Posts Tagged ‘painting’

mary’zine random redux #22: March-April-May-June 2002

January 2, 2010

“Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic….”

—said of CNN’s Aaron Brown, in the New York Times

Amazing, mysterious, bizarre, touching things always happen when you paint for several days in a row. By day 7 you’ve lost all sense of scale: the big and the small, the trivial and the life-changing, blend together like—

Barbara interrupts my intense scribbling. “No, no no! Go back to your painting!” With arm outstretched, she points to the painting room like Moses directing his people into the Red Sea.

I try to resist. “But the words are coming! This is the same process only in words!”

She cannot be moved. “The process is happening in the painting! The source is there! You’re trying to capture it! The words will wait!” Forget Moses, she has the force of authority of God Himself expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. I tell her this, and she says she feels more like one of the ghosts in the Scrooge story. The Ghost of Painting Present, I guess.

I know the intensity has to be lived before it can be shared, but in this moment it wants to burst out of me in words, not images. She’s right, I want to capture it before it can escape.

Reluctantly, I return to my painting. “This is killing me!,” I cry, not overdramatizing one bit.

And then I go on to have an incredible afternoon painting my family as real and true as I have ever painted them. But the jury’s still out on whether the words have waited for me.


It’s been a long time, eh? When people ask what happened to the ‘zine, all I can say is, “It’s really quite interesting, but part of what happened is that I can’t write the ‘zine anymore, so I can’t tell people about it!” But I’m feeling stirrings in my writerly loins again, so here we go.

I was going to begin by saying “Long story short…,” but I doubt that very much. In the February issue (#21; not yet available online), I mentioned that I was so busy with work that I could only crank out a few ‘zine pages. But I still had the urge to do it, so it was fine. You can always find time to do what you really want. But when March came around and I thought about starting the next issue, I realized I was feeling kind of down, and had been for a while. The Zoloft didn’t seem to be working anymore. This was really disheartening, and I felt like an idiot for having had such high expectations. I thought, maybe it’s like a relationship—it starts out really great and then one day you wake up and realize the honeymoon’s over. Reality is always a downer, I should know that by now!

So the next time I saw my psychiatrist, I complained about how the Zoloft was no longer working. She had been trying for months to find the right combination of drugs so that I wouldn’t be so drowsy during the day. (Excessive napping—my cross to bear.) Now she thought we’d have to switch to a different SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She assured me that there were “lots of new drugs in the pipeline,” and I imagined the pipeline as a tube in her office, maybe set up on an IV pole right next to the couch, so I could keep sucking up mood-altering chemicals until I felt good again.

At the end of the session, as she was writing out a new prescription, I looked out the window as a new thought began dimly to form. I said, “But you know… I’m not as anxious as I used to be.” And that’s when I saw that what I’d labeled “depression” or “the Zoloft not working” was just the absence of anxiety. The feeling was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it!

This made sense to Dr. P. too, so we decided I would stay on “Vitamin Z” for a while longer. Immediately, I felt the change in my veins, or wherever you feel things like that. I wasn’t doomed, I wouldn’t have to start over with a new drug and new side effects. The letdown I’d been feeling had been about missing something all right, but the something I was missing was anxiety.


My life seemed to change overnight. I started noticing all the ways that I wasn’t anxious anymore. The more I noticed, the better I felt. I was able to rest in the present moment, Be Here Now, instead of feeling two steps ahead of myself, as if there was somewhere I had to get (what my father would have called “going nowhere fast”). Subjectively, I had a lot more time.

One day in therapy with J, I was trying to explain the change, and she asked how I felt in my body. I focused my attention there, and all of a sudden I felt completely unself-conscious, as if my center was truly down in the center of my body instead of up in my chest, throat, and head. As much as I love and trust J, it’s always been hard for me to sit across from her for an hour and be the focus of attention, especially since she’s always watching for clues to my somatic state. I’ll make a gesture—a shrug, a wince, a tapping of my fingers—and she’ll say, “Do that again—but slow it down.” But on this day, I lost that sense of discomfort completely. I often worry about what I’ll talk about in therapy, but that day it didn’t matter. We were just there together. It was like being weightless, free of emotional gravity. J could feel the change in me and immediately went to that place in herself. We sat there grinning at each other, and I looked around the room in amazement as if I had discovered a new world (or as if I were stoned, if you really want to know). The phone rang, and she got up to turn it off. When she sat down again, she said, “Try walking around, it’s really something.” So I got up and took a few steps around the office. When I sat down, I felt the movement settling, like the “snow” in a snow globe that gets shaken and then falls gently back to earth. J said that’s exactly how it felt to her, too. It was amazing to me that she could “go there” with me, especially since she wasn’t feeling well that day. Actually, it reminded me of how I feel after painting sometimes, when it doesn’t matter what I say and I can just sit silently with other people.

Then I spotted some rubber balls in the corner and asked her if she wanted to play catch. So we tossed a ball back and forth, feeling the movement in our chests and shoulders, comparing bodily notes. I started throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, and then I stood up and bounced it on the floor and against the walls. Oops, almost knocked over that vase. I felt so free, it was so easy to move, to invent, to be spontaneous. I didn’t even have to talk! J said she’d never seen me like that, and I had to agree it was a first.

What struck me the most was seeing that “being free” isn’t about floating aimlessly, without anchor or boundary, it’s about being who you are. It’s easy to retort, “Who else could you be?,” but the truth is, a lot of us find it easier to play a role or to guard the Fort Knox of our true selves than to just be, for fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken—or of revealing ourselves to be as inadequate as we sometimes feel.


A few weeks before (when I thought I was depressed), J had urged me to “find a cause in the world,” and I had uttered the shameful truth, “I’m not really interested in the world.” But now I had spontaneous urges to follow up on things I would once have stuffed in the “someday” file. I subscribed to the international magazine Granta and to the Sunday New York Times. I stopped reading fiction. Spent $200 in 2 weeks at Cody’s, poring over the nonfiction shelves and coming up with books about psychobiology, Buddhism, mathematics (geometry morphing into particle physics—who knew?), the class system in America, and true stories from NPR’s National Story Project. Suddenly I was more fascinated by the real than by the made-up worlds in novels. This was not some self-improvement project—such projects are doomed because they come from the belief that you need to be a “better person,” whatever that is. It’s the same principle I learned years ago in painting, to go where your interest is.

Of course, some of my interest in “the world” was really interest in my own brain chemistry. I was sitting in my car outside Dr. P.’s office one day, with about 10 minutes till my appointment, and I picked up a book I had brought along to pass the time. It was Going on Being by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses Buddhist teachings in his practice. I was interested in his perspective, because for a spiritually semi-evolved (or is that self-involved) person like myself, one who shares the Buddha’s Enneagram number, no less, the drug-taking initially raised all sorts of questions about self-identity. Who’s the “real me”? If this is my brain on drugs, who am “I”? Where does the serotonin stop and I begin? Am I my depression, my anxiety? Who is it who suffers from these symptoms, and who is it who is relieved of the suffering by a pill?

So I started reading the Introduction, “How People Change,” and almost immediately I was plunged into a story about a woman, “searching for a spiritual life,” who was “suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have mood-altering drugs so readily available.” But this woman, Sally, “had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.”

Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant—Zoloft!—for several weeks and was

…finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week mediation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there…. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her.

[I’m trying not to quote the entire chapter, but it’s tempting.]

People who respond well to these antidepressants often… find… that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms…. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression [my emphasis].

… The notion that we need to go more deeply into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called the return of the repressed. Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach….

When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, almost as if they have to go to confession to be absolved of their sins. Going more deeply into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether….

But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know…. It can lead, at worst, to… a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred…. I told [Sally] that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply…. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.

As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown [my emphasis].

Reading this, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I was especially struck by the parallels with painting. People who understand that painting-for-process isn’t about “making art” often see it as a way to “work on their issues.” Indeed, we don’t shrink from the disturbing images that come up, but instead of identifying ourselves with them, we allow the act of painting to take us to a meditative level where we experience (not just “understand intellectually,” an oxymoron) that we are not that, we are not our problems. I had been exactly like “Sally” in thinking that if I wasn’t suffering I was “avoiding” or “cheating.” It was wonderful to get this point of view from a medical doctor who also has respect for the spirit.


Another change I noticed is that I felt more like giving. I packed up a box of books to ship to China and another box for the San Rafael Public Library. I checked out the Habitat for Humanity website to see about signing up for some hardhat action when they start building in Marin. I checked the Marin volunteers website, but the only thing that appealed to me was driving police cars to the repair shop at 6 a.m.; of course, I rejected that, partly because it was so early in the morning and partly because I couldn’t imagine driving a police car down Miracle Mile and coming upon a robbery in progress or having bloody or disoriented citizens lurch into the street, waving at me to stop and help them. (Do they have police cars that say “Not in Service”?)

I liked the idea of giving scholarships to poor kids, having been one myself. So I thought about donating to the Marin Scholarship Fund (there are plenty of poor kids here, despite the media hype about how rich the county is). Then I read an article about kids way up in northern California who don’t have many opportunities, and I thought, yeah, rural poor kids, having been one of those. Then the Obvious reached up and smacked me, and I realized I wanted to give a scholarship to my old high school in the U.P.! (U.P. = Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a virtually forgotten region of the country, known only to Ernest Hemingway and a few vacationing Chicagoans who like trees.) Believe me, this was a major turnabout. I had sworn for the last 30-some years that I would never have anything to do with that place again, but here I was, waking up to the awareness that there must still be kids back there who are smart and poor (and who want to be beatnik editors?) who need a ticket out. So I made inquiries through my sister, who teaches in the middle school in my hometown, and next year some lucky girl will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to me and my newly un-reuptaken serotonin. Now I have to decide what to call it. It would be nice to rehabilitate the McKenney name around there, because most of the men on my father’s side were ne’er-do-wells, and my sisters got married and took their husbands’ names. So it’s up to the lesbian daughter to carry on the family name, if not the genetic line. (The genetics are marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do about that.)


I’ve discovered that being emotionally healthy(er) is like having a lot of money, as in “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” When you have greater resources—whether emotional or material—you have a foundation, a safety net, room to make mistakes, and enough abundance to think beyond survival. You can take a few losses and not go under.


If it appears that I’m giving all the credit to a chemical rather than to 20 years of process painting and 10 years of therapy, it’s because I’m amazed (note to self: dig out the thesaurus, quick!) by what feels like instantaneous change. Maybe it’s like the “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world who’ve been performing in obscurity for years and are suddenly “discovered.” In reality, I know that Zoloft is just the icing on the cake. The cake is therapy—or no, therapy has got to be the meat and potatoes. That would make painting the cake, Zoloft the ice cream… oh, never mind. The point is, it’s not that the drug is magic, it’s just that it helps clear away some of the emotional debris so that the real self, excavated and examined through the inner work, can emerge. People think these drugs put you in a mental state that’s like my image of Hawaii—beautiful but bland, same temperature all the time—when actually they put you wherever you already live, but with a clearer head.


But despite (or because of) my newfound emotional stability, I was dreading the 7 days of painting, partly because I never know what’s going to happen and that’s so uncomfortable, and partly because I wasn’t sure I would still have the desire or “ability” to paint. Although feeling better made me want to explore more, not less, I was afraid the painting urge might have gone the way of the writing urge, which seemed to have gone far, far away.

I had written the following to a friend who wanted to know what was up with the ‘zine:

I went to a new level with the Zoloft and am enjoying my life without the need/desire to share it in writing. Not to mention the fact that I’m having fewer neurotic reactions, which made up a large part of what I used to write about…. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. Like: Life is enough; you don’t have to prove anything or do anything special.

All well and good, but creativity is about going to the edge, pushing the envelope. What if my edges had been smoothed away? What if my envelope had already been sealed and mailed and was now gathering dust in a corner of the Dead Letter office?

After trying and failing to give J a complete news report on all my insights from the week, I realized I’m not a journalist, and so I will just write whatever I feel like and see where it goes (the driving principle of the mary’zine).

7 days in May

Day 1

Having spent most of my time since the last intensive by myself, I felt slightly overwhelmed by being with so many people in such an intimate setting. Checking out the people in the group, I was sure that several of them wanted something from me. And if someone wanted something from me, I had to give it. If someone had a problem, I had to fix it. I made a mental list of the things I felt responsible for: K’s silence. S’s self-hatred. G’s male ego. The feelings of everyone I like. The feelings of everyone I don’t like. Everyone’s lunch. (In my grandiosity, I thought I would be inundated by requests to go to lunch, but only from those who wanted something from me.) I was seeing how my mind works, and it was both repellent and fascinating, like Animal Planet during Shark Week.

My first painting was of me and J. We had been talking about ending therapy, and the thought not only made me sad—I couldn’t imagine giving up such an important relationship—but also (see above) I felt responsible for her feelings about coming to the end. When I went on to paint my mother, it was clear that my perceived responsibility for J’s (and everyone else’s) feelings was linked to my belief that it was up to me to make my mother happy, an almost impossible task. (Me and Tony Soprano.)

Then I painted a “monster” that I thought was going to be your everyday, normal monster (scary, dark, trying to get me), but it came out looking fearful and anxious—not threatening me but clinging to me—and I realized that the monster was indeed “my” fear and anxiety, now projected out of me in monster form. Seeing the monster outside of me, I had the insight that everyone I encounter is a form of me outside of me, and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re projecting our own shortcomings or idealizations onto one another all the time, so (psychologically) there is very little reality, just a lot of projected illusions walking around thinking that everything they see is real.


Here I want to give Bonnie credit for inspiring two possible titles for the book I may someday write about painting: In the Company of Monsters (the monsters in the painting, in one another, and in ourselves) and Radiant with Anguish, an apparent oxymoron that goes to the heart of why we paint—not to be in a constant state of distress, God forbid, but to go deeply inside ourselves where even fools fear to tread, and discover whatever is true there.

Day 2

Painted the “fabric of the universe.” Just so you know, the strands that make up the universe are interwoven like the potholders my sisters and I used to make, but they’re multicolored, not just red and white, blue and white, or green and white. I loved painting the “fabric,” but I had the strong feeling there was something on the other side that I couldn’t get to. I was stuck. I then painted several black figures and realized they were “sentries of the unknown,” blocking my way. I felt better just painting them. As M. Cassou used to say, “When you paint the wall, the wall comes down.”

Day 3

The sense of scale is beginning to blur. After an intense day of painting, I’m driving home and I see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It appears to say “Everybody Loves Firm Potato Brushes.” I go, ha-ha, that’s one of those things that turn out to be comically misread, like when “Change is in charge” was revealed to be “Charles is in charge.” So I come up behind the car at the next stop sign, where I’m able to read the bumper sticker clearly. It reads, and I quote, “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises.” I am nonplussed, and believe me, I have never written or spoken that word before. My initial interpretation would work if the driver were a door-to-door potato brush salesman. But what does the real message mean? And is it true? Does everybody lose from a potato bruise?

Looking at the notes I took during the 7 days, I see that I’m getting the days all mixed up, but c’est la vie. That afternoon (one afternoon), someone shared that she felt so in tune with her painting that she almost felt an electric shock if she tried to paint something in the “wrong place.” I said that sounded like a good idea. If you go to the “wrong place” you get a shock; if you go to the “right place,” you get a Milk Dud.

Oh, I forgot to say that one of the things I noticed post-Vitamin Z is that it’s not so important for me to be funny. As with the “not interested in the world” comment, I had said to J a few weeks back that “I’d rather be funny than anything.” This shocked J because she hadn’t known that about me. Granted, therapy is not the best situation for getting off a lot of zingers, but I thought it was written all over me like a graffitied wall! I felt like the proverbial funnyman who makes people laugh because it’s the only way to satisfy his craving for love. Since Zoloft, it doesn’t feel like such a strong drive. I just sit back and hear the words fly out of my mouth, and if they’re funny, so much the better. There’s less at stake now.

But here’s an interesting postscript to my telling J “I’d rather be funny than anything.” After that session, I went home to try to write about it for the ‘zine, and I looked up “funny” in a quotations book. And the very first quote was from Woody Allen: “I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” It was one of those bizarre synchronistic moments: I declare that being funny is my first choice and then find out that one of the funniest people in the world thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe he thinks it’s too easy. That’s what I like about it—minimum effort, maximum reward. I don’t want to be Woody Allen, though, I want to be James Thurber.

OK, I’m getting off track here, and you know how I love to stay on track.

Day 4

My painting has no meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That evening, on the way home, I have to stop at a few places: ATM, grocery store, Rite Aid. As I’m standing in the prescription pick-up line at Rite Aid—usually my idea of Hell on Earth—I realize that it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m still me, in the world. Waiting for the person at the head of the line to understand why her medications aren’t covered by insurance seems no different, really, from lying in bed watching TV. Imagine that.

Day 5

Diane and I have an idyllic lunch at Chloe’s on Church St. The food is good, the weather is perfect, and we both feel like we’re being held in the embrace of the universe. I tell her I’m looking for a new hat. (I’m trying to get used to wearing one—preparing myself for the day when I have two wisps of hair left on my head and can just switch to all hat all the time.) Diane tells me about one she’s seen in the gift shop at the Jewish Home, so we drive over there to check it out. It’s a baseball-style cap with the words “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” stitched across the front and “Jewish Home, San Francisco” on the side. Considering the corny “gone fishin’” reference, the cap is actually quite tasteful (canvas, neutral colors). If I had bought the equivalent “ethnic”-type hat in Michigan or Wisconsin—“Gone Lutefisk Fishing!,” for example—it would have been crocheted, with neon reflectors and a Budweiser can sewn into it. Actually, I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering the “yooper” (U.P.’er) culture I grew up in—tasteless without a whiff of irony.

Day 6

In the morning sharing, Barbara asks what we could ask for in painting today, if we asked for what is pushing in us or what we most fear. I ask for antsiness because that’s where I’m at, and I don’t know the half of it. While painting, I get antsy, all right, but the feeling keeps going toward a full-fledged bodily scream that B encourages me to paint with a small brush. On the painting the stream emanates from my mouth, stomach, and genitals. Little holes appear in the “fabric of the universe” and then in the people (the triumvirate of me, Mom and Dad). Then the holes start to widen, and cracks form. The silent screams from my painted self don’t seem to go nearly deep enough, so I paint screams irradiating out of the holes in the fabric of the u. These screams feel like they’re coming from the deepest part of me, beyond the fabric, beyond the existence of everything, or perhaps just beyond the little that I know.

When I show J this painting later, she perceives the “holes” as “openings,” and I have to admit that feels right. It’s not that the fabric is being torn or that black holes are waiting to swallow me up, it’s just that openings are being created for me to pass through (or for something to pass through to me, I suppose). This was a typical turnabout in painting, as when I discovered that the “sentries of the unknown” that I thought were blocking me were actually guides, not guards. It’s fascinating to see that everything we think can be looked at in the opposite way.

Day 7

In the afternoon I call Barbara over, feeling stuck-stuck-stuck. I’ve painted my parents so many times over the years that it feels like all I have to do is paint a bare outline, fill it in with peach color, and add the requisite eyes, nose, mouth, and genitalia. But B says, “Look at the expressions on their faces—they really look like themselves!” It’s true. Mom looks pissed off and is reaching for me as if to strangle me. Dad looks shell-shocked, staring off into space, not even relating to me. When I complain that there is nothing else I can paint on or around them, B asks the fateful question, “What would you paint if they were you?” And we both feel the lightning strike of that question. She says she has never asked it of anyone before. But when I look at the figure of my mother and imagine she’s me, the brush explodes and she becomes fiery, black-hearted, riled up, bleeding from wounds. As I paint her, images from my childhood come to me, seemingly at random. I tell B I feel as if my life is passing before my eyes. I remember the summer I was 13 and had to babysit 6 days a week for the 5-year-old daughter of my cousin and how horribly trapped I felt, like the women in that dissatisfied-suburban-housewife fiction I would later read in the feminist ‘70s. I wonder if I’m tuning into the source of my mother’s anger at becoming the housewife/mother/breadwinner/caretaker instead of the quiet librarian/book reader/traveler she had always wanted to be. But this thought comes later. While painting, I just let my thoughts and feelings roam. I feel vividly the despair of spending the summer in my cousin’s old, grungy apartment, unable to stop the kid’s crying, praying she’d nap all afternoon, reading my cousin’s True Confessions magazines, soft-pornographic images that are still alive and repulsive to me—dirty old men with yellow teeth drooling over the naked breasts of unconscious young girls. There’s probably a whole lot under the surface of that particular memory, but that’s beyond the scope, as they say, of this discussion.

When I move on to the figure of my father and imagine him as me, I start painting his brain exploding, his heart pounding, his stomach roiling, and I have the half-coherent thought that the way I’ve painted his penis, it looks like a hand grenade. Suddenly I am him in World War II, being shot at by German soldiers, a flurry and fury of fear and pain all around me that are much like the feelings that surround my painted mother, but for different reasons. I have never identified so closely with him. That’s when I go out to the sharing room with my red notebook and try to capture some of the words that are finally wanting to come.

After being expelled back to my painting, I add my two sisters and my brother. Once again, when I’m stuck for what to do next, B asks me what I’d paint if they were me. And again I’m thrust into an intense reverie and feel I have become them somehow or at least can “read” them. I paint one sister being molested by our cousin, and she looks fiery and angry and tense, tolerating the invasion. (I tell B, “Everyone in my family was angry; it wasn’t just me!”) I paint my other sister helping my father pee in a bottle, her household chore at age 10 when my father could no longer control his arms. According to her, that’s when her “world stopped.” As I paint her swollen body, eyes drifting upward—the opposite of my other sister’s tight compression—I see there isn’t a lot of difference between my distress and the distress of everyone else in my family, except that we kids kept ours hidden—well, hidden like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, right out in plain sight, or maybe like the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards.

