Friday, December 30, 2011


He stands four-square, his big head slightly lowered, floppy ears akimbo and his great dark eyes tilted up, focused entirely on me.

"Come!" I command, in the sharp authoritarian tone of voice I've been taught to use by the professional trainers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Now, again, in a slightly higher tone, "Come, Carter, come!" And I crouch a bit, arms wide, a big smile on my face. Oh, that gets his engine running! Here he comes, galloping straight at me, thinking no words, expecting no thing: Perfect enthusiasm and trust on four legs.

 "Goodoggoodoggoodaaawg," I enthuse, rubbing his head, his shoulder blades, his broad white chest. "gooooooddog!"
Carter is my first dog.

He is not my husband FF's first , though. FF was brought up with dogs, had dogs in his previous marriage, and indeed has certain dog characteristics himself, all of them positive, like loyalty and razor sharp intuition about how I am feeling in any given moment. How did the word 'dog' come into negative use in modern parlance anyway? It's a usage based on sexual politics and invented, I believe, by people who don't understand dogs and are apt to abuse them.  Thanks to Carter, to me the word 'dog' is synonymous with the word 'good'.

I spotted him on a flyer in one of our local diners and was mysteriously and immediately attracted to his big black nose and huge dark eye sockets. A few days later, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I sat on the floor of his foster family's apartment with all 48 pounds of him seductively curled in my lap, leaning his great heavy skull against mine, breathing and snuffling into my ear.  I was utterly taken by him as I have rarely ever been taken by another living being, with no words exchanged, only a kind of Super Soul Meet in which I understood that this creature was utterly innocent and one hundred percent good. When we returned to our car that night without him, I burst into tears: There was no other option than that Carter should come to live with us.

Carter is about a year and a bit old. He was rounded up by Animal Control here in Piedmont, lived in an Animal Control shelter for a while, and then was boarded by a foster family for six months.  He owes his life to an unbroken chain of generous humans who quietly fought for him and believed that he ought to keep on living. He has had three names in the course of his short existence, so we let him keep the last one they gave him to spare him more changes. He's good-looking and smart, and we can't quite figure out how it is that he managed to stick around without being adopted for almost six months: He was waiting, apparently, for us. He was waiting for me.

Carter is a great dog; he is also a clear sign of my successful breakup with New York. It would have been both impractical and also unkind to keep this jumping, running, digging tribute to animal grace in a fourth floor walk-up apartment. Furthermore, we never would've found a dog like Carter in New York City: this mix-up of Akita, bull terrier, and typical Southern hound dog is a product of the liberal propagation of dog genes that occurs only in wider spaces and warmer climates. Carter, FF, this house and this garden are the tap roots I am  sinking down, the visible artifacts of a decision made to become part of this place that is so very far away from the winter cold of Tiny Town, so very far from the hard, punishing surfaces of Manhattan where I strove for so many years. I look around me at the evidence of the work we've been doing here in the house and on the property and I know I've made some intelligent decisions lately.

I hear Carter's trademark shake in the other room: 7, exactly 7, shakes of the head and body that make his dog tags jingle-jangle. He's letting us know he's on the move, making sure where we are, checking what's going on outside. During these last two and a half months of forming our pack of three, Carter has come to see FF and me as his leaders, the givers of all good things, of all correction and praise. He wakes us in the morning, and he doesn't go to bed until he knows we've retired too, no matter how sleepy he is.  He greets us when we return home with sustained enthusiasm evident in every tensed and quivering muscle that wants to jump up but has learned not to; he follows us down to the TV room at night, curling up between us and falling into a contented sleep. He knows what good is: praise, food, sleep, running, digging, sunshine, play, being together with the pack.

They say dogs don't think. Not like you and I do, anyhow. But Carter thinks and I know he does because we watch him trying to decide if he's going to obey a command he knows -- or not; we see him design squirrel catching strategies of different types and then modify them when they don't work; and his quick cleaving to our daily routines shows me his brain is working just fine. What he doesn't do is worry about tomorrow, dwell on the yesterday or have moral dilemmas. Training him requires me to be aware of his enviably straightforward world view, and be utterly connected to what can be understood without language; no assumptions can be made, consistency and clarity are the foundation of our relationship. Carter gives me big clues about how I might be a better friend and a better person.

Carter is also, oddly enough, helping me to become a better language teacher. In the first month or so of training him, I had regular epiphanies about how to work better with my students and I started to emphasize techniques I was using with Carter in my work with the human students.  Among these techniques are:

  • Be consistent.
  • Smile a lot.
  • Repeat a lot.
  • Always reward good performance clearly.
  • Always indicate poor performance clearly.
  • Make sure the rules of the game are clear.
  • Don't make the game too complex.
  • Treat each element of a complex game as a skill in itself and practice it separately.
  • Don't play any game for too long.
  • Use body language carefully and with purpose.
  • And be consistent.

I already knew these ideas from 20-plus years of teaching, but Carter is helping me become more careful still because, unlike my human students who have an ego involvement in trying to be right, he invariably and shamelessly shows me immediately when I've screwed up as a teacher. Watching him, I've become more alert to my students' expressions and body language to figure out when I need to make an adjustment.

Carter is out in the yard now, enjoying the bright Piedmont sun, still trying to catch a squirrel. It's been two and half months and he hasn't caught one yet, but still he tries. I wonder at his optimism, his ability to remain stock still for as much as 15-20 minutes. Soon, I'll go out and we'll play a game in the backyard, and once again his doggy world will blend with my human one, each soul become finer for the time spent together.

Come, Carter, come!  Good dog.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Growing Season

Comes the Growing Season.

And in Piedmont the autumn nights are chill and pungent with pitch and cut wood.  Our shortened days shine in shades of true green, deep blue and butter yellow like Kodachrome memories of my Idaho childhood summers. Sometimes, a steady, massaging rain falls and percolates through the pine needles, the sandy loam and the firm nutritious clay, deep into the forest where you can hear the trees drinking deep while occasionally shaking themselves clean of golden leaves. More often, the sun shines and warms the steaming garden soil causing roots to expand in the dark mulch. This is the Growing Season.

When we first got here, weary from our titanic moves from the New York City fourth floor walk-up to Tiny Town PA, and then from Tiny Town to Piedmont (half a world away), the singeing summer sun was on high broil. Piedmonters, who are steeped in Southern hospitality (which is real,  not some sort of kabuki mask as some Northerners would have you believe) apologized for the heat as if they themselves had been remiss and had left the thermostat up. It's not always like this, they said, mopping their brows in late July. You just wait, yes, you just wait 'til autumn! Why it's like a second spring 'round here!

Our turnip greens.
In September in Piedmont, everyone plants pansies and it's said that their multicolored petticoats will last through December. Lawns are fed and seeded,  bushes and trees are pruned hard, and winter gardens are 'put in'. On our .79 acre and without benefit of mule, we have been working hard all summer and fall alongside our gardener Pinewood L. Palustris and his intense, silent Chiapan sidekicks Bendito and Jesús. It was Pinewood who first mentioned Winter Gardens, a term that for me had always before signified a concert venue in the Financial District of New York City. One day in late August gazing around the yard he said, "Well I guess it's time y'all be wantin' to put in the winter garden," and of course we obediently did; Pinewood is a descendant of the Piedmont's African Cherokees, and we follow his instructions to the letter.

Pinewood smiled tolerantly when he saw how many kale and cabbage seedlings I had bought; he knew it was too much. He showed up one morning unannounced and spread some secret seeds in the the dark, humid soil of the fenced-in vegetable garden. They sprouted within hours, glow-in-the-dark green and promising good things. It's a collection of root vegetables, he told me, probably some turnips and I don't know what else. Within weeks we began to harvest the intense green leaves,  and we marveled at their tenderness and slight peppery taste when cooked parboiled and then sauteed with butter and garlic.

In the growing season the deer and other forest creatures are in rut, and in the early morning and even sometimes in the slanting sun of late afternoon they stand in our forest, still as plaster statues, watching us, unmoved even by the dog's attention. A red fox has taken to pacing the length of one of our fences. And suddenly hundreds of squirrels have descended upon us, as if brought in by buses to winter here. The bird population changes and grows, but the feeder won't be necessary until later because there's an abundant harvest of grubs and seeds for them; by November, petite acorns from the willow oaks stud the ground everywhere. Rabbits lope easily across the back lawn at dawn's early light. This is the Growing Season, when the gentle rains bless the earth and everyone drinks his fill. Cool nights smell of rosemary and pine and promise comfort and joy.

