The Spirit of Place

Whenever I visit the Upper West Side of NYC and walk past the building I lived in for many years as a single woman and in the early years of my marriage, I imagine knocking on the door of my old apartment, being invited in, just for a look around. I would guess a lot has changed, but the essence of the space—the narrow, dark foyer into the main rooms, the tiny kitchen and bathroom—would be a reminder of all that’s ingrained in walls mottled by years of replastering and repainting.

Walls hold secrets. Memories are something we make. On our first family visit to Disney World (1992) we had more than one magic moment (and some annoying ones) in the Magic Kingdom. It was early December, my birthday, and my heart was admittedly a little heavy at leaving behind my mother, recently diagnosed with cancer. Logic (and a wise cousin) would tell me not to cancel tDisney Mama and Pooh Bear 1992he vacation. My mother was in good hands, barely at the beginning of radiation treatment, and my brother as attentive as a son could be. The tough times were still ahead. Disney World with a playful husband and a six-year-old would do wonders for my spirit.

Anyone who has ever been to a theme park knows the drill: the lines, the life-size characters greeting you, the food/the activities/the gift shops everywhere, each one too much temptation for a young child. The marketing wizards know what they’re doing and we the parents do our best not to give in to instant gratification. Oh, how she wanted to stop at every store we passed! Oh how she fussed (especially when fatigue got the best of her) when we pulled her along, and away from that Minnie doll in the window!

Oh how we still laugh at the instant change of expression on her face when she got her Minnie!

My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture

On another visit to Disney World, wisely orchestrated by my sister-in-law so that Sara and her cousins might have a memorable vacation together before they got too old to care, we would leave the fathers out of the equation. I could say that seeing Cirque du Soleil for the first time left the greatest of impressions. But, in the way that family lore defines itself, my nephew’s pouting over something of significance only to him and disappearing from our room for a spell is the story I like to tell, while he likes to tell about his aunt getting drunk (all I did was accidentally knock over a wine glass at dinner).Disney with Dylan and Jackie 2000

Those were the days when Orlando was still synonymous with innocence.

My daughter, grown up now, decided that the best Father’s Day present for a man who is very difficult to buy things for but who appreciates offbeat humor, would be sending him to see The Book of Mormon (with me, of course). I had already seen it back in 2012, with her, when it was an especially hot ticket. I loved everything about it—the irreverence of the story, the exhilarating music and choreography, the solos and ensemble numbers that glorify the very experience they have fun mocking. There were moments I anticipated, and moments I had, if not exactly forgotten, could not help but see in a completely different light.

There’s irony today—isn’t there?—in a song about a place not fabricated, like Las Vegas, but as much a symbol of fantasy and a kind of American dream. There’s laughter, too, the intended reaction, even as the first notes bring a lump to my throat.

Cocoa BeachSo happens my husband arranged a mini family vacation this past Memorial Day, Cocoa Beach, Florida. Orlando is the hub of air traffic. My daughter tried angling for a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Even if we didn’t have places to go/people to see during our stay, the thought of being in a stream of family-packed cars on the parkway, not to mention the crowds and the lines at the theme park, was enough to scare us off.

 

 

And love is love is love . . . .

Sunday night, June 12th.  I tune in to the Tonys. 60 Minutes has already run a segment on Hamilton—one of the most extraordinary shows ever created/produced. I had the foresight to snag tickets (face value) when it had just moved from its hot Off-Broadway run to the Great White Way. There are not many shows I want to see more than once—Rent was one. Maybe I’ll be lucky with Hamilton when new blocks of tickets go on sale.

More to the point, the horrific news of the day had me in that unsettling place between grieving and craving more than run-of-the-mill weekend-to-weekday TV distraction. What could be better than to let myself be swept up in the theatre world’s night to salute itself? All those smiling faces masking crying clowns. Women dolled up in all their designer-dress glory. Men in black and grey and white, and all the subtle shades in-between.

The show, indeed, does go on, even if the script takes an appropriate detour here and there. James Corden, in his introductory remarks, said what had to be said in short, bittersweet terms.

And the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda, in accepting his award for best original score, brought me to tears with a sonnet that had to be pretty much spontaneously composed:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one,
Our son is her most beautiful reprise
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show is proof that history remembers
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love lasts long
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
Cannot be killed or swept aside,
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music love and pride

On another night, it would be easy for me to be glib: Fiddler on the Roof again? On this night, “Sunrise/Sunset” gets right to my heart.

On another night, I could be tempted to dismiss School of Rock as a “why bother?” theatre experience, the movie as classic Jack Black as it gets. On this night, Alex Brightman and those extraordinarily talented kids lift me.

