I fell while I was running two days ago. I think I caught my foot on a tree root. It was a violent shock. I've never fallen that hard before. I'm not supposed to ever fall, what is happening?
My anxiety was off the charts this week, so I went to Van Cortlandt Park to run (which is my routine two or three times a week), then I decided I didn’t have the mental energy to push myself, I would just walk. But about 100 yards into the walk my circulating thoughts felt intolerable and I said to myself running is the only thing that’s going to interrupt this. I went around the pond and down the newly paved bike path, the Putnam Trail. It feels a little creepy during the day during the week, vegetation high on both sides this time of year and hardly any people around, but then I noticed golfers through the chain link fence on both sides of me and felt better. I decided to run half a mile out and then turn back, so I would have one mile done when I got back to the main part of the park, and then go around the parade ground and get two miles in.
As I was running back I felt good, no leg pain, breathing steady and I thought maybe I could go even further (the anxiety had vanished). I was coming up on a right turn. It’s a narrow dirt path, well trodden, but with small rocks and roots. I’ve walked it a million times. As I turned I had the thought, maybe I should walk this part… then I was flying toward the ground. For a fraction of a second I realized I was actually falling and then kind of skidding along the dirt from the momentum. I picked my head up right away and everything was spinning, but I felt an odd urgency to get up. I needed to right myself, to immediately get past the mistake of falling. I stood up, the park still spinning around me, and got to the top of the dirt path where it opens out into the parade ground. I sat down on a tree stump. With my head reeling, but settling a bit, I took out my phone and called my husband. I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass out or something else... so I better tell him where I am.
After a minute or two we concluded that I was fine and I just needed to go home and rest. I walked about a third of a mile home, as I remained on the phone with him. People were staring at me. Then I felt blood running down the side of my face, and saw it dripping on to my shirt. I reached up and my finger went into the open wound. On second thought, I better go to urgent care.
I got into the elevator to go up to my apartment and there were two people. Fuck, I don't want to see anyone. One of them said, “Are you okay?” I said yes, but turned my back, shame flooding over me. I got out of the elevator and into my apartment as fast as I could. I went right to the bathroom and looked at my face. The right side was covered in dirt and blood. I washed some of the dirt off the lower part of my face and my hands, but decided not to touch the wound near my eyebrow. My daughter drove me to urgent care. I started worrying that I might have something more serious going on inside my skull. When you walk in with a bleeding head wound they take you right in.
A nurse took my vitals, and the doctor began to clean the wound. I lay under the blue sterile paper legs shaking, anxiety building as she stitched me up. Once the doctor was done and removed the paper she saw that I was crying and she said, "Don’t worry, it will look fine." She thought I was crying about my face.
The vulnerability and helplessness I had felt a couple hours earlier which had set me off on my run, was now personified in my physical state. The tears were humiliation spilling over. Anxiety is humiliating. Falling is humiliating. And, of course, the nagging thought, this is my fault. Well, it was. I tripped. It wasn’t the ground’s fault. But when I say this is my fault it’s coming from an entirely unforgiving, judgmental place.
Six stitches, a chest x-ray (nothing broken), and an exam to determine whether or not I had a concussion later, and I was able to go home.
Day two my eye is really swollen. I look like a boxer, exaggeratedly purple. When I’ve seen this in the movies I’ve sometimes thought they got the makeup wrong. It’s too big and round, like a plum, too even, that’s not what people look like. It’s exactly what I look like.
What’s the story here? Watch your step? Sure. But more significantly, where does the physical trauma take me within myself, perhaps somewhere beyond the humiliation. What’s it like to look in the mirror and see a startlingly new face, an undeniable symbol of my vulnerability?
One thing I know, since I’ve had to rest these last two days, my anxiety (after taking up an uptick the past two months) has significantly lessened. I have permission to slow down and be here. I’m not saying I brought the accident on myself to deal with the anxiety. I find that kind of blame, meaning-seeking harmful. Accidents happen, many things happen and not always for a reason. Nothing like falling to shatter any illusions of control and to remind you anything can and does happen.
Sad, shameful, and cloistered in my apartment is a familiar place to me, dare I say comforting. I’ve been forced to stop striving. I’ve literally had to stop looking at the computer and phone for periods of time as my headache would increase. I’ve been just plain tired and needed to lie down, and let my mind wander. But I prefer doing. Mental wandering, since I was young, meant repetitive thoughts of scary scenarios in an effort to keep myself safe and maintain the illusion of control, so doing is better. But wandering is what I need right now, and I know there is grace or something beyond the worry.... if I can sit with myself long enough.
I was talking to my therapist last night going over how the anxiety had been so persistent the last few months, and I realized, for the first time, this person I am now with anxiety, that I have been living with for many, many years and learning to manage, is far closer to my authentic self than the woman I was before who never felt it, and more authentic than the woman who works so hard to never fall on her face. Maybe I can be a little easier on myself. Maybe that fall shook something loose.
Recently I stood in the middle of the Costume Institute exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and fell quiet. Standing there, with my brain not scrambling around, was unusual – here I am, inside my skin, quiet, okay alone, more than okay. I felt at home, peacefully surrounded by hours and hours and hours of extraordinary work, detail adding up to the vision -- all of it, an expression of love.