But how to break the habit of seasonal dread? The patterns of 22 years in New York City are built into my bone and muscle and I feel my spirit begin to contract with the old morbid fear of the harsh, concrete freeze to come even as my new garden expands into the soft Piedmont earth, here and now. I feel my habitual resentment of the coming winter and it persists in my spirit, conflicting with my actual knowledge that I have in fact escaped to a kinder, gentler place. It's as if the shortening daylight flips a fear and loathing switch in me that won't quite turn off despite my current circumstances;  I remain alert to this old emotion, stomping out the bitter embers of the bad mood that habitually creeps upon me at this time of year, cleaning it off me every morning so that I don't poison the innocent creatures growing in my southern garden with my own dark, vestigial emotion. Slowly, Piedmont is taming me to see that the world's not so harsh after all.

Remember: There will be no blocks long sheets of ice to walk to work on this year; there will be no layers of  always slightly sodden and smelling woolens, no grim-faced struggles against the unnatural wind gusts slicing through the iced canyons of downtown, the bitter winds that sucker punch pedestrians just for fun and offer constant resistance to every muscle in one's body. There will be no more resentful throngs jockeying for position as they stand waiting for ever-fewer and every-later subway trains on the frigid, filthy platforms. There will be no exhausted trek at the end of the day up four flights of puddled stairs to my small cell of safety, no brooding sense of the dark destruction of all life that turns one uselessly existential. I must remember: This is the Growing Season.

I must remember that here in Piedmont it's the Growing Season, and that we are working the earth. Here in Piedmont, the soil responds to our efforts; it gives us food. There is so much to do, that there is barely time or desire to write about it, a sure sign of contentment. We are writing our lives in this soil, planting our very selves in the woody stalks of pruned lagustrum and nandina, and the new mounds of turned earth around our young fruit trees; we participate in the great process of the earth with inexperienced but eager fingers and, sniffing the fragrant southern air, we slowly train ourselves to believe that it is safe to relax into this dark, soft, southern winter night.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Watching New York from Afar on 9/11.

It's 10:09 a.m., and we're in Piedmont having turkey sausage biscuits and coffee for Sunday breakfast. The 9/11 memorial service is on TV, and New York City feels so very long ago and far away. I realize that I don't know that place anymore, that site where AG and I played music for the relief workers in the big white tent in the weeks after the towers fell, in those days when every other song we sang took on an unexpectedly tragic tone. I never visited the memorial later. Didn't want to.  Now, I breathe a great sigh of relief that FF and I have found a safe nest far, far away from the City. New York City, 10 years and two wars later.

Photo: AFP
Ten years ago today after the first tower fell, I walked 92 blocks from Chambers Street back to the Upper West Side and waited on the stoop hoping that AG would materialize eventually. It was a preternaturally crystalline blue fall day. And in the street were delivery boys and pastel mommies pushing strollers mixed in with bedraggled business people clutching odd assortments of office stuff, women in bare feet and ripped pantyhose, and bewildered men covered in soot. I did not have the strength to walk the next 63 blocks to my apartment in Harlem, and all the phones were down. If I didn't wait there on his stoop, I wouldn't know if AG was OK or not. So when he came galloping around the corner covered in sweat, I was profoundly grateful and relieved.

Stark fear kept AG and I inside that apartment for two days. For two days we stayed inside, as the plume of black smoke drifted above the city like a toxic feather boa, and we talked about getting the heck out of New York City. We started that day plotting to take our songs and guitars to Europe and possibly even stay there for good.  Within two years of that day, AG and I were headed to Switzerland. We stayed for three years.

The feeling that New York City had become too much like a rat trap took root in me then, and it's a feeling that has never left me. I could no longer feel the magic of living in New York, and even after I met FF and started spending most of my time with him in Tiny Town, on my weekly trips back to New York I found myself imagining how I would escape if the bridges closed, if the tunnels collapsed, if this whole gigantic, man-eating pinball machine became broken and uninhabitable again. On the commuter train, I would meditate about how I would walk back to Tiny Town, how FF would find me -- somehow. And I knew that as long as I had chattel and business in New York City, I would continue to live with these nightmares.

I didn't want it.

When AG and I came back to the United States, it was because we missed Americans, not the city. How I love Americans! Our arguments, our passion, our humor, our music, and our magnificent diversity which is the very source of all our arguments and is also all that makes us great.  In Europe, in the beautiful historic cobble-stoned towns, on the modern high-speed trains that we took from gig to gig,  life felt harmonious and socially advanced. We played music for astonishingly well-disciplined and well-socialized Europeans who seem so adult and well-mannered compared to Americans, and who paid so well for music. I kept experimenting with the thought of living the rest of my life over there. But despite Europe's beauty and romance, despite the comforting order and sheer social intelligence of Europe, I couldn't see myself fitting in there. I missed America like a lost tooth. Or, rather, I missed Americans. And I wanted to go home.

Today, Vice President Joe Biden gave probably the best speech of his life to the assembled mourners at the memorial park in front of the Pentagon in Washington D.C., He said, "The true source of American Power does not lie within that building; we draw our strength from the rich tapestry of our people." He spoke about the courage that lies within the heart of every person and how it is right that sometimes that courage must be summoned as it was on September 11, 10 years ago. He spoke of the irreplaceable nature of every person who was lost on that day, and as he choked up you could tell that he was thinking of his own irreplaceable loved ones lost in an auto accident on another less spectacular but still terrible day so many years ago.

We all love and we all lose.  Every day. The hero that lies waiting within each of us of whom Biden spoke is honorable, whether or not we are the ones called upon to race up the stairs of an inferno to save someone's life. It is the tragedy of our condition that someday all heroes must die, that we all must die.

I would argue that it ultimately doesn't matter when or how or where you lost your beloved.  We project ourselves into the experiences of other people, especially those whom we love, and it hurts to think that they hurt, makes us cry to think that they suffer. Have we developed the wisdom yet to project ourselves into the experiences of people who are not like us, and to feel their pain as keenly as we do our own? And if not, why not?

It seems to me as I watch these ceremonies on TV on this 10th anniversary, that there are less people crying out there in audience, less people weeping as they read the names of the dead. That's good. As a little boy who lost his Dad in the towers said "I get a little agitated sometimes, because I don't want to be known as someone directly affected by 9/11: I want to be known for who I am." What wisdom! May the adults take heed, and begin to lay to rest our culture of victim-hood. May we heed the words of this child and ease his burden. Let us know that it's wise to heal and it's strength to accept and go on, released of the binding chains of suffering while informed by its lessons. I hope that this 10th anniversary comes with a lessening of pain in the world, not just in America, and that the culture of victimhood that sprang up in the years following 9/11 will begin to fade away. Hanging onto anger and to hurt is ultimately not a creative act. It is possible to honor heroes without suffering their passing, just as it is possible, and necessary, to make justice without vengeance.  If we don't, September 11's will continue to happen both here and around the world until we perish from this Earth.

1 World Trade Center is finally going up. Mayor Bloomberg calls it  a "symbol of our freedom," which to me is an absurdity. The Twin Towers were as this new tower will be, a symbol of American money and power, which is exactly why terrorists attacked them in the first place. It would behoove us to start telling more truths, and to be more clear-minded about who we really are. It would behoove us to get our symbols right, and to understand that freedom is not something that you build with steel and concrete but rather with wisdom, compassion and truth and by defending the rights of your neighbor as ferociously as you would defend your own.

I fear that in our passion and our willingness to be led by flag-wavers, we Americans are setting ourselves up to ignore the lessons of 9/11. What if we get it wrong again? What if we become only more arrogant, and not more wise? What if we become more deluded, and not more clear-headed about the world and its problems? What if we never learn that our very survival as a species depends upon us caring as much about the suffering of a child in Iraq as the suffering of a child in New York City?

In Piedmont, it's a sunny day. Here, I am as safe and happy as I have ever been in my life. The New York City apartment is now sold, Tiny Town is behind us, and I have FF by my side here at our peaceful homestead in the Carolina forest. In a material sense, the break up with New York is complete.

