Post #64: From the Tips of My Fingers

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The universe spun from the tips of my fingers. It loomed large in a tiny room at the museum.  All it took was a few cranks to set it in motion!  The solar system itself would start to whirl and swirl  and spin as all the planets would begin their personal pirouettes from speedy Mercury to sluggish Saturn.  All around the sun, calm and gracious, but always and ever unmoving.

I’ve been home for a long time. I wanted to be here. I was lucky to be here.  A loved and lovely slightly tumbled down house.  Lived in and deeply beloved.   Miraculously held together with duct tape and spit, scrambled full of everything from pop-up books to Pokemon cards. A warm cooky smell  always clinging to the air.  If you listened carefully you’d hear an entrancing cascade of crazy rhythms,  the gentle strumming of a mandolin or perhaps the low down sound of the blues.  Enter through the red door to find us all.  You’d know just where to find me.  I’d be at the center of everything, stirring at the stove.

But the planets keep moving, as just they should.  So exquisitely beautiful to watch them all spinning!  But just to watch?

What’s out there to find? What’s out there to see? What’s out there to do?

Open the door, down the steps, around the path. You have to look up. Of course  I look up.  There it  is!   The warm  embrace of the sky. Oh! It’s as if time stretches and pulls itself open before me.

Will it destroy the laws of physics if my heart and mind remain at the center of my private little universe yet still soar on their own?

Perhaps in this case, the sun does in fact move.

For the first time, in a long time I wake up in the light.  And my head, my head is suffused with dreams!

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!

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!

READING THE CLOUDS: The secret to telling time by the sky. Post number 28.

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If tales are true, my great-grandmother, Rachel Leah (z”l) could tell time simply by looking at the sky. She knew the time right to the minute just by a glance at the clouds.

What a marvelous, wonderful, amazing thing! What would it be like, I wondered, to be so in tune with the world, so keyed into its rhythms, that you could literally read the sky? There had to be a secret! Of course there was a secret.

I didn’t know how she did it. I never had a chance to ask Grandma Rachel Leah how she learned to tell time by the sky, to read the clouds. But I so wanted to do this. There just had to be a way.

Part 1.

On warm summer days when we were small my sisters and I would lay out on the grass in front of our house and watch the soft, puffy clouds lazily move across the sky.  Of course there was a game: you had to be first to spot a shape in the cloud and point it out before it drifted apart. Did we play for minutes or was it hours? I never knew.

Part 2.

Staring at clouds? What an utter waste of time.   Pretending a cloud was a bunny that morphed into a cowboy that transformed into an ice cream cone was of no use whatsoever. I was too old, too dressed up to lie in the grass anyway. I could get a reasonable weather forecast, and pinch a few jokes, from Sonny Elliot on Channel 4 instead.

Part 3.

If you look carefully you’ll see that my left forearm is deeply tanned. Not so my right. I spend so many hours driving this one and that one from one place to another that the sun has baked my left arm into what’s known in select circles as a true trucker tan. But I am not a trucker—just a mom behind the wheel.

I rarely look up. Why bother? I have my watch. I really love my watch. Besides. I can’t risk misreading the time—I can’t let anyone down by being late.

Part 4.

How odd that I can’t stop looking at the sky. I love the clouds the best. It’s a proud parade, a stunning Shakespearean drama, a breathtaking pageant that is so enthralling I’m afraid to miss even a moment.I sneak glances, and then find myself staring up at the clouds throughout the day. I can almost feel the texture of certain clouds; I love the interplay as they dance across the sky. I love that I can recognize cloud types but the array of clouds across the sky is constantly changing. I’m afraid to stop looking or I’ll miss something once-in-a-lifetime magnificent.

Old habits die hard. I search out and study the names of the clouds, Altostratus, Contrail, Fibratus. I learn what they mean. Some sightings such as Cumulus and Stratus are quite common. Others, like the Kelvin-Helmholtz or Asperatus are so rare that one could live a lifetime and never spot them. I think about the works of Jean-Honore Fragonard and J.M.W. Turner, two of the greatest painters of clouds and know that as beautiful as their works are what they were interpreting was far more astounding. I look up and think about the scores of people who have been swept up by the beauty of clouds since the beginning of time. But really I don’t want to pontificate on the clouds, I want to luxuriate. So I do.

In his book, The Story of My Heart: An Autobiography (1883), English essayist and nature writer Richard Jeffries says, “for artificial purposes time is agreed on, but really there is no such thing.”

If tales are true my Grandma Rachel Leah could tell time just by looking at the sky. I cannot. But then maybe her secret was that with an appreciation of clouds, of nature, of the world itself, time has no real meaning.

