Post #62: Wunderkammern

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Oh she was sublime! Bubbly Judy Holliday was at once like every one of us and at the same time like no one else. Blond and vivacious, wacky and lovable she ignited the big screen like a brilliant bauble in everything from Adam’s Rib to Born Yesterday to Bells Are Ringing. But I love her best in a small, quirky little movie, It Should Happen to You.

Have you seen it? Oh come on! You must!

It is not fancy movie, no grand pretensions. It’s not even a musical, although there is one lovely little number when Judy croons “Let’s Fall in Love” with a piano playing Jack Lemmon.

It Should Happen to You is a story of deep yearning. A twentyish New Yorker named Gladys Glover, buffeted and bruised from the humdrum of daily living, determines that for a moment, for a heartbeat, for an instant she will rise from the ranks of the insignificant and become known. That her name — Gladys Glover — will be on everyones lips.

And so she gathers her life savings of a thousand dollars and purchases a billboard in Columbus Circle with her name in gigantic letters. She is thrilled. For one week, the name of Gladys Glover is spoken about, wondered about, gossiped about. She has done it. She is famous. She is thrilled.

Until she is not.
**

This week I unexpectedly find myself temporarily anchored in the city I’ve loved for a lifetime. The lights still beckon. Towering night lights from my window soothe me still.

So many years ago like so many others I cartwheeled head over heels into the arms New York. Like a skittering handful of jacks spilled from a cupped palm we hit the ground hard. What a place! We would make names for ourselves. We would be famous! The city would be ours. We craved it. We loved it.

Look up, we’ll see the lights of the Empire State, of the Citicorp, of the Chrysler! Look down we are expert at spying lucky pennies to scoop into our pockets. Hurrying hurrying hurrying we scurry furtively from street light to street light, huddled into great coats, slogging through slush.

Judy Holliday looked up and unexpectedly saw the lights in the eyes of Jack Lemmon. I looked way up and unexpectedly found mine in a pair of warm, kind eyes behind a pair of round tortoise shell glasses.

How many times had we walked obliviously right by each other, on 2nd Avenue? Amsterdam? 72nd Street? And yet, finally together we were swirled into a wunderkammern, our own cabinet of exotics and wonders, filled to the bursting with baseball cubes and board games, subway signs and teapots, pokemon card after pokemon card and book after book after book after book. So so many and never ever enough. Our lives together are a wunderkammern – a collection of weirdnesses and wonders, jumbled together in a way that makes sense to no one but us. But it’s ours.

My name flickering in lights? Why? Why when there is so much else?

In the way it was meant to happen it happened to me. In whatever way it is meant to happen then, it should happen to you.

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!

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.

Post #59: Spin

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First set your feet firm.  Grasp the steel curves in your hands and get ready to push. Push hard! Legs pumping pumping pumping  as you run fast, faster, fastest, around and around and around! Just when you’re about to be swept off your feet jump up!  Up! You made it. You’ve earned your moment, your ride.  Lay back, close your eyes and spin. The Merry-Go-Round.

Open your eyes and you’re just where you were, of course. Or are you? 

Spin

Outside the big sunflowers turn and turn, their faces following the sun.  It’s late afternoon and I’m staring out the big picture window, the one shielded by a thick opaque yellow shade.  It’s has  a tiny tear, proudly,  neatly scotch taped together. The rays feel so hot that they seem to melt through the window, sizzling the squares of carpet like toasted s’mores.

I ache to get a better look outside.  But as I lift the thick vinyl shade the tiny tear tears a bit  more. I should be sorry and stop but I can’t stop,  I don’t stop at all.  I love the feeling of the tear slicing upward, up and up.  I can feel the power of the rip the in my little  hands. 

When it’s over, I can’t fix it. I am sorry, so sorry.  Really I am.

Spin

My bow is bouncing through Leroy Anderson’s Fiddle Faddle, my fingers skittering over the strings of my violin like jackrabbits bounding through the woods.  The notes scatter through the air with wild abandon, flying floating, fleeing every which way, everywhere at once.  Can you keep up?  Can you catch up?  Let the notes grab you and hook you, and seep deep inside you.   Oh! Come along with me. Together we can fly!

Spin

I am sitting across a restaurant table from a man in an elegantly cut suit, owlish glasses balanced on his nose, gentle, dreamy smile on his face. The man in the Arrow Shirt ads come to life. He has ordered a gin and tonic.  I find myself ordering the same.  He chuckles, I laugh. He leans back. I lean in.  When he orders Mahi Mahi,  for reasons unfathomable I squeal, dolphin like.  Agh!  Why oh why did I do it?  But somehow he laughs sweetly and in turn I simply sigh. He thinks I like him. And I do.

Spin

On a Little League field, compact as a candy box, a tousle-haired boy bunts, then freight rains it for first. Safe!  A blink and he steals second. A breath and then he steals third!  A  teasing tiptoe from third base.  Do it! Come home!

