But Not For Me

Spoiler Alert: If you have never seen the movies "Casablanca," "Gone With the Wind," or "Titanic," this blog entry reveals endings and key plot points.

Happy endings. Readers crave them, demand them, and may whine if they don't get them. I understand--I'm a happy ending girl myself. I like my films sweeter than treacle.

But let's take a quick look at #2 and #4 of the American Film Institute's Top 100 films--"Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind," and at the second highest grossing film of all time, "Titanic."

"Casablanca"--Rick gives up Ilsa because he thinks Victor needs her more than he does.

"Gone With the Wind"--Rhett walks out on Scarlett.

"Titanic"--Rose finds true love and he dies.

No happy endings there, and yet all three films have stood the test of time.

I hope my publisher won't be too annoyed with me for revealing this, but my debut novel, The One That Got Away, doesn't have the proverbial happy ending. From the feedback I received in the workshops I was in, I knew that people liked the main character, Bambi Devine (a.k.a. B.D.) and wanted her to have the ending that she wanted. But I couldn't give that to B.D., or to my readers. It didn't feel right. Much as I love the idea of a happy ending, it isn't something that I have experienced. Sometimes I wonder if writers do their readers a disservice by promoting the idea that there is one and only one true love for each of us; that we need someone to complete us. Or that marriage--or the equivalent of marriage--is what everyone should aspire to. (Good thing Bywater and Ylva didn't assign the Valentine's Day blog duty to me when they were drawing up the schedule for the blog hop!)

Rick didn't have a bad life without Ilsa ("We'll always have Paris") and Ilsa did love Victor, in a way. Rhett and Scarlett loved each other but couldn't really make it work. And Rose ended up having a pretty good life without Jack.

I can remember the day I realized that a happy ending might not be in my future. I was washing dishes (many of my epiphanies happen around water), wondering when that special person would come along to take care of me (perhaps I was humming Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me") and the question popped into my mind: "What if no one ever does?" And I realized that I had better be prepared to take care of myself. 

Sometimes I speculate about why I've never had a long-term relationship. Did I do something terrible to someone in a prior life? Did I agree to be single in this life because I needed to learn something? If that's true, I hope I'll understand the lesson at the end.

Of course, The One That Got Away is fiction, and the characters are not based on anyone living or dead (wink, wink), but I've come to realize that if B.D. had gotten the woman she wanted--it probably wouldn't have worked out.

In a way, love and happily ever after is a little bit like law and justice--two admirable concepts that sometimes have very little to do with each other. And that is my attempt at a nifty segue into announcing the next author you're going to hear from--Blythe Rippon. "Barring Complications" features a lesbian Supreme Court justice--and hey, there's an opening on the court right now. Blythe is also the author of "Stowe Away." Take it away, Blythe! http://www.blythe.rippon.wordpress.com.

Family of Choice

Last night I saw two one act plays--"The Further Adventures of...," by Kathleen Warnock, and "Adam & Eva," written and performed by Jack McMahon and Yasmin Zadeh--on a double bill called, "We Met in Dublin."

This morning I realized that while the playwrights and the actors may in fact have met in Dublin, the theme of the evening was finding your family of choice.

Even if your blood family accepts you, but especially when they do not, LGBTQI people tend to create their own families.

Kathleen Warnock and I met in Jenifer Levin's fiction workshop at the west side YMCA, more years ago than I care to remember. At that time, I thought of a play as something with two (or more) acts, actors, sets and costumes, that you saw in a Broadway theater. One of the many blessings of my friendship with Kathleen is that she introduced me to a world of theater that I didn't really know much about--the theater that does on underground or two or three stories up, and the pleasure that a well-crafted one act play can provide--even a 10 minute play! I have enjoyed so many wonderful evenings (well, okay, a few were not all that wonderful but that wasn't because of Kathleen's plays) that I never would have known about were it not for Kathleen.

I've also been privileged to see her work evolve. Each time I've seen "The Further Adventures of...," Kathleen has made changes to it and made it better. Last night it had a new richness and depth that moved me deeply.

I've been so impressed by what can be achieved with minimal--or, in the case of "The Further Adventures of..."--no costumes or sets. The actors create with their bodies, facial expressions, voice and movement. In "The Further Adventures of...," the two male actors, Tim Burke and Mark Finley, play multiple roles. I've found that I don't mind the absence of scenery or costumes; it makes the experience more intimate somehow.

Lately, I've been thinking that storytelling is in our DNA. From the first cave drawings, we have been drawn to tell stories and to listen to them. We need them.

So last night was a lovely evening of stories. "The Further Adventures of..." is about many things for me, including how, as children, we are drawn to particular stories without really understanding why, and how difficult it sometimes was for the generation that came before us. It's also about how creating and imagining our own happy endings is healing and a way to move forward. And "Adam & Eva" reminded me that although it's great that LGBTQI people have the freedom to be out now, that doesn't mean that it's safe.

