Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Are Us

The day after.  Election night was a bad dream, I prayed.  But it wasn't.  Wednesday was a wash-out; I barely left the house, was tired of answering calls, got no comfort in commiserating or listening to pundits on television.  Exit polls are disturbing; our own exit from this country is maybe the only relief.  By Thursday I had to re-enter the world.  The weather was near-perfect, and I tried hard to manage my affairs, to face again the senseless near-death agony of my friend who is using all her strength to tolerate my pathetic words of sympathy and hope.  She did manage to quip that dying in a Republican regime doesn't seem quite so bad.  For some, like the woman who suicided on 69th street last month,  it will be a choice; for others, it will be a cruel reality.  For my friend, I am praying there will be some kindness in dying-- that it will feel as though some blanketing arms are reaching out to take her to a place where good mothers exist,  'they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem'.

The Sisters of Mercy is the first song I truly fell in love with.  I lay on my floor and listened-- over and over-- first to the Judy Collins record my Mom had bought.  With the sunshine and yellow flowers on the cover, these songs gave me hope that somewhere there were things worth discovering that were not just in books and in museums.  Sisters of Mercy was a musical church for me.  More than the folk songs I'd loved-- and the rock and roll-- it was a hymn I could carry inside me and recite.  The lyrics were not just magical but holy.  I researched the writer, Leonard Cohen, rode my bike to the record store and found his album.  His voice was strange, but all poets on recordings had sounded strange to me-- the audio Dylan Thomas had been a shock.   These songs were an alternate world of sad comfort.  I could read their address by the moon.  My Bob Dylan was a troubadour, but this man was my patron saint.  I forgave him everything and drank daily at his well in the solitude of my young teenage room.

The fact of Leonard Cohen has not always lived up to the myth of the music.  He was flawed and womanizing; insecure and egotistical at once.  His search for spiritual truth seemed pretentious in a way; his sadness is epic, but who among us is able to tame these demons?  I only know these songs became part of my canon.  His poems and novels disappointed me, but the songs-- especially these early ones-- allowed me to become who I am with a little more confidence.

I've been reading a compilation of interviews with Roberto Bolaño… a few essays and remembrances interspersed ...He, too, is among the choir of voices who have sweetened my life.  The martyrs of art and poetry who have given everything to take us on a journey of 'core', who were not afraid to open curtains and break windows.  They are not all for the weak of heart-- or maybe they are.  Artistic pioneers are brave people.  They explore psychological caves and alienate others.  They sacrifice much to become who they are.  In our culture today, these people have groupies-- lovers, fans, followers.  Does this matter?  I suppose so.  Bob Dylan is about to receive the Nobel Prize-- not that he doesn't deserve accolades, but this one seems misplaced. Then again there is Leonard.  Comparing him to Irving Berlin, as Dylan did in that prescient article in The New Yorker last month, seems a little too 'surface' for my Sisters of Mercy.  Leonard takes us into our own inner church, provides the personal hymns that play alongside our sorrows and joys.  He is the bed on which we lie and know there are deeper things still, and that our tiny human tragedies can be woven into some beautiful fabric of meaning, if only we were up to the task.

I miss Bowie; I miss Prince; I miss Roberto Bolaño and Lorca and I thank God for their brand of bravery on this Veteran's Day where I salute my Dad who was a true wounded hero of the 101st Airborne (the military alma-mater of Hendrix, I informed him once, which provoked a scowl) and was duly decorated and honored.  He, too, was a poet, although his modest lyrics were recorded only in tattered war-letters to my Mom.  He ridiculed my music and my heroes-- Leonard Cohen was an anomaly for him-- and yet I maybe inherited some passion he possessed.  My record albums helped me cope with my teenage years.  Music was listening to me, even if I could never reach my Dad.

So, blinded as we were by the hideous 'sunrise' of day 2 and 3 of the Trump victory-world, that sun was reverse-mercifully eclipsed by the passing of Leonard Cohen.  Yes, mercifully he left the world before our elections; from the David Remnick interview,  I suspect he was not thinking too much of American politics, dwelling perhaps on the spiritual, trying in his way to promote or accept his new album-- to share this with his son, to try to allow himself pride in a project that was thankfully completed, like Bowie's, before his death, and which will allow us-- like Bowie's-- to glimpse a little of his transition, his process-- to share the end with a great man.  We even were privileged to read his final email to the immortalized Marianne who pre-deceased Leonard, but not by much-- a kind of closing of some circle, in a way.  He seemed resigned and peaceful; after all, he accomplished so much.  A prize seems somehow cheap and silly for this man.

