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Posts from the ‘navigating life’ Category

Earthquake


Another earthquake ripped through  Emilia Romagna. So many are homeless, terrified, injured, bereft. Many have died, broken and suffocated by buildings collapsing on them. May they find peace. The Earth is on the move. And as it moves, it is shaking us off, one community at a time.

From the hills tonight resounds the descant of dogs. One intones, the kennel in the valley counters in a higher pitch, back and forth, back and forth, sending cryptic messages into the night. The June moon fills out behind a veil of clouds. The  bellies of Botticelli’s Venus, Primavera, Madonna, and Judith swell.

Cloaks and veils billow, describing odd “M” shaped folds, curls, loops, and puzzling me with the secret messages of their sartorial calligraphy. What, if anything, did he, Sandro Botticelli mean by them?Surely an artist who troubled himself to depict 190 species of plants in a single painting, did not leave the architecture of folds completely up to whimsy!

On the drive back, there was a battering of recriminations for holding up the return by “luring” my sister into various shops and insisting on side trips. Responsibility for the delay in returning is being heaped squarely on my shoulders. Attempted engagement in professional plans of sister leads to more rebuffs, negative qualifiers, dismissive self-diagnoses, all of which finally pushes the tears out of my eyes.

Only hours later, when both mother and sister are asleep, the dishes put away, the fireflies basting their loose stitches of light in the night sky‚ does the dam finally collapse and the sorrow and grief held back so long, pressing — all along — against the inside of the spine… that dam breaks. Sorrow, unhampered, for the disappointments, humiliations, failures, and mistakes.

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Fireflies


 

My  mother calls the four umbrellas that mark the perimeter of the pool – “the monks.” In fact, when they are closed and belted, they look exactly like tall, thin monks in hooded habits, facing east across the rolling hills. Instead of going to mass in the Duomo, I spent the morning “summering” the garden. I hauled out the lounge chair mattresses, the dozens of cushions, rolled the towels and put them in the large straw basket, folded lap robes and arranged the napping chaises for my mother and sister. Each of the umbrellas got a thorough shakedown to exile any insects that might have taken up residence since last fall.   There were only a few  dessicated corpses of wasps and spiders, nothing capable of producing terror. But the last umbrella had a surprise tucked away in one of the folds. When I gave it a shake, a small furry knob dropped out and,  landing on the pebbles poolside, spread silken wings for a split second.  I knew instantly that this was the same little bat — the flying mouse — that I had surprised last year at this time in the garden. It was just the same shade of walnut brown with a sheen to its short thick fur and a patent leather effect on its limbs. I picked it up with a paper towel and carefully carried it to the  cypress whose  trunk forks high enough above ground to keep the bat out of trouble. I gently laid the bat in the crotch. It hesitated for a moment, long enough to get its bearings and, I suspect, to rouse itself from deep sleep. Then it stretched out forearms, from which the wings unfold, and started hauling itself up the bark, one hand at a time,  grabbing the rough texture of the tree with finely articulated claws. Amazing how much it looked like a little human in a fur “chubby” with patent leather gloves and tight breeches!

One more swallow came into the world! I found the halves of a tiny egg beneath one of the seven nests under the eaves above the terrace. Last week’s courting couple finished its new nest – a McMansion sized construction of clay and twigs that makes the others look shabby by comparison.

The hoopie is back in the garden, utterly oblivious of the dogs and of me circling the magnificent roses with a squirt bottle of soapy water to forestall the onslaught of white flies. Such glorious roses this May: fat, petticoated blossoms in pink and white and yellow and orange and red, releasing waves of perfume to compete with the orange I’ve stationed at the foot of the stairs going up to my apartment so that coming and going I get a nosefull of pleasure! I recognize the hoopie by his arrogant strut, all about his handsome carriage and his elegant suit of feathers. Welcome back, hoopie!

And, once again, I have to eat my words. “No, there are no fireflies. It’s too early for them. The nights are still too cold.” “She’s right,” chimes in my mother.” We won’t see them for another two weeks, at least.” But we are both wrong and my sister’s right, darn it: the night sky is full of their dotted dashing and pulsing their desparate mating signals, and once again I have trouble telling where the earth ends and the star studded sky begins. Fireflies: fugitive photons on the make!

On our afternoon walk, we find ample evidence of boars in Maurizio’s and Giovanni’s vineyard. Large patches of grass dug up into deep trenches, surrounded by deep footprints and, here and there, a tidy construction of scat. My mother navigates boldly with her cane, ecstatic over the wind riffling the hills of wheat and wild oats and the meadows choked with poppies and daisies, artichokes and wild fennel, sweet pea, alfalfa, safflower, clover and dozens of plant species, each greedily snapping up photons in its particular chromatic window.

