love is easy

A few Sundays ago, my beau and I were strolling through the hayfields of the Falcon Ridge Folk Fest when we ran across this bumper sticker. It annoyed me, though at first I wasn’t sure why. It said, as you already know if you saw the image above and you’re one of the 12 surviving people who still read cursive: HATE IS EASY; LOVE TAKES COURAGE.

I looked at it and thought, wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

“No way,” I said aloud. “Love is easy.”

Given the horrors of El Paso and Dayton, hate was on my mind. I’ve never understood it. Never. A) because it misses the entire point of being alive; B) because every piece of secular and sacred wisdom in the history of humankind has warned against its evils; and C) because it seems to take so much effort. Hating always struck me as far too labor-intensive, requiring the Hater to devise some convoluted rationale and then spend every waking and sleeping hour feeding it, elaborating upon it, obsessing over it. The stockpiling of weapons? The warehousing of anger? The elaborately penned screeds to justify its atrocities?

Hate ISN’T easy.

And love isn’t necessarily the refusal to hate, either. Love is more than the binary opposite of loathing. It’s something else. It’s a mindful open state that requires an act of surrender. It’s unlocking a window and throwing up the sash, and then, in microseconds that can amass into years, a determination to stand there and feel the warmth or the chill, hear the birds or the traffic, see the sun or the stars. Nothing is simpler than this blessed acquiescence to the beauties of life.

For proof, just watch this video of my batshit cat during a recent heat wave. Does this look difficult to you? Does he look oppressed? Okay, so I’m inserting a cat video into my blog post for no other reason than I WANT TO INSERT A CAT VIDEO INTO MY BLOG POST, and if you don’t feel like watching it, your loss. I won’t judge you if just skip below to continue with my aimless philosophical cud-chewing.

Anyway, thinking back on the Philosophy of the Bumper: I decided it was only half-wrong. Yes, love is an act of surrender. Yes, love is an opening to the world. But that act of surrender indeed takes courage, and that opening to the world takes strength. It takes a willingness to be pierced and affected. A willingness to accept, and be accepted, and to work. A rejection of passivity and an active commitment, a fixedness, a constancy, that can look like foolishness but feel like the holiest of missions.

Those who refuse to open themselves and those who shut the window at the first blast of bad weather are shorting themselves, maybe even “protecting” themselves. But they are not taking the easy road. They’re taking the hard one.

Love may take courage, but it’s easy. Any questions about this? Ask my cat.

in praise of losers

Okay, I’m tired of this. I’m tired of the misunderstanding, the vilification, the attacks. I’m tired of certain people on certain social-media platforms at certain stupid hours of the morning who wield the word “loser” as though it’s an insult or an accusation. As though there’s something wrong with losing. As though losers have some reason to feel ashamed.

Let me tell you something: It isn’t. It isn’t. We don’t.

Yes, “we.” I include myself in that category. I am a LOSER AND PROUD, dammit. There would be no charity, no sacrifice, without losing. There would be no Christianity without losing (JESUS, HELLO? ARE YOU WINNING YET?). There would be no room in this world for anything but arrogance and ambition and “triumph,” or some narrowly defined misconception that means vanquishing every last soul who disagrees with you.

There would be no humility without losing. There would be no humor. There would be no love. Thank God I’m a loser! I’d be miserable and cheerless as anything but! It’s a fusty old maxim, and I roll my eyes as I type it, but it’s true: No love without loss. No way of opening ourselves to the ecstasy of one without risking the anguish of the other. Everyone who loves long enough and well enough to bury a dear one is a loser, and every loser is a witness to all that matters in this life. Don’t listen to the winners. They don’t know.

Everyone who makes a decision based on something besides money: loser. Everyone who works a low-paying job because it’s interesting or it’s necessary or it helps someone else: loser. Everyone who pursues an art as a calling, not as a quest for celebrity: loser. Everyone who uses up their sick days to care for an aging parent or a child or themselves: loser.

