I have always loved books; from the dust jackets and canvas-covered boards of hard-covers, to the french-folds of trade paperbacks, from the texture and grain of the pages, deckle-edged or smooth-trimmed, to the layout and typography. I love the inky, gluey smell of new books and the tangy musty scent of old ones. I relish the cracking sound the spines make when you open them. And that’s just the physical aspect. I love the unique universe each book represents, the heart and mind and spirit conveyed through language. It feels simplistic, verging on cliché, to say that my love for books and reading led me to becoming a writer, yet that’s how it is. Though I’ve had setbacks in the publishing arena, I habitually return to this deep appreciation of books. And remember why I’m in the game.
But, recently, I was bequeathed approximately four thousand books, and my love was severely tested. Like many New Yorkers, I own more books than I have space for. They overflow the shelves to inhabit every surface, including the floor. But they number only a small fraction of what I inherited--four thousand books, contained in four book-filled rooms. The only rooms that held no books in that apartment were the bathrooms. Yes, two bathrooms, rent-controlled, in Manhattan.
There is no way around the work of clearing after someone dies. The living must do it. The work must be done. But at first I couldn’t touch the books. They had meant so much to me over so many years—evidence of a deep, intuitive, alignment I’d formed with a complex, gifted woman. She had always thrust books on me. As a teenager and into my twenties, much of what I read was at her behest. We had long discussions, she and I, of writing and writers and literature, of sentences and paragraphs and poetry. You’ll get the books when I’m gone, she used to say, which made me covet them and feel ashamed.
Now they were mine. She was gone, and her books seemed dead, too. Inert, neglected, gathering dust, all the life inside those pages, all the drama and humanity, had become quiescent. The sad and bitter irony is that she had lost the capacity to read. Suffering from dementia, she had devolved, year by year, month by month, from comprehending the philosophy of Wittgenstein to barely grasping the plots of James Patterson, to being unable to recognize written words at all. I can still see her sitting in a chair in front of her bookshelves, mute and bewildered, only the pining in her eyes revealing an awareness of what she had become.
After she died, the books came alive. They clamored at me, demanding to be read. But their overwhelming number exposed my own mortality. Even if I’d quit my job and done nothing but read and read and read, there were not enough years. How finite I am and how infinite in number these books appeared to be.
They haunted me. Night after night, I was screamed at, berated and cast out. I was trapped in fires, fleeing floods, serious nightmares. Woken by the sound of my own wailing, muscles coiled, throat and jaw aching, I would lie awake, drenched in sweat and shivering. The books, the books, the books! What will I do with all the books?
As I began the seemingly insurmountable task of sorting through them, I was beset by questions about the books. Why did she possess three 30-volume sets of encyclopedias, from 1910, 1954 and 1987, respectively? Was David Hume’s History of England relevant today? Had she purchased the 15-volume set of the complete works of Balzac with the pages still uncut intending to read them? Had she actually read Frances Parkman’s works in twelve volumes? Could the Oxford English Dictionary, both the compact version with magnifying glass and the enormous 20-volume set with supplement and bibliography still be valuable when the electronic version exists? Why was Volume Seven missing from the gilt-edged, 10-volume, first-edition set of the Collected Works of Henrik Ibsen? The questions continue to plague me.
Even alive, she wouldn’t have been able to answer. The books symbolized the intellect that had vanished long before she died, vanished along with my younger self who’d latched onto everything she’d said, who’d admired and loved and emulated her. Her death reminded me of what we’d once had, of what I’d outgrown. How easily I’d forgotten what she once was, who I once was. For, before we’d managed to negotiate a relationship of mutual adults, she had lost her bearings and her mind, a long, slow quietus.
The books were so dusty, handling them blackened my fingers. In latex gloves, my palms perspired profusely. Bits of paper and old receipts fluttered out from between pages. I stripped off countless post-its. Brittle and discolored with age, the post-its were the most painful. Torn and crumpled, unmoored from the text they’d once marked, they dispersed the ghosts of her former selves, intelligent critical women who’d once been in charge; powerful, angry ghosts. Alone in her apartment, I jumped at the slightest noise. I wept and sneezed and apologized. Dust caked my nostrils and coated my skin. As I drifted from room to room, sorting, sifting, browsing, and stacking for many hours and many days, the only evidence of having accomplished anything were the filthy latex gloves I peeled off, and the scabby painful rash that covered my hands.
Sorting books, however, is not unpleasant. It’s a meditative task. Opening pages at random, reading a line here, a poem there, it’s easy to get lost in all the voices and remember how life can expand while reading. I had to do right by these voices. I had to find them homes.
At first, I thought I’d create a database of all the books. Open Excel, start a file called “books.” But entering titles, authors, publishers, dates, and ISBNs proved impossibly laborious. Many had been published before 1970, pre-ISBN, and many before 1898, pre-Library of Congress Control Numbers, which meant the data was inconsistent. The inconsistency bothered me. I had entered about two hundred books into my database before I realized I simply did not have time. The apartment had to be cleared in a month. Forget the master database. I decided to inventory only those books that might be valuable. I could sell those. The rest I’d keep or donate. But how to choose? By what criteria is a book “valuable”?
Biographies of people no longer relevant, poems by forgotten poets, historical incidents no one remembers, were, I discovered, of value to no one. Old books are simply old. And no one wants them, even as a donation. I gave books to friends but those giveaways were drops in the vast sea. I contacted several organizations, hoping to donate the books but only one place responded: Housing Works Books. If I could deliver them, they would take them.
Reluctantly, I packed up all the books I’ll never read, the visions I will never see, the perspectives I’ll never absorb. Like a crowd of elderly people with so many stories to tell, they chattered and exhorted, but I had no time to listen. I passed them by. Hopefully, someone will connect to some of them.
Letting go is my life’s lesson. I’m a person who clings and saves and hoards.