Night is an odd experience. I sleep in the room across the hall from my mother’s, keeping our doors open so that I can keep an ear out for what is going on with her. I hate it when the leg cramps come on and she moans in pain and I go to her to massage a special cream into her legs. I listen carefully when, two or three times in the course of a night, she struggles to sit up in bed and turns on the light and shuffles to the bathroom, and then wait anxiously, along with her  dog, until she comes back to bed, and her breathing returns to the slow, sonorous pace of deep sleep. I hear her moan in her sleep, and the dog bark in irritation as she turns. I am put back in mind to the months of my daughter’s infancy when I learned to sleep while awake, in that peculiarly oxymoronic form of sleep familiar to the mothers of young children and of teenagers.

The cuckoo’s call. The robin’s chatter. Turtle dove warbling. So much avian music in the air, and now, at night, a timid trill from the nightingale.

Today I cooked polenta with bolognese sauce, zucchini trifolatti, macedonia di frutta over datti di dama…

And I still puzzle about a friend’s remark, in response to my recent posts about my freshest strategies for dealing with my ex’s treatment of me, that I am “winning the war.” I hadn’t realized it was about “winning” or even that this is a “war.” And it’s neither, in fact, because it’s really not at all about one or the other of us “winning” and the other “losing,” since each of us does both. Nor is what goes on between us anything remotely resembling a war. Rather, it is one round after other of tedious negotiations carried on in the interest of eventual harmony and serenity.

It just keeps going


 

I’ve been having a rough ride here in my “exile”  and I’ve been unpleasant to be around. It’s tougher to be unhappy in the midst of one’s family than in the midst of strangers or friends. I think that’s because familiars assume they know you and are made anxious by one’s misery and so try to fix it and put it into familiar categories, and so don’t always manage to be helpful. I’ve been aware of the depth of my disappointment with Gideon’s visit, and also the height of my expectations and dreams: that he would be welcoming and appreciative of the work and time and money I’ve put into the house; that he would recognize my virtues; that he would honor and respect my mother and sister and make an effort to mend the rifts rather than to exacerbate them. But power is key to him, and he likes to fling it by emphasizing his “hyper generosity” (his words), his wealth, and calling attention to the many ways in which I let him down, flake out, and in general fail to meet his agenda. I had hoped , and now I accept the fact that I need to put that hope away, and focus on generating a new vision for the future, a new game plan.

I’ve packed up my hope chest and sent it out into the universe. My heart is cranked open a crack to let in the possibility of a great big new love, the love of the kind of man I’ve dreamed about all my life. Think of me as the  nun shopping for a hunk of testosteronal prowess  in a market of stuffed toys.

I feel very weak and easily agitated and irritated.
I find fault with my sister and with my mother and when I do manage to catch myself, I  force myself to face the fact that what I dislike in them is what I dislike in myself: the distractibility, pettiness, fearfulness. Family is a big refracting mirror, isn’t it?

power moves


Now that I’ve moved most of the Cymbalta out of my system, I am feeling the “pricks and arrows” of everyday life with an acuity that the drug  dulled and suppressed all these years. Feelings overwhelm me as they surge in from all sides, and I have to stand still, figuratively, to get my footing. Each time a wave of fear sweeps over me, I make myself stop and ask: what am I feeling? What just happened to connect to that feeling? What am I learning? What is my gut telling me?


This is a new routine for me.


What am I learning?

That my ex makes  power moves, and that I react by countering. I’ve tried to uncouple the reflexive mechanism that I’ve used all these years when I  address  his accusations and diagnoses with explanations, excuses, and accusations. Now I am trying out the Chinese martial arts technique of yielding to the energy flow of his blow and letting it spend itself harmlessly. I don’t know what the emotional and verbal equivalent of Kung Fu might be, or even if I have the right discipline in mind. So far what I’ve hit upon as a strategy is to thank him for his insights, admit to my shortcomings, and apologize for the distress they introduce into his life. The more I do this, the more sincere my remorse. I hope this is not just a passive aggressive move on my part. I am sick of being caught in the perpetual motion of punch/ counterpunch.

The lesson of Tuscan mud: she who walks in wet clay gets stuck.

Picking up the pieces


Picking up the pieces in more ways than one. I’m in Fonte de’Medici, one of the agriturismo enclaves owned by the Antinori family, this one in Chianti. Perhaps this used to be a hamlet clustered around the church of Santa Maria Macerata, that dates back to 981 AD,  the earliest record of its existence.

It is sealed shut, and teases me with the mysteries of its ancient interior. I imagine there are shreds of frescoes, ancient dust, the smell of stale incense, mouse droppings, and festoons of spider threads that shimmer in the late afternoon sun slicing through the single window.

