ON THE EDGE OF THE KNOWN WORLD: 1972

IMG_1045If you wanted it—and I mean really wanted it—there were rules to follow. You had to be willing to shoehorn yourself out of your top bunk in the black licorice dark of night. You had to be brave enough to survive the seemingly bottomless drop to the carpet if your groping foot somehow missed the ladder again. You had to have the conjuring abilities of Houdini escaping a straightjacket to be able to in fling your nightgown off and your sweatshirt on in one single fluid motion.

I was so good at this!  But I should have been. I did this every single Sunday morning.

I made my way downstairs. The walls of the house seemed almost to breathe with a steady rise and fall to the gentle rhythm of everyone sleeping.

My mother was already waiting in the kitchen. She’d beaten me downstairs again. I come from a proud line of light sleepers, early risers. Plus she knew how to be quiet. My mother could get out the door without a squeak of her shoe or a jangle of her keys. She motioned for me to follow and I did.

Buckled into the Delta 88 we were on our way. If we got to the bakery early enough—and we almost always did–the bagels would be hot out of the oven. These were Detroit bagels, small and a little sweet and really pretty good. Better still were the onion rolls, the round flaky ones and the square ones that were called New Yorkers. A perfect silver rectangle of Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Sometimes we added an incredibly valuable pink packet: prepackaged lox, yearned for mouthfuls to be carefully divided and dolled out only in slivers. Once in a great while we’d get my very favorite, a whole chunk of sable.

Greedy little thing that I was, greedy little thing that I am, I wanted more. I always did.

My mother got that for me too. Three inches thick and an all day read: The Sunday New York Times. Pages and pages of jazzy, neon blitzed sophistication and elegance. I couldn’t believe that it miraculously appeared where I lived; on what I was sure was the edge of the known world, the suburbs of Detroit. Hot off the presses, the world and all it’s possibilities, now lay in my lap. Along with hot bagels in a crackling brown bag.

If there was a straight route home we never took it. Instead we meandered, driving slowly through the sleepy, tree lined streets of Birmingham. It was much too early for anyone to be out. The trim houses were Tudor or brick or ranch and contained by sidewalks. They were all different but uniformly tidy, with yards that were so manicured they appeared to have been combed out and then precisely hand-edged with nail scissors. Through the open windows, even the breeze felt just right.

As we drove slowly, yearningly past I could almost imagine each perfect house tied up with a bow. Unmade beds, messy closets, dishes in the sink an unimaginable impossibility. Did they read The New York Times? Did they live The New York Times?

Someday in Times Square I’d pluck newly folded copy of the Sunday Times right from a newsstand’s big stack. It was Saturday night but I’d already be living Sunday.

Someday, in a doorman building on Riverside Drive, piles and piles of Sunday papers would teeter in unread towers as night gowned and exhausted, I double fed infant twins.

Someday I swore I’d finish reading an article or maybe two—just as soon as I got back from a pick up or a drop off. Just as soon dinner was made and the laundry folded. I swear.

Someday Sunday mornings would again be very quiet. Three inches thick and an all day read.

The sun was coming up. We drove home. Everyone else was waking up. We were home once again to the happy cacophony of TV and spilled dog food and unmatched pajamas. But we had hot bagels. And we also had the delicious possibility of The Sunday New York Times.

Thanks, Mom.

 

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Tangled Quilts

FullSizeRender (2)I don’t really remember the movie. But I do remember this scene.

At the end of Reuben, Reuben, (Tom Conti and Kelly McGillis, 1983) the two lovers are outside in a park and they angrily part ways. It’s over.

But as the woman leaves she turns and looks back tentatively to the man. He’s looking down and misses her vulnerable, longing glance. She turns away. Just as she turns away, the man looks up hopefully but sees only the woman’s back, walking resolutely away from him. And so the relationship irrevocably breaks, lives are forever changed, for want of split second of timing.

I can hardly bear it. So much conveyed in a glance. But the glances were missed. What would have could have happened?

**

I desperately do not want to miss glances. Nor do I want to misconstrue notes or emails or texts. And those looks and notes and calls keep coming at me, they come at all of us, so thick and so fast! I try to keep up—I can’t really keep up. I delay, I phumpher, I make mistakes. I know that I do. Worse, even if I am looking up am I reading that glance or that text the right way? What am I missing? What might I misinterpret? And selfishly, how fearful might misunderstanding make me? Worse still, if I err, how alone?

