Saturday, December 31, 2011

While you have the light

Snowblind travelers, on this tropical New Year's Eve, I hope you feel inspired. I hope you remember the wishes and dreams that in childhood you jotted down on scraps of paper next to your bed. Listen to lots of Bon Iver, Sigur Ros and Iron & Wine. Revisit the landscape of your youth--if only in a deep and dreamless sleep. I hope you have found--or will soon find--the worthy goal that will give your life meaning. I hope that young or old, alone or surrounded, always right about to leave or always just arriving, you greet this next year prepared to grow. Whatever advice I give you, is just advice to myself. Remember May Sarton's words: "Growth is demanding and may seem dangerous, for there is loss as well as gain in growth. But why go on living if one has ceased to grow? And what more demanding atmosphere for growth than love in any form?” I hope that whether you believe in God or the universe or fate or nothing at all you can employ your own version of the Jewish prayer called the Shehecheyanu and thank someone or something for bringing you to this moment. 

To become a better runner, run. To become a better writer, write. To become a better friend, be a better friend. To become more connected, connect more. Children seem more alive, but that does not have to be the case. To be more alive, live more. People cling to problems, they seek chaos, they will always find things to worry and be upset about, they have incredible aim for the bullseye of pain. This is distraction. People don’t have to like you. They don’t have to think you like them. There are bigger goals in the universe.

During the past week I've gone back over tons of old writing -- drafts and notes, lists, journal entries, essays, stories I began, letters -- and I don't need them anymore. I can just get rid of them. I am clearing them out. I don't need to save them for some future rewrite or for posterity or for whatever it was -- I've moved beyond them, internalized the thoughts that had any relevance, and gotten past the hangups and gotten past the need to prove things to myself.  (Listen to "Yes My Heart", Benjamin Oak Goodman ---right now. Google it, just get the video on youtube -- listen to this song right now.) Creation, not possession -- I will find the quote -- I don't have it at hand tonight. And I have to keep going. Work while I have the light. 

Somehow--despite all the failed dreams, the lapsed-New Year's resolutions, the times we said--this is it, this time is different, this time I will change -- and then did not, we still keep making new resolutions, keep jotting down notes next to the bed, keep dreaming. And how could we not? The universe was not made for us, but we are made of stars.  
On Christmas Eve, those sugar-plum dreams are full of hope for finding the thing you've wanted so badly all year under the tree in the morning. If only I could only have that toy train I saw in the window of Mr. Hayes' toy store on Main street. I hope I hope I get that one yellow-haired dollie in the rocking chair. The coin collector set, the spy kit, the shiny turquoise dress that will twirl out when you spin. Kids, you’re supposed to want, to dream, to hope. It’s just too bad that what you’re taught to dream and hope for is so unimportant, so guaranteed to not fulfill you but to lead you to other things you want. We owe you a collective, massive apology. Not just for the Santa Claus lie, which is really the least of it. But for teaching you to want things. And for telling you that if you’re good, you’ll get them. On that magical night, that means so much, that shines like Sirius, we have it all wrong.

And yet wanting--something much bigger, elusive, impossible, like stars we still see in the sky that burned out ages ago (part of us now? Are we seeing ourselves out there, literally? )--wanting is the beginning of every story. I wanted something badly enough that finally I had no choice but to do something about it. It's the beginning of this one, too.

*A Child's Christmas in Wales "Now we were snow-blind travelers, lost on north hills"
**Henri Frederic Amiel, "Work while you have the light." (Also in John 12:35, Jesus says "Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness overtake you.") 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Staring at Emily

I am beginning this already with the thought -- this won't be a "real" entry. I will write -- I will try not to make it perfunctory, to give you more than simply the run-down on Wally's haircut today and the idea my mom had for pouring Crème de menthe over vanilla ice cream. She had mentioned that idea for dessert the first night we arrived, and we kept forgetting every night because we've all been working in the evenings for the most part, not hanging out drinking wine and eating m n' ms the way we usually do. But right before I go to bed each night I've gone down for a glass of water or something in the kitchen and I've been smacked in the face with the overwhelming smell of mint. I was like, wow, she's really going buck wild with the stuff--what is she doing shots and spilling it all over the place, or what? Turns out I was smelling the peppermint she sprinkles around to keep mice at bay. As of tonight, the bottle of Crème de menthe was still unopened.

On the way out to the grocery store today in the late afternoon, we stopped to get the mail. One card was a picture and beautiful letter from a girl named Caitlin. When my sister and I were little, after we moved from Virginia but before we moved to Acton, Massachusetts, we lived for a year on the Connecticut coast, down the street from my grandparents' cottage by the beach. I don't remember much, if anything, from that year (I was Wally's age now when we moved further north), but I grew up staying friends with the four other kids in what was that day's version of a "playgroup".

