Saturday, January 26, 2013


 This week's New Yorker includes a stunning story by John Lee Anderson entitled 'Slumlord'. It tells the story of Caracas, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, a city I no longer recognize.  Ben and I lived there two decades ago, and started our young family there, and for me, Caracas will always be the city where I learned to fly. So in honor of that, I post a story, published ten years ago, in Woman Abroad, a magazine now out of print~


April in Caracas, before the rains. The Avila turns to a still, dry brown. Through binoculars, tiny scarlet cracks bristle on the mountainside. Forest fires, Frank tells her.
The city holds its breath, static with anticipation. But at night the tree frogs sing. Rennie lies awake, listening to Frank breathing in the dark. Then something brushes her skin, lifting the diaphanous curtains at the balcony door.  Her feet touch the tiles as she steps outside.
The Avila mountains are an inky shape in the moonlight, swelling towards the high rises, like folds of theatrical fabric. Before them nestle the modern apartments, and the small white church of Santa Eduvigis.  Her eyes adjust to a sway in the palm trees. She pulls a chair between the rubbery plants on the balcony, and scrambles onto the balcony wall. A dog barks in the flat yard below. She balances briefly, and then leaps into the darkness.
It’s the very first time, but she knows just how to do it. You push forward, holding your arms to the side, like you’re gliding through water.  She surges and swoops towards the lane and the church, then rises up, hovering above the trees, pushing from the knees, and flying towards the mountains.
The hills are greener here, the landscape more complex. The undergrowth is thick and colorful.  Rennie alights on a ledge and birds startle, with a scatter of wings.  Her skin feels warm. A silent laughter fills the atmosphere, a bird conspiracy in consciousness. The air is new and she’s suddenly sure that rains will follow.

            A strange hotel stands on top of the Avila and she runs towards it, barefoot down the path.  This hotel has been deserted for years. Windows are cracked. Clouds float through the bedrooms and fog up the glass.
Six months before this Venezuelan life, Frank and Rennie went for drinks at the Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center. That’s where he told her they’d offered him a job. “But Rennie,” he said, “we can stay in New York for the rest of our lives, if that is what you want.”
Caracas.  She imagined herself standing at a coffee counter or dancing the meringue at parties.  Contrasting this with long hours in a stuffy office on West 54th Street, there seemed no choice.  Besides, the Rainbow Room was empty that evening: the wrong time of year. The season was over and the windows were white with clouds.
“What if you looked out of this window and saw a face peering in,” Frank said, “an angel with a harp tucked under one arm.”  He pretended to be such an angel, wiping fog from the glass, and tapping at someone to open up.
Back in bed, after her first flight through the Avila,  Rennie awakes to the aroma of coffee. Frank sits beside her, wearing only boxer shorts. “I think it’s going to rain,” he says.  She kicks off the sheets and he grabs her foot in one hand.  The sole is black. “My God, Rennie. Look at your feet!”
She looks down at the filthy soles, not knowing how to explain them. “I can’t wait until they turn the water back on,” Frank says. “This one hour a day business is getting old.”

