Mr. Iyengar’s Fire Drill

Royce auditorium at UCLA was packed to overflowing. It was the night the most famous yogi in the world, teacher of the violinist Jasha Heifetz, author of Light on Yoga, and the most influential book ever written on yoga, came to Los Angeles. The year was 2005. People weren’t afraid of crowds then. Oklahoma had happened. 9-11 had happened.  But homegrown acts of violence were few and far between. There were no armed guards, no metal detectors, and no hint of fear in anyone’s face.

I was sitting way in back and way up high with my friend Sarah and her friend Michael.  All the famous yogis in town were there. There are a lot of famous yogis in Los Angeles. All the less famous yogis were there too. Even more of them.  On stage were the movie star yogis, one or two dressed ceremonially bowing hands together in Namaste. A lot of speakers came on and said laudatory things. We had been there about half an hour when a voice came over the loud speaker. We were told to evacuate the auditorium. And we hadn’t even gotten to see the great man himself.

I have thought about the fire drill often, and especially these days, when people are so jumpy. When the world is so scary. A very dear friend of mine was caught last spring in a stampede in Penn Station when somebody thought a gun had gone off. She abandoned her suitcase and ran. It still freaks her out when she thinks of it.

That night, nobody ran.  Nobody looked worried, nobody seemed to be in a rush, there was no pushing, no panic, the Royce Auditorium at UCLA which was packed to capacity, all filed out peacefully and we stood in little clusters in front of the building, schmoosing, waving to people we knew.

Then just as unceremoniously, everybody started filing in Royce Hall again. We found our place high high up in the highest balcony, and the auditorium was quiet again.

At last the great man himself appeared.

All eyebrows and fluid motion, in a soft colorful loose fitting outfit of bloomers and scarves in orange and white silk.  BKS, moved with the grace and ease of a happy child. In fact, that’s what he seemed like, a happy grey haired child with floppy cartoonish eyebrows set loose upon us.  He smiled. He touched his palms together; he bowed to us and said some words about his new book Light on Life He was old and these were his final words on the ancient practice he had made so famous. And of course so lucrative for so many people. Then he bowed again and thanked us. Everyone in the audience gave him a thundering, cheering standing ovation.

Honestly it was pagan worship but I have nothing against paganism and neither did anyone else in the audience.  Certainly not Mr. Iyengar who was perfectly comfortable being worshiped.

With its huge population of entertainers and want-to-be entertainers LA has always been a magnet for the cult, be it scientology, yoga, or nutrition. Where after all did the first yogi in the US find his home when he arrived at the turn of the twentieth century?  High above the Pacific Coast Highway, of course. And his fellowship is still operating. I haven’t been to its wonderful garden since the big drought of the past years or perhaps more importantly the advent of Henry in my life. Unlike India, the homeland of Paramahansa Yogananda and Mr. Iyengar, dogs are not allowed to roam free in the garden.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Twelve years have passed since Mr. Iyengar came to town and Royce Hall evacuated peacefully and then filed back in to the see the great proponent of modern yoga who died a few years later. When he passed on, all the yoga studios put out shrines with candles and flowers.

There are shrines all over the country now, in Texas, in Nevada, in Colorado for various acts of violence. Ones that keep coming, gaining force…

Mr. Iyengar’s shrines, as well as his memory, are a beacon of hope for us all in these times when none of us are easy, when we’ve all forgotten what it’s like to feel really safe.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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There Will Be Blood

For the past month or so I’ve been taking this class called “Mindfulness Boot Camp” which is an insane amount of fun. Eight or ten grownups are in a gym size room working their way through various resistance and weight training exercises. Yesterday we climbed up the wall on ropes, did the spider crawl the width of a gym sized room, jumped rope, did weighted hula hoop, and lots of squats and things with resistance bands for legs and arms. In both classes there were some very fit men in their forties, some surprisingly fit overweight girls in their twenties, a couple of old bags in decent shape like I am, and of course the instructor who is ripped within an inch of his life. He participates along with us, all the while shouting out encouraging bits like, “Finish strong!”

I have left the class each week, tired and sweaty and realizing how much I need to play hard, something that was drilled into me not to do as a young woman growing up in the south—I can only pray the south of today is significantly different—but you never know. Look how long it took them to take down a few moldering statues of slave loving generals.

My particular athletic career (track and field and especially swimming at which I excelled) was cut short by the arrival of my period somewhere around the age of twelve.

Even though I had an older sister and a mother, several aunts, a grandmother and at least three close girlfriends, I remember knowing so little about the whole thing, that I announced to my mother, “I think administration is here!”

I remember I made this announcement in the doorway of her bedroom with the en suite bathroom. I remember too the shocked look on her face when she shouted, “NO! You’re making this up!”

I also remember when I insisted on showing her the evidence; she went from angry and accusatory to sad and resigned. I was sent to her en suite loo, told to sit and sometime later a nasty looking rig, like a garter belt with an armrest appeared. And that—in spite of my city record in the butterfly and the individual medley—was the end of my athletic career, as I knew it.