What should be a serene interlude of family togetherness is turning out to be massively irritating, and I have no meds to help me smooth out the rough edges of my nerves. My mother and sister arrived for a holiday that had been in the works for months. My ex had agreed with me on the timing of their visit and set aside the house for us. Then, some six weeks ago, he announced that he and his wife would be coming on the day before my family was expected and would spend a week in residence. I hunted for a suitable retreat and located a beautiful  retreat, which has turned out to be perfect (though I AM sleeping on the couch because my mother’s dog doesn’t tolerate the presence of my dog in the large bedroom I had planned on sharing with my mom and growls and barks each time I stir). Sleeping in my sister’s bedroom is out of the question because my reading myself to sleep is unacceptable to her and the tropical temperature at which she likes to keep the room does not suit me. That leaves the couch and, as we all know, couches are not always good on one’s spine, etc etc.

I nap on one of the two terraces of our farmhouse, listening to the low key rooster and his harem of silken hens in an exquisite coop down the grassy slope.

I worked myself up to a state in the days leading up to my ex’s arrival, getting the grounds and the house in superb shape. With Michaele, my brilliant gardener, we did a bang up job on the grounds. He calms me down, just like my poodle Dylan. I trust him and I feel safe with him.

My girlfriend offered me a night’s shelter , and a splendid dinner, so I wouldn’t have to have the aggravation of sharing the house with the ex’s wife, a rather harmless but silly woman who gets on my nerves because my ex takes such heroic measures to protect her and to elevate her on all sorts of pedestals on which, had she to rely on her own resources, she would never be able to keep her footing.

Gitte, my friend, and I  polished off a bottle of champagne unpacking the sealed bundles of our family concerns and relationship regrets.

Our six dogs marked the shifting strata of our moods by finding new combinations and configurations on the couches and floors. I am grateful to her for the friendship, the tact, and the affirmation. Odd, how I am not finding it with either my mother or sister, the former because she identifies too closely with my soul and is always brimming with indignation and pity; the latter because she offers moral judgment instead of pragmatic problem solving. At this stage of my life, I crave navigational charts and tools for building the soul house of my present and future — not the laments and outrage of a  Greek chorus or the stern verdicts of the Furies.

Relations between my ex and myself have been deteriorating royally since his mother’s death. He does not admit the possibility that Dorka’s death might have something to do with the power shifts in his relations with his wife, who, from what I can gather, is now allowing herself to make a bigger and bigger issue out of the fact that he refuses to have any “issue” with her. She did sign a pre-nup to that effect, but evidently it serves her purposes to continue agitating for a child and he in consequence has put strict censorship rules in place on what subjects I may or may not bring up in my emails to him (nothing about our joint parenting, for example, since that aggravates the tension over the lack of their progeny). I have been told not to  call or email.

I accept my ex and his wife as two of the more challenging members of the coterie of  my current Zen masters.Others in that group include my sister, who is trying my patience with her reflexive use of abusive, demeaning, and bullying verbs and adjectives to characterize my behavior. I have to continually rein her in on that habit. I know she loves me and would do anything for me, except treat me respectfully.

The “man in my life” is another ZM, but I have very little contact with him these days as he embraces his single life with “quality women.” He is preparing a double exit strategy: either totally out of my life, or back into my life, depending — I suspect in my needlessly and self-indulgently paranoid and refusing-to-let-go way — on his ability to make a living. I am definitely heading into the dark, angry zone of my soul, and I don’t want to go there. I want to be back in the radiant flow into which I worked so hard to swim. I suspect that what I need to do is return to my work, my writing, my drawing, my planning for teaching. I need to grab  hold of the reins of my own horse.

A dull way, today, to pick up the pieces of my writing and to reflect on the jagged ends of a long history with the father of my child, who continues to tear at my soul.

ruin


 

Maybe because my body’s on the verge of turning into one, I’ve developed a fresh interest in ruins. After ten years of walking these hills, I find an abandoned road on the far side of the olive grove just up the hill from my house.   I follow the faint ruts through an oak copse, my boots crunching the acorns underfoot. Some broken branches lie across my path, but otherwise, the going is smooth.  There’s a touch of the sinister about the dark shadows beneath the heavy branches. Up ahead, where the thicket thins to a rash of broom, a deer is grazing. A pair of pheasants clatter up from the brush, startled by my curious poodle. And then, suddenly, around the bend, there it is: a sort of clearing, filled with a brilliant light, and the creamy yellow and warm sienna of old walls.

Up from my childhood floats the delicious feeling of entering a hidden, secret space, full of possibilities and promising free rein to the imagination. I can be anything here. I can feel the presence of the life that once flowed through these walls.

Brambles are growing up around the stones and I make my way carefully, carrying the small dog so he won’t snarl in the thorns or pick up burrs.Lizards scurry away into cracks. A  bumblebee roars past my face on is way to the wild primrose poking out of last winter’s layers of leaves.

