It’s easy to remember . . .

Sometimes even I surprise myself.

Last year, in a post focused on the spirit of place, I wrote these words:

Walls hold secrets. Memories are something we make.

Oh, to be a fly on a wall when something we’re not privy to is taking place!  The walls I’m mostly thinking about are the ones that give definition to the places I’ve lived.  They may be repainted and redecorated, but, barring any demolition, they remain standing.  Stepping into a room you once inhabited is bound to be riddled with emotion. Nostalgia for what’s gone may kick in, unless a nagging sense of what was really never there gets the best of you.

Memories are of a more fluid nature.  It’s one thing to understand the neurological processes that give shape to them in the first place, another thing altogether to laugh or cry at the spontaneous recall of some past moment triggered by a smell/a sound/a conversation or scratch your head in frustration at something that never gets past the tip of your tongue.

The gorgeous, bittersweet saxophone of John Coltrane tells me it’s easy to remember but so hard to forget.

I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around.

Ask me the date of my mother’s death, and I still say 17 Nissan, the third day of Passover. That’s what the Jewish (lunar) calendar tells me, and that would be today.  The secular (solar) calendar marks her death on April 8, 1993. Don’t ask me if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the disconnect between the two different ways of marking time had me unable to recall the April 8th date for at least a few years after she died.

Passover, like Easter, is nothing if not a spring ritual, each holiday underscored by stories of renewal, not to mention death and resurrection. Photographs help me recall a time when there was no Passover without a Seder.

Young as I was, there was always that moment of mystery and magic—opening the door for Elijah the prophet, checking the level of wine in the cup left on the table for him to see if he really did take a sip. That would be my sign that all was okay.

Sentimentality, coupled with a sense of keeping some semblance of tradition, would have my family continuing to gather for Passover after my grandfather died. But the Seder would fall apart like crumbled matzoh without his guiding presence. Memory may (or may not) fail me but the last Seder I recall ended in a fight between my uncles. So the ritual of gathering to tell a story of enslavement and freedom would give way to the ritual of gathering simply to eat. It was my mother and aunt who held it together, with their cooking.

Food as ritual? You tell me. With each passing generation something is lost. These days I do some semblance of a modernized Seder to bring together friends and family.

And I do my best to remember.

Break up to make up?

Music purist that I am, I was slow to catch the Pandora streaming train.   To my thinking it was one step ahead of piped in Muzak, what you hear is what you get.  Real radio, which I love, has disc jockeys, and disc jockeys liven things up with personality in lieu of algorithms.  What a treat to be surprised by a song I forgot I love or another one new to me!

Radio days may not exactly be gone but the cream of the crop have gone the commercial-free, listener-supported route, which is a good thing—except when those radio signals of my favorite FM stations crackle and fade across the miles.

Enter Pandora, everything from blues to baroque, Diana Krall to Adele, early jazz to Bill Evans, classic rock (not as classic I would hope) to Al Green and the Chiffons and, yes, Barry White. All it takes is hearing that string section of his Love Unlimited Orchestra and I’m right there, under the influence of love, ‘70s style  (no apologies necessary, even before reading the perspective DJDiscoCatV2 brings via his YouTube commentary).

So hear me out. It’s dinnertime, I’m in my kitchen, chopping and prepping.  My trusty Bose sits on a shelf.  I can so easily pop in a CD, and I often do, but more often than not I’m not in the mood to choose.  All it takes is a dash of Albert King/ Stevie Ray Vaughan via Pandora’s Blues Guitar Legends and the mushrooms in my Chicken Marsala positively shimmer and dance in the pan.

At the lightest touch of my finger on the app, Diana Krall croons, “Too Marvelous for Words.”  Dinner is served.

It was all so swell, really, this lazy listening, commercials intermittent and not too intrusive.   Until one day, and from then on every time I tuned in to any of my Pandora stations, a message came through loud and stridently clear in the voice of Mike Lindell trying to sell me on a pillow guaranteed to give me the best night’s sleep ever. His success story may, in the words of Bloomberg News, be preposterous, (former crack addict turned entrepreneur) and I wish him no ill. But that grating voice had me running for a pillow to put over my head, not under it, giving me all the impetus I needed to break up with Pandora.