Early in the day, I would get a text from my daughter, who lives in West Hollywood.

“Do you think it’s safe to go the parade?”

Not that she wouldn’t have gone, no matter what I said.Parade June 12 WeHo

Not that she didn’t admit, the day after, how scary it was to be there.

 

 

 

 

Empty nest

This morning I woke to an unfamiliar sound, the gentle beep of a new alarm clock. I’d finally replaced the bulky digital one on my night table. The shop owner promised the mechanism was quiet, no ticking.

I almost always wake around the same time every morning, no alarm necessary. It’s a funny thing about body clocks. More to the point, I was in the middle of a dream that had something do with a combination lock I couldn’t open. It took a few dream minutes to realize the lock I was trying to open really looked unfamiliar and had numbers rounded off in fives so that finding the precise combination was tricky indeed. That was my key to realizing I was trying to open the wrong lock. So I pulled out a different one from my bag.

Voila! Mystery solved although the greater mystery might be why I carried more than one lock in my gym bag. Isn’t there something so satisfying about the right-left-right of a combination lock, and the way it lets you know, by a certain feel, when you’ve hit the final digit?

I could analyze, connect the dots of the dream to aspects of my life, the distress of not being able to open a lock, the search for the right (winning?) combination as obvious a metaphor as it gets. The Zen master Bassui says, “It doesn’t matter how much you search for something in a dream, you will never find it.” I say: Don’t we all know when something isn’t quite right, if we’re truly listening?

Case in point: I originally planned a piece that begins like this:

‘These days I’m thinking a lot about curses. Mostly the superstitious kind though it’s no surprise to learn that the word itself is rooted in anger: Cursian (Old English, to swear profanely). A character in a story I’m working on becomes a little obsessed with the notion when a great-aunt from Italy comes to America to live with her family. Once this great-aunt (sister of the girl’s grandmother) enters the picture, there’s no explaining anything except in terms of a curse. If a girl is too tall, a boy too short, it’s a curse. The very arrival of the great-aunt herself years after her sister came to America is readily explained by a love affair, cursed from the start.’

That beginning would have taken me to the closest thing to a rant on what promises to be the ugliest presidential election ever, which (no glibness intended) has all the markings of a curse. The presumptive Republican candidate (I can’t say his name without feeling physically ill) riles people with the most undignified words anyone, running for president or not, should say. The presumptive Democratic candidate does her best to keep the conversation dignified. The rest of us watch, believe we’re listening even if what we hear is only what we wanted to hear in the first place.

What was wrong with that piece was the rant direction it took me on, not really my blogging style. Everyone has an opinion, yes, and everyone thinks that whomever he/she supports is going to save the day (never mind the planet).

No one is perfect. All politicians stretch the truth.

In the best of all possible mindsets, I’d ask for reason (and heart) to rule. In the reality-TV-driven mindset that threatens all sense and sensibility, it takes a village to stomp the anger (never mind the tears).

In the early days of the blogging bandwagon, there was an implicit sense of immediacy, giving voice to what’s going on in the world, shaping a personal vision. Favorite blogs of mine have spurred interesting conversations re: books/writing/spirit/politics/feminist issues. Some are on hiatus, others posting with less frequency at a time when, alas, we need those voices more than ever.

We need to reverse the curse. BIlogging overload, election burnout, a flimflam man emerging in ways that echo the actor who fooled everyone in the Eighties somehow combine to have me recalling (ironic as it seems) a cult book, The Aquarian Conspiracy, that promised a paradigm shift in consciousness, one that would make the world a better place. We all do our part, one by one, most often without fanfare. Here’s what I do: Any magazine, literary or otherwise, with a cover blurb/story about the presumptive Republican candidate gets tossed into the trash. Immediately. If I can’t fight the media forces that lifted the candidate no one thought would ever get this far but has gained strength from the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity wave, I can make a statement of my own.
nest1

The nest in the joists under my kitchen deck has toppled over. Hard to know if a predator, or the wind and rain, got to it. There are no eggs anywhere around, though I have noticed a bird swooping under the deck. I like to think the eggs were not yet laid, even if it means all the building has to begin again.

 

 

 

Turtles and totems

Sometimes, in the rare moments when my brain is not in overdrive, I imagine myself walking through a View-Master. Virtual reality (not to mention the advent of 3-D movies and 4K TVs) may have turned that charming device from my childhood into an anachronism, but memory retains the magic. I still have one, purchased when my daughter was young and we were all not yet in the grip of technology.   If updated models (including apps available for download) are any indication, maybe it’s not just nostalgia being marketed here. Isn’t there something inherently mysterious and wonderful in the intimacy of putting a red plastic device up to your eyes and watching scenes unfold?