Losers have stick-to-it-ive-ness. Losers have strength. Losers have courage. That homeless guy slumped on the corner, asking for money? That soul wrestling with depression and anxiety, somehow making it through another day? That person in a wheelchair, navigating steps and inclines and obstacles and potholes the rest of us barely notice? They are fearlessness personified.

At some juncture in this life, everyone encounters loss. If you don’t, you’re not wholly human. You haven’t fully lived. Or you have, but you can’t really acknowledge it — because you aren’t entirely aware, stuck on this wrong notion that losing is somehow a bad thing, somehow an ignominious deviation from the norm, somehow something to be mocked. (You want to have some fun? Google “loser” and “stock photos,” and see what pops up in the results.)

Losing IS the norm. Losers R Us! Losers Rule! (No, wait. . . ) Like so many of my fellow losers, I’ve loved, I’ve lost, I’ve lost some more and I’ve loved in spite of it. I’m not wealthy, not powerful, not chauffeured around on a gilded glide through life, just some schmo in a shrinking industry who bought a used Corolla last week and was PUMPED, PUMPED to drive it off the lot — which makes me the textbook definition of a loser.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

the question

Lately, I’m not sure why, I’ve been asking cashiers and other folks how their day is going. Nothing more complicated than that, just:

Me: Hey.

Them: Hey.

Me: Here’s my milk card.

Them: Thanks.

Me: How’s your day going?

I started doing this because “How are you?” was feeling insufficient. Because everyone says that without expecting or even wanting an answer, using it instead as a blandly interrogative substitute for “hello” that translates as I ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRESENCE, RANDOM PERSON, BUT NOT IN ANY WAY THAT IMPLIES I MIGHT ACTUALLY GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU. We all say this knowing that’s what it means, but we say it anyway. We feel like the social order demands we say SOMETHING, we make SOME lame effort at congeniality and politeness to strangers, at least those strangers who aren’t ignoring us and listening to some twee alt-folk band on their ear buds or air pods or whatever latest New Thing has been meticulously engineered to deafen us.

But, I dunno, saying “How are you?” without meaning it always depressed me, maybe because I ask questions for a living and genuinely look forward to the answer. And so, instead, I began asking people about their day. It was an easy switch, only two added syllables and no real alteration in meaning — just another way of saying the same thing, but in a manner that suggested I might actually want to hear a reply.

And wouldn’t you know it, people answer.

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Busy! So many folks coming in today to stock up for (Name Religious or Secular Holiday)!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Went really fast! Almost over! I’m outta here in (checks clock) 18 minutes and 36 seconds! Then I’m getting a puppy!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Oooooh, man, this woman was just in here yelling. Right here. At all of us. I’m like, I don’t even know why. I tell you, sometimes people are CRAZY.

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Long. Really long. Really, really, really, really long. (Blinks slowly.) Long.

I love these little interactions. They’re brief but meaningful in a way that doesn’t suggest the start of a lifelong relationship (OH MY GOD YOU ARE THE ONE) but merely a simple human interaction between two nobodies who cross paths in the course of a day and briefly become somebodies to each other. And that’s not nothing. I fact, sometimes it’s a lot.

Not so long ago, in a city not so far away, I was having a really crappy day. No we need to go into it in any great detail; it stank, I was feeling sorry for myself, and that’s about it.

I had discharged copious amounts of snot into my pillow when, fed up with this scenario, I went out for a walk. A long walk. Five miles, in all. In the middle of it I paused outside a used bookstore, thumbed through a $1 copy of “Othello” (OH YAH, SO THIS’LL CHEER ME UP) and brought it inside to purchase. As the lady at the register rang me up, I popped out with my usual question.

Me: How’s your day going?

Lady: You don’t want to know. (Pause.) How’s your day going?

Me: You don’t want to know.

Lady: You, too?? (Shakes head.) It seems like everyone I talk to is having an awful day! There must be something going on astrologically to explain it! Because it’s a total shitstorm! Ha ha ha!

Me: Ha ha ha! That must be it!

Lady: Yes, that must be it! Ha ha ha!

