Monday, December 31, 2007

Do I appreciate the long hike C and I took today just a little bit more, given all that has happened? Do I savor stepping on soft pine needles in the bright cold, the sight of a majestic silvery white horse named Mister, the sparkling view of the bay, the cathedral of bay laurels, bending over their trunks to create a sacred dappled archway for us to walk under?

We walked and walked and walked, and on the way back took a wrong turn which put another mile and a half on our trek. By the time we got back to our car we had been walking at least two hours. Tired and satisfied, we drove to the Vietnamese restaurant right near our house and stuffed ourselves with spicy hot and sour soup and beef with fat noodles and broccoli and gravy. Went to the grocery store after that and bought chicken to roast, and bacon and black-eyed peas and bell peppers, tomatoes, and green beans for tomorrow's New Year's feast. We'll have home-picked kale as well.

I don't believe much in New Year's resolutions--hell, I make resolutions all the time, to do it on New Year's seems kind of a set-up--but I thought I'd include a list of books and plays I am wanting to read in the coming year.

The Known World by Edward Jones
A History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham
Foreskin's Lament by Shaom Auslander
Unbound by Wangari Maathi
Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene
The Birthday Party and The Homecoming by Harold Pinter (plays)
The last Harry Potter book (as soon as I find a 12-year-old I can wrest it away from)
The new translation of War and Peace by Tolstoy (when it comes out in paperback)
Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson (poetry)

I did read Tuesdays with Morrie while sitting in Border's Books yesterday--it was surprisingly much better than I thought it would be (I thought it would be treacly and terrible.) But the main message of the book seemed to be love, love, love--which is the same conclusion I see Carla arriving at, and the one I myself most resonate with. All the dogma, religious traditions, even meditation and spiritual practice--aren't worth a plugged nickel, unless they are backed up by, stuffed with, grounded and rooted in love.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I won't say that the dizziness is grief because it is probably some inner ear thing, or a perimenopausal symptom, or not enough electrolytes or a potassium imbalance, but I can say that Carla's news about her health has knocked me sideways. Today we were walking, she picking her feet up carefully and placing them with an effort, me weaving around the sidewalk like a drunk in the bright cold end-of-the-year sunlight. What a pair, ALS girl and her sidekick, Dizzy Luterman.

There's laughter and tears. There's grief, humor, gratitude, gossip, fatigue, and love. There's tea and chocolate. And music. Thank God there's music. Carla turned me on to a singer named Eva Cassidy, whom I'd never heard of, but after hearing her sing "Wonderful World" on Carla's computer, I went out and bought one of her CD's. Absolutely exquisite, soaring, tender, pure voice. And dead now, gone quickly and too soon.

Right now I feel like all seven of Snow White's menopausal dwarfs: Itchy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Weepy, Dizzy, and Spacey. Oh, and Dopey.

As a psychologist would say, this brings stuff up. Carla so strong and so vulnerable right now. My sister, three thousand miles away. The short days and long cold nights. I can hear C drilling with his power tools in the next room; he has built himself a desk out of a piece of plywood he attached to the closet wall. I envy him being able to make things with his hands, practical things; nails and hammer, and saw and drill. I'd love to do some of that, but in my present condition it would be dangerous.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The past two days have been overshadowed by my friend's news: she has been diagnosed with ALS. While still holding out hope for a misdiagnosis, a remission, a miracle--we'll take it in any form, we are not picky--it has been a time of sitting stunned and teary, trying to digest the undigestable.

I can't believe my friend's courage, grace and humor in the face of this. "I'm still going to put on sunscreen," she reports. "And I'm still ex-foliating and waxing, in case I ever get to have sex again, which I hope I do."

"I hope you do too, honey, and I'll do anything in my power to help make that happen," I respond tenderly and then we both laugh very loudly, very fully, from our guts.

Damn! There's nobody like her, nobody whose company I so fully enjoy, no one else who both inspires me and makes me snort my coffee--at the same time--the way she does.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Quiet un-Christmassy Christmas, which suits me fine. We walked around the lake, about three and a half miles. Bright and sunny, the ducks shaking their dazzling tails and diving deep into murky water. Lots of other people were out also, only one couple with Santa Claus hats. We passed a couple of people who were alone and looked sad; a young woman, in heels and a nice skirt, who averted her gaze as we passed. The holidays can be so tough. I remember in previous years, when I was single, this whole stretch of time from November through Valentine's Day seemed like a gigantic plot to torment me with loneliness.

We talked about creative confidence. What gives a person the courage to create art even in the face of the world's indifference? How to deal with the fear of humiliation? Although I strive to create as safe and gentle an atmosphere as possible, every semster I have students who shake or cry when they read their work out loud, every semester there are students who drop the class, even though they paid good money to join it, and every semester there are students who jump through hoops of fire to get to their dream, whose emotional breakthroughs rival their creative achievements as they finally allow themselves to be writers. But it's not easy.

I don't know exactly why my neuroses don't land in this particular area. I'm as neurotic as the next girl in most ways. And I feel frustrated just like anyone whjen my work is rejected. I just don't, for whatever reason, interpret those rejections as a sign from God to stop. Maybe I'm just slow to get the message or something,(she says, having received yet another rejection for See How We Almost Fly in the mail this morning.)

For whatever weird combination of reasons, flourodated water, a grandmother who thought I was a genius, a hard-headed mother, sheer stubbornness is my claim to fame. Every semester at Writing Salon I encounter brilliant, deep, insightful students. The only thing that qualifies me to sit in the teacher's seat is that I've spent a few hundred thousand hours just doing the work, and that's something no degree can confer on you and no one can take away from you.

After our walk, C went off to hang with a friend, and G came over and we threw a basketball around as he had forgotten the tennis rackets. Came back and had a beer and watched Merci Pour le Chocolat, an incomprehensible French thriller starring Isabelle Huppert, which I bought because it was on sale for four dollars and I'm a sucker for anything French. G fell asleep about ten minutes in. C came home and chided him, "Don't let her force you to sit through that. You got to stand up for yourself!" (Here, I am compelled to admit that C has happily accompanied me or initiated many seriously offbeat cultural adventures, including one-woman shows, song cycles, and dragapella shows with dreaded Audience Participation, but for some mysterious reason he is resisting the latest Pedro Almodovar.)

Today is a day of waiting for my girlfriend's medical test results. Rejection slips pale in the face of this. It really doesn't matter if See How We Almost Fly gets published this year or next or not at all. Not compared to this.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Monster was just as amazing as I remembered. Theron's courage lies in showing the monster that resides in all of us, the monster that just needs love, like in Beauty and the Beast. In the fairy tale, the monster receives the love he so desperately needs and is transformed; in real life, the movie says, that doesn't happen. The monster goes beserk from lack of love, from abuse, and is destroyed.

Theron's blonde hair, made to look thin and blow-dried in bar bathrooms, even gives her a bit the look of a lion, a lion in captivity, a tortured deformed lion. The eagerness shining out from her damaged face is almost unbearable.

After the feature we watched the interview with the director Patty Jenkins and were both astonished at how young she is, and how confident and powerful. Then, dweeb that I am, I went on line to learn about the real Aileen Wuornos and discovered how many people were upset that the film depicted most of her victims as johns. Especially the families of the dead men.

I could easily put myself in their shoes as well; imagine if one of my brothers had stopped late at night to pick up a lone female hitchhiker because he felt sorry for her, or concerned for her safety. Imagine that she killed him and that then a movie was made of her life in which his motives were called into question and his life negated, while hers was portrayed with compassion.

But no two-hour movie is large enough to tell everyone's story in full...

These questions are especially poignant for me now as I wrestle with the ending of the Alan essay. Of course there is no ending in life, but essays, plays, poems and novels need to have endings. My sister and my father were both very excited about what the draft that they read, as much for personal reasons as for literary ones. They knew Alan, his generosity and his eccentricities and his difficult parts. Emily said what I had done was balanced and she appreciated what a tightrope it was. Actually, what she said was,"How did you do that?" Then she said she didn't know whether it was right to publish it. I don't know either. Of course I would change the names, but what about Alan's widow and their daughter, what about his mother and brothers? What about him, who can no longer speak for himself?

I keep coming back to: my job is to write about life, in all its weird and wonderful permutations, with as much honesty and compassion--and hopefully, beauty--as I can. Back to that one again. I repeat it like a mantra. It's my only justification, if you can even call it that. Because, as Lucille Clifton says in one of my favorite poems, I am Adam and his mother and these failures are my job.

As I type this, C is downstairs, playing his heart out on the grand piano. We have the house to ourselves--wonderful luxury!! I am so glad he is playing. I need to get up and walk. Dizziness persists, despite me drinking as much water as I can stand. A friend emailed me and said she had experienced the same thing, as a result of a virus, and her husband also. I hope this passes quickly, this black spinning; it's not fun.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

So tired my head is falling down into the keyboard. We went to Herbst Theatre last night to see the Kinsey Sicks perform Oy Vey in a Manger, an anti-Christmas show by a dragapella quartet. Gorgeous drag queens, horrible puns, amazing barbershop harmonies. I've known Irwin Keller, one of the founders, for years, and they just keep getting better.

Today C and I went out to Hayward to visit one of his former students who has graduated from Juvenile Hall to a group home. This was a day when he got to be home for a visit with his family, so we went to the family's home. C brought him strings for his bass guitar, and we brought chocolates and pastries for the family. C gave him a bass lesson, while I played tic tac toe with his mother and sister.

