A Sense of Place

Ceija Stojka, The Women of Revensbrück

Ceija Stojka, Deportation in an Extermination Camp

The residency in Paris continues… it also keeps improving, which is hard to imagine, since it has been so gratifying all along. I sit with two artists who are drawing my portrait. One is from Serbia and the other from Iran, and we talk about politics and religion and our beliefs and of course, art. That night I go for dinner with an Iraqi artist and we also talk about our way of seeing the world, religion and art and being women. I go to French class and we talk about how each of us thinks about life and art and culture and meaning, and we are from Finland, and Iceland, and Austria, and Germany, and Egypt and Japan and yes, the U.S.

I do my work – write, paint, but I also live Paris. I take myself to a French film, La Douleur, based on Marguerite Duras’ diaries. I read the book years ago – it’s about the War. A German filmmaker here is making a film about Duras’ husband and has seen La Douleur, and we go out for drinks and yak about it. I am superbly engaged and grateful for this world where every street and many people have something current going on about the past. Oh yes, there are digital art fairs, le monde numérique and the Pompidou and the Palais de Tokyo have moved way past the times I am still living, but I am not alone here.

A few days later I am on a walk in the Marais and par hasard (perhaps my favorite French expression, followed closely by formidable!), I stop by a gallery and am floored by the exhibit. It’s the work of a self-taught Rom, gypsy, artist, Ceija Stojka, and includes many amazingly profound paintings and drawings of her childhood in Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen camps. Some of it is breathtaking and reminds me of Munch and Kollwitz, two artists I revere. Stojka started painting at age 50 or so, and when I watch a film at the exhibit about her experience and life, I see her take gobs of paint into her hands, both hands, and then smear it over the cardboard canvas. The drawings are haunting… ghostlike figures, wisps of cloud, barracks, rifles, whips, but also les tournesols, sunflowers, in a field after the Liberation. Suffering and life beyond. She talks about becoming close to the bodies at Bergen Belsen for warmth and protection… the entrails had been eaten, so all that was left were piles and piles of skeletons and skin. I am riveted, just like when I first saw the amazing paintings of Charlotte Salomon and others who recorded their experience of those years. Knock out. I tell my friends here at the Cité and one knows Stojka’s work and wrote an article about her… Yes.

My connection to my own history is visceral here in Paris. When I discover photos or info in various archives about my family or parents, I experience an unfamiliar sense of belonging. The night after I saw La Douleur, which I found somewhat sentimentalized and too intensely dramatized for my taste, given the subject matter… who had really suffered in that tale? Was it truly the person waiting for news or the person imprisoned at Buchenwald and Dachau? But I digress – after the film I was walking home and noticing the people in the restaurants late at night, lovers at the table by the window, a group laughing at the pizzeria, smokers sitting outside at the sidewalk café under those lamps pumping heat into the frigid air, and suddenly I felt that I was my mother, in her body, walking these same streets before the War. A frisson of otherworldly visitation. And when another day, at the archives in Seine-Saint-Denis, I happened across three tiny ancient photos of my father in the Spanish Civil War, I looked at his face, shaded by a military hat, and saw myself.

I came to France to make art and write, but an unexpected byproduct, an outgrowth of the process perhaps, is that I have unearthed, or maybe the more accurate description would be, I have stumbled upon a lineage, roots, and a permanent sense of place. It is here. I am of here.

November in Paris

The fifth month of my Cité Internationale des Arts residency, a cold, dark rainy day in Paris. The leaves are still hanging on by their stems, as they slowly turn brownish but there’s promise of their clearing out in time to see the Seine and Notre Dame before new growth appears in the spring. The days slip by in a dash of sunlight or clouds, but they are foreshortened by the northern latitude of the city. Gone the 10:30 pm sunset…hello darkness by five. And yet those stalwart Parisians remain sitting in their big coats and thick scarves eating and drinking at outdoor tables on the street… no commentary on the overhead heaters pumping out warmth into the cold night air.

I have been accepted to remain here until the end of June, 2018, and the prospect of all that time in this city of beauty is a dream. Since my arrival I have painted several large paintings for a graphic novel – the first depicts hiding out from the gendarmes and Germans early in 1940 in Paris, and others are scenes of the mother in the novel getting hooked by, then mating with, then losing her lover, in the late 1930s and after. The novel describes the legacy of the War on the next generation. I also plug along on a novel in just text about similar subject matter but fictionalized to the max.

