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Posts from the ‘Anatomy of relationship’ Category

Strange things…

It happened again when I picked up Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Knopf 2011), a book I’d seen on the shelf in my apartment since last fall, but resisted reading because the back cover blurbs were hyperbolic and the author is roughly my daughter’s age. Reading published authors – especially celebrated published authors –who are half my age, is something I really, really abhor doing. A tightness spreads from deep inside my gut and moves up to my lungs and then rams into my heart, and I’m having a panic attack . My brain puts on a slide show of the passing years in reverse, focusing on the wreckage of projects begun and abandoned by the side of my life’s road. My eyes turn inward and I see myself shrinking to the scale of an amoeba, which is about how  I rank my “significant accomplishments.” I despair of ever having the kind of flashes of brilliance that somebody like Karen Russell shows so early in life. Where do these young writers pick up their insights into the soul and into the secret chambers of life? Where, in fact, do writers mine their knowledge? The longer I live, the more I marvel at the miracle of human creativity: in music, painting, architecture, fashion, cooking, writing, engineering. Where do  these bursts of inspiration come from? How do these people tap into the strength of character and will to  snatch those  fugitive sparks of brilliance, and use them to turn the dead wood of words and paint and bricks into a flame of life?

Karen Russell: your book  bowled me over, perspectival tricks and narrative ruses and scaffolding  myths, and most of all: your characters! EXTRA: not since Nabokov (fall 1976 to summer 1977) have I met more unfamiliar words and more syntactical twists that eject me from the ruts of repetitive structures into entirely new combinatorial possibilities that let me see the pieces of the world making sense in new ways. Your metaphors are zany and proliferate like the Melaleuca quinquenervia the Army Corps of Engineers introduced into the Everglades  that you use as your setting.

I don’t get half of them as I race through the chapters, and I’ve dog-eared most of the pages for the next time I  read your book  more slowly, with a dictionary and Google on hand. You trust me ( your reader) to be up to the challenge of keeping up with you. You withhold information that any creative writing teacher will tell you needs to go up front. Still,   you get me to trust you, so that I “let” you tell me in your own way and in your own good time everything that I need to know (plus more). You tease me into speculating about what you might be driving at, and you give me the fabulous treat of letting me fill in the blanks. The brain, as the “man in my life” always says, loves to solve problems. You, Karen Russell, give my  brain what it loves.

For four  days Swamplandia! lived with me. I read it over breakfast,  lunch,  tea,  dinner, and  at bedtime I jumped under the sheets with it like a horny teenager. . I slept with it right next to me. I dreamed the book, the characters  growing into my dream life and when I opened the book again in the morning, I had to backtrack to the point where my dreams had taken off to touch base with the world Karen Russell was creating and keep it distinct from the one  in my subconscious.

Books with the power to do that to a reader are rare.  The writer who can use words to such great effect is a  magician. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve fallen under the spell of a book. This one put me under. I’m sorry there’s not more to it. Karen Russell: what happens next? I want more!!!!!

So I go to you-tube for a recording of your first book so I can listen to it while working on my next painting. But the woman  reading St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has  that high-pitched, little-girl-silly voice that all American women are adopting (for God knows what reason!?!!) that  I can’t bear.

What I’m actually avoiding writing about is the bizarre conversation I had last night on the phone with “the man in my life”, whom I called on impulse as I hovered over the giant sheet of watercolor paper waiting for the ink to dry. I had the impression of a person actively resisting me, saying all the right things that on paper would signal that yes, I am deeply loved, respected, cherished even. But all that was said through clenched teeth, without a smile, without joy, through a lead shield of resentment. Maybe he’s afraid of me? Maybe he thinks of me as toxic? Maybe I should just stick with my resolution to keep away from him and stop intruding in his life?

The fellow tells me about all the women he’s dating, “quality women,” successful professionals in responsible positions making good money, living in big houses, wishing he’d not move so slow. He tells me he’s having a good time, that he’s happy. He says he’s happy for me as a “human being” because I am doing what I have longed to do and I am at peace, but the tone of his voice says something else entirely. He tells his clients that he trusts human beings to do the right thing, but he constantly tells me he doesn’t trust me. He wraps up the conversation by telling me what deep pain he feels when he talks to me. I struggle to make sense of all the contradictions and finally have to admit that it’s all about perpetuating the contradictions of his childhood, the discrepancy between the words and the deeds,  and the paralyzing power of double-binding. In reaching out to him, I am replaying the same dogged reaching out of the child-me to my father, who handed out disapproval and denial like preventative medicine.

Why, he wants to know, do I choose to be so far away from him? The number of miles indexes the force of the fear he inspires in me. In his case, what I fear is the toxic drip of his distrust and disapproval. I hate that sting of his disapproval and distrust. And I also need to experience it, over and over again, like St. Francis of Assisi experiencing his love for the Christ through the pain of his stigmata. Roman Catholicism taught me to love  pain — my own pain — by promoting it as beauty in every  mural, painting, sculpture, and icon in every church, chapel, basilica, and cathedral I’ve ever visited in my life.

Maybe, and this one I have to think about, there’s something useful about this Catholic fixation with the pragmatics of pain. As a chronic Pollyanna who tries to see the sunny side of every dark hole, I sure hope so. I was thinking about this at Palm Sunday Mass while I was studying the frescoes in the San G Duomo that are all about suffering, pain, self-sacrifice, penance, expiation… starting with God having his own — and only — Son murdered. What’s with the filiocide? And how does this “logic” of pressuring people into being “good” by guilting them about Christ’s martyrdom actually work?

Paraskeva, aka “Suocera” (mother-in-law), has been doing a bang-up job scraping calcare from the bathroom walls and fixtures. Tomorrow will the third day of this work. I pick her up at 11, stop at the Cooperativa for supplies, and install her in the main house. Years and years of grime are coming off the walls of this old house. Spring air is moving through the rooms, the armoires, drawers, under the beds, behind the frames, slipping into the new cracks spidering across the plaster.


As I’m falling asleep, I’d best wrap this up before I wander off into some penumbral state …


Brought to my knees!

First, I fell on my left knee, ripping my tights and opening a bloody patch. It happened at the end of a long ramble through the vineyards and groves, into  new terrain. The fact that there was shooting all around and that the ground was everywhere dug up and marked by deep cloven hooves, and that there were serious gouges in the brush where something heavy and violent had broken through, made me nervous. I kept on the alert for the sudden explosion of a maddened boar charging at my kneecaps. I’d heard tell that a boar can take out your patella in no time flat.

Clusters of unpicked Vernaccia and Sangiovese, sweet like honey, kept me energized . The light was as beautiful as on the day God created it. A front started to move in, marked by a rug of striated clouds against which a hawk was circling, round and round, looking for my poodle.

It moved faster than I walked, down the rutted road into the property of Il Borghetto, where I knew no one would be hunting. The day before I’d seen a pomegranate on the path, and yesterday I was determined to track it down, and find it I did, a pomegranate bush festooned with fruit so ripe it  burst, spilling seeds.