Me: Totally!

Lady: Yes, totally!

Me: May your day improve!

Lady: Yours, too!

And in fact, it already had. Just by exchanging shitstorm confessions with a stranger at a bookstore — just by hearing the term “shitstorm” uttered in a bookstore — my mood had taken a turn for the better. I felt marginally less crappy, marginally more human, and so, I’m guessing, did she.

So I have to ask: How’s your day going?

 

rain rain, go the !$#@ away

It’s been quite a while since I last posted on this bananas little blog, and I’d planned, for my momentous return, to compose some heady and meaningful rumination on something that merits capitalization, such as Life or Brokenness or the Nature of Grief or the Connective Fabric of Humanity That Links Us all, or maybe just that time a guy in Manhattan’s Fashion District (which also merits capitalization) chased after me on a bicycle saying, “You have big legs! I like big legs! You have big legs!” Or something along those lines. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, just to complete the mental picture? I was wearing electric-blue tights.

Anyway, I had other plans for this blog post. These plans have gone on for a month at least, and for some reason I never realized them. (Excuses: Many. Explanations: Few.)

Then, while I was planning, it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Then it started to rain some more. Then it continued to rain, which became a source of whining and eye-rolling for all who live in these afflicted parts. Then people started making ark jokes, which are never a good thing and always a sign of intense meteorological despair, and while I did not indulge, I wanted to.

And then the temperature dropped. And dropped. And dropped. Then it dropped some more. And then, this past Sunday, after a glorious respite in the form of a brilliantly sunny and comparatively warm Saturday, it FLIPPETY-SNOOKING RAINED AGAIN, and the temperature dropped again, and I found myself TURNING ON THE HEAT IN MY BANANA-SMUCKING HOUSE! In the middle of May! Which ought to be be illegal and most definitely runs afoul of the laws governing the universe, because it’s just wrong, my people. We should all sign a petition. I’ve spent the last six months turning up the heat and then — here’s the really tragic part — paying large bills to National Grid for the gas. Shocking! Such an outrage! Who ever heard of such a thing!

Today: more of same. Rain. Chilliness. Ugh. Blecch. Eww. Snow was actually forecast for the hillier parts of the region, and while it didn’t get quite that cold in Albany itself, I did wear tights (no, NOT electric blue) under my pants to work this morning, which depressed the FRECKLE-SPUNKING BEWHOZITS OUT OF ME. Sorry, I seem to be swearing a lot tonight.

I realize, as I type this, that I’m being ridiculous. I know how lucky we are to live in a part of the world with a superfluity of water. I know that the lushness of the region — the green hills and grassy lawns, the thick sweep of trees lining our streets — would shrivel to brown without the rain. I know we live in a region with four (count ’em) seasons, none of which follows a script. I know all that. At times I celebrate it.

Just not tonight.

Not long ago, I was discussing the joys of the weather around here with someone from Texas, and I made some remark about how much *fun* we have kvetching about it. My theory: New Yorkers, a notoriously cranky lot, actually enjoy complaining; it’s when we’re happiest. If you live around here, you know that nothing makes us more cheerful than complaining about the weather. We’re at our best, our purest, our most centered and fulfilled, when we’re crabbing to our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers, our mail carriers and our dental hygienists about the snow or the rain or the cold and the ice or the heat and humidity or none of that or all of that or everything at once. Complaining about the weather gives us purpose. It’s our undeniable, deeply provincial raison d’être, the bonding agent that unites us all — whether we’re hunched over the Honda with an ice scraper or flipping on the sump-pump after a downpour. We live for weather. We love to hate it. We hurl profanities in its direction.

And so, as I shake my fist at the cosmos and hurl profanities at the chill, I am content to say: GO FART IN A FRISBEE, RAIN.

Cue the ark jokes.

 

talking to the darkness

I don’t know when I started praying. I suppose it must have been around the time that I started believing in God, but I don’t know when that happened, either.

