Friday, December 31, 2010

Public Property


Is this not an arresting image? It is from the portfolio of a person who goes by the moniker An Untrained Eye, who gives his first name as Tom. He offers no last name. From his notes on the photograph, he revels in how often this photo has been grabbed and reproduced on other people's sites, bent to other people's purposes. He's really kind of subversive. For him, art is public property. This was taken at the New York Public Library behind Bryant Park in New York City.  The woman on the bench, a Japanese tourist, did not know at the time that she was being photographed. I don't yet know what this image says to me, but it demanded to be put up here. The colors.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Big Snow

By nightfall on Boxing Day the snow was really coming down. It swirled and blew all through the night, but the next morning dawned crisp and clear. The news reported 20 inches. On the narrow side streets, where bikes and parking meters stood neck-deep in white, it seemed like so much more. Some people brought out cross-country skies, many more their shovels. And the digging out began. Central Park was another country where little kids made snow angels and daredevil boys surfed down the park's snow-packed stairs. Meanwhile in midtown, hardy New Yorkers trudged to their workplaces as sidewalk vendors set up shop in the snow. While the blizzard was happening, I was mostly ensconced in my home, glad I didn't have to go anywhere but eventually feeling a little stir crazy. These were the scenes that greeted us when at last we ventured outside. That last image kind of reminds me of the Beatles' Abbey Road cover, but in the reverse.

Andrew Burton/ Getty Images
Mario Tama/ Getty Images
Andrew Burton/ Getty Images
C. Verwaal/ Flickr
A. Strakey/ Flickr
Stan Honda/ Getty Images


3 a.m.

It is late at night, 3 a.m. and I cannot sleep and I have this thought in my head, in my chest, circling without relief, there is a dragon inside me, there is a dragon inside me, and it howls like crying and burns ice cold, I cannot express it, I have no words, just the awful lonely pain, the longing to escape myself, I am too much with myself. But I can't write it all here. If I let my fears and imaginings find daylight they will ignite and consume me and those I love, and so I stitch myself together. Everyone else is sleeping. No one hears the dragon scream.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Elsewhere, the flares

We had a cozy Christmas inside our little bubble of an apartment, the four of us and one friend of my son's whose mother is away for the holidays, a young man who will be 21 in a month, who has slept on our couch for the past few nights and wrapped himself around our hearts with his cheerful spirit, his easy accommodation to whatever is, which may or may not be the way he is feeling inside, but it has been lovely having him here with us, all six-foot-nine of him stretched out on the long couch, under the gray plaid comforter, the life our family flowing easily around him. He and my son have been friends since they were 12 and 14, they met at camp, have spent many weeks together in the woods every summer, and they are as bonded as brothers. My son is a very loyal and loving friend, and he takes for granted that if he has given his allegiance, his family will, too, and we do.

My daughter and this gentle young man were at the kitchen counter last night, heads together as they worked out a solution to Einstein's famous quiz. Outside, the snow piled up, blowing furiously all through the day and night. We ate Christmas leftovers until, at nine in the evening, my husband and daughter decided to roast a chicken and bake potato wedges in rosemary and olive oil, and wonderful aromas filled the house. We dined at midnight then settled down to watch a whole new movie, since no one had to be up early the next morning.

I have often reflected on my son's gift for friendship. He is rock solid, generous, funny, kind. But he also chooses well; his friends give him back the same loyalty and love. I suspect sometimes that his closest friends are his soul group, that they have incarnated together many times before, and know each other at the core. His friends recognize and appreciate his constancy. They also understand his occasionally prickly and contrary nature, they shrug when he gets like that, they laugh and say, "Oh, that's how he is sometimes," and soon my son comes out of it, because no one is following him to his cranky country, they're letting him blow of steam there in safety and peace, and I could learn a thing or two from his friends.

We did venture out into the snow to check on my aunt, to bring her Christmas gifts and cookies and bites of food, but mostly we stayed cocooned in our bubble, puttering and cooking and working out puzzles and drifting away to different corners of the house and coming back together to talk and laugh and cook some more and watch movies and marvel at the snow piling up and up outside. My son, who ran to the store for his dad and sister, remarked this was more snow than he has ever seen in the city. And then we all told snow stories. It was all so stream of consciousness.

---------------


But somewhere out there beyond the snow, I discerned the flares. Other people were having a very different kind of Christmas. One of my cousins was trying to steady her children for their parents' looming divorce, and her move this week from the family home. One of my nieces, whose wedding I was to attend in Jamaica next month, called to say the ceremony had been canceled, the reasons were personal and would not be discussed. She sounded strong, much stronger than her mother, whose heart is breaking for her, and my mother, who my brother noted takes on everyone's aches as if they are her own. My family in Jamaica was a little shaky this Christmas, pasting on a brave smile and pushing forward. My husband and his siblings were dealing with another holiday without their beloved mother, and the lonely silences that have developed in her absence. And in Virginia, my friend Tamara was sitting with her mother and sister at her dad's bedside, keeping the final vigil. She posted updates on Facebook that were full of sorrow and wonder and tenderness, a painfully exquisite record of the end of her father's life.

"He is speaking the most beautiful language that we cannot understand with his familiar gestures and facial expressions. It sounds like something ancient."

