Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Keep the Change

It's been a banner flu season.  The weather fluctuates from 16 to 70 degrees arbitrarily, robbing us of a proper winter (no one complains, really).  Our current administration doesn't believe in climate change, despite the science and all evidence, and is supported by a significant sector of the population that maintains that God controls weather anyway. He apparently created man about 5000 years ago, despite the fossils and relics in the Smithsonian; he had Noah build an ark and board two of every creature.  Even I, in Bible School at the age of 6, asked, 'Where did the dinosaurs sleep?' and got sent to sit in the hallway.

I shun vaccines and get my immunity from sharing microphones and water bottles with my fellow musicians.  We're exposed to so much coughing and sniffing and germ-swapping, it seems to keep us going.  I let my baby boy eat plenty of dirt in the NYC sandboxes; he didn't miss a day of school until he began willful truancy-- another story.  My ill friend won't eat ice cream or drink Gatorade when she's dehydrated, because she thinks sugar causes cancer.  She has stage 4c advanced metastatic disease that is so bad the tumors surely weigh more than the little that is still woman.  The pain is off all charts, the doctors avoid her, the nurses speedwalk in and out of her room, recommending things for which there is no technician available.  The drains are not functioning, her intestines are blocked, her ribs are on the verge of cracking and it's tough to breathe in most positions.

Being an actor, she watched the Academy Awards the other night; she still votes as a SAG member, and it provided some distraction.  I do not watch these things, but she told me about the envelope at the end-- how it gave her some hope that maybe she has been misdiagnosed.  We both love Idris Elba.  Was he even on the show?  I have no idea because I haven't seen a Hollywood movie in years.  I pray now that her TV won't break down because besides the morphine and oxy's, this is the main drug.

Tonight I am making her chicken soup.  I am a little happy because she craved it and it's something I can provide.  I am whistling inside; we had a great talk this evening in between her induced sleep cycles, and she can manage a few spoonfuls in the morning if I strain it carefully.  It's as though we're in the midst of a massive California brushfire in our tiny log cabin and I am outside calmly throwing glasses of water at the wall of flame.  These are my dreams.

In the world outside her disease, there is this metaphorical political American cancer.  Forget the influenza epidemic.  It's as though people in this country went to the polls and decided-- well, here we have the common cold… and here we have-- well, whooping cough or something.. .and then here we have-- yes, cancer.  Let's try cancer for a change.  It's really only a diagnosis… which my friend had at the beginning, when her laugh was still boisterous and theatrical and her red hair bounced around when she bartended.  It was like a script… a drama?  I'm not sure how she processed it, but she did omit some of the difficult choices that were recommended because reality is a strange scenario for most of us, and despite the nomenclature, nothing is real for most of us until it is on-fire/in-your-face.

When you are suffering and ill and even your dreams are blurred with medications and pain, the world is difficult to understand.  You become narcissistic not-by-choice and unable to think.  You occasionally lash out in bitterness and agony and it's difficult for those of us in the room, when the elephants begin to rage and stomp.  My friend is a staunch Democrat, as are most of the more artistic and talented people I know.   In her moments of clarity, she rants about the current President and administration.  Life in America is less appealing, we agree.  Despite all the negatives, despite the unbearable worsening existence to which she is sentenced, day after day, she refuses hospice care; she has an incorrigible belief that somewhere, somehow, there is going to be a way out.  Someone is going to find the key to this door of the house of terminal hideous illness.  It is a kind of belief and if Jesus were here, he would wash her feet.

I have just published a new book of poetry.  My friend has no interest in this, finds my lyrics depressing and would rather watch TV or talk.  The book is under an indie umbrella and we all have to foot the bill for these projects.  I am forced to do an amount of promotion to pay the debt.  My friends know that I live far below the radar of any economic level.  I don't know what a vacation is.  I have no practical containers for the chicken soup because I don't get take-out, ever, on my food budget of $20 a week total.  On the way out, I ran into a neighbor who looks quite a bit like Trump, and surely voted Republican.  He has the mannerisms of a self-made non-charismatic man whose money causes people to treat him with deference.  So, he says to me, I hear you have a new book…. should I buy one?  I shrug.  I happen to be carrying a few to the Post Office. He puts his hand out… opens his wallet as though he is tipping me.  I have a $50, he says, is that okay?  It's $20, I answer, without emotion, looking down so I won't see his billfold even by accident-- with the black and platinum cards and the fat wad of green.   I don't have any small bills, he announces… So why don't I slip it under your door later?  I shrug again… as he rolls..ROLLS my precious book like a newspaper, like he is going to beat a dog with it… my precious lovely book with the expensive matte-coated cover which cost me close to $20, each one… I resist the urge to cringe, and mumble the Post Office, time, deadlines, whatever...