Look up and see the sky. Beauty suffuses—it lingers – it lasts.

INVISIBLE ANCHORS

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Oh, give me a break. It wasn’t such a big deal. Really it wasn’t.

Except that it was. A crushed watch. A cracked French Press.   A smashed wine glass. Nothing was terribly expensive. Everything was replaceable. I was inconsolable.

The watch was a plain and simple Timex (so much for their old “takes a lickin’ keeps on tickin’ “ slogan) but I loved the way it hung on my right wrist just so, timed precisely to the second. My sense of time is very private; I always have the face turned inward. The watch steadily ticked the heartbeat of my day. One of the cat’s paws had caught the band and tore it from my wrist.

As for the French Press, over the years I’ve gained a true mastery of the seven precise and precisely timed steps to a cup of coffee, which for me has to be black, very strong and very hot. That I manage to do this when I am basically sleeping on my feet each morning is a source of tremendous pride. You probably think I dropped it. I didn’t. It somehow cracked all by itself. Mysterious. And for me, weirdly gut-wrenching.

The blender teetered and shoved the bowl, which hit the spoon that tipped the wine glass that fell over the precipice of the countertop. It should have been safely out of the way but it wasn’t. That glass was a gift from my son. I felt shattered.

And ridiculous. Good grief, that’s all it took to cut my moorings? To cast me adrift? Small insignificant nothings, a watch, a French Press, a wine glass?

***

Long ago, before I had people to take care of, before I had people who cared for me, I packed a single suitcase, self-consciously cut every tie I could, and left for New York. I was twenty-two.

I had a one-way ticket, an eager, anxious-to-please expression, the wrong clothes, and a vague job offer. I didn’t know anyone in New York. I was the sweet natured, befuddled, sure-to-make-good heroine of a million movies. But this was the real thing.

The job had disappeared by the time I arrived. I found another. I lived in cinder-blocked splendor at the 92nd Street Y, left to rent a room at 104th street from Shalom Aleichem’s aged mistress, steps away from the then notorious Manhattan Avenue. Singed my eyebrows attempting to light the gas stove. Somehow found a boyfriend from Long Island. Nice but dull- I gave him up. Afraid of the subways, I road the buses. Gave up my seat to another, I was pick pocketed. Later, I was mugged. My wallet came back to me both times. It was a good sign and I clung to it.

But the city was pulsating and syncopated and grittily beautiful. I loved the ordered disorder of it all. I loved that even a tiny bit of it was mine.

Most days I made my own lunch. It was no big deal, usually just peanut butter sandwiches and fruit. But after a while I found myself in a rhythm with this. I took great care to make myself lunches, cutting everything just so and even sometimes putting in treats. Eventually I bought myself an actual lunch box, -just plain green, nothing flashy– and every night packed it carefully for the next day. Every noon I opened it and was pleased.

Of course I eventually lost the lunchbox, leaving it on the seat of the bus one day when I was both tired and rushing. If you imagine that I was as devastated about that lost as I was just now about losing my watch, my French Press, and my wine glass you’ll be right. I loved those odd, seemingly insignificant little things. But while the things were lost something else was left. I knew how to care for myself. To be kind to myself. That was never lost, or shattered or smashed at all. Couldn’t be.

So of course I’ve replaced all the little things, the watch, the French Press, the wine glass (actually, my son knows I break things. He originally gave me two). And I set to my rituals once again. I am caring for myself.

Someday, if I need it, I’ll buy myself another lunch box as well.

I don’t know why things break or are lost, often in frustrating, cacophonous concert with each other. Absentmindedness? Sheer clumsiness? Just plain fate?

Or maybe it’s nothing more than a reminder to value the invisible anchors that we all create to keep us steady in the storm, to remember to care for ourselves as we strive to care for those we love.

MY OWN “10-MINUTE UNIVERSITY”

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It was a brilliant concept. In the late 1980s Workman published 10-Minute University, a book and recording which purported to “teach” only the things you’d need to remember from a typical four-year university experience. Presented by the world’s fastest talking man, John Moschitta, Jr., TMU shrunk learning down to bite-sized nuggets on topics from comparative literature to physics to football.  It was hilarious. What I didn’t realize until now was that it was also sort of true. And I wondered, what did I actually remember about college? What did I learn?

Life, being what it is, keeps most of our heads clogged with the demands of the present. But the past is always there for us, patiently waiting to be remembered, reconsidered, and sometimes redefined.

1.