Their home was simple, with framed photographs of relatives everywhere. Both mother and father grew up on ranches in Mexico. The little sister is beautiful and completely besotted with horses. While C gave her brother his music lesson, she told me about every horse her family had ever owned. The mother looks to be no older than her late thirties, although she has some adult children in Mexico. She served us chicken and frijoles and soft tacos and that salty Mexican cheese, so dry it squeaks between the teeth. I asked her what she was doing for Christmas and she responded entirely in terms of food; her boy wants tamales and her girl wants posole so she's going to make both.

Afterwards C and I hiked for hours up in Redwood Park. My muscles are strong and I have no trouble going up hills, but I've been having dizzy spells lately, when I lie down in bed, and when I get up. Everything spins and I feel like I'm going to black out. I think it's just low blood pressure--too little water in my veins, so I'm trying to drink more water and eat salt whenever I can remember to.

After our hike we were exhausted and stood around dumbly in the video store trying to find a movie we could agree on. I adore C in every way that it's possible to adore a man, but he wants to see films with things that blow up (he says) and this completely goes against all the finer points of his otherwise sterling personality. I started pulling films from shelves and he started rejecting them; this one is too heavy(okay, so it was about Nazis,) this one has subtitles which are too much work, this looks like a chick flick (guilty as charged.) Why is it that there are hundreds of wonderful movies which I have not yet seen, and they all vanish from mind and view the minute we cross the threshold of Hollywood Video?

"What if it's the last night of my life and I'm watching something crappy?" C asks. I am so tired that I can't figure out if this is a reasonable thing to say or not. We compromise on Monster. Monster is a great movie--I've seen it before--Charlize Theron's performance is one continuous revelation of empathy, compassion, courage, and at-the-edge reckless artistry I've ever seen on screen, and I'm looking forward to the special features where they interview the director.

Friday, December 21, 2007

We had the world's best holiday party last night, filled with wonderful friends, good food, and lots of MUSIC. C had fixed up the dining room with mikes, speakers, etc., and the grand piano and the upright are in there. He'd also built a movable dolly for the Hammond organ. Guests included several keyboard players, a violist, a guitarist and a bunch of great singers.

The music didn't start until failry late in the feast--after seven thirty or eight. Then C nodded to his friend Loren, Amar picked up his flute and Sahib Amar got her viola out. Later, Lisa Zeiler joined the party. C had been longing to jam with her, and she was equally happy to play with him.

I love watching musicians "talk" to each other through the medium of their instruments. Far more communication is exchanged, more deeply and more efficiently than words could ever convey. I watched C at the grand piano, and Amar at the upright. Little nods and smiles and looks flashed between them as one held onto the bass line and the other improvised, and then they changed roles, without missing a beat.

It was a pleasure also to see my friends and C's friends meeting and mingling. Folks from Juvenile Hall, poets, lesbians, dancers, old boyfriends and girlfriends, former students and teachers and massage therapists. The room was crackling with the warmth of new and old connections.

C made his peerless meatloaf, as well as black bean soup with pork sausage in it. I made brussel sprouts with slivered almonds and cheese--we had salad and bread, good cheese, hummus, olives, latkes, dolmas, and dark chocolate. And plenty of wine and beer and sparkling cider. We agreed we'd hold more of these parties--the house is big enough, and everyone seems to enjoy them. Maybe once a month or so, depending on other factors. It's such a privilege and a joy to gather good musicians together and let them losse on one another. And it's a mitzvah to create diverse community in these beleaguered and lonely times.

After the party ended, and we were cleaning up, our housemate Libby's shower overflowed, flooding stinking black water all over her bathroom. C tried to snake it but to no avail. We ended up staying up till midnight, emptying her shower with buckets, and mopping the floor. This morning, a plumber came with a power snake and got it cleared out, with the cheerful information that I'd need to replace lengths of the old pipe to the tune of $2800.00. When he heard that, C suggested we invest instead in a set of our own plumbing tools and some instructional videos and learn how to do the work ourselves. I'm dubious but willing. It's an old house; I've been told the pipes would need replacing sometime. But maybe he's right and this is a chance to learn something new.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Everything is going slow as molasses, but at least I finished the Alan essay, finally--or at least a draft of it. Then, thanks to the glory of email, I sent it out to a couple dozen of my closest friends and family, which leaves me free now to work on the Marie Antoinette play, go to the bank, wash towels and bathmats and confirm airplane flights for Detroit and Massachusetts.

Except that I don't feel like doing any of those things. I don't know what I feel like. At least the house is a fraction warmer than it has been. It's been colder than a witch's tit, as they say back in New England (although back there it actually is, whereas here, when I can see my breath in the parking lot, I start whining and shivering and complaining.) Last night C and I went to bed wearing sweatpants, t-shirts, sweatshirts, wool socks, the works--under an electric blanket. It wasn't a bad night either, except for the cat and the dream about the wooden cell phone with the ring tone of Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

Yesterday, as I was driving a friend back from the accupuncturist's, we found ourselves stuck in holiday traffic, trying to get on the bridge. In a car in the next lane over was a Pontiac with a young African American woman in it, grooving to the radio. She couldn't see us, as we were slightly behind her, but we could see her--she was dancing, drumming on the steering wheel, shaking her head, bouncing and wriggling for joy and music, all alone in her car, her private world.

"Oh, I love her!" my friend exclaimed, as we inched forward in traffic, my beautiful friend who is facing a potentially life-threatening diagnosis. "Now that's a happy woman!"

On the drive over, we had talked about happiness, how much of it comes from the body, for both of us, how hard it is to conceive of being happy without being healthy. Yoga, dancing, love-making, eating good food, singing, sleeping well, hiking till you are flushed and sweaty, swimming...I don't know how to be happy apart from these things. Then my friend played me a song she had recently recorded, a cover of John Lennon's "Blackbird," and the car filled up with impassioned sax, and her clear, gorgeous voice singing, "Take these broken wings and learn to fly..."

Monday, December 17, 2007

It's hard to readjust from our full full weekends to weekdays when C goes off early to work and I'm facing the blank computer screen. This morning I made myself coffee and made substantial progress on the essay about Alan. I worked until the tears came, and then I blinked them away, surprised that I still had so much feeling after we've been split up for 14 years and he's been dead for three.

I suck at transitions, shifting gears, moving on. Look, it's even hard to say good-bye to the weekend and start over although there are things I love about my work life too. I know life is change; it's just hard for me to do it. There's a part of me that's absolutely fixed and immutable. I still love everyone I ever loved, no matter what has happened. I could say something dramatic like "Soul marriages know no divorce" (which I've typed three times here, and then deleted, because it sounds so ridiculous) but be that as it may, in the real world, of course everything is always shifting. Still, (and this is not necessarily a recipe for mental health,) there's a way in which emotions are preserved in amber inside me, like the prehistoric mosquitoes stored in hardened Jurassic sap that reconstructed a whole lost world in that movie that was so scary I ended up spending half of it out in the lobby with a couple of ten-year-olds.

And of course relearning the steps of intimacy--like riding the proverbial bicycle--brings it all up again. Right this moment I am trying to master the part where you come so closely together your souls touch--and then you come apart to live your separate lives. Both steps are important, like the opening and closing of wings, or inhaling and exhaling, or the contractions of a woman's vagina in orgasm or childbirth.

I am trying to relearn that because Saturday was a day of extraordinary closeness, vitality and intimacy, and Sunday was a day of cleaning house and taking a psychic step back. Both are good and necessary. I'm just so much more comfortable with one half of the equation than the other.

We went to see "Argonautika" last night--it was held over at the Berkeley Rep--another gorgeous, huge, Mary Zimmerman production, mythic and contemporary all at once. I loved her version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," which I saw several years ago at Zellerbach, and which moved and changed me Among many other things I love her chutzpah--like that of Julie Taymor, another idol--to put her big fresh woman's vision up on the stage, intimate and archetypal, physical and spiritual all at once.

And Saturday night, after our lovely, knee-shakingly intimate afternoon, we went to see Rebecca Riots, an all-women's folk trio at The Frieght & Salvage, a local club. Eve decker, Andrea Pritchard, and Lisa Zeilor, on guitars, vocals, mandolin, percussion and a little harmonica, singing original songs about spirituality, politics and love--and sometimes, at their best, all three at once. Delicious and inspiring, they brought my energy back from the sexual whirlpool down to earth, where there's homelessness and environmental crises and not just all this love love love stuff.

I got to play tennis with G this weekend also--he's back on his feet again after trouble with his ankles. Exercise is the best anti-depressant for me--though Prozac helps too. I've been slowly getting back into shape, one step forward, one step back, and Saturday I felt strong and clear, blood pumping, legs nimble. I even jumped rope. Sunday of course I was tired and my butt hurt.

Today, several rejection slips--one from Poetry magazine, (why am I sending stuff there, anyway?) and one from one of the places I sent the children's stories. I'm trying to develop the discipline to just turn around and stuff the pieces into new envelopes and send them out again without getting emotionally involved in the process. Easier said than done.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I was so excited Sunday night I woke up at 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I feel like my insides are melting and reforming in the chrysalis of love; I feel held, very gently, and also smelted down, transformed. My colors are liquifying and getting more intense as light is refracted through old wounds. C’s presence is so gentle, so penetrating, authentic and real that my soul just keeps opening wider and wider. If he forced himself in any way I would shut down, I know I have before. But he never does.

We spent a blissful, simple, full weekend doing ordinary things, going for a hike, visiting the Guitar Center, talking, cooking, singing and practsing music; eating. For Chanukah I gave him a beautiful cloth-of-silver tallis with a note: Welcome to my Tribe. He gave me every art supply under the sun, including an easel. When I saw that, I dropped to the floor and cried. It was his customary thoroughness, no stone unturned, nothing but the best, and he thought of everything, brushes, pencils, pens, paper--he always thinks of everything.

