“Monkey Mind” by Denise Duhamel

Denise Duhamel


I know the worth of each state’s electoral votes by heart. My neck pain
has stopped but has traveled to my elbow and wrist. “Three consecutive
deep breaths” written on post-its, one beside the coffee pot and another
on my bathroom mirror. How many times this fall have I been told
“remember to breathe”? Yoga instructor, therapy group, strength-training
teacher, all on Zoom. When I was a kid I watched “Zoom” (Who are you?
What do you do? … Come on and Zoom Zoom went the theme song.) The kids
featured on Boston’s WGBH were local celebrities and my monkey mind
wonders what happened to them as I jump from tree to tree. I recently started
the Netflix series Ratched, the origin story of Nurse Mildred Ratched
(before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). On her job interview, the titular character
says she’s not worried about patients throwing their own feces,
that nothing throws her, which reminds me of monkeys who also throw
their own feces when they are defensive, angry, or bored. I only made it through
the first episode of Ratched. I wanted to like it because I like Sarah Paulson
and am glad she is getting work, but I found the show trying too hard, too stylized,
like Mad Men but without as strong a narrative. Then I tried The Queen’s
Gambit but I know almost nothing about chess which the boys I grew up with
called “chest” to see if we girls would blush. And even now, whenever I read
or write or say “titular” I feel self-conscious because the word contains “tit.”
I remember at a writers’ conference many years ago, a famous poet wanted us all
to go to a “titty bar” (her words). And I said something like,
“I just checked in with my feminist principles and the answer is no.”
But now strippers are seen as empowered by some in the third wave and I guess
I’d need a more nuanced answer if she ever asked again. Not that “titty bars”
are even open in this time of COVID-19. That famous poet couldn’t have been
third wave all those years ago, could she? She’s a few years older than I am.
Maybe she was more revolutionary, better read. I can’t believe two grandpas
are running for the president, the election less than 48 hours away.
You know who I voted for (early) since no poet could be a Trump supporter,
could she? Remember in 2016 when there was a fake story that Trump
was going to invite an American poet of Scottish ancestry (who also played
the bag pipes) to his inauguration? I fell for it for a few minutes, but I don’t fall
for much anymore. I believe Trump’s imaginary inaugural poet was known
for his limericks. When I was a kid I loved Lime Rickeys and Del’s Lemonade,
a slushy concoction that lost fans because occasionally they’d slurp a seed
or piece of rind up through the straw. That only made me love Del’s more—
its authenticity, its real lemons. I bought a lemon but it was red, a Kia
which my then-husband said was inferior to our dying Honda Civic
which he was used to. But the Kia is so much cheaper, I argued, and won.
Then for two years we kept returning to the dealer because the interior smelled
like gas and the workers would reattach some hose that kept coming loose.
One time, when we were traveling, we almost passed out from the fumes.
We stopped at a garage and a mechanic said, This car could catch fire at any minute,
so we looked up the lemon laws but had stuck it out with the Kia too long.
We traded the car in and got the Civic my husband wanted in the first place
and I’m not sure if I said I’m sorry or you were right because by then
we were always fighting and I may have been stubborn like the time
we were in a crowded hotel, waiting to check in, and he insisted we were
in the wrong line. He walked away and sat defiantly on a lobby couch.
I had to move our two giant suitcases by myself each time the line crept forward.
It turned out I was right, but shortly thereafter, a therapist asked
Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Now I am in group therapy
and the facilitator finally last week let us talk about politics as she said
it was the elephant in the room. We all hated the big fat elephant in office
and wanted him out. What if he wipes out Social Security in three years?
What about the climate? Two of us in the Zoom group had been already hit
by hurricanes this fall. After each rain, Julie’s Florida street is flooded
to such an extent that ducks congregate and think it’s a lake. Only an October snow
stopped the fires from spreading to Maureen’s house in Colorado.
And what about the overrun hospitals? It’s too late to contract trace now,
says The New York Times—the virus is everywhere. And what about my mother
in the nursing home? No visitors, no activities, twenty-two of her neighbors
dead from the virus. She survived the spring, but will she survive the fall?
When will I be able to see her again? My mother has type O blood,
I keep telling myself, and though the low rates of infection are anecdotal,
I’ll take it. I’ve forgotten my own blood type—I think it’s A or B,
as I’m quite sure I was never a universal donor. And I never had to worry
about an Rh factor since I didn’t have kids. I remember pricking my own finger
in junior high and then testing for my blood type along with all the other students,
though I don’t remember the outcome. I bet now kids can’t perform this test
because of COVID-19, because of AIDS. For so many years my friends
and I were afraid to get HIV just the way we are afraid of COVID now.
Condoms then. Now masks. No dinner parties now, no parties at all.
I teach my Zoom classes and miss driving to and from school in my reliable Honda
though it’s not the Honda I mentioned earlier. That one finally died,
shortly after my marriage did. I thought my then-husband stole it
though I soon learned that you can’t steal communal property.
He simply drove it to the Miami airport and parked it in the closest,
most expensive lot, then hopped a plane to Madrid. It took me a week
before he’d let me know where he was, where he’d parked, then another
month before he was ready to come home. By then it was too late.
Some situations can’t be saved. I hope democracy can, even our half-assed version.
I hope the seas can be saved. Scientists just found a reef as tall as the Empire State
Building. I remember how my mom had a panic attack when she took us there.
Before we could look through the view finders we had to cut the line
to get back to the elevator and down to the street. I was five that trip
to New York and, though it wasn’t the worst part of my childhood, I wonder
what it did to me, to see my mom come undone in front of strangers.
I love heights and rarely get dizzy, even on the scariest amusement park rides
or parasailing. As I welcome the rush, I wonder if I am compensating for something.
I wonder if I am getting compensated fairly. When I was hired, I should have asked
for more money, but I accepted the offer immediately. The chair
of the English Department seemed shocked and then said, “Okay. I’ll send over
the paperwork.” I didn’t think I was entitled. Not like our entitled president.
Though he won the election without the popular vote, he acted like Mr. Popularity—
cutting regulations, nominating nutjob judges and justices, lining his own pockets
like the world owed him. I would have been a tentative president, my feelings
of illegitimacy on display. I would have worked with the other side, trying
to get my enemies to like me. Even now I leap from branch to branch
by my monkey tail, quite certain I’ll never be able to calm my monkey mind
until all the votes are in. I surrender my brain, my body, my own white flag.

from Poets Respond
November 6, 2020


Denise Duhamel: “Forty-eight hours after the presidential election, I am still filled with anxiety, hope, and dread. ‘Monkey Mind’ tries to capture a slice of where my mind travels to these days.” (web)

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