Sunday, October 30, 2016

Bewitched

All Hallow's Eve-eve back in the early 1960's was always known as Mischief Night.  While you slept, your house or parents' car might be egged, tagged, covered with toilet paper and goop, smashed pumpkin meat or worse.  You hoped for the best.  When we were teenagers, we went out and witnessed the terror, sometimes participated in a little naughtiness-- no serious damage but some spray paint and mess.  There was a woman on the block behind us who was reputed to be a witch.  She came home at 7 AM after God-knows-what with a black kerchief tied around her head, and her shades were drawn all day while presumably she slept along with the vampires and goblins of our neighborhood.  A broom was frequently leaning against the front door-- most likely for sweeping her stoop, but allegedly among us kids this was her night transportation.  I looked inside her mailbox many times-- mostly the same catalogues we all got in those days; her name was Eunice B. Harrison.  We addressed her this way when we made prank phone calls during the day… we spied on her and left dead bugs and cut fingernails and animal fur in shoeboxes on her windowsill.

Years later my Mom told me Mrs. Harrison was a nurse and she worked nights.  That's what you think, I told her.  I'd never seen her face-- didn't know if she was black or white… but she was our only local flesh-and-blood designated ghoul and we nourished her mythology with tales and conjecture.  Ironically, a few short years later we'd all be obsessing over Edgar Allen Poe, dying our hair and dressing up to hang out at Rocky Horror showings.  So much for the withered legend of Eunice B.

I sometimes wonder whether my neighbors' daughters perceive me as a kind of witch.  I dress in black, leave my apartment late at night wearing a hat and carrying a strange looking case; often returning at dawn, my blinds drawn against the sun so I can get some daytime sleep. Then again, they  have a multitude of horror apps at their fingertips, all-Vampire TV, the Twilight series in HD 24/7, etc.  We had to invent our own entertainment in those days; the Wizard of Oz was shown once a year and it was an event.  In New York City, every night is Mischief Night… and in most neighborhoods, watchful parents accompany their kids while they trick-or-treat; we were on our own.  Fear was personal.

Anyone who has kept watch over a sick child or relative knows that night-workers have a different mindset.  I spent a week in an intensive care ward when my son was six and had a dangerous pneumonia.  His roommate was a young woman who had lived her whole life on a respirator; she was virtually non-responsive, but her Mom chose to keep her alive this way.  Days were peaceful; the shift nurses chatted and ate sandwiches, watched TV and socialized with staff.  But the overnight nurse sat quietly in semi-dark.  She read to the girl-- sang to her at times.  There were 2 emergencies that week-- panicky alarming episodes which required huge x-ray machines to be moved in and used.  These both happened at night, when patients who are not sleeping are maybe anxious and frightened… when death feels a little nearer and the human mind is that much more vulnerable.

Coming home late nights on the subway, I am surrounded by day-sleepers, by this culture of people who are all a little pale, a little subdued, who are used to walking the streets with black shadows, who brush shoulders with the hunted and haunted who either do not or cannot sleep during these hours-- who plot and plan, create, think, suffer, drink, take drugs… stalk, worry, grieve, search and avoid.   We understand one another, we feel a certain kinship.  Most of us are on our way home; there are few destinations at these hours-- there is a sense of denouement, we are without rush, we rely on the unreliable timetables of night trains which travel with delays and issues; very few of us protest and fret. We are tired and insulated, surrounded by our own thoughts and fears-- some of us have had a nightcap or two and know that little will be resolved before tomorrow.  There is a small sense of relief.  We often share jokes and smiles.  There is entertainment and there are beggars, but most of these have given up by 4 AM.  We eat, we dream, we nap a little.  I read and think; we grumble less at the frequent disruptions and detours.  We feel relatively safe in this state of transition.  We are going home.

