Monday, December 14, 2009

A Day (almost) like Any Other

Last night I went outside with my dog. The light under the deck was shining on me in a way that cast a shadow against a tree on the slope of our hill. It made me look twelve-feet tall.

Two days ago I turned sixty. I tried to make it a day like any other, a typical Saturday beginning with a Pilates class. There is a core of women I've grown fond of at the gym. We do Pilates together. We talk about our grown children (and grandchildren). Today, though, we talked about what it means to be sixty. Don't go gray, said one of them. It sucks the color from your face. What are you doing to celebrate? asked another. No party, I said. Some close friends and family would gather at my home. We would make a meal together, drink some wine.

I thought I was clever in marking other decades, with big parties at twenty-nine, thirty-nine, forty-nine. When fifty-nine rolled around, I could not muster the 'dance-the-night-away spirit.' The years pass quickly enough; sixty would be here in the wink of an eye. Try as I might to talk myself into not making too much of it, there is something about turning sixty (without trying to color it as the new forty) that begs honoring, if not out-and-out celebration.

A week before the big day I was riding a wave of buoyancy. Years of doing yoga have given me a particular frame of reference for understanding that everything comes, in its time. I am nothing if not a warrior, but even warriors know that effort needs to give way to grace. There is lightness (do I daresay light?) in some of my poses. If this is what it means to be sixty, I'll take it. Another wave sends me crashing down, into the grip of an unsettling deflation: the dentist finds a red spot on my gum (nothing suspicious but let's have a look in a week); the dermatologist says not to worry about the keratosis (but we'll have to treat it); the gynecologist does her best to reassure me that Vagifem is safe (but for how long?).

In one of Jon Kabat-Zinn's meditation tapes, he uses the lake as symbol for a deep resource of clarity. There may be turbulence on the surface, but with mindfulness and attention, it is possible to access the clarity beneath. In my own moments of clarity, I can see those swings of buoyancy and deflation as nothing more than part of a whole. Some days are simply better than others. Some years, markers that they are of past and future, loss and gain, are as bitter as they are sweet.

by Jane Hirschfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs – all this resinous, unretractable earth.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

I know It's Only Rock 'n' Roll . . .

In the Canary Islands, descendants of an aboriginal people called the Guanches communicate via an ancient whistling language. As Diane Ackerman eloquently tells it in A Natural History of the Senses, "They trill and warble a little like quails and other birds, but more elaborately, and, from as far away as nine miles they hear one another and converse as their ancestors did." She writes, too, about the aboriginals in Australia who have to travel across a maze of invisible roads, or Songlines. And she posits a simple yet profound question: what evolutionary advantage does music afford?

Two weeks ago I sat sixth row center at a benefit concert for the Playing for Change foundation. I had seen the video of street musicians from around the world performing the same song – Stand by Me – and I was thrilled at the chance to see at least some of them perform live at Town Hall in New York. Music is nothing if not a uniting force. But it's one thing to produce and edit snippets of musical performances from diverse parts of the world (some punctuated with videos of Bono, Keb' Mo, and Bob Marley), another thing altogether to unite the musicians (minus the star power) for a concert. Granda Elliott, who hails from New Orleans, is an unqualified national treasure. Clarence Bekker (Amsterdam) has an infectious charm, not to mention a powerful voice brought to harmonizing subtlety when he sang with Titi Tsira (Guguletu, South Africa) and Mermans Kenkosenki (Matadi, Congo). If the performance was less than polished, more like a jam session, utter joy pervaded. The musicians danced, they sang, they played guitar and percussion and harmonica. They smiled. They wore shoes that looked spanking new.

One week ago I was lucky enough to have landed two tickets to night #2 of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Benefit Concert at Madison Square Garden. I was not so up close and personal, but it doesn't matter all that much at the Garden. The monitors provide all the close-ups you need, and besides, it's mostly about sound in this cavernous arena. The lights dim, out comes Tom Hanks, more to remind us of why we're there than to tell us about who we're going to hear. Not that introductions are needed. Jerry Lee Lewis makes his way to the front of the stage, piano at the ready, Great Balls of Fire. It's the only song he plays, and it's all he needs to. Aretha follows, all diva in red and pearls. She brings Annie Lennox onstage to join her for Chain of Fools, followed by Lenny Kravitz in a duet of Think.

It gets even better.

