I started this when the first reports came in about Harvey. It’s now a couple of weeks later, and Florida is under water. Harvey isn’t tearing through Houston anymore, and both my son and I have made inquiries and learned my big sister and her house are safe and dry. I’m not thinking about her non-stop as I was for days. One of her friends responded to an email I wrote, “I hope you connect, she hasn’t been herself for a while.”
Herself? I almost wrote back, “Did she go off on you too?” But I didn’t.
My big sister lives very close to Rice University and the splendid Rothko Chapel. When the first reports came out, I thought, if they say the Rothko Chapel is underwater, then she’s underwater too.
Once in a while, I go on FB and look at the two pictures of her. We didn’t look so much alike when we were younger, but like long married people, we’ve grown more alike as time goes on. Ironic, because as adults we’ve spent almost no time together. Either a continent separated us, we were at war, which was most of the time, or at peace, which is how it’s been for the past few decades or so when we’ve had absolutely nothing to do with one another: not a phone call on either one of our birthdays, our parents yahzeit, an email, a snail mail, a Jewish New Year card, a valentine, though I’ve wondered as no doubt she has too, what the other one will do when one of us passes. Do I go to the funeral? Do I send flowers, a plate of food? These are the questions that beset the siblings who are as good as dead to one another, though the sibling rivalry lives on. Will the antipathy endure long after our spirits have left our bodies?
The last time I visited my sister, when we walked from her house to the chapel less than a mile away. I got up my courage and asked her, “Tell me about our father. What do you remember?”
She replied in a lifeless monotone. “You had a wonderful childhood. You were the happiest little girl and everyone loved you.”
The rest of the visit she was about as warm as a day in the North Pole. That was okay. Icy and cold was far preferable than even the smallest dose of her temper. I returned home grateful the visit ended without blatant acrimony. My sister also possessed and probably still does, a great sense of humor. There are times when I’d give anything to have a laugh with her about stuff only she and I would get.
Shortly after that visit, she came to LA with her latest boyfriend whose family lived here. A friend and I threw them all a dinner party. And something must have happened at that party to trigger something in her again, or maybe she was still pissed about my mentioning our childhood. She left town and didn’t call me again, though she wrote my friend an elaborate thank you and sent her a present. I didn’t call her either. I was afraid to. I saw the look on her face at the door when they were saying goodbye. That face was one I have feared since I have a memory.
Flash forward several years later: my son and I are in New York over Christmas break. He’s in college now. We are in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side at Harry’s, the best shoe store in the world! I heard him say softly, our pet name for my sister. No shit! And I turned around and there she was with the boyfriend!
She was very polite. And I’m happy to say she looked really good. Prosperous. Healthy. Maybe she even gave my son a hug. She did mention something about them getting together. They had, after all, once upon a time been close. He got dropped too after the last putsch.
The boyfriend muttered some conciliatory words. I stood frozen to my spot in front of a rack of Mephisto’s. And such was her ancient power over me, I fully expected my son to walk off with them and to leave me standing alone among the suede boots, the high heels and the sensible flats.
But he didn’t. We were both a little shaken. But we carried on. We bought him a pair of leather top siders. Big Sister and the boyfriend exited the store. My son and I went to Zabar’s and bought goodies. And that was it.
I am very grateful that like the Rothko Chapel my sister in Houston is safe and dry.
I wish her well, I sincerely do, though I am all but sure those feelings are not reciprocated. She once told me unashamedly in front of my husband and her then husband, “The day you were born was the worst day of my life! I hope you die.”
For my own part, I was born, that was the big one, and after that, I wanted to know what happened. It ruined her obviously. Maybe she hates me because the unspeakable thing didn’t ruin me.
I think this is where men come out better than women. Maybe men carry baggage differently. When men go to war they come out brothers. They join arms; they march down the street carrying the flag. They rejoice in their memories. The Things They Carried and all that.
The childhood we shared was a war zone replete with causalities and trauma. My sister and I though, all we ever wanted to do was forget.
I write this from my desk at the Sewanee Writers Conference at the University of the South. My room is ugly as all dorm rooms are; the bed is uncomfortable, the springs have a way of jabbing my back like a sharp elbow late at night when I’m trying to calm down and settle in from the day’s stimulations. Truly, despite the heat that weighs down like a heavy blanket and the torpor that comes from 95 % percent humidity, it’s one of the liveliest places I’ve ever been. I’m blissfully happy to have this ugly room with no roommate and my own bathroom because my suite mate never showed up! I keep waiting for her to descend—like the sword of Damocles she’s hovering over my life here: she could happen at any moment!
