Rose

The Awesomeness of Being Wrong


Story: “I suck at following instructions.”

WRONG. 

It may not sound like much. But when the new kitchen island arrived on the side porch and Aviva and I attempted to lug it inside, that was my first thought. I slit the box open and carried the pieces upstairs, two or three at a time. I recycled and/or discarded the cardboard, styrofoam, and plastic. I winced at the packaging and got dizzy from the off-gassing. (As an aside, did you know that off-gassing emits as many as 99 known toxins into the air for up to 10 years? We are seriously reconsidering purchasing anything again that uses formaldehyde).

By the time I plunked the bag of hardware on the kitchen table and surveyed the dozens of pieces of pressed wood, I thought: Welp, my work here is done. Time to wait for Mani to come put this baby together.

After all, I suck at this kind of thing. That is the story I’ve told my whole life. Yes, I did manage to assemble a cute night table from Ikea a few years back (one of the drawers wobbles, but still…). And wait, I put together those two yellow desks in our room… No, no, I think. Those don’t really count. They were relatively straightforward jobs, nothing so big and complicated as this thing.

When we got a new bookshelf and TV stand for the living room, we even called friends over to help. Granted, it was as much an excuse to see them and hang out as a bona fide need for help. But still, the reassurance of other eyes and hands has historically brought no small comfort.

I used to be someone who waited for a man to put together the furniture. Then lo and behold, I married a woman who happens to be really good at this (she once spent hours and hours putting together a loft bed — with a slide — in Pearl’s room). I still didn’t have to look at my own learned helplessness.

* * *

Story: “I am someone who likes being taken care of.”

WRONG. Well, sort of wrong. 

At the same time, I remained ignorant of my own capacity and ability and power by wanting other people to take care of me. “Other people” most often implied people of the male persuasion. Fathers, husbands, guy friends — who can come put this damn thing together?

Now, I still like being taken care of. But being taken care of while knowing I am fully able to take care of myself is a whole different ballgame. Since my first marriage ended and I came out of the closet, so much about who I thought I was and the stories I told about myself have undergone seismic shifts — including this one.

I’ve been the breadwinner for the past three years, bringing in more income on my own than I did previously in my full-time job. I work a lot. I also get to be home when Pearl gets off the school bus, and go for spontaneous coffee dates with my teenage daughter who’s not in traditional school this year. Mani and I are both home all day, a reality that began as necessity when she was sick and became a choice when I became self-employed.

I was so scared to leave my job. SO scared.  That was 2015. Now I still have bouts of insecurity, both they don’t come quite as often or last as long. The fear no longer feels like terror or panic, more like an annoyance, a stinkbug that got in the house from under the garage door. I open a window and flick it back outside.

It feels good to let this story fall away. The one where I need someone else, probably a man, to make the money and to put together the furniture purchased with said money.

It also feels good  to redefine “being taken care of.”

* * *

I AM taken care of. I have a wife whose unconditional belief in me, patience, and presence is beyond anything I’ve ever known. She doesn’t coddle my rehabbing addiction to praise, and this in turn makes her support that much more reliable because I know it’s not contingent on her expectations of me. It just IS.

I can’t say what got into me last week, but I tackled those instructions like a boss. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop. One step at a time — ABC, 123, bird by bird — I put that baby together. I could hardly believe it myself — I was doing it! I’m someone who can read and follow assembly instructions, who knew?!

The best part, in addition to some mad satisfaction at my newfound badassery, was how WRONG I had been about myself. Wrong, wrong, wrong! All those Instagram posts saying how the mere sight of the instruction booklet stressed me out? Completely, fabulously, gloriously, magnificently WRONG.

Now we have a little more cabinet and counter space in our kitchen, and I have added a bit more evidence for myself of a new, true story. One where I’m capable, grown-up, and able to earn money, care for my family, put furniture together, stay when things get really, really hard, and forgive myself when I fuck up. Thankfully, finding out who I really am is an ongoing thing. I wonder what else I’m wrong about, and can’t wait to find out.

* * *

Story: I’m so much more than the stories I tell myself about myself.

RIGHT.

Rose

Not a Mirror Image: A Daughter Starts High School

Having skipped third grade and with a January birthday, I was only 13 at the beginning of ninth grade. Back in 1987, that was still junior high, though I started taking Russian up at the high school and would walk between the two buildings at least once a day.

The summer between 8th and 9th grade was a truly transitory one; soft, flowing Indian dresses and Camel Lights gave way to an all-black uniform and Marlboro reds. Guns ‘n Roses and the Sex Pistols overtook Suzanne Vega and Van Morrison. I still didn’t wear much makeup, but dark-red lipstick became part of my mask. It was the summer we grieved the deaths of Jon Fisher and Elie Aizen, who’d died in a car accident at the tail end of the school year. It was the summer of babysitting, getting stoned, and listening to Pink Floyd; of making out and drifting apart and losing a kind of exuberant creativity and innocence that, for me, had marked the second half of eighth grade.