"We sit, one on each side, and listen. Just listen. It is ceremony. We are honoring and honored. Every moment shimmers."

I read her posts and wept for her, and ineptly wrote her my love and prayers. And then on Christmas day the status updates changed.

"Everywhere I look I see something he touched, made, fixed, loved. Daddy. I am never going to stop missing my Daddy."

And I realized he was gone.

Tamara, my beloved friend, I think you will understand my desire to repost your words here. I want to remember them, and to keep this record of the breathtaking way in which your shared your father's last moments on this earth with those of us who love you. Through your stories over the years, we had come to know the deeply good man who was your father. Such fathers must be held up to the world and remembered always. I send you love, dear Tamara, though I have no words to make your grief any less. How could we not grieve the loss of such a man as your father? 

I am holding you now. I hope you can feel it somehow.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Love is all




Christmas eve, and twelve of the clock. 
Now they are all on their knees.

—Thomas Hardy


Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Boxes



When I was growing up, our family went to midnight carol service every Christmas eve. My brother and I sat through the singing full of anticipation, because as soon as we got home, we would be allowed to open a single present before bed as our parents drank warm egg nog spiked with brandy and watched us with an amused indulgence I only understood after I had children.

This Christmas eve will not find us in church, though our minister is coming by our home this morning so that my husband, who is on the vestry, can co-sign some checks. The business of the world presses on. Later we will go to the store and lay in groceries, and my husband will cook a hearty soup that we will eat in bread bowls and serve to the friends of my children who are camped out in our living room. I love having them here, large boys, young men really, draped over my living room furniture watching a nightly Avatar marathon, they are up to the fire nation now, as giggling girls run down the hallway in a flurry of chatter and teenage heels and squeals. 

We put up a small table-top tree this year, thinking we might be elsewhere for the holidays. The presents climb in small towers around its branches. Boxes arrive at the door each day, gifts from cousins in other cities who are more organized. Our gifts to them will arrive after Christmas. They don't mind. They have come to enjoy the epilogue of presents arriving after all the brightly-colored wrapping paper has been cleared away. One last sweet echo of Christmas morning. 

Yesterday, my daughter made shortbread jam cookies, red velvet whoopie pies and chocolate caramel crumble and packed them in boxes to give as gifts. One of her friends came over to help her, a young man in her class with whom she shares a comedic repartee. For five hours they sifted and mixed and tested and tasted, finally laying out trays of treats for boxing. My daughter quickly assembled the first box for her friend, who was pushing up against the hour that he was expected home. My son and his best friend who is like my other son, who lives as much in our home as his own, lounged on the living room couches, impatient to sample the goods. My daughter made them wait until I got home from work. I was the first sampler and oh, it was good. Mouths full, the rest of the family made noises that expressed their agreement.

And then I helped my girl fill the boxes and tie red bows around them. Last night, she went out to dinner with her five closest friends, carrying a ribbon-tied box of Christmas treats for each one. They were meeting at a neighborhood diner, nothing fancy, though you couldn't have told from the way they got all gussied up. Oh, to be sixteen and seventeen. The boys, joined by another of their friends, went to a midnight Imax-3D showing of the movie Tron. Back home, my husband and I lay side by side in bed, chatting about everything, contented.




Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Antigua I Love

View from Shirley Heights, Antigua 

When I was twelve years old, I dreamed my husband's face clear as daylight, standing in this place. In the dream I was standing next to him on top of this hill that I didn't yet recognize. Sea breezes whipped our clothes around us, and I looked into his eyes that in the dream were dancing, and I felt at home. I didn't meet him in the flesh for another fourteen years.


Blue Waters, Antigua

Blue Waters is where my parents lived when they moved to Antigua. My father had retired from the courts in Jamaica and taken a post-retirement position in Antigua. They stayed just long enough for me to meet my husband, then they moved to St. Lucia, where my father had been promoted, and where my mother still maintains their home.


Detail of St. John's Cathedral, Antigua  

I first saw the man I would later marry in this Cathedral. I was with my parents at midnight carol service on Christmas eve, just hours after flying in from New York. The man who was not yet my husband and his brother were walking up to the altar for communion, two handsome, stalwart pillars on either side of their elegant prayerful mother. The air around them was full of incense, and the Christmas lights made colorful halos in the smoke. I remember really noticing my husband that night. A year later we had met and were falling in love, and I introduced my parents to his beautiful mother after Christmas morning service at this church. Our parents loved this Cathedral and could be found in its pews every Sunday. My brother-in-law is now patiently and with great reverence and purpose working on the restoration of this centuries-old, memory-soaked building.


(Photos by Kevin Milz)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Home for the holiday

So it turns out we will not be going to Antigua for the holidays after all, done in by air fares the price of college tuition, and that's before accommodations. Gone are the days when we just stayed in the home my husband grew up in. All the rooms there are occupied, so we four planned to rent a little cottage on the beach, were really looking forward to it, but somehow couldn't click the button that said buy, couldn't afford to click that button, no matter how hard we wished it, no matter how much my husband longed on this second Christmas without his mother to string colored lights on his dad's gallery and bake him a Christmas ham and say, look Pops, how your grandchildren are growing like small trees, sturdy and branching up and out into the world.

