Pieces of Me

I am ten and I am crying, because I am scared and my stomach hurts. My mother is pale and stern, standing before the lacquered mahogany door to my bedroom. Her hand rests on the old glass doorknob, which is cut like a faceted diamond. She is yelling at me, but I don’t know what she is saying. I know that she wants me to stop crying, to stop being like this. My father enters the room and crosses in front of her. He kneels in front of me, and asks me why I’m upset. My mother doesn’t move from the doorway. I tell him I don’t know, and I cry harder. My words catch in clutches and the back of my throat tightens and burns, and it’s hard for me to talk. He kneels down and he puts his arms around me, and he hugs me until my diaphragm stops spasming. The palm of his hand rests on the crown of my head, and I feel mostly safe — but not entirely, because I think that we are both somehow betraying my mother, and that I will suffer for his kindness.

***

My husband and I are sitting together on the couch in the beginnings of a Sunday morning. We are in a small town in the Catskills, and we are both reading from books that we’ve purchased from the small bookstore in the town center. Birds are chirping and trilling somewhere outside the house. My husband gets up to look for the feathery source, and calls me to our front door. A large, gray bird trills in the snowball hydrangea bush near our front steps, and we watch him from behind the panes of glass. He — or she, we’re not sure — is twitching and fussing at a nest secured in the boughs. We had noticed the nest earlier in the winter, and assumed it was unoccupied, or left behind from a pregnant spring. Still, we left it untouched. Places like the Catskills lend themselves to letting nature lie fallow and run its course — trees upturned and rotting in clearings; the bones of animals left to whiten in the sun in undiscovered places; groupings of twigs and pillars of stones that give meaning to other builders in their fragile construction. A second bird alights outside our door, and the nested bird puffs up and trills. We make a joke about summer rentals and latecomers to BnB websites. Are they together? I ask my husband. Or is he an intruder? How do they know who to pick, who to reproduce and nestle and settle with in the small space of life? I think. How do any of us decide?

***

I often find myself explaining things like air-conditioning wall units and pay phones and cathode ray tube televisions and rotary dials and hot rollers and flip calendars and metal Rolodexes and suntan lotions that offer no greater protection than SPF 8 and crank windows in large American cars and typewriters and transistor radios and the gasoline shortage and the whole notion of UHF and VHF to my children, but not for very long, because then they’re off to something else. I sit in the hyphen of space that separates the telling and the next moment of our lives — and wonder what will happen when my generation is gone, and no one remembers these things anymore. I decide that I’m just alligator-wrestling with my own mortality in those moments, personifying myself in cast-off objects that end up oddly stacked together on thrift-store shelves.

***

My husband and I are planning a trip to Big Sur this summer, to celebrate our twentieth anniversary. We haven’t been to Big Sur in more than fifteen years. I was young and lithe and smooth when we last visited. We were transplanted newlyweds living in San Francisco then, trying to make some sense of California, and where — and if — we belonged. We stayed at the Ventana Inn, a cliffside resort overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and brought along a camera that neither of us were particularly skilled in using. An unseen hotel employee laid a fire for us before we returned to our room each night. I was embarrassed at such a gesture. Who was I to deserve such labors?  I felt uncomfortable about the exertion and the transference of energy, about the wood breaking down and the ashes that remained, just so I could have misappropriated comfort and luxury. We stayed for several days, and I often lay naked on the white, white pillows that adorned the hotel room’s gargantuan bed. It was too big for us. We hadn’t grown into our lives — or our marriage — yet. One morning during our stay, my husband grabbed the camera, stood over my naked form on the white, white bed and asked to photograph me. I complied, denying my beauty, even as he sighed at the sight of me. After he shot several photos, we lay together and looked at the images on the digital screen at the back of our Canon Rebel. My husband gripped the black case and gasped at my beauty, eager to show me what he had seen. I waved away his love with criticisms of my skin tone, my lopsided breasts, and my soft double chin that emerged when I propped my head up awkwardly on those white, white pillows. So young, so embarrassed, so undeserving. He refused to delete the photos, even when I protested. We left Big Sur and grew older and moved away, and hid the photographs somewhere in the digital folds of our hard drive, once our children were old enough to navigate the computer. This morning, before the children woke up, I wondered aloud where those pictures had gone. My husband jokingly asked if I’d like to have large matte prints made of them. Yes, I said — but just the one where I’m lying in bed looking away from you, I said, and you can really see me. Yes, he said. I remember that one. And he smiled at me, and we were still sort of young — but we are mostly glad to be this old now.

 

