The Reunion


Late this afternoon, I stopped by The Arbors, an assisted living facility here in town. Pearl’s piano teacher was sitting shiva for her mom, who passed away. Today would have been her 93rd birthday.

Walking into that building for the first time in nearly 15 years brought back a kind of visceral memory: The heavy scent of air freshener; the living room with the leftover holiday decorations; the long corridor lined with numbered apartments. My Grammy, Celia — my mom’s mom, and my Grandpa Max — my dad’s father, both lived out their final years there.

Sitting in the bright, nicely furnished apartment for half hour or so was poignant; Pearl’s teacher’s friends came in one or two at a time, with food and flowers. We looked at some photos and heard a story or two recounting her mom’s exuberant spirit — stories I’ve already passed along to Mani, stories that will now live with me even though I never met the woman.

**

After I said my goodbyes, I made my way back to the lobby. But the piano in the sitting room was whispering to me, so I asked the woman at the reception desk if it would be ok for me to sit and play a song or two. “I don’t see why not,” she replied.

I didn’t even take off my coat before pulling out the bench, lifting the lid, and exposing the 88 keys I’d known my whole life. It felt like a reunion. It was a reunion.

I stuttered through George Winston’s “Thanksgiving,” a piece I learned by ear in high school and used to play with great feeling. The piano was woefully out of tune, but this did not stop me.

Next came the angst-ridden crush song I wrote for Jamie Ferguson when I was 16 (hint: “I just can’t tell if you notice me”). And then I stopped trying to remember anything by heart and did what I used to do for hours on end: I improvised. And found myself in tears.

**

When I looked up, a woman with keys around her neck was standing at the end of the baby grand. “That was beautiful,” she said. Tears were spilling down my cheeks and I could hardly catch my breath.

“This is — this was — my piano,” I managed to tell her. We introduced ourselves; her name was Tiffany.

I played this piano from the time I began begging to take lessons like my big sisters. I played Suzuki and Bartok and later Bach and Beethoven on this piano. I practiced this piano every day from age five until I quit taking lessons, sometime in high school. I was stubborn when it came to working on the hard parts. But I never stopped playing.

This piano was where I went for comfort, for solace, for expression, for fun, for a good cry.

Then I moved out and moved on.

**

Eventually, I got a piano of my own, an upright my then-husband surprised me with for our third anniversary, not a week before Aviva was born. This was the piano both of my kids learned to play on. And though my technical abilities faded with time, my love of improvising never left me.

By 2003, both of my remaining grandparents had passed away. And my parents decided to donate the baby grand to The Arbors, where it would bring joy to many elderly residents for years to come — right up until this day.

One house and three apartments later, the sad day came when the movers broke the news: They couldn’t get the piano around the turn at the top of the stairs. I cried. We moved it to my parents’ living room,  to the same nook where the baby grand used to live. Now, we have an electric keyboard the kids play; I’ve tried to sit there, but it’s just not the same.

**

It’s like that, isn’t it? The locks to memory ride with us like quiet passengers, until something turns and clicks and suddenly we are awash in emotion we didn’t see behind the door we’d forgotten was there.

I have to admit, for a hot minute part of me — something childlike and irrational — wanted to say, “I want it back! It’s mine!”

Instead, I walked away, and asked Tiffany if I might come again to play some more. “I live right up the street,” I told her.

“Anytime,” she said with a kind smile. “Anytime at all.”

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

The Art of Stopping Time

cccpIt went by so fast. I thought it would feel like forever. I thought it would be awkward. But it wasn’t at all. It was the most natural thing in the world, to meet myself there for a whole minute. To look into my own eyes in the way I would a child, or someone I love so very much. The relief of it. The tenderness of it. The way when I played with the deep furrow lines between my brows, my expression changed. From loving and kind to amused to angry to simply relaxed. I watched my pupils grow large in the dim living room. I saw the ways in which my face hasn’t changed at all since childhood, and I saw the depth in my eyes of being.

I looked into my eyes and thought about how thought had nothing to do with it. Just to be. Just to be here, with myself. That is why when the one-minute timer went off, I was startled. That was a whole minute?

As I write this, Mani has a hypnosis on – a man with the most wonderful Scottish brogue. He is talking about procrastination. He is talking about stopping time, and how long one second feels when time is stopped. He is talking about suffering, and how one minute is 60 times longer than one second, and an hour 60 times longer than one minute, and so on, and really, how long do you want to prolong your suffering?

Looking in the mirror for one minute was a bit like stopping time for me, which may explain why the timer came as a surprise. I realized just how rare it is that I stop and just see. Take one full minute to see. To just see myself or whomever it is in front of me. We avoid eye contact, at least prolonged eye contact. Culturally, it’s considered rude or even aggressive. Yet to meet someone’s eyes, especially your own, is such a gift. To stop and really just see. Not listen. Not take turns even. Just see equally – I am here, you are there, here we are.

Can you imagine if in a presidential debate, the opponents had to sit and just look at each other’s eyes for even a minute? No words, no rebuttals, no interruptions, no arguments, no evidence, no attacks, no defense. Just looking. Seeing. Two humans sitting together.

To look at myself in the mirror without words is to see my humanness. I am flawed, which is to say human. I am worn, which is to say human. I am creased and marked by time, because time does not stand still. And yet the illusion of it – that time is a thing I am bound by – that also melts away.

I don’t know what else to write. The hypnosis is ending with the words, “Wide, wide awake.” Maybe that’s it. Maybe taking a full minute to look in the mirror is a worthwhile daily practice. A way of saying, I am here. I am here and I am wide, wide awake. My eyes are deep with love and pain and care and little brown specks in the green and black pupils wide wide and awake in the dim room.

My face is my daughter’s face – this morning in the car, she said how every time an adult meets her for the first time, someone who already knows me, they exclaim how much she looks like her mother. “Sorry,” I say, faux-apologetically. But I can tell we are both ok with it.

I have this face that is timeless and not timeless. I resist the urge to look at the timer. I hear the clock on my dresser ticking. One second after another.

**

This was an unedited ten-minute freewrite in one of my current writing groups. If you’re looking to jumpstart or deepen your writing practice, join me for “What If You Knew?” (October 10-21), my next two-week group. Limited to 12 participants. More details and registration here.