Post #49: Diving Deep

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I was so little that reading still meant whispering words out loud when on whim I dove headfirst into the pages, down down down, deeper and deeper and deeper. There seemed to be no bottom, no ending, to it all. But who wanted one?   I’d never felt anything like it, the phrases pressing and swelling around me, ideas glowing like an Atolla Jellyfish, a Clusterwink Snail, these incredible luminescent creatures of the murky and mysterious deep. I almost didn’t know where to look first, riffling the pages this way and that. But like one born to it, little by little I learned to slice through the waves of words with shark like precision. Or was I more like a whale, opening my jaws wide to feed with words like millions of plankton slucing over my tongue to nourish my whole self? It was all there, confronting me, challenging me, inviting me. Sometimes reading I would find that I was actually holding my breath—my excitement so great that I’d forgotten to come up for air. That font of knowledge, that cornucopia of thought, that mélange of ideas right there in our living room. There it was: The World Book Encyclopedia.

My goal was simple. I just needed to know everything.

***

And so I’d dip in a random:

How wrenching that Beethoven was completely deaf and couldn’t even hear his 9th symphony performed, nor listen to the rapturous applause!

Did F.W. Woolworth really build his “Tower of Nickels and Dimes” out of nickels and dimes?

If the Egyptians mummified their pets, it meant that they adored them, right?

How on earth did Nellie Bly pack for an 80-day trip around the world in her tiny handbag?

My heart ached for Elizabeth I, her hair thinned, her life shortened from a lead based make up.

My spirit soared with George M. Cohan’s lyrics to Give My Regards to Broadway!

***

Bits and pieces, everything this way and that way. I never knew what I would find, what I would learn, what I would think what page my eye would fall on.

Each breath of knowledge became a pinpoint on my own personal map, a zigzagged line of inquiry. But to what purpose was I collecting all of this? And where, exactly was it leading me?

I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I needed to know. Or try to know.

It was a shock, really.

At some point I realized that beyond the World Book the universe of knowledge was constantly expanding, making my childhood quest to know everything both absurd and Sisyphean. But you have to wonder, is a task really Sisyphean if it’s a joy?

And so the quest continues. I read and read and read. There is no end. Because I hope that somewhere in that lovely pile up of facts and ideas, my hodgepodge collection of pocketed, billeted and cherished tidbits will be there when I need them most. I’ll be ready to extract just the right phrase at just the right moment when someone needs it.

This is not a simple goal. But in some ways it is everything, after all.

 

POST#41: A SLICE (OR TWO) OF CAKE

IMG_1680There they all are, lined up on the banquet table of my life, in the sumptuous buffet of memory. Carefully placed, one after the other, row after delicious row. Cake after cake after cake.

The endearingly homely homemade ones, baked with love, meant to be mashed by jubilant infant fists.

The years of “the best idea ever” Baskin & Robbins ice cream cakes, Mint Chocolate Chip or Jamoca Almond Fudge or Pralines n’ Cream wrapped by a roll of chocolate cake. Sweet gooey slices melting on the plate.

Fancy bakery cakes, festooned with butter cream roses, dotted with sugared violets, scattered with piped green ivy, more longed for, and sometimes more fought for, than the slightly stale layers of the cakes themselves.

A birthday masquerade on the cake stand: cinnamon or chocolate coffee cakes. They perch there uncomfortably and rather ridiculously, porcupined full of candles. Everyone is holding out their plates, dutifully waiting for their slices, silently wishing for chocolate layer or maybe a nice strawberry butter cream instead.

For years a succession of earnest and sprouty carrot cakes were demanded and dutifully served up.   Some were beguiled with their vague notions of healthfulness. Others quietly revolted and later opted for Carvel cones.

Finally, befitting the dignity of the passing years, comes the succession of the stately lemon cocoanuts, ethereal as the clouds themselves, the taste a perfect blend of the sweetness and tang of life itself.

I can see them all, lining the long tables of my memory. All candles blazing, anticipation and hope emitting from each and every cake.

I come from a place where birthday cake is always served for breakfast. That way there is also time for cake for lunch and hopefully, cake for dinner. Candles are spent and then tucked under pillows to make certain wishes will come true. They almost always do.

It’s so simple! Cake is just wonderful. But cake, especially birthday cake, is not just meant to be eaten. It’s meant to be shared. And that’s the plan.

So here is my birthday wish for each of you:

Think of someone you love who’s far away. Think of someone you’ve perhaps loved and lost. Eat cake. But eat that slice of cake in their honor. You can pick their favorite cake or yours. It doesn’t matter. The sweet taste of cake and tang of happy times will linger on your tongue.

A slice of cake to feed the body. A sliver of memory to feed the soul.

Many happy returns to you all!

 

 

A Slow, Viscous Sip

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I can feel them rolling slowly over my tongue like the first slow, viscous sips of The Famous Grouse. (Katharine Hepburn’s favorite tipple.) A pause and then they melt away to a pleasant tingle.