I think of Dorka, who died two weeks ago and is now two weeks into eternity, and how much I miss those daily calls to her and taking my little insights and experiences to her, and having her listen so attentively to what I have to say, and share her own thoughts, and then cap the conversation with a ripple of jokes and a reassuring verbal hug.

i then follow my thoughts to my daughter’s father who, though kind and generous and respectful to my mother, never allowed himself to develop the sort of close relationship with her that I cultivated with his mother. He does not call her, does not make frequent visits across town to her — or even infrequent visits when actually, it would be so easy for him to do so, and it would mean so much to her to be honored by him and accorded the attention and courtesies the relationship of son-in-law (even son-outside-of-law) to mother-in-law deserves.That neglect of his rankles me still, as much for the slight to my mother as to myself and his daughter.

And never in all these years has he shown my sister’s children — his daughter’s cousins — the consistent generosity and attention that he lavishes on the children of his wife’s sister. Aside from a shared holiday here and there — the Oregon coast, the South of France — nothing. And that pains me as well. I interpret that inattentiveness as a comment on my — and my blood relations’ — value. We are not valuable, not worthy of regard (in both senses:  “being noticed” and “being taken seriously”) .

I thought of none of these things while poking around in the clearing in the oak wood. Then I was busy filling in the possibilities of rebuilding the roof, restoring the beautiful vaulted ceilings, patching the walls, putting glass in the windows, installing plumbing… electricity. The old garden still had some feral survivors: a woody rose, a sprawling prickly pear cactus, a grid of cypress, stone walls…

Perfidy


Pani Maria  took care of my late ex-mother-in-law for two years. I have never in my life met anyone so constitutionally incapable of seeing anything but the bad in every human being, and putting a negative spin on every situation.

Pani Maria badmouthed kind neighbors. For two years she reproached the aged Dorka with bull-headedness for balking at drinking fruit juices because to her they tasted sour. Pani M. claimed that the old lady was just being contrary for the sake of being contrary. I tried to explain to her the meaning of  the saying, “That’s a matter of taste.”  For Pani Maria there is only one taste: her own, and it is absolute.  She discounted in advance the possibility that a furnace repair man could be called and the noisy furnace repaired. She vilified the house manager for failing to repair a leaky faucet. She did not try calling him to arrange for repairs, and when I gave him a call, he jumped to attention immediately, and within the hour all was done. [Notice I say nothing about the failure of the old lady’s official daughter- in-law, the woman she came to call “The Russian Empire”, to exercise initiative and do any of these minor things.]

After I got the furnace repaired and the manager fixed the faucet, Pani Maria took the credit for having gotten the work done. Did I mention that she insinuated daily that the two night caretakers — attractive and kind Polish women — were lazy, dishonest, and could not be trusted to keep their hands off Dorka’s checkbook, which she kept hidden in some cupboard drawer. Her own daughter, Pani Basia, who came four times a week, however, was in fact an angel — a perfect antithesis in every way to her beldam of a mother.

To be fair, Pani Maria did bring decent food for the old lady to eat: stuff she cooked up for her aging Cuban husband [a rich salmon and white fish ‘pate;’ chicken soup littered with  vegetables and meat]. On every visit, I had her drive me to the grocery to stock  the fridge with food I knew from –my  30 years  with Dorka– she would enjoy eating.

Pani Maria’s drive to the mall was always a non-stop monologue, in execrably accented English, delivered in machine-gun bursts of anger, on instances   of her virtue and magnanimousness, her miraculous recoveries from serious illnesses,  her father’s astounding level of education and culture, the criminal behavior of her daughter’s ex-husband, her grandson’s brilliance, the prodigious productivity of her garden, and the family dog’s impeccable comportment.

I listened passively, storing up my energy for the market, where I would have to  override her objections to Nova, schmear, Robiola, tapioca, hamburger, bacon, spinach, cream cheese, chocolate mousse and whipped cream. As each item went into the cart, Pani Maria wailed, “Noooo, dat not goot for her. She not eaddit. she don’t eat nottin’ . I give her soop. She don’t wanna eat it. I make her chicken. She say it sour. Sour sour sour. Everytin’ sour. She don’t wanna eat nottin’.”

I made Dorka zabaglione with chocolate, and she ate that with a passion. Creamed soups. Creamed spinach and squash and potatoes and lovely tender bits of stewed veal, and all of it she ate with gusto.

After spending a few hours with Pani Maria in that airless apartment, I felt shrink-wrapped in ill will, suffocated by her a priori defeatism, nauseated by her toxic  misanthropy.  Nevertheless, before leaving town, I always surprised myself by slipping her  a hundred-dollar tip. It must have been some atavistic impulse to mollify the woman who was in charge of the old lady’s well-being five days a week, 9 – 5 and buy her good will. Insurance against being included in her catalog of slander candidates.

 For all the good it did, I should have kept the money.

