11/1: Ark Church at the Movies

The Ark Church film company, “Кинокомпания Ковчег,” is introduced here in the post before this one.

A You Tube browse of the Arketeers shows them performing in a long mix of short films and songs. But for these ready-for-eternal-time players, the main feature is the 2+ hour movie Не убиваете меня, пожалуйста! (Don’t Kill Me, Please!), acted in Russian Sign with Russian voiceover and no subtitles.

What’s to like about this film?

1. For someone interested in faith-based beliefs, ethics portrayed in popular media, Deaf culture, and all things Russian, this offbeat discovery is an absorbing and surprisingly enjoyable little film.

2. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors (women are everywhere, talking constantly — and not about men, but about their own reproductive options and choices, and how they expect the men to support them).

3. It takes place in an exclusively Deaf community with no hearing people around to make waves. Being Deaf is never portrayed as a problem. In fact, it’s not even an issue!

4. Nobody needs a cell phone or computer to get through their lives. When they have a question or problem or just want some company, they just knock on the nearest door and start Signing away.

5. When people pray in this film, they really seem to be praying; prayer appears to be something that they actually do in real life. As with Dinah in Adam Bede, prayer inspires them to say sensible things in a perceptive way that comes across as believable and productive.

6. The personable enthusiastic congregation members and their graceful performance Sign make the film heartfelt, sweet, and linguistically interesting. But first…

Little Disclaimer:
As always, I’ll give away the ending.

Big Disclaimer:
This is a teaching platform of dialogues to warn young people away from participation in abortion, and to turn them toward Church fellowship. The anti-abortion message (perhaps brought to Russia by the American founders of this congregation?) is drummed across with maximum emphasis, repetition, and drama.

Bigger Warning:
The film is abruptly followed by street interviews with random accosted passersby, eliciting their views on abortion as if this would settle the issue once and for all. Then at 2:10:00, with no viewer warning (not even a heads-up for child viewers!), there is a slide show of aborted fetuses. Not only that, but a youtube search for this title in Russian will also call up in the sidebars another Russian film with a similar title and the same message, with even more graphic imagery. This could be so disturbing to any number of people that I did not include the film link here. The viewing audience will be Russian-speaking and Russian-signing internet users, and they probably know how to track down anything anywhere.

DKMP is a view of one apartment building with three young Russian couples (one married, one newlywed, one engaged) over a period of nine months as their decisions on abortion determine the shape and quality of their lives. All three couples are faced with the issue of unexpected pregnancy at the most inauspicious time in their young relationships. The plot is almost all dialogue, with everybody talking all the time. The women tell their stories, air their opinions, and share their deepest hopes and dreams with and among their partners, their families, their neighbors, their local congregation, and self-assured women doctors at the local obstetrics clinic.

The film opens with Couple 1 heading out to church, Couple 2 returning from their wedding for the home reception, and Couple 3 leaving the building for a date. Couple 1 offer Couple 2 a Bible as a wedding gift. But Bridegroom 2 pushes it away with a sneer, saying that he and his bride don’t intend to enter a monastery, boasting that God will play no part in their plans. Couple 2 walk off to their wedding feast. (Here some expressive back & forth film cuts contrast Couple 1 with their sweet congregation signing and singing hymns, while the rowdy wedding party members sing rowdy songs before passing out unconscious face down in their salad.)

At church, the remarkably downcast pastor announces that he was prepared to preach about joy, but that God has alerted him to preach on sorrow instead. He announces that someone in today’s congregation will suffer affliction that very week, and asks everyone to open to the book of Job. Couple 1 return home to pray together and reassure each other and their little girl, that no matter who in their circle has been singled out for affliction, they will keep their faith in God’s help.

Couple 2 begin their married life as the new husband playfully tosses new wife onto their big double bed. Literary foreboding alert: The two of them accidentally overlook and crush the little baby doll decorating the middle of the bed.

Film cut to Couple 1, carefully tucking their very living baby doll into her bed and then retiring to their own bedroom (which appears to have two single beds pushed to opposite walls) to share their sorrow that Husband 2 so brusquely pushed away their prayers and gift.

Next day, Couple 1 wife and little girl are happily waiting for Dad to come home. When the doorbell lights flash, they fling open the door without looking or asking to find out who is there. (This represents a dramatic departure from a whole tradition of Russian cinema, where “Who can that be at the door?” casts a dramatic shadow over the whole plot.) Fortunately, it’s Papa, who for some reason rings the bell before entering his own home. Mom and daughter have big news for him: God is sending the family another baby! The doorbell flashes again; the wife’s parents are here to visit, but Grandma doesn’t take the news very well. She launches into a fine speech of alarm, giving Grandpa no chance to express his own feelings, demanding (in front of the kid) that the couple go for an abortion. She dares them to test their God and find out just how well He is going to take care of them.

And say, how are those newlyweds?
They’re popping open champagne and having a candlelight dinner. Wife 2 asks whether Husband will still love her when she is old. He insists that she, among all women, will remain the most beautiful and will never grow old.
Then Wife 2 asks why he pushed away the gift Bible.
Husband demands that she stop associating with Couple 1. “I want my freedom!” he concludes, and distracts her with a wedding gift: tickets for a one-month cruise, to start tomorrow.

Next day, before departure for the honeymoon trip, Wife 2 explains to Wife 1 that they are going to postpone having children and spend some time living for themselves. As the travelers flit away, Child 1 asks “So does that mean when I came along, I was a burden to you and Papa? And what does it mean to live for yourself?”
Wife 1 explains that no, all children are a gift from God. And people who live for themselves simply have not learned the happiness of living for Christ. Off they go to fix dinner.

Girlfriend 3 is heading home in the park.
Three men attack her.
Husband 1 comes along, sees the situation, and intervenes. Girlfriend 3 escapes, but the men stab Husband 1 in the back.

Back at the 1 House, wife and daughter are waiting dinner for Papa, who is never late and always keeps his promises. Then the doorbell flashes again. Wife 1 flings open the door.
But it’s Girlfriend 3, bloody and hysterical. Instead of calling the police, she reports (right in front of the kid) that she has been raped and that Husband 1 is still lying “in the park.” Since St. Petersburg is full of miles of park, there is no time to lose. Instead of calling the police to help or to start an investigation, Wife 1 runs out to start searching in the dark shrubbery, a place which we already know is not an optimal setting for young women alone. She finds Husband 1 just in time to receive his final blessing.

For the next 10+ minutes, Daughter 1’s wailing will obscure the dialogue while the glum pastor tells Mom to bear up. Then he and everyone else in the church walks off and leaves her and the child standing alone at the grave.

At home, Grandma makes the abortion speech again (in front of the kid), telling the expectant mother to pack two bedsheets and a robe and come with her to the clinic — because, after all, why rely on God? Where was God when Husband was killed in the park?

Wife 1 chooses instead to go for an ultrasound to rejoice at her future baby. In another room at the same clinic, Girlfriend 3 receives an abortion referral with the level of kindness and counseling one expects from a toll booth operator giving change on the Jersey Turnpike.

