November 27, 2014 § 3 Comments
I’m thankful that my husband and cats are always excited when I wake up in the morning. I’m thankful that my mother wasn’t hurt badly when she tripped over a cement divider in the supermarket parking lot. I’m thankful that I no longer need to use a typewriter and carbon paper. I’m thankful that Charles is doing the dishes. I’m thankful that Fitzroy has woken up and is shaking his furry head to get rid of the ends of dreams. I’m thankful that I have indoor plumbing. I’m thankful that my clients pay their bills. I’m thankful that I can see pictures of beloved children on Facebook. I’m thankful for bitter greens, ripe pears, French cheese, and walnuts. I’m thankful that there is still winter. I’m thankful I don’t live in Buffalo, though, as a child, I always wanted it to snow up to the roof, just because. I’m thankful that my husband is incredibly cute at 72. I’m thankful that my cousins Roberta and Kate are so kind to my mother, and that my cousin Faxy works to save animals. I’m thankful that my sister’s health issues are better now and that my brother is happy with his vibrant poet laughing woman. I’m thankful that when Fitzroy stares at me, he reminds me of my grandmother. I’m thankful for the English language and its thousands of world-creating writers. I’m thankful for certain evenings I will never forget— the sun throwing rosy light over my bed and bare skin and promises like fireworks. And certain other nights in New Hampshire, Virginia, California, New York, in cars, bed, fields and forest. I’m thankful for James Taylor, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra and George Gershwin. I’m thankful that I knew Jesus, if only for a week in my teens after taking LSD. I’m thankful to history for having my back, and death for making sure nothing lasts forever. I’m thankful for Africa, the ocean, the Internet, and crickets. I am thankful that I have written books, painted pictures, made jewelry, love, money and peace. I am thankful that it wasn’t worse.
Quaker Meeting, The Sixties
BY ROBIN BECKER
Seeing my friend’s son in his broad-brimmed hat
and suspenders, I think of the Quakers
who lectured us on nonviolent social action
every week when I was a child. In the classrooms
we listened to those who would not take up arms,
who objected, who had accepted alternative
service in distant work camps and showed
slides of hospitals they helped to build.
On Wednesdays, in Meeting for Worship,
when someone rose to speak,
all the energy in the room
flew inside her mouth, empowering her to tell
what she had seen on her brief
encounter with the divine: sometimes, a parable,
a riddle, a kindness. The fall that we were seventeen,
we scuffed our loafers on the gravelly path
from the Meetinghouse, while maple and elm
leaves sailed around our shoulders
like tiny envelopes, our futures sealed inside.
Despite the war in Vietnam, I felt safer
than I ever would again. Perhaps
those aged, protective trees had cast a spell
on us, or maybe the nonviolent Quaker God
had set up a kingdom right there—
suburban Philadelphia. Looking back, I see how
good deeds and thoughts climbed with us to the attic
room for Latin, descended to the gym for sports,
where we hung from the praiseworthy scaffolds
of righteous behavior. We prepared to leave
for college, armed with the language of the American
Friends and the memories of Thanksgiving
dinners we’d cooked for the unfortunates:
borrowing our parents’ cars to drive
downtown to the drop-off point, racing back
to play our last field hockey match. Grim center forwards
shook hands before the whistle, the half-backs’
knee-pads strapped on tight; one varsity team vanquished another.
November 20, 2014 § 5 Comments
It’s my Facebook friend Grace’s birthday today and when I wished her many happy returns, she asked for a new blog post, illustrated with a photo of my cats on the bed. Dear Grace, how did you know that I started a new post yesterday—for the first time in ages—but gave it up when it veered into unpleasant territory? It’s your birthday, so I won’t go to that place. I will tell you about my daily life. When I woke up this morning, my husband said, “Today is a day of celebration.”
“Why?” I asked. “Oh, Fitzroy shit?”
Yes.” (The pumpkin-and-spun-sugar-colored cat threw up a mess of slimy stuff yesterday morning, kindling fears that he had, once again, swallowed something that would require surgery.)
There followed a long conversation about my husband’s obsession with our cat’s digestive issues—and then a sharing of “Dear Prudence” from Slate, with a letter by someone who doesn’t want to go to her sister-in-law’s for Thanksgiving because she expects the SIL’s cats to lick the turkey and walk across the table with fecal-tainted paws.
We agreed that this would not stop us.
“But we’re not going anywhere for Thanksgiving,” Charles said.
