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- The Gift of Good Days August 30, 2020
- “See their faces. Say their names.” DOWNLOADABLE POSTER July 30, 2020
- See their faces. Say their names. July 11, 2020
- A Protest Song in the Time of Pandemic May 19, 2020
- Still Life With Bleach April 5, 2020
- Small Things Considered March 19, 2020
- The Best Things February 9, 2019
- Up on the Roof July 28, 2018
- Dear People: World War II Letters From My Dad October 24, 2017
- Love Objects September 19, 2017
This morning it rained, and the afternoon was gray and mild. The past week the weather’s been up and down. For a few days, it felt like the middle of winter. Then it backtracked to early fall. November’s like that every year around here.
This November, my mother and father are both 91. And a half. More than a half. They’ll both be 92 in January. I’m 65, and most of the time I don’t think about how old I am. I don’t mean that I forget my age in any literal sense. It’s just that, lucky for me, I can still do most of the things I’ve always done. The only thing that regularly reminds me of my age is the mirror. On the other hand, Mom tells me that the nineties are a whole other proposition. You can’t be that old and not know it. Your body is constantly reminding you.
This afternoon, I called her and asked if she’d like to take a walk. “Oh, yes,” she said. I told her I’d be over soon. She and Dad live around the corner. It takes about two minutes to walk to their house. On my way up the street, a huge olive-colored leaf skittered across my path on a sudden gust. In spite of recent frosts, it was almost completely intact and just shy of being dry. I picked it up by its generous stem and carried it along to their house.
My mom called out “hello!” in her usual musical way (hel-LO-oh) when she heard the screen door slam. She was in her study, writing an email on her laptop. I answered “hello” quietly when I realized that Dad was asleep in the next room. I handed her the elephantine leaf, and she drew in her breath as she took it. Cradling it in the open palms of both hands, she said, “Oh, thank you,” as much, it seemed, to the beautiful leaf as to me. The leaf accepted her praiseful wonder in gentle and dignified silence.
Dad was still napping when we set off for our walk, slow footsteps tracing our path around the block. The afternoon was quiet in the way that cloudy days without sun and shadows can feel. Less contrast. Softer.
Our recent nights of frost have loosened most of the leaves’ grip from their branches. The winds and the rains have swept them down. And most of the leaves on the ground are brown. But not all.
As we rounded a corner, a bright yellow leaf presented itself on the road before us. I bent over and grasped its delicate stem between my thumb and two fingers. The past few weeks, Mom’s been collecting leaves, pressing them under glass and between the pages of books. She’s planning to use them to decorate the table on Thanksgiving, to scatter them across the tablecloth as if they’d just shaken loose from a tree.
“Let’s keep it,” she said as I handed it to her. And then, almost immediately, we spotted another perfect leaf, this one deep red. She leaned over and picked it up herself. Soon we were leafspotting nonstop, both of us stooping and rising and exclaiming over each treasure.
“I’m amazed that you can still bend over and get up again like that,” I said to her.
“Well, yes,” she laughed, “I am very flexible.”
“That’s true,” I told her. “You could use that as a metaphor, Mom.”
“I guess you could,” she said, continuing to add one leaf after another to the growing collection she held in her free hand. Some of them were bright. Others were drab, but exquisitely shaped. Each was added carefully, larger ones to the bottom, smaller on top.
Around the next corner, we came upon another huge leaf, clearly a close relative of the first one I’d found. I jogged the few steps to it, to try to secure it before a stray breeze could grab it first. Got it. Where did these gigantic leaves come from? We turned in circles, scanning branches for matching shapes. That tree over there? Maybe.
We stood talking for a few minutes at the bottom of their driveway, always so much to say. Opening the door to the kitchen, we could see Dad coming in from the other room. “Did you just get up?” Mom asked.
“No, I’ve been up for awhile,” Dad said. “I didn’t know where you were.” His forehead was furrowed. He looked worried.
But then he saw the leaves in her hand. “Those are stunning,” he said.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she answered, smiling. “We found them just now on our walk.”
My mother taught me to love clouds.
“Look at that beautiful sunset!” she’d sigh.
How many times did she marvel at the sky before I heard her words? No way to know. Because, like all kids, I could tell the difference between a remark and a command, and this utterance was clearly in the first category. She was just thinking out loud. Uh huh, Mommy, I hear you. Sort of.
