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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3/23: Excerpt from Smoke: You Like Tomato…

Smoke is the working title of a Leningrad novel I’ve been writing for years, a Cold-War romance about falling in love with not only one person but with his entire culture. It’s a source of endless absorption on evenings and weekends, and a conversation piece for folks who greet me with “How is that great Russian-American novel coming along?”

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 20, “Welcome.”
Friendly supporters can see how long it takes the heroine to navigate one sentence and three steps on a dirt path. That might explain why it’s taking her narrator so long to get her through 450 pages.

___________________________________

On Friday morning we arrived at the train station. Misha took my knapsack for our walk to the dacha.

There was a small wooden shed near the tracks; Misha stopped at the window with a word of greeting, and reached in his pocket for change. Someone inside handed out two packs of Belomor Canal cigarettes.

As we walked on, I turned to him. “Please, do light up.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Would it be all right?”
“Certainly; my breathing is fine when we’re outside in the open air.”
He hitched my knapsack up over his shoulder, and struck a match.

The cool fresh morning forest closed in over our heads. We followed the soft pine-needled path to cut across a little dirt road; there a pickup truck was just hauling away a load of demolition rubble, and churning up engine fumes and powdered dirt.
I covered a cough.
Misha veered away, holding his cigarette behind him. “That settles it; I have no business smoking near you anywhere at all.”
“No no, it’s not your smoke.” I cleared my throat, fanning the air. “This is pyl.
He raised a brow. “It’s what?”
Pyl.” Still coughing, I pointed toward the truck.
He thought that over, and made a tactful suggestion. “You mean pyl’?”
“Oh.” I knew by now that he virtually never contradicted or corrected me, and certainly knew that he knew better, whatever the difference might be. “Ah, yes.” To me my pyl and his pyl’ sounded about the same. But for my l I scooped the tongue hollow with the tip raised. For his l’ he rounded the tongue tip down, with the middle of the tongue raised to the palate. (That apostrophe is linguistic shorthand showing that unlike my l, his l’ was palatalized, or “soft.”)

English speech can include a touch of incidental palatalization (try overexaggerating l as in liii versus luuu). But in English the difference is not phonemic — that is, it doesn’t change meaning; softening our consonants with a convex tongue would just come across as an individual affectation. Same with Spanish: the spelling “l” is always soft, always pronounced l.’ In Arabic, all “l” is soft l’ with one highly honored distinction: “l” is pronounced hard l in the name “Allah.” In all three languages, adding palatalization or not adding it might sound strange, but at least the locals will understand you and the waiter will still bring dinner.

But in Russian most consonants come in two flavors, hard or soft, and using one versus the other can give a completely different meaning. The difference is more than personal taste, more than the lighthearted “You like tomato, and I like tomahto” dialect distinction drawn by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Shall We Dance.” A student of Russian might think that its hardest pronunciation feature is those jolly consonant clusters (my favorite is the root “umershchvl–,” from my Orthodox prayerbook); but palatalization is the most exacting pronunciation point.

Some Russian comic could have a field day putting on an English accent and generating hilarious palatalization puns. Russian is packed with near-homonyms, pronounced identically except for the tongue position of one or more consonants.
The simple little syllable m + a + t can form four unique words, depending on how we pronounce the two consonants:
mat = “profane language” (no palatalization at all).
m’at = “mint” herb (palatalized m’)
mat’ = “mother” (palatalized t’)
m’at’ = “to rumple” (palatalized m’ plus palatalized t’)
(This might explain why in Leningrad our classmate Matt was automatically called Matvey.)

Years after that Leningrad summer, one of my language students refused to practice palatalization drills; he protested that using soft consonants would make him sound like a pansy Milquetoast. His insistence on using only hard consonants would be like a student of Mandarin learning only tones 1 and 2, rejecting tones 3 and 4. I had to break the news that once he and his hard consonants got to Russia, people would be surprised not by his virile image but by his sad inability to distinguish between “coal” versus “corner”; or “over there” versus “there’s a stench”; or “shelf” versus “Polish woman”; or “he was carrying,” versus “ox.”

Misha steadfastly refused to ever rebuke or ridicule me for making mistakes, especially when I rebuked myself. Because of his courtesy and tact, it was only later that I learned my lesson:

For a girl on a forest road, pyl’ and pyl meant the difference between remarking that the footing was “dusty,” or confiding to an honorable young man that she is breathing heavily due to excess physical “ardor.”

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Film: The Irony of Fate, or Have a Nice Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или c легким паром!)

The literal subtitle is “With a Light Steam!,” the traditional cordial wish to anyone who is heading into a bath house.

