Monday, December 21, 2009

This is it. Bottom of the belly of the bowl of the dark time. I'm resting here for a minute, after a flurry of sending out new poems, another essay, thinking about work.

There's so much to say and I'm not sure what is worth saying. Yesterday, doing last minute Christmas shopping in Berkeley with C (no, we're not very organized, but hey, this is not my holiday,) I loved how russet and yellow and orange and brown the leaves were, piled in thick clumps on the street, or still full on the trees. And by the time they fall completely and the branches are naked and black, new green buds and blades and leaves will be pushing and pulsing out. That's how it is around here. There's no real dormancy the way there is on the East Coast, where a blanket of snow covers everything and you have to sit inside and make soup and read.

Among other gifties we bought skeins and skeins of wool to give to a sister-in-law who is a knitter. I bought two skeins for myself and started in on an oyster-colored scarf for C that is already too fat--he likes them skinnier--but the wool, called "Fisherman's Wool" feels so smooth and soft in my hands.

We've been watching a filmed stage version of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with a young, very buff and very beautiful Marlon Brando in the role of Mark Antony. He was wonderful! And James Mason--again, very young--is fantastic as Brutus. It's illuminating to see these actors whom I mostly know from their later lesser work doing Shakespeare--and doing it really well. After we're done with this one, we've got my favorite Antony and Cleopatra to watch--I love that play! It's great to watch them after having seen Rome--now that we know the significance of Phillippi (sp?) and Actium.

Mostly though, I'm trying to pause and appreciate. Because this year was wonderful and terrible. Wonderful: we had a great wedding, with beloved friends and family helping us celebrate. We danced to At Last and C dipped me! We savored being with my father, my stepmother, my sisters and brothers his brothers, our cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews and Little Sister. I have never believed that a wedding creates a marriage--how could it be so arbitrary? but this year we joined each others' families and consecrated our own.

But this year was also terrible: Carla's health got worse faster than anticipated, with a lot of accompanying heartbreak and suffering. I don't know what else to say about that except that it gigantically sad and unacceptable and wrong to be losing my beautiful funny talented wise friend and for her to be losing everyone and everything so young.

And on a different scale, our beloved Dede died, C had his car accident, and of course the economy tanked, taking with it most of my free-lance work and the full-time jobs and savings accounts of some dear friends.

It was also wonderful that my book came out: See How We Almost Fly, available from Pearl Editions. And that we got to go East to celebrate my father's 75th birthday with him. The youngest person at the party was our 14-month nephew Liam, who was cruising around, supremely oblivious to sharp corners of glass coffee tables, like the Divine Fool in the Tarot deck, while his mother and grandmother and I chased close behind, throwing our bodies in front of sharp edges and calling out, "Don't step on the baby!" to the hordes of other larger grandchildren.

And the oldest person at the party was my father's cousin Arthur who is 83 and claims to have gotten all over France after World War 2 with one sentence in french Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"

As I said above, in this climate you can keep going all year round without stopping. Nature doesn't stop here--she's always working away at her next project, blooming and dying simultaneously. So if we don't take it upon ourselves to pause for a moment and breathe deeply and go out and look at the garden, then it will just keep rolling over us.

Yesterday at Interplayce I danced with a 90-ear-old woman. I was going to say "You could see she had been beautiful in her youth," but the truth is, she is still very beautiful, twinkling and graceful and flirtatious and adventurous. She and her family are going to the place where the whales mate for her birthday.

Even though this and everything else I see is a poem, I'm trying to let it all rest just for a bit--trying to let life go by for a minute without pouncing on it and making art out of everything. Even though there are scribbled drafts in my notebook, even though the latest Poets & Writers arrived yesterday, even though I think that no matter how much I've published or won or done it's still not enough--I'm trying to just let that go. Because I think it's good for everything to take time off, to knit a scarf or re-pot a small bright red begonia plant that I received as a gift yesterday, or make fried rice or just walk up in the hills and look and look...

Monday, December 14, 2009

I was afraid I wouldn't recognize him. My brother's son. For years he had lived with his mother, my brother's ex-wife, and I had missed him on my trips back East. I hadn't seen him for a few years and in that time he had changed from child to young man, had grown an inch or two taller than me, had filled out and started to shave.

On the train platform i recognized him by his ears. Jug-ears, like my brother's and like mine--the bane of my young life--they stick out of his head cheerfully. And his slightly lopsided grin. He's appealing, this boy. There's an open-heartedness to him, an openness, an easy-goingness, a sweetness, that is relaxing.

He's nineteen and doesn't know what he's up to. Which way is up, what he's going to do, even where he's going to sleep from night to night. He thanks me a hundred times for making him simple dinners, for sewing up the torn pocket of his jacket, for inviting him to sleep in our guest room. He hangs out with messed-up kids who go to jail and do dumb things, and yet he's not bad himself, just confused and far too amenable.

If he makes it out of this morass he's in, if he survives his twenties and into his thirties, he could become, in time, a voice of wisdom. people like him, are drawn to him, sometimes the wrong people. He walks through the world without a filter. In time, he could become a therapist, he could help kids like himself, he could learn from his mistakes and use his powers to attract people for good. Or he could go the other way.

I used to long to be a parent. Now I wonder how people do it. I wuld be scared to death if he were my son. I'm scared being his aunt. Yet I myself did plenty of dumb things when I was his age and older; hitchhiked across country, hung out with men of questionable character, got myself into all kinds of scrapes. I hope he has the same kind of hardworking guardian angel I had. I see some of myself in him, especially around the almond-shaped deepset dark eyes and the eyebrows. And in the openness and lack of judgement, which is both a good thing and a not-so-good thing, depending.

Christopher has been a wonderful uncle, generous and unselfish. We all went together with Gerry to see The Road, based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. It was a powerful movie, very horrific and depressing. I spent about 20 percent of it with my hands over my eyes, because i couldn't bear to witness what i was seeing, and about 20 percent of the time crying. I don't think i laughed or even smiled once. So I wouldn't recommend it as a mood-lifter or anything, but it made me feel and it made me think which are the two things i ask of a work of art.

What it made me feel was shock and horror at the prospect of this world-as-we-know-it ending. I went online afterward and read that the novel "The Road" was hailed as the best ecological book ever written, better than Silent Spring, better than Walden, because it detailed so painfully what it would be like on earth without our biosphere. Gerry wanted to know what the specific nature of the ecological disaster was, but i didn't need to. There are enough contenders; global warming, nuclear winter, a meteor strike...what is important are the questions it raises: when is life worth living and what makes it not worth living anymore? And how do we keep the light inside ourselves alive?

The father and the boy undertake an Odyssey with the slenderest, vaguest thread of hope. Hope for what, when there are not trees, no vegetation, and almost no animals left, when the human race has been reduced to random bands of scavenging starving cannibals? What is there left to hope for? Survival? What do we owe life when everything has been stripped away? The father trudges on, not for himself--he is dying and he knows it-- but for the faint possibility of life for his son, for some hope that he might go on. Although all his effort is based on the most personal of motives--that his son might live--it is really in service of Life itself.

For that reason, although I can't say I enjoyed it, I think The Road is a great movie.

Other media I have been absorbing: Eve Ensler's wonderful political memoir, Insecure at Last, in which she examines our attachment and clinging to false security, and tells of her travels in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Bosnia, Kenya, New Orleans, and a women's prison in upstate New York, where she worked with women survivors of rape, genocide, prison, catastrophe. Again, not an easy read but a powerful one.

And Christopher and I rented the BBC adaptation of David Copperfield, which i enjoyed more than I thought I would. The minor characters are all drawn so beautifully, there is so much feeling and passion in that world, that the whole piece sang. Once again i got online and read up on Dickens (whom, I confess, I was never that attracted to, although reading A Christmas Carol at Carla's house years ago brought me to unexpected tears. I think it was the sense of wordiness and denseness and the sheer size of the novels that turned me off--and the way the good characters are so good and the bad ones are so awful.

But when I read about his early life, and how young he was when he wrote this stuff--he was an international celebrity by the age of thirty, he and his wife had 10 children, he created a home for fallen women that was ahead of its time in its enlightened attitudes--I softened. Maybe not enough to dive into Great Expectations--I seem to be on a non-fiction streak that shows no signs of breaking, except for The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was a wonderful novel--but mostly i want to read about real people and situations right now.

We've lit the Chanukah candles every night so far, and I'm touched by how much both boys, Christopher and Josh, my nephew--seem to like the ritual. they remind me about it, they take over the choosing of candles and the lighting, they whisper the prayer--or the pieces of it they can remember--along with me. They are smitten with the lights.

I don't feel particularly resentful about Christmas this year. In fact, what I feel mostly about Christmas is a big sense of relief; here is a holiday that I don't have to "do." I get to just sit back and watch. Pretty lights, some nice music, some shmaltzy and unbearable music, but I am free--free most of all from expectations.

December twenty-fifth doesn't have to be magical or fulfilling or anything for me. it's okay if it's ordinary. I can enjoy a walk around the lake or a movie or just a grilled cheese sandwich as much or more than people who have made a big fuss. I love the un-fussiness of my December 25th compared to the extreme fuss that the culture at large seems to need.

My stepmother makes a fuss over the holiday--all of her six kids come home and they have a holiday dinner and open presents and I'm sure it's a lovely time but the thought of that makes me feel tired. Last year we walked around the lake on Christmas and I saw several women, alone, crying on park benches, or sitting close to the water looking so sad.

