That Funny Moment

A couple of weeks ago, on my way to work to co-facilitate a group, while I was walking to the El and talking on the phone, a little fruit fly circumvented the shield provided by my glasses and flew straight into my eye. I was feeling a bit emotional before the fly thing happened. As I had left my home, I had noticed within myself my intention: I wanted to do a particularly good job of facilitating my group that night.

When the fly got suctioned into my eye by the swirling currents therein, I was on the phone, and holding bags, so I had to announce my predicament to the person on the phone who wanted me to note their phone number, and put the phone on speakerphone while I flipped the camera so I could see my face as I moved my eyeball around, hoping the fly would make its way back to the front of my eyeball where I could pluck it out. A few tears and long seconds later, the fly showed up under my eyelid, and eventually floated down to a snatchable location, like the worst biological contact lens breakaway piece.

I had never had a fly in my eye before, though I had written a short story based on that premise (foreshadowing?) years ago.

I got on the El, which promptly came to a screeching halt at Market and Fifth Street, the light were low and it seemed like the whole system had powered down. So I got off the train, went to the street, and got on a bus. At 9th and Market, there was the beginning of a terrible traffic logjam due to the NFL Draft road closures. I felt that my commute had already been hard enough so I toughed it out (kinda lazy) for another two blocks. I walked from 11th and Market to 13th and Sansom.

By the time I got to work, and at each slight mishap, I was wondering whether my troubled commute was some universe-driven warning sign. Or signs. I’m not superstitious, typically, but sometimes I start noticing that I’m getting the same message over and over again and I wonder if I’m ignoring the obvious. So I gave myself a brief talking to in my head. I decided that my commute did not have to impact my intent. That I could still summon my skills as a professional, and do my job the way I wanted to. That power to chose the theme of my life, is a kind of brilliant freedom. And I was glad that I had the inner power to be amused by my minor travails, but not overwhelmed by them, and still had the bandwidth to step into my professional mindset and do the work. That space to move through my thoughts and feelings, in a kind of mindfulness, is one of the big gifts of being a therapist, and perhaps that gift was born of the gift of being a writer first.

Resistance

Resistance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.”

(I wrote this draft several weeks ago, but it took until today to feel ready to post.)

I’ve been thinking about injustice a lot. About violence and fear. About grief and pain. How daily life is steeped in horror at times. How I get overwhelmed. How I can take care of myself. How I can take care of others. How change is made. How I can participate in that change: Money, votes, activism, professionalism. In times of trouble, I often reflect on my profession as social worker and psychotherapist. My roles, my skills, my contributions. As a therapist and social worker, I want to work with artists, entrepreneurs, and activists. I want to be an ally in the struggle. I want to work towards a more just world. I want to help sustain world changers.

I also want to engage in direct action, but I am still formulating what that will look like for me. I want to bring multiple pieces of myself to bear. I want art, and activism and community. One of the groups I am thinking of engaging with: The League of Creative Interventionists.

I’ve been thinking about the privilege that my grief and fear embody. How I have been aware of injustice, but more often than not, don’t worry about getting out the door and managing aggressions to my soul, heart and body. I lucked out in my society: a cis white woman married to a cis white man living in the US. I think about how friends and clients of mine are subject to multiple isms and sometimes live in fear and worry moment to moment, day after day.

I have been thinking about how to nourish myself so I can struggle for justice, weep, laugh, find community. How to remain an activist throughout my life. How not to become complacent. How not to be demolished by grief, fear, worry. I want to nourish my hope. The troubles we are going through are not new. The solution will not be tomorrow. Endurance and joy, as well as consciousness and accountability, must be nurtured within me.

One small step forward: Reading quotes about resistance. Here are a few that are resonating with me today.

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”
― Steven Pressfield

“It is necessary to remember, as we think critically about domination, that we all have the capacity to act in ways that oppress, dominate, wound (whether or not that power is institutionalized). It is necessary to remember that it is first the potential oppressor within that we must resist – the potential victim within that we must rescue – otherwise we cannot hope for an end to domination, for liberation.”
― Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black

“We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.

“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.”
― Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive.”
―Thomas Jefferson

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
―Audre Lorde

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
― James Baldwin

To be cool

I met someone unbearably cool on Thursday night. She had dyed silver hair with purple streaks framing her lovely face. She was middle aged, perfect smile wrinkles around her eyes. She had a bass guitar strapped to her back. She oversaw a software development team and she knew my friend because she also plays ice hockey. She was in an adult rock band.

