In the best of all possible worlds I’d be in a state of presence 24/7, that in-the-moment place where time really has no measure, here and now one and the same. Not that those six turtles sunning themselves on a log don’t stop me dead in my tracks when I’m walking around the lake, (almost) a slave to that spinning turntable of thoughts. Or that the unmistakable sound of a heron taking flight doesn’t make me turn around. Just to watch it soar. Is it possible that, only now, ten minutes into my walk, I’m first hearing the birds, one song so different from another? The leaves on the trees are dappled with sunlight today, the air, after days of rain, makes me lift my nose like a dog. I don’t want to miss a thing.
And, yet, no sooner am I past the turtles and the heron than the volume on the turntable pumps itself up, a force all its own taking me out of the moment. On my mind is a family wedding, with its anxious mix of melancholy and joy. Melancholy for what’s gone—those aunts/uncles/cousins/grandparents, my mother and father—whose presence at any family gathering was a reminder that rituals (for better or for worse) were a kind of glue that held us together. Joy for what’s to come, a bride and groom in love, all the promise of a fresh beginning.
In the next best possible of all worlds, I’d leave anxiety out of the mix, the qualifier riddled with what we keep to ourselves—the echoes of gatherings just like this in the past, family dramas cast into the shadows of glittering gowns and crisply pressed suits. We drink to forget, eat to remember. Schmooze to keep the dark spirits at bay, dance to be lifted by the lighter ones.
Just like this . . . but not exactly. This wedding is an Orthodox Jewish one, a three-part affair. First the reception, where the bride sits on a ‘throne’ surrounded by women—until the moment the groom is brought to her, at which time a veil is placed over her face. The bride and groom know each other’s faces well by now, but this touch of symbolism is to put physical attraction in its place, raise the bar on the deeper bond marriage is supposed to signify. It’s enough to bring tears to anyone, including the bride herself.
Next, the ceremony outdoors, under a Chuppah (canopy), fortunately a beautiful May day. Then back to the reception room for dinner. A makeshift wall separates the men and women, making two parties of one celebration. Drinking and nibbling, we wait for the bride and groom, who have had their first brief encounter, alone in a room, as husband and wife. When they arrive, the women greeting the bride, the men greeting the groom, a cousin of mine says it outright: “Wouldn’t you want to dance with your husband at your wedding?” A cousin of the bride brings a different kind of wisdom to the plate: “Barely five months from being engaged to being married, and not to someone she knew for much longer. Couldn’t they have waited?” This is no idle gossip. These are words rooted in experience and observation and love. Another wedding, similar circumstances and the dialogue would not differ by much. I easily hear echoes of my aunt (the bride’s grandmother) and my mother.
Everybody’s got an opinion, a frame of reference, views that change over the years (or not). Even if it’s hard to fathom, as in this case, how a twenty-three-year-old brought up in a modern world has chosen to embrace a very Orthodox way of living so rooted in the past, we celebrate. More to the point: Is there any ritual that better embodies past/present/future than a wedding?
What’s gone is gone. And, yet, all I have to do is look into the eyes of a favorite cousin of my mother’s, frailer with age but as beautiful as ever, to know that every moment we live encompasses every moment that came before.
Her husband has Alzheimer’s. He greets me with a big smile of recognition and a hug. He dances with my brother and the groom. I stand at the threshold that separates the men from the women, no sin in looking. I snap a photo or two. A different kind of joy.
And those girls, so many of them, dolled up in their pretty pretty dresses! Hard not to be reminded of myself, a flower girl at the wedding of the very cousin of my mother’s sitting next to me.
* * *
The weekend following the wedding finds me in Newport, RI, celebrating the 60th birthdays of two of my husband’s childhood friends. I’ve been to Newport twice before, the first time for a romantic winter weekend in 1982 with the man who would become my husband. Years later, a trip with my daughter and a good friend, both in high school at the time. Walking the cobblestone streets now with friends has me somewhere between a dream and déjà vu: we visit familiar sites, eat lobster roll at a shack on the beach, drink the best martini (hibiscus) at a place called Yesterday’s. I kid you not.
You can’t go to Newport without visiting Cliff Walk, the three-and-a-half-mile stretch overlooking the ocean, some of it closed off because of hurricane damage. The mansions gated and set back from the cliffs may be a reminder of opulence but the ocean belongs to everyone, the view even more beautiful with age.
Home now, unpacking, easing back into reality (whatever that is), settling down for some Sunday night TV. There are any number of movies we can watch via DVR but the one that fits the mood best happens to be on network TV. So much to love about Back to the Future—its spirit, Michael J. Fox so young and handsome and Jack-be-nimble as it gets, Christopher Lloyd in the role he was made for. Not to mention the overriding message: one moment—make a left turn instead of a right, say no instead of yes to a date—and everything turns out so differently.