In the beginning, the more I think about it, was the image, not the word. How could all that light come into existence without picturing it before giving it a name?

I have a thing for the color blue. I also have a husband with his own design-specific tastes (a talented guy at that), which makes it all the more meaningful that he ‘acquiesced’ to myyoga room request for a blue carpet in a renovated room I’ve dubbed my tree house, since I really am eye level with trees up here. I take nothing in my life for granted and count it among my blessings to have a personal go-to place for yoga/meditation, listening to music, reading, or just breathing.   I take great pleasure, too, in giving friends who come to visit a serene room of their own.

Some things are reassuringly consistent. The calendar announces the spring equinox. Outdoor temperatures may have us saying the season has arrived ‘early’ or ‘late’ but either way perennials really do come back, bulbs blossom and those turtles lined up like sunbathers on logs tell me what I most need to know about renewal. They are always pretty much in the same spot on the lake and I always stop to marvel at the scene. Invariably they sense my presence, as quiet as I try to be, and one by one they drop into the water.turtles2

Why is the sky blue?

Every child inevitably asks the question, and scientific explanations never quite cut it. Growing up with a father who loved to sing (a reality I would turn into fiction), I was always touched by the answer Cab Calloway gives his daughter, Lael, in their ‘Little Child’ duet. Lael also happened to be my mother’s name.

That was then/this is now. My father and mother are gone, and it always requires some mathematical calculation to mark the passing time, almost sixteen years for him, twenty-three for her. It does not seem like yesterday.

Sometimes I feel a little lost, not a bad thing, Rebecca Solnit reminds me in her luminous book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The very first essay, “Open Door,” plunges the reader into the experience of a young girl at a Passover seder. I’d be hard put to ever see the horizon in the same light after reading “The Blue of Distance.”

“Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” she writes. She makes poetry of science here: the blue that colors the horizon is in fact light that doesn’t travel the whole distance from the sun and becomes “the light that gets lost.”

In the realm of meditation, the throat chakra manifests as blue. It is the seat of self-expression. Voice. Even a brief moment of seeing it (or, for that matter, any color in the chakra spectrum) takes me from lost to found.

It’s a balancing act, indeed. Going inside oneself, quieting the internal chatter. Coming out, hopefully with a deeper sense of presence and ease to bring to any conversation around any table. For those turtles on a log balance is second nature. As totems, turtles call up perseverance and longevity. Be the turtle coming out of its shell, a yoga teacher of mine was fond of saying. That protective armor we carry on our backs is as real as it is a metaphor. One day it hit me with the force of revelation: they’re not just slow, steady creatures. They swim, too.

Speaking of totems, was there ever a tree more alive in its deadness than this one, playfully My totem #1posted on Facebook as my updated profile photo? Somehow it tells me that the past is always with us. If you’re lucky, the weight of it is off your back, freeing you to be present to the moment and open to the future. To put it more eloquently (again, Rebecca Solnit): “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Facebook Friendship

Tap your heels together three times, Dorothy.

You always had the power.

To go home.

These days find me longing for some kind of yesterday. Can’t say I loved high school (who really does?) but I can say I remember being enthralled by a book I was supposed to hate if for no other reason than it wasn’t cool to like.

Boring? Maybe to some (most?) of my friends, engrossing to me:

Silas Marner.

Who, as a young teen, could even contemplate a condition known as catalepsy?george eiiot

Then there was Eppie. Innocent if not truly orphaned, when she finds her way to the doorstep of the gentle recluse himself. The bonds of love sometimes have a way of surprising us, even if, in our hearts, we know it couldn’t be any other way.

And the author, a woman with a man’s name.

Middlemarch (not to be confused with Middlesex or Middle Earth) has me in its grip now. The pull of the narrative is immediate, sinewy sentences that require the kind of deep attention that always rewards. No small irony in this time traveling from a world in hyperdrive, more and more on edge by the day, to one that doesn’t seem as old hat as it should in its exploration of marriage, and social mores, and politics in 19th century England. Times change, narrative syntax evolves; but there’s a reason great works of literature, with their timeless perspective on the big themes of life, beg to be read again, and again.

These are horrible, troubling, anxiety-ridden times. Paris . . .Brussels . . . no sane person sees any good there. Cuba? How you feel about it is intrinsically linked to whom you’re rooting for in the Reality TV show known as a presidential election. A wise friend on Facebook puts out a call to hide posts re: the Republication frontrunner (I can’t even say his name without becoming nauseous). A cousin spouts his negative thoughts re: our current president (one of the best ever, to my thinking).

