spittin’ for the truth

“SPIT TO HERE,” it said, and so I did. I spat. I spat again. I spat in pursuit of a dream. I spat to know myself. I spat in the hopes of learning more about Me and My Ancestors and Where They Came From and What It All Means and Who The Heck Am I, Anyway? I spat because there’s only so much self-discovery you can glean  through extensive navel-gazing and online genealogy surfing,  although I have learned a few things, among them the cavernous depths of my navel and and likely traces of my paternal great-grandfather in Argentina.

No, he wasn’t Argentinian. He arrived there from Uruguay, but he wasn’t Uruguayan, either. He was Southern Italian. His wife, who remained in Uruguay and later left for the States with the kids, hailed from Italy, too. It’s a long story, ridiculously complicated — even without all the facts. But isn’t that true of every family tree? Isn’t everybody’s a tangled hodgepodge of the known and the unknown, the spoken and unspoken, the surmised, the passed down,  the gossiped about, the hinted at, the whispered, the feared?

Why did they leave Italy? There are theories. Why did he leave Uruguay? There are tales.

Mysteries and complexities abound. Truths untold turn into stories, then bend into myth over time. A dying matriarch might whisper a truth in her last breaths, or not. I know something about my heritage; I know that my father was Neapolitan, my mother EnglishScottishGermanFrench. But were they something else or more than that? Am I something else or more? Perhaps it’s a function of being older and sensing a limit to both my time on this planet and my understanding of things that are knowable. So few are. So many burning questions can’t be answered, not by anyone still living, that I desperately want to puzzle out and solve the handful that are.

I want to know.

And so, for Christmas, I asked my kids to get me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com. I delayed doing anything with it for the next month, not out of conflicted ancestral dread but from a lifelong tendency to misplace things in the process of trying to safeguard them (OH I DON’T WANT TO LOSE THIS SO I’LL JUST TUCK IT UP HERE ON THE DRESSER BEHIND THE CLOCK RADIO AND PRAYER BOOK AND COIN JAR AND X-FILES MUG AND RANDOM PILES OF PAPER AND SHIT). After stumbling across it I cracked it open and did all the required spitting, which took longer than anticipated, then sealed up the tube, packed it off in the enclosed box and walked it two blocks to the neighborhood mailbox, being careful not to dispatch it at the nearby trash bin where I once absentmindedly dropped off a month’s worth of bills.

It could take two months, maybe more, before I hear back on the results. And when they arrive, they could contain no new information. They could do nothing but confirm that I am what I always thought I was, plain ol’ ItalianEnglishScottishGermanFrench.

Or they may tell me something more or else. Something that clarifies my heritage while flipping the family’s history on its head. Either way, at least I’ll know.

Stay tuned.

 

life is huge

So, yesterday would have been my late husband’s 62nd birthday. Isn’t that strange? Also strange: Chris died at 55, and here I am, facing that double-nickel number in September. I remember the surrealism of turning 32 four years after my sister Lucy died at 31. It felt like a breach in the space-time continuum: This things are not supposed to happen. We are not supposed to be older than our older sisters. We are not supposed to lose the people we love, bury them, mourn them and miss them, yet keep on living and growing and laughing and loving and sprouting fresh-baked wrinkles on our faces, all while our absent dear ones remain fixed at the age they died. 

Except we are. Of course we are. How else are life and death supposed to function? When I had my first colonoscopy at age 50, I worked hard to celebrate it as a marker Lucy never reached. As positive spin goes, this was a stretch, I know. But I’m here. She’s not. And when I live with gratitude, I feel hers, too.

Last night, as I often do these days, I made music with friends: joyous, upbeat, swinging, infectious gypsy jazz. I’d spent the day engaged in the tasks at hand, working, chatting, laughing, always with Chris on my mind. I kept snatching glimpses at his photos, marveling at his handsome and impish mug, trying to picture him six years on. I kept wondering what he might think of me now — a little older, my hair a little whiter and longer, my language a little more profane. I kept thanking God and Chris for our 20 years of  marriage and the three astonishing children we brought into the world. I kept dwelling on all of his gifts — his constancy, decency, intellect, compassion, his deep and unswerving well of love. And I kept thinking, well, what if he’d never been born? Impossible to imagine.