City Spring, 1978 — A Monday Haiku

13179236_10207527084667772_5370362302247939701_n

City Spring, 1978 — A Monday Haiku

 
On Avenue H
Near a Brooklyn chainlink fence
Honeysuckle grew

***

My grandmother sat
On a bench nearby and talked
I breathed in sweetness

***
Up from the asphalt
This wild aromatic bush
Offered me pleasure

***

Soft scent, cold metal
Caressed the tip of my nose
Reaching through the wire

***

I must have been eight
Two springs after Pop had died
The memory stays

***

Near cigarette butts
And broken beer bottles
Hope bloomed on the vine

Things I Know For Sure, At the Rest Stop of Forty-Five and a Half

  1. Bigger kids, bigger wine glasses.
  2. Soon means never. As in “let’s get together soon!”
  3. Sleep is for the just. And for the heavily medicated.
  4. No one is talking about you, and everyone is talking about you. So just do whatever the hell you want, anyway.
  5. Add four weeks to every estimate given to you by a contractor. Even it’s just to install a shelf. One shelf. Four weeks. Six, if he’s your brother-in-law or first cousin.
  6. You’re going to die. Not in the next eight minutes, but with each passing  year, the odds are becoming increasingly likely. Especially if you keep celebrating your birthdays with hookers and coke. Or even worse, with Fudgie the Whale birthday cakes. Because that Carvel shit’ll kill you.
  7. Should is a four-letter word. Just with two silent letters.
  8. Music was better then. It just was. No matter what your fourteen year-old says.
  9. The popcorn and soda combo at the movie theater is not a better deal. Sure, it seems so at the time, but at 3 am the next morning, in the pale light of the bathroom vanity mirror, you gain clarity.
  10. You’re not as talented as you think, or you’re more talented than you know. You’ll never find out unless you do the damn thing. Write it. Paint it. Sing it. Knit it. Create it. Do it.
  11. Your mother was right about certain hairstyles, wardrobe and footwear choices, ex-boyfriends, apartments, and sectional couches. Let her know before it’s too late.
  12. Writing one page a day means you’ve written 365 pages in a year. 244 pages make for a decent book. Do the math. Then write it, for God’s sakes. See #6.
  13. Little boys still need to sit on their mother’s laps sometimes and be rocked. Especially on Monday mornings. Worried, middle-aged men still need similar acts of kindness. Especially on Sunday nights. Nurture men, young and old. Be tender with them. Heal the hearts of little boys inside grown men. It helps the world in the long run.
  14. It’s better to give love away. All the time.
  15. All deep house music tracks are about 1:30 too long.
  16. If you feel the same lump in the exact same place on the opposite side of your body, you probably don’t need to call the doctor.
  17. The fourth cocktail is never, ever worth the trouble. Even if someone else paid for it.
  18. Smartphones have not made us smarter.
  19. No one is perfect. Most of all, you.
  20. Comment less. Nod more.
  21. Have sex now. As much as you can. Say yes to each other. Don’t worry about thighs or paunches. Dim the hi-hats. Light candles. Be available. Laugh.
  22. There is no hell. Except the one you create for yourself.
  23. The view of Manhattan from Brooklyn’s River Cafe is the Ninth Wonder of the World.
  24. Happiness is often unattainable. Run towards it anyway.
  25. Don’t eat the food under the heat lamp at the highway rest stop. It’s an interstate conspiracy to force you to stop multiple times along the way, use the bathroom again and be tempted by even more disgusting food, and become trapped in a cyclical hell of travel. Pack a lunch instead. You’ll make better time.
  26. If he kisses you on your forehead, pays the bills on time and is kind to your mother, then he loves you.
  27. Don’t wait for the sign. It never comes. But look for it afterwards. It always shows up afterwards.

Things I’ve Fallen In Love With Lately

It’s been a while since I’ve been writing here at Sweet Jesilu, but the always-inspiring Lindsey Mead at A Design So Vast motivated me with her recent blog post: what have you fallen in love with lately?

 

Unplugging from social media.

I can’t deactivate from it entirely, because hello world we’re living in. But I am turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to ranting and screaming and conspiracy theories about Obama and trolls and passive-aggressive comments and questionable news articles and absolutely everything Kardashian, as well as plenty of other things that no longer serve me. It’s a little weird to unplug at first, but once you step out of the virtual hamster wheel, you can see that it’s going nowhere. So much energy is wasted.

 

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.

Yes, I’m late to the Tolle party. No, I can’t sit on a park bench for two years and watch the world go by, as the author once did. But there’s something here within these pages to grasp and better understand. I’m a life-long student. I’m here to learn until I die. I’m underlining lots of sentences in this book.

 

Jennifer Pastiloff.

This woman is just the bomb and the shit and the fuck. Visit her at her website.

 

Making a writing space for myself.

It’s cramped and it’s in the basement but it’s mine and my drums are there and I’m happy.

 

Bodywork and massage therapy.

I am tight and I am tired and I am sore. A few weeks ago, my amazing, kick-ass massage therapist held my head and whispered, “Little warrior, lay down your armor.” My jaw clenched, resisting the release. I heard myself whisper, “No.” I twisted away from the pain. Tears streamed out of my right eye. Ah, that’s your masculine side, she said. She was right — the tough-guy identity I adopted from childhood, constructed largely from fear, unintentional abuse and shame. Lay your body down, baby girl. Let go. It’s time.

 

Drinking cups of blackberry mojito green tea with my daughter, which she brews for me.

It’s really yummy. So is she, when she’s all fired up about politics and books and her life, which she shares with me for a few minutes while we sip from mugs.

 

Doing the work.

I’ve submitted four essays this week to various magazines and journals. A delightful way to avoid writing the screenplay in my head. But, still. Four fucking essays. If we all spent less time being jealous of or comparing ourselves to others — or even fearing our own potential — we’d find so much more time for ourselves, and just might create something that the world is waiting to receive. In that span of found time, we might only produce something as simple as a sentence. A drawing. A photograph. A thought. A feeling. Or it could possibly be the biggest, greatest, juiciest project/idea/installation/book/sculpture/dance/mathematical equation that Life has ever seen. All with that one hesitant step, taken after putting aside the fear of comparison and criticism and failure. Step. Go. Do it.

 

Seeing the irony, and saying nothing.

In both myself, and in others. Watching as people do the exact opposite of what they preach. Witnessing the quiet excellence in others, as they wave away praise. Noticing my difficulty in going cold turkey with anything. Acknowledging the gorgeous, exhausting dance of humanity.

 

Myself, again.

I didn’t come from an entirely happy place. But I’m making one now for myself, as best I can. I am worthy of this. Perhaps that ripples out towards the people I love and strangers I meet along the way. That’s my intention. Listen for me when I pass by. You are lovable, too. You are worthy. Believe that.

