Saturday, December 26, 2009


I can't seem to remember where we went last Christmas. Was that the year we drove to Ohio, and I cried ceaselessly for six days? Or was that the year we almost missed the plane to Utah because of a traffic stoppage on the Thruway, and I wrote monologues in my head to recite to the trooper who would ride up behind us as we made our way gingerly up the breakdown lane: "Officer, I'm sorry, but this is an emergency. If we don't make our plane, this boy's Christmas will be ruined, and there is no power on earth that I am going to let do that. None. P.S. I'm contrite. Now out of my way."

When we arrived, moments to spare, I wrestled a large suitcase, a carry-on, and two sets of skis from the outlying five-dollar-a-day parking lot into the terminal, by which time I was clammy with sweat under my ski jacket. And learned our flight had been cancelled. More monologues ensued, this time actually delivered. We were rerouted to Texas. Then another cancellation. Yet more forceful but polite words were exchanged. (A helpful hint: do not remonstrate with the beleaguered airline staff behind the counter; they are being yelled at from every corner. Instead, look them in the eye, smile with compassion, and say, "It must be terrible to have to deal with all this." Only then describe your predicament and ask for a hotel room; in the afterglow of human understanding, they will give.)

Why do I not remember all of this? Because some things are meant to be forgotten.

I wrote last year at this time about a bridge. Dreams, being a bridge between night and day. And now, I think, I was really saying that I felt myself to be on a bridge, from darkness to light. I know, from the feeling under my foot, that I have stepped off the swaying bridge and now stand on the other side of what has past.

"I am in a different place than last year," I find myself saying to people. What I mean is that I could countenance my son's request: Please, Mom, can we stay home for Christmas? We've only done that twice.

It did not take long to realize that in the magical-thinking way of the child (or, hell, of most of us) he hoped that in waking up at home as he last did several years ago he would also wake to the restoration of his family. I had to disabuse him quickly of this, though: it was as pleasant as telling him that people and animals suffer horrifically all the time, all over the place, and therefore we must be mindful of it. Something you don't want to think about, but must.

And so he and I will wake together, in a new house: home for the holidays. I am grateful not to be hurrying through the crowds to get to someplace else. I am also a little frightened of how I will feel. Alone? Sad, as a conditioned response triggered by the memory of this date, repeated previously in woes of various sorts? A vagabond of the heart? I am in the position of asking people to take us in this year, a bit squirmy, emotionally speaking, but as necessary to the happiness of my child now as getting to the airport was then. I need to prepare a speech to the internal state trooper who would try to stop us getting all the way to our destination: feeling all right, now, with what we have, and what we are. Which is two lucky people who have each other. Splendid.

Can I wish the same for you? Yes, I do. I do.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That's Rich

Inside the school doors stands a tree decorated with ribbons and yarn-tied paper ornaments. On the back of each is hand-written a legend: “Girls’ boots size four”; “Boys pants (not jeans) size 10-12”; “Mom: gas card.” I pull the latter off the tree and hustle my son out of the building, and to his puzzled look we explain that for some people, these are things hard to provide. He knows, somewhere in his ten-year-old mind, that out there is want. But he has never experienced it himself. Nor have I. It is almost as brain-bruising for me to realize that this is just one of a vast forest of trees of need, a green spread that would wash beyond the horizon. Even if viewed through professional-grade binoculars.

Another motorcyclist told me he likes Christmas mainly because it yields approximately two weeks of people being nice to one another. Well, we’ll take what we can get.

The white icing on birthday cake; its yellow sugar roses that crunch slightly between the teeth. The effervescent pleasure of the prosecco that washes it down. The gift in the mail, and the friend who thought to buy the perfect gloves and wrap and send them to arrive on the right day. The tree hung with ornaments that each represent a meaning, and a memory. Those are riches. They pile up in a life like presents. Even in the days when my starting salary qualified me for food stamps, I never once feared that I would actually go hungry. Only that I might lose some enthusiasm for Top Ramen.

Almost every day now finds me parked in the lots of the shopping plazas, because every day I realize there are more things to buy. We are drowning in a sea of stuff, but golly, I need to get some more.

