On Prostituting Myself

…in the doctor’s office.

Today, I was wearing a hospital gown and having my body minutely examined by a melanoma expert when I held her hostage making her listen to a reading of my blog. Not exactly a literary environment; there were digital pictures of my body splayed on a big computer screen and a medical assistant clicking her way through all 83 of them in conjunction with the doc checking each one with a loupe. All I could think of was how much she would enjoy my blog about my ex-husband’s underwear.

Standing there naked on a platform in front of her and her assistant is one of those truthful moments when you just can’t care about anything anymore; apparently I (or any of us high-riskers) can have malignant moles in our pubis, our mouth cavity and our scalp. So you get it? Anyone who has given birth really would get it. No barriers. Just let it go.

But I wanted her to enjoy my humorous blog while we were at it.

We have fun during these bi-annual examinations; we laugh and exchange brief pleasantries about life and love. Since I have been this cutting edge melanoma expert’s patient for some 20 years, she asks about my kids. my divorce, my career, my writing. She’s got it down pat; she’s smooth. She admits to being slightly OCD and the pace in the office is…how shall I put it… high volume and high energy. Before she enters the room, I hear her draw a deep breath outside the door to my examination room. She’s on a roll and she’s a leader. She doesn’t have a minute to waste. I wonder what it’s like to be her and I feel slightly overwhealmed.

Six months ago her hair was a distinguished salt and pepper. I’m guessing she’s in her late fifties-early sixties; slender, quick moving, wearing horned rimmed glasses and now a headband with a neat dark dyed bob. Gone are the sexy grays of last summer, but her daughter gave her ultimatum, she told me. No gray. So the gray is gone.

Last time I was here – disrobed, examined –  I gave them both my blog-card. A colorful. creative thick stock business card announcing something creative and, I hope, curious. A never ending pusher of my writing, I take any opportunity I can get to promote my blog.  “Oh, I remember that,” said the assistant, “I have the card on my desk, next to my computer.” Ok. But have you looked at my blog? Have you read any of my pieces? Are you a follower? Have I amused you, entertained you, puzzled you for just a minute of your day? 

Because that is what I yearn to do. Affect someone’s day in a minute way. Someone’s moment. Momentarily.

So I told them I’d read them my blog about my ex-husband’s underwear while they were finishing up scrutinizing my skin and it’s clumps of malanin. I fished the blog up on my iPhone and, seated at the edge of the examination table, I drew a deep breath and thought I might read it all in one long emphatic breath.

They were supposed to continue their examination; but oh, how I loved it when the doc stopped in her tracks and just froze in front of me, a gleeful look on her face while I rapidly read the blog like a kid reciting a poem too quickly in front of the principal at a timed and graded school event. At just the right moments I thought I heard them sigh, “hm” in affirmation and giggle at my verbal twists and turns; my observations about life, love, hurt, and…laundry.

It ended before it had even begun. My impromptu reading and performance was done before I could say ‘boo” and the doc matter-of-faclty asked me to lift up my foot. She checked between my toes for mysterious moles.”You write well” she added in passing while swiftly making observational notes to the assistant, relevant to my body, not my blog.

Then she left the room with a smile and some check-marks on the billing sheet, reminding me to make another appointment in 6-months time. My four minutes of what felt like redemption and release was over. It was, I realized this before it even began, a quickie in all senses of the word.

The situation I put myself in to have an audience…To have my writing heard. My words listened to. Really? I told her it exhilarated me as much as it shamed me, because it was as if I held my doctor and her assistant hostage in the examining room so that they would listen to me read my own blog. “Just tell them you had a situation in the room,” I said as I decided to do the reading and fumbled with my phone. I thought I saw them nodding eagerly.

I shared my writing with two more people today. But I think I paid them, so maybe I wasn’t the prostitute after all? Life can be confusing.

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Catskills Chronicles: Survival and Thanksgiving

I am thankful my sons and significant other were such sports about sleeping in the motel we stayed at last night. In fact, I dig that they aren’t hysterical folk. Many, if not most, would have backed out shaking their heads and opted for sleeping in the car with the engine on. Anywhere but at this motel in the depressed Catskill town of Livingston Manor, where our family gathers at their peaceful vacation home up in the hills, a home that was – like the turkey –  stuffed to the gills for the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving.

Nick, the groundskeeper at the motel, didn’t have many teeth left in his mouth, and his yellow threadbare sweatshirt was full of stains, the kind of smudges and smears that must have accumulated over months of wear without much laundering. A local handy-man, hired to keep the place running while the absent owners are home with their family for Thanksgiving, Nick was expecting us and had worked hard to prepare our two rooms.

