i got music, part i: my django obsession

(NOTE: Last year, I started writing an amateur musical memoir. Then I stopped. These things happen. But I had some fun with it — enough fun that, who knows, I may well finish it one day. Just not today. And probably not the next day, either. So in the eternal spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, I’ve decided to take what I’ve written, break up into tidy, digestible chunks and 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 I: MY DJANGO OBSESSION

Time: June of 2016

Place: Northampton, Mass. 

Mood: Panicked

***

I hit wrong notes.

It’s what I do, and let me tell you, I do it brilliantly. It’s my calling, my métier, both the hitting and the wrongness: For decades, I have slammed the misguided fingers of my left hand, a.k.a. the Flailer, onto taut steel wires while my right hand, a.k.a. the Steely Fist of Death, grips a long, light, horse-haired stick and waggles it strenuously across a curvy wooden box in optimistic attempts to approximate pitch and loose mellifluous sound waves into the air. It is in the nature of such actions that many of them fail. It is in the nature of me. Because I am an amateur. I do not play the violin. I play at the violin, a critical distinction once expressed to Fritz Kreisler by that humble amateur-fiddler-cum-fascist-dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Sadly, I’m not a fascist dictator, so I don’t have that to fall back on. Quiet, peasants! You will listen while I play! No matter that I sound like a dying squirrel! I don’t have much of anything to fall back on. When I play at the violin, I play at it for my own enjoyment, but I live in fear that my own enjoyment will cause those around me to writhe in agony and/or cringing sympathetic embarrassment. This fear has taken a marked upward turn since venturing into jazz, as the danger of hitting wrong notes expands exponentially with improvisation. You’d think the opposite. You’d think that improvising means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong! When it fact it means that you can play anything, and hey, you’ll never be wrong, unless you hit grievously incorrect notes out of sync with the chord changes, and then you’ll sound like a dying squirrel!

I’m fearing the squirrel right now, as I slouch in my little plastic folding chair in a little sunny room in a little tidy building on the Smith College campus in Northampton, Mass. I am surrounded by a class of fellow amateurs. They are able. Eager. Informed. I am inept. Terrified. Clueless.

Before us sits a man. A great man. A great, French-speaking man with a gentle manner and glorious facial hair. A man who can and does do anything on the fiddle. A man of voluminous knowledge and astonishing artistry. A man who knows nothing of the squirrel.

The man is here to teach us, and I am here to learn. For I have done a rash and hopeful thing. I have enrolled at Django in June, an annual camp for hardcore gypsy-jazz fanatics who, feeding an addiction for upbeat, retro-swinging, strangely chromatic tunefulness, bring their quirky guitars and skinny mustaches to a gathering that’s part festival, part music school, part 24/7 jazz saturnalia, part cult. I have joined the cult. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

But at the moment, I am very, very afraid. The great man before me is a wizard of the gypsy fiddle and a god in this cosmos, someone whose YouTube videos have wowed me from afar. And I am about to make a boob of myself in his presence. A large boob. A large, quavering, anxiously perspiring boob who already feels inferior to every other violinist here.

“Play this,” he says, and plays a chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic. When I panic, I can’t do a damn thing. So I fake it.

“Play it again,” he says, and again plays the same chromatic progression of rapid-fire notes.

Everyone else plays it. I panic and fake it.

“Not everyone is playing it exactly right. Let’s play it again,” he says, and once again blitzes through the run.

This time, while everyone else is playing it, I do nothing. Not with my body, anyway. Inwardly, I am writhing on the floor with matted hair and gnashing teeth while blatting laryngeal moans of utter torment. And as I do, I’m thinking: I AM TERRIBLE AT THE VIOLIN. I AM THE TERRIBLEST VIOLINIST OF ALL TIME. HOW TERRIBLE AM I? LET ME COUNT THE WAYS.

I’m terrible at fast running notes. My fingers function in extreme slo-mo. On a scale of 1-10, I rate around 3.

I’m terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. Terrible, terrible, terrible at scales, chords and arpeggios. On this, I’m a 2. If I’m lucky. Probably a 1.

I’m terrible at sight reading. 5. On a good day, 6.

Above all, I’m terrible at being terrible, focusing on my terribleness to the detriment of things I do pretty well, or I might do pretty well, if only I paused in my reflexive self-flagellating to actually practice. But I don’t, because I’m terrible about practicing, too. From 1 to 10, I rate a 0. Less than 0. Let’s say -7.

IN A WORD, TERRIBLE.

“Play it again,” the great man says.

I howl silently, then panic and fake it.

holy moly

Growing up in an atheist-agnostic household, I learned that love, kindness and generosity were the only working gospels, and I learned that they do indeed work. But only if you choose to love, and you choose to be kind and giving,  and you choose to set aside judgment of others and bend to help when they’re down. I also learned that people of faith don’t exactly have a lock on these gospels, a truism demonstrated by generous atheists and ruthless believers since the dawn of the frontal lobe.