There was nothing but white, yet it was never the same white, but all the different tones of white, competing together, contrasting with and complementing each other, achieving the brilliance of light itself.
— Émile Zola, Au Bonheur des Dames
When my daughter was a young girl she had a favorite white dress, one she wore (almost) to death. Linen and lace and, yes, a blue satin sash at the waist. The kind of garment you give a lot of thought to buying before you actually do, weighing the inevitable smears of chocolate against the pricey preciousness. Suffice it to say we got more than our money’s worth. A girl, if you let her be, has a style very much a reflection of who she is, even at five. (True, the same can be said of boys, especially these days, but there’s more variety to what a girl can wear, which ups the ante a bit.) Some of it remains consistent over the years. Some of it not so much.
Style may be more subtext than subject in the tantalizing, soon-to-close exhibit at the Metropolitan Musem of Art, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, but the white dress in more than one gorgeous painting simply pops. Bringing attention to something has a way of reminding you it was always there, but raised now to a level of artistic note, it speaks to the reality that perspective runs much deeper than an artist’s eye. There’s color, too, of course, in all of its Impressionist warmth. And black in its elegance and sensuousness. Like any exhibition, this one comes with a point of view.
At last the subject matter of art includes the simple intimacies of everyday life in its repertoire. —Edmond Duranty, The New Painting, 1876
Down the hall, another gallery, a bit of time traveling connected by the theme of fashion. Punk: Chaos to Couture in no way measures up to the blockbuster Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (apparently the eighth most popular show in Met history) but it’s a trip so worth taking—a needed jolt in these troubled political times to remind us of the statements made by what we choose to wear. Not to mention the designer forces that gave rise to them. In the words of Vivienne Westwood, who, with her partner Malcolm McLaren, pretty much defined punk style: “The best way to confront British society was to be as obscene as possible.” There’s a lot of black here, and the signature DIY look —ripped jeans, studs and safety pins, bricolage, etc., and with it the suggestion of ways in which high-fashion designers coopted a look borne of working class Britain and middle class U.S.A. Gold safety pins on the shoulder of a sinewy Gianni Versace crepe-de-chine dress may not exactly render it punk, but the point is well taken. And Gareth Pugh’s ball gown made of folded strips of black plastic trash bags layered to look feathery is a statement all its own, echoing, with style and humor, those grand gowns of another time (minus the organ-damaging corsets).
Black, the color (or lack thereof) against which others are measured, as in ‘orange is the new black’ (a phrase cleverly taken as the title of Piper Kerman’s reflection on her year in a women’s prison), the irony being that a seasonal color trend is measured against the wardrobe staple for which there is no season. Timeless, basic black.
If it was, indeed, a stroke of good timing that had me seeing these two exhibits on the same day, their lingering effect calls up a truism from the Talmud (alternately attributed to Anaïs Nin): We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.
Nestled among small purses lined up on a shelf in my closet is a green wallet I use from time to time, my mother’s, one of the things I kept after she died. A pattern of tiny diamonds gives texture to the leather, a cross between emerald and evergreen. Tiered slots for credit cards and a zipper compartment for dollar bills make for a slim, elegant clutch. It was a present from me, one of her birthdays. Except for the tiniest hint of wear along the edge, it looks almost new. More than once over the years I teased her about the wallets multiplying in a drawer of her bedroom dresser, some gifts, some purchases of her own, none of them ever what they seemed at first. Call it a variant of the Goldilocks syndrome; Change purses with snap clasps that get stuck. Billfold wallets looking bloated by the time they start bending to your will. This one, made in Italy, was designed to last.
Whatever slips of paper there were in the wallet – sales receipts, a lottery ticket or two – I let stay, along with an AARP card that would outlive my mother. To my thinking they were part of the package, pieces of a puzzle that would continue to contain her presence. If memory serves me well, there may have been a few dollars in it, now gone. A wallet, in its intimacy, is nothing if not a repository for what we hold valuable at its most basic, day in/day out, as personal as it gets. There were no photos in the wallet; she had a separate compact holder for snapshots. Treasured moments at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. Wallet-size portraits of smiling grandchildren neatly groomed, that classic blue background, picture day at school.
Like stories at their most multi-layered, when I open this wallet, another one, stolen years earlier, always comes to mind. Of all the things taken from my mother – the credit cards and the cash – it was the loss of something far less quantifiable that troubled her most. My very first published poem, ‘The Raindrop” or “Raindrop” or “Raindrops” – who can remember and does it really matter? – cut out from a mimeographed elementary school newsletter. This much I do remember clearly: the paper on which that newsletter, with its inimitable typewriter font celebrating the purest of all creative minds, young boys and girls, was green. Until the poem was lost, I can’t even say I knew she carried it with her. It’s a funny thing, the color that pride can take on, and how, in the hands and heart (and wallet) of a mother, the object of that pride is rendered a secret treasure.