Around age 13, I think. A couple years following my parents’ catastrophic near-misses with death (my dad’s suicide attempt and coma, my mother’s heart and kidney failure). Sometime after the night Mama shot up in bed while drowning in her own lungs and shouted: “I HAVEN’T BEEN GOOD TO GOD!” Which sorta kinda surprised her, given the fact that she didn’t actually believe in God at the time. Which prompted her to start questioning who This God Person was and exploring how she felt about same. Which prompted me and my sister Lucy to start exploring with her. Which meant that over time, following our separate paths at separate places, each of us converted to Catholicism.

I know. Weird.

I remember how it felt to not believe. I remember how it felt to lie in bed at night, pondering a life with no afterlife, talking to myself and to the darkness without believing that anyone might listen. But as my faith in a Something Else and Somewhere Else took hold within me, I kept on talking to the darkness.

Whatever system of belief we claim, whether God or reason or nothing, every single one of us comes from darkness. We rocket into the light through the spasms of childbirth, and we land on this spinning ball alone. If we’re lucky, we’re lifted and loved by our parents. They hear our cries of hunger and dismay. They hear our laughter, laughing with us. They intuit our needs and meet them with attentiveness and patience. They know us. And who among us doesn’t long to be known? As adults we still long to be known — to find that one person who gets us, hears us, sees our brokenness and doesn’t run away.

The urge to pray is nothing more or less than the urge to be known. To be heard and understood. To be accepted, not rejected, for who we are. If you proved to me today that there is no God, I wouldn’t stop praying. It wouldn’t make a difference. I would still speak to the darkness, because forming words and uttering them aloud or in silence helps me understand my role in this world and the ineffable gifts that surround me.

Praying for the people I love reminds me to love them — reminds me that I’m not the only one fumbling through this life. Whether it helps them, I have no idea. I prayed for my sister; she took her own life. I prayed for my husband; he took his own life. God often says no. Why? Again, I have noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo idea.

And yet.

One evening in 1988, I was working a late-cops shift in the Canton bureau of the Watertown Daily Times, and I was exhausted. I’d been working 60+ hours a week for the last several months. And I was worried like hell about Lucy, who was struggling with suicidality and a complex array of psychological and neurological issues.

She was in Cambridge, Mass. I was in the North Country, a six-hour drive away. Not exactly next door.

She called that night, distraught. Weeping. Expressing self-loathing and fear. There was only so much I could say — I love you, Luce, you’ll get through this, Luce, you’re not shit, Luce — and nothing I could do. When she hung up I turned off the office lights, drew the curtains, locked the door and dropped to my knees. I cried and prayed and prayed and cried and prayed and prayed and prayed, talking into the darkness and asking God to let me know if I should quit my job and move to Cambridge. Then I cried and prayed some more. Please, God, please. Please tell me what to do. Please. 

After about 10 minutes of this, I got up. Flicked on the lights. Opened the curtains and unlocked the door. And the phone rang again. It was Lucy, calmer now, telling me one of her roommates was moving out soon.

“You wanna move in with me, Ame?”

Yes, I said.

“Yes?!” she replied, startled.

Yes.

I regard that phone call as a miracle. It was a miracle not because God cured Lucy of her ills — not because I rescued her — but because I spent the next three years living with my sister, loving her, laughing with her, crying with her, visiting her in the hospital and simply being with her. I moved out in 1991, the summer I got married. Less than a year later, she was gone from this world.

The 27th anniversary of her death was this past Friday. I reflected, as always, on her beauty and brilliance. Her goodness. Her goofball eccentricity and wit. And I recalled, as always, that phone call inviting me to Cambridge.

Was it a direct answer to my prayers? I don’t know. I think so. Would it be any less of a miracle if it weren’t? I prayed to God that night in 1988 because I loved Lucy. Because I feared for her life. Because I needed to tell Someone in the murk of that rough moment that I loved her and feared for her life. Because I wanted to be heard and understood in my own pain.

And so, answering the phone just a few minutes later, I listened to her voice and felt compelled — by God? by love? does it matter? — to say yes.