“That’s because no one invited us.”
“Would we go if they did?”
“Depends on who it was.”
Charles then veered into fantasy about the sort of invitations he would accept, none of which would excite me. I’d be happy going to my brother’s—where my mom and cousins will be—but my brother’s in San Francisco and anyway I just saw most of the family at Ramona’s wedding. I don’t mind ignoring this holiday. It was exciting as a kid; it was exciting when I grew up and got to be the hostess; it was a challenge when my stepchildren were small and I wanted them to clean their plates. It was heartwarming when my stepson hosted us, several years in a row, when the grandchildren were little. But then they stopped inviting us. (We were lovely guests, playing with the children, helping with the dishes. We brought expensive wine, not our fecally-challenged cats. We did not drink too much wine.)
This Thanksgiving I will roast a duck and do something with apples. Apples are the most comforting of foods, especially cooked with maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. The only thing better than apples is money—green sheafs of it—or a brisk autumn wind through an open bedroom window. Or the sunlight through Fitzroy’s pink ears. Or Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.
And to write again, even this frippery of a blog post, is not bad; I can imagine the long novels, filled withe characters to adore and torment, scrolling out through the twilight of my years— forgive the cliché—into the dawn of the dead, which I hope is vast and white and full of souls with poor eyesight (wrapped in fluttering draperies like travelers in a sandstorm) so I can avoid the ones I have nothing to say to, the ones I would erase from Eternity if I could.
This is part of what I wrote yesterday:
The writer needs to be able to not give a fuck. But in order to not give a fuck, one must also care very passionately, believe that one’s story has power and resonance. One must be willing to feel fully human, which I have spent the last couple of years trying not to do. One cannot be any good as a writer without believing that the story is a gift. Whether others like it or not—it is a gift, like a child, and one must be willing to do (almost) anything for it. I have retreated from that position. I have disdain—or possibly terror—for my inner life.
Grace, I’m not sure I have the strength for my next book, but thank you for making me put words on something resembling paper. Since this is also a day of celebrating writer’s prizes, here’s a poem I wrote a little while ago for another friend.
For a Poet Winning a Prize
She read a poem about wanting immortality,
questioning if that was alright.
I remember the hot wish, late teens,
More alluring than sex.
Now I think: clown shoes, Kaleidescope glasses
a wish like the last stain
of blood on my underpants.
I’ve no grudge against the future.
Anyone who likes my words can use them.
But why should I imagine this
or care about posterity
with its swaggering, know-nothing ransack
of our personal histories?
Let the dead stay dead, ice thickening
over their tiny ears.
But since none of us
can want only one thing
I admit to a scribble of hope
jammed in a pocket, easily ignored
to be born again in a place like this
almost exactly the same as this,
I just don’t see why
it should matter to me if my poems
are feted when I’m dust.
The poet has gentle eyes.
Fame becomes her.
She looks at stars seriously.
When she spoke, there was a hum in the air
as if thousands of gold and black
already pollen-dusted bees
with their fat, furry backs
and inexorable honey
were under her skin.
I drank too much wine at the reception,
A five-year-old could draw my heart with crayons.
And that would be all,
Another snapped off night,
But the bees followed me.
Tucked in bed, I watch them crawl on the ceiling—
earnest wobble of sun and ink—
and write this poem.
March 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been having a lot of nightmares lately, some referring to recent emotionally distressing events/memories, but most feature strange men and vampires trying to kill me, which they have been trying to do since my 20’s. (Before that, it was ghosts, swarms of insects and evil fog.) The cat persistently meowing me to wakefulness, the husband making toast, the sounds of New York in the spring – these are welcome reminders of the little sorrows I really face: working for a living, getting older, remembering to open my mail.
I have a new Macbook Air, which is making me happy. I like all my clients and enjoy editing – novels, memoirs, academic papers, other – except for the inconvenient effect it has of making me want to write my own books.
I’m learning more from editing and from reading self-published novels than I ever did in writing workshops. In particular, watching the writing/reading process minimally obstructed by the publishing industry is fascinating: so many “bad” books are very well liked by readers, maybe not in the tens-of-thousands-sold sense, but in the hundred-plus five-star reviews on Amazon sense.
I’m sorry to have to lost my financial freedom, but I appreciate having work come in over the airwaves – from all over the world at any time of day – meeting strangers and hearing their stories, honing my skills, feeling useful.
