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.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I forgot to say that another great thing happened last week--I cleaned my study, with invaluable assistance from Val Bowman, a friend and former housemate who has opened her own business called Space for Grace, helping creative messy people get some order into their lives so that they can let their love-light shine more effectively. The web site is, and I highly recommend her services.

She is patient, non-judgemental, loving, flexible, practical, well-organized and well-supplied. I mean she actually brings file boxes and collapsible baskets to your house, and she also helped me out with the address for an electronics recycling center that will take your old dead or injured appliances and recycle them, free of charge.

So, the clean-out continues, and order starts to creep in. It's another gray morning, when I found it difficult to get out of bed. I love working with the kids, and I love teaching adults too, but I'm still feeling at loose ends. Not enough committed connection to the outside world. I know I should be working on various play projects, but haven't been disciplined enough to do that for a bit--instead some poems have come through, and I've honored that impulse.

Last night I went and revisited my old neighborhood in North oakland, the place where I lived when I was first separated from Alan. I went to the home of the family whom I befriended, who befriended me thirteen years ago. For three years, while I lived on that street, the kids Patty and Abraham, and sometimes their big sister Ulai and sometimes their cousins Ophelia and Sharon, would be over my house every day.

I took them to Tilden, to the petting zoo, to the beach, to the community garden a few blocks away. I bought them sodas and ice creams at the store. I played with them and cooked them mac and cheese, and read to them. Their childhood--that little piece of it--was the closest I've come to the kind of daily contact and relationship with children that I've always wanted but was afraid to go after for myself--afraid for economic reasons, principally, but also for energetic ones. Would I be able to sustain the kind of energy it takes to be a parent, when I come home from a half-day's teaching poetry in the schools too tired to get out of my car?

Patty and Abraham were five when I moved in, eight when I moved away. Now they're nineteen--Abraham is a strapping muscular young man, and Patty goes by Patricia now--she's shy and plump and beautiful, with tons of long hair extensions that fall in front of her face.

She's getting her GED, he's in some kind of job training program. Ulai, who was always so bright, a really good student, had a baby when she was fifteen and another one when she was eighteen. She's twenty-two now and looking for affordable housing and going to cosmetology school. She wants to open a chain of shops and be a haridresser to the stars one day.

She had a new puppy, a baby bulldog, three weeks old, whom she'd rescued. Typical. The living room floor was covered with newspapers because they were paper-training her. I cuddled the puppy and it fell asleep in my arms, leaking truly noxious farts. I loved the tiny weight of it, and the way it slept, wheezing, against my chest. Then when it woke up it peed and shat on the paper, and Patty folded it over.

The whole time I was there the TV was on, just like the old days. I watched most of a Disney channel program about twin black princess witches, called Twitches. Pretty good. Patty is so shy it's hard to talk with her, but Ulai remembered the potato latkes she ate at my house and I remembered when she tried to sell me Christmas wrapping paper when she was eight-years old.

"I'm Jewish, honey," I said, and without missing a beat she replied, "I have Chanukah paper." And she did--blue with gold stars, and I bought some, and that's how we became friends.

I found out that Ophelia has a year-old baby and is married and living in Hayward with her mother and sisters who also have babies. I wish her well, but don't want to see her. I feel a pang about the baby--they almost all have babies, and have them young--they are young mothers in their early twenties. And they're tired, even though they're young, and it's hard, especially in the Bay Area housing market. The babies are cute, but stunned into a kind of early overwhelm, maybe from all the TV and stress of being hauled around the city looking for work or housing or low-cost food or health care or all the things low-income parents have to constantly be seeking.

I don't know. I don't know. I love the feeling of a baby sleeping peacefully against my chest and belly. I know I'm good at that, good in the kind of way you can't learn, just instinctively good at having a relaxed and relaxing body to cuddle against. And I know there is so much more to it all than that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Okay, I haven't blogged in more than a week, I know, thank you CB for pointing it out.

