We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying
Most people get this Frank O’Hara poem wrong – I think it’s one of the darkest things he ever wrote. Packed with image and metaphor in too thick a wall of poetic excess to ever memorize it or even remember any particular line but that choral repeat of a perfect future – we shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying - it isn’t prediction, or a declaration of truth. It’s a desperate promise that knows it can’t be kept, the kind of thing you briefly believe when you’re at the sharp roller coaster rise of getting very drunk around people you love or wish you knew better than you did, and words are nothing more than the immediate reaction they could cause in the listener, and everything is possible if you say it out loud. We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying.
Over the holidays, Thomas and I went to see a play (this one, it was great, go see it) and at one point during a big harmonious musical number, an ambulance went by right outside, all screaming siren and clanking horns. The cast sang loudly over the noise and the sound they made was beautiful, but they couldn’t drown out the ambulance and everyone in the theatre listened harder, trying to pretend they weren’t hearing the ambulance instead of the show. This is what it’s like to try to be happy right now, to try to be in the exact center of each day, to try to take a few days or hours, a weekend, for joy and for the holidays, for only the small bright personal things, to pretend those things are not subject to some looming terror closing in just outside this bright warm room. This is what it’s like to try to be happy right now as January barrels toward the close of its third week, and this is what a holiday party feels like, and this is the larger category of emotion that can be described or summed up, shorthanded, as “holiday party.”
(It’s true that I started writing this tinyletter about a month ago and never came back to it, but I do think holiday parties apply to any time the rest of the year as a whole category of human experience and emotion.)
Holiday parties have been particularly good, and sort of terrifying, this year. Holiday parties are always about despair – it’s part of the equation, baked right into the noun itself, its substance, its roots reaching back to language. Holiday parties rise up like lights coming toward you out of the darkness on a long highway, headlights reaching something other than themselves, they are already set into the dead of the year when the nights outlast the daytime, when we wake up in the dark and come home from work in the dark, and we look for artificial light sources to break up the burrowing monotony of the darkness.
I felt like I could never quite get a grasp on the holidays this year, could never quite catch up with the calendar. Now here I am and it’s the new year, each day coming day like a truck when you’re standing on the side of the highway, the impact knocking me again and again back to the shoulder, farther off the road, confused that I didn’t realize it was coming.
Years, of course, don’t actually mean anything until they’ve already happened. The point of narrative is to impose meaning on things that are essentially undistinguished and meaningless. This kind of narrative-making, in which we call January a beginning and December an end, in which we dress up December 31st as a big meaningful rollicking funeral and baptism all at once, in which we tell ourselves that January 1st has dawned somehow bigger, cleaner, clearer than the morning that proceeded it, is a secular translation of the religious impulse. Religion is just another means of imposing narrative. You can’t really have a secular holiday season; even if you escape the obvious religious obligations and markers, the echoes are still there, darkness and light, gifts and hope, death and renewal. The big currents behind the cheesy things in these religious holidays push and pull you through the turns at the end of the year, the narrative imposition, the messiah-like belief that a year that isn’t 2016 is going to come and wash all 2016’s sins away.
There are other ways to make years mean something, to plunk down meaning on their canvas. Thomas and I are getting married at the end of this year. At my grandmother’s funeral – the very event that’s the reason my dad no longer speaks to almost any of his family, although that’s a different story – somewhere in the long raucousness partway through the wake (my dad is from an Irish family who are impossible to talk about without reinforcing every cliché of Irish families) someone said “this is so good that we’re all together! We should do it again! There should be a wedding! Someone get married!” My cousin Ben, the second-oldest after me, and I both rushed to put our fingers on our noses first, not it, not me, you do it. We all laughed. The same (probably drunk) relative kept exclaiming. “Someone should have a wedding!” That was ten years ago.
I didn’t know if I wanted to have a wedding and I’m still not totally sure I do but I’ve been thinking a lot about holiday parties, about really good parties that stick in my memory and draw me nostalgically back to them. The house party on the hottest day of the year seven years ago when everyone had a fight about publishing and then half the people at the party stormed out and the other half ended up playing an improvised game of baseball with a wooden spoon and stale pieces of bread and an open window, and we all took bottles of vodka out of the freezer and put them on the backs of our necks, passing the bottles around until they were no longer cold. My childhood babysitter who grew up to be one of my best friends and her wife waltzing in a large beautiful room after their wedding, watching them from where I was seated at a table full of strangers with whom I had just had the most surreal and interesting conversation of my life and the whole idea that the people who come together to witness a marriage stand as the embodied accumulation of a shared life. The party that took over a bar last month during the wild rush of holiday parties and bulged against the bursting limits of the bar's square footage like a person squeezing into tight jeans after a huge dinner, and I got there late but somehow got friends to sneak me into one of the handful of seats in the room and couldn’t move the entire time, waving my arms and yelling my love at every sweaty person I half-recognized across the room, and it was so warm inside that when I went outside I had temporarily stopped believing it could ever be cold, anywhere, ever again.
The thing I treasure about parties is their desperation, their embodied fear of the world outside the room, the way they crystallize that impulse to just say a thing that’s too good to be true and to for a few hopeless minutes believe it’s true by saying it. It’s not necessarily a good thing, or a morally upright or justifiable one. I don’t know if weddings are, either. That O’Hara poem is pretty sinister, too. But it feels like a wedding to me.
Weddings share more DNA with funerals than with any other event, but both weddings and funerals are – as category of emotion – holiday parties. We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying. Every good party, every really full-throated, two-foot intentional party, is about what we will inevitably lose, the fear of the things that slip through our hands, the horrorshow of passing time. It is the attempt to root ourselves to a moment constructed of pure joy, to throw up a bright and raucous structure against a growing dark outside. We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying. A community that holds itself up as it tangibly unravels, the psychotic activity of trying to turn a living moment into the experience of a photograph, asking everyone to collect in one room beautiful and happy and refuse the dark outside. We acknowledge our impermanence by creating pomp and circumstance around it, that if we can’t last at least we can matter, that if we can’t have substance, at least we can have noise, refusing to let our small time mean that we do not notice ourselves, refusing to let the fleeing months go by unmarked. A good party should make you a little scared of what’s outside, of what comes next. A good party should square up to the morning that follows as a threat.
Love is isolating unless you really work at it and even then it’s isolating sometimes. I have always loved other people’s weddings, even the shitty ones, the uncomfortable ones, the very expensive ones where it’s clear they’re going to get divorced in a year. There’s something so uncouth, so impolite about a public party to celebrate a private relationship, something so arrogant and inappropriate about it, here walk into my bedroom with the unmade bed and applaud me with champagne toasts. Every good party has a lie at its heart (we shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying). It is hard and unlikely to include a community in two people’s love but you can convince yourself it’s possible for the length of a party, you can buoy yourself up on that selfish grabby-handed belief, shutting out the larger world until for a few bright hours the only truths are the good things you say out loud. Is it immoral to reach for joy right now, or at any time in a world like ours? Maybe it is. Maybe these short moments, these holiday parties, are the best we can give one another, the best communities we can offer, the sound of the song rising futilely to drown out the ambulances going by outside.