So, no, whenever we happen across some homeless pandhandler slumped against a wall, looking despairing and exhausted and famished,  we don’t need religion to tell us what to do: Love. Give. Don’t judge. Bend down to help. We don’t necessarily need God in those moments. But here’s what hit me the other day: God needs us.

Let me explain.

Rewind to late last week, when I happened across this fine piece of 1 Corinthians during my regular bedtime bible-flip:

This got me thinking. It got me thinking, because A) like 99.9999999999999 percent of the population, I struggle with self-acceptance; and B) “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam,” is one of my all-time favorite literary quotations, right up there with “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” and “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too?” (And do you suppose that’s the first time anyone has crammed Popeye, Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson into the same 68-word sentence?)

It got me thinking, too, because lately I’ve been dwelling on the problem of hate and discrimination — the tendency to demonize people, declare them sinners or define Them against Us. As though we weren’t all Us! As though we weren’t all Them! As though we weren’t all struggling with this beautiful but oh-so-pissy business of being alive and imperfect, frustrated with our own shortcomings and irked by the flaws of others.

I’m especially baffled by self-proclaimed Christians who do the demonizing. I wonder which bible they’ve been reading. Certainly not the one on MY night table, the one where Jesus tells us to feed the poor and help the stranger and not judge and not hate and sing kumbayah around a campfire while making daisy necklaces. There must be some other, Exxtreme Edition Bible where jujitsu Jeez-Us rips off his shirt to reveal his bleeding pecs and then instructs his disciples in the rules of Fight Club.

So I read that snippet from 1 Corinthians the other night, and I thought: hmmmm. I yam what I yam by the grace of God. God made me this way. God made you that way. God made everyone every which way, even the most annoying people in the most annoying ways, and if you believe in God, you gotta believe God did this for a reason — some divine reason we can never divine. Then I thought: Holy moly! Wait a sec. Maybe God made us all in this crazy patchwork of singular personalities and predilections and shortcomings because God needs us to be different! God needs you. God needs me. God needs us.  

God needs us to be our most essential selves. Our best selves. Our selves most engaged in life, most available and willing to pitch in. I was already chewing hard on this when, on Sunday, I heard a terrifically insightful homily on the Holy Trinity (Father Richard Vosko, St. Vincent de Paul, tip o’ the hat to both) and the importance of being present in moments when we’re called to help.

The Trinity is something that Catholics accept while quietly and simultaneously fearing that non-Catholics regard us as wacko polytheists slathering ourselves in oil under the full moon. But this time, the God-in-three-persons paradigm kicked me in the teeth (and in the best way!) as I realized, a mere 27 years after converting, that all three guises are present in us at every moment: the God who made us; the God who talks to us; the God who came here, suffered and showed us how to love.

So, okay, let’s say I run across some homeless panhandler on some hot summer morning. In that moment, Creator is present in the panhandler, in me, in the sunshine, in the air. The Holy Spirit is present in the still, small voice that says: That poor guy is hungry. Go buy him a sandwich. And as I hand him the sandwich, each of us is Jesus — the hurting and the helper, both. On some other occasion, he might bend to help me.

I yam what I yam. He is what he is. We are what we are. God needs us.

 

 

 

bleeding heads, bleeding hearts, bad satire

I’m not normally one to weigh in on pop-cultural paroxysms seizing the Twitterverse, even two days late. But I have to say it: Kathy Griffin’s “beheading” of Donald Trump was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. It was stupid. Stupid stupid stupid. It was sorely misguided. It gives the Trump opposition a seriously bad name, tainting his critics with the stage blood of a mock assassination that does nothing to advance the  causes of peace, justice and compassion that those on the left presumably support.

Yes, okay, she had a right to express her displeasure with a faux decapitation. Thank you, First Amendment, and God bless America. Yes, it’s the business of comedians to push boundaries, especially in times of profound national stress, and occasionally they push these boundaries so hard that they draw blood. Jim Carrey has since come to Griffin’s defense, saying it’s her job to “cross the line.” Larry King says that’s exactly the sort of comic she is –a line-crosser, a boundary-pusher, the sort who goes “over the edge a lot.”

Yeah, right, okay. Lines. Boundaries. Edginess. I get it. As I think I’ve established pretty well in past blog posts, I am nooooooooooooo fan of the apricot-haired infantile swellhead currently taking up too much space in the Oval Office and, sadly, our collective American consciousness. I am ALL in favor of ridiculing him, his tiny everythings (mind, heart, hands, kidneys, whatever) and his nattering band of sycophantic munchkins. Mockery! Yes! Satire! Yay! 