When you think--when you are told repeatedly--that a certain day is supposed to be x--when you're told that your college years are supposed to be the best of your life--or that your wedding day should be like a page out of a fairy tale--or that Christmas means family gathered around a tree, singing carols--then when it isn't like that you feel shattered, bereft, and in my case, as though you must have done something wrong for your experience to have fallen short of the prescribed bliss.

Right now, Christopher and I are trying to decide which movie we're going to see on the twenty-fifth. I may ask some orphan Christians to join us, if they need a place to be and people to be with. Maybe we'll go to a Chinese restaurant--a time-honored Jewish tradition--or maybe we'll just make a nice dinner at home. I'll probably check in on my Dad who usually sounds a little hassled and confused on that day--what's he doing in a house with a Christmas tree? Still, it's nice, he acknowledges.

I used to love my family's Christmases--we didn't celebrate, we got the hell out of Dodge. We went to Cape Cod and stayed at a Howard Johnson's Motor Inn for a few days. It had a heated indoor swimming pool--we kids lived in the pool for hours, splashing and racing each other. Our mother, who craved warmth, sat in the sauna. She and my dad were in one room, the four of us kids in another. I remember reading A Nun's Story in the bathroom while my younger siblings watched cartoons on the T.V. At night we'd stroll around the deserted streets, and eat "lobster rolls," pieces of indistinguishable fried lobster on a hot dog bun. Good times, children, good times.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Two days out of town with my Libra grrrlz, in a cozy WARM little cottage near Mendocino. We mostly stayed inside reading, eating, talking, and singing. B and I went to the gym and she worked out while I swam. Then back to the cottage for more good books, wine, dark chocolate, discussion, and the movies Enchanted and an old pic starring a young and breathtakingly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor called The Last Time I Saw Paris.

It was refreshing to get away from home especially as I had pushed and pushed myself to get out a full draft of the play before we left. Somehow before I leave for any trip i am always seized with the fear that I won't return, or I won't return in one piece, and so I must get my affairs in order. So I ordered my Chanukah present for my brother, finished a draft of the play, mailed what i had to mail, deposited what i had to deposit, and in general secured the perimeter before we left.

And when I got home, C had fixed the radiators and the furnace so we now HAVE HEAT and we just ate dinner and it was a very civilized 68 degrees inside the house!!! There was a big article in the NY Times Sunday magazine by a married woman writer who got her husband to go along to various marriage therapists and counselors with her so they could improve their marriage. Reading it made me shudder. Maybe I am superstitious, maybe I'm old and somewhat battle-scarred but i think even good marriages are vulnerable tender entities which should be treated with care and not subjected to the harsh scrutiny of Feudian psychoanalysis or whored out for a book contract.

Maybe it's because I've been through one failed marriage already, a marriage which started with mutual love and devotion but collapsed startlingly quickly that I think there may be a mystery at the heart of love which can be expressed through poetry but which should not be dissected in the office of a professional. And yes, spouses drive each other crazy, and yes C and I drive each other crazy sometimes too, but I think insight and analysis are highly overrated; I think they often increase irritation rather than resolve it. At any rate I don't believe there is any "solution" for the problem of two distinct personalities struggling to work together in harmony. I don't think it's supposed to be easy.

Rather than analysis, I would vote for old-fashioned virtues like patience, loyalty and discretion as keys to a lasting union. If C and I got to the point where we needed extra help I think I would turn, not to a marriage therapist, but to an older, longer-married couple, because any long-term union endures its shares of bumps and difficulties, and I'd want to hear from a veteran how to make it through the rough patches, not from a psychoanalyst with a bunch of theories. I hate theories--I prefer my reality mixed-up and messy and confusing, not sorted into neat little categories. And like most couples we've developed our own private language and way of reaching out to each other when we're stressed or cranky and I'd want to protect those small tender gestures at all costs, not subject them to a fifty-minute hour and some psycho-jargon.

So far my best relationship advice has come from my married lesbian friends. Once when i was complaining about something C had done or said that annoyed me I looked over at B who has been with her wife for over ten years and she was biting her lips to keep from bursting out laughing. I realized how ridiculous my ranting was and I started laughing too--at myself. Which seems, in the end, the best strategy of all. Because we're all ridiculous and childish and self-centered, and most of the stuff we stress over is pretty silly in light of the much bigger issues that confront us now. And our best friends help us realize this.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Finishing my play, the last lap...and listening to the news. The war, the escalation of the war, 30,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan as early as May.

Cooking rice and salmon and brussel sprouts I felt so sad. Not angry--I know there are liberals who are angry at Obama, who feel disappointed that he's the one approving the troop build-up. I voted for him and I don't feel betrayed by him. He never promised perfection and I didn't expect it. He promised an improvement on the Bush regime and he's more than delivered that. And let's not forget that he inherited all these problems, Iraq and Afghanistan and the tanking economy. It's not like he woke up one morning and decided to invade. We were already there.

That said, the war makes me sadder than the recent set-backs for gay rights in New York. That was disappointing and I feel angry about it but not hopeless. Gay marriage is a reality whose time has come, and I feel confident that within the near future, probably five years or so, it will be a nationally legislated fact and everyone will wonder what all the fuss was ever about. So it makes me mad when someplace like New York--whose economy is fueled by gay people, hello?--doesn't get it, but I don't feel hopeless. In fact, maybe anger is a way of expressing hope, because to be angry means you believe things should be different--and that they can be different. And I do, and I do.

With the war, I feel hopeless. I don't know how we're going to get out of this mess. It brings back Vietnam all over again, viscerally, the dying and killing, the endless suffering. And I don't have any easy answers like I do for opponents of gay marriage ("Get over it!") I've come to think that simple pacifism is meaningless unless we can come up with good alternatives.

I've come to see war as so linked to the problems of unemployment--we "only" lost 11,000 jobs in November, the New York Times reports--what are we going to do with all those young men and women who can't find a way to support themselves, who have no meaningful way to launch into adulthood? Why does the Army look attractive to them, despite the horrific injuries people come back with, despite the roadside bombs and the PTSD, despite the mounting casualties, and the horror stories?

I am the daughter of a woman who had a poster declaring "War is not good for children and other living things" taped to her front door for oh, thirty years. It was only taken down after her death and by then it was frayed and the Scotch tape which had held it in place was yellowing and cracked. And here we are again.

I agree with that poster. War is a nightmare for children. The Iraqis have lost a whole generation to low birth weights, to trauma, to disrupted schooling, to collateral damage, to malnutrition and easily preventable diseases. Children there have witnessed atrocities and lived through terrors that would crack the psyches of hardened adults. Their whole lives have been forfeited to this folly. (Note: Go and see Tony Kushner's amazing play, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Will Be Unhappy, featuring Laura Bush reading from The Brothers Karamasov to a group of dead iraqi children. Devastating.) How do we even begin to reckon the cost of these wars? What could be the compensation?

So I'm not saying that I support the war in any way. I'm just saying that the books I've been reading and the movies I've been seeing and the thinking and writing I've been doing have led me to see the soldiers who volunteer to fight in a more complex, nuanced light than I did before. There is such a thing as warrior energy and it must be channeled for good.

When I was 22 I served a year in VISTA and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I think a year of service to one's country for all young people is a good thing--service in the sense of fighting poverty, building schools and homes and hospitals, tackling some of the major problems we face and digging into it. During that year my fellow VISTAS and I lived on $75.00 a week. We were poor but we were young and could share a bedroom and eat beans every night. Meanwhile we were getting invaluable experience.

Maybe such a program wouldn't work for everyone. Certainly there were issues with the administration of it. Some kids dropped out--it wasn't Shangri-La. And, honestly I don't have answers for the greater questions of what to do about terrorism, or Al-Quaeda. I don't know of a non-violent way to meet those threats. Investigating this stuff has left me with more questions than answers. And my heart is heavy with it all tonight.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The days are beautiful, bright, and short; the nights are long and dark and cold. We're sliding into the belly of the bowl, the darkest shortest day. Three weeks, a little less than three weeks till the year turns and the light starts lengthening. Every year I tell myself to embrace the dark, embrace the cold, and every year I miss. I can't help it, my whole body contracts when I'm chilled to the bone, as I mostly am in our house because certain tough flinty Protestants don't want to turn the thermostat on EVER even when their blue-lipped shivering wives are begging them.

Well, actually, in fairness to my flinty Protestant with the fast metabolism, turning on the furnace in our house is like throwing hundred dollar bills out the window, as we have no insulation in this drafty old barn. But we did just meet with the roofer guy, an Irishman who sat in our 60-degree living room wearing a T-shirt and sipping coffee and talking about solar panels. He encouraged us to insulate the attic which I think we'll do. And after the solar panels are up, then it will be more cost-effective to run big-ass space heaters that actually heat something. Or we might get a gas pot-bellied stove for the fireplace or something. I don't know where the money for all this is going to come from, but one way or another we'll get the place a little warmer.

Last winter I swore I would never go through another miserable winter freezing my butt off night and day in my own house and this year it looks like we're going to do exactly that, freeze our butts off again, but next year, I swear, it will be at least 63 degrees at all times. Which I do not think is unreasonable, especially since I really want it to be 70.

Meanwhile I'm sitting in my tiny study-area in our bedroom, which C kindly enclosed for me by installing French doors two years ago. I have a little space heater which warms me up pretty well if I sit almost directly on top of it. I'm inching along on the last 20 pages of The Recruiter. So many layers to add. I go back and back over each scene that I've written, again and again, combing through the dialogue and adding more dimensions. I want to get a full draft done by the middle of this month. Then I'll turn my attention back to essays for a while.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving dinner with about 20 friends, and music and mayhem afterward: Motown, the Beatles...our guests ranged in age from 97-year-old Sylvia, in a wheelchair, who sat in the room with the instruments and watched her daughter play viola and her son-in-law on flute and organ with a big smile on her face, to 19-year-old Dylan who sat in on the drums.