I wrote him the lyrics for a song; he is going to write music for it. We bought songbooks and looked at drums and went home and played piano and sang together. He taught me how to pick apart chords in order to train my ear. He put together a dolly for his Hammond organ, and I helped him load it on.

Then my friend Tim Perkis got back to me about the hot tub script. Tim did an independent documentary film called “Noisy People” about the experimental music scene in the Bay Area. He and I have talked about working together on a film for years—something that could be shot on a shoe-string, locally. Two middle-aged people farting around with cameras and actors: “Let’s put on a show!”

Except it’s never that easy of course. You decide to do something—the idea os born lightly, like a fairy—and then you’re in for it. months and years of work, flailing around in the dark not knowing what you are doing or if your project will ever see the light of day. Doubt. Despair. Sheer stubbornness and willpower. And finally, if you’re lucky, some sort of production emerges. Sometimes even a little money with it.

But both of us know. I worked for six or seven years on Kaddish, and he must have put in the same amount of time on Noisy People. Time spent learning how to do it, making mistakes, making connections, putting the work down for a few months in order to have a midlife crisis, or fall in love, or earn a living, or do something else—and then pick it back up again. Meanwhile, the clock ticks and no one gets any younger.

Tim really likes the hot tub script—phew!—but is concerned about the logistics of filming in a hot tub. I suggested we rent the DVD of About Schmidt and see how the director did it in that movie. There is the great hot tub scene with Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson—I will always always love and respect Kathy Bates for being nude in that scene in her so-far-from-Hollywood body. She is such a fine actor.

Anyway, it is not a for-sure done deal that Tim will direct Hot Tub. He’s interested but wary. He knows it will mean a year of his life—at least a year, maybe more—and angst, and dozens of logistical problems, and a lot of learning on the job. He has to be sure he’s ready for that, that he thinks it’s doable before he commits.

I’d love for the project to go forward with him. He and I have talked around this project for years. The character of Jack was someone we’d originally come up with in a much bigger, more far-flung idea for a production which we could never make given a) our budget and b) our expertise, or lack of it. I did write a script for that, and it lies languishing in one of Tim’s drawers where it will hopefully languish forever.

Out of that script, the best scene was one where Jack is in a hot tub with an ex-girlfriend of his, a much-younger woman. When I needed to write a play in eight days last June, I returned to the scene of the crime. My friend Carla, a brilliant playwright, director, actor, and singer, read the play and said it felt more like a movie to her. Duh! Of course! And so we come back full circle.

Today, Wing It! had our photo shoot in a photographer’s loft in West Oakland. For an hour and a half we leaped into each other’s arms, posed, mugged, danced, snuggled, and were serious for the camera. I hope he got some good shots. The place was full of conventional wedding albums, which didn’t interest me much, but I liked the framed nudes and unframed move posters on his walls. And I liked the loft-ness of it, the artist living space thing. My house is very much a house; regular rooms, closets, walls, doors. Lofts are all open, and the space is much more at the individual’s disposal. I just wish they were warmer and softer, especially the floors.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Countdown to Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Counting down the dark. I always do this, forgetting it's like moving--there is all that unpacking on the other end, just as difficult as the initial packing. January will be dark as well.

But today is sunny. I've been watching it through my window all morning. The fig tree has almost lost all her leaves. It was cold last night, but cozy and sweet under the covers with C. How did I ever live without this? I remember previous winters, winters of trauma and break-ups, numb, slow recoveries from grief. Also: contra dancing like crazy, folk music festivals up in the Santa Cruz mountains, steaming hot tubs under skies full of stars, singing all night. This has been variously the hardest and sometimes the most joyous time of year.

Last night G came over and the three of us watched a pretty bad movie about Beethoven: Copying Beethoven, which I had bought because it was only 4 dollars and it had Ed Harris in it. He was great of course, and the young woman who plays his copyist was also very good, and it was fun to hear and watch a recreation of the first time his Ninth Symphony was played in Vienna, startling and moving people. The scriptwriter was criminally horrible, prone to dropping such bombs as "You must listen to the silence within and only then will you know music."

I'd swum half a mile--for the first time since I got back from Malawi I think--and was feeling good. That wonderful, delicious warm, endorphin hum of a well-worked body. Sitting there, wedged on the sofa between two of my favorite guys, sipping wine, blankets over knees, making fun of the ridiculous dialogue, I felt incredibly rich and blessed and lucky.

I've been using the artificial deadline of the Solstice as a spur to squirrel-like industry (although it often, too easily devolves into squirrel like distraction.) Time to plant plant plant my little seeds. This morning, I revised and re-sent out the Listening essay. I made a little more progress in writing the long essay about Alan, my ex-husband, which is a fraught emotional minefield for me, loaded with grief and guilt and (hopefully) some buried treasure. That will take more doing, but I have four pages now, hard-won.

I finished the third or fourth revision of the hot tub play and sent it out; I heard some good things back from initial readers, and am waiting for my busy dramaturg friends to get to it. Patience is not my strong suit, but I try to ride out the waves of excitement, anticipation, and despair by getting busy with something else constructive. God knows there's enough to do. I still have to work the musical, the Paris Hilton play, and the grocery store play That Greeny Flower, whose first draft I wrote fourteen months ago.

I sent out the latest version of the poetry ms., now called Sustain, to seven different contests.

I sent out two children's stories to five different presses, some large, some smaller.

It's hard to do all this work, invisibly. Everyone else is at some kind of job, earning real money and being seen gossipping at the water cooler with colleagues. I don't envy C who has to go out in the chill dawn and deal with beaurocracies all day, but I do envy him that he gets to touch the lives of troubled kids and make a difference to them. (Of course there are many instances--most--when he can't actually see the difference he is making and has to take it on faith. His job contains moments of almost unbearable poignancy. Yesterday, for example, a girl who is in Juvenile Hall on a murder conviction, finally graduated from high school--a victory in a bell jar. He took pictures of the cap and gown.)

It's almost noon today and I don't have my bra or my shoes on yet. New College is in so much financial trouble with low enrollments and other problems, that my Memoir class has been cancelled for this semester. The wolf is not at the door--I have plenty of financial back-up--but still, I sometimes question the wisdom of this free-lance lifestyle. Something wonderful happens--I win a contest, or a piece gets accepted, or the play gets produced somewhere--and it's joy in the morning, and a big fat check in the mail. That lasts for a few days, or weeks. Then it's back to vigilling at the computer, no bra, hair a mess, coffee getting cold at my elbow, wondering where I can send this stuff I keep banging out.

C and I had a wonderful discussion about Beethoven last night, after the movie. How he changed the landscape of classical music at the time, how he was a bridge to the Romantic period, how his personal failings and his deafness both fed his music and blighted his life. Some of his works, like The Grosee Fugue, were not understood in their own time. An artist's job is just to keep going. Some essence of our wonderful conversation found its way into the essay-writing work of this morning. That is the supreme privilege of this very privileged life.

At the same time, I don't think it would be a bad idea--after the New Year, and the play production in January-- for me to start looking into other sources of work. These are not the most mental-health-inducing conditions for me to be in my room half the day, dicking around inside my own mind. Today, I would have dearly loved to have given that opportunity to C, who needs the time to play piano, compose, paint, pet his cat, and keep nesting.

Finding balance, that's the illusive and elusive quest. While I've got this time I'm trying to make the best use of it that I can, not always succeeding. I know another time will roll around again, when I'll be frantic and pressed with outer demands--that always happens. Dancing between inner and outer worlds, now the weight is on one foot, now the other...I know this is the time of year in which to go inward. I'm both embracing and resisting the descent.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The recycling trucks are loud outside my window, and the sun has burned off the fog. Yesterday it rained a little, much-needed. Ruben, my Mexican next-door neighbor, weeded and turned over the earth on my weed-patch, I mean garden, out back, where the kale is flourishing. Then he wouldn't take any money for it, because we'd given him a chair from Ikea, and because he said it only took him twenty minutes. It would have taken me half the day and I wouldn't have done such a good job either.

C has been working intensively with several kids who were never read to as children. He tutors them, encourages them, bribes them with burritos, does phonics and math with them, and all the required curriculum, and then he reads to them. Reading aloud, just the simple pleasure of it, which my siblings and I got every night as children, which my nephews and nieces are getting now, getting initiated early into the seduction of stories. What would my life be like now if I hadn't been read to as a child? Unimaginable.

Can you give that to a fifteen year old kid who never got it when he was six--that sense of being safe and warm and enthralled by a story? That's what C is doing--tirelessly, even visiting some of the kids after work hours to help them do their homework and stay off probation--I shouldn't say tirelessly, because he does get tired, but he does it. (Yes, I am bragging.)

We had a great impromptu first night of Chanukah last night. Beth called me as she was getting off work, and came over bearing matzoh meal and apple sauce; I had potatoes, onions, a couple of eggs, a food processor, oil, salt and wine. All you need, really, to make it through the darkest part of the winter.

C joined us, and our housemates David and Libby and Masankho; we ate latkes, lit the candles and sang. First time all five of us housemates were even in the same room together, in the warm cozy clean kitchen that smelled of fried potatoes and onions.

Beth said the new version of Hot Tub is much improved; Ruth, whom I also emailed it to the other day thinks I made it worse since the earlier draft. (Ninety percent of the time Ruth prefers my earlier drafts. I have failed to calculate what percent of the time she is right.) Rebecca loves this draft, but I don't think she saw the earlier one. I am still waiting to hear from my playwright/dramaturg friends, Stuart and Suzanne, both of whom were kind of lukewarm on the earlier draft ("well-written but I didn't like either of the characters," would be a good summation. Plus Suzanne had some structural issues which I tried to address in this rewrite.)

