Posts Tagged ‘illusion’

mary’zine #71: October 2014

October 26, 2014


saga d’amour conclut

When you fall in love, it’s like you get on a moving train with your lover, and you glide across the fruited plains and want for nothing. Everything is beautiful, and you believe that it will never change. Suddenly, you find yourself in the foothills, then on the dangerous mountain roads. You’re no longer on a train, and there’s no one else around. You’re alone with your simple need, one that your lover can no longer fulfill. You don’t know when—let alone why—everything changed. Despite the rarefied mountain air, you discover that Love is Flat, like the earth once felt. And you fall off the edge, as millions have done before you.

Now that the relationship is over, I risk sounding merely delusional, a victim of my own fantastical tendencies… as if I made the whole thing up, as if she was the level-headed one all along, humoring me while keeping my intense feelings at bay. There really ought to be a fairytale—told by the Grimm Sisters, perhaps—in which a Lesbian falls in love with a beautiful Princess (who is, of course, heterosexual; did you ever hear of a dyke Princess?). It’s a classic story, but, like many other women’s stories, it was never written down, or passed down orally. Ahem. This fairytale, if it existed, would not have a happy ending. And to be a bona fide fairy tale, a happy ending is a must—as is the inclusion of a Man to rescue the damsel from whatever horror results from not being with a Man. We lesbians have to rescue ourselves, or die trying.

My story doesn’t include a Man, unless you consider the male character who stands to the side of the stage, unaware of what is going on emotionally between his Woman and the never-seen Lesbian. I’m surprised Shakespeare never wrote this story. Or maybe he did and I missed it, having gotten a D in Shakespeare in college. (I had a lost year but was redeemed after I dropped out and started smoking marijuana. True story.)

There were certainly moments when it seemed that I—as the bona fide lesbian in the situation—was doomed or assumed to be the One in Love. But I know that she felt the same for awhile, which is what distinguished the relationship from my past encounters with unobtainable women. Oh sure, she was unobtainable, but there was a beautiful (delusional) time when we were together in the same matrix of wish and desire.



requiem for a mad, mad, mad, mad love

When love is not madness it is not love.―Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Friendship is solid. That’s its nature. It can take many forms: years long, or situational. Situational friendship ends when the situation is over. Usually, this is understood by both parties. Situational friendship can reconstitute itself if the new situation allows it, or it can fade from lack of contact. Years-long friendship changes to love naturally, over time, but it is still solid.

Romantic love is volatile. Most such love is doomed to failure, unless both parties allow it to change its form.

Madness is volatile. If one person emerges from the madness and wants to transform the relationship into something safer, easier—into “friendship”—it won’t work if the other one is still in a state of madness.b9b1a59a30b035eddb6f7c496968a991

It’s a loop. Fantasy is volatile. Romantic love is fantasy. Fantasy is madness. Romantic love is madness, and madness is highly addictive, given the right circumstances.

With our friends, partners, relatives, we say we “love” them. When we’re mad, we say we’re “in love.”

Mad in love feels crazy, beautiful, even miraculous. It can cross boundaries with ease: marriage, sexual orientation, age, distance all become incidental… not because they are no longer true, or important, but because they have been swept away by the madness.

This old love has me bound. But the new love cuts deep.—Joan Armatrading

Mad in love is a revelation that two people could have such strong feelings for each other, even after a brief acquaintance. The spark flies, the flame is lit. But it rarely lasts. Someone comes to her senses, someone is threatened, has something to lose, is in danger of destroying another relationship that is no longer as exciting, as romantic, as mad… but is still important, a foundation that has momentarily been shaken.

She who emerges from the fantasy, the madness, is rationality personified. Friendship makes more sense (it is solid). It doesn’t threaten anything, it can coexist with the other elements. It is freer, less draining. Less hard on the heart. No longer volatile. Like taking the best parts of the attraction and eliminating the angst, the high emotion, as lovely as that was while it lasted. It’s hard to argue against friendship.

She who is still mad understands the reasonableness, is even in favor of it. Anything to stay close to the flame. She means well. But she is mad, after all. She misses the excitement, the intensity. She keeps looking for it even after it has been pronounced dead, or transformed. There is no transformation for the mad, regardless of the promises she makes, the reasonableness she thinks she can learn to live with.

Conflict becomes inevitable. One side wants reassurance, a return to the madness (even as she realizes it’s impossible), some proof that the flame is still flickering. The other side wants the madness to end—for her, the madness has ended—but doesn’t want to lose the connection.

Accusations fly, defenses are breached. Eventually, someone has to do something, because the reasonable and the mad do not mix. Someone must surrender to reality, declare a mistrial, give up the fantasy, give up the mad.

A happy ending is by no means assured. She who is still mad believes that she can’t “turn it on and off.” She who has already turned it off regards the other as immature, manipulative; she feels duped, sad, even indignant, as if she had nothing to do with any of it: the fantasy or the inevitable division and separation.

But there is no recourse. The worst must be faced. The madness will flame on for a bit longer, but she who has been clinging to the fantasy must see that it has been supplanted by the entirely reasonable-sounding “friendship.” Even then, the relationship has been built on a lie. The center cannot hold.


Both wish that the terms could be renegotiated, the past reconstructed, as if nothing had happened. But something has happened, and there’s no going back.

It hurts, but there is also relief (surprisingly).

Farewell to the madness. Rest in Pieces.








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?



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…


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


 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


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!


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, 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.


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.



mary‘zine random redux: #32 May 2005

July 10, 2009

I’m killing time while the installer from Drees Electric is here wrestling with my new dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plenty of butt crack on display, but I avert my eyes. For the first half hour he was here, I assembled one of my new steel “retro shell back” lawn chairs. It felt oddly companionable, the two of us grunting over our respective tasks. When he came back up from the basement at one point, I was sitting in the chair, and he laughed. “You finished your project!” I felt so butch.

I got up at 7:00 (having gone to bed at 3:30) to be sure I was ready when the installer came. There were lots of cars outside, and I saw that the people across the street were having a garage sale. Around here, garage (aka rummage) sales start at the crack of dawn and end before lunch. The woman who lived there died recently, and the house has already been sold. I’m waiting on pins and needles to see who’s going to move in. I’m officially an old fuddy-duddy now, hoping for quiet neighbors with no children… or motorcycles…. or beat-up cars…. or Kid Rock records…. well, I’ll just have to wait and see. [Update: I’ve spotted a baby and a young blonde woman, and neither of them looks like a Kid Rock fan.]

My official status as an old fuddy duddy was conferred on me by a young woman at Curry’s IGA the other day. She’s checking out my groceries and wants to know, “Are you a senior citizen?” “NO—NOT YET!” I exclaim, all flustered. Then I think for a few seconds. “How old do you have to be?” “55.” “Oh, OK then, I guess I am” (mumble mumble).” I didn’t even check to see how much being old had saved me.

Spring has almost sprung, and a senior citizen’s fancy turns to thoughts of… “Hmmm, I won’t be able to use the garage as a second refrigerator much longer.”

The ice in the bay has finally melted, the snow has long since receded, and the birds are flinging themselves to and fro, filling the sky with their rich cacophony. The grass is growing, but the trees are just barely budding. I’m looking forward to longer days, open windows, and the sweet, earthy smell of spring (if they still have that). I’ve often thought that people who proclaim their love for “the seasons” are just making lemonade out of ice-cold lemons. But of course now that I’m walking a mile in their moccasins, I can understand the sense of antici….

pation. The snow melts, the brown lawn looks forward to new green growth, and suddenly the future’s so bright I have to wear shades.
(I’ll have to be patient, though. My sister Barb informed me that it snowed on her birthday one year—May 16.)

Our mild winter was a piece o’ cake for me—except for the icing on the cake, if you get my drift. I ended up buying “snow chains” for my boots but lost one of them in a snow bank the first time I wore them.

One of the things I love about being here is having kids in my life—though they’re more of a delicacy than a main course since I moved out of Barb’s house. That didn’t come out right. I don’t get to see them as much, is what I mean. I do get to hear all the stories. One day 9-year-old Summer, 5-year-old Sarina, and 50-year-old Grandma Barb were playing “airplane.” As the self-appointed flight attendant, Sarina asks Barb what she wants to eat. Barb says, “Bacon and eggs.” So Sarina goes off and comes back moments later with her “bacon and eggs.” Then she asks Summer what she wants to eat. Summer starts to say, “Bacon….” and Sarina cuts her off: “We’re all out of bacon.” The kid’s a quirky genius, I tell you what.

