Friday, May 29, 2015

Illusion/ Delusion

I am feeling a little adrift this morning, no, a lot adrift. Eyes leaky. Throat full. Chest in a vise. Perhaps I have simply been quiet long enough this week for the feelings to catch up with me. I feel as if everyone is out there living their lives, doing important and fascinating things together, and I sit at my desk, day after day, writing a book, such a solitary endeavor, and yet it is what I choose. Still, I am lonely.

I know this loneliness originates within me. Nobody is doing this to me. There are people around. The man comes home from work every day and he is wonderful and companionable. I look forward to seeing him walk through the door come evening. It's like everything good clicks into place again, and I bask in his rooted presence. But then dusk comes, and the long night stretches out ahead of me, the ceiling of my apartment presses down on my head, and I realize I didn't go outside all day, and I think, what am I doing with my life? It is passing me by.

I did a story on American hermits for Life magazine once. I pitched the piece and then found six hermits to profile for a photo essay. That image of me on Knife Lake was taken while I was reporting the story. The photographer was the late great Brian Lanker, who is probably now dancing with Mary Ellen Mark in a grand reunion on the other side. Why was I so interested in the hermits, I wonder. I felt such a kinship with them. I really understood when they described the feeling of the world being too much with them. I was in my twenties, but already I had a tendency to isolate, to stay in my corner and away from social discourse. Writing is an escape in some ways, except when I'm stuck and trying to figure out the way forward, as I am now, and then it becomes clear that I need a fuller life.

I feel so tired this morning. My head aches, my body aches, my heart aches. Every day I hear about another death, someone else departing this world. It's the way of things. I am at that age when most of my peers are losing people. The generation ahead of me is taking their leave. I feel so orphaned, so alone. I understand now why my mother did not fear death. Most of her loved ones were already on the other side. She was sure she would see them again. She looked forward to it, torn because her children and grandchildren were still in this world, but she began pointing to the next world all the same.

It's a bit how I am feeling this morning, as if the party has moved to another place, and I am in the old hall, wrung out by love and wasted from loss, dirty dishes and half filled glasses and balled up napkins scattered around.

The truth is another kind of party arrives tonight. My son is bringing home a friend who is flying in from England and staying the weekend. He's a sweet kid who I became quite fond of last summer. Some of my son's other friends will be arriving tomorrow, as there is a big pro rugby game on Saturday that several of the camp crew will be playing in. So you see, I am not really alone in a physical sense, it just feels that way in this moment.

They say our human sense of separation is just illusion, we are as connected to the whole as water in a cup bobbing in an endless sea. But the illusion feels real and tearful this morning. This too will pass.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rome Dispatch

I don't have much actual news from Rome. There is mostly radio silence from my girl, which I take to mean things are humming along after an uncertain start. I did see a sweet video on Facebook, posted by one of the roommates, of my girl and two others using the serving spoons as mics for a rousing song-and-dance rendition of "Chameleon" while making dinner ("Cama-cama-cama-cama-cama chameleon..."). I also got a text reminder to please send rent (for her college housing), and last night, well after midnight my time, these pictures scrolled into my phone. I asked permission to post. The last photo is of my daughter with one of The Six, who is traveling around Europe this summer after a semester abroad in Prague. Apparently she is in Rome this week! The girls look great. As you said, resilient.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So Long, Mary Ellen Mark

The photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, died yesterday at age 75. She was one of the gifted lens women and men I was privileged to know back in the days when I worked as a reporter for Life magazine. I was never actually assigned to a story with her, but I got to know her in the halls of the offices, a slim, raven-haired woman with her trademark two long braids and the kindest of eyes. I remember how she stopped to talk with me when I was first hired, to welcome me into that rarified world that was photojournalism in the 1980s. She was one of my favorites, and not just because her work was so truthful, but also because she had the rare ability to make every person she encountered feel truly seen.

