Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Diagnosed As Crazy

When I was 12 years old, my elementary school contacted my parents and told them I might be crazy.

Truthfully, I still don’t know, nor remember, exactly how the events unfolded. But I do remember a frantic call from the school to my house, and a subsequent parent/teacher/child conference. I also remember being exposed to dozens of tests, including one where I had to identify what I saw in a series of inkblots. Did you think the inkblot test is only on television? I can assure you, it is not.

“They think you might be a little nuts,” my mother explained to me one day, after I hounded her about what was going on. I didn’t take offense to my mother’s comment in the least; she said those words to me sarcastically, even angrily. The way she spoke was more in the vain of “how dare they,” blanketed by utter disbelief.

The school insisted that I begin to attend regular “conferences” with the school psychologist. Besides the many tests I was given, additionally I was grilled on my home life; they wanted to know if my parents abused me. I was a good student; an obedient girl; and I remained utterly confused about my predicament, or why I was being targeted.

After many of these conferences, my parents were finally called to the school, and we all sat in the Principals’ office together. The psychologist was there as well.

A yellow lined piece of paper was pushed across the desk toward me. I immediately recognized my own writing; it was an essay of some sort; a writing assignment. I pulled it closer to me so that I could identify which one it was; I always enjoyed writing exercises. I remembered it immediately; it was the assignment where we had to describe our bedrooms at home.

I looked up with a “yeah, so?” and I shrugged.

“Did you write this yourself? Or did you copy it from a book?” asked the psychologist.

“I wrote it myself,” I said, feeling insulted.

“Do you remember what the assignment was?” I was asked. I did, of course, and I told them that we were supposed to describe our bedrooms at home, and what it was like to go to sleep in the evenings.

All the eyes of the adults were upon me. The Principal looked frustrated; the psychologist looked impatient. My parents looked angry. “Is this what your bedroom really looks like?” they asked me.


“Did you make this up?”

“Well, sorta,” I answered vaguely. To me at that moment, they seemed clueless. They didn’t seem to comprehend the meaning of “fiction,” and if I had been more articulate at the time, I would have explained the genre to them. But it was more complicated than that; while my descriptions of my bedroom were blatantly untrue, they were based on a very real feeling. I was using my bedroom as a personification of how I felt inside. Did I really need to explain this to my educators?

But the primary thing I remember about that day is feeling sad. Somehow expressing myself often led to my being in trouble. I wondered if they were right; if something was wrong with me; and if I was wrong to write what I had written. I felt shamed.

They asked me to read the essay out loud. I was immediately lulled back into time, when I wrote those images that so inspired me. The bedroom I described existed in a house of destitution. My room was nearly empty, save for one urine stained mattress in the middle of the floor. I was hungry and cold; I had one blanket which was thread-bare; and I had stuffed old clothes into a pillowcase to serve as a pillow. The only light I had was one naked bulb which hung on a long tattered string in the middle of the room. It had a little chain that I could reach from my place in the mattress, and I would turn off my light each night alone after completing my homework on the floor. There were no fairy-tales or good-night kisses. There was just stains and filth.

“Is that the way your room really is?” they asked me again, more sternly.

“No,” I answered sheepishly.

“Do your parents send you to bed without your supper?”


“Then why did you write this?”

I had no answer. Well, actually I did. But I was hit with the awful realization that they wouldn’t understand. I explained it to my parents on our way home, and they understood. In fact, I remember them laughing quite a bit about it all. But the school treated me as though I’d done something bad. It was a pivotal moment in my life.

For weeks they ran a series of psychological tests on me. What I loved most was trying to outsmart the test, and tell them that I knew what the test was designed to find out. I asked about the origins of these tests, and if I could borrow the books they had so I could study them. I was fascinated by what they decided was crazy. They ended up lending me the books, and I began to study psychology on my own. But all of my reactions only seemed to provide further evidence to the psychologist that I was a little bit insane. She would often react to my comments and questions with a sad, almost imperceptible shake of the head.

My real life was undeniably austere. My father taught me the word “monastic” when I was very young, and he used to love to use that word; he believed in a monastic life where your artistic self isn’t cluttered by possessions. Not that our house was physically empty; the walls were bursting with original art; the bookshelves overflowed with books and sculptures; there was great attention to the aesthetics; but very little attention paid to needs.

My father built all of our childhood homes, and they were uniformly rustic; often without many more amenities or luxuries than a cabin. We had no heat; just a stove in the living room, and we were sent to bed with a jar of hot water covered in a sock to help keep us warm. In the mornings, my mother would heat up towels in front of the fire, then run to our rooms and wrap us inside them, and escort us to the breakfast table.

We weren’t allowed real milk; only the powdered stuff, which I detested. We were only allowed to use a half of a toothpick; more than that was wasteful. Paper towels were reused; in fact there was a little drying line above the sink where we were expected to hang the paper towels to dry after rinsing them out. Food was often free; our table was often full of mussels that we would scrape off the rocks at the Marine Reserve only footsteps away; or fruit from a neighbor’s tree. My father would pick dandelion leaves from fields near our house for salads. Nothing would go to waste; he even cooked up a rattlesnake once that he killed for our dinner. We were forced to eat beef tongue, and other innards, which led to my dislike of meat ever since. We never had a birthday party; in fact my sister and I only had one each. The only thing special which happened on our birthday was that we were served Sarah Lee Cheesecake for dessert, and we’d receive, for a gift, something we already needed. Our birthday presents weren’t exciting treats; they were something that should be provided by ones parents.

The year I was diagnosed as being crazy, I was given a pillow for a birthday present.

For months I had complained about my lumpy flat pillow, and begged my parents to replace it. Eventually in a fit of anger, I ripped out the pillow from its pillow case, and filled it with my own clothes; at least it was plumper that way. And when I ripped open my birthday present that night, hoping for a toy or for one of a multitude of things I dreamed about, I was given a pillow. And I resented it.

While my room really didn’t resemble the room I had described in my essay, it did describe my feelings about my room at that time. I felt lonely, cold and poor. And I used images to evoke that; and to express that.

Still, I couldn’t help wonder, if I really might be crazy. I knew I had many obsessive thoughts. I was terrified of black cars, and I believed people who drove black cars were most likely kidnappers. I believed if I didn’t fully read any sign that caught my eye, I would die. Later, I believed I had to read them backwards as well. And there was that pesky belief that my neck wasn’t strong enough to hold up my head.

I had read a quote that “lunatics, lovers, and poets” were really all the same. I never forgot that, and I had always been fascinated by lunacy. I recognized the idea of a sort of exalted poetic frenzy, and I could identify that as being similar to the intense passion of romantic love. And both states, in my mind, were really a sort of madness.

The psychologist that counseled me seemed to believe that lunacy was an escape from reality; a desire to disappear into fantasy; and she felt my need to write that particular essay was proof that I didn’t have a grasp on reality.

But I believed exactly the opposite. I believed that I was unable to escape reality; because I couldn’t live the pretend existence that so many people seemed to live. I was interested in truth, and I was surrounded by a world of denial and fantasy. Writing fiction was the only way I really could escape.

But still, it was just one more lesson that drove me away from my dreams. It seems when I muse on my life, I can find countless examples of why I was taught that expression was bad; and why I became an accountant instead.

Today I don’t mind being called a lunatic. I think lunacy, in some cases, is a prophetic insight; one that is perhaps triggered by an acknowledgement of life’s meaninglessness. I realize it’s trite and common to ponder the meaning of life. But I’ve decided that if life is truly meaningless-- then that in itself-- is really very meaningful indeed. And better yet, we can ascribe and create our own meaning. Today I believe in my dreams again, and I’m going to dream them.
I know. I sound a little crazy, don’t I?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ah, Roma

We had been driving a long way, hugging the coast and passing little beach towns like Rapallo and Rimini, and the green gray of the Adriatic had been our constant companion and guide. I loved staring at the rows and rows of brown bodies lounging in the sun, especially the women, who were mostly topless. They looked so beautiful to me, because no matter what their size or shape, they were utterly comfortable with their bodies. It was such a refreshing change from the body obsessed America I had grown up in.