Yes. I said yes. Thank God, I said yes.

 

 

most people are good

My mom used to say it, now I have to say it: Most people are good. Especially in this day and age, when so many of us are at each other’s throats for so many reasons, it’s worth saying it again and again and again. Most people are good. As folks online spew invective reducing whole demographic groups to something subhuman, and all you want to do is spew invective back, it needs to be repeated like a holy mantra. Most people are good. Most people are good. Most people are good.

I was reminded of this one morning not too long ago, when, clearing out of a recent snowstorm, I looked up and saw a city plow headed my way. I had just finished shoveling the driveway. Now I’d have to re-shovel it. No getting to work on time today. Great! I said to myself with wilting sarcasm. Maybe I’ll throw out my back in the process, too!

Sure enough, the plow chugged past, dumping a nice fresh ridge of crappy icy wintry detritus along my driveway and, even better, blocking my car. I dug in and started clearing it, reminding myself that A) I live in a city; B) I’m grateful the city plows its streets; and C) given A and B, wasn’t I kind of an unappreciative urban a-hole for feeling anything but gratitude toward the guy steering the plow? I hadn’t gotten too far with either my crap-clearing or my internal remonstrative soliloquizing when the plow, hitting the dead end, turned and headed back toward me.

I stopped shoveling. Looked up. Gave him a li’l wave — not big, not both arms, but not sarcastic, either. An actual, non-snotty, thanks-for-doing-your-job wave. A little smile thrown in. And lo and behold, the driver of the plow proceeded to steer the vehicle my way, quickly and miraculously clearing the pile of crap from my driveway that he had previously desposited. Inwardly I screamed HOLY HOLY SHIT THAT IS THE KINDEST THING ANYONE HAS EVER DONE FOR ANYONE ELSE IN THE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE. Outwardly I waved again — with both arms this time, one hand clutching the shovel — and yelled THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU as the plow-man chugged away.

It was a little thing that meant a lot. Most people are good. I was reminded of all the times neighborhood snow angels have cleared my sidewalk after a storm. Most people are good. I thought of all the friends and neighbors who brought casseroles to my house after my husband died. Most people are good. I thought of the woman who ran to my side last winter when I slipped and fell on the ice. Most people are good. I thought of all the folks who’ve held doors open for me, all the folks who’ve waved me ahead of them in traffic, all the folks who’ve fielded some stooooopid question of mine at the bank or at the auto mechanic’s or on the phone with Verizon and answered with patience and kindness. Most people are good.

These are little things, little moments, little passing nods to my humanity and theirs. Such gestures aren’t monumental acts of charity or self-sacrifice. They can’t be deducted from our taxes or trumpeted before a mob of fans. They don’t translate into anything approaching sainthood or celebrity. They aren’t anything major; they’re small and mundane. But that’s why they matter. That’s why they sustain us. Because, in the thick of all that whirls around us, amid all the everyday stressors and endless striving and crackpot news cycles that divide and distress and demonize the Other, it’s those tiny sparks of decency or cheer that remind us we’re all connected and help us clear the crap from our lives.

I don’t know the snow-plow driver who came down my street that morning. I barely even saw his face. I don’t know his name. I don’t know his politics. I don’t know a damn thing about him.  All I know is, he saw me, steered his truck toward me and shoved a pile of icy crap out of my driveway. And you know what? That’s enough.

Most people are good. 

 

 

totally bonkers

Last night, I did something I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d do: I shared the stage with world-class musicians at the Linda.

I am not a world-class musician. I am a humble late-comer to the music of Django Reinhardt and its community of practitioners and fanatics spanning the globe. But at the age of 55 I find myself playing in a gypsy-jazz band, and we found ourselves invited to take part in a benefit for WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio with a slate of fabulous swing acts: Zack Cohen, the Hot Club of Saratoga, the global superstar Stephane Wrembel.