Behind me, the muted television continues to flash terrible images of a decade ago interspersed with views of New York City today, where clean reflecting pools and flowers fill the space that once was all fire, smoke and ruins.  Our big kitchen windows look out on a green lawn, and the winter garden is sprouting kale and cabbage in the autumn sun. The piney forest stretches out beyond, filled with the hum of living things. I will go out there to the forest today with my gloves and tools. I will go to tend to the Garden. And if I remember the places I've left behind, it will be with love.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane in Piedmont

There was a moment this hurricane weekend when I thought, "I am afraid".

We have only owned this house in Piedmont for two months and we've lived in it for only six weeks. We only just got the custom blinds installed in the kitchen, and I know hurricanes: They mess stuff up.

When I was poor and landless and living in New York City, I loved hurricanes. I loved the mess they made, the hole they tore in the control freakiness of the big city. Once, I spent a weekend on Fire Island in the teeth of one of them, running around on the beach nearly naked, screaming challenges at the wind, and then creeping along the boardwalks behind the dunes where tiny white-tail deer were waiting motionless in the swamp for the storm to pass. I rejoiced then in the destructive force of the wind. I didn't worry about getting hurt, or things getting hurt.

But I have lost that urban brashness. Now I have something of serious worth that the hurricane could take from me. Now I am different. I have trees.

As we stowed the patio furniture, stacked the cushions in the living room, and packed the two-car brick garage tight with our two cars and everything else that might turn into a missile in high wind, what tore at my heart was the trees, these magnificent trees that have enchanted me from the first time we drove up to our new house. We have only just met each other, these trees and I. There are huge, mature willow oaks at the front and back, venerable natives of North Carolina with great, grey trunks. There are girly pink, bobblehead crape myrtles in the backyard with their slick, peeling skins, and the fluttering, lacy dogwoods who gather beneath the oak canopy. There's the row of Leyland cypress which somebody planted too close together some years ago along the northern border of our property and which I've promised to prune hard come fall, and there's the spindly, young pear tree standing tentatively next to the back deck. And then there are those old men, the native North Carolina long needle pines, straight backed giants in the woods out back, and our squat, bodacious Brunswick fig with its leaves like big flat hands, blowsily overspilling its protected spot in back of the garage. And there, there by the back gate, is the bay tree standing spit-shined and dark green, stiff like an obedient schoolboy in his brand new suit.

I cannot protect them from the hurricane. Neither, with all of our preparations, can we protect ourselves from this storm if she wants to take us. But in my heart, it's the trees, the trees. Will the trees make it through?

Before the storm, the air goes quite still. For a day before it hits, a gray wetness hangs in the air making the atmosphere heavy and motionless. The birds go silent, group by group, and all crawling and flying things shut down for business except for the frogs that start gathering closer in to the house, one very large one even appearing at a kitchen window as if sent by the amphibian world to warn us. Storm, says the frog with his googly eyes. And then he disappears into the bushes. Soon then come the wet globs of something not really rain, just drops of sweat flung from the brow of this monster dancer, hurricane Irene.

FF occupies himself assembling the new wet vac, taking the battery powered sump on a test run and reading the directions for our last line of defense against wet basement: the hand operated bilge pump. I flit and fret around the house filling water bottles and bathtubs, feeling unsettled, and worrying for the trees. In the calm before the storm they go still, gathering themselves as if taking a big, collective arboreal breath. And when the wind gusts start up, we watch as their great crowns sway and bend with the wind, tossing leaf clusters, dry twigs and needles down to the ground like candies from some massive piñata. The noble wood, more flexible than we could imagine, bends and bends hard. But it does not break. And Irene, who capriciously decides to pirouette just enough to the East to save us all, leaves the sky a wooly white, throws some trash on the ground and turns her attentions elsewhere.

Piedmont, it seems was just out of reach. And while the coast was slammed, we were merely put through our paces. Irene laughs as she lumbers on, gathering her wide skirts around her. The TV maps show her moving north, towards our friends and family up Virginia way and on to Tiny Town and New York City where some await her, huddled in apartments. There in New York City mass transit is shutting down and people are evacuating from low lying areas. I think of my friends, stuck uptown by the closed GW bridge and the shut-down subway system, and I am concerned. But my heart also does a little happy dance that I am here worrying about trees, and not there depending on the works of man to save me.

I am in Piedmont where people handle storms with chainsaws and and generators. I am in Piedmont, where the forest and the hills are my fortress, and where the trees are braver and wiser than I shall ever be.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Harlem to Hayti: In Which I Discover That I Have Stumbled Into Another Great Black American City

My reading list is a trail of breadcrumbs set out for me by an unknown and apparently all-knowing hand. The choices in books I make are driven sometimes by nostalgia and comfort, sometimes by curiosity, and lately (though indirectly) by The BlogLily Summer Reading Program (this week's category is Men's Genre). At the best of times my library is a collection of bottled messages that hint about the journey I am on in this life. This week, Lewis Shiner's historical novel Black & White was just such a message in a bottle.

Here in Piedmont the rain is falling this weekend, soft and gentle. The summer rain here changes plans, but it's not unwelcome. I have been comparing temperatures during our last month here, and so far there's been not one day that's been significantly hotter than it was on the same day in Tiny Town, eight hours to the north. Indeed, because of the foothills we're in and the old mountains two hours to the west, it goes cooler at night and the humidity is never as oppressive as it was along the banks of the mighty Delaware. And it's never, ever as overwhelming as it was inside the concrete canyons of New York City.

But the sun. Well, this Dixie sun is something else. Piedmont sun is brash and unforgiving. It will take you down for the count in fifteen minutes or less if you let it. The Piedmont sun irradiates this red clay earth and bakes it until it cracks and screams for mercy. It makes the stones sing, stills the trees and hushes the birds and cicadas. You watch your flower beds wilt so fast it's as if your eyes had become stop-motion cameras, and only those ancient, great grandaddies, the Carolina long needle pines, appear unperturbed. You can imagine how that sun brought people to a boil in the summer of 1968 (the summer after Martin Luther King was assassinated) in Harlem and down here in our new home which, for literary purposes, I call Piedmont.

Reading Lewis Shiner's novel Black & White this week, I found out that our house is a short drive from one of the most promising black metropolises America ever had: It was called Hayti, named after the country of nearly the same spelling, but here in the South it is pronounced HATE-eye as Shiner significantly points out in the first chapter. If you try the sound of Hayti on your tongue a few times, you will also get it that this book is not only about the rough and tumble racial and economic history of Durham NC, apex of the Research Triangle, but that it's also an exploration of the self-hate and shame that are fundamental components of the psychologies of both racists and and their victims.

As in Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer (see last post), everyone in Black & White ends up related to everyone else, though in this book the biological links happen through incest, rape and infidelity rather than more cheerful biological urge. That sort of neatness, tied up in a nice bow by the end of the novel, might annoy you if you're feeling critical because after all life almost never happens just that way. But fiction don't aim at being life: It's designed to tell a story that goes beyond the often boring facts of regular life, and to reach toward a bigger thought. In this book, one of the bigger thoughts is that Urban Renewal was the inheritor of the spirit of Jim Crow: By leveling the old black neighborhood of Hayti to make way for highways and the broken promised of modern housing, the emerging Black American middle class in Durham, its self-sustaining economy and its vibrant culture was cynically and purposefully dealt a terrible blow.

The other big message of the book is that truth is not neat or well-ordered, and that black and white are just cartoon lines we draw in our minds to make reality easier to think about. The adjectives by which we group and segregate people like white and black, poor and rich, bastard or legitimate do not offer us any useful understanding when it comes to having relationships with real people.

In our story, (white) cartoon artist Michael discovers that his (white) dying engineer father Robert reluctantly participated in the flattening of the vibrant Hayti neighborhood of Durham NC to make way for the highway system being built in the 60s to connect the points of the newly-emerging Research Triangle. Reluctantly, Robert became part of the broken promise to build newer, better housing for the black residents of Hayti while he simultaneously fell in love with it and its (black) people, particularly a beautiful (black) voodoo priestess ironically named Mercy. It doesn't ruin the story if I tell you that Michael finds out in the course of investigating his dying father's past that he is color challenged, and that he falls in love with a charming (black) woman who runs the Hayti Heritage Center where, in modern times, the archives of the long-gone black metropolis are kept.