This is fanciful, I know, but towards the end of "The Further Adventures of...", I felt/imagined Sandra Moran hovering over my left shoulder. i almost turned my head to ask her, "So, what do you think?" But I could only feel regret for another conversation that I would never have with her.

Thanksgiving is next week, and I'm sending out a little pre-holiday gratitude to my dear friend Kathleen, and her wife, Donna. Thank you for being part of my family of choice.

 

"I Am Love"

Part I: The T-Shirt

Several years ago I saw a revival of Terrence McNally's play, "Corpus Christi," which features a gay Jesus. It was performed in a small theater in Greenwich Village. I almost missed it--the only reason I went was that a friend of mine knew people in the cast. That revival of "Corpus Christi" remains one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have ever had. The cast traveled all over with the play, and they made a documentary film about it: "Corpus Christi: Playing With Redemption." I contributed to the film through one of the on-line fundraising sites, and I received a t-shirt as a thank you. The message printed on the shirt was a simple one: "I Am Love."

I couldn't wear it. I felt as though it would be a lie if I did. I didn't feel love on my subway commute or fighting my way through crowds on the street. I didn't feel love for my neighbor when she vacuumed at 3 a.m. In truth, I felt like much of the time I wore a polite or cheerful mask that covered a bottomless well of anger.

I thought I had to earn the right to wear the t-shirt. Perhaps if I learned to meditate, I might be worthy of the shirt one day.

Part II: Buddha Body Yoga

A couple of years ago I heard about a yoga class for large-bodied people, and I started going to it. I've blogged about Buddha Body Yoga before ("Torture Chamber," April 20, 2014). We use props such as chairs, blocks, bolsters, straps and a yoga wall. I enjoy the class because it's not a "typical" yoga class--Michael Hayes, the teacher, makes puns and sings songs. Students make comments like, "This sounds like a track for soft porn" ("Buddha Bar" music). 

Almost every week, when everyone is groaning over a particular position or movement, Michael will say: "Hey, Carol called me up today and asked for this." Of course, I hadn't done any such thing!

 Michael often talks about working on backbends. As we're leaving, he might say, "Next week--backbends." Fortunately, he  doesn't usually follow through with it.

Part III: A Writer Named Sandra Moran

This past July, during the Golden Crown Literary Society conference, my publisher, Bywater Books, hosted a dinner for their authors and some friends. It was a large group, and I ended up seated next to a writer named Sandra Moran. I loved talking with her. Really smart, funny, interested in lots of things, amazing energy. We agreed to keep in touch, and I felt happy about the new friend that I'd made.

After I read two of Sandra's three books--Nudge and Letters Never Sent--my respect for her increased. She is a wonderful writer, and I really enjoyed both books.

Last week Sandra Moran publicly announced that she had a very serious illness. She provided details that I do not think need to be repeated here. 

I wanted to do something, but I wasn't sure what. And then I wrote an email to Michael Hayes, titled: "A Real, Honest-to-God Request from Carol." I explained that a friend of mine was seriously ill and I wanted to do a backbend in her honor.

At first I thought I'd wear a t-shirt with the ruby slippers (Kansas connection). But then I remembered the "I Am Love" t-shirt. Did I dare?

Monday evening, from 6:30 to 8:00 (EST), I am dedicating my Buddha Body yoga practice to my friend and fellow writer, Sandra Moran. And for that one hour and a half, I will try to be love. If I can do it for an hour and a half, maybe I can work my way up to longer periods.

Untitled Poem

I don't think I've ever posted this poem; I've never been completely satisfied with it. But I've decided to post it now.

it is September and

I am thinking of snow

the clean of cold

the numbing of ice

 

and even my mother

is playing at portents

saying, 

"Nine-one-one.

The number you call in an emergency

nine-one-one

that's the date it happened"

 

as I walk by Coney Island's Cyclone

the wind sighs an aria for the dead

at the Aquarium, the penguins seem nervous

in their exposed enclosure

but the beluga whales are serene

within their water world

 

it is October and

I am dreaming of snow

blurring and blanketing

dotting my city like Seurat

 

while on a BART train into San Francisco

a mother tells her son and daughter

"And in addition to everything else that's happened

I'm turning forty next week"

things are back to normal in America

when a woman turning forty

is a tragedy

 

it is November and

I am longing for snow

swirling soft and silent

 

a plane explodes

I conclude it was mechanical

terrorists want to kill Americans

not citizens of the Dominican Republic

 

it is December and

I am waiting for snow

but the icicles are electric

 

and I stare at a pallid sky

faded from the pristine blue

that was the last perfect thing

before September shattered

Father & Son Nights With My Dad

My father belonged to a Jewish men's lodge--Brith Sholom, Delco (Delaware County, Pennsylvania). When I was growing up, the lodge hosted "Father & Son" nights at sports events, and my father always took me.