Naturally, I thought of Demeter and her lovely daughter Persephone who was abducted  by gloomy  Hades, when all he really needed was a hefty dose of cymbalta to knock out his depression. I am Demeter, in my own appropriation of Greek myth, and my daughter is Persephone and, I imagine that  for every mother her daughter is Persephone and the man who takes her away from her is gloomy Hades, an insuperable force, the bridegroom who steals away all the promises of youth and takes her into the kingdom of death, which means, into the cycle of procreation, aging, death. Inevitable, of course, the cycle is, and yet there is such a profound pathos in that mother’s loss of her girl child, who is nothing less than the incarnation and perpetuation of her own youth and fecundity– the loss of her child to a man who will make the girl into a woman and a mother and claim power over her. All this was turning in my mind as my feet took me up the  path, up the newly paved steeply sloping driveway to the unscalable gate, and thence down a steep bank, over a chain hung with a sign that strictly forbade trespassers, but we — my dog and I — ignored it, transgressing into a lawn as green as all Ireland in spring, startled by the magpies bursting out of the cluster of oak, and following their black-and-white-and-black flight across the quercus ilex

All this time, my brain is churning — part lookout for boar, part lookout for visual treasures, another seeing Ilona way down in the valley dragged through the vineyard by her two white Swiss shepherds, me yelling “EEE -Lo-NAH” until she turns around and waves, then clambering back up on the road, and up another off-limits driveway where in years past, I’d always had luck seeing deer and picking up some porcupine quills, and finding  a honeycomb and lavender instead.

We’re heading back now and on the road. Two cars doing 90 come careening around the curve, and,startled, I keel over on the gravel, right at the feet of Ilona and her hounds, as I am thinking: Ah! A Tuscan reincarnation of Diana …with a Brooklyn accent!  She’s laughing and brushing the dirt off her jeans because ten feet back she fell too. It’s a falling kind of day, I guess. Full of the ghosts of Greek deities.

Night drops exactly at five pm and I don’t feel like going out to dinner, but I did accept the invitation, and bought the wine and the flowers, and off I go, right at seven, up the road to the 11th century monastery turned into apartments where my American hosts are waiting, more or less.

I’ve never seen the place close up, and in all the drama of night, lit up like a theater set from Romeo and Juliet, chiaroscuro everywhere, and the ancient stones casting shadows every which way so my myopic eyes can’t really tell what’s up and what’s down. I’m listening to Andrea on auto-pilot talk (she’s from Chicago and there’s no one can out talk her. Give her a word, she’s off and running, no time for air, one train of thought coupling with another, bang, spark, screech, and all of making sense, and filled with a jolly good humor.) She’s taken the dog’s leash and is trying to wrestle the flowers out of my hands to make it easier for me to walk, but I’m fighting her and insisting it’s ok, I can manage just fine, thank you, when BAM, I’m down on my right knee, and then flat-out, sprawled on those 11th century flagstones like a penitent come to prostrate herself on the last few steps before the holy abbot’s stern benediction.

Well, there’s a bad start to a dinner party, think I, but the bottle of super expensive super Tuscan is intact, and the white tulips are unbroken, and the only thing that really really feels like fracture is my right patella, which  I just know is swelling up like a pamplemousse (otherwise known as a grapefruit) under my elegant gray tights, perfectly and sheerly matched to my gray skirt, which is seamlessly coordinated with the gray sweater, set off by a string of gumball sized amber beads from Krakow (gift of daughter) and a Navajo bracelet the size of a highball glass. Nothing is obviously broken, and I limp painfully up the remaining 35 steps to the apartment, which in turn is nothing but stairs interrupted by landings that pass for rooms (including the bathroom).

Dinner is penitential fare, done up especially for me out of respect for my diet (a faro salad with chicken and asparagus with brown butter). All the while my poodle lies limp on my lap (including my increasingly throbbing knees. Yes: both of them) snarling , from time to time, at Wolfgang, the 9 month old Jack Russell terrier who has never entertained a dog in his space before and is consequently as excited as a flea on a puppy, barking, snapping, rearing, and getting yelled at, now by Jim, not by Andrea, now by Ilona, until they shove him into his kennel where he whimpers pitifully all through dinner. Mmeanwhile, y knees are competing under the table  for which one hurts more, and the imbedded gravel in the palms of my hands feels like stigmata.

I keep an eye on the clock so that at the exact minimum of the standard established as decent for visiting time, I can rise from my seat and thank everyone profusely for a delightful evening, and stumble down the 35 steps, down the gravel path, Andrea holding me by the elbow the entire time and apologizing for treating me like a geriatric. FINALLY, I get in the car and drive home, hoping to see a boar, at last, but no such luck.

Instead, by the time I reach the iron gates of the driveway, my bladder is about to explode and I still have that entire complicated routine ahead of me: car in neutral, parking brake, unlock gate, open both sides of gate, drive car into driveway, turn off engine, close the gate, lock the gate, find the right key, throw myself through the door and into the bathroom. No violent or accelerated movements are possible, of course, because of the searing pain in both knees. This is a true test of the holding capacity of the human bladder.

The night did not go well. There was a series of phone calls that began at 11 and ended at 1. I am lying in bed on my back thinking, “MY KNEE IS NOT BROKEN. MY KNEE IS NOT BROKEN. MY KNEE IS NOT BROKEN” all night long. But when I wake up in the morning, my knee feels totally broken. I get the driving instructions to Ospedale Valdelsa outside of Poggibonsi and drive myself, stiff kneed.

The intake nurse at Triage turns out to be my next door neighbor up the street — the same one who, according to G — denounced him to the agricultural cooperative which then somehow contacted the Polli brothers down the road, who then remembered that sometime in the 14th century they had owned 12 of our olive trees, and since then have been harvesting them off our grove. This neighbor, Signora Celestina, efficiently had me labeled, entered, and bandaged, and sent me off to wait in the waiting room with an ice pack on my right knee.

The wait, she said, might be long. Long, of course, is not the word. I waited for three hours of excruciatingly slow motion anthropological observation of the comings and goings of patients: a man with a gruesomely bleeding forehead. Several stretcher cases – the worst of them being an ashen Gargantua whose arms and legs were vibrating under the straps; and a  skeletal green geriatric drawing his last breath. No fewer than ten men and one woman emerged from the treatment bays wearing high, white neck braces, as elegant as Renaissance nobles just consecrated into the priesthood. I learned that Tuscans do not believe in letting their sick go to ER alone. The entire tribe (“tribu”)  shows up, in dribs and drabs: the siblings, parents, grandparents, in-laws, cousins, children, and a contingent of friends, feeding 60 centesimi into the coffee machine, taking and making phone calls, checking messages, recounting to each new set of comers the details of the accident or malady, debating the folly or wisdom of the patient. I study the extraordinarily theatrical gestures, and hope that at least that is what I learn from my three hours in the waiting room.

The ice had melted, I had taken three trips to the toilet, drunk one cup of extra dark hot chocolate, walked into the Triage room to find out how much longer I had to wait and was thrown out as an interloper, after which the head nurse locked the triage door so people then had to wave through the glass window  and hope to catch her eye, which she stubbornly fixed on either the computer screen or on her interlocutor. There was an old man with an irresistibly  huge nose and for a while I studied him wondering when exactly it had grown to its full size. There was a middle-aged blonde with half her breasts on display and a butterfly tattoo on the right of her decolletage. There was a snub nosed balding, white-haired woman in a spangly red sweater and her daughter-in-law, both eavesdropping open-mouthed to the conversations of the family of an old lady who had been doing something that involved large, scraping gestures and had been left alone all of five minutes (cinque minuti!!!!) when the accident, whatever it was , happened. I know about the scraping, because each person who heard the story then repeated the gestures. And the general consensus was the person should have known better than to be doing the scraping.