When I was a sophomore in college I had some small health issue that required a few days in the hospital while they analyzed some organ or other.  It was nothing serious, and I was so young I had to stay in the pediatric ward.  They treated me like a princess.  One night I woke up to find a really handsome young resident sitting by my bed reading volume 2 of Remembrance of Things Past which I had to finish for European Lit.  I pretended to be asleep-- was so surprised and charmed by this; and can remember so well the passage he read:  about love and instability and the fact that happiness neutralizes the suffering necessary to sustaining the instability which is at the core of passion-- something like this, in the Proustian universe.  I remember these pastel-colored paperback books which I loved and cherished and carried for a year, and still, despite the fact I have 4 versions of this novel-- I keep these, to remind me of where I have been and whom I have touched while I read, and how this world-view changed my life and taught me to dissect and observe and feel these tiny moments.

I think this doctor had a kind of crush on me; I was lovely then and so young I couldn't reciprocate any kind of mature emotion.  But I remember well feeling so embraced by the night-- even in a hospital-- this sense of being watched and understood and cared for… the opposite of fear.

Tonight I had to take my friend to an emergency room.  Medicine for her is state-provided and uncaring  and callous.  She is in the excruciating indescribable pain of late-stage cancer and the hopelessness of her case only seems to provoke hostility in staff because they are reminded of their ineffectuality.
She begged me to take her back home; anywhere but there, at night.  There are no handsome interns to watch over her and read her Proust.  There is no one.  I am helpless and annoying because anyone who is suffering less reminds her that she is quite alone.  She wants to die and yet I feel she holds some tiny thread of hope that this is all a nightmare, and she will wake up calm and pain-free.  I realize tonight that she, like all those about to die, must first bury their own dreams and that is tough.  I walked home across town in this pre-Halloween unsettled weather and thought about the souls which supposedly fly around freely for this one night.  They outnumber the living by myriads-- they and their memories, and their parents and children and lovers… and for my friend-- her dreams of being a great actress have dissipated into medicated dreams of swimming and floating and nightmarish twinges.

I am sure this October 31 that my Eunice B. Harrison is among these souls and rather than spending her nights making wicked mischief on a broomstick, she sat by the bedsides of tired patients and gave her life for their comfort and solace, and never defended her honor to a bunch of clueless, mean teenagers.   So in my modern Gothic lexicon, she is the ultimate Halloween saint; I salute her and wear her black cape of goodness as my costume and only pray she will in some version watch over my friend and weave a spell of sleep and carry her through to some better moment.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Unblurred Lines

When I was about 7 years old, an older boy was visiting neighbors on our street.  In summer the girls wore what our Mom called 'sunsuits' which served well in the heat-- wet or dry.  We played in dirt, on rocks, under sprinklers, in tree houses.  Anyway, this boy cornered me and asked me my first really inappropriate question.  I shrugged him off-- gave him some vague reply… but I remember running back with a version of shame-- aware that some boundary had been crossed.  I can still see myself in that blue and white striped cotton, sensing myself the way he might have seen me.

In those years we didn't tell our parents too many things.  Sisters and brothers might accuse us of tattling, and intruding on adults had its own consequence.  So we toughed it out, waited until lights-out or a sleepover where we could safely exchange confessions in the dark.  Sometimes these were met with an ominous silence which made us feel a little more alone, a little more wary.  So many things were my own fault anyway; it was hard to distinguish where I began and shame ended.  I brought these things on myself, they would say.   I won the role of Dorothy in our school play and the next day someone stole my crayon box; even good things could warrant payback.

It never fails to astonish me that nearly every single one of my women friends has a story to share about boundary violations.  Some of these--especially for the obviously beautiful among them-- are sequential, ongoing, relentless.  Some of them are hideous and damaging, especially where relatives are concerned.  In our contemporary world, these things are hung on lines in the sunlight.  Perpetrators are punished, reprimanded, blacklisted.  But this was not the case in my teenage years.  The confession itself anywhere outside of your best friend or a religious audience was a can of worms, and the telling didn't always absolve us of the twisted shame that accompanied the experience.  We were scarred, most of us-- even by verbal trespassing.  Our fragile intimacies were injured and wrecked by bad memories and complicated self-esteem wounds.  Even punk rock girls-- maybe especially these-- had endured battles in their past, became stage champions to express and protect their vulnerabilities.  We self-punished and cut, grappling with control issues and permissions.  My bonds with old and new girlfriends are often welded with shared emotions and pains; nothing is more solidifying than the company of fellow warriors who came through our respective relationship battlefields with wisdom and understanding.

