Time Warp

I am afraid. Really, in a knees-turned-to-jelly way. After all these years of convincing myself that “I can do it.” That I can overcome my fears and get through struggles and tough times and tough people I depended on in order to feed and house my family.

 

“You’ve done it before; you’ll do it again. You just suck it up and move forward.”

 

Until you can’t. Until you need an arm to cling to, and you’re not sure it will be there.

 

At 73, I suddenly feel frail. This is earth-shattering. I don’t jump out of bed at 6 a.m. I become acutely aware of the possibility of falling and breaking bones. Going down stairs, I cling to railings and watch each footstep.

 

I do not understand the tech language of smartphones or apps. I once knew how to use computers and programs, but since I retired, there’s so much more out there, and instructions are confusing.

 

The movie stars I enjoyed watching are not working any more, and every week some celebrity dies of old age. When did they get so old? Who is Bradley Cooper? Or Taylor Swift? And is she feuding with someone?

 

I married in 1966. Was that 50 years ago? Time, it seems, is a capricious measurement. It does not depend on gravity and space, or the speed of light. It depends on one breath taken at a time, one more footstep on that new journey, one new moment of love next to one of tragedy and sorrow. It is a narrative arc in a book you speed-read every day.

My Old Man

                                                   Do not go gentle . . . .

My old man

took 6 months to fail, but did it loud—

a full brass bellow.

With a Chaplinesque shuffle,

bones askew,

his whole body sobbed

onto Mom’s breast.

 

After she rushed from the hospice—

angry with second billing

in his slapstick melodrama—

he broke through life

like a thug with a bat

beating on glass.

 

He bequeathed to us all

his taste for shame,

that sad appetite

he never slaked.

 

 

Continuum

As primates, we form hierarchies. We were classifiers long before Linnaeus and Dewey, assigning chiefs and deputies, chancellors of etiquette, shamans of shame and virtue. People with disabilities do not forgo their humanity with their function. When my husband talked of his experiences at Widener Memorial School for the Handicapped, he mentioned how they spoke of the kids in terms of their disabilities: the “polios,” the “CPs,” the “spinal cords.”* In his time there, the 50s, the polios were ascendant—ambitious, bright, bound for college.

 

Now when he is 70, the “polios” and the “cords” are prominent in the active disability rights community. The blind have long had their own powerhouse base, and the deaf community seems to have split itself among “deaf-culture” traditionalists who use sign language, those who read lips, and those who look to new biotechnologies to break the soundless barrier with cochlear implants. The cognitively disabled have pulled the shortest straw in this ranking; the “special olympics” are considered having as much athletic authenticity as a “feel good” TV marathon for donations.

 

The interface between the disabled and those not-yet-so bubbles with as many tensions as those between not-quite-pink people and brown people. A broken leg might be a disaster to a sprinter, but hardly registers a blip on the screen of a quadriplegic. The bone will heal and she will walk again, despite her acute pain and her anguish about her professional prospects. Although the cataract patient loses his sight incrementally, his options are far brighter than those of a man with macular degeneration. Perhaps these people should just “suck it up” because the disability they are experiencing is not chronic and can be treated.

 

Hierarchies—differentiating, and dangerous.

 

Does a person with tuberculosis suffer more or less than someone with influenza? Does cancer of the colon beat out cancer of the breast as more than/less than significant? If my tooth ache draws all my attention, all my energy in surviving the moment, isn’t the pain just as severe as migraines or kidney stones? Is my despair in depression less worthy than your phantom pain in amputation? Did the Nazarene feel greater pain in death than the thief crucified beside him, the woman whose uterus ruptures in childbirth, or the child who starves in Sudan?

 

If my pain is meaningless, isn’t your joy?

 

 

*”CP,” cerebral palsy; “spinal cords” or “cords,” persons with spinal cord injury

 

 

Yangtze

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Holy Cross Parochial School, Philadelphia

If I told you how, as children,

we navigated rivers of gold

on our way to school, you

wouldn’t believe me.