There was one seriously bereft couple, a mother and son, who sat tensely on the edge of their chairs and watched the door of the examining room without actually seeing anything. A couple of huge African men came out, both with similarly bandaged hands, and they smiled gamely at the rest of us. A horny young couple next to me did things I tried to ignore. A balding man on a wheelchair and his three friends, and, eventually, mother, father,  grandfather, and wife, kept the far end of the room under siege. He was interviewed by two cops and, after they left, looked very distressed and kept turning over the sheets of paper they had given him.

There was, in addition, a very thin person of indeterminate sex, who raised herself gingerly and limped around periodically. There was a young man with an elaborate “R” tattoo on the left side of his neck, who kept an impassioned monologue going at his pal. He mimicked driving a motorcycle at breakneck speed on twisting roads, mapped — with his hands — the high and low parameters of car models, and relayed their precise virtues and shortcomings by the way he pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders and wiggled his eyebrows. I was sorry when he bolted into the examining room to stand by the side of his injured pal. When he emerged, fifteen minutes later, he looked seriously deflated and was carrying a pair of white ankle boots in his left hand.

Several categories of official uniforms passed through: the blue of the ER staff; the orange of the EMTs; two policemen, and one exceedingly impressive carabiniere. There were some sort of officials in neon green, as well, but I couldn’t tell what they were.

And, there I was, the solitary wallflower in the corner with a rubber plant where I could put up my throbbing knee with its plastic bag of ice elegantly swathed in white gauze.

After three hours, I’d had enough and left. So I actually don’t know whether there’s a fracture in there somewhere. I did take the dog for a walk in the vineyards, climbed the usual stairs, and seem to be a heck of a lot better.

Better than I was this morning when the first message on my cell phone came from the “man in my life” who suggested I check what Louise Hays has to say about the spiritual meaning of knee injuries. Finding out that problems with knees indicate unreleased and lingering pockets of anger, obstinacy, inflexibility, and pride did nothing to elevate my mood. I KNOW all that, of course: I know I have pockets of anger, and that I am as obstinate as a donkey, and that my pride gets in my way all the time.


Where does the stuff  in my dreams come from anyway? Jung and Freud aside, the sources of my dream imagery perplex me. The plots feel so deeply rooted in my soul that I can’t help but think they’re real in the same way that what I experience in my waking life is real. My emotions are fully involved. My senses activated. Kinetic impulses fire away. All the dimensions of psychic life are  there: from complex thought processes, to memories within the dream, and sometimes even memories cross-indexed with events in other dreams: dreams within dreams. I find myself speaking or understanding languages that in my waking consciousness are alien to me. I travel to places that are coherent spatially, with a plausible infrastructure of transactions among people, working subways and roads, taxis, buses, sounds, all the props of my passages through waking life. I seem to enter into a world in medias res.

It’s a fragile world in the sense that a phone call, the dog  scratching its chin,  wind gusting,  the rising notes of my alarm …can rip it to shreds in an instant. But the aftertaste of emotions and the sediment of images that flash  in and out of my mind throughout the day linger like the oleaginous coating of cod liver oil in the esophagus. The emotional “fumes” of the dream pervade all the experiences of the waking day.

Sometimes my mother and I have what sounds like the same dream on the same night. It happened again on the eve of what would have been my father’s 90th birthday. The particulars of that dream are smudged by now. My father was  home again, in a disgruntled mood, when guests, friends of his, arrived, unbidden. I scrambled  for something to serve them, but there was nothing in the fridge, the cupboards were bare, and I couldn’t  run to the store because they followed me from room to room demanding my attention, and there was an expectation that I come up with a solution that I couldn’t provide, and my inability to meet my duties as host was deeply shameful to my father. This, obviously, was a dream anchored in my own biography, reiterating my life-long conviction that I was bound to disappoint my father (which, by the way, I got to be quite good at doing, especially on the professional front).  When I shared this dream with my mother on the morning of my father’s birthday, she recognized the  scenario and the emotions as the ones she herself had dreamed. Except that there were elements in hers that related to her own specific issues with my father. What we shared was the sense that  we had both let him down in a very particular way, which is that we had failed to protect his public persona. In both dreams he drew  attention to our inability to meet his expectation that we would never let him “lose face” with “outsiders.” Not “losing face” was very important to him. In fact, protecting his ‘face’ was a family obligation that led to all kinds of duplicity and psychic double-dealing: smiling when we felt like crying. Mollifying him when we felt the right thing to do would have been to stand up to him. Being silent when we wanted to speak. Agreeing when we disagreed. Shutting out the world of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues  rather than imperil the seamless image of a fully functional family. No one must know.

What secret were we protecting, I wonder? What was so shameful? Who didn’t “measure up”? And anyway, what was the standard that we failed to meet? There was an unspoken conviction that the world “outside” was sitting in judgment and that the failure to meet, if not exceed, the standard would have catastrophic consequences.

I’ve made it my job to map the standard by breaking it, like a heifer in a pasture finding the perimeter by blundering into the electrified fence. This is where I should list specific instances, but I’m not bound here by the  rules that govern evidentiary writing (academic papers, for instance)  and so will acknowledge the existence of a standard only to ignore it. This is, after all, MY blog.

The dream from which I awoke this morning had to do, again, with World War II. I say “again” because I dream about the War over and over again: riding in a train while bombs drop; hiding in a cellar; twisting in the grip of a man forcing his fingers between my ribs. This time we were a group of strangers, children and adults,  swept up by Nazis and in transit to a death camp. I knew where we were headed, though the others seemed to think we were on an excursion led by severe tour guides through a sunny, peaceful city that looked like Cambridge, Massachusetts. The sidewalks were made of brick that buckled where the tree roots pushed up against them. The sun was shining. Maples were turning red. There was a train, and a bus, and a stop at a shoe store, where each person was told to pick one pair of shoes for the journey. Women went for the stilettos, the platforms, the strappy sandals, but I looked for fur-lined, waterproof boots because I knew we would be force marched through snow and ice. I couldn’t warn the others because  guards kept us apart as we grazed among the racks of shoes. I loitered in the bathroom while the others piled into the bus, and when a guard came after me, I came out of the stall laughing and chatting inanely, looking for a way out by distracting the guard and making him think that I really didn’t know where we were headed. I woke up at the point where I had walked down the steps of the  store and was slipping into an alley, holding my boots, and it seemed that I might, in fact, get away.

Two more things today, Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. The images are of Carlsbad Caverns, where, last week,  I came close to dislocating my jaw from the unending awe of walking inside the ruins of a 400 mile coral reef formed at the edge of the ancient Delaware Sea two hundred and fifty million years ago. I have scuba dived along the Great Barrier Reef, the reefs of Tahiti and Bora Bora, Lombok and Saba, Aruba and Baja. As I marveled at their intricate vitality, it did not occur to me that there might be coral reefs deep in the interior of a continent, and that I might one day find myself inside such a reef, traveling through time to a time named, by the Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison,  for the Russian region Perm that is bounded by the western slopes of the Ural Mountains. This primordial reef is now buried beneath the  rocky slopes and canyons of the Guadalupe Mountains in southwestern New Mexico, inverting all my conceptions about the proper placement of geological structures.

