LIFE IN DEATH: A REFLECTION

When I heard about the shootings in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,  I cried.

Time stood still (as it is said) and yet the morning became early afternoon, then evening, and I was still watching the reports, switching from channel to channel, taking it all in, and then taking it in again, and again.  The news reports became repetitious but still I kept watching.  Psychologists might say that is part of “processing” the event, though I am not sure whether rubbing at a sore spot qualifies as “processing” the hurt.

I wanted to contact my loved ones, as if they were in danger, even though they were NOT in danger, being nowhere near where it happened.  I called a friend who has family in Squirrel Hill, the community where it happened.  Everyone was fine, she reported.  But a cousin was “sheltering in place.”  (A decade ago, the phrase “shelter in place” didn’t exist, as far as most of us knew.). What is it about us that we want to connect ourselves to the horrific event, if only at a remove?  It is like touching a live wire, but we cannot leave it alone. I listened for the stories of survival, narrow escapes, “if onlys” which saved people who might have, if they had arrived minutes earlier, be dead.  I tried to imagine how they feel about escaping death so narrowly. Will the “processing” end up with them having a new lease on life? On deciding to do something for others, or for themselves? In what way will it change them? Will they feel guilt at having survived? Or be deeply depressed at how far we have come from the days when no one shot at innocent people to the days of contemplating pistol packing teachers and rabbis?

I think the instinct to connect with the people directly involved is a human impulse, a way of getting out of ourselves and in some way becoming more. The phrase “fellow feeling” comes to mind.

What I definitely don’t want to do right now is assign blame.  I don’t want to argue about whether we should protect ourselves by making fortifications of our schools and places of worship.  Right now, I want to think about the people who were killed, and their families, and put myself voluntarily onto the mourning bench, and sit shiva.

It is autumn, and everywhere I turn, I see the red, yellow, orange, rust and brown of the dying leaves. They hang on the high limbs and the low as long as they can, then float and flutter to earth, turning on all their brilliance before they die. And though it is death, it makes me think of life, as well.

And that makes me think of something I heard at a memorial service, where the clergyman talked about celebrating someone’s life rather than mourning his death, and instead of feeling sorrow for his loss, feel joy in having had him for however long. Is it only a matter of our own natures, whether we can do one or the other?  Are we born glass-empty or glass-full kind of people? Are we nurtured to be one or the other? Or is it in the nature of the people or things that we mourn?  Are they two sides of the same coin? Life and death, joy and sorrow?

Both my parents died in the autumn long years ago, and my best friend, too, more recently, so it is always a time of sorrow and reflection, and now more than ever. But it is also a time of such immense beauty in the world, in the flaming exuberance of the dying trees and even in the busy scurrying we all do, to squirrel away comfort for the winter. And though I am a pretty glass-empty kind of person, I have always found autumn, with its deathly echoes, beautiful and profound. Especially now, can I take a lesson from nature?

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SUDDEN DEATH, SUDDEN LIFE, Take Two

There is always more than one version of a story, and whether it involves two people or has a cast of thousands, there will be that many ways to tell the tale. You put the foam on Jerry Seinfeld’s latte? It’s Barrista To The Stars.  You hand out water at the end of a race?  My Marathon Memories.  Sold Sara Jessica Parker a pair of shoes? Me, Chu, You Chu.  You know what I mean.  It isn’t (only) egotism, or even egoism.  We do it naturally because we all live within our own stories.  We only know how it was from our points of view.  The meaning it has for us it may not have for another.

Here is a story from within my life, and though it’s only my point of view,  each time I tell it I find another meaning, which, I guess, is why it stays alive and I keep telling it.

I had not heard from my old friend, Catherine, for a long while.  I was the last one to be in contact (we wrote letters the old fashioned way) and I had been pissed that she had not responded. So I resisted writing again, as if it were a ping pong match and the ball was on her side of the net.  But after five months, I began to worry.