In the meantime, the fourth floor of St. Luke’s on my side is the cool side. On the other side, the men and women are sending away to Amazon for fans. Myself, I’m sleeping under a blanket with several sets of sheets on top; they’ve run out of extra blankets.
It’s Sunday, the quiet day, though there was a lecture in the morning by the great Tim O’Brien and one last night by him too. Everyday some great poet writer or playwright gets up on stage and it’s so inspiring. Everyone here is a writer, everyone here profoundly cares about the written word, the spoken word, and the imagined word, the process of writing, the approach to writing. Every single minute it’s writing this, writing that. I realized today though, I haven’t done any sort of writing since I arrived here. At writers conferences one doesn’t shut oneself up in one’s room to write.
I’ve been hanging out a lot with the poets, one of the young really impressive ones is a dude named Jericho Brown from my hometown, Shreveport, Louisiana. Like me, he knows you can’t go home again. (Jericho pictured above.)
Talking to strangers is the name of the game. I flunked geometry, and don’t read maps very well, but I’m an expert at talking to strangers. A lot of writers are like that. Which is how I happened to leave campus today for the first time since I arrived here last Tuesday. Someone at my table was going to go to the local flea market and wanted some company.
“I’d love to go,” I said.
This is rural Tennessee. The minute you drive out of the immaculate campus with the stone buildings and the perfectly manicured lawns and the famous writers and the students of the famous writers, you are in a different world. The county that includes the University of the South where the writer’s conference is located happens to be the poorest one in Tennessee.
We parked the car and headed toward the flea market, a hot and dusty looking compound of booths packed with real junk and covered with corrugated metal roofs. This was nothing like the flea markets I once in a while attend in LA and New York. Here there were grimy Barbies for 10 cents. Romance novels with broken spines, and yes confederate flags waving proudly. Here the people were poor, and probably every last one of the stall-keepers were supporters of Trump. These people, so many of them morbidly obese and unhealthy looking, were the people who were really going to suffer most under the present administration. The very ones who had voted 45 into office.
I happened on a homemade knife stand. I sifted through and looked for something my husband—who loves knives—would find acceptable. The proprietor of the stand, like me, was a writer. He handed me a pamphlet he had penned The Claims of Jesus of Nazareth. And when I looked at it, he began to tell me about how Jesus wanted to save me.
I was transported back to my childhood, when my best friend Peggy Mayfield was assigned to save my soul in vacation bible school. She’d been told in Sunday school because I’m Jewish I was going to hell. Probably the writer of the pamphlet would think I was going to hell too.
Hell couldn’t be much hotter than that miserable flea market somewhere in the sticks outside Sewanee, Tennessee.
I left the stand, and found my friend from the conference bargaining for a pair of cowboy boots, totally elated. She was crowing about them all the way home. I was sort of depressed actually. Encounters in the real world often have that effect on me. Presently as we drove through the stone portals of the University of the South, my spirit lifted. Yes, I’ll take Sewanee and the imaginary world over the real world any day.
I’m heading off to the Sewanee Literary Conference in a week or so. In honor of that, I went through my shirts and decided to opt for Browns iron and fold and card boarding. Browns is the most expensive, but also the most impeccable dry cleaner and shirt place you can imagine.
A few noteworthy facts about Browns. I once took a little schmatte in there and the dry cleaning bill cost more than the dress itself! A favorite cashmere sweater with paint spilled all over it was also offered up to the proprietress, someone who could be a social secretary to a socialite, or the socialite herself. Her hair is super neat, her diamonds are real (as well they should be with those prices) and her chin is always lifted just a little bit higher than yours or mine. She reminds me of a female Jeeves. And like Jeeves, you can tell she’s highly intelligent, world-wise, cannier than most of her clients and up on the protocol of whatever the occasion calls for. People go there and get their wedding dresses embalmed. Movie stars send their personal assistants to drop off their crap. When you are inside, it’s like a library or the bank used to be, there’s a hushed quality, one would not raise one’s voice in Browns. The time I went in with the paint stained cashmere, I was a little ashamed. I took it out of my shopping bag and put it down on the counter.
“Do you think you can do anything with this?” I asked softly.
She took it up in her perfectly manicured hands ran it this way and declared, “Why not?”