Revision by committee is not the easiest way to go. I wish I trusted my own voice more. I'm the same way in singing, always needing--or thinking I need--someone else, someone expert and outside myself--to tell me if I'm on pitch or not.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to juggle dates and plane tickets and logistics to go to Detroit for the opening of Kaddish. They are having a "friend-raiser" at which I'm supposed to make an appearance, unfortunatally on the same day I'm scheduled to teach one of the Memoir classes at New College. If I can get my father and stepmother to switch the weekend they are coming, then I can avoid flying back and forth from Detroit three times. I'll only do it twice, which, in January, is plenty. But I haven't even confirmed that I can get a sub for that class yet.

At least now I have some peace of mind that maybe Hot Tub is nearing completion and I can turn my mind back to the musical and the other projects.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Moments of intense, absolute, magical sweetness over the weekend; playing, wrestling, smooching, exploring, risking a little, playing harder, discovering how big and how fertile is this field of play between us.

Now: Monday. I have finished a rewrite of My Hot Tub With Andrea, that I think is really strong. Much stronger than before. I also think a change in title is in order. My Hot Tub with Andrea is obsolete--I've changed her name to Olivia, for one thing, and no longer need to lean on the title of that old movie, My Dinner with Andre.

I'm thinking of Olivia and Jack in the Hot Tub, A Hard Day's Night, Civil Liberties, or Uncivil Liberties. So far I'm kind of leaning towards Civil Liberties, which I realize is the most boring title of all, but it references the most important theme of the play. Incidentally, Tennessee Williams' Street Car Named Desire had at one point the title Blanche's Chair on the Moon. I love the way he used poetic images for his titles.

I'm also considering Love, Shmove, (a line from the play, but I think it sounds too much like Borscht belt comedy, which is false advertizing, or Love Is A Hot Wet Swamp, except that sounds kind of like Charles Bukowski's Love is a Dog From Hell.

Or what about Forgiven (a line from the play; also a play on words for that Clint Eastwood movie, Unforgiven, which was a classic Western--maybe my play is a classic Eastern--a couple of people just sitting around talking, talking, talking all night...

I'm also thinking Pandora's Box, which has that sexual overtone that tells you something about the themes. What about Civil Liberties, or Pandora's Box, which is very Tony Kushner-esque--when you can't choose one, just go with both, and make it sound old-fashioned and classy.

Head shots today for Wing It! Got to make myself look pretty.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The last few days I have been wondering and wrestling with my ambitions. The Sun agreed to publish a "new" essay--something I'd sent them months ago, which they rejected, which I revised, which they rejected again, which I revised further, and so on, until they finally accepted it. Now I'm ambivalent about having it appear under my name.

I like the essay--it's about non-violence, and teaching, and kids, and the way they sometimes want to write about bombs and guns, and my inadequate responses to that. It's also, in a general way, about the politics of teaching poetry.

The essay also contains a less-than-flattering portrayal of a teacher who has two pictures of George Bush and a framed signed letter thanking her for her campaign contributions hanging on the wall of her classroom. Needless to say I disagree with this teacher's politics, and we even clashed openly three years ago, the day after the '04 election debacle. But over the years as I've kept visiting her classroom, she's been more and more friendly and supportive of my work and now keeps making noises about raising more money so that I can visit the classes more often. In other words, she's become an unexpected ally.

I don't know how to embrace this contradiction. I don't want anything to appear in print that would hurt her feelings, or damage our relationship, or my relationship with this school which is wonderfully diverse--students from all over the world, speaking two dozen different languages. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, and I don't just mean economically. Yes, teaching at this school makes up about a quarter of my yearly income, but beyond that, the regular contact with these kids and teachers feeds my soul. In their nice, well-run classrooms I can actually teach--engage the children in discussions of complex thought, explore beyond the surface with them. Today i even got to translate for a new kid, eight days in this country, of Afghani ancestry, who only speaks French. That was a wonderful feeling.

At the same time: two pictures of George Bush and a framed, signed letter thanking her and her husband for their campaign contributions hang on her wall.

I know that I can focus on differences (political affiliations) and ignore similarities (the fact that we care about kids.) How do I write about both?

I don't want what I write to create conflict and pain, but I don't want to pull back from the truth either. George Bush's policies are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children, as well as the blighting of thousands of poor children's lives here in the States. One of my (self-appointed) jobs is to write about the messes of human interaction and this is a mess, a raw juicy one. School is a mess because it's the crucible where the values of the culture are passed along to the next generation, and who gets to decide what those values will be?

In this uncertain world, is it better to teach children to trust or not to trust? I would vote for teaching them to think critically, not to unquestioningly follow the leader. We're in the mess we';re in because of people blindly getting in line behind a pro-war stance and not treating the bullshit flowing out of Washington with appropriate skepticism despite plenty of evidence.

But kids tend to absorb messages in blanket ways, they think in black and white terms. They don't learn to distinguish shades of gray until much later, and even as adults we are constantly refining our abilities to discern. How do you teach kids to pick and choose who to trust and who not to trust? You want them to feel some sense of safety and security in the world, even if that sense is based on illusion--don't you?

(I personally didn't feel that safe or secure as a young Jewish child, even though my circumstances were pretty stable. As a child I learned about the Holocaust, and my parents were open about their agnosticism, or in my father's case, atheism. There were no spiritual guarantees given to me, no sense that I'd go to Heaven when I died, or that God would come in with the cavalry and rescue the good guys. This may have shaped me into the thoughtful person I am today, but I remember it caused me a lot of anxiety as a kid.)

If you give children a general idea that elected officials know what they're doing, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world, you produce one kind of citizen. If you teach them to doubt and question authority at every turn, you produce quite another. Perhaps you get artists who need anti-depressants to make it through middle age. Or, one could argue, you produce people with the necessary angst to search for a better way.

People who don't question authority at every turn are often easier to get along with, play well with othersw, and (perhaps?) have smoother, less painful lives. (I wouldn't know--I'm not one of them.) I do know that I love going to this nice suburban school where everyone is nice to me, and asks me how my holiday was, and where I got that lovely blouse I'm wearing. My job is delightful.

But are we just part of the problem, being nice to each other in the California sunshine while miles away wars are raging, wars which have everything to do with the blouse I'm wearing and the SUV the soccer moms are driving? What about what we teach the kids? That they are rightful heirs to this system, which was set up to serve affluent communities like theirs, or that, to the extent that it is an unfair and cruel and unsustainable system, it is their job to (non-violently) oppose it? Those two different stances lead to altogether different ways of framing even simple lessons about metaphor...

Today in class, one of the fifth graders told me, "I'm really more of a philosopher than anything." It cracked me up and reminded me of when my preternaturally brilliant nephew started a sentence with "Hypothetically," and the news travelled from excited proud family member to family member up and down the East Coast. "Theo started a sentence with "hypothetically!" Which reminded me in turn of when my youngest brother Jim, Theo's dad, at about the same age, started a sentence with "ironically." "You know, Alison, ironically..."

C, working at Juvenile Hall, teaches the children of the disenfranchized. They do not start sentences with "hypothetically," at the age of ten, and their linguistic and intellectual accomplishments are not celebrated with fanfare, but they are no less philosophers. One kid he knows is fifteen years old and facing a fifty year sentence. I don't even know how to wrap my mind around that one. Most fifteen year olds can't even imagine being in their twenties, and he won't be getting out of prison until he is an old man. He wants to write a book. This is what it means to be human. When there is no way out, the act of creation is the only way to endure.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

He makes ladders: long, skinny ladders, shorter squatter ones, ladders out of dark wood (teak?) ladders out of blond wood. They lean up against surfaces, on top of bookshelves, in corners. When he first told me about them, I imagined them suspended in air. Immediately I thought of one of my favorite Georgia O'Keefe paintings, "Jacob's Ladder," a ladder suspended in the starry night sky, halfway between earth and heaven, rooted in air.

Soon after we started dating, he gave me one he'd made for me, a long delicate thing, reaching, reaching. It was an expression of faith, a ladder; we will find something to lean it against. One of us will hold it while the other climbs. Or we will take turns holding and climbing. Isn't there an image from the Bible about angels swarming up and down a heavenly ladder?

He doesn't know what the ladders mean, and neither do I. Maybe the climb itself, the journey toward a higher destination, the helix of DNA, a spiral staircase. When I was little, I "saw" a vision of life as a spiral, ever widening out. It was my first--and one of my only spiritual visions. I know these ladders are spiritual, but they are also practical, like him. Made of wood, finely crafted, simple but elegant. Not calling attention to themselves. Utilitarian, except that they are too small for humans to actually climb, so are they ladders for spirits and angels? Cats? All of these things and none of them.

What does music mean? Or a poem? The cat sleeps with us every night now, purring like a motorboat, like a NASCAR driver idling, like a sea whale snoring and sighing. He is compelled, for some reason, to make ladders. For now, they lean up against available surfaces and corners of our house. Someday later, perhaps they will float suspended above our heads, or visit an exhibition hall, where they will be an installation people may walk among and wonder. Someday the meaning of what we've built here may be revealed to us in a dream. It's not important that we understand everything as we go about our daily business. It's important that we build and follow.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Saturday the vet came, a lovely older man with his own mobile unit. Dede had spent the night with us, nestled cozily between our two warm bodies. She had been brushed and fed slivers of turkey and dishes of ice cream, and cuddled, and in general treated like a queen.

When the vet examined her, he said flatly, "She's not ready to go."

Not ready...?

"She has too much life in her. She's movng like a sixteen year old cat, but she's got the spirit of a ten year old. Her coat is glossy. Her lungs and her heart are fine."

"But she hasn't really been eating," C said.

