Three Fortune cookies, still in their cellophane wrappers, sit in a bowl on the center island of my kitchen, remnants from last night’s take-out. If I wait for the right moment, I figure, one of them will beckon: crack me open, see what I have to offer. It’s not the taste of the cookie that ever really appealed to me anyway. In fact, if memory serves me well, I was put off by the thought of eating something with a piece of paper inside (though I confess to loving those strips of colorful dot candies I devoured as a child). And yet, as soon as the dinner plates are gone from the table, replaced by a small dish of cookies, often with slices of orange, I’m usually the first to grab for one.
Today they sit, though, wafers in a game not unlike those sleight-of-hand games that require very fixed attention – which cup is the ball under now? – the mind doing its very best to keep from being tricked. A message, important to this moment, this time in my life, will reveal itself. If I just watch carefully and choose wisely.
Let’s face it, the commercial Fortune cookie is no match for a madeleine. All the same, that often soggy amalgam of flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil tempts me. Maybe it’s just that I love words (especially those that hold promise), with their suggestion that anything is open for interpretation. Or that some deep-seated part of me knows that everything – let me say it again, everything – matters.
When my daughter was a young girl we played a game she called ‘Jewelry Store.’ She would spread out her trinkets on a blanket, make them available, offer them up. If I chose one she was not ready to relinquish, she would shake her head, no-no-no, it’s too expensive. Then came the kicker, out of the mouths of babes: you get what you get. Is it a coincidence that today, just when I need some affirmation of what I’m doing with my life, I reach for the cookie with the hidden message, exposed now, telling me, “Your dearest dream is coming true”? Not that there’s ever a bad message in a Fortune cookie, but the one I just happen to pick up speaks to me. A day later, feeling lucky again, I crack open the next cookie, the little smiley faces saying just what I need to hear: “You will maintain good health and enjoy life.”
Like Fortune herself, those slings and arrows throwing her this way and that, the cookie’s origins can’t be pinned down. Was it a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco’s Chinatown who gave out cookies to the poor, filled with tidbits of Biblical inspiration? Or a Japanese immigrant slipping a thank you note into cookies given to friends who stood by him in times of hardship? Is there any truth to the legend that messages hidden in Moon Cakes were a subversive, revolutionary tactic that aided the Chinese uprising against the Mongols centuries ago?
Astrology. Palm readings. Tarot cards. Fortune cookies. There’s an undeniable impulse to know what’s ahead, or at least believe that something we hope for is in the cards. Nobody wants bad news, and the past few weeks, in the Northeast, are a hard reminder of how much is out of our control. The election alone (which, thankfully had the best man winning) had me on edge.
Then came Frankenstorm, which left me in the dark for almost a week, joking about feeling like a pioneer, survival mode in full swing. You could do a lot worse than nestle under covers at night with a loving husband, watching movies on a laptop. And being in the dark for a week meant only snippets of how much worse off so many others were, and how they were coping. Yes, everything is relative; but suffering is suffering.
I don’t necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that sometimes Fate or Fortune or Chance – all with their nuanced differences – grabs you by the neck and says, Stop. Look. Listen. Count every single one of your blessings.
The opening sequence of Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” is a laugh-out-loud montage that rings poignantly true to any woman (and that’s most of us over fifty) who dutifully does the annual torturing of the breast otherwise known as a mammogram. To a backdrop of the Roches singing “No Shoes,” breasts in all sizes, all shapes are pinched and positioned for that no-smile (don’t even think of saying ‘cheese’), hold-your-breath picture. In a film that is as much about love and guilt and responsibility as it is about the way the smallest gesture can make a difference in someone’s life, poking some fun at a procedure that is anything but matter-of-fact imparts a touch of irony. It is the job of the X-ray technician, in this case, Rebecca Hall, to get it right. She does the best she can.
Cut to a small waiting room in a large medical group, Anywhere USA. Three women are seated, no eye contact. One is reading a book, another filling out an intake form. The third, yours truly, is riffling through a magazine, trying to make sense of words I’m having trouble reading. Down the narrow hallway there is laughter, the camaraderie of technicians on a break, which should reassure me of their humanity. But there’s something about being in this room, with its cheerless furnishings and walls painted a color you forget the minute you’re out of there, that makes waiting itself an act of survival. I should be better equipped to deal – with all those good breathing skills I practice and the 1 mg of Adavan that I save for times like this. And yet, anxiety, by its very nature, is rooted in something unknown; the waiting – first to get the procedure over with, then to get the results – only makes it worse. If there’s any reassurance to be had, it’s in knowing I’m not alone in feeling the way I do.