I wouldn’t really care if all the stores imploded at once, sending up an obliterating cloud of dust, and then, at last, were no more. What I would care about is losing the thoughts that move silently through the air between friends, binding us as solidly as a single being, and the more occasional and piercing longing for the deeper regard of another. These are the necessary sustenance I could not do without. And that I have never wanted for, either: how many times have I wondered what I did to deserve friends like these, the very force of their affection a powerful wave that carries me forward and up, ever cresting and breaking just beyond. I now even have close friends I have never met, who are right beside me when I need. And when I have no direct need, I laugh with them and their sparkling humor on Facebook. Yes. I mean that.

One of these far-flung friends, who writes long and brilliant letters in an exchange he terms our private blog, just between us, remarked on my wonderment that there is no one, no matter how sick or evil or dull, who lacks friends. The exception, he said, is the schizophrenic. Otherwise, mass murderers and narcissists—they all have their friends. We each even count among our friends people we don’t very much like. What a strange thing is friendship, then.

Well, we’ll take it.

I stopped at the Hess station on the way back from shopping and the motorcyclists dinner (tonight, around twenty-six friends, along with the fried tofu at the Chinese buffet, which I was pleased to make the acquaintance of; I’m in an inclusive mood of late). I thought briefly of the nameless mom who felt the need to ask for a gas card as I put down a twenty for it. My own tank was half full, and I knew there would always be more when I needed it. Until it gives out; that will affect all of us equally. I for one do not view internal combustion as a right, but as a privilege.

Then to home, where there is wood for a fire, cheap white wine in the fridge, and Baroque Christmas music pouring smoothly, endlessly, from the radio. Nelly, too, has eaten well tonight; better than 90 percent of humans on the planet. Though I refuse to apologize for that: feeding her slops is not going to help a single starving youngster in Somalia. Now she sleeps on the beautiful couch that until the advent of dogs in my life—another incalculable source of wealth in life—was a lush piece of SoHo indulgence. That's so rich, I think.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Another birthday hoves into sight, like the dangerous rocks on the landing shore, glimpsed through the slantwise curtain of gray rain in a cataclysmic storm. Watch out! There’s no way to avoid the collision now! Ahhh----

No, no way to avoid the piling up of years, is there? A friend sent me an e-mail picturing a befuddled gray-hair with the caption, “Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the fuck happened?” That about says it.

When one’s birthday is elided with another, somewhat more famous anniversary (oh, just this guy everyone keeps talking about, his birthday December 25), and the end of the year, with its wistful nostalgia melting into hopeful prognostication, one is apt to be slightly mystical. Even if one is a stone atheist.

A couple of years ago, this person was clinging to every form of voodoo there is, from fortunes in cookies to newspaper horoscopes. There was a heart milagros taped to her front door, and at dinner she made sure to light the Fast Luck and Siete Potencias and superscary Most Powerful Hand candles. (Notwithstanding the word “Alleged” appended to the Lucky 13 candle, lest one feel moved to sue the Goya company after failing to hit the big scratch-off or win the girl of one’s dreams after burning the wick well into the wax.)

These things felt necessary, because there was nothing else to hang onto in order to not fall down, down, into some unfathomable abyss. Since the basic truth of daily life that had been operated upon for years and years had vaporized one day, it seemed just as likely suddenly that dice and stars knew what was what. Better than she did.

But sometime after last year's birthday, the world slowly started to right itself. There were invisible winches at work, slowly moving the surface on which everything rested back to horizontal. But she has not lost the taste for hope, and will take it from whatever source gives it.

Tonight she reenters the world of portents and for the first time in a year lays out the tarot cards on the amateur’s cheat sheet.

If I don’t like the answer the Magic Eight Ball gives, I turn it over and try again. Eventually, “It is certain” shows up in the inky window, and I know “Will I be able to write something good?” or “Am I to find love?” will have the outcome I desire. Surely one can trust the Eight Ball to know these things. I can sleep.

If I don’t like the way these cards tell my future, I’ll do it two more times. Isn’t this a best-of-three game?