So many of us grew up not understanding boundaries, although we can all sense when these have been violated.  Ironically, people like Donald Trump who talk about building walls, are the very ones who are clueless and disrespectful of personal traffic.  Germaphobes and neurotics spend endless compulsive hours making sure their little world is 'safe' and so often have little regard for others.  People with complicated sets of personal rules and rituals are commonly the ones who impose on everyone else, who have no capacity for empathy or sympathy, no time for compassion.  The world is a marketplace of things and people to assist them, to admire them.  We are all guilty of failing to consider our neighbor, to protect the fragile, to care for the needy.  Most humans are wired to spend 95% of their energy on themselves or their immediate extended family members.  It's difficult to cope with the problems of the world on a daily basis.  We all have trust issues, questions… fences.  This is necessary.

But when we fall in love-- well, all bets are off.  All gates open, all boundaries disappear.  We will cross oceans for that person, empty our pockets for them, tell them anything they need to hear, become completely vulnerable.  In my parents' day, couples stayed together.  My Mom slept with one man for her entire life-- no prior intimacies-- just a few dates-- then the commitment.  In our culture, we open boundaries to many people.  Women let one another into our hearts; we meet on  buses and trains and exchange our deepest secrets and experiences.  It is a kind of love-- sometimes it lasts minutes, or for a transatlantic crossing.  I sat with a widowed Japanese woman on my recent flight to Sweden.  By the end of the journey, she had confided so many of her fears and concerns and passions; she wept-- it was a kind of catharsis.  I was privileged to listen, and we shared a version of love even though I will surely never see her again. We let ourselves 'out'.  And then, we draw a new boundary which includes that person.  We adopt and protect her as our own.  When these intimates violate boundaries, we bleed.

As a writer I often abuse my own boundaries; I confess and say things because I am alone here.. with a keyboard or a pad and pen, and I feel safe and private.  My words venture into territory I will never see, and that feels okay.  Sometimes people respond and let themselves feel things they would not have expressed.  That is good.  But I also work as a musician.  There is an amount of intimacy and personal space we share as members of a band.  We joke about this-- the things that pass between bass and drums, the images we get from a guitar solo-- the way we 'know' our own unique vocabulary when we have played together for hundreds and thousands of hours-- a language we speak to one another-- like sex, in a way.

On one gig, we have guests come to 'sit in'.  Some of these are wonderful people who understand they are being welcomed into a kind of privileged geometry and they respect  this and find the spaces where they offer their own thoughts and ideas and weave an amazing original tapestry of music.  The audience senses this-- when there is magic and chemistry and respect.  But there are a few 'outsiders' -- the ones who never quite comprehend the core 'family' of music.  They barge in, demand--turn up, overlay and exhibit.  A good audience feels this, too.  The problem is-- these people do not recognize themselves-- have no clue how they are perceived because they are not perceptive themselves.  They become regular intruders; we hold our breaths, we tolerate and play, feeling the seconds pass until they leave the stage and we can hopefully resume.  There's an awkwardly inappropriate parallel here between the clumsy dangerous narcissism of a Donald Trump who ironically points his finger and uses the accusation of 'rapist' and the less dangerous but equally blind egotism of musicians who perform for themselves, who use other people's platforms for a selfish personal message, who fail to perceive any boundaries but their own.

The delicate concept of boundaries-- geographical, physical, emotional and virtual-- has not just engaged but obsessed me recently.  Being a musician as opposed to the head of a corporation teaches us a few lessons in humility and sportsmanship; we don't get hired if we can't see these things.  We have to listen.  As a woman, and a mother--a friend to many and a former wife  I have learned to sense boundaries; of course my instincts can offend others-- my opinions can annoy people, and sometimes my basslines (baselines?) don't always jive perfectly.    I hope and pray I don't offend anyone when I speak although occasionally this is necessary; we must be truthful above all… and I try not to violate someone else's boundaries when I 'sit in' which is rare.  Like all of us, I've been hurt and offended endlessly but refuse to drag this around or wear the badge and I will still open my heart in a second when there is someone  at the edge who deserves and values this.  Not to mention the musical door, for those who listen.