A letter I wrote to my friend Nadine in 1998, found while cleaning up files. April 8, 1998 Dear Nadine: It pays off, spiritually speaking, to enter into another’s world. Knowing you only in the workplace, I so appreciated the opportunity to meet your family, Franklin’s family, and the members of the church you have told me about so often. I loved the retelling of the Christian Bible stories. Though my church stretches its beliefs beyond Christianity, I learned these stories when I was a child, and they are familiar and comforting. Franklin as a “strong angel” sticks with me. His death was so sudden and unexpected – who dies at their desk at 38! We needed a bridge into the unthinkable, and the stories served well to do that. I might love the retelling of the Bhagavad Gita also, but haven’t sat in anyone’s temple to hear that. There are so many roads to God. Since you were not there when we kept watch before the service, I thought I would write and tell you what happened (I’ll leave out details of the tragically broken dike which allowed so many tears to flow). Susan and I arrived early, mistakenly thinking that the funeral would begin at 11:00. Already in the church were Reverend Queen and some of the Men’s Choir members. There were quiet hymns playing in the background. One by one, the men came over to greet us, either just shaking hands or stopping for a time to talk. Joe tried out his “I’ll have to take away your apron” and the “swinging too hard in the choir” stories on us before he told them to the congregation, which made them all the more funny and touching when rendered in fully finished form. They say the Marx Brothers used to try out their act on small groups to see if they were really funny, and Joe confirmed that his memories of Franklin triggered laughter. Joe also told us about the proposed expansion of the church and I had a look at the plans on my way back from the ladies room. We sat quietly as more people came in and they all greeted us until it became too crowded to acknowledge everybody. As the only white people in the room, we appreciated their graciousness; we were not sure what was in store for us. It wasn’t so much skin color that mattered, but our differing church (and, in Ellen’s case, synagogue) experiences. I had never been in a church like this one before. As the members of the Men’s Choir gathered they reminded me of a jazz ensemble, where everyone knows what they are supposed to do and, without cue, does their task. They considered each other in every step they took. They were equals, the rich and the poor, those who could sing well and those who couldn’t (Joe joked “That Franklin, he couldn’t sing a note!”), the shuffling old ones, and the vibrant young ones. The choir members surrounded the casket and moved it a bit this way, that way, until it was just right. They raised the lid and I couldn’t stop crying when I saw Franklin’s familiar face. One man carefully placed the roses on the coffin, rearranging them once or twice. A man came down the aisle holding the lamp which was clamped to the open top of the casket. He uncoiled and straightened the cord and experimented with the path of the light, finally reaching what he thought was just the right angle. They fiddled with the flowers. They fiddled with the lights. They dusted and patted and plumped things. One of the older men patted down the lapel of Franklin’s suit, which stuck up like a cowlick. He draped the white liner differently. I don’t think it really made any difference, he just wanted to fuss tenderly over Franklin. Ellen arrived just as the casket did. She, surprise, surprise, talked whenever that was even remotely acceptable. Fortunately, I was one person away from her. Just before the family came in, a woman dressed in a white uniform appeared. I wondered if she was a steward of the church or a nurse on duty for the funeral. Her white garb and serious demeanor were comforting. Franklin’s family was bigger than I had realized. Marlon embraced his mother and his grandmother. From behind, with his identically shaved head, he looked so much like his brother! And I wondered who their father was. I don’t think he had ever been mentioned. His grandmother was crying bitterly as she entered the church, the triangular handkerchief sitting daintily on her head. After the service, sitting on the couch in your apartment, with her knee-highs not quite covering her knees, she told me in an island accent which I didn’t always understand about her multiple recent losses, her imminent loss to cancer of one of her children, another having recently undergone heart surgery. She said that when she entered the church she thought of these losses and couldn’t help crying. When the family had said their good-byes, each differently, and sat in their seats, his mother was overcome. I couldn’t understand everything she said because her head was buried in the shoulder to the right then the shoulder to the left, but heard her say, “To have him take this road before me! I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it.” With the church filled, the pianist began to play, building up to the entrance of the organ. They played the same tune over and over and it was comforting. I thought to myself that the people of this church do as they say they do. There are no excuses on a Saturday afternoon. They were there for their brother and for you and really for all of us. We were wondering where you were. Were you going to be dragged into the church unable to stand? Were you refusing to come at all? Would it be entirely unthinkable to have the funeral without you? The minister mounted to the pulpit, greeted the congregation...and still no Nadine. He mouthed questions to someone at the back of the church...and still no Nadine. The choir began to sing. Ushers snapped a red belt in place to