Saturday, September 18, 2021

The one about Jamaicans…


There's a joke about Jamaican immigrants, that we generally have more than one job going at once, and it's a little bit true about me.

1) I'm still editing for the magazine. They even put me on the masthead recently, which makes me a little nervous, because I think that when magazines decide to cut staff, they go down the masthead deciding who stays and who goes. I wasn't on the masthead when they furloughed three quarters of the staff last summer, and I suspect that might be why they missed me. Or maybe not. I had started as a freelancer, working from home, and then they put me on staff just before Covid locked everything down, so maybe they thought I was useful, or maybe they wagered I'd be a willing workhorse. They say that in the absence of knowing a thing, always choose a more personally empowering interpretation. I don't always manage that.

2) I've been editing books for a wonderful agent. This woman is so very passionate about exquisite writing and socially conscious narratives, and I love her with my whole heart. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and after the war they settled in a mostly Black, mostly poor neighborhood in Philly, and raised their children there. Her parents never learned how to read, or to speak English fluently, so she was their interpreter, their link to the world. This child of illiterate parents would grow up to become a book agent. In her youth she was part of the vibrant music and art scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. Later, as an agent, she would bring us the work of Audre Lorde, Jacqueline Woodson, Saeed Jones, Lemony Snicket and so many other critically important and beloved writers. She's brushed shoulders with the artistic greats, has stories that should be part of our literary history, and yet she has no desire to stand in the spotlight herself, and scoffs when I suggest she should write her life. I end up being so passionate myself about the work I do with her, though I do pick and choose the projects. Two of those projects, which consumed my summer, were submitted to publishing houses this week, so I am on tenterhooks, praying for editors to love these books as much as I do. 

3) My cousin started a boutique publishing house to help people self-publish their books, and I am a silent partner. My cousin is a devout and lovely Christian (a real Christian, not like those hateful Trump evangelists), and will likely only publish books that have some socially redeeming message or wholesome purpose at their core. They don't have to be Christian books—we're currently shepherding a science-driven book for teens on pushing back against climate change, for example—but my cousin likely won't ever publish a Harry Potter-esque fantasy novel with witches and demons, no matter how brilliant. I work with her in the background. My name is nowhere on her website, because I don't want people to think I only do a certain kind of book. I want to be engaged by all kinds of writing, with many different sorts of messages. I do believe in God, but not in her born again way. The God I pray to is synonymous with Love, is Love, and I entertain the possibility of a wide range of spiritual laws, such as past lives and reincarnation, angels among us, a karmic universe, the validity of all belief systems rooted in kindness, anything really that is born of Love. Even so, I could not be closer to this cousin if she were my sister. We actually do call each other sister, as we are the only girls among our multitude of first cousins who do not have a sister by birth. She is a beautiful writer with gift for vivid scene-painting. She also has the kindest soul, doesn't proselytize, and has a wicked-fast sense of humor. We laugh a lot. And we help each other how we can. We just published my niece's delightful children's book, The Land of Look Behind. It went live on Amazon this week!

Come to think of it, the joke about Jamaicans applies to my cousin and my niece, too! My cousin is a government lawyer, and has a nonprofit summer program to help Native American kids from her husband's reservation in Montana, get into college and get through it. And my niece is a dentist, but now she has written a children's book with her childhood friend, who is a doctor. And she already has another children's book in mind, and texted me last week that she's going to put "Children's Book Author" on her LinkedIn profile! Ha!

4) Last, but definitely not least, the memoir—this is my main work, the book I have been contracted to write for someone with a platform, who is too busy to write her own story. I'm in the flow of it once more, finally being consistent in my engagement with the narrative. My goal is to write 1,000 words each day. I achieved that on only three days this week, as magazine stories needing to be edited were flowing to my computer in a rather continuous stream. And so Saturday and Sunday will be writing days for me, as I have a book contract to honor. I am the daughter of a lawyer, which means that in my understanding, a contract is inviolate. 

All this to say, sorry I've been a little scarce in these parts. I've missed you.


Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Throwback Tuesday


Here's a hoot of a throwback I ran across the other day. That's me at eighteen, on my first visit home from college in the late seventies, eyebrows plucked to oblivion, Afro bouncin' and behavin'. I unearthed this relic because my brother asked me to go into my picture files and dig out some photos of him from when he wore an Afro in his youth. You know there's always one person in the family who collects the photographs. No surprise, that's me. No doubt my brother, three years divorced, was trying to impress someone, but he wasn't giving out any details. Here are the photos I sent him, taken as we gathered for a new year's day beach outing with friends, many of whom lived right there on Paddington Terrace, in houses up and down the street from us. My brother is the cool dude in the Coke bottle-thick wire rim glasses.


That young woman on the right above, and in the photo below, is my brother's first wife, who now lives in Germany with her second husband, whom she met more than three decades ago at a nuclear science conference. They both fell instantly in love, and feel that way still. Even though she and my brother divorced back in the nineties, she's still my sister—in fact, we spoke by phone just this afternoon. All of us having spent our teen years in and out of each other’s homes on the same street, she and my brother have also remained good friends. My brother even asked her to be godmother to his oldest daughter, who is herself now married and a dentist who has just signed the lease for her own practice in Dallas, yet she had no idea until a year ago that her dad had once been married to Auntie Hilary. A footnote: Our beloved Hilary's hair is now a brilliant snow white, and it looks fantastic—definitely a photo for another day.