At Grandma’s house, Wife 1 is talking to Girlfriend 3, asking her to keep the child and give it to her, Wife 1, to raise herself since Husband 1 gave his life for the sake of this child. Grandma walks in with a sweeping speech about money, and how she and Grandpa can’t afford to buy even a baby carriage, even though the hardwood detailing and glass-front cabinets in their kitchen must have cost a packet.

Couple 2 comes home from their trip. Wife 2 has something serious to tell Husband 1. He makes sweeping extravagant promises to listen and give her anything she asks, even the moon. She announces that their “life for themselves” is about to be joined by a new little one. He demands that she get an abortion. Wife 2 pleads with him to let her keep the child, dreaming of a baby and its little smile and happy face. He insists that the child and its noise, unattractive personal habits, and expenses will “destroy our youth” and “send our plans to the devil,” while ruining her attractive figure.

Warning: This is where the movie gets intense, and is likely to be quite disturbing to children and to women affected by abortion.

With a heartbeat soundtrack, Wife 2 has a dream of a little girl saying “Don’t kill me, please!” Husband 2 gets her a sedative and promises to take her to a top-notch clinic, perhaps one which provides bedsheets.

Girlfriend 3 discusses her new plan, to keep the baby.
Boyfriend 3 is upset that Wife 1’s request has come before his own feelings and objections, and departs in great upset.

Meanwhile, a church member is reading in her Bible the phrase “Bear one another’s burdens.” God inspires her to visit Wife 1 to give away her baby carriage and baby clothes. In a nice scene at Grandma’s house, the women embrace in a mutual shower of blessings. The generous visitor leaves, and Wife 1 settles down embracing the new baby clothes for a tender cry.

Wife 2, holding a birthing magazine, is still having dreams about an unborn daughter promising to be a good girl and to love and obey her in everything. By the light of an artificial fish tank full of fake fish, Husband 2 demands that Wife choose between him and the baby, and rips up the birthing magazine. Next day, he takes Wife 2 for the abortion. Afterward, the two walk home through a playground. She is surrounded by happy playing children, and dissolves in tears. Back at home, Husband 2 praises himself for solving her problem. The two argue in front of a backdrop of artificial flowers painted on the wall, to contrast with the nice flowers grown by everybody else.

Wife 1 brings Girlfriend 3 to a surprise church baby shower.
All the women spend their evening treating each other to tea and goodies, gifts, affection, games and excited stories about their pregnancies. They even enact what might be quite an old custom: the women play a spontaneous trick on their imminent guest; they all grab balloons and place them under their shirts so that their expecting mom will see that pregnancy has made the rounds of the whole group. The delighted guest strokes and pets the balloon tummies of her friends, and all adjourn for prayers and tea in a room full of natural light and lavish potted African Violets. In this atmosphere, Girlfriend 3 is welcomed with her pregnancy and feels for the first time that sharing motherhood with these women strikes a responsive chord in her as well. This makes her want to attend their church.

At church a friendly Deacon offers the 2 women handmade baby beds. Two parents bring their infant to be blessed, and their downcast pastor explains the importance of children to Christ, who stressed that theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

At home alone with the fake fish and plastic flowers, Wife 2 is drinking heavily from a bottle with a black label, seeing apparitions of her would-be daughter all the time, and gripping a pregnancy-sized cushion under her shirt for consolation. Husband 2 in apologetic mood comes home with a nice bouquet for her and finds that she has hanged herself in the bathroom, still holding the surrogate baby cushion, with a note “Left to be with my daughter.” (To his credit, the church member in this role does a plausible acting job here. Most movie characters happening upon a disaster will put their knuckles in their mouths and scream. He takes a minute to stand there dumbfounded trying to wrap his mind around what he is seeing, just like a real person would.)

The suicide angle is the concerning aspect of the film. It does not seem to represent or serve the genuine spiritual and emotional needs of women who have had abortions. Nor does it recognize the Soviet women who had abortions and went right on fighting to survive famine and war, struggling to nurse their relatives at home, and carrying the country with their labor and endurance. The approach called to mind the “Scared Straight” program in the States, which took at-risk youth and placed them for several hours in a prison with selected convicts, who would berate the visitors about the realities of prison life. The program was supposed to make prison look so unappealing that youth would simply resolve never to commit a crime. Naturally, the program recruited at-risk teens, those most likely to be raised without role models of self-control, at an age when the decision-making of their brain’s frontal cortex is not even fully developed, in a milieu where they can not even escape their circumstances or companions. Research showed that terrifying these teenagers may in fact have undermined their worldview enough to make them even more vulnerable to risky behaviors. In the same way, the message “After her abortion, this woman succumbed to marital breakdown, addiction, madness, and fatal despair” seems an unlikely way to inspire and galvanize a young girl to take heart and seek other options.

The film wraps up with Wife 1 walking her infant in the new baby carriage to church with Girlfriend 3. Boyfriend 3 joins them with a peacemaking bouquet. He expresses his commitment to marry Girlfriend 3 and raise the child together. Back at Grandma’s, Baby 1 is being a basic all-round bundle of joy. Grandma tells her daughter “Thank goodness you did not listen to my advice.” Grandpa finally gets his first word in edgewise: “Children are a great happiness.” Granddaughter 1, who’s been a radiant expressive little trouper through this whole production, chimes in with the last word: “Yes, we are a gift from God.”

It might have made for nice texture if the film could have shown a bit more that it takes only one to keep a baby, but two to make one to begin with. Where is the outreach for men who carry a sense of guilt for their role in these pregnancies? Maybe the story could have shown Husband 2 coming round and joining the church too. What about accountability and redemption for those three hooligans in the park?

But all in all, this could be a springboard for some interesting discussions. And even at fifth viewing the film left me in tears. It makes me look forward to my morning bus commute tomorrow, when the toddlers will hoist themselves on to adjoining bus seats and promptly park their boots in the lap of my dress.

If God willing I make it back to St. Petersburg, I’ll go check out Ark Church for a visit and say hello.

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10/5: Ark Film Company (Кинокомпания Ковчег)

The Ark Film Company of St. Petersburg is known for creating short edifying films and songs for young people. The troupe is sponsored by the congregation at the affiliated Ark Church, which one Sunday years ago found themselves with Deaf visitors attending a service. The Church arranged for a dedicated volunteer to interpret the services. But unlike other venues offering Sign interpreting, The Ark didn’t stop there; they added an outreach for the Deaf community, and the hearing members began learning Sign too. They even cast their Deaf members to star in movies that Deaf and hearing family members can enjoy together.

Here is the letter “A” in their Dictionary of Christian Sign Terms.)

Here’s a sweet upbeat video in collaboration with the rock group Глас Вопиющего, meaning “Voice [of One] Crying Out” (as, “in the wilderness,” describing John the Baptist), performed by Aleksei Chernovolov. In English translation, the equally sweet upbeat lyrics run along like this:

“This song is for you, my friend;
this song is for me and for everyone around.
This song is about Him and about your dreams.
I know that you hear it….
This new song is about His love.
This new song — I know that you hear it.”

