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Spring cleaning of the soul

I’ve shut down to do spring cleaning of the soul.

It started with the visit to the Grotta Giusti, with a  descent into the Dantean Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno of the spa’s chthonic chambers. The caves wind down into the center of the earth (of course!), lit by spots that throw monstrous shadows on the corrugated walls and ceiling. The footing is slippery and slick from the drip of condensation and the hundreds of slippered feet shuffling this way the last one hundred-and-fifty years. It’s nothing as dramatic or terrifying as the Carlsbad Caverns  of New Mexico, which are petrified and crystallized into the negative of premillennial pounding surf.  There are also no bats.

There is a kind of strange mold growing on some of the rock faces, probably stimulated by the weak photons emanating from the electric lights. At either end there is a deep well of brilliant blue water whose surface is disturbed at very long intervals by a drop that slowly forms until it grows too heavy for whatever forces hold water molecules together, detaches from the ceiling, and lands with a solid plop. Wooden folding chairs are set at various intervals for those wishing to meditate or collapse. I did so in “Inferno,”  tucking myself  into the  antique chaise longe that was most deeply set into the overhang so that I was cocooned with porous rock. A large clock faced me. I propped my feet up on a low stool, thoughtfully provided, leaned back, and closed my eyes. The heavy canvas robe felt protective on my bare skin. The hood fell low over my eyes, and my hands, tucked deep into opposite sleeves, were as secure as the arms of a lunatic in a straitjacket.

The silence seemed complete. The electric clock – unlike the one in my kitchen in Il Pianerottolo — did not click. The air felt heavy and exceptionally soft, soothing, and filled with something I couldn’t really identify. Bit by bit sounds began to emerge out of the silence.  A slight creak of the chair joints. A distant drip, drip, drip. The surf sound that’s always inside my ears. The thump, thump, thump that turned out to be my heart doing its work. A light stirring sound, that might have been air shifting microscopically as someone entered the grotto a half mile away. I felt myself  — my “Self “– slipping away layer by layer and swirling gently into something soft, warm, glowing and dark at the same time, and profoundly restful. I don’t know how long I was in that state before the sound of someone sitting down beside me brought me out of what I now know was a profound trance. That was the start of my journey of spring cleaning.

The linfodrenaggio (or lymphatic draining) treatments stirred things up physio-chemically. Italian spas use the German Vodder method, which is somewhat more aggressive than the very light touch that I’m accustomed to.  Things began to move around and flow through my body. Fawn  then unpacked her kit of crystals and got to work at either end of Domenico’s memory retrieval exercise. I am, it turns out, quite suggestible.  I really hadn’t seen myself years ago as someone who would go in for all this sort of “processing” . I would have brushed it aside as “woo woo” New Age delusion. Now I’m not so sure. There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

For years I’ve had a sharp pain  between my shoulder blades, where wings might have sprouted on an angel. It feels as  a knife is being plunged and twisted. This is the pain I’ve known since childhood, when I would lie in the darkness of the crib in which I slept until the age of five, listening to the rise and fall of my parents’ voices in the kitchen or — once we had more than just the kitchen and the bedroom — in some other room of the apartment.  First their voices were a hum, alternating between the deep baritone of my father and my mother’s soft contralto. Then the baritone swelled and rose in volume and resolved  into a sharp  clap of thunder. That was the signal for the fusillade to follow: an increasingly violent, percussive series, spitting out rage, words filled with “rrrrr’s” , rhetorical questions extorting from my  mother — futile, mollifying replies, filled with tears and imploration. The night thickened around me and I lay rigid, listening to the  volley. My father’s accusations  my mother’s incoherent explanations, father’s challenges, mother’s timid solutions, each exchange inflaming him to greater fury, fueling his wrath and — I now know, but then felt with the child’s profound wisdom — his tragic sense of helplessness, his grief and protest against a world opposing his will at every step and turn, intractable to his desires and his own life plan. What could my mother do in the face of such despair? What could he do but rail against the gentle woman he had wooed, pursued to death’s door, and married and loved as he loved his own soul? The pain in my back grew white-hot, my arms and legs ached with the strain of trying to make it all stop, make them stop and realize that the answer was not in turning against each other, but in agreeing that yes, the world had let them down, big time, and left them with only their brains, hands, and love to shape their tiny piece of the universe into Eden.

