mary’zine #66: March/April 2014

April 16, 2014

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winter wrap-up

I’m feeling pressure to finish this issue before my winter theme falls hopelessly behind the times. We in the upper Midwest are dying to stop complaining about cold weather so we can start complaining about the wind, the brown lawns, and the humidity of springsummer (no longer separate seasons). But considering that it is snowing as I write this (on April 16), it might not be a problem. Temperatures are straining to rise into the 40s (with the 50s surely not far behind), but you never know in these parts. You just never know.

Yes, it’s still winter in the U.P., despite what the calendar says and despite the photos of beautiful flowers and sunrises the West Coasters are sending our way, on the pretext of assuring us that spring will someday come to us as well.

My winter stories this year have not been ones of clumsy, comical falling down in the snow. I have fallen down (clumsily), don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been very funny at all … (see mary’zine #31 for some knee-slappers.) … partly because I have an even harder time getting up than I used to. I fell on the back steps but had the railing to hold on to as I hauled myself up. I fell at the end of my front walk after attempting to shovel a narrow (1 shovel-width) path for the mailman. Fortunately, the mailman happened to be standing right there, and when I stuck my hand out to be pulled up, he really had no choice. As I harp on constantly, the city snowplow comes through and shoves the snow off the road and onto whatever surface happens to be in the way, preferably a surface that has already been cleared. And there’s a general understanding—or maybe it’s a law—that you’re not to dump what is now your snow back into the road.

 

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this was taken somewhere in Canada; so yes, it could be worse.

The driveway poses a bigger problem than the front walk, because, though it’s not very long, my mighty Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo doesn’t have a lot of traction when the snow is deep or the icing on the cake is actual ice. My usual method of making the driveway passable is to power through with the Jeep, back and forth until the tracks are deep enough to guide me in and out of the garage. But with the massive snowfalls we’ve been getting, combined with the city plow’s habit of building snow banks in front of every egress, an oddly sturdy hump of snow and ice has developed at the end of the driveway, so when I power out, there’s quite a stomach-lurching backwards drop at the end. I always have to remember to quickly move my foot to the brake so I don’t go too far and get lodged in the neighbor’s mound of road snow.

The other day I had to clear out three areas: front walk, driveway, and a circle in the back yard to dump a bag of sunflower seeds so the birds and squirrels don’t have to make snow tunnels to try to get sustenance. I was exhausted after doing the front walk, so I went inside and took a 3-hour nap. Then I forced myself to do some major shoveling at the end of the driveway, but the snow had gotten pretty high. The spirit was willing, but the flesh it took to shovel the snow out of the way of the Jeep tracks was weak. Actually, the spirit wasn’t very willing, either. Then I went to do the power-out thing. I managed to go back and forth a couple times, but when the Jeep slid out of the tracks, I panicked and managed to lurch into the side of the garage door and it was good-bye, passenger side view mirror.

An even bigger problem is that the ground has frozen way farther down than is usual. There’s a danger of the pipes in individual houses freezing, but even worse is the possibility that the entire water relay system will freeze up. Therefore, we’ve been told to keep water running from one faucet continuously, even after warmer temperatures make us forget all about our hoary winter.

I got a postcard from the city about this, but only after the citizenry debated in the newspaper and on Facebook what was going on and what exactly we were supposed to do about it. Various people “heard” things, such as that households south of 38th Ave. did (or did not) have to keep their water running. Someone posted that she lives north of 38th Ave. (as I do) and was told that she had to keep her water running. So I called what is euphemistically named “Infrastructure Alternatives” but is really “Waste Water,” as the man who answered the phone wearily confirmed. He asked for my address and told me I didn’t have to keep my water running. But the buzz grew louder that the whole town was supposed to keep their water running, and I eventually got an official postcard saying as much.

So then the question was: How much water? Word went out that the stream should be “the width of a pencil.” That didn’t sound right, because in the olden days it was always described as a “trickle.” Then I came across a website from a Green Bay TV station that said it should be the width of “a pencil lead.” That’s a very different thing. But apparently no one else noticed the discrepancy, and the “pencil” people won out over the “lead.” This policy is in effect until further notice, since warm weather above ground won’t do enough to thaw the earth below. We’re still having the occasional snowfall and single-digit temperatures. And I still have a ski jump at the end of my driveway.

 

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seeds of gratitude

The birds must think they know
That the Bird gods blessed them with this bounty
Spread upon the hard snow.

Do they take it as their due to grow?
Or do they feel a burst of love
When they spot the seeds below—
This mysterious gift—unbidden—fallen with the snow?

Or am I the one who’s grateful for us all—
welcoming with a glad eye the
cardinal
who comes alone at dusk
and cautiously, disbelieving, approaches
the abundance, a surfeit of love and trust.

—mmck

 

I don’t claim to be a poet, but sometimes I can fake it pretty good. The first poem I ever wrote was also about a bird. For high school English I wrote a rambly true story in free verse about going for a walk and finding a dead bird. It was sentimental—of course—but at least there was feeling in it. My friend, a wannabe sophisti-cat, made fun of me for it, as did the fat girl who wanted to replace me in his affections. This was the era of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, and anything less than howling did not a poem make. Mid-‘60s, it just seemed that all the artists, writers, and poets were men, and 90% of them were tortured existentialists. I had a teacher in college who was such a man, an extremely intense man who moonlighted as a shoe salesman, and he wrote all over my essays with great passion in red pen. Sometimes I think my whole college education was an apologia of 1950s existential guilt and penile hubris. I would still be an English major today, but I’d get to read a wider swath through American and world (and female) literature. But I digress.

 

strung out on epiphanies

There will be clouds of course. At least that’s what I’ve heard. That you fly through them.
     —a Dutch woman contemplating what her first airplane ride will be like

During my first airplane ride (Menominee > Lansing, 1964), I had what may seem like a mundane epiphany: that the sun is always shining, despite the low cloud cover that seemed like a permanent part of my world. I “knew” this already, of course, but some knowledge has to be experienced directly.

Recently, I had what seemed like a profound epiphany, but it’s hard to hold on to. I can tell you that it had to do with love, but what hasn’t already been said about love? An epiphany is sudden and starkly real. It’s an experience. I can still feel the effects of this one, but I’m afraid that trying to describe it will just lead to a hackneyed greeting card sentiment fit only for Hallmark’s Sarah Jessica Parker collection.

But I have a cool metaphor to offer, take it or leave it. If I were a string of Christmas tree lights… stay with me… the bulbs shine brightly, but between them are lengths of unglamorous infrastructure to hold them together. Sometimes you’re the bulb, sometimes the cord.

For months now I’ve been thinking about love, sex, anger, forgiveness—what I want, what is (or isn’t) wanted from me—and it’s been a pretty tortured, confusing time. I have deep feelings, but I often don’t know what to make of them, how to accept them, where to direct them. All felt up and nowhere to go. That didn’t come out right.

I described the situation in mary’zine #65: I had a wonderful sexual experience with an old friend, but she declined to take it farther, for very good reasons. I knew I had to accept her decision, but how were we going to continue our friendship? I felt stuck: couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t about her at all, I was responsible for my own feelings—but how often do you work through something by thinking endlessly about it? In the midst of the emotional muck, I just tried to stay “real” and not push myself in one direction or another.

At a certain point—being open to whatever the truth turned out to be—the clouds cleared and I knew what the problem was. My ego was having a tantrum. I could count on one hand (with a couple fingers left over) the times that my friend had gone against my wishes. My ego was wounded, and all I knew to do was to hide behind the well-used, patched and puttied wall that had been my go-to place for licking my wounds for as long as I could remember. In the past I couldn’t have been so open to seeing a less than flattering side of myself. But years—many years—on this planet have taught me something after all, and I was actually relieved to know the truth.

When I allowed myself to own this truth, my feelings of anger and resentment just dissipated. My other friends were astonished to hear me express such a mature attitude. It’s an ongoing process, of course. Part of me didn’t want to give up my defenses. It was a big deal to me, and I didn’t want to just drop it and never speak of it again. So much for my mature attitude. I wanted to keep her on the hook, I didn’t want the elephant in the room to become invisible. I felt a bit like George Costanza on Seinfeld, when he didn’t get credit for buying the “big salad” for Elaine because George’s friend handed it to her and was graciously thanked. The genius of that show was that it highlighted the pettiness we all feel at times. On Seinfeld there was famously “no hugging, no learning.” But the universality of the characters’ selfishness was a lesson for the viewers if we were willing to take it in.

***

I have often wished, frivolously, that the birds who come to my back yard to dine and bathe would come to trust me and not flee when I open the back door carrying a heavy bag of seeds and a watering can. In an ideal world, they would realize that I’d never harmed or threatened them, that I was the source of their bounty. As in the Disney world of Snow White, they would fly chirping around my head as they crowned me with garden flowers. I know it’s just a harmless fantasy. But if I’m feeding them out of love, it makes no difference that I’m not being thanked or seen as the giver, the provider.

***

Without warning, I had one glorious day when I got it. I glowed with the feeling, with the knowledge, the long-sought epiphany. Love isn’t to be found outside myself, it’s in me, it is me. I don’t love X, Y, or Z: I love. In our hearts we are like those worms that are both male and female. Each one of us is holographic, we embody everything. Looking for love in all the wrong places? It’s all right there, in you! You can put it out or you can take it in, but you don’t need to be thanked, appreciated, affirmed, over and over again. You are the source, or I should say the conduit. If we can just be, love exudes from us like the fragrance of a flower. We think we can shut it off, but it can’t stay shut for long. It can be a deluge, a downpour, an outpouring—or it can be like the pencil-width stream that continually trickles down the pipes to thaw the frozen earth—or heart—on which we live.

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love, everywhere

It’s one thing to have a private epiphany and the feelings that go with it, but then there’s the world and other people: Real Life. My money where my mouth is.

In the almost 10 years since I moved back home (“Back in the USUP”), I’ve often lamented that I don’t have friends here. It’s great to spend time with my sisters, but it’s nice to have other connections as well. I’m friendly but not quite friends with a number of people: my contractor and his wife, a server at my favorite restaurant, my haircutter, my dental hygienist (now that’s a first!), various people who I’m happy to see and who seem to be happy to see me. I’ve been limited in my idea of what a friend is. Leaving my cozy nest and going out into the world, I don’t always have a great experience, but I’m often surprised at the connections. My last two encounters with Karna, who cleans my teeth, have been delightful. I’m at a disadvantage in that situation, of course, because I often can’t talk because her hands are in my mouth, but believe me, I take advantage of every time she pauses or turns to look at my chart. And even when I can’t form words, I can laugh in response to her funny comments and stories. I don’t even remember what we talk about, but in one of our sessions I told her, during a 3-second break in the action, “I’m having fun!” And I could tell she was too. Last time, referring to my sense of humor, she told me, “You are dry, Mary.” I was saying I maybe shouldn’t have told Dr. Aschim that one time that I felt like I was doing all the work. But I have this quirky, risk-taking side, which my mother also had (you might be surprised to hear this if you’ve read my “autobiography” of her). It means that I might say something inappropriate at times, but the risk is usually worth it. I may leave in my wake a number of people who are shaking their heads and thinking to themselves, “That’s a weird one,” but since my heart is in the right place, I’m coming across more people who “get me.” Isn’t that the ultimate in relationship, regardless of what level it’s at?

The computer and the phone are essential parts of my life here. I have regular conversations with my faraway friends P, T, and B, and online a strange thing has happened: Among my Facebook friends there have emerged some real friends, even though I haven’t met them in person. Even in “social media,” feelings come through loud and clear. A lot of it involves bantering: I can spend more than 2 hours having a conversation on private messaging with one person at the same time that I’m responding to 2 or 3 other people who are Liking or Commenting on or Sharing things I or they have posted. The range of connection covers the whole spectrum of human relationship, from barely conversant to casual to intimate. You may dispute the possibility of intimacy, but it’s there. Many connections are based on politics, cats, street art, the weather, commiseration over common problems, and bonding over joys and triumphs. I used to think that all interaction on Facebook had to be superficial by definition… but people find each other. The beauty and the voluntary nature of contact allow for freely made associations and surprising discoveries.

One of the people I’ve connected with responded enthusiastically to one of my paintings, some of which I’ve posted online. We had already established that we’re kindred souls, so I told her I sometimes give away my paintings but the person has to ask. I gave her an out by saying that she might like the painting a lot but not want to have it on her wall. The requisite “are you sure”s and “what do you want for it”s were quickly dispensed with, and finally she said, “I want it. And I want it on my wall.” So after tearing apart one room and two closets looking for it, I sent it to her the next day. She loves it. She’s happy. I’m happy. She doesn’t live here, so I may never meet her in person, but I feel like I have a friend for life. Lesson learned: If you put yourself out there, friends and meaningful connections can pop up not only in “all the old familiar places” but in unexpected places as well.

 

and sometimes… love hurts

My cat Luther just bit my thumb as I was trying to balance him on my lap so that I could reach the keyboard. I try to keep my fingers away from his mouth and firmly remind him, when he gets too close, “No biting!” But he hasn’t gotten the message. He doesn’t seem to do it out of anger, it’s more that he just finds me delectable. If I were to collapse at home and die, I would fully expect him and Brutus to gnaw me to pieces… not out of malice but out of whatever animal logic tells them it’s the right thing to do.

Luther has a chronic bladder infection and has had at least 3 surgeries to remove jagged stones. After the last one, about a week ago, Dr. A said he wouldn’t survive another one. This is devastating news, of course. I now have to wait and see what happens and decide when his quality of life has declined irreversibly. He’s been through a lot and is not exactly welcome at the vet clinic. One female vet told me, when I brought him in for an emergency after hours, that she and Luther “don’t like each other” because he’s “nasty.” Through angry tears I said, “He’s not nasty, he’s scared to death!” She apologized, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. But ol’ Dr. A takes him in stride.

When I got Luther home after his latest surgery, he couldn’t walk straight for several hours, and when he could, he tried to get away from me by scooting under the bed. At about 24 hours, I petted him and said his name gently. He always responds to his name, but this time he turned his head away. I don’t know how much of his behavior is emotionally based, or if I’m just imagining what he’s feeling. At one point I went to check on him, and he was splayed out in the litter box. When he realized I was there, he pulled himself halfway out, presumably to escape from me again. I know it’s not really personal, but it’s hard to take. I was telling one of my friends on Facebook how he’d been acting since coming home, and the minute I sent the message, Luther came walking over to me and rubbing on my leg and purring. I wanted to think we were having a mind meld where he knew what I had just written about him. Anthropomorphism: a chronic state in which animal lovers can’t let their pets (or their backyard birds) be who they really are. We try to impose our feelings and expectations on them, as though the actual bond, visible or not, between us and them isn’t enough. I am going to try to be with Luther for the time he has left and not dwell on the inevitable. Easier said than done. But he’d better not bite me again.

 

 

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in love and gratitude,

 

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mary’zine #65: February 2014

February 5, 2014

Well, this is awkward. I had this issue of the mary’zine all ready to go when something happened that completely changed my premise, my mood, and my confidence. But what I had written was pretty inspiring, if I do say so myself, so I am retaining some of it. I wrote about miracles, how they don’t come from outside—Jesus or “the universe”—but from deep within. What I didn’t realize was that miracles can reverse or redefine themselves. Imagine you’re savoring your cup of wine and suddenly it turns back into water. Perhaps the miracle was not the transformation of the substance but the discovery that something deeper is going on. Or you are successfully risen from the dead, only to keel over 5 minutes later from a heart attack. I can’t presume to know what deeper miracle could be at work in that case, but my point is that things are not always what they seem. Even miracles.

To be continued on the other side of my sad air travel stories.

adventure time

Adventure is just hardship with an inflated sense of self—Orange Is the New Black

This definition of adventure suits me to a tee. My trips to the West Coast certainly qualify as “hardship,” but I also have a rather inflated sense of self. Voilà: adventure. Most people who fly across the country don’t consider it adventure or hardship. But they are not me, are they?

When my alarm went off at 5 a.m. on the morning of my departure for the December painting intensive, I wished with all my heart that I could call it off. I sat there for 5 minutes hoping for an act of God, a small personal injury, or the huevos to call Barbara and simply announce, “I’m not coming—and you can’t make me!” This attitude is not much different from the feelings I had in high school when I had to get up before dawn to get ready for a long car trip to Marquette or Houghton for a debate tournament. I’ll never know why I put myself through that. As with painting, it was my choice to participate, to take those forays into the scary unknown—but the part of me that wants to hold back, stay home, stay safe has always been so strong.

I confess to having flown between Green Bay and Chicago without wearing a seat belt. I hate asking for the extension, and the flight attendants on United Express tend to be less than diligent in checking. They have virtually nothing to do on that flight… no beverage service, nothing. They drone on about what to do if the plane crashes over Lake Michigan (which they never say in so many words; they call it a “water landing,” making it sound like a fun ride at Six Flags), but they often don’t notice my lack of seat belt or the noncompliance of the person in the seat in front of me who does not return her seat back to its full upright position. With all the rude jokes about fat Midwesterners, you’d think the regional airlines would invest in seat belts that go all the way around a body. None of this is an excuse for “flying bareback,” as it were. I’m just saying it happens sometimes.

close encounters with the martinets of the airways

The TSA agents at the Green Bay airport are patient and kind. They fall all over themselves accommodating folks, even wishing us an enjoyable flight! This attitude is not known in other airports, or at least I haven’t experienced it.

Flying west, I only have to go through security in Green Bay, but on the way back, the San Francisco airport can be its own special ring of hell. You never know what you’re going to encounter, or indeed what the rules are. This is between 4 and 4:30 a.m. after driving from The City to SFO, getting past the side-by-side signs that tell you that San Bruno Ave. is this way and San Bruno (the town) is that way. San Bruno Ave. is the turnoff for the airport, but it has always been a mystery to me why they don’t do something—perhaps add “SFO” to the Ave. sign—so confused out-of-towners don’t have to make the split-second decision of which way to go. I mean, I mostly know how to get there after X number of years of doing it, but it still makes me nervous every time.

So this is after the 7-day painting intensive. Terry happens to be on my flight from SFO to Chicago, but we might as well be in different worlds, because I’m in first class and she’s back in coach. I even have a different security line to go through. Both of us had discovered at some point that we have been “pre-checked” by TSA (when did that happen, and how, and why?). The only perk I’ve noticed is that we don’t have to take our shoes off, for which small favor I am grateful in the extreme. In San Francisco this time I’ve put everything I’m carrying into the bins. I notice a TSA agent standing near the body scanner, or whatever they’re calling it now, but I don’t know or care what he’s doing there. As I start to move toward the scanner, he stops me and says, with a hefty dash of disbelief in his voice, “You didn’t take your shoes off!” I say, “I’m pre-checked.” He says, “I’ll need proof of that.” I point out that the proof—my boarding pass—is at that moment going through the conveyer belt x-ray, and he says he can’t let me through unless I take off my shoes. It is early enough, I am tired enough, and I’m just plain fucking annoyed enough to want to take this dispute all the way to the Shoepreme Court (ha). But he has been designated the interpreter and enforcer of the rules, a self-contained unit like the baby doll who can both drink water and pee it out. I have been threatened in the past with being “escorted out” for not having thrown my water bottle away, so I know there’s no room for an indignant customer to vent. We are just a few steps away from the conveyer belt, but of course the guy is not going to go over there and pull my bag out and check the boarding pass. I know it’s stupid, but I finally am granted the right to keep my goddamn shoes on, and now I have to take them off anyway? He tells me that I was told I’d have to hold on to my boarding pass. “No, I wasn’t.” “I’m sure you were.” Blah blah blah. I’m not going to say the U.S. is turning into 1930s Germany, but if it were, they wouldn’t have to change much to keep us in line. We are being schooled.

One of the most bizarre encounters I’ve ever had with a flight attendant (FA) was also on the flight out of San Francisco. Because a male passenger had condescendingly (“No, no, no, no, no…”) informed me that I couldn’t put my coat and cane in the overhead bin because he needed to put his ginormous roller bag up there (Me: “I checked MY baggage”), the FA put them up front. When we got to Chicago, we were delayed for about half an hour on the runway because another plane was sitting at our gate. I only had an hour or so to get to my connecting flight. As we’re finally inching toward the gate, the same FA gives me back my coat but not my top hat and cane. (OK, there was no top hat.) When we’re standing by the door waiting for it to open, I ask for my cane, and she says, “I told you to remain in your seat until I see your wheelchair.” (I always order a wheelchair to get me between concourses, terminals, or universes, as the case may be.) This is ridiculous. I ask her why. She says, “It’s cold out there” (in the Jetway), but what does that have to do with anything? I argue with her, and she finally changes her tack: “So what do you want to do, then?” This throws me off, because—what? She asks the same question several times—I guess I’m not responding coherently—I’m hopped up on goofballs, lady!—and reiterates that she can’t let me out until she sees my wheelchair. A male FA then reaches over several heads to hand me my cane. (Although they may be equal in rank, the male in the situation gets to make a unilateral decision. If the sexes were reversed, I don’t think the woman could have overridden the man’s demand).

So the door opens, and I huff and hobble my way up the ramp. Another employee comes out of nowhere and says my wheelchair is waiting at the top, but when I get there it’s gone. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it to my next flight, but I give it the old college try. I flag down a passing cart, and the very nice woman driver takes me to the other terminal. At some point Terry catches up with me, and we discover we’re stranded: All the flights leaving Chicago are being canceled because of a massive snowstorm. The last time this happened to me, I was stuck there for 3 days. This time, I’m thrilled to have the misery-loves-company. As we approach the Hilton, we have to be handed over because they can’t take us “out of the airport,” though it’s under the same roof. T kindly pays for the room, but I insist on paying for dinner in the dining room, which costs almost as much.

We are both given new reservations for our separate flights the next day—me to Green Bay, her to Hartford CT. It still looks very snowy, so I don’t have much faith that we’ll get out of there anytime soon, but past the initial delight at having the extra time together, I really want to get home so I can change my clothes. In the morning we’re given free chits for the buffet and have a decent breakfast before parting ways with such sweet sorrow.

Going through security, I make it through with my pre-check privilege intact, but then I’m told I’ve been randomly selected for special treatment. I have to go to another area, hold my hands out with my palms up, and get swabbed for… explosives. Really? I’ve been pre-checked for my shoes but not my hands? When he’s done, the guy has to tell me to put my hands down, because I am at heart a good little rule-follower—isn’t that always the way with rebels? We secretly crave security but fight against that humiliating desire whenever possible.

It’s on the United Express flight north that I don’t wear my seat belt. At Green Bay—not having had a “water landing” over a certain Great Lake—I discover that my suitcase has preceded me, so that’s a comfort. (But why does the plane carrying my luggage never get stranded like the plane carrying me?) My Jeep is covered in snow but starts right up. After my usual side trip to El Sarape, I drive the 50+ miles home, fighting sleep all the way. As always, it is bliss to get home and see my kitties, who are in a flurry, wanting at the same time to (a) bounce around me and (b) run through the house celebrating my return (or so I like to think). We end up in a pile on the big chair and ottoman and sleep like angels.

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… the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

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Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

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the body abides

In mary’zine #62 (June 2013), I wrote about a major change in my relationship to my physical self. It happened over the course of 7 days of painting—or at least that’s when it made itself known—and at my advanced age, it felt like a miracle. One of the signs was a completely unexpected attraction to an old friend. I was burning up with it, but she was hesitant… more than hesitant… she didn’t see how it could work. So I reluctantly put those thoughts aside and tried to see that the important part of what had happened was my feeling. I was the one who had changed, I who now knew the power of long repression of the life of the body, and its release.

 

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lez iz more

The feelings returned when I saw her next, 6 months later. She still had doubts, but then “one thing led to another” (as they say), and we became lovers. She didn’t hold anything back, and neither did I. I had never felt anything like this: We were completely compatible, like horse and carriage, like love and same-sex marriage. We were not afraid, or shy. We were both completely open to each other. She came to visit me over Christmas, and it was even better than before. I learned so much about my body, my expectations, my seemingly bottomless fount of desire and satisfaction. We felt as natural and close as we ever had in our almost 30-year friendship, but now with new feelings, new expressions. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but there was a strong sense of que sera sera, at least on my part. Of course, it’s always easier to trust the Truth when it’s working out so great for you in the moment.

