Sunday, January 30, 2011


You have to imagine all the bushes, shrubbery, grasses and wildlife in my apartment. Bushes are growing thick and multiplying, books practically falling from the shelves onto my head, crowding. It's a great density of a forest. Vinyl records, CDs, tapes, and parts of technologies, cords and plugs, something that should plug in to something but now it is no longer known what it was to plug into. Round and red at the end of a cord, metallic and squarish, cords, parts, extensions! And that's just the first part of the bushwhacking.

Handlebar antlers of a bike are stretching out, taking up forest space. Startled, it could jump and launch a huge white paper landslide (I'm seeing Elizabeth Bishop here), the bike will fall, the papers will go with it, old papers on top of new papers, what a terrible archeological wilderness! Look, there are the notebooks, scratchings on them, loose leaves, missing pages, missing teeth. They are lisping, bewildered, wild eyed, all sizes of books, with all sizes of sketches, ankle high, knee high, thigh high. Get out of my way! I'm bushwhacking! Go! Go little notebooks, get away from me!

Why did I save you, you yellow paper taxi? What about you, you little broken mariachi band trying to dance with little broken arms and legs? (Here I get lost in the sadness of Mexico). Well you pots, then, you with earth that is so precious in the city. Did I really think your soil would support a farm come springtime? Now thinking about the pots I get lost in the sadness of the dry, dry earth, droughts, and the sadness of floods, and the sadness of bees, bees collapsing. But there is still the need for bushwhacking. Whack away -- at the pots and that stingy bit of earth in them.

Enough! Enough. I have to change pace. I have to admit that in the midst of bushwhacking -- I just brought in from the very streets of Manhattan bars of broken gold frames. They are beautiful, ornate, renaissance! Gold! Luxurious, far more luxurious than anything I've ever known growing up. There they were bundled with clear tape in front of Jack's Picture Framing. What a find! I'm in the process of throwing things out at home, and there they were -- in an elaborate golden pile, golden frames in pieces, Gold!

I saved them. I hugged them in my arms, like saving a crocodile I think, and I brought them home. Would they bite, destroy me, take over my apartment? Would I house them only to throw them out? Greed and love competed with the idea of a clean, clear space, a Celestial City.

I must now give up my idea of a simple Japanese aesthetic. I must give up the bushwhacking romance too. How does this gold fit into a rustic backwoods story? Gold? This gold did not get found in California, little grains in a pan by a stream, but in huge four-inch thick hunks of a four-foot long frame, ornate with broken golden paste embellishment. They are very rough indeed, rusty nails of all sizes stretch out of their edges clawing for attention, scratching to get back to their place in the world, to grandly enclose what is worthy of them, looking for a masterpiece -- or looking to assure some poor picture that it is a masterpiece.

So here's what could happen. I could take these golden sticks, boards really, out to the bush. I could set them in some sand and frame a rock, or cactus. It isn't likely I'll do that, but it is not likely that I will throw them out either, unclaimed, pretentious riches from the streets of New York. Back in my apartment I'll take poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a whole poem about an eraser's unicycle, a typewriter's terraces, the stubbed soldier-cigarettes in her ashtray.

SO MUCH PAIN by Polly Howells

I didn’t expect there to be so much pain on this trip. And I’m a little embarrassed by it. One isn’t supposed to take a huge trip to Bhutan and Southeast Asia, seven weeks in all away from home, and come back primarily aware of the pain.

But it’s the truth. There’s the pain in my shoulder, not diagnosed until I returned, last week, as a 50% tear in the supraspinitis tendon of my right rotator cuff. I fell on the street in Brooklyn two weeks before we left. Nothing to do about it then. Don’t know what I’m going to do about it now. Visiting Woodstock Wellness regularly, being cracked and given herbal supplements by the good doctor there. A psychic relief, at least, if nothing else.

But more important was the pain of seeing how people live. Two hours of electricity at night. No hot water, or as in one monastery in Bhutan where we spent three nights, no water at all. Our physical discomfort was one thing, but seeing how people live in so much more physical discomfort, and take it for granted. That hurts. It hurts to see that what we take for granted is a luxury only the very few in this world can afford. Our guide in Siem Reap, where the twelve-hundred-year-old ruins of Angkor Wat rise mysteriously and majestically from the jungle, tells us that it takes his wife all day to cook, going to the market several times because there is no refrigeration.