* * *
It’s a beautiful Sunday morning. I head out for a walk, my husband gets ready for a day of golf. No special plans for me, which is just fine. A little reading, a little cleaning up, a nice dinner at home later, leftover grilled chicken and steak to be tossed into a salad, a glass or two of wine. Mother’s Day just the way I like it. My daughter has already decided to pamper me, a gift certificate to a local spa.
All the more reason to be surprised when I return from my walk to see a a Dooney & Bourke gift bag on my desk, a card from my ‘#1 and #1A Admirers’ tucked inside. The irony of receiving a beautiful new wallet within days of drafting a reflection on a memory-laced one is hardly lost on me. Some gifts really are priceless.Without wasting a moment, giddy and smiling, I start to fill my wallet – credit cards and museum cards, my driver’s license. Dollar bills and loose change. A favorite old snapshot (or two or three) of my daughter.
In the early months following the attacks on The Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa, Salman Rushdie finds himself questioning the very thing that had been one of his greatest joys, namely, being a writer. As he tells it in his chronicle of that extraordinary time, Joseph Anton, “If one spent five years of one’s life struggling with a large and complex project . . . and if, when it came out, it was received in this distorted, ugly way, then maybe the effort wasn’t worth it.” It’s his son, Zafar, who brings him back to himself, with a reminder of a promise: “Dad, what about my book?”
The book, culled from bath-time stories he had told Zafar, “dropped into his head like a gift.” And, yet, he admits, there would be many false starts to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, until he gets the right first sentence and, in doing so, recalls Joseph Heller once telling him about the way in which a single sentence can give rise to a book. “There were sentences that one knew, when one wrote them, contained or made possible dozens or perhaps even hundreds of other sentences.”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
—The last time I saw my mother I was propped on a phone book in a red leather chair at Jeanie’s Hair Salon.
It’s a good guess I was sitting in a hair salon when the line popped into my head. It’s an equally good guess there was no young girl sitting in a hairdresser’s chair. Whatever it was that brought that line and image into the deeper recesses of my brain had me curious enough to take it further. It’s the reason I write.
Turns out this would become a story about a young girl abandoned by her mother and raised by Jeanie, the hairdresser. In its more symbolic component, “Hair” is very much about identity.
Is it odd, or not so odd, that, with Mother’s Day approaching I should happen to read two books, back-to-back, connected by the thread of the motherless child? William Talmadge, the title character of The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin’s dazzling first novel, is twelve when his mother dies and he’s left with his younger sister to care for two ailing Gravenstein apple trees that would, indeed, yield fruit, ‘starter’ trees, in a way, for an orchard that would expand to many acres. In the novel’s poetic, sometimes harsh depiction of late nineteenth/early twentieth century life in the Pacific Northwest, there’s no dwelling on the mother whose death, like any mother’s, leaves a hole. If anything, it’s his sister’s mysterious disappearance when she’s sixteen that has a deeper impact: “He did not articulate it as such, but he thought of the land as holding his sister—her living form, or her remains. . . . He was giving her earth, to feed her in that place that was without it. “
All of which becomes a backstory to the day two teenage sisters, both pregnant, runaways from abuse, show up in Talmadge’s orchard. Their story becomes his. One will die, leaving behind an infant. The other, Della, will give birth to a stillborn, and the surrogacy of her sister’s child that falls to her will turn out to be as confusing as it is unsatisfying. Once Della’s preoccupation with horses takes hold, there’s no holding her back, and Talmadge is left to raise Angelene, the girl without a mother or even an aunt who might claim her. In chapters that alternate between Della’s life away from the orchard and the life Talmadge has made for himself and Angelene, a very compelling story in which the landscape itself becomes a metaphor for loneliness and nurturing takes shape.
The absence of a mothering presence, and its impact, may be subtle in The Orchardist but it’s there, a backdrop to the emotional wounds and rugged survival of the main characters. In Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, a richly hued novel worlds apart from Amanda Coplin’s in terms of mood, setting, and style, the child left motherless takes center stage. What starts out as a story about a Jewish woman just arrived in Montreal in the wake of WWII (expecting to marry one man, only to end up marrying his brother) becomes as much, if not more, the story of the daughter she would abandon. In alternating chapters, the narrative shifts from a third-person perspective revealing more and more about Lily Azerov Kramer, the bride who mysteriously disappears two months after her daughter is born, and the first-person voice of Ruth, the daughter trying to make sense of the mother who walked away from her family. Why she left, who she really is, the uncut diamond in her possession that raises suspicion in a jeweler/friend, the packages she sends (beautiful rocks from places she’s been) as birthday presents to Ruth become pieces of a puzzle to fit together.
