Saturday, December 4, 2010
I have three days ahead of me, on this bus, 75 hours from San Francisco to New York City. When I’m moving all that has worried me, all that has made me unhappy, goes away. All that matters is the movement, the movement is enough to occupy me, looking, looking out the window. I don’t care if I’m looking at grey and ugly strip malls, sad, broken-down houses, or desolate farms, I take in everything, every detail. I imagine the lives of the people in these places, I watch the mothers walking with their children, the old men talking on street corners, everything is of equal interest.
And I watch the people on the bus, who get on, ride 100 miles and then get off again. In the Midwest, I see overweight women in thin cotton dresses, burdened with bags and young children, eating sandwiches, feeding their children soda pop as we drive along. I watch the sky, dark, looming, remembering that we’re in tornado country, afraid. We drive into the darkness for hours, days it seems. People get on and off, on and off. I stay in my seat, looking out the window. I eat in rest stops, grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee, pieces of apple pie, I brush my teeth in dirty bathrooms, trying not to touch anything. People on the bus are silent or murmur softly to each other. A child cries, then stops at a sharp word. I talk to no one, sitting in my window seat, looking out the window, never meeting anyone’s eyes, concentrating on the buildings and farms and trucks out the window.
Chicago. I have three hours before the bus leaves that will take me to New York City. I take a shower in the bus terminal, amazed that the Greyhound Bus company has thought of such a wonderful thing, a shower after two days sitting on a bus. When I get on the bus, clean with wet hair and a face that feels shiny from the soap, the driver tells us that this bus will go non-stop to New York. We leave at night and we’ll arrive at NYC’s Port Authority some time the next morning. We’ll only stop at rest stops, not to drop people off or pick people up. We’re all – the whole busload – we are all going to NYC.
Most of the passengers are black, many of them young. They’re thin, full of energy, talk, noise. I watch them, fascinated. They laugh with each other, they talk and talk, and as the night goes on, they all fall asleep, one by one. I sleep too.
In the morning, in the grey light, crossing Pennsylvania, crossing New Jersey, the talk starts again, the laughter, the joking, the stories. This is not the Midwest, these are not Midwesterners, these are city people, people going to NYC! I feel excited, I feel their excitement, and I know that they are the people I want to be with.
Way out on the flats of New Jersey, I see the Empire State Building first, then the other buildings of the Manhattan skyline. I weep with pleasure.
Friday, December 3, 2010
What I've described could be called “anticipatory retirement”. You're staring at the not too distant future. A future in which you reap the supposed rewards of having earned the chance to step off the whirling dervish that most people think is the whirl of life.
Me? Not on your life. My first (there were many) “mid life crisis” started in my mid-40's and ended right after my 50th birthday with a heart attack and open heart surgery with a pacemaker chaser.
At the time, I was working for a lawyer in Albany, N. Y. His self professed management style was “terrorist”, this all before we knew what terrorism really was. Mind you, I was not the greatest employee. A few days before my infarct ( the technical term for my heart attack was myocardial infarction – which feels really good on the tongue when you say it) I had been berated upon the discovery of hundreds of pornographic pictures on my hard drive at work. Thank God he didn't know, or suspect, that I would stay late at the office and have cyber sex or phone sex. Now, I'll grant you that, as a lawyer, I should have known that there is no right of privacy at the work place. Unfortunately, my life worked on the principle that lust trumped everything.
After initially surviving the heart attack (there were a few hairy moments, such as a precipitous drop in my heart rate after I was brought to Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, NY) it was decided that I needed to be chauffered to Albany Medical Center for a cardiac catheterization to determine if I needed heart surgery. The result was that I was scheduled for a coronary artery bypass graft (CABGx2 – pronouced cabbage), a double bypass. Better than three or four, no?
So, I'm lying in the hospital. I'm not too far from my office. I got along well with the staff, other than the terrorist, so I called and asked if they would mind bringing me a decaf iced coffee from this terrific coffee place near the office, The Daily Grind. One of them showed up a short time later, iced coffee in hand. With a letter “from Dennis”, the terrorist. With that she made an abrupt departure. As soon as I read the letter I understood the hasty retreat. Instead of a note of encouragement and perhaps a check, I was fired. Canned. Terminated. And, of course, no more health insurance.
Sometimes it pays to have other, more serious issues to deal with when faced with a crisis in one part of your life. Since I was about to undergo open heart surgery I mercifully couldn't dwell on what was, in the moment, an ordinary crisis, compared to what was coming. Open heart surgery is pretty serious stuff. What they do is put you on a refrigerated table to lower your body temperature to about 88 degrees. Then they put you into a coma (I had made a pact with the anesthesiaologist that he wouldn't catheterize my junk until I was out) and then they take a surgical steel sawzall and saw your sternum apart. They then take a rib retractor, separate your ribs and expose your heart. Next they hook up your major blood vessels to a pump. Then they kill you.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Well, there’s planning and hoping -- and then, there’s execution. In the space of time between making a reservation and getting on a plane, my lap top dies and a few other big bills come in. So downgrading my hotel to one a few blocks away seemed the sensible thing to do. The week before I was due to leave I was still deeply ingrained in a project at work that I was hoping to be done with before I left, and clearly wouldn’t be. In that last week, I wasn’t sleeping well, or fulfilling anything off my carefully constructed prep lists. A sleepless night of packing, weather woes leading to 3 reroutes, and 15 hours after arriving at the airport, I was finally in Atlanta.
Had I stayed in the same hotel my conference was in, given the sheer onslaught of information and human energy, I probably would have retreated to my room and ordered room service. I would have missed the 4 block walk each day through oddly deserted side streets, at least twice a day, that was somehow uphill both ways. I would have missed the 2 horse drawn carriages that rested at a taxi stand on my hotel’s street, just past the unassuming but loudly grooving supper club with no windows onto the street, only a facade that looked like someone’s front yard and door. Across from it, the snazzy “tallest hotel in the western hemisphere”, that had it’s first 2 floors on this side covered in scaffolding. Around the other side of the block, the drive-up entrance was a level lower (being downhill you know), and bustling with cars and bellmen.
I would have missed the panhandler that pointed me the way to my hotel that first night before hitting me up for change. I paid him a buck, after all he’d offered me a valuable service. On the way to the hotel, I passed this odd parking meter looking thing in the middle of the sidewalk outside the police station -- a collection point for the local “No Panhandling” campaign. (Oops.) I would have missed the police officers nonchalantly patrolling on segway, horse and bicycle. I would have missed that simple dance of meeting eyes or not, as we walked down the street -- the ‘how’ of which is often telling about one’s origins. I would have missed the foreign nationals walking around, scowling at the maps trying to get oriented and find their next destination.
As I’d been properly brought up in a paranoid city, I was careful to do such scowling before leaving my room each day. Having done so though, I walked about the streets with a certain comfort that eventually had those same foreigners asking me for directions. Hearing the accents and languages from all over the globe (like Japan, South Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan), I was thrown back to my teen and young adult years in Manhattan, doing the same thing. That music is one of the few things I miss about living in a metropolis. Atlanta is called the NY of the south, and I can see why, it feels much like that social home of my youth, but a little cleaner, a little saner, a little friendlier -- most of the time. I was happy to see a good number of couples of mixed-race comfortably walking about, but could not fail to notice that white men on the street almost invariably did not meet my eyes.
My formal conference sessions finally over, I head back to my room to prepare for the last event of this gathering, a Sponsor’s Night party to be held in the local aquarium. There was the promise of much dancing, something I do far too little of late, as well as good food and wine. I’d done relatively little of the indulging I’d planned on, since I was working between sessions or was too worn out to go out after the evening sessions of the conference. The aquarium was on my list of things to do in my carefully planned out first day and a half, designed to transition me from my always-working state to something a little more civilized. Unfortunately, Mother Nature and the entity I work for had different ideas of what I should be doing with that time; I was glad for this opportunity to see the fishes and such.
