Our front hall had a very tall grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs keeping watch over the household. No one could wind it but my father and the clock defined the nights in regular chimes reaching everyone’s ears in everyone’s bedroom.There was a front hall table made of lustrous mahogany where mail and packages were placed daily.The legs of the table looked like a young girl with four legs curtseying all at once. I know because I spent a lot of time under there waiting for God knows what. My favorite part however In this wonderful area of our house was the front hall closet which no one could put anything in except for my father. It was his personal closet for his overcoat and his hats and his umbrellas and his galoshes. I don’t remember hearing we weren’t supposed to go in the closet so I went in the closet quite a bit. There was a shelf the hats were on that had a thumbtacked piece of decorative ribbon that was ruched: something I had never seen before. I took some delight in pulling a piece of it off and seeing what it felt like. My father had four or five coats in there and most of the coats were some range of the color gray. There were cashmere coats, and wool coats, and cotton coats, and canvas coats. The coats had a big life and seemed to go out a lot. Sometimes alone, and sometimes in pairs the coats went out in the world: across oceans and in airplanes, office buildings, and houses not ours, down inside boats, outside on sidewalks. They always came back home slightly different than when they had left. I knew this because when I went in the closet I would stand up inside each coat starting with my head going into the bottom because they were buttoned up, you see, and I would shimmy myself up to usually just the lowest button because my father was very tall and I was still short. I would stand there and breathe in the outside world imagining where he had been and who he had seen and the smell of old Spice would anesthetize me against the real world. In the closet I created whatever I wanted sometimes for hours. No one ever looked for me. I stood so still inside a coat I became a part of its life.
I have a friend who is trying to get divorced. This has been going on for two years. The marriage was a good length, (ten years), and a good part of it was not unhappy but the divorce has turned into a nightmare of hatred, accusations, bitterness, anger, paranoia and deep despair on the part of both parties.
There were no children involved, several properties purchased together, and a long stream of expenses for their life paid for by my friend who gave his partner free rein to do what she wanted in terms of the household accounts. By the time he realized most of his money was gone it was too late for reason or recompense: his life had become unbearable as daily verbal abuse had escalated to the point of physical pain. There was no surviving the atmosphere in the house, no love left between the two marital participants, and so my friend left.
His partner filed for divorce immediately and thus began the long history of demands for money, property, shares in imagined earnings, financial reports, tax returns, and appearances in court, depositions and more depositions. Interestingly enough, at this point in time my friend’s net worth had diminished to one tenth that of his wife’s yet she continued to threaten, hire new lawyers, fire old accountants, make new lists about what she wanted, hide possessions from my friend, and make her life’s goal destroying her husband.
Now I ask myself “Why?” If I were in the same position would I behave in the same way? Of course not. I am a reasonable person who likes to work things out and find reasonable solutions to problems. I like to have situations that are emotionally complicated solved as smoothly and expediently as possible as drawing them out only serves to upset one’s health and make oneself look like a fool in the community. People that continually fight over nothing and act in irrational ways are usually ostracized by others and find them alone and unloved in their lives. Who would actively make a choice to live like this?
Why am I writing about this today? I think it’s a really good lesson to all of us about how to destroy your life and your Karma. Holding anger, retribution and bitterness inside yourself is a good mechanism to destroy your own life. I think it does more damage than smoking. Imagine inhaling all that rage each day with every breath and then imagine not being able to release it. Imagine getting into arguments with everyone that surrounds you and then not having any real friends left. Imagine acting in a way that is dangerous to you and to others. Then take a breath and wonder why.
I think people get so caught up in their battles they forget why they began them in the first place. Much like all the needless wars we have been involved with we often can’t remember why we started to hate each other. We forget our compassion towards others and towards ourselves. We exist on our own fear and we can’t even see how it is destroying our lives. We lose all reason and all awareness of our own behavior and become fearful individuals who are living solitary lives as it becomes too risky to trust anyone else.
How many stories out there are like that of my friend? How many people hold on to old stuff as its familiar: pain is familiar. It may not be pleasant but sometimes fear makes us choose the familiar rather than the new as the new cannot be predicted.