If one wants to write or make visual art about the Second World War in Europe, being in the Marais is an immersion experience. Not only is the Cité next door to the Mémorial de la Shoah, but on almost every street there are plaques listing who lived there and what happened to that person during the War. Each lycée, high school, has a plaque commemorating the children from that school who died ‘simply’ for being Jewish and with the complicity of the Vichy government. It took quite a few years for France to speak to the complicated arrangement here during the War, but these plaques were then created to acknowledge some responsibility for what happened. The War appears integrated into the streets of this arrondissement, but also is evident all around Paris.

Since my last entry I have returned to the city of Pau in the south of France where my mother spent the war. I went back to the archives and to the internment camp of Gurs to expand my knowledge of the confusion in my family about what happened to my mother during the War. I have been investigating the possible relationship between my mom and her employer, who seemed to have saved her from being sent to a camp, it would appear. Was he a Juste, a Righteous, like many French who felt compelled to help the victims of the War, or was he personally involved? Not easy questions to answer, but in my digging both there and in Paris I have managed to discover various details that will eventually add up to a story. In the meantime I came across a document in Paris with photos of my father when he was 23 years old being expelled from France for some activity… research does seem to offer results if one does not get dissuaded by bureaucracy and offices closed for mysterious reasons at unexpected times and many metro rides that result in very little information.

The Venice Biennale was amazing and Fontainebleau, Dordogne, Iceland, Beaune, Normandy, Brittany have all spiced the time in Europe. A visit to the internment camp of Drancy was sobering and offered archival evidence of an uncle’s time in Pithiviers and Beaune la Rolande before deportation. Thanksgiving came and went with a small dinner at a restaurant that caters to American tourists for the holiday, and it’s down to the final month before I take a break in the US for family and supplies. Then back to Paris for the months that build toward daylight again and late night sunset on the Seine.

By the Seine

Just arrived at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for a six month residency in art and writing. Don’t ask about the seven month preparation effort… First there was making sure that I actually understood the letter written in French that suggested that I had been offered a residency, then spending a couple months trying to communicate to the office in Paris given time zone difference and language challenges and the cultural norms of office hours…I didn’t believe that I had been offered what turned out to be true… six months of uninterrupted time in a studio in the Marais to work on whatever I wanted… actually, I did propose a novel with images about a woman living in France during the Second World War, but propose and make happen are flexible concepts. I have begun such a project but it’s up to the winds of creativity what actually transpires.

Okay, I was talking about preparations… once I digested the reality of the gift from heaven, or the City of Paris, to be more exact, I began the work of closing my psychotherapy practice after thirty-five years of an incredibly meaningful career, renting out the house that I’ve lived in for thirty-seven years and deciding to relinquish it for a year – hey, why not leave things open-ended if possible – and then cleaning it out, emptying every closet and every dresser and cupboard, for the renters. Seven months of prep for six months of bliss…hmmm. But now here I am, and the work of it all seems to slide off like an old coat.

There seem to be hundreds of artists here of all persuasions from every country imaginable… Moldova, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland, Iran, Finland, Lithuania were home to the first folks I met, and it seems there are virtually no US folks, so far. The artists offer open studios regularly and those that perform or make films put on shows several times a week. The studio I was given is at the end of a hallway facing the Seine, and Notre Dame looks like it’s next door. Walking at night I discovered a massive free concert in front of the Hotel de Ville edifice… huge screens magnifying sixties style male rock singers and tens of thousands of young folks screaming against the backdrop of blaring speakers and the lights of the buildings along the Seine. I’ve been given a pass to the museums that surround me and all I have to do is find the time to do everything and be everywhere.

What can I do but dive in? I’ve started working and, once I locate one of the many art supply stores and buy a roll of rag paper, I’ll be on my way. I’m reading Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon written in 2000, and the first page I opened to search for random words to spur my writing featured the BHV department store that happens to be on my corner. I think I’ve found heaven…from Massachusetts to the moon.