Things I love about men


(This Wood Brothers video was filmed at my grandmother’s former Catholic grammar school — St. Cecilia’s — in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music. I love that.)

I’m just gonna come out and say it. I love men. I do. I’m a big fan.

I don’t love all men. Not so much with the deadbeat dad type. Or the one who screams at his son in front of everyone else at the baseball game, the school concert, and in church on Christmas Eve. I’m not a fan of the serial cheater, or the cowardly abuser of women and children — or of other men, for that matter. Nope, not a fan of any of those. I don’t really see them as men, anyway.  They’re facsimiles. Not the real deal.

Walk around Manhattan for a few years in a skirt, and you’ll find some examples of not-so-good men. I’ve been leered at in midtown like I had thin slices of hot pastrami dangling from each ear. (I may have, actually. I was a messier eater in my twenties.) Don’t even get me started on the flashing. There are more exposed penises on the 4/5/6 subway line than in all the urologists’ exam rooms in the tristate area. (Take the 2/3 downtown instead. Far fewer penises.)

I do love the idea of men in general, though. I love the way they can smell like a mixture of wool, caramel and scotch, with a cedarwood chaser. I love how their laughter sounds from the other room when a group of them are talking together in your kitchen. I love how they sneak tastes of food while you’re cooking. I love the way they try to wrap gifts for you on your birthday. (They use a whole roll of Scotch tape on one gift. Adorable.)

I really don’t love the idea of male-bashing just for sport. It’s become a national pastime, in my opinion. Usually at Girls’ Night. (Not at our Girls’ Night, of course. Ahem.) You’ve seen Girls’ Night — a group of cougars with day-glo cocktails, whooping it up at the table next to you while you’re trying to have a quiet meal. Be sure to look for the sequins, chandelier earrings and selfie sticks. Dead giveaway.

Men aren’t all bad, ladies. Some of them are far worse than bad, but some of them are really, really good.

Let me rephrase my earlier statement:  I love good men. I’m lucky enough to be married to a good man. And I’m happy to call a few good men some of my closest friends. (There’s a joke in here about that military courtroom film with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore in that silly hat, but I’m really too tired to map it out right now.) Dare I say it — my girlfriends picked some winners to marry as well. I know. I’ve eaten with them. They don’t diss you at Girls’ Night, boys. Not too much, anyway.

I’m gonna give you a bit of unsolicited advice, ladies. If you haven’t already, or if you haven’t done so since you’ve been dating, tell the man in your life what you love about him. Don’t stencil it on a piece of reclaimed barnwood, dress it up with eighteen yards of burlap and hang it in the kitchen, for God’s sakes (thanks a bunch, Pinterest), but just tell him. Not while he’s trying to watch a football game or some movie with the word “Bourne” in it, either. (I’ve been married for many years. You tend to pick things up along the way.) Tell him before he goes to sleep, when he isn’t snoring yet. Make it an early birthday present. Wrap yourself in a bow if you want. Just don’t do the giftwrap thing, for God’s sakes. Or you’ll get paper cuts in places you didn’t even know you had. And then I’ll have to hear about it at Girls’ Night. Ewww.

Whatever you do, don’t say it to him because you expect something in return. Say it simply because you love him. Otherwise, that’s the ickiest kind of present — the kind with a long, taut string attached.

But don’t be surprised if he takes out the garbage the next morning if you do. He might even kiss you on the forehead before he leaves for work. Isn’t that all we really want, anyway — a kiss on the forehead, a helping hand, and a kitchen without smelly, overflowing garbage?

I wrote a list last year for my husband — eighteen of which could be shared publicly, the rest of which can’t be listed here because my father reads my blog. I think my husband liked it. He took out the garbage without being asked. And then kissed me on the forehead.

I feel like writing another list today. Not just for the good men in my life, but in all of our lives. Thank goodness they’re here.

Things I Love About Men

1. Men’s eyelashes. I love it when men close their eyes while they laugh, allowing me a sneak peek at all that feathery sweetness. It’s really not as cute when their eyes are closed and they’re in your bed, snoring. You can stare all you want at those eyelashes, to will them to shut the rest of the face the hell up, but it ain’t gonna work. Sure, men are tough and burly and all that, but those eyelashes are like a little look-see behind the man curtain at their inner mushiness. (Charles Manson had good eyelashes, so I’m sure my theory doesn’t hold water.) You know their mommas swooned over those eyelashes when they were little boys. I know. I’m the momma of a little boy. I get it. I want to hang him by his boxer briefs on the towel hook when he’s being incorrigible during the day, but when he’s lying there asleep in his bed, arms akimbo and eyelashes fluttering, I could forgive him for his primary role in a Madoff-esque pyramid scheme.

2. Men who are so tall and broad that I have to get up on tippy-toe to hug and peck them on the cheek when saying hello. I’m only 5’3″ and a half, so that’s most men, actually. Is that all men, actually? I haven’t met one shorter than me yet. I also like the way they hug me. Women do that pat-pat-half-kiss-half-hug-get-me-I’m-a-cold-flounder-kind-of-hug. Men? They hug you for seventeen minutes and squish your ribs and always kiss you — on the top of your head and your cheek and the tip of your nose and your hand while they hold it. No air kisses with dudes. Ever.

3. Men who say “Heeeeyyyy!” when I walk into their house for a family pizza night or a couples’ cocktail party or a Super Bowl thingy-ma-jig, and they’re all talking low and guffawing and opening beer bottles and just standing around in the kitchen, waiting to eat something, and they turn my way and state said exclamation. They might actually be saying “Heeeeyyyy!” because I’m carrying some cold beer, as well as that onion dip that their wives won’t let them eat unless someone else brings it, but I like to think it’s because they like having me around for a few minutes. Just for a few minutes, mind you, until they need me to leave so they can keep talking about that divorced cougar in the low-cut dress at the fifth grade band concert last week. Oh, who am I kidding? They’re not that happy to see me. They’re happy to see the booze and the onion dip. Heeeeyyyy!

