Years gone by

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I think about 9-11, in some capacity, every day. I still dream about it, but certainly not to the extent that I did those first several months after the fact. That day and the day my friend Laura died nine months later are the two most acutely traumatic experiences of my life. Though the pain and shock are diminished and the sadness muted, neither is ever terribly far from my thoughts.

I remember details of both days in stark relief; I could piece together the events of 9-11 very accurately, as all of my senses were on high alert then and in the weeks and months that followed. The day Laura died was different—the shock phase of that grief process cycled quickly into profound heartache, and though I recall who was around me, the details are foggy. But as to that clear September day the autumn before (technically late-summer … why must I be so damn literal that I can’t let the poetry of “the autumn before” stand without an editorial note?), I recall what I ate, who I spoke with by phone and in-person, tones of voice, snippets of conversation, and so on.

I wasn’t sure I was going to write an anniversary post this year, but it’s become one of the few rituals since I began this blog in 2013. So here we are. I wasn’t sure I was going to write because at this point I don’t know what to say. I don’t think anyone wants to hear my version of the sequence of events, or my experiences on that day, because everybody has their 9-11 story. Sure, I was here, so that puts me closer than some, but it really doesn’t matter; we were all here.

With the exception of a relatively tiny handful of people on this earth, 9-11 succeeded in bringing people together across the planet and regardless of race, religion, socio-economic factors, education levels, stations in life, and any of the myriad ways that we divide ourselves. That is the collateral beauty* of that horrible day.

*This phrase, which I recently encountered, is apparently the name of a 2016 film of dubious merit. I like it, though, and am keeping it.

On a macro- global- historical- political- level there is much to be learned from 9-11. On a micro-level, there is this: we actually really, truly only have THIS MINUTE. The old “I could get hit by a bus” maxim has been upgraded to “I could get hit by a plane,” but the point is the same … this is all we have. We can not count on “some day.” There is no “I will get it together once _____” or “I just need ____ before I ____.” That is bullshit. That is not being kind to the you who is here today. What an existential shame it would be to deny today’s you her/his full potential because you were waiting for tomorrow’s you to show up.

I could go on and on and on and on about the importance of living life now and loving yourself always and being in the moment and believing and learning and caring but I am so tired of having to convince so many of the people in my life to live their lives that I am going to give myself the rest of the night off. I’ll be back to it soon enough.

May whomever is in charge of these things bless those we lost on 9-11 and those who remain.

Love yourselves. You know you deserve it.

 

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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.

It’s been a long time without you, my friend

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Somebody asked me what I usually do on 9-11, and while I don’t really have any rituals, writing here has become a tradition of sorts. It helps me. It’s therapeutic and it’s important.

I believe that 9-11 enters my mind in some way most days—certainly more often than not. And while the visceral memories fade during the year, on the anniversary they return.

I remember so vividly that I could re-enact my experiences on that day in stunning detail. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember what I was doing, who I spoke with, what I saw, what I ate. I can picture myself in my little apartment on Charles Street, blowdrying my hair and watching the news. I’d turned it on just after the first plane hit. I remember the anchorman’s tone when the second one came, when we could no longer pretend it was an accident.

I remember the phone calls, first to my mom and then to my ex. Nothing registered – at least not the loss of life at that moment, nor the implications for the rest of mine. I think on some cellular level we all knew that nothing would ever be the same, that life would be divided into pre- and post- , but I’m not sure most of us could have understood  just how intractable the change would be.

It was a perfect day. It was sunny and crisp and blueskyed, where the night before had seen torrential downpours. The night before we’d attended a benefit party for Women in Need and then darted from awning to awning to have burgers at the Cedar Tavern.

I remember standing on 6th Avenue in a stunned crowd of people watching the towers burn. Wondering, briefly, if I should go back for my camera and deciding not to. Ron, the homeless man I knew in my neighborhood, called out to me as I crossed 10th Street. “Laura! They hit us!” I spoke with him briefly and told him to stay safe, not yet understanding that that was impossible.

