26th December, 2011
I haven’t written for a few days because a friend called me after she read my last post to say she was concerned about me, that I’d been sounding sad lately. She was right and I loved her for that. Then as it got nearer to the Christmas Day itself and I was still feeling blue I thought, well, who wants to read this shit for Christmas. But then yesterday, the Day itself, the New York Times Magazine gifted us with sad stories of “ordinary” lives, now dead. And today Dick Cavett had a good moan about Christmas, also in the Times, so I figure I’m in good company. Let me just say that today is Boxing Day for this Brit and I’d like to put my mitts on and take a jab: could we please stop with all the expectations, and hype and the awful extremes of poverty and opulence?
The truth is my sadness comes from the privilege of the multi-layered onion I call my life. I am not being blown-up in Baghdad, raped in Syria or having battery acid thrown at my face in India for insufficient dowry funds. I am not homeless, hungry or unloved. Although, while I have not, to-date, been blown up or disfigured by misogyny I have, during the course of my time on planet earth, been raped, homeless, hungry and unloved.
Sadness, like grief, is a solitary experience and sometimes the two coincide, even in the absence of death. My sadness, lately, comes from the inability to be in 2 places at once: I cannot be in England with my sick brother while also showing up here for another relative who is suffering. So I am sad about that. The grief comes from not having shown up as a mother, way back then, when the damage gets done, as it was to my child and before that, to me when my mother gave me up and the one who raised me couldn’t mother me.
I guess what I’m getting to here is that while these recent situations would have been difficult at any time of the year, Christmas makes it all worse. The Promise of Perfection that Christmas bears down on us is unbearable. To expect that on the same day every year we will all bask in the glow of a perfect family whilst opening perfect presents by a perfect tree is truly a form of insanity. And talking of trees, could someone tell me why it’s ok to butcher, every single year, yet another magnificent, ancient pine, or spruce or fir, in order to prop it up in Rockerfeller Center for a couple of weeks? I walked past this year’s on the way to the dentist last week and had to turn away; it was like looking at murder dressed up as joy.
What is wrong with us?
For years we had an artificial tree: no needles on the floor, no guilt, no bagging the damn thing for the garbage. The first Christmas after we moved to this apartment we bought a huge “real” one and brought all the ornaments out of storage, ornaments collected over nearly 40 years, some of them handmade by our kids.
Last year we again bought a huge tree, screwed it into its stand and looked at it for a night, planning to decorate the next day. But when the next day arrived I felt overwhelmed, all those lights, the decorations, those annoying little hooks you hang everything on, the decision as to which side of the tree should face front. I thought oh, f–k it, got the hack saw and spent an hour removing the lower two thirds of its branches, wrapped some white lights around the remaining ones and called it an installation. It received more compliments than any tree of Christmases Past.
We decided to do the same thing this year but the thought of sawing off all those branches was just too much. So we went for this.
Next year I might settle for a pile of pine needles on the floor, or maybe go some place where there are palm trees.
I’m sure…I hope…that many of you were in better spirits this Christmas than yours truly, and that you enjoyed time with family and friends. But I think you might be in the minority. Looking around New York this season I noticed a lot less lights and trees in apartment windows. The economy, I’m sure, has much to do with this. And maybe we’re all a bit tired of the pretense, the over-indulgence and the emptiness at the core. Maybe what we’d really like is no more bombing, no more rape, no more corporate greed, less tinsel, more compassion. Isn’t that what Christmas was originally about? Taking in a homeless family and letting love shine in the dark?
16th December, 2011
I write the date and it looks familiar, someone’s birthday perhaps? Three days ago was the 109th anniversary of my father’s birthday, or at least the man I grew up thinking was my father. He died at the age of 67. I was 23. I hadn’t seen him for 4 years. And then 2 years after he died I found out he was my adoptive father. I remember the day I found that out. But not the date. You’d think you’d remember a date that eventful.
Time. I understand it less and less the more of it I spend. A friend of mine wrote me recently that she tries to stay in the moment as much as possible, that the past and the future are so compelling but one has sadness and the other fear. I’m with her. Although today the moment keeps getting away from me.
Mark time. Waste time. Spend time. Save time. Take time. Lost time.