Parts of this fictional history are truly black and white and indisputable. The hand of organized racism continues to meddle in the affairs of the South and, indeed, the nation. Hayti existed in Durham, and now where it was there are restaurants, highways, and a baseball stadium. The summer of 1968 was a boiler all over America as black revolutionary groups decided it was time to take up arms. And yes, there probably are black revolutionaries like the book's Howard Barrett mummified in the cement pilings of bridges along with others like Jimmy Hoffa. Hell, the NJ Turnpike is probably one big mausoleum, if you think about it! And the careful narrative of Piedmont places and things in the book made for the best topographic introduction to our new home that I could have asked for.

That said, there are parts of the book that seem too cartoony, as when Michael naively wonders why you are considered black if you have even one drop of black blood in you. And why can't someone declare himself white for the same reason? Well, Michael, that would be because of slavery and the peculiar "one drop rule" invented by slave owners to assure that their own progeny born of their female slaves stayed their property. That rather obvious fact aside, the one drop reference is echoed later on when Michael can't seem to get the open-armed welcome he'd hoped for from the black people he befriends who aren't that ready to accept him as black, either. They make the same error, though for more understandable reasons of self-preservation, of suggesting that racial categories are actually useful for determining who should be your friend. Shiner implies a discussion going forward about how America should proceed as racial categorization becomes ever more impossible to usefully or truthfully declare on Ye Olde Census Forme. Could it be that it's time to just love one another, right now?

Regrettably, though, hate so often seems to have more force and staying power than love, no matter how earth-shattering that love may be. That is a proposition that I certainly fight against in my heart, as does Ruth, Michael's (white) mother. Ruth, daughter of the local klan-type wizard, ends up being the best-drawn character in the book and goes from being the most unsympathetic person ever to someone with tremendous depth of suffering and endurance. Ruth is ultimately shown to be the biggest warrior for the power and endurance of love in the book.

It is an interesting, and pretty convincing, argument that Urban Renewal was a tool of racists to mow down the burgeoning black economies in the South and in New York City (I am thinking also now of the Cross Bronx Expressway). Harlem, where I lived for over a decade somehow avoided the wrecking ball for the most part, and I hereby make a promise to myself to read up on why. If an aggressive desire to wipe out increasingly independent and prosperous black communities was part of the inspiration for Urban Renewal as Shiner proposes, then there must also have been an element of simply not valuing black culture, too. The (white) folks in charge of the building of highways, bridges and skyscrapers put them up where it made the most economic and geographical sense. Or was the destruction of these places indeed a more cynical and deliberate war against Black America? Or does it even really matter?

Out of our destruction comes rebirth, Shiner seems to say. Time, love and hate mold our environment and alter our gene pools, yes, but eventually we will have to die to our desire to see life in cartoon black and white if we are ever going to enter the Promised Land.

When the rain comes to Piedmont on one of these soft gray days, every living thing relaxes. The magnolias open their glossy plate-sized leaves to catch the water, and the long stalks of the Rose of Sharon bob up and down in the mist saying "yes, yes, yes". The silver gray daylight is punctuated by brief spots of sun that show that the grass has gone emerald and has grown half an inch overnight. Only the Carolina long needle pines are unmoved, unchanging, slow growing in rain or shine. The pines wait patiently for the destroying fire that they need to burn them down to the ground and make the soil just right for the germination of their hard, indestructible, primordial seeds, in their slow-motion, eternal dance of love.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lush Tapestries and Scary Basements: Reading Kingsolver and Sebold, side-by-side

I don't typically take such a businesslike approach to my reading, but since I am enrolled in the BlogLily Summer Reading Program I really have to keep on a tight schedule. The notion that summer might end without my having read the required 8 books in 8 categories is unacceptable to me, and anyway I am deriving great internal comfort from the exquisite demands of the Program. I am a freelancer and every effort I have made since 1989 has been at my own behest and it is nice to have someone else issuing the marching orders for a change. In The Summer Reading Program, Lily is in charge.

The outline of the Program is helpful. Instructions are given. And though the directions can be interpreted broadly, they provide a clear direction. While executing these directions, interesting things happen. A marble is pitched into the circle, hitting another marble and then another. Nothing is random.

Assignment by BlogLily: Read a book recommended by a librarian.

I had lived in Piedmont for a total of ten days and actually had to locate the library first. I found a branch which interested me because of its proximity and also its brag that it has the largest collection of books by African Americans in the country, so I applied for a library card. It was difficult to get the card because my Piedmont Electric bill does not bear the same name as my maiden name on driver's license, but I got the card anyway thanks to the mercies of an older librarian who clearly did not want to deal with me having a snit at her desk that hot afternoon. After that sweaty episode I asked the much younger assistant librarian for a recommendation.

Mariah, the assistant librarian, is stunning. Her café au lait complexion, enormous gray eyes, gently dimpled chin, and serious expression were frankly unsettling to me. Beauty sometimes is. I have stood in the Louvre weeping at the sight of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. Mariah's exquisite self was clothed in a nondescript gray pencil skirt, blue cotton t-shirt and an anonymous-looking blue cardigan. The plainness of her garb was like a toss away, the absolute certification that either she didn't know she was beautiful or, better, didn't care. I noticed that her fingernails were carefully trimmed and naturally very white at the tips which turned up at the ends like Dutch clogs, and I couldn't stop staring at them as she processed my library card application. When she handed me the card, I asked her for a book recommendation, and watched transfixed as she inserted one curly, white-tipped finger into the corner of her mouth and thought carefully. "Come this way," she said finally, and led me to fiction, K. "Prodigal Summer" by Barbara Kingsolver was her recommendation.

Lush and beautiful are the best words to describe this tour de force novel. I am sure you've all read it, but I hadn't read any Kingsolver. Having just moved to the thrumming, buzzing, fecund forests of Piedmont, I wallowed in this book and its images. But more than just loving it, I admire it for its formality and unashamed clarity of message. Yes, there are moments when the novel's carefully woven story lines about mating, hunting and forming mutual protection groups feel way too pat and preachy. And except for their differing ages and geographical locations, the three main women characters in the book might be the exact same person: Deanna the ranger who takes the side of coyotes over her own mate; Lusa the lepidopterist, who is widowed young by her farmer husband who had used poisons to kill insects and kills honeysuckle; and Nannie Rawley, the elderly but spirited apple grower who gets on just fine without a man. All these are utterly self-determined Earth Women who don't really need the galumphing men around them much, and who are much more in tune with the interconnectedness and magic of nature than their gun-toting, pesticide spraying male counterparts.

But after I relaxed into the world of Zebulon Mountain, after I gave in, true admiration set in. Kingsolver's book is a formal composition in which the interconnectedness of all life is a theme that is expressed in different ways, rather like a simple melody is embellished in the movements of a symphony. The interconnected stories weave a lush tapestry that, after all, makes sense and it very entertaining to read. She has a flawless ear for her characters' internal conversations, and I loved learning about the ways of coyotes, moths, American elms, cockle burrs and a variety of other things that Kingsolver describes with great precision and detail. Also fun is that the sex scenes are quite yummy. After I read the sweaty opening mating scene between Deanna and her much younger lover, I kept turning to the demure photo of Kingsolver on the back cover and wondering where in heaven's name she came up with this hot stuff. What we don't know about lady authors could, well, fill a book!

