Monday, December 25, 2017

So Long for a While

Flowering of imagination in winter
Today's blog is #50. After an erratic start, I took to posting on seventysomething every second Monday two years ago and have not missed an entry. I've always been drawn to round numbers and fifty has a satisfying ring, plus today is Christmas and my son's birthday. The day screams new birth. Under the weight of all that symbolism, I have decided to make this my last official seventysomething least for the time being. Never close the door, especially on a process that has fostered creativity and discovery and might just generate more learning in a future I don't even know about yet.

The self-imposed structure of silently interviewing myself every two weeks to find out what was on my mind has yielded a rich harvest. I would post on Monday, then mentally wander for ten days, just observing what language was rising to the surface of awareness. On the Wednesday of the following week, I began to write, lost in a forest of words, not really knowing where I was going or whether I would find a way out. Sometimes, I'd comment on our treading polluted water in the political cesspool. Sometimes, I'd meander through the dreamscape of faded family memories. Often, I would engage with the subjects that are most present for me....mortality, spirit, the meaning I make out of my one small life. By Monday, I delivered an essay or memoir piece, sometimes with labor, but other times like those women who give birth in the back seats of taxis on the way to the hospital. I'm wondering now what it will be like to be a writer without that structure, a human body without a skeleton to hold the gut and the heart in place. I don't know the answer to that question, but the continent of unknowing is clearly where I'm headed, which is true of many of us at seventysomething.

A very gratifying aspect of the journey to date has involved curating the art of other older writers and visual artists whose work I've been posting on Facebook. The virtual community of gifted painters, photographers, ceramicists, writers of prose and poets that has emerged, lifts me out of the slough of despond and lights the way in and out of the shadows. Many people in the last third of their lives are doing remarkable, boundary-breaking work. Thrilling work. Recently, I discovered that a friend in Boston bought a painting from an artist in Toronto she knew only from seeing the painter's work on seventysomething. I was the schadchan, the matchmaker, a new role that thoroughly energized me. In this transaction, I was in it and not in it, there and not there. It reminded me of the way it felt when I served as a hospice chaplain, when I became an intermediary between a patient and her understanding of holiness. It resonated with that self-emptying that allowed me to enter other people's lives without getting in the way. This aspect of seventysomething has been magical. Please contact me if you are or know of an older artist you'd like to introduce me to. 

When I think more deeply about self-emptying in the service of entering other people's lives, I realize that what I'm doing is tiptoeing shyly up to the gate of enchantment that leads to writing fiction. I've made some forays in the past, but this time I feel more ready. Still, I will need a good deal more spaciousness to pass through that gate, less glibness, more willingness to fail, less self-judgment. I will need to get to know the people I am conjuring up in all their quirkiness, their humor, their anxiety and courage. I will need to understand that these characters are both me and not me. The very thought of inhabiting the consciousness of someone who is in some ways not me fills me with trepidation and desire. Yet, these are the conditions we all live in, writers and non-writers alike. This is what it means to live in this world and be part of the saga of interbeing. Writing fiction might be extending that condition more intentionally, exercising the capacity for empathy, using the tools of language to carve a golem of one's own invention. Wish me safe travels. I promise to send postcards from truck stops along the way.

seventysomething has its own Facebook page. I will be posting poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists there. Please Like the new page. 

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Twilight Time

Biblical hillside with telephone cable
I'm huddling in the corner of the couch wrapped in a red and black plaid blanket. The blanket is from the fourteenth century and carries a scent that hovers between cozy and offensive, the interface of coffee and skunk. Still, I like it because it's very large and creates its own toasty environment. I guess you could say it's a security blanket. Winter is coming. My mind wanders in unexpected directions out from this comfort zone. I'm in hiding from the horror and wondering how to write about it. In keeping with this season of new life generated deep underground, I'm thinking about the creation narrative in Genesis. From my wintertime womb on the couch, I'm dreaming about the birth of the world.

