Sunday, April 15, 2018













I want to be a Lady of the Sycamore— 
a sycamore in winter bare and luminous
white trunk standing straight—
serene among dry, brown fields
branches spreading tall, wide against the sky
misshapen into beauteous forms
unshaken against the wind

I want my ashes to rest between two sycamore
at the eastern gate of heaven
the first rays of morning sun
greeting my grey earthly remains
beneath its opulent, tormented arms 
offering sustenance to the dead.

A sycamore in winter, white and luminous

Thursday, April 5, 2018

MYSTERY MEN

For two days, I saw a una-bomber look-alike in a baggy orange sweat shirt wandering around restlessly through the halls of the hospice center where we each had a friend who lay dying. When we passed each other one night, I tried to read the words on his shirt, but the letters kept folding in on themselves. His white MAGA hat, too small over his shaggy hair—reminded me of those clown hats with a wig attached to it. Around his neck was a heavy silver chain with a figure dangling from it. 
Later I learned the figure was St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. That says it all, I thought, but still haven’t figured out what the “all” was. 
Did he believe that America needed to be “great again,” but didn’t have much hope that it would happen, or was the lost cause his friend who had no options left, except waiting for the grim reaper to swing his scythe?
On the third day, at the coffee cart, I asked him, “So, who is the little shiny fella there?” pointing to the dangling man.
“It’s St. Jude,” he said in a tone of voice suggesting I should have known.
“But Judas isn’t a saint, is he?” that much I knew, but I got the wrong saint, or in this case, sinner.
“No, no, no, you are thinking of Judas Iscariot. He was the apostle who betrayed Jesus.”
“Yeah, that’s him, for thirty pieces of silver, right?” I said.
“Exactly,” he said.
Exactly thirty? I wondered. Just before I bit into my multi-grain muffin, I blurted out,
        "Well, they say no good deed goes unpunished.”
“What do you mean, good deed? His was the greatest betrayal in the history of the world.”
“You mean the greatest catch 22! I mean, if Judas didn’t turn him the Romans, Christ wouldn’t have died for our sins, which was the plan all along. So, they both end up hanging from a tree, right?”
“Yes,” he said, “but Jesus in victory and Judas in defeat.”
“But…but,” I started to say” Then I decided to put the mystery men—the una-bomber look-alike, Judas the sinner and St. Jude the saint out of my mind. it was starting to feel like a sporting event.
I poured the guy a coffee, passed him the cup, and we stood eating our muffins in silence. Then we moved on into our respective friend’s rooms—to watch and wait at the foot of their bed.
My friend died that afternoon, and I wept.  
On my way out I saw him coming down the hall. Our eyes met for a moment, then I looked down, and finally was able to make out what was on that orange shirt:

      It was the image of the blue marble Earth in darkness:  “YOU ARE HERE.

MAY YOUR HEART BE LIGHT

There would be a third grade Christmas party on Sunday, after mass. Some kids said it would be fun, but I wasn't so sure. Most mandatory events—had never felt so, held in the damp basement of the old school—a red brick building with a tall, black iron gate around it. Inside, the old wooden stairs creaked and the high-ceilinged classrooms were spartan, desks anchored to the floor in straight rows, white concrete block walls and a blackboard, the only color on statues of “The Blessed Mother” or “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” These were more sentinels than saints, whose sole purpose seemed to be for children to kneel before, asking forgiveness for not knowing an answer, chewing gum, a sideways glance at another student,  a fidget or a whisper. Such “penance” might come only after a few swift, sharp whacks of a ruler (sometimes more than one) across the hands of the little offenders.

All those associations, and that certain smell and mood in the building were enough to make a child wonder if any activity at the school could be fun—if fun meant no worry, fear, accusations or humiliation, though I could not have exactly put it into words back then.  My experience of fun involved movement, color and light and laughter. There was never laughter, a sound heard only in the recess yard, but there was color outdoors, even in the city. A bright yellow dandelion growing up through a crack in the concrete and a blue sky and clouds above, under which we played, skipping, playing tag or jump rope—until a sister who stood watch rang the brass bell to call us into prayer before the afternoon lessons. All else was regiment and requirement—including the Christmas party to which we had to go, couldn’t leave until it was over and the children had better look like they were having a good time!

