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

Ain’t too proud to beg

I’m stretched out in bed, 9:30 p.m., a weeknight.   A little early for me but it’s the stretching out that I crave.

To lie back, my neck propped against a trio of pillows.

Recline. A word that hums, not so much directive as invitation: sink back. Let the shoulders relax, show the heart how easy it can be open. I like to think I even think differently.

My daughter’s boyfriend recently had shoulder surgery. He has to sleep in a reclining position. No fun when it’s not by choice.

My iPad in my lap, I open the music app, randomly choose a song via an Apple Music playlist. Here’s what called out to me.

Immediately followed by

It’s all about algorithms, and I know it, but there’s something particularly wonderful about favorite teenage songs popping up right now. In an instant I’m drawn back to lying in bed in an earlier time, the click of 45s dropping one by one onto the turntable.

Some writers write to background music. I’ve tried it, but more often it has the effect of pulling me away from a train of thought. Its effect is sensory, a body thing, putting me squarely in a particular time and place. Memory is stirred, emotions jarred. Even when it’s soft—of the solo piano, violin, meditation variety—it demands a kind of attention that fights with my writing brain. Not that my writing brain doesn’t call up the rhythms/the sounds/the lyrics of songs evoked in a piece of fiction I’m at work on. In a way, music seems to be a backdrop, better yet, a presence with the power to infuse itself into my stories.February copy 3

Which brings me to the first pages of a novel of mine, with its allusion to Woodstock.

I’ve spent the better part of the last weeks fine-tuning, condensing, trying to find just the right phrases to entice readers into the story. Some of you have already seen my email re: my foray into the world of reader-powered publishing via a new Amazon program, Kindle Scout. Unlike typical kickstarter campaigns, in which supporters are asked to fund a book or project, this one just asks you to vote, maybe even help spread the word by sharing the link. Think of it as ‘American Idol’ for book lovers. Enough interest and Kindle Press may just decide to publish Just like February.

It’s a gamble, and I know it. But to be a writer is to take risks. We find stories, or letglamour-december-2015-w540 them find us. We shape them. Put them out. Then we beg for readers to pay attention in all ways possible.

Yesterday, the supermarket checkout line found me staring at Reese Witherspoon on the cover of Glamour. Take a close look, please, at the cover blurb, top right. I may not need this talented, beautiful woman to tell me what I know. But she does have way of delivering the message with charm.

ruby red slippers

Talk less, say more

I have a dream . . . in which I’m sitting at a kitchen table with my cousins—very close cousins, whom I love dearly—and we’re reminiscing, schmoozing, laughing about old times at another kitchen table, in a small Brooklyn apartment, as mythical as it was real. We tease each other about the kids we once were. We keep nibbling at whatever food and snacks are within reach.

What makes this a dream is one simple wish: when politics rears its ugly head, and we find ourselves across that nasty divide, we listen—really listen—to each other. All one cousin, staunch Republican that he is, has to say is one word to make me cringe: Yes, Benghazi.

I try, really I do, to put things into perspective. I ask him to look at past administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, to see if we might reach some common ground re: fallibility and accountability on both sides. There’s nothing pretty about politics. At its purest, it’s a rather benign word encompassing the ‘science of government’ or ‘affairs of state,’ rooted in the Greek politikos, meaning ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ But even way way back, the ideal vs. the pragmatic and/or power-driven state of governance was teased apart by philosophers. All of which doesn’t do much to mitigate today’s connotation of politics and with it, the encroaching reality that the truth of any situation is hard to come by. We all have mindsets, predispositions, call it what you will. We live in world governed by all the news that’s fit to summarize and spit out to suit a spin mentality that supports those predispositions.

It’s the reason that presidential debates put is into a tailspin or make us fall sleep, and, alas, rarely change our minds.

It’s the reason elections, presidential or otherwise – make everyone I know complain about those hideous placards marring the landscape for weeks and the bombardment of 30-second spots messing with any pleasure I get from watching TV. (Even with DVR capability, allowing me to fast-forward through commercials, I can’t help but feel the offense of it all during the height of election season.) Don’t even get me started on the obscene amount of money that goes into campaigning. All that complaining seems to get us nowhere.

Go ahead, remind me I’m preaching to the choir.

Yes, I take it all too personally. I worry about climate change, terrorism, a woman’s right to choose, the future of the Supreme Court. I worry about people who spout about the right to bear arms without really understanding the nuanced language of the Second Amendment. With cousins living in Ohio, I sometimes imagine myself on the campaign trail, a volunteer. Think of the sense of accomplishment if I could change the mind of just one person, cousin or otherwise, leaning red!   Almost as gratifying would be getting someone to listen—really listen—to the information I’m trying to share. This person, like my cousin, would probably say he’s listening, and, to some degree he is.   But what he’s hearing is something else completely.

