Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Close to midnight in the sickly airport light, the driver rushes out to greet us, huge bearded man with taqiyah and caftan and a hand-drawn sign. We straggle gratefully behind him to the big black car.
We start with pleasantries: how he got here and how life is in Detroit, and how it was some greater good that brought our unexpected call when we missed our connection and when he needed the work.
Somehow, it gets to my dying sister and how we have to rush to her side.
And then he says, the Angel of Death knocks on my door every day. And repeats, the Angel of Death knocks on my door every day, but then it's not my day. Some day it will be and I will have to open that door. I tell my children, get ready, the Angel of Death knocks on your door every day, too.
In the back seat, frazzled from hours of turbulence at 36,000 feet and a missed flight and facing a fast run to what might be my sister's demise, I reach for my husband's hand.
At first the driver's rap amuses, but then it sours.
The Angel of Death knocks on everybody's door every day, the sonorous driver continues, but most of the time it doesn't come in. It's not your day.
I draw toward my husband's body warmth and try to find his eyes in the fast-moving dark as we swerve north onto 23. I am night blind but eventually I find my husband's eyes, shining, alert, and he looks at me and I understand he sees me back. The Muslim guy moves on to the story of Joseph in the Quran, a story I know well from my childhood Old Testament Days, and decades and centuries fall away, the fear-filled Sinai desert and the prophets mixed up with my mother's lap after dinner in a Midwest parsonage. How I followed along, my own finger tips learning the darkest human tragedies from a picture book, took it all in through the skin and eyes and my mother's hymnal voice.
And yet I am still here, too, the driver's drummed-in account weaving way beyond the Angel of Death, droning ancient conspiracies and dreams and rescues, and Michigan's cold roads slide unseen beneath us, pushing us home to an uncertain night.
Sunday, May 05, 2013
Autobiography isn't necessary. History wants in all the time, like the way I put my great-grandmother's silver spoon in this shot. I wasn't actually eating with it. I'd first just grabbed a regular one from the regular drawer but then I got into a spirit. Complications ensuing. Want to celebrate the moment. See how the papaya looks on that plate. I love that plate, its merry colors, totem of abundance. Remember when I bought that plate, its set -- and then --
Oh lord, there comes the first husband, and the dying parents, and that day in Ohio, one of a thousand days of grief, guilt and sorrow.
Back to The Moment, please. See how beautiful is that silver spoon. Yes, evidence of bygone elegance, something of loveliness and pleasure after all those other stories, to the contrary. The why of my persistent desire.
Back to The Moment. Gentle, ripe papaya with black seeds on a beautiful plate. Scooping a mouthful with a silver spoon --
-- how I used to buy papaya at the market in Tonga decades ago -- we all loved it, it was cheap and sweet -- and once one of the other volunteers ate so much the palms of his hands turned orange.
The Moment will not stay put.
Getting up and backing away. Looking again: from here, you see a different moment: things less artful, the cords, a glass of juice, the mug of tea, the phone -- less order now.
And backing away. And looking again at this corner I've made, readied for what I hoped would happen. A room I love with a blessed bed. Love and color and light.
And coming back. The gentle, ripe papaya with black seeds on a beautiful plate. Does it need my great grandmother? Ex-husband? That guy with the orange palms in long ago Tonga?
Okay, ubiquitous memory, devil and angel and pride and melancholy and muse, I let you in. And then I come back.
The gentle, ripe papaya with black seeds on a beautiful plate. The Moment I'm in.
Almost forgot how to get started. It is curious how a woman who has always limned herself "writer," would resist this actual moment, the moment of sitting down. Opening up. Typing the first words. Turning inward.
Of course that's it: the layered mix of risk and self-esteem. Which will win -- the loneliness that feeds lackadaisical avoidance or the propellers of self-love, belief and hope?
Stay tuned. This feels good.
Sunday, November 06, 2011
Smoking on the Porch, Winter Night
I want just this moment of flagrance.
Breath mingling with smoke, smoke with
breath, no difference. I am on fire and
the sweet air snuffs me. I am beeswax
stolen from church. Leave me alone.
It takes eight minutes to smoke each one.
All eight stretch to my fingers’ tips.
I lift up, up to the relief
of oaks and that recumbent moon. Who
is that woman smoking on the porch?
She is a timer for a small death.
She chugs knifey air like whiskey
to compose herself. She solicits
the blues. She gets itchy waiting, wrapped
in smoke and her good black wool.
Okay, I've reached another moment where I have to stop writing. More later.
Make way, step aside, back up, get the smelling salts…and give this poor woman some air. This poor…old woman.