Back in my room I spruce up a bit, artfully slap on some warpaint as armor against the social onslaught I was walking into (2000+ women blowing off steam from an information-packed week is no joke), and put back on the only pair of shoes I had with me -- though somehow I’d ended up with something like 4 purses when I unpacked. (Such are the decisions made by a sleep-deprived brain.) The walking map said it was only about 4 blocks away, and the desk clerk confirmed that earlier. There it was on the edge of the Olympic park, piece of cake. The route I choose to avoid walking along the park as a woman alone, takes me down the steepest hill yet, and then uphill (of course) to the aquarium’s front door.
Walking into that dark throbbing womb, filled with sweaty, eating-drinking, dancing-laughing-talking women (a few men sprinkled here an there for good measure), was the sensory assault I expected. Jeans and evening gowns and glitter and glow sticks abound. Luckily the music wasn’t too loud, probably a by-product of the 40+ year spread of ages in the room. I bought a couple drink tickets, and got a glass of wine, saving the soft drink ticket for later. The ball room we were in had 2 huge glass sections on perpendicular walls, one looking into the tank of a pair of beluga whales and a pair of harbor seals, the other into an enclave of small sharks.
I spent some time up close with the whales, only a few inches of glass between us -- and, you know, thousands of gallons of water. At first I was wondering how the almost shamanically deep bass line was going to affect them, given the water’s and glass’s amplification properties. The whales seem genuinely unfazed -- enjoying themselves perhaps. They kept swimming very close to the glass wall, seemingly offering up their bellies for a good scratch as they slipped past. They seem amused as I refer to them as “little one” in our mental conversations. Turning away, I slip out of this main ballroom, have my 2 drinks and a bite, nodding at a couple people I’d met earlier in the week. Then having met my tolerance for humans and noise, retire.
In the morning, having been thwarted in my request for a late check-out, I have a choice: to make the mad dash out into the city and see a few tourist things on my neglected list, or to wander in a mellow fashion, just soaking up atmosphere and sunshine in this lovely southern city, I choose the latter. It’s a gorgeous early fall day, The weather has wormed up from the unseasonably cool temperatures of the last few days. Here in a business district on Saturday morning, traffic’s pretty light. I don’t even see the 2 horse drawn carriages yet. I head up the hill for the 2 pieces of unfinished business I left in the mall. A few serious indulgences later, I return with my still smoking credit cards (so much for downgrading).
I finally have my items packed and logistics worked out to get home, but my flight doesn’t leave for several hours. So I stack various carefully packed bags onto my newly purchased luggage cart and rolling suitcase, look around one last time, stack up my trash and recyclables and struggle out the door and down to the lobby. Leaving my bags with the valet, and waiting until I see him put them into the locked room, I step out into the delightfully warm and sunny day.
I head across the street, through the parking lot across the street, towards Ted’s Montana Grill, and turning the corner toward the restaurant, and spot Mr. Turner himself, mustache and all, deep in conversation, carrying a briefcase that is a little at odds with his chambray shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. I smile a bit and continue on. I walk in and for the second time this week, am shown to a paneled booth. Dark wood and leather banquettes reign here, giving a homey cave-like air even on such a bright day.
I choose one of the “only available on Saturday” meals, and pull out my book: Eat Pray Love. Reading it on this trip, I’ve been chuckling a lot, recognizing more and crying a little. I must find more by this author. I feel like I’ve known her for years. Lunch comes and I enjoy this gently barbecue-sauced, long simmered bison short rib, fork tender and toothsome. It’s paired with the most genteel garlic mashed potatoes I’ve ever had -- I swear they simply waved the bulb of garlic over the pot and muttered some vague incantations. Perhaps this town needs a few more Italians I decide as I continue to read about the author’s adventures in Roma and Napoli, and munch away.
Atlanta - what was that line I heard the other day? “All your dreams could come true or you can get killed at a stop light, you just don’t know... You just don’t know.”
Sunday, October 17, 2010
I am alone without another adult living with me for the first time in my life in a tiny apartment on the corner of Riverside Drive and 93rd St. Because she was worried about me, my mother did what she does well – decorate. There is a beautiful red rug in the narrow small room that serves as bedroom, living room and dining room. There is clean white linoleum on the floor of the miniature kitchen. Nina, my 1 year old daughter, has Margaret Owen wallpaper in her little room. The furniture is bits and pieces of mistakes from decorating jobs of my mother’s; a table that was the wrong size, a bed that didn’t fit.
The piano is mine, the only major piece I salvaged from the seven year marriage I recently escaped from.
Nina and I spent many hours sitting on the red carpet. I smoke a lot and Nina likes the cellophane from the cigarette pack that crinkles when she holds it next to her ear. I throw a ball to her and she ignores it, preferring the sound of the paper.
“Ball, Nina, ball,” I explain, taking her free hand to touch it. Nina loves the red rug, in fact will not leave it. She will crawl to the edge of it where it meets the kitchen’s white floor but will not cross that line. If I carry her to it she screams.
Dr. Manuel Furer of the Masters Children’s Center finally talked to me last week. Nina and I went four times to his clinic at the urging of one of my friends. They tried playing with Nina while her father and I watched through a big glass window. The blocks and toys that any other child could have responded to meant nothing to her. Nina was looking at the play of light on the white wall from the outside window.
There was supposed to be some kind of report or help or something but my calls to the Dr. never get answered until finally I told the secretary to get him to the phone right now – that this was cruel and unprofessional treatment. He did come and muttered, “It's hopeless, she’s autistic, it's hopeless,” and he scuttled away leaving the secretary to finish the call.
I wept for a while and then called my mother.
“The doctor says Nina is autistic”
“ARTISTIC!” my mother said delighted, “well there is nothing wrong with that!”
I felt bad for my mom who was having other shocks herself including a recent heart attack. When I explained that it was AUTISM, a serious mental problem, she responded with a trembling voice, “Don’t do that to me."
“Sorry Mom,” and I ended the conversation.
So now Nina and I are trying to make a new life in what was becoming a vacuum. I have tried taking Nina to the nearby playground but it terrifies her and she screams her high pitched scream until I must leave. There is my friend Harry who visits and plays the upright piano for Nina who responds in her shivering delight and trancelike rocking. But Harry wants to be with me all the time and I am not interested – he is needy and I have little heart to spare.
Nina and I visit the nearest safest place outside our little room – the park at the end of the block. It is the Joan of Arc Park holding the first female equestrian statue in New York. Her missionary zeal – her energetic warrior spirit is a mockery of my in-service and imprisoned life. Nina and I snuggle on a bench at the base of the statue, absorbing spirit.
Monday, August 30, 2010
I've always had flying dreams. From as early as four or five I've had the incomparable experience in my dreams of feeling some unfamiliar sensation of power in my mid section that allowed me to lift off the ground at will and soar casually around the trees and rooftops of whatever scene I'd find myself in.
When I was six, we got a new refrigerator that came in a cardboard box. When my father flattened that box and put it over by the garbage cans I knew immediately I had the makings for my first set of wings. While my parents were busy with their weekend chores, I snuck out a kitchen knife, then raided my mother's sewing box for some long elastic bands. In an astonishingly short amount of time, I was climbing out the attic window on to the rather gently sloping roof of our attached garage, pulling out behind me my newly constructed set of strap on wings. I put on my simple apparatus, strapped to my back and arms, walked over to the edge of the roof, and almost without hesitation, fully expecting that unique feeling in my mid-section that I'd experienced so many times in my dreams to carry me aloft, I jumped off the roof and crashed in a heap on the back lawn below.