And then, sawing away at my violin with my buddies, I pictured him there. Listen to this awesome music, I told him. Look at these awesome friends of mine. I’d become obsessed with jazz after his suicide. Took up lessons. Started playing gypsy swing two years ago. All of this happened without him. None of it might have happened had he not died, a head-exploding conundrum I won’t ever unpack, but it’s true. And as I made music last night, the joy of the moment and the memory of Chris twined into one continuous, light-dark, life-death, love-loss, yin-yang cause for gratitude. I was living, and he was gone, but that didn’t make the present any less miraculous. To the contrary: more so.

At the end of the night, as I loosened my bow and packed up my fiddle, I felt at peace. And I thought: Life is huge. Happy Birthday, honey.

 

happy new year, fellow klutzes

Happy 2018, everyone! To celebrate, and to reward you for having survived the monumentally weird alter-verse that was 2017, I here present a photo of me with frozen corn on my head from last night’s revelry.

Why am I wearing frozen corn on my head, you may ask. Well, you see, I smacked the bejeezus (which AutoCorrect just tried to render “Venezuelan”) out of it when I leaned over to chase one of my cats and instead rammed my skull into the corner of a kitchen cabinet. It was a bit after 11 p.m., and some neighborhood pals were over for a relaxed blast of music-making and modest tippling to mark the turn of the year. We’d just played a few tunes when I had my violent li’l run-in with the cabinet, which prompted me to yell AHHHHH or possibly RRRRRLLLLLLGGG or maybe HOLY (INSERT PROFANE QUALIFIER) SHIT, I honestly don’t remember which. But whatever I said, it was loud, principally because it hurt like hell but also because the impact on my scalp made a horrific crunching noise, something like that first spoonful of granola in the morning, which echoed through my braincase and told me that whatever I’d just done, it wasn’t good. I immediately started rubbing it, hard.

My friend Kathy, a physician’s assistant, raced to my side and asked me if I was bleeding. Lemme see, I said, and pulled down my hand to find it coated in blood. Fun times! Hurray! This dear friend immediately took me to the sink, washed out my wound and urged me to cap it with an ice pack. Opting for the frozen corn instead, I then posed for the obligatory glamorous photo in the expectation it will run in an upcoming issue of the American Medical Journal of Extremely Dumb-Ass Injuries.

They could easily devote a whole issue to me. I am a World-Class Dumb-Ass, a Virtuoso of Mishaps and a Peerless Klutz Par Excellence. The particular idiosyncrasy defining my klutziness is its pairing with exceptionally fast reflexes, which means that my recovery from accidents is almost as notable as the disaster-prone nature that got me there. As a soccer player in high school and college, I was equally adept at falling down and bouncing back up. As a so-called adult in lo, these many years since, I have distinguished myself by my capacity to knock over alcoholic beverages with startling grace and ease; I once wowed my dinner mates at a posh Chicago restaurant by smacking over a glass of wine and then, darting my hand across the table at superhuman speed, catching it before it spilled. I’m not kidding. I’m not even exaggerating. No, seriously, I’m not.

And just to be clear: These things never happen because I’m drinking heavily, because I never drink heavily, because my tolerance for alcohol doesn’t allow me to imbibe more a drink or two without falling asleep. In the run-up to the Cabinet Incident, I’d consumed half a bottle of Guinness. Alcohol has nothing to do with my klutziness. Not all those times I slammed my forehead into a different kitchen corner, prompting my late husband to pad it with a tennis ball that’s still in place, and not that time in 1989 when I whacked my head into the gorgon sculpture at a gift shop in Salem, Mass., prompting the Very Rational German Friend who was with me at the time to object thusly: BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND. HOW DID YOU DO THAT? DID YOU NOT SEE IT WHEN YOU LEANED OVER? SHOUDLN’T YOUR PERIPHERAL VISION HAVE PREVENTED YOU FROM HITTING IT?

I had no answer for him.

