Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Would I?

I call my mother, never sure. I call her in the moments when it’s been not only at least a couple weeks since we’ve spoken, but also moments when I am pretty convinced the obligation quotient is fairly low and I am doing this pretty much because I want to. If you asked me why I wanted to I’d have a vague answer – I want to be in touch, there is a definite sense that having my mother on this earth and available to call is an option I will only have for a little more time. Maybe ten more years. Maybe much less. Who knows when a person is 85? Even if she still drives and works and does all the things she has always done, more or less, in smaller doses.

Sometimes she refers to the future, just a little. We never talk about it for more than a sentence or two. This time she mentions how she doesn’t see well and how she probably won’t be able to renew her drivers license come the Spring her current one expires.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked. This was take the conversation down a non-family road. The normal thing would have been to say something that didn’t rock the boat or try to change its course.

I guess recently I’ve been wondering if maybe I’m too shut down when it comes to my mother. Maybe she attempts a little more contact, maybe I rebuff her.

“So how does that make you feel?” was a little tentative experiment.

“Well, you know,” my mother said matter of factly, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” and case was closed.

All the doors in my family are closed. We do not open them and we do not look behind them. We are unknowns to each other.

In this last conversation with my mother on the phone a few days ago I noticed myself not asking about my two sisters nor my father. When I talk to my mother it’s a matter of coming up with questions for her to answer. I have taken to asking about the neighbors as if they were family members, which for a few years – that at the time felt permanent – they almost were. I could tell that since these neighbors are fading out of my mother’s life and long ago faded from mine I won’t be able to use them much longer.

Until recently I asked about my sisters though we haven’t spoken to each other for a couple of years. I have idle curiosity. To ask about them feels like leafing through a People magazine. But they too are floating farther and farther from view and now if my mother doesn’t mention them we leave it out.

And my father, always slightly present for me, a dim figure in a dark apartment in Budapest. I have no idea how he spends his days but I know what I will get if I try to find out – simply more of the man I have always had, a person whose presence does not help me stay connected to who I am.

When he dies will I go to Budapest? I wonder things like this. That’s what people do. Their parent dies, they’re not expected at work the next morning. They go to where the action is. But will I? My sisters will be all over that stuff. They love that stuff. They do what they are supposed to do – when my mother can no longer live in her house they will organize the next step, I’m sure they’ve already done some research and it will probably involve my mother going out to them, to northern California.

I imagined the moment of the funeral. Why would I go, I wondered. I could not think of a reason. These things will be their show and I don’t want to be in their show. They love taking care of business and being adults.

I did make one inquiry. A good friend of mine had let drop something about a really cool community she had found – or her daughter had found actually – where she planned to go when her time was up, a place where older people were welcomed. It was in New Jersey and I got the website from her. It felt strange to be doing what I’ve heard and read about so many of my contemporaries doing.

But I knew right away it was no place for my mother. It just wasn’t. It made no sense.

And so I let it all be. Let my mother’s life run its course. Let my father’s life run its. Feel like a bad girl sometimes, but just keep trying to have the fullest life I can have.

A New Blog for Lovers of Real Memoir

I am very excited about this new blog by memoir writer, Alice Schuette: White Picket Fence Syndrome. Take a look!

Sunday, July 19, 2009


“So, how will you write about this evening?” asked Stu. It was a sweet, touching question. He was sitting out in the small audience with me up front, reading bits and pieces from my book and talking about things like writing and memoir and whether I edit my writing or not.

Stu is a big guy in a denim shirt. His hair is white. He looks a bit like a rancher though he lives in Rhinebeck, a wealthy man who looks like he’s been running things for a few decades.

“How are you going to write about tonight?” he asked, honestly wanting to know.