What is it about artist residencies? I have been to quite a few and each one is unique and a gift. I suppose that this is meant somehow to compensate for the lack of other support for most artists… we tend to work in solitude without any expected remuneration of any sort. We do it ‘for the love of it.’ The teacher in my French classes at Cité, Bethsabée, is a philosopher and intellectual who speaks eloquently on art, film, fashion, and culture. During my first group lesson, she went on a diatribe about how the concept of ‘gratuit’ was becoming lost as art has become a commodity with trade value. She claimed that the French don’t hold money as a goal and thus they value doing things for the intrinsic meaning. Perhaps that explains the generous gift of this residency – a pure offering of time and respect for creativity in and of itself. Magnifique!

An Excess of All Things

Speechless seemed to be the theme of my last entry… I claimed that I would be speechless if our current President won the election, a completely ludicrous prospect at the time I wrote the blog, and I was speechless after a visit to Poland at being confronted with what I had always known but never physically witnessed – the evidence of the eradication of the population of Polish Jews.

I now think that speechlessness is a weak response to both assaults. I, we, are obligated to have much speech and action in reaction to both the current administration in the US and also the historical and contemporary, and perhaps perpetual outbreaks of Anti-Semitism, let alone all recent attacks on racial and ethnic groups worldwide. Finding a voice in response to Anti-Semitic hate crimes and hate speech is an ongoing passion for me. On the domestic front, it was exhilarating to be present at the very exciting Women’s March in Washington DC in January, although being in downtown DC during the inauguration the day before was clearly more representative of the true divisions in the electorate. Tense and upsetting.

If asked how it’s going these days, I answer, as we all do – (or the all that surround me, those who care deeply about the environment, the arts, the poor, about those from other countries, those of other religions than the Christian majority, those who aren’t heterosexual, plus the many other folks with kindred value systems) – with the appendage tacked onto all pronouncements, that I am doing well except for the current political circus – Quite well, considering the current political disaster, ridiculousness, horror – pick a word and fill it in.

Yet even without such hat tipping, there is, of course, the constant and conclusive reality of death. Its specter haunts the dark corners of our lives, popping out in the form of a jokester or hobgoblin, depending on the day. My friends and family members tell me of their struggles, this one is wrestling with a virulent breast cancer, that one a bypass, and this other one is understandably worried about her son who is going through hard times and is very depressed. It is that kind of time here in my small piece of life. Nothing conclusive to make of it. I just take note. There is an excess of all things not so good but also, to be fair, all things good.

There is the news that I’ll be at a writing and arts residency in Paris for the last half of this year, and while Paris is certainly not at all distant from the eye of the political and even life vs. death storm raging around us all, something about the opportunity to make art for six months seems to create a kind of altered state … I find myself, dare I say unabashedly, anticipating the short term future with terrific relish. No, I have some abash, is it embarrassment… or whatever the word is for the hiding of good tidings from others, the others grappling with their worries and crises… well, you get the picture. Am I crowing about my fabulous, magical good fortune anywhere but here? Only to my closest confidantes.

What does it mean to be happy? The American dream, happiness. What did the shtetl dwellers in Kazimierz Dolny, Poland know of happiness? I want to believe they too had moments even as they each day wrestled with the enormous hardship of their circumstance – maybe sitting in the town square selling a chicken or two, joking with the guy on the left side or the right, chuckling at someone’s story of her mother in law or husband, jumping up to whirl a child around and around. Yes, they would exclaim. Isn’t life grand?

Yes, I want to exclaim, isn’t it grand to be alive at just this exact instant, when my body can still glide from place to place, a foot lifting and then another, no muscle aches or pauses in the reliable thrum of my heart, and airplanes can take off through the clouds, carrying me from here to there. I will not hold still. Not yet. No. Soon someone, some force will notice my pleasure and pluck me right off this planet – two stubby fingers grabbing me by my hair and yanking me right to kingdom come. Hold still, he or she or it will command. Stop kicking and screaming. And then I will join the dirge, keen with sorrow – I do not want to die, I will cry. No, no, no, no. I will accept any reprieve offered. Random shootings – okay. Earthquakes – okay. Flash floods – okay. Parkinson’s – okay. Multiple sclerosis – okay. Breast cancer – okay. Stenosis, okay. Lymphoma, kidney dialysis, congenital heart disease, stents, bypasses, amputation, paralysis…

I don’t want to suffer, say my pals. As long as I’m not in pain, they say, I will go on living. Do they hear what they are saying? How do they get out of bed in the morning? Life is pleasure and pain – those Buddhists got something right. Who offers a life without suffering? Jeez.

