Monday, November 23, 2015

all my friends are getting married

Leaning on a pew after church, she says, “All my friends are getting married.”

All of my friends are getting married too. Sara got engaged two weeks ago, Natalie a month ago, Penny in March. My brother has asked me to reserve April, just in case. Before anyone was engaged I bought a plane ticket to Germany for my friend Sean’s wedding. Next year will be a parade of nuptials: March, April, May, July, November, 12 months of planning, of venues and dresses and bridesmaids and grooms cakes.

She says, “I didn’t use to be a jealous person. The night before my best friend’s wedding, another friend and I were talking and she told me my best friends fiance had just bought her a mint green prius because mint green is her favorite color. And I said, ‘She’s the luckiest girl in the world,’ and my other friend looked at me judgmentally and said, ‘Don’t say that.’”

I want to tell her I have always been a jealous person. That the entirety of my life has been a plague of beliefs that the amount of happiness in the world is limited, the amount of desires met, of gifts given finite. Thus every time a car is purchased, a promotion is obtained, or a love built I know the chances of it happening to me diminish. Sometimes I feel as though if I have to be happy for one more person for any amount of time, I will explode, and instead of saying, “That’s so nice!” I will yell, “FUUUUUUCKKKK YOOOOOOUUUUUU.”

Shouldn’t I abound with grace and knowledge? She is 8 years younger than I am. Perhaps she doesn’t yet know that jealousy begets jealousy. That it will make you a stranger to yourself. How many times have I written in all caps in an email, in a chat box, in my journal (on a blog)? Angry and hateful towards those I love most. Hours later, I write again, attempting to pry my heart open while keeping out the bitterness. Stay open. Keep out.

“What?” I am shocked by the unkindness of that other friend. As though that woman has never had a jealous thought in her life. “That’s terrible.”

“It is! Because isn’t it true? Some people get things and others don’t.”

My friends’ lives seem to weave themselves together in these beautiful ways. My friend who struggles with money, who comes from parents who struggle with money, she falls in love with a man who comes from it, a man who is good and generous. Another friend has railed against God for years for her singleness, then falls in love with a man who is gentleness itself, a man who is so tender, a man who makes her tender. Yes, some people get things and others don’t. Gifts being passed out until the bag is empty.

And you will think, they do not deserve what they get. I have tried harder, I have worked longer, the first son lingering in the field, hearing the party from the main house, fuming. “What about me?” he mumbles, as he drags the hoe across the earth. But that is not her. That is me.

I say honestly, “I often wonder how great marriage can be if everyone is doing it, before realizing that it sounds pretty lovely. I usually go back and forth between those two ideas”

Isn’t it easier to just try your hardest not to want what they have? To avoid jealousy by simply expunging want? Except it sneaks in. I see a lean of the head, a look across the room, a hand on a leg. I myself lean briefly towards bitterness, but there is no solace there. I argue with myself, “God’s care for me is perfect. It looks different for everyone. We have different paths. They will get married but they won’t forget about you. They will have children, but you will still matter. You will be the only one with this life, this life that God has crafted, but you will not be alone.”

“I wouldn’t say luck,” I say. “God cares for us perfectly. Meaning me not being in a relationship is for my greater good, and others being in them is for theirs.”

I see her face fall. Oh, she must be thinking. Perhaps we are not as same as I thought.

I wonder if we are the same. Will she be single 8 years from now? Or will she, like all the rest of them, after cursing God or luck, after feeling owed this thing no one is owed, find someone, settle in, soften, leaning, touching the skin of a knee?

While I will still leave church, arriving home and wondering, When will I be left alone for good? Will I always be the only one? Why is happiness something I ever thought I could have, when the bag of gifts is so small?

Tonight, I will arrive home, sit at my desk, and write this. Perhaps, I will even think on this life and curse myself for wanting more. How could a person want more than a plethora of beloveds, blood or otherwise? Beloveds who, if I lost my ability to cleave to them, would strap me on their backs and carry me through the world? Isn’t this also a gift?

“It sucks about 90% of the time.” I tell her. I mean what I say, and yet it feels so oversimplified, silencing. “But that’s what I tell myself when I am sad.”

It would be easier to just be jealous, a relief even to lean towards bitterness. We say, “You aren’t giving me what I want.” What we mean is, “How painful it is to want at all. I suffer, Lord, and I do not want to suffer.”

Lord, I suffer. You have given me so much, and yet still I suffer. I long for your return. But until then turn my eyes to the jealous and to my own jealousy, turn my eyes to the bitter and to my own bitterness, and then turn my eyes to your grace, your justice, your wholeness, your abundance, an Autumn tree, brimming with red.

She chases a child down the center aisle, and the conversation is over.

