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.

Too cool to bluff

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I was having one of those if-not-for-Lou-I-wouldn’t-leave-the-house mornings. One of those thank-God-there’s-no-cafeteria-for-me-to-sit-alone-in days. A sort of bad mood/existential crisis hybrid. You know what I mean.

But because my dog is so needy I took him out (I kid, I kid, he’s not the needy one) and it was delightful! The neighborhood is very smiley and friendly today – and now I have that line from Scarlet Begonias in my head – and I had a lovely conversation with a French bulldog owner who said of Louie, “Oh my God – what a fox-monkey he is!” At the bank I ran into a woman who used to live in my building – the stunning, tall, ambiguously European blonde who flirts with my boy friends and spends a lot of time unabashedly naked in the locker room at Chelsea Piers – and we had a really good conversation about the neighborhood, the building, and the aforementioned locker room. I didn’t bring up the full-frontal thing. I came back and bought three barstools from a neighbor who is about to move to Amagansett – which sounds so perfect I couldn’t ask him about it for fear of getting in my car and driving east and never looking back.

And now I’m here.

I’m also in the process — several of us are — of saying goodbye to an old friend who is very close to the end of his earthly days. I have lost a lot of people – close and distant – and that is because I have loved a lot of people. Not in the romantic sense, in the soul sense. In the recognizing another’s intrinsic beauty sense. It sucks. It hurts like hell. But I’d rather be someone who loves too much than someone who doesn’t want to love at all. I think I would – I don’t know because I’ve never not been this way. I had this conversation with my sweet new friend/brunch partner yesterday, that as challenging as it is to be someone who walks around with her heart galloping ten feet in front of her, and who throws herself full force into her friendships and relationships, we would rather know that we’ve shown all of our cards and lived authentically reaching for what we want than build walls and wonder what might have been.

But I digress. Our sweet Phil is leaving us soon. I’ve known this man for 20 years and he is part of some of my strongest and greatest memories in that time. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost.

Thank you for reading this. I mean it.

Where the hot springs flow

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Someone mentioned the Land of the Midnight Sun on the news this morning, and I’ve had Robert Plant wailing in my head all day. I experienced the midnight sun in Norway in August 2007, where sun didn’t set until after 11pm. On more than one occasion this resulted in a frantic scramble to find a place still serving dinner. Norway had never been on my travel radar – not that I was opposed to the idea, but other places had piqued my curiosity more strongly. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to visit; it was strange and beautiful.

Last night in my dream I spoke Russian – one of the 18 or 19 words I know. I said “спасибо” – spasiba – thank you. I speak bits of French in my dreams but this is the first time I spoke what I’d spent decades thinking was my grandfather’s native language. About a year into my autodidactic studies, I learned that Ukrainian was the dominant language in his household when he was a lad. Back to the drawing board.

I leapt outside of my comfort zone yesterday and took an exercise class at this place, thanks to an inspiring and encouraging friend. I prefer my fitness endeavors to occur in the presence of as few people as possible, but we got there early enough that I could sequester myself in a back corner. The first five minutes of this class consisted of “cardio dance” – if you know me in three-dimensions and have ever watched me attempt to walk down a street without tripping, let alone dance, feast on that visual. Still, I got through it and the remaining 45 minutes of limb-by-limb torture and I feel pretty good today. I think I’ll try again next week.

Excellent conversations about writing and the creative process yesterday, about being “surprised” by our characters (as overblown as that just sounded when I reread it) and about how they can get away with saying things that we can’t. I realize that writing in the first person would afford me a lot more freedom of narrative and observation, but it doesn’t make sense for the project I’m working on. There have to be differing points of view.

Today is the birthday of a dear, departed friend, who, to quote Shakespeare, “makes the face of heaven so fine that all the world [is] in love with night.” Happy birthday, sweet one.

Filling up an idle hour

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I’ve been taking melatonin to help me sleep and one of the side effects I’ve been experiencing is unusually vivid dreams. The other night I dreamt that I was very good friends with Brad Pitt – practically best friends. Nothing was going on between us – I swear – we just spent a lot of time together. Movies, dinners, long phone calls, that sort of thing. You know how it goes. There was plenty of speculation – par for the course when a man and a woman are as close as Brad and I. I often have celebrities in my dreams – James Franco showed up last night, with his longtime girlfriend who turned out to be one of the receptionists at the office. Mel Gibson proposed to me once with sapphire earrings on stage in the theater at my high school. This was the kinder, gentler, Mad Max version of him, not the homophobic anti-Semite. 

I had the rare pleasure of walking Lou at 5:00 this morning; he wasn’t feeling well last night so when he woke me extra early I didn’t pretend to still be asleep. It was nice in a glad-I-don’t-do-it-often kind of way. It was quiet, except for the early morning chirping of the birds and rats, and the cop who was washing his van, and the trio of ne’er-do-wells who were smoking on the corner. I expected to go back to sleep but it didn’t happen. So instead I’ve been reading and writing and running errands.