My friend is nominally comforted by the number of lovely souls who have crossed over this year-- who have paved the road to the next world with music and understanding and have had to leave this one in which they thrived.  They leave us  mourning and devastated-- not wanting to go on without these people who for some of us seem more a family than our own.  Not so with my friend; she has no visitors aside from me and a few paid medicaid nurses and aides who are sent to ensure that the apparatuses and tubes do not malfunction, to investigate the next hideous indignity of this process of agonized dying which merits no medals or awards.  She rarely has the energy to even listen to music; her enthusiastic support for her candidate was limited and her dismay is palpable.  And she managed, heroically, to vote.

This morning I awoke after only a few cheap hours of sleep-- with that heaviness of mourning.  I experienced this recently with my father's passing, and with the death of David Bowie which came at such a cold and light-deprived time of year.  The leaves have just turned; they burn with fiery radiance in the sunlight around the reservoir in Central Park.  In a few days they will be gone.  Soon I Will Be Gone, says my favorite Free song-- over and over.

Some of us cry for ourselves, for our  lost and missing years when we were beautiful and well loved.  Most of us, unfortunately, face older years with challenges and heartbreak.  Life is fraught with loss and pain; even joy, in these years, has a shadow and is lovely with a kind of regret.  We older people feel a bit exiled; we are emigres of our own youth, of maybe the core of our lives; we are missing so much and so many at this moment, and each day brings the end nearer.  The four years of this regime are precious years for Baby Boomers; how much productive life will we have left?  Must we drag around the weight of this national shame, this arrow in the heart of our young passion and the liberalism we thought we invented in the 1960's?

Yesterday I stopped into several churches.  Some were closed;  one West Indian church was not just open, but had set out bottles of seltzer for the thirsty-- crayons and paper for children.  I was alone in a pew, listening to someone clumsily practicing Bach on the pipe organ as the sun streamed through the stained glass.  It was warm and homey.  Some of their parishioners are bound to be illegal immigrants and the idea that a congregation who welcomed me in their absence would be threatened-- well, this, too, was another stab.

I cannot bear to play the Sisters of Mercy today.  There is not a line in that song that doesn't resonate with every small and larger tragedy I've witnessed.  Like a new lover or a prism-- it endlessly fascinates and touches me everywhere.  It's all too raw, too sad.  Reciting it to my heart reminds me that sorrows are relentless-- the machine of life moves on, planets turn, storms happen, death is inevitable for the good as well as the ugly; beauty is transitory, but music is a path-- from God to man and back again, from life to death-- from lover to lover, from mouth to heart-- it fills the Cathedral of our loneliness if we will only enter and listen.  It is and always was waiting for you when you thought that you just can't go on.  Let us listen and learn -- really listen, and open our hearts.  Healing is impossible-- we are truly the walking wounded, but maybe that is okay.  The disappointed and the ones left behind… especially for us, and those who've been traveling so long.

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(Do Not) Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor...

This is painful, Hillary Clinton announced at the beginning of her concession speech Wednesday morning, her emotionless voice nearly cracking at moments.  Young women were weeping; her staff and volunteers were exhausted, feeling the pain of failure, of deep disappointment.  One day and hours later, the ugly reality of our American election has spread like black slime.

Walking back from the hospital this afternoon where my friend is experiencing another kind of pain-- the relentless, unstoppable agony of late-stage cancer--  I don't dare weld the metaphor here, but it made Hillary's words just a little less poignant.  It surprises me on these days that Central Park is as dazzling as ever in the crisp fall sunshine; the skyline is buoyant and proud.  I stopped also by a building on West 69th Street where a woman I'd only met months ago had jumped from her window just a few weeks ago.  I've heard it was her heart that was broken; nothing else.  Another version of pain.