block the center aisle. People seen and unseen were doing their jobs — taking back the cassette player which had played soft hymns as we sat, the man took away the lamp on the casket, the men who rearranged the white casket liner were back, tucking it carefully around Franklin before closing the top; the ushers looked for places for latecomers. Franklin’s mother’s grief burst out of her once again as they closed the casket and my heart broke for her. At least half of the grieving for another is the fear of grieving oneself and I of course imagined what it would be like to close the casket on my own child and found the imagination unbearable. Life has taught me to (try to) kick fear out of the way, because you can end up quaking in a corner bedeviled by your own imagination. There was plenty of real-time grief to go around on that day without adding the imagination. When the choir had raised the spirit in the church, filled it with noisy praise, you came in quietly with a smile, leaning on Tina, trying so hard to feel what they were singing about -- the triumph, the liberation, the release of Franklin’s home-going over the desolation of your own loss. I understand why you didn’t come in until the coffin was closed. Seeing that door closed would have broken your heart. You know the rest because you were there. You know about the strong angel, the streets paved with gold, the pearly gates, the tearful and joyful remembrances of Franklin, Flying Away on the Wings of Jesus which brought us to our feet, the congregation shocked and stung by the Shadow of Death, the fried chicken, the heavenly baked beans, the chocolate cake, the friendship, camaraderie, the caring always the caring for one another which will go on long after the wounds of Franklin’s loss have begun to disappear under scar tissue which is itself painful to live with. In some languages there are many words for the one word which we use so frequently with so many meanings, love. The love you had for Franklin is so unlike the love which filled the church that day, but we use the same word for both feelings. And I love you too, in yet another way. People feel so helpless offering to “do” something for a grieving friend, but why should they feel helpless. There is so much that we can all do for one another. In the jazz-like improvisational way that the choir worked together, such different people each playing an important role, we can all contribute. Besides, I figure if I’m really, really nice to you, maybe you’ll offer me a bowl of your famous spaghetti when I come to visit you. Ann
A friend gave me the book Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler (Vintage Books, 2016) to read. She hated it, despite its multiple rave reviews, and wanted to know if I hated it too. She works around restaurants, so perhaps the descriptions of self-destructive, back-biting chaos struck an unwelcome chord in her. In some ways, I disliked the book as much as she did, and in other ways I will disappoint her by saying that it is original, well written, and noteworthy. The summation of the book’s message is near the end, when the protagonist says “Eventually nothing would be important and I would throw it all away.” The book is a landmark of a nihilistic, hedonistic, negative age. It might be a woman’s version of the Beatniks or Andy Warhol. I would like it if a woman’s work defined an age, but I’m not enamored of, or even connected to, the age presented. It is written as a memoir, advertised as a novel, so I suppose it is not Danler’s personal story, though it is written with the intimacy of personal experience. I appreciate the high degree of difficulty such a voice represents. Danler has a flair for description. “He worked the floor in a pink tie, weaving around like cursive.” “We went outside. The air tasted of steel knives and filtered water.” “A dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows.” She misses the mark on a couple of metaphors, such as “Her bra was neon yellow like a sign saying Proceed with Caution.” When a reader is enjoying the deft descriptions, a clunker like this stands out. This protagonist Tess, through whose eyes we see this world, had a rough childhood, which has afflicted her with a victim’s sense of entitlement. She pictures herself in an Edward Hopper painting and enjoys Emily Dickinson poems, hinting at an advanced education, nevertheless she arrives ignorant beyond measure in New York. She lucks into a job in a very fancy restaurant, and begins to learn the basics about wine, food presentation, oysters, and whatnot. Why would a restaurant probably nursing a star or two want to hire a person who knew nothing about food, wine, or restaurants? Her prior experience was in a burger joint. The book suggests that beneath Tess’s studiously ignorant persona the person who hired her saw a little something that, compared to the other applicants, set her apart. This rude ignoramus has disdain for almost everybody. Her roommate is a “moron,” the people in her neighborhood are “dead-eyed slouchers.” She considers herself superior to the restaurant guests who absorb her most rancid derision. “They were the hungry sort of guests who had spotted me from across the room and were beckoning me with their anxiety. … I have your fucking food, you’re not going to fucking starve to death, it is a restaurant for fuck’s sake.” When she spills butter in a guest’s lap and the guest wails, Tess blames the guest -- “Who wears silk while they eat?” I was around a lot of hippies when I was a young woman, and identified with them on many things – their music, their sexual freedom, their fierce demand for equality of all persons, their appreciation of the Beatles’ daring and Pete Seeger’s determination. Sexual license is a theme. When my Greenwich Village roommate in 1963 had sex with her boyfriend