I made vegetarian chili for the vegetarians (secret ingredients: Dijon mustard, black olives, red wine, fresh dill: recipe courtesy of Laurie Wagner,) and turkey for the omnivores (secret to a moist turkey: stuff it with garlic cloves, Meyer lemon slices chopped fennel, and onions rather than bread stuffing. The vegetable-lemon stuffing gives moisture, while bread stuffing absorbs it. I forget who taught me that.)

For the last two days we've been digesting, and eating leftovers, and going to the movies (The Messenger with Woody Harrelson--very good!) reading, writing, (me,) practicing music (C), and watching the climactic end of ROME (why did Cleopatra turn her ships around in the middle of the battle of Actium, thus sealing her and Antony's fate? Why? Why? Why?) And Saturday, Christopher took me on a long-awaited mystery a shooting range in Concord. Background story: I am writing a play about a combat veteran. I have never shot a gun. C arranged for his boss, a Vietnam vet, to meet us there and give us instructions in target practice.

What I learned: guns kick. Yes, they do. And they have sharp edges on them. If your thumb is in the wrong place, the kick can slice you. This is where the Band-Aid on my thumb comes from.

The noise when we first got there was unsettling, even with foam earplugs and head-phones. It was a beautiful day, clear as glass, but windy, gusting. At first I jumped a little every time anyone fired a gun close to us. Quickly I got desensitized. I can understand now how soldiers returning want to listen to really loud head-banging rock. And there was a smell of burned gunpowder in the air, smoke from all the other shooters' guns. Mingled in this smoke, the smell of a cigarette felt as if it belonged.

There is a festival in Berkeley called How Berkeley Can You Get, or something like that. The shooting range is at the opposite end of the spectrum, How Un-Berkeley Can You Get? I took a perverse pleasure in being as far away from my normal pacifist feminist Tarot-card reading improvised-dance, act-like-a-Redwood-tree hippie milieu as possible. Not that I want to live in a gun-toting veteran's culture either, but just that I don't want to be limited by ideology as to who I can hang out with or where I can find interest.

There is a whole etiquette and world connected to guns that I know next to nothing about. The people who are into them are really into them; they invest a lot of money and time and energy and passion in them. You can't be a casual gun-owner; you have to practice regularly if you ever have any intention of using one, because the muscle memory of marksmanship fades quickly without constant practice. I did hit the target a respectable amount of times for a rank beginner, although I didn't hit the bull'-eye. I'm pretty sure that "sniper" is not on the list of possible career choices for me, but at least I know what it feels like to hold a gun in my hands.

After two hours the wind and noise got to me and I went and sat in the car while Christopher continued to fire rounds with his boss. I turned the key in the ignition and there was a Bach CD. I sat and watched sunlight gild green grass and the wind riffle through it while listening to beautiful, orderly peaceful Bach punctuated by bangs and explosions from the firing range behind me.

The part of Concord where we were was relatively undeveloped: undulant green hills like breasts, peaceful, bucolic. I tried to think about beauty while I sat in the car: is there any beauty in war? A gun can be a thing of beauty. Bravery is beautiful. Sacrifice. Youth. I think of war as waste and tragedy only. But how does such an attitude feel to a returning veteran?

One veteran who served two tours in Vietnam (26 months) said he wouldn't trade his experiences in the war for anything. In the next breath he acknowledged that in some ways it had messed him up for the thirty years of his life following. You do not spend two years in combat without being changed forever by the experience.

I thought of Carla--I think of her every day, in every place. What she is going through is like a war in that it includes extreme physical stress, trauma, and the threat of death always looming over her shoulder. Even if she were miraculously cured tomorrow she would never be the same afterward. No one could be.

It's a war she never signed up to fight. She said at the outset that she didn't want to spend her energy battling ALS, she wanted to live her life to the fullest, every day, every hour that she could. And yet what that comes down to is a fight. How much of my energy have i spent fighting dumb things that didn't matter, straw men that I invented as a smokescreen for the bigger more important and scary battles? In the purest form of Islam, jihad is supposed to be a holy war which you wage against your own baser impulses: lust and greed and sloth. This seems to me to be the only war one can truly engage in with integrity. Yet sometimes--often--the outer world demands that we step up and do battle on behalf of something we believe in.

I didn't figure anything out in the car. Just let myself experience the sublime contradiction of gunshots and Bach, the car rocked now by high winds, now by explosions behind me, the illusion of safety and warmth inside, the storm outside. Eventually Christopher finished--he's tougher than I and was also wearing a warmer jacket--and we drove home to eat more leftovers (flourless chocolate cake--thank you, Debo!) I'm not sure how I can use all this material to help me finish the play but I'm glad I got to have new experiences. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Today was unseasonably warm and golden. For the first time in months, we walked to the old tennis courts and played. Grateful, grateful, grateful. For the swing of my arm as it rises to meet the ball without my conscious volition--thwack! For the towering pines that ring the court dropping cones and pine needles and littering the ground with yellow and orange leaves. For the sweet mild air, for the squirrel skittering across the court boldly, for the sliver of new moon rising in the late afternoon.

Most of all grateful for my sweet companion, his back 97% healed, once more swinging and running and swooping and diving all over the court opposite me, once more calling out encouragement and challenges, once more saying "Good game!" as we walk home through the sunset haze. Grateful for the new moon, for the turning season, for our weathered, vital middle-aged bodies and the pleasures they still give each other.

I wanted to live inside a good marriage and I despaired many times because I didn't think I would get one in this lifetime. I feared I was too old, too damaged, that there was no one left, that perhaps I wasn't capable of that kind of love, that perhaps no one would ever love me that way. I feared my ideals were too high, that I wanted too much, that I was too much, that I had missed my chance.

I looked around and didn't see any marriages that I could imagine myself in. I knew I wanted a level of intimacy that was unusual; that I wanted total trust, that i wanted acceptance and humor and good food and bedrock values. I didn't imagine it would be Christopher. I had never known anyone like him and when I first met him I had no way to recognize him. We joke that if we had met as housemates one of us would be serving a life sentence for trying to murder the other. We would have hated each other; he is so fastidious, and I am so...not. And yet because of this love-thing, this chemistry-thing, this I-don't-even-know-what-to-call it thing, it works.

I didn't know what a good relationship would feel like, smell like, be like until i was in one. It feels like a remarkable absence of drama. I have worried about him when he was late coming home, worried about car accidents and heart attacks because that's how I was raised, to worry. But I never worry about whether or not he loves me, about whether he'll be faithful to me. I know there are millions of women who are younger, prettier, better housekeepers, and more successful wage-earners than I am. Yet I know now that love is not conditional on any of that. It just is. This is what beings tears of gratitude to my eyes when we kiss. I don't have to do anything to deserve this--I can't deserve it. It's too big to deserve.

Sometimes you get the thing you always wanted and it turns out to be a great disappointment. Love is worth it. It was what I was yearning for all those years and I was right to yearn. Even the hard parts, the painful places we come up against when humor deserts us and our differences are too vast to bridge--even then. I am so grateful I got to experience this. Whatever happens, I know what a good marriage is now. I went into it fairly blind. I am not a visionary like so many of my good friends--I am actually kind of dense. I have to do a thing in order to figure out what the hell I am doing. I didn't know if I would know how to be married until I was. And somehow I do.

Which means that the life I'm living now is in many ways a miracle to me. And in many ways it's still the same life. I still struggle with most of my same old issues; I still don't earn enough money and I often feel lost and lonely and unworthy. Christopher hasn't cured or fixed any of my rough edges--thank God. I don't expect him to. Neither of us can shoulder the basic responsibility for living a good life for the other. It's just that life is infinitely better with him. And that he has shown me I am capable of loving another this consistently, this carefully, this day to day. He has given me back a piece of my innocence that was lost. And for that and so much more, I am grateful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Five hundred people filled the auditorium at College of Marin to see the documentary about Carla, "Leave Them Laughing." Five hundred people were on their feet for a standing ovation. How much love can five hundred people generate? A lot. It was overwhelming.

I saw a rougher rough cut of the documentary in carla's apartment a month or so ago. The rough cut Friday night felt much more coherent and smooth. I don't know what the director did exactly to make the flow better, but whatever it was, worked. Actually, I think I do know; the addition of subtitles stating things like "Six months after diagnosis," or "a year before diagnosis" served to clarify the chronolgy and added the extra layer of information that we viewers needed. Now we didn't have to waste any time figuring out when such-and-such a scene happened in relation to other scenes, and we could just sit back and drink in the scathing humor, the beauty, the love, and the poignancy.

After the film, Carla wheeled out onto the stage, joined by Maclen, and John Zaritsky the director and Montana Berg the producer, and the place erupted. Mac was a real revelation. I remember him as a semi-inarticulate thirteen year-old, a typical male adolescent answering dumb adult questions in monosyllables ("how's school?") and ducking out of social situations. Where did this tall, handsome, self-possessed, hyper-articulate young man come from? He could be running for Senate right now, if only he were old enough to vote or drink. As it is, I'm seeing First Jewish President in gold letters under his name.

He served as Carla's extra voice, articulating things she wanted to say but didn't have breath for, thanking people when to do so would have made her cry (and then choke,) adjusting her mic, and in general being the smoothest, most helpful, grounded, confident teenager I have ever seen, bar none.

I loved it when Carla announced shyly, "Soooo....I've joined a gang. We usually sit in the back, because, well, we're a gang. you may have heard of us. We're the Crips."