She suspects she wont be weightless for long. Then, at Clinica La Floresta, the doctora moves something cold across her slimed belly. She points to the pulsating center on the ultrasound. “That’s the baby, right there.”  Rennie listens to the heartbeat through a stethoscope, and imagines the baby like a tiny pony, galloping through water.
She must forget about flying. Instead, she stands at the balcony overlook, and watches a man with a papaya truck smoking cigarettes on the corner. If only she was the sort of person who took good photographs!  But later that week lying on the bed, she can’t resist closing her eyes, and feeling for a second breeze.
A bird calls, and the zapatero blows his whistle on the street.  Then she shifts into  weightlessness. Her concerns become as light as paper. Her hands and feet prickle with a magnetic wrenching from inside. On the balcony, she stretches her arms to the sky. The air of Caracas is fragrant with sap. The mountains are like velvet, brushed with the shadows of passing cloud.
Then she lifts off and wafts with the breeze towards Parque del Este where monkeys chatter in their cages.  Flamingos are poised one legged in the pond and she flies above it all, pushing and falling back in her invisible swing, forward and back, swooping and receding.
Several days later, she walks here with Frank after a tennis game.  As they stand together at the juice counter, she opens her mouth to speak, waits and then begins. She wants to describe it perfectly: Caracas from her bird’s eye view.
Rennie clears her throat, looking at his face. After a tennis game, he manages to be both flushed and pale both at the same time. “Frank,” she begins.  “I know you’ll find this is hard to believe, but I know how to fly. In fact, I’ve flown right here, over this very spot. I’m learning how to be weightless.”
He sips his parchita juice, and looks puzzled. “Weightless? What do you mean?”
But before she’s had the chance to respond, and while they are still side by side at the juice counter, the Avila suddenly changes. Shadows fall across the top of the mountains. The sky darkens, breaking with a crack and suddenly it’s raining hard.  Her hair flattens to her head and she turns towards Frank, who shakes his head, soaked and laughing too. He grabs her by the hand and the dash up the hill, her sandals like wet cardboard flapping on her feet, and water running in rivulets down the curbside gutters.
Mango trees drop their fruit. She lies beside Frank on the bed, thinking up names for the baby. But no name is big enough to contain the child they imagine.
And still this other fantastical thing preoccupies.  She cannot let it go. When she falls asleep at night, she sometimes tries to urge that magnetic feeling back into her limbs.  She concentrates hard on each portion of her body: on kneecaps, thigh, and belly, until she’s ready to let them go.  She waits to rise up and fly.  But nothing happens.

The maid is ironing in the kitchen. Rennie goes to the balcony. She stands on a chair with sun bruising her eyes.  Birds sing.  The ice cream van on the street below whorls its mindless jingle.  She opens herself to the possibility of flight. Lift, she urges.  Lift up, now ~~
“What are you doing, Senora?” Rennie opens her eyes to see the maid, with an armload of ironed shirts. “You look so strange up there, Senora,” she says. “You frighten me sometimes.”

            She sits for hours in the salmon pink living room looking at the mountains and listening to music. Her stomach grows and the baby inside kicks her. She feels something jutting out, a tiny elbow or a knee.
Then suddenly it dawns on her. It makes so much sense she wonders why she hasn’t considered it before. She’ll take the teleferico up to the top of the Avila and visit the abandoned hotel, alone, before the baby arrives. This will lay the flying to rest.
She sets out on a morning when clouds waft like scarves across the mountain top. She waits in line for twenty minutes. A cable car jerks up the hillside swinging and stopping along the way for tourists to photograph the view.
 The top is misty and crowded with visitors. Vendors line the walkway to the hotel, selling gourds and macramé.  There’s also a large cafeteria where you can buy yourself a snack. Rennie heads down the path towards the hotel.
Nothing is as she remembers. The hotel is different in shape and dimension. This is a 1950s monstrosity, while her hotel had been tall and delicate.  She sits on a bench to catch her breath. Two or three boys loll against each other on a wall opposite, grinning. They have a huge black insect tied to a thread.  It buzzes around their heads while they watch for her reaction, hoping to startle or repulse her.
Her mind has turned to other things.  To a sense of betrayal that requires explanation. It unsettles her to feel self doubt when before there’d been conviction and the feeling of being chosen. There’s no need to stay at the top of the mountain much longer.