I can reason my way around anything, even the opening “Caution about the present” card. Of course I am being cautious. Aren’t I? Well, yes, in my usual incautious manner of approaching anything. It is the last card that tells the truth, however. I do not need to shuffle the deck again, hurrah. “A good augury.” I will take it. I can live on auguries in the absence of proofs. It is all I need, along with all I already have.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I am just back from a visit to the hospital. I had not intended to go; the day was mapped out and included the usual round of errands, work, and procrastination in order to avoid the first two. And then came a phone call.

Morbid is my middle name. I have been borrowing trouble as long as I have known what Valentines were all about; I have long ago written in my head the teary eulogy for a friend who is so dear to me that he could be my brother and husband in one (but is neither, so the law is grateful), ever since college when I learned that his father's heart exploded when he was not even out of his fifties. I cross rickety bridges before I've come to them, and they give way when I am imaginatively right in the middle, tossing me into the dark, heartachey abyss

This particular phone call was not unexpected, then, especially since its subject was a man who is both lodged like shrapnel in my affections and chronically ill. Boy, I can go to town with a combination like that.

My breath was panicky, but my actions were direct: phone the family; Google map the hospital; call the petsitter and get Nelly's leash and dinner together. Car gassed up, pee break so I wouldn't have to stop, cell phone in pocket. Out the door.

Two hours later and I walk boldly through the softly swishing doors. They let you in if you act like you belong there. Go straight in; do not ask questions, just search for signs. Elevator bank for Jefferson wing floor 5: neurology.

Down long halls past a repetition of open doors through which are seen only feet: feet in socks, feet under white cotton sheets, feet that might as well belong to cadavers, and will, sooner or later, as always. Is it possible to walk into a hospital without feeling a quivering, inchoate fear that but for one small detail--and you are not privy to what it is
--you might be told to lie down in one of these beds yourself? Why am I here in my street clothes, and this man, the emblem of strength and determination and fearlessness, is seen sock-first through this door?

I walk in and he looks up, a small sandstorm of confusion and wonder in his eyes. Before he is able to quiet the winds, I have kissed his cheek and laid my hand against it. For just an instant that neither of us is sure has really passed. Because, at the moment, he does not remember anything, even the greatest of his many great feats. But he does remember who I am: I ask him that first.

He gets off the bed and sits in the chair; he wants to get out of here, and who that can walk would not? The fluorescent light that is probably what each of us will see in the moment before death; the smells, the chemical fluids that can both keep us in life and would push us out with one sharp whack; the aged, curled slivers of humans who breathe, but not much else--they remind us: It is coming. It is coming.

And so we want to get out of there as fast as we can, and forget this ever happened. But it did, and stay he must, at least for another day. I am already anticipating the drive back up the Thruway later that night, the cup of coffee I can get, the thoughts I will be alone with in the car. But for now we talk, and he tries to remember. It is not so much that he is struggling: he applies the same quiet concentration to this task that has taken him far, so far, to other destinations out there. He asks questions about where he's been, what he's done, and when. Disbelief, sometimes, when the deed seems inconceivable, or utterly irretrievable: most things, when described, come back, though in pieces, or slightly frayed. Then his questions repeat, as if new: How long were you without a motorcycle? Eleven years? (This is beyond his ken, so five minutes later he asks again, again incredulous of my answer.) I ask if he knows what kind of bike I have. Yes, K75, he says; but what color? Burgundy. No. Not that. [A beat pause.] Blue--a sort of electric blue?

Yes, the blue K75 he bought on my behalf.

He sits and looks at his feet, for a long time.

We revisit other memories. Then the male nurse comes in with two hypodermics. This is something he remembers how to do; like riding, it is in his muscle memory, not the shriveled synapses of some tiny portion of his brain that has taken away everything he is--his past.

So, while he's in the bathroom, I ask, with my eyes, cocking my head to one side, and the nurse knows what I want to know. "Oh, it's always this way. He'll get it back, don't worry."

So that he has something to do--he is a person whose worst fear is not moving, not having somewhere to go--I ask him to walk me to the elevators. Slowly, in his sock feet. The door opens; a quick hug, and I back in. The door closes.

On the dark highway I move forward into space. Random songs on the radio speak only to me, as they have been doing for a couple of years now. I wonder how it is they can be so specific, then I realize: they are only ever about two things, love, and loss. Both of which are behind me, down the hospital corridor, and ahead of me, in a place called home.