There is so much I could write here. I'm roiling with obsessive thoughts but they're bubbling just below the surface, hence this breezy little post, in a moment when I am feeling anything but breezy. What's the weather report where you are?



Friday, September 3, 2021

Different kinds of muses

While America continues to burn, the newest conflagration being the Texas vigilante six-week abortion ban (I am worn out with trying to wrap my head around it, and won't get into it again here), I spent the week making a website for my cousin, who has started her own editorial business. She a wonderful writer, and even though she has a day job as a civil rights attorney (and is helping to sue several state governors for putting disabled students at risk with their ban of mask mandates), she also finds time to write books for people whose stories capture her imagination. I always run my book contracts by her to get her advice, and when I ask her how much her fee is, she says, "Give me three times what you charged me for the last editing job you did for me," and we laugh, because three times zero is as cheap as it gets. Family economics is a blessed thing. 

But making websites. It slides right into my OCD groove like it's found a natural habitat. I spend hours upon hours, adjusting boxes, choosing images, editing text, catching echoes, making sure there's enough negative space, adding links, adjusting some more, and I sit there striving endlessly for perfection. My cousin is thrilled with the result, which went live with her domain name this morning, so all in all, it's been a very productive week. Plus I forgot to eat most days and slept soundly each night, exhausted from excessive concentration. Maybe I should have been a website designer, with real training that would remove my constant need for trial and error and workarounds. Could be I wouldn't have this intransigent weight issue. Writing manuscripts definitely makes me want to siphon off the stress by eating, whereas designing that website for my cousin this week made me forget myself entirely, like time itself no longer existed.

That puzzle up top, all 1000 pieces are now connected on my dining table, that red typewriter taking me back. It makes we want to own one in real life, a beautiful vintage expression of the muse that chose me. Everything else in the picture looks as if it might have existed on some shelf in my mother's or my grandmother's house, the vase, the jewelry box, the little ceramic angel, the candle cages, the gravitas of the books.

Hurricane Ida hit New York City two nights ago, bringing the kind of flash flooding our streets have never seen. The man and I were safe inside; for us it was just a hard rain lashing the windows and whipping the trees. But my son was on shift at the firehouse throughout the storm. He said they responded to thirty-two different calls in four of the five boroughs, and did not sleep all night. At one point, he was thigh deep in water on the highway, checking abandoned cars to make sure no one was trapped inside as the water swirled higher. This is the muse that chose him.

Just before daybreak this morning, I dreamed I was so tired I couldn't get myself into the shower to get dressed. I was supposed to sit on a huge jury, hoards of people were climbing a marble staircase to the courtroom, and I was meant to be among them, but I was so bone weary I couldn't make myself join them, and my brother, who looked like my son in the dream, stretched out next to me on the bed and whispered, "Are you okay?" I woke up then, intensely relieved to discover I felt completely normal, not tired at all, and I realized my dream was about America, and how fucking exhausting the news is, every soul-sucking day.


Friday, August 27, 2021

Beautiful Serendipity


The art opening fed my soul. The artist, who is in her eighties, was not there, as she suffered a stroke a week ago and is still hospitalized. The good news is, she is recovering well and will return home to her family this week. This assurance came from her son, the youngest of her eight children, who represented his mother wonderfully last night, and told very moving stories of growing up watching her do her art, even as the family struggled financially in the rural South. 

The book agent was there with her daughter, a lovely young woman who is a Barnard graduate, and she and I bonded over our shared alma mater. The agent had apparently told the artist's son about me, and when she introduced me to him by name, he said, "I am so happy to meet you at last!" He acted as if my being attached to the book project was a done deal, and the agent acted that way too, as if all that remains is to work out terms and scheduling. She assured me again that they'd work around my current commitments, and so I am allowing myself to be cautiously excited. 

I have worked with this woman before, first when I was in my early thirties and she hired me as an editor at a publishing house. Later, after we both left that job she tapped me to work on a book she was packaging. It became the first book I ever had published. If this sounds familiar, it's because I posted about it back in May, when after two decades of no contact, she and I met for lunch, and the art book first became a whisper in my ear. 

Last night, I told her daughter that her mother had always been a rock star, at which point her mother shuddered and confessed, "I'm a little embarrassed by some of my behavior back then." I assured her she was fine, at least from where I stood. She was demanding as a boss, but I appreciated her clarity and perfectionism. I always knew just what she wanted, which made producing it easier. I don't have any trepidation about working with her again, though the parameters of the project do seem a little loose right now. I'm not particularly good at living with the unresolved but something tells me I need to just let what's happening here unfold.

The photo is a scene I snapped from the car window on my way home from last night's show. I didn't take any photos at the gallery. I was busy talking with interesting people. We all kept our masks on, though, so I wonder if I'd recognize any of them again. Probably only the artist's son, whose Southern drawl was distinctive, and whose eyes when he talked about his mother's work finally gaining the recognition it has long deserved, were alive with wonder and joy.

