Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I could write a book about running a marathon



In the time I would have usually given to post on here I've been forcing (not a good word to use, sounds like a backhoe should be involved) myself to work on revising my novels and short stories instead. I didn't want the blog to become yet another distraction from larger goals, yet another fake To Do item on a fake To Do list. That same "busy on purpose" theme from back when I started writing this blog -- I just can't get away from it. All the things being too busy saves us from. Having to be organized. Having to grow up. (Staying disorganized itself seems to keep us in perpetual kid-role. "I keep getting late fees" and "I can't find my keys" are just new versions of "I can't find my backpack" and "I keep forgetting my lunch".) Always running from one thing to the next keeps you from having to figure out priorities. Something more pressing than what is really pressing. Fear, sadness and silence of course are easier to block out. Giving real goals an honest chance. Always much easier to say I would have if I'd had more time. (My brother-in-law and I were joking while out on a jog Thanksgiving morning about how everyone talks about running a marathon just like everyone says, "I could write a book". He came up with "I could write a book about running a marathon." We pictured someone in an easy chair cracking open a beer.) Just like I get so annoyed at that infuriatingly simple yet helpful happiness book (Gretchen Rubin). It's not like I really could have written it. Obviously I have not done anything close to it. Instead I'd rather have 10 much-better books that I'll one day write. There's a great quote I read recently about how we should give up trying to be perfect and start becoming ourselves. I'll give up trying to be perfect and not bother trying to figure out who said it before posting this, meaning it would become yet another of a dozen or so drafts that haven't been published. 


Oh, here it is, Anna Quindlen: "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." Oh man you all have to go read this right now. Her 1999 commencement speech at Mount Holyoke. Just please read it immediately or at least add it to your fake To Do list with a big star next to it.


In writing the blog, I started to get through some of the crazy thoughts I didn't realize I had. (I really hate the word blog. Doesn't it take too long to say given how short it is?Also it just sounds self-indulgent --my blog, my blog, have you seen my blog? Read it all the way back from the beginning hopefully in order? Memorized it so I don't have to tell you what I've been up to lately? Why haven't you had time to catch up on it? BTW, those of you who tell me you have trouble keeping up with it—surely I’ve given you enough time now.) And getting through those has allowed me not to need to prove so much. I think I was always trying to prove something to myself through others; I suppose this isn't uncommon. But I tended to do this in an odd an unproductive way. Like with the fear of asking to be removed from mailing lists. I tried to get off Macy's. I've only bought one thing there once. They did let me squirrel out of receiving coupons and cancel a credit card I never signed up for, but they pressed about why I couldn’t simply receive email offers and I eventually caved. You’re right, I guess that’s really not much of a sacrifice. I can easily delete those. What was I proving? In that small ridiculous way that I wasn’t a jerk who was going to say no, flat out.  That’s just one small piece of it.  Plus I’m doing something I’ve often been advised not to do – writing about an area where I have no authority. But I really don’t have authority in any area at all except former wanna-be-rock-star future wanna-be-writer current mom to kid who played today for an hour in a sensory gym and 2 hours in the dirt and walked a full mile and still can’t fall asleep. I guess I am a little bit of an authority on that. 

Wally will likely continue his party tricks. Like this evening in front of the Christmas windows at Macy's when a woman pointed and told the crowd "Look, he gets out of his stroller himself!". This is the big stroller where he actually has to climb out because I accidentally left the toddler stroller in Mass. 

Yet in so many ways he's just been so easy, so much fun. Taking off his shirt today and saying, "This is not my tummy." (Not sure what that meant.) He listens and looks at me when I talk. He doesn't run off too much. We do art projects, quick ones, like stringing noodles together. He held my hand as I pushed the stroller for a mile and he's now figured out what to do when waiting for the lights to change. He jumps in place. I thought about how people were probably thinking -- Why doesn't she put him in the stroller? The streets were packed and it was ridiculous to walk in that fashion.  "She has no control over her kid" rearing its head again. And the truth is, in that way I don't have much. At least until I find a stroller where he can't undo the straps and climb out. But a man sitting on the street outside D'Aiudos loved it and said, "Good for you little man. Get your exercise. Make those legs strong." The rest of the way Wally kept saying, "That was funny" and then asking for confirmation that he'd see the funny man again tomorrow. So maybe not everyone was thinking about the bad mom stuff. Maybe, like Grandma Eleanor used to say, you'd be amazed to know how little people are thinking about you at all. Or did someone more famous say that, like actually say that. Eleanor Roosevelt or something? I need to get more sleep (thanks, Gretchen Rubin) and start making more sense. Or stop, Talking Heads style. I'm getting into free-associative state and should clearly stop this post and go write Haikus. (Or work on my "novels". Oh, and there's a contest for 30-word stories, deadline today. Go apply! I sent in 3. Surely we all have time for that.) 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Suburban Birthdays






Just remembered to write a message to a friend saying “Sorry I forgot your birthday”. Man that sounds like something that would be on this website some e cards Don't forget to say Sorry I Forgot Your Birthday this year! I should at least call him up, shouldn't I? This is one of my close friends. I'm always kinda happy when people forget my birthday. Not in a Sixteen Candles way--where everyone forgets--but I like the sense that I am off the hook for other people, which reminds me of a non-acknowledgement clause a few friends and I once signed saying we agreed not to be offended if our birthdays were forgotten. 