My whole life has been screwing up and recovering, falling down and getting up, knocking shit over and picking shit up, slamming my head and rubbing it hard, klutzing out mightily and then carrying the heck on, anyway. But isn’t that everyone’s life? I mean, minus the frozen vegetables. Last night, wearing the corn on my head under a cute knit hat with pom-poms, I snarfed back ibuprofen and returned to fiddling with my pals. At midnight we watched the ball drop, toasted each other, hugged each other and went back to playing. I spilled my champagne. I mean, OF COURSE I spilled my champagne. But it didn’t matter. It never matters. The falling is never what counts.

Like everyone else on this planet, I’ve had my bonks on the head. My husband’s suicide six years ago, and some losses and heartache since, left me a little wary of any future run-ins with the sharper corners of fate and human frailty. I don’t much like getting hurt. But here I am, facing another year with hope and love, and there I go into the breach  — buoyed by those who catch me when I fall, help me when I hurt and mop the blood off my scalp when I’m bleeding.  That’s all I ask of 2018, and all I ask of life.

 

 

the bleeping cold

It’s cold outside. Have you noticed? No? Well, let me tell you: IT’S BLEEPING COLD OUTSIDE. And living as we do in the Northeast, we must A) whine and moan about said bleeping cold while B) laughing and C) feeling damned self-righteous about our capacity to endure it. You know the routine.

YOU: It’s bleeping cold out, isn’t it!? Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Sure is! Brrrrrr! Ha ha ha!

YOU: We choose to live here! Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Yeah, we could be in Florida! Ha ha ha!

YOU: But here we are instead! In the bleeping cold! Ha ha ha!

NEIGHBOR: Ha ha ha!

Of course, all of us really do have the power to relocate. Every single one of us could up and move to some place where “winter” is defined as any fleeting meteorological state requiring the rolling down of sleeves or, when it gets truly nasty, the zipping up of fleeces. Again, we CHOOSE to live here. We CHOOSE to submit our digits and schnozzes to circulatory distress on a regular basis. We CHOOSE to encase our bodies in 18 layers of long underwear and sweaters and snuggies and down this and wool that and saran wrap and rolled carpets and garbage bags (clean) and dryer lint and mouse droppings and beard shavings from forest elves and anything else lying around that happens to possess magical properties of insulation.

We’re not that picky. Style is not our Number One Concern; rolled carpets, when properly worn, also protect the wearer during traffic collisions.  This is why every single woman who resides in the snow belt owns and wears a knee-length hooded black down parka, not because we like them, really, but because they prevent our arms and legs from going numb and provide the added charm of making us look like an invading regiment of Parka Clones from the Planet Nordstrom.

I neglected to provide this particular nugget of advice when speaking earlier this year with a newcomer at work from warmer climes. She had never experienced the bleeping cold before, so I laid out all proper coping mechanisms in the starkest possible terms.

ME: Wool socks.

HER: Oh, okay! Thanks! Wool socks!

ME :Wool socks.

HER: Ha, yes! Wool socks!

ME: Wool socks.

HER: Got it. Wool socks.

ME: Wool socks.

HER: (Smiles.)

I did not, at this point, regale her with my Theory of Northern Cities, which I’ve expounded upon previously on this blog and represents my positive spin on winter, shoveling after a major snow dump and its la-la-kumbaya effects on community spirit. I’m not talking up any of that happy-peppy shit right now, because right now it is roughly 8 million degrees below zero, and that’s Fahrenheit, babies. Right now I am feeling cold and aggrieved. Right now I am recalling the sound my car made this morning when I first turned the ignition, which reminded me of the peculiar and unsettling mewling noises emitted from a sick infant. Again you know the routine.

ME: (Turns key.)

CAR: Eeehhhmmmm.  Eeeehllll. Uhhhrrrr. Blurgfffh.

ME: Please turn on.

CAR: You’re kidding, right? (Cough. Cough. Spit.)

ME: I’m actually not.

CAR: (Spit. Spit. Cough.) It’s bleeping cold out.

ME: It is. Ha ha ha.

CAR: Right. Sorry, not laughing. And why aren’t we in Florida, exactly?