Fortunately my parents hadn't seen me and I surmised that this might take more practice than I'd realized and accepted that I'd have to start closer to the ground. There was a stump of a large oak tree my father had recently cut down. Again and again I'd climb up on the stump just a couple of feet off the ground with my cardboard wings strapped on, try to feel that feeling of power in my solar plexus area, and jump out, frantically flapping my arms believing my wings would carry me farther than if I'd jumped without them. My father saw my experiments and actually helped me measure the distances jumping with and without the wings. He gently let me observe for myself, quite disappointedly, no significant difference.
But the flying dreams continued and each dream produced the most exalted feeling I'd ever experienced and I wasn't going to be deterred from having that feeling while I was awake. The property behind our house had a small empty field and a wooded hillside with some hickory trees that lent themselves to climbing. My next attempt was to grab my mother's umbrella from the front hall closet and my fathers umbrella from the garage, go back into the woods, climb into the hickory tree with the perfect overhanging branch, umbrellas hanging from my belt. I stood on that branch and got my balance, opened the umbrellas and leaped into the air, again in full confidence that exhilarating feeling of power would arise and carry me off like Mary Poppins – who by the way hadn't appeared yet into modern American culture.
No need to report the results of this experiment. But, although Mary Poppins hadn't arrived in the movies, Disney's first cartoon version of Peter Pan had, and it was all the rage for kids that summer. At seven years old, I went to see this tantalizing flying adventure with Jimmy Ardito, an older kid of about ten who lived a short bike ride down the road from our house. Jimmy's mom, Alice, took us to the movie and on the way home Jimmy told me he knew the secret of how to make Tinker bell's pixie dust. Chopped up toothpicks. Yup, he was sure, guaranteed, pixie dust was nothing but chopped up toothpicks.
While my mother sat at the kitchen table sipping cup after cup of Nescafe with Alice, and Jimmy had gone off to more thrilling adventures than misguiding a gullible seven year old, I helped myself to a handful of toothpicks from the kitchen drawer and arduously cut them into the smallest possible pieces with my boyscout knife. When my mother asked what I was doing and I told her, her response was about the same as if I'd told her I was going out to the back yard to play with King Kong. She never expected that I actually went back to that wooded hillside, climbed up to that perfect hickory branch about fifteen feet off the ground, sprinkled my freshly made pixie dust all over me, imagined that feeling from my dreams in my midsection, and plummeted straight down into the huckleberry bushes below.
Really dejected now, having used all my pixie dust at once, I went back into the house for more toothpicks. Of course I didn't share the details of where I'd tried my experiment when Ma asked, I simply said my pixie dust didn't work the first time and I was going to make some more. Jimmy's mom, Alice, straightforwardly asked “did you say abracadabra?” In retrospect, I understand where Jimmy got his sense of amusement, but my mom realized that I might be courting danger and insisted that I jump only from that stump that still remained from the big oak tree my father had taken down the year before.
Remembering the results of my earlier attempts from that location, I decided to save myself the trouble of the tedious chopping of the hard toothpicks, and my serious doubts about the mere words abracadabra, since I never had to say that in my dreams. Instead I took my favorite bamboo airplane with the wind up, rubber band driven propeller, and went out to the back field for some satisfactory, solitary playtime, knowing with full confidence that someday I'd learn the secret of that tantalizing power in my solar plexus that allowed me to fly so freely in my dreams.
Friday, August 27, 2010
In The Way we were taught to "plan the adversary out of our life." The adversary was the devil, the dark spiritual force that "walketh about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour." We were to be ever diligent to not allow a crack in our hedge of believing, to allow no fear. It was through fear that the adversary could gain a foothold in our life. If he got a foothold, he could gain deeper access to our lives, taking us "off the Word."
That's how devil spirits could get into our minds and even into our bodies causing diseases. But our positive believing could hold diseases at bay. If I couldn't believe to be healed in a category, I was at fault. But even then I was to have no condemnation. I would continue to confess the positives of the Word; that is how I could build my believing. That and by doing the five basics of witnessing, speaking in tongues, abundantly sharing, studying the Word, and fellowshipping with likeminded believers. Yet God was always the healer and was to always get the glory.
But by this Limb Day, I was doubting some of that doctrine. Why was it that since I had gone outside the Household of The Way I had gotten so much better in my physical and emotional health? It had to be my believing. It had to be that my reading and writing had somehow built my believing to allow God to work greater in my heart. But weren't all our needs supposed to be met within the Household? Craig had taught that if we are walking with the Father, that our needs would be met on a 24-hour basis. Sure some things took a bit longer, but most our needs should be met in that one day period or sooner.
But Craig was gone now. The believers didn't discuss Craig anymore, except maybe in private conversations behind closed doors.
After the Saturday Limb Day evening event, whatever it was, John and I met up with Linda ending up in her or our hotel room talking into the wee morning hours.
Linda had been in our Home Fellowship when John and I lived in Hickory. We had moved from Hickory in 1997 mainly because most of the Hickory Way believers had quit standing on the Word. Most had chosen to follow Mike and Jane who were made "mark and avoid" in 1995. The remaining people who chose to stand with the Household, drove to our home for Fellowship from Valdese or Morganton, some 15 to 30 miles away. All except Linda; she still lived in Hickory.
Linda and I had known each other since high school when we used to party together. But I wasn't the one that got Linda into the Word. My friend Debra had witnessed to Linda sometime in the early 90s. At the time Debra was a single mom with three boys. Linda was a single mom with the three girls.
Though I wasn't the one that got Linda to Fellowships, I had witnessed to her back in the late 70s or early 80s. Linda still remembered when I had her and her then-husband Joe listen to a cassette tape on which Craig taught "Truth versus Tradition." I had loved that teaching. I had loved Craig and how he taught with passion and how he confronted religion.
I didn't like religion.
Here we sat now, in 2005, in a hotel room discussing the Ministry and how it had changed. Linda shared how the Sunday teaching tapes were boring to her, but that it must be her. That she just needed to change her mind, because after all it, the teaching and the Minstiry and all that entailed, was still the Word of God.
"The Word, the Word, the Word and nothing but the Word," Doctor used to say. The Word was always right.
I sat in the upholstered chair in the hotel room listining as she spoke. My gut had butterflies. My heart trembled. A hint of anger lie just beneath the surface, a hint that I would quickly dismiss. Anger scared me.
Should I say anything?
"It's not you Linda." The words seem to come out all by themselves. "I feel the same. The teachings are dead. I've pulled out some of the old teachings by Doctor. I've been listening to those instead. Sometimes I miss Craig. I miss his passion."
I dare not go so far as to tell Linda what I had read on Greasespot Cafe. Besides, I still wasn't sure what to believe about the stuff I'd read. And people there seemed so bitter and one-sided. I didn't want to be one-sided. I didn't want to be bitter.
Then Linda opened up about what had happened to her and her family in the Fellowship where she started going after John and I moved from Hickory. It was with the same people where Eric and Debra had been publicly shamed. Linda and her daughters had experienced similar. The Fellowship Coordinator had even gone to school to complain to the high school principle about Linda's daughter. Her daughter ended up scapegoated by the Fellowship Coordinator. But still, Linda continued to attend Fellowship. It was the accuracy of the Word that kept her coming back. That kept us all coming back. Where else was there to turn?
Listening to Linda further confirmed my doubts. But how could I ever leave? When and if I leave, do I tell Linda? What about my family? How could my children get the accuracy of the Word if I left the Household? How could they know the truth? How could they function in life without the Household? How could we stay a family if we all weren't likeminded on the Word?
The next morning, after the Sunday morning service, I helped with clean-up from the Limb Weekend. I loved the saints, the believers in the Household.
I loved God.
I loved the Ministry.