With each spin of the Merry Go Round the memories swirl in my head.

One day, full of myself and of rhyme and before I know it, the joyful words cascade from my tongue:

“The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Of  shoes—and ships—and sealing wax— of cabbages — and kings—. And why the sea is boiling hot—and whether pigs have wings.”

—The Walrus and The Carpenter, Lewis Carroll

My son is nearby.

“I love that,” my son said wistfully.  “You know it?” I said wonderingly.  “Of course,” he replied.  “You always recited it to us before bath time when we were small.  We loved it. You remember.”

But I didn’t remember. I didn’t remember at all.  I feel a rising panic in my chest. How could I have forgotten?   Was I spinning too fast? What am I missing?

Whatever “quite myself is,” I haven’t been that at all lately.   But somehow it has seemed more important than ever that I remember every single good thing that ever happened. To gather them all and keep them very close.

To forget even one, especially one that was so sweet and important to my boy, seemed a travesty, a tragedy of absurdist proportions. I hardly knew what to do, where to turn.

His voice is soft and just for me. “Of course it’s true, “he says. “And I remembered to remind you.”

Post #54: “Catch the Moments As They Fly”

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It’s done for my own safety.  Really it is.

I knit together the pattern of my days with the soothing and rhythmic clack of the needles, stitch upon stitch, row upon row.   The pattern is regular and even.  Honest and expected.

I am grateful.

And yet?

Sometimes I have to appreciate the dropped stitch. Or two.  For the occasional unraveling of the yarn. Because only then do I look up to see the wild rumpus, the crazy helter-skelter, the marvelous phantasmagoria of sights and sounds and feelings that otherwise would  fly away like dandelion puffs swirling in the wind.

I can’t let them get away! Maybe I  can catch them. So of course I try.

  • the jolt of connection
  • the satisfaction of caring 
  • the exultation of loving
  • the joy of simply saying what needs to be said

*the laughter that rattles and roller-coasters through the room

*the mutual embrace of kindness

Nothing more. But nothing less either.

When will these marvelous events occur?  Do we know? Do we care? Does it matter? The expectation is a mystery and a thrill all its own.  But they are coming! They always do.

My eager fingers reach out to catch the puffs, dancing away in the wind.  I grasp them and carefully weave them into my pattern. I work to gather up any dropped stitches. 

I reach for the needles once again. The pattern continues row after row.  But please look up.  I do look up. Reach out.   Robert Burns said it best:   “catch the moments as they fly.” *

I won’t forget. I won’t ever forget!  Oh, how could I?

***

Photo: Big Nick, a lifelong appreciator of moments that fly. Also an appreciator of flies in general.

*from Here’s A Bottle and an Honest Friend by Robert Burns reprinted in The Norton Book of Friendship, edited by Eudora Welty and Ronald A. Sharp, W.W. Norton & Company, c 1991

EUDAEMONIA: Post #50

FullSizeRender (3)Oh it was swank, it really was! In one fluid motion the black jacketed waiter lofted the glass from his tray and set it down decisively before me. A tall, elegant flute, full of tiny bubbles cavorting in endless games of tag, a drinkable lava lamp, The Lawrence Welk Show in a glass, my very first Kir Royale.

The bubbles exploded on my tongue with a cool sizzle, the taste an intoxicating and lingering blend of memory and possibility…

***

I am reading, my eyes bobbing through the paragraphs like a motorboat nipping over the waves when the word fairly leaps out at me and plants itself in front of me, hands on hips. chin jutting out, stomping it’s foot for my attention. Eudaemonia. Eudaemonia? I stop and pronounce it once slowly and then over and over again, instantly loving the roll of the syllables over my tongue. It is an effervescent word, at once joyous and musical and I find myself embracing it like a long lost friend, wrapping my whole self around it even before I know what it means. For a little while, I just leave it that way. Then finally, I look it up.

Eudaemonia. From the ancient Greek. A complete and flourishing life. I pause for a moment. But of course.

I sit on the edge of my chair on the cusp of a miracle. A small miracle maybe, but a miracle nonetheless. Two years, a hundred weeks, every other Tuesday without fail, my fiftieth post. I’m pleased, I’m proud, I’m astonished, to tell you the truth. But let’s face it, this moment is merely a flourish. A quick little “ta da” and let’s move on.   Because, of course, it’s the continuity that enraptures me and the continuity that really counts.   Flourishing, not the flourish. Flourishing takes time. Flourishing takes a lifetime.

If you think of living as a constant succession of flourishes it’s nice I suppose to occasionally gather all the blooms and arrange them in a carefully constructed display. But to truly flourish, it’s important to leave some blooms to grow, even if they need to be left to the vagaries of the wind and the rain and sometimes the far too hot sun, am I right?   There is always renewal. Why else to call them perennials?

For all of us human flowers to flourish I think our personal gardens need to be seeded with connection and kindness, watered with contemplation and memory. It’s why I”m writing. Perhaps too heavy handed a metaphor? Forgive me. But I mean it. My intentions are good here. Here’s a prime opportunity for you: Be kind to me on this one.