Funnily enough, though, I can remember the first time that I actually did look at a sunset in response to my mom’s observation. It must have been the wonder in her voice that got me to stop whatever I was doing and move my eyes to the sky, to all that golden orange-purple-pinkness rioting above horizon.
Too much to take in at once. You had to look there, and there, and over there, and up there, to see it all. I must have been ten or eleven then, more than a decade of earth years under my belt. Around 4,000 sunsets. Maybe more. But this was the first one that had ever stopped me in my tracks.
After all, at ten or eleven, sunsets were not among the meteorological conditions that engaged me. Light and darkness were both acknowledged with respect; they were the parameters that defined our activities. Summer was also a phenomenon whose existence was significant. Likewise, snow.
But as of that long-ago evening, sunsets were also on my radar. Not at the same level as best friends or books or dessert. But once in awhile, when chance turned my attention skyward at twilight, I’d recall the intensity in my mom’s voice, and my gaze would remain there.
Sometimes, experimentally, I’d say, “Look at that beautiful sunset” out loud, the way my mom said it. I liked the feeling of the words in my mouth, their sound in my ears. And also, no denying it, beautiful was the word for what my eyes were seeing.
Gradually, scanning for sunsets and singing their praises became a habit, a comforting ritual of pleasure and contentment.
Unfortunately, it was also one of the triggers for my ex-husband’s rage. Wait. What? Where’d that come from?
I know what you mean. That’s exactly the way I felt the first time he sneered at me for admiring clouds out loud. Are you kidding me? Seriously? This is making you mad?
The answer was: Yes. He was: Mad. He called what I’d said “restating the obvious,” and he made it as clear as shouting at someone for a two or three hours can, that he did not like it, no, not at all. You think that’s weird? Bingo! You’re right! But it’s true.
Call me a slow learner, but it took me more than a few sunsets to stifle my obvious statements in his presence. To tell the truth, I was never completely successful.
Remember how it was when you left home for the first time? When you first lived on your own, sans parents? Sometimes kids go wild. Drinking, drugs, all manner of boundary-busting behavior. I was never one of the daring ones. My big thing was eating oreos for breakfast.
You can imagine how wild I went when I finally cut the ties with my ex. For one thing, I bought a bright red sweater. And that was wild, because? Because back in the day, a red garment of any kind would have bought me a round-trip ticket on the tirade train. Again, not kidding. I’m not even exaggerating. There were only three clothing colors of which that man approved: black, white and navy blue. All others were condemned. At length and top volume.
So. Clad in red, I finally threw his rules to the wind, unstifling my obvious observations at every opportunity. “This is so delicious!” “I just love that song!” “What a nice day!” It felt almost reckless, such uncensored self-expression.
The first time I exclaimed, “Ohh! Look at that beautiful sunset!” while I was dating George, my now-husband of 20+ years, I held my breath. How would he respond? I won’t keep you in suspense. This is what he said: “Yeah. It’s really pretty.”
Welcome back to Normalville! Where a person can love clouds out loud. No offense to trees, beaches, mountains, rivers or fields blossoming with wildflowers. I love them, too. A lot. And when clouds are in the picture with them, I love them even more.
Not just sunsetting clouds. All kinds of clouds. Stratus, cirrus, cumulus, stratocumulus, culumonimbus. Billowy creampuffs. Purply wisps. Glinting gray blankets.
Solitary white smudges that seem to have lost their ways on otherwise blue and cloudless days.
I know I’m not alone here. In fact, there are at least 35, 948 others who share my atmospheric affinities. That’s the official membership in The Cloud Appreciation Society, an organization based in Britain that boasts members from 163 countries, a colorful website, a public manifesto, a page for “clouds that look like things”, and an online store with an awesome array of proudly cloudy bling.
But getting back to the clouds themselves: What is it about these shapes in the sky that inspires so much gazing, painting, writing, and snapping of countless shots? What makes us sigh at shifting shafts of color and moisture and light?
Well, here’s one idea. Neurologists have performed brain scans that reveal that when people are experiencing something they perceive as beautiful – art or music, for instance – blood flows into their brains’ medial orbito-frontal cortex (a.k.a. their pleasure centers), and they actually light up. That’s pretty beautiful, right?
And actually, I think that’s what this whole question of clouds comes down to: What feels, well, beautiful. To you.
Which is a subject philosophers have been debating for millennia. As in, wondering whether beauty is a quality residing within objects, like mass, weight, temperature – or, on the contrary, if it simply exists in the eye of the beholder.