In my twenties, I deliberately cultivated certain skills that I believed were critical to becoming the kind of person I wanted to be as an adult. These skills included kissing, playing pool well, drinking whiskey on the rocks, cooking, writing, fearlessly (and indulgently) following my heart, working on the craft of repartee and generally doing things I had a sense women weren’t supposed to do (like driving taxis). Many of these skills have stayed with me, some have dropped away. I now suck at playing pool: I used to carry a roll of quarters in my purse. For a moment I could, from time to time, put sexist presumptuous persons in their places. At least with cue in hand.

In my thirties, I decided that making lists and having top tens was a bit silly. Life was nuanced and complex. I was satisfied with whom I had become. (Perhaps I grew complacent, or smug, or just plain happy.) I had certain goals in mind, but they were focused on scholarship, writing, and my romantic life. They were not about the craft of becoming. I know what I look like and how I present, and I suspect what people think when they behold me. “A very nice, conservative lady” as one of my former clients put it.

On Thursday, Purple Streaks reminded me that there are choices to be made. I am faced with the becoming of middle age. And questions about coolness. Hipness is out of reach (and, honestly, not exactly desirable). I have some culture. I have opinions of taste. I have a sense of being worldly. I don’t want to be cool to others, but I wouldn’t mind being cool to myself. That’s a kind of cool worth working toward, and my reach needs exceed my grasp if I wish to keep growing. Plots and lists are to be made.

New York: Love and a Whiff of Mortality

When I visit Manhattan, I feel seized by that New York excitement, a state of being which resembles my hyper teenage self. (I know there are songs written about this, and the reason there are songs is because it’s real: That NY state of mind.) The great mix of people and the sounds and the smells, and the pace, and the way I feel each street due to the light and the architecture, and how ornate and ever changing the interior design flavor of the moment. Right now, on 9th Ave, there is a return to “rustic authenticity.” I have a choice: upscale, or downscale. I can eat cheap pastries on a stoop, or tapas in a heated indoor winter garden. I make the city mine by engaging it with my personal blend of whimsy and interest, and (unavoidably) spending power.

I first came to live in NYC when I was 21. New York has become a personal measurement tool, like those childhood height marks on doors. I go back and I measure myself to the city: How is my energy? Who is with me and why? What am I attracted to? What do I wish to see again? What do I wish to see anew?

DarthColbertThis last visit, we went to see the Colbert Report on Monday and the Daily Show on Tuesday. The warm-up comedian made a point of reminding the audience that we were splurging with free tickets. Both shows were great, with interesting similarities and style variances in the handling of the audience. My partner and I also walked around, ate good sushi, and caught by chance the loveliness-drenched end of The Marriage of Figaro, simulcast on the Lincoln Center Plaza. My spirit was soaring to the music. It had to be Mozart. Out of all the wonders, that will probably be the moment that sticks with me: The dream of visiting Lincoln Center with my sweetheart, which has preoccupied me since I first saw Cher in Moonstruck. Going to see La Boheme was sweepingly romantic in the movie and stumbling onto Figaro was beautiful in real life, more than 25 years after the movie came out. Funny how movies and New York City can conspire to make life dreamlike. (This dream of life which whose end is unknown, but probably unlike The Marriage of Figaro.)

Figaro

When you have to say goodbye too early: Robin Williams

I found Robin so sensitive and so perceptive, and so gentle. He was the first comedian I noticed. He influenced me deeply: My sense of what someone cultured and funny might sound like, think about, care about. How to be honest about life on this planet without giving up altogether. His death has made me profoundly sad. I’m trying to work around it, with it, through it, sideways. Trying to celebrate my memories of his beautiful soul, trying to see more clearly the deep sadness he held (maybe because of his kindness). I make no judgment on his choice, though I hope that going forward anyone feeling that sad, lonely and desperate will reach out and give those around them one more chance to help. I’m just sorry the now obvious overwhelming love we had for him was not loud enough when he needed it–or maybe that would never have been enough. Depression is tricky; it is exceptionally good at blurring the ability to think critically, or to think beyond the moment. I have found a few things healing, or helpful in this moment of grief and I wanted to share them, because they offer both real sadness and real humor/insight/humanity/hope.