I may have mentioned this before, but I love watching the birds and the squirrels. I don’t know why people expend so much time and effort to keep squirrels from eating. This morning one of my regulars, whom I’ll call Hurly, came running through the yard and spooked a flock of blackbirds, who lifted up en masse into the branches of the nearest tree. This freaked Hurly out, and he plastered himself against the tree with his back to it. It reminded me of that Far Side cartoon where the deer is standing upright behind a tree as a hunter prowls around in the background. The deer is thinking, “What have I ever done to this guy? Think, think!” Hurly stayed there until the coast was clear and then went about foraging for sunflower seeds. Then a garbage truck drove by, and Hurly scrambled to the top of a nearby utility pole. I worried he would fry himself on the high voltage wires, but he just clung to the pole like a squirrel chameleon. When I looked again, he was gone.

One day I saw Hurly (or Burly, I can’t tell them apart) scrounging for seeds under the bird feeder. Then I looked about 10 feet over and saw a chickadee trying to get at the peanuts in the squirrel feeder. Hmmm…. Isn’t nature supposed to be smarter than that?

Now I glance out the window and see a big ol’ robin in the bird bath…. fluttering this, fluttering that, stopping to take a sip of bathwater now and then. I expect it to start washing under its “arms” like a Disney cartoon bird. I change the water in my two bird baths every day—that’s just the kind of nature lover I am. I take an absurd pride in attracting a large, diverse population of birds—robins, red-wing blackbirds, chickadees, bright yellow finches, blue jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and some I can’t identify. I’m even mildly offended when some of them start grazing in the neighbors’ yards. What have they got that I haven’t got?

Just this morning, I saw that a robin is building a nest on my back porch. I’m excited to be a birdparent-to-be.

The gulls can be a pain. They swoop down on the garbage bags that get put out every Friday (we’re not allowed to use cans) and can cover a wide swath of road and yard with orange peels, coffee grounds, and fluttering store receipts and sandwich wrappings. I don’t get mad, I get Glad. (That gives me an idea. Product placement in the mary‘zine? Have your people call my people.)

On the first day of daylight saving time, I became aware that the din from outside was deafening—the raucous cries and sweet melodies of large and small birds filling the sky. So I went outside and sat in the sunny chill, my jacket wrapped around me, trying to remain still so that the birds who had been flying in and out of the yard would forget I was there. I imagined them gathering in a tree across the street to assess the situation. “Have you noticed that big thing over by the fence? Has it always been there? Have you seen it move? I could have sworn it did. Could it be one of those lifelike sculptures by what’s-his-name, the artist who makes those “people” sitting on park benches? Oh heck, let’s go for it. I’m starving.”

Naturally, Pookie loves watching the birds as much as I do. His motives may be less pure, but he’s harmless. The few times I’ve let him outside, he spends most of his time under the back porch, sniffing the dirt for God knows what. And of course the birds, having the advantage of flight, make themselves scarce until we go back in the house.

Pookie seems to like his new home, but it’s hard to tell. He has the advantage of long-term, short-term, and middle-term memory loss so is not demonstrably grateful for having a permanent, spacious home after last summer’s uprootedness and cramped quarters. He has his own mysterious routines. He’ll be sleeping in the little sitting room downstairs when I come down to the kitchen to make something to eat. Within a minute or two, without fail, I’ll hear the click-click of his toenails as he plods across the kitchen floor toward the stairs, not even turning his head to look at me. Hi, Pookie! Bye, Pookie! The only time he seeks me out is after he’s done his toi-o-lette. If I’m sitting at my desk, he’ll come to me and insist on being picked up. If I ignore him, he’ll try to climb the desk chair, and the poignant urgency in his big green eyes makes him impossible to refuse. Unfortunately, his recent activities are evident in his wet nose, water dripping off his chin, stray bits of cat food in his whiskers, and some suspicious moistness down below. I haul him up onto my lap and try to continue working (or playing) while he proceeds to groom himself and either fall fast asleep, numbing my legs under his considerable weight, or toss and turn and dig his claws into my thighs, and gaze up at me accusingly, as if I should know what’s bothering him. At some unknown signal, he starts hoisting himself up for real and I know it’s time to put him down on the floor. I try to remember to say, “Want to get down?” rather than “Want me to put you down?” because you never know what they can understand.

Being as how I’m getting up there in age and might not be able to climb the stairs at some point, my sisters have pointed out that the staircase is wide enough that I could have a lift installed, like the one Tony Soprano’s mother creaked up and down on. Pookie is no spring chicken either, so I’m envisioning a smaller lift for him opposite mine. Then, when he hears me get in my lift and start moving down, he can hop into his lift and go up, ignoring me completely as we pass each other in our respective quasi-invalid apparati.

Speaking of getting old (do old people speak of anything else?), Barb and K and I reference the following joke often.

Three elderly sisters live together. One sister goes upstairs to draw herself a bath but calls down to say she doesn’t remember if she was getting into the tub or out of it. The second sister starts up to help her but realizes halfway up the stairs that she doesn’t remember if she was going up or coming down. The third sister scoffs at both of them. “I hope my memory never gets that bad,” she says, knocking on wood. “I’ll be right up as soon as I see who’s at the door.”

So when any of us has a “senior moment” (even though I’m the only one who gets money off for being old), we’ll say, “I have to see who’s at the door.”

I first heard that joke after Skip’s funeral when several of his old-guy relatives were sitting around Barb’s kitchen table. One of the guys was telling the joke, but I wasn’t paying attention—I was making myself a ham sandwich. (Food always trumps conversation.) When he got to the part where the third sister knocks on wood, he rapped sharply on the table. Hearing that, I went to the door to see who was there. I couldn’t understand why everyone howled at that. Life imitates art, I tell you what.

peaceable kingdom

So it’s been eight months since I moved back to my hometown, and almost exactly a year since P and I (and Pookie) set out from San Rafael to start this grand adventure. I have written about the wonderful discoveries, the synchronicities, the house falling into my lap in the nick of time, the three road trips, the settling in, the beauty of this very different but familiar landscape, the ritual eating of fried fish with my peeps every Friday, and the sense of being home in all possible meanings of the word. (However, I must get the obligatory food criticism off my chest. Dear Midwesterners: mixing macaroni with mayo, cheese, and bacon—even if you add broccoli and call it “broccoli salad”—IS NOT SALAD.) Now I sense that the next phase is beginning, and I don’t mean the birds and the green buds of spring. In some ways, the initial thrill—the delirious speculation about what this big change is going to mean—is gone. You just can’t sustain the sense of novelty, the inevitable illusion that your new life will be so different and so wonderful that you will become, basically, a different person. The illusion that a change of place equals a change of self is common, I suppose—all those Westward ho! pioneers, those back-to-the-land hippies, those frozen retirees relocating to Florida or Arizona…. Same for getting a new job, a new partner. Starting over—it’s the American illusion, I mean dream.

But illusion is a paper ship on a very deep ocean. When “the thrill is gone,” we think we’ve failed. Miscalculated. Been tricked. “That person I was so in love with has changed!” “I’m having the same problems here as I did back there!” We don’t have much social support for seeing what lies beyond the illusion of a new beginning. My favorite image of this is the women’s magazines’ fantasy of the housewife greeting her husband at the door naked, wrapped in Saran Wrap, hoping to put some spice back in their marriage. As if novelty—a continual rekindling of the illusion phase—is the only way to renew: a paper ship in a wading pool. But I think it’s not an accident that relationships begin with that honeymoon attraction that seems all-pervasive yet is only the barely scratched surface of real connection. Illusion is a way to get us moving in a direction we might otherwise not attempt. And once we’re at our destination—that ill-thought-out, happily-ever-after “ending”—that’s when the new seeds and weeds start to sprout.

Much of this insight is due to a dream work session I had by phone with Jeremy Taylor,  a teacher, counselor, and minister whose brilliance is surpassed only by his compassion. Two of the three dreams I told him had the theme of my being aware of something behind me that I wasn’t quite able to see. (Something unconscious this way comes.) In one of these dreams,

I’m sitting on a roof with my legs hanging over the side. Higher up on the roof lies a placid-looking tiger who looks like he stepped right out of one of Edward Hicks’s “The Peaceable Kingdom” paintings. But then I become aware that another tiger has come up behind me and is so close he could touch the back of my neck. I fear I will be eaten, or thrown over the side. But he doesn’t touch me.