Running right under the surface of my usual relentless noisy, competing thoughts, lies an escape from them that I have employed since I was a kid, my own weird and wonderous internal life filled with secrets and possibility, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve wondered if it’s an unhealthy escape, a measuring stick the real world can never match up to, that I really need to learn to let go of, spend less time with. Or maybe not.
Standing in those exhibition rooms, with my vigilance momentarily silenced, I felt my internal world reflected, blooming all around me. I floated from garment to garment, read about them, examined them, stood near them, they existed outside of me, so this vibrating resonance within calling my attention is not some old, neurotic effort to avoid, it’s where I’m heading.
I just finished sewing a dress for myself. When I first saw a photo of it in a pattern magazine it rattled me. I could see myself in it. I knew the fabric and color. It was challenging sewing and I didn’t construct it all beautifully, there are seams that did not come together perfectly and places where I had to rip and re-do, and details I know are not quite right. But when I put it on I felt the imagined dress and the reflection in the mirror make contact for a moment - it’s very close. I’ll make the next one and the next one and the next one.
I realized while standing in my internal quiet at The Met that sewing was a way in and a way out. That is why I keep doing it. Every time I finish a project, I start a new one. It’s not my vocation. I don’t want to make it into an income stream (gross, people always ask). I just want to do it, so I can realize my internal life even more.
Speaking about “finding myself”, “in search of the self”, all those self-help-esque sentiments have always felt a little precious and simultaneously inadequate to me. The shitty truth is I got deeply alienated from myself as a young kid and I'm still moving mountains to not to be scared of being with myself, to stop running -- and stand in the quiet.
Deep into therapy for the last two years I am still deconstructing, and reconstructing in some ways, my early life so that I can exist in my current one. I go to therapy in person now, which I much prefer, to sit across from an older man who is present, intuitive, reflective, has lived, and offers me some help. When we head into my past it’s mostly about my mother, who has been painfully baffling to me for most of my life, but then my therapist will carefully bring up my father and remind me that my dad is part of this picture, his leaving when I was ten years old -- being left by a parent is significant, he will say. Oh yes, I know, I know. I have no unknown, unresolved feelings about his leaving. I spent time with him in my 20’s before he died and reconnected and we’re fine, just fine, he and I . . . in my memories.
I’m reading a book about a middle-aged man listening to his old mother talk about her childhood (The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer) and I wonder if my children will want to hear about my childhood when I’m old and I wonder what I will say, what small details will emerge as they often do in old age, that at this moment I can’t even recall. Will it just be another recounting of the worst stuff they already know that’s left me with this legacy of longing? And then a picture of my father in our backyard standing over the barbeque pops into my head, him turning towards me, a smile beginning.
This moving picture comes from an actual photograph that I’ve stared at so many times. And I think, there it is, the story an old woman shares with her children. My dad was fun, he started stuff, stirred it up, changed a room when he walked in. He was big and loud and wanted us to think he was that way; that he was having a good time. But it was mostly because he was broiling underneath, trying to find ways to burn his hard feelings off, let them rise, so he would come up with schemes and outings to entertain and distract.
And then, like the flash of that photograph in my mind, I realize for the first time that when he left he took my stories, the construction of the rest of my childhood that felt like childhood, that I would someday as an old woman tell my children, if it was real. He was the keeper of the good stuff. He took with him the backyard cook-outs and neighborhood games and camping trips and perfect Christmas trees and more dogs he kept bringing home and neglecting and more furniture he would build in his shop -- like the lovely corner bookcase that couldn’t fit through the bedroom door so he had to take it all apart and reassemble it for my older sister.
The image of a man carrying off in a suitcase my would-be childhood in the dark of night, hits me like a warm flood running through my body, because it makes sense of the yearning for belonging that has been so potent all my life. In our family story he’s the bad man who left, the black hole that gobbled up everything. For me, any good pieces got sucked up into the deep recesses and only came forward in weird, obscure flashes.
Now, so many decades into my life, edging closer and closer to myself, the self I've kept under wraps as I was pretty sure she would only bring me pain, I realize that this dad character held in his possession the critical ingredient –– he made the outside world match up with my insides, who I felt I was, even as a kid. Living with this somewhat wild, unpredictable, difficult man overflowing with enthusiasms and ideas and confronting me and hurting me and looking like me made me feel like I was home, a difficult home, but a real one. His life, his being around was communicating something profound to me. By ten years old I had only gotten an inkling of who I was. When he left, that inkling went with him.
And ever since then I’ve been in search of it, that thing which can be found nowhere outside of me, but I’ve spent a lot of my life looking. I do get fleeting glances of it in the eyes of certain men -- erratic, impulsive shiny men with slightly scary faces and big, agile bodies, and adventure in their glances toward me. I love those kinds of men. But I didn’t marry one because the way my story goes those guys can’t be trusted. But I’ll never stop glancing around the corner.
So, what stories will I tell my children when I’m older? The true ones, I suppose, a lot of which they’ve already heard, but hopefully some new ones about their mother, their wild, unpredictable, difficult mother overflowing with enthusiasms and ideas and being confronting and hurtful; a looking-like-them mother. A woman who settled into herself, a woman whose insides finally matched up to her outsides, a woman who stepped out into the world, messy bits and all.
