Yearly Archives: 2012

A KIND OF HUSH


December 28 2012       
We’ve entered that moment, pre-departure, when the bags are packed, the many lists have been completed, doctors’ appointments done, a tooth replaced, presents wrapped and unwrapped, our Christmas celebrated with a gathering of family and friends, farewells taken, tears spent and, this afternoon, a massage for each of us. Now what?

There’s a kind of hush that seems to fall in the hours before going away, almost like flat-lining, and one feels neither here nor there. When this happens I’m ready to be there already, but this time I also feel the pull of leaving the familiarity of life lived in a place called home.

The hush is interrupted once in a while by little blips of panic. Well, flying, who loves it these days? And of course, there is snow forecast for the morrow. We’re a little bit like 2 kids right now, both wondering what on earth we are doing and wondering if we’ll get into trouble doing it. A whole year in Europe. It sounds so exciting doesn’t it? Every one we tell opens their eyes wide and tells us how great, how inspiring it is, but let’s tell the truth…who can plan a year? I keep telling everyone, well, you know, real life happens wherever you go. I don’t know if I’m trying to ease their envy or whether I’m reminding myself that really I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

We do seem to have a lot of ideas about what we want to do. First on the list being sleep, for days if necessary. And then we’ll discover the secrets of the house that will be our home for the first four months. We have ideas about taking walks and riding bicycles, of going to markets and cooking meals from local produce. We hope to play scrabble by the fire and visit and be visited by friends. I have the bright idea of taking the flight of stone steps two at a time, up to the top of the village, a sort of lunge-while-you-look routine to keep my recently toned thighs, toned. And reading. Lots of reading.

We talk of village we will revisit, of beginning new creative projects, separately and together, learning a bit more French that the bit we have. We’ll take the train to Paris for a few days and hopefully enjoy some lunches at our favorite restaurant in St. Remy…and while we’re there, pick-up some of those delicious chocolates.

We’re looking forward to leaving the cityscape behind and waking up to the peace and beauty of the countryside; of letting go of certain types of obligations, letting go of the calendar, letting go of ambition, just letting go and accepting that whatever happens was always out of our control.

Happy New Year to you all…we’ll keep you posted!

CHRISTMAS PRESENT

December 24 2012          
Thirty-seven years ago on Christmas Eve, I took my tiny toddler of a daughter to a frosty field in upstate New York. There, under the night sky, with a borrowed hacksaw, I felled a tiny Christmas tree while the 2 of us wept.

Those were our welfare days, a food stamp Christmas, the tree, free, because we were the last customers of the season. While my daughter slept I stayed up to decorate the tree. I may have been poor but I was creative; as the saying goes: “necessity is the mother of invention.” And so it was that for weeks, every time I had made us scrambled eggs for our dinner I had pierced each egg at both ends and blown out the eggs, leaving the shells intact. With a bit of glue and glitter I decorated some 20 eggshells with the names of those we loved and hung them on our humble tree.

It’s that time of year, isn’t it, when nostalgia weaves around us like a ribbon of mist, wrapping us in memories, some dear, and some not so much…the hopes and fears of all the years….

This year I have been preparing for Christmas with great pleasure. Have wrapped each present as soon as it was bought or made, have hung the wreath, invented this year’s tree… 
   Maggie’s Photo
…made the butternut squash soup and thimble cookies and, as I write, Joel is in the kitchen preparing the Provençal fish stew for tomorrow’s dinner. There will be 12 of us, each of us well blessed. And mingled with the gratitude I feel, is the sadness and the tears that visit everyday as thoughts arise of those slaughtered children and poor parents and all those still homeless from the hurricane. It must be a burden to be named Sandy right now.

I don’t know how to reconcile all these feelings, nor, I think, is it necessary to. Time is not as linear as we insist it be. Every moment is in every moment.

This morning, as I came into the kitchen I smelled my father’s cigar. He allowed himself one a year, always on Christmas Day, his gift to himself. Although he’s been gone 42 years and it was 5 years before that that I last saw him, I can see him right now, sitting in his armchair by the fire, puffing on that cigar while the chestnuts roast.

I don’t know how they did it, but my parents managed every Christmas Day to be the people they were incapable of being the rest of the year. They seemed able, for that one day, to muster the kind of love and generosity and humor that was nowhere to be seen the other 364. Mother baking fruitcake and mince pies, Dad in charge of the goose and ham. The house and tree magically decorated on Christmas Eve while my brother and I slept. The presents at the end of our beds, Santa’s sooty fingerprints on the envelope that had held our wish lists. My brother and I devouring chocolates, the Queen’s speech, the paper crowns and the radio rich with festive music and then, my favorite moment, when the card table was erected in front of the fire and the 4 of use would play a game called Happy Families. For one day every year, that’s what we were, a happy family.