in front of me, I protested, and she said, “I don’t see what you are so upset about. Adele and I did this all the time.” But I had, and have, a rule that you can’t fuck in front of me without my permission. After Tess’s noisy, aggressive orgasms in the back of a taxi, which are so disruptive that the driver closes the window between them, she gives, “There were people who did whatever the fuck they wanted and their city was terrifying, barbaric, and breathless,” as a reason for her behavior. Having lived and worked in New York City for thirty of my seventy-five years, I have been impressed by the patience, tolerance, good humor, and work ethic of the place, given the stresses from overcrowding and hyper-competition that we all faced every day. The people of Houston are patting themselves on the back for helping each other in the face of a hurricane, but New Yorkers helped each other plenty during 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy. People everywhere appear "terrifying, barbaric, and breathless" to me sometimes, not only in New York. But Tess is special. It’s gotta be ten times as threatening just for her. Tess belongs to the “whatever” generation, which holds little in common with hippies, though their habits are somewhat similar. Tess and her friends snort and smoke and drink whatever is put in front of them until they are smashed, pie-eyed, under the table, on the floor, in the hospital. It’s just what people do. They escape into the filthy bathroom to share lines of cocaine and follow it up with alcohol, Zanax, Aderol or whatever it’s called….whatever. Tess’s crew don’t take care of themselves, but they haul themselves to the restaurant every day to do their job, driven by the rants of the chef and the snarky cruelty of their superiors on the floor. Their superiors enjoy the bodies of the underlings at will. This is just the way it is. This is sort of like what the hippies did, but we thrived on hope, while these folks thrive on despair. Tess, who has to sell her car for $675 to pay all her overdue parking tickets, who is drunk and high every night, who does not know an oyster from a clam, who is devoid of any interests outside the restaurant, who wants someone else to “confirm that I was alive,” who “somehow” pulls the 1995 vintage instead of the 2002 and blames it on everyone else, who gets annoyed when the chef and her manager slip into French, who lies down and rolls over in New York saying, “It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave,” – this young lady is put out that she is not instantly promoted over the other shlubs who do the same work she is doing. She presents herself as constantly under attack. Sitting on the river at sunrise, she notices the rats, not the sunrise. I can’t give a demerit to the book because its philosophy is not mine, but can object to the arc of the book. Its purpose seems to be the ultimate praise of a rube who comes to the big city and makes good – an essentially hopeful message. This bear, though, has to go over too many mountains before it comes to the final one. The reader is awash in pessimism until the very, very end, which made hard reading for me. Way too far into the book, she starts showing some grit. She stands up to people, objects to her boyfriend’s duplicity by almost killing herself with drugs, seduces the manager of the restaurant as part of her demand to be promoted, talks back, learns the wines, develops her palate, and in the happy ending, is rewarded by the woman who has deceived her most deeply. Oh boy! Ain’t life grand! What we have here is a failure to communicate. I, the happy, hopeful, hippy cannot connect to this disjointed, disaffected, nihilist. Her goals trickle only so faintly outside of herself. Ms. Danler didn’t grow up in the 1960s, as I did. Lacking such intrusions as the draft, she finds no reason to even consider politics or the society as a whole. Her music is heavy, punk, metal. She has no grounds to expect the house with the picket fence, or a healthy family life. Given no future, she fucks what comes along, smokes what is around, stays up all night, manages her health with uppers and downers, nearly kills herself, and considers it good, or should we say, adequate. Stephanie Danler may have hit upon the perfect parable for modern times. I don’t blame young people for being bitter today, beginning with their college loans, which are mentioned in the book. When I went to college there was no such thing. There was no global warming, no cynical Iraq war, no dunce in the White House. (I thought some of them were dunces at the time, but Trump takes the cake.) I hope that Danler will write another book. Maybe her next one will have some hope. I personally find it impossible, to live without hope.
I’m fascinated by how cultures handle the unavoidable daily needs of human beings; where did they sleep, how did they eat, and how did they pee. We’ll skip straight to the peeing, though where they slept and how they ate is also fascinating The photograph comes from California, where they have a sense of humor. In Maine, in the 1950s, I was ushered to a little cabin which sported a wooden board with a hole in it over a very deep hole in the ground. Even today, friends maintain an Adirondack camp on a lake where they have no running water and no electricity, though they do have a big house. The outhouse is a twin holer with a smooth wooden board, much fancier than the one in Maine, situated on a hill above the lake, with a wide picture window and ample reading matter. On a replica of an ancient ship in Roanoke, Virginia, I learned the meaning of the word “poop deck.” Very practical. Older American homes had a water closet – I had one in my apartment in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though by the time I lived it had been converted to