Monday, May 31, 2010

Non-acceptance

They took my mom into the hospital in St. Lucia last night. Ever since my dad died 14 years ago, she seems to fall ill just before their wedding anniversary, which is June 11. She and my dad would have been married 61 years this year.

Just spoke to my mom by phone. She sounds quite good today. She is on a drip and on the mend, she says, watching tennis from her hospital bed. Her best friend in St. Lucia died two weeks ago. And in Jamaica, another friend suffered a debilitating stroke. My brother says that's what happens when you're 88, and you just have to accept it. I don't think my mom accepts it. I think she is mourning with her body. She thinks so too.

Still Life


These are unforgivably poor representations of prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photojournlist whose works are now on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. I saw the show last Friday evening with my daughter and one of her friends. They had an assignment for photography class to attend the show and choose two photographs to deconstruct, so I happily went with them.

The top print isn't in the show. The bottom print is, and among all the extraordinary images hung on the gallery walls, it stopped me cold. I couldn't move on from it. The composition is so perfect, the boy with his arm raised about to throw something in the background providing an active counterpoint to the focused stillness of the other boys; the one in the foreground, arms graciously extended, feet placed almost like a ballet dancer's amid the ruins; and the boy in the lower right, framed by a rag of white wall, seeming almost to have wandered into the frame.

I was subsequently fascinated to find the top photo online. It told me beyond a shadow of doubt that Cartier-Bresson set up the bottom image, composed it like a piece of living art, after happening upon the rambunctious group of boys inside that broken arch of wall. I love both photos. For me, they reinforce one another and reveal the full art and artifice of the man, his ability to capture both the roiling chaos of life, and then arrange it into a quieter tableau, almost a still life, allowing us to examine the scene in another way.

If you're going to be in the New York area, go see the show. These poor reproductions, probably copied from a book, don't do the work justice at all.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

My Face


My husband and I went walking along the Hudson River path this afternoon, strolling, taking pictures, stopping under trees, sitting on rocks to talk, then walking some more. He took this photo of me, and although I generally dislike photos of myself, for some reason I embrace this one, lines around the eyes, fullness of the face, grey at the temples, all of it. He is the only person who is able to take pictures of me that I don't immediately want to burn. I think it's because he sees me with generous eyes, and gives that back to me on film. He wouldn't let me take his portrait in return, though. He kept turning away, putting his hand in front of the lens, teasing me with funny faces, even when I reminded him that I would be looking through the lens with loving eyes. I sure would. But as you can see, no pictures of him, yet.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Camera

I've rotated through scores of backdrops for this page ever since I discovered Blogger in Draft's new design templates. I finally settled on an image of a camera and beveled edged snapshots, because it felt like an apt symbol for every stage of my life. Since then, I've gone back to the old Blogger template because several people told me they were having trouble leaving comments using the new template. And let's face it, comments trump redesign. As every blogger knows, you comment therefore we are.

Still, I got to thinking why a camera and snapshots seemed so fitting a metaphor for the stages of my life. Ever since my uncle gave me his used Nikkormat FTN when I was 10, I have wanted to photograph everything. During high school, I developed my own black and whites in the washroom out back of our house at 37 Paddington Terrace. It was down a long flight of stairs and under the raised back porch, and it had a wooden door whose weathered slats let in the light from outside. I would tape black construction paper over the open seams of the door, screw out the regular lightbulb and screw in a red one, and set up my enlarger and trays.

I could spend hours in my makeshift darkroom watching images come to life in the the various solutions, printing some negatives again and again, burning in this area, holding back the light in that one, trying to get balance and contrast and detail just right. Sometimes I would be in there until late into the night, even past midnight, and my dad would sit reading on the back porch, keeping watch over me till whenever I emerged. I wonder if I ever thanked him for his patient vigil on so many nights? I can't remember. Children take so much for granted. We assume there will always be time.

Back then, I dreamed of working at National Geographic or Life. I wanted to be the one taking the photographs. I used to pore over the pages of those magazines and marvel at what the lens had managed to capture, the experience the photographer had brought to me in my little corner of the world. When it came time to apply to college, I sent off my application to Rhode Island School of Design, thinking vaguely that I would pursue art and photography (I used to also be very involved in painting on canvas with acrylics back then.)

But my dad, the pragmatic civil servant, intervened. He was not sending me across an ocean to study anything quite so frothy as art. He declared that I could sit on a street corner and paint for the rest of my life if that's what I wanted, but I was going to have a choice. I was going to get myself a solid liberal arts degree that would give me options. That, he would subsidize.