Except for Nick’s pickup, our car was the only vehicle parked in the head-in parking spots in front of each bright red motel-room door. Approaching us from room 24, located at the far end of the single one storied row of rooms, the room reserved for him, the one the paper note taped to the office door told us to go to for our room keys, he had a slight limp and shuffled in the wintery slush gathering along the walkway, calling out “hi there!” A small friendly calico cat was already welcoming my boys with cuddles and purrs. The red, white and blue “Grand Opening” banner attached to the motel sign at the top of the driveway made things look promising, and our cousins had heard it was recently renovated, so to myself I thought, how bad could it be? But I already had a premonition of just how bad it might be. Snippets of Stephen King’s The Shining flashed before my eyes, and before the night was over; family members with their morbid sense of humor urged us to leave our dental records before returning to our night’s sleep at the musty motel.

While Nick was telling me about all the new stuff and changes at the newly re-opened motel that had been closed for several years, cars and trucks whizzed by on Highway 17, on the other side of the brook behind the building. I noticed the rolled cigarette propped between the top rim of his ear and the bottom rim of his grey knit hat, while he enthusiastically told me the many things he had ensured were in order for our arrival. The sheets were clean, as were the towels (phew!) and he shared his newly discovered trick of sticking Bounce dryer sheets in the heater vents to deodorize the room. “Some people just turn the bed sheets over, you know” he added, “but the owner checks on me; she comes in and smells the sheets to make sure I’ve washed them just right.” Well then.

Dryer sheet trick and all, when he opened the doors to our rooms and lead the way in, the faint pungent odor of cigarette smoke was impossible to ignore. And while I did noticed that the bedding and floor tiles, as well as shower curtains and window curtains seemed of recent date, the ring of grime to remain unnamed in the toilet bowl and remnants of prior tenant’s facial hair (I hope) on the sides of the sink kind of was a kill-joy.

Since one of my boys had to sleep on the couch, we needed extra sheets and blankets. Nick looked bewildered for a moment (was he thinking about how to turn used, unlaundered sheets inside out while I was there, looking on?) but eventually said he had some extras and returned with a stack of what I can only hope were clean sheets and a towel. I stretched out my arms for the pile, including a green, pilly, polyester blanket, and felt it was moist and warm to the touch. After Nick left the room, urging us to let him know if we needed anything else, I lifted the blanket to my nose for a quick whiff, and while hoping for more of the April Fresh Bounce scent, what emanated was more a combo of what I conjured as heat from the dryer after a quick attempt at getting rid of more cigarette smell, and what could only be old cat urine.

Notwithstanding the evident string of complaints, there was something about the Willowemoc Lodge Motel and especially its grounds keeper Nick that made me feel like I wanted to see them succeed at what they were clearly making many efforts at achieving. The fact that we decided to stick it out in stead of bailing, and that Nick appeared earnestly interested in our input and evaluations, his seeming eagerness to improve things warmed our hearts. When I told him I had worked in the business of in-keeping, and suggested that he vacuum the headboards the next time he cleaned the rooms, the next morning, as we were checking out, he made sure to tell me that he had already done it the night before, while we were at our Thanksgiving gathering.

We left tips on the nightstands, for Nick sure was a hard working man. Pulling out of the driveway of what can only go down in our family lore as one memorable hotel experience, I wondered how the owner would take an email from me with compliments of the already completed improvements and suggestions of how to get to a point when guests leaving will say “I’d come back here” rather than what some of our comments sounded like: “I’m just happy we didn’t get killed” or “if people like uncle Marty can survive what he did during the war, we have to simply count our blessings.”

And count we did.

Motel Sign

My Ex’s Underwear

I’m not the only one getting caught in-between. Boxer shorts with hearts on them do too.

Let me explain.

I talk a lot about in-betweeness. What it feels like living culturally and linguistically in a perpetual state of not really quite here, nor really quite there, but also very much both here and there. It’s a little messed up, but it’s the life of an ex-pat, a convert with a bohemian soul and now a divorcee. And I’ve come to accept it like this.

Although you’d think the D-status (divorce) would bring a finalized “now you’re over here in this camp and he/they are over there in the other camp” kind of situation, it doesn’t. The fact that my ex and I share three children that we are committed to co-parent in a positive, co-operative spirit, makes the dividing lines of “me and him/them” (he is remarried) more blurred.

Today for instance, it was not my in-betweeness I was noticing, but the stuff that sometimes get caught in-between the two camps. Like underwear, t-shirts, socks and various minor parent paraphernalia.

