Verbal Lightning: An Introduction
The fascinating stories and essays in this issue demonstrate just how many and how varied are the words, ideas, sentences that can strike a spark. And the very different impacts they can have: they can be a revelation, a reason to cheer – or the words you never wanted to hear, words that go on hurting for years after they’ve been said.
The inimitable Katha Pollitt played Thor for me a few months ago, hurling a bolt of lightning from her never-to-be-missed column in The Nation. The professor to whom I’m married and I were struggling with what gifts to get for one another on our 61st Christmas together. What to give the person who has everything? To whom one has already given – several times over – just about everything one can think of? How many more socks, ties, books does he need? And then, we read Pollitt’s column:
A bolt of lightning, indeed! The professor and I adopted Pollitt’s method immediately. And we’ve found great fun both in the outings we plan and do and remember together – and even more in the donations. We’ve made that an occasion, too, choosing together which organization[s] will receive our gifts.
I’m pleased to report that Katha Pollitt recently joined the many other members of our Persimmon Tree community who responded to our spring fundraising campaign. Thank you, again, to all who donated. Thank you, Katha, and, I can’t help but wonder: Should I be wishing you a happy anniversary. Or was it a birthday?
We’re All Friends Here
I rarely take our city’s big lumbering transit system. I’d rather walk and I get there almost as quickly. But the whole state was rolling up in a blanket of flame and the air quality was now the worst in the world, and it did not behoove me to get any exercise.
(Did I mention that I also work for the transit system? Perhaps I bear some responsibility for its sluggishness.)
I had just boarded the bus when I realized the young fellow across from me was droning on in a rant. I tuned it out, as per the usual, and perused the string of advertisements above him. After a while I noticed that his voice didn’t sound crazy or angry or even particularly urgent. He slouched easily on the bench. Eventually, I started listening to him.
“They want to blame everything that’s wrong on us, but I sincerely doubt that it could be our fault since they hold all the power, and have for a long time.”
The young man took his time and leaned back on his long, loose limbs. He was African American with a handsome face and small moustache. He looked like the young Will Smith in Ali or The Pursuit of Happyness.
“Historically, this is the way it has been. Imperialism isn’t really over. They just don’t call it imperialism anymore. And the first colony, the place where it all starts is right up here, the minute you buy into it.”
He quietly tapped the temple of reason in his forehead.
In his laidback way, the young man was describing the power structure and ways of the world quite accurately, I thought. He then broke into a warm, home-spun song he seemed to be making up on the spot, half hymn and half campfire song, all about brotherly love.
The largest antidote to capitalist greed, exploitation, and colonialism was a Christian (or fill in the blank) community of brotherly love, the City on the Hill.
Then he disembarked the bus, still singing.
The contrast he was offering couldn’t have been clearer. It was my stop. I rose to my feet and got off the bus too.
It was like a Friends’ Meeting House where there is no pastor but the members of the congregation are free to stand up and preach. He had spoken beautifully and naturally; assuredly and unpretentiously; and most important, truthfully.
It felt as if the denizens of the everyday were breaking their conspiracy of silence, and rising up. It wasn’t a call to arms, but it was a refusal to play along, to play dumb in both senses of the term. It was a testament to the truth, and it was rejuvenating and enlightening to hear it. It kindled hope.
Perhaps I should ride Muni more often. If not for the transit, then for the enlightenment.
I remember that day, Mom; it was 2 a.m., just leaving the emergency room one more time, another crisis averted for the 90-year-old woman who seemed to specialize in them. Dementia did us no favors that early morning as I wheeled you into the bathroom, closed the door, gave you peace after being in the emergency room for so very long. Oakland was good but not that good. I can’t even remember which crisis this was. I don’t think it was the time you’d fallen off that new scooter, after you crashed the wall; I don’t think it was the urinary tract infection like the time before that; or even that fall on your head. You were in the bathroom an awfully long time for so late in the day, so I knocked on the door, went in, and there you were staring at and humming to yourself in the smallish mirror. Hardly room for the wheelchair and me. You were as happy as a young girl looking at the mirror, smearing shit all over it, both hands and the sink. You smiled at yourself, that same smile you always had every time you faced a mirror, a small, slightly crooked, coy smile, oh look at me I’m pretty, mouth slightly open, head tilted. But oh, that fuck you look in your eyes that many people mistook for friendliness. I yelled Mom, stop and started cleaning up the mess. We were in the hospital after all, where clean is good. I took you back to your very expensive assisted living home and waited for the next emergency.
My mother is crazy, nuts, bonkers. These are the words they throw at her—her husband, her sister, her mother. I am seven; I haven’t called her anything.
My mother will not stop tinkering with the television set—a 12-inch black-and-white Dumont purchased in 1948 at the dawn of the TV age. This might be the tenth or eleventh or twelfth TV set we’ve had in a period of six weeks—each rejected as defective by Mom and helpfully replaced by our neighborhood appliance store. She plays with test patterns, seeking blacker blacks, whiter whites, straighter lines.
Some nights Dad tries to lure Mom away from her stool in front of the set. He opens his arms wide as if requesting a hug. Soon they are wrestling as he pulls her by the shoulders, and she pushes him away.
This morning, only Mom and I are in our apartment. I know when to leave her alone. But on this day, I rebel.
