Dreaming of Joe

I’ve been having bizarre dreams over the last week or so. Reaction I’m sure to our swiftly shifting sands.  Here’s one…
I was in the audience of a one person play being performed by the very brilliant, Joe Spano. So far so good. He was seated at a dining room table across from an empty chair. No idea what the play was about. Irrelevant. 
From my purview I could see that a man in white, complete with a white beret, was approaching the apron with the clear intent of joining Joe on stage. I could see this was about to happen yet felt powerless to do anything about it. Said man in white did indeed climb up onto the stage. Joe, sussing up the situation to be dangerous decided to placate the man and give over to the intruder’s  plan to speak. The man in white explained to Joe that he’d wanted to see what it was like to be a star on stage in front of a large audience. Weird, naughty, innocuous enough but there was an unconscious menace lurking in the man. Somehow Joe understood this and rather than put himself in harm’s way attempting to shut him up alone, Joe decided to let white beret man have his wish.  Whilst the unexpected guest was talking…going on about having had a toxic childhood, escalating in emotional timbre spewing forth emotional vomit…Joe was writing something on a piece of paper. Then slowly, so as not to disturb the man who was now fully engulfed in his own rage, Joe held the paper up to the audience for us to read.  “Are you really just going to sit there and do nothing?? Is this really ok with you, this…what’s going on?”  
What did it mean? Not a clue but it was disturbing even if it was nice to see Joe on stage. 
The next day as I walked blissfully to the off broadway theatre I was working in, a text message pinged. It was one sent to all our cast instructing us please to come to the building and collect our belongings as the run of our show had been cancelled. Not just for the night…for the rest of the run. That night all of Broadway was shut down for the foreseeable future.  The next day all city performances in venues 500 and up were to be closed. Within 48 hours all venues of more that 50…plus restaurants and …well, you’re living it too. I don’t have to tell you. The only thing far as I can tell that is thriving atleast in my neighborhood, are the grocery stores whose lines look like disco club cues from the 70’s. 
Looking forward, I fear for the live arts. Knowing this kind of scenario can pop up now, who will buy a museum membership or live performance subscription? Who will invest in a play without a fiscal contingency plan?  What on earth could that contingency plan look like?  At the very least the quantifying of actual need us mortals have for the live arts will be mightily put to the test. I mean, do we really need them? Will we or won’t we insist on our live entertainment once we’re past this round one of extreme peril? Will the heart and collective psyche again find a way to bring them about in a sustained continuum? 
The weather happened to have been stunning yesterday and what with distancing out of doors being an acceptable form of isolation, I took a long walk.  Normally on such a saunter I’d have passed hundreds of people. Instead, I’d be hard pressed to say I passed 60, if you don’t count the homeless. They were were out enjoying the sunshine in number. My path took me through Central Park. There, patterns were the same but greatly diminished which gave the illusion that things were going on as normal but in fact they were not.  The weekend playing fields were empty of kids and cheering parents. The number of joggers, bikers, lovers…decimated and then some.
I think things die in stages. Posters for performances are still up, there’s still an Arts and Leisure section in the Times but soon there will be no new shows to promote. Does this mean we have atleast for the moment entered anew into the Dark Ages? If so we’ll have to dig deep to rediscover why we as artists do what we do and figure out a way to do it anyway. We’ll have to keep the flame alive and find a way to continue to hold the mirror up to our flawed selves.  Find ways to tell jokes, be the bellwether, companion our common tragedies, rejoice in victories of the human heart, process for the collective the times we’re living in and ignite imaginings of a better future. These and more are the artist’s duties. 

Theatre as we know it came about at the birth of democracy. It companioned democracy’s gestation posing possible scenarios that helped form it’s founding principles. If we are moving into a new reality then isn’t theatre just as crucial now as it was in Greece 2500 years ago? We will have to decide.
In Japan the color white is symbolically reserved for death.  I think the man in white was foretelling a death of what all I cannot know….but something and it’s too soon to tell.  We’ll get through this to some kind of new normal, just as we did after 9/11.  What it will look like in the long term is anyone’s guess.  What institutions, thought patterns, social patterns, greeds and generosities will evolve in the new, only time will reveal.  Artists have a particular brand of stubborn resiliency.  If the live arts are to survive I think it will be up to it’s own community. Maybe tonight’s dreams will reveal something. I’ll let you know. 
In the meanwhile, bravo Joe.