 

 

 

 

 

i got music, part iv: in praise of second fiddle

(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 IV: IN PRAISE OF SECOND FIDDLE

“Second fiddle”: as a violinist, this idiom bugs the crap out of me. It always has. Discussing it recently with friends, I expressed no small umbrage at the phrase and its demoralizing message in a world that undervalues the dusky contribution of second violins. To play second fiddle is “to be less important or in a weaker position than someone else”: So sayeth the compilers of the Cambridge Dictionary, the jerks. (Yes,  yes, I know it’s not their fault — they’re only reporting on accepted usage. But after seeing their ridiculously cutesy example invoking some dingbat named Christina, I AM STILL GOING TO CALL THEM JERKS.)

All my life I’ve played second violin. In middle school orchestra I played second violin. In every community orchestra since I played second violin. In string quartets with friends I played second violin. Whenever someone nudged me to play first, for reasons I never entirely understood but took as profound if misguided expressions of kindness, I resisted. I didn’t want to. For starters, I liked second. I didn’t want to play first. The one exception was Dvořák’s “American” quartet, when my well-meaning chamber-music mates insisted I take first violin and I rewarded their generosity by filling their ears with the sounds of a dying squirrel.

See, this is the other problem: although I’ve played the violin for most of my life, I never actually worked at it. Not the way other people work at it. I never set aside, say, two hours or three or four or six to run through scales and arpeggios and etudes in pursuit of EXtreme-Ass Musicality (EXAM), chiefly because I was busy adhering to my preexisting policy of NO Practicing Ever (NOPE) compounded by a Sad and Pathetic Lack of Theory (SPLAT), but also because I knew without even trying that I would never actually attain said vaunted state. I knew EXAM was beyond my reach. I knew my mother had already attained it on the violin; my sister had already attained it at the piano. I knew what they sounded like. I knew I’d never get there. I knewknewknewknewknew. 

But this knowledge never stopped me from playing — and loving it. It only stopped me from expecting or pursuing perfection. And it never stopped me from hearing music everywhere, from feeling its thudding bass and slinking harmonies and wanting to join in. As a kid I heard entire orchestras in the engine of our ’72 Corolla. As a teenager I quit the violin for several years to play soccer and pick my nose, but I sang alto in the school choir and relished the low notes that scraped the underbelly, far below the sopranos. I never wanted to join them on top. “You’re a soprano with a big range,” one teacher after another told me, and I always wondered why no one ever characterized me as an alto with a big range.  I always said gee thanks but nope, uh-uh, no soprano parts for me. I prefer the dankest recesses of the woman’s range. I prefer grubbing around the bottom of the treble staff, the musty places where harmony gets built on the violin, because that’s where the music happens.

I like how alto feels in my chest. I like how it sounds. I would rather hear the melody soaring above and beyond me than use my own body to sing it myself. I would rather play the harmony in a second-violin part than go up into a nosebleed on the first, and I’ve always preferred it that way. Even if I’d practiced two hours a day or thee or four or six for decades and decades, I’d still want to live in the thrumming lower end of any given music.

I wonder about our American obsession with leadership, with rising to the tippety-top at every life-stage, with proving our power and expertise and authority and our status as Alpha-Human Hot-Shit Type-A Everythings in school and sport and vocation and avocation and avocado sales, which I only added to the list because I just noticed the startling similarity between those two words. But seriously: WHY DOES EVERYONE HAVE TO BE THE TOP AT EVERYTHING? Doesn’t Captain Kirk need Scotty in the bowels of the engine room? Don’t the owners of a building need someone in the sub-basement, tending the furnace? It’s the same with music. One solo voice can’t carry all of western harmony. If everyone sang soprano, we’d have no Bach choral works. If everyone played first violin, we’d have no Beethoven string quartets: the Grosse Fuge would be a little less Gross, and I’d be a little more heartbroken.

The revelation, for me, occurred with my entry into the world of jazz, where there is no First This and Second That, just Whoever Happens to Be Playing Something Interesting On Their Instrument at the Moment, Amigo. I’m one of two violins in my six-piece gypsy-jazz band, and we take turns at everything: melodies, solos, comping chords and harmonies underneath. Every single one of us plays at the upper, middle and lower ends of our instruments, although the bass player’s high end makes my low end sound like Dolly Parton on crack.