Friday, February 28, 2014

5th Wheel

They were all excited to see me, particularly Hada. I heard her yell, “Deb!” from the kitchen before running down the hall to hug me, her three-year-old mouth open wide. It made me so happy I laughed, throwing back my head as I lifted her off the ground. Kathryn hugged me next, then Chad, then Kathryn's dad. Kathryn’s mom offered me Jeremiah, the smaller of the six-month-old twins and I held his head in one hand, his diaper plush butt in the other, blowing raspberries on his tummy as he giggled gutturally. I took selfies of Jeremiah, Hada and me while Kathryn breastfed Silas, the barrel chested introvert twin with the high pitched squeal. We talked about men's body types in the 60’s, how Silas was shaped like a young Marlon Brando, and Kathryn repeated how glad she was I was there.
At first, it was just parents, children, grandparents, and me, until the first couple arrived. And then another couple with their three kids, and another with their four. We were gathering at Chad and Kathryn’s to read through a version of The Christmas Carol shortened and divided into sections meant to be read aloud at parties, a yearly tradition in Kathryn's family. I had never read the novel was surprised by Dickens quick wit, by the accuracy of my favorite Christmas movie, A Muppet Christmas Carol and by my excitement to show off my best Miss Piggy impression.  I was equally surprised when, a few minutes before the reading began, a single man without a wedding ring, a member of Chad and Kathryn’s church, joined the party. As the story began he held the smallest of the toddlers with an ease that made my heart ache. I wondered if he had children, or wanted them, and would he have them with me? These thoughts were so sudden and terrifying I couldn't speak to him for the rest of the evening.
Three months earlier I had become convinced my dear friend Crissy was setting me up with someone. In October she sent me an email that read, "Have you ever seen a movie called The Room? It is hilarious and amazing. I am thinking of hosting a small viewing party and I think you would LOVE it. What do you say?” I agreed immediately, knowing that anything done with Crissy, her husband Merrick, and her married roommates Bill and Heidi tended to include excess amounts of alcohol, easy discussion of taboo topics, and laughing until I almost peed myself. We went back and forth about dates, and I had the inkling this evening was somehow being planned around my schedule. The day of the get-together I texted Crissy, asking her if we were still on and if I knew any of the other guests. She responded, "A few people are coming around 7 for nibbles, and then movie viewing around 8 or 8:30. And I don’t think so, but you will enjoy them for sure!” Her limited details were, in my mind, purposefully withholding. Of course, she didn’t want me to be nervous. Of course, she didn’t want this to be a big deal. Of course she wanted me to feel natural. I arrived 30 minutes late and was still the first person there. Soon after one of Crissy's coworkers and her French husband showed up. And then another couple, coworkers of Merricks. After a third couple ascended the stairs to the apartment Crissy declared everyone present; time to start the film. I read these emails and texts now as completely normal, as simple communications from one friend to another, but there, at yet another party composed of couples, I felt in her vagueness only pity. We went on to have an incredibly fun night. I (as predicted) laughed until I peed, and Crissy kept telling me how glad she was I had come. A part of me knew she meant it only as I am glad you came, only as I love you, but another part of me couldn't help seeing myself as they all must have seen me: Deb at parties, Deb driving home, Deb in bed, Deb out in the world, alone.
After we finished the reading I wrestled with Simeon, a wild, earthy six-year-old and chatted with Micah, Simeon’s eight-year-old big sister, who told me about her recent birthday party. I taught them how to balance on my hands like Olympic Rings, and they would try, eventually falling forward into my arms where I would get a brief smell of their hair, sweet and dirty. At one point Simeon chewed tortilla chips open-mouthed right in my face, his nose touching mine, while I held his body close to my chest which was so full of love I thought it would burst. After most of the other couples and children had left, Hada and I built cities with old wooden blocks (every structure was the door to a church or a hospital) while Kathryn and Chad talked with Heather and Scott, also friends of mine and the remaining (currently childless) couple. Hada eventually went to bed and Kathryn brought one of the twins downstairs to eat. When he was done, Kathyn gave him to Heather, who held him close to her chest while he stared ahead sleepily. I crossed my arms in front of my chest, holding myself.
Earlier in the evening while driving to Jamaica Plain, I had thought my throat was closing. That morning the hives spotting the backs of my hands and knees, my calves and shins, had still not gone away despite taking two Zyrtec the previous night. Before crawling into bed that night I had spent 30 minutes staring at my calendar thinking about the splinter in my foot that took me and my roommate a half hour to extract, the lidocaine injected into my mouth so the cavities could be filled, the mushrooms on the pizza, the two consecutive nights in the homes of cat owners, wondering what could’ve caused such a reaction. The backs of my knees had started itching two nights ago after the first cat interaction. That must be it, I thought, trying to let it be. But the hives never sank back into my skin, and in the car, I became convinced my throat was shutting itself, and that I would soon lose consciousness, crash my best friend's car, and die. I felt an expanding sphere at the back of my throat. I will ask Kathryn for a Benadryl when I get there, I said out loud. I gratefully parked the car, climbed out, locked it. And when I opened the front door forgot my throat in Hada’s excitement.
They were discussing legalistic Christians who don’t believe in drinking, notably both Scott and Chad’s respective mothers. The topic changed from one thing to another, and someone (me probably) made a sex joke, which, as they tend to, turned into a series of sex jokes. I looked around me, everyone's face tired and alight and realized suddenly these were all people who had sex, frequently, with their spouse, with the person seated so close to them. These were not just jokes but realities: they held and touched each other at night and in the early mornings, a human beacon, helping the other keep bearings, having or trying to have children a solid reality, infertility a fear long past for one, long future for the other.
As it neared 11:30 Heather said "I need to get him home," referring of course to her husband, not to the baby she had been holding for the past hour. I had watched her hold him wondering what she thought of his little chubby body, wondering if she would turn to Scott, a question in her eyes to which she already knew the answer: not tomorrow but someday. God willing.