There is, indeed, no free lunch and no free music gotten without a price to pay.

I tried, really I did, to tolerate it.

I resisted the impulse to upgrade to the paid version of Pandora, even as I reminded myself that an app that gives me so much deserves something in return. But I already pay for Apple Music, which I can’t say I take full advantage of.

So, here’s what happened instead.

I started combing through my treasure trove of CDs, choosing ones I hadn’t listened to in a while, a more deliberate kind of company to keep while cooking.  Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, jumped out at me.  The art of a great album is the segue, one song seamlessly into the next.  It’s a segue of sorts, too—isn’t it?—when the next CD calling out to me is John Coltrane, Ballads.

This is your brain on music, really a mind/body thing when anything you love listening to infuses itself into your spirit.

I could go down the list of albums rediscovered, maybe even heard in a new light, memories recalled. I could tell you, too, how that re-listening had me picking and choosing songs for playlists of my own making, a joy to listen to via that thing called wireless speakers. And let’s not forget my Bose SoundTouch app, which gives me access to my fave FM stations, streaming a more consistent medium than choppy radio waves.

But somehow I began to miss my Pandora.  Maybe it was time to make up, take her up on her pay-for-play manifestation?

***

At this very moment, a cusp-of-spring rain outside my window, Bill Charlap (via Pandora’s Bill Evans radio station) has me in an “Autumn in New York” trance.  I don’t often write to music but today it feels so right, and, God knows, I need that soothing easy piano jazz to calm my nerves, what with news headlines that make me more jittery by the day.

Ay, here’s the rub.

In the time it’s taken me to write these words, “Autumn in New York” has segued to a handful of other easy listening piano standards that settle in me like the wine I’m sipping.  Bill Evans is back now with “My Foolish Heart,” anything but foolish in the way it interprets its messages. The algorithms that string together songs in the music apps we buy into are no measure for the thought that goes into an album from start to finish.  And they do get boring.

But that, my friends, is the price you pay 🙂

 

 

 

 

What we talk about when we talk about love

How’s this for a trip down Memory Lane: It’s Valentine’s Day 1983. Just months earlier I met the man who would become my husband. Maybe not exactly a Tony and Maria West Side Story moment, but close enough. Suffice it to say I spotted him across a room, Tavern on the Green, to be exact, talking to my brother. I had a feeling about this guy. To this day, the mutual friends who had invited us to the party take great pride in a match made, if not in heaven, at their daughter’s christening.

Back to Valentine’s Day. I lived on the West Side of town, he lived on the East Side. The city never sleeps but it slows down during a snowstorm. Not a taxi in sight. I and the lasagna I’d made for that new love of mine would have to make the most of public transportation.

I get to his spiffy apartment building and the doorman tells me I have to wait. WTF? That new boyfriend of mine had to have the lighting just right on the flower arrangement I would see when I walked into his apartment. It’s all in the details—right?—all the more significant when the boyfriend happens to be an interior designer.

We live in cynical times, and no matter how I recast the phrase I can’t help but see/hear Tom Cruise in his humbled Jerry Maguire mode.

More to the point, cynical times demand more of us. For reasons that have as much to do with my mother sending a Valentine’s Day card to me (and sometimes friends of mine) during my single years. I still send a card (usually emblazoned with a puppy) to my daughter. She’s engaged now, and I love the young man she’s going to marry. But . . .

Love is love is love . . .

Speaking of which, Cupid may be the cute little god shooting arrows but the Romans were pretty, pretty nasty during the feast of Lupercalia (February 13-15), sacrificing animals and whipping women. It took a pope to erase all vestiges of the pagan rituals; and it took the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare to infuse the holiday with romance. Oh that sentiment, not commerce, were the overriding principle!

And even if we don’t need a cheesy Hallmark reminder of it all, it’s as good a distraction as it gets. Not feeling romantic but feeling the need to say it with anything but flowers? There are e-cards galore, from the silly/animated Jacquie Lawson to the over-the-top tongue-in-cheek some cards. All brought to you in a time when La-La Land becomes more than a place or state of mind in a Hollywood love story as bittersweet as it gets.

