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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Space fantasy 2

As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn I craved space. How else to explain my taking up residence in the Loew’s Kings ladies’ room during movie intermissions? It had a plush sitting room where I could pretend I was holding court before (or after) going into the bathroom proper. Then there was the furniture department of Macy’s, down the street from our family candy store. I would wander over there, settle myself in any of the arranged living room settings. It was the cusp of the ‘60s, a time of social upheaval, yes, but the world clearly felt safe enough for a mother to give this kind of license to a ten-year-old.

An entire past comes to dwell in a new house, I wrote in a previous piece that touched on the places my imagination took me as a writer-in-the-making longing for a room of her own. Today I have that, and much more. And I still marvel at how any change, even for the better, is tinged with something gone.

My house, a veritable work-in-progress, is no longer new, but every phase of renovation brings a new way of being in it. This time—I could shout at last!—it’s a kitchen upgrade. The kitchen always had its charm—colorful cabinets, a floor like none other, which had messages (some coded) cleverly laid in decals by my husband. There’s history in these floors and walls of the warm home our house became.

But modernization and efficiency in storage were in order. Exciting, yes, to envision, even if it feels overwhelming: clearing out the kitchen, organizing the contents of drawers and cabinets into boxes for some semblance of easy access. It’s the little things—not wrapping each and every coffee mug in newspaper—that keep the ache at bay; we’re not moving out, we’re just moving things to another room.

In the interest of change, I’m experimenting with a little blog music more regularly. Click on the audio widget (upper right) and enjoy what you hear while considering ten things to remember when you renovate a kitchen:

  • It’s temporary.
  • You will cry as you pack boxes to put into your dining room and living room and wherever you can make them fit, and think about all that has taken place in the kitchen as it was.
  • You will feel disoriented. Which cardboard box did I put the boxes of pasta into? Where are my mixing spoons?
  • You will walk back and forth a lot, in need of things—a towel, a fork, a knife and cutting board—not within immediate reach.
  • You will remind yourself of the privilege that is your life and makes this upgrade a possibility—then take a step back to consider that, for too many people, this is not even an option.
  • You will suddenly remember how well you managed in that ridiculously tiny kitchen in your studio apartment, back when.
  • You will cry.
  • You may even curse.
  • You will be distracted from rituals and routines that require your focus: writing, reading, yoga, meditation.
  • If you’re lucky, you may even welcome the disorientation for whatever new insights it brings.
  • And when all is said and done, you’ll marvel at something that seemed to take so long becomes another thing completely in an instant.

So here you have it—a glimpse of what was/what is/what will be my spiffy, new kitchen.

 

The best (photo), I might add, is yet to come.

 

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November 9th 2016

The context of what I want to share doesn’t matter. For all I remember it was probably a really bad haircut. But today is a really weird day. And everyone who reads her writing always says that my mom has a way with words, so here are some words from her to me that I found in a card she wrote me three years ago on this pretty stationery. That’s why the context doesn’t matter, because it really can apply to anything. Like today.

white_water_lilies_by_claude_monet_1899_pushkin_museum

“The only thing certain in life is that the sun will rise every morning and set every evening. Every day really is different — which does not necessarily ease the pain on days when the clouds are hanging low over your head but it helps to be reminded of it.” She also says that our sufferings and joys are all one and of course, when we need to laugh, there’s LD (my father, who reminds everyone of a very popular comedian with the same initials).