That first one, mark time, that’s what get’s us into trouble. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas. New Year. I am not in the moment with Christmas. It just doesn’t live up to itself or the memories of it. I find myself thinking of childhood Christmases when my imperfect family managed to be perfect for a day – actually 2, I grew up with Boxing Day. Until I was 10 I don’t remember a Christmas that let me down. Carol singing in nursing homes and on doorsteps. The fruitcake mother made at the end of October, burying it in a tin of confectioner’s sugar, dousing it weekly with a bit of sherry. Then the magic of the last week when it would be coated in marzipan before a thick layer of royal icing was slicked on with a wet palette knife until it’s surface glistened. The final coat of icing was applied on Christmas Eve, the icing roughed up with a fork to resemble snow before a snowman and a red robin were plonked down on it, the circumference of the cake graced by a red satin ribbon. The smell of mince pies wafting through the house and on the day itself a goose and a ham with all the trimmings.
This was the day of the year when the budgeted rigidity of my working class family let down its hair. Chocolates, a balsa wood box of dates, clementines, a bowl of nuts and yes, my father roasting chestnuts on the open fire. The house, festooned with streamers, the tree modest and magical. Presents were minimal, my favorite always being a new book from my godmother whom I only met once. Then church and back in time to baste the goose once more before gathering around the radio to listen to the Queen’s speech. In the late afternoon, the four of us sitting at a card table in front of the fire, pulling Christmas Crackers and donning the paper hats. Playing board games while munching on a piece of that delicious cake.
Even thought it all fell apart after 10 years, first with my brother leaving home, then my father having an affair and finally my leaving at 16, those early Christmases remain in my mind as the most precious of memories and although I tried valiantly for years with boyfriends, husbands, different sets of in-laws, with my child and step-children, I never achieved what my parents achieved for those 2 days. Of course, the other 363 were pretty much crap in our house, but those 2 days of perfection led me to believe that a happy family was possible to have.
Now my brother lies in hospital, hoping to be well enough to go home for the holidays, where he and his wife have kept our childhood Christmases intact all these years.
Time. No matter how much we try to mark it and measure it, it comes and goes with or without us.
I just ordered Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” in preparation for reading, with a friend in the New Year, Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” Or as some prefer – “Remembrance of Things Past.” I wonder if that’s why Alzheimer’s is so frightening to many of us. Do we feel that to be unable to remember anything, from mere seconds ago to all the way back to the beginning means that our lives didn’t count. One of the first questions doctors ask a patient to diagnose Alzheimer’s is “What is the date?” The second question, “Who is the President of the United States?” might be a question most of us in our right minds would rather not remember.
Joel’s father had Alzheimers. And what I learned about time from him is that you are who you are even if you don’t remember who you are. In those final years, from when his short term memory slipped, until he was in the nursing home in a diaper, he was quintessentially Hy Meyerowitz. His spirit, his life force, his power of communication was always present.
The day before he died I spent an hour alone with him. At this point he had not one memory left and had lost the power of speech. I held is hand and he held mine, his forefinger moving over my skin like a metronome while with his eyes he told me everything left to tell. We were in the moment and it was immeasurable.
8th December, 2011
Yesterday was what I call a luxurious New York City Day. We never left the apartment! And you know, it’s just not done in this city. There’s an implicit demand that you “experience” what New York has to offer, never mind that you should constantly be engaged with its relentless energy. As if to stop would be, if not the end of the world, certainly the end of your own.
But me, I love to stay home in New York. It’s such a relief. I’m not talking about lazing on the couch all day with a box of chocolates and some glossies – although I might just do that, too. In fact, I did 2 loads of laundry, paid some bills and spent nearly 5 hours working on my final draft of the Provence text for submission to the publishers. Joel meanwhile, was working on his edit. We broke for lunch and watched the rain, the river a pale soggy ribbon, the sky a sad shade of grey. Late afternoon we lit the fire and sat side by side on the couch; Joel going through a stack of Provence photos while I read aloud to him from my text, words and images colliding, supporting, juxtaposing, creating the alchemy of our shared and separate experience. And still the rain came, increasing in volume and driven by fierce gusts of wind, it hammered against the panes as we drifted into sleep.