I got on the subway and most people knew. Got off in mid-town and learned that the towers had fallen. Loss of life was beginning to register, but certainly not to the extent that it would.

My coworkers, gathered around a live news feed, one in tears because her husband had gone to the buildings for a meeting that morning. He would walk in hours later, stunned and alive.

The rumors about the planes heading to Los Angeles and Chicago, learning about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Phone calls coming in from friends and family all over the country. Emails from people abroad.

Erika and I walked to my parents’ place, where my mom made us lunch (tuna salad on toast and potato chips) and from their windows we could see the smoke and chaos consuming lower Manhattan.

Walking, more walking, visiting with my dad, heading west and meeting Michel, then going down to my apartment. We went to Gus’s for dinner that night, ate Greek food because that was our plan and what else could we do? The couple behind us, an older couple, sounded as though they were on a very early date.

We went to a bar after to meet up with friends, including one who had yet to hear from her mother. She would learn, at some point, that her mother had stayed home from her job in one of the towers.

The Missing posters all over my neighborhood, the trickling in of information about so-and-so’s friend or family member who had died. The smell, that acrid smell of death and chemicals that clung to the air for months afterward.

I’m not sure which day I found out about Jonathan, but I think it might have been two days later. I hadn’t seen him in a bit, hadn’t known he’d changed jobs, hadn’t even heard of Cantor Fitzgerald until it was demolished.

That Friday a group of us volunteered at the site, feeding the rescue workers. We wore hard hats and goggles. The piles of steel were still burning. The heat was palpable.

The next day I went up to the country, travelled up with Phil; he had a house not far from my parents’. My dad picked us up and I spent the weekend with them. I remember taking a walk down their road and fearing snipers hiding in the woods. I remember seeing the biggest f-ing caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

How many times did I watch the planes hit and the buildings fall? It was unavoidable and yet I didn’t resent the coverage. I needed to see it, it was part of the process. My process.

The dreams continued for months. Dreams of buildings exploding and airplanes falling from the sky.

I remember the Portraits of Grief. I saved Jonathan’s and one day, months or maybe years later, I reread it, turned it over and saw the Portrait of someone else I’d once known.

In a very weird way, and please hear me out on this, I miss the aftermath of 9-11. I miss the closeness and kindness and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. I miss the burying of hatchets and the overlooking of petty differences. I miss the tacit empathy and comfort we provided one another. The feelings of pride in my city, of gratitude for what we were able to do together. The checking up on one another. The collective therapy.

I don’t miss the flyers that stayed up for far too long, and I don’t miss the smell, and I don’t miss the frantic barking of dogs.

I don’t know what I will do tomorrow, I’ve started my 9-11 ritual early this year. I will think about Jonathan and I will think about others and I will probably watch some of the reading of the names. I will try to be a very good person tomorrow.

I will wish that we would all be kinder to one another, that we could all have compassion and celebrate our differences, that we would always remember to tell people we love that we love them, and that we would never take another day for granted.

I think I post this every year, too, because I think it’s beautiful, a snippet of a poem by my supremely talented friend:

In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

Neil Thomas, September 2001

I may write again tomorrow. Then again, I may not.

 

Don’t believe the hype

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I’m back, and fully recovered from last weekend’s conference. Thank you to everyone who’s asked me about it and expressed interest in hearing more; I will not bore the rest of you with the details.

I left there feeling as though I had to completely reinvent my book, from the year it takes place (1999) to the structure to the plot, in an effort to make it more commercial (e.g. sellable). The fabulous Ginger talked me down off that ledge, as I knew she would.

She reminded me that this was my first time really going out into the world as a Writer, my first conference, and the one that happens to be the biggest, most overwhelming, and most commercial. She told me not to get bogged down in parsing all 0f the conflicting advice that I received, or to weigh the feedback of each of the agents I pitched with equal importance.

“The way to not survive the writing process is to listen to everyone else,” she said.

How liberating. (That, and I needed a tie-in for the photo above.)