I’m still clinging to thirty boxes of books currently piled in my living room, developing the permanence of furniture. I can’t bear to give them away but I don’t have room to keep them. When I find the time, I hope to sell them on e-bay or somewhere.
Yes, my love has been tested but I can’t help it: I’m still devoted to these extraordinary objects called books, with their promise of undiscovered constellations, of visions and worlds, rich with wisdom, curiosity, language and culture. My intent was to fulfill the obligations of this gift as decently and thoroughly as possible, and emerge unscathed, and wiser. But I’ve already been scathed. People die. Words fade. Minds vanish. Books gather dust. It’s all true. I don’t know if I’m any wiser.
I arrived in Virgina in July just as the derecho hit. Unlike a tornado, which twists and spins, a derecho is a straight-line wall of fast-moving wind, exceeding hurricane force. I had never heard of it. Advancing across several states, this windstorm flattened houses, tore down power lines, and uprooted trees that had spread their roots through the soil for a century.
The power went off the night I arrived for my month-long residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Ten trees were lost. The staff lost power and water and their homes suffered damage. I didn’t comprehend that it would be a very long time before we’d get lights and air conditioning again. We had water, hot and cold. How bad could it be? A generator kept the kitchen refrigerator going and the heroic staff served three meals a day. The record heat wave with its hundred-degree weather was bad, but it couldn’t last more than a few days, right? Every morning hope sprang anew and every night, as the stars emerged, hope died in sweat-soaked slumber.
As electricity was restored little by little, day by day, throughout the surrounding area, VCCA remained dark for the next ten (10!) days. I had not brought a flashlight even though their website advises all residents to bring one. Luckily they had lots of big old-school flashlights, essential even during the day in the dark windowless toilets.
To leave would have been to forfeit the experience and miss out on making friends with the incredible talented people who also chose to stay. There were so many fantastic people, so many acts of kindness and courage and hilarity that I thought I’d be a fool to escape. In the mornings, I worked on my novel until my laptop battery lost power. After lunch, several of us would load up power strips, laptops, phones and other devices and drive to Starbucks in Lynchburg to recharge. As APCO repaired lines and power was revived ever closer, we drove to Madison Heights then to Amherst, where the church opened their doors, giving twenty-four hour access to electricity, air-conditioning, water and food.
One evening we all sat around in the dark reciting poems we’d committed to memory. A few evenings, people shared their work by flashlight. Every afternoon, except for the rare rainy ones, a group of us gathered at the lake to swim to the dam and back, and then practice yoga on the dock before dinner. It was a ritual that made the hardship easier to endure. Did I mention the dedicated, VCCA staff who cleared trees and cleaned up and lifted our spirits for days on end even as their own homes lacked power? Barbara and David were tireless and infinitely patient. Mike didn’t sleep for several nights. When Craig and Sheila finally got their power and water back, they opened their home for three nights in a row, serving dinner to seventeen VCCA residents, welcoming those who wanted to sleep over.
Then the power came on. With the power came the immense privilege of turning on a light switch to banish the dark night and pushing a button to switch on cool air. My gratitude and the sense of how fragile we all are, how impermanent and vulnerable our amenities, and how unprepared I was to simply accept a situation I could not change, was so enormous, I thought I could embody it for the rest of my life. I may not have chosen the experience but I didn’t regret for a second having it thrust upon me.
Cut ahead several weeks to early September. Tony and I embarked on a long-planned trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. For several days we slept in a tent and couldn’t shower. A small portable communal toilet grew slightly more disgusting each day. But we’d prepared. I’d acquired a headlamp with bright LED illumination. We’d psyched ourselves, practiced the mountainous hike by climbing and descending 22 flights of steps in my apartment building several times at a go. This was exhilarating. It was wondrous. Incredible. I’m full of adjectives that only seem to diminish the aliveness and singularity of the journey, which is why pictures must suffice. The mountains around Cusco, the apus, a word that means “protector”, were considered gods by the Incas and they are truly god-like in their vast majesty, sometimes enfolded in clouds, sometimes crystal-clear with glaciers gleaming and rocky features in high detail, always huge and present.
Our fellow pilgrims on the trek were as awestruck as we were, also open and friendly and hardy and curious. Over the course of the journey there was a marriage proposal, a birthday, a reunion, physical hardship and utter euphoria. We entered Machu Picchu through the sun gate together, the dream team. I fell in love with Peru, especially the intelligent, funny, compassionate guides, Darwin and Saul, and the hardworking crew of porters without whom we could not have done it. Those porters carried twenty-five kilos of equipment on their backs, running up and down the steep uneven rocks of the Inca trail with such sure-footed agility, they seemed superhuman. So here again we have to bow down in gratitude.
Cut ahead several weeks later to Hurricane Sandy blowing in from the southeast with dire predictions, warnings and unprecedented evacuations and shut-downs. Amidst frightening gusts of wind and construction debris swirling through the courtyard outside our window, we lost power. But this time, I held no illusion about the magical abilities of power companies to turn it all back on quickly. In our dark apartment, we lit candles and walked around like miners with our headlamps. We heated water that we fetched from buckets in the basement to wash our faces. The staff of our building proved themselves so dedicated and hardworking and caring, they reaffirmed my faith in basic human kindness. I hiked up to the 19th floor to check on a neighbor only to discover that the building staff had been to see her several times with food and water.
Our good friend, Lydia, offered her apartment, even letting us bring our cats. She was going to Ohio to campaign for Obama. (Yay!!!) Unlike my sojourn at VCCA, we decamped from the hardship of the power-free zone, to the upper west side where we lived out of suitcases. Now we’re home, with the power restored as the temperature dips and Athena roared in. Once again, we’re privileged and blessed and ever fragile. Good fortune is arbitrary. Staten Island, New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and other areas around the east coast are suffering still, not just power outages but wreckage from flooding, irreparable damage, houses gone, cars destroyed, gasoline shortages and cold weather.
