and of the office (copiers humming, heels tapping down the hall).
Great literature had always been beautiful to me, and I read more of it now. For the first time, I read An American Tragedy and Therese Raquin, which were similar in their accounts of a murder by drowning, and Anna Karenina, which also told of a death, but this one by suicide. Anna Karenina’s state of mind before she kills herself reminded me of what I supposed Martha’s must have been like.
Beauty in my mind was tied to truth, and truth to politics. For the first time in years, I went on two political marches, one in Ardsley for gun control, the other across the Brooklyn Bridge to stop separation of migrant families at the southern border.
As I dedicated my life to beauty, my mood became better. My depression mostly vanished; I was happy. Maybe I was manic, maybe hypomanic, but I felt good. At the same time, I was reducing my meds, and there was no way to tell if it was the med reduction or the dedication to beauty that was causing the better mood, or both, or neither. I only knew I liked the way things were going. I got off Klonopin entirely, ending a reliance of many years on benzodiazepine tranquilizers. I reduced my dosage of Effexor.
My suicidality all but disappeared, and a good thing, because VU46, the rooftop bar I had entrusted with my suicidal fantasies, closed during this period. I no longer had a ready means of carrying out suicide, and I didn’t mind, because I planned to live.
In July, a publisher who had seen Martha’s website contacted me with interest in publishing a book of Martha’s life and writings. I wrote a proposal for the book, Supernova Girl, so titled for her own preferred image of herself as a supernova. Around the same time, I wrote an essay about Martha and suicide prevention, “Why Suicide Prevention Fails,” that encapsulated the antipsychiatry ideas I had been developing. I wrote a Thomistic paper, based on my theological treatise Cleave Land, arguing against Thomas that God, although immutable, suffers.
I had an idea that my quest for beauty could merge with one of my tips to love life, traveling. I made a list of all the states I had never visited; the nearest one was Vermont. On my August vacation that year, I took Melinda to Vermont. We stayed in Bennington and had a good time, visiting the Bennington Battle Monument, the college, the art museum; tasting pancakes with Vermont maple syrup.
For the first time since Martha died—even before that, for the first time since my depression of fall 2003—I was glad I was alive. In fact, I wanted to live longer. There were things I wanted to do that I needed time to do. I was writing a novel about a human-chimp love affair, Primates in Love, that I hoped to finish and get published. I wanted to paint and draw more, write more essays and poems, publish Supernova Girl. I wanted to build a larger social media following. I wanted to hear the new music that emerged in the Billboard Top 100. I wanted to see the young women now walking the streets, and the future women who would bloom from the individuals who were now little girls.
Life was beautiful. It was a great carnival, what E.L. Doctorow once called the bazaar of life, a bazaar that never ends. Someday I would have to leave it, but I didn’t want that day to be just yet. I knew better than most the horror of life. I had lost my only hope for progeny; my wife was old and sick and might one day be bedridden. Someday I might lose my mind and become an installation in some nursing home for the indigent. But despite all that I wanted to live. I wanted to see the sun illuminate the earth once more. I wanted to feel and imagine and create again. I wanted to research and think and contemplate. I wanted to love Melinda and be a man to her and care for her to her dying day. I was not ready to die.
This was an amazing difference from the way I had felt since Martha died, since before that, through all the years of the long depression that started in 2003 and never went away completely despite all my medication. For fifteen years I had hated life, longed for death. But now I was glad I was alive.
After my August vacation, I went back to work, and had some days of depression. My incipient gladness at being alive—my love of life—receded. Again, I felt that I would welcome death as soon as it came. But I was determined to press ahead with both my dedication to beauty and my plan to wean myself off my meds.
The next drug my doctor planned to take me off was risperidone, an antipsychotic that had been acting as a mood stabilizer. It had also been controlling my tardive dyskinesia, the weird mouth movements that had been caused by earlier treatment with antipsychotics. At my request, Dr. Kalinovka started me on a different drug, Austedo, which was not a psychotropic, to treat my tardive dyskinesia. So she thought it was safe to eliminate the risperidone. On October 14, I took my last dose of that drug.
And then the trouble started.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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