This was huge for me. For at least 45 years I have worked on changing myself. I’ve followed people who seemed to have the truth, I’ve read books that seemed to have the truth…. I’ve had the practice of painting which has given me many rewards over the years, but the reward that has been the longest in coming to my conscious attention is this knowledge that we change, not only from the inside out, but from deep down, below our knowing. And I’ve learned to pay attention to the subtle indications, like when I started noticing I was getting more interested in my family and my hometown, back before I had any conscious knowledge that I would ever (in a million years) want to move back here. Something inside us knows before the conscious mind does, and given time and attention it eventually shows itself. So I say now that I don’t decide what to do, I find out what to do. When the time was right to make the move back home, everything fell into place. When I was finding out if I wanted to live here, I was committed to accepting the truth when it was revealed, whatever it was. I have a confidence in myself now that’s like the dreams I have in which I’m driving a car but I can’t see where I’m going. I panic, but suddenly I can see again and I’m perfectly safe.


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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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One of the most amazing discoveries we made during the time my friend/lover and I spent together was the insignificance of orgasm. Not just insignificance: irrelevance. What we had was way better than     orgasm. More sustained, completely satisfying. I’m now spoiled for the self-induced orgasms I’ve used as my surrogate “sex life.” This is the opposite of “lesbian bed death.” This is lesbian bed resurrection, insurrection, uprising and rising and rising… a completely different way of experiencing sex.

ooh la la!

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But then—life turned on another dime, and I found myself on the wrong side of the door: the door of Love. She couldn’t “emotionally commit”; it didn’t feel “completely right.” There is no way to accurately interpret what the one who turns away is saying. All the assertions that “I love you so much” and “sex with you is so wonderful” do all but make the mind implode when she says she’s “not ready” to embrace this new/old relationship.img001 copy 8

Despite my assertions about my new-found confidence, I haven’t quite gotten my head around this. I finally have the best sex of my life with someone I love very much, and it’s suddenly snatched away. (When good writers make bad puns….) But I’m quite sure I have not lost the most important thing: the capacity to express and receive love through my body. It’s just hard to know what to do with it now.

I know that life’s pain—of love, of attraction, of rejection—is the doorway. It’s hard to explain what this doorway is. What’s on the other side, and why is it important to go there? I believe that Truth is there, behind the pain, and it is not dependent on anyone outside myself, even a wonderful lover. So: My mission now is to face the Truth—no holds barred, no excuses accepted, and no explanations required.

********************
For a New Beginning

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

—John O’Donohue (To Bless the Space Between Us)

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mary’zine #64: November 2013

November 8, 2013

baltimore love

Update: The highway is my byway once again. After many months of man-hours and dirt and noise and inconvenience, the road called M35 is now paved with good intentions. Fortunately, Hell, MI, is in the Lower Peninsula. My hat is off to the fellas who do this grueling work. It must have felt like Hell all summer. On the other hand, their brothers who work in our few remaining factories might envy them the sort-of fresh air, if not the annoyed drivers trying to get from A to B.

And though my wonderful contractor, Paul K, did not work the roads, he was busy all summer putting on roofs (rhymes with hoofs) and remodeling mobile and immobile homes and is finally freed up to do my bidding. Although I no longer have the ready cash that I used to throw around like confetti (as every once-poor person does who gets a windfall, thinking that it will last forever whether you spend it or not), I need to replace the shag carpet in Brutus and Luther’s room. There are so many stains from their throwing up (and worse) that I don’t even go in there barefoot anymore. So Paul is going to replace the carpet with vinyl, making me and my goddess-next-to-cleanliness niece, if not the cats themselves, happy and care-free. My task now is to pick out a color that will go with the blue, green, and lavender pastel walls that my sister K painted many years ago. The room has become a cat-chall (ha) for art supplies, boxes of old files, assorted tools—hammers, screwdrivers, a drill, a whatchamacallit (thing with a bubble in the middle to make sure something is—oh, level; good thing I wasn’t called upon to name it when it was first invented), two orange metal sawhorses that I bought just for color, a long table, half of which is topped with a comforter for a dedicated cat lookout spot, and a desk with shelves holding reams of xerox paper, on top of which sits a dollhouse exactly like the one I (and eventually my sisters) played with as a kid (which my sisters found at a garage sale), which is not outfitted with dollhouse-size furniture, oh no, it’s a house of pain, sand tray-style, with skulls and other oddities inside and toy men with bad intentions climbing the roof, and on the wall above it is a quilt hanging my mother made me that purports to be a representative pictorial of my life—an embroidered road along which a series of bonnet girls traverse the peaks and valleys from age 0 to about 30, and the weird thing is that most of what she considered valleys were actually peaks for me (like my publishing the Alternative Press Index in Northfield, MN, for no money) and vice versa. At the top she had embroidered “Pilgrim’s Progress” and at the bottom, “The Slough of Despond, the Delectable Mountains,” and got mad at me because I didn’t know the reference. On the opposite wall, above the orange sawhorses, is a larger quilt that my friend Diane L gave me that depicts a colorful series of snakes, not lifelike, alternating with geometric shapes, very cool. In a corner stands a dress form that has been dolled up with one of my shirts, a skull wearing a cap that says Scotch Lobster, and on and on.

Wanna come help me move all that stuff out of there?

*************************************************

h

If you’re terribly averse to metaphysical speculation, you might want to skip this part. But I hope you’ll give it a look-see, anyway.

I sent my friend P this quote from Robert Lanza, MD (author of Biocentrism; How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe):

Our consciousness animates reality much like a phonograph. Listening to it doesn’t alter the record, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call “now.” In reality, there is no before or after. All nows, past, present and future, always have existed and will always exist, even though we can only listen to the songs one by one.

P replied:

Interesting, so where does “free will” come in—deciding where to place the needle?

So I pontificated, based on my limited (or no) understanding:

No one decides where to place the needle. It’s all happening at the same time and it’s just “what is” at any given point. Like, when I’m dreaming, I’m “there,” and when I wake up I’m “here.” I didn’t travel between the two places or decide where to be, when. When I have a very vivid memory (like you and me passing each other at dusk before we met but when we knew who each other was), I’m there. And when it “actually” happened, we were both there. (One could see memory not as a later recapitulation of a real event but as the needle coming down on that spot again.) “Free will” is a myth that we tell ourselves so we’ll feel like we’re in charge. We can make the little choices, like whether or not to eat the doughnut, but forces much larger than us are joining together (but without intention) to manifest the really big stuff (who we are). Back to the record: We think we are the record, and that we start at the beginning and play until the end. But as in Lanza’s analogy, any number of things can happen that don’t follow the linear “track 1,” “track 2,” etc. You can skip tracks, play one over and over, or even put them into other songs by sampling. For that matter, the people who played the music on the record probably didn’t play it in exactly that order. And they may be “dead” now, but we still experience them as “alive.” Or they went on to make other records. Or several people are listening to the “same” record at the same or different times. It’s more 3[or 4 or 10]D, as opposed to our 2D conception of “born, live, die” on a linear time line.

I’m making this stuff up as I go, obviously, trying to springboard off Lanza’s comments. But that’s fun for me.

along the same lines…

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love is a higher organizing principle than time, but its organization is hidden

I was lying in bed one night, playing solitaire on my Kindle, and a feeling of near-euphoria began to creep over me. There was no apparent reason for this, as I had not been taking any recreational drugs (unless you count chocolate chip muffins, and I do) and it hadn’t been a “wonderful” day or anything. After a while, I started to think about time. (Solitaire is not necessarily a waste of time, it’s a good way to keep the surface mind occupied while the depths are allowed to roam: free-range thinking, thinking without words.)

Time seems to be one of the few constants in our universe. It’s so obviously a linear, one-way phenomenon. So I’m thinking this while I idly tap on the cards, and then, again idly, inwardly, I see, as a little graph in the middle distance, first, the straight line of time, and then, off to the side, seemingly scattered and unclassifiable… love. I gasp out loud. I’m not sure what I have yet, but I know it’s something. Time to put the thinking without words into something more tangible.

Time isn’t really linear, it just feels that way. We “time-travel” all the time. (I can’t avoid using the word “time” in these two ways: the sacred and the mundane.) Time travel is remembering, misremembering, trying to pin down “the now”: Is it ever really “now,” or is it “now” all the time? We speak easily about “tomorrow,” but it never feels like tomorrow, does it? When “tomorrow” comes, it’s still now. So what if, like those turtles, it’s “now” all the way down? a through line rather than a clothesline?

It seems obvious that we grow, both physically and mentally, even as we decay and atrophy. It’s all very pat, this time thing. In 1945 I did not exist. But was I “dead”? When I become nonexistent “again,” what will be the difference (to me)—between nonexistence “after” life and nonexistence “before” life… between 1945 and 2033 or whenever I shuffle off. There’s really no “before” and no “after.” It’s all illusion.

Unlike time, love seems completely malleable, unreal or changeable, unorganized, given away and taken away, hardly eternal, rarely unconditional, no direction (home) let alone one-way-linear. No straight lines in love.

An old friend e-mailed me recently. We used to write each other daily—long, funny letters with paragraphs and everything. But in the past several years we’d hardly had any contact. Time kept on “slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.” When I apologized for being so out of touch, she replied simply, “Love has no boundaries.” Cliché? Not when it’s true. This happens a lot with my painting friends. If I saw Ann again after, what, 30 years?, one of us would surely harken back to our fabulous night of dancing at Esalen. That was an eternal moment in our relationship—a moment beyond either of us. It existed—exists—without us. At the painting intensives, this happens all the time. Time does not factor into our relationships, because we have seen and held each other out of time. If I see a Facebook post from Madeleine, the love is fully there “again,” below the surface but never lost. And so on.

Love seems erratic. If you look back on your life, you can easily make a timeline, establish events all along the line, draw conclusions (on the wall). Time is what happens to you on the outside. The love you have experienced is not in the past tense, it exists outside time, where the structure is invisible, the organization chart non- hierarchical. It is alive, apart from your memory of it, apart from your loss of the other person, physically or mentally. It’s like the letters that pile up on each other when your typewriter key gets stuck. (I mean, got stuck; typewriters are definitely of time, and now fully out of it, except for some geezer authors who can’t let them go.) Love is all in a moment, an eternal moment. Sometimes you feel (like a nut), sometimes you don’t. But feeling is not everything. Love has a paradoxical solidity, an effervescent presence, that time will never have. It’s the organizing principle of our lives. Time is horizontal. Love is vertical. When the timeline of our physical self is cut off, time also stops. But love is perpendicular to time. It is not affected by time. No love is ever lost. No time is ever gained.

the requisite cat tales

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 Pookie lives! Luther and Brutus are still babies! (see gray heap in the center of the comforter)

Diane and I were talking about my cats “lolling”—meaning “lounging around”—but “lolling” looks like they were laughing out loud! But no—they laff on the inside, all the goddamn time.

One morning I was opening the blinds, and I stood looking out the window with my hand on the cat tree. Suddenly, I felt a furry object slam against the side of my face, the tree rocked, and Brutus jumped for the ottoman. I was struck by a wide-body cat! I think he was a little freaked out, like what the heck just happened?? We just looked at each other for a long beat. Then it was over. (He always jumps from the floor to the top of the thing, and it always rocks a little. I’ve been waiting for it to tip over when he does that. I never suspected I would be involved.)

Some of the worst times in my life have been when a cat of mine died or, worse, when I had to decide to put him or her down, to spare it from pain. Radar, who had feline leukemia, died in the night. I waited to take Tweeter to the vet until her tumor broke through the skin. I like to think that Pookie and I agreed on the time for him to be released from his painful lack of kidney function. Toward the end, he weighed next to nothing. We were both sitting on my bed one day, and we just looked at each other. I’m not saying the look we exchanged was conscious on both our parts, or that we had a mind meld or anything. But we had come a long way, Pookie and I. Almost 20 years. When I would return after 10 or 12 days at a painting intensive, his cry of welcome was one of sheer bliss. One of those times, when I arrived home after midnight, I sat for over an hour just petting and combing him, talking to him. He would look back at me over his shoulder and just beam, radiating pleasure and love. Yes, I call it love.

You can’t take time away from a cat. A cat is not trying to hold on to life, like we humans do. We think of life as a quantity—more is more. A cat is always now. It’s for ourselves that we try to keep them with us, sometimes long past the time they need to go.

 

from the sacred to the deeply philosophical

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My friend Liz, who posted this cartoon on Facebook, commented,
“This is so deeply philosophical, had to post.”  I agree.


my “diz-zies”

My world was turned upside down for 9 days—part literally and part metaphorically. On day 1 I got out of bed feeling dizzy. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but I figured it would pass in minutes. It didn’t. It wasn’t vertigo—when the room seems to be spinning around—I had had that for a few hours about a month before. Never knew for sure what caused it, but possibly I inadvertently took a double dose of Zoloft that morning. This “diz-zies” was all on the inside, and it was positional. If I stood or sat without moving my head, I felt fine. Ah, the perfect state I’ve been longing for my whole life: no physical movement except for my eyes and hands. (I half expect I will end up like the Twilight Zone character who was the only one left on earth with nothing but time and no distractions to take him away from his precious books… but then his glasses broke. Not sure how that will play out for me, but I’m of the half-glass-empty persuasion.) I obviously couldn’t drive. So my sister Barb had to chauffeur me around, which I know she was more than happy to do (well, maybe not more than happy). I was grateful for her help but also uncomfortable with it, because, like all old people, I fear losing my independence.

The soonest I could see the doctor was on day 3. Barb drove me there, waited around for more than an hour, and then drove me to the pharmacy, the grocery store, and then lunch at Schloegel’s. The doctor gave it her best shot, but no diagnosis seemed to fit the symptom. She did some hands-on neurological tests, such as having me lie on my back with my head hanging off the table then held my head at a 45-degree angle as I sat up. We went through all the requisite questioning about what could have caused the diz-zies, but there were no answers. She checked various possibilities on the computer, but nothing seemed to fit. She said it was quite possible that it was “viral.” I thought, Does that mean I’m going to be famous on the Internet?? Thankfully, I didn’t share that pearl of humor with her. I keep learning that not everyone finds me funny, or indeed comprehensible. Many times when chatting with, say, a young woman who’s checking out my groceries (“Is this garlic?” she asks; oh honey, you have a lot to learn), I’ll try to make a wee funny and I usually get a blank stare in return. Like maybe she says, “I have a long drive home, so when I get off work at night, I have to eat or drink something on the way.” I comment that I don’t restrict myself to eating and drinking at night, I do it all day long. Stare. Blank. Maybe they don’t hear me, since I tend to mumble. Also, I’m sure I look really old to these young whippersnappers (and let’s face it….). Who would expect a specimen such as myself to try to relate through humor?

So… with a prescription for meclizine, a motion sickness pill that did absolutely nothing, and a date for a follow-up with the doc in 2 weeks, I spent the next 4 days trying to keep motion to a minimum. I was a motion minimalist. It was awkward when I had to clean out the cats’ litter boxes, and when Luther flopped on his back and rolled over in front of me, I couldn’t lean down to pet him, which made me feel strangely guilty. He would recover and then lounge there trying to look blasé about being rejected. I don’t treat my cats like they’re human, oh no. I mean, just because I will sit in an uncomfortable position with my left arm aching or having to go to the bathroom but unwilling to disturb their sleep….

I stayed home until day 7—lost at least 2 pounds because I had no access to potato chips—and then Barb offered to stop at the store for me and then get us both some lunch and bring it back to my house. I made a list—broccoli, eggs, milk, and a few other necessities, using all my self-control to not ask for chips or a muffin but hoping she would intuit that I would need some snack therapy. She didn’t… but she chose the broccoli crowns very well, which I’m really picky about. Then she drove back over the bridge to Menekaunee for fish fries and showed up chez moi with my very own meals on wheels. She stayed for a while as we ate and talked, but soon I felt like I was fading fast and I went back upstairs to nap in my chair. I kept thinking I could just sleep it off.

The previous night I had made the mistake of lying down for a few hours instead of slouching in my chair. When I woke up, I was so dizzy that I couldn’t take the garbage out to the road for fear that I would fall down outside. This wasn’t good news. I imagined this becoming a permanent condition.

On day 9 (Sunday) Barb came back to take me to her house to watch our shows: Homeland, Orphan Black, and a couple of new sit-coms. I had recovered from the intense diz-zies and was feeling hopeful that my long national nightmare was coming to an end. I was feeling more normal (or as close as I ever get) and enjoyed the chicken salad sandwich, chips, and Coke I had while watching TV. It’s the chips, I swear! I refuse to believe they are bad for you! I’m only half-joking!

Sure enough, I felt fully recovered by the next day, so I e-mailed my doctor’s office to cancel my follow-up appointment. I wish there had been a way to e-mail my job when I was feeling poorly or just needed a “me” day; it would have eliminated a lot of theatrical morning hoarseness during those awkward phone calls to say I wasn’t coming in. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s in the past. I have not lost my independence—in fact, I have gained a great deal of it, in that I can do my work in my own time. I now have the perfect work life, except for not getting paid very often. Hey, nothing’s perfect!

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what nightmares are made of

Every day you read the news or surf or stumble through the Internet, and there’s always some new atrocity, some stupid [Republican] opinion, some scary prospect, some fearful new law. I get tired of having to up my disbelief level to meet each new horrible challenge. Outrageous! Unbelievable! I become the girl who cries Wolf, but there’s always another Wolf around the corner. I’m going to print something here, in its entirety, from DailyKos.com, November 5, 2013. You may have seen it, but I think it’s worth another look. It’s a scary indicator of what America has come to, or is going toward, full speed ahead.

This news report out of New Mexico is so disturbing, it’s hard to imagine this could happen in America. Talk about an unreasonable search.

            The incident began January 2, 2013 after David Eckert finished shopping at the Wal-Mart in Deming.  According to a federal lawsuit, Eckert didn’t make a complete stop at a stop sign coming out of the parking lot and was immediately stopped by law enforcement.      

            Eckert’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, said in an interview with KOB that after law enforcement asked him to step out of the vehicle, he appeared to be clenching his buttocks.  Law enforcement thought that was probable cause to suspect that Eckert was hiding narcotics in his anal cavity.  While officers detained Eckert, they secured a search warrant from a judge that allowed for an anal cavity search.  

            Initially the doctor on duty refused the search, citing it as “unethical.” Unfortunately, after several hours, hospital personnel relented and did the search.

            Here’s what happened to David Eckert at that hospital:

            While there, Eckert was subjected to repeated and humiliating forced medical procedures.  A review of Eckert’s medical records, which he released to KOB, and details in the lawsuit show the following happened:

            1. Eckert’s abdominal area was x-rayed; no narcotics were found.

            2. Doctors then performed an exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.

            3. Doctors performed a second exam of Eckert’s anus with their fingers; no narcotics were found.  

            4. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            5. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a second time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            6. Doctors penetrated Eckert’s anus to insert an enema a third time.  Eckert was forced to defecate in front of doctors and police officers.  Eckert watched as doctors searched his stool.  No narcotics were found.

            7. Doctors then x-rayed Eckert again; no narcotics were found.  

            8. Doctors prepared Eckert for surgery, sedated him, and then performed a colonoscopy where a scope with a camera was inserted into Eckert’s anus, rectum, colon, and large intestines. No narcotics were found.  

            Throughout this ordeal, Eckert protested and never gave doctors at the Gila Regional Medical Center consent to perform any of these medical procedures.

            Think that’s outrageous? David Eckert has since been billed by the hospital for all the procedures and they are threatening to take him to collections.

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The Tent

Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.

The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there’s no news at all.

–Rumi

BYBPrOUIEAApSrr

mary’zine #63: September 2013

September 19, 2013

I really appreciate how the Internet fine-tunes the ads for me so I see exactly what I’m most interested in buying.

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 ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????my way no highway

I live a block from Hwy M35, which is in the process of being dug up, someday to be restored to its former glory as a thoroughfare  par excellence or at least par ordinaire. There’s no other way out of my neighborhood, so it’s been a daily challenge to find a place to cross without getting stuck in a sandy morass or intimidated by heavy machinery hulking down the road. It would be useful to have signs that indicate where it’s possible to cross the construction zone to get to passable streets, but there are only those that state the obvious: “Road Work Ahead” or “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.” One sees the “road work ahead” quite clearly, and one must be able to go “thru” to the other side if one wants to leave the neighborhood for any reason. I go out daily to scout for access, to reenact the rite of passage, praying that the way back via U.S. 41 and a numbered avenue will deliver me past the upheaved and ruptured roadway to my home.

One day, the water coming out of my faucets looked kind of brown. So when I see another big-machine-and-crew doing something down by the bay, I go out to ask if they’re working on the water lines. I feel like Alice in Wonderland as I approach a huge truck with a man sitting high up in the driver’s seat. I call up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” “WHAT?” “Are you working on the water lines?” “YOU’LL HAVE TO ASK THE GUY IN THE….” He points at a large bulldozer that’s moving incrementally back and forth in the dirt while a bunch of other guys stand around watching. So I mince through the dirt and mud, feeling like a very small female person indeed. Everyone stops what they were (or weren’t) doing, and I approach the man in the very tall earthmover and yell up to him, “Are you working on the water lines?” Again with the “WHAT?” I glance to my right and am startled to see the first guy standing inches away from me. I must have jumped a little bit, because he explains that he’s there to “protect” me. From what? “In case the equipment moves.” OK. Earthdozer guy isn’t saying anything, so this guy tells me they’re digging a trench for a culvert to drain water to the bay. At least that’s my interpretation: All I really got from him was that water was going to be going toward the bay, not the other way around. I thank him and go back in the house feeling not only small but really, really not-a-man.

The good thing about all this construction is that it provides work for the locals.  For example:

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my new part-time gig

Someday, the heavy hand will write and, having writ, will move on. To 14th Ave., I hear.


only God can take a tree

We’ve been blessed with an unseasonably cool August, with some heavy thunderstorms, one of which plucked a large limb off a tree in my backyard. I have several trees, and I love them beyond all measure. The ones on the south side of the house have leafed out to the point where I can sit in my big comfy chair by the upstairs windows and remain out of sight of any passing walker, stalker, or would-be talker. A mighty fortress is my pad. My lawn service came and took away the offending branch and all was right in my little world.

Then: Another thunderstorm, with whipping winds. I’m awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of a branch creakily detaching itself from the mother trunk. I go out with a flashlight and try to find which branch, which tree. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be out there walking into a possible death trap. So far, none of the limbs have hit my house, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t get caught under one. It turns out that the enormous tree in my front yard had lost two big limbs from high up.

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As with the other tree, I thought it would be a simple matter for my lawn people to cut off the broken limbs and haul them away. They aren’t tree experts, but, except for needing a ladder, what would be the big deal? It rained a lot that week, so they missed the weekly lawn cutting, and I waited in limbo—ha! limb-o!—not knowing if I had to call an actual tree service to do the deed.

Two weeks later, the lawn guys show up for the usual mowing. I had left them a message to ask if they could take down the broken branches or if it was too big a job for them. So there they were, but when they’re finishing up, I see that the branches are still hanging there. Then my doorbell rings. A guy I’ve never seen before says, “We can take down those branches for you and haul everything away.” “Yeah, that’s what I was hoping.” “A tree service would cost you $500,” he says, “but we’ll do it for half price, $250.” I say yes because I’d prefer to deal with the people who’ve been taking good care of my yard for 9 years now. The guy says that he and his “foreman” will come by on the weekend to do the job.