But I know my Jonathan Swift well enough to understand the creative and moral imperatives of political satire: To call out the horrors of a failed system with blackened, ridiculous overstatement. Swift challenged heartless British policies toward the starving with a “modest proposal” to sell and cook Irish babies “in a fricassee, or a ragout” — a ghastly piece of irony that he knew enough to publish anonymously. But the ghastliness was born of compassion. It didn’t target ACTUAL BABIES; it took aim instead at the ruthlessness of the system. Had Griffin taken a more Swiftian tack on Trump, his head would have stuck to his body and polished off a large plate of authentic-Mexican food. (NOTE HYPHEN PLACEMENT, WORD NERDS.)

Alas, she didn’t.

We need to do this properly. If we’re to oppose the man and his twisted reign for God knows how many months and years — and if we’re going to get through this AS A PEOPLE, which believe it or not, we are — we need to set some ground rules. Ready?

1. NO ASSASSINATION JOKES.

Do I really need to say it? Must I go into the whole we’re-either-fighting-for-democracy-or-we’re-not business? Do I have to point out that, hey, cracking jokes about killing the president is promoting violence and criminality and therefore A REALLY BAD and ANTI-DEMOCRATIC IDEA? That it’s, well, kinda breathtakingly hypocritical for a political wing that prides itself on being anti-gun, anti-capital punishment, anti-hatred, anti-bloodshed, anti-war? I guess I do.

2. NO BARRON JOKES.

Just no. He’s a kid. None of this is his fault. So shut up.

3. NO JOKES ABOUT LETTING THE TRUMP VOTERS DIE.

I’ve gotten into a few Facebook spitting matches on this subject and may get into a few more once I post this. I am, how shall I put this, deeply perplexed and apoplectic to the point of hemicranial agony by my fellow lefties who A) claim to support government programs helping the poor, B) oppose the right’s draconian efforts to dismantle them, C) feel particularly outraged by attempts to gut Obamacare, which could end up killing Americans with preexisting conditions, but D) ARE TOTALLY OKAY WITH THIS SCENARIO if the dead Americans in question voted for Trump. The logic being: Hey, you voted for him, pal. You pay the consequences. Death penalty for you!

Once again, the hypocrisy takes my breath away. Aren’t we supposed to be the bleeding hearts? Don’t we claim to be supportive of people in dire straits? Like putative “Christians” who hurt the poor and exclude the stranger, liberals who ditch compassion for cruelty in some childish hissy fit of nyah-nyah retribution are betraying their own ideals.

4. PLEASE, I KNOW THIS IS HARD, BUT NO BLANKET DEMONIZATIONS OF ENTIRE CLASSES OF PEOPLE.

This is an obvious but necessary corollary to Ground Rule Number 3. I just don’t see any point in lumping half the American populace, or even 34.76543 percent of it, into a trash bin of Worthless and Heinous Devil Spawn, because, look, not EVERYONE who disagrees with me or belongs to some other party or lives in some other, redder part of the country is THAT BAD. They’re not! I swear! I know some of them! I talk to them! They talk back! Using their indoor voices! They’ve even been known to do me a solid when I need a little help!

So here’s the thing: We either oppose facile, destructive generalizations, or we don’t. We either stand against violence and ignorance, or we don’t. We either stand for compassion and sensitivity, or we don’t. We either believe in a country that makes room for everyone, or we don’t. We either believe in a future for that country, or we don’t. We either behave like people who want to shape that future together — even if “together” is a distant and fantastical notion, at the moment — or we don’t.

We either have faith in our glorious democratic ideals and love them, work for them, push toward them, cross the divides between us and press on with each other, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we need to act as if we do, or there is no getting out of this at all.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

 

chutzpah in a traffic jam

So here I am, cranky and anxious at a clogged intersection, praying feverishly that A) the rattling old electric-blue jalopy I just sank more than three thousand bucks into doesn’t decide to lose a wheel or randomly explode or otherwise drop dead in the middle of Albany-Shaker Road; and B) that gridlock will let up just enough for me to inch through that lovely green light 500 feet ahead.

My windows are down. I’m blasting NPR. And suddenly, materializing like a vision from the ether of heavenly exhaust, this slammin’ hot German sedan rams its nose into stalled traffic from a nearby gas station, crosses two lanes choked with cars, zips blithely across mine and then whips a quick left into the throng. Just like that. No apology, no hesitation. Like Moses parting the Red Sea or Genghis Khan invading the Khwarazmian Empire, and no, that’s not hyperbole.

As this conquering force darts before me, I catch sight of the driver through his own open windows: Young guy, dark hair, little beard. An easy vehicular sass about him as he turns the wheel. Chutzpah embodied in a sleek black Benz.

The guy looks my way, throws me a smile and snaps me a quick wave. I respond by unhinging my jaw and cracking open my mouth into the largest, most cavernous and expressive oval of flabbergasted awe that I think I’ve ever unleashed on a fellow mortal.

It says: HOLY SHIT DID YOU JUST DO THAT?

It also says: ARE YOU, LIKE, THE WORLD’S BIGGEST ASSHOLE?

It then adds: IF SO, WHY DON’T I HATE YOU FOR IT?

Finally it says: IT MUST BE BECAUSE I KINDA SORTA ADMIRE YOU, BENZ-BOY.