In some Django-style bands, one guitarist is permanently on rhythm, another permanently on lead, but there’s no innate hierarchy. Jazz is thrillingly democratic. Everyone grooves on harmony. Everyone spends time in that beautifully fertile underworld where music sparks to life. Everyone plays second fiddle, at least for a spell, and nobody diminishes that role when they do. Maybe that’s why I love it. Maybe that’s why, after all these many decades of NOPE and SPLAT, I’m actually, finally working at it. I’ve found my permanent musical home.

Anyway, who cares about the Cambridge Dictionary. Jerks.

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)

 

a few thoughts on bathroom signage

 

See this shapely two-dimensional lady at the left? I love her. I saw her hanging outside a women’s room at London’s Heathrow Airport, and I gotta say, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I loved her so much that I stood outside laughing and snapping photos until it occurred to me that I resembled some colossal weirdo with a fixation on A) public bathrooms B) women entering and emerging from public bathrooms or C) both, at which point it also occurred to me that I might get A) reported B) arrested or C) both. At which point I stopped. I was traveling to Ghana to visit my daughter, and I really, really wanted to get there without causing an international potty incident.

But you can see why I couldn’t help myself, right? This chick is wearing a DRESS. Never in my life have I been the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, says, “Ooohhhh yesss, I want to wear a super-complicated dress today,” although I have, in my adulthood, evolved into the sort of woman who wakes in the morning, periodically wiggles into a less-complicated skirt or dress and overall rather enjoys it. But I have never chosen to wear a dress that makes me resemble a large church bell.

As a toddler I wore dresses because I was a girl and that was reason enough for my parents to dress me in them, but once I was old enough to form and state preferences I formed and stated a preference for pants and shorts, thank you very much. This was also around the time I decided that black was my favorite color; don’t read too deeply into it. It’s enough to say I had robust opinions.

I liked pants. In the winter they were warm. In the summer they prevented fat-thigh rub. Any time of year they allowed me to run around and roll in the mud and kick soccer balls and throw baseballs do all those things that boys were expected to do in the late 1960s and early 1970s but girls, for SOME GODDAMNED UNKNOWN REASON PLEASE EXCUSE THE OUTBURST, were not. I never understood this. What did we lack, exactly? Muscles? Curiosity? Energy? Feet?

And look, it’s not because I wanted to be a boy.  As much as I liked the little fellers and got wild crushes on them, inspiring me to punch one specimen on the playground, I only ever wanted to be a girl.  I wasn’t lesbian or trans or gender-fluid or searching. I was a wee girl with a penchant for sports and rough-and-tumble play, and I had parents who let me be who I was. These days such letting and being is easier for everyone, kids and parents alike, and long gone are the days when neighbors would remark to my dad about his daughter’s arm (“wow, she throws like a boy!”).

So I laughed when I saw the sign outside the loo at Heathrow. Who was this bulbous dame? What sort of neo-Victorian undergarment poofed up her dress to such proportions? Was a window fan propped under her ass? Or — I shuddered at the thought — maybe she was actually shaped that way. Maybe she had no arms and no feet and no neck, and if you flipped her upside-down, maybe she looked like a two-pronged American wall plug.  She was just so retro, so enormous, so Donna Reed-Meets-Godzilla, and I so wish someone had made that movie, don’t you?

Whatever. I walked in and went about my womanly business, which did not involve undoing anything more convoluted than a pair of jeans. As I did I continued to giggle, which probably didn’t placate anyone already on the verge of calling the cops, and I wondered about the plight of bathroom-sign designers. Who wants THAT job? It can’t be easy these days, coming up with new ways to divide the bladder-emptying populace with greater sensitivity and fewer stereotypes.