"There's still a nice pad of musculature on her spine. Her bones are not showing through. No, she's not ready. And more to the point, neither are you."

"That's for sure," I said.

"It's probably adjustment issues. When did you say you moved in here?"

"And she hasn't been getting as much exercise..."

"We're thinking of getting a baby gate so she can go up and down the stairs."

"Cats are sensitive to changes in their environment. Give her a little time to get used to things. She'll perk up. There's life in the old girl yet."

We thanked him profusely, a very relieved and in shock C happily wrote out a check, and since then we've been having threesomes at night. Dede gets free reign of the upstairs, and she wanders at will between our bedroom and C's study/music studio. She's getting even more spoiled, if that were humanly possible, and her appetite has picked up.

Saturday night we went to a joint concert: Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, and Keith Terry's Crosspulse. Amazing. Such fullness, excellence, passion, technique, cross-cultural fertilization, respect and love among the musicians and dancers. Such a packed, innovative show, with polyrhythm, roots music, body percussion, bluegrass, and exuberant joy. It's one of the best concerts I've seen in a long time--made me grateful to live here among such cultural richness.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Wonderful Thanksgiving with a dozen or so good friends, tons of food, two dogs, and lots of music. C and I used the holiday as an excuse to clear away the last of the boxes, and very nearly got them all (there's always more.) Worked all morning, cooking two brined turkeys, one stuffed with lemons and onions, the other with garlic, and making string beans with garlic, pignola nuts, and soy sauce, and salad, and stuffing with fennel more pine nuts, and and and...

Guests started arriving around 3:00--G came first with his new lady-friend, and a lemon cake, ice cream, wine, champagne, and Amaretto. His new woman is lovely, a nurse, very kind and sensitive and straightforward. I liked her immediately. Then more and more guests, each bearing food, until the kitchen and then the dining room table were overflowing. C had imposed some order on a process that in earlier years has been described as "delightfully chaotic"--that is, he made sure things were vacuumed and cleaned, laid out plates and silver beforehand, and in general, made everything proceed more smoothly.

All the while he was doing this he was torn up about his cat Dede. Dede is sixteen--she's been with him since she was a baby, through divorce, remarriage, redivorce, cross-country moves, job changes, school, and his motorcycle accident. She's seen him through more ups and downs than any one person in his life and has always been her sweet faithful black-catted, green-eyed self.

But the last week or so her green eyes have been getting dimmer. She has been refusing food and not drinking enough water. He took her to the vet a couple of days ago, and the tests were inconclusive--she was very dehydrated; they tried to re-hydrate her with a needle, it didn't work. Her kidney functions were okay, but her liver was off. More tests would have to be done to figure it out--ultrasounds and so on. And Dede hates going to the vet, like any good cat would, she moans and cries when she's put into the carrier, and she resisted the big 12-guage needle they tried to push into her to get more hydration going.

She's sixteen years old, and getting feeble. She doesn't spring from the chair under the windowsill; she's less and less interested in food, although we've been able to tempt her a little with saucers of half'n'half, and bits of ice cream, and tiny plates full of turkey slivers.

So all through Thanksgiving, while we served and poured and greeted dear friends, it was heavy on his mind; when would he have to make the call? That kind of responsibility is agonizing. I wished she could just die easily and peacefully of natural causes, but that couldn't be guaranteed. She might have some kind of obstruction, she might suffer, she might be alone when it happened.

Our dining room now has C's grand, and his upright piano in it. The guests included several members of WingIt! who are all musical. Amar got on one piano, and his son, a musician, got on the other and they began improvising a furious duet. It was wonderful to see them, two bodies but one musical soul, speaking back and forth to each other via the pianos. But C had stolen away upstairs. I followed him and found him in tears in Dede's room. We held each other while he sobbed and the party went on without us downstairs.

Fortunately, it had already gelled--you can feel the moments when the party starts to have a life of its own, guests take an interest in each other, new friendships are formed, and the host is no longer needed. I could hear laughter and music from downstairs, shouts of laughter as Vinnie the dog, who was having a field day getting fed illegal treats by everyone, climbed up on a guest's lap, although at 50 pounds he is not anyone's idea of a lap dog. I could hear Amar and his son continue their musical conversation, one that defied any generation gap and went right to the soul. I could smell the delicious smells of turkey, melted butter, and hot coffee. And I held C's warm heaving body in my arms, felt his tears wet my neck.

Later, when he was able, C came downstairs and rejoined the party, just as Jonathan was leading us all in song. We sang Dona Nobis Pacem, and some more rounds, and some carols, and other songs, and then someone asked C to play and he sat down at the piano and bent over it, his long sensitive fingers barely touching the keys. Then he was playing, pouring heart and soul into the music.

I looked around the room. Faces were rapt. Amar was nodding and grinning; his wife was beaming. G's new girlfriend had her eyes closed and her head thrown back, deeply absorbed into the music. I could see the light turn on in people's eyes, the light that said, "This is pretty good--no, this is more than good, this is coming from a deeper, richer place. Pay attention."

C was playing for a room full of music lovers and artists, and the deep listening grew around him as he played on, one piece, then another. When he was done there was wild applause. He slid shyly off the piano bench, his face red, and disappeared into the kitchen to collect himself. There was more music and talk and singing and playing, and the party mgradually broke up around 8:00. Theron stayed behind to ask C some questions about music, and I could hear the two of them lstening to a tape and then figuring out the chords on the piano while I quietly cleared and washed dishes and put things away. I was glad to do it. I knew music was the most healing thing C could focus on in that moment, and that Theron, with his friendly, contemplative monk's soul, was the perfect person.

Then I heard Theron singing a ballad for C., something about the wounds and betrayals of war and I came out to listen and clap along.

We were left with two refrigerators full of leftovers, and the enduring sweetness and grief of the night. Dede has been sleeping on our bed, and sometimes in our bed, with us, when she deigns to. I find myself trying to memorize her elegant little black profile, her snub nose and Egyptian bearing. She's still purring like a motorboat, and lapping weakly at the dishes of ice cream we offer her, but she's moving as little as possible--I had to hold the dish in front of her nose for her to get to it.

Today, the day after Thanksgiving, C made the fateful call to the vet who promised to come by tomorrow morning. Then he cried again, and I held him. This thing is so hard. Not only to say good-by to Dede, his faithful companion of decades, but to be the one who decides the moment when her life should end. He has gone back and forth and agonized about the decision for the last week. There's little I can say that's helpful; just be there to hold him and witness this deep tender wordless love between man and cat that I've been privileged to be a part of.

After he called the vet, we went for a hike--it was another perfect day, cloudless, clear blue sky, warm and fragrant. When we got home we went out back and picked the spot for the grave and C started shovelling. Sometimes his tears were falling, and other times we were joking and laughing, grief and fullness and ordinary life all mixed in together. He dug a good deep hole, and we talked about what to bury with her--some toys, some food. I promised I would say Kaddish over the grave.

It has been a sweet poignant time between us, not without its own challenges. It was hard to pull off a joyous celebration while at the same time preparing for a death, but I think, by the grace of God, we managed it. Neither thing was compromised--the house was full of good food, and laughter and song, and there was room also for tears and the acknowledgement of this eleven pound bundle of fur and curiosity and mischief and love. The acknowledgement of how huge she's been in C's life, a friend, a playmate, a witness, an anchor. We'll let her sleep in our bed again tonight, if she wants to. And we'll go through whatever tomorrow brings together.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Healing waters, a good bed, organic tomatoes, polenta, rainbow trout, cheeses, papaya, persimmons, home-grown greens, long luxurious hikes, and time to make love and rediscover why we moved in was just what we both needed after the last hectic month. My beliefs in God change as I evolve but I am firmly convinced of the power of a hot tub to make life better.

While we were lounging naked in the pools, along with other aging hippies, butts, bellies, private parts, we saw a gaggle of slender girls from Hong Kong, about eighteen years old, wearing bikinis. Lovely as flowers, all of them, nothing sagging or wrinkling, just smooth, firm youth. They giggled together in Mandarin while we languidly soaked, each group covertly watching and not watching the other.

I remember being their age. I was horrified at the idea of my flesh aging, corrupting. I had a nice figure and I didn't want anything to happen to it. If I had been catapulted then into the body I have now, twenty pounds heavier and thirty years older, I would have been horrified.

And now it's now, and I am not horrified, not even self-conscious. I don't care if other people see that I'm not perfect. I'm not perfect. I would not trade places with any of those adorable teenagers we saw. I enjoyed watching them, but I didn't want to be them. I didn't want to have to guard something that couldn't be guarded, and God help me I don't ever again want to have to go through what I've gone through to get here. I am much more comfortable in these folds and layers of imperfect, experienced flesh than I was in my young, taut, gorgeous body--comfortable in a different way.

And I noticed something else: perfection all looks the same. The girls were uniformly lean and graceful--they could have worn each others' bikinis (except for one who was a little bit chubbier and wore a bathing suit with a little skirt on the bottom.) All the older people on the other hand were falling apart each in our own unique, idiosyncratic way; extra padding on belly or hips, legs still holding up but breasts heading south, (or small proud breasts still high, while the bottom spread,) waistlines thickening, but elegant clavicles.

C and I took a long glorious hike: bright blue sky, warm sun, trees turning yellow and orange (though not as spectacularly as in New England.) Horse-tail clouds. Abandoned farm equipment. Then we saw what we thought were chestnuts, tons of them, so perfectly ripe we had caught them literally in the act of falling from the trees.

"Look, honey! These are like $4.99 in the store! At least! We can roast them and serve them for Thanksgiving."

"I wonder why people just let them lie on the ground to rot," C mused.