She twists and turns the TV knobs. The test pattern gets wider; it flips over.
How can I get her to listen?
I’m holding a pair of socks. I throw them at her. The socks have holes in them. I couldn’t find a wearable pair. I try to launch the socks the way I’ve seen my brother throw a football. But my effort is a puny little girl throw. The socks land two feet behind her. She hears my words, though, because I shriek them: I wish you would drop dead. I stand stunned, awaiting punishment.
Suddenly, she’s crouched in front of me. She is sorry. Very sorry. I cry. She cries.
What do you want? she asks. What will make you feel better? Do you want ice cream?
Is she serious?
“Let’s go out for ice cream,” she says. We get dressed (what about socks?). We are almost at the candy store where I will have a chocolate ice cream cone. But there, across 86th Street, is the Famous Cafeteria, and Mom wants coffee, good coffee, not the candy store coffee. “You can have a dish of ice cream at the Famous.” Her voice has that placating tone she uses to coax me to eat green peas. She squeezes my hand, tugs me toward the other side of the street. I don’t say I want a cone. I don’t say this was supposed to be for me. I don’t say anything. Mom drops my hand. “Go home,” she says. And I do.
Why am I writing this? Because I want to erase my hateful words? Because I didn’t understand what we eventually accepted was an illness? Because for the rest of her life my mother wrestled with obsessive-compulsive disorder? Because there was always a kind of silence between us? Because when anything goes wrong in my life—when the dog dies, when my marriage falls apart, when my mother dies—I still want ice cream?
Light Fingers over Red Rock, photo by Merry Song
My Telephone Relationship: A Twentieth-Century Love Story
The first time I saw Phillip Foster I gasped. I began obsessing about him, and my mind entered into battle with itself.
At twenty-six I finally knew what to do with my life. I acquired a great apartment in an iconic neighborhood and a job I could walk to at Columbia University, and I ended the bad relationship I’d been in.
I began the new job committed to not letting my past influence my present. I wanted to appear – and be – totally normal.
I knew Phil was out of my league. A tenured professor at Columbia, he was also gorgeous. He was divorced, and many women pursued him. I asked myself what would he want with you, only recently recovered from drugs, depression, and depravity.
Despite my self-talk, fantasizing thrived. When I saw him jogging along Riverside Drive, I began jogging. I also walked more, often toward Phil’s street.
On the occasions we were in the same office or neighborhood store, I could barely speak.
So one night I called him… and hung up. I rationalized it was a signal, a greeting.
When I began to receive hang-up phone calls, my mental battle intensified. I hoped they were him, but also couldn’t believe a brilliant, beautiful professor would do something this weird.
I became so conflicted I changed my phone number just to quell my anxiety. The calls, however, continued.
Eventually my belief that it was him increased. My friend Marie worked for a close colleague of Phil’s and was privy to personal information. When he was away for two weeks the hang-up calls stopped. When he came back and the calls started again, who else could it be?
For a year we “communicated” like this. Then, lightning struck!
He was in California visiting his daughter so I was not expecting hang-ups. One day the phone rang.
Totally serious I said, “If someone is there, I can’t hear you. Call me back.” It could have been my father calling from Florida. I hung up. No one called back.
Several days later I learned he was home; I had to make contact. I dialed his number, my heart pounding. He answered. I said nothing. He said: “If someone is there, I can’t hear you. Call me back.”
Oh my god… He was in this with me! His echo of my words was a zap of live electricity leaving me dazed with euphoria.
Knowing the truth, I wanted our “relationship” to advance. I gave full vent to my feelings in a letter I actually mailed.
Weeks later I received a reply, a note saying he “was in love with a wonderful woman” and I should get on with my life.
So I did. But as with after-effects of any electric shock, recovery was slow….
Recently, I watched a documentary about Columbia; he made a brief appearance! After many decades, seeing him again was no bolt of lightning, just rumbles of thunder and then quiet rain.
But the phone never rings.
Two months of back-and-forth flirting. Checking the schedule posted on Fridays to see if we will work together each week. When I pull into Macy’s parking lot my spirits lift when his 1979 brown Camaro is parked by the entrance.
A ten-hour Saturday flies by when we work together, laughing and chatting between the customers and the racks of clothes. When I need to retrieve an item from the stockroom where he is normally stationed, I linger too long watching him, or sometimes he keeps me too long telling me a story. As I walk away, I hear him whistling Sheena Easton’s “Morning Train,” a song that is currently playing on every radio station.
When he finally asks me out it’s for this Friday night; he’ll pick me up at 7. I have never been so happy. I am completely head over heels in love.
Friday afternoon I buy a new pair of silver hoop earrings. When I get home, I run to my bedroom to put an outfit together.
7:00. I am sitting by the living room window waiting to see the brown Camaro turn the corner onto our street. I check my reflection to make sure my bangs are straight and my new earrings are in perfect position.
7:05. Headlights are waiting at the top of our busy street before making the left onto our block. When they turn, they make a quick right into a different driveway. It’ll be the next one; that’s the game I start playing. Three cars come and go. 7:15. The next one for sure.
7:30. I look nervously over at the phone on the kitchen wall. Why is he late? Why isn’t he calling me?
7:34. How can the clock be ticking when time is standing still?
