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.