We all left soon after, hugging in our puffy coats, wishing each other Happy Holidays. I got in the car, backed out of the driveway and started down Centre Street. I brought a hand to my blissfully open throat and a small sob escaped, a quiet moan. As I stopped at a red light I hoped the other drivers couldn’t see me cry and if they could, hoped they would pray I wouldn’t die alone in a borrowed car.

Friday, February 7, 2014

This is a Memoir: Finale

The Last One

**I tried to write this one more like a monologue, hoping it would reflect how I actually talk. Sorry it took me 6 weeks to post it! xx**

I’ve lately become obsessed with the immensity of time and space. Like that billions of years ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth, these enormous things, with their tiny ass brains and huge ass bodies. It must have taken forever for them to run away from predators, because by the time their tiny ass brains knew they were in danger it had to then send a message like miles to their legs to move. Good thing they probably just stomped all the danger away. Until that asteroid. And what about that asteroid? Apparently it was the size of Manhattan. An asteroid the size of a huge metropolis hurtling towards earth and then wiping out all life above ground.

It’s unbelievable, like in a palpably exciting way. Like in a everything in the world is a miracle way. Like in a grateful, wondrous way. Were there dinosaurs in Cambridge? Maybe. Except the layout of the continents didn’t looks then like they do now. Because we are moving slowly across the water even while the earth is spinning, pretty quickly I think. I don’t know how fast (or slow), but we’re moving, even when we feel still. Sometimes when I am meditating I become convinced I can feel it, can feel my body rooted to the gravity of the earth’s core, can feel myself spinning slow or fast, below or above some abyss.  

How is it the earth was created? How is it the earth exists at all in the immensity of space? Inside the hugeness of this universe, and the universe that holds that and out and out and out? The big bang had to have been a miraculous happening. That from nothing some atoms collided (or whatever science-y thing you want to say happened), and then over the course of years and years and almost an eternity of years somehow we came to be--humans with our ability to actually contemplate our own existence. It just... affects me.

I saw the first Lord of the Ring’s movie in the theatre six times. That’s 18 hours of my lifespent inside the Krikorian Theatre in Redlands, California watching Frodo decide whether or not to that take that stupid ring to Mordor. And each time I saw it I would come home wrecked. The slow motion scene right after they escaped the mines of Moria, after Gandalf falls into that abyss and we all think he’s died, when Aragorn and the little hobbits are all mourning, their little curly faces contorted--that would undo me. My brother Mark had died that summer, so those faces seemed pretty familiar. And then Frodo would stand at the edge of that river, holding the ring in his hand and hear Gandalf in that boss voiceover, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” And you can see in his face, this decision he makes to live. I mean Elijah Wood is not the best actor, right, but somewhere inside him, inside this character, he finds some purpose, like some great calling that he is compelled to respond to. And then he pushes himself off in that boat, because he knows what he’s supposed to do.

And I was all, “What am I supposed to do?” I was 19 and I had no idea that this was how death would feel, that it would be this weight, this press to do, to love, to act, that you just don’t have the wherewithal to respond to. I wanted to be little Frodo standing on the edge of something concrete. Where he was going was so clear. And I couldn’t even figure out where I was to begin with.

A year after Mark died, I was a counselor at a girl scout summer camp in Julian, California. Julian is this sleepy ass town with a “main drag” consisting of five blocks of mom and pop shops (including a bakery that sells the best apple pie I’ve ever had). We were instructed to leave our cars unlocked with the keys in the front seat in the camp’s various parking lots, and we did, because who was gonna steal them? My job was eight weeks of transporting different groups of girls to and from crafting, hiking, making ice cream, and singing (or more accurately yelling) songs after lunch at the singing tree, among other awesome camp-related activities. During one of tne of the sessions we slept outside on cots. The girls slept in a grove of pine trees and the counselors slept in a clearing underneath the whole wide sky. It was like sleeping in a planetarium, only more incredible because it was like we were inside a breath, inside this infinite, sparkling, vast, unknowable thing. And I like to imagine I poured my grief into the sky, my grief and fear of my own death, of my parent’s death, of the death of everyone I would ever love, and it was like how I would yell at my mom about how she fucked up my body image, and her letting me be so mad, it made it better--this is what the sky did. It absorbed, it broke up, it redistributed. It released grief to the wind like Mark’s ashes. I call this God again now. I call this Him, for lack of a better pronoun. This the sky, this the leaves, this this class, and you all. But on that night and under those stars, I called it just Space.