She decides to devote herself to the baby. She’ll shop for curtain fabric with a pattern of clouds and rainbows. There will be a baby shower, and birthing classes in a granite high rise downtown.
When its time to deliver, the birth is nothing like they described. Her belly is overripe and she’s passed her due date when something bursts inside and water runs down her legs. Frank drives her to the clinic and she sinks to the floor of the car.
There’s a blur of time and one long contraction while she pushes. The pain is almost pleasurable. The baby separates from her, moving through her and peeling away.
It could happen right now. If she wanted she’s sure she could fly. Her limbs buzz and the tips of her fingers cry out. Her breath becomes distant and a humming from within draws her upwards. But she doesn’t intend to fly any more. She is rooted here and Frank is holding her and he can see the baby’s head although she is somewhere else, climbing out of herself.
She pushes her infant into the heavy world. He’s here, a heavy slippery weight in her arms, compacted into flesh, his tiny face closely drawn and exact. The baby cries, outraged at the disturbance that insists he be here.
Later in her room she feels exhilarated. Her stomach is a collapsed parachute. Her breasts are full and hard. She’s amazed at his unfurled fingers and ears the crown of his dark head as he nurses. His face reminds of her a little old man, changes expression like the Avila changes with clouds that cross it.
Then she discovers them, starting at the shoulder blades as discrete as folded fans.  She tugs gently on one, and watches it expand she takes in the beautiful web of cartilage and veins. They are not how she imagines wings at all. She always imagined feathers. But these are human wings so they don’t have feathers. They are delicate like silk and infinitely stronger. The skin is bluish, thin as egg white.
Frank stands in the doorway.  “The doctors say we’ll have to decide whether or not to operate. She’s worried that he won’t be able to lead a normal life.”
Rennie smiles and Frank’s face relaxes. They know what they’re doing and will keep the baby just as he is.
She remembers, once in New York -- funny she should think of it now, but she remembers once she was waiting for a train on the platform at Rockefeller Center, and she caught the interest of a fat man with carrier bags. He wore a hat covered in badges and he rocked on his heels. He looked at her and gasped, as though at a vision she didn’t understand.
“Will his wings get wet when he flies outside,” he asked. It had been so long ago.  Rennie was a different person then, and couldn’t think what he had meant.  She thought he was mad so she never answered.  Instead she turned away, ashamed.  A train came in, and she took it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Reading Winnie The Pooh

There are some essential pieces of furniture that make the house a home.  One is a dining room table, large enough to accommodate a gathering of friends.  Another is a deep sofa, full of comfortable cushions.  We purchased the sofa pictured above on Craigslist from a couple of guys who had recently moved to Washington DC from California.  And when we went to pick it up, we discovered several common bonds between ourselves and the owners: we all had lived in Buenos Aires; we all preferred the east to the west coast mentality, and both Brett and I were writers.  Since buying their sofa, we have met in town at the writers group he started and this evening we attended Brett's birthday party.

The sofa provided the original link - but how could it not? It's the kind of piece that has soul. It has presence and has become a center of daily life.

This Christmas, Rozzie and Elliot sat on the sofa reading Winnie the Pooh.  He was feeling sick but the sofa (and the book) was restorative.  I often nap on this sofa, after a cup of tea- just as Brett and Bill did when it belonged to them. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dear Life by Alice Munro

This new collection of stories by a master craftsman is one of the most beautiful books this season. Perfect reading for those cold winter evenings~ Read my review here: Dear Life 

Saturday, January 12, 2013


As a New Years Resolution I declared that my former self, bound with frozen shoulder was no more. This week I had to keep my word.  I had to start the new year off with an effort to unbind those arms.  In 2012 I had been to the doctor, and gone through months of physical therapy, then I stopped short at surgery - and opted instead for acupuncture.  The acupuncture has been marvelous for alleviating pain, and the zing that a sudden movement often causes, but the stiffness on one side remains.

"Try hot yoga!" my daughter Rosalind repeatedly suggested.  After all, she had done it.  The first time she hated it. Her heart pounded and she felt almost panicked and wanted to leave the room - but instead she remained, and the second time she tried it, low and behold she came out glowing. "I loved it!" she said.

Ever since she's been urging me to try.  I wasn't convinced. Even though it sounded like it might help,  I sincerely doubted I was up to the challenge.

And then, quite independently my friend Irina told me that her daughter Allie had made an interesting suggestion. "Have you ever heard of it?" she asked me. "It's called hot yoga!"