What a difference a day makes…24 little hours. At noon today I sat in the dentist chair managing a few minutes of enjoyment as I took in the view of the Cathedral of St. Patrick’s spires piercing the space in front of a classic Manhattan backdrop – all glass and modernity, the rectangular planes creating an atmosphere of wealth and competition. I knew, had known for a couple of months that all was not well on the upper left side. A false tooth on an implant had got a small chip in it over the summer and then one day, while chewing on a baguette in Provence a deep dull sensation made me feel that if I bit down too hard something would give, and not in a generous way.
If you are my age and grew up in England teeth, one way or another, will not fare well. They will either arrive in your mouth at odd intervals and sit in complete disarray while being nationally accepted as part of one’s eccentric birthright, or they will be sadistically abused by dentists of the NHS.
My first dental adventure, at the age of 4, was with the visiting school dentist who, without even the slightest greeting, ordered me into the chair, promptly stuck a contraption in my mouth to keep it open, gassed me, pulled a tooth (without any forewarning by her or my mother) and when I came to crying, told me to pull myself together.
For some reason I have one of the few sets of naturally straight, even teeth in the British Realm, but like much in my life, appearances aren’t everything. My choppers may look good but strong they ain’t. They’ve been drilled, filled, filed, pulled, bridged and finally, implanted. My career as a sugar addict and reluctant flosser I’m sure has nothing to do with it.
Once the dentist entered the room today I immediately lost my enthrallment with the view, especially as I closed my eyes at the same time. I do not want to see anything: no spiky things, no drills, pincers, needles, saws, hammers, tongs or any of the other atrocious “tools” of the trade. And I really resent the sound they make. How anyone can calmly recline and trust that all will be well while listening to the high-pitched scream of the Nazi drill INSIDE YOUR MOUTH is beyond me and inexcusable. People who say they don’t mind going to the dentist either have no teeth or no ability to experience the human range of feeling of which FEAR is one of the biggest.
I try, I really do. I try to breathe, relax my shoulders, unwind my legs, release the pressure of my nails digging into my skin, but terror courses through me. Is this the price of imagination or am I, in fact, the weakling the school dentist judged me to be? I’m sorry, but do you know how close your upper teeth are to your brain? What if the drill gets carried away? What if the dentist sneezes? You could lose your tongue for chrissakes.
My dentist is a really good dentist. And he’s a really good man. But he’s still a dentist and right now I can tell that this tooth that I paid thousands of dollars for is not going to go gently. It’s belligerent. And I just know that any second now I’m going to experience the kind of pain humans are not equipped to survive. I raise my hand. He stops. I tell him it’s nerve-wracking. He agrees and brings in the gas. I am so thrilled. Look, I’m old enough to get to choose whether I die of fear or die happy. What’s to choose?
After a few minutes I’m tripping on the way the patterned masonry of one of the spires surrenders its decades of meticulous carving and lets the sun fling it into abstract shapes that float on the surface of an un-windowed wall. And I think how lovely it would be if I could work on doing that with fear: if I could just surrender my rigidity to the light.
As it turns out my fear is not unfounded. The dentist feels there is trouble with the implant itself and decides to numb the area. He’s great with a needle. That’s a talent. After a few more heart-rending screams from the whirligig the tooth relents and departs the upper left side complete with implant. That’s right. The whole $7,000 drops into the palm of his hand. And when we look at the titanium post we see there in not a trace of bone attached to it. In other words my bone rejected it from the get go. Hmmm, I say to myself, I’m really glad that didn’t happen when I broke my neck 21 years ago and they grafted someone else’s rib onto 4 vertebrae in order to literally hold me together.
It’s not pretty right now when I smile. In fact it looks a bit British. But my neck’s still holding up my head. My brain is as intact as it will ever be. And I can walk. I think I’ll leave the implant under my pillow tonight. Let’s see what the tooth fairy thinks of that!
5th December, 2011
Okay. Done with death. I’m sure that’s a relief to many of our dear readers. It certainly is for me!
We caught the train to Providence this past weekend. Not quite Provence, and certainly not Provincetown, thank God. In fact, we took the train because to go by car would have meant driving the first 3 hours of the Cape journey and I wanted nothing to do with that. I had booked us Business seats, thinking it frugally sensible to not spend an extra 100 bucks a piece and assuming that it was, well, business class, you know, a step up from Economy. But train-land is different than plane-land.