Early on in his memoir, Salman Rushdie reflects on the nature of being a migrant (i.e., a “Bombay boy” living in London) and how it got him rethinking the novel that would become Midnight’s Children. It boiled down to grappling with authenticity, the need “to make an act of reclamation of the Indian identity he had lost, or felt he was in danger of losing.” Is there some irony, bittersweet as it is, in that the first story I would publish, “Shoes,” was one that could not be written until after my mother died?
My mother, in her wisdom, would say it simply: timing is everything.
All of which makes it all the more odd that, as I put the finishing touches on this piece singing the praises of two wonderful new books and what I believe they have in common, I turn on the radio to hear Richie Havens singing at Woodstock, the line from his song, “Freedom” (“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”), ringing truer and louder than ever.
Expectation really resists being defied.
Okay, so the groundhog screwed up, promising an early spring; instead we got lingering cold and snow, to boot. For one Ohio lawyer (with a sense of humor I hope) there’s only one thing to do: bring a lawsuit against Punxsutawney Phil for misrepresentation; he wants punishment by death. A more enterprising legal mind might take it to the next level, sue the companies that are the most egregious offenders when it comes to emitting those noxious gases linked to global warming.
So much is out of our control.
Buds start to emerge from the branches of trees, a crocus (still closed) pokes through the ground. There’s reassurance in the songs of birds and peepers filling the air.
What a fine line between captivation and feeling captive on that carousel of time . . .
April, with its fool’s beginning, taunts me. Is there some poignant, poetic message in being reminded of everything coming back to life in the very same month that my mother died? She loved when I brought her fresh flowers.
Spring demands its very own kind of cleaning. I find myself pulling clothes from my closet, suits and dresses I will no longer wear, not because they’ve been worn to death but simply because it’s time to let them go. Most often I’ll donate clothes to the local community center, but I get it in my head that these particular garments – an elegant coat and dress ensemble, a classic pants suit, a designer dress – should go to a consignment shop. It’s as if I’m infusing them with a life they really don’t have, a prideful place that asks me not to just drop them off to be picked through on crowded racks. By virtue of a transaction, they attain a certain value.
The consignment shop I’ve chosen makes it all very easy: just come by, no appointment necessary. The owner has a policy I like: items that don’t sell within sixty days are donated to any of several charities. Maybe I’ll make some money, maybe I won’t; either way, there’s a satisfaction that comes with passing on things of value and sentiment. All of which really is beside the point when I drop the clothes off, and they’re tossed in a bundle, not closely examined while I’m there so I can tell the stories.
Of the few items I have relinquished it is the coat and dress ensemble that cuts to the heart. Deep navy blue, with a ruched trim on the coat, it looks almost as new as the day I first wore it (more than ten years ago), when my daughter became a Bat Mitzvah. I would wear it several times after but never with the sense of some synchronicity at play when I put it on in celebration of that rite of passage: too many years earlier to count, a fourteen-year-old girl would sport a grey pinstripe coat and dress the day her brother became a Bar Mitzvah. I can still see that stylish Peter Pan collar of the dress. I can still feel the pride that went with being the big sister.
As I leave the consignment shop I imagine my offering catching the eye of someone with taste, a keen shopper on the lookout for something a cut above. At the same time, a sinking feeling takes hold at what I have left behind.
My husband is about to sink his teeth into a thick pastrami sandwich, a favorite of his. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and not the first time I’ve witnessed the joy he takes in foods not high on my list of culinary delights. Only today – Day #1 of my two-day juice fast – brings a certain smile of irony to the scene.
He’s also picked up some fried chicken for dinner, and what I’m experiencing (having just finished my second ‘meal’ of the day (a blend of carrots and beets) is akin to watching a child set free in a candy store. It’s not that my husband doesn’t enjoy my cooking. His taste in fish is not as broad as mine, but he’ll eat it (more readily in the summer when we grill), especially if I come up with a way to mask its ‘fishness’ and serve it up with some grain or pasta. Speaking of which, there’s no subtlety when he comes home from the supermarket with the stuff that (good) meatballs are made of. What’s there not to love about a dish so satisfying you get more than one night’s dinner out of it? Chicken – in its myriad manifestations – is always the compromise, the go-to protein when he’s not in the mood for fish and I’m not up for the red meat. Not that I don’t enjoy it.
It may a tad simplistic, but here’s a question I was recently asked: Do you live to eat or eat to live? A metaphor, for sure, and one that suggests even more subtle layers nested in our relationship with food: do you savor what you eat or is breakfast/lunch/dinner a by-the-clock ingest/digest affair to fuel you up for whatever it is you do between meals? I’m far from a purist in my eating habits – I buy organic when I can and when it’s good, but not always; a very satisfying sweet for me would be almonds and raisins, though I’ll gladly take a few chocolate-covered Raisinets my husband offers while we watch a movie on TV; salt could be my undoing (you’re a better person than I am if you can stop after one potato chip or tortilla strip).