My mom befriended two nearby young moms, Angela and Barbara, and the three hung out together with their kids, trading kid-watching duties and getting together all 10 of us, too. Angela's family stayed close by for a while, and we stayed friends with her kids. We mostly lost touch with Barbara's, saw them only every now and again. My mom would still see Barbara; she came to my sister's wedding in 2000. But they faded. Those old, original friendships, those morning playgroups with muffins and oj, those family walks by the beach, those holiday reunions, the yearly surprise at how much everyone had grown, the sense of tracing over some authentic, familial pattern each time we hung out even if we didn't know each other all that well, the way old neighbors do, people whose parents go to the same church as your grandparents, know the same pizza place, remember things you used to do as a toddler--those friendships remained somewhere in the sepia-toned distance. It's been years now since I've seen any of them.

Caitlin's mom Barbara died 8 years ago. After we read Caitlin's recent letter, my mom unearthed a collection of newsletters Barbara used to send, the precursor to blogs, those once-a-year updates, not every night, more real, but not real-time. Here, at the start of one, she quotes Theodor Roethke in a Christmas poem. "There is a hush, a Holy Pause." I am reading the letters now, looking back through pictures, feeling that hush.

Throughout there are vivid scenes that catch you not necessarily for what they mean, but just for what they are. "The girls sat relatively demurely at a candlelit table nibbling on pizza til Aron strolled in wearing his Halloween gorilla mask." There are black and white photographs photocopied into the letter. I suppose people could be of two minds when it comes to a newsletter (or blog) update --maybe thinking, Why do I care? And for some reason, caring. What is their daily life like? Like Hemingway wrote about the "greatest difficulty" he found in writing--"to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced." That is what blogs and newsletters are full of--or at least aim to be. What really happened in action. What the actual things were. We care not just because we care about the people --but presumably we do -- but because a picture of someone's daily life is revealing, it lets us in on a little hint -- a two-inch picture frame -- of what it's like to be alive.

In Our Town, after her death, the main character Emily goes back to her daily life, and she is so heart-broken by how everyone's too busy to look at her. Her mom's making a birthday cake I think, her dad's working like crazy. She implores them to stop but they can't. “Please anybody," she says, "just look at me. I don’t need the cake or the money. Please look at me.”


One year Barbara sent a postcard with the apology, "The economy makes our message briefer, but know you are always in our heart, on our lips, in our thoughts." She wrote my mom after my grandfather died, she continued to send pictures and updates about her children--one a teacher, one in the Peace Corps. And then a few years later, she died. Now Caitlin, her daughter, seems to be carrying on her mom's tradition of at least yearly updates. In one--though this, I see is from long ago, 2003, she writes, "I am my mother's daughter and so it seems, fun is always near at hand. There is so much to do, see, read-experience. I am happy." That must have been just a year or so after her mom died. At her brother's wedding that year, the "pinnacle of her year", she felt that her mom "was in her way, there."

I see from the address on the card my mom received today, that Caitlin lives in Brooklyn with her baby girl. Funny, she's just between my sister and I, and has been in New York for quite some time--a decade?--yet we haven't run into her. My first instinct lately is not to keep reaching out to people, past and future, to resist my impulse to connect--to say, the problem is that you are already so scattered, already so disconnected, don't fall into the paradoxical trap of seeking more connection only to undermine the ones you already have. And yet I think it is just my nature. I am always searching for that sense of shared history, of memories from childhood that resonate at the same frequency as one's own, I am always picking up the paper cup, listening, as Morning wrote today, for that jumbled message back.

I may or may not send a letter to the actual Caitlin, to the actual Brooklyn street so close to my own. Maybe I'll be content to read through her and her mother's letters, to think about the group of friends my mom had when I was little, and the ones -- moms and otherwise -- I have now. Content to stop making the birthday cake or worrying about money. Content to stare Emily right in the face.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Two paper cups and a string

I am dragging myself to the computer tonight like a 9th-grader with a paper to write. Due tomorrow. It’s 10:36 PM and I haven’t started. Only it’s not a paper and I don't have to write it. It’s just sending a few notes out to the ether, picking up one end of a telephone made with paper cups and string. Listening to Arcade Fire and digging a tunnel, from my window to yours.

"But I don't know what to say." That's the lazy, discouraged part of myself talking to the part that felt determined to start posting every day. What was the point of that again? I'd rather watch Jon Stewart or listen to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" read by Dylan himself (not Bob!). There's nothing pressing that I need to write about right now.

I have noticed that May Sarton in her journals, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron—they always start with a basic description of what they’re doing or where they are. Like Annie Dillard, they begin with the details. The flowers on the desk. The afternoon light. Like Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, they start with something small enough to fit in a square-inch picture frame. Even John Greenleaf Whittier in his "Snowbound Winter Idyll" begins with the cheerless sun that brief December day.

Let go of your telescope. Forget your old journals. Put down the worn paperback Existentialism as Philosophy you found on your father's shelf. From the inscription it looks like an ex- girlfriend gave it to him in 1964. (I wonder where that ex-girlfriend is now, if she still believes she’s free at the exact moment when she’s not, or if now she thinks it’s the other way around.) Start with where you are, in this moment.

I am at my parents' house in Massachusetts with Wally. It's quiet. Wally's asleep in the next room. I can hear the rain outside and every now and then a giant gust of wind. Either that or parts of the roof sliding off (there was a contractor out there all day fixing something having to do with ice damns). After dinner, Wally and I took a walk in the rain. Most all the Christmas lights were still out. We walked along for a bit with a flashlight and Wally asked where Uncle Billy's house was. (That's where we spent Christmas day.) 