When my e-mails came back, I phoned.  And when her answering machine answered in someone else’s voice, I knew something was wrong. But “something wrong” was as far as I was willing to let my imagination go.

I tried to reach her relatives, called the manager of the building she lived in (who knew something but wouldn’t say). Finally, someone from the same town told me what I already knew: Catherine was dead.  Her death had been reported in the local newspaper.   In fact, for five months, all the while I had been thinking that she was alive in Massachusetts, too busy to keep in touch, she had been dead. A mutual friend of ours claimed she had sensed that Catherine was not in this world; I had only thought she was not in my life.

We were part of a small writer’s group in New York in the seventies and eighties, who met and wrote and cooked for one another in various apartments in the city.   Catherine was the star of the group,  quickly recognized as a bright new talent, quickly published, winning prizes.  She wasn’t much of a critic of other people’s writing; she was too appreciative and far too kind.  She smoked like a chimney and if I suggested she might cut down, or god forbid stop, she’d take a big drag on her current cig and say on the outpuff, in her thick and well-preserved brogue, “Everybody’s got to die of somethin’, Bette Ann.”

Then Catherine’s life got derailed when someone she loved committed suicide.  She went away to recover, to a small cottage she owned in Donegal.   But she did not recover, though she eventually came back, to New York City for a while, and then to Massachusetts, where she had family. She did not write any more stories, though many people tried to coax her back to it.  But she did write letters.  We had begun to correspond when she was in Ireland, and we continued writing after she settled in Massachusetts. I had saved all her letters, and on the day I heard that she died, I took them out and read them, and as I did, she was reconstituted in memory,  alive again. Her first letter, written from Donegal, scolded me for having refused to adopt her cats when she left New York.  What if God turned out to be a great cat, she said.  Then I’d be sorry, wouldn’t I?  Her letters were full of mischievous humor and vitality,  so although she didn’t author the stories and novels she was meant to write, her imagination didn’t stop.  She still saw with her pen: Donegal and Massachusetts, around town or at marches, against War and for Choice, or just about folks being folks at the  farmers’ market.  She saw with wit and clarity and even, sometimes, a subdued joy.

I’ve told this story as an elegy to Catherine; as a remonstrance to myself for not reaching out when I didn’t hear from her (Life Too Short, blah blah blah);  as the eerie feeling my friend had of someone being gone from the earth and whether I had had it, too and resisted; how her letters brought her back to life for me. But now it is autumn, around the time it all happened, and as I think about it again,  I wonder how it was for Catherine.  What was Catherine’s story?

It turned out that Catherine had been dead for a whole week before she was found, which was why it made the local papers.  That was a story she might have enjoyed telling. She might have said to me,”Now what d’ye think happened? Didn’t anyone hear a noise?  Did I fall with a thud, d’ye think?  How many people d’ya suppose walked by my apartment?  You think someone heard me calling out and was in too much of a hurry to stop?  D’ye think I had enough time to know I was dyin’? Did I pray at the end after all, or say something else?  Was there something about it that made me laugh, some last irony that I might have been more susceptible to, being an ironist at heart?”

According to Catherine, everyone has to die of something, and hers was a royal death –quick, painless, in the midst of doing something good – smoking a last cigarette, she would suggest –and then, as her eyes dimmed, she saw the light and heard the big Meow at the end of the tunnel.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A LOVE OF LISTS

 

        Are you a list maker?  I am. 

  Oh, god, how I love lists: the simple ones, like  Groceries, Things to do , and the more complicated ones, which bring on sub-lists and sub-sub-lists.  When I plan a party, my party list separates itself into People Who Are Coming, Menu (which splits into Recipes, then What I have and What to buy), Tasks To Do (which splits into the Days I am going to do them). 

