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.

 

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 bought a ticket to the world

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On the advice of the wise and wonderful Ginger, I got myself a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine. The first issue arrived and, despite the fact that it looks like it was delivered by bored, rabid ferrets who were building an addition to their nest, it’s exactly what I need right now. It’s all about the beginning … the first sentence, the first chapter, and so on. Since I’m pretty much reinventing the book, I have the opportunity to craft a stellar beginning. I liked my original one, but I absolutely understand why it was bogging this thing down.

In beginning my story on what was once page 129, I have the incredibly challenging task of incorporating back story — which was once, simply, “story” — into my new beginning, and there’s an article on that, too. The main takeaway from this article is that back story needn’t be spelled out as explicitly as one might think; it can be hinted at in the way characters behave in the present, in their motivations, wishes, fears, and so on.

I’ve written before about “killing your darlings” — and in this case, I’ve outright massacred mine. But this does not mean their lives were in vain: I needed to write out 129 pages of ponderous, stagnant back story in order to learn who my characters are and why they are that way.

Now my task is to tie it all together into something that bears vague resemblance to a book. With a plot. And an arc.

What have I gotten myself into?!

In addition to the print version, a subscription to WD includes access to a wealth of content on their website. One of today’s pieces was on fact in fiction, on how, if one is well-versed in a particular topic, and a fiction writer has not done his/her research, it can be hard to accept the rest of the world that he/she has created.

A lot of creative folk had a hard time writing/painting/sculpting/dancing/singing about 9-11. I read a fair amount of contemporary literature in the years after it happened, and it was quite a while before I read a book that referenced it. The first one I did was The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, which came out five years after the fact.

I loved the way she touched on 9-11 … nothing gratuitous, nothing repetitive to those who lived through it. She wrote elegantly of the mood in NY in the hours and days after the planes, and I appreciated the way she handled it.

However … there was one “fact” she ignored, and I hesitate to say that because there is no wrong in fiction. But it struck me then and has stayed with me.

The night of 9-10-01, one of her characters goes on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and sees the lights and the city and I don’t recall what else. Anyone who lived here then will recall that on the night of 9-10 we had a torrential downpour. A deluge, the kind that upends umbrellas and ruins shoes and is enchanting to those of us who love rain, no matter how inconvenient. And so it was especially stunning how perfect the next morning felt, how crisp and clear and bright the skies. And then, they did their thing and you know the rest.

So add to the myriad reasons it takes me so long to get through a paragraph in this book I’m trying to write the fact that I do not want to take such a liberty. I’m already doing so by making the summer of 1999 a particularly rainy one and throwing a massive power outage in for good measure. (and to further the plot). But where very tangible specifics are concerned, I’m getting in my own fiction-writing way.

Any excuse to keep from churning out another draft from which to create the final one.

My bestest friend and I are writing a tv pilot loosely based on our awkward, misfit selves in the 80s. This is a breath of fresh air from the book. It’s work, it’s challenging, it requires letting go of ego and perfectionism and impatience and indulging in the process. And we’re doing it together, which is the best part. There’s strength in numbers.

Book-writing’s a lonely business. Bear with me while I figure it all out.

 

 

Pack up all my care and woe…

IMG_7771The title of this post is from Bye Bye Blackbird, which was the favorite song of someone I knew who died from Alzheimer’s — or as my young niece calls it, Old Timer’s. I had a brush with early stages of the disease today in a chance encounter on the street.

It was not unbearably freezing today, and so I decided to walk home from my appointment on 36th and Park. As I walked down Ninth Avenue I saw an elderly man a few paces ahead of me who was standing on the sidewalk looking around. I made eye contact with him and he stopped me and asked if I live in the neighborhood. I said yes, and asked if he was lost. He was – I asked what he was looking for and he said, “My home. I can’t remember where it is.” He was visibly shaken by this. My first thought was to call the authorities, but I didn’t really know which authorities to call. He had his keys in his hand and on his key ring was a CVS customer card. I suggested we might go to the nearest CVS and see if they could scan it and find his address.

