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.

You may say I’m a dreamer

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but I’m not the only one…

I know this to be true because of the incredible number of people I’ve connected with in the aftermath of the recent election. I have not been to this page in quite a while—nor, I’m afraid, have I devoted as much time to my novel as I’d intended to—and that’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time with the group I started, Action and Empathy. I don’t think the link will work if you’re not on Facebook, and for this reason and many more we are building an external site that will hopefully accomplish the same goals as the existing page.

I started the page a few days after the election because I, and most of the people in my life, were angry, disappointed, worried, depressed—all the stages of sudden grief in no particular order—and I wanted to create a space that was about action, not just ranting. There was plenty of ranting going on on Social Media, traditional media, and in person. I wanted a space where we could take action against perceived injustices and conflicts of interest and all the rest AND where we could express our empathy by actively supporting the groups that will need it most under this impending administration: women, immigrants, Muslim-Americans, people of color, the LGBTQ community, tax-paying New Yorkers, people on Medicare, the press, and on and on and on.

And I’m thrilled that the small part I am taking in all of this is having any impact at all. What began as a group of about 7 of us has grown to over 900 members, most of whom I don’t know. I’ve gotten letters of appreciation from people I’ve never met and that is enormously validating.

I have been complacent for most of my life, and this time around I had no choice but to change that. In a strange way I feel as though I am finally finding my purpose in life. I know my strengths and talents, but purpose is an entirely different thing. My other purpose, at present, is to finish my novel, and that I will do. Creating this network has taken priority.

This will be a long road and will begin in earnest after January 20. And while it’s been argued that these forms of silent and vocal protests won’t change things, in fact they will. They will prove to the world that not all Americans accept what this administration intends for this country. This will get many of us involved on the smallest, most local levels such that we can change the course of things from the bottom up. We will all pay a lot of attention to the 2018 elections. And we will support one another, we will do everything  we can to maintain the things that make this country beautiful, and those include its ethnic , religious, and cultural diversity. Those include freedoms that are now being directly threatened.

I’ve been accused of co-opting other people’s causes. I am not doing this. I am simply doing my best to do my part, and I mean it when I say that I am learning on the spot. I will make mistakes and I will seek the knowledge of others, as I’ve been doing all along.

Today is Christmas and I am with family and loved ones in Paris. Despite all that this city and country have been through in recent years and despite its current political strife, Paris still offers me the timeless beauty and romance that claimed me the first time I visited.

The Seine still flows, the Eiffel Tower still sparkles at night, the gryphons and gargoyles still guard Notre Dame. The sights and sounds and smells and tastes that I associate with this city remain, and this is very comforting.

Peace on earth is a tall order these days. So instead I will strive for as much inner-peace as I can, and though there will be slip-ups along the way, I will remain on an upward swing. I wish the same for all of you, wherever you are, whatever you celebrate and, whatever ideals you most value.

On the topic of tranquility, which is one of my favorite words, the British philosopher James Allen said,

Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom.

Whatever calmness of mind means for you, I urge you to practice it in the coming year. My goal for the new year is to become stronger and wiser.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, Diwali, Kwanzaa, none of the above, all of the above, I wish you peace and joy.

Until soon, my friends.

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.

 

Where did all the blue skies go

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I started to write a post on the 4th of July and decided not to publish it, didn’t finish it. I couldn’t find the words to express what I was feeling, couldn’t quite figure out how to acknowledge a celebration of our country’s freedom when so much of the world is not free. I don’t usually get political here and it felt inauthentic somehow, though my feelings were 100% sincere.

That was four days ago, and I think had a fair amount to do with a new friend I’ve made, through my cousin – a fellow who lives in Iraq. I reached out to him after the latest spate of suicide bombings in Baghdad and he was, of course, devastated and angry. He asked to see photos of the mountains and woods where I spent the long weekend; he wanted to see beauty and positivity and freedom. He sent me a photo collage of the victims of Sunday’s attacks, and it was a collection of beautiful, young, vibrant faces.

The next day there were attacks in Saudi Arabia. This week two young black men in the US have been killed by police for the “crimes” of selling music and driving with an allegedly busted tail light. Last night, snipers shot and killed five police officers in Dallas and wounded several others.

I do not know how to react to any of this. I am infuriated and saddened and tired of feeling helpless and I don’t know what my recourse is.