I didn’t know it then, but I am a pinprick on this earth. The human life, all of it, from before Oetsi and on, is a short episode in the life of this incredibly extensive universe. And yet somehow here we are, contemplating from where we came, learning how to wonder. We are exploring our becomings, we are humbled by our biology. I think what I’ve figured over these past 13 years is finally what I’m moving towards, standing on the edge of my own insignificant river. I am moving towards this: how lucky are we to exist, here, now, anytime. What an undeserved gift is life, no less a miracle than that dinosaurs roamed the earth, or that the universe, God, I would say, is huge and unending, and I am a speck of dust.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 13

Après un rêve
I started piano lessons when I was 5 years old, clumsily plunking out the single staff melodies finger by finger on our oak upright Yamaha. I loved opening the hinged wooden cover, finding the keys draped in that elegant red felt. I felt akin to those black and white keys, solid, defined, usable, beautiful, and still, always waiting to be played. I would stroke the keys, the black, the white, bang my palms on the clusters of porcelain, slide the fingernail of my index finger from the highest note to the lowest and back, enthralled by the breadth of sound. I would find songs I knew (Twinkle, Twinkle or Three Blind Mice) and would hold down the Sostenuto pedal through the entirety of the short pieces, listening to the thick, dwindling sound cluster until it was almost silence. The notes on the page were not as appealing: clefs, key signatures, sharps, flats, fingering. Practicing meant playing the same song over and over again until you hated it. It meant those dreaded Hanon scales, ascending arpeggios, up and down, across the keys until you forgot why you loved the instrument in the first place. Except you never really did. And years later realized that because you can read music you can do anything.
I had grown up hearing about my Taita, my dad’s mother, who was a concert pianist. As a boy my dad would stand by her side as her fingers spun across the keys, his eyes wide. He would tell me I looked like her, short and stocky, busty by the time I was ten, which must’ve meant I was going to be play like her too. Although my mom would probably tell you differently, I’m not sure there was ever a time I didn’t want to play the piano. I would take years of lessons, settling in around 16 with a teacher who went to my church and let me play anything and everything I wanted (at one point I was learning Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata side by side with “My heart will go on”).
One of my favorite sounds in the world has always been an orchestra tuning. The A played by the oboe, the winds fluttering, quieting, the A again, the strings entering cacophonously, musically, the chaos anticipating the order to follow, each separate timbre perfectly in sync with its neighbor, like holding two crayons in your hand and tracing a heart. As an elementary school student I wanted nothing more than to play the cello, a privilege only the fourth graders in our school were allowed to enjoy. But we were moving during November of the school year and for two months I had to watch other kids leave class with the instrument I loved and go to the orchestra rehearsal I had dreamed of for so long. To my dismay at my new San Diego elementary school orchestra didn't even start until the 5th grade and the cello wasn't offered. I played the violin unhappily until entering middle school.
The first time I got my rented cello alone in my room, I took it out of its case, undressing it, revealing the scratched, taupe, wood, the chipped, curved f holes, the spun scroll, the smooth black fingerboard, and metallic strings. I tightened the bow and rosined the delicate horse hair stretched taut between the delicate arch. I sat at the kitchen chair I had dragged into my room that morning and tucked the cello between my legs, holding it tight with my knees. I pulled the bow sloppily across the lowest string with my right hand, waiting a moment before using my left middle finger to press the string to the fingerboard close to the scroll. I paused, the edges of my mouth turning up. I almost blushed. Jaws. A movie I had never seen, the soundtrack to which I could now play.
My poor cello teacher, Catherine, never seemed able to keep my attention. A small British woman with perfect pitch, she would frequently get frustrated with my lack of focus and have me lie on the floor under her piano as she plucked out notes I was to name. She would drone the A440 at the beginning of each lesson attempting to instill in me the pitch to which I was to tune my instrument and myself. Catherine had quickly removed the familiar tapes from the fingerboards, leaving me floundering for notes I could read but not play. I would tell her how frustrated I was, beg her to give me back the markers, and she would tell me I simply needed more practice. So I would close myself in my room, and stare at the music. I would try to play, each phrase sounding contrite and abbreviated. I could hear it in my mind, the wave of the vibrato, the crisp tapping of my fingers on the strings, the slick transitions from one position to the next, the clean defined pitches, the smooth pull of my bow across the strings perfectly parallel with the bridge. But I could not realize it.
My freshman year of high school my parents bought me a cello, brand new and chestnut brown. I remember the fade of the stain, the paisley of the grain. By the time I got this instrument I could play Bach, and did, pressing and vibrating the strings with my fingers, sliding my hands up and down the smooth wood of the neck, playing the piece I had now been practicing for a year, the first six measures of which were almost perfect. For that moment, because I could make music for those short six measures on an instrument of such undeniable physical beauty, I knew I would play it forever just as I had promised my parents I would, would practice for hours a day, would practice until the strings’ sound bent to my will.
My Junior year I quit the orchestra and joined the chorus. While singing at church or around the house, my parents and friends had always told me I had a lovely voice, and by now, despite being the first chair cellist in my high school's orchestra, my perceived pitch problems had overtaken any joy I had in the instrument. I knew deep in my gut that no matter what Catherine or my mom told me, it did not sound right. Months before, my parents had taken me to see a famous cellist whose name I cannot quite remember. After a breathtaking concert, for his encore he played Fauré’s art song “Après un rêve.” The cello wept, the cellist swaying side to side with the bow, as though rocking the instrument and himself back to sleep after that beautiful, terrible dream. The audience burst open as the piece ended, standing and shouting. At that time I had no idea there was text to this piece, I only understood the title due to my limited French, only knew the dream was everything he had ever wanted, and his waking world only darkness. I cried myself to sleep that night and dreamt I was on that stage, except my cello was out of tune, and the strings wouldn’t tighten. I spun the pegs endlessly but the sound didn’t change, and I could never play in front of people like that.
I moved into the chorus seamlessly, my loud, irreverent personality deeply appreciated amongst more artistic types and even got cast in our high school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. After a few voice lessons I told my choir director I wanted to be an opera singer, and she—a failed opera singer herself who had never let go of the stage as indicated by blush whipped so high on her cheeks that even though we worshipped her we called her a clown—told me she didn't think I was cut out for it. I’m sure she thought this a kindness, but I would tell this story triumphantly while attending the conservatory, as though I had already made it just by nature of paying my scholarship-less tuition by way of student loans and being cast in a small lead my second year.
In college and in grad school I finally did learn to practice. I spent time at the piano learning notes, translated foreign languages, and memorized sounds I didn't understand. I rehearsed when and how to gesture (which I would sadly forget the moment I stood in front of an audience). I could sing in tune, usually anyhow, but my stage fright was debilitating. Before standing up even in a classroom, my heart would beat so fast I would feel on the brink of death. I would stand at the piano, my prep simply an attempt to still the shaking of my hands. It was worse if I wore high heels, my feet unable to ground, my calves shortened, my knees trembling. In a session with my coach and pianist, a small, swarthy, sensitive, South African man, just weeks before my graduate recital, I excused myself to cry in the bathroom for 15 minutes. When I came back, he had closed the piano cover and was leaning on it, looking at me intensely across the wide expanse of the piano’s grand back. I apologized for crying, and finally looked him in the eye. “There is a small part of you that is not afraid,” he said. “You have to access that part, and then, if only for an hour, you have to try to live there.”
I took a break from music after grad school and got a job. My parents had given my cello to an inner city school in Washington, DC my freshman year of college, since my dreams were more focused on the Met stage than in the pit. When my parents sold their house to travel around the country in their RV for a year, they gave my piano to my brother Jeffrey so my niece, Alysha, could learn to play. She's is in nursing school now, and Jeffrey recently sold the piano for a thousand dollars on craigslist, an act that against my will felt as though a part my self was no longer mine, as though with the piano he had given away all of the wonder surrounding a seemingly random combination of sounds somehow changing the space in a room, prying open your heart, uncovering a joy, a safety you thought long gone.
My one year break turned to two turned to three turned to ten. “Where’d you go to school?” “The Boston Conservatory.” “Oh, what do you play?” “I sing. Sang. I have a Master’s degree in voice.” “You're an Opera Singer!” I smile, “No. Not anymore.”
Sometimes I will hear a Bach suite or a Beethoven concerto or the opening lilt of the violin signaling the beginning of “Donde lieta” and my chest will swell, and I'll think maybe I could do it again, maybe I can practice harder, be better, play in tune, stand solidly in that pin prick of a place where there is no fear. I close my eyes and let the sound of possibility settle warmly on my chest.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