Anne Lamott wrote a really touching tribute to pain, mental health, addiction and recovery. Here’s a snippet: “If you have a genetic predisposition towards mental problems and addiction, as Robin and I did, life here feels like you were just left off here one day, with no instruction manual, and no idea of what you were supposed to do; how to fit in; how to find a day’s relief from the anxiety, how to keep your beloved alive; how to stay one step ahead of abyss…

Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.”

I got amazing comfort out of hearing Marc Maron’s wonderful reflection of Robin and his 2010 hour-long interview with Robin Williams, which gives us a really nuanced, textured sense of him as a very vulnerable man. The podcast is currently available on Marc’s WTF home page.

Resources:

For those who aren’t familiar with the impact of severe depression, I recommend these two short articles for perspective: Andrew Solomon wrote a useful piece for the New Yorker about the loneliness of depression, and the incomprehensibility of suicide from the outside.  He reminds us wisely that trying to find reasons makes no sense. This couples nicely with Kay Redfield Jamison’s piece in the New York Times. “How can you say what it feels like to go from being someone who loves life to wishing only to die? Suicidal depression is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things that you most love in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night.” She ends the article by taking stock of options those struggling with depression can put in place with their doctors and loved ones when they have a respite from their symptoms.

If you are thinking about suicide, the Mayo Clinic has good information.

If someone you love has committed suicide, Victoria Hospice has a good guide.

The Thought of India

Even though it was six months ago, I still get asked “How was India?” The question is so huge, it leaves me either rambling or wordless. The scope of the question might be, “What are your thoughts on being a woman?” Or perhaps, “Tell me about your childhood?” (Childhood I could tackle, that’s a narrative I have shared and shaped again and again throughout my life.)

I keep hoping my seven weeks in India, or the country in my head, will finally become manageable, just an epic travel experience. But the flashes of color and feeling that rise up in my mind when I hear the word India aren’t so easily packaged for external consumption.

So here’s what I’ve got, just a few more reflections that I hadn’t yet articulated, or that have crystallized further.

1. I have never left India. It has been inscribed within me. My emotional relationship with what I know of the country reminds me of my first love. There were many beautiful and many terrifying moments. I know this is all cliche, but cliche is sometimes the best way to express something universal: All that is left are my memories, and the way my senses and perspective were transmogrified. I resemble my prior self, but I am someone else.

2. Intellectual and emotional humility. There are many forms of wisdom, many of which do not issue from formal learning.

3. It’s okay not to know where I am going. I have hungered for states of certainty for a long time. India obliged me to become a bit more flexible. I may not trust the road, or the driver, but I can trust that the journey will maintain my interest, and charmingly, most outcomes will be harmless or at least manageable (and some enchanting). Near helplessness is a very uncomfortable state to inhabit for seven weeks, of course (if necessary) I had a privileged kind of relief at my disposal–my wallet.

4. The state of understanding another being is not to be taken for granted. Neither the being, nor the understanding. There are many ways of being understood and many ways of being misunderstood. These are in constant flux, even within a lasting relationship. Triangulating meanings across languages and cultures exposes the many gaps between us. It also exposes how amazing each moment of rapprochement really is.

5. Resilience, resourcefulness and desperation are all incestuous cousins. They are awe-inspiring and they distasteful. Making use of very little can be really moving. It’s also awful to witness because it proposes a reality that cannot be argued with.

6. Whatever can be done with a human body is being done. Yay. Boo.

“Yay. Boo. Yay.” would be a fitting (highly reductive) three-word answer to everything I witnessed: 7. My moral self was never at rest. I was constantly trying to assess, understand and evaluate both my experience and the experiences of those who were around me. I was trying to give it value(s). For example, as a westerner, beautiful things could be bought, but the buying and the beauty were both imbedded with multiple other meanings–colonialism, US imperialism, privileges of race and class, my astounding amount of education and its basic uselessness in this context, the smugness of my wallet and its credit card contents, plain commercial lust, my responsibilities as a tourist, my responsibilities as a human being towards others. What each of my gestures, commercial or non-commercial, said about my identity and my intentions, about the countries I come from, and how I perceived the country I was visiting. What each gesture from Indians also represented as a comment on our interaction.

