Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Have I Learned Anything At All?

Many moons back, a man told me that he and I had no future together, due to the cultural gulf between us. I was devastated, but also furious that he’d not thought of the gap before leaping. I’d pointed it out several times. He’d insisted it was no problem, and dragged me to the precipice, and being me, of course, I jumped.

Note, Readers. Don’t dare me on the edge of an abyss. I go there.

Anyway, when he announced, several months in, that we had no future… what outraged me most was the thought that anyone has–simply has–a future.

The future, I told him, isn’t something that’s given. It’s something one makes.

Often I find that in a good relationship, the lessons I learn, I learn in the relationship. In an unhealthy one, I learn my lessons afterward. On its shoals.

And I learned precisely what I told him… That the future is ours to make.

But wisdom’s kinda like a gem. Got many facets, if it’s true, and many of its faces we only see from different vantage points. Time polishes it.

The other day, someone asked me if I had advice for a beginning writer. I was depleted after a very long (and very bizarre) day. I gave what I could.

But this morning I realized the most potent thing, the best advice I have, is to know yourself, and know what you want.

Know yourself, and know what you want.

Knowing means loving. Means open arms. Not blaming yourself for not being X or Y, whether those letters stand for adjectives or proper nouns. I know it’s not easy.

I’m reading The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro right now. This is her young protagonist, a teenager at the time:

She also planned to buy some bangles, and an angora sweater. She had great hopes of silver bangles and powder-blue angora. She thought they could transform her, make her calm and slender and take the frizz out of her hair, dry her underarms and turn her complexion to pearl.

It takes us so long to realize and appreciate the treasure trove of who we are.

When you know yourself, you recognize your strengths and your weaknesses. They don’t shame you. You value how you accumulated your strengths, or built upon them. You recognize your skills and what gulfs they can breach. And when you know your weaknesses, you can assess that gulf between you and what you want–what you want and not what everyone else seems to want, and by wanting, imply you ought to want–and you can decide, with full measure and open eyes and open heart… the path you must take.

Because we were sold a bill of goods. That straight and narrow path it seems some people were born to, whether by family or wealth or geography or early ambition; that path that seems like it was paved for different feet to tread… Well, as many avenues to death as there are, there’re that many to life. And more.

That door you see everyone standing around, waiting to be plucked?

Fuck the pluck.

That door is a power statement. But the greater power statement is to know yourself, know what you love, what you want, and recognize the way that works for you.

Doors do not exist to open. Or there wouldn’t be doors at all.

Doors measure resistance.

Do you knock? Maybe you do. Know yourself. And act.
Do you create a new door, one no-one expected? Maybe you do. Know yourself. And act.
Do you kick the door open and allure?
Do you kick it open and reshuffle the furniture?

Know what you want. Know who you are. And act.

Have faith. Sometimes, writing feels like an act of violence upon oneself. One has to break into oneself. Into that vault. Go open-hearted, go willing to sacrifice yourself. Mine yourself, you’ll be richer for it. And so will the world, if you’ve managed to be true.

Edmond Jabes, perhaps my favorite poet, writes:

the point of any pen is that of a cry

Share your cry, your laughter. Be generous. The world needs its faces back. It needs its heart restored. Heal the broken heart, don’t hoard its pieces.

Give. Writing is giving.

Ah, listen to me. Writing is giving–for me. What is it for you? Whatever it is, truthfully, deep inside you, do that. Do what is you. Jabes said it again:

You are the one who writes and who is written.

These are things only you can do.

And when you do them, wherever your steps take you, whichever doors you huff and puff and blow down… the most important doors of all will be accessed, and those are the doors into yourself. Into self-fulfillment.

Rearrange the furniture or just add some fresh air in that room, coz that space and that time is you.

Remember, as you do all this, that you’re human. That muscles stretch and grow. That the mind does. That what you learn, you earn.

When you fuck up, forgive yourself for being human. Remember we grow from experience. Remember this means (woo!) we get better each time we go to bat.

From time to time, ask yourself if you would treat a friend the way you treat yourself. When you’re striving for more than you’ve ever achieved before, you probably keep blaming yourself for the breach between you now and the you you want to be. From time to time, look back. See the gulf you’ve already crossed, just being you.

You’re magic, and you’re enough. You’re unique and the only way forward is yours. Is the one you walk. Your footsteps make it. All you need to do to make it–is keep going forward.

The world is yours.

God was written by humanity. But even if you believe God wrote us. The fact remains. We are gods too. We create the world in our own image.

