All I Can Hear I Me Mine

On Friday, a friend and I had a dispute over the meaning of life.

Tata: We cannot get together even for dinner for at least a month. Life is fucking short! This sucks beyond belief!
Friend: We have – like – fifty years. What’s the rush?

If he drops dead in less than three decades, I will be royally pissed – especially if we finally have reservations.

Anyway, it was as if this conversation changed the progress of time. Where weekends usually fly by, this one passed at an almost geological pace. Even the kittens seemed to agree. It was too hard for me to talk on the phone with friends. The speed of life at other places felt out of synch with the quiet of my apartment, so when Daria called to report that next weekend she’s having a barbecue for baby Fifi’s second birthday, it did not occur to me that day would ever come.

My solitary weekend habits picked up mostly where they were left off almost two months ago: Saturday, I made yogurt and set up bread dough to hydrate overnight after a walk to the grocery, drug and health food stores. Today, I baked bread. The online instructions for the clay pot Dad left me hinted the pot could be used to for this purpose. I thought the first loaf I baked would either turn out goopy – that’s the technical term – or into a cinder. Instead, I got a loaf of bread that is beautifully moist with a crisp crust. I could hardly believe my luck.

That’s salt and basil. You wondered.

It is a sign of this moment that I keep thinking of questions I’d like to ask Dad. Mayonnaise irritates my stomach a little. I wish I’d asked him to devise a handful of summer salad recipes for me – not because I can’t do it myself but because he loved culinary puzzles. This puzzle is not much of one, really: kind of like the little sailboat cut into four curvy pieces.

It’s just as well, then, that I spent my weekend coming to a point of quietness. All talk does not bring us to accord. Or dinner.

Friday Cat Blogging: Keep It Down, Down Edition

Left to right: Druzy, Topaz, Ta.

The first morning I woke up in Dad’s house, I was wearing this pair of pants. They were 2/$7.99 at Costco. I sat on the edge of his bed while he was still sleeping. The house was silent. Darla slept fitfully on the futon behind me. I watched him breathe, wondering how he could be dying. How could it be? His face was full. His skin, long oddly pink from heart medication, was turning a healthy olive. He looked like himself. It was just the first of many mornings where I’d creep in and watch him sleep, saving up these tiny moments for the time ahead when he’d be gone. I’d need them. I still had the luxury of thinking nothing made sense. This particular morning, as I was sitting there, he opened his eyes, spied the cut-rate loungewear –

Dad: Those pants clash with themselves.

– and fell asleep. I burst out laughing but he didn’t stir.

Topaz and Drusy wrestle, then there’s a bathing emergency.

About 3 this morning, rain pounded against my bedroom windows, one of which was open. I got up and closed it, and while I was up, opened my bedroom door. Kittens, staging World War III on top of me, had been banished to the rest of the apartment. Now they padded back to bed with me and curled up around my legs. For a moment, all was bliss.

Then Alexis said, “Blake will always love me, you trailer trash whore” and Krystal slapped Alexis across the face and Alexis grabbed a handful of bleach-blonde hair and they wrestled and both fell in the swimming pool…

Your Heart In This Fight

This song has been on my mind for a week.

I accidentally let myself get very dehydrated Sunday, so I’ve been fighting off a fever for a couple of days. This means when I do my daily “How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up?” even I know I’m wrong. Yet, a fever means I lie flat and think of thinking, which is great indoor-outdoor fun for me, and what I’ve been thinking about is presence and absence in life. I mean, of course I have. Dad died, and with my siblings and Darla in our separate homes, it’s as if I quit some substance I feel leaving my body.

I mean, fuck.

What courses through our bodies is every bit as interesting as what we do with them. Davening is a Jewish practice of praying with the whole body. It is a form of commitment to the moment, apart from all other moments, in which a person – usually a man but not always, anymore – is supposed to become entirely present during the Shema: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad..* I couldn’t put my finger on where the Torah described it, though Deuteronomy was a good bet. Siobhan, as surly a wildcat as ever put animal print lingerie to incendiary use, was a Biblical scholar in a previous life:

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (New International Version) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

*1. Deuteronomy 6:4 Or The LORD our God is one LORD; or The LORD is our God, the LORD is one; or The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

The emphasis is mine, and it’s important; that word is sometimes translated as might. One’s body and vigor mean everything, which makes lovely sense, doesn’t it? Anyone who says you can’t dance with the cosmos is plain misguided. This reminds me of the Whirling Dervishes, described on YouTube as: The Whirling Dervishes are a sect of Islam taught to love everything. The ceremony is so beautiful I can barely breathe. Please go look at the dancers I can’t embed on PIC. I’ve watched this half a dozen times now and when they open their arms, my heart races. Once, I danced in an aisle as Coleman Barks read this poem by Rumi, the Whirling Dervishes’ sufi master, because I could do nothing else.

If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our sexual wanting
will look, lift your face
and say,

Like this.

When someone mentions the gracefulness
of the nightsky, climb up on the roof
and dance and say,

Like this.

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close.

Like this.