Do people with anniversaries expect acknowledgment from friends on that date? I can't imagine that anyone would, but maybe I'm just a real jerk when it comes to that stuff. Do people send other people cards for their anniversaries or are those only something you buy for your partner? My ignorance doesn’t simply stem from the fact that I’m not married myself. It really goes back to my parents’ lack of emphasis on occasions. We mostly just trade “IOUs” back and forth, year after year. It’s more environmentally and financially sustainable than real gift-giving. And the person usually gets (an IOU for) something he or she really wants. I recently found a pile of money IOUs in my little cash drawer from when I was a kid. These weren't gifts, but just my parents borrowing money. They owe me several hundred dollars at least. Then again, they can always say it's sort of a wash compared to the $100,000 they had to shell out for Dartmouth. (A former boss of mine used to say that it was okay to underpay British vendors for books because they came here and bought nice clothes on 5th Avenue since the pound was stronger than the dollar. He'd do this thing where he'd wave his arms back and forth, one over the other, and say, "It all washes out".) 

Maybe part of my problem is I'm just not remembering things anymore.  I used to have a fantastic memory for dates. It surprised people at first and I think aggravated them after a while. Not every day has to be related back to what happened on that day last year and the year before that like a weather forecast. Outside the possibility that weather patterns are being influenced by human activity– global warming, the whole fact of the ozone layer wasting away– the record high temperature on this exact date last year is not particularly interesting to other people, has no real place in conversation.
  
The dates that stand out for me are generally not tied to universal turning points like birthdays, New Years, or the end of the school year. Nor are those seared into memory usually the record of high drama. They are usually instead the moments when circumstances converged to create an almost deliriously strong sense of looming possibility. So I can remember the weather really precisely. I can remember how it felt.

That same friend, whose birthday I missed, came to visit New York recently. He talked about it being the center. That he feels outside where he is (Hanover, New Hampshire), that life is passing him by. That is a comfort, here, in New York. I do feel here always at the center of things. Like even if you don't really go to all the Spanish New Wave rooftop film festivals and bamboo exhibits, you still feel you are a part of things. I really don't know how you ever leave New York, no matter how much you may grow to hate it. I don't know how you get over every other place on earth just about, save London or Hong Kong, feeling like a ghost town. 


In that adorable New Hampshire town we went to for Halloween we discussed dinner options for after the corn maze: there was one pizza place we could go to. The other restaurant was closed, it being a Sunday. Otherwise we could buy things at the supermarket and cook back at the house. We chose the latter. I always forget about the down side of small towns. Back in Massachusetts the following week my dad and I went out to eat one night while my mom stayed with Wally. We had to call around to see what restaurant would be open past 9 and decided on Lotus Blossom, a beautiful, popular place that feels like a country inn. We were the only ones there. Too late at night (9:30). Ghost town. Not to mention going out for Chinese in the burbs feels borderline irresponsible. (But the place is really good.)

I grew up in the suburbs and honestly can't imagine anything I like better. (Then why don't you move back there? The problem of how to leave New York. You sound insane. I know.) I think I'm the only person on earth who idealizes strip malls and boredom to such a degree. Yet my parents didn't mean to be there and I think always thought they'd leave. That, like in the song, they'd go back to New York City when they believed they'd had enough. During the summer after high school my friends and I often sat on the back porch of my condo listening to Visions of Johanna through the windows and sometimes slipping down in the dark to jump in the neighborhood pool after hours. Sometimes my next door neighbor Leslie would catch us there and tell us we had to get out. She was the town's Driver's Ed teacher so she had a bit of small-town clout. "Rules is rules" she'd say. "The pool is closed." It closed at 9. By 11 all the houses in the neighborhood would be dark. We'd go back to my porch and turn the stereo on again or drive down to Dunkin' Donuts or the Pool Hall. Where else was there to go? Nowhere. And that's how I liked it. In the Dylan song, Johanna is a lost lover. For us it was childhood. Some of my friends were excited for the next phase of life. To me it all seemed so cruel.


***

One evening in June after college ended I was sitting on the back porch at home and asked my dad if he ever imagined he’d end up in a place like that where people sat there stranded and all did their best to deny it. At night he says he still dreams of Coney Island in the 50’s when even if you walked the boardwalk the whole five-miles from Seagate to the far end of Brighton Beach, you couldn't find a place among the crowds to put your towel down on the sand. Talk about being in the center of things.

"Never, never thought I'd end up here." I caught the momentary disappointment, surprise undone by years of resignation, but also the wonder.  He had been twenty-two once as well, set adrift after college, eyes wide and swollen, with no direction home.  He’d had grand ambitions that could never take their place among the exigencies of the everyday.  He looked at the plain backyard that had mesmerized me so many summer evenings, but looked further than the houses as well, beyond it, into the past, and past it.





***

New York feels more hopeful these days. The amazing things and infuriating things balance each other, equally as strong. They're all awash sometimes, canceling each other and converging into another chance to begin. A new blank page, no matter how many terrible rough drafts. We always live here in that sense of possibility, that anticipatory moment. Almost, not really, but sort of like a muted version of the way birthday mornings used to feel as a kid. 

