Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Whatever you have done, let it go. Let it all go. It's all right.

( This is an excerpt from my book, One Hundred Open Houses.  It has a hopeful message in it.  Some readers don't like this book but the ones that do, like it a lot.)
Given my present thought process, something really strange happened in church on Sunday. Father O’Connell is on vacation and this other priest said mass.  He was quite old and we could hardly hear him.  
We were prepared to just sit through it, the way we did when we had a substitute teacher.  Almost in a whisper, he began talking about reconciliation – that’s what they call confession now.  He said,  “Whatever you have done, let it go.  You aren’t children anymore with a laundry list of sins – I hit my brother, I told a lie, I stole some candy - in order to be okay with God.  Just get rid of everything – let it go and you will be closer to Jesus. If you’ve had an abortion, if you’ve been abusive to your family – just let it go. Let it all go.  It’s all right. One of you,  “he emphasized, “sitting here today, will be transformed.” 
The entire congregation remained still.  Almost dumbstruck.  We weren’t prepared to actually hear something we could use never mind being transformed.  After church, I saw this young handsome man – not your typical devoted Catholic - go up to the priest and say – “I’m not from this parish but that is the best homily I have ever heard.”  There was a long line of people and they were all saying much the same thing.  They had been longing to find a way to get rid of all the things they were ashamed of doing and this brilliant old priest had told them it was okay to let it all go. He was telling us that he was certain – without a doubt – that this was not only okay, but also necessary.
After mass, I did something I seldom do – something all of us seldom do – I sat in the living room.  I sat on the couch I had bought at the Bloomingdale’s outlet store.  There was nothing to do in the living room except look around.  You couldn’t cook there or eat or watch television. The living room, I have to tell you, is a useless room that we have been told is necessary.  I felt as if I was visiting and all the stuff in there was new to me.   After the “letting go” talk, if you take it seriously, you have a lot of space in your head to think about other things.
It has resulted in putting me in a strange state of lethargy.  I feel all dry and papery.  I’m made of parchment paper. I keep thinking that contrary to my current fervor for staying alive, there might be something to dying.  No more humidifying and dehumidifying.  No more coughing at night or worrying about anything.  If nothing else, the weight issue is moot.
When you send the e-mail down to your psyche saying, “hey, it’s time to open up, we want some life changing moves up here,” it reacts.   I had stated a purpose and begun a plan and although it wasn’t frontal lobotomy or entering a non-speaking religious order, it was change and there’s nothing like change to make the psyche squeeze out a miserly bit of self-revelation.
What was revealed to me on that chilly for June Sunday morning was that no matter what I did or where I lived or if I chose to pitch a tent in the Mojave dessert there was a fist sized hunk of worry smack in the center of my chest and if I didn’t address it, I was not going to really move. 
There was no media noise so I was aware of the silence in the house.  In my Sunday morning clarity, I knew that it was a hunk of heaviness that had been sitting in my chest for a very long time.    I went into my default site of things to worry about, the kids’ safety, my health, mental illness and plumbing problems in a town where plumbers are the new rock stars.   If you’re not going to follow the blueprint for the American Dream, you have to fight hard not to think ill of yourself.
This wasn’t about the kids or the house. This hard impenetrable thing was a hunk of worry about me, Rebecca, and what had happened to her.   I bypassed my instinct to find some quick answer and thought about what my life was like from moment to moment. What I said to certain people and what I said to others.  Was I authentic with anyone? Did I have enough friends? What mattered to me? Did anyone really love me?  Was there anyone who couldn’t live without me?  Do you even want someone who can’t live without you?  No, you don’t!  I’ll give you a profile of that man without even meeting him.  Needy, needy, needy.  And possibly in need of long-term therapy.  You want someone who can live without you but would like to spend some time with you. 
I had an m.o.  As long as I could find the irony in everything that happened, I could make a case for an existence that resided on the sidelines while everyone else was actually living. Being ironic was no substitute for living but so help me I thought it was.   Louise was living all of the time.  She knew at least a dozen couples that she and her husband saw on a regular un-ironic basis.  She had friends she had known for forty years. She played tennis with her friends and went to baby showers.  She had a sequential life.  She definitely did not start over every morning.
I thought about my premise that a move outside my comfort zone would jump-start a new life, a new routine, new connections and a new me. I was definitely ready to re-define myself.  As what?  A spunky middle-aged woman?    Then this British guy was on Oprah and he wrote a book on happiness and he said you would never be happy if you had a destination addiction.  First, why anyone would listen to a Brit talk on the psychology of happiness is beyond me.  But I did take a little interest in his “destination addiction” theory.  He was saying that as long as you thought that your happiness depended on something that was going to happen in the future, you were a dead duck.  Or an unhappy duck. What I got from that Brit was that if I thought I was going to jump start my stalled writing career by moving to a monastic cell in New York City, I was stupid, stupid, stupid. And misguided.  And delusional.   I had to start being happy right here in Huffy The House. And while moving was a good idea, I would already be the committed reclaimed writer when I arrived.
So there was no avoiding it then.  I had to begin thinking of the story I wanted to tell.    What story was I just bursting to tell?  First of all, no writer is bursting to write anything.  Most are bursting to keep from writing.  Writing is incredibly hard and beside it, everything else appears incredibly easy.  But this particular moment, I kept still and continued thinking until I had an “aha” moment that sounded so simple, I didn’t trust it but since I had nothing else, I went with it.  Maybe the story was me!   The routines, the bad habits, the small pleasures, the calls to the utility companies, the yanking of weeds, the phantom tandem life that I was going to live one day.  Not this life but something better. Maybe this was the better life – maybe what I was writing down in my journal would make a fabulous story. Maybe my life was the story of the century.  Every single day of it  – Louise and Shana and the rep for the Dubai place and Itzonlyphil were what was in my life and if I shaped what I was writing in my journal into the odyssey it had become, I could make sense of it for myself and maybe for others, too.  Maybe what was in my head was not the jumbled thoughts of a textbook AADD but LIFE.  
 I had just read an article in the New Yorker about the dictionary of mental disorders (I’m thinking someone is sitting around saying:  there’s stealing and let’s call that kleptomania and there’s unsubstantiated euphoria and let’s call that manic behavior) There was a phrase in the article that I liked.  It said someone had an unruly inner life.  That’s what I had to document!   My unruly inner life.  I would shape what I had been writing in the journal into a book.
 It was Sunday morning and my instinct was to turn on the television and watch Meet The Press. Anything not to test my new theory that, at best, seemed weak.   I went to the computer instead.   I wrote the date and Chapter One – 9-G I wasn’t looking for an apartment…
 I started and before I knew it, Meet The Press was over and so were the McLaughlin Report and even Lydia’s Family Table.  I had just plunged into the story in an unruly way.  I introduced the old priest and what he told us and Ms. DuBois at the bank and KooKoofor$ and also Ben and Harry and even my mother and my fear of the voodoo she might be doing on my life.  When I was done for the day I felt spaced out the way you do when you spend a day at the beach and the bright sun glinting off the water makes you feel surreal.  And the salt air makes the indoors feel too quiet and unfamiliar. And your eyes can’t adjust.  I turned off the computer and had a cup of coffee.  There was no milk so I put some Turkey Hill vanilla Ice Cream in it.  I drank it slowly, in the living room. Just me sitting there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Virginia - you've got it, girl.