To Jeremy, these images signify a new phase to come. He’s been right so many times in the past  that I have to believe there’s something to it. I don’t know what the new challenges, the next phase, will be about, but it seems unlikely that the ramifications of moving back to the place of my difficult childhood would be limited to the surface pleasures of carefree adulthood: the fish fry? the nice park? birds and squirrels in my yard?

I had another “can’t quite see what’s behind” dream the other night.

I’m in a painting class, and I have to keep asking the teacher (a man) to come look at my painting. Finally, he does, and he seems to approve. But he leaves before I can turn the painting over and show him the painting I did on the other side. I keep asking and asking, getting more and more depressed, but I wake up before he comes back.

I’m intrigued by all these dream-teases. I’m enjoying my peaceable kingdom—more about that later—but I’m curious to see what’s next.


What I’m trying to convey here is not that I’m dis-illusioned, or that “the honeymoon is over boo-hoo,” or that I’m sitting here with family but no friends wondering, “What was I thinking?” I’m trying to explore the fault line between imagining the future and then arriving there. Tomorrow inevitably feels different from today. Tomorrow = I’m going to paint a mural on the walls and ceilings of my attic “cave.” Today = I think I’ll play another game of Alchemy. I’m trying to be honest about the sometime mix of blessings in any new venture.

Recently I received an e-mail from A, an old painting (and dancing) friend. She had enjoyed the tale of my move and shared her own synchronistic trail that had taken her to Paris, where she now lives for a third of the year, does some teaching, and has lots of friends. She went on to say that her son graduated with a master’s degree in literature from Stanford and is in a touring rock band. Suddenly, my little adventure seemed tame indeed. I wrote her back, “…man oh man, you really put my little U.P. life to shame. Paris! A literate son in a rock band! I know we each have our own path, but STILL…”

For a brief moment it felt so unfair. Why does she get Paris, and I get a little town no one’s ever heard of? Well, I wouldn’t actually be suited to her life, and that’s the point, n’est-ce pas? But it was disconcerting to have that moment of raw envy, as if what’s right for me isn’t good enough if I spot something more alluring over there. But that’s illusion again, a siren song trying to distract me from the real. A few people have written to say how happy they are for me—and I believe them—but the word “envy” does come up sometimes. “I’m slightly envious of your relationship with your family,” etc. But wishing for someone else’s good fortune is meaningless. If only I were a people person! And could speak French! And liked to travel! It’s a good reminder to see that fantasizing about someone else’s life—based on assumptions and wishful thinking—is different from actually living that life—as is fantasizing about your own. But at least with your own, you’re proceeding on your own path, clearing the brush in real time. “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone; I can see obstacles in my way….”

By moving here I escaped from certain aspects of my life in the Bay Area—the crime and noise in my neighborhood, most notably—just as I escaped from Menominee a long time ago. And now here I am again. Which is the frying pan, and which is the fire? So far, being here is more like being in the top half of a double boiler… warmly melting into chocolate. Mmmmm….. chocolate. Once again, I’ll just have to wait and see.

When I was staying with Barb last summer, I marveled at my heretofore unknown adaptability. I actually liked people dropping by and kids poking me with questions. I liked the sense of being ready for anything—working on a dining room table amid layers of clutter, with a TV on in the background… sleeping in a room without a door… not able to cook and barely able to find space to make a sandwich in a kitchen in which every surface, including much of the floor, was piled high with stuff—some in transit, some seemingly in permanent residence. In certain respects, my sisters and I are sharply divided between the “Larsen side” and the “McKenney side.” Barb and I resemble each other in looks, but K looks more like our McKenney aunts. And Barb and I do not have the gene that would cause us discomfort if we noticed that the juice box and half-eaten cookie that one of the kids left on the fireplace ledge three days ago was still there.

Conversely, sister K, as a teenager, vacuumed out the coal bin in the basement with Mom’s good vacuum cleaner. Neat freak from day 1. I’m just sayin’.

One day Barb asked her son Brian to haul away an old recliner, because she had bought a new one. He moved it out to the kitchen and said he’d take it to the dump “this weekend” (it was Monday). The recliner sat there in the dead center of the kitchen floor for the rest of the week, and we not only lived around it, we made it into an “art space”: One day I propped a frog planter (a planter in the shape of a frog, not a planter in which to plant frogs) in the chair, put sunglasses on it, and stuck a small American flag in the crook of its elbow. Barb picked up on the game immediately, and we had fun with it all week. One night before we went out, I noticed a full bottle of Zima in the hands of the frog, and I duly chuckled as I went out the door. When we got back, the bottle was empty. (Barb had switched them at the last minute, ho ho.) When Brian saw this strange tableau, he said simply, “I don’t get it.” But here’s what’s strange. Brian took the chair away on Saturday, and when Barb and I got home that night, we walked in the back door right into the kitchen, put our bags and purses down, and didn’t notice that the chair was gone. Being oblivious to one’s surroundings has its advantages.

Anyway…. while I was thinking that I had changed, because I enjoyed the people interruptions and was able to handle the household chaos, it really only meant that I had learned to cope and adapt—which is no small thing, but not the same as “Now I want people around me all the time so I can go with the freakin’ flow.” So when the movers arrived from California and I was able to physically move into my house, it was as if I was letting out a breath I’d been holding for months. I had done it. I was here. My life was my own. And when Barb called a couple days later, waking me up from a nap and wondering if she should come over right after school so we could go out for an early supper, I snapped. Like a twig. NOW THAT I HAVE MY OWN SPACE I NEED TO BE ALONE FOR A WHILE, I announced. I was probably as shocked as she was at this sudden reversal. I had been keeping it together, and I was now in a state of collapse—mental and physical exhaustion. In addition to unpacking and getting my rooms arranged and making to-do lists as long as my arm, I had to reorient myself, mentally incorporate the rest of my being into this new situation. All last summer I had been visiting—on a vacation doubling as a fact-finding tour, a trial living situation. At Barb’s I had been a guest. I did my best to fit into her schedule, but it wasn’t my schedule. I had brought part of my life with me, but most of it was still back in the Bay Area. I was dealing. It wasn’t real.

When I was finally here, safe within my own four (×10) walls, I could no longer be a houseguest in Barb’s life. I had to start erecting movable fences, establishing boundaries. Call before you come over! No, don’t call, I could be napping! Clearly, I’m not the only one who has had to adjust. Barb is a people person. I, on the other hand, can barely deal with one snooty cat. We’re working it out…. but there’s more….

on the fault line

Jerry Falwell is in the hospital. His condition has been upgraded from “critical” to “judgmental.”
—joke heard on the radio

Barb and I are apples that fell off the same tree, and not very far from it. Mom could be both tactlessly critical and punishingly silent. Unsurprisingly, some of that has rubbed off on us. The main difference is that I can talk to Barb about it and get a considered response from her rather than anger or the silent treatment.  (In therapy a few years ago, I was pissed at J one day and wouldn’t talk about it. I started to leave without saying good-bye—that would show her! J said, “Why don’t you just be angry at me? It would be less hurtful.” I replied, “This is anger where I come from.” I have to commend J for sticking by me through 12 years of that kind of thing.)

When I first moved here, I announced that I would try to refrain from correcting anyone’s English. (I like to think of myself as hugely tolerant. Where I got that idea, I don’t know.) But of course I couldn’t stick with my good intentions. I’m shocked by some of the accepted usage around here: “Me and my girlfriend went shopping.” “Him and her don’t get along.” “Do youse know what you want to order?” So, yes, I admit it…. I’ve been known to offer an alternative pronunciation or word choice now and then. I always think that the valuable information I’m imparting makes up for any temporary offense I might cause. Yeah, right. My sad excuse is that I’m critical for a living. (I’m judgmental on my own time.)

For her part, Barb does not always notice that she’s treating her perfectly capable adult sisters like the 7th graders she has to deal with all day long. With her teacher voice and sense of God-given authority, she’s a force to be reckoned with. She takes me to Menard’s in her truck to buy a ladder, because it won’t fit in the Jeep. As I haul the ladder first through the parking lot and later into my garage, she can’t resist telling me, oh, four or five times, the right way to carry it. As with her students, she thinks she has to keep repeating an instruction until the person “gets it right.” And like me, she doesn’t always question whether her help is needed or appreciated.