Some of my husband's extended family will be gathering in Antigua for the holidays, and we wanted to be there, to see people we hadn't seen in years, North Carolina in the house, and Canada and Barbados too, and I had also quietly hoped for reconciliations among the estranged, or at least the long silent, I thought if we could look into each others faces the love would be so clear, and everything hard would become soft again, and we would be healed. She would smile down on us, and we would all begin anew.

Instead we will be right here in New York City, bundled against the cold, dreaming of long ago Christmases that were perfect in their way. But we will be together, the four of us, and we will make this Christmas perfect in its way.

Winterberry holly on the High Line,  New York City

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Untroubled

The college kids are home, light of heart now that finals are done. My son and my niece tumbled through my front door at 7 a.m., suitcases, jackets, knapsacks in tow. Shoes kicked off, hoodies abandoned, they found their preferred covers, curled up on their preferred sofas and went right to sleep. You can see they feel free, that their sleep is untroubled by still have to, didn't get to, forgot to do. It makes me feel free and untroubled too.

And then I remember. Is this really the last Saturday before Christmas? My niece flies home to Jamaica tomorrow and I still have to get gifts to send with her. But for a few delicious moments this morning I'm gazing at the sleeping heads of my children, taking it slow.







What Is


This corner of my house was speaking to me today. We were such children, what did we know? Twenty-five years later I know that I would do it all again.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Still the one

It was freezing cold, but I have a big fluffy green coat that wraps me like a blanket and makes me equal to anything the winter can dream up.

Just ask my husband.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Six



"A true friend is someone who thinks 
that you are a good egg even though 
she knows you are slightly cracked"

—B. Meltzer


They have been friends since they were four and five and six and seven, they have romped through the rooms of each other's homes, arms open wide, they have weathered the growing pains, held on fiercely during the fifth-grade girl wars, questioned each other urgently about feelings and motivations, went out onto the fire escape en masse to discuss their hurts, and then stayed out there until they could hold one another close again. The teachers understood and let them. We all watched as they arranged and rearranged themselves in every variation and grouping until at last they surrendered and called themselves simply, "the six."

Who will be at the sleepover? "Just the six."

I stand in awe of these girls, of their capacity to give and forgive and to accept and to know one another for exactly who they are, who they are becoming, who they will be. They have no idea how breathtaking they are, how beautiful, how generous, how relentless, how wise. It is something to witness their friendship unfolding over the span of years, through superhero laughter and budding bodies and wretched high school complications. Through it all, they have been there for each other, whispering their secrets into trusted hearts, knowing they are fully encircled by love. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Warrior

My aunt is home from the hospital, happy to be back in her chair next to the window. It is a wet morning in New York City. Outside our windows, the trees are bowing low in the lashing rain. The leaves are almost all blown off their branches, but for the leaves on the tree outside my bedroom window, which is in a corner more protected from the wind. That tree is still a blaze of gold, like sunlight against my window despite the gray skies and rain. The effect is sort of magical. I stayed in bed till very late just looking at it and dozing.

My aunt was more clear in her speech this morning than she has been in a long time. She said, "I love you, dear," and she said, "God gives everyone such problems and hard times but he also gives us a way to get through it and he sends people to help us."

It came out clear and whole, and it reminded me of how full of rabble-rousing life she used to be. My Aunt Winnie never knew the language of defeat. This small, frail woman helped a whole lot of people through their own hard times. She was there for every one of us in the most selfless, take-no-prisoners way. She was the oldest girl of nine and she learned to rally the troops to fight for those she loved and for those who just needed someone like her to stand up for them. Now she needs us. And we are all right there, wanting nothing more than to fight for her, wishing we could do more.


April 6, 1931

That's my aunt's family of origin. My mom is on the immediate left of my grandfather. Aunt Winnie is the girl on the far left, her hand protectively on her younger brother's shoulder. She's only 12 in this picture, but you can already see in her eyes that she is a warrior for love. She has always been that. 

I lived with her for a year when I first moved to New York to go to college. Even after I moved into the dorms, her apartment was my other home. She was then just a little older than I am now. It often seems that the years have evaporated like a mist, and we have to hold fast to our memories. They are the only evidence that what we remember, actually was. 


Cooks in Asti


This was my daughter's slow food group at the culinary school in Italy last summer. She is at this very minute avoiding homework by practicing some of what she learned there. Aren't we the lucky ones? My girl is the bright light in the middle, the one without her chef hat. I love all the gleaming spoons and sieves and spatulas hanging overhead like ornaments. Who knew I would have a child who loves cooking? Growing up, I was the one who hid behind the garage with a book while the cooking was happening. I never would have guessed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Egg Noggin

My daughter just left to sit the ACT with Writing. The college quest continues. She opted for the ACT before the SAT because, she says, it just makes more sense to her, although she plans to sit the SAT too. She is remarkably chill about the whole thing. Last night, after she sharpened her No. 2 pencils and put them in her bag along with her school ID and the test ticket, she went to bed. At 12:25 a.m. I went to look in on her. She was still awake and watching Modern Family episodes on her laptop and giggling to herself. I just kissed her forehead and let her be.

She got herself up this morning, dressed and made herself oatmeal and coffee with egg nog in it (she swore it tasted good). We sat at the breakfast table chit-chatting about her friends. Now she's walking up the hill to the test site, her dad with her. Wish her luck! She is so capable and funny and kind and wise and I am so extravagantly blessed to be hers. But I hope she puts down her brilliant thoughts for the essay in handwriting the scorer will be able to read! She has her father's scratchy scrunched up handwriting. Her a's look like z's. Oh well, she'll be fine, that one.