 

Mt. Airy in ’49, when maples

straddle wide streets

and rain down yellow leaves

for us to float on—

 

sliding in leather-soled maryjanes

over the wet slate

until a slab, jammed into

the current by the roots themselves,

 

trips us up. And when

we wash into the schoolyard,

where ginkgo and oak meld

into a macadam delta,

 

we swirl into the whirlpool

of Mother Purissima’s glare,

from under a ridge cut in her brow

by the cruel white wimple:

 

after our thrill of heaving

downhill, life wide open,

she shuts us like a book

long out of print.

Published in Passager, Issue 40, 2005, as “School Song.”

 

Fishing for Ideas

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Wendy the One-Eyed Wonder

I will be boarding my dogs, Mimi and Wendy, tomorrow for a week, while I have surgery and recover from it. Depending on how things go, I might be able to bring them home sooner. They are a large part of my life, and I don’t think they will be happy about it. Mimi follows me everywhere, though Wendy is more independent.

I keep seeing news articles about how various animals display “human” emotions. We all know now that elephants relate emotionally to every animal in the group, but we also see bonds formed among surprising pairs: a lion and a dog, a blind goat and a horse (or maybe the other way around), dogs who help to foster kittens, raccoons who play with birds. And yesterday a BBC article about humpback whales protecting seals and dolphins from orcas, and posing the question of whether this is altruism.

Once people wondered whether animals experienced any emotions at all, made any “plans” for actions, or dreamed. Anyone who has seen a puppy or kitten suckle while sleeping know they dream—my dogs wake me sometimes barking in their sleep. It isn’t all “instinct” programmed into them. They react emotionally to each other and to us.

Humans are so arrogant when it comes to putting ourselves at the pinnacle of all life on this planet. We share the preponderance of our genetic history with all life forms. Today’s New York Times has an article titled “From Fins into Hands” about the molecular genetic links that limbs and fins share in common. I have no doubt that whatever constitutes the molecular basis for emotions and consciousness is shared by far more than one species, just as the number of Homo species grows as more fossils are discovered.

The discovery of genes and the ability to compare them across time and species is one of the finest achievements of science ever—greater than our space exploration. This occurred in my lifetime, but I think young people, like my grandson, will probably find it difficult to imagine that this knowledge is relatively new. (Or that, when I was a kid, we never had a TV until I was about 10.) Perhaps as we discover more about our biological underpinnings, we can understand more about the common needs of all living things. And learn to befriend them.

Maudlin yes, but so what? I truly cannot imagine how, in 2016, anyone with a minimal education can deny the existence of evolution. The religionists who want it banished from school curricula are not just stupid, they are criminally stupid.

Growing Pains

All the writing gurus tell aspiring apprentices to keep a journal and to write daily. I’ve never been able to do that, not even to blog daily. And now I am listening to a recording of Chopin played by Hiroko Nakamura, a young Japanese woman. (Either my brother brought this album back from his time in Asia, or I found it at Goodwill, a great place to get CDs cheaply.) I mention this because musicians and actors amaze me; they must spend enormous amounts of time practicing to be proficient.

 

All of this makes me feel stupid and “wanting” for self-discipline. As much as I want to write—have always wanted to write—I have not given that desire, that talent, the time it takes to do well. Somehow I feel that it is not a “valid” occupation. That I am escaping other responsibilities. That I must be productive in the sense of producing something tangible: money, sewing or beading projects, yard work (in 109 o F??), tending the dogs, laundry, whatever.

 

Those are, no doubt, just excuses. I suspect I am just afraid to face the blank page. That my ideas are stupid, will make me look stupid, will be incomprehensible, and declare me the fool I have always believed myself to be.

 

Or maybe I am just lazy. Now with retirement and all the children grown, when I actually have the time to devote to my own wants, I must still convince myself to sit down and write. And when I am told I have to have surgery, I so regret the time I have wasted. I’m 73 dammit—when am I going to grow up into myself?