Then I recalled the best public-privy signage I’ve ever seen anywhere: downstairs at Northampton’s Academy of Music, which designates a STALLS ONLY restroom on one side of a corridor, STALLS AND URINALS on the other. I was agog with admiration at their plainspoken economy. I did not have my phone handy, or I would have snapped plenty of hi-res pix at the risk at the risk of being arrested, believe me.

The signs said everything that needed to be said, which was very little. No mention of men and women, no classification according to sexual plumbing, no silhouettes of ladies in A-lines or broad-shouldered dudes with posture like Old Kingdom Egyptians. And, best of all, no armless woman dressed in a massive bar sink!

Though I have to admit, she grew on me.

 

 

on guns and prayers

You know that joke about the guy in the flood? No? It goes like this:

Guy’s in a flood. He says a prayer asking God to rescue him. The waters rise. He escapes to the roof of his house, still praying. The waters rise. People in a boat come by. He says: “No thank you, God will rescue me.” The waters rise. A plane flies over, dropping a rope ladder. He shouts: “No thanks, I’m all set! God will rescue me!” The waters rise. Rescuers rappel from a helicopter. Again he turns them away, explaining: “I have faith! I’ve said my prayers! God will rescue me!”

The waters rise. The guy drowns. On meeting his maker, he expresses bafflement and outrage. “Lord,” he says. “I had faith. I prayed, asking you to rescue me.” And God replies, utterly confused: “Wait – what happened to the boat, the plane and the helicopter?”

We are, as a nation, collectively standing on the roof of the house as the flood of gun deaths rises around us. We’re not in danger of drowning; we’re drowning right now. As of this typing, more than 13,000 people have died of gun violence this year alone, more than 600 of them children.

For the record, I am not among the people mocking politicians who sent their “thoughts and prayers” to the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas, after the latest mass shooting. As a person of faith, I am not against sending thoughts and prayers to anyone who suffers. Go right ahead. I do it pretty frequently myself, and I’ve been on the receiving end in my own times of need. But I’m pro-gun control, and I’m also bloody outraged that so many of these same politicians have continually failed to follow up their prayers with sane gun legislation that might save countless lives.

Prayers mean nothing without action. God can’t rescue us from the flood without our help. We need to roll up our sleeves and pitch in — or as my late husband used to put it, “We need to meet God half-way.” And if we’re serious about solving the scourge of gun violence in this country, we have to go beyond politically timed condolence tweets to actually talking, actually listening, actually doing something about a crisis of epidemic and existential proportions.

I happen to believe in a loving creator, but I also happen to believe that we’re put on this earth to be the arms and legs and ears and voices of that same loving creator. It’s not enough to say you believe; you have to act. It’s not enough to simply pray; you have to listen. Prayers are answered when any and all of us walking this planet — souls of every stripe and bent and faith system and secularity, whether devout in our faith or our atheism — respond to the “still, small voice” prodding us toward sanity, wisdom, compassion, peace. And then take measures to realize it.

It can happen. We can do it. We can make it off this roof, but only if we put faith into action. So to everyone with an ounce of influence in the halls of government, I say: Go ahead and pray.  Pray for the grieving. Pray for the nation. Pray that this never happens again. But after you’ve prayed, please, just get off your asses and enact true and comprehensive gun control, okay? Do you understand? Be the answer to your own prayers.

slave castles — and the weight of history

As I stood there in the cells and dungeons, I could feel them: The weight of people who had suffered there, starved there, lay in chains in their own vomit and excrement. Those who died in the airless dark. Those who lived only to die, stacked like lumber, on ships to the Americas. Those who made it to distant shores only to find themselves bound in servitude, forever torn from family and home.

Touring the “slave castles” of the Ghana coast — the fortresses where untold numbers were held captive before the crossing — I felt this, and I wept. It’s all I could do. That, and dwell on all the generations of African-Americans who’ve grown up knowing only that their ancestors traveled this torturous route across the ocean. I don’t know much about my own ancestors, but as a white American, I know where they came from: Italy, Germany, Scotland, England, France. Too many Americans of African descent don’t even know that much. Too many can’t say which homes their forebears were stolen from.