It wasn't that he wanted me to be a boy; he just wanted to spend time with me. And I wanted to spend time with him.

Today, that seems like very out-of-the-box thinking for the 1960s--a time when girls took home economics (I still have the apron that I made) while boys took wood shop. Although no one ever protested my presence at the Father & Son events--at least, not to my face--I was always afraid that someone would.

The night before the basketball game, or the ice hockey game, my father would sit with me at the kitchen table and draw the court or the rink, explain what each player was called and what they did, and the rules and technical details of the game. I don't think I retained that much of it, but my father never quizzed me on it.

Thanks, Dad, for sharing what you loved with the daughter you loved. I will always be grateful that you did. Thinking of you and missing you this Father's Day. Love, Carol

Questions for Miss Manners

What is the correct stationery to use when writing to someone you haven't spoken to in years, for the purpose of announcing the debut of your first novel?

Having gone to numerous panels on book promotion and publicity throughout the twenty years I was working (sort of) on my novel, I know that I am duty-bound to mimic a mosquito and buzz around everyone and anyone who could possibly have an interest in MY BOOK. Their swatting will be in vain.

Art cards? The "correspondence cards" I bought at the Metropolitan Museum of Art store? The new initial "C" cards I just purchased? The choice depends upon the recipient; I won't send the same thing to each one. Which stamps? And which address label, out of the hundreds provided by junk mailers?

What is the best way to begin? "Hello, remember me? We were in a lesbian lawyer group together twenty-three years ago. I thought you might like to know I'm having a book published. What's new with you?"

There are, of course, some people I am not planning to tell. If they discover it on their own--so be it. I have a friend who does security.

What the Author is Doing Tonight

In Camelot--both the Broadway show and the movie--King Arthur is hiding in the forest, spying on Guinevere, his bride-to-be. He sings the song, "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight." The gist of it is that his subjects imagine him having a very different reaction to the forthcoming wedding than he is actually having.

I was thinking about this because, as of this posting, the publication of my first novel, The One That Got Away, is just a month away. (The publication date is June 30.) People keep asking me, "Are you excited about your book?"

I would never have thought that I'd say this, but--I'm not. (At least, not today.) In fact, I'm almost dreading it.

I've had short stories published in anthologies, but they were part of a collection; one story mixed in among many. The novel is all me, and I feel like I have a target painted on my back.

I worry about the people out there who delight in writing nasty reviews. I worry about the minefield of political correctness.

My Inner Therapist notes that I seem to be anticipating a negative experience.

Most of my short stories were erotica, and I announced their publication to various people on a need-to-know basis. But many more family and friends know about the book. This morning I found myself thinking about the sex scenes in the book and wondering what Thanksgiving will be like this year.

I received an email from an 80-year-old cousin that I think I met once, possibly at a family funeral. He has been doing some genealogical research, but at the end of the email he added that he was looking forward to the publication of my book. Freak out!

Perversely, the two people who are most eager to read my book--my mother and one of my friends--are the two people I would rather not read it at all.

And even though I have bought the books of hundreds of people that I've never met, it seems incredible to me that so much as one person that I don't know might buy my book. I just hope they'll like it.

My Summer 2015 Reading List

I know that summer begins on the solstice, but for the purpose of my summer reading list the season starts on Memorial Day, Monday, May 25 and ends on Labor Day, Monday, September 7. This gives me more time to read!

As usual, my list is an eclectic and ambitious one. The sixteen books on the list include two care taking memoirs--Bobby Wonderful: An Imperfect Son Buries His Parents, by Bob Morris, and Bettyville, by George Hodgman--as well as a collection of essays by Rebecca Solnit, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness.

I want to read the 2015 Ferro-Grumley award-winning Mr. Loverman, by Bernadine Evaristo, An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabiih Alameddine, and coming out in June, The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel, by Nina George Also on the literary fiction deck are Louise Erdrich's The Painted Drum and Colm Toibin's The Master (in part so that I can return the copy I borrowed to its rightful owner).

Two sleuths that I follow have new adventures on the way: Bess Crawford (A Pattern of Lies, by Charles Todd) and my beloved Armand Gamache (The Nature of the Beast, by the wonderful Louise Penny). When the summer is winding down, Deanna Raybourn introduces a new character in A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery.

The house-designing part of me plans to read Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, and to tackle, pattern-by-pattern--certainly not all at once--A Pattern Language, a treatise on architecture, urban design and community livability by Christopher Alexander, Murray Silverstein, and Sara Ishikawa.

On a lighter note, I am very much looking forward to spending some more time with HHC--His Holiness's Cat--in The Dalai Lama's Cat and the Power of Meow, by David Michie.

