Monday, June 28, 2010

The end, in translation

Two days ago, I was called to interpret at a law office in Mercer County and went to the meeting with no idea about the topic except that it did have something to do with a certain Ecuadorian man whose divorce documents I had translated only a few weeks before.

It turns out that the Ecuadorian man had done something bad, really bad, to a woman and now she was dead. The dead woman's father and sister, neither of whom spoke English, entered the lawyer's book-lined conference room looking spectacularly uncomfortable and out of place: In Spanish, I asked them to be seated.

The father was an indigenous-looking man also from Ecuador: short, strong and impressively built despite his years, he had no expression at all. The sister of the dead woman was also diminutive, but softer and somewhat lighter-skinned than her father. She looked like one of the pensive stone angels in the cemetery of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and on her skin were none of the marks of hard labor and suffering that criss-crossed every inch of the older man's face and hands.

The lawyer proceeded to explain that we were here to sign papers to finish the case against the person who had killed their brother and son in that terrible accident seven years before. The lawyer shook his head slowly, heaving an obligatory sigh. After costs, lawyer's percentage and everything else, they were to get 80 thousand dollars. They were to speak about the case to no one and this was to be the end of it, the lawyer said. I translated all of this into Spanish. We have worked on this case together for seven years, he said, and now I will probably never see you again. I translated this too, and there was a silence. The man and woman had no reaction whatsoever.

I had to explain in Spanish to the family of the dead woman that there would be estate taxes to pay, and that there might be another bill from the lawyers in Delaware also. They nodded, careful of their reactions, guarded. I explained what would happen next, how the money would be distributed, and how their amount would be disbursed to them. The lawyer, through me, asked the father to sign several papers as administrator of his daughter's assets and estate, bienes y sucesiones, and he did, with the elegance and flourish of the simple man who aspired to a certain cultivation. I commented on the beauty of his signature. At last, he smiled.

The lawyer repeated urgently: Tell him this is the end of the case, tell him it is over. Tell him I will send him a check within the next couple of weeks. I translated this. The man nodded. His daughter nodded. They understood.  It was over and this was it, here and now. Do they understand? asked the lawyer. Do they? Yes they do, I responded. The old man and his daughter were not flustered in the least, not jubilant, not sad, not anything at all.

When the papers were collected and the family had gone, I walked out the door to my car. The lawyer and his assistant thanked me, and I said no problem, I'll send you an invoice.

A woman killed, a document signed, money changing hands. There could there be no sense of real closure or victory in that quiet, book-lined room where the sound of shuffling papers was the only punctuation to the end of a long legal struggle to obtain a sort of justice for the sort of people who never get justice, no matter how many papers are signed. I wondered if 80 thousand dollars seemed like a lot to the Ecuadorian family. I wondered what they would do with the money. I wondered if they might send a child to college with it, in which case this would not be an end but perhaps a beginning.

I waved goodbye to the lawyer as he slid into his BMW. And I drove home alone, sobered and emptied.

Photo: Angel from La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Love Makes the Earth Move

It's Sunday and I am staying in the country because of a strong urge not to face the city, and the dust balls and remaining apartment clutter that needs to either be boxed, or given or thrown away. I want to relax here, under the hot overcast Pennsylvania skies, to stay here in the little house in Tiny Town with FF and the AC turned way up.

I have to recognize that FF is a huge part of my wanting break up with New York. That is to say, I have not only a "moving away from" feeling, but also a really strong "moving towards" feeling in me. After two years and four months, I am still utterly smitten with FF: His kindness, his generosity, the sweet Central Pennsylvania music of his voice, and his graceful body that still makes a knot in my throat sometimes when I look at him, are just a few of the reasons that I draw close to this good man and to his comforting, slow-burning fire.

I met FF online via one of the better matching services in what felt like a last-ditch effort to try something different to find a mate. When I first saw his photo on the computer screen, in the solitude of my New York apartment I exclaimed loudly and to no one, "Now THAT'S what I'm talking about!" I then saw he lived in New Jersey, not far from Princeton, and I felt a little drop of disappointment. Too hard, I thought, to have a long-distance relationship. Odd that for me, a world traveler, New Jersey seemed like long-distance, but it did then. As we all know, there are Lower East Siders who boast that they never go above 14th Street, Upper West Siders who grimace at the thought of having friends on the East Side (where they have more closet space than bookshelves, as the saying goes). For a global city, we New Yorkers are a disturbingly super-provincial species, generally unwilling to roam outside our own chosen barrios.