Birthdays weren't always traded IOUs that cancelled each other out. Sometimes they were cranberry-walnut muffins waiting on the table just for me, my orange cat in the windowsill, me creeping down the stairs alone in pajamas, the smell of fresh-cut grass, that brand-new-world feeling of the earth finally tilting back toward the sun. A ten-speed bike on my 10th birthday propped up in the dining room. That overflowing, overjoyful, unbearable sense of adventure. Just screaming, "I can't believe it, I can't believe it, I can't believe it" over and over again until you do. And even then, you still don't. Yet once I jumped on that bike--where did I go? Looping around that little neighborhood. And that itself was way more than I could ever have asked for. Magical birthdays like that--sometimes it's easier to forget them, too.  It just makes it all too concise and too clear.

Monday, November 15, 2010

No more calliopes



One of the 7 screaming girls from last night's post came to visit this weekend with her husband and daughter. She's also 8 months pregnant but managed to stay out dancing at a wedding until midnight on Saturday while Alex and I played with the kids. We took them over to the carousel by the river, then to the playground in the dark, picked up a pizza on the way home and even gave them a bath. Except for bedtime, it was much easier than taking care of just Wally. (Maybe I will have another kid! Funny how people always ask about that -- first it's --are you going to get married? Then immediately asking about kids, then when you have a screaming infant you've been bouncing for over 3 hours while other people eat dinner and drink wine: "Are you thinking about having another one?" [What gave it away?] I wonder if people stop asking once you have at least 2.)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

There's a way out of things

This is from September 2003. I came across it today on an early version of a Dimestore Scenario website. Is it valid to "repurpose this content" as it were? It was written with such a world-weary tone, a sense of so many eras having already ended, even though this was a year and a half before we even began the last incarnation of Dimestore, the one I wrote about in "How to Dismantle Your Band". And yet there I was feeling surrounded by ghosts, with the sense that I was writing way after the fact, an archeologist on a dig. 

There will be some confusion to those who don’t know me about the two Joe’s. Long before the drummer Joe from Bayonne was another Joe, one I met in Humanities class at Dartmouth freshman fall, who ludicrously (he was a brilliant guitarist) joined our 7-screaming-girl band, and who later became the Dimestore Scenario guitarist, only slightly less ludicrously. When he left, Dorothy put an ad on musician.com for a lead guitarist. That's how we met Alex. He auditioned for the band and joined a few weeks later. I'd expected us to take on my downstairs' neighbor, Greg. At night I could hear him playing Weezer and Neutral Milk Hotel through the floorboards. 

I will write, someday, about the first Joe. But his exit was final, and that makes it hard. I did write a song for him called "Contenders" which is on our album, the one we recorded with the second Joe on drums. It sounds a bit irreverent to put it that way, a final exit--plus it's not like he meant to die--but I can't see him taking offense. In fact, I can imagine it pleasing him. Just like knowing that my friends and I still like to tell the story of how the last time we tried to go up to the bar at the top of the World Trade Center we were denied entry because of the "athletic shoes" Joe was wearing. Without missing a beat (he never did) he told the guard, "I'm not at all athletic." It didn't matter. We were turned away. I think about him a lot when I try to live more authentically. Joe never did a single thing out of obligation, even show up to his own birthday dinner on time. Maybe with talent like that, you really didn't have to.


September 2003


I am now the only remaining original member of Dimestore,
a strange position. At a recent audition for a new bassist,
the player in question asked how long we’d been together.
I answered: “Lauren and Joe started playing with us last
winter. But we’ve been together over 3 years.”


“Oh, you and Alex?”


“No, Alex started last year, but we started the band in 2000.”


“Who’s we?”


Now there’s the “we” used to signify a vague power structure that deflects responsibility 
from the individual as in “We don’t feel your skill set is a good match for our company.”

And there’s the “we” that means “you” but sounds nicer as we: “We need to finish this 
report by 2. I’m off to lunch at the Plaza.”

And the we that means “you” in a sales-pitchy, overly-friendly way: “And how are we doing 
today?”

But this “we” really just meant me. Along with the ghosts of the others who came before.



In the weeks that followed that audition, I thought back to the beginning of Dimestore, 
that preternaturally warm March of 2000 when I met up with my friends from college --
Dorothy and Joe-- along with Ivan, a friend I’d met while temping at Sotheby’s.com, to 
play at TuCasa on Avenue B. After our first gig at the Orange Bear that summer with 
Speedy Vulva (who played a reunion show last night!), the adrenaline rush was so huge Dorothy and I couldn’t calm down for days. 
The Trilobites were real! (That was before we’d changed our name.) Nevermind the baffled 
looks on peoples’ faces: (A year later, an acquaintance came up after a show at 
Brownies and said “You guys have really improved. The first time I saw you at the Orange 
Bear I was like ‘What just happened?’”)




I thought about our friend Jim (once the Speedy Vulva drummer, now in his surgery 
rotation at U. Penn *update: Cardiology Fellowship at Cornell) with his Put Out Records table adorned with stickers and t-shirts, Ivan 
with his lead Lou Reed inspired “Sleep”, Joe singing “Whiskey in the Jar”. Then I thought 
of a completely different time in the band's history, over a year later, the melancholy acoustic gig at Luna when
Joe was about to leave, then the suspended, hazy, hot, red wine days recording in Jersey last 
summer. After three days of putting down tracks with tensions rising, we recorded the last 6 
measures to Ithaca late on a Sunday night, the fault lines between us already vast. The next 
day we began searching for a new drummer.