John Lennon said it simply:

Love is real/real is love

Raymond Carver got to its unfathomable underbelly in a masterful story.

So, while I can’t promise I’ll be concocting something to make America love again, I am planning to cook up something (not lasagna) to share with very close friends who, like us, are still happily married (if not crazy) after all these years.

My Dog Is Ruining My Life

Well, we all know we’re talking tongue-in-cheek here . . .

But just to entice you, here’s the beginning of my Indie Writers Deathmatch story —

“Impossible,” says Gary. “Dogs are pals – playmates. Nobody will ever love you the way they do.” His voice crackles. Words snap and pop. Tunnel . . . lunch meeting . . . lace panties. “You’re breaking up,” I tell him. “Lace panties,” he says again.  Red. Eight p.m.  I shake my head, hang up the phone. Misha surfaces from beneath the bed, eager to give me her peace offering,  a pair of red lace panties she is so sure will make up for the overturned trash can, merit a pat on the head, if not a biscuit.  She drops the panties on a neon green Frisbee lying at the foot of the bed. 

The hyperlink above will take you to the Broken Pencil site, where you can read the rest of the story (just click the link above my name), maybe even cast your vote for it (which requires email login, something some people, understandably, shy away from). So even if I need Russian hackers to help me get past this first round, which ends at midnight tomorrow (Sunday),  I’ll take great pride in knowing my story was selected to compete and even greater pleasure in sharing it.

Fictional dog aside, these irresistible puppies, found alive after the avalanche in Italy, are guaranteed to take your mind off current affairs.

Let the games begin —

The long and the short of it

Don’t have to be a writer to know we belong to a storytelling species. Conversation is just a prelude, the entry point to an anecdote begging to be shared. I’m not prone to especially long-winded anecdotes, but even I can get carried away.

“The long and the short of it,” I’ll say, reaching the moment when, in my mind at least, it’s time to wrap it up, reduce everything I’ve said to a pithy thought.

“Too late,” says my brother-in-law, as gregarious a guy as it gets. I laugh. I finish my thought, and I actually thank him for that gotcha moment. If I haven’t stopped using that phrase entirely, suffice it to say (oops) I use it minimally.

A few years back my sister-in-law teased me about another apparently pet phrase. “That hit the spot,” I would say after a meal or a snack I enjoyed. Her intention wasn’t to embarrass me but she certainly got me thinking. Sure it makes a point in a lip-smacking kind of way. But what, really, is the point?

I see it so clearly now, those idioms uttered almost reflexively, filler phrases, or maybe a kind of self-commentary, in our storytelling selves. Heaven forbid we should stop and take a breath, think about what we’re saying. Let the shared moment be just that.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space,” Tracy Cochran reminds us in a wonderful essay that casts a welcome light on the meaning of resistance, not to mention what it takes to go inside ourselves, find that quiet place of no words.

As a writer, I relish what it takes to fine-tune a story or essay. But the spoken word is a whole other ball of wax, as it should be. In the best of all possible worlds (oops), people would do a little more self-editing when they speak. In the real world, we just can’t help ourselves. Joel Saltzman tells us, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, and there is some truth to that. It comes down to listening, really listening, to what someone is saying in a conversation. And listening to yourself.

Last week I listened to an inner voice egging me on, just do it. Broken Pencil, a site I like, put out a reminder re: the deadline for its annual Indie Writers’ Deathmatch*.

The more I wrestled with the idea of submitting a story, the more taken I was with the mixed metaphor.  I looked through stories of mine not yet published, and it jumped out at me, a title as tongue-in-cheek as it gets, and the right word count, to boot: “My Dog Is Ruining My Life.”

Unseemly? Or gutsy? You tell me.

Sara photo 2

It’s a test, every step of the way. We wake up, tune in to the world at large (which feels more and more like a cross between The Twilight Zone and 1984), cry and/or rant, join up with the forces of resistance for solidarity and strength.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We step back into our caves, steady ourselves with routine, do whatever is needed when the triple whammy—doubt/disappointment/despair—hits hard and threatens to throw us completely off course. The message might be retreat and reflect, always a good thing. Until one day we see, with a little more clarity, that fuzzy line between the tenacity that keeps us doing what feeds our spirit and the leaps of faith that play their part in how it all turns out. Time to get back on the horse. Maybe even go down a different road.

