Shortcomings, Goings and Stories

A collection of writing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Observations on loss

I am an English teacher and I live in Italy. This work and life has made me excruciatingly happy. It has also broken the hearts of family members and friends who feel far from me and wish I would come home.

Recently I was facilitating my monthly conversation course group: There are six lovely students who meet once a month for four hours talking about everything while sitting around a table of pastry and salty treats, exploring grammar and phrasal verbs, bringing themselves to the table, but in a second (or third) language. There is a lawyer-newly-married-mom-to-be, a mountain climber and only child who is a caretaker to her elderly grandmother and parents, an engineering student who is in love with NASA, a rhythm and blues singer, a nurse from Romania, a seamstress from Hungary, and, a sometimes member who joins us for our company only, as he speaks lovely English, having been born 65 years ago in Holland. A recently retired oncologist, I told him the news about my sister, who died two months ago from pancreatic cancer.

I shared some of the moments I have experienced and talked a bit about mourning. Then, I explained that I had actually found myself marvelling at the way my sister’s body shut itself down over the two weeks after her diagnosis in which her daughter and I were at her side, waiting for her to die. Considering that I have been clinging to these poetic moments, choosing to focus upon them as opposed to the tragedy and sadness of the event, Ernest offered a simple explanation of this phenomenon, informing me that my response was an effort to protect myself from the horror of the situation.

This was not especially news to me. But it made me look back on those two weeks in a Lincoln, Nebraska hospital and later, in the hospice, searching for others who had embraced the poetry, like me. I could not think of one.

I also have clung to this. You see, it makes me different, unique, solitarily open to the artistic side of life (and death) that gives me the strength to move myself forward. Yes, the way I am absorbing this is important to me. It is EVERYTHING.

I have not been to grief counselling. After our brother committed suicide in 2000, I went to one session with my sister who was following the process with a therapist who specialised in loss. There, also, I had expressed my relief that our brother's suffering was over, rejecting the anger and abandonment my parents and sister felt, opting instead for what I considered to be a more philosophical view: every morning, I rose from bed with a new appreciation for life and the day to day moments that made up my existence. I was doing fine. I would learn from this. I would embrace life (Even more than my usual embracing!) and not take anything for granted. My brother did not want to be here anymore-could not be here anymore, but, I did and I could. That is what I hung on to. I felt cleansed after the hour in that little room with one window and a rubber plant in the corner. And, I felt better than when I had gone in.

Another friend who is in group counselling (she lost her father to heart disease last fall) was kind enough to explain the waves of grief that have since passed over me, rendering me weakened, fearful and drained: it seems these moments of grief 'spike', hitting us in the middle of a street or class or while writing a paper on the Enlightenment or, while trimming our nails (Valerie had such beautiful nail beds. I cry.). You see, we cannot mourn for 24-7. So the pain and loss spike, linger and then fade, allowing us to get on with our day or night. And, by the way, Ernest says this will most likely last for two years, comfortingly adding, that one day, I will be able to think of her with a smile.

This is fine. I can take it. I can. I CAN.

What I cannot take is the fear.

I am not afraid of anything. This is my M.O. When fear of any sort pops into my consciousness, I talk myself out of it by asking a stock list of questions, outlining the worst thing that could happen, running over all the tough times I survived, pinpointing the moments in which I arose up and out of the ashes of molestation, broken hearts, verbal and physical abuse. I am not afraid.

Now, there is something different. This December experience is starting to define me more than I would like. And the sign of this is the fear. Those little moments of self doubt that I cannot rid myself of so easily. And I hate this part.

When Scott died, I imagined the scene in the bathroom of his one bedroom apartment. He had filled the cats bowls with food and water and put out clean litter-enough to last until they discovered his body, locked in the bathroom where he had blown his head off with a pistol. Yes, I imagined that scene again and again and it disturbed me. Sometimes I would breach the topic with Valerie, just to see if she, too, had gone there. She had. Scary shit. But nothing like the scary shit I feel now...

Now I am older, closer to death. Is that it?

I talk to myself and can usually return to my centre, breathing, calming the jitters and absorbing the isolation. I take my dog in my arms and kiss his wet head-he does not seem to mind when I cry all over him. Then I pick myself up and dust myself off and return to blossoms and wind chimes and blood oranges and the smell of the rain and the lovely life I have made here.

My sister said that she was not angry, only disappointed.