Finally, I paint my baby brother in his coffin, paint the cross on it with his initials (instead of his name, Mike), and am inundated with sense memories of his funeral, when I thought the adults in the church were laughing at me. (My brother was 2; I was 6.) This is not a new memory—the experience was one of the turning points of my childhood, maybe the turning point—but painting it isn’t so much like remembering as reliving. I paint people all around the coffin laughing their heads off, heartlessly. It feels good to paint them, because they are clearly not me, so I can hate them freely. (I know the people at the funeral weren’t really laughing, but as I paint this projected image it’s as if I’m creating reality retroactively and taking my long-awaited revenge.) I tell B who the laughing people are, and she again asks her question, “What else could you paint on them if they were you?” I don’t want them to be me, but I obediently put myself in their place, and it turns out they do have hearts after all, along with sharp teeth in their midsections. Hearts are breaking in the air around them, and I know that “they” (that is, I) had very complicated feelings about the death of my brother, everything from pain and loss, to love, and probably guilt and repressed jealousy as well. (This last could be where the projected laughter came from.)

It feels so intense, so right, to paint everyone in the painting as me, or as me in them, or as them in me. B comes by again and asks, “Who else?” Who else could I paint more on as if they were me? I groan, because the only two people left are my molesting cousin and my peeing (probably humiliated) father. I paint lightning coming out of my father’s chest and a heart on my cousin, taking these projections, also, into the fold. But B is still there. She asks again, “Who else?” but there is no one else! I point to all the people in the painting, one by one—I did her and him and her and her and him and him—and then I see that I had forgotten about my brother. And that turns out to be the most poignant experience of all, as I paint him surrounded by hearts, feel the beauty of his baby soul (too young to have had all the complicated feelings of a 6-year-old), and notice that the initials I had painted on the cross earlier were M.M., the same as mine.


Being with 12 or 15 other people for 7 days, all of whom are facing themselves on the blank page and sharing their insights, fears, and joys in the group, seeing themselves in one another, taking reassurance that they’re “not the only one,” sometimes pushing one another’s buttons or getting their buttons pushed, is an intense experience. That kind of honesty (with ourselves first of all) and searching seem inevitably to lead to agape, the love for God and our fellow humans.

During that week, besides enjoying some of the friends I’ve made through painting, I made connections with two people I had seen at the studio for years but had never talked to before. It took so little to break that long-frozen ice. One person approached me, and after a brief conversation my judgments of her got turned on their head. It was like looking through one of those tiny holes/openings in the fabric of the universe that allow you to get a glimpse of the richness on the other side.

The other person was someone who stayed aloof from the group and seemed to make eye contact only with Barbara. I impulsively complimented her on her hat (my new life passion), and that tiniest of holes/openings widened to give us a special little hat-bond after that. (She was rather nonplussed—there’s that word again—by the gefilte fishin’ hat, but it was the first time I’d seen her smile.)

But love and honesty make strange bedfellows sometimes. I spontaneously proclaimed to a fellow painter I’ve known for years, “You are a complete mystery to me.” What I meant as an affectionate observation, she took as a huge insult. But that’s the price of taking this journey with one another. You can’t always get what you want, but I think you’ll find, sometimes, you get what you need. For a while I thought I had to make everything right with her, but I finally realized that giving up the responsibility to fix the whole world, one person at a time, allows me to be myself, which is, after all, the only thing I have to give.


And so I bid you adieu, not knowing what will happen with the ‘zine but fairly confident that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too—live my life, extend myself in unexpected ways, learn more about the world and my place in it, see myself in others and them in me, and be able to write as the spirit moves.


p.s. Pookie is also enjoying life and showing less interest in adding his sarcastic commentary to the ‘zine. He spends as much time as possible outside, picking his way through the honeysuckle vines in search of the lizard who lives there, or lounging by the bird bath, trying to look like a harmless lawn ornament as the birdies flutter around. He’s lost his taste for tuna-flavored laxative and now begs for popcorn instead. We are becoming more like each other all the time—older, fatter, and grayer but with still a gleam in our eye and a spring in our step. When we aren’t napping.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #18 November 2001

October 12, 2009

It’s really hard to maintain your natural humility and lack of pretence when you’re being praised for your articulateness, your humor, your honesty, even your grammatical and typing skills. I’m speaking of Pookie, of course. My condo isn’t big enough for the three of us anymore—me, Pookie, and Pookie’s ego. The way he struts around here, you’d think he was the next Alice B. Toklas. I know he’s thinking, “Don’t kid yourself, they’re only reading this rag for my stuff.” But hey, I’m not proud—whatever works.

I have to admit that when I first realized Pookie was getting into the computer and making unauthorized additions to the mary’zine, I wasn’t too happy about it. One literary genius in the family is enough, don’t you think? Also, it seems to me that his style is highly reminiscent of mine. (Dare I call him a copycat?) I know that imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, but he’s never shown any interest in flattering me before. Maybe he just has a highly developed sense of irony and enjoys mimicking my style to show that it isn’t all that hard to do. I’m a little concerned that he might get so good at it that he will gradually take over more and more of the ‘zine and even sign his name to stories I’ve written! If you start seeing a “P” or an “oo” working its way into the masthead, you’ll know something’s up.

But I’m not too worried. After all, who owns the means of production? Who brings home the Eukanuba Moderate pH Nutritional Urinary Formula? Who wears the clothes in the family? I rest my case.

On the other hand, there’s no definitive proof that Pookie, is, in fact, writing those extremely clever and creative passages. We have only his word for it. Everybody knows how easy it is to get writing samples off the Web these days. Now I know how those literary detectives who are trying to figure out if Shakespeare really wrote Shakespeare’s works must feel. It’s quite a puzzle. If Pookie didn’t write Pookie’s works, who did?? Some say there’s a dog in the neighborhood named Francis Bacon who’s been seen wearing a carpal tunnel wrist support, so who knows?

One interesting thing about “Pookie’s” writings is that he tends to lapse into Yiddish whenever he gets upset. I don’t know who taught him “oy gevalt,” but if he starts throwing around words like “farmischt” and “ferklempt,” you’ll know he’s an imposter. I mean, he’s as goyish as I am.

hey I know you kvell when they laugh at my jokes.

OK, buster, I’ve had genoog out of you today. There are important matters to be written about. Say good night, Pookie.

good night pookie.

[Editor’s note: Watch for Pookie’s upcoming column, Mews of the Day. The name was MY idea.]

[And to think I used to call Rita Mae Brown a sellout for giving up her life as a radical lesbian separatist to write mystery novels with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown. Now look at me—mouthpiece of Pookie McKenney. Pookie Pie McKenney? I’ll have to work on that.]

living in the ground ‘00s

I don’t know why, but every time I try to write something serious about the World Crisis, I end up writing about Pookie instead. I guess, in such stressful times, one wants to tap into the timeless… the eternal verities… the cat jokes.

For example, Pookie has been affected by the tragedy in an unfortunate way. He’s taken a sudden dislike to Persian cats. (Thanks to the selfless friend who gave me that line but doesn’t want the credit [or the blame].)

Last time, I talked about my conflicting feelings about displaying the American flag. Well, I finally gave in and bought a decal for the back window of my car and stuck it next to the gay rainbow flag. Then I put a small sticker of the Statue of Liberty on top of the rainbow flag. Thus is my layered and nuanced support of both my country and my chosen cause conveyed in the grand tradition of bumpersticker politics. However, I cut the bottom off the American flag decal where it said “God Bless America”—I couldn’t go that far. It’s not that I don’t want God to bless America, but I don’t like the implication that we’re the only ones who should be blessed. No country is an island (?)—well, we’re not, and 9/11 was definitely our wake-up call.

For years, I’ve had a plastic Godzilla sitting on the back of my washing machine. (No reason—you should see the rest of my house. For example, there’s a life-size plastic skeleton sitting behind a semicircular desk in the living room; it sports a University of Michigan baseball cap, the skull t-shirt I used to wear all the time, and a cross necklace, and its skeletal fingers are resting contemplatively on the book Demolition Angels by Robert Crais.) A couple months ago, when I was decluttering my sand tray room, I decided to put a wooden Buddha on the washing machine next to Godzilla. For weeks they just sat there, passively coexisting as if they were mere objects sharing space. Then it occurred to me to move them so that they faced each other. Suddenly, the spark of truth—the monster of aggression threatening the peaceful monk, and the laughing Buddha raising his arms in blessing and in welcome. The scene struck me as a microcosm of each of us in the world—our aggressive, selfish, survival instincts—the reptilian brain—constantly at war with our transcendent awareness of who we really are (We are stardust, we are golden And we got to get ourselves back to the garden [sorry, I’m having a marijuana flashback]).

When I went back in the house after creating the sticker tableau on my car window, I realized I was holding the sticky “God Bless America” strip from the bottom of the American flag decal. Impulsively, I stuck it on Godzilla’s back. And thus my bumpersticker sensibility acquired yet another layer, another nuance. The special aggression of nationalism (God Bless US) faces off against another way of looking at the world, as maya, as illusion, as beyond the duality of nations and of concepts.

And if you think I’m contradicting myself (“yay America” vs. “America = monster”), well that’s why Art attracts me more than Politics. In Rumi’s famous words, “Beyond right and wrong there is a field; I’ll meet you there….” It’s also what makes this country great—and maddening at times. You and I are free to express our layered and nuanced, sometimes contradictory feelings, whether artistically or politically. (How much do you think I love the phrase “layered and nuanced”?) And that’s the side I have to come down on, when all is said and done.

[Sidebar: A few days after adorning the car window with symbols of my current belief systems, I found the following words [?] written in the dust on the trunk of my car:


This message bothered me for days—what could it mean? Perhaps “I have put anthrax in your gas tank”? or “Down with the California Highway Patrol”? A neighborhood kid told me it means “I am a Guatemalan,” but a Spanish-speaking friend said it’s not even Spanish. I wanted to believe the Guatemalan explanation, the patriotic sentiment of a stranger far from home and thus somewhat in keeping with my sticker sentiments, but I guess it will remain a mystery.]

But to get back to my point, if I had one. Little did I know that the decision to display the flag was the easy part. This isn’t a perfect society, by any means, but I’m finding a faith in “America”—the essential decency of our people and our values—that I haven’t felt since I heard JFK’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” speech. (Are they sending patriotism germs through the air????) It’s embarrassing to be having these feelings. I don’t know what to make of them and don’t really trust them. On the one hand, it feels strangely liberating to be set adrift without an ideology to fall back on (Kelly, I’m mixing my metaphors on purpose), because I also don’t want to be thrust into the camp of those who are pro-USA-at-all-costs.

I think a lot of people are struggling with this. I got an e-mail from K, with whom I worked at the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Michigan 30 years ago [gulp], where I used to argue with the faculty about capitalism and where I got in trouble for writing SUPPORT BAM (Black Action Movement) on my timesheet. In her e-mail, K mentions having a conversation with her husband about hanging the flag.

…he had a feeling after 9/11 that he wanted to hang our 4th of July bunting above the front porch (why we even have one is beyond me… plus we live at the dead end of a dirt road a football field away from the dirt road and NO ONE can see our house). I told him that something about that really didn’t sit well with me—the flag and religion were too closely entwined and didn’t he understand that I was a product of the late ‘60s when I was ashamed of my country and its flag and considered moving to Canada?… The arrival of your zine helped me further sort out some of my feelings.

She goes on to say,

By the way, a VERY LIBERAL sister of a friend of mine fell off a ladder on September 12 trying to hang a flag over her cement drive and broke her shoulder/arm in three places.

Let that unfortunate person’s accident be a lesson to us all. It can be downright destabilizing to mess around with a powerful political symbol you’re not familiar with. Would this have happened if she’d been hanging a “Free Tibet” sign?

One of the unnerving things about getting older is that you are sometimes forced to realize that ideas you’ve been taking for granted since your college days might need a bit of readjusting. It’s like keeping the same hairstyle for your whole adult life—making it easy to distinguish the bouffant-haired ‘50s beboppers from the long-haired ‘60s radicals. (My hairstyle only dates from the early ‘80s, so I’m ahead of the game.) It’s especially weird for the “Times They Are A-Changin’” generation to see that all times change, not just the ones you want to be done with.

Personally, whenever I see one of those bumperstickers that say, “Question Authority,” I always write “Why?” on it.

—quoted in Author Unknown by Don Foster

“Question authority” is the classic bumpersticker distillation of my generation’s politics. I’ve been questioning the authority of the U.S. government since at least 1966, but in recent weeks I’ve realized that there are other forms of authority that can be just as insidious. The Left is not always right just because its adherents claim to walk the high moral ground.

It’s not that I’ve changed my basic political inclinations, but I’m finding it difficult to apply them to the current crisis. My point is that those who “question authority” seem to have only one model for what authority is—the parent/high school principal/college administration/government model. But it’s also important to question your own assumptions. My friend Z has a bumpersticker on her car, “Don’t believe everything you think,” and I say Amen to that. If you believe everything you want to believe, you’re going to pass along “untrumors” (now I’m channeling Herb Caen), such as the one that CNN used decades-old footage of cheering Palestinian children after 9/11. The alternative theory is that reporters threw candy up in the air to get the pictures they wanted. This may be true, for all I know, but I think that the desire to believe this kind of thing, the idea that everything’s a conspiracy, should be questioned also. God forbid that people should refrain from dissenting—I haven’t gone off the deep end and drunk the Kool-Aid yet. But all “authority” is not out there.

I have been known to pontificate about how I’m waiting for the concentration camps for gay people to open, because I wouldn’t put it past the Christian right, if they gained enough power, to take such an extreme stand. One fundamentalist’s “infidel” is another fundamentalist’s “queer.” Different scriptures, same bigotry. But I now question this cynical hyperbole on my part. It might be more dangerous to inflate the enemy’s influence than to focus on the essential decency of people. It’s tempting to believe the sky is always falling, but how wearisome to live in a state of such mistrust.

Even paranoids are right twice a day—oh no, that’s clocks.


(Hold your applause till the end.)

Back in the day, another popular saying was “Even paranoids have enemies.” And it was true—the FBI files that came to light after the Freedom of Information Act showed us that they really were spying on us. But I think the reverse is also true: “Even those with enemies can be paranoid.” Panic about anthrax is one thing, but the prevailing panic on the Left about how we’re in imminent danger of losing all of our freedoms seems just as counterproductive. “As long as we still have it, I’m going to make the most of the First Amendment….” I assume Stephanie Salter was speaking figuratively when she wrote that, but still, there’s a lot of this rhetoric going around. Does it mean I’ve been brainwashed if I have more faith in our country than that? Granted, it was chilling to hear the infamous “Watch what you say” comment from the White House, but I do believe that dissent and free speech are so integral to our traditions that they will not be eliminated so easily. I can’t convince myself I live in a police state just because I don’t agree with everything our leaders say and do. There are plenty of real police (or fundamentalist) states in the world that wouldn’t tolerate half the freedoms we have.

America Freaks Out

(The Daily Show’s answer to “America Strikes Back”)

Contrary to popular opinion, 9/11 did not sound the death knell for irony, and humor once again saves the day and our sanity. (One of the writers who famously announced the death of irony later said, “I was misquoted. I said the age of IRONING is dead.”)

On The Daily Show, a cast member is purporting to give a report about the anthrax scare while headlines run under his talking head, as they do on CNN. At first, the headlines are straightforward, and then they get increasingly silly.


Then there’s a “fight” between the reporter and the teletyper, and after a while the report continues and the headlines are back:


OK, so I quoted that whole bit just so I could use the line WHITE POWDER FOUND ON DONUT IN ST. LOUIS.


And who do you not want to be right now? Members of the thrash metal rock band Anthrax. (“When bad things happen to good band names…”)

“Rock me, B. anthracis!”


Some people are still trying to solve the “mystery” of 9/11. One of my editor friends wrote me this:

…got an email a while ago about the numerology of it, how everything comes down to the mysterious number 11:

Sept. 11, or 9/11 or 9+1+1 = 11

Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year: 2+5+4 = 11

After Sept. 11, there are 111 days left in the year

The Twin Towers, standing side by side, always looked like the number 11

The first plane to hit the towers was American’s Flight 11

New York was the 11th state to join the Union

There are 11 letters in New York City, Afghanistan, and The Pentagon

etc., etc. …

Tup [her husband] chimed in, “Yeah, and the other flight was 77, which is 11 only with funny hats.”

floating down de Nile

I’ve been writing this issue over the span of several weeks, and I find that my interest in political analysis (a fancy term for “trying to figure out what the hell I think”) is on the wane. It’s a new phase. As time goes on, I view the daily headlines about bombing and anthrax scares with a strange sense of detachment. I’m not getting bombed. I’m not getting anthrax. Disaster and grief seem so mid-September. Why is this stuff still happening? Maybe the Zoloft is turning me into a nation of (1) sheep. Or maybe it’s saving me from useless panic and anxiety. I seem to be in denial, and it’s the only place I can be right now. Didn’t the president (note to self: I’ve never called him that before) say we’re supposed to get back to normal? Well, I’m back to normal. Why do I feel so guilty?

In this mood, I go to my weekly painting class, less sure than ever about what is going to come out of me. For those of you just joining us, I paint at a studio ( where the focus is on the intuitive process, not on “making art.” Thus, we don’t plan what we’re going to paint or try to make it look a certain way. We talk about “what wants to come into the painting” or “what wants to be painted.” Sounds kooky, but it works. Sometimes we paint what’s going on in our lives, and sometimes it’s all just a big fat mystery. Sometimes life is a big fat mystery. Since 9/11, I had painted the events only once—a fast painting of people falling or jumping out of the towers, because that image was haunting me. It felt good to paint it—sometimes what we’re most afraid to feel turns out to be more manageable when we get it out on the paper.

So on this day I start a large painting of myself, letting the brush go where it will, going with the flow, as they say, and I’m somewhat surprised when I paint a few small airplanes at the top of the paper. Then I paint some dead bodies at the bottom. I’m just painting, without a lot of (identifiable) feeling. Finally, some “anthrax bugs” come in, flying at my head, along with a couple of “terrorists” shooting me and grabbing me from behind.

On my second painting, I know I want to paint myself standing on top of an airplane, waving a flag. It feels good, feels right. It’s a relief not to have to make sense of it. The plane is red, white, and blue—starred and striped like the flag—and it’s dropping three bombs, one labeled U, one labeled S, and one labeled A. I have a flag in one hand and a bomb in the other, with a short fuse burning. My heart has tubes coming out of it. Bodies are falling from the sky above me—they feel like they’re from the World Trade Center—and underneath the plane, more bodies are falling—these feel like they’re in Afghanistan. When I describe it, it sounds conceptual, as if I were making a (confused) political statement, but I swear, it just happened as I painted and watched.

Now I’m on a roll. I’ve been painting for an hour and a half, and I’m in the zone, just letting it all come. On my third painting, I start with three black airplanes flying across the top, dropping bombs. Dead black bodies are piled at the bottom of the painting, and I’m standing on top of them, looking up, holding an American flag in each hand. Red tears are coming out of my eyes, and my heart again has tubes coming out of it. This time, yellow light is streaming out of each tube onto the dead bodies below. My body is white, heart is red, eyes are blue. Nice symbolism, but again, it just happened. I notice later that the way I’m holding the flags (one up, one down), I look like I’m flagging the winner at the Indy 500. No clue what that’s about, but fortunately it’s not my job to know. Time is up, so I’ll finish this painting next week.

So those are the images, but they don’t tell the whole story. As I said, we aren’t painting to make art or to make a statement but just to be with ourselves, to explore without judgment. When I sit down with everyone in the group afterward, I feel strangely whole in a way I haven’t felt since 9/11. I feel as if I’m everyone I painted—the victims, the terrorists, the bombers, the bombed Afghanis—and, being everyone, there is no need to figure out which “side” I’m on or what I think about “revenge versus justice.” Even the image of me standing on the dead bodies, holding the flags, looking up at the planes—it doesn’t make a coherent political statement, but it says something true, I think, about how we are each “all of it.” Feeling whole, I feel both big enough and open enough to embrace and embody all the contradictions that the mind can’t begin to resolve.

Looking around the studio and talking to my painter friends, I find it fascinating to see how differently the 9/11 events are being expressed—some people are painting fast, violent images of bombs and bodies, and some are painting slow, detailed scenes of men in turbans and rippling flags, or close-ups of the World Trade Center flames, or just pages and pages of black tears. I would love to see an exhibition or a book of these paintings. They’re like the paintings of traumatized children—forget “art,” this is pure response. And yet there is a beauty and a power in these spontaneous images. We paint with the simplicity of children but with the emotional depth and complexity of adults.

I heard an interview on “Fresh Air” with a photographer who’s taking pictures of the World Trade Center wreckage. His aim is to make the pictures absolutely starkly clear and to have them enlarged so much that you see the things themselves without anything getting in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc. It struck me that we painters are doing exactly the opposite—we’re not trying to capture the image objectively; instead, we’re expressing what’s in our hearts and souls. It’s not about the event “out there” but about our human response. So each painting is individual and yet archetypal, because we’re responding without manipulating the image—so (come to think of it) maybe it’s a little like what the photographer is doing after all. Each painting is a product/snapshot of the human heart, without anything in the way—no interpretation, staged effects, special lighting, etc.

The photographer said something else, about how in late afternoon the smoke and the pink light from the sunset and the red drapes hanging on nearby buildings make this scene of devastation look utterly beautiful. He said he couldn’t fathom how beauty and horror could be so entwined. It struck me as a perfect argument for the existence of God.

Make of that what you will.

chat mystérieux

Scenario 1

I am coming downstairs. Pookie is in the kitchen eating his expensive, pH-controlled cat food, a good 25 feet away. As soon as he hears me on the stairs, he flees the kitchen like a wanted man and either cowers under the dining room table or makes his way around the perimeter of the living room, crouching and scurrying like a Marine on a mission, finally taking cover behind an armchair. If they sold camouflage suits for kitties, he’d be the first one in line.