K, on the other hand, is so afraid of hurting anyone’s feelings that she tries to keep the peace at all costs. Here’s a trivial example. We all keep each other’s favorite soft drinks on hand. It’s almost ritualistic. You walk into someone’s house, and the first order of business is, “Want something to drink?” For years, Barb thought that K liked Dr. Pepper, but I found out that she preferred Coke. She had never said anything to Barb because Barb never had Coke in the house. But Barb was specifically buying Dr. Pepper because that’s what K would drink when she was over there. It’s a little bit like “Gift of the Magi,” don’t you think? OK, not so much. But K is such a sweetheart that it’s hard to know what’s really going on with her. With Barb and me, our faces tell the story even if our words don’t.

We all enjoy telling our respective horror stories about Mom’s insensitivity, but it’s harder to see what we ourselves have internalized or are reacting to. The good news is that we have an opportunity to become more emotionally real with each other—to the extent that we each want to, of course—a lesson Mom was not able to teach us.

in the mix

While anticipating the unknown future hinted at in my dreams, I’m enjoying the heck out of my peaceable kingdom, my old people’s neighborhood, my huge house (just right for one person and her catty companion), the physical safety I’ve never felt in a sustained way before, the leisure of being semi-retired (I work when work is sent to me, but I no longer go looking for it), the long quiet nights when I read, play Alchemy on the computer, listen to “Loveline” from a radio station in Seattle, or pull matted clumps of hair out of Pookie’s back. But when the spirit moves, I can also bust out the jams in my jammies… turn up the speakers and dance to the delirious, pounding music of the Chemical Brothers at 2:30 a.m. in my blue-and-green-lit loft.

Now that I can afford high-speed Internet, a monthly subscription to, and 99 cent songs from iTunes, I am hugely enjoying my media palace. I am tuned in and turned on to a degree I never knew before. I’ve discovered whole genres of music—some with no label other than “alternative” (to what?)—more than 400 songs on my laptop and easy transfer of music and books to an iPod shuffle or an Otis media player. I started building my electronic library with favorite artists from my college days—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Mimi and Richard Farina, Tim Hardin)—the familiar and comforting tunes of my youth. But then I branched out musically in all directions, thanks to iTunes, (free downloads), KCRW (musically eclectic public radio station in Santa Monica—I’m now supporting three public radio stations: two in California, one in Wisconsin) and other sources, and now I have a musical accompaniment to any mood. I’ve discovered Thievery Corporation, Bloc Party, French Kicks, Gang Gang Dance, Supreme Beings of Leisure (hey, that’s me!), Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Shivaree, to name but a few.

Somehow I got turned on to and discovered endless subgenres of dance music: Deep, House, Sexy, Funky, Chunky, Jazzy, Techy, Tech, Techno, Tribal, Tech Step, Hard Step, Deep Tech, Neuro Funky, Deep House, Acid House, Chunky House, Funky House, Chunky Tribal, Tribal Techno, Tribal Tech House, Funky Deep House, Electro House, [inhale!] Electro Tech House, Progressive, Progressive House, Progressive Tech House, Progressive Breaks, Techy Progressive House, Deep Ethereal Progressive, Deep Progressive Trance, Peak Hour Progressive House, Rockin’ Teck-Step, Hardsteppin’ Bounce, Smoothed-Out Teck-Steppin’ Funk, Funky Peak Hour Beats, and the ever-popular Liquidly Funkin’ Drum & Bass Beats.

I swear I did not make any of those names up.

I had heard a song (oh excuse me, a track) by “DJ T” (remix by “Random Factor”) (I have no idea who these people are, assuming they are people) that I liked. I didn’t realize until after I’d ordered the “album” that I didn’t know exactly what I was getting—CD? LP? MP3? ABC? 1-2-3? you and me? I had become accustomed to downloading—acquiring substance/essence without the bother of storing a physical object. But what arrived was a record in a plain black cover sleeve. Then I realized, oh yeah—that deep chunky funky stuff is played in clubs by hip-hop DJs. Here I was, a civilian—and a “senior” one at that—buying the beats beloved of large crowds of stoned-out youth. I liked the thought of the Bay Area hipsters at seeing the address on my order and speculating, “D’ya suppose there’s a happening turntablist scene in—what’s the name of that place?—Menominee?”

I suppose “senior citizens” through the ages have resented the assumptions made about them by the young-who-believe-it-will-never-happen-to-them. But it seems worse now, since my generation is the first to have the luxury of indulging our youthful interests far into our dotage. Many of us, of course, are still getting stoned and listening to Crosby Stills Nash Young and Increasingly Decrepit. But I got tired of the ‘60s music scene decades ago and prefer the punk and new wave of the early ‘80s and, more recently, electronica, hip-hop, and “alternative” (Iron and Wine, Milosh, Nick Drake, the whole “Garden State” soundtrack—good movie, by the way).

One of the sad things for me about leaving the Bay Area was losing the ability to listen to the Saturday night marathon on Live105 known as Subsonic—all electronic and hip-hop and mash-ups and remixes until 4 a.m. One Saturday night before I left, I called the Subsonic DJ to find out the name of a song I had just heard (“Callin’ Out” by Lyrics Born). Impulsively—feeling all girlish and shy—I told him that I loved the show. On further, ill-considered impulse, I told him I was 57. His reaction was predictably condescending. “Oh, so you’re one of those ‘rockin’ grandmas’!” Uh, well, I suppose—I’ve never reproduced, but yes I am of that older generation. But “rockin’ grandma”? Is it possible for me to feel any less like a rockin’ grandma? Subsonic’s producer, another child, was also on the line, and he pipes up, “We don’t care who listens!” Then the DJ says, “I hope I still dig new music when I’m 57!” (thinking to himself, “I’ll never get out of my 20s alive”).

And yet, how can I be offended when I was known, back in the day, to utter the cliché, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”? It’s laughable now (my godchild is 30), but I understand the impulse to reject the old folks, the so-not-with-it, the irrelevant—move along to your ice floe, gram and gramps, it’s our turn now, we scoff at your moldy oldies, we resent your great booming numbers while we’re stuck with single-letter generational names… X, Y… Z? and then what? the alphabet and the world both come to an end?

Part of what you do in the illusion phase of a life change is to think that every little thing that happens is significant. Because the events leading to my move had been so dramatic while seeming precariously coincidental, I started expecting that every ripple from a stone thrown in my little pond was going to lead to something big. Sometimes the stone just plops down, no discernable ripples at all.

I’ll give you a few examples. One night last fall, after the peeps’ weekly fish fry, I stopped at Angeli’s on the way home to pick up some groceries. I was wearing my Cody’s Bookstore (Berkeley) t-shirt. As I was leaving, a man came up to me and said, “If you’ve been to that bookstore, what are you doing here?” So I explained that I had recently moved back from the Bay Area, and we stood in the parking lot and talked for several minutes—of course I had to ask what he was doing here, too. Turns out he’s a playwright and theatre director at the UW-Marinette campus. He had interviewed at Sonoma State but eventually wound up here. It was from his time at Sonoma State that he “recognized” me (i.e., my type) from the “t-shirt and the haircut” (code for Big Dyke).

I asked him where the nearest bookstore was, and he said, “Madison.” I thought he was joking—Madison is 150 miles away—but apparently not. He said he had gone to an estate sale just that morning that had an unusually large collection of books. He told me where it was, we said good night, and that was that.

The next morning I went over to the estate sale and there were indeed lots of books. I called Barb and she came over, too. We started talking to the two sisters who were clearing out their father’s house after his death. One was a lawyer and the other was a psychiatrist. I said to the shrink, “Oh, I’m looking for a psychiatrist who specializes in psychopharmacological management [to prescribe my Zoloft].” She says, “That’s what I do!” Perfect! She gave me her card, which announced that the focus of her practice was on women and children. Was this synchronicity or what? The only problem was that she was based in Racine, which is even farther than Madison. But she said she was thinking about coming up to Marinette to see patients a couple days a week. The four of us chatted away, all mutually intrigued by each other’s professions and getting along famously.

I bought an armload of books, Barb bought an armload of books plus some chests of drawers, and the lawyer promised to have another grouping of books ready for next week’s sale; she said she would save any old Hardy Boys’ books she found for me. The following Saturday we showed up for the second installment of the estate sale. The lawyer met us at the door and said they hadn’t had a chance to get the books sorted. Barb picked up the chests she had bought, and the lawyer promised to call one of us when they were ready to sell more things. We never heard from her. I tried to find the psychiatrist in Racine, but she had moved from the address on her business card.

It’s not as if we had been deliberately misled. Things happen. These were ordinary interactions, pumped up by my insistence on thinking “everything happens for a reason.” Those linked episodes with the playwright, the lawyer, and the psychiatrist (they sound like characters in a play by Sartre—or a joke about 3 people walking into a bar) were apparently self-contained, a pool of possibilities that, for whatever reason, never turned into a stream or a rippling pond. (I have since found a psychiatrist—in Oshkosh, 100 miles away. Fortunately, I like him.)