Some caress with the warmth of a beloved companion. Others pelt with the rata tat insistence of a torrent of hail. Either way, I greedily gather them up and hold them close. I want them. Knitted together like a riotous, crazy quilt that’s remade again and again.

Treated honorably and placed with care a single one can remake the world.

They are all mine. My gems, my jewels my Kingdom. But I have been known to share. Some of us do. Everyone should, albeit carefully. Handle lovingly and with care. They are so very powerful.

I know you know what I’m talking about. A marvelous jumble, a never-ending torrent, a luxuriant cascade of what is arguably our most valuable commodity. Fill your head and your heart and your soul with them.

Words.

They don’t have to be fancy. They just have to be the right ones at the right time.

They deserve to be used for the right reasons: to reach out, to connect, to communicate.

If they are used to obfuscate, then at least let the message behind the mask be honest and kind. Some of us have our reasons.

Long ago at school we memorized list after list of them. Daunting for sure but we were not being handed an arsenal with which to go forth into battle. Instead we were being given the keys to an overflowing treasure chest to constantly draw from and replenish for always.

“Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.”

They are my joy and my path to everything: my understanding of the world, my loves, and my whole life.

There is no greater honor than finding the right one at the right time for the right person.

They are there for the taking and they are there for all of us. They are meant to be savored and they are meant to be used

wisely.

***

Note: This post is dedicated with the greatest humility and deepest thanks to the great La Rouchefoucauld, author of MAXIMS. He spoke volumes with mere handfuls of words.

 

POST #39: WHAT WE DO. WHO WE ARE.

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 Lazar, Detroit, 1920

Really, no one could figure out how he did it. He was the marvel of the neighborhood. Quick and confident and proud, he never made a mistake.

He was a tiny, compact little man, wrapped in an apron. Standing tall behind the counter of his grocery store. He added every figure in his head. Every account, every transaction was there, etched clearly in his precise and ordered mind.

A very smart man. A grocery man.

A man who selflessly extended credit to his neighbors so they could bring food home to their families when times were hard.

A kind person.

***

David, Oswiecim, Poland, 1939

There he is, his chin jutting out proudly, his arm draped casually around the shoulders of his childhood friends, a bold, almost insolent grin on his face. A yellow star is crudely stitched onto his breast pocket.

Famous for his jokes (who else would have shoved the goat through the door when it opened for Elijah?) he knew the prayer book so thoroughly his hands made grip marks on the leather.

He will run away soon. They will catch him. They will hold him for five long years. The horrors were unspeakable. So he never spoke of them.

A new country and a new start.   Bent now from his suffering, but still powerfully strong, he works first as a bellhop. Then he stands for decades at a machine in a factory.

We knew he was never the same but we never knew who he’d been.

He was so very tired. But let a small child catch his eye? Radiance would spread over him that could warm the sun itself.

A kind person.

***

Erv, Chicago, 1960

No question about it, he is the coolest guy in the room. Hair brushed back, perfectly dressed. No double creases ever.

Nothing handed to him on a silver platter either. No silver spoons touch his lips. He’s been working since forever. Proud of it.

This guy truly knows how to be a friend. He’s got your back. Wait, Better than that. He’s figured out how to help everyone avoid making mistakes. He is beloved.

Don’t be fooled by the posing though. He knows how to turn a phrase. He can write poetry too.

Falsely accused, he refuses to capitulate to a bullying professor. He is denied graduation for a year. But he stands firm. He is right.

He is vindicated.

An eye doctor: he goes on to become one of the finest and most caring healthcare practitioners anywhere. Now he’s got everyone’s back.

A kind person.

***

Me, Bloomfield Hills, 1975

“She’s the smartest girl I’ve ever met. “

It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. The person who made this declaration really was smart—brilliant even. What on earth could I have said that afternoon?

I really don’t remember.

I do remember sitting and talking to him though. I didn’t know enough to make pronouncements about anything at all. If I had, I’m certain I wouldn’t have been right.

I remember talking to him. I remember listening to him. I remember a gentle and generous conversation. He was nice.

That’s all. It wasn’t hard to be kind.

And at that time, for that boy, that might have been just enough.

I’m glad.

 

Above photo by Croze, Blessing and others: from The Saarinen Door,  published by Cranbrook Academy of Art and Printed by the Cranbrook Press c 1963.

 

 

PUSHING PAST DISCOMFORT

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I still love them. In truth, I still covet them. Gyroscopes, the best spinning tops ever. Quick flick of the wrist and you could make it perch on tiny pinpoint or even balance on a piece of string. Though the whirl was powerful, the balance was so extremely delicate. The tiniest wobble would topple it from its fragile perch.

This week, we wobbled and fell. This week we found ourselves helped to rise once more to our feet. This week we found ourselves lofted on high, set to spin once again.

***

Over the years I’ve improved at the engage, parry, and retreat of social connection. Blunt tip, foil fencing matches which begin with a salute and end with a dignified bow. I can do this. Really I can. I know when to break eye contact, when to refill my wine glass or garnish my plate with more crudités. A deep breath and then once more into the fray, dear friends.