I look for quotes by Rumi to share. Art, poetry, good books that move me. Links to music videos that do what only music can do to the spirit.

Along comes Marlene, a high school friend who connects with me on Facebook. Whatever divergent paths our lives since 1966 have taken us on, we’re here now, real friends in a virtual world. Synchronicity reveals its pretty head: like me, she’s a long-time fan of Leonard Cohen. Bruce Springsteen? Don’t even get us started. Turns out she lives in southern California, and when I tell her that my daughter has an extra pair of tickets to a Springsteen show (that will turn out to be historic as the four-hour finale at the L.A. Sports Arena), it’s a done deal.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d hop on a plane, take a ticket for myself. It wouldn’t be the first time I flew out to go to a concert with my daughter.

In the real world, I smile at the photo an old high school friend has shared with my daughter, who has shared it with me. I may look back with mixed feelings at my high school self, but there’s only delight at the serendipity that has played its hand in reconnecting us, a connection magnified by the power of music. My physical body was (alas) not at that stupendous show, but trust me, I was there.

Bruce2

How we hear music

Today I listened, for the first time in too many years to count, to an album that can only be associated with my mother. She was in that nether world between living and dying. At the wheel of my little red (station) wagon, I’d pop that thing called a cassette into the tape player. The year was 1993, and this particular cassette (which I still have even if I have no device on which to listen to it) got me through the drive to and from the hospital.

Enter Apple Music. In a flash, an easy search, and the album was mine for the streaming. Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Special Guess Helen Merrill.

The beauty of an album is its cohesiveness—the segue from song to song. In the days before CD technology took over, fast forwarding to the song you most wanted to hear took a certain finesse, not always worth the effort. Call it comfort. Call it an excuse to let the tears flow after time spent touching, smiling (even making jokes), then planting a kiss on the cheek or forehead of my mother to remind her I had visited. But that trio of songs on Side A—You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to/My Funny Valentine/Here’s That Rainy Day—was all I needed.

Today it’s snowing, even if the mildness of our Northeast winter this year had us thinking/hoping we’d go right into spring after so much snow from just one blizzard disappeared unusually quickly. (Then again, it is February, the shortest month, the leap-year month, the one most riddled with metaphor, on the cusp of spring as it is.) snow feb 2016The gift of looking outside through a picture window as my thoughts lure me inside is not something I take for granted. The snowfall is winding down, more like dust particles or what meteorologists call snow showers. One of things I always relish is the enveloping silence snow holds. And the way it clings to the bark of a tree.   Until it’s gone.

She was a big fan of Billy Eckstine, which always suggested something to me re: her appreciation for voice. Sure, she had a thing for Sinatra, too, but Ol’ Blue Eyes encompasses something even bigger than his voice. An inscription at the beginning of David Lehman’s love song of sorts, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, says it all:

May you live to be a hundred,
And may the last voice you hear be mine. – FS

 I listen to his voice a lot, with an appreciation that has only grown over the years. If that Come_Dance_With_MeLP with a winking Sinatra (Come Dance With Me!) or the one with a harlequin Sinatrapainting on the cover, one tear dropping from Sinatra’s eye (Only the Lonely) didn’t captivate me as a young girl, there was always a movie (A Hole in the Head) giving me “High Hopes.”  Years later would come late nights in the East Hampton design shop that had me pinch-hitting for the friend/ partner my husband lost to AIDS, the open door and Sinatra on a summer night an invitation as good as it would get to get past window shopping.

But this isn’t about Sinatra per se, even if listening to him can still bring on the tears and the memories. It’s about chords that reach deep, simply by virtue of the music they make.

To my surprise, I did not get weepy at that trio of Billy Eckstine songs. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to time passed, and with it, the smoothing down of those jagged edges of memory. But maybe there’s something else at play as well. Yip Harburg, legendary lyricist who gave us “April in Paris” (not to mention all the songs in The Wizard of Oz) is credited with this quote in Lehman’s book:

Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song can make you feel a thought.

So here’s a thought: maybe music is my madeleine. And even if a song can fill me with a longing for something long gone, listening to it years later is as much a reflection on all that’s changed in my life as it is a reminder that, whatever visitations I get, there’s no real going home to a home no longer there.

Coda: Lo and behold, it turns out that music occupies a room of its own in our brains.  My neurological music room is a full one, for sure, and a mixed bag that surprises even me with the moments of serendipity it conjures.