At first it was all very jolly. We got 2 seats together, opened up the tray tables and set out our cheese and crackers and 2 lovely pears. The conductor was jolly, too, asking us “Where’s the wine?” And he actually punched holes in our tickets with one of those clipper things that conductors used in days of yore. We watched him work his way down the car, greeting everyone with bonhomie, chatting with a few regulars, mainly men, who obviously caught this Friday afternoon train, originating in Washington and ending in Boston. Gosh, I thought, how lucky these men are, to be leaving work so early on a Friday. Maybe the country’s not in as bad shape as we feared.
Within 15 minutes, however, I began to understand the meaning of Business. The laptops and phones were out and in use, some had 2 phones going at once. Everyone was wheeling and dealing in full stage voice. And the things they were saying! One guy let us all know that he and whomever he was talking to – besides us – had been pre-approved for 15 million and could draw down 2 on Monday. It was the first time hacking seemed like something I could get into. Another guy across the aisle was looking for a job and left voicemail for someone whom I hoped was not dying, that’s how many times the job seeker said how he hoped “he” was well.
The guy behind me made several calls of complaint. The same complaint. And it was an ironic doozy. Evidently it had taken him 3 days to find someone in the office who could overnight a package for him! The guy in front was busy using nouns for verbs, my favorite being when he told his silent partner that they could “hotel the whole thing.” But really, apart from the 15 million, we listened for two and half hours to the most inane and desperate one-sided conversations imaginable and I thought, oh, the country is in worse shape that we had feared. It was like being in an office complex on wheels and the crazy thing was, every time the train passed a city, like say, New Haven or New London, there, out the window, were empty, possibly foreclosed, office complexes.
When the conductor came back our way we asked him where the Quiet car was. For some crazy reason I thought there’d be plenty of available seats there. Wrong. Which although a drag in one way, was actually thrilling in another: there are more people than you would think who want to be quiet. Of course, it’s all relative. I didn’t actually see anyone reading, or gazing dreamily out the window. They were all, I mean all, digitally connected, earbuds in place as they worked the screens of their pods, pads and ‘puters.
But Providence saved us. Our dear friends K + P with whom we had rendezvoused in Provence in October, for a picnic in the woods, once again adventured us: a tour by car and later on foot, of their historic neighborhood, the streets boasting architecturally unique houses, the nabe sprinkled with enough bakeries, cafes, boutiques and…a real bookstore to give it a lively atmosphere. Their home, although still a work in progress, mainly done and fabulous, an old factory with storeys and stories. We listened to jazz, ate French food and learned the next layer of our personal histories and after a good night’s sleep and a breakfast of croissant, pain chocolate and damn good coffee they lent us their groovy convertible and we whizzed off to another historic town on the water to spend a day and a night with a woman who is one of my heroes.
When we arrived she told me she had just read my latest post: The Ultimate Companion, and I felt, if not quite guilty, perhaps a little insensitive not to have forewarned her of its subject, for she lost her soulmate last year. It’s part of what makes her one of my heroes, as I have watched her amazing courage in the face of this loss. And, in fact, it was being with her and her family this weekend that put me back in the land of the living. Because living, she is. With style and generosity, with yes, of course, sadness, but curiosity, also, and laughter.
In June when Joel and I left the Cape house for the last time, I dug up 2 of my roses and a lavender plant which we took to her on our way back to New York. I desperately needed a piece of my land to keep on living in a place where I could sometimes visit, under the care of of someone I trust and love. And also, I had wanted to gift her a living thing of beauty. This weekend, on her kitchen window sill, we all watched as a small coral rosebud slowly opened, its perfume issuing from its center. It was the bonus rose of the season.
Photo by a friend
It had been a sickly plant when I bought it 5 years ago, hovering between life and death the first 2 years until I gave it more space, and then it took off, climbing the fence and blooming profusely from early summer to late autumn. I knew when I uprooted it in June that it would survive. Knew that it would adapt to the new climate. The name of this rose is “America.”
1st December, 2011
Last night, whilst waiting for friends to arrive for dinner, we sit by the fire and Joel reads to me from my already drastically slashed Provence manuscript. The draft he reads from has been further “edited” by me, so that there are pieces he reads which until this moment had been eliminated.
