Friday, August 31, 2007


My father's favorite tool
was a lawnmower.
I know this for two reasons.

I saw him use it alot
Saw him push it through woods
trying to turn woods into parkland
on weekends
Saturday after Saturday
my mother silent in the kitchen
me under his direction
pulling weeds I didn't want to pull
not knowing I could refuse.

I feel it now when I mow
what he must have felt
how pleasing it is
and how easy
with a lawnmower
to make things look
just like you want them to.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


A voice mail from a man whose name and number don’t show up on the caller ID. He says he’s been reading my blog with great interest and that if I need legal help to call him. His message is hard to plumb – his voice is polite, friendly, but also not frank and casual. You can tell he’s not showing all his cards. I save his message.

A friend says she’ll call a local journalist. She thinks the ashram’s threat is newsworthy.

Jonathan emails at 7 a.m., advising me to tell the agent who’s looking at my submission about the threat. He thinks it’ll help.

Part of me wants to fold up the drama into a tiny wad of paper, make it disappear and me along with it. Not most of me wants this, but I feel the strong urge to shrink back into the shadows, an urge that for a long time seemed like something good people, pious people, would follow. Let me stand in the shadows until someone peers into the darkness and notices me. That’s what I must wait for. Anything else would be unseemly. Now I push back against that urge to disappear and pretend I am not here.

It reminds me of my mother.

Lots of things remind me of my mother.

The way I worry about money, how even when I have it I am thinking that it won’t last.

My father went bankrupt. First, he spent a lot of money. Mostly in the life he had when he wasn’t at home. He had two lives and he liked the one that was separate from us better. in some ways. But he liked to come back to the house to rest and recoup.

He brought a leather handbag home once. He tried to use it for a little while. It was the seventies and I think there was a brief fashion attempt to get men to carry handbags.

He decided to call up one of those companies that publishes your book for you. He didn’t try to find an agent. I think he submitted it perhaps to one contact, someone his doctor knew and when that didn’t work there was no way he was going to go through the humiliating process of trucking that manuscript around. He’d do it himself.

He gave himself a party at the Waldorf Astoria and invited about fifty people to dinner where he stood and gave a talk about his book from behind a lectern.

And that was about it.

His book was about economics.

You talk to my dad for five minutes and you’ll get maybe a couple minutes of his actual attention and then he will pull the plug and start to talk about how they never should have moved away from the gold standard after World War 2.

My mother, in the years before the bankruptcy, my last three years of high school, split pennies, bought hot dogs, said one sweater is all you need and finally started answering ads in the Pennysaver to take care of invalids and old people.

I remember when she started doing that. It was strange. It had an independence to it, but also a giving up, a giving in as if all along there had been a voice in her head that who did she think she was, she wasn’t worth more than an hourly wage to clean up someone’s puke.

She wore a dress then, a narrow belt at the waist, the top like a button-down short-sleeved shirt, the skirt loose, past her knees – white cottony fabric with a pale red pattern. She’d gotten it from a catalog. Her slip showed beneath it sometimes. She didn’t look pretty anymore. I could see she had given up on that too.

And then my father on weekends running out to the fancy bakery before the guests arrive. Buying new wine glasses hours before the guests arrive. Credit cards.

“Going bankrupt was the easiest $50,000 I ever made,” he said to me, laughing as if it were funny but knowing it wasn’t.

They sold the house. That was the other part of the solution, the house he’d bought in 1960 for $10,000 and held onto for just over twenty years – proud of that house he was.

My youngest sister has a framed photo of that house on the wall in the ranch house on the cul-de-sac in Siloicon Valley that she and her husband bought about twelve years ago. When they bought that house I thought of it as two young kids buying a house so they had a place to sleep not too far from the office. It took me a w long time to realize that no, they actually chose that house. Two adults who wanted to live there. I thought I knew my sister, but I knew her only as a family member, not as an adult.

My father has the same photo of the Armonk house framed too.

I don’t. I dream about that house pretty often. And I drive by it every year or so though it has become something I don’t recognize anymore, dolled up to match the neighborhood.

I spoke to my father on the phone a couple of weeks ago. He said my mother had told him I had published a book and he wanted to read it. “It’s just on the Internet,” I explain, wondering why my mother mentioned it to him. “It’s not a real book yet.” My mother knows that my father wants to read anything I write and she has already told me that my book isn’t “tactful” enough, that I have “ruffled people’s feathers.” Why would she want to draw my father into it when it’s so easy to keep him in the dark?

“Send me your book,” my father says, with forced cheer, as if this is a happy simple thing. “I want to read it so much.” I say that I will.

And then my father almost begins to cry. “Life is short,” he says. “It’s over before you know it.”

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I got a letter from my aunt today. She’s my namesake. Her name is Marta. She’s my father’s younger sister, his only sibling.

They were such a picture-perfect family. I’ve seen the photos – my grandfather seated way over on one side, gruff, in a suit. Seated way over on the other side, my grandmother – pretty white curls, slim, dignified, faint smile. My aunt – pretty and dark haired draped near her dad, smiling. And my dad – handsome and suave in a suit – standing over his mother. All in sepia tones.

