Life Stories & Cautionary Tales

My  Grandmother’s House

The bare bulb suspended over the ironing board where Ruth stood pressing sheets always puzzled me. In a house devoted to luxury and comfort, this was the only place without adornment,an oasis of commonplace necessity, and I liked to be there best of all. It was Ruth, of course.

Not that the basement held no other charms;things and places were living presences to be reckoned with: the big furnace, the forbidden coal room and coal chute, the hidden room under the stairs behind the washing machines, the mangle iron, my father’s wood-working shop, his cupboard full of gingerbread, the room where the canned goods were kept, and the room next to it that was always locked, but once.

Of course I got into it then, and found a treasure there: my grandmother Clara’s jewels, my father’s mother who died before I was born, for whom I was named. I held the
delicate filigreed silver and tiny garnets up to the light;a white stallion capered on the battlements, golden fish leaped in the moat. Pendants furled gloriously, trumpets blared. A knight in silver strode solemnly across the drawbridge bearing crimson roses, pearls from the orient,emeralds, garnets, rubies just for me.

“Princess,” he said softly, “you can’t play with these.”  My father’s arm was around my shoulder; he took the necklace and put it back in its box. “Come on,” he said,
“this room is supposed to be locked anyway.”  He led me out by the hand, closed the door and locked it. “Go on, little nudnik, run along and play.”  I never saw her jewels again,
nor the inside of that little room.

For all its solidity and stability, our house possessed a certain reckless unpredictability. Things, important things, would vanish, like the piano in our living room. I loved that piano. It was so inviting; we were friends. We could make giants’ bellies rumble, dwarves march in the forest, elves and fairies dance in moonlit gardens. We could raise the winds to terrible storms, or become fledglings,chirping and fluttering in the nest.

Then one day, just like that, there was a card table in its place.

“What happened to the piano?”

“The movers took it.”


My mother’s answers were never very satisfying, and usually left me in confusion, not to mention resentment; but we weren’t supposed to talk back or question grownups’
arrangements. I clothed my challenges in sarcasm and wondered if they’d ever see through my disguise. This got me into a lot of trouble with my mother, and I never gave her
any peace. I know I loved her, though, because one day, when we were driving in the car with my grandmother and Aunt Rose back from an antiquing expedition, they quarreled over whose bosom was softest and lap most ample to make a pillow for my weary head. I wanted my mother more than anything in the world. I don’t know why I couldn’t say so; I wish I had.

We quarreled. I knew things I wasn’t supposed to know,like where babies came from. I broadcast the news to all my friends, and she was blamed for not keeping a muzzle on my big mouth. I embarrassed, perhaps humiliated her. She blamed me for taking things I didn’t take, doing things I didn’t do. I never forgave her for not believing me, and we never really trusted each other again. I took refuge in my companions at school, my box of crayons (I was in love with Prussian Blue), and the world of fairy, music and dreams.

And, of course, Ruth. After school, I’d run or skip or skate all the way home, come in the back (Don’t slam the door), run up the steps two at a time past my grandmother’s flat where the ladies would be playing Mah Jong or canasta, up to our floor where sometimes the “girls” would be playing bridge, but where usually, my mother would be lying on her bed or the chaise lounge reading one of the eight or nine books she’d take from the library every week. Sometimes, I’d go back to see her. She’d ask me if I had homework, did I want a snack. There were apples, crackers, peanut butter, milk in the kitchen. Don’t pester Ruth. She’s working.

But pester Ruth, I would and did. Not even my grandmother, singing to and patting the plump chicken she was cooking for dinner, or the sweet cinnamon smell of Schnecken wafting from her oven could draw me like that luminous corner of the dim and damp basement. I knew so little about her other life. Her husband was a minister,Reverend Feaster. She never used the word preacher, but there were rumors, or echoes of rumors, about the ecstatic worship of Holy Rollers, and I wanted more than anything to be among their company. So exotic it seemed and mysterious: the unspeakable luxury of wild abandon. Such a contrast to our sober services where new clothes, hairdos, and fiancés were the weekly revelation.

Ruth wore plain dresses and fasted every Friday all the year around. On the other days she worked for us, my grandmother, my mother, or even I would fix her lunch. After
twelve years of service, the woman, as my grandmother called her, still didn’t know her way around the refrigerator. This puzzled me too.

I drank the milk and ate the Wonderbread, grape jam, and peanut butter sandwich, closed the door quietly, walked softly down the first flight of stairs, then the second, and opened the door to the basement. I ran the rest of the way down.

“Hi, Ruth. Guess what we learned at school today?”

“I don’t know, child. Looks like something made you
very bright.”

“The water cycle, Ruth. All the rain fills the streams,the streams flow into rivers, they all run down to the sea.Then the water evaporates into air, fills the clouds up ’till they burst into rain again. Isn’t that the most amazing thing you ever heard?  The most beautiful amazing thing?”

Ruth chuckles, smiles that radiance back to me, nods, sighs.

“Yes, child, that is very beautiful to know, very satisfying.”

“Why haven’t I heard about it before?  Why isn’t everybody talking about it?  Why didn’t they tell me?”

Ruth stops the iron, nods again, and smiles more gently.

“I don’t rightly know. Something that’s there all the time, but you don’t notice it. People have to make dinner,get the dishes done.”

“Ruth, I don’t every want to be a grownup. I don’t ever want to stop thinking about the water cycle.” Her laugh envelops me, releases me. I dance for her,sing for her, and pretty soon, I have to go and practice.

In my own room, I take the violin out of its case, tighten the bow, take the amber rosin from its midnight blue velvet pouch, and rub it until the dust makes me sneeze.
Then I tune. By ear, the ear Ivan Shapiro, my teacher, pulls for my father’s edification.
“Such an ear, Nate, such an ear.”  He is a round and bald little man with too many smells to keep track of: rosin, mouthwash, aftershave, peppermint gum, and something old and musty. “Such a wonderful ear.”
I am learning the Brahms Violin Concerto, and I can’t read music. He plays a passage
and I remember. I don’t want to learn to read. I want to play the music with my eyes closed and hear what I play with my heart. I want to be thrilled by all that immense
enveloping beauty. And besides, I have more important business for my eyes when I’m practicing.I play the open strings, run through the scales, set the music on the stand, go to the bookcase, snag a comic book, and place it carefully on top of the music. I begin to
play. Something for my mother, so she’ll know I’m practicing, something for my ear, I don’t know what. E A G#…Something long and windy, like a road, like a river. Little Lulu
catches up with Tubby. Something minor, sad and haunting: B flat, E flat, E. Witch Hazel shakes her broom at Little Itch. Now Allegro, Molto Vivace: Witch Hazel chases Lulu down the forest path.

The door slams. It’s my brother, Danny. His room is next to mine. Clunk, clank, thud: baseball, bat, mitt. Long silence. A series of muffled sounds. He’s practicing too,learning to snap his fingers. Why is it so hard for him, who can do almost anything else?  He can’t carry a tune either, but every night before we fall asleep, I hear him practicing his most familiar song: “My country ’tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, Of Thee I sing.”He tries so hard. He’s so good. My mother loves him best, but my grandmother loves me best. They would deny this furiously. My dad and Ruth love us about the same. I don’t know about my Grandpa. He pinches our cheeks and calls us little Mumsers, gives us a dollar for every A on the report card, and promises us a car when we’re 21 if we don’t smoke.
A couple of nights a week, he and the men play Pinochle and smoke cigars in their den which is right below my room. I like to go down and watch them play.

“So nu, Siggy, wattya got, aces?”

“I should be so lucky.”

“Stock Market dropped a point today.”



I’m invisible there.

Not so in the living room. The ladies are playing Samba and discussing fur coats, lamp shades, meat loaf, Mrs.Footerfass’ new maid. Their perfectly waved silver blue heads all turn to me as I come in.

“Isn’t she adorable.”

“Look at the shape on her.”

“No, show them your teeth, Dahlink,” says my

grandmother. “Look, they’re ahbsolutely poifect, not even the dentist corrected them. Her own.”

“So tell me, how is school?”

“You have nice little friends?”

“Your Grandma thinks the world of you. You know that,
don’t you?”

“Have a piece hard candy.”

After practice, I rummage in the sock drawer for the last piece of Blackjack gum, grab the skate key and run outside to play. I sit on the front steps, put on the
skates, coast down the driveway to our tree. The black tar still looks wet. I can’t reach the place where the tree doctor scraped and patched it. Poor tree. I put my arms around it and pat its scratchy bark with my cheek. Dutch Elm Disease. I make a futile effort to blow a bubble, try not to feel so frightened.
I skate up and down the driveway for awhile. I know every crack and cranny. I find a stick and listen to the pok pok pok it makes on the picket fence next door as I skate alongside it. A small compensation for the crab apple tree and swampy field where we built bonfires, smoked reeds and roasted pilfered potatoes in the coals…forbidden pleasures, anyway…if only the grump hadn’t moved in and erased our wilderness. “Progress,” my grandmother says, but he’s so mean, he won’t even return the balls lobbed over the fence by mistake. He must have a hundred of them. What does he want with them?  He doesn’t even go outside except to yell at the paper boy. Back and forth I skate, up and down the block, making a song. “Raindrops making puddles,raindrops filling streams, streams flow into rivers, I’ll see you in my dreams.”

“Cahler, Cahler.”  It’s Ruth calling.

“Your mother says for you to go upstairs now.”

“But Ruth,” I pant, out of breath from skating to her so fast,

“I’m not finished playing yet.”

She laughs.

“You know you have to mind your mother.”

I take off my skates and go in. I count to 20 at each step. There are 20 steps. I lookfor anything to distract me. Not even a spider web,
Ruth is thorough. By the time I get to the top, my mother is mad at me.

“What took you so long?  How did get so dirty?  Go to your room.”

She follows me and fastens the gate across the doorway.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, please don’t make me stay in my room.”

No repeal. She walks down the hall to the kitchen. It’s not staying in my room, it’s my father knowing I’ve been bad again. I go to my bed and take up Grimm’s Fairy Tales to read. Which one?  “Snow White?” “Cinderella?”
At last, my father’s car pulls up the driveway, a 1949 Chevy, two years old.

“Please, can I come out now?  I’ll be good.”

“Yes,” she calls, music, life in her voice again. Chicken cacciatore, her speciality, is simmering on the range. Enticing spicy aroma beckoning all the familial fragments back to the center. My brother, Danny, is in the kitchen at the table drinking milk and coloring. And there we all are in time for phew, phew, Dad’s home-from-work whistle.


The long hallway on our floor is where I learned to fly. It was easy. I would stand between the bathroom door and my brother’s door facing the laundry chute on the left
and the clear passageway to the right, lift myself horizontally by grasping the two doorknobs, and sail into the dining room where we were a family, the living room where grownups and occasionally Santa visited, cruise around the fat and scratchy armchairs, open the door and nose down the front stairs where I terrorized my brother with the little vacuum cleaner, down down and out the front door,down the stoop steps, and, upsoaring over the elm into the clouds (nimbus, cumulus, stratus-various) forget myself there.

Flying, like most things in my grandmother’s house, both charmed and terrified me. And like much of my experience there, came unbidden, inexplicable, mysterious.The laundry chute, for instance, was prosaic enough. You just opened the little door and threw in grubby jumpers and pajamas (swoosh, thud) or rubber balls (boinkety,boinkety bonk bonk bonk…bonk) if you wanted sound effects, or the glossy white balloons my father kept hidden in one of the drawers of his night table if someone were coming. But
once we found a rat there crouching in the corner ready to spring, or maybe it was the rat we saw in the road, walking to the library, transposed in a dream.
Sometimes at night, I could actually crawl into the chute and climb onto a ledge above the door, a passage unavailable in daylight. From there, I could climb and wind
upward, crouching, the space is so small. I pull myself a long and precarious way up onto another ledge, a platform which is my parent’s bed, the one they gave me in exchange for my twin beds; in the middle of the covers there is a hole through which I fall like Alice: down down down until I am outside on the grass. I run back into the house to the basement laundry chute and begin to climb again past my grandmother’s little door, past my mother’s little door to the place where I started, back onto the ledge.
Now it opens to a small room whose only furniture is the fascinating kidney shaped vanity table of my mother’s that evaporated from her room one day, for which I hunted in the attic to no avail. But here it is: maroon and lime green drapery, mirror, perfume atomizers, powder puffs, nail polish and the faint scent of her cologne: Nuit d’amour.I know I can’t stay here and open the door to an enormous room filled with glistening white stoves and refrigerators and look, it’s Bess Meyerson, my Grandpa brother Sam’s wife Rose’s second cousin on her mother’s side. She’s opening oven doors and closing them,explaining. I quickly find a path through the maze of appliances and hurry to the back of the room and open the door.

