Sunday, January 21, 2018

Where There is a Will….

The passage of relative time is a perpetual surprise for me; the pool of my past is filling so quickly with years… I can remember well when it was near-empty and the sense of  'brink' was like a permanent slow companion.  Looking at images from yesterday's women's march I remembered how I lived around the corner from Jackie Kennedy in her young widowhood.  She came in and out like a movie star, was civil but not very friendly to neighbors.  Still, despite her aura and the unequivocal celebrity status that seemed somehow to protect her, she was visible and often took taxis like anyone else.  She'd occasionally sit by the Central Park zoo with her children or a friend; people seemed to respect her privacy, from sanitation workers to other socialites.  After all, she was part of maybe the most important American story of her era… and she'd moved on-- she'd stepped outside the drama and assumed life as a regular woman.  She had children-- she had a job.

My mom was close to her age, and like all American women of that generation, she was influenced by her style: the hair, the hats and sunglasses-- her tall, understated elegance.   But what so many of them had in common was this silent acceptance of their husband's infidelities.  My own father's were not as flagrant or exciting; they were not even always centered on other women.  But there was a sort of pact these women kept-- a tolerance for behaviors that undermined and insulted their dignity in some way… and yet they carried on. They had their hair done, their nails manicured,  they met friends for lunch and took taxis to meetings.  They volunteered at schools-- they played bridge and shopped.  But they exchanged few complaints about their marriages.  They were committed, they were locked in.  My own mother feared being alone and made so many concessions I both disrespected her submissiveness and admired her stoicism.  It was the other version of #metoo:  I'm a wife and mother-- my husband doesn't treat me the way I deserve, but I have a sense of dignity.  #metoo.

In the wake of the current epidemic of accountability and blame, of revelations of abuse, I think about the variations and B-sides of the trend.  My son tells me about men-- athletes he knows, who avoid fun and flirtation because they are so targeted, like starlets, by predatory women who plot to cry monster as soon as they entrap.  It's like a reverse #metoo.  And how about the betrayals-- those of us whose husbands cheated, slept with our friends and sisters-- our beloved life partners… and we left-- we had to leave-- the pain, the humiliation was intolerable?  We were not Jackie O or my mom, but women who needed to save our children from marital tension and reinvent ourselves.  #metoo.

On Jackie O's corner, when I was 20-ish, a beautiful boy used to stand between 5 and 6 every evening. I'd return home and he seemed to stare at me.  I thought maybe he was a stalker, or just waiting for a ride or a bus.  But one day, he left me a note… a love note.  He smiled while I read it… and waved.  I ignored him... but gradually he came closer… he rode the bus with me, did funny tricks and made me laugh.  He had this beautiful long blonde hair and different colored eyes, like a huskie.  It was inevitable that we would consummate this little flirtation… it was passionate and innocent.  Without clothes, he was angelic like a boy-- it went on for weeks, until my boyfriend came back from wherever he'd been… Later I learned he was only 17.  I'd actually committed some kind of violation of a minor-- this romantic little game we'd played out of pursuit and conquest.  I could have been prosecuted in some scenario as a predator.  #metoo.

I grew up a little sister.  I followed, worshipped, loved and occasionally feared my older sister.  She was conniving and manipulative; like all first-borns, she'd been the little princess and then had to share.  I gave her anything she wanted, to win her affection and maintain her trust.  I was loyal and lied for her.  She was often in trouble and I wanted to help.  At a certain point, she turned on me-- maligned and backstabbed and betrayed.  She wanted to regain her territory and I retreated-- moved on.  It's an old story-- either fight it out, tooth and nail, or find another place.  I made friends, created my own family.  I missed my mother-- her stoicism and old-school devotion to the fictional hearth of family.  She missed me, too.  Toward the end of her life, I couldn't stay away, despite the threats of my sister.  My mother read my heart and confided her fears and regrets and sorrows.  Now that she has passed, I have to manage the harsh consequences of my lack of involvement in their legal arrangements.  I am marginalized and passed over-- misunderstood and-- again, betrayed.  It is painful to receive this, and yet I know I must 'eat the document', as they say.  I find I am one of a legion of naive family members who are the victims of competitive siblings and a kind of justice of greed.  I am a sentimental party, and I will lose my right to inherit any thing of beauty to keep my mom close to me-- around my neck or on my dresser.  There are many of us, and we seem to be women without men to assert our rights with a loud, combative voice.  A 'will'… the document is called.  It seems to have none.  A won't.  #metoo.