Lists can make you feel in control of your life and time.  They help you organize.  There is something about seeing things in black and white that makes a difference, and seeing them in the simple format of numbered and lettered items, in neat columns, with spaces between.  (Sometimes I do it on the computer, but I still prefer handwritten lists, which I carry around, folded, and transfer from pocket of my robe to pocket of my jacket, and lose and find again in the pocket of some flannel shirt.) Listing what you have to do keeps you from worrying that you will forget to do it or leave some important task out. (I feel such relief it’s almost as if I have already done it.) And talk about lightness of being.  What’s lighter than that sense of security when you jot down all the phone calls you have to make, or check your list of birthdays and anniversaries for the month?  

Lists can actually help you live.  For example, every New Year’s Eve, I list all the things I want to accomplish in the coming year.  (I used to subdivide it into long-term and short-term, but now that I am older, I consider everything short-term.)  Putting the goal on a list is like making a commitment to it, and also reminds me that my every day acts are rooted in deeper soil. Once I made a list of places I wanted to visit, and I checked them off as I went. (All right, that one was a mental list, but it started out as a physical one, which I found, years later, in an old handbag).  I believe that one of the reasons I went to each place was because they were on my list.

Lists can be a way of self-assessment, too. For example, what if you made a list of all the things you knew about in life?  Love, marriage, childrearing, ping-pong, baseball, banking, loneliness, loss, saving, spending, siblings, real estate, moving, movies, television, travel, psychology, illness, Italian food, cooking, grammar, spelling, pre-euro coin names like deutschmarkand escudo and franc. Oh, you could go on and on, couldn’t you?  And isn’t it great to see that list grow and realize that you are a fantastic work in progress, and the work has been going on for a long time?

Here’s a thought.  Make a list of all the things you once enjoyed doing but do not do anymore. Read poetry aloud?  Play the piano?  Doodle?  Eat late at night?  Drink too much?  Wear tee shirts or spike heels?  Bike ride? Play the trumpet? Now, do as many of these things as you can manage without killing yourself.  Do them at least once, or as often as you want to. Note which ones are worth repeating and which ones it makes sense to have left behind with your youth.  This could yield a double benefit:  you’ll stop talking about everything as if it is in the past, and you’ll know for certain that you are not missing anything.

Here’s another thought.  A list of all the things you planned to do and did not do, like learn tennis, read Moby Dick, take a course in pastry making or bookbinding or piano tuning.  Now cross out the ones that are not feasible AT ALL, like tennis, if you happen to be in a wheelchair.  (But even then, do not ignore the possibility of virtual tennis, or reading tennis strategy so that the next time you watch the U.S. Open you’ll have a new outlook.)  Then cross out the ones you no longer want to do, the things that do not give you even the smallest zing when you see them written down.  Maybe those will include the pretentious things you thought you should want to do but never really did, or the good-for-you things you really always hated the thought of, or the things you pretended to want because everyone else seemed to want them. Whatever is left, do them! What a thrill it will be to finally bind your first book or make your first Napoleon.  That can be the start of a new list, of first experiences.  Or things you’ve only done once. 

Or make a list of all your lists.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

SUBTEXTS

Face it.  Most of us like to think of ourselves as honest, even when we’re not.  The idea of being a “straight-shooter” and “straight talker” is what upstanding citizens and human beings do.  But the truth is, we all lie sometimes.  Or, to put it more equivocally, we equivocate.  Or obfuscate. Maybe to stay out of trouble, or to avoid an argument which might harm a relationship,  or we aren’t sure what the right thing to say is, or we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whatever the reason, we straddle the fence by saying one thing while meaning (and conveying) another.

Those of us who have lived long enough have probably been on both sides of the fence.  We have used these subterfuges, so of course we recognize them when other people use them on us.

For example, when M would rather not do something, he usually says, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “When I get to it.” If he says, “In a minute,” it means tomorrow.  “Later,” means I have a fighting chance.  And “When I get to it,” means “never gonna happen.”