On one of my periodic clean-up/dispose missions, I found a box of books that I had planned to sell on the internet two years ago when I was on a previous clean-up mission.

The books had pristine colorful jackets. There was Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (the infamous Oprah's Book Club edition.) Remember Mr. Franzen capriciously said he didn't want to go on Oprah. Television was too banal. That was the day that his publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, flew their flag at half mast as they saw a couple of million dollars drift into the ether. By the way, since this is a post about good writing, I will point out that although The Corrections was the most lauded novel of 2001, it only drew a 3.2 average  rating on Amazon.  Many of the Amazon customer reviews called it a "tedious piece of crap."   

Another book in the box was Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full  (a snarky critic re-titled it "A Man So Dull").  Nestled with the bestsellers was a modest student edition of To the Lighthouse by the venerated Virginia Woolfe.  I opened this book to Chapter One.  What kind of writing does it take to separate an author from the pack and give her iconic stature forever?  I was curious to read her prose because she was part of that high strung, literary aristocracy, the Bloomsbury group. Here is one of Ms. Woolfe's paragraphs from To The Lighthouse:

"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs. Ramsay.  "But you'll have to be up with the lark," she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch.  Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss.

And then came Hemingway with his simple declarative sentences.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Everyone thinks it's just love but there's fear, too.