The real story begins, though, in the early days of March four years before Dimestore 
began, in the dark and barren end-of-winter-days in New Hampshire, with my friends and 
I gathered around a beat-up piano in a dorm lounge, chanting “See You Boys Later” to 
four simple chords.

That night was the beginning of our band “You with the Face,” the whole event of which 
lasted only a year and a half but became a defining presence of our college days, and also 
came to signify much of our ideology as the screaming “food court girls". (We were known 
for impromptu performances and otherwise inappropriate scenes in food court. I remember 
once Dorothy asked me toward the end of senior year “What happens when we’re not the 
food court girls anymore?” It was not something I could imagine, but here we are, over five 
years past the day we left for good.)




Until recently, all that history was sort of suspended in the air around us in Dimestore 
rehearsals. Now it seems much more ethereal and personal. How can an unsigned, 
unknown band have a history that is of much relevance to anyone except those to whom it 
belongs?
It is rather lacking in originality to site those early days of pure expression, silliness and 
spontaneous, unrehearsed songs as the utopian ideal. That raw energy and excitement is
tied inextricably to the lack of a purpose, to acting purely in the moment.




Now our friends ask: What is happening with Dimestore?
Some loyal cyberspace visitors write in: What happened to the much-promised album?
And from the most practical-minded among us: What are your goals?

What began as pure expression is now bound by constraints of time and money,
but also by the hope that change is generative, that possibilities are still unlimited, we just 
have to choose which ones we are willing to give up.


Thursday, November 11, 2010

You should be airborne

Today we reverse our roles. Alex has just rushed off with Wally to the sensory gym up by the park and then they'll meet the speech therapist outside. In the afternoon Alex has ambitious plans of taking Wally to the Bronx Zoo or to the Hall of Science in Queens. I hope they follow through on one of those or something else that will leave me here alone with books and lots of tea and coffee, banana muffins my friend Kristin brought over yesterday and apples we picked last week in Massachusetts. I love having the apartment to myself to play whatever music I want, wear pajamas, rush to find a certain line of poetry (right now I am thinking of reading books and taking down “useless notes” from Elizabeth Bishop, The End of March). It's so different from being alone outside the apartment. When I do get a day to work I usually take the laptop and go to a library. It's fun, but nothing like getting lost in the Baker stacks. Instead I'm lucky if I find a seat anywhere without people coughing on me and striking up nonsensical conversations. I feel bad saying this, but the vibe in the library near us isn't that great because it's sort of a homeless hangout. And I always tell myself that it's really bourgeois and terrible to be bothered by that, but it's not the halcyon scene one envisions in spending the day at the library. You have to be prepared for anything (Alex had a chair thrown at him once) and you share the table with people who are literally camped out. When I have enough time, I go to a different branch. Meanwhile the work I'm doing is to help people who, in Fitzgerald's words from a post a while back, "haven't had the advantages I've had." Yet sit side by side and do work with them? I’ll pass. There’s got to be some irony there, or at least hypocrisy.

I was annoyed just now with Alex as he went tumbling out the door with Wally fifteen minutes late. He was at the tail end of his signature departure: “Has anyone seen my keys?” (repeated with escalating degrees of hysteria – see earlier posts on Alex as Zen master). I can’t possibly be surprised anymore that he will go on this frantic search for his keys every morning. Yet I am. I’m in the kitchen pouring coffee thinking, “Seriously? Again?” When the question should perhaps be directed at myself. Seriously? You’re surprised again? (Once more Bishop creeps up, different poem, "Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.")

I was annoyed that Alex was rushing and late when meanwhile I’d gotten Wally dressed and changed him twice and packed up his water and a snack and written down the therapists’ numbers and info. I think – if you can’t even leave on time with all that help, how could you manage if I wasn’t here? I guess what I mean is, how do I manage, every day? Or really, just wanting him to say: this is not that easy. Though he’s never implied otherwise. And for a much harder year he did manage Wally on his own while I was free and easy over at Barnes & Noble picking out which Obama speeches I liked best to include in our Words that Inspired a Nation book and DVD. When I write this, now, it makes me think of my mom’s mom Eleanor, who never felt appreciated and always started fights because of it. The underlying point seemed to be, “Look at all I’m doing for everybody and no one is the least bit grateful.” But the fight never got to the underlying point, of course. Instead it spiraled out into irrelevant minor and unrelated aggravations. Sometimes screaming and tears. That was different than the screaming here at Miriam’s, that none of the Jacobson sisters ever registered as more than a stern tone. 


At the Riordans, in the little red house by the beach we called “the cottage” because it had been their summer home before my grandparents renovated it and moved in full-time, the screaming rang in the halls, poisoned the air for at least another hour. Maybe all that would have been required to avoid it would have been one person saying, “Thank you Eleanor for getting up at 5 in the morning to boil the potatoes so that mashed potatoes would be fresh today and not simply reheated" (surely a sin in an Irish household). Or maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the sins of the fathers just had to be visited on the sons. Centuries of inherited guilt over not suffering enough meant holidays and other happy occasions would always exact some kind of ancient revenge.

This morning I am going to work on an evaluation for a leadership conference for minority students. They are just about ready to start out, dreaming big dreams, taking the first steps necessary to reach their full potential.  My friends and I--more than a decade after graduation--are tired and less optimistic, more tolerant of compromise, happier in some ways, less so in others, re-evaluating what a statement like reaching one's full potential might mean. Fewer binaries, more gray. One friend recently said she had such grand plans for her life but would be happy now if she can be an okay mom. The last year has taught me what a grand plan that is, what a huge thing to reach for, how important it would be to achieve. I'll be happy if I can be an okay mom. I have to pause on that for a while. Set my sights on it.

Here are the lines from Bishop: she is talking about her "proto-crypto dream house" on the beach, which is how I always refer to the cottage our family sold two years after my grandmother died.

"I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light."


Whenever I read that poem I just sink into that feeling of solitude and space and empty surroundings that allow one's life to feel full. Today the Zen master is frantic and scattered. This morning I'm trying to help disadvantaged people and refusing to sit next to them. I’ll be glad, for the next eight hours or so, not to be tested as a good or an okay or a terrible mom. I'm glad not to be in that role at all, even though it's my favorite. In the poem, the proto-crypto dream house was boarded up. Our cottage was sold to another family. The house that was absolutely essential, at the center of our lives. Yet Wally was not even born the last time I stepped foot inside there, desperately searching not for keys but for something far more important – my mother’s wedding ring. Behind the curtains, in the heating grates, under the beds, in the closet, in the tea cups, carefully setting them back in their places on the shelf even though weeks later they would be packed up and taken away. 


I knew, in my sober and rational moments, that as cozy and lovely as our cottage was, with the fireplace and wooden walls and the porches and big eat-in kitchen, that other than the view, it was a modest 2-bedroom house, from an outside perspective an unremarkable place. But there was a time and an hour when it radiated like a cathedral in the late afternoon of clear winter days when the sun went down behind the river. With so little foliage to block the sun it came streaming in through the kitchen windows up through the hallway into the living-room,  melancholy and majestic. That luminous view, that light, " heavy with light"---with the sale of the Cottage that would have to be given up too. 

On the last afternoon I spent in that little red house there was this inexorable sense of doom fighting against that radiant light, this by-degrees-turning of hope into hopelessness with each new search for the ring, each new, "I know! It must be here..." that turned up empty. That wedding ring--that thing you cannot lose (“practice losing further, losing faster”)--would stay in the cottage, would remain there after we were gone, an offering. We left and went to get dinner. My mom tried to feel okay about it. We drank margaritas and enjoyed the marina. She wondered how to tell my dad.

Later that year my mom received a package in the mail from my cousin Katie. The ring had ended up in a bureau and been shipped down inside it to South Carolina, to the sister of the cousin whose wedding I missed just a month ago. On that long day in Newark Airport I read The More I Owe You, a novel about Elizabeth Bishop's time in Brazil--where Alex is from--waiting first through a 5-hour delay and then for an hour and a half out on the tarmac. The the entire time on the tarmac we were right about to leave, hearing the engines of all the other planes revving right by our windows. We watched the day vanish minute by minute, waiting the entire length of the time it would have taken to get to Charleston in silence with no word from the flight crew thinking--any minute now--only to be told finally that the flight plan had been lost but now they found it. 


Could we go? It was dark by then. I had missed the beach and the day with cousins and the rehearsal dinner but could I order a glass of wine, try to relax and not be too aggravated. No, it turns out, we had missed our opportunity. In the time it had taken to search for the flight plan (under the chairs? in the heating grate?) the captain had timed out and could no longer legally fly. We were heading back to the gate. "You should be airborne in just a few minutes" -- one of the greatest things anyone can ever say--turned out not to be true. Or rather, didn't happen. It was still true. The flight attendant had been careful to say "should" not "will". You should be airborne. At the time it had sounded so hopeful.

That whole day I spent reading The More I Owe You, which isn't a bad way to spend a day. I had thought I’d love the book, but it was slow and distant, passive and impassive, in some excruciating way like certain of Bishop’s more restrained poetry, but without the emotional pulsing underneath, being so carefully restrained. But I do wonder also if I disliked the book for the stupidest reason – because I read it on an annoying and disappointing day.

Fewer binaries, more gray. But the day--today--is not gray at all, it's beautiful bright sun. It’s open. It’s waiting.

Not too many hours from now, I will remark surprised --yes, still, after 34 years--at how dark it is out already. I will think about in the summer at this time we might just be making plans for the day. Someone might suggest we go to the pool, bring magazines and lemonade. We could take a hike, go to the beach, take a dinner picnic with us to the river in the evening where there are outdoor grills and lots of trees. In the summer there would still be the obligation to do things, to make the day worthwhile. The sense that you can’t have a glass of wine yet, you can’t take off your shoes yet, you can’t rub your eyes and enjoy that requiem moment of having made it through the day. In winter, the darkness relieves us. It tells us we have come a long way from that bright morning and we deserve to rest. We want someone to tell us that. I want someone to tell me that. To say, you have done everything you could today, you have tried as hard as you could to do your best work, to be an okay mom, to make connections, to speak honestly, to run faster than yesterday, to look at the sun—that tiny little star that it is--and say thank you.

View from upstairs at the cottage
On one of the last afternoons I spent with my grandmother Eleanor before she had to move to more intensive care, on a bright October day five years ago, I sat on the bed with her, reading poetry aloud. She was one of the few people I have ever met who could just be, who could be still, listen and gaze out the window, even long before she was sick, even when moments later she'd be furious over poorly-skinned potatoes. In her belief system she still had eternity, yet she got the most pleasure from the tiniest things. Maybe tiny pleasures were the only kind she allowed herself. For whatever reason, her guilt did not attend those moments of peace -- tea in the afternoon or watching a cardinal perched on the table outside. 


Tonight there will be my little niece Eliana writing poetry of her own. Rushing to the window shouting, “Look at the beautiful glowing crescent!” Telling others, "You don’t always want what you want". Saying, two years ago now, "The day was end and now I’m asleep again". There will be Alex, tossing his keys under junk mail. There will be some readers saying to themselves -- this post is too long, too long even to skim. They won't get all the way to the end. They won't get here, or be here, with me. What I think I owe you might not be what you think you want. "Retire now and do nothing, or nothing much, forever." Maybe infinity isn't such a bad fate. 




Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Antares is a really big star

My blog feels like some high-maintenance friend I've been neglecting, a phone call I should have answered a long time ago. I want to reconnect, but the more time that elapses, the more awkward I feel about it. The idea of facing that initial stilted conversation, giving an explanation for time lapsed that even I don't believe, where every simple question about "What have you been up to?" feels like pulling teeth-- it's daunting. I think it takes minutiae sometimes to allow me to write again, at least publicly. Something has to pull me out of worrying about infinity. (As an aside, one night in New Hampshire last week my dad and I spoke about how we have both always, from the age of 5 or earlier, tried repeatedly to grasp the size of the universe and found it so physically uncomfortable to do so. Do other people experience this? It bothers me -- worries me (what doesn't) -- but he says it does not worry him, just that it's something he can't put to rest. Like, how is the Big Bang an explanation for the universe? That might explains its constant expansion, but not what happened pre-bang (nothing). Also, was all the space just there waiting to be filled? I wonder if it bothers him like a math problem he can't figure out, which, in a way it is. After that conversation I kind of made a deal with myself not to worry about it anymore. It has never gotten me anywhere, and, when I stop to think about it, it's not really my problem. If I had the brains to contribute in some great way to the understanding of time and space and Einstein's field equations, then that'd be different. Don't you think, though, that all the hypotheticals for the fate of the universe sound rather informal? Big Crunch, Big Bounce, Big Freeze, Big Rip. Okay for ads in a weekly circular but it seems like the subject calls for a little more gravitas.) 

Anyway, back to speaking of pulling teeth, here's what the minutiae was today that pulled me away from worrying about how tiny the sun is compared to even the next biggest star. I'd been away for about 10 days, in New Hampshire then Massachusetts at the house where my parents moved two years ago. I'd had two wisdom teeth extracted before I left and didn't think it would cause any discomfort because when the  two on the other side were yanked out  in the spring (they really do seem to physically yank them out -- get some leverage and pull as hard as possible) it didn't hurt even that night. Anyway, my mouth and even jaw and neck started to hurt more and more during the time I was away, to the point where this past weekend I went and got the Percocet prescription filled at the one drugstore open past 8 that's anywhere near my parents' house. 

As soon as I got back to New York yesterday I called the oral surgeon and they gave me an appointment for noon today. Then this morning I found out I had an appointment I couldn't miss at 1:45 and called back the oral surgeon's office to see if I could meet later in the afternoon. The woman said, "3:30?" I said...I think I could make it, I'm not sure but I think I can get over there by then." (Annoying, I know.) She laughed what sounded like an eye-roll laugh to me, and asked if I could definitely make it by 4. I said yes and that was settled. 

Except it wasn't. That laugh bothered me. And mostly because I understood the irritation. Here was an oral surgeon's office squeezing me in in the first place and then changing the time and I couldn't budge one inch. (In this case, really I couldn't and even still I had to have Wally with me there at the appointment because Alex dropped him there after his work at school and before his work at the studio.)

Or maybe she laughed at something someone showed her on a computer that had nothing to do with me. Or maybe she laughed at how indecisive I sounded. Any number of things. Why did it matter? I got the time that I needed. I just didn't like that feeling that I'd twisted her arm to get it. Which in a way isn't fair. That can almost get into the territory of people saying "You choose," about restaurants or movies. No, you freakin' choose. I think I have often made the mistake of choosing, but then needing to know that Lotus Blossom or Papa Razzi is definitely okay with the other person.     

The whole thing felt like a bit of a relapse for me. Slipping back into too much worrying about what someone thinks about something that doesn't matter. Maybe it was just the Percocet or the absurdly long train ride yesterday from Boston or Wally's night wakings or the spilling-over plans and therapies this week built up from having been away. Which is just something to keep in mind--when defenses are down because of fatigue or stress, those bad habits have a way of creeping back up again. 

When I got to the oral surgeon's office in Park Slope, I joked around with A---, a receptionist there. I really like her and the doc himself is fantastic and so much fun, especially when he loads me up with nitrous oxide.  A--- said people sometimes walk in a half hour late and demand to know how long they'll have to wait before they even take their coat off. I said I was glad to know I'm not the most obnoxious patient they have. She didn't confirm that I wasn't. But the great thing was (and this is a total rip-off from an essay my dad wrote about running) it didn't matter. I know I'm not the most obnoxious patient, and it doesn't seem to matter if someone thinks I am. My blog came up in conversation. A--- said maybe she'll start one: Patient of the Day. I'll see if I show up there.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Can't you hear the captain shouting?


Had a great day. Wally took a little train ride -- "a bigga train" with Pops (my dad). Just two towns away. It's weird, because I take him on the subway literally every day and we rode a "bigga train" all the way here but he still just can't stop obsessing about them. "See train again?" The minute we drive away. Even at this cute playground in the afternoon he couldn't focus because he knows it's near the train station and keeps thinking he hears a whistle and wants to go find out about it. It's not that close, so we end up getting in the car and driving over.

In the early evening we stopped by this Bazaar Russe at a local Russian Orthadox Church. It's something I remember going to as a child, though I didn't feel any real sentimental attachment. (This is not one of those cases, but I've noticed an unpredictable pattern. Like I don't feel any giant attachment or longing for the house and neighborhood where I grew up, and yet I still can't get over the Irish coffee shop being gone, or schoolyard changing. Maybe it's because my parents moved not far away, so the traditions continue.)

While we waited for potato pancakes Wally sat on my lap for the first time I can remember ever. Not like forced onto my lap with me struggling and arm wrestling him to stay on there. But voluntarily on there,  playing with my necklace, singing little songs. It was the greatest thing. He has completely changed from February. My parents cannot fathom the change. Before bed he sits on the couch and reads books with them. He hasn't -- knock wood -- knocked anything of consequence over. He's stopped trying to get out of every exit. He comes when he's called. I keep saying, "I can't believe it's not butter" which doesn't make a lot of sense but kind of does. I can't believe it's Wally. It is him, it's like what I thought he could be, but he's so much more here. There's so much more there there.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What happens next?



Beginning again. The early days of November compared to the end of May. Last week in New York I could see the tops of the trees turning yellow from the room where I write. Here in Massachusetts it feels like fall is just about over. There's a frost in the morning and many trees are nearly bare. Wally and I went apple picking, but we had to walk for ten minutes or so before we found any apples still clinging to the trees. Then maybe there'd be one or two dangling out of reach. Wally happily picked rotten ones off the ground and stuffed them in the bag.

In pop (and maybe real) psychology circles,  it's said that the greatest resistance comes before breakthroughs. And I can see how that would apply to this moratorium I've had on writing. By sharing experience--what are we looking for? Connection, understanding, a future informed but not defined by the past. "Are you learning? Are you growing?" Eli's mother, the one who asked, "Why is that important?" (a question I find to be so comforting now, so vital) also insisted on knowing whether her daughter was in fact learning all the time, as did my parents, trusting the process more than the outcome, resenting the teachers who took off full credit for careless mistakes. I do feel that I am learning, growing, trying to make sure the things I spend time on are important. But sometimes having the process mapped out feels inhibiting. Like I'm trapping myself by being so open to change, by being open to so many people's reactions to that hope. As if I've taken away the opportunity to rewrite the story, to revise it based on what I later think or want to remember.

And there is also the problem of real world stuff going on, which I somehow feel I should be reporting on, when I write most every day. Like, who are you to think you can just go on about 5th grade reunions and reading Goodnight Moon when "there's a battle outside and it's ragin'"?

The election was terrible. Disheartening doesn't begin to describe it. And yet I have to admit to a feeling of distance, an unreasonable sense of "Well fine, lose your health insurance, then. Lose your houses. Lose your jobs." I keep thinking of the line from A River Runs Through It and sadly I can't remember whether it was in the book too, or just the movie. It was about Brad Pitt's character and it was something like "You can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped." I've been feeling that same sentiment towards people close to me, towards myself. Asking repeatedly, "Why does X do Y? Why do I keep....? Why do you keep...?" Why do people keep doing things that aren't what they want? Maybe, like my niece said a few years ago in one of her many existential insights, a takeoff on the Stones-- "You don't always want what you want." Or maybe not doing something we think we want to do (say, music) satisfies something else more, our anxiety, or maybe ability to hold onto a dream. You only have to really let go of a dream if you actually give it a shot. Sometimes people, my former shrink, or my dad (who also happens to be one) grow impatient. "You're asking, why don't people do what's best for them or what they say they want?" As if I shouldn't be stuck on something so widespread, so deeply rooted in human nature, so obvious. But I am still. Like not going to bed earlier if you're always so tired to take just a really simple one. Or always agreeing to do too much and then feeling depleted and resentful. Staying in jobs that aren't satisfying, relationships that aren't working, keeping bad habits, losing good ones. I'm wondering, basically, about the problems we have that we want to keep.