Though she photographed many celebrities (how could I resist that photo of Jeff Bridges) and later in life shot some memorable ad campaigns, her true passion was for society's outcasts, the runaway street kids in Seattle, the teen prostitutes of Bombay, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the people who felt just a little bit weird in their skin. Without judgment or artifice, Mary Ellen Mark saw their humanity and she captured it on  film, usually black and white, so that the rest of us could be awakened too. She painted with light and shadow and emotion, hers and her subjects', whose essence she was always able to touch. Her subjects trusted her, and because she tended to stick around for a while, they grew to love her too. As indeed, her colleagues loved her.

She was nominated for an Academy Award for Streetwise, the documentary about Seattle runaways that she made with her husband, Martin Bell, and a brilliant reporter at Life, Cheryl McCall, also now deceased, with whom Mary Ellen was often paired on assignments. Streetwise had been a Life story before it was a documentary. In recent years, Mary Ellen had gone back to find the subjects of that story, and was working on a new book about one of them, a girl, now a woman, named Tiny. The photo at left is a famous one of Tiny, taken in 1983, when the Life photo essay appeared. The image below is from the same shoot, every frame a kick in the solar plexus.

On Facebook today, all the former Life reporters and writers are queuing up to sing the praises of this extraordinary soul. One of them, my friend Linda, simply wrote: "Think Cheryl and Mary Ellen are working together again? Here's hoping. Or as Hemingway'd say, 'Isn't it pretty to think so?' "

So long, dear Mary Ellen. I hope I'll see you later. I am so much the richer for having crossed paths with you in this mysterious life. Thank you for the great work you did and for the exquisitely gracious woman you always were.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Generation next

The man and I were at my niece's high school graduation party in Maryland yesterday. The event was in the evening but our other niece, the one attending dental school nearby, came early to spend the day with us. My goddaughter, the graduate, was excited to see her big cousin. Breakfast was "pick-up" codfish and boiled green bananas, a real Jamaican feast. I like that portrait I made of my niece, above, sitting in my cousin's living room.

My two were off on their own in Rome (my daughter) and at a bachelor party in Atlantic City (my son), but my niece represented them. My husband and I admitted to each other later that it had felt as if one of ours, our eldest, was there with us.

I'm always thrilled to see my gentle-spirited nephew, who was fresh from his freshman year. His dad showed us a video somebody made about him and in it he said he wanted to play guitar till the day he died and then a few days after that. He also said he'd wanted to be B.B. King. I posted the video, which included snippets of my nephew playing, on Facebook. Ms. Moon commented,"He has been touched by the gods." B.B. King's adopted daughter would know.

My Uncle Don was there, visiting from Jamaica. He was married to my dad's baby sister Elaine, who died many years ago when my cousins were in their twenties. Uncle Don is 88 now and in peak health, but he is lonely. About his granddaughters, he said to me, "You have no idea how much Elaine would have loved to see these girls." His voice quavered with emotion as he added, "This living alone thing is no joke." It was not the non sequitur it seemed.

That's the graduate on the right, with her older sister. They took over the basement for a dance party while the older folks, parents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, friends and neighbors of parents, enjoyed burgers and hot dogs from the grill as well as jerk chicken, escoveitch fish, plantains, hardo bread, salad and cake. It was a lovely multi-generational event, the kind I wish we had more often in New York, but cramped apartments make it hard. At Thanksgiving, we do try.

Meanwhile in Rome my daughter was having to adjust of her fantasies of what the experience was going to be like and settle down to the reality of it. Transitions are hard. New people are hard. She texted me that she wandered around Rome by herself this afternoon, a little anxious and moody, but then she wrote about finding solace in the overhead dance of seagulls as she stood on a stone bridge. Her dad took the photo of us before she left for the airport last week Thursday. She joked that we have taken a million pictures in just that spot before a million goodbyes. We talked on FaceTime tonight. She said, "I'm only three days in. I have to remember that." Some loneliness is probably normal. I hope she will pour that surfeit of emotion into her writing. She has to write three crafted pieces each day, based on her inner and outer experience of the city. I know that it can be easier to write when you're a little bit melancholy, but the mother in me wishes the world would just conform to her fantasies already. Sometimes I see that I have passed on a shadow of my own chemistry to my child, and I wish I could have spared her that. Especially in Rome.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Adventure Girl, Grown

My youngest flies to Rome this evening, where she will visit literary and historical sites with other students as inspiration to write poetry, fiction and personal narrative for a month. I'm glad she enjoys writing; my son would stab his eyeballs if he had to do this, even in Rome! For this, the students will earn six college credits—two courses towards their degree for a month of creative writing and culinary exploration. Not a bad deal.

