On Hold: my corona diaries

The other day I got caught in the rain on my morning walk. More than a drizzle, less than a downpour. 

I don’t relish walking in the rain. I count on a 15-minute margin of error in timing my walks to the local weather forecast. Meteorology is only so precise.

A neighbor passed me on the road, offered me a ride home.

I’m okay, I laughed.

It’s summer, after all. Not a freezing cold winter day.  I let the rain drench me.

I’d recently finished reading D. J. Lee’s beautifully written, multilayered story, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots. What starts out as a journey to seek clues to a friend’s disappearance becomes an exploration of her family’s past and their relationship, as well as hers, to a part of Idaho that holds the most pristine river in the country, outside of Alaska. Chinook Salmon return to the Selway River to spawn.

If you’re able to define wilderness, to pin it down, then it isn’t wilderness, she writes.

Back in 1978, I was riveted by a National Geographic cover story about a woman who went through the Australian Outback by herself (accompanied by four camels and a dog). To this day I recall her thinking, after hearing voices on Day 71, that she might be going mad. Without her being tracked, there would be no National Geographic photos (and a book that would follow) which only served to relieve my anxieties, vicarious or otherwise.

I still have that issue, and a handful of others, despite the now never-ending spring cleaning intensified by an ongoing pandemic. Riffling through the glossy pages I’m charmed by an advertisement for a Smith-Corona typewriter, with its state-of-the-art Correction Cartridge. I had one of those.

At the ripe age of 70, I honor what’s in my comfort zone, which doesn’t negate my envy for women who take treks to remote places, with the deep connection to the natural world it brings. I imagine an aloneness that is empowering.

It dawned on me, as I made my way home, that the pandemic, coupled with the upcoming election, have me feeling as if I’m on hold.

Waiting.

For an answer to something to which there can’t be an answer. I want to know—-right now—when the pandemic will be under control. I need every assurance—right now—that Biden will win the presidency, with Kamala at his side. It’s not a stretch to see this as all of a piece with walking in the rain.

On hold. Reading a lot. Writing very little, if at all. Meditation, yoga, music get me through the day. I think too much about what to cook for dinner.

I spend a lot of time alone, a product of a work-at-home lifestyle magnified by the pandemic—which makes it all the more ironic that I’m not working much these days. I’ve become a master of distraction, today’s joy being the magic of a coral reef Apple TV screensaver that I stare at to a backdrop of piano music.

The world is heating up, literally on fire. Even from a distance, and in the comfort of an air-conditioned living room, it’s hard to process.

Is it an unsimple twist of fate that in these dark COVID-19 times, worsened immeasurably by the lies and greed and psychosis of the monster-in-chief, Bob Dylan has his first No. 1 Billboard hit, seventeen-minutes long at that?

I’m looking for a word to capture the very subtle shift in light signaling the arrival  of autumn. I picture the glow I forever associate with Florence, Italy.

Evening arrives sooner. Rosh Hashanah dinner, a few weeks from now, will be a very quiet affair this year.

A girl and her mother are jumping puddles, in yellow boots.

Children are returning to school in staggered schedules. 

A teenager glides by on a skateboard, carried along by his dog, a beautiful Husky, on a leash.

Bruce Springsteen wrote “Into the Fire” in response to 9/11.

Bob Dylan wrote “Murder Most Foul,” well, because he’s Dylan. The timing of the song, on his new album, have a reassuring effect on me.

The pandemic has warped our sense of time. It was only in March that I began blogging more frequently, with a greater sense of purpose. Little did I know that my own Corona diaries would place me in a collective of writers with the same mindset. To reread The Existential Inconvenience of Coronavirus, a New Yorker essay by Geoff Dyer that also appeared in March, is to have a real-time reminder of how things looked back then.

Somewhere between then and now, the urgency to write dissipated. If I say, simply, it is what it is, I take the thunder from Michelle Obama’s brilliant use of the phrase during the DNC. I breathe a little easier now that both conventions have come and gone.