Yes, your friendly neighborhood writer is feeling a bit weak in the knees right now, a bit dizzy and faint. I might need to plunk down, right here on the floor, among you.
Here’s why: as of Nov. 14, I qualify for Social Security.
So I’m officially elderly. I’ve seen it coming. I’ve been spurning invites from the AARP for ten years and even though I’ve been ripping up the packets and stuffing them into the trash, the calendar is winning. As I wrote last month, my arches have collapsed and my bunions have set up their own rogue government. My grey hair insistently pushes out the “Red-brown #6” judiciously administered by Esteeve, my Pico Rivera stylist. My neck rivals Nora Ephron’s. I’ve got age spots and a menagerie of bumps and flaps suggesting my skin has been on the planet too long. My tri-focals keep getting thicker, prosthetics for myopia, presbyopia and some other –opia I can never remember. And while I’m at “remember,” what was it I was going to say next? I forget. Has anybody seen my cell phone?
I’m not just old enough to be my students’ mother, but now their grandmother. My allusions to Talking Heads and Twin Peaks, to name just two items from my moldy pop culture baggage, are so unknown to my students I feel like a lumbering brontosaurus.
What has been occurring to me about old age, though, is not so much how my body is falling apart, but how my dreams are faring.
The other day I was recalling the first time I traveled overseas. It was 1974 when I flew alone into Athens, Greece, where I arrived in the middle of a coup. I holed up taking bubble baths in an overpriced hotel until things calmed down and I could proceed to the Parthenon and Delphi and eventually Crete. It was exhilarating.
I was driven back then by a focused dream: to get out of Ohio, to get out of my ordinary life, to flex my choices, to be interesting as I thought of it back then. That energy propelled me through many more adventures: Peace Corps, marriage, more education, many jobs, a lot of writing good and bad.
Perhaps it’s part of the inevitable course of things: my dreams have changed. Now, some mornings I’m just satisfied with waking up. My dream is to sleep with my husband every night and go out for breakfast at Westside Diner. I could give up traveling tomorrow and never miss another TSA frisking, another roller bag. I have enough stories. I have enough material.
Now, I realize, my dreams have to do with my “village,” my neighbors. My dreams have to do with being in a community that is humane, safe, and manageable. I’ve given 30 years of my life to Flint and I have never been more anxious about its survival, as homicides pile up, break-ins plague even my own street, and the city seems unable to stop a spreading failure of the basic human services we need to live peaceable and sustainable lives together.
I see my young neighbors, beloved additions to my recent existence, struggling with life – raising their children, making sense of their careers, making ends meet. I see their exhaustion and worry. I see my students pulsing with the restless energy I once had, and I want them, like me, to have the chance to fly off to Greece if the impulse propels them and have the satisfactions I once enjoyed. I fear that the world is tightening up for them, the country miserly, crimped and divided. I want a better dream for them.
I’ll wrap this up with an actual dream. One night recently I woke up from a deep sleep, finding myself tightly tucked into a fetal position. My husband was in LA and I had a pronounced sense of solitude, not quite loneliness because I was enjoying the warmth of the bedspread and a nest of cushy pillows I’d assembled around myself in the scary darkest hours. As I unfolded my legs and stretched onto my back, the blankets warm under my chin, I savored the reassuring slats of morning light tipping over the rooftops and venerable silver maples of Maxine and brightening the blinds. I love my street, I thought. About Maxine, I’m a conservative: I want it to stay the same forever -- lovely, neighborly and green.
Suddenly I remembered a dream I’d just been having: I was in my apartment – one of those dream creations that bore no relation to my actual house. I had bought a new bed. It was big and lavish, with an ornately curved brass headboard. But where would I put it? Suddenly I realized my digs had a room I’d never noticed – a room I didn’t know was there. When I discovered it, open and empty and with a glowing hardwood floor, light streaming through big windows, delight and relief washed over me. I went and got my husband. Look, Ted, we’ve got another room!
So, my subconscious seems to be saying, there’s some leeway here somewhere, and when the door opens, it’s going to be good, even for an old lady eligible for Social Security.
But I no longer think that room is only for me. It has to have room for everybody. What we put inside should help us build a smarter, more compassionate life.
Oh, there’s my cell phone on the counter where I left it. Can somebody help me find my glasses? Once they show up, I’ll plunge right in to filling that new room. Here’s the thing: making that dream come true might turn out to be a job for the whole village.
Sunday, September 25, 2011
While sitting in a hotel in Washington D.C. waiting for rain to let up, I found myself thinking about my feet -- prompted by yoga and an old photo. And it became my October column for EVM:
While sitting in a hotel in Washington D.C. waiting for rain to let up, I found myself thinking about my feet -- prompted by yoga and an old photo. And it became my October column for EVM:
Not long ago I ran across an old photo – dried out on the edges, decades before digital – that I’d taken of my own feet.
