Sunday, April 25, 2021

Dress Rehearsal

For some reason day by day I keep looping back to exactly one year ago.  Some of this calendar-nostalgia is related to my poetry 'diary' which I've recently edited.  Of course hindsight is always a little interesting, especially when many of us had little but our own thoughts and sorrows to harken back to.  For anyone  that maintained an actual paper day-book,  thumbing through non-dogeared 2020 pages finds everything as it was written only... nothing fulfilled... as if an illness shipwrecked our lives and confined us each to an unpopulated island from where we wave weakly, unseen.  And despite the restoration of activity, we are not yet on the 'other shore' of safety... we hesitate to put our feet in celebratory waters, to toast one another with bare faces, to laugh publicly unmasked.  

For my ill friends, as I have mentioned many times, there is some consolation in knowing life as we knew it has not gone on without them... that their peers and neighbors have been limited and quarantined similarly... although they are suffering less.  I have grieved often-- for those I've lost, for moments which became more poignant... so much we took for granted.  Such are the lessons of life: we don't know how much we have until it is gone.  Illness is a major highlighter of experience.  I see my 'confined' friends panning through minutes for gold... reducing their wishes and dreams to a new 'smallness'... wistfully sighing over a coffee on a park bench... a walk by the river.  These things have become impossible... the way I used to long to simply see my mother with a cigarette on her telephone, twisting the cord with her beautiful fingers, critically admiring her manicure, her rings-- things she did unconsciously while she gossiped and whispered.

And still... the end of cancel culture for some is a kind of celebration.  A few friends are booking vacations, planning parties, buying concert tickets.  For me it's as though I've been through a kind of sieve, where all the extraneous things have been removed and I'm left with fewer needs, fewer complications.  The pared down version of life for me feels manageable-- simple.  I've come to terms with my needs and ambitions and they are noticeably less than they were one year ago.  There's a parallel between me and my two friends who are winding up the final yarn-ends of their life, who have let go possessions, dreams... and lie in the reality of a bed with a view-- some flowers, a meal... pain the only enemy they must resist, the symptoms of their illness a clingy companion-- a shadow.  Some days the sheets are clean and the nurses are kind.  Maybe I am too empathic-- the spongy, guilty/sad version of me who knows in a nano-second I could be the one in the bed; I have been there and often wonder why I was allowed the gift of time, and why, as Paul Simon said, I often spend it 'writing songs I can't believe' and failing to perform them.  

My intimate girlfriends are sad... they rely on my darkness, in a way. We don't judge one another, but accept our chronic sorrows like an illness. Some nights I lie awake and imagine losing the ability to speak, to write... I understand and absorb the slow rich hours of the sick when I visit my friend in hospice-- sometimes watching the clock hands circling, listening for hallway sounds... thinking about the elasticity of time-- how terror frames seconds and she often waits in the bright sunlight of pain for a simple cloud of relief to pass.  How she tolerates the intolerable and boredom is the coveted edge of a quiet sea at dusk. 

How they miss their mothers, these women who in a hospital bed are suddenly helpless children with no one to comfort and sense their fear.  For so long I have been my own mother... and I became, in a way, the mother/daughter for my own Mom when she was dying. There were times in her life when she spoke to me as a sister-- she confessed.  How she loved my father's smell... that's when she knew he was 'the one', though I find it hard to imagine she loved his 'old man' scent at the end.  Sitting in the hospital chair I wrote a note to my friend with a ballpoint pen and a pad I'd left her.  It somehow reminded me of the morning after parent-teacher night.  I'd picture my mother with her long legs sitting at my little desk, my handsome father with his hand on the chair... looking through my papers and projects.  We'd all do an annual self-portrait.  I asked my Mom to cut my hair because it seemed so much easier to draw yourself with bangs, and I wanted them to admire my work.  The morning after, my teachers always commented how handsome my Dad was... and I'd search my desk carefully for a note.. but there was none.  Every year I'd leave my little notebook open with a pencil... but they never took the hint.