The bill was huge, but there wasn’t a stain left on the striped cashmere. And afterwards the sweater seemed like new.
Today, when Henry and I stood at the counter, the proprietress was wearing an Art Deco diamond lavaliere. And a beautiful starched cotton blouse. The kind with darts and a stand up color. She reminded me of the ladies I used to know back in Shreveport, mothers of my friends, customers of my mother when she had her store. My mother would have liked it, if I had been one of those local ladies, married to some prosperous someone or other, writing an occasional book but mostly socializing, playing bridge, reading best sellers…
I took out my shirts: my striped be-spoke that used to belong to Esteban Vicente. When the painter died, his wife who called me one of her daughters didn’t give me a picture as I had half-way hoped, but a few of his shirts. I love them all and save them for special occasions. The one I’m taking to Sewanee I call “my famous artist shirt.”
I took out a few more and handed them over, and finally the last one: some cheapo lavender linen thing, no doubt made by slave labor, but I love the color. The proprietress fingered the shirt; her lips sort of curled.
“Linen,” she declared resentfully. “The minute you put it on, it wrinkles.”
I nodded. Looking down, I saw Henry had settled onto the mat in front of the counter in his dog version of the Sphinx Pose, front and back paws out, belly down.
“You don’t wear linen, I take it?”
I was very aware, just then, of my wrinkled shirt, jean shorts, held up by a raggedy ass belt; my thin white legs, bright sneakers, stained socks. Henry was still in Sphinx Pose. How I envied my dog’s perpetual good looks and invincible style!
“Of course, not!” she replied.
I met her eyes: “As to be expected of the proprietress of the best dry cleaning establishment on earth!”
That made her smile.
I decided not to leave the linen, or another one that had a little stain on the collar she couldn’t promise to remove, though she suggested perhaps dry cleaning it first then laundering.
How much does it cost to do that? I once posed such a question to the person who takes the New York Times obit by phone. “Madam,” he declared. “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be calling the New York Times!”
“A week from today, next Thursday for your shirts?”
“That’d be great! Thanks!”
Henry got to his feet in his effortless way, shook himself off and we headed out into the sunlight.
She was the only African American at the convent, and I the only Jew, don’t ask me how many years ago. We were not friends. Or enemies either. I have a distinct memory of Roz, tiny, with very carefully groomed hair in a flip, in her uniform which was just like my uniform: a white shirt, a plaid skirt, and when it was required a delphinium blue blazer with a prominent white crucifix on the pocket. I think of that blazer and I sort of cringe; I, great-granddaughter of a Jewish scholar in a Jesus blazer? Roz, the daughter of a Methodist minister had no problem with the Jesus blazer, and to tell the truth here, I only have the problem in retrospect. Back then it felt perfectly natural, even good. Being a Jew in a small town in Louisiana a thousand years ago was to know you do not fit in. The jacket made me look like I had a chance to.
Roslyn was a very well brought up girl. A girl with great composure. I was aware from a distance of her obvious sang-froid. A sang-froid that was required—as the only person of color there at the convent—except, of course, for the janitor, the maids, and the ladies who spooned out the lunch in the cafeteria where I never ate.
I ate at home with my mother, who didn’t have much to do at the time and needed a lunch companion. She picked me up, drove me home and we had the same thing every day: a hamburger patty with a side of frozen mixed vegetables. I slathered mine with hot sauce, a habit I have to this day with food I don’t like. Mama was always on a diet and because I lived with her so was I.
At the convent, there was no nun of color, or priest of color. Certainly no Jew nun or priest. It was a weird world for both of us. No wonder we looked askance at each other. No wonder we did not reach out our hands and declare ourselves comrades.
Roz was here in LA teaching a workshop on her specialty, Alzheimer’s Care. When she walked in my door last Sunday, we hugged as though we were long lost friends, and in fact she felt exactly like a long lost friend from far away. Of course we had talked on the phone, we had exchanged a few emails when Lavina came out and she read it and talked me up back in Shreveport. Still, this was something different. This was a true bond. She has told me since then she felt the same way I did last Sunday: friends at first sight!
But not back then.
I think we were afraid, both of us, of contamination.
I wonder too, what my mother, the proud liberal would have done if I had brought Roslyn home to eat dinner and spend the night? I always saw through Atticus Fitch / Gregory Peck, because my mother was that kind of liberal. One stood up to the racists, one was good to one’s help, in fact my mother sent our housekeeper Aline back to school so she could pass the literacy test to vote. But bringing a person of color home as a girlfriend, God forbid a boyfriend?