There is a Buddhist notion of freedom in confinement. For all the despondency the pandemic has given rise to, I find myself opening to new ways of approaching everyday things. Why did I keep the wooden garlic smasher for so long? The flat edge of a large knife works just fine. All those years of downward-facing dog and pigeon and vinyasas in intimate classes with yoga teachers I’ve learned so much from have given me grounding to pick and choose from an online smorgasbord of programs available to me. It’s a whole new world. I do poses with fresh insights. At its heart a yoga practice is personal.

No one would wish for the kind of confinement the pandemic has wrought. I may be anxious to know what I can’t know but this time warp, reset, call it what you will has also given rise to questions I don’t need any answers to. Will I write another blog post? If so, when?

Or at the ripe age of 70 are my days better spent sipping wine on a stone bench some squirrel has used as a nutcracker, as I ease my way back, fictionally speaking, into where I left off? Inspiration has never been in short supply for me, but all the real-time writing spurred by the pandemic is humbling. Just look at The Decameron Project or The Chronicles of Now. Maybe there’s some fresh start I’m headed for, now that I grasp the vast divide between being on hold and holding on.

This may be as close as I get to a wilderness journey of my own.

September 11, 2020

Lipstick (redux)

More than once is recent weeks, online conversations re: why bother wearing lipstick have come my way. Maybe sheltering in place has made many of us skip the makeup on most days, though I confess to a touch of color on my eyes and cheeks from time to time to brighten what I see in the mirror and, always, lipstick, never mind that it’s lost behind a mask when I venture out. All of which got me thinking of a post I wrote several years ago that touched on, among other things, the lipstick factor as a reflection of economic times. So here it is, one from the archive.

Lipstick

There’s a woman who lives down the road from me, a hearty soul who ran the family business, a septic-tank service, until Alzheimer’s put the brakes on some of her organizational skills.  I’d see her on the road walking one dog or another (she has two), a stick in hand to keep at bay any aggressive canines straying from their property, getting a little too close for comfort.  She always carried biscuits in her pocket, treats for the friendlier dogs she’d come across. All mine had to do was sit and look pretty, her wagging tail as good as any smile.

Over the years we’d strike up conversations, mostly about dogs, sometimes about the challenges of life. She lost a brother early on (a car accident), ministered to her husband when his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis, at home.  She drove down to visit her father in Florida for a few weeks every year until he became too frail to live by himself. At which point she brought him (and his dog) up to her house in Westchester County.  She lives an hour north of New York City and has never been drawn to its pulse.

Her Alzheimer’s is far from advanced, and she always seems to recognize me, though I’ll have to remind her why Maggie isn’t with me, pulling me toward her house, a dog’s charm all the trick she needs to get her treat.  And she’ll remind me of how much pets bring to our lives. The tug of her dogs, small as they are, is too much, so these days she’ll take walks with a friend or her brother-in-law, who shares her home.

She always wears lipstick, and it always extends past her upper lip. There’s something about this that really touches me, the need to smear on that lipstick, no idea really that she’s missed the mark. She is not a glamorous woman, has never been. She could be wearing sweatpants and a sloppy sweater.  Her hair is neatly in place. Then there’s the final touch before she heads out the door, the lipstick.

Many years ago, as an editor of a newsletter focused on AIDS-related health and social issues, I attended a panel discussion on developments in research. One of the panelists was a ground-breaking researcher, a woman who had a certain style and glamour to her. Still, the last thing I would have expected, as the panel discussion was winding down, was to see her pull out a compact and freshen her lipstick.  Years later, I still remember being struck by the ease and nonchalance with which she did this. The more I thought about it, the more I admired her for the ever-so-subtle pronouncement. It’s only lipstick.

And yet. There are studies that call up the ‘lipstick factor’ as a reflection of economic times.  Maybe yes, maybe no. More to the point is what that purse-size stick or tube reflects in the woman who has made a deliberate choice today:  Red or pink or tangerine. Purple. South Beach Bronze or  Peppermint Candy..

My (unglamorous) neighbor is doing her best, putting on a face that pleases her even as something inside is dissembling.  I would like to tell her she doesn’t need it, and in fact might look better without it. I would like to tell her that the person she sees in the mirror when she puts that lipstick on is not the person she is, or was. But she knows all that. And besides, who am I to talk? I always dab on some lipstick or lip gloss when I head out. I like the way it makes my lips feel. I wear it like an assumption.