The ocean had been our companion, but soon it was replaced with mountains of marble, and now the landscape had changed again. I spotted rows and rows of the oddest looking trees; both grand and majestic but nothing like I had ever seen before. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked. My friend explained that these trees were emblematic of the city of Rome, and were simply common pine trees which had been shaped through time by judicious pruning. I marveled at a culture which would take the time to shape thousands of trees for no purpose other than aesthetics.

“Are we almost to Rome?” I asked, but I didn’t need an answer. At that moment, we passed a road sign which told us that the great city was only five kilometers away. I had been so sleepy, but suddenly I was awake and excited. “Let me drive,” I offered.

This was only the third time I had volunteered to drive in all of the weeks we had been touring through Europe. I was traveling with three men, which old-fashioned or not, I decided gave me somewhat of a pass on the driving duties. But most importantly, every time I took the wheel I found myself scared out of my mind. I seemed to have a knack at choosing the absolutely worst times to volunteer my driving skills.

The first was when I agreed to drive the Audubon immediately after we disembarked from our plane in Germany. I was expected to go speeds of 130 mph, which I found terrifying, as did I find the long line of cars honking and passing me in a frenzy. I finally pulled over to the shoulder, my heart beating fast, and had one of my gentleman friends take the wheel. The second time was when I agreed to drive the twisting winding road to Monaco; a narrow corridor which snaked around steep sheer cliffs; the same stint of roadside where Princess Grace plummeted to her death. I kept imagining that if I made the slightest mistake, the car would slide quickly to the edge of the precipice, and in a moment we’d become airborne, and then lurch to our deaths.

And now I had agreed to take the wheel five kilometers before the edge of Rome. Unbeknownst to me, I had just bought myself an E ticket on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Roma. Ah Roma.
As we crossed the city border, I was greeted with a sort of maniacal lunacy that was utterly unexpected. The first thing I noticed was the city streets had no lanes, and cars were packed in every which way, darting in and out of traffic like a world that had gone mad. There was a cacophony of horns; never ending horns; which made the din in Manhattan seem almost peaceful. I drove where I could, as Vespas and bicycles wove in front of me and whizzed behind me and encircled me like a hornet of wasps. Within the first five minutes I almost careened into one of those Vespas, and screeched to a halt. He shouted at me, “What’s the matter for you, can’t you see?” I guessed that he knew I was American. Moments later, out of utter frustration, I purposely turned my wheel sharply to the right, and careened off the road, nearly hitting a flower stand. The florist threw up his hands and began yelling at me, and since I didn’t understand, I just smiled sheepishly. I stopped the car, jumped out the door, and breathlessly begged for someone else to take the wheel.

A half hour later, we had booked ourselves into the “Pensione Florida,” two rooms in a dirt cheap hotel, with a shared bathroom down the hall. We dragged our suitcases up a flight of stairs covered in dog feces, then moved into our rooms. The heat was so oppressive, I took an ice cold shower, and before taking off to explore the city, we all had espressos Italian style, which means to swallow it all in one gulp.

The Eternal City; a maddening concentration of history and legend swelling magnificently over a phenomenal concentration of people, all of them running everywhere in their busy lives. Rome; a city where the ancient world is neatly integrated with the modern; where the Pantheon rubs shoulders with Baroque palazzos and modern buildings are sandwiched in the middle of Renaissance Villas.

We walked toward the Coliseum, and I saw it rising like a mirage in the foreground; a piece of olden civilization tucked in the middle of a contemporary city. We walked from monument to monument, from fountain to fountain, stopping occasionally at cafes for an Aqua Minerale when our parched throats begged for mercy. We walked to the Vatican and I heard a collective sigh from my friends as we all stared dumbfounded at the Sistine Chapel. We walked until our feet were covered in blisters, until sweat dripped in rivulets down our backs. We reached the youth covered Spanish Steps just at twilight; the smell of marijuana wafting in the windless evening. And at nightfall we came upon a tiny Trattoria in the center of Rome. We were hungry and exhausted.

Our host was all smiles, and he took us to the strangest table; it was outside, and actually sat in the middle of a cobblestone road, where cars and Polizie roared by us while we dined. It was perfect.

We indulged in the best meal of our lives. Gnocci Gorgonzola. Fettuccini Porcini. Eggplant Parmiagiana. Spaghetti Pomodoro. Saltimbocca. Spinach salad. Vino Rosso. For dessert, we were served a luscious chocolate torte surrounded by fresh fruit.

The Vino flowed freely. By the time we polished off our third bottle, we were engaged in a lively gregarious debate that grew louder and louder with every sip from our glasses. It was friendly but spirited, and since we were sitting in the middle of the road, it seemed perfectly appropriate to yell and cuss and jump up and down in our seats. But on this day, our argument had risen to a crescendo that was even surprising to us.

Suddenly I saw our waiter rushing out of the door toward us.

His look was stern, and I imagined him to be angry about our thunderous contest. Certainly in America, if we had displayed such behavior, we would have surely been asked to either hush, or vacate our seats. In fact, it had happened to us many times.

The waiter continued toward us with a purpose; he was almost running. We all tensed up, waiting for our inevitable admonishment. As he approached, I noticed that he was holding something behind his back.

“BRAVO,” the waiter announced loudly, as he reached our table. “I have brought you a fourth bottle of wine,” he told us in Italian, “because we are overjoyed that your time here is such a happy one. And we hope another bottle of wine might encourage you to have an even happier time here tonight. This wine is our gift to you.”

We were all stunned.

Born of an Italian father and raised by an English mother, I had always felt as though I were trapped in the middle of two very distinct cultures. My father was born in Sicily, and left my mother and my family while I was still safe in her uterus. I didn’t meet him until I was 17, but from the earliest time, I could remember feeling this wealth of passion that bubbled right below the surface of my emotions. My mother was British, sedate, mannered and excruciatingly polite. But I was born loud and gregarious, and I always knew it was the Italian genes inside of me that made me this way; it certainly wasn’t the way I was raised.

And from the earliest time, I remember my mother always shushing me. It got to the point that when I saw her lifting her finger to her lips, the gesture which preceded the dreaded, “Shhhh,” I would fight an anger inside of me that was rare. Very little made me angry. But being quieted always did. I would feel a seething rage that I could scarcely control.

I need to express myself. And it’s much more of a need than it is a want. It’s a drive that fuels me; it’s an enthusiasm so great that it must be quenched; it’s a force so robust that to hush me is to slowly kill me.

It seems like all of my life, someone has tried to shut me up. I’m too loud, too forthright, and I have no privacy boundaries. I’ve been rebuked by that awful phrase which I detest countless times, “Too much information.”

I don’t keep secrets. I don’t hide. And my worst fault seems to be that I don’t lie.

I always wanted to write, because I could express myself in that way. But the key to being a good writer is being honest, and people don’t appreciate honesty; it scares them. People want to hide.

Writers have been referred to as “assassins” because they are murderers of falsehoods. “Writers are universally hated, often because they tell the truth,” I read yesterday in an article. “Telling the truth is the greatest crime an author can commit,” said a book reviewer. Writers are observers, and because they tell the truth about what they see, the people they observe become offended. People don’t want their family secrets revealed. They don’t want others to know they’ve had a face lift, or that their father molested them. People want to hide behind false facades of who and what they really are, and believe they’re fooling people. People project an image, and a writer smashes it.

My intent has never been to offend. I only want to acknowledge reality; and I cannot live my life pretending that I don’t see what I do. I can smell people’s insecurities; I can see their fears like a visible aura. I can always hear their lies. I see it, and I want to report it. I don’t know why, but I’m compelled to do so. But I do this as I reveal myself. I want to talk about what is real, so we know what we’re dealing with on this strange journey we’re all taking together.