A woman, just out of the X-ray room, takes a seat next to me. She breaks the ice, tells me about her daughter, high-risk but so far/so good, and her own health issues. She has reason to be thankful for screening procedures, despite the anxiety they give rise to. It’s hard to disagree, and yet, looking around the room, all of us in those gowns that hide nothing, really, I imagine every woman saying to herself, ‘please let me not be called back in for another X-ray.’ Even if it’s just for a clearer picture. Please let it not be me.
It’s a vicious cycle: anxiety over breast cancer sends us for mammograms, which in turn give rise to an anxiety that some say may outweigh the benefits. And yet the abstraction of statistical odds is no measure against the power of one, you know the story well, a woman alive today because of early detection. The latest studies only complicate the equation, you do the math: state-of-the-art treatment, coupled with mammograms for women 50-69 years of age, reduced the death rate by 10 percent, in contrast to the 15-25 percent it was decades ago; for women over 70 who availed themselves of new treatment but no mammograms, the death rate fell by 8 percent. What’s a sensible woman to do?
The technician calls me back into the X-ray room, uh-oh. She has learned not to show alarm, the truth being there may be no cause at all for it. And yet those heart-pounding minutes of waiting – again – for the radiologist’s reading (nothing suspicious, she will, thankfully, tell me) seem like a lifetime.
. . . I go for a walk. The lure of mid-afternoon autumn light – even more gold and crisp through the filter of magnificent white clouds – is all I need. Or so it would seem.
I settle my eyes on the clouds, anything but diminished by the sweep of cliché (cotton the queen of them all). Magnificent suggests something magnified.
At a funeral we tend to magnify a life no longer held by a body.
We choose words carefully to encompass what it was – is – about this person no longer with us. One granddaughter speaks with so much heart (not to mention composure through tears) about the phone calls and the shopping, the family meals and confidences she shared with my aunt, her grandmother. Two sons-in-law sing of a different kind of love and praise and respect. That this is the last of my remaining aunts is not lost on me. And yet there’s much more to what sends me out walking after the funeral.
Autumn (the season between the playfulness of summer and the introspection of winter) demands a warrior’s courage in the midst of grief and sadness, according to the Taoists. There’s no easing in, suggests Keats, to this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” All of which translates, to me, as the season that energizes me while gripping me by the throat with a melancholy.
And maybe that’s the point – nothing is every really one thing or the other. “Man Woman Birth Death Infinity” were the opening words to a popular TV show (“Ben Casey”) I watched when I was young. The implication of cycles did very little to persuade away the life/death duality ingrained in me.
Not that I don’t try to overcome (or do I mean overcompensate for?) the discomfort with death. Two movies I saw last week – one profound, one silly – touched on the very question of our place in the wheel of life, our relationship with the sacred and the profane. Samsara, recently released, is a gorgeous film, shot in 70 mm, a collage of images that spans the globe. From a monastery in India and a temple in Myanmar, to a prison in the Philippines and the Ninth Ward, New Orleans, and a coffin shop in Ghana – all told 25 different locations – the documentary becomes a meditation on the places where time slows down and the ways in which it speeds up, ultimately a reflection on life and death and interconnectedness. There is not a whit of dialogue, a strategy that speaks to the power of image. There is music, and it is used purposefully.
A Thousand Words, in contrast, is pure Hollywood, Eddie Murphy as fast-talking literary agent Jack McCall (why do I torture myself?), who gets his comeuppance when he makes a promise to a guru whose book he wants to represent. Here’s what happens: the Bodhi tree at the ashram he visits to seal the deal magically transports itself to McCall’s backyard, and, with each word he now utters, a leaf drops, the assumption being that when they’re all gone, so is McCall. Of course, this being a predictable film, what would seem to be a doleful denouement turns to one of enlightenment. I said it was silly. But you gotta love that Eddie Murphy smile. And the suggestion that all we need is a Bodhi tree to make us think before we speak.