When my son was a schoolboy I always left him a note; doubtful he read this or cared... such is life.  We try to anticipate pains and needs... but we misunderstand, we fail.  I do little to comfort my ill friends.  My worrying and telephoning are badly timed and useless. We do these things for ourselves, I think... we fluff pillows and fix blankets.  There was a Martin guitar in the chapel of the hospice... I suddenly craved playing something but shivered to think about the women and men who wander hospital hallways like a human jukebox trying to cheer the sick and dying who often roll their eyes and groan quietly.

I thought about the thousands of patients who had lain in this bed in the room of my friend... pandemic or cancer-- what difference did it make... I am still in the wake of grief-- of loss... in the shadow of 2020 in an unfamiliar forest of future where illness seems to be a kind of normal.  It does little good to watch someone drown and douse yourself with water in sympathy.  Some of my friends are nurses who have devoted months and months to saving people... and I don't know why I can't seem to find the thrust to move outward from this dark orbit.  

Years ago I read Susan Sontag's 'Illness as Metaphor'.  It is humiliating and dehumanizing to be a patient.  I fear this-- we all fear this, even those of us who are hypochondriacs and seem to wish for incapacity. But most of all it is a kind of rehearsal for death--  a foreshadowing, a preface.  I am not ready... who of us is? Besides, I've always hated rehearsing.  Still, like a kind of tinnitus the daily death logs and statistics ring in my head and haunt me.  It is death I am trying to come to terms with... and it is not yet possible.   I suppose life is the antidote; sympathy does not require suffering or guilt or sacrifice. We had Jesus to teach us these things, and you'd think I'd have learned some 2021 Easter lesson.  

Tonight the rising full moon was directly opposite a spectacular sunset behind the west-side skyline... like life and death... for once the sun and she had come to terms with the stage of sky... and it was only against the backdrop of utter darkness that the clarity really spoke.  Shine on, my Mom used to sing... all of those wonderful moon songs in her funny high voice that I can play back any time on the phonograph of my old heart. And it does, and it will-- in sickness and health, long after death do us part.  

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Rain of Kings

There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend Tyrone often announces.  Categories change from day to day, from monologue to monologue.  He's a curb philosopher-- a wise-man without an address, and I'd just as soon get my instructions and remedies from Tyrone. Today-- it's all about the weather: Tyrone and I-- well, we don't dread the rain.

In younger days I often walked along the East River promenade with a baby stroller, my little boy gleefully pointing at boats on one side, me crossing myself as we passed the daunting Cornell hospital buildings on the other-- imagining patients trapped inside... how beautiful sunny weather made them feel ill and ashamed of their confinements, but the rain made them feel safe... convalescent. Today I have friends embedded in hospital rooms-- sentenced to a random but cruel diagnosis.  Who of us expects to be invalidated, incapacitated?  We dread these things, but like rain on our wedding day... well, they don't quite seem real until we are helpless and alone in a dimly-lit room with terrifying machines and digital screens which blink our fate. 

Graveside funerals are so much more poignant with umbrellas... even when I was small, I felt God was grieving from the sky. When I moved to England and married my son's father, the chronic damp sunless weather -- day after day-- embraced my young bones like a dark premonition.  I dispensed with umbrellas and took it, straight up and grey, with the clouds of our failure hovering inside and out.  There will be a royal funeral procession this week-- perhaps the weather will comply.  London rain is epic-worthy.  

Endless essays and articles about loss swimming in my current digital libraries... memorials, obituaries, confessions and prayers...  And then there are the annoying optimists-- the positive, cheerful, grateful Pollyanna's of Facebook and Instagram-- the meme-writers and quoters of happy-faced human emojis.   For the chronically and terminally sick there is little here to celebrate with pain and discomfort the only really constant companions.

I am the useless sympathetic friend.  I want to do something and I really cannot.  Grief and illness counselors have their programs, their suggestions and prescriptions-- none of it comforts the way seeing rain outside one's hospital window might, knowing perhaps you are missing sightly less.  I've been there; the fortunate among us have been there-- paid a bit of toll, put some body parts on layaway to keep the wolves at bay.  