"Uncle Billy doesn't live in this neighborhood," I tell him.

Wally stopped walking and looked up at me. "He's so far away."

We continued on a little further across the bridge. "I miss him so much," Wally said. I have to remember to tell Uncle Billy. Later over by the mailboxes we found a package of grapefruits for my parents. Alex is in New York. Tonight's the last night of Hanukah.

All day on and off I worked on the last section of my gross-o-pedia book for young adults. While Wally played in the library and then home with my mom, I was digging myself into piles of slime, blood, bile, pus, gore, guts, all kinds of horrible history, food that would make you want to throw up, disgusting customs, icky insects, bizarre rotten discoveries.

In between that I’ve been coaching my dad with this great short story he wrote a few years back. He has his patients and is running around getting wires at the hardware store, but in between that he works on his story and he works quickly. I give him tips and pointers, draw his attention to places that need to be changed. Take a graph from the end and make it the opening. You can’t suddenly jump into the other guy’s head only at the end. He takes suggestions well.

“You need a turning point here; why did she change her mind?” I am standing behind him at the computer.

“She just realized it wasn’t working.” He answers, hands poised over the keyboard.

“No, but there’s got to be some reason. There’s got to be some impetus. What changed?”

"It just fizzled out," he answers. Silence. He cranes his neck around. "No good?"

I shake my head. He opens up the document again and shoots off a new draft.

Why is silence often more helpful than an actual answer? It reflects back the question, forces reflection. Why is it so effective for therapists, to not answer, to let you keep digging that tunnel, or to let you choose to go another way when you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Sometimes silence is infuriating, but powerful, too, forcing you to refine your thinking with no input other than the knowledge that something is not clear. There is this amazing quote about knowing things in emptiness and silence. In Zen Mind, Beginner Mind Shunryu Suzuki writes "If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.  When you listen to the teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something, which you already knew.  This is called emptiness, or omnipotent self, or knowing everything."

All this is related to intuition, creativity, myths, dream interpretation, and the collective unconscious. Lots of things I want to read about. I do, it turns out, have a lot I wanted to say, I just needed to begin. Engaging patients in free-associative thought was how Freud attempted to get at the inception of their disorders. I often feel that, in free-writing, I'm better able to track my compulsions and instabilities. I have to begin by listening to myself. As Harold Bloom writes in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, it is through monologues that Shakespeare’s characters grow and change. By talking out loud. They have to literally hear themselves think.

So it is with writing. I think of my advice to my dad about the character who changes in his story. Why did she change; what happened?  
I do have a lot more to say. For now I'm just picking up that paper cup, attached to a string. Wondering if anyone's at the other end. Either way, I'm here.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I'll be back again someday. (Tomorrow)

“I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” (Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A deep and dreamless sleep

I forgot the rum-spiked egg nog tonight and the peppermint ice cream.

The champagne was a bust. It turned out not to be champagne. It was a sweet, sparkly after-dinner wine. Not a hit. Alex's Christmas pies were though, as was his mom's Christmas pave, which should never be compared to tiramisu, a rather non-event dessert, beccause it's so much better. Dara identified the central problem with tiramisu: tons of sweet stuff, none of them chocolate.

It's quiet now. Christmakah Eve is almost over. I read "The Night Before Christmas" to Wally for the first time tonight. My sister has it memorized but I always start to drift off around Mama in her kerchief. It's really a mouthful, dry leaves flying around before the hurricane, mounting to the sky. Wally wondered why the daddy is wearing dress pajamas. "Daddy's don't wear dress pajamas". Not anymore. A few astute readers drew attention to the whimsy of fashion on the post about Wally's adventures in lace, pointing out that emperors of the past and Scotsmen of today pranced or prance about in outfits far more flamboyant than Wally's purple ruffled skirt.

When I think about it, Jesus is never pictured in pants. Then again he wasn't blue eyed and blond-haired either, so perhaps his fabled garb should not be accepted as sancrosanct.

I was thinking about wandering after yesterday's post. Who wandered around in the desert? Jesus? The Israelites? ("Everybody in the Bible", Alex is saying, "It's all desert.") Mary and Joseph weren't wandering; they came to Bethlehem on purpose, to register for the census (Thanks Jeannine). Then of course there was no room at the inn (the only one in town, apparently), so they became drifters, squatting in the local stable. It turned out to be a rather cozy place.

The Shepherds in the nearby fields were alarmed by the angel of the Lord who came bearing news. The angel told them not to be afraid. A babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, would be their Savior. Then the multitudes were praising God, and hoping for peace for humanity.

In the song, "A little town in Bethlehem" why is it a dreamless sleep? In "A Night Before Christmas" dreams of sugar-plums fill their heads. If you can channel dreams into reality, imagination into history, fancy into wish-fulfillment, maybe the dreams find a different place to occupy. My favorite part in Clement Clarke Moore's poem is about settling down for a long winter's nap. Of course that's when the clatter arises; the dream of a long winter's nap fading to stardust.