The sea is gone, but the sea bed is still there, a vast plain stretching from the abrupt slopes of the mountains built up — through eons of geological upheaval and torture, excavation, erosion, percolation, crystallization, squeezing, expanding, twisting — on the remains of echinoderms, brachiopods, foraminiferans and ammonoids, trilobites and corals, horned and tabulate both, and untold varieties of marine creatures that perished with the evaporation of the Delaware Sea and in the “Great Dying” that brought the Paleozoic Era to its catastrophic end.

The dying goes on all around the entrance to the cavern. A fire swept through the cactus-and-brush-covered slopes in June. The charred remains of agaves, yuccas, prickly pear, ocotillo, and hedgehog, look like the aftermath of atrocity. But there’s a tremendous vitality of growth and flight: insects, swallows diving and dropping into the cave at dusk, and shortly after the last of them tuck in for the night, the bats begin their  helical exodus from the same opening, fanning the air with thousands of wings before splitting off to find their own suppers.

The cave , like the dreams that come to us in our sleep, is a parallel universe, a portal into the past, teasingly familiar, though alien, enigmatic, dangerous and prophetic.

It is, I decide, the “Exegi monumentum” of Earth.

Exegi monumentum aere perennius,
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam. Usque ego postera
crescam laude recens. Dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum ex humili potens,
princeps Aoelium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze,
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids,
Which neither harsh rains nor the wild North wind
Can erode, nor the countless succession of years
And the flight of the seasons.
I will not entirely die! and a large part of me will avoid the grave.
Constantly renewed, I will grow in the eyes of posterity,
So long as the Pontifex and the solemn Vestal visit the Capitoline.
Where the river Aufidus roars, and where Daunus in the dry summers, ruled his rural folk,
I, risen to greatness from humble beginnings, will be renowned
As the first to adapt the Aoelian verses to Italian meters.
Take the well-deserved pride, Melpomene,
And freely grant me the wreath of Apollo for my crown.


Horse figs

I caught a few minutes  of a radio discussion about the children of anonymous sperm donors who are struggling to discover their genetic and social patrimony in a world that legislates reproductive privacy. The subject snags against the submerged sorrow in my soul. I am not, of course, a sperm donor or an egg donor, or the offspring of either. There were times when I did wish for a spontaneous conception, unattached to the biographies of my biological parents so that I would not have been burdened with the knowledge of their compensatory hopes and the recognition that whatever part of their blood is “bad” flows in my veins too. Anonymity gives the illusion that one has the power of self-invention. But, I imagine, it is also a curse, especially in the doldrums of life, when only the reminder of a hereditary character, or the precedent of parental survival, offers the crutch on which we can limp to the next, safer, zone of being.

How do orphans fare by comparison with these children of anonymous donors of genetic material? Do they feel desolation and loneliness, even when they are part of a loving family? Is there a fundamental piece of self missing when one has no biological frame of reference?

I know, for myself, that once my father died, I began to feel as if I’d lost an arm, which is a way of saying that I sense a dimension of myself is sealed, cauterised, and finished. That part was a root reaching into a living past. My father is gone. All I have of him are the words he spoke, the books he wrote, the photographs he took, the aphorisms he invented, the loving notes he posted for my mother on the refrigerator and the mirror and the bedroom door, telling her she is beautiful, that he loves her, which are still where he left them. But I also have him in my cells, so when I look in the mirror or at my hands, I see his face and his hands and I recognize myself as a bridge across time.

One of the stories he told me in October of his 84th year, when we walked up the hill to Sakura Park, he with his dog, I with mine, and sat down on the green wooden bench with our backs to Riverside Church. The cherry trees were bare, and the ginkgos along Riverside Drive  had long since turned yellow, but their berries still stank in the autumn grass. My father’s  mind slipped in and out of time zones, lives. He knew me, and he didn’t know me. With a courtly thoroughness he answered my questions about his boyhood, as though I were a stranger.

When he was a boy of ten, eleven, twelve, his father would take him along on  trips to Ljubljana. They would go by train, with lunch wrapped in newspaper in my grandfather’s briefcase, and a half-dozen apples for a snack. They would not go hungry in town. There was no money to spend in restaurants, and they were too proud to accept their relatives’ hospitality. My father was strictly forbidden to take more than a glass of water from his aunt, in case he might give the impression that his own family couldn’t afford to feed him. In consequence, when his father was detained on business, he often went hungry, needlessly so. But that was the legacy of peasant pride.

My grandfather went on business — I don’t remember exactly what it was — and brought his oldest son along to show him the university and the library, to fix the goal of getting a higher education vividly in his mind,  and to pay a courtesy call on wealthy relatives, the Vilharjevi who owned a watch and gold store in the old, “aristocratic” neighborhood on the banks of the Ljubljana River. Around the corner from the store was the   “triple” bridge designed by the Secessionist architect Jože Plečnik, and beyond that, the open air market, and beyond the market a few streets down, the house in which my mother, three years his junior, was forcing her tiny hands into Czerny’s piano exercises.

My heart squeezes painfully as I remember that conversation just as it did while I was listening to my father in Sakura Park. I feel pity and tenderness for the little boy who is still inside him, who was intimidated by his relatives’ wealth, and who still speaks of them with deep respect and deference, despite his education,  his global reputation, his achievements and successes. He is still, I realize, the poor relation  from a small, provincial town, both fiercely proud and insecure.

While his father went about his errands, the boy stayed with the relatives. He had a cousin, Breda, who was then maybe three years old, a beautiful blond child with blue eyes and alabaster skin, and he would sit quietly reading to her in the back of the elegant establishment while “fine” ladies and gentlemen shopped for gold trinkets and watches.

I see him as he was in the photograph taken for his confirmation: in a white suit, with a white shirt, the wings of the collar flared over the jacket lapels.  A big watch is pinned to his lapel and a white carnation is stuck in the buttonhole, and above it, is his narrow face, the full lips drawn into a tight line, a long, straight nose, and large, dark eyes looking with anxious curiosity at the camera. His ears are especially large, waiting for the rest of him to grow into them. I have his large ears, and his long neck, and the long, rectangular face that is now softening around the chin. I have his hands, his way of stretching out my fingers. The same nails. The same half pucker, half sneer when I’m concentrating, and the same way of chopping and moving the air with my hands when I lecture.  I too have his anxious curiosity and his sense of not being quite good enough for the “fine folk” in whose midst I have been thrust by life and my own ambition.

I asked him to show me the  Hallstatt bracelets, pins, earrings, and fibulae dating from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC that he and his siblings had dug up in the family potato field.

He kept them in a heavy cardboard box, wrapped  in thick tissue. The rocky soil of Novo Mesto yielded up this   funerary finery of  wealthy  Iron Age matrons twice a year: in the spring, when the children went out to the field after school to break up the clods of dirt and soften the ground for planting; and in the fall, when they dug up the potatoes.