Skipping forward through the centuries into this one, we come to Crispin Sartwell, an American philosopher, and his book, Six Names of Beauty. In it, he ascribes beauty to a relationship between an object and an observer. Like a star twinking in the night sky – and you or me, wishing on it, from way down here on the ground.
Using the example of the sky, he also suggests that the very process of admiring something outside of ourselves can help “turn us outward” – cracking the shells of our little selves to encompass a wider view of the world. A beautiful way to put it, don’t you think?
In Only a Promise of Happiness, Alexander Nehamas, another American philosopher, takes that idea a little further. He suggests that when we perceive something to be beautiful, it’s making us an offer we can’t refuse: in exchange for the pleasure it affords us, beauty requires us to take time and give attention. And that’s not all. Nehamas also believes that it’s not enough for us just to feel something is beautiful; the experience of beauty is something we also feel compelled to share.
Beauty connects us.
Which brings us back to Mom, who called me on the phone a few evenings ago. Just to say, “Go outside right now! Before the sun sets!” The entire horizon was massively magenta, glinting goldly, the October branches of our big oak arching starkly against the sky.
And wow. Just look at those clouds.
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.
Remember that? It’s the refrain of a song Pete Seeger wrote in 1967 and sang a few months later on the Smothers Brothers show. CBS, the network on which the show was broadcast, objected to the song’s anti-Vietnam War message and censored it. Then in ’68, after a raft of bad publicity, they reversed course and let the song air.
I was around back then. I watched the Smothers Brothers every week on a little blue portable TV with a 12-inch black & white screen, the picture fuzzy and staticky if you didn’t set the rabbit ears just right, and even then, it was fuzzy pretty much all the time. Do you remember rabbit ears? No? Don’t worry about it. You can google them later if you want.
Anyway, I remember the big hullabaloo over CBS censoring the Smothers Brothers. That decision was just plain stupid. We all thought so. But then, there was a lot of stupid going around at the time. In some ways like, for example, now.
Those six words – Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – I haven’t thought of them in years, probably decades. And then – *poof* – they popped into my head just a minute ago. Right as I was starting to write about how I’ve been feeling lately.
Which is: lousy. Maybe you, too? As in, waist deep in bad news? I mean, doesn’t it basically feel like the shut-off valve on the bad news pipe is busted, and nothing can stop the rising tide of flooding muck?
I went to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy this afternoon. Simple errand. Practically around the corner, an easy drive. My mom came along. We were chatting and catching up. The pharmacist was pleasant, as she always is. But wait. Don’t get comfortable yet.
Because along with the sounds of small talk, footsteps, doors closing, papers rustling and the occasional cough, there was also a CNN reporter’s excited voice crackling from the wall-mounted flat-screen across from the counter. (And I just have to stop here to ask: whose bright idea was it to bring CNN into the pharmacy? Who thought CNN seemed like a better idea than, say, soothing music, or pictures of puppies? Are you trying to drive us to drugs?)
It was one of those “we interrupt this broadcast” kinds of moments that seem to be interrupting every moment of every broadcast, these days. “There’s a shooter at the Capitol Building! We don’t even know if this is accurate, but we’ll just repeat the same thing till we do. There’s a shooter! At the Capitol Building!”
What? No! Not again. Not that sinking, helpless, horrible feeling again.
I turned and said to the pharmacist, “I don’t know how you can stand having that thing on all the time.”
And she said, “Well, at least this time, it doesn’t sound like anyone got killed.”
Right. True. I’m glad you’ve found a way to keep the horrible at bay, since you have to work here every day. Really. I am. I think it would give me a nervous breakdown. So I gotta go. Thanks for your help. Have a great day. Bye for now.
Because I’m going to check out for awhile. I need a break. From the news. It’s not that I don’t believe in the value of an informed citizenry. I surely do believe in that. And I try to be one, an informed citizen. It’s just that sometimes there’s way too much information to digest and still remain sane. Sometimes you can get so informed that you feel like you’re, well, waist deep in the big muddy. Not only that, you’re about to get sucked under. You’ve got to wade to shore and give your boots some time to dry.
Which is what we did. In a way. By which I mean, after we finished our other errand, Mom and I, on a total whim, stopped at a nail salon, and both of us got pedicures.
