Until we meet again

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I write this post with a heavy heart. My aunt Debby died on Thursday, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

I’ve known Debby—I called her Tanta—for about twenty years. She and my uncle Charles married in their 60s. We grew close and used to have lunch together on a somewhat regular basis. Gramercy Tavern, the Yale Club, and Sushi Yasuda were our mainstays.

Debby brought to our world a profound sense of the importance of family. Family came first for her in a way that, devoted as I am to my own, I hadn’t really experienced before. She broadened our definition of the word. To Debby, family included everyone in her close circle, blood relative or not, regardless of whether one’s official title had “step-” or “half,” “in-law” or “twice removed” in it.

When you’d talk to her she’d go through the list—asking how you were, and how your partner was, then your dog, and our mutual friends. Anyone you introduced to Debby became a mutual friend. That’s how she operated.

She asked about everyone not to make small talk, but because she genuinely cared.

She was warm and thoughtful, funny and kind, and one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. So devoted was she to my uncle Charles that she, a lifelong Yankees fan, switched to the Mets; in earlier days they’d go to Port Saint Lucie to watch spring training. She was an interior decorator for many years, worked on some of the high-end lounges that were part of NYC nightlife in the ’80s. She loved good food and nice things, her manicure was flawless until the end. She loved lions. She loved having people to her house for the Jewish holidays. And most of all, she loved the people in her life and always had the capacity to welcome more.

As you may know, I believe in some form of an after life. I understand how one might not, but I’ve had experiences too otherwise inexplicable for me not to believe. And that brings me comfort. That helps me through times like these, and I’ve had a fair amount of them.

I will miss you, Tanta. Until we meet again.

Arm-in-arm down Burgundy

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That’s a line from Tom Waits’ “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” … I’m posting this from my writer’s bungalow on Burgundy Street (pronounced burGUNdy). There are so many songs, great ones, written about this town. And so many wind chimes in this neighborhood; that’s the soundtrack to my writing, wind chimes and ceiling fans.

My local breakfast joint (as my dad would say) is in a former bank that was allegedly robbed by Bonnie and Clyde back when Bonnie and Clyde were robbing banks.

I love the history of this town, the good, the bad, the macabre. I lunched at Muriel’s on Jackson Square, which plays a role in my book through the suspension of disbelief that fiction requires; my book is set in 1999 and Muriel’s wasn’t Muriel’s until 2001. I need to get past that … can’t be a perfectionist in fiction. Right? Right.

Muriel’s is haunted. The building was a grand mansion that was partially destroyed in the Good Friday Fire of 1788. After that it was a private residence owned by Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan, who now goes by Antoine. In 1814 Antoine wagered his house in a poker game … and lost. Before he was to move out, he hung himself in one of the upstairs lounges—now Muriel’s séance lounge:

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The restaurant keeps a table set for Antoine and a guest:

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I spoke with bartenders and diners who’ve had experiences here. Glasses hurled across the room, glowing orbs, that cold feeling that shoots up the back of your neck when you are in the presence of a ghost. Disembodied voices.

You feel something when you’re standing at Antoine’s table. And the room where he died is colder than the rest, though that may very well be the restaurant’s doing. If owned a restaurant with a resident ghost, I’d probably make his room a bit colder to toy with the nonbelievers.

I wasn’t sure how traveling alone would be for me … as you know, I don’t like to do many things alone … but this has been wonderful. With the exception of the plans I’ve made with friends here, my agenda has been entirely my own. Traveling this way has also given me the opportunity to talk to people I’d probably not meet otherwise, like the theremin player with the Louisiana Philharmonic who was at the breakfast roundtable I joined on Monday. I resisted the urge to regale him with this gem: I’m thinking of selling my theremin; I haven’t touched it in years. 

Thank you folks, I’ll be here all week.

 

What would you do if I sang out of tune?

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Hi.