Scenario 2

I walk into the sandtray/storage/litterbox room to put a bottle in the recycling bin and come face to face with Pookie. A look of stark terror crosses his face, as if I’m the one-armed man and he’s The Fugitive, Richard Kimball, about to go over the waterfall. He makes a mad dash for the door, barely escaping the fate to which I surely would have consigned him. I have yet to figure out what that might have been.

Scenario 3

I am coming up the stairs, carrying a heavy basket of laundry. Pookie is lying on one of the stairs, stretched from one side to the other, taking up every inch of space. As the basket of laundry hovers precariously over his head, and as I grunt in an unladylike manner while struggling to find a foothold on the stair he so lordily (is that a word?) occupies—and failing that, as I straddle the stair and him and attempt to hoist myself and the basket up to the next step, risking life and limb—he looks up at me with the bemused, dispassionate gaze of a direct descendant of Buddha’s cat and begins methodically licking his right paw.

Forget Sneaky Pie Brown. This is a mystery.

By the way, His Royal Highness has informed me that his preferred nom de plume is now Pookemon. I have created a monster.

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #34 Winter 2006

August 23, 2009

the late, great Pookie

In memory of Pookie  1987-2005

a cat who thought (and often pooped)
outside the box

Dear Friends,

As most of you know, Pookie has passed over. I had agonized over the decision of what to do and when to do it—hoping in vain that he would die peacefully in his sleep like his predecessor Radar—but when the time came, it was obvious. There was no recovering from end-stage renal failure, and he had lost at least half his weight. Which was considerable. I could see the misery in his eyes.

So I finally faced facts and took him for one last trip to the kindly Dr. V, who gave him the “humane,” dignified end that we do not extend to our fellow humans. You can understand the reasoning there. If euthanasia were legal, you could go to the doctor for a routine physical and come out dead! You’d take your child in for a booster shot, and BAM. Dead kid. No telling what would happen. Better to let people with no hope of recovery suffer unspeakably and long. When my mother was kn-kn-knocking on heaven’s door, I talked to the doctor about “letting her go.” She had a living will and had made it very clear over the years that she didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken to keep her alive. In response to my tentative question about how to go about this final act of mercy, the doctor announced that he wouldn’t help me “kill” her. Then he turned and stalked away.

But I digress. Sort of. It’s true that every new death of someone you love gets strung up on the same line of heartbreak as all the others, whether human or animal. There’s no point questioning your love for a “mere cat” versus your tortured ambivalence about She Who Gave You Life. There’s also little point in reminding yourself (or, more likely, being reminded by those who want to comfort you) that “he/she had a good life.” Yeah, what’s a good life got to do with it. It’s a rough transition all the way around.

But yes, Pookie had a good life, and he survived the Northern USA Jeep Tour of Summer 2004, so don’t cry for him, Argentina. And don’t cry for me. Regrets? I’ve had a few. But we had some good times, me and the Pook Man. The images of his last days are slowly being replaced with memories of earlier milestones. He never wanted to be picked up and held. So one day I started a campaign to pick him up several times a day and then put him down the second he struggled. This regimen seemed to have little effect, until one day I was sitting at my desk, and I saw a tentative little paw reach up to my chair. Pookie had finally realized that I was going to respect his limits. The big lug made himself comfortable on my lap, and that’s where he spent a good part of his days thereafter.

However, in the midst of death comes… you know what… that perpetual renewal of innocence and love and hope that refuses to believe in its own eventual demise…. that relentless, miraculous cycle of the seasons and generations… that crazy engine that fuels us all… Life! Introducing…

a tale of two kitties

One of the highlights of my summer was when my friends P&C came to visit me from Oregon. P had been here before (she drove one leg of the Jeep Tour, if you recall), but C hadn’t. They were my first visitors from my “other” life. I had a great time showing off my big house and some of my childhood landmarks—houses where I had lived on North Shore Drive and Bay de Noc Road; the sparkling blue water of the bay off Lake Michigan; the marina swimming with boats; the 1940s feel of factories, smokestacks, and unidentifiable structures that make up the shipyards and paper mills; more water as the river merges into the bay of one of our Greatest Lakes; the woods and farmland of my youth, much of it long since invaded by developers—and, of course, Henes Park, with its groves of trees, sandy beach, and distant view of Door County, Wis., on the other side of the water.

The three of us had a great time hanging out and driving around. We even drove up to Escanaba along the same shoreline immortalized in the James Stewart movie “Anatomy of a Murder.” Of course we joined the gang for Friday night fish fry at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I felt absurdly proud to introduce my friends to this boisterous sea of humanity that I now call home. The place was jumpin’, as it always is on Fridays. The scene is like a teen hangout, except most of the customers were teens in the ‘50s. These are your factory workers and waitresses, not your doctors and lawyers. God knows where they eat. It took me a long time to realize that these truly are my people, and that there’s more to them than their jobs or the stereotype of the pale-faced, a-few-extra-pounds-around-their-middle American.

At K and MP’s house later, we played cards and laughed our heads off. P and MP really hit it off, so they were slinging wisecracks back and forth, and we all agreed it was the most we’d laughed in a long time. Again, I felt proud of both my friends and my family, and a little incredulous to see two of my worlds meet with such a great outcome (“fantasy colliding with destiny,” as the Chron horoscope used to say).

On Saturday morning, P&C got up very early to make the round of rummage sales with K and Barb, while I slept in. A few hours later, P came in and asked for a box and a blanket. “What for?”, I asked, though I already had a suspicion. Of the cats I’ve had in my adult life, only one did not come from P. She has a kind of animal magnetism (sorry) that attracts the stray, the abandoned, the abused. And guess who she goes to first with each new-found foundling? Years ago, she found Radar in a ditch, and she got Pookie from her sister, who had rescued him from a cat-hating neighbor.

Sure enough, P and C had gone for a walk around Henes Park and had found two little gray kittens playing on some rocks on the bay side.

So we gathered some supplies, including some leftover chicken and bacon to use as bait, and I drove her over to the park, where C was keeping watch. It immediately started to rain, and the kittens scurried into a hole under the rocks. Drizzle turned to downpour. After getting no help from animal control (not working on the weekend) or the police (“nothing we can do”), P—who is not known for her patience in other circumstances, such as while driving or working on a computer—sat hunched in the rain for more than an hour, talking infinitely tenderly to the frightened felines and finally coaxing them out.


We put the kittens in the downstairs bedroom, as far away from Pookie as possible. I called Barb to see if she knew someone who would want a pair of adorable, soft, shimmery all-gray kittens with faint stripes on their tails. But I could already feel my resolve melting. I wanted to spare Pookie the indignity of having to share his final days on Earth with these “fuzzy grey intruders,” as Susan L has dubbed them. But the more I watched them chase and tumble over each other—so sweet, so innocent, so ungrateful for their rescue (they just thought they were having a day at the beach)—the more I became convinced that it was Fate. I was going to keep them.

For several weeks, their innocent joy permeated the entire house, except for about a two-foot radius around Pookie. I had given him his own room so he wouldn’t have to go up and down the stairs, but I didn’t want to close him off entirely. So with the natural boundary violations of the young, the kittens used his litter box, drank his water, and ate his food while he sat hunched on a table by the window glaring at them and occasionally throwing me a baleful glance. It was written all over his face: “How could you?”

But eventually the tension eased. One day I found the three cats curled up on my bed, cheek to cheek to cheek. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant—did the kittens invade Pookie’s space and curl up with him, making him look like a willing participant? When he woke up, his expression was a little like that of a soldier taken hostage in a foreign land and being forced to pose with his captors to convince the Americans that he is being well treated. Pookie wasn’t holding up a newspaper showing today’s date, but I could have sworn he was extending his middle claw in imitation of the U.S. soldier’s classic expression of “Don’t believe them—I am being treated like an animal!”

It took a while to decide what to call the new arrivals: Fred and Barney, Cisco and Pancho, Ranger and Tonto? My first choice for one of them was actually Cisco, for San Francisco, but for some reason I kept saying Costco. That simply would not do. Costco and WalMart? Shopko and Target? Finally, I settled on Luther and Brutus—Luther because… I’m not sure… and Brutus because I wanted to be able to croon, “Et tu, Bru-TAY? Et tu? Et tu?”

Of course, to this day, I keep coming up with names I should have given them: Lost and Found… Ruff and Tumble… Yin and Yang. Caesar and Brutus would be a better pairing than bringing poor old Martin Luther into it, though I wouldn’t have wanted Brutus to actually slay Caesar if they somehow managed to live up to their names. (When I told 9-year-old Summer that I had considered calling one of the kittens Caesar, she exclaimed, disbelieving, “Like the salad?”)

In a land of Fluffies and Mittens, Brutus and Luther do seem like rather grandiose names, but I already did the “cute” thing with Pookie, and I was willing to overcompensate. At this point, I could easily rename Brutus “J.D.” for “juvenile delinquent,” because he gets into trouble 99% of the time he’s awake. Luther, on the other hand, is a real peacenik. I don’t think he’s going to start a new religion, but he’s calm and rather saintly, if I may be permitted to borrow that most un-Lutheran-like term.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter… they both think their name is Sweetie Pie.

Remember when I wrote about my two-tigers-on-the-roof dream? I thought it meant that some unknown direction was going to manifest for me. I have to admit, it has occurred to me that the tigers were the harbingers of these two furry sweethearts. But that would be really shallow and literal, wouldn’t it?… even though I could totally see Luther lying placidly on the top of the roof while Brutus breathed down my neck with diabolical thoughts about how close I was to the edge.


Pookie and one of the young whippersnappers (it was months before I could tell them apart)

I never knew if Pookie grew to like having Brutus and Luther around, or if he just resigned himself to the inevitable. But he didn’t have to sleep on the bed with the rest of us, and he didn’t have to let them drape themselves over him. On the other hand, he wasn’t always in the mood for their antics. When Brutus would play-attack him, Pookie would often buy time by holding him down and licking his head while he tried to remember his anatomy. “Let’s see, the carotid artery is…. yes!” CHOMP. The kittens were not at all deterred by this tough older-brother love.

I have to admit that the kittens helped me push Pookie’s encroaching mortality to the back of my mind. Youth and beauty are so seductive—a great distraction from death. Their siren song is the clean slate, the fresh start, the illusion of forever-young. The kittens always smell fresh and clean, no matter what mischief they’ve been up to. They have no blemishes, no warts ‘n’ all, no existential angst, no baggage, no childhood trauma. They are so not me! And so not Pookie! The kittens embodied the illusion that there is always a fresh start, and I received that lie gratefully. I didn’t yet have to face their loss… though I would look at Luther stretched out in my arms, his head flung back, his eyes closed, his mouth turned up in a permanent smile, purring like mad while I stroked his soft tummy… and he would open his black-and-rootbeer-colored eyes to gaze at me from the depths of animality, as if wordlessly conveying the wisdom of the ancient pharaohs(’cats)… and my heart would sink as I realized, these two shall pass.

When I relayed this touching thought to K—that their deaths would bring me the same sorrow I was experiencing with Pookie—she hesitated for a second and then said, “Not necessarily.” I didn’t know what she meant at first. Then I did the math. Oh. You mean, if they live to be as old as Pookie, I’ll be as old as Methuselah, or (more likely) dead and gone? Wow. That had never occurred to me. I guess I thought that the key to immortality was always getting a new cat after the old one died, because everyone knows humans outlive their pets.

The love of the young and the innocent is easy, rewarding, and fun—while the love of the old, the oily, the flaky, and the grumpy is shot through with pain. But when I let myself stroke Pookie’s head and feel the pain of loving that which is not eternal…. I felt how precious it is to experience the love of the imperfect, and the pain of the loss to come. It digs deeper into the heart, clawing at our wish to avoid the reality of death and loss. We had a history, Pookie and I. There wasn’t always perfect communication between us, but when is that ever true in a relationship? I miss him so much.




pookie’s goodbye

hello dear friends, and goodbye.

as you may know, i’ve been sick for quite a while… and now it’s time to go.

i’ve had a good life, especially the past year in this nice, quiet place called Menomimeow or something like that.

and so, if you’ll indulge me… [clears throat]…

and now, the end is near;

and so i face the final curtain

my friend, i’ll say it clear,

i’ll state my case, of which i’m certain.

i’ve lived a life that’s full,

i’ve traveled each and ev’ry highway;

and more, much more than this,

i did it my way.

regrets, i’ve had a few;

but then again, too few to mention

i did what i had to do

and saw it through without exemption.

yes, there were times, i’m sure you knew

when i bit off more than i could chew.

but through it all, when there was doubt

i ate it up and spit it out.

i faced it all and i stood tall

and did it my way

i’ve loved, i’ve laughed and cried.

i’ve had my fill; my share of losing.

and now, as tears subside,

i find it all so amusing.

to think i did all that.

and may i say – not in a shy way,

no, oh no not me,

i did it myyyyyyyy…  wayyyyyyy.

thank you, thank you.

pookie has left the building.

remember…  that which is never born can never die.

love always,





the obligatory cute cat stories

The new kitties are the light of my life. Also, they are often the pain of my ass.

It goes without saying that they are impossibly cute. They both retrieve whatever I throw for them—wadded-up Trident gum wrappers, caps from water bottles, stray items they’ve liberated from my sand tray collection (a little green plastic soldier, a gray rhinoceros)—and will bring the retrieved object back and drop it at my feet to throw again and again. I’ll be sitting barefoot at my desk, and I’ll feel something soft pushing at my foot. I’ll lift up my big toe, and a furry paw will push a gum wrapper underneath it. If I’m downstairs, they’ll bring me water bottle caps to throw, because they make a satisfying noise on the slick linoleum kitchen floor. When the cap goes skittering across the floor, the two cats slide after it on their “stocking feet” and slam into the cupboards on the other side.

For the most part, Brutus is the action figure, and Luther is the watcher. Along with pieces of paper and fluff and the odd styrofoam peanut, they have lots of toys, including a carpet-covered “teepee” I bought for Pookie years ago that he never used. (I had wildly underestimated his size—he couldn’t even fit his head in the door.) Until they too outgrew it, Brutus and Luther loved playing in and on it. Late one night, Brutus was in the teepee going wild, while Luther sat watching him (or rather, watching the teepee). Brutus managed to hump the teepee all over the floor (from inside, mind you), and then occasionally he’d stop and stick his paws out from underneath, trying in vain to get Luther to play along. Then there was more teepee humping by the invisible hand of Brutus. Finally, he gave up on the paws and lay on his back and stuck his whole head under the teepee and gazed up at Luther, thinking, I’m sure, that that major effort would be enough to entice his brother to join in. It was not.

Then there was the Washing Machine Caper. Brutus will get into anything that’s normally closed but suddenly reveals an entry point—cupboards and closets, the dishwasher, the refrigerator, the toilet, the shower, the freezer (I have witnesses), the dryer, the washing machine. One day I’m trying to get the wet clothes into the dryer while keeping Brutus from climbing in with them. Put clothes in, take cat out, put clothes in, take cat out. Finally, all the clothes are in, but suddenly I don’t see Brutus anymore. Did he succeed in getting into the dryer? No. Then I hear something jingling. It’s one of their long-lost jingle balls. It’s coming from behind the washing machine. Oh-oh. I spend the next 10 minutes trying to coax Brutus out of there. Luther tries to help by sticking his arm between the washing machine and the wall and stretching as far as he can (which is not far). There’s a long silence. Finally, I hear some frantic scrabbling, and Brutus’s head appears over the back of the washing machine. He’s barely hanging on, and his little face is contorted like he’s lifting 1,000 pound weights. I carefully reach back there and grab him under his armpits and pull. Rescue is successful, and he lives to caper another day.

I paint, therefore… ?

Seeker to guru: “Is there life after death?”
Guru, “Who’s asking?”

Intuitive painting is paradoxical. You paint what you “feel,” but feeling is not what it’s about. What you feel is, at best, a tiny window in a door with no sign to identify it. You can call painting a doorway, but the room it opens onto has no walls, no floor, and no “you” once you enter.

So how do you know when you’re there? You think you know. You associate “connection”—being there—with feeling spacey, blissed-out, like you could stand there forever painting red dots or black lines. You may feel like you’re painting on snakeskin instead of paper. Images can come while you’re making other plans. The brush in your hand boldly goes where the mind cannot follow. But you have enough mind left to assess the situation, and you think: Aha! I’m there!

So naturally, when you’re feeling something else—stuck, stupid, or sleepy—you think you are not in that room, you can never get there, you have been denied access, you have dropped the key down the drain. You could stand there forever enumerating all the horrible things you are and are not, things you cannot do—except the teacher wants you to keep going. It’s as if you’ve come to the edge of a cliff, you’re afraid to look down, and someone says, “Just keep walking straight ahead, you’re fine.” But there is no ground beneath your feet and, to be sure, no wings either. How can you keep going when you have nothing, are nothing? Paint goes on the paper, but it means nothing. You have abandoned all hope, ye who have entered here. You ask the teacher, “Will I live through this?” and she replies, “Who’s asking?”

Then time somehow disappears, and the teacher comes by again and peers into your face. (She barely glances at the painting.) You register that she’s there, but before you can open your bag of sorrows, she says, “You’re beaming!” And you realize, yes, how strange, I’m not just smiling, I’m beaming. But how can that be, I’m not even aware of feeling anything, let alone anything that warrants this sort of facial reaction. I vaguely remember complaining about nothing, but this is different: There is no nothing, and there is no anything. There is no everything! And I feel great!

Some version of this mysterious transformation happens every time I paint, which is why I keep going back to it, over the protests of my rational mind. So…. in December I braved the snow, the rain, and the tiny airplane seats once again to attend a 7-day painting intensive at the Painting Studio in San Francisco.

As always, painting was a mystery from day to day… and this time the biggest mystery was, “Why isn’t it giving me anything?” In the sharings I didn’t have that OH MY GOD THIS IS INCREDIBLE sense of being One With All That Exists. I didn’t go out into the world at the end of the day and have surprising encounters with strangers or be struck by odd insights and metaphors. I didn’t feel STONED.

Back when I started painting, I remember most of the sharings being dominated by people (including me) saying things like, “Well, first I painted blue… then I painted red. Then I felt like painting black, so I did.” In this intensive, I noticed that the younger people did the same thing, except it was more along the lines of “First, I felt terrible, then I felt better, and now I’m afraid I’ll feel terrible again tomorrow.”

It occurs to me that the painting process unfolds as a more or less consecutive fascination with (a) color, (b) feelings, (c) God, and (d-z) _____(?). I feel like I’m standing at the edge of the cliff of (d). Which is not to say that I’m beyond God—au contraire! I’m just saying that conventional images of the Unknown, while very powerful, are not the thing, or the no-thing, itself. “God” is a continuing mystery, not a symbol or a destination. And painting keeps pulling us deeper into that mystery… a kind of spiritual archeology.

The only hint of the STONED feeling was one night when I was driving Terry back to the flat she was staying in and I had the sensation of wanting to sail straight through a red light. It would be a beautiful ride, I thought, on that brilliant red beam. Of course, I caught myself in time, but it freaked T out. She’d holler “RED MEANS STOP!” whenever another red light was coming up, but by then I was over that, I was going to stop for it, but I wanted to stop in the space between the two crosswalks, which would be in the middle of the intersection. “Ha ha,” I said to T when I explained this latest impulse, but I don’t think she appreciated that one either. After I dropped her off, I turned right onto Bush St. and was startled to see four lanes of headlights coming toward me. Oops, one way, wrong way. But despite the slight mental confusion, I was able to slam into reverse and back up and around the corner like a pro.

It was odd, because I drove all the hell over the Bay Area that week—S.F., East Bay, Marin—and felt supremely body-confident in my abilities at all times. When T was with me, I admit she did save me from a few tiny mistakes, such as not seeing a pedestrian in a crosswalk (when I was inching forward from a full stop, craning my neck the other way to see the traffic amid the chaos which is Mission St.). To take the edge off T’s possible imminent panic attack, I joked about what I’d say if I ran over somebody. “Oops! Oopee!” We laughed. For me, it was gallows humor. For T, I think, it was a lot more gallows than humor.

See, now you’re getting the wrong impression. I probably shouldn’t have said anything. But the proof is in the absolute 0 fatalities caused by me.

I have always had something to say about painting. I probably know as much about this kind of painting as anyone. I’ve been writing and talking about my experiences with this process for 26 years. The mary’zine came directly out of the writings I used to share with fellow painters. I wrote a book called Who Paints? which was rejected by Jeremy Tarcher because it wasn’t “how-to“ enough. Actually, it wasn’t “how-to” because there is no “how-to.” I’ve always tried to describe the what and speculate about the why, but how is the question on everyone’s lips.

This time I wasn’t able to identify or articulate anything that was happening to me. I had very little to say in the sharings, other than “I don’t know what happened!” I’m used to knowing (or thinking I know) exactly what I’m feeling, in great detail. But on the last day, I’m sitting there blubbering hot tears, and all I can say is, “I DON’T KNOW! I have no oPINion!”

When I got back home, BK and I had a couple of long phone conversations. I was troubled by this new development. I thought painting had taken me “somewhere,” but I had no clue where. I had no log or memory of my experience. And what good is experience if there’s no one there (meaning me) to experience it? If the guru says to you, “Yes, there’s life after death, but the ‘you’ as you know you won’t be there,” is that going to be comforting? I think not.

I asked B, “What’s the point? I spent 7 days painting and I’m left with nothing, no insight, no feeling, no words. How am I supposed to write about it? I can’t just write ‘I don’t know’! Is this where I’m headed, to have not only words but actual experience taken from me? What’s the point of nothing?” As we talked, I thought of Archimedes, the ancient Greek who discovered the lever: “Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world,” he said. Uh huh. That’s what all of us are looking for: a place to stand outside the world of our own lives so we can be a witness to our existence. By definition, Archimedes can’t stand outside the world or outside himself. “I don’t mind dying,” some part of us says, “but I want to stay and watch the funeral.” The mind is all about being included. We want to have a division of labor between the observer and the observed. All those stories of near-deaths when people report looking down on their own bodies on the operating table help us believe in a hierarchy of Self… an ordinary self (one for daytime, a somewhat fancier one for evening)… a higher self… a self who will survive death… and, of course, ultimately… the self we call “God”—the supreme version of our self, in whose image we are made (because we have made him and us ourselves) and with whom we will live out eternity in the best of both worlds, like a very grand version of a performer standing on stage basking in the adoration of the multitudes. If the world consisted only of our self and other parts of our self watching our self, what a wonderful world this would be!