(This is a repost for Mother's Day)

In 1998, at a time when I could least afford the emotional energy to commit to a pair of socks, I decided to look for my mother.  She had disappeared for over twenty years.  She had never met two of her grandchildren.   I hired a private detective, Brian P. McGinnis and four months later he sent me a letter on beautiful business stationary.  The letters all had serifs. Dear Mrs. Baehr,  I am happy to report that I have located your mother.
It was not a joyful reunion but we did the best we could and I transported her to New York to the seventh floor of the Terrance Cardinal Cooke Health and Rehabilitation Center on Fifth Avenue and 105th Street. Her room overlooked the wrought iron gates to Central Park’s formal English Garden, a favorite wedding locale for Asian couples.  In that room, I learned more about my mother than I had up to that time.
I learned that my mother, still in her twenties and freshly divorced, had started a business importing dresses and other things from Montgomery Ward and selling them to the women in her village.  She had run a dressmaking shop, a beauty salon, a boarding house, she called it a hotel. When the war made importing goods impossible, she traveled to the U.S. by bus through Texas, made her way to San Francisco where she worked in a Lucky Strike factory putting the official stamp on packs of cigarettes.
She was a woman who placed all importance on dressing well and looking good. She would apply and re-apply lipstick throughout the day.  She drew in her eyebrows. When I told her that her nephew was dating a girl and that she dressed very well, she said, “That’s all I want to know.”
Here’s the dialogue.
“Your nephew is dating a girl.
“Oh, yes? What’s her nationality?”
”She’s Armenian.”
“Very clean.  An Armenian woman lived next door to me. She was very clean. Tell me, does she dress well?”
“As a matter of fact, she does.”
“That’s all I want to know.  I like that girl.”
“Really, that’s all you care about?”  In the dreamy Fellini atmosphere of the high ceilinged room, the kind of room you would see in an old war movie where the soldiers convalesced and got used to their injuries, whatever she said had more weight.  Maybe how a person dressed said everything about that person but I wanted to take it further.  “That’s all you care about? How she dresses?” I didn’t even raise my voice for this but remained matter of fact.
“More or less.”  My mother answered most questions with “more or less.”
Did you like the ham?  More or less.  Didn’t you think that show was terrible?  More or less. She wasn’t trying for a conversational style. She was a straight shooter. If irony is for ironists.  My mother was an anemianist. I altered my personality in her presence and was a straight shooter, too.
“Yeah, you’re right.  She dresses well.  That’s all we have to know.”  As a matter of fact the potential girlfriend not only dressed very well but she put on makeup in the morning before showing up for breakfast. I go days without makeup and dress erratically.  No wonder my mother thinks she got gypped.
 My mother was 88 and could no longer hold an idea in her head for more than five seconds.  One day she asked me fourteen times if her granddaughter was coming to see her for mother’s day.
“She’s in California.“
“Still in California?” 
“Is she coming for mother’s day?”
“No, Mom. She’s still in California and she can’t make the trip.”
“Is it the boyfriend?”
“No she has a job.”
“Is she coming for mother’s day?”
“No. She’s in California.”
You might think this drove me crazy but it didn’t. Sometimes my voice got sharp and I thought, how can I kill her, but then I’d take a breath and look around that Felliniesque room and hang in for the long haul. 
“Is she coming?
“No, mom. She’s in California.” 
I got a little thrill using the word “mom.”  It implied a normal sunny childhood.
Just when I was certain this was the last lucid conversation we would ever have, she said, “They came yesterday to see if I was crazy.  They asked me who the president was.  I said the new Bush. I forget his first name.  I never liked the old Bush.  They asked who is the one before that?  I said. Cleenton.  William Jefferson Cleenton.  By the way,” she said, “you have to buy me chooz?” She still has her Spanish accent although she would be horrified to be told this.
“You’ve got shoes.”
“I can’t wear those chooz.  It came with a paper that says don’t wear for more than two hours. I’m not going to wear cheep chooz that say you can’t wear them for more than two hours. That’s ridiculous.”
“They mean don’t wear them too long the first day.”
“No, my dear. These are cheep chooz.  I never heard of such a thing.”
“So don’t wear them.”
“Will you buy me chooz?  Anything.” 
“I can’t understand why your daughter moved to California.  Her family is here.  You have to stay with your family.”
What emotions come to mind with mothers? Everyone thinks it’s just love but there’s fear, too. Think about it.  There is fear, too.