But mostly I love walking my city in the spring, buying strawberries and cupcakes, broccoli and tortellini, looking at the young beautiful women, the dreamy-eyed elderly, the street people with their snarly charm, and the groups of teenagers pouring out of the W 4th or 14th Street stations, thirsting for novelty, adorned with attitude.
The nightmares can have my slumber. I want the April days.
A new poet I’ve discovered—
Nothing is Lost
She would emerge from nightmares,
inch by inch, in the kitchen. Perched
on a wooden chair, she hugs her knees
. She is five, wearing a flannel gown
down to her ankles, with blue pistols
scattered over it, for killing mice at night,
her brother said.
The window lights up
like an altar. With her eyes half closed,
she looks at the particles of dust turning
inside the light, landing on the floor,
painted warm chestnut, as Mother
The coal stove still unlit,
she hears the breathing of the house,
its sunlit silence rising and falling,
a fly stirring, brushing its wings, buzzing out of the dark corner.
I see her
making room among the shadows,
and remember: nothing is lost
until we miss it.
February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
I didn’t get outside today, but the light was lovely from my bed. I woke up tired, tried to nap after breakfast but was kept awake by Fitzroy batting my face and sucking on my hair. Then I imbibed more coffee and got to work, editing almost seamlessly, in the zone. The romance novel I’m working on is all sex and champagne, cashmere, Louboutins, pink marble, MoMA. Sonoma, Manhattan, Stockholm. My favorite parts are the descriptions of vintage kitty litter odor coming from a neighbor’s apartment, and the erotic dream where her boss rips her shirt off.
The light brightened and faded. Charles took checks to the bank, fed the cats. I ate leftover wild rice and Brussels sprouts, browsed Valentine’s chocolate online, wanting it now.
“Did anything come for me today?”
“Just the cat food. Are you expecting something?”
“No, but I want a present.”
I miss being nine, my body painless and nimble. Tobogganing in the back yard, making Valentines cards with construction paper, Elmer’s glue, little red heart stickers and doilies. The one for my mother was the masterpiece, of course, though as I remember it I always put too much stuff on, hearts upon hearts, a big mess of needy love.
I can’t make money and do my creative work at the same time. My imagination folds over and hides its face. Even letting it out this far to say hello to you all feels dangerous. One of my clients emailed, “You’re such a good writer! Why aren’t you doing your own stuff?”
The light today was like children singing. Like a crystal bowl of lemons, silver steak knives, and eight-year-olds singing in French.
Just found this poem by Cynthia Huntington. It brought back memories.
Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese
“So, why don’t you sleep with girls?”
“I’m not really attracted to girls.”
“Are you telling me you were really
attracted to every man you slept with?”
Conversation with a friend
After twenty I stopped counting,
not like my friend Beverly, who sewed
an embroidered satin star on her bell-bottoms
for every new guy she fucked.
She had them running down both legs
and around the billowing hem,
and was starting up the inseam
when the jeans gave out in the wash.
It was a boys’ game anyway, those years
of our extended homage to the penis:
the guitar playing the penis, drums saluting it,
cock rock, Molotov cocktail, the motorcycle
gripped between the thighs, and I went down,
we all went down, in the old cultural disaster
of idol worship—a thousand-year bender.
Only this time it was the adolescent member,
oiled and laved, thrust forward arcing,
thin with ache, all tight flesh poked upward,
claiming its own. How it came and went,
penetrating but never settling down,
and how often we were caused to admire it:
hairless sweet warrior, raider against the State.
But I have this sweet pink flower
here between my legs—I put my hand down and touch it,
still soft and wet, and many-folded, endlessly opening,
hiding, seeking, hidden and sought,
but never very much admired or even smiled on
in those years, never served much less sung to.
Not a garden then but a citadel,
a wall to be breached, a new land claimed,
but linger there? No, I would say
there was an overall lack of appreciation,
though breasts were well respected, slopping loose
under T-shirts like little animals,
and I would feel my nipples brush the cotton
with pleasure, see them regarded also with pleasure.
Still, sex then was a taking, like spoils of war, a victory
over all those straight fucks back home, marooned
in the dismal suburbs that birthed us squalling and red
and watched us flee in ungrateful cars down night highways.
And God knows it felt good those nights.
I was ready, it was ready, to open and answer the call.
And take me down and roll me over, yes, and give
it to me—but why all this riding away afterward?
