Saturday, December 25, 2010

Duplex Me

I drive south on Route 9 toward my goal. Ever since I crossed the Mid-Hudson Bridge, the vista has offered nothing but the works of man, spreading vastly to either side: one enormous monument to middlebrow consumption. Store after store after store; and lo and behold, they are exactly--down to the blueprint, up to the items' placement on the shelves--identical to stores in Akron, Ohio, and Your Town, Your State, too. Soon I will sit still by traveling all over.

I remember this road, north-south through Poughkeepsie, the place that schooled me, as a country road through farmland. But that was in ancient times.

Today I was on a secret mission, as Santa's elf, to H&M at Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall. As I turned in to the lot, it struck me right between the eyes: Jeez, is man complicated! To have made all this--and there was a heck of a lot of "this."

I should have felt slightly sick, slightly guilty. I should have boycotted the relentless commerce, the destructive commerce, the blinding, empty commerce. But I did not. Or at least, part of me did not; another part, counterposed, did. In other words, I am a stone hypocrite. I like my little luxuries, aka unnecessary stuff. I like buying presents for people who also like luxuries. I like shopping at the fancy-foods store (hey, all you really need to live perfectly fine is oatmeal), the one that grew from the seed of the primitive vegetable stand that we used to visit in college. Now it is our area's only source for triple-creme cheeses and European cookies. And instead of bemoaning the loss of an impossibly humble, genuine and real bit of history, I am pleased as punch it's here.

Last night, I went to church for Christmas Eve service. I loved seeing the candles glittering in the windows with dark night beyond, the scent of the undecorated firs flanking the altar, the choir singing and the organ vibrating the floor beneath my feet. I loved the message from the pulpit as well the place in which it was delivered--love; compassion; empathy; look past the stuff, into the heart--even though to do so was another manifestation of my hypocrisy, for I am an atheist.

For the human animal, maybe hypocrisy is a font of richness. For this particular human animal, it is the beginning of a happy dissonance, one that resonates like bells, with their sound that goes on after the metal is struck. Their sound that says, This is joy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


In August of 1741, George Frideric Handel sat down to work. He was setting to music a libretto by Charles Jennens drawn from the King James and Great versions of the Bible that narrates the idea of a messiah as interpreted by Christianity. In September, he got up, having created one of the most galvanic, powerful, and gorgeous works of music ever written. He had been in debt, and depressed. Whether or not this contributed to the brilliance of the oratorio can only be guessed; need, of which sadness is a type, is known by many artists as the most provocative of all the muses.

He wrote Messiah in twenty-four days, and a critic later commented that in that case, it was obvious that Handel spent twenty-four days in heaven.

My annual Christmastime listening--and, unfortunately, singing along to--the double-album set I've owned for years (Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with Joan Sutherland, Grace Bumbry, and Kenneth McKellar) occurred not during the usual tree-trimming. I used it instead as soundtrack to my tortured revising of my book, hoping that something of the composer's genius would leach out into my own work; no freaking luck there, alas. But it did do what it always does: sweep me, as if I were before the inexorability of a twelve-foot wave in the ocean, to the sand gasping for breath. I do not believe in the particulars of what its elemental language conveys, but I believe that Handel believed. And I believe that he touched the angelic clouds of creativity.

For years I sang in choirs, and at this season was enlivened by the unparalleled experience that is being carried on the swells of the choral portions of Messiah . It is, perhaps, the only time I ever felt immortal. I both heard my voice (not a terribly good one, but adequate to singing in a choir, being generally on key its prime qualification) and heard it lost in the whole. That's the good kind of loss, by the way; a loss that magnifies.

To sing it now, at least once a year, feels like a need. It feeds a hunger. When you open your mouth to sing, with a multitude of others, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together" and "Arise, shine, for thy light is come . . . " you are transported. Where? In, to the mysterious heart of man's yearning, and out, to the hope that we are gloriously bigger than just one. In the choir, you are. "For ever and ever," rings out, again and again: Something is going to go on, beyond our small lives. Hallelujah.

Some believe what endures is an omnipotent deity, part of which came to earth one winter in order to spend a foreshortened life here with us, before ascending home again. Some, like me, believe that the only thing there is that lives on is the works of man, yet only those that are somehow touched by an otherworldly grace. This is one of those things, born of earth, rising toward heaven. It is enough. Most certainly, enough.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Into the Fire

Why does the brain hide things? It sometimes acts like the mice in my house lately. I put my foot into my shoe, and--heck! This feels funny. Whatever is in here?


No, I mean really: nuts are in there, hidden in the toes of my shoes. (Also in the dirt of the houseplants, and among the logs in the stack by the fireplace.) The mice have been busy in advance of the hard season. How difficult it must be, even if it is hardwired behavior: Time to get busy! A fretful, anticipatory feeling. And so I have deep misgivings on taking one of these nuts and tossing it outdoors; this is a future meal, counted on. Something in me gets deeply distressed, in particular, when I envision anyone's disappointment. It screws itself into my gut; I hate it. A vestigial memory from the childish past, of course: I have spent plenty of time in therapy, after all.

Notwithstanding the fact that I ought to be considering just where the acorn-sized holes are in the foundation of my house, I am instead thinking about the passage of time. Here we are again, time to mark the pagan hope that we will make it through the winter, just like the mice. This got translated, through the eons, into people like me squirreling away wrapped presents throughout the house. (Ironically, these are at the moment not exactly in my shoes, since they won't fit, but they are on my shoes, in the closet; please don't tell my child, as he still believes in Santa Claus. For myself, I believe in Santa Clause, as I saw it written on a firehouse signboard this morning.)