I’ll never forget that sultry night in Rome when the waiter brought us a bottle of wine on the house to encourage our passionate exchange. I found myself, at last, in a culture which understood me. But more than that, I’ll never forget how it felt when someone actually solicited my expression. All of my life, I have felt censored. And this one evening, I was finally applauded for what I did best, and what I enjoyed the most, and that was to express myself. That waiter didn’t see me as a Villain. He saw something far more positive.

When I close my eyes, I can still remember that evening, and later when we limped the long way back to our Pensione, still engaged in a furious debate. I was exhausted, my feet ached, and I was so hot that I got into a cold shower wearing a shirt, so that I could wear the soaking wet cloth to bed. But I remember how happy I felt. Because at last, I was home.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Red Fedora

When I was a little girl, antique stores were like time travel. I would enter through the often dusty and dank doors, and I would immediately be hastened to another era; to a period in our history that I could only imagine, but never fully comprehend. An antique store was like a ticket to a ride on a time machine; by touching the things that graced the parlors of yesteryear, I was able to taste the essence of what once was.

I loved those crowded rooms, brimming with chipped teacups and silver cigarette cases; with gilded birdcages and parasols. I would stare at each object, trying to imagine it sitting somewhere, long ago. I would trace the surface with my fingertips; I would smell the fabric; I would try to use every sense available to glean a more pragmatic picture. History teaches us, and I have always been eager to learn.

I loved the romance of the Victorian era. I would encounter a blushing pink fringed lampshade, and I would imagine it casting a light over a young girl’s bed. I would stumble on a red velvet Fainting Couch, and I could imagine a young lady swooning; whining weakly for her can of snuff. I would see a tiny fabric pair of shoes; and I would try and fathom the foot which could fit in such diminutive encasements. I would stumble upon an ornate Armoire which held the sepia toned secrets of a family history; I would stare at the portraits, trying to discern the emotions and personality. A stain on a French chintz chair told a story. As did a faded bottle of Castor Oil. Their surroundings were far more elaborate and flamboyant than our modern times, but in other ways so much more simple; their cooking recipes had no more than three ingredients; and in every way, they had less choices.

These tattered objects seemed to hold the footprint and memories of the families that owned them. Like holding a conch shell to your ear and hearing the ocean, when I touched a wooden child’s toy, I could hear the reminiscences of days gone by.

The antiquated Christmas decorations would hold my attention the longest. I would embrace a vintage glass ornament of an angel, and would gasp at the old fashioned lead tinsel still caught in its hook. I would stare at an archaic ceramic Santa, perhaps with only one eye, and I would imagine it on someone’s mantle. I could hear the Victrola playing Christmas music; I could hear the laughter, and imagine the mugs of wassail. I could smell the pungent smell of Christmas pudding wafting from the beaten rafters. And this old Santa Claus with only one eye observed it all. And now it would give me a portal to see it too.

As a child I loved antique stores. It was a visit to a time before MY time. And suddenly, this past Saturday afternoon, that entire concept shifted, as if overnight.

This past weekend, I explored several antique stores. And I certainly encountered all of those objects of yore; of a time I’ve only read about in History Books. But things had changed. I encountered a John F. Kennedy commemorative plate. An antique Star Trek toy in a yellowed box. An Elvis Presley liquor bottle. An “I Love Lucy” lunch box. Advertisements touting the health benefit of smoking cigarettes. Something was different.

I encountered a row of milk bottles, and remembered when they were delivered to our front door, ice cold with the cream on top. I encountered a troll doll, and thought back to my collection; dozens of flesh colored plastic gnomes, with a shock of blue, yellow or purple hair, which I would tie into hairstyles. I came across an old phone, and I remarked to my boyfriend, “this is exactly like the phone we used to have.” Suddenly, an older woman approached me; she overheard my comment and was intrigued.

“Pick it up!” she said, enthusiastically. “Remember how HEAVY phones used to be?”

She directed this comment to me. This old woman was asking me to remember; and it was apparent that she thought me old enough to have such a memory. An old woman was asking me to reminisce with her, about the “old days.” And as I stood there stunned, trying to grasp this remark--because, after all, I’m really still a girl-- a strange realization enveloped me. I DID remember. I remembered the antiques that surrounded me. The store was no longer a place that housed things before my time; it now housed things IN my time.

My boyfriend pointed out an ancient meat grinder, remarking that he had one identical to this when he was a little boy. I said, “do you remember the old COFFEE grinders? I still remember the one we had. It was a little wooden box, and you poured the coffee in at the top, and after you ground it, it came out in a little drawer.” Even talking about it out loud seemed foreign, because the object in question SOUNDED like an antique. And moments later, when we rounded the corner and I saw three of those exact coffee grinders on a high shelf, I felt almost blindsided.

I turned to my boyfriend, and said, “We’ve become antiques.”
He laughed.
I wasn’t amused.
The shift happened so slowly, that it was almost imperceptible. I spent an inordinate amount of time being a young girl, standing at the doorway to the rest of my life; all of it ahead of me; my dreams still possible. Then, on my 50th birthday, blowing out those many candles, I realized that I was middle-aged.

The term “middle aged” gets twisted up on my tongue, as if I had just tasted a teaspoon of poison. I think to myself, it can’t possibly apply to ME. I certainly do not feel any of the things that middle-age seems to imply. But in actuality, the term is more than fair; in fact, judging by the average life span, I was middle-aged a decade ago.

The image of being middle-aged doesn’t conjure up a withered rose to me. I am not completely in denial; I am definitely past the crisp tight bud of a flower I once was. But I still envision I am a fully blossomed rose; utterly bursting, and still vibrant; with perhaps a few yellowed petals near the stem. I cannot think of myself as still blooming; but a bloom nevertheless, fully opened, begging for the last vestiges of summer. I know those roses, and how big and lush they appear, covering my bushes. But I also know how the flower appears shortly thereafter. I am writing this on the last day of summer, and my roses look brown and crispy, like bits of brown paper bags that were caught up by a breeze and got stuck in the branches.

When I was a child, I wrote a poem entitled “Mortality Mocks Me.” In some conscious way, I always knew that time was the great destroyer. It devoured youth, despoiled beauty, depleted vigor and diminished health. Eventually it would emerge as the Grim Reaper, swinging its scythe, cutting down dreams like thick underbrush. Then ultimately, it would snuff out your very existence. To me, understanding time is to appreciate that everything will eventually disappear; and while the first half of life is ripe with hellos, they lessen, and later life becomes more and more a long series of good-byes.

I have never believed in regret, as I truly believe we make the best decisions we can with what we know at the time. But looking over a half century of choices, I can see each wrong took I turn with glaring accuracy. If only I had known then, that with every selection one makes, that we begin to write a resume’ of our life; a history that we can never change; and the longer that resume’ grows, the more difficult it becomes to change courses, I might have done everything differently. We are given this one life, but ironically are not handed the tools to live it well until it is nearly over.

Youth is filled with embarrassment, ego, selfishness, and a preoccupation of self that is agonizing. And once you become middle-aged, you don’t care what others think; you are primarily interested in what you think. You are freed from naïveté; from self-image; from society’s expectations. It is the time you can truly create; it is the time when you can make a difference; it is the time you might be able to shift this world for the better.

At this crossroads in my life, my existence has suddenly taken on a poignancy and urgency that I have never known before. Now that I have walked to the summit of the mountain, and I can peer down the other side and see an end, it has never been clearer that the choices I make today have never been more important. I am 50 years old, I am unemployed, and I am at a threshold of something else.

In a sense, death is a safety net. One day it will catch all of our wishes and turn them magically into unwishes. It will pity our poor flesh and will free us from this churning torture; from this excruciating gift. So there is nothing more important, there is nothing we have to do with more urgency, then simply to live. To smell fermenting strawberries. To allow another to see love in your eyes. To cry instead of hide. To indentify beauty. To hold hands with the crazy person. To acknowledge the moon. To sing and paint and laugh. I can not alter my past, but I can have an effect on my future, and I want something better. I have spent too many years doing what I thought I was supposed to do, and finding it miserable. It is time to follow my passions. I am no longer your slave. But most important, it is time to embrace what none of us can change; that ageing is inevitable, and so is our final waltz.