I have never felt more morally sketchy. Being back in the U.S. is so much more comfortable. Here I can nurture an illusion of living more or less as a “good” person. In India, walking down the street, I stepped over bodies that might have been (but I dearly hoped weren’t) dead.  In the U.S., I have a slightly better sense of the boundaries of what I can and should or might do in any given circumstance, and what the basic order of things is supposed to look like among my countrymen… I step over fewer literal bodies.

8. There is hope. We will each have to find our own.

The Taj Mahal Quest

I have spent six weeks in India over two visits. I have never seen the Taj Mahal. In November 2011, I came to New Delhi and spent a week. The only day I had off from the conference I was running was a Friday. The only day of the week the Taj Mahal is closed is Friday. I spent my last day in India touring Delhi and saw many marvels.

No Taj Mahal, however. I came all the way to India and I did not see its most famous site (which was only a few hours away). Many of the attendees who came to my conference did see the Taj. I tried not to be bitter. I tried to tell myself this was fine. This was okay. I didn’t have to see the Taj Mahal just because I was in India. I’m sure lots of tourists who have been to Delhi haven’t seen the Taj Mahal. Right?

In the last two years, I have not met a single person who has seen the Taj Mahal who thinks it was anything less than amazing.  (I keep asking because I’m still trying to rationalize my prior failure.) I’m happy to say that my time has come.

I’m in India. In terms of Taj touring, I’m somewhat inconveniently situated in Kolkata. The monsoon is getting underway.  This weekend I will take a taxi to the airport at the pre-dawn crack, then take a plane, then a taxi to a train, then a taxi to the Taj or my hotel, depending. I will see the Taj Mahal. I hope to see it at sunset and again at sunrise.

When I went to buy my New Delhi to Agra train ticket at the Kokata Foreign Tourist Counter, I waited 1.5 hours on a sofa chair. I made friends with an Iranian scientist and has a speed round geopolitics chat. When number 43 was called out and I finally got to speak with the train booking gentlemen, they spent 20 minutes trying to convince me that I really wanted to take a bus (they did not sell bus tickets) instead of the train. I held firm. I wanted a ticket that said Agra. I wanted a ticket that guaranteed I would get to my target town on Saturday afternoon. I had to argue and plead. They disagreed with me repeatedly. I held firm. They finally gave in. I have a one way second-class train ticket! They would not sell me a ticket back to Delhi. They insisted I should take a bus–that buses were common and easy to find; that a bus would be more convenient. This remains to be sorted out. I don’t know if I can get back to Delhi and then Kolkata on Sunday (despite my plane ticket). But I do know I will see the Taj Mahal. Or at least I’m as moderately confident about it as I am about any other aspect of my life in India. Further updates to come. Wish me luck.

Details and Weaknesses

My written french is abysmal, so when I wrote to my french grandma that Kolkata was pretty interesting, she chided me that I needed to try harder to convey the experience. The fact is that it’s very hard to explain what makes the city so captivating, so exhausting, so worthwhile, so magical, so frustrating, and so bittersweet. My time in India is complicated, layered meanings for each banal, charming and/or brutal experience. The details of the every day are impossible to recount, there’s just too much happening, too much observed, too much forgotten: There’s the way the taxi swerves to evade the brightly colored trucks, the nonchalant dogs in the middle of the road, the irrational confidence of the pedestrians putting their palms out to stop cars, the god statues and pictures and flowers in the altars found on the dashboards of the taxis and auto rickshaws, the altars on the side of the street, the small dishes made of leaves used to eat chickpea curries at roadside stalls.

Everyday I experience how internally inconsistent I am, all the tensions between wanting to be open to others and wanting to preserve myself. This is in parallel to the multiple contradictions of my external environments–are strangers being kind, are they in need, are they ignoring me or swindling me, or reaching out in friendship? Will my toes hit another brick in the uneven sidewalk in that tiny moment I am distracted? I navigate small pleasures and small displeasures through always changing, chaotic, stop and start, tempos. The pace is a rush, the pace is a crawl: the moment will stretch and I will feel old, but then soon it will be evening and I will be young again. Time cannot be tracked. Was it morning yesterday? I’m a bit dizzy with the array of surging and ebbing flows: the lifeforms, signs of their passing, signs of their decay (my own).