4. Men who are outside with their sons — and daughters — playing ball until the sun goes down, and who turn on the outside lights so they can get in a few more catches before it’s time to go inside.

5. Men who like to eat. I love to cook for men. They make yummy sounds and they ask for seconds and they lean back in their chairs when it’s all over, and they sigh. Some of them even fall asleep on my couch afterwards. (That sounded sexual. Whoopsie. I make a mean beef tenderloin in pastry crust. It can’t be helped.)

6. Men who say unsolicitedly kind, sweet and heartfelt things about their wives. And mean it.

7. Men who take their kids out to breakfast at the diner on Sunday morning so Mommy can sleep late. And let them order the waffles with the whipped cream on top.

8. Men who take their elderly mothers — or mothers-in-law — to the supermarket. I’ve stood behind many a middle-aged man in Stop & Shop, who patiently waits at the checkout line with the little old lady in his life, while holding her basket containing Sanka, two chicken breasts, a box of prunes, and Dentu-Creme, while she babbles on and on about all the different kinds of medication she’s taking. They nod, kindly, and say nothing. Gems, they are. Unless, of course, they’ve kidnapped these little old ladies for ransom and let them out once a week for sundry items, while carefully supervised.

9. Men who aren’t afraid to hug other men in that big, bear-huggy, back-slapping kind of way. Some of my big Irish FDNY cousins even kiss each other. They would totally kick your ass in a bar fight or if you messed with me — no question — but still, they kiss each other. Smack each other right on the cheek. Especially when they’ve had a few. They even kiss my husband now. It’s official. He’s in.

10. Men who let their kids do all the stuff that their wives wouldn’t let them do. The jig is up, babe. The kids told me all about it last week.

11. Men who shop for Christmas gifts before 6 pm on Christmas Eve. Thanks for that bottle of Jean Naté body splash that you just picked up at Rite-Aid, honey, but it smells like my grandmother’s talcum powder and cold piss. And it burns — oh, how it burns! — when I dab it on my skin. Gum would have been better. Trident Original Flavor. Fruit Stripe. Anything. Just not Jean Naté.

12. Men who show their children — not just in word, but in deed — how to be good and honorable people. Men who love their little girls so they grow up to be women who love themselves first, and find the right kind of person to love them later. Men who teach their sons to be strong — and tender. Men who love their wives in a way that sets an example for the men their sons will be — and the husbands they will become.

13. Men who know that I can handle myself, but who still ask if I’m OK or if I need something or if I need a lift somewhere or want some company or need them to accompany me on a dark, foreboding street until I’m safely home.

14. Men who innocently and absentmindedly play with my hair while they’re talking to me. Men who can’t resist, and just have to playfully tug my pigtail, or tuck my hair behind my ear when it falls across my cheek, and tell me how my new hair color flatters me. I’m always softened by their gentle impulsivity. My father used to sit at my bedside, and stroke my hair at night to help me sleep. It’s still the loveliest feeling in the world when my husband does that, too.

15. Men who wear shirtsleeves and expose that teardrop of bare skin beneath the broadcloth, right where the fabric puckers and opens at the button closure. I have to touch that spot of skin whenever my husband wears shirtsleeves.

16. Men in stockinged-feet with their big boats up on the coffee table. Especially after holiday meals. Heartwarming and hilarious. I don’t care if they’re wearing Gold Toes or 70′s era tube socks, just as long as they’re not stinky. When my husband’s shoes are off, the workday has officially ended. And he’s all mine. Until he falls asleep on the couch, because he’s so comfortable with his shoes off and his feet up. And that’s not when I’m thinking that his eyelashes are adorable, because the God-awful snoring has begun.

I love men. I do. Especially the good ones. I’m grateful to be married to one, I’m hopeful that I’m raising one, and I’m thankful for all the other good men in my life who’ve helped me become a (fairly) good woman along the way.

The summer wind

Everyone’s in love on a wedding day. There’s hope for all of us at such ceremonies, isn’t there? We’re thinking the best possible things about love, while the bride says “I do” and wipes the tear from her beloved ‘s cheek; while the groom cups her chin while he softly speaks his vows to her; or while the two tuxedo-clad lovers are finally, finally pronounced as man and husband. Those of us in committed love are standing up there with them — renewing our vows all together, at secret, sacred altars. We reach across the pew to squeeze knees and drape our arms around our love’s shoulders, with our sweet babies wiggling between us. We mindlessly trace infinity symbols on the other’s bare skin with our fingertips, in that vulnerable place under his leather watchstrap, where the hair has stopped growing near the wristbone. We’re noticing where her pashmina shawl has slipped down to reveal sleeveless, soft arms, and the smattering of freckles that still entice. We reach places where only the other knows us so intimately, where only the other can go.
 
On our wedding day, we danced to Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are,” because it was honest, sentimental, and simple. Kinda like him and me. After our first dance, several of our wedding guests sought us out — while we were awkwardly scarfing down already-cold crab puffs from the cocktail hour, which some kind soul handed to us so we didn’t faint. The guests wanted to share that the song had been their wedding song, too, and squeezed my hand or my husband’s shoulder as they said so. Sometimes, they placed arms around their beloved and pulled them a bit closer while telling us.