No matter how old I get---no matter how hard it is to believe the things I wish I could---on Christmas Eve, something from that old dream endures. "The hopes and fears of all the year are met in thee tonight." It doesn't matter what we believe, with a story so embedded in our culture, fabric, way of acting, way of being, our hopes and fears will naturally converge upon it. Upon both what it is, and how we imagine it to be. On earth peace, and good will to men. Christmas still feels like it's about that heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest sense of hope. I can't think of something I'd hope for more.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A long history of wandering

Outside of my bizarre stint with a group of local Born-Agains in high school led by people who should maybe not have been born the first time*, I have never had a religious tradition. I’m half Jewish and half Catholic. I'm told you can’t be half of either one. You’re either Catholic or you’re not. Also, I'm Jewish on the wrong side (father). So that leaves me both and neither. On ethnic pie charts in high school still I insisted on those halves. I could technically have put 1/4 Russian, 1/4 Polish for the Jewish side, but my relatives felt no affinity for those countries, as clearly those countries felt no affinity for them.

By the way, did you catch the Empire State building tonight? I stared out the window drinking a Jubilation Ale our neighbor had left for us. It was blue & white, red & green all at the same time! Hallelujah Melech Ha-Olam!

Agreeing to join Acton's local Born-Again chapter was probably the clearest manifestation of my inability to say no to people growing up. I had a good friend who would repeatedly ask me to join her at Monday Night Live meetings. She wore me down week after week. I caved finally and agreed to go. Saying yes was easier than thinking of yet another excuse.

Then it turned out one of the leaders, TT, lived down the street from me. Once we discovered we were neighbors there was absolutely no way out of the meetings--TT could drive me to them. TT also used to ask me to invite my friends to McDonald's after school and she'd read tracts to them. That's what they called them -- these little illustrated booklets with a clear triangle: You--->Jesus--->God. You were down on earth. God was up in Heaven. Jesus was floating somewhere in between. You couldn't get to God except through Jesus. That was the only way. My friend M. is still mad at me for those French fries sessions where she got bullied into not going to hell.

Tracts -- yes, I'm googling them now. You can get 100 in full-color for just $6 with flat-rate shipping. Hurry! You can also go on "No one else can save you. Trust Jesus today!" Emergency prayers. Step-by-step illustrations to disprove evolution. Time is of the essence people. And this isn't that far off. Three of today's Republican candidates for PRESIDENT do not believe in evolution. On climate change the scorecard is even more alarming. I think Jon Huntsman is the only candidate who agrees with 97% of the world's leading scientists about global warming.  People should be taboo-d off the stage at the debates, you know beeped when they say something blatantly untrue. Is this Galileo's trial again? What on the it's-not-f*cking-flat-you-as-hole earth is going on?

** (deep breath)

My parents once came across my secret stash of tracts in my bureau drawer. They had bookshelves full of Elie Weisel, Darwin, Bertrand Russell, and Sartre. My mom, with a degree in library science steeped in a humanist tradition, told horror stories about the nuns that taught her growing up. For fun my dad poured over papers on existential psychotherapy. Neither one willingly brought me to a service of any kind that wasn't a wedding or a funeral. At the Christ-o-Rama Festival we stumbled across in Canada once Dara and I had to peel them off the floor because they found the pile of crutches people didn't need anymore hysterical. But here it was, plain as day, a teenage daughter with a secret drawer stashed full of tracts. Where had they gone wrong?

Yet, even if I just joined so I could avoid the anxiety of saying no, wouldn't a get-out-of-jail-free-card would appeal to anyone? Flipping through channels the other day I heard a daytime talk-show preacher telling people they didn't have to worry about their sins, they just had to turn and face God. God doesn't care about your sins. He just wants you to accept Him. 

That's just weird. Why don't sins matter? Yeah, you shouldn't beat yourself up every mistake, and you have to forgive yourself, and it's great to show mercy to yourself and others, but you should try to live according with your values. You can't just be that classroom menace who has perfected the art of the apology and can get away with anything.

It always pisses me off how the Born Again world has such disdain for the "good works" central to Judaism. They say "good works" with this snarling kind of dismissiveness --" doing good doesn't matter, it's what you say you believe, that's the ticket. Words, not actions. WHAT? I really can't see a convincing argument for the life-raft - hey - I was a complete d*ck my entire life, but I believe in You now, it's all good--Beam me up!--
theory. My dad doesn't agree (though he can't point to anything that suggests otherwise) but I think tThe Jewish faith to me is super-vague on the afterlife stuff, if there's a promise there, it's iffy. The emphasis is on how you live your life, here. The practice of Tzedakah (giving 10% of your income to charity) is fundamental. The word  Tzedakah itself translates to justice. 

Yet my father reminds me that the Catholic church--leader of the crusades, protector of child-abusers, champion of anti-semitism, and long-time denier of the earth's roundness and of the fact that it circles the sun--has an extensive and powerful history of social justice as well. And on that Jesus site I just looked at, there was a scary warning. Catholics need to be missionized to as well. They're not safe because they're putting too much faith in actions; they're distracted, they're missing the free pass. 