Of course, last night's event burned off all my socializing fuel so I'm grateful to have nothing on tap for today. I'll be able to recharge with just my husband, and my son who's coming by later, while keeping a pleasant distance from the world. I've also this morning completed editing a book proposal that took me all month. The proposal is longer and denser than many books, but it's beautifully written and frames a truly important work. The agent who asked me to do the edit said she wanted to leave no doubt that this is "a big book"—in the field of art scholarship of all things. 

It turns out that engaging with this proposal gave me a rich education in an aspect of American art that will serve me well in the next project, assuming it happens. Life can be so serendipitous and good. And now, I finally feel ready to turn back to the collaborative project that's already on my desk. I think I really needed a summer of reading exquisite writers to reclaim my writing self, if that makes any sense. 


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Stopping, starting


This erasure poem by Mary Ruefle pierces the present moment for me. I feel a bit like I'm in a post-apocalypse sci-fi movie, in danger every time I venture outside. I hear of people who have caught breakthrough covid cases just from standing next to someone outdoors for less than five minutes. And my son, who is spending the day with me, just told me about the family member of a friend, a man in his fifties who had been fully vaccinated, yet got a breakthrough infection and died. He had underlying conditions, my son said, but still. How do we protect ourselves? We wear masks, but how can we stop living our lives? We can't. And so we go about our business and pray the odds are on our side. 

Last night I had dinner with a friend of almost three decades, a woman with whom I can share my crazy mother worries without fear of judgment, because she shares many of the same fears. She's a therapist by profession, and will sometimes break down the theoretical source of our worries, allowing us to laugh at ourselves. Our concerns these days are mostly born of the awareness that we must let our girls go, we have no control anymore over anything related to our children. 

Her daughter has just become engaged. Both our girls have been friends since starting out in Pre-K, and we tenderly recalled sitting in the living room of that school located in a brownstone on East 96th Street, reflecting that our shy little ones were much the same. 

My friend wasn't feeling so well at dinner, and had no appetite. "I promise it's not covid," she assured me. But of course, I came home and immediately imagined symptoms. Was that scratchy throat the start of something more? What about the fatigue and sleepiness? Did it only signal my bedtime? This is exactly how I've been all year, whenever I watch the news about covid. Suddenly, I have all the symptoms.

I might have another book in the wings, this one very different from any I have done recently. It's an art book rather than a memoir, but they don't want a boring history recitation. They want the art brought to life through the makers, so the writer will have to find the human stories that give birth to the work. I hope the project happens. I'm a little burned out on crafting memoirs right now, and have spent the summer doing very pleasant editing jobs for truly gifted writers instead. But book editing, though time-consuming, doesn't really pay enough to live on. Book collaboration is better for paying the bills, but it can be dispiriting to immerse yourself in writing someone's story for a year or more, helping to excavate and frame their emotional and psychological truths, and get no cover credit in the end. I've decided I don't like the feeling much, even if I did agree to terms at the outset. 

I do currently have a book on contract, and will return to crafting that narrative come the end of summer. Cover credit is guaranteed, and this feels important. The agent on the art book said her clients know I have other projects going and are willing to work around my schedule. I am to attend an art opening tomorrow night to meet one of the artists, who is based in the South but is having a solo show in the city.  

Previously, I had joked to my friend, who does this same book collaboration work, that I seemed to be suffering from the twisties, leading me to pass on being considered for a couple of memoir projects that came my way this summer. It was a reference to gymnast Simone Biles suddenly losing air awareness at the Olympics and feeling unable to do the high-flying twists she has executed for years. In my case, I lost heart awareness, and felt exhausted at merely contemplating memoir work. Yesterday I called my friend and told her I finally found a new project that excites me. 

"The high-stakes twists might be on pause," I said, "but I can still do the flips."

"Oh," she said, "changed your dismount, have you?"

So now, I'm busy practicing the new dismount and getting back into the writing groove, daring to hope the nascent possibility becomes concrete, and that I can work out the timing and perform the exact right dismount for both the memoir and the art book, impeccably.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Blessings all around

The man and I have been married thirty-five years today, and what a great gift it is to know that if I had it to do all over again, with full knowledge of all that comes after, I would take his hand again in less than a heartbeat. That's us in what passes as our official wedding photo, taken on the evening we said our I do's. 


I'm out of practice writing here. I've been busy enjoying August with our daughter, who left to drive back to Boston with her love this morning. He arrived last week to join her here, as they had that wedding to attend on Friday, for which my girl was a bridesmaid.

On the afternoon of the wedding, my girl sent me snaps of the bride and her squad getting their hair and makeup professionally done. The young women each gained a thick sweep of eyelashes that my daughter said made her eyes feel sleepy all night.

The man and I marveled at how different things were when we got married, when I did my own hair and makeup, and trust every curl and brush of color to behave all night. In truth, I felt as right with myself on that day as I've ever felt, as I had not a doubt in the world that this man was The One. 