This story is also posted at:
Toss and Ripple
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
My mother stood in her sewing room, which doubled as our laundry room, carefully transferring my dad’s undershirts and my summer tee shirts from our white Kenmore washer into the dryer. She was annoyed at me, irritated at my whiny behavior, wanted to be left alone with her work and her thoughts. I had never done this before. I was the model German child, always doing what I was told to do when I was told to do it and never acting outside of the accepted, stifled confines of our family. But somehow today was different.
The strawberries in question were always kept on hand in our freezer. They were an essential ingredient in what became my mother’s signature dessert. The strawberries were placed in the bottom of a large glass bowl, the frozen red brick remaining intact for several hours on our yellow Formica counter until finally morphing into what could have easily passed for strawberry soup. Next my mother cooked a box of Jell-O tapioca pudding mix, using slightly less milk than the side of the box recommended, resulting in a thick, sweet, gooey pudding. This steaming hot mixture was poured over the thawed strawberries but not mixed. The berries would caress the pudding in their own time, gradually seeping into the white, hot goodness, forming what looked like little red fiords. Eventually, the strawberries created a liquid cushion on which the pudding would ultimately float. This dessert was made and served every time we had company and I never saw anyone not take a second helping. And although I liked this dessert as well as anyone, I don’t know why, on this day, I was so intent on getting my mom to take out one of those frozen boxes of sweet berries just so I could have some.
Her annoyance, as always, was palpable. She ignored me, told me to stop, threatened to tell my father when he got home, but I persisted. When my whining finally turned into tears, she stopped moving the laundry and did something extraordinary. Without saying a word, she walked to the freezer and took out a box of strawberries. For me. To eat.
I realize this was probably an act of sheer exasperation or perhaps the only way to stop my emotional upheaval. But to me, in that moment, it was the most loving gesture I had ever received from my mother. It was no longer about the fruit, it was about her willingness to provide some nurturing to a little girl who felt lonely, sad, unloved.
The fact that this rare display of love was provided by food was probably the first sign of trouble I would not fully realize until I was well into my thirties. The nurturing I so desperately longed for, arriving as it did in the form of food, became inextricably linked to eating. Food began to equal nurturing. The love I could find nowhere else I could easily attain from a gooey, frosted brownie. A hug would emerge as an embrace from a log of chocolate-covered marzipan. And an “I love you?” Well, that required pizza after pizza after pizza.
I didn’t know where else to get these things. I couldn’t ask, wouldn’t ask, because even if I had, the answer would have been no. And food said yes.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Years later I would try to construct a drama that would make this little incident very important. But the drama was made of the stuff of dreams and every time I tried to hammer it together it would turn to nothing.
My friend Brian said one evening that we realize at a certain point that we are not living narratives. Life is much more random than we think and we are not following a dramatic arc.
My mom wanted to paint. She had just retired from being a registered nurse and was really into the painting class she was taking. She is in fact a first-rate painter.
I got it into my mind that I was going to clean the entire inside of our house. It was in fact way too messy, and I decided to be Hercules.
We were at cross-purposes and one day in my frustration I exploded in a fit of rage, after which I felt very hurt.
I drove up to the Ashokan Reservoir, parked my car and started to walk. When I saw the sign that said go no further I was too sad to obey it. I wanted to see what the dam looked like from close up. When I saw the white police jeep out on the road I knew I had been spotted and I thought, he’ll be here any minute.
This drama I had in mind is oh so vague. There was this bully I knew in grade school named Chad. To this very day he remains a stupid bully. I see him every once in a while, usually in restaurants. He became the villain.
After that my mind free-associated bits and pieces from everywhere. The sex appeal of the actress Fran Drescher for example. But that’s all I had. Bits and pieces and vague feelings, longing, love. Danger. Walter Mitty heroics. Friendship. If only I could put it all in order and have it make sense.
I composed a few outlines for it. It looked good that way. One of the outlines was a good piece of comedy on its own. Then one day when I was weak and sick I wrote the novella. It was undeniably bad.
I have a dream of returning to this story and telling it right, but like I said before it is made up of dreams that trail off into nothing. Getting the woman instead of having her reject me. Overcoming the fear and the glory of police. Seeing Chad as the failure he is. Turning the authority figures in my little world into human beings.
It is all right to never write this story. It is all right to wake up from it and let it go.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Stuart Gross called me and told me there was a party at the frat house with a girls sorority of really nice looking girls. My parents didn’t like me going there so I told them I was meeting Stuart to play cards at his grandmother’s house. We met up at the subway train and went to Boro Park to party at the frat house.
I remember I was wearing my black and gold horizontal striped boat neck sweater. It was a favorite of mine and thought it would help make a good impression meeting a girl. Well I did. I met this very attractive, smart and funny fourteen year old. We were sitting on a couch just to the left of the front door which was about six steps down from ground level to this basement apartment.
We were talking, laughing and making out. I was giving her pointers on how to . The red lights filled the room with a soft sensual glow when all of a sudden the door flew open and a gang of guys spilled into the room with bricks, car aerials, and blackjacks. They were jumping on and pummeling anyone in sight. There was a slight warning because the first person in yelled “I’ll give you three seconds to get out of here!” That only lasted two seconds before the fighting started.
I took the hand of the girl I was with and since I was near the door I pushed her out, up the steps to protect her. I followed right behind until I felt a hard object like a brick hit me in the head. I fell on the steps holding my head and crawled up to street level where I saw what looked like a scene from .
There I was laying in a fetal position in the snow holding my head watching this “gang war” when my friends came and picked me up and began to remove me from this awful scene. I heard them say “Let’s get him out of here before he gets killed!” As they carried me over there shoulders in a standing position down the block I felt something wet on my neck. I looked at my hand and it was covered with blood. Hey took me to the frat house of the football team which happened to be in the basement of one of the cheerleaders. She went upstairs to get her parents. I obviously had a very badly smashed skull and was bleeding profusely.
The parents took me to the emergency room. When I got to the hospital the only other person who got hurt was Stuart Gross who was there holding his head. Boy, the irony! Stuart was already sixteen so they brought him in to stitch him up. Being that I was only fifteen my parents would have to be present. So I sat there in excruciating pain, holding my head, bleeding, waiting for my parents.
I look up and see my dad in one of his very angry attitudes lunging towards me yelling “Wait till I get my hands on you!” My mother literally holding him back screaming “Leave him alone, look what’s happened to him!”
As soon as the release papers were signed I was brought into a room where I received nine stitches with no Novocain sewing my skull back together. It really hurt. The doctor said I was really lucky because it was right next to my soft spot and I could have easily been killed. I guess if I went to play cards all this damage would not have happened.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
My best friend Linda was a math whiz and so was chosen with another equally math-whiz person to be Mr. and Miss Slide Rule, and so went the categories; Mr. and Miss Personality; Mr. and Miss Athlete and I was chosen as Miss Shy along with my equally shy partner. It was all too too embarrassing, too too humiliating but there was no way out. We were coupled and posed with one another – and photographed for the year book. What made it even more cruel for me was that I towered above my partner, so we were made to be looking out from behind the auditorium door as if hiding.
How true this was; I had wanted to be invisible up to my senior year in high school. And I probably would have continued that way except that this event so infuriated me that I then and there – after the photo session, resolved never to be called shy again. I had so steeled myself from interaction and life in high school that I all but disappeared. In the lunch line one day in my junior year at Presque Isle High, a couple of girls I was talking with briefly said to me, “You’re the new girl, right?” I had started later after the potato harvest season was over my freshman year, but that meant instead of starting school in late August, I had joined the freshman class in late September and had been there all along. Mom, Dad and I had moved from Soldier Pond to Presque Isle during the harvest break in 1962 when I was thirteen. It had been traumatic, but I was relieved on some level. I wanted to make a new start. No one knew my Dad here; no one knew he drank; I could hold my head up here.