Cambodia is a cauldron of pain. The first afternoon in Phnom Penh, we are taken to the Torture Museum, where the Khmer Rouge imprisoned the highest echelons of its party and saved for them the most exquisite forms of torture. Cells three feet by six feet, leg irons, cots with no mattresses, little metal boxes for feces. It’s all still there, still there the way the Vietnamese found it when they invaded in 1979, five years after the Khmer Rouge took over.

After that we go to the Killing Fields. There is a glass tower filled with shelves of skulls. There is a field on which slivers of bones are visible. Oddly the trees there are magnificent, tall and twisted, roots and trunks entwined, entangled. There are more butterflies on this field than anywhere else we go. The English doctor we meet the next day pooh poohs the possibility that these creatures are connected with the dead souls there. I don’t cry. I am numb, in awe.

The second day in Phnom Penh we visit the English doctor, the brother of a friend, who runs a hospital that refashions and attaches limbs to people who were disfigured during the Pol Pot years. When he hears that we are therapists, he says, “Oh you might want to visit our Acid Burn Clinic.” So the next day we go out there, some ways out of town, where people whose faces have been burnt off by angry relatives who have got hold of acid – sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, all available with no regulation, sold on street corners – are being treated, physically, emotionally. A nurse is massaging the scars on another woman’s arms when we walk in. A man without eyes, his face totally obscured by scar tissue, plays a piano like Ray Charles. His wife, who threw the acid at him, is so appalled at what she did that she works here as a cook. She serves us our lunch as we talk with the staff about post-traumatic stress disorder. The whole country seems to be suffering from this disease; the resources to treat it so few.

A girl holds a snake for me to buy, for food, on Tonle Sap Lake, not far from Siem Reap. The snake is alive. She is asking two dollars. I don’t buy the snake. But I snap her picture. I look at her now, look at her sad, serious face. Where did she find that snake? My friend went there several years ago, said she saw a girl selling a snake, right there. In the same spot. The same girl? The same snake? A scary thought. Is she a prop?

And then the next morning, Eric, my husband, woke up with the world whirling around inside his head. Couldn’t get his head off the pillow. The doctor came by, diagnosed it as vertigo, probably caused by the anti-malaria medication he was taking. Gave him some pills. I sat with him all day, but it didn’t go away. That night he was carried out of the hotel on a stretcher, down the steps past the swimming pool, carried by around ten small Cambodian men. We spent the night in a “private clinic,” a small hospital with one doctor and one nurse. An IV in Eric’s arm, they are hydrating him and giving him anti vertigo medication, and antibiotics, who knows what all, he sleeps, I do too, a little. There is a bathroom connected to our room in which the sink tap is dripping. The toilet paper is pink. At least there is toilet paper. Eric has been carrying three full rolls around in his suitcase, just in case.

It takes him 36 hours to sit up without the world spinning. One full day after he is admitted we leave the clinic. We go to a show that night, but the next morning he is still a little dizzy. It has now been three or four weeks, the dizziness has finally left, but slowly, oh so slowly.

We go from there to a small town in Laos, a lovely peaceful place, but it is the fall and everyone is burning the refuse in their gardens, and cooking on wood stoves in the street. Despite the physical beauty, when we come out of our room in the morning the air is pungent with wood smoke, hard to take in.

After Laos, we end up in Hong Kong. November 17, the city is completely dressed up for Christmas. Not one tall building without an array of Christmas lights. After three Buddhist countries, this is a shock. We find out that they do this for the mainland Chinese, who come to Hong Kong to shop, and to experience ersatz Christmas, not having it at home.

So many people. I learn later that 57% of the world’s population lives in Asia.
I am not surprised.

When we arrive in San Francisco, and the passport control guy says, “Welcome home folks,” my eyes actually tear up.

New York City feels like a small, peaceful town, even in the Christmas rush.

After a massage and a chiropractic session, I seem to get a cold. The chiropractor of course says, “that’s good, you’re draining.” What I call it, to myself, is “Post-traumatic drip syndrome.” The post nasal drip born of trauma.

Glad to be back.


Mr. McKibben was strict. He walked into the classroom and slammed the door. I was immediately intimidated. But, something happened. When he reached the front of the class, laid the book and papers down on the desk and began to speak, I felt I’d found my soul mate or at least a kindred spirit. There was just something about him. He and I resonated. It was enough. I knew everything I wrote in this Shakespeare class would be some of the best writing I’d ever done.

He was that kind of teacher. He allowed me to have my own experience of Shakespeare, and I could write about it in my own way. I looked forward to getting my papers back from him. His red markings in the margins were the most encouraging commentary I’d ever read about my writing. I found that I did have a voice and Mr. McKibben had the gift for drawing it out of me.

It didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes as well. He was, I thought, brilliant. He treated Shakespeare as gently and as brutally honestly as I’d imagined Shakespeare himself would have wanted to be treated as a writer.

I so admired and trusted Mr. McKibben that I gave him, one day, an envelope of my closely kept secret poetry. He generously read the poems and wrote on a separate sheet of paper in his typical red ink the most wonderfully encouraging commentary. I’ll always treasure the warm glow and experience of growing confidence of those precious moments when I first read his words.

How could I not fall completely and madly in love with this man, who was married with two children? But, it didn’t matter. I relished his classes, I wrote my papers and hung on every word of commentary. This man treated my writing as if it were something sacred. I grew in his classes on Shakespeare and in every subsequent course I took from him. He was a noble man, someone I highly respected, because he treated all of his students with respect and intelligence.

We became friends, and I found out he really wasn’t all that fond of teaching – even though it seemed to me that he had an incredible gift for it. I was almost convinced I couldn’t write before I met him. And years later I would begin to doubt myself again.

I never quite knew where to go or what to do with my writing, but I knew that it was vitally important for me to express myself. And now in my later years, I’m re-discovering the joy there is in that self-expression no matter how it comes out.

The stories of my life are in the sinews and muscle and bone fibers of my body. The stories of people and relationships and the embodiment of grace flood my memory.

Everyone I’ve ever met has played an important role in my election to frame my life in such a way that there would always be space for writing. I’d forgotten how vital a role Mr. McKibben had played in boosting up my confidence and so my desire to keep on writing, and not to let anyone take away my desire to write.

I sat in class looking out the window at the perfect tree standing tall out on the mound and behind the grotto of stone surrounding the lone standing white marble statue of Mary, her gaze heavenward. The trees all around the grotto, the sloping hill and the tall tree – that scene was suddenly the most freeing, the most fulfilling, the most inspiring object in my vision. At that very moment, it was etched upon my mind, and I knew with certainty that I was in the right place at the right time, and Mr. Mckibben had just laid his book and papers on the desk; he had not yet opened his mouth.


In 1968, I was fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, and on the drill team of the Carlisle High School Marching Band. Being that our sports teams were the 'Carlisle Indians,' our drill team was known as the 'Indianettes.' This meant that, not only did we march in parades, but, almost every Friday night, we would get on a school bus and be transported to other schools and march on their fields at football halftime. It served as a guaranteed way to be out with my friends.

We had band practice every Saturday, marching for hours, all over the football field, and getting yelled at by our music teacher and band leader, Mr. Wyrick. Before each practice would begin, Mr. Wyrick would tell us that when and if he had to call us out by name and yell at us, we were not to take it personal. He assured us that he wasn't meaning anything by it, except directing us as to where we were supposed to be marching, or standing. He said that we were 'working together as one big machine,' and when he yelled, he was just trying to get the machine to run smoother. He gave us an analogy of 'keeping us oiled, and working out the kinks.'

While he stood on a bench on the edge of the field, he yelled and cussed us all out through a bull horn. He would yell so hard that blue veins would actually pop out of his forehead! At first, it scared me, but the older kids stood on the field and snickered while he referred to us as a bunch of 'losers and shit heads.' He would call out the kids that laughed and said, "You can laugh all you want to, but you're still a big machine made up of a bunch of little-bitty nothings from the middle of nowhere, and that's all you're ever going to be!"

We quickly learned how to judge for ourselves what we were supposed to be doing, to save the poor bastard from stroking out. When practice was over, he would have a big smile on his face and graciously thank us for our hard work, and point out the slightest improvements that any of us made.

After several weeks of marching in the cold wind and rain, we developed some not-so-elaborate formations. Some of us were bright enough to be bored with, and ashamed of them, especially when we marched on the football fields of other schools.

For instance: One of our routines involved marching out onto the field to the tune of the jingle from the 'Excedrin Headache' commercial. The first group marched in the form of a person's head. Two lines, marching in single file was his throat, and a group of us marched closer to the bleachers, forming an oval shape, which was supposed to be a person's stomach. At the end of the song, around the last six beats, and a drum roll, the drill team captain, Jeanie Shumaker, and her very best 'frenemy,' Vicki Carpenter, would appear on the field. Each would be carrying a large, white, circular piece of cardboard, with a big letter 'E' on each of them. They were supposed to be a couple of Excedrin aspirins.