I am no angel. Believe me I know that and I am aware of my own failings just as others are. I am writing this to make sense of the situation to me as well as to you as it seems so insane. The only thing I do know to be absolutely true is that operating from a fear based self will ultimately ruin your life and leave you with no friends or family to support you. In the end as they say we die alone but I hope when I die there are people who love me all around who can send me on my way to a new plane with love and joy. After all, there is really nothing else worthwhile in life but love.
I read the obituaries every morning as many people do. I have no idea why we do this. I look for reasons why people died, how old they were when they died, who survived them, etc. The other morning I saw that my childhood friend had died in February of a long term illness. There was a lovely picture of her taken when she was about 20 I would guess. I have no way of knowing as I last saw her in ninth grade at the graduation of Greenwich Country Day School. She was no longer my best friend having abandoned me for Phyllis and Priscilla and so we barely spoke on that day. I do remember feeling sad I was no longer friends with her and wondering what I had done for her to have lost interest in our friendship.
Betsey befriended me in fifth grade and whatever she told me to do I would do. I went to her house when she still had one (her father later left her mother) and spent the night many times. Her mother had a raspy voice, chain smoked L and M’s, and seemed sharp and unfriendly but stayed out of our way. She had two older sisters who were very glamorous and kind to me. I liked going to Betsey’s house as there was little supervision and we did whatever we wanted. Once in a while we would go bowling, something I never did with my own family.
Betsey told me in fifth grade I needed a bra: not because I was very developed but just because” every fifth grader needed one”. She took one from her sister’s drawer and told me to try it on which I did in the privacy of her bathroom. It was made of a harsh type of cotton and had straps with lengths sticking out which you pinned into place with small gold safety pins. When I wore the bra I felt incredibly sophisticated and old but nervous. What if someone touched my back and felt the strap and knew I was wearing a bra! What a terrifying thought!
In order to wear the bra I had to hide it in my drawer at night and then pack it in my school briefcase, carry it to school, and change into it in the girl’s room under Betsey’s supervision. The whole process seemed so time consuming but worth the excitement and the attention I seemed to get from Betsey for my obedience to her rules.
Betsey also taught me swear words which I did not know at that time. Today this seems startling but in the 60’s it was not surprising. I learned the three swear words that Betsy said were important to learn. “Shit” “fuck” and “dick”.
I found the words very difficult to define and kept returning to Betsy’s side asking her to let me know once again what they meant. I didn’t dare say them out loud and neither did she but writing them was also out of the question. I remember running back and forth most of that school day so I could remember the words, define them, and someday use them.
Once, about five years later out of the blue, Betsy called me and asked if I wanted to sneak out of my house and meet up with her. She said there would be a boy who could drive. I was really torn by this invitation as I never did anything wrong. It simply wasn’t worth the repercussions but Betsey’s invitation seemed irresistible as the “boy” was incredibly cute. I had seen him around town, he was a bit older than we were, and was considered really cool and very bad. Having never been in a car driven by anyone under the age of 40, I couldn’t resist.
As it turned out, my parents were out of town and our house was “loosely supervised” when this was the case. We had a nanny but she put my youngest sister to bed and then went to sleep herself by 9. At 9:10 I was downstairs trying to open the door without making a sound convinced I would be caught. I had no idea what I thought would happen but it wouldn’t be good. I finally opened the door and slipped out into the warm night air. It was very dark and I had no flashlight but I could see some outlines of the drive and the road behind it. I walked slowly past the night shrouded house of the Toby’s thinking of Button tucked safely in her bed and thinking to myself I must be really a wild child.
Waiting in the dark at the end of Meadowcroft Lane for Betsy and her crew was endless and by the time their car arrived I was a wreck. For some reason which I will never understand Betsy got out of the car and wanted me to sit next to Peter, the bad boy who was driving. In this position I felt as if I had been kidnapped by a scary witch on one side and an irresistible prince on the other. Hot and cold, yin and yang, good and bad, god knows what was happening but one side felt really good! Peter’s thigh was about as exciting to me as seeing Rhet Butler carry Vivien Leigh up the stairs in ”Gone With The Wind”. I could barely speak I found it so intoxicating. At one point the bad boy took his foot off the accelerator and moved my leg closer telling me to steer and use the gas pedal which of course I did.