Where was everyone going
and why didn’t I get to ride along? Who knew at first
nothing had changed, just wanting the thrust and tug
and slam up against the headboard, I should say so,
but left still wanting more, wanting to leap
out of centuries’ shame and be something new,
not this old consolation of women for the powerless,
some kind of cosmic door prize awarded
just for showing up with a dick,
some proof to themselves these boys were men.
“You’re good,” he said. Hell, I wasn’t taking a typing test,
I was fighting to live in a dying world.
I was throwing myself away, an offering to wildest space,
surrender to the mind’s dissolve, the body’s electric light,
nerve endings firing like exploding stars.
“You’re good,” they all said:
you’d think somebody was doing a survey.
Girls say yes to boys who say no, and then
your professor asks if you’re wearing underwear,
when you meet for your conference on the poetry of Yeats.
Crossing the border after midnight in a borrowed car
after a visit to the after-hours doctor’s office in Sarnia.
Nodding out in the back seat, pills wearing off.
He was a legend among undergraduates:
cheap and reliable, always on call,
until a month later the headlines screamed
“Abortion Doc!” when a girl died in his office
and he dragged her down to the river
and dumped her body in the underbrush.
January 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
Lovely walk today in the sun and snow, the park paths smooth and white, the sky bright blue, activity everywhere, the cold gnawing on my face. I wanted to walk a long time, but only managed the park and Citarella, pears and broccoli, salad greens. We’ve been inside without vegetables for a couple of days, because we’re pussies.
You’d think if I fed the cat bits of pork chop, on a plate on the floor, and he didn’t want it, I’d shrug and go on to other things. No. I put the greasy bits in the palm of my hand, sit on the couch and let him dine the way he prefers to.
“I’ve fed you by hand,” I said to Charles, who was laughing at us.
“I can’t remember when.”
“Fruit,” I said, “Berries, cherries.”
“That doesn’t really count. But it sounds nice—an orchard, summer—”
I was thinking of the grand feasts of our early days, eaten in bed. Delicious food was almost as exciting to us then as it is now to the cats. Before he met me, Charles didn’t live with anyone who cooked especially well, and I’d never had control of a kitchen before. It was vegetables and fruits we splurged on, not meats or cheeses or baked goods. Those were too expensive. When I was young, you could buy eggplants and peppers and squash for pennies, bags of fruit for a dollar.
California last week was a sweet break, perfect warm days, friends, family, Mom’s 89th birthday. If it weren’t for the droughts and fires, especially the fires, I might consider moving out there again. Fire scares me, far more than hurricanes or terrorist bombings. We were delayed on the way to the airport by the L.A. fire, and though it wasn’t a cause for alarm, it was unnerving.
We came home to thin cats. They’d been fed, but not the way we feed them. Mouchette bawled like a baby and Fitzroy growled and ran away from me. They got over it. They’re plump again now, like Handsel and Gretel.
I keep being reminded of all the stories I’ve read (fairytales & novels not newspaper accounts: reality is too much) about people kept hostage, kids especially, who don’t know there’s a whole world out there.
It’s not my fault my cats can’t go outside, but I do feel a bit like a mad jailer. And sometimes I feel like I’m the one in jail, and these creatures I imagine are pets are really pests, companions in filth and delusion.
There’s no doubt I’ve read too much fiction. My brain is pickled. I wish I had a boy to massage my feet and a coconut cupcake.
One of my poems, for a change–
Inside the fake Chinese chest
painted with dragons
armloads of unfinished work.
The sheets slide like new snow over ice.
All the typewriters are junked now.
Why can’t I ever be done with it?
It must be that I didn’t know
what should happen in the story
about the librarian and the aging
or the poem with its mouth full of poppies
like the signature of a serial killer.
You didn’t want to know
because you couldn’t bear the truth—
or I didn’t know.
This is still the wide-open place
with a scarlet comma
in the middle of the page.
December 24, 2013 § 1 Comment
We went to the Washington Square Park Christmas Eve carol sing-along, led by the Rob Susman Brass Quartet, set up under the arch. It was just dark, the tree was lit, children in Santa hats sat on the ground in the front, and the rest of probably a thousand people crowded around. We got there too late for one of the complimentary songbooks from the Washington Square Park Conservancy, but I know these songs. Of course Charles started laughing as soon as I opened my mouth.