This is a Memoir Week 12


My first trip to New Orleans lasted about 12 hours. During my Junior year of college in 2003 our university choir toured the deep south, singing the Vespers at different episcopal churches and trying out our white person chops on a few spirituals. We made stops in Nashville, Graceland, Apalachicola, and on the last night, before returning to California early the next morning, ended up miles away from the French Quarter the night before Mardi Gras. Once we arrived at the hotel, we quickly split off, each small group jumping into cabs to take the $45 ride to Bourbon Street. From the moment we entered the quarter, the streets were swarmed and everything moved in slow motion. The crowd shouted, its voices, eyes, and hems of shirts directed upwards at balconies so packed with people I swear they neared collapse, suffering under the weight—all tall windows, elongated shutters, scrolled, swirling ironwork, and colorful architecture obscured by the condensed debauchery. The stagnant air smelled like sick and sex. I kept my eyes down, trying to ignore the genetalia flashing in my periphery until my friends picked a gift shop, purchased a few feathered, bedazzled masks, and we were, thankfully, on our way.

I recently spent a week in New Orleans over the Thanksgiving Holiday visiting my dear friend Dahlia who had recently enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. After taking an almost 6 year break from school, everything felt new to her. She hadn’t had to write an academic paper, or be in writing workshops, hadn’t had to worry about money (at least not in this way) or carve out time to actually do her own writing in quite some time. When we would chat on the phone during her first months there she would say she was “learning to be alone” and would talk about the city as though it was the only part of her new life she understood. “The city is grieving,” she would say. And so was she.

Dahlia lives in a diverse Mid-City neighborhood. The dilapidated houses with trash strewn backyards inhabited by incessantly barking dogs adjacent to newly renovated duplexes, floor to ceiling windows lining front porches opening into brightly lit kitchens presents a checkerboard of economic status. We rarely saw a white person walking down her rainbow-ed street lined with colored houses in varying states of newness and decay. On one porch sat a Latina woman, a three-year-old child playing at her feet. Stuck to one of the porch beams was a large sign that said, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.  –God,” and as we went by I wondered about past acts of violence that would necessitate such a sign.