To put this nutty idea in a nutshell: I want to be One with Everything yet remain conscious, self-aware, separate, individual, a body and mind with a name, thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Over the years I’ve learned to give up the product or “result”—the look of the painting—for the process—the intuitive trust in following what comes to me. But what if I have to give up the process, too? If the process replaces the result (as in, “I feel different and spacey, so I know I’m in process”) then how is it process anymore? I thought giving up the look of the painting was the whole sacrifice. I didn’t know that I continually make process into result and don’t need paint and paper to do it. Like turning wheat into chaff or gold into lead, I’m a master at reverse alchemy. I mean, not just me, but virtually everyone who gets to (d) on the Painting Progressometer. But of course the Progressometer is just in my head, no more real than my thin air beyond the cliff analogy.

When I was painting and not knowing what was happening, “I” was not there. And “I” did not wake up with a feather on my pillow to prove that my dream of connection had really happened. Some people make bargains with their loved ones: “Whoever dies first, let’s have a signal so the ‘living’ one will know the ‘dead’ one is still there.” I often wonder if, every time I wake up from a dream, I’ve “died” to the other people in the dream, and any deal I might have made with them to drop a feather or ring a bell becomes moot because I don’t remember them and they never existed anyway! What if that’s the knowledge we wake up (die) to? We cannot let go! We must be here forever, even if there’s no here here! Krishnamurti said, “Death does not matter,” and how could it, if we are “that which is never born and thus can never die”? We are so tied to the person we think ourselves to be, to the world we believe we inhabit, like Shakespeare’s players upon a stage. Have we learned nothing from a century of post-Newtonian physics? What we see is not what we get! We aren’t really living on a ball suspended in midair! Space is not empty, people! There are waves! Black and white holes! Cosmic worm buses! Curvy space and no time to speak of! Dimensions beyond our ability to perceive them!

I was not at all unhappy to leave the big city behind and return to my l’il piece of small town America. As attracted as I am to the restaurants, bookstores, and progressive radio stations of the Bay Area, you can’t beat a little retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan for natural beauty and sheer livability.

My first encounter with the locals after arriving back in town was with a man outside the post office. He got to the door first and opened it for me, saying, “Here you go, Pops.” I went in, sort of laughing, sort of cringing, and said, “Thanks.” From behind me I heard, “Or ‘Grandma’, as the case may be… Your voice gave you away!” I confirmed that “Grandma is more likely.” He scattered “sorry”s in my wake as I went inside. When I was done with my brief errand and started to leave, he was at the door again and again opened it for me. I asked what he was going to call me this time. He was still flustered, and mumbled something about “the 21st century” and how he “can’t tell [men from women] anymore.” Are we supposed to wear our vaginas on our sleeves now? I told him it was OK, I get that a lot—”But at least I usually get ‘Sir’—not ‘Pops’.” I was perfectly good-humored about it, but I’m not sure he could tell. Deadpan Mary. He was especially confused because, thinking I was a younger man, he had called me “Pops” to teasingly imply that I was older than him so needed the door opened for me (he looked like “Dr. Zhivago Moves to the U.P. and Feels Right at Home,” so I couldn’t tell how old he was). As I walked off to my car, he trailed a few “thank you”s behind me and said, “Some people don’t communicate so well.” I felt bad for him. I said, “Thank YOU” but later I wished I had said something a little more straightforward, like “Thanks for apologizing, but it’s really OK. I appreciate the effort.” I think he did communicate well, if communication is getting across to a stranger that you’re sorry, confused, tongue-tied, or just plain overwhelmed by the changing times. Most people wouldn’t bother. See how complicated ordinary life can be?

Yes, the Bay Area is muy beautiful. But not even the view of the Golden Gate Bridge with the fog coming in beats the view out my “loft” window. It’s winter now, so it’s mostly monochromatic—gray, black, white—with touches of color: swaths of pink and orange at sunset, and every possible shade of blue on a sunny day. Walking around the park the other day, I sang to myself, “Monochro-o-ome, you bring us such nice… stark colors, I want to take a pho-o-tograph, oh Mama don’t take… my monochrome away….” (If you don’t know what song I’m referring to, you’re way too young to be reading this.)

Someone builds rock “sculptures” all through the park—rocks piled in artistic and physically improbable ways. I think someone else comes along and knocks them over, but the rock-artist is not deterred. OK, so s/he’s not Andy Goldsworthy or even Christo, but I love the shapes of the peaked piles sitting there all un-naturely-like right next to nature and made of nature.

On the bay side are snow drifts piled up along the shoreline, then a frozen band of ice with snowmobile tracks on it, then the dark blue water in the distance. The land curves almost back on itself from the center of town, so I can look south and see a couple of tall smokestacks, a church spire, and a historic Michigan lighthouse. It would be pointless to compare this view with the view of San Francisco as you come out of the Waldo tunnel, but I think a great heart view trumps a great eye view.

Whenever I drive up M-35, along the same route I walked to get to kindergarten and first grade back in the long-ago, I feel a strong tug deep in my abdomen, as if I’m being pulled down by the great magnet of land and memory. I have as many bad memories as good ones associated with that stretch of road—like the retarded, adult-sized boy who stood in the path of little kids who were trying to pass by on their way to school (me) and roared like a monster and tried to grab them (me)—but they’ve been coalesced and compacted, like compost or dinosaur sludge. At this point, they’re part of the earth’s crust. How much crust does 59 years make, as compared to millennia? Anyway, it’s all part of the marytime history of this place, and when I say I feel grounded, I really mean it.

the U.P. in the media (an occasional feature)

The stats won’t support the theory, but don’t some parts of the country just seem more conducive to murder? Michigan’s cold and remote Upper Peninsula comes to my mind….
—Marilyn Stasio, in the
New York Times Book Review

I’m all about “cold and remote” these days, and yet, strangely, I have no immediate plans to murder anyone! Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems rife with baby-throwers-out-of-cars and wife-killing suicide-committers. And of course the worst crime of all (as spelled out on a huge billboard across from Lloyd’s factory): “A baby does not CHOOSE to DIE,” with a big cute face of a 2- or 3-month-old. If it was going to be born to the people who would later throw it out of a car, it might think twice. It would be interesting to see a billboard of an enlarged bit of tissue with the motto, “A cell does not CHOOSE to DIE.” But actually, it totally does; it’s called apoptosis; and a very large percentage of would-be fetuses are naturally aborted in the first trimester. Did GOD ask THEM if they CHOSE to DIE?

Just down the road is another billboard with a huge image of Jesus in his blonde, blue-eyed form and the slogan “JESUS LOVES YOU.” Strangely, he’s looking off to the side, not at ME at all. OK, now I have to tell all my billboard stories. One that I’ve mentioned before is the handmade “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County.” There’s one on the road we used to live on and another one on M-35 heading north out of town. That one now has “Over Menominee County” painted out. Is someone saying that Jesus is NOT Lord here? I mean, what’s wrong with “Pray globally, proselytize locally”?

[bloody hell! sometimes I hate the sodding interwebs! … oh… now it’s fixed… never mind!]

faulty remembrance of things past (was it a madeleine? a chocolate chip cookie? or just a stale piece of toast?)

It’s disconcerting, when you think you have every moment of your childhood emblazoned on the All About Me scrapbook of your mind, to run into people you cannot remember whatsoever. One day K, MP, Barb and I were leaving Mickey-Lu’s (have I told you about their flame-broiled burgers with flame-toasted bun, pickles and ketchup, plus a pat of butter, all wrapped in white butcher paper and plunked down on your little table or booth? Mmmmm…… Mickey-Lu’s) and a woman excitedly called out to us, “Is that MARY?” Oh shit. I backtracked, looked her over, couldn’t place her or the older woman with her. K said, “You remember Sharon A. and her mother? They used to come over to see Mom and Dad, and you and Sharon played together.” I wracked my brain. I could not tell a lie. (I could not think of one.) “Uhhhh….. no, I’m sorry.” So Sharon, her smile dimming noticeably, and K and Barb regaled me with details of that apparently unforgettable friendship. “I’m sorry, my memory is good but it’s short!” (When in doubt, rely on a proven platitude.) Then, idiotically, I say, “But it’s nice to see you…. again….” Shit. I couldn’t understand how K and Barb, 6 and 8 years younger than me, could remember these people so vividly when I had never even heard their names before. I vowed that if that sort of thing happened again, I’d fake it.

Recently, I got my chance. I got a UPS delivery one day, and the driver hesitated before handing over the package. Finally, he said, “Do you remember me?… We graduated together.” Oh shit. I take a stab in the dark. “Uh … Don ….?” No. “Tom Cort,” he says. The memory of the disappointed if not crushed Sharon A. flashes through my mind. “Oh yeah! Hi!” and I even give him a little hug to cover the lie that is probably neon-lighting up my face. He said he had recognized my name on the package and thought, “Could it be…?” And I’m thinking, how would he know me if I didn’t know him? I thought I was completely invisible in high school! “Nice to see you again!,” I exclaim, with way too much enthusiasm in my lying voice.

It occurs to me that I should stop seeing myself as a stranger in a familiar land, but, frankly, I don’t want to give that up. Every sense is heightened when you’re continually pinballed between the past and the present and the strange chemical mixture of the two. (Chemical pinball. You’ve never played?)

I wonder if there’s a science fiction book or movie out there with the premise that… OK, I’m thinking along the lines of Gulliver’s Travels, in which Gulliver is tied down by the tiny Lilliputians. Let’s say a friendly giant comes along to help some l’il townspeople with their quilting bee, and suddenly s/he finds herself woven into the fabric of their lives—literally. They display the completed quilt proudly in the town square, and if you look very closely, you’ll see the outline of our giant practically indistinguishable from the threads and crazy-quilt patches of the rest of the design.

If physicists can have a string theory, I can have a thread theory.

Like my reimagined Gulliver, I’m slowly becoming embedded in the fabric of my family. We have our Friday night get-togethers, our drop-bys, our holidays. I don’t get to see the little ones that often—everyone works full-time or goes to school, so contact is sporadic. It’s a lesson in taking the long view.

Belatedly, I want to tell you about an e-mail I got from Maria of NM last summer. She had been reading an article by Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion) and he mentioned how interesting it is to listen to small-town radio stations in the Midwest. He gave as an example, “Barb calls in to say thanks to everyone, Pookie has been found.” Maria was all excited, thinking it must have been my Barb and my Pookie. But no, there are apparently parallel Midwestern universes out there, where Barbs and Pookies and Mares live out their lives in blissful ignorance of other dimensions of being. In fact, they live as you and I do… with strained comprehension, arbitarily exercised compassion, magnets pulling this way and that, and memories good but short.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #9 December 2000

July 20, 2009

I read the following letter in Miss Manners’ column the other day and was quite shaken by it.


Dear Miss Manners: Recently I’ve received letters without any personal touch. These writers discuss activities, life and the future, but never mention personal views relating to the recipient and never answer questions nor issues raised in past letters to them. It is not a one-time thing. One young writer has sent five such communiques—four pages each, informative, insightful, incisive, but with zero “sharing” and/or a sense of one-on-one communication. This may help high-track movers fulfill their social responsibilities to communicate with others, but to the recipients it becomes another sample of Christmas-letter indifference and laziness.

This letter is real. However, I have fabricated the response I wish Miss Manners (who instead agreed with this misguided soul) had made.

Gentle Reader: Get over yourself. Not everything is about you, you, you. These impersonal letters are called ‘zines. The high-track movers who write them work long and hard to make them informative, insightful, and incisive. Kwitcherbellyachin’. If you want “sharing,” get a dog.

But seriously, folks, thanks for renewing. My audience is small but very hardcore. Speaking of hardcore, I was going to surprise (shock) you with an X-rated issue this time, but then I realized it’s December, the time of little children and sugar plum fairies, the time of that other X—the one who put the X in Xmas—and I decided to postpone the profane revelations for now. Consider this a naughty tease.

Of course, an X rating would have been one way to distinguish the mary’zine from those other mimeographed (aesthetically speaking) “Christmas letters of indifference and laziness”—but this way you’ll have something to look forward to—out of morbid curiosity, if nothing else.

Xmas-wise, I mostly turn a blind eye to the goings-on and just wait for it to be over. I fully support the Buy Nothing movement and would like to extend it to Do Nothing. I get so tired of all the hype about how well (or badly) the merchants expect to do this year—now with the added suspense about whether people will continue to buy via the Internet—with follow-ups after the 25th on how well they did do and what it all means to the continuation of Western civilization as we know it. But I have to admit, I’ve had some lovely Christmases, spiritual ones, mostly with people who weren’t Christians, come to think of it—where we were able to touch into what Deepak Chopra meant when he said, “We are not human beings with occasional spiritual experiences, we are spiritual beings with occasional human experiences.” This is a place I often touch through painting, and maybe that’s what I miss when I look around and see so much hoopla about commerce and so little of the contemplation and reverence that should be the basis for a holy-day of a major religion.

But just on the level of navigating the highways and byways, I always breathe a sigh of relief on January 2. Back to real life, when I can go out and buy socks or toothpaste without fighting the frantic holiday crowds. Funny, when I had a job, I used to get really depressed in January—all those nice paid holidays were over. Now I don’t get paid for holidays (or sick days or vacations); I work 6 days a week. I bill by the hour, so I only get paid for the time I actually work (vs. the average 4 hours of work that most employees do in an 8-hour day); I have no guaranteed income—I have to accrue it $100 or $300 at a time and hope that the work will keep flowing my way; and—guess what—I’m not only happy as a clam but my favorite day is Monday and my least favorite day is Friday. How’s that for weird? I can’t really explain it. My world has been turned on its axis, and it seems to suit me just fine.

Being self-employed isn’t for everybody, and frankly, I’m surprised it’s for me. I don’t have nerves of steel. I’m not super well organized. Discipline is not my middle name. I love working at home, with no one looking over my shoulder, but it’s a constant struggle to keep the tide of household distractions from washing away the sand castle that is my daily accrual of Billable Hours. When you work at home, home becomes this enormous sinkhole of energy and demand. You wouldn’t think so if you saw my house, because it’s not like I spend much time cleaning it, but all my stuff is here, and it calls to me. The washing machine calls to me to put a load of clothes in while I’m fixing my morning snack of peanut butter and rice cakes. The cat box, the cat dish, the cat water bowl, the cat—all of them call to me to take just a minute or two away from that fascinating manuscript about the phylogeny and evolution of low-G+C gram-positive bacteria and scoop, feed, water, or pet. My bed calls very loudly from the next room, especially after lunch—Maaaaary, you are getting sleeeeeepy. I don’t dare open the mary’zine file until my workday is done, because I’ll get sucked in and won’t even notice the hours slipping by.

I do miss having coworkers to hang out with, but I try to take up the slack by e-mailing my colleague Ellie on the other side of the continent. Mostly, we talk about the project I’m currently working on for her, but there’s always room for a weather report (S.F. and D.C.—always opposite), a story about the family (her) or the cat (me), or a joke about George W. Bush.

And of course, Pookie is always a force—sometimes for good, sometimes for eleven smatterings of throw-up across two rooms, which I found when I went downstairs today. He mostly likes having me around, but sometimes I think he sees me as the retired husband who’s always underfoot. He’ll be resting quietly—lounging on a piece of cardboard, as if it’s the finest satin sheet—and I’ll go up to him, all cooing and petting. He’ll crack one eye open, and his look says it all: “Don’t you have work to do?” But sometimes he really seems to get a kick out of me. He likes it when I sing and dance for him when a good song comes on the radio. One day I was doing my serenade routine, singing along to a catchy new song with my arms spread wide, addressing him at high volume—which always makes him perk up, if only to look for an escape route—and I suddenly realized that the lyrics coming up were: “BE my… beeee myyyy… pussycat…pussycat…” and I collapsed in giggles. He gazed at me, pretending to be captivated by my performance, but I knew he was thinking, “Somebody’s bipoooooolar….”

People who work regular jobs have no idea how fast a day at home can fly by. I used to picture myself going out for breakfast, dawdling through the hours I saved by not commuting. Ha! I swear there must be a special subsection of the theory of relativity that covers the paradox of Home Time vs. Job Time. At my job, it was all about finding ways to relieve the boredom—talking to coworkers, running in the park, going for coffee, playing computer solitaire. I still watch the clock at home, but it’s for the opposite reason: Damn, I’ve only worked 1.5 hours this morning, and it’s already time to go for my haircut—or to the dentist—or shopping for dinner—or going to the ATM, post office, Fed Ex, library, bookstore, drug store, or a million other destinations. Suddenly I’m Errand Girl. When did I used to do errands? Did I even have errands? Now, errands are my life. When Home isn’t calling me, Stores are calling me. Life suddenly wants me to be everywhere but at my desk working, and all I want is to be at my desk working. It’s insane. The few days when I have food in the house and have no appointments or other reasons to go out, I’m in hog heaven, if hogs liked to work.

And at the end of the day, I’m like Silas Marner, counting up my gold coins. I guess I would feel more secure having a regular salary, but there’s something about having to earn it one drachma at a time that adds a little spice to the working life. When my job ended, I honestly thought I was going to end up a bag lady. Who would have thought I’d enjoy living on the edge?

ferry tale

If you do not compare yourself with another, you will be what you are.

So can you stand to hear another travel story? It’s pretty exciting, and I don’t want to overstimulate you.

I recently had a birthday. I had decided that this year on my birthday, I was going to take the ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, no matter what. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 27 years, and I had never taken the ferry, except for a short jaunt on the Tiburon ferry to Angel Island many years ago. I have wanted to do this for a long time but kept putting it off, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t know where to buy my ticket, where to board, where to get off, what to do after I got off, etc. Face it, I am a big chicken, sQUAWWK.

But my trip to Massachusetts (zine #8)—mundane as it may seem to a seasoned traveler—taught me that, first of all, one person’s comfort zone is another person’s scary unknown. Risk is relative. Some people, crazily enough, would find it scary to write a one-woman ‘zine and send it to all their friends. Ha-ha-ha! And some people, sad to say, find the thought of any form of travel that is not conducted from behind the wheel of one’s own car quite daunting. So let’s not judge.

One of my projects in middle life has been to learn the belated lesson that, when you try something new, mistakes are not only surmountable but inevitable. So when I planned this birthday ferry trip, I gave myself permission to make all the mistakes I needed to. I decided it would be a fact-finding mission, an initiation into the mysteries of watery public transportation. I wouldn’t have to do anything earth-shaking (which is the last thing you want to do in S.F. anyway) or glamorous upon arriving on the far shore—just getting there and back would be enough for this maiden voyage. If I managed to walk around for a bit and find a place to eat lunch, that would be the icing on the birthday cake.

It was a good thing I had given myself this permission, because my first mistake was to think I could blithely drive up to the ferry parking lot at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday and park. What was I thinking? The commuters fill the place up by 8:30. A uniformed man turned me away but said I could probably find a spot across the road at the Marin Airporter lot. Fortunately, I had parked there for the Massachusetts trip, so I knew what to do. It was a relief to hustle back on foot (threading my way through the acre of cars), find the ticket window, and still have a little time before they let us board. Just that little victory left me feeling flush with success.

On the ferry, I immediately headed for the outside deck. There was less chance of getting seasick out there, and the main point of the trip was to enjoy the view of the bay and the skyline, smell the sea air, and all that. Within minutes, I was joined by a youngish guy wearing shorts, polo shirt, and baseball cap and carrying a knapsack. He asked me if this was the only deck, and I said I didn’t know, I’d never ridden the ferry before.

“Oh, so you’re a tourist too?”

“No, I live here, but I’ve just never….” I trailed off, embarrassed.

To my surprise, we fell into a conversation. I asked where he was from—he had a Spanish accent—and he said “St. Louis.” So much for assumptions. Marty said he loved the Bay Area but that he wouldn’t want to live here because of the way Latinos are stereotyped. He told me he had been driving around lost in his friend’s car that morning, looking for Larkspur Landing (he had driven over to Marin from Oakland! And I had been nervous coming from a couple miles away!) and he had ended up on that strip of Bellam Blvd., in my neighborhood, where Hispanic men gather every morning, hoping to get a day’s work. He had gotten out of his car to ask a passing pedestrian how to get to the ferry, and before he could finish his sentence, she had said, “Yes, this is where you stand.” Obviously, she had assumed from his accent that he was one of the day laborers, even though he was dressed like a tourist.

Marty said to me, “I was offended by that. I am an educated man. In St. Louis, I am treated with respect.” That surprised me, because I would have expected California to be a more hospitable place than the Midwest for any person of color. My assumptions were crumbling fast.

But I immediately understood the seeming discrepancy, and I told him about how, in the Midwest, no one would look twice at me, but here, in the supposed gay mecca, I get harassed all the time. He couldn’t believe it. Turns out he was gay, too (my gaydar had failed me), and he wanted to believe that San Francisco was the Shangri-La he had always thought it to be. But it was exactly as he had been saying about Latinos. The more exposure you have as a minority, the more crap you’re going to get. I think I really burst his bubble.

Marty said he owned three doughnut shops in St. Louis and paid $400 a month rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in a nice area. I oohed and ahhed but politely didn’t say, “But you have to live in St. Louis.”

So we talked all the way across the bay, and the ride was over much too quickly. He had a big day planned—even though rain was threatened, he was going to take BART to the Castro, rent a bike in Golden Gate Park, and ride to Land’s End to check out the nude beach. He hugged me and said, “I hope everyone is as friendly as you are.” I almost choked. I guess it’s true what they say about travel—even 30 minutes of travel a few miles from home—you can be whoever you want, because no one knows any different.