Looking back on that night I see how important it was to me in my life of mostly dreams and few actual adventures. Sneaking out of my house at night, being driven by a bad boy around town, feeling the arousal a teenage boy could create, in me: it was an amazing memory for me to take out from time to time and smile over. Nothing happened. No one was hurt. No one even missed me, but it was magic.
So there was an obituary for me to read about my friend who created the memory but was lost to me for the rest of her life. As it turned out, she lived for many years less than five blocks from where I lived with my young family yet I never knew it. She worked cleaning houses for years and had her own small company. She never married or had children and died with her sister and a friend. by her side. I felt sad reading Betsy’s obituary as her life didn’t seem as large as her spirit and I was sorry. I will always be grateful to her for my night of magic.
So it’s Saturday night and I am at a beach where the waves are still in shock from the thought of a Tsunami. The evening is still and even the sea grass floats more slowly. Nothing could happen or anything could happen and no one really cares.
They say the force of the earthquake in Japan knocked the world off its axis a bit and changed the coast of Japan by 4 inches. Earthquakes can happen anywhere and at any time just like any unpredictable violence yet we go on living our lives as if they could go on without us.
On Saturday nights in Connecticut in the 50’s the evenings were warm and sometimes fragrant with the smell of cut grass and the families gathered in the muggy evening sitting on iron lawn chairs with small flowered pillows while placing their drinks on iron side tables with tops shaped like large, flat leaves. The mothers dressed in longer cotton dressed with full skirts and pointy high heel shoes. The fathers had hair slicked back from their high, hardworking foreheads that glistened in the evening light.
My father loved dancing more than anything else and had one of the first outdoor dancing floors built in a private home in Connecticut. He installed outdoor speakers: large white globes that looked like miniature space ships and hung high from the corner of our house. The music came out of the speakers with a faint lisp as if speaking a foreign language from a child’s point of view.
On Saturday nights my parents would occasionally have friends over who would dress in that fifties way and everyone would have cocktails. These cocktails came in tall glasses with fragile stems and frosted sides and were usually a pale pink. By the time dessert was over the cocktails seemed to have melted away any formality and out to the dance floor everyone would go.
My bedroom from the age of nine until I went away to school was right above the dance floor and supplied me a perfect view of these evenings. I saw Mrs. Ewald slither across the floor doing her own version of the snake on her belly, and watched with fascination the antics of Mrs. Dewart and Mr. Green who were throwing leaves onto the dancers from high on top of a wall they had climbed on. Mrs. Simmons danced like a graceful gazelle with almost anyone and Mrs. Gagarin was surely the most elegant, but no one could begin to compare with Olive Cawley Watson.
Ah yes, the beautiful Olive Cawley Watson with her dark curly hair and her deep and ever glistening brown eyes and her bewitching way of looking at men from a sideways glance and a gently tilted head. There was no one to compare with Olive out on the dance floor. Every man wanted his turn with her and she laughed up into their eyes with her neck tilted back and her tan arms around her partner like a wreath. The music never seemed long enough to her partners and they relinquished her with reluctance to another partner always following her with their eyes as she walked away. It didn’t seem to matter to Olive who she was dancing with, only that she was dancing as the beat of the music kept her heart alive and forced her feet to move and made her mind forget and dream about what never would be.
The night grew late and some people left while others found places in the curves of the terrace to sit and sip their sweet after dinner drinks made by the butler long gone to bed.
The dance floor was silent for a while and I, in my high bed, would almost fall asleep without the soft brush and whoosh sound of the slow dancing feet.
Then I heard it, the sound I always waited for, the sound of soft leather and scrape of shoe from Madame Arpel in New York, the sound of softly counting from a male throat and the warble of a closed throated sparrow in response. I rose from my bed to find my post and watched carefully from behind one curtain. The dancing pair was perfectly orchestrated to the music and each other moving across the floor in tandem with a natural lean and a curve like a soft crescent moon into the letter “K”. The soft sounds of bull frogs and crickets an orchestra to their dance and sometimes there was no one there at all. Sometimes they had no music. My father kept his tongue at the corner of his mouth in concentration while my mother closed her eyes thinking of nights when she was 17 and dancing with a movie star.