Who knew our dreamy child who hardly ever spoke outside her home would grow up to be this gorgeous, competent young woman with a laugh like wind chimes and a heart full of grace? Wow.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Compensating

I called my aunt's daughter this morning. If you've been reading here awhile you know that this cousin of mine is an addict and because she is abusive when under the influence, she had to be removed from her mother's home. Her brother got the court to issue a restraining order and it is being actively enforced by the security guards at our complex and that is a good thing.

But no one had told my cousin that her mother was in the hospital. It wasn't sitting well with me so I called her cell. She complained about no one calling her, asked what had happened, and then immediately began to shake this tree for money. She wanted me to meet her somewhere and give her money so she could do her laundry. She explained that she had left the group home associated with the outpatient rehab program; it was just horrible, she said. But weren't they working with you to get permanent housing, I asked. Not really, she said, and I didn't know what the heck that meant. I think it just meant she didn't want to follow the rules at that place and so now she is back to her precarious existence, staying with a friend. I didn't ask who. Nor did I ask if she planned to make arrangements to come and see her mother. She would have to come with a police escort. All she would really need to do is go to the precinct and ask them to accompany her, but she sounded high, so she probably wasn't thinking in those terms.

She insisted she had no money at all, and she did push my buttons a little, because I was considering meeting her on the street to put money into her hand. Definitely not my brightest move, and one I would likely not share with my family. All the same, I wish I hadn't called. I preferred being able to imagine that she was making progress in her rehab, that somehow, with her usual safety nets unraveled, she was learning to walk on her own. But now I know it's just business as usual out there. And today, I'm her pawn, if I choose to give her money.

My aunt comes home from the hospital this morning. Yesterday, when I went by to see her, she was sitting amid crumpled sheets, her hospital gown falling off her shoulders, her face unwashed, her lips cracked, her undergarment needing to be changed. She was sitting there looking trapped and scared, unable to get anyone's attention because she couldn't get the words out and couldn't uncurl her hand enough to press the button, if she even remembered the button. I knew it wasn't simple neglect, that the nurses were scurrying around trying to get to everyone. And no doubt the squeaky wheels were getting the first oil. My aunt just needed a squeaky wheel to speak up for her.  I wiped her face with a warm cloth and made her gargle with mouthwash and arranged the bedclothes more modestly around her and combed her hair then went to the nurses station to ask someone to come and change her.

They said they would get there as soon as they could. I had also learned that morning that she had developed a urinary infection for which she is being treated. So I asked to speak to the doctor in charge of her case. They led me over to a nurse practitioner who didn't meet my eyes as she answered my questions and seemed indifferent to the fact that I was standing there. I didn't get upset right away. With my aunt, you always have to consider that her son might have talked to this same person and been as curt, rude and unappreciative as he can be. Trying to compensate, I was being my most polite and conciliatory self, because I wanted them to treat my aunt well when I wasn't there. But this nurse just touched my last nerve. I asked if she had paged the doctor and without looking at me and with irritation in her voice she said she had and would let me know when the doctor responded. I said with a little tartness, well I had no assurance of that.

She looked at me sort of startled and asked why I said that. I responded that her whole demeanor suggested a lack of care and she said, well, in 30 years I have never heard that. I said, well I'm sorry, but I have to go to work and I can't really leave my aunt in the condition that she is, and it's hard. And then I was crying, and I had not had a clue that tears were so close to the brim and now they just overflowed, and I felt embarrassed and undermined, and I walked away from the nurse's station looking for a place to get a hold of myself. The nurse practitioner and my aunt's assigned nurse both followed me down the hall, full of sudden sympathy. It was as if now my aunt was someone with people who cared, and that made her real.

Her nurse went straight to her room and began to change her adult diaper while the nurse practitioner stayed with me in the hallway, trying to talk to me. I wished she would let me gather myself, because her gentle assurances only made the tears flow more, but I appreciated her then. She treated me with a humanity I hadn't seen in her before. I wiped my face and thanked her and then went back in to my aunt and her nurse was almost done and my aunt looked clean now, and she was even smiling as they propped her up on her pillows and raised the head of the bed to a sitting position so that she could look out the window. The nurses assured me again that they weren't ignoring her, it had just been a hectic morning, and I thanked them again and they promised to take care of her, I could go to work and not worry.

I sat with my aunt for a little while longer and then left for the office, thinking how we are all just doing the best we can, and I still hadn't talked to the doctor, and if you have an old person in the hospital it is so important that the people tasked with caring for them understand they are connected to people who love them, and the nurses need to be appreciated, too.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dark Out

I need a darker palette for a while. The white background was too airy for what I'm feeling at the moment. No doubt the blacks and browns and reds of this new template will begin to feel claustrophobic after a while. But for now, they feel like swaddling. Safe. Close.

Heading home from work. It feels like a Friday, but sadly it is not.