May 11, 2020

We should live and be well: my corona diaries

A stanza from a Jane Hirshfield poem:

A moment knows itself penultimate—
usable, spendable,
good yet, but only for reckoning up.

Passover, with its nonseder/seder for me, the Zoom version for so many others, has come and gone. We should live and be well, Jews like to say.  And by any measure, the creativity and love that has gone into long-distance celebration during corona times, speaks volumes about the collective spirit and will to transcend.

And yet, when time and distance give us perspective on how we coped during the 2020 pandemic, can we ever view it without the specter of that heartless heinous criminal occupying the Oval Office? Not to mention his complicit cronies.

The anger rises, finds me conjuring speeches for Joe Biden. Whatever shape a Democratic convention takes, I imagine Bernie Sanders giving the speech of a lifetime. An impassioned plea for his supporters to follow his lead, vote for Joe Biden.  Likewise for Elizabeth Warren.

Could there be a better appeal to party unity? Is a Democratic landslide/sweep asking too much?

I spend what feels like too much time thinking about food, then stress over the logistics of picking it up. Do I have everything I need for at least a few days?  I’m not prone to hoarding.

I think about what self-composed creatures we can be. 

I think about how that composure so easily shreds when reason gives way to raw nerves. Do we need to be afraid of everything we touch?

Local news story: the 20 something girl with a mother in need of lots of at-home medical care, a father in the grips of COVID-19 at the hospital. The hardest thing for her is not being able to visit him. To touch him. Never getting to say good-bye when he dies.

Another stanza from the same Jane Hirshfield poem:

The moment finds itself weary,
blindered,
language confuses its ears.

Do we need a new language or at least different ways for expressing a very particular grief?  ‘No closure’ when a loved one dies in a hospital, alone, doesn’t quite cut it. I look up synonyms for ‘closure’ in Roget’s Thesaurus (the real deal, on my desk). Dictionary apps cut to the chase, no nuance. Roget’s shows closure in four different contexts: closing, completion, hindrance, joint.

To call this variant of coronavirus ‘novel’ gives it a peculiar stature. How can I help but think of all the stories it has to tell?

Even weeks before the grim reality kicked in, I found myself restless. Online more, a lot of time spent deleting emails, checking in on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram. I called it lackluster motivation, a time-in-life moment when I no longer know what it is I’m supposed to be doing. My daughter called it procrastination. 

* * *

I stare at the mesmerizing aerial and underwater scenes Apple TV provides as screensavers. I put on music. I am not stoned.

I get a cheap thrill at knowing I can watch Kinky Boots via my PBS app. Even if the reason it’s available is a mixed blessing.

I treat myself to a pretty caftan, a papillon pattern, to wear now, at home. Or whenever. I treat my daughter to a pretty blouse. Because I can.

Because what seems frivolous in dire times really does matter.

The very idea of procrastination to someone always one step ahead of deadlines makes me laugh. Maybe a new way of being has kicked in. Maybe I’m as thankful as I am tired of the “wild patience that has taken me this far.” Maybe this forced hunkering down is a time for shifting gears.

Adrienne Rich speaks to me now more than ever:

Nothing but myself? . . .My selves.
After so long, this answer.

Two stanzas later:

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere—
even from a broken web.

Speaking of webs, my days are off to a much less rattled start when I don’t check in on Facebook or read the  news, or even emails. I can even find enough calm presence to sit down and write.

* * *

A windy, cool, almost wintry day for April has me thinking: can a marked shift in weather blow away the virus?

A very dear friend, a gifted artist who also just happens to be gifted in all things culinary and whose perspective on just about anything I value, introduces me to a new word.

Consilience: a coming together of knowledge from widely disparate disciplines, to provide a depth of understanding that would otherwise be unattainable.

Jane Hirshfield, Now Even More:

Now again, even more, I admire Roget,
in whose Thesaurus
self-knowledge appears under Modesty.

Following verecundity-–knowing one’s place;
preceding reserve.

April 20, 2020

From Iceland to Anatevka

Mid-October, late afternoon, a day positively brimming over with autumn light. Rain has taken down too many leaves too soon. All the more reason to relish the translucent mix of yellow and orange and green holding fast to branches on a tree in the distance. Autumn, even a less-than-vibrant one, asks me to reconcile beauty with dying.