There was such an incredibly diverse crowd there, from people in the ALS and disability communities to students and former students of College of Marin, to the Driving Miss Craisy cohort, to family, friends and Muselings. In some ways it was like a giant wedding, with guests asking each other, "So how do you know Carla?"

Carla looked beautiful, dressed in a short skirt and gold top, with a big smile. I worried that the event would wear her out, but she seemed to be gaining energy from all the energy that surrounded her and patiently answered audience member's questions. Whe one woman asked how she was managing to surrender her independence gracefully, she answered honestly, "I'm not. I hate losing my independence. Some days I am really cranky about it."

When someone else asked her who or what was her inspiration, (maybe they were expecting her to say Buddha or Jesus or Ghandi,) she cited Mac and then said "My girlfriends. They raised me. They taught me how to be a woman, how to be a mother. And they teach me about love every single day."

I brought Marci with me as my date, and afterward I was trying to thank her for coming with me and she kept stopping me to thank me for having brought her. The movie, and then seeing Carla speak, blew her away. Me too. I needed her help just to find the freeway entrance to get home afterward, and lucky for me the car drove itself, because I sure as hell wasn't capable of much navigation.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For the past week or so I have been back in the world of The Recruiter, reading everything I can get my hands on about the military and military families, watching war movies and documentaries, and thinking about war and the way it affects us all.

I haven't consciously set myself to do this. It's more like, once I turned my focus to this project, that's where my attention wanted to go. Stories about PTSD in the newspaper (there have been plenty lately, with the Fort Hood shootings.) Voices of veterans on the radio.

I'm ashamed to say this but there was a time when I would have changed the station. I couldn't bear to hear about the things people do to each other in the name of war. I didn't want to think about those men--and increasingly women--and who they were and are when they come back.

The shadow of Vietnam is very long for people of my generation. I hate even thinking about how many homeless people are Vietnam vets, and all the horror and ugliness of that war. And the fact that now we're in another one, no less horrible, no less ugly.

Right now I'm reading David Frankel's book The Good Soldiers. It's devastating. He writes from inside the hearts and minds of these nineteen year old kids who are in an infantry division in Iraq. He writes about IEDs (improvised explosive devices) buried in heaps of trash or sewn into the corpses of dead dogs, or lying around in the running sewers and the constant constant stress of life there. He writes about the town so you can see and smell it as hell. I can only read a few pages at a time.

I can't make a play about Iraq and I don't aim to. What I'm trying to do is make a play about the U.S. and the mother, father, girlfriend on the other end, us, driving around in our cars, shopping at the malls, eating our burgers and holding the other end of the string. Our "American way of life" and the contrast between this life and what goes on in the name of protecting it.

I feel nervous, insecure, and lost as I venture into the second act. I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, like I have no right. My family is not a military family; in so many ways I have been protected from these realities. And yet. I'm an American. I've paid for and benefited from all these wars that have been fought in my name. I drive my car with the relatively cheap gas that's there because of the continuing wars in the Middle East. I buy cheap goods because my country's strong military gives us more leverage in negotiating trade with third world countries. I pay taxes and some of those dollars go to fund the atrocities abroad. I am not innocent.

As a woman especially I'm interested in the warrior archetype;. Okay, when we are watching ROME I have a crush on Pollo, the ultimate warrior. (Actually I have crushes on both him and Vorenus. Christopher doesn't mind. He's very understanding.) They embody some of the problems of returning veterans, problems that are as old as civilization: what do you do with men? There's farming and hunting and manufacturing and thinking, but there are also always men--people, but mostly men--whose ruling archetype is warrior. How do you find a place for those people, and what do you do with them when the wars are over?

It's not "them" either, it's me. What do I do with my own warrior energy? Where's the place for that?

I have been following the stories of women warriors and veterans with interest, especially on the New York Times home page, which has a lot of video. I notice more soldiers in uniform, men and women, standing on line at the car rental place, in the post office, at the supermarket. Especially when i fly across country, there they are, going about their business in their uniforms which set them apart, give them a special status.

Since I've been working on this my uncle remarked in an unrelated email that my great-grandfather was an officer in the Army in--was it Romania? before the turn of the twentieth century. Unusual for a Jew. He also was apparently an alcoholic and perhaps a wife-beater--also unusual, and perhaps not unrelated to his military experience.

I'm interested in how easily evil blooms from simple boredom. And what about the emptiness of our culture is fuels this need for war?

These are the big questions behind the play, but what I'm working on now--slowly and painfully--are the very small questions: what would this character say or do next? What scene should follow this one? Where do I find the patience to keep going when I don't know what I'm doing and every word in the scene I just spent three days writing will probably have to be revised? And how did I get into this project anyway? Whose brilliant idea was this?

The other great book I have been reading lately is by Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem. everyone go out and buy this book! It is about memorizing great poems as a spiritual practice. She herself has learned hundreds of poems by heart and so her mind is like a cathedral--yes, she used that image, my favorite--she can walk inside domed vaulted ceilings enclosing sacred space and give herself the pleasure of mingling her mind with Neruda, Mary Oliver, D.H. Lawrence. She has these poems all the time. No one can take them from her. She writes about how even patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease can retain fragments of poetry and music that they had learned; it's encoded in their brain cells.

Inspired by this book, I've been trying to learn the Ginsberg poem the first verse of which is on my website "Song." It starts, "The weight of the world is love." I recited it to myself as I climbed in the hills the other day and found that the exercise of hiking made the breath in the poem more urgent and added its own layers of beauty on top of what was already there. Another poem I love is D.H. Lawrence's "Song of a Man Who Has Come Through":

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!A fine wind is blowing in the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it will carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fire, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul;
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A week of reconnection--old voices out of the past, people I hadn't seen or heard from in a while, some weeks, others years. I wonder who will pop up next?

November is the month when the veil is very thin. The veil between past and present, between the living and the dead, between what might be, what could have been and what is. I feel it. I walk in the hills and there's the death and dying all around me at the same time new green is pushing through everywhere. Fall and winter in California are as much a time of renewal and birth as spring and summer are. the rains bring green immediately; the land never sleeps, it doesn't even doze.

I went over to Carla's house and found her busy at work on several projects. She's getting out a calendar of sexy photos of people with ALS dressed as their favorite Hollywood fantasy characters, but complete with wheelchairs, respiratory equipment and feeding tubes. There's a picture of Carla in fishnet stockings and stiletto heels, there's someone lying in a bathtub full of rose petals a la American beauty, there's a stripped-to-the-waist Harley davidson-looking guy with a feeding tube, etc. It actually needs to be experienced to be understood.

Anyway, she greeted me in the midst of explaining that she's working on this project, she's overseeing the production of her third CD of original songs, all recorded before her voice started to go, and she's getting ready for the premiere of the documentary film about her, Leave 'Em Laughing, which will show at College of Marin on November 20th. Which would be quite enough for an able-bodied person, but oh yeah, she's also maybe got a nibble from a book publisher about her blog. As Gerry said about her, "The busiest dying woman in show business," or as she says about herself, "I can't die. I'm too busy!"

What can I do but take my hat off and salute? We are who we are, and we fight and deserve the right to be ourselves our whole lives, up to our very last breath. For what other purpose could we possibly have been born?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Esalen: gorgeous blue clear skies, familiar faces, warm sparkling baths, the gardens twitching and bursting with life, rocky cliffs, crashing Pacific, faces, faces, embraces, snatches of conversation, sometimes shouted over the din of the dining hall, sunsets glimpsed from the porch or while hurrying through the garden back to my room to fetch a sweater, the faces of my students seated on cushions in a circle, bent over their notebooks, writing...

And I'm hurrying. When I think of Esalen, ironically, I always see myself running to get from one workshop to the next. Hurry to the Dance Dome for the panel, hurry down to the baths, back up to the dining hall for a meal, hurry through one conversation to greet the next person who is waiting to say something. The weekend is crammed full, and even after years of doing this I always worry about my workshops: did I plan well enough? Will I get enough people to sign up? Are they getting something out of it? That person is crying, why didn't I have the tissue box ready beforehand? How do the lights work in this room? Did they understand what I said? Did I just contradict myself? Will they give me good evaluations?

I never thought of myself as an anxious person, but when I saw my doctor for a routine check-up Tuesday I mentioned that I'd been feeling irritable over the weekend. Little things people said or did bugged me. I wasn't the at-one-with-the-Universe hippie the place evokes.

"That's a symptom of anxiety," she said and went on to talk about anti-depressant medications and various strategies for coping (switch to decaf, up the exercise, meditate.) It was a tiny off-hand remark, but illuminating for me. I have always been very in touch--maybe too much so--with the emotions of pain, sorrow, regret, etc. But I don't think I even recognize fear when it bites me on the ass. What, me, afraid? I'm the girl who hitch-hiked across country at 24, I'm the one who loves to beat up heavily padded assailants, I've been reading my poetry in public for decades, and have no discernible fear of public speaking.

Yet, when I looked more deeply, I saw that I do have fear, and anxiety--quite a lot of it. I wake up with screaming nightmares several times a month. I routinely dream that people are chasing me, trying to kill me. I fear offending other people even when I speak my mind about things.

Understanding that anxiety can cause irritability means that when other people are irritated with me, it's not necessarily because I hurt them. I used to think irritability was just a mild form of anger, and a response to being hurt. Thinking it could be because they are anxious opens the whole issue up, in a good way. It means I might not be at fault for another's irritable mood, and they might not be at fault when I am irritable with them.

I mention this because there's a flip side to having a gig in Paradise; being anxious about earning it, and scared that you'll somehow lose it. (And you will, I will. Nothing lasts forever.)