There’s no lesson I can formulate from these three intense yet singular experiences, though my mind is always trying to create the “moral of the story.” Perhaps the idea is only to recognize how flimsy our shelter can be, and to turn on the lights and the heat and the water with gratitude. Much of the world has no such privilege. We may not always have it ourselves.
Photos of Peru
We never observed Father’s Day, which my father deemed a “Hallmark Holiday,” invented to further the cause of capitalism by compelling people, through nationwide emotional blackmail, to offer meaningless purchases in place of authentic love and respect. He said this partly in jest. Perhaps he simply didn’t relish fatherhood. At any rate, since Father’s Day landed on or near Dad’s birthday, gifts were given and we celebrated. After he died, my sisters and I try to gather on his birthday and remember him, though this year, our schedules won’t permit it. And I find I miss it more than I anticipated.
Here is what my father was not: A family man
But here is what he was: An actor | Handsome | Charming | Quixotic | Fun | Charismatic | Playful | A great dancer | An inveterate doodler | Closeted | Secretive
Here are some secrets he kept: His bisexuality | His fear | Sometimes the fact of his four daughters
You treasured your time with him. You hated him for being stingy with it. You loved his antics, his fun, his candor and his uncanny ability to tune into your mood. You hated him for withholding all that.
Once, when I was a child walking hand in hand with him along Broadway, just us two, a rare occurrence since my sisters were usually present, he stopped in his tracks. “That couple we just passed,” he said. “What color was the man’s shirt—don’t turn around. If you don’t remember it, invent it.”
At the zoo, when we were children, my father encouraged me and my sisters to mimic the animals, pacing like lions, jumping like monkeys, barking like seals. Another game: to pretend we were carrying a burden so heavy we might collapse under its weight, or conversely, to pretend we were carrying something so light it might float away. We played drawing games, pulling from a hat, concepts or subjects he’d jotted on bits of paper. Then he’d give us half an hour to draw, after which we’d present our pictures and guess the subjects behind them. I remember just one my older sister did, which we supposed were people swimming. But the subject had been “war,” this during the Vietnam era, and she had drawn a picture of bloody corpses floating down the Mekong River.
Dad taught me how to ride a bike. He took me to my first movie: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He was the designated Thanksgiving Day Parade chaperone, getting us out of the apartment so my mother could cook.
On my 15th birthday, after my parents had been divorced for three years and we saw Dad on intermittent weekends, he gave me the gift of an easel. I didn’t use it until I was in my 20s, a protest, to say: Don’t presume that you know me or have any claim to my heart.
He had all of my heart though I couldn’t admit it.
After the separation, my father came upstate by bus from New York City to visit on those intermittent weekends, while my mother went away, usually back to New York City. We lived then in a tiny isolated house on a dirt road, miles from town, and my father brought with him the magic of his life, of theater and fun. Arriving on a Friday night, he brought music and posters and games and sometimes friends, other beautiful childlike adults who smoked joints and marveled over clouds and flowers and birds and trees, and infused our isolated lives with color and enchantment. On Sunday afternoon, my father would pack up his magic and fun and wonder and sparkle; and take it away with him, leaving us doubly bereft, for it’s easier to accept a limited life when you don’t see an alternative.
I assumed that if we were amusing or talented or beautiful or smart enough to dwell in my father’s magical realm, he’d give us access. But we weren’t. So he didn’t.
Who could blame him for choosing to ration his time with four pimply, enraged adolescent girls who railed against the world and their own bodies and littered the place with the bloody menstrual pads that the dog sniffed out of the garbage and trailed about the living room? I thought we disgusted him and, as a teenager, never considered that the choices he made had absolutely nothing to do with me or my sisters.
But what I want right now is to praise the gifts he gave, not to assign blame or travel too far down the dark and slippery path of memory. 2012 would have been his 79th year if he had lived past 62. Cancer did him in, as it does in so many people. Even ill, even dying, my father remained, despite his faults, charming, funny and irascible. Once, several months into his diagnosis, he said, “I hate being a hypochondriac. I’ve never liked malingerers.”
“Having cancer means you’re not a hypochondriac,” I said. “You’re actually sick.”
“Ah yes. There is that.”
High on morphine in the hospice, he once exclaimed, “Oh, I see! I’m only in the second act!”
He was like a pixie, one of his uncles said at his memorial. Photographs show this to be true: Jake the pixie-child with his irresistible smile. Hand-picked by Gielgud to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was going to be a star.
He was a pixie who fathered four children, which meant that my mother had five kids to care for. If he had been faithful, she would have allowed him his eternal childhood, his stardom, cooked for him, doted on him. But life is complicated. Always forward, never straight, Dad used to say.
“I have loved two women in my life,” he told me when I had become an adult he could talk to. “My mother and your mother, and I threw them away with both hands.”
He never told me about the men he loved. The lesson learned: Love cannot transcend weakness or regret or conflict or shame though we might wish it could.
And yet, and yet…my mother, though she might dispute this, never stopped loving him. None of us stopped loving him. When the bitterness softened, my parents often laughed together and, long after the divorce, they danced at parties like lovers.
Even now, I can see my father’s smile, for it filled his face, it lit him up. When he shined that light of childlike joy and love on you, you bloomed like a flower, petals unfolding—beautiful, gifted, fascinating, special. Until, abruptly, he withdrew it, and left you in the dark: ugly, talentless, boring, forsaken. He had that power.
But this was a long time ago. My father died in 1994, as I was beginning to know him better, not only as my father, with all the baggage and resentment, but as a person who tried to love the best he could.
This essay is now posted at Numéro Cinq.
So you start something new and it seems good! It has life, freshness, vitality. Sentences flow. Some scenes make you laugh aloud! You hate to put the work aside when life requires you to. You leave your desk reluctantly and, even then, you dwell on the piece of writing like a new love; engrossed in the characters, their associates, certain sentences that you turn and turn again in your mind. You notice how your daily life offers rich, unique material to funnel into this new narrative. It unfolds like a dream sequence, constantly. Siblings materialize for the protagonist, friends and colleagues with backgrounds, dossiers, furies and desires. Internal and external conflicts weave through your thoughts. Plotlines reveal themselves like half-blazed trails and you rush headlong, first here then there, branching off, doubling back, circling around, an eager and breathless explorer.