I start laughing. I can’t help it. I like the guy. I keep laughing as the light turns a lovely green and we all start inching toward it, the little bearded scoundrel just ahead and beside me in a parallel lane.

And then, because I’m still laughing, because my windows are open, because his are, too, and because I’m a white-haired 53-year-old dame who doesn’t give a shit any longer what young men in Benzes think of me, I hit the gas, pull up beside him and shout while I’m passing:

YOU! HAVE! BALLS!

He laughs and gives me a thumb’s up, and we both go our merry ways. I make it through the intersection and down one road, and then another, and then another. My car doesn’t explode. My wheels don’t fall off. I’m safe at home, still chuckling and no longer cranky and anxious as I muse: Hmmm. Balls. Maybe I have some, too.

weird and proud

On one of the online dating sites, i.e., those cyberspatial wastelands of Men Posing With Fish, Men Posing On Motorcycles and Men Posing with Fish On Motorcycles, the following question is asked of all willing participants:

Which would you rather be?

  • Normal
  • Weird

If you know anything about me, including anything I’ve said, written, conveyed with bizarre dance moves or otherwise expressed  in the past 53 years, you’ll know that I checked “Weird.” Not only did I check “Weird,” I wrote WHAT A WEIRD QUESTION as a footnote, because the way I see it, this is a well-duh issue. Everyone in their right mind should want to be weird.  I don’t trust people who don’t want to be weird. In fact, on the website in question, I automatically eliminate every man who checks “Normal.” I’m like, seriously, dude? What makes you think “Normal” is actually a thing? In my experience, there IS no normal. There ARE no normal people. There are only weird people who check “Weird” and weird people who check “Normal,” and I would MUCH MUCH MUCH rather spend time with self-aware weirdos than unwitting weirdos in denial.

I was reminded of this in Pittsburgh over the weekend, not because the city itself is divided into Weird and Normal camps (although most cities are) but because the airbnb my daughter had secured was decorated with such faux-Victorian flare, and outfitted so ornately with lace, dolls and “Gone With the Wind” cut-outs, that I instantly started to psychoanalyze its owner. I also instantly started to wonder whether we were trapped in some cheap horror movie of 1980s vintage, and I began running odds on which among our large group of travelers would be the first to die at the hands of a little Swiss manikin dressed in lederhosen.

DOOMED PERSON A: Did you hear that?

DOOMED PERSON B: Hear what?

DOOMED PERSON A: That high-pitched laugh coming from the bathroom! You must have heard it!

(High-pitched laugh comes from the bathroom.)

DOOMED PERSON C:  What do you mean, a high-pitched laugh coming from the bathroom?

(DOOMED PERSON C goes into the bathroom.)

DOOMED PERSON A: DON’T GO IN THERE, CHAD! STOP!

DOOMED PERSON C: AHHHHHHHHHH!!!

DOOMED PERSON A: OH, MY GOD! CHAD! CHAD!

But nothing like that actually happened (and no one named Chad was actually with us). The apartment was clean and commodious. It was well-stocked with snacks. Packets of ear plugs were laid out to combat the noise of a nearby rail line. Its aura was far less evil than good-natured in its obsessive kitsch, and as we settled in, I felt at ease. Its owner’s forthright eccentricity began to reassure me; there was an openness to it, an innocent joy about it, that made me suspect we belonged to the same extended tribe of colossal oddballs. I knew nothing about her beyond her fondness for Clark Gable and satin bedspreads, but she was familiar to me. She was kin. And I knew, just knew, that she wouldn’t check “Normal,” either.

the arms of love

Like most everyone else with a smartphone, I try to unglue myself from it periodically — mute the ringer, shut the whole thing off for a couple hours or maybe even leave the damned pernicious addictive isolating gizmo in the car for the day. When I revive or retrieve said DPAI gizmo after a sabbatical, I look down and inevitably find text messages. Many, many text messages. One day, in one thread alone, I found 148.

No. That wasn’t a typo. Yes. One thread, 148 messages. ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT. But it wasn’t just any thread. It was my extended Richardson family thread, and let me tell you, those babies are EPIC, full of personality and opinion and politics and joshing and photos and memes and videos and articles and emojis and all sorts of crack-me-up exchanges, with room for occasional stumbles and fumbles that resolve with love and humor. We talk about everything, and by everything I mean EVERY LAST THING, including things not normally discussed at length in family iPhone threads. Recently, the conversation veered from the smoke emitting from someone’s aged Civic to the banana pudding at a bakery on the Upper West Side to disco roller-skating and tube socks of the 1970s, and please don’t ask me to explain exactly how that happened.

Twelve people are on the thread these days, although that number’s been known to vary. Not everyone’s on it. If everyone were on it, I would check my phone after a few hours away and find not 148 messages but 1,480. This is a large clan. Each time I turn around, it’s larger, a chimeric formation of vital, interesting, profoundly decent and loving people. Some are related by blood. Some are related by marriage. And some, like me, are related by the miracle of blessed happenstance.