A new book by the always wise Pico Iyer affirms my own sense of this riddled season. Sparked by a recent visit to the Japan he knows well, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is filled with Iyer-esque eloquence and insights: 

“Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze or ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.”

***

I’m in a line of cars behind a stopped school bus. I marvel at the unspoken language we think of as rules of the road.  To speed up, instead of slowing down, when the stop sign swivels from the window of a school bus, is to step out of time and place.

To watch children step down from a bus and cross the road is to marvel at the trust that makes it possible, even in times when technological distractions and impatience can wreak havoc on being present to the moment.  

* * *

A month earlier would find me in Iceland, a family vacation to mark my upcoming birthday, a big one. In December I turn 70.  Over the years I’ve been inclined to celebrate off-years—49, 59, 64—and treat the decade markers as an afterthought. But something about 70 asks to be acknowledged for what it is. This is not about birthday cakes/candles/presents, which seem to matter less and less with each passing year. It’s about doing something  out of the ordinary,  go someplace we’ve never been. Mother, father, daughter, and son-in-law. Together.

It’s about autumn, in all its metaphoric glory.  Not to mention the melancholy the season encompasses.

School buses, in all their Crayola yellow, speak to nostalgia. My daughter came home a few days before the trip, a deliberate Marie Kondo strategy to make the bedroom she left behind a little less of a shrine to her childhood and teen years. 

As if the classic nostalgia of the season weren’t enough, old photos sorted and weeded out would take me right back to another time, one that seemed simpler and more innocent. I was asked to be an observer, not a participant in the divesting process.  Her initiative had me feeling I did a decent job as a mother. If I can’t help myself in wishing she would let me help her, I do my best at standing back.

* * *

Iceland has come and gone, on its heels the Jewish New Year, another seasonal reckoning. One Sunday afternoon during those Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would find in the fictional town of Anatevka. 

The critically acclaimed revival of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Joel Grey, is as timeless as it is timely. That this one is in Yiddish only enhances its poignancy and power. To be swept up in the cadence of the music and the choreography is to be reminded of how stories can be told without needing to understand every single word (even if monitors make that possible). To hear songs from the show that echoed through my Jewish childhood is to be reminded of the star power (Zero Mostel) that overshadowed a story that is more than a sentimental tale of an unraveling tradition.

Is it a wonder that schmaltzy songs hold sway over a story that shapeshifts from culture to culture, down through the centuries—Pogroms. Displacement. Family members bidding each other farewell, not knowing if they’ll ever see each again?  Or are my autumn years having me see things in a different light? 

***

Once again Pico Iyer: 

“We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last. . . .Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within the truth.”

Is it possible, I ask myself, to find that light without reflection, taking stock of joys and disappointments, hopes that have not panned out?  Coming to grips with all that’s out of our control? Then I ask myself: What are you doing for the rest of your life?

Transcendence

Yesterday’s walk found me unsettled at the sight of a sign — estate sale pickup – in the driveway of a house I pass by all the time. Cars were lined along the road.  It’s been many months since I’ve seen my neighbor, who I often chat it up with if she’s out during my walk.  I knew they’d been trying to sell the house. Estate sales take me to a place of narrative distress. Isn’t that a last resort? And how is it I know so little about what’s going on just outside my own backyard?

Today a large moving van takes up the driveway of neighbors down the hill.  A young family that moved in barely a year and a half ago, they’re leaving for reasons I may never really know. Not that we didn’t come up with some juicy narratives when the ‘for sale’ sign went up. Divorce? Job relocation? It was all so enthusiastic when they first bought the house—a shared glass of wine, talk of a meal or two together.  One little girl and another child on the way can’t help but energize a cul-de-sac now that the kids raised here are all grown up and gone. All the speculation re: these here today/gone tomorrow neighbors not wanting to get too close once they knew they were leaving does little to negate the discomfort, even sadness, at their departure. 

Empty houses speak of loss. The need for narratives, even if they’re far afield, is built into our DNA, storytelling species that we are. And, yet, Pema Chodron, in her meditative wisdom and guidance, reminds me that letting go of narratives, so often rooted in patterns that reinforce our Very Important Story Lines, is instrumental in moment-to-moment awareness that brings liberation.