There have been many families since then …that’s what you get for having married 5 times! Not many of those families were happy. The demand for perfection that Christmas brings is such a set-up for disappointment and yet we try, millions of us, year after year, to be a happy family for just one day. But happiness can’t be bought or baked on demand. We would be better off spreading our effort at it throughout the year. A little more kindness to those we tend to ignore, to those we hold resentment against, to those whom we have failed.

I was in a shop with my daughter last week and an item reminded me of her father…husband #2. Suddenly I was right back there 40 odd years ago as we gave each other precious nicknames and pledged each other eternal love. We went on to fail each other miserably and as a consequence caused pain to the daughter we loved so much.

I bought the item and sent it to him; a way of saying that those good moments we shared were not only as real as all the painful ones, but in fact are the ones that remain most treasured after all these years. This morning I received a card from him saying it was good to have warm memories of our past.

And so it goes: Christmas Past, Christmas Present.

To all of you, dear readers, dear friends, dear family, I wish you moments of joy, of remembrance, of kindness. And may we all practice peace and healing in 2013.

TAKE THIS

December 9 2012                        
I’m in sorting mode: going through cupboards and shelves and drawers in the hope of winnowing our material life down to some final quantity of necessity, not only in terms of what to take with us for a year in Europe, but what to leave behind. It feels a bit like going forward and backward at the same time.

I love this type of decision-making: the piles of ‘stay,’ ‘go,’ ‘throw,’ and ‘donate.’ It’s a kind of decision-making that makes making decisions so much simpler i.e.,there’s less to choose from. And yet, even I, known amongst family and friends to be the great ‘tosser-outer,’ even I hold on to some things. My wedding shoes have survived years of footwear purging, even though I only wore them on our Tuscan wedding day. A pair of cream, kid leather, kitten-heeled, sling-backs, these shoes carried me on the mile-long walk to the colonnade of cypress trees between which we pledged our love, to dancing back along that road accompanied by an accordionist and 50 friends and family members. They rested for a while beneath the banquet table while we filled up on 5 courses of fine local food and many speeches of love and remembrance, and then my slippered feet danced me through the night.

Why do I keep them? Well, apart from my tiny drawstring purse, they’re all I have left of my wedding outfit, the dress having long ago been devoured by moths and the cardigan shrunk in the wash. I’ll never wear them again, I don’t need to, although I do still harbor a dream that my daughter might one day wear them to her own wedding.

I’m certainly not getting rid of my teddy bear either. Ted has been with me since birth and like me he’s a bit worse for wear, having a bad burn on his bum and limbs that are hanging on by a thread. And, like me, he’s been sticking out his tongue at the world on a daily basis. So, Ted stays. But does he stay here or go with me to Europe? Is it totally pathetic to be this old and be seriously thinking of traveling with a teddy bear? Don’t answer.

   Photo by Maggie


It is interesting to observe, as the date for departure draws closer, how, along with the excitement of going on this journey, there also arises the attachment to that being left behind. I often boast of not be attached to the material world, but I’m finding that’s not entirely true. I’d like to say I have the courage to pack only clothes, much like when I put on my rucksack at age 17 and hitched around Europe for 3 months with nothing but a sleeping bag, a change of undies, 1 skirt, 2 tops, a pair of pedal-pushers, 1 pair of sandals, a turquoise bikini and a mini-dress which I ironed with a hot light bulb one evening, in a pension in Monaco. Even some of those few things got chucked during the last week of the trip when, penniless, and dying for a ciggy, my girlfriend and I hitched a ride with a cigarette salesman who generously offered us as many cartons as we could make room for.

For years we’ve been going to Tuscany with one checked and one carry-on apiece, sometimes for as long as 4 months. True, I have taken my espresso pot and manual milk-frother, some candles, and this past summer a collection of 5 stones. 

                                                                     Photo by Maggie

But in the last couple of weeks the shelves dedicated to stuff we’re taking seem to be accumulating things like favorite DVD’s, a years worth of my hair gel and toothpaste – well, let’s face it, if your hair and your teeth stay in place you can pretty much survive anything! But also creeping onto the shelves are things like pop-up sponges, a scrabble game, a tiny, much cherished present from my daughter and a small album of wedding photos.


As I look around our home now, I see so many things I think I’ll miss: gifts we’ve made each other, works of art, the teapot collection. And yet the truth is I’ll probably not miss anything. That’s the point isn’t it, to really fly the coop with just the wind beneath our wings?