As swiftly as time is moving these days, it is fitting that it now rockets even faster through my imagination. Yesterday, I swear to god, driving through an ice-hard landscape of sparkly lights and absurd blown-up holiday figures quivering in small yards, a profoundly soul-crushing sight, I felt a premonitory wash of springtime. The smell of wet earth; the time-lapse opening of a flower bud into wide-open petals, in the space of thirty seconds.

The nuts that are hidden in my brain (no comment) are made of knowledge. Someone asks a simple question, "So, how are things going?"
And then, issuing from my own mouth, is the truth that I had not been able to grasp for a long time now: "I have been trying to see around corners, know what is there before I have gotten to it. But corners are simply not to be seen through, are they? They have rocks, buildings, or trees in the way. I should not have expected myself to know what is in a place I haven't come to yet." It had been killing me, the insistence on trying to see the unseeable on the road ahead.

"Being in the present moment is difficult," replied the questioner, my yoga teacher.

Yes. Yes, it is.

Time takes away, but it leaves lessons behind, like Santa eating your cookies but leaving the gifts. (Santa as perfect life metaphor--ha! But think. We must learn to ask directly if we want something. And For everything that is taken, something is given. A child's hopeful fiction, yet--of course--full of difficult truths.)

My lessons this week include:

1. Converse; it will help you to uncover all sorts of valuable nuts that have been socked away in your mind.
2. That fizzy anticipation in your stomach? Yes, Melissa, there is a Santa, and ever will be, in your perpetual youth.
3. Men suffer silently, and women wonder why they aren't doing what they are supposed to (catering to women); each sex lives in a separate cultural and emotional paradigm, but I have come to believe that women don't appreciate this fact at all; are in fact insensible to it. Therefore they have no idea what men are up against. I have been gathering evidence lately, from a very small sample. The people I know.
4. My bikes, out in the garage, unprepared for winter storage because of my denial of the actuality of time, can make me feel very guilty. As much so as the mice, whose food I have removed from my shoes.
5. In the night I wake, and when I go into the bathroom I am arrested by an otherworldly green light pulsing from inside the garage, in the exact rhythm of a heartbeat. At first I am confused, startled. But when I shake my sleepy head and realize what it is, a new battery charger--a birthday gift of uncommon goodness--connected to the Guzzi, then I know. It is indeed a heartbeat.

Time, and much else, has been surprising me. And on it comes.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Born of Elegance

Does everyone deify their parents? Or was it just me?

Back then, somewhere below my consciousness (like the concrete beneath my feet) was the certainty that the most beautiful creature on earth lived in my house. That was the little girl's belief: the power that swept all before it was my mother as she went through the door, on her way to a party. (The sensitive reader will immediately sense a shadow here, the one cast by the figure of the mother leaving, but the brilliance of the light for the moment has bedazzled the girl so she does not see anything but it, just now . . . just now.)

She was schooling me. She did not know, but she was chalking important lessons on the blackboard: Revlon lipstick in classic garnet red; a last glance in the mirror, head this way, then that (chin tilt: up). Nipped-in waist. Pretty heels. Then off--off to the place where beautiful goddesses congregated.

I had no idea what they did there (handsome demi-gods in tweed jackets alongside), but I knew it was not for me to know. It had to do with things they called cocktails, the exact contents of which were as mysterious as the print on the newspaper that was apparently so necessary to my father's regaining of his sanity every evening when he returned from the office, sitting down with it and a bowl of dry-roasted peanuts and, yes, another cocktail.

Everything left behind after would bear a ring of lipstick, the colorful ghost of a kiss: the rims of the glasses, the white butts of cigarettes. When they had a party at our house, my parents, after the furor of preparations (my mother in high snit; the purposeful need for the good china and glinting silverware to come out of their gray flannel wear and the place in the sideboard where they lived for most of the time, behind doors locked with tasseled skeleton keys), the doorbell would ring, and the smiles would come out. We girls were charged with bringing the coats upstairs to my parents' bed, a pile of deep furs and chesterfields and plaid scarves. There was tinkling--ice in glasses, laughter--and smoke. Things to eat perfectly arrayed and in great abundance (the legacy of my mother's Greek parents, and their belief that too much was never enough).

When they went away to others' parties, it was their coats carried to some other grownups' bed, I supposed. But I did not suppose much, when they went away. I only wanted them to return. This happened after epochs had passed. After I had resisted and could resist no longer the call of sleep; after I had dreamed. I usually dreamed of my mother, her beauty.

And then she was there. Bending over me in the dark, her sealskin coat still holding the cold as it brushed against me, releasing its sequential smells: perfume, cigarettes. I could fall back into the soft brown dark after that, after she retreated and the door closed. She was home.

My love for her colored her beauty, I see now. Both were towering. The utmost one can feel.

I wore, for a time, her clothes. In the city long ago, to parties and clubs. I never believed I could put on her distant beauty, though.

Now I rotate my jeans and t-shirts. Recently, I got a full-length mirror for the first time in years. I am, let's face it, a slob. We were born for different worlds: she never walked dogs in the woods after a heavy rain, jumping downhill rivulets and sometimes missing. And I no longer go to cocktail parties wearing a dress just like the one I saw in Vogue. But we are nonetheless bound. Somehow.