Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Giving Tree


It is Christmas night.  Something urgent came to me and I woke up my 23-year old son who is here, after a day of quiet holiday inertia and basketball.  He was cross, unreceptive.   I have failed to pass on the gift I’ve had all my life—the one that wakes you with mad urgency, the one that made butterflies talk when you were little--- the one that let you see the names of things, like a sign--- before you knew words.  The ‘privilege’ that strange man at the gallery recognized some months ago.  

I heard the other night in some film that ‘spirits’ appear as reflections of light or tiny orbs in old photographs.  Maybe it is my missing Grandma— undoubtedly a ‘waker’ and taken away in the prime of her legendary beauty--  that shines from the teary eye of  my 3-year-old portrait.  She is the one who would have understood me, who died for love, who suffered for art, who comforted me when I cried for no reason, for something I didn’t understand, who led me through the piles in the attic to the right books, reading over my shoulder in her curtainous wedding gown.  I could smell her hair, like a kind of sweet fog of musk.

So we were sitting in the wet hallway last night, tediously sawing branches from our orphaned last-minute tree with a dull bread knife—a million strokes--  and images from past trees were appearing like Christmas lights... always especially missing my one truest love who smelled faintly of pine… the one we buried, who occasionally sings through me like my lost Grandma, so young and beautiful... the one who loved to be awakened, the one whose song I will never get right. 

My girlfriends are annoyed with me today.  They were partying and drinking and meeting.  I veto their priorities and dislike their escorts.  Conversation was clumsy and stupid, last night; I was feeling the Christmas bad elf on my shoulder, I was snide and bitchy and rude… and then suddenly I am back like a holiday pumpkin-- it is just me with the bored tired kids carrying back the abandoned (free) tree-- the dark, the rain, the wet pine needles and the sap… me craving solitude and the dark—the tree lights, Sigur ros or Mogwai or Low, maybe some depressed Scott Miller--- and the Dickensian Christmas thing passing through… better days… sexier days… days when we were both waiting.

By dawn I hear my neighbor through the wall—the one with the midlife crisis and the newly shaved head and the motorcycle jacket who has now taken up slide guitar.  It’s bearable this morning.  Downstairs they have a new piano and a fake-book version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.  Less bearable.  Outside is that layered kind of winter sky you get in the mountains.  Someone has blessed the city today…the late-afternoon feels blended with sunset. Couples in buildings are fighting, couples are disappointed with their gifts…couples are proposing to one another, nursing hangovers, watching the Knicks lose.  Kids are getting high in courtyards, sneaking alcohol in bedrooms, vomiting up their fruitcake and eggnog.  Dogs are overfed and sleeping, bankers with full stomachs are on Park Ave. sharing cigars, thinking about their mistresses—loving or cursing their kids, counting their bonuses, the fictional fiscal cliff, refusing to regret.  Someone is nursing a loved one through a final Christmas—always extra people die at Christmas—in a sense it’s a great day to do it…and others are missing their wives and husbands who no longer love them, children who despise them, children who were cruelly murdered-- grieving, refusing to grieve. 

Our presents were few and inexpensive but smart… still, I must cook and laugh and realize that although my son may love the tree in that Shel Silverstein way, his genetic buck stops there, and having his sleep disturbed now, he is annoyed and accusatory in a way that I'm sure my rigid imaginary Grandfather was.  No one here will sit with me and listen and feel things pass through us.  

Still, somewhere in this city-- -and in other cities-- I know there are the sitters like me who will not take what comes up on the wheel but will wait it out… past the disappointment, past the redundancy of middle age.....even if it never comes, because there is an exhausted Santa who cannot possibly be everywhere…will wait for the gold angel, the perfect story, the man who will not say ‘but no one ever will love you the way I do’, even though he didn’t, but will light up with mischief when you crack the door at 4 AM because something has just occurred to you, and he ‘gets’ it… he has had it all—the hallucinatory sex and the endless drives home over terrifying bridges and hellish rivers—he gets the skewed jokes and the references and why this song is the best, and the tearful laughing, and Barcelona, and sleighbells in the subway, and why the Christmas rain feels like cool acid on your face, and the smell of your Grandmother’s hair in the pre-dawn of the last night of the last endless week of some urgently cold year.   