The long and the short of it (can’t help myself, can I?): we choose our challenges, take satisfaction in the winnowing process that has made us one of the chosen, then consider how, for all our best intentions and efforts,  the chips have a way of falling where they may.

*N.B.: Yes, my story was selected as one of the sixteen and rest assured you will receive a gentle plea next week when the voting begins.

 

 

 

 

The minor fall/the major lift

Ask a writer why she writes and she’s bound to say it has something to do with her love of the places reading has always taken her. Stories are what we live by. Great writers tell them in ways that move us with profound insights—not to mention unforgettable characters. Then there’s the music of words into phrases/phrases into sentences/sentences into paragraphs.

Maybe the music that infuses my day-to-day existence is a setup for some other vocation I’m intended for in a future life. Who knows?   In this life I have my CDs and LPs, playlists and radio to get me through each day. And my piano. Lately it’s one song I’m needing to have my fingers know by heart.img_0560

God knows it’s a song I’ve listened to more times than I can count—in all its glorious, aching, ultimately simple incarnations.

Hallelujah.

With the year just days from disappearing, the surreal results of the election are, alas, indelibly linked in my brain with Leonard Cohen’s death a day before and Kate McKinnon’s moving, brave Hillary-at-the-piano rendition of his song on SNL a few days later.

Hallelujah.

However many times it comes up in liturgy as an expression of joyful praise of God is no match for the understated power it takes on in Leonard Cohen’s hymn of longing and loss. I may hear more of the minor fall than the major lift when I listen, but how can I help smiling at his wry, deft touch?

There was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
Now you never show that to me, do you?

51gtdeoragl-_sx325_bo1204203200_The history of the song—the changes in lyrics by LC himself and other singing artists who have covered it—makes it all the more a hymn for the times in which we live. Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken, a virtual ode to the song, is filled with illuminating tidbits: its musicality may have been the prime reason k.d. lang included it in Hymns of the 49th Parallel, but she came to see it as “a song for meditating, for pondering bigger issues, moral issues.”

The dust may never truly settle on how our presidential election played out, but as I sift through it, the anger at learning there was very serious foul play gives way to a very deep distress at something women of a certain age, like me, feel ever so acutely.

An accomplished, extremely bright woman loses out to an incompetent, boorish, completely unprepared boy for the most important job on the planet.

Why does this have echoes of an old high school scenario, even if the consequences are galaxies greater?

Princess Leia dies at 60, her mother a day later. Big fans, like my daughter, worry about what will happen to Carrie’s dog, with his famous tongue.640_debbie_reynolds_daughtercarrie-fisher-9

Prince is gone.

David Bowie is dead.

Sharon Jones. Leon Russell. Gwen Ifill.

Gloria Naylor. Elie Wiesel.

And Leonard Cohen.

On some levels, maybe it’s true, we’ve come a long way, baby. But after the forward movement, how do we live with those two steps (if not more) backward? We build ourselves up, make language our own, call ourselves bitches with all the connotations of kick-ass strength.

But when a man uses the word, it’s as ugly as it ever was.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I envied anyone who had anyplace to be on a regular schedule. Comfort in commiseration. Yes, I have my husband to listen to me bitch and cry since we both work at home but the freedom of days with routines of my own making, mostly a gift, had me lost at sea. Miserable. I could not even sit down to write. Weeks later I can—with a quiet determination to remain in retreat (not to be confused with denial). There is no denying what I feel deprived of, as a woman who was so sure that finally, after all these years, the bright girl was going to best the jerk. The symbolism is huge. I may still suffer from disbelief.

And even though it all went wrong—big-time—I can’t bring myself to that place of looki51ehslyjvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_ng at what was in an attempt to come to grips with what is. Survival (again, not denial) has me reading exquisite fiction sparked by the spirit of creativity and resilience instead of pundits analyzing how what didn’t seem possible came to be.

Hallelujah. Hillary.