Between sets the screens roll in a photo montage, a continuum of images taking us back to the roots of rock and through its evolutionary shifts. The audience is abuzz. Who's playing next? Who's filling in for Eric Clapton, forced to bow out because of gallstone surgery? Is Mick Jagger really going to duet with Bono? Some extreme Clapton fans are rumored to want their money back. Too bad for them if they insisted. Jeff Beck, who would have been a surprise guest playing with Clapton, filled in with his phenomenal group, including Tal Wilkenfeld, the dynamic twenty-three-year-old Australian bass player who happens to be female. So even if the reality of hearing/seeing Clapton and U2 on the same night, on the same stage was what lured me to the second night of the concert, for my money – and from the standpoint of pure music – Jeff Beck's set would turn out to be my favorite, electrifying in every sense of the word. Sting joining him for a rendition of People Get Ready. Buddy Guy belting out Let Me Love You to a background of dueling guitars. Jeff Beck sending megawatt vibrations to the highest reaches of the Garden, accompanied by Billy Gibbons, playing Foxy Lady.

It gets even better.

You don't have to be a fan of heavy metal music to appreciate Metallica. Especially after seeing the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil, which underscores the passion that gives rise to any type of music. More especially after hearing Metallica play Sweet Jane with Lou Reed, and Iron Man with Ozzie Osbourne, and, in what may have been one of the most inspired pairings of the night, You Really Got Me with Ray Davies of the Kinks.

Did I say it gets even better?

U2 opens their set with Vertigo and Magnificent and a great deal of anticipation about surprise guests (Mick Jagger? Sir Paul McCartney?). Knowing that Bruce Springsteen headlined the first night, and knowing how much he loves playing to his fans, I harbor a secret feeling (wish?) that he might show up the second night. When he walks onto the stage, escorted by Patti Smith, and they launch into Because the Night, with Bono, the power of rock 'n' roll reaches a fevered pitch. Patti leaves the stage, Bruce stays, for a riveting I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, with Roy Bittan and U2. The party keeps heating up, with Black Eyed Peas bringing a hip hop edge to Mysterious Ways. Once Black Eyed Peas (minus Fergie) leave the stage and she coos those first haunting notes of Gimme Shelter, the final guest of the night, who is really no surprise at all, struts onto the stage.

The show comes to an end, I leave the Garden, walking on air. Singing to myself. Thinking, it doesn't get much better.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lazy Hazy Days

Midsummer night: I stand outside on my deck, stare up at the moon through the trees, follow the music. To the left I tune into the percussive cicadas, to the right a chorus of tree frogs, in-between the rhythmic whistle of crickets. We call them 'lazy, hazy days,' but summer always seems so fleeting, as if time truly does speed up. Was it always that way? Or does adulthood bring a shift in perspective, a different way of sensing time? Ray Kurzweil's Law of Time and Chaos suggests that our perception of time is measured in 'milestone' events. In the world of childhood, there are so many of these events and intervals between them shorter; hence, there's an ever-present sense of being 'in the moment,' when time does seem to move more slowly. The older we get, the fewer the milestone events and the greater the intervals between them, which contributes to the perception of time speeding up.

Fleeting as summertime may feel, it is also a very full season, thick with leaves and flowers, the air redolent with memories of summers past: the joys of sun and sand and floating on a wave; the craving for peaches and fresh corn and watermelon; the trips to and from the library, arms filled with books, every one of which will be devoured in this season of leisure. Even decades later, when years are no longer measured in semesters, summer reading still takes its place as something distinct from the rest of the year. There are summers when all I want is to get through past issues of The New Yorker and those gems of literary journals that have piled up. Other summers demand nothing more than temptation-rich breezy novels. Still others bring a longing to revisit something rich, Anna Karenina or The Odyssey. Today I think I'll read some Mary Oliver poems, tomorrow who knows what?

Moments come and go, lost in thoughtlessness or stuck in a wheel of perseveration. To persevere is to see ahead, value the effort as much as the light (even lightness) that eventually comes; to perseverate is to be caught up in a moment that has passed. Persevere has a softness, an open-ended breathiness; perseverate is the linguistic equivalent of anxiety.

Midsummer day: the blue heron who makes visitations to a pond on my road stops me in my tracks. She is grace in stillness, poetry in motion. She does not persevere, she does not perseverate. Her field of awareness must include me, even at a distance, but she is singular in her purpose right now, the epitome of patience, a master of timing. The longer I watch, the more commanding is her presence. With swiftness and skill, she plucks a small fish from the pond and swallows it. And with a wingspan that carries with it all things mythical and prehistoric, she takes flight.

Heron Rises From The Dark, Summer Pond

Mary Oliver

So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings

and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks

of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.

Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is

that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed

back into itself–
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.

And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn't a miracle

but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body

into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.

From What Do We Know (DaCapo Press, 2002)

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Piece of Paradise

Sometimes I wonder if it was the image that came first, not the word. The link between the two is intrinsic, a chicken-and-egg conundrum that rests more on riddle than solution. Both have the power to conjure; one is worth a thousand of the other.

Sometimes words are not enough, or they're too much. It's a deeply philosophical notion to try to grasp the 'beingness' of something. Cliches too often get in the way.

Sometimes a cliche is a point of entry. I lie in a hammock overlooking a vineyard, Moon Mountain, Sonoma. There are hawks circling the sky, birds darting from tree to tree, a lizard sizing me up. My husband is in the swimming pool, ours alone. I think about trips to Napa Valley over the years, the lush rolling hills, the air filled with lilies, the winery tours and tastings that make Napa/Sonoma a tourist mecca. To call the landscape intoxicating is to push a cliche to its limit. Yet there's no other word that captures it all so perfectly. It is a word that trips off the tongue, stumbles across syllables. Makes you linger.

Sometimes words slip away, the spirit rises, the image both contained and illuminated now, nothing separating It from me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Grace Notes

In Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing, the most recent of his collections, there's a poem, "My Guitar," that takes its shape as a drawing, one of many that stand alone or as illustrations paired with poems:

My guitar is so beautiful
Sometimes I wish I could play it

The humility is pure, the phrasing quintessential Leonard Cohen. He is the troubadour of charm, the master of melancholy, the poet that gave rise to at least a fantasy or two of mine when I was young, impressionable, and under the spell of anyone who could show me the way to spin words and/or music into poems and songs. I spent many nights filled with empathy (maybe even envy) for Suzanne, or hoping I just might encounter some of my own sisters of mercy. That's not to say it was all so personal. He's a talented (and, yes, handsome) man. I have a great appreciation for what he does, and I had the supreme pleasure of seeing him perform last weekend at Radio City Music Hall.

When I heard him perform fifteen years ago, he was fifty-nine, the age I am now. At seventy-four he is the embodiment of grace. Fans may still cheer when he sings out those ironic, if not self-effacing, lines from Tower of Song:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

But there's a different tone to the trope now, an overriding poignancy. To watch Leonard Cohen move with a certain age-appropriate stiffness onstage, to hear his voice, deeper and richer, filled with its own goldenness, is to be in the grip of someone who has faced the darkness and come back a little lighter. Someone for whom ecstasy can be the chords of song, a broken Hallelujah, the touch of a woman, three back-up singers cooing day-do-dum-dum-dum. Someone who captures love and loss and longing with the all-encompassing spirit of a Buddhist and the simple heart of a man.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Land of Dance

I love to dance; my husband has a bum ankle. So I played the ‘do-it-for-us' card and signed up for a series of ballroom dancing classes at our local Fred Astaire studio. Loosen the hips, loosen the ankle — right? Besides, I figure, even the best of marriages can be spiced up with a little tango.

Our instructor is a lovely, young Russian woman who speaks broken English. She begins with the basics, a simple fox trot promenade that requires positioning one of my husband's hands in the small of my back, the other extended, straight as an arrow, clasped with mine. She puts on music, directs us around the ballroom, tells us, “This is how you do land of dance." It takes me some time to realize she means 'line of dance.' Either way there's a charm to the syntax, and whatever is lost in translation is gained in metaphor. I want a one-way ticket to the land of dance.

Once, many years ago, I was at a club in L.A. A man invited me to dance with him. Ask me his name or what he looked like, I draw a blank. Ask me instead what it felt like to be spun around, light as meringue, never losing a step, never a thought to the next one. Some moments remain imprinted in the body.

Dancing with a partner is largely about chemistry; somebody has to lead, somebody has to be led. Sometimes the give and take of making love becomes a dance. A great basketball game is a choreography worthy of Twyla Tharp or Daniel Ezralow. So, as the eighth season of DANCING WITH THE STARS picks up momentum, it's easy to see why the hunky Gilles Marini and his partner Cheryl Burke continue to win the praises of the judges, not to mention the cheers of the fans. He's a natural, and their chemistry is strong (simmering, as judge Bruno might say). There's a vicarious thrill to watching them, all the more vicarious when you're sitting in the audience four rows back from the stage. Lucky me (the envy of many of friend) to have a daughter who works on the show. The demand for tickets is high, and there's an online wait list. I would never be here otherwise.

The atmosphere at a taping is pure party, lights flashing, cocktail attire required. Security is tight, and the no-cell-phones rule strictly adhered to (they’re checked at the door, for retrieval after show). An air of expectancy greets you as you enter the ballroom, a feeling akin to being at a wedding (waiting for the bride and groom to make their dramatic entrance down the grand curved staircase) or a bar mitzvah celebration (watching dance motivators usher in the little man of the hour). There’s a behind-the-scenes emcee (not to be confused with host Tom Bergeron) who gets the party started by singling out colorfully dressed audience members (it doesn’t get more colorful than the man in the elvish green suit) and inviting volunteers to take the stage in a pre-show warm-up dance (hard as it is, I promise my daughter I'll stay in my seat). Finally the countdown begins, the audience cheers and applauds as Carrie Ann, Len, and Bruno make their way to the judges’ table. Tom and Samantha take their place, the parade of dancers and stars begins. If I’m smiling (maybe even laughing), it’s with the sense that I’m no random prime-time observer at one of the most popular shows on television. I’m here (up close if not all that personal), taking in the grace and the stumbles without the cameraman’s angles guiding my focus. Even if seems oh-so-orchestrated (it is a show, after all), there’s no room for cynicism in this bubbly ballroom; if there’s a wolf at the door huffing and puffing his reminder that the world outside is falling apart at the seams, he doesn’t stand a chance: the only thing that can bring down this recession-proof dome is a searing tango or the springiest of lindy hops. During commercial breaks we’re engaged and entertained, a captive (if not captivated) group indeed. Some light banter, a couple of DWTS tee-shirts up for grabs. My eye catches a very pregnant woman being escorted out. I like to imagine the story she’ll tell her child, a newborn dancing into the world. The camera pans, we’re prompted to stand up, reminded that loud cheering is welcome; and if we don't agree with a judge's score, that's just what booing is for.

Not that this audience needs any prodding. Fans of the show have waited long enough for tickets. Friends and family of the stars know just what they're there for. Celeb spotting? That's par for the course. This is L.A. after all. They're everywhere.

But for tonight at least, the celebs we're most interested in are the ones on the dance floor, 'stars' putting themselves on the line, trying to invigorate their careers, or just have a little fun, show another side of themselves. Every day is different, every week is different. One week LT shows a newfound light-footedness in his samba, the next week he dances a leaden tango. The Woz may get low scores from the judges but the fans text and clamor, bring him back. Even Carrie Ann and Len and Bruno can't help but give some credit for effort. Until the bar is raised, the competition narrows. Time for him to go.

In a way, there's something oxymoronic about dance competitions. The essence of dance is a social activity, the music that drives it a primal, communal force – an observation that underscores one particular finding of the Einstein Aging Study. The study, undertaken to determine the relationship between leisure activities (both cognitive and physical) and the risk of dementia in the elderly concluded that the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia is (surprise!) dancing.

Do I need some expert to remind me that dancing is good for the heart (not to mention the soul)? No. Do I need a partner (real or imagined) to sweep me around the land of dance? Yes. And if his ankle gives or he indicates (in any number of ways), yeah, it was swell but he hates missing Law and Order reruns, I give him a reassuring nod. Not a problem The gym I go to is now offering Zumba classes. Nothing like a sizzling salsa to get the blood flowing, make my heart soar.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Breaking the Chain

A friend of mine forwards an e-mail to me, Subject: Keep her going – hilarious! I quickly scroll through the body of the e-mail, a series of photos that would bring a smile to any woman's face: a mouse with a lid that flips up to reveal a compact mirror, make-up included; a hammer in the shape of a shoe, part of a tool set that includes a screwdriver that could double as a knife; a toilet seat chained down. All the way at the bottom is an animated woman walking the world for breast cancer.

Someone else forwards an e-mail, Passing the Purple Hat, in celebration of Women's History Month and in memory of Erma Bombeck. An 'angel' has been sent my way. She brings me classic Erma Bombeck reminders about casting off the petty things that keep me from living my life to the fullest. She asks me to pass the purple hat along to women I love. Good things will happen if I do.

I consider forwarding the missive along with the caveat: I don't usually do this (which, by implication means that sometimes I do.) It would be a simple act of good will; take a quick look through my contacts, choose some names, hit send. Instead I find myself hesitating, thinking back to the days when chain letters had to be copied verbatim, no simple hitting of a button to send them along. Copying words makes you think about them, just a little more.

, an early form of armor made from small links of steel or iron, was designed to keep a sword from penetrating. Originally known as chain maille (French, derived from the Latin macula, "mesh of a net"), the soldier wearing it might still suffer from the force of a blow, but he would not be cut. The development of plate armor diminished the need for chainmail.

From a linguistic standpoint, the maille that gave rise to armor and today gives us the modern variant in the form of jewelry and handbags, is no more than a cousin to mail, derived from the middle Dutch word for traveling bag (i.e., the kind used by mail carriers). But in a fast-paced communication mode that forces us to read between the consonants, I can opt to slow down, make the metaphoric leap between the mesh of a net and the mail circulating around the world with electronic speed. And instead of hitting the forward button, I might (with only a modicum of guilt at breaking the chain) share a poem by Dorianne Laux:

Enough Music
Sometimes, when we're on a long drive,
and we've talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it's what we don't say
that saves us.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Limited Sun

Everything is nuance. The postage-stamp-size weather preview on the front page of the New York Times informs me that today there will be limited sunshine. I look out my window. The sun, hidden by cloud cover, casts a milky glow onto the fresh snow. Any hour now (3 p.m., according to, the clouds will break, the sun will peek through, maybe even start melting the snow. In Greek mythology Helios is responsible for giving us sunlight. In Norse mythology it is Sunna, in Shinto lore she is Amaterasu. Only in a world governed more by the exactitude of science than the metaphorical framework of mythology could sunlight be trumped by language.

If sunshine every really becomes limited, can I stop wearing sunblock? Would I even want to? Or would the grim reality of a sun deficient or constrained in some way afflict me with a variation of SAD (solar affective disorder), or worse, a full-blown depression. Everything is nuance, le mot juste. Partly sunny (which, by implication, means partly cloudy) suggests a trope of a totally different hue. There is a softness to the phrase, a perception of possibility; even a little sun is better than a limited one.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter, a reflection on the nature of language (in general) and writing (in particular). More than one wise person has said, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." And one particularly brilliant writer (Joan Didion) many years ago wrote an essay that addresses, with Didion-esque insight, the question of "Why I Write. " The essay appeared in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. Didion admits to stealing the title from George Orwell: "One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space."

Even if there is some overstatement in equating writer with bully, the "three short unambiguous words" that set the essay in motion strike a deep, resonant note. And Didion's bully, being a 'secret' one, insinuates herself into my consciousness, even years after first reading the essay. Why, after all, do I write? In a world apparently filled now with more writers than readers, where do I find my place in this growing band of bullies? I could answer very simply, three words of my own: I just do. And if that isn't enough, I can remind myself how I love the puzzle of piecing words together, the cadences of sentences and paragraphs, the images demanding that I take note.

Friday, February 6, 2009


I had a dream the other night, a helicopter down on its side, no passengers visible, though there was a sense that I was witnessing a rescue effort, some scrambling about. The images from recalled dreams leave an imprint, and this one tempts me to tease it apart. Maybe it's a fascination with the ease at which a helicopter goes right up that brought the image to my unconscious. Maybe my dreamscape transformed the recent Hudson River airplane landing and rescue into a helicopter scenario. Or an image from a novel-in-progress haunted me. (The protagonist sees a a newspaper photo of a plane crash, the one that killed Stevie Ray Vaughan).

The wonder of helicopters is the way they hover. It's a notion I keep with me in certain yoga postures. It's an image that made me laugh the first time I came across it in reference to being a parent these days. I don't think I've been a 'helicopter parent' in the way I understand it (though my daughter might beg to differ). But these days, in which my daughter, drawn by the lure of the film industry out west, struggles through the rite-of-passage known as getting that first job, I feel a certain unease that has me hovering, if not crashing.

Early morning, a phrase pops into my head, hanging in the balance. If 'hovering' implies lightness, the tissue-thin wings of a butterfly, 'hanging in the balance' brings its own weight to uncertainty. One day there are interviews, lots of anticipation, so much promise; the next day no postings, no phone calls. So much hangs in the balance. It's enough to bring a mother to tears, not just for the obvious (I'm a mother, nurturing is what I do); if there is a certain mirroring to the mother-daughter relationship, being a mother who also happens to be a writer brings even more poignancy to my daughter's efforts. For her it's creative cover letters and resumes, somebody ple-e-a-s-e hire me (i.e., I'm enthusiastic, hard-working, detail-oriented). For me it's creative cover letters and the telling detail of well-honed story, somebody ple-e-a-s-e take note. The cycle of putting oneself out, being rejected (or downright ignored), complaining, crying, taking a few deep breaths, rolling up the sleeves, putting oneself again, is oh-too-familiar. Even in the best of economic times, very little comes without effort.

One image gives rise to another: I see my daughter on one side of a mountain, myself on the other. Hovering above, between us, is the realm of all things possible. For her it is all about the climb, everything on the rise; for me, even if there is sense of slipping down, there is also an acute awareness that what is behind me sets in motion what lies ahead.