Everyone looked absolutely beautiful at Friday's wedding, even the men. The bride and groom met fresh out of law school, when they took the bar exam on the same date at the same test center. Two years later, the groom appeared enraptured as he watched his bride walk down the aisle, as if he still couldn't quite believe his good fortune. We had been sent a link so we could watch the ceremony online, and his clear joy in marrying that gorgeous and powerful woman who is such a good friend to my girl, touched my heart. Here are a couple of snaps of our daughter and her love that I swiped from her Instagram story. They both went to college with the bride.



Then on Saturday, despite significant post-bridal party exhaustion, the lovely couple made my husband and me a delicious dinner to celebrate our anniversary early. The plan was for them to drive back to Boston on Sunday. We had a lovely time Saturday night, joined by our son's fiancee, who braved the rain to come over and celebrate with us. Our son had to work, what with Hurricane Henri barreling toward the East Coast. Dire weather forecasts convinced our daughter and her guy to put off driving north until Monday, yet when Sunday dawned, the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm, and all we could see out our window was a gray day of intermittent rain, and not even much wind. 

My daughter and her love are now on the road back home, and the man and I are cozy inside the house, basking in this rainy day light, remembering how on our wedding day, it also rained, and the aunties assured us it only meant we were being showered with blessings. Those aunties had it exactly right. 


Next up are my son and his love, who have set a date, booked a venue, and asked us to make a guest list. And then who knows with the other two? One of my daughter's best friends in the world, the oldest member of The Six, got engaged this weekend. We're all so thrilled for her. The other five members of their little soul cluster appear to be in no rush. Still, we've arrived at that stage of life when there seem to be lots of celebrations already in the hopper. May they all be as blessed as the man and I feel, today and always.


Friday, August 13, 2021

Summer places and things


Is that not an extraordinary image? It was taken by photographer Jervez Lee, dusk on the island of Antigua, where my husband is from. If that’s the beach I think it is, we made some good memories there.

My daughter arrived home tonight, sated from her adventures and ready for a quiet week of recharging her batteries before a new whirl of festivities at the wedding of her friend next weekend. How happy I am to have this sweet girl back under our roof. She’s had a good summer overall, she says, lots of varied activities and time spent with people she loves. On the way home today, she and her friend visited a lavender farm, and brought us lavender infused chocolate and lavender wine. 

My girl and I plan to curl up on couches tomorrow and stream some binge worthy distraction on TV. Shades of her teenage years when every so often I’d let her miss school and we’d go to the movies or else spend the day wrapped in blankets absorbed in some angsty series like Friday Night Lights or a corny rom com. She’s fun to recharge one’s batteries with, that one.   


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Last night's dispatch from the road



They seem happy and well, don't they? They were in Memphis last night, after driving from Oklahoma City, stopping to see sights along the way, including the controversial Land Run monument, one of the world's largest outdoor sculptural installations, site of continued protests over the fact that, as my daughter texted, the monument "represents the land grab that happened here after Native Americans were removed from their ancestral lands through genocide and forced relocation." It is a painful history this country has bequeathed to its children. 

I'm having to relearn that two things can be true at once, and we can hold them both within us without erasing the veracity and importance of either one: We can embrace and enjoy our lives while also acknowledging and working to change the parts of our reality that need to be transformed. Just because America is a hot mess right now—let's be real, has always been a racially antagonistic nightmare of tribal hostilities—doesn't mean we don't get to laugh and embark upon adventures with our friends. Still, I might be praying harder for my child's safety out there in Trump America than her college roommate's parents are praying for hers. Or not. To be a parent is to petition constantly for the well being of our children. In a world where woman are perpetually endangered by the mere fact of their gender, and men of any description can be attacked for having and daring to act on a moral compass, a parent's prayers have no color.

But let's keep the good thought, shall we? May my daughter and her friend continue to have a grand adventure as they travel cross country, even as they are provoked to think deeply about their country's history, and the present moment, and to be the needed change. And yes, may they be protected wherever they lay their heads each night, and when they open their eyes each morning, may they always be able to laugh. Amen. 


Sunday, August 8, 2021

Painting the town


My niece who lives in Orlando is in town visiting her sister in Brooklyn, and my nephew from Virginia decided to take the bus north for the weekend to join them in painting the town. These three grew up together in the D.C. area, before my nieces' family moved south to Orlando a few years ago. I didn't assume they would come and visit their aunt and uncle in Harlem, because Brooklyn can feel like the other side of the world when you're on those teeming streets living the hipster life, but they made the trip to see us anyway, and it was wonderful to be able to hug them all. 

They had been to a farmers' market and a thrift store in the morning, then lunch on a Vietnam era warship now docked on the Hudson River, its decks converted to an open air restaurant. In the photo of my nephew, he's showing me some African bead bracelets he bought from a street vendor, and I thought again this gifted musician is so much a seventies soul. When they left us a couple of hours later, they were on their way to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to be followed that evening by a group hang out at a Brooklyn bar called Cellar Dog, featuring live jazz and pool tables. These adventurous young people make me realize I've forgotten how to wander the city and explore! Hard to believe I was them, once.