I remember the moment: I was lounging uncomfortably by an algae-infested pool in a nearly-derelict motel in a seen-better-times town in the redwoods. I was there with my then-boyfriend, a shaggy-haired Californian whose brothers had invested in the fleabag inn, the whole proposition spiked with other shadowy schemes like baggies of pot changing hands behind the tree trunks and afternoons in a mescaline haze.
I was not hippie enough for the scene, feeling my worrywart Ohio roots, a kid up for adventure but fretting about the consequences. I didn’t feel at home with any of those beatniks and they knew it.
So I stationed myself by the only square of honest daylight I could find, where the trees had been cleared to make way for the pool, and I painted my toenails bright red. My camera a reassuring straight girlfriend, I took a picture that grounded me, literally, in an uneasy moment. My feet I could call my own – my body my own territory.
I empathize with that momentarily alienated young woman, finding temporary solace in what she could see and stand on.
Now, of course, the photo also carries an inconvenient reminder: those are young feet, not the bunion-bent, calloused dogs I’m walking around on now. As if I didn’t already see it every time I look in the mirror, the photo is evidence – time marches on.
But I appreciate the feet I have, even today.
It’s odd, isn’t it, to have these protuberances so far away from our eyes, these odd bony tootsies we have to encase in cotton and leather every day to keep us moving through the world?
They are remarkable. Each one, a quick Google search confirms, has 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments,19 muscles and 19 tendons. They can saunter, jump, run, dance, twist, turn, grab, slide, and even moonwalk. They respond hilariously to tickling and sometimes, despite their silly appearance, participate in, um, the occasional ménage a paws. (Stop groaning --I’m trying to protect the children).
Some people are ashamed of their feet. In yoga class the other day, where bare feet are required, a newbie said, “I’d rather not” when the teacher sternly ordered off the socks. She gave her a one-class pass, but we know she’ll eventually have to give in – we all do, unmasking our pale and naked soles.
My feet have long simian toes – both of my husbands claim – not at the same time, you understand, that I could play piano with my monkey feet. Until my inherited bunions made both big toes crowd into the others, I liked how my feet looked, the only place in my otherwise zaftig architecture you could find a touch of svelte legginess.
Most of my life I’ve simply taken my feet for granted, unless I stoved a toe into a bedpost or stuffed them into ridiculous high heels.
It’s only since yoga came into my life that I’ve come to bless my feet. There’s a pose called tadasana, the first step toward the standing poses that I find very challenging. Basically you stand up straight, your legs together and your arms stretched out, palms facing outward at your sides.
It seems like a simple pose, but like so much in yoga, it isn’t. There’s the whole question of balancing the feet. Spread out your toes, Rachelle orders. Balance the balls of your feet! Place your weight evenly on your heels! Be aware of the outsides of your feet! Roll your outer ankles in!
Her steady stream of pelted imperatives mystified me at first. My ankles have an “outer” and “inner” to think about? I have to spread my toes from the outside in? I have to care about those fleshy mounds behind my toes and find an even balance?
Tadasana, so seemingly elementary, still sometimes drives me crazy. I lean invariably to the right, my left foot refusing responsibility like a lazy teen. My weight wants to go to the balls of my feet, my heels gliding up as if ready to pounce – or keel forward.
But one day I started to feel the power in my feet – the remarkable, utilitarian beauty of the body’s design – the possibilities to anchor myself, feel myself grounded, deeply, to the earth.
The first time I felt it – energy arrowing from toe to brain, a flash of love and solidarity, I actually teared up. I could feel my body and mind finally, affectionately, strongly connecting.
I went to the foot doctor, who treated my mangled arches like ladies-in-waiting and started me on the road to better metatarsal health. And when I stand up now I salute the way those many bones and muscles work together. I take tadasana with joyful and attentive gratitude.
So, my feet waited a long time to be acknowledged since that poolside moment in the redwoods. Apparently it’s not too late to cultivate – okay, I waited until the end to say it – a good understanding. Getting old, a person needs to stand up to the world, to the world’s assaults. That begins, it turns out, with those funny looking kids at the end of the legbones, Thank you, feet!
Tuesday, September 06, 2011
It was pea-sized and black and crawling over the black and white tiles of my Sylvester Manor apartment. I’m not afraid of spiders but I’d never been above smashing them to pieces.
This time was different. It was Sept. 13, 2001, and that week there had been just too much death.