I cried on Friday afternoon when I got home, not because I had to go to the party. My mother told me I was to spend the weekend at my aunt’s house, which I also never thought of as a fun place despite their fancy furniture and bottles of 7-up in the refrigerator. Not only would I be marked absent for the party, but also for the mass, which we had to attend as a class each Sunday—and there would be blood!

“But, Mom, Sister Mary Ethel said we have to go! please, please.”  

I don’t remember what she said in response to my plea, but I would be left at my aunt’s musty smelling row house on Gratz Street in North Philadelphia. I cried all the way there, knowing there would be a reckoning on Monday in the third grade classroom. I cried again that night in the small room at the top of the stairs that doubled as a storage space of sorts. I was homesick and heartsick, surrounded by stacks of books and piles of clothes here and there. I stared at the tan wallpaper printed with red tennis rackets or the ceiling where strange shapes danced, illuminated by the streetlight shining in from the window facing the alley behind the house. 

I don’t remember what else happened that weekend or the trip back home,  but this is what happened on Monday morning:

Seated at her desk the stern Sister Mary Ethel, who at some point had grown a cold stone in place of a heart, held in one hand a list of the children who had not attended mass and/or the fun event. It was literally a “hit” list as it turned out, which became apparent when she began to call the few names of children, who (for whatever reason) did not show. In her other hand she wielded what she often referred to as her “buddy,” a yardstick. One by one, my classmates were called to her desk to stand beside her: James went first, then Ann Marie, then Rosalie—all disappeared behind the desk as she turned them over her lap and the whacks began. I knew I was next, according to alphabetical order.

As I walked up, I looked at the statue in the corner. The Blessed Mother’s face shone down in kindness. I lay across Sister Mary Ethel’s lap over her black habit face down. She lifted my uniform, pulled down my underwear and began to inflict the punishment for not having a merry time at the Christmas party.  I closed my eyes and held the image of Mary’s countenance all the while. 

With each strike I recalled one of her beautiful names chanted at the altar in honor of Mother Mary.

Tower of Ivory…pray for us
Joy of the Just…pray for us
Comforter of the Afflicted…pray for us
Mirror of Justice…pray for us
Mother of Sorrows…pray for us
Cause of Our Joy…pray for us

AMEN



ME TOO!

From across the room Sarah recognized the young woman sitting with him at one of the tables in the dimly lit corner of the restaurant.  She knew she would find him here, but didn’t expect to see the girl whom she had often wondered about during her absence—wondered if she or others, known and unknown, were being controlled, as she had been. It had been two years since she had seen either one of them. He was the reason she had left town, and now, the reason she had returned, with a capacity she did not have as a child of seven years old when it all began.

She sat calmly at first, strengthened by the knowledge that something was to be done, something she had set into motion that would expose him. So many thoughts and feelings filled her. Then that old anger began to build within as she pondered the years of her despair which had finally given her motivation, then courage to take action against him, and to confront him now.

Her whole body and soul were on fire without the smallest shred of fear.  She went to the table wanting to scream, but a sense of place entered and moderated at least her voice, though the glare and heat in her eyes were at odds with her almost whispered words, spoken to the man, who was startled and did not recognize her at first.


“Are you doing the same thing to her that you did to me?” she looked to her young friend, whose expression was blank, almost trance-like. “You will be safe now, I promise.”

“Who are you?” he demanded, as if he were looking at a stranger, but his eyes and nervous gestures revealed an understanding of exactly who she was and the accusation of her question.

“Sarah, what are you doing here? Where have you been?” the younger woman seemed to awaken in that moment to her friend who had disappeared without a word of why or a goodbye.
“You’d better leave right now, or I’ll call the police,”  he demanded, but by that time the young woman had gotten up to stand beside her long-lost friend who put an arm around her shoulder as if to protect her—even if it was too late.