Oh my Thunder, it’s the ocean and only stepping stones to walk on. The door slams behind me, the wind picks up, howling. Enormous walls of water rise up everywhere around me, grey seas swelling dark,dangerous, mysterious and compelling. My shorn hair grows into long and flowing tresses whirling around my head. Embracing the wind, I stretch out my arms for balance. Dark terror ignites me. My feet move gingerly on the slippery stones (high wire, no-net bravura); on and on, my heart pounding, until I walk into the sea, splashing, rolling in the fluid depths, enraptured.
I surface, pant for air, swim steadily, rhythmically until,spent and weary, I swoon away. I don’t drown. I awaken: In a dim room filled with music and books, a gently blazing hearth. It is a solitary, remote, familiar, heartening.
But I am really in my own bed, in my own room,awakening. Sunlight and bird song, robins, sparrows and wrens. The haunting wail of the morning train stirs me, Pan piping to the dawn. So early. I doze and flutter between the worlds, a moth on a window pane.
Coffee aroma tickles my nose and the commanding smell of bacon, the only permissible part of the pig in our house, propels me out of bed. The toilet flushes. It’s Saturday. I
am going shopping and out to lunch with my Grandmother. I dress and run downstairs to see if she’s up yet. His egg and needle are already on the stove. She boils them together,why waste the pan? Grandpa has diabetes. I go down their hall past the family portraits, children in black and white, the grandchildren in color, to their bedroom. Grandpa is in the shower; Grandma’s getting dressed. She already has her corset on and is rolling her stockings.

“Good Morning, Dahlink.”

She greets me sweetly. I love to watch the fascinating ritual of her dressing. It’s so elaborate and complex. I admire, too, her wrinkled flesh,especially the droop of her upper arms that wobble as she works. She fastens the stockings to the garters, takes the shoe trees out of her beige Enna Jettic pumps, and puts them on, careful of her bunions. She sings a little, asks me if I’ve had breakfast and goes to her mahogany dresser, top right drawer. This is it. Mystery of Mysteries, the Torah of the Ark: her Falsie. She had her breast removed 20 years ago before I was born. She didn’t die of it. Then she goes to her purse, brown alligator, and takes from her wallet three one hundred dollar bills, two twenties and a five, unzips the falsie and wads them in. Just like that, the most natural thing in the world. She doesn’t notice me watching her, captivated. I’m privileged to this intimacy. What does a child know?

Still singing, she positions this other fount of mother-love in her brassiere, an architectural construction made by whalebone. What do they do with the rest of the whale?  Not an exactly uplifting quandary. Perched on her maroon velvet hassock, I fiddle with the shoe trees, mulling this over. I don’t say anything. She would kiss away my tears, but she wouldn’t understand. My grandmother has no sympathy for animals. She says I can’t have a dog or a cat.

“Sha, Dahlink, they bring doit into the house.”

God forbid. This confirms my sense that grownups are ninnies and my determination never to become one. We are not entirely pet-less, however. My brother has a tank full of tropical fish: neon tetras black mollies and guppies. The fish are boring but the scum-eating snail
fascinates me. Thinking it was eating the fish, I once took the brass pestle from the mortar and bopped it one. I had a stomach ache for a week, wouldn’t go into the living room, and was expecting the S.P.C.A. to come and take me away any. When I finally got up the courage to confront the tank, there it still was, and I sobbed inconsolably.

By now, Grandpa is out of the shower wearing his navy silk bathrobe and soft leatherbedroom slippers that scuff as he walks. Thermometer in mouth, he is toweling his hair, white tinged with a peculiar yellow. Some schlemiel Miami Beach barber spruced him up. He doesn’t like it either. He sees me and smiles. “Vas machst Du, dahlink?”  he asks
without removing the thermometer, and without waiting for an answer (Is there an answer?) he shuffles down the hall. By now, Grandma has her dress on and asks me to zip her up. Then she puts on her poils. He puts on the Paganini violin concerto on the record player in the living room. Grandpa is crazy about it. We know it by heart.

I am going to be the world’s greatest dancer when I grow up, and have every kind of dog there is, except bulldogs and Chihuahuas, they’re ugly, and thirteen white fluffy cats and thirteen sleek black ones, and a leopard cub, a parrot and a monkey. I will ride Camels and donkeys and elephants. I will keep my rainbow-colored tutus in a big trunk pasted with ports of call stickers, and play a lot of shuffleboard on deck. I will make friends with the natives and dance around palm trees with them by the light of the moon.


On Sunday nights, aunts, uncles and cousins come to my Grandmother’s house for dinner. It’s always the same. Herring,  chopped liver and rye bread are munched in the living room. Aunts and uncles drink Scotch, Grandpa schnapps, the cousins tomato juice (Be careful. Don’t spill it on your dress). Gramma and Uncle Benny drink tomato juice too. Uncle Benny is a surgeon. He doesn’t smoke either.Uncle Clarence is the lawyer. He can smoke and drink if he wants to because when he operates on people, his hands don’t have to be so steady. Aunt Blanche is beautiful. Aunt Lila is smart. My mother Mildred is the best bridge player. My dad, Nate, is a haberdasher and the only one who doesn’t belong to the country club. Uncle Clarence says he isn’t executive material, but he is clever with his hands. In fact, he’s an amateur magician. After dinner, he takes us down to the rec room, and delights us with card and rope tricks, vanishing golf balls, and other wonders. Spellbound,we watch him turn quarters into dimes. “Typical,” says Uncle Clarence when we tell him of this feat.

Gramma puts three leaves in her dining room table,covers the mahogany with linen and lace, and we set it with her good china and sterling silverware. Aunts toss the salad, put the Kugel and peas in serving dishes. We all come to the table and Gramma carries in the prime ribs. When everyone is served, Grandpa gives the benediction:

“So Nu, Eat, Already. The roast beef lies you should eat it,”

and we begin. My cousins on either side of me pass me their peas under the table. I’m the only one who likes vegetables, and we all have to finish our plates. The children are starving in India. None of us has any idea what that means. Sometimes Ruth comes in to serve and do the dishes. She wears a uniform and eats in the kitchen. I think she might be lonely in there all by herself, but my mother says she’s not. I’m glad she’s here anyway, and kiss her warm brown arm as she serves me the Kugel.

Some Sunday nights, Grandma and Grandpa come upstairs for dinner. We eat different things at our house. My mother is a good cook. It doesn’t matter what she makes except liver and onions or canned spinach. When that happens, I only pretend to eat. I wipe my mouth a lot, transferring the inedible morsels to my napkin. When the plate is clean and napkin full, I ask to be excused and dump the mess into the toilet. I’d rather be hungry than to have to gag it down.

After dinner, the grownups drink coffee. My dad steps into the living room to turn the radio on, to have it ready in plenty of time for Edward R. Murrow. I like to go in and sit in the big chair next to the console and listen to the crackle and hum of the set warming up. I can watch the incandescent pink glow of the tubes growing brighter from the hole I poked in the speaker’s webbing. Pretty soon the humming and buzzing turn into organ music, very dramatic. It gives me goose bumps. My show is coming on: “The Greatest Story Every Told.”  It’s about this guy from Bible days, Jesus Christ.

“How can you listen to that Chazzerai?” asks Grandpa.

And at regular intervals of this week’s absorbing installment, he offers his commentary.

“And then he came and spoke unto them…”


“My father’s house has many mansions…”


“I am the light and the truth and the way.”

“Oy veh ist mir.”

My brother and I take a bath every night after dinner in our bathroom. We like to blow bubbles through washcloths and splash very carefully. My mother will kill us if we soak the floor again. I have magic powers in the tub. I submerge myself completely, and come up as Janet Oesterreich, a girl in my class I most admire. Once, when I had been invited to her house, we saw slides of their trip to Austria. I fell in love with the picture of Janet in a Viennese garden surrounded by blossoms. She looks so beautiful, like a fairy tale maiden. I want to be that slight figure with rosy cheeks and curly hair in that garden, wearing that dirndl. My body is chubby. My bangs are too short.

Sometimes I like to go to my parents’ bathroom and take a shower. One afternoon, as I’m leaving the steamy little room, my mother looks at me in a peculiar way, and tells me
there’s a book in the living room on the card table she wants me to read. I can ask her questions, if I have any, after I read it. I put my clothes on and go to the living room. It’s not a book at all, but a mimeographed pamphlet, entitled: “The Facts of Life: A Girl’s Guide to Menstruation.”  It’s so obscurely worded, I can barely understand it. I’d rather be reading the Bobbsey Twins. At least something happens in those books. This is a dumb story about blood: it’s not going to happen to me anyway.

Sometimes my mother makes me so angry, I hate her. She talks to me as if I had no sense. This exasperates me, and one day I decide to get even. I write: “I hate Mildred” one hundred times on little pieces of paper and scatter them from my bedroom window to the backyard below. Now everyone is going to know.
If it weren’t for their evenings out, I don’t know what I’d do. A few minutes after they leave, when the baby sitter thinks I’m already asleep, I sneak into their bedroom and put the radio on, very softly. I don’t want to be caught. Fibber Magee and Molly, Life with Luigi, and the Great Gildersleeve are OK, but the shows I really love are Mr.and Mrs. North,Suspense Theatre and Lights Out. It isn’t just the thrilling excitement. It’s the way they really talk to each other. You can actually figure out what’s going on. They don’t know I’m listening, so they don’t have to say the interesting stuff in Yiddish. It’s very clear and straightforward, and I wish I could live there all the time. I wish Mr. and Mrs. North were my parents, or maybe I could be their midget maid. I could help them solve mysteries while making the sandwiches. I bet I could be a great detective. They even have a dog.


Life goes on like this for a long time. Change is so slow, it’s imperceptible. I can’t imagine it otherwise. Well, we grow out of our clothes, and I give up skating for bicycling, but that’s different. One day, I come home from school and Ruth is in the kitchen. “Cahler,” she says as I come in. She pulls me to her and hugs me, then kneels down.With her hands on my shoulders, she looks in my eyes.”Cahler. It’s your mother. She’s very sick. Your Grandmother came back from Florida to be with her. You be very quiet when you go in there.”  My heart starts pounding as I tiptoe down the hall. My grandmother, in her traveling suit, sits on the needlepoint chair watching my mother. She doesn’t even see me as I come in. My dad, in shirt sleeves, crouches by the bed, holding a basin for my mother who is very pale, very ill. No one says anything. I feel this moment etching its way indelibly into my life. They will stay this way forever. I feel frightened and don’t know where to go. My room is too close and too small to contain me. I go up to the attic.

I open the door to the standing cabinet next to the stairs, and touch the long, satin dresses with  buttoned sleeves, high necks and bustles. I am not to play with them. They belonged to my grandmother’s mother, all that’s left of her in this house. I don’t even know her name. I feel creepy and shut the door. I go back to the woolen closet, put my nose to the keyhole and smell the cedar wood. Then I go back to the rows of empty suitcases, lie down among them and go to sleep.

No one ever told me she was dying, no one said anything at all, but the day I came home from school and found the ambulance there, I went to the living room window and watched them carry her down the stairs and tuck the stretcher in (she looked so small and far away). I knew she would never come home again. The sound of the doors closing startled me. I didn’t see my father go in there with her, but he must have, because he wasn’t anywhere else. I waited for the siren’s wail, but they drove away in silence. My mother is going to die, I whispered, not daring to believe my own ears, words, knowledge. She died a week later. I was in Sunday school. Helen, my mother’s friend, came to pick me up and drive me home.

She parked across the street. “Go right upstairs, your father wants to see you. Don’t stop at your Grandmother’s. Go right upstairs.”


I open the door. He’s right there. He takes me by the hand and leads me down the hall to the den. He sits me on his lap (I’m goo old to sit on his lap) and tells me: “Mommy’s gone to heaven.”  He starts to cry. I don’t want him to say it like this, like a story. I want him to say she died. She’s dead. He cries. I don’t cry. I don’t know what to say, to do. He takes out his hanky and blows his nose. I hug him and pat his back, a feeble gesture. Poor Daddy. We go downstairs.

Everyone’s there. In the living room, the dining room, the den. All day long, people come and go. My grandfather sits in an armchair. He never moves or says a word. My grandmother is the chief mourner. Her weeping fills the house. People embrace one another and cry. I’m not sure why I’m there; no one says anything to me for hours.

Only Aunt Blanche takes me in her arms and whispers, “You poor baby.”  Then Helen is there again, and tells me I’m coming home with her, to bring some clothes for the funeral tomorrow. When we get to her house, all her kids are outside playing. May I play with them?  I really don’t know if she’ll let me, but she does. It’s like a reprieve. I don’t want to think about it, not yet.

Helen takes me back to her house. During dinner, I begin to sense the real alteration of my life. Helen says, as she’s handing the chicken around, “You’re probably not hungry. You probably don’t want to eat anything.”  How can this be?  I’m ravenous. We’ve been chasing the ball and running around for the last three hours. “That’s OK.”  I say, helping my self to salad, trying to look normal, inconspicuous. But I think there’s something wrong with myself for enjoying the meal. I feel shamed for not mourning my mother, for being hungry. I don’t finish my plate. FOOL, I say. That’s what a grownup would do. It’s a lie.

Helen puts me to bed in the guest room, alone, instead of with Ellen in her room where I usually stay on a sleep over. I’m just falling asleep when she comes in with an enormous box of Kleenex.