My Irish nanny told me once that the world needed a break-- that rain meant the sky had a sort of cold-- it needed to rest the sun, to cry-- just like children.  I can't remember where in the Bible God created rain... but He certainly used it to punish mankind.  And likewise, it rewarded.  It nourished the land-- sometimes brought biblical miracles--manna... and in places like Louisiana, fish have actually fallen from the sky; frogs in the midwest.  

No miracles are expected with today's rain, although it is my most welcome soundtrack and visitor.  Somehow it connects me to my 'people'; I know they are wet or pensively looking out at the traffic and umbrella congestion-- maybe just a bit melancholy.  Things have happened in rain that would not have happened-- you have run through streets with some person... and because you are wet, you undress at his place and end up drinking from a strange cup by his window in the soft laundry-scented cotton of his clothes.  It becomes a sort of home for you.

I can't recall my mother ever looking 'wet'.  Her hair was always  'done' and she was umbrella'd from door to car and back.  My father-- yes, he was wet.  He played tennis and walked dogs in storms.  My Mom kept her head above water when she swam.  We all had rubbers and galoshes.  I don't remember hers.  I picture her grave in the rain... her coffin and the six feet of earth will have kept her dry... but despite the multitudes of deceased surrounding her, the soft mound where she lies seems desolate on these days. 

For my ill friends-- I am aware my cloying sympathetic melancholy helps not at all.  Nor do shaking my fists at the sky, begging doctors and nurses, telephoning and weeping, rosaries, novenas...  We are not remedies for one another.  Neither of my friends seems to have had a great satisfying love-- a man to lie across their bed and suffocate them with sorrow.  The parting, with romantic drama, is a little more 'post-worthy'... the mourners step into the spotlight... the widowers and wounded lovers.  But in the end we are left with a statistic... an empty bed, the imprint of weeping... a memory of pain, of regret, and then the rain.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Kissing and Telling

Statistically there are children in the five boroughs who are regularly abused-- beaten, chained like dogs and deprived of necessities. There are women who are daily beaten-- men, too.  There are handicapped people who are mistreated and neglected... unable to cry out or ask for help.  There is also kindness and those who give of their limited and precious life hours to ensure the comfort of others. Saints and angels.

Politically incorrect as it may be, I confess I am a little baffled at the press war on our governor.  Women of my generation are less horrified by the accusations because we spent much of our careers, up until deep middle age, sidestepping and leapfrogging such innuendoes and advances.  We squirmed out of arms, turned our cheeks and kept vigilant and sober at professional parties.  One night I was out with some major music business executive and assumed my boyfriend was giving me some under-table affection until he got up to use the men's room and the hand remained.  Shocked?  I could not disclose because telling the tale had its own sorry repercussions.

The woman who spoke up last night-- not to belittle her trauma-- had to read her account.  These are carefully prepared-- clinical and not exaggerated, but honestly-- I could not really understand what the complaint was all about.  There were plenty of witnesses-- including her son-- she looked charmed and flattered, not really horrified or traumatized.  Virtually everyone kisses me twice, like it or not.  I met the governor once at a reception... it was maybe 30 years ago, he was newly married and extremely friendly and sort of avuncular although I am a bit older.  I thought nothing except the politically ambitious often greet one with an air of forced familiarity and affection.  Bill Clinton had a similar habit, lol.  It's like they want you to remember their held-over handshake or embrace; it affects your sense that they care about you-- not YOU, but us. Cuomo is a little clueless and old-school.  But don't we have larger fish to fry?  Like Donald Barracuda Trump?  Do we need a scandal distracting the more important business of our Attorney General at this moment when the pandemic is still raging and our democracy is under attack?  Not really.  

My older sister used to think everyone was ogling her.  She actually got a teacher suspended and fired for antics calculated to distract him.  Of course he was crucified for weakness; she was annoyed that he'd discouraged her.  Maybe my familial shame has prejudiced me... but I was forced by my sister to testify on her behalf when I'd spent nights in the back seat of an old Firebird while she and a married young Phys. Ed teacher touched each other in his backyard toolshed. Teenagers.