What I’ll really miss is our family and friends. Today our godson’s baby daughter is being named. She’s one week and one day old. She’ll be more than a year old before we first lay eyes on her. Yes, our nearest and dearest will visit us ‘over there’ and there’s Skype. But I’ll miss linking my daughter’s arm on a regular basis. I’ll miss our Brooklyn Saturday’s with Joel’s daughter, her husband and our 4 year-old, granddaughter. I’ll miss the dinners and laughter and intimate talks with our friends. One friend, who I’ve known for 40 years and who is herself traveling in Europe right now, wrote how sad she is that we won’t see each other before I leave. At her age, she said, one doesn’t know if one will ever see old friends again. In fact, I am moved beyond words by how many people are telling us they are sad we’re leaving and I think, how ironic that I, who have longed to belong all my life, am choosing to leave all the people to whom I belong, as they do to me.

There are some decisions that seem so easy to make at the time you make them, but everything comes with a price. And some decisions are made more difficult because they straddle categories e.g., people and places, two different categories. It’s not like choosing between which pair of shoes to keep. 

As someone who has long lived outside my country of birth and upbringing, I have often been faced with choosing between people and place. In the end I always chose to be with the ones I love. But I’ve had a hankering to return to my side of the Atlantic to live, once more, while I still can. The choice is made easier by the support of our family and by the fact that we have many good friends ‘over there.’

Who knows, at the end of a year, where we’ll end up living? Wherever it is, I’ll be taking my wedding shoes, and Ted.

THINK BEFORE YOU FLING


December 2 2012                          
I am so glad November is over; it’s not just this one, I’ve never liked Novembers.
There’s a gloom I feel in the penultimate month, no matter where I’ve lived on the planet. Is it the shortening of the days, the light leaving us in a sphere of diminishment? I don’t think so, as I rather like the coziness of a winter evening. I think it has more to do with a sense of time running out. Rather like Sundays, late afternoon, back in my schooldays. When the church clock tolled – rather than pealed – 4 o’clock, a sense of dread would envelope me; dread that my homework was improperly done, if done at all, and the longing for the freedom and fun of the weekend to last forever.

So I suppose in terms of the measurement of a year, November is my Sunday 4 p.m.,  the 11th month as opposed to the 11th hour, but with the same emotional atmosphere of sadness for time lost, or wasted, or not used to its fullest capacity. So it’s a relief to be in December; to feel energy arise as it does when one has a last fling at anything. Now there’s a word, ‘fling’ both carefree and careless. When you fling a party or an insult it is without aforethought, design or intention; a devil-may-care action that has an unbalanced mix of impulse and daring inflicted with a total lack of regard for the outcome as in “flinging caution to the wind.”

I’ve had a few flings in my time, most of them in my alcoholic years and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy them. The dictionary defines a fling as a brief period of indulging one’s impulses. So yes, there’s been a lot flings flying around in my life. And December seems to me to be the quintessential fling of the year: a month of near-universal indulgence; food, drink, parties, gifts and the Rockettes, flinging their legs heavenward. Then there’s tinsel flinging, the last ornamental hurrah, not to mention the shops flinging Christmas at us for weeks and while you’re at it fling a few more chestnuts on the fire.

Of course, all flings carry consequences; a few extra inches around the waist, hangovers for many, over spending for most. And there are the flings that end in broken hearts. Looking back, one can see that all that good fun wasn’t really that good or that much fun in the long run. 

The urge to fling, it seems to me, comes from having spent to much time feeling hemmed in by outside circumstances; the economy, politics, natural disasters, but what about the personal circumstances (barring the loss of loved ones). What choices and decisions, looking back, could we have made differently? In what ways could we have treated ourselves and others more kindly, thereby fulfilling ourselves to the extent that the impulse to fling would not arise?

As I write this, I caution myself not to go from gloom to fling, but rather enter into the true spirit of the season. To enjoy the perfume of pine trees, to cook for friends, donate more money to the victims of Sandy, play some silly games by the fire and hopefully to bake thimble cookies with my daughter which for the two of us is not only a once-a-year tradition but is a humble reminder of the distance we journeyed separately and together.

Our recipe comes from a little cookbook that we bought at a library fair when my daughter was five. Those were our poverty years, years when I worked 3 waitressing shifts a day in 3 different cafes. Months of borrowing cars to pick up my daughter from her father’s house, some 20 miles away. Months of food stamps and eating grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.