“You’re going to need these,”she says. “Goodnight.”

I am?  Oh, yes. I’m supposed to cry. Millions of mothers are sleeping. Millions of mothers are dead. I have a million pieces of Kleenex in a box beside me in bed.

It is a crisp cold October morning, grey and overcast. I look out the window as I dress, watch the wind stirring the branches of the big maple tree, watch the red and gold leaves cascading down. So many falling leaves. Thunder rumbles in the distance. It’s going to rain. Perfect weather for a funeral. I shiver, put on my grey wool skirt and sweater. Imperfect clothes–I don’t have anything black.

My dad meets me at the funeral parlor door and takes me in. There are already sixty or seventy people there milling about or seated in the chapel, the whispered chatter a drone of bees. I feel lightheaded. They didn’t think I could eat breakfast either. We go to our seats, front row center. After a long time, there is silence. My grandmother comes in, supported by my uncles. She is furred, veiled, and like everyone else, dressed in black. She sits next to me, looks at my mother lying in her coffin, and begins to cry. The Rabbi begins too. I can’t understand what he’s saying, my  grandmother’s sobbing is so loud and upsetting. We sit, we stand, we go through the motions, and then it’s time to pay our last respects. My grandmother approaches the bier, falls onto the coffin, hugging my mother, crying and talking to her in Yiddish.

“Mother,” says Uncle Benny, “the car is waiting.”

They have to drag her away. And then it’s my turn. Her hand is so cold. I’m sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry I was so mean to you.

After the ceremony at the cemetery, we go back to my Grandmother’s house. I wonder where my brother is. I haven’t seen him in two days. The house is full again, all the large crowd of her acquaintance paying condolence calls. My Grandpa resumes his silent sitting. Women bring food to the table. I sit down in the midst of plenty. While I’m eating, Ruth comes in the back door. She looks around and and asks what’s going on. Someone tells her, and she begins to cry.

I’m aghast. Someone called her in to work without telling her. I go to the kitchen to comfort her. She puts her arms around me and we hug a long time. Don’t pester Ruth; she’s working. Don’t pester Ruth; she working.


The Azerbaijani Madonna

I think she must have walked a long time, just to come cross the border. They walked in long files, not speaking much, putting one foot in front of the other. Aside from the plodding feet through long stretches of dry grass, the rhythm of migration rang in the abrasions of copper pots, brass bells, candle sticks, mortar and pestle, not merely relics or emblems of home, but home itself. Scattered like wheatberries shot from the threshing machine, they gathered their cloaks around them, laid their toughened courteous hands on the grey heads of the old grandmothers and received in turn the gift of hands on heads and the deep thrumming wail of departure, the rent in the fabric, in the old songs of the village in which the community found its face.  They stopped at the waning of the light and made their fires. The dragon was overhead and the archer whose wings were pinions of cold light. Water and oil they carried in goatskins. The wine and flatbread were long gone. Cheese and dates and figs were now as remote as grape-leaves in the arbor under the soft skies of summer, nights suffused with the fragrance of jasmine. They ate their lentils and huddled as cattle do in the northern plains, awaiting the cold dawn and the slow plodding rhythm of going.  And suddenly they were at the outpost on higher ground.  The soldiers made crude jokes of welcome. Children flew away from their mothers’ sides like crows sweeping away from the underbrush to run across the border, to mark in raucous gabbling cries their arrival.

But Marina drew her baby inward to her breast and fed her the first milk of the first day, her face as quiet and remote as a tutelary goddess, Artemis in Anatolia, giving suckle to the Ephesians. Soon they would make their lives in a strong stone hut, plant vines, send the small ones into the hills with the herd, mark evening with milking, morning with the kneading of bread, stacking sieves and pans of curds and whey for the fat balls of good cheese, and in time sit under the spreading fig tree, imbibing tranquillity, succor of the Great Mother.

But a night and a day and another night under the wheeling stars brought them to the cypress trees, the stone huts, the large houses, the grand public buildings, hotels and cathedral. In the oldest part of the city where they stopped and stared and looked at one another in numb relief and with the quivering spasms of hunger and memory that jostled mute tongues to speech, sharp need to  make a settlement; they heard the mewings and whickerings of beasts tethered in their stalls, not as herd animals but the individuals or pairs belonging to each family in pens contiguous with the houses.

In the morning, Marina, and several other women inquired after the well which was, they said, in the center of the cathedral square in the shade of the great cypress.  She wrapped her daughter to her, nuzzled the soft cheeks of the sleeping little one, took the two clay jars, and walked with the others in silence.

But you see, my love, I cannot tell if she entered the cathedral, and walked in the splendid ambience of dusty light filtered through the high vaulted beams from the crenellated windows, or saw the blaze of candles at the alter, or heard the black-draped crones intoning Ave, Ave…or saw even one of the frescoes pulsing in saffron and ocher and indigo and gold…

Her body began to vibrate, louder louder dissolving in a deafening tumult, shock after shock, in waves and crashing stone. Under the rubble she awoke to the chalky air so thick it was hard to breathe, and to the whimpering of the child still close to her breast…whom she did then feed and feed again, a day, and a night, and another, pinned under the great silent stones amidst the intermittent groans of the faceless wounded and dying and the cooing of pigeons, the soft sound of wings settling, as they looked for bread.  And then the milk dried up. She hunted in the small cell of their confinement with her fingers, inch by inch, until she found a sliver of glass, and therewith pricked her finger and gave the baby to suck her own life-blood which sustained them until the afternoon of the fifth day, when they were uncovered and drawn into the throng of Armenian rescue workers whose excited faces and gentle urgent hands brought blood to her pallid cheeks again.  She was thirty, beloved, the following summer, when she suffered a heart attack, and now, convalescing, still nursing her baby, she has been staying, gratis, at the large hotel. After the earthquake, all the innkeepers opened their doors to the displaced, kinsmen and refugees alike. But that was a year ago, and things begin to return to normal. They grow restless for the clink of the coin in the till. And so the story goes.


The Quest

1. Between the Walls

It began suddenly the Wednesday we began to renovate the upstairs. We planned to take down the walls that divided the cubicles to make a large and pleasant room. What we hadn’t counted on was finding all the abandoned nests in the dust and plaster, bespeaking generations of small denizens whose rhythms and pace of life made a hidden and silent counterpoint to the slower mammals who inhabited the larger rooms. But that wasn’t the really striking find. Among the debris, we found an odd metallic cylinder, reminiscent of those old tubes used in department stores to send bills up to the cashier’s office and change back down to the customer.

I began fiddling with the latch and by inserting my thumbnail and giving it a little jab, managed to open the tube. I could see the encapsulated paper, but I was much too dusty to examine it. Besides, there were several hours of daylight left and much to do. I put the tube in the back pocket of my coveralls where it made a comfortable clink against the back of my leg as I bent and stretched, pulling down the old boards.

After a hasty meal–I was far too curious about the contents of my find to perform my elaborate nightly ritual over the cooking fire–I washed and settled into a comfy chair to examine my treasure. The tube snapped right open and I picked out the contents carefully, my heart racing. I felt like a gawky kid in the possession of an unfathomable mystery, both timid and eager to unravel the thread of experience.

What I found was a manuscript. The paper was neither yellow nor frayed, but remarkably fresh or well-preserved. I read it several times. Although written in our native tongue, the language was dense and opaque, the style archaic. I say archaic, but even I, no inconsiderable historian, could not be certain. Clues about its origin were consistently obscured and there was no gauge to reckon where and when it was formed. It was a first person narrative (a letter, a confession, a memoir?) of a consequential, seemingly fated encounter, a sort of dragon-quest, set in a peculiar shifting dimension. I had the oddest sense that what I possessed was a document not from the past, but from…the future, or a plane of time simultaneous with our own, but not of it–rather like the mice carrying on their flurried lives in the space between the walls. Preposterous, I know, and worrisome, like the bit of skin-flap on a chapped lip.

Setting aside considerations of time and place, I read the story again. Story I will have to call it, chronicle or fiction, and made it welcome at my hearth. We are so inured to our fear of the strange and unpredictable, what we tell ourselves is the certain treachery of the unknown, we have forgotten the old custom of welcoming the stranger as an honored guest at our table, proffering the host’s gift of generosity. No. Now we engage in the pitting matches of adrenalin with each dangerous stranger: defense, offense, offense, defense. But you know how it is…how hard to dispel this consuming channel of experience. And you know how each channel takes over our awareness, commands our attention, obliterating  other channels: experiences, interpretations. Adrenalin Games. Oh yes, the rush, the diversion. My God, the diversions we make for ourselves.  Amazing the seductions of the Fast and Easy which make us skim over anything that requires patient digging. I sometimes wonder if our faculty for contemplation is atrophying. The lure of instant gratification has worn such a rut, we may no longer be capable of the sustained effort it takes to penetrate the word veiled like a bride. Having entertained ourselves astride the surface, we no longer remember the interior.

The story seemed a kind of Rosetta Stone to a lost world. I admit it was my profound desire to enter and fathom this Terra Incognita as well as an itchy curiosity about the narrator that made me humbly empty myself of resistance to the alien elements and press myself into the heart of this world, into the central chamber, hidden, of all places, in the bowels, the guts. Worlds within worlds.

It took some time. It wasn’t until the sun went down that I gave myself over to the unraveling of the tale, which was in itself a kind of journey. It became my (other) occupation for nearly the same span as the remodeling of my house. So marked, it forms an era of my life, an epoch. I soon grew accustomed to the strange landscape, entering, as though in a dream. I find myself profoundly affected by the narrative I now set before you, whose elements seem to bleed into, infuse my own. Does it not seem my words have been influenced by this text?  Diction, point of view, an elusive hold of a slippery reality…ad infinitum. I leave it to you to ponder, to wander through.

2. Severing Ties

This happened around the time I was promoted to the Lost and Found department. The work was not difficult, though the days were long and the tasks arduous. I found the work satisfactory, and some of the maze-work, down those dim corridors, was not without a certain curious appeal. I found the caves with their runic inscriptions rather interesting, in a, I was going to say, grim way, but that isn’t an accurate enough description. There was always a kind of hyperkinetic charge to the arched, domed caverns, an almost palpable current in the clean air, perhaps emanating from the salt deposits where those who had trouble with breathing were rumored to come, as to a refuge from the dusts and molds of the upper air. These would have been runaways from the sanatoriums, the official outposts for the terminally ill who had nothing to lose. That is why, while in the caves, you could often hear the baying of the bloodhounds and the howling of the wild curs drawn into the pack by their call.

There was an altogether eerie sensation, the hair rising on the back of the neck, in response to the static charge in the caves, however calm and preoccupied with the search a seeker might be, an impersonal involuntary response. But coupled with the night music of the roving dogs, the effect was disquieting…not altogether unnerving, but one couldn’t fail, not even I, to take note of it.

It was quite possibly winter. The trees had long since lost their leaves. You know how they stand about, limbs askew, awkwardly naked, quaking in the least consequential wind. I could never rid myself of the feeling of embarrassment I had for them in that ridiculous posture they perforce and foolishly endured. The tunnels had been closed a long while, too, so there was a kind of timelessness to that Aeon, a cessation of the regular patterns, and but for the erratic and changeable weather, there seemed to enswathe every dimension and plane a profound torpor. There was an old story about a sleep-drenched realm they told the unfinished ones in which even the flies on the wall slumbered for a century, as time was reckoned then.  There was an intermittent flurrying of snow, a swarming of frozen particles and a cold glint of silver through the pronged stakes and bare boughs on the particular day. I no longer remember which quest I was on; there were so many interlaced with the jobs of transcription and translation–so much so, that the days seemed a web of event and circumstance, the details spinning out as the odd bits of straw in the baling do, or the dry husks of beetles after a spider finishes her meal. Out of that web, spun from the spindrift, perhaps even born of that web, there emerges a singular occurrence, obdurate as the obsidian walls of the central cave, sharp as the thorns we carried for our dark purposes.

I think of a bare stage in a large amphitheatre and a solitary actor seated on a high chair under a flood of light so excruciatingly luminous and exacting, that a thousand shadows fall from his frame on the ground around him while obscuring the whitened features of his face. It could be anyone sitting there. It could be anyone but it isn’t. I stand, make a deep bow in majestic silence, and cross to the footlights which I snuff in rapid exhalations of darting breath. In silence and darkness, I descend through the orchestra pit, weaving through the empty chairs and three-legged stands, into the narrow hall leading to the green room backstage where I gather my portable torch, ink pot, and keys. Behind the long row of costumes in the ancient carved wardrobe, there is a door that leads to the pneumatic elevator which I summon by a particular sequence of grunts and quavering cries.

There will be only one stop, at a level not far beneath the one I enter from, before the shoot sucks us down through the branching runnels to the cave that is my destination.  The capsule slides into the platform, a velvet approach.  My companion and partner in these little expeditions, Harry, is waiting for me, tail aloft, whiskers twitching in salutation. He rubs against my leg and settles into that complacent hunkering, looking very much like a broody hen regally installed on her nest. We know each other so well, no word passes between us. None is needed. We understand one another perfectly. With only a small shifting of internal gears, we align our purposes to one accord. We are ready to descend.