Meanwhile there are truly horrendous acts of war being perpetrated-- racial profiling, violent acts of hatred and aggression... suffering people.  There are the horrific Epsteens and Weinsteins who seem to have got away with abusing women for years.  The Governor stood up to our former president and protected New York during a health crisis.  I miraculously received the assistance I needed just to survive. Why is it that I feel this campaign has an underlying motive?  I apologize to any women who have been genuinely hurt.  I just find the timing 'off' and I am fairly certain the good he can do will outweigh any behavioral mistakes going forward.  He has maybe sinned and transgressed and confessed and been duly hand and face-slapped.  He has not tried to discredit his victims, like our ex-President. He has apologized.  

The women of my generation broke ground in many sectors.  We are still under-acknowledged, underpaid... but we did not have the freedom to dress as we chose in the workplace-- even onstage without risking extra attention from our male colleagues who crossed lines freely and knew we would not tell.  Most of us did not kiss either; to be judged by equal standards, my first all-girls band refused to bare our legs and glam-out for management.  We wanted to play.  

I've written before about the music producer who  propositioned and then beat me when I would not respond.  It changed my life forever. Besides some karmic baggage, he seems to have enjoyed his life.  I moved on-- abandoned a solo career-- did not have the stomach to weather these episodes, and at the time predatory behaviors were difficult to report and prosecute.  My career as it was would be scarred.  Now that I'm old I can tell the tale and it is far from Governor Cuomo's style of border-crossing.  Not that any of it is okay... but there is a learning curve-- there are resources, and there is also a door.  The smarter among us recognize a 'bad' boss... we have options.  In all cases, dignity must champion ambition.  

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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Scrabble

This morning I came across a quote from Cervantes: 'All these squalls to which we have been subjected are signs that the weather will improve... for it is not possible for the bad or the good to endure forever and... since the bad has lasted so long the good is close at hand.'  Well... it touched me-- like a mother's hand on my face, until I realized-- these are the words of a deluded madman, are they not? I thought of Job-- then a friend lying in a hospital on a ventilator, witnessing or not witnessing the disintegration of his own brain. 

'We have all been here before' the song from 1970 was running over and over in my mind's ear like a damaged vinyl skip as I woke... and wondered, as I often do these days, if I am losing my mind or simply misplacing pieces of it.  While identifying the music in my head (often it is my own invention which takes form in a dream) from the Deja Vu album,  it occurred that we have not been here before... at least not I... and I am not sure when the good will come as I watch another friend suffer from the relentless tide of late-stage cancer and there are no highlighted days on her calendar-- not celebrations or moments of relief without drugs.  

My own mother warned me-- Pick something beautiful, she used to say... but I continued to opt for the dark and difficult.   She read to us from Bambi... my first souvenir was the word 'thicket'.. I was enchanted by the aura of words which led me into hidden passages and opened doors that seemed a little forbidden.  These days-- entering older age at an intersection of quarantine and cultural procrastination... well, it is an unforgiving sort of wilderness-- a bad mirage.  It is like stepping out and not knowing where the deep sidewalk crevasses may lie... there are no maps for this.  

And still, watching the news, accosted daily with the barrage of online activities and people--even friends-- competing for time on social media... it is as though things have not stopped accelerating. My peers are both bewildered and a little terrified... we have been simultaneously halted in our tracks and left behind.  No wonder Bruce Springsteen had a DUI.  It's not easy navigating reality and the dark gravity of what is still in our head.  He was writing a song of himself... ? Personally I have no license, no car... but I was 'there'...

Some of us have begun memoirs and autobiographies.  Some have begun to shed memories... or to find, as I often do, this 'soup' of sentimentality and nostalgia simmering on a hot stove of unfamiliar ingredients.  Compounded by the challenge of losing our taste and smell... has anyone else spent nightmarish hours wondering at the metaphorical resonance of this virus symptom?  As though we are intentionally misplaced... what if we were bloodhounds, any animals who became entirely useless and disoriented and could not find our way home?

