Back to school

Seasonal lore tells us that March conjures the lion and the lamb, September those back-to-school rituals some of us loved, others not so much. The other night a mountain lion surfaced in a dream. I could give any number of reasons why this strong, sleek, beautiful creature paid a visit to my unconscious at this particular moment in time. More important, she (or he) got me thinking that the king of beasts has moved on to a different season, with a vengeance. With or without climate change to explain the ferocity of Harvey and Irma, hurricanes are a given in September.

Leaves have already begun to lose their vibrancy, which always brings on a touch of melancholy.  The Jewish New Year, with its message of repentance and renewal and all the memories evoked, is around the corner. Known as the Days of Awe but informally referred to as ‘the holidays’ in the solid, middle-class Jewish world I was raised in, they would either be early or late. That’s what you get when dates marked by a lunar calendar are measured in relation to the Gregorian (solar-based) calendar that rules our day-to-day secular lives. So be it. We live our lives according to the rituals that ground us. The calendar is a construct of convenience.

Even with the ache for all that’s gone from my life, I’m energized this time of year, revved up by the crispness of autumn. Ingrained patterns die hard. Those lazy, hazy days may have always been a welcome break from school days, but come September I’m headed (in my memory) to that windowless shop around the corner from my home, filled with the particular scent of fresh school supplies. Shopping for notebooks and briefcases (no backpacks back then), pencils and pencil cases meant a clean slate of things to learn.

As summers go, this one in the Northeast has had very few days, relative to summers past, of hot, sticky weather. We may still get a hurricane, hopefully not, but we’re bound to get a spell of summery days in late September, so often around ‘the holidays.’ If I can’t find a satisfactory answer to why we call it ‘Indian summer,’ I accept it as a Mother Nature’s reminder that shifting seasons are fluid.  This year brings a ‘late’ Jewish New Year, a day shy of the autumn equinox but always in sync with a full moon.

Memories are fluid, too, If you’re lucky, you get to soften with age and the hard memories that make the body contract with bitterness or anger loosen their grip. There’s no real wishing them away, there’s just the acceptance that the past may inform the present and future, but it doesn’t have to rule it. Maybe it’s true, you can’t go home again but you can pick and choose the memories that nourish the soul and soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years back, I answered the back-to-school call by taking a graduate-level refresher course at Sarah Lawrence College on how to read a poem. We analyzed poems, delved into prosody, which brought new levels of insight into familiar and unfamiliar poems.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

The very first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” forever have the ring of a tongue-twister, and I think that’s the point. Cold air mixed with warm brings on the mist and with it the smell and taste and crispness of those first apples of the season. Senses are heightened with great poems, whether or not things make sense. The more I read this ode, the more I can’t help see the mix of emotion this time of year as part of the fabric of autumn.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay,  where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too—

Leaves are dying, yes, but before they drop, the trees become bouquets that can only be classified as glorious.

 

 

 

 

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I live in music

The other day I had a yearning, very specific in its musical nature. I wanted/needed to hear “Dance me to the End of Love,” à la Leonard Cohen when he first recorded it. Maybe not an anthem song in the way “Hallelujah” is, but there must be a reason his last two tours opened with that number. It’s a set-list/strategy that works. Make a show of time with a song of yearning transformed into a wistful waltz.dance me

Tracking down the original is easy these days. Yes, you have to be a fan to appreciate his voice (not that ‘voice’ was ever his strong point). And, yes, only a fan would want to go back, immerse herself in the sound/the spirit/the poetry that first hooked her. For all the change, subtle and otherwise, that years bring to a singer/songwriter, any song is bound to be infused with echoes of its earlier incarnation.

I downloaded. I listened. Found myself transported, in an instant, to another time and place. Nothing does that to me the way a piece of music does. Don’t ask how many nights I needed those “Sisters of Mercy” or slipped into the longing of “Suzanne.” Or told a boyfriend that’s no way to say good-bye.

But this is not about being maudlin (though I can be). It’s about the power of music, the way it infuses itself into your heart/your soul/your bloodstream. It’s about the ways in which a piece of music courses through your body, taking you back, no line between today and yesterday. Here I am/there I was: sprawled on a white Haitian cotton couch, head resting against the pillows, a twenty-something living in a NYC studio apartment, my sanctuary. Take a toke, pump up the volume. Feel the space between the notes and the lyrics. Leonard Cohen got to that crack in my heart. Janis Joplin took a piece of it. Billie Holliday made it ache.

Pink Floyd required my undivided attention.

Bob Dylan LPs had a shelf of their own.

Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” brought me to tears more than once. When I got around to reading the liner notes (something I still resist before getting my own impression), I learned that the great Russian composer was emerging from a period of despair when he wrote this concerto. Doesn’t the heart know what the mind takes time to figure out?