My father, concentrating on his dance lessons, may have missed the lightness and grace he had in his arms and my mother, lost in her world of memories, may have ignored the scent of my father’s Old Spice and the feel of his hand pressed firmly into her back. I could only see what was right in front of me and only sense what was real or what was imagined. I watched the float and twist of her dress and the half turn of her face into my father’s chest and squinted to count her breaths taken in to revive her spirit. I thought she was the most beautiful and fragile thing I would ever see and I used all my energy night after night to protect her as it didn’t seem to me anyone else was. You can’t protect anything that doesn’t want to be protected, not even the loveliest woma
This time of year is always interesting as on occasion, despite attempts at maturity and evolvement, one may revert to a child’s perspective and remember all of the excitement and expectation surrounding Christmas. In our house acquiring the tree was always an interesting adventure. Our mother would ask who wanted to go on this adventure and we would all scream “yes”. Our car was one of those old fashioned “woodie” wagons with no seat belts or electric windows. The back seat could be flattened out with the help of four usually swearing men. There were six children in our family and we were spaced like Catholic children though I was repeatedly assured we were not Catholic. Cynthia Paterno lived next door to us and tried to convert me all the time. Apparently good Catholics gave all their allowance to their neighbors. Once I took all of the clothes out of my closet and made an altar out of my mother’s show boxes but when I lit a candle in there one caught on fire.
I liked being a temporary Catholic. I prayed every night and put a white towel over my head like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story and admired myself a lot in the bathroom mirror being careful to look pious. I knew I would never sleep with a boy until I got married and that I really wasn’t supposed to actually swallow the wine during communion. I knew that good catholic girls didn’t wear patent leather shoes because boys could see their underpants if they did. I learned that if you did something wrong no matter what it was you went to confession and told the priest what your sin was. He would give you a penance and you would be forgiven. A clean slate.
Now that I am grown up and no longer a Catholic I wish I was one. How nice to have the ability of simply telling someone what you had done wrong and being forgiven for it. I think that no one does things that are consciously mean unless they are 14 or a criminal. Relationships are just tricky as we are all so fragile. A friend said to me the other day that you couldn’t reason or understand someone else and have a good relationship if the other person really didn’t want that good relationship. I think that is a very wise thing. We sometimes worry and think about all of the things we have done that are wrong and wonder why another person is angry with us and this is a waste of time. It is better to assume that sooner or later you will find out the truth and that in the meantime all you can do is think loving thoughts. Feeling guilty is a waste of time. Feeling shameful is, too.
This time of year it is important to tread lightly on the earth and with each other. We are all still hoping for a miracle.
Once, long ago, I wrote a poem on Thanksgiving about a couple who were standing on a stone wall outside their house. They were wearing matching Fairisle sweaters with wreaths around their necks and were in their fifties. A bird swooped down and took the husbands sweater in his mouth and flew away with him. The wife was too embarrassed to explain what had happened so she spent the rest of her life ignoring the fact that he was gone.
Why am I telling you this story? I have no idea. I think I am telling the story because on these overly loud and food filled holidays I wonder if I made the right choices as I find myself not surrounded by family but surrounded by friends. It seems more peaceful this way. I am staying at a wonderful hotel in Half Moon Bay where the ocean pounds the shore constantly and it is impossible not to stop and look in wonder every minute one is outside. I am grateful to be here with friends having a good time and enjoying my life. I see many families here who are apparently happy with three or more generations of family milling around. Some of these families are noisy and some are quiet. I like the noisy ones. I have always longed to be Hispanic as those families seem to have the most lively fun.
Our Thanksgiving as children was generally over in one hour. My parents won the contest for the fastest eaters in the east. On Thanksgiving there were butter shaped turkeys on the butter plates and ice cream in the shape of a turkey. The butler carried all the platters to our table where we were each served in turn. If we went to my Grandmother’s things were usually more interesting as there she set up a children’s table where there was much less supervision. I was still sitting at the children’s table when I was 40.
I sat next to a lady at lunch whose husband was playing golf so she was lunching alone. I like to chat up strangers. Out of the blue she told me she and her husband had run away from Sacramento to escape their families. I said I understood and commented that there were many families who tried to escape each other even when living in the same house.