We've lost children, we've been sick and no one showed up-- we've survived without child support, or any support… #metoo.  We've made mistakes with our children, and we've had no one to share in the joy they have given us…#metoo.  We grieve alone, we are misread, underacknowledged and passed over.  We grow old and have to make difficult choices… we remember the victories, the losses, the insults-- the love and the sex and the confessions and the lies, the satisfactions and the frustrations, the fresh beginnings and the hopelessness of the tide running out.  And yet we are still here-- me, my friends, my work… the legacies which may or may not mean something when we are gone… another kind of will.  I do…#metoo…

For several days I have wept out loud watching excerpts of the US Olympic gymnasts describe the disturbing abuse they endured under the guise of medical treatment.  This is not a new story, but the courtroom testimonials are devastating.  The #metoo movement has revealed that the greater majority of women have been subjected to mistreatment in one form or another.  When it targets our entire life's focus-- our dedication and dreams, our passion and talent-- it is that much more heinous and difficult.  I kept silent when I was attacked and threatened by a producer who had invited me to discuss the music I wrote which he had described as brilliant,  only to find he had another agenda.  It was humiliating and traumatizing, and I carried it in silence; I paid a price, and survived.  But what bothers me in the case of the gymnasts-- they were children.  Were their parents completely unaware? Their perfect proud mothers whose dreams were being realized by the prize-winning performance of offspring-- did they fail to rock the boat, did they disbelieve?  Did their daughters keep quiet because they feared disappointing their parents?  Can children actually be raised to keep these dangerous 'secrets' with their moms?  I know I was.  In the 1960's this would have fallen on deaf ears.  My sister acted out in ways that were beyond disturbing, but no one seemed to want to take her for help.  My own father suffered from paralyzing depressions and manic periods, and no one wanted to speak.  I asked to visit a shrink-- to discuss this-- and my Jackie O-esque mom ignored my plea-- what if it went on my perfect college transcript? For the siblings, friends and parents who fail to blow whistles, who worry about consequences and selfish ambition and fail to observe and protect their children… shame on you... #youtoo.

So while I am now excluded from family money because the truth-- awkward as it might have been--was my blood sibling,  I will always choose not to ally myself with the guilty.  Attached as they were to their agenda, they not only neglected to protect, but punished me.  I forgive my mom; she herself was marginalized and disrespected often, and did not have the courage to do anything but enable.  Here we are, horrified at the testimony of these young athletes… and failing to protect so many children in our midst.  We elected a president who is not only abusive to women but ignorant, bigoted and hateful.  What message is this sending?  My mom reached out to me late in life-- she confessed and apologized, opened her heart.  I will love her and miss her forever.  As for the rest of them.. there is karma, but there is also great injustice in the world; we can only try to leave a legacy of truth and compassion going forward… #metoo... our work has only just begun.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Closely Watched Trains

At 8 or 9 PM on New Year's Eve I generally try to phone one of my friends overseas where the year has begun in earnest.  It feels a little special-- as though we are bridging some time gap and violating some order-- me here in the past, getting ready to go to a gig, listening to the sounds of the future-- the singing and rowdy partygoers who have passed the finish line and have already begun to unwind and absorb the vaguely monotonous reality that 2018 or whatever year is not so different from 2017-- at least not yet.  My Norwegian friends were drunk and optimistic that we are all going to blow this one wide open.

Working as a musician on this night is a sort of brilliant copout.  I am not responsible for the success or failure of the party; there is no anticipated date, no dinner reservation or romantic disappointment-- just amps, microphones, music, dancing, alcohol and noise-making... and then I get paid and go home to my peaceful little uptown hideaway where I am relieved that the world passed another milestone without disaster, that there were no deaths in Times Square; the MTA is at least holiday-operative, and the global clock is still ticking.

The subway ride home at 4 AM January 1 is special.  Back in the 1980's public transportation was free on this night-- a gift to the city, so anyone could afford to get home somehow-- even those who had lost their wallets or spent every last dollar in bars and clubs.   I can remember being so poor as a student, we rode the train to Coney Island and back as our celebration; standing on the beach watching distant fireworks was intoxicating.  At some point full-fare was restored;  this year the extreme cold was the main topic...  it made things little extra festive-- we were all so relieved to be off the street and in a relatively warm car.  There was, of course, the prerequisite vomiter, the sleeping drunks... but mostly just revelers with their parties still in tow, stumbling in and out of train doors with paper hats and crowns and joy.