This calls to mind an interesting question. “Where is the Orthodox Church in all this? Do they have Signed services too?” They might, but compare the above song with a typical line from an Orthodox Sunday service: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares.” Lyrical language like this during a two-hour Liturgy would make interpreting a formidable task. Besides, Russian Orthodox services even in America are not necessarily in Russian; they’re often in Slavonic, which was never a spoken language. Are there even Signs for that?

Advance disclaimer for the usual readers of this blog:
Ark films are Evangelical Christian morality plays of temptation versus virtue. The overall lesson is that young people who pursue immediate gratification instead of wise counsel meet disaster, while those who invite Jesus into their hearts and join a Christian fellowship (say, The Ark Church), recover and thrive and find terrific supportive friends. The moral dilemmas and character portrayals are stylized and emphatic. Still, the quirkily appealing homespun low-low-budget featurettes serve as a unique sociological view of the post-Soviet Evangelical Christian movement, and of linguistic and cultural conventions among the Deaf characters.

Here meanwhile are four Arkettes (one up front, three behind the scenes in flannel mittens) in a Signed puppet fable. The lyrics are lovely; I’ll probably translate them here at some point. That sweet silver voice is singer Tatiana Shilova:
“The Ballad of Three Sons” (Баллада о трёх сыновьях).

The main Ark opus, a two-hour film created in Sign and later dubbed in Russian,
is reviewed in this next post here.

Back soon! M

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9/1: Larkspur, part 4 of 4

Here’s part 1
Here’s part 2
Here’s part 3

For the next ten days I called people in my address book and reserved time to come to their houses just for company while they went about their business and I tinkered in the kitchen or garden. To get there I walked for hours from one suburb to the next to save on subway fare, and that in itself was helpful. Sometimes I passed churches, and even went inside so long as they were empty. Back at my building, who knows how the tenants and reptile made out, getting home at night? I wasn’t there to let them in; at night I slept on various sofas, then in the morning walked back to town.

One high-level executive in another city, one who would not be pleased if his private charity were named in a public forum, heard about this. He called his boss at midnight, describing the situation as “…a family medical emergency. I don’t know when I’ll be back. You’ll have to take over the 7:00 meeting.” He got on Amtrak and checked in to a bed and breakfast up the street from me. Then he spent three days taking me out walking in the local sanctuaries and parks from early morning until night. I don’t remember a word of what we talked about; it seems we didn’t talk much at all. But the day after he left, I found a personal check from him for a sum large enough for a year of therapy, with a little note to not give up on getting help. Every evening during his stay I would pack up the kitchen knives, the scissors, the nail file, and the razor blades in a big yogurt bucket, and he would take the items back to his b & b room for the night. I’d watch him walk away, a dignified man clutching a little paper bag of sharps. For the first and only time his confident athletic type-A posture looked burdened and bowed. “He looks worried!” I thought, in amazement.

My therapist was ablaze with dismay. “Why didn’t you TELL me when you called??” he exclaimed, waving his hands. He spent that 50 minute session teaching me phrases to use on the phone: here is when you use the word “crisis,” this is what “urgent” means, these are all the symptoms that constitute an emergency. He listed the signs and phrases over, making me repeat them back. Next time he left town, he told his office partner “If she calls when I’m away just to say hi and see whether any appointments are open in the next couple of weeks, get her in here.”
“He sounds worried,” I thought, amazed again.

At home, at 6:01 one morning our easy-going jolly building engineer pounded and hollered at the door of my neighbor’s unit across the courtyard. As he told it, he let himself in, unplugged the radio, pointed in my neighbor’s face, and said “Nyet! Police!” After that the broadcasts toned right down to a side murmur of white noise. That evening I heard knocking and looked up from my book. A young woman was visiting our neighbor. She waved for my attention, pointed to the radio and her ears, and covered her eyes in a pantomime of shame. I waved at her with a double thumbs’ up.

Les & Sybele knocked on my door to say goodbye. “You were the only White tenant that was friendly to us,” they said. “We’ve had enough of this city, and we’re going back home to Detroit. We’re going to Management now to give notice. Would you like our apartment? Come have a look.” Their apartment had a lovely curved bay window area with an east view of trees and sky. It was smaller with only one closet, and so the rent was lower. I moved right in, and then heard of a better job working with Russian. The cool fall weather started, and soon I was chasing garbage trucks at dawn again, snatching geraniums and hanging them in the windows. A 12 Step friend gave me a cockatiel to hop from plant to plant and follow me from room to room. I still wasn’t ready to try talking to more any Catholic priests, but did want to start worshipping again. There was an active Metropolitan Community Church downtown with an excellent pastor, and right away I made a new best friend who lived right up the street. That was a good year.

But first, there were those ten days.
When they were up, I finally felt ready to spend a night at home and go back to housekeeping. Early one day at sunrise I ventured alone out of my room down the empty streets to the Reservoir. There at the water I took out my Irish whistle and began to play.

I have no explanation for what happened next.
A man of average height, about 30 years of age, appeared out of nowhere. He was not just cutting across the grass in a straight line toward the subway station, like a commuter. He was not jogging. He wore loose light-colored pants and a white tunic top; perhaps he’d been practicing some form of martial arts. And he came bounding, literally leaping with his arms open, over the grass to me.

“I heard beautiful music,” he exclaimed. “May I have your blessing?”

I looked at him, all attention.
He had close-cropped hair and a beard. He was wearing a black velvet kipa, or yarmulkah. And unlike many Jewish men who cover their heads in religious observance, he reached over and gave me a hearty handshake. His hands were strong, square, and as calloused as if he laid bricks all day. He stepped close, hands at his sides, and bowed his head waiting.

Not knowing what to do, I rested tentative fingertips on the black velvet and said “Blessings of…” Now what? I looked around. It was a strikingly lovely morning. The peak of summer was just tipping toward the richer sweetness of autumn. The still Reservoir reflected masses of waving fuchsia flowers that might have been loosestrife, and masses of bright gold button blossoms that might have been tansy. “It’s the… purple and the gold in the flowers,” I told him. “And these two Canada geese walking by, that aren’t afraid of us at all. It’s blue in the sky to water, and green underfoot.” At those words the glass wall between me and the world faded away. The pieces of the world as I named them came accessible again, real and close enough to touch. “It’s all blessing,” I trailed off. “Just being here.”

He nodded, placed his hands on my hair, and began to pray.
I stood there with my head bowed, feeling apprehensive about him and self-conscious about what this must look like to anyone passing by. But no one was, and to my relief I at least recognized the opening words: “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam…” He had a fine deep cantor’s voice, ringing out in the quiet morning. Even the heat and weight of his hands seemed to gather something in my mind back into place.

He stepped back, looking radiant.
“Well now,” I said. “Hello. I’m Mary.”
“Right. Like my mom,” he beamed. “And it’s Miriam.”

I blinked at him, still puzzled. But his brown eyes were crystal clear and alight with discernment and joy. What flashed to mind was that magazine again, all the accounts of baffled relatives and friends describing criminal A__ or B__ or C__, the guy they thought they knew. And all the accounts had one thing in common: they never said “He used to bound through dewy fields at 6:00 a.m. in a kipa, praying in Hebrew and blessing everyone in sight.”