The Richardsons are my Family Part Two, the peeps who took over after I lost my Family Part One.  I sometimes (often) confuse people by referring to “my late father Louis” in one breath and “my dad Dan, who lives in Vermont” in another, at which point I can see little thought bubbles forming over their heads (WAIT WAIT WAIT AMY’S FATHER IS DEAD? ALIVE? DEAD? ALIVE? AND HE HAS TWO NAMES? WTF?) and I launch into a blathery genealogical disquisition explaining precisely how I came to have two fathers, one living and one gone; two mothers, both of them gone; an extra batch of truly awesome siblings; and a mass of similarly awesome satellite relatives whose exact relationships would require several more long, heaving Faulknerian sentences to explain in full.

I met the nuclear core of Richardsons 40 years ago this spring, when Dan was wrapping up his first year as headmaster at the wee girls’ arts school where my mother ran the music department. I was 13, an awkward nerd with dreadful bangs, clanging oral hardware and older parents always teetering on medical catastrophe. But Mama was wise. She saw and comprehended. Egged on by her, I fell in with this young and energetic brood: Dan and his wife, Pat. Jenny, their eccentric black lab. Their kids Danny, Randy, Betsy. Nils, their first add-on/bonus kid. They were clearly prone to such add-on/bonuses, picking up friends who became family through the mystical alchemy of time and love and laughter. Somehow, they wound up adopting people (plus dogs, but that’s another story), and I was lucky to be among the adoptees. When my childhood family died, that sealed it. “Consider my parents yours,” Danny wrote.

I’m always quoting that moment — in my writing, in my conversation, in my mind. It was so giving, so perceptive and complete. Isn’t that what family does? Give us precisely what we need precisely when we need it, whether a hug or a harsh correction? In this case I needed family itself, and so they gave of themselves. The gift alone was proof of its authenticity. It has proved itself, over and over, in all the years that followed, through the births of my children and the death of my husband and every spasm of life besides. Their arms stretched to embrace us, and we stretched back.

This past Easter weekend, a bundle of extended Richardsons gathered in Vermont for a wedding: Danny’s middle son, Cooper, and his beloved Olivia. We all laughed and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and danced and laughed, and somewhere between the eating and talking and dancing and laughing, we found a quiet moment to reflect with gratitude on what we shared as a family. There, sitting amid a Sunday feast at my brother Randy’s house, I marveled at the accidental genius that brought this group together, at the love exemplified by Dan and Pat as they opened their hearts to stragglers like me, at the love that still abides in that beautiful and ever-expanding assemblage of characters.

On Wednesday, I met Cooper and Olivia at that bakery on the Upper West Side. They were in Manhattan for a quick trip; so, as it turned out, was I. We ordered a mini banana cream pie, a kind of pudding ne plus ultra, and ate and laughed and talked and laughed and laughed. I texted photos of the empty pie dish and the happy couple to our fellow Richardsons, who erupted with joy in the thread.

Hugging the newlyweds goodbye, I thought: I could not have guessed, as a nerdy 13-year-old, that my life would expand to include these two beautiful young people. And so many others. So many arms of love.

This isn’t the family I was born into. That family, my Biancolli family, went on too soon to their glorious Elsewhere. But that loving family gave me this one before they left, and it’s a gift of endless proportions. It goes on and on and on and on, just like the text thread. Only longer. And better. And richer, with or without the pudding.

the love that lucy taught me

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow night, on April 5, 1992, I lost my sister Lucy to suicide.  She was 31, I was 28, and I vowed forever after that I would live my life for two.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday morning, I rose and learned the news. I never knew at what hour, exactly, she’d swallowed a mess of useless psych meds and curled up on her bed with a stuffed bear to wait. Probably it happened before midnight. I had returned late from a few days away, and I was feeling exhausted and nauseated and achy. But the answering machine was blinking that night, so I pressed “play.”

Two messages, both from Lucy. I hadn’t told her I’d be away. Those were the days before cell phones. She had no way of reaching me. No way of even knowing I was out of town.

In the first message, left around 8 p.m., she was desperate. Sobbing. Pleading with me to pick up. Ame Ame Ame Ame. Please. Please be there. Please. Ame Ame Ame.

Oh, my God, I said. Oh my God, oh my God.

And then the second message played. She left it, I think, around 10 p.m., and she sounded perfectly normal. Am fine now, Ame! Don’t worry about me. Everything’s okay. Sorry about the earlier call. No need to phone. Feeling much better. I love you!

So I went to bed. I didn’t try calling her back. Because she was okay, right?

The next morning, the phone rang early. I lay in bed and let the caller leave a message. A few minutes later, I listened to it: an old family friend asking me to call him as soon as I woke. It was important, he said. It had to do with Lucy, he said. Please call, he said.