I’m not looking for a bargain here, a good deal. I’ve paid some dues and I expect to pay more for this broken down but still limping along thing we call living.

Lately I find myself storing up seconds, minutes, stretching them into noticeable experience. Stop, I say out loud. Stop what you are doing. Be here now, that weary maxim, jumps to attention. There is sunlight creating a rectangle on the orange brown strips of wood that line the floor next to the blue chenille covered couch – a serendipity of complements, color theory consummated and captured like a photo within my view. I see it. I uncross my legs to let the blood course freely down and then back up to the heart. I can hear the heart beat its rhythm, the dependable and magical drum keeping time as I suck in air and then cast it out.

I am so happy, I want to say to my beleaguered fellow travelers. I am here in this perfect moment and the air is filling my lungs and I cannot somehow, will not, perhaps, find any extra room right now for more.

Eve of Election, A trip into History

Gravestone, Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

Gravestone, Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

It’s getting on to that moment we’ve all been waiting for… Hillary’s election, right? There is the annoying surprise of Weiner and Abedin’s nonsense, or his nonsense and her awful position and then all those emails. Jeez. What next? And then the retraction. I cannot wait for an ending to the suspense… but the shock is that there is any suspense. That the man who will remain nameless would garner a fraction of the attention he’s gotten is astounding. I will be speechless if he actually wins the election. Beyond that, I cannot go.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Italy, France, and Poland. Not the usual triumvirate of destinations but a good trio for my particular circumstances… Amalfi for a family vacation with a two year old, France to reunite with cousins, first and once removed, and Poland for a genealogical pursuit. I searched the internet for a good guide and scored one with a PhD in history, with a special interest in genocide of all varieties… couldn’t be better.

Off we went to learn more than I ever wanted to know about the history of Poland and specifically the period between and during the two World Wars. Research is always useful for writing and art, but planting oneself down in the geographic locus of a monumental historical moment that changed the course of millions of lives, not to speak of one’s own itty bitty piece of the action, is an unexpected dose of reality. Yes, there is a difference between hearing stories over decades, and then visualizing in real locale with concrete evidence, or lack of concrete or graves or cemeteries as evidence, the wholesale eradication of millions of human beings.

There were 3.2 million Jews in Poland before the Second World War, and now there may be 10,000. Don’t get me started on recent research describing contemporary anti-Semitism in Poland, but it won’t be a surprise given the current climate in Europe as a whole. It has increased… 90% of young people surveyed in one study had never met a Jew, and were thrilled to have that be the case. Hell, many folks there believe there’s a conspiracy of Jews to run the international banking system and the media, not to mention that Jews killed Christ and drink the blood of Christians in their religious rituals. Okay. Okay. I won’t go on. And on.

The trip ended appropriately at Auschwitz and then a visit to the new Museum of the History of the Polish Jews… along with Schindler’s factory tacked on. To use the word overkill would be tasteless and disrespectful, but I ended up flattened as if steamrolled and then curled up like a rug, and shipped home. It left me speechless… what is there to say that hasn’t already been said? But clearly the timing couldn’t be more apt.

Spring Again – Election Time

Liming, China

Liming, China

Welcome to presidential campaign season in the U.S., and what a doozy it’s been. Hillary and Bernie are in a serious horse race, and I have to say I’d be fine with either and wish they’d team up. Hillary is the consummate politician, experienced, and a WOMAN!!! (I had to exclaim over that since I wanted her the last go-round and on some level think that this may be the final stronghold of resistance… America will take anyone over a woman… we’ll break through glass ceilings to choose a man of color or a socialist or an old Jewish dude but please, please don’t make us have a woman prez). Also there’s Bernie, the champion of good old left politics and a man of conviction. He’s pulled Hillary towards his leanings, a good thing in my opinion.

And then there’s Trump, the clown who may be king. A shocking turn of events but informative for all of us. Some lefties are saying they won’t vote if Bernie doesn’t win… Charles Blow did a fabulous video and editorial about the craziness of that position. The power to choose Supreme Court nominees in itself would challenge that stance, and Blow suggests that only a privileged person would consider allowing one of the Republicans in this primary contest to win.