**(another deep breath)

In the entrance to St. Michael's church where as I mentioned last night I've been stopping by, there's a picture framed with part of a speech by the late Bishop Frank Weston called "Our Present Duty" . The passage goes like this:

“Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

These messages--from priests, ministers and Rabbis, and more directly, from The Bible, are very clear on giving to the poor. From Exodus: "Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien."

From Deuteronomy: "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing." 

"Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns." 

From Proverbs: "If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered."

From Matthew "Jesus answered, If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" 

From John "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth."

There are literally hundreds more like this, in both the old and new testaments. 

So even if you hate the occupy movement, and for some reason you just cannot support Obamacare because you don't think people with cancer deserve health care (come on, there's just no profit margin in chemotherapy), if you're a member of the Christian or Jewish faith, you don't need to be confused about the question of giving to others. And if you say, okay, I'll do it, I want to do it, but let me decide where I want to give, not the government -- that doesn't hold water either, not the kind that turns to wine and not the good-old fluoridated stuff that comes out of the tap (and is cleaner and better-regulated than the bottled stuff, too). Because if the government has to make major cuts to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, more people will go into poverty. It's just a fact, and it doesn't matter if the Koch brothers give another million bucks to The Natural History Museum. In a single month, they'd owe more than that in the taxes they don't pay.

And what's weird is that despite all this, and how much I love reading Zen and Tao and Buddhist teachings, I'm still drawn to the Catholic church, perhaps because of the beauty and the solitude, hard to refute that, if you can block out the fact of so much money being taken from the poor and hoarded in the richest city in the world. But there's something else, too. Something spiritual that calls to me, and I can't even begin to explain what it is. Okay maybe I can begin. I have tonight. The occupy movement, ironically or not (don't forget Dorothy Day), led me back there. You can't believe in Jesus--believe in even the idea of who h/He was--and not be affected by the call to join a revolution against the status quo. He is the ultimate rebel.   

I have a long history of wandering. I've been wandering into the church, lately, feeling some greater purpose call me. Many accuse the occupiers of not having a point. Of wandering. Wandering Jews -- you just need one word or the other, not both. They're practically synonyms. (If you get kicked out of every place you ever go, save Hollywood and Florida, you don't have much of a choice.) But anyway, wandering suits me these days.

*Stole that from my dad in comment about George W.

Not sure if it's the best idea to make changes to entries after I've already posted them. My most loyal readers are surely hitting "refresh" constantly, Mark Zuckerberg-style, so they're not likely to read the updated version, but rather the first, rough post, just after I impulsively hit "publish. "Oh well, I suppose that's the price of loyalty, and the price of my impatience, insistence on sending things immediately out into the universe, the one (there may be many) that is always sending so many things to me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Almost out of time, but just for today

11:15 PM
Wally and Alex are both asleep now. It's raining here on this island of Manhattan, raining on the blue and white Empire State Building, on the skeleton trees. It felt like spring today, and yet it was kind of okay and I couldn't figure out why. Not a creepy, global warming kind of warm day. It's supposed to rain tomorrow, too, high near 50. I'm trying to type quietly. Alex and Wally went to a neighbor's this afternoon so I could work on collecting nauseating facts for my gross-o-pedia. The world of horrifying insects is endless, not surprising since insects make up, hmmm, what is it, I should know this, 2/3 of the number of different species of life on earth? An article from this September in The Times reviewed a book talking about how the study of insects has significant relevance to the study of human psychology and in particular the nature vs. nurture question, which is of course endlessly fascinating to any (relatively) new parent. Elizabeth Royte writes, "...because insects are rarely cared for by their parents and live mostly solitary lives, they make a handy tool for looking at the potential genetic basis for adult behaviors." I'm only now beginning to trace what my adult behaviors are, let alone where they came from.

On Sunday evening Wally and I went to a candlelit church service with a choir. Went to part of it, I should say. We lasted for four songs, though the gummy-bear to song ratio was rather high. Sometimes in the mornings after I drop Wally at school, I duck into St. Michael's church around the corner. It's beautiful in there, dark but full of burning candles, flowers up by the alter, and quiet choir music (a recording). There's a little chapel to the side where I sometimes sit. I gather my thoughts there, try to set myself on the good course for the day, to begin by being grateful. On the steps to the entrance are the words, "The truth above all." Hard to argue with that, still most of disagree on what that might be.

It's almost midnight. I don't have much time now to get this post out, to keep up with the challenge I took from citibank's gauntlet. (Funny, the most valuable advice they gave came after I left them on Bank Transfer Day. Maybe you can only look at something objectively when you're no longer dependent on it. Or maybe their ad campaigns just really got a boost.) Write your story, the citibank sign said. 

I am taking that to mean, for some reason, write here everyday. Writing here everyday keeps me writing more everywhere. It means I can't let myself off the hook. It holds me accountable. Like my cousins and I say playing Taboo at Thanksgiving, it "keeps me honest". (In the game, someone looks over the player's shoulder to make sure you don't say any of the forbidden words. In this case you're looking over my shoulder to make sure I punch in every day). 

