Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Alumni Profile They Won't Publish



"Out of our memory of the holocaust we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide.  We must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists. We must understand that human rights and human dignity are indivisible."--Jimmy Carter

Or that failing...

"There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest."--Elie Wiesel


          Every year the Intercollegiate Sri Lanka Education (ISLE) Program sends American students to study abroad in Sri Lanka.  The program was founded in 1982 and I was privileged to be among its first students.

          Despite well-documented accounts of genocide and the ongoing persecution of Sri Lanka's Tamil population, the ISLE program continues to grow and flourish--they have even hired a program alum as a public relations liaison and publish alumni profiles in a monthly newsletter.  These profiles feature bright, likable, idealistic young people who express their love for Sri Lanka--a love that is romantic and almost proprietary.  The profiles illustrate how the experience of spending a few months in Sri Lanka as a student has helped to forge who they become as they mature.  I read these profiles with great interest; they confirm my fears.

          An email was generated to all ISLE Program alumni inviting us to submit our profiles, according to their guidelines, for possible publication.

          I invite you to read the alumni profiles published in October, November, and December 2011. Then read mine.

Alumni Profile:  Charlotte Heckscher, ISLE '82

Charlotte Heckscher, William Smith College, Class of 1984, ISLE Program 1982

Raised in a bilingual household by my mother and grandmother, I embrace Armenian culture, although it does not fully embrace me.  I understand Armenian, I sometimes dream in Armenian, and I've been told I speak with an Adabazaartzi accent, but I am not fluent; my mother's people are darker than I am and even with my dark hair and eyes, my light skin and sharp features aren't especially characteristic of my Armenian heritage.  Armenian has a word for this condition:  odar.  The definition of odar is "nonArmenian," but the term carries baggage.  It means outsider, outcast, inferior.  It doesn't rank as a curse, but it's still a bad word.  It's ironic, because Armenians themselves are outsiders; my mother's family fled Turkey during the genocide.

My father was a generation older than my mother, from an aristocratic German family.  He fled Nazi Germany as a pacifist and was imprisoned in Canada for two years because he was German.  His letter of reference from Quakers requesting refugee status had been misplaced by the British.  His prison camp contained a small number of Jews and Communists, but was mostly comprised of German pacifists.  I don't believe any Nazis were interred; I supposed they were happier in Germany.   He eventually joined us and married my mother when I was 10 years old, and his fanatical abhorrence for nationalism, as well as for any display of ethnic pride, came with him.

I am the mother of two teenagers, a son and a daughter.  Their father, a dear friend now, is Egyptian and moved to the United States when we married.   Our children aren't quite bilingual and, like their father, they are Muslim.  Since we live in the rarefied atmosphere of Princeton, New Jersey, our encounters with blatant prejudice have been limited to a few incidents.

Before I was laid off, I was a shadow.  A shadow is a special education aide who assists and closely follows a student on the autism spectrum as he goes about his school day.  I have often regarded my work as a daily attempt to bridge two different cultures or realities--the world of a particular child with autism vs. the expectations of the world of "typical" children and adults.  A shadow isn't well paid or well-respected, as educators go, but for the right person, the job offers a nearly perfect balance of challenge and fulfillment, and the opportunity to cultivate mutually transformative relationships.

The reasons I chose the ISLE program:

It was an accident.  Semester after semester, when the creative writing courses I had my heart set on were closed, I ended up being forced to take the classes that secretly, shamefully interested me more:  and Religious Studies never filled up.  More than merely intellectual exercise, these classes dared students to contemplate the most personal, heartfelt issues from new perspectives, where we came to recognize that the personal is political.  I took wonderful courses with Valerie Saiving, a prominent feminist theologian whose work influenced Mary Daly.  Valerie had crippling arthritis so her students were forced to trudge through the towering snow drifts of Geneva, New York, because classes were held off-campus at her Victorian home. She let us smoke cigarettes and drink tea and pet her Siamese cat while we had discussions--discussions, not lectures--about our assigned readings.  Her class on goddesses led me to take a course Lowell Bloss was teaching about Hinduism.  Again, I was drawn by the warmth of the teacher and the empowerment of being both challenged and treated as an equal.  Lowell and John Holt were recruiting students for the first year of a study-abroad program in Sri Lanka that was linked with Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby Colleges.  I knew nothing about Sri Lanka, but it sounded incredibly cool and I was determined to go.

The foods I fell in love with:

I can't remember their names, or even their ingredients, but I still enjoy eating with my hands. Oddly, I remember bringing home about 20 bags of cadjunuts, spiced cashews, and rationing them to a handful a day.  I was savoring Sri Lanka, rationing it bite by bite, until one day, around the 18th bag, I decided to stop cold-turkey.  I just couldn't face the day when it was all gone.

My most memorable events on the program:

Three pivotal moments:

1.  In the pettah, the market place in Colombo, I stepped on a long rusty nail, driving it through my shoe.  I rested against the side of a building, but I couldn't remove the nail from the shoe and I couldn't walk.  An old beggar woman who, for some reason, reminded me of my grandmother (perhaps because my grandmother didn't speak English, either), pantomimed for me to give her my shoe. She was very serious, almost stern, but when she finally extricated the bent nail, we both laughed.  She shrugged her shoulders, beaming with satisfaction, as if to say, "See here, silly child, this is how it's done." I wanted to hug her, but instead I dug into my pocket to give her a few rupees. The smile dropped off her face.  Shall I spell it out?  I had cheapened her act of kindness, reduced her to a beggar when she had just demonstrated that we were equals, that human kindness is to be freely given and shared.

2.  I will never forget the extraordinary beauty of the tea country, lush and green, with hundreds of waterfalls.  Our bus zigzagged up one mountain and down another when suddenly, around a bend, we noticed an old man in a sarong selling postcards, the kind that tumble down, connected like an accordion.  The old man, frantic, would run up the mountain to beat the bus, jumping over the tea, reaching the next bend in the road further up the mountain just moments before us so he could display his cards again.  At each bend he was more exhausted, until he was finally bent over, defeated, trying to catch his breath.  I laughed with everyone else, except one girl who was sullen.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, "Why are you laughing? Think about it."

3.  I was afraid to leave Sri Lanka because I knew I would never return.  Once we got to the airport, I realized I'd left my bag at the Ottery Inn, where we'd been staying.  It was at least an hour's drive. I expressed my gratitude to the driver who eventually arrived with my bag, a grandfatherly figure with a gray beard and a toothless smile.  He showed me photos of his daughter and granddaughter and explained how smart they were and how perfect their command of English.  He asked me to write a letter of reference for them, so they could come to the United States and have the same opportunities I have.  He had written their names and addresses on a neatly torn square of yellow lined paper and made me promise him I would write, though I knew I could and would do nothing for him.  He smiled and said, "You are a rich American--you are very lucky!"  I had heard this refrain often, and had always responded, with irritation, that all Americans were not rich and that I, certainly, was not rich. But it was my last hour in the country and it was probably my last chance to seize the uncomfortable moment of grace.  There was no more resistance; I do, in fact, have much, much more than grandfather (materially, at least). Not because of any cleverness or special merit, but by an accident of birth.  I am rich.  I just want more than he wants so I hadn't noticed.

The activities I participated in:

My independent study, the culmination of my academic work in Sri Lanka, was to be field research on the practice of exorcism.  I had done my reading and made connections and bravely set out on a bus into some remote-seeming village to interview a Sri Lankan who had himself written extensively on exorcism and would arrange for me to accompany him to an exorcism and be my interpreter.

I have read about harassment in other alumni profiles.  I was the only Caucasian in the bus, with the added oddity of being a young female traveling alone.  I sat next to a woman and her little daughter, feeling quite brave, but safe.  She pulled my hair and touched my skin while her mother giggled.  The mother asked me something I didn't understand.  Then she tugged my hair and laughed, too.  I felt I was being gracious by allowing strangers access to my body.  I felt I had no choice.  The men sitting behind me poked their fingers under me, between the wooden slats of my bus seat, so they could get a feel, too.  The bus had become crowded inside and out, with standing bodies pushing against me and a number of people hanging off the sides of the bus.

The exorcism specialist was rather handsome, with a soft, soothing voice and uncombed black hair that was pushed back from his brow.  In my imagination he was always the exorcist.  His wife followed us to a tiled veranda and instructed servants to bring tea before she withdrew into another part of the house.  I sat before him in an elaborate wicker chair, taking notes and answering his questions, as if facing a foreign dignitary.  He gesticulated grandly and I observed that he had an extra thumb, a little appendage which bobbled along as he waved his arms before me.  He waved extravagantly.  It was as if he wanted to display it, and try as I might to be polite and avert my eyes, I couldn't take my eyes off it. He had learned of an exorcism that was to take place in a few days and was writing the information for me when he stopped.

"I've never seen this before!"  The floor was covered with tiny red ants and they were all headed for me.  He watched while they crawled over my sandals, stinging my feet with their bites.  "This is very unusual."

Later on, as I waited on the dusty road for my bus back to Colombo, mosquito bites welted up on my arms.  It was a mosquito bite that infected me with Dengue Fever, a tropical disease that's also known as Break-Bone Fever.  Within a few days I was delirious, hospitalized with a fever of 104, with broken capillaries creating a delicate lacework pattern under my skin.  I never saw my exorcism but I wondered, in my delirium, what may have possessed me.

What I miss most:


Naturally, I miss the smell of Southeast Asia, the smell of Sri Lanka, the smell of Colombo streets, the smell of the ocean crashing down furiously at the end of Melbourne Ave., Colombo 4, the ocean that disgorged single sandals and flip flops onto the sand without their mates, the smell of incense at shrines, the smell of chilies and ground cumin, the smell of wood burning, garbage burning, diesel fumes and jasmine.

I miss the particular heat of Sri Lanka in August, the rare pleasure of taking a shower that starts off cold and bracing as the water falls on your face, but is warmed traveling down your body.

Of course I miss the particular light, the audacious bright sunlight blazing off the Indian Sea, the dark breadth of the sky at night as seen from the balcony of the Ottery Inn, pierced by stars, the fractured shimmer of moonlight on the sea, a surprising gust of wind, salty and damp.

I miss Rajah in every memory; he is everything for me in Sri Lanka. I miss being 20 with Rajah.  I remember his brown hands, how the white shirt of his uniform was too big, the sleeves rolled up and the improvised cuff still falling against his wrist bone.

I think of his bones, and the bones of all the others, when I remember him cupping my cheek with his hand, pushing a tear away before I left him.  I left him.  You see?  I left him there and now he's gone.

In every memory I feel his presence, and his absence.

How has the ISLE experience translated beyond my college years and changed my worldview:

I don't think we ever fully recover from the reverse culture shock, the trauma of returning home with our self-perception forever altered.  I remember dreading the ubiquitous, "What was it like in Sri Lanka?" Almost 30 years on, I'd like to reframe the question and ask, "How has the experience changed me?"

Rajah and I corresponded for many years.  His last letter, after he fled up-country from Colombo, written in his meticulous, old-fashioned print with a blue ballpoint pen, said, "These are trouble times."  The rest of the letter was written in Tamil, which I neither read nor understand.  I never heard from him again.

As the years went by, I read more about Sri Lanka's escalating problems and began to wonder why all this was becoming so important for me only after leaving the country.  We had been warned about ethnic tensions when we visited Jaffna (the stronghold of the insurgent Tamil group known as The Tigers).  We were cautioned that we would see military police with machine guns and that our bus would be searched.  It all seemed very exciting and even a little silly at the time, guns and searches.

When I read in one of the recent alumni profiles that an ISLE student had decided to walk to school in Kandy every day "after an exploding bus incident" I wasn't surprised by her attitude, which struck me as one of casual amusement and dismissal.  It's not our war, after all; we're there to study religion or dance or the Sinhalese language.  We Americans (or perhaps it's human nature) are able to draw a safe circle around ourselves by which we are buffered from myriad realities other than our own. We are in Sri Lanka to further our studies, not to stand witness to genocide or insurgency. We are not here to take a stand.

But we are.  Whether we know it or not, we are taking a stand.

That's how the Sri Lankan experience has translated beyond my college years.  I have a responsibility to Rajah, not just to myself, and I have a responsibility to you to take a stand on behalf of the disappeared, the dead, the oppressed.  It may sound grand, but it's simple, really.

Edmund Burke said all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Such a simple equation, not lofty at all.  Ask yourself, Is it true?  Ask yourself, Who am I?

I am like you.  My love for Sri Lanka is romantic and proprietary.  So many of my experiences there have become parables for me, transformative and moral.

My unquestioned assumptions were the nail in my shoe--the grandmotherly stranger was Sri Lanka herself, piercing me like a nail, wrenching out my fixed, stuck notions of place, class, and identity.

What is really so absurd about the old man in the mountains?  Is it that we prefer to see only the physical beauty of Sri Lanka, the picture-postcard images?  Why do we find the dirty old man racing up the mountain, breathless for a few rupees, absurdly funny?   What is it about his humiliation that tickles us so? What's funny about his poverty? Why is it amusing for us to glide up the mountainside in our air-conditioned tour bus and leave him behind, just because we can?

That embarrassing little appendage on the exorcist's hand, like the open secret of the persecution and genocide, seems like a distraction.  It inconveniently coincides with our studies--we feel it's almost rude to look.  I went to Sri Lanka as an outsider to study exorcism, but the fever was all mine, the demon was inside me.  I didn't do the field research--I fell in love with Rajah.  I lost and found myself.  And it didn't happen overnight--it took decades.

Do we use our experience of Sri Lanka to confirm our self-satisfaction?  Are we applauding ourselves for being better people, more tolerant of other cultures, do we now see the harmony in diversity?  Are we still congratulating ourselves for giving rupees to beggars?

If I am like you, then you are also like me.  Imagine us at 20, you or me or Rajah.  Imagine his aspirations, his opportunities, his laughter and his struggles.  Imagine the warmth of his hand, how his callouses sting your cheek when his finger brushes away your tears. Imagine what it means to disappear, to have no one look.  Imagine his bones when you look at his smiling photograph.  He is somewhere, if only in your memory.

Stand up.  Love Sri Lanka in your own way, but protest in your own way, too.  Know what it means to shrug off the "incident of the exploding bus."  Know that you are always a witness and stand up.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Orgasmatron Postscript: Damn You, Roy Orbison

On the other hand, maybe I wouldn't be stimming so much if I just got laid.

Where does love fit into the orgasmatron paradigm?  In the world of orgasmatrons, good tension-release enables us to re-engage the challenges of the world with fresh energy and enthusiasm whereas bad tension-release simply means we're absent without leave (AWOL). But where is love?



I was so pleased with my analysis and vindication of the orgasmatron world--it only stung a little that no one agrees with me. But then, by mistake, I heard "Crying," where Roy Orbison sings with k.d. lang.


And now I'm AWOL.  Even the lonely, pathetic fantasy world of unrequited love is more beguiling and magical than the solitary charms of Orgasmatron.

How could words as plain as this undo me?

I thought I was over you
But it's true, so true
I love you even more than I did before
But darling, what can I do
For you don't love me and I'll always be
Crying over you

Does it help to arm myself with reason?  Let's make a list:

1.  Sports are icky and he's an athlete; ergo, he's icky.
2.  He'd laugh at me for using the word "icky" (not "ergo"); but I like it when he laughs at me.
2.  He's too good looking so I can never relax.
3.  Everyone says he looks gay--he's run the gamut from "clean-cut" to "metrosexual" to "nice and gay" all the way to "latent."
4.  He's too young.
5.  He's too conventional.
6.  He's too anxious.
7.  He only dates Russian supermodels.
8.  His hands are always cold.
9.  He cares what everybody thinks.
10.He knew I loved him and he sent me love poetry he wrote about other women.  Correction:  he texted me.
12.He reminded me of a clown whenever he wore his brown Converse cause they made his feet look like giant bowling pins.
13.He has no scent whatsoever, which makes me feel like a frustrated animal.
14.He drives a gay car, a tiny, teal convertible that's way too small for him and he always has to have the same parking space, otherwise he whines.  Hmmm, that still cracks me up, but it does show how weird and rigid he can be.
15.He eats dry oatmeal straight from the box because it's healthy but he doesn't have time to cook it.  Only I love to laugh at him when he's neurotic like that.  Makes me want to sit down right next to him with a steaming bowl of freshly cooked steelcut oats, lavish it with butter and brown sugar and cream, and MOAN while I tongue the last dribble off my spoon.  I can just hear him crunching his oats now, pretending to ignore me.  God, I want him.
15.When I called him "anal" he didn't know it, but his face would pucker when he answered, "Am not."  Only that makes me laugh, too.
15.He likes the Beach Boys.  He has all their music on a playlist on his iPod called something embarrassing like "Summer Tunes."  (But he also likes Joni Mitchell and Dylan, Madonna and Bowie, the Beatles and U2, Dionne Warwick, and a song by Elvis Presley called "Wooden Heart" that makes me want to cry every time I think of it, even though The King was unable to pronounce the German language to save his life, so whenever I think of it I also picture my Teutonic ancestors rolling over in their graves.  Regardless, Beach Boys still suck.)
16.He can be so immature, like when he has a crush on someone else.
17.I can't mention him to my friends without incurring the silent treatment, because they're so fearful of triggering a full-on psychotic break.  (It can't be because they're bored, can it?)
18.We both seem laid back to outsiders, but scratch the surface and we're both a bundle of raw nerves.  We have to take turns being nuts.
19.His friends are puerile and boring.  ("Did you really just use the word puerile?")
20.And he doesn't love me and he never will.

I'm so AWOL.  This love is like OCD; it's good stimming gone bad.

The best thing I can do for this is immerse myself in chores like cleaning and cooking and making appointments for plumbers and electricians and doctors, and bundling a vast array of toxic waste containers for municipal pick up.

I'll wear procrastination inside-out.  I will avoid my broken heart by perseverating on domestic tasks and stimming up some sugar cookies and lasagna and pot roast and mushroom soup at the stove, and then maybe, just maybe, I'll allow myself a single Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

They're his favorite.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Orgasmatron of the 21st Century



Stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner. Stimming is one of the symptoms listed by the DSM IV for autism. Common forms of stimming among people with autism include hand flapping, body spinning or rocking, lining up or spinning toys or other objects, echolalia (the involuntary repetition of words spoken by another person), perseveration (the tendency of an idea, impression, or experience to persist or recur, or of an individual to continue a particular mental activity without the ability to easily shift to another at a change in stimulus, and repeating rote phrases)...and sometimes flapping a pencil in front of your face while gazing at it with awe and reverence and thereby tuning out the entire world and its stresses. 


Instructional aide (me): So, you have any big plans for this weekend?

Nine-year-old (apple-of-my-eye) student:  Ms. Heckscher, I'm going to Stimmy Island, and you're not invited. It's just me and my pencil, baby!"


My student--Apple of My Eye--had a superb week.  We kept an elaborate behavioral chart in which tick marks were made for each stimming incident.  If my Apple did well, he would be rewarded over the weekend.  That particular week, my Apple did extraordinarily well and I thought he'd earned a well-deserved stim.  

A good "shadow" (that was my official title) would have turned Apple's witty remark into a teachable moment to drill in the message stimming is bad, not-stimming is rewarded, and never, under any circumstances, call your teacher "baby."  I, however, laughed and said, "Apple, you are just about the most creative boy I know and I like the way you think.  And I don't know anyone who's worked harder for a good stim behind closed doors."  

Apple said, "Thank you, Ms. Heckscher."

I was laid off because of New Jersey's statewide budget cuts, not because of philosophical differences.

Let me be the first to present this truly original hypothesis--and all of you who practice applied behavioral science as a religion, without question, can go straight to hell:  A good stim is a form of healthy meditation. 

Am I putting a value judgment on meditation--is there good meditation and bad meditation? Omigod, you know what?  I am judging.  I'm just that radical.  You know there's a difference, too, but maybe you're just too dogmatic to admit it.  (Yes, I'm in a pissy mood again.) 

Intention is everything.  It's okay to meditate to de-stress, but not to escape your responsibilities or emotions because they make you uncomfortable.  Sometimes, the fine line between the practice of detachment and the practice of escapism is invisible.  Sometimes, don't we need to check out briefly to "get some perspective" because only then can we return to a problem with a fresh outlook, fresh energy, new ideas?  And sometimes, don't we just call out sick to avoid the inevitable, consequences be damned?  One is good, one is bad. You know it.

I want to go to Stimmy Island--just me and my vibrator.  

Is that so wrong? 

Is it wrong that I'm perseverating on Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House"?  Or that all day long I mutter "When a problem comes along/You must whip it?"    

Or is it healing?

Masturbation is often sneered at or pathologized, even though it's done privately, in the same way stimming (even when it's done privately) is labeled taboo, without consideration for its contribution to personal well-being.  Solitary sex is considered deficient, immature, selfish, embarrassing (even though we all do it), while even the most disappointing mutual sex is something we can brag about.  We don't normally swagger and glow after a self-pleasuring session, but no one ever fakes an orgasm when they're all alone.  Masturbation may be inspired by another person, but it's unabashedly all about numero uno.

Good stimming, good sex, and good meditation share a common trajectory which can be described like this:  tension build-up, single-pointed focus that disengages us from everything else,  release of tension, followed by a sense of communion and a fresh re-engagement with the world.


Did you ever see the old Woody Allen movie "Sleeper"?  The story begins in 1973, when a dorky guy is hospitalized for minor surgery that goes awry and he ends up being cryogenically frozen, and awakens in the year 2173 to a world of total conformity ruled by an evil dictator with the demeanor of a TV anchorman and where bananas are the size of row boats. In this programmed atmosphere, libido has been crippled (except in Italian males) so every house has a proper orgasmatron, a kind of phone booth that accomodates one or two people and induces instantaneous orgasms. People go into the booth looking crisp and starched and come out with messy hair and crooked smiles.


When we're stressed and repressed, we need an orgasmatron in order to function optimally. The orgasmatron of the 21st century could well be meditation.   It's widely socially acceptable and appeals to spiritualists and scientists alike for its measurable benefits, and you can do it alone or as a shared experience, but no one can do it for you.  We're not encouraged to think of meditation (or sex) as being selfish, but ultimately we do it to feel better.

The Apple of My Eye once told me candidly, "Ms. Heckscher, you love to laugh.  Of course, I like to laugh, too, but I like stimming a lot more."

My friend Kim shared a quote from "A Joseph Campbell Companion:  Reflections on the Art of Living,"

As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you.  Don't bother to brush it off.  Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance.  Having a sense of humor saves you.

The value of my vibrator is self-explanatory, but what about my other perseverations?  I may, in fact, be so frustrated that I secretly wish to burn down this house--which should be condemned--instead of fixing it, or step on a crack and break my beloved mother's back--rather than cajole her into our twice-daily physiotherapy sessions.  I'm not exaggerating when I proclaim that the combination of perseveration (on the songs of Talking Heads and Devo) and humor (the lyrics of "Burning Down the House" and "Whip It") are life-saving and energizing for me.  I detach by submerging in music, I may also engage with the uncomfortable truth of my darker, taboo feelings, and the humor and pleasure of the music enables me to integrate, to return, reinvigorated, to the tasks at hand.

Isn't humor another orgasmatron?  The best laughter/orgasm comes from something taboo, something we're maybe a little ashamed of or embarrassed about, something very private that we're rarely inclined to acknowledge publicly.  (Like sex, humor tends to lose potency with critical analysis, but I'm not trying to do stand-up or have sex, so what the hell.)  The trajectory of humor can also be described as tension build-up (our inner struggle with an uncomfortable topic) single-pointed focus that disengages us from everything else (full identification with what is taboo), release of tension (laughter), followed by a sense of communion and a fresh re-engagement with the world.  Some people like comedy clubs, while others prefer more solitary (one-on-one) pleasures.  It's a big world, embrace your own style and your own stims.

Which brings me back to my point about stimming and intention.  As long as the activity doesn't seek to permanently divorce you from the world and rob you of energy--which it can if you stim to excess--stimming, et al., can be a healthy outlet.


Of course, if you're reading this, you're participating in my very own, personal orgasmatron. When you write, isn't your whole attention focused upon a single idea to the exclusion of everything else?  After the act of writing, on completion, don't you feel gratified, steadied, energized for the large and small tasks of the day?  When you read something that interests you, you are also fully engaged.  And if you leave a comment or begin a dialogue on this blog, then there's an explicit communion between us.  Darling.





Saturday, December 3, 2011

What a Broom, a Laptop, and Buddha Have in Common

          They say you can't go home again, but here I am, at 49, back in my childhood home so I can take care of my 85-year-old mother after her bypass and valve replacement surgery.  I might be here for a month or I might be here indefinitely.  In my fist is a psychic compass whose needle whirls around and around.  If I was in the farthest reaches of outer space, I'd know where I was because the needle wouldn't move at all, but here, each familiar landmark means vertigo.

          We know ourselves by our relationships, by the predictable magnetic pull of their names, like mother and daughter, or adult and child.  But when you go home again, as a grownup, the compass whirls, meanings change or become ambiguous.  Being my mother's caretaker changes a lot, but not everything.  Underlying power struggles are reconsidered and rearranged, but they are there, none the less.

          My mother has never asked anyone for anything, which has been her source of strength but also prevents a certain intimacy.  My mother is vulnerable now in ways she would never willingly allow herself to be, and while she's frustrated, I think I see her delight, new, miniscule and guarded, in this simple ability to ask and receive.  Her delight, as much as her vulnerability, make caretaking a source of pleasure for me, even when I'm tired and cranky. Especially then.  Her openness is my inspiration.  But I can't imagine how I'd feel (or react) if she openly resented my presence in her home.  That's always the question mark swirling darkly in the background.

          Privacy, for all of us, is a thing of the past.  My son, Omar, just looked over my shoulder and disapproved of my title.

          "What the hell do a broom, a laptop and a buddha have in common?  Is your blog like some kind of fortune cookie and you're a wannabe Asian--?  Oh, that's right, you can't be Asian, cause you can't do math and you don't have a job..."

          In all fairness, 15 is the age when he and his friends are all about what my generation meekly referred to as "appropriating the language of the oppressor"--he calls his Asian friend who struggles with math a "wannabe Asian" and that friend tells Omar, "Shut up, terrorist."

          I've been attempting to seize Omar's attention for the past five minutes so he'll take out the garbage, but he responds right away to Leila when she says sweetly in pig Latin, "Hey, UpidStay, Mommy's talking to you."

          We're all sitting around the tiny, ultra-mod Saarinen tulip table my mom's always had in the dining room, where I used to sit down for countless dinners with my father and uncle and grandmother--all dead now.  Gathered around the white table are my very own childen:  my laptop's bumping against Leila's and Omar's elbow is in my face whenever he flips a page of his magazine.  We're awkwardly reestablishing our family narrative within this tight, new setting, which was also the ancient theater for my own uneasy role as The Child.

          How's it going, so far?  A bit feral, actually.  We're like animals in a zoo, attempting to adapt to a weird new habitat that approximates our own, but doesn't quite cut it.  And that's just us humans--my mother's aristocratic Siamese cats, Boris and Zelda, are aghast at Pablo, my enormous tabby cat who eats their food and sprawls in front of them while they hiss and grumble.  He's twice their size but still a kitten and doesn't know to hiss back, just how to roll. Or maybe he's just playing the big galoot to ingratiate himself, while our other cat, Mia, hides under the bed all day.  We all have our coping strategies as we struggle for position.

          We know who we are, too,  by our possessions--by what we hoard and what we discard--and we are always in a relationship with our things.  Among the things in my mother's dining room were an old sewing machine in a dirty plastic case and an old dehumidifier with dusty coils (both acquired from garage sales and never used), a broken chair, two cardboard boxes of photos which the cats use as a scratch pad, piles of newspapers, and stacks of empty frames.  All this I banished to her living room which, since we are forbidden to enter it anyway, is serving as storage space.  I cleaned away cobwebs and thick, greasy dust motes, the inky soot clogging the gills of the old air conditioner are now scrubbed clean, the rug has been vacuumed, windows shined, each tchatcka washed and dried and put back into its exact place:  yet neither of us is satisfied.

          My mother paces through her dining room on her daily exercise route, back and forth from her bedroom, like a caged creature, looking neither to the right nor the left.  I sense that my presence in the room has diminished hers.   By cleaning I took something of her away, or implied criticism; by removing some of her nonessential objects, I made bits of her nonessential.  Did the unused sewing machine represent the possibility of perhaps making a dress for the first time in 40 years; what might those empty frames have held some day? Surely, she would have gotten around to cleaning her own dining room when she wanted to, in her own time, when she felt up to it.

          I'm mortified by the giant framed arts nouveau poster of two bare-breasted nymphs that hangs in the room that Leila and I are sharing.  Not because of the breasts, but because it was a gift from my father's lover, as a reminder of her breasts.  (My mother isn't bothered by such details; she likes how its sunset palette matches the room's decor and, she says, "it has some value.")

          The room belonged to my grandmother and the bed is where she died many years ago, when I was 21 and she was about the age my mother is now.  I had been calling my grandmother down for dinner, over and over.  We were having lamb chops and creamed corn, her favorite American food.  When I came upstairs, the door was shut and no light came from underneath.  I yelled at the door, waiting for an answer; I yelled over and over. Each time, the silence was deafening. Then I yelled for my mother.  That silence meant death I must have understood--there was never really any question--but I wouldn't open the door to it.  When my mother opened the door and turned on the light, my grandmother was lying on the bed with her eyes slightly open, as if she was on the verge of waking.

          The mattress is so soft that to sit upon it means one's ass sinks nearly to the floor. For two people to sleep on it requires desperate clinging, even in sleep, because the sides sag like a pitched roof.  Leila woke this morning with one foot already on the floor.  I woke up gazing at Justin Bieber, whose face is on the calendar Leila hung up.

          I miss the open flow of rooms in our house.  You can see from one end of the house to the other and outside to the forest through big windows that stretch up to high ceilings; I used to complain because our house had no privacy.  This house was built in 1910 and each small room closes off, yet the walls seem constructed to transmit sound from one end of the house to the other.  Every window looks out on another house, impinging itself on us.  And I don't remember the toilet seat being so low, or the doors not being able to close shut.



          When I woke up last night clinging to the bed--I don't know what time it was cause I don't know which bag my clock is in--I remembered a game I used to play with my friends. The game was supposed to reveal your true nature by pinpointing what you value most.

Say you're stranded on a desert island with no hope of rescue--name three things you'd want to take with you.  They can't be practical instruments of survival--no fair calling knives or matches or a generator--the objects must have personal significance for you.

          Omar brought his X-box, his entire collection of manga, and Axe Twist (cause the smell attracts hot chicks).  Leila brought everything but the kitchen sink, but the first things she placed around the room were framed photos of her and her dad and one of me holding her infant self, there's also enough makeup to sink a ship, and assorted Bieber paraphernalia. But what did I bring?

          The first thing I brought into the house was my broom.  You see, my mother's broom is taller than I am and the bristles are made of straw or boar bristles that fall out as I sweep, so in the end, I have to fetch a little dustpan and squat to brush everything up.  My broom is shiny and white and light, with uniform synthetic bristles that are angled for optimum sweep, all this and it fits into its own dustpan with a long handle for maximum efficiency.  If I can control the dirt--and control it on my own terms--then there is still at least something I can control.  This broom, then, is my most coveted object.

          I do sweep a lot, but come on.  I must have brought something else.  I brought my iPod, but couldn't find the headphones and didn't want to take the iPod dock because I still go back to feed the plants in our own house and I love to be able to crank my music at will, which I can't do here.  What else did I bring?

          I brought my laptop.  It's been with me since the beginning and I made sure we had internet connection before we moved in, but I haven't had time to write.  Of course, I shouldn't be writing now; there are easily 15 important things I should be doing right now that trump blogging.  With the laptop, it's a bit like my mother's sewing machine, it's more about promise than fulfillment.

          Since nothing else of significance came to mind last night as I hung on to the edge of the bed, I recognized a golden opportunity to define myself by whatever I chose to bring next. One of the first things I've seen every morning for the past 15 years is a Japanese wood carving, a masklike sculpture of the Buddha.  Made of a soft, green-gray wood native to Japan, it has a dusty suede patina, which the shopkeeper told me could be polished to a high sheen, if I preferred.  Buddha's eyes are half closed and his expression is serene, the lips almost curved in a smile, but enigmatic, like the face of Mona Lisa.  It was carved by a novice monk as a form of contemplation.  When the monastery burned, the Buddha was salvaged, but there is a black, heart-shaped scorch mark on his temple, beside his left eye.  That's how I got it cheap.  What others perceived as an imperfection alludes to a mysterious, sublime truth I can discern now.

          I always mean to meditate.  When I look at my Buddha every morning, I'm transfixed by his enduring tranquility, even while he's on fire.  His eyes are on the point of opening, his smile is on the point of breaking, and he's on the point of burning.  This has always been his secret and I want to know it.

          So today, my Buddha is beside the pitching bed, on a defunct antique sewing machine table that's covered by a torn paisley shawl, under the light of a bulb that's partly exposed by a torn lampshade in the room where my grandmother slept and died, where there is now a picture of Justin Bieber, and a graphic reminder of the lovely breasts of my father's mistress and everything else in the world I can't control.