But enough said about things political…as if. And yet the personal is also political, as my feminist pals used to declare. The months since I blogged have been full of adventure and insight and dreams. I hiked in Kyoto, Japan and Yunnan, China and brought home images and feelings of sheer delight. Is there anything as stunning as Tiger Leaping Gorge? I dare anyone to find something more awesome. Awe was definitely the word. It’s hard to settle back to the routines of quotidian life after a moment of bliss. Is it that the contrast diminishes the less showy but good enough parts of day to day existence? As the years pass, I am pulled, like by a magnet with stronger and stronger charge, to enhance each minute, to live as if I were expecting to die any time.

I’ve heard that monks are often exposed to dead bodies to encourage living as though they were about to die, to feel the preciousness of every day. While it’s sensible to maximize our mindfulness, as it’s termed, in this way, it also can feel burdensome. You mean every nanosecond has to be special? You mean that sitting in front of this computer and typing might be the very last thing I experience on this earth, and what would I say to that? No. No. Not that. You mean that I should be out in the woods or watching the sunset or making love or swimming across a pond every moment of every day? It’s exhausting, not to mention anxiety provoking. And we all know that anxiety will foreshorten this very life I am trying to preserve. Awful. The pressure intensifies with each year. What will it be like at seventy, at eighty, at ninety? Should I live that long, as they say.

I read that I shouldn’t sit much during the day, that it will also shorten my lifespan. Standing, walking, turning to toil as a farmer or carpenter or postal carrier would be the ticket… forget being a writer, a therapist, a secretary, an office worker. I sense the body deteriorating as I write…a new market has risen up for standing desks, treadmills, balls that will throw you off if you lose balance. We will conquer the certainty of death by trying this or that new device. I’m fatigued by the effort. I long for the good old days of just doing what I wanted when I wanted. None of this daily exercise nonsense, nor fear of sitting, nor constant meditating to be present at all times. There seemed to be a blissful focus on the outer world, on work, and fun, and who loved whom, and whatever was around each corner. It must be age that changes that… the sense of an exit – mortality. Suddenly we all are working so very hard to manage every second that ironically it somehow feels like missing the whole bonanza.

Oops, have to go… it’s time to exercise and then meditate before dinner, and anyway, I’ve been sitting way too long on this chair. I’m voting for Hillary and will go out and stump for her… at least it will get me off my duff and I just might get an extra few minutes tacked onto whatever days I have left. Who knew I would still be alive to see a woman be president? Hoping….

September, Fall Equinox

I am at the sea for a week of writing. When I take a break to watch the ocean, the waves are barreling in, pressured, low tide reversing itself. White caps, rolling curls. A tempest of sorts.
I leave my striped beach chair and take a walk way down the beach, past all the orange ropes delineating nesting areas for the plovers. We make much more effort for those darling piping plovers than we do for children in the ghettos. How does that happen? More priority given to the environment these days than poverty. It keeps changing, like the tide.
I march off to my right, towards the point, the sea calmer than on my left. After a mile or so I duck under another orange cord and keep going. I edge closer to the water. There are gulls, of course, and they don’t seem bothered. I see one sitting on the wet sand and worry that I might be disturbing its egg laying routine, but when it rises to walk away, there is no evidence of anything left behind. I suppose the ropes differentiate between plover nesting and gulls. I push on.
At one point, though, I hear a wild chattering overhead and spot a plover circling rapidly. It seems agitated. I think it must be upset about a gull wandering nearby or something threatening, when I suddenly notice it turning on its axis, and it’s as though I can see its eyes boring into me. It seems to gather all its determination and makes a beeline, it would probably be called a plover line in this case, for me. It’s just like all those war movies where the plane revs up and flies directly at a target, the drone picking up pitch and volume as it gets closer.
I raise my hands over my head and run. I run fast and panting back to the area with the trucks and families. That plover doesn’t shut up or turn back until I’m long gone.
At another roped area I see a different plover cackling at a gull in its territory. It also must have hatched some eggs. The gull at first walks backward on its skinny triple toed feet. But at some point it gets the message and rises in flight. And doesn’t that plover follow it at triple speed and attack the gull on the chest, midair? Amazing.
Alright then. A mother enraged. The instinct to protect – muscles, vocal cords, speed… all magnified. There is no end to what we can do when infused with adrenalin. Go amygdala… wait – do birds have amygdalas?