a cramped modernish bathroom. When it was a simple water closet, somebody had to remove the vessels and dump them somewhere, and that was the same for everyone from King Louis the XVI to the lowliest peasant. In the villages of Greece I was told that everyone had their favorite tree which they fertilized daily. The facilities in the ancient palace of Knossos on the island of Crete were stone benches with a steady stream of water flowing through a cleft in the stone. The water came from a source above the palace, so gravity kept it running all the time. There was no privacy, but there was good hygiene, even a couple of millennia b.c. It puzzled me that this simple engineering was not used elsewhere. We think we are so advanced, but it took us a few millennia to match the ancient Minoans for cleanliness. In the British Court, the “Groom of the Stool” helped the king in this most intimate of functions. He obviously needed continuous and unimpeded access to the monarch, and was a powerful member of the Court. In Vienna this year, my friends and I attended a concert in a gorgeous old church. Before the concert began I asked my Austrian friend where the bathroom was. “Churches don’t have bathrooms,” she said, “you only go there for mass, and that takes an hour.” “But what about choir practice and all the people who work here?” I asked. “There are toilets for them but in the back of the church.” An usher told me, “There are toilets in the university across the street.” Where in the university? The performance was so exceptional that it was no problem.The Austrians must be evolving into a race with large bladders. Broadway theatres were notorious for their paucity of toilets, with long lines causing many people to miss the opening of the second act. Now there are dozens of stalls, and I am wondering what people did in the old days. They must have felt the need to relieve themselves as frequently as modern people do, or have our bladders lost their mojo? Perhaps they carried little containers. The recent tv series about spies during the revolutionary war, Turn, had a party scene where servants stood at either side of a stairway in the hall with urinals in their hands. The guests would take a urinal and go find a corner somewhere to lift their skirts, or pull down their pants, to pee. I said to myself, “Aaaah, that’s how it was done” when the coiffed and gowned beauty, Mrs. Benedict Arnold, lifted her many skirts to relieve herself, then turned in the urinal to the servant in the hallway. I appreciated their including this scene. There are fortress toilets everywhere – places where you need a key, or a password to get in. One such was at the MacDonald’s on the Graben in Vienna – baffled people wandered back and forth, sharing the secret – a pass code -- to get in. One woman who had the code pulled me in behind her. One public pissoir in Europe had a door that closed after every use to allow an automatic cleansing spray, followed by a noisy drying process. It only takes a minute. That was a good idea, but I was apprehensive about entering. What if I pressed the wrong button and got sprayed myself, or got caught inside – I couldn’t even figure out how to access the toilet – did I just step in, would the door close behind me automatically? A passing pedestrian explained it to me. The bidet is one of mankind’s more compassionate inventions. I didn’t know what it was the first time I saw it and tinkered or a while without understanding its purpose. An American friend in Greece told me that the first time he saw one, he pooped in it, then he and the French ambassador stood at the door of the stall regarding his handiwork, trying to figure out how to remove it. The bidet in Venice was a bowl with a faucet that ran like water in a sink. What good is that? It was excellent for washing one’s feet. The French kind has an upward-spreading spray which performs more efficiently. I understand that the cosmopolitan Jackie Kennedy insisted on having one installed in her New York apartment, though that may be a rumor. In the Zurich airport, there is a sign “rest room” but behind the door is stairway, then another stairway. Three flights up is the toilet. This is a challenge for people with baggage; my husband and I went separately so one could stay behind to guard the luggage. I didn’t locate a handicap toilet, though surely there was one. In the ladies room of the super luxurious restaurant, La Terrazza del Casino, in Madrid, you will find not only soft music and lovely décor, but also a toothbrush and toothpaste and a sweet little towel. I stole an extra toothbrush and toothpaste because they were cleverly designed – something you could pop into your purse. It is people like me who cause restaurants to discontinue such amenities. We have advanced past the days in renaissance England where a person in a hurry would go into a tavern and find a dark corner in the basement to relieve himself. Imagine what those places smelled like. Imagine what the streets smelled like with horse poop on the cobblestones and human waste flowing in the streetside sewers. Sometimes it is hard to figure out how to flush. Airplanes have a plaque you push and there is a little explosion of water. Europeans have round flushers, divided into two parts – two-thirds of the plaque is the place you push for large deposits, the smaller luna is for little stuff. In the mountains of Vermont I heard, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” There are chains to pull, handles to pull upward or push downward, buttons on various parts of the toilet, and I haven’t yet visited Japan, where there is a whole set of instructions to use the toilet, or so I am told. The champion toilet name is “The Great Niagara,” the name of the company that provided my toilet in Athens, Greece in the 1960s. The award for the most beautiful rest room (Americans are so puritanical – they say “rest room” or “ladies/men’s room” or “bathroom,” as if anyone took a bath there. Elsewhere, they are inclined to say “toilet,” or “toilette” or whatever) goes to the restaurant Boulez in New York City. That restaurant is closed now, and I have deleted my photographs of the ladies room. It will live on in my imagination.