The New York Times really slammed this novel when it came out. Snootily, Jennifer Schuessler wrote:

''Prodigal Summer'' has its plot twists, few of them surprising. As in any ecosystem (and any soap opera), everybody turns out to be related to everybody else, and just about everyone's fate is determined by the aftershocks of a collision of sperm and egg. Lusa comes up with a novel solution to the Darwinist's famous problem of explaining altruism, and Deanna realizes she may not be the evolutionary ''dead weight'' she has imagined. In the end the expendable males have disappeared, and the women and children band together in their own blended families, like the coyotes of Zebulon Mountain. This may be an attractive fable, but it doesn't make for the kind of psychologically complex literature Kingsolver is well capable of. Biology may be destiny in the forest, but good fiction -- like good sex -- happens mostly in the head.
As someone who has broken up with New York, I also reject Jennifer Schuessler's whole anti-fable trip. Am I nuts? I have read the last sentence of that paragraph about twenty times and I still can't get what the hell she's trying to say. Sex also happens in the good old flesh, Jennifer! And what, pray tell, is psychologically complex enough? Did she not find the sex in this book good? Or did everything in this book just end up too sort of happy and OK to be good writing? Clearly I am missing her point.
BlogLily Assignment: Read a book in Women's Genre
I have a notion that "psychologically complex" for many modern critics might be Helen in Alice Sebold's novel "The Almost Moon". This is what I took out of the library after turning in Prodigal Summer as my "woman's genre" choice. I figured it must be women's genre because of Lucky, the story of her own rape which I read years ago. I am telling you true when I write that Moon is the first novel EVER that I nearly gave up on in the first 10 pages, despite its being very well-written. First of all, it's depressing as hell. Second of all, there were places, landmarks and human frailties in the book that felt a bit too eerily close to some crumpled pages in my own life to feel happy reading about them in a novel. Enough said.
Yes, books about screwed up people and the horrific acts committed by them in the bright, clean light of suburban America are ones I generally want to avoid. I think that for a lot of literary critics declaiming from on high at important magazines and newspapers, however, "screwed up" is synonymous with "interesting" and "psychologically complex". I often felt when I was living in New York that unless I suffered from some awful, life-destroying mental problem, I could not possibly be spotted as noteworthy or interesting. I worked at Interview Magazine and, believe me, I know what I'm talking about. Interestingly, the further from New York I get, the more interesting other people seem to find me despite the fact that I am less screwed up than I used to be. Here in Piedmont, it appears that many people think that just being kind and pleasant is quite enough without being, well, Interesting.
In "The Almost Moon", the central screw-up is Helen's mother Claire Knightley whose agoraphobia and obvious narcissism make her an awful mother and wife, and even cause her to allow a little boy who's been hit by a car to die in the street because she simply cannot move outside her property line to help him. Helen, Claire Knightley 's damaged daughter, does her best to become a wife and mother, but ends up getting divorced, having iffy relationships with her own daughters, and smothering Mom to death with a hand towel and stashing her in the basement. This horrific act happens quite early in the book and is the only really positive attempt to help herself that Helen attempts in the the whole rest of the novel. The father is passive, helpless in the face of his life and his wife, and he lives a shadow life in his destroyed boyhood home which he populates with wooden sculptures of the people in his life. Creepy.
Yes, I almost closed this book forever. After all, who needs to add more ugly to life? This book was all death, as much death as Prodigal Summer is all life, and I really like life better. That said, after setting it aside, I picked up Moon again. And again. Because Sebold is such a very good writer that she seduces you into a kind of lull in which you feel that the outlandishly bad world of her characters is really not so abnormal after all. In that hallucinatory lull, you can really appreciate Sebold's stand-up good writing skills, and before you know it, you've reached the end of the book which is, mercifully, short.
Would I recommend Prodigal Summer to a friend? Yes, absolutely. It's like a warm bath in pheromones and honey. What about The Almost Moon? Yup, as long as the friend has been in therapy for at least 6 years.
Did I learn anything from Prodigal Summer? Yes. I learned about coyotes, moths, goats, elm trees, and lots of other cool things. Lesson from The Almost Moon: If having crazy parents is awful, killing your Mom with a hand towel is even worse.
Painting: "Coyote", Marilyn McQuarrie

Friday, August 5, 2011

Going on about things elsewhere

Not apparently content with writing about my interior world in Breaking Up With New York, I have gotten involved with a new community where interesting things happen and where I am having conversations about the outside world. I recommend HASTAC to those who want to get in on the fun! I defend the Virtual Plaza here. Some resent my defense.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Whatever I Want

I am subscribed to BlogLily's Summer Reading Program and I recommend that you subscribe as well. It is free. If Lily has more packets left, you will get one in the mail and start your lovely, literary summer trip, keeping a list of your reads like you haven't done since you were in gradeschool. You must read (at least) 8 books before the summer is over and, one hopes, write something about each one of them. I am not sure what date Lily marks as the end of summer, she did not say. I am shooting for finishing my 8 books by the end of August, but you may wish to inquire with her further.

I received my packet from the BlogLily Summer reading program in the mail, and put it on the kitchen windowsill where I could see it often. I left it unopened for two days in order to heighten my excitement. I waited for a quiet, sunny early morning, until I was alone with a hot cup of coffee, before I slit open the envelope with a real letter opener and sorted through the contents. I am impressed with the small patches of stick-on Velcro that hold the little handmade booklet closed, and I am impressed also with the carefully constructed little paper triangle that you slip over the top corner to keep it all neat together. The glassine sleeve, reminiscent of those used to protect the fragile outer-skins of aged and fragile books, was the piece de resistance, making of the booklet and its accompanying bookmark something clearly meant for keeping. Well done, Lily!

Naturally I, who have zig-zagged through life in a way that would make most people nauseous, started with the category "Whatever You Want". After all the hubbub of the move from Tiny Town, what I wanted most was a bit of wisdom and a pale finger pointing at the moon . So here you have it: My review of Diary of the Way: Three Paths to Enlightenment by Ira Lerner (A&W Visual Library, 1974).

First, I am delighted that a company that otherwise spends all of its time making and marketing root beer should take a moment to contemplate The Way. What fun!

Diary of the Way is not fiction, but rather a meditative medley of text and photographs that takes the reader with the author as he gets to know three Asian masters: An old Japanese man who is a judo and Aikido master; a beautiful young Chinese woman with a sad past who is an herbal healer and Qi Gong master; and a young Chinese-American man who is a Taoist and master of Tai Chi Chuan. Lerner follows his masters around the island of Hawaii where they were all living in the 1970s, and delves into their practices and lives, writing down what they say and photographing them. Ultimately, he paints very personal portraits of three very distinct, profound and memorable people.

It strikes me that while this book came out only 5 years after the Summer of Love, it doesn't have that patchouli smell or texture of fake Indian clothing that so many spiritually-oriented books of that period do. It is rather a landmark exploration for Western readers of a cultural and spiritual approach to life that was all but unknown to most people at the time and which holds up very nicely today as a kind of primer to Eastern philosophy.

What I like about this book, beside the great photographs and tasteful editing, is its refusal to be a how-to. Lerner allows his masters to make their points themselves, and he stays out of their way except to make a few, marginal editorial comments that put some of their ideas into a historical context. He is the omniscient observer, not inserting his personality much, though I got the feeling that he fell a bit in love with the herbal healer whose name, by the way, is Lily.

I also like how Lerner lets his masters be human beings, allows them to discuss their own trajectories not only in their arts but also in their personal lives. The older master who took up Aikido in his 50s is an inspiration to me. Lily, who lived under a repressive Chinese regime which "stole (her) childhood" from her, sometimes forgets to eat, works way too hard, and occasionally regresses to the childhood she never had, hiding in her favorite peach tree and refusing to come down. The young Taoist master is a classic portrait of the first generation Chinese-American who brings his ancient art to non-Asian seekers with a distinctly American flair and energy.

Ira Lerner's book is a finger pointing at the moon, not saying what to do, but merely gesturing in the direction of a path you might want to consider. Enlightenment is not a destination, the book emphasizes, but rather a journey that is won every single day by working with the raw material that fate has dealt us within the context of a discipline.

Who is this author/photographer, Ira Lerner? I have no idea and neither does anyone. I have looked for him everywhere on the web, and I do not see that he has written any other books or put forth any other works of note, though the photos in this book are really quite unusual, ranging from the purely documentary to the metaphorical level of high art. Despite Lerner's own lack of notoriety, his little book has become one of the classics of Asian spiritual practice for Westerners.

I recommend it. It will go well with a beach vacation, a curl up on the sofa on a rainy day, or as a book that you keep in your bottom drawer at the office to grab a few pages from when no one is watching.

Point Structure: I do not currently know how many points this review has gleaned me for my Summer Reading Program booklet. I know I get 10 just for writing down the title. Probably I get another 10 for blogging about it. And I should probably get 10 just for mentioning Lily's name a bunch of times and embedding a live link to her blog on this page. For now, I will imagine this effort is worth 30 points. And now I must go find my local library, which will be fun since we've only lived here for 10 days, and get myself a recommendation for a new book to read.