We are at this threshold, many of us... I see even celebrities losing their minds, making bad choices-- a bit of Quixotic paranoia, a bit of desperation to be relevant-- inventing drama, putting it up on a screen for others to judge, to approve... to be watched or seen because we can't seem to find our own Deja-Vu here.   Our own mental illness has become sort of an entertainment raison d'être... it makes news, it reaches others... Personally I feel like a reverse ventriloquist-- like I must speak for those who cannot-- the ones lying in hospital beds-- the forgotten neighbors who fear leaving their apartments... and the ones who are no longer here.  They haunt my dreams.  

We are all future ghosts and corpses.  I'm sorry, Mom... it's a terrible thought but it is a life force.  I leave virtual daffodils at your sad grave every day; I have failed you simply by fulfilling my own program.  Like Bruce, maybe-- and I was uncharitable to him-- I am driven but not driving, thank goodness.  Last night I saw Demi Lovato and the Duchess or whatever she is also prostrating themselves... Yes, they are given a platform and it behooves them to take it for themselves, however dramatically they insist the opposite.  Our Governor-- can they not find someone else to crucify?  These people are maybe discarded too quickly.  You voted for them and they are human and on a platform and made mistakes.  I remember how quickly they took down Eliot Spitzer when he was trying to dismantle the frauds of Wall Street.  Where is our perspective? Heroes are all flawed... scrutiny cannot fail to reveal them.  

Yes, we women have all suffered injustices and disrespect; at this moment of my life I occasionally peruse the scrapbook of my girlhood and the incidents were plentiful and appalling.  I was busy trying to become the voice for something I have surely failed.  Rather than identify as a whiner I opted for the larger picture.   Two of my friends, coincidentally, have just begun-- out of boredom or disappointment-- jigsaw puzzles.  Comforting to know there is a solution; it will work.  The rest of the world seems to be fragmenting.  Perhaps I the aging chicken have become my own fallen egg.  All the Kings Horses, etc... 

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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Whistler's Mother

I watched way too much television this weekend-- binged on Black History Month documentaries some of which I'd seen before but which seemed to have new currency.  The Central Park Five film was particularly upsetting... a different variety of police brutality and racism in the 1980's version of city.  As a runner, then, I remember identifying with the jogger;  as a runner, now... waking up morning after morning to a curtailed life, and as a mother... well, I wept for the young men whose lives were amputated and sabotaged.  I hope they've used their settlements well.  

Waking up these alarm-less mornings, I find myself in a half-state of self-identification-- calculating dates, days of the week... marking another strike on my virtual wall of days without a gig.   Unintentionally I often sift through sands of old mornings; the bottom of the proverbial hourglass is rich with these-- heavy-- and to isolate one or two-- well, it is a choice-- it is difficult and leads inevitably down a path of some autobiographical anecdote.  I can't imagine sitting in prison without tools to express and chronicle what one is forced to examine from the beach of one's own life... or driving down some road with brakes on-- no going forward, no U-turns.  The lives of those boys and countless incarcerated innocents-- well, they haunt me.

I searched tonight metaphorically for '29', feeling a bit cheated, but also as though in this limbo of late-February numbers compelled to sew a written memory into the warp and weft of time.  We have stopped becoming, many of us... and what we become matters.  Many of my peers complain or confess they have stopped using their fingers.  We practice, some of us-- but our people are missing.  Our wakings have less clarity; we are foggy and sad.  We know what we will lose today and it is painful.  

In the midst of difficult family reminiscence, as though I need to put a 'cap' on it, I remembered today having breakfast with my father.  He rarely spoke, on the way to work-- spread the Times in front of his face while he gulped his coffee and occasional sardines on toast.  Mostly he rushed out.  We were annoying in the morning.  My mother had a cigarette to keep her company... and the prospect of luxury hours alone with not much on her agenda, so I imagined, except preparing for the evening.  

But once a year I'd go to work with him... take the train, and somewhere near the Graybar building was a place called Il Trattoria, or something like that-- where they served good strong coffee and Italian breads sliced in half-- buttered and grilled.  It was so good, that toast-- no wonder my father shunned his breakfast often.  There he'd be, in this noisy, cluttered place, with his train-friends, all suited and hatted... with their Stetsons and their young-man handsome profiles-- the masters of the business universe which seemed to swarm the streets of midtown in those days.  I can still smell the vague smoky air-- the ghost fumes of train, the hint of after-shave-- the hustle.  I could almost paint it, like a Lester Johnson pack of Walking Men-- like an office-army without formation or rank.  

