The concept of Asteya has preoccupied me for more than a week now, ever since I went to an open class at Yoga Shanti. It was my birthday. The Yoga Shanti studio is beautiful, with walls painted gold. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the belt-driven ceiling fan is not only an elegant feat of engineering, but also looks like infinity in action.
Asteya translates as “not stealing.” It is one of the five yamas--the ethical precepts that comprise the first limb of ashtanga yoga. But its meaning runs deeper than simply “not stealing,” and includes rooting out deep beliefs about deprivation and scarcity that can cause greed and hoarding and theft.
After the class, I felt good. I was attuned, breathing more freely, energized. But when I approached the shelves by the entrance to fetch my sneakers, they were gone.
At first, I couldn’t grasp their disappearance. I checked several times. I rooted under the benches, then dashed back to the studio room hoping I might have left them there. The sneakers hadn’t been cheap but their price was nothing compared to the prescription orthotics I wore inside them. Without orthotics, I suffer bunion pain, bursitis, plantar fasciitis and the myriad tedious physical ailments of “problem feet.”
The Yoga Shanti Studio is located on the ground floor of an office building. A person has to enter the building lobby then walk through another set of double doors on the left. Directly inside that second set of double doors are the shelves that house the shoes we must remove before entering the studio room. The front desk is situated further inside. Beyond that, are lockers. I could have stored my sneakers in a locker but it didn’t occur to me. They were snazzy, pink and silver, but they weren’t new, and I didn’t consider them valuable. One of them had a hole in the top where my right front toe sticks up.
The people at the front desk assured me that no one had entered while the class was in session because they would have seen it. Which meant that someone who’d practiced yoga in the class with me must have taken my sneakers.
The studio manager was as shocked and disturbed as I was. What kind of sneakers were they? she asked. I couldn’t recall. Other yogis were equally concerned, and bent down to check the floor around them. The urge to help prevailed, as did talk about the “mistake” someone had made, walking off in shoes that weren’t theirs, with unique orthotics molded to feet that weren’t theirs. Someone must have had “yogi brain,” they said. The manager gave me cab fare. Everyone was very kind.
But during the cab ride home, I began to brood. I was wearing loaner flip-flops. It was ironic, and a violation, to have my personal belongings vanish from an environment dedicated to cultivating trust. The idea of myself as a victim threw me into such a violent paroxysm of annoyance I could only discharge it by seeking blame. First, I condemned myself for not paying attention, just shoving the sneakers in the shelf and waltzing into the studio to announce my birthday to the teacher—what hubris! I was being punished! I also blamed the studio and the yoga industry in general, filled as it is with hype and hypocrisy and phrases like yogi brain.
An email was sent out that evening from the yoga center. It began with this question:
Hello friends, did you perhaps leave yoga class with "yogi brain" AND possibly the wrong pair of shoes tonight?
I understand that the term “yogi brain” is supposed to refer to a post-yoga bliss that spawns absentmindedness, and that it’s a harmless term, but it irked me beyond reason. Obliviousness is not the intention of yoga, as I understand it. Yogi brain, for me, suggests a free, uncluttered mind, not a blissed-out fog, and I should like to experience greater clarity by becoming more conscious, not less.
At any rate, I believe “thief brain” would be the more accurate term. I believed this from the beginning but I didn’t feel comfortable saying it aloud when everyone was so solicitous at the yoga center. It seemed wrong to express something so cynical, even if it was true. I didn’t want to be the one to state the harsh reality. Plus, I was afflicted with self-doubt. What if this assumption of theft emerged from my own distrustful, anxious mind, and if I opened up to the love and compassion around me, then my sneakers and my orthotics would be returned with a friendly oops, sorry, mistake. I didn’t want to undermine that possibility by reaching premature conclusions.