Okay, I live in the world. I see other women’s feet. For goodness sake, it’s been summer for the past several months. We’ve all been living in a world of toes. And if you’re looking at women’s toes, you’re also, almost a hundred percent of the time, seeing the shiny, tiny nails at their tips. Pink, red, orange, blue of every hue, purple, day-glo green and even black. Sometimes with little bitty polished pictures on the big ones.
Not to overshare, but my toes don’t look like that. They’re plain, short and dull. The toenails I was born with. Except larger.
Before today, I’d had exactly one pedicure in my life. Fifteen years ago. My mother had never had any. It’s not that we’re Amish. As a rule, we try to look pretty. I’ve colored my hair a few times a year since I turned 60. But I’ve never gotten the whole nail thing.
Till today. Here’s the scene. My mom is 91. You already know how old I am. We’re sitting side by side in brown leather massage chairs , capri pants rolled up to our knees, soaking our feet in unnaturally blue, warm and bubbly water. Giggling. Exclaiming. Each step of the pedicure a source of amazement for us. “Oh, look! What’s this? Oh, haha! Ahh! This feels so good!” The pedicure ladies are businesslike. We are not. We are also not feeling lousy anymore. We’re feeling shiny. We’re having fun.
I get it now.
This is nice. Nice is a relief. Nice is… good.
When we finished and paid, and the head nail lady said, “See you again,” we replied, “Oh, yes! You will!” And we meant it. We liked it. A lot. We’ll be back.
And so. In that spirit, I’ve prepared a short presentation of niceness. No soothing music or pictures of puppies. Just some encouraging words for you to take to sleep tonight.
I’m switching off the news now. Grabbing a pillow. Sitting back. Putting up my feet. Wiggling those toes. Are you with me? Comfy? Okay then. Here we go.
Take a deep breath. It’ll be okay.
There’s always beauty somewhere.
Let the light of the sun remind you of the light within you.
We see in the world what we hold in our hearts.
The quieter we become, the more we can hear.
Wade barefoot through the leaves.
Writing makes you think about boundaries. How much to reveal. How much to hold back.
Never mind writing. All it really takes to think about boundaries is living in the world with other people.
Sometimes you want to talk to them. Sometimes not. Some friends you can confide in. Others, forget about it. Someone smiles. Somebody smirks. Our boundaries. Shift.
Moods, rules, roles, affection, competition. Each moment of every relationship, unique as a swirling thumbprint.
A hundred or so years ago, some parents actually subscribed to the adage, “children should be seen and not heard.” Shut up, kid. Now there’s a boundary for you.
But they didn’t call it that a hundred years ago. Back then, a boundary was, you know, a fence, a border line, a barrier. Crossing one entailed known rules and risks. These days, though, you can’t pick up an advice column or a self-help book without coming face-to-face with references to the blurrier boundaries of the emotional kind.
Take for example the comment that Carolyn Hax, my favorite advice columnist, made to “Snoop,” who wrote last November to ask about a message he’d found while checking his girlfriend’s email. Her reply: “Snooping, obviously. Serious boundary violation.”
He read her email. Bzzt! Boundary violation! Could it be any clearer?
Like when you’re at the optometrist, and she’s — Click. Click. — switching the lenses in front of your eyes —This one? Or this one? — and suddenly — Go back! That one! — the bottom line is finally in focus?
It’s the same with a great metaphor. After all, the bottom line is rarely distinct when events are in motion. But when you can view moments through the lens of just the right metaphor — they suddenly become clear. As a bell. Ding!
Like boundary. Such a useful term. I did a little googling to find out when it entered our vocabulary in the psychological sense, as opposed to the fence sense. From what I could see, a few psychiatrists were starting to use it in the 1970s, mostly in reference to psychotic behavior. But as far as popular, non-psychotic parlance goes, it doesn’t seem to have made much of a blip on the cultural radar screen till the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Practically now.
So what took us so long? I wish someone had thought of it sooner. I could have used it. I mean, I really needed it.
A few years ago, I wrote a book, The Year of the Bird, which, if you read it, you already know that it includes a story about my 22-year ex-marriage to my ex-husband, a world-class yeller, punisher and tyrannical enforcer of arbitrary rules. One way to sum it up is to say that he lacked boundaries.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to say that. Because I’d never heard the word “boundaries” used that way. Of course, insufficient vocabulary was not the reason I stayed with him for so long. There was a whole tangle of stupid reasons for that, topped by the big three, self-blame, self-doubt and shame. It was only years later that I learned to look at his behavior in terms of boundary violations. Even then, long after it was over, aside from the nightmares and the PTSD, it’s helpful to be able to understand those years in these terms.