On a nostalgic website, below a vintage Manhattan photograph from the 1940's, someone recently commented...'except the hats, this could be today'.  But it was precisely the hats that defined the time-- the vague voluntary uniform that sheltered men like my father-- disguised them... protected them.  On that day that I'd accompany him, I'd see him as a completely different species-- a generic man-- strong, protective-- belonging, somehow, to a sort of mise-en-scène-- a plan.  I felt safe and normal.

Of course, at home-- nothing was really normal. My Dad was a bit miserable, disappointed, depressed-- whatever... the ex-soldier without any heroism in his domestic life, with only daughters who annoyed him and a wife who never seemed to tip his scale to happy.   Still, the silhouette he became every day-- was crucial to his purpose in life, the order of days-- to progress and Republicanism.  I noticed that black people wore similar hats, too... but there was a different rhythm to street populations.  Everyone moved slower in their neighborhoods-- with a sort of heavy deliberation, but also a kind of dance to their feet.  I couldn't quite put my finger on it.  

Watching the Ellis Haizlip documentary for the third time, Gladys Knight got me to open my mouth and sing-- it was like an alarm went off in my head.  I looked around the room-- I was alone, but something ignited there.  Through the past years I've walked the city and heard music in my head.  I've written lyrics, transcribed dialogue that was spoken to me, or that I spoke out loud, as though a voice used me as a muse. Lately the masks have muffled not just my voice but my spirit.  I can't imagine singing.  Or whistling.  Another thing that seems to date movies-- we don't have many scripts with people walking down the street whistling a tune.  

I've always loved whistlers... they do the most with what God gives them... the best of them have perfect pitch and bell-clear tone; they have facility-- vibrato and trill-skills.  A passing car silences them... no one hears, or sometimes fellow-passengers on buses resent their music.  There was a man I used to see uptown-- he had a limp but compensated for his heavy foot with a tune that rivaled birds.  I spoke to him once or twice-- he said the music just came to him... the melodies-- he was not responsible- they just came.  He'd rest on the benches on 110th Street and have a cigarette... in between smoke rings, he'd whistle... as though the tunes hitched a ride on the dissolving 'O's.  Most of the time he wore an old hat.  

The tragedies of the past year are about to come full circle with this shortened month.  I tried to postpone it by inventing a 29, but I can't slow time.  Then there are the small losses-- the ones which add up to a diminished life here, although the pile-up of empty days has been a blessing to some-- an opportunity to rest, to grieve, to invent.  Still, pandemic masks like a blight have stifled our expression, camouflaged our emotions, confused our natural facial recognition abilities... discouraged street-eating and drinking, whispering, tongue-sticking and kissing.  They have all but obliterated whistlers.  

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Wednesday, February 17, 2021

What I Am Not

 I'm reading the autobiography of Edward Dahlberg.  His prose is uniquely compelling-- descriptive and  'limber' with literary intelligence.  He is classically trained and gifted... in a way that writers do not seem to be, these days.  From the very first sentence I was enchanted and hooked.

Last week I watched a documentary about the jazz scene in Pittsburgh, called We Knew What We Had.  I was in tears-- the quality of musicianship, the wholehearted commitment to performance-- people like Art Blakey, Erroll Garner, Earl Hines, Ray Brown...the exquisite command of what their instrument can do and what they select in the moment.  I was actually standing in front of the television.  Tough for me to call myself a bassist.   Most of these musicians have passed; the documentary relies on their surviving colleagues and successors to describe them.  A few players have famously left their life story-- Miles, Mingus, Art Pepper (my personal favorite) but not many are really writers, nor did they all have the luxury of the retrospective.  Their lives and deaths were jagged.

While I cannot put myself in the same sentence as these masters, I have the skill to appreciate what they did/do, the good fortune to have enough education to find them... the belief, maybe, that when we expose ourselves to things that are really good-- to 'art' (or Art, as in Blakey), it makes us better.  