My father was sent out each morning during the winter months to collect horse droppings from the roads and haul the “horse figs,”  as they were called, to the manure pile on the corner of the field. He didn’t take to this chore, but bowed to it. He came of stern parents, and his mother Katerina was in many ways a match for the manly mother of  St. Theodosius of the Kiev Cave Monastery (Feodosij Pecherskij) who was fierce in disciplining her son. [See:

My father was, like St. Theodosius, a learned man, an ascetic with a great love for Gregorian chants and the Russian Orthodox liturgy, frugal, modest, disciplined, punctual, and given to  rages. I have fingers through which money flows like water. I lack discipline. I have no sense of time. I know all about collecting “horse figs” and, over the years, got to like their smell.  And I rage only in response to the provocations of my sister and my daughter’s father. Blood is thicker than water.


Labor Day

The big red sunset over the Pacific was my sendoff from the coast. I was “evicted” from my little paradise by the co-owner, the father of my daughter, who needed the cottage for his little vacation with his new ( as of nearly ten years) wife. Bitterness pooled in the pit of my stomach and sour dreams spoiled my sleep.

Memories of indignities of that past decade (or three)  didn’t do much for my mood. I remembered the rush of iciness  that swept over me when I discovered the first unambiguous evidence of his chronic infidelities. Flashbacks to lying on my back in the upper garden, looking up at the sky through the quivering leaves of bamboo,  my cheeks wet with tears from feeling trapped into giving him the support, the loving,and the sex he needed so we could keep the family intact. Flashbacks to recovering from hysterectomy, alone, while he throws a lavish birthday bash for his new girlfriend. Flashbacks to waiting for him to join us at dinner while he flirts with a new woman on the phone. Flashbacks to his inviting a series of girlfriends to our summer villa, or meeting them in another city while I hold down the fort with his mother and his daughter, holding the family together while he plays at bad boy. Rage, banked in a small pile of ashes in a heavily guarded corner of my heart, bursts into flame and I have to dress my soul in asbestos to put out the fire before it does more damage.

No good can come of giving those memories a place in my attention, because the raw feelings are still all there. It was a hellish time of life, and I endured willingly the humiliations and abuse because I wanted to prove to myself that I could have a family, that I could stick it out, that I was not in the business of producing out-of-wedlock children without providing for a father-provider-legitimator.

Now, of course, that the daughter is raised and successful, he plays virtuous pater familias and faithful husband and piously recasts the past. But that’s not what I want to be unpacking tonight, the last night of the Labor Day Weekend, 2011, a hot night in sun-bleached Portland, Oregon, with the hum of two fans providing ambient noise.

OK. So I can’t let it go quite yet. I’m thinking of the labors of my so-called “love life” because they made up a big part of my biography. I spent many, many years laboring on relationships with men — working to please them, to mollify them, to get them to protect me, to love me,  and help me, with mixed results. The men were: my father; my professors; my lovers.The labors of love took a lot out of me.

This is an allegory of my life. Smooth and rocky. A faithful and loving dog. The cluster of barnacles — the cluster of tight relationships, each autonomous and linked. Each once filled with a vital organism — the relationship –that once dead,  left behind a hollow tube, tube next to tube in a honeycomb skeleton that once held life.

I met up with an old lover, on the ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. Against the Sound and the sky and the skyline — with the monstrous silhouette of Mt Rainer barely visible — he reclaimed his irresistible virile power that had fired my jets and launched me into his arms years ago. I felt young again with that urgency of chemical attraction, flesh yearning for flesh, every pore drinking in the scent of skin and hair heated in the sun.

I realized that in that primal tropism for the  embrace of another I am no different from the common starfish exposed at low tide. My reptilian brain orchestrates  a surrender to timelessness, to the rhythms that pulse through the cosmos. Clinging to the body of a lover is a seduction in itself: the seduction of seduction. I release my self fully to the diversion of an urgency that has nothing to do with publishers’ deadlines or work schedules or travel timetables.

Is that what drove the father of my daughter to his countless irresponsible couplings?

In the middle of these reflections is a quiet image frozen from the rush of the last five days.

I am sitting in the front seat of a white car, next to the old lover, and behind us, in the back is his granddaughter, barely 14 months old. She is quiet and listening with her soul to unseen men and women singing, a capella, Dalmatian songs of longing and love. We are in a back alley in Roslyn, Washington  — a town frozen in time celebrating its 125th anniversary. We are stopped on the dirt alley, between a weed-choked lot seeded with rusting mining tools and a high, wooden fence behind a two-story brick building. On the other side of the fence are the singers. Through the narrow cracks in the fence I can see that they are dressed in  white linen  embroidered with red flowers.

Their voices take me back to Hvar, to a morning in June in 1983, when I slip out of bed in the Palace Hotel leaving my lover asleep, to walk the worn stones to the market place and buy cherries from a beautiful young man who calls out to me, “What can I sell you my lovely soul?” And in that moment I am ready to leave my lover, my carefully constructed professional life, my home, my parents and even my dog, to be this man’s wife … in the sun, on the island in the beautiful, ancient Adriatic Sea. This desire comes, I know, from my blood recognizing its source.

I spend the last five days visiting couples: the artists in Portland, he a storyteller from Mali and she a ceramicist from the Pacific Northwest; the professionals on Bainbridge Island, he a hospital administrator, she an environmentalist; the struggling student couple moving into their first house; the young marrieds with child balancing brutal work schedules; the wine store proprietor and her ornamental husband; the old widower and the widow, survivors of ancient marriages to now dead partners.

I pay attention to the correlation between the stories they tell about themselves and the stories their behavior with each other tell. The artists are so finely calibrated to each other’s rhythms and shared history that their attention is all outward, into their work and the context of their work.  They talk about themselves through their sculptures and bowls and plates.

The professionals create the “couple biography” out of stories about shared leisure and  schedules meshed around child care and meals.

The students’ common story is all about the future – revising each other’s versions of what is to come, and when, and how. The couple, for them, consists in the fantasy of a shared future they  invent and reinvent.  They hardly touch each other. Their link in the present lies in the belongings strewn through the rooms of their house: some his, some hers, some theirs. Their “couplehood” is an archeology of objects in the absence of the archive of shared experiences.

The widow and the widower talk about their outings, at a discreet physical distance, keeping shy eye contact. They are all about the present, and the farthest horizon of the  future is a week from now.

The wine merchant and her husband’s story centers on her business. Theirs is a labor relationship defined by her initiatives and his contributions. She keeps a wary eye on him as he mingles with the customers. They have a code of gestures clear to both that synchronizes their moves, their moods, their progress. The past for them is a morality tale of pitfalls to be avoided.

And the couple in their early thirties, with a young child, is all turmoil, stories of ways in which they’ve let each other down countered by hypothetical projections of their aspirations to be a ‘normal’ family, which turns out to be a Norman Rockwell version of family in which the mere physical presence of a second child will alchemically produce a clean house, the ritual of the home-cooked family meal, affluence, vacations, family reunions, and the benediction of fellow Christian families.