This state of love-filled delight and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing possibilities is known in Buddhism as “bright faith.” Bright faith, Sharon Salzburg says eloquently, is not blind faith. It is the beginning. And in the beginning we have the opportunity to surrender cynicism, apathy, inertia; and propel ourselves forward into the creative unknown.
The rush of energy and creativity that surrounds a new work is like bright faith: powerful, exalting, euphoric. Until one morning, out of nowhere, you sit at your desk and the shimmering gold dust of your faith dissolves into ash. The trails are lost and you are lost and you find yourself not in a fertile forest but a wasteland so vast you can’t discern earth from sky. You are cut adrift. The gravitational pull of language’s bubbling magma, the metaphors and phrases and names and situations you thought you were inventing have all vanished. There is no escape from the dismal facts on the ground where you still have your day job. And laundry piles up. A broken light fixture in the kitchen dims your whole apartment. Your bathtub won’t drain. And your recently completed novel, a completion marked by circuitous struggles through brambles and detours and steep falls off unseen cliffs, the novel you once, long ago, had the same bright faith in as this new work, is a moribund shell of its ancient potential. A carcass preserved in amber, it passes ever so slowly from one publishing house to another, with an ever so slow drain of polite rejections sucking away your self esteem.
What do you do when it seems that something you’ve grown to rely on has died? When yoga causes injury and tendonitis and writing, too, causes inflammation and muscle spasm and you still have to earn a living, what do you do? Wash your face, brush your teeth and greet the world with aplomb? Put on the mask of cheerful sane persona and play the role. That old platitude? Be glad you have a job to earn a living in. Be glad you’re breathing and the sky is clear and be glad the mewling cats are hungry for if they were not hungry it would signal they were sick. Offer gratitude to your family and your friends. Give thanks for your hands that can lift and drop a question on your plate. Is it working yet? Can you feel it?
Return to that narrative you once thought had life and attend to the comatose prose that just last week seemed to sparkle and dance. When the energy has died, when faith has worn away, when doubt threatens to destroy what you have built, and futility is the operative word, it becomes obvious that bright faith was insufficient. Hard work must follow, hard work and the disillusion, disenchantment, examination and exploration that come with “verifying faith.” You open the document and begin to tinker, perhaps to sink deeper into what you once thought you had a handle on. Sometimes the practice of writing alone must suffice, faith in action, faith that the dull, pedestrian, meaningless paragraphs will eventually yield up magic. And perhaps this faith in action will lead you to “abiding faith,” through fits and starts and hesitations, through despair and dark nights, not only to a more profound understanding of the craft, the practice, the pain and bliss of writing, but also to your own true connection, woven into the tapestry of literature past and present. One can always try. And try. And try. And try.
Holidays? What holidays? Oh right, it’s Christmas. The proof is in the fragrance of pine emanating from the evergreens for sale on the sidewalk. Christmas day arrives on Sunday. How did that happen? I’m disconnected. I can barely recall that exciting childhood holiday when daily life dissolved into the magic and school let out and I counted off the days: it’s the eve of the eve of the eve of Christmas eve (!) My parents took us to the dress rehearsal for The Nutcracker Suite where my sisters and I would envy the showbiz kids who got to dance onstage because we wanted to be them, rather than ourselves. Hanging up stockings on hooks affixed to the windowsill in our 6th floor bedroom, I believed more fervently in Santa Claus than I did in God and I despised my older sister for thrusting the truth at me that Mom and Dad, not Santa, filled the stockings.
Now, decades later, with my husband very recently laid off from Citigroup where he worked for eleven years, his career there reduced to two packed boxes, and with us not having children around to infuse the season with magic, and my novel languishing with unresponsive publishers, the bedecked buildings around Wall Street and boughs of holly in the lobby of my apartment building, and the Union Square “Holiday Market” all strike me as so jarring, I’m taken aback, wondering how it happened that summer ended already. I’m so far removed I might as well be from another planet, studying the odd winter customs of New York humanoids in their tree-trimmed habitats, spending money they don’t have, eating and drinking things they might regret, pretending to be happy with caroling and mistletoe and all that. Grinchlike I’d report this inexplicable alien behavior back to the mothership.
Though I believe in neither Santa nor Jesus nor Yahweh nor God, I do surrender to the fact of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the hope in renewal that comes with it. To shed outdated habits (Good bye drinking in excess and negative thinking!) and embrace new (Hello reaffirmed commitment to meditation, yoga, writing my third novel and learning to cook!) is a good tradition. But this year, the season is filled with loss, all the ghosts of people I love who are gone or those still living but unable to partake. This year the season for me is tinged with fear over the dreadful economy and the depressing spectacle of politics at its worst; and this year I’m feeling older, struggling with the recognition that I’m not where I’d like to be in my life, that ever-elusive “place” of fulfillment, will I know it when I get there? And it saddens me to see another year pass so swiftly by. Why so fast? What happened to 2010? Where did the 90s go? And yet, renewal must be cultivated. Always renewal. Am I not lucky to be alive, working creatively, lucky to count so many incredibly admirable people as friends and beloveds, lucky to still have my job and to live in a world with so many great books to read, music to hear, theater and dance to watch, meals to eat and air to breathe? It’s way too easy to be dissatisfied. Perhaps the 2012 winter solstice will bring the cataclysmic, transformational occurrences predicted by apocalyptic new-agers. And if it doesn’t, maybe gratitude can become the default setting. Either way, very soon, the decorations will be put away, the holiday market dismantled, wreathes taken down, trees thrown out, ornaments packed up and my surroundings will no longer bewilder me so. I’m certainly looking forward to that. Of course by then I’ll be wondering, when hearts and cupids go up, what the hell happened to Christmas, and how did I miss it?
For weeks I’ve been meaning to say something about working across the street from Liberty Square aka Zuccotti Park, and the encampment of protestors. Ever since the potential standoff on Friday, October 14; that’s how long I’ve been meaning to say something salient. I am one of the 99%. And I currently work in the financial industry. Back in mid-October I had dreaded the eerie silence that would follow the confrontation, the pepper spray and plastic handcuffs, the riot gear and police trucks. I had dreaded the sight of trash swept away, blue tarps and medical tents vanished, drumming and chanting silenced, barricades pulled back, and life along lower Broadway back to “normal.”
On that Thursday night before the "cleanup" was to occur, as I headed toward the subway after work, I overheard two guys behind me. Get out the fire hoses, just hose them all out of there, said one. Bulldoze ‘em, said the other. Shoot ‘em if you have to.
When I learned that the city and police and Brookfield had backed down, I was exultant. The colorful creative mass of protestors grew even greater in number, emboldened and triumphant. Events move too quickly, time slips by, I’m busy and what I might have said last week or several weeks ago no longer holds true. I didn’t formulate my opinion fast enough, and my opinion is ever in flux. But as of now, the rumored eviction, the one that didn’t take place three weeks ago, was enforced in the dead of night, tents and tarps and people cleared out by police in riot gear.
When the protestors first appeared, they seemed like an odd assortment of passionate people with disparate aims, which has been stated to infinity all over the news. A topic of office mockery, bare-breasted hippie women with anti-war messages painted on their chests, gray-bearded baby-boomers holding hand-painted signs, socialist worker party members, Marxists, Trotskyists, trustafarians, privileged anarchists and self-proclaimed freaks. My initial elation over the mere fact of a protest quickly deflated. The look of these people did not inspire confidence. What I felt instead was a familiar and unwelcome despondency, because no matter how dissatisfied I am with the immigrant-hating, budget-cutting, wage-reducing, public-sector-worker-bashing, oligarchic cronyism and executives-paid-to-fail environment of today, I couldn’t align myself with this motley collection of demonstrators.
When they marched, in those early days, they were a small and vocal group, outnumbered by police and laughed at by most of the people I work with, laughed at, that is, when they weren’t groused about for causing the inconvenience of metal barricades all over the neighborhood, forcing people to walk single-file through narrow passageways on streets that are already too congested. It’s the goddam protestors, said someone behind me as I headed back to the office one afternoon, clutching my overpriced sandwich from Pret. I usually weave through crowds but you can’t dodge your way through a sphincter. Granted, it’s annoying when a five-minute walk takes fifteen, and time is a precious commodity; but I never blamed the protestors. I blamed the outsized police reaction. It brought back memories of the republican convention and the massive overreaction to the protests then. It brought back bewilderment at the disproportionate response to the monthly critical mass bike rides that Bloomberg seems to despise with an irrational personal grudge, amassing riot trucks and armies of police and blocking traffic to chase down a quixotic anarchy of cyclers. I can go back even further to say that I was reminded of Tompkins Square Park and the destruction of its shanty town in the 1980s. But who remembers Die Yuppie Scum anymore?
Rather than disappearing back into the fringe, the protestors were joined by unions, veterans, college-graduates, nurses, doctors, teachers, retired people, creative people, unemployed. They not only multiplied at Zuccoti Park, but sprouted up in cities all over the nation. This is old news. By the time the Transit Workers Union joined Occupy Wall Street, the media had already captured the story. Celebrities had made appearances.
Whenever I visited the park, I noted that over half the people were photographing and filming, and not necessarily protesting anything. Tourists snapped each other embracing activists. The image of fringeness and obscure freakdom was replaced by “the 99%,” Liberty Square became a scene, and there’s nothing I can say about the movement that they don’t say more eloquently here.
Hostility toward the protestors persisted in my office and probably elsewhere (whiners, deadbeats, moochers, they smell, they’re dirty, they’re druggies and criminals and terrorists) but, for me, the antagonism became a background hum, exploding into the forefront only when I encountered men (always men) who heckled with particularly ferocious rage, usually back-office guys from working-class origins, employed in accounting or technology or some aspect of the financial industry. Get a fucking job! Get a job you bunch of fucking hippie losers. Go the fuck home! Not shouting once or twice, but an ongoing warlike rebel yell, a reaction so inconsistent with the peaceful gathering, and so contradictory to the soaring of my own heart that it frightened me, and I feared for the future of our nation. For, surely, there is common ground between these angry, threatened men and these people protesting against the status quo.
Mostly, it seemed to me, people had grown accustomed to the protestors. A falafel vendor on Cedar Street laughed while a woman with a puppet talked into a video camera in a high-pitched puppet voice. This isn’t a protest, this is a party, the vendor told me. In Egypt they were protesting in the face of guns. This! He shrugs and laughs.
How could you not love a movement that includes a sacred space? A medical tent? Food for the homeless? Chanting and meditating and drumming and dancing? I ordered pizzas, delivered to the protestors (the “occupie” special, what’s not to like?) Yet they've been swept out now, for the time being.
It can't end here. As stated on the website, You can't evict an idea whose time has come. Just before noon, the eviction was deemed illegal in court and the protestors were returning, en masse. Go, 99%!
At last, having completed yet another revision of my novel, now entitled The Surrogate’s Daughter, whereby I cut seventy-two (72) pages (thank you Hillary for not holding back on sound advice!) I can reflect on the process. I initiated this current round of culling after a distressing revelation that the narrative momentum slowed to a stop at regular intervals when the characters were in a car, either heading to their destination, where the drama would consequently unfold or returning from their destination, after the drama had already occurred. How could I have failed to perceive this ever-so-obvious tendency until after I had already submitted what I considered the final-final draft? I wish there was a maxim to take away from this experience. Something like: only after you truly believe you have reached completion can you recognize the essential flaws in the text. Certainly, in writing and revising future work, I will be hyper-alert for “riding in cars” as I call this phenomenon but I suspect no ready platitude exists and, ultimately, I will be caught out by a different but equally obvious liability. Disheartening, but I imagine that whatever I learn in the creation of a novel stays in the creation of that particular novel.
What’s most disconcerting is that after reading and re-reading, editing and revising, draft after draft, year after year, I had been blind. I know it’s a useless and destructive exercise to indulge in that sweat-inducing mortification of “how could I not have seen this until now!” And there’s no reason to brandish the rhetorical self-flagellation, and yet, I'm in the thick of it. Perhaps the takeaway is actually a cliché that can, every once in a while, sink into your being with the weight of a profound truth and resonate through your creative life. Let it go. You didn’t see it then but you see it now, be happy. Maybe every writer has his or her own “ride in cars,” the thing you don’t notice until someone else reads the novel with a fresh, discerning eye. Move on. Regret is a hindrance. Write more. Write faster. Write better. Don’t resist that place of completion where you can see your failings most clearly. Learn. And let go.
Whether I’m standing on a subway platform marking time for a train to arrive, or waiting for the editor of a major publishing house to respond to my novel sent by my agent over three weeks ago, I become trapped in a postponement of my life. In this dualistic place of waiting-versus-fulfillment, where my continuity relies on an external event over which I have no control, even my breath is on hold, or so it seems. Take the subway for instance, which is nowhere in sight. As I repeatedly lean over the platform edge hoping to detect the glimmer of headlights twinkling in the dark cavern of the tunnel, my agitation intensifies. My heart pounds, I break out in a sweat with a throbbing in my skull and, when there’s no sign of a train, I step back, disgusted with the state of public transportation. If I want to experience that effect again, I can just lean over the platform edge again. Unfailingly, better than drugs. Inherent in the action of peering into the tunnel lies a subtle belief that it will cause the train to appear. When no train appears, I have failed. In this way, I become the cause of my own suffering.
Take the stressful hiatus between the estimated time my novel arrived in the editor’s inbox, and now, three weeks later. For the first week and a half, I burned sweet grass and honored the four directions every morning before I wrote. This was preferable to fretting about imagined rejection or gloating about imagined acceptance. Perhaps I was sending good vibes, calling on the universe to bring me what I want, aligning the stars to my wishes. But inevitably, the morning arrived when I forgot to enact the ritual, after which I simply neglected it. I undermined my own efforts! Now the editor will never decide to acquire my novel!
I should check my email. Perhaps there’s news in my inbox even if, half an hour ago, there was nothing. So what if I already checked my email several thousand times this morning? Like leaning over the subway platform--oh fluttering heart, dry mouth, racing blood, empower me!--nothing has arrived but a recognition of my own failure to make the world conform to my desire. Not only that but I’m holding my breath. I check the spam folder, too, you never know. Except I do know, so why then am I disappointed by offers of enlargement supplements, cheap Viagra and miracle youth cream?
The waiting, Tom Petty says, is the hardest part. But is it? Does every sentence I write seem trivial, superficial and clumsy because I’m waiting for a rejection? Would an acceptance from the editor make my words shimmer? Why can’t it happen right now? or now? or now? And the present is lost, sucked away by my preoccupation. Waiting is all about context. No different than simply being. Nothing is happening. Standing on a subway platform, breathing. Sitting at a computer, breathing. Anxiety and frustration ebb and flow, receding, returning. Step out of the context, I tell myself. Step away from the waiting. Hope is a brazen activity. I must attend to my life. I must compose one sentence to prepare for the next. But the waiting yanks me back out. And so it goes. On and on and on.
When the strident voice inside becomes unbearable, exhorting me to write something, anything, to earn the term writer for the day or risk being a failure, I rebel. My rebellion is passive-aggressive, a stalling tactic, timeworn and all-too-effective. I procrastinate. Although procrastination does not silence the harangue, it certainly distracts. My current delaying tactic is to shred old financial documents, tax receipts and medical insurance claims. Like all activities that disguise themselves as urgent: tweezing, organizing emails into category folders, brushing the cats until they’re free of dandruff, the shredding task can certainly wait. Then again, if I never get around to it at all, I risk devolving into the kind of person surrounded by monstrous piles of papers and receipts that not only constitute a fire hazard but also require carving a path through the wall of scraps just to get from kitchen to bathroom. Shredding has to be done. I can’t just toss this information into the recycling bin or the trash without risking identity theft.
Unfortunately, kneeling on the floor feeding paper into the teeth of a screaming machine while bits of confetti stick to my legs and collect along the baseboards and cling to the books in the lower bookshelves is neither satisfying in itself like, for instance, culling the bookshelves is, nor gratifying when completed, like bleaching the kitchen countertops is. Because even as a year’s worth of evidence of all the crap I bought—chocolates from Chicago, vacuum cleaner bags, books and more books, writeoffable taxi rides, rental cars in Peoria, correspondence with my insurance company when they refused to pay for my yearly physical because I did not wait a full twelve months after my previous physical, hey, I remember that, but I’m beginning to doze off in the dull static of outdated dailiness, with enough detritus to pack a legal-size accordion envelope to bursting, even as, little-by-little it disappears into the shredder, more documents amass by the day.
The pressing question arises: Why, when we live in a paperless world that renders hard copies obsolete, is shredding even necessary? Let the stuff live in the computer cloud, and be free! No more filing bills, bank statements, insurance benefits, tax returns. Trash those penda-flex hanging file folders. This was my thinking two years ago until the IRS hit me with a query 886-A, a form that demanded explanations for declared expenses in 2005 and 2006. When I could not access copies of my checks online, I requested them from my bank. Talk about hidden fees—try $30 per check and add up a year’s worth! Apparently, after six months my data vanishes into a great depository that only the bank has access to, and that requires expensive administrative effort to retrieve. Never mind it’s my data! That argument won’t wash with HSBC. So I will stay loyal to my current procrastination and instead of writing, I will shred. Accounting wisdom states: keep all receipts for five years. Keep copies of tax returns in perpetuity. Perpetuity is a powerful delusion. It means that copies of my tax returns will outlast me. I like to imagine my fiction, too, will outlast me. Shredding connects me to the truth of impermanence in a way that writing never will.
So I give thanks for my creative work because otherwise, I might never clear out the old to make room for the new. And I give thanks for my procrastination because it gives me the means to remember what’s important.
This essay was originally posted at Numéro Cinq
Any time of day except, perhaps, early Sunday morning, I cross the threshold of my building and step out onto an obstacle course generated by people. In the swarming thick of it, there is no clear line where they end and I begin. We’re parts of an incomprehensible whole. The clamor and din, the grit and anxiety, the need for haste, all swirl inside me. Any time of day. Breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s enough to make me dizzy.
Approximately eight million people dwell in New York City, a million or so in Manhattan. Two hundred fifteen thousand of them pass through Union Square, my neighborhood, on a typical busy day. Considering the volume, considering how each person rules their individual space, a remarkable accord prevails, and somehow everyone negotiates, barely touching anyone else. Amazing how we manage that.
Negotiating becomes a dance, delicate and nimble, and the freestyle stepping lifts me from the stupor of my treadmill—that unconscious state of mind through which I mark time as I move through my daily routine—and I flow then, the dancer and the dance, the blossom, bole and body. Absorbed in a babbling slipstream of a hundred different languages like a song swimming over street noise, I inwardly chant to all who cross my path, May you have peace, may you have happiness, even if I actually wish them nothing but to get out of my way. Students, hospital workers, Con Ed employees, parents with strollers, zigzagging children, shoppers laden with bags or carts, tourists who stroll obliviously three and four abreast, hustlers, buskers, beggars, freelancers, skateboarders, cyclists, models, gymnasts, artists, dancers, bankers, yogis, druggies, goths, hipsters, panhandlers, food vendors, scooter-riders, and all manner of humanity from lowly to exalted, with all manner of modern device in hand: Blackberries, cell phones, smart phones, head phones, and sometimes it seems that absolutely nobody but me is bothering to watch where they are going.
Chanting carries the power, so the sages say, to shift the mind even if the intention isn’t yet manifest. And given the choice, since there seems to be a choice, compassion, kindness and a kind of oneness is preferable to the perpetual tension of antagonism. As I go to work or come home or run errands, I have the power to make that choice. May you be healthy, I silently say. May you be free. Sometimes it works, and we are all of a piece, sharing the space.
Other times, each inhale only reminds me of the tightness in my chest and the list of things not done and all the people sick or gone, and I become an inept warrior in a kinetic theater so meaningless I cannot fathom why I or anyone else is alive at all. Wherever I veer, open space eludes me. A series of near collisions ensue, the side-to-side dodge as I try to foresee which direction this person or that might swerve. What I want seems simple enough: to stride unobstructed at my own pace. Instead, I must dodge and duck in stops and starts, and the persecution is circular. For everyone who impedes my progress, I am myself an impediment. Hurtling toward the edge of my capacity for physical closeness to strangers, I become unavoidably hostile. To say the least.
The crowded sidewalks present only part of the chaos. The avenues and cross streets bring further hazard or excitement. Power drills tear up concrete at a deafening decibel level. Vehicles race through yellow lights or turn aggressively into crosswalks. Drivers on cell phones in tanklike SUVs zoom by obliviously. Taxis lay on the horn rather than the brake as they lurch and weave. Busses block the intersections because they’re big and they can, and cyclists, particularly food delivery guys—they’re always guys with Chinese food or pizza—ride the wrong way on one-way streets, sometimes while simultaneously smoking cigarettes. Even if I shut my eyes, the shrill of sirens will pierce through my fragile equilibrium. The squeak of air breaks on trucks will chafe. I am a speck in the center of the universe and the unceasing abrasion of noise and activity reinforces my irrelevance, provoking unease so profound and pervasive that I risk collapse into permanent panic. Agoraphobia is never far away.
And the smells, oh the smells that waft and float through the air, enveloping me in their vapors! Meat cooking on the grill of a street cart, fresh pungent urine outside a pub, nag champa incense, bunches of basil and clusters of eucalyptus at the farmers market, oil and rot and dry cleaning and roses and mothballs and garbage.
I was born in New York City and, having lived here virtually all my life, I can’t avoid the obvious conclusion that I am the kind of person who stays put. I have resided in Washington Heights, the upper east side, various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and, briefly, Astoria, Queens. Though I harbor a fantasy of myself as adventurer, this neighborhood, just east of Union Square, has been my home now for over twenty years.
The architecture of the Square, with its vast sweep to the north end and its lovely stepped curve on the south, never diminishes the individual the way the architecture of, say, the Wall Street area does. I work down in the Wall Street area three days a week. I cannot, from my cubicle, see the sky or know what the weather is doing so I rely on the internet to assess the necessity of an umbrella, sunglasses or an extra sweater before I go outside. The skyscrapers cast eternal shadows so that sunlight shines in small geometric areas of the caverned streets at short intervals on certain times of day. I seek them out, the warm bright spots of sun, like a cat.
But Union Square is wide open, light-filled and its landscape celebrates fraternity. I may be diminished by the frenetic energy and the unceasing diffusion of activity, but never by the architecture. It is not built to crush.
Burberry ten DAHLlahs! a man hawks stolen coats from a wheeled rack on the corner of fourteenth and University. Another man with severely bloodshot eyes presides over a stand displaying bongs, pipes, gas masks and blinking magnets with a crudely written sign hanging down the front: “For tobacco use only.” Methadone clinic refugees argue vociferously at the fifteenth street subway entrance. Ah fuckin’ balls, says one, We’re fucked. The down and out woman who sits before cages of bedraggled kittens sleeping like they’ve been drugged puts out a wooden lockbox for donations. Kids wander around with handwritten signs offering free hugs. At dusk when the weather permits, a drumming circle metamorphoses from somewhere, seemingly spontaneously. An artist in thick black kneepads draws elaborate mandalas in chalk on the sidewalk. Break-dancers practice gymnastics to rally a crowd, blaring their portable stereo so loudly the music goes fuzzy with distortion. Vendors sell cheap scarves, hats, sunglasses and cell phone chargers. The Capoeira practitioners gather at the top of the south steps: part yoga, part martial arts, part gymnastics, they circle and leap and balance on their hands, taking turns. Skateboarders erect ramps with planks down the steps and up overturned garbage cans and they fly past in all directions with a rumble of wheels and the smack of boards hitting the ground.
Early in the morning on Saturday, before the artists have set up their kiosks, if I happen to be out on the south side of the square across from Whole Foods Supermarket, I’ll catch a pep rally of the T-shirted chuggers, which is what we call the charity muggers, those clear-skinned young people who wave with frantic bright smiles that show off their white teeth. Got a minute to save a child? Hi! You look like you care about the environment!
Once, trying to avoid one, I snapped, How about an environment where I can walk down the street without being accosted? Barging past his protests, I wasn’t accosting! I was being friendly! I disliked the kind of person I have become.
The offshoot members of the Nation of Islam with scabbards and swords in their thick studded belts shout out about the evil white devil. Evangelists pass out granola bars with notes about Jesus. Sometimes the Hare Krishnas turn up to chant and drum and dance and pass out leaflets. The white guy with the megaphone screams a conspiracy screed: George Bush masterminded 9/11.
Which reminds me that ten years has flashed by so quickly, the idea of a decade is an indefinable mystery. The metronome, an enormous installation erected on a building on the southern side of Union Square in 1999, features a digital clock that displays time coming and going relative to midnight. Beside it, a giant beveled gold-leafed dial turns according to the phases of the moon. In the center of the dial is an opening from which steam gushes to symbolize, apparently, the beginning of time. The digital clock has been inaccurate for years, I have never witnessed the gold-leafed dial turning, and only once observed a steam emission and I believe the edifice is meant ironically to convey the falseness of the construct we call time. Blink and ten years has gone by.
After 9/11, Union Square became the center for mourning and communion, sad and self-referential, full of people recording the attack’s aftermath in real time. The living mingled with the missing, thousands of photos of loved ones lost in the rubble. When the wind blew toxic fumes up Broadway, we wanted only to converge at Union Square among bewildered, grieving strangers. Then, even the crass displays of commerce—the candles for sale (Honor their Memory: 3 for $5) gave me hope in the continuity and tenacity of life and spirit.
Then there are the trees, how I love the trees in Union Square Park! Artful and majestic, they’re visible from several blocks away, a filigree of curling branches and now, in April, flowers and buds. Japanese Pagoda, Cypress, Northern Catalpa, Golden Raintree and Dawn Redwood, I got these names from the internet because I can’t identify them otherwise. I admit my ignorance. I have asked the parks employees and passers by but no one seems to know. Yet everyone can appreciate the solidity and elegance with which the trees border the paths and the north side playground. Despite all I have said about the crowds and the noise, the trees create a lovely fertile oasis of Union Square.
I am a seeker of the oases. Once a day, during the three days per week I spend at my graphic design job in my assigned cubicle near Wall Street, I make it a point to visit Trinity Church. The church stands on lower Broadway alongside a graveyard full of stones so weathered the names of the dead have been almost completely eroded. There, on the path that winds through the cemetery, where flowers seasonally bloom and birds sing even in the winter, I catch a glimpse of perspective. Not religion but perspective.
Graveyards comfort me. Growing up in northern Manhattan where the terrain is hilly, with bluffs overlooking the Hudson River, we lived across the street from an enormous cemetery. On snowy days we’d throw our sleds over the fence, scale the palings ourselves and sled for hours down the unplowed hills, life among the dead.
In the Trinity Church graveyard, just like Union Square after 9/11, this perspective widens to allow me an experience of the ephemeral nature of all living things, impersonal and vast. When a pigeon alights on the crest of a worn gravestone, resting momentarily before lifting off, I feel most keenly alive, as sharp as the broken glass glittering on the sidewalk.
Later, on the subway ride home during rush hour when everyone packs themselves so tightly into the train that I don’t need to hold on since there’s no space to fall, and the train lurches and screeches through the tunnels, or worse, simply stops with no explanation, I will remember again that we’re all here for only a short time. The stranger who shoved me aside on the platform to push his way ahead, saying, I know you see me, bitch, might be the person who saves my life when the next bomb explodes.
Four days a week, if I include the weekend, I devote to writing. My desk sits in an alcove that used to be a terrace that we never used or sat outside in because of the black dust that required washing off before “relaxing” on our outdoor idyll. The apartment is quiet. Outside traffic is muted because the apartment is in the rear of the building, not on the avenue. On the third floor, we don’t get much light but we’ll take quiet. Overlooking a courtyard we’re not allowed to step foot in for obscure “insurance” reasons, the windows of our apartment face a white brick wall. Two cats sleep on top of my bookshelf. The humidifier hums with a peaceful white noise.
The sound of footsteps from the apartment above, voices in the hall, the lurch and thump of the elevator, the singing of water in the pipes when other tenants shower, are all profoundly comforting. Life goes on around me without too much intrusion. Harmony is contained in the domestic sounds. Construction from the renovation of neighboring apartments, however, even several floors above, transforms my sanctuary into a hellish din that even earplugs cannot insulate. The floors are concrete and vibrations drill through my brain until I despair and despise indiscriminately. My refuge then is found outside, on the obstacle course.
As I swing between extremes of gratitude and rage, love and sadness, while aspiring for some middle way, New York City swings inside my skin. It runs in my blood, my psyche, my soul. There is no separation between the people, the buildings and me. So, I guess I will remain here for a while longer. Perhaps, until I die.