 

There were other songs that we considered during the wedding planning — John Lennon’s “Woman,” for one, because my husband used to play that for me on his acoustic guitar when we were in college. We considered Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” too — because, well, because have you met me? Because I’m nuts. But I didn’t like the idea of the whole woman-on-a-pedestal thing. What about the guy in this? What about his remarkable qualities and reasons for being loved and cherished? One-sided adoration doesn’t sit well with me. Marriage is an even playing field, baby. It’s what happens after I take off this silly, old dress and veil. It’s about both of us. My soon-to-be husband liked that way of thinking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why he picked me.
 
Now, as a wedding guest of a certain age, “Summer Wind” is the song that makes me get up and dance. The first few whiny notes of the organ — followed by the tease of horns conducted so masterfully by Nelson Riddle — sounds over the wedding DJ’s speakers, and that’s it. I’m up, and I’m mistress of the rented parquet dance floor.
 
By this point in the program, I’ve had a couple of glasses of white wine, and not enough shrimp at the cocktail hour — which makes for a superlative state of disinhibition. If I’m with my extended family at the wedding, one of them usually yells out, “Oh, that’s it. Here she goes.” And I do, indeed. Oh, how I go. I make eye contact with my husband, even in light of the extremely gaudy floral centerpiece that blocks everyone’s line of sight in the reception hall — the same one that several guests are already critiquing, or arguing over as to who will be the lucky one to take it home after the reception, just as long as it fits in the back seat of the Cadillac with Aunt Ida.

FRS02

Sometimes, if I don’t catch my husband’s eye between the orchid stems and floating votives, I make a big show of walking around to his chair and tapping him on the shoulder — just for the bit. He feigns surprise, every time. I offer my hand, and he grasps it, and leads me to the dance floor.

My love places one hand on the small of my back, and extends my hand with the other, folding it tenderly in his palm. He guides me along through each verse, and we sing the song together, while friends or cousins laugh and dance and sway nearby. I curl my arm around his neck, and I hold him to me for a minute, with my cheek on his padded suit shoulder, before he twirls me out, and we start to get a little ridiculous.

There’s something inherently outerborough New York embedded in the bars of “Summer Wind,” and in so many other Frank Sinatra songs. Perhaps because they’re featured on so many mafia movie soundtracks, or because our grandfathers used to sing along to such music in the front seat of the ’69 Chevy Nova along the Grand Central Parkway, or while they danced with mops in their Brooklyn kitchens. Maybe because we foolishly believed that Frank still belonged to us, even though he’d left us for California so long ago. To so many New Yorkers, he was still that kid at the Paramount Theater with Tommy Dorsey’s Big Band, crooning for our teenage grandmothers after the war. We don’t think of him as a carouser or a drinker or a womanizer. We think of Sinatra as the person we still need him to be.

There’s irony in such a dance, in two people still happily paired together, and in singing too loudly and drunkenly about losing love to the summer wind. Our days and nights have gone flying by, even in the best of times. We’re no longer kids. Our love isn’t new. But it’s still here, ticking away. So dip me, baby.

The other guests laugh and point at our foolishness, and raise whatever glass they’re holding to toast my husband’s semi-slick moves. The best part? When we belt out the last verses together, in our outrageous New York accents, toasting illusions and ideals.

 

We’ve somehow been promoted to the older generation at weddings we now attend. We sit down during the Sugarhill Gang songs. But when Frank comes on, we are moved to act. It’s complusory. It’s ours. We remember childhood summers, and Sunday dinners, and the way things were. We dance in our minds with grandfathers no longer here — who came home from the war, and who honestly believed that Frank would leave Ava and go back to Nancy. Who stayed married to their goils for almost forty years — almost — if she’d just made it to the fall, before she passed away. What a party they woulda had.

In moments like that, we’re just a room full of sweethearts. And the summer wind. The warm summer wind.

A Day in the Life

A blog re-run as a tribute to John Lennon, who was shot and killed in front of the Dakota in New York City on December 8, 1980. Impossible to think it was thirty-three years ago.
———————————————————————————————————————————————————–


(Click on the YouTube video for today’s soundtrack.)

 

As we drove into the city with our kids over the weekend, my husband and I discussed a recent article in Vanity Fair – an obviously fictitious interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 2010, assuming that he had survived the gunshot wounds inflicted by Mark David Chapman on that crisp December night in 1980, and had traveled along through life, just like the rest of us. He and Yoko would have divorced, and John would have fancied himself a gentleman farmer somewhere in upstate New York, protesting against the fracking industry and Monsanto.

The article was decidedly clever, and I mentioned a few of the highlights to my husband as we drove along West End Avenue, forgetting for a moment that the kids could hear our conversation from the back seat.

We arrived at the parking garage on West 80th Street and stepped out of the car.  My daughter stood next to me and said quietly, “John Lennon was shot in New York City?” She actually looked frightened, and confused.

My nearly nine year-old has been a Beatles fan since she was a preschooler, and although we had told her that only two Beatles were still alive, we had spared her the details of why. In our weaker parenting moments, tragedies like these were presented in a vague, almost ethereal sense — events that had occurred in the unreachable past, and which weren’t  up for discussion. Events that we as parents found ourselves glossing over and evading, as our children reached milestones of speech and comprehension, and could understand what was blaring from the television and the internet and from hand-wringing mothers gathered in clusters together on playgrounds in the hours and days after random, violent occurrences. The subject of 9/11 has been a bumbling conversation every time it’s arisen in our house. I’m not even sure if my daughter fully understands what the World Trade Center is.