One of my favorites: I had a very opinionated neighbor who thought she had better taste than everyone else’s on our street.  She would give your new sofa, or dress for an upcoming wedding, or the cookies you just baked the once-over, then put her hand on her chin and tap it a few times like she was thinking hard, and say, on a big exhaled breath, “You like it?????” It was crystal clear to anyone who faced that carefully placed hand-on-chin, and those disapproving eyes that what she was really saying was: much as you might like the sofa (dress, cookies) she didn’t no, not one bit, in fact they were revolting and you might actually be an idiot for buying/baking them.

Have you ever run into someone you haven’t seen in a while who says, with kindly concern, “Are you okay?”  I thought about this the other day, when a friend greeted me with, “Are you tired?” The words may be all about concern for your wellbeing, but can there be any doubt that you look like holy hell at that moment? My favorite in this category was the delicious/malicious  putdown when an acquaintance asked me if I were okay because she thought I might be cyanotic. Turned out she didn’t care for my bluish-purple lipstick.

It works the other way too: someone who acts overly surprised at how grrrrreat you look when you are just your ordinary self which makes you wonder how bad you looked the last time you met.  “You look fabulous!” makes me want to argue the person out of thinking I look any different from the way I usually look.  (Or else I drive myself crazy thinking how I can live up to this fabulousness the next time we meet.)

Lots of times we obfuscate to save someone’s feelings.  Like, have you ever sat in the audience of a performance by someone you know, wondering what you are going to say when you go backstage?  I’ve perfected the one word that can stand in for anything from “That was awful, I’m so sorry,” to “That was marvelous.”  Just say, “Oh, wow.  Wow, darling, wow.”  And smile. Or, when someone you love comes home with a terrible haircut, the only thing to say is, “I love it!”  And smile.

Here are some common things people say when they really mean other things:

Simple, good for any occasion: “Okay” which, with a rhythmic or tonal adjustment means “not okay.”  (Or, if you are a minimalist, “Mmmhmm,” which stands for “That’s what you  say.”)

When making plans: “Do you really want to go?”  means “Let’s stay home.”

A discussion closer: “If you say so,” means “Not true, but I’m not about to argue.”

“What do you think of so and so?” means “I didn’t like him and I’m looking for company.”

“Let me sleep on it, ” in the workplace means “no.”

At home: “Let’s sleep on it” means “give me enough time to figure out a good reason to say no.”

During a long phone call: “Let me let you go,” means “I’m done. I have to end this NOW.”

Let me let you go.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

An Occupational Hazard

One of the things that makes me a writer is my curiosity about other people.  Or, to put it more plainly, I’m nosy.  The phrase, “What’s his story?” could be my motto.  The what-ifs of the world are always on my mind.  If I am caught in traffic, and glance to the right, I can get completely absorbed by the question of where the guy in the next car, who is hammering his fist in frustration on the steering wheel, has to be and what will happen to him if he doesn’t make it in time. Or,  I might pass an angry-faced woman on the street and think, “What has she just done?”  Interesting stories can be found in the most ordinary circumstances and unexpected places, and everyone has a story worth knowing.  And even though I don’t write all the stories I imagine or wonder about, it is a way of looking at the world which keeps me thinking and feeling.  I’m never bored.  But I admit, sometimes it can be a distraction.