The rest is fiction.

***

In Alan Lightman’s latest book of essays, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he describes an experience that, to my thinking, amounts to a transcendent moment. He was in his boat during the “wee hours” of a summer night:

“No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off the engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into the star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity.”

I had the pleasure of getting to know Alan during the summers our daughters spent at a camp in Maine. Parents’ visiting weekend was something I looked forward to. The first one still makes me laugh at the memory of my jumping out of our car as we snaked our way out when the weekend ended. My husband, a regular guy by all measures, nonchalantly asks, “Did you know Kara’s father was a writer?”  The realization that I’d been chatting it up with Alan Lightman without knowing it hit me like a thunderbolt. The cars were moving slowly enough for me to get out, walk up to the Lightmans’ car, not too far ahead, just to let him know how much I loved Einstein’s Dreams.

What he does so lucidly and beautifully in his latest work is explore our longing for Absolutes despite the uncertainties and ambiguities our world presents us with. Reconciling scientific truths with spiritual/religious experiences is easier said than done. 

As to making personal sense of it all, well, that’s the reason some of us take to writing.  “My Vocation,” an essay in Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, begins with these words:

“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time. I hope I won’t be misunderstood; I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write.”

From that starting point, Ginzburg takes the reader through the whys and hows of her stories, including how she moved away from wanting to write like a man. Near the end, she has this to say:

“When I write something I usually think is it very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think that happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.” Even so, she adds, “I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation.”

Ginzburg has more to say about vocations, and relationships, and children, and, yes, shoes, in this gem of a collection, and Belle Boggs, in a New Yorker essay, makes a great case for “The Book That Taught Me What I Want to Teach My Daughter.” 

***

The essence of a transcendent moment is a sense of wonder, quiet in the way it takes hold.  If you’re a writer you can’t help wanting to share the insight or revelation it brings, maybe even concoct a story. It’s the ultimate paradox: try to capture the essence of a moment and you’ve lost it.

 Maybe the world began with a Big Bang, maybe not. And maybe it will end with a whimper.

Maybe Bob Dylan is right when he says, in an interview moment during the new Martin Scorsese documentary: “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”

Empty houses also speak of lives created. They echo with family dramas, barking dogs, purring cats. Echoes etched into the walls of rooms cleared to make space for the next chorus of laughter and tears.

Note bene: With this post, I’ll be taking a little break from my regular blogging schedule. Maybe you’ll miss me, maybe not :-). But I would be remiss in not at least letting you know that my novel has earned another honor, a Finalist/First Novel, 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Smack in the middle of Gay Pride Month seems as timely as it gets to read and/or recommend the novel.

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

Last week found me a little more adventurous than usual on Instagram. I posted a photo, with a  caption, a bit tongue-in-cheek: ‘Cozying up for some inspirational reading. What will I choose first?”

If the purpose of social media, in its varied forms, is to let people know what you’re up to, get a conversation going, well, this photo says it all loudly and clearly. 

Feed the mind. Feed the spirit.

A day or so later I posted a selfie, the me (almost nobody) knows. I almost never post photos of myself, except within some cultural context: a museum, a reading, a rock concert. But, as I said, I was in a playful mood. Days later I was still getting responses.

Buddhist wisdom tells us intention is everything. What does it suggest when many of the less whimsical photos and posts I share—snapshots I deem artsy, New Yorker cartoons, essays on writers or books, news stories (sometimes political, more often not)—don’t necessarily spark the kind of conversation social media was set up to foster? 

Is it me?

Is it the nature of a beast more eager to feast on the up close and personal, moments as in-the-moment as it gets, than take the time to chew on fodder not so readily digested in the blink of an eye?  

Chanukah, the festival of lights in a season embodied by darkness, has come and gone.  From a standpoint of Staying Healthy with the Seasons, there’s something anomalous about all the frenzied gift-giving and partying that goes hand in hand with what Madison Avenue pumped up as a time to be merry.  Introspection—going inside, literally and figuratively—is the real call of winter. There’s a reason bears hibernate. 