Meanwhile my girl is in Miami Beach with the bride squad painting that town, too. Here's a photo she texted me. The bride-to-be is in white, and the others will be her attendants in their champagne colored gowns on her special day. My daughter's PCR covid test was negative by the way, and so was her sweetheart's, so all summer plans are proceeding apace. Every time I or her boyfriend's mother or one of her aunts cautions her to be safe while traveling cross country next week, she says to me under her breath, "Why do you all think I'm an idiot and that I want to die?" I trust therefore that she and her friend will take all precautions and continue to be covid free.


I did hear news of the son of a friend in Florida who was fully vaccinated, who in July came down with a knarly case of covid, chills, fever, body aches, the whole nine. "I am so glad I got the vaccine," he told his mother, "because I can't imagine this being any worse." My cousin in Orlando also told me of some friends of hers, whose kids went to camp for the summer and returned home hale and hearty, only to have their mother and grandmother, both vaccinated, come down with cases of covid that were like a bad flu, and their father and his sister, both unvaccinated, get absolutely slammed with the disease. The father is now recovering but the aunt is still in the hospital in a bad way. The father has become resolved that as soon as he can he will get the vaccine, and everyone is praying for his sister. When the two camp kids were tested, both turned out to be positive for covid though the boy, 6, had only had a mild cold and the girl, 8, hadn't been sick for a day. Yet unknowingly, they spread it to everyone else in the household. 

I fear we are heading back into the void, and that so-called breakthrough infections are being sorely undercounted, as none of the vaccinated people mentioned here who became ill reported their cases to any authority. Imagine the uncounted more breakthrough infections whose hosts experience little more than a case of the sniffles, but who can nevertheless spread the virus. The man and I have already cancelled possible trips to Europe and Jamaica this fall, and we may yet have to cancel the bookings we made for a beach vacation in Belize in December. We had a month or two post vaccinations of feeling as if we were emerging from the era of covid but in fact, we are still in the thick of it, and that brief respite was nothing more than the eye of a still swirling storm. 


I didn't hang that framed puzzle over the couch after all. I have this aversion to making holes in walls, and I couldn't figure out how to safely hang the weight of the picture without using a hammer and nails. So for now it's propped up in our bedroom, next to my desk, and I rather like walking in and seeing it there.



Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Work and other forms of art


I am sitting in front of the big window doing my work, while listening to my daughter at the end of the table, talking to her coworkers and bosses on an external relations video conferencing call, updating them on the million-dollars in sponsorships she has brought in since their last meeting. She impresses the heck out of me! Who is this accomplished hardworking woman, rattling off fundraising successes while also making sure to thank colleagues who helped make introductions or who otherwise facilitated her wins? I can see why they promoted her from assistant to coordinator to manager in less than three years, and agreed to let her work remotely from Boston while her love is in grad school there. I'd want to keep this one on my team too.


As you've probably gathered, our girl is with us now, our coworker for the week. Her guy and their sweet puppy Munch also spent the weekend here, mostly watching Olympics and vociferously cheering with us. We all have our favorite athletes and events. The twenty somethings packed up their summer apartment on Saturday and my husband helped them cart all their things here, one of their way stations for the month of August before they both head back to Boston for the fall. The photo is of Munch and his paw-rents posing with his doggy school graduation certificate. Apparently, when treats were involved, he crushed his Saturday morning puppy training classes in the park. As his other grandmother said when she saw the picture, "Munch's parents are button-poppin' proud." 

My daughter's sweetheart is now upstate with his mom for a spell, along with one half of their summer belongings, and puppy Munch, too, as my girl will be traveling soon—if her PCR test for covid comes back negative that is. She was lying on the couch watching track and field on Sunday eve when a text came in from a friend she'd had dinner with ten days ago. The friend, though fully vaccinated, had just tested positive for Covid. She had no symptoms, but was doing the responsible thing and contract tracing everyone, after being contact traced herself. My daughter left the house at once to go to City MD for both a rapid test and a PCR test. The line of people waiting to do the same on a Sunday night was around the block—strong first-hand evidence of the Delta variant making itself known. 

Our girl's rapid test was negative, so was her boyfriend's. But we are all now quarantined inside waiting for the results of the more reliable second test. I trust it too will be negative, but if it isn't, our girl will have to miss the bachelorette party in Miami this weekend and the cross country trip with her former college roommate next week. As ambivalent as I have professed to be about these plans, I don't want her to have to miss out on these passages with friends.


Okay, back to work. I’m editing a fantastic proposal about a seminal American artist whose name was somehow not well known. Not unrelated, one of my daughter's high school friends is now living and painting in Spain, and she is a huge talent. That’s a piece she's currently working on, that my girl was rhapsodizing over on Instagram. The artist is Tuere Lawton. I want to do my part to ensure that the world knows her name, because I honestly believe she will be a seminal American artist too.