But I envisioned a mean and covetous young woman, someone beautiful and entitled, a dancer perhaps, reveling in her own nimble-fingered cleverness as she slipped the sneakers in her bag. Later, she’d be at some bar, laughing at me with her friends. Later still, she’d recoil at the hole created by my big toe and dump the sneakers in the garbage because it was all a game to her. She didn’t want them anyway. Ew, she’d say as she chucked them.
On the other hand, the yogi-brain email was written to allow a remorseful person to save face, though the more time that passes, the less likely it is that any face-saving remorse will occur. Which brings me to another yoga practice I am forced to learn and re-learn and learn again. It’s called letting go. Aparigraha is also one of the yamas. It means to take only what is necessary, and not exploit a situation, and also implies relinquishing attachment to things, understanding that impermanence is the only constant.
There’s the old saying: I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet. It wove through my mind like a mantra.
What was left unclaimed on the shelves of the yoga studio on the afternoon my sneakers were stolen was an old, beat-up pair of black flip-flips.
For me, letting go requires inventing another story, not the tale of the stupid sucker (me) and the cunning opportunistic crook, but a story of someone in deep financial trouble, facing eviction perhaps, someone in the arts who practices yoga and finds herself in an untenable position. Maybe she, too, has problem feet but orthotics aren’t affordable. Her feet are so similar to mine that when she laced the sneakers and walked out the door, she’d never felt so nurtured, and her feet had never felt so good. Perhaps she regrets that she had to steal them, but rationalizes that she needed them more than I did. Maybe she actually needs them more than I do. I will never know.
Good-bye sneakers. You served me well, orthotics. Enjoy and wear them proudly, whoever you are who has them now, I’m letting them go. They’re gone.
My previous experience with jury duty consisted of sitting in a vast room in the state court building for a few days with hundreds of other potential jurors, watching a video about civic duty, reading, texting, trying to get work done, and waiting for lunchtime. Until this year, I’d never even gotten as far the voir dire, meaning “to speak the truth” and dating back to French law, when lawyers question potential jurists, to secure either the friendliest possible jury in the case of the defense or the most punitive in the case of the prosecution.
But Federal court is far more serious. All electronic devices are confiscated at the entrance when you pass through a security apparatus, similar to that of an airport, though less efficient. Until you leave the building, you are no longer accessible to the outside world. Nor is the outside world accessible to you. Jury selection is quick, exemptions are limited, and I was chosen to serve.
Among twelve people and two alternates for a trial expected to last three days, I was juror #3. Since we had to line up in numbered order before entering the courtroom, I got to know Juror #1, a young real estate lawyer from Westchester who might have been hard of hearing because he shouted, rather than talked; and Juror #2, a pretty young woman, also from Westchester, who couldn’t comprehend that if she had not been chosen, she would have been required to return to the big room to be called for another voir dire somewhere else in the courthouse. “What? No!” she said. A lot.
The first morning, we seated ourselves randomly around the table in the jury room. Every morning thereafter, we sat in the same place, as if it had been assigned. One of the alternates positioned himself in the center seat, spread out his Daily News, drank his coffee, and expounded on the baseball steroid trial. That jury selection was underway in another building, attracting crowds of reporters and cameras. He knew A-Rod was guilty as hell and he knew with equal conviction that A-Rod would get away with it. The same with Chris Christie and the bridge scandal. Of the missing autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo, whose picture was plastered everywhere, he claimed, They’ll never find him, sorry to say. Not limiting himself to current events he also pontificated about city traffic, the extortionist cost of parking garages, gardening in Westchester, New York architecture and weather patterns. Some of other jurors indulged him. What? No! cried Juror #2. You sure do know a lot, said another, without apparent sarcasm.
I felt lucky to have landed far away from him, next to a secretary from the Bronx because she, like me, was a listener. Her gold hoop earrings had set off the metal detector, causing her to be late the first day. After that, she wore leather hoop earrings with fringe. We commiserated about the long line at the security, and about being without our phones.
On my other side sat an art collector who lived in Manhattan. He purchased his objets d’art—mid 1800s was his era—at auctions. “The modern stuff, you can have it!” he said. “I tried to present myself as such a well-heeled snob they’d never pick me for a jury but I failed. So here I am.”
In the courtroom, we were silent. The lawyer for the prosecution assured us that the state would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant conspired with friends to rob several AT&T and T-Mobile stores in various Manhattan locations, and that he used threat and intimidation to do so.
Later, a couple of the younger women jurors gossiped about this lawyer: What’s up with that hair? She needs a damn makeover. And that suit? What? No!
The lawyer’s assistant frequently motioned to her from the prosecutor’s table as she questioned witnesses from the podium. Calling for pauses, they conferred in whispers, consulting thick binders tabbed with yellow post-it notes. Also at the prosecutor’s table sat a paralegal who cued up videos, organized the voluminous binders, and presented the hard evidence--the alarm triggers and wire cutters--to the witnesses.
The defendant had used these wire cutters to cut smartphones from the store displays. He and his team had slipped the phones into their pockets and walked out of the store. The crimes occurred quickly: In one day, they robbed three stores. They knew where the “good” phones were. One store in Chelsea, they robbed twice in a month. All of it was captured on soundless video.
In every video, as the lawyer for the prosecution pointed out, we saw the defendant, wearing the same black “leather or leather-like” jacket, with chest pockets and shoulder epaulets. The term “leather or leather-like” was used so often it developed an energy of its own, with its alliteration and rhythm: Leather or leather like. Leather or leather like. Leather or leather like, the hard ‘k’ punctuating the lullaby circularity of the phrase.
In the jury room, I asked the young woman from the Bronx, “What do you think? Was the jacket leather, or was it leather-like?”
“Ain’t no chest pockets on a real leather jacket,” she said.
At one of the AT&T stores, a manager was shoved to the floor as the men escaped. At the twice-robbed T-Mobile store, an employee testified that she remembered the defendant because his skin was “ashy.” At another store, when approached by a security guard, the defendant warned, “Don’t be a hero, old man.”
In the jury room, not only was the idiocy of the crimes discussed at length but also the concept of ashy skin and what that meant, and much analysis from the talkative alternate about the subway routes the perpetrators must have taken in order to rob a store on lower Broadway, followed by a store in Chelsea, followed by a store on the upper east side. Trains must have been running pretty good that day!
A “law officer” that the defendant had met with regularly for over a year, testified with a dignified sadness that she had seen the footage on local television, recognized the defendant as her client and contacted the police. Before the videos went public, he’d never missed a meeting. Afterwards, he disappeared.
The question of why the defendant met weekly with this parole officer went unaddressed until the last day of the trial.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant went into hiding,” said the lawyer with the bad hair. “He went off the grid because he knew he was guilty. He knew his time was up.”
The defendant’s lawyer, a well-dressed but hapless, dispassionate man, called no character witnesses, presented no alibis, and spent interminable afternoon hours questioning the store’s security director and the police sergeant about the procedures of copying and tracking videos. Did you sign a tracking sheet and date it? he asked the sergeant. Is there a record showing when you gave that copy of the video to the police? he asked the security director. It’s not the actual video footage but a copy, am I right? When was that copy made? This sort of questioning caused the eyelids to shut and the brain to soften.
The defendant, a youngish black man in a short-sleeved white, button-down shirt, slept through it, his head flung back, as if we were all a bad dream.
One member of the jury, a white-bearded man with rosy cheeks, coughed through the proceedings so vehemently that the judge stopped the trial several times to instruct his clerk to bring the man a glass of water. Later, in the jury room, I offered him a zinc lozenge.
“No thanks, I’ve got everything,” he said. “Cough drops, juice, water. It’s bacterial. It’ll have to take its course.”
Luckily, I was not sitting next to him either.
On the third morning of the trial, menus at each seat offered modest choices of sandwiches and wraps. We were expected to deliberate through lunch. Of course, this was the day I’d made lunch plans with a friend working nearby and I had no way of contacting her to say I couldn’t make it.
The last witness to take the stand, a short cop from Queens, seemed irrelevant to the present case. This cop talked about an event that had occurred five years earlier when T-Mobile employees came running from their store on Northern Boulevard to flag him down. They’d just been robbed by men with wire cutters. He turned his scooter around in pursuit, then chased the three young black men down the subway steps, radioing ahead to the transit police to hold the train in the station. In the last subway car, he arrested the three, and retrieved several cell phones from under the seats. One of the three was Raymond, aka Ray-Ray, the current defendant. He had used up his chance.
Ladies, and gentlemen, the defendant had a history. This was his M.O., said the lawyer for the prosecution. When his nickname came to light, I envisioned a young boy smiling for school pictures. At what point in his life, I wondered, did trouble take over? The crimes were so stupid. Did that mean he was, too? His mother came to the courtroom every day, looking weary and furious. She glowered at us in the jury box. We all lamented for the suffering mother.
It was true that the prosecution vastly out-resourced the defense. It was also true that the cost of convicting this defendant seemed to far outweigh the actual crime. Yet the outcome seemed unequivocal. There was no arguing with the video evidence.
But, in the jury room when Juror #1 shouted, Ray-Ray is so fucking guilty! He’s guilty as shit! I wanted him to shut up. Juror #4 insisted we re-watch one of the videos. He also contended that one of the witnesses had obviously been coached by the prosecution, and wanted to read her section of the transcript again.
Filing back into the courtroom, it was like returning to a play after the intermission. The characters re-assembled onstage: judge, clerk, lawyer for the prosecution, assistant lawyer for the prosecution, paralegal for the prosecution, defense lawyer, defendant, and mother in the spectator’s row.
In the two-minute clip, Raymond, in his leather-like jacket, marched into the store with four other men, cut all the phones off the display and marched out. Were they intimidating? Absolutely.
In the jury room, waiting for copies of the transcript pages, talk turned to mothers and sons, the school system, and, again, Avonte Oquendo. The talkative man, being an alternate, had been dismissed from deliberations, which I considered a blessing. But my relief was premature.
Avonte? He’s dead, said the rosy-cheeked bearded man, miraculously cured of his cough. He knew this because, as a former principal, he’d seen what could happen to kids like that. Talking louder and louder until his bellow prevented any ancillary conversation, he ranted about the public school system, its corruptness and inefficiency, and about the money suctioned out of public schools into private companies and charters. The whole system was fucked. As for Raymond, he probably started getting into trouble in middle school. He’s done now. He’ll be going to jail for a long time.
I passed a note to the young woman from the Bronx. Strange how he’s not coughing anymore.
“Uh huh,” she said. “You know I was thinking the same thing.”
The clerk brought in twelve sets of photocopied, collated pages from the store manager’s transcript. One of the jurors read it aloud. The manager had recognized the defendant when he robbed the store the second time, not from his leather-like jacket but from his ashy skin, and that she was frightened. Whether she’d been coached or not, nothing she said in the transcript cast Raymond’s culpability in doubt. Juror #4 conceded. We filed back into the courtroom for the final act.
While the defendant’s mother glared, the judge read the verdict aloud: Guilty of robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery. The defendant, wakeful now and stone-faced, stared straight ahead except for once when he turned to look at the jury. I met his gaze, across the vast expanse between our divergent lives. I was sorry for him, sorry for his situation.
Afterwards, the judge came into the jury room, which is highly unusual, I’m told. “Jurists often begin a trial with a kind of lightheartedness,” he said. “You can see it. By the end, they are somber with responsibility.” In thanking us, he said we were an exceptional jury. I’m sure he tells everyone that, said Juror #1. Without a doubt, said the rosy-cheeked bearded man. What? No! cried Juror #2.
Maybe this judge really does tell every jury how exceptional they are. Maybe it’s true, even though some jurists sit around talking shit in the jury room, and saying things like he’s so fucking guilty. Maybe, with some juries, discretion prevails and nobody says insensitive things. Or maybe, it’s just human to vent, as long as you behave appropriately in the courtroom. This intersection of lives, this responsibility we bear in our community and our society, does feel, to me, quite extraordinary. Exceptional, too, to ponder the unfortunate fate of the defendant, the ongoing ordeal for his mother, and the disparate daily existences of all these people I will probably never see again.
Forever looping, so I can experience it virtually and wonder about the passing of days, even when it's not 5 am, in a different hemisphere.
Tuesday night, two weeks ago, at the City Winery, one of three sold-out shows, we arrived for the Dave Davies concert with curiosity. The place was packed with old hippies, rock-n-rollers, retro-boomers and lots of younger people who wouldn’t have been alive for The Kinks’ first hit. So were they Kinks fans? Dave Davies fans? Nostalgia bingers?
I had loved The Kinks back in the seventies and eighties, though I’d been too young to know them in the 60s. I’d been aware of the bitter rivalry between Ray and Dave, but I hadn’t kept up with their various individual projects or given them a lot of thought in recent years. That I found myself at this show was a matter of happenstance. My curiosity mingled with pessimism because Ray Davies wrote most of the songs and he’s the one you think of when you think of The Kinks. Dave was known more as the guitarist.
The pessimism felt quite justified when Dave Davies opened with I’m Not Like Everybody Else, one of The Kinks’ more turgid songs in the best of circumstances. But now, as he yelled in his hoarse, cracking voice, I’m not going to be what you want anymore! the song bordered on ridiculous. And ridiculously loud.
His voice was so rasping and weak, I wondered if he had a cold or something. He seemed to forget his lyrics. His fingers couldn’t find the right notes on his guitar.
I couldn’t decide whether to resent him because I’d paid $55+convenience-fee for a performer who did not have his shit together, or to feel sorry for him because he was in over his head. And yet there is something profoundly likeable about Dave Davies.
How could we not root for a sixty-six-year-old man still out there playing music and doing his thing? In 2004, he suffered a stroke. It’s a miracle he’s still with us.
When Dave Davies burst into Tired of Waiting for You, assisted by the voices of the drummer and the other guitarist and the audience sang along, people screamed their appreciation. Even I, pessimist, couldn’t resist. That audience love, combined with the lyrics and melody of a song that had entered my life and my body on a cellular level at an early age, bringing fraught sense memories of the past, eliminated all my resentment.
Aging, afflicted with our heartaches and physical ailments, it’s a miracle we’re all still here. As for the well-publicized enmity between Dave and Ray, Dave cried, We don’t hate each other, you know! before launching into Young and Innocent Days. Well, not that much anyway! And the audience howled their approval.
When he donned his reading glasses so he could see his lyric sheet, his voice grew more confident, and it seemed that the audience affection buoyed him and sustained him, so his playing and singing improved with each song. And he seemed so grateful for the love, it would have been mean-spirited to withhold it.
We’re all feeling a deep connection here, aren’t we? he shouted at one point, eliciting confused laughter from the audience. That’s a real question! he cried. More laughter and applause. A woman shouted, We love you, Dave! Oops, was that me? It could have been. It’s what I was thinking. Here’s my love if it will strengthen you.
The band left the stage after four encore songs, one of which was a repeat of their opening. The piped-in music started in over the sound system, a sure sign the show was over. Though the lights had not yet gone up, people were standing, settling checks, gathering things, ready to leave, when Dave Davies came back onstage, crying, But it was a request! It was a request! The band followed, dutiful and bewildered, and they played their last song, You Really Got Me.
And that really got everyone. I’m still singing it. You got me so I don’t know what I’m doing. Yeah.
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%!