My resistance partly has to do with the photo at the end of a blog entry a few weeks ago, the one of me with Eli and Heather. It was at the end of May. I know for sure because it was my birthday. I think I had a party the next day, but that night my parents were taking us to see a musical at Theater Three. That picture was taken right in the middle of that fragile triad, that felt so wonderfully safe and complete but of course could not last. The first part of my childhood was spent inseparable from Heather (she really was that "part of the family" friend, with a little bed right next to mine) and the second part inseparable from Eli, and even that night was maybe part of the swan song of that impossibly balanced high-wire act of three best friends. At the time I was carefree and careless -- like Icarus, not stopping to think what I might be giving up by trying to have too much.

I spent Halloween this year with one of those friends --Heather-- up in New Hampshire where her two boys and Wally dressed up and ran around the school playground and in a corn maze collecting candy which they willingly handed over to us. The grownups drank hot chocolate and tried to keep up with them and laughed at the surreal, spooky image of ghosts hanging from monkey bars. My parents, Wally and I stayed in Heather's family's lake house, one where I spent many summer days and nights. Yet as she wrote about in the comments recently, Heather and I also spent many years apart. We are now beginning to return to some familiar way of being, aligning with those early frequencies, hoping our boys will make up stories and sleep side by side and dive into the ice cold lake together. And yet in writing about returning to our friendship, remembering our own last American childhood, Heather said, "Maybe I am just regressing."

Eli does not live nearby, though I am lucky to get to see her a lot. Recently she told me she'd been reading my blog and had the sudden thought that I was fading away, becoming this sort of fragile, dreaming person, lost in the minutiae of my own world. In her mind she likened me to Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire. Then maybe a day later on my blog, I quoted The Glass Menagerie in reference to her world being lit by lightning. She asked me what I meant exactly,  although she knew the line "Blow out your candles, Laura, the world is lit by lightning" and found it uncanny that we'd both conjured up Tennessee Williams to describe the other within days of each other. 

At first I could not say what I meant by it, other than a vague sense I'd had for the past decade or so that she had removed herself from the friendship in some way. That she--once equally intent on archiving and remembering and rehashing as me--did not value the past or our shared history as much as I did, as much as she once had. Finally we settled on a single scene, in a bakery on the Upper West Side, in the summer of 1999. We'd been working on a joint novel/autobiography we called The Parts I Haven't Read since graduation. That day we ordered cafe lattes and rugelach and she said she did not want to work on that project anymore. It wasn't a priority. 


Mesmerized by the physical properties of molecules, Eli went onto pursue a bigger dream. I took those painstaking pages and buried them in a box somewhere, always intending to one day still write those parts we hadn't read. That was it -- that single incident had colored my entire view of the friendship for 11 years and made me feel I was holding onto something she'd long since let go.

At times I did ask myself if they weren't read because we hadn't written them yet, or because the memories were too dark and too precious to ever remember accurately, or because they could never be separated from the memories of what came after.

Even in my post last week -- I stumbled over tense, "What happens next" or "What happened next"? The blog is perpetually present, by definition. Written and posted today at 10:17 PM EST, and then a new one for a new today (right now, still tomorrow), and so on. I was happy with having at last a record that went chronologically, that was not mixed in with recipes and phone numbers and to-do lists, that's all in one place, that is legible because typed out. But I'm also wondering if the essential question is What happens next...now, in 2010, or what happened, years and years ago? Both equally important, both pressing, and perhaps most mysteriously -- both uncertain, both subject to change, both, in some ineffable way.


 "What will happen?" looms out there in the future, like the autumn that where I live (you do live there now Rachel, you have for 11 years) is only just beginning. And that goes back to the resistance. I am only now finding out what happened 11 years ago, when I just moved to the place I still cannot call home. I found out with one friend, partly, but with the other I've spent two decades with a secret and a problem that I want to keep. It's not the events themselves that matter, but how we interpret them, or what we imagine them to be. That is still raveling out. That could change again tomorrow, if we're open to it.

I am caught now on this high-wire act of my own making -- a faith in accepting all that the past has to offer, all that we still have to learn -- and a fear of being stuck, of regressing or fading into myself, of still wanting in some deep, unfathomable place to be a child, to be one with Wally, to not only write about our childhoods in parallel, but in some strange, impossible way to experience them that way. To, I suppose, stop time. Which is maybe what I want most acutely out of writing. And the continual frustration, the continual setback, the great promise and great letdown, the unendurable fury is that it's not happening. I've faithfully written, so many days and nights, yet I haven't managed that one essential task. 

Birthdays will keep happening, for a while, if we are lucky. But they've always been mixed. To say I felt safe and complete when that photo was taken would tell only half of the story. I always felt horribly torn about birthdays. Going back to when I was turning seven years old, maybe earlier, but that was when I began writing in my diary. So I can go back now and read about how awful I felt to lose that year, to give away something I'd never get back. Maybe by writing I thought I'd do something to stop the end from coming. But it's not working. I don't know why I cannot stop quoting Dylan, but the springtime turned slowly into autumn, no matter how many days' activities I recorded. 


That's what I realized, that's where I fell off the narrative arc. Fell into suspension. If I don't read the pages in front of me, before me, behind me, scattered out in every direction from other Rachels, from other years, if I refused to see them, then they won't be read, and that would mean they wouldn't be written, hadn't been written, and that would mean I could still live out my days in the space of the until that was in truth already behind me.