He reached out and took my Irish whistle.
He first blew one low long note. Then he blew a waterfall of notes, all at once, with their sharps and flats, as if he’d broken open a kaleidoscope and flung the colored facets in the air. Then he reversed the whistle and blew in the wrong end, a hollow toneless rush of empty air.

“God,” he said, giving the whistle back to me, “IS Who IS: One in perfect solitude and perfectly alone. And God is all notes and all voices at once, all consciousness in union. And God is no-thing, the vacuum of space, the dark and the emptiness inside you. When you thought you had nothing left.”

Then he bounded away, back over the grass where he’d come from, somewhere toward the athletic fields and the University. “Amen!” he called over his shoulder, saluting with his right hand high.

I watched him go, and walked home to start my life again.

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8/28: Larkspur, part 3 of 4

Here’s part 1

Here’s part 2

So I took the first dose of larkspur, and packed up the bed linens for a trip to the laundromat.

It was hot summer by then. My little room was all west windows, catching direct sun in the afternoon and second-hand sun all morning reflected in the upper-story floors across the little concrete courtyard. Right opposite my windows was a new hearty long-lived neighbor who listened to very loud radio from 6:00 a.m. until midnight. It made listening to or practicing my own music nearly impossible. The stern announcers would vanish into silence for minutes at a time and then bark out again, like the loudspeakers in a war movie stalag. At such a high volume, the courtyard acoustics yawned with distortion and echoed off the walls so that every word pulsed five times. And the broadcasts happened to be in Russian, making them a little harder to ignore since I could understand every word word word word word. One day an hour-long feature about colon polyp removal was repeated three times. After that I wrote a sweet letter in ornate Russian calligraphy, sending greetings and the hope that we might meet for tea some day, and proposing that the radio be turned down a tad. I slipped it under the neighbor’s door. Within minutes he turned off the radio and slammed all of his windows closed, pulling down the blinds. But within a couple of days he gradually cranked the broadcasts back to full volume.

At midnight the network signed off, and there was blessed quiet but for my ticking windup clock. But starting at 2:00 a.m., the bars shut down and the intercom came to life. Any tenant who forgot their keys, or had them at the bottom of their shopping bag, or couldn’t figure out the lock after a few beers, would try all the buzzers until someone let them in. The late-comers most likely to be flatly refused entry by the other tenants were Ahmad the cab driver from Egypt, Renny the laconic tattooed teen (with or without his Burmese python friend), and Les & Sibele, an African-American couple from Detroit. Soon they all learned which tenant was most likely to be home by midnight, most likely to wake up, most likely to know their names, and least likely to pour old dishwater out the window.

All this hubbub made the laundromat a pretty appealing refuge. On the morning in question, the place was empty. Soon the linens were tumbling away, and I settled down to read in a half-size bolted-down wiggly cracked plastic chair.

My reading at the time came from friends who saw me shying away from church. They donated copies of 12 Step literature, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the I Ching, handbooks of womyn’s herbs & positive magick, A Course in Miracles, a guide to Rune stones with the stones included, and more. I especially liked Bo Lozoff’s We’re All Doing Time, and took it to the laundry to read about focus and concentration.

But my focus exercise was interrupted by the headline of a well-respected news magazine on the rack. It promised an in-depth look at the psychological motivations and social behavior patterns present in persons who commit specific types of violence. It would have been nice if the laundromat had saved their magazine pennies and bought The Gift of Fear instead, but Gavin de Becker was still years away from writing it. Instead there was this article with its parade of people who committed sensational crimes, with the supposed inside story: statements by families, friends, and co-workers that there were no warning signs, and that events of this nature do not happen in this town.

The article didn’t make me feel safe, wise, alert, or at ease. It did make me feel zoned out and dazed, watching the linens tumble round and round in the little dryer porthole. It also led to a first awareness of a lifelong question creeping along under my skin about people who didn’t relate to anybody, who lived their lives under the radar. Of course the overwhelming majority of them wanted only to avoid being hurt themselves. But now I recalled incidents when the intentions had not been good, and when it was grace and circumstance that intervened, not my own intuition.

Still feeling dazed and vulnerable I folded hot laundry, carried it home, and made up the bed. Then all day and night I scrubbed my studio from top to bottom. That meant unplugging the refrigerator to take out and clean the bottom grate and then lie on the floor with moistened cotton swabs dabbing at the coils. It meant weaving strips of wet muslin into the radiator arches to buff out the dust. It meant reaching an arm out the window to clean half the outside panes with white vinegar and scraping all the lines in the sink with a nail file and cleaning under the faucet fixtures with dental floss. At the time it seemed like good housekeeping, but it was really the nesting instinct that precedes getting sick. (In retrospect, it’s no wonder that something went askew. This was a person determined to summon up and work on old memories while avoiding the advice of a therapist and a homeopathic counselor, living without her familiar job or lovable roommates, in an anonymous neighborhood and a remarkably unfriendly building, and without the faith tradition that made the most sense to her.)

When I finished cleaning everything it was 4:00 on a Saturday afternoon, just when I should have been out for confession and Mass. The radio had stopped for a long static-ridden pause. In the hallway, Ahmad, Les, Sibele, Renny, and the Burmese python were heading out for the evening and no doubt leaving their keys in their doors. I sat down on my bed and thought “At last! Now I’m finally finished and ready.”

Then the question came to mind: Ready? For what?

Some quiet little cog of mental wellbeing snapped like a fingerling icicle. It left the simple awareness that there was no one real reason for being anywhere or for being at all. At that moment it seemed that in 35 years of hard work, I’d created a life that looked like the lives in the police report on the magazine people, a life under the radar that didn’t seem to relate to anybody.

I sat and wondered. Where were they now, all the under-radar people from the past? More important, did they wonder where I was? “If they do,” I thought, looking down at my wrists, “this body is the first place they’ll look. Maybe I can just cut my way out?” On a little bed, in a sun-filled clean white boxful of a home, that idea felt sensible and peaceful. It calmed me down to float up like a glowing lotus blossom up through the top of my head.

Except for one nagging thread pulling me back down.
It was that windup clock, pulsing along tick by tock like a little heart that wasn’t giving up.

I picked up the phone and called my sister, and described the clock situation. The conversation went something like this.

“Well come over here,” she suggested cheerfully.
“Well I don’t know,” I told her. “Do you have clocks?”
“No, mine are in the closet, wrapped in a bath towel,” she assured me.
“That’s a good idea. I have a bath towel here.”
“Nah, come on over,” she said. “Right now.”
“Should I bring salad? I’ve got tomatoes and olives and –”
“I have salad. Walk out your door now, and come here. I will watch out the window and expect you in half an hour.”
“Only if it’s no trouble.”
“Half an hour. You will be here.”

In half an hour I was there. She had salad on the table with two plates and no clocks.
“Thanks,” I said. “This is nice.” Then I lay down behind her sofa and started keening. That’s what Gaelic calls it. It was somewhere between a moan and a howl, just sound flowing along through me like a mournful sea wind.