Therefore know yourself. Know what you want. And act.

A medieval hope looks down from the Met.

A medieval hope looks down from the Met.

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the road is short, with many a winding turn

I was twenty. Driving down dark roads. Around us, only trees and stars, and the many, many curves the road threw before us.

I drove slowly.

It was our first night together. We’d end it lying on our backs on our gorgeous planet, shooting stars above us… I felt gravity, I felt roundness, I felt life, I felt complete and human. It was the perfect, terrifying, beautiful beginning for a relationship that would take us several years to destroy. But we didn’t know that then.

I was driving slowly, brights on, hands clutching the wheel. I needed to know the road was safe–was actually still in front of us–before hurtling into it.

“You don’t like to be surprised,” he said.

I stared at the road. I didn’t like his version of me. “I like to know what’s coming,” I said. And the distaste itched.

Back then, I wanted to be brave. To be seen as brave.

Times change. I still want to be brave. I practice it more, because I have to. Writers have to expose themselves horribly. But I feel ridiculously cheated when people don’t see my fear.

It’s strange how we encounter other people’s lives. Friends who know me will still think joining Peace Corps showed courage. It showed nothing but a desire to connect with others, learn new languages, explore life, live absolutely… find out who I would be in that situation.

I didn’t fear losing my money or my status or my comfort–because I’ve never been as connected, I suppose, to those realities. (Don’t get me wrong, I love comfort, but I’ve always been the one to give it up fastest, feeling I am least rumpled by losing it.)

Anyway, that took no courage. Resolve, yes. And that’s it. And then life’s tides took me, as they take us all, no matter where we are.

But the stuff that does frighten me, people don’t seem to register. I guess when people do things that seem risky or insane, we begin to assume that they belong on that speed. Or we assume that our fears are greater than theirs. Or that they know they can or will succeed. I do that with others. So I reckon maybe this is why I’ll share my great goal with someone, and they’ll act like it’s the natural next step, instead of the step that tears me into life like a woman running toward her own abyss. I reckon. If I’m like others and others are like me.

But I’m no risk-taker and I’m no braver. I only have another need, and I have a choice. Aim, or betray myself.

So, I take the risks like an addled donkey, one moment racing toward them and the next digging in my heels.

I need to step on the bough before I bury myself in earth. Even if a fall is what awaits. The air will be fresh above or in the plummet. I’ll breathe it deep.

I mentor kids now, and I speak honestly about fear. I want them to know that fear isn’t something to edge away from, that it doesn’t mean they can’t do things, just coz they’re frightened.

Maybe some of them hear me, but I think others think that their own fears must be greater than mine. Oh, heavy baggage. Heavy, heavy. Let it go, kids. Let it go, Self.

cropped-697.jpg

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Okay.

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M

Kid, you have died. And the world continues being the world despite that. You knew it would. Somewhere in you, its relentlessness must have seemed proof you weren’t worth anything. But you were.

It’s snowing. Weather keeps weathering. Movies keep being watched. Books keep being read. Tears keep being shed. Laughter keeps being laughed. Friends keep loving. Lovers, sometimes too.

And you are dead.

Thank you for your kindness, your sweetness, your laughter, your gentleness. I know you were more than good things, and that the mix is what made your good so poignant, so beautiful. But death must at last be defeated by love for the life that preceded. And if you could not love it, those of us behind you will.

I wish I could wish you peace, but I don’t believe in souls or gods. But I believe in life and in love. And you had both, and you leave both behind. Those, I’ll treasure. Those stay.

Oh, Kid. You have died.

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The Woman Who Wasn’t There

I called him “My Old Man.” Every Sunday, for three years, I would make him a pot of soup and visit his tiny apartment cluttered with paintings and cockroaches. We’d sit, look at photos of trees, and he’d tell me the same stories. When he was hospitalized, I began coming daily.

He told me no-one would visit his grave. He would be forgotten. I said, No.

When the social worker called to tell me he’d died, I told her I wanted to go to his funeral. She said a relative would call me.

I knew who the relative had to be. He only had one. The cousin I’d never met. The woman who had been the subject of all of his stories.

All I knew about him was limited to stories of regret and bitterness. He regretted being in Latin America during the Holocaust, losing his family in Eastern Europe. Regretted surviving. He regretted that instead of moving to Israel, he had moved to America. And he was bitter, so bitter, about his cousin.