But, Dad had taken part-time jobs first in the shoe store on Main Street, then at the local pool hall, also on Main Street. And some of the kids began to know who he was, and he did drink – even though he wasn’t going to. We really didn’t know he had a disease back then. We thought by will, he could stop his behavior. I became embarrassed again and very shy and withdrawn. Writing was my salvation. I took refuge there, but criticism devastated me and I couldn’t even do that right, it seemed. How I managed to pull off being a B student at the end of four years is a sheer miracle.
I was enrolled in the college prep program. How ever did that happen? I guess, my father’s brother, Uncle Leo, was behind that. He would have wanted me to aim for college and Mom and Dad too, even though we could hardly have afforded it.
More importantly, however, was my realization that I had let those years be stolen from me because I so protected myself from being hurt. Linda was the only one I shared my poems and writings with and she played the piano for me after school. Her Mom always had treats for us after school – a brownie or some kind of sweet and a glass of milk. I preferred water. We would laugh and just enjoy one another, and that saved me. Linda helped me with algebra I and II and then geometry; although I had less difficulty with geometry.
I would remain shy during and after my senior year in high school, but never in the same way. The steel door had been taken down. Life became an adventure and I refused to go back to being paralyzed.
That day, after being photographed, I went to the girls room, whipped out my hair brush just like everybody else and began brushing my hair and fixing my makeup. I had never done this before. I waited until no one was there and then I’d bush my hair and put on my lipstick. I couldn’t pee either when anyone else was in the bathroom. I’d sit in the stall and wait until everyone had left and then I’d pee. I’d been like that for years. That day, I was so furious for having been posed with poor shy Brian, who hardly said two words to me for three full years when we had English class together. And I towered over him and we were both labeled shy – something a shy person never wants. The whole jig is to be invisible; not be brought to light. But the jig was up!
This anger I felt was probably my saving grace. I peed and it felt so good!
My obvious obligation in this situation was to honor the Masculine Code, put up my dukes, and defend myself, in accordance with the standard stern injunctions most boys received from their fathers to stick up for themselves and fight like a man. My dad, however, an Eastern European much older than the average father of teenagers, had decidedly not instilled any such notions in me -- if anything, the reverse. And so, either true to my upbringing or simply obeying my natural inclination, or both, I chose flight over fight and, my adversary in hot pursuit, ran from the locker room up the stairs and out the school doors -- ran for my life.
“You girls look at the boys with cow eyes!” Sister Austina’s voice, dripping with sarcasm, excoriated the girls right in our presence. Pin-drop silent, listening, absorbing each word, we waited for what would come next. Austina was not given to bizarre outbreaks or extraordinary punishments, like some sisters; people said that she favored boys.
Joyce Accurso, Ginny Holst, and Carol got highest marks for the girls. Joanne Lanzarone was almost as smart and also pretty; I didn’t know that she cared for younger brothers while her mother worked. Sometimes she teased and laughed. Ginny Holst encouraged me in a quiet, modest way. I thought that they liked me, but longed for Carol. Carol had dimly-lit dance parties at her house. When it became clear that she favored Dennis Card, I was disappointed. Dennis was second in marks but had summers in Port Jefferson—I only got as far as imagining Port Jefferson’s dark and shady woods from pictures that he brought home; I couldn’t imagine the port. Dennis’s mother was Irish and welcoming to his friends; his father, Joe, hard-working and friendly, owned a tiny gas station where my father stopped for gas.
As I grew shyer, more depressed in high school, far each day from familiar persons, values, and things, far from summer vacations, I saw little of Carol. When I saw her occasionally at late Sunday mass, she wore wide-brimmed hats and pastel floral prints that were out of the ordinary in our parish. She was heartbreakingly attractive, if ambitious; I missed Carol that I knew. I don’t know why it was beyond me to call or ring her doorbell; maybe because I assumed that she dated older men on Saturday nights. I heard that after high school she went to nursing school. None of the bright Italian women whom I knew went to college. Eventually Carol married and was divorced. She raised two sons alone.
‘Twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her // ‘neath the shade of an old walnut tree // with the flowers in her hair blooming round her. // It was there on the isle of Capri. Carol. On the isle of Capri. The song said what I felt about her. My Sweetheart of Sigma Chi. When the moon hits your eye // like a big-a pizza pie, // that’s amore! When the stars make you drool // just-a like-a pastavazul, that’s amore! The songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennet were about Carol for me. Everything about songs, flowers, and romance was Carol.
“I don’t know why you were never interested in Walda Salomon,” my mother said. “I talked with her mother the other day.” I didn’t know why either. I thought that Walda was smart, cute, and attractive. But she was not Carol. My mother didn’t see or talk with Carol’s mother, who lived near our old neighborhood on the other side of the parish. She encouraged me, instead, to date Kathy Dillon, the daughter of a Brooklyn College teacher whom she knew.
* * * * *
Pauline walked to the edge deliberately and looked down. The canyon was wide and deep. Trees in the bottom, scattered up the sides, seemed small. If she were to lose her balance, slip, or misstep, I could not reach her. I felt myself diving, grasping for part of her, my momentum and her weight pulling us toward and over the brink, my fingers hooking the edge, slipping slowly over gravel and sand, steadily, relentlessly, stones cascading over us, my eyes seeking below anything to grab hurtling past or upon which to break our fall. I thought of walking to the edge, bending over it, looking far down through clear morning air to the valley floor and, from sudden reflex, vertigo, distraction, or mischief, stepping or slipping into the air, tottering, hovering, plunging. Recollecting myself, releasing such thoughts, I became mindful that I was two or three leaps from the brink.
I hardly dared speak, fearing that I would startle or distract her. The woods around were quiet. She turned toward me in her brown corduroys, her back to the precipice. I spoke gently, my body alert, almost shivering, restrained, poised to do I knew not what nor how. Pauline seemed another kind of being, rash and unafraid. I wondered whether she courted risk habitually and whether she wanted to die.
The day was beautiful. She spoke cheerfully and succinctly. Birds chirped, and an occasional hawk soared. Earth suffused damp; air felt fresh and clean. Shadows in the valley shrank as the sun climbed. I ached, not moving. Speaking gently, I noticed that I felt terrified not even so much of losing her as of feeling helpless seeing her fall, climbing down to where she lay, broken on rocks below or dying in pain.
In those days, Pauline began to talk of the preferential option for the poor and of going to Nicaragua. She had all the recordings of the Weston Priory monks and introduced me to them.
* * * * *
At the reception, lights were subdued and shaded. A few people hovered by a table of conventional refreshments. There was a sense of impromptu. I knew few in scattered groups that extended into adjacent rooms, creating a hubbub of chatter and movement. Few if any introduced themselves to me; I thought that they must have connections among themselves that took priority. Anticipation was collective. A darkened energy, too. It arose and ended elsewhere. I did not usually circulate among militantly conservative Catholics; these were outspokenly so, but that was not the focus.
When Joan came, she urged me to dance and held me modestly, almost awkwardly, against her slender, angular form. She wore a satiny dress; it did not seem hers. I tried to discern and catch her eye, to look into it; she put her head on my shoulder. Quick, inquisitive, she bore no obvious signs of sexual humiliation or solitary confinement. I strained to think of something to say more than small talk. It was my first time seeing her since the meeting at our House on abortion. She was quiet. I assumed that others might be on her mind and heart. Others who might have visited and written to her at Broward. I’d missed that getting to know her while confined non-cooperating, identifying with and praying for babies threatened with abortion and doing penance for their mothers and doctors. She might be at Broward still, in solitary three more years, had it not been for Jerry Falwell’s Christian radio and television network pressuring the Florida governor to commute her sentence.