All that was behind us, last Sunday, when Roz and I sat on my couch and drank some wine and just schmoosed, about growing up in Shreveport.
My husband was there and they liked each other. And Henry liked Roz too. Henry sat when Roz said, “sit!” He never does that for me except when food is involved. Roz has her own love affair with a poodle named Maxx. She told me she wants me to meet Maxx!
Everything seemed so easy, stuff that used to be so hard. To this day, I cannot abide how hard it was growing up for all of us. The bad old days are over, but are the bad old days really over? Roz and I talked about that too.
My husband, Henry and I drove Roz back to where she was staying with relatives, a ways away from where we live. Roz said, “I should have Uber-ed but I wanted you to see where I lived. I never saw where any of my friends lived growing up.”
I felt like crying when she said that. I feel like crying as I type this.
I bought a new computer today; the day 45 announced he wasn’t going to sign the Paris accord. I don’t think I would have purchased it today, had I known beforehand about this stunningly vicious announcement—though why should I or anybody else be surprised? My husband wrote the White House in upper case: a la 45: BIG MISTAKE. YOU WERE WRONG. And signed his name. Used to be when you wrote the White House, the WH wrote back.
So far, no note from them. Again am I surprised? No.
My old Mac was eleven years old. It, my dog and I weighed 135.5 pounds. My new Mac, that I hope to keep just as long, weighs quite a bit less. The three of us weigh in at 129.5. I’m often crossing the country with Henry, the computer and his food, the later two in a backpack, so the new sleek seemingly weightless Mac will be a big improvement. My shoulders are already heaving a sigh of relief.
I wrote several books on my old computer, thousands of emails, participated in many Skype sessions, shopped for all sorts of things on line, did yoga, learned how to cut and paste, in short all the vitals of my little life happened on it. In fact, I started this very blog on my old computer.
Why is so much of my life contained within this sleek silvery box? Similarly why is so much of my life contained within the less sleek oblong that is my phone? I got along very well in life, I think before either one of them were in my life taking up time, giving me this false sense of self importance.
I was thinking of the world the way it looks now when my husband and I went to yoga together at a new hi tech studio that isn’t like any studio I usually go to. We went because we like the teacher and it’s close and even at LA rush hour you can get there in a flash.
Before we went, we checked on line to see if the teacher we liked had a sub. He didn’t. We could do this on our phones or on our computers. But so what? I’ve been doing yoga long enough to remember the days when you could call the studio and ask, “is so and so teaching today” and actually hear a human voice. That human voice, in fact, had a job.
While we were waiting with our mats for class, I noticed an electronic sign above the door, “SHHH! SAVASANA IN SESSION!!!
Sometimes teachers used to come out and shush noisy people who were waiting at the door. It was far more effective. You actually felt shame for disturbing the class that was in session.
Did this electronic world, the one that arose in the eleven years I had my old computer create the world we find ourselves in today? The one where an illiterate nincompoop with a horrible dye job currently reigns?
Yes. And Yes again.
How is it that Huxley saw it?
That Orwell knew about it?
That Bernie Saunders, the polar opposite of this wretched bully had a chance. And that all of us seemed powerless to stop what happened.
Will 2016 be the new 1939?
I don’t want to admit how old I will be in the eleven years I plan to have my new Mac. I’m scared to think how I’ll look. But even more scared to think how the world will look.
May All Beings Everywhere Be Happy and Free from Suffering.
Henry got away from me today at a local nursery. One minute I was holding his leash, the next, he had slipped out of my hand and was zipping gleefully through the trees in the back lot, a little speck of white among the evergreens. I knew from past experience the last thing you want to do when something like that happens is start chasing. Henry knows the protocol at the beach. He runs off, he chases birds, but at the beach he comes back. At the beach there aren’t trucks and cars going in and out. At the beach there’s usually a pack of dogs he’s running with. Here at this strange nursery where none of us had ever been, he was in all new territory.
Even though my husband is the only one who can make Henry come when called, I knew it was fruitless when he started shouting, “Hen-ry! Get over here, right now!”
It was a dank cold day, and a drizzle was coming down. The huge evergreens were rich and fragrant, and Henry was getting lost among them, peeing on one, sniffing another.