You'd think it would get easier to let her go. Instead, my nature is to obsess on details like reminding her to call the bank to let them know she'll be abroad so they don't put a freeze on her card and adding international texting to her phone while she says with exaggerated patience and a bit of eye rolling, "Mom, I'm actually grown."

We went shopping yesterday afternoon for things like a messenger bag with lots of zippers and hidden pockets (the better to foil pickpockets) and some pretty rad sunglasses. You know, the necessities. My girl also picked up a ten dollar fedora on a whim, calling it her Indiana Jones adventure hat. I'd say she's ready!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movers and Shakers

Here are a few photos from the weekend just past. The one above is a classic little sister shot, but I'm noticing that most are pictures of people posing shoulder to shoulder for the camera, as if to say, I was here on this day, when this special thing happened. I suppose we mark such moments because we want the feeling of being a part of something, we want to remember the sense of human connection that I often think is what this whole earthly kerfuffle is about.

These three used to play together as little tykes behind the scenes at the American Museum of Natural History. The graduate here is the daughter of one of my husband's former colleagues at the museum. She ended up going to middle school with my daughter (she was one year ahead my girl) and then to the same college as my son (she was two years behind him). Seeing her graduate this weekend was a grand reunion of childhood playmates who have grown up to be very good friends. 

That's my heart son E, who grew up in the building next door to us and who has been like a brother to my two children from before any of them could say their names. He graduated this weekend, and we would not have missed it. Except E almost did miss it. He overslept, and was not among the graduates as they marched in. We kept trying to find him in the procession, and then we were all texting him like crazy, with no response. Eventually, well after the ceremony had begun, we saw this tall very cool dude strolling down the now empty path all by himself, graduation gown flowing behind him, casual as you please as he joined the rest of his class. I'd have to say this is totally in keeping with his usual chill vibe.

At lunch later with his mom and brother and us, E gave each person at the table a beautiful original screen printed artwork as a way to say thank you for being part of his village. I was so touched. He's a very fine visual artist. He studied psychology but I hope he will also continue his art.

These young men used to be my son's housemates in college. Three of them were on hand to see the fourth receive with his doctorate in physical therapy. The graduate is standing next to my boy, who is on the right. Needless to say they partied the weekend away, as if they were still in college rather than responsible young men all now gainfully employed. "I am now a doctor!" the graduate told us. As if he couldn't quite believe it himself.

Here's my girl with one of her closest friends at college, a young woman who, like her, is the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. They commiserate about their overprotective mothers a lot. They are standing in the library of the Africana Studies department, in front of a portrait of the late Dr. John Henrik Clarke. My daughter took me on a tour of the department, where some of her favorite classes have been held. She didn't know until I told her that Dr. Clarke was the first person ever to publish my work when he chose one of my stories for his anthology Black American Short Stories. I was in my late twenties and I was just blown away. Even now, it humbles me to think I brushed shoulders with this great scholar and historian and all-around wonderful man.

My girl didn't have to do a big move this year as she'll be living in the same house for senior year. But her friend Henri had to move out of her off campus housing for the summer, and my girl offered our car and her dad's brawn to help accomplish the move. Henri's storing her things in the capacious basement of the house my daughter shares with roommates. They got lucky. It's definitely one of the better student houses though it is definitely the creakiest house I have ever been inside. No one can sneak around in there, that is for sure. Every footfall cries. Because it has so much space, it's often where the parties happen, which means a lot of constant cleanup. There are always tradeoffs.