It never happened that I made them stop. I don’t know, really, or don’t remember, how those violent explosions suddenly ended. The silence that followed was even more terrifying. I was afraid they had died; that someone had died. Then the sound of my mother’s weeping came to me. I was relieved to hear her cry.  I was relieved to hear her cry. Her quiet sobs of despair came to me as a happy sign that she was alive. And the knife turned in my back. Where were my father’s tears? Had he used them all up in his anger? Had his despair burned away in the auto-da-fé of his wrath? Pity for them both ringed my eyes, but I didn’t cry, not then, in my crib, not twenty years later, at 560 RSD, when the ritual continued to repeat itself, always with the same impact on me, until December 28th, of the year before he died, when my father’s titanic rage took him to the psychiatric ward of St. Luke’s Hospital.

I left home and chose to move 2,978 miles west to insulate myself from the rhythm of these outbursts and the knife in the back.

When, in 1980, I met the man who would become the father of my daughter, he took me, on our first date, to see a film called “A Knife in the Head” (1978 Messer im Kopf, dir. Reinhard Hauff, starring Bruno Ganz).

Intuitively sensing the spot where my soul pain centered, my mother would quiet my unstoppable crying fits, brought on by not getting my way, by turning an invisible lever in my back, between my shoulder blades. I realized this connection when Fawn did her third “treatment.”

My sleep, this week, has been wretched. The April rains have come, and with them, an insidious damp cold that these thick stone walls and tile floors amplify. The paths across the fields are liquid mud. When I walk the dog, my rubber boots collect huge chunks of Tuscan clay and I drag them through the tall grass to clean them. THe clay is so heavy it pulls my boots clean off my feet. I need a brisk walk to get the blood flowing and fire up the inner furnace.

In my sleep, my mouth falls open. My teeth dry out and the lining of my mouth turns into sandpaper. My bones and joints ache. My dreams turn this into a crippling weakness that make it impossible for me to walk. I struggle to get to the lecture hall to deliver a lecture on a topic I prepared years ago. I think it’s in my laptop, which I left where? In my office? in the lecture hall on the podium? It’s an agony to drag myself from one place to another, to fumble with keys, squinting in the dark and groping to insert the key — always the wrong one — into the lock. Students have read the lecture from my laptop, and no one wants to listen to me deliver it. I have no microphone and my voice is barely audible to me. Evaluators are sitting in the far corner, grading my performance. I am washed up. Done. Put out to pasture. I can barely walk out of the building, more ancient than the ancient mother of a colleague who, in the meantime, has parlayed her position into a promotion, a luxe apartment with a chef, a maid, and a dozen perks. I meet up with the “man in my life” and he mocks me in my decrepitude and tells me all those “quality women” he’s been meeting and dating have pushed me out of his life. I see my father’s handsome profile somewhere in all this and am suddenly sad because I know, in my dream, that one day he will die. I have nowhere to sleep. Someone’s relative was given the bed in my room and now the sheets are filled with stray black hair and damp with his sweat. The balcony, shaped like a walnut-shell, takes up most of the small house. There is nowhere to store the pieces of Lego’s and ToyMobiles my daughter’s collected that I must put away. Too many stairs. Should I fly to Chicago and buy a skirt set? I can’t walk. I can’t talk. No one wants to love me.  I get up six or seven times in the course of this miserable night, each time to pee, drink water, and collapse back into  bed. This is my psychic equivalent of picking the splinters and slivers of past traumas out of the living soul.


How many more nights like this before my soul’s house is in order?




Today is the magical date 11-1-11, with the new crescent phasing into the harvest moon, and my heart yearns for the perfect reciprocity of an accepting, embracing, exuberant and fearless love, beyond the hurdles of childhood fears, inherited reflexes of distrust, suspicions learned from decades of blundering into misalliances, emotional missteps, misread signals, precipitous words, and curt dismissals.

My anger melted  with the snow.

I’m at peace with my mother. Work is flowing again. Something shifted. It happened — and this sounds so West Coast, so  New Age, but it’s true, I swear it’s true — when I opened my hand and laid it flat against the living bark of the old pin oak on the bluff above the Hudson River.

There’s wisdom in that tree!

A Virus’ Progress

On September 16 I went back to the College to meet with a thesis student. It turned out to be a bad move. From the moment I set foot on campus until I left, four hours later, students clustered and clung like puppies. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed them and there was much hugging and back slapping and hand shaking.  For the next three days, at the coast, I was in a state of euphoria.
I remember having two thoughts on the subject: 1. that the joy stemmed from the  affection  of my students and release from  academic work ; and 2. that I was hosting an  obdurate intracellular parasite, which was  furiously injecting its genetic material into my cells, and that all that viral replication  was fueling my sense of cosmic well-being. Subsequent developments convinced me that this was in fact the case.