Big deal…

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

What is a much bigger deal is the amount of money made by multi-nationals on products for the female nether region—the one Harvey Weinstein went after and after and after. The same region 45 bragged he got to grab—because he’s a celebrity.

That region, the female down there, in the religion of my forefathers and mothers, is meant to be unclean. Orthodox Jews still require a mikva to make it kosher for the gents to go down there at all after the filthy event that happens every month. I’m about to go look up and see if it’s the same for Muslim women.

First there are the philosophical underpinnings. Then there’s the billions and billions of dollars spent on products to staunch the flow in as unnatural and uncomfortable way as possible. And make the multinationals even richer!

(How many women do you suppose run multinational companies?)

My friend Delphine Hirsh, a great writer and interesting, funny human being, just started an org called theflow.world to spread the word about better, healthier and cheaper reusable options. For example, the simple little menstrual cup (lifetime cost: $120 versus over $4K for pads and tampons!) is not just the answer to so many girls’ prayers but also keeps thousands and thousands of used tampons and pads out of landfills and sewage. These products are kind to your body, light on your wallet, easy on the environment and perhaps help do away with the undue brouhaha associated with down there.

Could it be possible?

Here’s the link to staunch the flow: theflow.world

I just looked up what Muslim women do (and often Muslim and Jewish rules are the same) and yes, the Muslim women are forbidden to have sex when they have their periods. And in fact, are not even supposed to fast or pray.

That, of course, could be a big relief come Ramadan.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Early Into Vice

A thousand years ago, when I was fifteen, I had a secret vice which was to “borrow” my mothers Pontiac Bonneville and drive out to the small landing strip that called itself the Greater Shreveport Airport. I’d park the car, go inside to the newsstand and there, I would purchase a Baby Ruth and a copy of the National Enquirer, sit down in the airport’s waiting room, eat my candy bar and read the sleazy newspaper that wasn’t allowed in my house. A nurse who had once been in residence when my mother was ill had stacks of them. This publication was as off limits to me as Playboy magazine, which I also tried secretly to look at. And once was discovered and taken home and spanked by my mother who was picking up her Dexedrine and sleeping pills at the pharmacist, whilst I was perusing the dirty magazines waiting for her.

Trashy magazines, trashy newspapers, “dirty” novels like Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Couples were all banned in my childhood home—I remember because I tried to get to them all at various stages of my growing up. Imagine a curious pubescent today skulking toward Updike or Nabokov? The parent of such a child would post of his or her little genius on Facebook and Instagram.

But back then, sex was dirty. And trashy magazines were contraband.

Baby Abducted By Aliens
Dog Lives To Be 200
Grandmother Strangles Bank Robber

I loved all these headlines as I loved the crunch of the Baby Ruth. I think it’s interesting that the candy I always chose was not my favorite which was Almond Joy. My mother’s name was Ruth. I think the reading of the trashy newspaper and the eating of the Baby Ruth was a “fuck you” to my mother who was as ridiculously strict with me as a teenager as she was negligent of my younger self, who was bullied, abused, and generally made use of by everyone in my family. Manifestly I was furious at her. And in rebellion from her values.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

Maybe because I’m reading newspapers online these days, I’m reminded of my ancient love of pulp. I can see already getting news this way is dangerous. And how bombarded I am by this constant trashy shit. I think as the lines between journalism and trash are blurred, obscured and ultimately done away with, I am not just getting stupider as a reader, I am similarly losing my intellectual and instinctual understanding of what is trash and what is journalism.

Isn’t that how 45 won? He and his people conned the American public who were apparently more gullible than my fifteen-year-old self . Facebook of course is beyond Big Brother. Facebook is perhaps the Antichrist.

My new secret vice, one I discovered of course on Facebook is online quizzes. I find myself stopping work, ostensibly just to check my email and ending up, spending half an hour on a quiz. Why? Because I nearly always get a hundred percent. Yes, hooked I am on those stupider than stupid multiple-choice questions: Who wrote Moby Dick, George Orwell, John O’Hara, James Patterson or Herman Melville? And being told I’m a genius when I get it right. What is the future perfect of go? Who painted this masterpiece? Rembrandt, Matisse, Renoir or Picasso? And when I correctly answer these anodyne questions the average nincompoop with a modest BA like I’ve got finds trouble free, I’m rewarded with: your IQ is at least a million; you are a grammarian with a PhD., an art historian, etc.

The tests are no more an indication of what’s upstairs in my little head, (or yours either) than the sidebar on Facebook is a true picture of what’s going on in the real world, if there is such a thing as reality any more.

The National Enquirer has won.

 

 

 

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Dark Winds of Sisterhood

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.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

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.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Real World/Made Up World

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.  

Jericho Brown

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.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

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.

And be eternally grateful that I can.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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Zen and the Art of Dry Cleaning

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.

Mary Marcus, topknot, mary marcus fiction, hair, short hair, mother,

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.

Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levy

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