This child of mine can just walk into a space and everyone feels happier without knowing why. She has that rather magical ability to lift the mood of anyone who happens to be in proximity to her, and she doesn't even realize she's doing it. It's just who she is. Her friend Henri is also a person who naturally elevates the mood around her. She is so passionate about horticulture and the natural world and really everything under the sun in a way that makes everyone else get excited about the possibilities too. My husband and I took our daughter and a couple of her friends to dinner on Sunday night, and Henri regaled us all with arcana about plant grafting and its many applications and we were utterly fascinated.

Hard to believe junior year is all but over. He has one more exam and she has one more paper and then they will be seniors! He has a sought after engineering research fellowship on campus this summer, and she also got chosen for a research position, something looking at bicultural identity formation through social media and film; I'm not that clear on the details. I only know my girl is excited to have found summer work that is meaningful even though she won't be able to start till she gets back from Italy. Did I mention she's going to Rome in two days to do a month-long creative writing program? There she is below, in an end-of-school photo booth celebration with the freshman she mentored this year, whom she absolutely adores.

Well, I'm off to meet my daughter, who actually had a business lunch today for another summer project, this one food and beverage related. She is going to try and do it all. But first she has to get ready for Roma. We're going shopping this afternoon for a few items she still needs. These are the times when I love not having to go into an office anymore. Happy life.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Road trip

We hit the road late this afternoon after my choir gave a concert at a nursing home. What a fantastic audience! Attentive and musically knowledgeable. Singing along. Two gentlemen in the front row calling out appreciative comments at random moments. Loved them and love the quirky souls in my choir. Especially our funny and cranky and charismatic choir director who told me I looked like "a sumptuous dish of sherbert" in my spring pastels. She'd insisted on spring colors which was a bit of a challenge for me who usually wears black. But I obliged her. We all did. Grumbling, we lay aside our New York uniforms of black and gray and navy and made ourselves a colorful garden. We looked festive. Now the man and I are traveling. Going to one beloved child's graduation and collecting another from her junior year. Sweet. That's a photo of me in my spring sherbet colors, on the road in our groovy new automobile.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Is that house in the picture above not a beautiful home? I always loved wrap around porches like that. This house happens to be in Brooklyn, though I'm sure people never imagine such houses there. What would it be like to look out from that turreted room and write and dream? Maybe I'd get lonely. I might miss the surging humanity of city life happening just outside my door. I don't actually have to go out and be in it. Just knowing I can do that at any moment is enough for me most days. I actually really like my house on those days, though it is only a modest fifth-floor apartment. But the windows are large and look out at trees. The light in my living room was beautiful this morning, and outside the window in front of my desk, branches in full leaf swayed almost poetically in a lazy breeze. The voices of little children from the nursery school downstairs floated up to me, and I could hear the faint noise of construction in a distant part of the building. I felt peacefully alone and gently accompanied at the same time. That's how it feels on a good day. Today was a good day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

True story

I'm realizing that the fun of this ghostwriting project for me is the chance to explore the interiority of the subject, to tell the external story, yes, but also to find the inner story of what happened, the feelings and quiet transformations that were provoked by outer events. It is not unlike writing fiction, because some of it you have to imagine, because your subject won't always tell you what things felt like in words that will translate to the page. So you take what she says and you enlarge it, and then you read it back to her and she says, "Yes, exactly. That's how it was."

I'm thinking it probably helps to be overly emotional in regular life, it helps to be a little bit depressive and prone to melancholy, and to have a hyperactive imagination, because you are then capable of composing a whole opera of feelings and emotions that might attend a situation, especially if given a running start by the person who actually lived it.

I can't exactly explain why it's the most exciting part, but diving deep into the interiority of my subject is what brings the whole endeavor to life for me. Hopefully it will do the same for anyone who might read this book one day. Until then, the privilege of interpretation is all mine.

As my son likes to say, "True story, bro."