Why, one might ask, didn’t you report this unusual larkspur reaction to your homeopathic counselor?
Because as far as I could tell, it seemed perfectly reasonable, after reading about the magazine people, to then go find some furniture to lie behind and start keening.

And that meant I’d arrived. This was success, this was the prize of long striving. Finally, I’d gotten a memory. What I didn’t know was that memories may not arrive as a pat clear image like a movie. Memories might arrive as only the emotion of a scene, without the context of the scene itself. In this case, the piece was a sense that everything is over, that there is no way out.

My sister brought the phone in and invited me to call my therapist right now. He was just leaving for the airport, but gave me an appointment on his return in ten days. Fine.

Now all I had to do was work out the next ten days. Fortunately, my sister makes good salad. The fuel was going to come in useful.

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8/28: Larkspur, part 2 of 4

Part 1 of 4

I took the larkspur home for the next chapter of life.

Home was a roomy old house in a Catholic neighborhood a block from the church. The sidewalks were lined with cars parked half up on the curb, car alarms between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., music in and out of windows, and mattresses left in the rain at the curb in case garbage trucks ever start picking up wet mattresses. But it also had little personal touches; beautiful old stone walls and bay windows and patterned roof tiles, a faded cross and a pious “J.M.J.” for “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” carved in a massive pavement-crunching beech tree, an interested pair of parakeets peeking out the window cage of a driver ed school, a rubber tree kept alive in a tofu bucket on someone’s fire escape, and once an elderly man in white pajamas doing effortless tai chi in an alley full of broken glass with “Gimme Shelter” pounding from an upstairs window.

In our neighborhood there was always something going on, someone around to greet and visit. The Legionnaires Hall had a parrot show every year, a hall full of beautiful birds winning ribbons with their whistles and antics. The hospital had 12 Step meetings every night. The shrine behind the hospital had a Rosary candlelight procession every month. In a narrow space between one chain link fence and a garage, a gentleman from Sicily with a carved walking stick tended peppers and tomatoes, and if you stopped to admire he’d limp over and hand you a big fistful of fresh basil. At the Hebrew Rest Home (the real name was some beautiful Hebrew phrase, “gate of everlasting peace” or “mature cedar trees of remembrance,” but nobody called it that), elders on a concrete balcony called friendly snappy comments to the people passing by, and sometimes sold their homemade brownies & doilies. A young Deaf lady with a large vigilant dog opened the bakery every morning at dawn; we scared each other when I first rounded the corner jogging, but now we liked waving through the window. The convent had Irish Club on Tuesdays, where wisecracking teens from Dublin let me practice my Gaelic and jam with them on Irish whistle.

But that day, after the homeopathy appointment, I didn’t stop to pass the time of day with anyone. I just hurried back to my houseful of lovable and high-spirited roommates. There my bedroom faced southwest with two walls of tall old windows. The little bed was bright with a cozy afghan, squares in yellow and kelly-green and coral, crocheted in bed during my sick days in eighth grade. The desk was a big door, sanded and covered with white contact paper and laid out on milk boxes; it was perfect for sewing and drawing and plants. The windowsills were lined with indigo glass mineral water bottles from the recycling, each holding water and a rooting stem of spearmint; I loved waking up at night and seeing the bottles catch the moonlight in facets of sapphire.

The tall windows had sturdy curtain rod hooks with no curtains or rods. Instead they held hanging baskets of geraniums. Each was a trash foundling, tossed from a patio to the curb at first frost. Every day during that first week of fall weather, I ran out the door before dawn just ahead of the garbage collection trucks to snatch the nicest plants away and bring them home. After repotting and feeding and pruning and shpritzing, each geranium came back to life. Now they were blooming away in scarlet and magenta and rose and white. That room is still a happy memory, a bower for thoughts and dreams like the dream I carried home that day.

Stopping by the freezer for a fortifying pound of chocolate-coated peanut clusters, I went to my room and unfolded my counselor’s patiently typed directions. They said one shouldn’t take this larkspur soon after waking up or soon before going to bed, or soon before or after eating, and certainly not before or after brushing teeth, since the mint in the toothpaste would counteract the remedy. Well, that put a moment’s pause in my candy consumption; if chocolate counted as eating, then that wasn’t leaving much room to actually take the remedy, was it?

While thinking over that dilemma, I put the directions away and took out my sewing kit to stitch up a loose button. Then as brain fuel for perspective I finished the bag of clusters, pulled the afghan off the bed and around my shoulders, and fell asleep.

The sunset that summer night was rose and gold, rays flooding the room through the hanging garden, kindling the water bottles to dazzling peacock blue. I woke up and blinked, amazed by the beauty of it all. The plants made such a picture, it almost felt as if they’d gathered around just to greet me.

That reverie ended with the sound of the hall phone.
It was a new Young Man, calling for a date! In a flash I spruced up, picked out some nice clothes, and hurried over to his house.

That was the start of three weeks of excitement.
For once I had someplace to go evenings and weekends just like normal people, and someone to do things with. For those three weeks I got to eat pizza and watch sports on a TV the size of the beluga tank at the Bronx Aquarium.

 

To make up for all that TV time I started leaping out of bed in the dark to catch up on chores and came home so late that I only dropped my gear and crawled into bed without even turning on the light. Still, little things fell by the wayside. The first was early Mass before work, and then early bedtime of 8:30 for half an hour of Bible study. There really wasn’t time any more to cook up big batches of bean soup loaded with cruciferous and brassica vegetables. There was no time to take long hikes around the neighborhood, to sew or draw or practice music or write letters; no time for confession and Vespers every Saturday, or to volunteer in the church kitchen after Sunday Mass, or hang out with my housemates. There was no time to stop and chat with the neighbors, or to run after garbage trucks rescuing plants that year when the first crisp nippy morning came along. But I knew that’s what women do if they want to be married some day; not think about themselves so much, and think about their spouse and kids.

Somewhere in all this I saw that the larkspur jar was gone, leaving only the ignored instructions. In that whole three weeks, I’d never remembered to take a single dose at the proper time. After the trouble my homeopathic counselor went to, I certainly didn’t want to ask him for another batch. Besides, things with the boyfriend were so friendly and good-natured, evidently I’d gotten over that memory, whatever it was, and moved on with life all on my own.

At the end of three weeks, the new boyfriend kindly let me know that he’d like a girl who knew runs batted in, politics, NASCAR, stocks & bonds, microbrews, ski resorts, cinema verite, computer operating systems, jazz, science fiction, fashion, and other real world things. He kindly complimented my good nature and intelligence, and suggested I stop wasting them on every passing unfortunate on the street. To lighten the mood, he made a little joke. “You like visiting neighbors so much, why not move in to Hebrew Rest Home? They’ll throw you a nice bar mitzvah.

A bar mitzvah is not a party, it’s a 14-year-old boy. But I was too crestfallen to point that out as I packed up my cashews, dried craisins, and Imprimatur biography of Florence Nightingale and the nursing sisters of Bermondsey, and walked home.