Unless you have traveled in this fashion, not the cleverest most precise and evocative description will make real for you the nature of this journey. Imagine yourself a platelet, coursing through the capillaries of a mastodon, or sap rising to the outermost twigs of an ancient oak, and you may have a sense of what it’s like. Who yet knows if thought localizes anywhere in the branching fronds of kelp or the calcareous forks of coral?

At the precise but imperceptible juncture where systole becomes diastole, inhale, exhale, our car came to a stop.  The door receded. I flicked on the torch. Harry yawned. We stepped out upon the living filaments that are the cavern floor. It takes a few moments to adapt to this new element.  It requires gaining one’s sea legs, so to speak. The floors and walls, semi-permeable membranes, were breathing hard as we entered. No one is more sure-footed than Harry, but even he was having trouble finding the still point, getting in synch with the odd and enticing rhythm.

I was sure we had never entered this vaulted cell before, but there was something in-born and familiar here, a place I had left long ago, to which I had returned periodically throughout my lengthening span. On the near-wall, somewhere just off center, there began to glow one of salutation. He rubs against my leg and settles into that complacent hunkering, looking very much like a broody hen regally installed on her nest. We know each other so well, no word passes between us. None is needed. We understand one another perfectly. With only a small shifting of internal gears, we align our purposes to one accord. We are ready to descend.Unless you have traveled in this fashion, not the cleverest most precise and evocative description will make real for you the nature of this journey. Imagine yourself a platelet, coursing through the capillaries of a mastodon, or sap rising to the outermost twigs of an ancient oak, and you may have a sense of what it’s like. Who yet knows if thought localizes anywhere in the branching fronds of kelp or the calcareous forks of coral?

At the precise but imperceptible juncture where systole becomes diastole, inhale, exhale, our car came to a stop.  The door receded. I flicked on the torch. Harry yawned. We stepped out upon the living filaments that are the cavern floor. It takes a few moments to adapt to this new element.  It requires gaining one’s sea legs, so to speak. The floors and walls, semi-permeable membranes, were breathing hard as we entered. No one is more sure-footed than Harry, but even he was having trouble finding the still point, getting in synch with the odd and enticing rhythm.

I was sure we had never entered this vaulted cell before, but there was something in-born and familiar here, a place I had left long ago, to which I had returned periodically throughout my lengthening span. On the near-wall, somewhere just off center, there began to glow one of the inscriptions that give this place its name. I had never before noticed how the characters changed, so that the legend was not a fixed cluster, but a swirl of evocation and challenge. Little glyphs sizzled and smoldered and faded. I needed a magnifying glass and one-pointed intent to penetrate the shifting riddles, as well as a translucent emptiness I had been trained to surrender to, in order to receive the coded messages.

We directed our steps inward, bounding really, along the breathing floor, past all the gates I had previously encountered in similar caves. Guided by the flaming couplets and in silence, punctuated by an occasional lapse in protocol, an effervescent purr from Harry, pleased to be on the prowl by my side. I turned the torch up a notch and then had to crouch because the distance between ceiling and floor was attenuating into the funnel.

We went on this way some time and I could sense my own bio-rhythms attune to the pulsations around us. Gradually, the passage widened and when I could again stand erect, I felt something altering inside myself, as if here, too, I was adjusting to some new environmental command.  We were now in the mesogastrium of the region and in the first mesentery. I began to feel the grumbling in my own stomach that arose to greet the grinding walls. I looked down at Harry who returned my wink. We both knew how absolutely awake and attentive we must be.

Passing into the second mesentery without incident, I saw before me, rising and falling on the gastropods, the double-headed axe that sent out its filaments, drawing me to the handle, which fitted like a second skin. Eureka, purred Harry, who settled himself on his eggs, out of harm’s way.  No sooner done, then the giant appeared, right on schedule. I hadn’t gone looking for him, nor had I expected to find him. But the moment he materialized, I knew this was the battle I had long awaited. This was the oak that had grown from the acorn of a kiss planted on the back of my neck. You may remember what a grievous insult and injury this was, the breaking of the first taboo, the refracting of initiation that renders the recipient inefficacious, a victim. Now I did battle to uphold the first laws, to redeem the stolen child, to reclaim the status of solvency.

It is enough to say this creature was blood of my blood and I of his. It is enough to say I wrenched away from the throbbing beat of the blue chamber, asserting the crimson pulse of my natal center. How can I describe the hulk before me, everything strange, everything familiar: odious, adorable, a piercing pungency–the strength and pith of old cognac, an insipid brew of tepid tea. What was his presence to me: menace or inconsequential nuisance?

He loomed but neither uttered nor made to strike.

Looking at the wall of his being before me, knowing by the surge of acrid protest welling in my gut, that all courses of action had dwindled to one alone, I threw down my torch and hoisted the axe in a circular swing and cleaved the head from the body of the beast: no more, no less. Panting.  Bellowing. The walls?  My own gnostic eruptions?  I couldn’t say. The walls glowed and sighed. I saw a small table beneath which my torch had rolled, upon which stood a plate of cake and a mug of ale.

After the battle rhythm subsided and Harry again stood by my side beginning to purr and weave himself into the strands of my breathing, insinuating his friendly self into the focus of my gaze, I partook of the simple feast prepared for me, sharing the best morsels with my boon companion. The walls hiccoughed.

It was enough and time to transpire. Was I relieved of my onerous burden, made new and whole again?  Did I walk with a lighter tread, wake with gladness in my heart?  I cannot say, for a long darkness fell upon me, a tiredness so great I must fall into it, in order to dream my waking once again, to take root into the heart of the living, in the gray-green oasis I knew we were journeying to….

The Garden

This evening, I lingered in the garden, kneeling among the new lettuces, marveling at the soft rich greens, the strength and delicacy of their leaves, their cheeks I wanted to say. The dinner greens awaited in the raffia basket. A bottle of new wine stood uncorked on the kitchen table, breathing. My companion was probably lowering the flame under the soup kettle wondering what was keeping me, but still I lingered breathing in the tender May air, fragrant with lilacs and roses. The house is finished now, more or less, the odd corner awaiting the finishing touch, a happy find, a welcome gift. But I am happy there, just as it is.  Secure in this fertile haven (we are definitely expecting children to flourish here), I have begun to transcribe stories of childhood, tales of a collective past that had for that long and miserable winter chilled us to the marrow, pulverized our small lives into disjointed splinters. But you remember…or a part of you will…the slivers of ice planted by the Ice Queen, that nightmare…that rude kiss on the nape.

I planted the cylinder, by the way, a few rows up near the tomatoes. I don’t know, why. It just seemed like the right place. I made copies of the manuscript soon after I found it and that was fortunate, because the ink began to fade and the pages yellow and eventually crumble. Odd, but no more mysterious and inexplicable than anything else, really.

For some time now, we have been coming out at night to gaze up at the stars. There was a time when people could read them, know by their position and time of return what to plant and when. I expect we will, too, if we sit here long enough. I don’t mind being swallowed up in this immense loveliness.


Atmospheric Changes

I wish it weren’t so, but things bother me…all the time, which is why I gave up reading the newspaper. But since I somehow got into the habit of listening to the morning and evening news on the radio while I’m cooking breakfast and dinner for my kid, what’s the difference. It all filters in just as it did before, and I have to admit I’m depressed most of the time. Lately, in between little bursts of spring fever which hits me every year about this time, I’ve begun to forget my resolve to be forever on my own.

The love topic?  It’s a sickness! But despite my better judgment and firm resolve, I get suckered in, just like the rest of the fools and go around for weeks, moping and pining, languishing, wallowing in longing, in a green fever, hot as the tropics before the monsoons. Groan.  So between swamp woman and carrier of the world’s burdens on my admittedly wide, but never-the-less staggering-under-the-burden-of-shoulders, I don’t know if I’m coming or going and have a hard if not impossible time focusing on the big plan to overthrow the meanies in one swoop with no blood shed or further loss of sleep. I mean, I have a plan.

I’m a closet chemist. No one but my daughter knows about the basement lab, and I know a few things about her I swore never to tell in exchange for secrecy on her part. I’m willing to tell my story now, because I’m about ready to let the cat out of the bag, anyway, to unveil, or should I say uncork my secret weapon. But before I do, I’ll tell you how it all got started, a business in itself, but what the hey.  I used to like to chew gum, mainly because it kept me from eating. My interest in chemistry, obviously stems from my love of and interest in cooking, a subset of chemistry, which comes of loving to put good things to eat in my mouth.  The problem with putting a lot of butter drenched toast or creamy pasta down the craw is that waist, bust, hips, and thighs expand exponentially. Input, output, onput. Hence, the interest in chewing gum, an otherwise juvenile or at best adolescent activity. I was sick of the same old hohum flavors or repelled by the toxic magenta and orange of the newer, designer gums, or the sugarless, but possibly carcinogenic kinds. Why, I wondered, hasn’t anyone thought of more interesting flavors, like ice-cream options–double fudge or burnt almond or pistachio. Now there’s a flavor I could get into. If not now, when?  If not me, who? I was afraid that if I gave my ideas to the big companies, they would laugh in my face and then, on the QT, open up the market in a big way. I’d rather start a company. We’d go up slowly with one or two natural flavors like peach or black current or kiwi-lime, then build up to a crescendo of high culture featuring every nut, fruit, and root, and perhaps a vegetable or two, like celery…then collapse into frantic competitive decadence: tomato soup, ham and eggs, pear with gorgonzola, spaghetti carbonara…back where I started from.  That’s how I got into chemistry. There were plenty of water and heat sources as well as outlets in the basement.  All I would need would be pipettes, beakers, and a Bunsen burner. I figured I had enough retorts already without having to resort or revert to pyrex. I went downtown to hospital supply, first stop. I know I could have let my fingers do the walking, but I wanted to get in the mood, in living color and three D. Since there were no chem-lab materials and outfitters listed, per se, I thought I’d make hospital supplies for home-care nursing the jumping-on place.

I could tell you a thing or two about the rare possibilities for torment and torture, old-fashioned patient abuse, I gathered from the display cases. Were these implements of or impediments to recovery, or just plain instruments of torture?  Or maybe it’s just the other side of the do-gooder in me coming out, to construe perfectly innocent nurses’ helpers as Machiavellian devices for subduing an irascible, possibly incontinent old-timer or an auto-crash victim with brain damage in the stage of recovery when he or she realizes what has happened and is furious, or someone you don’t like very much, who used to have the upperhand on you.

However, be that as it may, I was looking for glassware and rubber tubing…I hadn’t actually designed the experiment yet, so I didn’t really know what I was looking for or going to need, but I wanted to get the lay of the land to get in the mood. Plus whatever I would buy would probably be a good investment. From all the chemistry experiments I observed in high school, I knew about the basic materials and equipment. I couldn’t go wrong.  Turned out there was a lab supply outfitters in the suburbs, so I hopped a number 39 bus and transferred twice, the limit on one fare, and then walked three blocks. And a half. And an alley. Called a mews. But believe me, this was no two-cars-in-the-garage, 2.7-kids-in-the-rec-room suburb.  This was the industrial part of town, with a pungent if not unpleasant smell of rotten eggs, sulfur dioxide, no doubt, wafting around the neighborhood.

I found 33 Rand Avenue, opened the glass and metal door by the bar and proceeded up the cement stairs. My footsteps sounded hollowly and echoed in the close and narrow passage, up, up, and up some more. Best exercise I’d had in months, so who’s complaining. The store was filled with metal shelving, floor to ceiling samples on the first seven or eight rows, and about three times as many rows with boxes, presumably containing, in quantities, the samples displayed.  I browsed. I bought. I returned home, burdened by my fragile purchases, and went directly downstairs to set out the equipment for my burgeoning lab and possible gum factory. A rush, let me tell you.

All this before the kid came home, and I slipped out of my superchemist duds and turned back into mild-mannered, myopic, mainly drab and daffy Mom. The chemistry plan for the evening would wait while I engaged the pots and pans in a little prandial pasta manufacture and the inevitable aftermath of dirty you know whats in the sink again.  To make a long story short, the gum experiment flopped, went belly up, came to nothing: Nada, zip, zilch. I became too preoccupied by world events again: this war, that war, these people deported, over-run, disappeared, struck-down, burned out, scorned, rebuked, reviled, abandoned, rejected, let down, let go, and left out…and my own soul cringed and dwindled and my cheerful wisecracking self moved out and EEyore moved in and threatened to take up permanent residence. Pathetic. That’s what it was. Pathetic.  Good morning, said my darling daughter. If it is a good morning I said, which I doubt said I. I don’t do anything by half measures and a thousand gypsy violins spieling and sobbing over old days in Roumania before the end of human kindness (May the Nazis never rise again), couldn’t outsing the strains of mournful melody that welled up from my lugubrious, dolorous, mournful, and melancholy soul.  And then, one morning, I awoke, matter-of-factly, and announced, that’s enough of that. I knew I would not, could not resume any sort of life until I found a way to act, to help, to alleviate the suffering and misery. But what to do?  Dr. Schweitzer already did his act in the jungle and Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama had shuffled on and off the big stage, as had Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lili Tomlin/Jane Wagner et al.–the humanitarians and comedians had all done their part, one after another, had put an arm in the dike while the sea of troubles threatened to overwhelm us again and again and again. I’m not complaining.  But there it is.

One evening, after a particularly succulent supper, after I washed up, I found myself walking down the stairs to the basement. I turned on the overhead, and there it still was: my lab, my incipient and potential place of manufacture and low-tech industry. The light bulb came on, quite unexpectedly and undeniably, lighting up the confusion and darkness generated by the collective dimming of heart and soul, our standing by, seemingly powerless while decency and kindness took a back seat to corruption and greed. Now I knew what to do.

The first step, as always, was research and paperwork, trips to the library, inter-library loans, a trip to the chemistry department at the state university in a nearby city, but mainly reading, reading, and more reading, and note-taking, then sketches, then a bona fide 3-D, Bunsen burner, retorts-at-the ready experiment.  It worked. But my new odorless, tasteless, mood-altering, well-being-inducing happy gas made an ephemeral impression. I wanted permanent results. And I’m almost there. Before long, the world conference on human happiness meets, and members/envoys from every nation in the world will come to my lab and bring the gas home for distribution.  I selected members by hand, on the basis of their selfless work in fields that further human harmony and contentment. One by one, they agreed. Lone Ranger, Zorro, move over. Dr. Feelgood has come to town and is just about open for business. Oh, I admit, I’ll put myself out of business after the one and only delivery of the goods.  Malcontents, miscreants, and malefactors, havoc-wreakers, mulish makers of malfeasance, corrupters, bigots, seducers, murderers, thieves, used-car salesmen, insurance agents, and  the lawyers (“The lawyers, Bob, they know too much”)….translated, in a wink of an eye, to perfectly decent, kind and friendly, handy and helpful, open-minded, open-hearted, open-handed men and women, paradise on earth and all we have to do to smile and laugh and kick up our heels…is breathe.

And breathe easy, for once that’s over and done with, I can get down to solving the real problem of life: finding a sweetheart and having some fun.


The Fish That Got Away

During the decade I had a passion for photography, I was no Diane Arbus filling up my attention and my soul with images, bizarre and grotesque, with the quiet and shocking reality of the monsters that she perceived. Monsters not because they were hideous or deformed, but because they were different from the standard issue of the middle America Madison Avenue appealed to, because they bore the distinctive, seemingly distorted expressions of individuals in pain, their true faces, which the rest disguised with pancake make-up, face-lifts, or even nose-jobs. Different or out of scale were the giants and dwarves, anomalies whose strangeness made those of us who did not flinch and look away, look inward and wonder about our own refractions, our secret shame of self that twists the hale soul robbing the spirit of efficacy. For if the face we present is not the one we own, we are fractured beings, bound to a quest for wholeness or oblivion. The sickened self harbors its secret songs of unworthiness, while outwardly conforming to the public measure, what’s in, what’s OK. Thus diminished, the ego’s outer need for status and rank increases, and the heart is vassal to the head, not the head servant to the heart.

I recognized and honored the genius of Arbus’ vision, yet I was afraid to fill my own soul with images of the night, for I become what I create; my spirit enters into my work and vice versa: cooking, words, garden, the images of the fleeting, enduring, phenomenal world embraced in the heart, that I felt compelled to record. I came upon a cow in a field, a black and white holstein in a field of tall blue-green grass the wind was moving through. Her belly was distended, not big with life, but her four legs were rising.  She was upside down, erect and stiff in the late afternoon in the lowering light. When I saw her there, I lowered my camera and thought of Arbus who would not shrink from including in the record this as well as every lovely, blossoming that. I was too much a smitten lover, embracing every living leaf and twig and tree, too much a celebrant of the everywhere-I-looked beauty of the natural world…. I can see that this cow or the hapless gull snagged in the buoy in the middle of the bay, expiring there as we came upon it suddenly, on a perfect summer day in a small boat painted with an eye on her bow, are also images of life, but I who had just returned from the borderlands, the twilight time of reclaiming the fractured pieces and mending (“For nothing can be whole or sole that has not been rent”), was afraid to look too closely at the face of death. Though I did not record them on silver nitrate, I’ve kept them in my heart, fixed in memory as precisely as on film.  They did not get away, even though I thought that not pressing the shutter would release these images, would dispel them, and they would be nothing to me, have no root in my being, as if death were not already there, as if the embryonic seed had not already begun to stir, as if I did not already feel his hot breath over my shoulder, compelling me to flow into my purest form, most authentic self, to say what ails me, palely loitering…to say and do and be unrefracted, unfragmented, unskewed by fear or spite or timidity. These fish remain.

Other fish eluded me… the biggest ones, of course:

the great moments of breathless beauty uncaught because I was not wise enough or quick or ready. Rebecca at the Well: a maiden, her shining long hair parted in the middle, halo and crown to her clear and open face, bending to scoop water from the spring in her cupped hands, her Boticelli cheeks, the eloquent grace of her hands holding the wiggly clear liquid, and she bends, hair falling around her, a cloak, while she drinks. And I, seeing the eternal caught in a moment of time, seeing, as Van Gough said, that which doesn’t change in that which does, fumbled in my back-pack, quick, hurry, pull out the camera, tear off the lens cap, advance film, set shutter speed by blind guess, hurry, no time to take the measure of the light filtered through bracken and fern, quick, focus…and what was there before my eye in the viewing screen?  The mortal adolescent girl, cheeks flushed with the effort of the climb, beads of sweat lining her brow, a smudge of dirt on the bridge of her nose, wiping her mouth on her sleeve. That one got away, but I remember and aspire: readiness is all.

Another big one got away in Mexico in the early

Seventies, when such a shot would have made my fortune. Down a dusty road in Palenque, a large and grunting black and pink porker was mounting a sow in front of the little shack of a police station, Officio de Federales. Verdad. Holy Frijole, man, Dos Muchos!

And recently, in the panoramic sweep of the tender green hills after the rains came and broke the drought, in the little hole in the far distance between the green of the hills and the greeny boughs of the billowing trees, a big red and white Wonderbread truck appeared, en route, a perfect conjunction of the mother’s splendor and her child’s folly. Wonder Bread, not the bread of communion, this my body, but the holy staff of life caricatured, denuded of nutrients, bleached to look pure and refined: bland bread, form without substance. Such is our lot. So many going through the motions, so many refractions, so many lost fishes.

Is what we make what we become?  Are we not like the dinosaurs?  Too big for our britches, too greedy our eating?  Big appetite, little brain, we lay waste and despoil, fouling our nest, degrading materia through ignorance, folly, and greed, without heeding, taking into account, consequence.

Sometimes I imagine the gods feeding on the souls of the dead as we munch on peanuts: some are quite tasty and some are so rotten and bitter they (we) must be spat out at once.

Evolutionarily speaking, at least from the span begun in the garden (from the stories germinating in this matrix of time within and without), are we not imbued with noble purpose? Are we not the inherent possibility of the given coupled with the effort and industry of the made?  Isn’t the covenant between mortal being and the creative a joint work?  We, who labor without spirit, are charged by the profit motive, rather than inclined by nature, or moved, stirred by compassion and the tenderness of the heart–are like white bread without the germ of life-giving nourishment, becoming shadows of our selves. We, puffed-up ones lording it over all creation, become, thereby, diminished, dwarves in giants’ clothing. And if we are created in the image of the divine, as Agatha Christie has read into this mystery, we are made so by our labor: when we work and see that what we make is good. Certainty it is possible to become good bakers once again. Otherwise a lot of salty tears in which we swim away.


It’s Only Life


Mother gave me another rotten lunch today. I don’t mean not to my persnickety taste. It was rotten. Green meat, moldy bread, and a blue orange–blue, the color of a copper pot gone off. I hate to think of what was in that thermos. I threw it away. Not that I am careless or can’t make the time to wash the dishes and recycle. But if the sandwich and the fruit…

And it’s not that my mother has it in for me, either.  She likes me. Thinks the world of me and so forth, but. She has a little problem with her memory. Nothing serious. She keeps the house OK. and finishes her sentences, mainly, but she worries she will forget to make me lunch in the morning.  She’s foggy from her dreams, so she makes them the night before and puts them in a good place she can find right away (only she doesn’t) so I won’t go hungry. Ma, I say, how bout the fridge?  That’s the first place I think of when I’m looking for something to eat. It’s not that I can’t make my own damned lunches, but she wants to do it, says it makes the day come together, you know, a project she can build around.

It’s the third rotten lunch this week. I might start

making my own lunches on the side, though where I’m going to

stash them is a problem. If I put them in the fridge, she’s sure to find them, and then worry about whether or not she’ll remember where they are in the morning and take the bag out, for Pete’s sake, and we’re back to where we started. A real pain in the butt, but what can I do?  If I got my own place, I’d spend half my time in the car or on the phone, checking on her. No, thanks. Cars are exhausting, no pun intended, and the phone?  Forget it.  I don’t have the heart to put her in a home. I mean what for?  So somebody else will take care of her?  Uhuh.  Nothing doing. When I think of all the messy diapers she had to change, all that middle of the night swaying around the house when we were teething or sick. I just couldn’t farm her out the way other folks do. Like they do with babies now. I can’t see why people are so fired up to have babies in the first place if they farm them out right off the bat and don’t even get to know them. They’d call my way of thinking backward and impractical. People have to work–a very convincing argument. I can’t find any holes in it, as a matter of fact, and there’s no point in arguing. It’s just a gut feeling I have and you can’t quarrel with that, either.  Or you could, but I wouldn’t listen.

Did I tell you what my mother does in her spare time?

She reads the obituaries. Not that she’s morbid–far from

it. She says this is the best way to get to know people in

the community. You get to know more about them in three or

four condensed paragraphs than you would in a dozen years of

idle gossip at the checkout counter or in front of the post office or waiting for the bus. She’s probably right. Anyway, that’s what we talk about every evening. She likes to keep her hands busy, so she’s always got a pile of mending or knitting piled up. She likes darning the best, but that’s when the conversation gets the flakiest. Shh, she’ll say, right after she’s revealed some fascinating data in the life of one of her new friends. Curious, I ask her for more details. Shh, she says, I’m concentrating.  She has a little wooden egg for the socks which her grandmother’s mother gave to her daughter all the way down the line, but the egg stops there. I don’t intend to spend my spare time darning. She’s probably the only one left in the country who mends socks for fun. It keeps her in stitches. Me, I like to joke around. It takes the pressure off, but you can’t really plan on anything in the humor line, you know?  Sometimes wisecracks fall out of thin air or pop up like gophers in the garden. But it’s chancy, like being in the right place at the right time.

Last week after charred chicken and twice cooked peas, we sat out on the back porch because it was such a pleasant evening, and she began telling me about a young man she had met that afternoon. Good looking, but not showy-off good looks with a me-first and let me tell you all about my incredible self, I can do anything better than you attitude.

Uh uh. This was a guy with a look of self-contained innocence, but not so shut up in himself he wouldn’t travel half way around the world if he thought it would do somebody any good. A prince. Well, she was carrying on so, she even got me interested, ready to ask for his day-time phone number, you never can tell.

So young, she said, didn’t even have time to build himself a proper life. No wife or kids or big career, though he looks like he could have made something of himself. He played the guitar in a Rock and Roll band. That surprised me. I didn’t think mother would be impressed by a rock and roller, let alone a musician. But that proves her point.  Spend your entire life with a person and not even know what she values or thinks important. What’s his name, I ask, more to keep the conversation going than to find out. It’s too damned late, for Pete’s sake. Pete, she says. You’ve got to be kidding, I say. Pete, for Pete’s sake?  Just kidding, she says. His name is Happy. He was a high school drop out, but he played all kinds of music, not just rock and roll. Do you like rock and roll, she asks me. Do I?  Do hens lay eggs?

I started thinking about Happy and how much I like him,from what I know of him, from what my mother told me, from what she read in the paper. I wonder why he died or if he would have died if he had only met me in time. We would have been perfect. Of course, I haven’t actually seen his picture. Mother wrapped the mending in it to let her know she had already done it, and put it in the dresser in the attic where we put everything not in use or in season. I don’t have the energy to go up and rummage around, so I’ll just have to take her word. Plus my imagination.  She wrote down the cemetery where he’s buried so we can put roses on his grave, as soon as the roses bloom, that is, if she remembers where she put the address and so forth, if we remember him at all, by that time. And by then, there will be so many others–future beaux who will never materialize, already engaged in the reverse process, if that’s not too gross too mention.