I’ve had frequent bouts of feeling suddenly overwhelmed by smells. The smells aren’t offensive, just strong: today it was the smell of baking cookies. Previous days, it’s been the smell of curries, beauty products, garbage, or flowers. Any of these might suddenly make me feel out of control, and just as quickly, if I remove myself, five minutes later I’m utterly fine. It’s the unpredictability that frightens me.

Equally mysterious are my range of reactions to the heat. Yesterday, I was immobile. I was wedded to my air conditioning. The thought of full sun made me fearful.  Today, in the sun, I was almost fine. I didn’t become drenched in sweat until evening came and I had been sitting still for hours. Sometimes there is nothing left of me. I am a shell crawling to the comforts of a cold shower.  Sometimes I am abundant, and resilient. It’s my repertory of weaknesses, blooming in Kolkata. The city abounds. I cannot keep up. I can only be, a little bit at a time, and then a lot, quickly. And then I sleep. Blessed sleep before the web of life absorbs me again in its colors.

The Terror of Dreams Come True

I’m in the process of changing careers. It’s a dramatic shift – from administrator to therapist. I suppose there’s an argument, or a joke, to be make about how the two professions overlap. I’m struggling with the speed of the changes both internal and external. My life is suddenly super exciting and terribly exhausting. Change makes me anxious–and it’s hard to know exactly why. This was a measured, deliberate, even handed venture. I weighed the pros and cons, the costs and time. I made spreadsheets. I conducted informational interviews. I prepared. And now I’m contending with the reality. I’m surging into the future. If I think about what I know so far, it’s quite good. My new work fascinates me. Demands all of me.

But despite the evidence, I cannot discard my weathered inner skeptic. My wish for this new career is too often counterbalanced by my glass half full mentality. I try to remember the hope that brought me to this juncture, the inner compass that envisioned this path forward. I wish the sense of certainty that got me into grad school still covered me like a cloak. Instead, I’m vulnerable–I’m starting something big and new. I haven’t started something big and new in quite a while. Often my vulnerability leaves me feeling raw and exposed–it’s very much how I remember falling in love in college–how I was so excited and full of dread. On good days, I can set aside my worry momentarily and just be.
I did not know dreams come true would be so demanding of me. I thought my age would protect me. Instead I have to find new ways of thinking. Here’s my new wish: that when I am past this moment, I will remember the beauty rather than the terror.

Dream Cities

I have been to London. But I have spent far more time in the London of my mind, which has been richly fed by many-faced narratives. That London was nourished by children’s tales where bears roam train stations, children fly out the window, and there are suburbs named Narnia and the Shire. I am simultaneously full of London at War–Churchill’s London, the unseen London of Downton Abbey, Virginia Woolf’s London. Not to mention Dr Who’s many Londons and Sherlock’s London, both old and new. There is of course, James Bond’s London, fierce and sexy.

London is one of my many dreamed cities (Hong Kong, New Delhi, Rio, Oslo are others), places that feel familiar through sheer force of cumulative narrative, photographic and cinematic record, a place known to all and a place unknown, full of potential.

So additively: London is charmed, London is posh, it reeks of danger and is stuffed with royalty. Also, it smells like tea. Or chimney sweeps. It tastes like curry, and fish and chips, but also of scones, berries or marmalade, and clotted cream. (There’s no lovelier word than marmalade–it’s a sweet grandmotherly jam with good intentions.) It sounds like double-decker buses screeching around tight turns and the pigeons of Picadilly circus. It has mist-fogged parks, and large black taxis, where I can sit backwards if I please.  This is a city of conquerors and immigrants. Many flavored, many tongued. It’s chic, it comes from the future, it has all the elements I most love in large cities: embracing both transience and permanence, beholden to a deep sense of place, a dark history, romance, statuary and old stones, layers of tragedy, funny words and funny habits, an excellent transportation system, a river, and good eats, and of course, the pursuit of the arts. Can’t wait! Ta ta for now.

The End of the World

I’m a day late. The world has ended, and inconveniently, but maybe joyfully, it seems to be going on for me. The end of the world looked pretty much like any holiday Friday in my experience, except for the amassed police and their brusk ways and the impossible traffic, impatient drivers honking. (That business, which threw my end of the world skepticism for a loop during my ten minute walk to the El, turned out to be a response to the overnight flooding–so some of my expectations were satisfied, the neighborhood had a bit of a watery calamity on its hands.)