It pleases my poetic heart to place these words side by side, even if the Hallelujah at my fingertips is not the joyful one I thought I’d be singing.

 

One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

November 18th 2016

Thirty-two years ago today I got married. I was three weeks away from turning 35. My husband likes to joke that I had the date chosen when I proposed a few months earlier but that’s not quite the case. Here’s the way it played out:

We met in 1982, and I confess to having had that ‘this is the one’ feeling from the start. Old loves always keep a place in your heart—just play the song(s) you listened to when you were a teenager in love, or in your twenties and in love, and you know what I mean. But this love had something about it that spelled Let’s Stay Together.

So, a few months shy of the two-year marker in relationship I kind of suggest maybe it’s time we do something. He says, “you mean like get married?” I nod. Then I go into the bathroom and throw up. No joke. That would have been June. No hurry to set a date but I did want to get married in 1984. Do something life-affirming in a year forever marked as an ominous one. November (wedding) in New York had a nice ring to it.

A month and half ago my daughter proposeengagement-bells-fbs to her boyfriend, who puts the heartfelt and humorous touch to it all on Facebook.

Fortunately, instead of experiencing her mother’s OMG I-did-it anxiety, she gets a very special pair of shoes. He gets himself a wedding band from Tiffany. The engagement ring was a given, and I get the pleasure of delivering it when we’re all together for Thanksgiving. There’s a spirit to stones, and this one started out as a pendant my mother wore, then gave to me at a time when I was suffering. Now it gets to sparkle on my daughter’s hand in a time of joy. My mother is long gone, but I can feel her kvelling.

‘Sparkle’ is not a word that readily comes to mind these day. ‘Struggle’ would be more like it. To hear those two words juxtaposed against each other puts me in a poetic mindset.

When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me . . .

Actually it’s Pema Chodron I look to but we’re talking metaphor here. And if I can’t let it be, the least I can do is be with my struggles.

I struggle with even looking at news headlines. All those polls I’ve neurotically counted on during past election cycles! How could they get it so wrong this time around? Who needs explanations in hindsight? Why bother listening to the chatter of projections re: what to expect from the new administration? It’s the wise Buddhists who remind us there is only the moment, here and now. Things change, times change, often in the most unexpected ways. So why the delusion of thinking there’s reassurance in knowing what’s ahead?

I struggle with a sense of purpose gone awry when political/global anxieties fuel personal ones. So I hole myself up in the room I call my treehouse, watching Justin Timberlake in concert. Can’t say I’m a big fan, but he makes me smile, and he is a standout from those early boy groups my daughter and her friends were enthralled with, and this wonderful big TV has me going for the sight and sound spectacle it was meant for. Can I do this for the next four years?jt-on-tv

I struggle with groundlessness When Things Fall Apart, and look to the spirit of Pema Chodron’s guiding words re: being Comfortable with Uncertainty.

I struggle with what failure means, both on the personal front and the systemic one.

My reputation for being optimistic is not serving me well, even as I’m reminded this is no time to hide my head in the sand. Poetry is apparently going viral in the wake of deep disillusionment/shock/anger. Joshua Rothman tells readers How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy. Michael Moore gives us a Morning After To-Do List, Rebecca Solnit writes about How to Survive a Disaster, the Huffington Post offers up 18 Compassionate Poems to Help you Weather Uncertain Times, and the story that grips me most?

Death Valley Is Alive

I go back to Andrienne Rich, What Is Found There: “The impulse to enter, with other humans, through language, into the order and disorder of the world, is poetic at its root as surely as it is political at its root.” adrienne-rich

When do I stop moaning and groaning? Watching Samantha Bee helps a lot. Even Bill Maher, whom I avoided in the aftermath of the election, elicits a cynical smile. Then there’s SNL rising to the occasion, Kate McKinnon at the piano with a resonant Hallelujah to remind us of all that we lost last week, and Dave Chapelle to remind us of how much we’ve missed him.

Besides, don’t I have a wedding to plan? The wedding date is yet to be set, the venue not yet finalized but my daughter thinks the first dance with her husband might be to Hallelujah. Of course, I best her.

Go for Dance Me to the End of Love.

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wedding-dance