On the third and last of my days of bliss I made the 6.5 mile hike from Falcon Cove to Short Sands Beach.

At every step I marveled at my exhilaration: the sense of freedom, the acuity of my senses, the joy and delight over each mushroom pushing through the leaves, even the highly poisonous ones, such as this cream version of the Amanita muscaria, which, I am told, was consumed by Vikings before battle to give them courage.

I was spellbound by the antics of a  salamander a hare, too quick to photograph, banana slugs, giant termites and tiny ants, snails and endless varieties of mushrooms,

lichens, mosses, ferns,

spiders, the calls of hidden birds, scuttling clouds , turgid roots standing out of the path’s smooth surface like the veins on my hands, the stunning engineering of  titanic spruce…

the Gaudi-esque spiralling   of tree trunks  from which the bark had long since rotted…

the spectral, sinister aspect of  hemlock stands, thick with  necrotic trunks,  brittle branches festooned with Spanish moss, funereal, instantly calling up associations with Socrates’ fatal cup and illuminating the logic of Derek Humphry’s decision to name the right-to-die organization “The Hemlock Society.”

On the fourth day after my visit to campus, I woke up with a heaviness in my  limbs,  scratching in my throat, and a dulled appetite.  My first thought was to attribute the malaise to the long hike. But, in fact, the “bug” had by then  taken over. The viruses had done their preparatory work of attaching, penetrating, uncoating,  replicating, and self-assembling, and were now lysing, destroying, in the process, an unforgivable number of my own cells, which, in the nanoseconds before their demise managed to send an SOS to the immune mechanism of my body. Furious battles  between the pathogenic invaders and the defenders of the host (viz. myself)  were now joined on many fronts. Fatigue crept through my body. Euphoria gave way to indifference and the thought of having to drive back to town, even for the greatly anticipated reunion with my beloved daughter three days hence, drained me of the last reserves of energy. I decided to cut short the time I had budgeted for getting the house in order, and surrendered to sleep.

Of course, there may well be no scientific basis for my  conclusion that the euphoria was a prelude to illness. I admit I wouldn’t even know how to track down the findings of any  research that might prove or disprove my hypothesis. I do know, however, from many years of  minute self-observation, that a fever invariably follows a sudden spell of euphoria.

Summertime Needs

Summertime needs:

time, sun, cool nights, starry skies, a full moon now and then and a bonfire on the beach, a loving  man, girlfriends to laugh with and talk over the big questions of life, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, prosecco, cheese, crackers, and a bowl of soup; a happy dog; inspiration; a good mystery and a challenging ‘serious” book, and poetry; music; yoga on the beach; swimming; working in the garden; hanging out with mom and sister and the kids; a good glass of wine; painting; the sound of waves; birds at the feeder; crickets; deep skies and scuttling clouds; a pair of sandals; health; good sleep; lots of guests; new friends; old friends; singing, laughter; sharing sharing sharing!

September has less than a week to go, and I look back on the most wonderful summer in years, filled with family and friends, and  time alone to reflect and work and breathe. I am grateful to you all who’ve made this such a beautiful summer and provided the cushion of love and trust and support so that those days when I was low, I always felt the power and strength of your kindness to me and your love for me.

I think of you all as my own “Starbabies”, like those of my daughter that were made twenty years ago by a woman whose name I’ve now forgotten. She used to sell them at the Nehalem Arts and Crafts Fair every August and we were very sad when, one year, wanderlust carried her off to new experiences.

I am grateful to my feet, whom I finally offered some respect and good sense by putting them into a hideous pair of walking shoes to hike the woodland trails.

They took me from Portland to San Gimignano, to Florence and Certaldo, to Paris and  New York and Chicago,  Manzanita and Albuquerque, Elizaville, Seattle, CleEllum, Bend and Ashland.