Interpreting glances, bold attempts to understand the clumsy, truncated haiku of a tweet, text, or an email is an art form, one made of split second timing and the kind of bravery that cliff jumpers possess.

I know it’s a kind of bravery worth cultivating. Bravery worth having.

Even though I’ve placed so much emphasis on the meaning of a fleeting glance, on possibly misinterpreting the off-hand wording of a message, there is something even more important to consider.

If you’ve ever said, “I love you”, you know. Because if one is brave enough to say those words, to feel them, to mean them, one has to be brave enough to fight through the inevitable insecurity and fear—all the missed glances, all half-written thoughts—that will follow.

A relationship is far more than a series of glances—missed or otherwise — haphazardly laid atop one another. Instead I think of relationships as wonderfully tangled quilts —those sewn together steadily, slowly, over time– which we can pull from our bags and wrap ourselves in whenever, however we need to. These are the words and the stories and met glances that knit together to tell the deeper stories of our connection, of our lives and to remind us, as we all need to be reminded sometimes, of our love.

We want our connections to be like a firm, unbroken chains when too often they’re twisted like those little metal conundrum puzzles. The kind that take patience to work through and give such pleasure when they’re completed.

Remember the puzzles. Reach for the quilt when you need it. Much love.

TANGLED QUILTS

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I don’t really remember the movie. But I do remember this scene.

At the end of Reuben, Reuben, (Tom Conti and Kelly McGillis, 1983) the two lovers are outside in a park and they angrily part ways. It’s over.

But as the woman leaves she turns and looks back tentatively to the man. He’s looking down and misses her vulnerable, longing glance. She turns away. Just as she turns away, the man looks up hopefully but sees only the woman’s back, walking resolutely away from him. And so the relationship irrevocably breaks, lives are forever changed, for want of split second of timing.

I can hardly bear it. So much conveyed in a glance. But the glances were missed. What would have could have happened?

**

I desperately do not want to miss glances. Nor do I want to misconstrue notes or emails or texts. And those looks and notes and calls keep coming at me, they come at all of us, so thick and so fast! I try to keep up—I can’t really keep up. I delay, I phumpher, I make mistakes. I know that I do. Worse, even if I am looking up am I reading that glance or that text the right way? What am I missing? What might I misinterpret? And selfishly, how fearful might misunderstanding make me? Worse still, if I err, how alone?

Interpreting glances, bold attempts to understand the clumsy, truncated haiku of a tweet, text, or an email is an art form, one made of split second timing and the kind of bravery that cliff jumpers possess.

I know it’s a kind of bravery worth cultivating. Bravery worth having.

Even though I’ve placed so much emphasis on the meaning of a fleeting glance, on possibly misinterpreting the off-hand wording of a message, there is something even more important to consider.

If you’ve ever said, “I love you”, you know. Because if one is brave enough to say those words, to feel them, to mean them, one has to be brave enough to fight through the inevitable insecurity and fear—all the missed glances, all half-written thoughts—that will follow.

A relationship is far more than a series of glances—missed or otherwise — haphazardly laid atop one another. Instead I think of relationships as wonderfully tangled quilts —those sewn together steadily, slowly, over time– which we can pull from our bags and wrap ourselves in whenever, however we need to. These are the words and the stories and met glances that knit together to tell the deeper stories of our connection, of our lives and to remind us, as we all need to be reminded sometimes, of our love.

We want our connections to be like a firm, unbroken chains when too often they’re twisted like those little metal conundrum puzzles. The kind that take patience to work through and give such pleasure when they’re completed.

Remember the puzzles. Reach for the quilt when you need it. Much love.

NOW HOW CAN THIS BE?

IMG_4258Now how can this be? I know him so well. I’ve known him for so long. I love him so much.

I wasn’t quite sure that I recognized him, the sweet and animated face of this beloved person. It hadn’t been that long. A few months? But even so.

Looking at him I felt the angles shifting, a real-life Picasso, cubist period. He seemed to be changing before my eyes. Squint as I might I couldn’t get a clear view. I was shy and awkward. He grinned anyway. My boy.

It didn’t quite make sense.   I should have been able to see him clearly, to recognize him! I kept his photos close, looked at them often. But then really I should have known.