That was a pensive little trip.
The temperature and season had changed overnight. At Hebrew Rest Home, the seniors were nowhere in sight; the balcony was too chilly for them now. I inquired at the nursing station, and learned that one of my favorite residents was moved to a rehab hospital and another favorite resident had passed away. With the new school year the Irish club had moved out to the suburbs. The Sicilian garden was cut down and put to bed. At home, the landlord let us know that his relatives would like the house, and he was going to renovate the whole place for them. Our little household in our quaint neighborhood was breaking up.

When I stopped at the freezer for some carob-coated graham crackers and opened my bedroom door, a drizzly dusk was falling. For the first time in days I actually turned on the light and took a look at my room. One mineral water bottle had fallen off the sill, and there was a forlorn little pile of indigo glass in the corner. The heat in the steam radiators had come on, adding hot dry air to days of gardening neglect; now every plant was dead, leaving the afghan sprinkled with brown petals from all the geraniums that trusted me to save them and give them a new life. I turned out the lights, got into bed for a little cry, turned on my cassette of tunes taped off the radio, and listened about 27 times to the Winter Hours song “Hyacinth Girl.” Then I remembered what my counselor said about my inner world of treasure. It began to dawn on me: my single life-before-boyfriend, the life I was eager to trade in for a chance to be a normal grownup, had been a really lovely place.

Luckily I found a little studio unit a mile away, and moved my stuff an armload at a time. That was the start of a long cold winter. I got sick for a while, and in spring had to leave a stressful job. One day in summer there was some hand mending to do. I opened my little sewing box. There was the larkspur inside it! Holding the jar I took a fond look back at all my earnest effort at self-improvement and boyfriend preparation from the year before. Then I broke open the seal, took a dose of remedy, and sat down waiting for something to happen.

Nothing did.

So I dropped the jar back in the sewing kit. “Placebo!” I laughed. I went right on with my chores, and didn’t give the remedy another thought….

 

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8/28: Larkspur, part 1 of 4

“You really want to do this?” He looks up from his box of little cards, adjusting his eyeglasses.

His look is a nice blend of shyness with integrity, calling to mind some unassuming schoolmaster digging himself out of a bomb shelter in the London blitz and then opening a street school for orphan boys.

“I really do.” I slap the table edge with my fingertips. “It’s time to face down this memory, this shadow in the back corner of my mind.”

He flips through the card box. “Memories don’t always work that way. If they stay out of sight, they may have a reason.”

“But there may be a reason to say,  Enough already. To just move on and jump into the stream of life, and not be so alone any more. So I’ve found a therapist, and here we are.”

He nods, and arranges some little cards on his desk. “Let’s start with these.” He picks up a crystal on a chain. “Do you like butter?”

“Butter? Me? No no. I don’t even bring it into the house.” I hold up both palms, in case he’s about to pull some butter out of his desk and offer it to me. “Last time I bought some, I woke up in the middle of the night walking the floor eating a stick of it and then thought ‘What am I doing?'”

He waits for my butter objections to wind down, and meanwhile takes away two cards and puts them back in the box. He lays two more cards on the table, and tries the question again. “Do you like it?”

“Oh.” He may have a point. “Yes. Sugar too; can’t stop eating it. It must be balancing something, and I’d love to find out what that something is.”

“Did you try quitting? That might tell you.” He’s not being sassy, either; he sounds interested.

“Um, no. Didn’t try that.”

“Okay. One of these five.” He takes out a fifth card and holds the crystal chain poised over them all. “Do you ever walk up stairs on all fours?”

“Only when nobody’s looking.” Idea. “Mm, is that normal? Do other people do that when nobody’s looking?”

He tips his head, and brightens up a little at the thought: imagine, a world of people going up stairs on all fours but only when no one is looking. “Maybe.” The crystal swings in gentle arcs over the cards. “When you were growing up… any eye ailments?”

“Never. Only the usual. Sties, blepharitis, pinkeye, plugged tear ducts. Wore a patch over one side or the other pretty often.”

“Mm. Any eye injuries?”

“Oh no. None of that. Just minor mishaps. The time I walked into a holly wreath. Well, and walked into a door frame, and fell in the dark against the back of a chair. And… then fell on ice against a pole and spent Christmas Eve in the emergency room with a black eye. Your childhood stuff.”

“I see.” He puts the fourth card away; there are three left. “Shadow in the back corner. What is that like?”

So I tell him.

The crystal starts spinning. He looks up, furrowing his brow.”Ever read Coma?

“What?”

“Book.”

“Don’t know it.”

“Way you describe some of this, I thought…”

“Should I?”

“No.” Troubled look at the cards. “‘Raven in the Storm’?”

“Book?”

“Song. John Gorka.”

“Russian root, feminine short form, adjective ‘bitter.'”

“Sorry?”

“Gorka means ‘bitter.’ Never heard of him.”

“Ok.” Two cards left.

By now my Catholic readers, all both of them, will say “When you were troubled by past memories, why didn’t you go to church for spiritual direction and the sacraments?” I did, to a series of brisk hardworking priests. After their outspoken responses, I was too afraid to try any more confessionals for the next eight years. Without confession, and without that sense of forgiveness and redemption, I grew more uneasy around prayers about sinfulness and humility and the blood of Christ. At that point, anyone coming at me with an upfront Christian message about repentance would have sent me right out the door.

My friends did warn me that homeopathic remedies and crystal dowsing are a nonsensical placebo.
But if you have only catastrophic out-of-pocket medical insurance and can’t afford most doctor visits; if homeopathy is a cozy old-fashioned room with high ceiling and wood floors and tall windows and serene touches (polished slab of semi-precious stone; jade plant tree; tabletop fountain); if placebo means “I please,” a remedy that can’t do any harm and costs exactly one dollar; if it’s an hour with an acupuncturist who pays attention to thoughtful questions and thoughtful answers and offers gentle counsel and wonderfully non-sequitur dialogues (still a kind and tranquil memory 20+ years later) — I was ready to take it and be grateful.

Now, his study door cracks open.
A very small bright face and small smile peer in. The smile drops to a little O of dismay at sight of a visitor. But with a glance to check in with Dad and to check out me, the little O pops up to a smile again. Surprise! — he’s got a bumblebee to show us, a plushy plump one with merry yellow stripes that fits over his hand like a muff. “Bzzzzz…” he comes humming in, almost head level with the desktop. The bee gives Dad a plush kiss, knocking his glasses a bit askew.

Dad laughs under his breath, cupping his palm to stroke his son’s hair and turn him back toward the door. “Mom will have your lunch fixed by now. Tell her I’ll be out in half an hour.” Dad silently closes the door and re-skews his glasses with a raised brow of apology.

I sit back beaming, and clasp my hands to my heart.
Like in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. One minute the patient is careworn and weary, telling about her case in hopes of treatment; the next, the doctor’s beautiful St. Bernard strolls in: Somehow the arrival of this calm, thoughtful dog refreshed and cheered Lyudmila Afanasyeva, and as she rose from the table she thought that her case was not so bad after all…. “This is why I came today,” I assure him. It’s to get better and have a family life of my own, where any minute a boy and his bee pal can bzzz right in!