Inevitably, there will be temptations to deviate from the list and/or to add to it, especially after the Golden Crown Literary Society conference in New Orleans in July. And I might add a novel by Henry James, after reading The Master.

 

Is There One in Your Family?

I woke up thinking about two photographs of my Aunt Stella, one of my grandfather's sisters. I don't know a lot about her. Stella lived in New York City, where she taught dance. One of her students was her nephew. His name was Ron Field. He became a choreographer and director who won awards for his choreography (Cabaret) and direction (Applause). He took Stella as his date to the Tony Awards one year.

I woke up thinking about those two photographs of I'd found of Stella after I came out. She's sitting with a womb. And when I looked at those photographs--I knew.

Stella had been married very briefly and it ended very mysteriously. Looking at those photographs, well, I thought I might be able to guess at a part of the story.

I think I woke up thinking about two photographs of my Aunt Stella because last night I finished reading a debut novel by my friend Shelley Ettinger, called Vera's Will. I read some pages from it when Shelley and I were fellows in the fiction workshop of the first Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers' Retreat, but I was unprepared for the scope of the finished work: three generations, historical events, cultural references. But what I loved about Vera's Will was that it was a great story, with wonderful characters that I cared about, and beautifully written. I'm a simple reader in that way.

In Vera's Will, there is a character in each generation who lesbian. Which made me think, this morning about my own family. On my Dad's side, Stella, her nephews Ron and Sheldon, my cousin Marcy. On my Mom's side, my cousin Mark.

I don't know what, if anything, the family said about Stella, but Ron was "in the theater" and Sheldon was "sensitive." And I have no idea what people say about Mark, Marcy and me.

Then, as I was making my tea, I thought of someone else. He's not gay though. Here's what the family has to say about my cousin Mitchell: "He's a socialist, you know." Shelley, that one's for you. 

 

Broccoli

The New York Philharmonic has announced its 2015-16 season, and I am reviewing the program of offerings for broccoli.

Broccoli is my word for modern music.

Typically, broccoli is served right before intermission, or immediately after. To extend the culinary analogy, a typical concert menu might be: pretty appetizer, broccoli, succulent entree, and maybe a dessert.

Sometimes broccoli is first. And it can be nice to have it over and done with. There is usually only ten minutes of broccoli, although one time I had to listen to twenty minutes of it, which was practically vegan.

Broccoli is rarely heard last. But should you happen to notice a significant number of audience members hurrying out of the hall when there is still one piece of music to be played, it is probably because those taking their leave know that the last piece of music is broccoli. I saw this happen at Carnegie Hall; Sir Simon Rattle actually waved goodbye to the people as they scurried in front of the stage.

Sometimes the conductor talks to the audience about the broccoli first. This is like a parent telling a child how delicious broccoli is, so yummy, you're going to love it. And I'm sure there are children who do. A few. 

I feel that I would be a better person if I could appreciate broccoli, so these attempts by the conductor to get me excited about it can lull me into a false sense of optimism. Surely, with such a distinguished personage singing (so to speak) the praises of broccoli, it will be delectable indeed. But the end result is always the same: broccoli throws a hand up in my face and sneers: "Stop right there! I'm not easy! You're going to have to work really hard to understand me; you're going to have to suffer a little." And I am left thinking that I've wandered into an alley filled with fighting cats, next door to an artillery range, with a subway under the ground and an airport nearby.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

There's a new bookstore in my neighborhood--Book Country. On my initial visit, I was surprised--and delighted--to see a table with stationery and pens and a sign inviting customers to write a letter and leave it to be mailed. There was a sign with the number of letters the store had mailed so far--over 150, as I recall. Then I realized that I didn't have any addresses with me--although now, of course, typing this, I am having that "V8" moment (from the commercial where someone would slap their head and exclaim, "I could've had a V8!"): I had my phone with me! No, wait, addresses are in my laptop. But I think I can put them in my phone too.

OK. Back to the point of this blog post. Letters. The old fashioned kind. 

I have a weakness for stationery, pens and stamps. I enjoy writing letters and postcards, and am happy when I receive them. I still send holiday cards, writing personal notes on each one. I have blogged about reading copies of letters my relatives wrote during World War II (see: Dear Charles). I've written a short story in letter form--"A Letter to My Brother," published in Night Shadows, edited by Greg Herren and J.M. Redmann--and I'd like to write an epistolary novel one day.

For the past three years, February has been A Month of Letters. http://wwww.lettermo.com. The challenge is to mail something each day that the post runs during that month.

The first year that I did A Month of Letters I signed up for Postcrossing http://www.postcrossing.com, to help me find people to write to. The computer assigns you someone to send a postcard to; once they receive it and register it, your name will be given to someone to send a postcard to you. It's fun exchanging postcards with strangers from other countries. They write to me about their jobs, hobbies, children, and pets, where they've traveled or would like to travel to, reminding me that we're all connected.