Joan was the heroine of this group, linked to them by pro-life newsletters and support lists. It was clear that they were inspired by her, ready for her to return to the peripatetic activism that she’d been waging when sentenced two years before. Their energy was a spring coiled; it was a strangely agitated environment. This was the first open gathering in the New York area that she’d attended since her release. After a while, she drifted from me, talking with others. It was enough, and not enough. I’d felt a connection, but already she was being pulled into a movement—far from God’s women and men and cats and cockroaches at Arthur Sheehan House.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
I packed a backpack, with the bare essentials and a mini, hand-held recorder so I could do some audio journaling along the way. The plan was to spend a few months in Costa Rica, volunteering at a rainforest retreat center, while I waited for my best friend to meet me in Guatemala, where we would spend a few months doing a Spanish language immersion program.
I had no idea what kind of work I would be doing, just that it had taken me a few months, and several epic emails to convince the owners to let me live there in exchange for room and board. I had found the hotel through Omega, even though I had not ever been to their Rhinebeck campus. But I knew of it, and had been introduced to one of the cofounders, who put me in touch with the hotel, because Omega sometimes rented space there for winter workshops.
During those months leading up to my departure I poured my heart out, across cyber space, trying to paint an accurate picture of who I was, and what I could offer professionally, and how I was standing at a post 9/11 cross road, desperate to get off the corporate ladder, and interested in alternative health and personal growth. I offered to do everything and anything – from marketing and PR, to teaching English, to cutting vegetables, or cleaning guest rooms – whatever was needed I would gladly do, for the opportunity to spend a few months there. I explained that in addition to my professional skills, I was also studying yoga and had recently taken a few introductory massage therapy classes at the Swedish Institute.
After a few months of writing to them, without a response, I logged into email one afternoon, certain today would be the day I’d hear back. Much to my dismay there was still no response. It was then that I surrendered and asked the universe to guide me to something else if this was not meant to be. At that very moment the phone rang! On the other end, a man speaking in broken English, from Sueno Azul Resort in Costa Rica, was thanking me for all my letters, and inviting me to get on the next plane and come down to be a volunteer. Thrilled, I thanked him and assured him I was not expecting money, just room and board, but he reassured me that they would give me something. I remember thinking, perhaps they would reimburse my bus fare, or minor expenses associated with getting to and fro.
And now, here I was leaving for Newark airport, backpack in tow, and a blank slate before me. As I was waiting patiently at the terminal, my ex boyfriend suddenly showed up. He had left work in the middle of the day, jumped on a train, and come to see me off. The romance was long gone, but I was touched, and we shared a tender good bye.
The flight was easy, and I was making my way through customs before I knew it. The hotel owner and his beautiful wife picked me up from the airport, and took me to their home in San Jose, where I would spend the night before making my way to the hotel in the morning. I don’t recall much more about that night, but when I woke up in the morning the 3 of us had breakfast at the kitchen table, which was prepared and served by a live-in housekeeper.
I decided it was a good time to broach the subject of what my work would be. In broken English they told me, “We think it best if you work in the spa. You teach yoga classes to the guests and give massages.” I was a little caught off guard. Sure, I was the one that said I was interested in yoga and massage, but I definitely was not certified or licensed in either modality. Intimidated, I tried to talk my way out of it, playing up all my other skills, but they were convinced this was best, and offered to pay me 20% of the income I earned for them.
Next thing I knew, a driver had arrived. He spoke no English, but I gathered he would be the one taking me 1.5 hours northeast to the hotel. It was a wild ride, me in the backseat of his pick-up, with my Spanish dictionary in hand, trying to express my amazement at the jungle and mountains we were winding through along the way.
Once I had arrived, met the hotel manager and settled into my lovely room, I went to the dining pavilion for lunch. There I joined the owner’s son, who was very gracious, and spoke perfect English. We shared a meal and some conversation, alone in the dining room. I asked him where all the guests were, and he said the hotel was at low occupancy, with just one group that day; a group of equestrians, who had gone riding in the rainforest for the afternoon. Quite happy to have finally arrived, and to have made a friend, and to find little to no work waiting for me, I decided to return to my room and take an afternoon nap.
As soon as I lay down, there was suddenly a frantic knocking on the door. It was Manuel, from the front desk, saying – “Tienes un masaje! Tienes un masaje!” Which I understood immediately. Holy cow, there was someone at the Spa wanting a massage. He asked me if I had white clothes, and if I knew where the Spa was. Luckily I did have a white tank top and slacks, so I changed quickly and then he took me to the Spa.
The whole walk there, through winding pathways, and lush green gardens with bright red ginger, I kept repeating silently to myself, “You ARE a massage therapist. You’ve done this a thousand times, you ARE a massage therapist. You’ve done this a thousand times!” Over and over again, I repeated my mantra, but I already knew playing this role was going to be a trip.
Friday, April 30, 2010
Of course, that was far from the truth. I tried to please, hoping to elicit some approval from mother. Which sometimes happened but I remember more the shaming and the jokes at my expense, the talking as though I was invisible, ignoring the abuse her pedophile husband inflicted on me, in denial of her alcoholism, of his alcoholism, of their narcissistic, sadistic, manipulative behavior. Slowly picking at me day after day, week after week, wearing me down, month after month, year after year, criticizing almost everyone and everything in their path.
I'm building a case here worthy of life imprisonment, hanging by the neck, actually torture seems fitting. Slow painful torture. I was so repeatedly tortured in what seemed like subtle ways I became convinced I was a torturer. I was dirty, evil, immoral, rotten to the core.
This became evident when I chose a direction down a dark and winding path to hell. Eager to please anyone who gave me the time of day, who smiled and spoke to me. I was lost not knowing where I wanted to go, just following along, riddled with guilt. How did I ever pull out of that downward spiral?
A tiny spark of something. A nun at boarding school had it, Sister Veronica Jean, she had compassion for me, a decency, a conviction that I was innocent, that I was worthy of gentle care, that inspired me as an 11 year old.
I was expelled because I was caught in the same bathroom with another girl, she was expelled too. But my mother was away so she couldn't take me home and I had to live in seclusion away from the other girls because the nuns must have thought I would contaminate them, they must have thought I was a budding homosexual. Nothing sexual was acceptable there. Sex was a mortal sin. But I was not familiar with the catholic church. My parents were not catholic but I knew that getting caught in the same bathroom with a girl was wrong. We had our clothes on but she was showing me what the word "Rape" meant. I had overheard girls talking and I asked what that word meant so one of the girls said I'll show you.
And then while we were in there someone called a nun and under the door of the toilet stall a black shoe appeared connected to a very stern and angry nun. The room I stayed in had only a brown fake leather sofa that I slept on and there was a bird in a cage and no curtains or shades on the windows.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
My sister Carolyn had called me from England on the Friday evening before his death, saying that the medical staff at the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford had suggested that next-of-kin should be advised that his time was probably drawing to an end. My sister never calls me to talk; it had been clear for a very long time that we had nothing to say to each other, nothing in common, no common interests. She only calls in emergencies.
I was in my little house in Kerhonkson. I had just driven up from the city that Friday night, after work, as I was working full time then. I panicked, my heart started pounding. I told her I would immediately jump on a ‘plane and fly to Oxford. Then about thirty minutes later, my nephew Robert called, my sister’s oldest son who is now managing the Probate for my father’s estate, and from whom I have heard absolutely nothing since his cremation, when Robert was notably absent. Robert’s excuse was that his car had broken down on the way to the Banbury Crematory. He didn’t show up either for the food and drink that Carolyn had prepared at our father’s house, for all family and friends, after the cremation. Carolyn told me that he said to her he didn’t think it was worth it, to come just for the family gathering.
That Friday night last October, after I spoke with Carolyn and then Robert called, he said, Stay put, the doctors are telling us that it could change in the next 24 or 48 hours, he could rally, there is no point in your rushing over. So I breathed a deep sigh of relief and stayed put.
He died two days later, peacefully, in a coma induced by respiration pneumonia. He had fallen in the house a week previously and, because he was living alone – as no-one could stand being with him for more than a short period of time because he was so difficult and demanding – he had been lying helplessly on the living room floor for several hours, before help came, inhaling his vomit and mucous and emptying his bowels and bladder.