Body Modification




That's my son. These photos were taken by one of his friends at school as part of a final project on body modification. I stole them from Facebook. Yes, I am a thief. But he's my boy. I love this singly pierced and tattooed body. So I give myself some right to post these images along with all the other pictures of people for whom I would give my life without a moment's hesitation. The photos were taken by Sowande Gray. And I did actually get permission from the subject.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Winding Down

My aunt, the 92-year-old, is in the hospital. She fell on Saturday evening. Her home care attendant had gone to run her bath, and my aunt apparently forgot she couldn't just get up and walk around, so she got up and tried. She said she was on her way to her dresser to make sure that the money she had put there earlier was still in place. She fractured two ribs when she fell and is now in intense pain.

The social workers at the hospital want to send her to rehab at a nursing home. Her sisters are divided over whether that is a good idea. My mother thinks she will get better care in a nursing home, but she worries that by the time she's ready to be discharged her current home care attendants will have been reassigned. Another sister, who visited her in the hospital yesterday and who is a nurse, says that the best thing is for her to go straight home. I am inclined to agree. My aunt gets horribly disoriented in institutions. And she starts to hallucinate men with all sorts of nefarious intentions. I don't know where this comes from. Perhaps there are chapters of her life I don't know after all.

We are trying to figure out whether to call her daughter, the addict, who is finally living elsewhere, no longer in the home where she can harass and verbally abuse her mother for money. I don't know where my cousin has got to. I haven't spoken with her in weeks. I've wanted to call and see how she is doing, but I knew she would see it as a weakening of my resolve and would set about manipulating things from there. I just didn't want to get the whole sad carnival started again.

On the other hand, her mother is in the hospital and her face is beginning to collapse on its bones. The bridge of her nose is suddenly higher and sharper, her cheekbones more pronounced, her eyes sunken deep as small caves. When I walked into her hospital room this morning she was sleeping and I was struck my how much she resembled her brother in his coffin four years ago. I had never seen any particular resemblance before, but now it was marked. The sheets were drawn up to her chin and she was so small under the covers, so pale, her hair white and soft like feathers. When she opened her eyes, she looked as if she was trying to focus them, to figure out whether I was real or if she was still dreaming. She finally decided she was awake and fixed her supernaturally clear green eyes on me. She just looked at me and said nothing. Waiting. Trusting. I wanted to cry.

I gave her water and applied chap stick and rubbed lotion into the back of her hands. Then we sat looking out at Central Park, she has an expansive view of it from her window. She wanted to know how were the finances, and I assured her they were fine. We didn't talk much after that. We just sat there, breath in, breath out, and it felt as if I was sitting with only half of her, that the other part of her was already gone, floating somewhere in the next world, biding time.

After a while I coaxed her back to sleep, stroking her hair and whispering that I would come back this evening, which I knew would make her feel less abandoned, more willing to drift back into dreams. Then I came to work and made copies of all the paperwork that I need to submit this week to certify her for home care for another year.

As I collated the pieces of paper that represent the span of her life, from her birth certificate written in 1918 to her husband's death certificate two years ago, I couldn't help wondering how many more beats were left in the pacemaker that pilots her heart. And I couldn't help wondering if that foreign piece of machinery implanted in her chest was still in fact her friend.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Gypsy Cab


This is my 'hood. I see it only in passing these days, from the window of a car as I head to work or back. Most days I travel above ground, unwilling to confront the hectic human surge underground coming and going on the subways. It takes too much attention, too much hypervigilance so early in the morning. When I was  younger, it pumped me up with adrenaline, but now I find it frantic and overstimulating. It fries my circuits and makes me want to run and hide. Of course, I can't do that. So I meditate from inside a gypsy cab instead, watching the stores along Broadway opening up, setting up for another hopeful day.




I sail by that traffic signal with the missing points of light, outside the pizza place where my son and his friends used to hang out in till late in the afternoons during middle school. They would sit in that parlor making noisy nuisances of themselves until their parents began calling their cell phones to chase them home. Those days seem so innocent and long ago. I used to work from home two days a week then.

Now, most of my waking hours are spent huddled inside the glass and concrete walls of a midtown office, devising more stories than we have heads or hands to execute. We have to keep reminding ourselves to breathe. In the midst of all this, we have to get used to a new way of doing things, which I choose to see merely as another challenge that will stretch and teach me, force me to develop new approaches and add to my repertoire. All that to say, I'm dancing as fast as I can. Wasn't that the title of a book I once read? I think it was about a woman whose life became unglued. But that is not my story. Not today.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Everything is possible



"It is yours, take it. 
Leap like a lunatic 
over the chasm below, 
erupting as you go 
Your true self awaits." 

—Jane Evershed

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Big Brother

Photograph by Anastas Michos
My friend Tas took this photo. It's part of his New York City subway series. Those eyes looking right at you, just perfect. This is the city in which I live. These are the platforms my loved ones travel across every day. I am always astonished and thrilled by the way true artists see. I could have stood in this same spot and not perceived what he did. I could have tried to take this picture and not understood to crop it in just this way.

The photograph reminds me of George Orwell's 1984, which might be a loose metaphor for the way our culture is evolving. But I don't want to talk about Wikileaks. I'm still working out what I think about all that.

Something sort of related: I saw the movie The Social Network with my out-of-town relatives last weekend, and I keep thinking about Mark Zukerberg, the kid at Harvard who founded Facebook. He has disputed how he's portrayed in the movie, and I am not in a position to know what is true. Still, I suspect the movie tells a version of the truth, which is that this Jewish kid, brilliant and brusque, borderline Aspbergers, felt deep in his marrow like a social outsider and created a network to impress girls and give the finger to the entitled rich white boys who snubbed him.