But then I had a completely different, new thought: Perhaps a man who does not live anywhere near this over-stimulated city full of climbers and strivers is exactly what I need.

So I wrote to him. He was one of a very few potential suitors who I immediately hoped would write back to me after the first onslaught of 500 or so "matches". After we started "free communication", that is, not checking off boxes anymore, but rather exchanging unprompted thoughts, his first cascade of sentences had me hooked: I was starting to think of it as a Relationship, and I started to pray he wanted to meet me. You have to know that FF writes beautifully, with such sincerity and such a poetic sense, that I've kept just about every word he's ever sent me: emails, sms'es, and cards. Not long after we started writing, in the boyscout style of his that I have come to know well, he started a special email account just for our communications "in case of catastrophic server error". And so we started falling in love on the page, via our "squiggles".

When we finally met, on a snowy brick train platform in Metuchen, he felt so comfortable to be near, so right that my memories of that cold day are mostly warm and weightless. We walked up and down the Main Street of Metuchen (which is only four blocks long) countless times, until our frozen fingers forced us to enter a café where he drank hot tea out of a tea pot (for the first time, he told me). We talked about important things right from the start. He gave me two Moon Pies and a box of Earl Gray Oolong as a present, based upon a story I'd written him about a full eclipse of the moon that I had watched from a sidewalk in Harlem. He suggested I name my band "Tea and Moon".

When I got back on the train to New York, my mind emptied of all but one, long, humming Om of a thought: So this is how it happens.

Since then, I have wanted him as near me as possible as often as possible.

I knew in my gut that one of the big reasons this was working for me, besides that fact that FF is my soul mate and jewel of man, was what he was not: he was not a New York City man. I had figured out two years earlier I was not going to find my principe azul (Spanish for Prince Charming) in Germany. Then I realized I wasn't going to find him in New York City either. Finally there he was, on a train platform in Metuchen.

Place matters. Location counts, and not just in real estate, either. I never would have found FF buying fresh fish at Citarella or waiting in line at MoMA. It never would have happened. Because a shy, quiet, good, hard-working, Central Pennsylvania man like FF would simply never APPEAR in that spot, or at least with enough regularity to make a blip on my radar. You don't find deer in the desert. You don't find seagulls in cornfields. So figure out what kind of animal you seek, then go to where it grazes. It took an slick algorithm to help me find FF because, like many of the deracinated children of the striving American middle class, I had prioritized the unquantifiable virtues of career and achievement over the more fundamental joy of finding a lover who suited me, body and soul. Before meeting FF, I wasn't even conscious of what I had done to myself: I just thought I must be lacking in the womanhood department, or that artists never get to be happy. Or something.

Had the an algorithm not found FF for me, would I ever have understood that I needed to put New York City on notice to find him? Or would I simply have continued mistakenly grazing the same urban pastures and coming up hungry?

Love makes the earth move. I am going with it.

Photo of Metuchen train station on a snowy day by Grant Saff

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Perils of Metamorphosis

UE tried to Google her own blog this morning. A bit premature it is, considering that I have only three entries and no followers. That said, I was still disappointed when I couldn't find myself. (New moment of existential angst: If I google my blog and it isn't there, do I really exist?).

I did, however, find a handful of blogs and online diaries with the words "Breaking up with New York" in them (why, oh, why did I think this was an inventive title?), usually somewhere in a post and not the actual title of the blog. From the style and tone of the texts, it sounds like all these bloggers are all women and they also tend to call NYC "he". I never felt NYC as a "he", despite Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees, the phallic skyscrapers, the roaring subway and all the other testosterone-charged aspects of the place. I have always felt NYC as a "she", and still I am breaking up with her, though I am not the lesbian in the family.

The only thing I can point to that makes this blog different from these other blog/diaries is that the whole point of this blog is leaving New York City after 28 years, the feelings that dredges up in me, and how this move seems to fit into the trends of modern American life. It's not just an episode in a larger text leading to another point: It is the point.