By the time I was aware of Elvis’s existence, he was in some ways already a has-been in his 30's, and his movies were relegated to the TV. I loved him from the moment I saw him. I was about six years old. Despite being one of four kids in our family, TV watching was often a private affair. Sitting alone watching him felt slightly subversive and comforting. He was a kind, grownup man, not scary, not intimidating (unlike real life in every way), funny even, gentle except when he started to sing. At the age of six his raw sex appeal, his sensual voice, his flirting with all those pretty young women, and them flirting back, was something I experienced as joy. Staring into his face was like falling … long and slow into the arms of some squishy, soft, tingly place that I had never been before and never wanted to leave. I can’t remember if I saw the 1968 TV special in real time, him in that black leather suit sitting in a ring of musicians overflowing with contentment and looking astounding, or whether I’ve just seen clips of it so many times since -- his voice, utterly singular. But that is still my favorite Elvis.
I bought his albums when I was a little older and played them on my '70's record player, one in particular, Elvis for Everyone!, until the scratches made it skip constantly. He fell off my radar when he was in his Vegas days. I knew nothing about that time in his life. Then in the middle of August 1977, when I was still a kid on summer vacation, he died. He was the same age as my parents. How could he be dead? How in the world? He was alone in his bathroom. It was the saddest thing I had ever heard.
I read the Elvis biography by Albert Goldman, published in 1982, when I was young woman. It, of course, went into detail about the harder stuff, the uglier stuff, the jungle room. I wasn’t entirely surprised by any of it, but it didn’t make me turn away. He had that grip on me that our early childhood influences do.
I recently saw the new film, Elvis, and it lifted me out of my chair and left me kind of speechless. I cried hard for the last ten minutes, tears dripping into my mask, snot, the whole thing. I thought the grief and love I was feeling might be only about me and my nostalgia and I was embarrassed by the weight of it, and then I looked at my 24 year old daughter next to me and she too was crying. The movie is an everyman story, believe it or not. All of us want to become, actualize, live as our full selves; it’s just that Elvis’s full self was meteoric when he had it. We watch him find it at a young age, lose it, find it for a short time again, but then be unable to hang on to it. Any story of Elvis is a tragedy, it goes without saying, but this movie brought it home for me like no other version has. Rotten Colonel Parker is ominously there, as his voice guides us through the story; he cannot be shaken off by us or Elvis. Elvis at 23 sits on the floor of his mother’s closet, gripping her clothes, and sobbing uncontrollably after she has died, and we know he’s been changed in a way that will invariably send him down that rabbit hole we so wish he could have avoided. He’s 34 and going out on stage for his first come-back concert in Vegas, ashamed of all those cliché movies, thrilled to be in control of putting his own show together, and terrified that people won’t like it, then he absolutely sets the place on fire.
You don’t have to get Elvis, like Elvis, appreciate Elvis, but he is undeniable. The final scene of the movie is a clip of the real Elvis singing in public for the last time, high as a kite, drifting back and forth on the piano bench as someone holds the mic for him, and then he opens his mouth and the sound knocks you back, a howl, a guttural moan, a wail -– “time can do so much”.
Some critics don’t like the new biopic because it’s not dark enough, true enough, political enough -- he was an addict, a womanizer, insecure, and desperate to be seen. We know. This is a movie full of grace which is something that is so welcome to me at this moment in our/my collective cultural despair. The story became more and more intimate for me, and there I was back in one of those private moments from my childhood, connected to that fascinating character inside my TV, the innocence and silly sweetness not gone, but now filled in and around with the fullness of a whole, big life. The movie is an opportunity to see Elvis in ourselves -- a compassionate mirror to look into and feel what is possible, and a calling to forgive yourself, as he couldn’t, for where you may have tripped up, or just been human, along the way.
My daughter and I walked out of the theater feeling like we’d been to one of the best concerts we’d ever seen. We were buzzing. We had to talk it all through. We kept referring to it for days afterward, and I suspect we will for a long time. Our mantra in mulling over our own current internal battles became be your own Elvis, don’t let the shit stop you, find your Vegas moment, man –- wear the jumpsuit, do the karate moves, and speak.
I want my sexy back, my me back, my spot, my center, my shooting star, my familiar feels, my vibes, my don’t stop now, my choo-choo train, my hips rolling and eyes flashing and head lolling, my who’s that, my dangerous rhythm. Did it actually leave or did I imagine it leaving? Did I chase it away with thoughts about time? Did I stop seeing it in the mirror or did it vanish? Is it right there and I’m blind? Am I afraid to look at it? Did I stop believing in it, did I give it the short shrift, did I move on to something else, but I’m still holding onto the edge of the old? Am I afraid to let go and see new stuff, different stuff, know stuff that’s been there all along waiting stuff. I liked the way I was, before. I didn’t have to think so hard even though I did, because I always think so hard, because I believed thinking would free me –- it doesn’t.
My therapist recently said, “You don’t ever have to feel humiliated.” What?!! He said it again. “You don’t deserve to be, and you don’t ever have to feel humiliated, ever.” Deserve? What do I deserve? Hmmm…. To be crunched down under someone’s stare, shoe, and worse than that, their indifference. I can’t stop thinking about it, “I don’t ever have to be humiliated.” How?! It’s under my skin. It’s always there, peeking, waiting, an email comes my way, a phrase wafts through the air, a look, they were late to the Zoom call. Here I am! familiar, crowing humiliation. Maybe you do deserve it. Maybe you brought it on. Maybe it’s for you. Sexy, no. Depleted, yes.