That's how I ended up at Barnard in the program in the arts. I started out as a studio art major, but quickly switched to writing, which had always held such secret excitement for me. I had wonderful English and writing teachers at Barnard, and so my fate was sealed. I wouldn't be the one taking pictures after all. I'd be the one writing the story that accompanied the photos, which was okay by my lights, since you had to go everywhere the photographer went in order to do so.

I went on to get a masters in journalism at Columbia and then a job at Life. I traveled all the time, helping to facilitate the photographer's work while reporting on location, camping out in subjects' lives for literally months at a time. I then came back in from the field and tried to do the experience justice in words. It helped that I already thought in a visual way. Everyone at the magazine spoke that same visual language. It was, in retrospect, an excellent and entirely satisfying way for to spend 8 years.

I also married a man who takes pictures. He is an advanced scuba diver, and the photographs that involve him the most are his underwater shots. Well, he loves other kinds of picture taking, too, but it was underwater that he felt most challenged to capture on film what he saw.

Now, my 16-year-old daughter takes pictures. My husband and I have often mused that if she wants to pursue photography she chose the right parents. We own so many different kinds of cameras, and see picture taking as a noble and magical affair. It's why my husband will shell out real money to support my daughter's photography habit, in much the same way my dad used to support mine. Our girl is allowed to use any camera in the house that she chooses, even the antique Leica, even her dad's expensive Nikon digital SLR. We trust her with any of those precious pieces of engineering, because her love of the medium is as great as ours.

I know we aren't picture-makers of the caliber of a Gordon Parks or an Annie Liebovitz or a Michael O'Brien (each of whom I had the great privilege of working with while at Life). We're not masters of the art in the way those greats are. But we love taking pictures. And love is enough.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The House is Full Again

My son and my niece L are back from college. My son's best friend E just graduated from boarding school and in the fall will be headed to the same college that my son and niece attend (it's really becoming a family affair). They and others of my son's friends, fresh from their first year, are often hanging out in my living room. My daughter's friends are also coming through to say hello to the college kids. My daughter asked if five girls from her high school could stay over next weekend. I said yes. I always prefer the party to be happening in my house where I can see what's going on. On the car trip back from picking our son up from college, she informed him of the sleepover plan.

"Thanks for the heads up," he told her. "I'll make myself scarce."

"No you won't," she informed him. "You're the reason they're coming."

At which point he declared how offended he was that she was using him as a "trophy brother."

It's so hard being beautiful.

My son will working at the sleepaway camp he's attended every summer since he was 11, but that job doesn't start till June 12. He's a full-fledged counselor this year, instead of a counselor assistant, as he's now 18. He'll make at least enough to buy his books for sophomore year. A lot of close friends from his camping days will also be working, including some who live as far away as London and Rome. The camp, located by a lake in the Connecticut woods, is very much "their place." I think when my son looks back on his youth, it will be enormously significant in terms of friendships, mastery of self, and survival skills, both social and wilderness.

My niece L is working as a photographer's assistant, a job that is turning out to have quite a few perks as the photographer does many celeb shoots where there is beaucoup swag. My magazine hires him sometimes to cover events, and he'll say to my niece, "Your aunt hired me to do so and so, please tell her thank you." They both know I have nothing to do with the hiring of photographers! We're tickled that my niece, who is very petite, is doing this job, which requires her to cart all the photo equipment and do set ups and set break downs. But she's a strong girl. She's the number two ranked women's squash player back home. She has muscles!

With all the activity in the house, my daughter, the only one still in school, is challenged to keep her homework going, but she seems to be managing. Last year was the same thing, and she ended the year very nicely, on the honor roll. I hope she'll be able to do the same this year. She has also once again negotiated what now seems to be an annual Greenport trip with her longtime friends from elementary school, despite impending finals. It worked out okay last year. In fact, she studied harder for finals to prove I hadn't made a mistake in saying yes.

She was looking up the schedule for the Hampton Jitney last night, and assured me she would pay for it with her babysitting money. There are a couple of adorable little girls upstairs who keep asking their parents if my daughter can babysit them again. And, I will admit without shame, I also hired my daughter to do the laundry weekly. Yes, I pay her. That way she is obligated to do a good job and carry on through from start to putting-clothes-away finish. It works out well, because I passionately hate laundry and she doesn't mind it. And she likes making money. She buys her own clothes these days. So grown.