He may have been manipulated by Sean Parker, the Napster founder who single handedly crushed the retail aspect of the record industry, who was cannier and greedier than Zukerberg for sure. But this outcast kid from the most exclusive bastion of entitlement in the nation, feeling the pain of being different, his sense of his own superiority frustratingly unheralded, transformed the world. He changed forever the way people communicate and share information, all so he could tell a few people who wouldn't acknowledge the power he felt within himself, Fuck You. 

You just never know where inspiration might show up. It is never all sweetness and light. It is more often darkness and sorrow and fury and anxiety and pain. The trick, I suppose, is to turn the hurt into something creative and ultimately cathartic. It's a neat trick when you can manage it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ta-da!




Here are the cinnamon rolls my daughter made last night. She wasn't as happy with them this time because the dough didn't rise very well so they weren't as light and fluffy as before. She thought it might have been too cold in the kitchen or she got a bad packet of yeast. But I'm here to say that not only did she finish her homework while waiting (and waiting) for the dough to rise, the rolls were delicious! That glaze she made with a touch of cream cheese was yummy. And her dad even preferred the heavier dough of this batch. Still, I know she will be making these again, soon, trying to perfect the recipe. Life is just one big work in progress, isn't it?  

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I think it's love

The crowds are gone, the college students have gone back to school, the cousins (all but one) and nieces and nephews and friends have all returned to their cities, and our home is quiet again. We are having a blissfully slow Sunday.

I got a cold sometime over the holiday. I think I took my son's because as soon as I got sick, he got better. I pushed through until this morning when we packed the cars and waved everyone off in their different directions and then my head began to spin and I wanted nothing more than to climb under the covers and sleep. Which I did for two delicious hours this afternoon. It was the kind of sleep where you hear everything happening in all parts of the house, my husband yelling "Touchdown!" at the football game on TV in the living room, my daughter's homework papers rustling at the kitchen table, the little girls in the apartment across from us skipping with their grandmother to the elevator down the hall. And yet it was a restful sleep. I awoke near five and lay there with my eyes closed until my daughter landed with a body thud on the bed beside me.

"Mom," she moaned, putting her face right up to mine. "I'm so bored and I want to cook and I don't want to do history."

"What do you want to cook?"

"I don't know," she moaned again, then sat up. "Do you think the recession will be over by the time I get out of college?"

"Yes, definitely," I said, believing it.

"Really?" She brightened visibly. "Because I want people to have enough money to come and eat at my restaurant. I want to be a famous chef."

"That's great, but didn't you tell me before that you didn't want to be a chef?"

"That was because I didn't think I could be successful in a recession." she clarified. "I want to be Pisticci, not Blue Angel"—the former being an Italian restaurant we frequent, the latter being a promising Thai restaurant that went out of business in a few short months.

"But Pisticci is thriving in the recession," I noted.

"That's because they established their fan base before everything crashed," she explained to me patiently.

I chose not to argue her point. Instead I said, "If you want to be a successful chef, then own it. Claiming your dream is the first step." I think I say things like this because of the personal growth stories I too often find myself editing at my job.

"Great!" she exclaimed. Then: "Mom, I want to do cooking classes." She ran out of the room, came back in with her laptop, and started Googling culinary schools in the city. "I want to start now," she said definitively.

She looked up the French Culinary Institute and saw that the amateur series cost upwards of $7000 for a few months. "Well, that's not happening," she said. She clicked over to the Italian Culinary Institute, which offers an 8-class series on the Essentials of Italian Cooking, including pasta, meats, antipasti, sauces and desserts. She has to be seventeen to enroll, and the next series starts two days after her seventeenth birthday. "Yesss," she exulted. "Someone is smiling on me!" And right then and there, she began to solicit her parents permission to apply—and agreement to pay.

She would attend classes two evenings a week from five-thirty to ten-thirty, and she swears that she would keep up with her schoolwork and not let her grades slip. I told her go for it.

Next she clicked over to a cooking blog she recently discovered and her voice took on that moan of sincere desire again. "Mom, look at this food photography. I want to make food look like that! Our kitchen light is too yellow."

From there we began to analyze how the blogger had styled her photos, the white seamless backdrop, the pretty cloths, the simple plates that didn't compete with the food. I said, "Well I have all these pretty tea clothes and napkins and table cloths that my mom gave me. They've just been sitting in the linen closet. Now I know why I have them!"

We found that kind of funny since I am not much of a lace and embroidery person and while we were laughing she decided to remake the cinnamon rolls she made two nights ago, which all our house guests ooohed and ahhhed over. But while she was happy with the taste of her first-time experiment, she was less thrilled with how the rolls were photographed. She posted the pictures to her food blog anyway, but now she has decided to redo the rolls and try photographing them differently.

"But, don't you have history homework to finish?" I dared to remind her. She gets huge volumes of history homework every night, a couple of hours worth at least.

"I have to wait for the dough to rise," she said happily. "One hour after I make it, and then another hour after I roll it up with the cinnamon. And then it goes it the oven. I'll do history while the dough is rising and finish it while the buns are baking."