When I left the store, I remembered why I so appreciated those antiques in the first place. Because the longer you live, and the more history you have knowledge of, the wider the world seems, the more sense it all makes. I am proud to remember history; the way my parents and grandparents used to remember. Because they knew how things had changed, they could now anticipate how things will change again. And now I’ve been given that gift.

We purchased a bright red Fedora from the antique store. It is in fine shape, and is as stylish today as it must have been once, perched on the head of a fancy gentleman. I smell the brim and try to imagine the heads that have worn it. The inside is white silk, imprinted with a picture of a top hat, white gloves and a cane--an image of an elegant time; when Dickens roamed the world and wrote about mistletoe and pudding. When I put the fedora on my head, I remembered that I, too, am in fine shape, and I’m as stylish as ever. And this Christmas, I’m going to decorate this red hat with green holly leaves, and it’s going to remind me how ripe my life is today. It is going to be a symbol that represents my acceptance of what I can not change, and my renewed vigor to change what I can.

I am ripe with possibilities. And we all know that it is only through experience, and the process of ripening--which in some cases is great suffering-- that growth takes place. Time brings seed to fruition and ripening. And as King Lear declared in Shakespeare’s play of the same title, "Ripeness Is All."
Isn’t it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Blood in the Quad

When the bell rang above my head, it startled me. I looked behind me at the large black and white face of the school clock, and it confirmed what the bell had already told me. Class was over.

At the time, I was the editor of our High School poetry magazine, and I had spent my free period going over the many submissions for the next issue. I had winced through the countless sappy entries, wondering if I could stomach one more ditty glorifying sunshine and flowers, when I came across a handwritten submission scrawled nearly illegibly on yellow lined paper. And when I began to read it, time froze.

This particular entry had an urgency and an anguish that I knew intuitively was not contrived. The words shouted at me from the page; I could feel the poet’s anger and desperation, and as I read it a second time, I felt queasy. It was at that moment when the school bell rang, startling me back to reality. I watched the clock for a moment; it always seemed that the minute hand lumbered, its electronic hand shaking, until it finally clicked into place with a loud clattering sound. Two minutes had already passed, but I knew I couldn’t go to class. I needed to speak to my advisor.

Scooping up the strange poem, I went directly to her office and tapped lightly on her door. When she saw me, she smiled and waved me inside. “Don’t you have a class?” she asked me.

“I do, but I really need to talk to you,” I said as I sat down. “I need your advice on whether or not I should print this poem,” I continued as I waved the yellow slip of paper, and then laid it on the desk in front of her. “It’s one of the best submissions I’ve had all year. The kid obviously has talent. But....” my voice trailed off.

My advisor put on her reading glasses and took the poem in her hands. “But?” she asked, although as she began to read, her question was answered. Her eyes began to furrow, and she grunted. “Who wrote this?” she asked, scanning the sheet for a name. “John Brown. Do you know this student?”

“He’s a freshman. Yes, I know who he is,” I answered. And sadly, I knew exactly who he was. A loner, my friends and I had noticed him in the quad one day. He walked from one side to the other, as if in a great hurry; he was clumsily holding a huge pile of books, and he nearly ran as if he was late for a class. Then he hid behind a tree, and when he thought no one was looking, he turned around and walked back to where he started, in the same hurried manner. I remembered we all laughed, wondering aloud what on earth he was doing. Then it occurred to me that he had nothing to do, and was trying to appear busy. It was so painful to me at the time. I remember feeling a sharp pang of sorrow as I watched him; I imagined that it was his lunch hour, and he didn’t want to be seen sitting all alone.

My advisor removed her glasses and stared at me. “Well, this is VERY disturbing,” she told me. “VERY disturbing. His desire to commit suicide is somewhat inappropriate in itself, but to allude to the fact that he wants to take others with him really crosses the line, don’t you think?” I nodded. She went on. “You know I’ve never censored anything you’ve printed to date, and I agree with you that the writing is solid.
And although I’ll leave the decision up to you, my advice is not to publish this poem. Furthermore, I’m considering showing it to the Principal. But you have to learn what being a responsible editor is all about. It’s your choice.”

I thought long and hard about whether or not to publish that poem. These were the days long before the Columbine shootings and other massacres at public schools. It was an innocent time, and I think none of us could even fathom a student acting out any of the atrocities that we are now too familiar with. But still, I decided not to publish it.

The day that the magazine came out, I was standing by my locker, when I felt a strange piercing tap on my shoulder. It was too hard, and more of a poke, or even a jab- than a tap. I turned around quickly, feeling a bit put off, when I saw John Brown standing in front of me. He was nervous; he was stuttering, and he was looking at everything but me. “I need to know why you didn’t publish my poem,” he muttered.

“John,” I said, hardly above a whisper. “I loved your poem. It was excellent. I think it was the best submission I’ve had all year. But the content, you know, is a bit troubling for a High School publication; do you know what I mean? Maybe you could publish it elsewhere?”

His face grew beet red, and I could see sweat forming above his eyebrows. But still, he never looked at me. “But I don’t WANT to publish it anywhere else, I want to publish at the High School,” he told me. “Will you put it in the NEXT edition?” His voice cracked, and I feared he might cry.

“Sorry John, I’m not going to publish it. I hope you’ll submit again.” I was already using language that I’ve seen on countless rejection slips in my literary life. And I’ve since learned how heartless it can feel to the writer. But I didn’t have the experience or empathy in those days, that I might today. Instead, I turned on my heel and flounced off. To be honest, I found him creepy, and wanted to be far away from him.

That afternoon I saw him in the quad again, doing that same busy dance that I had seen him do before. Walking with a purpose, when he had no purpose. The image haunts me to this day.

It was about a week after the magazine came out, and I was sitting on the floor of Hallway C, right outside the door of my next class. I always got to English class early, as it was my favorite subject, and I was getting in a little extra studying before class began.

As I read over my notes, I suddenly heard a loud pop.

I looked toward the closed door of my English class, and tried to discern what I had just heard. It sounded like a firecracker. Had some hoodlum just set off a firecracker in class? I struggled to my feet with the intention of peering through the small window that was in every classroom door. But I didn’t get far.

The door swung open, and students started spilling out. But it wasn’t something I’d seen before; the jubilant rush when students are excused from class a few minutes early. This was more of a panic. They pushed past me; one even knocking me into the wall as though I wasn’t there. They were running.

I was still standing there, stunned, when my English teacher ran out of the class as well. Her face reflected absolute terror, and she rushed past me and through the double doors into the quad. Without knowing why, I ran after her.

My English teacher tripped and fell, and suddenly she was sprawled unceremoniously at the edge of the quad. Her skirt was hiked up nearly to her waist, and her legs revealed nude support hose, which had fallen loosely around her ankles. The sight was so undignified, that I could only stare down at her with horror.

I heard loud screams coming from Hallway C. I turned my head just in time to see John Brown emerge from the double doors; he was running and stumbling as if drunk, and he was covered in blood. I am still ashamed to admit what the image reminded me of that auspicious day; I thought he looked like a chicken with its head cut off.

Sadly, the image wasn’t far from the truth. John Brown suddenly collapsed, and hit the pavement hard. I, and many others, ran to his side. I remember how the students encircled him; but no one moved to help him.

At first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Because half of his head was gone. I saw only one eye, staring still at the sky, and only half a mouth. The other half was simply gone. And an enormous pool of blood began to form around him.

Amazingly, he was alive. He was twitching and kicking; his hands were reaching toward the sky. “Call an ambulance! Call an ambulance!” I heard someone scream, and a few students scurried off. I stood there, staring down at his convulsions and spasms, as though I was rooted to the spot.

I heard several girls break into sobs behind me. I turned around and asked them, “What happened?”

“Oh God,” the girl sputtered back, her voice growing hysterical. “John did this. It was John. In the middle of class he turned to Carol who was sitting right next to him. And he said he was going to kill himself. And that he was going to take Carol with him. And then he pulled out a gun. And he pointed it at his head in the same direction as she was sitting. Then he pulled the trigger. He wanted to get them both with the same bullet. Her face is covered with his blood and skin. But I think she’s okay. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

I looked back at John, and noticed his one remaining eye had developed a severe tic. I felt immediately guilty, and mused about whether or not my rejection of his poem could have triggered this. What if publishing his poem was his way of expressing his torment, so that he wouldn’t need to act on his yearnings? And did my rejection contribute to the erosion of his self-esteem? Could I be partially responsible?

A moment later, emergency vehicles pulled into the school parking lot, with sirens blaring. Several paramedics ran toward us, pulling behind them a gurney. The students opened the ring that encircled John Brown’s shuddering body, and let the paramedics by. John was hoisted onto the gurney, and they ran his body out as quickly as they appeared.

Suddenly a voice came over the loudspeaker. “Attention Students. Attention Students. School is officially closed for the day. I repeat, school is officially closed for the day. In an orderly fashion, please leave campus immediately. I repeat, please leave the campus immediately. The busses that normally run at 3 o’clock are lining up in the parking lot now. Please exit the campus immediately. ” I heard more sirens pull into the parking lot, and suddenly the quad was swarming with police.

I was in shock. And I think so many others were as well. But no one hung back to discuss the events that had just taken place. Some students ran for their cars in the parking lot. Others made a hasty exit on foot. And I took my place in the long lines for the bus. I was due at work immediately after school, and even though I’d be early, I figured I’d head straight there regardless. I was so shaken, and had so much to process, that I was relieved I’d have a little time to myself before my shift began.

At the time, I worked at a hospital.

Primarily, it was a convalescent hospital, and that is the section where I worked. But the hospital also served as an emergency room, as it was the only hospital on the coast.

I hated that place. A lot of my friends worked there as well. But while they worked as Candy Stripers and with the patients themselves, I found the idea of that all together too distasteful. Instead, I applied for a position in the kitchen. I aided the nutritionist in preparation of the patient’s meals, as well as did the dishes. Each patient had a meal card, and I had to carefully check to see what was restricted on their diets before preparing them a tray. There were a handful of patients which were on “Mechanical Soft” diets, as they called it, a name which always gave me the creeps. But basically they meant they couldn’t chew, and whatever I made for dinner that night for the other patients, I would simply throw into the blender and make into a savory milkshake. A turkey, mashed potato and peas shake, for instance.

The bus ride that afternoon was strangely quiet. I expected the students to be crying, and talking excitedly about what had just happened at our school. But no one spoke.
At the stop nearest to the hospital, I exited the bus, and walked directly to the beach. I sat on a cliff, staring sadly into the ocean, wondering if he could possibly survive the injury I saw with my own eyes. I decided it was impossible.

I walked up the long hill to the hospital to begin my shift. I was used to seeing ambulances in the hospital parking lot, as the old folks died off on a regular basis. My friends were sometimes asked to wash their bodies before pick up; something I never envied. One time my best friend begged me to join her in the room with her as she did it, just for moral support. She was terrified. Reluctantly I agreed. I remember that the deceased had a bowl of chocolates next to her bedside, which I guiltily ate as my friend screamed and squirmed holding a damp washcloth and dabbing at the corpse. These days, I doubt if they’d have Candy Stripers do such an enormously difficult job.

But on this day, the parking lot was filled with emergency vehicles. At first I didn’t make the connection, but it dawned on me, finally, that they had taken John Brown to the hospital where I worked.

I had barely gotten through the door, when my Supervisor accosted me in the hallway. She began talking breathlessly about the shooting at the High School, asking if I had been there. When I told her that I had, she went on to explain that John’s parents were in the Waiting Room, utterly distraught. “I think it would mean the world to them to have one of their son’s friends sit with them right now,” she told me.

I didn’t want to go. “I’m not exactly his friend, I’m a classmate is all,” I stuttered.

“PLEASE,” she almost shouted. “We kept the boy alive for over an hour, but he has just expired. It would be a kindness if you could sit with them when we deliver the news. The nurses are much too busy. And the boy’s parents keep asking why his friends aren’t here at the hospital.”

Because John didn’t have any friends, is what I thought to myself.

My Supervisor gave me a gentle shove toward the ominous double doors of the Waiting Room. I pushed the doors open slowly, and I saw a sweet gentle couple sitting there, holding hands, and crying. I smiled shyly, and sat down beside them. “You must be John’s parents?” I asked.

“Yes,” they muttered. Then they looked upon me as if I were an Angel of Mercy. “And you must be one of John’s friends?! We have so wanted to speak to one of his friends! We want to know what happened, and WHY this happened. Did you talk to him today? Did he seem different? He is such a good boy. A wonderful boy. Didn’t you think he is a wonderful boy?”

I nodded. Then offered the only truth I really knew. “He is very smart. And talented.” When I spoke those words, his mother’s eyes filled with tears and she grabbed my hand and held it tight. “Oh yes. I can tell you must have been very close,” she said.

A moment later, a surgeon appeared. He was dressed in green surgical wear that had been stained with red blood, yet the spots appeared dark brown. He was wiping a sweaty brow with a gloved hand, and looked tired. “I’m sorry,” is all he said. The doctor only hesitated for a moment, looking down at the floor, and then marched away. His announcement was met with a long howl from John’s mother. A strangled cry, like a wolf with his paw caught in a trap.

I held onto her hand for a moment longer, and let her cry. She gripped my hand as though she would never let go. “If there’s anything I can do,” I stammered.

“Could you just sit and talk with us for awhile?” John’s mother asked me. “I know you were close, and I want you to tell me everything. Everything you knew about him.”
But I knew nothing.
“Was he popular? He must have been very popular at school, right?”
I just nodded.

I’ve often wondered why I was called upon to bear witness to these series of events. It always seemed like much more than a coincidence that this complete stranger would entwine with my life so many times, and in such a strong way. From my rejection of his poem, to my being outside of the classroom when he shot himself, to going to the hospital where he died, to holding his mother’s hand when she learned of his death. One day, out of the blue, his life and mine began weaving together inexplicably into a tapestry that begged for explanation. I’ve never figured out what the message was in all of that, but I will tell you, that it began my hatred of the marketing and publishing world, in the literary arena. It began an abhorrence which has lasted all of my life, and has led me in directions that caused me to give up on my dreams.

It was as though we both gave up our dreams that day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Journey Inward

When I was 13 years old, I decided I hadn’t suffered enough yet to be a writer.

This idea-- that the most compelling art springs from anguish-- was nothing new. And I had convinced myself that in order to progress, I had to experience suffering; and since suffering hadn’t found me yet, that I would need to pursue some form of self-imposed affliction. I decided that deprivation would be the key; sleep deprivation and food deprivation. As well as deprivation from the outside world.

At the time, my stepfather was building a house in Hopland. He, and many of his friends, had all purchased acres of adjoining land in the California countryside. A group of artists, painters and the like, they had decided that the Half Moon Bay coast side had lost some of its previous charm, and it was time to start anew in the country, away from any perceived hustle and bustle, with only friends as neighbors.

He had been building the house for years by this time, and would continue to build it into the future, spending more and more time there, until he and my mother would move there permanently when I was a senior in High School.

The adjoining property next to my Dad’s house was owned by Bob Sherman. Bob had been the ringleader; the man who had sold off parcels of land to all of his friends to create a sort of artist’s community. He was eccentric and rich; a dangerous combination; and would later move into Bill Graham’s house after Graham died in the helicopter crash of1991. I still remember Bob’s house; especially his bathroom, where a naked mannequin had taken permanent residence in his bathtub, which was filled with some sort of wax paraffin to look like bathwater.

On Bob’s property were several abandoned farm houses. They sat there empty, year after year, and I’d explored them all on my visits there. There was one large house that I particularly liked, with dozens of large windows and a wrap around porch. And when I was 13 years old, I begged my parents to allow me to live in that house for two full weeks, by myself.

It took a lot of convincing. My argument that I needed to suffer in order to write fell on deaf ears. I was convinced that suffering would lead to enlightenment; and I was so impassioned about this visionary quest, that my parents at last relented to let me go.

I had decided that part of my journey was to include semi-starvation. For the two weeks I would be staying, I would only bring fourteen heads of cauliflower, one head for each day. And tea. I would live on cauliflower and tea. I chose tea because while there was running water, it wasn’t potable; so any water I drank would have to be boiled. The simplest solution, in my mind, was to choose a hot beverage. Then, armed only with a suitcase, sleeping bag, typewriter, novel, candles, and my vegetables and tea, I moved into that farmhouse one summer.

I remember feeling overwhelmed when I first stepped inside the door; it was filthy, covered in cobwebs, and had no electricity. And I felt a fear so pervasive that I immediately burst into tears. What had I done? With few supplies, I did my best to do a cursory clean up, and finished by picking a bouquet of wild flowers for the dining room table.

The table was large, and carved from wood, and in the middle of it was a four foot tall sculpture of an erect Penis. It became a haunting image, especially as I laid my head down for the night and saw it looming above me.

Although there was no electricity, I lined up my cauliflower in the old fridge, and left the door open. It seemed cooler there than in the house.
I placed my sleeping bag in a corner, as far as I could get from the huge windows that wrapped around the house. The windows contained several active beehives, and the glass was amassed with buzzing insects.

I remember preparing my dinner that first night. I boiled one pot of water to steam the cauliflower, and a second pot of water for my tea. But when I unpacked my tea, I found to my horror that I had brought “loose” tea by accident, and I had nothing to strain it with.

I had a brilliant idea. I would use one of my socks.
I took off a sock and filled it with loose tea, and lowered it into the pot of water. But to my horror, as the tea began to steep, it also began turning bright blue. The color of my sock. Repulsed, I threw the entire mess down the sink, and only drank hot water thereafter.

My days were spent with my typewriter. Sometimes I’d write inside the house, and other times I’d find a spot outside to write. I would spend hours and hours, creating page after page of words, and then shuffling the big stack of paper back to the house

The bees became my alarm clock. They were the loudest just as dawn was breaking and would invariably wake me up. My nighttime lullaby became the sounds that bats make, diving and swooping through the rafters of the house, every night at dusk. When the bats began their nocturnal dance, I would light candles and settle into my sleeping bag with my book. I had carefully chosen my novel for the experience; "Papillon," a memoir about a convicted felon and fugitive and his horrid experiences in a Columbian Prison. I knew that reading his prison experiences would comfort me somehow; his nights spent sleeping in two inches of water with rats made my experience seem a little less dire.

When I first arrived at the house, I felt nothing but fear. I was afraid of being alone, I was afraid of the bees and the bats. I hadn’t let go yet; I had one leg still firmly planted in civilization. But slowly that all changed, and I began to transform.

At the beginning, I couldn’t fathom that I might lose track of days. But that is what began to happen. So each day I would bring back a rock and place it at the base of the Penis. I knew when I had placed fourteen rocks there, that my sojourn was over.

But the days weren’t the only things I began to forget. I began to forget my fear; and I slipped into an entirely different consciousness. And then I slipped slowly into a sort of lunacy. My constant hunger pangs became a trusted friend. My famine and lack of sleep were giving me hallucinations. I would hear voices that weren’t there; spot images that didn’t exist. I thought I could understand the song of the bees; I began to interpret their different noises and I was convinced I knew what they were saying. “I can speak Bee,” I’d whisper to myself in the mornings.

I also began to forget who I was. I kept having flashes of myself at the 8th grade basketball game, and my outburst of tears when my boyfriend didn’t make his shot. It all seemed so ridiculous and far away. My childish concerns. My giddy girlfriend gossip. My former distress over my wardrobe. My anxiety over my hair style. I felt as though I had become a Mountain Girl and I had no connection to society any more. It was civilization that seemed scary then. It all seemed puny and trivial.

I began to feel that I existed separate and apart from my body. I began to experience the sublime. And one day, sitting alone in the center of a large meadow, I had a Transcendental Moment.

Of course I didn’t know what a Transcendental Moment when I was 13; I didn’t learn about that until I studied the Transcendentalists and their movement later in College. I had always been familiar with Walt Whitman, but later I would learn of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and their mystical movement, which believes that at one defining moment, you can transcend the empirical and the scientific and understand everything that is knowable through intuition. They described it as a moment so acute that the aesthetic pleasure derived from it was more pleasurable than any other moment before or after.

And one day as I sat in a meadow, I thought of my cauliflower as the food of angels, and I was suddenly transcended into a moment of euphoria of an intensity that I would never experience again.

Following that moment, the rest of my stay is somewhat of a blur. But I clearly remember sitting at the table in front of the Penis and counting rocks, and was shocked that I had already collected fourteen. It was time to leave.

I’ll never forget how I felt stumbling out of that house on that final day and creeping slowly down the gravel road toward my parent’s house. I felt like a wild animal; I was alert to every sound in the brush; I was fully alive and aware; I was one with nature. I imagined my eyes looking untamed and feral; I could feel them darting all over the landscape, assessing my surroundings like a frightened animal. I was filthy and starving, and I skulked up my parent’s driveway then collapsed on the front porch. As soon as I reentered society, I began to feel ill.

My father saw me and joined me on the porch with a robust, “HELLO THERE.” He was grinning from ear to ear, and I thought he might want to tease me about it all. But he also looked at me as though I may have gone mad.

“Could you make me some pasta?” I said weakly. And I must say, I’ve never enjoyed a meal more. And as I gobbled up his tomato sauce made from his garden tomatoes, I felt a joy like I’d ever known. I had broken through something. I was reborn. I was living the dream. And I wanted to write.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Crooked Little Woman

For twenty years, I lived in a broken down cottage in the middle of one of the richest counties in California. Amid mansions and manors, my hundred year old shack sat like an eye-sore in the middle of unbridled luxury.

The cottage had neither foundation nor insulation; I often thought that it wasn’t much cozier than living in a tent; especially in the winter. The cottage had no heat. And on really chilly nights, my water glass would freeze, and I would have a glass of solid ice next to the bed.

Various shrubberies and vines grew right through the walls. Each spring, I would excitedly anticipate which new delightful plant might surprise me; I especially enjoyed the flowering vines that would drape themselves over my furniture.

Not only did the plants make themselves welcome in my home, but so did the animals. I had my regular visitors; skunks, possums, deer and raccoons. These creatures could create their own kind of havoc. But I also had odd things, like slugs. There was a winter that if I got up in the night and turned on the lights really quick, the walls would be full of them, snaking their way in curvy silvery paths, creating green undulating wallpaper.

I was also invaded by rats for about a year. Aggressive little buggers, they were. We would see them chewing right through the walls, and we’d run around nailing bits of wood over every hole as fast as they chewed. I actually started hammering at their fangs. But they won. They built a nest in my couch, an intricate city of tunnels and holes all through the center of the furniture. I was forced to set out bigger and bigger rat traps, because nothing would catch them. But when I did, they were so large that I would find their plump bodies surrounded by a huge pools of blood like murder victims. Their blood was brighter than humans. It looked like melted cherry candy.

I fell right through the floorboards twice. A rather rude awakening, as both times it happened to me was the middle of the night. One moment I’m stumbling blindly to the bathroom; the next I’ve fallen down Alice’s hole; only this underground Wonderland was dark and muddy and filled with creatures.

My landlords were a horror show. A mother and daughter duo, who I watched age 20 years apiece, more than fulfilled my desire to observe lunacy. I dubbed the duo “Wigs Askew” because they both wore wigs that were always slightly off-kilter. The bangs, which should have hung over their foreheads, decorated their temples; and as they went off on one of their insane tirades, I could only stare at their wigs, thinking only of tugging them into place.

The mother was always angry, and though she walked with a cane, delighted in physically pushing me. She eventually stopped that, when one day my super power strength raged within my veins, and I found the muscle to pick her up and place her on the stoop like a bag of garbage. The daughter is still rumored to be a virgin. And her mother was her constant companion, to office Christmas parties and the like. When the daughter was 65 years old, she still called her “Mommy.”

Needless to say, repairs rarely happened. When my roof began to leak, the doddering duo climbed on my roof with plastic bags, tape, and bricks. “Okay, that should stop the rain!” the daughter would announce cheerily. “You know, if you get more leaks, you can do the same. Just get up on that old roof with plastic bags and bricks! You’ll have fun!” Their insane commentary was usually met with silence. At least in the early years. At the end of 20 years, I would actually reply as though I was as insane as they, spilling non-sequitors, nonsense and insane ramblings right back at them. I found out it didn’t matter what you said to them; they were permanently residing somewhere over the rainbow. So I took great pleasure in confusing them further.

Eventually, my roof began to leak quite badly. I had a rather beautiful waterfall that started right over the entrance to my bathroom. When it rained really hard, it would form a small stream right through my front parlor. There was a fireplace there, and my friends and I would huddle in front of it on cold winter nights, sipping on red wine, and musing. We would watch as the stream would turn into a small river, right down the center of the room and out the front door. Eventually, I couldn’t shut my front door in the winter months; it would swell to such a size, that the best I could do is sort of kick it into place. I could never shut it, as I would never be able to get it open again in the morning.

The problem grew worse when my door was replaced. It wasn’t replaced because of the swelling, but because a tree fell on my house one Valentine’s Day, on a stormy afternoon. It completely crushed my car port, and the trunk of the tree had gone right through the front door, pushing my door into the fireplace. Another large branch came into the kitchen, breaking through the ceiling like a claw of a monster, which had reached in to grab my stove. The enormous tree had all but buried me.

There was no light coming in any window. All I could see was green. I was underwater, in an ocean of foliage. And I lived this way for months, because the Wigs couldn’t fix it. The tree incident filled them with so much anxiety, they had trouble coping. And repairs were long and slow.

The first repair was the door. Even though no human being could have climbed over the tree filling my front parlor and murder me, I still needed a front door. “At the very least,” I told the Wigs, “get the tree trunk out of the front parlor and give me a door.”
“It’s not like anyone would bother climbing in here,” was their answer. “You don’t really NEED a door.”

After much pleading, a carpenter and a laborer were finally sent. The laborer cleared the tree that was in the front room, and the carpenter worked on the front door. I ended up sitting with the carpenter all afternoon, joking and laughing, as he struggled to make a standard door fit into a crooked door frame. “It’s impossible,” he kept telling me. And he kept sawing off slices of the door until it became a very odd shape. And the more he sawed off, the more we both laughed. And suddenly, I grabbed paper and pen and wrote this poem:

“And back to the carpenter.
After all his careful calculations
And neat –fingered enthusiasm
The new door
With perfect diamond windows
Did not fit.
Old houses have slanted walls and crooked roofs.
And I the crooked little woman
In the crooked little house
Living on a crooked little lane.”

My misfortunes had led to inspiration, and later that year I published a volume of poetry entitled, “A Crooked Little Woman.”

I wanted my rustic cottage to be a meeting place for the minds. I wanted art and music and poetry and the exchange of ideas to flourish in my hovel.
Of course I tried to create a perfect atmosphere in my home for such a delicious artistic klatch. And what I created felt more like a museum than it did a home. Or perhaps a North Beach bar; a hangout somewhere that Ginsberg and Kerouac might frequent; drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes. Poverty didn’t annoy me in those days. Rather it was part of the fabric of the vagabond hedonistic lifestyle I dreamed of creating.

Each room in the cottage was painted a different but equally bright color. Red, blue, yellow, orange and purple. It was filled with odd artifacts from all of my travels, black and white photos, sculptures, masks, neon signs, and stained glass.

In the bathroom I had “toilet paper from around the world,” and had dozens of labeled toilet paper samples which I grabbed from anywhere I had visited. One of my favorites was a particularly coarse sample from Paris, which was so rough you could actually see an entire twig of a tree running right through the middle of the square.

The ceiling of my living room was filled with umbrellas. There were mosquito tents draped over the love seats and fountains and colored lights. . Velvet couches. Piles of pillows. Candles. Signs and oddities. Cluttered and sweet. My den of iniquity.

In the early days of the cottage, my friends and I published a literary magazine in the bowels of that hovel. We had a wonderful staff; great writers, great artists, and great thinkers. We just didn’t have great advertisers. But nevertheless, it was an exciting adventure we pursued until we ran out of money.

After submitting my poetry to countless mags, rags, and other publications, it was fun to be on the other end of the spectrum; and have the power to accept or reject the musings of other hopeful poets. Our rejection and acceptance slips were simple. Each was a photo of the staff, all wearing Groucho-style “nose, mustache, and glasses.” For the acceptance slips, our thumbs were all pointed up. For the rejection slips, they were all pointed down. There were no words, no form letter, no “I’m sorry, but you just don’t meet our needs at this time.”

I remember my living room filled with friends and manila envelopes of every size, and all of us combing through piles and piles of submissions. I can still hear the peels of laughter as one of us would find one bad enough worthy to read to the rest of the staff. Or the gentle grunts when we’d read one aloud that we all really liked.

There was a force of creativity that rumbled through that cabin, and I wrote three novels there. I can remember musicians and actors. Poets and painters. I can remember wild parties and crazy singing. We were young, and we had plenty of time for all of our dreams to come true. Plenty of time. In fact, I think most of us believed that they already had come true.
It took me twenty years to exorcise my spirit out of that cottage. The fabric of our communal creativity seemed to fade, and suddenly the cottage seemed only broken and cold. Twenty years had passed, and nothing had changed. I was impoverished, shivering, middle-aged, and still a frustrated writer looking for an outlet.
What happened to me?
What happened to my dreams? I can only see each of my dreams written on yellow parchment paper, blowing away in the breeze.

“Life is something that happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
--John Lennon

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Looking through Leaves of Grass

My early childhood is a blur of giggling with girlfriends, ducking waves in the icy ocean, chasing hermit crabs, and playing horses on Strawberry Hill.
I loved the camaraderie of those friendships, but I had another side--some might even say a dark side--which felt to me like a gnarled tangle of powerful emotions and thoughts that had permanently lodged themselves in my throat.

As a child, I was haunted by thoughts of mortality, war, poverty, and lunacy. While girls my age were busy playing with dolls, I was absorbed by news about Viet Nam, or Charles Manson. I was preoccupied with ruminations about prison and human suffering. And more than anything else, I wanted to write about it.

I have always considered myself highly social, but there were plenty of days I would tell my girlfriends that I didn’t want to play with them that day. In a much deeper way, I was in pursuit of isolation. I needed to wander the world in a solitary fashion, so that I could be alone with my musings.
On the days I would be by myself, I was always excited. I would load some black and white film into my old Box Camera, pack myself a snack, and grab my hard copy of “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman from the bookshelf. I would then snatch up a packet of paper, pens, and pencils, and I would head off to Strawberry Hill alone, like a vagabond with a satchel, filled with everything I treasured the most.

I still have that volume of “Leaves of Grass,” but I didn’t know it until this morning. I awoke today with a start at 4:00 a.m., because I needed to know if I had managed to keep it after all of these years. A pre-dawn search of my bookshelf revealed itself to me, and I grabbed it with great delight. And I held it close to me, the way I used to do...the way little girls do with their teddy-bears. I suddenly remembered the great comfort holding that book always gave me. And tears sprung to my eyes.

The book was hardly worn. Not because it wasn’t my constant companion, but because things were made better in those days. I opened the front cover slowly, and I heard the familiar crack of the hard-back shifting in its binding. It was like traveling back in time in a warped speed tunnel, just the way I felt on my 50th birthday party. Walt and I had found each other again.

When I opened the cover and saw that the inside cover was littered with my childish handwriting, a tear escaped from my eye and ran down my nose. Just like at my birthday party, I was talking to myself 40 years in the past. And my sweet, sad naiveté which stared back at me, made me want to weep.
On the left, I had scribbled words that I was learning; new words which obviously filled me with delight. I smiled as I read them over. Cad. Sham. Agitate. Libation. Turmoil. Indelible. Chaotic. Oblivion. I smiled when I saw the word “abound” because I still love that word. In fact, I’m known to sign off from both phone calls and emails with a “Love Abounds.”

On the right, I had carefully printed my full name in the upper right hand corner. The way many of us did in our books, and our school papers. And then in the middle of the page, I had written these words: “A crutch to future success.”

Ugh. My own words, my own beliefs, staring back at me in a childish scrawl. A message from my past. Not exactly in black and white, because I had written the words in a green-blue felt pen. But the message was in black and white. I had always known that I was going to be a writer. What happened to me?

As I already mentioned, as a child I felt as though I had a gnarled tangle of powerful emotions and thoughts that had permanently lodged in my throat.
From my earliest memories, I always remember feeling that I had a blockage of some kind, wedged tight in my esophagus. This feeling became stronger and stronger, until it began manifesting itself in obsessive and compulsive habits, which I could hardly overcome.

For instance, there was a time that I decided that my neck could no longer support my head. My head was too heavy, and I began to imagine that my neck had finally buckled to its weight. Like the neck of a goose, it had curled and bent, and my head just wobbled on its side. For several days I walked around with my head bent over that way, peering at the world only sideways.

Eventually that feeling went away, but it was replaced with one that was even more disturbing. I decided that I had a big yawn trapped in my gullet and I told everyone that “I couldn’t get it out.”

This particular aberration lasted for months. I would be walking along with friends, and I would have to stop. My body would erupt into a series of contortions, my mouth open wide, and I would try and force it out. “I can’t get the yawn out,” I would complain. Night and day, I would try and try and try. But the cure for my affliction only eluded me.

Eventually this was replaced with a constant clearing of my throat. I was convinced it was persistently filled with phlegm and it seemed no amount of clearing would bring it up.

The final curse was when my brother held me down one day, and with his “torture de jour” decided to pour honey all over my neck. To me, it was a torture worst than water boarding. It was a torment and agony so overwhelming, that the memory of it is still a nightmare. Because my neck could not be touched--EVER. Touching my neck was like raping me.
Something was stuck in my throat. What was it?

It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I finally gleaned my answer.
More than anything else in this world, I need to communicate. It isn’t a choice.

Looking back, I remember that the more poetry I wrote, the better my neck felt. And later in life, I found that if I wasn’t speaking my truth, I would develop sicknesses there, like bronchitis. If I didn’t communicate, the words would get all jumbled up, and like a dam on a river, would create a blockage that was impossible to clear. Unless I spoke up.

I realize some things have not changed. My old Box Camera has been replaced with a Digital, but I still delight in nothing more than taking pictures of just about anything. Walt Whitman was replaced with e.e. cummings, but reading poetry still fills my soul like nothing I’ve ever known.

And I still write.

But lately, my pad of paper and Walt Whitman has been replaced with nothing but email and Facebook. And although I derive a great pleasure from those forms of communication, it seems its timeto expand those horizons once again.

“Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.”
Walt Whitman

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Fifty years old, and Unemployed

My 50th birthday party this year was everything that I could have secretly hoped for. It was a day-long event in which I was loved, pampered, honored, and treated like a Queen. I realize that many women who turn 50 want to skulk away in the shadows, hoping the dreaded day might pass without much fanfare. But although I approached the day with a certain sadness, I knew I wanted it to be a proud celebration. I wanted to be 50 and proud. And I wanted to be treated like a Queen, because on that day, I felt like one.
From breakfast in bed, to a compimentary shopping spree for a new outfit, to having my hair AND make-up done professionally, I slid into the day with as much personal confidence as a woman of my age could hope for. I was even given false eyelashes by the make-up artist, something I had only previously worn on Halloween.
I looked in the mirror, and felt pretty. I could certainly see the slight crevices and shadows of age in my face--but I also saw my youthful exhuberance--a trait I am almost known for. At least for that one day, I was determined not to focus on my flaws. Today wasn't a day for self-hatred.
I never had children--let alone grandchildren--so I have always felt somewhat "in the dark" about the passing of time. I didn't have the usual reference points that most of my friends had, to remind them every day that they were middle-aged. No children to call me "Mom," and certainly no one out there to call me "Grandma." Imagine! I couldn't.
I still had the joy and energy I had at 17--perhaps even more so. And what made my delusion even more fierce is that I had reunited with my High School boyfriend at our 25th High School reunion. Peter still looks practically as young as he did when we went to the prom together at the age of 17--so our relationship has only furthered my warped sense of time. And I have kept my home decor almost the same as I did when I was a very young woman. I feel the same inside.
So when I stared at my face in the mirror moments before I was whisked away to the pre-party VIP cocktail party on my 50th birthday, I was happy with the reflection that met me. I looked youthful. And I was off to have my first martini of the evening....with my friends and family--who had come from far and wide to honor me and my special day.
The cocktail party was held at my brother's "mansion" as we call it, because he went deep into debt to build a most impressive castle on the coast. The entire top floor of his house is a bar--with an airport theme. I don't think many people have the means to make an entire floor into a party room...with a long lavish bar and bar stools...and accompanying cocktail tables. Not to mention the view of the ocean. It's stunning. But this event was only the precursor to the real party that was to follow.
I was whisked away again, to a winery. I may have thought I had many friends and family at the cocktail party, but this second party was filled with even more revelers. Old friends from High School. X-husbands and X-boyfriends. Childhood friends. It was overwhelming.
I was almost in a daze as I greeted each face, one after another, each face more shocking than the last. In a flurry, I was handed momento after momento; friends stuffing old pictures in my hands, letters I'd written to them as children, slice after slice of my past, bittersweet, like a rhubarb pie.
My 8th grade boyfriend was there. He handed me a card that contained pictures of me as a little girl. And in the card he wrote, "They say you never forget your first love. And you were certainly that for me."
My X-best friend of 1st grade handed me a poem I had written when I was only 6 years old. It talked about pain and suffering. It talked with a depth of knowledge that I normally don't associate with 6 year olds. And it was me. Me talking back to me, as if in a time warp, 44 years later. I felt tears spring to my eyes. There she was, the little poet. The little poet who was sure she'd be the next Poet Laureate. The little girl who always knew she'd earn a living as a writer. The little girl who had gone on to write her entire life--poetry, short stories, articles, and three novels known as the "tomes." But who would never earn a living that way.
What had happened to me? Well, I knew what had happened. I could trace every choice I ever made with my mind's eye, and knew why I ended up where I did. Because through a series of choices--choices that seemed necessary at the time, I became an Accountant.
An accountant!
Every stranger that I meet, when I tell them what I do, they stare back at me with shock and surprise. "YOU?" they tend to squeal. Because I am a far cry from the stereotypical accountant. I am hardly boring; I am a loud and boisterous Italian, that speaks my mind almost too easily. I am neither shy or retiring; and I am certainly far from a loner. In fact, I have so many friends that people think I run around always in a pack. I am not the bespectacled studious type, bunched over columns and columns of numbers, happy to have something in front of me that makes sense. Because I love things that don't make sense.
What happened to me?
And if my career choice wasn't bad enough, losing my job made it even worse. I had been "let go" (a term that gives me the shudders) on December 16th, 2008--at the start of the worst recession in American History since the Great Depression.
At least before I could boast of a decent salary, benefits, stature, and the rest of the perks that go with a life-long career. But now my job was gone, and god damn it...I couldn't find another one.
I was unemployed.
I was 50.
I had never become the writer that I knew I would be.
And I wondered what had happened to all of my dreams.
I continued to greet face after face at my party, and my thoughts became more and more jumbled. I almost felt as if I were in a daze. Everyone there was a culmination of everything I had become. But I no longer knew who that was.
So I have begun this blog to find out. And with your help, perhaps I will.

Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten