Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lady's Choice

                                              Still she stays with a love of some kind
                                              It's the lady's choice
                                              The hissing of summer lawns
                                                                             -Joni Mitchell
My backyardsee bust on right, to scale
It seems like a metaphor for something else, but it's true: if you walked down my street last Monday, you would have seen me sitting on a stool on my front lawn, sweating in the sun with a pair of scissors. Cutting the grass. Or you might not have seen me from the street because, when I was sitting on a stool, the grass was over my head.

           You might have seen an elderly woman with big, owlish eyes dressed in a nightgown, calling out to me from behind the screen door, "I think you're very foolish."

         You would have heard me yelling back, "Well, the feeling's mutual," before I realized I was agreeing with her. 

This was after I had kvetched to my neighbor, a family friend, who lent me her old-fashioned push-lawn-mower. The rusty blades twisted and swirled like a DNA double helix, inspiring confidence in its elemental form and function.

          "I've had this for 40 years," she said. "It never lets me down." 

          I broke it after making just two passes—just like my mother said I would. Before I could offer to pay her for a new mower, she squinted at my backyard and said, "I'll bring a shovel."

Even the Crazy Cat Lady who lives across the street, who has a kitchen sink, an old car, and a baby stroller displayed on her front lawn, she mows her grass.  Superman's mother, who lives down the street in a split-level and never smiles, mows her lawn. Like my mother, these women are both in their 80s. But unlike my mother, they live alone, their children long gone. Other people cut their grass.
         My mother forbids me to mow the lawn. 

          "Why?" you ask. "Why?" I ask her.

          "Because you'll run over the electric cord and electrocute yourself."

          "No, I won't."

          "Well, it's too difficult. The grass is too high and you'll break the machine--and I simply can't afford a new one."

          "Okay, let's just hire someone to cut the grass."

          My mother looks at me like I've asked her to commit suicide. "I know how to do it," she says. "I'll cut it myself."

          She's 86 and frail (when she's not mad) and we both know I would never let her mow the lawn. Still, I hear myself whining, "But when?"

Would I feel any less like a petulant child if I just gave up? What, I ask myself over and over, would the Dalai Lama do? Actually, he giggles and speaks Yiddish.

          Cut the grass, don't cut the grass, just be nice to your mother.

          So, it's settled. I'm the most UNspiritual person ever in the whole fucking history of the human race. 

My ex drops off our daughter, who is 14, and his son BB, who is four years old. My beautiful, sulky daughter sits on the front steps and reads. BB has big, adoring brown eyes and, because he is not a teenager, he still loves me. I find him another pair of scissors and he helps me cut the grass. 

          My daughter sighs dramatically. "Mother, you are so weird," she says. 

          "You think I'm weird—look at your grandmother."

          "She drives you crazy, doesn't she? Just like you drive me crazy." Ouch.

My mother gives me a shopping list:

10 bags garden soil @ $6.99 each
1 bag dessicated cow manure
2 4x4 frames for raised beds

          I'm sure there are telepathic beams shooting out of my eyes telling her she's out of her fucking mind, and I'm pretty sure her owl eyes are reflecting them back at me because before I know what I'm doing, I'm driving us to the nursery. 

White peony growing under the weeds


Monday, May 13, 2013

Still Life With Shadow

Because of its posh address in a wealthy Princeton enclave, my mother insists on us being 'early birds.' Early birds are the pushy ones—the dealers and addicts—who want to have first pick at a garage sale, or worse (as is the case today) an estate sale, where the contents of an entire house are being sold and you get to poke around every nook and cranny of someone's private home, from the inside of the fridge to the inside of the toilet. You never know if it's treasure or trash till you get there but, either way, there is something compelling about trespassing in the home of a stranger.

          Waking to an alarm on a rainy Saturday feels like a chore, and I'd rather not have to forgo my sleep or coffee and personal hygiene, but I have certain unspoken duties. My mother hasn't driven since I moved in with her last year, not—she insists—because she can no longer see, but because she prefers to be driven. When I stumble downstairs in my pajamas, she is sitting at our cluttered dining room table in the dark, dressed and ready, with her handbag on her lap. I'm already planning my morning after our return home, looking forward to taking a cup of coffee back up to bed and finishing the last chapters of the book I'm reading.

          (Iris Murdock's strange and juicy novel, "A Severed Head," seems superficially to be about deception, self-deception, and sexual infidelity, but really probes the deeper problems inherent in living authentically and honestly. It seems authenticity bears no connection to happiness which, for Murdock, is an insipid concept that prefers to lurk among the dark charms of deception.)

          The newspaper ad promises "Huge estate sale," but there are only a few other cars parked on the street in front of a rather prim brick house set far back on a smooth lawn. A sign on which the word Huge is written has an arrow pointing up a long gravel driveway that leads to a double garage. The open doors reveal  tables laden with bric-à-brac. A few old ladies fondle an array of champagne flutes and stray kitchen utensils, Christmas ornaments, loose extension cords. The patter of rain is deafening and the damp garage is so dark that I doubt my mother can see much of what she is fingering. I'm ready to go home and make us coffee, but my mother is determined to go through the motions.

          Maybe it's because I have a tendency to chafe against my guilt about being unemployed, but I'm suddenly furious about having set my alarm on the weekend for this—this false advertising, this ruse. Two middle-aged women in aprons hover around the open interior door that leads from the garage into the house itself—the usual hired tag-sale team, I suppose, defending the off-limits area. I'm so aggravated I taunt one of them by inquiring if there is anything more inside.

          As if I'd uttered "Open sesame," the aproned women part and I am admitted inside.

          At first I only notice that the house is full of light, as if the sun itself illuminates the immaculate white walls. Perhaps there are recessed lights, but the feeling is simply one of radiance and spaciousness. There is hardly any furniture in the house, just a few pieces for sale—a dark, polished table in the center of the empty dining room, entirely covered with beautiful lamps, whose cords are carefully wound around their necks; a few odds and ends pushed up against the walls; a kind of antique step stool that looks like a gleaming mahogany wedge of staircase, just two steps, labeled "Stairs to anywhere—$75"; a pair of delicate, exquisite black heels with pointed toes and a dainty white puff of feather boa in lieu of a bow. A fat string of pearls spills out of the well of one of the crossed shoes, behind which stands a small oil painting of the same scene, with the same pearls, but set against a lushly draped, scarlet background. There's something odd about the canvas, a still life of primly sexy, empty party shoes. Is it just me, or does it make everyone feel uncomfortable? It's like looking at a snapshot of something dead and gone that still manages to tantalize.

          On a bare, white wall hangs a small painting in a wide, simple wood frame that appears to have been painted with gold leaf. A livid, orange-fleshed papaya, sliced in half is presented with its wet, black seeds oozing out like caviar. A heavy silver knife, almost out of frame, gleams suggestively. I feel exposed, like the fruit, but there's more to it.

          It's not hyper-realism, but the visible texture of brush strokes and layers of built-up, saturated color provoke a kind of sharp, hypnotic lust that is hyper-real.

          I wonder if the golden frame has something to do with its allure; you could be seduced by almost anything in a frame like that.

          On another bright wall is a large painting of a teenage girl daydreaming. She's dressed in short-shorts and a cami, leaning back on a cushioned chair with her legs tucked up and spread carelessly; her fists rest between her open thighs. We hover together at the tender juncture between provocative and innocent, those curiously potent, awkward moments between girlhood and womanhood, which perfectly capture my daughter now at age 14. I'm almost ashamed of my fascination. I can't imagine putting it up on my wall, but neither can I stop looking.

          I walk into the vast kitchen, beautifully remodeled, that spans the entire back of the house and opens fully onto a family room with a large bow window overlooking a well-tended garden. Yellow caution-tape prevents passage, stretching from one end of the kitchen to the other, and suggests at once a museum and a crime scene. On the wall beside the window that frames the park-like grounds is another large canvas.
          Again I'm mesmerized by the uneasy lure of crossing a forbidden boundary. The painting depicts a young girl, maybe a few years younger than my daughter, wearing a fancy, primly flowered dress, with clean, flat shoes, and bare arms and legs. The dark-haired girl, in an attitude reminiscent of Wyeth's "Christina's World," is turning away, so we can't see her face. Christina was disabled and preferred crawling to being confined to a wheelchair. In Wyeth's painting, the girl crawls up the vast expanse of a parched, treeless hillside towards a stark house off in the distance, to the right.

          But here, the dressed-up little girl leans to the left, instead gazing down into a pool where there is no reflection. She leans down so far that the ends of her neat ponytail skim the water's surface.

          "Let me know if I can help you find anything," says one of the aproned ladies, pulling me out of my trance where I had wondered, for a crazy moment, if she was addressing the girl in the painting.

          "Oh, actually, I'm more interested in looking at these paintings. They're fabulous, aren't they?"

          The lady winces almost imperceptibly; it passes quickly, a slight tremor. "They're mine, I'm the artist." She sounds almost apologetic. I'm suddenly, miserably aware of my unwashed state, no make up, just sweats and a t-shirt.

          My brain has trouble assimilating this new knowledge. I regard her differently now, but I can't manage to reconcile all her parts: the elegant Princeton Matron, well-bred, polite and prim, dangerously knowing, sensual, lady of arts and leisure, one who fastens price tags and invites strangers into her half-abandoned multi-million dollar home, the carnal female, the transgressive artist, direct, provocative, teasing, grief-stricken, the conventional, vulnerable, childish and middle aged parts. Nor can I readily place myself as an insider or an outsider here. I inhabit the soul of her paintings but not their outer world. I wonder if she ever feels the same disharmony within herself? It's just this brutal disharmony that Iris Murdock writes about.

         We both seem baffled, nearly stammering with a kind of embarrassed gratitude. "Your paintings are incredible," I say, as if she might not know.

          She tells me that she just recently sold two large paintings at a local exhibition. "It's not the money, or the fact that someone's willing to pay for it. It's more the idea that someone really enjoys it and relates to it that means so much."

          I tell her I understand.

          It's deeply troubling to think that others won't have a chance to respond to her paintings and her vision, if, in fact, it is her vision I'm responding to. What if I just relentlessly project myself, my own hidden, yearning self, onto everything?

          But that's okay, isn't it? We don't need to agree on an artist's vision, any of us. It's enough to be moved in our own, idiosyncratic, highly personal ways. We're still connected through the painting. That's a small source of comfort alongside the dismal, larger possibility that this artist's work won't ever be widely recognized. Her obscurity is cause for grief.

          She tells me gently that the paintings are for sale, and explains that the prices are negotiable. I can't stop myself from confiding in her that I have my eye on one of the smaller paintings. Again, surrounded by the smooth gold leafed frame, is a simple painting of a fine, white porcelain tea cup on a saucer—the china bluish and translucent as skimmed milk. The empty cup sits on a chartreuse tablecloth against a deep fuchsia background. The dainty cup casts a deep and bulky shadow, somewhat misshapen as it bends up from the table along the wall. The soul rises up from that shadow. But there's more.

          I feel an almost overwhelming, guilty satisfaction in the pleasure these colors afford, their luxury, the privilege of simply being able to view such gorgeousness. Colors whose beauty may be considered gaudy or frivolous, these are colors that please simply by existing and by their juxtaposition. It's a voyeuristic pleasure that shames me, and I cherish it fiercely.

          She tells me a price, which is not at all unreasonable, but which I can't afford, and then says she'll give it to me for over a hundred dollars less that what she just asked. I don't have a job; whatever money I have quickly disappears in necessities, like food and clothing for my children. Not to mention my unspeakable unpaid debts. I only take books out of the library and experience a surge of self-loathing on occasions when, for no particular reason, I buy myself a cappuccino. There is no question that I can't have the painting.

          She tells me there are a few more pieces upstairs, if I would care to look, but I don't dare.

          Instead, I persuade my mother to buy a pair of architectural lamps—the artist has neatly inscribed "Pair of Candlestick Lamps—$40" on a manila tag fastened to the base. They are slender, mirrored columns topped with small, squarish shades made of brown or black fabric, my mother and I can't agree which. But what is most striking about them is that the insides of the shades are gold, like the paintings' frames.

          The artist shyly points out their golden undersides, after I've already noticed. Her tentative smile might suggest a touch of pride or maybe just pleasure in uncovering beauty and sharing it. I want badly to put my hands over my ears and close my eyes.

          My mother asks if she can do any better.

          The artist says, "I'll do $35," and my mother pulls out her wallet.

          "Charlotte," my mother says, "we have no place to put them except Kadir's room." My teenage son Kadir's bedroom is an explosion of soiled clothes, spilled soda, and chicken bones.

          "It's okay," I say. "We'll make room somewhere."

At home the lamps stay in the place where I first set them down, in the dining room on a plain Shaker table beneath the window air-conditioner, which is held in place with duct tape. Flanked by the solemn beauty of the twin lamps, my daughter contemplates the little still life we've created. She calls it The Holy Air-Conditioner. When I look at it I see my painting.

Holy Air-Conditioner with Cat

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Cause of Our Discomfort is an Optical Delusion

"Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
Einstein's condolence letter to the widow of Michele Besso,
a friend who died just a month before Einstein

I admit I'm a little nervous about going to Erich's memorial tonight, partly, I suppose, because Erich will be there, but also because I barely know him. I question my purpose. What I do know is it's important to show up, so I will.

          The party was the brainchild of our mutual friend and pragmatist, Dan, who composed this Facebook invitation to tonight's event.
Please join us for an evening of friendship to bring our best to Erich as he completes his life. Sadly, Erich has lung cancer which has spread throughout his bones, his time is short and this gathering will be our way of celebrating our longtime friendships with him. We will reminisce, we will laugh, we may cry, and we will do this with him while we still can.
Main dishes for dinner will be served
You are welcome to bring side dishes, desserts, and drinks
         I love Dan's expression as Erich completes his life, which suggests that some purpose is being fulfilled with his consent. I love it but No, I don't buy it. Dan takes refuge in a very ordered world; my world is full of false starts and meandering middles, loose ends, open ends, ends that are beginnings. I worry a lot that all our lives are incomplete and that only in art (a poem, a painting, a dance) is there a true sense of completion. What if meanings and endings are always contrived? When I write a story and it's going well, there is always a sense it's writing itself, that a meaning independent of my will is being brought forth. It's as close to religion as I'm probably ever going to get, but I may be deluded. I worry about that. 

          Dan told me that a routine x-ray taken a couple of months ago to determine whether Erich had a broken rib showed what looked like cancer, and then another scan confirmed widespread metastasis to his bones. That's how Erich was abruptly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of lung cancer that will rapidly end his life. Chemo might extend his life for another year, but because the treatment is so much worse than the illness, Erich has opted for hospice. He has months—not years—to live.

          Of course any of us may have only months left—an accident, an aneurysm, these things happen—but because Erich has been given a particular allotment of time, we have to face his mortality.

I bring a big bowl of salad with apricot-ginger dressing to a house packed with friends I haven't seen for decades. There is no chance to hesitate at the front door: the door to the past swings open to the future and before I know it, I'm in.

          The party is very loud and there is a lot of laughter. I can almost make believe it's one of our old high school parties—except where there had been Pink Floyd and pot smoke, teenage lust and a keg of beer, now there are platters of grilled veggies and Persian rice, brown bottles of artisinal beer aligned with suave, blue bottles of sparkling water, and all the familiar faces are age-progressed.

          I look for Erich and find him slumped in a wheelchair in a corner of the dining room, angled slightly away from the crowd that spills into all the other rooms. He is only partly accessible behind the dining table where all the food is laid out. After poking a plastic fork at the mound of potato salad on his paper plate he fiddles with the morphine pump on his lap. Erich's pale face is expressionless and glows, moonlike and almost featureless, under a dull sheen. His black, thick-rimmed glasses are incongruous, giving him the mysterious, almost comical appearance of a man in disguise.

          Before I can make my way over to him, a middle-aged woman appears before me like an oncoming car, blocking my view of Erich. She is small and prissy and, squinting the way myopic people do, she inclines her cheek for an air kiss.

          "You don't remember me, do you?"

          She explains that she is Bernadette, a girl who famously dated the coolest guy in our school—but I can't reconcile the alluring teenage girl her name conjures—the shy beauty in a clingy mini-dress and strawberry lip gloss—with this dusty, beige lady wearing glasses and a baggy sweater.

          As if she's reading my mind, Bernadette explains that she's a lawyer in Westchester now with a husband and two teenage daughters, then nods her head and waits for my disclosure. I forgot to rehearse, so I tell her the truth.

          "I'm an unemployed single parent, living with my elderly mother and two teenagers."

          To her credit, she quickly replies, "That's great!" She smiles so encouragingly, I feel it's my duty to press on.

          "It's better than it sounds, Bernie. The divorce really is so much better than the marriage, and I think I'm gradually getting over the weirdness of returning to the house I grew up in, you know? But that first year was pretty rough—"

          What I would suddenly like to share with her is how important the writing process is to me, how lucky I feel when I sit down all alone at home, like a slacker, and write. I want to ask her what makes her feel like she's manifesting an otherwise inchoate personal truth and connecting to something larger. And, I want to tell her that when I'm writing, despite looking like I'm a lonely drain on society, I feel—on the contrary—spiritually in touch with every being, past, present, and future, living and dead.

          "Well," says Bernadette, "Westchester is actually very similar to Princeton, very affluent and a really nice place to bring up kids." We smile at each other's discomfort and begin scanning the room.

I wonder if Erich shares some of our deeper discomfort, which we mask with the superficial anxiety about public success and failure. It's easy to ask, "What do you do for a living?" but the answer doesn't necessarily reveal what's important about who we are or what connects us. We don't dare ask: Have we loved and been loved enough? Have we made a positive difference? Is there meaning? What matters?

Mr. Robert S. Marcus
Political Director
World Jewish Congress

Dear Mr. Marcus:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

With my best wishes,

Sincerely yours,

Albert Einstein 

          Robert Marcus had written a letter to Einstein asking for his consolation and guidance on the death of his young son, who had recently died of polio. The letter was written only five years before Einstein's own death, and it is clear from the draft in his archive that he gave his reply great consideration.

          What is at first so shocking about Einstein's letter is the absence of comfort he offers to a grieving father. The letter stands as an impersonal abstraction in the face of raw grief.

          But as it turns out, Robert Marcus was not only a father and a Zionist, he was also a rabbi who had served as a Jewish chaplain during World War II. Einstein must have been writing to the rabbi; his formula for peace of mind can only be followed by someone willing to approach personal anguish through the prism of  larger questions of existence.

          I think of this odd letter now when I notice Erich huddled in murmured conversation, and wonder if he would take any comfort at all from Einstein's advice. He is talking with a woman he had a crush on when they were teenagers. I strain to hear them.

          "Do you think I could have your email address? I would like to write to you."

          "Sure, sure," she nods. "My business cards are upstairs in my handbag, so I'll make sure you get one before I leave. That would be great."

          I realize I'm shocked by this small request for intimacy. The inflection of Erich's voice hints at something, like a request for an extension. His pale, blurry eyes behind the thick lenses are focused now with intense curiosity and the mask of his face is animated. None of us knows that Erich will be dead in three weeks.

More than 20 of us sit in a circle in Dan's living room while one of the techno-geeks sets a camera on a tripod to record anyone who cares to speak. Friends tell how they first met Erich and share funny stories. Memory after memory weaves us together in our circle. Erich interrupts.

          "There's something I'd like to say now—turn that camera over here, will you?" Erich clears his throat. His speech is slurred and he is almost inaudible.

          "As you all know, I'm in a strange place now," he shakes his head. "A very strange place." His lips are working even when he is silent, like he's conjuring.

          As he speaks, Erich hands the morphine pump to Dan, who sits beside him, and he manages to partly stand up from his wheelchair. Erich leans out in the attitude of a figurehead on a ship's prow, cutting the water.

          The words don't make sense at first, but gradually it becomes clear that Erich is doing some kind of performance art, reciting a poem or making it up on the spot. He sings certain words for emphasis, like an angry preacher; his voice rises and rings, gathering strength. Erich doesn't blink while he draws out the quivering notes in his sputtering vibrato. With his right hand extended, his fingers coax the air like a diviner eeking out every last molecule of breath. His last words are

          Dancing into the sunshine 
          of your awareness
          because you have become
          the president of the surface of the sun—

          Dancing as if tomorrow
          the dance
          but yet remains the telescope
          turned in upon itself
          for all eternity.

Erich sinks back into his chair, expressionless again, and he shrugs. He smiles a little sheepishly, just before a spontaneous eruption of applause.