It slightly bothered me that I didn’t know this guy, but I couldn’t pick any of them out of a lineup: 6 or 7 guys descend on my yard, and in less than half an hour they’re gone. So the owner of the company (T for Tony) returns my call about the tree, and I describe the guy who said he was going to do the work: short, full beard, the word “monkey” on his t-shirt. T says, “He’s not one of our guys.” So then I think that some ne’er-do-well has pulled up just as the legit lawn guys are leaving and has taken advantage of my assuming he’s with them. There’s precedent for the workers around here trying to go behind the boss’s back. A few years ago, my sister Barb was having the roof (rhymes with “woof”) on her garage replaced, and one of the guys came to her and said he could do another job for her, something to do with the siding, I think. She agreed, of course, and a few days later the boss of the original crew called her up, drunk, and yelled at her for giving work to this guy—she should have gone through him. Well, of course, Barb didn’t know that. She tried to explain, but the guy told her to fuck off! The wife of the guy later called to apologize for him, and I think she sent Barb flowers. Imagine her (the wife’s) life for 1 second.

So… I worry for the next two days. What am I going to do if illicit short monkey beard guy shows up Saturday morning and starts hacking away at my tree?

Oh, I forgot to mention that T said the tree “needs to come down.” “WHY?” “It’s rotten.” I’m shocked. The tree is more than twice as tall as my house, and I’m going to have nothing but a stump out front? Some people across the street recently had 3 or 4 huge trees cut down, I thought because they interfered with power lines, but maybe they were rotten, too. I’ve been feeling sorry for them. Now I’m to join their sorry stump club? (Update: I was paying the breakfast bill at Schloegel’s one morning, and the cashier said we’re neighbors. I didn’t know her from Adam, but she recognized my face. Hmmm. Anyway, she said that the son of the old people who’d lived in that house, who had since died, took down those majestic trees because he “didn’t like them.” Is this a male thing, this hatred of nature? Another XY I know is the same way: no room for trees, must put down more and more concrete to accommodate cars, SUVs, trucks, motorcycles, trailers, ATVs, RVs. You don’t think it’s fair for me to take a sample of 2 and extrapolate to the entire male population? You’re right, but I still think I made my point.)

So T says he’ll find out who the mystery guy is, and he’ll call someone named Dan to assess the tree situation. But I haven’t heard back from him by Saturday morning, and I’ve resigned myself to sitting downstairs by the front windows all weekend so I can catch the imposter in the act. I feel like the little not-man with the construction guys again, only this time I’ll have to deal with a guy wielding a chainsaw. I call T, not expecting to reach him at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, but a woman answers and says she’ll have him call me back. And he does, hallelujah! He says the guy with the monkey shirt is one of his guys and that he told him no, he couldn’t borrow the company’s ladder to do the job. That’s a huge weight lifted off me; at least I won’t have to fight off a rogue tree trimmer. (But, T—could you have called me 2 days ago to tell me that?) Dan the Tree Man is out of town, but T assures me he’ll get in touch with him and they’ll come over and look at the tree.

All’s well that ends well. Turns out I got two other enthusiastic recommendations for Dan, from my niece and my sister. He came and took down the cracked branches while I was away one morning. Apparently the tree isn’t rotten after all. I feel blessed to have several trustworthy men in my life. I couldn’t be a home-moaner without them.

bird

Speaking of nature, I’ve been derelict in looking after the wildlife that perch on my hanging feeders and paw and peck at the ground. When I run out of birdseed and “critter food,” I am loath to make a special trip to another state (5.9 miles away) to get supplies, so days can pass before I get off my ass (oh, “I’m a poet and don’t know it; but my feet sure show it: they’re Longfellows” [sh*t my dad said]). I am never more happy than when I see the birds and furry rodents feasting upon the seed and nutty riches I lay out for them. Besides making the birdbath to runneth over, I’ve put down a ceramic bowl that I fill with water for the ground creatures, though I don’t know if they partake. (Update: I sat out on the back porch the other day to watch the goings-on. It was slightly too cool to be out there in shorts and a t-shirt, but I was roughing it. It took several minutes of sitting absolutely still before the creatures that had fled when I opened the back door returned to the bounty. At the most populous point there were 2 mourning doves, a blue jay, a squirrel, 3 chipmunks, and a cardinal, mostly coexisting without incident. But one of the chipmunks chased another one around the yard and out of sight until it reappeared, the apparent victor. I got an answer to the water bowl question when another chipmunk came out of nowhere and ran toward it, stood up on its tippy toes, and leaned over the edge to take a very small sip of water.)

I was happy to see this. I thought how cool it would be to take photographs of some of this action, but I cannot seem to operate a camera. I did take a halfway decent picture of Luther with my cell phone (to show the people at the vet that he is not always a savage beast), but now I have no idea how to upload it to my computer. Anyway, these times when I sit outside—not exactly in nature, but nature-adjacent—and watch the wild ones are very precious to me. In my youth I did the whole tromping through forests and up mountains thing, but the microcosm of my back yard is just as satisfying to me now.

We anthropomorphize animals, we just can’t help it. I’m always dreaming up explanations for why Luther seems to know when I’m getting dressed to leave the house without him and when I’m about to grab him and take him to see ol’ Doc Anderson. Recently, he had to get more “crystals” (stones) removed from his urethra and, true to form, he hid until I tricked him by tapping the cat comb on a ceramic cup. (The slightest touch on that cup brings both cats running.) Luckily, I managed to grab him. The experience is traumatic for him, of course, since it involves a forceps and his urethra. But it’s no picnic for me, either. Apparently this is going to keep happening, at >$300 a pop. But there’s a happy aftermath. When he recovers fully from the anesthesia, he can’t seem to get enough of me: He follows me around, wants to sit in my lap, and rolls on the floor from side to side, seemingly for my amusement. This may be more anthropomorphism, but I say he’s grateful to me for getting him out of that hell hole and doesn’t hold it against me (or forgot) that I was the one who brought him there in the first place. After about a day and a half, he goes back to normal and sets down his gratitude like a heavy valise and goes off to play-wrestle with his brother.

We know that certain animals are “intelligent” (however that manifests), but are we any good at assessing it? I saw a video the other day that blew my mind. An elephant was shown at an easel, painting what the description said was a “self-portrait.” (The trainer gave her the brush with paint on it, and she held it with her trunk.) It was uncanny. As the figure took form, looking more and more like an elephant—observers in the video whispering “oh my god” and other words of amazement—the elephant, whom we learn is named Hong, completes the painting by adding a flower held in the painted elephant’s trunk.

I didn’t know what to make of this. I figured the picture probably wasn’t a “self” portrait, but maybe elephants had the ability to depict their fellow creatures just as early “man” did on the walls of caves. This would be extraordinary in itself—that animals would have the skill and especially the intention of making pictorial representations—but what if the painting came out of some subconscious animality that equaled humanity in its depth and expression. (In which case, the trainer should really take a few classes at the Center for Creative Exploration in San Francisco to understand that Hong could have gone much farther with encouragement. “Could anything else come into or out of the painting?”)

It turns out that the trainers, well, train the elephants to make certain strokes with the paint. In the age-old way, they give them treats to reinforce what they want them to learn.

****************************

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I’m so happy in my fortress, with my kitty cats, the Web as Wide as the World, an endless supply of books (some Kindled, some inert) and music (iTunes is my master), regular phone calls and FaceTime with friends, and visits with sisters. I’m living a fair approximation of the life my mother enjoyed for 3 years after retirement and before colon cancer. She was so angry at the end, her bliss cut short at 69—weird to think I’m only a few years from that point myself. I don’t think I’ll be angry when I face the inevitable. I’m so grateful for the unexpectedly full and rich life I’ve been given, against all odds (and many ends).

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(do you think this is overkill? hahaha)

This is where my health stands now:

I had diabetes for about 5 minutes, but now I’m “normal” again, though at the high end. I am seriously overweight; there’s a skinny person inside me who’s not even trying to get out, because she believes she’s still thin. I weighed 112 in college. My mother called me Olive Oyl when I was a teenager. I ran 10K races in my 40s. But after I retired from my job at age 50 and no longer had to walk several blocks from Golden Gate Park and hike up the hill to UCSF, I was doomed.

I recently had a follow-up appt. with my doctor. The nurse takes my blood pressure, which is 146/70. I say, “That’s not too bad, is it?” She allows as how “it could be worse.” I agree: “I could be dead.” She giggles. I like to leave ‘em laffin’. My doctor is très jovial, which I appreciate, but she’s a little scattered. When I first started seeing her, she’d ask every time, “Are you still not smoking?” “Not since 1971!” I should never have mentioned that I smoked cigarettes for 1 year back then, but I cannot tell a lie. (None of the many doctors, including two psychiatrists, I’ve seen have ever asked about my recreational drug use. I find that odd.) So anyway, on this “visit,” the doc casually refers to my “arthritis,” and when I say I don’t have arthritis, she looks back at the computer screen and says, “Oh, I just saw ‘osteo-‘ and thought….” (So what did that “osteo-” mean? I didn’t think to ask her.) A couple months ago, she asked when I’d had my last mammogram and then wrote down my (wild) guess. She has all the information in front of her!

I’ve been concerned about my high CRP (C-reactive protein) level for several years now, and no one can tell me what it means, except “inflammation somewhere in the body.” Even my previous doctor, the one I liked so much who disappeared off the face of the earth, maybe caught up in his own personal rapture, had no answers for me. Neither does my present doc. But she decided to have me do a treadmill test with “echo” to see if the inflammation is “cardio.”

Krameria-erecta_01

I walk on my treadmill for 15 minutes a day, so I wasn’t too worried about the test. There was a lot of prep, because the ultrasound tech had to take images of my heart while I was resting so there’d be a basis for comparison afterward. She told me everything that was going to happen (more than once), kept asking if I had any questions, and finally said, “I’ve been throwing a lot of information at you, don’t you have any questions?” I wanted to say, “I must be smarter than I look.” When it was finally time to get on the treadmill, another tech told me how high my heart rate should go, and there was a monitor so I could watch that and the time. The first 3 minutes was easy… about what I do at home. But then at minute 3, the tech ramped up both the speed and the incline. After 30 seconds of that, my legs were killing me and I almost couldn’t keep up. I thought I was going to tread myself right off the back of the thing, like Bill Murray in some movie or other. The tech asked if I could make it to 4 minutes. I did, just barely. Then I had to quickly get over to the cot and lie back down so the ultrasound tech could take more images. I thought I would never catch my breath. A cardiologist went over the results, and I got the word that my heart is fine. So the high CRP is still a mystery.

By the way, I had a problem with the questionnaire I had to fill out ahead of time that mirrored my confusion over which chair in the exam room was “first” (which I wrote about several months ago). Most of the questions required yes or no answers, and, appropriately, there was a blank box next to each answer. But then there was a series of questions about diseases, and instead of “yes [blank box], no [blank box],” there was only “yes [blank box] no.” Maybe you were supposed to write Y or N in the box? That didn’t even occur to me at the time. I ended up circling the vertical line of “noes” but boy did I feel dumb. Or perhaps too smart for my own good, which sounds a lot better.

In the same vein, I was filling out an insurance form and had to make an appointment to speak to a benefits counselor. I set up the appointment, and in the confirmation it said that I would be calling the counselor on October 16 at “1:00 Central Standard Time.” Well, we’re still on daylight saving time on Oct. 16, so I spent a few minutes wondering what they meant by calling it standard time. Clearly, they just hadn’t thought about it, because in another communication they called it simply “Central time.” So it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I was cheated out of several points on my IQ test in high school by questioning things that the makers of the test never even considered. Now that I edit for scientists, I know just how careless even smart people can be in writing. You may call this “overthinking,” but I call it “thinking.” The IQ test has been called biased because of cultural assumptions and references that minorities might not be familiar with. I say it’s also biased because it doesn’t take into account people who are too smart for their own good (and/or born editors).

This wasn’t my medical adventure, but I played a small part in my sister’s colonoscopy by driving her to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. I sat with her during the taking of the medical history and the failed attempt to teach a nursing student how to insert an IV needle. “Tom,” who introduced himself unforthcomingly as “head of a unit downstairs” and “also a professor,” was there to teach a male nursing student how to hook up an IV. Tom explained to him how to insert the needle as if he were flying an airplane: first, go in at a 15 or 30 degree angle, then level off like when the wheels are dropping down. I rather doubt that the student had ever piloted a plane. Barb suffered through all the jabs, and at one point she said, “Would it help if we made airplane noises?” I thought that was hilarious, but Tom merely said, “No.” Eventually, he had to put the needle in himself. (Aha! a reading comprehension test: In whom did he put the needle?) I felt bad for the student, but even more so for Barb.

Barb also weighed in on my anthropomorphic imaginings about what goes on in Luther’s mind when he thinks I’m going to take him to the vet. Sometimes he hides under the bed, and sometimes he acts completely unconcerned. I was telling her that he sat in the middle of the room as I was getting ready that morning, not reacting at all to my going up and down the stairs, getting dressed, etc. (He seems to get most suspicious when I put socks on.) Barb’s suggestion was, “Well, it was still dark out, and he knows the vet isn’t open at that hour.” That, indeed, is my favorite explanation.


more odds, more ends

In dismal news for editors and editrices, the word “literally” is about to get another definition in the dictionary: It will also mean “metaphorically,” since just about no one uses it correctly. I guess that’s one way for language to evolve. But when that happens, we lose a perfectly useful distinction. “Literally” used to mean something. Now, people will be able to say, “I literally died laughing”—and get away with it!

Conversely, we maintain distinctions that have no meaning, such as “the exception that proves the rule.” Once upon a time, “prove” meant “test,” so exceptions test the rule. This isn’t just a matter of semantics. Writers are using a concept that doesn’t exist when they say, “well, that’s the exception that proves the rule,” as if exceptions to rules actually show that the rule is valid. They don’t!

***

After about a 3-week spurt of work, I’m idle once again, spending many hours a day reading for fun instead of profit. I tend to have several books going at once, and at one point I was reading two mystery novels, both of which had major characters named Amber and Kirsty (which is strange in itself). Whenever I encountered either name, I had to do a little mental calculus to remember which Amber and Kirsty I was reading about: the two killers, or the insomniac and the mentally disabled child. To make matters worse, the Amber and Kirsty in the two-killer book had changed their names so their crime wouldn’t follow them through life, and their childhood names were used interchangeably with the new names, so I had to remember each time that Amber=Bel (or Annabel, just to confuse me further) and Kirsty=Jade. I never finished the book, and now you know why.

I’ve now started reading another mystery novel in which the main activity is playing poker online, so the real names of the players are interspersed with their nicknames—and even those fake names change according to which avatar the player has chosen for that round of play. So you have Chip Zero chatting online with Second Gunman, and sometimes they call each other by their real names, which, no, I am not going to go through the whole book looking for examples.

***

I came across a phrase in something I read recently that I have never seen expressed in quite this way: A character was talking about his dying father, and he (the son) referred to the feeling as being “suspended over the abyss of anticipatory grief.” This phrase exactly expresses what I felt when my mother was dying of cancer. I had never before had the (almost literal) feeling of looking into the abyss. I was feeling it in my body and “seeing” it in my mind’s eye. And yes, it was “anticipatory,” because I felt very different after she died. Just as she did with her crossing, I had traversed the abyss in a way, by going through the actual experience and not just fearfully imagining it. Afterward, I had more navigable feelings, such as peace and catharsis, and strong (sometimes lucid) dreams.


all’s well that ends

There is a word to describe the state of bodies in perfect chemical equilibrium with the outside world. That state is called “Death.”
—Paul Tobolowsky,
Stardust Dancing: a Seeker’s Guide to the Miraculous

I was kind of blown away by this quote. I immediately had the image of a person standing upright in the chemical swill (or ground of being, to be fancy about it), and by that posture considered to be “alive.” Instead of a parallel reality, this would be a perpendicular one. The flat surface would be the “undifferentiated”—complete harmony and oneness. Anything standing perpendicular (seemingly “apart”) to that would be the “living,” a seemingly separate entity.

 ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????alive?

you are the glass ball, distinct and yet reflecting everything around you

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dead?   the cosmos remains, but you are no longer a visible or self-conscious entity

(And no, I don’t think you get to take your glass ball and go home, i.e., there is no individual soul. You are soulful because you are part of everything that is.)

When I went to dreamstime.com to find the image(s) to match my first thought, I couldn’t seem to find the right search term. So I browsed more widely, and the glass ball came up. I think it’s a more eloquent illustration of aliveness than my idea of a stick figure standing (alive) and then lying down and blending in (dead). I love this process. It’s not just the writing, it’s the challenge to be open-minded and find what I need without imposing too many prejudgments on it.

the end

thanks for reading!

p.s. I cannot get the hang of the layout, spacing, etc., for these posts. Sometimes—and I fear that this might be an understatement—I am too dumb for my own good.

mary’zine #62: June 2013

June 8, 2013

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The Difference (King’s X)

 I walked through a garden
In the morning
I walked right into
A change

No words were spoken
Just a feeling
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

Wind it comes and
It blows
Where it comes from
I don’t know

To look for a reason
Might just kill it
And I cannot explain
But I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference
I can feel the difference

And I cannot explain

 

7 days

Terry read us the above song lyric during the last sharing of the May painting intensive at the CCE Painting Studio in San Francisco. It fit my experience of the week perfectly. And now I face the challenge of using language to somehow “explain,” describe, or at least evoke it in some way.

As usual, I have lots of little things to share about my trip, some on the ground, some in the air, but one major theme has come up that doesn’t seem suited to intertwining with details about restaurants, traffic, and funny conversations. I’m not sure what to do about that. If I promise to put all that stuff at the end and call it The Lighter Side, can you stay with me here as I no doubt poorly “explain” the big thing that happened? OK, here goes.

Writing this the day after I got home, my mind is buzzing and my body is buzzing, but I don’t think they’re buzzing in the same direction. Or level. Or something. The mind is all earnest and heartfelt and wanting to share the strangeness and plumb the apparent disconnect between physicality and consciousness. Its agenda is to understand and thereby control the strange goings-on. But the body is all about the inarticulate but strongly felt sensations where old and new experiences and perceptions are stored. Far from languishing, it exerts its own control from down in the briny deep.

In the last issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about a body part that I loathe. But I have encountered new life, new blood in a region of my body that has been felt but unplumbed for a very long time. It is, for lack of a better term, the “lower region.” I would call it visceral, the “pit of my stomach,” but anatomically I don’t even think the stomach is that far down. I will just call it the “lower region”: the lower belly, just shy of the genital area but surely connected to it by plumbing (!) and magic.

So Barbara was talking about this “lower region” and about how much feeling and power is stored there. She was sitting cross-legged on the couch, and she gestured to the area on her own body, but I wasn’t sure what the perimeters were. I made her stand up and show me. I was really excited to know that something important goes on in that area, because I’ve had sensations there (rare but strong) since a young age. I couldn’t put a name to them, but I eventually came up with the words lovepityhome…. The love and pity seemed to be for my mother. I remember when I was about 12 years old she had bought me a pair of slacks for Easter. When I went into my bedroom to try them on, I had this intense sensation (quick, where’s my thesaurus?)—a short-lived piercing ache, an abyss of love closely linked to pain into which I could toss any number of words: regret? fear? guilt? the bleakness and joy of existence in this world? I wanted to escape my situation (home), but I felt inexorably tied to it, to my family whom I knew I would leave behind literally and in so many other ways. I knew my mother loved me. But her attempts to please me made me feel almost worse than her insensitivity to my feelings at other times. Her life was hard, with an invalid husband to care for and a family of five to support. She did her best, and maybe that’s why I felt that “strange brew” in my body. (The band Cream’s song “Strange Brew”—“kill what’s inside of you.”)

(I’m throwing a bunch of words on this, like sprinkling salt on a casserole. I hope it makes sense, on some level.)

I’ve had this sensation many times over the years, and I welcome it, I’m not sure why. It comes on its own, I can’t make it happen. And now that I know it’s an important part of the body’s feeling apparatus, uncontrolled by the mind—that ultimate emperor with no clothes—I want to become more aware of it and express it or follow it, or whatever will give it the freedom to flower.

I can’t believe that it took me more than a week to connect sex to this area. For almost the whole intensive, I was having strong sexual feelings, and by the last day it was clear that those feelings were being prompted by my new attention to this complicated area of my body. (“This old gray Mare still has some gas in her tank!”, I thought, or maybe that was Minnie Pearl.) I’m still not sure how sex enters into the love/pity/home theme, but I suppose it makes sense that the most difficult feelings, the ones most laden with significance and physicality, would all be related somehow.

***

During the week I had the usual feelings of disconnect between painting and life. As in the song lyrics I quoted at the beginning, painting made a huge difference but it wasn’t possible to trace the connecting lines, connect the dots, explain a damn thing. On the painting I started after the talk about the “lower region,” I painted myself standing knee-deep in a body of water, and all my attention was on what was below the water—as if my own body were a mere afterthought. Barbara and I saw this at the same time, and it was very telling. I had to focus on my body, which was difficult because I couldn’t paint my feelings literally: A black or muddied band around the lower region wasn’t going to be enough. So I just painted, and I have no idea what happened. The painting isn’t finished, but I scanned a couple parts of it to show you.

img001 copy 3      img002

Looking at these images now, I’m struck by two things: The “lower region” I’m talking about has an eye in it. This makes me wonder if that part of the body, an apparent storehouse of denied emotion, is more wise and sensitive than we can imagine. And the larger eyes, especially as seen in the second image, project intense power. As I was painting, I had no idea that they meant anything, and they weren’t even in the “area” I wanted to concentrate on. But looking at them now, it seems obvious.

The sexual resurgence I started to feel during the painting week has continued. Have I unleashed something—my own Pandora’s box*—only to be stymied in the face of consequences? (*According to that bastion of scholarly research, Wikipedia, the “box” was really a jar; [“I left Pandora’s box ajar”?] The mistranslation was blamed on Erasmus of Rotterdam. But I digress. No, wait, I’m not finished. Zeus gave Pandora the jar, with instructions not to open it under any circumstances. Remind you of anything? Hint: apple, snake? What is it with mythological male figures enticing women to do “evil” (assuming evil = mere curiosity) and thus bring down the wrath of the very same gods (or God). By the way, Zeus didn’t punish Pandora for disobeying him—“because he knew this would happen.” It was a set-up from the beginning!)

Since the first insight about the “lower region” struck me, I’ve been discovering layers upon layers of repercussions. One of the major ones is not just sex but Desire. Desire seeks an object. Pandora’s container is easily unhinged when Desire is on the lam. Is Pandora’s jar commensurate with desire? or merely with fantasy? Does fantasy lead to recklessness…cracking the foundation of truth by placing unearned weight on it? or balancing rickety ladders on chair rails to reach a higher understanding? Can fantasy be a means to the truth? One of my dalliances, years ago, resulted in my seeing beyond the illusion of lust to the truth that both of us were in it for ourselves. There was a lot of hot body action but no true communion of souls. Just two female animals trysting under the stars (or in my office after hours, but if this were a poem I wouldn’t mention that). But talk about being alone when you’re with someone. Selfishness (whether the driver or the result of fantasy) is isolating.

So when I got home after the intensive, I found—or imagined—an object of desire in the form of an old friend who had once been attracted to me. It surprised me indeed to open that door and find her there… as if she had been sitting on the other side, waiting patiently. It was astonishing to think that this could be real. But would my desire for her be a welcome gift? Or would it be seen as a mixed message, a mixed gift, a once-nixed gift, a gift too old to be of value?

Desire: a hard pounding in my heart, a hurt before it ever finds its happiness, and also after.

I held Desire in until I couldn’t hold it anymore: the hot potato of love. I threw it to her—made my proposition. I wanted to make a deal. I’d pick door #1, the least threatening, the least life-altering, the maximum good with the minimum cost or hazard. Sex is infinitely malleable, is it not? Couldn’t we define it, indulge in it, as narrowly or as broadly as we chose? We had a long-lasting friendship, had been through a lot together. And there are no rules for being gay (one of the best parts, frankly). Straight people have several well-worn paths laid out for them, whereas we are always, of necessity, blazing our own trails.