I stood on the edge of this seeming primordial forest. Each tree must be worth tens of thousands. I saw white, I saw his little brown head. Then I didn’t see him at all.
“Here Henry!” I called out as nonchalantly– as sweetly– as possible. I squatted down to ground level. Pretty soon, my little dog appeared in front of the trees and inched closer. I continued to squat, blessing my yoga practice, holding out my arms.
From behind me, my husband hissed, “sit Henry!”
And of course, being Henry, the little anarchist ran away back among the giant trees and bushes for sale. Henry sits very nicely for his morning and evening meals. Or when he doesn’t want to be left behind at home. But there was no bowl of food anywhere in sight. I could see him leaping among the trees, a quick moving spot of white bigger than a rabbit, reminding me of theRoad Runner.
Lord, I didn’t want him to run for the road.
I looked behind me. My husband looked panic stricken, pale and his mouth was trembling. He swore softly. It occurred to me why the almighty had chosen women to run the small being show. We have more faith. We have more patience. And let’s face it: we’re totally used to this sort of shit. Toddlers toddle off down the street unaware of danger; dogs go chasing anything that moves or smells. When we’re young and taking care of our babies and little ones, we’re in the presence of death on a quotidian level. Even an hourly level. Minute by minute women have to sit there guarding their offspring: from the street, from the bullies in the playground, from the ocean or swimming pool. Men have to join gangs, ride motorcycles or traditionally go to war to create that kind of awareness. Stay at home Dads of course are the exception to the rule.
By now, the rain was really coming down; my feet were numb with cold. It’s been the frostiest May I can remember. I wondered how I was going to find my little dog among the tall evergreens at the Whitmore nursery. I wondered how long it was going to take. I didn’t really panic, because I felt confident Henry wouldn’t forsake me. Henry didn’t want to die. Henry was smart.
But he wasn’t coming out. From the front of the nursery, I could hear my husband calling, “Henry! Henry!”
I looked among the trees. It was getting harder and harder to see with the grey mist and rain. I prayed to the gods who rule the canines. Don’t take Henry! Send him to me.
In the end total submission was required. Often that is the case when you love another being: a child, a husband, a friend,—you have to just let it all go and say, I submit. I’ll lay down and let it all go, if only you’ll come back.
This is my love and I’m proving it!
So, I squatted down, put my head on my knees. And, thanked my yoga practice. I was in traditional Child’s Pose. Quads folded, arms out, head down. I was wearing my raincoat, but still I felt the drops on my back. Under my face, was wet earth, the earth smelled rich and sweet. I waited. I breathed. I have seldom felt so utterly in the present moment as I did in the mud in the back of the nursery, waiting for my dog. Certainly not in most child’s poses in the controlled calm of the yoga studio.
Presently, as I suspected, (or had been instructed by the gods who control canines) Henry was upon me, licking my hand. I could picture his little face, with its grin of hilarity. Nothing Henry likes better than a prank. I grabbed him. He was covered in mud as I was. His leash was solid brown, just as the front of my coat was.
I hugged him to me, kissed his head, then set him on the ground and grabbed hold of his muddy leash, and we went and found my husband who was in front, still shouting, watching the road…
An olfactory hallucination (phantosmia) makes you detect smells that aren’t really present in your environment. The odors detected in phantosmia vary from person to person and may be foul or pleasant. They can occur in one or both nostrils. The phantom smell may seem to always be present or it may come and go. Phantosmia may occur after a head injury or upper respiratory infection. It can also be caused by temporal lobe seizures, inflamed sinuses, brain tumors and Parkinson’s disease.
My mother in law whom my son named Nia is haunting our house in Springs, the shabby arty part of East Hampton. I can smell her.
A good many of the Abstract Expressionists came to Springs: Pollock, deKooning, , to name two. They all hung out, my husband remembers being taken to de Kooning’s studio when he was little. The paintings didn’t really interest him—he had enough of that boring shit at home—he liked the painter’s restaurant stove where the he cooked himself lunch every day.
We wouldn’t of course have this house but for her and the fact that she bought land in Springs when it was cheap and gave my husband land to build a house. And the handy, crafts manly person that he is, built himself a house.
They had their house. He had his house. The thick oak tree woods make the places invisible to each other in the summer. The first time I came here, and he and I were eating lunch outside, I saw this pixie person walking across the woods with a basket.
“Whose that?” I asked.
My husband looked down.