Since my husband and I take our children into the city often enough, I sensed that part of her shock was in realizing the danger that occurs on New York City streets. To her, the city means Dylan’s Candy Bar and Central Park playgrounds, the indoor Ferris wheel at Toys ‘R Us and skating at Rockefeller Center, mini-pizzas at Two Boots in the West Village, and shopping for funky pencils and ice cream in Park Slope. As her native New Yorker mother, I’ve failed her — because I’ve suggested fabrications about city life, and because such a candy-coated existence isn’t real in a daily urban setting. If I’m going to be a responsible parent, it’s becoming time to tell her so.

In 1980, I was ten years old and lived in Queens. We five-borough residents had survived our city’s decline of the 1970s, somehow, but we were obviously scarred by it. Even the youngest of us, sporting plaid school uniforms astride banana-seat bicycles, knew a childhood different from those in more affluent parts of the country. Knifings and gunshots, the South Bronx and subway graffiti and looting — those words were all part of our elementary-school vocabulary. We knew why our grandmothers didn’t wear their wedding rings when they went out shopping, or why our mothers told us to tuck our First Communion gold cross necklaces under our Peter Pan blouses when we got on the MTA bus. We were all unwittingly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as such afflicted often are. For us, it was our normal.

I had gone to bed before learning of Lennon’s shooting on December 8, 1980, but the following morning, my mother woke me up early to share the news. She was crying when she opened my bedroom door and said, “Kathleen, John Lennon was shot last night.  He’s dead. Please pray for his soul today.” I can still see her sliver of face hidden by the mahogany-paneled door to my bedroom. I can still sense her shock and sadness, and the fact that she was not my thirty-two year-old mother at that very moment, but the teenager she once was, who had shrieked at the grainy image of all four Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, flickering in her parents’ living room in Queens.

When I think of that morning, I remember that the shooting itself wasn’t what was odd. Only the victim was. Those things happened to us, to ordinary New Yorkers. Not to someone like John Lennon.

My parents didn’t handle such details so delicately. No one’s parents did. People died. Things happened. You got up, shook it off and kept going. We didn’t have support groups and websites and grief counselors back then. We had resilience, I guess, and in these moments, I’m not always sure that my children are of a generation better served by the constant viral outpourings of others. There’s something to be said for remaining separate, and safely detached. Stoicism too often gets a bad rap these days.

When my daughter asked about the shooting, I told her plainly that yes, John Lennon was shot, a few blocks from where we were standing. I had pointed out the Dakota to her several times for its architectural elements, but neglected to mention the crime that had taken place there.  I asked her if she wanted to walk past the building. She said no and didn’t mention it for the rest of the day. I’d like to think that the information is forgotten, but I know that it isn’t. She and my younger son will need to begin collecting such facts, and weather such microchinks to their childhood armor, as the realities of life present themselves.

My children know a different New York City than the one I grew up in, thank God. But if I want them to feel confident in the city, to understand it and be able to walk on its streets as a near-native, and not as a vulnerable, out-of-place tourist, they will have to understand my childhood vocabulary. They must learn this language, if they want to live in any large city. It’s my job as a parent to prepare them for such actualities, but I know that I can’t prepare them for everything. These small moments — when my daughter’s sense of security is somehow rubbed away — are painful for a parent to witness, but it is what must occur. The city she knows is not the city it is, and I’ll need to teach my children that, in times like these.

Sometimes, in my misplaced nostalgia, I long for the grimy, seedy New York of the 1970s. I wonder what Fran Lebowitz is doing with herself these days, now that New York is an amusement park, and a cartoonish, garish, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon parody of itself.  In recent visits to Manhattan, I’ve noticed that common street-smarts have gone the way of the buffalo.  People leave Starbucks with open wallets and fistfuls of bills. And nothing happens to them. We eat fancy sit-down meals in the Meatpacking District now, for God’s sakes, where people once lay dead in the streets, victims of drug overdoses, psychotic johns and muggings.

I still love New York. I hope my children will always share that same fondness as well. But I worry about what the city will become as we face another inevitable economic decline. And as this helicopter-parented generation comes of age, I wonder how we, their parents, have so grievously erred, in spite of our sincerest intentions — what we’ve overlooked, and what we’ve wrongfully shielded them from to make their journey less difficult.

Dog Park

A friend and I try to meet with our pups once or twice a week at a local dog park. This morning, before the skies opened and threatened a smearing of muddy pawprints on our car seats, we hurried over with coffee cups and poop bags to let our dogs burn off their energy. We look on with limp leashes in hand as they race each other around the perimeter, bark and howl, pant and wag. Some of them try to screw each other. They seem like they’re smiling.

The dogs don’t really listen to their owners when we call them. We yell Louie! and Guinness! and Bentley! and Dexter! embarrassed by their impulsive jumps and intrusive sniffs. They’re smart. They ignore us. Instead, they race and run, answering ancient calls. Then — as if possessed — they suddenly slow up to sniff a tuft of grass near the fence. They stop to squat or raise a back leg, and saunter off, thinking nothing more of it. This is what dogs do. It’s the natural state of things.

My friend and I stand together, motionless, as the fur flies past. We talk about why we’re so tired, why our knees and wrists and shoulders hurt, why everything just hurts. We list possible reasons — words and proper names stated as a set in a series, and which need no further explanation. We don’t even talk about Paris this morning. We can’t anymore.

Still, the dogs circle us — running, running, running — until they’re spent. Then, more sniffing.

My friend wonders aloud about the source of her stresses. Why these pains? Why these aches? She hasn’t even worked out this week. She shouldn’t feel this way. I empathize, and share my own tales of shoulder knots and muscle tension alleviated by acupuncture. It’s like a guitar string strumming inside you, I say, when that needle releases the tension. It vibrates inside me for a few minutes. But I have to keep going back, I say, because it keeps seizing up. I don’t say that I wonder where the energy goes, how it dissipates, and why my learned response seems to dismiss something beautiful and powerful within me.

