Post #61: Sprung from Joy

img_9756So naturally, against all odds of sanity, I went and did it.  Tossing aside the whole curriculum for day:  ruminations about Scout and Atticus gently pushed aside, Socratic discussions about the military prowess of Hannibal and the ethical conundrums of Cato and Carthage quietly reburied, mystical revelations of the Sistine Ceiling  temporarily shrouded.  We all needed it.  A screeching halt to the studies of the present for a zip line into the past.

With a snap of a switch the room was mote filled and dusky. My class comfortably settled into their seats like souffles sweetly deflating by an oven door opened a few moments too soon. An old movie. A perfect film.  A Christmas Carol, Alastair Sim version, 1951.

Over three full class periods,  we were all swept back in time to Dickens’ 1840s London and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a tale worth telling again and again.

You know the story as well as I do.  A crotchety, miserly old man, furious with with life and with the world around him,  is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas future. And he is changed.

At last with a whirr and a click,  the movie ended. I left the lights low. There wasn’t a sound.  And  suddenly from the back of the room, from the darkness a voice rang out, “So you tell me, Mrs. Frank, just what took that man so long to figure out how to be good?”

Hmm. To tell you the truth, I was wondering the same thing.

So here we are, hardwired into the present.  I’m late to work, I’m fussed about getting to the grocery store, I should have responded to that last phone call, I haven’t cleaned out that closet.  I meant to read the book.  That bill is late, the gas gauge is on empty, I need to make  dinner, I must fold the laundry.

Where am I going?  Who is mad at me for what? Where are the cats?

Most readers or viewers think, I think, that Scrooge was terrified into reforming his ways and living life as it was meant to be lived by the glimpse into his dank and horrible future.  But what if  it’s the return to the the loving and warm memories of his sweeter past that  truly changes Scrooge?  Perhaps Scrooge changes because of the reminder of love. Not the specter of fear.  In other words, it’s the memory of beauty and kindness that allows Scrooge to live and be embraced by his present and to move him forward.

Was Scrooge’s error to flatten his life,  making his present all encompassing, instead of what it truly is, a breath, a heartbeat, a mere whiff of time narrowed between past and future?

So what took him so long?  What takes any of us so long? 

Mired in the present, I push myself toward memory a lot. I think about memory not because I’m afraid of forgetting the happinesses past. Wrapping myself in the afghan of memory for me is a celebration of the joy of remembering. I remember to recapture joy.  Moreover, I am an expert at sieving memory, retaining all that is meant to be retained. And that joy is what hopefully catapults us toward the future.

So in the new year, a season of hope and of light. join me and raise a glass and  toast to the goodnesses of the past and to power of memory.  Be bold, be brave. Recreate your past world to create the world anew. Fling yourself forward, sprung from past joys!

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Post #60: Darwin on the Porch

img_1469I pry my eyes wide open. For safety’s sake  I’m sleeping in my glasses. I always sleep in my glasses.  I need to see. I desperately need to see.  But it’s so dark I might as well have kept my eyes closed.

It’s so dark! It’s so, so dark!

I catch my  breath. Then the little thoughts  begin to pelter me like hailstones, icy little balls rat-a-tatting  at me.

I should have called him.

I started to read but I stopped.

Why didn’t I do the dishes last night?

That picture has been crooked on the wall for a week.

The crags of unfolded laundry are piled higher and higher. Unputaway

The cobwebs reach delicately, achingly from corner to lamp and then arch back again.

“I want this!  I need this!  You’re late!!”

I’m already afraid for the mistakes of the day I’m yet to make.

I struggle from the swirled tidepool of my bedsheets.

Down the stairs, into my coat, out the door,  onto the porch.  Once there I stop. For a moment or two I can’t even breathe. But I can hear it.

It’s so long since I’ve really heard silence.

The air is moist, comfortingly heavy and sweetly enveloping.  Each breath feels as if I’m swallowing rich mouthfuls of a malted. I breathe slowly — not to be too greedy.

I know this place so well.  The ragged hedge, the tufted and tousled  grass, the barebranched trees jubilantly stretching their limbs, grateful to  at last shaken free the leaves that form a crunchy carpet below.

It’s all solid, all respectful, all tolerant. How can a place feel patient?

But here for a few moments, nothing is asked of me. I am not judged. I am quietly welcome.

That’s all there is. But then, that’s all I wanted.

***

In December of 1831 Charles Darwin boarded The Beagle to begin a five year voyage of discovery that would take him from the Canary Islands to the Galapagos to New Zealand.  Was he equal parts exhilarated and exhausted,  roiled by the ocean, burned by the equatorial sun, embraced by the arms of the sky?  The only naturalist on board FitzRoy’s vessel, he was separate from the seamen, always alone, straining to hear the sounds of quiet.  Away from the onslaught of the world, through jungles and trauma and terrors,  he still possessed one of the greatest luxuries: he had time to think.

After returning home in 1836  Darwin spent rest of his life was spent sorting his thoughts. His period of separateness and quiet was the seedbed of his greatness, of all that came afterwards.

I have not traversed oceans, nor clambered up mountains, nor soared through the skies. So many times , like today,  I cannot make myself step further than my front porch. But for me, at least this time, it’s far enough.

A few moments of quiet and my mind leaps forward too!

A Taste for Jazz and Lime-Vanilla Ice

img_6499To honor the memory of my cousin Martin Slobin, z”l, I am reposting blog post #14 from February 24, 2015. We lost Marty on December 6, 2001.

With love to Marty and my Aunt Bess, z’l and my Aunt Rose, z’’l.   Cherished.