On the one hand I'm so lucky and grateful to be there at all, lucky to be published in The Sun as much as I have been, grateful to get the opportunity to teach in such a gorgeous space. On the other hand I'm well aware of all the other deserving writers and teachers who would kill for this opportunity and I feel like I have to earn it anew each time. And every year we do this I vow I'm going to come early to Esalen or stay an extra day, get a massage, take a hike, take advantage of BEING THERE, but every year I can't or don't--too many obligations on either side of the weekend.

Once I'm actually in the baths and my body is immersed in the warm water I finally relax. I stop, I bob, I float. I stop being a writer with a recognized name, or a teacher, or an anybody, I just become a body, breasts, legs, breath, bubbles. I watch other bodies dip and emerge, admire their perfections and imperfections. Humans are very moving when they are naked.

And I admit it, I'm a voyeur. Not so much in an overtly sexual sense--I'm not looking at bodies as a way to get to stimulation or orgasm for myself. But I love to see the infinite variety that we humans come in, tiny girlish breasts, big floppy pendulous ones, long legs, short muscular butts, and the folds and sags and ripples of aging skin. If I were a painter I would paint nudes.

I look out over the sparkling Pacific and pinch myself. It's like floating inside an Ansel Adams photograph, or a Robinson Jeffers poem. I feel a long way from suburban New England, and even after all these years of living in california and many many hours of soaking in hot tubs I still sometimes can't believe I'm actually here.

Saturday night we had a small party for the SUN writers and staff and a few participant-students, and I found I couldn't speak. Or I could speak, but not much, not like usual. I couldn't crack jokes, or shout my way into the center of the circle. (I think Australians talk about "shouting" each other a round of drinks, and I can understand why.)

There was drinking and some smoking and general hilarity, and I didn't want to get drunk or stoned and somehow couldn't get hilarious. I was thinking of Carla and all the changes since I came here last, two years ago. Then I was a red-haired wild child, free spirit. Now my hair is graying, I am in a deep and sometimes complex marriage, and quietly entering menopause. I am having one of the least dramatic transitions that I have heard of, knock wood, no real hot flashes so far, but I am in that passage, and it makes me feel more internal and sad sometimes.

I should have crept away as my roommate did and gone back to the baths, gone somewhere where I could have had a quiet conversation or just looked at the moon and stars. But my seventh grade self who has lain dormant for the last few centuries re-awakened--it was Halloween after all--and she is miserably socially insecure and afraid of missing the fun. So I stayed.

Sunday we sat on a dais and talked about our creative processes. I told the truth: I just write. I have no special formula, no sacred space, I dawdle and waste time, my desk is a mess, piled with drafts, old copies of Poets and Writers magazine, checkbook, clothing catalogs ("clothing porn," we call it,) vitamins, (in the vain hope that I will actually remember to take them.)

When C is home he interrupts me sometimes to tell me there's an interesting interview on NPR or to read me something out of the paper or to ask me if I've paid the PG & E bill. I interrupt myself to get coffee, watch the feral kitties playing in the backyard (the mother and the biggest black-and-white one are currently curled up together on a scrap of carpet on top of the compost box,) check email. The phone rings and I'm glad to talk to whoever is calling. These interruptions are my life, and without them, I don't know what I would write about.

Sunday I drove home through heavy traffic, took a shower, changed clothes, kissed C who had prepared me a take-out dinner, and Ruth picked me up to go do a reading in Mill Valley with other SUN writers. It was beautiful to hear everyone else read--Krista Bremer read My Accidental Jihad, Ruth read My Fat Lover, Lee read some poems, and SUN staffers read other selections from the new SUN anthology The Mysterious Life of the Heart. And Sy read a bunch of excerpts from his Notebook. The Marin Community Center is a beautiful space, with paintings on the wall and high cathedral ceilings.

I read my poem, "Smashing the Plates," which appears in the book and which Lee Rossi described as "pure id." Indeed. Say what you will about a certain shmuck-o, I really got a lot of poems out of that brief encounter. I read some other things too, but I was disappointed that in my haste I'd forgotten to bring along extra copies of my own books to sell. There was just too much to keep track of.

Monday morning I was flattened and managed to barely crawl around the lake. Yesterday I finally made it to the gym and swam a half mile, and today I finally feel like myself again. Time to come down from Mount Olympus and get back to work--MORE is interested in the essay I sent them three months ago but requires a revision, and I am aching to finish the play. And I promised C I would call more roofers.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Christopher told me he was going to take me on a mystery date, and then let it slip that it was going to be to an exhibit on the history of the screwdriver. I was all excited about that when lo and behold, the car pulled up in front of a movie theater playing Bright Star.

What a beautiful movie. I predict that Abby Cornish will at least be nominated for Best Actress, that Kerry Fox will be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and that it will also be nominated in the categories of Screenplay, Cinematography and Costumes. It was a visual feast, and the writing and acting were wonderful. I loved the little pink-cheeked red-head who played Fanny Brawne's younger sister.

There was a naturalness and gentleness to the acting that was heartbreaking. I surprised myself by crying--a lot--as the lover's dreams of happiness slipped away. Keats knew all along, but she was young and naive and stubbornly clung to hope.

My favorite line in the movie was when Keats said, "A poet is the least poetical creature on earth," which is exactly what I think.

When we came home I got on Wikipedia and Google and read up a bit on the real history, which of course was more complicated and probably less pretty than what was portrayed in the movie. Fanny Brawne did marry someone else after Keats' death, and had three children, to whom she bequeathed the love letters he had written her. Keats himself had such a hard and painful life: poverty, abuse, lack of recognition, death of people close to him, illness, poverty, and loss, loss, loss. It's little wonder that he wrote "I have been half in love with easeful death." It must have come as a relief after so much suffering.

And with all that he wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, and Bright Star and When I have fears that I may cease to be and all the rest of it. An astonishing legacy crammed into just a few years of life.

What is most poignant is that according to his biographers and the movie, he died "thinking himself a failure." If he only knew.

I remember reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci when I was a child--it was one of the poems in the Louis Untermeyer book I loved, the Child's Golden Book of Poetry--and I loved it and responded to its strong rhythms even if I didn't understand it completely.

I was so touched at C's selflessness--deep in his heart of hearts I suspect he may have preferred the history of the screwdriver--but he manfully and graciously made this date about doing what I wanted and we even ate Chinese afterward instead of pub food. So sweet.

And now I'm packing to go teach at Esalen this weekend which should be great fun only I wish i felt better physically. I've got a nagging tickle in the back of my throat which I hope doesn't erupt into anything worse. It will be an intense day Saturday--I'll teach four sessions starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending after 9 p.m.--but hopefully I'll get a chance to just hang in the hot tub with Angela and my other SUN friends. It would be really great if I could somehow squeeze a yoga class or a massage into the weekend, but probably not. probably I'll just try to get to my classes on time and stay hydrated.

Sunday night we are doing a reading in Marin. It will be at 7:30 at the the Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, for anyone reading this who wants to come.

And: shameless self-promotion time. See How We Almost Fly can be ordered from

Monday, October 26, 2009

I didn't sleep well last night, and got up early to see sunrise. Thick painterly smudges of gold and purple and mauve. A hummingbird in the guava tree. I sat there for a long time on the couch by the window, coffee cup in hand. Watched the world wake up, the deserted street begin to stir. A guy on a bicycle, wearing a florescent yellow vest, cycled slowly up the hill. My neighbor warmed up her car, then left for work. It's impossible to catch the exact moment when the sky changes from mauve to tea-colored to clear daylight.

Now I'm at work at my desk. Love Shack is complete and I'm sending it to another contest, only I've changed the name to Tiny Paradise. I spent the last week obsessing over a long poem I was building called "Cathedral." Besieged poor Christopher with drafts the moment he walked in the door. Sent drafts to Ruth, to my other friends. Nailed my butt to the chair revising and revising.

Now I think it's done. Done enough. It could always be better--everything could always be better--and there's always more to say, but comes a time to let things go. I realize this is the job of an aging artist. What's your narrow place, what is your Red Sea, what's your Promised Land? The narrowness for me is ambition that is too small, an overly tight focus on just accomplishing and achieving. I'm addicted to striving for that. I'm not proud to say it but it's true.

The Red Sea I have to cross is the wilderness of the work itself, surrendering to the process, really letting myself go as deep and far into my subconscious mind as I can bear, as I have courage for. That is scary but exhilarating.

The promised Land I used to imagine was publication, minor fame, making it onto the radar screen of the general culture, earning a seat at the big kid's table when it came time to discuss the interesting questions. That's what i wanted. I still want that, honestly--I do. But I'm thinking that perhaps the Promised Land is something quite other than whatever my ego imagines it to be. Perhaps the Promised Land is just a feeling of connection to all people, something that, ironically, success might prevent one from feeling. Success could be great, but it could also be isolating. Anyway, success is success. Connection is connection. They are not the same thing.

I am still figuring out what the Promised Land is to me.

I told my essay writing students to take themselves on artist dates, a la Julia Cameron, but I haven't done that for myself in ages. I've been waiting around passively to see Bright Star, the movie about Keats, which Christopher doesn't have time for, instead of just taking myself to the movies the way I used to do when I was single. So today's the day, reward for a task completed.

This last weekend Wing It! had a series of three concerts where we performed for the 20th anniversary of the company. It was very sweet and deep. Beautiful things happened at each concert, and each one was completely unique, being improvised. I feel so lucky and grateful to be part of the company, to have so many people to love, to be able to be in long-term relationship with such fine souls. Despite--or maybe because of--our differences.