I did a long, humorous, slightly snippy blog in here about two weeks ago and hurt someone's feelings. Badly. In turn they hurt my feelings. I've been licking my scratches and assessing my personal responsibility. Actually, more to the point, I've been moping.

I can be a smart-ass but then when I actually offend someone it knocks the wind out of me. So painful. At the same time, I stand by my observations and comments.

What was ironic about all this was that just the night before, I had taught a Personal essay class in which the subject came up--as it always does--What do you do about writing about living people who may read what you write and take offense.

Well, I said, there's not one right answer to that, just a bunch of different strategies. Change identifying characteristics as much as you can if at all possible. If it's not possible, consider publishing somewhere where this person is not likely to see it. If you are really really afraid, consider publishing under a pseudonym.

One woman raised her hand. "What about not writing it at all?" she asked. This is what some people would want from me. Unfortunately it's not possible. I was put here on earth to communicate, often about uncomfortable things, to be a dispatcher from the front lines of my particular tiny tadpole pool. That's the only thing I'm really good at.

There are things I haven't published, haven't put out there because they would be too painful to my family. I try to be careful, I try very hard. And I don't always succeed. Sometimes someone reads somthing I never thought they would, sometimes someone takes offense at something I said in a way I hadn't expected. I hate it that that happens, but what am I going to do? I'm not Mary Oliver, who writes about snakes and bears and fish. I usually write about opinionated volatile people, not unlike myself.

Okay, back to daily life. The Great Move-In continues. The Great Grunt is on. Today I found an electronics recycling place in Berkeley, and hand-delivered a carload full of dead and defunct appliances, computers, etc there. the sad thing is there are still more in the basement; computers and dead TVs too heavy for me to lift, left behind by generations of housemates passing through.

I also bought some vegetable starts, finally, two months after returning from Malawi. I planted four kales and six little broccoli starts. The broccoli looked feeble, I wonder if it will make it. But the kale looks pretty hardy. C and I eat so much salad, I want to plant lettuce as well, I just know the snails will get at it. I'm going to ask him to help me figure out a solution for that, maybe make me an indoor planter, or some kind of wire mesh arrangement. I'd like to grow expensive wonderful salad stuff like endive, and frise, which costs a fortune in the grocery store.

I also stopped off at the Berkeley Ecology Center and found a place--two places--where I could work on my goal of planting fifty trees in this next year, my jubilee year. There's an organization called Urban Releaf, here in Oakland, and there's a San Francisco organization called Friends of the Urban Forest at

Got home and actually spaded up the wet clay-ey soil and put the little kale suckers and broccoli starts in the ground--ouf! Okay, gardening is work.

I feel better now that I have actually gotten underway with some of the things I declared I wanted to do. I'd been sitting on that energy and it was getting stagnant and uncomfortable. I also feel a little lonely now, too. I have plenty of friends, I'm just not staying in very good touch. This moving in business is momentous and I guesws I'm "processing" it by isolating (not the best strategy, let me be the first to admit.)

Also, I've been hurling myself at new poems, which has been good (I think) but gets me caught up in a vortex of personal ambition. Hopefully that energy too is shifting. Everything always is.

Monday, October 08, 2007

October eighth, my father's birthday, possibly the most beautiful day of the year. Sun in the window, hot coffee. C has been scraping the ceiling of the room he's moving into in my house, scraping and washing, and prepping and working. I've helped out where I can, but he's meticulous and no one can do the job the way he can, so I stand around and offer beer and snacks and retire to my study to try to write.

I did a final (I think) revision on my play My Hot Tub With Andrea, and am sending it to the Playwrights Foundation contest. And sent SHWAF to yet another contest. And an essay I wrote last year, which started out as a rant in this blog to another magazine. And another page or two on the Marie Antoinette play and a few pages about Vegas. I feel slow like a turtle, everything's going slowly, but at least it's going.