 

I once took my grandson to guitar classes at ASU when he was about 8 years old. They were held on Saturdays, a time when various departments held classes in all sorts of things for children. I was astonished by the number of Asian families I saw on campus then. And listening to this lovely album of Chopin played by this lovely young Japanese woman, I am reminded that Asian cultures seem to hold learning in such high esteem that they “push” children into careers, much as Jewish culture seems to insist on producing doctors and lawyers and other professionals.

 

My American culture pushed me and my siblings not to appear “out of the norm.” Which meant be average, don’t make waves, don’t give the neighbors or the relatives something detrimental to talk about. Well, the pursuit of that goal was a bust for my parents: my brother was gay, which drove him to live most of the time in Asia where he could hide from the family; my sister was born with cerebral palsy, which my mother never forgave; and I was curious and wanted to learn and experience everything, so I never settled into the bland suburban housewife the 1950s revered.

 

Free of such responsibilities, it’s time to be free of guilt. To let go the anxiety planted long ago and nourished for many years. Time to take a risk.

 

Who is going to give a shit anyway?

 

 

‘Sup?

 

I turned 73 this summer. The gray in my hair is turning white, and my cheeks, among other body parts, are toying around with Newton’s theories of gravity (and failing).

Rock singers from the 60s who didn’t overdose are dropping dead or full of wrinkles. Damn—even Dick Cavett is an old man!

And the kids of our family’s kids are having kids.

A week from now, I will be in Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix having my thyroid gland removed. It is a 50/50 chance of being benign. I hate surgical procedures. I edited books about them for over 30 years and have had both knees replaced, a vertebra repaired in my lower spine, half my right arm removed and replaced, and a long rod inserted in my right tibia. Oh, and cataracts in both eyes removed. You would think that I would be well-prepared.

As the years pile on, the parts of my body are surrendering to entropy, proving once again the second law of thermodynamics, one system after another. I am enriching the orthopedists, the dentists, the neurosurgeons, the endocrinologists, and the ophthalmologists of Phoenix. Thus far I have kept the dermatologists at bay, but not the podiatrists.

To manage this anxiety, I am attempting to practice “mindfulness,” the meditation of living in the present moment. Not easy when I’ve just listened to or read about the news.

Answers about that aren’t blowing in the winds around here.

So I’m reading up on Buddhism now, and the sayings of the Dali Lama. (What a kind man he is.) Because the practice of mindful meditation that I am attempting is based on the teachings of Buddhism.

I was raised as a Catholic, until I got to study history outside the purview of the Vatican when I got to college and I understood much of it was more about a lust for power than for love of humanity. I was a long-time Quaker after my children were born, until I grew tired of not speaking or debating about how to address that of anger in every man, rather than just “that of God.” Not conflict resolution between groups, but the unresolved pain of a poorly parented childhood and everyday confusion where “turning the other cheek” is not tenable.

I’ve studied comparative mythologies and science, and have longed for a philosophy of substance that could satisfy. Even the buddhists splintered into schisms and schools and perpetrated terrible acts of violence toward competing religious.

So now I am reading Stephen Batchelor, “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.” He’s an interesting writer, who seems thus far to acknowledge the existence of the numinous in life itself without the necessity of an overarching divinity. Or the need of fabulist (though entertaining) stories. And for now I will persist with my mindfulness practice.3buddhas

Nothing Can Be the Same Then

There, at that seam in the rock

where something else intrudes in the grain

and holds strong

 

but wears thinner with each thaw—

like a sable hair from the master’s brush

stuck on canvas,       near Rembrandt’s eye,

 

it lends human dimension, makes it

vulnerable, so when the varnish cracks

the image is rheumy, the rock breaks.

 

So subtle are these faults

we don’t believe them: capstone

crashing loose in spring rain,

 

oil flap peeling at the conservator’s mend.

Nothing can be the same then—after

comes a sour taste, biting joints,

 

the last maple leaves holding on.