Unfortunately, being human does have rules. Truth has rules, as well as hard-and-fast demands. Truth will not be cheated or betrayed. Truth cannot be faked, or extended like a warranty, or cut to fit the Procrustean bed. It just is. Truth is. There is nothing else. Imagine that! We dither and debate and put our thumb on the scale to give ourselves a small advantage, but advantage does not exist, it is ephemeral, and still a cheat in the long run. Truth is. Being is. Honesty is all there is. Existence is truth, with an unyielding foundation—or none at all; which is scarier? I think truth matters but is not material. There’s not even a choice. All of our choices are imaginary escapes. To be still, silent, unreaching, unmoving, even burning with desire… Desire is a gift because it is fuel for being, and being still. It does not require tossing itself like a hot potato, hoping for another to catch it, keep it, nurture it, and pass it back and forth until the heat disperses.

If I can’t toss my hot love potato to a suitable (and willing) mate, then what is there to do? Loving, longing, lounging, logging. OK, logging won’t help, but maybe longing. What does one long for if not the unattainable? And what does one do with a lifetime of repressed power? If I let it grow and be, it will guide me. It will guide me right back to myself, because, really, it’s the only place to be. Longing is not for something, it’s an expression of self. Putting oneself out there by going nowhere. I do not long for, I just long.

At least, now, in my semi-dotage—I put myself somewhere around October 12th in the metaphor of months equaling a life—I am surely still capable of spinning golden threads of illusion, but I am also a seasoned veteran of the ineluctable Real: the stronger force—the stronger desire—which is for truth. Truth of my feeling. Truth of my lover’s feeling. Truth of relationship and loving connection whether or not the connection is the one desired in the moment. Honesty in talking about these things with openness, understanding of risk, self-awareness, love for the other even when her truth means she has to reject the offer, the longing, the desire. One knows one is loved when one is turned down so gently, almost wistfully.

A crisis of faith would be to dwell on what might have been at the expense of what is. What is true. Right here, right now. There is no other place I want to be.

 I was alive and I waited, waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now
There is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now
Watching the world wake up… in me.

(“Right Here, Right Now,” sung by Jesus Jones; slight edit by Mare)

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*
the lighter side!

So now I’ll tell you about my flight to S.F. At Chicago O’Hare (an airline-sponsored ring of hell) we sat on the runway for the usual unit of time (long). I dozed off, having taken the requisite Dramamine and lorazepam, and awoke as if after an entire night’s sleep to hear the pilot announce, “Ready for takeoff.” I was alarmed and asked my seat mate, a young man, “You mean we haven’t even left yet?” He looks out the window and dryly points out the obvious, that “we’re still on the ground.” I can see a large American Airlines building in the distance and, indeed, I can see ground, but in my drug-addled state I thought for a moment that I had slept all the way to San Francisco and the plane was now about to take off for somewhere else. I just said, “Oh my God” and fell back asleep. I was glad later that I hadn’t jumped up and cried, “I forgot to get off the plane!” The only other time I spoke to that guy was when I saw a flight attendant preparing the pilot’s meal. We in first class had been given the choice of spinach cannelloni or chicken cacciatore, but when the flight attendant got to me, the cannelloni was gone already and she had to give me a detailed explanation of which passengers got first choice: global, premiere, super-duper (I quickly lost track of United’s superlative brand names), front to back of cabin, most miles flown, etc. (Those last two don’t even make sense: your seat in the 6-row cabin is not determined by your customer status). So I picked at the chicken, ate a roll, and pondered how even paying for first class doesn’t guarantee you’ll get all the perks. You get a hot towel, though, and hot nuts, which impress me a lot less than they did on my first first class flight. So when I saw what the pilot was getting, I turned to my seat mate and said, with heavy emphasis, “The pilot got a baked potato.” The guy had to remove one earphone to hear me. “What?” “The pilot got a baked potato.” We chuckled in mock outrage, and I was quite proud of my brazen importuning of this perfect stranger.

I’ve noticed a difference in how I deal with strangers these days, especially during a painting intensive. Everywhere we went in the City, I felt like I was facing each person we encountered with my “front” completely undefended. It seemed so much easier than trying to shrink back and hide behind an imaginary shield of invisibility. My back, of course, was spine-sturdy, a literal back-up should things go wrong. Sensing danger or disdain, the openness shuts down quietly, like a Kindle cover clicking quietly closed (I should have gone into advertising). A case in point: I did not feel open to my seat mate on the flight back home. There was something about him, or the way he ignored me, I’m not sure what it was, but I held myself back and we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t hiding from him, just self-contained. Thanks, 12 years of somatic psychotherapy!

Terry and I had a great week—with each other, with the other painters, and with the many strangers and old friends we encountered during our daily rounds of lunch, dinner, and grocery shopping. We stayed in a different house this time, in Bernal Heights a block off Mission, and enjoyed the amazing views and spacious upstairs with a beautiful long table that was our command center for eating, computing, and piling stuff. It had lots of stairs to contend with, but I’m happy to report that I had no walking-related pains during the week. I had my cane along, but I was able to get around pretty well without it. This was huge… and stood me in good stead when I had to walk/scuttle/shuffle halfway across O’Hare to make my connecting flight home when the cart driver off-loaded me far from the gate. (A not very interesting story for another day, perhaps when I publish my Stories That Don’t Fit Anywhere Else, and Aren’t That Interesting Anyway.)

Driving all over the City (and dipping down into Marin briefly) in a cramped and weak-willed Ford Fiesta, I had a few close calls in traffic, but I got us home without any major damage to ourselves or the car, didn’t I? I mean, that red arrow at the ramp onto South 101 in Mill Valley was obscured by my sun visor. And that yellow car on Mission came out of nowhere! Plus, I had no choice but to blast through the red light at Sloat and Ocean, because I was caught in the intersection and had to keep going, I couldn’t go back: “I have to! I have to!,” I cried, as T gazed in horror at the three or four lanes of traffic to our right that now had the right of way. Occasionally, I let her drive and we both felt empathy for the other’s position: She had to make the crucial decisions when there was no traffic light to legislate our stop-and-go, and I experienced the helplessness of having no control over those decisions except to say “Wait!” or “Go, go go!”

***

Yes, I’m all over the place with my stories, but though the 7 days seemed to progress in a linear fashion—night/day, night/day—the way one remembers things is not linear at all. It’s all a mishmash in there, and one thought that rises to the surface may lead to another that is not obviously related. Welcome to the human brain.

***

New restaurants. L’Avenida is gone now, a huge disappointment. We tried to go to El Toreador in West Portal, but there was a long wait. So we strolled across the street to Spiazzo at 6:30 on a Saturday night and were surprised to get seated within 15 minutes. Excellent food, too. We also had two meals at Tacos Los Altos on Cortland in Bernal Heights. I enjoyed the super veggie burrito, but the second meal of steak enchiladas didn’t meet the high standards of Mexican food that I have become accustomed to in Wisconsin. (I had lunch at El Sarape after I touched down at GRB, because, well, when in Green Bay, eat like the Green Bayans do. My favorite Mexican-American waiter there always remembers me and my sisters, so I thought I was giving him and the restaurant a compliment when I told him that I preferred the food he was serving me to what I had had in San Francisco. Too late, I realized that I was saying more about my limited palate than I was about the heavily Midwesternized meals they serve around here. The waiter said he was from Los Angeles and preferred the food out there. Yeah, OK, never mind.

The painting week was filled with good will and great conversations with Penny R, Diane L, Diane D (who didn’t paint and could only join us for dinner on Wednesday and Friday nights, but her presence was a mitzvah as always), Sandra, Carol, Kate, Linda, Kyle…. Barbara was a delight and a challenge—deeply caring, deeply trusting of her own truth, and deeply in tune with our process(es). Even when I wasn’t sure I was “feeling anything,” it was clear that “something was going on”; I think painting has made me lose my words, or at least my exacting ones. Barbara pointed out that I’m comfortable in the world of language, and that living in the body is more difficult for me. The shift confounds me, because I’ve always believed that coming up with just the right word or string of words is as good as any inchoate “feeling.” I’ve always thought I would be more comfortable as a head in a jar (but not Pandora’s), as long as I could write or speak. Maybe with Google glass and other high technical arts to remove the body’s distractions from the interface, humanity will eventually do away with the physical world altogether?  (But I would miss cats; maybe I could have a cat head in a jar next to me. Oh, now I’m just being silly.)

One day in the sharing, I relayed a true story I’d read online about a man who had been swallowed by a hippopotamus. Turns out he wasn’t actually swallowed (I’d been thinking: There are only two exits—which one did he escape from, and how?). He told it this way: “I was aware that my legs were surrounded by water, but my top half was almost dry. I seemed to be trapped in something slimy. There was a terrible, sulphurous smell, like rotten eggs, and a tremendous pressure against my chest. My arms were trapped but I managed to free one hand and felt around – my palm passed through the wiry bristles of the hippo’s snout. It was only then that I realised I was underwater, trapped up to my waist in his mouth.” Eventually, the hippo “spit [him] out.” My favorite part was the guy’s conclusion: “Time passes very slowly when you’re in a hippo’s mouth.” I thought it was quite an instructive message, raising questions as to the nature of time, perception, and WTF he was doing that close to a hippo. (Answer: He’s a river guide—a one-armed river guide at this point.)

I think the biggest laff of the week came when Barbara told us about being hugged by a neighbor who always says, “God bless you.” Barbara was unsure how to respond. “You too” didn’t seem right. Even less so: “Back atcha.” I suggested she answer her in German, in which Barbara is fluent. So Amanda pipes up: “Gesundheit?” OK, so you had to be there, but the thought of saying “Gesundheit” to someone who’s just said “God bless you” was just too hilarious. We laughed like crazy persons.

Neither Terry nor I could sleep the night before we were to leave, so we started the “day” at 2 a.m. We followed her GPS to SFO, dropped the rental car off at Hertz, and parted on the air train because we were leaving from different terminals. It was bittersweet. At security, I was astonished to find that the TSA (now CSA?) were all very kind. I never thought I’d hear the words “Have a good flight” in that corner of bureaucracy. And instead of marching me off to the side and demanding that I surrender my half bottle of water or be “escorted out,” the woman who found it in my bag merely asked if I wanted to go outside the security area and drink it or if she should toss it. Faced with this display of rationality and human feeling, I was practically speechless. In the terminal proper, I stopped at a kiosk to buy some non-bomb-containing water, and I asked the seller why everyone in the airport was so nice now: they’d never been before. She responded… nicely… that it was better than being nasty, and I told her I appreciated it. It really made everything about the airport experience more tolerable.

My flight home was relatively uneventful—I especially appreciate the jet stream, if that’s what explains the much shorter time in the air when going east—except in Chicago (hub of all airline ills) where something happened to the “auxiliary power” and we had to wait on the plane for airport maintenance to come and fix it. The delay was probably less than an hour, but I always have a heightened sense of fear when I get that close to home and face the possibility of being stranded, as I did a couple years ago.

The cats were thrilled to have me home, and for the first day and a half they didn’t let me out of their sight. I’m sure my sister Barb did a great job of caring for them—including a repeat of the lying on the floor by the bed and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar” to Luther when he thought he had found a secure hiding place. She says he eventually got out from under the bed and walked slowly away… I picture him backing slowly away, with two paws out as if to say, “That’s fine, don’t get up.”

My method of unpacking after a trip involves several days and an attempt to expend no extra energy whatsoever. If I happen to be going into the bathroom, I’m happy to pick up a used Kleenex or a plastic bottle of lotion along the way and bring it with me. If I’m going downstairs, I’ll bring along a t-shirt that needs to go in the laundry, as long as I don’t have to go out of my way. This doesn’t work for very long, because eventually I have to take active steps to empty the suitcase and organize the clean vs. dirty clothes, but it lets me feel for a short time like I’m getting away with something.

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Oh, what will become of me?

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #61: April 2013

April 18, 2013

Let’s

Image

with a body part…

Image

Synecdoche: substitution of a part for the whole (pronounced kind of like Schenectady)

I resent the vagina. I resent being defined by it, reduced to it. I resent having no choice about its existence or its exploitation. I know that it makes a terrific baby chute and that lots of people throughout the world enjoy using it. Which wouldn’t bother me in the least if I could have a “get out of my vagina” card.

Having a vagina is like being forced to live in a house without locks. You can hide it from view, but you can’t hide the fact that you’ve got one. Appearing unstylish, unattractive, even fat and old, is no defense against the seekers of your holy grail-part.

Man-boys somehow think they’re more manly by acting out their anger at Mommy on an innocent victim. Sexual orientation also doesn’t help and may even be a turn-on. I’ve never gotten more attention from men than when I wore a gay liberation button in the ‘70s. It’s not like you can hang a “No solicitors” sign on the entrance, or wear a tag that reads “My sexual preference is: not you.” “Oh, sorry, I thought you were heterosexual” has never been uttered by a would-be rapist who then tips his hat and continues on his way to find a more appropriate target.

I resent the vagina monologues… and the dialogues, diaries, notebooks, first person fictions. There’s a new “biography” of the vagina and even a “timeline history” (74 b.c.–2007). A young man of my acquaintance has a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “I  [heart] vagina.” The vagina is the holy grail for many, and I resent being the vessel, the culmination of the voyage, the be-all and vaj-all.

I resent being a synecdoche. The vagina has given me not a moment’s pleasure but instead many hours of pain. I have had no use for it except to carry away the blood on “red letter day” (“I got a letter from my aunt,” my mother would say). Its related parts have given me painful menses, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. I was relieved of much of that by the removal of my uterus. The doctor asked if I wanted to keep as much of my “reproductive parts” as possible; I said I wanted to keep as much of myself as possible. Other body parts have gone the way of the uterus, namely, my tonsils, appendix, gall bladder. But there’s no way to remove the vagina, or shut it down for the season, or forever. It is never left to retire and disintegrate with grace, like an old barn with gray siding and a faded tobacco ad.

I don’t really resent the penis, strange as that may sound. It has one job—well, two; the clitoris is the only sex organ designed solely for pleasure. I can’t really blame the penis, but I do resent the owners of that inside-out clit, who seem to have an almost universal hatred of and attraction to that heavenly corridor, the vajheen. The clit is literally the root of all humanity, as we all start out as female. The fact that the primordial clit develops into an outer appendage on roughly half of humanity should be a mechanical issue only; instead, men have made their penises synecdoches of their own selves, and they vary in how happy they are with the result. But their synecdoches are self-defined; ours are defined by them.

 

something is happening here…

… what it is ain’t exactly clear. I’m getting vague intimations, seeing odd co-in-cidings, picking up faint signals, just as I did before I realized I had to move back to my hometown in Menominee, U.P., Michigan, USA. I’ve lived here now for 8½ years and have seemingly seen, remembered, relived all the associations: the woods and the wildflowers, the pastures and frozen creeks, the beaches, the abundant water on 3 sides that makes us a peninsula within a peninsula. The mise-en-scène is laid out before me; everything is either still here—the family houses, the boarded-up school, the old roads and sand hills, the memories attached to every building or patch of ground I see—or else there are placeholders for the things that used to be. I can see below the layers, like a personal archaeologist using my senses and my stock of memories to dig past the exterminated woods, the disappeared grove of cedar trees, the receding bay, the missing restaurants, the ghosts of churches replaced by fast food joints and dollar stores.

I never knew how attached I was to place. I thought I was living in my head so filled with fantasies and anxieties, but now I see that every fearful or wishful thought was embodied in a yard, a driveway, a basement, a garden, a crabapple tree, a homemade fort that held a predator and me, a tunnel dug beyond any adult’s knowing that could have killed us kids. An old man’s shack next door, a burnt-out abandoned house next to that, my grandfather’s long-gone farm and pretty rocks and milk truck. The birch trees, uniquely white-barked amidst the tedious green, the snow, the mud, the shortcuts through the fields, the long walks to school and back that I still walk in my dreams.

You’ll notice (I noticed) that I haven’t mentioned family, friends, or strangers whether benign or dangerous. The blessèd and the feared. Once when I was visiting back home, I took several pictures of old, mostly vacant buildings: a boarded-up gas station, an abandoned church, the exoskeleton of the factory where my father worked, a defunct paper mill, a street of taverns, an old dairy. Only the taverns are still in business. The theme seemed to be decay and neglect of the manmade world. My mother couldn’t understand why I didn’t take pictures of my relatives (her), why those forlorn, forgotten structures spoke to me. I didn’t understand it either.

My point is that I inhabited that life more than I knew. I thought I was thinking myself past it, past the dead-ends I saw all around me and into an Unknown that had to be better, a world I had read about in books, those life-savers. Begrudging the physical time that had to pass before I could get out.

The pleasures were many but mostly small. They dotted the landscape but never infused it. But they are as vivid and precious as the hurtful sad and madnesses, the betrayals and secrets, the intrusiveness of family and obligation. There were odd transcendences, like typing a paper due in English that day, out on the back porch at 6 in the morning, feeling like I was already gone to a world of literature and art, of experience I had only read about. Or in the basement making a cardboard switchboard for the school play. Living my hidden life while outwardly following all the rules, right down to the letter but rarely the spirit. Longing for someone to make me special.

It occurs to me, so many years later, that the world inside my head did not reflect the truth, that I created that bulwark of a world to defend against forces that may well have been imaginary. Can you believe, dear reader, that that thought has never before occurred to me in the 4½ decades of seemingly intelligent, accomplished adulthood, during which I struggled with relationships, both personal and societal—the deceitful lover, the harridan bosses, the nuts and bolts of car ownership, of furnaces and landlords and neighbors and always, always the question, “What does life mean?” For me it was not a rhetorical question, the answer was the only thing that could propel me past the adult equivalent of my anxious childhood. There were pleasures to be had in this wilderness, too, of course: the books and friends and attempts to write about… something, to make… art?, the summer pool parties and a male friend who wanted desperately to get in my pants. Mostly, I felt like an imposter, back before I knew that many people feel the same way. Discovering the common flaws and fortunes of humanity in myself and others has been a saving grace, along with love that I thought I was too damaged to give or receive, and the indefinable depths of painting without a need to produce either a beautiful object or a semblance of sense, which has led and spread to an acceptance of living for its own sake that I never, ever, knew was possible and that has permeated every molecule of my life experience.

The mystery has something to do with my youth, specifically high school, more specifically how I thought about myself then and how wrong I could have been, I mean, really wrong. It has never before occurred to me to question my overall world view and view of self, though I can quote you chapter and verse on specific misunderstandings and awkwardnesses. I thought I had it all figured out, what happened to me, what happened because of me, what added up and what went down.

I know this is crazily nonspecific, but that’s the thing: I haven’t put it all together yet. But it has something to do with Facebook, of all things—a football player from my class friending me; a couple other classmates remembering me though I have no memory of them; a gradual softening toward the very idea of high school and my experience there, which may have been 90% projection. If I dealt with high school by starting to see my classmates as real people, settled adults—and me as a real person, a settled adult… it would be like forgiving my hometown in general, which made it possible to come back and live here in peace and quiet. It’s an intriguing thought. But the biggest remaining challenge I face has to do with a classmate and childhood friend whom I think of as “my beggar.”

my beggar

I’ve had many memorable encounters with “beggars.” These encounters, far from being all the same, have brought up a whole range of feelings—on both sides, no doubt. I have ignored them, then felt guilty or afraid; I have said a quick “sorry” as I scurried on by, then felt guilty or afraid; or I have responded with my whole heart, most often with a $20 bill, and the counter-response has been about way more than the money. And it wasn’t just up to me whether I became scared or generous; I responded—to what, I wasn’t always sure.

We don’t have beggars where I live now: too fucking cold, for one thing. There are places to go for food and shelter, but beyond that I have no idea. I give my money to organizations instead of individuals, mostly in the form of bags of food from Angeli’s. Being a “nonencounter,” it’s more comfortable for me and probably does as much good, or more, as handing out dollars on street corners.

I say we don’t have beggars here, but I do have a personal beggar of sorts. She’s a childhood friend I thought I’d left behind when I entered high school and became an intellectual along with two boys with similar pretensions. She didn’t go to college, and I saw her only once in the ensuing years, at my mother’s wake, more than 20 years ago. But for some reason she has been holding on to the dream, ecstatic when she found out I was moving back home, obviously hoping to rekindle the childhood flame. After 8½ years she has not taken the hint that our girl scout girl hood died long ago. She seems dim—just this side of developmentally underdeveloped, slow, raw, unafraid of asking for alms (begging). This is way more personal than any of the encounters I’ve had with strangers on the street, obviously, but the same questions come up: What do I owe her? Do I have to feel guilty about not giving, or not giving enough? She’s like a stalker who doesn’t actually stalk: She waits for me to cross her path, like a spider that knows something good is going to get caught in her web if she’s patient enough. When I do run into her (web), as I did the other day, she’s all sticky and clingy and I can’t get loose no matter how much I flail. I become paralyzed by her spider venom and can barely answer her rapid-fire questions, “Do you ever hear from L__?” “Do you ever hear from G__?” “Are you coming to the reunion?” with my curt answers (“No” x3), and, as I make my narrow escape she wistfully calls out with a small “heh heh,” “I never get to see you anymore!” And I wonder, what does it mean that she can’t let it go? When I get the smallest hint that someone is trying to get away from me, I don’t pursue. Is my beggar’s persistence and lack of dignity in the face of outright rejection a sign of delusion? Mental fog extending inland nights and mornings? She comes from a family even poorer than mine; had a brother who was developmentally disabled; never went to college, never left the area, doesn’t drive…. I don’t know all that she’s never done.

So when I’ve made it to my car, feeling both guilty and resentful—it’s the street beggar scenario but 10 times worse—I ask myself why I think about her so much. I even dream about her, two kinds of dreams: either we’ve become friends, or she’s crowding me, pushing at me, pulling, begging, always begging for more. She must be standing in for something or someone else, right?

My friends and my sisters think I could choose to “be nice,” put up with a two-minute conversation every few months, and not think about her in-between times. In fact, I tried that the first time I ran into her, in Stephenson’s Bakery, after I moved back. I sat and talked with her about “old times,” though I couldn’t remember even one of the things she harked back to. I even gave her a ride home, I felt I was doing the right thing, giving the beggar a few dollars, so to speak, so I couldn’t be accused of being completely heartless—but in my mind, that “nice” response set up her expectations to become that girlhood friend again. But what amazes me is that she has not given up those expectations even after so many years of my obvious dodging of her and reluctant, even rude brush-offs. What she said to me the other day was, “Here I am, in the way, like always.” It was eerie, even creepy. It’s like she knows the truth but will not let go of that limp lifeline with no one on the other end.

If I could just feel as cold as I act toward her, it would be a lot easier. But it’s that guilt, that feeling that I’m handling it the wrong way, that it’s my fault she’s too dim-witted to take me at face value now, 57 years later, and see me as a jerk or a snob or an asshole, versus the happy friend I was as a kid. Why doesn’t she get mad at me? Or does her delusion depend on believing that I will someday greet her with a big smile and a “Hi!” and an invitation to go out for a malt at the (now-defunct) soda fountain? Is this like a failed love connection? Does she lust after me? Am I the best thing that’s ever happened to her? Oh god, every possibility is worse than the last.

The weird thing, and the thing that makes me wonder if I’m somehow causing this reaction in her, is that it has happened to me several times. Someone—always a woman, oddly enough (defying my demonization of men)—gets it in her head that she must have me, in one way or another. My therapist said, about one of those women, that I had “let her in.” Yeah, I’ve let a lot of people in, but most people know not to move in, not to keep demanding more and more of my time and attention. I could tell you stories! And sure, I too have loved and lost, more times than I can count, and it hurts—whether it’s a love interest or someone I just want to be closer to, as a friend, and I see that it’s not going to happen. I used to consider it proof of my unlikability, but now I see that it’s just a fact: not everyone likes everyone, or likes them in the same way.

The bright side: that I can accept my less than lovely character traits and not feel that I have to change them, overcome them, become better than, reach the goal of being a perfect person. Beating up on yourself is not the same as bravely looking at what is true in yourself and accepting it, and even accepting that you are still probably half-deluded, but you will be willing to look, take in, own whatever comes up. In fact, beating up on yourself is one of the ways of narcissism. It’s trying to eat the whole enchilada of self-hatred, claiming way more than what is even true, just to avoid doing a real accounting of dollars and sense. The best defense is no defense at all. When a friend points out a flaw, I find myself more willing to listen, to agree when it’s true, even to feel the pain of being exposed but letting it be. It’s like magic, this allowing the feeling in the moment to be fully experienced, instead of trying to push it down or turn it around. If you’re really willing to feel that feeling and let it take you to the core of whatever the truth is, there’s nothing more you have to do.

And maybe that’s where I’m failing not only my beggar but myself: I don’t want to feel the true extent of the feeling, whatever it is, for fear that she/it represents some deep part of me—so I put it off on her, on the inconvenience of her implicit challenge to me, on the inadequacy of her sensitivities, on her refusal to just get out of the goddamn way and let me live my new, self-accepting, happy life.

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #60: January 2013

January 4, 2013

Flying to San Francisco for a painting intensive is a lot like taking my cat to the vet. In both cases I think I can handle it, but there are certain things over which I have little or no control: (1) the cat; (2) United Airlines.

Either I’ve let down my vigilance or Luther has increased his. I had to take him in for a very simple procedure: to remove the stitches from his MTF surgery (male-to-a-gash where his privates used to be). I usually have no trouble grabbing him and sticking him in the carrier. But he had been watching and learning: he would get suspicious when I put socks on, or when I closed both doors to my bedroom (so he couldn’t hide under the bed). I try to remain calm and not give off any vibes of “I am about to pick you up, cat,” but he’s very sensitive to nonverbal cues. Let’s face it, he has nothing else to do all day. So this time he figured it out, and I kid you not, I spent one-and-a-half hours chasing him up and down the stairs. (It was a low-speed chase on my part.) He would wait at the top or bottom of the stairs until I almost reached him and then he would take off. He got behind the washer and dryer and tucked himself into a hole in the dry wall. I couldn’t move the appliances, and pleading with him in a reasonable tone of voice didn’t work, so I got out the vacuum cleaner and flushed him out with the sound he likes least in the world. Then it was up the stairs again, and on and on. About an hour into this fiasco, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on a short stand-alone bookcase and looking down at Luther who was lounging on the other side. He averted his eyes, so I knew he knew he was being a very bad boy. I explained to him, “I can’t do this all day, you know. You’re going to have to give up sometime, because I’m not going to!” With that, we took up the chase again. I finally trapped him in the upstairs bathroom.

United Airlines is even more difficult to deal with, because you’re completely at the mercy of snow, rain, wind, fog, missing planes, late planes, planes that won’t move, planes that can’t move, mysterious demands from the air traffic controllers (inadequately explained by the pilot), mechanical difficulties, missing crew members, not enough food on board, an overhead bin that won’t close, a missing sticker on the pilot’s control panel. This last one happened to my friend P in October. FAA regulations would not permit the plane to fly without this sticker! I asked her if it was a happy face, or maybe “My honor student can beat up your honor student.” There is no end to the excuses for why a plane cannot go when it’s time. On my most recent trip, there was a 45-minute delay at O’Hare because some plane that was in our way needed a “pusher.” That’s when I learned that a plane can’t go in reverse (wouldn’t that be a sight in the sky? backwards-flying airplanes?), it has to be pushed out of the gate. There was also much yelling back and forth over the heads of the waiting passengers between two employees at the far ends of the gate, white phones to their ears, trying to convey information or questions either to the other gate person or perhaps to the person at the other end of the other gate person’s phone. It was impossible to determine what they were talking about, and whether it was good or bad news for us, the passenger/hostages. But once we got going, the flight to S.F. was uneventful and, I have to admit, they served a delicious tomato soup in first class.

[As I write this, I’m half-watching the “KittenCam” on YouTube. Brutus sometimes watches it with me and will look behind the laptop to see where the kitties are. Poor dumb animals, there’s so much in life they don’t understand. The mother cat is lying on top of a rudimentary cardboard castle, and there’s a wide entrance for the kittens to get inside. I hear a lot of scratching, and I look over to see that one of the kittens has managed to climb up the back of the castle and is lying next to mom, oh bliss to be the only child for a moment. One of the other kittens is trying to figure out how to climb up there too, but he/she gives up and leaves the castle to lie on a blanket in front of it. The blanket is blue; is it meant to represent a moat? Am I giving this too much thought?]

At the baggage claim at SFO, I was waiting in vain for my luggage to come down the chute when a United employee came up to me and asked if I was looking for a purple hard-sided suitcase. He said it had come in on an earlier flight, so it was waiting for me in the Odd Sizes area. I asked him how he knew it was mine, and he said he remembered my name from the wheelchair list (I get ferried around O’Hare and SFO). Which really didn’t explain it, but I guess my cane gave me away. So I claimed my suitcase and schlepped up to the air train with all my stuff: suitcase, heavy carry-on bag, painting tube, and heavy wool coat. (I don’t understand the architecture of that part of the airport. I had to take an elevator up and then another elevator down.) I picked up my car at the Rental Car Center and was delighted to see that Alamo was much more efficient than Avis ever was.

I’d brought along my GPS, so before proceeding to the flat in Bernal Heights that Terry had rented for us, I typed in “Golden Gate Park” so I could stop at Andronico’s for supplies, maybe pick up a burrito at L’Avenida. Complacent with the smooth way the trip had gone so far, I proceeded onto the freeway in the heavy rain and dark, pretty much remembering the way over to 280 but figuring it wouldn’t hoit to use the GPS. It wasn’t until I saw the “380 to 280” sign out of the corner of my eye that I realized that Gloria (Positioning System) was guiding me onto 101 North. Very soon I discovered that she was trying to make me go over the Bay Bridge! Her demands became more and more insistent until I finally unplugged her and decided to fly (so to speak) solo.

I wasn’t sure how to get away from the dreaded bridge and find the heart of the city. There used to be a sign that said, “Last exit to S.F.,” but  I didn’t see it this time. At one point, I thought, “I could die tonight.” The crowded freeway was a nightmare, especially when I had to change lanes, and the city streets, when I finally got to one, were almost worse because of all the pedestrians and bike riders and still too many cars. When one car started backing toward me without regard for the Pauli Exclusion Principle (no two objects can occupy the same place at the same time), I leaned on the horn, and a guy on a bike riding by called out, “Chill, lady.” I tried to think of a biting retort, but I didn’t have the energy. Besides, it was probably good advice. At a stoplight I tinkered with the radio, got it turned on, and almost got blasted out of the car it was so loud. Then I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. Not for the first time, I thought, “Why do I do this to myself?”

To make a long story not much shorter, I managed to find Polk St., then Pine, and drove across town to L’Avenida (it was closed) and Andronico’s, where I bought water, Frappuccino, eggs, butter, English muffins, and capellini with artichokes and pine nuts. Oh, did I forget to mention the lemon tart? By 9:00 I made it over to the flat, which is on a nice quiet street across from Holly Park. After meeting the “hosts” and getting a tour of the premises, I ate half the capellini and the lemon tart and retired early. Terry wasn’t flying in until the next day, Friday.

I woke to darkness and still-pouring rain. The mattress was so soft that I couldn’t turn over: an inexorable gravity-like force kept pulling me to the edge. When I reached for my cell phone on the night stand, I fell out of bed! The phone hit the floor, too, and broke apart, the three pieces scattering. It took several minutes of sweeping my cane under the bed and a chair to find the battery. Besides being bruised by the fall, I had a sharp pain under my right heel when I tried to walk. I think that was from the schlepping I had to do in the 3 airports the day before (the wheelchair rides get you only so far), not from landing on the floor.

To say that I was discouraged at that point is a vast understatement. Each time I go to these painting intensives, I’m six months or another year older (and deeper in debt), and my mobility is increasingly compromised. Every movement is difficult, and every new environment seems designed to stymie me. Here is a perfect example. The bathroom door would get stuck on the bath mat when I tried to open or close it, so I had to bend down and pick the mat up to move it out of the way. The first time I did this, it wouldn’t come up, and I finally realized that I was leaning on it with the cane in my other hand. This also illustrates my complicity in my other, nonphysical problems, I’m sorry to say.

Terry was also having a trip from hell, which I didn’t know about until after I’d had lunch with Barbara. We got burritos from La Corneta in Glen Park and ate them at her lovely outer Mission apartment. I once speculated that eternity is the “time” between meetings with the other painters, because it never feels like time has passed, we pick up where we left off. I got a text from Terry saying she was stuck in Philadelphia. (I wanted to work in W.C. Fields’ famous epitaph, “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” but it turns out to be apocryphal; damn!) She finally got in late Friday night.

On Saturday morning it was old home week at the painting studio. Only 4 of 25 painters were “new” (not known to me). Some of us have been painting together for over 30 years. I was delighted to see that Diane L. and Diane D. were there, also Sima, who had lost her job the day before and so was freed up to paint. Greeting everyone, hugging and exchanging gladness at seeing each other again, went a long way toward turning my travel woes on their head and making me see that “it was all worth it.” All weekend I was high on the people, the ease of painting, and the realization that I seem to have “gotten out of my own way” (the cane pinning down the bathmat notwithstanding), able to accept my mistakes, petty thoughts, and social awkwardness. It’s so easy once you know how: if you accept yourself and your imperfections, you can note what happened and then move on, rather than spiraling down into the useless, self-fulfilling prophesy of self-judgment.

Yet despite this, part of me wondered if I was getting too cocky, if I was going to get my comeuppance. And it did come, but not, I think, as a punishment for feeling good about myself. Accepting yourself in general doesn’t mean you will never fail or flounder; it works on the other end, when the worst has already happened. On the third day of painting, I had a sudden insight that I wanted to share in the group, even though it was in response to someone else’s sharing. Barbara’s attempt to bring “painting consciousness” into our relationships with one another in the group is fairly new and difficult to carry out in practice. The painting itself feels completely natural, because you do exactly what comes to you. But in the sharing, you need a higher level of awareness so that you honor each person’s space to speak without responding, giving advice, or going off on your own tangents. The sharing is not a discussion group or a casual conversation, and in that sense it feels unnatural… to wait and consider one’s intentions before blurting something out, for example. I seem to be the main blurter in the group. Back in the day, I was so shy that I could never think of anything to say or, if I did, could not bring myself to speak up. Now I’m kind of a loose cannon, putting myself out there, taking risks with what I say (an avocational hazard of being smart and funny), and getting caught up in meta disagreements with Barbara about trust, permission, rules, authority, and approval seeking. I seem always to be seeing a naked emperor in front of me, rather than another sensitive human being who is doing the best she can.

It’s a painful process—pushing the boundaries, getting pushed back, afraid to give in to authority, afraid of “group think.” My earlier experience in a certain group can explain this, but it’s difficult to let go of that reflexive need to challenge when my hackles start rising up. So Barbara and I went back and forth for a while, I completely closed down in despair at not being “understood” and left to go to the bathroom so I could compose myself and blow my nose. (“I can’t keep my snot in my nose” was my elegant way of excusing myself.)

What happened when I rejoined the group was quite amazing, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. My defenses simply let down—not because I was trying to be conciliatory, not because I had been persuaded by internal or external arguments—they just fell away, as if I had set down a heavy, unwieldy load. I told the group that I was “melting into not knowing.” This happens in painting, too, but it’s a completely new (to me) way to deal with interpersonal conflict. You can sharpen your verbal sword, parse your arguments, thrust and defend as long as you want, but the source of the problem cannot be reached until those defenses come down. When you see that there’s no intellectual road map, that only honesty and humility will change the dynamic, the problem dissolves. It’s an extraordinary thing to just give up, to be there with your whole self, not denying, not defending, just being, being open. Conflict dissolves with trust of self and other, not with the defeat of one over the other. Could this be women’s gift to the world? Barbara later said that these things (my rude rebellions) “need to come out” and that she “needs” me for that, so, once again, all was well that ended well.

Now that the heavy part is out of the way, I’m going to meander amongst my memories and relate some of the other interactions that happened during the week. There was so much humor and insight, coming from so many directions, that it was intoxicating. Even when no one was speaking, the silence throbbed and the feeling of connection and love was palpable. It didn’t have to be personal, which is the most amazing part of it. I love the personal, don’t get me wrong, but the discovery of connection through our common humanity can be just as strong.

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Microscopic photo of Krameri erecta (purple heather) by Rob Kesseler. I love the heart shape and the protrusions… the hackles of the heart?

One of the people I felt especially connected with this time, both personally and in the larger sense, was Jan E. She had the most amazing experience of love that came, she said, out of painting “nothing”: trees, blackness. There was an odd lack of correspondence between what she was painting and what she felt. She was at the painting table at the same time as Claudia and suddenly was overcome by the realization, “I LOVE Claudia!” Then, “I LOVE Penni!” There was a purity there, in that eruption of affection. “I never loved Gene [her husband] that much!,” she exclaimed. Her description of this experience was so funny and felt so true. (Believe me, I am not doing it justice.) She was also having experiences outside the studio, such as wanting to hug the man sitting next to her on the bus, and noticing the beautiful face of a child in a schoolyard (she had never really “seen” children before: “I mean, I knew they were there….”).

Jan also brought poems to read aloud in the group. From having no interest in “mystic poetry,” she had become fascinated by it in the past year. Here’s one she read, by the Sufi poet Hafiz:

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,
With that sweet moon
Language,
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

Years ago I went through a long period of spiritual longing, of appreciating the mystic expression of God as “the Beloved.” It’s intoxicating, gives one hope, is beautiful and romantic. But I came to associate this beauty with a teacher who was selfish, manipulative and dishonest, and I distanced myself from this romantic view as I distanced myself from her—but now I feel more open to it, though still skeptical of the idea of “worship.” But Jan’s stories of spontaneous feelings of love clearly came from a place of innocence, and I was very touched. That night I e-mailed her to say, “I LOVE you.”

Jan also read Hafiz’ poem “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing.” Best title ever.

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Liat had to report for jury duty that week and was not happy about it, fearing that she would get picked for a jury and would miss the rest of the week of painting. She was gone one morning because she had gotten “the call,” but she came back to the studio after lunch, explaining that they hadn’t put her on a jury. At the courthouse she was so happy about it that when she got on an elevator, there was another woman there to whom she said, “I really want to hug you right now.” The woman replied, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” This was hilarious, because we knew exactly how she felt but also how the other woman felt. Can the world survive our spontaneous expressions of love?

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One morning Alyssa came over to me and thanked me for helping her last night. I asked her what she meant. I had helped her in a dream: She had found a dozen dead mice in the oven and I took them out for her. She hugged me in the dream. I was very touched by this. She didn’t know what to make of it so I hazarded a guess: Was she by any chance trying to get pregnant? She gaped at me. “Why would you ask me that?” It was the oven, as in “bun in the oven.” And her word “dozen,” associated with eggs. “But the mice were dead!” And from my limited knowledge of dream work a là Jeremy Taylor, I said, “All dreams come in the service of health and wholeness.” I have no idea what it meant that I was there helping her, but I felt honored.

Later, at the paint table with her, I noticed that she was using a lesser quality of white paint and pointed out that there was a thicker, nicer white available. She said, rather dismissively, “Oh, this is just for my mom’s hair.” I loved that.

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I was painting near Martha, with whom I shared long hours of absorption in our own paintings that were suddenly broken by a sudden eruption into play and laughter. Diane D. told me I seemed “awfully chipper” one morning, and Martha immediately christened me “Chipper” and revealed that her own moniker was “Gidget.” She said it would be doubly ironic when we “got really dark” (as is our wont). I said, “Chipper is feeling moody today.” She asked if I thought the name was wrong. I said, “I’m not really feeling moody, I just thought it was funny.” I paused. “I lost several loved ones in a train wreck last night.” I sighed and put the back of my hand to my forehead. Martha said, “Oh, Chipper,” in the most sincere way possible. We laughed our heads off for a while and then went back to our paintings.

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One day after lunch with Diane, Diane, and Terry, we stopped at a small market down the hill from the studio so I could get something sweet. There were several young Arab men outside, and an Arab man and woman, presumably married, inside. The man immediately tried to hustle me into buying more than the ice cream bar I had settled on. “We have sandwich, candy bar, we have hummus and baba ganoush.” I was feeling completely copacetic, so I just smiled and said, “This is all I want, I just had a big lunch.” He kept selling at me, but I think he knew I was a lost cause. Then Diane L. came in and asked if they had baba ganoush. The man was ecstatic. I walked outside and said “Hi” to the young men. I had noticed a sign for “Yelp” (the review website) in the window; it said “People on Yelp hate us!” I questioned the wisdom of hanging such a sign in their store, and the young men tried to explain that it was “a joke”—“it’s funny!” I replied, “Oh, it’s funny [not really]…. I just think it would make a bad impression on people who want to come in the store.” Then one of them pointed out a similar sign in the other window that read, “People on Yelp love us!” “Oh, I get it,” I said. It was such an innocent, happy exchange; I felt so open, so accepting of them and of myself.

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I got permission from the person involved to tell most of these stories, but this one will be anonymous because I don’t know if she’d want to be identified. During one sharing, the woman next to me started to cry. She’s very verbal, working class like me, heady… is usually a talker, with all sorts of ideas about herself and her place in the group. Finally, she just gave it up and started sobbing. For moments at a time I let myself feel her pain: It was excruciating. But I didn’t let it take me over, I just sat with her and admired her willingness to reveal herself so deeply. Later I told her this, and she said she could feel my presence next to her. What an honor, to be a witness to someone else’s pain and not freak out or plunge into my own, not be afraid or overly solicitous, not try to “help” or give advice. This is the whole point of not commenting on other people’s sharings, and this time I got it. The person who is revealing herself honestly has the space and time to truly feel it and let it expand or subside on its own. And, speaking from personal experience, the silence of the others is not off-putting, it’s the highest form of communion there is: witnessing without interfering—simply accepting, because we all know that it could just as easily be us feeling the depth of our own pain, that no one is truly alone in the group.

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Penni had brought copies of her newly published book, Hubert Keller’s Souvenirs: Stories and Recipes from My Life, which she had written “with” Keller. It’s a beautiful book, and I bought a copy for my friend P. Penni agreed to mail it for me so I wouldn’t have to schlep it home in my suitcase. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time, but our interactions about the book made me emboldened enough to say to her one lunchtime, “I want to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone else in my entire life…. You have a great ass.” She roared with laughter and hugged me. She said she had been aware that she was perhaps sticking it out a lot. I said, “That’s how I noticed! I didn’t go looking for it!” It was a delightful exchange.

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One morning while painting, I saw Karine in the sharing room crying pretty hard and writing in a journal. She spent the whole morning out there, it seemed. Someone asked me if I knew what was going on with her, and I said I didn’t but that it seemed serious, like a break-up or someone had died. But we found out what it was on the last day of the intensive, when she read the group a poem she had written—her first ever. An encounter with a mosquito in her bedroom the night before had brought a flood of feelings and insights. “[A] mosquito was my gift last night,” it begins… “a valiant hero i could not vanquish with righteous rage / who wouldn’t let me sleep thru this life.” It’s extraordinary what the urge toward creation will call us to do.

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Early in the week, I had a laughing fit that started at lunch with the usual suspects, at Chloe’s. Well, first there was a whole thing about my bag, my carry-on bag that I was using as a purse. Diane L. kept teasing me about it, there was nowhere to put it, what did I need such a big bag for. So I was kind of propping it on my lap against the table, and, I couldn’t see this, but the silverware that was closest to it started being drawn to the bag and sticking to it. Diane D. removed a fork, and next a knife glommed on. We speculated on how it would be a perfect way to steal silverware. (I guess it was static electricity?) Anyway, it was bizarre. We all laughed about it, but for me it triggered one of those “can’t stop laughing” experiences that are way more fun for the laugher than the laughees. The others also teased me for always ordering the same thing there, a BLT with avocado on rosemary toast. I don’t see what’s so wrong about ordering what you want, but this time I was already laughing and feeling a bit wacky, so when the waitress came around and it was my turn to order, I said (through tears of hysteria), “I’m going to try something new for a change.” I could hardly get the words out, I was laughing so hard. Then I ordered the same-old BLT with avocado, and for some reason I found this so funny, and of course no one else could see the humor in it, which made it funnier yet. Later that afternoon, while painting, I started to remember this, and the laughing fit got going again. I couldn’t stop. It almost seems more acceptable to be crying than laughing in the group, because no one questions why you’re crying, but if you’re laughing (the whole world laughs with you?), no, people are desperately curious to know why. Right in the middle of this self-induced hilarity, my cell phone rang, and it was my sister Barb texting me, “The boys say ‘Hi’!” (She calls my cats “the boys.”) This sent me over the top, and I had to go outside to compose myself. I think that was the day that I later made the faux pas in the sharing (interrupting/commenting). I guess I got so loose from laughing that I forgot to pay attention.

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One day I was in the bathroom when seemingly the entire group in the studio burst out singing: “My Cherie Amour / lovely as a summer’s day / My Cherie Amour, distant as the Milky Way / My Cherie Amour, pretty little one that I adore / You’re the only girl my heart beats for / How I wish that you were mine.” When I got back to my painting, someone explained that a car had gone by blasting that song. It was a lovely burst of spontaneity.

on driving in the city

I had many unnerving experiences while driving in the city that week, and you can imagine how much more unnerving it was for my hapless passenger, Terry. She would alert me to pedestrians who had just stepped into the crosswalk, or to bikes and cars that suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Strangely, I managed fine when she wasn’t in the car. The scariest time was one night when I was trying to get from the east end of Golden Gate Park over to 6th Ave. For some reason I thought I was on the street that merges into Lincoln Ave. going west, but turns out I was on the other side, and when I “merged,” I discovered that I was driving directly toward a sea of headlights a couple of blocks away! T calls out, “Get on the sidewalk!,” which, “No shit!” and I blithely drive up on the sidewalk at a driveway cutout, and continue to the end of the block where I could turn onto 6th. A guy up ahead was riding a bike toward us, and my maneuver sent him off the sidewalk into the street. I thought, “You want to share the road? Go ahead, I’m taking the sidewalk!” It was surprisingly pleasant to drive on the sidewalk, I must say. Later, this story became the highlight of many conversations, and when I defended myself by saying I’ve never had an accident, Diane L. pointed out that her 90-something clients who want to keep driving say the same thing.

 

my painting

For like the third or fourth intensive in a row, the painting was easy. I can’t explain it, but it feels so good. After a couple of fast, warm-up paintings, I started one with absolutely no idea what I was going to paint. I started with my body, lying horizontally as in a bathtub, and as I was painting it, I sensed water under me, then blood, and finally I saw that she/I was dead! I’ve painted myself dead before, it was no big deal, but all the other times the body was still, devoid of life: still life. This time I became aware of all the biological processes that continue after the person dies. We like to say that death is a part of life, but life is also a part of death. We think it’s the end when the brain and heart stop, but there is so much else going on! I had a blast painting the organs rotting and the skin deteriorating and being consumed from within, some of it by fire, because of course the decay is very active—alive—and other creatures feed on the by-products.

So I painted water and blood and then a Being who was just there, observing and holding and honoring. It didn’t feel macabre at all; it was exciting to have this insight that seemed obvious when I thought about it but had never occurred to me before.

That painting put me in the groove, and when I started a new one I absolutely felt like it didn’t matter what I painted or even whether I knew what the images were: like a flower/vagina growing out of my dead body’s neck: no need to explain! (As if I could!)

I think Jan sent me this poem. It feels especially true in painting, but I can also feel it in my daily life.

Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick.  I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean. 
 —Rumi

good times

Our little dining-out group held fast to our traditions: Lakeside for lunch on Saturday, dinner that night at Clement St. Bar & Grill, Alice’s on Sunday, Chloe’s on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Wednesday and Thursday were special, as I’ll explain.

Terry and I had a wonderful week together. Our morning routine was that I would get up first, take a shower, and make breakfast. She would then take her shower, we would eat, and she would clean up. She found out when garbage pick-up day was and volunteered to put it and the recycling out the night before. This was on Wednesday, our half day of painting, when we had a pizza lunch provided by the studio. After we finished eating we were treated to belly dancing by Claudia, amplified flute by Barbara accompanied by Alyssa’s beautiful singing, and then I-forget-what-it’s-called, a group poem? where we passed around the mic and added to the poem or made lovely or raucous sounds. I usually don’t feel comfortable during these purely social gatherings—harking back to high school cafeteria days, afraid no one would want to sit with me. I keep forgetting that I’m not 14 anymore. But Alyssa sat down next to me, Kate and Penni were close by, and we had rousing conversations in different configurations.

Terry wanted to do some laundry that afternoon, so she asked around for where there was a laundromat… only to be told that there was one across the street from the studio! We had obviously seen it for years but never took it in. While she did her laundry, I went back to the flat, which was only about 3 minutes from the studio, and told her to call me when she was done and I would come back and get her. My intention was to read and then nap until she called, but instead I decided to put the garbage out myself. It wasn’t a big deal, but when I picked her up later, I told her I had a surprise for her but that it wasn’t a material object. She looked around the flat, puzzled, didn’t know what to look for, and I finally asked her what she had been planning to do that night. She mentioned a couple of things and finally said, dubiously, “Well, I was going to take out the garbage…. Oh!” And she went and looked in all three wastebaskets and started doing a combination victory/gratitude dance that included elaborate bowing with both arms while tiptoe-dancing. It was highly amusing and very satisfying for me. If you haven’t seen Terry dance, you ain’t seen nuthin’. We had so much fun together, all the time.

That night we met Diane, Diane, and Gloria (Diane D.’s friend, not G. Positioning System) for dinner at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley. It’s my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area. We had a delightful time in a beautiful setting, lots of Christmas lights, and they’ve taken down the mounted animal heads that used to adorn the place when it was a hunting lodge. I had a vodka lemonade, some excellent bread (and I’m not usually a “bread person”), a Dungeness crab Louie salad (best one I’ve ever had), and a slab of coconut cream pie. Heaven. I can’t get crab at home, just “krab,” which is a faux version that I’ve never tried for fear of being desperately disappointed. Will I be writing down this meal in my “diet diary”? No way!

On Thursday, Kate and I had lunch at Eric’s, a Chinese restaurant on Church St., and had a nice time talking about painting, editing, and her upcoming move to the East Bay.

After painting that day, Terry went to see the movie Life of Pi with Diane L. Again, I had the plan of reading and sleeping, but I turned the wrong way going back to the flat, tried to “go around the block,” and got completely lost. I found myself on a street with trolley tracks, and dark buildings rearing up high on both sides. I felt like I was in Gotham. Eventually, I found my way out of there. We needed eggs for the next morning, so I was going to get some at Andronico’s and hopefully get a burrito at L’Avenida, but it was closed again. I never did get to go there. For some reason, the thing I most covet at Andronico’s is their jumbo artichokes. They sell them back home, but they look terrible and taste like nothing. On an impulse I decided to buy two and take them home, either in my luggage or in my painting tube. Well, they were way too big for the tube, but I managed to fit them into my suitcase along with a couple of Henning Mankell Wallander books I’d bought there and some cute gifts I’d received from D, D, and T.

the love offerings

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For our final sharing on Friday, we each brought in a “love offering.” A few people sang (Carol: “I’m a Believer”) or played a song on their iPod (Linda: “Love Shack”); some read a poem, told a story about their lives, or showed their paintings from the week. Polly walked around the circle with her painting and told a sweet story about it, but unfortunately I don’t remember a thing. The variety and creativity of the offerings was inspiring. I had downloaded “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, which Terry and I had heard on the radio as we were driving to the studio that morning. I introduced it by saying I dedicated it to everyone in the room. “Home is whenever I’m with you.” Terry and I hadn’t heard it all the way through, so I said if there was any reference to making love, they could ignore that part. A rush went through me when it started to play.

That day we had our final lunch at Chloe’s. Earlier in the week we had discovered that our favorite waiter, T.J., who had quit a few years before to move to Thailand, was back. He is the sweetest man. As we were tallying up our money to pay the bill, he came by and gave us a brownie with fresh strawberries to share. I had been about to order carrot cake, so he brought that too, and turns out he didn’t charge for either dessert. I wanted to hug him—not for the free dessert but for who he is. As I wrote on my Facebook page recently, I love men sometimes. When they’re good, they’re very very good. The rest, you know.

After all the sad good-byes at the end of the day, Diane D., Terry, Carol and I went out seeking a last group experience. As we did in May, we started out at the Bliss Bar in Noe Valley and ate at Pasta Pomodoro. It was quite late when we got back to the flat. I only got 2 hours’ sleep that night, because….

the final push

Up at the crack of 2:00 a.m. Saturday, Terry and I managed to get our luggage and ourselves out of the flat without waking up our hosts. GloriaPS took us on a somewhat convoluted route to the Rental Car Center, and I had many moments of panic during which T kept encouraging me and confirming where I was supposed to turn or not turn, and when we got there she said, “Good job, Mare!” Still, I felt shaken. As often as I’ve made that trip from SF to SFO, I’m never completely sure what lane to be in and what exits to take.

I turned the car in—again, a much easier procedure at Alamo than at Avis—and we made our way back to the air train. We were leaving from different terminals so said our good-byes on the train. I laboriously made my way to the United check-in area, where there was a very long line (one of those double-back kinds) even at 4 a.m. I eventually got to the front of the line and was told that first class check-in was farther down the hall. No signs, of course. So I dragged myself and my stuff down there, got my bag checked, and said to the guy, as I always do, “I’m going all the way to Green Bay…,” because they always only mention Chicago. “Right,” they always say.

The flight to Chicago was great. I slept most of the way, waking only to accept my hot towel, hot nuts, and unidentifiable “breakfast”: mound of yellow, triangle of white, puck of brown. Also, we must have had quite the tailwind, because it only took about 3.5 hours. O’Hare was easier to navigate, too, because for some reason I didn’t have to go all the way to the F concourse to catch the smaller plane going north.

So all was hunky-dory until I got to Green Bay, prematurely thanking God, the universe, and United Airlines for getting me “home” (or at least within 50 miles) in one piece. I say prematurely, because my lovely purple suitcase had been left behind. As it dawned on me that my car keys were in the suitcase, my heart sank. The next flight from Chicago wasn’t due for another 6 hours or so. Fortunately, the sun was shining, and it was only mid-afternoon, so I called my sister Barb, who didn’t hesitate when I asked her to come pick me up. She’s nervous driving on the highway, but at least the big snowstorm wasn’t supposed to come until the next day, so she made it in record time. Usually a strict observer of the speed limit, she said she went as fast as “63 or 64 miles an hour!” (Actually, the speed limit is 65 for most of the way, but she was clearly pushing her own limits.) I appreciated her so much for doing that.

Terry and I both have painting tubes that Barb made for us. They’re colorful, covered (and laminated with Contac paper) with images that she found online, with our addresses and a strap so we can carry them over our shoulders. The tubes got a lot of attention at the studio, but T had told me that some of the TSA people had also been intrigued by hers. One of the guys called it “artsy.” No one had said anything about mine when I was traveling out there, but in Green Bay, a United employee who’s always really nice saw me and said, “What have we here?” He admired the tube, wanted to know what it was for, and finally said it was “artsy.” I haven’t heard that term since, like, high school. But apparently it’s the final word on Barb’s creations. I tried to interest him in my no-show-suitcase dilemma, but it was out of his hands.

I was told that the airport delivery service would bring the suitcase to my house when it came in. So at midnight, a haggard-looking middle-aged woman struggled up my front steps with it. I wondered how many deliveries she’d had to make that night, and I felt sorry for her having to do what has got to be a thankless job, so I gave her a $20 tip. She was clearly shocked, said, “Well, you brought a smile to my face! Not many people tip.” It made me feel good.

Barb’s son Brian, who lives in Chicago now, was home for the weekend. He had assured me that if I ever got stranded in Chicago, he’d drop everything and “take care of” me. That wouldn’t have worked this time, because, well, he wasn’t there. But on Sunday he drove me and Barb back down to the airport. The “big snowstorm” was just getting started. It was a treat to be a passenger for once. I sprung my Jeep from long-term parking, and instead of rushing home to avoid the snow, we decided to go to El Sarape for lunch, like, what the hell. The snowplows were out, and the highway is usually kept pretty clear, so we made it home without further incident. Barb asked if I was coming back that evening to watch our Sunday shows (Homeland and Dexter), and I thought, Oh shit. I was beyond exhausted. But when we got to her house I decided to watch the ones I had missed, then save the newer ones for later in the week. I relaxed into her recliner, she put a fuzzy blanket over me, and I missed at least half of both shows. Every now and then she would ask if I was awake and rewind to the last part I had seen. My baby sister takes such good care of me.

When I got home, I noticed that a luggage tag Diane L. had given me, which said “I’m not your bag” (dual entendres there) had come off. Damn! I figured it was stolen, or maybe I hadn’t attached it securely enough. I e-mailed her to tell her this, and she replied that she was laughing about it… “Life is just strange.” What a mature attitude. I’ll have to work on that.

Shoutout to Kerry and Dewey! When Kerry had volunteered to read the ‘zine online instead of on paper, Dewey somehow never got to see it. So now I’m sending them a paper copy and hope they both enjoy it.

I’m sorry I couldn’t include everyone by name in this tale. So much happening, so little remembering. But I meant what I said about how everyone in the group felt like “home” to me. Love you! Love you all!

Mary McKenney

mary’zine #59: November 2012

November 18, 2012

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I’m listening to my iTunes library, at less volume than I would prefer in deference to the cats’ sensitive eardrums and complete lack of music appreciation. These are the last few songs I’ve heard (a là shuffle):

Title Artist
Bloodbuzz Ohio Oh Land
Some Other Time X
You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome Miley Cyrus
Epic Calexico
Map of the World Mariachi El Bronx
Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool Connie Francis
Most of the Time Bettye LaVette
One of a Kind The Spinners
Chain of Fools Aretha Franklin
Mother Mother Tracy Bonham
Viva Sequin / Do Re Mi Ry Cooder
Please Please Me Mary Wells
Gangsta’s Paradise Coolio
Mind Eraser The Black Keys
Time Is Tight The Clash

I’m arbitrarily stopping this list at 15, though I would love to fill up the next 10 pages with song titles and artists as they come up on iTunes. But I’ll spare you.

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The best part of October for me was my old friend P’s visit. She took 3 airplane flights to get to me from Oregon to celebrate my birthday. We had a good time, very low key. The main goal was to find ways to imbibe the World Series games, because the Giants were in it. After they handily won it in 4 games, the next goal became ingesting the Packers game on Sunday and the 49ers game on Monday night. I did not mind this, because she in turn allowed me to nap whenever I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. “I’ll just go read,” she’d say. She read 4 or 5 books in the week she was here. Of course we ate out a lot (The Landing, Schussler’s, Mickey-Lu’s, Jozwiak’s, Brothers Three, El Sarape), and twice she made dinner for us: tacos one night and a vodka-and-sausage pasta dish another. She, my sisters, and my niece spoiled me rotten with cool birthday gifts. (As did Terry from afar.)

One pleasure that I seldom get anymore is telling P something about my life that she doesn’t already know. This time I came up with two things: (a) I had one red bedroom wall when I was a teenager. (b) My dream was to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small private liberal arts school where you got to do independent study, study abroad, etc. It was so out of the question financially that I didn’t even apply.

OK, I have to tell you this. A few weeks ago I found a guy blogging online who is not only from Menominee and went to MHS but went to Antioch! The synchronicity was just too much to ignore, so I wrote him an excited e-mail, thinking he was, you know, just some guy named David. He knew the Mars family who lived in the cove (on the bay) at the end of our street when I was a kid, so I told him about that and gave him a brief synopsis of my life and times. I also sent him a friend request on Facebook. The next day I realized what I had done. I hadn’t taken his last name into consideration: This was no regular guy, this was someone from Menominee’s upper crust; yes, we have one of those. (Even the smallest pie can have a crust.) I was amused, and bemused, to think that I expected him to giddily “friend” me back and read my blog too so we could compare notes. Well, I might have lived close to the rich people in the cove, and I might have walked the same hallways and had some of the same teachers he had, and I might have had a classmate with his surname, but that would be the extent of our “connection.” When he didn’t write back immediately, I thought, “I knew it!”

And then… he did write back. I was pleased, but also embarrassed that I had succumbed to my prejudices. He was very nice; told me the highlights of his life, where he had lived in Menominee, news of his younger sister whom I knew, etc. He then said he had read several of my ‘zines… and subscribed!! And here I was ready to wage class warfare—or was already waging it in my head, as I have done my whole life.

I had another—more bizarre—“reach out and touch someone” experience. I was at the Motor Co. waiting for my Jeep to get an oil change, and another woman who was also waiting sat with me and we started talking. I’ll call her “D.” I liked her immediately. Amazingly, we spent the next hour and a half (Jeepie also needed a new air filter, so it took longer than usual) telling each other all the major beats of our lives. When we discovered that we both know someone who works at Waupaca Foundry, we figured out from the family name that D used to work with my niece’s mother-in-law and that my niece’s younger son attended her grandson’s recent birthday party at her house. So it was a “small world” moment. It might not seem that surprising, since we do both live in the [Green] “Bay Area.” But there are still thousands of other people here, and even my sister Barb, a long-time teacher in Menominee, rarely runs into people she knows.

So anyway, one of the things D told me was that she had had a gambling addiction, which she overcame 2 years ago. She quit with the help of “the good Lord” and is very happy these days. When my car was ready, we exchanged names and phone numbers and agreed to get together for coffee sometime.

When I got home, still feeling the glow from our encounter, I decided to see if she was on Facebook. Her page came right up, and I was shocked. Her entire page consists of online gambling sites—games she has played, points she has won… and she had played very recently. It seemed to me that you can’t be “over” your gambling addiction and still gamble, even if it’s not for money. Also, I was troubled that she had lied to her husband a lot when she was gambling, and that she considers herself a “good liar.” Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I should rethink this potential friendship. I have a tendency to either freeze people out from the get-go or fall right into an enmeshed relationship with them. I’ve had many great experiences doing that but also some unwanted dramas. I wrote her a message on Facebook, telling her of my unease, but I wasn’t sure if she went there often, or at all, because the gambling sites post automatically. By the way, she’s not rich, far from it. I find that, despite my glorified “cow college” education (ha!), I’m really most comfortable with working class people. When I left Menominee at age 17, I wanted nothing more than to become a bigger, better person and hang out with bigger, better people. Now that I have reconnected with my “roots” [rhymes with “foots”] I’ve realized that I have a bond with these people that doesn’t always exist with those who grew up with lawyers or doctors as parents. (And yet, some of my best friends….)

But here’s where it gets weird. I e-mailed Barb about our encounter, and the next day she wrote me the following: She had been in line to check out at her local mini-mart, and she was carrying one of the chicken feed bags (with handles) that her daughter’s mother-in-law makes from, well, chicken feed bags. The cashier and the woman in line behind her were exclaiming over it and asking how they could buy some for Christmas gifts. Barb and the other customer walked out to their cars so Barb could give her the information. I think you see where this is going. When Barb told her who made the bags, D said, “I used to work with her! And you know, I was just talking to someone about her, who was that?” and Barb, who knew the whole story, said, “That was Mary, my sister.” “Oh yes! Oh my!,” D exclaimed. (They had a lot of ‘sclaiming to do.) Now I ask you, isn’t that weird?… To meet my sister the day after she meets me, and the same information gets passed back and forth because Barb’s connections are even more direct than mine? Barb even asked her if she got my Facebook message, and D said yes, she had, and she was still thinking about how to respond. She said she only plays online for free, but she could see why I would be concerned. Then she wondered about my “status.” “She’s never been married?” “No.” “But she had a partner?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t they get married?” “It was the ‘60s, people didn’t believe in marriage back then.” I strongly doubt that she’s a homophobe, but that may be the next chapter in our new friendship, if that’s what it’s going to be.

***

So back to P’s visit. We talked a lot and laughed a lot, as is our wont, and it was very relaxing and comfortable. Then, toward the end of the week, I began to feel the deep inner rumblings of an old, old feeling, one I thought I had escaped forever. To tell you about it, I first have to get in the wayback machine and give you some waybackground, some of which may be familiar to you, because I can’t seem to stop writing about it.

fear

The least reassuring words I’ve ever heard are FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As if fearing “fear” is small potatoes, practically impossible, a simple matter of semantics. Believe me, I’ve had a lot to fear in my life, both from external sources—attackers (both boy and man)—and from “God”—dead brother, invalid father, intrusive mother—but the worst of my fears have been those that I’ve created out of my own brain and body.

I’m not sure when it started, but by the age of 13 I was afraid of my own thoughts, afraid of confiding in a parent or teacher, afraid that they would send me away. That’s how little trust I had in adults. Having been driven to school on the first day of eighth grade by my molester, I felt like I was going to throw up, and that’s when I realized I was trapped. One of the tragedies of adolescence is that you may have a small piece of information about a large problem but not the piece that would solve it. You don’t know what you don’t know, as one D. Rumsfeld so disingenuously remarked. Now that I am much older and wiser, I suspect I was right to hide what was happening: I don’t think anyone would have understood. I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden with the stark and terrifying realization (for fear creates its own reality) that it was my fate to end up a patient in the Newberry State Hospital–Michigan State Asylum for the Insane. (Just think about that name.) One of my cousins did end up there, but not until he was an adult; so I was not so far off in my fearful imaginings, assuming a genetic link: His father, my mother’s brother, was clinically depressed and/or bipolar his entire life. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, partly for Mary Tyler Moore’s performance, and partly for the therapy sessions that illustrate my point exactly: The boy whose brother died had only a partial understanding of the event. (If Judd Hirsch had been available to me as a counselor, instead of Mr. D., who was widely rumored to be a letch, I might have gone.)

My mother rarely took any complaint of sickness or injury seriously. If you thought you had cancer because your breasts were sore and John Foster Dulles had just died of cancer, better not bring that to her—she had much bigger fish to worry about. If you told her (which you didn’t) that your cousin was molesting you, or that you were afraid of throwing up in school, or that you had fallen on a bar on the backyard swing set and felt like you had seriously injured your vagina (you had shooting pains there for months), she would have had no sympathy. She often opined that it was hell to get old, but she had forgotten the hell of being young, as I think most adults do.

Once I believed that I could not control the fears engendered by my own brain and body, life became a landmine of horrible possibilities. Any situation where it would be difficult or embarrassing to get up and leave—a classroom or assembly, getting stuck in the middle of a row in a theatre—became an occasion for nausea and terror, followed by more nausea, more terror, and on and on. The very definition of a downward spiral. The meta explanation for my fear was that I didn’t trust what would come out of me, in all possible senses.

***

Sidebar: One of the most terrifying experiences I endured in high school was when I won an essay contest and a $500 scholarship (when $500 was a lot of money) from the Michigan Bankers Association. To accept the award, I had to attend a banquet at the Ludington Hotel in Escanaba. And I had to give a little thank-you speech. Someone told me that the hotel served steak that was bloody rare, and the chef would get mad if you didn’t eat it. (Or did I make that up?) I had never eaten steak in my life. There was so much to worry about beforehand that my worries had to stand in line. My mother drove me there, of course (Escanaba is 50 miles north of Menominee). As you can imagine, my worst fear was not a bloody steak but the idea that I might be seated in the front or middle of the room where I couldn’t get out if I thought I was going to be sick. A close second was that I had to give that little speech, which, if you think it was hard to come up with valid reasons for “preferring a full-service commercial bank” when I had never even written a check, it was even more difficult to figure out what to say besides “Uh, thanks.”

So we get there and we’re waiting outside the banquet room, and there’s a second-place winner from somewhere else in the U.P., a girl my age, and a chatty one at that. She and my mother carried on a sprightly conversation while I sat there near-paralyzed with fright. My mother didn’t recognize this demeanor for what it was, because I had been shut down (to her) for several years by then. We were finally escorted to our table, which I was relieved to see was near the exit, so that was a big help. I don’t remember the food, but I don’t think it was steak. After the MBA held their whatever-it-was, business meeting(?), I was introduced as the scholarship winner and got up and—considering I was deathly afraid of speaking in front of more than 2 people at a time—pulled a thank-you-I-appreciate-your-generosity-and-interest-in-education out of my ass, and then it was over. All the way home, though I was practically pissing myself with giddy relief, Mom never did know what I had gone through.

***

The fear=nausea problem, which was a little easier to deal with in college (no compulsory attendance or assigned seating), expanded into new territory when I began my first serious relationship, with P. Although I was thrilled to finally discover that someone could love me, I began to fear that I wouldn’t love her enough, or, more precisely, that my fear of not loving her would make me not love her and I would thus lose my only love, if you can follow that (psycho)logic.

I was very naïve about relationships anyway. The problem with being 25 is that you have no idea how young you really are, how inexperienced. Since I felt like an adult at age 15, I already felt quite old in my mid-twenties. As time went on, fear continued to rule my world and my relationship. I tried to explain it to P, but she was young, too (23 when we met) and I’m sure it wasn’t easy to see it as my problem that had little or nothing to do with her.

Although my issue was far from anything she herself had experienced, she’s the one who found me a self-help book that addressed and allayed my fears. It was Hope and Help for Your Nerves, and its sequel, Peace from Nervous Suffering, by Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor. It was like a gift from heaven, because I immediately knew that she was describing what I had—official name, agoraphobia—and exactly what I needed to do in order to get over (through) (past) it. I was ecstatic to discover that I had a common, easily remedied condition in which fear feeds on fear so that you literally fear “fear itself.” My relief was great, though it manifested at first as a band of pressure around my head. P was understandably not comforted when I told her that, but I knew it was a sign of something letting go. It took me quite a long time to learn to “go toward the fear” rather than cringe from it and become caught up in the vicious cycle I had become so familiar with. These books were so important to me that I felt like spending the rest of my life traveling the world telling people about this solution, because no one else seemed to understand it.

***

Sidebar #2: Years later I had the same impulse after I read the books that cured my severe lower back pain, Dr. John Sarno’s Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain. Sarno’s approach is basically identical to Weekes’, though the symptoms are different. But the cure is the same: Don’t react to it; face the fear; go through it. It’s almost impossible to convince someone with back pain that “stress” or “fear” could cause and sustain it, especially when there seems to have been a distinct physical cause for the pain. For me, it was lifting a stack of heavy books at the UCSF Medical Library. The fact that my mother was dying at the time didn’t seem to be related, and I went through a year and a half of mainstream and alternative treatments until I found the Sarno books and saved myself a lifetime of fear of sitting, walking, running (when I could still run), bending, you name it. (When I was first reading the books, I dreamed about a book called Mind Over Brain Pain. This book existed only in my dream, but it seemed apropos.) When my back “goes out” now, I don’t panic; I know it’s temporary. I used to drive down to Ojai to visit my Krishnamurti friends, and one time when I was still using a pillow for back support and taking 1,800 mg of Motrin every day, I found Sarno’s second book in a local bookstore. After reading it, I removed the pillow from my car seat, left without taking Motrin, and drove the 8 hours home to San Francisco without even a twinge of pain.

***

The power of the mind-body connection: It can fuck you up royally, but it can also bring you back to your senses and to a semblance of a normal life. I now see my fear response as a chronic condition that I have to be mindful of, probably forever. Even with the anxiety-lowering drugs I take, I’m still very sensitive to fear manifesting as a physical symptom. In the past few years, I’ve had pain in just about every part of my body, but I’m getting better at recognizing it for what it is and refusing to take it seriously.

So… I keep interrupting my story. Remember P? Her birthday visit, which we were both enjoying? Our relationship is as solid as it can possibly be, but again, fear does not answer to reason. When we were together-together, my birthday was also our anniversary. It’s been 41 years since we met at a small liberal arts college in Maryland. In those days I spent many an October 30 crying over my birthday dinner in a restaurant because of how fearful I was about our relationship and my seemingly hopeless mental problem. I knew I was pushing her away with my weird reactions, but I couldn’t help it.

This year, my birthday was the day before she was to return home, and as it approached, I became more and more aware of forces from the past gathering in me like a threatening storm. It was a feeling of unease that I couldn’t identify. My first impulse was to run from it, try to stuff it down, distract myself, just fake it till I dropped her off at the airport. But of course that’s exactly what you can’t do. And by this time in our relationship, there was no way I could pretend not to be having feelings.

P had already given me my birthday presents: a GPS for my car and several smaller gifts, such as four skull shot glasses. (Other people acquire a reputation for liking frogs, cats, or other animals; I am the Skull/Skeleton Person.) These gifts already exceeded my expectations. But on the morning of my birthday, I got an e-mail from Amazon informing me of a very generous gift card that she and her partner C had bought me. In that moment, something broke down, some defense I didn’t even know I had been mounting. My self-absorption was cut short when I “came to” and “remembered” that we love each other very much, that our relationship is no longer about the old dramas. Over the dining room table, eating breakfast later that morning, I said simply, “On a serious note…,” and proceeded to tell her of my epiphany… not in as great a detail as I have done here, but the basics. All residual or potential tension drained from the air between us and did not return. If you think of the unconscious as the below-water bulk of the iceberg that is your mind (and I do), this could be the way out of the dilemma of reacting to forces you don’t even know are in play. The vast iceberg of the self is accessible if you’re willing to face it, come what may. It feels like this has been my true life’s work: being an autodidact of my own psyche.

***

“Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be—that’s much more important than just being happy.”—Bob Dylan

I’m not sure about this “person you were put on this earth to be” rhetoric. It implies that you were put here, first of all, and that you have a grand purpose. Maybe some people are, and do. I feel like I have lived the life I was “meant” to—if you take the word “meant” with several grains of salt. But I’m also aware that my little life, my little personality and collection of thoughts, beliefs, and memories, means nothing in the end. I have had a strong, mostly positive, effect on a few people, but in 100 years, as Anne Lamott says, “all new people,” none of whom will have heard of me. And that’s fine. I’m not looking to continue on and on, in the same or different form, incarnating my ass off, earning whatever it is you’re supposed to earn as you climb, lifetime after lifetime, up the hierarchy of beings, from bacteria to bodhisattva. I think we’re all temporary structures made of cells, organs, and a thought process that comprises memory, thought, fear, and a tendency to want to know “the future.” None of it is real, or if it is, it’s fleeting: We see the proof of that simple fact every day. As a culture, or a race, or a species, we protect and perfect our deniability, building and constantly adding to our fantastical theories of “life after death,” as if we’ve already solved the many-faceted dilemma of life before death. We’re trying to throw the ball back before we have it firmly grasped in our glove—to use a sports metaphor that is not my wont but quite timely, go Giants. In other words, instead of staying in the Now, which I believe is where Eternity resides, we’re trying to rush past the present to ensure our seat at the game, the table, the musical chair.

I may be completely wrong about all of this, but I accept the limitations of the human brain, especially mine. I’m just doing this for fun, you know. It’s not deadly serious to me. Let the boys with their mighty brains wax on before they wane, flow until they ebb. I don’t have a horse in this race, to go with the sports metaphor again. Life is bigger than me. It will (as if it hasn’t already) completely undo me—taste me and spit me out—because I don’t really exist in any meaningful way. I said something similar to a scientist friend whom I love to shock with my nonscientific hypotheses, and he exclaimed, “You mean you don’t have a life?” “That’s right!” I said. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

And the words “mean”… “meaning”: What’s the meaning of life? That question was my mantra 24 hours a day when I was young. What does this poem mean, what does this painting mean? The search for meaning is the attempt to add an extra layer to what is already complete. Life is what it is. A poem means nothing other than itself. (See poem at the end of this screed.) A painting is what it is. What does bread mean when you’re hungry? We can make a meal of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, proofs, suppositions, but none of it means anything beyond the thing itself, life itself. Without this superfluous (or meaningless, if you want to be solipsistic about it) search for “meaning,” we are free. No need to translate, to put it into other words—no need, either, to make metaphors or argue points of philosophy or the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, except for fun.

So I can have my fears and my comforts, I can understand everything or nothing, I can make mistakes, make a fool of myself, say and do the wrong thing in any given situation. I just don’t have to defend, apologize, or collapse in a heap of tears, for fear of who does or doesn’t love me, or what I’ll be remembered or forgotten for. This is good news, sisters and brothers!

I asked Barbara (painting teacher) recently why she thinks I tend to cry voluminously on the last day of the intensive. I don’t see other people doing that. She thought about it and said, “It’s tenderness; you’ve been tenderized.” I don’t cry because I’m upset, or even that I don’t want to leave or that I’ll miss my friends, although of course I will. I’ve just been broken down—not in a bad way, but like I just got pounded from within like a piece of meat until I could no longer maintain my resistance. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also freeing. Now here’s that poem:

“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish (1926)A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown -

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind -

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea -

A poem should not mean
But be.

Next: Some things that are not dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio. (I told you I was doing this for fun.)

 

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“CatGod” by Delme Rosser

 

“The Final Blow” by Eric Joyner

 

 

Plague doctor (source unknown)

 

“Bird’s mother” by AnnMei

mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012

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This photo was taken on October 11, 2012, a few hours north of Menominee. Winter! Bring it on!

 
 

Also, on 10-11-12, a child was born. She is the beautiful daughter of my dear godchild Kelly and her lovely husband Duncan. She has not yet been named. I’m rooting for Paloma Zapata, but I doubt it will make the cut.

 
 

long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      

 

Once a year I have to drive down into the belly of the once-great state of Wisconsin (before Scott Walker et al.) to have a 15-minute session with my psychiatrist so he can determine if I’m still (in)sane enough to be taking two psychoactive drugs (sertraline and lorazepam). Mostly I tell him I’m doing great, he asks how my work is going (“It’s going going gone, doc”), and we make semi-small talk for the remaining minutes.

Last year I had borrowed Barb’s GPS to help me find his new office, but this year all I had was a primitive mapquest map showing an entirely different route that involved going farther down the highway, exiting, skirting 3 roundabouts, and then turning north again for what looked like several miles. I hadn’t thought to bring a real map with me, no, that would have been too easy.

I was deadly sleepy the whole way down there, 92 miles. I wanted to sleep so bad, it was all I could do not to give in to it. I sang along with a classic rock station, to the sort of music I haven’t listened to in decades: “Smoke on the Water,” “Rebel Yell,” “Hot Patootie/Bless My Soul,” “Riders on the Storm.” Actually, I still like a couple of those. I sang, I shouted, I made up nonsense lyrics—like to the tune of “The Rubberband Man” (The Spinners, 1976):

Hey, y’all prepare yourself
For lorazepam… man
You never heard a sound
Like lorazepam… man
You’re bound to lose control
When lorazepam man starts to jam

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo….

I finally got off at exit 129, made it through 3 or 4 roundabouts (stopped counting at 2), and clearly missed the one where I was supposed to veer north again. So I’m driving, driving, and instead of turning around and searching for roundabout #3 and the road I was supposed to turn on, something with Breeze in the name, I decided just to randomly drive north for a while, then randomly drive west and, you know, maybe I would just run into the place. So I took a tour of Neenah, then found myself in Menasha, which was definitely not part of the plan. I had been looking for a cluster of president street names because I was pretty sure I needed to find Harrison St. (questmap had blown off console onto passenger side floor), but I only saw trees, Oak, Elm, then oh look, there’s Washington, and Lincoln, and… Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was never president, was he? I tried to put myself in the eager, intuitive state of a tourist who is lost but sees it as an opportunity to open up to the thrill of adventure. But I was not in Gay Paree…. Neenah was rapidly receding from me, or I from it, and I could end up in Appleton—or worse, Lake Nebagamon (hmm, sounds familiar)—if I didn’t look out. (Lake Nebagamon is a real place.)

Finally, I stopped a friendly mailman on the street, and he tried his darnedest to tell me how to get to Harrison. I was to “go up here and turn right”—then that street would turn into Commercial and I would see signs for 41 or maybe 117 and I should turn right again, then something about a viaduct (?) or an aqueduct (?)—do they still have those?—and then something-something Winneconne… and then he got confused and started over. “Go up here….” When he got to the Winneconne part, he forgot the name, and I, idiot savant, was actually able to come up with it, and he chuckled at the irony. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to follow his directions, but I thanked him anyway and started off. Amazingly, I did get to Harrison St. But then I wasn’t sure what came after that, and the time of my appointment was drawing near (fortunately, I got to town ‘round about 45 minutes early). By then I seemed to be in some godforsaken part of Neenah with a train yard and smokestacks. So I pulled off on a side street and called Dr. V’s office. Thank God for cell phones! The person who answered asked me where I was, and I said “Harrison and Jackson.” She said “Jackson?!” in a tone of voice that told me she had no idea where that was, but she quickly rallied and told me to go south on Harrison, and I would see “JJ’s” and then “Otto’s” and then some “trees and water” and then something-something, turn left or right, I was already at my limit of what I could remember. So then I start driving south on Harrison, and it occurs to me that if she wasn’t sure where Jackson St. was, maybe I was already south of her and I should be going north! There were lots more trains, a country road, what looked like a cement factory, not that I know what a cement factory looks like, and suddenly I see JJ’s! Then Otto’s! I was ecstatic. Then there were “trees and water”! Then I saw the sign for Jewelers Park Drive, drove right in like I knew where I was going all along, and arrived at #40, sweaty but triumphant, right on time for my appointment.

The two women in the office and I bantered a bit about my roundabout way of getting there, and they asked me where I was coming from. I said Menominee, Michigan, and one of them said, “We were just talking about Menominee, Michigan, at lunch.” Really? Yes, someone had recommended a Thai restaurant on 10th Avenue that was to die for. (I thought, “I bet.”) Then we had to do the insurance thing. I always just hand over what cards I have and expect people behind the counter to know what to do with them. But one of the women pointed out that there’s a phone number for “Behavioral Services” on the back of my Anthem card, but not the “Behavioral Health” that I apparently used to have. “Do you not have ‘Behavioral Health’ anymore?” she asked. “I don’t know, I guess not… whatever it says on the card.” She kept pointing at the name on the file sheet and asking the same question. I didn’t know how to say I don’t know any more clearly, I’ve had the same insurance for 16 years. But she says it again as she points to the name in a sort of clandestine way, as if the walls had ears or I was supposed to say the magic word and the duck would come down and I would win $50. So again I said “I … don’t … know.  I … guess … not” and threw in a “if … you … say … so” for good measure. She gave up on me and said they would figure something out. “Oh good,” I thought, “so I don’t have to go to insurance school and find out the difference between two names with “Behavioral” in them and then get back to you with my findings?”

(Now this is strange: Several days later, I happened to look at my insurance card again and it says right on there, “Behavioral Health Services.” Am I losing my ever-lovin’ mind?)

At that point Dr. V. came out to get me, which… saved by the psychiatrist. In his office, I asked about the roundabouts. Someone had told me they had removed one of them. No, he said, they’re making more and more, and the reason is that they apparently cut down on fatal accidents. As if no one minds if they get into a nonfatal but pain-in-the-ass accident.

I hadn’t decided whether I would bring up the Problem-in-law (in a very special episode of “CSI: U.P.”), but it popped right up when I told him that the lorazepam worked really well for restless leg syndrome but I was needing to take a lot more of it lately. Of course he asked if I’ve been under unusual stress, and I said YES, then told him the story of my fall-by-brother-in-law as succinctly as possible. I only had 15 minutes to set the stage, identify the relationships, and tell what happened and the range and intensity of the feelings I’d been having about it ever since. He said that I’m “doing all the right things,” that I have a form of PTSD, that it’s OK to take the lorazepam as needed. PTSD sounds rather dramatic for what I went through, but it doesn’t have to entail active traumas; it’s about reliving the disturbing feelings over and over… watching a dog get hit by a car, running over a cat myself after failing to rescue a friend’s dog from the pound because they had already killed it. And it doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s definition of trauma. Being betrayed is slower-acting, but it affects all the organs and nerve endings, makes us question our perceptions and shake our trust. I think this is reflected in the dream I had shortly after the incident, when I was standing in the entryway of my childhood home and the basement (foundation) was completely gone and I questioned the stability of the spot where I stood. When I let my mind wander and don’t try to be completely rational, I think what happened has even wider application than this relationship, which I don’t miss at all. My brother who died of leukemia when he was 2 years old had the same name as my Other-in-law, and during my best times with MP I thought of him as a brother without the hyphenated suffix, the closest I would ever get to having a grown male sibling. R.I.P. Michael William McKenney.

I’ve since realized that, 2-3 months later, I have fewer thoughts about the incident itself but often have a generalized feeling of dread and nervousness, and I can’t pin down what I’m afraid of. I think it was a bigger deal than I thought at first (and at first I thought it was a very big deal). So I have all these emotions, but at least my intellect is glad that it was a serious enough offense that I don’t have to justify staying away from the No-in-law forever. Can an intellect be glad?

After Dr. V and the office people explained in great detail how to get back on the highway, I achieved the task easily. Somewhat encouraged by the session and no longer sleepy, I drove to Green Bay, had lunch at El Sarape, then drove the rest of the way home. I love that feeling of being physically tired and all I have to do is sink into my big chair with my kitties, my Big Book of 500 New York Times crossword puzzles, and a bag of peanut M&Ms, which I’ve been craving lately though I hadn’t thought they were “worth the calories” for many years. Later, I looked up my psychiatrist on Facebook, found him, and messaged him that it was probably inappropriate to “friend” him but I wanted to thank him for his help. So I’m done being shrunk/evaluated/prescribed for another year. Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible for me, so I’m grateful to have a couple of good ones, and a nice guy with a fancy degree to keep an eye on me even though he’s so damn far away.

Oh, also. When I got home I took off my shirt to put on a fresh one, and there was a huge black BUG smashed on the back of it. I threw the disgusting thing down the toilet right away and didn’t get a really close look, but I thought it looked something like a combination wasp, fly, and June bug, super-sized. It freaked me out. I wondered when and where it had got on me, and why no one had noticed it and told me about it. I was reminded of Jung’s patient who was telling him about dreaming of a golden scarab when a scarab beetle rapped on the windowpane, and I thought, Is this gross giant bug a symbol of my inner self? I couldn’t get a nice ladybug? Oh well, I thought, as I settled in with my peanut M&Ms and other comforts and forgot all about the bug, and my day, and had many pleasant dreams.

 
 

the local nooz

(source: my niece)

Police called to high school again. My niece, L, came to clean my house the other morning, and she was upset. Two years ago, her then 15-year-old son had been caught up in a hostage crisis at his school. One of his best friends had brought in several guns and had kept the class from leaving for several hours. Eventually, the police burst in and the friend shot himself to death. This day was different, but still scary. There was an unknown “situation” in a house right across from the school, and 7 police cars were there, several of the officers outside with guns drawn. L couldn’t reach her son on his cell phone, and she couldn’t help thinking the worst. I went online and found a small news item about it on the website of a Green Bay TV station. The school had gone into lockdown, and finally all the students (just under 1,000) were bused to a college field house a couple miles down the road. Within an hour or so, the police had taken someone into custody, and all was well that ended well. L’s son sent her a text saying that they hadn’t been allowed to bring their cell phones with them to the field house and that he thought the whole thing was “no big deal.”

We are rising up! L also told me that her 21-year-old nephew had gone to Walmart the night before to buy a camouflage cap and gloves. The woman at the checkout counter asked him if he was buying them for hunting or just to keep warm. He said for hunting. Then she went into a diatribe about hunters and how could he kill those poor animals, did he need to prove he was a big strong man? She continued in this vein for awhile. This was a Walmart employee speaking to a customer. And of course Walmart sells hunting equipment. The boy was so taken aback (and probably not the most refined person in the world; I don’t know him) that he told her to “shut the fuck up.” Then the woman behind him in line lit into him about using “that kind of language” and joined in the employee’s attack on him for killing animals. She actually said this: “Why don’t you buy your meat at the store like everybody else?” (Does she think they grow it in the back room?) She said she was a member of PETA, that there was a PETA chapter here in town, and they were going to “rise up” and stop the hunters. L is married to a gentle man who comes from a long line of farmers and hunters. They raise chickens and turkeys, and in hunting season he takes the two boys (11 and 17) out with him; both boys have guns, know how to use them and how to care for them. They eat everything they kill. I’m not thrilled at the thought of Bambi or Bambi’s family members getting shot, but I have long since made peace with my hypocrisy. My meat comes from the store in a plastic-wrapped package, and I don’t want to think about what it is or where it came from. My niece actually “appreciates” this (that I own up to my hypocrisy). I have a visceral dislike of PETA, dating from their attempts to storm the labs at UCSF and release the laboratory animals. I think their “concern” for animals (with no thought of consequences, apparently) is a bit misplaced. Years ago I read a quote by a young man who thought that the world would be better off without his taking up oxygen and other scarce resources. This is extreme in a way that my cohorts in the ‘60s—at least those who didn’t blow themselves up accidentally—could never have matched.

Fowl play. And now for the lighter side of the news. L was bringing bread out to the chickens, whom she calls her “girls,” and one of the girls grabbed a loaf of French bread right out of her hand and took off with it. The girls are not an egalitarian society, it’s very much every hen for herself. The chicken was holding the loaf sideways in her mouth (the way a flamenco dancer holds a rose between her teeth), but one side was farther out than the other, so her head and body were tilted to that side trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain. Hence, she was slower moving than the other chickens, so they quickly caught up with her and started pecking at the bread from both ends. But this gal was out for bear and not inclined to share. In a last, desperate burst of speed, she outran the other hens, turned the corner around the barn, and was never seen again. She did leave a trail of bread crumbs, but that’s another story. The moral? Don’t count your chickens before they snatch.

(This story is true up to the part where the bread-wielding chicken got away.)

 
 

I paint, I am; do I dare say “therefore”?

Terry and I were talking about painting (as we are wont to do), and marveling at what our lives would have been like if we had never found it. Neither of us could imagine it. This intuitive, non-result-oriented way of painting used to be called “the painting experience,” but it occurred to me that it goes way beyond the experience and touches into our actual existence. It cannot be done half-heartedly, or from a false premise. It is common to try to avoid facing ourselves, but painting with even a partially opened heart takes us to all the necessary places. So in that way, painting is existential.

Another thing: There has been a painting diaspora, if that’s not too charged a term: the distribution of one’s paintings to friends and maybe even gallery owners. I’ve given away several and did not keep accurate records. But they’re out there somewhere: with Diane, Barb, Diane, Susan, Peggy, Terry, Alice, Kathy, Polly, and probably others I can’t remember. It’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle, to be retrieved perhaps at someone’s garage sale someday, when we all have passed on. The price will be minimal, but in this way our work will carry on in the world without us… very much the way it carries on in our own homes and in our hearts. It’s not about “the painting,” as we always say, but I’ve seen the reactions of some… how shall I say… regular people who encounter our “footprints” as it were, and I think there can be some value in that, maybe even inspiration. When I offered Barb her choice of paintings several years ago, she took all the photos I had lent her and enlarged them on a machine at Walmart. A woman in line behind her saw them and exclaimed at how wonderful they were. I’m not braggin’, just sayin’. I think everyone is capable of responding to honest expression, to true passion and creativity, and there seems to be little of that in the art world, and less in the department store art whose sole function is not to clash with one’s furniture.

Speaking of value and inspiration, or their opposite, somehow the now-famous painting of Jesus that was “repaired” by the woman in Italy is grotesque to me… not because of the loss of one more religious painting in the world, but the image itself, I don’t know what it is about it, but it’s an abomination. I’m not going to reproduce it here, you can look it up.

 
 

new doctor

Did I tell you that my wonderful doctor, Dr. T, up and left his practice? No one, not even his staff, seems to know the why and the wherefore. Soon after that happened, my wonderful dentist, Dr. A, was out for 6 weeks with some sort of shoulder injury. Could it be? Did both docs take off together like Thelma and Louise, and only one returned? No, probably not. But I thought, Are they all going to abandon me?? I’ve had 2 dentists (whom I’d been seeing for years) and at least 2 doctors retire on me while I was under their care—one went crazy, one had debilitating back pain, one was old, and one wanted to give up doctoring to grow roses and visit France. (She’s the one who went oui, oui, oui all the way home.)

So Barb found another doctor, a woman who’s bright and peppy. Before we met her, I saw her picture, she’s a little on the heavy side, and I insensitively asked Barb if she chose her because she wouldn’t come down so hard on her about her weight. But I was thinking about myself, really, because I’m definitely on a one-way train to don’t-bother-saving-those-old-jeans-ville. I signed up with Dr. P too and liked her. But it seems doctoring has changed in recent years. Dr. T. told me I didn’t have to listen to any advice he gave me, and Dr. P asked me if I “wanted” a hearing test and a pap smear. (I think there are few worse combinations of words than “pap” and “smear.”) No thanks, I shrugged, and I waltzed out of my physical without even taking my clothes off. Well, no, that’s not true. Dr. P walked me through a “Welcome to Medicare!” questionnaire and told me that I could get a one-time free (!) EKG, so one of the nurses hooked me up and cardiographed me on the spot. I went in the following week for blood work. Later I’ll have to get a mammygram and an ultrasound of my abdominal aorta because I have very high levels of C-reactive protein. I used to edit papers about C-reactive protein and never dreamed it would mean anything to me personally.

 
 

hard times

From huffingtonpost.com  9-20-12

[Mitt Romney] was born to a wealthy and powerful family. While his father was governor of Michigan, the son attended an elite boarding school. His father also paid for his undergraduate education and his graduate study at Harvard Business School. His father then bought the younger Romneys a beautiful house in Massachusetts, lending them $42,000 in the 1970s. “We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money,” Ann Romney noted in 1994.

The Romneys have described their early years as ones of real hardship, hardship they overcame through hard work—and income from stocks.

“They were not easy years. … [W]e moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income…. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time,” Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994. “We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge….”
 
I love that humble-braggy admission: “no income except the stock we were chipping away at,” as if they were valiantly subsisting on a block of government cheese.

Most of us can look back and remember the hard times, the lean years. My family of 5 lived on $66/month in the 1950s. If it hadn’t been for the veterans disability benefits and a fake Santa who came by once a year with a sack full of toys and canned food, I don’t know what we would have done. I paid for my entire education through work-study jobs, loans, and scholarships. The loans (which I promptly paid off) came from the government, but the scholarships came from MSU and the Michigan Bankers Association (I won an essay contest). I think I can safely say that I earned every penny.

A few years ago, there was an article in the New York Times (2-17-08) about the former Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was being transformed into condominiums. Few of the buyers had moved in yet, and a woman who bought two apartments in the building—including a one-bedroom for $5.8 million and a two-bedroom (price not stated) “for themselves, their children and the grandchildren”—was bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to make new friends when there are so few people about.

Ms. Ruland said meeting people is hard simply because it’s hard to tell the residents from the help. One neighbor cast his eyes away from her one day when she walked through the lobby with a mop and bucket. [my emphasis] She said she felt like telling him her family owns two apartments in the Plaza.

Ms. Ruland and her mother hope their new neighbors at the Plaza will share their interests.

… And presumably their stock tips.
 

I sure hope that poor, I mean rich, woman was able to track down the neighbor who saw her in such a compromising position so she could regain her proper status in his eyes. Maybe she should henceforth transport her cleaning supplies through the common (haha) areas while wearing a ball gown and red ruby slippers.

Where I come from, working with a mop and bucket is nothing to be ashamed of. Though my family were not cleaners, they worked in a hospital cafeteria, a foundry, a furniture factory, the service department at Montgomery Ward, and similar low-paying jobs. Work was hard. When I was 16, my mother made me apply for a job as the society page writer at the Menominee Herald-Leader, for which I could not have been less suited. I didn’t get the job, to my great relief. She also drove me around to apply at all the factories in town, including Prescott’s foundry where my father had worked before he got sick. I was aiming a tad higher and hoped to get a summer job at Spies [pronounced Speez] Library, but they hired another girl from my class who was surely less qualified than me but not likely to leave town for a glamorous dorm room downstate. So my fate, if I hadn’t gotten the financial aid to cover my years at MSU, could have been far worse. Is there a parallel “me” out there who is getting all dolled up in her poodle skirt and fuzzy pink sweater and making the rounds of all the high society doin’s? Or another who is tending a hot furnace or inspecting machine parts on an assembly line, then stopping for a cold one at Dino’s Pine Knot after work and stumbling home half drunk to my put-upon wife and 3 kids… oh wait, I’m getting a little carried away here. I don’t think I would have survived the factory job, but you can see for yourself that I would have had a shot at hobnobbin’ with the upper Upper Peninsula classes by searching this site for my “society column.”

My mother was naïve about class. She joined the AAUW (American Association of University Women) because she loved to read (and she had, by then, graduated from college), and discovered that the women there were gossipy snobs. In a way, her naivety helped me, because I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted based on merit. I have since learned that there’s a lot of non-merit-based careering going around, but I stayed out of that pool by being proficient as an editor and working in academia and publishing. I did it my way, like Frank S. and Pookie M. And I’m proud of that.

 
 

(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

…drink my coffee, and watch the birds. It was too hot all summer, and now it’s verging on too cold. But I got out my winter jacket and was able to enjoy the sunshine, the brisk breeze, and the comings and goings of birds, squirrels, and one brave chipmunk. I had bought safflower seeds for the first time, and darned if the cardinals didn’t figure it out and descend on my yard within a day. How did they know??

On the porch I sit tucked into the corner where no one can see me unless they come looking. I’m mainly looking at grass and trees, though I can see part of a neighbor’s garage across the way. I live in town, but the only sounds I hear are branches swishing, birdies chirping, and the tinkle of a large chime that hangs on my porch. I share the space with a wasp’s nest and its occupants. I keep thinking I should get some poison and spray them dead, but they don’t bother me so why go all commando on them.

There’s a common complaint, “Is this all there is?” But sitting here, I think instead, “How is it that there is even more than this?” If this were all there is, I could easily sit here for eternity. Just keep the birds coming and the coffee flowing. (Do they let you have caffeine in the afterlife?) Like the handmade sign on the way north from Green Bay that asks, “How will you spend eternity?” and the Japanese movie I told you about in the last ‘zine (After Life), it occurs to me that I could choose this moment—or all such moments condensed into one continually renewing one, like an endless seamless loop—for my eternal repeating experience. I’ve had more excitement in my life, more fun, more intensity, more feelings of love and connection, but there is something so completely fulfilling about the birds, the trees, the warmth, the coffee, the breeze…. I’m not rejecting the human element, I just feel most myself when I’m alone. And somehow it seems that all the more intense emotional depths I’ve experienced would inform that quiet reverie-cum-birdsong. So there wouldn’t be a lot of thought involved, just direct observation and pleasurable contemplation. Nothing would be required, no action, no memory, no words, no math or science, just simple existence through and through.

Amen.   


 
 
(Mary McKenney)

 

mary’zine #57: September 2012

September 9, 2012

When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.—Mark Twain

Well, summer is over. Can’t wear white anymore, had to hang up my bikini, am pre-mourning the loss of leaves from the trees. It’s not the snow and cold I fear, it’s the sight of those lacy sticks against the sky, strangely beautiful if you want to look at them that way, but so melancholy, seemingly bereft of life for what feels like half the year. I was surprised to see Halloween candy in the stores already, but then I happened upon an entire swath of Christmas paraphernalia in the back of Hobby Lobby, waiting for the signal to start creeping toward the front of the store and taking over everything with its raucous demands that one celebrate the birth of the pretend deity of our choice, or at least do one’s part as a consumer of commercial traditions. Most of our calendar-dictated celebrations are not personal, they merely fit the mold we’ve always known and are continually reminded, in cell phone ads and other heart-pressuring spiels, to fully commit to. And one limps along, having one’s own life that’s lived off the calendar, amid expectations emanating from screens that we’re pretty sure, by now, are one-way mirrors into our living rooms or (eliminating the middle man) our brains.

I do have a few things to look forward to: my birthday, P’s annual visit, no mandatory family celebration of Thanksgiving because it turns out we have a little less to be thankful for this year, and 7 days in San Francisco doing the painting thing, aka the feeling thing.

the wisdom of Deadwood

Dan: I’m older, and I’m much less friendly to fuckin’ change.

Al Swearengen: Change ain’t lookin’ for friends. Change calls the tune we dance to.

Calamity Jane: Every day takes figurin’ out all over again how to fuckin’ live.

I’ve always treated time like it’s just something to get through, always with my eye on the future (in my mother’s words, “wishing my life away”). In graduate school, I moved into a dorm room for one and decided to leave a box of books on the one chair in the room rather than unpack them because I’d be out of there in a short 9 months. Of course I finally had to give time its due and settle in just a bit more. Although I miss school, the concept and experience of books and classes and teachers, I wouldn’t want to repeat that year, 1969-70. I was miserable. I’d chosen that option over having to search out a so-far illusive career. I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next old person, but I don’t delude myself that those were the “good old days.” The only reason I can separate out the good times—like the friends I made there—from the sad experience of having to take classes like “Selecting Books for a Public Library” (as if we, mostly English majors in our undergraduate days, had to be taught how to analyze plot, character development, and other literary devices for the reading public) was that I know how it turned out. The worst part of any bad experience is not knowing the outcome, when it will end, how it will end, will it end? So I can sit back and think fondly of the anti-war demonstrations (mostly the running away from tear gas and of course the strong sense of righteousness), April and Nancy and Randy and the poor one-eyed Jim, the first inklings of women’s liberation in Us Magazine of all places, working with Kathy and, briefly, Evelyn Waugh’s daughter in the business school, the best chili dogs I’ve ever had. In my reverie, I can skim over the one and only time I ever threw a wineglass against a wall—while listening to the best rock ‘n’ roll record of all time, Let It Bleed. Well, maybe it wasn’t the best, but the Stones spoke, sang, and bled for me in that year at the tail end of my youth, if by youth I mean school, and I guess I do. For another couple of years I got to play at pseudo adult jobs involving the underground press and a tragically wrong-headed radical college library, but ultimately I found my niche.

 

after life

At a way station somewhere between heaven and earth, the newly dead are greeted by guides. Over the next three days, they will help the dead sift through their memories to find the one defining moment of their lives. The chosen moment will be re-created on film and taken with them when the dead pass on to heaven. This grave, beautifully crafted film reveals the surprising and ambiguous consequences of human recollection.—Netflix

A few years ago I saw a Japanese movie called After Life, in which the dead are counseled to choose the “one defining moment of their lives” to relive for all eternity. I tried to think of mine, but it was surprisingly difficult. I’ve had so many sweet moments sprinkled in among the chaff, but maybe they wouldn’t be so sweet without the contrast. I remember saying I had had the “best time of my life” exactly twice: once in 7th grade when I drank a 10-cent Coke in a diner with a couple of classmates. The girls thought I must be joking, but I was serious. To have money (a dime, at least until I ordered that Coke) and friends (can’t imagine who they were, now) in a public eating establishment, gossiping about other kids and teachers, an unopened pack of Wrigley’s spearmint tucked into my new little blue purse, feeling like maybe I could brave this new world of high school 2 miles from home.

The second time I designated as the best time of my life to that point was the last night of the teacher training at the painting studio, when we danced and laughed and celebrated our bond and the end of our purgatory / sometimes comical hell, and I continually shifted to turn my back on the teacher, a “spiritual abuser,” about whom I could write a book, and maybe still will.

But then there was also the “perfect day” Terry and I spent in the wilds of West Marin, going for a nature experience, which turned out to be the two of us on the beach, bent at the waist, sand blowing in our faces, straining to take a step into the wind and mostly failing. We retreated from our plan and, needing to get gas, spent a lovely half hour or so in the food section of a gas station, just goofing around and picking out snacks. It was quite a lesson in how to have a good time where you find yourself and not necessarily where you had planned to be. We drove on through West Marin, visited Kerry in the Inverness (?) library, enjoyed the view along the shore of San Francisco Bay, had a delicious meal at the Buckeye Roadhouse, and caught a movie at Larkspur Landing, Billy Elliot, which made me sob at the end for the beauty of the final scene (spoiler alert), Billy as an adult, dancing, triumphant. I tried to stop the tears, not only because I hate crying in theatres but also because suddenly there appeared said spiritual abuser in the row in front of us, who made a show of talking up Terry because I was no longer willing to respond to her. And still I deemed the day perfect. Built-in contrast, to somewhat prove my point above.

Lately, now that I live in my hometown, my memory goes all over the place, and there’s no end to the sweet days and moments. I loved group and family picnics in Henes Park, an end-of-school picnic in the sand road near our house in the third or fourth grade, just about any picnic I’ve ever been at, actually. Then there were the only times I enjoyed the family camping trips (all across the country, my own long national nightmare), when we would find a campsite near a lake. I loved swimming and playing baseball more than anything until about the 10th grade, when I discovered literature. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice. (Not really.)

It’s so easy to take one’s life for granted until you’ve made a change and can look back and choose specific, closed-ended experiences to shudder at or delight in. The delight is usually strong enough to survive its end, and the shuddering is just a tad acceptable because it too is long gone and one has lived to tell the tale and is seemingly none the worse for wear. I happen to think I am plenty the worse for wear, but at what point do you give up trying to make the puzzle come together, with so many pieces lost or eaten by the dog, no cover picture to go by, no ultimate judgment or conclusion unless life turns out to be like the movie Defending Your Life, which I seriously hope it doesn’t. I feel I have fully accepted my death, though that’s easy to do when it doesn’t feel imminent.

I keep reading about how “time is a construct of the mind,” and that nothing is as it seems. Everything is, at bottom, nothing but swirling atoms and sub-atoms (which I picture as little atomic subs, with tiny periscopes through which the submariners, whoever they may be, try to see what’s going on in the land and sky portion of the world). The last time I was anesthetized for a medical procedure, a colonoscopy, I was newly struck by the experience of losing consciousness immediately (in my perception) before waking in the recovery room. Even when you awaken from sleep on a normal day in your own bed, you have the sense that you’ve been out for a long time… I guess because you know you’ve dreamed? But there was no time constructed in my mind when I was “nowhere” while the doctors and nurses and my sister knitting in my hospital room endured (or enjoyed) whatever time they had, feeling the passing seconds, minutes, as if proceeding through a substance: air, water, life, whatever. I didn’t have that feeling because I didn’t have time. It was like being in a film in which “I” was edited out and there’s no apparent gap in the story because it wasn’t really necessary to show me lying there comatose for however long. If I’m not going to feel the time, why should the audience have to sit through it?

There’s obviously no point in worrying about the future, whether it’s death or the 2012 elections or the final 8 episodes of Breaking Bad, but that is how one lives. Looking forward, looking back, breathing in time as if it’s as real as air, speculating on one’s final years when there might not even be years ahead, maybe just a moment before one wakes, feeling that no time has gone by, or remains in the non-experience between losing and regaining consciousness, wherever consciousness goes or morphs into.

***

I want to recommend a book, The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. The story is told from the point of view of an American soldier in Iraq, and it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read: beautiful in words, yes, but ultimately in truth, and in pain.

***

I don’t usually talk politics, but it’s been hard to avoid lately. After the Republican convention, I joined the plethora of liberals on social media condemning the outright lies that were told. My friends and I posted articles and spoke in disbelieving terms of what the Republicans thought they could get away with. Then I realized something. They tell those lies deliberately! They don’t care if they’re called out, because their followers don’t care and even their opponents will presumably forget, or be too meek and mild to do anything about them. They lie because it works. How many times has it been pointed out that Obama is not a Muslim (or a socialist, or a foreigner)? People believe it anyway because they want to; it suits them for some reason. (I happen to believe the reason is racism, all dressed up as genuine political disagreement and nowhere to go.) Dinesh D’Souza, who made the anti-Obama movie 2016: Obama’s America, based on his 2010 book The Roots of Obama’s Rage, “… [is said to] reject birtherism, the contention that Obama was born in Kenya and is hence not an American citizen; but he replaces it with a back-door, or metaphorical [my emphasis], birtherism when he characterizes Obama as an alien being, as a fifth-column party of one who has pretended to be an American, and technically is one, but really is something else.” This analysis is according to Stanley Fish in the New Yorker online, August 27, 2012.

I was stunned by this breathtaking, dizzying shift from lie to metaphor, which the principals haven’t really figured out yet (but they will, they will), and I realized that metaphor is far more dangerous than outright lies. I never thought I’d say this about my best linguistic friend, but metaphor can be put to nefarious use: Rather than making a point more clearly and colorfully, it can obfuscate the lies unearthed by the dreaded “fact-checkers.” (Interesting how such an obvious and honorable activity can be characterized as petty and partisan.)

You can explain away any false portrayal, trend, or belief by saying it’s metaphorical. The Mormons (not coincidentally) do this too, or at least some of them do, at least according to Wikipedia:

the literal exegesis

There are many governing heavenly bodies, including a planet or star Kolob which is said to be nearest the throne of God. According to the King Follett discourse, God the Father himself once passed through mortality like Jesus did, but how, when, or where that took place is unclear. The prevailing view among Mormons is that God once lived on a planet with his own higher god.

the metaphorical exegesis

A metaphorical interpretation suggests that Kolob may be construed as a metaphor for Jesus rather than as an actual planet or star. The symbolic interpretation was explained by Hugh Nibley in The Temple and The Cosmos. Advocates of the symbolic interpretation believe it harmonizes better with other LDS beliefs, and with beliefs in the greater Christian community, as it DOES NOT REQUIRE THAT GOD HAVE A PHYSICAL THRONE WITHIN THIS UNIVERSE.” [my emphasis]

Talk about a belief that is just begging to be metaphorized! As Iain McGilchrist says in another context, such an interpretation is “comfortably metaphorical” and therefore “easy to disown.”

when bad things happen to good kitties

My cat Luther is a sweetheart, but he’s cost me a lot of money over the past 7 years, since his rescue by P on the banks of the mighty Green Bay.

He often greets me by flopping down on the floor and rolling over, back and forth. I time the rolls and say, “Can you roll over for me?” so it seems like he’s doing it at my bidding. Well, he is doing it for me. Not for food, but just to announce his joy in my presence, my flinging open the French doors of the bedroom at long last, allowing him to bask in my attention. I wince as I try to bend over far enough to pet him along the long slope of his back. Slightly dizzy standing up again.

He has a bad reputation at the vet’s. He’s a samurai with lethal weapons, those tiny swords, his claws. At home he’s a pussycat—I want to say “literally,” but you already know that. But when Dr. A and his assistant come into the exam room and start to unlatch the top of his carrier, he throws himself against the lid snarling and hissing. Throughout the building ring the cries of animal handlers and miscellaneous staff as if in one voice: “Luther’s here!”

Dr. A imagines that I have a wildcat on my hands when I get him home. “It must take you several hours to calm him down.” Au contraire. He’s docile all the way home, and when I take him inside and open the cage door, he’s out of there like a shot and often celebrates his freedom by giddily running around the house. I can relate to that because it’s how I felt when I would come home from a piano lesson in the 6th grade. However, after a particularly trying experience, such as surgery and an overnight stay in a cage with the dog and cat hoi polloi, and who knows how many shots he’s had to endure, he sulks and stares martyredly into space. Brutus won’t go near him because he smells like “that place.” But he gradually unwinds, settles down, comes to believe in the illusion that he is home, now, forever, never to repeat the dreadful experience, never to see those martinets at the bad place who coo so softly but carry a big syringe.

One of my finest moments was when Brutus had surgery for having a blocked “cul de sac” in his abdomen. He eats everything and is especially fond of inedible items such as plastic, paper towels, and (for the occasional light snack) toilet paper ripped from the roll and dipped in his water dish. When I went to pick him up, I had one of the most gratifying experiences involving a cat and an audience. I approached the cage he was in, and he rubbed up against the bars. One of the vet assistants said, “He does that for us, too.” She opened the cage, and I picked Brutus up and he calmly allowed me to carry him upright, like Cleopatra on a barge or a flying carpet, or however she got around. The assistants were amazed: “He’s a different cat!” I know it’s absurd to be proud of this, but don’t we all take it personally when an animal seems to take a shine to us?

So, early on, it seemed that Brutus was going to be the problem one, but it turned out to be Luther instead. He developed some sort of allergy, which no one can identify, so I have to take him in to get a shot every month or so, when his eyes get red-rimmed and he scratches holes in his neck trying to relieve the itching. Later on, he started peeing in the bathtub. I didn’t know this was a sign of a bladder problem (and neither did the vet, I must point out) until they took X-rays. He had surgery, and Dr. A took several sharp crystals/stones out of his bladder. Less than a year later, he was blocked again, and fortunately I happened to be cleaning out the litter boxes when he squatted for several minutes and couldn’t pee at all.

This was around noon on a Friday, and I was able to get him in without an appointment. Dr. A kept him for a few hours to do blood work and insert a catheter, and for some reason he put him in a larger carrier to go home. When I picked him up that afternoon, Luther was still wobbly and zombie-like from the anesthetic. He had needed an extra dose, because when he was supposedly “out,” Dr. A was cutting his nails and he twitched and tried to pull away. He was pitiful when I got him home. He cried and hissed when I carried him upstairs (should have left him in the carrier, damn!) and then just lay on the floor without even putting his head down for hours, staring straight ahead. The catheter was still in, and later I discovered it had leaked on the bathroom rugs and probably other places I haven’t found yet. By 3:00 in the morning he looked a little better, and his disposition and mobility improved throughout the weekend. He tried to do his rolling over thing, but when he got halfway over, he cried out. By Sunday he was able to do it without pain. He even got up on my lap and (stinking to high heaven) leaked on my shirt a little and on the ottoman a lot. I was dreading the next day when he would have to have surgery to remove the stones, but I had no idea how frustrating it would be for both of us.

Early Monday morning I tried to put him in the big carrier and he absolutely balked, hissed, fought, and got away from me. Of course he headed straight under the bed, which he can barely fit under, rendering him unreachable by me. I was reduced to trying to poke at him with a long reacher thing, verbally coax him with false cheer, and make his much-beloved comb tink against the ceramic mug to trick him into coming out. My niece was here, so I asked her to come upstairs with the vacuum cleaner. Just hearing her lug the thing upstairs made Luther scoot out from under the bed, but then I wasn’t able to grab him under the desk and he made a frantic dash for the little area behind the big red chair in the corner, but I got him. I brought him downstairs and put him in his regular carrier with only his usual fuss. At the vet’s I was shaking so much I couldn’t sign my name straight.

He was in high dudgeon when I picked him up on Tuesday morning. I e-mailed my friends and family: “Luther’s home but is holding a grudge. He’s hissing at me, he’s hissing at Brutus, Brutus is hissing at him. I’m the only one not hissing at anyone.” I concluded, “$1,000 later….”

Barb responded: “For $1000 you should be hissing at the vet.”

About 8 hours after getting home, Luther deigned to flop down on the floor next to me when I was on the toilet, and for about 10 seconds he allowed one of his hind feet to rest lightly against one of my feet. I took this as a huge sign of progress.

Then, in the middle of the night, he either forgave or forgot. He came to my desk and rubbed against me and did his patented somersault/rollover. I rewarded him with a good brisk combing, concentrating on his back down by his tail. He was mine again, and I was once more the queen of the castle, in spirit if not in reality.

The aftershocks from the recent quake I experienced are happening with decreasing but still alarming frequency, following some sort of emotional physics that could be charted on a graph if I knew what the x and y axes were. Actually, XY is the problem, but now I’m getting into biology. I don’t know why I insist on using scientific and mathematical metaphors when I really don’t know what I’m talking about, but I like being able to “disown” their interpretation. Many writers expose small or huge swaths of their lives by writing memoirs, confessional poetry, or romans à clef (novels in which real persons or actual events are thinly disguised). God knows, my swaths are small potatoes compared to, say, Truman Capote’s or Anne Sexton’s, but the issues and consequences are similar. My little-read blog has a narrow application but runs deep within those who are written about. I am speaking to the public, or a very small part of it, and so unless I want to write the ‘zine in disappearing ink and mail it to each of you individually, I can’t control who reads what.

I’ve considered starting a new blog that would be private—read by invitation only. I need to feel safe to write what I want. Maybe it will replace the mary’zine, or maybe there will only be sporadic communiqués when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. My proposed name for the new blog/zine is “readitorite.” Or maybe “Little Read Blog,” evoking not only my tiny readership but also Little Red Riding Hood, Chicken Little, and, obscurely, Wallace Stevens. (In fact, the sky does seem to be falling, and many is the wolf that masquerades as a caring relative. The wheelbarrow and rainwater are completely beside the point.)

And with that, I shall turn my back on the subject.

One of the unanswerable questions I love to ponder is: If there’s no time and everything is happening at once (as any nuclear physicist will tell you), how does it work? They must have figured it out mathematically, because just trying to imagine it makes my head spin. A science fiction standby is “time travel,” but what if no travel is needed? (at least physical travel, like getting into a machine and going from “now” to “then”). What if everything you feel now (for instance) affects everything else in your “past” (or future)? I’ve often thought this would explain how I came so close to so many disastrous events—and survived the ones I did have to go through—but emerged more whole than I ever thought I would. My nadir was ages 19-21, strangely. I was out of the house, which should have counted for a lot. But I was also on the verge of (I was going to say “nervous breakdown”) adulthood, with no idea of how I was going to support myself, and no reason to think anyone would ever love me. I vividly remember a night when I had gone for a ride with this guy Chet who was always trying to get me into bed, and I was so tongue-tied that I asked him to take me back to my apartment. While I was sitting in the passenger seat with no idea of how to talk to him, he carved “all the lonely people” from “Eleanor Rigby” on a styrofoam cup. I was mortified. In that hyperbolic way that teenagers and 20-somethings think that everything bad that happens is the end of the world—and why wouldn’t they? It’s the most stressful time of life, without even the satisfaction of looking back at how it all turned out—I thought that my encounter with Chet was proof that I would be alone forever. (I had already been in love with a woman, a few scant years earlier, but I didn’t even consider that option, since my feelings seemed so particular to her.)

I was never seriously suicidal, but I did think about it, as one does, around that time. And I like to think that something—it’s odd to think of it as being from the future—knew better than I did. And now, as I think again about “the future,” being on the cusp of another huge Unknown—old age and death—I have to believe that I can trust the “everything is happening now” conceit to show me the way. And yet… we label certain experiences “huge Unknowns,” but isn’t every second we breathe a step into the Unknown? We put the big Unknowns out there and take for granted that we will not die in the next 10 minutes, that we will live to see our friend who’s coming to visit in October, that we blithely talk about a future that may never come.

I just thought of another theory I’ve had for a while. I have had the experience, as I’ve written about before, of becoming “one” with another person, not because we had anything in common but because we were each feeling something deeply that was basically the same for both of us. So ever since then, I’ve had this image of the larger consciousness that Krishnamurti says we are all a part of (“It’s not similar,” he stresses, “it’s the same.”), which I’ll call the big “I.” But we are so identified with our bodies that it’s almost impossible to imagine we are anything other than the little “i.” OK. So the little “i” (the person) dies. Is that little “i” then gone? Or do we still wake up the next morning thinking we are a different little “i”? It’s not reincarnation, it’s just that nothing is subtracted, because everyone has that sense of “i.” So there would be no death per se, because we’d always be someone. And there are infinite “i”s to be. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends what “i” is. This is very different from believing in an individual soul that somehow continues outside the realm of time. We want desperately to believe in the soul, because the thought of losing everything that we are… the “i”, which to us feels like the ultimate self… is so devastating. But all the little “i”s that wake up think they are unique, that “i = I.” And no one wakes up without that sense. So if “i” wake up as a little boy in China, there’s no connection to the editrix in the U.P.; all manifestations of life ultimately have the same root.

some gratuitous images from the interwebs

New York artist Tom Fruin’s outdoor sculpture Kolonihavehus in the plaza of the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. [I want to live there, where it’s cold and they have an appreciation for art.

 

 

Bonne chance to all people of leftish persuasion come November…

(Mary McKenney)


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