Yesterday Ellen and Beth and Susan and I went to lake Chabot for a Libra Girl celebration--this one was specifically in honor of Ellen. She asked for a group painting on the subject of "Self-Possession" and had brought canvas, paints, and markers. We each painted a quadrant on the canvas (after eating and drinking and singing and lying around on the grass looking at the sky with our heads touching and talking about aging of course.)

I am not having a hard time with aging--yet. I feel good; my estrogen is still pumping, I can still swim half a mile without too much strain, and if I worked up to it I could swim a mile again. Energy is fine. The biggest regret--and it is huge--is not having children. Quiet dinners with C when we talk about our work and our lives are precious, and so are Sunday mornings reading the Times and working on the musical, but I still feel the absence of the kind of noise and life and activity that children bring to a house. I don't know what to do about that other than to be aware of the feeling. There's too much big change going on right now to act on it.

And I'm not sure if I should act on it. There are seasons in a person's life, and however good I feel, I am going into autumn--a beautiful time, yes, but not a time for having kids. Or could it be? Could we somehow skip the having children part and go straight to grandchildren? One of my goals this week is to find out whether I can plant an autumn/winter garden. I know planting season is officially spring, but there are vegetables like kale and chard that thrive and give all winter long. You can plant garlic now, I think. And bulbs. And somehow that's all a metaphor--I know this is harvest time, and I am harvesting, but does that mean I don't still get to plant?

Evelyn Orbach, from Jewish Ensemble Theatre in Michigan, called me the other night to tell me there's a new director for Saying Kaddish. He'll be contacting me soon, and she wants me to go to Michigan for a week or so during the rehearsal process in January. I'm excited--I've never sat in on rehearsals for a real production of my play, and also--they have a GREAT pool in the JCC. Hope the rehearsals are held there, and hope I get a free pass!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two nights ago I dremaed that Alan, my dead ex-husband, has taken up knitting. He had a gorgeous, multi-colored skein of yarn that I was admiring/envying.

"Where do you get your yarn?" I asked him. "When did you learn how to knit?"

He was working on something beautiful and complicated--much harder than anything I'm capable of doing at this stage.

"Oh, here and there," he said vaguely. "I read knitting blogs and get ideas."

The dream was brought on, no doubt, by my own adventures in knitting. I made a beautiful forest-green and gold scarf for C which matches his eyes. Unfortunately, I used needles that were too small for the thick sumptuous wool, and the thing has the consistency of chain mail. Oh well, he can use it as a bullet-proof vest at Junvenile Hall, where he works.

Last night I dreamed I was sculling in the sky--not quite a flying dream, I didn't get very far up. I was just running and floating, hovering right over earth without touching it. I was at some sort of workshop, and later it developed that I had run next to a monastary where people were meditating. I was using the energy of the meditators to fuel my extra-terrestrial leaping, and that was not kosher. Not bad exactly, but not the best possible use for that energy. It would have been better to concentrate and make it go up the center of my head and out the top.

It's appropriate that I dreamed about knitting with Alan, because that's what I'm trying to do, knit up our story, recapture the dropped stitches. Most people would just let it go, and perhaps that would be the best thing. I seem to have this compulsion to comb back over things again and again until I find a way to work in all the loose threads.

I decided that before I turn 50 in October of '08, I'm going to plant fifty trees. By hand. So I've started making phone calls and inquiries about how to go about doing that. I'd like to plant them on public lands, someplace where they are needed.

I called my friend Donald, a professional gardener, and he said he'd help me with that, also with putting in a vegetable garden. C and I go through so many greens every day that it makes sense to try and grow some. I wonder if I could grow lettuce in big pots, so the snails wouldn't get to them?

I revised the essay The Insufficiently Caffeinated Poetry Teacher vs. The Problem of Western Civilization and re-sent it to The Sun. It's so much stronger now than it was when I sent it to them before. if they don't take this version, then I'll enter it in a contest. Meanwhile, I've started another essay, about Las Vegas and Malawi, consumption, simplicity, excess, family love, and the material world, of which I am a somewhat imperfectly adapted part.