From NYC’s West Side Highway, in July, with a full moon hanging out over the Car Wash, to a nameless cove of black sand in Western Oregon

my feet carried me, and I am grateful to them for enduring, persevering, doing their part to ensure that my eyes would see new sights, and my ears hear some of the infinite sounds of the universe, and my nose smell everything from the lemony sharpness of Indian Paintbrush

to the honeyed sweetness of a ripe, fuzzy peach, daring me to eat;

bringing my fingers  within reach of tree moss in a rain forest

and my tongue to the creamy coldness of an ice cream sundae, Tuscan style, on the hot Piazza Cisterna in San Gimignano, with my mother at my side, and a growing number of performance artists mimicking tourists, watched by tourists.And today, the crowning joy of meeting my daughter at the airport, a year, two weeks and three days after her last visit home, the squeals of joy, the laughter, the words tumbling every which way, all distance and separation forgotten, picking up where we last left off as though we had never been apart!

And her father’s generosity to me in picking up the tab on the gardener’s bill, unbidden, and inviting me to redo the cottage on the beach, on his penny, so that we might all continue to reunite in that tiny house that wraps itself around us and keeps our memories and good times dry,  safe, and sound.

Some days are magic!

Take a hike


It’s been a while since I took a long hike in the woods. A friend suggested walking from Cove Beach to Short Sands Beach on the Oregon Coast. On the map, it looks like  5, at most 6 miles  but with switchbacks, steep grades, mud holes,   blowdown, and photo stops, it took from 2 pm until 6:30 pm.

It was heavenly yesterday: I had the right shoes for once. A good snack. Water. A faithful dog. No rain. Little wind.

Today was an anticlimax.


Shutting down

When Virginia’s old dog was dying, quietly on the kitchen floor, crows gathered on the roof of the guest cottage and in the branches of the cottonwood. They stretched their necks and teetered on their feet, crouching to coax maximum volume from their lungs. Their cawing was the only sound above the thump of the band in the hay barn half a mile down the road where stakeholders sat watching three women on the dance floor.

On the far side of Virginia’s property line, beyond her sad starved soil, a herd of horses waited to be shipped to the slaughter houses in “Old” Mexico. This is the image that comes to mind when I get off the phone with G. whose questions about my progress on my academic project instantly shut down the flow of creative juices.

I make myself think about the skeins of wool — dead hair from living sheep — I bought because they were so beautiful. They’re telling me: go make something that will keep you warm on a cold day.




Hello, ocean!

I’m back at the ocean! The sand is chewed up and smoothed in new ways. A flock of sandpipers flings itself into the sky in a chaotic shuffle. Commas of seaweed litter the beach and when I step on them, the bladders burst with a  juicy “pop.”

Jellyfish buttons sparkle underfoot. It’s jellyfish time again!

The dog runs frenetic circles. I exhale deeply to make room for ocean air, which rushes into my lungs like water into an empty jug. My ears drink in the murmur of the waves.

A good night’s sleep and I’m back to my old self: aches gone, ready to tell the ocean, the sand, the sky, the trees: I’m ready! Ready for the best love of my life!

Senile walking


Now that I’m diagnosed with “severe arthritis of the lumbar spine” I’m learning why the aged move the way they do. For three months my body , like Caesar’s Gaul, has been divided into three parts: the left ankle; the right wrist; and the right lumbar spine. Each one of these parts has proclaimed its revolt against the regime of the peaceful co-existence and cooperation of bodily parts. The ankle claims to be frail and wants to be spared any bearing of weight. The wrist clamors for a holiday from lifting and typing. The back resists long walks, climbing stairs, and picking up the things that the feckless right hand insists on dropping. Getting out of bed in the morning involves a tripartite negotiation with time out for assessing where precisely the weight should be placed as my body sidles to a sitting position. Descending the stairs now sends my left arm out, wing like, while the right claws at the handrail. Picking up a toddler is an iffy proposition. I have to crouch down, distribute my weight like a sumo wrestler, grasp the child, then push with the inside of my thighs to propel my torso upright. Yoga comes in handy as a reference point for the various muscle groups involved in movement. What was unconscious is now conscious. I walk with a graceless jerkiness.

I found myself enjoying a long conversation with an aged neighbor about joints, inflammation, medications, and pain. Surely, I think to myself, this is a sign that I am myself moving into a new phase of life. I study the way he   draws himself up, one vertebra at a time, as he talks to me and with one hand rubs the back of his waist.  In the last year he’s lost about six inches of height. He’s now 86 years old and his spirit is at war with his body. I am beginning to understand how at a certain point of one’s life one no longer identifies with one’s body, as one does in the robust and beautiful bloom of youth. The body becomes an embarrassment, a liability, a joke in poor taste, a betrayal.

