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 Leon Chaim Stobnick

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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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In Which I Do Not Reference Death, Not Even Once. Maybe Once.

Until now I have written like fire. Fire burns itself down. Fire fights. How do you keep a heart open while fighting? My heart needs to be open for this script.

I’m entering a water period.

This struggle is worth it. And if it’s worth it–I must be loyal. Loyal to the end. Loyalty isn’t fighting. Loyalty is giving. Giving because one loves.

Writing is giving.

Naturally, if calm fails, I will fall back on frenzy. One must always have a back-up plan.

See the swan. See the water. Imagine Icarus below. No tale is complete without the dead.

See the swan. See the water. Imagine Icarus below. No tale is complete without the dead.

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What the Russian Invasion Taught Me

In August 2008, the Russians invaded Georgia. This was not expected.

I was there at the time. When the first explosions hit, my friend J texted from the US.

“I think there’s a war going on.”

“No, no. It’s just a border skirmish.”

I insisted that she continue making vacation plans to visit me. Then Russia raised its voice. Turned out, it actually was war. That’s what war sounds like when it starts. Sometimes.

“Don’t worry,” I texted J, “the Russians are invading.”

Huddled with other volunteers, I watched newscasters report, without a trace of irony, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”

We made our way across the border to Armenia. There, the winter olympics dominated the news. Never mind the war next door.

I confirmed with J that now was not a good time to vacation in Georgia.

It’s funny how our times shape our lives. After September 11, I had an epiphany that woke me from sleep. It was about death. From that day on, I felt in my bones the precious, fleeting nature of life, a feeling that has never left me.

But even so, I made plans. Plans! …They assume a future.

My Georgian host family found my plans hilarious. Earlier, when I told them that J was coming in a month for a visit, they laughed. “How do you know?” they’d ask. “Because we planned it.” More laughter.

During the invasion, I called my host family. The first thing they said was, “Do you still think life happens according to plan?”

What a lesson.

Today, I can’t say “see you tomorrow!” as I used to. I can’t assume it at all. I can’t assume any tomorrow at all. The only moment is the one we’re in.

Yes, others find me odd that way. But as a result, I’m a lot calmer about dashed plans in general. And a lot more passionately in love with the moment.

When I write, I write against time leaning dangerously against me. I write against death’s hand pressing me. Aware of how precious the instant is, it’s not death which dominates each one, but life.

Imagine we could see time as we do space. What would it look like?

Little ozymandiuses, that’s what we are. Time our sculptor.

We have only the briefest moment to love, to give, to create, to laugh… and even to die.

Carpe diem.

IMG_4102

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The Teacup Has Spoken

So I had a genius idea the other night.

I took a pink piece of paper, tore it into six even pieces, and wrote the numbers 1 through 6 on them. I folded each piece up, and put them into a very lovely Turkish teacup. I decided that the next morning, and every morning, I’d go to the teacup and pick one. And whatever number it was, would be the number of miles I’d walk that day.

Genius.

And so I find myself today having picked 6. Six miles is, like, two hours.

I have given a teacup control over my time. I am no stranger to the rabbit hole.

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