For the two days she had to go to class I drove Dahlia to and from school, and each time passed one of New Orleans’ famous above ground cemeteries, what Mark Twain called, “the Cities of the Dead.” New Orleans’ water table is so high, you cannot dig more than a few feet down into the earth without the grave filling with water. And if you try to bury a body the earth will simply spit it out after a season of heavy rain. We walked the cemetery the day before Thanksgiving, meandering down the long, grassy aisles and crossing between the tombs when there was room. I wondered aloud what happens to the bodies inside these miniature stone mansions. I kept imagining the decay building behind the flower vases and tiny bolted doors, until, when it was opened, death spun out into the air, not just above ground, but saturating the ether.

One day while Dahlia was in class, I parked the car in the French Quarter and went off in search of beignets. The weather was icy and grey, the open air markets chilled and empty, the bars only half open, the streets full of tourists and their children. I arrived at Café du Monde and walked under the green and white striped circus tent. I looked around for the “to go” window but had temporarily lost my ability to focus in the haze of people pooling around green tables and powdered sugar. The waiters, all rushing about with mountains of steaming white powder, passed by, and I thought about asking. But instead I sighed, and left.

Two days prior Dahlia and I decided to drive through the French Quarter and ended up in stand still traffic on Bourbon Street. Every face on the sidewalk was indistinguishable from the next in the cool sunlight: pale skin, straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, boot cut jeans, colored fleece, and sneakers (the Midwestern tourist’s uniform). We stopped by a bike tied to a street sign, old, dirty, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the handlebars as if in homage to the last time I had paid this street a visit. The scents of partiers past wafted through the windows, a hint of alcohol and old vomit at 1:30pm even months after Fat Tuesday. We passed shop windows full of I heart NOLA Tshirts, bars with neon signs and Day of the Dead decorations, through Jackson Square. “Slaves were sold here,” Dahlia said quietly. Today, on the curved stairs sat an audience of white faces gazing down at a group of black men breakdancing on the sidewalk. I hoped they did not feel sold.

A few nights later we had dessert and drinks at a French Restaurant a few miles from Dahlia’s apartment. While eating our Lemon Icebox Pie, the middle-aged couple at the table next to us asked where we are from. We exchanged pleasantries about Boston and Uptown, the ritzy, predominantly white part of New Orleans where the woman, Paula, had been born and raised, and listened to stories of the multi-million dollar home they were currently selling, in addition to Terry and Paula’s enthusiastic drinking habits.

"What do you guys do?" I asked.

"Well, Terry's a contractor, but I get mailbox money." She wiggled her hips in her chair and rubbed her thumbs against her index and middle fingers.

“I’m confused. Is that a thing?"

"Oh, honey, yes. I open my mailbox and there’s a check! And I say, 'I didn't know I owned that land!'" We all laughed for no reason.

We were looking for a place to eat on Thanksgiving, so Paula listed off several restaurants with women’s first names before mentioning Crescent City Steaks in Mid-City.

"I live right by there!” Dahlia said, “On St. Philip!”

They both leaned towards her. "You have to be careful there,” Terry states.

“You're gonna get shot!" Paula shouted. They both laugh again.

“You need to move!” Terry was gleeful. “But seriously how long’s your lease?”

"Six months. And you aren't the first people to say that." Dahlia smiled, ”But I did my research. I walked around. I met all my neighbors. They’re mostly homeowners.“

Terry leaned even further across the space between our two tables, “You might think they’re your friends, but they’re not.” He said quietly. “They’re not your friends.”

“Oh, hush, Terry.” Paula widened her eyes at him. “They’re gonna think we’re prejudice.”

After dessert we are driving onto the freeway, on our way to meet some of Dahlia’s classmates at a bar by Tulane, when we encounter the Northern Lights, visible from New Orleans by an act of God. We witness part of the night sky alight with the most incredible absinthe green light, flashing and swelling between the stars. “What is that?” I say out loud. “It’s like a wall of light.” I was sure it was no less than a miracle. As we neared our exit, the Superdome came into view, green lights flashing onto the mammoth, endless, blank, rounded surface, achingly reflected into the heavens beyond.

This is where I felt it, the history of that place, of that storm. Here human beings waited for help that they knew would never come, drowning, living in filth, wondering who is alive, who is dead, tiptoeing their way between human waste and what remained of human treasure, to find their way to outside where they would keep on waiting, perpetually losing. Perhaps the city tried to put all their grief into the ground, tried to bury it in the leveled 9th ward underneath all of the growing green and Brad Pitt’s architectural jewels, but the collective mind of New Orleans is as saturated as the earth that makes it.

The day before, while Dahlia napped, I discovered every book on her night table was poetry by Robert Hass. Picking up the slim volume with the most appealing title (Human Wishes), I came across a question:  “On the corner a blind man with one leg was selling pencils… Would the good Christ of Manhattan have restored his sight and two thirds of his left leg? Or would he have healed his heart and left him there in a mutilated body? And what would that peace feel like?”