 

 

 

Gifts

The first week of 2016 found me at a cozy local restaurant, four friends who do our best to keep ties from disappearing completely even when time and circumstance bring separation. One of the women, a gifted poet/photographer/visual artist handed each of us a small box, wrapped and ribboned in her inimitable way.  “Just a little thing,” she said as we tore open the wrapping to find beautiful tiles, each a different image of a woman reminiscent to me of cameos. Aside from how lovely they were, she loved that they fit perfectly into little tin boxes she’d put them in.tile

We caught up on lots of things, including the daughters who really are responsible for bringing us together. How lucky we all know we were, in the early school years especially, when the public school our daughters attended was small and parent involvement (mothers more than fathers) as meaningful as it was welcome. None of our daughters lives nearby, a fact we rue even as we accept the nature of changing times. A fact, too, that makes 2015 something of a gift year for me—the first in the seven my daughter has lived on the Other Coast that my husband and I got to spend every major holiday with her. Passover had us flying to California for a West Coast family seder. A boyfriend working on a film based in New York brought her here, with the kind of timing you don’t often get. Labor Day was too close to Rosh Hashanah not to insist she stay. Then there was a friend’s wedding the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Christmas week was a given, what with it being a quiet time in the entertainment world.

A day earlier a friend from SoCal left after a visit that carried us through New Year’s weekend. It was a gift of a different kind, and I was admittedly touched by her wanting to visit. In the years we met via blog posts we wrote for an online site, our web of writers connected in ways beyond our words has grown. It is indeed the World Wide Web at its best. Her visit had a certain serendipity to it, from its timing (ring out the old/ring in the new) in the macro sense to the micro moments that marked it: There was Pavarotti’s voice filling my living room, bringing us to tears, as we sipped wine, the memory made even more pronounced by the woman singing opera under a bridge in Central Park on New Year’s Day. Minutes later would come a text exchange with my daughter.

Where are you? What’s the plan?

We’re in Central Park.

We’re in Central Park too!

Central Park is a big park, so what are the odds that she and her boyfriend were five minutes from where we were?Alice and Lew copy

We were a party now—my husband and me, my CalGal (Britton) and my BFF from NYC (Joan) who had joined us, my daughter and her boyfriend—on our way to Alice in Wonderland, a statue Sara climbed many times as a young girl when we lived in the city.

You reveal things about yourself in concentrated time with friends and family. Good a writer as Sara and Britton think I am, they’re now convinced there are parts of my past I would do well to tap, fictionally or otherwise. So when they left, how could I help looking through those albums of old clippings? I remembered well the piece I wrote about visiting Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, but how could I have forgotten that I interviewed Patti Smith? To read through that interview just as I begin reading M Train is another kind of gift.Patti Smith interview 2

Life is riddled with disappointments and struggles, and, yes, joys, all of which I can’t help but internalize. My daughter suffers a disappointment, I take it personally. My husband is in pain, I’m frustrated at my inability to ease it. A friend is suffering, I give her my undivided attention in a phone conversation. Maybe it’s true, actions speak louder than words, in which case it makes all the sense in the world that my sense of self as a writer can’t help, at least sometimes, but defer to my sense of self as someone who takes care of people. Better yet, doesn’t
each sense of self feed off the other?

All of which makes it all the more uncanny to get three particular books for my birthday, not to birthday giftsmention Bruce Springsteen’s latest compilation, which I get to enjoy on the sound system of that
spiffy new car (if you missed the birthday surprise video in Sara’s last post, trust me, it’s priceless). And if there’s a message here, maybe it’s this, a gift in its own right: those who love me won’t let me forget who I am. Even as I write what I think are the last words of this piece on the very day of a rock icon’s death, a friend sends me a text: You will write something that weaves in David Bowie, won’t you?

 

Gratitude

In an essay by Joan Didion that I go back to again and again, she writes: “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Takes a certain flair with language to successfully turn a stereotype on its head. Writer as bully?  Aren’t writers quiet/thoughtful/maybe even reclusive? I’m not talking Emily Dickinson here, but it does take a certain standing back to get the job done. Actors and musicians, on the other hand, strut their stuff in the presence of an audience.

And, yet, those Didion-esque words do give me pause as both writer and reader. When we make a decision to sit down and read a book, we demand that it grabs us.

It’s risky business, being a writer. From the choice of what moves us to write to the ways in which we do what needs to be done to get people to pay attention, we gamble with our skills. As I move into the final stretch of a campaign to get a novel near and dear to me published, I have nothing but gratitude for every vote cast (and those still to be cast). Wherever the chips fall, as of now Just like February is hot and trending on Kindle Scout; for at least a day it claimed the #1 spot and I had the presence of mind to take a screenshot. I’d be a fool not to share it, along with one more pitch before the campaign comes to an end next week.

February copy 3

From “Why We Tell Stories,” by Lisel Mueller

Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and