Right now I’m introspecting (yes, that’s a word) about Idris Elba. Retro as the whole notion of ‘sexiest man alive’ may be in a #MeToo world, I can’t help but smile at his smile on the cover of People. It seems he was ‘robbed’ of that title in 2017, when it went to Blake Shelton (a travesty, indeed). But here we are, a year later, where my wait at the supermarket checkout found me deliberating whether to buy the one remaining copy on the magazine rack. A cover line—Did a Romance Novelist Murder Her Husband?—sealed the deal.  Oh, I’m in store for some meaty reading.

Apparently even more beefy than I realized at first glance. Hot Idris is followed by a host of runners up, cleverly anointed: John Krasinski: sexiest man of action. Chadwick Boseman: sexiest superhero. Chris Pine: sexiest dreamboat. And that’s just a sampling. My heart positively throbs when I see Terrance Hayes: sexiest writer 2014.

Glibness aside, I marvel at how the mind works. Months after hearing Terrance Hayes read from his work, his poetry continues to cast a spell. His latest collection, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is astonishing for its vision, power, and timeliness. 

 In the midst of all this introspecting comes a riveting James Baldwin essay from the New Yorker archives, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” that only adds to the despairing chill. Please don’t remind me we’ve been here before. Please let me believe that some of the progress we’ve made counts for something that allows me to be lifted by a feel-good holiday movie, Green Book and a subtly powerful play by Conor McPherson, Girl from the North Country. Set in Depression-era Duluth, Minnesota, and built on the songs of Bob Dylan, it’s nothing short of a reminder of Dylan’s brilliant way with music and words. 

Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you a king

Inspiration takes many forms, although a more apt description of what happens when a piece of music or a movie or a book captivates me is a sense of being infused with some aspect of it. 

Great fiction is often my best reboot. Then there’s meditation and the simple act of taking a walk. Crisp winter mornings, with the reflection of clouds in a lake, are a particular pleasure.

 And even if I may not, in this lifetime, experience the dissolution of ego that brings with it the sense of oneness with the universe,  I get glimpses of what might be that peaceful prelude to heightened consciousness via meditation.  

Or, again, via music, for the way it can’t help but infuse itself into the body.  In Michael Pollan’s thoroughly researched, personally validated examination of the new science of psychedelics and why they may be a powerful tool in psychotherapy, not to mention our understanding of consciousness, he makes note of an experiment in which  “pieces of music that held no personal relevance for volunteers were played for them while on LSD. Under the influence of the psychedelic, however, volunteers attributed marked and lasting personal meaning to the same songs.”

He also has this to say:

“If you want to understand what an expanded consciousness looks like, all you have to do is have tea with a four-year-old.”

the holidays

Come late August there’s a noticeable shift in light that catches me off-guard. Little by little, the shortening of days so imperceptible since the summer solstice is suddenly dramatic. Leaves start to lose their lushness. The lazy hazy days of summer are about to give way to September, with its nostalgic echoes of back-to-school mode.  More to the point, I’m hit with an inescapable alert: The holidays are around the corner.

To hear the intonation of that phrase—‘the holidays’—the way I do, you have to be Jewish. You have to picture a mother taking off from work days ahead of ‘the holidays’ to shop and cook. Chicken soup. Pot roast. Baked chicken. Fish. To grasp what she meant when she said, the holidays are late this year, or the holidays are early, requires an understanding of days measured by the lunar calendar in a secular world ruled by the sun.

The Jewish calendar is in fact marked by four different new year celebrations—one for trees, one for the tithing of cattle, the springtime new year (Passover) we associate with freedom from slavery and the beginning of a Jewish identity. But the ten-day period of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gets pride of place as the Jewish New Year marking the beginning of the world.  As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, I would put on holiday clothes, meet up with friends at the neighborhood synagogue. Going to services was something you just did, whether or not you knew the full import of why you did it. My mother didn’t go and my father put in an appearance, if not for the full spectrum of services, always for the Yizkor portion in memory of the dead on Yom Kippur.

Thanksgiving, in contrast, was not a holiday we observed, except to watch the parade on TV.  What kind of American family, you might ask, doesn’t gather for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving? I could say the Jewish holidays were all that mattered to my mother, and that’s mostly true. But there was something else at play—something beyond her comfort zone in the kitchen, with its standard Jewish fare handed down from generation to generation.