 
This morning, she posted on IG that since she needed to eat this month, she was having a studio sale, I jumped at the chance to buy one of her art pieces. I would have bought one of her paintings, but those went as soon as she posted them. So I bought this beautiful graphite study she did of a man on a horse. She's flying to New York City next week to see her mom, and will deliver the framed drawing to me then. I hope it’s the first of many of her works I will buy in years to come. Artists need sponsors, which makes me wish I were fabulously wealthy and could be a silent benefactor of many of them. I think of two of my cousins, the walls of whose homes are covered with vibrant original canvasses and breathtaking one-of-a-kind pieces. Like that.

Last thing: Simone Biles won broze in the beam event final this morning. I was up at 4:50 AM, watching it live. She looked steady, and most of all joyful. She did a beautiful routine, though it's degree of difficultly was downgraded when she switched out her usual crazy-hard double twisting double tuck dismount—known as "the Biles," one of four skills named after her, that only she has ever done in competition—in favor of a simpler double pike dismount, which requires flips instead of twists. The two Chinese gymnasts therefore ended up with higher degree of difficulty routines, and they performed beautifully, too, taking gold and silver. But every member of the American women's artistic gymnastics team is going home with a medal, or two, or three. This Olympic team is one for the history books. I can't wait for the feel-good movie about how it went down.


Saturday, July 31, 2021

Looking ahead, looking back


I had dinner with two dear women last night. I felt like a person restored to world. The night was cool and balmy, and the atmosphere felt almost festive, with lights strung over the street side gazebo and all the outdoor tables full. Inside the restaurant was completely empty, which is how it is lately. I wonder how restaurants will fare when the weather turns cold once more, given reports of the Delta variant flare. The Covid positivity rate is still pretty low in New York City, 2.8 percent yesterday, but it had fallen to less than a percent in May and June, and now the numbers are climbing again. I wonder if we will ever be out of this pandemic reality, especially given that vaccines don't stop us from getting Covid and spreading it, they just stop most of us from being hospitalized and dying from it. I hope that protection holds, given that new variants are emerging all the time. 

One of my friends last night was indulging in a maskless social activity for only the second time in over a year. She was the last of my friends to be vaccinated, and she was very ambivalent about it all. But it was so good to be together again the way we once were, talking well into the night about our lives, our children, our fascinations and fears, just everything on the table, a judgment free zone.

I confessed my anxiety about the fact that my daughter will be flying to Miami for a bachelorette fling with the bride squad for one of her college friends who's getting married in three weeks. From there, she will fly to Oklahoma City to meet up with one of her former college roommates to drive cross country with her to New York. Her friend, who has been teaching in Phoenix since they graduated, is moving to the city for graduate school. You'll be traveling through unvaccinated country, I told my girl worriedly, and my husband gave me the look, the one that said, drop it, she's grown, she can make her own decisions and you just have to make peace with them. I didn't mention that another of my friends, when she heard about my daughter's planned cross country jaunt, said dryly, "I hope her former roommate is white and that she uses her white privilege on the trip." The friend who made this comment is white, and she's married to a Black man, and they have two Black children. She knows whereof she speaks. But my husband is also right, of course. I have to let my children live their lives.


The good news is, our apartment will be my daughter's home base for the month of August. She'll travel back and forth from here. I love when she's here. Last week when she spent the night, I went in to check on her in the morning and, finding her awake and scrolling on her phone, I lay next to her on the bed. We had a lovely roaming conversation for the next hour, a sharing of hearts, in a way that only happens in person. She sent me that masked photo yesterday, when she was on the way home from the salon after taking down her braids and getting her hair styled for the upcoming wedding. The baseball cap photo she sent later shows her plan for when she's on the road, she said. No hot hair styling implements need be involved. How I adore her darling face.


My son has also traveled with college pals recently. He and his college housemates, along with their significant others (one is married and two are engaged) went back to the scene of wild revelries last weekend, and took this picture in front of the house where so much went down, the place where they lived for the last two years of college. My daughter used to call it "The Bro House." Only one of their housemates, the young man who was the other decathlete with my son on their college track team, was missing. 


Apropos of nothing, my son and his love called us last night to ask if I could name all the events in the decathlon. "I assume Pops can name them," our cheeky boy said on speaker phone, "which is why I'm asking you." Apparently, they'd called a number of their friends with the question, after my son's fianceĆ© insisted that hardly anyone would be able to name more than five of the events. That proved mostly true, as most people got to five and then struggled to name the rest. They told us this after I'd rattled them all off, only having difficulty with the number of meters for the hurdles event. "You did the best of everyone by far," my daughter-in-law to be told me. I felt rather proud, and didn't point out that as a mother, I'd watched my boy compete in every event, and my heart indelibly recorded each one. Shall I name the events now? Okay, here goes: High jump, long jump, 100 meter sprint, 110 meter hurdles, shot put, discus, javelin, pole vault, 400 meter, and the dreaded 1500 meter final event. He did all that, at meet after meet. Here is a photo of him warming up then. Has it really been eight years?

You'll have to forgive this reminiscence. Olympic track and field events have begun, and even with the great Usain Bolt no longer in the mix, the Jamaican sprinters are doing their thing. The truth? We are kind of insufferable when it comes to our track and field runners. As my niece just posted on Instagram, "Jamaica's area code is no longer 876. It's now 123"—this at the news that Jamaican women just posted a clean sweep, gold, silver, and bronze in the 100 meter finals. I'm off to watch!