I happened to live next door to a talented concert pianist. He lived next door to the disco kid. It was the ’80s. Walking down the corridor to my apartment gave new meaning to the battle of the bands. We were all friends.

Turns out my concert pianist friend, Michael Lewin, is a featured artist on “Winds of Samsara,” which won the 2015 Grammy for best New Age Album.   Not long ago I felt compelled to reconnect in the way that old friends do on Facebook. Now I had reason to give a congratulatory shout-out, share the news on my wall, along with a You Tube link of him playing the Ricky Kej/Wouter Kellerman arrangement of a Chopin nocturne I love. What a thrill!

Better yet, it brought us from Facebook to e-mail. We did our best to catch up on twenty+ years. He asked me to choose a CD I’d like in exchange for my book. If just sampling the range of possibilities via his website brought it all back home to me—the sound of his Steinway echoing through the walls—imagine the sensation when I listen to that full spectrum of birdsong made manifest in his enchanting CD, If I Were a Bird. Now I know something even more about him than I did back when.

CD birdMusic is infused into the very fabric of more than one novel by Richard Powers, including his latest, Orfeo.   A glimpse into his way with words may tell you why I just can’t get enough of his work.

Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away, and in one simple gift of circling sound, the ear solves the scrambled cryptogram. One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free. But a few measures more, and the cloak of time closes back around you.

 

 

 

Coming Home

How perfect!—my daughter writes a post about being on the road and my thoughts turn to coming home.

It happens every year. Thanksgiving rolls around, she lives in L.A., I picture her here, the sleepy hamlet of Katonah, NY.

Home.

No secret that air travel—even without the added stresses of uncooperative weather—is a nightmare during prime-time holidays.  We talk about how nice it would be to spend Thanksgiving together again. Immediately the memories kick in: our first Thanksgiving in the new house years ago, the dog settled on the kitchen floor staring up at the turkey being carved.  Body language says it all. Any scrap will do. feed me - Thanksgiving 1996

With so many people booking flights home, planes completely full, you’d think air fares could be cheaper, not sky high.  But commerce is never about heart. And coming home is never just about money.  We pull out the rationalization card—there are 365 days to the year, you can visit anytime, why put so much emphasis on one day?  We remind ourselves that life choices sometimes bring complications. What we think of as ‘home,’ for all the memories and comforts it encompasses, is never the same once we leave it.  Sure, there’s always evidence of our presence, even in reconfigured rooms. But sometimes the very quality of what felt good and safe—in my case, a solid middle-class Brooklyn neighborhood where doors could be left open during the day—gives way to a gradual deterioration.  Home is tinged with sadness. What was, no longer is. You can’t go home again.

For my daughter, three thousand miles away, coming home brings some pampering, yes, and favorite meals cooked by mama, and cozying up to the television as a family. But each visit is a reminder of what’s missing (the dog barking at animals on the TV screen or in a game of catch-me-if-you-can or curled in her bed, a ghost now) and every Thanksgiving recalls that first one in a house that is every bit a home, my husband’s gift for designing space all the feng shui needed.  A wall removed here, an architectural column added there, and voilà—the living room/dining room/kitchen takes on a loft-like feel, a place meant for friends and family to gather.

This year there were nine of us around the table.  At its center was a menorah, which my husband lit as I served latkes.  Gold-foiled chocolate Chanukah gelt dotted the tablecloth like confetti.  One friend brought vodka (my request) to go with the latkes.  I like the sound of it, I told him, vodka and latkes. Just as I like the sound of Thanksgivvukah—the rare convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanukah that last occurred in 1888 and won’t occur again until 2070.  When the sun and moon cross paths we have an eclipse. When the 2013 solar (Gregorian) calendar marks a feast of thanks on the very same day the 5774 lunar (Jewish) calendar marks a festival of light, everything shines a little more brightly. Gratitude goes hand-in-hand with remembrance.

We held up our glasses to someone with us in spirit, seven years gone now, her husband reminded us.  She was the one who started our Thanksgiving-with-friends tradition, all of us living in the city at the time.  We began alternating when I moved to the big exurban house.  I assumed the mantle when breast cancer made her too weak to cook.  When a link is broken, we do our best to hold together the chain. Some Thanksgivings we spend together, some we don’t. This one was as perfect as it gets. Despite (or because of) telling myself I was letting go of perfection this year, the turkey was brown and crisp and juicy.

So instead of picturing my daughter scrambling to the airport to come home, I content myself with texts from her (when she’s in the passenger seat) en route to Davis, CA, with her boyfriend, where she would spend turkey day with her grandmother/aunt/uncle/cousin.  It warms my heart, really. If only I could get past that little ache, the passing years, the letting go, the nostalgia for that thing called family gatherings in a time when generational distance from the fold is more the norm than the exception.