It’s called turkey.

I can’t handle that big bird, she once said to me, her face crinkled in disgust. Even the chicken she cooked had to be cut into pieces, nothing to remind her that it was once a living, walking creature.  If cleanliness is next to godliness, no chicken wing ever made it into the oven or soup pot with even the tiniest feather intact.

When I left the fold, moved into Manhattan, Brooklyn would call me back for the holidays as I knew them. Thanksgiving would be celebrated with city friends. One year, a cousin of mine who had started a Thanksgiving tradition of her own, asked me to switch things up, be with the family. It was a memorable gathering—a coterie of cousins smoking weed as we cooked, drinking exquisite wine, laughing. Finally the real reason she was so insistent: a cake with one candle, #26, in honor of the marathon I had run weeks earlier.

Families fall apart. Parents die. Rituals get diluted. You don’t have to be a Jewish mother to know that there are strategies more powerful than guilt to keep families together at holiday time. You don’t have to be too sentimental to long for something that seems further removed with each passing generation.

Come September comes the weeping for what’s gone and with it the reminder of how I’ve made the holidays my own, a mix of family and friends who know they can count on a good Jewish-style brisket for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Chanukah brings my legendary latke parties. Then there’s that all-American November holiday when I roast, to perfection, that big bird my mother would not touch.

Why do weddings make me cry?

My daughter is getting married next May, and sometimes just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. So happens spring will also bring publication of my novel—the culmination of years of writing, some publication, lots of rejection, and always, always the tenacity to keep at it, a bag of emotion all its own. Then there’s the sorry state of our country, not to mention the seasonal melancholy etched into every falling autumn leaf.

But this is mostly about weddings and the emotional undercurrent they give rise to. I was weeks from turning thirty-five when I got married, an age at which the thought of being ‘given away’ in a walk down some carpeted aisle didn’t quite cut it. My husband-to-be and I found a venue styled to look like a turn-of-the-century French ballroom. Very hip. Very Greenwich Village. Very us. We did all the legwork, thankful to have very accommodating parents with simple requests. In the mixed metaphor that was, and continues to be, our lives, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi. The wedding may have been larger than I would have liked, but my family was large. I say ‘was’ because the generation that would comprise my parents’ siblings, cousins, friends, etc., is mostly gone. My husband’s parents, whose circle of family and friends was much smaller by comparison, could care less about what would seem to be a proportional imbalance. They were just glad that their son was getting married, and to a nice Jewish girl, who would in two years’ time give them their first granddaughter to dote on.

And dote they did. And on a spring night barely six months from now, that first granddaughter will find herself under a makeshift Chuppah at a Malibu ranch. We’re counting on her only remaining grandparent to be at the wedding. She’s 91, sharp and healthy, even if a little frail. She lives in northern California, the wedding will be in southern California. My future son-in-law’s grandparents plan to fly in from New York.

Like my wedding, my daughter’s is looking to be larger than she would like, and we’ve all done our best to pare the guest list. This is never an easy task, and one that feels even more emotionally complicated in a time when friends are more like family than the relatives I feel distanced from.

You can’t go home again. But you can feel the ache of what that thing called home, for all the convoluted emotions it encompasses, gives rise to. “You will have only one story,” says Sarah Payne, the fictitious writer/mentor to Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s tender and touching novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. “You’ll write your one story many ways.” I don’t know that I have only one story, but I do know that the complexity of mother-daughter relationships keeps surfacing (hopefully in different ways) in my fiction and essays. Then there’s the more general exploration of familial ties: what happens when that thing we think of as family disperses almost to the point of dissolving?

I tear up during the ceremony at any wedding I attend. Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do.

For better or for worse, a wedding is an affirmation of love. It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love.

It’s another link in a chain of rituals that bind us.

It’s a reminder that the circle of life is held together by new links forged from broken ones.

It tells us that our children are grown now, moving on.

All those months, the planning and attention to details—the venue, the food, the entertainment, the guest list, the dress (a tradition with a history all its own)—

—to be funneled into a celebration, one day only, that embodies the future and the past.

Suddenly it’s here. We lift our glasses to the bride and groom. We smile. We laugh. We cry. We dance.

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