I said maybe I’d start with how an hour ago I realized the seam on my tight red dress was coming apart, how I searched my friend’s abandoned house where I was crashing for the afternoon for a safety pin at least, looking in all the places where a house might have tossed a stray safety pin years ago, and though I found many such places I never did find the pin. How I turned off at a supermarket on my way to the bookstore -- still thinking this was an emergency – 40 minutes before the reading, to buy needle and thread, and immediately realized there was no time for this and swinging back onto the road with the phrase “The Show Must Go On” in my head, imagining how actors must often have to leap onto the stage knowing their zipper is broken and you just have to pummel through.

I didn’t say to Stu how I might write about how before the reading, before people had really started to arrive, how when Greg my photographer friend, a friendly energetic Canadian, asked me to come to the door of the store, to lean out and smile so he could get the store name and my face in one shot, how it reminded me totally of my wedding morning when I was getting dressed and Ben, another photographer friend, wanted me to come out for a shot but I didn’t want anyone to see me yet so I just stuck my head out the door, looked into the long black lens and thought “This is it, this is my Vogue shot, the one time in my life that a real photographer is going to focus on me and make me glamorous and beautiful.” But there I was again, at the door of Oblong Books, sheltered from the rain by an awning, in the exact same pose 8 years later.

Jules was there with her husband, Bob. They introduced themselves. I had met Jules on Twitter and now here she was in front of me, a real person with a big natural smile, brown hair, brown eyes, no make-up, a pony tail. I immediately liked her. I introduced her to Jim who was pouring himself a wine – “Jules,” I said, “this is Jim – Jules & Jim!” I cried – a reference that the girls, Anna and Kristen, later at the Rhinecliff Hotel where we went for drink, didn’t get.

“I can’t believe I am hanging out with people whose parents were hippies,” I said. It is a strange thing, to be having a drink with the children of my generation.

We sat at a wooden table by the wall – I was relieved we didn’t have to order food. It was a friendly accommodating place. We knew the two guys making the music in the corner with rough voices and plugged in guitars – I wasn’t listening except when they started Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I am always glad when my ear picks up background music that I didn’t think I was paying attention to.

Last week Nick Flynn, a great memoir writer, late in the cafĂ© came over to Fred’s and my table. It was a celebratory moment, we had just opened the Memoir Festival with a rollicking panel discussion and I was making my way through a huge plate of French fries. Nick said I should read a memoir called Evening’s Empire. “Oh,” I said, “that’s a quote from something –“ I couldn’t remember what it was, but started piecing the words together as they came to me, not knowing what I was saying until the last line rolled into view:

Oh I know that evening’s empire
has returned into sand,
vanished from my hand,
left me blindly here to stand,
but still not sleeping.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man…

I was surprised that Nick didn’t join in. I thought everyone vaguely my age had words like that tattooed on their blood vessels, but he just kind of looked at me almost in wonder as if I were performing a literary feat, which then I actually did take some pride in.

I don’t know all Dylan’s lyrics by any means. There are huge holes in my knowledge but what I know I know deeply and well.

The first Dylan I heard was when I was 12 or 13. I heard him sing one morning out of the small black transistor radio that I had taken to borrowing indefinitely from my mother. I played it late at night under the covers, listening to rock & roll on Radio Luxembourg, the cool station that reached England from Luxembourg after dark. And I played the radio – now just junky morning pop – as I got dressed in my blue pleated skirt school uniform. Olivia Newton John was having a hit with a song called If Not For You, and the DJ that morning must have been feeling ornery. And now, he said, we’ll hear the man who wrote that song, and on came Dylan singing Olivia’s hit.

I was horrified. It was hideous. I wanted Olivia back with her blonde hair and her smooth syllables.

By 14 and 15 though I was getting craggier myself, was back in the States where I had the whole attic to myself and though I had no friends through American 10th, 11th and 12th grades, I had my Panasonic stereo with two speakers – the fanciest thing I had ever owned and the only reason I had it was that it was leftover from my father closing down the apartment he’d lived in for a year, trying to make it as a consultant in Washington DC.

By then Dylan was my muse, the one I listened to more than anyone else – especially in the long summers, lying on the leftover couch in the screened-in porch where there was some kind of record player, listening to the double album of his greatest hits – the only Dylan record I had – records were out-of-reach expensive, at Christmas I put them on my list and received two or three from my parents but it was always a problem – how to have enough records, how to choose one over all the others. I depended on the radio.