I am struck by the constant appeal to the concept of “normalcy.” “I just want us to be a normal family.” I probe. What, to them, stands under the banner of the “normal?” It turns out to be: two children. Christianity. Affluence. Family vacations. Family reunions. Social admiration and approval. Professional success. No debts. In the meantime, everything about the behavior of this couple screams against the virtues of “normalcy.” They avoid eye contact. The mother considers her toddler daughter a “witch of selfishness” and her husband “a hostage to testosterone.” The house is a chaos of objects in states of neglect: dirty dishes, dirty floors, unmade beds, piles of clothing rising from the floor, the beds, the clothes washer, scattered toys, sticky glasses, burned out lightbulbs. Two television sets of titanic proportions are constantly on duty. In the pantry, bottles of cheap wine, cartons of cigarettes, rolls of toilet paper and paper towels crowd convenience foods and condiments. I am demoralized the instant I step into the house.

The word “normal” should be struck out of the language, banished, exiled, expunged, extirpated. If one really examines what hides under the rug of normalcy, one finds: infidelity, doubt, hostility, distrust, aversion, discomfort, frustration, disillusion, resentment, anxiety, envy, jealousy, bitterness. I fear “normalcy” as an ambition and a goal of life. It is a Trojan Horse carrying the agents of subversion and destruction of those who aspire to materialize it in their relationships and in their lives. My mother paid tribute to the ideal of normalcy all the years of her marriage to my father, knowing full well that we, as outsiders to every society into which life thrust us, had no conventional model of “normalcy.”

I suppose to my mother, the “normal” was a nostalgic throwback to the gilded memories of her childhood, of an upper bourgeoisie in a provincial center of a dying empire. For my father, the “normal” was petty bourgeois mediocrity, and the two of them constantly clashed over the meaning of that word. For me, “normal” meant “whatever my school peers had for a family life” — meaning no curfew in the teenage years; meaning: a car or two; meaning: a house; meaning: a mother who did not work; meaning: a father who worked nine to five and had weekends off and was not always at home in his study demanding quiet and discouraging all visitors; meaning: no accent and perfect command of slang, and cool clothes and a cool boyfriend. And “normal” for me, was always unattainable.

Talking to the young couple, I try to probe and learn what “normal” means to each of them. I don’t have enough time. I do understand, however, that by setting our sights on being “normal”, we are blind to the wealth already present in our lives. And we ignore the most profound truth of our human existence: that it is our differences that are valuable and necessary to the harmony and vitality of the collective.


Dem Bones

Oh dem achin’ bones! Is it the damp of the coast? Age? The  power yoga class on the beach with Nicole, a solid mass of muscle and chutzpah, setting a brutal pace in a public setting, where shame and vanity drove each of us to overreach? Is it a bug? The last residue of summer’s apathy  stewing in the bones?

I am creaking up and down the stairs, up and down the dunes, shuffling through the singing sands, hauling my weary bones hauling boxes, cleaning, taping up sagging insulation, sorting, scrubbing, vacuuming, weeding, planting, mulching: getting the cottage ready to pass muster when it reverts to the “lord and master” for his brief visit, cum spouse and her family. So it’s probably bone-deep resentment and a sense of being evicted from my paradise, and a reminder of my impermanence.

Always, since childhood, attached to life sideways (as Mandelstam put it in “Egyptian Stamp” about his Parnok), not quite legitimate, not enfranchised, without full rights of occupancy.

Badger (my card for the day) says: “Take ownership. Aggressively pursue your goals. Act.” I say, ” Aching ankle, hip, back make it hard to aggressively pursue my goals. And act. “I keep moving because it’s less , paradoxically, painful that way.

My father always used to say about pain, “If it hurts, at least you know you’re still alive!” And that, I suppose, is a good thing.


Erik Satie made himself the reputation of being the laziest student in the conservatoire. He was a hoax. A failure in the military. A brilliant innovator. A cabaret pianist. An eccentric. A loner. Composer of “canine” piano pieces. In short, a fine role model! This digression is meant to distract me from my pain.

“Look!” says Dr. Self. “Do your stretches! Take a pill! Practice your yoga! And go see your orthopedist, already. You keep avoiding him because you don’t want to hear you need surgery. There ARE alternatives, so find them. Stop creaking around like an old pile of bones.”

One hundred

This year two landmarks in my life are celebrating their hundredth birthdays: the institution in which I have been teaching for EVER. And “my -ex-mother-in-law-of-the-sinister-branch” which is a wordy way of saying: the mother of the man I didn’t marry.

I’ve been making visits every few weeks to this aged woman, who lives in Chicago, in full possession of her  wit, hearing, sight, and memory. She has a hard time walking. She tires easily. She has shrunk down to 75 pounds and 4’6″ and her body is skeletal. When she lies in bed, she takes out her upper denture, and her mouth collapses so she looks exactly like how you imagine a “crone” should look  a large nose cantilevered above sunken lips, the lower jaw protruding and covered in stiff white hairs.

Her skin is alabaster and thinly stretched over the frame of her bones. The blue veins show through clearly. On her wrists and ankles, the skin has turned ultramarine from all the bruising — though I don’t know what might be causing the bruises, since she is not tied up. The only thing that can explain the bruising is her clothing: elasticated stockings pressing on the ankles. Elasticated sleeves rubbing her wrists. Her long, narrow feet are always cold, so I massage them and slip them into socks.

She keeps  the telephone next to her pillow in bed. The moment it rings, she seizes the receiver and in a firm voice, shouts “Hallo? Yes, I know who its is. Sure. I recognize your voice. What’s going on? ” She tells me jokes, always new ones, and is pleased that she can make me laugh.  I sit by her in bed and caress her marble hand, in part because I love her, in part to keep her from her  annoying habit of picking her nose and rubbing her eye, which even five months ago would have disgusted her.

One of her caretakers —  all Polish women ranging in age from 45 to 60– scolds her for this habit, but the ancient woman tells her sharply, “It’s my body and I do what I want.”

She speaks gnomically and sparely, except when she tells her memories, when  stories pour out of her shaped into elaborate plots with multiple digressions, footnotes, thematic clusters, ironic reversals, and aphorisms. Listening to her stories is equivalent to double time travel: in the times she’s recounting, and to the times before ours, when people — generally old women — told stories to entertain, instruct, challenge, provoke. One has to live a long life to have something to tell.

Every afternoon she sends me to the top drawer of the dresser across from her bed where she keeps her good jewelry. She tells me to take whatever I like. I am superstitious and don’t take anything valuable.  I’m afraid that if I take one of the really good pieces, she will die. As long as she has her good jewelry, she will live to wear it at her granddaughter’s wedding.  She tells me, ten times a day, “Take care of you! Know what you have to do, and  do it.” This is the same advice my father always gave me. I’ll probably give it to my daughter, too.

I tell her that I don’t need her jewelry because the best gift she’s given me is her son, who gave me my daughter. And the best gift she can give me now is the  time she spends with me. There’s no flattery in those words. I have never been with someone  through whom so much time has passed, whom so many experiences have  shaped, and whose love has been refined into the most essential moves and words. The oldest person before her was the grandfather of my first love. He was in his late 90s when I met him, in Perpignan, on the Franco-Iberian border.

Digression 1:

He was a handsome old man with a beak for a nose, a bony face, and the same thin, bony hands with large joints that the old woman now has and that I will, with luck, have some day too. He was completely blind. Dressed in a starched white shirt and dark slacks, with a fine Hermés belt around his waist and plaid felt slippers on his feet, Auguste sat on a straw chair, in the sun, against a white stucco wall in an inner courtyard of his house.  He was living then with a son he fathered when he was 76 with a physician who was in her thirties. His son was there, tending to him with his girlfriend. The son too was a physician. The son was the same age as his nephew, my boyfriend.  We were there because my boyfriend’s father had just been killed in a plane  crash over Papua, New Guinea.