As I write this, now safely ensconced in the rafters of my little studio in Tiny Town on a bright Thursday morning, there's a buzzing going on. No, I mean a real buzzing, not just something in my head or on Page 6. I have tracked it down and it is definitely coming from the ceiling rafters. Furthermore, if I listen carefully, I can tell it is live buzzing, that is the sound of an insect, the kind of buzz followed by dry little pings of wings on hard surfaces, like flies stuck between the window and the screen. It's probably another stink beetle that's been born inside the wall trying to find its way to freedom or, put less subjectively, to the outer surface of the 200-year-old beam in which it was hatched by the hot, incubating summer air. For this beetle, freedom will be just another word for getting smashed in a paper towel and flushed. That said, I am amazed at the get up and go these critters show from the moment they are born! How do they know that the cramped space they are in is not where they are supposed to be? Where do they get that energy to struggle like Hell to get out?

Butterflies are in metamorphosis, inside the cocoon changing from caterpillar to butterfly, for anywhere from two weeks to even a couple of years. When they finally emerge from their cramped pods they can easily die, either because they are eaten by predators while still weak, or because they don't fully escape from the chrysalis and the acid substance they emit to penetrate the walls of the chrysalis starts to burn and deform their vulnerable, new wings.

With no visible signs to signal the emergence of the butterfly from its chrysalis, the chrysalis suddenly cracks open and out comes the monarch butterfly. Its wings are tiny, crumpled, and wet. The butterfly clings to its empty chrysalis shell as hemolymph, the blood-like substance of insects, is pumped through its body. As the hemolymph fills the monarch's body and wings, they enlarge. Right now, this monarch is extremely vulnerable to predators because it is not yet able to fly.

Buzz, buzz, buzz. Ping, ping. Tiny, crumpled and wet.

It took me 28 years, not 14 days, to achieve this metamorphosis. And as I escape the chrysalis I feel the possibility that I might not make it. Every time I go into the city now, I feel a sense of impending doom. Will my own poisons destroy my wings? Will some predator get me just as I am about to fly?

Buzz buzz. Ping ping.

It is summer, and UE's student population has fallen off horribly. I begin to worry about money, even though FF tells me I don't have to. After a lot of years on my own, worry about money is just something I do by reflex: I am not really convinced that FF has my back primarily because my longer, harder experience is that no one, ever, has had my back when it came to paying the bills.

So I don't know what to do with myself. Go to yoga class. Write this blog. Take on a legal interpreting gig and hope I know enough legal terms to explain to the poor Peruvian guy trying to prove he got divorced in Peru what his lawyer is doing for him. Weed the garden. Feel rather out of character in this role of suburban almost-wife. Perhaps I could practice guitar and get back to being the songwriter I was before all of this happened? Perhaps.

FF and I went into the city on Sunday and I placed things in boxes, mostly books and blankets which I tried to layer up so that FF did not break himself walking down the four flights with ten ton boxes of books. We rolled up the carpet like a Yankee Doodle, taped it, and threw it last into his SUV on top of all the other things. I decided to travel back to Tiny Town with him instead of staying in the city, and the spoken reason was that I didn't want him unloading all my stuff alone into the storage space. But the unspoken reason was that I was suddenly terrified of being left alone in my now much emptier apartment.

I slept here in Tiny Town Sunday night, and then on Monday drove myself to the station and took the train back into the city, feeling rather like a child not wanting to face cleaning her room. I had no students on Monday, all gone on vacation, so I humped back up to Harlem and opened the door. The sunlight poured in through the beautiful big, living room window and it showed all the mounds of dust that had been lurking beneath the carpet. The air was stuffy and still. It was breathlessly quiet, waiting. The bookshelves in my study showed only dust and bits and pieces that were too unwanted or too small to pack in cardboard boxes: an analog guitar tuner, some old backup CDs in plastic cases, a seed pod, a feather.