I knew immediately that she was dead. I called my friend and got his son. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I asked him if Lucy had killed herself. “Yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” I told him I was sorry he had to bear the news. I said this because no one should ever have to bear that news. I thanked him, and hung up.

I thought of Lucy’s second message. She’d left it, I was sure, after resolving to die. She’d left it because she didn’t want me to try calling her back and then worry through the night. She wanted me to get a good night’s rest before learning my sister was dead. It was so caring of her. So typical. So Lucy.

I held my husband and called my mother. She told me Lucy had OD’d. And I said, Mama. Mama. Mama.

“Oh, honey,” Mama said. “The poor thing. She’s not suffering any longer.”

No. No, you’re right, Mama. She’s not. That’s true. She’s not.

“Poor, sweet Lucy.”

Poor, sweet Lucy.

She was the sweetest person. The bravest person. The smartest person. The wisest, the goofiest, the most credulous and curious and radiant — a small, beautiful, interesting, interested, fiercely true human being who played Chopin as though she knew him and greeted the world with wonder despite her pain.

Burdened with unyielding psychiatric problems, she had spent too many years of her life bouncing from psych hospital to psych hospital and useless meds to useless meds and wrong diagnosis to wrong diagnosis, settling finally on temporal lobe epilepsy with a complex array of psychological issues on the side. The upshot: She was suicidal. Pretty much all the time, she was suicidal. Even when she put on a sunny face for friends, she was suicidal. Even when she was busy talking me through my latest silly man-woe, she was suicidal. She was almost never not suicidal.

She had tried once before, swallowing earlier fistfuls of those useless meds and awaking from a coma with a renewed appetite for living. I’ve written about that before. I’ve written sundry other blog posts describing our sisterly adventures, like that time I damn-near died hiking with her on Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and then that time we both damn-near died in a car crash. I also wrote about her in my first memoir, House of Holy Fools; it’s a safe bet I’ll be writing about her again. How can I not?

Even after 25 years, I miss her. I’m spilling a few tears as I write this, proof that you never really “get over” the death of a loved one, you just make your path through life around it. You take all that you learned from your absent treasure —  all that they showed you, all that they shared with you, all of the life and love between you — and you wrap it around your shoulders and chest like a blanket against the cold. That’s my Lucy. She warms me still. She shows me how to live and love and always will.

She lived the way we all should live: without fear, restraint, self-consciousness, selfishness, small-mindedness, duplicity, cruelty or guile. She loved the way we all should love: with her whole being. She faced this world the way we all should face it: squarely. She embraced it in its fullness despite her own mysterious torment, and she lived life as though she meant it, as though it mattered, as though it harbored miracles. It was never easy for her, but she stuck it out as long as she could with as much joy as she could. And when she couldn’t, just before dying, just because she couldn’t take a breath on this earth without loving, she made one last phone call so her kid sister could get some sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

hope versus optimism

I passed this sign on a New York sidewalk. “Have hope,” it said in scrawly black chalk on an orange wooden trapezoid. “Have hope,” it said under three upright ichthys symbols, perhaps meant to denote Jesus, perhaps just the author’s need to embellish. “Have hope,” it said to no one in particular and everyone who passed.

“Have hope,” it said to me.

I am always telling myself to have hope. I need it. I know I need it. By knowing and saying I need it, I claim it and make it mine. Hope is in my hands. It isn’t always easy to carry, just as faith isn’t always easy, just as life isn’t always easy. But hope is a function of the one and a fuel for the other. Hope drives me. Hope is the promise of a new wave cresting beyond my sight. Hope is the forward tick of present into future, no matter what that future brings. What it brings could be everything or nothing. What it brings could soothe me or slay me. But what it brings is immaterial. Hope is simply the promise of bringing, and I cannot live without that promise. I cannot live without that hope.

Optimism, on the other hand: I can and do live without that. Despite appearances and occasional accusations to the contrary, I am no optimist. Not about myself, anyway, although my brother swears I am about everyone else (and yes, he’s usually swearing). But no. If I were an optimist, I would look to the distant, cresting wave and expect it to bring me a golden yacht filled with chocolate cupcakes and hot men in tiny clothing poised to do my bidding. Instead, I half- or three-quarters expect that next wave to arrive with a slimy tangle of toxic flotsam, gag me with seaweed, grab me around the ankles and drag me and/or multiple people I love out to sea. Because, frankly, that’s exactly what’s happened with numerous previous waves. The hot men with cupcakes have yet to arrive.

In other words, life has schooled me in the fine art of pessimism. But it’s also schooled me in hope. Each death and departure has taught me three simultaneously lessons: that loving means losing; that losing hurts like holy hell; and that, even as we hurt, life blunders onward indefatigably, pushing us forward with an obdurate insistence known as hope. The hope lies in the pushing. The hope lies in the obduracy. The hope lies in the peculiar human need to search for meaning in the darkness, to find some poetry in the pain, to land in our stumbling upon some little joy or corrective insight that makes all that happens to us just a little less senseless.