The old man suspected something was wrong, even though the family decided to keep the news of his son’s death away from him. It was hard on my boyfriend, on his uncle — his father’s half-brother — on all of us. Keeping such a secret is very hard. It’s hard to keep the sorrow out of one’s voice, and the blind are acutely sensitive to the voice. I’m sure  the old man knew, because he only asked about his son once, and then was silent. I sat by him and held his hand. He stroked my hand,  pointed his blind eyes to the sun, and said, “Voilá, c’est tout.”

My boyfriend was in shock and  withdrawn, except  in bed, where he was ravenous. We had a small white room with a white metal bed whose springs sang off-key, several times a day, loud and vigorously. After he dropped off to sleep, I read D.D. Blagoj’s Istorija russkoj literatury XVIII veka ( History of 18th century Russian literature) and underlined entire paragraphs.

One day the nephew/uncle and his girlfriend took us sailing off the Côte de Vermeille (the Vermillion Coast) , in and out of craggy inlets and small beaches. We dove off the boat and came up to magisterial views of the Pyrénées. The sun burned hot and dried the salt into our skins. We dropped anchor off a rocky cove and spread  our picnic on the deck,  and forgot, for a few hours, that we had just buried Paul’s ashes in the tiny cemetery of Jouy, outside of Chartres.

Digression 2:

The cemetery was right beyond the back wall of this house, which belonged to my boyfriend’s mother.

Francine was a beautiful, impossible woman with a traumatic past, who married too early and badly. Paul was devastatingly handsome, and an incurable philanderer, like his father Auguste. At the time of his death, he was suing for divorce from his second wife, an American, who claimed to be pregnant with his child, and was dating an Englishwoman, whom he had met six months earlier in London.  Both women came to the funeral at the first wife’s villa. We walked from the house through the back garden gate up a steep ravine to the cemetery. There were maybe a dozen of us: the two wives and the mistress, two children, Francine’s lover (he of the mismatched eyes and the leap year birthday), the cook/housekeeper,three dachshunds, and myself. When the undertaker uncovered the cardboard box of Paul’s ashes, still tied with string and sealed with tape and covered with  official stamps,  I was horrified that a man so tall could fit into such a small box. That’s when the reality of his death finally hit me, and I fell to my knees on the gravel and cried. Francine looked sternly at me and pulled me up. I got the sense that I was not behaving comme il faut. 

Afterwards,   all the women gathered in the house and drank scotch and ate  smoked salmon, oeufs en gelée, fois gras, and delectable canapés.  The dining room was festooned with staghorn fern, bought especially for the occasion. It occurred to me that there was something Freudian about the choice of plant.

A few years later, my boyfriend’s mother died. She was found sitting in her exquisite jewelry and sea shell boutique, at the table, dead. There was speculation that she had committed suicide. This time, too, all the women gathered: the current girlfriend, several recent ones, the oldest one — myself. We gathered in New York, and then sent him off to Paris to bury his mother, comfort his sister, grandmother, the dogs, the old faithful lover Hubert.

End of digression. Back to digression 1.

When I sat next to the old man late that afternoon, he sniffed my skin and smiled, and nodded in delight. We drank  bottles and bottles of Blanquette de Limoux, which Michel, the young doctor, kept bringing from the cellar. The only person who really suffered during that visit was my boyfriend’s sister, a girl in her early teens. She had a fierce crush on me and was jealous of the time I spent with her brother and her grandfather. She was also terrified of the old man, and stared silently at him with big, round eyes and a pursed mouth. If he asked her a question, she answered only , “Non” or “Oui”, with that sharp intake of breath typical of Parisians, and smiled.  She had the sweetest smile, like sun coming out from behind a cloud.

August died several months later, never having been told. But he knew, of course, because one always knows in one’s gut about such things,  and the fact of his oldest son’s death weighed heavily on him. Paul had been his pride: brilliant, accomplished, debonaire. A true chip off the old block. A younger son, living in Portugal with his mother, was a total good for nothing. The youngest, the doctor Michel, would make up for the loss.

End of digression 1.

I am not afraid of old people. They intrigue me. When I was younger, I used to hold old people personally responsible for getting old and decrepit. I just assumed that getting old was something people willingly took on, or something they gave in to. It never occurred to me that getting old is a matter of time passing through us. It’s the trace of the passage of time. My body too is getting old. It’s like a blotter that collects time in the form of wrinkles and sag and aches and wonderfully rich memories.

What I like about old people is the fact that they have so many stories. Adelaide O’Blisk, for instance, my neighbor for many years, told extraordinary stories that, one day this year, I’ll tell you.

For now, in Chicago, I want to give my ex-mother-in-law-of-the-sinister-branch comfort in her last days, and play her music she hasn’t heard since youth, read her poetry, show her photographs, drawings, paintings, tell her my own stories, ask her advice.

This is a woman who grew up with privilege, coddled, cushioned by great love and admiration, and, because she is Jewish and grew up in anti-Semitic Warsaw, she learned about distrust and hatred early. There were summer holidays at the family estate in Zakopane, horses, carriage rides, trips to France, skiing. University. Courting. Marriage to a serious young man, who took her to Jerusalem for their honeymoon, and 56 years later, her son and I went there and stayed at the hotel where his mother and father took their first conjugal delights. When they returned to Warsaw, war broke out. Poland was overrun. In 1940  the family, except for the oldest brother, a physician, and his wife (who perished in the camps),  made their way to the Eastern front, where through a series of complicated diplomatic negotiations, those who opted against returning to Poland were sent deep into the Soviet Union, to work in concentration camps chopping trees and mining coal to support Stalin’s war effort.

The ancient woman was then a strong, clever, and resourceful young woman.  Before leaving Warsaw, she asked her dentist to drill her teeth and seal the family diamonds into the cavities. One day as they being hauled deep into Siberia on cattle cars,  the filling on one of the teeth came loose , and she swallowed a diamond. For a week she worried over her excrement, poking at it with a stick by the railbed under the eyes of guards. Find it she finally did.

Shunted deeper and deeper into the USSR as the Germans invaded, the captive Jews learned to survive on nothing, in shelters built of twigs against the brutal winter. Cockroaches swarmed across the ceiling and walls in an undulating black wave and the ancient woman’s mother did battle with them by pouring boiling water on them. There was nothing else to use against the roaches.

The war over, they were given the option to go to Moscow or choose some other spot to live. They decided on Uzbekistan, and rode slow cattle cars to Fergana Valley, where they made themselves a hut out of dried horse manure and waited for the peaches to ripen. Earthquakes shook the valley and they fled their fragile manure huts to sleep outside, with the Uzbeks, under the stars, waiting for the aftershocks to die down. They were young and in love.

Then came Salzburg and a D.P. camp where she taught the “hidden” children and the orphans who had somehow survived the death camps. From there, she and her husband emigrated to Palestine and helped lay the foundations of the modern Jewish state. And when the child came along, and the rest of the family decided to settle in Chicago, she made the difficult decision to emigrate, move once again, uprooting her husband from an important government post and de facto condemning him to the accounting job he took on in Chicago that he loathed and that soon enough killed him off.