My band, Hot Tuesday, played a brief opening set and then joined the gods onstage for a closing jam. I couldn’t believe it. This is not something I ever anticipated. But then again, nothing about my life in the last seven years is anything I ever anticipated, as I am well past the point of anticipating anything.

After my husband’s death, I stopped trying to predict a single damn thing about life. I take nothing for granted. Each and every triumph, no matter how small, is a cause for celebration.

Example 1: The Linda.

Example 2: The toilet seat in my upstairs bathroom.

I installed a new one last weekend, letting out a whoop of victory upon completion. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!, I yelled, pumping my fist in the air. Then I threw back my head and laughed. Then I did backflips across the bathroom floor. Then I flexed my biceps so hard that my shirt ripped.

This is where I reside: at a place of EXTREMELY small ambitions. At least when it comes to things like:

A) My house, in particular my plumbing, in particular anything involving sewage;
B) My car, in particular anything involving expensive repairs;
C) My quest for world domination; and
D) My knees.

In all regards, I count my blessings and take what comes. If I harbor any ambitions at this point, it’s to get through the day without catastrophe. To be as happy as I can be, fumbling along with gratitude. To love. To not hurt. To savor the present.

It’s a funny thing about life. We start it without harboring any ambitions whatsoever, just content to cry and pee and poop and gurgle and and suck and then cry and pee and poop some more and spit up projectile milky vomitus onto our parents’ shoulders (YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!).

As we mature, our goals evolve. We stop puking on adults and instead start sitting in their classrooms and conforming to their rules. We begin to form and pursue dreams. As the disappointments rack up, we revisit and reconsider those dreams. Maybe we won’t actually scale Everest by 30, cure cancer by 35 and retire a billionaire at 40. Maybe we’ll just go for a few day hikes in the Catskills and find our bliss selling crafts on Etsy. Who knows?

To me, this is life — the Who knows? Forget about the stuff we envision in our youth; it’s the stuff that we don’t envision, the sudden twists, gradual turns and bombshell revelations that boot us into a chapter of living we never saw coming and couldn’t have. I couldn’t have foreseen Chris’s suicide in 2011. I couldn’t have known I’d be facing these years without him, fixing the crap that breaks at home and filling the void with music.

If you’d told 30-year-old me that I’d be playing in a gypsy-jazz band in my fifties, I’d have replied WHAT THE HELL IS GYPSY JAZZ and then said you were totally bonkers. If you’d told 45-year-old me the same thing, I’d have understood the musical term but said you were totally bonkers. If you’d told 50-year-old me, at which point I’d taken maybe a year of jazz lessons, I’d have muttered Ohhhhkayyyyyyyyy righhhhhht and then said you were totally bonkers.

But here I am. There I was last night, squinting into the lights, scratching away with my band mates and wrapped up in the crazy ecstasy of swing. How did I get there? How did this happen? Who knows?

Totally bonkers.

dog spelled backwards

Look at this photo. Now look again. Do you see it? DO YOU SEE IT?  I hesitate to read too much into total happenstance, particularly happenstance involving a bowl of water, and particularly when there are so many more pressing and substantive things to write about, including the decimation of life on earth and the air-sucking collapse of normalcy in all facets of American political life, but OH WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT IT’S A MIRACLE! IT’S A MIRACLE! THE PAW OF DOG HAS TOUCHED US ALL!! It’s like seeing Jesus in a piece of toast! Mary in a radish! Kanye in a a Cheetoh! No. Wait. Not Kanye. That was Jesus, too.

Why are people constantly finding visions of Christ in single servings of food? I ask as one who believes in both God *and* snacks. Wouldn’t it make more sense if people encountered images of the divine in larger, more godly quantities? Say, an entire 18-wheeler shipment of Cheetohs. Why just one? Have theologians ever addressed this discrepancy? Shouldn’t they? Don’t answer.

And here again, it’s just one helping: a humble bowl of water. Within lies a clear and aqueous sign telling us to . . . ummm, I’m not sure what, exactly. To feed and water our pets? To keep the faith as the End Times loom (see “decimation of life on earth,” above)? To make terrible puns, remaining dogged (sorry) in the pursuit? To pen craptacular doggerel (sorry)?