The dogs crash into each other. If they could laugh like drunk frat boys, they would. Perhaps they do. There’s a surge of barks. Like dogs back-slapping each other.

I tell my friend that I want to throat-punch the people who complain about having to go back to the supermarket to buy that one onion for the side dish that they’re bringing to their sister’s for Thanksgiving — the sister who hosts every year, and who always makes three turkeys and seventeen side dishes for everyone. Then, I talk about the Thanksgiving meal I’m planning. I don’t say that I’ll be making Christmas dinner three weeks later, twice in fact, because my divorced parents still refuse to sit at the same table together. I don’t say that. I can’t anymore.

The dogs circle a new arrival who hesitates at the fence. They crowd him, and howl, and encourage him to run with them, enticing his instincts with another surge of racing. The dog joins in. Tongues wag. More screwing.

Then I tell my friend that I had a conversation with my mother last night about cranberry sauce. I say that it’s never really about the cranberry sauce. It’s about 1974 and what my father didn’t do and about her mother-in-law, who she despised in life and now finds solidarity with after her death, in things like the whole-berry recipe she always made in her Brooklyn kitchen, with precisely half the amount of sugar than is usually called for. She asks if I’ll make it that way this year. I’m making cranberry sauce for the dead, I think to myself.

The rain starts up. The dogs don’t care. We whistle and call for them, but they don’t respond right away. Then, I call Louie! one more time, and the damn dog races toward me, ready and eager for whatever comes next.

The dog falls asleep in the back seat on the drive home. I rub my right shoulder with the fingertips on my left hand, until I feel some sort of release.

 

Triumph all ye cherubim

In the outgrowth of the “Free To Be You and Me”-tinged seventies, an enlightened young priest in our parish organized “Co-Ed Football Fridays” for myself and the other sixth-grade students enrolled at our Catholic grammar school. In retrospect, it seemed an experimental companion piece to our weekly sex education class, un-ironically taught to us on Friday mornings by a dour, pale nun with a utilitarian hairstyle.

At Fr. Michael’s urging, we were invited to form weekly teams — under his assured supervision — and play touch football in scrappy, mixed squads. We’d gather at 3:30 pm in our street clothes — after having raced home to change out of our Catholic school uniforms — on a swath of dry grass somewhat out of place in asphalted Queens.

Just a few years earlier, as a quiet second grader, I had stood in that same field and sung “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” to a life-size ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary — an annual Marian devotion offered by the Sisters of the Dominican Order, who taught us at Sacred Heart School. We schoolchildren stood in a swirling sea of plaid and saddle shoes, and looked on as the motionless, unblinking Queen Mother was presented with a floral crown by two of the biggest kiss-asses in the grade. I silently seethed as they approached the tottering statue with their offering of peonies, baby’s breath and roses. They were fresh-scrubbed and hot-roller-coiffed, and both wore their First Communion dresses to the ceremony. My stomach twisted and kinked as I realized — this had all been pre-ordained. I wasn’t chosen for this, probably because my mother was the anomalous parent who worked outside of the home, and because my family was often viewed as “shanty Irish” in a predominantly German neighborhood. I felt distant from everyone else, somehow, and ashamed. I wanted to be picked. I wanted to feel special. I wanted to be known.

At the time, I had a Jane Fonda “Klute”-style shag haircut, formed while growing out my mother’s awful mistake of the Mia Farrow-”Rosemary’s Baby”-era, matching mother-daughter haircuts that she had chosen for us when I was in kindergarten. Clearly, I didn’t look holy enough. Or anything even remotely in the neighborhood of angelic, for that matter. Perhaps even worse, as the feeling overtook me — I simply wasn’t the right fit for Our Holy Mother. The sun felt hot and unforgiving, and beads of sweat trickled down the hollow of my back as I sullenly sang:

“O Mary we crown thee / with blossoms today / Queen of the Angels / Queen of the May”

The field itself was an anomaly in our grid-streeted neighborhood — a throwback to the farmland that Queens once was, before it was developed; and to the once-wealthy parish that had purchased the open land in the 1920s. For some reason, we were never allowed to enjoy recess there — probably because our shrieks would disturb midday masses, or the work of the priests in the rectory.

Instead, our playground was the sidewalks and span of blacktop between 77th and 78th Avenues, bookended by the church and school building, and cordoned off by NYPD sawhorses. I smirk to myself now, as suburban parents complain about tired monkey bars, swings and slides that need to be updated on their children’s school playgrounds. Catholic city schoolchildren of a certain era had no such thing. We climbed the chain-link fences like caged lemurs, stood together in tight groups gossiping about an ostracized classmate, and played games of tag or boxball, with chalk and Spaldeens that we’d smuggled beneath our plaid jumpers. We didn’t expect anything different. The streets were always our playgrounds.

Now, on Fridays, we made awkward line formations in the field, and ran defense under the kind tutelage of our parish priest, who looked almost cartoonish to us in jeans and sneakers as he threw passes and formed huddles. We chased each other, grazing boys’ shirted backs with our fingertips and grazing bodies as we zig-zagged through each other. It felt electric and surreal. Much of adolescence does, I suppose.

On those Fridays, I noticed the physicality of Fr. Michael’s actions — the simple pleasure he clearly derived from tousling our hair, touching our shoulders and putting his arm around us in fatherly guidance. To my knowledge, Fr. Michael was never inappropriate with — or abusive to — any of us. But even at eleven or twelve, I could see that his demeanor changed in our innocent physical interactions. The behavior didn’t placate a sexual need — but instead, a primal one. As a human being, he needed to be touched. He needed to feel connected to other people. He needed to be seen, and known. Several years later, Fr. Michael left the priesthood, and married my fourth-grade teacher’s niece. He wasn’t meant to be sequestered, high on the altar, gilded and adorned, separate from sensation or comfort.