I prepared a speech to give at the cremation. Carolyn, in her usual very efficient way, had arranged for a Secular Humanist to preside at the cremation because Roger, our father, said he wanted nothing religious, and only close family and friends present. I emailed my speech to Carolyn, who gave it to this nice lady she had hired. I wasn’t sure that I could read the speech so Carolyn said that if necessary, the Secular Humanist would read it for me. Carolyn hadn’t prepared a speech. She had simply prepared an outline of our father’s life, most of it based on my speech, so that this lady could give the Eulogy.
At the cremation ceremony, after the Eulogy, I went up to the Podium and started reading my speech. After two sentences my voice broke, my eyes filled with tears, and I started sobbing. I had to sit down. The Secular Humanist lady, trained in these sorts of situations, said take a minute, I know you can do it, take a few deep breaths. I got up again and tried once more, but my voice was gone, and I once again broke into sobs, so she read it for me.
Nobody else wanted to speak; and so then the ceremony was over and we all embraced each other. Actually, not all of us, just my other nephew, James, Robert’s younger brother, and his lovely Moroccan-Jewish wife Natalie, embraced me. James and Natalie and I hugged each other and cried. My niece Sarah, Carolyn’s youngest daughter, didn’t embrace me, or anyone else. Robert wasn’t there to embrace me. And Carolyn just walked ahead and gave instructions to everyone to return to the house, for food and drink, which she had dutifully prepared.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Many years ago, shortly after entering the halls of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was asked to tell my story. In a fit of anxiety I exclaimed, “I have no story.” I haven’t attended AA in many years, much to the chagrin of my ex-AA friends. I guess AA is much like the mafia, once you join there is absolutely no possible way to depart, except in a box. But after twenty years I just felt like having a beer. One day I did just that. I have survived just as well with the beer as I did without. By that I mean I can wreck my life with or without the help of the evil alcoholic spirits. Given that fact I might just as well enjoy myself once in a while. For instance, financial ruin and two-and-a-half divorces all took place while I was free from the grip of “John Barleycorn.” I’m still using that brainwash lingo after all these years. I figured I just couldn’t do much worse from an occasional partaking of an alcoholic beverage. And that thought has held true.
There have been three or four lives that seem to me to be completely separate. In each one I’m a different person. Each life could be titled with a woman’s name. Like chapter one: The Susan Era. Sadly, the only thing that has remained constant is that every chapter has the same ending. I guess I’m still looking for the chapter that has no end. Right at the moment I feel about as far from that dream as one could possibly be.
I told a woman friend of mine who seems to be just waiting for me to make a move that I’m alone because I’m tired of feeling like I disappoint people. By that I meant wife-type people or relationship-type people. The thing is that I really like this woman. After I said that to her I thought, “Good work, Neil. There’s nothing a woman likes more than a great show of confidence.”
It’s time to start a new story. I’m not sure if the next chapter will be titled with a woman’s name. But I must admit to hoping it will be so. I guess a therapist would consider that to be a psychological defect, and tell me I must love myself first, along with the rest of the standard psychological mumbo-jumbo that I’ve heard way too many times. Screw Sigmund Freud anyway. Psychological defects aside, I’m still hoping to get it right.
Working in mental health, at this point, literally sucks the life out of me. Unfortunately being a starving artist doesn’t put food on the table and taking care of psychiatrically ill people does. It feels as if mental illness has been stalking me my entire life. It is time to say enough is enough. Mentally ill children, mentally ill wives, and my own depression that went unidentified for so long. Depression has often taken me down a dark lonely road with no off ramps and no u-turns signs posted all along the way. The thought that I am also dependent upon mental illness to live and eat is hard to bear. I think I have done my duty to the world of psychiatric disabilities.
Despite the earlier satire concerning Alcoholics Anonymous, I did learn some great things there. One that sticks in my mind is a little Charlie Chaplin-like, vagabond cartoon character. This happy little guy carried his past in a small bundle on the end of a stick, opening the bundle only occasionally to use one of life’s lessons in a positive manner. I’ve always liked that philosophy though I’ve never quite gotten the hang of it. My bag always seems to be filled with bricks. And they seem to be bricks with a reproductive system.
I had a dream some twenty years ago about an older man with long, gray hair who travelled the countryside writing. He was high in the Rockies, somewhere in
After more therapy than anyone should ever be allowed, it is in the writing that I have figured it out. I keep writing about the endings. And it is for sure the endings that are preventing the beginning. The endings make the air thick with jagged knives that will cut deep in to my heart if I invade the space they inhabit and call their own. And landmines litter the earth, just waiting for me to dare tread in that hallowed territory called a new beginning. With that fear in mind I have lived all too long in the limbo-world. It’s time to move on, start the new story, and once again take that trek across the minefields of life. The possibility of being blown to smithereens is the price one pays to live. And even being blown up is more fun than being part of the living dead in the limbo world.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Grandma had moved to the house with Aunt Esther and her husband Eddie. She had asked my mother if we would buy a house to share but my mother had said "No". I knew only because on the day we all trooped out to see the land on which Esther & Eddies house was to be built, Grandma and I walked away from the group. We walked toward one of those wire fences through which one can see but clearly speaks of borders and boundaries. We stood at the fence. I think I curled my fingers around the wire, cold in the March air, the trees beyond it still winter bare, although had we looked I'm sure we could have seen the faint color of buds.
We weren't really looking though. We were quiet. Then I heard my unusually silent Grandma sigh, a deep sigh unedited for the 11 year old at her side. I remember looking up at her then taking her hand. "You mustn't tell", she started softly, not looking at me, seeing probably nothing. Her eyes looked clouded. I moved slightly so that I too stared off again through the fence, also unseeing.
We had a special relationship Grandma and I. It wasn't that we had secrets, but that we could share thoughts that others might consider impolite, so Grandma's asking me not to tell wasn't shocking. What was shocking was the depth of the place it came from, not memory or a story but from a place of monumental importance. The moment was truly frightening.
I remember her coat, a nubby gray wool and her scarf. I remember the damp cold and leaning closer to her, wanting to make whatever it was that was troubling her go away. "I don't want this," she said quietly. "I asked your mother. She said 'no'. Your mother is proud, too proud, but she is who she is. She is honest. I hoped that your mother and father would buy a house in which I would have an apartment. I would give them the money. Your father thought it would be a good idea but Evelyn [that's my mother] wasn't ready. I don't want to live like a guest, like a child."
There were other words, there had to be, and I'm probably not truly remembering the exact words that buried themselves in my heart. Like the cold of the March day my grandmother, whose house was always warm and full of heavy furniture that would last forever, was becoming a piece of something else in someone else's house, and helpless, helpless the way I was with my family. Everything in my house was careful and loving but the real heat of life was tucked away. I didn't know about Esther and Eddie. I wasn't comfortable with them so when my Grandmother spoke, her head turned away from anything familiar, I knew more than I could know: We were both lost in a way and we loved each other, trusted each other.
I remember feeling ashamed of my mother, angry with her, although we never spoke of that time in our lives until years into my adulthood.
We visited Esther and Eddie and Grandma in that house in Queens, not a lot, but certainly a number of times. Susan, my cousin, a year older than I and Esther and Eddie's daughter, insisted we play together as did her parents. I just wanted to visit Grandma who would shoo me away to be with Susan. When I snuck a moment to ask why, why couldn't we just be, Grandma taught me about what one does in another person's house, you don't make them angry. You try to live in a way that is comfortable for them. They wanted me to play with Susan. It would be good for Susan. We would get to talk. And we did, we did talk sometimes on the phone, but that's not the same of course.