All this brings me back to the  problem on which I was mulling yesterday: the relationship between the signifier and the signified, the sign and the essence, the word and the sense. The aged body, it seems to me, stands in an inverse relationship to the spirit it houses. The more defective, decrepit, deformed the physical sign of person, the more refined, polished, nuanced, and beautiful the self within. Aging breeds humility or bitterness, but not the two in tandem.


I’m young enough, I think, to overcome the tripartition of my body. With the proper rest and medication and therapy, I’ll regain my fluidity and strength, until the next attack.

My friend F. suggests that my decrepitude is the spirit’s manifestation of conflict. My chakras are blocked because I am fighting against the direction in which my energy needs to flow. Like that headstrong gelding I rode into the juniper stand last week, I refuse to surrender my loyalty to lost causes. I hold myself hostage to the fear of losing great sex, of missing out on travel to great places, of passing up adventure.

In fearing loss, do I lose?


My daughter’s  one-hundred-year-old grandmother is dying in a small, mid western town two thousand miles west of Warsaw, Poland, where she was born and bred. She spends her days and nights lying in bed in her room, surrounded by dressers piled up with photographic shrines of her parents, her long-since deceased husband, her son, her granddaughter, me, her son’s most recent wife. There are towers of boxes, cardboard and plastic, filled with expensive handbags and scarves and jewelry and mementos from global voyages, both voluntary and pleasurable, and involuntary and calvaristic. The closet door is closed on racks of expensive and elegant clothes, sadly neglected for the last two years. The telephone sits on the bed, next to the three pillows piled up to support her skeletal frame. The night table holds a lamp, a glass of water, a box of tissues, a bell — to be used for summoning “the help” — and the plastic case for the pink upper-jaw dentures. Above her bed are photographs of her granddaughter at various stages of her childhood and adolescence, and of herself at various times: in Salzburg after WW II, as a young mother, as the mother of a grown son. On another wall hang portraits of her parents in their immigrant autumn in Evanston. There are pictures of her husband (“he was so much better looking than my son”), of her father with her infant son, of her son as a schoolboy, his ears sticking out on either side of his face  like a  chimp’s.

She reclines in bed wearing a v-necked nightgown made of soft flannel or silk. Her feet are icy and marbled with veins. Her ankles are spotted with blue and black. Most of the time she sleeps, and when she sleeps, her chest barely rises and falls, so that when I peek into her room to check up on her, I have to tip toe very close to her to see whether or not she is still breathing.


At those times I remember my dying father, who in his sleep, with his mouth hanging slack and open, seemed dead in the hospital, though he was not. He was still wrestling with the titanic work of coming to terms with his life, and his failing memory for the present let him to  focus all his attention on calculating the pluses and minuses of his life. His eyes were fixed on images of the past, and when he woke up to me, he imposed on me whatever person from his past he needed to square accounts. Sometimes I was an old student. Sometimes his grandmother. Sometimes I was myself, his daughter. Sometimes — a stranger. It was the first time ever that I felt the ephemerality of my own identity, as my own father could not keep me fixed in the single biographical rubric into which I was born, by virtue of his own passion and desire.

It’s a disorienting feeling to be “misplaced” by one’s own parent. I remember how filled I was with a sense of pity for the pathos of his own predicament when he came back from Yugoslavia, visiting his mother in a nursing home, and telling me that she did not know he was her son. She called him a”gentleman from America” without putting together the face of her aging son and the “golden apple” of a firstborn she had cherished in her youth.

My daughter’s grandmother has no delusions or illusions about who I am. She is lucid, and her memory remains intact, her ability to connect the face with the history is impeccable. She does not remember whether she had breakfast, or who called half an hour ago, but she remembers who her children are, and whom she distrusts and whom she fears.


She is dying. She takes very little food. I try to distract her with talk so she eats. As long as her mind is occupied with stories, she takes food. As long as she knows that her wisdom and counsel are needed, she eats. She eats when she’s laughing. She eats when she’s intrigued with the next installment of life stories.

I know I’m angry with my father, my mother, my daughter’s grandmother for dying or for being in the process of dying. I’m angry with them, but they — like all of us — have no control over the process. The conveyor belt of life delivers us to death inevitably. At this stage of my life, I still cling to the thought that if only one fights hard enough to stay alive, that if only one is sufficiently stubborn and determined, one can stave off death and aging.

Mostly, I am sad for myself, left at last without my caring and protecting parent. I am faced with the fulfillment of a fear as old my earliest sense of self.

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.”