How, I wonder, do prisoners feel?

In the wonderful new BBC miniseries, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII’s chief minister and interrogator Thomas Cromwell interviews Sir Francis Weston, one of Queen Anne Boleyn’s alleged (and probably framed) lovers. Weston, a pleasing and ingratiating young man who was part of the Queen’s coterie of admirers, probably was dumber than a box of rocks, but surely knew that in Henry VIII’s Court, simply to be named was to be guilty, and that his neck was already resting on the cold wood of the executioner’s block. During his surprisingly gentle interrogation, Weston shakes his head and murmurs to Cromwell, “I thought I had another twenty years.” All Cromwell can do is offer sympathy through a religious platitude: “We know neither the place nor the hour.” Weston bursts into tears. Commonplace though it may be, nevertheless it is entirely true. Ironically, of course, Cromwell himself will learn the terrible truth of his flippancy just four years later, when he is arrested on a charge of High Treason during a Council meeting, and is taken directly to the Tower to be executed without trial at Tyburn on July 28, 1540, after a Bill of Attainder has been passed against him.

(There were exceptions to the indictment = guilty scenario. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Court diplomat and great English poet, was charged but was released, perhaps because there was no evidence to support the indictment, or perhaps because the Wyatt family had close ties to Thomas Cromwell himself.)

Now, what has this to do with me, who still awaits the judgment of the Superior Court in New Jersey on my motion to terminate alimony? Better question: apart from not facing beheading, what has this not to do with me? We know not the hour.

For this is all about the non-action of waiting. It’s the world of Samuel Beckett’s Gogo and Didi. Waiting, especially in matters related to one’s personal fate, is a form of cruelty quite beyond my ability to understand and fully express it. Although nothing happens during the non-action of waiting, it acquires the weight and intensity of an independent action. It has no face, but it bears all faces. For someone like me, who carries the manifestations of manic-depressive illness, it is one of the low points in a recent life filled with many of them. To borrow George Orwell’s linguistic format, it creates a neologism called unfun. Or it could be a summons to practice some hideous form of mindfulness.

What, then, happens during this period of unfun?

A ringing phone is a form of terror unless you can read the numbers on the caller ID or simply pick up the phone and get it over with. Dorothy Parker reportedly had her own way to answer unexpected callers: “What fresh Hell is this?” I envy your chutzpah, Dorothy. If the ID shows the number of the Bergen County Superior Court, the terror is both relieved (“At last!”) and heightened (“At last, oh my God!”) by the expectation of some answer, even if it an announcement of bad news. It is something, a message of one’s fate. It is at least some kind of answer. One can always work forward from bad news. Papers can be refiled. Another fifty buck filing fee can always be dredged up like a pair of waterlogged Timberland boots. If the call is relief or release, you may serenade the Judge’s clerk or the Judge himself with the beauty and power of your cigarette-clouded singing voice:

Now, if the answer comes though the mail, then the trip to the mailbox may feel very much like the infamous Green Mile or, I suppose, Thomas Cromwell’s last steps to the executioner’s block. A few steps. Turning the mailbox key in the door lock. Examining the papers therein. Amidst the bills and catalogs from the Xandria Collection showing vivid pictures of dildos (dildi?) and oiled latex vagina substitutes, there might be something even better than auto-pseudo-sex. For if one of the letters bears the return address of the Bergen County Superior Court, there is a return walk down the hall to the apartment. There is the careful slitting-open of the envelope with a sharp knife left over from a Renaissance assassin’s tooldaggerkit (how dangerous is a sharp knife like that in my hands??), unfolding and reading and rereading the message the letter contains. This is not like a college admissions letter, where a thick letter contains forms indicating the recipient has been admitted, while a thin envelope is an outright rejection. This letter will be thin, regardless.

(By way of sidetrack–I discovered as long ago as 1969 that a thin envelope may contain a wait-listed response that will mean conditional academic admission. I received one of these from Binghamton University, followed by a second letter wait-listing me for financial assistance, followed yet again by an offer of significant money for financial aid to pay to train me for the classroom. Six years later, and with generous State of New York and spousal support, I had my Ph.D. Sometimes the system works as advertised if the aspirant works, too.)

Mental illness exacerbates the derangement of waiting. As I hope I’m suggesting, it turns every act of waiting into a slow motion movie scene endlessly repeated. In 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, it’s bullets tearing into a car and its bodies. It’s a Totentanz that will not end. We cannot simply dump our remaining popcorn on the theater floor and walk out. The movie is not over until the Judge says it’s over. So we are in the most intolerable scenario for any bipolar sufferer: like the denizens of Casablanca in 1943, we wait, and wait, and wait. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe whenever.

Small comfort? My former wife (there is no present wife, by the way) is surely as in a sweat as much if not more than her terrible ex-husband. That would be me, by the way.

Like I said: Unfun. Now, where did I leave the Xandria catalog and copies of Zap Comix again? I’m really up for another reading of “Captain Pissgums and His Pervert Pirates.”


About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
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