What do I do with this stuff? "Throw it out!", you scream. No, but I am obsessed. I want it all placed somewhere. I want all of these things placed in good hands, hands that need them. Some things will escape New York with me, others must stay behind and await the Apocalypse with their new owners, fresh-faced middle school teachers and dewy Master's candidates at Columbia. I go on to Craigslist and continue trying to sell things: The old fax machine, $35; the bootleg DVDs someone gave me when I was sick; the blue file cabinet (sold). I post things in the "Free" column: file folders, stacks of paper, envelopes, a puzzle. I feel like I am begging: Please take my stuff, please take care of it, I can't haul it where I am going.

Last night, UE's Best Friend (BF) surprised her by commenting that he had noticed how carefully and cleanly she always made such transitions. BF now lives far away in AZ, having escaped in body from New York though his spirit still figures on coming back. I wish I could sell my cocoon, er, apartment to BF, but he and his girlfriend don't have enough money to do it and she's not too excited about living in Harlem being more of a Brooklyn gal. But that would be the ultimate for me, really: To leave the apartment safely in the hands of a friend.

And where am I going? Like the stink beetle struggling in my wall, I have no idea really. This beautiful, rented stone house in Tiny Town is just a stop on the way, and I am conscious that everything I move now will have to be moved again, so I am being harsh with the cut. But like the beetle, I want out. And like the beetle, I am batting my wings, ping ping ping, against the hard surfaces of my material life, inspired by the clear, interior mandate that I must get out of New York City as soon as possible.

Wait. The buzzing has stopped for a moment. I stop typing and listen, breathless. The beetle is resting between efforts to escape.

Photo: © Debbie Hadley, WILD Jersey

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Baby Theme Continues

Sometimes, synchronicity is just creepy. (See Exile's post from yesterday.)

Today, Saturday, I get up with the first gentle ding of the Zen timepiece and contentedly leave the Fabulous Fiancé curled up under the covers while I slip downstairs to make my traditional breakfast: four slices of turkey bacon, two fried eggs, half an English muffin and an espresso. I like this breakfast alone at our big stone table, watching the early show at the bird feeder with the calm voices of NPR narrating the world for me.

All is well.

By 8:30 I am up in my studio, warming up the Skype and getting ready for my 9:00 web class. Urban Exile teaches Spanish and Writing online to her clients who rather miraculously turn up and slip me love notes via PayPal. I love and am grateful for these classes which, for the most part, we both enjoy and which provide UE with an ethical way to make a living. My 9:00
starts a little late (Sat. 9 AM is always late), and the lesson goes well. Topic: related idiomatic uses of the future indicative and present indicative. This is a topic I like a lot because it clearly demonstrates how tense as well as mood connote tone in Spanish.

Anyway, the class goes well, and then at the end of it, Saturday 9 o'clock says: Oh by the way, I have big news. I am pregnant! Four months. The baby will come in November.

I am so happy for you. I say. Felicitaciones, I say. Good for you. And I am happy for her: She's a nice woman with a great job and a husband who also has a great job and they are young and married and pretty. Good.

Saturday 9'0clock and I sign off and I go downstairs where FF is in our bedroom and he sees my expression which must be odd-looking to him, dazed and blank. My expression is enough to compel FF hug me immediately without asking a single question (thus once again earning his first name, Fabulous), and I say: I feel strange.

We sit on the edge of the bed and I tell him the news from Saturday 9 o'clock and at that point the tears start to come without sobs, without words, just salty tears rolling down my very blank face. I use my palms to try to rub away the pain in my chest, the pressure at the front of my head, I try to breathe deeply and make the bad, hurty feeling go away.

FF knows and I know: We will never have any children.

Is there a biological reason for this? No, except possible my age, but as far as I know I can still conceive. No, it's more than FF doesn't really want it, and I do but not with a partner who doesn't really want it. And anyway I've begun to feel that maybe you can be too old to have children, rather more on an emotional level than a physical one. FF and I spent so many lifetimes looking for each other, and we went through a great deal of personal suffering on our way to this place of almost-wedded bliss: Just as we are preapring to settle in and have a quiet, peaceful life for once, maybe it doesn't feel quite right to have a baby around.

That said, I am in mourning. I will never have a baby. I am in mourning for me, my ancestors gone and my descendants never to be. 9 o'clock Saturday, 6:30 Tuesday, and probably 2 o'clock Friday all will see their bellies turn into beach balls. All will be treated like queens in a hive. All will gasp in pain and awe as a human emerges from between their legs (and I do hope they don't get Caesar sliced by the over-eager docs). All will weep with joy as they behold the beauteous angels that will rest in their arms. All will see their husbands turn into gentler, more touching creatures than they ever imagined they could be.