None of my closest relationships have been conflict-free. Christopher and I are a great pair, but we're so different in our styles, temperaments, strengths and weaknesses that it's funny. One of the things that unites us is mutual sarcasm, stubbornness, and fiestiness. Also, he told me last night that he spent a year immersed in Bach, thinking of little else. This was a propos of my asking him about the influence of church music on his composition.

This relates to Wing It! because for so long I've had such a hard time accepting that I am indeed nestled into a group comprised mostly of church-going Protestants, a surprising number of whom are or have been ministers. I just could not wrap my head around that. Now I'm married to a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and I so appreciate the virtues he has which come from that background; he's hard-working, humble, idealistic, and has great boundaries. I married my greatest teacher. Go figure.

So too, with me and Wing It!--it's not perfect, but it's very good. I'm glad even for the painful parts which shove me right up against my most alienated Jew self. I'm grateful for the opportunity to play and keep playing, to move through states, to keep getting a little better (hopefully,)to keep stretching and growing.

Today the lead story in the New York Times is about homeless youth. Kids as young as 11 and 12 are out on the streets because of the recession. Families are stressed and losing their homes; there's not enough space or money or food. Domestic violence is on the rise. The paper said perhaps the most tragic thing is how hard the kids work to elude capture by social workers whom they imagine are seeking them, when the sad fact is that parents often don't even report the kids missing. No one is even looking for them. They are truly invisible.

I think about the people I know and know of who are trying everything in their power to get pregnant--who are doing IVF and hormone treatments and investigating surrogates and buying other women's eggs in order to have a baby. How is it we live in a society in which one part of the population idealizes parenthood to such an extreme degree, while at the same time unwanted children starve or sell their bodies on the streets? How come millions are being spent every year trying to get menopausal women pregnant while there are real live born babies dying around the world of malnutrition and neglect?

C deals with those kinds of homeless and broken kids every day. Juvenile Hall sucks, but it's often the first place some of those children have ever experienced three meals a day. He brings home stories that are completely heartbreaking.

I can feel both sides of the issue; the longing for a pure unspoiled baby, a fresh start, a little bit of Heaven. The damage gets done so early, even in the womb. There are kids in the Hall who were crack babies, or have fetal alcohol syndrome. Who wants to take that on?

On the other hand, what happens to us as a country, as a world, when we prize the offspring of the affluent, and allow the children of the poor to die miserably in abandoned buildings?

We have been watching the HBO series Rome lately; C says he likes it even better than The Wire. I like it too but I don't know how much to trust the writing; were the ancient Romans indeed so similar to us? In their decadence and egotism and sexuality and sadism and voyeurism, they seem like a mirror of our own world, some of the least attractive parts of it. In the extremes of their classism, I think we are a bit different; at least now there is some lip service to the idea of universal human rights. At least most people nowadays agree that slavery is wrong.

But what do we practice? If someone doesn't have access to a warm bed, food, or medical care, does it really matter so much that he or she is not a slave?

One surprising thing that watching Rome is doing for me is in softening my attitude toward Christianity. I used to think that the Christian religion was a scourge on the earth, the cause of many of our current ills. But seeing the blood lust of Roman society before Christianity even arrived on the scene, I understand more how it was a kind of evolution, an improvement. Of course, once Rome got ahold of the religion, they turned it into something that was culturally close to what they had before; the Pope was just another kind of Emperor. The Crusades were another chance to rape and pillage. But the ideals of forgiveness and mercy, even if expressed as "We're better than you because we're Christian," were a step in the right direction. Even if we're not there yet. Even if we never get there.

Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, is said to have answered, "I think it's a very good idea!"

Shameless self-promotion section: you can order See How We Almost Fly from

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The youngest grandchild was fourteen months old, toddling around like a drunken sailor, occasionally crawling under the glass-topped dining room table to get away from the fray. The oldest party-goer was my Dad's cousin Arthur, a tall thin 83-year-old flirt. In between were all the rest of us, eating cake, talking, laughing, doing a jig saw puzzle, wrangling nieces and nephews--"Lucy! Get down!"--and looking at the album of photos which we compiled for Dad's 75th.

He cried when he looked at all the old pictures, some of which he had even forgotten existed. There was our mother, dark-eyed and gorgeous and young, before the M.S., before the bad times. There we all were with our terrible '70s haircuts, up against the car with the sun in our eyes, squinting.

Dad was overcome and overjoyed. And he cried when I showed him the poem I wrote for him, which I tucked as a surprise into See How We Almost Fly. I really don't have words for how much I love my father. I can't convey the utter sweetness of this man who would do anything, give anything for his children. He shows me the roundness of a life well-lived, coming full circle, the children's children on his lap, the overspilling living room.

There was a freak early snow on the day we celebrated his birthday--earliest in the year in recorded history. I had brought my long underwear and I wore it, despite everyone's teasing--yes, I am a California wuss and I need to be warm. Christopher and I went out and ate pub food. I wanted him to taste real New England onion rings which are so delicious and about a jillion calories apiece. He liked the clam chowder and the fish chowder.

Monday, my birthday, we wandered around Newburyport, a scenic little fishing town that has become a tourist mecca. Looked in windows at stores selling ships in a bottle, looked at boats on the dilapidated wharf, ate seafood chili, and wandered under leafy tree-cathedrals. I had taught poetry workshops in a nephew's fifth grade classroom and a niece's kindergarten earlier in the week, so there was a little bit of everything: work, play, family, and couple time. The one thing there was no time or space for was writing, so now I'm back at it, back at my desk, looking at rough drafts for some new poems, the revision of an essay about remarriage, and of course the new play, The Recruiter. Trying to decide which thing to work on first. Poems win.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The weather has turned gray and cold, which is depressing for life but good for work. There must be so many great English writers because the weather there is so dismal; it's harder here in California where the outdoors is so glorious it seems really stupid to stay inside trying to put words in some pleasing order.

Here's what I've been seeing, reading, and thinking about lately: after an appropriate mourning period after finishing The Wire, which was the best show EVER, we are now renting ROME from Netflix, which is good; not quite as good as the Wire, but it has the added benefit of teaching you some ancient history.

Rome is bloody and violent in a casual way that makes The Sopranos look like Romper Room. Watching it I could understand how, in context of the times, Christianity would seem a better option; when contrasted with human sacrifice and animal sacrifice on a large scale, with torturing and killing slaves for entertainment, with rape and incest as common ways of passing the time, Christianity could be seen as a real improvement. (When the Emperor converted to Christianity, then Christianity itself became Roman-ized, in the form of Roman Catholicism, and the old values of empire and violence became part of the religion, but that's another discussion.)

Anyway, we watched the first two episodes with interest, and two more just arrived in the mail, so we'll keep up with it for a while. I wondered where the Jews were when all this history was going on, and marveled at our survival in such a bloody, bloody time. My friend Marci says it was Jews (Jewish slaves?) who built the Coliseum. How did we ever make it?

We also went to the Berkeley Rep last weekend and saw American Idiot, the Green Day musical. If I were twenty-five I might find it inspiring and moving; as a fifty-year-old I was irritated not to be able to make out the lyrics for the first third of the show. I also found myself thinking, "Hair was better." Which is, perhaps, an unfair comparison: that was then, this is now. American idiot represents the anomie and angst of the generation that came up under 8 years of Bush, Jr. So there's a lot of rage and hopelessness and flailing, which we can all relate to, but which, by itself, doesn't necessarily make for good theater. You need some plot or characters or something to hang it all on. There were many moments of beauty; there was some very fun dancing, and a lovely aerial ballet featuring four wounded soldiers; there were some good voices and some nice guitar work. But four days after seeing it, I retain not one line or note. There's nothing running through my head from it, it's like the proverbial Chinese meal--none of it stuck.

Last night I went to see The Pillow Man at San Jose Repertory Theater, a black comedy about the random torture and murder of children. It's a brilliant play; like a set of those nesting Russian dolls, stories within stories, opening up to more stories. Among other things the play asks the question, "If art arose in human beings as a response to the horror of suffering, if telling stories is a way we soothe ourselves from suffering, a way we make sense of it, then what price are we willing to pay for our stories? Is the suffering and death of innocents necessary to a world in order for theater to exist?"

As the play progressed and as the gruesome stories piled up, I was caught between laughter and horror. It was so over-the-top it was funny, and, well, as my companion (not C., another friend) said, "Slipping on a banana peel is funny." I was raised by a woman who believed that slipping on a banana peel is not funny--we were not allowed to watch The Three Stooges because she found the image of people hitting each other on the heads with hammers to be repellant. I'm fairly certain she would have hated the Pillow Man.

For myself, I'm torn; I wonder why we find violence so entertaining. Are we just like the Romans? Their gladiators really did suffer and die, while our actors are only pretending, but is there something in the human psyche that revels in the spectacle of other people's pain?

The Hindus think of all of this drama of life that we undergo as "lila" (not sure if I'm spelling that right)--God's play. We appear to suffer; we appear to die. In reality, they say, life is everlasting, and all these terrible things, wars, famine, sicknesses--are just illusions. Our souls are untouched by it all. But something about this whole human experiment calls for drama, and in drama you have to have the play of light and shadow, good and evil, life and death. Even if, underlyingly, it's all one, we need our illusions for the sake of, I don't know--education? The testing of one's mettle for the progress towards enlightenment?

Which begs the question: would God enjoy watching The Sopranos? Would He or She enjoy gladiator contests, or wars? What kind of a huge (sick?) mind would God have to have to be entertained by this stuff we call life?