It boils down to that thing we call ‘appetite,’ never really a stand-alone word. It’s either voracious or poor, easily sated or hungering for a flavor so elusive it can’t even find its way to the tip of your tongue.
Except when you’re on a juice fast, in which case you already know what’s coming. Six juices a day, freshly pressed, approximately two hours apart. Water and green tea in-between helpings. I start the morning with green juice (cucumber, celery, kale, spinach, fennel, green apple, lemon). Two hours later, a little hunger kicking in, I take the carrot-beet juice from the refrigerator, the color of which calls up the coveted “V” on the TV series, “True Blood.” (It may not have the power vested in vampire blood, but it’s a got a sweet kick of its own.) Next comes lemonade (lemon, aloe, ginger, apple), possibly my favorite. Another green, another carrot-beet, and, the last drink of the day, Almond Coconut Chia Mylk (lovingly called dessert).
These are not drinks you gulp down, and that’s partly the point. Drinking slowly I taste the celery and apple in the green drink, the carrot cutting through the beets, the ginger in the lemonade, the sweet sweet almonds laced with vanilla bean. Go ahead, laugh, it ain’t wine even if I’m drinking as if it is. But it is a kind of paying attention. When I fast each year on Yom Kippur, not even a glass of water, I’m brought to a place of connection with a cultural heritage I cherish; for a minimally practicing Jew like myself, what better way to remind myself that the hunger I may experience for one day is something too familiar to too many people in the world? And theirs is not self-induced.
Fasting on juices for two days, at least the first time, is little more than a chance to give my body a break from routine eating and see how I hold up. Aficionados swear that the benefits (digestive and otherwise) far outweigh the sometimes uncomfortable symptoms that accompany detoxification. There’s a science to it, after all (skeptics may beg to differ). We each have our predispositions and mindsets, our inclinations toward the Western fix-me-with-medication modality and the Eastern/alternative help-the-body-heal-itself paradigm. Somewhere betwixt and between rests simple common sense, and on the food front there’s no better proof of that than recent findings re: the Mediterranean Diet.
My husband munches away, I sip. Slowing down, paying attention. To the ways in which I stop thinking about food when there are no meals to prepare. To the diversion of energy spent preparing meals to time spent nourishing myself (a little more reading, writing, maybe even a nap).
To the difference between a hunger that cannot be satisfied and one that is no more than gently gnawing. To that thing called appetite, which, like a begging dog, seems to be quelled when it isn’t given what it has been programmed to want. The mind is a funny thing. In an experiment conducted by the infamous Dr. Oz, two groups of people were presented with bowls of candy. Group A was told to imagine eating all the candy, Group B to imagine drinking water, after which both groups were invited to eat as much of the candy as they wanted. Apparently Group A ended up eating 40 percent less of the candy in front of them.
Perhaps you are what you eat, perhaps not. This much I can say. After two days of being juiced up, my taste buds did not have a hankering for that Morning Glory muffin at a favorite café or even the olives my husband bought to go with my reentry couscous/chick pea salad. That’s not to say I don’t welcome chewing food again. Not to mention that glass of Chianti (my first in a week) I’ll be savoring with the Chicken Marsala I’m cooking tonight.
Sunday, a blustery day, finds me in the city, destination: the Rubin Museum of Art. Since discovering this sanctuary a few years ago, I’ve been here more times than I’d been to its former incarnation, Barney’s New York, legendary for its own transformation from name-brand men’s wear at discounted prices to high-design fashion at prices to match. Not that I didn’t enjoy walking into the store, in all its haute splendor, from time to time. Okay, I did try on shoes maybe once; the salesman, too snobby for his own good, lost me as a customer. If I were really on my toes, I might have reminded him of how it all got started, Barney Pressman opening the original store at 17th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1923 with money raised by pawning his wife’s engagement ring.
Nothing is as constant as change. When I step into the museum, I’m always struck by its subdued splendor, and how a spiral staircase, as grand and graceful as it gets, stands as a metaphor for many things, not the least of which is the ways in which one thing can become another. More to the point – that a space once bustling with extravagant materialism can become a sanctuary of sorts, a place of and for the spirit, really is a wonder. Something to be said for the art of feng shui.
Today it’s a documentary, High Ground, that has me here. It’s the story of eleven veterans (eight men, three women) from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who trek their way up a 20,075-foot peak (Lebouche East) in Nepal. One is blind. More than one has lost a limb. All are emotionally wounded. A twelfth member of the group calls herself an Army mom. She lost a son.
Each and every one of them has a riveting story to tell. If you can scale a mountain blind or with a missing foot or with a heart made heavy by memories you’d prefer to forget, maybe anything is possible, even healing. As the movie makes remarkably clear, these men and women know better. One of them recalls his father making him promise: “If something were to happen to me and I came back a different person, I would never give up.”