We were sitting in the third row of Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church’s small brick building in New Orleans’ Tremé. The organist, a robust black man dressed in white and brown oxford loafers  and a white suit (starched collared shirt, vest, suspenders, loose legged perfectly hemmed pants, and a knee length suit jacket that cascaded over the back of the piano bench almost touching the floor like the train of a bridal gown) held the room. His fingers jumped quickly from keys to switches, his feet dancing across the bass pedals, the music building, in volume, in intensity. We were close enough to hear the clicking of the keys, to see the beaded sweat on his forehead, to feel the heat of joy. The women of the congregation all wore ornate colorful hats, complete with feathers, flowers, and other sparkled garnishes, boxy, shiny satin suit jackets with jeweled beading, matching calf length pencil skirts, pantyhose, and practical heels. When they would raise their hands in the air, the clean white beds of their fingernails seemed to shine against the wizened black skin, and they would shout, “Have mercy!” “Hallelujah!” “Yes, Lord!” The song climaxed on a long, held note, the organist’s finger quivering like a cellist’s vibrato, as though the organ, this organ, was equally under his spell and he could vibrate the sound with his touch (a fact I, and everyone else in the room, would never have argued). As he held the note, people shouted and clapped, wagging their hands in the air, standing up, sitting down, shaking their heads, visceral movements, subtle, and joyous, until the drummer joined in as the organist played the final notes, and a frenzy of appreciation, of worship, took over the entire congregation.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 10

A Love Letter

Before me there was you. And before you there was her. And before her the entirety of my matriarchal history lived and died, family branches full of women, leaves on the trees you love to hug.

I almost remember the day I slid out of you, purple and bloody. The doctor wrapped me in a bath towel and weighed that yowling bundle before presenting me. In the photo your thumb strokes the back of my tiny hand, your head bent, your face tired, but your eyes clear. The corner of your mouth curves ever so slightly, the beginning of your smile wrinkles, and you look down at your most delicate swaddled self. You must have thought in pictures, a parade of my future life: pastel, ruffled dresses and ballet classes, pigtail bows, pink birthdays, and skirt spinning. No, you singled in: Daughter. That was enough.

I wonder if that newness still exists somewhere inside my genetic makeup, because I want more of it. I worry I won’t have children. I don’t worry about birthing children, but I worry I will never be Mother. My fists clench around two ideas: in the right, the need, the base, visceral knowledge that this should be; in the left, the grey truth, perhaps, maybe. All things build on it. Wait. Wait more. Wait longer. Hope for the impossibility of age, of debt, of alone to lift. I have no biological clock, just biology.

I worry when you read this you’ll think I’m on the brink. I am, but I don’t know of what. I hope a sea shore, waves lapping at my feet, a clouded sunrise, salt and sweat and sand in my nose and between my toes. But it could be a cliff’s edge: black winds and debris settling their way into my wheezing lungs.

I worry if I am not Mother I am no woman. At least no longer woman-becoming but woman-declining. My skin will soften. My breasts will sink even lower. And I won't be able to console myself with the thought of my body as a pillow for a child; time will simply etch its self-portrait into my swollen, papier-mâché skin in swirls of varicose blue.

You made me a writer, Mom, asking me over and over again to, “Use your words.” I try to use them to write a different life for myself. Each morning I sit at my desk, I drink my coffee, and think about the stories I used to tell as a child. Today, every day, I just have to write one in which I can fit.

You love words too. I am thinking of those countless journals full of your loopy cursive. I made you buy me that workbook the moment I learned to write because I couldn’t wait to form my letters just like you. I wanted to write like you, to sleep in your bed, to wear your clothes, to borrow your underwear. I wanted to marry a man just like Dad and be an Engineer. I wanted to make peace. If you had it, I longed for it. If you wanted it, it became my heart’s only desire. I never could distinguish my own needs from anyone else’s. I learned that from you.

I learned to walk proud with my shoulders back, and my breasts pointing out. I learned no one should ever make me feel ashamed of myself. You told me that if I didn’t want to have sex with a man the minute I kissed him, he should never be my boyfriend, that sex is sacred and delicious. You explained to my Girl Scout troop how a threesome worked, because we asked.

I learned to want for thinness more than anything, because it’s what your mother taught you. I learned to sacrifice myself until nothing is left. And then to resent. You taught me to seek peace at all costs, to curb my anger, to let them win (except I am too much my father’s daughter to let this go on for long).

Why did you never tell me what life was like? Why did you never tell me how lonely it is to be an adult? Why did you tell me I could be anything I set my mind to, when I can’t? When you didn’t actually believe I could? I want to say you lied, but really you only told me what you wished the truth to be, about both of us. You tried to teach me healthy yearning, but I somehow learned mostly consequence, that you can have what you want until you realize you don’t want it.

I want to age in reverse. No human will ever love me like you did that first day. Except it wasn't me yet, just creation, spark, vessel, newness embodied. Even my little big brother, Allan, could feel it meeting me for the first time, holding me the gentlest he ever would, a change in the universe, a beginning star. You were not you yet that day either, at least not the you I know now, the you who struggles to find place, to say what she needs, to speak up, to sit still. You always said you were best at being a mom. Did Allan and I ruin you for all the other careers with our want and willingness to be yours?