I wouldn’t mind the idea of dematerializing so much, if I could believe we materialize somewhere else. I rather like the idea of molecular transportation. Beam me up, Scotty.  There were never any problems with it on the Enterprise, but remember what happened to the guy in The Fly?…(Help me!) Where do we go when we are energized, between the time we were, you know, who and where we first were, and the time and place we resume our characteristic form?  I mean, suppose a chair got in the way?  Would a person rematerialize with an armchair arm instead of a human one, or a stem protruding from the top of the skull if you got mixed up with a cherry?  Not that I expect to find an answer, but I keep checking the human interest and science sections of the paper for developments.

My mother only reads the obits, to keep her company, while I’m away at work. As far as I’m concerned, the paper’s a pain in the butt. You can have their damned wars and nasty horror stories of everyday life–fatal crashes and so forth. I’d rather read about new inventions and discoveries, the nice things people do for each other, something on the up side. I once wrote one of the big networks, back in the days when we watched TV, demanding equal time for uppers. Everyone reads the downers all the time. People get so sick at heart, they drink and smoke and eat themselves half to death, just to numb the pain of what they read so they can go to sleep at night. I never got an answer, though I think it was a pretty good idea, the jerks. Anyway, I never could stand all the damned commercials–two minutes of intense moving drama and then fifteen minutes of beauty queens draping themselves all over sleek and sassy cars. Auto eroticism, if you ask me.

I haven’t missed it much, though sometimes I kind of miss the adrenalin rush that floods your whole body when you get so riled up you couldn’t cross an eye or dot a tee. Before we finally pulled the plug, half the human population expired right here in our living room. Every ten seconds or so, a new corpse would turn up, and I guess, people all over the country are sitting in their living rooms and dens right this minute, watching bridges and innocent bystanders being blown up, cars with once living, breathing passengers, bursting into flames. Gorgeous girls, gone wrong, putting

out without love or choice or dying from an overdose supplied by their so-called managers in Seven hundred dollar suits and wing-tipped shoes. I’m sure I don’t have to repeat the ghoulish and gory catalogue of prime-time terror, mayhem, and murder for you. It’s sickening, if you ask me. There’s enough trouble in the world without having to manufacture more and call it entertainment. Little kids get the idea that shooting people is as humdrum and commonplace as going to the bathroom.

And then we’re surprised at real violence in real streets?  Monkey, see. Monkey do. Life imitating art, my fart. Kids know better, for a while, anyway, while they still possess their own souls, before their spirits are broken and they cave in, just to get a little love, just to survive.  Pathetic, but that’s how far our big brain has gotten us.  Ever notice how time expands when you shut off the tube?  Seems like evenings go on, forever, now, on the porch if it’s warm enough or near the fireplace when it’s not.

Sometimes, I make popcorn. Mother allows that a fitting chore for offspring, a suitable supplement to her own culinary efforts, such as they are. I like sitting in the old wicker rockers. They are scruffy, I’d have to admit, but they’re still comfortable–made when designers kept the human anatomy in mind. Don’t you love the changing light and colors of the dusk?  Twilight. Day bleeding into night like a bridge over water. An in-between place. Twi Light.  Settling into the quiet, letting go of busyness and plans, unwinding and watching the stars emerge, one by one, and piecing out the constellations, my mother tells of all the people she got to know today. Every so often, we just sit in companionable silence and watch the galactic pageantry.  Colder nights we build a fire. I like the pitchy smell of pine swimming around the room and the snap and crackle when the sap ignites. Sometimes we light the lamp and sometimes we enjoy the fireworks in the hearth in the dark.  Sometimes the wind stirs in the trees in a certain way and I remember the stories Mama used to tell us in the evenings after we got our homework done, and our clothes put away, and our teeth brushed, and our faces scrubbed clean.

Once upon a time, on a cold winter night, there livedin a snug little cottage in the deep dark woods, two beautiful daughters and their hard working widow-mother, not grumpy and careworn and bitter, but gentle and kind. The wind is howling in the trees and at first, they don’t hear the tapping on the door. Finally, the mother hears and sends the girls to open the door and welcome as honored guest whoever seeks shelter at their door. It’s not a weary woodcutter, as you might think, or a wayfarer, someone who needs a place to sleep on a night too cold to spend outside. Then, who?  A great bear, that’s who. And the rule of hospitality is so strong, they have to overlook his scary, unpredictable animalness, overcome their own fear and repugnance–I mean what do bears smell like?  Gamier than socks, I bet–and let the poor cold creature into their cheerful, cozy parlor. 

It’s a long story, believe me. It’s only partly about hospitality, like the stories in the Bible, when God disguises himself in order to test the qualities of righteousness and kindness, to see who’s generous and who isn’t. This one’s a love story with a moral. Young girls have to put up with hairy beasts if they want husbands.  That’s how I remember it, anyway, as we sit by ourselves, two dotty old women, well, one not so old, staring into the fire, listening to all the eligible young men my mother has dug up for me in the daily news.

My heart isn’t in it anyway–looking for beaux, I mean. That last war took care of all the ones I cared about, and you know, sooner than sneeze, they’ll go and start another one. Life is too hohum and flat, too boring and dull on the home front. What with all that raging testosterone, the desire for action, sneaking around enemy territory in camouflage, crawling around on their bellies in the dark is too damned much fun to turn down, too exciting to pass up.  And do what, instead?  Sit around a grey office all day staring at actuarial tables?  Horse around a used-car lot or stick their noses in the business end of a truck?  Think of all the poor saps down a coal shaft, stuck in chicken processing plants, or squirting solder into TV circuits as fast as they can, doing piece work. Bivouacing in the jungle has to be a bigger draw, if you haven’t shut down entirely, if you have any romance left, any sense of adventure. But.  My brother, Jimmy, couldn’t resist. We don’t talk about him much anymore, not much else to say. But we keep up his room. Mama says I could bounce a quarter on the bed she makes, go ahead and try. There’s not much in that room but the dust she misses, rising in a shaft of sunlight in the late afternoon, dancing around–a miniature galaxy, stars and planets spinning every which crazy way, with no pattern I can detect. The scale is too small. I love my mother as much as I do because of Jimmy’s boots. They’re regulation army, all right, high-topped and black as pitch, but she’s left them unlaced, tongues askew, just as he left them the last time he took them off, what his hands did. They must get in her way when she pulls those sheets and blankets taut, but she doesn’t move them from where he left them.  Died from the effects of Agent Orange. That’s what our G.P.  said, though the army won’t hear of it. How the hell can you be all you can be if you can’t even put together simple cause and effect?  Don’t get me started. I bet she keeps my lunches under his bed.

My dad didn’t have a very big shelf-life either Something like black lung disease–working all those years with fiber glass and that nasty synthetic resin, not to mention a three pack a day habit. Who knew?  And by the time we did, it was too damned late. But he thought he was suave as hell, just like Bogie. He was, too. Next year, he’d say, we’re going to move down to Florida and raise orchids. Orchids and oranges. But you know how next-years always go up in smoke…like most dreams, anymore.

 I’m not a virgin. You wouldn’t know for all the company I keep or don’t keep, more to the point. But I had a sweetheart–in Jimmy’s platoon. I don’t plan on telling you a thing about him. It’s all between him and me. I will tell you he’s pushing up daisies too. A casualty of war. A direct hit while doing his duty for Uncle Sam. Some say God and Country, but any g.d. god who gives his blessing to the battlefield is as demented as the rest of them and won’t get a capital G from me. Uhuh.

Well, that’s about all the downers I can stand. Did I tell you what I do for work?  I’m a clown. No kidding. I work the preschool and kindergarten set. I used to entertain at older kids parties, but they’re too smart-assed and cynical, if not out and out snotty and rude… That’s not your real face, Bozo. Are you so ugly you have to put on a disguise?  Nice…. But, I don’t really blame them. They get it from TV or from their nincompoop parents who don’t have time to teach them manners, to behave themselves, to treat other people with respect and consideration. Common Decency, for Pete sake. I just don’t go to their houses anymore. But the little ones are too sweet and naturally kind to mistreat anyone nice to them. I’m not saying they don’t squabble over whose turn it is on the trike or swing. That comes with the territory. But they’re all heart, big eyes and smiles when I do my routine and fool around with them, doing silly tricks and stunts, playing leapfrog and such. I love to hear them laugh. It fills my heart to the brim, makes up for all the rotten lunches. I wish I could keep them little, always, like perpetual puppies and kittens.


Sophie’s Revenge

It was the summer before the winter of the epidemic.I  had begun riding the stationery bike daily, pushing and

pulling the flabby biceps into definition, pumping the generous flesh of calf and thigh as fast as her short little legs would carry her–I tended to think of my self in the third person, a character in the play I was composing sotto voce, the lead, naturally, with side-track adventures into fairy tale and allegory because those were the realms I felt most at home in, where virtue triumphed and the pure of heart, rather than the lean of body, were rewarded.  On the more mundane and ordinary stage, in the romantic scenes, at any rate, I was, however large I loomed as heroine in my own drama, usually a walk-on extra or seated demurely in the orchestra pit, morbidly scraping out the descant part with the other second strings.  After twenty minutes of tedious peddling, my skin began to flush and tingle, my breathing grew deeper, and little beads of sweat rolled down my brow. I could think of other more appealing ways to achieve this effect, and it was to this end I labored.

There is nothing thin or meager about me, not even anaquiline nose. Roundest part of perfect was the consoling euphemism improvised by one who loved me, my mother, for heaven’s sake, the only one, it seemed, whoever would. Round bosom, buttock and thigh, so favored by the Greeks, Reubens, and Renoir were clearly out of fashion and those of us who most nearly resembled the Venus of Willendorf, however lofty our aspirations, lusty and soulful our longings, sat on the bench while the thin girls waltzed smugly in their princes’ arms.

I could have pedaled and pumped till the end of time, and like the Innuit and Polynesian women, like all the little squaws and peasant girls built for hard work and endurance, I would still remain round, round, round.  The man I loved was no different from the other swains of this period–devoted to a narrow range of beauty, utterly indifferent to any but the thin. The rounder the rest of us appeared, the more invisible we were. Only to be expected, squawks the pragmatic observer. Plump hens were ever objects of derision and scorn…when seen and judged by standards.

Objects, indeed. My spine still bristles. Treacherous eyes to supersede the tender approbation of the heart, making women objects, symbols of status, accessories. Really, I should have decamped entirely, taken up with women as some of my cronies had done, or moved to Hawaii where my every pound would be pinched with pleasure. But the heart once given is hard to retract, and I was thus stuck for some time unable to draw near, unable to retreat. I should have remained in this impossible posture forever had not nature intervened.

It is useless to deny the unseemly and sanguine pleasure I took in the unexpected and catastrophic course of events that ensued. At first it was only a few who sickened and died–the scrawny and malnourished waifs who nobody ever paid much attention to–the most unsolid souls living on the margins….scraggly clothes, dingy hair, festering complexions…no one would miss them at all, more’s the pity. So no one foresaw the general danger or the magnitude of the plague that was eventually to carry away the loveliest, the leanest, among us, the great beauties so prized and desired for their insubstantial figures, the thin ones with no extra meat on their bones to carry them through the ravaging of flesh, the decimation of disease. We all grew ill by turns. But only some of us survived…shedding at last the extra pounds that made us pariahs.  So now we were the beauties in possession of the right dimensions and the breath of life to boot. The man I so much adored began to notice me at last, to seek my favor. But then, so have the others. Tempting it would be to sit on the thick carpet of grass under the midsummer moon, hearts winging aloft among the Pleiades, pulsing like fireflies…fervor and devotion tenderly bestowed. Ah, such a dream…and perhaps in time our fingers will entwine, will tingle, our lips sweetly meet at last…but first I think I’ll let him pine and mope while I grow warm in the limelight and play the field.


Let My People Go

Oddest of all, the authorities–petty officials, bigwigs, top dogs and the brass–never even noticed the trend: the rising number of travel visas and passports, the additional ships and planes assigned and reassigned to make the long passage, the delays and other complications of overloaded schedules, even the unusual number of charters over the course of a year. It was attributed, among the people, to the mole eyes of the marshmallows, and everyone chortled and guffawed, and thoroughly enjoyed this tasty bit of folk humor, well pleased by the certain knowledge that no one was ever any longer obliged to please anyone except for purely personal reasons.

Preparations for the Exodus had begun many years before the year of departure. Perhaps all migrations begin with dissatisfaction with present circumstances, of life conditions grown intolerable, or an itchy inclination to go on to untried places, to begin life anew. Perhaps these are simply different sides of the coin. In any case, the dream became an aspiration became a weighed and considered possibility became resolve, became the plan.

Begun in the years of calamitous unrest and disease, it finally became clear to enough of the people–I dare not say critical mass, though that is indeed the term that indicates a shift in the balance, because I do not ever again want to reduce any of us to the level of the heap whereby objects, things are collected, scattered, swept away, admitting an agency other than individual inclination and will, an agency that subsumes, organizes, controls, devours. It finally became clear to enough of the people that they were dealing with self-serving dunderheads. Simultaneously sentimental and cruel, mired in the emptiest of platitudes and generalities, they were wedded to logos and dry rationality. They were closed off, insulated from anyone other, anything at all foreign or different, uncustomary, or out of the way. They were, in fact, hermetically sealed and suffering from oxygen deprivation in that sealed chamber, suffocating on the inhalation of all the noxious poison of their exhalation.