Here’s my sense of it all: at my most melancholy, I’m filled with a longing for something gone, the past refusing to slough itself off my back; at my most anxious, I’m riddled with uncertainty, the future relentless in reminding me that I am, indeed, “chained to a dying animal.”
I tear up when I hug a cousin, filled with both affection and the bond we share, daughters now without mothers. I can’t say whether it’s death or the act of dying that fills me with more dread. But I can say this: each year, as September slips into October, I never fail to marvel at the display Mother Nature makes of dying, the leaves boasting — here I am glowing yellow, here I am spilling over in orange, here I am a burst of red – as their glorious bouquet takes shape . Oak and maple, hickory and elm in a patchwork only visible from a distance, as if to remind me, before they fall, that the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Photo copyright © Christine Boyka Kluge
Many years ago, as a single woman living in NYC, I would spend an occasional Saturday afternoon with my mother. A little shopping, a little eating, a little walking. On one visit, we sat at the dining table that dominated my two-room studio on the Upper West Side and, with absolute nonchalance, she removed a diamond pendant from her neck and placed it on mine. “I want to see you wear this while I’m still alive,” she said. A hard-working woman, she coveted diamonds for reasons far beyond their beauty and preciousness. A diamond ring or a pendant was something, yes, to adorn herself with on a night out; but something less tangible more than tripled its monetary worth, namely the recognition that valuable jewels would be passed on to her daughter and son, who would then pass them on to their own children.
On this particular day there was a subtext, unspoken. I’d been suffering, in the aftermath of an oral surgeon’s incompetence. In one fell swoop, she turned the diamond into a talisman, hopefully with the power to protect me.
This past weekend the daughter of a cousin of mine became a Bat Mitzvah. She sparkled during the service, from her glittery shoes to her ballerina dress to a small pendant around her neck. And her words, echoing the wisdom of a thirteen-year old (whose tongue barely missed a trope in her chanting), sparkled as well. It was a ceremony and celebration made all the more poignant by the presence of her grandmother (my aunt) in a wheelchair, a shadow of her usually imposing self. Cancer does that to a person. There was an added poignancy for me, the timing of it all one week before the Jewish New Year. These holidays always seem to be the true marker of a mother – the cooking, enough food for an army, nothing subtle about the nudging weeks ahead: you’ll be here – right? In families like mine, traditions diluted with each passing generation, observance would become an assumption, more cultural and sentimental than religious in nature. We do the best we can to keep traditions alive. To remember.
Which brings me to two books in which journeys and mothers play a central part.
Felice’s Worlds, recently published, is essentially Henry Massie’s homage to his mother, a Jewish woman born in Poland who, through circumstance and her father’s prodding, was one step ahead of where the Nazi regime would have placed her. The opening chapter finds Felice about to enter Palestine, 1935, a young woman in an arranged marriage, still in love with the man she is forced to leave behind along with the life they had planned (he a doctor, she an oral surgeon). She has a bit of leverage, too, beauty coupled with intelligence. As memoir, it gets off to a promising beginning but quickly falls into a chronologically driven framework with no real narrative voice to propel it along. The story of a Jewish woman who escapes the ravages of World War II and the Holocaust, only to find herself guilt-ridden about being a survivor – while amassing an extraordinary art collection – is a potentially compelling one that ends up being told in a less-than-compelling way.
Sometimes it has the feel of a son who wanted to make sure he got every bit of his mother’s extraordinary life chronicled. Sometimes it reads like the case notes of a psychiatrist (Massie’s profession). Once in a while Massie touches a nerve in his effort to understand things about his mother that he didn’t understand as a boy. And he certainly brings Felice to life via the spirit that really moves her to find her place in a new world, and, ultimately the world of art. Also, the questions Felice raises re: her own Judaism and assimilation vs. orthodoxy are important ones. And the way she comes to love and collect Abstract Expressionist art says a great deal about her: “There was no nostalgia in abstract expressionist art because it had never existed before. . . . It became my way of making myself at home in my new country without just assimilating myself into the comfortable existence that I saw around me.” It’s in the weaving of it all together that Massie falls short.
The heart and soul of David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that dreaded knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. It’s a simple premise, even if it takes a leap of logic and faith: bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it. She enlists a former lover to take this hike in the Galilee with her, pulling him from the life of a hermit he slipped into following his brutal torture as a POW years earlier. In the course of the journey, the son she is terrified of losing is kept alive via the stories she shares, ultimately rendering To the End of the Land a tale of revelation and reconciliation.
