One year ends/another begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

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

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

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

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

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

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?

 

S.A.D. but True

In the obnoxiously lyrical and catchy “Shake It Off,” Taylor Swift sings, “…the players gonna play, play, play, and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate.” She’s probably not referring to the abundance of overly celebrated and commercialized American holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Easter – basically anything you can make a shaped chocolate out of), but the same holds true for them.

single and fabulousDid you know that there is such a thing as “Singles Awareness Day” (intentional or not, the acronym is S.A.D.)?  It’s on February 14th as an anti-Valentine’s Day and celebrations range from public expressions of hate on social media to just a joyful reminder of what it means to be single.  There’s also “Galentine’s Day,” made popular/ invented by the NBC show  “Parks & Recreation,” which is a celebration of women appreciating their women friends, usually involving breakfast and girlie presents.

Don’t get me wrong, I love holidays, but how did a holiday go from being a day designated to a saint who may or may not have “sent the first valentine” or helped soldiers, forced to be single, find their true loves, to being as commercial as Christmas?

I can’t call myself a hater, because I can’t say that I haven’t celebrated Valentine’s Day over the years in different capacities, from cards and chocolates to flowers and fluff and sushi.  It has become pretty obnoxious, thougParks and Recreation - Season 6h, how much it utterly takes over consumer culture in February.  I mean—please, I do not need a holiday to tell me to eat chocolate.  Sure, it comes in cute little heart shapes, but it tastes the same any day of the year.  And you know when it’s best?  On February 15th when it’s usually half off!!  We all know that if a holiday can be used a marketing tool and way to make a lot of money, it will be fully taken advantage of — just what our culture has done to this holiday.

So why do we need Singles Awareness Day and Galentine’s Day and Valentine’s Day?  Truth be told, any day of the year should be spent appreciating all of these things.  Singles should appreciate being single because they’re single, not as an antithesis to their coupled up friends.  Gals should appreciate that their gals will always be there for them even when bros are not.  Couples should be romantic any given day, not just a specific holiday where they feel obligated to indulge in chocolate, champagne and an expensive dinner (why can’t that just be every weekend?).

Champagne-and-chocolates1Sometimes life can get busy and we forget to appreciate these things, whether we’re single or in a relationship.  What if instead of looking at Valentine’s Day as a commercial holiday, we looked at it as a time to stop, maybe do something a little out of the ordinary, and enjoy the moment, whether we’re single, in a relationship or just hanging out with our gals?  A little chocolate and champagne won’t hurt either.

 

A Time Capsule

Everyone has a different idea of “home.” To some it’s the people who come to mind when you think of home, to others it’s a specific place. The year was 1995, and my parents were actually buying their first home. I was turning nine and not happy about it. The first two months of my life were spent in Sag Harbor, then we moved back to New York City. The way my parents tell it, by the time I was entering kindergarten we needed a bigger apartment or we had to get out of the city.

The cottage we ended up renting in northern Westchester (to see if we liked the area before putting a down payment on a house) was adorable and I did not want to leave it, mostly because the family we were renting from had three dogs that roamed our property and I loved them like my own (in retrospect, this would have been the appropriate time to barter for a dog… if you’re making me move, it’s time for a dog!! Waiting a few more years to get the most perfect dog ever I guess turned out okay.)

Nineteen years later, I’m in that same home discoveringSara room a story I wrote in school about how much I hated this new home and didn’t want to leave my best dog friends. The chapter of hate was followed by a chapter of “Today my parents signed the mortgage papers, I am now a homeowner” (proof of what little I knew about home owning).

My mother and I have a hard time divesting things… clothes, old school papers, arts and crafts projects, etc., but it was time to go through the basement and throw out a lot of things. Turns out I was pretty ruthless at letting go, which pleased and surprised my mom. I made her keep some of the stories I wrote because obviously when I’m a famous writer someday, everyone will want to know that I’ve always been one and see my humble beginnings—right?

As much as some things have changed over the past twenty years (new appliances, an addition to the house, new front steps, and when I go home again later this year, a renovated guest bedroom), it’s also amazing how much hasn’t. My bedroom is almost exactly how I left it ten years ago . . . a time capsule, if you will. When I’m home for the holidays, in my room, it feels like I’ve been transported back in time, surrounded by photos from camp years to high school and college hanging on my walls, posters of all the bands anwicked witch etcd movies I loved, representing a very specific time period. I can’t say I feel that different either, being at home… mom always making sure that I’m fed at every meal, driving me to and from the gym since we only really have one working car. Sometimes, it’s just really nice being taken care of.

When I went home for the holidays in December, we took a trip back to Sag Harbor. I have zero memory of the place, because, like my dad told at least 26 people (or everyone we encountered at the end of the earth, aka, the East End of Long Island), it’s been 26 years since we’ve been back there. Aside from the bougie shopping areas that are East Hampton and Southampton, this part of Long Island was very different from the part I’d known growing up. It had much more of a northeast summer town feel than the beach clubs of the south shore.

I love history, and I love traveling, so visiting a place that’s a part of my personal history had a lot of meaning—especially when my parents got to telling stories. Sag Harbor is a cute town, and I humored my father by sitting on a kiddie ride I apparently enjoyed as a toddler (yes) 26 years ago, but luckily the rain saved me from posing for too many photos. And even if my father had this great idea for lunch at a restaurant in Montauk it never occurred to him might be closed, the drive was worth it. You can learn a lot about your parents on a road trip. And maybe even something about yourself.