Similarly, my supposed burgeoning friendships with the bank manager and the city tax assessor—both smart, engaging women—never came to pass. The tax assessor never called me back after I contacted her a couple times, even going to the extent of sending her the issue of the ‘zine that included my story of meeting her. I’ve noticed that people can get really weird about what’s said about them in print, so maybe it was horribly inappropriate of me to identify her by name blah blah blah.

I did have lunch with the bank manager, but it was soon obvious that we weren’t on the same page, friendshipwise, despite having had some interesting conversations and lots of laughs in her office. It seemed more like a customer service gesture on her part—the bank paid for lunch. (Yes, that would be the first clue.) I gave her a copy of that same ‘zine. When I asked her later what she thought, she said my writing was “interesting.” End of story. So what did I expect? I expect the universe to present its sunny face to me at all times, why do you ask?

Years ago, when I had chronic back pain after my mother died, I found a wonderful chiropractor/healer and, through her, my therapist J, after a series of “coincidences”—recommendations acted upon or not, scheduled and canceled appointments, and a frosty-sounding psychologist who was too busy to see me. Looking back, it all seems “meant to be.” That’s fine for looking back, but I always want to know, what do I do now? Life’s combination of “lack of ultimate control” and “necessity to act despite that fact” is frustrating, if not downright diabolical.

Here I am, already over my usual page limit, and I haven’t described the most jarring note in my hometown hit parade. Read on.

Back in the #15 issue of the mary’zine, I wrote about desire, illusion, intimacy, and passion. One of my examples of illusion was BA, a friend from 5th grade through junior high. She never went to college, never got married, doesn’t even drive. She’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The only time I’d seen her as an adult was at my mother’s wake, when I wondered why she hovered around me way past the usual two-minute paying of respects. To me, we had grown apart even before high school. So why did she keep bugging my sisters to get me to come home for high school and grade school reunions? After one of the reunions, she sent me pictures of the aging ex-fifth graders and our fossilized teacher in a greeting card with a teabag enclosed, saying she “missed” me. I never responded. Besides feeling no personal attraction to her, I saw her as the embodiment of everything I had left town to escape. I’ve always been afraid of getting sucked back into poverty, as if my pretence of middle-class living would turn out to be a temporary reprieve and I would wake up like a Cinderella who’s only dreamed she went to the ball. So BA was kind of my doppelganger—the alter ego of my underprivileged, small-town self, my “there but for the grace of God went I” if I hadn’t gotten scholarships to college.

BA was much on my mind as I made plans to move back here. This town wasn’t going to be big enough for the both of us! It’s relatively easy to reject a would-be suitor, but how do you tell someone you don’t want to be their friend? I had hoped to escape detection for as long as possible, but before I even got here, BA had heard about my move from my aunt, who works with K. BA tried to confirm the rumor by calling up my bro-in-law MP: “I heard Mary’s moving back here, is that true?” “News to me,” says MP with a straight face. Then one day K runs smack into her at Angeli’s supermarket, and BA again asks if the news is true—K admits it is—and in that case, “Where is she living?” My loyal-to-the-end sister says, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.” She explains that I’m “lying low,” am “kind of a hermit.” BA acknowledges that “after all those years in California, it’s understandable”—whatever that means.

So time goes by, and the new phone book comes out but too soon to have my name and number in it. Then the inevitable happens. I walk into Stephenson’s Bakery (which shares a small building with the Michigan DMV; there are lots of odd pairings like that around here), and there she is, talking to the counter person. As Barbara Havers—a working class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels—would say, “Sod bloody all on a toasted tea cake.”

As she turns to see who came in, I have that panicky moment of thinking it’s not too late to turn around and run out. Instead, I say, “B—?” “Yeah.” “Mary.” She is flabbergasted and thrilled. We sit down at a table to talk because I can’t bring myself to make an excuse to leave. She comments that I “don’t look that different” except for “putting on a few pounds.” (Thanks! I hadn’t noticed!) She speculates that I must live nearby. She’s still trying to ferret out my home base. I finally tell her, “I live out on M-35”—which, believe me, covers a lot of territory.

Then she launches the boat of conversation into Lake Memory. She reminds me that I was editor of the school paper in 5th grade. She still has a copy; do I want to see it? (Part of me is sorely tempted. Is this how Jesus felt with Satan in the wilderness?) BA rattles off several other facts, events, and conversations. But I don’t remember even one of the memories she is excitedly recounting. It’s truly a lesson in “eye of the beholder.” To me, she was a minor player in my life from ages 10 to 13 or so. To her, I was apparently some kind of touchstone. She keeps saying, “I’m just glad to know you’re really real!” In our dream work session, Jeremy suggested that she’s a lesbian who has been in love with me since the 5th grade. [insert “Jaws” music here] She clearly thinks synchronicity is working for her in this situation—that I’ve come back into her life for a reason.

After our excursion through the lake of stagnant memories, I offer her a ride home. Why? I don’t know. I think I’m a little intrigued in spite of myself. The old asphalt-shingled, hardly-any-windowed house she rents the bottom of looks like a contemporary of the shack of a house she lived in with her family across from the grade school. I think about my big, beautiful house by the water and the park. Damn, why do I feel so guilty?

She rattles on about how the house used to belong to a classmate who was a football star. Two other classmates I would never think of as an item—one of them is distantly related to me—live down the street. My aunt—who, in one of life’s little ironies, gave me the brushoff when I asked for her e-mail address—lives right around the corner. As BA gets out of the Jeep, I tell her I’ll call her sometime. It feels like a mistake as soon as I say the words. But what else could I say: “Have a nice life”? (Am I being the architect of my own downfall here?)

I know I’m not responsible for BA’s being born into an extremely poor family, without the resources (or the smarts or the will) to go to college or to make friends easily. Back in junior high, I clung to any other girl who was willing to hang out with me. She did too. And then I went and changed, moved on, found people to love and be loved by, and situations where I could thrive. And yet—if my high school English teacher Ruth ever moved back here, I would be delirious with hope and expectation. I don’t like to think about that. I’m different. I’ve seen the world. I don’t have to cling to childhood relationships. Do I?

A few days later, BA is walking by the middle school and sees Barb coming out. She yells to Barb to wait up and then tells her about seeing me. Here’s her assessment of our little chat in the bakery: “I think she’s lost and is searching for her childhood.”


Barb reminds her that I have my own business and that I edit scientific manuscripts from all over the world.

BA says, “Yeah, she mentioned that.”

Then she tells Barb I gave her a ride home: “I’m not from California—I don’t care who sees where I live.” She adds, hopefully: “She said she’d call.”

So what now? I’ll just have to wait and see what’s on the other side of my painting, what the tiger at my back has in mind, and whether BA—strange link between my then and my now—is successful at finding me and either convinces me to attend the next school reunion or murders me in my bed. Life is a mystery.

Au revoir.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #13, April 2001

April 12, 2009

desire → illusion → intimacy → passion

I don’t know, I may have bitten off more than I can chew this time. Desire, illusion, intimacy, passion; those are some mighty heavy topics, and I only have about 10 pages in which to wax wise. But if my eyes are bigger than my stomach (a phrase you don’t hear much anymore), well, maybe we’ll have leftovers next time.

If those words were plastic beads, you could snap them together to make a bracelet—desire into illusion into intimacy into passion into desire again—and of course you could make and remake that bracelet putting the beads in many different sequences. Indeed, you may question why I put illusion so close to desire. Hey, make your own damn bracelet. I haven’t included love in this word bracelet, because love is the background, the subtext, the raison d’être for all the others. The comparison with plastic beads doesn’t hold up that well, because all those words stand for states or experiences that are overlapping and interrelated, and each one has many different aspects. So this ‘zine bracelet is going to be idiosyncratic and incomplete. For sure, it will raise more questions than I have answers for. Are we done disclaiming yet?

During the writing of this issue, it became clear to me that desire, illusion, intimacy, and passion have been the primary themes of my several years of therapy. Therefore, I dedicate this issue to J, who has guided me through that difficult terrain with a steady hand and an open heart.