I attempt a walk one more time, the day I am leaving the beach and my short writing time. I start off like before, marching forward toward the orange ropes, but as soon as I dart under the very first one, I spot two plovers doing something on the ground nearby. Do they read the little printed signs that state…no entry, birds nesting, trespassing will be punished by the federal government? How do they know where to lay their eggs anyway? But after a minute, sure enough, those two plovers are up in the sky chattering and flying around. Now there are three, four of them… all squawking. I retreat back to the other side of the rope.
Really? They are going to leave me alone on this side? The plover police give it up on this little peopled section of the beach? The rituals are strictly observed, just like when driving and all the people stay in their lane like they’re supposed to. A miracle of obedience.
A writer tells me a story this week. A friend of hers, an African scientist, was scheduled to join a scientific expedition on a Russian ship. He showed up with his passport to board but the officials refused him entry. They were boycotting South Africa because of apartheid. “Well,” he said. “As you can see, I am a black African. It makes no sense to restrict me. I am clearly not a supporter of apartheid.”
The Russians did not budge. Rules are rules.
At this beach, the plovers are shouting at me, “Haven’t you read the sign, you imbecile? This is our turf. Go back to yours.”
So I do.

March, Spring Equinox

It’s springtime again in New England. A brutal winter, more snow than one could imagine, folks in Boston walking amid drifts higher than their heads. It all looked like Norway, or somewhere in the northlands. We skied, made snowmen, snow shoed, and spent many, many hours indoors. Folks got cranky. School was canceled and then canceled again. Therapists had lots of calls. People were deprived of vitamin D and all that comes of that. Depression, anxiety, despair. It was a classic New England challenge.

So spring this year will be welcomed like nobody’s business. Already people are starting to smile… daylight savings time has turned the corner for us. It’s light after seven pm, and the party can begin.

I, for one, have been thinking dark thoughts about the violence surrounding our moment of awakening. Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, rallies in Germany with boisterous ‘Gas the Jews’ slogans, ISIS and the beheadings, Ferguson and the evidence of our culpability as a nation that espouses equality, justice, pursuit of happiness and all that virtuous stuff. I am weighed down under a heavy coat of despair. It doesn’t warm me. I cannot get distracted by discussions of blame. We are all to blame. We are all the victims.

Are we not all Jews? Or Marathon runners? Or journalists? Or cartoonists? Don’t we all suffer from the condition of being unjustly beheaded, stoned, enslaved, colonized, displaced, firebombed, shot, pummeled, knifed, humiliated, shamed, abused?

If this is not the truth, it is also not untrue. Monica Lewinsky takes back her pride. Noteworthy. She speaks out against shaming. It is a shame that, just as the sun offers its renewal after so much chill and ice, we are bombarded with images and words of violence and assault.

It has been a time of hatred, perhaps an anomaly, but more likely a perennial human state in response to difference, misunderstanding and the inevitable consequence – aggression. Is it about race? Religion? Economics? How can we achieve equanimity about such things?

I want to say no to all of it – targeted or generalized hatred and the actions resulting from it. A tsunami of blame and retribution, revenge and original sin.

I want to lie down on this bed of thorns and close my eyes, to block my ears and hum loudly to not hear. I’m as sad as I’ve ever been, and there is no vision of a future path. Perhaps I can just rest here for a while. I ought to have been born a bird. I will return as a bird. To fly above or dig for worms. A piping plover by the sea, scurrying hither and yon, in and out, no progress required. Back and forth in the big sky of it all.

And yet, there is the question of possibility, of impact. I stand at the shore, one bird, a plover, and dream of transcendence. No, I dream of calling a halt to the flow of the sea, a reversal of tide. I raise one wing in the universal signal of stop. Then, as the ocean crests and crashes its powerful wave upon me, I bow my head in submission.