Nearly 15, my daughter Aviva starts high school next week. She signed up for the cross-country team, a commitment to run six days a week that took all of us by surprise. At her age, I was started to shrink, whereas I see her starting to take up room. It’s fascinating, to step back and see the ways in which time moves apart, like two magnetic poles pulling in opposite directions, and also how it seems to circle back in on itself, an invisible dance of existentialism, quantum physics, and downright mystery.

The weekend school started in 1987, a friend and I went camping at the Shutesbury Reservoir. Two girls, two boys, and two tents: You do the math. Some Peachtree Schnapps might have been involved, though even then I was never much for drinking. The inevitable pairing off happened, and just today I learned the term for it while I waited with Aviva for the city bus that would take her back to her dad’s house. We’d walked from her high school orientation to town, where I took her out for breakfast. And as we waited and I continued to hear bits and pieces about her recent summer camp experience, I learned this acronym: HAKWACO (pronounced HACK-WAYCO). Hugging and Kissing with All Clothes On. Well ok then!

Labor Day weekend, 1987, I may have gone a little further than hakwaco-ing, though I would not lose my virginity until four and a half years later. The camping trip resulted in my first boyfriend, Eric Mabius (later of acting fame). My kids LOVE this story, especially the part about our time as boyfriend and girlfriend lasting all of three weeks.

Ninth grade. This morning, I sat in the very same office that once belonged to my guidance counselor, getting Aviva’s schedule straightened out. She’s signed up for Spanish, ecology, history honors, acting, English, and a study hall for sanity’s sake. She’s making her list for a Staples outing this weekend. She’s interested in volunteering at a local organic farm and counting the minutes to go back to her beloved Jewish hippie summer camp next year as a counselor in training. She’s her usual wry, independent, serious, sarcastic, sensitive self.

There’s surely something about parents saying, “When I was your age…” that automatically makes kids tune out most of the time. But then there are the occasional questions, especially when it comes to sex, drugs, and other taboo topics that — in my estimation — ought to be on the table when it comes to communicating with a teenager. She knows some but not all of my stories, just as no doubt I will get to hear only a selection of hers as these next years unfold.

The school has changed so much in the last 30 years — a number that still makes me pause to make sure I’m counting the right number of decades — that I had to ask where the library was. But then a voice came over the loudspeaker asking so-and-so to come to the office, and time crashed over my body like a wave, crashing one lifetime against the shores of another. Mine and hers, forever and inextricably intertwined, and utterly distinct and separate. She is not me. I am not her.

As we walked past my parents’ house, which sits between the school and the center of town, I recalled wearing her in a front pack to the high school in 2002, so proud was I to introduce my baby to the couple of teachers I’d stayed in touch with over the years (history and Russian). Fast forward nearly 15 years and here we were, here she is, stepping into the next thing, as I do my best to step aside and watch her go.

I wrote a song for her on the first day of kindergarten and shared it on my blog; she’d be mortified if I followed suit for high school. Instead, I’ll write about this moment, when time expands and contracts like a pair of healthy lungs, downplay my bursting pride in this young woman I get to love and nurture, and try not to be too “extra” on her first day of high school.

Rose

Tiles in a Laborious Mosaic

“There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”

~ The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944

Thought: There is a LOT of news we don’t hear about. Every single day, things happen. Small miracles. Wrenching losses. Breathtaking moments of ecstasy and countless, repetitive motions. “You and me” takes on hundreds of manifestations. The big picture will always be there, beyond our field of vision, a scale so measureless it requires tremendous faith in the unseen and unseeable.

What is a mosaic made of, but so many tiny tiles?

Every day that we wake up and find that we are still here, alive, conscious, breathing, able to interact in whatever ways our bodies make possible, is an opportunity to change our minds and alter that unfathomable pattern in the direction of wholeness.

Here’s the catch: It’s hard.

We get tangled in webs of invisible energy. We react. We rush. We carry so much pent-up rage and sadness that it’s bound to leak out all over everything if we don’t acknowledge it and find channels for expression, release, and healing. The world doesn’t meet us where we are any more than we meet the world as it is. We meet the world — I do this so very often — through a distorted lens of how I think it should be. The world shrugs back like a teenager. “Whatever.”

Tears come unexpectedly. At first, I sit still and let them roll down my cheeks as the singers sing on. Then it becomes too much; I feel the strain of trying to control what is quickly moving from a quiet flow to a full-on storm, and I leave the room quietly, move towards a large window at the end of a wide hallway. It is facing west. The sun is low over a bike path, a parking lot. I watch people coming and going as the sobbing I didn’t see coming overtakes me. It’s every hard thing, every yearning, every pinch, every tight spot, every constraint. It’s neither rational nor irrational. It is scary and at the same time, somewhere in the deep of my brain, I know it won’t last.

It doesn’t last.