I am always relieved, these days, to go home after a gig-- relieved that there are no major disasters, no stage-pissing or broken bones, no lost chords or tuners-- and somehow this night I sensed the awkward-shaped package of 2017 tie itself off.  I felt clean-- unburdened of dread, and slightly lifted from the muddy ground of the old year which brought month after month of sad news-- death, illness and tragedy.  I was letting it go; or rather, it was releasing me.  Across the car from me was a twenty-something man with his knees drawn up,  skinny jeans down around his hips, designer underwear and bare back in full view.  Obviously he'd lost his coat-- he'd had a rough night.  The boys next to me began to try to wake him-- what should we do, they asked me, the obvious 'senior' passenger and designated mother? Let him sleep, I advised; he's safer in the warm car until he sobers up and can figure out his itinerary.... but they were adamant... he woke, the sleeper-- and in his dark wet eyes was the halo of narcotics.  He was angry-- defensive-- he was some kind of beautiful and non-gendered persona-- belligerent, wounded.  I could imagine he'd been personally traumatized-- disappointed or even abused just hours earlier; there was guilt in his attempt at defiance-- there was also resentment and old grief.  It took a few minutes until he recognized something behind my guitar case and my wraps...  a maternal presence;  on the verge of complicated tears, he at last confided his destination-- yes,  completely disoriented and traveling further and further from his Brooklyn home.  So we all put our January-1 heads together and mapped out a route with transfers and station-jumping so he could remain inside until the last exit.  A young couple took him across the platform at 42nd Street-- they hugged me as they departed the train.

There is always a great media-fuss made over the first baby of the year; inevitably in this huge city there is a birth shortly after midnight.  I realized, as I rode the rest of the way uptown, my train-mates were my newborns of 2018.  The sad, wounded coatless Brooklynite... the young couples with glitter-tattoos, the chef on his way to the morning shift at Mount Sinai, the tired bartender from Artichoke Pizza who plays upright bass and hopes for a career in music; he took his hat off as I left and let down his beautiful black hair-- with his lovely voice and hands-- I know he will be a star.

We humans begin to lose our memory as we collect time, but most of us seem to retain a special slot for 'firsts': the first day of school, the first dance, the first minute of pregnancy, first night we spent with almost every single lover-- even if it was also the last.  We can play back things-- the room, what he wore, the way he felt under the sheets... these things seem to persist somewhere, like a recurring dream.  And of course the moments with our children... even the difficult ones, when you are wracked with some fever or even labor, and your toddler is needing you to read to him.'

I played my  usual Monday gig, still in the spell of the new year, and returned home on the Q, realizing things were already dissolving into normalcy.  People were tired and cold, not many smiled or shared on the train or the platform.  Today I stopped for a coffee and finished my first book of the year, or really, the last of the past year-- a Salman Rushdie.  There was a little girl, nagging her father to read to her; he was distressed, searching his phone, pacing a bit...  she came over to me with her book, and her sad mouth, and I was nearly unable to read-- my voice cracking and nostalgic for the babies that were so grown up and the one that had not made it.  Here, I wanted to say to her father-- you have a clean slate.. what can be more urgent than this opportunity which fate can take from you any moment?  She leaned on me, this child, the way they do--with trust and affection, like a stray dog.

Tonight, January 2,  I wept in the cold-- for the already widening distance of the last year, for the missing children of my first day who are already lost in the city... for the lights, for the ghosts of the Christmas trees that lined the sidewalk on Lexington with hope and anticipation and now would be lying spent on the curb for sanitation pick-up, for the homeless men who must leave the warmth and light of the 96th Street library at 7 PM closing, for the crosstown bus driver who confessed he had no one to go home to after the night shift; for the passion and love and first nights of the past, the small family searching these buildings not so long ago for the home we discovered, for the emptiness of the future as a solitary woman who gleans from fruit vendors and thrift shops in a nondescript coat of non-recognition, trying to savor the grace of the beginning, while the world and time is thrusting us ever-forward.  We are prepared for the weather, some of us-- but not for whatever fate holds for us in the next onslaught of days and weeks and months.  I was so blindsided by 2017, trying hard to re-baptize myself into some incarnation of hope-- resolving, as we do, we perennials, to observe and honor what we are given, and to pray for another beginning when this one, too, has worn itself out.