As I mentioned the last time I updated this thang, I’ve been in a bit of a rut lately, and a few days ago I made the executive decision to claw my way out of it. In so doing I’ve been reminded of the restorative power of friendship. I’ve reached out to, and spent time with, some of the important people in my life, in person and on the phone, and it’s been therapeutic. It’s allowed me to have optimism and plans and to stay busy. What’s that quote about idle hands? Whatever it is, that. For me, being idle is the easy way out, and in my experience the easiest ways out are almost always temporary salves. So much easier to stay in bed than to face the world, to not try lest I fail, to cancel plans so I don’t have to talk about what’s happening or not happening in my life. I’d been doing that for a stretch and it was not working and by the time I really realized that it was absolutely, positively, time to do things differently.

So I begin a new approach to my life. I’ve done so many a time and they’ve not always taken, though along the way I’ve picked up pieces of wisdom and the right kinds of habits.

I had a writing workshop yesterday for Girls Write Now, the awesome (do we still say that?) mentoring program I work with, and in this one we worked on author bios for ourselves, among other things. The topic of the workshop was online presence for writers; apparently I should be tweeting more. Or at all, really. We were given writing prompts, such as describe yourself in three nouns, then three verbs, then three adjectives, etcetera. Because this would be shared with the group I wasn’t as brutally honest as I might have been  — not that I was DIShonest, but my responses were more user-friendly than raw. I wrote “aspiring polyglot” and in trying to figure out the new WordPress interface so I could update this thing, I noticed that I’ve described myself this way before. Muy interesante, n’est-ce pas? Nyet.

We also wrote down ways other people might describe us; one of my dear friends has described me as an “acerbic marshmallow”. Perhaps that’ll be the name of my next blog.

We then wrote about what we write about and this made me realize that I need to write more, in more forums. I’m writing my novel — and am astonished to report that I hit word 60,000 on Friday. It’s a ghost story, as I’ve probably mentioned, and at present it has no title. It’s set in a restaurant — acerbic marshmallow friend and I bat around fake titles for it, and yesterday I came up with, “Waiter, There’s a Ghost In My Soup!” to which he replied, “Ghost Custards”. (Say that one aloud if you don’t get it; I didn’t). It takes place in New York in the summer of 1999, a decision I made so that I could avoid both the specter of 9-11 and our inextricable bond to technology, particularly so-called smart phones. I got my first cell phone in December of ’99, so for me that summer could still be a time when we had to wait to hear from people, when we still got to wonder and guess, when we weren’t just a few keystrokes away from knowing everything we needed to know about everyone and everything. My writing coach told me about a recent interview with a mystery writer who said that the advent and widespread use of The Google and its friends has made mystery-writing more challenging. Who needs to hire a private detective when we have Instagram?

Because novel-writing is so solitary, and because I’m prone to bouts of loneliness, I have been craving more collaborative projects to supplement my writing habit. So if any of my talented and creative friends — which is all of you — feel like collaborating on something, do get in touch.

I had a lot more I planned to write today but I’ve just spent about twenty minutes wrestling with my WiFi connection so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead.

 

To my colorblind troubadour

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It’s time now, my friend, to acknowledge the thirteenth anniversary of the day your last words were, allegedly, “Oh fuck!” The rest of the mythology of you after the fact is more than I can put into words in this forum.

So, how do I do it this time, Jon? Tonight I realized that you’ve been dead longer than I knew you. But I think we know one another, still. Your parents met my parents this past weekend, at Drew’s wedding. My mom didn’t give great details except to say that your mother spoke kindly of me. I remember the last formal you ceremony I attended – I think it was 2011 because it was a big(ger) deal (anniversary-wise, than usual). I remember your mom said, as we sent balloons into the sky, that she liked to think of you in Hawaii.

Hawaii has come up as a possible upcoming journey friend-and-family wise.I have a feeling, dear, that perhaps I’ll see you there someday.

In one of the final days of Charles Keating’s life one of the boys asked if he was afraid to die. His answer: “Wherever I was before, I’ll be again.”

I recently went through a bunch of boxes that had been in storage in my dad’s office and I found paraphernalia from the early 90s: your roach clip, a – JUST KIDDING THERE WAS NO ROACH CLIP – a couple of photos of you, your then-business card and two handwritten notes you’d sent me. Jay suggested I send copies to your parents’; the card, sure. The rest is actually far more personal and “us” than I think I ever realized existed.

