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.