Hope isn’t optimism. It isn’t faith in a happy ending; it’s faith in an ending that matters, that bears weight, that limns what it means to be human. Hope is the engine of narrative. Hope is a creative fugue. Hope is the unreason driving every book, every symphony, every artwork. Hope is the thrust and yaw of sex, an urge in search of an outcome. Hope is every grieving, lonely soul who ever turned from a burial site and smiled at a baby. Hope is the baby. Hope is the tongue of a lover, reaching around a mouth in search of home. Hope is the reaching. Hope is the search. Hope is the blood lapping inside us, the lungs swelling within us, the heart beating even as it breaks. Hope knows that death is on its way, but hope is the life we live in spite of it. So, yes. As the sign says:

Have hope.

humanity in a snowstorm

I have to admit it: I love snowstorms. I was thinking about this today while driving through one such not-quite-cataclysmic weather event, because of course when I’m behind the wheel I HATE HATE HATE snowstorms. Driving to work I hated them less than I did driving home, because there were fewer jerkheads on the road this morning than their were in mid-afternoon. Actually, I only counted one outright jerkhead, a guy who passed me into oncoming traffic and put all of our lives at risk. Thanks, pal.

But everyone else I encountered today supported all my many reasons for loving snowstorms. How so? Well, aside from being pretty and fetching in the most charming, Christmas-cardiest sense, and aside from giving both Young People and Older People with Remaining Knee Cartilage joy in the form of skiing and/or sledding and/or debilitating neck injuries, snowstorms also equalize everything and everyone in sight. They are the great leveler of humanity. It DOESN’T MATTER where you live, what you do for a living, how old you are, which gender you most closely identify with, which gender you most closely snuggle with, how often and neatly you clip your nose hairs, what color your skin and/or pancreas is, which name you call God in prayer and which candidate you voted for in the last election.

All that matters is the snow. You get stuck in it? Someone pushes you out. Someone else gets stuck in it? You help push them out. You don’t roll down your window, shout, “HEY, DUMBASS, DID YOU VOTE FOR TRUMP OR CLINTON IN NOVEMBER?” and then decide whether to assist them based on their answer. I’ve expounded before on the Theory of Northern Cities, i.e., my conviction that snow-plagued residents judge their neighbors less on their private lives than on their public habits in shoveling (or not) their sidewalks after a storm. But I chewed on this a little more than usual today, and not only because THE kindest young man with THE widest smile driving THE biggest snow plow pulled up next to me in the parking lot at work and offered to plow a path out to the street.

I thought about it because I’ve been haunted, lately, by all the partisan vitriol spewing from all sides around the internet and the country. People pretending refugees aren’t people. People talking about “other people’s babies.” People saying certain people will get what they deserve if they lose their health insurance, even if they die. People judging people. People dehumanizing and demonizing people. People forgetting that people are people, screwy and complicated and oblivious to their own hypocrisies —  and trying to get to work and back, even in a storm.

On the drive home, I passed one car after another in distress: buried, spun out, wedged in a snowbank, spinning its wheels, looking aimless and bereft in the middle of an intersection. But the drivers weren’t bereft. Every single one of them was surrounded by helpers. People digging, people pushing, people attaching rope from one car to another to haul that sucker out. I rolled down my window repeatedly to offer aid, but no one needed it, not until the woman standing on the side of the road — she really did look bereft — accepted a ride to a bus stop a mile away. Her name was Vivian. She worked at a nearby hotel. We talked about this weird March blizzard and wondered how many inches we’d get. I told her I was grateful for my snow tires. I think she was, too.

I know nothing else about that woman — not how she voted, not how she prays, not whom she loves. It’s a safe bet no one knew anything about anyone else they helped on the road today, either.  And it’s a safe bet no one cared.

woman walks into a sandwich shop

sad-smiley-bread

Someday last week, somewhere in the mid-Hudson Valley, I had a bizarre exchange with a total stranger. This happens to me on occasion. You’d think, by now, I’d be used to it.

But this last time was different.  This last time haunted me: the woman, her meltdown, the two young men in the shop with us that day.

She was somehow so vulnerable in the extremis of her pain, somehow so broken in her rage. The fellow who accompanied her called her by name in his efforts to calm her, but I won’t repeat it here. I won’t identify the sandwich shop where the incident took place, and I won’t specify the locale. It happened. It truly happened. Let’s leave it at that.

It happened when I walked in to buy two subs. The shop was empty except for one employee, a young man with brown skin, a gentle manner and a light accent of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. I gave him my order: Two sandwiches, please. Turkey, bacon, lettuce, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, ranch.

As he assembled them, the young woman in question entered with her companion. The employee spoke with them, took their order, then turned back to me to finish and ring me up.

“I’m really thirsty,” the young woman declared with sudden urgency. “Can I have a cup?”

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“A cup,” she said. “A cup. A cup.”

“A cup? What kind of a — ”

“A CUP,” she repeated. “A CUP? Do you know what A CUP is? Have you never heard of A CUP?”