My counselor has one more question. “‘Not be all alone any more,’ — what is that about?”

“If I knew why…” it comes out a bit rueful.

“No no, I wasn’t questioning being single.” He sounds respectful about it. “But the meaning for you?”

What else would it mean? “Means I didn’t become a lovable enough person; not good enough for anybody.”

He raises his head, giving me a long look. “Mary. Have you shared that impression with your new therapist?”

“Sure. He knows.”

The clear prism spins on its chain, balanced on three fingertips like a little thurible of incense, catching a spark of sunlight on the back edge of every loop. “This one is it. Larkspur.”

He explains the indications for choosing the larkspur. He prepares the remedy, seals it in a very small narrow jar about the size of my thumb, and at the manual typewriter writes up the instructions. “If you really do want memories…. Your therapist is welcome to call,” he offers; “and if I can’t pick up he can leave a message on the tape and I’ll call him right back. What’s his name?”

“Oh… He probably won’t call. I mean, he doesn’t know; it hasn’t come up in our sessions.” Operation Total Recall didn’t come up because the new therapist, though trained in medical hypnosis to help patients in chronic pain, flatly refuses to use hypnosis on me. He too has this idea that if my mind has kept some recollections tucked in mothballs, then in mothballs they belong until the mind is ready to process them.

“You mean — you’re taking larkspur to access a memory, and haven’t mentioned this to your therapist? Then do talk to him first, before trying any.” He’s eyeing the jar in my hand as if wondering whether to take it back and refund my dollar.

I try not to smile. Cancer Ward again! Dr. Vega trying to wrest the jar of toxic homebrew issyk-kul potion from the hand of her patient, Kostoglotov. “But these remedies don’t have side effects, do they?”

“Not in themselves. What I’m thinking about is the underlying memory. More important, it’s what YOU think about the memory.”

“What could happen?”

“It’s your wealth, your riches. You are a person who could suffer anything to keep that safe. But if a memory comes up that makes you even think that your wealth is threatened, or was never real to begin with –”

“Wealth?” I’m laughing. “I’m not rich.”

“It’s not about money. Your treasure isn’t money; it’s an inner world of connections.” He takes two more prescription cards, and writes numbers on both. “One for you, one for your therapist. This is our home phone. If anything unusual comes up, please call me. Any hour, day or night. Promise?”

That gets through to me; he sounds serious. “Promise.” I give him a hug; he hugs me back.

And off I go, to begin the new adventure.

Next: Part 2 of 3

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4/27: Underfoot

The Artist was coming to town.

Our department was arranging it all: the airport welcome, the red carpet rollout at the college club, the public meet & greet; refreshments, parking, audio-visual aids, seating, all the fanfare. For one festive week he’d be on center stage, showing videos and telling stories of his past performances and the luminaries who worked with him over the years.

No wonder people liked him so much. He made a name for himself by doing 3 things well:
1. He mastered one traditional art form, as apprentice to the elders of a remote and insular culture;
2. He preserved that culture in new media and genres to form a fusion product that no one else thought to mix together; and
3. He popularized the result, making it understandable and accessible for everyone to enjoy.

That’s what gifted artists often do.
Michael Flatley mastered Irish dance, and sparked in flamenco and country-western and his signature 28 foot taps per second. Paul Pena forged through adversity to write blues songs that made money for other musicians, then taught himself throat singing (!) and put the two together to win the national singing competition in Tuva. (If you haven’t watched his work, here he is with Mr. Kongar-ol Ondar in documentary “Genghis Blues.”)

No wonder people were excited about meeting our guest. I was too, the first time he came along. So I created a little tribute: a quote from one of his own books on technique. I wrote the calligraphy on parchment-looking paper, with ornamental trim that looked like gold leaf but was really the inside wrapping from 3 Dove Bars. It looked swell mounted on a foam backing and shrink-wrapped at the copy shop. I offered it to him with a little speech. “…and so in appreciation, this is for you. I made it myself.”
He brushed my drawing out of his way and walked past me. But first, ace performer that he was, he answered back in a pitch-perfect imitation of my eager little voice: “And I could not care less.”

I stood there blinking, holding the picture to my chest. After that I kept to my place and stayed out of his way. I went on registering participants and confirming performance space and working with the caterers.

But then, between events, he seemed to find novelty and amusement in learning just what kind of assistant was handling his arrangements. He began asking me questions like these:
What is your alma mater?
What is the size of your alumni association’s endowment fund?
What performance hall events have you patronized this year? To what seasonal memberships do you subscribe?
What interesting local grants have been awarded lately to talented young performers? For what amounts of money?
Just how much do you know about my career?

He figured out soon enough that my participation in the fine arts ran to cutting up Dove Bar wrappers and playing Irish whistle tunes out on the office park bridge at lunch. The response he got from me was a bunny-in-a-headlight gaze that really means “Hoo boy, did I remember to give Eddie the Bagel Guy my cell phone number for when he shows up with our dozen dozen doughnuts at the loading dock?”

At a staff meeting in front of our upper-level colleagues, he asked me about the business management of the local sports team. To me it called to mind the scene in Remains of the Day, when Lord Darlington’s dinner guests liven up their evening by calling Butler Stevens on the carpet to answer questions about politics. The Artist and the upper brass enjoyed a good laugh. I just sat blushing and tongue-tied and thinking back on the words of a very good Orthodox priest, who told me “You wear a terrible mantle of self-consciousness. In interactions with people, it weighs you down.” I believed in Father’s point of view, but right then I just took my terrible mantle out of the meeting to go back to the office park and sit with the egrets.

Now the Artist was coming back to town. He was looking forward to his airport welcome, a comfortable car to the hotel, and fascinating shop talk with informed colleagues over dinner with a nice bottle of wine. But at the last minute, with his plane already on its way, the welcoming committee came apart. Everybody had something to tend to: sick child sent home from day care, car troubles, flooding pipes. None of the right people could go. That left the one with no kids or car or house to fix.

So in the early morning I set out to meet our guest, to escort him and his luggage on a crowded airport bus to his hotel, then to take him out on the town all day to cultural events. That is, if I could figure out where the culture was.

On the pre-sunrise bus, wedged in with airport workers and a passenger or two, I cradled my bag lunch and gazed at my anxious reflection in the window. How was all this going to pan out? How would our Artist feel about this personnel change? And how much was my alumni association’s endowment, anyway?

To shore up my spirits I took out my rosary and prayed through the sorrowful mysteries, hoping for inspiration.
Then, something happened.
In the dark rocking bus, to my tired vision and troubled mind, an overhead image flashed of the feet of Jesus crucified. To be clear, this was not the kind of spiritual illumination experienced by, say, the anonymous Lady living in the church of Julian of Norwich. This was only a plain picture of plain everyday reality, at least to a Catholic mind: that Jesus’s feet walked a path of service, and then were trampled and spat on and nailed to a cross.

Why did the image show only feet? Probably that was as much of the crucifixion as I could handle in that startling moment. (The cosmic joke of course is that after a lifetime of prayer before crucifixes in plaster, wood, paint, and brocade, the Catholic was surprised when all that contemplation actually started to work.)