If there is light in your heart, you will find your way Home

Even if Rumi had in mind something beyond walls and hearths, feasts and comforts, his words have a way of speaking to the moment, and the times in which we live: maybe you don’t have to be fully engaged in a spiritual life to long for the spirit of home. We do the best we can. Realities of modern living make us seek something as close to home (metaphorically) as possible when holidays roll around. We have home pages, homing devices, movies that tell us there’s no place like it. All Dorothy had to do was click her heels three times. All E.T. wanted to do was make a very long-distance phone call.

How can I help but smile? The same Sufi mystic who has me ruminating about home reminds me, in another poem: Personality is a small dog trying to get the soul to play.

Happenstance

Aroma coffee and tea 6Early morning, barely awake and jet-lagged, a word pops into my head: Happenstance, a poetic mingling of chance and circumstance.  I do think there’s an order to the universe. I don’t think everything happens for a reason, but any unwelcome circumstance foisted on us, once we get past the anger or frustration or even denial, often gets us rethinking the trajectory of our lives. This is something Kate Atkinson touches on in Life after Life, a book I found less wonderful than I had hoped but one that left lingering thoughts.

My daughter, thousands of miles away, fractures her ankle. In pain and feeling helpless, wanting me to come out ASAP, we both know the lesson of learning to rely on friends who pitch in to take her to work, keep her company, help her get around. In her wisdom, she asks me to be with her during the transition from her cast to a boot.  So, three weeks following the fall that brought on her injury, I fly out. A long weekend of TLC (cooking, shopping, inviting friends over for brunch, watching movies) goes a long way.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  She resists, as I do, asking for help or favors, but isn’t it also true that those of us who are reluctant to do so are the least likely to take advantage of anyone’s generosity of spirit?

Once I knew I’d have one free day while my daughter was at work, I put out a call to five wonderful women, any and all of whom I hoped might be available to meet up with me.  We met for the first time last summer, after many months of delightful, warm, supportive interaction online. “A hug can tell you a lot about someone and a stranger walking by us as we greeted each other for the first time would have been forgiven for thinking we’d been separated at birth,” wrote Jayne Martin (a.k.a. ‘Hummingbird Jayne’) in her glorious, from-the-heart  round-up of our day together in Santa Barbara.

This year’s rendezvous brought the Santa Barbara/Santa Ynez Valley contingency (Becky, Jessica, and Jayne) and the Dana Point/Laguna Beach duo (Britton and Rossandra) to Studio City, a central location just a few minutes from my daughter’s office in Burbank.  Yes, a hug tells you a lot about a person,  but this time we have the added familiarity of all those words we’ve shared in the course of a year—our voices so varied and distinct. Anyone who missed Jayne’s hummingbird tattoo when she first wrote about it was treated to an up close and personal view.  Jessica brought us up to snuff on her work-in-progress,  a tantalizing tale that a piano teacher was meant to write (she also baked scones for each of us), Britton filled us in on the changed circumstances of her life, sparked when she found herself caught unawares by new love,  as deep and true as it gets, and  gave each of us signed copies of Greta Boris’s The Wine and Chocolate WorkoutBecky, with her newfound coaching passion, is an embodied reminder that we get as much inspiration from our children as we give and handed us artfully designed bookmarks (with head shots of each of us) “celebrating the gift of words and friendship.” And we all got to hold up glasses of tea and lemonade (no wine at Aroma Coffee and Tea Company) to Rossandra, in celebration of her forthcoming memoir.

After lunch, not ready to say good-bye, what else to do but take a walk, peek in stores? A little shopping is good for the spirit.  Given some of the stress underscoring my visit—spotting my daughter as she hopped up and down stairs, being that New Yorker negotiating the roads of L.A.— a play date with women who feel more like long-time friends each time we meet was indeed what the doctor ordered for me.  I was buoyed. And that it fell together so easily touched me. Like the best of times, it went quickly. Hugs from those heading to points north. I reaped the benefit of more time with those heading to points south.

Even to this day we find ourselves asking how the group got started and marveling at how it continues to evolve, writer/friends who gravitate toward a cozy nook on Facebook where we share posts we’ve written and any other tidbits of relevance to writers.  Facebook periodically asks me to give a description of the group. If I resist, it’s only because the ‘how’ (i.e., the serendipity that brings us together) matters more than the ‘why’ (which is a pretty much a given).  To find oneself in a circle of kindred spirits is a blessing. A kind of happenstance.

Speaking of which, what could be more perfect than arriving home to a package, Lisel Mueller’s poetry collection, Alive Together?   And how can I resist sharing a few lines from  a poem bound to be deemed a favorite, “Why We Tell Stories.”

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

And none of us tells it
the same way twice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Green Wallet and a Poem . . . and a Mother’s Day Surprise

wallets
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.

 

12/31/12: On the Edge

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  “AIce Art Boot 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
      for wanting
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