And with that, she jumped up, pulled on her boots and jacket and went to the store to buy yeast and flour.

Definitely true love.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Embrace the Blur

On Thanksgiving day, I made such a nuisance of myself with my little red Canon camera that when people saw me coming they waved their hands in front of their faces and shooed me away. It didn't help that I dislike using flash. I prefer the richer colors and fuller dimensions of natural light to the flattened, washed out pallor of flash photography, but indoors late in the day that means people have to sit relatively still for you if you're going to avoid the blur. Actually, I don't mind the blur. I have a whole lot of photos from our Thanksgiving gathering that are blurred and lovely, because you can still see the connectedness and the love. I feel affection for the imperfection of those images and the way they suggest life is happening without artifice.

Our Thanksgiving dinner was shared by relatives and friends who live in New York City as well as some who came from as far away as San Francisco, Boston, Columbia, Maryland, and even Port of Spain, Trinidad. My cousin who lives in Trinidad came to surprise her sister who lives in Maryland, who travels with her daughters to be with us every year at this time. My cousin from San Francisco came to support her sister from Boston who is in the midst of a divorce. We had many sets of sisters in attendance this year, and a few men, too: My husband who did most of the cooking, my son, his best friend, two cousins-in-law, my 7-year-old nephew. There were 23 of us in all. The house was wonderfully crowded and comfortable. My 92 year-old aunt didn't feel up to joining us, so later in the evening about a dozen of us, nieces and nephews and grands, trooped over to her apartment to bring her dinner and dessert and wrap her in our convivial mood.

Here is a snap of my kids taken before the festivities. We had moved the living room furniture around to create more empty space for "flow." My husband retired to the bedroom while everyone else issued energetic opinions and instructions about how everything should be rearranged. As my husband famously commented at our wedding about the relatives who were about to become his family, "Everybody is a general. There are so soldiers here."



Friday, November 26, 2010

Cousins


Occasionally my family will get still enough for me to capture a moment like this one. My daughter and niece were simply sitting at the kitchen counter listening to family banter on Thanksgiving day and enjoying the fact of their easy, playful sisterhood.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The color of my wings





"Wake at dawn with 
winged heart and give thanks
for another day of loving."

—Khalil Gibran

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Homework





My son and my niece have each faced a challenging semester workwise, and at certain points they have sounded incredibly stressed on the phone. Their mothers have worried about their state of mind, wondering if they were discouraged to the point of being depressed. Apparently they both found this highly amusing, since between the stressed phone calls to their parents they have been enjoying college life as much as ever. My niece told me she and my son had discussed it, and they both agreed that before they considered jumping into any gorges, they would just come home. Their mothers could rest assured of that.

Now that they are home for the Thanksgiving break, I can see that in fact they are both quite fine, sense of humor intact, laughing easily. They just have a lot of work. My son says he plans to do very little of it while he's in the city, that he's going to take this week as a mental health break. My niece has the opposite approach. She has been up bright and early each morning, books in hand, setting up at our kitchen table where she can be surrounded by all the proceedings. My daughter has her usual eleventh grade homework and she, too, likes to work in the midst of everything.

Tonight, despite his declaration that he was doing no work this week, my son got into the action for a little while, reviewing an anatomy lecture, and our friend E., who goes to the same college, was here too. The boys fell away first, drawn to the Sunday night football game that my husband was watching, but the girls continued working intently. Later, though, everyone became engaged in rolling out homemade pasta, a communal undertaking that took much longer than anticipated and facilitated riotous stories and sincere sharing, with dinner of garlic shrimp and linguini not making it to the table until close to midnight.

Our internal clocks are completely awry. I'm glad my daughter only has to get through two days of school this week. She and I are back to normal today, by the way. When she woke up this morning, I was in the hallway, and she walked right over to me and put her head on my shoulder. I held her close and she held me back. As my friend deb of Talk at the Table, says, when parenting a teenager you have to practice "grace and patience and new every morning." That's just what we did.

Raising

"Night Light" by Lorenz Odom

Raising teenagers is such a hard thing. They want to be out with their friends at all hours, they're always sure everyone else is having the time of their lives and they're missing out, and they are deeply capable of shutting down their spidey sense when a situation turns dicey. They assume they are invulnerable, they will find their way, and thank God, mostly they do. But my heart can barely take it. I worry. What's new?

Last night, my daughter wanted to go to a party with her friends, including one who I think of as particularly level headed. When she and my daughter are together I believe they watch out for one another, make sure nothing goes so far they can't bring it back. Well, the details were kind of sketchy last night, a Beacon party at somebody's house, a fundraiser for a summer service trip, they didn't know whose house exactly but they rattled off the litany of their friends who would be there. I know and love all these kids, but I don't for a minute think the presence of many good friends at a party means the situation won't be dicey. I kind of wanted to say no (my daughter says I always want to say no, and that might be so), but I didn't. I trusted her to use her judgement, to call us if things began to unfold in unsafe ways.