Instead of crushing it, I got the creature to crawl onto the towel, and I gently carted it down the hall and jostled it into the bushes on Court Street. I freed it with aggressive determination: I wanted nothing to do with any killing.
I don’t know why that spider is the image that comes most readily to mind when I think about ten years ago.
Maybe it’s because the other, less metaphorical memories are too hard to take,
That spring and summer I had created my own debacles. In April I sat up in bed in the middle of the night and told my husband of 15 years “I think I’m moving out.” In May a truck from Red’s pulled noisily into our driveway and took half our stuff; my stuff.
That night, shocked and prickly with hope, I sat at the window in Apartment 104 and poured myself a glass of white wine to go with the Cornish game hen I’d baked in my little oven, dinner just for one.
I’d deliberately decided against cable, and throughout those summer months, which I remember as so hot the strongest smell in my rooms was the acrid bubbling asphalt of Wallenberg Drive, I watched movie after rented movie.
I had a new man already who flew in from time to time from Los Angeles. His arrivals were intense – we had loved each other for 25 years, never knowing where the other was – and it was jarring to reclaim our ardor. Daily weeping for my failed past life was a matter of course. I was 51 years old and starting over. It seemed impossible, unadvisable, audacious and naïve.
The last weekend of August my Ohio sister was in a serious auto accident. In the middle of a Labor Day party, I got a call that she was in the hospital and I needed to get there. I shot down to Barberton, where I found her dog, an expensive pure-bred beagle, untended and hungry in the house. She’d peed and pooped anywhere she liked for at least a week. I tried to make sense, yet again, of my sister’s complicated life.
The dog had an open abscess and I got her to the vet. I tried to clean up the house. Outraged at my sister and ashamed of it, I declared I was taking the dog back to Flint. On September 9, I put her in my car and drove back along Interstate 80, stopping every 50 miles to let her pee…she was wild and untrained and made the trip interminable.
My friends Bob and Philip agreed to take her, but when I got her there, she ran away, Bob chasing her up Ridgelawn yelling and yelling. He caught her but it was clear she would never be a lovely pet.
And then it was September 11. That morning I drove to Okemos to see my therapist, full of grief and guilt and anger – about my sister, again, about the debris of my life. On the way back I heard it – after tiring of the orderliness of Mozart’s 12 versions of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, I switched to NPR, where Bob Edwards was announcing that the second tower had just collapsed.
It was a different world from that moment on, was it not? I drove straight to UM – Flint and called my new man. Then I went in to my husband’s office and we hugged, along with everybody else – the electricity of the tragedy overwhelming us and making me wonder if all could be forgiven, reset.
I went to VG’s and bought whiskey, cigarettes, Hershey bars and canned fruit cocktail.
That night, I went to my old house, where my not-yet-ex-husband made comfort food, linguine with marinara sauce, and with four other souls we obsessively watched CNN. There was pot and I smoked it, but it didn’t work – leaving me only more heavily disconsolate.
I’ve often thought that if I’d ever gone to bed with my husband again it would have been that night. But when we hugged goodbye and the question hung in the air, the shock and neediness between us was intolerably raw. I rushed back to Apartment 104.
The dog didn’t work out either. Bob and Philip said they couldn’t handle her. Philip and I took her to the Humane Society on Dort, where she failed her personality test by lunging at an assistant. My husband, who always loved beagles, took her as a stopgap, but she wouldn’t stop barking all night, and he sent me one angry, accusatory email after another. We finally gave her to a student we both knew who had a farm, and the dog roamed freely for three more years before dying a reasonably merciful natural death.
Without cable, I rented The Sopranos, which I’d never seen, and watched every episode, one after the other for three days straight. The opening shot of Tony Soprano chawing that cigar, the Twin Towers in the background,seemed cruelly right, lacerating me with bad news. They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone. My marriage was gone, my old life was gone, the world as we knew it was gone.
Life did go on, of course. I found hope in love, and now that LA guy is my second husband. We bought a house on Maxine. I bought a big stone Buddha for the back yard and stones and candles for the windowsills. I wrote a novel, and now I even have a new job. Just like everybody else, I’ve gone on with my life, because that’s what humans do. In fact, recently realizing I’ve been in Flint a full 30 years, I realized with a start that despite all the ups and downs, I am – shhh, don’t tell anybody! – happy here.
I still think about that spider, though – how for that one moment, that one week, we were all aflood with compassion. I wish it could last. I wish – and hope – as human history rolls out beyond us -- that it is the impulse toward love that survives our primal bloody urges. Frankly, at best I think it’s a fifty-fifty chance. Absurdly, illogically, nonetheless, I’m banking on the love.