So, the aspect of this conference I was most anxious about—actually, the only aspect I was remotely anxious about—was the “Agent Pitch Slam”. This was speed dating with literary agents, only unlike real speed-dating (what the hell did I just type?!), we had decent information about the people we were meeting well in advance. A few of the agents I met expressed interest in my project and asked me to send them pages when the thing is ready.

One of them asked me why my book takes place in 1999, and for that I have an answer—unlike “What are the stakes in this novel?” for which I have about 12.

I’ve set it in 1999 because I want it to pre-date 9/11, but for 9/11 to be looming. I wrote the book’s first sentence (or a variation of it, anyway) in 2006, and at the time, it felt inauthentic to set any book—let alone a ghost story—in downtown New York without 9/11 somehow informing the plot. When I picked it back up years later, that day was not as fresh in our collective conscience. But it still felt like the right year for it to take place.

The other reason: I did not want technology to be as ubiquitous as it is today. I got my first cellphone in December of ’99—I was late to the game, but not the latest. In 1999 we still wondered about things. We didn’t have an electronic dossier on everyone in the world at our fingertips. My protagonist, Josie, couldn’t just Google the guy she was dating and find out the truth about him. She could have Ask(ed) Jeeves, but he wouldn’t have known much, either.

Another agent asked me why, if Josie is so frustrated with her restaurant job, she doesn’t “just quit”.

Anyone who’s ever had a job they didn’t love want to field that one?

I read fiction today for the first time in a while. I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction but it’s been hard to read novels while attempting to write one. We went to the beach today—my first time all summer—and I brought and read Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays. It’s a tight and fairly short novel, recommended by the aforementioned wonderful Ginger—and wow, I want to take a master class with Joan Didion. Before this I’d only read her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I was drawn to out of title-envy. Now I want to read everything she’s written.

I’m going to my second writing conference in October in Richmond, Virginia. If you know anyone down there, please let me know. I’ll have a couple nights to myself and will be researching great restaurants to take myself to; I’d love recommendations.

Thanks for reading, friends. Until soon.

 

 

Daddy never sleeps at ni-ight

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This title is, of course, from The Who’s “Squeeze Box,” but in my case, it happens to be true. Among the many wonderful things I’ve inherited from my dad is a proclivity for insomnia. I’ve also inherited a sense of humor that can err on the side of crass, an inherent friendliness, a love of duck (sorry vegans), a sentimental streak—as evidenced by the mounds of memorabilia I sorted through over the past several weeks—a talent for singing  both enthusiastically and free from the constraints of proper tune or lyrics, and much, much more.

I love you, d!

(mima, please let him know he got a “shout-out”, as he’d say)

I have the great fortune of seeing my dad on a regular basis. The photo above is from Bash Bish Falls, which I first visited many years ago when he took me (us?) hiking there.

I wish all of the fathers reading this a very happy Father’s Day.

Today I’m also reminded that I have many friends and cousins who’ve lost their dads, some many years ago and some quite recently. I imagine this day is incredibly difficult whether or not you celebrated it much growing up . The whole world  (the corporate one, anyway) just assumes you have a father—and that you have a good relationship with him. News programs devote entire segments to what to get dad for Father’s Day. Chalkboards outside restaurants invite you to bring  him in for brunch or dinner. Stores create elaborate displays of Father’s Day gifts. Reminders are everywhere.

So to my friends (and cousins) whose dads are no longer with us, I send you love and strength today and every day. If you’re in my life, your dad did a hell of a job. Your mom too, but we’ll talk about her some other time. Unless she (or you) is a single mom; happy day to all the badass women out there going it alone with strength and grace, however imperfect it may be at times. We are all imperfect.

This past week was the 14th anniversary of a very close friend’s passing, my sweet Laura. Though my grief over her is not nearly as raw as it once was, she is never far from my mind. I think about her in some context more days than not.

Such is the bittersweet truth of loving deeply and often. With love comes the risk of loss. Let that not be a deterrent, though, because life is much richer when shared.

 

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.