When he saw me admire his paintings, he asked me to take them. He said he had no-one. That when he died, everything would be thrown away. He wanted to know at least one of his paintings was with someone who loved it. So I took one. And over the years, another.

I wondered if his cousin would call. I wondered if she’d love his paintings. I wondered who she was. I’d only ever seen her through his eyes, and I’d always tried to hunt the real woman through the cracks.

The only hint of her was in a photograph he’d shown me. It wasn’t a photo of her. It was a photo she’d taken of him. He’s on the deck of a ship, relaxing, smoking. It’s taken from behind. Timeless and dated, all at once. Life snapped up, life gone.

He had never married. I wondered about him. About her. The woman woven through all his stories.

He would tell me how in his youth, he’d had money. He’d lavished it on her, helped her immigrate, helped her settle. But then she found a man of means, married, and cut him from her life.

Then life changed his cards. He found himself broke and desperate. He reached out. She avoided him, avoided him, then finally she met him, heard his request, and told him she couldn’t help. He never forgave her.

I heard this story every week, or just about. And I wondered who she was. Had she found him clingy? Had she not had the money? How did she feel? What had happened between them? Was he as much to her as she was to him?

I was in a cab on the way to the airport when she called. The city was a blur across the water, and she was on the line.

What did she say, this woman with her own voice now?

I learned from her how inconvenient he was in dying right then, as she was a busy woman. I learned how selfish he was in naming her the executor of his will, as now she had to get trash collectors to pick up his junk.

I heard his words in my heart. I asked her if she was throwing away his art.

Obviously.

I still don’t know who she was, what went wrong or what was never right.

But I know the thought didn’t occur to her that I might care about her cousin. In that. In that she showed herself.

She was a fixture of his every story, and he was an inconvenience when he entered her life again, so briefly, by dying.

A painting by Leon Chaim Stobnick

A painting by Chaim

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Death Be Not Proud, though Some Have Called Thee, for I Haven’t Yet

A decade ago, I opened up Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I never got past the introduction. There, I read of Eugene O’Neill’s youth, of his sailing the world and battling tuberculosis.

This summed up everything that was wrong with me.

I had never sailed the world, and I had never, ever, gotten tuberculosis. How could I ever accomplish anything meaningful in my life without these essential experiences.

I was plagued by my shortcomings.

Time passed.

I threw out my TV, gave away my furniture, and loaded my books to move to Brooklyn. Lived life and whatnot. And from time to time, asked myself what my greatest fear was. Time and again, it was stagnation. The day finally came when I realized my greatest fear was also my reality. I was stagnating.

I threw away everything. Joined Peace Corps.

It’s a long road, Peace Corps, and includes many medical exams. Including one for tuberculosis.

I was told if had a raised red bump on my arm in three days, I should call the doctor immediately. Three days later, I call. “By raised red bump, you don’t mean if the entire area is red and raised, do you?”

They call me in. Do other tests. And tell me I’ve been exposed to TB.

“Do I die now?” I ask. (I’m a pleasure to the profession.)

She explains that it’s not TB itself that I have, but latent TB. Which means that my antibodies have contained it, but basically if my immune system takes a severe tumble (like if I were to contract AIDS), then TB will rise to catch me. It’ll be TB I die from, not AIDS. I listen to all this.

“So I’m carrying my death inside me.”

The nurse isn’t sure how to answer.

“But I could die of other things first.”

She looks at me.

You can imagine.

I was thrilled. Euphoric. Devastated. Elated.

I had a work event to attend that night, and as I walked there, I snuck through every closed door in every historical building that appealed, coz what could they do? Kill me? Ha! My little killer was inside me already!

I arrived at the party, flush with life, giddy, free.

Someone who hadn’t seen me in forever asked me what was new.

“Nothing new, really,” I answered, “but I am dying!”

How I do selfies.

The Scribbler

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Strangers on a Train

I took the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The train was crowded. A woman in the seat facing me was weeping. I turned off my music.

She was in her 50s. On either side of her were two young women. She was telling them about her boyfriend whose funeral she’d just left. How they’d been everything to each other their whole lives. Now she was going alone to their home. They were both artists and would work with their desks facing each other, and now his was empty. Oh, in the daytime maybe she could distract herself with work, but what would she do at night? She couldn’t bear the night. All she could think about was that he wasn’t there and never would be again.

They touched her hand and listened. They told her stories about their own bereavements. And beside them, other women like me wept silent tears and watched.

No, it’s not a heartless city.

Not an absolutely heartless city.

Avebury rose

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