I walk to the phone– is it working? My hands shake while I pick up the receiver. Dial tone. Can a heart beat and break at the same time?
7:50. I stare back at the phone willing him to call. But the phone never rings.
By 10 o’clock I am in my bedroom sobbing into my pillow. I get up and look at myself in my mirror. My brother is handsome– girls fall all over him. My sister is beautiful – she was once mistaken for a beauty pageant contestant. Tonight, my face is puffy and red from crying, tomorrow there will be no excuses; it will just be my plain ordinary face.
The next day, when I return the earrings to the store, the salesgirl looks at me, but I look down pretending I’m looking for the receipt.
“Reason for return?” She asks.
And suddenly I pick up my head, look right at her pink lipstick and blond hair, and in a moment of complete clarity I say,
“Not pretty enough.”
My Communist Grandmother
“Sarita is a Communist,” my mother said.
My grandmother only allowed us to call her by her first name. The news hit us in New York, during the Cold War. We had arrived six months earlier from Argentina. I was nine. My father, tall and lanky, smiled as he asked: “Would you like to travel?” We would travel by plane, can you imagine? “Yes!” I said, unaware I had no say in the matter. United States was an abstraction, neither desirable nor feared. Traveling by plane, however, was priceless. Wishes were fragile then, so easily upturned, so I counted the days. Whatever magical thinking ruled my childhood seemed to work as a negative; if you wished too much it would never happen, but it did.
We were flying TWA, no longer in service now. As children do, I touched everything, the buckle, the front pocket, the light, every button my small fingers could turn and push, especially the one that reclined the chair — I hate little kids in planes. I inhaled that unique plane smell – for many years that smell meant adventure. The stewardess came up to us with games, food, anything to keep us in our seats. At least we did not kick the back of the front passenger’s chair.
I wanted to see out the window, and it was then I saw my mother in the reflection. She was looking away, crying. She looked where she guessed my grandmother was waving goodbye, but the window was too small, the night too dark, the airport too far away. I was immune to her sadness, both puzzled and guilty for not understanding her tears.
After six months I learned enough English to get by. I also learned to hide under a desk in case of a nuclear attack, and was told communists eat children. It was then my mother blurted out those stunning words: “Sarita is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. She might not get a visa.” Turns out my grandmother had paid a little visit to Fidel in Cuba. The U.S. consulate in Argentina was not eager to let her in. Under interrogation in the consulate, my five-feet-tall, 61-year-old grandmother said: “You can’t seriously think I’m going to overthrow the U.S. government, right? I need to see my grandchildren!” Back then, 61 was much older that it seems now, and the U.S. had overcome some of its red scare. You could actually say goodbye to your family at the door of the plane and save yourself from a nuclear attack under a school desk. It was, as always, a confusing world and I had to make sense of it on my own. Maybe “they” after all are “us,” I thought. Some months later she was finally given a tourist visa. During her stay in New York, we made sure to speak respectfully of the CIA just in case they were listening in.
I can’t shake the feeling that I failed you. I should have tried harder, paid more attention, and been more involved. I should have intervened in your life; maybe I could have saved you from yourself. But our family’s culture was based on non-intrusiveness and giving each other privacy and space. Sadly, it also allowed each of us to unravel in solitude.
As a parent, I know now that even a minor intervention can go a long way, and sometimes even the threat of an intervention will allow one to think twice before making a wrong decision. From my vantage point today, our family’s gift of privacy was a delusion; it was only a gift of non-involvement.
Thinking back, your life was freewheeling; you did not have the maturity to make sound judgments. You told me you started on your path at thirteen by sniffing glue. No one stopped you because no one knew. Did our parents know? I don’t think so, but maybe. I was married, moved out of state, and was away from you—that’s my excuse, but later, I knew because I knew you could not hold a job, and then I knew because you were in and out of rehab and psychiatric facilities, and yes, by that time, I was involved; yes, I was there for all of that.
But for so long, I didn’t know. You, your wife, and your children had a covenant of secrecy—a private family dance unknown to me until your crisis became so large that it was no longer a secret.
You lived your stormy life as I fearfully watched, awaiting the final lightning strike. By then, it seemed I couldn’t help—a page had been turned and could not be turned back no matter what I did. I could not save you, but I still wish I had tried harder, intervened earlier, known more. But I didn’t. My hard conversations with you by that time were to no avail. I tried to help, but it was too late. Secrecy and non-intrusiveness had protected your descent.
Tragically, however, when that lightning finally did strike you down, as I knew it would, I had one final intrusion—I attended your funeral after you drowned in your addiction.
Elder Speaks to Younger, photo by Merry Song
I want my words to light up the distant sky
then come back like the band of a slingshot —
sock it to whoever didn’t jump when I opened fire.
I don’t want any of us to escape the reverberations.
Why should I be alone with the repercussions when I’m not the only one confronted with the truth?
I knew a liar who made up stories about what she did with her “wrist rocket” slingshot. I could tell she wanted street cred for the glint she tried to reflect into my eyes. She just liked the sound of “wrist rocket.” She wanted to be seen as a badass kid targeting teachers in the parking lot.
I was a true badass, but I didn’t fire on my teachers. They fired on me. They tried to make out like I was the violent one, but it was them. I tried to have compassion, but they were programmed rats standing their ground in the corner of the teacher’s lounge.