Here's what happened on the sixth day according to the scriptural account. The land animals and wild beasts of every kind appeared. Then, man was created in God's image, male and female, and these humans were instructed to be fertile and increase, to fill the earth and master it; to rule over the fish, the birds and the living things that creep on the earth. The animals and the fruits of all the trees were given to humans for food. For purposes of storytelling, for the opportunity to reflect on the mythos of our situation in this wrenching moment, I am suspending disbelief and entering the biblical narrative. I hope you'll understand. Let's just say it's been a very, very long day and humankind is mired in it, exhausted by it. In the course of this sixth day, lies have been told. People have betrayed and enslaved one another. Species have become extinct. Oceans of blood have been spilled and it's not over yet. We are still slogging through this fetid swamp of greed and violence. When will it end, you ask? When will we get to the seventh day, the day of rest and gratitude? Are we there yet?

To help us grapple with the story, to keep us entertained in the back seat when we are really cranky, at the end of our capacity to tolerate fatigue and hunger, Jewish tradition speaks of ten things that were given at twilight on the sixth day, afterthoughts that just made the cut like last minute items tossed in the suitcase.

The list of ten things varies depending on the rabbinic commentary. Among the possibilities are the rainbow that appeared after the flood in the Noah story, the ram in the thicket that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son, and the manna that fell from heaven to feed the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt. All three of these saving graces were created just as the light of the sixth day of creation was fading and long before they were necessary in the unfolding of the biblical narrative. When they finally appear, they come unbidden when they are least expected to remind us that wisdom and generosity, understanding and compassion are ever-present even when they aren't manifest, even when we have reached the outer limits of despair.

You don't have to be a fundamentalist or even a believer to appreciate this redemptive plot twist. I see from my own experience that the way out of the dark tunnel of rage and hurt, judgment and guilt, already exists, even if it's so well hidden that I generally walk right by it. Out of nowhere, it falls from the sky like the manna. I share a bowl of it with a person who always talks at me incessantly. I want to get as far away as possible, but then suddenly, for the very first time, I see this person painfully imprisoned. I'm still irritated by the talking, but also miraculously and gratefully empathic. The manna tastes good and feeds us both. In another instance, people I love feel wounded by one another. My first impulse is to intervene with an outpouring of words to fix the problem, to step into the already dense mix of history and competing allegiances. Then I see the ram in the thicket waiting his turn. I step back into the underbrush to make space for them, hoping I won't become the sacrifice. Every occasion of grace carries a risk.

The rainbow, especially, speaks to me in these dark times. It appears after a storm when the raindrops and the sunlight intermingle at just the right moment. Like all the rainbows before it, the color takes me by surprise, opens my eyes. It reminds me that the repair of all that is broken comes not only from my small, fitful conscious attempts to make the world a better place, but also from the hidden threads woven into the fabric of existence at twilight on the sixth day, the sacred predisposition of life to flourish.

seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

Please share seventysomething with other interested parties. I welcome your comments on email, Facebook or on this blog. I have recently updated the comments function and hope it is easier to use.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

Amador Avenue

I am sitting at my niece's kitchen table and imagining my mother who lived here for three years at the end of her epically long life. She would sit with her back to the sliding glass door that leads out to the deck overlooking the bay and eat with her eyes closed, savoring every mouthful of Berkeley Szechuan piled high on her plate. Now, her middle school great-grandsons kick a soccer ball around the living room against the house rules and twenty-one of us gather for Thanksgiving dinner, eyes wide open in amazement. We've been celebrating in this house for 47 years. My mother is gone, but my sister and I are here, as well as three of her grandchildren and five of her great-grands. This is where we congregate, in the beating heart of the life of this family. My sister has lived here since Kent State. My brother-in-law died upstairs in the room at the front, KCSM playing Coltrane in the background, children on bikes calling out to each other flying down the hill towards Sutter.