The photo up top was taken by a wonderful photographer named Jorge Quinteros in a coffee shop in Brooklyn called DevociĆ³n. The middle sign caught my eye: "Give me an ounce of coffee good Apothecary to sweeten my imagination." I'm off to make my own coffee and hopefully to sweeten my imagination for the day ahead.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kickin it

I love the comments you all leave here, and I enjoyed answering them in the comment box this morning. I always remember Ms. Radish King saying that the real party is in the comments section. Though I'd also intended to write a post, I never did get to it as I had to get cracking on work. I've figured out that I need to write 1,000 or so words each day to meet all due dates for the book. I'm closing in on 20,000 words and will have to find my way to 70,000. I'll be right here all summer, diligently writing. If I'm ever scarce, you'll know why.

Just popping now to say hey, all is well over here. My son has a friend from England who is with us for the week, one of the guys who was here last year as well. Another friend is coming in from St. Thomas tonight, a young woman who is one of his closest friends from college, whom I rather adore. He just told me that his other friend will also be here (I'm getting rather fond of her, too), so it sounds like there might be a party brewing. The summer revolving door at the family bed and breakfast is ramping up.

The man and I are heading upstate this weekend to attend my heart son's graduation from college (same one my son and niece went to), and to pick up our girl for the summer. Her junior year is almost done! She will have a two-day turnaround before heading off to Rome for a month as part of a creative writing and studio art program called "Imagining Rome." She will live with other students in apartments and they will visit historic sites together as inspiration for their writing and studio art assignments. She has a nice life.

Right now, though, that nice life is wall-to-wall papers and end-of-year projects. I am in awe of how many papers she has managed to churn out in the past two weeks alone—really sophisticated thinking and writing. Could this really be issuing from my dreamy little girl? On top of all that there was Slope Day at her school last Thursday, an annual lineup of outdoor concerts and a carnival like atmosphere on campus. My girl and her roommates had a party the night before, a barbecue the night after, and a bonfire the night after that.

In the midst of that three-day period, this child had a dance performance with her step team, and wrote two papers, one for a class called The Black Intellectual and one for something called Intergroup Dialogue Project. I was allowed to read the latter one and in my humble opinion it was kick ass. This, after completing several other papers the week before.

Her dad told her that in two weeks she had written more papers than he had written in his entire college career. He was in the sciences and infinitely preferred midterms and finals to the agony of writing papers. I was the opposite. Give me a paper over a final exam any day. I bet most of you here are the same way. Just a guess, given that blogging is a written enterprise.

Someone told my girl in her freshman year, when the work seemed to be more than she had ever faced in her life, and she was wondering if it was insurmountable, that she was not to worry, by the end of college she would be working very quickly at a high level. I think it's happened. She now has to submit a problem set (whatever that means), write a peer review and another paper, and sit an exam and then she's done. Sounds like a lot to me but she says she over the hump even though studying for her final in Supply Chain Management "is going to be annoying."

She also said she wrote a draft of the last paper due two weeks ago. It's for her Ethics of Eating class and this is the prompt: "If you are a feminist you must also be a vegan or a vegetarian. Discuss." Huh? I'm curious to read that one.

The photo up top is the one my girl posted on social media for Mother's Day. Her dad took the picture. I love it, and them. And of course, my boy.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


This is my favorite picture of my mom. 
This is how I always saw her, even at the end.

I'm also remembering our dear Nana, with my children above.
And below is my mom with her four oldest grandchildren.
My husband and I were blessed with good mothers.

And here's one more, my grandmother, with all her grandchildren up to Maureen, who is four years older than me. Eighteen more grandchildren were born after these, the first ten. Been looking for an excuse to run this picture. Today is the day. This extraordinary woman started the whole train rolling. She is the one who instilled in her nine children the gospel of devotion to family. The lesson took, and continues down through the generations. I am said to look like her, which despite the fact that we both have the weight struggle, I consider to be a supreme compliment and privilege. She is legendary. She made my mom.

Friday, May 8, 2015


My friend and I were on the phone this morning talking about self-absorption and neediness and fishing expeditions. It started with her telling me about the mother of one of her eighth-grade daughter's  friends, who every time they meet brings up all the wonderful schools her daughter got into for high school, and my friend thinks that she keeps bringing it up because she wants her to say, "Oh how wonderful, how brilliant your child is," and my friend keeps not giving her the satisfaction.