He would probably say the same about me.

My brother may be a better (or better yet, more determined) person than I am in his efforts to get my cousin to see the light, to whatever degree possible. I stay away from family dramas on Facebook, but I do read the interactions and sometimes, when I just can’t help myself, I put in my two cents. A few days after the horrendous shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College Campus, my Facebook feed showed me that my cousin had shared a Wired Outdoors link with this message: Making Good People Helpless Won’t Make Bad People Harmless. On their own, the words are hard to argue with. Except that the telling graphic—a rifle underscoring the words—gives a not-so-subliminal spin to it. Wired Outdoors is apparently a hunting TV show, and reducing the complex issue of gun control to a simplistic phrase brought me to a place between rage and tears.

You know the saying: You can choose your friends . . . but family you’re stuck with. Stuck or not, I periodically find myself with a nostalgic longing to be with family, no longer around the proverbial corner. With distance more the norm than the exception these days, family get-togethers take a bit of planning and effort. The alternative—disappearing from each other’s lives completely—is not an option.

There’s nothing original about my scenario, and I know it. Case in point: a good friend tells me about family group emails in which one of her brothers insists on sharing what is now generally understood to be egregiously manipulated Planned Parenthood videos. All efforts at trying to make him see the ruse for what it is are clearly a waste of her time.

But we try . . . and we try . . . and we try. And once in a while, I like to think, we can step outside of ourselves, take the time to listen and read with an open mind.

Like I said, this is a dream.

modern familyAnd even if we can’t cross that political divide, we still manage to sit around a table. And eat.

 

 

The road not taken

Last week I got lost on my way to synagogue.

If there’s a metaphor here, getting lost also speaks literally to my uncertainty (not to mention the spike in anxiety) when driving someplace unfamiliar. Call me a Wandering Jew (better yet, Goldilocks), but the past few years have found me trying out different options in search of the kind of comfort Jewish New Year services can bring. Changes at the Conservative synagogue I’d been affiliated with sparked a need for moving on. The Reform holiday services (even on the resplendent grounds of Caramoor) didn’t quite cut it. The Chabad variation (at the low-key local Holiday Inn) drew me back a few times. The rabbi is wonderful/warm/welcoming, with his stories and sense of humor. But the separation of men and women, with the implication of sexist exclusion, that goes with the Orthodox tradition doesn’t sit right.

So this year I would finally let my shul shopping take me in a new direction, not around the proverbial corner but close enough.

There was more than one Hallelujah; there was reflection, both communal and personal, and meditation. Almost everyone at the service had a chance to hold the Torah.

The service had the feel of coming home, and I told that to the rabbi, a woman.

I’m a spiritual seeker, yes, and a writer, which has me forever questioning the places our life choices take us. All writers, from the highly successful to those forever struggling for some notice, share common ground: we write because we can’t imagine life any other way; we complete draft after draft, send our work out, contend with rejection. Sometimes we feel a bit at sea, lost in a story that’s not quite finding its flow. More often than not, the effort to get published has us feeling tossed about in a stormy ocean. The metaphor really is no different for anyone working hard at any craft or job, hoping to catch a wave. Doesn’t have to be a big one, as long as it brings a little promise, some relief from treading water.

Comes a moment—call it hitting a wall, watery or otherwise—when we inevitably ask ourselves, is there anything we could have done differently, a proverbial road we missed or dismissed? We question whether to throw in the towel, find something else to occupy our spirits. We take stock of our successes, both on the career and personal fronts.

We pick up on cues, do our best not to misread signs. All of which makes it all the more interesting that I happen to be reading David Orr’s new, enlightening book, The Road Not Taken, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of an iconic poem. As Orr tells it, the popularity of Robert Frost’s poem “appears to exceed that of every other major twentieth-century poem.” In large part, its popularity seems premised on readers taking away a metaphoric message that a close reading of the poem appears to negate.   The very title of the poem is often mistaken as “The Road Less Traveled.”

Impressions count for a lot and, let’s face it, don’t we take our messages as we see/need them? What I take away from first readings of a poem, like those first times listening to a new song, is what speaks to me. Closer reading/listening brings to light something not noticed at first glance, and with it, deeper meaning. David Orr’s insights re: the poet himself and the poem definitely have me rethinking what “The Road Not Taken” is ‘about.’ Taking apart the poem, line by line with Orr, I can readily see the speaker standing at a crossroad, projecting choice rather than actually making a decision. And that’s profound enough.
Paradise NZ

Then I think of the roads I’ve taken, the one that have led me to still other roads, the ones I wish I’d taken instead.

And I can’t help wondering if getting a little lost along the way brings an added dimension to choosing between two diverging paths.