Friday, July 30, 2021

Simone Biles is a hero


The night before Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics team finals, our daughter was with us. She had got back to the city late from a summer evening art event with friends at Storm King Center upstate and didn't feel like schlepping to Brooklyn. We were watching the men's gymnastics team finals, and talking about the Russian gymnast who'd had surgery to repair his Achilles just three months before. His doctors had insisted he take six months before reentering competition, but there he was at the Olympics, with his still healing ankle raised on every landing, usually throwing him off balance. 

My husband and I recalled the year U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug did a final vault with a broken ankle, supposedly to secure gold for her team, although it later emerged that her career-ending vault was not needed, the U.S. would have won gold anyway. But in the heat of competition, team coach Bela Karolyi urged her to do that one last vault, knowing she was badly injured, knowing she could have landed catastrophically on her back or neck. We didn't think about all that back in 1996, though. Back then, we saw Kerri Strug's perilous but ultimately successful second vault as heroic. We pushed down the queasy feeling that the U.S. coaches should not have let her vault, even if she was willing. Instead they put their medal dreams ahead of the well-being of an athlete in their care.

Twenty-five years later, I pulled up a YouTube video to show our daughter Kerri Strug's historic vault. But this time, seeing the look of abject terror on the young gymnast's face as she prepared to do what everything in her being was telling her not to, I was horrified. What the fuck? Why on earth did we cheer?!

The culture of gymnastics back then was for young women athletes to have no voice, and this was true all the way up until 2016 when team doctor Larry Nasser was convicted of sexually violating literally hundreds of U.S. gymnasts—including Simone Biles and some of her gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic teammates. They were also browbeaten and emotionally abused, told to suck it up and perform through injuries, even though any flip or twist could potentially end badly. 


I recently watched the documentary Golden, about five U.S. women gymnasts including Sunisa Lee and Mykayla Skinner, and their journey to a possible berth on the 2020-2021 Olympics team. At one point Mykayla Skinner recalls one of her college teammates doing a vault, landing on her neck, and dying. I have long argued that gymnastics, especially women's gymnastics, is the most dangerous sport there is. And yet when Kerri Strug was injured back in the 1996 Olympics, a brainwashed nation gave her incredibly irresponsible and ruthless coach a pass—the same coach, not incidentally, who with his wife Marta facilitated the sexual abuse of hundreds teenage gymnasts by a predatory team doctor who was allowed to examine the girls alone in their hotel rooms at international meets or in their dorm rooms at the Karolyi's team training center in the remote woods of Texas.

In her book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, author Joan Ryan wrote about the physical, emotional, and psychological domination of U.S. women gymnasts prior to the Larry Nasser revelations. “There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics,” Joan Ryan said. “These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.” And that's 150 gymnasts who told us what happened. We know for a fact that many others chose to remain silent.

Which brings me to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team competition on Tuesday morning. She had been struggling with what gymnasts call "the twisties"—losing air awareness—ever since the team trials. She hoped it would pass. But when she went out on Tuesday morning and did her first vault, and suddenly didn't know where she was in the air, she knew she was in trouble. She managed to land without injuring herself, but she knew she was done. As someone said afterward, if you're in the wrong headspace in basketball, you miss shots. If you're in the wrong headspace in a 100 meter event, you lose the race. In gymnastics, especially with the high degree of difficultly twists and flips that Simone Biles does, if you're in the wrong headspace, if all your senses aren't firing optimally, if your air awareness suddenly goes missing, you could be paralyzed, or worse, lose your life. 

Once you understand this, you grasp that Simone's decision to pull out of the event was not selfish, was not cowardly, was above all not casual. She did the best thing for her team, because if she had been injured in competition, it would have cost them not only the medal, but also rocked them in such a way that perhaps it would have undermined their own ability to compete. She knew the talent in the U.S. team was deep, and that she could trust her teammates to carry the baton. It was a plot twist no one had expected, but her coaches understood, her teammates understood. Most important, Simone Biles used her voice powerfully and resolutely to protect herself despite more than a decade of being trained to ignore it, and certainly knowing that certain factions would declare her gutless, not mentally tough, a quitter who let her team down. 


Having followed Simone Biles' gymnastics career closely from the start, I felt incredibly sad at the news that she would not compete. But I respected her decision, applauded it. And her teammates stepped up spectacularly, winning silver. Jordan Chiles had not even warmed up on parallel bars, yet she turned in an almost impeccable routine. And Suni Lee was steady as they come throughout. But at the team press conference afterward, Simone was breezy, said she wasn't having fun anymore, and I wished mightily that someone had helped her get her messaging together before she talked to the media. She couldn't yet explain that when she had vaulted and lost her place mid air, she had been in fear of her life. 

Other veteran Olympic gymnasts, including Nastia Liukin, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Dominique Dawes, and yes, Kerri Strug, rushed to help everyone understand exactly what had happened on that vault, and how much they admired Simone being able to speak her truth, to trust her own instincts in that moment, despite the glare of the world upon her. I was heartened and thrilled two days later, when Simone's teammate Sunisa Lee won gold in the All Around competition, and all I could think was, Simone's courage in stepping back when she knew she needed to made a space for Suni Lee to shine. 