In my romance of the word Eudaemonia (oh, how I love to say this word!) I am finding that one part of this short definition is catching me a bit off balance. A complete and flourishing life.

How can any life be considered complete? There are always mistakes we make, connections dropped, opportunities squandered no matter how exemplary some of us may be. All life, each one magnificently messy, cannot be tied up in a nice neat package and considered “complete.” And if one of the key elements to a good life is connection, as I am certain that it is, there isn’t completion but continuity. It’s our attempt that matters, our links with others that form an ongoing chain from the past to us to the future.

“However,” said the great gourmet and writer Brillat-Savarin in The Physiology of Taste, “I have lived long enough to know that each generation says the same thing and is inevitably laughed at by the next one.”

Hmm.   Some generational connections are a bit difficult then, but I maintain they are connections nonetheless. We continue to play the game.

And so to return to my Kir Royale. A new glass, filled to the brim, is placed before me. I still love the bubbles swirling through space! It’s as if each tiny sphere is set to burst with thrilling possibility!

I raise the glass high in a toast to all of us, a small flourish in our quests for flourishing lives.

 

 

 

SUPERGIRL IN A SWEATSHIRT

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It was sunny and breezy; at least that’s how I want to remember it. I know I went on a walk around the block with Charlotte our Sheepdog on one leash and Tina our Chihuahua on the other. Walking them wasn’t easy. As you can imagine, those two always wanted to go in opposite directions but I could handle it.   I could have even ridden my bike with a leash in each hand and gotten them around the block at the same time if I’d wanted to. Of course I could. I was Supergirl in a powder blue Snoopy sweatshirt.   There was going to be an ice cream cake from Baskin and Robbins later. It was a great day. I was ten, at last I was ten and I was as happy and as proud as I’ve ever been. And all I’d really done is make it to the double digits.

That’s the picture in the scrapbook of my mind. I return to it over and over, absolutely refusing to let the memory pull away like a piece of taffy leaving only wispy, tenuous strands. I want this one solid.

Time passes. Full of vigor and purpose, we spend our energy and our days doing Things. Becoming Someone. Crafting our own myths. Grappling, striving, racking up accolades and degrees and connections. Going to the right events. Seeing. Being seen. Inventing and reinventing ourselves. It’s called living and sometimes it’s a whirlwind so intense and so wonderful that there are no words to express it. And sometimes it’s a hurricane so awful, so dreadful that we can’t breathe and we are choked for words and we don’t know how we can go on. But we do.

Even if some of us are lucky enough to do what we dreamed of doing when we were ten it’s likely there’ve been a few disappointments, plenty of tedium, and many compromises along the way. Every Supergirl needs to file taxes and wash her cape occasionally.

Sometimes dreams themselves are thwarted or deferred because of unexpected forks in the road or demands of those who love and need us.   At those moments a chasm opens. And in those really bad and lonely times, some of us may even do ourselves the ultimate cruelty by convincing ourselves that our greatest success has been in our repeated failure.

Well then. It really is time to be Supergirl.

When you’re young you’re sure that adults have total control over everything. Every adult knows for sure that you have control over virtually nothing. Half the time we feel as if we’re bobbing about in the ocean, frantically clutching after a buoy.  Even the most overtly successful of us sometimes feel as if we’re phonies and that we’ve failed.

But we haven’t.

If life is complex, let’s at least keep this part of things simple:

You’ve remembered which of your children likes peanut butter sandwiches and which likes tuna. They will never forget that you always remembered.

You took a minute to respond to and then forward on some unknown kid’s email to a colleague. That kid found his mentor. Finding his mentor changed course of his whole life.

You looked a clerk in the eye at the grocery store. You said thanks.

You’ve really listened to a whole phone conversation with your mother without folding laundry, playing Words with Friends, or mentally working on your repartee.

You were wrong. You said so. You apologized.

You never mentioned that your friend didn’t utter one single coherent sentence that time when she was upset.

You responded to the email.

You were careful not to give standing ovations for every show.

You let someone lie to save face.

You looked behind you and held the door open.

You didn’t give away the punch line.

Your feelings were hurt. You talked it out. You got over it. Your friendship continued.

You didn’t jump to conclusions when it would have felt so self-righteously great to do so.

You noticed the new haircut.

You knew when to ask questions. You knew when not to.

You did that little bit extra. It might have even been a loved one’s birthday. You were far away. You went out and bought a slice of their favorite cake to eat so you could celebrate together from afar. This was not your favorite cake. You ate it anyway.

Let’s face it; the above list does not constitute the makings of a traditional killer resume. But that doesn’t make each tiny scenario any less powerful.  These are just the small heroics that punctuate our days, that form the ongoing web that invisibly binds us together. These are just a few of the unsung, unselfish and very kind acts of all you quiet superheroes.

You’re out there. You’re doing good. And thank you.