I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Donald Trump is not the answer to any of this. Hate begets hate. Intolerance begets intolerance. Ignorance is dangerous and hubris does not a successful leader make. And I do not want to speak his name more than absolutely necessary, so that’s that for now.

I am in New Orleans again, working through the final third of the book. And it is hard to concentrate on what at times seems such a trivial pursuit in light of all that is happening in the world around us. But this is my job, and so I will do it.

Since I was last here about six weeks ago, there have been terrorist attacks in Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Somalia, Israel, Yemen, Pakistan–and that’s just off the top of my not-terribly-informed head. Since I was here, a monster shot and killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

There is so much to grieve in this world. And there is so much to love and admire, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live in places where we are allowed to love and admire who, what, and when we choose to.

I’ve been accused of having a Pollyanna-like outlook on things. I don’t. I’m more realistic than I let on. But there are many people who can speak of the world’s atrocities much more eloquently than I can, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn from these people and their words.

I have long been saddled with a need to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to believe that people are inherently good. I am fortunate to have many good people in my life.

But it’s a scary, uncertain world, and I am aware of this. So if I veer toward light and love in the things I write and post and choose to talk about, do not mistake it for blindness. I can’t fix all the bad, and so I choose to try my best to contribute more good.

Time for coffee and Chapter Ten.

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.

 

I’m only happy when it rains

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Well that’s not entirely true, but there are times that call for torrential downpours and this weekend is one of them. I have a lot of purging to do, literally and figuratively, and a rainy day would allow me to sit in my apartment without feeling guilty that I should be soaking in the waning days of summer (it’s still summer until the 21st and perhaps a bit after if it chooses to remain so), boxing up decades’ worth of books and photos and clothing and mementos whose significance elude me. It will feel really good to do this; it will be a start in the myriad steps I must now take to become the right version of myself, the one I’ve been shirking for 43 years. The one who relies on old pain to justify defensive reactions, on fear of my feelings not being validated to spew them in the most vicious and verbal way that I can in order to be heard. My childhood was a long time ago and it’s time I caught up to that reality.

And so I have begun taking some very important steps – and very scary ones, in some ways – as my dear L says, “learning to take care of ourselves first goes against everything we’re ingrained to believe” – or words to that effect. And she’s right. I’ve been called selfish, I’ve been called irresponsible, I’ve been called worthless – and those are some of the accolades – but the fact of the matter is that I’ve spent an awfully long time putting the needs of others – or what I perceive to be the needs of others – before my own. And so when my efforts to be needed are met with resistance, 43-years worth of frustration and loneliness and the absolute irrefutable “knowledge” that no one will ever really see me as I am or understand me as I want to be understood manifest in a torrent of ugliness that only a time machine could fix.

Mistakes I’ve made, many throughout my life and far too many in recent weeks, and while I do accept full responsibility for my actions, I have limited choices as to how to proceed now. I can apologize – and I do – with every cell of sincerity in my body. I can beat myself up (figuratively) and chastise myself and hate the little girl who rears her ugly head as a grown woman and says and does things she’ll forever regret. I can also breathe, deeply, use some of the breathing exercises a wise woman taught me this week, and I can begin to heal. I can learn from my past regrets and make what may seem like empty promises to never repeat certain behaviors, but until my final day on earth I will not know that I’ll never be “that bad” again. I certainly intend not to be – that is my goal. I can live in the present and pray for the future. I can accept my solitude because assigning fault or blame to it is fruitless; this is where I am today for reasons that are too complex for WordPress.

I can pour my vast stores of emotion into love and tranquility for myself and for anyone who enters my life from here on out. This is what I can do. I can not change the past, I can only embrace the present and strive for a better future. As I’ve said recently, I am pathologically optimistic (and yes, feel free to insert other ways in which you deem me pathological here). This is why I “ignore” signs that shouldn’t be ignored, and this is why I get myself into a terrible state where I ruin days and nights. I’m very, very tired of living this way.

In keeping with the poem I posted the other day, here’s another from Mary Oliver, which I’ve posted before. I know she’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but these words helped me once and they will again; I just have to learn to bear the lessons in mind and to stop sabotaging my life and ignoring the truth. If someone is hellbent on vilifying [you], no amount of repentance, explanation, or love can help. It’s time to move forward, hard as this may be:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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.