You were so handsome, so imperfectly perfectly handsome. And you were nice to and tolerant of my early-20s friends who probably tacked Hibiscus Margaritas onto your order of Bud. And you made me feel like a smart, kind, interesting and important person.

I remember going to dinner with you at Etats-Unis, which had newly opened, and we had a really good meal.

I remember ordering sushi at your apartment on 70-somethingth street and having you answer my question about what the exact content of meat is as I choked down some eel.

I don’t know what I “own” of this, babe. I know I was way too young to spend the right time with someone like you when we knew each other. But you had an impact on my life that would exist regardless of where you worked that day.

We didn’t have music – we listened to a lot of music – and, of course, you played music, my favorite instrument, actually. I had so many more things on my 23-year-old-brain than what constituted good music. Things you fulfilled, beautifully. Yours were the conversations for which connections exist.

Damn Jon – I wish you’d met Louie! You guys would have gotten each other. I’m grateful he was born 8 months too late to experience 9-11. We’ve been through an awful lot, all being relative, which I know it isn’t.

Sometimes I think you are around, else how would I remain so protected despite my propensity to forget to remember what to do?

The song that makes me think of you is “Santeria” by Sublime. A few years ago I stayed at Sean and Ivy’s – they’d had a holiday party the night before and when Sean, Jay and Dave played, they set a chair for you, for the celestial bass player. The next morning while walking around the kitchen making coffee Sean was singing that song along to the radio – no other reason than that, but I love it.

I have so much more to say to you, my sweet, but I feel like I need to sign off for now and continue to speak to and about you tomorrow.

I love you, my dear friend, and I know you’re in my life.

Better to have loved and lost

IMG_5798Take him and cut him out in little stars and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night. 

–William Shakespeare

We’ve lost some legends in recent days and the one that’s impacted me the most is the great actor — Shakespearean and otherwise — and our dear family friend Charles Keating. If you don’t know the name, Google him and you’ll recognize his beautiful face. Charles has been an integral part of my life since I was 9 and his family moved to the States. He and my mother acted together in the early 60s, and the woman who would become the love of his life, Mary, was their wardrobe girl. We’ve spent the past 33 Thanksgivings together, as well as countless other celebrations and events. As a good friend said the other night, “They broke the mold when they made Charles. And then fired the mold-maker.” He was a poet, a dreamer, a rebel and a rogue. He taught me to memorize my favorite poem:

When you are old and gray and full of sleep, 

And nodding by the fire, take down this book

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

How many loved your moments of glad grace

And loved your beauty with love false or true

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled,

And paced upon the mountains overhead,

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

That’s Yeats. Charles recited it to my mum at her surprise 50th.

A couple of years ago I was going through a difficult transition and Charles and I had a long talk during which he imparted the following advice: Ride the horse in the direction its going.

There is so much I could say about this man. I could write volumes. I can’t imagine a world without him and I’m sad that that world now exists. But I’m blessed and better for having known him and I will take his advice as best I can.

Love you, mate.

 

Listen to the river sing sweet songs

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I have not had this particular type of insomnia in a very long time – I feel ill and wide awake and physically and emotionally exhausted. Not fun, but this too shall pass.

Our friend Phil left us yesterday morning and this makes me very blue. Phil was a wise and wild man, a sweet slip of a thing who could build, fix, or refurbish anything. We enjoyed one another’s company and it had been a couple of summers since I’d seen him – but we have many mutual friends and I knew what was going on with him, health-wise. As such matters do, this has led to a deluge of love and memories and people coming together and all those things that are supposed to ease the crushing blow of grief ever so slightly and leave in its place a bittersweet ache.

I don’t know what more to say about Phil right now – I’ve said a lot in the past 48 hours – and nothing I write here will do justice to this being who was the essence of vitality, an absolutely straight shooter who lived fast and hard and with utter authenticity every moment of every day. There is much to be learned from a person like him. And as these matters also do, as I’ve had the great misfortune to write about a couple of times since I started this thing last spring, I realize in his absence the strong hold he has on a piece of my heart. Through loss we realize our capacity to love.

Damn it.

There are a great many others for whom this is an acute loss, and I always feel self-conscious about “owning” grief when it comes to people I’ve not seen in a while, like Phil, or people I hadn’t spent all that much time with, not like Phil. It is such an intensely personal experience.