Our friend Jax from Antigua, who introduced my husband and me, was also in town for a few days. We dined out, did Broadway (we saw Fela! with my daughter and my niece, then had a late night Japanese dinner), grooved in jazz clubs, shopped and just walked the city sidewalks. It is such fun to do the city with Jax. She is so excited by it all. She gives you the experience of seeing it anew, and getting excited again, too. New York is electric. We take for granted how alive it is at all hours of the day and night. Being with Jax reminded us. It also helped my husband and me plug back into "our story," the magic and romance of it, and that always makes everything shimmer just a little but more.

I also love when the house is full because my husband and daughter get inspired to create in the kitchen. They love an audience, the more the merrier. Last night my husband made ropa vieja and jasmine rice, specially requested by our son, while our daughter experimented with a raspberry jam crumb cake, which was beyond heavenly and did not last the night.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Luck & Grace

After reading my last post, my daughter came to me and said gently, "Don't worry, Mama, I have always known that I am lucky, too."

I found her simple assurance so moving. It left me thinking about the nature of luck. I decided that it is not so much that we get everything we want, but that we recognize and appreciate when good things come to us for no reason we can fathom other than simple grace. Maybe "luck" is the reward for dwelling on the good that happens and, no matter our challenges, holding that as the greater truth.

I feel incredibly lucky to have this child in my life. She is pure grace.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mercury Out of Retrograde

I was the teenager who wanted to know everyone's birthday, but not just when they were born, I wanted the time of day and the location too. I didn't just hold with the entertainment of astrology, I went deep into books that taught me the arcane calculations, so that I could construct detailed, mysterious looking charts of where every planet was located at the time of someone's birth. I knew all the symbols by heart, knew the significance not just of which planet was in which house, but also the meaning of the degree. I played with how conflicting placements mitigated one another. I had favorite aspects: a trine was happy but too easy. A square, on the other hand, meant you had a shot at developing the force of character, thought and will required to achieve something of lasting value. I even believed that it was possible to read a chart to discover the purpose of your present life and to discern what you had encountered in past incarnations that would inform your work in this one. It was all a fascinating soup, and I loved trying to making sense of it and imposing it's graphic order on my world.

Everyone else outgrew asking other people what sign they were. I grew deeper into it. By the time I had my first job, and there was a computer in my home, I bought a professional strength astrolger's program, and for a while, I was in heaven. I loved playing with that thing, loved being able to plug in dates and times and locales and come up with a map of personal relationships. It was the relationships that most fascinated me. I didn't much care about optimum dates for business pursuits, contracts, real estate deals, and the like. It was the alchemy of human interaction that drove my curiousity.

Then my children were born. When each of them were babies, I did their charts. And then, until my son was about age 3, and my daughter age 1, I would revisit their wheels, interpreting and reinterpreting their futures. Until suddenly one day, I no longer wanted to do that. I no longer wanted to think I knew anything at all about their futures. I suddenly realized they were their own blank slates, and it was their task to map out their own futures. My job was to guide and nurture them, to try not to mess them up too much, and to pray like hell.

For a while, though, I couldn't get their charts out of my head. My chart is filled with trines and sextiles, which are lucky aspects generally, but a little wishy-washy. My husband's chart is the same, and after we met, we both admitted almost guiltily to one another the secret belief that we were born lucky. Sometimes it seemed we had only to wish for something, and soon it would fall across our path. When I was writing a book or story, I would always run across the information or experts that I needed right as I got to that place in the work. Even now, when I am working on a story, some event will blow up in the news that makes it ever more timely. It has happened again and again. I know, of course, that perspective is everything. I know that I may run across details I don't even know I am seeking because I am more tuned in to a thing, and so I will notice information that might otherwise have slipped my attention. Still, I like to think there is a little magic, a little God, involved. I like to think my angels are particularly loving, attentive and gifted.

My children's charts, on the other hand, are filled with squares and oppositions. Suddenly, my teenaged conviction that this, this was the kind of chart it took to accomplish things in life, abandoned me. Selfishly, I wanted my children to have it easy. I wanted them never to have to suffer. Which I know, when I am in my right mind, is tantamount to wanting them never to grow. We grow from our trials. We get stronger. I know this. So why did I clutch at the aspect in my daughter's chart that suggested (to unforgivably simplify things) that she would either lose herself in addictions or be a highly evolved spiritual being. I hate that I even let that into my mind! Sixteen years later, I can see that my girl is spectacularly wise, deeply kind, and a spiritually evovled soul. I want to apologize to her every day that I was ever watching, calculating, wondering which path she would take. I wish I had accorded her simple faith. I should have understood that I could trust her angels as much as I trust mine.