We talked about it for weeks - every time we met, in fact. "We should really try," we told each other. "Yes, we really should.  It would be so healthy for us."

This Christmas, Rosalind raised the idea again. "Well, I have done yoga," I told her airily.

"When, Mum?"

"Oh," I said, "when I was in Rome, I did it several times a week. And when I came back here too..."

"What, you mean, four years ago? Mum, those muscles have gone by now!" she told me.

So at her suggestion, Roz and I took a tour of several studios in town and picked one where the people were friendly, relaxed and encouraging. The owner, whose name was Scott, told me he began his practice after a car accident that damaged his knee and his ribs. It changed his life. He then gave up his corporate job and opened up this studio.

"But for frozen shoulder, surely..." I began - hoping he'd say no, that it wouldn't be right for me.

"Oh yes," he declared, "it would certainly help frozen shoulder. You don't have to do all the poses.  Just do what you can.  No sharp pain.  Stop if you feel pain and just do what you can.  The first time, learn to breathe.  That would be an excellent goal.  Just concentrate on breathing. Think of it as a sauna and try not to leave the room."

Now I was really up against it. I had declared with the new year that I was throwing out that bound up woman with the frozen shoulders.  Rosalind was returning to the UK on Tuesday and we were out of time. There was no choice but to go to the bikram studio on Monday!

We changed into our yoga things and stopped at the supermarket for bottled and coconut water. The coconut water, Roz explained, would replenish the electrolytes lost during the workout.  The workout itself was going to be an hour and a half.  I was terrified.

But while we were in the supermarket looking for coconut water my friend Irina phoned.  "Amanda?" she said - she was calling because she was going to cut Rosalind's hair that day.

"Irina - guess where we're going!" I cried. "We're going to hot yoga. Why don't you come along?"

Sure, she said. She was feeling low, having just driven her son to the airport. But enough of hollow words; she would meet us at the studio!

Just before noon we all arrived.  We positioned our mats in the room and I tried to gather courage. But even before the class began I wanted to leave the room.  Just learn to breathe.  Just stay in the room. You can do that much can't you - with your friend and your daughter rallying you on, I told myself.

And so I did.  There are 26 poses of varying length - some of them familiar to me and others completely beyond me.  But in that boiling hot studio, most of the poses were all but impossible.  Besides which, my frozen right arm couldn't even reach for a half moon.

By the end of the first hour I was longing to leave.  I could barely think straight. At one point Irina tried to duck out to get herself a bottle of water - and was stopped by the instructor.  "Oh, I can get it for you," she said.  So no hope of leaving without a fuss.

My face in the mirror was a strange combination of white and red.  My hair became like kinky straw sticking out at the sides of my head. My body dripped. Please God. Get me out of here.

It didn't help that on either side two exquisite yogis were going through the most beautiful practice I'd ever seen.  They looked like swans as they swooped into their poses and  I felt like the biggest blob and the biggest boob in the room. But that's because I was.

At last we had half an hour of work on the mat.   Great, I could get off my feet, and I must confess I sat out some of it. "If you're looking at the person who brought you here, probably the person you gave birth to and wondering what they were thinking, you can now congratulate yourself," said our instructor - "because we're nearly at the end."

At last. It was over! OVER! We left the room, and I sat in a heap on the bench. The sweet relief of normal temperature felt like a glorious bath of cold water.

"You did it, Mum!" cried Rosalind.

"Well," I said. "Not exactly."

"What do you mean not exactly.  Everything in you was screaming to leave and you stayed.
Of course you feel terrible. Because all you had to go on was the promise of who you want to become!"

"Yes," I said, "and the distance between who I am now and who that person might be."

"It's never going to be as bad as this," she said. "You were terrified and you did it. Now you know what to expect."

Rozzie left the following day, and on Wednesday Irina telephoned to say she was going to yoga again. I wasn't ready.  Then yesterday I found myself telephoning her.  "Amanda?" she said in amazement.