I am not disappointed nor angry. I am raw. Raw again. The way I was raw in my twenties when a photograph could make me weep. I have worked many years to not feel everything all at once. Now I am working it out again.

Did death shake me up? Yes. Did it scare the hell out of me? A little. Did it give me pause? Most certainly. Was it poetic? Assuredly. Am I gonna be ok? Yeah. Meanwhile, I have camomile tea and my Chihuahua and my parents and niece and friends and work and the lovely light of February in Tuscany. And I am still here. That is something.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

In the summer of 2008

I spent the summer in GrEeNwIcH vIlLaGe in Sara's apartment on ThOmPsOn StReEt. She went to live in my rooftop aerie in Lucca.

I buzzed her bell and she let me in and carried my suitcase up 88 steps-the steep, narrow kind you find in the old tenament buildings in the CiTy. She showed me the place and put a tall, cold glass of pink lemonaid in my hand.

I sat on her bed while she gave me some instructions and then she went to sleep at her Rapper's house in Harlem before leaving for Italy the next day.

That night I dreamed that I sewed some gummy bears to a white canvas.

The next day in WaShInGtOn SqUaRe PaRk I made a film of Martin walking on his leash. We stopped by the dog run and while he was running from a pug named Arthur, he tore off a toenail. A yellow taxi took us to the nearest vet and I paid $300 for his treatment.

On the way home I stopped by the Duane Reade Drug and bought a Butterfinger. I hadn't had a Butterfinger since some time in the early 80s.

I walked every inch of MaNhAtTeN that summer and I was happy.

One night part of the ceiling fell on my head and I woke up smiling and rolled over and spooned Martin because I knew how lucky I was to be sleeping in that place under that fragile part of plaster and I understood in that minute that I was alive.

I am an artist and for me life is a work of art. Everyday I paint something of my experience. I choose the colours and the brush and the theme. Sometimes I paint angry or afraid. But mostly I paint happy, lucky and grateful.

There is a particular breeze that comes into Sara's ThOmPsOn StReEt flat and it touches everything in the most gentle way. That breeze lives inside of me.

Martin's toenail grew back and we often frequented the dog run but we never saw Arthur again. Last night I dreamed that I was sewing gummy cherries onto my shoes. Good morning.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

what i like

my name is ben and i do not like it.
the other kids in my class have normal names like treesap and lilypad and walkerpage. i am alone.

there are a lot of things i like doing and i would like to make a list:
i catch bees and tie a string to one of their legs and they fly round and round and it is funny.

there are times when i can sit for a fifteen minutes and think about how to beat the supermario

there are seven other kids in my neighbourhood and we think the park at the end of the caldesac is going to blow up so we never go there. my friend rascal has a big basement with a slippery cement floor and we go down there everyday after school and slide around playing hockey in our socks. the thick ones slide better.

i suspect (that is a word my grandmother says a lot), I suspect that if i could climb the tree in rascal's back yard faster than anybody else on my culdesac i would get a prize so i am working on that presently (she says presently, a lot, too)

ok, so that is what i like and am working on at present.

my spanish teacher says that we can have a pen pal in mexico and write emails and i think that is a good idea.

in history we are thinking about our project for the end of the year. we are working together in small groups and it is noisy.

my father sits on the covered porch at his mother's house and tells me that it is a particularly nice thing to do.

i have to go now. i am going to the grocery store with my mom. nos vemos. that is spanish language and it means that i will see you later.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

a white room

i was standing in a white room and there was a view of a world

a world where art was something and children moved in their classrooms

while music played by players of music wafts up toward the heavens where it came from

and a dog was sleeping on a white painted porch

i was dreaming of a white room and a 45 was going round and round on the turntable

outside the bells were ringing and a berry in my mouth

they were holding on to a white book and the pages were white and full of words we could not see

i was planning a white day and picked up a paintbrush

for sara

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hotel Zefania

Jerusalem, December 1985

Stephen had always been generous when it came to Georgie’s little idiosyncrasies. He lived in what he called, ‘the house of urine’, cohabitating, mostly happily, with as many as five cats after Isabella had her first and only litter. Where most people liked the idea of the cat’s inherent right to roam free, Georgie had lost two to hit and run and had decided that the rest of her kitties should stay indoors for ever and ever, amen.