Whenever you step onto the mat, you are a yogi. It simply means you are trying. There is no certificate or benediction – everyone from the least to the most, is a yogi. The most accomplished ones can control bodily functions, like a heartbeat or breath, but there are days when even the fanciest yogi cannot, and days when even you, a novice, can. Some days I can breathe out forever; others not. Doing regular yoga is a measure of your well-being. If today you cannot balance on one foot or get yourself up into the Wheel, there is something subpar about your body – you are overtired, or unwell, or depressed. On other days, you will trudge to yoga class and find that you can do everything that is asked of you and more – your body and your mind are in fine shape. The body is a giant signal of well-being, and doing yoga gives it a way to send that signal loud and clear. Research suggests that imagining little pac-men coursing through a cancerous body can affect the cancer. That sounds like magic or sleight-of-mind, but if you do yoga, you know that intense focus can affect bodily function. Focusing on a sore muscle, and there are numerous techniques for doing this, can soften it. If you are trying to get yourself up into a headstand and you are thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner, you might well not be successful at the headstand. We only use a small portion of our brain’s potential power, and yoga unleashes just a bit more of that power than we ordinarily harness. “Be here now,” says yoga. “Pay attention.” I was raised a Christian Scientist, where mind over matter is all the healing there is (more complicated than that, but that’s a subject for another time). In Christian Science, one tries to elevate oneself above the body, to concentrate on the Divine. In yoga one dives deeply into the body, focusing on the parts and functions that are needed in the moment. For me, the latter is more successful, and anybody can do it, no study needed. When twisting deeply, the yoga teacher may remind you that this helps digestion. When the head is below the heart, blood flow to the brain is increased. When the legs are above the body, lymph flow is reversed and refreshed – lymph does not have a pump like the heart to propel it. Your teacher may remind you of the 26 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments, 19 muscles and tendons in the foot. The 52 bones in your feet make up about 25 percent of all the bones in your body. Can you lift each toe individually? In the beginning, I could not, but now I can rely on that pinky toe, and have made progress which each of the others. The affects posture, movement, and balance. Knowledge of the body, and a hint of control over it, rests in the subconscious as you walk, eat, and live your life. Feldenkrais practitioners call their classes “lessons” because the knowledge you gain changes the way you move and live, even if you are not actively aware of it. Yoga does, too. A good yoga teacher will provide infinite versions of the same pose because the secret to avoiding injury is not to push yourself past your ability. It is NOT a competition. A few days ago I was affected by heavy humidity and did not have much energy or enthusiasm. I did the most basic forms of several postures which felt out of my reach that day. When I was recovering from a torn rotator cuff, I avoided Downward Facing Dog and any other shoulder-intensive poses for months. Tailoring each pose to your ability each day is essential. You gradually learn to recognize the difference between challenge and pain. Folded into a position which asks the body to do things not done in daily life, you may feel claustrophobic, or the discomfort of an extension or stretch may begin to panic you, but gradually you learn to distinguish between discomfort and pain. You can sit in a twist forever and it will never hurt you, though sometimes your brain insists that you untwist yourself. You should be moving! You can’t control your environment while sitting in this twist! Resisting this insistence becomes easier and easier on the mat and in daily life. Some call it discipline. It takes a while to accept that you have nothing to prove, especially nothing to prove to someone else, and that is a valuable lesson throughout life. No matter what you are doing, whether on the mat or elsewhere, you can never do more than you are capable of – some people will never be able to touch their toes, but they might have the strength of a lion. Yoga is a lesson in humility, and also a lesson in strength. Every time I hit the mat, I do something new, because every day my body and mind are different; my left side is different from my right, my mind is bold or timid, tired or fresh. Every time I take a yoga class, I am invited to push myself past my habits, past my endurance. And that in itself is an excellent habit. In the small accomplishments of your daily life, it becomes easier to do things right. It becomes easier and easier to turn the ordinary, the customary, the easy into an accomplishment. By training and challenging your body, which is very healthy on the purely physical plane, you are also training and challenging your brain, and changing your relationship with everything and everyone around you, always for the better. Embracing the further challenge of stillness and acceptance through meditation is a next step, capable of affecting deep transformation. One step at a time.