Good way to spend the summer, ¿nu?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In Which the Caravan of Gypsies Arrives, Quietly.

It is now officially a week that FF and I have been inhabiting our new house, placing things, installing things, washing things that couldn't get washed before we left Tiny Town, throwing things that evaded throwing before. I can see already that inhabiting a house, a house that is our own, is going to be a drawn out process and, as much as we'd like to complete the job in the span of a few days and find ourselves in richtig gut order, that desire is inconsistent with reality. No, inhabiting a house will be a longsome thing, and the house's secrets will emerge but slowly.

The move from our "big, big bed in the tiny, tiny house, in the tiny, tiny town on the BI-I-I-IG RIVER" went smoothly because of the joint forces of FF and me (hard workers, persistent packers) and our three movers from the Joseph Holy Trucking Company. Joseph Holy himself is a rosy, golden haired man, boyish in fact, who claims with a rakish grin that he is much older than he looks. He was recommended to us by a friend who was moved by Holy to Greensboro and had nothing bad to say about the experience. The other members of the Holy Moving Squad, Anthony (who drove my car down) and Faluzzo (a dark brooding man with soul and evident smarts), were rhythmic workers who punched and kidded each other like schoolboys all the way South. They kept their deal, hauling us down to our new digs without breaking one darned thing, as far as I can tell.

I had imagined that our Caravan of Gypsies would lose a few items along the way. I imagined us, a cheery band, clattering down the road with pots and pans clanging on their iron hooks against the sides of the painted wagon, a few dishes slipping out the back and crashing to the road behind us amidst howls of (our own) laughter. But as so often has happens, when I fully prepare myself for the worst with a detailed pre-story, disaster does not happen. Not that losing a plate or two, or even my beloved, spindly bedside table that Mrs. Vega brought to me when I was bedridden in Harlem, or the blown glass bowl I gave FF for Christmas that looks like primordial waters swirling through the air, would have been a disaster. But it could have hurt a bit to see a favorite thing not make it to the new house, to the new life, to the Ark that will carry us going forward.

The Ark. Perhaps that will be my name for this place, but I am not sure yet. Not at all. Our petite Georgian brick sitting demurely on nearly an acre of peaceful, wooded North Carolina land, the lot spanning the distance between Monticello and Woodridge, has not revealed it's name to me yet. She is too occupied with adjusting her sturdy haunches to the inevitable added weight of our lives, accomodating us on her resolute floor boards and sturdy old beams. She is too focused on the settling that's going on to have casual chats with me about such apparent trivialities as names. But both the house and I know that names are of great moment, and that is why we have silently agreed to wait to find hers. Don't rush! I hear her warn. All in good, good time.

I know that just a month ago the Passage family lived here with their skibble of children and tiny collie dogs. And before them, Dr. and Mrs. Johnston were here and they installed various modern conveniences in impeccable good taste. And before them, there was Judy who was good friends with the next door neighbor, the neighbor who brought us a bouquet of flowers cut from her garden last Thursday, Judy who planted a sturdy hedgerow of arbor vitae right between herself and that very same neighbor. And in the prehistoric days, before ranch houses were built, there were others who left signs of themselves buried deep in these fragrant, wooden closets and walls, buried deep in the cool cement of the basement where simple cleanings and changings of the guard never dislodged them. In our house, for it is our house now, we will find notes, marks, pieces of yellow, brittle tape stuck inside cabinet doors, papers stuck between bricks, perhaps a toy. I will find signs of them in the garden, where trees were planted and beds dug, out there beyond the dog fence in what I am now calling The Uncharted Territories, an overgrown foresty part of the property where the surveyor says there is an old wood shed, a pump-house, and what used to be a formal boxwood garden. They are still here. I can feel them. I can hear them. I will find them.

You never pass anywhere without leaving a mark, whether it's in a house or a person's heart. I want this to be a fresh start, like my fresh start with FF. I hear myself whispering to myself as I place clothes in drawers, may there never be a cross word in this house. And like all hopes and pre-histories, reality will be different. But it is good and right to try, and if one must leave marks, may they be gentle ones.

As for this town, we do not know it yet. But we sense that it has big shoulders, a strong sense of purpose, and a purposeful desire to move forward in history with long, muscular strides. We also sense that it carries in its hip pocket a Southern past, like a well-used and sweated on notebook, a Southern past with all the graceful, awkward, very beautiful and very ugly parts that that every Southern town has. We are part of the spicy swirl of outsiders coming in, the mutt-mix of harsh and OK, foreign and American, seekers and settlers. Then there are those who have always been here with their soft accents, their dangling arms, their dogs, their quick smiles and their steady, milk blue gazes. Those are the ones I am keeping an eye on most: I am wondering what they have to teach me.

The Caravan of Gypsies has arrived, oddly quiet and unbroken. Treading lightly. Watching. Alert.

Photo: Bulgaria Magura Cave Paintings,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Breaking up is (so strangely) hard to do.

How very odd.

Our break up is now official, New York. The closing of my Harlem apartment happened this week. Without me. Because I had already evaporated, New York. Sorry, I simply could not make it. And as you are well aware, the fact that I was not physically present at our final date was most definitely your fault. So, so typical of you, New York.

So very like you, New York! We had made three dates, marked in ink on our calendars. But they came and went while three lawyers, two real estate agents and a co-op Board argued and prevaricated. Finally, one of the three lawyers suggested a date that I had already said was impossible for me, so I just sighed, sucked it up, signed the POA, sent it to my lawyer and managed the break up with you. Remotely.

So amazingly typical of you, New York, that we simply could not find a mutually convenient time to meet! Next time have your people call my people, OK? You remind me of all my New York "friends" who I only "see" on Facebook because nowhere in their high-powered New York lives is there ever a free moment to meet in the flesh. Ooh so sorry! So wish I could be there! Call me soon? Love you lots. (X bloody O.) You, New York, have been consistent from beginning to end.

Until three hours before closing, I was still getting calls from your lawyer regarding changes in the contract of sale (details which cost me money, of course), but by that point I was already with FF in the car speeding purposefully towards our new life, down way south of the Delaware Welcome Center. "They want to change the XYZ to the PDQ", my lawyer said. Yeah, yeah whatever, I shot back. Just. Do. It.

So in true New York fashion, I let my person meet with your people, and he stood in for me at what might have, could have been,most certainly should have been an important and defining moment. He called me at 5:10 to let me know it was done and that he had deposited the check in my bank account. By this morning there were some extra zeroes right there in my balance, and in those cold, silent numbers was written: The End.

I had hoped for some kind of ritual to end our time together. I had hoped to pass the certificate of shares for my beloved, sunny co-op apartment to the nice French people who had bought it, perhaps offering a little speech, thanking everyone, and going out for drinks afterwards to raise a glass to you, New York. Then I would have boarded the NJ Transit express train to Trenton for the last time, and I would have enjoyed those 57 quiet minutes, pondering what we have been to each other, getting thoughtful as I always do as the train glides across the Meadowlands which are impossibly, unexpectedly beautiful at sunset. Instead, the end came with a 30 second phone call: "OK, I've deposited the check. See you!" Great. Thanks. Click.

So that's how it is, New York, huh? After all we've been through together? After 22 years? A sigh and a fat check?

I know that it's over, New York, but I still can't quite feel it. I guess all big love dies hard. The truth is that as of now I never, ever have to go back to see you again. I am free of you. Sure, I may return someday to visit the few luminous souls who made my 22 years with you worthwhile. Perhaps I will stand once again in the cool, gray silence of the Guggenheim spiral near closing time when all you hear is your own breath and the shuffling steps of the security guard coming to kick you out onto Fifth Avenue. Maybe someday I will again sit motionless in Bryant Park, watching the human comedy speed-walk by in its custom suit and tie. Yes, maybe I'll see you again, New York.


But for now, I think it's best we spend some time apart.

Photograph: Untitled (crowd 1), 1992, Alexey Titarenko, Nailya Alexander Gallery, New York

Friday, June 10, 2011

Going, going, gone.

The past few weeks have been all about the acceleration towards The Big Move. I am physically and emotionally tired. Breathless. Excited. Torn.