I would like to glide above fear, to rise high on the thermal air current of history and soar, free to observe and not project, to hold what is without flailing. There simply is love and there is hate. I cannot change the rhythms of the universe… the yin and the yang. I am awed and then blinded by the possibilities. A flock of gulls pass in front of my window, and I gaze at the formation, the knowing, the cohesion. And all that flapping. I am flapping and flapping in the wind. Perhaps it will carry me aloft and place me down again in a new order. I do not think so. I think this is the way of the world, our burden to bear.

I don’t have any solutions. I sit in an old bookmill watching out the window as a cascading waterfall does its thing, the water pressing its way under snow and ice to reach some destination out of sight – a bigger river, a lake, an ocean. Can one question the why of a waterfall pushing down and around and beyond? It simply is. I wish for wisdom, and yet I come up wanting. I am wanting to be the bird that flies with its friends overhead right at sunset, sweeping across my vision. Gliding past the beauty and the horror. No need to solve puzzles, dilemmas. Its job is clear – dive for food, fly for a living. I hide my head under my feathers and close my eyes. They are wet with tears, a tiny waterfall washing out to sea.

Time Passing

May, springtime

Time for blogging… Sitting by the Duxbury bay view, slate water flattening into horizon line, in a house by the sea rented with six other Boston area poets and prose writers, every year for be it thirty seasons for them, maybe ten for me. A time to be in relation with notebook and computer screen for a week and also laugh til you hurt dinners that taste better than anything ingested at home.
I forgot to bring the graphic memoir work so I will ‘have to’ write anew. A new piece or the beginnings of that nonfiction book about growing up with… well, growing up with whatever it was I grew up with. Everybody’s got something, the name of a new memoir by a contemporary tv reporter, says it all.
It’s spring in New England, a very appreciated time, this year in particular after a heavy-duty winter. It’s also when everyone feels that pressure to do everything, plant everything, prune everything, mulch and fertilize and mow and deadhead and water and water and water. Everything. And then it will all die. Again. A metaphor for one’s life. All that energy spent and then we die.
I take a long walk on Duxbury outer beach at low tide, finding the winding path among the multicolored beach rocks, skirting the ebb and flow of the crashing surf. It’s on this walk, as it is along other walks, that I begin to imagine what I want to say in my next writing project. An amazing thing – that the right brain yearns for times spent doing other things than thinking about the particular problem to be solved. Times like in the shower, or driving to somewhere, or maybe digging in the garden. There it is, the very idea that has seemed so illusive. Maybe it’s not the best idea, nor the most unique, but it’s an idea appearing when there was none. The brain is limitlessly surprising.
I’ve been thinking of connection. Connection to children, to lovers, to friends, to family. They say it’s all that matters in the end. I say that it is a huge piece of what matters, but maybe it’s connection to oneself that trumps it all. I am working at listening and responding first to myself, and then going out and doing the same with others. Writing and art are one way. Blogging is another. Maybe sitting and hearing a heartbeat is another. It could be mine. It could be yours. Kabump. Kabump. Kabump.
Gloria Steinem spoke at Smith College last week at a conference about women. Many young women from India and Africa and Moslem nations attended. Gloria Steinem is as graceful a person as I’ve seen in ages. Stunning in her elegance and smarts. She spoke about domestic violence and its being the foundation of warring nations. About women being a threat to males because we own the means of reproduction, the only thing men can’t do. About the hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. Everything she said seemed pithy. I long to be pithy. Pithy. Pithy.
Another pithy woman, Irene Butter. A member of my manuscript group is writing a young adult book about Irene and invited us all to meet the protagonist of the story. Irene is a Holocaust survivor who was interned at two concentration camps and then survived. She became an economics professor at the University of Michigan and also began speaking at schools about her experience during the Holocaust. A most impressive woman who has won awards internationally, and most noteworthy has hundreds of letters from school children, mostly middle school aged, who tell her about the impact of her story on their lives. I wept watching a short documentary about her life, full of her speaking to these children and their enrapt faces. Inspirational.