"Why won't you say it to her?" I asked.

"She needs it too much," my friend said. "I was taught that that kind of neediness is untoward."

Yes, my friend uses words like "untoward."She's a wonderful writer and we made a good team when we were both at the same magazine, writer and editor, similarly obsessive and perfectly simpatico, though in physical appearance we could not be more different. She is petite and muscular in a thin athletic way, and I am, well, not. But emotionally and psychologically, we get each other. And we have history. Our friendship has deepened since we both got laid off from the magazine six months apart. Now we know we're both choosing each other, rather than just being thrown together on the job.

But back to our convo.

I asked her, "If this mother needs the affirmation why not just give it to her? I mean, her daughter did do well. She's proud of her."

"It's so self-absorbed to be that needy," she said. "Plus it's her daughter that got into those schools, not her." I should point out that my friend's daughter got into the top boarding school in the country, which may have something to do with this woman wanting her to acknowledge that her own daughter is special too. Yes, she's probably being needy and isn't fully aware of it, but I kind of have a soft spot for people who aren't overly concerned with how they're coming across.

My friend then brought up a women we both know, call her Sabrina, who is in our age range, who posts selfies daily, some of them looking sultry and suggestive, some of them looking fairly raw and unflattering.

"No woman over 40 should be posting selfies like that," she said. "It reveals a level of self-absorption that is just embarrassing. I mean, I'm self-absorbed and vain and I know it, but I don't have to put it on display for the world."

I pointed out that I sometimes post selfies, but only when they lie about my chins! She said, "Well, I don't see you as vain in that way so maybe I have to rethink this."

"But I am vain," I said. "That's why I post selfies that lie. Whereas Sabrina posts pictures of herself in all conditions, and I suspect she's happy with how she looks in all of them! Maybe she's doing that Cindy Sherman thing where her face is her art and she's exploring all its moods and shades. She's not bound by needing to appear a certain way."

We kind of laughed because Sabrina really does post a lot of super dramatic selfies. On the other hand you have to admire people who do whatever the fuck they want without really caring too much what other people have to say about it.

So what do you think? When someone is clearly needy for affirmation, do you just give it to them? If you were in my friend's shoes, what would you say to the woman above?

And don't you kind of love the people in this world who feel completely free to be embarrassing?

(I should note that I am completely grateful for all the affirmation my friends here have given my needy self over the years!)


The photo up top is the Freedom Tower from the sun roof of our new car!

We are not people who switch out cars regularly. Our past vehicles served us for eleven and sixteen years, so the choice of a new car felt somewhat loaded. But we did it! We navigated the buying-a-new-vehicle maze and came out the other side.

Here is another view of the city from the new (or rather gently used) car.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

5-Borough Bike Ride

"He's definitely got my back," said the father of the son. Both completed the 40-mile tour together, along with 32,000 other riders. My friend and I were waiting to cheer them on when they crossed out of Central Park. They waved and left us in their dust. Later, they brought home a hazelnut cake for my birthday. We didn't do the traditional birthday tequila shots, though. I told them it would be a waste as they were both pretty wiped. But their hearts were pumping nicely.

The Girl in the Painting

I love this little girl. Her image inspires me as I work on a book about an extraordinary 97-year-old woman whose life has been an instruction in achievement against all odds. The girl here is a detail from a well-known Norman Rockwell painting titled "The Problem We All Live With." My subject sees herself in this little girl; she sees her whole life embodied in this famous painting by an artist more known for pastoral middle American scenes in which people of color appeared only in positions of servitude.

Here is the painting in its entirety. Notice how the tomato splattered on the wall looks both like a trail of blood and angel wings. I wonder if the artist intended this? I haven't yet read anywhere that he did, but how could it be accidental?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tut, Again

Any and all forms of separation, disconnects, divides, partings, breakups, and goodbyes are temporary. Very.

You'll be together far, far longer than you will ever be apart.

Forever and ever,


Your oneness is pure truth; your separation is pure fantasy.