This all hit me, as I stood there. I thought of their ancestors, shackled in those very rooms, nameless to the men who held and beat and raped them but known to the loved ones left behind. I thought of the profound — beyond profound — evils of the slave trade and the centuries of anguish, obstacles and disadvantage endured by its victims and descendants in Africa and the Americas both. I thought of Black Lives Matter, and the critics who rebut it with “All Lives Matter,” not realizing they’ve just articulated the point. Lives are exactly the point. All is exactly the point. All includes Blacks. Had All Lives Mattered from the start, Black Lives would never have been seized and sold and shipped and enslaved and then, over centuries of bias, routinely and tragically diminished.

This is obvious, or it should be. I’m not pretending to have insights into the African and African-American experience. I am not presenting myself as any kind of scholar, or as anything but a woman who spent a week visiting her daughter on a semester in Ghana and, while there, bought and read a short book on the slave trade and castles. We visited two: Elmina, built in 1482 and run by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British; and Cape Coast, built in 1653 and held principally by the British.

I didn’t take photos of the interiors of either fort, just exteriors and a few plaques inside. Shooting more would have felt disrespectful. People wasted away in those buildings. They died of cholera and malaria and starvation. Those who fought or tried to flee were thrown into a tiny cell with no light and no air and no food and no water and no hope for escape, not in this life. In both castles the guide brought us in, shut the door and turned off the light.

We stood in silence. The hows rained down. How many had died there, alone in the dark? How many days did it take them to expire? How did anyone survive in these fortresses of savagery and genocide? How did the Europeans convince themselves that the people they held weren’t people? How did any of this happen? How did it continue for hundreds of years? How can Americans reconcile this history with the dreams and ideals we claim to revere? How can we move forward? How can we make amends? How can we ever comprehend the lives lost, the damage done, the legacy of torture and statelessness and unfathomable pain?

I felt indescribable grief. Plain, immense, baffled, pressing sorrow. And I thought: I wish all Americans could stand here. Reading about history is one thing. Feeling the weight of its crimes in the place they were committed is a revelation of staggering impact. I’ve never been to Auschwitz; I imagine it’s the same.

One of the plaques I photographed was this one, which hangs in the the courtyards of Elmina and Cape Coast both.  It includes this appeal: “May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

There it is. That says it all: Peace. Humanity. Injustice. We, the living.

Let’s uphold this.

 

 

 

 

the miracle of art

“The Weight of a Ring,” by Terry Liu.

Ars longa, vita brevis: art is long, life is short. Even the briefest radio story can live well beyond its 11-minute running time, as I learned on receiving this startling work at left: an illustration inspired by “The Weight of a Ring,” my story for “The Moth” chronicling husband’s suicide in September of 2011 and my decision, four months later, to remove my wedding and engagement rings.

The artist is Terry Liu, an MFA student at Cal State University in Long Beach who’s preparing 20 such illustrations for a graduate show. “The theme for my show is about how radio stories can connect people around the world,” Liu writes, “and make people feel less lonely.”

Telling that story made me feel less lonely. Hearing from strangers who’ve heard it or read it or watched it on YouTube and reached out to me, firing off little electronic missives filled with love and kinship, makes me feel less lonely. Reading Liu’s email made me feel less lonely. Opening the attached jpeg and finding this extraordinary portrait of my life, my grief, myself made me feel less lonely — and profoundly grateful for both Liu’s creative gift the gift of creation.

A fellow artist in another medium had comprehended and channeled the smallest details I’d shared and dwelt on them, found some truth or beauty in them, transformed them into art.

There I am. Me, weeping, whorls of my hair draping around me. Me, curled up in a ball. Chris. A hammer and saw, allusions to Chris’s years in carpentry and construction. The front door I opened to hear the news of his death. A cop. A TV, a nod to the “Battlestar Galactica” my kids and I watched from the living room floor that long and sleepless and terrible first night. The calendar days, just peeling and floating away. A writer’s quill. My ring, with its ruby stone. My gold chain. My hand. Chris’s hand. Ours.

This is the miracle of art: it renews and extends the life that it touches.