My three strapping almost adult sons seem to make a sport out of going into each other’s drawers (I mean the dresser kind) when, at 6:30am they realize they will stop at nothing to find a clean pair of undies or socks, t-shirt or shorts. This includes their father’s drawers. (Thankfully, perhaps, it does not include mine)

So, necessarily, since the boys spend half their time at my place and the other half at their dad’s, clothes and dirty laundry end up here, there and in-between.

My laundry basket is one such place of twilight zone. I can’t tell you how many times I have found my ex’s undies there, and when I unwittingly go to sort or fold or move a load from washer to dryer, I handle his now new and shiny, heart-clad intimate wear bestowed upon him by his new bride. Oh, joy.

Of course, on their raids at 6.30am, the boys don’t pick the shredded, thread bare boxers from their dad’s drawers that I once knew. They pick the Hilfiger, Lauren, fancy-schmanzy, lovey-dovey stuff. Apparently, the boys have an agenda, too, now.

Anyway.

One of my favorite laundry discoveries was a skimpy singlet shirt more akin to the ladies’ camisole with some glittery writing on it that must have mistakenly ended up in a pile of clothes grabbed by one of the boys on the go. That’s right, there I am I’m in my new apartment, newly divorced, a block from my old home where the ex lives, folding what can only be the skimpy, glittery camisole of my ex-husbands new woman. Did I already say “oh joy”?

There’s always stuff that gets stuck in-between. That’s because life just isn’t this neatly delineated chapter book, but rather a porous, shifting and unexpected mess.

What used to bother me of this stuff caught in-between, has just become another thing to kindly sort and put in the “bring back over there” pile. And then occasionally I do think about the possibility of the itty bitty top having been left behind by one of my sons girlfriends, which would explain his choice to snag dad’s lover boy undies rather than the tidy whities. Oy. Three sons floating in-between boyhood and manhood. Now here’s an in-between to really get existential about.

Lovey Boxers

She Was Only a Bootlegger’s Daughter: In Memory of My Father

“She was only a bootlegger’s daughter, but he loved her still…” an old song goes.

***

I notice the mannerisms and instinctive moves I have after my dad who died two years ago today. I smile. I cry. I remember him in my body and soul.

This morning, in the shower, I turn the water off and before I reach for the towel hanging over the shower door, I run my hands over my body in energetic downward and outward moves brushing off the excess water.

He used to do that before drying off to reduce the wetness of the towel. Probably a trick he learned during his days in the army in Norway or from when my family spent weeks at a time on our wooden boat in the summer, sailing down the Oslo fjord. Smart.

I am in my car with one of my sons next to me in the passenger seat. I instinctively reach over and hold his leg, by the knee, and stroke it, gently yet firmly press on it, as if to say things like “Do you know how much I love you?” and “I love that we are here together,” without using words.

He used to do that to me when I sat next to him in the car. Loving.

In my kitchen preparing dinner, I peel the carrot holding it in my left hand and slowly and rhythmically rotating it as the peeler works its magic all around in smooth motions, leaving the orange root clean and glistening .

Pappa peeled vegetables just like that. Thoughtfully and deliberately.

It’s 10 am and I feel overwhelmed by everything I am not achieving, not getting around to, even though I have said I planned to. I briefly entertain the idea of not getting dressed, opening a wine bottle, and staying at home all day reading and sulking. Forgetting the pain of all that unaccomplished and the disappointments.

My father spent days, weeks, months and years like that. Not so smart, but I understand…

The love I feel for my three sons is so full and so filling, I think to myself, if I accomplish nothing else, having raised these beings whose company I enjoy and who seem to be able move about in the world relatively competently with kindness and a sense of humor; if that is ALL there is and will be, I am contented.

I am my father’s daughter.

He felt contented with the love he gave and received from his two daughters.

Feeling this love, he was able to just be, in the mess of it all. Wise.

“I am only a bootlegger’s daughter…”

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The Tiny Cross-Dressing Dancer in My Bag

Imagination going wild at 7am. No booze, no drugs, no accompanying euphoric experience like spectacular nature or sex. Just me reflecting on the small woman who is a man in my bag.

The short, stout store owner, perhaps in his mid sixties and with a halo of mad professor-like white hair, gently but ceremoniously pressed the tiny pink wooden cut-out figure into my hand. For having brought in a new customer to his fabulous furniture and home decor store in Fairhaven, CT, he is now bestowing me with “a prize!” “Is it edible?” I had blurted out instinctively, hopefully, as he reached into a jar. It was just after lunch and a small sweet treat would be perfect. I looked at the object his warm, small hand had just transferred into mine.