On my last visit, in December, the always smoldering fire of resentment against the new wife flared up again. What did it this time was the ubiquitous display of photographs and albums of the new wife — expensively dressed, in expensive resorts, or expensively undressed in Eres bikinis on expensive chartered yachts, showing off her expensively exercised body– along with pictures of various members of her family. My pretext was  the dust that lay thick on everything in the apartment , but especially so in the old lady’s room, which was particularly cluttered with the offensive photographs, framed and unframed, hanging on the walls, leaning on tissue boxes, lamp bases, bon-bon dishes. Photo albums were piled every which way. Large portfolio cases jammed with Dorka’s drawings protruded  from between a Scandinavian teak desk and an indifferent walnut dresser. I dusted. I straightened up the anarchy into orderly  piles. I have no memory of having edited out the displays, but evidently I must have done so, because when her son visited a week later, he telephoned me in a rage demanding to know where I’d hidden pictures of his wife, which Pani Maria had told him I had done.

“The help says you took the pictures and hid them under the bed,” he screamed. “Don’t lie to me.” ” I certainly did not intend to ‘hide’ anything, certainly not under the bed. I was just trying to be helpful.” That reply, of course, just made him madder and he wouldn’t quit until he got an answer that he wanted to hear. He credited Pani Maria’s account over mine, which is rich, considering what a viper she is, but understandable, given that his mom’s life was literally in her hands. [I pass over the time Pani Maria gave Dorka the wrong doses of meds, that made her heart slow way down and her pulse go thready; or the time she hauled her into the bathroom and ripped open the skin on her arm; or the way she had of reducing the number of feedings to breakfast at lunch time, rather than offering small amounts of food every couple of hours so at to avoid the old lady’s recurring belching and hiccups and heart burn.]

At the funeral, as our small group of mourners clustered and  un clustered in expressions of condolence and solace, Bianca bent to hug Pani Maria and thank her for all she’d done. Pani Maria, resplendent in a black cloth coat with a magnificent mink collar, pulled Bianca close and whispered in her ear,”Blood, so much blood! Everywhere blood!” Did the granddaughter need to know that her grandmother’s life force flowed out in the last hours as a unstanchable intestinal hemorrhage?

Pani Maria went on with her rampage of mischief. She stood for a long while with   the new wife and it must have been then that she told her about the mysterious vanishing photographs and laid the blame on me. Two days after the funeral, the bereaved son calls me, in an understandable rage from the rantings of his Russian Empire (or, as she was originally dubbed, “The Siberian Mute”) against me.

I obviously should never have moved around those photographs. My take home lesson: resist the imp of the perverse. Short term satisfaction of resentment leads to long-term ill will. And remember what Nietzsche had to say on the topic!

The passing


 

We were with her:  every breath of the way, and every caesura in the rhythm of her breathing , and every luminous smile our  words summoned from the growing distance between the living and the dead. Her heart was strong: beating for 101 years, through the delirious joys of childhood, petty tussles, flirtations, love, loss, war, loss upon loss, betrayal, disappointment, hopes, yearnings, dreams, pain, anger, vanity, shame, pride. She told her stories over and over again, and I resented her obsessive retelling of the years of flight, labor camps, persecution, homelessness, terror, hunger, cold, shame, loyalty, family. I didn’t understand her need to tell everyone she met what she had seen and felt and heard. She told her stories endlessly, so now I remember them as if they were my own. And only now I know why she told them.

To the rabbi I told her story: a condensed version that could fit into the short drive from the cemetery office to the gravesite, to fill him in on the person behind the name on the coffin we would pick up and carry to the pit dug deep into the prairie on the morning  of March 2, 2012, in the one hundred and first year of her life.

We lined up on each side of her casket, a  honey maple carved in elegant lines with a single Star of David on the lid. One hundred and fifty pounds was the weight we lifted and of those one hundred and fifty pounds, one-third were hers. By the end, which came at 11:30 pm Central Savings time on Friday, March 1, 2012, her body was tiny. Over the months since she had taken to her bed after her sister’s death, we had watched on Skype and in person, shrinking before our eyes.

 

The sky was heavy, slate gray.  Eight pallbearers carried her across the soft turf: the son, nephew, grand-nephew, two attendants, the granddaughter, her mother, and the son’s wife. We matched  strides and followed the funeral director’s subdued commands, and  the sorrow rose up inside me, the grief of parting from this woman who had been my second mother  for thirty years.

We slid her casket onto  the gurney suspended over the pit, and  took our seats beneath the green canopy facing the open grave. We were sixteen: rabbi — grandchild— the son and his wife— the grandchild’s mother  who was  never the wife— a nephew, his wife, their son— three Polish caretakers— one Cuban husband— one Polono-American youth— two gravediggers— and a funeral director. We were all intent on the solemn work we had come to do, absorbed in the finality of the moment. The gravediggers silently stepped forward, swung a pulley into place, and began to  lower the casket. The gears on the winch squeaked. The metal cables held tight and taut. One of the men turned the winch. The other steadied the casket and kept it lined up with the pit.