As soon as I finish each mailing of the ‘zine, I start thinking about what I want to write about next. It’s always a treat to be able to start over. The editing and refining process is fun, but by the time it’s done, I’m so sick of dogs, cats, or parallel universes that I just want to move on. Fragments of old stories start coming to me, along with a few words or feelings that I don’t know how to connect. It’s a lot like starting a painting—plucking images out of the air, out of the stream, dragging them up from my heart, trying to capture just the right one, the one that’s ripe, the one that “wants to be painted.” This issue in particular is like a painting, or a collage, or a pastiche, a riff on related topics and fragments and intuitions that want to be expressed… a hugely unscientific investigation into some of the secrets of the human heart.


On the lazy days when I have no work, my round of errands out in the world provides the perfect amount of stimulation and human contact to offset a nice long afternoon nap. Today I make only two stops. First to Long’s for Sudafed and airmail envelopes. The checker in the express lane is a dull-looking young woman wearing an American flag pin who moves like she’s underwater. Note to Long’s management: Great idea, putting her in the express lane. I make a point of being nice to her, though she seems barely aware of me, and I wonder how many random acts of kindness are completely lost on the recipient. Do the kindness molecules of my good intentions, if wasted on her, land on more fertile soil elsewhere—or is kindness one of those things that are their own reward, like not cheating on your taxes? Actually, I’m being too generous to myself to call what I’m feeling “kindness.” I judged her from the moment I laid eyes on her, and I resent her inattention. And molecules can’t be fooled. My impatience molecules probably filled the store and spilled out into the parking lot before it even occurred to me to relabel myself as “kind.”

[That paragraph had nothing to do with desire; I’m just getting warmed up here.]

At Andronico’s, my second stop, the checker is the complete opposite of the one at Long’s: smiling, cheery, her happy wishes for a good day accompanying each shopper out of the store like an arm around her shoulder. She has great molecules, and I feel mine responding (no, not that way). This is an uncharted—or at least misunderstood—area of retail management. Don’t, like Safeway, coerce your employees into exuding fake good will and practically running customers down in the aisles to say “good morning” through clenched teeth. Make the employees happy and their molecules will do all the work. You’ll have customers humming and smiling (and buying) without even knowing why. This is good for your bottom line and good for humanity. I should write a book called The One-Minute Molecular Manager.

[I’ll be writing about desire any minute now.]

Gravitating toward the cheery checker, I unload my groceries on the conveyor belt and am a bit surprised to see that I have bought nothing but vegetables and fruit—apples, asparagus, bananas… looks like I’m shopping alphabetically. It’s a misleading indication of my diet, of course, a statistical aberration. But still an accomplishment. Getting in and out of the grocery store without being lured, Siren-like, to the popcorn and chips, the candy aisle, or the bakery is something to celebrate, even though the celebration wears a bit thin later in the day when I realize I have nothing to snack on but green bananas and the fruit that Eve inexplicably found so tempting.

The more common situation while shopping is that I’m overcome with base urges, as if I’m 10 years old again and coveting the red-hot fireballs or Hershey bars or Nehi pop, except that now I don’t have a mother to police me, and I have money in my pocket. (That’s the cruel irony of adulthood—once you’ve got the freedom and the cash, you can’t afford the calories.) But twice, recently, over the feeble protests of my conscience, when I marched over to a forbidden aisle to grab a Frappucino or a bag of popcorn before good sense and the memory of my profile in the bathroom mirror that morning brought me to my senses, the store was temporarily out of the product. And in both cases, I had a weird feeling about it. I’m standing in front of a solid wall of salty snacks, but the 4 square feet of shelf that is supposed to be filled with YaYa white popcorn is bare. (The cheese popcorn is there, but perversely, I like it too much to even consider it.)

I imagine a “Twilight Zone” episode in which everything the middle-aged shopper decides she wants is mysteriously missing from the shelf—sending her careening more and more frantically through the store as she gradually comes to the realization that her desire for something is precisely what is making it disappear! She tests her dreadful hypothesis by pretending to desire things she’d never really want, like circus peanuts or Brussels sprouts, and those are gone too! And the moral of the story, delivered in the sepulchral tones of Rod Serling, is that she has unwittingly made a bargain with the devil to keep herself on a diet, asking him to remove temptation from her path, and now she can never have anything she wants ever again! A world without cake and cookies and chips and ice cream—a tragic episode on a par with the one where the man who wants to do nothing but read finally gets his wish when everyone else dies in a nuclear holocaust, but then he breaks his glasses. Be careful what you wish for, indeed!

This fantasy tells you everything you need to know about me and desire, especially when it comes to relationships. For as long as I’ve been aware of other people as romantic prospects, I’ve been chasing the ones I can’t have—the teachers, the straight girls, the married women or men—the ones who are never really a possibility in the first place. Looking for love in all the wrong places has caused me much needless suffering. Thanks to J, I’ve come to understand that I’ll never get what I should have gotten as a child—the mother love that was so erratic and elusive as to be “Twilight Zone” material in itself. I’m pretty sure my days of lusting after the unavailable ones are over. [2009 update: Yup, it’s all gone.]

But I’m still a work in progress—it’s still hard for me to admit what I really want—or even that I want anything. I suspect that I resist knowing what I want, because then I would have to do something about getting it. So I substitute food—a commodity that, though easily acquired, necessitates much time-consuming thought and drama, the perfect distraction. This is hardly an original observation. When I went to NutriSystem several years ago to lose 20 pounds (which I did—and then they magically found their way back home), the mantra was “Don’t eat for emotional reasons.” Yeah, right. Might as well tell me not to breathe so often. Anyone can substitute a carrot for the cake that is a substitute for mother love, but it’s a temporary fix at best. Enjoy your five minutes of self-congratulation over choosing the carrot, because tomorrow you’re going to face the same choice all over again. Desire is relentless when the object of desire is a replacement for something much more fundamental. And maybe that’s all desire is, anyway—a misdirected passion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

(p.s. Meaningless sex can act as an effective distraction, too, but I’m hardly an expert in that area. Food is from Venus; sex is from Mars.)


Love is giving something you haven’t got to someone who doesn’t exist. (Jacques Lacan)

I could write all day about how illusion has manifested in my life, but I’ve chosen just two examples that are cruelly, ironically, and instructively complementary.

When I was in high school, my senior English teacher, Ruth, almost literally saved my life by seeing me as a real person (“not a young adult, but an adult-adult,” as she put it) at a time when I felt completely unseen by anyone. She was only 29 years old, but she was the prototype for my later attachments to older women who were wry, intelligent, and completely unavailable. Former high school athletes like to relive their glory days on the football field or the basketball court; my equivalent of that was being Ruth’s prize student. Her amazement when I pointed out the obscure rhyme scheme in a Robert Browning poem (which she had never noticed) warms my heart to this day.

Ruth and I corresponded through my early college years, but my student radicalism was too much for her (according to her mother, with whom I was also friendly), and the letters tapered off. I wrote her again when I was in my mid-30s, to bring her up to date on my life, and she seemed delighted to hear from me. In her last letter to me, she confessed, “You were always my favorite.” But then she stopped writing. She was an extremely reserved person, and I thought she was probably having second thoughts about taking the student-teacher relationship to the friendship level.

In February 2000, right after I mailed out the first issue of the ‘zine, I had a dream about her:

I’m at a reunion where I meet up with some former teachers. One of them praises my writing. I wrote a story back in high school that they say I could finish now and it would be really good. Ruth is there. We’re all saying good-bye, and I ask her if she remembers that story. She doesn’t speak. I ask her why she stopped writing to me. Again, she doesn’t speak. I say, “It’s really great to see you.” We hug, but she breaks away first. As we’re leaving, I feel as if I can finish that story now.

I told my “dream counselor,” Jeremy, the dream, and he encouraged me to send Ruth a copy of the ‘zine. I realized I had nothing to lose and thought that after several years of therapy I was more capable of relating to her as another adult rather than as the figure on a pedestal where I had placed her so many years before. I sent her the first couple of issues without including a letter. When I heard nothing back, I wrote to her, making it clear that it was up to her how much, if any, contact we would have. She never responded, and the ‘zines and the letter never came back to me, so I can only assume she received them and made a conscious decision not to reply.

A few months later, I dreamed about her again:

Peggy and I go on a trip to see Ruth. I have sent her several of my writings, and she hasn’t responded. There’s a feeling of heaviness in the dream, because I’m not getting what I want from her. Ruth doesn’t talk to me directly but tells Peggy that she’s feeling pressured because of my expectations of her. Peggy says I’m like my mother, and Ruth says, “There’s nothing to be done about Mary or her mother.” This makes me feel even worse. Ruth has written a book called A Full and Complete Explanation of the Entire Universe. I read a review of it, and the reviewer ridicules the book, disputing her claim that a certain event is “seven-eighths into the history of the universe” because how can she know when the universe will end? I take the review and place it where I know Ruth will find it, so she’ll see that I know she isn’t perfect. Then I realize that this is the topic for my next ‘zine. The dream shifts, and we’re with Jan (a painter from our group who moved to Taos), and we’re about to make masks. Jan says to make plain masks, no decoration at all.