Photos don’t tell the whole story but rather the stories we want them to tell. I look at my own photo, my profile shot, the image of myself that I want all of you to know me by. It was taken on a good day where I look relatively thin and my hair is reasonably neat.   My cat, Big Nick, is not expressing utter devotion but actually demanding lunch. My photo is not just my presentation of myself, but my shield. You’ll know me by what I want you to know. As Wilfred Sheed once said of author Clare Boothe Luce, “She crafted herself a myth and lived up to her invented creation. “ Don’t we all?

We primp, we post and we manipulate shots for best angles covering ourselves in photos like a Roman phalanx heading into battle, their overlapping shields an impenetrable barrier to the coming onslaught.

And why not? Why not, indeed.

***

After our wedding I actually refused to look at the wedding photographs for months. I was afraid if I looked at the photos my own memories might get lost. They were not. And so I remember:

*That there were lilacs strewn everywhere and the scent, as always, was intoxicating.

*The sheer terror that overcame me before I walked down the aisle.

*My husband’s adorable and scrunched face when he had to take a bite of vanilla wedding cake when he yearned for chocolate.

*The swoon that nearly overcame me as I circled my husband under the huppah. Or perhaps I swooned from something else entirely?

*The solitary wedding guest, hidden away in small room, who spotted me and thinking me lost at my own wedding, invited me to share her slice of cake.

Not one of these images is captured on film but they are still firmly etched in my memory.  I am so grateful.

***

And yet, I think, all of us deserve the right, if we so choose, to protect ourselves with the images we want to present to the world. But sometimes, maybe even often, that protection can be a barrier to what many of us want even more. To truly know and connect with those we love most. To remember things in a way that even with a photographic record we might otherwise not.

***

And so to my boy, shifting and changing before my eyes. The person behind the photos. He was still there. I knew it for sure the moment he hugged me hello.

.

 

 

 

FOR ALL TIME AND BEYOND TIME

IMG_3013The phrases still echo in my ears and rattle around my brain.

After innumerable dozy hours of class time, my hand mechanically raising and lowering to answer questions for perfunctory pats on the head, having written essay upon essay upon essay, there are really only two phrases that I recall from school.

“We are all creatures of habit.” “Crowds are always potentially dangerous.”

That is all. That is it. And it’s absolutely cringe worthy that these jewels of wisdom are fished from the maelstrom of 8th grade, compliments of Mr. Wepman’s psychology elective held in the cinder blocked glory of Warner Junior High School. But there you have it.

Mr. Wepman had noted that each of us chose the same seats in his classroom day after day. He challenged us to sit somewhere else. We tried. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Even unnerving. We wanted our seats back. Most of that lesson is a blur, but that one part remains quite clear: some of us, maybe even all of us, grasp for safety in the rubric of routine.

*The coffee poured into the same chipped mug every morning.

*The parking space at the grocery store we gravitate to every single time.

*The tattered shirt we wear when we feel a bit hollow or need to feel lucky.

*The egg and toast placed just so on our breakfast plates.

*The path we walk from the train to the office.

*The seat we choose in the theatre.

*The song we play over and over.

 The bell clanged and we struggled out of our seats. “Remember,” he said as we prepared to throw ourselves into swirling mass of kids rushing through the hallways, “be careful out there. Crowds are always potentially dangerous.”

And so they are. From junior high school hallways to the streets of our greatest cities.

We’re told that the world, and all it’s limitless potential, spreads before us like a blanket shaken out on the soft grass before a picnic. It’s vast and thrilling, and there just for us. How can we not embrace it, take as full advantage of all it’s excitement and possibilities? To turn inward, to curl into a protective shell like a sow bug is to go nowhere, to do nothing, to wither. But we are attuned and aware always. To live life afraid is not to live. We need to live in the world. The world needs us to live in it.

In my dreams there is some magnificent, unknowable force in the world that continues to protect those we love and care for from crowds and from dangers. I hope that it’s so. And for those for whom protection lapses, it’s my fervent hope that somehow, somewhere they are cared for and comforted and beloved for all time and beyond time.

 

 

 

TAKE FLIGHT

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1920

She was tiny and dark, lithe and nimble. An effervescent stream of seltzer, shot right from the bottle.

The story, as I heard it, was this: that once upon a time, Little Gram, our grandmother Ann Venitsky Chudler, was our own Superman, able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

Well, perhaps not quite. But long ago in raucous games of tag played wild and free on the flat city rooftops, she was an elusive sprite, leaping away from the outstretched hands of her playmates, so fearless that she could escape a tag by literally leaping over the gaps between the buildings.

Our grandmother could fly.