Nia had a very breathy birdy voice, a voice as distinctive as her smell.
“I’ve brought berries!” she said that day. And that was the beginning of her intrusions.
I never really minded because she was a trip. And I didn’t have any elders; all my elders were dead. I liked her, she liked me. She read books, she knew interesting people. And she was very nice to me and to my friends. Her relationship with my husband was a wee bit more complex.
Nia died unexpectedly, the day the levee burst in New Orleans just after her eighty -fifth birthday. My father in law, who was way older, died years before. Now, since Sunday (today is Thursday) I’ll be walking through the house and I’ll catch her scent: part old lady, which means (moth-bally), mixed with Christian Dior’s Miss Dior perfume, her signature scent. One minute I’ll catch a distinct whiff, and then in the next instant it’s gone. This is not my imagination. I do not have temporal lobe disease. This is a solid olfactory fact.
She’s here. My husband doesn’t smell her. But I do. So far, she’s only in the kitchen/dining room. She hasn’t wafted into the bedroom, which surprises me, she was hardly discreet.
If I start writing about her at length, I’m worried instead of these rather startling whiffs, the whole spirit will materialize. What will I do then?
Is it because finally her little house across the way is going up for sale? How come when I was there last summer, all by myself, she didn’t come then? Why here? Why now?
When the task of cleaning out her apartment in New York fell to me, the huge run down eight rooms with a view, where she and my father in law lived, held court, and stayed for fifty years, she showed up a lot. And so did he. The feelings were so strong and intense; sometimes I had to sit down to recover from them. I felt then they didn’t want to leave the apartment. (Neither did I—finding a stable place to stay in New York is to say the least: arduous.)
This is something else. This is not a feeling. This is a precise smell, when she walked in the room, there she was Nia and her smell. I could be cooking with her and her Nia smell even transcended the food smells, it was sui generis, completely her.
Odd too, that one of my early novels has a ghost that returns first as a scent. Then completely materializes in the apartment of my main character. First there was the Joy perfume (does anyone wear Joy anymore?) and then the ghost of Annie’s mother Theo is sitting on one of the chairs in her living room in New York.
I never could get anyone to publish that book. But I steal things from it from time to time and put it in other stories and books.
Has Nia stolen that bit from the novel I wrote?
I can smell Nia now. I smelled her just a few minutes ago when Henry and I came in from our last walk of the day.
Do I consult a physician?
This afternoon, my husband caught me sniffing. I was sniffing, and looking around and he said, “What are you doing? You’re like Divine in Polyester.”
“Sorry!” I said…
Sniff sniff. Stay tuned…but in the meantime, enjoy Mother In Law by Ernie K Doe, a fabulous blues singer who I actually saw perform in New Orleans when I was a kid. I used to sing it in anticipation of her yearly visit to the coast.
Henry and I got lost on Easter Sunday trying to get to a beach party in the Northwest Woods: A large track of land owned once upon a time by one person and now, like so much of the land around here, in East Hampton, subdivided into places for the weekend rich to renovate, landscape, and decorate to their heart’s content.
I have a secret yen to participate in the above activities, but I have never so far in my life’s journey given into the temptation.
For years I’ve been consciously working on this issue. I’m optimistic that one day, before I am rolled into the crematoria, I will have a place with chairs and couches, proper window shades, and a magnificent rug and lamps and pictures that all have a certain harmony and forethought and I will be comfortable in that room. It seems far more complex than writing a book, or learning to stand on my hands in the middle of the room as I can stand on my head and on my forearms. The aforementioned takes practice, the other stuff takes a sense of entitlement I’ve never possessed.
Every place I’ve ever lived is bare, except for books, and pictures. Books are one thing, and pictures are easy, even before I married into a family of an artist and his friends, I had lots of pictures. Pictures and books don’t seem to be on my personal index.
Once upon a time, I had a friend who was the opposite of me in that regard and we were great friends for a long time. I thought of her as Henry and I were getting lost in the Northwest on Easter afternoon. I always got lost going to her house too. She had a nice big house of the kind even if I went to two shrinks twice a day for the rest of my life, I could never feel entitled to—not that I didn’t like going there. It was so comfortable. It was so pretty. It was so luxurious, but in a nice interesting way. Taste, style and an ability to spend money with impunity. I have a modicum of taste and style, what I lack is the impunity part. She knew that about me, and used to admonish me.
And I’m guessing that was what happened to our friendship. One of the things anyway.