The wallpaper in my bedroom from ages 11 to 17 was lime green, yellow and white. Bright lime green vines climbed up the wall intersecting, dotted with green and yellow flowers along the way on a white background. I spent hours and hours and days and days staring at that paper, trying to follow the vine, thinking there was some sense to it. I’m not a yellow and bright green person, I don’t think I was then, more of a deep reds and blues, and black and white kind of girl, but I hadn’t understood that yet. When asked to pick out the paper for the room of the new house I had to move to reluctantly (which would also be my mom’s sewing and ironing and laundry area, separated by a partial wall, ugh!) I picked that sunny shit. I can still see it, kind of daring me. Figure out the damn wallpaper, stupid. If you can’t make sense of a wallpaper pattern how do you think it’s going to be outside this window when you get a little older. I don’t know.
But then I stepped out anyway. I had some mojo, some cool, some come-on-over-here, some I-can-handle-this, some I-like-you, some brave flick-my-hair-and-don’t-look-back, a motor that ran in all directions, all times of day, definitely a standard shift, not an automatic. Run it as high as it will go in first gear and then jam into second, third, fourth and push it.
I want my sexy back. You can blame it on time, but I don’t think that’s it. Is it the itchy bits right under the surface. It is hiding behind that non-committal mirror. Is it quietly waiting for me to catch up with it, to give it a go, to pierce the air, to stop holding on to the sides, to let it rip?
It’s been a minute since Mike (my husband) and I and our fearless partner, friend, and director, Douglas Wagner, produced theater in NYC. We started out working together at Trinity Rep Conservatory and then came to New York and founded The Invisible Theatre back in the 90’s. And we created some beautiful, powerful shows that we were very proud of including two plays that I wrote:
DO SOMETHING WITH YOURSELF!
The Life of Charlotte Bronte
And an adaptation of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher
In the past twenty years Douglas went on to become a successful businessman, Mike did a deep soul search, left acting, worked in various roles in theater production and established a career in commercial real estate. We had two daughters, and I wrote, acted, worked for a non-profit, produced a jazz series, and kept digging for my voice.
Mike and I are now working together again putting up my play Bite the Apple, and Douglas will join us as a consulting director. The band is back together. In this role as writer/director/actor, making my own stuff, I feel like I’ve come home to where I started out, and it's very gratifying.
I was elated when I found out last summer that I had received a grant to mount a production of Bite the Apple. Grants are rare and beautiful things.
This play ... what can I tell you about this play. I love this play and it has driven me around the bend and back. The story lived in me. I knew it was a powerful, but finding the structure that would make it sing has been a quest. Over the years when I would spend the days, weeks, months working on it, I would say to Mike in the evening, “can we talk about the play?” I would watch him straighten his back, take a deep breath and say “yes”, because he knew “no” wasn’t really an option. He would listen and ask questions and I would contort myself through the day’s themes and ideas and actions and character’s desires searching for the golden nuggets that suddenly make scenes fall into place, characters make perfect sense, and plays feel whole. The evening would often end in exhaustion with no perfect answers, but the talking and listening were a crucial part of the process.
It all started when I read a book in 2010 about the value of reading the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales to young children, The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim, and the idea for Bite the Apple sprang full into my head, as they do:
The child learns from Cinderella that to gain his kingdom he must be ready to undergo a “Cinderella” existence for a time.
Little Red Cap is universally loved because, although she is virtuous, she is tempted ....
If there were not something in us that likes the big bad wolf,
he would have no power over us.
The queen orders the hunter not only to kill Snow White, but to return with her lungs and liver as evidence. When the hunter brings the queen the lungs and liver of an animal to prove he has executed her command, “The bad woman ate them and thought she had eaten Snow White’s lungs and liver.” In primitive thought and custom, one acquires the powers or characteristics of what one eats.
The selfishness of the mother, which forces her husband to take the rampion illegally, is balanced by the selfishness of the sorceress, who wishes to keep Rapunzel to herself locked in the tower. The fantastic element is that which provides the final consolation: the power of the body is imaginatively exaggerated by the overlong tresses, on which one can climb up a tower, and by the tears, which can restore sight. But what more reliable source of recovery do we have than our own body?
The first workshop of Bite the Apple was developed at The Directors Company in NYC in 2011, and then the play was produced as part of the NY Int’l Fringe Festival in 2012. I significantly restructured it and had a staged reading in 2016. This play speaks to all that I think about and need to say -- where did you come from, what happened to you, who are you really, and what do you want to do now?
The show will open on March 10, 2022
at 224 Waverly Place Theater,
West Village, NYC.
We have been hard at it for the past few months. I’ve been rewriting sections of the play, still digging. We searched for and found the perfect theater and rehearsal space. We’ve assembled an amazing cast and an exciting group of designers. We’ve had a zillion Zoom meetings. I’ve enlisted my dear friend and brilliant writer Drew Pisarra to be the Dramaturg on the project and my right hand man.