I also participate from time to time in More Love Letters http://www.moreloveletters.com, which also involves writing to strangers.

Every February I post a notice on my personal Facebook page inviting my friends to send me their snail mail addresses so I can write them a letter. But very few people respond. Maybe receiving and reading letters is a lost pleasure: the texture of the paper, the image on the card, the tidy (or not) handwriting, taking the time to read it.

How long has it been since you've received something other than bills or junk mail from your postal carrier? If you'd like me to send you a letter or postcard, email your snail mail address to me at rosenfeldwriter@gmail.com, using the subject heading "Letter Request." In the body of the message, please specify "Letter" or "Postcard," and give me a prompt: a favorite quotation, a dream or wish, the last book you read or a film you loved--you get the idea. Then start checking your mail box. The non-electronic one.

 

“Happy” New Year

New York City is no place to be during the holiday season. Struggling to make my way through the Rockefeller Center area crowds was like the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. My mutterings were worthy of a graduate of the school of Scrooge: “F—king tree. They tie branches on you know, to make it look fuller, like a teenager stuffing her bra. Why don’t you ogle the trees where you live instead of coming here?”

My cousin called me and said I sounded down, she could hear it in my voice.  I realized I was depressed.

Of course I “should” have been happy. I was off from work from December 24 to January 5; my first novel was going to be published in 2015. So why did I feel sad?

On January 1, a friend of mine announced on Facebook that she had signed up for 100 Days of Happiness—a project where every day for 100 days you post a photograph something that makes you happy.

I decided to sign up too. I thought that maybe if I could find a moment of happiness in every day, if I could focus on what makes me happy, I might become a happier person. I chose Instagram for my platform because I thought this project would be a good way for me to learn how to use it. It would also afford an opportunity to become more adept with my camera phone. If you’re on Instagram, you can follow me at rosenfeldcarol.

By the way, you can sign up to do this at any time, and you don’t have to post the photographs on Instagram—you can post them on Facebook or several other applications. https://www.100happydays.com

"Nothing can be done/but by inches."-Adrienne Rich

I keep thinking of this line from the first section of the poem "Incipience," by Adrienne Rich:

"Nothing can be done/but by inches."

It's been a calming mantra.

I spend almost every other weekend in Philadelphia, visiting my 89-year old mother; waking up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday to take a 7:14 New Jersey Transit train to Trenton, where I transfer to a SEPTA train to 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. When I get there I use the restroom and stop at Dunkin' Donuts, then take a 10:19 train to Wynnewood, where Bob, the man who drives my mother when she needs to go to the doctor or the store, picks me up and takes me to my mother's apartment. The following day he takes me back to the train station at 11:30 and I get back to my own apartment around 4:00.

The reason I'm offering all these boring travel details is in the hope that you will be able to appreciate the anticipation I feel when I'm spending the weekend in New York. I can sleep late--and I do, sometimes until 11:00. I sleep late despite the fact that I have a long list of "things to do."

Of course, many of the items on that list have to do with decluttering: recycling," "thrift shop," "go through paper."

What I'm starting to accept is that there really is a limited amount of time that I can focus on paper. Lauren Rosenfeld (co-author of Breathing Room) suggested that I develop a "ritual practice"  that I can commit to. She said she was thinking of my apartment as one of those hand-held slide puzzles we had as kids--where there was one empty space so you could move the other tiles around. I knew exactly what she meant, and it was a great analogy. Lauren recommended that I have a specific place to process paper--a clearing space, perhaps 2 x 3. Rather than going through an entire bag, Lauren thought I should just work with small piles at one time, not walking away until I had cleared the space, and each piece of paper was either gone by intention or staying by intention.

Incredibly enough, I didn't have so much as a 2 x 3 space to work in. But I have an idea of where I can create one--I just have to move some things off of it.

Another thing that Lauren suggested was to hang some curtains that I told her I'd bought at a street fair a couple of years ago. The curtains are a very sheer, golden/coppery color. The first time I saw them they were glimmering in the sun, and I pictured light shining through them into my apartment. I told Lauren I was saving them to hang after the apartment was free of clutter. But Lauren urged me to hang them now--she thought it would change the energy in the room.

So, on Sunday, I tried to hang the curtains. Here's the thing: the wall the window is set into is brick with just a thin coat of plaster. Since I can't hammer a nail or screw a screw into that wall, I have attached the hardware that holds the curtain rod with various adhesives. None of them last very long. As I was trying to hang the curtains I noticed one of the hooks for the rod was separating from the wall. So I folded the curtains up and put them back into their bags.

"Nothing can be done/but by inches."

 

 

My Secret

We all have them. Secrets. The truth about ourselves that we don't want anyone to know, especially the people that we love. Because if the people that we love knew our secret, they wouldn't love us anymore.