I bought the cookbook because it was cheap and tattered and homemade. And inside was the simple recipe for the Thimble cookies, the ingredients of which we could just about afford. And oh, the joy, of watching my little girl put her tiny thumb into each small ball of dough, the imprint then filled with jams, an assortment of blackberry, raspberry and apricot, their colors glistening like jewels. Then there was the delight of removing the cookie sheet from the oven and admiring our work while they cooled just enough to eat one each without burning our tongues. When they were thoroughly cool, we would layer them between wax paper and place them in a cookie tin overnight and then on Christmas Day, arrange them on a platter where they lay in the splendor of their simplicity before being devoured by friends and the two of us.

To me, those cookies represent the true meaning of good fun. They are far from a fling. The whole journey from the discovery of the book at the library fair to the shopping for ingredients, the careful measuring and sifting, the blend of butter and sugar and egg, the just right little dollops of jam, the timing of their baking until not quite golden, the cooling on the rack, the airtight overnight sleep in the tin and each moment of melt in the mouth; this to me is an example of both how little and how much it takes to live a good life. We really don’t need a lot, but we do need to make the most of what we have. By that I mean honoring the pleasure inherent in each step on the path toward consciousness.

We’re counting the days now until we leave for our year in Europe. For a while I was telling people we were going to fling ourselves out into the world one more time, but I’ve changed my mind. We’re going the thimble cookie route, beginning with each new discovery along the way, a path that measures our capacity for simplicity, sifting the precious moments of each day and accepting there will be some misshapen, even burnt ones along the way, which will allow us to savor the good ones, even as they melt away.

THIS OLD HOUSE


November 19 2012                 
Well, I’m glad to report that, at least as of this week, a lot of people seem to have stepped up to the plate in terms of volunteering to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy; so much so that, according to a recent NY Times article, some of those who are still suffering in Far Rockaway are now expressing resentment at being helped by people like us, their resentment arising from the fact that we weren’t of help before the storm. 

It’s a valid point, generally speaking, in that many of us who live more fortunate lives tend not to be pro-active, on an ongoing basis, in helping the so-called have-nots. Still, it smarts. Surely trudging up flights of darkened stairs, carrying food to trapped tenants counts for something? And what about all the young people going to these areas day after day, donning masks and work gloves, demolishing and reconstructing precious homes? Or the person I read about who is trying to salvage flood-damaged photos for people who lost their homes; photographs of christenings and weddings, BBQ’s and bar mitzvahs? How tender is that?

This storm has brought up so many issues beyond the obvious ones of loss of life and property and living in the cold and dark for 3 weeks: there’s a sense of chaos and confusion and futility here that is at times overwhelming. For instance, it took me until just a couple of days ago to understand why the newspapers haven’t felt any obligation to list information on how to be of help other than donating money and supplies: it’s all done via Facebook and Twitter now. Even online searching won’t keep you in the loop, believe me, I try every day.

Occupy Sandy’s website informed us a few days ago that 2000 frozen turkeys were needed for donation and distribution in Coney Island and I couldn’t help wondering why? Are there that many working stoves yet? What about the people who still don’t have power, or who’ve lost their homes altogether? I was hoping to find places that were actually going to cook Thanksgiving dinner on the actual day. Finally today, again on Occupy Sandy’s website, I saw volunteers were needed to cook at St. Marks on the Bowery. I called immediately. Too late. Twitter beat me to it.

So what are old farts like us supposed to do? Send money? Well, why not? It’s what we’ll be doing with our kids for Christmas. Shove a check in an envelope and hope it’s put to good use.
Talking of old farts, I went to the GYN last week for my twice a year check up. Like an old jalopy put up on the blocks I surrendered to inspection; seems the engine is still purring. I go twice a year because for several years I’ve been on a low dosage of HRT, but now that I’m going away for a year a lot of things are up for reconsideration. So once I was dressed and sitting in his office I asked the gynecologist what he thought about my continuing with the hormone stuff. No problem, he said, as he filled out the prescription, but I’d have to get a mammogram before leaving the country.

I reminded him that the last 2 mammograms I’d had result in the “need” for biopsies, both of which were negative. The first, a needle biopsy, doesn’t sound like much except that this type of needle actually removes a small piece of your breast, rather like that kitchen gadget that takes little plugs out of a wheel of cheese. The second mammogram, 2 years ago, showed an area of concern that resulted in the “need” for a surgical biopsy. So just before Thanksgiving that year I joined Tom Turkey in having my breast sliced. Although the result was negative it was nonetheless a painful experience resulting in a 2-inch scar.

It was after that that I decided I was finally done with invasive procedures and therefore would be having no more mammograms. I mean, really, at this stage of life I’d rather accept the reality that something eventually is going to carry me off. Like most people I hope it will be quick and pain-free. If not, then bring on the morphine, friends, good music and the gratitude for a life well lived.