The two women looked at each other deep and long in quiet with the knowledge of what the other had experienced. They felt an unfamiliar strength in the invisible bond now forged between them—and a bridge to somewhere else that they would cross together. “You too?” the young woman whispered.

“Me too.” But no more!

“Sit back down,” he commanded the young woman, but already his power diminished, though the effects of what was perpetrated against the women would be with them forever.

“We are in a public place now, not like when we were kids and you could get away with it.” Sarah almost reeled back to think of how many others and for how many years.

“You have a great imagination it seems, or maybe I should say fantasy? I don’t even know who you are.” 

“Well, we know who and what you are, and what I do have was a secret, and I see now that my friend also had it, and I say “had” for a reason you will find out soon enough. Sarah tightened her grip around the girl and moved her away from the table, turning back only to say that a reckoning was coming. She wondered how many others would come forward with the investigation that was well underway. 

The younger woman began to cry, at first softly, but then more and more forcefully until her whole body convulsed in waves of cold pain and dark shame. But somewhere within was the promise of quiet after the storm that had raged for most of her lifetime. In an instant it was over, and light and warmth would slowly displace them. 

Now there was something completely new—something never before known: Hope.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

SNOW

Quiet—then snow
falling from still grey skies
I watched all day
drifting, sparkling, floating
settling on black winter branches
cedar and spruce
green grass patches and spent brown fields

My father caught frozen flakes
set them under a microscope
Look! each a masterful design—no two alike, he said

Oh, I watched all day
By evening - over the earth
One velvet plane - pure white cover

But, look! closer, closer

A blanket of tiny crystal stars

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

JORGE LUIS BORGES IN GLOUCESTER


ME: Welcome Señor Borges? May we imagine that you are here with us at the Gloucester Writers Center and that we are having a conversation?

JLB: You may imagine anything. You are a writers, are you not?  But, please, Señora, call me Jorge. It is good for me to be remembered. So you have been wishing to meet me?

ME: Well, I must admit Señor, I mean Jorge, I barely knew you existed until very recently, but now that I have read a little about you….

JLB: Ah! Then we have something in common, as ”I myself never knew if I actually existed.”

ME: That is exactly why I am drawn to you. I feel that way sometimes as a writer between the thin veil of reason and imagination, reality and fiction.

JLB: Si si, my point—well one of my points. My work has been described by one critic as “irrealty.” You are experiencing what has become known as the “Bogesean conundrum”: "whether the writer writes the story, or it writes him.”

ME: Or “her?” So, yes, It was when I found what you said about writing that I knew I had to meet you.

JLB: You mean instead of Stephen King? Are you referring to my statement that, “I am all the writers that I have read, all the people that I have met, all the women that I have loved; all the cities that I have visited, all my ancestors.”

ME: Yes, that’s it! I see your point. Who are we, fundamentally, if we are everything we have experienced, known or have ever been? 

JLB: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

ME:“I Am the Walrus,” I loved that song—a man of your stature and erudition quoting the Beatles?

JLB: As you say, Señora, you barely knew I existed, so your reaction is understandable. The essence of life and the universe to me is “an inexplicable maze, a labyrinth: I have only my perplexities to offer you.” I said that when I was almost 70 years old.

ME: I just turned 70 myself, and I too am filled with perplexities, which keeps me in wonder and doubt. I am agnostic—sometimes! 

JLB: Which simply means that, “all things are possible, even God. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. I have given the major part of my life to literature, and I can only offer you—doubts.”

ME: I can say the same—living for literature, or at least with literature all my life, which is more real to me than most things—the body of truth in it clothed in fiction. So, you mean to say you did not live by any one religion or system of thought?

JLB: I have lived in many countries, experienced many cultures, read and understood many philosophers. The most significant influence in my life was father’s library with its thousands of books. I have not thought to find answers to my questions or solutions to the enigma of being human, so I enjoy everything and employed everything as esthetically enjoyable constructs.