Sorry, but this is what watching Martin McDonagh's work does to me. It opens up these weird cynical dark places in my brain that I am normally not in touch with. McDonagh wrote The Pillow Man, along with six(!) other plays in one year--actually in one nine-month stretch--when he was 24 years old. This is kind of inconceivable to me as a writer--it's a feat akin to running a marathon every day. On the one hand it shows what a person is capable of if he focuses, and he doesn't have anything else going on in his life, and if the weather is really shitty. On the other hand, what the--? How is anyone sane supposed to be able to compete with that?

All his plays are filled with images of torture, cruelty, sudden death, and the like. There's a real shortage of what we could call the feminine principle. And they are funny. And brilliant in their own way, although after I saw the Beauty Queen of Lenane I wanted to throw myself under a train. It was the most godawful depressing disturbing thing I had ever sat through--and I've sat through some bad poetry readings and a fair amount of bleak theater.

Anyway, I appreciated seeing The Pillow Man because there was so much to chew on, even though it was depressing, and even though Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights also dealt with the theme of story-telling and the never-ending story without making you want to go out a down a bottle of Prozac. I wished they would have cut about twenty minutes out of the script and had an after-theatre discussion--although we wouldn't have been able to stay for it, as it was a weeknight--because I think the real value in this kind of work lies not only in experiencing it, but mainly in digesting it--with other people. Theatre, unlike reading, is a communal act, and the fact that we were all assembled there to hear these unspeakable stories, and watch some of them acted out, and even to laugh at some of the horrors our world comes up with, is something worth acknowledging.

I'm also reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a wonderful novel that was recommended to me by one of my writing students last year. I'm loving it, reading slowly and savoring as I go.

I finished a draft of the Second Marriage essay for MORE magazine--at least that's who I intend it for, I hope they'll take it. They still are holding onto a 900-word piece I wrote earlier in the summer. The magazine industry has been hit so hard by the recession that many editors have been laid off, and advertising pages lost, which means less pages available for essays and memoirs. Which means for me, that it's taking three times as long to hear back about work I've submitted, and that essays which might once have been taken--like the piece on self-defense for women which was near and dear to my heart--are being rejected. Not enough pages, the magazine is too skinny to support the more eccentric work.

It may, big picture, be a good thing, politically and ecologically speaking, for some of these glossies to shrink or go under completely. It's probably for the good of the planet if Revlon and Cover Girl and the people who make Botox and spend millions promoting their unnecessary products fail. But for those of us free-lancers who cling to the undersides of capitalism--and I realize, yes, it's parasitic--(but it's also a way to sometimes get paid good money for writing)-- it's a loss of an outlet. Then again, there's the hope that other venues will spring up, maybe ones that are healthier for civilization as a whole.

Okay, shameless self-promotion: you can order my book of poems, See How We Almost Fly from www.pearlmag/pearled.html, or from Amazon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's beautiful, cool sunny fall weather, but there's a sadness in the changing of the season. We want to hold the light and we can't. Figs are hardening on the tree. Feral kittens nowhere to be found this morning, although the mama is coming around faithfully. C is healing well but still in some pain. And my book is HERE and I've been sitting at my desk thinking up strategies for shameless self-promotion, which is what's needed, but kind of embarrassing. I do want to sell the book. Eight years in the making, the work deserves whatever publicity I can get for it. At the same time, the poems in it are old to me; I'm more interested in what I'm working on now, or what I'm about to work on. Last poems for Love Shack. Finish the essay I started about second marriage and the book proposal. Finish The Recruiter. Get the three little one-act plays of Glitter and Spew produced, separately or together. And keep going deeper into the heart of the world, leaves and light and people.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

See How We Almost Fly is officially here!!!

The books came two days ahead of schedule, in a big box, and they are beautiful!! If I were more tech-savvy, I would include a picture of the front cover to display, but you can see them (and, hopefully, order them) from my web site Or you can go to Pearl Editions at and order your copy there.!

I have to go drop off some copies for friends now....

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Christopher came home Thursday night--weak, fragile, and in pain. I don't know how we got him up the stairs into our bed, but we did. God bless Gerry for staying with us through a long boring frustrating exhausting day at the hospital, trying to get a notary to come to C's bedside to authorize me to collect his car from the tow-yard ("But you're married," my friend Ruth said incredulously. "Yeah, you'd think that heterosexual privilege would count for something," I said. It doesn't. Everyone's trying to legally protect themselves from getting sued.)

C meanwhile, still couldn't keep anything down, and was throwing up and writhing in pain whenever he tried to sit up. Finally by the end of the day he managed to sit up and we got the back brace on him, then loaded him into a wheelchair and took him home. No discharge plan, no cane or walker, no thing. Good-bye and good luck.

He made it into the house on sheer determination alone, collapsed into bed and basically slept for the better part of two days, eating a very little at first and then gradually a little more. Friday he sat up incredibly s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully, and we got the back brace on. A trip to the bathroom was an Odyssey. But Saturday, he managed to walk all over the top floor and even venture downstairs. And today he's been puttering--slowly, cautiously, balancing between pain medication and the brace, but puttering. He's learning what he can and can't do in this new, recovering body, and--typical--he wants to be up and doing again.

It's bright and hot out and we've been sitting in the living room drinking coffee, eating figs from the tree, listening to Harry Reasoner and reading the Sunday Times. So simple and precious.

Last night I left him for a few hours in the care of a good friend and with his encouragement drove to Sacramento to hear No Nude Men Theater group read my play Glitter and Spew. It was about two dozen people, lots of very strong actors, a couple of other playwrights, and directors. They loved the play! They laughed, sighed, and there was a great discussion afterward which gave me ideas about how I could expand and improve the third section. Of course I felt critical as I heard it aloud--lots of places I wanted to fix. In particular I'm concerned about the balance of lyricism to "real" dialogue.

I read an interview with Sarah Ruhl (author of The Clean House and many other wonderful plays) who said that writing a play was writing poetry for the stage. That quote from her gave me permission to write heightened, poetic monologues for my characters; it was very freeing. I'm concerned though that it's easy for me to write "poetically" and that i shouldn't lean on that ability as a lazy substitute for character development or plot. So hearing the play aloud, I wanted to trim some of the fancier monologues. But Stuart, the director, said that he wouldn't change a thing from the first two short sections. The third one he said, does need more development.

It felt great to have the play read aloud, finally, and exciting to make connection with this talented crew. And it felt--I don't know--independent--a little lonely, but kind of good--to know that i could have both these halves of my life, but that I alone am responsible for balancing them--to work as an artist and also be a care-taker. It was a long drive back without radio reception; I listened to my CD of Carla singing, and also to the Roche Sisters. It reminded me of so many long empty moonlit road trips, with Alan and without him, and now with C and without him. Times in the car when you go without saying or even thinking much of anything for long stretches and then come to with a start, realizing you've been dreaming awake, and the road has flown by, and you are finally home.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Unfortunately, Christopher passed out from low blood sugar behind the wheel of his car. Fortunately, (thank god, thank God, thank God) he was not on the freeway at the time and only hit a chain link fence going very slowly. Fortunately, he received good medical care at the scene and got taken to a decent hospital. Fortunately, I was home when the phone call came and after an interminable wait in the waiting room at the ER, I could see him and be with him without restriction. And Ruth came, and sat with me, and brought salad and little tea candles, and lavender oil, and a book of spiritual poetry.

Unfortunately, he has compression fractures in his vertebrae and it hurts when he tries to move. Fortunately, there are drugs to deal with it--lots of good drugs.

He spent a lot of time today dozing, and having an MRI, and got measured for a back brace by a charming young man with one prosthetic foot.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Farm equipment when I was a kid," he said. "It sucks, but it's how I got into this line of work."

It was clear he really cared about what he did; he was careful and friendly and easy as he made lots of tiny black dots on Christopher's body with a magic marker. Unfortunately, Christopher will be in this brace for the next few months. Fortunately, this will not be permanent, and who knows? Maybe this whole incident has some good things to teach us--like we should meditate, or we'll start doing yoga together, or...

Unfortunately, this accident puts the kibosh on some of C's more ambitious plans for doing the solar paneling on our roof himself. On the other hand, who knows--there could be a silver lining to that too.

I'm feeling the kind of numb I get around hospitals. The smell. Last night as I drove home after spending about eight hours in the hospital--from 3:30 to 11:30 I was immensely comforted by the bare moonlit hills of Castro Valley, and the rich stink of skunk. Okay, it's not a "nice" smell, but it was real. Whereas hospitals have this fake baby-powder smell that is really masking some far ickier scents, and it just makes me anxious.

Fortunately, I could come home and sleep--sort of--in our own bed. The first time i have slept there alone since Christopher moved in two years ago. I am going to cook myself a bunch of garlicky string beans and eat them--an antidote to the abysmal, sugar-laden glop that is available at hospitals--and I admit, there's something about stress and trauma that makes me crave sugar. I feel like eating a king-sized box of movie candy and just disappearing into a PEOPLE magazine. (There was a reader's Digest Ann Rule true crime book at the gift shop which I bought for a dollar and have been reading--all about a dentist who killed his girlfriend and his wife. Very uplifting.)

I asked C how he felt about staying in the hospital one more night as he was dozing off into a morphine haze. "Well, they do have cable, " he murmured. "And then it's hard to beat the food..."

Before we found out exactly what happened, when I was sitting for that interminable hour and a half in the sitting room, imagining stroke, seizure, heart attack, I had told Ruth, "As long as his sense of humor is intact. If he can't walk, that will be a drag, but we'll manage. As long as he still has his sense of humor..."