Solitude and confinement in the past year has forced on us the bandwidth to contemplate our own autobiographical truths... who we are, what we love, what we miss... and while we are focused on health as a priority, and politics-- social change, issues... I'm not sure we've all made the effort to improve our solitary human condition.

When I was a girl I imagined each person was given a sort of scroll of life-- like a map-- and certain things were 'set' but others were chosen.  As we got older, we passed through this trajectory; I'd imagine 100 years and at 50 I'd be halfway done.  But people died-- they left us before their time.  Was this 'written'? Preordained? Was death a punishment?  I struggled with this and came up with a sort of darker version of  life's 'certificate' as a tiny core on which we built day by day-- like a tinker toy city that expanded.  I laid out plans for things-- I listed ambitions and designations... books I needed, records.... like recipes a chef collects.

Now that I'm in the winding-down phases... I see life as the finite infinite we are given; as we grow, we become-- we annex and enrich-- the focused among us-- and we subtract.  We lose daylight on the way to winter, we pass up opportunities--moments... we watch television, we look at social media... we read endless posts and news articles... that stack of magazines by our bed has now become a three-story virtual pile.  We also spend a good part of life butting our heads against things-- trying on relationships that don't fit, changing our bodies to become our heroes, imitating and following instructions that lead nowhere.  I have become aware of my own autobiography as what I have done-- not nearly enough-- and despite the so-called best-laid plans, what I am not.  

Like those brilliant jazz pianists, I tried to incorporate a fair amount of improv into the course of my life and that brings with it the added risk of failure, of tangent-travel that is not always efficient.  I don't regret most things-- even the failed love affairs that broke me.  I am not a partner.  I have not grown 'with' someone, which seems, in the past year, to be the privileged state.  That said, I have watched so many people lose their personal 'half' and mourn and grieve in a way that seems irreconcilable.  

I am not a collaborator; I am fairly solitary.  Musically I have worked with wonderful artists but have not been a partner, nor a celebrity.  As a player,  I am not a 'noodler'.  I don't fuck with other people's songs and play what I think is right.  I don't really like writing for others; I have too much to say on my own, and need to be edited.  Lately I am less of a scribbler; I attribute this to technology and to the pandemic: we don't carry pens and paper with us-- we don't wander and converse randomly, we don't dawdle and gape and listen to the dreams of others because they are publicly masked and sober.  

Several times this week I was asked 'what I do' and I have replied 'I am not a musician' with that 'lol' gesture I've grown attached to.  I am not in love; I am not sure I have the capacity for these things, although I remember well how important they are.  In my projected or actual autobiography these episodes are married to songs or poetry or places I may or may not revisit.  They are recorded in letters and diaries... I am not sure anyone will discover these things and I will perhaps not spend my limited time revisiting them.  I am not unhappy.  As I told my son over and over when he grew up, we are rich people; we do not have money.  He had a hard time wrapping his teenage brain around that one, but his little one-line Valentine's Day message to me indicated that he may now understand.  

I am alone; I am not alone.  I am surrounded by wonderful things and opportunities-- many of these in books and audio resources.  The present is here, but the past has so much to offer.  People like Dahlberg or Erroll Garner who are utterly brilliant but so little 'searched' compared to the celebrities of today.  I fail myself every single day and the fact that I commit each night to the possibility of growth tells me I am not dying yet.  We are strong; we lift weights and play football... and then we bleed out in a second.. we are crushed, we are broken-- we drown, we suffocate.  I am not nearly enough, and yet several times I have been something to someone. Does this comfort me?  It does not; I am not counting deeds.  I wrote a song for a jazz musician this year-- she will never record this now, but she loved it... in the modulation the lyric went 'Well I've been somebody's lover/But he don't need me now/ Like a broken clock, an open box/Some things are just too late.'  The repeat... Some things are just too late.  I am trying to be tough and go forward; the night is not gentle or good. 

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Losing My Scent

 In a moment of rare intimacy my mother told me what she'd liked most about my father was his smell.  As an older teenager at the time I remember thinking I'd so rarely been close enough to him to experience it, but I knew what she meant.  Of course, all curious children open and sniff the bottles and toiletries left on bathroom sink-tops.  Our default father-gift was aftershave; his clothing taste was difficult and specific-- many unworn ties hug in his closet which smelled of nothing I can recall-- the faint ghost of tennis ball cans which lined the top shelf.   So yes, there was Old Spice but that was generic/manly.  Even music and schoolteachers used it.  