I lay on the piece of sofa – one half of an el-shaped crushed velvet sofa, also a leftover from the DC apartment – one of those pieces of my father’s life that hadn’t included the rest of us – and listened to every single word that Dylan sang, over and over, listening as he painted scenes and dialog that I puzzled over but also understood in some wordless way.

It is only fairly recently that I understood the lines “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.”

I always heard it as: Stuck inside a mobile with the Memphis blues again – stuck inside a mobile, like one made by Alexander Caulder, I thought. Tangled up somewhere hopelessly and unable to get out. Which wasn’t so far off the mark.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Written at the Memoir Festival Workshop This Past Weekend at Omega

He was tall enough though not a tall man. He had gone bald on top but somehow this didn’t make him look old or ugly. His brown eyes were bright and full of activity. His lips curved. But probably his strongest feature was his voice. It was strong. Not unusually deep. Not an obvious radio voice or anything, but his voice was strong and always sure and the words spilled from his mouth in an accent all their own, a Britishy accent that he had taught himself fiercely in London when a younger man – he was in his late 30s now. He’d created a smooth English-speaking voice that wasn’t uptight and rigid, but which covered perfectly his Greek origins. He did not at all sound like the other Greeks I met all with their quickly identifiable and lampoonable accents.

He was smooth in everything without being conventional. His clothes always looked expensive even when they were years old, even if way back then they had been cheap or hand-me-downs. He took care of every item of clothing as if it were precious – never pulled up the sleeves of his sweater to the elbow because that stretched out the wrist. But he lounged when at rest, leaning back with a blue and white cup and saucer in hand, drinking his strong coffee, looking out over the zinnias growing in the roof garden, his legs extended, bare feet, ankles crossed, his robe of burgundy paisley silk tied around his frame. And he moved quickly when he needed to, leaping onto subways in his white pressed cotton yoga trousers, shirt ironed, perky cap on his head. You didn’t notice he was taking care of his clothes. You only knew that if you lived with him.

I was his yoga student along with several others and this is not a love story. He chose Mark as his lover, a boy in his late 20s, a few years older than me. Blonde Mark, dancer with broad high-arched feet, with large long-lashed eyes and a wide sensuous mouth, a boy who was going bald in the same way Natvar was.

So I was not his lover. I moved in anyway. To the school when a room opened up in the back, not really a room, more like a walk-in closet. It was New York City then, this was before Greece, and I moved in because a passion for yoga and an exploration of meditation seemed like the best way to go. Nothing else was really working.

I’d been back in Manhattan and hadn’t fallen in love with anyone. I had assumed that by now I would have. And it was crucial that I do. I’d left Jeffrey back in L.A. He had been at the center of everything for the last five years and the only way I thought I could really move on would be to fall in love with someone else. Oh man, it would be so great to have Jeffrey fade finally, permanently, into the background instead of still trying all the time not to think of him.

I had tried very hard to get the lover thing going. Picked up a couple men here and there at parties and though I tried very hard to spin them into something interesting they fell far short and made me miss the intensity of me-and-Jeffrey even more.

In desperation I’d looked up my high school boyfriend whom I had never liked that much but knew I could easily entice, and entice him I did, right away from his plain quiet no-competition girlfriend, but even that petered out in a couple months for him, this time, as much as for me.

Plus, this being-a-writer that I had set out to become with such optimism in the Spring, certain that all I had to do was quit my suffocating 9-5 job and stay home at my desk like Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag and find interesting non-conformist jobs to do for money like all real artists found like carpentry and selling used furniture on the street – it was Fall now and Winter and even though I had gone hitchhiking by myself in Nova Scotia, had injected every correct ingredient into my life for a fine-tasting stew, it was all tasting like same old. Same old just me not amounting to anything with nothing to be proud of. I need to be able to have something interesting to say to people in conversation. Otherwise they will overlook me. As well they should.