But I steal nervous glances at my watch. But I inch towards the door.

How is everyone else so happy and comfortable?

What if I am snubbed ignored, avoided?

What if we threw a party and nobody came?

Is it over yet?

Only me. Only me. Only me.

Only not.

***

This week we were caught off –guard. We were shaken by the call. Ninety-two should not be a surprise. But somehow it is. Sadness, resignation, feelings with no words split us like an ever-widening chasm. We balanced on the edge.

There was no time to think. There was no time to fuss. There was no time to clean. All we could do was send out the word.

All we could do was our best.

And everyone came.

***

They did not come empty-handed.

Like Thanksgiving dinner in January, like a voluptuous Roman banquet, like an all-you can eat Sunday supper, the house was suddenly filled with food. Platter upon platter of bagels and lox, cakes and cookies, roast chickens, and deli sandwiches. Russian dressing and potato salad and pickles on the side.

My mother-in-law loved to eat. How could people have known about all her favorites? She yearned to be part of gatherings. And everyone was here for her, together in her honor.

Mostly they came alone, pushing past the red door, pushing past their discomfort. Jovial masks set aside, their faces were as open and as vulnerable as ours. When we relaxed, so did they, uncertainty and fear utterly useless and happily tossed aside.

Of course the world is full of rebounds and second chances. This is good. But the truth is there are times in life when you only get one chance to do the right thing. Thanks to everyone who did so for us. We’ll remember. We promise to do the same.

 

z”l LSF

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.

CHARLOTTES EVERYWHERE

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Naturally the thing I love most about the iPhone is the most antiquated thing of all.

It’s the compass, that directional miracle. Turn it on wherever you are, spin and see exactly where you’re headed. Or headed away from. It’s a nonjudgmental GPS without a bossy, irritating voice. I used to play with compasses as a little kid but unlike Einstein, whose scientific genius was sparked as a four year old by the gift of a compass, I just marvel at them. But I haven’t turned mine on in a while.

I’m preoccupied. Piles of laundry, stacks of work, gluts of emails. The pleasure of seeing how high piles can be stacked is sometimes far more interesting than getting to the bottom of them. In sync with the frustration of world economists, roiled by the possible “Grexit” I was feeling completely Sisyphean. It was like being snarled in a web.

How odd that the woman who manages to spend the summer sweating indoors instead of being warmed by the sun should think so much about the natural world rather than be out in it. But sometimes nature is both generous and bold. Sometimes it comes right to one’s front door.

Literally in my case.

I may not have mentioned that there’s convocation of wasps who’ve found a lovely home burrowing into the wooden Babe Ruth sculpture on my porch. Okay, fine, the idea of the Babe being buzzed is amusing but do stop, save it for another time. That’s not the direction I’m going in today.

They fly in and out, no fancy compass needed. I could have them flushed out but really why? They’re industrious and self-sufficient which is kind of a pleasure to be near. And besides, they’re just visiting. I’m told that after this season they’ll abandon this spot and find another place entirely. So I just watch them. As long as I don’t thoughtlessly block the opening to their home with grocery bags they just watch me as well.

This week those good people at The American Museum of Natural History were sharp enough to note and highlight birthday of E.B. White, author of many wonderful things both for adults and children, but who is particularly celebrated for Charlotte’s Web. I don’t know if all creatures would go to the lengths of unexpected friendship and lasting kindness that Charlotte did for her friend Wilber, but in a summery, dreamy state I’d like to think so.

But then there’s that pull. My compass points me back inside to the piles of clothes, the stacks of work, and the unopened correspondence. Grudgingly I turn with the dial.

And like my summer tenants, the inspiringly industrious wasp colony who’ve chosen to be proudly housed in a monument to one of baseball’s great icons, I start buzzing.

It’s not so bad. In cleaning I discover books and toys and gewgaws that make pleasant memories come rushing back. Ignoring the paperwork relaxes me enough that work ideas trickle and then finally flow. At last I dig through the correspondence.

Clicking clicking clicking, blearily numbed by ad after ad for CVS for Sears for Amazon for L.L. Bean, there was for me, a short and sweet note.

It was sent only to say hello. It was sent only to say that someone remembered something good that happened that I’d long forgotten. It was sent only to say thank you for something where no thanks was due. It was sent so I might hear what I needed to hear when I least expected to hear it.

Maybe this was what my compass was pointing me to all along.

It’s interesting fact. In so many places, in so many ways, we’re urged to be kind. This is a good thing. I think most of us take that encouragement to heart, to make it part of who we are and what we do.

But then too, it’s just as important to know, to feel and to really believe, that kindness will happen to each us when we need it most. Try not to be impatient.

There are Charlottes everywhere it seems.

Happy birthday, E.B. White.

***

“All that I ever hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” E.B. White

Short aside for baseball fans: although of course, the Babe wore Yankee pinstripes for his glory years, he finished his career with the Boston Braves, hence the different uniform.