He had also graciously tolerated her earthquake kits in the trunk of the car of the car and box of emergency supplies in their Southern California apartment. Her motto, ‘safety first’ followed them on their travels and kept him from doing some of the more adventurous things he most likely would have enjoyed had she not been his travelling companion.

He did not visit as much of Israel as he would have liked as she had been paralysed by the rising intifada movement during their visit to the Holy Land, nor did he venture out most nights when she was sleeping back at the hotel room for fear of her waking in worry. It was true that the climate in the Middle East was unnerving at times and they both hastened their step while passing Jerusalem city bus stops every few blocks or so, fearing booby-trapped explosives or abandoned bags that blew up during the heaviest commuter times of the day.

They were staying in Mersharim, the orthodox section of the city, in the Hotel Zefania, a family owned hostel which forbade sleeveless t-shirts, short trousers or skirts in favour of more pious attire. On the Sabbath, the place was a tomb, void of television or radio noise; the only sound being grandmother, and family matriarch, shuffling in her slippers from kitchen to dining room and back.

The streets were filled with covered ladies pushing baby carriages and devout men with or without beards, solemnly walking from place to place, dressed in long black overcoats against the harsher winds of December.

The city proper was a plethora of markets, holy grounds, halva bread stands and Georgie, Stephen, Mark and Julie often walked through the maize of labyrinthine alleys looking for new foods to try and visiting churches, synagogues and mosques in the afternoons.

They had met Mark from Wisconsin months before in front of the American Express Office across from L’Opera in Paris and becoming fast friends, had already been to the South of France, Spain, Italy and Greece together. Julie, a painter from San Francisco, had joined them on Crete and the four, agreeing to visit Israel together, had taken two long boat rides to reach Haifa, picnicking, playing cards and talking with other voyagers late into the night as the ferry of mostly young budget travellers made its way East on a dark sea. They passed bottles of Greek wine back and forth, hsaring stories and making the quick friends that travel encourages.

In Zefania they shared a room with four beds and bath. One morning Georgie and Stephen awoke to Julie and Mark making love in the next bed over.

For Georgie, no place in Israel was safe and hoping to leave soon, she had been secretly happy that the group’s wishes to work on a Kibbutz in order to stretch their money further had fallen through upon arrival. The signs warning the citizenry to keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour, abandoned bags and boxes haunted her at night and for the first time in her life, she had trouble sleeping, fixated instead on the sound of military unit practice which was taking place far from the city limits but could still be heard at night when Jerusalem was quiet in slumber.

On this particular evening, she had fallen asleep with a book in hand and awoke feeling hot, pushing off the covers, her book falling to the ground. Stephen did not stir. Jules and Mark deep in sleep.

Rising to go to the bathroom, she sat on the toilet, her hands resting on her thighs. At first she did not feel the welts on her legs, but switching the light on in the bathroom, she saw her body covered in hives- welts the size of quarters all over arms, between her fingers and toes, inside her mouth, nose and ears. She touched her scalp. It too, was covered in bumps, hot, risen fleshy areas over every inch of her skin. She stood in front of the mirror and saw that her eyes, swollen and half mast were red and irritated.

She must have uttered something aloud for after a few seconds, Stephen was there, telling her to sit down, sit down. Let me see.

He took a sheet off his bed and put it in the shower and wet it with cool water and told her to strip, then he placed it gently over her, the sheath, covering her head and going to her feet. She stood in front of him, shivering.

She climbed back into bed an hour later, the welts reduced to red splotches, and spent, curled up next to him, in the crook of his arm, she slept.

Next morning they cancelled their trip to the Dead Sea. That same day three buses from Jerusalem were blown up, triggering land mines in the road, most of the passengers seriously injured, a few, fatally.

When they finally left Jerusalem by plane, Georgie was taken aside and interrogated for over half an hour by Israeli police. Stephen said it was because she was ‘too polite’ and, so, inspired mistrust.

Mark, out of money, went back to the States. Jules accepted their invitation onward to India.

They flew back to Greece and bought their tickets for Bangladesh.