August, summertime

I couldn’t find my library card amidst all the flotsam and jetsam in my wallet. I continued to rifle through the stack of cards… AAA, the free entry to all state parks I’d scored at age 62, the Mass General Hospital blue card for the mammogram services I didn’t trust my local hospital to handle correctly, the Holocaust Museum membership and the AARP card.
“So many cards, so much junk,” I announced, nodding my head back and forth.
“Yes, it’s true,” agreed the calm library staff member. He was young, fairly nondescript male (is that a requirement for library staff, that they be modest, not stand out?) wearing a plaid shirt of some sort and a pair of chinos, average height – what was that for a male, 5’9”? I was average for a woman, 5’5”.
I continued to look down into my wallet’s bowels.
“But some of it is beautiful,” he countered. He didn’t mean the stuff in my wallet. He meant in life.
And at this I looked up and saw him. He was a person, be damned, a particular, unique human being. We locked eyes and I smiled with pleasure.
“It’s true,” I said. “You are so very right.”
I had found a kindred spirit, a soul who gloried in the wonder. I would have wandered off into my own inner chatter about serendipity or karma or some such spiritual natter if he hadn’t continued.
“I was looking at this book the other day about moths. All these moths. Amazing…” He seemed spellbound.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m afraid of moths.”
“Hmmm,” he reconsidered. “They were just photos, not live moths…”
“Yes,” I said. “I can imagine they must be beautiful.” I did not want to rain on his parade.
“They were unique, mostly symmetrical patterns…”
“Artistic displays, huh?”
“Yes,” he answered.
I looked behind me. There was a small line forming. “When I first learned to drive I had to take my car on a freeway every day to drive to college,” I explained. “And all these moths would come flying at my face from inside the dashboard.”
“Oh, I see.” And with that we figured out how to handle my missing library card.
As I left with his instructions about what to do next time I came in, he threw out, “Just come find me. I’m on it.”
I felt incredibly taken care of. Think of it, my own private library person.
Two days earlier I had gone to get a bagel at the local coffee shop, and as I walked up to the counter, the young, gangly guy sporting one of those partial goatees called out, “Lisa, right?”
“Oh my god, you have such a good memory,” I said.
“Plain bagel, scooped and toasted with cream cheese,” he announced confidently and with a hint of pride.
“You are amazing. How can you remember everyone who comes in here?”
“There aren’t that many folks who ask for a scooped bagel.”
Was that it? When I got to the car and found a toasted scooped bagel with no cream cheese, I ran back to the café.
“I only have selective good memory,” the young man joked.
“Yes, I see,” I said with a smile. “But you select for the important information.”
I knew this was the truth. Something about getting older made it more than obvious. It was all, every damn thing, about relationships. Those with the people we love, but even those with the guy at the library and the coffee shop.
I had seen them after they had shown themselves as the specific individuals they were.

It is summer and, while spending time at the Cape, I remember the research article I recently read about the sound of water being soothing. No surprises there. I am lying down at the shore and listening to the waves hit. It’s windy at the beach. There are few visitors, scattered widely along the small dune leading down to the breakers. It’s the moment that the waves curl over, even here in the brown Atlantic, that I covet. I could sit and watch for eternity. Is it a universal pleasure? I know people who live on the coasts, both coasts, who never bother to come and see the glory. They live in Hollywood or Pasadena, or even Santa Monica, or Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newton and Cambridge. It mustn’t call their names.
It’s in my genes, the love of the sea. A childhood image… there I go, barreling into the waves, fearless, swimming for the cold of it, for the rocking and the floating and the I could swim to China and no one would notice of it, out, out past the jetties, past the little old men snoozing in the swells, hands folded over pregnant bellies, eyes closed, trusting the waves to pull them home. Out beyond the marathon swimmers doing their relentless crawls, one arm snaking past the next, head to the side, sea pouring out, the mouth open like a cistern, and then down into the deep again. Out past where the lifeguard could find me, so far that I couldn’t hear the whistle even if one thought to blow it. Would I have listened? Come back, you’re too far out, return to shore – the bullhorn warning, a big open mouthed pantomime I couldn’t have witnessed even if I tried. That far, I tell you.
You wouldn’t catch me attempting that today. This breezy moment at the shore I go up to the tush and no further. A lot has happened to tamp down my courageous streak. I think long and hard about death, about risk, about benefit and loss. I’m an actuary of life’s possibilities.
Shush, roar, quiet. Shush, roar, quiet. Silence. I lie still and write and read for hours. A different sort of connection… to the natural world, and to the self, I suppose. Something about the curl of the wave, the hiss of the water over pebbles, creating sand. It’s all epic. An epic story. I’m fine with that.