“This is me doing the happy dance,” he begins, “I am thankful for what you have done for us!” I quickly glance down at the pink doll in my open palm; it has tiny hands reaching for the stars, a narrow waste and long slender body whose silhouette is whimsically cut as someone wearing women’s clothing. My gaze still on the graceful creature measuring no more than one inch and weighing maximum a quarter ounce – if I ever could guess that kind of lightness – and while I was calculating his imaginary prowess, he quickly added, “I’m wearing my wife’s dress.” “Ah…” I emit, as if that explains it all, smile and look up to meet his twinkling countenance, and out of my mouth falls, “there’s a name for that you know” followed by a wink, which thankfully, he takes for what it is intended as: a gentle and good humored response to an unusual comment and mental image. This little jovial pot-bellied man, doing the happy dance dressed up in his wife regalia.

I mean, had I not been me, he might have scared me away by now.

“I don’t care what you do with it,” he continued, “but you might carry it in your handbag, and when you see a friend or a stranger who does something that makes you happy, pass it on to them.” I, of course, love the concept of “pass it on,” especially when it has to do with gratitude and kindness. I clutch it in my hand reaching for my porte-monnaie buried somewhere in the bowels of my disorganized handbag. I open my wallet, flip to where I keep my little laminated card with the travel-prayer in Hebrew, and tuck the figure in next to the good karma spot.

Meanwhile, my friend learns that the shop-owner is originally from Belgium, (they switch between German and French just to show off their linguistic nimbleness, to which my cross dresser adds Dutch, and so “wins.” Men…), and my friend is told that the owner’s 98 year old mother still travels between Europe and the US several times a year, with her little dog nonetheless, to her home that she has kept over there, “since before The War.” Ah! Nobody can mention “before The War” within earshot of me, without there following a quiet pondering of what might have happened to that family, or that woman, during that time, and what side she might have been on, and how has she emotionally “stayed” there, if she was Jewish, or how does one live with oneself, if one had been a collaborator.

It seems in the imaginary, the majority of people, who are neither victims nor perpetrators, can easily fall between the cracks. It’s the strangest thing.

So by now, I’m trying to figure out if my charming and loquacious drag queen is a landsmann, a fellow tribesman, or not, and instinctively drop into the tribal lingo test. I wander over toward the shelves displaying beautiful ceramic items and tell him how “it’s meshuganneh” that it has taken until now for my friend, his new customer, who has lived in New Haven for most of his adult life, to discover this gem of a store. I’m thinking that if his family goes back to “the old country,” even if they were fancy, educated city folk, he’d be familiar with some Yiddish jargon. He looked at me quizzically with a slight tilt of his head and said “what?” I repeated, “It’s crazy that it has taken this long….” and our conversation continued while I admired the goods, fumbling a bit making small talk while many whacky thoughts bounced around in my mind.

It could be he is simply hard of hearing. A Jew hard of hearing. It happens.

I wonder how many people in this world carry around self-representations of this delightful character in their bag. Many years ago, my friend Jodi once introduced me to this store, and she has since become a regular customer and is on quite jovial terms with the eccentric owner and his wife. “Does Jodi carry a mini-cross dresser around as well?” I ask myself. She never told me about it. It probably didn’t stir up a whacky story for her, that she felt compelled to share. She stuck it in her pocket book, forgot about it, busy as she is saving lives at the Yale New Haven Hospital.

What can I say. Perhaps that’s the point with writers and the writer’s mind: these insane imaginary journeys always take the front seat, despite ourselves, and we have to heed their right to be born. To some, they may seem like a waste of time. Like day dreaming. But the storytelling that have the capacity to make our hearts skip a beat from joy, wonder or fear, is just that: a chance encounter that begets a story.

“Every character deserves the open destiny of life” (Grace Paley)

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A(-nother) Moment of Awe

Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

That’s me being awed during these awesome “Days of Awe;” the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur; a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent.

I don’t think of them really as “sins” as much as actions or reactions I may have had in the past year that could have or should have been different. Sure, I can imagine a few of my behavioral faux-pas as sins, quite easily in fact, if I think of them in the context of the Yom Kippur prayer-book language, but since I’m resolved to be more compassionate, toward myself included, I choose not to use that language.

As a creative and emotional person, I am already prone to daily moments of being wonderstruck, to be amazed and at a loss for words (hence all the tears and maybe the laughter, too). To be awed by my surroundings is not unusual for me: people, places, and happenings, even the seemingly most insignificant ones, can easily leave me awestruck. This is perhaps what makes me at once a challenging partner, friend and parent, yet in the same swoop a deeply engaged and caring one.

And funny. And loud.