Slashed, edited, eliminated. As I listen to him read my words, I feel that “slashed” best describes the method I have been using. To my mind, slash is as close to slaying – and as brutal as one can get. To slash, is to personally attack and destroy the personal, which, as I listen, is shockingly what I feel I have done with this manuscript. I have slashed that which is most personal in order to provide the Commissioners with the “travel brochure” I think they want. I am appalled and saddened. Where is my courage, my discernment?
That’s one of the problems with a commission: one is hired to fulfill someone else’s, I was going to say vision, but that’s entirely wrong. The commissioner rarely has a vision. What they have is a need to fill an idealogical space. I like to think Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine Chapel quite differently if it had been his ceiling and not the Vatican’s. I like to think that instead of God touching forefingers with a mere mortal that the use of the mortal’s middle finger might have been indicated.
Our friends arrive: 2 remarkable men, a photographer and writer, from Italy. One we have know for 17 years since he was in his mid 20’s. We have watched his life both unfold and get caught, like everyone’s does. As the four of us talk over dinner, and later around the fire, I am both amazed and inspired. I’m amazed that I am this old. That I was once that young. I am amazed at the distance I have come from a kind of personal turmoil that they are in the midst of. I am amazed that I feel as young as them and in some ways even younger and amazed that I survived what they are now learning to survive.
And I am inspired by them. By their friendship – with each other and with us. I am inspired by their creative collaboration and their dedication to their creativity in spite of the trials of love and life. Is that a male thing? The ability to turn to the work no matter what? Me? I use to have to drink a bottle of brandy at that age, to kill the pain, so that I could go into my studio. It has always amazed me, this oxymoron, that back then, in order to create I had to destroy myself.
Is it our recent illnesses, my brother’s surgery, the illness of a close friend, that has me reading Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights” – her recent memoir about the death of her daughter which came shortly after the death of her – Didion’s – husband? Am I reading this because right now I need proof that you can survive the unsurvivable?
Death. Let’s put it in writing. Death, the ultimate companion. The lifelong presence that greets us at birth. What if it’s not the grim reaper? Why the drama? What if it’s a great adventure? But let’s get real: there are 2 kinds of death; your own and the death of loved ones. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not keen on dying myself. Not at the moment. Although I have desperately wanted it at various times in my life. And then there have been the moments of feeling its benevolent embrace. Moments usually experienced in nature, when the oneness, the blissful oneness of self and universe, feels like the perfect moment to die.
And there’s the rub: the demand for a perfect death. God’s pointy touching ours. So these days I’m working on the possibility of embracing that final moment in whatever form it arrives. My perfect death would be to leave laughing. Which seems a lot to ask if, say, one goes down in a flaming plane. Is it the surrender to pain that seems humanly impossible and therefore makes the less than “perfect” death so unacceptable? Is that why this culture views mortality as a disease?
But isn’t it the other death that is truly unsurvivable? The death of the loved one: the spouse, parent, child. I’ve long felt this to be the unconscious reason why the majority of humanity doesn’t achieve the fulfillment of love, in spite of insisting they want it. Who really wants to love that much knowing that loss is guaranteed. Someone has to die first. Someone has to survive the unsurvivable. Who wants to sign on for that? And yet we do do. Some of us. Who was it who said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”?
The longer Joel and I love each other the harder it becomes to imagine life without the other. In the morbid moments we have spent contemplating the inevitable we have wept like babies while declaring the old cliche, “life wouldn’t be worth living.”
Well, f–k that! I’m sorry, but who ever is left standing must do the living. So now we are trying to help each other prepare for loss.The loss of the other’s physical presence, the loss of the shared laughter and ongoing dialogue. We’re trying to convince each other that who ever is left behind will feel the spirit of the other and that that spirit will encourage us to not only survive the terrible gasp of absence upon waking each day, but will get us out of bed, will urge us to shower, to prepare and eat breakfast, to listen to music, to notice the morning sun illuminating the dull facade of a building, to meet a friend, watch a movie, help a stranger, revel in the growth of a grandchild, allow one’s own child to boss one just a little, to put on the lipgloss and maybe even have the courage to do alone what you both had planned to do together.
Is any of this possible? I have no idea. That’s what really kills me. But I do know this: I do not have to slash myself while still alive in order to fit into someone else’s coffin.