I was glad it was the end of the world. After all, it was also my last work day for this calendar year and I was ready for a long break after a demanding semester in grad school. I couldn’t wait for the day (and the world) to end, because I was pretty sure that whatever came after would be really good for me. I was right.

I’m settling into a luxurious Saturday on my couch, listening to American Routes, drinking coffee out of the porcelain mug on the end table, instead of slurping out of a travel mug on the El. I haven’t been home on my couch on a Saturday in four months. It feels ridiculously good not to be rushing off to my internship. I have a long to do list, but none of the items have real consequence–my multiple bosses and teachers expect nothing from me right now, so that’s a lovely lightness. And now I’m listening to Elvis’s Blue Christmas, which is one of my favorite holiday songs, so after-the-end-of-the-world time feels decadent and sounds pretty groovy and Hawaiian.  Not too bad, this afterlife.

 

Regeneration, Care of the BBC

Since I was a little girl, I’ve enjoyed the BBC show Dr. Who, particularly the Tom Baker Dr. Who when I was little, and now all the new reboot Doctors. I especially love the re-generation story lines when the doctor seems to die and is immediately reincarnated into a totally different person, who sounds different and generally speaks and dresses differently and has other kinds of charm and energy, but somehow embodies the same philosophy and all the same knowledge. This metaphor seemed particularly apt to me yesterday as I was sitting on the trolley, thinking about my current transition between skill sets, populations, peers, and focus. I was trying to mentally sketch the person I am becoming but also considering the multiple past selves I already contain that are totally invisible to the casual observer–it’s not only the good Doctor who does this: in some sense, each human life is a story of countless regenerations. Hair cut to hair cut, lover to lover, bell bottoms to jeggings. Older people are icebergs–so much floats beneath the surface: forty years of flirtations, seductions, griefs and small triumphs, career changes, jobs and hobbies taken up and discarded, tie-dye tshirts made on the kitchen stove–it’s all there, past knowledge, past hope just waiting to be recalled, reactivated. I too forget, when faced with an older woman, how she must have danced and blushed at other points.

Aikido

This week, I’m thinking a lot about energy and how it can be used and redirected, and I’m thinking that maybe I need to learn the martial art Aikido. The premise of Aikido is that your attacker’s energy can be taken in and redirected so as to protect both you and the attacker. If every human interaction is an exchange of energy, and human energy needs to be safely and productively handled (particularly in the work place) then Aikido is the ultimate physical manifestation of understanding how to make the best and kindest use of personal energy. (I’m sure there are many other physical practices and schools of thought and faith that address the issue, but I like the idea of Aikido very much right now, as an embodiment of the best human values. )

I’m aware of Aikido because my mother’s friend Agnes studied it when she was a young mother and showed me a couple techniques in her doorway, on a fall or spring day, when I was about eight. She kept asking me to “attack” her and I kept running at her and she would very gently but firmly take my arm and twist like a bullfighter out of the way and I would find myself on the other side of her body and the door, on the outside. It seemed very magical. At the time I was learning Judo and I was more attracted to the possibility of hurting an attacker (appropriate for an eight year old).

I’m currently fascinated by how knowledge, history and life themes can converge in surprising ways. It’s surprising how my child self and my adult self are meeting through this memory of Aikido and my current preoccupation with the fruitful and kind harvesting of energy. In turn, this makes me think of my mother, one of the first people to talk to me about energy, and how while I knew she was right–there definitely was energy–for most of my life I felt uncomfortable talking and thinking about it openly. The concept was just a bit too groovy.

My mom is on my mental scene in a second way. Here’s one of her oft repeated nuggets: No learning is pointless or useless. All knowledge acquired will be used again, eventually. This came up repeatedly between us during my teen years and twenties, whenever I complained that I was being forced to master skills I considered uninteresting or too specific. And here I am, middle aged, putting pieces of my decades of learning together like a jigsaw puzzle. Maybe this is what wisdom looks like, becoming more than the sum total of your experiences.

The Shores Of Philadelphia

I’m leaving West Philadelphia for Northern Liberties. I’ve lived on the western shore of this city for almost twelve years – its the longest time span I’ve ever spent in a single neighborhood.

I used to fantasize about which Philadelphia neighborhood I would leave for, and then the idea of leaving became totally absurd.