And then we went to the house in a very solemn mode one day, my parents quiet in the car on the way up. Grandma was very sick. My parents were going to see her. But when we got there, when we got in the house, the house that was all sameness and like all the other houses except that my Grandma was in one of its rooms, I wasn't allowed to see Grandma. I asked. I was told she was too tired.
I remember the emptiness then, the cold air, the hushed voices, the fake antique furniture and Susan's self importance. She held a secret she finally whispered to me, "Grandma is dying" she said, her voice full of her special secret knowledge.
And then it was too much. I begged to see my Grandmother, then I wept, then totally uncharacteristically I threw myself against a wall protesting until they had to let me in, couldn't keep the noise away. I had to promise I would stay "just for a minute" but I didn't. Sometimes you just have to lie.
My grandmother's eyes were open when I came in and she smiled. She was frail without energy but when I sat on her bed and put my hand next to her she took my hand in hers, her fingers cool, her embrace warm. "Debbie, Debbie", she said. I bent toward her and she reached to touch my face. Of course I told her I loved her. How could I not have. I was bursting with love. I hugged her and I asked what was wrong because, no matter what anyone else said, she would tell me the truth. We talked a little bit, about her illness, about me. And the she asked if she could tell me something. I nodded, of course she could, and we were alone again. We were safe. "I'm dying, Debbie," she said, "and I am afraid."
My heart rose to fill the space between us. "What are you afraid of?" I asked, worried. "Of dying", my grandmother said, her blue/gray eyes so deep, "Of death." And my heart opened even more. I didn't want to see my grandmother suffering, frightened. "Please, Grandma, you don't have to be afraid," I assured her with everything I knew. "Lots of people have died, Grandma. It can't be that bad if everyone does it." That seemed so logical to me, so full of truth that what I said next seemed equally possible, "I will stay with you, Grandma. I will hold your hand and you can travel with me. I know you won't be alone." It was an easy promise to make. I would be with my Grandma as she had been with me. I was unafraid.
They tried to get me out of her room but they couldn't until Grandma fell asleep and even then, when they forced me to leave, I begged for a few more minutes. When the door was shut again I pulled a ribbon off my braid and tucked it into her loosely opened hand, gently closing her fingers over it so she would know, if she woke up, that I hadn't really left. I would never leave her. She would know that and be comforted.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Actually, it wasn’t an imagined past. It was a past they had only just lived through, but one that existed before I was born. An iconic story Mother told was of waiting for Father at the Alexandria Virginia train station and hearing on the radio that FDR had died. She burst into tears. They did believe in FDR. Mother’s memory of her sudden, unexpected, grief lives in me as sharply as if it were my own.
Mother and I would go to the parade on the Concord Lexington highway, every April 17th, the anniversary of the “shot heard round the world,” the day on which the Boston Marathon is now run. We stand in front of one of the tumbling down but still beautiful stonewalls that line the road, and watch men in revolutionary uniforms march by, whistling their fifes and drumming their drums. I feel a deep excitement, a sense of belonging that is probably fueled in part by stories of my some number of greats grandmother watching the soldiers march by in 1775 from her window on that very same Concord-Lexington road.
In back of that house on Wellesley Street, between the house and the golf course, stood three white pines, providing a barrier between us and the 17th tee. It says something about how my different my family felt from golfers, from people in the “ordinary world,” that Toni and I took it upon ourselves to hide beneath these thick and scented pine trees and “spy on the golfers.” We actually took pads and pencils out there and wrote down everything we heard the golfers say. In my memory we didn’t learn very much about how ordinary people lived, if that was our goal. “Oh shit!” was probably the most exciting comment we ever heard, as someone’s ball traveled into a sand trap or far away from the green.
We went to Maine for three months every summer. One summer we came home to find the house on Wellesley Street had been broken into. These were the days before alarm systems or house sitters. Our house had been left alone. The window of the sun room was broken, and cigarettes had been crushed out on the dining room floor. But the only things that were disturbed were the card files of LCM. I can see those cardboard boxes, mottled black and white, with colored 3x5 cards in them, each with a name and address neatly written either in my father’s or mother’s hand, and in this scene they are spilled on the floor of the closet off the dining room with its glass dining room table. They were not after jewelry; they were not after clothing or my mother’s fur coats. They wanted to know who were the members of LCM. I see my parents’ long faces, and I feel with them the dilemma they are in. We live in a Republican town; the police probably sympathize with the FBI agents who have invaded our house. So do we call the police? What’s the point? My father does call the police, but he doesn’t tell them he knows who broke into our house. He just files a report, and leaves it at that. They have the window replaced.
Do I feel unsafe? I’m not sure. It is so much the context of my life, this sense of moral responsibility, this sense that my parents are heroic crusaders for democracy and civil rights. I feel proud of them, almost as if by association I am one of those little girls I read about in the “Little Maid” books. I also feel the weight of keeping these stories secret. I know my classmates, and their parents, would not understand.
A few years before this, I am standing in the kitchen of our house in Belmont, the house we lived in before we moved to Weston. I am five years old. I know it is in that kitchen because I am looking down at the terra cotta linoleum on that kitchen floor. My head is about at the level of my mother’s thigh. She is giving me a glass of Coca-Cola, as she always did when I got home from school. I say to her, “Mummy, will we be in history?” She looks at me, surprised. Dumbfounded. She says, “Well, I know I won’t be in history, because in order to be in history you have to be famous. And I know I will never be famous.”
But I think now I wasn’t asking about that kind of history, the history that is written in books, the history that made so many of my ancestors famous. That is one kind of history. I was already so aware that my parents were active in present-day history, trying to change the course of this country. They had just been through a presidential campaign in which they fought tirelessly to get the Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace, elected. They had traveled into Armenian neighborhoods in Arlington, knocked on doors, signed petitions, sung songs. He had lost, but in living through this with them I was already one of the foot soldiers in the war to make the world a better place. I didn’t really need to ask my mother if we would be in history. In my feeling, I already was.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
The skills I had developed by then, are the best skills I have even now. Everyone went to school with a girl like me. You didn’t observe me at the desk, raising my hand with the answers when the questions were asked. There was hardly a sighting of me in class at all. I had better things to do with my time. Much more important things.
When entering the girls’ room, right off the gymnasium, I was the girl at the sink. I was the ‘meet and greet person’ with all the hot gossip about everyone in school. I was the girl you’d confide in, and go to for advice…the original Ann Landers. Ann Landers with dirty jokes, and card tricks.
I would teach you what really mattered, like, how to smoke, and how to look sexy lighting a cigarette. I did everyone’s hair and makeup, and maybe their nails. I’d have you go inside the stall, stuff your bra with toilet paper, and roll up your skirt. “Make it a mini-skirt. Take off those stupid knee socks. Never stuff your bra with knee socks. It looks fake.”
I thought of myself as a mentor. I looked after everyone. I cared about them, and they knew it. When the girls got talked about, I’d tell them what was said, and who said it. We’d hold court in that girls’ room, and decide how to carry out our revenge accordingly, and always with an audience. We made examples out of them.
In time, lots of girls followed my rules. Rule #1: “Never date the boys from here. They all have big mouths. And whether you’ve done anything with them or not, they always tell everyone that you did, so don’t go out with them. Don’t even talk to them if you can avoid it, but be nice about it. Buy yourself a guy’s ring, and say that you have a boyfriend in the next town. Tell those ‘big mouthed’ boys, he’ll beat you up if you talk about me.” It always worked.
I also knew all the kids with the cars. You’d think we ran a taxi service, the way we’d transport all those pretty girls to the next town to meet the exciting, mysterious boys in Franklin, Ohio, a town with a zip code! A place where anything could happen!
Forty years later, we still keep in touch. We often write and call each other, referring to 1969, and how nothing has ever topped it since then. They’re all still in Ohio, and I’m here in New York, still giving them marvellous advice!