***

1970

Really, no one ever knew where we were.   How extraordinarily wonderful was that?

Equipped with red rubber schoolyard balls and a few plastic jump ropes, afternoons after school we were out and about in the neighborhood, roaming around making up games to play. We lived where flat tracts of land were fast being crammed with Lego like constructions as builders raced from quarter acre to quarter acre.

The rules were that weren’t any rules. So the half constructed houses in our neighborhood became our playground. Games of intrigue, games of tag, we ran up and down the half finished stairs, tumbled through open windows, perched casually and coolly on rooftops. And most memorably, once on a dare I leapt from an upper floor balcony into the soft dirt below. I know all about Galileo’s experiment from the tower of Pisa. Science confirms that I fell hard and fast. But then and now I thought I lingered in the air. I was floating, I was flying.

***

1950

For our Grandmother, the games of tag are a memory. Around her swirls a hive of activity, husband, children, sisters and family revolve around her center. There is always something to do, someone who needs something.   She does it. Tied firmly into an apron she makes porcupine meatballs, ethereal lemon meringue pies. No one ever made a bed better. She grows tough and hearty roses that reach toward the sky. Our grandmother’s tiny feet are now closed into perilously high heels, her feet firmly planted on the ground.

But are they really? Often and always, those tiny high-heeled feet trod a path back and forth to the local library. Curled in an armchair late at night she reads and reads and reads.  Alone and in the quiet, there are times she is sure that she is flying.

***

NOW

We face off on an overcast fall afternoon, my middle schoolers and I. They sit; some slumped, some squirmy at their desks. I sit, trying not to slump or squirm, facing them at mine. They are tired and tense. Maybe I am too. For today then, maybe just for today, the lesson becomes looser, more fluid.

I ask them to take out paper and pencils. I want them to draw.  They do. I open a book and begin to read. The room is completely quiet and calm, save for the scratch of pencils on paper and the rise and fall of my voice.

“Something above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the graveled carriage drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! His snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”

Kenneth Grahame, Chapter 1,  The Wind in the Willows

After a time, the bell rings of course. It always does. We shake ourselves and start to move, tentatively, awkwardly, as if waking from a dream. “You know,” said one of the girls said as we were packing up, “That was so nice I almost felt as if I was floating.” I felt the same.

There are so many ways to fly. How wonderful that our Grandmother knew that too.

HAPPINESS

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A throwaway question. A perfunctory answer. “So how are you?” he asked. Unthinking, the answer tumbled from my lips, “I’m great.”

There was a pause before he replied gently. “But you never say that.” And he was right. I never do. Except that I just did. That’s when it hit me.

I was happy. So happy that I hadn’t even noticed.

Well good grief, how did this happen? And how was it that I didn’t see it coming didn’t prepare, didn’t revel? That longed for sensibility, that sweetly elusive quest that launched a thousand well-thumbed self-help books, the favored subject of so much yapping from so many smug and silly daytime talk show hosts. Happiness. It was mine?

I had to cry a little. Not because I was happy. But because I hadn’t realized how long I’d been unhappy.

Had I bull headedly been unwilling to admit how unhappy I had been? Or had I simply been rutted for so long that I hadn’t noticed? Or worse, not cared?

The marvelous Mary Oliver speaks of “a seizure of happiness.” That can certainly be so. But this lovely, pervasive longed for thing snuck up on me. Caught me by surprise and held me.

The thing is, for those who are aware there are always, even in terrible times, moments of happiness, of beauty, of joy.  We snatch greedily at these happy things, grab them and hold on tight. Most of us swing from joyous moment to joyous moment, all the time lurching over the abyss of fear and unhappiness.

But this feeling was something else entirely, pervasive and calm and real. It arrived without fear.

How did it happen? On the surface, it all seems the same. The weird and wonderful cascade of daily life continues. The comfortable old house is still basically held together with duct tape. I’m haunted by sisyphean piles of laundry. My untamable flyaway hair perseveres in having a wayward mind of it’s own. I try to be where the people I love can reach me. I remain small and quiet, often unnoticed and most comfortable in a corner.

And yet there is a difference. I am doing exactly the work I want to be doing in just the way I want to do it. That small thing is everything to me.

Could it be that happiness was there all along, waiting for me to stop searching for it so it could simply suffuse me?

All these thoughts raced through my head before I continued the conversation. I took a deep breath, “And how are you?” I asked. I thought and I hoped, “please be great too.”