This will not happen for me and FF.

For so many years I hung onto New York as if it were a purpose and achievement in itself, as if just being there were enough. But I couldn't grasp my own truths until I met True Oak, my caring therapist. Truth: what I needed, what I really wanted, was a loving, regular guy who would have babies with me and take care of us. Further, my heart knew before my mind did that I would be more likely to find him in a nice small town than in Harlem or the Lower East Side. If I hadn't found him there in 20 years, why would I ever find him there? But I stuck to New York as if it held a truth more important than my own, as if New York itself were my mate and I tried to swallow the untruth that it was enough to be artist, to be striving, and that having babies and being a wife were things for ordinary, boring people. I was trying to be Someone, trying to float above the jetsam of my own sense of unimportance and invisibility, trying to feel accomplished for walking the same sidewalks as the stars and semi-stars I sometimes saw passing by.

True Oak would say I am being to hard on myself. She would say I am accomplished, that I have done a lot of wonderful things. People are amazed at the careers I've had, the people I've met, journeys I have taken, the lives I have lived. But somehow I didn't manage to accomplish doing the most natural thing in the world: Falling in love and making a family.

Sitting on this bed in Tiny Town today with my FF sitting by my side, his strong arm hugging me gently, I said goodbye to having a baby. And I wonder if this will hurt forever, or if I will get used to it someday?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First Breath

I found that I was mightily annoyed this morning after I discovered my cellphone had tricked me into thinking I had no morning classes. So a client was left hanging at 9 AM, admittedly not his usual hour, but darn it when is this thing going to work as promised? Or is it me? My mood did not lighten as the morning wore on and student #2 called in with a migraine, and student #3 said, sorry, she had to cart her brother off to the hospital for an appendectomy.

The structure of my freelance day now a shambles, I started batting around the house like an escaped ball from a pin ball machine. I washed clothes, changed the bed linens, reorganized the CD collection, dusted under the bed and actually ironed pillow cases, the latter being something that never ever happened in New York where I had an iron but no cumbersome board around to take up space. My urban energy bursts from me! I must be busy! But the universe says nothing doing, sit down and have a nice write.

Here's where I reveal that I am in the country, or pretty near to the country, in a small town in Pennsylvania that I will call Tiny Town. Tiny Town is my carefully chosen airlock between my life in the city and my future life Somewhere Else. My fabulous fiancé, henceforth known as FF, is at the root of this. I met him in New Jersey and over the past two years and in each other's company we have been slowly drifting South like two sneaky jaybirds hopping ever closer to the Equator.

I started coming to Tiny Town after we rented The Doll's House, a historic little stone structure that has been sitting at this riverside location for over 200 years. The Doll's House suits us. It suits me so well that long weekends out here with FF  became four days out here and, lately, I am our here five days a week. New York City is catching on. The apartment is a little musty when I get back to it, a little stiller than before. The neighbors begin to be surprised to see me at all. No one really knows yet, but New York is beginning to suspect that I am trying to slip quietly out the back door.

So my day as planned in shambles, I decided to go to Yin Yoga class. Indeed, I have to boot myself out the door still suffering from the nagging feeling that self-care activities like yoga are somehow "cheating". I am lying in an particularly uncomfortable face-down position on the floor trying to breathe my way through my faschial discomfort, when yoga instructor Aurora starts to read from a book called The Anatomy of Yoga. The baby's first breath after he stops receiving oxygen through the umbilical chord of the mother, she intones, is a huge, gasping goodbye to the beautiful weightless world of the womb. The child is now pulled toward the earth, and must breathe for himself. This is called birth.

Aurora reads on. The doctors tend to slice off the umbilical chord right away, rather than letting it slowly throb to a halt, and this shocks the system of the little one. When the first breath is taken, she explains, the  circulatory system of the child actually reverses, veins and arteries switching roles. The lungs expand for the first time like a parachute exploding into the atmosphere, blood rushes to the chest. A person is born.

Birth is a goodbye. So then is a goodbye also a birth?