Why though? Other than being held accountable to write, which is inherently a good thing. What is the point of writing every day? I don't need to answer that all in one sweep. I can do it little by little. That's what I'm realizing now, finally. I can immerse myself in the process. Commit myself to a daily practice. I can start where I am. "Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them."* 

There’s a picture of me and my cousin Will from the early fall of 1999, at my grandmother’s birthday at the beautiful clubhouse we called the Casino in Laurel Beach, where our family had the cottage for so many years. I weaved in and out of the grand hall, alternating between adult conversations and playing with my young cousins. Will, the one who graduated from High School this past June, was just a tiny bit older than Wally is now. That’s how time works, Rach. You sound like you’re explaining the basics of time to someone who just arrived here from another galaxy. Where maybe time doesn’t exist. (The galaxy, I read today, may be losing energy. I can't blame it, really.)

Will, along with his sister Moira and brother Charlie, are the teenagers who play with my sister’s kids and Wally at holidays now, like Dara and I were the teenagers who used to play with them. (Again, you’re describing the basic nature of time. It moves forward. You get older or die trying. There really isn’t any other choice.) Still, like the Twin Towers appearing in the wrong place in my timeline Rorschach test of memory*, when I think of Will, my first thought, for a split second, is of the little boy sitting on the porch of the Casino, swinging his legs and drinking grape juice. 

There are certain people who are just landmarks of time, whose face, when they were born, you recognize immediately. Will is one of them. My older niece, Eliana, is another. They’re both the oldest in their families, and when I think about it, they each represented a major shift in family tradition. Will’s birth when I was 16 heralded the end to my sister and my reign as the kids in our extended family. Eliana’s birth, perhaps, signaled the end of young adult-hood. It is not surprising, then, that those two remain figures like in the Natalie Merchant song, “...frozen in my mind like the child that you never will be, will be again”. Who they are to me is who I am to myself. Their arrivals marked major turning points for me. To see them accurately, I have to first see myself that way. I think I’m beginning to. It feels like being free.
Major transition points. Maybe, like my rain-soaked graduation, my non-existent wedding, refusal to settle down or get a real job, or prepare for having a baby, they went by unacknowledged. It's Freud 101. If you don't say goodbye to certain periods of your life, they never become past.

There is a book I should read--The Season’s of a Man’s Life, Daniel Levinson. I have it here—how even across cultures (species?) we all go through roughly the same phases and transitions throughout our lives. I haven’t been able to plough through it. Yet I am recognizing now the importance of attending to transitions, even in the corny, overblown way our culture tends to perform the act of passing through the threshold. All of us—the ones who are hyperaware and actively engaged in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—and those who block out every chance for self-reflection with sarcasm, Sierra Nevada and a status update—are living both our lives, one reported in real time, and one distorted, re-imaged, re-imagined, tangential, full of free associative thought and dream imagery. The second one I would trust more than anything else. Yet I do wonder how much what I'm still imagining is obscuring the view. 

The truth above all. That's what I'm seeking. That's what I'm after, in writing every day.

There was yesterday, December 21, when the bricklayers outside were driving me crazy. For moments at a time I forgot to be grateful because they are searing into my brain with those horrid drills, making it hard to concentrate on the work I had to do and the work I wanted to do. Here’s something I want to do: finish rewriting my young adult novel. Reading over the beginning, one passage catches my attention. I used to think of this as the narrator leaving someone else behind, but today it is morphing into something else. Remember I wrote ages ago about how people in your dreams and real life are all the same things—extensions of yourself? Of course that’s obviously true for characters in stories you write. And here, both characters were me. The one moving forward and the one staying behind. Anyway, here's the passage from the novel. Thanks to citibank, my enemy, I have unearthed the manuscript again, 2 years after writing it for Nanowrimo (nothing like a meaningless deadline to motivate me). 
I was moving beyond her, the way you’d feel about a best friend when you get together one day and she just want to play the same old games the same old way, and doesn’t want to hear about any of the new music or books or people that you met at camp and you realized that you were just kind of moving forward, and that she’s not. That you’re waving goodbye from a bus window and she doesn’t really know you’re waving, just thinks that you’re in a funny mood that day. But she’s getting smaller and smaller to where you can hardly even see her, and eventually you’ll get carsick if you don’t turn your head around and focus on the road up ahead.

I have to begin where I am. It feels like I'm finally here. Once I find it, Carl Sagan's "worthy goal" will keep me looking forward, even when--behind the scenes, instead of sleeping--I'm sorting through the past. 

*(I would have supposed, if asked in a half-dream state, that the events of 9/11 would split in fairly equal parts my time in New York, when in truth there were only 2 years before and have been 10 years since
*Bertrand Russell again (this guy is amazing)
*Good advice from the Godfather, "Keep you friends close, but your enemies closer."

Soundtrack: What are they doing in Heaven today? by Bernice, Reagon, Yasmeen, and Michele Lanchester on Wade in The Water: Vol. 3: African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

We expelled ourselves from Eden

This was made for a Carl Sagan tribute series. The text is his. Is that him reading? I have to find out. Maybe someone who listens will recognize his voice. I came across the video on Immoral Minority--one of the few political blogs out there where I've ever been able been able to find anything vaguely resembling the truth (though I think re: Sarah Palin he may take the mocking a little too far. She's just not worth that kind of vitriol anymore, and I think everything she says and does is funny enough without anyone needing to add to it). Anyway, this blew me away. Please watch it. Not right now, not when you're already running late and feeling overwhelmed. Later, if you remember, when you have time.

"We couldn’t help ourselves. We were starving for knowledge—created hungry, you might say. This was the origin of all our troubles. In particular, it is why we no longer live in a garden: We found out too much. So long as we were incurious and obedient, I imagine, we could console ourselves with our importance and centrality, and tell ourselves that we were the reason the Universe was made. As we began to indulge our curiosity, though, to explore, to learn how the Universe really is, we expelled ourselves from Eden. Angels with a flaming sword were set as sentries at the gates of Paradise to bar our return. The gardeners became exiles and wanderers. Occasionally we mourn that lost world, but that, it seems to me, is maudlin and sentimental. We could not happily have remained ignorant forever.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jell-O in unexpected places

My publicist at ABRAMS sent me this link yesterday. Daily Candy recommends Jiggle Shots for an awkward-Christmas-sweater holiday party.

Back in September, Epicurious has included it on a back-to-school roundup.

And New York's own Metro paper ran a piece in October.

How does all of this fit in with Last American Childhood? It doesn't, at all. I suspect these are the sorts of problems I will start to run into, posting everyday.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Conditions suitable to protoplasm

"...if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending -- something dead, cold, and lifeless." Bertrand Russell

I think I should start posting everyday. At least something everyday, though I don't want this to turn into one of those "wordless wednesday" blogs. The problem is I am always playing catch-up, I always have these old entries floating around on scraps of paper and in my head, these updates, like the one I posted last night, that are a month old, these pieces I feel I need to fill in before I can get on to what I really need to say. But maybe I can just toss those aside, or if I want to be symbolic--rip them up, or maybe burn them just for the spectacle. There is a reason they haven't been posted yet. Maybe they are not present enough, real enough, honest enough, or maybe too much so, and if that's the case, I don't want to give into avoidance patterns. But I really don't know. I just realized like a week ago that maybe I'm just classic ADD and can't string a coherent thought together or manage to keep multiple drafts of stories in any kind of order so it's clear which is the latest one. I resist because I keep thinking -- that's not where I'm at anymore, I don't believe that right now, that's really not obsessing me but if I wrote about it people would think that it was. But at the same time there's some kind of narrative arc I want to follow, and those pieces floating away are part of it. I never knew until the other night reading Bertrand Russell that it's as the solar system is dying that conditions become hospitable to life. So when we appeared, and when I say "we" I mean we in a very broad sense, organisms that breathe, let's say, things were already on their way down. But wait, a quarter-of-a-billion years ago almost all life on earth, save maybe 5%, died out. And then the dinosaurs came along. And then they died out. Then we came along. The dinosaurs roamed the earth for about 160 million years, and we've been here, even at a great outside estimates, only about 200,000 (which still begs the question, why did God wait so freakin' long to send Jesus down here)? But given these numbers, which are not under debate, maybe this is all unnecessarily catastrophic thinking indicative of a colossal narcissistic personality disorder.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Update, November 21

Thanksgiving feels sort of scattered this year. On Thursday Wally and I will take a commuter train to New Haven, from there a bus to Hartford. My Uncle Billy and his family will pick us up and drive us the rest of the way to my parents’ house. Alex is staying in New York because long lost cousins from Spain announced last month they’d be visiting at Thanksgiving this year, making sure to add that the holiday “means nothing to them” but they know it’s important to us. A cousin in London and aunt in California jumped in on the plan. So they’ll all arrive tonight, converging in the rain on our house with Alex’s mom, sister, niece and nephew, for a family reunion, the link between them all--Alex’s dad—being in absentia, having died 91/2 years ago. Though, truth be told, Alex’s dad was in absentia for a good part of his childhood. When Alex was seven, his family moved from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Long Island, stayed for less than a year, then bounced back to Sao Paulo, minus the dad. Alex always expected one day he’d show up. Instead 7 years later, he hopped back with his mom and sister to North America and landed in the living room of an apartment in Queens with his dad again, an insta-family that lasted less than three years. Lots of back and forth in those days.

The continent hopping had begun a generation earlier. Alex’s dad was born in Spain, hence the long-lost cousins from Madrid, and moved to Brazil as a child. To complete the circle, I suppose, sometime in Junior High Wally should set his sights on Barcelona.

In other updates, the half marathon I was training for with my friend Eli turned into a Turkey Trot this coming Friday to support the Acton Food Coop. I don’t know how long it is exactly, but I think a Trot tends to max out at 5K. So, having committed to a 13-mile run together however many months ago, we’ve now resigned ourselves to 3.

The Turkey Trot supports the Acton Food Pantry. I didn’t even realize they had one, I was telling my mom the other day. She used to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Concord, the neighboring town. On occasion, the rest of us would join her. I thought that was nearest meals-for-poor-people apparatus going on in those affluent Boston suburbs, but all along there’d been one right in our own town.