The paint fight I had with Vicki was the most fun we had in fourth grade until our teacher choked us with the word “boisterous.” Boisterous. Girls that do daring things are boys-tress. I was a boy-stress. A princess/prince. A prince/princess. They called us tomboys, but I knew tomboy meant you were some kind of fake boy. I knew girls like me were the crack and boom of lightning inside the belly of the crystal dome.
The rumble that follows the spark is not a coincidence. Thunder and lightning are inseparable. Like the drum and the beat. The throat and the scream. The lungs and the yell. Even if you’re too weak to push it out, the sound is still there. Lightning might only be an ember in your heart, but it’s on fire. Anybody can fall asleep in a tree and get struck by lightning. That doesn’t mean you were supremely unlucky. No. That means Hallelujah. You got out of this life in a single bang and now you don’t have to wake up and look for food — unlike the starving fox you fell in love with — dying from untreated scabies, you don’t have to wish you could cure yourself. You did your bid here and now the fire has chosen you. The zap has pointed you out to the sky and now you are part of the zap. You are the zap. You, my friend, can go around zapping frightened girl/boy princess/princesses asleep in the trees. You are the one who can say ZAP! You can stop cowering in the bushes. You are the seed and the seedling. You are the tree and the treeling.
What do you call those in your language? Con numb drums?
I leave it up to you to find more of those confusions–
those irreconcilable differences. The zip and zap–
the button and the hole…
Then do me a favor–
what you wrote.
A Bolt from the Blue
At eighteen, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had graduated high school but hadn’t yet figured out how to make college work. My parents were locked in an unending war with each other: my mother refused to fill out my financial aid papers because I lived with my father, while he couldn’t complete them since he was behind on filing his income taxes. In limbo, I worked in an office and, on weekends, for a used clothing shop.
For fun, I began taking weekly improvisation classes at Second City. I wasn’t particularly good at projecting my voice or coming up with creative ideas, but our class offered Saturday night performances at a local coffeehouse where I was able to perform. We also had all the cleaning duties before and after the show.
One night, I was clearing cups from a table of four women who seemed both old (silver hair!) and exotic (silver and turquoise jewelry!). One of them said, “You’re a Virgo, aren’t you?” I gawked at her while the others chuckled. How did she know? I thought perhaps she had noticed the orderly way in which I stacked the dishes, for surely everyone knew that Virgos were neat and precise. But then she surprised me again by saying, “I read it in your palm.” More laughter as she took my hand, forcing me to set down the dishes and ashtrays. She glanced at my palm—life line, love line, whatever the other lines are meant to indicate or foretell—and then gazed at me with steady blue eyes.
“Do you know what your problem is?” The table grew quiet. I shook my head. I had no idea.
“You don’t know how to say ‘no’,” she said. “Say it.”
I murmured “No.” It sounded like a question.
She gripped my wrist more tightly. “Say it like you mean it,” she commanded.
I tried again. “No.” There was at least a period at the end of my statement this time.
The woman released my wrist, apparently satisfied. “Now when you go home, practice in the mirror. Pretty soon you’ll be able to say it to other people too.”
I grabbed my tray of dishes and escaped to the small kitchen backstage, unsure of what had just happened. Had she seen something in my timid performance that gave her this insight? Was her palmistry a ruse to deliver a message that 18-year-old me did indeed need to hear? Did she and her friends often give young women such prompts, urging them to be more self-confident and to set boundaries?
I’ll never know. But over the years, as I studied martial arts and taught self-defense to women, as I learned to navigate relationships and professions, I’ve often thought of her with gratitude: how she “read” me and what she said. The power of “no.”
My Career in Church Music
“I’m not going to allow you to badmouth our program,” were the words spoken by Brother John that ended my career in church music. After years of piano and organ lessons, I had set my eyes on being a minister of music since high school. I earned the rather esoteric Bachelor of Church Music degree and worked at six churches over 15 years. Unfortunately, I bumped heads with either the pastor or the music committee everywhere I went. Was I a naïve young woman who just thought she’d show up and everyone would hold hands and sing Kum-ba-ya, or were the pastors all narcissistic control freaks? You decide.
This scene happened in Sarasota, Florida, at the Southern Baptist Church where I was the volunteer graded children’s choir director in 1993. Serving on a church staff in ministry was my heart’s desire. I was satisfied to volunteer because I assumed that, after the church staff observed my skill working with children and my heart for Jesus, at some point I would be offered a paying job. I was mistaken. After our annual Christmas pageant, I thought my feedback about the program would be welcomed by Brother John, the minister of music. Even though I’d been running their program for a couple of years, a female speaking out was not welcome in their patriarchal world. I will never forget the steely cold look in his eyes as he reprimanded me. I left emotionally shaken and with the knowledge I was finished. I walked away from my chosen career because I didn’t want to feel bad at church anymore.
“Isn’t that nice,” a well-meaning relative said about the activities of my eighty-year-old mother. “She’s keeping busy.”
We’ve all heard similar comments, but there was nothing nice about our teachers in high school who assigned us busy work. Busy work was that assignment where you learned nothing and wasted time putting obvious answers down on paper. Busy work was a demeaning term.