For example: I was out to dinner one night, and halfway through the meal, the maitre’d and the waiter started setting up a table for a crowd.  The length of the table aroused my interest.  “What’s the occasion?” I wondered.  Before long, people started gathering. An engagement?  A co-worker’s night out?  The age range, from very young to young to old, suggested it was a family.  Someone’s birthday, then?  The last to arrive, obviously the guest of honor from the way people welcomed him, was a man in army fatigues, the full uniform, hat and boots.  Was he coming home from somewhere, or leaving?  If he was coming home, was it for good or just on R & R?  Was that woman with the big earrings his wife?  Had she met him at the train?  Did she cry? Did he?  Did they kiss?  And where had he been?  His tan suggested he had been somewhere in the sun, maybe in a warm climate. Afghanistan? Syria?  I got teary.  “Thank goodness you are safe,” I thought.  Someone leaned over and said something to someone else and the guest of honor smiled.  He did not laugh.  He seemed subdued.  In fact, wasn’t the mood at the table kind of subdued?  Where were the homecoming balloons, streamers, signs?  So maybe this was goodbye and he was leaving tomorrow. Was he packed?  Were the duffel and trunk sitting on some porch, ready to be slung into the outback of his SUV at 5:00 a.m. in the dark autumn morning?  Would he leave the woman with the big earrings sleeping?  Would they sit up all night, after they came home from this goodbye party, talking about trivial things, like getting the roof done when he came home in the spring, and what time they would FaceTime one another while he was away? Would he tell her to keep her spirits up and she tell him to stay safe, or would they not talk about it?  Maybe they had a child with problems, and they distracted themselves by talking about him.

The cheese on my eggplant parmesan had congealed.  I hadn’t even touched my wine. Just then, a young woman came rushing in, her hair flying, her cheeks red, a gift-wrapped box in her arms, and she hurried over to the soldier and threw her arms around him, and said, loudly enough for me to hear, “Welcome home!”

       “Thank goodness!” I thought, and ordered dessert.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

From One Old Thing to Another

 

 

Over the years I have collected more than a few beautiful things that  have been part of my life and my household: trays, serving dishes, decorative vases, small items of furnishing and so forth.   Lately, though, I have become aware that I might have more than enough stuff, so I’m making an effort to pare down my possessions.  My goal is to own no more than one of everything in the entire world (which is what it feels like I have every time I look into a chockful closet or try to squeeze open a jammed drawer.)  I decided to give away all multiples and duplicates.  (This does not include potato peelers, because one can never have enough potato peelers; anyway, they aren’t decorative so they don’t count.)

A few weeks ago, in preparation for a big family dinner, I counted ten candy dishes, all of about the same size. Three or four of them had belonged to my mother, and the rest were gifts.   Now, since my present household numbers one weight watcher and one diabetic and the last time I served candy to guests was in 1982, I don’t really need ten candy dishes.  I picked two beauties, both shaped like leaves, one silver, one porcelain, both from Tiffany, and offered them to my daughter.  She said no thanks.  She didn’t want them.

“I’d have to polish the silver,” she said.  Then, noticing my open-mouthed reaction, she patted me and said, “Mom, you’re acting like Aunt G,” referring to a relative who used to give me items she cherished but which I didn’t need or want.

” I always took them with a smile,” I reminded her.

“I’d rather be honest,” my daughter said.

“Fine,” I said, in a tone that told her in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t fine, no matter how honest it was.

“Don’t be insulted, ” my daughter said.  I didn’t answer.  “I was only kidding,” she tried.  Silence.  Finally: “I’ll take them.  I WANT them,” she said.

“It’s too late,” I said, “Don’t bother, you don’t appreciate them enough.”

Then we went through this half-serious, half-comic song and dance about yes she did and no she didn’t until I “gave in” and said all right you can have them, and then she “forgot” to take them home and I gratefully put them back in the closet. ( Laughing at the thought that she’ll get them anyway when I die.)

My daughter’s a great daughter, and I appreciate the honesty that allows such give and take, but she’s sooo wrong.  Just as I was, about dear old Aunt G and all those items I so grudgingly took from her year ago.  I have come to love the things I thought were not my style, were too old fashioned, or I just did not want.  I am never impatient polishing a little bit of silver she gave me, because I imagine her doing it before one of her wonderful parties.  I love the fussy, fancy little dishes shaped like flower petals that serve my poached pears so elegantly, and the large silver serving fork, the floral platter that didn’t match my dishes (those dishes which are now long gone) is just the perfect size for my big Thanksgiving turkey, which has rested on it each Thanksgiving for the last ten years.  The mold in the shape of a fish, which I use when I make her recipe for salmon mousse, is the only thing that keeps me making the salmon mousse.  I didn’t want any of them when she gave them to me, as I smiled my insincere smile, and now I treasure them, not only because I have grown into them, but because they remind me of her.