But startling it was, to glimpse the physical implication of a sacrifice that I’d always taken for granted. It was like another revelation moment with some Muslim grad student neighbors who invited me over for supper. During the meal, one of the guys arrived home. He wanted to tell us his distress about a picture he had seen that day: Jesus wearing a Statue of Liberty hat with points all around it. The men came from a cultural heritage that had no public churches, no religious portraits at all. They asked me what it all meant. I explained about the crown of thorns, and why the Roman soldiers made one and put it on Jesus as insult and injury. My Muslim neighbors were appalled. They believed with all their hearts that Allah had intervened, rescuing the most peaceful prophet from crucifixion and assuming him directly to heaven. To them, this crown of thorns idea was a dreadful shock. “How can those people even THINK to do this to Issah al-Messiah, peace be upon him??” they exclaimed. The one who saw the actual picture was seized by a splitting headache and went straight to his room to lie down. The reaction of those young Muslim men was very moving for me. Back at home, at bedtime, I thought back to the times I enjoyed a laugh at The Onion and its spoofs about the Catholic church, showing Jesus working out at the health club or shopping for groceries, thorns and all. “How come I’m not the one with the headache?” I wondered. “Where has my empathy been all this time?”

Now the image of those battered feet stayed right with me, like the moon in a rearview mirror, fitting right in with all the other feet on that bus. This was mostly people on the early shift, lunch boxes instead of luggage, sturdy dark uniforms, murmurs in soft Spanish and Haitian and Somali, with a few Anglo women of 50-plus in skirt suits, a few teens with tinted hair. They were the baggage handlers, security guards, leaf-blower operators, concession stand baristas, custodians, and hotel cleaning crews. These were quiet tired-looking people, sitting still before being on their feet toiling away all day. And chances are, they weren’t forking over their minimum wage on custom orthotics or foam sole liners or disposable moleskin bunion pads or podiatry appointments for their comfort either. In the whole footbound underpinning of laboring people who bear up the weight of the world one step at a time, those feet on the cross stayed with the bus, feet that stood for us when they were no longer in any shape to stand up at all.

We trooped off at our stop, and headed into our terminal. The plane touched down. There was the Artist, standing right out in the crowd in a black silk shirt and black tie and dark glasses, jacket over shoulder, head up, scanning the terminal in anticipation of his welcome committee. For a guy who’d been traveling all night, he looked terrific.

With a little sigh, I started walking toward him. My posture began to shrink and my tongue to tie in knots. For an instant I thought of escaping on some escalator or baggage carousel, and running back home.

But those feet! Their bleeding battered image didn’t go away. Instead, they arrested my attention with a new idea: This is the condition of my own Lord and Master; then how should I expect people to treat me any better? And at that, the feet changed from an image to a physical feeling, an actual presence that was walking a mile in my own shoes. Then in a flash, they spread out across the terminal to walk in everybody else’s shoes of all the working people in sight. In their endurance, the disrespect thrown at them, the tasks they did to keep these planes in the air — they were all sharing in the tracks broken in on Calvary. I spun around, staring at this whole airport Via Dolorosa. When I looked again at the Artist, even he looked different.

He was still at the gate, but he had no way of knowing which direction his committee would come from. So he wore his best demeanor: photogenic from all angles, poised to take over and start entertaining. But behind his winning smile and knowing eyes, he looked (for just that moment) like a tired timid elderly man, one who without an audience didn’t really know what to do.

At that, some weight shucked right off my back.
Was it the terrible mantle of self-consciousness? Was it the chip on shoulder of my reverse class attitude? Whatever it was, I sidled up to the Artist with a soft unobtrusive greeting and a brief apology for the absence of his usual cohort. He tossed his head and gave me a droll dressing-down for not doing a better job of mustering the troops. But his verbal derring-do didn’t get a grip on me. With the new heft and centering inside my shoes (our shoes, really) his opinion of me really wasn’t my concern. I was there to serve, not to impress.

So I took the carry-on bag out of his hand, leaving him to grab the suitcase and follow me. We scrambled into the bus with the other passengers. The driver suddenly lowered the coach; before I knew it, my arm flew out and braced my companion’s back to continue on up the steps. As the bus set out through some poor neighborhoods toward downtown, we settled in with people just getting off the night shift.

At first he was all curiosity, taking in the view, critiquing the layout of the city. He mentioned a particularly large construction contract, asking me about a conflict of interest with stakeholders in the local government. I felt some regret that the upper colleagues weren’t here to answer him. All I could do was break out my box lunch, the raw vegetables and dried fruit and nuts and hummus sandwiches. “You ought to eat,” I told him; “we’ll be on the bus a while.”

As we sat there eating our apricots, something about him changed. He laid aside his usual verve and wit, and instead shared an open vulnerable fact: one of his best collaborators had cancelled his appearances and checked in to an alcohol detox center and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “He told us he’d been depressed for years. How can a person who achieved so much be depressed? He’s at the peak of his career!”

So that’s how it went.
Stuck on the bus, we worked through our snacks and talked it over. He asked me question after question. But these questions didn’t put me on the spot and shut me down; they opened me right up. He wanted to know all about these AA meetings, about addictions, about how people get depressed, how they get over it, how he could help. Then it was questions about what keeps people going, and how they create meaning, and what they live for, and what they leave behind.

After that, we just sat there. Just sitting, just wedged in. And somehow the things I knew about him settled in like snowflakes to form a whole new picture. It showed a man working well past retirement age; a champion insomniac who wore out his staff and almost never went home to rest in his stately house; one who started out poor, and spent his life honing and honoring a craft. Most of all, he didn’t forget young artists, but shared his time and advice with them now, and his wealth in trust for them in the future. (Sure, his response to my gift was a little eccentric; but maybe instead of acting like a fan that first day I should have asked him for a scholarship instead.) He worked harder than I ever did, for long years. In terms of sacrifice, the real Underfoot servant here was him.

At our stop, we headed for his hotel to drop off the luggage. But halfway there he put down his suitcase and turned to me.

“You know,” he confided, “Honestly, I’d like to go lie down and rest. Would you let the office know that I’ll call them later this afternoon?”

“Sure,” I told him. “Air travel is tiring. You have a big week ahead; a rest is a wise idea.”

“I do hope you don’t mind. Thank you for coming to meet me.”

We both took a step forward at the same time and stood there in a big hug for a long minute.

“Good bye, Dear,” he said. “Take good care of yourself.”

Walking away, we both turned back at the same time to wave goodbye. He went to rest, and I went to the office and sat for a while at the bridge with the egrets and thought Well, you never know about people. They can surprise you.

After that, it was still chop wood carry water.
The Artist’s visits went along same as ever. I still met Eddie on the loading dock for our doughnut orders, still printed up registration slips, still ran to the copy shop to proofread invitations. I still couldn’t keep up with all the enlightened conversation whenever the Artist was in the room.

But from then on whenever we crossed paths, no matter who was lining up to have him answer questions or autograph his book, he’d always break away to collect a big hug from Dear before going back to his public, and on with the show.

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