After we landed, he took my picture, and I decided to accompany him up Market to Powell St. So we found the Embarcadero BART station, bought tickets, and descended to the lower level. I had shared with him my near-native knowledge of the BART system, except that I had gotten it confused with Muni and gave him entirely the wrong directions. Fortunately, I realized my mistake in time, though I felt like a complete idiot. (Fact-finding mission, I had to remind myself. Fact-finding means you can’t get the facts until you find you don’t know them.)

On the train, he mentioned that he was always looking for a boyfriend, and I teased him about meeting me instead. He said, “I don’t talk to men, they’re too intimidating.” I said, “I don’t talk to lesbians, either.” We cracked up. Despite gender, age, and ethnic differences, we were totally in synch.

Finally we bade each other farewell, and I got off at Powell and started walking in the direction of Folsom St. I had cut out a newspaper article about restaurants in the city and decided to try to find a place called Mo’s Grill. It turned out to be inside Yerba Buena Gardens, a fact it took me quite a while to find. But I felt so proud of myself when I was finally seated at a table by the window. My favorite singer, Van Morrison, was singing “Brand New Day” in the background, and I smiled to myself, an in-joke in my crowd of one. I had arrived, I had navigated my way across miles of water and city sidewalk to this oasis of urban delight, and I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Unfortunately, the Dramamine I had taken “to be on the safe side” in case the bay was choppy started to take its toll on my energy level, so I decided to head back to the Embarcadero right after lunch. I passed by the Museum of Modern Art, so I went into the gift store and bought myself a t-shirt—hypocritically, since I have zero interest in what the “art world” is up to these days—then wound my way through the lunchtime crowds—9-to-5’ers, eat your hearts out—and retraced my steps to the waterfront. For the last two blocks I got drenched by a sudden rainstorm and instinctively cringed from the rain until I realized it didn’t matter if I got wet—I was wearing my new microfiber, weather-resistant jacket.

By now I felt like an old hand at this ferry-riding business, but I congratulated myself too soon. After handing over my return ticket, which I had carefully placed in a special compartment of my satchel, I sauntered around, waiting patiently to board. I was pleasantly full and not unpleasantly doped-up from the Dramamine. A uniformed man came along and said the Larkspur ferry would be leaving “all the way to the end of the pier,” so I marched down there, suddenly full of myself and my new travel smarts. Way before the place where the ferry was docked, there was a little closed gate barring the way, so I blithely lifted the pole that kept it in place—proud that I saw instantly how it worked—and was immediately yelled at by the ferry workers, “Go back, go back! Close the gate!!” as if I had wandered onto a firing range. Trying to maintain my cool, I replaced the gate pole in the slot and turned to see about 15 people behind me, people who all knew to wait behind the gate and were no doubt thinking what an idiot I was. But who knows, maybe there was someone in the crowd who would have done the same thing and was giving silent thanks that I had gotten there before she did. Soul sister, this mistake’s for you.

I enjoyed the ride back to Marin. This time I was alone on the deck, so I got to watch the S.F. skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the beautiful storm sky. It started pouring rain halfway across, so I went inside, where it smelled like a bus and was full of silent, world-weary—or at least ferry-weary—commuters working on their laptops. I went back outside as soon as the rain cleared. The sense that I could move, change my mind, make decisions, not know in advance what seat to take or what gate to go through seemed terribly liberating, though of course only on the tiniest of scales, and mostly in principle. I am not yet ready for India.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Marin, home sweet home. Trudging through the parking lot, across the pedestrian bridge, and over to the Marin Airporter, I was exhausted and my feet were killing me, but I was feelin’ fine… until I got to the counter where I had to give the man my parking stub. Oh oh. I had thought I’d put it in the special compartment of my satchel, but no, that was the ferry ticket. I started frantically looking through my bag, with a horrible sinking feeling that I had somehow managed to drop my parking stub instead of my ferry ticket in the ticket receptacle at the ferry. If I showed the airporter guy my ferry ticket, would that convince him that I had made an honest mistake and didn’t have to be charged for 30 days of parking?

Me: I don’t seem to have my ticket.

Him [with the most impassive face I’ve seen since Mt. Rushmore]: I need it.

What made it 1,000 times worse is that he was the same guy who had witnessed my losing of the bus pass when I went on the Massachusetts trip. I was even wearing the same clothes. Surely he wouldn’t remember me, surely this sort of thing happens all the time? He continued to stare at me, giving nothing away. Finally, I pulled the stub out of my jacket pocket, where I had carelessly stuck it instead of preserving it in a special compartment. Thank God. Thank you, thank you, beneficent God Almighty.

I can’t help it that everything in my life is a big deal. And actually, there’s an up side to that. If the smallest venture out into the world is difficult for me, then even a small adventure will reap great rewards. It’s that relative-risk thing I mentioned earlier. I see it as a kind of emotional homeopathy. Other people have to jump out of airplanes or climb mountains or seek out dangerous rivers in the jungle to have a feeling of adventure. All I have to do to push the envelope is to lose a ticket or go through the wrong door. My skydive, my mountaintop, my Amazon river is all around me. I’m just living on a smaller scale than some people—like that species of moth or butterfly that only lives for 24 hours.

In my defense, I’ve faced many big challenges on my own—I’ve moved to other states, bought a condo, had a successful career, started my own business—and, of course, I live alone, which creates all sorts of opportunities for bravery—but in some perverse way, the small unknowns can be more daunting than the big ones.

the heart of creation

…when I picture my mother playing the piano, I think of a stillness, a pinprick of a place inside her that is profoundly still. I wonder if a sublime quietness is at the heart of creation.
—Jane Hamilton,

But the unknown can get even smaller(bigger) than taking a public conveyance across small waters. Change and movement can be, quite literally, a walk in the park. I went to painting class one Wednesday morning and started a new painting. I had no idea what to paint, so I started with myself—a peach-colored blob for my head and peach blobs for torso and hips, and longer peach extensions for the limbs. I was supremely not knowing what to do, but for some reason my guard was down and I wasn’t too worried about it. I just let it develop any way it wanted to. One thing led to another, and I ended up in a kind of trance state, painting my internal organs—stomach, heart with tubes sticking out, plus lots of imaginary organlike structures, none of which followed any rules of color or shape or function. I spent two and a half hours painting this strange body, or rather, letting it paint itself.

In the group sharing afterward, I felt stoned, deeply touched. I looked around, and everyone in the circle looked like a heroin addict after getting a fix—but it wasn’t lassitude, it was a deep, quiet presence. No one was preoccupied with being somewhere else, no one was putting on a façade or resisting the silence.

I’ll never get over how strange it is that when you go deeply inward, you connect up with everyone else who is deeply inward. You’ve all been in your own worlds, literally with your backs to each other, for 2 or 3 hours, and when you stumble out of the painting room and try to find words to express what happened, you find you can just look in people’s eyes or make a tiny joke, and you’re all right there, together, as if you’re all the same person with many different faces. Strange that it takes diving into your uniqueness to discover your commonness with others on a heart level. This is what the “creative process” is about, not what ends up on the paper.

It’s not that painting always manifests as this stoned bliss of connectedness, but when it does, it’s a gift. On this day, the afterglow lasted for hours. I didn’t want to leave the studio, but at 1:30 I couldn’t ignore my hunger pangs any longer. So I went off to get my usual burrito and eat it at my usual spot—Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. But what wasn’t usual was that I wasn’t in a mad rush to get home to take a nap or check my e-mail. I felt like I was in love with everyone I saw—it was as if everyone was a walking archetype, vulnerable and simple—part of the human family. The young people, the old people, everyone so perfectly themselves. In some cases you could see the pain etched in their faces and in their posture. This one bent old woman walked toward me as if pushing into a steady wind—well, it was pretty windy that day, but she looked like she’d been pushing for a long time. I ached for her in a way that (needless to say) I don’t usually allow myself to do. We think it would drain us to feel so connected to other people; we don’t realize that that connection is what keeps us alive. What’s draining is to insist on our separateness.

It was a beautiful day in San Francisco—cool and sunny, with a fresh ocean breeze that ruffled the treetops and filled my lungs with cool air—and I lost all unfaithful fantasies of moving back east. After I ate my burrito, I walked around the lake, loving every sight and smell. I wanted to drink it all in—the cloudless blue sky, the ducks floating peacefully in the water, the trees moving in the wind. It’s not that I felt like a different person—I was aware of my usual reactions—but I couldn’t be mad at anybody, even the woman who went into the men’s bathroom by mistake because she saw me coming out of the women’s. I walked toward a sea of pigeons on the sidewalk, getting ready to be annoyed at the man who was feeding  them, but just as I was about to gear up for my internal diatribe, I came closer and we looked at each other, and I was struck by the kindness in his face. He was wearing green scrubs; there was an old woman in the car, dozing in the front seat with the door open while he fed the birds. Was he a nurse? I took all this in in a millisecond, and then I smiled and said “Hi,” and he smiled beautifully back at me. Was this his usual smile? Was he just naturally sweet? Or did I give him something to which he was responding? It was the briefest possible encounter. Is it really possible to make a difference in the world with just a smile at the right moment? It’s so easy to think of all the times our kindness or generosity fails to transform a moment or to have any effect at all—but I suspect we don’t even know, most of the time, what sparks we emit or what encouragement we give just by being aware of each other.

It was like that—magical—all afternoon. I didn’t even mind the other cars on the road. The radio kept playing all these sweet songs—“What If God Was One of Us?”; “Let go your heart, let go your head, and feel it now….”; U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I was going to take a nap when I got home, but there was work for me by e-mail. So I spent 2 hours editing a business plan for a biotech startup instead, and even that didn’t bother me. I just felt grateful for having a successful business and having the freedom to schedule my own work and take time to drive to the beautiful city and paint gory, beautiful self-innards, and see my beautiful friends and feel that deep connection that seems so elusive and yet is so available, why do we not always feel it?

To me, that day was a day spent traveling, though I walked in the same steps I’ve walked many times before. It wasn’t about covering miles or discovering cultural differences. It wasn’t about being a stranger in a strange land—except, perhaps, the land of Love. It wasn’t about bearing discomfort or proving one’s fortitude. It wasn’t about going out at all, though I felt I extended myself. Mostly, it was about opening up to the vast world that lives inside of us. It’s not a world you can buy a ticket to, you have to have faith and be a little diligent about gaining entry. Sometimes travel isn’t about conquering the world or confronting strange customs or difficult terrain—it can be about making a small inroad on your own sense of isolation, and discovering that the world will come to you.

[Mary McKenney]

mary‘zine random redux: #31 February 2005

July 9, 2009

Well, as Ann Landers used to say, I have the best readers in the whole world! Modesty prevents me from quoting from all the amazing responses I got to the Michigan homecoming ‘zine. One generous soul even sent me a check, which I have not asked for or expected for a long time. She must have missed the part where I am now made of money. (Literally. Hold me up to the light and you’ll see the watermarks.) But seriously, I love the feedback. And financial contributions, while not mandatory, are never turned away. As my old friend P is constantly reminding me, last year’s real estate deal is the last windfall (as opposed to snowfall) I will ever see in this lifetime.

I’m especially pleased by the reports of a few readers that they shared the ‘zine with others. One spouse (with midwestern roots) claimed he had “the best sleep in a long time…” after he and his wife read it in bed together. I often wonder if people have to know me to get half of what I write. So this kind of feedback is really encouraging and makes me want to keep writing. (Yes! Your responses are like applause for Tinker Bell!)

It was a relief to hear from Maria, who didn’t mind that I had published her initial misgivings about the ‘zine’s “midwestern preoccupation.” I want to quote part of her response, since her earlier e-mail played such a big part in the last issue….

… Well, Mary. You did it. I am so proud of you. You moved to the heartland… YOUR heart land. And I loved that you used my email. You can use any words of mine you like. They don’t really belong to me, as they pass right thru me. I don’t even know where they come from really.
But even MORE amazing then getting your wonderful, full of homey facts, cozy, heartwarming, tear jerking issue (with only one ‘cutely amusing’ comment from Barb!!!) yesterday…. this morning on the ‘Today Show’ the weather man; Al Roker, interviewed a group of ladies under umbrellas who were standing in the rain outside the ‘Today Show’ headquarters in New York holding a BIG sign that they had printed, in unprofessional big letters, MENOMINEE, MI.  I was blown away it was so mystical! How often does THAT happen??

Wow. The Yoopers are starting to manifest in all sorts of strange ways. To me, there’s nothing stranger than my becoming one of them again, but I’ll grant you that local folks showing up on Maria’s TV is truly a sign. I’ve told you about “Yooper,” yes? It’s the folksy, self-deprecating version of “U.P.’er.” I’d like to see the term changed to “Uppers,” but then Schloegel’s gift shop wouldn’t be able to pander to the vacationers from down state (the Lowers) by selling homegrown hick paraphernalia (“Say yah to da U.P., eh?”) in an attempt to make an economically depressed area into a tourist destination. We’re not lucky enough to have alligators, Cuban exiles, and Mickey Mouse, so let’s play up the dumb lumberjack approach: “Yah, yah, we so stoopid up here.” (Actually, that sounds more like Arnold Schwarzenegger; now I’m confused.)

So to answer your first question, yes, I still like it here. The peeps (and everyone else I meet) keep asking me, “You still like the snow?” Yes! “How about the cold?” Yes! The ice, I’m not so crazy about, but we’ll get to that a little later. But first, here’s this….

I left my heart… and had to go back for it…

When I was finally starting to feel settled in my new home, I had to fly back to San Francisco for a 7-day painting intensive. The peeps were a bit perplexed… “She’s going back to California already?” Barb’s friend Shirley wondered if I would go for a visit and realize my mistake and want to move back. Even if I had, it would have been tant pis. (That either means “too bad” or “Aunt Piss.”)

The trip wasn’t all it could have been. I kept getting surprised, and not always in a good way. But I guess whether surprise is welcome or not is entirely a function of one’s expectations. I didn’t expect to get sick, for the first time in years, on the very first day of painting. I didn’t expect Terry and Jean to cancel because of various foot-and-eye disorders. I didn’t expect to have my crucifix pocket knife pulled off my bag at the airport in Green Bay. I guess that’s not as outrageous as having your nail clippers confiscated, but it was still a hassle. The security people huddled around this Weapon of Minimal Destruction and exchanged significant glances, as if they couldn’t bring themselves to speak. “Aha!” their glances conveyed. “Another terroristic plot foiled! Foiled, I tell you!” Also, I’d like to say to that ONE GUY who put explosives in his shoes before he tried to board a plane…. THANKS A LOT. I complained that I had no shoes, and then I met a man who had no dynamite. I mean, this was Green Bay, not Tel Aviv… although, I suppose northeastern Wisconsin could be the perfect gateway for a rogue Canadian to sneak through on his way to bomb the Blatz beer plant.

But the good surprises outweighed the bad, and of course some things, such as the Eternal Present itself—embodied, enacted, and embraced by Barbara, Pi-Te, Polly, Jan, Kate, Diane L, Diane D, Kerry, Amy, and more—were not so much a surprise as a delightful reminder that Eternity is not “out there” at Time’s End—as if we’re going to sail over the horizon of life and fall off the edge (someday, people are going to talk about us the way we talk about the Flat Earthers. “They actually thought time was linear?????”)—but dwells in Stillness and Communion, Here, There, and Everywhere. I seem to be channeling Emily Dickinson with all the capital letters here. There is, of course, a special connection with friends with whom I have been doing this Painting Dance for up to 25 years, but the beauty of the Eternal Present is that there is no “old” and “new,” no “then” and “now,” no “being at the intensive” and “lying in a hotel room blowing your nose.” Pi-Te expressed this same idea one day when he said that he felt no time had passed since last year’s December intensive, when we sat in this same circle, with one more or one less participant but all part of the same stream.

It was torture to try to paint when I wasn’t feeling well—and to live in a hotel, for that matter, in a room with no refrigerator or microwave. I wanted to go home so bad. But I was able to return to the studio for the last two days of the intensive, and everything came together for me. I started painting my new house and yard and everything, and I came to the point where I knew I had to let go and let anything happen. You can’t paint truthfully if you’re holding back or trying to steer the imagery in any way. So I started painting pig demons at my windows, a Loch Ness-type monster rising out of Lake Michigan, snakes coming up my front porch. I don’t know if it’s possible to convey how deeply satisfying this sort of thing is to those who’ve never done it. Some part of me had been afraid that if I let the truth—what is, whatever it is—come out, I would discover that my idyllic coming-of-home story—my fairytale, as my Lower friend put it—would be exposed as mere fantasy. And yet the truth is always good news, contrary to popular belief; the trick is that you have to go toward it not knowing, with no reservations. Allowing yourself to follow wherever the brush wants to go takes courage—more than you can imagine, considering it’s “just a piece of paper.” Painting for process is a microcosm where you learn just how boogie-man-basic our grownup fears really are.

While I was in S.F. I got to see some friends who were not part of the intensive: had lunch with E/Van near Union Square… dinner with Jean at Ping’s in Marin (I have longed and lusted for Chinese food since moving away)… and lunch on Clement St. with J the day before I left. Remember J? I haven’t written about ending therapy, almost exactly a year ago. The process came to a natural end, and we both felt it. J was open to becoming friends after some time had passed, so I called her 6 months later and we met in Berkeley a couple times. Now we talk on the phone once a month or so. We shared such intimacy during our therapy hours, but of course the focus was always on me. Now we are building a new relationship out of that deep connection, and, to me, that is the best possible evidence of the good work we did together.

San Francisco is truly a fantasy city, exciting and stimulating. It was refreshing to see so many different kinds of people again: the young hip-somethings in Ella’s Restaurant, one of them a skinny black guy wearing outrageous jewelry. A rabbi telling his breakfast companion about being interviewed by The New York Times. The European woman who got on the hotel elevator with me and, when I asked her which floor, said something that sounded like “Ted.” “What?” “TED!” she exclaimed, pointing to the button for the third floor. (Sorry, I’m not up on my foreign numerals.) The woman in another elevator, this one in the Sutter-Stockton garage, wearing a big cowboy hat and spike heels, with a French poodle in her purse. The young guy with face piercings at Sony Metreon who helped me (shouting above the megadecibel sound system) pick out the right PlayStation components for my nephew. Stopping in at the Whole Foods on California St. after dropping off my rental car… having forgotten the color, the bustling energy, the endless food choices… and then walking slowly back to the hotel past dignified apartment buildings and a small jazz band playing on Fillmore St…. remembering the excitement of moving to this exotic place in 1973 and learning the neighborhoods, where we would live, where we would find work.

In fact, most of the memories this trip awoke in me were from the early days, when P and I lived on 17th St. below Uranus (butt of many jokes) and went dancing in the many gay bars that flourished back then: Scott’s, Maud’s, Amelia’s, Peg’s, and many more whose names I’ve forgotten. Eating at the plentiful restaurants in North Beach, Chinatown, the Mission…. playing cards with Jean and Bruce for money and saving it up to blow on a dinner at Ernie’s ($100 for four of us!). Strolling down the hill to see old Katharine Hepburn movies at the Castro Theater. Standing in line for hot fudge sundaes at Bud’s. Reading the Chronicle for the daily dispatches of “Tales of the City” (before it was a book) and increasingly bizarre political developments: the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the Jonestown massacre, the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone… marching in a candlelight vigil to City Hall on that cold November night and listening to Joan Baez sing all our hearts out… marching again after Dan White was all but freed on the Twinkie defense, but leaving when the crowd began setting police cars on fire.

Yes, said the old codger (if women can be codgers), it was a great place and time to be young…. but when the intensive was over, I was more than ready to leave.

Dec. 14, 2 a.m.

The flight home was arduous. United had changed the aircraft from a 747 to a… I don’t know, a 666?… so my “E” aisle seat became a middle-of-the-row seat. I spent the whole 4 hours with my shoulders and knees pulled in, trying to avoid physical contact with my seatmates who sprawled unconcernedly on either side. Then in Chicago I waited 6 hours instead of the scheduled 45 minutes for a flight to Green Bay after mine was canceled. Landed in Green Bay at midnight. I had thought I wouldn’t be able to drive the 55 miles home after taking Dramamine downers all day, but I was wide awake and rarin’ to go. I reclaimed my Jeep, headed for the exit, and drove right into a chain that was roping off part of the lot. Oops! Got to the parking toll booth and oops! again, I had no idea where my ticket was. But I finally got out of there, stopped for coffee at the first gas station I saw, and called P on my cell phone to let her know I was almost home. I was ecstatic when I finally drove across the Menekaunee bridge into Michigan exactly 2 weeks to the day that I had driven myself and my hidden-in-plain-sight Weapon of Barely Any Destruction to do battle with the security forces in Packerland. As I drove quietly down First Street, which was lined with Christmas lights and old-fashioned streetlights, past the bandstand and the marina, the bay glowing darkly to my right and snow on the ground, it felt just like “It’s a Wonderful Life” but without James Stewart’s suicidal depression or his chubby angel (and without Donna Reed, unfortunately: oh my God, that scene where she’s on the phone and he has his face in her hair, inhaling her scent…).

I had been dreaming of the moment when I would finally get home, dump my bags inside the door, and tiptoe upstairs to surprise Pookie. At first he looks startled, and then recognition dawns and he emits a single “MEW?!” I spend the next 2 and a half hours holding him, combing and petting him, and burying my face in his furry neck. (If you can’t be with Donna Reed, bury your face in the one you’re with.) He endures my affections because he’s so grateful to have his longtime companion back again—and probably because he’s damn sick of listening to the radio, which I had left on an NPR station for the whole 2 weeks so he could imagine I was just in another room listening to the BBC News Hour. Barb and K had faithfully come by to do the necessary upkeep and keep him company for a while, but there’s just no substitute for… well, for me.