* * *
This morning I head out for a walk, the temperature a little higher than yesterday and the sun taking a little bite out of the wind. The lake is still largely iced over, and there is still evidence of the snowstorm known as Nemo (misnamed if you ask me) that came through two weeks ago. And for all my effort – and it is an effort – at being present to the moment – what I can’t get out of my head is a vision of snow-capped terrain as exciting to contemplate as it is forbidding to climb. For all the times I remind myself (and others) that pain is pain, no relativity there when you’re in the thick of it, there are times – like in the aftermath of a movie that makes vivid and visceral what being on the front lines has done to eleven young veterans – I step back to see the Richter Scale of suffering for what it is. Political rhetoric pales in the light of what the personal makes visible.
I have a good life, a blessed one, I might say. And yet there are days I wake up cranky and troubled, goals not achieved, disappointments that may sink to the level of despair. It’s called being human. There are days, too, that find me contemplating what it might feel like to find myself at the top of the world, the triumph of will it takes to get there. The endurance that overrides any suffering, whatever the Buddha had in mind about the human condition. The spirit of the place itself. I could readily share some of my own moments of passage, both actual and metaphoric, that speak to trials/tribulations/triumphs. But to do so would suggest I belong in the company of twelve extraordinary men and women who have experienced the kinds of things the luxury of my life puts at a distance. Then again, this really isn’t about me, is it?
A recent night smack in the middle of the week finds me sitting at a table in a party/reception room at a yeshiva in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY. A cousin’s daughter, brought to new levels of devoutness during her college years and immersion in the Chabad way of life, has become engaged to a young man she fell in love with during a stay in Israel. “It’s a simcha,” says a woman sitting on one side of me, smiling and sipping soup. A celebration. She’s a relative of the groom-to-be, who hails from a family of fourteen.
The sound of the word is far from foreign to me, even if the manner of celebration is. The men and women, following the Orthodox Jewish tradition, do their eating/drinking/schmoozing at tables separated by a divide in the room. It may be a no-no for an Orthodox man to shake hands with a woman, but there’s clearly no sin in passing through for a hello or mingling for a toast. Who can resist a shot of vodka lifted in L’chaim?
Every which way I turn there are children, little girls in the prettiest dresses, boys in smart white shirts and pants, scrambling around like puppies, reaching into bowls of fruit and candy and all manner of goodies. Every which way I look there are young mothers with babies on their hips; some are already showing signs of another one on the way. I remark, in all good spirit, to one mother about the tumult I imagine at a Passover seder, all those brothers and sisters and spouses and children in one place. Her smile suggests it’s not as crazy as I would think. I tell another young woman that this separation of men and women partying – a first for me – does not feel as strange as I thought it would. Premised as it is on Old World sexist notions I cannot abide, there is a joyful energy to a roomful of women that’s infectious.
There is in fact a lot of smiling here, a far cry from my sense that a far-less-than-fully-observant Jewish woman like myself might feel out of place. On the contrary, it’s a spirit much more welcoming than I might have expected. Any temptation to judge – how do women still accept such restrictive ways in a modern world or, better, how does a woman like my cousin’s daughter come to embrace it? – melts away. I could almost envy the assumptions with which they live. Except that my own longings, in both the spiritual and material realms, are not so easily satisfied. Once you’ve seen the world, tasted its diversity, tapped the curiosity that takes you to the edge of wonder, going home is possible only when it’s a wholly new place.
There are some dreams, yesterday or a year ago, that have staying power. Here’s one: I’m on a stage, singing. The audience is small. My voice is large and powerful. If there’s anything that surprises me, it’s not how good I sound; it’s the way I put myself out there, not a thought at all (in my dream at least) to how I’m being received.
This dream is on my mind as I head into the city just days before the engagement party to a Karaoke party in celebration of a friend’s birthday. When I tell another friend about the party, she jokingly offers her condolences. I have never been to a Karaoke party and it surprises her that I’m looking forward to it.
Yes, I love to sing (it goes with my love of music and dancing), and I can carry a tune well enough. But any fool can see my dream for the metaphor it is. All the little voices in our heads – the ones that tell us we’re good/not good enough, try harder/give up, say what’s on your mind/keep it to yourself – are no match for the Voice that comes from a much deeper place. And those inner voices that keep us in check – are they possibly a manifestation of those outer voices that are so quick to pass judgment on what may be beyond our understanding? They may do their job well, protect us from missteps and mistakes, but a kind heart, I like to believe, gives voice to the right words at the right time.
And a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll hearts (of a certain age) crammed into a Karaoke room at a bar in the East Village cannot be contained in giving voice to a string of old favorites, everything from Sonny and Cher to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen to Aretha Franklin and Gloria Gaynor. When I send my daughter a clip of “I Will Survive,” she messages back: Old people karaoke. My rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” gets a better review: Cuuute!
She probably would have groaned at the sight of women in their sixties, really warmed up now, lifting their voices, girls who just wanna have fun. She would have asked how many shots of vodka I drank. But who cares? And who’s counting? Besides, it’s never so much the alcohol as the spirit of the friends you’re drinking with that gets the party started. And maybe here’s the secret of it all:
In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? – Gabrielle Roth
P.S. Singing the praises of other writers/bloggers always feels more comfortable than singing my own. So now that I have been named a ‘Very Inspiring Blogger’ by Uvi Poznansky, a writer/blogger who inspires me, it’s my responsibility (more a pleasure) to pay it forward.
– Maureen Doallas, whose blog, Writing without Paper, is an absolute treasure (trove)
– C. M. Mayo was an early inspiration for me and forever a model in the way her blog(s) continue to evolve
– When it comes to bloggers focused on books and authors, Claire McAlpine (Word by Word), Diane Prokop, and Deborah Riggs Previte (A Bookish Libraria) are the three I go to most for the way the enrich and delight me, each with her own particular sense and sensibility.
– When I’m In Jayne’s World, I know I’ve come to the right place for a dash of flash fiction with a flair and/or political/social commentary spiced with that Jayne Martin wit.
– And when I’m visiting Ashley Barron’s The Priyas, it’s for the wealth of information and personal insights she brings to the world of indie writers, all of it earnest and hard won and graciously offered.
Behind a very beautiful corrugated wall of perforated aluminum in my downstairs family/entertainment room are shelves and shelves of ‘stuff.’ Blankets and books. Assorted theatrical lighting accumulated from my husband’s days as an interior designer. Suitcases and a toolbox or two. A classic (nonworking) IBM Selectric typewriter, a vintage electric Smith-Corona, and possibly the nearest and dearest to my heart, my very first portable Olympia.
Let’s not forget the boxes filled with what we generously call memorabilia. My wedding gown and hat, not to mention the congratulatory cards filled with loving thoughts that date back to 1984. Invitations and leftover party favors from the day my daughter became a Bat Mitzvah (more than ten years ago). Trinkets and toys and dolls – Barbies/American Girls/My Little Ponies. Sundry ribbons and buttons and any little ‘truc’ to remind us of my daughter’s extracurricular activities and her cherished summers at camp in Maine. Her artwork and the pieces she wrote for (high school) classes that moved her and (college) applications that would take her to places she longed to go.
My very own personal box of old photographs, letters, and postcards (even one I sent to myself on my first trip to Florence, just for the fun of it). Birthday cards from ‘marker’ years. My training log for the NYC Marathon, 1981.
Magazines that bear the mark of collectors’ items (go ahead, laugh): The 40th anniversary issue of Esquire, 5th anniversary issue of Ms. Magazine, 75th anniversary issue (plus more than a few others) of the New Yorker, literary journals I’ve cherished. Favorite issues of National Geographic. Just opening any of them reminds me of something long gone, the vivid glossy photographs that fired my imagination and longing to travel, a quaint reminder that tangible had a different meaning in pre-1024×768 resolution days.
A box of papers and maps that belonged to my father-in-law, including the log book from his days as a WWII navigator. An old camera of my father’s, a relic from his war days, along with the (yes) snapshots of him and his buddies stationed in North Africa and Italy.
Blankets and pillows and lamps, oh my!
Last weekend finds me in the attic of a dear friend’s house, a break from the table between dinner and coffee. If size is a factor, this attic can easily handle its accumulation. Except for one thing. The person who knows this attic best, the woman whose house it is, wants it cleared of excess. She wants this attic to speak to/for what matters. This beautiful house, home in every rich sense of the word to the children who grew up here, is in a state of flux. The daughter is months away from becoming a mother herself. The question, implied here, is one I think about a great deal: once the children are gone, what does ‘home’ retain? An essence, intangible as it is, that speaks to a time and place imprinted in our being.
There’s a trundle bed lying on its side in the attic, dislocated from the son’s room, now elegantly turned into a guest room. It is the ten-by-twelve space it always was. Only now there is an elegant queen-size bed to replace the trundle bed, and some of the furniture has been removed. Once again my husband does his design/decorating magic.
Of all the things in the attic – the chairs and conference table from her husband’s office, the boxes and boxes of wedding gifts her daughter and son-in-law cannot (yet) make use of in their NYC apartment, the things from her own life she has deemed ‘save-worthy’ – it is the bed that appears to bother her least. Maybe her daughter can make use of it one day, she thinks. Only her daughter has clearly said she doesn’t want it.
I suggest she get rid of the bed.
The beauty of an attic is what the very word suggests: what we put aside into those pockets we can’t let go of. And why should we? Everything we accumulate becomes a part of who we are. Until one day, when we threaten to drown in the very accumulation. Perhaps the ‘value’ my friend places on the bed has as much to do with the sentimental/emotional space it occupies as its actual worth. Why not give it away, perhaps to a family recovering from the deluge only months ago that cost it its home, beds, and more? A new bed will find its way to her grandchild, when the time comes. And the things she would like her family members to divest will eventually find their way out of the attic.
Letting go does not come easily for most people I know, myself included. Then there’s simple sentiment, the desire to pass along things that connect us generation-to-generation. How do we reshape the very places we call home – in a way that suits what they now are and still retains the essence of what they once were?
Back to my own little storage corner, with the empty boxes my husband makes available and I start to fill, my own sense of not wanting to wait until leisurely choice becomes necessity. We’re so good at getting rid of things when have to. I do a pretty good job (or so I think). Nobody wants used stuffed animals anymore, so into the ‘discard’ box they go. Books, children’s games I can donate to the local thrift shop go into another box, along with a wallet I stopped using years ago, milky with dust from sitting on a shelf. I fill the box, give it to my husband. Before he closes it up, he pulls out the wallet. “You can’t give this away,” he says. It’s a brown leather wallet (Prada), a little worn but usable, a gift from my brother-in-law for a marker birthday, my 50th. Someone else will enjoy using it, I say. He agrees, even if he has a different someone else in mind. He cleans up the wallet, places it into a box of its own. Sends it off to my daughter.
There invariably comes a moment at a Leonard Cohen concert when singer/songwriter gives way to pure poet. The softer he speaks, the more closely you listen. It’s a marvel to me, hearing echoes of a song I love, words that were their own music before they would become a song. If the achingly gorgeous ”A Thousand Kisses Deep” he sings with Sharon Robinson on Ten New Songs owes its genesis to a poem written years earlier, what could be a more fitting expression of the fluid nature of words than to recite them in the incarnation stripped bare of melody? Not that I don’t hear it.
Then there’s the song itself, which, according to Sylvie Simmons’s new, wonderful biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, has a story of its own. As Rebecca De Mornay tells it, it’s a song he kept writing over and over, “like a painter who paints over his original painting that you loved, and paints a whole new painting on top of it, and then he paints a whole new one on top of that, and ten years later it exists on a record and doesn’t have a single note or word that’s the same as anything I heard when he first played the song.”
The other night words that seemed to be the beginning of something, maybe a poem, popped into to my head. During this last week of the year, when time seems to both race ahead and stand still, I feel in a state of limbo. A visit from my daughter makes very little else matter. More time with friends face-to-face means less time with friends on Facebook. Even without saying it outright, a kind of taking stock of what I set out to do this past year, my own measures of success and failure, takes hold. So much to put behind, so much more to look forward to.
You could be forgiven
To pack up the dream
Slip it into that swelling suitcase
tucked under the bed . . .
These words surface from some place in my consciousness just as Kevin Costner, young and handsome and in as high-definition as it gets on a television screen, is convinced that he has to clear away the corn on his farm in order to create a baseball field. It is a perfect moment of synchronicity for me. If another favorite holiday movie of mine, It’s a Wonderful Life, speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the singular fact of our existence (not to mention the places that caring takes us), Field of Dreams speaks to the spirit of how our lives are shaped by the choices we make, and the edges that bring us to those choices.
To be ‘on edge’ is worlds apart from being ‘on an edge.’ An edge is a door, a threshold, a tightrope, the perfect fold of a towel. A precipice on which I stand, or sit, staring into a chasm. A surfboard teetering on a wave. Standing tall on water skis, holding on, not for dear life so much as to steady myself. Once you think about falling, you topple over.
Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Amy Madigan) invite Shoeless Joe Jackson into their home after he has played some ball on the magical field wrought of leveled corn. The camera pans down to his shoes pointed toward the line in the dirt, the edge, the place where the field ends and the rocky path of the real world is drawn. He stops dead in his tracks. He cannot cross over.
Later in the movie the younger incarnation of Doc ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) has come to play baseball on this field of second chances. Karin Kinsella, the daughter of Ray and Annie, is lying on the ground, the air knocked out of her from a fall while chewing on a hot dog. The camera zooms in on a young Archie Graham. He can be forgiven what seems a moment of youthful hesitation but the cards really are stacked. Going back in time does not mean changing the course of his life for that glorious sound of bat hitting ball. The choice he made the first time around – to become a doctor – was not so much choice as calling. He crosses over. Saves the girl.
The ponies run the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep.
To be ‘on edge’ is to be in a state of contraction, riddled with anxiety, uncertainty. One word, one syllable, an article as indefinite as it gets, makes the phrase breathe, infuses it with possibility. A poem, “Thousand Kisses Deep,” becomes a song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” When I am on edge, disappointment over what is not calls into question all the good that is. When I am on an edge – slippery or smooth, rocky or foggy – bidding one year good-bye means nothing more than ringing in a new one.
Photo copyright © Christine Boyka Kluge