She worked as a shopkeeper in a fine leather goods store, struggling to make ends meet as she coped with her grief, the stark realities of being a young widow with an adolescent son heading off for a long and expensive education. She lived simply and frugally, but was always elegant and cheerful with her huge horde of devoted friends and admirers.

And so her life line diverged from that of her son soon enough, and from then on she followed a parallel track which occasionally intersected with ours. It was not easy being her “daughter-in-law-of the branch-sinister.” She was and continues to be an exceptionally critical and outspoken woman who holds nothing back.

I rebelled against her for many years, withholding my love and admiration, because I considered it an act of disloyalty to my own mother to love another mother. In time, however, I came to realize that the heart is a house with an infinite number of rooms, and that I could love both the ancient woman and my mother, without depriving either of my affection, admiration, and confidence.

My affection and admiration for the other centenarian — the institution at which I have been teaching — is a little less complicated, perhaps because largely unexamined.

In honor of these two “landmark” anniversaries, I have been continuing my “Petroglyph” series. The last batch I did is still visible on the rocks of the beach where the tide was not able to reach them.



Small pleasures

Before I get to the question – “Who would I consider being and why?” — I need to remember the  wild turkeys. I am crossing the neighbor’s lawn and  a very ugly squirrel looks up from  the bird feeder, craning its neck, and then it morphs  into a huge tom turkey, and the  patches of shade become four hens and after a moment’s hesitation, turned and  softly picked their way  into the tall grass, unhurried and dignified and silent.

Four bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) patrolled the sky all morning and though they came close several times, paid no attention to the poodles that we kept on leashes, as a precaution, when we strolled across the meadows and through the woods to the spring-fed pond.

We disturbed a white-tailed deer  drinking at the water’s edge.

The air was alive with damselflies and dragon flies, which in Slovene are called “snake shepherds,” and midges and  exceptionally cranky wasps. One of them zinged me for no reason at all (though my sister claimed it was my “strong” perfume that got to him) and left a black stinger sticking out of my right elbow. It did come  out easily and did no damage,  which is more than I can say for the wasp that had squandered its weapon — and maybe  its life — on a totally gratuitous attack. Idiot.

A  fly that last night had joined me at yoga practice was  turning up all day, either landing on my shoulder or my knee, or circling the watercolor I was painting, or dodging my fingers on the iPad.  There was some speculation that it might be the incarnation of my dead father, come to check up on “his girls” and join the fun. My grandmother put that idea in my head. I remember one of the times I went along with her to the cemetery, a fly followed us  home, a distance of maybe two miles, and Grandmother talked to it the whole way  as though it were Grandfather.

The  sun burned hot and clear.  My dog burrowed into the tall grass at the foot of the cottonwood.  We sat in the shade, my mother on the Adirondack chair, her dog on her lap.  The occasional frog croaked and dropped  into the water with a soft plop. Fathead minnows  flitted in the shallows feeding on algae. Water striders skated from lily pad to lily pad. Midges swarmed. Time stopped.

The frog’s croak sounded like a broken cello string, and that turned the conversation to Chekhov’s  The Seagull and Turgenev’s Nest of Gentlefolk . My mother sang songs from her childhood. I painted. My sister studied the colors and shapes of the grasses, speculating on which trileaf plants might be poison ivy, and which ragged, grayish looking weeds might be nettles.

We passed around the small treasures picked up on the morning walk: six fossils and a piece of quartz with what looked like gold specks; a falcon feather; and three hickory nuts.

Our  talk flowed idly, companionable and free: three women reuniting, related by blood and memories and shared experiences, pausing in life’s rush to cherish each other, to take pleasure in the rare gift of a perfect summer day, and to draw strength from  the harmony of reciprocal love.

It’s night, again. The temperature dropped to a cool 68 degrees F. The moon is even fuller than it was last night. I hear the song of the  long-horned owl above the waves of cricket calls.

Which brings me back to the question: “Who would I want to be if I could be anyone in the whole wide world?”

Maria Callas. So I could sing Norma and Astrofiammante, Mozart’s Queen of the Night.

Fra Angelico. So I could paint luminous landscapes and radiant saints in colors stolen from heaven.

Ovid. So I could write poetry about metamorphoses that changes men’s hearts and minds.

Lauren Bacall. So I could smirk and sashay and talk in a voice dripping with the sexy smoke of Laphroaig scotch.


I stumbled on an article  titled “Letter Re: Day to Day Survival–From the Perspective of a Homeless Man.” ( See:

It’s by a man from the Pacific Northwest who tells an archetypal story about going astray after the death of a strong, beloved wife, losing himself in drink and anger until, at the nadir of his fall, he sees her in a dream. Her encouragement — a sort of supernatural intervention– sets him back on the road to recovery. He has lost everything — house, money, reputation, profession. But he still has his skills with tools, gardening, and computers. By  working as a handyman, growing his own food in the wilderness of what I take to be Portland’s Forest Park, using the public library’s resources, and by developing an ascetic’s spiritual discipline, he becomes again worthy of the calling of “human.”

The plot is familiar. I came across it years ago in the anonymous, 17th century Russian tale, “Povest’ o gore-zlochastii” [Повесть о горе-злочастии] (“Tale of Woe-Misfortune”) – an example of the penitential genre that I had grown up with in the form of  the “microcosmic” narrative of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the “macrocosmic” version of humanity’s fall from divine favor and eventual redemption through a combination of suffering and grace.

The story, because it comes with the imprimatur of lived experience, reassures me. It gives me hope  that were some catastrophe to befall me, I too might be able to survive by my wits, by the skills I’ve managed to hone over the years.  Thus far, I’ve been able to survive by following the rules of the game , specifically, as played in my profession. I’ve taken stupid risks, of course, played fast and loose and reckless, and, in retrospect, I see that there were quite a few times that I was on the brink of slipping over the edge (like Pamela Salant, the Portland nursery school teacher who fell fifty feet off a ledge in the Mt. Hood National Forest a few days ago). But there are situations where there are no rules, and the only game is resourcefulness, vigilance, and grit.

I still don’t understand the lure and allure of self-destruction– Freud’s “Thanatos.”  In my case, it shows up not as a craving for drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, adrenalin sports, but as procrastination, willful denial,  misapplied energy,  squandered generosity,  misplaced love…. Catastrophe finds some people, descends on them like a sudden downpour. In my case, it nibbles constantly at the edges of my precarious security and stability, sapping my talents, dulling my focus, drawing me into digressions from the path that is my life.

Lessons in fear and hate

A child learns  to fear and to hate what it fears. Its first teacher is the caretaker who treats it roughly: shouts, beats, ignores, dislikes, shames, frightens.The child learns hate and from that time on, hate lives in its soul, a smoldering ember ready to burst into flame at the least provocation by friend or foe.The lessons of fear and hate begin on the first day of a child’s existence.

And they cannot be undone, even by patient love.

With time, as the frightened and unloved child grows, it exacts  revenge by giving the one who abused it – hate. It exacts revenge against the world that failed to protect it from the abuser by responding with hate. It grows critical, judgmental, intolerant, distrustful.

You can never love a child too much. You can never spoil a child by giving it too much love. Love, unconditional love, is the gift you can give to the future.