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? It must mean something, and don’t tell me it doesn’t. You’re not allowed to say “It means nothing, Ames, it’s just a damn bowl in a damn sink, so stop reading too deeply into bubbles,” because that is not why we’re here. Not to be dogmatic (sorry) about it, but we’re here to decode the messages before us, and THIS ONE MAKES A PROFOUND STATEMENT. I just have no idea what it is. Do you? (Don’t answer that, either.)

True confessions: I do tend to see miracles in the everyday, though the closest I ever came with a dog was that time I got chomped in the thigh by a batshit Cujo in Ecudor and DIDN’T ACTUALLY DIE OF RABIES, AMEN AMEN HALLELUJAH, nor am I normally one to go scoping for the divine in Pyrex receptacles. I wasn’t this time, either; this isn’t my photo. It was snapped and sent to me by an ardent punster, attentive pet-owner and keen-eyed washer of dishes who reads my blog but inexplicably prefers to remain anonymous.

Dog knows why (sorry).

the gifts of christmas

It’s Christmas Eve again. In a week it’ll be New Year’s Eve. How did this happen? How did twelve months slip past so quickly?

Darned if I know. Each year I’m caught off guard, greeting the dusk of December with a flappety-wappety shake of the head and a startled WAIT, WHAT? TOMORROW IS CHRISTMAS? I’M NOT READY! I STILL HAVE TO WRAP GIFTS! MY ATTIC IS COVERED IN DOLLAR STORE TCHOTCHKES! MY FINGERS ARE RAVELED IN TAPE!

This is my usual M.O. I’m never ready for Christmas, but it always comes. And when it does, I cry.

On Saturday morning, writing a few end-of-year checks, I shed a few tears. Not buckets. Not cups. Not even thimbles. Just little saline markers of sentiment and reflection as I dwelt on gifts dispatched and received, on Christmases present and past, on people I love both here and departed.

On Saturday afternoon, running last-minute Christmas errands, I cried again. Again, not buckets. Again, just tiny hat-tips to my emotional state as I ticked through all who aren’t here, ruminating on the impermanence of life and the permanence of love.

Christmas does this to me. It loops around with joy and wistfulness, a tinsel-strewn reminder of love and the miracles it births – and not just the baby Jesus. It reminds me of everyone I’ve ever held dear, everyone who ever shared a piece of themselves with me, everyone who brought beauty and warmth into my orbit before leaving a little too soon. My husband’s laugh, my mother’s pluck, my father’s puns, my sister’s giant violet eyes: They’re gone now, and so are our Christmases together. Except they aren’t. The pea coat Mama gave me in December 1980 might be a tumbleweed of gnarled wool thread, but the gifts that matter endure.

Lives are linear; they begin and they end. But love is not. Love cycles back, coiling its way through moments as the years pile up behind me. And what is Christmas, after all, but an annual feast of love? The love of parents for their newborn? The love of God for us? The love of us for each other?

So the ghosts of Christmases past don’t haunt me, really. My tears, when they sneak up on me, speak less of grief and more of gratitude. They remind me to look up and out at the world. They remind me to love those around me — everyone who walks beside me in this world, hearts thundering, bellies laughing, taking my hand as I stumble.

They’re here with me now in this season of wonder, and I clutch them hard. I regard them with wonder, treasuring the gifts that they bring.

But now you’ll have to excuse me for a moment while I head up to the attic and finish wrapping presents, BECAUSE I’M NOT READY FOR CHRISTMAS.

jazz is life

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. But in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break it up into tidy, digestible chunks, toss in a few new chunks and then spew it out into the world via this shit-figurin’ blog. And so, with no further ado. . . )

I GOT MUSIC: CONFESSIONS OF AN AMATEUR
PART VI: JAZZ IS LIFE

I’ve dug through the past until my fingernails bleed, but I can’t remember when and how I first heard the music of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt. It was probably in some movie soundtrack. It must have been “Minor Swing,” because Amazon tells me I downloaded it in December 2010: there it is, the moment of inception. In January of 2011, I bought a fat collection of Reinhardt/Grappelli tracks, and I was gobsmacked. I didn’t know the violin could do that: the swinging, the sliding, the astonishing flights of virtuosity in the context of popular song. At no point, of course, did I delude myself into thinking I could do that. How could I? I was a crappy classical amateur! My playing unleashed the dying squirrel!