At those gentle ages, I, too, wanted to be seen and known. I wanted to know that the stirrings and tenderness that I felt for boys was not wrong, or shameful. I wanted to know that they felt similar things about me. Not in that creepy way that Matthew Belachuk described to me the year before, while singing the chorus of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” to me one morning after our teacher had momentarily stepped out of the classroom — with his accompaniment of vulgar hand gestures amidst his unclipped, dirty fingernails.  I honestly thought he was referring to the insertion of a spring-loaded toilet paper holder into a roll of ScottTissue. I didn’t understand.

On one Football Friday, clear and bright in my memory, Timmy Sullivan tackled me when he shouldn’t have. As everyone else walked off to line up for the next formation — he remained over me, blue-eyed and straw-haired, and freckled. He was breathlessly, simply, near me. I can’t remember the exact phrasings he used, but there was a momentary admission of liking me. Really liking me. None of this was aggressively stated, but said out loud in awkward urgency, before we were called back to the next play. I wasn’t frightened or upset. I liked him, too. He could have kissed me, but he didn’t. We were too young. That was going too far. Remarkably, the closeness of him still stays with me, more than thirty years later. I was seen. I was known.

Later that afternoon, I cut my foot on a broken beer bottle that a teenager must have tossed in the field.  The cut bled through the flimsy canvas fabric of my new Nike sneaker, and an irregular red circle formed on its outsole. I had never seen the jagged piece nestled in the tufts of green blades. I had only felt its sting as I ran along the fence.

My friend’s older brother carried me home for as many blocks as he could — his arms hooking the backs of my knees, my arms encircling his neck. He had lifted me up without thought or discussion. I needed to be carried, or the wound would bleed more.

In that anomalous field, I was marked. I was changed. I was known.

That’s Not the Way It Feels

This morning, while I search through sections of my wallet as I sit in my parked car,  a memory — perhaps more of a feeling — surfaces. I see myself as a teenager in my grandmother’s kitchen, where I sit with my uncle as he sifts through the recesses of his billfold to find a seemingly necessary piece of paper. As he splays the leather wallet’s contents on my grandmother’s kitchen table, I glimpse a faded photo of a curly-haired toddler in a blue flowered dress — me — amongst the scatterings. I feel a warm, enveloping — almost liquid — sense of comfort at the unlikely sight of it. I say nothing, but feel touched at the realization that he holds a small, slim place for me somewhere — albeit most likely forgotten, tucked between store receipts and business cards. He might have simply kept the picture there because he was stationed in the Navy when I was born, and the tangible photograph symbolized something like home for him. It might have been used as a prop to pick up girls in Honolulu bars near the naval base when he was off-duty. It might have been tucked in between dollar bills by my grandmother on a Sunday morning while he was home on leave in 1972 and sleeping off a raucous Saturday night — a mother’s impossible talisman of safekeeping for her son during the Vietnam War. I’ll never know. I was too shy to have asked him why he kept it. I am sure that I was too afraid to learn the truth: the gesture didn’t indicate what I imagined it had.

Instead, in that moment, I decide this: My uncle carried a picture of me. My father did not. In that sharp flick of sadness as to what my father did not choose to do, I found solace in the realization of what someone else had. This, to me, was miraculous: the suffusion of love and tenderness in the actualization of its absence.

I consider this dichotomy as I sit in my car now, with the window lowered to welcome in balmy October air, while the radio plays Jim Croce’s “Operator.” I decide that my uncle was indeed fond of me, and that it couldn’t be helped, because I was a terribly cute kid, and I adored him. I decide that it simply wasn’t my father’s way to acknowledge his feelings towards me, and that he had always disliked the bulky feel of a leather wallet while he drove our stick shift Toyota. He’d raise himself up from the bucket seat and dislodge the billfold from the back pocket of his jeans, and ask me to hold it while he drove. The leather felt pliable and masculine in my hands, and I felt important for being entrusted with its care. I adored him then, too. We were connected by more than I could possibly understand. That bond wasn’t formed by spoken words or tangible items, but through a shared feeling, something similar to what I was feeling now, a sense of us, while sitting in my own driver’s seat. It brought me to the realization of how disconnected he and I are now, and how we both exist on different planes of life and meaning.

I see my father’s worn, malformed billfold in my mind, laid on his nightstand with scatters of change, subway tokens and movie stubs. I think on how diligently he worked to keep the three of us afloat then — my mother and him and me — in a series of small city apartments and secondhand coats. There was comfort in the nightly sight of that curved, stitched leather  – comfort that I’d long forgotten, and strain to sense now.

When people die, and we garner the strength to sort out their belongings in the days — or months, or years — after their death, we cobble together our own brokenness from their effects. We say, “Look — they saved this,” or, “See? He kept this in his nightstand,” or “She tucked this into her purse.” We determine our worth in the random photographs and hand-written thank-you notes used as makeshift bookmarks, in the broken clamshells stored in clasp envelopes in junk drawers, in frayed hair ribbons and dried flowers from wedding ceremonies, and in photo booth strips from long-shuttered five-and-dime stores. We decipher meaning — whether fabricated or true — about them and about ourselves, and about what we represent to the dead and disappeared.

The duality of significance and meaninglessness so often strikes me in these moments. What we think is so, and what never truly, actually was. Who we become, and who we fail to be. How love endures for young men now grown older, and for little girls so wise beyond their years.