Six years ago, something happened to me. Somehow I turned it into narrative. Someone else heard it, found in its intimacy some arcing universal element, then took it apart, studied its pieces and turned them into something else. Something beautiful. Something that isn’t my story but evokes it with insight and compassion, shaping it gently and splashing it with color. And I can see it in a new way, now. I can see myself from a distance, my own eyes filled with tears, my own complicated story filtered through the mind and heart and hands of another. Someone made art of my life, and both endure.

 

turns on the slide

This past Wednesday, I celebrated the day I was born 54 years ago in Booth Memorial Hospital, Queens. That actually happened. Then, this coming Tuesday, I’ll mark the sixth anniversary of my husband’s death (more accurately, it will mark me).  That happened, too. What also happened: I grew up in a singular family, married a singular man, buried my parents, buried my sister, had three babies, bought a house, kissed my children on their first days of school, watched them grow up and up and up and up, wrote books, wrote for newspapers, loved my husband, grieved my husband, wrote another book and kept on living.

And it’s all a blur. I never expected it to be a blur, but who does? Long, long ago, while chatting with an older, wiser colleague in the hallway, she shot me a comprehending glance and said: “You’re at such happy stage in your life. You have a wonderful husband, and your kids are small. Enjoy this.” I thanked her, assured her, then walked away thinking: ‘Stage’? You mean, this moment in my life won’t go on forever? 

Of course I knew it wasn’t permanent. Of course I knew my kids would grow, and I knew that either my husband or I would weep at the other’s grave. But now that I’ve wept at his, I can’t help but look back with shock at the abruptness of the change from then to now, the lickety-splitness of it all, the belated comprehension that even a marathon will feel like a sprint in hindsight.

But still. It was real. It is real. Every inch of it. The fact that something or someone’s behind me doesn’t diminish its presence or lessen its impact; it doesn’t make anything any less treasured or miraculous or true. My husband is real. Our wedding is real. Those nights at home when he wrestled on the floor with our kids: real. The love we felt and made: real. Those trips to Cape Cod, freezing our bodily bits and pieces in the ocean at Coast Guard Beach: real.

Everyone I’ve ever loved, whether they’re alive or dead, in my life or not: real. My best friend from college, her insight, her humor, her calm, all gifts to the world until it lost her: real. Every laugh I’ve shared with a friend: real. Every late-night conversation that bled into dawn: real. Every kiss I’ve kissed, every blush I’ve blushed: real. Every embrace that felt like eternity: real.

The days I shared with my parents and sister: real. The Scrabble we played by the fireplace, the fireflies we chased by the lake: real. The Chopin my sister played at the piano: real. The Bach my mother played on the violin: real. The Franck they performed together, with little bumbling Amy turning pages: real.

That fat Maine coon I had as a kid: real. The purple banana bike: real. That time I went sledding on ice and crashed and flipped and landed on my head and didn’t die and didn’t tell my parents, oh good God, no: real. The boy I had a crush on whose paintbox I smeared: real. The other boy I had a crush on whose stomach I punched: real. The best friend from grade school with the big barn and the big heart and the big hands: real.

That long, steel slide I rode on the playground in first grade, then stood in line and rode again, then again, then again, because I never wanted it to end, not even in January, not even when the air pinched my chest and the metal bit my butt: real.

Every turn on the slide is real. Every moment now past. Every job I held. Ever book I wrote and re-wrote and re-re-re-wrote. This moment right now, as I bang out a fresh sentence in a blog post? A turn on the slide, and look, it’s over now. Every blip and burp in life, whether a brief interlude or a lengthy stage, is a turn on the slide. My two-decade marriage was a turn on the slide. Our years as a young family of five were a turn on the slide. The phase I’m in right now, a late middle age filled friends and family and music and beautiful, striving, impossibly spirited older children, is yet another turn on the slide. Every tune I scratch out on my fiddle with pals is a turn on the slide, each one a little swinging morsel of forever.

Everything is. Every breath, every laugh, every moment spent learning at work or at home. If I’m lucky, and all my bodily bits and pieces continue to function properly, I’ll take many more turns on the slide before the cosmic kitchen timer rings for me. I have no idea how many, or what sort, or where they’ll take me. My only plan is to savor them.