This morning on her Instagram story, Simone is taking questions from followers, and explaining herself far better than she was able to immediately after the team final. Reading her responses, I found myself finally exhaling on her behalf, and trusting that she would be okay.


My daughter got there before me. After the press conference on Tuesday, she had texted me: “Simone is so not ashamed of the decision she made, which makes me trust her even more for making it. I trust that she didn't make it rashly." I'm grateful that her generation more easily understands the need to care for one's mental and physical well being. The rest of the world (except for certain factions, we all know who they are) will eventually come around. May we all finally know that Simone Biles is what a true hero looks like.




Saturday, July 24, 2021

Inside my shell

I had a couple of choices of how I might spend this day. A friend who's visiting from out of town invited me to dinner with her daughter and a woman we both know. She made a reservation for four instead of three in case I decided to join them, which tells me she understands me. I ultimately decided against being quite that social, dining al fresco with people I haven't seen in more than a year. I'm having a hard time breaking out of my shell. Just contemplating it felt jarring. Another friend suggested we sit on her terrace and drink wine. I said no for today, thinking at first I was going to see my friend from out of town. We might yet sit on her terrace and drink wine tomorrow, depending on how we both feel. She, too, understands me. Friends who don't make you socially beholden are a gift. I've been feeling fragile somehow, count the reasons why.
 

I framed the last puzzle I did, the one that reminds me of rivers. I might hang it over my couch, and move those boats elsewhere. I'm already onto another puzzle now. In this latest one, called "Woman in Flowers," I finally see me. I've never seen myself in a jigsaw puzzle before. Two new companies with an inclusive view of the world—eeBoo Piece & Love and Journey of Something—have turned me into the kind of person who frames jigsaw puzzles. Who sees them as possible art. Nobody's paying me to say this. I just love that somebody sees more broadly than the usual puzzle makers with their English country cottages and Nordic lake scenes and vintage Americana, which never include people who look like me. Okay, I'm done grinding that axe. It's plenty sharp by now.

I've been watching the HBO Max series I May Destroy You, which is very unsettling and weirdly compelling. It's about a Black British writer who is late in delivering the manuscript for her second book, after making a big splash with her first. While avoiding her deadline in a club with friends, she is drugged and raped. Afterward, she tries to remember the details of that trauma as she pieces her life back together. The series is written by and stars Michaela Coel, whose face mesmerizes me. The story is messy, true to how life often happens, which I think is what makes it so unsettling. And yet, I can't turn away. I'm on the final episode, now, but it was episode eleven that really gobsmacked me. It explores the moment when the protagonist breaks through to finally understanding what her book is really about. It made me ache for a similar breakthrough.


I'm writing here while watching the Olympics while hunting down puzzle pieces. My favorite Olympic events are track and field, especially sprints and relays, which my little island of Jamaica has long dominated. I also love swimming and diving and of course women's gymnastics, with the women's team led by the greatest of all time, Simone Biles. She's so damn good she can sew a sequined GOAT on her leotard and everyone just nods in agreement. She does such hard skills she could fall on every routine and still walk away with the gold. She's out of this world.

I've been dreaming of being in places other than where I live. Covid is surging in New York again, and everywhere. I had been planning a trip for the man and me to France and Germany this summer, to meet up with two dear friends who live an hour outside of Frankfurt. We four were going to tour around Brittany and then spend some days in the Loire Valley wine country and then drive back to Frankfurt. Sadly, I think we might all be indulging in wishful thinking and being a bit premature. If not this summer, then next year for sure.


 

Thursday, July 22, 2021

The memories remain



The people who bought my Aunt Winnie apartment after she died in 2014 did a gut renovation of the place and now, six years later, the apartment is once again for sale. There are photos of its renovated interior on all the real estate websites that serve New York City, and my children, my cousins, and I are simply flabbergasted at how different the place appears. I look deeply into the photos and can find barely a trace of the shared family joys that were nurtured and spent in that space, nor of the ordinary tragedies that played out there. If you've been reading here for a while, you've definitely seen the before photos of this apartment—the first place I lived when I came to New York City for college in the late seventies. For our family's record, I'm posting the after photos here. "Why does looking at these pictures make me so sad?" I texted my cousin Karen. "It makes me sad too," she wrote back. "They erase the essence of Aunt Winnie and Uncle Charlie and every memory that was made within those walls. Now they only live on in our minds, and that too will not last forever." My daughter agreed. "So many memories there," she echoed. "It's so weird to know all the spots our life happened in these photos."





Here are some posts that show us in the apartment before.

Cooking with Grandma

Peace & Grands

Selling Apartment 18F

And here's a photo of some family members in the living room of the apartment after we laid Aunt Winnie to rest. It was the last time we would gather there as a family, and we all knew it. And so we sat in a circle and told stories of our lives in that place, with Aunt Winnie and Uncle Charlie, who paved the way for us all.