I frowned and my mouth tightened as I mentioned to my relative that my mother’s activities included repainting some of the rooms in her home, mowing her lawn, sewing, and gardening. The same things she did when she was in her forties and fifties, but no one commented then.
A woman who quilts in her thirties is skilled and creative. A woman who quilts in her seventies is keeping busy. A man who gardens in his fifties is environmentally conscious and frugal. A man who gardens in his eighties is keeping busy (marking time). Why do these same projects get relegated to the keeping busy status when people get older? What has changed? Nothing but our perception.
People’s interests don’t change all that much as they age. If they are physically able, they continue doing what they have always done, the things they enjoy doing, the things that add purpose to their existence and value to the world—just as the rest of us do.
Cloud Lightning, photo by Merry Song
Dimples and the Peacock
The year was 1958. I was a college sophomore taking a course in Integral Calculus, intended for prospective math majors. There were about 20 students in the class: all men except for Miss Yu, Miss Chen, Miss Yih and “Dimples,” the name the instructor insisted on calling me. Feeling demeaned by this moniker, I feebly tried to respond, first by gently reminding him that my given name was Wendy Freedman and, when that failed, by observing that he did not refer to any others in the room in terms of a physical attribute. I also sought respect by demonstrating that I was a serious student. But he persisted, and I soon not only gave up but, in an effort to ease the tension, on occasion joined him in joking about the whole thing. He, I should note, was what we might today call an alpha male: tall, handsome, physically robust, and arrogant. The antithesis of the nerdy academic stereotype, he would strut into the classroom, much like a peacock, a designation I privately assigned to him. I, young, petite, and dimpled, was his perfect target.
By the third week, I had resigned myself to his appellation, as well as to his other denigrations, especially the dismissive quips he often made in response to my queries. I was nevertheless not prepared that day when I raised my hand to inquire about a solution to a problem. Waving me off, and with a big smile on his face, he said: “Oh, Dimples, you do not need to know that. You are going to be married one day.”
There is no way to describe the humiliation and rage I experienced. For a moment or two, I was too stunned to do anything, but as soon as I emerged from my paralysis, after giving him a long stare, without saying a word, I rose from my seat, picked up my books and purse, and walked out of the classroom. I went directly to the bursar’s office, where I dropped the course and changed my intended major from math to English. In changing academic focus, I not only put myself in an entirely different social and cultural milieu, but on a completely different professional trajectory. Perhaps more important, the incident was transformative in compelling me to confront my own tacit complicity in the peacock’s actions, as well as my habitual “willingness” to accept other indignities that had been inflicted on me because of my sex. This reflection led to my ultimately embracing a feminine perspective. Forty-five years later, when I was a dean at a major university, my most meaningful undertaking was to establish a program to encourage undergraduate women to pursue STEM disciplines. This program allowed me to merge my lingering nostalgia for math with my strong commitment to feminism. I have no doubt that the seeds for its birth were planted in the integral calculus classroom. I regard its creation and success as my personal triumph over the peacock.
We were standing in the kitchen, Mom and I, our usual place after I got home from school. I was around eleven–what we call a “tween” now, but back then, just anxious and awkward. Mom was baking cookies with her usual no-nonsense flair, measuring the flour, baking powder, and sugar into the mixing bowl, letting me add the eggs and softened butter. That was a holdover from my youngest days; even now as I let my grandtwins crack and add the eggs, I share their pleasure in watching the oozy eggs incorporate into the batter.
Taking down the bag of Nestle chips, I had to cajole Mom into dumping the whole bag in. Somewhere along the way, she’d decided it was somehow unseemly to be so flagrant with the good stuff. When I would find a half-used bag secured with a rubber band, it was all I could do not to sneak a few for a heavenly afternoon snack. But she would notice, so I restrained myself.
She scooped each cookie’s worth of batter onto the spoon she’d used to ladle in the chips, expertly laying them out on the old aluminum cookie sheets my Dad had purchased from Alcoa, his longtime employer. “There!” she said, briskly wiping her hands on a damp cloth and reaching for the bowl and beaters. I knew what she planned to do. If I didn’t intervene, she would whisk them away, scraping the leavings into the trashcan and plunging the dirty dishes into a sinkful of suds.
“Let me lick them!” I protested. Giving in, she handed them over and gave me a look. Then she said the words that haunt me to this day. “I suppose you’ll be plump, just like Mom.”
She meant her own mother, my Grandma Amy, the one with the comfortable lap and long braids she always wore pinned up. I adored her. She was sweet and kind and made scrumptious meals and cookies with all the good stuff. And yes, she was plump
My mother, to the contrary, was thin, only topping 100 pounds, she boasted, twice in her life. “And,” she would chuckle, “both times, I had a girl.” I too was skinny, though my earliest photos show a three- and four-year-old with a bit of baby fat. Evidently, I’d already absorbed her message before it was aimed at me, watching Mom fix a tiny breakfast and lunch for herself, hearing her announce her latest scanty weigh-in, witnessing her eyeing the mirror–that sideways view with her hand over her flat stomach.
Mine was nearly concave. The summer I escaped my violent husband and fled to my childhood home, seeking refuge to make agonizing decisions about him and my own two kids, she observed me as I finished a carton of yogurt. “That’s your lunch?” she asked, half concerned, half angry. Yes, Mom, I thought but did not say. You taught me well.