Some houses are old souls, brick and mortar anthologies of ghost stories, records of the comings and goings of all the people who have lived and grown old in them. These carpets are drenched with the tears of wounded children. These chairs are sagging under the weight of all the pointless effort of trying to make sense out of things. When Frank and I sold our big house in Great Barrington, it felt like we were leaving something of the spirits of our two mothers behind. Frank's mother used to say she felt like a duchess gliding down the gracious curve of the front staircase. It was a long way from Queens. When we moved, we left their shades to hover forever where we had lived for twenty years.  We left them in the blue frame farmhouse named Greenmeadows after the cow pasture in the back. The place you move to later in life, even if it suits your need for quiet and is set in a cluster of white pines, doesn't resonate with the plot line of what your life has been about. It isn't a storyteller.

In the California house, almost as much a home to me as anything back east I've paid taxes on, I sit opposite my sister now two days after the great turkey feed. We are digesting. We are digesting all the food, but also the successive waves of memory that come crashing down on us. We've been playing a singing game we associate with our father. It involves selecting a category, say months, and singing as many songs as you can think of that fit. I start with "April Showers." She has a strong contralto and knows all the lyrics, but can't think of other songs through her brain blur, so I move on to "September Song." Thinking of what to say is like running the marathon for her, but singing is a walk in the park. We are strolling together, looking at the birds pecking at the feeder. The early morning fog is lifting. My sister is sitting back in her recliner, drifting off to dreams of her many years in this house, the neighbors dying and moving away, the children growing into middle age, talking about retirement. We are swimming in the sea of wistfulness.

In a few days time, Frank and I will be making the return trip, San Francisco-Dallas-Hartford. We'll be disengaging from them, the living family and all the ghosts, returning to the smaller space of our later life, where the light is flickering, the shadows foreshortened. We are feeling the coming loss. All we can do is sit on the steps outside the house on Amador Avenue embracing each other and offering endearments, the words ricocheting off the stucco. My niece complains that some people don't know how to express affection, their hugs pro forma like air kisses. But not us. We are a family schooled in the grand gesture, our devotion taking the chill out of the old house as the weather grows suddenly California-wintry, raining lightly on our goodbye.

seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

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Monday, November 13, 2017

A Pebble of Regret

The old woman has been sleeping in her lounge chair all day. She wakes up periodically to eat cold leftover blintzes, but nods off after noshing and naps luxuriantly unless someone comes down to check on her. Her daughter, so devoted, asks if she needs something to drink, but my sister doesn't respond. She's breathing, but just stares into space and moves her mouth around. No words come out. It may be a mini-stroke. She's going to need a transfusion of new blood from charitable young people who have red blood cells to spare. She needs, as they say, a new lease on life.

I call her after the procedure to assure myself that she's still my sister, even with the blood of nameless college students and dental assistants flowing in her veins. I tell her that I'm coming to California and will see her on November 16th.

          "Do you remember what day that is?" I ask, in the infantilizing, self-satisfied tone of someone
          who already knows the answer to her own question.
          "Daddy's birthday," she blurts out with sudden alacrity.

There is something about her saying the word "Daddy" that fills me with an unaccountable joy. She is, after all, the only person in the world who can say that to me. She is the only other person in the world who had that relationship with our gentle, distracted father, almost forty years gone. It's an album of memory we share, even though we are more than ten years apart. Even though she was a Depression and War baby and I was a child of the American ascendancy. It was only after he died, during one of those long, gossipy coffee-and-danish storytelling sessions in the house of mourning, that I discovered that his father, our Budapest-born grandfather Ludwig, had died in 1935, the year my sister was born. I had always thought he died in 1945, the year I was born. I had always thought she had a grandfather I didn't have, the ultimate bigger piece of cake. But, as it turned out, we were both lost girls with no doting grandpa to buy us penny candy. There was comfort in that.

Between the two of us lay a vast windblown steppe empty of brothers and sisters, a no man's land where there was a family, but I wasn't in it. I have amnesia for a life I never experienced. I can't get a feel for it. FDR, war news, radio. Our parents young and hopeful. She in her Persian lamb jacket. He with his fedora at a jaunty angle. My sister learning her long division in the same classrooms of the same school I would much later attend. They seem to have managed just fine without me and this feeling imparts a yearning and produces a pebble of regret that precipitates out of the joy I feel when I hear "Daddy's birthday." All those birthdays before I was born. Ten years when it was just the three of them.