            Which makes me think of my daughter’s turndown in another way – maybe she isn’t ready to have mementos of me, yet.  She still has, and wants  me, busy, using all my stuff, in the flesh.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Everything Old Is New Again

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the old-time, low-tech remedies for common ailments and complaints.  The little fixes everyone used to use.  Things like sipping flat Coke to settle a stomach ache, and hitting the side of a radio to make the static go away.  It had been at the back of my mind for a while.  And then – maybe after my last bout of computer virus, when I spent two hours on the phone with a tech named Chuck from Mumbai, or maybe after the last commercial for a drug that promised to cure my toe fungus, in exchange for side effects like uncontrollable diarrhea and the sudden desire to gamble – it turned into an obsession.

There’s something refreshingly direct about old-time remedies.  They don’t cost much, and you don’t have to worry about weird side effects.  You know the substance you are taking.  It isn’t some little  purple, yellow, electric blue pill which, five years down the line will turn out to have contained something that causes you cancer or a heart attack.  Your action is entirely within your control, and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, you try something else.  Mud on the bee sting to draw the stinger out?  Gargling with salt water for a sore throat? Putting your head over a pot of hot water to clear your sinuses?  Dousing your sunburn with vinegar or iced tea?  Reasonable, cheap, straightforward.

True, some old remedies sound pretty wacky.  Ever heard of the headache remedy that consists of cutting strips of lemon peel and sticking it on your head?  Or filling a sock with kosher salt and holding it against your neck to cure that sore throat?  A friend told me about someone who used to burn notepaper and rub it on ringworm. Sounds crazy, but actually, who knows if there isn’t something in the ash that inhibits the fungus?  My favorite wacky one is my sister’s remedy for an itchy mosquito bite.  You make an “x” in the bite with a sharp fingernail, and spit on it. Well, come on, if you distract yourself from how much it itches to how much it stings when you mutilate your own flesh, why shouldn’t it work?  (And if that doesn’t work, you can rub some brown soap on the bite. If you can find a bar of brown soap.)  Go ahead and soak six raisins in gin.  Do you have any doubt, if you pour enough gin, it will cure your arthritis? For at least a couple of hours?  (And there are tons of remedies for the hangover that follows.)  Sniffing salt water, as I learned in yoga, does, actually cleared the nasal passages, and is a homemade version of saline solution. And even if eating gelatin to make your fingernails grow doesn’t work, at least it won’t give you some dreaded disease down the line.

As to the low-tech remedies for the machines in your life, having paid hundreds of dollars to cure my computer of something or other, I’m willing to switch it on and switch it off, plug, unplug, hit it on it’s head (this works for recalcitrant children, too, I’m told) before I send it out. M says he used to kick his car.  A friend, a gentler sort, says don’t you know your car works better if you have it washed? And I have tried the old whackeroo with my watch to success plenty of times, slapping it smartly against my hand to get it ticking again.  Maybe the lowest of the low-tech fixes for computers appeals to me most, and sometimes it works:  When it gives you a message like “Your hard drive has encountered a corruption,” smile and walk away from it and come back in a few minutes and everything will be fine.   When your smart phone acts dumb and claims not to be able to access the internet, just hit Try Again and believe.

If you have a stiff knee, before you go to the chiropractor or orthopedist, do what my mother always said I should do:  “Shake it out.”  If your back aches, change your position.  Change your chair.   Starve your fever.  Feed your cold.

What about the big ticket items, like existential angst and depressions?  Well, to cure the former, I’d recommend you get a dog, or a cat, or a bird, or volunteer at the food bank. For depressions the surest cure is to put on a little music and – with or without a partner – dance!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments