Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coming In From The Cold

Innocent of the privations of city life.
I just found my way to my friend Jen Block's blog, Pushed Birth. She writes: " is the sister site for Pushed, the book, and was created to provide women with uncensored, unsweetened information about U.S. childbirth care. (I) spent years researching why so many labors are begun by induction, why so many births end in cesarean section, and how modern maternity care is impacting women and their families. " Check out Jen's fantastic June 2010 blog (Yes, I am just catching up on my reading!) about how the closings of Bellevue and now St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan have deprived New York City's women, especially low income women,  of the two main facilities that made midwife care feasible (and legal).  You must check out Jen's book and blog, if you are planning to have a baby or care at all about women's health issues.

And now it is autumn for sure. In Tiny Town, I have brought in the begonias and placed them on the broad, sunny window sill in the dining room, the window that looks onto the little walled brick patio where they grew so splendidly all summer in their big earthenware pots. There are only two small plants left in the apartment in the city, one rather sad looking aloe and a tropical of some kind that came from a cutting a neighbor gave me. I tend to be unreasonably sentimental about plants, and I feel badly that these two are still living alone in the apartment where I only go now for an hour or two each week to check things out and give these two stragglers a little water. 

Urban Plant Exile
One of the begonias I just brought in from the nippy autumn air is three years old: I created it from a clipping I took when my music partner, Mountain Sea, and I got back from our last tour in Europe. I was tired then, a little worn thin in a variety of ways, and I was trying to get comfortable again in the Sugar Hill apartment which had grown dusty and lifeless during my extended absence. It was November and already chill when I saw a large begonia just barely hanging onto a dirty brick wall on 153rd St. and Broadway where it was being blasted by the cold night air.  I heard the plant's thin voice calling out to me to save it, so I surreptitiously took a cutting and brought it back to my steam-heated rooms, rooted it in a jelly glass, and later planted it in earth bought from the dollar store. There in my westerly kitchen window, the begonia slowly turned into a plant with oddly transparent leaves that had a fragile, gummy texture, but were stubbornly and defiantly alive. Sporadically it put forth a couple of of anemic light-pink blossoms: They fell almost immediately to the floor. 

This June, as FF and I moved things out of the apartment and to Tiny Town, I brought the begonia with me, and clearly it thought it had died and gone to Heaven, for over the course of two summer months it has turned in a bodacious wild creature. It now sports huge, dark, glossy almond shaped leaves, and numerous fleshy red racemes covered with dark pink blossoms. In a couple of country months, the begonia went from being a weak city weed to being a well-fleshed, rainforest beauty.

I take special pleasure in my plant's story: Its start as a wilting, frost-struck cutting in a jelly glass,  its survival from a certain urban death, its patient period of semi-wilted stasis in the city, and its recent phoenix-like rebirth in the country summer.  This plant is joy and hope, and its greatness is now apparent. I am touched by the begonia, and so I can see that it is really myself I am seeing in it. By saving the begonia I saved myself. I know that these softly rolling hills, this air, this river, these sun dappled sycamore leaves outside my study window are all working their big medicine on me, making me stronger, glossier and more powerful. I have always wanted to supply an Ark to the weak, the lost, and the damaged. Has it been my way of telling the world that I needed an Ark myself to shelter me from my life's storms? From the terrors that afflicted me as a child and then, later, as an adult? The apartment in Sugar Hill was my Ark for a while, but now, I have found a better Ark. The plants come onboard.

This week, I got the good news that one of my songs is playing on a French radio station. I am amazed and delighted that the audience for my little song, heard before now by a half dozen people, has just exploded by tens of thousands. I am touched by this evidence of my own blossoming and I think that the Great Gardener is taking pleasure in me right now.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dark and Rainy. Alone. Together.

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The dark and rainy Sunday followed the week of tornadoes. It was also the week Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge and I couldn't get him off my mind.

My apartment in Manhattan is 30 blocks from the GWB and you can see the span from my roof. I used to go up there in the early in the morning, around 6 AM just to close my eyes and feel the G-forces of the 40 thousand vehicles that pass over it into Manhattan at rush hour. My friend, the Argentine painter Daniela Mizrahi lived for years almost underneath the GWB in her little studio apartment which always smelled of paint, bread, smoke and car exhaust. The building, which clung like a bat to the black cliffs over the Hudson River, had a perfect view of the terrible and awesome Bridge, all lit up and roaring 24 hours a day.

I remember one particularly emotional night with Danu when we burnt some love letters on the pavement in the street. It was a necessary act, the act of destroying the component parts of a sadness. This is the kind of thing one needs friends to help with: Identify the formerly beloved object as poisonous and dispose of it.

The pages of the letters caught on fire quickly but then, not yet incinerated, were swept down the street by the wind and we ran after them yelling, trying to get them back so that we didn't set a building or car on fire by mistake. Slowly we captured the smoldering pages, ripped them up into smaller pieces and then burned them again (yes, some love letters take forever to burn, especially when written by depressing people.) The small orange embers were taken by the updrafts and swirled into the black sky, disappearing high into the great vacio beneath the GWB where they were extinguished in the nothingness. I thought, that is where love dies, in the darkness, under a bridge. I thought too that this neighborhood was too oversized for my diminutive friend, too cold and too lonely. That place was as lonely as a lost glove on a wet sidewalk, and I always felt afraid to leave her there.

Photo by Karol Du Clos
Perhaps because of that I cannot stop thinking of Tyler, standing on the bridge, hearing the interminable low drone of the traffic, breathing in the intoxicating gasses of the traffic and gazing into the great black vacio below the Bridge. So high, so very high, and so very cold. Did he hear any music in the low drone of the traffic, in the roar of the singing metal? Or did he only hear the beating of his own disappointed heart?

The suicide rate tells a depressing tale:  "Throughout the world, about 2000 people kill themselves each day. That's about 80 per hour, three quarters of a million a year. In the U.S., there are more than 80 deaths from suicide every day, 30,000 every year. This is the equivalent of a fully loaded jumbo jet crash every fifth day. From another perspective, you are more likely to kill yourself than be killed by someone else." (Geo Stone, Suicide and Attempted Suicide).  

It does not comfort me at all to know that I am more likely to kill myself than to be killed by someone else. Not at all. Such facts are odd and cruel and I am not sure that they even matter.

It does matter, though,  that when I sat down on the sofa and told FF that I felt sad, he put his arm around me and understood. Man, do I feel lucky in those moments that I know how to go and say that I feel sad to my husband, and I feel lucky that he is there to wrap his big, strong arms around me. Later that night, FF told me that one of his former tennis students who was a father and husband once parked his car near a bridge, a bridge that FF crossed every day on the way to work in those days; the man took of his shoes and socks, folding his socks neatly inside the shoes, and he jumped to his death. He folded his socks neatly.  These are the things we do, even in our desperation. As if somehow a folded sock might leave a quiet fragment of order behind in the onrushing chaos of self-annihilation.

It also matters that Tyler was only 18, in his first month at Rutgers. It matters that he was a talented musician, and that his room mate had been torturing him by spying on his intimate encounters in his dorm room. It matters that Tyler was gay, because if he had been heterosexual instead these encounters would have more likely entitled him to bragging rights than to shame.

"No one can make you inferior without your consent," wrote the fabulous and heroic Eleanor Roosevelt. Why did Tyler consent? Why couldn't he get mad as hell at his torturers, at society and at the people at the school who didn't respond to his call for help? Why did he instead turn his anger in on himself? No one gets to know now, and that is the thing about suicide: It ends the conversation.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Life Lessons Learned by Releasing Stuff

In Manhattan, there were tornado warnings this week. This only proves my overall feeling that it is time to get out of this city. There were not any tornadoes in all my days in Manhattan until now, which makes it seem like the End of Times. So I am returning to the task of carefully placing my stuff in the hands of others, sending it in various directions to be re purposed and appreciated anew.

Today's items carefully parceled out and creating whirlwinds of random human contact are:

The fax machine! An excellent Bell South machine that stores 100 phone numbers, works perfectly, but uses heat sensitive paper (an environmental no-no). Also good as a telephone. $15. What a deal! Off it went with its new owner, to 92nd at Second Ave. where, oddly enough, I slept for a week when I first arrived in New York on a former college friend's hardwood floor. That person would still be a friend if the floor hadn't been so, well, hard. I suppose it was better than sleeping in the subway, but just. Lorenzo, an industrial designer, picked up the fax machine (and its extra roll of paper) paying me $15 (the cost of the extra roll) and shuffling out the door with his preternaturally toothy smile, his Guatemalan poncho stylishly flung over one shoulder and an excellent Columbia backpack (containing the fax machine) in tow. Within the hour, the woman who sold ME the fax machine years ago (a former boss in the publicity business) called and said we ought to get together sometime. I had not heard from her in years. Did the fax have to go to someone who lived on the same block where I once slept on the floor? Did the former owner of the fax have to call me the day I sold it? Is the connection between these events more than random? You tell me.

Two lessons were learned from selling the fax machine (cheap).
Lesson 1: Don't make your friends sleep on the floor. They will never call you again.
Lesson 2: When you keep objects circulating and in use, the universe stirs in response.

The Rolling Cart. This handy, mobile, plastic object with drawers costs 24.99 new at the Container Store and it has been holding my bathroom clutter for years. I cleaned it meticulously and posted it with a photo and exact measurements. Within 45 second of posting on Craig's list, out of 12 people only Jasmine had the good sense to follow my directions by including her phone number and a specific time when she could retrieve the item. Well done, Jasmine! You will go far in life and you win the Rolling Cart for absolutely free! In proof of the now obvious truth that Jasmine will become Master of the World, she didn't even spend any energy on her free acquisition, sending her brother to pick up the Rolling Cart for her! Impressive.
Lesson 3: You will be rewarded in life for following directions.

The Television. This TV belonged to my best friend's grandfather, OK? And he gave it to my best friend's father. Who gave it to my best friend, Mountain Sea....who didn't really give it to me, but rather kind of lodged it with me when he left town as New Yorkers sometimes do. I have been watching this TV for years, and it works really well. Being an understanding type, Mountain Sea is letting me give it away now since he is not coming back from Tucson to retrieve it, and it's the old tube kind anyway. Well, I didn't even get a chance to post the TV: Peter, who called for the Rolling Cart (and missed it to quick and thorough Jasmine) asked if I had anything else I was giving away. I said, how about a TV? He said, oh wow, I was burned out of my apartment and I'm disabled and anything would be a big help to me! Peter showed up in a van with his girlfriend to get the TV and was absolutely thrilled with his new entertainment system. My neighbor carried even it down the stairs for him.  I told Peter I was sorry for his hard luck, and he actually said "Oh, you've no idea the trouble I've seen," which started up a melody in my mind, Gloria Hallelujah. "I can't tell you how much this means to me," he said, and kissed my hand.

Which made me think that anything I have to give away is, in some way, because someone was once kind to me, too. So thanks Mountain Sea, thanks Mountain Sea's Dad, Thanks Grandad.  You've done a nice thing.

Lesson 4: Always remember that there is always somebody who's in a worse situation than you are and that your generosity grows the minute you release it into the world.