Henry and I were driving along this incredibly long tree-lined country road, with no real demarcations, everyone gets lost in the Northwest. No place to buy milk or a newspaper, no mailbox, no signposts…
I was recognizing names of streets. Probably the name of the developer’s children. When I was growing up my friend Janie Davis lived on Janie Lane, a street named by her father in honor of her.
Houses come and go. When I was growing up, as we descended down the socioeconomic ladder we went from big house to townhouse, to apartments… practically nobody lived in apartments in my hometown.
Perhaps that’s why I love New York City so much, because everybody lives in apartments. And too, maybe my lack of attachment to things comes from that time.
Your house is where you are supposed to feel safe. A friendship is a sort of house too, when it’s good you feel safe within it. I didn’t like the big house we had to move out of and never felt safe there. And come to think of it, I often felt in great peril in that friendship.
I was turning left, I was turning right, a jolt of misery, as sharp as a kick in the stomach hit me. For my former friend and our last conversation. For the yard sale my mother had right before we moved out of the big house. My four poster bed went that day. Afterwards my beloved Aline, our housekeeper, told me she would have bought the bed had she known Miz Marcus was going to sell it. How come nobody told me my bed was going? Our silver tea service also went. I had to stop the car and heave a little.
Afterwards, I felt much better. Cheerful in fact! Henry just sat there as dogs do, looking straight ahead, ears up. Dogs are enormously comforting and I’m so grateful to have little Henry in my life.
I decided not to go to the party. I’d forgotten my hat anyway, and set forth without any wine or nibbles for the potluck, and so I wended my way home.
And didn’t get lost!
It was my first experience of competence in the damn Northwest.
Good old T.S. was right when he said, “People change and smile but the agony abides. Time the destroyer is time the preserver.”
Good old T.S. Eliot. I’m not reading him so much anymore.
Maybe because I read so much of him at one point, another few lines kept going through my head on my fifteen-minute escape down the long country road:
… Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
It was raining cats and dogs when I went to MOMA today with my friend Mark, who is in town to cover some musical events. The MOMA of today isn’t the MOMA I cut my teeth on, where I knew where everything was. The new MOMA is beautiful. I knew the first time I entered its doors it was beautiful, but it’s not home anymore, it’s just a beautiful place where I don’t know my way around.
Mark was interested in this thing that was going on, a dance choreographed by someone he admires a lot, with a group of musicians that changed every hour. It was in one of those gorgeous big white rooms of many stories with galleries and window spaces dotting the walls. The room was white, the walls were white, the floor was white. The dancer was wearing white. We leaned against the wall, and watched the dancer and listened to the piano music that was strange, hard to process and alienating—but not alienating enough to be awful. I didn’t exactly get it, but I liked it.
The dancer was moving around the room. Mark told me sotto voce that the choreography owed a big debt to Merce Cunningham, someone Mark had known well. Myself, I thought the choreography owed a big debt to yoga. There was an up-dog, a down-dog, a gorgeous upward facing bow, not to mention several Warrior III’s. But that seemed like a stupid thing to say to my friend. Or to anyone else who wasn’t into yoga.
I thought about the old MOMA where there weren’t all these huge public spaces and event rooms. At the old MOMA once upon a time, I had met my beautiful cousin Judith for lunch and did not know it would be the last time I’d ever see her. We hadn’t met in years. I’d always loved her. And I don’t remember how or why we had finally gotten together.
We were eating lunch in the old cafeteria. And she almost let it rip about her father, my uncle, and I almost let it rip about my father, her uncle. It was after she said, sort of sadly to me, “Your father was the nice one. Everyone loved him.”
I started to tremble, as I used to do, when on the rare occasions I met up with any of my blood relations. And they mentioned how my father was the nice one.
“My father wasn’t nice,” I said. “Not to me, anyway. Was your father nice to you?”
Cousin Judith said, “I never knew a single nice moment with my father. Not one. Not a single one. I spent my childhood trying to protect my mother.”
“Same here,” I replied. We both looked down.
I remember thinking what had happened to me had happened to her. Maybe it was some sort of family pact, a blood oath. All these years I thought I was the only one. But I didn’t ask her about what happened to her in detail. I just kept my head down.
And pretty soon after that we left the cafeteria. And pretty soon after that, I heard my cousin Judith was gravely ill with the exact same thing that had killed her mother, and suddenly she was dead. It is one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t have the guts to take the conversation to the next level. The taboo was just too strong.
Mark suggested we go to something else he was interested in, some thing by a Japanese videographer he admires.
We went into a pitch-black room where images of naked people chasing each other were projected onto the wall. Naked images were humping each other, jumping inside each other; it was very trendy, very arty, and not particularly sexy. Or maybe I was back in my childhood.
We went back to the big white room where more and more people had gathered. Mark and I leaned against the wall, but most of the people in there were sitting down in a circle on the floor. By now there was a flautist, another pianist, a violinist and many dancers.
Mark said he wished he had the time to stay for the whole nine-hour cycle.
Afterwards we stopped by the bookstore/gift shop and I saw a knife rack almost exactly like one my husband had made for us years ago out of two pieces of birch invisibly joined. I took a picture of it and texted it to my husband. In the old MOMA, the one that felt like home, people couldn’t take pictures and send them all the way across the country in the blink of an eye. There were some people who might have known that was possible but I wasn’t one of them.
In many ways it was a simpler world back then. Not so much to remember, not so many passwords and gadgets, not so many things to distract one.
Eliot: distracted from distraction by distraction.
It was raining even harder when we left MOMA and headed to the Pain Quotidian near Carnegie Hall. The wind was blowing like crazy and Mark’s expensive umbrella did that cheap umbrella thing which was to suddenly turn inside out and become useless.
I was ravenous and stuffed myself with bread and butter before my big bowl of lentil soup arrived.
I wished with all my heart my cousin Judith was still alive and we could meet again and this time have the real conversation. I imagined her walking in the door, my introducing her to Mark and the two of them talking about the famous violinist she had a relationship with for many years, who was in the Budapest String Quartet. He was older even than her father, with whom she’d never known a nice moment, like I’d never known one with mine.
Very few of my close friends are on Facebook. I participate to post my blog and do the occasional round of keeping up with the two thousand plus imaginary friends I have, that I “made” in order to promote my work. Though I like the pictures of people’s children and dogs, any and all yoga stuff, the occasional plate of gorgeous food, I think we all spend too much time on line. It’s bad for the eyes, it’s bad for the ass, and I think honestly it’s even worse for the spirit.
I say this about FB with a few notable exceptions. One is my friend Andrea, whom I’m seeing in a few minutes. The other is the wonderful fiction writer Steve Yarbrough who I can honestly say is my real friend, whom I wouldn’t have met but for Facebook. I read his posts the same way I read the New York Times: religiously. Steve plays the guitar and will sometimes make a video of himself playing Bluegrass. It’s great fun. Friend him on line, if you like gentle reader, but better than that, read Steve Yarbrough’s books.
The other person whom I’ve been following (far less sedulously) was a dude named Okla Elliot who was young, taught English and religion at some obscure university and wrote a book about Bernie Saunders during the campaign. And always had a lot of lively things to say about poetry, about the books he was reading, about his life (which sounded weird, frankly), monkish with junk food seems to be the only description I can come up with.
Okla was found dead this morning. And now there are tributes to him on line. Apparently, Okla had a mild case of diabetes, one not requiring insulin, but diabetes is a known culprit in heart attacks. Probably that’s what happened to him.
I didn’t feel very much when Princess Diana died. Sure I felt sorry for her children, she was young, she was pretty, she was compelling, I suppose. I was appalled and amazed at the orgy of mourning her dying set off, not just in England but all over the world. I was running at the time, and the woman I used to run with, a biologist, who had a daughter, a husband and two pet rats, went on and on and had to stop to catch her breath from weeping for a solid week after the pretty princess was killed in the back seat of her limo. Another friend actually stayed up all night so she wouldn’t miss the funeral on TV. I didn’t get that then and I don’t get it now. How does a media star burn her way into your psyche?
But I deeply mourn the passing of Okla Elliot, obscure poet, obscure intellectual, earnest fellow and very very nice; you could see that reading his posts.
And I feel the sense of loss that people must have felt when that young and pretty princess died. I feel like the world has lost a prince of another kind.
Okla never had his picture splattered over any tabloid. His sartorial style resembled as far as I can make out, early Boy Scout. Still, I’m willing to bet, he will stay with me forever.
I am profoundly sorry this lovely man died young. And I will miss this virtual stranger. If I knew who his parents were, I’d write them a sympathy card. A real one, in handwriting, on plain thick vellum with a return address and the prettiest stamp I could find in the house.