My daughter took my hand and squeezed it into her father’s hand and we were a family again in grief. With a perfect sense of timing, the rabbi began his story of D’s life, getting most of the facts straight, weaving a tidy texture of motifs, tropes of piety and love, devotion and courage, strength and passion, creativity and humor. The casket sank lower and lower and then the sky ripped open and a tumult of hail descended, drumming on the canvas above us, bouncing off the astro turf beneath our feet, drowning out the rabbi’s voice.

We laughed at the drama of the moment, so perfectly attuned to the temperament of deceased. She did love drama. Aside from that, everything unfolded according to the timeless ritual.  I understood again, as I had when I was burying my father, that the anonymous template of the rite has its deep logic and psychological value. Much as you resent the imposition of a standard formula to the end of a life you’ve known as profoundly unique — and exactly at the moment when you most want to cling to the unrepeatable person who is entering oblivion — still, you recognize the reassurance that comes with the familiar, anonymous words: that what is happening to you and the person you love who is leaving you forever, is right and in the order of things. In a universe of change, only death is unchangeable.

The rabbi  ripped a tear into the son’s coat and produced a small sack of earth from the Holy Land to scatter into the grave. Each of us sprinkled some of the red soil into the pit. Beneath the arbor vitae at the head of the pit I lay a bar of chocolate from Chiapas that I had promised  D…a .The gravediggers lowered a cement cover with a brass plate inscribed with D’s name before each of us went up to signal our acceptance of the finality of her death by throwing shovelfuls of the heavy Midwestern dirt on top of the sealed tomb. This is the most wrenching moment of the burial, the point at which you grasp with your entire being the meaning of the words: “She is gone.”

The dying leave holes in our souls. The words of the Kaddish were in Hebrew, which I don’t understand.  The rabbi’s baritone rasped through the consonants,  moaned the dark vowels and snapped the ictuses of stress.  He dug deep for the  r’s and when he reached “Amen”, he slapped it down in anger and haste.

We ended with “The Lord is my shepherd”. Or maybe we ended with something else, but the 23d Psalm feels like the right place to end the ritual with its hopeful note of consolation and trust that all is at it should be and that one must go on.

What are days for?
Days are where we live.   
They come, they wake us   
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:   
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
That’s Philip Larkin’s 1953 poem “Days.”

Valentine’s Day


The hardest thing to do is to love without wanting to change something about the one we want to love. That goes for the self. I had the thoughts so clearly present twelve minutes ago, when I bolted from the bathroom fresh from reading Updike on short story writing, (or someone writing about short story writing and using it as a pretext to write about Updike). Then my eye fell on the meds I take every morning, and I had to stop to unscrew the bottles and shake the pills the palm of my hand, and pop them in my mouth. As I was doing that I noticed that the bed was still unmade, so I quickly pulled it together into perfection. Repeating the opening line of my current blog (see above), I rushed into the dining room, noticed I still hadn’t had my coffee and cereal, which was getting mushy on the counter. I scooped them up and carried them to the terrace. My computer had to be moved as well, and turned on, and then there’s the waiting for the screen to turn light, the pattern of purple outer space images to materialize, the password to enter, the personalized screen to appear with its familiar lineup of files. Then the airport had to kick in and the bars on the fan turned solid black. While waiting for all this to happen, I opened the “Guests” book I keep here in Cabo and started to write my summary of this visit, as I do every year, and in the process of enumerating the bird species visiting the bougainvillea and blooming yucca on the terrace, realized I was conflating the Scott’s oriole with a black speckled loud mouth of a bird, with a long beak, that I had been taking for the female of the species. That necessitated a quick search, using various points of entry, on the internet, to correctly identify the visitor as a cactus wren. All along, the children at the pool downstairs are shrieking. One hollers at his mom to get him the binoculars so he can see the whales better, and of course, I have to take my eyes off the screen and scan the wrinkled metallic surface of the Pacific for puffs. There are none at the moment.

By now, of course, the computer is fully ready to receive my Valentine’s ruminations, but they have evaporated and scattered like the puffs of exhalations from the bachelor whales, of which I saw nearly one hundred yesterday and the day before, seven miles south of Todos Santos, close to shore, lolling, fanning their big heavy tails, slowly humping their backs before vanishing tracelessly into the chop.

I remember that I was feeling poorly in that glorious stretch of coastline, and was grateful for the Balinese beds, painted Baja sky blue, far back from the steep drop into the surf. Lying on one, the slats overhead breaking the force of the sun, I watched the whales in pods of three through squinted eyes.

At that moment I would have found the proximity of a human being deeply distracting and it was then that I started thinking the thought that made me want to write this morning.