Dec. 14, after a few hours of sleep

It’s wonderful to be home again, to be covered in Pookie’s flying fur, to check my e-mail, to look out at the thin layer of snow in my back yard in wonder and disbelief. (Disbelief because it does look kind of fake, as if they had trucked in some artificial stuff for my benefit.) I treat myself to breakfast at Pat & Rayleen’s, where I savor a broccoli-and-cheese omelet and hot coffee. The sun is dazzling on the snow outside, the restaurant is warm and almost empty, and I watch in fond acknowledgment of the special intimacies of small-town living as the waitress tries to extract from an old man in a nearby booth what kind of pie he wants. It’s a scene of great intensity, and especially volume, as the entire list of available pies is SHOUTED distinctly and repeatedly at the old man while his daughter looks on in amusement….

Waitress: “BANANA CREAM…? APPLE…?” (she hesitates encouragingly after every flavor)… “STRAWBERRY RHUBARB…?”





Old man: “WHAT?”



Waitress: “BANANA….?”

And so on. You’d think this would have been a highly irritating experience for everyone concerned, but the daughter’s wry smile never falters, and the waitress shows perfect patience, like she’s willing to stand there and shout at him all day until he chooses his pie. She’s one of my favorite waitresses anyway…. Mary Kay…. and she’s come to welcome me as a regular, since I always sit in her section and am making a pretty good reputation for myself as a generous tipper. (I imagine waitresses gathering in back rooms all over town, whispering, “I hear she’s from California. Obviously she has no idea what passes for a tip around here.”)

mary’s first christmas with snow… and peeps… in a quarter of a century

Dec. 17

Barb, K, MP, and I have dinner at Schussler’s, ostensibly for K and MP’s 32nd wedding anniversary, but they insist on paying. The food and drink are excellent as usual, and it’s fun to be out in the happy holiday atmosphere. Christmas is definitely better in snow country. (Do you suppose Lebanese or Syrian Christians ever mutter, on December 25, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas without snow”?) On the way home we drive around to see the elaborate Christmas lights and decorations. We go across the bridge to our old neighborhood, which is still basically rural. Mr. Krygoski (he of the “Jesus Is Lord Over Menominee County” sign) has bought up most of the land around there and puts on an outdoor extravaganza every year. We pull into a small parking area and are met by a man dressed like a shepherd who hands us a religious tract and wishes us a Merry Christmas.

It’s an awesome sight—or spectacle, rather. There’s a manger scene. Angels in a pagoda. A live donkey walking round and round in a pen. Lights in all the trees and bushes, all around the house, and even “on high”: the property is bordered on two sides by tall trees, and in the dark you can’t see the trees, just the lights, so it looks like Mr. K’s message is written across the sky: GOD IS THE GREATEST. On the roof of the house, outlined in bright lights, is the single word JESUS. (I think I would have at least made a sentence out of it: JESUS WEPT?) It’s bizarre, as if my old, modest neighborhood of woods, pastures, and sand hills has been transformed into a religious carnival. All that’s missing is cotton candy and a Pharaoh’s wheel. (Sorry about that.)

Other light displays around town are more tasteful and truly awe-inspiring. The best of them make you feel like the people in the house are bursting with the joy of the season and just have to share. I haven’t done any Christmas decorating myself in years, and I really didn’t this year, except to hang some light strings in my loft windows—and they’re definitely an eclectic lot: red chili peppers, white skulls, and two strings of beautiful “paper lantern” lights that Kate made. I also lit up the green neon question mark Barb gave me for my birthday, and changed the bulbs in the ceiling fixtures to green and blue. When everyone else in the neighborhood retired their seasonal light displays, I kept mine up, because now when I’m puttering around in the middle of the night I feel like I’m at the bottom of a peaceful sea, softly dappled with color.

Dec. 21

I wake up and am pleasantly surprised to see that it’s snowing, for the first time since I’ve been back. (I’ve seen the result but not the process.) Little puffy flakes drift lazily down, and the thin drifts on the roads look like granulated sugar being blown this way and that. I get busy with breakfast, coffee, and e-mail, and the next time I look out the window, everything’s white! HOLY MOLEY, I’d better get going! I have to go shopping for groceries and mail a package—a neon question mark like mine for Barbara to use as a visual aid in the painting studio.

Tightly zipped, tucked, and laced into my squall parka, scarf, gloves, and boots, I waddle out to the garage. (A year ago, when no one had any idea that I might move to a land of snow and ice, Barbara knitted me two beautiful wool scarves, which have now become part of my basic wardrobe.) I have never driven in snow before, so I’m a little anxious. I’m thankful for the 4-wheel drive (4WD) as I cautiously back the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (Cheyenne Apache Running Bear Marlboro Man) out of the garage and start driving down the unplowed road. My top speed is 20 mph, and I note gratefully that everyone out there is driving as carefully as I am. I stop at the Pack’n’Ship, where I struggle through mid-calf-high snow in the parking lot to get inside. I’ve been moving freely through air and on land for many years now, so it does smush my brain a little to be faced with the basic challenge of getting from point A to point B through dense snowgrowth. I’m enjoying it, even though everyone seems to want to bum my high:

Me to shipping person: “I just moved here from California, and I’m loving it!”

Shipping person: “Yeah, the first snow is nice, but you’ll hate it after a while.”

Me [silently]: Gee thanks, are you from the Michigan tourist board?

I’m serious about the brain-smush thing. Depositing a check in the bank, I put the wrong numbers in the wrong places. I can’t keep track of all my winter accoutrements—there are way too many pockets on my person. The Kleenex in one of my flap pockets is wet from being snowed on. (Always keep the flap on the outside!) I can’t find my money. I also can’t find a mailbox for the sweaty sheaf of bills in my hand (the grocery store is like a sauna). When I get back out to the Jeep with my groceries, I’m slipping and sliding in the snow, and while I have too many pockets, I don’t seem to have enough hands. My scarf is trying to blow off, and the hood on the squall parka doesn’t move when I turn my head. (Did mama pin my mittens to my sleeve? I sure hope so!) Finally, I’m ready to leave, but now I can’t find my keys. Did I drop them? I traipse all around the Jeep, head down, feeling like an idiot. Finally, I find my keys in the passenger seat, where I had dumped them with my bag. Whew.

Dec. 22

It’s been snowing all night. At 2:00 in the morning I remember that my new furnace is going to be arriving at “eight, eight-thirty,” so I set the alarm for 7:30 and get out there and start shoveling the driveway. I’m self-conscious, because I haven’t done this for a long time (ever?), and some of my neighbors know K or Barb so know who I am. (“She never goes anywhere!” proclaimed one of K’s coworkers who lives a block away.) I make pretty good progress, actually, flinging snow to the side and making a path out to the road. But it’s going to be a big job to clear the whole driveway, and even if the furnace guys park in the road, they’ll have to bring the furnace in through one of the big garage doors. So I get the brilliant idea to drive the Jeep out and kind of mash the snow down with it, thus using horse power instead of my own.

Thankfully, the garage door on the Jeep side opens easily, despite the snow that has drifted in under it. I power backwards and….. oops…. the mighty Jeep strikes out! I’m stuck in my own driveway, with front and back tires spinning uselessly! I thought 4WD was like magic—you mean it can get you over hill and dale and ditch and gully but can’t handle a foot of snow? This is really embarrassing. I get to work shoveling snow from around the tires, but it doesn’t help. I bring out some old carpet remnants from the garage and put them under the rear tires. No help.

Then the man across the street comes out of his garage, snowblowin’ in the wind. He’s obviously out there to clear his own driveway, but there I am, damsel in distress, and he can hardly ignore me. He blows his way across the road, and I explain that the 4WD isn’t working. He asks if I’m sure I have it in 4WD. I’d be offended, but I so clearly don’t know what I’m doing that I’m grateful when he asks to get in the Jeep and check. He plays with all the gears, including 4WD-Part Time, 4WD-Full Time, 4WD-Lo, etc. He rocks the Jeep back and forth and finally it whooshes backwards out of the driveway through the big snowplow-generated drift to the road. He gets out and tells me that 4WD-Full Time isn’t working, but Part Time is OK. (I guess you can get some of your Jeep in 4WD some of the time, but you can’t get all of your Jeep in 4WD all of the time. I later read the owner’s manual and discovered there was nothing wrong, it was supposed to be in Part Time mode.)

We’d never met before, so we shake hands and exchange names. And guess what his name is. Go ahead, guess. Jim Anderson. Ring any bells? First, I think, what a perfect Midwestern name. Then I think, perfect name for an insurance agent. Then I think… “Father Knows Best”! Robert Young was Jim Anderson, insurance agent and all-around good guy. Mother (who “Knew Best” before Daddy had a clue but also knew her place) was Margaret. I reckon that makes me Princess or Kitten. Princess was older and kind of snotty, but I feel more like Kitten at that moment… young, naive, and beholden to a nice man with a big blower.

I use my by-now-pretty-tired line, “I just moved here from California,” and he says, “So I heard.” (See? I told you they’re all talking about me.)

He goes back to his own driveway, and I go around to the front of my house and shovel the porch, steps, and a path out to the road for the mailman. I see Jim blowing other neighbors’ driveways, so I go inside for hot cocoa and fresh-baked cookies (not really—Mother Anderson is nowhere to be seen). A while later, I hear Jim out there blowing my driveway, and I wonder about the etiquette of playing Kitten-in-distress to Robert Young. Do I have to bring him a hotdish, or a Jello mold? Invite him and his wife over to play pinochle? Or can I just wave my thanks out the window?

As so often happens, the social conundrum solves itself, and the furnace guys show up just as Jim has finished clearing the driveway. I go out there to greet them and wave/shout thanks at Jim, as he puts one finger on the side of his nose and vanishes up the chimney. The furnace guys look like they’re 16 years old. They need the second garage door open, so I push the button to operate it and then decide to shovel out the shelf of snow that has built up against the door. I have my boots on but no gloves or jacket. I discover to my dismay that there’s ICE under that thare snow, and I slip and fall to my hands and knees. From that humiliating position I look up to see one of the furnace boys looking down at me. It’s a perfect sit-com moment, but there’s no laugh track and no witty repartee. Just a long pause.

“Slippery,” he finally says.

(P suggests that his terseness might be Hemingway’s influence. A rare U.P. literary joke.)

Furnace boys spend the whole day in the basement, banging around for an hour or so at a time and then driving away in their van for unexplained reasons. It’s starting to get a mite chilly around 5:00 p.m., when they tell me they’ll have to come back the next day to finish.

Dec. 23

I’m sitting here in my loft on a beautiful sunny day. Radio says it’s 7 degrees, high of 13 today, wind-chill factor minus 15-20. But I am not impressed by these numbers. I’m actually too warm in my long-sleeve t-shirt and corduroy overshirt. The heat’s not on, because the furnace boys are still down in the basement, making a racket and hopefully getting my furnace installed and putting all their ducts in a row. P and I had our weekly phone chat yesterday, and it was odd that she was trying to convince me how cold it is here (she’d seen the Packers on Monday Night Football), and I was claiming that if you’ve got the right winter clothes, you actually feel warmer here than you do in the Sunset district of San Francisco on a foggy summer’s day. Supposedly, the coldest winter Mark Twain ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. The coldest winter I ever spent was a winter in Northfield, Minnesota. Man, was that cold. But I digress.

Dec. 24

It’s 0 today. No degrees whatsoever. I’m sure there’s a wind-chill factor of massive minus proportions, but I’m starting to think that “wind chill” was invented so Midwesterners could brag about, not how cold they are, but how cold they feel. But I’m toasty in my loft. K and Barb and I do some last-minute Christmas shopping in the afternoon. As we leave Shopko and head for the mall, I ask, “Which mall?” and Barb assures me, in her best deadpan voice, “There’s only one mall, Mare.”


Christmas Eve and Day (one at Barb’s and one at K and MP’s) are a satisfying whirlwind of kids and wrapping paper and ham sandwiches and dueling harmonicas. Everyone makes out like a bandit. K gets a down coat, MP gets lace-up boots, and Barb gets DVDs of “Six Feet Under.” I get a big red frying pan and lots of other goodies. The kids get everything they ever wanted and are soon bored.

Jan. 1, par-tay!

I forgot to tell you about hosting (or at least housing) Thanksgiving. My house is the only one with enough space to fit both Barb’s and K’s branches of the family tree. (I’m out on a limb by myself, as usual.) K comes by a few days earlier to help me make Swedish meatballs. We divide up the rest of the cooking, and on T’Day we stuff ourselves with the usual—turkey, potatoes and gravy, meatballs, green beans, deviled eggs, fresh cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. I discover to my surprise that I love having people over! Everyone seems comfortable here—I’m glad that even the younger ones who never knew me before seem to accept me as part of the scene—and there’s a natural flow between rooms as people group and regroup according to whether they want to watch football or talk quietly or play noisily or eat some more. I love that I’m actually giving something back to my family after all my years away. I feel like I’ve gone out into the world and made my fortune, and now I’ve brought it back to share, in all sorts of ways. Assuming I don’t live into my aught-aughts or piss it all away, I will be leaving a material legacy that will change the lives of my sisters’ children and grandchildren. Finally I feel part of the human chain that came from Denmark and Ireland and struggled so that each generation that followed would have greater opportunities. That is the American Dream, and not even George Bush and his cronies can destroy that.

So anyway, I decided to have another family gathering on New Year’s Day, with finger foods so people could drop by whenever they wanted. I fretted over the event as if I were going to be hosting the Junior League. For one thing, I wanted to provide food that was outside the usual realm of veggie tray, fruit tray, and mass-produced brownies from Sam’s Club, but I also wanted them to like it. For another thing, I wanted to make the presentation colorful and artful—such as a pretty design of contrasting colors and types of Mackinac Island fudge. I was trying to figure out how to serve the little BBQ sausages on toothpicks but still keep them warm, and while I was explaining the dilemma to K she fished a couple of the sausages out of the crockpot with her fingers and proclaimed, “You’re in redneck country now.” Geez, you try to be a little refined. The day was quieter than Thanksgiving because not everyone was there at the same time. Again, the party shifted from room to room in a natural way (I am just so absurdly proud of that! I have brought the gift of space to the peeps!), and the kids played hide-and-seek, always hiding in the room where the adults were, always surprised when they were easily found.

Jan. 6, the weather report continues

I’ve been disappointed by the recent “warm” temperatures—20 and above—and the melting snow. So I’m happy to see little flakes swirling down when I get up. Snow looks so insubstantial when it’s falling, but it covers all the yards and roads in no time. I hear a snowblower nearby and peek out my bathroom window. Yes! Father Blows Best has cleared my driveway again! I just have to shovel off the front porch and a path to the road. It’s easy because the snow is light and fluffy. I strew ice-melting particles on the porch and steps.

Even though I have work to do—I’ve gotten two big papers to edit on the same day… one on the proteins in saliva (more spit research for Barb to tell her students about) and one on how viruses are transmitted from mother to fetus—I decide to take advantage of the beautiful virgin snow to walk over to Henes (pronounced Hennis) Park. It’s only a block away, but so far I have just not found the time to get out there… you know, so many naps to take, so little time….

The snowplows have come through so the road is mostly packed snow, but there’s treacherous ice underneath. I daintily pick my way over to the park and enter through an unplowed entrance and trudge across what in summer is called a “lawn.” I soon realize I should have brought my new digital camera. I am surrounded by white-flocked evergreens and the stark intricate patterns of branches against the sky. The sun has come out, so the contrast of black-and-white winter—the so-called “dead season”—and the blue sky is stunning. When I get to the huge expanse of snow and ice that in summer is called “the bay,” I start thinking about beauty, the capture of: Take a picture (it’ll last longer). But there seems to be no separate picture here, no obvious frame where “this” is more beautiful than “that.” There’s just a sense of wholeness, a sense that I’m part of the picture, not an outside observer. To paraphrase Krishnamurti, the “picture taker” is the “picture taken.”

I haven’t seen anyone else around except for a park employee driving a snowplow up ahead. The park is closed to cars in the winter, and though many people walk here regularly, it’s the middle of a weekday. As I’m crunching past the snow-covered beach on one side and the playground on the other, I realize a couple of things: Though this park feels deeply personal to me, and has almost mystical significance in my life, it isn’t the same place it was when I was a kid. The big slide is gone, the concession stand where I worked one summer with my father has been boarded up, and the swimming area is marked off by buoys that make it difficult for an adult to get wet past her knees. And of course I’m not the same person, for all sorts of reasons. But there’s enough of an intersect that the point where the place and the person meet—like a cross, or an X if you prefer—is also the intersect of heart and memory. It’s a feeling of… and here in my ruminations, BAM! The ice slyly rises up and slides beneath my feet, and I fall hard on my ass and my left elbow. After uttering the obligatory “Oh shit,” I assess my possible injuries. My elbow hurts like a son-of-a-gun, but I seem to be intact. Before attempting to rise from my hard landing, I lie there for a moment and think about what would be even more important than a camera to bring on these walks (should there ever be another one)—my cell phone. Snowplow Man has long gone, there are no other walkers, and it has started snowing again. Worst-case scenario, I could have lain there all night and become a Maresicle before anyone ever found me.

Also, I think about how, if I’d brought my camera, and if there had been another person to take my picture at this moment, it would have been worth more to my friends and family than 100 photos of the snowy trees. There’s Mare, hunched over on hands and knees, slowly rising like a pachyderm from the ashes, her bomber’s hat askew, sunglasses down on her nose, weaving and wavering like a toddler taking her first step, and then BOOM… No, I won’t give you the satisfaction of picturing a second tumble, I make it the first time, thank you very much. I clomp my way carefully out of the park, and there are no more incidents. The 15-minute walk has taken about an hour, and when I get home I swallow a couple of Aleve and count my lucky stars.

Jan. 14

Obviously, I could go on like this all day, but I’ll restrict myself to just one more snowstory. MP and K both have the day off, so we drive back up to Escanaba to the furniture store with the unpronounceable name—Heynssens-Selin’s—where I buy a beautiful Mission-style rocking chair and a leather hassock. MP is driving, K’s in the back seat, and I’m riding shotgun. It’s hot in the truck so I’ve taken my squall parka off. That will prove to be mistake #1. When we get back to my place and I start to get out of the truck, I make two more mistakes: (2) I forget how high up the truck is, and (3) I forget that there’s ice on my driveway. Actually (4), I forget completely that just because the sun is shining doesn’t make it California. As soon as my right foot touches terra-not-so-firma, it goes slip-sliding away and I fall the rest of the way out of the truck, landing hard on my ass and bare elbow (at least it’s the other side of the ass and the other elbow from my fall in the park). K sees what happens and shouts to MP, “SHE’S DOWN!” He looks across the front seat and can’t see me because I’m on my ass. He comes around and helps me up and I shuffle carefully into the house. Good guy that he is, he finds the ice-melting particles in the garage and sprinkles the driveway. The next day, I check out my bruises in the big bathroom mirror and I’m amazed. There are two huge black and purple hematomas, one on each cheek (“I regret that I have but two ass cheeks to lose for my country”), and the surface is smooth and strangely beautiful, like fine Italian marble. I really should have taken a picture. I have never paid so much attention to my ass (or had to) in my life.

Jan. 25

Reading this over, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve spent way more time talking about winter than about my peeps. Well, last time I was all consumerist, and this time I’m the weather channel. And I still haven’t told you about my frozen sump pump hose, frozen furnace vent, or frozen dryer vent. I’ll just say Thank God for a brother (in-law and in-spirit) who’s willing to get sprayed by dirty water from a sump hole, a sister who happily paints my walls, and another sister who makes me yummy cookies and deviled eggs. (I tried to convince K and Barb to have a “deviled egg-off”” so I could “decide whose were better,” but they declined. Being the oldest sister isn’t as easy as it used to be; gone are the days when I could trick them into competing for my approval, or at least bribe them with a dime.)

I love that everything here is part now, part then, all touching into deep places within. I have the essential element of solitude and the ritual family gatherings to eat fish fry, watch a movie, or celebrate a birthday. I have both happy and sad memories to share, and new happy and sad moments to learn and grow from. I love that my peeps are still crazy about me after all these years, their quirky “sister from California” with the lefty politics, $50 words, and oddly decorated house who is different in so many ways but who can laugh and sing with them and share a life that is no longer just theirs but ours.

The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
The Lord make his face shine upon thee,
and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee,
and give thee peace.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux: #26 January 2003

June 28, 2009

I’m like a book. I want to be read.
—D. Dworkin

merry lu’s holidaze

Dear friends and home-ies, I want you to know me,
my Christmas, December, intensive (remember?),
my old friends and new, and relatives too,
but all of it’s swirlin’, I ain’t no Merlin
magician gone fishin’,
can’t tie it all neatly in parables sweetly,
so forget the flappin’, hold off on the rappin’,
I’m about to stop rhymin’ and see what’s been happenin’….

I feel like I did when I saw my therapist, J, a few days after the 7-day painting intensive. There was so much to tell her that I veered between fast-talking the details and throwing out a few insights like a lifeline to a drowning man, but the only one drowning was me. She thought I was in the middle of something, and I thought I had already gone through it, even though I couldn’t say exactly what “it” was. We almost didn’t make it, she was trying her hardest but I was way out there,
past her lifeline and mine, or maybe the drowner was throwing the line
to the one on shore and wondering what she was waiting for.

The rhythm is still with me, can’t stop it or drop it,
so please bear with me while I make the transition,
I’m rockin’ my chair but can’t get transmission,
I wish I could mind-meld, directly deposit
the thoughts in my closet, but I guess that’s what language is for,
to awkwardly say what no man has said before…

I’m still straddling two worlds, like a tale of two cities, or make that one suburb and a remote small town, which in its own way is also the center of everything. What is remote to one is birth, life, and death to another—so there’s really no such thing as remote, or even “other,” just gazillions of centers all dancing on the head of a pin with how many angels.

My sister K has read all the ‘zines now and passed them on to hubby MP. After reading “Lost weekday” (#11), about going to the dentist and pukin’ and peein’ myself (her favorite story, go figure), she and Barb and I got to bond in a sisterly way over our shared peed adventures. Barb writes:

K said she feels our lives are pretty mundane but you probably enjoy knowing that we pee our pants too, and you are normal in that respect.