Monica, seated alone at a tiny table in the darkly lit bistro, shot a discreet glance at the young couple being seated too close for comfort at the table next to hers. The couple had barely sat down when, without a word, they took out their phones, pausing only to order.
Monica had seen a lot in her 60-odd years, but nothing bothered her more than two young people wasting the best years of their lives staring at tiny screens. When she was their age couples kissed on street corners, park benches, and in dark corners of restaurants, wrapped so tightly in a cocoon of love and desire that the world around them ceased to exist. She remembered giggling as she ran a slender stockinged foot up Roman’s leg under the table in a packed restaurant. When did romance die? she thought.
Ironically, the room was romantically lit. But too busy texting, reading, and playing games, no one noticed. The four people who weren’t glued to glowing screens were her age. Her reverie was interrupted when the young man rose and left the table. His wife (Monica always looked for wedding rings) didn’t even notice. Unable to keep quiet, Monica leaned towards the young woman and nodded at her phone. “Instagram or Facebook? My daughter dumped Facebook when I joined,” she said, laughing.
“It’s just a romance novel,” the young woman said. “Duke or Viscount?” Monica asked. “Viscount,” the young woman answered. Monica held up her book. On the cover, a blond hunk carried a beautiful woman in a low-cut gown in his arms. “Duke,” she said. “Don’t you just love romance?”
The young woman smiled and turned back to her phone, but Monica was now reading a passage out loud, “His kiss was deep and lush and when he pulled back he had a wicked grin on his face.” She winked. “Don’t you just love wicked grins?” The young woman opened her mouth to answer, but Monica was staring at something, her eyes soft. The young woman followed her gaze.
Across the restaurant, her husband was in an animated conversation. Tall with broad shoulders, dark hair, and a brilliant smile, he was gorgeous. When he brushed a lock of hair from his forehead Monica sighed audibly.
“Your husband would give a duke or viscount a run for his money,” she said. The young woman tilted her head and studied him. Then she saw him—really saw him—as if for the very first time.
When he returned to the table he reached for his phone. The young woman grabbed it and threw it into her bag along with hers. Then staring into his stunning blue eyes, she leaned across the table and kissed him. The server appeared with their food and without breaking eye contact with his wife, the young man asked for two take-out boxes.
Monica returned to her book, a wicked smile on her face.
Lightning Can Strike Twice
“Von, how much longer are you going to take this?” Those words struck me numb. Until then, I had not realized that others, especially our local Highway Patrol officer, knew the hell I was going through. My husband, dealing with mental-health issues, could not hold a job and took his anger and frustration out on the children and me.
At age 29, I was the “bread-winner.” I had four children under the age of 10, and I worked every part-time job I could while also striving to complete my college education. Often, I would take my three-year-old son with me to college because I could not afford a sitter. He was with me, strapped into his car seat, when a tire on my old car blew out on a tight curve on a mountain road. Crying with fear, I struggled to change that bald tire with one that was just as bald when a young Patrol officer drove up behind me, turned on flashers, and helped me change the tire. As I stood up to thank him, he looked at me with such compassion that I broke down and sobbed. That is when he said those fateful words. I did not know he even knew my name.
After arriving at our house that had no running water or flush toilet, I fell onto the bed and cried. I was doing everything I knew to keep my family together, and no, I could not take it much longer. I had to make plans. I had no real skills, and I had been struggling to complete my college education for years. How could I ever hope to get a job that would pay enough to allow me to divorce my husband and support myself and my children?
Lightning was about to strike again. One of my part-time jobs was to stuff ads into newspapers at the local weekly. One night, as other women and I stood around the table inserting ads and singing old campfire songs in camaraderie, the production editor entered and asked, “Can any of you girls type?” I did not hesitate. I raised my hand and yelled, “Yes!”
The job was to learn how to set type on the new cold-type computer. The monitor-less computer was to replace the old Linotype. At first the work was difficult. Every instruction I input had to have an instruction to end that function—toggle on, toggle off—with no monitor to show if I had done it correctly. My memory improved tremendously.
I learned and knew that by doing so I had an opportunity at a career as a typesetter. Three years later, I was divorced, owned my home, and my children were safe. Thirty years later, I retired as a supervisory editor for a military journal. Unfortunately, the young patrol officer who helped me that day lost his life while trying to rescue people in the path of a devastating flood in that same ruthless canyon.
The Sun Speaks, photo by Merry Song
I Packed Up the Skulls and Put Them Away Because
For the embattled/ there is no place/ that cannot be/ home/ nor is. Audre Lorde wrote and intoned, not from the podium, but from the page. It was too quiet to sleep. It was 1981 when I read it, and snot was running down my nose. I read it again and again before I typed it, pinned it to the cork board above my Smith-Corona Selectric, and wasn’t alone.
I wanted she-who-was-the-one, and she was not moving–to the Upper West Side of New York or anywhere. I loved her and she would not come East. So I moved to Tiny-town, Utah, where my lover, Anna, and I kept to ourselves and drank too much, except on the nights when we went down to the white wood bar for the dart tournament. We won half the time, took home the six-pack prize, and left behind the hunter-stare from one of the whacked-outs, who kept his distance because Anna was a good shot and I was the unknown with a box cutter in my front pocket.