On telling all this to the good doctor he promptly threw the scrip in the waste- basket, basically telling me that it was a mammogram and HRT or nothing, and nothing. I felt enormous relief. And then he said, “If you find yourself aging too rapidly you can always change your mind.” Aging too rapidly? Is he kidding? Is there any other kind of aging? What was he inferring? Was my face going to completely dry up and fall off? Was my vagina going to hang down to my knees in crepe folds? And if so, did he, or I, or anyone really think going back to taking a little white pill was going to reverse that?  Surely a winch would be required.

Well, it is laughable, this whole idea that aging is a curable disease. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as vain as the next person and I admit it, I’ve increased my reps at the gym this week. But what I really want, more than anything, is to be comfortable in my own skin. It’s the largest organ of my body and for 66 years it’s been weathering the storms of life. Why can’t we look at each other and admire the beauty of that, the way we admire old buildings with all their cracks and patches, facades that describe their histories; histories of storms and fires and wars and the centuries of life and love lived within.

I think again of all those buildings that Sandy demolished so easily, it seemed, and all the people whose material histories were swept away, revealing the underlying reality that was there all along: nature will always be more powerful than we mortals. The only nature we have any control over is our own, yet even that comes housed in a temporary home.

JOEL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

Here’s something that may be of interest while waiting for the next post.

The review is available online here: http://nyti.ms/UvwImG

NEWS FROM THE FRONT

November 10 2012                
We just got back from a day of volunteering in the Far Rockaways. For those of you unfamiliar with the five boroughs that make up New York City, this area is the furthest eastern shore of Queens. It, like Lower Manhattan, Red Hook and Staten Island, took the full brunt of Hurricane Sandy, but unlike lower Manhattan it still, after nearly 2 weeks, does not have electricity, therefore no water, heat or light. No TV. No reading. No fridge. No toilet flushing and, from what we saw today, not a lot of hope for recovery anytime soon.

It’s not just the thousands of downed trees, the smashed cars or the boats that ended up in backyards of those unable to afford a boat. It’s not just the caved in roofs, the torn siding, the closed storefronts or the long lines of people waiting for gas; some in cars and some on foot with plastic containers. It’s the sense of futility, of fear, of how close we all are any given moment to total chaos and breakdown. The infrastructure ain’t what we think it is. In fact, there isn’t a true infrastructure. We live in a domino game and eventually it won’t matter what color you are, it’ll all come tumbling down.

The volunteer center today was an enormous parking lot filled with racks of clothing and tables of supplies waiting to be sorted and distributed. A line of people in need went round the block. They waited a long time. It seemed incredibly disorganized and we wouldn’t realize for hours why. It turns out this was a “political” event. Some local councilman, I believe, got some people to donate, got John Legend to show up for a photo op and then the two of them left, leaving a few real organizers to make sense of everything. And we call this a super power?


It’s not that the day was a waste of time, it wasn’t. The people who lined up eventually received clothing, toiletries, food, water and other much needed supplies. When the food trucks finally arrived those of us who were volunteering to go door-to-door, formed a human chain, passing boxes of sandwiches, juice, fruit and energy bars down the line. Then we filled plastic shopping bags with 2 of everything, piled the loaded bags back into the boxes and then into the trunks of cars and vans and, along with those of us who were without vehicles, drove to the projects on the edge of the sea.

It was like driving through post-apocalypse. No traffic lights. Lots of intersections, no traffic lights. People dragging trolleys of supplies. People lining up outside decrepit churches. The thing is, these people were already on their knees before Sandy came and kicked them in the teeth. The atmosphere of desolation and chaos was overwhelming, ambulances and fire engines on every other street and even with truckloads of National Guards and utility trucks there was the sense that nothing was ever going to be enough to fix this. 

And then we arrived at the Projects. I don’t know how that name came about, but let me tell you these projects are unfinished. They rise up into the sky without a trace of spiritual uplift.

           This is the building we went door to door in
The first building we had been assigned was swarming with National Guards who told us the building had already been checked and food delivered. So we carried all the boxes of food to the next building. There were about 20 of us assigned to this area and Joel and I were the oldest by at least 30 to 40 years. The building had 17 floors. The stairways and labyrinthine hallways were pitch dark even though it was mid-day. The smell of urine and feces was powerful. We worked our way down long, never-ending corridors, knocking on doors, calling out to let people know we were volunteers, not looters. Most of the lower floors were deserted, the residents having fled to god-knows where. A few doors would crack open on their chains, the tenant trying to figure out if we were friend or foe. There were more people on the higher floors, many of them unable to walk that many flights. In the lobby, an elderly man was catching his breath before making his way back up to his 10th floor home.