FF and I have agreed to buy a house in North Carolina where we will start a very new and different life together, and that feels radical enough for a troubadour like me. Next week it is likely that the New York apartment will close and I will hand over the keys, forever losing my "foothold" in the New York City. That too is breathtaking change, even after all the build-up as remarked upon in this blog. And we are also leaving Tiny Town after two enchanted years and two months here, and it feels surprising and shocking to me though the leaving comes from plans long in the making.

I do not do all that well with change. Viewed from the outside, I am efficient, organized and admirably energetic in the way I organize people, re-locations and projects of all sorts. My image is especially shiny right now in my circle considering that I am closing on two residences and moving from two residences in 90 days time while still rather hobbled by my recently broken right ankle. Yet I appear to be a whirlwind of forward movement against all obstacles. Within, I am straining to slow down, bending against the existential speed of it all and I am in mourning over the places and people that I am leaving behind. Again. Only FF gets to see the tired, the occasional flood of tears, my existential struggle. Poor FF. But that's one of jobs of a mate.

While I patted dark, powdery coffee grounds into my little silver Bialetti espresso maker this morning in order to rev up the old engine, I was contemplating my mother. She has lived in the same house in the same town that I grew up in for half a century. She has no intention of leaving, not even for a short trip. My mother has been there so long that, in some ways, she has become the place while the place has actually left her. She has been the constant, living in that house, opening her bookshop every day, going to the Acme market, the post office, the local bank, the local privately-owned pharmacy. For many people in the area, including old school friends of mine, Mother is more of a constant than the streets and buildings themselves.

Every so often she will tell me how another store has closed, another person has died, and some other has moved away. The other day it was the Acme supermarket that she's been shopping at since I was a little girl. She knows everybody there, and calls them by name (first) and they call her by hers (title and last). When that store closed recently, it was a death for her, the loss of another piece of her life, and until my sister took her over to the Penn Valley market where she saw most of the old staff had been relocated, she didn't brighten. She walked through the market like a union shop steward, reported my sister with an audible grin, checking in on everybody to make sure they were OK. Yes, my mother has been where she lives long enough to have actually become more the place than the place itself.

That has not been my experience. I've moved a lot. Even the moves within Manhattan Island have been like moves to other countries. I separate my Lower East side period from my Harlem period with a thick black line. My trail has gone from Mom's house to New Haven, New Haven to the Lower East Side, Lower East Side to Upper West Side. Upper West Side to Long Island. Long Island back to Upper West Side. Upper West Side to Harlem, Harlem to Berlin, Berlin to Cologne, Cologne back to Harlem, Harlem to New Jersey, New Jersey to Tiny Town. And there are missing bits in that chain of events, too. Now this move, perhaps my last, is from Tiny Town to North Carolina. That's a lot of boxes, baby! Of course, material things have been lost along the way, though I have always tried to be careful to place my belongings with care and not leave a trail. Always there are people lost along the way, jokes, a place that made good tacos, and lots of other bits and rituals. As we get ready to make this Great Leap South, I am already conscious than many of the faces that now furnish my world will not remain in my ken. As it has been and ever shall be, a very few stick and many fall away.

Why have I moved so much? Why have I embraced constant change when I love so deeply, and lose the familiar so hard? Like Esperanza in Sandra Cisneros's excellent book, The House on Mango Street, I have always carried within me the ideal of My House. It would be a house with two floors and an attic, not too big and not too small. It would have a fireplace or two, and it would not be new but would have the wonderful scars and beauty marks that age brings, and its basement would offer the cool, mineral smell of the earth and unperturbed air. My House would have land, not too much and not too little, where I would grow fruit trees and a vegetable garden and perennials that would surprise and delight me every spring with their faithful coming. And (here I am different from the highly independent Esperanza) it would have in it a man who loved me very, very much.

None of the places I ever lived before were My House. I knew it when I lived in them. And though each of these places had its clear purpose, they were like passageways to another place and I lived lightly in them. I would never really settle in, never fix those cracks in the wall, choosing instead to cover their defects with a bright cloths, pictures, temporary furniture and my gaze left deliberately out of focus. I adjusted my eyes to not see the imperfections, because the inherent and more important imperfection of all of these places was that they were not My House. I knew, I always knew, I'd be moving on.

Ironically, my life as a traveling musician made me feel as "at home" as I have ever felt. The migrant life of the troubadour suited me as nothing before ever had with its sensation of constant motion and novelty, aided by the occasional revisiting of familiar stages and favorite hotels. While I was on the road with a guitar on my back, a suitcase in one hand and an amplifier in the other, I was at home in the whole wide earth and I did not have to feel the constant tension of seeming to be living in place while knowing that it was not my place. I was truly transient, an acknowledged outsider. On the road with my huckleberry partner in music, Mountain Sea, nowhere and everywhere was our home, and we took possession of our world with our songs, our rituals, and our laughter. Anywhere the wandering troubadours arrived was good enough for us: a favorite hotel room, a stage we liked, an isolated railroad station near the Black Sea, or a first-class cabin on an ICE train going 300 KMH. We knew the ropes, knew how to sleep on trains, we knew how to pack a bag -- and we were always on our way by check out time, leaving to others the hard job of staying in place.

Coming back to New York after traveling the world, both Mountain Sea and I felt a bit lost for a while. Lost were the familiar rocking motion of the train and the rituals of the road that made everywhere seem like home. Coming to a stop, we felt completely uncomfortable. Sometimes motion can calm you down, and stopping can make your mind race. My mind raced a lot, until I realized that what I needed was FF, and I set off to find him.

Each move brings with it loss. Each move brings with it some gain. Mother says she hates long goodbyes, and I think both of us suffer any length of leave-taking. I learned it from her. But isn't all life and every moment a sweet goodbye to something? And isn't any thought of permanence an utter illusion?

FF and I so look forward to moving into Our House in a month. We are happy. I know there are cool, empty rooms holding their breath and waiting for our coming, waiting to be filled with new music, new spirit, and new love. We go there knowing that the walls have held other loves, other lives, other sorrows and, if all goes well, we will make it a better place than we found it and, after we are gone, Our House will stand sturdy, ready to hold other hearts.

It is Our House now, the one I have been waiting for all my life. The door is opening to so many possibilities. We are almost home.

Photo above of artwork by Nils Udo: "Das Nest"

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Poor man's justice, rich man's justice

If indeed it is true as the New York Post and the Daily Beast report today that associates of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, recently of Riker's Island the the IMF, are trying to buy off the family of his victim, that is both gross and illegal. True or not (and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it were true), the whole incident made me think about Americans' relationship to money and power.

And here's more gross for you: A smattering of cynical commentators on the web advise the victim of this crime to "Take the money...(because) justice is thin soup." This comment, read in The Daily Beast, is not unique. I'd bet that no one who has actually been raped would ever make such an ignorant comment, but I think it's also a symptom not only of how little abuse against women is seen as a real crime and how deluded Americans can be in regard to the value of money.

It is a critical error to suggest that the victim, a Guinean-American chamber maid from a poor family, should accept a payout to drop the charges and it is an error to imply that justice is an individual matter. Society has a mighty stake in the process of meting out punishment for crimes. The prosecution of criminal acts is not a matter of how much one person can get out of it, either in retribution or payout: Rather it is the fundamental process of maintaining a social order that reflects the commonly held values of fairness, compassion and equal protection under the law that are promised to us by our constitution. It is incumbent upon every citizen to understand that a crime against one of us - including immigrant African chambermaids - is a crime against all of us.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a bully and, now, an (alleged) criminal bully. Personally, I am glad he had his perp walk, despite French objections to that American tradition. I am glad he tried out the room service at Riker's Island and, unlike Jack Lang the former French Minister of Culture and Education who simply couldn't understand why Strauss-Kahn had been denied bail because "no one had died" (!), I think he should still be in jail. I consider it a class issue that Strauss-Kahn (like Schwarzenegger and Clinton et. al.) went after the hired help, and for me it is proof of the continuing war against women, especially poor women. I think there should be more perp walks of rich criminals. My only disappointment was that Strauss-Kahn was not wearing an orange jumpsuit! Quelle horreur that would have been, no?