I loved her. I wept. I couldn’t sleep. Every car on the gravel road could be one of three neighbors or someone lost or someone. This was home. We hiked. I couldn’t breathe. We fished. This would never be home. That year, instead of writing analysis-paralysis journal entries, I wrote letters about making love while a lynx fit paws in footed snow; wrote notes while pine needles picked the teeth of the wind. I wrote poems about feral cats and Scotch, about live bait and dying. I read Audre’s quote four times a day.
For the embattled, I read and went back to the poem. In the text I saw the stanza began My children play with skulls/ and remember and I stopped crying. How did she know I played with skulls?
In August 1963, I received a letter from my friend Peter. He was at a boys’ camp in northern Ontario all summer. “I am attracted to boys because their bodies are like mine,” he wrote. That single sentence jolted me out of my small-town complacence. What was Peter talking about? I didn’t understand.
As a thirteen-year-old girl, I was beginning to experience the thrill of male attraction. Peter was supposed to be attracted to girls. He wasn’t. In bright blue ink, Peter told me his different truth. Peter and I lived in a world in which girls loved boys and boys loved girls. Or so I thought. Instead, Peter wrote that he lived in a different world. He felt safe sharing his personal information with me. His frank words changed my understanding of human sexuality forever.
Peter was fourteen. Maybe our ages made a difference. That wasn’t my issue. My issue was Peter’s gender. He’d explained why he found members of his own gender appealing. He didn’t defend or question his feelings. Curiously, his statement made sense. His attraction to boys was valid, just unexpected. I could see Peter’s tall, slim frame, his face handsome in a reserved manner. He wasn’t popular, but he was attractive. If I’d been writing a book, I would have written that “a shock of brunette hair fell over his angular face ….” I imagined him in a French movie or speaking at a literary event, perhaps reading a story that was too arcane for me to understand.
Peter and I met in sixth grade. He wrote notes to me, handing them across the aisle in social studies class. His notes weren’t about love. He wasn’t interested in me sexually. Instead, he pondered the joys and agonies of growing up in a small traditional town, a town that stifled you, where everyone followed the same path and went to church on Sunday. His ideas interested me. He wanted to talk on the telephone. I gave him my phone number. We talked after dinner. If he had a father, I heard nothing about him. We became friends.
I discussed Peter’s fondness for boys with my parents. “Perfectly normal,” they assured me. “He’s a homosexual.” I had never heard that word. My father, a psychiatrist at the university’s medical school, gave me the Kinsey report to read. It described statistical characteristics of homosexuals within the general population. Ten percent of the population is homosexual, the study said. My mother told me about the homosexual women she had known when she was a nurse in London during World War II. “They’d creep into each other’s beds after lights out,” she said. Our town in southern Ontario was conservative by 1960s standards, but the influence of its large university attracted free-thinking academics like my parents.
My family moved away to a larger, more cosmopolitan city when I turned fifteen. Two years later, Peter committed suicide. Despite being an excellent swimmer, he drowned himself in Lake Ontario.
Sitting in the sanctuary of the synagogue I belong to during a religious school service, I could hardly believe my ears. How many times in my life had I heard this word said, proclaimed, prayed? Why, on this day, did this word strike me as containing a new meaning, seemingly out of the blue? The cantor leading the service inquired of the young students, “What does the Hebrew word “Shema” mean?” A young boy in the front row very quietly said, “Listen.” Va-voom! A lightning strike!
In my day, we were taught that “Shema” means “hear.” Of course, I had known that “listen” could be substituted—after all, didn’t they mean the same thing?—but “hear” is what I’d been told was the first word of my religion’s “ancient watchword of our people.” “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Suddenly, during the religious school service, I heard this most sanctified of prayers as a call not just to hear, but to listen. It brought to mind the characters that combine to make up the Chinese word “listen”: ears, eyes, heart, and undivided attention.
Tears filled my eyes at this stunning awareness, igniting some part of my spirit, which was further enlightened after I left the service to attend a women’s group brunch upstairs. Had I not neglected to read the brief description of the meeting’s speaker, I would have known beforehand the focus of her talk, and so, perhaps not been so struck by the topic and passion with which she, a radio personality, spoke of the power of hearing. She challenged us to engage in the act of hearing as deep listening to receive all imparted messages—on the radio, with others, in life itself. Included was the reminder to listen to that “still, small voice within” and to heed its call.
“Shema,” right before my eyes, ears, heart. “Shema,” forever shaping my life, each time I read, speak, pray the word. I hear it, and all words now, differently, with mindful listening. And, I invite you to do the same. Read, write, speak words, but—“Shema”—listen with every fiber of your being. It can make all the difference in your life—as it has in mine—and, I dare say, in the world, as well.
I Wish I Could Take You with Me
It’s late afternoon on August 18, 2018. My friend Sandi and I have escaped her pre-fab house and her unstable caretaker, who is out running errands, but we cannot escape her stage IV cancer. That sits with us in the car. Sandi fancies we are the movie friends Thelma and Louise, trying to outrun it all.
Fifteen minutes earlier, I’d come to show her the quilts I’d finished piecing before taking them to the machine quilter. She’d started them for her son and grandson but was too sick to finish them. As I was leaving, she said, “Wait, I’m coming with you.”