This wacky New Year’s comedy from the USSR is an ode to accidental romance and to washing up for the holidays. “Irony” opened on January 1, 1976 to an estimated 100 million delighted Soviet TV viewers. It’s still a New Year’s Eve tradition with more new fans every year.

Here for Americans is the Wikipedia review

With English subtitles, Part I; the bath house scene starts at 22:00
and
With English subtitles, Part II

In very few words, in a very little nutshell…
Moscow Surgeon Zhenia Lukashin (named for physician St. Luke?) looks forward to a festive New Year’s night. He’s finally going to propose to girlfriend Galia. (Culture alert: Any attentive Russian viewer will know that Galia will not end up living happily ever after with our hero. And how do they know? Because Galia decides to celebrate with Zhenia alone in a cozy twosome. She’d like Mama to fix their dinner and then leave the flat to go drop in on her own women friends, to return home alone in freezing temperatures after midnight. I ask you. What kind of daughter-in-law is that??)

But before the festivities, Zhenia joins his buddies for their cherished tradition: meeting at the bath house for a good scrub and steam, goodies, and a philosophical heart to heart about the meaning of life. The lads toast Zhenia as “the shyest guy” in their group, for finally getting up the courage to ask Galia for her heart and hand. Then they gang up to demand that their timid bachelor down a shot of vodka to celebrate. Teetotalling Dr. Zhenia fights them off. But peer pressure prevails, sending him off in a state of squeaky cleanliness and severe alcohol toxicity to cope with Nadia, Ippolit, the city of Leningrad, and the whole cast of characters on his own.

It’s not a Bondarchuk epic. These aren’t heroes in a dangerous age, fighting Fascists or forging steel. The setting is mostly one apartment, with accidental acquaintances scrambling in and out in pursuit of their aspirations and fancies, ringing the doorbell, ringing the telephone, and ringing one another’s nerves.

At first viewing years ago, the film went right past me. Why, I wondered then, would the Russian-at-heart still bother to ring in the new year watching champagne foam like this?

But at tonight’s second viewing, the pieces of the answer started falling into place.

It’s All Dialogue
The whole film is conversation. The screenplay must weigh five pounds. The choreography of speech, its timing and delivery, are complex and close-knit. At Ippolit’s first appearance, for instance, all three characters rant and rave their own view of the same event at the same time. The mix of extravagant hyperbole and minimal understatement is remarkably tasteful, benign, good-natured, high-toned, and far more clever and cute than the clunky subtitles let on.

Our hero, in his cups: Driver! 3rd Builders’ Street 25, Apt. 12, 4th floor.
Cabbie: Sure. Even to the 5th.

Hefty Ippolit, who started the fight first: Let go of me! You’ll break my arm!
Surgeon Zhenia, provoked past all patience: Ha. I can break it, and I can repair it!

The nice guy finishes first.
Central actor Andrei Miagkov (as in “miagkii,” meaning “soft”) carries the entire movie in this plum of a leading role. He manages to emote his way from an alcoholic near-coma through successive stages of sobriety, chagrin (“Oh NO — I forgot my LOOFAH!”), flashes of boyish joy, and sincere resourcefulness in a cold world full of surprises.

The characters keep bursting into catchy soulful ballads.
“No One Will Be at Home,” “Along My Street,” “In the Little Train Car,” “Don’t Part With Your Loved Ones!” — c’mon, you know you know the words! They were instant hits. People still sing along.

Culture!
Even the very opening, the cartoon wink at the history of Soviet architecture, was quite daring for its time and place; it must have struck quite a chord for a generation of people removed from their family home and land, re-assigned to live in boxes in the sky. Overall, this is a spoofy affectionate microcosm of Soviet-era people struggling on and on with the everyday exhaustion of anonymous architecture, bureaucracy, the logistics of travel and communications, winter cold, and urban loneliness. The characters’ solution and medium for living, like water for fish, is getting right in one another’s faces to share their Real Story. No, listen! Really! Let me explain…

Or maybe…
Maybe people who really did spend their youth fighting Fascists and forging steel just like to hunker down with the TV and a nice crabmeat salad to sing “They waved their white hankies goodbye/And all of their faces were sad.” Maybe it’s human nature to enjoy a modern fable that somewhere in a vast country there’s a soulmate living on a street with the same name as ours, in a state-issue apartment that looks just like ours does. Maybe there’s still something appealing about a time of year that might hold a little magic and wonder.

This review is for the Steam Club womenfolk, good friends who for years have met every winter solstice to bathe at their favorite hot spring. “With a light steam,” Dear Ladies! Don’t forget your loofah!

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