The whole thing was totally disorganized and as a result immensely frustrating. People needed flashlights and batteries. We had none. We all wanted to do more. So many young people had turned out to be of help, they felt like a ray of hope. I guess what we all learned today is that you can never help everyone. Ever.

It reminds me of the story of the little boy walking along a beach littered with thousands of stranded starfish. He starts picking them up and putting them back in the sea. An old man coming toward him says, basically, what a waste of time, he’ll never save them all and the little boy says, but even if I save one…

A terrible thing has happened to New York. And like the 2004 Tsunami and last year in Japan, these natural disasters not only will continue, but increase. Sooner or later we will all suffer. But what’s heartbreaking now is that it is the poor who are taking the worst of it.

As the afternoon started to darken we headed back to the parking lot where buses would take us into Manhattan. It’s always been a depressing ride coming in from JFK, but now it’s frightening. You look at the seedy buildings and cemeteries, the crumbling overpasses and the garbage and as you near Manhattan you see its wealthy thrust is an illusion. The wealthy got lucky this time and are carrying on as though because nothing happened to them, nothing happened. They might not be so lucky next time. 

I tell you, if you spend a day out in Far Rockaway the whole city will look different to you. You will not be able to look at it without conjuring a picture of the absolute pandemonium of 8 million people trying to flee disaster.

Yet, as a friend of mine wrote me today: “There is so little time left to still enjoy life on earth why not make the best of it even if sometimes our hearts are so heavy.”

I’m with her. I have a pot of homemade soup on the stove. Joel is napping beside me. We have a fresh baguette for tomorrow’s breakfast. So yes, let’s enjoy. But please, let’s also spare a little time to be of help to others. And can we all, please, try to be a little more conscious of taking care of this precious planet?

A SMALL OFFERING


November 6 2012                     
These days, between the hurricane and the election, one must take whatever small pleasures reveal themselves. And so it is that today my hurricane-delayed shipment of blank journals finally arrived, all 10 of them. Enough to last me through next year, should I be gifted the opportunity to live it. So now, having set 9 aside for shipment to France, I lovingly cover this one with the French linen I bought last year in Lourmarin and when the glue has dried I ink onto the linen with my trusty little fountain pen: “Flying The Coop, Book IX.

Like most writers I have what I used to think of as my superstitions, but which I now believe are actually intentions. That is to say, rather than believing the superstition that the way one starts a book could well dictate how it will turn out, it is more advisable to state one’s intention in the first paragraph. And so it is that I have chosen to start this book with pleasure, for no matter where we are there is always plenty of heartache and injustice to bear. But it is a question of balance: in this case of knowing the difference between pleasure and self-indulgence.

This past Sunday morning, Joel and I experienced a great deal of pleasure eating our customary Sunday breakfast of poached eggs, toast, marmalade and a good strong pot of PG Tips. From there we moved to the couches in front of the fire along with the NY Times and some classical music. But by 11 o’clock the pleasure had turned to deep discomfort. How could we enjoy ourselves like this when thousands of people in our not so fair city were devastated by the hurricane? I mean devastated. Homes, businesses, loved ones – gone. Cars, boilers, power – gone. The family album, baby’s crib, computers, furniture, trees – gone. People stuck on the 10th, 20th floor with no electricity, therefore no elevators, some of them in wheelchairs; no diapers, no medications.

I’d been looking online for days to find a way to help and could find no information. Finally my daughter, who had been without power for 5 days, texted me that she was taking supplies to the Bowery Hotel, down on the Lower East Side, and she provided a list of what was needed. So we left the couch and went shopping and loaded up with big bags of food, water, clothing, blankets, toiletries, flashlights and batteries, took the long taxi ride down to the Bowery. 

It felt good to do something. But it didn’t feel like enough. And how dispiriting to ride back through Manhattan, to see the tourists and shoppers with their luxury items, carrying on like nothing had happened, when the truth is that for a week we’ve had our own Katrina here. All those outer edges of the boroughs that got washed away, Red Hook, Rockaway, Staten Island, they’re all working class areas. It’s true that wealthy people lost electricity and homes and cars, too, but they also have the means to rent hotel rooms or apartments or go to their second homes. But these other people, they’re literally in the dark. And the cold. Waiting for people like us who were fortunate enough to escape the Hurricane to get off our arses and do something.