I love that my main claim to being normal is that I pee my pants.

MP is reported to have “mixed feelings” about the ‘zine (he was shocked, shocked by what I was into when Mom was trying to get me to drink coffee), but he keeps reading, so way to go, bro!

Later, Barb reported that, after reading them all,

MP said to tell you, you don’t need a psychiatrist because you have us. Then again maybe you do because you DO have us.

Everybody’s a comedian.

My Christmas was very different this year. Usually I bah-humbug my way through December and then, on Christmas Eve, literally at the 11th hour, I get suddenly sentimental, turn on the choral carols on the radio, and wish I had done more for my fellow human. This year I got started early by sending a check to Barb to buy presents for my little nieces and nephews. Only problem is, I forgot about the ones I haven’t met yet, so it’s eight not four little ones, but B stretched the check to cover them all. P&C, my usual Xmas cohorts, were out of town for the holiday, so it was a vicarious Christmas chez Maree and Pookee. Late Xmas Eve, I got an e from Barb, who described in great detail the planning, the giving, the receiving, the smiles, the surprises, the love, the love. About the little ones:

I made sure the kids knew which presents were from their Great Aunt Mary and it was repeated several times with Wyatt saying “This is the Aunt Mary I haven’t met yet,” and Summer triumphantly announcing, “I have.” … You were even talked about when they were sitting in the kitchen eating their lunch after all the present opening was done.

It’s weird knowing these people, having them know me, as if I’ve gotten remarried and started a new family, except the new family is pretty much the old family with a few deletions and several add-ons. P thinks I’m “in love with the idea” of having reestablished the connection with my UPeeps; sure, I do love the idea, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I always knew the connection was there, it was just a matter of the planets getting realigned or something. It’s not about “going back” in any sense, back in space or time, it’s about being right where I am and letting the treasure that’s been there all along reveal itself. (I hope I didn’t use that exact same sentence last time, but if I did, c’est la vie, déjà vu, tant pis, pommes frites, oo la la.)

It’s no surprise to me that my sisters are generous and funny. It’s just that I was trying to put my own jigsaw puzzle together over here, not realizing that my pieces were part of the mixture, fitting neatly into the bigger picture created by my family, my friends and neighbors, my town, state, and country, my world, my universe. I’m only one center, just a renter who thinks she’s an owner, we’re all on loan here, but it’s still all mine and all theirs and theirs, multiplied multiple times… but finally I get it, the dimensions are infinite, the holographic whole is at once a goal and a done deal, nothing to reveal, just return to the One from which we all sprung, our ashes to AshLand or dust to rust. Doesn’t mean I have an answer to take to the bank or save me from cancer, no book deal or contract or stardom or fame, just me and my name, my rhymin’ so lame, the ‘zine, the queen-of-the-table game, it’s all the same. Wave or particle don’t really matter, we’re neither here nor there but everywhere. No doubt. Love in, love out.

This Christmas I went on a tipping spree. That’s dollars, not cows, for you Wisconsinites. I figure that rewarding the working people will have a ripple effect. Jon Carroll has an annual column in the Chronicle about his own invention, the Untied Way. It’s “untied” because it’s random. You take as much money as you can spare out of your bank account and give $20 bills out to the first however many people ask for money on the street. This is fine. I’ve had some good encounters on the street myself, when I gave willingly and not out of fear or guilt. A couple months ago, I came across a guy selling the Street Sheet in downtown S.F. He was sitting in the doorway of the (closed) restaurant I had wanted to eat lunch in. He was polite and cheerful, and when I passed him two or three times over the next half hour, we greeted each other and he told me about Lori’s Diner up the street, where I ended up having lunch. I had given him a dollar on our first encounter, but he was exuding such good cheer that after lunch I went back and gave him $10 “for the next 10 people who don’t give you anything.” He was inordinately pleased, considering it wasn’t exactly a fortune. But it felt to me like a true exchange, as if we were rewriting the equation of desperate beggar + reluctant passerby = resentment all around. This was more like real person + real person = humanity.

But at Christmas I refocused my efforts and gave extra (or first-time) tips to the person who delivers my Sunday Times, my pleasant and conscientious mailman, a couple of waiters and valet parkers, my new haircutter, and even my favorite grocery store clerk (Nanette at United Market—tell her Mary sent you). The wind might get taken out of my sails when I have my taxes done and realize I’ve been thinking of all the money in my bank account as mine, when a large portion of my income this year didn’t have withholding taken out. But I still like the principle. It’s only a few dollars extra to me, but it’s meaningful to them, in both tangible and intangible ways. If a smile can send someone on her or his way with a lighter step, think what $20 can do.

The first song I heard when I turned on the radio on Christmas morn was by the Flaming Lips:

Do you realize… that everyone you know someday will die?
Do you realize… that we’re floating in space?
Do you realize… the sun doesn’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round?

I’d have to say Yes, Yes, and Yes, but it’s good to be reminded. The next song was some cock-schlock by a band called, with eerie accuracy, Disturbed. I switched to Alice and then to KALW, but they were all choral and Crosby, so I had to disrespect the Bing and settle for a silent morning. Decided to compose my own soundtrack on the Mac: ‘Zine attack!

December was especially notable for all the human contact. I was with people for, like, 10 days straight! I handled it pretty well, but I did have to bail on a brunch in Tiburon because I was starting to come unglued. Terry and Jean were here from Massachusetts, and they had to cancel their trip up the coast because of the rain, so we got to spend more time together. It was fun, fun, fun till Daddy took the T bird away (and the J bird). Besides the daily lunches during the intensive, we dined with Diane L. and Diane D. at Garibaldi’s in the city, and T, J, and I had our farewell dinner at the Buckeye in Mill Valley, where I take all my painting lovelies. I wore my blue hair for the occasion, praying it wouldn’t rain—blue rivulets running down my face, not the look I’m going for. We had a sweet-sorrow good-bye, but it’s so much better to be sorry to see someone go than to be relieved you’ve got your blessed solitude back.

Next fall, P&C will retire early, move to Oregon, and spend their declining years reclining in a house they bought on the Rogue River. P has been trying to get me to move up there too. When I complain about the Caveman ambience of Grants Pass (Caveman Motors, billboards with Cavemen dragging Cavewomen by the hair, etc.), she counters that I could settle nearby in the more refined community of Ashland, the Shakespeare festival place.

P is the executrix of my will, so every year or so I revised my detailed instructions to her regarding the distribution of my worldly goods. But I’ve never figured out if I want to REmain or CREmain, as it were. So one night I say to her, “I still don’t know what to do about ‘the body’.”

P (casual as can be): “I’ve already decided.”

Me: “Oh?”

P. “You’re going to Oregon.”

I howled, “That is SO against my EXPRESS WISHES,” and she just laughed.

A few days later, when T&J and I were having our farewell dinner (smoked pork sandwiches, onion rings, chicken salad, butterscotch crème brûlée), Jean said she wished they could put me in their suitcase and take me back to Massachusetts. I had just told them the story of P hauling my assh to Oregon, so I said, “Maybe you could get P to split the ashes with you.” Ha ha ha. One of them pointed out that I’d be happier with them because they live in ASHFIELD, get it? It only took me 2 days to realize the alternative is ASHLAND, so I’d say it’s a wash. That doesn’t even take into account my sisters’ possible wishes. Barb, in fact, protests, “Why Oregon? What is in Oregon? Will I have to say Mary gone to Oregon?… Or will it be Mary moved her ash to Ashfield?”

Quiet geek in Lake Oregon… Has a nice ring to it.

Barb pointed out that there are still three family plots in Riverside Cemetery where Mom, Dad, and baby Mike are buried. Mom’s ashes are tucked in at the foot of Mike’s grave, so there’s plenty of room left for me to have my “space.” I’m considering it. Having overcome my anti-hometown sentiments, I’m verging on the gung-ho (ya think?).

In fact, this just in… I’ve made my decision—or the decision that was a foregone conclusion unknown to my former illusion has come into view: Post-this-life, I’m headed back to the U.P. to rejoin my original nuclear family, yes, the prodigal electron comes whirling back into orbit, knowing, finally, that it can be the orbiter and the orbitee, hello Menominee!

It seems appropriate that I’ll end up getting’ down with the three people I’ve painted over and over for the past 20+ years, and not always in a flattering light. If there’s an After to this Life, I hope they’ll understand. When I get to the bright light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t want any angry ghosts on my hands. Part of my rap-prochement with the past is realizing that the key elements that have “defined” my life are not the deaths, the illnesses, the poverty, the illicit touching, the adolescent pain, the adult relationship pain, the pain the pain the goddamn pain. Flip the foreground and background—like that picture that looks like a death skull one way and a woman brushing her hair the other way [so sexist, but never mind that]—and you see the love, the sacrifice, the generosity, all the quiet invisible parental intangibles that created the offspring of William H. and Louise L. McKenney, and all the lives that have sprung off from each of us (in utero or de facto), and you know that the good far outweighed the bad.

The 7-day painting intensive was amazing, as always, packjam with insights and outtasights, real painters and painted realities, mysteries and surrealities, connections and discords, selfs and others, sisters and a coupla brothers, I’ll never do it justice so let’s just take a look at some highlights and lowdowns.

I was the only one it mattered to, and then I wasn’t there anymore.

This line has stayed with me, because it’s one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of what happens in painting. You spend the day obsessing about this, that, and the other thing—not knowing what to paint, not liking what you painted, what’s going on in the room (“Everyone is into it but me”), what about this relationship or that work problem, what’s for lunch, will this day never end, etc. etc. Brain diarrhea, wontcha put me out of my miserrhea? And then… “you’re not there anymore.” Can you relate, dear reader? You’re not unconscious, you’re fully aware, you just aren’t “there,” Gertrude Stein-wise, in that petty, whiny little ego way with its long self-life and short half-life, it’s only half-living but we think it’s all there is. When we factor in the life after, our petty little head don’t want to be dead. No more ME. All we want is to continue to live (will there be a surge in the basic séances when the Boomers start moving to Ash Land?), but what if release from the body is like cracking through the egoshell and suddenly you’re “gone” but you still be with all the Gods chillin’?

After painting all day, when we’re all aglow, neither here nor there with our souls laid bare, all epiphany, happily happily, do we ever want to go back to the angst and torture of “nothing to paint”? No, we don’t. So why cling to our earthly fling, spend 80 years obsessing about this and that (and the other thing), knowing it matters only to us and then we aren’t there anymore but we’re so much more? What more could we ask for?

One day in the sharing, Pi-te (one of the sweetest men on earth) waxes poetic about the arrangement of flowers in the studio bathroom. He had followed the blooming of the gladiolas throughout the week and describes the buds, the careful unfolding, the luscious colors. The rest of us are thinking, “Geez, I never noticed any of that! All I see in there is the ordinaire, the “12 double rolls same as 24 regular rolls,” not exactly poet matter. Finally, Kate comes up with the answer. “He pees standing up!” The flowers are arranged behind the female behind, and the double (same as twice as many undouble) rolls provide the only distraction besides urinary satisfaction.

We have our laffs, that’s for sure.

As always, some strange things happened during the intensive. It’s like you don’t even know yourself after a few days of painting. The firm grasp you’ve been keeping on your identity starts to crumble, and you realize that your true self has no need to grasp—and there’s nothing to hold on to anyway. At various times I got agitated when I thought I had no reason to, and then was perfectly calm and collected when by rights I “should” have been upset. I got tired of hearing one of the painters harp about judging: “I judged, am judging now, trying not to judge, the judge says this, the judge says that, all is judgment, oops I’m judging again.” It was as if judgment were her identity, her badge or excuse, her comfortable pool of helplessness in which to wallow and never change because there would always be something to judge—it’s an endless loop, the judger is the judged, the observer is the observed (so that’s what Krishnamurti meant!), how would she ever see beyond it? I couldn’t stop myself from saying some of this in the sharing, in a shaky voice, not wanting to attack anyone but needing to say something, and everyone ignored what I said (or, I suppose, had their own things to say, imagine that) so I had to jump in later and say that I felt “hung out to dry” and that I “hated everyone” in the group for not responding. The general consensus was that I had merely been “thrown back on myself,” which is one of those things that sound good in theory but suck when it’s happening to you.

Barbara, of course, points out that I’m doing the same thing that I find so irritating about this other painter (I, too, am judging the judge), and says it’s useful to look at what we see in one another—or, to quote Byron Katie, “Judge your neighbor.” Use the judgment. You can only see in others what already exists in you.

One of the hardest things for me to deal with during a long intensive is not being able to nap at will. I’ve been spoiled rotten by working at home and setting my own schedule. So if I can catch a few winks in my car or on the couch in the sharing room after lunch, it really helps. I was sound asleep one day when a fellow painter, with the very best of intentions (thinking I may not have intended to go to sleep—clearly, she doesn’t know me very well), spoke my name softly and touched me on the shoulder. I CATAPULTED off the couch, yelled JESUS!, and my glasses went crashing to the floor as I rapidly tried to assess what was going on. As I sat there for a moment, head in hands, trying to bring down my heart rate, my FP (fellow painter) apologized profusely, but I was amazed to discover that I bore absolutely no ill will. I didn’t have to force myself to be polite for her sake, or overcome (or indulge) my true reaction. She said, “I made a mistake!” and I said (hardly recognizing myself), “It doesn’t matter! It’s like in the painting!… It’s all right, really, I’m not mad at all.”

This isn’t about my being a “good person,” it’s just something that happened. I never knew that things like that could go right through you, I’ve always held tight to any slight while believing I had no choice but to fight. When I told this story later, someone said we need to “work on” those reactions in our daily lives, and I found myself saying NO. No work! Not about working! It happens! It happens to you or through you when you are being truthful and not banishing the bad feelings. That’s why painting “works.” As Krishnamurti said, “The very fact of being aware of what is is truth. It is truth that liberates, not your striving to be free.” Painting truthfully (though difficult), sharing truthfully in the group (though more difficult), and especially being truthful (and true) to yourself takes you out of the realm of trying (to be a better person), working (on your issues), and processing (personal interactions). Instead, you feel irritated whether it makes sense or not, you feel forgiveness and love whether that makes sense or not, you paint what you paint and judge it or not, and it’s all part of what is, nothing special, no preference. You want to drive the train with your engineer brain, but Life maintains a seamless, trackless terrain. I guess it’s what the Buddhists have always said. Krishnamurti again: “Remembered truth has no value; you have to discover it each time. But each time you discover it, it’s the same.”

Let’s get back to my post-painting therapy session with J for a moment. Having struggled through most of the hour unable to be in the present, consumed with the past I wanted to present to her and even wondering, scarily, if I’d come to the end of therapy, I say, “I feel as if I used to sit in the audience in the dark theater and watch the movie [Life] on the screen. Now I’m in the movie, people can see me from all angles, I can see everything in 3-D too, and I don’t know what role I’m playing or where the story’s going.” No wonder I was having trouble knowing which character, action, or plot line to describe to her, like a movie reviewer in the middle of the show instead of the middle of the row.

I felt more in touch with J (and myself) after that, and it was past time to go, but I still wanted to show her my paintings from the 7-day. She loves to see them, and I don’t feel constrained in my prah-cess by allowing another’s eyes to gaze upon them. So I showed them to her in order and explained how I had gone into the intensive knowing I wanted to paint my sisters and maybe even my whole new-old family. I did paint B and K right away, but it didn’t feel anything like I thought it would. I had assumed that the warm loving connection from real life would flow onto the paper, but instead I stood there, thinking, “Who are these people?” When I paint my parents, they’re recognizable to me as images projected by me. But I couldn’t tell what I was projecting onto my sisters; it was as if I had painted two strangers. Both Barbara and later J thought this “mystery” mirrored my ongoing discovery of K and B as adults. It’s intriguing.

By day 2 or 3, I had started painting bodies from the inside out—first the bones, then fat, then flesh, with the skull staring out from the face. It was so intense that I felt like I was in one of those movies where someone’s trapped in a room and the walls are starting to move toward each other. I illustrated this to Barbara with my left hand in a fist meeting the irresistible force of my open right hand. She said that instead of fighting the intensity, I needed to SPLAT. No clues on how to accomplish that.

Barbara teaches like a Zen master, stopping at nothing to jolt us out of our mental ruts. She asks where more skeletons could be on my painting, and I point out that all the bodies already have them. She inquires innocently, “Oh? Can only bodies have skeletons?” I’m thinking, Yes. There aren’t even any more things to put skeletons in, and again she asks, “Can only things have skeletons?” At that point I give up and paint a “blob skeleton” inside a random shape. And somehow that propels me into painting the molecular structure of the people’s faces. Don’t ask me how.

On the final painting, I don’t start with my sisters, I start with me, and I’m big, with arms stretched wide at shoulder level. Skeleton + fat + flesh, I construct myself on the page with intense blue eyes, open mouth, strong golden lights beaming out of my heart tubes, more golden lights emanating from my midsection, which is intricately organed and celled, molecularly dense, no wispy spirit for me. The image feels so alive that I think it could almost get up and walk off the paper. (That would be a good excuse for taking a break: Can’t paint, my image is out having a cigarette.) I find myself retreating to the sharing room, where I take a deep, fast nap. The intensity is what we all say we want, and then when we get it, it’s almost too much to bear. Finally, I paint my parents on either side of me, pale-fleshily, looking at me dubiously. Who is this person who came out of us?

As I’m showing the paintings to J, she turns to that last one, and she is blown away! “We should have looked at this sooner!” she exclaims. She can’t get over the difference in the way I’ve painted myself. “And you say you’re not in the middle of something??” She mentions the wire sculpture “body” I made years ago: the exoskeleton constructed in wire on a floor lamp doubling as the spine, with a plastic skull, a rubber heart, ribbon- and bead- and flower-spangled innards, and skeleton hands. I had shown her a photograph, and she had marveled that it looked so much like my real body’s somatic posture, downward-sloping shoulders and all. So now she’s gazing in amazement at this painting, contrasting it with the earlier wire soma, pointing out the strong shoulders, solid bones, steady beams of light, intense gaze, so full of life yet self-contained.

What’s especially weird about her referring to the wire sculpture is that it had fallen down recently, and I had reluctantly decided I would have to take it apart. The skull was cracked, the chain and red skeleton hand had fallen off the heart, the yellow fluff that was a “flame” in the chest wouldn’t stay put, and the “neck” (a glob of Sculpey modeling compound to hold the skull on) had dried up and fallen off, so that was that. Nothing lasts forever. I thought it was sad at the time, but after what J said, I realized it was stunningly appropriate that my “old self” would crumble just as the “new self” was asserting itself on and off the paper.

Writing about this is tricky, because in the prah-cess we know not to comment on people’s paintings or to take any of the content to mean anything about us—not to mention the hubris of declaring ourselves to be shedding the old and becoming the new. The paintings are like light traveling for millions of years on a journey to nowhere in particular. By the time light is visible from Earth, the star it came from is dead and gone. So, in our case, what ends up on the paper—which to an “artist” and the “art”-worshiping world is the whole point—is really the detritus, the shed skin of the snake of creativity. The real art is in facing the Void with honesty and vulnerability.

Also, technically, the painting isn’t “finished,” meaning I haven’t gone to the very end and squeezed every last drop and dot out of it that I can. Which makes what happened next even stranger. (BK, avert your eyes!)

J says the painting moves her deeply—I can even see tears welling up (usually that’s my job)—and I’m moved by her response. There is a difference in my body/mind/being, and most of that difference stems from the work we’ve done together. So it feels perfectly natural when she says, If there’s any way I could get a copy of this… to say, I’ll give it to you. She protests at first but finally says simply, “I would be honored.”

I’m “breaking all the rules,” of course—I have never given away a painting before, especially one that isn’t finished. But as Barbara would surely say, There really are no rules except the ones we create, and we learn by testing them.

As so often happens when I start the hour begrudging the “artificial” format of therapy, questioning its usefulness at only 2 hours a month, something unexpected and perfect has happened. I had felt worlds apart from J, and then—SPLAT. I had assumed that the SPLAT, when it came, would be a collision, like a KO in the third round, but instead it’s a beautiful moment, so light, so effortless. At such a moment, I’m in love with life—the surprise and depth of it, the endless mystery, the light traveling toward us as though drawn onward by our grateful eyes.

On the last day of the intensive, Kate has the idea of getting a wedding cake for Terry and Jean, who were ceremonially united in domestic committed partnership (or something like that) in Vermont earlier in the year. Of course it wasn’t a “real marriage,” as it would be if they were a man and a woman who met in a bar in Las Vegas and got hitched the next day by an Elvis impersonator while jumping out of an airplane—oh no, how could their love and 20 years together possibly be “real” compared to the inherently holy union of male + female?? [end rant]

So there was much secrecy and whispering and plotting, and we searched in vain for two little bride figures for the cake. Kate says we can draw the figures instead, so she comes to me in the afternoon and asks if I’ll do it, and I say, “No, I can’t draw!” We look around, trying to think who among us can draw—pretty weird, for a painting group. Kate finally recruits Pi-te, and he does a wonderful job. Kate cuts the figures out like little paper dolls (they’re naked with rosy red nipples, a nice touch) and arranges them on the cake with flowers, and at the end of the day brings the cake out while we sing, “Here come the bridezzz…” and it’s great to watch Jean and Terry looking around in confusion, like “Who…?” It was a wonderful moment, especially because it wasn’t the work of a cultural subgroup honoring their own, it was just friends honoring each other.

heavy petting

Pookie has a new forbidden pleasure, and it’s all my fault. He often comes up beside me when I’m working and makes this little squeaky meow, so I pet his head, murmur some sweet nothings, and go back to what I’m doing. That used to be enough, but then he started presenting himself back end first, and one day when I was feeling especially generous I scratched his back down by his tail, and he got all blissed-out and tried to lick himself on the chest (not sure what that’s about). I frequently comb him with a spiky comb that’s like a bed of nails with a handle, and he likes that too, but there’s something about my stumpy fingernails that really gets him going. And I, being picky about where my stumpy fingernails have been, get all icked-out and have to wash my hands immediately—or at least rub them on my pants. (I’m Ms. Cleanliness-Is-Next-to-Godliness unless I don’t feel like getting up.)