Americans have been hypnotized to act contrary to their own good. I notice how Americans generally complain more vocally and angrily more about crimes committed by poor immigrants than about those committed by the rich ones who breathe the air of hushed executive suites. Americans assume (falsely) that there is some sort of basic difference between them and the folks coming from Guinea to work as chambermaids, while they are more apt to feel a connection with the powerful and wealthy. The categorization of poor brown people as the "real" criminals or the undesirable element (as in Arizona), and our group failure to punish wealthy criminals as they deserve is symptomatic of the American obsession with material wealth and our fantasy of personal power.

The big fat foible of the so-called American middle class is that it has so far failed to realize that by the economic standards of the 1960s, it no longer exists. The American middle class has had the very earth cut out from underneath it, along with its unions and its educational system, while it was distracted by a daily diet of American Idol, Real Housewives and McDonald's. The average American lives with an illusory sense of his own access to wealth and power, perhaps because of the availability of impossibly cheap goods, including a hyper-abundance of granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, but he hasn't figured out yet that he has quietly slipped down into the lower middle class in the last 40 years thanks to -- you've got it! -- the crimes of the very rich. The very rich that they idolize. The irony is nausea-inducing.

As it is, Strauss-Kahn can buy his way out of Riker's which makes him different from the rest of us less wealthy people. If the Guinean chambermaid had stolen something from his room, you can bet she'd still be in jail without bail! It's unfortunate for Strauss-Kahn that he will be fairly unpopular here because he's French, and if there's one thing Americans instinctively dislike (for the wrong reasons), it's French people. Oh, and Jewish people, too. But that's OK, I suppose, because the French dislike us just as much and anti-American sentiment is already brewing (among French men) because of our rough treatment of their guy.

As for the advice from some irresponsible parties to the chambermaid to "take the money and run", I hear the voice of The Big Me in all this. I repeat: Justice is not an individual matter, no matter what the cynics write in commentaries in the Daily Beast. Average New Yorkers (perhaps all cosmopolitan populations) believe everything to be an individual matter, purchasable and available for resale. Maybe living in cubes, wedged in between 7 million other people does that to you. The Ego of the urban dweller is trained to be selfish by the pure inconvenience of city life. In my experience, the average city person sees everything in terms of how it affects Self: Self's personal space, Self's job and Self's commute to work. The reality is the exact opposite, of course. And the prosecution of real justice is not and never should be about Self, but rather about Society vigorously protecting itself from those who do it harm.

Me? I'm breaking up with New York and the illusion that of being a few degrees of separation from money and power is an actual goal or value. No, I'm moving to a humbler place where the public transportation is green and free, where small farmers still have a chance and where, I hope, no one ever suggests that justice is for sale.

Friday, May 20, 2011

By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

FF and I have decided to greet The End of Days in a lovely cool, green and blue penthouse hotel suite overlooking the sparkling Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach. This morning, sunshine poured through the glass curtains in the living room, and we rose early. We intend to sit in the nice deck chairs on the balcony tomorrow and wait for raptured souls to pop up out of the ocean like champagne corks.

In the parking garage across from the hotel, we saw a silver PT Cruiser with neat signs in the back window indicating Saturday, May 21 as the date of the Rapture and a web address to which one could refer for more information. We also noticed they had fishing poles on the roof rack. Apparently, if you fear you might not be raptured, fishing poles are good to have so that you can feed yourself and your family until October when the whole Earth will be destroyed.

Personally, if the whole Earth is going to be destroyed, I think it's a bit late for me to take up fishing.

But a lot of people apparently want to survive for those last five months: In bunkers deep in the Arizona desert, or here in Virginia fishing on the beach casting a line with one hand, while fighting off the less prepared with the other. There will surely be those who didn't go to the web site who will want to eat your food after all the supermarkets are looted. Well, I am in awe of the Survivalist spirit of stubborn resistance to the fiery chimera they have conjured up themselves!

Armageddon can be fun!

The eagerness for an imagined end to all things, expressed so publicly and at such great expense not only of money but eventually of credibility and reputation, is something we should all take a good look at. No one can say these folks aren't sincere: Some have sold their homes and quit their jobs though, as FF remarked, being raptured seems like the best excuse ever for taking a sick day.

Why the enthusiasm for imagining us all wiped out, and why such great investment in money and effort in surviving in the aftermath?

When little children are tired of a game, their instinct is to knock all the blocks down, boom! Or sweep all the piece off the game-board, whoosh! Could it be that many Americans are just tired of the game they are playing and have decided that mass destruction by an unseen Deity would be the best way to finish it all off and start a newer, better game?

In a land where Free Will and Liberty are supposedly the bedrock of our body politic and our much-heralded "way of life", it seems clear to me that many people don't want to be free at all. For the best take on this, check out Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, which is in my opinion the most careful analysis ever of the lemming aspect of human nature. People want to follow, and are terribly disturbed by the thought that "winning the game" (that is, fixing society's ills, improving our human condition, achieving personal fulfillment) will require the kind of work and dedication that they simply haven't got the heart or attention span for. Much better to just start over! Better to just wipe the board clean! Harold Camping, the main "prophet" of this dark scenario, is pretty old now: Perhaps this current End of Times hysteria is simply the extremely powerful projection of Mr. Camping's own ennui and end of life depression?

In my last post about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, I wrote about the Death Pill that Americans seem so eager to take, and I will continue to ponder and write about the morbidity that permeates our culture. Because I wish it were not so. I wish America were happier. Because happy people don't imagine destructive, horrifying scenarios, and don't cheer when people are shot in the head, or get hot and bothered about a number of ugly scenarios that are common content in our popular culture. And yet Death is one of the favorite hobbies of Americans, both in life and on-screen, closely followed by pain, violence, misery and aggression. Why are Americans so unhappy? And how can we get happier?

I promise to think about this, but not today. Today it is sunny, and the glittering ocean calls us away from our seventh floor balcony and bids us to play in the sun! FF and I might go to Pocahontas Pancake and Waffle House for breakfast and then lie by the pool for a little while. We will go to the soft, sandy beach, I will make a sand castle by the sea and, when I am bored with that, I will watch the waves wash my castle all away into the big, wide ocean. And then we'll have a nice nap.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

This week's fun, in print and online

Urban Exile thanks our local Tiny Town county paper for publishing (in lightly edited form) Exile's post-before-last concerning the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. (See page 19 of the electronic edition here.) Exile sent it in, having developed a rather keen taste for seeing her words printed on actual paper, and received this nice little note back from the publisher: "The Herald says nothing about Osama bin Laden but what could we say? What you sent may be what we can say."

I find the question "what could we say?" an interesting and thought-provoking one. Does Tiny Town's local Stag County print outlet somehow feel that this momentous world event doesn't affect us here, that it somehow isn't pertinent to the lives of country squires? Did she think that there was really nothing really to say? Or did she simply not have a personal opinion on the topic? Do we really feel so isolated from the world here in Tiny Town, so very safe from terrorism and the rest of the world's sturm und drang that our response to such events is a genteel silence? I am wondering how many hamlets in the USA are like this, living with a sense of detachment from major world events, because if that's so, the Internet has really failed to do its job.
Somehow there always needs to be a nice dollop of global in your local.

And speaking of the Internet: Exile's very talented and handsome but also fairly obscure mate FF has started to post some of his writing and photography online. (The snow photo above is his.) For fans of poetry, great photography and deep thinking, I warmly recommend The Randall Project. He is looking for your comments, and you might welcome a view from Tiny Town completely different from my own.

In other online news, Exile is rather thrilled to have joined the online community HASTAC. Let's see what kind of cool conversations will ensue! Even cooler, my first comment to a really well written blog by Duke's DeVarney Professor of English and HASTAC co-founder, Cathy Davidson, actually provoked a lengthy and thoughtful response from her. Davidson's article "Has Life Become a Reality Show? And Is That a Bad Thing?" makes some incisive points about online living that are very much worth a ponder. In her response to my post in which I complained about the manipulative effects of algorithms on online relationships, she points to the possibility of deliberate, Dadaist online behavior as a possible route, finding new ways to confound the machine and mix things up a bit. David writes and thinks with the kind of amazing fluidity to which Exile aspires.

That is all, my dears. Exile must be off to prepare student work for the week and face down her Quick Books which has never yet turned out right on the penny.

Remember, walk carefully.