Some people are worriers, other people regret. Worriers are oriented towards the future and all the dangers that are lurking there, the plane crash, the diagnosis, all the catastrophes to come. We regretters are vulnerable to sadness and self-blame. We are magnetized by the past, the missed opportunities, the cruelties, all the failures already in the bank accruing interest. The man I live with is inclined towards worry. He sees possible losses driving in his direction on the wrong side of the road, coming for him. I am a regretter by trade. I encounter loss bushwacking my way through the past. He and I try to meet for morning coffee in the parlor of the present. When he gets too far out ahead of himself, I try to call him back to now. When I retreat into an unforgiving black hole of self-recrimination, he invites me back up to the fresh air of this moment before 8:24 becomes 8:25 and I miss the whole thing.

          He says, "I got my worry from my mother. Where'd you get your regret"? I say, "I found it all
          by myself in the empty space between my sister and me, the virgin terrain."

I wonder...what questions can I ask when I see her in California next week? What details can I fill in while there's still a chance? Maybe...what did you talk about at the dinner table when it was just the three of you eating the pot roast?

seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

Please share seventysomething with other interested parties. I welcome your comments on email, Facebook or on this blog. I have recently updated the comments function and hope it is easier to use. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Melancholy, Baby

All through October, we were disappointed. The leaves seemed to be heading straight to brown without stopping to rest at flame red, burnt orange or gold. Everywhere I went for weeks, people were commiserating with one another. "It's a bad year for color," people said, evaluating the state of nature in relation to how much pleasure it gave them. Too much rain or not enough rain or the nights weren't cold enough. There was a disturbing silent subtext to these conversations. What if climate change had come in the night to wrest the spectacular reds and oranges out from under us? What if the party was over? Fall color is not just an annual reunion of maples and birches dressed to kill. We rely on it to maintain our sanity in New England, an immoderate binging before the deprivations of winter when the walls close in on us and we're stuck looking at our aging faces in the mirror.

Still, in the end what color there was came on slowly and lasted much longer than usual. Like an old friendship, it had its own faded loveliness. The whole landscape was over some hill, a woman, gone grey but still beautiful. The end of October rains came, giving it all a washed out late empire look. We didn't get the scarlet jolt we were longing for, the kind that endangers your life when you swerve off the road gawking at it. The long-anticipated peak never came. Autumnus interruptus. What we got instead was late-breaking spikes of color like flames shooting up from candles about to go out. It reminded me of America.

The country is indisputably in decline and many seventysomethings are watching in horror as the spectacle unfolds. The bridges are crumbling. Oxycontin is killing off whole towns. Torchlit armies of furious white men in Klan regalia have marched in Virginia and the stories we learned long ago in school no longer ring true. The lullabies we sang to ourselves about our great democratic institutions, checks and balances....that sort of thing....are painfully out of tune. They no longer seem to have the juice to inoculate the culture against an epidemic of pervasive, tubercular greed. They seem helpless to protect us from the grasping of the insatiable rich emboldened by the rage of the nativist
left-behinds.  Now in New England, the wind is coming, knocking the remaining color off the trees, leaving us all exposed to the approaching winter, the tax bill, the military posturing, the flood of hate speech and on top of it all, we are entering the November of our lives. If we expected a safe, rocking chair old age, no can do. We are in for a rude awakening. Just when we thought we could take a nap, we are being called to scrape off the old paint of American exceptionalism and face the unvarnished truth, the depth of the river of inequality, the omnipresence of injustice, the reality of climate change.

A friend posts on Facebook "the world is breaking my heart" and I am grateful for the invitation to go there with her, at least temporarily. This is not like me. I'm usually ashamed of despair, a weakness of character, I think. I'm attached to the spiritual imperative to rejoice in being alive. But I can't maintain the effort of hope all day every day. Not when a photogenic, grinning woman on tv is advertising portions of "delicious emergency food," a grisly new business opportunity. Not when the families of the Las Vegas victims are being accused of some kind of macabre conspiracy against gun lovers. I need a day like today, showers starting in the morning and gathering into torrential sheets of rain and wind, the better to reflect my mood of retreat.