A few years later, Stateside, Julie would write a letter to Ste and Georgie inviting them to her wedding in Yosemite to Arnd, Zefania’s young, German night watchman and they flew up to Northern California and stayed the night with the newly married couple in their cabin in the middle of the Sequoias, marvelling over wine and memories, the strange and long journey that had carried them many miles away from where they had first met.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


chiaroscuro. she could not move her hands and so could not paint.

that is when the visions started. stars would bang around inside of her head, bursting, the light coming from each one travelled toward the earth leaving its mark upon where it fell. her body was light and it would rise up, up, up into a cloud covered sky and looking down, she saw where the lit drawings lay.

she painted inside her brain like the blue ceilinged chapels you find on greek islands. more stars and more light. Raw siena danced with it's cousin, burnt siena, when umber would cut in, warm palets hurdling their way onto her mind's canvas.

phthalo blue mixed with dioxazine violet while cadmium yellow middle waited on the sidelines with cadmium red and viridian green. lamp black carved out a corner of payne's grey matter. but they were no match for crimson or indian yellow or cobalt blue.

her landscapes were textured and when the light of her thoughts hit the forms she marveled at the way the lines vibrated and pulsed with her heartbeat. why should she lift a brush when she could paint like this?

they came by to offer condolescences and she would nod to let them know she heard and understood. the chair she lived in and the dog at her feet werel too much for most and they would not, could not stay very long.

when she was alone with her paint she agonised the limitations of early work. she did stand at easel seven or ten or twelve hours a day. how could she have missed the glory that now danced in her head? these were the best paintings she had ever, would ever paint!

she died on a sunday morning, her dog at her side. when the postman came next day to find the door was not ajar he called the building super and when they opened the door the dog came to greet them, leading them back to her.

she was sitting upright. there was a vase of rinunculas of the palest pink on the table to her left. the window was open and a breeze came through and pushed some papers around on the desk.

there was the trace of a smile, her hands turned upward in prayer on her lap. she was wearing her painter's smock, and there was cadmium red on one of the pockets, too.

the package the postman brought on monday was left outside the front door where he had dropped it and one of the paramedics stepped on it as he wheeled her out to the waiting attendant. the address read: margaret (daisy!) winthrop, 109 third street, new york, ny 10012.

later when some friends got together to celebrate her painter's life, they pushed themselves into a small apartment over in east village and drank until the sun came up and then they went home to their canvas and keyboard and clarinet and dancing shoes. the dancer thought about her feet and the writer thought about his eyes and the clarinet player thought about her lip and the painters? they thought about daisy's hands.

The nurse left work at five o'clock.

The nurse left work at five o’clock. And as she walked she thought of what he’d said.

“I never walked a silver line or ran a race or fished. No woman in a nice red dress ever asked me for a light. There was nothin’ in my life like what I saw in the movies.”

Mr. Ralph was kindly and old. Older than God. He sat up on the side of the bed against the wishes of his doctor. He tried to roll his own cigarettes under the covers leaning conspicuously to the right of the bed toward the light of the window that looked out over a rather sad alley, the dust coming up when the rains were late or did not come at all. She knew what he was doing, but she didn’t have the heart to take the tobacco away. She waited instead for the night nurse to discover the curly brown threads decorating his top sheet. He often fell asleep mid role, his ancient fingers letting go, the cylinder dropping before he had the chance to put his dry tongue to the paper.

Mr. Ralph must have seen a lot of movies. He talked about them all the time. He talked about the ladies and the nice ‘mans’ and the worn velvet seats where he and his brother sat on Saturday afternoons and Wednesday afternoons.

Once she brought him a collection of DVDs from the library- Rudolph Valentino’s painted eyes gracing the cover. Mr. Ralph sat for a long while looking at the box and, when he raised his face to her, he said, “I never saw a sea of sand or drank a glass of fancy wine. But Rudy danced with girls in satin dresses, he did.”

So, she asked him, “Mr. Ralph, if you didn’t do any of those things, tell me what you did do, sir?”

He closed his eyes and smiled a little smile. He did not speak.

The highway outside of town ran east to west and invited very few to stop off. There wasn’t a museum or a concert hall. Folks had to go to the bigger towns up north for those things. She passed the same places every single day to and from the hospital- the primary school and two churches, one protestant and the other grander, Catholic one and a small, more expensive grocer before she got to the supermarket where her days usually ended.

On that particular night on the way home she stopped off to pick up a roast chicken which she ate in front of the evening news, then fell to sleep with a collection of Agatha Christie stories.


About Me

My photo
That's my fabulous dog, Martin, who models the 'downward-facing-dog'yoga posture for me each and every miraculous day. He is a great companion, stellar traveler and all-around lovebug.