I don’t think I ever got to tell Jeremy this dream, so the nuances are lost to me; but on the simplest level, the dream was a wake-up call. I had idealized Ruth when I was at a difficult place in my life and desperately needed an adult’s respect and encouragement. But I remained emotionally 17 years old in relation to her (or 5, or whatever my real emotional age was then). Although I mourn the loss of her, or rather the loss of the illusion, I respect her for not giving me the false hope of resuming a relationship she wasn’t comfortable with. How could she ever live up to the image I’ve been carrying of her all this time? The dream is stark, with a fellow painter telling me to create a plain, undecorated mask—which I think means to face the truth. Ruth [four-fifths of truth, I just realized] did rescue me, but that was in the past, when I was a child. Such a relationship isn’t meant to survive—the child has to grow up.

Because it seemed that the dream was literally telling me to write about Ruth in the next ‘zine, I drove myself crazy trying to make it work, but it wouldn’t come together. Instead, I wrote about caffeine and food “addiction.” And maybe in a roundabout way, I was writing about her after all, or about the underlying truth of the dream, because my attachments to unavailable women were an emotional crutch similar to my use of food and coffee.

Ruth and I never hugged in waking life, though we’ve hugged many times in my dreams. She always breaks away first. I think it’s time for me to finish that story.


I was reminded of my “Ruth story” a couple of months ago when I got a card from a woman, A*, whom I was friends with in grade school and junior high. But in high school, I moved on to my bohemian stage, and she, to put it mildly, wasn’t intellectually inclined. We have had virtually no contact since then; the only time I’ve seen her since high school was at my mother’s wake 10 years ago. She never left our hometown, never went to college. She still runs into my sister quite often, and the last time she saw her, she asked if I was ever coming home again. My sister cheerfully replied, “Probably not.”

The grade school we both went to had a reunion last summer, and A* took pictures of the group of ex-kids and our teacher, Mr. Mayer. She sent the photos to me in a greeting card that had a sentimental message about “old friends,” along with a tea bag that I guess was meant to represent us getting together. She wrote in the card that she missed me and thought of me often. The stalker music from “Jaws” rang in my head when I read that.

I feel terrible, knowing how much she wants to recapture our childhood friendship. I want to judge her for being delusional, since I have given her no reason to think I would ever be receptive to her—but when I think of my continuing fantasy about Ruth, I wonder, what’s the difference? Well, I have Ruth’s statement of “only” about 15 years ago that I was “always her favorite.” A* has had no such statement or sign of encouragement from me. But clearly, she has made something huge out of our being Girl Scouts together in the fifth grade and is revisiting the past just like I am—only it’s a different past. I’m delusionally trying to recover an important relationship with a teacher, and she’s delusionally trying to recover an important relationship with a grade school pal. I have no intention of revisiting the past with her, as Ruth apparently has no intention of revisiting the past with me. (I can’t even write that sentence without the word “apparently”—just in case she’s been in a coma for the past year and doesn’t know I’ve been trying to contact her.)

It’s weird to be on both sides of this waiting game—to seriously consider that Ruth might want to be in touch with me again but to be incredulous that A* thinks we could go back to being 10 years old. I want to say to her, “What are you thinking? That was 44 years ago!” But then I’d have to say to myself about Ruth, “What are you thinking? That was 37 years ago!”

It’s sad. It’s sad that we keep the past alive for a lifetime, never allowing reality to reset our clocks, insisting on staying on childhood saving time forever. I haven’t answered A*’s letter, even to thank her for the photos. I feel bad about that, but it doesn’t seem like a kindness to encourage her. Ruth is apparently doing the same “kindness” to me by not encouraging me in my never-completely-extinguished high school crush.


It seems pretty obvious what we mean by intimacy, but when you get right down to it, is it about the close contact of two separate people, or is it about the two dissolving into one? Is it the two coming together, or the One becoming ascendant? Or are those both ways of saying the same thing? Intimacy implies, at the very least, a blending of molecules, a contact that dissolves the boundary between the two people somewhat, on whatever level. This blending of molecules, as I have previously postulated, can take place between strangers and even between strangers engaged in a financial transaction over fruits and vegetables. The human heart is always available, if not always put to use.

For me, and I suspect for many people, friendship is a more acceptable source of intimacy than a “love” relationship, because it tends to have stronger boundaries—but within those boundaries you can go far into another’s heart, and allow them into yours. I’ve been blessed to have many intimate friendships as well as intimate contacts with people—especially other painters—with whom I don’t necessarily share much on the surface. Sometimes the intimacy is expressed in special moments, more often as a solid foundation that is known to both parties whether it’s spoken of or not.

Anyway, for my purposes here, I’m more interested in exploring some of the far borders of intimacy. If we say that one form of intimacy is about the One becoming ascendant, then the most intimate moment of my life was with a man I did not even like very much. It wasn’t about the two of us at all, which is the interesting thing for me, since we tend to assume that intimacy is attraction verging on merging. The “intimacy,” if that’s what it was, between me and this man was an accident but one of the most authentic experiences I’ve ever had.

I was with a group of friends, and we were all hugging and saying good-bye in a dark parking lot after a workshop we had done together. The then-object of my affections had just said something hurtful to me, and I was crying. I distractedly hugged this one friend, and before I knew it, something extraordinary happened. I didn’t know at the time that he was also suffering in a love relationship, but when we hugged, my tears and desperation must have triggered his own grief, and as I collapsed into him, he collapsed into me. The result was that we lost all barriers between us to the point where we did not exist as separate entities. I am not being metaphorical or intellectual here. It was absolutely real. Somehow, in our coincidentally self-involved suffering, the two of us merged into one sufferer. I was still aware of myself, but I knew that the “self” I was aware of was not me, it was—and I don’t quite know how to put this—more like a state of suffering or a kind of archetype of suffering before it becomes differentiated into what we think of as our individual, separate pain. Think of Life as the contents of a huge funnel, and the funnel empties into each individual consciousness-of-self through separate little tubes. This man and I were temporarily in the wide part of the funnel above where the tubes dispense the doses of “individual” suffering.

When we broke the hug, I didn’t say anything, but he said, “We were one person there for a minute, weren’t we?” So that confirmed what I already suspected, that the experience had not been just a one-sided insight. It will be terribly embarrassing if it turns out (and I only now had this thought) that this wasn’t such a unique, amazing experience after all, that it’s exactly what people mean when they say they lose themselves and merge with their partner in sex. (That has not been my experience of sex.) So if I’m being ridiculously naïve here, will someone please clue me in?

In our case, the disappearance of the self left only a pure form of suffering, as if there’s a vast reservoir out there (the funnel) that contains or embodies or expresses the aching of all the hearts that have ever suffered. We were not interested in each other, we were not “sharing,” we were not one person comforting another or even two people comforting each other. We were simply two collapsing selves disappearing for a moment into a greater reality, and in that sense, there was something comforting about it. It was like getting a glimpse of death and seeing that death is only a shifting of perception from the little “I” to the universal “I” that encompasses everything. Even when the little “I” no longer exists, something does—and it’s something huge! And yet anyone who wants to know about “life after death” wants the assurance that the little “I” will still exist and know itself. As if this limited form we inhabit is of the utmost importance—like a falling leaf worrying so much about its own death that it doesn’t even consider that the tree lives on. It’s all a question of what we identify with.

So, was that intimacy? Can you get more intimate than being One in the Greater Reality?


I want to talk about another unusual form of intimacy I experienced, though I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. I was not a direct participant but only a witness—but perhaps the witness becomes a participant in intimacy by the very act of witnessing, as long as her intention is not voyeuristic or exploitative.

In the early 1970s, when I was working at a small college in Minnesota, a couple of famous blues musicians—Buddy Guy and Junior Wells—played a gig on campus. After their set, they called a couple of students up on stage who played in a local band. This one boy, a short, chubby guy, got up there with his guitar and started “jamming” with the Buddy Guy band. He looked thrilled and ready to piss his pants at the same time. After he had played for a bit, Buddy Guy came up close behind him, put his arms around him so he could reach the strings, moved the boy’s hands into position, and played with him, showing him a few riffs. They made quite a contrast—the taller, muscular black man with his arms surrounding this soft white boy, pressing up against the boy from behind—and I swear, the kid was either gay already or turned gay on the spot. The shiver of ecstasy that crossed his face was the most naked expression of desire—or rather, fulfillment of desire—bliss, really—that I have ever seen.