So I get home…is there a bill under my door?  Somehow the guy seems to recall (he did smell a bit like he'd had a cocktail or two) that he'd given me a $50…. So there is a note…no envelope.. a note… which  says.. 'Hey I read the first poem-- about the Chevrolet-- good stuff… Keep the change.'  Trumped I am.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Exchange

I live on the edge of two neighborhoods… on the cusp, on the border.  It suits me.  I am close to the park and short blocks from grand homes and institutions.  I am also two blocks from the projects.   Across the street from me, my neighbors have an East Harlem zip-code, although I'll wager all of them have a better income than I do. Personally I spend most neighborhood-time going north and east-- past the projects-- exploring bodegas, playgrounds, small bakeries and shops, listening to languages besides English, browsing among vegetables and fruits used in Mexican recipes,  reading labels in Spanish.   Even the Christmas decorations have a different flavor.

At this point in life, I am spending more and more time alone.  I walk; I think; I soliloquize and invent… I may even talk to myself.  I wander-- down strange and familiar streets, into places; when I am alone my ear is sharper-- I hear things outside and inside my own head.  It''s as though I dare myself to become lost in my own city--- to lose myself, to become someone else, in a way-- like a character in my own story… a kind of odd controlled schizophrenia; I leave my house and turn left and suddenly I am anonymous and unknown.  I blend in and I am simply a woman.  No one greets me or looks at me… I am free, in a way-- unencumbered and clear.  It rests me… it provides my blank canvas.

I think I've always craved some kind of solitude-- even the kind you have in a group.  I like people but am reluctant to commit myself to any society that excludes me from other choices. Maybe it was my dysfunctional family (we all have them) and their failure at honesty-- but I never feel that I completely belong anywhere.  Even marriage felt odd to me-- it required my husband convincing me this would be a good thing… and besides, I'd be making someone incredibly happy and giving up nothing.  It seemed to make sense.. and I got to cross another border-- to belong to two countries, as I chose-- and that suited me… but the boundaries of marriage never felt right to me.  Maybe I was a terrible wife, but other women encroached on the walls of my own marriage-- my husband failed to protect me, and I left.  Motherhood was quite another issue-- but I was still someone's daughter, someone's lover, someone's sister… I could still live between identities, go from neighborhood to neighborhood-- play in bands and enjoy my son's basketball games with pride.

It's possible that solitude gives us clarity… in my case, the acceptance of my own penchant for straddling borders--- for being two people, in a way-- the one who walks and the one who observes--  the speaker and the listener.   At my age, I notice I am more blunt, more honest.  I say things directly; occasionally I offend people.  I see my own peers walking around clearly burdened with their pasts.  We have all experienced so much; for some, they are stooped with the weight of it, fearful that little will happen in coming years to balance or complement their life.

My son's friend asked me to help him return a ring he bought his fiancĂ©e a few years back.  It's such a beautiful thing-- it's vintage-y and unique.   He lost his Mom recently, and maybe that somehow altered him; he also knows I've returned rings and changed my own mind many times.  It doesn't bother me and I've never really regretted much in my life; it all seems to have brought me to where I am, which is not a bad place.  There's a book of poems I remember reading: Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.  I've always loved that title… as though this is the way I've lived.  Returning the ring-- dealing with the receipt and the agreement and the salespeople… it all seemed so absurd that this intimate, personal decision we make gets so 'handled' by so many people-- the processes-- the invitations, and name changes-- the paperwork and vows and all the guests and witnesses-- the home-buying and the furniture choices… and suddenly it was as though I was so close to my own relationship thresholds-- maybe in the very same store where my fiancĂ©  had bought the lovely ring that had felt to me like a 25-pound weight.

It took my son's friend 5 years: maybe 2 to really believe he'd made the wrong choice, and 3 more to actually find this ultimate closure.  Finality.  He has a new girlfriend now.  When we get older, some loves we realize were addicting, or consuming, or manipulative-- or they looked like someone else, or they reminded you of something, or your best friend talked you into it… or whatever.  And then some affairs look absurd and like some kind of period of insanity.  And after it all, after a lifetime-- there are those moments that shine-- through time, from the half-light of this moment, back to that one… there is still this beauty-- something right and true… and we feel lucky, even though we never held on, that we felt this way.

We have so little present-- all of us.  Just this nanosecond of awareness-- the rest is just a movie-- an invention.  So few of us take the time to appreciate these tiny things we are holding at this moment only-- unless we are on the verge of loss.   We mourn at funerals, we bathe in morning light when we are aware our days are numbered-- we love those we can no longer see, and we miss what we no longer have.  Handing over the ring, I was aware someone else's moments were in my hand briefly--- even the feel of the box-- I could imagine how much it must have meant at the time, and he'd spent many multiples over what was appropriate ('in over his head', as he put it)… but there it was, becoming an item in a shop window for someone else to give their loved one, to become part of someone else's story.  I felt empathetically unburdened.  These symbols never had much credence in my lifetime, as I've said… and the truly spiritual instances of the meaning of marriage are more like star points in the dark liquid sky of my own history.  But then again, I am someone who likes to cross borders, to travel between worlds and rooms and to inhale winter evenings and mix them with older constellations and lyrics I have surely misread or mispronounced… and I emerged, on my way back toward Harlem, to the song of the melting snow, me stepping every block from past to present to future, between worlds.