Often, when I go to other peoples' homes, they apologize for the "mess." And I can only envy that "mess." Because I know what a true "mess" looks like. I live with it. I live in it. The worst part is that sometimes I believe I am it.

I want--and need--my apartment to be a home, a retreat from the noise and crowds of the city, a place to renew my energy and nourish my spirit. A place that I can welcome my friends for a visit.

But for too long, my apartment has been none of those things. Rather, it is a source of shame. My clutter is a sandbag of weariness that settles on my shoulders the moment I step through the door.

I have a vision of how I want my apartment to be. I'm going to be blogging about my process, my progress, and all the rest of it.

Yesterday was Day 1. I had a phone consultation with Lauren Rosenfeld (no relation), co-author of the book "Breathing Room." Looking over my notes from the call, I see:

"You are not the chaos, the confusion. You are actually the open room."

Bryce is My Buddha

My cousin Bryce, who recently celebrated his seventh birthday, had to write a list of "Affirmations" for school. I don't know the specific instructions the teacher gave, but Bryce's mom posted his Affirmations on her Facebook page. I'm reprinting them (unedited) below:

Affirmations

Also I stay away from fires.

I stay away from rocks that make have snakes in them.

I treat others with respect.

I am handsome.

I am a fabulous marvelous great friend.

I am responsible.

I am great at reading and writing.

Also I am very hardworking.

I am good at baseball and basketball.

Reading these brought tears to my eyes as I wondered how my life might have been different if one of my elementary school teachers had encouraged me, through an assignment like this, to think positively about myself. Would I still hear that critical, disparaging voice in my head? Would I still feel that what the world sees of me is nothing but an illusion I've created, and that the "real" me is someone no one could love?

I don't know the answer, of course. But I'm looking forward to checking in with Bryce from time to time. Because I think his teacher has given Bryce--and all of his classmates--a great start. The world may end up being a better place if people feel good about themselves. I don't know Bryce's teacher's name, but whoever you are--blessings.

 

Dear Charles,

You can cry while you're riding public transportation and no one will give a damn.

My cousin Diane sent my mother copies of letters Diane's father, Charles, had kept; letters written during World War II. They were from my paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles, my mother, and my father (Charles' brother). Charles was serving in the Navy at the time. Almost all these people are gone now--all except my mother. But reading their letters brought them back so vividly there were times it was a kind of weight on my heart.

Sunday, Mother's Day

Dear Charles:--I am not going to start by saying that by next Mother's Day I will have all my children with me because I am in hopes of having them long before that, maybe for our 25th wedding anniversary. I am thankful though that I have my daughter here. She sure is sweet & thoughtful & makes it easier for me with you two away.

That was the first thing that made me cry. The "daughter" my grandmother was referring to, was actually her daughter-in-law to be, my mother. I remembered being surprised when my mother told me that she spent the weekends with my paternal grandparents while their sons were away. She wasn't even married to my father at the time. "I helped out in the store," she said. "I thought they might be lonely, with Bernie and Charles away." And I remembered how my grandmother said my mother's name--Elaine--differently than everyone else. Most people accented the second syllable, but my grandmother emphasized the first--"E-laine."

From a letter dated 7/16 Sunday [1945]

I hear you are a truck driver. Jee I remember the time you went thru a window at Broad and Federal Sts. Hope there is no windows on your muddy roads. I bet ur just as good a driver now as u were a student here. In fact I know you are good at anything you do.

That made me laugh out loud and I could practically smell Uncle Moe's cigar. By the way, my Uncle Charles was the person who taught my father to drive.'

From a letter dated Wednesday, Nov 21 [1945]--my paternal grandparents' 25th wedding anniversary--

All of us will have a happier Thanksgiving this year than last. Last year on Thanksgiving we received that telegram from the government about Bernie.

I knew my father had been wounded in France, near Metz. But I never knew my grandparents got the news about him being wounded on Thanksgiving Day.

Letter dated January 19, 1946, Saturday, written by my mother. Although she hadn't married my Dad yet, she still called Charles "brother."

Brother dear!!!!!!!!!!

I got a cable from Bernie this morning, and it said he's sailing this morning! Isn't that wonderful!!!!!!!! I'm so excited I can't work or do anything. I wanted to write and tell you right away. I'll write again on Monday, although we probably won't hear anything now for about 10 or 12 days. Isn't it wonderful!!!!!! (Oops--I've already said that, haven't I, brother dear.) Bye for now, Love--Elaine.

From a letter dated March 9, 1946, Saturday [my parents were married the following day]

I am really at a loss for words when I try to say how much I will miss having you there. Jackie will not actually be my best man but just the best available man.

In Charles' absence, my father had asked his cousin Jack to be his best man. This made me cry too. It was so typical of my father. At his funeral, I compared him to the ocean, a calm surface hiding the rich world beneath it. I believe my father was a very emotional man, but he grew up in a time when men were not supposed to be that way. And so he expressed his emotion in a very understated way.