The image of that face is impressed on my brain forever. It was such an intimate moment that I felt that I—and everyone else in the audience—was an integral part of the experience. Who knows what happened to the boy later, what disillusionment or disappointment he may have felt in the aftermath, like a hangover of the heart—every fantasy realized comes to an end, after all—but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Now clearly, this was not a story of two coming together—at least not the boy and Buddy Guy—nor was it about the One becoming ascendant. But as I watched, I felt myself merging with the boy’s deepest feelings—not in the Greater Reality sense but in the deeply human sense—and that, for me, constituted the intimacy. The intimacy was in my role as an unintended witness to another’s intense experience of himself. Instead of being “touched by an angel,” I felt I was touched by humanity—the humanity in all our hearts, expressed by one boy having his dream come true.


To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. (e.e. cummings)

Throughout my therapy, J has challenged me to identify my passion. When I had a job, work was all-consuming, at least of my time, and then when I became self-employed, work was really all-consuming. I was terrified of becoming a bag lady, so my whole focus was on survival. The friends who were so confident on my behalf had no idea how hard it was for me to believe it would all work out. Emotionally, it was like being thrown back to my childhood, when I worried that we would literally have to go live in “the poorhouse.” (This idea must have come from one of my father’s colorful sayings.) While my mother worked as a clerk at Montgomery Wards, I weaved potholders and sold greeting cards and built picnic tables with my father (who had MS) to make ends meet. For a couple of summers, when he could still walk, we picked green beans out in the fields with the migrant workers—now there’s a job from hell. And speaking of hell, may one Mr. Johns of Menominee, Mich., rot there for cheating me out of a week’s wages at the end of our last summer. I can only imagine what he was doing to the migrant workers. I would never have believed, as a child, that someday I would not know to the penny how much money I had. I am unimaginably wealthy now, in comparison, but the fear of falling into poverty again is very real—as if I’ve managed to crawl halfway up the slippery slope of the middle class and have nowhere to go but down from this point on.

But I’m supposed to be talking about passion. It’s safer, in a way, to concentrate on where my next dollar is coming from than to act from a place of—what’s that new age word?—abundance. I think passion is related to abundance in the sense that you have to believe that something beyond sheer survival is worth having, worth doing, worth sticking your neck out for—and possible to achieve. I not only don’t believe that I can have abundance, but I’m afraid of it somehow. Even when I had nothing, I was always afraid of what would happen if I had too much. Like when our high school debate club needed to borrow a car to go to an out-of-town tournament—everyone else was saying, what if we don’t get one, and I was thinking, what if we get two? I know at least one other person who has this same tendency, so I know I’m not the only one.

I seem to have a fear of desire, a fear of wanting—a fear of having? I can want what I know I’ll never get. I can want the little things, the potato chips of life, but then I have to put them out of reach, too. And so goes the merry-go-round of desire and substitution and unrequited longing. It’s not worth having if I can have it. Something like that.


One of my better found-TV moments was coming upon a talk by Anne Lamont at Chabot College. She was talking about writing, of course, and she had good news and bad news. The bad news was twofold: (1) what you write will never be as good as what you had in mind, and (2) not everyone will like it. These are just two facts of life that you really can’t do anything about, though it can be depressing as hell. The good news, according to her, was that, after an indeterminate period of difficulty and striving, inevitably “the phone rings” and you get the recognition you so richly deserve. Her point was “never give up,” but of course it’s easy for her to say, she’s already proved herself.

On the one hand, I was encouraged that she—famous writer—has all the same insecurities as I do. She complained about getting a bad review of her last book in a Tiburon newspaper. She’d had 34 good reviews and 2 bad ones, and she was obsessing about the bad ones. It’s tempting to think, “I wouldn’t complain about a thing if I had her [fill in the blank]—talent, acclaim, success.” But of course I would, because that’s the nature of being human. That damn glass is always half-empty of something.

On the other hand, her version of “the good news” terrifies me, and I don’t know which is scarier—that the phone will never ring, or that it will—that a publisher will have seen a copy of the mary’zine on his cousin’s kitchen table and wants me to write a book. Sure, I want to be “successful,” I want to know that I’ve made a difference. That’s why I crave your responses to the ‘zine. Diane once asked me, “Do you want people to respond so you know that you are good?… or… that you exist?” And I answered: “Is there a difference? I want them to respond so I know that I am good because that is the only possible excuse for existing.” Diane purported to find this dead-on funny, but I was completely serious.

A mostly unpublished, largely unacclaimed writer can’t help but feel that if she doesn’t find a mass audience and end up in the limelight, then she has failed—not just in a small way like getting one bad review, but as a human being, as someone unworthy of her “gift.” Saying “I am a writer whether I ever get famous or not” makes me feel laid bare, like a passable trumpet player who declares that the trumpet is henceforth her life. It’s one thing for Anne Lamott to get up there and parade her honesty over her insecurities and her envy and hostility toward other writers—she can make just about any flaw sound charming—but she’s got the books and the speaking engagements to give the lie to her supposed shortcomings.

And yet, what would happen if I got all the acclaim I supposedly want, proving conclusively (supposedly) that I’m worthy of existing? Anne Lamott herself has talked about the loneliness of publication day, when your book appears in the world’s bookstores along with the thousands of others and you see that nothing has changed, you’re the same person you were before. And if anyone ever invited me to give a talk anywhere—to be shown on TV, no less—I think I would die on the spot.

Why do I think I want this acclaim, anyway? Is this just another case of chasing after something I can’t have and wouldn’t know how to deal with if I got it? I’m like a donkey following a carrot dangling from the end of a stick. I’ll never get the carrot, and if I did, I’d probably want a piece of pie instead. The point is, nothing dangling out there is worth a damn. My former teacher Ruth is dangling out there, withholding her approval—but what if it all turned out to be a misunderstanding and she actually loved the ‘zine? (“Just came out of my coma and was delighted to find….”) Then I would have from her what I already have from several other people who are just as important to me. Having the approval isn’t enough for me, I have to have it from the one who’s reluctant to give it. It’s not worth having if I can have it. Talk about setting yourself up.

The only sense I can make of all this is that my ambivalent quest for recognition is driven by desire, not passion. Passion isn’t about the response of an audience, even if that response is exciting and deeply affecting. Passion, for me, is about engaging in the creative process, whatever form that process may take. I watched part of the Academy Awards this year, and I was actually moved to tears by one of the acceptance speeches. Steven Soderbergh, who won for best director, said, “I want to thank anyone who spends part of their day creating. I don’t care if it’s a book, a film, a painting, a dance, a piece of theater, a piece of music—anybody who spends part of their day sharing their experience with us. I think this world would be unlivable without art.” To which I say, “Amen.”

For all my desire to be praised for my writing, I can honestly say that my true interest in writing this ‘zine is the experience of entering into the creative process and feeling it churn around inside me and bring me gifts to spill out on the page. The ‘zine has been a stressful but very satisfying endeavor, more suited to me (I think) than being published in a conventional way. I chose my own audience, and they get to choose me back or toss me in the circular file or pass me on to a friend. The audience for the ‘zine is incrementally increasing, but whether or not it ever reaches critical mass, I couldn’t be happier with the depth of response I get. I’d rather touch one person deeply than scratch the surface of a million. (And sure, I’d love to touch a million deeply, but that probably requires appearing on TV.)

There’s nothing I love more than to finish a mailing and feel the engine start to rev up again with images, memories, and metaphors. The finishing process can be a little dicey—do I really dare to send this newborn creature out there, so exposed, not knowing how it will be received?—but the beginning, the clean page, the fresh start when anything can happen, that’s where I get my biggest thrill. Fragments of old stories start coming to me, along with a few words or feelings that I don’t know how to connect. It’s a lot like starting a painting—plucking images out of the air, out of the stream, dragging them up from my heart, trying to capture just the right one, the one that’s ripe, the one that “wants to be painted.” This issue in particular is like a painting, or a collage, or a pastiche, a riff on related topics and fragments and intuitions that want to be expressed… a hugely unscientific investigation into some of the secrets of the human heart.

End of bracelet. Desire → illusion → intimacy → passion. I think I’ll go eat something.

[Mary McKenney]

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