My aunt never writes to me. She doesn’t speak much English, but this is a full typed page with some handwritten additions. She explains that she got her goddaughter to translate.

It’s all about the apartment and what they should do with it. It’s all about money and how the two of them – my aunt and my father are roommates – will live. I’ll have to read it again to get the details, but I think my aunt is saying she has enough money for herself. So I guess that leaves my dad. She’s asking if I can send money. Otherwise, they might have to sell the apartment. Her grandparents bought it in 1928.

The bank is threatening to take my house back so I can’t help with theirs. I will send a nice letter. I’ll write about how I do love that apartment, but I don’t love it that much. and even if I did it’s beyond my reach.

She says that she and my father don’t agree on what to do with the place, how to proceed. It seems like she’s writing behind his back, but his signature appears at the bottom too. At least, I think it’s his signature. I looked closely.

This geographic distance between my father and me and my aunt is more than just geography. It’s not a coincidence that we live on different continents. My father says he never intended to be cut off like this, but he was cut off all along, even when we lived in one house.

I think of us, say, at the dining room table in the Armonk house. This was the house I’d known since I was three, though we hadn’t lived there solidly. We’d move away, rent it out, move back in, move away again, come back. Now it was high school and we were living there again after coming back from five years of relatively extravagant successful living in England, my father traveling to Switzerland and Morocco regularly. Now we were back and we were broke. There was a feeling of barrenness, of sparseness, of having what we needed but not a hair more.

My father really a weekend presence as he had become while in England, a weekend presence, a guest. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t there, it was more about what it was like when he was there, what it was like to be in the same room with him.

“Come on,” he’d say to me from the end of the table, a challenging smile on his face, not a smile of warmth and receptivity, but a smile that demanded some sort of combat, some sort of prove-it-to-me. Prove it to me that you’re smart, that you’re ambitious, that you’re winning, that you’re cultured and not just another useless all-American teenager. “Come on,” he’d say it a little sharply. And this wall would rise up inside of me that did not want to let him over, but I had to hide the wall, just like he was hiding his wall with that smile. “I’m a friend,” that smile was supposed to be saying. “I’m innocent. If there’s anything missing here it’s your fault.”

To get up and slam the door was not an option. And so I’d squirm and prove only that I was none of the things he was looking for -- not the bright conversationalist, nor the learned scholar.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Boy, that was a strange conversation with my mother last night.

My mother lives next door to the ashram in a community of people still loyal to the ashram and the guru that I’m writing about.

My mother goes every Sunday morning to chant the Guru Gita, a one-and-a-half-hour Sanskrit chant that I used to do every morning with a few hundred others before breakfast, before dawn.

My mother doesn’t chant in the ashram. People are not allowed to visit the ashram anymore so the local devotees have organized their own Guru Gita. It’s on Sunday morning in someone’s home or office and then they hang out for breakfast together, bringing food. My mother often cooks something and brings it. Pretty much all her friends are devotees.

My mother is not the pious sort. This is her first religion. But now and then in conversation she’ll surprise me and refer to Gurumayi as if she were a compass point, as a source of truth, as god.

On Monday morning this guy from the ashram, calling from about one mile from where my mother lives, called me to tell me to take my guru blog down or they’ll go after me legally. “Okay,” I said, hung up and went on with preparing the three chapters I was going to put up the next morning, and then, because eof the call, I added another chapter that otherwise would have waited a week, a chapter about the weird, ultra-secret rituals we did in the ashram to try and prevent the New York article form coming out.

A couple of days go by, filled with messages form the internet, offers of support – financial and otherwise – should I need legal help. And I figure I better call my mother. It had been two weeks – that’s about as long as I ever let it go, plus I thought she must have caught wind of all this. I better check in.

My mother wanted only to talk about the little girl next door, the zucchini recipe my sister was sending, the new job she was starting tomorrow. I went along with the chit chat, thinking, okay, maybe I just have to break in and say something, but it was as if my mother was building a stone wall between us and each stone was saying, “No, don’t talk to me about this.”

We spoke of the book about a month ago. She’d read at least some of it. Her main, unexplained comment back then was that I should have been more “tactful.” I could tell my book made her uncomfortable.

But last night she didn’t say a word about it. Didn’t ask how’s the book going? And I was stunned. I didn’t bring it up. I could have. I’ve done things that require much more strength than that. I could have said, “The ashram doesn’t want me to keep publishing,” but then she would have had to take sides, I guess, and she really doesn’t want to.

It’s okay. But it was very strange mouthing that conversation last night. When she asked me how I was doing I could tell by the reluctance in her tone that she didn’t really want to know. As long as I had enough to eat.

It’s good to know where I stand. To see my mother more and more clearly. She wants this much but not more.

I guess it’s funny too because I was more willing than usual to be more open with her. We’ve been friendly lately. I needed some help a few weeks ago and she helped me easily, no questions asked. In the past she has always told me I was too private, that I never told her anything. And it was true. And I was ready last night to open up something real – the call from the ashram – but the stone wall was there, mounting, one stone at a time, those gray, moss-covered, rounded stones like you see in New England.