Another thing that’s helpful is talking about it. Telling your story. Which in this case is not easy. For one thing, I still feel embarrassed, mortified, humiliated about staying with him so long. I mean, wouldn’t you? Of course. Anyone would have had more sense than that. Except me.
For another, talking about it is a real conversation-stopper. No one knows how to respond. Awkward. At best.
That’s where writing comes in. That marriage is a subject that will puzzle me as long as I live, and what I love most about writing is the way it helps you figure things out.
For instance, when you’re talking and run out of ideas, you can just stop and say, “I can’t think of anything else” or “I forgot what I was going to say next.” Writing doesn’t let you off that easy. I mean, have you ever read a story that ended with the line, “I can’t think of anything else. The End?” Me neither.
Writing forces you to lash yourself to whatever thoughts you had and ride them all the way through the storms to the end of the trail. To try to hammer some sense out of the stories you need to tell.
The author E.L. Doctorow wrote this: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
All right then. Once more, into the fog. Over the boundary. Here goes.
There’s a story I’ve been carrying around for a long time, since the tail end of the last month I lived with my ex-husband. It took place on a hot, muggy night in late May, 1990. He’d long since stopped working and spent most of his time in his home, um, office, drinking, or roaming the other rooms, yelling. I was a freelance artist, always busy, lots of deadlines. My office was in the basement of our house. Trying to keep the boundaries clear between work and home was, as you might imagine, challenging.
Anyway, there’d been an “incident” between us earlier that day, during which I’d driven over to my parents’ house, where I was planning to spend the night. My ex called their house and promised he’d leave me alone if I came home and locked myself into the bedroom. I was reluctant, but knowing I had a deadline the next day, I drove home, locked the bedroom door, put on my nightgown and climbed into bed.
I’ll give you a few seconds to take that in. Are you still with me? Ready to get back to the story now? Okay.
Lying there and reading, or trying to read, I could hear him stumbling, drunk, around the kitchen, knocking into chairs, yelling on the phone, calling to order a pizza and leaving the house.
After about a half hour of quiet, the phone rang. I had an extension by the bed and picked it up. Hello?
A guy at the other end of the line asked, “Did a man from your house order a pizza from Domino’s a little while ago?”
Yes. I think so.
“Well,” he said. “He was just in here. He was really angry. He looked like he was going to hurt somebody. And I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t you.”
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you! I thanked him profusely and quickly, pulled my jean jacket on over my white nightgown, stepped into my black loafers, threw my toothbrush into my purse, pulled out my car keys and ran out the front door into the thick, muggy dark.
And my car wasn’t there.
He’d taken my car.
I ran across the street, and just a few steps beyond the corner, I heard the buzz of an engine from over the hill. It was my car. It was him in my car. Even on a night as inky as that one, I knew my white nightgown would stand out like a flag. I ducked behind a neighbor’s van and stayed there till he’d gone into the house with his pizza.
As soon as the front door shut, I raced up the hill to the shopping strip a couple of blocks away. Despite the late hour, High’s, a small convenience store, was still open. I went in.
Sweaty, wild-eyed, out of breath, hair frizzy as static on a TV screen, dressed in my white nightgown and black loafers, I stood among the brightly lit aisles, trying to emulate the attitude of a casual midnight shopper whose most pressing decision is whether to purchase twinkies or cheese doodles, yoohoo or mountain dew.
It would have been funny, if it had been funny. But it’s hard to feel the humor when a rack of Doritos is the only barrier between you and a man so angry that the pizza guy actually called you, instead of the other way around.
I should explain here that this was in the time before cell phones. And we were in the suburbs, where everyone has at least one car, so taxis are as rare as, say, peacocks.
But, believe it or not, just at that moment, a taxi drove up and parked right in front of High’s open doorway. The cab driver got out and walked into the store. I can only imagine what he thought as he saw me approach. But if he sensed something amiss, he never let on. When I asked if he could drive me to my parents’ house in Bethesda, he said yes.
He drove the few miles down the interstate, calmly resisting my repeated entreaties to speed, and deposited me in my parents’ driveway, where I thanked him and gratefully handed him the thirteen dollars I had in my wallet.
I had a key. I let myself in. My parents woke up, we talked for awhile, and eventually we all went to sleep. Thousands of other things happened later. But that’s the story I want to write tonight.
A story about boundaries. The boundaries the pizza guy sliced through. I mean, rain falls down, not up, right? And in just the same way, we call the pizza guy; the pizza guy does not call us. Sure, he never fails to ask you for your number when you phone in an order. But has he ever actually called you? Ever? I thought not.
But this pizza guy. He did. He found my phone number and he called me, even though he didn’t know me or anyone else who might have been at home. He called because he wanted to make absolutely sure there was no chance that anyone might get hurt that night by the angry man who’d just picked up a triple cheese, triple pepperoni pizza.
There’s a name for that kind of pizza guy, for that kind of person. That’s right. Good Samaritan. Which he truly was.
But things were moving so damn fast the night our paths crossed that I never stopped to get his name. I wish I had. I wish I’d thought of dropping by Domino’s a few days later and asking who’d worked the late shift that night.
I wish I could hurdle back over the boundaries of time to find out who he was, so I could send him a card or flowers or maybe buy him a dinner other than pizza. So I could thank him again. And let him know how very much his intentional act of kindness will always mean to me.
So before we say good night, let’s review. Preserve your boundaries. Respect those of others. Don’t ever trust anyone who tells you they won’t hurt you if you lock yourself into the bedroom. Turn off your headlights in the fog; they just make it harder to see. And always say thank you to the pizza guy.
Picture a kid, a girl kid bursting with energy. Screen door slamming behind her as she runs outside to climb the giant maple in the front yard. Branch by branch, pulling, straining ever higher, she reaches her favorite perch, perilously near the top. The leaves rustle and the breeze whistles softly as she surveys her world from high above.
Were you that kind of kid? That’s awesome. Because I surely wasn’t. If you’d been looking for me, you’d have had to rewind that little movie, climb branch by branch down the tree, slam through the screen door, back into the house. There I am. In the living room. Curled up in the puffy chair with pencil and paper or a book in my lap.
Or LOOK or LIFE magazine. Or a volume of The World Book encyclopedia, which my parents bought from my second grade teacher, Miss Mershimer, who sold encyclopedias to make money during summer vacations.
Or I could have been looking at one of my parents’ high school or college yearbooks, which I poured over repeatedly, feeling in some way that they could reveal great secrets. It was the same with my dad’s World War II scrapbook. When I was a kid, those memories were still too painful for him to share. It took decades for him to talk about his experiences in the war. But his scrapbook was on the bookshelf, sepia snapshots held in place with glued black photo corners, captioned meticulously in white ink on the black scrapbook pages, clues to his mystery.
I read other books, too, of course. Novels, biographies, comic books. The usual for a kid growing up in the fifties and sixties. But the book I loved best, stored on the bookshelf with my father’s scrapbook and my parents’ yearbooks and lots of other volumes so densely packed with words that I shut them immediately if I opened them at all, was The Family of Man, a collection of 503 photos selected by Edward Steichen for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.
Steichen called it “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world. Photographs made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death.” Reading that now, I think it’s a pretty fair description.
But kids don’t think in those terms. They look. They feel. And even as a kid, The Family of Man made me feel that people’s shared experiences transcended their differences. That all families are part of the human family. That when all is said and done, we are all one. I believe that to this day.
How much of your childhood stays with you as you age, as you negotiate your way through the complicated, confounding landscape of adulthood? Bits, scraps, shadows, flashes of light. Scents on a breeze. The way things felt on your skin, inside your eyes.
I remember the way it felt to look at The Family of Man. It was as if my eyes were little vacuums whose work it was to suck all the understanding they could from every one of those 503 pictures. I didn’t think that in words, of course. But I felt that – somehow – absorbing the meaning that those photos held would help me understand life. Over and over, I returned to that book, held it on my lap, slowly turned the pages. Looking. Feeling.
Many years later, decades later, way far into adulthood, I got the idea for a song. I can’t write music. I don’t have that gene. But my brother David does. And I can write words. The words came urgently to me. I called the song The Family Tree. I emailed it to David. He picked out notes, melodies, harmonies on his guitar.
My husband George and I flew down to Florida to visit David and his family. While we were there, we sat together and sang and revised and sang some more. We finished the song. After George and I flew home, David recorded it. Later, he sent me the music file, and I imported it into iTunes. That was 2005, eight years ago.
Life goes on. It’s complicated. It demands all your attention, all the time. I pretty much forgot about our song. Till one day this past July, driving home from Philadelphia, listening to the shuffle of music on iTunes, our song came up, the first time I’d heard it in eight years. Like hearing something new. I played it over and over, turning up the volume, recalling the words, savoring the sounds. Feeling the feelings. The same ones I felt when I was a kid, memorizing the pictures in The Family of Man.
Here’s our song, The Family Tree. David’s singing lead, with harmonies by his wife Janie, his daughter Mollie, and their friend and band mate Joe Terrana. David’s on guitar, Joe’s on keyboard, and Mollie’s on drums.
I hope you like it. Feel free to share it with your family.
P.S. Just in case you’re moved to sing along, here are the lyrics to The Family Tree:
It’s solid as rock, tall as the sky
Its branches have branches that reach high and wide.
From ages before us till after we’re gone
It’s braved the storm’s fury, it sings the wind’s song!
Our sisters and brothers
It’s you and it’s me
Our strength, our foundation
Our family tree.
It was planted in days before words can recall
Entwined in its roots are the roots of us all.
The rings in its trunk show the mark of the years
Our good times, our hard times
Our dreams and our fears.
The branches surround us,
too many to see.
A place for us all on
Our family tree.
It’s the grandma who sewed all our clothing by hand
The brother who forded the dark Rio Grande
The uncle who picked cotton till his hands bled
The father who worked nights to keep his kids fed
The sister who sailed ‘cross the ocean alone
The mother who made a rough tenement home
The grandpa who rode in the back of the bus
The cousins who lived and died long before us.
It’s children, grandchildren
It’s our history
Our heart and our memories –
Our family tree.
I don’t usually talk about this, but thinking up scary things is one of my special talents. No matter what happens, I can always imagine something worse. I don’t have to try. Fear just comes naturally to me.
You might think this particular skill would provide me with healthy perspectives when the going gets tough. But no. It just makes me feel guilty for feeling blue, when life could clearly be so much harder.
Which brings me to this past month. Wall to wall emergencies. Stressapalooza. Code Red and a half. Not that it couldn’t have been worse, of course. After all, everyone’s still alive, I’m still vertical and obviously able to type.
And that makes it possible to get back to the story I started writing earlier this summer. About a trip we took to Philadelphia a few years ago, to see a rare example of sacred Buddhist art, a Kalachakra Mandala, and about Losang Samten, the Tibetan Buddhist monk who created it.
Wait. Please. I don’t want to mislead you.
Normally our trips to Philadelphia revolve around visiting my sister Mimi, picking up supper at Hymie’s Deli, watching a movie. That sort of thing.
But Mimi works at the community center that was hosting Losang Samten, and when she found out about him, she invited us to come see his work. Mimi knows about a lot of interesting things that I’ve never heard of before. Kalachakras, to name just one.
Mimi told us that Kalachakras originated in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. And that, even today, only a handful of people in the world have the discipline, dedication and practice to be able to create – or more accurately, recreate – a Kalachakra.
She said that Losang Samten would work on it all day, every day for an entire month, lightly rubbing one chakpu, a narrow metal funnel, over another, to arrange thin strands of brightly colored sand into elaborate patterns.
Of course I was curious. We drove up to Philly. We got there the night the Kalachakra Mandala was completed.
And this is what we saw: A round, vibrant design, maybe six feet in diameter. Filled with patterns made from multi-colored sand that were so intricate you could easily have mistaken them for embroidery stitches.
Mimi told us that the term Kalachakra is usually translated as “wheel of time.” Later I found out that another interpretation is “circle of life.” So even though, at first sight, the Kalachakra’s exquisite tapestry grabs your eye, the key to its meaning is in its name.
And its meaning is what made me want to write this story. Not its beauty, although the care and concentration that went into composing it makes you stand in awe. But this: the fact that just one day after it was done, it would be undone.
It would be, as they say, dismantled. All the sand would be brushed into a pile at the center of the circle. Bagged up and carried to the river. Scattered over the water. Blown away on the currents and the breeze.
That really got to me.
I mean, when I spend a couple of days or a week working on a drawing or a painting or a story, my plan is to hold onto it when it’s done. Print it. Put it up on the wall. Back it up on my external hard drive. Post it on my blog. It’s my product, man. The proof of my effort.
Sure. I know. We all know. My stuff. Your stuff. All of it. Eventually, everything gets blown away.
It’s one of those things we know deep inside. And that’s where we’d like it to stay. Out of sight. Out of the way. We’ve put our hearts into this life, after all. So what was the meaning of all that work, all that love and care and effort, if we can’t hold onto it? It hurts to know that we can’t. Sometimes it hurts a lot. We need comfort.
Obviously, I’m no kind of expert. I wouldn’t know any part of this if Mimi hadn’t told me about it. But here’s how it looks to me. The purpose of the Kalachakra is, ever so beautifully and gently, to help us remember that the circle of life is made up of countless parts. Coming, going, beginning, ending, twining, transforming. The wheel of time will turn. And so will we.
I learned that from Losang Samten on a November evening a few years ago in Philadelphia.
It’s part of the story I wanted to tell. But it’s not the end.
To get there, let’s go back inside the community center where my sister Mimi works, to the side of the lobby where the completed Kalachakra is on display.
Here’s the scene:
About sixty of us sitting in front of the Kalachakra Mandala, all eyes on Losang Samten as he circles it, chanting meditative prayers. His voice is soft. Even though only some of the Buddhists among us can understand his sacred words, we’re all hushed and still, straining to hear him.
See us? Still and hushed?
All right then. Now let’s turn our gaze to the other side of the lobby, which is quickly filling with chatty, laughing people, meeting, greeting and eagerly anticipating the beginning of – wait for it – Gay Bingo, a “fabulous, irreverent, campy, wildly popular monthly event,” according to the website for http://www.aidsfundphilly.org, the group that’s sponsored Gay Bingo for going-on 19 years, to help raise money for HIV and AIDS awareness and services. Sure, everyone there is glad that Gay Bingo supports a worthy cause. But mainly, people go to Gay Bingo because it’s hilarious. And right now, they’re ready have some bona fide fun.
So let’s review.
On this side, there’s a hushed crowd, earnestly contemplating this:
And on this side, there’s an exuberant crowd, eagerly anticipating this:
The exuberant people? They’re fine. They are happy. They’re ready to party.
The hushed people, on the other hand, of whom I am one, are less than fine. We’re distracted. We’re getting irritated. We’re having trouble concentrating. We can still see Losang Samten quietly chanting over the Kalachakra, but as the hubbub behind us swells, we can’t hear him at all.
Beyond that, we hushed people have an additional problem. Right here, right now, in this place and this time, we’re trying really hard to be, you know, good. We’re trying to rise to the Kalachakra occasion, to slough off the petty stuff. Like, for instance, irritation.
But here it is. Dammit. We’re helpless. This isn’t a movie theater, where we can feel free to cast indignant glares at noisy patrons. We’re at a sacred ritual, with a venerable monk, doing… what is it we’re doing here? Oh yes. Striving for enlightenment.
So much for us. What about that monk, himself? What about Losang Samten? He’s still circling the Kalachakra. Chanting. Too softly for even the most hushed to hear. But he doesn’t seem bothered or flustered or the slightest bit distracted. The look on his face is intent, serene.
Until. Until, unexpectedly he stops circling. He stops chanting. He looks up. He smiles.
“Do you hear that noise?” he asks.
Damn right we do, we’re all thinking. Or at least I am.
And then Losang Samten exclaims, just loudly enough for everyone to hear:
“Isn’t it wonderful?”
Didn’t you mean to say distracting? Irritating? Inconsiderate?
Actually, no. Wonderful.
Wonderful is exactly what he said.
Hold on a minute. Let’s see if I can wrap my head around this. Those crescendos of laughter effervescing from a few feet away are wonderful because…?
Because they’re the sounds of joy? Because joy is beautiful? Because the sounds of joy are embracing us? Because we are all here together? Because we are all here?
Ohhh. Okay. Now we get it. We’re like the patterns in the Mandala. We two groups aren’t two separate halves. We are interwoven. A whole. A circle. Like the Kalachakra.
Oh. Now we get why Losang Samten is serene. As opposed to merely quiet, like his earnest listeners. Losang Samten understands the Kalachakra as more than an exquisite art form or the visual center of an ancient ritual. He knows that its purpose is to hold us all – earnest and hilarious, irritated and exuberant – in its embrace.
What a wonderful lesson. One I’ll never forget.
Except most of the time. You know how it is, living life. It’s hard to hold onto the big picture.
But once in awhile, like now, something will bring it circling back to me, and I’ll remember.
And that will be, well, wonderful.