Monday, December 17, 2012

Black Christmas


I have been dreading this moment, afraid of oversentimentalizing this shooting, this massacre, wondering why that word begins with a sacred prefix—it doesn’t look so evil in print… and how names change everything--- the way we’ll startle now when we hear these—Sandy Hook, Lanza, even Connecticut.  

We have listened to Anderson Cooper skipping over the few unpronounceable last names, refusing to repeat that of the shooter;  we have watched the CNN guy drawing diagrams on the screen.  We have not seen the chalk outlines and the blood, we have not seen parents beating their heads on the ground,  on walls, wanting to hold the corpses of their children before they are cold.  We have heard no screams.  We have imprinted the streets and landmarks of Newtown like a summer memory, we have tried to compare and contrast one horror with another; we have imagined our own phone call, the unbearable moment between the siren and the scream. 

We are all avoiding one another in the grocery store--- we do not look; we are guilty because our children are safe, we are buying food for our dinner, counting money--- things that are unthinkable for fresh grief.  We go home and turn on our televisions, some of us wondering why the image of the Palestinian father waving the corpse of his child several days ago at the Gaza border did not bring tears to our president.   Those New Yorkers still homeless and cold from the hurricane may feel more neglected and sad.   Bon Jovi and Bruce have spoken too many times now; they are silent.  This is not climate change or retribution of Mother Nature or even a drunk driver.  Maybe the shooter watched the concert on television.  It’s fairly likely that he did.  He may even have watched with his mother, shared popcorn or her home-baked Christmas cookies, no matter how much he hated it. 

I have gone over the seven sins tonight.  I am guilty of most of them, at some time or another.  I walked in the cold rain at midnight; it felt like some kind of punishment.  I passed the dogwalkers talking to illicit lovers on their phones, the secret ice cream eaters,  the possibility junkies—exchanging cards and sharing cigars with their neighbor.  I can rattle off all seven, although I often leave one out.  I mean--- I commit at least one every day—lust (passion--is this not good?), sloth, anger with frequency.   Gluttony I cannot afford, nor greed—and envy—well, I leave that to my neighbors when they compare their husbands’ end-of-year bonuses.  Pride—well, are we not supposed to be proud of our children when they are good, when they are brave?

I am mostly angry today.  None of this makes sense.  I try to feel empathy for the shooter, who apparently had none.  It is unbearable to empathize with the parents; any of us who has lost a child, who has even had one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls which years later has scarred over but still feels like a wound.   Where the fear is a noose and sometimes we hear the word ‘hospital’ or ‘jail’ and we breathe.   But we know the odds are against us, somehow.  And whether our own or our neighbor’s, we will have to bear some day the unbearable.  

My own was so young I have no photograph.  She had no favorite toy animal or song; there was so little to say.  I have only the reality that nothing rhymes with heartbreak or even with Christmas.   And on cold rainy nights when we try to grace someone else’s grief with our own, there are used condoms on the street, and on some blocks there are needles and half-empty coke bottles, and people sleeping, in old blankets and cardboard boxes, on church steps.

I am walking with the ghosts, glad my own drivers license has expired and who can ever afford a car anyway, because I’d be the one picking up hitchhikers, hoping I’ll come across someone I am missing, or their double, hoping I’ll make it across some bridge and maybe change someone’s life so when they get home they’ll put on their black clothes and pick up a rifle and decide not to load it—to go out for a walk in the rain or a drive, maybe, and sit on someone’s grave in some churchyard cemetery with a few cans of beer, and it will be enough.   

But the sirens will never stop, the scream is always there, within or out-of-earshot.  The dread is part of the prayer, the whisper is part of the message, the blood is on the inside or the outside.  For some of us God is inside the church; for others He is in the graveyard.  For some He is the stuff inside a needle, or in a glass, for some He is a rifle, or the madness inside our head.  For some He is the space between the siren and the scream:  the quiet space, the dead space, this silent night where you have to know about stars to believe they are behind the foggy mist.  And where you just might pretend for a few dreamless hours, in some light-years-distant non-lonely universe, that yes, there are sins and there are even maybe guns, but there is no ammunition-- that they forgot to invent that-- only blanks, and some fear, yes... but it is night and  things are as they were, and as they will be, same as it ever was…