He can feel all his toes and wiggle them and move his legs. It's just that his back seizes up when he tries to do anything more than that. And it's hard to see him in pain. I think I'll go say hi to the mama feral cat (who is still nursing, even though her babies are almost as big as she is.) Maybe pull a few weeds and eat something green. Then head back to the hospital again.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"How are things in the poem factory?" Christopher asks as he arrives home. I barely take my eyes off the screen.

"Just finishing up." I kiss him and shove a few pages under his nose. "Here, read this."

"Can I go to the bathroom first? Can I get a snack?"

"If you must."

For the past few--I don't know how long it's been, days? Weeks?-- the poems have been coming thick and furious. I've pulled apart the manuscript of Love Shack, eliminated a lot of weaker pieces that I see now were just place-holders, and replaced them with the new work which feels much stronger.

Of course that means the overall shape of the book is changing as well, bursting its bounds, like the fig tree in our front yard which I wouldn't let C prune back as hard as he wanted to last winter. Now she has completely taken over, threatening to put people's eyes out with branches that reach across the sidewalk, but oh, there are millions of figs. Enough for us, for the birds, for passersby...

So the book, which started out life as a collection of love poems--I was thinking specifically about an Anne Sexton book, Love Poems, which I read a million years ago, and which contains some of her best writing--has now expanded to include a bunch of my other, usual preoccupations, Oakland, street people, kids, women, etc. And animals.

More cats and dogs in this book than ever before, probably a result of living with Mr. Cat-Magnet, who, however little sleep he has gotten the night before, still always remembers to set out food for the feral cat family. The mama now boldly nurses her babies out in the open in our back yard, in plain view of everyone. I see her from the upstairs bathroom window and if I make any noise she looks up startled, and the kitties jump and scatter. I didn't realize that cats had such an acute sense of hearing.

Last night we went to hear Chick Corea at Yoshi's, courtesy of a wedding gift from a friend. Awesome. Corea looks like a friendly science teacher and plays like a monster, but I fell in love with Stanley Clarke, the bassist. What a presence. he did everything with that bass short of actually fucking it onstage and I'm sure I was not the only woman in the audience who thought about him doing that. He caressed it, slapped it, bowed it, played with it, and in general was one with his instrument.

I envy musicians having such communal fun with each other, with the audience while they are doing their art. It's a great feeling to be writing so intensely, great and also lonely. When my friend Angela was on a writer's retreat last week, it was almost like we were working together as she and I would email each other updates during the day.

Now that she's back to her real job, I email drafts to Ruth, and bless her, she manages to respond with great speed and helpfulness, even claiming that it's "fun" to be inundated with new poems. I also send them to family and friends, fairly promiscuously. My father, who has no more self-control than I do, usually responds by inflicting my early drafts on his entire email list. By the time those poems have landed in his friends' inboxes I've usually revised them.

There's a new movie out about Keats called Bright Star and of course I'm going to see it. I love seeing writers depicted in movies, especially since writing is such a boring and solitary pursuit. I mean, where's the dramatic tension in watching someone hunched over a piece of paper or a keyboard? It's not exactly The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke sticking needles full of steroids in his butt in the locker room, or any of the great bio-pics about musicians, which have plenty of wonderful concert footage.

How do you dramatize something as ethereal and often sedentary as thought? I mean, moving commas around and selecting one word over another may end up having a profound effect on a poem, but it doesn't do much visually.

My favorite writer-movie scene, because it was so highly improbable, occurred in Julia, when Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman, threw her typewriter out the window in a fit of frustration. Loved that. Would never ever ever do that, no matter how frustrated. They really should show writers opening the refrigerator door and staring at the contents, picking their noses, checking the mail obsessively, and pacing around their house, pinching dead leaves off of houseplants, only that is almost as boring and depressing as the act of writing itself.

No matter. The poems are coming. The book is getting leaner, meaner, and yet more abundant. Expansion and contraction at the same time, which is the theme for this week. I have been thinking about how there is not expansion in life without a significant contraction buried in the heart of it, and vice versa. No contraction without a strange and contradictory expansion. I could say more about this, but I have a feeling everyone reading it will have their own examples.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Christopher sent me an interesting link to an article in today's New York Times about unconditional love. This article talked about the way parents give and withhold approval from their kids in an attempt to control their children's behavior. The research shows that conditional love "works"--that is, parents are able to get their kids to be socialized, achieve, etcetera, by this method. But it produces adults who are insecure and resentful.

I wondered about this. First, I wondered What would unconditional love look like? How could a parent conceal their approval of some behaviors and their disapproval of others? Would that even be desirable?

Then I wondered, What would unconditional love feel like? I suspect it would make me uncomfortable because I am so accustomed to judgment as a way of being. It would be hard to release that. But delicious, I think. Delicious and scary. My fear for myself would be that without conditions I would descend into total sloth and selfishness. Without the fear of losing other people's love and approval I would not be motivated to exert any efforts to combat my own natural immaturity.

I thought about my Little Sister. I don't love her unconditionally. Well, I feel compassion for her, and I appreciate her funny, quirky, stubborn nature, but I can only deal with being around her if she is relatively gentle and respectful; I can't take it when she's aggressive and rude. It wears me out.

I know the deal is to separate the person from their behavior. "I love you, I just don't love it when you..." Or as my mother used to say, "I love you I just don't like you." Ecchhhh.

That hurt, when she said that. but what if it's true? What if sometimes you don't like the person you are supposed to love--or the person you do love deep-down even though right this moment you can't access that love-feeling? What do you do--dissemble? Remove yourself from the situation until the love comes back? Apply unconditional self-love as fast as possible and hope that does the trick? Man, my heart goes out to parents. This shit is hard.

Luckily, Christopher has not yet done anything that has even come close to shaking my love for him. We get annoyed and frustrated with each other at times, yes, but nothing toxic, ever. He has never made me feel like I had to choose between him and my own psychic survival. At the end of the day I can always count on his innate decency and kindness--I'd bet my life on those qualities of his. I have bet my life on them.

My Little Sister on the other hand, has worked my last nerve. She stretches me and tries me and I come up short and find myself wanting. It's hard for someone who didn't receive unconditional love as a child to learn how to give it. It's hard to unconditionally love someone who has built up thick hostile-looking walls. It's hard to love when the relationship is by its nature lopsided, when the language and culture are different, when it's inconvenient and expensive and often feels unappreciated.

Yet the more challenging it is to love in this way the more rewarding it is when the breakthrough occurs, the walls are breached, the shift happens. In her and in me.

I read the article. I understood the words. But seeing and experiencing difficult love is another animal entirely. I am such a beginner.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Today I laid down the law with my Little Sister and got great results. She was giving me attitude before my car had even left the church parking lot where I picked her up, turning up the volume to earsplitting levels on the radio--KMEL which I let her listen to, rather than NPR or KCSM the jazz stations, which I prefer--and defying my attempts to turn it down. She had that hostile, distant, closed look on her face which I've come to know and dread over the past year, the look which makes me feel like I'm dealing with a 20-year-old thug rather than a child.

I stopped the car, took a deep breath and said, "Look, I am a volunteer, do you know what that means?"

She nodded in an adults-always-lecture-you way.

I said, "Tell me what that means."

Eye-roll. "It means you want to help."

"Right, I do want to help. But I don't want to be treated badly. And I don't have to do this if I don't want to. If you can't be nice to me then you're going to have to find a new big sister."

She was quiet for about five minutes after that as we drove and I thought Uh-oh I blew it. But then she started talking like a normal 8-year-old, rattling on some stories about making a volcano out of play-doh and putting vinegar and baking soda together to make a bubbling froth to come out of it. Normal kid stuff. Amazing.

And she stayed like that for the next three and a half hours, during which we bought food coloring, made play doh, did science experiments, cleaned up science experiments, and made a batch of chocolate chip cookies. She even let me read a few pages of a kid's book to her. And we wrapped up the cookies and tied them with a ribbon for her granny and she wrote out a gift card, totally on her own initiative.

She's starting to grow up. We were talking about being the baby of the family, which she is, versus being the eldest, which I am, and she said, "When you're the baby you're spoiled, like I am." She didn't have any shame about saying that about
herself; she thought it was a good thing to be spoiled. She wouldn't want to trade her position.

When I was a kid my mother used to say that my father spoiled me and I'd feel terribly ashamed and try to prove that I wasn't spoiled. Now, I'm not even sure I know what spoiled means exactly. Is it getting what you want? What you need?

I do know that it works much better with this little girl when I set firm limits and back them up. This has not historically been my strong suit, but when pushed to the wall I can do it. (I guess the trick is to learn how to do it even when not pushed to the wall.) Some people just need to see that strong reaction from you to know that you're not kidding. Or maybe to know that you're really there.

She had taken her medication too. That may have had something to do with it.

I had been feeling lately like I wanted out of this volunteer commitment. Had even talked to the social worker at Big Brothers Big Sisters about it. It's been over a year and I couldn't feel that she was really bonded with me--not when she'd act so distant and defiant. There were many times when I felt just like a chauffeur and a meal ticket. I know this is a common experience for parents of teenagers, but it's not what I signed up for.

I couldn't figure out how to "make" her treat me with respect, but when the moment was right, those words came. And more important than the words were the eye contact I gave her, and the body language that said I really meant it.

I am no saint. And I am not always as skilled, with her or in other situations, as I would like to be. What I do give myself credit for is sheer stubbornness. She can be a tough little girl--there are a lot of good reasons why she has had to be--but I can be a tough woman too. And I like it that I don't quit. I'm glad I'm hanging in with her, despite the ADHD, despite our differences and all the other issues. She's not the only one learning and growing.