Denial. How we all hate that word. It’s become such an eye-roller. Yet how we love its backdoor escape. We have a population here in which almost half of its citizens are in denial that one of today’s presidential candidates has been lying to them for months. And imagine the denial he’s in! And what do we gain from denial; a little more time off? From what; taking responsibility?

Look, I admit it, I had some denial going on last week. I’d go online a few times in an attempt to find out how to help and then after a few dead ends I’d tell myself, “Well, I tried.” But the truth is I only tried so much; I’d help if it were easy. Even on Sunday morning when I started feeling uncomfortable I tried to let myself of the hook. I didn’t really want to get off the couch. I wanted to keep feeling pleasure. I actually heard this thought go through my mind, “I’m in my 60’s, I’ve done my bit, I’m allowed.” Wow.

When we came home from dropping off the provisions I wrote to the board of directors of our building offering to head up a relief effort, what did they think about encouraging the tenants to donate, how could we organize trucks for delivery to affected areas. I was told a local synagogue was set up to receive and deliver goods, but the person told me he didn’t think he or management should direct people to a Synagogue. What? Is this part of the fear we’re living with here in America; fear of directing people to a synagogue to donate much needed relief? Would we be afraid to direct people to a church? Is it this fear of the other that allows half of this country to believe a candidate’s blatant lies rather than have a black president re-elected for another four years? And how do we live with this fear; through denial?

We’ve booked our flight to France, leaving on 29th December. We decided we wanted to start our year of living in Europe by waking up there on New Years Day. I’m trying not to wish the time away between now and then, but I tell you, I can hardly wait to live in a small village that has fresh-baked baguettes and local cheese. I long to walk the winter woods and lanes before moving on to the farm in Tuscany in late spring. I can’t take this city life anymore, can’t take the immense divide between the rich and the poor, blue states and red states, black and white, corporate driven media and a government made up of 2 opposing sides; a government where one side, for four years, has done nothing for its country in crisis, nothing. It’s only intention being from day one of Obama’s presidency to make sure he doesn’t get a second term. And they call themselves patriots?

I don’t know how it’s going to turn out today, but I did get enormous pleasure from voting for the first time in my adult life. I became a citizen two and half years ago, so I got to cast my vote for Obama this morning. And I got pleasure from posting information in the lobby of our building, telling people where and what they could donate for the hurricane victims. I didn’t mention it was a synagogue, just gave the address. Isn’t that all we should be caring about right now, where and how to be of help? Every day of our lives. Some small offering, so that we may rightfully experience the pleasure of sitting on a couch writing in a new journal, watching the brilliant red sunset of another day.

HERE SHE COMES

October 29 2012                           
It’s 4 o’clock, time for tea. The wind has just picked up as Sandy makes her way toward us, her intentions still a secret. Last night we watched the sky move in layered bands of moody gray, moving in slow and steady from the north like an army deployed toward an unseen enemy, which in this case is the hurricane coming up from the south.

As I watched the sky I felt both the marvel and the terror of nature followed by a sharp sadness that in spite of nature continually trying to wake us up to reality we insist on staying asleep. As Gerhard Richter says in the documentary “Gerhard Richter Painting,”  “waking up to reality is terrifying.” Which is perhaps why so many stay asleep. But what is the terror of reality except the acceptance that we control nothing, and of course this hurricane is a perfect example of that. But if I may parse Richter’s phrase, I would point out that he doesn’t say reality is frightening, but that waking up to it is. My interpretation of that is that in waking up to reality one is waking up to self-responsibility, which I think is what truly terrifies us.

I, Like many people, have been Google-ing “Weather,NYC,” far too many times in the past 24 hours. What do I hope to learn? That reality isn’t terrifying? It’s a fine line between acquiring enough information to make decisions about whether to evacuate, how much ice-cream will tide me over (if the freezer continues to function) and continuing to Google in the ridiculous hope that someone, somewhere, will be able to tell me everything is going to be okay.

I’ve heard people say they think hurricanes are fun and it’s all I can do not to wish them swept away by one. In ’91, during Hurricane Andrew, my daughter and I crouched in the kitchen of our beachfront rental in Provincetown and watched a roof fly past the window. Later we discovered it was the roof to my bedroom. Or, how about a couple of years later when, during a nor’easter – same town different building – I awoke in the night feeling uneasy. So I got out of bed and as I rounded the foot of it the side window blew in leaving shards of glass impaled where my head had just lain. Real fun.

And yet there’s something both awesome and humbling to see this aggressive city in retreat; all public transportation, bridges and tunnels closed down, streets deserted, shops long emptied of supplies and some 10 million people, people who live their lives in constant motion, brought to a standstill.