I decide to stay close to home, reading my mail, checking my feed in a flat, diminished frame of mindlessness. After a while, I pick my MacBook up off the couch to plug it in to the charger. Out from underneath the body of my cherished writing, my love affair with self-expression, a monstrous insect crawls out of prehistory and stares up at me from the frayed seat cushion. His is an unexpected and eloquent Darwinian visitation. This insect has seen fall color come and go, the first white men descend upon the virgin continent, the rise and fall of America in the intervening centuries. This insect, who has been living under my life in language, under my alternating bouts of hope and despair, will be here long after we're all gone, a thought both terrifying and comforting.

seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

Please share seventysomething with other interested parties. I welcome your comments on email, Facebook or on this blog. I have recently updated the comments function and hope it is easier to use. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rites of Passage

I am not yet sitting on the perimeter of the dance floor gossiping with the other old ladies while the young people party. I still have some steps left in me, but I don't last long. It's not my music anyway. Fast, insistent and very loud. But I did get up for Aretha at a recent wedding. Aretha, my contemporary, my familiar. I respect her and she respects me. We have a long history going back to my springtime in the '60s when my dancing was a self-conscious performance art. The huge sound that comes out of her reminds me of a lifetime of celebrations, many pieces of cake. I am now not so much a participant as an observer at these festivities. I am there to maintain continuity and to witness a rite of passage, to hold it in the collective memory. I am there because the groom's parents are beloved to me and we would never think of marking any occasion in our lives without including one another. Long ago, we bought tickets to ride on the same bus with some of the same other passengers and we are still chugging along that bumpy road.

A community of people who have known one another for a long time is like a telescope that scans the heavens for ripples of activity. It observes the births of stars and grandchildren, the deaths of parents and then, in the course of things, the passing of the friends themselves. It picks up the audio as well, the babytalk, the weeping, the eruptions of joy. It is greater than the sum of its parts. When someone dies or even moves away, there is a complete reconfiguration of the shape of things, as if the number six were moved down a space in one of those 4x4 plastic slide puzzles we used to play with when we were children. Everything shifts.

Einstein understood this when he taught us about relativity, the idea that it is not possible to separate an event from its observation. The fact that history is witnessed by family, by old friends, is part of the history itself, beginning with the preparations, the anticipation. And this is true at every gateway, at every crossing, graduations, weddings, baby namings, diagnoses and deaths. Once back in the '90s, my husband and I and the parents of the groom from the recent event were guests at another wedding. I remember holding my breath and experiencing a deep knowing that this was a moment of unalloyed goodness that would not happen quite the same way again. People who were now laughing would soon be silent. I saw that simultaneously from the inside of the merrymaking and from the outside, watching it at a great remove. I got the whole picture and the picture included me.

Marking the passages of life alone is at best a miscalculation, at worst a rending of the narrative fabric. The weight of memory is too great to carry without help. My first marriage took place in City Hall in lower Manhattan, the two of us arriving in the ornate chambers unaccompanied. We had to ask the people behind us on line to sign the official documents, to serve as our witnesses. It was a funny story until it wasn't. And when my mother died twelve days after I visited her in the nursing home in Berkeley on her 99th birthday, I had already returned to the east coast. She had delighted my sister and me with her trademark rendition of the Marseillaise, waving her frail, bruised arm in the air like de Gaulle at a military parade.  But then, a few days later, all three of us were incapacitated by a virulent flu. My mother's ancient respiratory system failed and I was too sick to fly back to be with her. When she was finally actively dying, I was in a parked car listening on my cell phone. My sister held the phone up to my mother's ear so that she would know I was saying goodbye, but all I could hear was the whoosh of the ventilator, the chatter of the nurses. No one should lose her mother on the phone, sitting at the wheel of a green Subaru.