The passage of my book I’ve been stuck on for many days (please excuse grammatical and syntactical errors in this post it’s late and I feel like my brain is in aspic) is actually about grief – my goodness I sound maudlin and macabre and something-else-that-begins-with “m”, though I suppose one can’t really write a ghost story without touching upon death. Contrary to how it might seem, I need to think and talk about these things in order to live life more lightly. Talking about it doesn’t make it harder for me, au contraire mon frere, it helps me to release some of the sadness – a pressure valve situation if you will, and really if you’re reading this you have no choice in the matter. I needn’t dwell but I do need to purge. I promise this isn’t all I’m going to talk about, ever. Promise promise promise.

Went to beautiful music on Monday night, to Buckwheat Zydeco at City Winery and WOW do I know what it means to miss New Orleans. I have to get myself back down there soon. One of my main characters is from New Orleans, so perhaps I can justify it as research. Which it would be, in part. In large part actually – wait – what am I talking about?! I HAVE to go down there soon for that very reason. Though the music, food, magic, and dear friends there might play a tiny role in this desire.

Wanderlust. Such an overused word for such a perfect concept. Travel bug doesn’t have the same ring.

I want to keep writing – I feel like I could go on and on and on about many many things – but I should attempt to sleep. Not gonna happen, but I should try.

Friend-I-spoke-with-yesterday, yes, dear girl, I will write about the things we discussed in the very near future I promise. Now hush and start writing, too. You can do it. You have the life experience and we know you’ve plenty of fodder. Start somewhere. I’ll help. Just … make it happen.

Fare you well, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul

Rest, sweet one. Your light is eternal.

You’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly

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Yesterday was the funeral for someone who was once a very dear friend, a brilliant, artistic, successful, strong willed, exotic beauty who was a good friend in high school and then again for a few years in the early – mid 2000s. Unfortunately we had a falling out in 2006; we were both going through transitions in our personal lives and we met up for dinner on a night when we were in entirely different head spaces and there were drinks involved and it spiraled out of control and that’s the last time I saw her.

A few years later we exchanged a brief email; I apologized for my part in things and we agreed to, as they say, let bygones be bygones. I reached out to her this past spring when I was getting ready to host a gathering in honor of the people who’d come to town for my high school reunion; I wanted to let her know that she was absolutely welcome in my home if she had any desire to attend. I didn’t know  then  – in fact, none of us did – that she was sick. A few weeks ago – September 5, actually – I had what I guess was a prescient dream about her. I don’t recall the details, just that it was troubling. I sent her this: “You were in my dream last night. I hope you’re doing well.” I didn’t expect a response, but I certainly didn’t expect that she would be no longer with us less than two weeks later.

This is a very weird grief – at first it was just bewildering, then I felt an uncomfortable detachment that I rarely associate with death – I guess it was due to the fact that so many others are mourning more viscerally. Now that’s gone – Saturday it turned into heartbreak, sadness, confusion, and regret for the way things ended between us. I chose not to go to the services yesterday, not because of any ill will whatsoever; these sorts of things evaporate immediately in the face of death. I chose not to go because I felt that I need to mourn this one in a private way. And I’ve begun doing so. I’ve prayed, I’ve asked for forgiveness (and I know I’ve gotten it), I’ve wept and I’ve done my best to keep to myself on this. I tried to talk to my mum a bit about it but she doesn’t, as we know, like to hear about these things, so I keep it in and talk to myself and the universe and to my departed friend. I had second thoughts about not attending yesterday but I feel in my heart it was the right thing for me to do, to mourn her in private and let those who were more actively connected to her spend time together. I’ve been through these things enough that I know there are no rules as to how or where or when one grieves. It is such an intensely personal thing; I remember when a friend died some years ago and another friend made the active decision to not attend the services. This was confusing but she told me that the services are really hard for her for reasons that have nothing to do with our friend – and that she chose to honor him in her own way. I absolutely get it now.

And so I will choose to do the same with our beautiful Khakasa, who is now in the stars. She was always a star, and she always will be.

Gone from my Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

 Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”

 Gone where?

 Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,

hull and spar as she was when she left my side.

And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

-Henry Van Dyke