The doctor's aide wears a hijab and is lovely.  She confided that she is terrified about her immigration status and about the xenophobic sentiment of our President-elect.  You mean his bigotry and ignorant hatred, I replied?  She nodded, looking around her as though she feared being lynched.  She is feeling another kind of pain, as was the young African woman who shared my path back to the east side.  She works for a church downtown, has a limited visa, was enchanted by the beauty of the Reservoir; it was her first visit to my neighborhood.  She'd escaped a hard life in West Africa; she was orphaned, raised her siblings and was looking for a better life in the US; she'd been sponsored by a LES Christian community.   She wanted to go to college but now she was afraid and discouraged.  This was not the version of American she'd understood.

I can't make excuses for my country; I'm a New Yorker and we are Democrats for the most part.  We are disappointed, we are frustrated, we are angry.  But pain?  I'm not sure this is the correct description. Anyone who has suffered a serious wound, an accident-- even the experience of childbirth.  No pain, no gain, the sweatshirts used to say at my gym.  I've never loved that expression.

Late nights I admit to watching this program called Versailles which is sort of a glam-erotic series shown last year in Europe about the excesses and vices of Louis XIV.  His ultra-lavish spending on the palace became a symbol of the unprecedented power of the Monarchy.  I am trying not to draw silly  parallels between the Trump empire and the decadent elitist pomp of the 18th-century French court.  Of course, like all addicting television, there are plenty of women-- sequential and multiple mistresses.  His extra-marital intrigues are maybe criticized, but overlooked.  Those who fall out of favor are disposed of-- some painfully.  But speaking of pain, even the King suffered during these times.  Few medicines, no anesthetics, no antibiotics.  Childbirth was risky, illnesses were difficult and life-threatening; poxes, plagues, infections and fevers were agonizing and fatal.  There was a scene where a medic warned the King that a proposed treatment would hurt.  "Good," said the King.  I can't imagine Donald accepting such a pronouncement.  I can't imagine him fighting a war for his country or even his children, or making any kind of sacrifice for any kind of principle.  I doubt he has sympathy or empathy for anyone's suffering and I'll bet his tolerance for physical discomfort is low.

One thing the royals often did-- was to import their wives for better breeding and political reasons.  I guess Donald did the same.  Few American women outside the Stepford wife prototypes would put up with his brand of macho husbanding.  I can't figure out whether Melania is a saint or a talking Barbie.  But for a man who married non-Americans, the hypocrisy of his policies seems that much more absurd.   What if he were to seriously purge New York, for example?

The kitchen staff at half the clubs where I work--- the kind Mexicans who sneak me care packages for my starving neighbors-- they'd be sent home.  Who would cook, who would wash dishes for our hungry audiences?  The Pakistani man who sells magazines on Lexington Avenue and talks to animals like a happy wizard-- where would he go?  What waits for him and would he be allowed to bring along the feral cat who lives in the shop and bites?  The construction team in east Harlem who work at night, who sit outside and eat their 4 AM lunch on the stoops of dilapidated tenements they are renovating for sleazy landlords-- with their headscarves and home-made dust-masks-- what will become of them and their families?  They speak some strange language among themselves, they laugh and sing and smoke during breaks.  Their clothes are thick with dust-- in summer their skin is covered with grime and paint and sweat.  Their bodies are beautiful and sinewy like athletes.  The hotdog vendors-- especially the one who sold me a pretzel today for $1.50.   I would miss him. The ladies who collect cans at night--  the Mexican and the Chinese women who amicably divide the massive piles between them.  Their work ethic-- rain, snow, extreme heat-- they are out there, on hands and knees-- teaching us things-- recycling, to keep their children fed and clothed-- heroes, they are, of their young families who rely on this difficult, tedious dark labor for survival.  Will they all vanish?  Will I not hear the musical variety of uptown like a colorful marketplace opera in multi-lingual counterpoint?

Concession for Hillary is 'painful', she claims… but she will have some consolation-- she has money, she has a foundation… a husband, a legacy… For the rest of us it may mean something else; we're not certain.  Surely this has been a misdiagnosis of some sort-- missed symptoms, bad medications-- poor management of a societal disease or lack of preventive care here…  and the prognosis? Will all these protests, the voices who spoke too late-- will they have any bearing on the outcome?  Will the ailing patient of America survive a round of toxic Republican treatment?  I'm afraid the pain is yet to come-- with or without gain, with or without cure.  God Bless America.  We've never needed it more.

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