It was just as cold as it should have been, and there was only one person talking on a cell phone, and only for a few minutes. The old man in front of us had a lovely, deep voice that reminded me of childhood; I’m not sure why because none of the (very few) men in my family sang like that and we didn’t go to church. But that gravelly baritone made me happy, and Charles too. We told the man how good he was, how much we were enjoying him, and he was far more delighted than one would expect. He kept smiling and patting my shoulder. “I’ve been singing in choirs all my life,” he said, so maybe that was what I heard: the decades.
People were singing carols in this same spot a hundred years ago, probably two hundred years ago. I could almost see them—the women in their long dresses, cloaks and boots, the children wrapped in scarves and mittens. You know the scene: it’s in black and white, snow is falling, there’s a tree in one brownstone window, with a star on top; and beside the well-dressed folk is the little match girl. I don’t usually feel the past in places. I adore the remnants, landmarks and ruins, old houses and cobblestones, churches, but the living past, what I find in books and enter seamlessly, is rarely present to me geographically. But tonight it was. I felt like a New Yorker who could commune with any generation, past or to come, though in truth communing with my peers is often a struggle.
I hope New York lasts another two hundred years and more, that the sea doesn’t rise, or bombs fall, or ancient gods rise to tear us apart. I would like to know there will be singing under the arch for another dozen generations; and that I can be one of the ghosts, in a down coat trimmed in fake fur and down-at-the-heel black boots, whispering of how I once lived with a guarded flame of joy in my heart; how I loved my neighbor and so, for a while, could love or at least be cordial with myself; of how I sang of riding in a one horse open sleigh, but never did.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
December 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
The longest night of the year suggests more hours reading in bed, or stitching Christmas stockings by candlelight, or making babies to be born at harvest time, or dreaming unlikely futures. I’ll stick to the first activity, with a cat tucked under my chin and another sprawled across my legs. I like being furniture.
Last night we went to the Paul Winter Consort Solstice Concert at the Cathedral. “This is what cathedrals are for,” said Charles, stunned by the power of the event, and though I think they are for lots of things, there’s no question that the union of Paul Winter and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the happiest blend of old and new American culture—which for all its occasional insularity, usually ends up embracing if not embroidering the world’s art.
The Consort was joined by the Forces of Nature Dance Company, gospel singer Theresa Thomason and Brazilian singers Ivan Lins and Renato Braz. The evening was dedicated to Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who died in September. The Brazilians sang songs of Christmas, longing and exile with tenderness and that cool-warm charm for which they are justly renowned. Paul and the dancers presented a piece for the Grand Canyon (“We were recording out there and we found a small side canyon with the same 7-second reverberation as the Cathedral, so now we refer to the Cathedral as the Grand Canyon East”). Winter, looking like a druid priest as imagined by a star-struck NYC kid raised on the Nutcracker, was surrounded by the spirits of rock, air and light. It was mesmerizing theater, glorious sound and the beautiful animal grace of bodies on our blue-green planet.
A tribute to Nelson Mandela, by the Forces of Nature, was the kind of outpouring that gives one faith in the human race. A couple of dozen laughing dancers in colorful costumes were playful, joyful, sexy and acrobatic as the drummers beat a rhythm to wake the dead. That this never works is not and has never been the point.
Who am I to feel negative (where my spirit still pulls me) after watching such ebullience in honor of Madiba? It is a privilege to be alive, to have seen as much as I have of the earth, to be surrounded by talent and drive, endurance and kindness; and to know that there are still, if not for long, elephants, honeybees and tigers.
That twilight. That darkness. It’s not all there is. I feel profound guilt and shame for what we have taken from the creatures, whose lives are utterly their own, who cannot be assigned value. But I can’t stop connecting with people, though I often want to hibernate, and not only in December. “I love your hair,” shrieked a woman in the elevator this morning, “I’m going to let mine go like that!” My hair is long and multi-colored-—brown, gray, silver—and today was frizzy and barely brushed. “I look like a witch,” I said to Charles.
“We like witches,” responded my husband, patting his bad-tempered mouse-gray and rust patchwork cat, eating the banana-pecan bread I baked instead of working. I have to write about the Cathedral. Well, I am. I’ll get to the professional stuff later. This is my personal Cathedral: stone in memory of stone, throngs of people, light always.
Paul’s young daughters danced the old year out and the new year in, and in an inspired bit of showmanship, the lit-up globe came down the aisle and was lifted above the stage, already graced by a Christmas tree decorated with cymbals. There were wolf howls and “Silent Night” in Portuguese. We walked to the subway glowing with Christmas, with the gifts of the Solstice and the season: Winter’s gifts.
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.