A dazzling sun hangs in a spacious cloudless sky. I wear sunglasses because the tinted windows in my van aren’t dark enough to subdue the afternoon’s harsh glare. I don’t ask if I’m Thelma or Louise – I’ve never seen the movie – but my sunglasses are similar to the ones Louise wears in the promotion stills. The movie is one of Sandi’s favorites.
Sixteen days from now Sandi will die, but today she’s full of mischief and life, if one doesn’t look too closely. She refused more chemo, so she has hair. She’s thinner, but far from frail. She’s quick with a smile and a laugh, but moves slowly.
During the drive, we joke and laugh, making light of our escape from the caretaker, whom we call Nurse Ratched.
My friend taps her perfectly manicured and sparkly-red painted nails on the console between our seats and says, “I wish I could take you with me.”
I stop talking. Silence mingles with the cold air blowing from the vents on the dash.
I have no words. But within one beat of my heart, I know that her words are the most profound expression of love I’ve ever received. And, I have no words.
She speaks first. “But your husband wouldn’t like it.”
Still, no words.
We both know she doesn’t want me to die.
I truly believe she has said this to no one else. Yet, I have no words.
Ordinary chitchat begins again.
After dropping off her quilts, we return to her home. The caretaker is back, silently seething. We left her a note, but that didn’t matter. The caretaker believes that if she controls all of Sandi’s end-of-life decisions, Sandi will live longer.
My friend settles into her easy chair. I kiss her cheek and whisper in her good ear, “I’m going to go.” The caretaker, a dark cloud, will become a thunderhead if I stay.
“That’s probably best.” Sandi whispers too.
I kiss her cheek again, and murmur, “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I love you too,” she says.
I tell myself I’ll watch Thelma and Louise after Sandi is gone, but I don’t believe I ever will. Thelma and Louise drove off a cliff together. In sixteen days, Sandi will leave without me, a Thelma without her Louise. Or perhaps a Louise without her Thelma.
I never asked her, “Which one am I?”
Breakthrough, photo by Merry Song
Peanut Butter Epiphany
He was playing a Greek god the first time I saw him. Tall, trim and blond, he stood on the college theater stage in a short toga that he wore really well. I was on the team creating stage props for the play. Shortly after rehearsal someone introduced us. Small wonder he was playing a god; I would soon learn he thought he was a god offstage, too.
Like many relationships, ours started out well enough; but it turned into a hideous train wreck of a marriage—a train wreck everyone saw coming but me. He was egotistical, chronically unemployed and narcissistic, an amateur actor and a professional pothead. But I was born female in Texas in the 1950s, and a woman was supposed to stand by her man. For far too long, part of me thought that if I was a good enough wife, he’d “snap out of it.” He would realize how wonderful I was; he’d get a job and become a responsible adult.
What happened was, I snapped out of it. One evening, after we’d had yet another argument, I stepped away for a walk around the block. After the heat of our San Francisco studio apartment, the cold blast of damp fog was refreshing. After 10 minutes, my anger was fading, so I wandered back to our building. Walking up the creaky stairs, hearing the muffled sounds of daily life from our neighbors, I calmly unlocked our door. And there he was with his attempt at an apology: posed naked and spread-eagled on the bed, giving me a come-hither look.
Oh, hell no.
I told him it was over. No therapy, no separation, no second chances, and no palimony for his lazy ass either. We were done. The only good thing that came out of our marriage was that no kids came out of our marriage. We divorced peaceably.
At age 35, for the first time in my adult life, I was living alone and loving my new normal, predictable lifestyle. A month or so later, I walked to my local grocery store, be-bopping along to the rock and roll coming through my headphones. I strolled the brilliantly lit aisles of the store looking for items on my grocery list. Walking down one aisle, I reflexively picked up a jar of crunchy peanut butter. It could have been electrified for the impact it had. That’s when three words hit me like a lightning strike. “I. Like. Creamy.”
We always bought crunchy peanut butter because that’s what he liked. I held that jar of peanut butter in my hand and stared at it. I was thunderstruck because I had finally realized–this is my life now. Right now, and forever, it’s all about me.
I hadn’t been expecting any epiphany, but there it was in aisle 7 of Cala Market. That was when I realized that I got to make all my decisions now–my clothes, my hair, my job, where I lived, what music I listened to and, yes, my peanut butter. I wasn’t scared or overwhelmed, though maybe I should have been. No, all I saw in that vision of my life spreading out before me was that it was going to be smooth and creamy.
Wednesday’s Coffee Klatch
We meet at the coffee shop Wednesday mornings for green tea, Dr. Pepper, hot Earl Grey.
Not coffee in this colorful shop, whose famous coffee is bitter and often burnt.
We’re here to chat, complain, comfort–each telling her story—
A storm of emotional thundering with occasional lightning strikes of
Disagreement quickly suppressed by the gentle rain of compassion.
Remind me, I say, how did we start meeting like this? “It was you,” one
says. “Remember the pandemic? How we started on Zoom?” I nod.
The stories resume, wandering from mouth to mouth, adding, editing,
Cajoling a laugh, a sense of friendship, encircling the table, surrounding these
Women whose care disseminates the clouds with the sunshine of friendship.