I’m excited and scared and excited and scared. I'm stepping out on my own in a new way by directing my own work, but as I said earlier, it feels like I'm where I'm supposed to be. Although it's been in development for ten years, this play, this story, feels urgent. It's never stopped grabbing my attention and pulling me forward. The fairy tales live in my girlhood memories, and the hard lessons in them are the bridge into my adulthood. I travel back and forth often.
I cannot wait to get into rehearsal with these gifted actors and begin to fill the scenes with tenderness and joy and frenzy and furor ... and hope.
I can promise that we will share with you an evening of live theater that is unique, compelling, visually and aurally provocative, and mines the beauty and mystery of desire --
desire for love, desire for a true family, and the desire to walk free in our own skin.
The tale of four heroines --
one trapped in servitude
one preyed upon by a wolf
one hunted through the woods
one locked in a tower --
many years later
determined to unearth what was lost
and write a new story
March 10 - 13, 2022
We will let you know when tickets go on sale soon.
Or can you? I got on a plane this past August in New York with my twenty year old daughter for the first time since the pandemic started. I am very anxious leading up to the trip. Playing out worst case scenarios has been an organizing principle for me most of my life, and I’ve been doing it since I made the reservations. Now I’m on the plane and have become kind of numb. The futility of my mental gymnastics to get control of . . . everything comes into sharp focus for me on an airplane. The flight is uneventful.
We land in hot, dry Denver, pick up the rental car, and hit the long, flat highway headed west out of the Denver airport. I look down and see that I’m going 70 mph which feels like 50. I learned to drive on these roads. The expansiveness takes my breath away and makes me queasy. I’m back. I can see ahead as far as I can see, the illusion at least of knowing where you are and where you’re going.
We arrive at our first stop, Ft. Collins, north of Denver, at my brother’s house, my tall, lanky, kind brother who owns a piece of me. He's got boney edges inside and out. But his sharp sense of humor, which he edits around me because he appreciates that I'm a walking nerve-ending, is tempered by his enormous empathy. His love is generous and wafts over me as we greet each other again. His facile intellect comes bounding out of his big eyes. He's comfortable hanging out in the gray areas of life, curious, questioning, searching, and it's there where we often connect. Upon our arrival he reins in his three dogs in a voice exactly like our long-gone father’s. But I don’t remind him of the ways he reminds me of Dad (at least not in the first few minutes I see him), ways that make me want to wrestle him to the ground and get right up in his face and say, Where have you been?! My brother doesn’t want to hear that he is in any way like Dad -- the guy who left his wife and four young kids high and dry. End of story.
We sit at his kitchen table over lunch, my brother, his wife, and my niece and nephew – my blood relatives I so rarely get in the same room with. Conversation flows, commonality wafts through the air, communion, belonging. In the middle of my carrot dipped in hummus it hits me how much this all means to me, how much I’ve longed for it. How grateful I am my daughter is here. When you are in the presence of something that you habitually need to the point you don’t notice the need any more, it’s disorienting when you actually get it. This is what I came for.
We head to our Airbnb that evening, which looked like a house on the site, but now it’s clear it is really a converted commercial building. Hence a door to the outside in the bedroom, and a door in the bathroom that leads to another residence where you can hear people talking and a washer and dryer going. I sit down to sort out why I am now so anxious?! What’s the problem? I could explain it as the traveling and coming back “home” and this disconcerting place where I have to sleep, and that's all true, but there is something more. When I drop out of my racing, repetitive mind, the culprit bubbles up and makes itself known -- humiliation –- I am humiliated. I am so deeply humiliated. I am a child again who doesn't know how to handle what is happening in her home, and knows she doesn't know, and knows she's in trouble, and is consequently very afraid. It's been decades but the fear I experienced as a kid is right there under my skin, and the helplessness and humiliation rides right along side of it.
I turn on the meditation app and breathe. I know I'm going to be anxious on and off throughout this trip, so there is some peace in accepting that fact. These feelings arise often in my day to day life, but here, I am in danger of being taken over by them.
The next day my brother and I and my daughter drive north, toward Wyoming. My brother sits next to me and we talk about this or that, and it’s as mundane as can be and as easy and hopeful as things can be.
After our father left, our mother married a man who threatened, berated, and frightened us and stood between us and our mother, which she allowed. Our father died when I was thirty-one and our mother just died a year ago, so my brother and our two sisters and I are actually orphans now, but it’s not a new feeling to me. I was never able to look up from myself and really see my siblings and feel that we were all part of each other’s lives. I was too occupied with my own survival on the sinking ship.
I long for this dear brother next to me and closeness to my sisters, but being with them is also being back on the ship. For decades I unsuccessfully tried to tell myself it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. I’ve finally stopped that. It’s hard to be with these people, the other three who’ve known me longer than anyone, the other three our father left, the three who witnessed and were also victims of the berating and the threatening and the fear, the three that me and my humiliation grew up with. But when I crack the hard outside of my shame a bit, and feel those first furtive glances hello and shy hugs and how-are-yous, an intense intimacy is there for the taking. This is why I came.
When we get out of the car on the high Colorado plains the air is heavy and smoky and dull from the fires out West. My brother is pissed that his beloved views of the Rockies are obscured, but I remember them, I don’t need to see them today. The mountains loomed in the west my whole young life, like a painting hanging in the sky. We hike and take pictures. He almost steps on a rattlesnake. My hyper vigilance kicks in and I begin to plan the steps I would take if one of us did get bit. Mostly I just want to get back in the car. I have a persistent internal push and pull in these Colorado Rockies. They are a part of me and seriously unsettling. The geography, topography, air of where we come from plant a permanent stake in all of us. Isn’t that supposed to give us a feeling of kinship? I’ve never felt capable in this place –- hiking, skiing, camping, the wilderness, hang the food in the trees so bears don’t get it, what?! I’m slow and not sure-footed, my lungs never seem full, and what are those sounds?
I hang out with my brother for the next three days, grab some meals, watch some TV, and we drop into an easy side-by-side rhythm. I wish this was every week, lunch with him, meet me for coffee, walk his dogs. With him, at times, the sinking ship memories fall into the background, and the girl of my past can sit easy and joyful. On the last evening, my daughter and I and my brother eat pizza and watch Ted Lasso. He chews like our Dad; he crosses his legs like our Dad. I miss our Dad -- the dad who looked me in the eye and let me know I was his.
We stand outside my brother’s house, I grab him around the neck, he bends down a bit, and I hug him as long as seems normal, which isn’t long enough. I have to be cool; I have to believe we will be together again soon. I can’t think about how hard it is for me to travel, how I have no idea when we will sit in the same room again. I say a level-headed good-bye. My muscles clench all over. Sobs are right there, but I can’t, I won’t let go of myself in his driveway. Why not? What’s wrong with sobbing about your love, your fear, your need, your hope in your brother’s driveway?
I lie in bed in the fringy Airbnb, worn out, and thank the universe for my daughter, the soulful, silent witness to this trip. She is recording it all under her skin. She is an ancient wise woman.
The next morning we head south an hour and a half to Denver. The next Airbnb I’ve used before, nothing special, but no surprises at least. First stop is my oldest sister’s assisted living residence. She lived alone until just a few years ago when it got too hard. She hates the place and hates the loss of her independence. She is mentally disabled -- chromosomal luck of the draw. She has been pushing an invisible boulder up a hill her whole life. She is sophisticated about some parts of life, child-like about others. She is a complainer, anger fuels her, helps her get things done, move that rock another foot. She doesn’t deal in the social niceties. She doesn’t lie or pretend. After some hellos, she puts us to our first task. Her printer has stopped working. My daughter sits down at the computer and goes to work to solve the problem. I take in the myriad of old photos around her apartment, old pictures of me, the family, our mom. I watch my sister move about the place slowly. Her shoulders are slumped, her walk is tentative, her eye sight is not great. She’s an old farmer, bent forward over the plow, digging in, getting the job done. In her presence my brain often ricochets back and forth between my luck and her struggle. But if I’m honest I have never really felt lucky.
That night my other older sister has arranged a dinner with her husband and three adult sons. This sister, second from oldest, four years older than me, has a bit of the old farmer about her too, but she doesn't have her head down. She looks up and out and plows toward what is hopeful. I know she does it because she is keeping in check her own painful feelings, but she doesn't want to talk about them. She will listen and she will affirm my experience which over the years has become an irreplaceable gift. She has boney insides and outsides too. She's tenacious and crazy bright which can make her seem hard at times, but her cautious brown eyes give away the girl inside. The sweet, tough girl who had to grow up fast, put on 80's power suits and climb that corporate ladder in heels and learn how to smile through mountains of bullshit, while she paid the bills and longed for a safe place to land.
My sister's family and my daughter and I all gather from various parts of the city to a restaurant with a pandemic-acceptable outdoor patio. Warm greetings, drinks all around, conversation overlaps, the atmosphere is collegial, boisterous. Although I have less in common with this sister and her family, interests and Colorado living, I relish in their company. I used to fight for my place here and everywhere, my point of view. Perhaps age and time has lessened that need. I sit back and listen and let it all flow around me.
I think it was my mother I was mostly fighting with . . . in my head, for her acknowledgement, for her to witness what had happened to me when I was young. Now she’s not here. The conversations in my head have gone quiet. The next day my daughter and I go to the cemetery where her ashes are interred. I stand there staring down at the stone with her name on it for the first time. I try to feel her. I try to conjure her. But I mostly feel detached and profoundly uncomfortable. She is everywhere in me, but I can’t feel her. I decide I want to leave flowers, that is something I can do. We drive to the nearest grocery store. I pick blue hydrangeas and white lilies, and buy a large bottle of water. We drive back and I go into the cemetery office to get a plastic vase. I poke the vase into the earth, fill it with water, and arrange the flowers. They add something. I was here, Mom. Her absence overtakes me. It’s so big I can’t yet know it. I want to go back the next day to see how the flowers are doing . . . and I don’t want to know. We don’t go back.
We visit my oldest sister every day at her assisted living place, and we take her out to her favorite pancake spot for lunch. As much as she doesn’t like where she is living, she likes less the disruption of her routine, and worries about getting in and out of the rental car and me being able to fold her walker, but we manage. I hate sitting inside the restaurant, all I can think about is COVID. My anxiety always needs a place to land and it’s not that hard to find one these days. It’s my first time eating inside since the pandemic. But I am aware of the rareness of my visits and it is what she wants to do and we are all vaccinated, so I eat the pancakes.
On our last night my daughter and I sit on the back patio of my other sister’s modest house and have a meal of take out Mexican food and talk, as her old dog, Buddy, strolls back and forth and sniffs, not sure what to make of these new people. It’s as mundane as can be and as hopeful as can be. My big sister and her husband who has been in our lives since she was 16 and I was 12. I feel the heat of familial connection, like a little electric shock. In the past, when we all gathered with my mom and our stepfather there was always guardedness in the air, against my stepfather’s brutality, against our collective knowledge of what we’d been through, and a falseness as we tried put it all behind us and be in the moment. All four of us had a grave and earnest desire for an authentic, safe family. Three of us created our own. We all have long marriages and children. And we’ve done our best to include our oldest sister in that part of our lives. With our mom gone, oddly, as much as I deeply longed for her closeness, I think I may be experiencing that deeply longed for intimacy and belonging finally now in these moments with my sisters and brother. I didn’t know it, but that is what I came for.
I’ve been dreaming about my perfect wardrobe all my life. I love clothes. An unexpected huge, high collar, precise, pleasing tailoring, rich, elegant fabric. I love high fashion -- the clothes you see in runway shows, costumes, clothes that no one could possibly wear out in the real world, or could they?
The clothes in my mind are the real me, as is the woman in my mind who at times makes an appearance out in the world, clear, bright-eyed, capable, and then moves back into the weeds and waits for the safe signal to appear again. From who? From where? I want more than anything at this point in my life to let myself be just as I am.
Perhaps that clear-eyed woman will show up more often if all I have in my closet are the clothes that I want, that fit right, that feel right, that I will actually put on, not the clothes I consider out of some frustrating habitual practice of hanging onto things because I feel empty and needy and I better hang on for dear life to whatever I can. That might-want-to-wear-and-sometimes-do-but-don't-feel-good-in shit is the same as not speaking, being careful, being watchful, trying to stay safe, settling.
Clothes are a place my imagination takes off, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at me. I keep it in check. I've never had the budget to go nuts in designer stores, but that's not why I don't always wear what I love. As long as I can remember, particularly when I’m going out at night, I will ruminate all day on what I want to wear, creating an outfit in my head, sometimes even then putting it on, standing in front of the mirror, enjoying it for a moment, and then talking myself out of it and ending up in jeans and a shirt. I like jeans and a shirt, it’s a good look, has the potential for a lot of variety, but it’s not always what I mean. It’s the weeds. I’m afraid. I’m tall and striking and people stare at me anyway, and if I wear some larger than life dress or a low neckline or a high slit or heels that put me well over six feet or my hair up like a bird or multiple patterns mixed together or velvet or red or whatever, I’ll be exposing myself. I'll be exposing what I think of myself. I’m afraid -- heart pounding, anxiety-ridden, second-guessing the truth I know, ages-old afraid.
The compromises I have been making have bled into everything. And I don’t mean the necessary compromises we all have to make to get along in this life. I mean the ones that break you inside, the stories you’ve been telling yourself about yourself because you had to, that have never felt right, the slouch in your shoulders, your eyes darting away, your arms across your chest, your feet shuffling back and forth, your muffled words, your silent agreement to go along with the belief that all this protection and caution and equivocation is necessary. Who are you going to be out there in the world without it? Who are you going to be without all these side-hustles, side-glances, slanted hips, and breathless sighs? Who are you going to be just walking, walking one foot in front of the other, back straight, eyes level, wearing what you love? Who is that woman?
Getting rid of some of the clothes in my closet is not going to be any easier than getting rid of the beliefs about myself that I have hung onto. But I need to see the truth lined up in front of me in the morning when I decide what to put on and cut the bullshit.
My sister recently sent me a box which included this photo, and numerous things that I had given my mom over the years: photos of my kids, notes, a Mary Cassatt print titled “Young Mother Sewing”, an anthology of plays that includes one of mine. My sister has been slowly dispersing my mom's things since she died last summer. I sat on my living room floor looking at all those artifacts thinking how much they don’t matter, and yet how much they mattered once. There was also a big clump of bubble wrap with something inside. I started to tear at it and I knew. My sister had told she would be sending this along . . . a portion of my mom’s ashes in a Tupperware container.
I had never seen this photo before, it’s Christmas morning, 1963, the wrapping paper confirms. That is me holding up the doll. My mom’s face, obscured, turns toward me. My sister Cheryl is busy to the right. My sister Michele is smiling up at us. The landscape painting, barely visible on the left, was hung prominently in every house my mom lived in. All the living rooms flash through my memory now. My mom’s robe is chenille, common back then, but now harder to find. Shockingly, though she doesn’t look it, my mother is pregnant and will give birth to my brother in three months. I still wrestle with that cowlick on the back of my head. My father is the seer, behind the camera. I don’t remember this moment, of course, far too young, but I still feel the same. It’s extraordinary -- Mom, see, let me show you -- and now she is gone. It’s absolutely surreal and a fact.
Time has taken on such strange and profound meaning this past year. Like a lot of us I vacillate between frustrated inertia and frantic activity toward some unknown purposeful feeling. Time is so precious. There’s so little left, but just let me sit here a little longer and stare. I struggle to move my body onto the next thing. I watch birds a lot.
I was thinking last night about the other photographs I have of my mom, not many, not many were taken, and she was also shy, often standing to the side or in the background in photos. She watched, more than she participated. She worried. She considered before she acted. She held back. To her I know I seemed like a doer, she would say so, always busy, always doing many things at once, school, work, theater, busy, not stopping. I like/liked it that way. But I so often worry and stand back and consider. More than she knew.
Lately I feel as though I’m watching life, waiting, not sure how to step in or move on. Is it the state of the world, losing my mother, getting older, struggling to write, be creative, and finish projects . . . all of the above? I could feel my mom’s reticence throughout her whole life in my bones last night as I stared at this photo looking for something, examining my own reticence. My whole being is trying to make contact with her these days. I wish I could see her face in the photo and how she was seeing me, but it somehow follows that I can only get a glimpse.
I don’t know what I’ll do with her ashes. It was a kind gesture of my sister to hold some back for me since I couldn’t be at the funeral, but now I’m overwhelmed with the responsibility, the permanence of whatever decision I make.
Before my father died 27 years ago (he was ill and knew it was coming), I asked him to tell me something, anything about what he wanted. He was reluctant, but finally pointed me toward the cemetery near where he lived in California and said he wanted to be under a magnolia tree. Shortly after that talk he died, and my brother and I found ourselves walking around the cemetery with a salesperson. We told the man about the magnolia tree so he took us to various spots that had one. My brother and I would stand on the spot and look around and try to decide if it was the right place . . . for eternity. It was such an absurd ritual. We both knew it at the time and kept giving each other looks and laughing to get ourselves through it. Now the magnolia trees are blooming all around the Bronx and all I think of is my dad and wish I could stand in the spot where he is buried, and somehow feel I am with him.
What would my mom think about a part of her being in New York forever? It wasn’t a place she loved. Perhaps the ocean is best, or under the rose bush in the garden at the end of our street, or beside a magnolia tree. The Tupperware container is a room away on the shelf while I write this.
You showed up in my dream last night, blonde and younger than you are now, younger than I ever knew you. It was a long, meandering dream. I was hanging art with two other people in a new place where you and I would live. You walked in the room, hugged me tight lifting me off my feet. I can’t remember the rest, except me asking you a question about why something . . . and you smiling down at me like the sun, direct and open, and saying things are the way they are because of this. I knew you meant this feeling between us that hangs on and on. The dream slowed down and we hovered in that feeling, remarkably tranquil, and I sensed a half awake/half dreaming truth, or a hope, that you are out there somewhere feeling this going on like I feel it. But I woke up questioning that, thinking it’s just me carrying this on in my imagination, and then a flood of humiliation (I certainly can’t trust my own dreams). You’re long gone, never thinking about this again, which of course I don’t really know. But why should that matter even if it is true? You have a permanent place in me. It’s a lovely room mostly, but I’m not grateful for it. I’ll enter it occasionally, but then I’ll be reminded that love, unspoken, thrilling, cool love has moved on and that feral little girl starts stomping around, pulling out my hair, so I leave. In actuality, it was beautiful to see you again up close in my dream after so long with that smile of yours that seems to know everything and not question everything the way I do. Why not just sit in that room with you, and me, and enjoy it?
I spent so much time literally sitting in my room fantasizing as a kid I’m sure there are neural pathways in my brain carved hard and deep that I travel now even when I don’t know I’m traveling them. Lately I ask my husband or daughter a question about some mundane, but necessary detail, they answer, and a few minutes later I can’t remember if I asked it or not so I go back and they smile kindly and say “yes dear”, “yes Mom, you just asked me that”. My mother died of Alzheimer’s so I worry, but I actually believe the problem is I reside between here and the murky interior world so often I’m not really listening.
Rocking and disappearing into imaginary places started when I was very young, about four. But it was around the age of 12 that I got serious. I began to construct my future life in the gold velvet rocking chair in my room above the garage in a new, flat, spare, sad, housing development in the Denver suburb of Littleton where my newly married mother and stepfather had moved our family. The record player was my way in . . . I put a record on, sat low in the chair, and rocked and listened, and floated off. The visual imagery that would come to me was so vivid and enthralling; I didn’t see the room I was in anymore. I was grown up. I was beautiful and I was free. I was living a large life. Mostly I was great singer because that’s how I could leave the room best, singing along.
I took that gold velvet rocking chair and the rocking ceremony and my flourishing interior life on to my first apartment and dull job right out of high school and to the next one and the next one through my late teens into my early twenties. The rocking and pretending subsided when I found the theater and my exterior life finally flourished – acting, a surprising way of actually being real.
I didn’t rock for a long, long time, but I did still disappear into my hard comforting neural pathways far into adulthood, usually as I fell off to sleep. But then, when middle age was upon me, I found the stories and future fantasies had morphed into fears and worst case scenarios, so I started avoiding my interior life, avoiding being alone, avoiding riffing, avoiding imagining, I couldn’t be trusted. I would only scare myself and make the anxious feelings worse. It was a strange place to be, running from myself. It has taken many years to begin to untangle it all. I work hard to stay in the present, being here with whatever the truth is. I still catch myself, sometimes numerous times a day, steering blindly into the worry, and then I steer hard again the other way to come back.
The dream of you surprised me it was so much like young me finding the imaginary place that used to be such a comfort. Maybe I'll try stepping into our room more often, sit the feral little girl on my lap, and rock her. The interior life v. the exterior life, is one really better, or just more acceptable.