My head bounces first to Pinball Pete’s. I walk through a nondescript door into a darkened room. It’s spangled with flashing lights and jangled with the clash of tinny music. I feed two single dollar bills into the coin changer for my daily quota of eight quarters. For a little while, or maybe longer if it’s a good day, I am the Frogger Queen, the Pac Man Champ. When I leave I wrap my arms around my books but I feel so great I wish I could just balance them on my head.

2.

I’ve staked out a seat for the evening, end of the row with a little extra elbowroom. I need it: I’m a lefty. The ceilings are high, the lights are low and the silence is thick. We are all in this together, chins jutted out determinedly, all hunched over our books. The competition for seats here in the Grad is intense-get up at your peril or your rail back chair will be forever lost, your books and papers summarily dumped like your laundry, left in the dryer for a mere ten minutes after the cycle completes. But at some point I risk it anyway-I always do–for the lure of the instant coffee machine, a quarter for a cup of viscous black sludge, the most intense caffeine hit on the planet.

3.

There I am, managing to curl up in a straight back booth at Drake’s. In front of me is a dented metal tray. It holds a grilled cinnamon roll and a tiny tin teapot filled with hot Russian Caravan. Sometimes there is instead a glass of limeade and a tuna sandwich, served on WonderBread and cut into perfect quarters. The penny candy wall is just across the way, glass jars filled with everything from nonpareils to malted milk balls, lemon drops to licorice. I am a licorice person. Bored looking girls wearing aqua-colored smock jackets plunge in with scoopers filling red and white striped bags to order. I never leave without one. Actually, I never want to leave.

4.

When I was a little kid we were taught that Henry Ford invented the automobile. Or maybe that was just implied. I’ve never been sure. This may have been a Detroit thing, people here care for their cars so deeply that they identify themselves not just by the cars they drive but by the cars they drove. I am still misty-eyed at the thought of my ’71 cream colored, black roofed Cutlass Supreme. At any rate, I was a grown up before I realized, or was willing to accept, that Henry Ford did not actually invent cars but he did pioneer mass production.

That connection may in fact be what led Tom Monahan, who then ran Dominos, to install a genius oven in his pizza places. That oven ran on the Ford mass production system theory: a call would come in, one of us would take the order, the slip would be instantly transferred to the tosser who threw the dough up the air and stretched it onto a tray, tucking the order slip underneath, where it would be sent down the line to the saucer person, who then moved the pie over to the cheeser person, who would shove the pie to me. My job was to instantly decipher the hieroglyphics on the slip and add the toppings, the worst being sausage because it was sticky, meaning that I’d have to dunk my hands in the olives to moisten them enough to get the sausage on the pie fast enough. Then one quick turn and the pie would be placed on a conveyer belt that carried it through a superhot oven in a handful of minutes.  It slid hot and done down a slide at the end, was folded directly into a waiting pizza box before being thrust into the arms of the delivery guy who drove like a bat out of hell to get it to someone’s front door. All in thirty minutes or less or it was free.

My college job. I was good at this.

5.

I lived on the third floor in East Quad, an old dorm covered in ivy. No air conditioning.   But open windows meant fresh air. And sometimes company.

One day I looked out and there was a squirrel sitting on the ledge. He didn’t move. Neither did I. I waited. So did he. We sat in silence for a bit. Finally I gently reached over and placed a cracker on the ledge. He picked it up with both paws and ate the whole thing right there. After nibbling through a few more crackers he looked at me as if to say thanks then scampered away. I thought that was that. It wasn’t. Melvin (if he and I were going to be together like this, he needed a name) returned the next day and every day after that. It became clear that he preferred peanut butter spread on his crackers and he was also fond of raisins.

End of the semester and I hated to leave him. So I left a note for whomever would be taking over my room with detailed instructions to watch out for Melvin and to leave peanut butter crackers for him if possible. I hoped for the best.

***

So I think you’ll agree I learned a great deal in college. My own 10-Minute University takeaway is this:

I to this day I know how to enjoy my own company. I revel in eating well. Sometimes I move fast—other times less so—but I know how to keep the rhythms of my life moving forward. I can be patient when I have to be. I detest sausage, I love licorice, I adore coffee.

Oh. And almost thirty years later, on a visit to my old school with my husband and sons, the tour guide proudly mentioned the most popular club on campus: The University of Michigan Squirrel Club with over four thousand members.   Legend holds that the Squirrel Club, a group that meets on Sunday afternoons to feed peanuts to the squirrels of Ann Arbor, began in my dorm, East Quad, shortly after I left.

Photo credit: Jared R. Frank