We are a ‘storying’ species — we live through stories, we pass them down to our children, we tell them in order to remember. Two stories, a novel rich and riddled with nuance, a memoir perhaps less than sparkling but no less profound in what it adds to the collective narrative told about mothers and the ways in which we glorify them, turn them into heroines, remember and reflect on them.
Photo © Abe Frajndlich
A favorite quote of mine – Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away – has me somehow thinking about the ways in which we measure success. Yesterday marked Labor Day, a licensed refrain from what we do day in/day out. Labor, with that first stressed syllable, is a weight-bearing word. Toil long and hard enough, we’re told, and you might hear the whistle of success.
The singer/songwriter known as Rodriguez labored for decades as a construction worker in Detroit, no clue that his records were selling like hotcakes in South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s. Two ardent fans, wanting to verify stories about his death (Self-immolation onstage? A bullet to his head?), discovered, via that ‘new’ thing in the ’90s known as the Internet, that he was in fact alive. The wheels were set in motion for a triumphant concert in South Africa, 1998. Later would come the extraordinary documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s labor of love.
And now the tour, live shows formulated on revival and redemption. Better yet, they remind us of what we miss when a talented musician slips into obscurity. New York’s Highline Ballroom, where I saw/heard Rodriguez a few nights ago, was a perfect venue for an acoustic show, his voice softened by time. He is seventy years old, after all. He needs assistance walking up to the microphone. Without so much as a nod he launches into his first song, a cover, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a tease of sorts, easing his way into the set, selections from his two CDs. For that small percentage of long-time fans in the audience, I imagine exhilaration of the pinch-me, I-never-thought-I’d-see-this-day variety. For the bulk of the audience, the documentary and/or ensuing press settled it all: this is someone I have to/want to see perform.
A gifted musician deserves his day. Even if something in me wonders whether the tour is too much for him, I’m here. All ears. All eyes. Caught up in the poignancy of it all. Not to mention the wish that I’d known/heard of Rodriguez forty years ago. If I had the chance, I would ask him how it feels, all this recognition long after the prime years of a rock musician. I think I know what he might say.
He is the real deal, a man who exudes humility, a smile as infectious as is it gets. He makes sure to say he’s voting for Obama. He engages his audience with a quiet wisdom and wry sense of humor: “We do music for the girls. [pause] And we do it for the pleasure.” His presence is poetic.
Rich Folks Hoax
The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby’s sleepin’ while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
and they park in basic places
The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places.
So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness . . .
This is the song on Cold Fact that I find myself listening to over and over, though it’s easy to see why I Wonder, with its upbeat, catchy tune (a ruse for the edgy lyrics) became an anthem for South Africans during apartheid. As a man sitting near me at the show put it: “There were the Beatles, and there was Rodriguez.”
Success. On days when I’m so engaged in what I’m writing that not even a tweet can distract me, there’s nothing I want/need more; work, its own reward, is what sustains me. On days when I’m brought to tears by, yes, rejection needling me with self-doubt, the carrot that feels so within reach (but keeps managing to elude me) starts to take on a bitter hue. Those are the days I find myself reexamining (ad nauseum) what it is we call success, a variable commodity if ever there was one, as fickle as they get. No better antidote than listening to some music, maybe a song or two by Rodriguez.
Night becomes day in the wee hours of the morning, the sky a sound and light show that has me captive in bed. I cannot, will not, move. Relentless, pounding rain has that effect on me. The lightning and thunder are almost a relief, a break in the rhythm of the downpour. The previous owners of the house I live in had a zip line for their dog to run along. I’m told the line was once hit by lightning. The story could have had a much more electrifying ending, an urban legend about a dog in the wrong place instead of the right one (indoors, thankfully) at the wrong time. But now it’s my house, my story. And somehow it is the power of water – to drown the roots of trees, seep into walls, cause a roof to cave in – that terrifies me more than the bark of thunder, the bite of lightning on this dark and stormy night.