That is what I think. They are apparently uneducable, or maybe they are forever disinclined to acknowledge the rights and needs, let alone entertain the premise of a shared humanity with the people, and you could go on hitting your head against the brick wall from now until Doomsday, and all you could ever hope to accomplish from indulging in this exercise is to give yourself a big headache. Though they had tried.

Particularly the elders, the meek, the humble ones in service to the higher wisdom, to the Divine, always working for a better day for the children, their grandchildren, if not fruit and flower, then twig or branch or trunk or great unseen network of roots runneling into the earth herself, for sustenance for those unknown, unnamed, to come…the righteous ones whose generous spirits overflowed to forgiveness, who recognized in their oppressors the self-induced torments, largely unnoticed, of hard and cold hearts, lives without simple joy, the liberating and sufficient-unto-the-day pleasure in simply being alive.  For the blind and foolish, arrogant and cunning oppressors, if a thing didn’t cost a lot, it couldn’t be worth very much. Consequently, the best things in life escaped their attention entirely and were left to the people who relished the evening breeze or thick gusts of wind and rain, the seasons of the sun, the cycles of the moon.

No one I know remembers how and where the plan began in what visionary mind conceived, in what beating heart born. Some say one, some another. Everyone agrees that once in the air (an idea whose time has come), intention was borne aloft a fortunate, penetrating current and spread like contagion, like a plague–microbes scattered everywhere– and everywhere infecting–ending in a universal quitting of a wretched existence. The happy turn, the twist is, the people would not be decimated, would not die, but, rather, begin anew in a more hospitable, even welcoming land, a continent all could claim as place of origin as well as destination, native soil, home.

I myself did not get wind of the plans until they were well under way, the first ones already packed up and gone. I couldn’t go myself, although I would have liked to, for technically, if you were to assign kinship, relatedness, placement in group according to the most superficial and foolish criteria, as the oppressors do, I was, technically, an oppressor, although I am grieved and ashamed that this is so, not only because I was raised and loved by one of the people (loved and accepted and understood as none of my blood-kin could have done), but because I have been mercifully granted the simple sight of the people and know how to see what’s in front of me. Naturally, my kin think me an idiot, useless.

No matter. My chum, my pal, my best friend was leaving and leaving me behind. Eva was going with her large and extended family, along with everyone else who was not too old or infirm or addled or kissy-faced with the oppressors to want to go. I gave her my ring, all I had left from my mother who died when I was little, and Eva gave me her guitar, not at all a fair exchange, but I had nothing else of value. What I gave was only precious by association, but what she gave me, her gift!  A way to go on. How else endure the aftermath, isolation, the questions, the hiding. Who knows what will come?  The face of the future is remote, serious, unbidden. I shall not want.

Her family was one of the last in our region to go, and all the week before their departure, when her mother didn’t need her, Eva and I sat out in the park through the twilight hours and long after dark picking out the songs we loved.  She would not write to me. She told me so. They were leaving for good, no loose strands, no ties to a past they would just as soon forget. So this was the only flowering of our friendship. There would be no other. It was very sad. And yet, it was not. I was happy for her, for all the people, embarking on a new life, full of hope, the main chance to live equitably, fairly, kindly…without the constant and insidious fear, night terrors, the never knowing who would be stopped and detained, brutalized, and disappeared. The constant vigilance, never letting the guard down, never knowing for sure who would come home at night.  I followed Eva to the docks this day of setting forth.

Sunday morning under a brilliant sun. Shadows everywhere in the heat and glare. Everyone walking silently, quickly, not stopping to pull out handkerchiefs to mop the beads of sweat from foreheads, the soft and gleaming and then sparkling and glittering brows. The Angela, Martin, and Malcolm Lives banners fluttered as they walked. The church bells rang, echoing in the harbor district. Eva and I embraced for the last time. Her mother laid her hands on my head and blessed me. You’re going to need it, was all she said.  Eva said she would wave her bright blue scarf, so I would recognize her. They mounted the gangplank and disappeared in the crowd. I waited a long time and, finally, on the top deck a small brown speck of a person and a streaming blue cloth appeared, the last image left to me. The big ship creaked and stirred into life. A great horn bleated. The gangplank was pulled up. The vessel slowly backed away from her mooring. Surrounded by the chaperon tugs, she entered the channel to the deep water and sailed away forever. I knew, as I watched them disappear, we had lost the heart and soul of our country. From now on, it was going to be dry bread and water, and there wasn’t a damn thing left to say or do.


Taming of the Birds

In an age when human beings stopped loving each other altogether–the process having begun long before–a slow attrition of enthusiasm, a growing lack of empathy, and, for that matter, any feeling at all, the richer of the numb ones with more leisure to ponder their condition–those, at any rate, who did not narcotize themselves entirely–began to miss something, want something….

It began, as these things do, in vanity. How one longed for a little indulgent attention, recognition that one was worthy of being petted, fussed over. How one longed for admiration, and dare I say it? Adoration.  In the books bound in another time, there were records of extraordinary devotion and unconditional love, not between humans, of course–even then, such a thing was virtually unheard of, perhaps even impossible–no one could say for certain, but bestowed upon the human master by the canines and rarely, but not unnoticably by the felines, a more discerning and less love-addled species.  As we know, the smaller furry mammals had been driven to the brink and then over the edge of extinction–you remember the long years of drought and famine succeeding the plastic age, how the cookery books were reissued to accommodate the new, shall we say, ingredients, and the stage at that period was inundated with, what were they called? dear me, yes…Pelt Operas, tales of interspecies love, loyalty, and betrayal. Oh and the Legion of Morality had a field day, then, too, when it was suggested, when humans actually considered their own offspring were eligible for the table on account of their size and availability.  That brought about the terrible caste wars, of course, and the glut of learned treatises in the learned journals about the desirability and particular succulence of the smaller, rounder, browner, ah, specimens. But in the end, it was the pets who were regretted. Some crumbling photos and decaying pelts in the museum cases were all that remained, but what persisted in the night-fire-stories, in the whisperings in the market square from mouth to ear was rumor, then suspicion and surmise of devotion and besotted love granted, without expectation of return to the humans by their pets.

Helio Megalopolis, the last scion of the lumber trust which held the Lignum Vitae forests in the tropics, was a plutocrat with a penchant for the dust of travel. He was, of course, sneered at in some circles, openly jeered in others for his mannered affectations, they said, his having pilfered the old life hermetic-display centers, and lifting, droit de Seigneur, various articles of apparel and acquiring, as well, a certain snaky reputation and a callous disregard for The Past. In short, he wore a pith helmet and carried a sort of walking stick that sheathed in its interior, a sharp needle -like weapon with two sides, called a rapier.

Helio requisitioned a sailing ship, and went, himself, to survey his territories, to supervise and adjudicate the taking of the last trees. Useless to repeat the well-known portion of our history, everywhere available in the night-fire assemblies. Suffice it to say that it was Helio, by no means observant or even particularly cognizant of his surroundings–prescience and sentience having long vanished–who first noticed the birds standing about, petulantly, morosely, in such a remarkable range of attitude. They portrayed, what was the term? yes, emotion, feeling. They brooded. They drooped. Helio was enchanted.  He began to watch them secretly, while listening to the trade-chiefs and bureau-folk summarizing and declaring.  His eyes, invariably, began to wander from the foreground assembly to the far-distance groupings or solitary beings standing silently or wilted, sitting. Occasionally one or more of them engaged in the display of pecking, but the call song of each kind was or appeared to be irrevocably muted. Helio imagined he could hear the barest flutter of a feather ruffled by the low winds, the winds that sometimes rose to gale force, leveling the remaining encampments, unleashed as they were by the absence of the mediating fire-sticks, the vanishing trees.

Something akin to curiosity, perhaps even the remotest glimmering of pity assailed his solar plexus, lodged in his chest. He found it more and more difficult to avert his gaze. He harumphed and coughed at what he thought were suitable intervals in the daily assemblies, but his attention inclined to the melancholy birds, no longer tenants and nesters, but vagrants idle and without purpose, disoriented and blue.

Drawn to them, nay, obsessed by them, he wanted them to notice his own splendid self, unseen by the humans, preoccupied as they were, by motive and fact. But before he had an opportunity to do more than desultorily wish to be noticed, he was recalled to the temperate center where there was much to protect and defend, which required his presence  at once.

In the First Caucus, upon his return, Helio’s associates remarked the change. Perfunctory in deed and speech, he was more remote than deemed seemly and polite.  Little wistful expressions occasionally played upon the surface of his face, and now and again, little warbles of inarticulate speech erupted from deep in his gullet, while his head shakings and far-away eyes betrayed an interior track not parallel to the accommodations of discourse to the present company.

At the New Year, he put the matter before them, the men of the first circle, the ones who mattered. He called them to his own lodge, for a night-fire gathering, an unusual, even provocative summons. What were they to think? In the intervening weeks prior to the gathering, inner-circle eyes met in the street, and silently, the men communed their curiosity and reproach. But at the appointed hour, no one hung back. Everyone who had been scheduled arrived in the hour of gloaming swathed in deep folding cloaks against the oncoming chill.

Helio’s men had built up the fire, and the joints were done to a turn, bubbling and crispy. Goblets of ale passed around the assembly and then the flesh and then the bread and then the ale once more. After the last belch and the towels used to wipe hands and faces clean were returned to the water vat, just as the stars began to emerge, Helio rose and stepped before the assembly. He cleared his throat, not once but several times, before he began his tale.  I wasn’t there, of course. It is only because my grandfather chose and entrusted me with the records that I know and can tell you what there is recorded. I do not know exactly how he exhorted his partners into agreement with his scheme. The inscribed text is blurred. We only know that between the time he cleared his throat and the time the sun appeared in the Eastern Quarter, a longing, perhaps even a lust for petlove had been rekindled in the breasts of the men, and they were resolved on expedition.  Those, unlike Helio, who were unaccustomed and not especially predisposed to travel, swallowed their reservations and mounted resolutely the small galleons that would bring them to the land of the languishing birds so that they might espy and stalk and tame their quarry, in order to bring home the greatest prizes, creatures who loved them. Never mind the green visage of sea passengers, the abrupt churning and queasy-making crash of waves. Any inconvenience and distress was born with stoic fortitude, for these were men who could stomach any means to achieve the end, a seed so firmly planted by Helio, there was no need for night-fire songs of reminding.  At length, the small boats landed one by one, and the grey and weary humans disembarked with the pangs of dislocation and the need for rest. They fell upon the beach, of one accord, wrapped themselves in their cloaks, and slept a day, a night, and the better part of the following day.  One by one they began to stir late in the afternoon, refreshed and hungry. After a meal from their own provisions, hardly any morsels had been touched on the voyage, they looked around to see if there were any of the birds to be seen.

Helio advised a joint expedition in the morning in the full light, for there were many places the lugubrious avians might be. They murmured expectation and desire through the long smokeless night, a murmuring as of nesting birds in  a privet hedge or thicket of berry brambles. Finally, the dawn crept out of the Eastern Quarter and one by one, men arose and began to hunt their prey. Each one harbored stratagem and cunning ploy, certain of their efficacy, as with charms and potions from the long and vanished times before the fires had all but extinguished traces of the lost past.

How shall I tell you what next befell those eager spirits, those pining-to-be-admired specimens, those hapless men? Every where they looked, anywhere they crawled, looked under, stood on top of, waded through, there was nothing but empty space and the soughing of the wind. No birds. Not anywhere. Not a one.

Helio was the first to capitulate, to return to the ships empty-handed. In clumps and pairs, the rest staggered back balefully, woefully, cognizant of the full extent of the calamitous outcome of their expedition. Helio sighed.  And then, to the amazement of the rest, he began stroking the air above his other forearm, cooing to the phantom bird, nuzzling the small and invisible beak. The others lost no time in mimicking this charade, well satisfied their pains had not been for nothing. And so they, thus, returned to the temperate zone, armed with their companions–birds no longer dolorous, safely nestled in their masters’ keep.



Becoming Wise

“Oh,” said her mother when Mollie put the matter before her. “Hmmm. What is real and what is true?   Ordinarily, a thing is or it is not. Here is your hand. Here are your fingers,you’re little piggies,we used to call them,remember? We can see ,touch and feel that dear little thumb. We know its presence through our sesnses.” She paused for a moment and then on an impulse, tickled her daughter. “Oui,oui,oui,all the way home.”  They both giggled,but the serious weight of the matter sobered them both,while Mollie protested,”No tickleing,no fair.” You’re right,of course,my sweet. It wasn’t fair. I”m sorry.” “That’s okay . I kind of like to be tickled.It makes me feel little again,which I can hardly remember. I do remember Piggies and all the gigglies. I like to remember.  What were you saying?”