American Citizen

Watching the news tonight I heard myself being called a lot of names I am not. “Damn commie, socialist, a do-nothing, unpatriotic, unAmerican.” On the very off chance that you dear reader see me through this lens, I’d like to introduce myself to you. Though I am a Democrat I am non of the above.

When I was 15 my parents, avid travelers, took my sister and me to Moscow. It was the height of the Cold War but Americans were permitted to travel there in extremely limited number. We were among the lucky few. Going from our world to their’s was akin to entering into a black and white movie. Even a 15 year old could see the soul crushing monotony etched into Moscow faces. With no competitive commerce, no possibilities for new anything on anyone’s horizons, individual expression and entrepreneurial spirit that are so much a part of the free world had been sucked into a black hole. I suffer no illusions about what life could become for the human spirit under a communist or socialist system that allows few freedoms. I had similar impressions in Beijing in the mid 80’s when I got to go there on a black market visa. 

I’ve since had the chance to return to both of those magnificent capitols over the last decade which though they have challenges (don’t we all), now thrive. Judging by the ebullience of their 21st century citizens, the former down trodden-ness had nothing to do with them but rather with the repressive systems under which they had lived. 

I am not a do-nothing. I contribute, work, work hard, ok..play hard too, I stay relatively up to date with trends, news, world events, new books. I chase facts, not doggedly but I rely on a compilation of accredited news sources through which I form my own opinion. I give back, I enlist and yes I could and should certainly do a good deal more than I do. 

I am patriotic. Having been raised overseas I got to experience first hand the envy with which parts of the world used to eye us.  Because we did not experience America tangibly in our daily walk we were free to know it as an idea, an ideal even, a dreamscape…the land where you really could become whatever and whomever you aspired to be. For many years I attended the American School in Japan. Our student body boasted 32 nationalities at the time and countless spiritual disciplines. As a community we were living proof of the best of America’s intent to welcome all and to cherish the ability to live harmoniously with persons of all faiths.  The can do, shimmering American grit with a forward pressing optimism were no doubt romanticized through distance…but every time I came to the US I felt renewed by a spirit of life’s unfettered possibilities and unlimited horizons.

I vote, I pay taxes. I pray. I do not pray against anyone. Not anyone. Not ever.

If you and I happen to be on different sides of the aisle, I bet that if we were to talk for even a short while we’d find we have a good deal more we agree on than not.  I bet we both love our families, want clean water to drink, want our kids to be able to read well and have good critical thinking skills. We’d want for them to be industrious and to contribute to their communities as part of a fuller life. I’d bet we both want decent roads, health care we can afford and would feel for a down trodden immigrant family if we ever we had the occasion to talk with one. 

Shortly after Nancy Reagan died, I read an interview with I believe it was Larry Speakes who had become Acting Press Secretary following James Brady’s injury from Hinckley’s bullet. Speakes recalled that once President Reagan was out of danger from the wound sustained, he’d been in conversation with Mrs. Reagan strategizing on who might be the best person to visit the recuperating President at his hospital bed.  A minister perhaps or close friend? Mrs Reagan insisted it be Tip O’Neill knowing that an invigorating conversation with someone with whom her husband did not see eye to eye would be the best possible tonic. The meeting came about and as Speakes was leaving the hospital room with Mrs. Reagin he’d turned around to witness Speaker O’Neill on bended knee holding the President’s hand as they, together, recited the 23rd Psalm. Now that’s beautiful, just beautiful and representative of the best of America, representative of the best in any of us. It’s also common sense behavior. When the low roads diverge there is always the high ground on which we can meet. They found it. We can too. 

Happy Birthday Pere

My sister came home from school one day years ago, proud to have learned in French class that the word for Dad, was “Pere.” Lingering at our dining room table, we laughed and giggled. In a collective family decision, it stuck. From that moment forward our beloved father was known as Pere. That and so many memories have come to mind today on what would have been Pere’s 105 birthday. He died peacefully at home a little over five years ago now, just days away from becoming a centurion. Four weeks before he took his leave, at 10am this particular morning I felt sure his passing was imminent. Wanting him to feel that he made it to his full 100, I hurriedly filled his syringe for liquids with his favorite scotch, poured a shot for myself, quickly sang Happy Birthday to him and down the hatch went our celebratory liquids. I wondered if, as he lay peacefully with his eyes closed in his little bed, he had heard the tune?  When I then noticed a tear rolling down his aged cheek, I knew he had. 

Our Pere was an American Gentleman. Self made and hard working like so many of our fathers, he had four degrees. Three in engineering…civil, mechanical and chemical with honors from University of Chicago and the forth in drama, from Yale. He never met a stranger, loved our Mother, Marshelline fiercely for 72 years of marriage and was devoted to his family. He had an ebullient optimism, an infectious joie de vivre and an insatiable enthusiasm for learning. One of his many passions was ancient history. Following this interest he took special pains to get all of us on a leisurely and glorious sail through Greece’s storied isles.  Another particular delight for him was a trip to the pyramids in Egypt. 

Reaching back even further in time, he said he would dream sometimes of being able to fly like a helicopter in a time warp over the earth witnessing volcanoes shape mountains, and glaciers cut great swathes to form valleys. He enjoyed his mind and so did we.

In my belief system and I’m bold to say experience, persons you love who have passed on visit occasionally. I don’t mean sit down for a cup of tea nice as that would be, but send signs, make their presence known. 

Two weeks before she died my darling girlfriend who had a tumor on her pineal gland (so named for its likeness to the shape of a pine cone) promised to send a sign if she could, after she died.  Six weeks later whilst walking in the New York City, there in front of me on the ground was a fully intact giant sequoia pine cone. What? “Hi, Heather.”

Mom has visited several times. Once, a month after her death, I was hiking down a hill off the trail with my beau deep in Yellowstone. Processing her absence I was crying most of the way when suddenly her scent was pungently in the air.  So certain was I that she was standing right behind me that I turned around.  There, at eye level isolated and perched atop a giant boulder was a ruby crystal about the size of a baseball. Mom’s birthstone was ruby. “Hi Mom.”

Pere has come to me far less frequently. I would say, but twice since he passed. The more memorable was on a trail we would walk whenever he visited me in LA. Pere loved to hike and had done so with frequency all his life. So, there I was alone a few months after he had died on that beautiful trail when suddenly I was surrounded by a swarm of dragonflies. I had hiked that trail easily 100 times over the years and never had even seen a dragonfly.  I cannot tell you why but I felt in the moment that it was Pere’s presence, that it was Pere accompanying me as he had done so many times, right there. “Hi, Pere.”

There have been other such experiences and ok these may not speak to you, feel free to call me a nut but these moments have been meaningful to me. I have felt both comfort from and a tangible presence of my beloveds gone before.

You will understand then that reading the paper today on his birthday, my eyes fell with some interest on an article about dragonflies. It said new research had revealed that their “neural system is more than 250 million years old.” That they had “taken to the skies long before birds were even on the evolutionary horizon” and “flew with precision much like helicopters, in bursts of speed.” Dragonflies in other words, have been around for a very long time, long enough to have witnessed geological shifts just like Pere had dreamed of being able to witness.  

I hope your beloveds gone before, visit you. I really do. It’s special. We’ll see how it feels when I get there but from today’s point of view, it has made me unafraid to die.

In the meanwhile, Happy Birthday Pere. We love you and now we know, your dream came true.  Enjoy your flight!

Sacred Spaces

There are a number of sacred spaces, for any of us I’m sure. Churches and temples, to name the obvious. Then there are canyons, mountain tops, streams and according to many indigenous cultures, any place water meets land. Cool and yes. For theatricals and those audience members who have been, as I have, blessed to experience a performer who becomes a transparency to universal Truths, the theatre can also be a sacred space.

Lately, I’ve been in rehearsals for a swell new play and as I entered the room yesterday I could not help but feel that the rehearsal room qualifies as a sacred space as well.  I’ll do my best to explain to you, why.  

Rehearsals are for the most part held in large empty, make that sterile rooms in which three tables are set up along the periphery. One smack at the center of the back wall for the director and stage manager.  Usually, to the side walls, one for props that have been assembled for the actors’ use and experimentation. A third for waters, teas, coffee, maybe some snacks and well, anything else.  Various chairs too are assembled in a row along the back for the actors, to recuperate, to study, to watch from and stay in the zone during the course of rehearsals. 

On the floor of the empty space in front of the director’s table is taped the outline of the set which is adorned with only the essential furniture bits. The participants of this journey about to get underway collectively imagine the walls, stairs, levels, etc., that the designer has envisioned for the actors to move into. For the actor that is the ocean into which we are about to dive. First day is as exciting and nerve wracking as a first day of school. Folks are bright eyed, smell good, are reasonably well groomed at the down beat of any given work day. Particularly so day one. Everyone has trained to get there, oft times for decades, and bring their best game. It’s always humbling to look around a rehearsal space at any given company and ponder the years of training, resilience and sacrifice represented in those assembled.

Barring emergency, everyone is on time and ready to work as they cross the threshold. Anticipation runs high. In the “meet and greet” there is a sense of adventure in the air as well as that crucial downbeat of trust. We begin, usually with a first read through of the play. In the beginning, after all, was the word. The first pass at those cranial vibrations, hearing your fellow actors speak their roles begins to illuminate jewels, queries, questions, mysteries that we’ll have to mine together. In this womb, the focus is all encompassing, the commitment fierce and senses heightened. Over the course of the next few weeks as we barrel toward being in front of an audience, a blending of souls takes place during which everyone brings their best selves into the room. Things like gossip, negativity are shut out. Baggage, in other words, stays outside. 

You work. The director observes and leads, giving insightful notes and guidance from an objective view ever mindful of the tale’s larger arc, themes and rhythm of language. As the play’s shape begins to take form externally, internally actors are taking as deep a dive as they possibly can to get to the truths that are our duty to articulate. That’s what we signed on to do. Dig, dive, go into the cauldron, illuminate what portion of humanity we’ve been allotted to the best of our abilities. Optimally it is a safe place, filled with respect and support in which you must strip emotionally. As if by magic if you strip, the truth in turn strips for you.  My brilliant composer friend Hugh McElyea reminds me that the word sacred shares the root of the word sacrifice whose derivation means to “make holy through loss.” I’ve seen actors fall apart emotionally in these rooms and rise, phoenix like from their own ashes.  We seek transformations, transparencies.  Just the effort counts. Atleast in my experience that for which we strive in those spaces comes but rarely, however, the ritual of being there, the effort-ing, creates pathways. This is the thing that makes it sacred. 

I’ve had the chance to spend time in rehearsal rooms as an observer in such far flung cities as Paris, Beijing, and Moscow. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have worked in rooms in Monaco, Tokyo, New York and more. There are constants. Like the inspiring beauty found in nature, the reassuringly perpetual movement of water, like an altar, those tables, chairs and taped floors become the vessel and oasis both for whatever transformation we undertake. Journeys to any sacred space involves effort. Everything from challenging physical exertions, to getting the kids dressed, fed and out the door in a Saturday or Sunday morning scramble. We arrive variously to a place where roles and rituals are respected be it for safety and/or reverence.  Disciplines of the mind, body and soul all come into play.  Sacred spaces are a place of refuge where we go at times to wrestle something through with our God. Where we call on intercessions, enlightenments, make demands from the above and from the paradise within if only we can find it. 

I have to head out now to rehearsal. What failures and discoveries await me I have yet to know but I am grateful beyond measure that this particular space, indeed these spaces, await.  We have but to make our way there…into that cauldron of the wild and sacred space. 

The Ah Ha Moment

Every now and then I’ll have a big ah ha moment…you know the kind of eureka rush when you see some lie blown out of the water by a Truth.  Call it a light bulb click or revelation but its visceral and you’re sure it has changed your life. In my case I usually can’t remember what the heck it was the next day.  I choose to believe that’s because its been absorbed it into my psyche but that may well be delusional. Whatever the case, I had one of those today but this one, maybe this one…I’ll remember.

I had a beautiful, talented, fiercely loving Mother.  She was also on occasion domineering and to a large degree, controlling. She was born in an era not given to supporting gifted women of ambition and so in her own loving way she projected her thwarted ambition onto her daughters.  Driven by this devoted love she tended to micro manage our choices, thoughts and drives.  In so doing I realized today…today!….that that need to control usurped to some degree a conversation I should’ve been having with my self from an early age of how to regulate, check in with, even know a deeper self.  It also interrupted a conversation Mom probably could have benefited from with herself.

I remember two moments when I was about five that I had with what I’ll describe as my core being. One was in prayer.  It was private, nothing more than a sure feeling that an essence of self was in direct communication with a beneficent and divine power. It was a simple moment that felt good. 

The other, soon after, was an intention that erupted from within and illuminated my five year old horizon. When I declared this newly revealed intention to Mom that I wanted “to be a ballerina” she said “No you don’t.”  “I don’t? How could I not know myself?”, I wondered. Her statement was so sure I can to this day feel the shock of hearing those words. It felt like an unmooring.  Some part of an authentic trajectory shifted that day to align instead with Mom’s. I’ve had millions of moments and eruptions since then but a healthy percentage of them have been more in discourse with Mom’s voice than with my truest inner own.

Surely we all leave untapped experiences and selves on the road as we move forward in our lives be it by choice, circumstance, loss or ignorance.  Part of the human condition.  Fair to say that if I had really wanted to become a ballerina I’d have found a way.  Also, Mom likely spared me years of disappointment as my head and rib cage are too big for a decent silhouette and my turn out is downright lousy.  What lessons though and/or open doors go undiscovered by not taking a path we think we’re meant for?  What repercussions occur when we are parented from the outside in rather than from the inside out?  What part of self remains unarticulated and silent when drowned out by even extremely well intended outside voices? What star dust goes unmanifested? In living even a portion of someone else’s, do we miss our own destiny? Can a surgical separation of false from the authentic voice be performed in the operating theatre of hindsight?

Mom had a gorgeous life.  In fact two nights before she died, Dad and I were sitting on her bed, all of us crying until Mom said, “I’ve had the best of everything and I know I have.” What a statement! That is not the sentiment of a soul who has left a lot of living on the table.  Still I mourn the talents she did not have a chance to express.  That goes for the macrocosm as well. 

It’s a new era for parenting today. A brilliant Rabbi I know teaches a course called “How to Parent the Soul of a Child”.  I cannot imagine such a line of thinking to have been popular during my early years.  People were too busy just trying to rebuild shattered lives and communities in a post WWII world.   In the free world though it is an active pursuit on today’s frontier and I suppose it’s never ever too late to parent the soul of the inner child.

Hey, Ballerina(s)! I’m coming for you!

New Year’s Day, 2020

I pray. I meditate. Not that I do either well mind you but both are a part of the rhythms of my life. I’ve seen prayer work, really work. One miracle I feel I was privileged to witness was when my friend’s young son was suddenly stricken with spinal meningitis. The prognosis was permanent brain damage, deafness and most likely death within 24 hours. In the terrifying swirl of the emergency a nurse on the case grabbed my quaking girlfriend and said if she was the praying kind to send word out to all she knew to drop to their knees. We did. Within 24 hours her child was not dead, nor deaf, nor as it turned out damaged in any way. Today he is a thriving and brilliant adult.  His grandmother said that during the course of her fervent prayer she had seen the face of Jesus hovering over her grandbaby in the ICU. Those are the facts. Call it what you will.

One time in prayer, deeply I suppose, I had what must’ve been an out of body moment as suddenly I was aware that I was hovering somewhere near the ceiling looking back down at my body. That was fun.

I like to ask people how they pray? My favorite reply came from a Texas matron, a practicing Christian. In her rich drawl, she said, “Oh that’s easy honey. I get on my knees, look up and holler, ‘Do something!’ ”  

I asked a Chinese painter friend the same question and with unabashed glee he answered, “Oh Lindy! All you have to do is cast your boomerang into the infinite paradise inside you. It always returns with some heavenly inspiration from the Universe. Whoopie! Ole!” (For those of you reading this who knew him, you will recognize the very brilliantly gifted Gerard D’A Henderson.)

I pray for my friends and family. I’m grateful that some of them pray for me. My hobbled together belief system leads me to feel that knowing even for a moment that a person is precious, has a shimmering soul, that they are connected to the Universe, to the great Unknown has a beneficent effect.

As my Mother drew her last breath I felt a moment of euphoria unlike any I’ve ever experienced.  I was aware of grinning ear to ear, of saying “WOW” out loud three times and of seeing a beautiful yellow, white and amber plume exit her third eye. I understood this to be her essence departing. No one else present in that sacred, intimate circle of love saw it so I cannot say I saw it with my eyes. I’d read about the term “spiritual senses” and eventually came to understand that that must be what allowed me to have had that experience. On one level it was death but what I witnessed more profoundly in that moment was a transition and it changed my sense of spirituality, forever.  Thanks Mom.

This morning, January 1, 2020 I woke up under the stars at about 5am. The canopy was on glorious display this moonless morning. No wind, no birds, just still splendor. It was easy to pray.  In meditation I have that sense of dropping down into the sacred within.  Somehow though, in my feeble Christian practice, the search for the divine presence has always involved a yearning upwards, a reach outwards.  This morning for the first time when I said “Our Father who art in heaven” I did not think of heaven as being up or out there somewhere but rather inside, in that place usually sought in mu meditations. Continuing the Lord’s Prayer in that framing brought new resonance. 

The sun is up now, this New Year’s Day is bright and blue. I’m lucky enough to be looking out over the Pacific Ocean through a lacing of palm trees. Birdies are in symphony and a distant cock continues to crow us all awake. 

I feel fortunate to be living in a time when the wisdom of so many is available to fuel an ongoing exploration of the arena of prayer and meditative journeys.  To list the prophets, Christian Science, scientists, Deepak Chopra, Joseph Campbell, Pima Chodrin, Dalai Lama, gurus ad infinitum, George Mumford, Rumi and the remarkable Rabbi Mordecai Finley is but to barely scratch the surface. 

My prayer to the best of my ability today is for all of us to know as deep a sense of peace as possible and for that to translate into actions both small and large. It’s for the protection of our beautiful planet and all the wonders she holds.  It’s for active compassion as we begin together our new roaring 20’s. Happy New Year. Here we go!

Winter Solstice

Several snowy winters ago my parents, my young son and I drove up to the mountains to ski for a few days just before Christmas. It was a merry time filled with days on the slopes and fireside chats after dinner over hot chocolate.  It was pretty much the picture postcard it sounds like. Nearing Christmas, on the Winter Solstice, we ended the holiday a few hours earlier than planned on account of a storm that was about to blow in. The car was packed, blue skies above, all was well as we set off.  We took the scenic back roads, one of my most favorite drives in the world, one that includes two majestic mountain passes and high altitude plains that have never looked the same twice. Most times I stop enroute in the village of Florissant to visit my pal Celinda, a Native America medicine woman. She lives in the middle of a beautiful, forest encircled meadow in a large pink Victorian home that boasts one of Kit Carson’s tiny winter log cabins out back. I called ahead asking if we could stop in for a quick visit and with her usual generosity, Celinda gave the go ahead, instructing us to “Just come on in” when we arrived. What she didn’t mention is that there would be ceremony going on in her home that night for the Winter Solstice. 

As we barreled along singing carols through the mountain passes down to Florissant, we noticed a few puffy clouds starting to form, then a flurry. Radio weather reports grew alarming and we agreed we’d make only the briefest of stops in order to make the final thirty minutes home in safety. We arrived and walked on in as we’d been instructed to do only to see a sea of shoes at her entry and a large circle of people seated on her living room floor.  Uh oh. Ceremony and once in the room there was no way out. We took our shoes off and joined the circle.

Songs ensued, chants and prayers. My parents well into their 80’s had always had a keen appreciation for the new, so they went easily with the flow. My eight year old, flexible by nature, was used by then to new settings even if he did turn lime green after a puff on the pipe that was being passed around the circle.  As the wind began to howl outside, we were guided into a period of meditative silence after which each participant shared what they’d seen in their meditation.  This was quite intimidating as speakers before us had had glorious visions. One had even seen a white bull.  All I had done was entertain flights of fancy about a disastrous drive home in the now nearly cacophonous blizzard. Mom spoke. Aided perhaps by the few shots of whiskey she’d been enjoying in the back seat on the drive thus far she waxed poetical about her time in Cuba during the 50’s. How this tied into the Winter Solstice Ceremony remains a mystery.  Dad was next. Being the oldest member in the circle everyone looked to him with great reverence. He did not disappoint. He said he had thought of his Mother in the silence and how grateful he remained for her loving nature.  This met with a round of approving “Ho’s”, a sign of respect and acknowledgment.  Lucius too did well speaking of how much he enjoyed the beauty of winter mountains. I muttered something hastily thinking surely now we could make an exit.

Nope. It was time to eat and we had to stay. Everyone, except us had brought a delicious dish to share.  Jolly conversation ensued as each guest filled their plates high, the vittles a promise of bounty in the heart of darkness. Strategizing on how we could eat and run we soon learned we could not have a bite until the ancestors had been fed. What this meant exactly became clear when Dad was told that as he was the eldest, he would have the honor of performing this ceremony. This entailed his bundling up, being escorted by a member of the tribe out into the cold with a specially prepared plate and depositing the food at the base of an ancient tree.  As the door opened and a whoosh of snow blew in I wondered if we’d ever see my ever willing Dad again.  We stood in silence as the ritual outdoors was performed. I was not prepared exactly for the image of the abominable snowman that came back through the door for it was complete with a montage of windblown food now securely plastered to Dad’s snow encrusted face and chest. Apparently the ancestors would have to go hungry that Solstice.  

We gulped our food, hugs all around and bolted to our car. Quick scrape and off we set.  It took longer than usual but we did make it home safely, blizzard not withstanding.

I’m the eldest now and the mantle of my elders rests on my shoulders…some days more easily than others. I hear my parent’s merry voices when I drive those passes no matter what the season and on winter solstice nights I find a tree under which to place something from my bounty in the heart of darkness.

Christmas Oranges

A favorite seasonal tradition has been to sit at my kitchen table and decorate fresh oranges with whole cloves in patterned designs. The haphazard clove zig zags would fail the Martha Stewart standard by a long shot but the time spent with this Christmas handcraft has afforded soulful, oft times revealing hours of conversations with friends and family who have joined in the ritual. Somehow that relaxed and meditative setting has allowed for an opening into deeper reflections that have usually ended up being framed within the spirit of gratitude for things past, for the strength even difficult events had built. Perhaps the sweet scent of orange and clove can be blamed for that.

One of my favorite such gatherings took place repeatedly over several years, when my son was growing up. Our neighbor’s son would come over with his nanny, Rosa, to play most evenings.  Thus it was that Rosa, my helper Faviola and I would sit and work on our oranges as the little ones ran around the living room. If memory serves, the first year we did this the boys were four and in a cave man tribal phase in which they found it necessary to strip down to their skivvies and growl from behind the sofas at each other before they gave chase. Their activities morphed eventually through the years into simple tag and talking about the beauty, Murphy next door on whom they both had crushes. Their tribal exercises apparently had worked because neither perceived any potential complication at all in being smitten with the same girl. I digress.

One year I remember Rosa spoke in cathartic detail of an abusive marriage from which she had eventually escaped. She had had to overcome huge financial challenges whilst raising her family and had done so through grit, resilience and love.  As we pierced our oranges I was struck by the dignity and elegance of this wonderful woman. To my mind the dross and chaff of her spirit had been replaced with gold and wheat.

Faviola’s story was quite different. She had hailed from Honduras. Her father had been assassinated and a few years after that she and her seven siblings had been separated and sent to live with an array of relatives when their Mother had died of cancer. She spoke of how it felt to be orphaned at eight. How the playfulness of her then self had balanced her sorrow. How it was not until she was twenty that she really mourned. It was then that she longed for a Mother’s unconditional love and support whilst she embarked on a brand new life, living as a citizen in the US.

Another time a friend spoke gingerly of having been abused as a child.  As if transfixed by a campfire, she never took her gaze off the oranges as she spoke. Out poured her tragic memories but by tale’s end she had made it patently obvious that she was not victim of circumstance but rather victor. 

Oranges and cloves. Who knew so simple an act could unearth so much? Looking back, even the little boys running around seemed part of a DNA hard wired ritual what with women folk tending to hand crafts and men folk, tiny though they were, gearing up for some distant battle. I hold these and many other holiday talks dear to my heart. They’re threads of lives woven, now inextricably, into my own and I’m the richer for it. Oranges and cloves. Give it a try.

In Search of Gloves

Heads up. This will make me sound like an old fogey.

With the season’s chill on its way in, I was on a mission last week to get a new pair of leather gloves.  I’d decided to stray from my usual black and go for something hip, something wild. Teal! Purple! I had in my mind’s eye exactly where I would go…one of the last remaining flagship stores in the city, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the long case in the glove department that I knew would house a plethora of tempting choices.  I also had in my mind’s eye the stately woman behind said counter who would undoubtedly ask, “May I help you Madame?”  I would follow my shopping spree by dropping into St. Pat’s next door for a contemplative several minutes as if in compensation to my indulgence.  Happy with anticipation I walked through Central Park replete with autumn colors, to my destination.

Leaving the throng of 5th Avenue, pushing the heavy, ornate metal framed entry doors, I thought of Mom. Going to Saks had been something we’d done together on special occasions throughout my childhood.  I could almost feel my little girl hand in hers as I entered it’s hallowed halls.  Oh how she would have loved this outing and oh boy did she ever have a nose for bargains. Miss you Mom.

I walked past the perfumes and purses to where I knew the gloves would be but did not find them. I asked a staff member to direct me and she casually tossed a nod over to the far corner.  This did not bode well.  There, practically squeezed out by wildly patterned hosiery, was a tiny table on which sat four short stacks of leather gloves. Brown, gray, black and neon red.  On a nearby table was a healthy display of fingerless, Fagin knit gloves covered in cheap glitter.  I stood sort of Rip Van Winkle like in this ruin of a department. Gloveless, I went into St. Pat’s for solace.  Calmed and exiting I remembered that Nordstom’s had just opened a new store only a few blocks away. I could go there! With a renewed spring in my step, off I went.  Approaching the store you could see bright lights framing its entry as if something to aim for at the end of a tunnel.  I entered. “Hey! How ya doing?” shouted a bouncy someone. “Cute coat!” hollered an overly friendly ‘nother.  It was the only way their voices could be heard over the DJ’s music. Make that live DJ and next to his elaborate set up was a Chippendale’s worthy bartender offering drinks as he danced with enthusiastic innuendo, to the thumping beat.  When a third person shouted, “Whatcha lookin for?”, I realized these heretofore friendly fellow customers were in fact the staff.  So much for “May I help you, Madame?”  When I mimed gloves, she replied with a boisterous “Cool!” and pointed further down the aisle.  There I found a pile of ill organized gloves, few of them leather, most of them Lord help me, gortex.  I could feel a mild sense of panic start to take over in this perfect storm of cacophonous music, frantic customers in desperate need of a purchase fix and salespersons’ force fed glee. I’d been sucked through some wormhole into a virtual world of Selfie-ism that had exploded into 3D reality.  Calling on memories of exiting crowded disco floors in the 70’s, I did an about face and headed for the door. Once again gloveless, I escaped the clutches of immediate gratification and mad hatter cheer to what by comparison, was the bucolic calm of Broadway at rush hour. 

I get, really get for the first time the total appeal of buying on Amazon, which I am resigned to do.  I’ll get my gloves in due time and I’m sure I’ll enjoy them.  I feel, however, for the shoppers who will never have the memory of privilege that I hold of hearing your own thoughts in a beautiful department store with an elegant woman who asks “May I help you, Madame?”

Hong Kong

I turned on the news this morning to a live report from a breathless and clearly brave journalist in the maelstrom of a violent pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. Donning tear gas masks, she and her crew stayed the course to bring us the latest as Molotov cocktails landed within stone’s throw and students armed with umbrellas yelled back at fully armed riot police.  The reporter who against all odds continued to speak in whole sentences as she and her crew bolted for safety, said that over the past six months of almost daily protests the students largely remained hopeful that the US government would speak out in favor of their cries for democracy.  

I’ve not been to Hong Kong in years but as these dramatic and heartbreaking images unfolded on the television, memories of the colonial Hong Kong I knew throughout my childhood flooded my mind’s eye. Christmas days often found my family and me swimming in Repulse Bay.  On these holidays after dim sum breakfasts, we’d take in the sea air as we rode the Star Ferry across the harbor, enjoy Peking Duck lunches afloat a friend’s fanciful junk, lounge over scented teas at the elegant Peninsula Hotel and because comfortable, western style shoes were not available in the city in which we lived, we’d get fitted for new tailor made shoes at Lee Kee Boot.  Oh how the name “Lee Kee Boot” would make Dad laugh.  There was a heady ambrosia of the best of British and Chinese culture melding in Hong Kong’s architecture, fashion, porcelains and cuisine. There was of course the sharp contrast of privilege versus extreme poverty. Everywhere but everywhere there was a sense of the thriving industriousness of her people. Hong Kong existed as a kind of miracle in the shadow of the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution in full swing…but it existed and its blended distillation of East meets West sophistication was intoxicating. 

During the early 80’s, Dad helmed the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. During his tenure, my parent’s residence was just off Old Peak Road. It’s breathtaking view, particularly at night, of the harbor looked like a jewelry strewn table top. At that time Hong Kong was among other things, the gateway for American businessmen with an eye on the frontier of communist China with whom we were hurtling toward normalized relations.  It was a heady time.  On one visit to my folks during their Hong Kong assignment, I went into China on a back market visa.  Dangerous, stupid but fun and perhaps the topic of a blog to come. 

I do not mean to ignore wrongs under a colonial system long gone but Hong Kong then, in many ways, represented the best of what is possible in diplomacy, democracy, compromise, mutual respect. To see it on the news in it’s current state brought tears to my eyes.  

The young people who have taken to the streets in support of democracy, need to be supported by any of us who believe in human rights, in freedom, in an open rule based economy.  The students holding China accountable to its agreement of “one nation, two systems”, deserve better than silence from America’s leadership. What does it say about us when we abandon fundamental values in favor of seeking new tariff deals? Can leaders of the free world who do not lend their voices in concern and solidarity claim to be champions of democracy. Can they in fact claim to be leaders? If we cross the Rubicon to the means justifying the ends, isn’t it just a matter of time until our already battered raft of core values sinks…in this case into the storied Hong Kong Harbor?