ME:Your thinking and writing reminds me that at times I don’t feel it is I who is writing, like what comes to me is latent in my DNA, waiting to be expressed, but randomly…or maybe from somewhere else—again perplexities and doubt. Not that I am in your league, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t presume to….

JLB: Thank you, but, Señora, there is no league—only labyrinths, mirrors and dreams.

ME: Oh, I don’t know what to say about that, do you mean in writing?

JLB: I mean in life, even for Shakespeare. Have you read, my “Everything and Nothing?”

ME:. No, but I heard about it when I was listening to a New Yorker Fiction podcast in the introduction to one of your stories.

JLB: Really, I am mainstream now? I invented hypertext, did you know?

ME: What? I have to look that one up. Hmm and I am not sure you are mainstream exactly, but I wouldn’t be the one to ask. I do remember reading at least one of your stories when I was in college—about a young man who perceived everything in full detail and could never forget anything he saw or experienced.

JLB: Si si, but tell me about that New Yorker podcast.

ME:Well, the story read was your “Shakespeare’s Memory.” I liked it and it made me think about…hmm, I guess it made me think about “irreality.”

JLB: Ah, my story about a man who is given the gift (and curse) of having all of Shakespeare’s memories which displace his own. Wonderful, but have you read my “Everything and Nothing,” 

ME: No, but I will as soon as I get back to reality—whatever that is, right?

JLB: Right. I will briefly summarize it, if I may, Jane, Dan, Barb,John, Stacey, Cindys 1 and 2. as it contains the essence of how I think about the relationship between writers and writing or I suppose you could say creators and their creations.

ME: Yes, please do; we’d love to hear it.

JLB: It involves Shakespeare, who he was and perhaps his own search for  a fundamental identity. We know him by his works, but little of his so-called real life. First, he was as an actor, and content to play someone else, but was that enough? No, he then imagined, moved, thought, spoke and felt through his characters in the plays—hundreds of them, many of whom also disguised themselves as others. He created “all possible shapes of being.” After twenty years of “controlled hallucination” he returned to the “village of his birth then dictated his final will excluding every trace of emotion and of literature.

“The story goes that before or after he died, he found himself before God and said: ‘I who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man: myself.’ The voice of God replied from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I one self; I dreamed the world as you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare, and among the shapes of my dream are you, who, like me, are many persons—and none.”

ME: Thank you, Jorge Luis Borges, for being with us in Gloucester tonight, and for your life and work and inspiration.

Monday, February 5, 2018

CATCHING THE STARS

Fran thought about the multitude of days she had taken the same elevator to the 10th floor, walked to the blue door down the hall and took out the key to enter her sacred space. This was the final day—the closure of the last sheet music store in New York City, maybe the last in country. It was the place conductors, musicians, opera singers had come for almost 40 years, not only to buy music, but also to visit with Fran to exchange ideas, experiences and to share the inspiration of music, which for her was the foundation of the world.

Some thought Fran’s stewardship of hundreds of thousands of leaves of classical music, many rare, made her comparable to a maestro herself, orchestrating her vast collection, moving, rearranging, lovingly placing and displaying them according to composers and compositions, the subtle aspects of which only she knew and could convey to those who frequented her shop. Uncanny were her insights and intuitions.

She had met and served world-class figures, and so many other extraordinary and ordinary “guests,” as she called her customers. They talked and laughed with her, always charmed by her dark eyes and winsome smile, seemingly filling the space with light. Mostly, they wondered at the esoteric nature of Fran’s knowledge of music. But, with the advent of the internet, more affordable and readily available downloads, concerts are now performed from loaded laptops instead of paper leaflets on stands. There is no need for a brick and mortar shop, and so, Fran mourned for the inevitable oblivion of the shop, and all that its wares represented for her and musicians: that sensual experience of seeing the compositions on paper, holding the leaves in hand, turning the pages never to be touched again by human hands, or tucked away to be used again, as old books are treasured.  