Then, just eight months later — in late September of 2011 — I lost my husband to suicide. In the face of incomprehensible tragedy, I resolved to learn jazz violin. This made no sense, but what did? My beloved Chris was dead. Why not make an utter boob out of myself in the pursuit of some swinging musical dream?

So I started lessons. I found a wonderful teacher. I learned gradually. I sucked happily. But I kept at it, learning and sucking, as I grieved and coped and grieved and coped and grieved some more, saying goodbye to my second mother, Pat, and my best friend, Pam. Life tossed other complications my way, some joyous, some painful, and as it did, I found myself playing jazz out in the world with other people.

Two and a half years ago, I drove to the pretty stone church in Connecticut where I was married in 1991. It was a couple weeks before Easter, and the doors were open. I walked up the aisle, standing for a moment at the altar with the shades of all my departed. Chris, Pat, Pam. My parents and sister, who died in 1992 and 1994. I recalled that drizzly Saturday in July. I pictured Pam, helping me with my makeup that morning — the second and last time I ever wore it. My handsome husband, beaming in his polka-dot bowtie. My dear, sweet, senile father, confused but smiling as my mother squeezed his hand in the pew. My sister Lucy, squeezing mine. All of the love in the church that day. All of the hugs afterward.

The memories pressed hard on me. I sagged, breathless and teary, before a crucifix draped with the purple of Lent.

Somehow, I left. And as I drove away I listened to Grappelli, a cassette tape crammed into my (extremely) old Honda. The music carried me. It bore me along bendy hills and blind curves with a wild, indefatigable, syncopated cheer that hauled me into the present and filled me with hope.

At home the next day, I hugged my son and then bolted to my bedroom, got out my fiddle — Mama’s fiddle — and played gypsy jazz, each successive tune punching me awake. As I told a friend not long ago: It’s impossible to be sad while playing that music. It’s impossible to think about anything else, any people I’ve lost, any errors I’ve made, any scars I’m prone to picking.

Music keeps the brokenness at bay. It’s an act of creation in the face of loss, a patch of daylight in the dark. It expands my shrunken universe, allowing me to meet new people and make new attachments at an age when the meeting and the making are not the easiest thing. It allows me to greet the world as a friend. I am sick as hell of death, that greasy bastard, and I refuse to let it win: Jamming is my triumph over the reaper. BACK THE HELL OFF, I say, armed with a bow in one hand, a violin in the other. I AM GOING TO PLAY JAZZ.

Swinging with friends, I know I’m alive. I  know I have a place in this world — if only for a moment, if only in a sly little pocket of rhythm that seduces and slays me. But isn’t that all of life? Isn’t it just one fleeting but fruitful pocket, thick with meaning? A swing on a pendulum that dips and turns, all sharps and flats and blue notes and bridges from one piece of song to another?

Maybe that’s why everything’s better when I swing. Maybe that’s why everything feels right on the two and the four. Maybe that’s why even a wrong note makes sense as I bend it into the right one, inching it a half-step up or down in a metaphor for living that that I seized upon, some months ago, and now clutch to my chest as the answer to everything.

In jazz, at least, mistakes don’t kill the music. They simply change it. And ain’t that life, or it should be.

Click here to read PART I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION
Click here to read PART II: GYPSY JAZZ AND HOLY TERRORS
Click here to read PART III: I LIKE MY HANDS (AND WILL NOT CUT THEM OFF)
Click here to read PART IV: IN PRAISE OF SECOND FIDDLE
Click here to read PART V: MUSIC = SEX