Well, the party was wall-to-wall people, it got busted up by cops, they had to run out of there, but she didn't call us. At around 11 p.m. I sent her a text asking how things were there. No answer. I called her phone. No answer. I called her friend's mom to ask if she'd heard from her daughter and that's when I found out they weren't at the party anymore. I started calling my daughter's phone insistently and eventually she called me back. Their friend who just got his driver's license had come to get them and they were just riding around in the car, being together, having fun. I didn't like how aimless that sounded but I was willing to go with it provided I liked the answer to my other question. Who's in the car? She named them. Nice kids, but there were seven of them. In an SUV that holds five. That's when I said come home now. She argued and argued. Her dad and I didn't budge. She came home with her face screwed into an expression of holy pissed off-ness. No doubt her friend was angry, too, but she was her usual lovely self and scrupulously polite about the whole thing. Her mom picked her up soon after.

I knew I should wait before trying to talk to my daughter, but I was mightily pissed off, too. And frustrated at the degree to which she has no idea of all the ways things could have gone so wrong in every part of the evening.

But she was fine. Her friend who was driving even came upstairs to our apartment when he dropped the girls home so he could tell us good night and possibly mitigate things. He's a great kid and I thanked him for going to get the girls and refrained from lecturing him about having seven teenagers in the car. With my daughter and her friend now back in my home, his car would once again have a legal number of passengers. Our gift to him.

My daughter did the "You never let me" script which made me furious, given that all I ever do is let her. More than I really want to and more than I sometimes should if you want to know the truth. I let her and I trust her, and usually her judgment is impeccable (as far as I can tell). But when she doesn't show good judgment, when she puts herself in harm's way, as she did by running out of the party last night and then not calling us, instead waiting around on a late night street corner in an unfamiliar neighborhood for her friend to pick her up so she could pile into a car already full of shrieking teenagers, and then she comes home all pissy instead of strategically apologetic, then I have to reevaluate things.

It is such a crapshoot, getting our children through the teen years in one relatively whole piece. I recently read an essay by a mother who decided when her teenager was a fractious 14-year-old to just take her hand off the wheel, to surrender and make peace with all the dire possibilities, rape, drugs, kidnapping, heartbreak, disease, death—all of it. She let go and she gave in and she prayed and prayed, and her daughter made it to eighteen and into college, a little bruised but alive, and now they have begun to mend their relationship.

Is that really what this adolescent passage requires? Because while I don't judge that mother, while her approach sounds to me at this moment like the promise of relief, like powerful faith even, I don't know if I am capable of doing what she did. I think my heart might seize and stop long before we made it through to the other side. I worry so.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eataly and such pleasures

Nicole Bengiveno for The New York Times

The view from inside
My daughter and I finally made it to Eataly last weekend. That's the Italian food mall, more like holy ground for foodies, that opened on Twenty-third Street a few months ago. My daughter visited the original Eataly when she was in Italy last summer, and heard then about the one that would soon open in New York. She could hardly wait. And then school started and she was swamped with homework and soccer, and I was occupied with my mom and long story short, it took us this long to get there.

After waiting in a line that went around the block (the line moved quickly, admitting twenty-five customers every five minutes) we stopped for gelato, vanilla hazlenut for me, lemon and raspberry for my girl. Then we meandered through the aisles full of gorgeously packaged foods and fresh ingredients, with my daughter reliving her experience last summer as she happened across items she had used at the cooking school in Asti or learned about as part of the Slow Food Movement she was studying. It was fascinating to watch her pick out fresh produce, the way she tested one tomato and set it back down, then another, then chose the third. The way she held the asparagus up to the light, the sure manner in which she passed the sage in front of her face, then rolled her eyes heavenward with a sigh of pleasure. None of this sort of food play had ever been remotely thrilling to me, but on this day I got such joy watching the way natural food speaks to my child.

Bundles of freshly cut spaghetti
The best part was when we stood at the pasta counter so she could order freshly cut spaghetti. The people behind the counter seemed to move in slow motion, even blinking in slow motion, which no one seemed to mind. As we stood there waiting for the woman behind the counter to package our two bundles of spaghetti, wrapping it up in brown paper with as much care as one might handle an expensive gift, the man standing next to us smiled knowingly, then asked how we planned to cook the pasta. I pointed to my daughter and said, "She's the cook." My daughter answered that she was going to just toss it with freshly made tomato sauce and maybe some basil, and he said, "You know what would be great? Saute some sage in olive oil, don't be shy with the sage, but watch it so it doesn't start to get brown, then mix that in. And take a handful of salt, this much"—he opened his palm and drew a circle to show how much—"and toss that into the pasta water when it starts to boil. The spaghetti will drink it right in and give you great flavor." My daughter asked for a couple of clarifications as I stood aside and enjoyed her delight at exchanging cooking notes with an obviously seasoned chef. Afterwards, when we went back over to the produce section to get the sage, my daughter and I both had the feeling that we recognized the man from the Food Network. That made it one of those serendipitous New York City experiences, a brush with celebrity that was generously human and sweet.

The smells were heavenly
Back home, my girl whipped up the sage infused olive oil just as the man who might have been a Food Network chef had instructed, and mixed it into her pasta. It was delicious! My husband and I enjoyed the pleasure of our daughter making dinner for us. It was all ready in barely any time at all, from which I learned that fresh pasta cooks in three or four minutes, not the 20 minutes or so it takes to rehydrate the pasta I'm used to, and then cook it. This is something real foodies know, but I had no idea. I learn so much from my daughter.

On another note, the college kids arrive home for Thanksgiving break tomorrow night. I can hardly wait to look into their eyes, hug them.
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