Years ago, I called and said, “I hate you because you made me hate my body, which made me hate myself, which means I will never be happy.” And you said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. I did the best I could.” And you meant it. We had this conversation for months, and every time you were so sorry. And every time I was less angry until I was sorry, for you, because you didn’t know what you were doing, you did the best you could. And I didn’t hate my body. And I didn’t hate you. I loved you more, if possible. And it made me long for my own daughter. I would be woefully imperfect, but when the time came I would take in and diffuse her anger, and she would finally be her own.

What is Mother? She is heart, lungs, feet. She is in front and behind. She orbits, controlling gravity well beyond when she should. She is extended, immortal. Who will tell beloved stories of my life? To whom will I pass on all those things I learned, all those silly, true, terrible, wonderful things you taught me?

Perhaps Mother is not all there is. Perhaps I wasn’t born to love anything as much as you loved me that day, wasn’t born to honor the space you take up in my chest by taking up a space of my own in the chest of my own. Perhaps I was born to be yours and then to wash away like sand on the shore, a leaf ground to dust disappearing over a cliff’s edge.

Monday, November 4, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 9

At Work
I stand at the window in the concrete emergency stairwell of my office building. While walking to the bathroom the mist caught my eye through another window in a fire door, and my feet began to ache. I pushed my way through the red steel that shut loud behind me, a satisfying slam before echoed silence. I pressed my hands against the glass. I am not thinking about dying, but I am thinking about jumping.
I have just come from the "Diversity Dialogue," a Harvard event where a large group of new managers supposedly learn how to have difficult conversations surrounding (among other things) internalized cultural and racial prejudices. Unsurprisingly, few people of color attend, although there are more than I have seen at any Harvard staff get together prior. Usually the audience consists of a sea of white women's faces. The speaker asks us all to pair off, and we each receive a sheet of paper. On the paper are five circles, one in the center and four others connected to the center circle with ruler straight lines. In the middle you write your name. In the four surrounding circles you describe yourself, one-word answers only. I stare at the white blanks. I write, daughter. I write, liberal. I write performer. I write, artist, but cross it out. The woman next to me has written quickly: Manager, American, Woman, and Wife. After we share aloud, silence. Until she yawns, telling me she is tired, "From last night. World Series Champs! Gosh, that game was exciting." “Oh, yes,” I say but I did not watch, do not tell her I was in a class wearing a cowgirl costume (Halloween), letting a friend update me and my classmates on the score, happy for the lead only because of the energy that would pulse through the group of adults wearing musketeer hats, yellow suspenders, vampire teeth, and Hipster scarves each time another run was announced. This americanmanagerwifewoman wears her Red Sox T-Shirt with skinny jeans, a taupe blazer, and riding boots. Her long legs crossed at the thigh, she admits to workaholism with a glint in her blue eye.
I am pressed against the window because the wind is ending the world, and I can’t look away. Red leaves rush on wet blasts, branches bend, tree trunks groan, and the sky opens wide its maw to gulp at earth. The roofs of neighboring buildings shine slick and unmoving. I feel surprised we still stand. There is no rain, but there are promises in the air.
Tomorrow I will have another conversation with my employee, and she will cry. I will use phrases like "crucial situations," "decision making skills," and "time management," all to help her understand the importance of properly setting up a laptop for any lecture attended by our Faculty members. I will tell her this, face stony, eyes concerned, with unfeigned gravity, and she will cry. I will push the tissue box towards her and avoid saying, "It's all right." She will cry like something is broken. After she leaves, I will close the door behind her and cross my arms, pressing myself back together.
I lean into the thick paned glass, palms pressed, fingers spread. I rest my hairline, tilting my gaze, counting the cars in the parking lot from six floors up. There is no hinged opening, no way to step through. My thoughts are most likely chaste in comparison to the others who have wanted for this. No one is out walking. It isn't time to go home.
My office has no windows so my therapist gifted me a sun lamp: a small rectangular box, 12 inches on the long side, six inches on the other that beams something resembling sunlight into my brain all day. "The light from the HappyLight Energy Lamp must be directed at your eyes; therefore, your eyes must be open to achieve the full benefit. Note: Tinted glasses reduce the amount of light reaching your eyes," says the manual. The first day even the lowest setting is so bright I find myself squinting. But I adjust. I stay awake at my desk now. I stay awake through the night. I am vigilant.
If I were a tree I would be a rain shelter, a place for prayer, solid, seasonal, dark, and alive. My thin wooden fingers would scrape hellos on remote windows, and at night I would be almost invisible, a shadowy outline of leaves against a starlit sky. How much wind would it take to knock me over, to tear me from the ground? What if I grew on the roof of this building, wood birthed from cut wood, roots winding into heating vents, choking lab equipment, grinding chalk to dust? How much would it take then? Would a gust be enough to blow me over the edge, spinning wildly towards my splintering?
But I am not a tree. I turn abruptly and walk back through the fire door, past the bathroom long forgotten, by the finished wood of the reception desk, beyond a closed office door to a closed door of my own. I sit at my desk. I type an email using words like "critical," "expectations," and "deadlines." I press send and stare directly into the sun lamp.
I do not want to jump.
I want to fly.