(On the other hand, I did laugh with delight when my infant son's chart told me he and I had been astrologers together in a king's court in Spain. Oh, yes.)

So this is why, when my friends would ask me to do their children's charts, I would say, no, you don't want that. Just let them be. Let them show you who they are and who they want to become. Eventually, I stopped consulting astrological charts altogether and began to enjoy the sweet mystery of chaos, the everyday surprise of events simply unfolding, without any attempt by me to impose preordained meaning. Later, I even decided that horoscopes could be read any way a person chose, that they were plastic enough to fit any given real-life scenario.

The second thing that made me stop consulting astrology was when I keyed in on the trickster Mercury retrograde. The incidence of the planet Mercury appearing to move backwards as viewed from our revolving world occurs roughly four times a year, and it's supposed to bring rampant miscommunication, technology breakdowns, contractual fiascos. Astrologers say it's supposed to reveal the lie that we are in control. Mercury retrograde is a good aspect for finishing up old business or reconnecting with people from your past, but other than that, everything seems effed up, everything needs to be done twice, misunderstanding need to explained, broken fences mended. But I had to stop worrying about Mercury retrograde because who can stop their life for three weeks at a time, waiting for Mercury to move forward? Life demands that you wade right in and do your best, even when Mercury pauses.

That said, I did regress a little this month. This last Mercury retrograde (late April to mid May) has presided over exasperating miscommunications and equipment breakdowns. At home our modem stopped working, my BlackBerry refused to load pages, and at work, nothing pleased our boss, yet she couldn't quite communicate exactly what was displeasing her so we could get busy fixing it. We'd fix what we thought she said wasn't working for her, and she still wasn't happy. We basically ground to a halt on multiple stories.

My niece B was also having the worst of times with her roommate, all of it around their inability to communicate effectively with one another. B finally decided to move out. My husband and I worried that she might be moving too precipitously for a number of reasons, but she found the perfect place for herself yesterday, in the same neighborhood that she likes, at a rent that is $3 less than she is currently paying. She messaged me photos of the light filled place, and then texted me this: "I feel like everything that was going wrong went right this week!"

Thrilled for her, I didn't text back: That's because Mercury just came out of retrograde.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Usual Posture


Our boy's home, having completed his freshman year of college in what seems like a nanosecond. Even he feels how quickly it went by. He says, "I'm not a stupid freshman anymore. Now I'm a stupid sophomore." He slept till two this afternoon on the couch, the TV watching him. Now he's whistling in the shower. He's been under the spray for about 40 minutes so far. My husband went with our daughter to her soccer game. Later we'll all make paninis and watch a movie. The four of us together again. Don't blink.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pie and Promise

My daughter's blueberry peach pie

When I came home from work my daughter was busy flouring and rolling out the dough on our counter, brows knitted in concentration. She was making a blueberry peach pie, her first time. I kept coming into the kitchen for this and that, and to see what she was doing. Finally she said, "Mom, you know how when you're writing you want to be left alone with your thoughts to create?" I nodded, because I do know. "Well, she said, I'm feeling that way right now. I'm kind of waiting for you to leave to kitchen so I can work out what I'm doing."

This baking and cooking is truly a creative pursuit for her. I went into the bedroom where my husband was setting up our new modem (our old one died over the weekend) and said, "I think we have a genuine foodie on our hands, and it's your fault." He smiled proudly. 

A junior at her high school saw her food blog and wrote to her on Facebook, asking if she would do a food column in the school's literary magazine. He said the idea for adding columns was brand new, and so she had complete freedom to do her column any way she chose, he was completely open. She was thrilled and nervous. "Why me?" she said. "There are so many amazing cooks in my school."

"That's just fear talking," I told her, going full-tilt into dime store psychology. "But this is how opportunities arise, and you can't sit around wondering if you're worthy. Just know that you are. And if you want, you could give all those amazing cooks a forum by featuring them in your column from time to time. You can set this up however you want to."

For awhile we sat and brainstormed all the things she could do: chef interviews, restaurant reviews, recipes from her, her classmates, teachers, even the little kids, and so on. At a certain point she wanted to stop brainstorming with me and claim the development of her column for herself. I could see her rambling around in her thoughts all night long.