I love the crunchy artistic punk environmentalist, bicyclist, young kid established family grad student african immigrant vibe of the place. There were at least seven distinct ethic or specialty eateries within two blocks of my home–during Baltimore Dollar Days, the crowds wantonly bypassed the Subway offerings for locally sourced ice cream or samosas. We did not dance in the streets when the Phillies won the World Series, but we did when Obama became President.

I love the architecture, the gardens and trees, the devoted neighbors who organize block parties–it’s part transient, part lifers. It grows and organizes itself in a dance. The firehouse at 50th and Baltimore that used to be a market now holds Dock Street Brewery–Philly Car Share offices became sliding-scale Community Acupuncture. There’s plenty of DYI and community art events.

I’m leaving for Philadelphia’s eastern shore – five miles and a river away.
It’s a new life, with other communities full of artists and urban innovators. I’m leaving for love, which is the only pull strong enough to take me away from the place where I finally started taking my writing work more seriously.

It’s a joyful new beginning and a weird time for me. The seven years I spent on Cedar Avenue are the longest consecutive stretch of time I’ve spent under the same roof in my entire life.

I’m already familiar with the outlines of my new home, but I will have to dig deeper to find my communities and spaces, the places where I stop by and waste time browsing or conversing. I will have to learn who I am becoming against this new urban mirror.

Sorting the Physical Self

Tonight I finally opened one of my two mystery “old file” boxes I’ve been lugging around from apartment to apartment since the mid 90s. Boy, I was organized back in the 90s. I found traces of my old New York life, one of my many partially discarded and partially digested selves. I uncovered my original birth certificate in a plastic sleeve surrendered to me by my mother many moons ago. It’s got that great 1970s type and is printed on a green piece of paper.

I always joke that I own nothing other than my own body.

Several boxes of books say different. Also, I had no idea I had so many knickknacks until I started the classifying process. Belongings: books, clothes, bathroom, kitchen, entertainment, appliances, files. a few odd bits of furniture. And a surprising number of borderline useability objects–they’re totally well intentioned, but kinda cluttery and worthless. I’m also surprised at how well sorted my random piles of papers are.  A light notion of a sketch of sense emerges gradually as I handle them again. I can tell I was really trying hard during prior organizational drives. Tonight’s drive will be more authoritative, I congratulate myself assertively.

Sorting is part delight, one third confusion, a smidgen of embarrassment and of course, there’s the back pain. I have to be really strategic in how I utilize my compromised muscular resources.

There’s also the dawning reality: my belongings are a sharp mirror: time, money, friends come and gone. Old address books. Former employers and former health plan details.  I’m finding long letters sent by college friends. All sorts of unsorted pictures. I’m trying to classify the modes, moods and feelings of my existence so they can be boxed up. It’s weird boxing your being up. You want to act all detached. These are things. I don’t believe in things.

I am sinking in things. At the same time, I’m emerging clearer as my self, oddly. I can’t fully explain the paradox, but rediscovering my long journey as I clear out from my longest lived home ever, ultimately fills me with pride in who I’m becoming (not that I’m puffed up about it, I’m just cozy glad).

 

The Sea

Today’s ocean

My grandfather plunked me into the sea before I was six months old. It’s one of my oldest and most gratifying relationships. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in my life, when I step into the ocean, I’m a newborn again. I’m free. I’m safe. I’m floating. I’m happy.

Some people have churches, some people have lakes or mountains. My memory is full of sand and cottony towels, and the stickiness of sunscreen, and the taste of salty fries after a long day, and the feel of blackberries, hot from the sun, exploding in my mouth. I remember night swims, and day swims, and the feel of the waves, and the feeling of being submerged and being rocked by the water’s currents. It’s a place of sensations, the stinging flies, and the sand in my toes, the drying sand in the sunscreen on my legs, the hot sand burning the thin soles of my feet, the feel of shells in the sand underfoot, and sometimes in the water, when I set foot for a moment on the sand-bed, stepping on a crab going about its business. There’s the odd corset-like feeling of a wet bathing suit drying. The pleasures of a seafood dinner after a beach day. The endlessness of the long sleepy ride home from the beach.

There are always small surprises when I get home: the splotches of red skin when I look in the bathroom mirror and notice I missed applying sunscreen to my neck.  There’s the return of the summer freckles on my face. Finding sand at the bottom of my beach bags. The way the New Yorker crumples up and dries stiff after its pages get wet.

Teen year kisses on the beach. Long walks with grandma looking for shells at low tide.

It’s all there. Past, present, future, intermingling in the brine. Some say our blood has the salinity of the sea.

Some Places Are People

Arena and Church-Saintes


We took more than 2000 pictures in our short 9 day stint in France. When I went to put together a small album, 53 pictures total, a subset of the images we had collected, I ended up largely with pictures of people I love. I had some beautiful architecture or surprising scenery in there, but largely, it was people who populated my memory and my heart most strongly. So when I think about France, I tend to think about it in the abstract. I think about long meals. I think about the quality of the light. I think about Paris’ cool gray elegance. I think about the Seine and all its bridges and views, but when I want to remember France, I look into people’s faces and my heart is at home again.

WingedVictory_Louvre

Paris, Other Eyes

View from sixth floor of Beaubourg, Pompidou Center, Paris

Modern Art

So I went to Paris with my honey, which I understand you are supposed to do, and we toured the bestselling sights, which I suppose was my duty, and it turned out to be a delight, because it forced me to look again, spectate afresh, at what I already thought I knew. So my lesson learned is always travel to loved places with friends, because companions provide invisible diamond glasses–everything you look upon is more beautiful, more complex, and more rainbow colored in the company of a friend, even when it rains.

How to avoid being shallow

I have always disdained those who love their appearance too much, those who cultivate a beautiful body, which they use as a bargaining tool. My revulsion with the beauty cult started in seventh grade when a cluster of my female acquaintances, with perfectly nice 13-year-old bodies, shared that they were dieting as I surveyed their bare lunch trays, with a sprinkling of red apples and low-fat yogurts, as we sat in our sunny cafeteria. These were the popular girls. They were already richer and better dressed than I. I remember thinking that they were totally ridiculous for dieting when there was nothing wrong with their bodies. How neurotic. How weird.

My disavowal of body-focused inwardness (of the female variety) has been in many ways quite useful and in many ways compromising.
I have striven to accept myself. I have refused to buy into the culture of anorexia and self denial.
I have refused to pass the cake slice at parties, as so many of my friend did. I ate the cake.

But after four decades of single minded individualism, coupled with a pleasure-seeking, celebratory disposition that loves food, drink, and fun, I’ve ended up not fitting in my pants.

So I’ve decided to be more healthful, and this means doing things like joining meyouhealth.com, my employer’s wellness challenge, and (they could really use some re-branding) Weight Watchers–I mean after all, watching my weight go up is what got me here in the first place.
I’ve been trying to understand my aversion to nutritional self control, and I’ve finally figured out two really helpful things thanks to my friend Jessica:
1) I’m not being punished, I’m being healthful and taking care of myself.
2) Being careful with your health does not equal being shallow.

Voila! Let’s hope this new perspective translates to action. It’s certainly helping my attitude (constantly wondering, “why am i being punished?” makes it hard not to eat chocolate.)

Hospital Time

I’m in the waiting room at a hospital while someone I love undergoes a minor procedure. Shouldn’t take much, just my friend’s sedation, which is why I’ve come in as the caretaker. It’s weird sitting in the beige waiting room, trying to trust strangers who have taken custody of the body of a person I care about. I’m not going to witness much of anything, except the groggy end of this short odyssey in medical world.

I’m sitting here, remembering my own minor procedures, and what they call the “twilight” sedation, which is a total joke, there’s no twilight: no beautiful blue sky, no bright moon, no twinkling stars. There’s a giant grey hole in your memory and the associated events are utterly irretrievable.

They try to neutralize the presentation of the experience as much as possible. There are forms to fill, a medical bracelet to wear. The forms, the pen, are soothing. This is something you can take charge of, this is an activity at which you excel-—filling out forms, giving your details. People are polite and efficient. There are procedures and rites of passage, all bureaucratic. Staff and nurses and the doctor will ask you your birth date at each step of the way, and your ability to say “yes, that’s right,” calms every body down. You are who you are supposed to be, you are supposed to be going through this–it’s agreed. And you strip off your clothes and they put the I.V. in and they wheel you into the procedure room, and you remember nothing.

The process is part brutality and part civility—they will be polite and then they will probe you, sample your tissues, look inside, evaluate your body’s secrets on a giant screen.

But this time, I’m on the safe side of the door. My tension, like the risk to my friend, is slight, but it’s quite real.