I love the clear truth of Thanksgiving and the comments of strangers. Hope all of you are enjoying a calm and peaceful time whether alone or with a group.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about death in my circle of friends. Friends have died, some old some not, and there are a few articles in the news about suicides in the younger generation. I find death very hard to pin down in my own Meta analysis of life as I am not afraid of it nor do I worry about it but I can’t specifically explain why this is.
It has been clear to me from a young age that death is not an end, but a beginning. I remember when my Grandfather died how upset all the adults were in our family. I felt sad to miss his company but not sad for him. In fact, I knew that he was now in a place where he could experience joy and peace. I was seven years old and I could clearly see him there.
I am not a particularly religious person: not catholic or even very Protestant but I have always understood that death was not bad or frightening or something to spend one’s life in fear of.
I know I am really lucky to have this inner belief as very few out there seem to feel as I do. Particularly men. I have quite a few men friends who are freaked out at the thought of their own death. They become depressed when they have a slight medical problem and convince themselves they are dying. In this image they feel fear, remorse, but mostly loneliness. I think this is true because that’s what I hear in my healing work. Maybe men fear death more than women because they often have trouble being vulnerable with people and may have lives that are not authentic with close ties to others they love. It seems to be that the more success you have the less connected in a genuine way you are with others in your life.
I know, I know. Some of you will say I am taking this too far. Perhaps I am. My father was terrified of death and really angry at the same time. After he died we found books from the Hemlock Society in his library as what he feared most was being incapacitated and having to be dependent on the care of others. He died alone and angry and refused to allow his wife or family near him. He just wanted to go out mad and he did.
I guess I would like people to consider that there is more after we die. There is more than what we imagine. Maybe death is a door to another world where life is very different but not frightening.
I have been with a few people when they die. I always find it a privilege. I know that playing Frank Sinatra is better than Rachmaninoff and whispering that you love the person with a laugh in your voice is better than filling their ears with your tears.
All this and more for exchanging the life of a girl in Afghanistan for that of a boy.
This week the NY Times has a cover story on families who shave the heads of their daughters and raise them as sons often until they are married. Azita Rafaat, who is a Member of Parliament, has done this with her daughter, Mehran, and states that her life is better as a boy. I am confused by this article as it seems many know that these girls are really girls and am not fooled by the disguise. If, for example, teachers and coaches know the true gender of a child, what is the point of the disguise? Obviously giving an interview to the NY Times will blow Mehran’s cover and her mother will be exposed but this obviously doesn’t matter to the family or the society. Is there no one else out there who finds this crazy?
“In Some Afghan Families a Fake Son is Considered Better than None” NY Times, 9/21/10
This is the most confusing logic to me. It goes like this: if you have no sons but do have three daughters, you chose one daughter to be a son. You cut her hair off and dress her in boy’s clothes. You tell her school she is now a boy. She is allowed to go out of the house freely without as many restrictions as she had as a girl. Everyone in her family, neighborhood and school knows her true sex, yet she is allowed more freedom to experience life as a boy and not as restricted in her behavior.
I don’t know what to say about this as it is so weird. Why wouldn’t every girl want to be a boy in Afghanistan? Freedom of movement, more confidence, more attention? I guess they need some girls to stay girls so there will be something to compare male behavior and allowances to. What happens to these girls when they have to go back to being a girl at puberty or upon marriage? The article refers to some who looks back on their “boy” period as a wonderful one as they had so much freedom.
I like logical behavior and find this tradition most illogical as it is sexist but not sexist. A girl can become a boy overnight by cutting her hair and having her parents change her sex in schools. She can only live this life, however, until marriage or puberty. She can live out her childhood in relative freedom and compete in sports, speak her mind, and travel without much restriction in her neighborhood.
Why wouldn’t every girl want to be a boy? I know I would have. The truth is, I would have been really pissed to have to go back to being a girl and get married. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a transsexual, I just like freedom. I can’t imagine experiencing it and then having it taken away. Taking away freedom is done all the time in this world. Particularly to women. It’s almost as if men laugh a bit at this article as they know in their hearts how unfair this role playing is. Why should girls have to dress as boys to be allowed to do more in life? Tradition? Religion? Who knows? I still find this practice confusing.