 

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Black Friday

There’s been a lot of controversy lately over Black Friday . . . particularly with how it has somehow extended itself into Thursday night after our Thanksgiving meals. The petitions on Change.orgsquare_400_e58a0a59bd08379f97d69837 and seen all over Facebook are encouraging people to boycott places like Target on Thursday night, because it’s unfair for these workers to miss out on being with their families for the sake of people who want to begin their holiday shopping early. What’s worse is that the people working on Thursday are the ones who are likely to need the paychecks most. Let them have their paid holiday off is the echoed sentiment.

Being curious how “Black Friday” became “Black Friday” I decided to do a little research. It turns out that this big shopping day became the unofficial start of shopping season around the same time as the start of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The term was coined in the ‘60s by Philadelphia police officers because of the horrible traffic, chaos, and, well, everything negative we associate with the day—ironic as it is that, for retailers, when revenues are pushed into the black, they turn a profit.

I admit it –I’ve braved outlets and malls on Black Friday and even Target last year on Thursday night “just to see what the fuss was about.” Of course I bought some things, but I can’t help wondering: Why do we put ourselves through this? When did we get so obsessed with shopping and deals that we’ve sacrificed the things we should be thankful for, like quality family time?

 

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I’m always jealous of friends who get to go home to their parents for Thanksgiving, but also am thankful that I live so close to my grandma, aunt and uncle that I can easily spend it with them. Belly laughing with them over stupidly funny movies or family stories and jokes beats shopping any day. I mean I can devote a little time to shopping on Friday, but just “enough”—not so much that I lose the real purpose of this holiday, right?

So this year I’m having more of a conscience about the time I allocate to shopping on Thanksgiving weekend. I was talking with my mom about all the political emails that I get to donate money to this cause or that cause and how easy it is to press delete (one that we both couldn’t just delete is a plea to help freezing dogs in impoverished areas of Canada.

While Googling “the history of Black Friday,” I stumbled upon an interesting article in The Wichita Eagle. The article references a project started last year by the Kansas African American Affairs Commission—encouraging a “New Black Friday”—an initiative to write down oral histories of African American family and community members in Kansas. Interestingly enough, this article was published on November 23, just a day before the Grand Jury ruling in Ferguson. In light of everything going on this week, maybe we can extend that notion, take a page from the book Kansas is trying to write—make an effort to learn, too, in order to move forward and progress our society.

And we should also a step back to be thankful for the people in our lives, the freedoms that we have, our health, the turkeys or tofurkeys on our tables . . .that’s what this holiday is all about (if you choose to ignore the history of the first Thanksgiving and how we stole land and killed people for it). The time we get to spend with family, or other people’s family or our friends is a valuable time to learn more and more about each other as we continue long-standing traditions and maybe even start some new  ones. Besides, there’s always Cyber Monday 😉

 

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What is it about dessert?

I don’t do dessert . . . meaning, when I’m invited to dinner, I’m not the one you ask to bake. Not that I can’t be counted on to choose some exquisite, mouth-watering delights from our local French pastry shop.

On the other hand, you want a brisket as good as it gets, come to my house for Rosh Hashanah in autumn (or Passover when springtime rolls around). I have a few other specialties in my repertoire. But a baker I’m not. Maybe apple cakeit’s my lack of a sweet tooth—I was more of a vanilla ice cream kind of girl, with an appreciation for chocolate that extended to sprinkles on the cone; nothing rich ever appealed to me, and I was known to scrape whipped cream off birthday cake, though what’s there not to love about a Charlotte Russe?

My mother did not bake; my aunt was supreme at it. Both were very good cooks, and the Jewish holidays were nothing if not a foodfest. Somewhere along the way we may have lost sight of the spirituality, but family spirit demanded we get together. And eat.

These days, holiday celebrations are a mix of family and friends.   Everyone wants to bring something, so I assign side dishes. And dessert. A good friend of mine makes a mean flourless chocolate cake. This year she indulged me with a home-made sponge cake as well. My sister-in-law puts her sweet stamp on a traditional favorite, chocolate mandelbrot.

The point? You’ll never run short of dessert at any holiday gathering. Sometimes it can be over the top. A friend of mine always asks a cousin to bring just two or three desserts. The cousin can’t help herself. She brings at least twice that amount. All those tortes and cakes and cookies set on a table after a full meal make for a beautiful piece of art. And even if I’m forever baffled by what would possess someone to bring the equivalent of a cake per person, espcupcakesecially when asked to cut back, who am I to judge what amounts to generosity of spirit? And maybe there’s a metaphor behind it all: sweeten our world, sweeten our day.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Days of Awe, intended for reflection and repentance.   We think of Rosh Hashanah as marking the Jewish New Year, though it actually coincides with the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which begins in springtime, with its Passover celebration. In a word, Rosh Hashanah calls up the creation of the world, and Passover the founding of the Jewish people. No matter how you slice it, they’re seasonal celebrations. Tonight, observant Jews will have a big meal in preparation for a fast day. My level of observance has varied over the years, but I always fast on Yom Kippur and it has as much to do with connecting me to a tradition that is so much a part of me as it has to do with reminding myself that there are too many people in the world who go to bed hungry.

Fasting is a good thing to do for the body and the spirit. My body, with its fluctuating blood sugar levels,  has learned that if I skip dessert during the pre-fast meal, I’m not so hungry in the morning. My spirit, never more in the moment, has learned that there’s nothing so sweet as that first bite of a piece of challah after a day devoted to conscious non-eating. A day in which I’ve done my best not to think about what I might be missing.

 All photos are courtesy of Sara Dolin, whose baking skills far surpass her mother’s ;-)

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