The town I grew up in, you were either Irish or Italian or Irrelevant. I fit that third category, and grew up feeling Catholics belonged to an exclusive club I could never join. I felt this most keenly watching my Catholic friends at their First Holy Communions and later, their Confirmations. Then, there were cool things like Confession, where the priest would let you off the hook for pretty much anything if you just said some prayers you’d already memorized and could rattle off at lightning speed, and also weekly Communion, where you got to drink a thimbleful of wine and eat a wafer, both of which sounded delicious.
I was Protestant. Our denomination prided itself on drab simplicity. My Confirmation consisted of a research paper on Martin Luther, which I read aloud to a somber congregation before the minister handed me a cloth Bible with my name stamped on the cover.
For some reason, for me, Ash Wednesday inspired the most envy. Every year, it served as an annual reminder of my outsider status. I was one of the handful of kids walking around school without a black mark on my forehead. How I longed for it! Overall, I was relieved I didn’t have to give anything up for Lent, like my friends who gave up dessert, but there were some Ash Wednesdays when I’d have gladly given up anything for that sooty badge of belonging.
Eventually, I grew up and moved away to New York City, and the envy Ash Wednesday stirred in me had faded. One cold March day when I was in my early twenties, I was with my friend Katie. A group of parochial school girls with smudges on their foreheads passed us on the sidewalk. “Shit,” she said. “It’s Ash Wednesday. I totally forgot.” We happened to be near St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “Do you mind if I run in and get ashes? It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” I replied. In fact, I was excited to have this mysterious process demystified.
I followed her into the cavernous sanctuary. She got in line to receive her ashes.
“What do you do when you get up to the priest?” I asked.
“Nothing. Kneel. He just makes the sign of the cross on your forehead.”
I had a mind-blowing thought. If I didn’t have to know the secret handshake or password or show some kind of proof that I was Catholic, what was stopping me? “Can I get ashes, too?”
Katie shrugged. “I guess.”
This was my childhood dream come true! I stood behind Katie as we made our way to the front of the church. Following her example, I knelt, and the priest put his fingers to my forehead. The elation I felt at being marked was indescribable. On some level, I knew I was an imposter, but I was too happy to care.
I soon found out New York City is not Hamden, Connecticut. I was not part of the smudged majority. Instead, the ashes caused people to stare. A few told me that I had something on my forehead, and I might want to check a mirror.
I think it says something about my personality that, rather than hedonistic Mardi Gras, I chose to celebrate secularly ascetic Ash Wednesday. Something in me craves the mark of self-denial and penance, not the colored beads and hangover. I still remember how fulfilled I felt that day.
That night, I remember looking in the mirror and smiling at the dark patch on my forehead. If only Nora O’Keefe and Maria Petrucci could see me now! Then, I washed my face and had dessert. It was the best of both worlds.
Like most of us, I am besotted with/dependent upon tech devices. Certainly my life, both professional and personal, relies on them. When I was young, color televisions and push-button telephones attached to land lines defined the cutting edge. Admittedly, I am just starting my ascent of the tech learning curve, but I am genuinely in awe of what smartphones and tablets and their ilk can do.
My admiration is genuine, but there’s something troubling about tech’s hold over us, and no, I’m not going on an old lady rant about texting at the dinner table (that particular diatribe was reserved for my son Jake this past Sunday night). What bothers me is way too often, our relationship with our devices makes us incapable of fully inhabiting life experiences.
During the Oscars I saw an ad. I wasn’t paying attention as to what exact kind of device it pertained to or which company produced it (probably because I was texting or playing Words With Friends) but the gist of it was how you could be on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunrise or in a hospital delivery room during the birth of your baby looking through a screen, hand-held in front of your face, sharing it with family and friends as it is happening.
The problem with this scenario is you are focused on a screen, instead of the actual Grand Canyon or your actual baby, while your brain is racing your fingers to the next step in the process of taking the momentous event public. In the unfolding, real-time, real-life moment, your engagement centers on alphanumeric touch screens and megapixels rather than the miracle transpiring under your nose.
I am not telling you to chuck your tablet or smartphone. I’m just suggesting you occasionally put them aside and allow real life experience to seep into your soul. Breathe it in, inhabit it. Burn it into your brain. Live-streaming everything that happens to you is like placing a raft in whitewater; everything gets swept along, including the window on immediate experience, and, a bit downriver, the door to poignant memory.
Life, fully realized, requires our undivided attention. Be there. Then, share.
To not live in a place you love
To keep a job you hate
To ignore the forest
To fully grasp
To solve the puzzle
To grow accustomed
To hold grudges
To stay on the sidelines
To effectively insulate
To manage risk
To misplace wonder
To ever, ever settle.
Choosing the right outfit to wear while traveling has always struck me as a challenge, and now that I am no longer as young and cute, it’s virtually impossible. When you’re in your twenties and even thirties, you can make pajama pants and a sweatshirt work in your favor, but try that at my age and you look like you accidentally got locked out of rehab. This is a quandary, because you want to be as comfortable as possible while cramped in a plane seat or waiting at the terminal because your flight has been delayed, but you don’t want airport personnel handing you the address of the nearest shelter and advising you to move along.
I was feeling pretty good about my travel outfit last week: black yoga pants, a gray long-sleeved T-shirt and a really nice lightweight Eileen Fisher lavender sweater. On my feet I wore beige men’s Clarks because they are not only rugged but easy to pull off for security scanning. Walking to the gate, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window.
Alarmed, I sought the opinion of my daughter Sarah. “Honey, do I look like an old lesbian who has totally given up?” Now, I think lesbians are awesome, both young and old, and some are among my dearest friends, so believe me when I tell you this question was posed without a trace of disrespect. I really wanted to know because sartorially, this was not the look I was hoping to achieve.
Sarah looked at me. “You look more artsy and spiritual, like your husband divorced you but you’re not bitter, you’ve moved on to a period of adventurous self-discovery which may include being a lesbian.”
I was grateful for Sarah’s honesty. Psyched, too, because this was pretty much exactly what I was going for.
While I am very grateful that you have authorized a complete refund on my Airbnb rental, I thought even more than appreciation you could use some hosting advice. Simply put, since you were kind enough to pay me back, I’m returning the favor, with these valuable pointers.
I am not so much a disgruntled customer as a thoughtful consumer providing you a wake-up call. I have moved on, literally as well as figuratively, leaving your “quaint rustic cottage” for a “charming and cozy apartment high above Silver Lake” that has no chairs, no cable, and no coffeemaker. I guess it’s time to wake up call my new host, Josh.
I never had the luxury of a rape fantasy.
Instead, I got the real deal,
though the element of titillation was sorely lacking,
it did provide the element of surprise!
You don’t get to choose the setting
or the props.
Forget the masked stud entering the boudoir
Tying your hands to the bedposts with leather straps,
or, for lightweights, ribboned lace.
Nope, just me, age twelve, and a man whose face I couldn’t see,
turned around like I was,
with his big hand over my mouth.
I hate to burst your bubble,
those of you who are, even now, swatting this aside
imagining the slow surrender, the no, no, yes!
a symphony of desire, eager flesh, cascading hair
it makes for great cinema
unlike what actually goes on, what with all that snot and blood,
the peeing oneself, the throwing up.
No, I never had the luxury of a rape fantasy,
Instead my brain replays images:
The red Coke machine, the seven drops of pool water,
The green-checked two-piece I threw away.
The no, no, no that never made it over my pounding heart
before I closed my eyes.
According to my Google homepage, today would have been John Steinbeck’s 112th birthday. And I am here in California! As a Steinbeck fan, I am thrilled at this coincidence. Many of his books are not only set in California, where he was born and raised, but about California as idealized myth and heartbreaking reality.
About Of Mice and Men, my personal favorite, Steinbeck was asked what he thought was its main message. He said it was about human responsibility. I love the clarity of this statement.
So today finds me thinking of Steinbeck, in a California way more real than mythic. I can hear the traffic rumbling down Hyperion Avenue; a man wearing a plastic bag is rifling through a dumpster across the street. In a way, California is just the state at the edge of the continent where people land to discover that life can’t be relocated or outrun. Those who refuse to let anyone or anything stand in the way of their dreams risk everything, as some of Steinbeck characters and millions of ambitious folks making their way here find out. Our most painful, profound, and beautiful purpose is to each other.
I am happy that today, I get to ponder this from here. I’m happy that even though the forecast called for rain, the sun is shining.
Jet lag is an irresistible force. Hydration, caffeine, nothing is a match for your body, which, at its most authentic, elemental level, refuses to conform to artificial time zones. Oblivious, it operates on its own schedule. This morning, early, at 2:47 A.M. here in California, I woke to my body humming along as it does at 5:47 back in Connecticut, which is around the time I typically wake up. Instead of cursing physiology, I found myself in awe of it. How lucky we are to be these working machines, thrumming to an inner rhythm, regardless of hosts sleeping soundly in the next room, the night sky nowhere near the edge of dawn, and the inconvenience involved in stumbling to the bathroom. I even forgave it my inability to go back to sleep. Instead of frustration, I passed a peaceful few hours sifting through my good fortune, and got out of bed at a west coast decent hour, humbled by (and grateful for) the animal purring under the hood.
Yesterday I went to the hospital to bring my father a magnifying glass so he could read the obituaries and work on word search puzzles. I pulled into the parking lot, next to a gray Hyundai Santa Fe. The driver was still behind the wheel, talking on a cell phone.
I gathered my car keys, phone, gloves, and the magnifying glass and opened the car door. Everything was fine until I somehow lost my grip on the door handle and the door swung out very slowly, tapping, and I mean tapping, the Santa Fe. I thought to myself, shit, because I saw the guy’s reaction: a vigorous startle reflex before a whip-around death stare. I got out, carefully inspecting his car for any mark at all, a ding in the paint, a microscopic indent. Nothing.
As I walked around to his side of the car I had already begun apologizing.
He cut me off. “People like you disgust me.”
I wasn’t sure then- and I’m still not sure now- what he meant. People like me. Women? Corolla drivers? People who accidentally lose their grips on door handles?
“You couldn’t see there’s a car next to you? You’re so stupid you just open your door?”
I started to explain what happened, that I’d lost my grip, but he shook his head. “I’m here because my friend had a heart attack. And now I gotta deal with this shit.”
“Sir,” I said, “Go ahead and check your car. I’ll be happy to give you my insurance information.”
“Forget it,” he said disgustedly, and walked back to the driver’s side.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” I told him, but he was already talking on his phone.
Inside the hospital, the woman behind the front desk greeted me with a “How are you today?” I wondered if I looked as upset as I felt. More likely it was just a perfunctory greeting, but me being who I am, I felt the need to tell her about what had happened. I was pointing toward the lot when I saw the man, doughy face, shaved head, green sweatpants, walking toward the ER entrance. He was pulling a small child behind him.
For me, it was just a bad morning, an unfortunate interaction with an angry man. His words, “People like you disgust me” felt almost violent. I was upset, but glad I’d impulsively steered things toward civility. Still, it felt like a small seed in a dark field. Knowing I will never see this guy again gives me little comfort. I’ll be fine by tomorrow, but god help his kid.