Then I asked if he perhaps had id in his wallet; he did – he had a Christmas-themed return address label stuck on the inside. I read the address to him; it was about half a block away, but a long block, and it took us a while to get close to the building. He kept saying how ridiculous it was that he could just forget where he lives, that he’s lived there for years. I asked if he lived with anyone or had family here and he mentioned a daughter, whose name he couldn’t recall. I asked to see his wallet again, and in it found a piece of paper with three names and phone numbers – “Son” and “Daughter” were clearly marked – one with a New Jersey number and one in Brooklyn, he told me. The third name, Stella, was 212. He told me she was his girlfriend so I asked if I could phone her.

Stella was very concerned to hear what was going on and explained that she’d been sick and couldn’t come over to his house – his name is Michael, by the way. She asked if I’d bring him to her, and gave me the address. She lives in the housing projects a few blocks from me that I pass every day and have never been inside.

On the long, slow walk to Stella’s, we passed a friend of mine who lives in the East Village and whom I haven’t seen in years – she was on the phone and we greeted each other and agreed to talk later.

I asked Michael more questions. He estimates he was born in 1925, and clearly recalled that he moved to New York from Naples, Italy, in 1940; shortly after he joined the army and fought with the 69th Infantry Division. He couldn’t understand how he could remember that, but not where he’s been living for the past many decades. I said something about how curious memory is, how sometimes we recall things from childhood but not what we had for breakfast that morning. I asked if he’d eaten anything today and he said no.

I held his arm when we crossed the streets and told him that I was afraid of slipping on the ice myself – and he laughed. But in general he was sad and confused. I said, “This must be very frustrating for you,” and he said, “It’s very frustrating. I just don’t understand.” We talked about the fact that he should probably pay a visit to a doctor – he doesn’t think he’s been to the doctor in quite some time.

We reached Stella’s building and she buzzed us in, though the lock on the main door appeared to be broken. Michael pushed “7” in the elevator – and Stella waited for us with her apartment door opened. They cried on seeing each other – she gave him a big hug and asked what was going on and he said he didn’t understand.

She invited me in – actually, it was more insistence – and we helped him off with his jacket. She asked where his keys were and I said probably in his pocket, so she went through his pockets and pulled out his keys, wallet, a bunch of napkins, and his teeth.

While she made him a cup of tea I called his daughter – who started to cry and told me that this has been going on for a while and has gotten worse and worse and that she’s asked him to come stay with her in Brooklyn but that he’s stubborn. She said she’d call Stella in a few minutes, and I gave her my number and explained that I live in the neighborhood, should they need anything.

While we were in the kitchen Stella said to me, “We’ve known each other for 37 years. This is going to be so hard for me – I am all alone.”

I said whatever I could – tried to be comforting. I told Stella I’d check in with her, and Michael’s daughter said she’d keep me posted. I said my goodbyes and left.

So much to say about all of this but I’m still processing it. My neighborhood – this whole city – is full of elderly people who live on their own. I recently had a conversation with a friend – one whose own elderly mother was in a physical rehabilitation center with apparently deplorable conditions – about the fact that our society has a lot of work to do in terms of how we value and care for our elderly. Michael and Stella have lived in my neighborhood since long before it was filled with new condos and art galleries and night clubs and expensive restaurants – since long before the vast majority of the people who live in my building were born. This is their neighborhood.

I am grateful that I made eye contact with him and that I stopped, because in the wrong hands, things could have turned out much differently. Not only was he confused, he had money and credit cards in his wallet. Mine are far from the only right hands – I know that everyone reading these words would have done the same thing I did. I also know that moments before I saw him I’d been looking at my phone to see if I’d heard back about tomorrow night’s dinner plans, or about what time my Pilates lesson was. Of course we all spend far too much time looking down these days – and once more I’m reminded of the value of looking up. Looking around. From now on I will pay more attention to the many elderly people I see walking around my neighborhood by themselves.

The other takeaway here – and this is important for ALL of us – is to carry ID and a list of contacts. I don’t know if that ICE program is still relevant, but if it is it’s a good one – emergency responders are taught to look through cellphone contacts for anyone marked ICE – “in case of emergency”.

This city is a big and busy place and not everybody is kind; but like the day I had my accident a few years back (I fainted in the street) – today proved that sometimes the kindness of strangers is what separates trauma from tragedy.

Be well, my friends, and look after your loved ones.

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.