We enthusiastically gathered pounds and pounds of them, tying the sleeves of C's plaid shirt together to improvise a bag that would carry them back. Described them to the cook, who had spent ten years in France, apprenticing, and he said, "Those are buckeyes--they're inedible. There are hardly any chestnuts left in this country, they mostly import them from Europe. That's why they're so expensive." We had a good laugh at our own expense. There are still 10 pounds of buckeyes in the back of C's car, waiting for a discreet place where he can dispose of them.

I am reading The Pacific, short stories by Mark Helprin. He has lovely long poetic sentences, full of rhythm and beauty. I feel safe in his storyteller's hands, because his vision of human nature, while not naive, is not cynical. He gives his characters frailty and nobility, and he even gives them miracles and second chances. His work is holy writ, especially the short story "Perfection."

I was going to work on the plays--I had my usual grand, overweeningly ambitious plans for the weekend-- but accidentally left my laptop behind, which was probably just as well. Instead I finished illustrating my Chanukah gift to my nieces, The Princess with Too Many Clothes, and napped and chatted and ate a lot.

Before we left on Friday, I changed the name of my poetry ms. from See How We Almost Fly to Sustain, and sent out three copies to different contests. I hope it's not just pissing into the wind. Two more copies to send out before the end of November. The book is the richest and strongest it's ever been--I've put everything I could into it--and I wonder when the hell it will get taken. Like wondering when I would ever meet my partner, when I was ready for so long. Fourteen years between marriages. C is definitely worth the wait, but I'm still not sure why I had to wait so long--that's not a very spiritually mature thing to say. You're supposed to say, "Not in my time, but God's time," or whatever, which, okay, I do believe, but really, God, would it have killed You to have sent me a good faithful partner when I was 35 instead of waiting until I was almost fifty?

The Bay has been covered with black oil from a Valdez-like spill this week, and my friend E has been volunteering to help clean it. She made phone calls to local hotels and got them to donate clean sheets and towels, got a friend of hers to launder them with organic soap to get the chemical detergent out, and has been spending her free time scrambling around on shore, breathing in toxic fumes from the spill, and doing what she can to help rescue birds--most of them will not make it--and restore balance.

When I told her I admired her for doing that, she said, "I had to, otherwise I would just sit home and cry."

I heard someone define spiritual evolution as "joyful involvement with the sorrows of this world." Wish I could remember where the quote came from. Anyway, that is what I thought when I talked to her. Also, finally finished the Tracy kidder book about Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is one of the most inspiring, challenging, kick in the ass things I've ever read.

Driving home, C and I talked about other lives we might have liked to have led had we not stumbled into the things we are doing now. I have wanted to be an actor, a medical missionary, an adoptive parent, a painter, a contemplative, a criminal profiler, a child psychologist.

He could have been a fine woodworker, a full-time musician, a writer, a doctor, or many other things.

The real question is, how will we use whatever time we have left?

Friday, November 16, 2007

We had a sweet little gathering here the other night--Angela was in from N. Carolina--so I invited G and Bethie and we had squash soup and veggie burgers, green beans, and dark chocolate and wine, and we actually SANG, and C played the grand piano, and it was lovely.

I got up early with him today and had coffee together, before 7 a.m. This is how we know it's real love. I will not get up before 7 for just anybody. But it is the best time for us to talk--no interruptions, and I am not so exhausted from saying, "I'm looking for a quiet hand," and "Patrick, focus on your own poem," and "Great simile!" that I acually can say things--I remember what I'm thinking. By the end of a teaching day I'm toast and not good for much except staring at the wall and drooling--I've shot my wad.

Tonight we're going to a hot springs for a weekend away--much-needed!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

There's this phenomenon that occurs in my days which I call doubling. It's as if God were underlining something that She wanted me to pay attention to.

For instance, today a woman in Trader Joe's noticed and commented on my ox-blood (sorry, that's the real name of the color) red Dansko shoes, and then when I went to the dentist, the dental hygienist remarked on them also.

I wear those shoes all the time, when I'm not wearing sneakers--they're comfortable and they pass for almost-stylish among Berkeley hippie-types of A Certain Age. Most of the time they pass unremarked, as every woman of A Certain Age in the Bay Area has a similar pair of Danskos in her own closet. So, I have no idea what it means that two people said something about them today--probably nothing--the underlining thing doesn't have to mean anything, it's just a way I keep my eyes open for synchronicity.

More important-seeming was that I had two appointments today which both reminded me of my mortality. One was a trip to the lawyer, to draw up a will. Because he's responsible and thinks ahead, and because he had a bad motorcycle accident last year and because my ex-husband died at age 45, C and I have been dealing with all the legal and financial stuff of partnering. Among other things, we've made each other beneficiaries and given each other power-of-attorney and done all that other morbid stuff that everyone, no matter what age, really should do but that no one wants to think about.

And then, today, the will. I should have had one drawn up a while ago; I own a house, I want to give money to my nieces and nephews, I contribute to non-profits that are important to me. And everyone should do the medical things that state your wishes, and put them in writing, and do it legally so they can't be contested.

What I have said to everyone--friends, family, and I'll say it here on this blog--is PULL THE PLUG!! My worst fear is not death. My worst fear is lingering in some semi-vegetative state for weeks or months, or God forbid, years. When the Terrie Schiavo case surfaced a year or two ago, my family and I all spoke with each other and agreed that if any of us allowed another member to be photographed in a comatose state and then have that photo broadcast on network television, the comatose person would come back after death and haunt everyone else as a poltergeist FOREVER.

I hate that our culture denies death. I believe in reincarnation. Let the dying die, and let everyone move along. Keeping people on ventilators in nursing homes is disgusting. I hope, by the time I die, I'll have given everything away and there won't be anything left to settle. I'd like to die like Gandhi, who left only a loincloth and a begging bowl and a pair of glasses, but I'm not exactly living like Gandhi, so chances are I won't die like him either (although there is always hope for evolution.)

Anyway, it's not every morning that you sit across a desk from a total stranger who starts sentences with phrases like, "Upon your death..."

Then I went to the dentist, and they took X-rays. There's something about seeing your own grinning skull, with its mouthful of slightly crooked teeth, distinctively, inarguably your slightly crooked teeth, that was yet another reminder of mortality. It seems very appropriate that all this happen in the month of November.

It's of a piece with cleaning out the house, which we have been doing--cleaning out, and unloading and getting rid of. Full inventory. Sweeping the slate clean. Getting ready to create something new. But first, to look death in the face...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Opening boxes and unearthing old documents, C. came across this paragraph he had typed up at least a decade ago about the home he dreamed of living in one day:

"There will be the sounds of people laughing and singing. Music from many distant lands will emanate from the stereo; the unknown will be embraced, and differences will be respected. There might be the sound of babies crying, but they will be comforted, and no one will be aggrieved for their sleep having been disturbed. Flowers will grow in window boxes but yardwork will not be compulsory. 'I love you' will be heard frequently and without irony. Mud will be tracked across the floor and life will go on. People will dance and hug and kiss each other openly, without shame. Things will break, and they will be repaired with good humor, not with furious anger. There will be garlic and incense and other strange sme;lls. Tools will be lost and replaced without comment. Misunderstandings will occur, arguments will ensue, and people will apologize and forgive each other with expressions of tenderness and compassion. Sex will be understood to be a desirable, normal and necessary part of life. People will not be told they are unloved, and acceptance and approval will not be rationed. Images crudely drawn but profoundly beautiful will be tacked up on the walls. The reading and writing of poetry will be commonplace, and the shelves will overflow with books and penciled music manuscripts. Gatherings will be held and adventuresome cuisine will be served. Smiling strangers will bring forth unusual musical instruments and we will all play together, well beyond our bedtimes."

The paragraph reflected the vision he had about the kind of life he wanted to co-create with smeone, but at the time he wrote it, he had no idea how to do that. It seemed almost impossible that he would ever be able to find or make that happen. How strange and wonderful to find ourselves, ten years later, living in just the kind of situation he describes, smells of garlic, mud tracked in, foreign foods and music and even David's baby daughter sometimes; I love you's and apologies freely offered and accepted, much laughing and teasing and physical affection, room for creativity, sensuality, mistakes and risks and humanness.

It is a miracle, especially considering that it's a vision that we had to make together out of imagination and tenderness and need and yearning--and that we have and are. A daily miracle.

And, as i tell my students--be careful what you ask for, especially when you write it down. Writing is magic. Words create the energy that beget the reality. There is a place in the dream world where the yearnings of the heart meet the creative function of the soul and they conceive a new life.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The new fridge was delivered today by two very adept Home Depot delivery guys, who delicately sidestepped piano benches (C's), leaning bicycle (housemate David's), and piles of boxes to bring in the new baby. They took doors off hinges quickly and efficiently and hoisted her in, and had the doors back on and were out within twenty minutes. Artistry. And now I have refrigerator envy--of my tenant! She gets that whole clean gleaming thing to herself, while C and I are sharing fridge space with Masankho and David, our salad fixings spilling over into someone else's Korean take-out, into someone else's peanut butter and half'n'half.

The other night I dreamed Hillary Clinton wanted to be my special friend. We were at some kind of function and she insisted on sitting next to me at my table and telling me she liked me. I told her I liked her too, but I didn't know if I could vote for her because she voted for the war. I still prefer Obama. (Also I'm suspicious that the Republicans are setting Hillary up to be the Democratic candidate because they think she's beatable.) It reminds me of the time I dreamed I was making love with Arnold Shwarzenegger--now that was horrifying and titillating--the deadly combination of his inflated pectorals and his odious politics!