“Well,”said her Mama, “We were speaking about knowing something is because we can touch it. Like piggies. But what about the things we can hear but not see,like music. That’s real,isn’t it?” “Yes,Mama,very  real.Some of the most beautiful things I know in the whole world are  the songs I play on the piano, Some of the notes are so sweet and sad,they make me cry.” “I know what you mean,” said her mother. I feel so much more real and happy when I hear music I love . And what about the haunting sound of a train whistle wailing in the distance, out of view. We know the train is there even if we can’t see it. You know,when I was little,we heard  bells calling people to come to church on Sunday mornings. That was beautiful and very real..even if we couldn’t see or touch those sounds.” Mollie sighed deeply and climbed onto her mother’s lap and took her mother’s face in her hands and looked at her square in the eyes. “But Mama, she said, “What does this have to do with you know who?”

Now her Mama sighed a great big sigh and stood up,careful to keep hold of her daughter. “I’m too big to carry,”shrieked Mollie.”Do you want me to put you down?” “Well,no.” “Well,okay,then. Let’s go to the window,to see what we can see. Okay? “Okay,ohkay. Don’t drop me,though.” “Hmph and horsefeathers. I won’t drop you. Let’s sit here.” They both wriggled until they were kneeling  backwards on the sofa,with their arms  on its back,perched this way so they could look out  of the window. “Perfect,”said her Mama. “What do you see?” “I see the sun going down  way over there behind the elm trees.” “What else do you see?” “I see all the colors in the sky–pink and green and blue, and all the puffy little clouds and Mr.Jameson’s chimney and everything. It’s so nice.” “It is nice,the colors of the sunset,the evening sky,the soft air and stillness of twilight. “But,”she said,drawing herself up out of reverie, how do you know it’s real?” “Well,of course it’s real,” Mollie spluttered,shocked her mother could even doubt for a moment the existence of what they were seeing.”Of course,it’s real.” Now her mother sighed again and laughed a quiet laugh that was like the soft nickering of horse breath,that was like velvet. “But we can’t touch  those colors or hold  the sunset in our hands. How can you be sure it’s real? “Because it is,” said Mollie,somewhat indignantly.”It just is. and you see it and I see it. And even if one of us or even both of us had our eyes closed, it would still be there.     Her mother was smiling now,grinning,really, like the Cheshire Cat. “And what if we did close our eyes for a few minutes, what would we see when we opened them? Would the puffy clouds and the sun and the pinkbluegreensky be the same or even there?” “It wouldn’t matter,”said Molly. Things change in a sunset. Things are always changing.”

“Well then,” continued Mollie’s Mama, more than a little smugly, “is the sun,which we cannot touch but can only see, still real when it sinks beneath the horizon and we cannot see it any more? Or feel it as we would on a warm sunny day?”

“Well of course it’s still real,silly,”said Molly ,giggling like a little  brook. When the sun goes away,it’s night.”

“Suppose,said her Mama, you didn’t know anything about anything,which of course isn’t so. You already know a lot about a lot of things. But just for a minute,pretend you didn’t. And let’s say we were looking out at the night sky and I say, there’s really a sun out there,too, but we just can’t see it. What would you say?

” Mollie didn’t say anything but she drew up her right hand next to the side of her face and started inscribing circles in the air. Then she said:

“Cuckoo, Nuts,Looney tunes.” They both laughed now and Mollie’s Mama reached her hand out to touch her daughter lightly with one soft finger under her ear and then stroked her curly hair .

“Curiouser and curioser,” said her mother. If we didn’t know it was there,we wouldn’t be able to understand there was a sun. We don’t see that it’s real or that someone who says it is there ,is speaking the truth . Right?” “Uh huh.” But if we did know it’s there, even when we can’t see it,when it’s out of sight, then when someone says there is a sun,even though we can’t see it, we know that person is speaking the truth. Am I right?”

By now, it was dawning on Mollie what her mother was really saying, and she ventured in a very quiet voice,”You’re not speaking only about the sun,are you ? You’re telling me about Santa.”

Doing Time in the Commander

My daughter, away at Vet school, bought a house with what she inherited from her uncle, my brother. Supervising the reconstruction, of the dowdy and runty cabin to make it livable to anyone with a sense of beauty and grace and which, with any luck, I shall one day call home and inhabit, I am currently illegally domiciled in a camper on the property.  The Commander, be it ever so humble, has all the festering charms of country living: The Mongol Hordes of the ant people invading the not quite crumb free surfaces of the galley, a large rather hirsute spider- setting up shop in a corner unquestionably close to the pillow upon which I toss my head, the chamber pot closeted along with incense and smudging sage, the subtle yet repulsive eau de propane emanating from the one place we have not yet managed to locate, bickering tabby cats who cannot fathom why we have given up our ample palace of comfort for such a, well, smarmy little hovel, however charmingly appointed with all the accoutrements of civilized living whittled into the bare minimum: item one wine glass ; one candlestick; one cork-pull. Item one garlic press, two cat bowls and so on.

There are now few surfaces upon which two elegant felines can drape themselves and both have taken to standing upon my chest in the very moments before dawn when I have finally fallen into the kind of sleep that promises rest and restoration. Only I can fill their bowls and release them from the implacable gnaw of hunger. Only I can open the door to release them into the mother world where real life is: rodents  lizards  birds. Much of the night, a woman of a certain age arises, hour upon hour, to make a visit to the euphemism.

By day, when I have the luxury to be at home, there are the hovering workmen, one who out of courtesy picks up my paper which I would rather fetch myself and delivers it to my door. But really, what can a woman do? Out of consideration and courtesy, I dare not mention, I’d rather do it myself, but this small privation wrankles and I feel small indeed. Freud was right about civilization and its discontents by which he meant the relinquishing of the id impulses, our wants and desires …at least some of them … to be able to live as social beings.  WA N T ! My two year old self is alive as the cookie monster and if my larger life were more on keel, I suppose I wouldn’t be sweating the small stuff. Even keel? The camper is listing to port. The ground apparently shifted after the winter rains and the sideways slant means I shuttle from higher to lower ground  wherever I step when I step in side.

I do not feel steady. So much gnaws.  It is unsettling to live in reduced circumstances if not diminished capacity. I know this is consequence of a grasshopper life, living in the here and now, much touted in exclusive seminars and weekend workshops, extolled by Joseph Campbell as a way to find the eternal in the ordinary humdrum…and indeed I have. I have followed my bliss in a kind of pyramid scheme of hopes and desires, high and heady aspirations, shooting for the moon that finally culminates or, at any rate, in any event, currently transpires in this corridor of inconvenience and thwarted desire.

Moi-meme, I am flailing about, disconcerted, disgruntled, disconnected, at odds with deep powers I am trying to summon. Living in a camper  cum ant invasion , chamber pot, eau de propane, bickering tabby cats, and small infinitesimally small inconveniences, I am well aware… But all I  must endure with a good grace, stiff upper lip and a wholesome cheerfulness to keep my life steady, on course ,so that when my daughter calls with the frustrations of memorizing body parts, and tracking neurons peptides hormones in the tropic torpor of a third world country without benefit of air conditioning or buses that run on time to get to classes that do, I am her rock, her solace, and wise counselor.

I want to run away and during the rains I did. Once more to the Goodwill, dear friends, for the lure of cashmere linen silk  4.99 on the ticket but orange and yellow half price. The closet abounds with every garment woman could want, but “the world is too much with us late and soon. Getting and spending, we soon lay waste our powers, a sordid boon.”

We soon lay waste the contents of our wallet as well. broke broken and on empty. a fine pickle a swell mess, a hearty stew. Sit. Eat. The voices of the Calvinist culture: I reapeth what I  seweth. The voices of the perennial wisdom: Karma.

And somewhere in and among all of this, there is the voice of sanity. The corridor of discomfort and inconvenience is a kind of birthing canal, but this laboring to vivify the emergent self who has grown too. I am flailing, haven’t been able to summon the strength and sap and focused concentration, the one pointed intent desired required for the creation of a piece that matters. I cannot emit puerile drivel and anything less is, well , reason to pick up a broom and sweep the streets and take in washing to earn a crust of bread.

Now  there are so many essays to read, now that I still have work at Sonoma State. This week, the English Department let go all the adjuncts, but three, of which number I am one. ( The adjunct faculty  called temporary part-timers, many of whom have been there for ten years and more have been dismissed, sorry about the budget cuts, so no loyalty or gratitude, sorry, can’t be helped, pass the breast of lark, Arnie. )  Next fall, I have two rather than four classes and in some way, this is a good thing because I have two at College of Marin. And teaching 6 classes last fall sapped all my strength and gave me no time or will for ought else. But there’s nothing at COM in the Spring and who knows what will happen then at SSU.

On the days I am not home, I drive to a university where I am ally and mentor to a hundred fledgling persons who count on me as a model of rectitude and stability, a fount of wisdom, information and equanimity. I am mainly unflappable, but once in a while, a rascal pulls a the kid who came to class potted stinking loaded flat out drunk on St.Paddys day.8 am. Who can drink at such an hour? It is the arrogant and ignorant and entitled I find hardest to teach let alone forgive. Ergo, as an ox, one who pulls the cart, I dare not dither or repine and yet I must. I do. I am. But of course I have the wit and sagacity to be grateful for my lot, as constrained and discommodious as it certainly currently is. There are throngs of mortals not nearly so fortuitously placed and provisioned as I and to these benighted souls I owe the courtesy of shouldering my burdens in a seemly manner, fair and square and not grumbling over the inconsequential inconvenience and discomfort of living in a small space for a short while. But it is not the constraint of space that grutches . It is the pinch of want, the lack of cash flow, the ways and means, the dinner out, the matinee ,the full caff full fat latte, the new Tony Kushner play, the latest Kronos or well who knows what golden oldie or brand new great work released. Have you heard Joanie Mitchell’s  remake of Clouds? Mmm-mmm. Books on tape cinema verite  all require the where-withall, the dough-re-me. And I do desire to know and hear and see and feel what our artists are saying.

The wheel  has been spinning fast and loose these days. I suspect the wheel of fortune is kick started  by id….most of us are still driven by the two year old cravings  :COOKIE!  Cookie monster the archetype of all our craven cravings and gnawing longings hungers and thirsts. Ours is a culture whose multitudes support the war, poor ninnies…their very decency being used against them…they can’t for one moment believe their leaders would lie to them, that corporations to whose brands they swear allegiance, have anything but their best interests at heart, providing them the very best that money can buy, never mind the profit motive or the bottom line: fiscal impact and not human welfare. These are folk not given to the precepts of Buddhism, the noble truths. In this country, who doesn’t interpret desire as entitlement ? Are we rewarded and punished  with regard to motive and intent, by what we do and don’t do At one extreme are the guilt makers ,the Calvinist perfectionists : the rigid the anal the damned. Whatever you are currently experience is the direct outcome of past  attitudes and behaviors like the correlation of your pant size and how many carbs you ingested.

Like the law of Karma… we are all talking about karma whether we think this is real or not because, honestly, who has an f-ing clue? Besides karma is cool. and Sure there are the budget cuts the war, the careless attitude of corporate managers who can’t take every bleeding heart story of a family to support to heart, the stone cold place under the wallet sheltered in the Brooks Brother breast pocket.

I am ill paid, my job insecure. But really I have no one

to blame but myself for having persisted in indulging my self in small things, in living as I chose without heed for the morrow, without setting by storing up for the time and era of declining  energies. I thought I would  be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat , a play . a novel, a performance, a work of sufficient scope and magnitude …and impact to bring me what I need, that I might earn sufficient  wage through the labors of creative work…. Many are called. So far I have pulled no conies from chapeaus , no bunnies out of beanies berets or burkas, no hares out of hairnets.

I’m afraid.  There’s an insufficient  safety net. I’m on a  high wire without a  net, juggling hatpins and balloons. Even after a decade of teaching…. still temporary after all these years.

But it is useless , a feckless fatuous and futile effort to blame Arnie for the constraints and fears, if not the follies of a life squandered in trivial pursuits or even serious and noble enterprise if it toucheth not the soul. Or if there is sufficicient guilt and there is. Guilt? I majored in it. Got my phd….piled higher and deeper…the manacles of shame, the stocks of censure and blame. Ah the matter:

God ? Fate ? the universe’s disposition rather than mine ?

me  found wanting and upon me inflicted detention in the realm of inconsequence. Purgatorio! moment before I cowered in, dreading the endurance, languishing in the land of limitations, powerless to resist the feeling of powerlessness, to ward off vexations arising from the spinning of the wheel, seeing no way out, feeling rightfully discarded, paying in guilt for omitted and committed transgressions. Or was that merely a disguise… a span, a chapter, an opportunity until I gained sufficient strength to rise up from the bottom of the ocean where in the depths I have been languishing.

In short, I am up against the wall and must invent a life to match all I’ve been given. So much is at stake and I begin to see the erosion of my enormous powers and  how much life I have foolishly wasted, squandered, piffled away on trifles. Well it’s hard times for us all. I hope for us continuing  great strength in adversity and as much pleasure in the beauty of the deepening spring as we can find. To bear with whatever befalls nobly and gallantly is sometimes all a woman can do.


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