I wonder sometimes if we're witnessing the moment when her future arrives and makes itself known. Her enjoyment of cooking and cuisine is definitely a clue. Come to think of it, even when she was a little girl—and her brother wanted to eat only chicken nuggets and fries—her palate was super sophisticated, tending towards salmon mousse and shrimp serviche and other culinary forays by her dad. It's kind of exciting to watch your children's passions unfold. You never know the wonderful places they might go. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Daughter's Pictures

"Baskets"
My daughter snapped this at a street fair last weekend.
I love the graphic nature of this, circles within circles.
"Shh..."
My daughter says this image of her friend is meant to illustrate
the silencing of girls who overvalue conformity.
"Train Station"
I really like the perspective and the composition,
with the man about to disappear into negative space.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Very Good Birthday

Twinkie cake
Yesterday was my birthday. My husband made one of my favorite dishes for dinner (pasta with sun dried tomatoes and portobello mushrooms), we set out our traditional "Twinkie Cake" (yellow cake with white icing), and four of us, totally off-key, belted out the tune.

I was so stoked the way I kept getting happy birthday wishes all day on Facebook, a steady stream of them from family and friends, scrolling up my wall. The first, just after midnight, was from my niece B. By the time I woke up, there were birthday wishes from my nieces in Vancover. Soon they were joined by happy postings from nieces in Jamaica, in Toronto, in Nassau, in Miami, and from the niece who's at college upstate with my son. I was so tickled by the extraordinary number of people who call me "aunt" and sent along their love.

There were also messages from my daughter (not my son, he called by phone), my cousins, friends across the globe, ex-coworkers, other mothers with whom I've shared my kids' school years and who are now independently my friends, as well as from cohorts from my own high school years way back when in Jamaica. I felt so connected.

As my niece L posted on my wall just before midnight (creating the sweet synchronicity of well-loved nieces bookending my day), "I know I messaged you happy birthday by phone this morning, but it's really not official till it's on Facebook, right?"

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Secret Life of Bloggers

My daughter and my niece, B, have both started blogs. My daughter's is a foodie blog, mainly a place to put up photos of her culinary creations, mostly desserts. My niece B's blog is to chronicle her journey to getting fit enough to run 26 miles for breast cancer awareness in October. I was her first commenter today and also her first donation to the cause! So proud of her.

My daughter had other commenters before her dad and me. Some of her school friends weighed in immediately with their various witticisms. In fact, after a couple of comments, I decided that maybe I should just say my comments to my girl in person, that her parents commenting all the time might inhibit her friends' participation. Kind of the way we parents know better than to always be posting comments on our children's wall on Facebook. The rule for parents who are Facebook friends with their kids? Lurk in radio silence.

My niece B knows I have a blog but she doesn't have the address. I write under a different name than my working name. My name here is the composite of my parents' middle names because I don't want any of my coworkers to google me and find my blog. I just feel freer that way.

Also, I have been reticent about mentioning this blog to family members (other than my immediate family) because I don't want to feel inhibited when I write. I am not writing here to keep relatives up to date on our family. Really, I am writing for myself, to process whatever might need processing, to skip through whatever fields of thought I find myself traversing that day, to post pictures I want to look back on, all of it selfishly for me. I don't want beloved cousins to wonder why I never mention them or their kids, why I didn't write about that wonderful afternoon we spent together, or conversely, why this thing or that thing so upset me, and how come I never bothered to tell them about some other thing? It is completely random what I share here. I want to preserve that.

I used to keep a journal, and when I got married, I made my husband promise never to read it because anyone reading those pages would just know that I was the most disturbed human on earth, depressed, self-loathing, addictive, and so very dark. That's because I only wrote in my journals when I was desolate, never when I was happy. I was too busy enjoying the happy times to pause in a solitary place and write them down. But in those desolate times I needed the therapy of the pen on the page. I needed to get the darkness out of me before I was consumed, to clear the weight in the middle of my chest before it crushed me.

This blog is a little different from the journals. It's a record of sorts, yes. But a very idosyncratic one. And while it does serve sometimes as a place where I can release dark thoughts or find my way out of a quagmire of emotion, it is also a place where I can express the awesome love and gratitude that sometimes stops me in my tracks and sits me down in pure and blissful wonder.

For all these reasons I have been hesitant to open this space up to my niece only because I don't want her to announce it to all our other family members. I can write without inhibition if she's checking in, but that's not true of everyone she might casually mention this to. But I can just ask her to keep it to herself, right? I can just explain that I want to share this space with others slowly, judiciously, and in some cases, not at all.

Surely that should be okay?
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