Also… don’t tell the IRS, but… I think my home office is being “repurposed.” Pookie seems to be rallying his forces for a coup, or a koop (pook spelled backwards, huh, huh?). All his stuff used to be out in the hall, but I see it’s now spreading like a virus into my official tax-deductible work territory—his bed, tissue paper, toys, cardboard, catnip heart, ribbons, combs, chair (with towels, for on and under), ad infinitum. I admit I have a hand in this, because he doesn’t have any of his own (hands, that is), but he must be beaming commands into my brain or something (ha! yeah, right). And it’s not as if I have a lot of extra room in here. As I approach my desk, I have to negotiate several noncarpet surfaces: swishy, slippery, crunchy (sounds like the 7 dwarfs), spiky (that bed-of-nails comb is hell on bare feet), and that’s not even counting the litter crumbs, the clumps of fur, the kitty vomitus, and even the occasional turdlet. I ask you! When he starts running around the house frantically, I know there’s something hanging out of his ass that he can’t dispose of in the usual manner.

Well, I could go on and on, right, Pook? But let’s wrap this baby up and put it to bed.

[mutter mutter] get no privacy whatsoever.

jump around! jump around, jump up and get down!

Long Night’s Journey into New Year’s Day

3:00 a.m.: I’ve been listening to party music on Live 105 since 8:00 and don’t want to go to bed and miss any of it. It’s the perfect mix of every upbeat song you ever knew and loved, or didn’t know and get to discover, from the ‘50s to the ‘00s, a whole lifetime of the rock and the roll: James Brown, the Kinks, a dash of disco, Abba, the Clash, Sex Pistols, Oingo Boingo, the Cure, hip-hop, rap rock, electroclash, techno. The oldies are goodies, and the creativity of the new is awesome. Sampling and remix and turntable DJ’in’—it’s recycling that sounds like anything but—the perfect re-use of the musical environment, like a spangly new jacket made out of old tires. They play a techno remix of the Eminem song in which he proclaims, “Nobody listens to techno!” and of course that line is sampled over and over until the joyful irony imprints itself on yer dancin’ jones and yer party bones.

3:30 a.m.: They play an infectious hip-hop number called “Jump Around!” and I can’t help myself, I haul my middle-aged ass out of my chair and get out on the tiny dance floor (again, don’t tell the IRS)—“Jump around! Jump around, jump up and get down!” Pookie, who’s sprawled in the middle of the action, gives me the evil eye—it’s the middle of the night, for Christ’s sake! But I think he secretly enjoys it, and, besides, love it or leave it, eh tu, Pooké?

Next there’s a rap by a guy named Humpty who likes women with big butts. (By the way, when did the ass become so popular?) There’s a dance with this one, too, called the Humpty Hump, but I think I’ll humpty hump my derrière off to bed instead.

Love, Emelem

hi youse guys… ksjf87ffnvks*jlf.. what did she do, oil the wheels on this *@!&k% chair? first of all the pook-coup has already happened.. ive got her doin my biddin. I lift my eyebrow, wait do I even have eyebrows, never thought about it before. I twitch my whiskers and she scratches my back or gets me fresh tissue paper to lie on and thinks its her idea!!! im nuthin if not diabolical—eee-ah-hahaaaa!!!!!! have u noticed ive been practicin on the shift key, I almost have it mastered, just wait til I start typin in ALL CATS {oops, freudy-cat slip, oooh I crack myself up, teehee!}

No doubt! Pookie, butt out!

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine #38 May/June 2009

June 8, 2009

Spring in the U.P. made it just under the wire. As I write this it’s almost June, and the leaves on the trees just popped green about a week ago, closely followed by a spike in temperature to 82°. I’m sure UP’ers were celebrating all over the place, but I was miserable. I thought, Oh great, spring has sprung right over into summer. But then it went back down to 48° and all was forgiven.

Can you tell I don’t like summer? I do have air conditioning, so I can stay relatively cool unless someone makes me go outside. But I’m still paying over $100/mo. for gas & electric ($300+ in the dead of winter), and it would be nice to get that bill down further before turning on the A/C.

jetsam, dreams, painting, death, the almighty $

I’ve been mildly depressed lately, mostly because this is the week of the May painting intensive in San Francisco that I had intended to go to, back when I didn’t realize that my little editing business would be affected by the global financial crisis (Think globally, lose money locally). Ironically, my best client, at UCSF, is getting so much money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that it’s making her “crazy” (I guess with grant applications? administrative details?) and she and her lab group don’t have time to write papers. A few jobs have trickled in from Italy, but nothing like in recent years. In the meantime, I sit here, the little birdie on the back of the hippo, and the hippo isn’t doing a damn thing for our symbiotic relationship. I forget what the birdie is supposed to do. OK, I looked it up [] and added a few editorial translations.

One version of symbiosis is the relationship of certain birds and hippopotami. In this relationship, the birds are well known for preying on [editing] parasites [errors] that feed on each hippopotamus which are potentially harmful for the animal [s career]. To that end, this hippopotamus openly invites the birds to hunt [edit] on its body, even going so far as to open its  jaws to allow the birds to enter the mouth safely to hunt [edit, sometimes very close to the esophagus]. For the birds’ part, this relationship not only is a ready source of food [money], but a safe one considering that few predators [credit card companies, mortgage holders] would dare strike at the bird at such close proximity to its host [client].

At the end of the first day of the intensive, Barbara e-mailed to say she missed me, and that made me feel a little better about it. In fact, I went into a flurry of activity and ended up taking most of the stuff out of my long walk-in closet that was literally stuffed to the gills (well, “literally” if closets had gills; let’s just say it was jam-packed right up to the door). I had the idea of digging out my old “Painting Letters” that I started writing to the group at the studio (CCE, nee Painting Experience) in late 1995. I’ve become obsessed with posting my writings on my website, For some reason there’s now a glut of books on the market titled “… Before You Die” (recordings you have to listen to Before You Die, books you have to read Before You Die, places you have to go Before You Die). I’m not generally paranoid, but it’s starting to get to me. So now my Before I Die project is to pour my thimbleful of outpourings into the ocean of literacy to be, in all likelihood, lost forever, or maybe to join the masses of flotsam (jetsam?—let’s just call it garbage) that is swirling over the earth’s watery surface. That (the garbage in the oceans) started out to be a metaphor but is unfortunately a fact, but at least my own teaspoonful of thoughts, stories, and rants will take up nothing but “bandwidth,” which I assume is very close to being metaphorical itself…. or at least can’t float on the ocean or wash up on desert islands populated with cartoon characters with straggly beards hoping for rescue. A recent cartoon in The New Yorker had one of these guys opening a bottle with a note in it and saying, “I wish they’d quit sending my financial statements.” Apparently no cartoonist has ever thought of putting a woman on that island—I guess because man is the default human and woman is only good for sexual or nagging-her-husband jokes. There are some excellent female cartoonists—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel—but let’s face it, women just aren’t funny, or so I constantly hear from male comedians—whereas the Three Stooges and farting, now that’s funny!

Where was I? OK, so I started lugging all this stuff out of the closet, including eight large cartons and five portfolios stuffed (to the gills) with my paintings since 1979. I’ve weeded them out a few times, but there’s still a lot for my “heirs” to toss when the time comes. Over the years I’ve given several of my paintings away in the dim hope that they will outlive me. So maybe some of them won’t get thrown overboard with the rest of the jetsam. (Flotsam = “floating debris”; jetsam = stuff “cast overboard to lighten the load in time of distress.”) I’ve asked my peops, should I die first, to put some of my paintings up at the funeral home in lieu of the photographic montage that reminds or educates the mourners about the one who has passed on. I would love-love-love to be hovering over that gathering, watching the shocked reactions to my shocking paintings (“Mary, we hardly knew ye!”)—but I’d rather not see all the crying, and I definitely don’t want to see all the laughing and chatting—I expect my death to be taken seriously!

Since I’ve stumbled onto this topic, let me go a little further. I’m curious to find out if painting will have prepared me for the spooky projections that the Tibetan Buddhists say will greet each of us in “the bardo” when we die. I don’t think I was aware of being born; I want to be awake for my death. And I dare my inner projector to find scarier images than the ones I’ve already seen on other people’s paintings and on my own.

I’ve had several lucid dreams over the years, when I knew I was dreaming, and a few super-lucid ones that felt exactly like what we call “real life.” In one of the super ones, I heard people walking up the stairs to my bedroom. It was a man and a woman, and I somehow knew that they knew M. Cassou (larger-than-life painter/teacher). The man said, “We’ve heard about you.” At the time, I was really into the “afterlife” (so much more appealing than the “duringlife”). So I clung to that dream/experience as some sort of guarantee that there is an Order to it all. I’ve since lost the need to feel immortal, if only in spirit form, but the one thing I truly believe I have going for me is that when Death comes, I will go toward Him, Her or It without reservation. I’ve somehow learned through dreaming not to shrink back from scary images (I push through them and they dissolve) or from falling (I fall even faster and then swoop up and fly) or even from death that I “know” is imminent. This is it, go-go-go, I actually dream-think to myself. And someday it will really happen.

Death… to be cont’d.

the stuff of memory

As I was taking stuff out of the closet, the cats were in heaven, especially Brutus, who has long wanted to explore the marvelous peaks and valleys and tunnels and crevices that make up my “not wanted now but someday…” accretions. I sweated and heaved and carried and pushed and pulled my way through the narrow passageway between two old bookcases that will henceforth be exiled to the garage. I knew that my old painting writings would be way in the back, in an unmarked box, and they were. So I hauled them out and spent hours going through them and selecting several pieces that I could conceivably post on my website (“In the bardo,” “Party time,” “The thief, the policeman, the devil & I,” and other oldies but goodies). As always happens when I try to “declutter,” everything I’ve dragged out of hiding is now very much in sight and under foot. If I didn’t expect my niece to come clean on Thursday, I could happily leave it there until inspiration strikes to put it all back. But she is my cleanliness/clutter conscience, so I will probably have to do something with it all before then. [Update: Didn’t happen; she cleaned around it.] There are still several large storage boxes of old books and feminist/lesbian magazines from the ‘70s in there, which I’m sure will be of interest to somebody, someday; I can’t bear to throw them out. There’s also a trunk containing old letters and writings  dating back to at least college—it’s the trunk I took to college—and I’m sorry, but I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should throw away anything you haven’t used or looked at in the past year. I will haul that shit with me until the day I die. It’s my life, man!

So I got all sweaty and tired doing that, and I had earned a rest, so I fell back into my big red comfy chair by the open window and inhaled the delightful smells brought in by the breeze and listened to the birds—I had just fed them that morning—and watched Brutus and Luther run from window to window to catch sight of the pigeons cooing (shitting, fornicating) on the roof. The temperature was a perfect 62° (San Francisco weather!). There are so few days like this, when I can have the windows open and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of nature.
(I’m not in nature, but I’m nature-adjacent.)

In Barbara’s e-mail she said I wasn’t “where [I] was supposed to be” (painting on a tripod near the door where I could get the occasional hint of breeze) but then hastened to add that I was where I was supposed to be, just not where she wanted me. And though I wished to be there too, I knew that if I were, I’d be dealing with physical privations and fears of people, process, and planes. And yet the experiences I have there are like nothing else in my life… so deep, so meaningful, so touching the core of the little me and the big I. The world within those painting walls is the whole world when 20 or 25 of us are painting all day for 7 days in a row. The energy and sublime quiet in that room, the giggles and the tears, Barbara’s words floating through the air (not at all like flotsam) as she talks to each of us in turn are powerful beyond imagining. It’s a place where strong feelings come up and you don’t have to pretend not to be feeling them. And the camaraderie—but more than that—the rapport, affinity, intimacy, affection, love—often with the unlikeliest people (“new” people, the impossibly young, those with whom you’ve had un petit conflit), but also with the longtime companions you’ve been painting with, exploring with, undergoing upheaval and change with, for 25 or 30 years. Of course, there have also been the strange, unwanted encounters with people who push your buttons big-time, or you theirs, and it’s all in the mix, the connections and the dysfunctions, the getting thrown back on yourself, whether in the group or on the paper. So easy, it would seem, to apply paint to paper, so complex and difficult in the execution, every painting a self-portrait in a way, but a self you barely recognize or, worse, recognize all too well and want to rip off the wall. But there’s no escape, and in that twisting, sometimes agonizing aloneness and confrontation with yourself, you find love underneath it all and a great expanse of spirit, a letting go. And when you turn and face your painting companions at the end of the day, you’re raw, you’re bleeding grace, but you’ve survived. That’s when you can look in someone else’s eyes and see that, beneath the differences of physical body, country and culture, age and experience, you are one.

I am so missing you right now. (You know who you are.)

some jog, some blog

It’s strange that I suddenly feel like writing. I went for how long—a year and a half?—without having the urge, or at least the stamina, to make a ‘zine out of a long list of half-told tales. And now I wonder if I’m going to overwhelm you—“oh God, not another zine! I don’t have time for this!”—or just deteriorate into telling you what I had for breakfast this morning, or that I’m just getting over a cold, like a Twitterer intent on announcing her every move. You could say I’ve always done that anyway, and you could be right.

I feel like I’m straddling two worlds: (1) the heartfelt world of little Midwestern (or West Coastern) stories xeroxed, stapled, and mailed to a few friends and (2) the vast, personal/impersonal, wasteland/gold mine/font of everything and nothing-of-value—the Internet, where I can post an innocent, throwaway comment about Stonehenge (they figured out it was a burial ground, big deal) and get back a response from the U.K. less than an hour later, by the author of a book on the subject, gently chastising me for buying into the media’s glib pronouncements.

The size of the Internet world seems way out of proportion to that of an individual sitting at her typewriter-like object plugged into the wall, in a small town in a remote part of the country where most of the residents are blithely unconnected to anything larger than their big screen TVs. It seems both as wonderful and as not-quite-believable as when humans were first able to cover long distances in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks, via the magic flying machine, the airplane—which is no longer magical but only tedious in the extreme, to the point where you wish you could hop in a covered wagon, hook up the horses, and get there already.

Like those first awed airplane passengers, I have easy access to a world beyond my local environment—I can communicate instantly with a writer in Seattle, a bookseller in Kentucky, a scientist in Austria, friends all over the country, and, of course, my sister a town over. I suppose the computer is just an extension (so to speak) of the telephone, which still feels like the original technological miracle to me. The car is like a faster and more durable horse, but the telephone is the sine qua non. Imagine telling your great-great-grandparents, We have this machine with numbered buttons on it that you touch and you can talk to someone who lives 5 (500, 5,000) miles away! It’s absurd that this is even possible… or that airplanes can stay up in the air, for that matter…. Am I dating myself yet? So the Internet is more or less a glorified telephone where you use the written word instead of voice  to reach strangers far, far away, and you don’t even have to specify (dial up) these strangers, they just see what you’ve written (or recorded or filmed) in the privacy of your own home and then can answer you, correct you, or berate you, as they see fit. (If you read the “comments” pages on most websites, you will despair of humanity, I assure you.)

As you know, I’ve been posting old mary’zines and some previously “unpublished” material (“best of the mary’zine that never made it to print”) on I see this mostly as a practical means to get my precious words out there to the masses who don’t yet know they’re dying to read them, like those scientists who broadcast Buddy Holly or Elvis songs into outer space in case Someone is out there receiving signals and simultaneously having the first clue what music is. (If those Someones are anything like most human adults in the 1950s, they’ll just cover their ears, if they have them, and wonder what that “noise” is.)

But I was looking at one of my postings the other day and realized that it reads differently on the screen than it does on paper. The paper version fits the way I ramble in a leisurely fashion while deciding what I want to say—and what I want to say is often just the build-up to the ramble; you know, the journey not the destination—she said, as if she knew what the destination was, let alone how to get there. When you’re reading online, the eye wants to go fast, skip over whole sentences and paragraphs, get to the gist, the grist, the meat of the matter, and click on to something else if satisfaction is not immediate. I suppose I could try to make the writing in the ‘zine punchier, have lead sentences for every paragraph, organize my thoughts like a pyramid and get them out there, BAM!, like a journalist on a deadline who expects most people to read only the first paragraph or two. But no. Instead, I will have to rely on the likes of you: my slow… old… perhaps bedridden… readers out there who are willing to curl up with some good old-fashioned prose on paper…. or read it on your electro-screen if you must. And if little green men start leaving advanced-civilization-type comments on my blog, I’ll know that my ‘zine-waves-to-nowhere have done their job.

condo made of stone-a

In the fifth grade we studied ancient Egypt. I loved learning about the beginning of civilization—the images, the strange writing, the pyramids. It was my introduction to world history, and to the concept of something outside myself—vast and mysterious—irrelevant to my family’s pain and my own. That was the year that I was shocked to read about the burning of the Library of Alexandria (in aught-1st century B.C.), for all the knowledge that was lost forever. It was the year of editing the class newspaper, of writing plays for me and my classmates to perform, of being chosen to sing “Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” in the high school auditorium. It was the year I became a Girl Scout and dreamed of all the badges I was going to earn for tying knots and marking trails with little piles of stones. I loved playing basketball, football, and baseball with my boy cousins. I loved the woods and the shy little flowers. I read all the “boys’” adventure books—Hardy Boys, Jack London, deep-sea adventures, stories of proud Indian tribes—and I longed to own a typewriter and a desk and a bookcase.

Those memories from when I was 10 years old carry with them the innocence and hope with which I scanned the skies of infinite knowledge, expecting to learn more and more until I knew everything there was to know. Now, I look back through the other end of the telescope, and I see that I made my choices through time and never did get back to learning more about Egypt or so many other things. I’m a dilettante or, to be kinder to myself, a generalist. As I pore over the site, hopping and skipping from one recommendation to another, I end up ordering books such as Zero (The Biography of a Dangerous Idea); The Irony of American History; Decoding the Universe; The World Is Flat; Gödel, Escher, Bach; The Limits of Power; This Is Your Brain on Music. I’ve read some of all of these books, and all of some of them—you can’t read all the books, all the time. And yet, dipping my toe into the deep waters of quantum physics, U.S. foreign policy, biology of the brain, and globalization seems like too little too late. Why, now, go into depth on the big issues, the sciences, the histories? I loved Latin in high school… should I take it up again? Should I renew (or make) my acquaintance with Stonehenge and the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Muslims? I still have eyes to read and ears to hear, but now I’m on the other side of the immensity of all that is known—not because I know it all but because it seems increasingly pointless to learn facts.

At the age of 10, I wanted to know everything, but I had no interest in the unknown—what was there to know about that? And of course now I know that the unknown is the most important thing of all. It may be the only thing, because what do we really know for sure? Basically, we take everything on faith: gravity, birth, death, and our separate personhood, which may be the greatest illusion of all.

We are so small in the vast universe, so unschooled in the face of all that has come before and the more that will come after, so fully human and thus inadequate to the task of inhabiting, embracing, and containing all that life appears to offer. The view keeps changing, we see the big we cannot reach and reach for the small we cannot see. The hubris it takes just to write these sentences, as if I’m some Girl Shakespeare, reincarnated—and if it turns out that Francis Bacon wrote all those plays after all, I will be pissed: Who would aspire to be Girl Bacon? Maybe I’ll have better luck next time, or in the no-time, the whatever-it-is out there or in here.

Since it’s not something I can figure out, I’ll just keep following my little path and doing my little thing—typing my past and future thoughts into the computer and loading them up onto my blog so I’m no longer burdened by the need to disseminate myself personally, going from door to door or mailbox to mailbox. When I die, the books, the knowledge, the kudos, the joy and terror of writing, the connections, the ever-important follow-up and begging for scraps of praise will matter not at all; I will have been just one more little twig on the tree of life, one more ripple in the infinite river of humanity. So I try to be present, be alive, enjoy what I can and do what I must. That’s life, eh? On the TV show “Numbers” recently, one character says to his overwrought brother, the formerly boy genius who’s afraid he’ll never fulfill his childhood destiny: “Forget destiny. Just do what you want on any given day.” I second that emotion. The tree and the river don’t need me, gravity won’t remember me, birth and death will be behind me, and personhood? Poof.

epilog: Milk and more

The other night, the name of an old friend whom I lost touch with more than 20 years ago popped into my head, so I decided to google her to see what she was doing now. The first result that came up was her obituary. She had died a year ago. And while this was surprising news, it wasn’t exactly devastating, since I had been out of her orbit for so long. But it was odd to have her back in my thoughts again, to have all the memories of our times together right there, retrieved without effort as if it all happened yesterday—the glory days in San Francisco in the mid ‘70s, fighting for all the good things, observing and writing about the explosion of new political thought, the liberation of women and gay people, marching bravely (tremblingly) through the gauntlet of strangers in the Gay Pride parade. Back then I lived in the Castro (as did my friend), and we were all stunned by the murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. That night, my partner and I and thousands of others walked the long walk to City Hall holding lit candles, and listened to Joan Baez sing heartbreakingly on the grand steps, a memory fossil that will exist through time.

I was touched by the movie “Milk,” though the story it told wasn’t mine—unless you consider that I was in the march scene (real footage, not a reenactment). But the memories that attach to the movie, to the old friend now gone, to the people from that time and place who are still in my life, those memories stir and stir, and the pot runneth over. In life there’s no neat ending, no credits rolling or director commentating, no special features, no previews, trailers, or conversations with the actors. No actors. Just one person stumbling along, half-blind and the other half blindfolded, no clue what’s going on until she reaches a ripe old age where some things are revealed and others will remain a mystery forever.

R.I.P. Celeste West.

Death does not matter, says Krishnamurti.  I look forward to finding out why not.

[Mary McKenney]

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