Saying nothing, he reached for a large paper soda cup.

“Are you the only person working here today? Is anyone else here?”

Still saying nothing, he handed her the cup. This failed to placate her. She started shouting.

“I said, IS ANYONE ELSE WORKING HERE TODAY, OR IS IT JUST YOU? Are you alone here? Are you IT? Is NO ONE ELSE HERE?”

That’s when I said: Hey. Hey. Give the guy a break. He just didn’t know what kind of cup you wanted.

Startled to hear from an outsider, she shot me a glance filled with acid.

She said: Mind your own business!

I said: If you’re rude to someone in front of me, it is my business. This is a public place. The guy just works here. Leave him alone.

She said: You’re not my mother! My mother is dead! Mind your own business!

What I should have said: I’m sorry your mother is gone, but you still have no right to treat this guy badly.

What I actually said: I have a dead mother, too. And my dead mother taught me to speak up when I hear someone being treated with disrespect.

Immediately I recognized this as a mistake. I should not have countered her Dead Mother with my Dead Mother, as Dead Mothers, once invoked, have a way of ramping up any conversation. And it did indeed ramp up. The young woman went completely ballistic, flailing her arms, shouting, spewing F-word upon F-word upon F-word while I howled CALM DOWN CALM DOWN CALM DOWN and made repeated “time-out” gestures like some ineffectual and somewhat desperate hockey referee.

I thought: Shit! What did I do?! She’s totally lost it!

I thought: Shit! How can I stop this?!

Then I thought: Shit! What IS it with me and total strangers!?!

Meanwhile, the young man with her —  friend, boyfriend or brother, I have no idea — looked pained and exhausted, as though he’d been through this way too many times before. He spoke her name tenderly, knowingly, urging her to leave. “Let’s go. Come on, let’s go, let’s go,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy.

But she kept at it. More flailing and shouting. More F-words.  I don’t recall the exact substance of her complaints, but the gist of it was unhinged, toxic outrage at being judged — by the world, by anyone, by me. I had no right. How dare I. She didn’t need this. Who was I to say. Et cetera.

Only when she slammed the paper soda cup onto the floor did I realize it was filled with ice. For a split second, the four of us — we two ladies, the employee, the friend — paused and stared as the scattered cubes shushed across the floor. Then the young fellow took the woman by the arm, uttered one more urgent “come on,” and they were gone.

That’s when another woman entered the store. “What happened?,” she asked, picking up the cup. We told her. She asked if I was all right. Yes, I said, and we all looked down at my shaking hands.

“Do you want me to call the police?” asked the employee.

No, I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, I said. I thought: That would ruin her day and maybe her life. And she didn’t hurt me. She didn’t even touch me. She only swore and fell apart.

I regarded the young sandwich-builder before me. He was utterly poised, calm and quiet. Not a peep from him throughout the whole ordeal. Not a flash of anger.

I said: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I said: I didn’t mean to create such a scene — to do this to you in your workplace. I only meant to tell her she shouldn’t be rude to you.

Again I said: I’m so sorry.

He shook his head. “I work here, so I couldn’t really say anything. It’s my job,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy for him, too. I wondered how often customers were rude to him for indiscernible reasons, and how often he stifled the urge to talk back.

Then he shot me a look of quiet bafflement and sorrow. “Some people,” he said, shaking his head once more. “Some people just don’t respect their elders.”

At that I almost burst out laughing. The kid was talking about me. I was an elder. Of course! The white-haired lady assailed with F-bombs by the obstreperous youngster!  In his country and culture of origin, such a scene would be unthinkable and appalling — far worse than the woman’s rudeness to him was her rudeness to me, at least in this young man’s view.

I wanted to hug him. Instead I asked his name. I said thank you, goodbye and God bless you. And I left with my turkey sandwiches.

Afterward, I replayed the episode over and over in my mind. I wondered what had motivated the woman’s short fuse and incivility. Was it the man’s race? His (presumed) religion or immigration status? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe I was, too. Maybe this woman had had an absolutely, positively shitty day. Maybe she’d been fired from her job, ditched by her boyfriend or — who knows —  ripped to a million little pieces by a total stranger in public. Maybe her mother had, in fact, just died.

I don’t know. But I know she isn’t having an easy time of things, whoever she is, and I also know her name. I know the sandwich man’s name. In a strange way I can’t quite understand, much less explain, I feel a bond with them both, having shared a moment of plain, painful, unfiltered humanity that was stripped of all protective layers. In that one volatile moment, we were naked together. Defenseless. And in our defenselessness lay an odd sort of intimacy.

Sometimes I think this is the challenge and calling of life: to witness each other at our worst, and to do our best regardless.

So I feel close to those people that day. I always will.  Once total strangers, they’re known to me now.  They mean something. They matter. I can’t shake them off, I don’t expect to shake them off, and I won’t try.

But I am never, ever, ever setting foot in that sandwich shop again.