I bet this is one October Surprise neither of the presidential candidates expected. They too, for all their millions raised must, like the rest of us, wait and see.  As the saying goes: “You can plan but you can’t plan the outcome.”

To be contd….hopefully!

October 30 2012         THERE SHE GOES
Sandy left more quickly than expected having achieved monumental havoc in short order.

We, here on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are among the lucky few who escaped her impact. Apart from a few terrifying gusts and a bit of rain we survived the night peacefully, watching a Queen documentary – Queen the band, not Queen the Queen – noshing on soup, bathing by candlelight and sleeping undisturbed while the lower 3rd of Manhattan suffered terrible flooding and loss of power. My daughter had texted me during the evening saying she was watching cars float down her street on the Lower East Side. The city will be without transportation for days and many areas will remain without power. Homes and power stations have burned, trees are felled, debris of all kinds litters the streets.

When we awoke this morning we were surprised to be unscathed and selfishly enjoyed the peace of no traffic or planes. How random life is, how indiscriminating is nature. This morning a rare break in the clouds made for a burst of sunshine even as the rain fell and a momentary rainbow flung its myth upon the surface of the river.



THE MISTS OF TIME

October 22, 2012                    
Last Friday we drove up to the New Paltz, Stone Ridge area of upstate New York to spend the weekend with dear friends. It’s an area I know like the proverbial back of the hand, having lived there, on and off, for most of the 70’s and 80’s.

It was a gray, misty day with intermittent rain, which at this time of year is one of my favorite kinds of day in that the sad gloom of the atmosphere is eradicated by the vibrancy of autumn’s colors which, rather than being dimmed by the absence of sunlight, seem to glow from within their own glorious rays.

It reminded me of how hard I’d looked all those years, years of driving over Mohonk Mountain down to the valley where my salon was located. Seasons and years of driving the same road until it had the familiarity of a vein pulsing on the back of my hand as I clutched the steering wheel, navigating the treachery of the mountain in mists and snows, rainstorms and sun-drenched summer evenings. And all the while looking hard at the woods and fields and distant mountains until color, light, form and texture imprinted itself on my retina and beyond, to my mind’s eye where, later, after work, after dinner was cooked and dishes washed, after the children’s homework, I would steal away to my studio and wait there until the image resurfaced, identifying itself through the paint tubes and brushes, the paper, the canvas and, as I always felt, beyond, to the other side of the wall where the muse whispered her instructions to me.

I do not miss that area of the world, loaded as it is with the litter of failed marriages, addictions, custody battles and a sort of endemic, native depression one finds in small American towns trapped in the valleys between mountains, as if to live in such a place is to dwell in the deepest of ruts. So, no, I miss none of that. But I do miss the intense engagement in the relationship between art and nature as expressed through the medium of paint.  

In fact, for someone who has a background in dance and music and art I do often wonder why I settled for the maddening and often thankless medium of writing. How much easier it is to invite a person to the studio and have them “see” all at once, the completed canvas as opposed to asking for the ever diminishing willingness it takes to “read” a whole book – or even, these days, a short essay. And yet writing is the one art form I just can’t put down, having been “at” it now for 45 years. 

Do I think I can express myself more fully with the pen? Or is it partly the convenience of not having to lug a piano or paint and canvas around? Never mind the ungodly effort it takes to keep a body tuned for dancing!

The mist was thick and low when we reached the crest of Mohonk. A truck had miscalculated the turn and ended up splayed halfway across the road, its rear end stuck in the muddy field. I could have stayed for hours, left the car there and tramped off into the mist where I could have been surprised by deer and looming color.

     Maggie’s photo
After 20 minutes there were perhaps as many cars at a standstill, the drivers in various stages of impatience to get moving. I walked along the road a ways, looking hard into the woods. On the way back to our car I decided to look at the drivers and saw that they seemed to be limited to two choices: exasperation, or interaction with the tiny screen of a cellphone. Either way a narrow existence.

When we finally arrived at our friends’ house the mist was turning toward the darkness of night, the fire ablaze in the hearth. After unpacking, the four of us sank into the couches and looked at a painting of mine they’d bought 29 years ago. It has sat above the fireplace all this time. They say they never tire of it and often disappear into it. And I, too, having visited this house many times over the years, still sit and look at the blues and greens and grays and blacks and white of brush-stroked paint that all those years ago arranged themselves into the impressionistic wooded background before which a meadow is inhabited by the ghosts of cows and deer.

I remember as if it were now, the sensation of those creatures appearing beneath my hand, knowing then, as now, that they had naught to do with me except in the willingness with which I had invited the muse.