Life is with people. Better to be part of it, all the unravelling messiness, the pain and the partying. Better to break the bread, fill the wine glasses and create the ceremony together again and again.


seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

Please share seventysomething with other interested parties. I welcome your comments on email, Facebook or on this blog. I have recently updated the comments function and hope it is easier to use. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Tragedy in the Tropics

Last night, I found myself dreaming about Puerto Rico. I saw the cars lining up, the babies screaming, and the long, dark suffocating nights. I saw the beaches, the jungle, El Junque, the colonial architecture of San Juan and the children of the Puerto Rican diaspora I went to school with sixty-five years ago, the children my father helped with their English after school. They are homeless now, the families of these children. They are thirsty. My dreams are indistinguishable from the reporting coming in from the island. I see the catastrophe when I lie down and when I rise up.

The boundary of the Puerto Rican community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan began a few feet east of my front door off Broadway, extending all the way to Central Park and along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, not yet gentrified. I somehow learned not to walk on those streets, past the bodegas and the places that sold cuchifritos, except in a literary emergency if I had to go to the library on 81st street. No one taught me that lesson. I learned indirectly through gestures, through facial expressions, to be afraid of Otherness, of loud dance music blaring out of transistor radios in the street, of men playing dominoes out on the stoops. In school, classrooms were as segregated as the ones in Little Rock. A handful were reserved for Us, the well-fed, whiteskinned children of the professional and business classes. The remainder of the building consisted of rooms full of Them, children being told not to speak their native Spanish. Recently, in a sorry attempt to make amends, I experimented with a reversal of fortune, trying to study Spanish at seventysomething. No dice. There is no space left in my aging brain that can accommodate verbs in the conditional. It is painful when you can't express yourself. It is painful when people don't understand you. The sisters, cousins, children and grandchildren of the people I went to school with, trapped on a tropical island dismembered by nature run amok, are hungry now and will be literally powerless for six months. I try to take it in, this bankrupting, this third-worlding of a part of America. And while I'm trying to digest it, feeling increasingly lightheaded with despair, the man reputedly in charge is tweeting away, accusing Puerto Ricans of expecting too much, of not being willing to help themselves. The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has vacuumed up all the other issues crowding my awareness. The nuclear threat is still, praise God, an abstraction, though that luxury could be shortlived. The machinations of Congress are like a drone bass, always underlying the melody no matter what music is playing. I've learned to tune it out to a degree. But these people in Ponce and Arecibo, always, of course, real to themselves, are now real to me. Fear kept me from hearing them when I was a child, but I hear them now and they are crying out for help.

All lives are finite, but now the finitude of my own life is more apparent to me than it was even ten years ago. The only way to get from today to tomorrow in one piece is by making some decisions about what's most important, performing some kind of reluctant triage. This witness demands that I filter out much of the other incoming noise, the brass band of the political circus blaring oompah music at a deafening volume, the lion tamer cracking his whip. We all need to take care of ourselves, stay connected and stay healthy. But the extent of my concern for the people around me has narrowed, even as it has deepened. I can't allow everyone in. Sometimes, mea culpa, I turn into the dogfood aisle, even though I don't have a dog, just to avoid talking to a perfectly good person I recognize in the cereal aisle. I have to work with my anxiety about the state of the world so it doesn't keep me awake at night. As a lifelong insomniac, I have several strategies for dealing with sleeplessness. Lately, I've been playing a game where I try to allow my mind to focus on two completely unrelated words or names, with the idea that the two are so incompatible that no third line of thought can possibly arise from them so you might as well go to sleep. The last time I tried it, I came up with Stalin and crackerjacks. This incongruity sent me into dreamland. But once I got there, I found that it was covered with hurricane debris and fallen coconut palms. Puerto Rico had not gone away.

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seventysomething now has its own Facebook page. I will be posting the blog there as well as poetry, prose, photography and other work by wonderful older artists. Please Like the new page. 

Please share seventysomething with other interested parties. I welcome your comments on email, Facebook or on this blog. I have recently updated the comments function and hope it is easier to use.