I’m applying to a program that pairs writers with high school girls who want writing mentors — this is similar to a program I was set to volunteer with a few years ago, before my year of surgeries put me out of commission; by the time I resurfaced, the program’s funding had been cut. One of the questions in this application process is “Why do you want to be part of a writing community?” – That’s an easy one to answer. Writing is an incredibly solitary endeavor, so much so that it can feel lonely at times. This is where having a forum like this blahhhhg is invaluable – knowing that I have a built-in readership, that my words, however imperfect, will have an audience, makes a tremendous difference to me. Not everything I write here is profound or well-written, but it’s necessary in cementing my identity as a writer – something that can feel like an empty promise at times. I’ve been published many times in the form of articles and essays, but it’s been a while. So even this relatively small exercise in self-publishing contributes to my feeling of productivity. I don’t get feedback on this forum often but when I do it encourages me to keep going. When I started this last year – just over a year ago, actually – it served a definite purpose of helping me through a challenging stretch of time; I literally wrote myself out of it . And then I reconnected with a friend (hi, L!) who was going through her own challenging time and she told me how much my words helped her to feel understood. So my writing took on a role outside of a self-motivated one, and so I kept going.

I’ve grown my writing community in recent months – my literary Salon, which has been meeting for about 6 years, continues to be a wonderful outlet and source of inspiration. The fact that I’m doing this with my mom is amazing – when we first began meeting I wasn’t sure how open I could be with my mom as one of my readers – but it’s been really cathartic, I think, for both of us. We were seven in the beginning – three maternity leaves later we are now four – and we work very well together. Last Monday I started a second writing group with five women who were part of the online novel-writing workshop I took earlier this year. There are six of us that live in New York(ish – one lives in Jersey City) and we decided to meet in person and it was amazing. A wonderful dynamic – really smart, talented, strong women – I couldn’t have handpicked a better group. We’re going to try for every two weeks. The feedback they’ve given me on my work-in-progress is incredibly insightful. To have a group of people so invested in my story and in my progress is the loveliest antidote to the solitude of writing. 

Now I have to put the insight and inspiration for my novel into writing … I’m going to do an overhaul of my outline to reflect the new changes. 

But first I’m going to go to the gym. I put it in writing, therefore I must do it. 

Going to LA in two weeks for the first time in a while – there I will hike and beach and commune with “nature” and my family. And write. My version of LA affords me a lot of time and space to do so. Looking forward.

 

Here by the sea and and, nothing ever goes as planned

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Some merry prankster has taken to writing the words “Bad Luck Spot” in chalk on the street corners by my house. Thanks, buddy. I’m way too superstitious for that. It’s a bizarre little enclave Lou and I live in; the gas station down the road has been temporarily usurped by an “art” installation – there is a white picket fence around it, a few dozen metal sheep, rams and lambs (are these one and the same? I do not know) grazing on astroturf, and a man in head-to-toe black holding a clipboard. The man is real. Maybe the grass is, too. The farm life is definitely not.

This has been a week of things not-quite-going-as-expected: shifted plans, chance encounters, interesting strangers. Today I escorted a visually impaired man to the Verizon store, where I was headed as well; this is the third or fourth time I’ve had occasion to do this. Once it happened while I was fortunate enough to be visiting Paris, beautiful, magical Paris; a blind woman asked me to escort her out of the metro. As we’ve established, I’m afraid of heights and, much to the dismay of anyone who’s been to an airport or shopping mall with me, terrified of escalators — I much prefer the stairs. This was one of these metro stations with a fifteen-story vertical escalator, and the woman grabbed me and asked for assistance just as I was bypassing it. I couldn’t summon the French for “debilitating, irrational fear of moving stairs,” and so I clung to her for dear life and made petite-talk for the 12-minute ride. It was all at once a good deed and extreme sport.

A friend used to tease me that my greatest fear would be riding an escalator without mascara. Which is ridiculous; I’d be fine with just eyeliner. 

So … I might be published in the New York Times! Yep. In the past couple of days I’ve submitted a question/complaint to the Social Q’s column and a found haiku to Metropolitan Diary. Hey, a byline’s a byline – even if every grandparent-of-a-precocious-child-who-takes-public-transport gets one in the Diary.