From a letter written by my Aunt Clara, my grandmother's sister, dated March 11, 1946.

Elaine looked lovely, she made one of the prettiest brides I have seen. Bernie looked alright too, though somewhat nervous. He wiped the perspiration from his face several times while under the canopy at the altar.

There are formal photographs of my parents on their wedding day, but Aunt Clara's letter gave me the gift of this written portrait.

Many of the letters--in fact, all of my grandmother's letters--began by telling my uncle what mail they had received from him, and when they received it. I thought that was odd at first, but then I thought about the circumstances, the war, and what not hearing from a loved one could imply. The days when no mail was received must have been anxious ones. Letters were not just a source of news but of reassurance.

In these days of instant gratification, with the variety of speedy communication options available to us, I think the letter form offers us a way of revealing ourselves that email does not. What we choose of write about, and the style in which we write it, the stationery that we write on, what we write with (typewriter, fountain pen, or ball point)--there's a kind of deliberation, and a personalization, that isn't available through email. And though I utilize email and I love Facebook, from time to time I still feel the need to write an old-fashioned letter. That's just the kind of girl I am.

 

TORTURE CHAMBER

Picture this: five women standing with their right side up against a wall, right arm stretched up high, singing "Lean on Me." How does this compare to the image that comes to your mind when you read the words "yoga class?"

This was not a spontaneous sing-a-long; the teacher started it.Does your yoga teacher sing pop songs to you? And encourage you to join in? Does your yoga teacher have a "Torture Chamber" sign hanging on the wall? Mine does. He also makes terrible puns.

I take Buddha Body Yoga with Michael Hayes one night a week. I use chairs, bolsters, blocks, blankets and straps for support when I need it. I also use a yoga wall. Michael asks lots of questions. At the start of class he wants to know if anyone has any problems he needs to be aware of. Knees? Back? During class he'll ask, "How's everybody doing?" as well as the really big question, "Are you breathing?" which is actually more of a reminder than a question.

If something hurts, I say so. Michael might make an adjustment that stops the pain, or he might croon a satisfied "yes" which tells me that the stretch is going what it's supposed to do, even if I don't like what it's doing.

I'm never self-conscious about my body in Michael's class. I feel like I can be myself there, make faces and "sound effects"--noises like R2D2 made when it was scared.I may get a little out of hand occasionally, but Michael will just ask--as he did the other night--"Would you like a little cheese with your whine?"

The other day I went to a "real:" yoga studio because I'd registered for a JourneyDance class that was being held there. It was modern, with the "right" decorations, like a wall of bells. It was beautiful, and the majority of the clients and staff would probably be considered beautiful too--young, slender, clad in attractive gear. If I tell you that the studio's web site has a review from Elle magazine, maybe that will give you an idea of the kind of place it is. It felt sterile to me. It felt oppressive. I missed Michael's "Torture Chamber" sign.

How Will My Garden Grow?

I am taking a gardening course, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. The classroom is just a couple of blocks away from my office. A six session course, complete with homework. It's ironic, in a way. My high school chemistry teacher passed me (with a D) out of the kindness of his heart, and I once said, "Math will never be relevant in my life." So here I am reading "Botany for Gardeners" and designing a circular house (diameter, anyone? How about circumference?)

Even though I have land, there's really no point in doing much in terms of establishing a garden before I build the house.

So taking the course is an expression of faith, really; the belief that someday this knowledge will be useful.

My parents were not gardeners. We used to have rosebushes on each side of the cement walk leading up to our front door--maybe eight total--and they pulled them out because they didn't want to have to prune them. We had flowering shrubs, but no flowers, except for the violets and buttercups that showed up on our lawn. We didn't grow vegetables either. The autumn before my mother moved out of our old house into her apartment, she talked about cutting down the maple tree in the yard. I asked her why. "It's the leaves," she said. "There are so many of them." I told her to leave the tree--which was dying, because one root had wrapped itself around the rest--for the people who came after us.

I've been thinking about my "dream" garden for a while, and I am overwhelmed by choices.

Since I'm interested in environmental issues, I've been researching native plants. But then I think of peonies. And lilacs. And roses. I think it would be fun to have a rose garden where all the roses would be ones named after famous women. I think of the Lenox tulip vases that my mother has and has never used and that I am determined to use before I die just to see what tulips would look like in them and I want to grow tulips.

I remember the plants around the house I grew up in, and, for sentimental reasons, I want to have them near my house: forsythia, mock orange blossom, bridal veil, lily of the valley, azaleas.

I want to have a moon garden. And an herb spiral. And a labyrinth. And a vegetable garden. And a garden full of witch plants.

And then sometimes, I just want to let the land just be.