I've spent time the last few days reconfiguring my poetry ms. for the bajillionth time and renaming it as well...with all the new poems I've been writing lately, it has taken on a different tone. I read an article Eavan Boland wrote a few years ago in Poets & Writers Magazine, about how first books aren't really first books anymore. With all the pressure that the competitions put on emerging writers, by the time a book finally gets published it is more like a third book. That is definitely true for me. This ms., which is supposed to be for my second book is really more like my fourth or fifth. I've put in and then taken out so many poems that I felt were not strong enough, even some that had been published. (And of course there are the ones Dad likes vs. the ones Ruth likes, and then the ones that never got accepted anywhere but I still just stubbornly like them.)

Boland's point in her essay was that this over-editing ultimately shortchanges readers who want to track a poet's growth and development--everything has become so polished by the time it hits the general airwaves that we miss the precious rough edges and transitions that are a normal part of any artist's development. I think she's right. Looking back over my tattered collection of favorite books of poems by W.C. Williams, Frank O'Hara, Muriel Rukeyser, Galway Kinnell, there are poems that are uneven, poems that might not make it through a rigorous workshop. But it doesn't matter because what I was after when I read poetry back in the day, before I was so thoroughly indoctrinated into the po' biz, was the feeling of a life laid bare on the page--and that was something these writers gave me, even in their most imperfect works.

I've discovered a new poet--finally bought a copy of Unfortunately, it was Paradise, by Mahmoud Darwish. He is the poet laureate of the Palestinians, if a stateless people can have a laureate. His voice is poignant, earthy, authentic. I brought in the following poem to my fourth and fifth graders this week. They were challenged and inspired by it:

The Flute Cried

The flute cried, If only I could go to Damascus as an echo.
Silk weeps on the shores and passes through a sobbing cry.
Landscapes fill with tears. The flute cried and tore the sky into two women.
It divided the road and broke the heart of the sand grouse.
It divided us so we’d fall in love. O flute, we plea for mercy!
We are not as distant as the sunset. Are you crying out so as to cry in vain,
or to crush the mountain as well as Adam and Eve’s apple? O shout of
infinite silence, cry Damascus, my woman, I will love and I will survive.

The flute cried. If only I could go to Damascus as an echo.
I even believe in what I don’t believe. Silky tears burn away our breath.
The flute cried. If only I could cry like the flute, then I would know Damascus.

--Mahmoud Darwish

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The swim helped--almost as soon as I hit the water I got an idea for the scene with Max, wrote it later that day, revised it the next and the next, and then sent it off to the director. I just got a little email back from him indicating it's fine, he likes what I wrote. Phew! Moral of the story: just do it. Don't obsess and don't fret. And aerobic activity makes blood flow to the brain makes more better ideas come.

Saturday I skipped a faculty meeting in order to accompany C on a visit to a group home and speak Spanish to his student's mother. It was a sweet little outing, a needed getaway for both of us from the boxes, boxes, boxes at home (although progress has been made there as well; it's just that, having unpacked a ton of them, there are still a ton left. But we can see the floor now, and even watch videos in the living room again.)

I also got back to the Hot Tub play, after my conversation with Suzanne, and took another pass at it--I think it needs still more work, but it's moving in the right direction. Hope she agrees with me. (Actually, I hope she falls in love with it and feels compelled to help me shift things around in it to get to the climax faster, because she's really good at that.)

In Wing It! we're getting ready for our performances on the theme of "Hot Earth" --I feel a little nervous about it, we're all a bit rusty from not having performed in so long. Yesterday in practice I was dancing with E and caught my toe in the draggy droopy hem of my pants and tripped and fell hard on both knees. After that, surprisingly, I danced better than before. It reminds me of that song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, "Dancer with Bruised Knees."

I wrote a new poem as well, not as polished and literary as the other stuff that's been coming out lately, but heartfelt and strong in its own way, a throwback to the days when I wrote more overtly political things. I'm wondering whether to redo it as a prose poem, a la Robert Hass in Human Wishes, where he has a lot of long political/personal poems that are like a cross between a poem and essay, or to leave it as is. I love all things Robert Hass--he has a new book out that I'm dying to get. He's fantastic. It's his surprising candor, combined with brilliance--but he never gets so erudite or abstract that I can't follow him. He's like a cross between Tony Hoagland and Mary Oliver. He's himself. I love him!

The other night C and I watched Flight 93, the movie about the doomed flight where the passengers managed to prevent the hijackers from crashing the plane into the White House. The movie affected both of us deeply--it was so non-Hollywood--the flight attendants and the passengers looked like real people, the air traffic controllers had genuine Boston accents (and those cannot be faked,) and there was just a grittiness and a sadness to it that we hadn't seen in any of the other movies that have come out about 9/11.

After the feature itself, we watched a documentary about the families of the passengers and the making of the film, which made us both cry. It felt good to watch it, not as if we were being "entertained," but as if we were able finally to enter a little more deeply into an experience that we had previously shut off from because it was too scary and horrible. Painful, but good.

Meanwhile, I've been teaching my classes, and there's more unpacking of boxes to do, and the refrigerator in the in-law just went bust, and there was a problem with my DMV registration and Chanukah comes early this year, and the time has changed, and the days are short, and money, and shopping, and normal life...blessed, ordinary, normal life.

Friday, November 02, 2007

I need to write a new scene for Kaddish, as I'd promised the director, and now for some reason, I'm scared. Scared I can't do it. Why would I think I can't do it? Go back into a play I stopped revising three years ago and just pick up the thread, just write a new scene to give the father a bigger voice and presence? What could be simpler?

I think I'll go swim.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Teaching at the elementary school, I reached into my handbag to find a lipstick. I was make-up free and wanted to at least make a stab at looking more like a grown-up, despite having rolled out of bed at 7:30 and driven like hell on the freeway, eating an "energy bar" (odious and deceptive term) and cursing all the other drivers, in order to get their on time.

I reached in and felt something smooth and tubular and lipstick-shaped. Pulled it out and it was a little vial containing C's mother's ashes, which I had "packed" when emptying his desk at the old place, but not wanted to throw into a box as I felt it would be disrespectful. So, in honor of Day of the Dead, it was "Bring Your Boyfriend's Deceased Parents To Work Day." (His father was in his own separate vial, also in my capacious handbag, which my friend Ellen refers to as my "goat," because she says it's like I'm still in the shtetl lugging around pounds of potatoes, with a goat under my arm. And because it weighs about that much.)

I taught the "Paint Me" lesson plan, which always gets great poems from the kids. It was fun but exhausting.

Last night I dreamed I was writing a musical about the bathhouse era of gay male culture that was interrupted when the AIDS epidemic began. In my dream, I had naked men running all over the stage, singing, while water showered down from the lights! I am feeling the urge to go back to my plays...had a very inspiring meeting with Suzanne Cohen, whose theatre company Mirror Stage Company in Seattle did a reading of my play Saying Kaddish back in 05. Suzanne is a great script doctor/dramaturg, and we talked about the two latest playscripts I had sent her--not ready for prime time, but not without merit either.

I got some good ideas for revision, and of course I have to write one extra little scene for Kaddish too, before the January production. Mostly, I've been working on poems for a while, steadily, feverishly, poeming away, stockpiling new poems for a third book even though the second book is not yet sold (although I found out today that the first book has sold out its second printing.)

Okay, naptime.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Unpacking is harder than packing, because unpacking is creative. You have to decide where everything goes; you have to create a new structure, a new home.

Packing is destructive--you're taking pictures off the walls, emptying closets. Unpacking, you have to decide where to hang the pictures, which wall to put the bookcase against, what to do when both of you have perfectly good sets of cookware.

It's always easier to destroy than it is to create. There is something fun in destruction, something powerful. By destroying you are declaring, "I can do it again; I can do it better if I want to."

Creating is full of questions. Does this look better here? What about over here? What do you want to do about...?

It is sweet living together, even if he's been working days and I've been teaching evenings, so we've had to make do with stolen half-hours between work-shifts or before bed.

Last night I subbed at The Writing Salon, and saw my old student J, who emigrated from the countryside of China. She always reminds me how good I/we have it, she is always inspiring, a testament to true grit. The piece she brought in last night was about her grandmother's bound feet. For a thousand years, until about 1911, all Chinese women had their feet bound. J described the process in excruciating detail, the broken toes and heel, the oozing wounds to the feet that would not heal.

Despite being in constant pain from her feet for eighty years, J's grandmother bore eight children, hauled water, cooked over a wood fire, and scrambled up the mountainside with her babies clinging to her to escape invading Japanese soldiers.

Can you imagine--a thousand years of women with crippled feet? Every single woman in the country? A thousand years of little girls subjected to that torture, cut off at the ankles, never able to run or jump rope, or enjoy the freedom of walking comfortably on the earth? A thousand years of women cut off from their own natural physical power?

Today, J walks three miles to work, three miles back, every day, and always appreciates her big comfortable unbound feet, shod in running shoes. I will think of her when I walk around the lake this afternoon.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

There's something about dismantling a home that is disturbing (as well as exhilerating) even when it's in service of a wonderful cause, even when it's not my home being dismantled. Taking apart C's home yesterday, from the bookcases to the cleaning supplies under the sink, from the storage closet off the living room area that contained canvaqs drop cloths and a motorcycle jacket that's headed for the Goodwill, and finally cleaning out the last of the stuff in the fridge and the freezer, leaving behind us a bare, empty vacuumed, gleaming reminds me of impermanence.

When a home is set up, even a makeshift home in an artist's loft, it feels settled. Things in their right places feel as if they belong there, have always belonged there. Taking it all apart--hiring three young guys in baggy shorts to haul it downstairs and out the door and into a moving truck and drive it over here--feels like the death of something--and it is. The death of C's old home, where he lived and studied and made food and made music, and met me, and wined and dined and courted me, where he brushed his cat and talked on the phone, and lived.