I am learning a tremendous amount, this year, about how to live in this world. And, as I’ve said aloud to a couple of people in the past few days, my life has been infused with a lot more color than it used to be – in my decor, my wardrobe, my experiences and relationships. What a difference it makes; I spent April 2011 – April 2012 in a series of casts for a fractured scapula (look it up, too tired to explain); because I was x-rayed regularly my cast was changed regularly, and the day I opted for a fuchsia one instead of the standard bone-white, my mood improved dramatically. You learn a lot about human nature when you spend a year in a cast – particularly how intrusive strangers can be. I can’t imagine seeing someone with a broken bone (or black eye or gaping wound) and asking for an explanation, but an amazing number of people NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!! At first I would explain, in painstaking detail, my official version of events, but I soon learned that if I just said “accident” people would seldom ask me to elaborate. I also learned in that year to type very quickly with one hand (insert obligatory internet porn joke). 

Alright then. I had intended to write about something entirely different, had been thinking about it since this morning, but here by the sea and sand …

Buenas noches a todos. 

 

 

The littlest things that take me there

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In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, the titles of these posts are lyrics from songs I like that may or may not be pertinent to the writing that follows. 

Now then. 

A few months after I graduated from college, the summer before my freshman year of life, I was in a place of great uncertainty. Like most of us, I assume. I had gotten a Bachelor of Arts in the ultra-employable double major of English Lit and French. No, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I’d sort of grown up around show business and had a brief flirtation with moving to LA to work at an agency that had just opened there, but I let that one go. I was living more or less alone in the house I’d grown up in in the suburbs, a house that was an albatross for my parents until it finally sold some years later. I commuted up and down the West Side Highway (I drove!) to a job as a production assistant on a short lived talk show hosted by Dr. Ruth. The show was called “Never Too Late” and each episode featured guests who had changed the courses of their lives well into their adult years. It wasn’t about sex, yet somehow it managed to often be about sex. My job entailed things like reading “People” magazine and tracking down the world’s oldest waterskier, babysitting Al Roker’s daughter in the green room, ironing Rue McClanahan’s skirt – it was a glamour job. It would be over at the end of that summer and then I had no idea what was next. I felt lost between a college I’d never really fit into and a completely uncharted life whose purpose was a mystery to me. 

A childhood friend hosted an annual end-of-August party, and that year I had a long conversation with the host’s college friend, who was (is) deaf, very smart, and excellent at reading lips. We talked about what we were doing now that school had ended and I expressed my fears and uncertainties – they hadn’t yet manifested in the bout of depression that would take hold a few months later. I remember this conversation well. The friend – Josh – told me his philosophies on life, one of which has stayed with me over the decades. He said, “I define good days differently than most people” – this was in part, he said, because he’d had more to overcome than many people he knew. He said, “If I have a good conversation with a friend, it’s a good day. If I get to be outside in the sun, it’s a good day.”

In the spirit of Josh’s wisdom, this has been a good day thus far. I finished a draft of my dark and weird short story. I set up a few work-related meetings. I got a response to a query I put out about a project I’m sort of working on (vague enough?). Louie and I took a walk and ran into an old friend and her 1 1/2-year-old son. I drank coffee and read the paper. I had a good conversation with my sister. I gave directions to a lost tourist (it’s the little things!). I did an important errand, and … I got a library card.

A library card! Remember those?!

I can’t recall the last time I had one, but they still give them out. The little branch of the NYPL on my street, the Muhlenberg branch, has about as many books as I do, but I found some good ones and checked them out FREE and I get to keep them for three weeks. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do this, but I’m in a big reading phase right now so it makes sense. This is one of those things that the interns in my office probably have little to no concept of, like postage stamps, landlines, and albums — record and photo. 

This past weekend I climbed a mountain – to me it’s a mountain, to others it’s a gentle slope – and considering my lifelong fear of heights and of scaling cliff-like things, this is quite an accomplishment. I also went apple-picking, which I’d never done before (I know!). At the end of each calendar year, I make a list of things I did for the first time over the preceding twelve months. A few years ago the list including salsa-dancing in the street and snorkeling in the ocean. This year’s will include the aforementioned, as well as: attending a music festival, visiting Budapest, submitting a book proposal, keeping plants alive for more than a month, and making a quiche. Three more months to add to that list. Three more months of potentially good days. 

The falling leaves drift by my window

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I’m not at all sure how I feel about these posts being broadcast through Facebook as soon as I finish them, but I’m going to give it a little more time. I’m suddenly aware of everyone I might ever have alluded to in this forum in the days that it was word-of-mouth only. I think my record’s pretty clean in that regard, but I suppose time – and people with a lot of time on their hands who read back through these pages – will tell.

I had terrible horrible dreams last night – the kind that made me not want to get out of bed this morning for fear that my dreamlife was reality. Thankfully, this time, it wasn’t.