Testament of Mary, with Fiona Shaw

Every once and awhile I get a glimpse of what theatre can be. Sometimes I get distracted by the Broadway shows that seem to be put together because a movie or television show was successful, so--hey, let's make a Broadway show out of it! But every so often I have the chance to see an extraordinary actor in a production equal to her talents. It's a privilege, really, to be in the audience for an evening like that. Well in advance of the performance I received several notices warning that there would be no late seating and no intermission for the 90 minute play. (Since I love Wagner, 90 minutes is a mere blink of an eye; nothing to be concerned about.)

I had not read Colm Toibin's book, Testament of Mary. I had not read the Bible, either. And I'm a Jew--sort of. So my knowledge of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of Jesus himself, is pretty much based on what has filtered down to popular culture over the years.

I went to see Testament of Mary because of Fiona Shaw. I think she's an extraordinary actress, and I did not want to pass up an opportunity to see her on stage.

When Julia and I arrived ( we had great seats--5th row orchestra), people were milling about on the stage. Although no one said anything to us, apparently the audience is able to go up on the stage before the performance. Fiona Shaw came out at one point, draped herself with blue fabric, and took a seat. A clear, plastic box was lowered, enclosing her, and a sheer curtain put around the box. There were candles (in glass holders) burning. There was a LIVE VULTURE on the stage. (Julia thought it might have been tranquililzed.)

The public. You can't control them. You can't trust them. When I was in law school I spent four years (at night) studying cases where things went wrong. I kept waiting for a disaster--for someone to try and pet the vulture, for the portly, elderly gentleman with the cane to fall as he walked down the steps off of the stage.

Then the stage was cleared. Fiona Shaw shed the blue fabric, and, wearing a thick hand/arm glove, carried the vulture offstage, flapping its wings.

The play began. This Mary was not docile; she raged--with anger, grief, bitterness, and the contempt of a woman who sees the world made by men all too clearly. Freed from the postures of paintings, she was constantly in motion. When she spoke, it sounded--to me--as though Mary was a working-class Irish woman.

I don't want to give too many details, because I don't want to spoil the play for anyone who is fortunate enough to see it. But I will say that the last line is brutal. And perfect. And, from my perspective, true. How many times have I seen a play, heard a line, and thought to myself, this is the end; that's the perfect line. And then the play went on, for another twenty minutes, or a half hour. But last night--that last line hit me. I felt tears in my eyes.

There are times in the theatre, when applause feels almost inappropriate. And yet, how else to embrace this actress, who has carried us all on this extraordinary journey, who has embodied the vision of a writer, given life to words. All I could think of was, she must be exhausted.

Afterwards, I babbled. I tried to understand the significance of the audience being on the stage before the performance began. I thought, at first, that it was a way of creating intimacy, of breaking down the physical barrier that exists between the stage and the seats. Then I thought that it might be like church. But, going home, I thought about being in New York City and near Times Square and I thought perhaps it was as though Mary was some kind of tourist attraction. And when I came into work this morning, I found an email from Julia (who had patiently listened as I babbled the night before), with her interpretation:

"I wonder if the theater crowds at the beginning were 'tourists'--viewing the relics of a woman and her life that were taken over by the 'followers' and turned into the basis of their beliefs/religion. And perhaps the vulture, a bird known to eat carrion, is a symbol of what the religion did to the meaning of the womans' life. So it's taken off stage when her real self is before us."

I also thought this morning about Jesus having started out as a Jew. During the play, Mary makes a reference to her son going to the temple with his father. Then I thought about the Irish working-class accent and I thought--wait a minute! But in the end that really doesn't matter. It's just another element to mull over, because the play, the performance is not really over. It lingers, whispering to you. That's what art should do.

Baby Song

As a spinster with no siblings, I know very little about babies, but I learned a few things this past weekend when I visited Greg and Andrea and their almost-seven-month old son, Reed. He and I had met briefly at our family's Thanksgiving dinner, but we hadn't really had much time together. I helped Greg to feed him (although I suspect that my inexperience was partly at fault for the mess which resulted in the need for a bath), and Andrea and I both read to him. Reed squealed, laughed and grabbed at a variety of things--toys, a spoon, and a cat who ventured a little too close to him.

Early Sunday morning, as I lay in bed admiring the pattern the leaves from the tree outside one window made on the closed blinds, I heard Reed. I listened carefully. He did not sound distressed, or as though he wanted something. It was more like he was talking. It was almost a kind of music. I remembered hearing a tape of the sounds that whales make under the surface of the water--mysterious and beautiful. Reed's monologue touched me in the same way. I felt privileged to be able to listen in. Although I couldn't understand it, it spoke to my heart.

I thought about how much we rely on words to communicate, yet many times we fail to say what we really mean. I thought about how words can also be the source of many misunderstandings.

How can we glimpse the world as experienced by a seven-month old baby? We can listen--not only with our ears, but also with our hearts.