***

I was one of those precocious little Suzuki violin kids. We were schooled strictly in classical music, that is, as soon as we could scrape through Mississippi River. My first violin was quarter size and our early training involved marching around the room trying to keep the violins tucked under our little chins. Tiny violins bounced everywhere. But music really exploded for me on Sunday afternoons when I got to watch Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-TV channel 50 in Detroit. Bill Kennedy was the faded, slightly pompous former B movie actor who hosted the show. He had this one great scene as a tennis pro with Bette Davis in Dark Victory, which he referred to often.   It was here that I watched my first musicals: Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, Meet me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon. This was the music, these were the songs that I really fell in love with, the ones that stuck in my head.

Someone noticed.

That person was my cousin Marty.

He wasn’t at all the type of person you’d expect to notice things. But he did.

Marty was my mother’s first cousin. He shared an apartment with my two great Aunts. my grandmother’s sisters, Bess and Rose. My grandmother lived alone in the apartment across the way. My sisters and I would always see the Aunts and Marty at holiday dinners or be trooped unwillingly across the parking lot to visit their little apartment. It was hot in there and there wasn’t much to do except answer questions about whatever it was we were doing. The Aunts hung on our every word and beamed at us for even the smallest accomplishments. We should have feasted on this avalanche of praise and affection but we didn’t really. We felt squirmy and uncomfortable.

At some point in the conversation, Marty, Bess’s grown up son, would be summoned from his room to say hello to us. Marty’s room was a great mystery. No one was ever allowed in there. Not even my Aunts. But the door was ajar once and I peeked inside.   What I saw was a fantastic jumble of books and records amidst the whorl of an unmade bed. It was a mess, it was utter comfort, it was a refuge and a fortress. It reminded me a lot of my bedroom at home.

Marty always entered the living room slowly and bashfully even though this was his home, he was the adult and we were just little kids.

He was a heavyset man with dark curly hair. He smiled a lot. He perspired a lot too—the apartment was kept extra warm for my Aunts—so much so that his thick black glasses slid constantly down his nose. But the look of appreciation on his face, no matter if I was talking about whatever old movie I’d just seen, what music I’d played or some song I loved, was real.

I was probably self-importantly talking about some play that I’d been in at camp when he got really excited and went to his room. He returned with Allan Sherman’s My Son, the Nut, which he placed gently on the turntable. Marty was the first person to play “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah “ for me. I got it. It was cool. The albums that were stacked along side were by people like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane. I wasn’t ready for them yet. Not by a long shot.

At holiday dinners he usually didn’t say much. He would always wear a tie although he always looked like he’d rather take it off. If there were uncomfortable silences he would always talk and talk about how much he loved the spinach.

On the violin I learned how to play Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle and would have gone crazy with joy if I had somehow heard about jazz violinist Joe Venuti but I didn’t. I was a high octane behind the scenes high school theatre person. I did my best to keep up in chorus class. I was hurt that I wasn’t a part of the revered Madrigals singing group at Kingswood (my sister Lisa was) but I still found that I completely and totally loved harmonic singing.

I overheard that several times a year Marty would take the train to Toronto to go to Jazz clubs or Jazz festivals. I don’t know who he saw up there. Chick Corea? Charlie Mingus? I don’t remember him playing that music for us on those afternoon visits. Was he too shy? Did he feel his connection to that music too private to share? Or did he know that to truly fall in love with something you need to discover it yourself?

I had heard the stories. That he had asthma and terrible allergies. That he was babied by his mother, my Aunt Bess, who coddled and overfed him. That he wasn’t allowed out to play much as a little kid and had a way of running with his flat feet slapping the pavement and his arms flapping wildly in the air. That he hated driving and took the bus, a true anomaly in car crazy Detroit. That he was smart. Really, really smart.

Over the years he never once made one of those cringe worthy comments about “how much I’d grown.” But I knew he noticed when he said that I reminded him of Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer. By then I liked songs like Sing, Sing, Sing, Java Jive, and Dream a Little Dream of Me. Progress.

After college I lived in Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. I stretched meager paychecks by buying groceries at Balducci’s with my Dad’s American Express card. But one night I went to the renowned Blue Note all by myself, to hear “The Divine One”, Sarah Vaughan. In that cramped jazzy space, I sat alone at the bar drinking Bloody Marys at nighttime. It was the only drink I knew how to order. But there, on that wonderful night, I actually heard Sassy herself sing Misty.

After that night I knew why Marty went to the Jazz clubs in Toronto.

I was away from home for a long time. I grew up, I worked, I married, I had children. Back in Detroit, my Aunts died. Marty was left alone. He moved to his own apartment.   Alone a lot in New York, I listened to music. On my own I discovered Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee. The Boswell Sisters.

Then Marty died as well.

He was only 55. It was from his obituary that I learned that he was a revered and award winning Political Science lecturer at the University of Michigan Dearborn, known for both his bristling intellect and unfailing kindness to his students.

It had never occurred to me to ask what kind of work he did.

Of all the stories in Ray Bradbury’s beautiful Dandelion Wine my favorite is “The Swan”. Drawn together at a soda fountain over the unusual order of “a dish of lime-vanilla ice” young Bill Forrester meets and befriends 95-year-old Helen Loomis. Despite the extreme differences in age the two form a transcendent bond. It’s clear they were meant to be together, but according to Helen, just not in this life. Maybe the next. Or perhaps the next one after that. Ray Bradbury does not leave us with a happy ending in this story but instead with a wistful, open-ended one.

Maybe this is true for lost friendships as well.

But all I know is that I desperately miss someone I never really knew at all.