Tears spilled down my cheeks as I crucified myself in butterfly position against the wall, and I felt a dull ache in the spot where I was trying to heed Aurora's advice to "open up my heart chakra". Every moment is a goodbye to the one before it, every moment is a birth. I felt very vulnerable lying there in butterfly position with a salty tear on each cheek, tears that I do not wipe away.

I wonder. Has New York been like some kind of iron lung for me, breathing for me, making me feel alive just because it seems so very alive? Have I felt unjustly accomplished just for living there? Yes, I remember the glow of pride I felt when I was touring in Europe and Europeans would breathe in admiration "Oh, New York! It's my dream!" Sure, if you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere, so they say. But what is making it after all? And when did "making it" start being equivalent to owning a little fourth floor walk-up and managing to pay the bills each month?

Let me out of here, Mama. I want to breathe on my own.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Pushing Off

The feeling has crept on me slowly, like a river rising in the rain: It is time to leave New York City.

This blog is about this one simple question: What happens when a person who has spent all of her adult life living in Manhattan, decides to leave?

For 28 years New York City has been my home. I have spent most of my life here with parenthetical absences in Latin America and Europe, and I have pounded these streets for nearly three decades trying to become Somebody, trying to create Something, trying to discover that Big Secret that New York City, owner of the title The Greatest City in the World,  surely possesses. A few times, I almost thought I had it.

New York will get to you, get in you, get it over on you, and really take it out of you, too. New York pulls you in, makes love to you and then the next day doesn't know who you are. New York introduces you to really famous people at after-parties, and then she dumps a wet pile of stinky garbage at your front door. New York is like a question that you wake up every single day trying to answer, and then can't sleep at night for thinking about it.

I have guardedly started letting people know that I am plotting my escape, and the reactions have been nothing if not extreme and varied. A few friends, New Yorkers all, simply sigh and say as quietly as if they were afraid that an abusive spouse might be listening: Good for you. Then there are the shocked and appalled. "Oh, no, you can't mean it!" shrieked my dear friend G. from Stuttgart. "You can't mean you're selling The Apartment!" The Apartment. That's when I realized that people all over the world thought of my apartment as The Apartment. When G. first saw The Apartment, it had large fissures in the plaster walls, several of the doors did not close and I badly needed to get the tub refinished, among other things. But to her, The Apartment was a key component of her New York Dream, fissures, messed up bathtub and all. How romantic! That is if you don't have to live there on a regular basis. For her and others like her, the name New York is whispered like a prayer, and their sense of awe for my city is comparable only to their enthusiasm for all things Native American.

My city. There, I said it again.

The series of events that have pushed me to the precipice of decamping from the Center of the Universe include 9/11, touring with my band overseas, coming home again because I missed it, and falling finally and completely in love with a great man. It's amazing how long it takes just find out where you belong on the Earth, especially if you're a card-carrying citizen of this country of pioneers, backpackers and space travelers. And once the seed that I needed to leave New York started to irritate my mind, it was inevitable that I would have to go before long. But actually doing it? Well, that's another matter.

Synchronicities blossom all around you when your heart makes a really big decision, and I'll tell you about some of them as they happen to me. For now, I am in-between in all things. Between here and elsewhere, between single and partnered, between the known and the unknown, between the shadow of the New York City dream of my youth, and a less shiny but more coherent dream that is as yet a total stranger to me. I am stuck at the moment between the tiny persistent voice in my heart that has always yearned for forests, fields and waterfalls, and the brasher, louder siren song that still lusts after a really big collection of shiny, brass rings. The new dream, still gestating, feels more sustainable, more real somehow. And I am thinking now that I cannot give birth to it in this place.

This story isn't just about leaving the biggest, baddest city in the world: It's about finally learning to say goodbye in general. It's about learning to call it quits when things don't work. It's about leaving the middle for the sides. It's about sliding that long needle into the shiny red balloon of one's biggest illusions. It's about unloading a ton of stuff. It's about saying goodbye to these people, places, smells and tastes and all their sweet and funky gifts. And it's about me, groping my way half-blind but full of a new sense of hope, as I stumble forward to find out who I will be after I break up with New York City.

(Photo by Rebecca Chiappone)