Proverbs, sayings, aphorisms – call them what you will – would seem to be out of place in a modern mindset that mostly begs for absolutes. ‘Know before you go,’ says the man who gives me the weather forecast on the radio and the woman who alerts me to traffic hotspots. How ironic that it was science and reasoning that gave rise to what we call the Age of ‘Enlightenment.’ Fact: lightning does strike twice (even thrice ) in the same place, which of course has little bearing on our belief that it won’t.
What it boils down to, really, is the faith we place in odds. Not to mention the staying power of metaphor. When I see Olympic runner Morgan Uceny stumble, I see a streak of lightning – this can’t be happening again – flash through her mind as her lightning feet are caught in a tangle.
Chance favors the prepared mind . . .
Well, yes, in the sense that study and training, tenacity and determination (If at first you don’t succeed . . .) lay the groundwork for those moments of insight and/or breakthrough. But chance is sometimes a trickster, or worse, asleep on the job just when you want/need her most. Each time the Summer Olympics roll around, I can’t help but conjure the image of Gabriela Anderson-Schiess who had me holding my breath every staggering moment it took her to finish the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles. It was the first year women ran the marathon. She was a world-class runner, as prepared as anyone could be. I was not in her league, even in my best days as a runner, but I know the import of a personal best and what it means to discover something you did not know you had in you. I know the sheer will of pushing past a wall. There’s a reason I’m a writer.
Good things come in threes . . .
Gold. Silver. Bronze. I marvel at the singular focus, the steady gaze, pure concentration, in the moment. I marvel, too, at how all the blood and sweat it takes for an athlete to make it to the Olympics will dissolve into tears if the grand prize her eye has been cast on slips from her reach.
And I marvel at the spirit that brought poems raining down on London back in June, a literary prelude to the Summer Games that highlighted the Poetry Parnassus Festival. According to Tom Perrotet’s enlightening brief history of poetry’s relationship with the Olympics, “In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil.” In more recent times, thanks to the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin (a poet himself), “literature, together with music, painting, sculpture and even architecture, became Olympic events in the so-called Pentathlon of the Muses.” Imagine! In the end, Olympic poetry as an ‘event’ proved too contentious to survive, but there’s no escaping the mark of the poet in this year’s London games: just take a peek at Priscilla Uppal, who served as Poet-in-Residence on behalf of Canadian Athletes Now, reciting her poem, “Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder.” Every bit as good as gold.
Today I’m thinking about a red dress. A perfect red, somewhere between fire engine and wine. Fitted button-down bodice edged in a ruffle made from the same soft cotton as the dress. The skirt was full, a little flounce to it, above the knee. I was twelve (give or take a year) and my best friend and I had gone shopping together, downtown Brooklyn, Abraham & Strauss. We both tried on the dress, loved it, bought it. We were not (quite) the same size, but that didn’t keep us from an occasional swap, some special occasion demanding a garment too perfect not to be shared. This would be taking friendship to another level, wearing the same beautiful dress. Almost twins.
Only a funny thing happened when I got home and hung it in my closet. Red was a favorite color of mine, and maybe it did dominate my wardrobe (my grandmother thought there was a communist lurking in me). But something about having the exact same dress as my very best friend suddenly struck me as not quite right. I returned the dress, my friend kept hers.
A year ago I found myself sitting across from that very friend at a table in a New York City restaurant after years of no contact. One of the benefits of Facebook. The beauty of looking into the face of your oldest, dearest friend is the beckoning, read between the lines, the you-go-your-way/I-go-my-way years that separated us nothing more than a wrinkle in time. She became a teacher, retired now. I was at her wedding (she married young), she was not at mine. We both have grown children. Being a grandmother occupies much of her time. Her smile is as infectious as ever.
A favorite activity of mine, with another longtime friend, is to go to the Met on Friday afternoon, sit at a table in the Great Hall Balcony sipping a drink between exhibits. Last time we did this we saw “The Steins Collect” and “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations.” She is a kindred spirit of the truest kind, and we count it among our mutual blessings to as readily enjoy “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert” at Madison Square Garden as “War Horse” at Lincoln Center and an afternoon of jazz at Caramoor. And, yes, that wanted/needed/recently purchased pair of shoes has been known to kick-start a conversation. It goes with the territory, Renaissance women flowering with style, leading lives deeply rooted in substance, no contradiction there. What we get is so often more than what we see.
Good friends: I can tell you what they like to drink, the men who broke their hearts and vice versa, the health scares and the bullets dodged. Instant memories with BFFs are far more powerful than instant messages: driving along the cliffs of Highway 1, finishing off champagne (directly from the bottle) while cleaning up after a party, being nudged along by oh-so-familiar sparkling eyes when I hit a wall in Central Park during the NYC Marathon, 1981. Tears are meant to be shared with good friends, not masked by a stiff upper lip. The give and take never needs explaining. It is what it is. Why can’t it be this way with men? we ask ourselves. Because.
In one of the title stories of my collection, a woman eavesdropping on a conversation remarks, “Men have their locker rooms, women have their nail salons.” Times have changed since I wrote the story, and women have their share of locker rooms as well, but the heart of the observation still stands: there’s an incomparable camaraderie that goes hand in hand with girlfriends shopping, getting pedicures, dancing in the street. With my best friends there’s no splitting hairs when it comes to splitting the tab after a dinner or lunch. We know just what to buy each other for birthdays. Too much time never passes between phone calls. All of which has me thinking about a beautiful red dress. Maybe the impulse to return it was the more knowing sister of the spirit that had me buying it in the first place.
I had a dream a few weeks ago when I began thinking about writing this piece. A good friend whose life we recently celebrated on the five-year anniversary of her death (breast cancer) showed up at a dinner or a party. I did a doubletake – mostly at the surprise of seeing her. I didn’t know you were coming, was the thought I would have expressed if my dream gave me the chance. It was looking into her younger face that surprised me as much as the fact that she had shown up. Almost as if she had never left.
Isn’t that the way it is with cherished friends?
Photo © Britton Minor Graefensteiner
***If there’s something in need of celebration, guaranteed someone has (or will) come up with a national day. Maybe you know this, maybe not, but August 1st has been designated NATIONAL GIRLFRIENDS DAY. How I stumbled upon this tidbit is as much a mystery (to me at least) as how it got started. So, in honor of those special women in our lives, I’m making available signed, personally inscribed print copies of my short story collection, SHOES HAIR NAILS, directly from my blog, now through August 5th, for $5.99 (shipping gratis). Just hit the button below, follow the link, and let me know what you’d like me to write as an inscription, and to whom I should send it.
It’s late afternoon, a beautiful summer day, and all I long for is the most innocent of pleasures, sitting in a chaise on the deck, music resonating through the wide-open sliding doors. Any random selection from my shelves might do but today it’s Rachmaninoff I crave, “Piano Concerto No. 2.” If music has a way of evoking a specific time and space, this piece places me squarely in a Manhattan studio apartment, Upper West Side, late 70s, shelves stacked with books and weighted with an array of LPs that turned a 400 square-foot box into a chamber of sound. Something about this particular concerto had me listening over and over again, always brought to tears by the sheer beauty of it, somewhere between melancholy and transcendence. Minor keys have that hold. When I learned, from the liner notes, that Rachmaninoff composed the piece after coming out of a period of creative despair, I cried more. Sometimes you know something before you ‘know’ it.
Today my craving is to be outdoors listening in. I need to hear this piece of music – right now – and begin frantically searching for it, in the process recalling a recent conversation with a friend about the ways in which we organize our music. She’s alphabetical, through and through. I was once tempted to go that route, but the sheer thought of all those CDs reshuffled and reordered, was overwhelming. Besides, I tend to organize music by association and (loosely) by category. Rock (in all its manifestations) encompasses the bulk of my collection. Classical and jazz have their own shelves; within, it’s a less clear-cut affair. I need Keith Jarrett next to Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk, Renee Rosnes and Fred Hersch and Lynn Arriale (to name just some of my piano faves). If I were being alphabetical, Beethoven should be next to Chopin on my classical shelves, but music (in my collection) has a logic all its own. I need Springsteen near Dylan. I also need the Grateful Dead near Dylan. Neil Young’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration gets him pride of place next to that astounding compilation. Clapton is within finger distance of Jim Hendrix and the Stones. And the Beatles. Patti Smith is next to Janis Joplin, on a shelf just above Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the McGarrigle Sisters, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell. A sweet segue to my (loosely defined) divas, who get a section to themselves.
Old Blue Eyes did a CD of duets with some of those divas in 1993. Not a favorite of mine (duet suggests to me a musical dialogue, two singers side by side, not studios apart) but I’m a sucker for a torch song. Not to mention the Sinatra I know and love best, The Capitol Years (a three-CD set one shelf below), that honeyed crooning casting a sentimental spell, leftover tears spilling at the instant recall of my mother. In a heartbeat I see a matching pair of light-wood console stereo speakers dominating the living room of a small Brooklyn apartment, one fixed, one with a lid that opened to a hidden turntable and storage space for LPs: The debonair, winking Sinatra beckoning Come Dance with Me. The harlequin and shadowed Sinatra singing for Only the Lonely. Hardly a stretch to see Pagliacci in the cover design (which was exactly what Sinatra intended and for which he would win a Grammy). He once said of Mario Lanza, “If I could sing like that, I would put a bird cage around my head and wouldn’t let anyone near my voice.” Hard not to conjure the voices of Sinatra and Mario Lanza, Tony Bennett and the Andrew Sisters, without hearing the crackle of vinyl. I have no Mario Lanza CDs but I have plenty of Pavarotti; time stops when I listen to him sing “Nessun Dorma.” Billie Holiday’s voice translates to pure ache in my heart.
By the time I locate the Rachmaninoff CD (who could have put it on the very bottom shelf with miscellanous, nondescript New Age numbers?) it’s Happy Hour, EST. Not that I need an excuse for a glass of wine, late afternoon. My husband, home from golf, begins cleaning the barbecue grill. I sit back in the chaise, the top branches of the trees dancing, for me. Birds tweeting what I can only imagine to be approval of what they hear. Squirrels scampering (is there a better word for the way they move?). As the intensity of the piece builds, the emotions kick in, sounds issue forth from me. Breathy, deep sounds worthy of a wisecrack from my husband re: what neighbors might think we’re up to. Some things (sometimes) really are better than sex. Speaking of which, whatever titillation might be derived from words on a printed page (in every shade imaginable) is no measure (in my book) for the places I go when my husband hits the play button, Cowboy Junkies Trinity Revisited.
Say what you will about the calendar (with its celestial reminder that there is an order to our days), something more spirited is at play when one season slips into the next. By the time the summer solstice arrives, Memorial Day has already jumpstarted the season. Then comes the build-up to July 4th, the hot dogs and hamburgers, Roman candles and firecrackers, the expectation that the day before and the day after are a given part of the celebration equation. Only once in a blue moon (at least that’s how it feels), expectation gives way to exception: a midweek fizzle of a 4th.
July 5th, a day neither here nor there (an afterthought in years when the calendar does not bow to our demands), yet evocative enough for someone to use as the title of a play. So often it’s the grace note that gives us pause. Space to reflect. I spent yesterday with friends (and friends of theirs, now mine) at their house overlooking a lake. This is the way I’ve celebrated the 4th of July for years now. Early on, our (young) children were part of the picture. Grown and mostly dispersed now, they leave us to our own grown-up devices. Which are not all that grown-up at all.
And why should they be? Summertime bears the imprint of free time. School’s out, playtime’s in, whatever that means to any one of us. No sooner does summer arrive and I picture myself walking home from the library, a pile of books in my arms. Summer reading meant you could borrow more books, for a longer time. When my family first moved to the middle-income housing project that defined a neighborhood on the cusp of change, there was no library. But there was the Bookmobile, arriving on schedule once a week. The back entrance was for returning books. I walked up the steps, deposited the books I’d read, spent some time perusing the shelves. Walked out the front of the library on wheels, filled with the anticipation of where the books I’d chosen would take me.
It doesn’t take much to imagine my thrill when a ‘real,’ permanent library was built. More books. More choices. Any one of them in my lap as I sat on my favorite bench, in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass. Reading. In the height of summer.
Recent celestial events had me hankering to reread Shirley Hazzard’s novel, The Transit of Venus. I went scurrying to my shelves, the book cover as clear in my mind as if I’d read it yesterday. Except that it wasn’t yesterday, it was years ago, nowhere to be found now, clearly gone the way of paperbacks that can survive being boxed in an attic only for so long. Not a problem. It’s summertime. What better joy to give myself than heading over to my local library, picking up a copy bound in a way meant to last. Meant to be shared. Meant to remind me of days sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass.