Thursday, January 26, 2012

THE HALF DEAD HALF LIVE PIGEON

Tonight Alex and I were talking about the pigeon. Yes, THE pigeon. We knew what we meant when we said it. The pigeon was a fixture in our lives for four or five days when we lived in Rome. It was one of the most disturbing, most horrible presences in our routine, which sat on a grass triangle in front of our apartment on Via Nemea in Rome. We noticed him almost by accident. But once we’d seen him, he took up residence in consciousness, and if I am honest, he’s still there, even now.

Who was he, this ordinary grey pigeon? He sat on the grass. The sprinkler fanned across him. And yet he did not move. Why? Don’t pigeons move when they are sprayed with water – or when something ruffles their feathers? Don’t they generally fly away?

When we looked closer we saw the reason why. His head on one side had been sliced off – revealing a blue grey pulp and red sinews we didn’t want to know about, and could not understand, on one side of his head.

So we turned away. He disgusted us, this half headed pigeon. Oh my God, we said to each other when we got upstairs into the safety of our apartment. Did you see that pigeon on the grass?

We gathered on the kitchen balcony, and looked down. Alarmingly, the pigeon was still there. Like Patrick Suskind's Pigeon, he freaked us out. Later, when we went downstairs, and got into the car, he remained in place.

Spooky.

He had gone into another zone. Was he alive? Maybe instead, he hovered between life and death. I mean, why did he allow the sprinkler to fan across him? Why didn’t he preen his feathers, or fly away?

We imagined he had a superior knowledge about the nature of existence. This was why we feared him. He was alive, yet he wasn’t behaving like a normal bird. Therefore he must be onto something – onto some deeper notion of existence. This gave him the edge on us.

Any one of us, me or Rozzie, Ben, Alex or Elliot could have taken it upon ourselves to end his miserable existence. But yet we didn’t do it. Was it cowardly? Was he in misery? We didn’t know and didn’t care –

Because frankly, we were scared.

He was a sentinel,or rather a kind of elixir of life and death, a distilled version of ourselves. There, and yet not there. Our pigeon was a zombie.

Was he conscious of being himself ? We couldn’t tell. We tiptoed closer on the way to the car, on the pretext of finding out. If I’d had the courage of my Aunt Shirley, I’d have taken off a high heel shoe, and hit him on the head, putting him out of his misery. But I couldn't bring myself to do it, because I was repulsed.

Besides, it felt presumptuous. The pigeon seemed to know a thing or two about existence that eluded me. He was in possession of himself – in possession of some knowledge of good and evil that I didn’t yet understand.

And so for days we passed him by, like cowards. We hated him because he revolted us, sitting there on the grass like an ordinary grey pigeon, with half his brain sliced open. Why didn’t the portiere remove him, we wondered, as we drove off in our cars. And when we returned, we very much disliked to see that he was still there.

Then one day he was gone.

We no longer had to look at him. Maybe the portiere had killed him. Or maybe he died in the night. We never knew. Nor did we care to know. He was gone and that was good enough. We hated that pigeon because we were cowards. That’s why he haunted us in his final zombie days.

That’s why he haunts us still.

Monday, January 23, 2012

CHINESE NEW YEAR - A STRANGER COMES TO TOWN~

At a party this Sunday, Madame Carlotta read my fortune. It was a Chinese New Years party and for me was a bit of a lark. I wasn’t taking it seriously. We’ve known our friend Louise since 1986 when we all lived and worked together in Caracas, and since then we’ve been to many of her wonderful parties. This time, her living room windows were strung with Chinese lanterns and paper dragons– and the piece de resistance, on the lower level, beside the self serve bar, was Madame Carlotta reading fortunes.

Louise asked for volunteers, so Ben went first, and I followed behind. I sat on the sofa with my glass of red wine. Here I had a good view of the card table across from Madame Carlotta. Ben placed his hand on a marble globe, which sat atop a turtle’s back. Madame Carlotta laid her hand on Ben's – so the energy would flow. She wore a green satin head scarf, which flowed across one shoulder, snake like, blending in with her caftan of identical fabric.

So there was Ben, first customer of the afternoon. True believer? Not one bit. In fact we volunteered to go down first because Ben wanted to leave this party early in order to get back home for the Patriots game.

I myself expected nothing but fun and games. Until she began, this woman in her robes sitting at a card table in Louise’s basement room. She asked the year of Ben’s birth and pronounced it the Year of the Snake. She then began to describe his personality - enumerating weaknesses and strengths, both in body and spirit. And as she spoke, quite matter of factly, about these intimate matters, I felt my attitude change. I sat there, gobsmacked. I daren't disclose precisely what she said. Let's just say she was killing him softly with her song.

After describing him to a tee, she told him what to expect in the coming year, what he would struggle with, what he’d overcome. “Any questions?” she asked at length.

“No,” said Ben. “But what you’ve said about me is entirely accurate.” He got up from the table and thanked her. He turned to me, and our eyes locked.

So now it was my turn, and I have to admit, that when I sat before Madame Carlotta – I wasn’t quite as dismissive or jocular as I’d been when we arrived.

Madame Carlotta met my eyes just briefly. In fact I felt resistance coming from this woman, as I tried to connect. She placed my hand on the marble globe and then her hand on top of mine. We were, she said, connecting our energies through the earth. After a minute, she removed my hands and looked at their tops side by side ... my hands on Louise’s card table, next to a ceramic kitty, next to this marble globe resting on a ceramic turtle.

I felt nervous.

“Oh,” she said. “You are very balanced.” She went on to say that I was a great communicator. I had, she said, developed my communication skills well, even though, by looking at my left palm she could tell I was born with more communication ability than demonstrated thus far.

She noted a triangle at the bottom of my hand – which indicated balance. I had creative intellectual energy, and loved my family deeply. I had some secrets - (thank goodness for that)- but by and large I was a real communicator.

The line running up my hand and into my little finger indicated the development of wit and intellect. And yet, she said, I didn’t care much for success. That wasn’t my focus. I was, she said, a romantic in relationships. This much, I already knew.

What I didn’t know so well, was that I had a head for business. Imagine it! She said that although she wouldn’t trust me with major investments I was good at money matters – far better, in fact than my husband Ben! She would like me to handle the books, she said.

Wow! Is this ever going to be fodder for future marital disputes~

There were a few other things- health was no concern, although she offered a few dietary considerations. Then she read my Tarot cards – placing them on a chart before us.

Turns out that somebody important is about to come into my life – someone who will guide me, and handle financial matters – and this will mean she said, a decided shift in focus.

The reading ended. Madame Carlotta looked up from my hands and into my face. “Do you have any questions?” she asked.

“So….” I ventured. “No artistic breakthroughs?”

She looked back at the cards. “As I say, someone is going to come into your life who will guide you and re-order your priorities.”

Ben and I thanked Madame Carlotta. Then we went upstairs to Louise’s living room. We ate a few more dumplings and deep fried shrimp, sat with other guests who shared anecdotes about their lives in Japan, insight into such things as the beauty of Savannah Georgia, and the feasibility of taking a weekend trip. I talked to a woman about the publication of her memoir and while I was deep in conversation about the novels of John Fowles, Ben found me, bringing my coat to hurry me along. We said our goodbyes and drove back home, so that Ben could watch the Patriots game with Alex.

I’d like to say we neither of us talked or thought any more about Madame Carlotta’s predictions. But this blog entry suggests otherwise. Somehow her words have seeped into our consciousness. I am glad to know I have a head for business – and that someone is going to step into my life in the year to come, shaking up my world view. Ben is ready to make a few changes in his modus operandi; it didn’t sound bad. Besides, who would object to such a scenario? In fiction there are only two plots: Man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.

I’ve been on many journeys. So, bring it on, stranger! Come on in to town~

Friday, January 13, 2012

"I WISH I WAS EIGHTY!"


At our first sculpture class of 2012, Cindy explained things for the new students. She’s the one who helps Chuck, our teacher. These are the drying shelves and these the shelves where we stash our work in progress; we turn the model every ten or fifteen minutes; that is where the water fountain is, the toilets, and the coffee shop. She introduced all the sculptors: This is Gail, and this is Fran, Amanda and Charles, and that over there is Phoebe –wave to us Phoebe! And right here are the two Trishes – they happen to be standing side by side – So it’s Trish squared. And this is Ray and this over here is Barry.

Our model Gabrielle reclines on the stand with a pillow under her head. She’s a quiet, inscrutable girl with long proportions, a beautiful slender body, and a small head of closely cropped hair.

I haul out a packet of clay and slice off a wedge with my wire. Charles, the elderly statesman of the group, positions his stand next to mine.

“Hi Charles.”

“Well hi,” he says.

Charles is very old. I don’t know how old exactly,but he’s way older than you are, for sure. He begins to work. Stands there with surgical gloves on his hands. I’m told he sells his work at a gallery near the Watergate Hotel. His face is cherubic, his skin folded and translucent, and his eyes very blue.

After a bit, he sits back on the chair. Susan comes over to talk to him. Susan has been in this group since the 1980s, working with Chuck at Montgomery College. She wears a butcher block apron and enormous glasses. They talk about their hearing aids. Meanwhile, I keep working on my piece – working with my knife on the bend in the leg, and the rounding of the buttocks, and the way the back is arched and slants underneath.

A lot of the people in this class are elderly. But they are still engaged in art and creativity and all of them march to drumbeats of their own.

Chuck, our teacher, comes around. He’s eating a gingerbread cookie, brought in by the Trish with the long silver hair. Yet when he speaks his breath smells like oil of cloves. “Can you offer suggestions?” I ask.

“You might want to define the breast a little,” he says between bites of his gingerbread cookie. “And over here you might want to cut back the knee a bit.” He jabs at my sculpture, then begins to measure the limbs - the thigh, shin and the arm bones. “Looking good, kid. And I love this here- this coive (curve). Beautiful.”

Meanwhile Charles sits back on his chair, gazing into space, occasionally chatting with Susan. They talk about age. “The thing is, I don’t feel old,” says Susan. “when I see my daughter’s in-laws I think of them as old. But I don’t see them as my age.”

“Let me tell you,” Charles says with authority. “It doesn’t get any easier. I know a lot of people in their 70s but they all have parts missing.” He laughs quietly to himself, resigned to it by now. “Oh yes,” he says. “To me 70, even 75 sounds young.”

"A friend of mine had a grandmother who turned 100,” I put in. "At her birthday party she sighed and said, ‘I wish I were 80.'"

Charles and Susan laugh easily. "That's just it," says Charles. "Sure," he says. "It doesn’t get any easier.” He’s laughing at himself, and at the condition of being old in which he finds himself. But he doesn’t seem to mind that things are dropping off.

Then Susan tells a story about someone who wanted to be charged with statuary rape on his 100th birthday. I don't think it’s a very funny story, and neither does Charles.

"You haven’t heard what I said," she says.

"Oh is that right," says Charles. So she repeats the punch line and it has just as little impact as it did the first time around.

I adore Charles. I love how when Chuck asks him what is new he always says “Nothing. And that’s a good thing!” You see, Charles is going very gently into that good night. He isn’t raging one little bit, against the dying of the light. In fact, he’s made his peace with it. He's lost hope. At the same time he’s still himself. He’s an individual, a different kind of guy who likes to go to the Washington Ballet, and come to sculpture class and sit there anyway, even when he doesn’t feel like working.

I sometimes catch a glint in his eye when I engage him. I think he feels himself to be a man when we are talking – as if his age has no part of it. Because it doesn’t.

Chuck comes over and helps me with my piece. He hears us chatting and puts in his own two cents. Something about a Benedictine monk he befriended, who he invited for a swim in the pool at his condo. When the monk undressed, he revealed numerous tattoos of naked women on his arms.

We laugh at the story and turn back to our work. After all, the business at hand is to sculpt the naked woman who is lying right in front of us.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A HOUSE THAT NEVER SLEEPS


Last night I dreamed that the covers were falling off me, but when I woke up I was all bundled up under quilts. I could hear voices. A one sided conversation floated up the stairs from somewhere down below. I wondered if my sons were still up chatting with their friends. In summer I sometimes have to open the window and tell them to keep it down. But it’s cold outside on these January nights and when I looked out of the back window onto the darkened garden, I saw nothing. It was three in the morning. I slipped on a robe and tiptoed downstairs, and saw the light shining round Elliot’s closed door. Animated conversation came from within. Who was he with and what were they talking about?

I soon realized he was chatting to someone on Skype. Probably a friend in a different time zone – someone in Italy, no doubt. I pressed my ear to his door and caught a few words – "The film Un Chien Andalou… it’s an early surrealist film by Luis Bunuel and Marcel Du Champ… yeah, that’s what I mean about the director’s vision… Exactly~ It begins with someone’s eyeball being sliced? Right– that’s the one….”

And so on.

A seminar in the history of film at 3 o clock in the morning, delivered with such animation! I smiled, tiptoed back upstairs, and tucked next to Ben under the covers.

I was encouraged and touched by what I had heard. Oh, Chien Andalou – Dadaists, and Surrealists~ How well I remember my own infatuation with you, how I saw the film for the very first time before a Jethro Tull Concert at Boston Garden! What an impression was made by Andre Breton, and The Exquisite Corpse – and those surrealist games! I remembered my college aged self –energized by deep conversations that went on into the night. Those were conversations we lived for – exploring subjects new to us, artists we wanted to identify with, to learn about and experience.

Once, talking into the night with a boyfriend about theatre, art and film, downstairs in my parent’s house in Hingham, I remember hearing the morning rituals of my own father upstairs: Feet pattering, doors opening, the sound of running water and his electric razor. He was getting up for a new day at the office, and meanwhile our minds were still running fast and bouncing off each other.

I remember feeling sad for my father. Thought he didn’t have a life. Now I understand that he had a life, all right, with occupation and impetus, a household to maintain, and a meaningful job to do. But maybe he knew I was a daughter after his own heart. He had once been a drama student at RADA, then a young actor – so he must have had the same kinds of conversations. Just as Elliot, a drama student, is a boy after my (and his) own heart!

At about 6 am, Ben got up. Followed by our dachshund Basil. He went downstairs, put on the coffee, and read the Washington Post. Then he went on his run. I came downstairs, pottered around, got a cup of coffee – went back up to listen to NPR’s Morning Edition, check my email, and to get ready for work. Meanwhile our boys slumbered on behind closed doors.

In the early hours of January, while things outside are hibernating, ours has become a house that never sleeps. I wouldn’t want it to be like this all of the time. The house might become too ragged and dissolute. Also sleep is sweet and necessary, even for a house.

But how quiet it will be next week when Elliot returns to college. After that, towards the end of February, Alex will leave us to take a job in Australia. Then the house will be more sedate –tucked in and sleepy at night time. Peaceful yes, but not so full of character and promise.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

NEW YEARS EVE EFFIGIES – the start of a TRADITION

My daughter Rozzie and son Elliot think that New Years Eve suffers from a lack of ritual. There is too much froth and not enough substance to the celebration – so this year they proposed a new tradition.

Everyone would make an effigy of themselves. This effigy could be made from clay, cardboard, cloth or paper, but should represent a version of yourself which you are ready to discard. It should be something you identify with, might even have a fondness for, but which you want to outgrow. We could begin making the effigy early in December and live with it a bit. Then, at some point on New Years Eve, burn it, release it, and start the year with a new improved version of yourself.

Rozzie returned to England a few days ago, and spent the holiday with her boyfriend Atli – but the two of them sent us photographs of their effigies yesterday afternoon. They were great, and spurred us on. We got to work making ours and sent them pictures back. Rozzie laughed so hard at mine, she said, that Atli wondered what was wrong.

This is what it looked like.


Elliot and his friends spent yesterday afternoon making their effigies down in the basement. They burned them early this morning, at a party across town. This one was Elliot's.


Ben and I spent New Years Eve with our neighbors Sara and Jacky. We sat outside around the fire pit, drank champagne and ate a cold supper. The effigies made for heartfelt conversation and also quite a bit of laughter.

Then, at one point, I checked my iphone and saw that my mother Judy had sent a photograph of her effigy from San Francisco. It was great that she was participating! Then, to my dissapointment, I saw a letter from a publisher in my email inbox.

Dear @#$%, it read.

Thank you for sending us @#$%. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, we have decided not to publish your manuscript. Please know that we afford careful consideration to every manuscript that we receive. However, we can only accept a few titles for publication each year.

We wish you luck in finding a publisher for your manuscript.

Sincerely,
@##$%$#@


Wow. Happy New Year to you too, I thought.

And yet how fitting that my effigy was the very writerly version of myself who is undone by rejection – stuck forever ruminating about why no one picks up a particular project or other for publication! This made the burning of my effigy more than theoretical. How was I going to let go of this version of myself? It might be harder than I thought~

About an hour before midnight we stood around the firepit in Jacky and Sara's garden. It was temperate outside, with the stars overhead, and the orange lights of other houses shining across the neighborhood gardens. We all had our effigies in hand. I went first. I said a few words about how I didn’t want to be stuck in the mindset it represented. Then I threw it in the fire. I watched as the paper body shriveled in flames, until that whole picture of myself had been consumed.

Next Sara went. She had drawn a picture of herself in a cube, with her tangle of hair – back hunched over the computer screen – and heat rising from her head. “I have much more to offer,” she said, “And this year I’m going to claim it.”

Ben and Jacky committed their effigies to the flames as well – after short explanations. The whole experience was quite cathartic and we intend to do it again next year.

When we went indoors, I found myself wondering where that picture of myself had gone. I still felt a bit of attachment to it. But this morning, when I woke I felt refreshed. Ben went for his usual run and Sara, Jacky and I went for our customary Sunday walk in the woods. We all agreed the experience with our New Years Effigies had been rewarding and fun. It gave us something tangible to think about and we’ll do it again next year.