Some few customers who had heard about the shop's fate, came by as often as they could, if just to visit with Fran in her universe of unheard music in the quiet ambiance of that space: the certain slant of light in the afternoon; the mood of anticipation that felt like a concert hall before the conductor walks on and the overture begins, part of which came from the light in Fran’s eyes for the love of music yet to be discovered, played and heard by others. She was affectionately known as “the beating heart and soul of classical music.”  

Last week, when interviewed by a nice young man from the New York Times about the impending closing, she told him that her shop was, “a place where there was one of everything. I just love that moment when you put something on the counter and the person goes: ‘Ah! I can’t believe you have this.'” But, she always did, knowing exactly where to find what her guests wanted or needed before they did. Her hands deftly lifted each sheet tenderly to lay before them, pointing out the uniqueness of a score and all the subtleties of a particular version—like a mother knows so well the virtues and foibles of each of her children.

Over the years, new visitors were not only amazed to learn of the depth of the colossal collection, but also curious about the inexplicable basket of eggs and bunches of rosemary, sage and basil on the front desk. Frequent visitors knew that, while Fran lived in the city, she had a little farm in the Berkshires where she raised chickens and kept vegetable gardens. They often carried out freshly-laid eggs and herbs wrapped in newspaper, along with their music and receipts—handwritten in pencil by Fran herself, all part of what she called her “little stage,” happy that every day she got to “do her act.”  

When visitors began to dwindle to just a few, then often not even one all day, she felt she was at the edge of a cliff about to fall off. 

Today, Fran turned the key for the last time to the familiar sounds of the creaking door and tinkle of a bronze bell, which, in the last few days had not stopped ringing. Dozens of friends and well-wishers braved the wintry weather to visit the store, some for their first time, but all for their last. She now stood, surprised that, though she had anticipated this day for months, even years, she seemed unable to step across threshold. For a moment, she thought she heard the strains of all of the music she loved—fugues, concertos, sonatas, emanating from the hidden notations within the stacked leaflets all around.  At last, she made herself step into silence, except for the muffled sound of traffic far below.  

She placed her things on the counter and looked around—in farewell to her beloved collection to be archived at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. It was all arranged; there was nothing to be done, except to finish up the paperwork and wait for the movers who would pack her treasures into the boxes she had carefully labeled. 

If she herself could compose music, she would have spent the day creating a lament for the passing of an era. Instead, she listened to music while she tied up the last few loose ends. She put on Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, her favorite piece, which always brought the recollection of a trip to Scotland she made as a young woman many years ago. She stayed the summer on  the isle of Uist in the Outer Hebrides in a small crofter’s cottage with the MacKay family. She worked with them collecting seaweed, tending gardens, shearing sheep—learning of a simpler life than the one she had known along the Hudson River.

No more than a year after her return, she decided to live part of her life in that simpler way. She bought the property in western Massachusetts, which she loved, but had never thought of it as her “purpose in life.” It had always been clear that her purpose was in the city, in this shop on West 54th Street, but she also knew that the farm sustained her and brought back some of that experience in the Hebrides she had never forgotten, the color and light still lived in her as vividly as music always had.

Throughout this day she listened to the music and welcomed the last “visitor,” in the form of a bright and beautiful memory of the isle that would also become solace for the future: The evening before she left Uist she spent with the MacKays. As the sun went down, they took a simple meal together, drank whisky, recited and sang Burns’ poems and songs.  Filled with sadness, she spoke of the   wild and beautiful things she had experienced: Eagles flying high above the wide drifts of flowers beyond the white sand beaches; the thatched-roofed cottages with their driftwood or whalebone timbers, and low stone walls; the kindness and generosity of the Hebridean people.

“I will never forget any of it, or you,” she promised.

“You haven’t seen everything yet, Lassie. Come with us now, but keep your eyes closed.” She was led out by the two older children on a short walk. She knew they were approaching the sea—the sound of slow waves washing onto shore. When she opened her eyes, at first it was pitch dark. Then she saw:  On the water’s surface a perfect reflection of the sky above dotted with a million shining stars. 

She never returned to the Hebrides—until this day with the memory of catching the stars, walking into the sea, reaching down to the hold them as they slipped through her fingers back into the dark water.