We all discover on the most basic biological level the chemistry of smell and how it figures not just in nostalgia and romance, but attraction and attachment.  Like the Proustian Madeleines, the faintest aura of patchouli can send me into vivid moments of girl-crushes and beach-passion.  So the harbinger of Corona Virus-- total anosmia-- was not only disorienting but like some kind of emotional theft.  At the beginning of my illness, this was not a recorded symptom and the medics I spoke with shrugged me off.  I could stick my nose in a bottle of bleach and register nothing.  Not to mention the altered, distorted sense of taste; my beloved morning coffee was bitter and harsh.  Hmmm, they said.

Gradually I retrieved some of my skill; I practiced in the spring gardens of Central Park, identifying flowers and nature. Oddly, the 'nice' smells came quickly while foul odors went undetected.  I could change diapers without flinching.  Ten months since the illness, I still have trouble smelling burning food while colognes and perfumes are particularly vivid and singular.  Frankly it's as though I have someone else's smell-- not mine.  The Goldilocks sense of 'who's been sniffing in my nose?'  I am also my own doppelgänger-eater.  Most sophisticated food is now 'back' but still my coffee palate is off; things are boring.  And yet.. fruit... is amazing.  It's possible the components of taste required to appreciate grapes are untampered, whereas experiencing some subtle smoked meat dish is still scrambled.  I've drawn a parallel between the temporary ravage of the virus and the permanent-- as though we've been deconstructed here and put back together in a slightly different order.  The mechanism of these vaccines spooks me a little too... I read Watson and Crick way back-- the way the strands proofread and repair... they scared us into believing psychedelics could unhinge this process... how about these meds? Not to take a political stance... but to consider the biological aftermath of covid-- well, I feel rearranged.  

On top of the grievous human losses that resulted from a complete failure to understand a new illness, we are left with these altered realities... our societal loneliness and fear, lack of trust, isolation, and this persistent longing my friends describe for the life we had 'before',  Who are we, without our little life-dioramas and stages and interactions-- our flirtations with the bartender, random meetings on a train, nostalgic triggers that bring the artistic of us to creative brinks, to inspiration?  

At the end of her life, my mother rarely left her bedroom.  It had a certain smell, the way old people almost uniformly biologically secrete a documented identifiable chemical.  I loved my mother so much I missed even that smell, when she passed.  It eclipsed so many of the others-- except the Chanel perfume I used to inhale to bring her 'ghost' into the room when I was lonely and she was, as usual, 'out'.  I'd post myself in her closet, between dresses, and wrap them around my head.  There it was.  

While I was recovering, these months... I've thought often about my girlhood dogs-- the Retrievers whose heads smelled to me like freshly-baked bread.  Like my mother, the men in my life had their own scent-- this affected all relationships and was inextricably attached to each.  My favorite of all smelled of the sea; I've written about him-- he died long ago, and abused his body... but still, I could tell he'd come into the room by the mixed woody perfume of forest and the beach... it was like a poem, just to close my eyes and know.  

Like all creatures who die young, we never get to replace their legend with the older, less fragrant version.  My mother was quite demented at the end and I'm sure recalled my father's scent with all her being, even though he was old and mean and grouchy, shared her room with the 'cloud' of the aging, and passed away. Like all of her dementia-dreams, things were beautiful and young-- at least at the end.  Having this parosmia, as they call the scrambled sense of smell, it reminds me that I've been altered as a woman-- that I no longer have the attraction or desire I once had, or the capacity to inspire.  I can only use memory to paint, to compose, to write.  I rarely if ever take a selfie-- the physical reality seems, like my sense of smell, a little disconnected from who I am or might be... from my people who have passed, from my past, from my self... I suppose it's a matter of time until my memory fades, loses accuracy, identifies less... sheds  the present with the past, as we all walk a little more cautiously into this future.

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