I return to the room. I take my seat back on the cushion. My wife sits a foot or so away from me. The space is filled with sound. Guitar, tabla, bass, drums, cello, flute, violin, harmonium. Deep voices and piercing voices coming together in an ancient call and response. I sway a little but don’t join in for a while, allowing myself just to stay here in the stillness. I notice the urge to flee. I stay. I notice 10,000 variations on this theme. I resist all of it. I stay. I stay. I stay.

And sure enough, I begin to soften. Almost despite myself, I open my mouth to sing. I sing quietly. I don’t need anyone to hear me. I am here, and that is enough.

We all have moments where we are “not our best selves.” But what does this even mean? Best, worst, first, last — all of these monosyllabic words that don’t ultimately mean anything. What matters is our ability to hold steady through the periods of turmoil and tumult, when you’re so caught up in the wave that you don’t know how to break through to the surface for air. It is easy to panic in these moments, to flail. To pull others down with you. To make it infinitely scarier and more painful than it already is.

There is a big picture, and so very much happens in the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a life. None of us knows how much time we have here, and every day seems to be an exercise in imperfection, starting over, self-forgiveness, and learning.

When I say, “Be good to yourself,” this is what I’m talking about. It’s not a code for anything else, nor is it a permission slip to ditch responsibility for our impact on others. It is as simple an imperative as I can muster for myself, a baseline, and — hopefully — a bit of solid ground to feel for when life is moving at lightning speed and we temporarily lose our bearings and forget our place in the entirety of things.

As Anaïs Nin noted in her diary so many decades ago, life unfolds and takes shape “fragment by fragment.” And we are all essential tiles, in an incalculable whole.

Rose

108: The House of Love (or, Where I Was the Moon)

Moon_and_Stars_series

In Jewish numerology (Gematria), the number 18 signifies “chai,” or “life.” And about the number 108 — my parents’ house number — Shiva Rea writes: “108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun).”

I wrote a poem once, in 1998, about my parents’ house. It’s called “Dreaming Pasternak” and to this day, it might be the best poem I’ve ever written. The house plays an important role in the poem, which came directly from a dream. I mean that literally: One morning, I woke up, put on my mom’s old soft pink bathrobe, grabbed the latte I’d stored in the fridge from my Starbucks shift the night before, a notebook and pen, and my pack of Marlboro reds, and climbed out onto the flat part of the roof where I liked to sit and smoke and write. And I didn’t so much write the poem as I wrote down the poem; it came all at once, as if it had been prewritten in the dream and I was just getting it onto paper.

In the poem, the house was the house of love. The house of love on the hill. The house that love built. The house was built in the 1880s I think, by a man named Edward Thompson. He was also known as Thompson the Tinkerer. He apparently built the house for his beloved wife, Frances. That’s all I know, but I always thought it a romantic story.

I had a relationship with that house. With myself in it. It was a house where we celebrated Christmas until we didn’t. It’s the house where I didn’t quite know I was Jewish until I did — and then I dreamed, too, of Jewish babies I couldn’t save, of the Holocaust in ways that made it clear I’d be there, running, running, and unable to save my own sister.

It’s a house where my mother has grieved the loss of not only her sister Nancy, who died 18 years ago today on SwissAir flight #111, but also of her sister Bobbi, who died in 2015 after a decade of cancer.

It’s the house where I think of myself as having swallowed silence and given it to the moon. Where I was the moon. Where I could not quite grow up. Where I would be a scholar but not a lover.

I don’t know who will die next, or why death is the thread I’m pulling on. But it’s in the air, maybe because of September. Maybe because of growing up. Maybe because of remembering grief, the grief of Nancy’s death. I’d lost two grandparents before, but it was her death that brought grief into my body for the first time. I was lost.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. 

I was blind, to think that I would stay in that house forever. That I could come back here and be anyone other than this me, this woman, not a mile from that house, writing. Doing exactly what I always knew I wanted and needed and was waiting to do: Be fully myself.  Fully alive. In my own house of love.

Rose

The Thing I Thought He Should Know

Unfurling Tattoo

It is morning and I am writing
about a book from 1940 about sex
and men and women and the rules
that no longer apply to me
and maybe never did.

And suddenly it’s 1997, July:
I’m remembering that first time
he and I swam across the pond
together — my 23 to his 31.

How right about in the middle
I stopped to catch my breath
and, treading water, looked at him
and said, gravely,
“There is something you should know.”

He waited, eager to know
all the things about me
that would seal some agreement
we didn’t even know we were making.

(I look up from the writing
for a moment at my wife,
who is stretching side to side,
her naked body soft and mine,
the undone tree inked on her back —

a reminder that
we don’t always finish what we started
in the way we planned way back when.)
I swim at this pond all summer long,
and sometimes, when I am floating

on my back in the middle,
I remember that moment
when I told him I’d been bulimic.
I shake my head in such a way

that you wouldn’t even notice,
marveling at the way life
unfurls and we, with it, as if thrust
from the unfolding itself

into the thing behind the thing
that I didn’t know yet
and so didn’t say:
“You’re really nice,
but I’m really gay.”