But yesterday I was especially quieted, and particularly awed by my octogenarian friend Leo, a Holocaust survivor. To such a degree was I feeling overwhelmed by reverential respect after something Leo said while we were sharing our lunch, that my heart skipped several beats, and I sounded like – if there was any sound at all – the onomatopoeias above:  Oh, wow. Hmmm…Gosh. Ooh…Sigh…Gulp.

On Yom Kippur it is customary to light memorial candles that burn for 24 hours. Special memorial prayers are said for our beloved departed ones, both privately and communally, to heighten the appreciation of the unique holiday spirit. It’s all about life and death, prayer for redemption, that sort of stuff: who shall live and who shall die, who by sward and who by fire…you catch my drift. Imagine the significance for these words and images for someone who has lived through the trauma of the Nazi death camps.

In between mouthfuls of his favorite Subway sandwich, Leo mentioned that his aide had not been able to find any memorial candles, that they were all sold out, everywhere. “Somebody cleaned’em out” I quipped. “Sure” he said, “there was a two for one sale!” I knew I had one at home, in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, left from last time (they were on sale!) and so I offered him mine. I would always be able to track down another one for myself before the big day.

Since my one, significant loss in life – my father died nearly three years ago – I have lit a candle for him on Yom Kippur and other fast days. Although he was not a Jew, I chose to ritually enter into the private and communal act of remembrance “à la manière juive” since this is, after all, how I have chosen to live my life.

“Oh, thank you sweetheart,” Leo offered, “but I need twelve candles!” I looked a bit puzzled up from my salad that I was only picking at to keep him company, and before I could begin to realize what he meant, let alone ask, he matter of faculty reminded me of the sober statistics of his life. In a voice sounding like a patient teacher kindly enumerating the mathematical facts – so often repeated for the students at a loss and who just can’t grasp it – as if the facts were the bare bones reality of the most incomprehensible highest truth: “I light eight candles for my brothers and sisters [who were children and killed in the Holocaust], two for my parents [also killed in the camps], one for the woman who saved me [a righteous Polish Christian], and one for Norma [his late life partner].”

I fell silent. In less than a nano-second it seems images of my own children flash before my eyes, as well as my sister and myself as children, and my parents as I have been blessed to know them and love them all my life. It was “just” another moment – but a profound moment – of awe, mixed with fear AND wonder at all the kindness, resilience and courage, as well as with all the impossible heartache, evil and desperation a person can carry with him in his life, and even more admiration that this person can still have the capacity to wake up in the morning and chose to greet another day with a smile; making friends, loving his neighbors and finding enough hope and dreams to hang on.

I wish all of you, too, the ability to be able to find some awe in your days. Pick a day, any day. It’s important to feel the awe.

Days of Awe

New Year Resolution? Compost and Compassion!

It’s the Jewish New Year (5775 for those counting or curious) and I say BRING IT ON!

Bring on the giddy renewal of a new year, and all the hopes and dreams it can and should hold.

What happened right before Rosh Hashanah makes me believe that change is always possible, and that love, compassion and small efforts are really the key ingredients to making hearts sing.

What happened was so small, yet brought me to tears: For the first time since I became Jewish, some 26 years ago, my non-Jewish mother (in Norway) texted me: “L’Shanah Tovah! Hugs to all from Mormor!” Now THAT is just special when your Norwegian speaking mom makes the effort to send a greeting in Hebrew: Imagine the auto correct texting battle on her iPhone in Oslo. Not that she hasn’t supported my choices in life; not that she isn’t aware of the various Jewish Holidays, but that small effort made a huge difference in how I was able to enter the holiday period with what felt like a lifted spirit.

It’s the small things that matter. I will bring this memory with me into the new year, and with more compassion toward others and even myself, I hope to bring on some small but meaningful changes.

Shanah tovah

***

And the compost, you ask?

As I was cooking up a storm for the various meals I was hosting for the holidays, I looked at the ever growing mounds of vegetable and fruit peels, cores and ends in my sink and decided to no longer toss all these goodies in the trash or down the garbage disposal. Finally – after how many years of serious meal preparations? and a constant nagging feeling that it is just wrong to throw it all in the garbage – an internal voice said “If not now, when?”

My friend has a big compost unit in his garden, and I have now seen the magic in action and up close; how the “gold” is produced over time. I simply could not bring myself to throw all the stuff away, although my old muscle memory made fun of my newfound idealism, and I had to more than once pick stuff back out of the trash to put it in the compost pile. Old habits die hard. But they can be “finished off” with a small effort.

So I say Compost and Compassion; my two invigorating buzz words for this New Year of 5775.

Compost