But last night I was putting back those papers I’d dug up to find my letter about taxes to the Boston Globe from 1999, and I came across the artifacts of my brief journalism career (even briefer than my 6th month stint as a substitute teacher at MS 54) an article for Acton’s local paper about none other than the Acton Food Pantry. Not only have I heard of the food pantry, it turns out, I’d once interviewed the woman running it and then written an article about what she told me. So this is an update, I guess, not only for my loyal readers, but for myself and my own unreliable mind.

Training runs have taken on a new significance in light of the occupy movement. I tell myself endurance and speed are essential for a resistance fighter, as are the capacity to run when tired, cold, and wet. I have to run, no matter how much resistance I face. So I run in the cold fall rain. I run with headaches. I run when my legs hurt. Out by the river, listening to Richard Butler’s California. I know the idea that I’m training as a resistance fighter just because I’ve held a few cardboard signs down at Zuccotti Square is beyond ludicrous. But out there on the windy piers along the Hudson River my imagination drives me, as it does most of the time when I’m alone. It doesn’t hurt that from those piers I have a straight shot of the Freedom Tower going up downtown at the site of the World Trade Center. The tower calls to me, and with it, the promise of revolution in the air in the streets below.

It was that sight that drew me down last Thursday to the Wall Street rally two days after the occupiers were thrown out of Zuccotti Park in a midnight raid. I had planned to attend the rally that evening. And I did that too, meeting my friend Ivan Drucker at Foley Square then marching across the Brooklyn Bridge. Just a little ways into the march, people around us started pointing, jaws started dropping. On the side of the Verizon building a message was broadcast above us in an anonymous light show; it was a dream, a bat-signal revelation, a moment of childlike wonder, proof that we’re not only living by fiction, but science fiction as well.

Some powerful, mystery person was telling us to look around. That we were part of a global uprising, that we should occupy Wall St, Oakland, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, cities all over the world. Occupy Earth. The message ended with the words: Do not be afraid. Love.

It occurred to me that maybe I should write a separate OWS blog, but then the themes between OWS and LAC just had too much of an overlap. Like protecting childhood. Playing music as often as possible. Trying to be grateful. Trying to be fair. Spending lots of time outdoors. Valuing history, art and opposing ideas. Thinking it’s reasonable to start dancing where ever you are. Living simply. Not spending money on things that don’t matter. Not missing out on your life. Keeping things little for kids so the world can be big. 

Wally goes to the preschool I mentioned back in June, a few blocks away now. That does feel small-town and is pretty incredible luck that he got in there. I can easily drop him off and pick him up, walking along quite possibly the ugliest, dirtiest 6 blocks in Manhattan, full of exhaust, massive trucks that force you to jut out into 10th ave to get by, and weird streets (to the tunnel?) that cut through the streets.

On his first day there, parents were allowed to stay for the first hour and then came the big goodbye. Wally was already involved in the train set and barely looked up when I left. “Bye mom. See you later.” Separation anxiety was not something we had to confront. Even the other day when he saw me at a volunteer meeting in the hall he simply said, “What are you doing here, Rachel?” and continued on his way.

His backpack comes home packed with paper crowns and apple tree paintings. I get notes on a regular basis about how he “won’t sit”, or “can’t sit still”, or is “having trouble sitting still”, but none of that comes as a surprise. Then after school we meet our neighborhood friends in the playground. No more awkward mingling, no more soul-deadening conversations about how to stop toddlers from chewing on board books.

Now that I have time, sometimes, to pause for a second, I ask myself: What just happened? The days used to be such a push for me –schlepping Wally uptown and downtown and around town to various therapies, meeting friends in faraway places, racing through errands without knocking over too many displays, always having to wake Wally up from his nap to get somewhere, then flying off while he’s in tears.

What just happened? It could apply to many things. From a baby to a preschooler, or the thirteen years from my college graduation, or the polar ice caps melting. Or even just the trees outside my window. Remember the pink trees from April? Here they are today. 

My sister once told me that when you have kids, the days are long but the years go by fast. It’s nearly 8 in the morning, and Wally’s still asleep. He is on antibiotics, and has been staying up ‘til 10, but…still…it’s nearly 8 and he’s STILL ASLEEP. I feel semi-functional. These days I feel semi-not totally crazy.

It seemed like those 4 am winter mornings might never end. Maybe the craziest was the December trip to Massachusetts three years ago. Obama had just been elected, I was still working full-time and my parents new condo didn’t have much furniture. They had our pitbull, Sky, and Wally was—at 10 months—hurling himself through space. On these 4 am winter mornings he was not only awake, but bounding all over the house, running without holding on, climbing stairs, and crashing into Sky.

What on earth can I do? I would think in those strange hours. Even if my parents got up early, by 8 or so, I still had hours to go to keep quiet these two creatures who could not be confined.

Now Sky lives on a farm near New Hampshire with four other dogs. Wally is in preschool. Obama can no longer hope to run on change. Or, I think he can, but most of my comrades at OWS, it seems, no longer believe him. And I’m here at my kitchen table—my grandmother’s table—thinking I’ve got to find the letter the government wrote my grandmother to let her know how much her late husband had contributed to setting up social security. That would be fascinating, if I could find it and write about that. I’m here at the table in a quiet room, sorting through things and  making them murkier, writing, like I have been, as the springtime turned slowly into autumn.