Tomorrow is October. This is one of my favorite months – one of my 12 favorite. I had this conversation with someone recently, how I’ve never really had FAVORITE anythings. Colors, food, people, music, movies, vacation destinations – I have at least five of each, I think. This might stem from childhood, when Sister and I would feel sorry for whatever inanimate object we didn’t choose if we had to choose something. Exhausting though it may be, it’s made me easier to please than some. And it’s added to my non-competitive streak, which is a good thing much of the time but which also has probably made me more complacent about getting ahead than I might otherwise be. That said, I’ve just finished reading an excellent novel, Fort Starlight, written by Claudia Zuluaga, who was my friend in fourth grade and who I hadn’t seen since, until the magic of the internets reunited us. This book embodies everything I love about fiction – complex, quirky characters, magical realism, a beautifully imperfect resolution, and a little bit of ghostliness. I highly recommend it and am thrilled that it’s given me inspiration to actually delve back into my novel-in-progress, which is in desperate need of a new title. So, thanks Claudia, and I hope that everyone who reads these words will check out your beautiful work.

I am working on my many-th draft of a very short story I began over the summer. I’ve sent a version of it to a couple of friends whose opinions I greatly value, and one of them had this to say:

Oh, fuck.  This is so cool.  I love it.  It’s so quirky, with just enough detail to stop you from making some sort of metaphorical assumption … and full of the longing and acceptance of past and cherished love, and the reverence we attach to those transitional landmarks of our lives.
 
Well done!  
 
What a nice treat it was to get lost in this world, having lunch in my truck as the mud dries on my boots!  Thank you.

Like the compliments I’ve gotten on this blahhhhhgggg, this one is motivation enough to keep writing. I’ve also gotten excellent constructive criticism from a few of my volunteer readers; this is so necessary for any writer, and I credit this thing (blahg) with encouraging me to share more of my work than I usually do. This thing and my wonderful writing group.

The song “Autumn Leaves” brings back a visceral memory of dancing with my friend Babette in her kitchen in San Francisco, singing Edith Piaf and waiting for dinner to be ready.

Getting out of the city, as I did this past weekend, is an excellent way to view the changing seasons. One might just as easily ignore them in the confines of this town – especially during an Indian Summer like this one.

Time to answer emails and schedule Important Things for this week. Happy autumn, all.

When mountains crumble to the sea

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One of those internets thingies is making the rounds today – a scientific study on happiness, which purports to reveal the one tiny secret we all need to know. As I tend to do with these things I saw just enough to get to the punchline (have I mentioned that I figured out the twist in The Sixth Sense fairly early in the film?), and that is that feeling gratitude augments our happiness. Now then. “Happy”, as I’ve said before, is a fleeting concept. Content, tranquil, has better days than not – that’s, I believe, what people mean by “happy”. The gratitude part makes sense. What’s challenging is this – when I’m feeling blue (give me the beat, boy), I can appreciate and be aware of my gratitude, but I have a hard time gauging the degree to which I actually feel it. 

Overthink things? Never.

I’m grateful for many things and, much more importantly, many people. Like the vast majority of you – you know who you are. The people who see me and try their best to understand me and accept me despite my many flaws and missteps. Not feeling sorry for myself – we all have flaws and we all misstep.

I’m grateful that I can recognize beauty in the obvious and also in places where others may not, and that, as much as I might fight it at times, I am, at heart, an optimist. 

I’m grateful for past experiences and for getting through the dark times; this means I’ll likely get through them again. And my dark times have infused me with more love and compassion than I can handle.

I’m grateful for words and for language and for this forum.

I’m grateful for Louie. And I’m grateful for me. 

We can work it out and get it straight or say goodnight

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Some things have happened around me lately that serve as poignant reminders that we never know what others might be going through, that we can never assume others have it all together and think as highly of themselves as we perceive them to be. That good fortune is not so much about material comfort as it is about internal strength, and that success means something entirely different to every single one of us. We tend to get so wrapped up in our own heads that we believe our beliefs before they’re fully formed. We convince ourselves that this one’s a this-person and that one’s a that-person and he/she/it has more this/that/the-other-thing than we do and therefore they’re winning or at least they have a higher score than we do. Someone said to me, someone who reads this, “I didn’t know that people like you get depressed”. Someone said to me today, “If I can’t feel good, at least I can look good.” We assume all sorts of things about others based on who we think they are and in so doing, we lose the opportunity to see them as they want to be seen. Pain knows no boundaries, doesn’t care about physical traits or higher education or income bracket, upbringing, race, creed, religion, doesn’t care how popular you are or how clear your skin is or how easily working out is for you. It doesn’t care that so many people love you and you have so much to offer or you’re funny or honest or hardworking or talented. It finds the cracks and it seeps through and if we’re not prepared, inured to its power to wreak havoc on life, we can very easily give in to it.

Be kind to each other. Know that we all have something we wish were different. We’ve all had our hearts smashed and our spirits broken and our dreams ridiculed. We’re all in this together. Love as much as your heart will let you, whatever that means for you. Love, in all its many forms, is actually all that there is.