Now he'll do all that living at my--at our--home. And it's good.

But I think that seeing how it all comes apart reminds me of how everything can all come apart, including our precious bodies, our relationships, our houses--everything that feels solid and permanent is in fact porous and malleable. And destructible. Even our lives.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

There are boxes stacked shoulder high all over the living room. Boxes in the dining room, in towering piles. Boxes in C's new room, lined up all around the walls. Boxes and boxes and boxes.

There is furniture, both handmade by C and the other kind. There is the organ, no, excuse me, the two organs, the grand piano, the upright piano, and the keyboard. There are the various and sundry other pieces of musical equipment, plus the guitsrs, both electric and acoustic, and the catcher's mitt with the baseball in it, and the paintings and painting supplies, and the wood--don't forget the wood. And the saw and the drill and all the woodworking and furniture making equipment. And the books. Don't forget the books. At least thirty boxes of them. And papers, both official and personal, and photographs and other memorabilia, and, and and...

We are both beyond exhausted, but still so glad to be doing this. Looking at The Great Pile 'O' Stuff right now though, it's hard to imagine being dug out by Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Words taught me words."

That was the first line of a poem written by one of my fourth graders today, a Chinese girl of immigrant parents. She may have been born in Hong Kong herself, I don't know. She is an amazing writer, and she said she wants to be "a writer and a fashion designer and a landlady" when she grows up.

I had brought in a poem about a boy learning to ride a bike which I think I found on the Writer's Almanac. Metaphor, simile, and they could all relate to the imagery too, of the father teaching the child to ride a bike, although some of them said their mothers taught them, or a brother or sister or uncle. All but her. Maybe nobody taught her to ride a bike. Maybe she still doesn't know.

I had them brainstorm all the things someone had taught them how to do: swim, cook, sew, ski, boogie board, read, write, play sports, even walk.

This girl loves literature, but it's very possible that her parents don't speak much English. So she started her poem, "Words taught me words." It's about how the books themselves taught her literature. I thought it was one of the best things I've read or heard ever, because it's so true. Water teaches me to swim. The sun teaches me to love life. Words teach me words.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When I described the ball game to R in Wing It! practice, and the incredible outpouring of male love, he started to cry. Of course he also cried when we were talking about art and he was describing some of the beautiful paintings he has been privileged to see. I don't cry easily myself, but I admire people who have easy access to their own tears, their sense of wonder and gratitude.

I've been eating way too much sugar.

Practice was good--we are preparing for a performance in three weeks about global warming. Or rather, they are, since the performance is in a church, on a Friday night, and I decided to skip it. I'll do the Saturday night performance, which is semi-private and will take place at Interplayce. After last year's Christmas meltdown, I gave myself permission to stay out of church services for a year. The year's not up yet, but I feel less inclined than ever to sit through another church service, even if it's one that we're performing for. I just don't want to, and even though I'm committed to diversity and to stretching my cultural boundaries yada yada yada, when it comes to Christianity and Interplay, I'm overstretched already, like a broken rubber band. I need to regain my own natural secular Jewish shape.

I just got an email from the director of Saying Kaddish, sounding me out about writing another scene for the play. I said yes of course. It's been so long since I worked on it, but now I feel ready to go in there and reconnect with my old characters, Lorraine, Max, Lydia and Rachel. And God, of course, who could forget God?

Monday, October 22, 2007

What was beautiful about the Red Sox winning last night and going to the World Series was seeing these tough macho athletes leaping into each other's arms like burly ballerinas, carrying each other around, legs wrapped around waist, like kids. What was beautiful was watching the coach, a middle-aged white guy, pouring a bottle of no-doubt very expensive champagne down the neck of Big Poppy, David Ortiz, a beautiful black man, and hugging him and hanging on like he was Santa Claus and this was Christmas.

"It's very homoerotic," I poked G in the ribs with my elbow.

He snorted. "Whatever."

Beyond erotic, it was love, pure love, a huge outpouring of it. Mass energy, catharsis on a grand scale, drama and excellence and sacrifice, ritual and redemption.

I can't believe I'm writing about this.

I've always been scornful of sports, probably because I'm not coordinated enough to play them. Picked last on gym teams in junior high, I became head of the Drama Club in High school and ducked out of gym class whenever I could. Were it not for modern dance, I would have gotten an F in the whole business.

But somehow in middle age, I have muddled through to enjoy fierce amateur games of tennis, the thwacking of the ball, extending my body in time and space beyond where i thought the limits were. It feels good, it feels new, it feels like a welcome relief from all this reading and writing and introspection.

And since G has this hi-def TV, which cost a mint and which I gave him no end of flak for buying, and since the Red Sox are, well, the closest thing to a religion my father really has ("Did he mind that C's not Jewish?" a friend asked. "He said, 'As long as he doesn't root for the Yankees,'" I answered.)

Anyway, we watched.

It was a great game! Close at the beginning, and then the Sox picked up speed and just ran over the Cleveland Indians. The pitcher who came in after the old pitcher got tired looked like a bull staring down a matador. I swear I saw his nostrils flare. (On these hi-def TVs you can see everything: their saliva, their spit--and why do they spit so much? If I were their mothers I would be embarrassed to see my kid spitting like that on national TV. On the other hand if I were their mother, I'd be laughing all the way to the bank, so take that, Miss Manners.)

The new pitcher looked like a bull, and he pitched like a laser gun. Ferocious. Every pore and follicle of him focused, no checking out, no haze. In a way it was like seeing a Zen master concentrate in action.

He pitched perfectly, and the Red Sox didn't give up another run for the rest of the game. And when the skinny little white rookie hit a home run so hard that the ball pinged off the giant Coke sign in Fenway Park, and then rounded the bases and leaped into Big Poppy's arms for a teddy bear hug while the stands erupted, I jumped off the couch and screamed and danced around the room.

It was so comforting to realize that my father, 3,000 miles away was also probably leaping and screaming at that point (if he hadn't dozed off in his big chair in front of the TV since the game was on way past his bedtime.) It was like what he always says at Passover: "Jews all over the world are sitting down tonight to celebrate, just as we are." And Boston fans all over the world will be tuning in on Wednesday to hear how the first game went, and I will be angling for another invite from G to sit in front of his hi-def TV where I can see the beads of sweat form on the batter's brow.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Here is a picture of some Malawian children and me, downloaded from my friend Baina's collection, which is up on Picassa. Yesterday I went to G's house where he had the software and the high resolution computer needed to open up the CD of pictures she had sent me. He and I looked at them, one by one, but did not even get through half--there were hundreds of beautiful photos, taken with her very discerning eye. Seeing them brought back so many warm memories...

I just finished Edwidge Danticat's memoir, Brother I'm Dying, with tears streaming down my face. I'm definitely going to use this book when I teach Memoir and Testimony at New College again this next winter/spring.

I am moved and amazed at Danticat's restraint, the way she conveys so much about the way her family loves each other without resorting to gushing, just letting the gentleness and consistency of their actions speak for themselves. There's no ego in this book--she doesn't present herself as either fatally flawed or saintly or terrifically accomplished (even though she is,)or anything else. She is present and accounted for, in the most unassuming way. Meanwhile, the portraits of family members leap off the page.

In the book, her uncle dies at Krome, a detention center in the Everglades that houses (imprisons) thousands of Haitian refugees. Inadequate food, health care, santitation, legal representation. I was there twenty-seven years ago, when I worked in Miami as a VISTA volunteer. Because I speak Creole, I went to Krome once or twice, to help the Haitian Refugee Center's American lawyer communicate with his clients. He had a huge caseload and no resources, and then as now, people hardly ever got out. The mistreatment of Haitians, both in Haiti and when they are refugees in this country, will go down in history as shameful.

Danticat's book rekindled my homesickness for Haitian culture and desire to return to Haiti, even though the country sounds much more dangerous and turbulent than when I last visited, in 1981. Then, it was still under the rule of Baby Doc Duvalier, who was a despot and a thief, but at least you could walk the streets safely. There were no guns going off, and no houses being torched, or roving gangs. In this book, Danticat describes a reign of terror from which there is no escape for thousands of ordinary people caught in the crossfire between gangs, the military, and U.N. "peacekeeping" troups.

C gave me this book for my birthday, Friday, when I turned 49. It was a quiet birthday, marked by some playing in the morning at Interplayce, some pampering in the afternoon, and then a good dinner and a movie (Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was fantastic; the movie flawed but interesting sent us to wikipedia that night to learn more about the real story of the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth's reign.)

I feel grateful, chastened and humble to have reached this age. What have I actually accomplished besides write a lot of poems and a few articles, and teach a lot of people? What have I been doing with my time here? While I was at the hairdresser's (the pampering part of the day,) I read in her current issue of People Magazine, about a woman who had fostered hundreds of disabled and seriously ill children, and adopted half a dozen of them. She also is forty-nine.

I admire this woman even though I don't know her. I admire Danticat for being able to write such a clear-eyed memoir in the midst of what must be great personal pain. I did work with Haitians, not just in Miami for that one VISTA year, but for years afterward, teaching English as a Second language in Boston. I did not go on and get a social work degree, or learn the medical skills necessary to go back to haiti as an aid worker, or even just continue slogging it out in ESL work. I knew I was burned out and I wanted to be an artist. I took another path.

I remember decades ago, being a sophomore in college and taking a walk with my then ten-year-old youngest brother.

"Do you know what you want to do when you grow up?" he asked me.

"I'm torn," I said. "I want to be a writer, but I also want to help people."

"When you write, you are helping people," he said.

"I am?"

"Yeah! You're expanding their minds!"

Out of the mouths of (admittedly very precocious) babes.