"Yes! I'm going to hot yoga at 4 o clock. Want to come along?"  Turns out she had already been at 6 that morning and the studio was full, she said. She was trying to try out as many of the instructors as she could. "It was lovely," she told me.

Well, I said, full of resolve. I was going now.  And so I did. I promise you I wouldn't have gone if not for the shame of  giving up.  If not for the sweet encouragement of my daughter and friend.  "Just go, honey, "Irina said, "and go to have fun! Enjoy it!"

And surprisingly I did.  They were right. I knew what to expect this time around.  I knew what the poses would be, and paced myself accordingly.  I attempted all of the poses this time.  And even though the room was hot, it wasn't unbearable. They say it takes seven times for your body to adjust to the temperature.

I guess I just don't want to be the kind of person who gives it up before those seven times.  Maybe that's why I'm writing this.  It's my public declaration. I want to see if I can do it. And if I can't, I will just stay in the room.  I will try what I can and leave what I can't for another day. Maybe, bit by bit, I will finally leave that bound up woman with the frozen arms behind me.

The Bikram Studio in Falls Church:

Sunday, January 6, 2013


It's only a week into 2013, and if you haven't done it yet, I highly recommend that you join our tradition of  making New Years Effigies.  We began the practice last year when my daughter Rosalind and son Elliot felt that New Year's Eve lacked sufficient gravitas.  And so last year we made effigies of  the selves we wanted to relinquish, selves we might regard fondly or with compassion, but selves we had decided to let go as we headed into the new year.

We did it again this year. The idea is to make your effigy a few weeks before the end of the year, so that you can live with it a little.  Then at some point on New Years Eve, you burn it and release that version of yourself into the ether.  It doesn't have to be part of you. You can let it go.

This was mine.
I'm all bound up, but behind me is a hand, full of promise

I suppose my effigy has a lot to do with the frozen shoulder I suffered from all year.  But it also has to do with feeling bound up and trapped in nets of my own devising. After making it, I saw other things in it too. Things it meant to me and who I might become and who I didn't wish to become.  But in fact, it doesn't matter if other people understand what your effigy represents, just so long as you understand it.  Sure, it's reassuring to have others acknowledge what it costs you to release that former selfhood - to let it go and start a new year without the comfort or constraints it represents.  Doing so can be enormously cathartic. It was for me this year, and for other friends and family members who joined in the experience.

Some told me they felt a mental shift when they burned their effigies. Perhaps a lot of it is owing to the externalization of personas they've sometimes embraced inadvertently.  In depicting them and looking at them objectively, you begin to sense them as separate from yourself.

We spent our New Year's Eve among friends, here in Falls Church.  First we went to a service at THE Falls Church, the oldest church in our city, and one designed by Christopher Wren's son.  Here, we joined with our fellow townsfolk in acknowledging the Emancipation Proclamation and the part that Falls Church citizens played in that event.

After the service, we returned home and had a light supper. Then we went down to the middle of our garden where we had the fire pit. There, underneath the stars, we said a few words and burned our effigies.

Next door our neighbors  were having a big party. Their teenage son and his friends ran around in the yard and shouted wildly.  After they'd gone indoors, we heard them counting down the final minutes of the year.  For us it was comforting to hear the countdown, and equally comforting to have no part of it.  The fire glowed and the sky was big and we were sitting round the fire with a view across the grass.  One year gently yeilded to the next.  Who cared what precise second was being commemorated?  After all, our sons in Australia had seen in the new year many hours ahead of us, and our relatives in California wouldn't see the New Year for another three hours.  Time became a device of our own construction.  It was only a way we organized things, so we wouldn't feel quite as chaotic. But in reality there is no time. Only the eternal now.

Emancipation.  Freeing ourselves of the selves we have become.  Letting go of those selfhoods. Allowing the ground to overturn.  This happens in time. So time is good for some things. Just not for everything.