My wisdom is my own. The world has known all this forever, but until I ripen into being ready to receive it, it lies out there like a stone against which I may have stumbled a million times without having noticed it. The hardest thing to do is love without expectations. The hardest thing to get is love without expectations.

“It’s a face only a mother could love -” means: only a mother can love without wanting to change, edit, improve on that face. Not every mother, of course. I know many mothers who are profoundly unaccepting of their children from the moment they are born. They want a child who cries less, who accepts them more, who is not fat, or less fidgety, or more affectionate, obedient, attentive. And that poor child grows up not loving itself because it learned only love with reservations.

I have been beating my head against love for 64 years. My mother’s love is the closest to the perfect love and it is close to perfection that she’s let me glimpse what perfection would look like. I am glad I waited a long time before having my child so I could be more patient, and have suffered enough in life to learn to cherish delight. I fell in love with my child after the first day, after the astonishment, awe, and bewilderment gave way to the relentless need to nurse, diaper, wash, comfort, shelter the growing child and tend to making her feel in every way welcome and at home in a world thrilled to receive her.

Until the last hammering of love, when I took up with “The Man”, it was all about protecting at all costs the image of perfection I had crafted of myself. I needed my lover to agree to worship at the altar of my perfect self-image, especially when my behavior contradicted it, so that his faith would support the fragile shell in times when there was nothing but faith to support it and hold it in place. I was invested in projecting, maintaining, repairing, protecting the fictions of the ideal self, the ideal couple, the ideal family.

What The Man taught me, and I haven’t really mastered these lessons by the way (disclaimer, disclaimer!) is that love means respecting, cherishing, accepting what is given by “nature” , seeing what’s there, hearing what the universe intends for each of its creatures to contribute to the symphony of the whole. Nothing in the way we have structured our lives in the 21st century, in this country, encourages us to do this. I understand the need for rites of passage in traditional societies, when young people are sent off to meditate and confront themselves in conditions of hardship, away from others, to take stock of the constitutions of their souls, evaluate and rank the viability of their skills, to discover their place in the web of life, and return from that self-encounter with a name that signals and reminds them of their path’s direction.

This is why I have the driving need to be alone while I still have the time to search inside me, sift  a lifetime’s experience, weigh the successes and failures, and move with the spirit where it needs me to go. That’s why I crave the love of the other that accepts the currents of my soul fearlessly, and why I look for the truth of myself in the pattern of self-deceptions.

I just asked my 101 year old ex-mother-in-law, over Skype, what is love. “Love is a feeling . One can never describe it.” “What, ” I asked her, “is the hardest thing about love?” “The hardest thing is just to let the feeling be. Not what should be, or what you want it to be, but just let the feeling be.”

This is the sage speaking, buenas palabras.

Seven years


The most important thing for me is to not be overwhelmed. When faced with too many things to do, I am paralyzed. Which one is more important? If I do one, the others don’t get done. How to line them up? Which goes first? Which second?

Right now, this very instant, as I am sitting in my bed at the coast, looking out over the Pacific, which is still and glassy after a week of tremendous turmoil and dotted along the horizon with the yellow lights of fishermen that are as bright as the candle flickering on the chest of drawers in the corner – right that very instant the light overhead flashed on. As I whipped around to see what had turned it on – Dylan getting up to stretch and scratch? My leaning too aggressively into the headboard? – the light went out again. I’ve wriggled my fingers into the narrow space between the headboard and the wall and tried to depress the rheostat and flip the switch. It won’t budge. The light went on. The light went off. I can only conclude, completely irrationally, that this is my father’s way of weighing in on my indecision about what to do first, and what second.

He always quoted Ruskin to me: “Know what you have to do, and do it!” So what I have to do is: taxes (again!); translation; drawing; grant proposals; self-evaluation (work); course proposals. I will work my walks with Dylan into that string, and use my mind’s various levels to brainstorm solutions to problems as they present themselves.

Now Dylan is growling a soft threat, and there’s a creaking downstairs, though the doors are locked. Perhaps it’s the house stretching and settling down to sleep after the sunny day. The fire is still burning in the fireplace. I’m listening for the little sounds and on the alert.

Today, seven years ago, my father died at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, NY, without waiting for me to come and say good-bye to him and wish him well on his long journey and thank him for having brought me into the world, for having taught and guided me and given me constant examples of integrity, courage, responsibility, creativity, diligence, and love. Not to mention: punctuality. I have, God willing (D.v.) many more years of work ahead of me before I can live up to the example he left me.

Even if he caused me great plain and fear throughout our years together, my love for him was constant, and filled with compassion and pity: for the obstacles life continually threw his way that he had to steel himself over and over again to overcome. He was a brave man, with much pain and anguish in his soul. May he rest in peace and look over me.