They would run past the kids that were supposed to be a pair of lips, opening as they ran through. Then, they would run in the center of two marching straight lines of the kids that were the throat. When they finally reached the oval shape of us that were supposed to be the stomach, the cymbals clanged, and the trumpets and tubas would do a, 'TA-DA!'

After that, everything stopped to a silent stillness. The crowd in the bleachers would be sitting there, very perplexed. At the same time, all at once, the whole town took one big breath and said, "Huh?"

As we marched off the field to a pathetic rendition of, "Winchester Cathedral," the feeling of disappointment among us kids, was so thick, that we couldn't march away fast enough!

The few times that I ever looked out at the crowd of people in the stands, they were pointing and laughing at us. As I marched, I felt both anger and embarrassment. There was never any 'applause.'

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I often tell my best friend Asia that had I been born a beautiful gay Turkish man like I was supposed to, I would’ve coaxed Damien’s wavering bisexuality out into full force and she would have been my One True Woman. Then again, my idea of a romantic compliment is telling Damien he would be great as a twink in a gay porn. Thankfully, Asia understands this statement as the highest honour I could give her and she laughs and tells me we could just get married while we were in Montreal. I think this is an excellent plan -- then I would go marry Damien and she would go marry her boyfriend and we could spark a Supreme Court case asking whether we are committing bigamy or not seeing that the United States does not federally recognize gay marriages.

This sounds pretty exhausting, though, and we’re slightly too mentally ill and physically disabled to deal with something like that.

We are the sort of best friends who talk in broken, incomplete sentences or at times even just noises and understand each other as communicating full, insightful thoughts. Yes, we’re one of those. We amuse ourselves by playing what we call The Starbucks Game, where we walk into the Starbucks section of a Barnes & Noble and talk about the most disturbing aspects of our lives to date until we can clear out everyone in the area. This usually happens accidentally, though. We have no concept of ‘appropriate’ topics because neither of us have said anything to each other that we’ve found too disturbing, graphic, or just gross.

While pretty much all eight of my friends are my best friends, there is something about me and Asia that is different, I think, that while my friends and I all love each other, she and I practically share a mind. She’s the only person I could spend every day on end with and not want to stab myself in the eye, and I’m not even engaged to her. I even take her to family functions like she’s related to me or something. Damien’s family’s going to start feeling suspicious about something soon, even if they’re not sure what it is. But she’s the only person who can keep me sane through the crazy.

This Thanksgiving, Asia was not here, so I went with Damien to his brother’s new big house that Damien and his sister are so jealous of and he apologizes to me that he can’t be his supposedly wildly more successful brother. He doesn’t get that I’m not jealous because I’d rather not have a house with woodrot and be married to a sexually repressed bad dresser who works at a mega church. In any case, the whole family was there on both sides, and it was intensely awkward for me. Most people still aren’t sure about what to say to me or what topics to bring up, partly because they don’t know me, partly because I’ve been known to fly off my handle at their father.

“So what the hell is on my plate?” I whisper to Damien.

“Um, well, that’s turkey with gravy… here’s some creamed onions… those are sweet potatoes… and stuffing.”

“What’s in stuffing?”

“I actually don’t know.”

Marilyn, his mom, is now clued into the fact that someone, somewhere, is asking a question. “What’s wrong?”

“This is the first American Thanksgiving Lorelei’s ever had, so she‘s never had stuffing. She wants to know what‘s in it.”

Now everyone has heard: a first-generation American sits at their table, someone whose parents are from a different country.

“Is it really?!” Damien’s sister-in-law squeals. “I’m glad it could be our Thanksgiving! Do you like it?”

“Yes, it’s great, thanks.”

“What do you usually have, then? Do you not have turkey?!” Everyone is looking at me with wide-eyed anticipation.

“Well, um, we do have turkey, but Romanians don’t understand gravy, so we have mujdei. I guess Americans would call it aioli. We have mashed potatoes and we have icre. It’s a dip made with bread, onions, olive oil, and fish roe.”

Every time I tell people what I eat on Thanksgiving, I consider giving them some bizarre story about an ancient tradition where a virgin must walk through a field of chickens and see if it rains before the feast can begin. Thankfully, by the time I get around to describing icre, it has exactly the effect I’d have been going for. Everyone is disturbed, for some reason, and they say it must be interesting to be having a ‘regular’ Thanksgiving now, and they stop talking to me.

“Why does everyone like stuffing? I don’t get it,” I say as I work on the bland comfort food.

“I don’t know, darling, but you’re not making me eat fish roe.”

At least the kids are cute.