Did he really send me the “man in my life” seven years ago to guide me on my path since he, my father, left me? If one were to believe in signs, then the signs say: yes. In November of the year he died, I was setting off to visit, for the first time, the “MIML”. It was early morning, on a Friday. Snow was in the air, and the sky pressed down hard against the Portland hills. I stepped outside to put my bag in the car, collect the red poodle, Pika Secunda, who was crouching into a luxurious pee on the sloping sidewalk, when a small grey bird with a pertly upturned tail, hopped toward me and suddenly sprang into the air and flew into my house.

Stunned, I stood indecisive (see opening paragraph, above): what to do? Get the dog? Lock the car? Get the bird? And decided to seize the dog, lock the car, and go in the house. The bird was fluttering around the living room, chirping merrily. It settled on the arm of the couch, tilted its head, and watched me. I stepped lightly to the terrace door and threw it open and walked back to the couch, waving my hands to shoo the bird out. But he had absolutely no interest in leaving. I realized I could spend the entire morning trying to chase the bird out, and anxious to get on the road before the snows began, made up my mind to shelter the bird.

I filled a bowl with cereals (flax-seed and oats and bird seed), and another bowl with water, said a prayer that all would be ok, and left.

Two days later I was back. The bird was waiting for me, sitting on the frame of my father’s portrait on the mantle. He had made that his home. The seeds were nearly all gone. He looked at me with my father’s expression as if to say,” Well done! “ and then hopped over to the door and waited for me to open it, and flew off.

That visitation of the bird I took for a sign that my father approved of the relationship that was then still in the making, from which I would learn so much and come to understand so much about my blind spots and denials.

 

I need my father’s guidance again and I ask for it tonight, eight minutes before the day is done.

The images I’ve interspersed in this remembrance of my father are from the aftermath of the turbulence at sea, when my eye was caught by all the blue that had washed up with the spindrift and the massive waves. The blue flotsam and jetsam matched perfectly the deep, clear blue of the sky.

My father has moved on from this life. My daughter’s mother, at 100, is still alive, still exerting a tremendous psychological power over her son, and through him, over all our lives. She delivers oracular pronouncements in the briefer and briefer intervals of wakefulness. Today, she spoke about “conflicts of interest” and her words reverberated through the conversation I had with her son, though while I was listening to him telling me how his wife would be outraged – and rightly so, he said – about all that he does for me to make my life easier, I had no inkling that he was working out the intense anxiety into which his mother’s comments on “conflicts of interest” had thrown him.

My nerves jangled from his fear of the potential consequences of his good deeds. He is still terrified of his mother’s judgment, even though she is a tiny, weak, frail old creature, fiercely looking out for his well-being and trying to shield him from matrimonial woes. She always asks about the MIML – even though her memory is failing her in other areas of the present. I know why she asks: as long as I’m not married off to another man, in her eyes, I continue to represent a threat to the stability of her son’s marriage. Once, several weeks ago, when he and I and she were on Skype together, and I pointed out what she was doing, she instantly agreed: “She’s right,” she told her son. “Yes.”  Woman to woman, we understand each other and love and respect each other, even as we circle each other warily, competing for influence over her son’s heart.

When I was just an infant, an old man – so my mother tells the story – peered into the baby carriage where I was lying, and spotting the blue vein crossing the bridge of my tiny nose, said, “Tut tut, she’ll be trouble, this one.” I do create a fair amount of trouble around me, I’m afraid. I make some women nervous, and I don’t seem to be able to give to any man I’ve loved and love, the most fundamental gift one human being can give to another: peace of mind, security and soul commitment.

Is this peculiar to me? Do other women succeed in giving this to the men they love? I look at a number of my women friends and acquaintances who have long, stable marriages and wonder what it is that they know that I don’t know. How do they manage to find their way while I make such a hash of it? Sometimes I think I’ve loved well and then I wonder why is it that I am alone now, stubbornly trying to reclaim my life. Or… maybe I’m just running away from life’s challenges into solitude?

Sometimes I think that being an immigrant, I have a tin ear for American men. I can’t judge accurately  the character of the men to whom I’m drawn.  My daughter, on the other hand, seems to have a better, sounder sense. Unless I am mistaken – and I hope fervently that I am not — she chose her love carefully, deliberately, and wisely. Time will tell.

I remember how awed I was when I first met her father and he began to court me. I could scarcely believe my good fortune: he was such a perfect match for my background, intelligence, education, aspirations, and looks. It seemed a perfect miracle that somehow in the alien Great Pacific Northwest the two of us, cast adrift here in the same year 1977, would have come together. A year of utter misery preceded that meeting at the end of May 1980 that would fundamentally reshape the course of my life.

The house has settled down for the night. The waves break with a syncopated crash followed by a muted hum. The fragrant candle sputters. The black sky is dotted with stars, and the fishing boats’ lights still mark the line of the horizon.