When someone quotes the old poetic image
about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
of your robe.

Like this.

If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
don’t try to explain the miracle.
Kiss me on the lips.

Like this. Like this.

When someone asks what it means
to “die for love,” point

If someone asks how tall I am, frown
and measure with your fingers the space
between the creases on your forehead.

This tall.

The soul sometimes leaves the body, the returns.
When someone doesn’t believe that,
walk back into my house.

Like this.

When lovers moan,
they’re telling our story.

Like this.

I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.

Like this.

When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.

Like this.

How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?


How did Jacob’s sight return?


A little wind cleans the eyes.

Like this.

When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
he’ll put just his head around the edge
of the door to surprise us

Like this.

From ‘The Essential Rumi’, Translations
by Coleman Barks with John Moyne

I’m not sure I believe in God, but I believe in the astonishing beauty of becoming completely present at the right moment. It’s not easy. Life appears to be long and it’s tempting to fall asleep and stay there. If I’ve slept, I don’t want to sleep anymore.

There are many ways to dance. Dance with me.

There At the Turnstile the Girl

Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Ta’s gotta play with words.

English is Mathilde’s third or fourth language, though she speaks more fluently than some native speakers I know.

Mathilde: When someone wakes me up before the alarm, I want to throw them out the window!
Tata: There’s a verb for that in English: to defenestrate.
Mathilde: What are you talking about?
Tata: In Italian, finestra means window.
Mathilde: Yes, French – finetre
Tata: Right, so the infinitive is to defenestrate. I can’t remember exactly who it was, but this word didn’t exist until some important man started throwing people out his windows during the Middle Ages, I think. Killed a bunch of people. Must’ve worked for him the first time, and you have to go with what you know.
Beth: I can’t breathe!
Mathilde: I don’t know what you are talking about either. What?
Tata: Can’t remember who it was. Sorry. Threw people out the window. Verb! That’s what’s happening.

Yes, I burst into song. Thought I wouldn’t?

About an hour later, my new assistant filled the doorway of my cubicle. He is a giant of a man. When he sat down for the first time at my desk, I knew he was at the right place when I asked, “Are you left-handed?” and he said, “Yes, I am.” Half the room muttered, “What?” “What was that?” “Did he say yes?” Exactly: in ten years, I’ve trained dozens of assistants and co-workers and not one ever said, “That mouse placement makes my ever-lovin’ day.” This really happened: my co-workers stood up, smiling hopefully, as if Trump Plaza landed on a wicked witch. I laughed like it was my week with the ruby slippers and the Munchkinland Prom was Friday night. We jumped up and down, clapping our hands. I can’t explain that, other than youthful exuberance. My giant assistant thought we were crazy, but thrilled by his presence. As he stands in the doorway now, blotting out what little sunlight peeps into the basement, he clasps his hands across his chest.

He: I couldn’t help but overhear your discussion of history and etymology. I hope you don’t think me rude but I believe you were talking about the Defenestration of Prague –

I jumped up, grabbed the hand of this giant man who’d met me the day before and ran around the cubicle wall to Mathilde’s and Beth’s shared cubicle.

Tata: Tell them! Tell them!
He: There some turning point in Church history, something was at stake and some official thought achieving his ends would be easier without the bishops, so he invited them up to talk and threw them out the window. Unfortunately for him, they landed on a pile of manure and survived. They got up, brushed themselves off and walked away.
Tata: History is stinky!
Beth: I can’t breathe!
Tata: I bet those bishops wished they couldn’t!
He: And that’s called the Defenestration of Prague.
Mathilde: You’re kidding!
Tata: Right, even though Prague plainly was not thrown out the window, and that guy wasn’t the heavy weight champeeeeen of defenestrating I mentioned earlier. Thank you! Thank you!
He: I’ll be here all week…

Another man, a different image.

He: You are as beautiful as your pictures.

I stop cold. This could mean several things in so rubbery a language as English, where intent is all. This could mean: You are not so photogenic, Mrs. Lady; or Your image delights my eye and it amazes me that you draw breath. When someone says You are as beautiful as your pictures, it is impossible to determine what is meant without offending the speaker, though I am dying to know with every fiber of my being.

Me: Thank you.

Then I change the subject.

Lovely Thing 2 has a weepy right eye, so I took her to the vet yesterday.

Thing 1 is affectionate and loves me openly. She walks around my head while I’m writing, settling across my chest, where we sit nose to nose and she turns into the sweetest, purringest Princess Kissyface and my icy heart melts and she lies against me like a tiny five-pound baby and I have to muh-muh-muh kiss her nose and forehead and because I hate cute I could just KILL MYSELF. I feel pretty confident that Thing 1 would be okay going to the vet’s office with me, and if she were frightened, she could sit on my chest and we could have a talk about boys in her French class. Thing 2, shy and reticent, I wasn’t so sure about, but there we were, and I shoved her into a cat carrier the size of a Barcalounger, and off we went. Only once did she make a single distressed peep. The vet’s waiting room was full of dogs and their people, and an older man sat down knee to knee with me so his Shetland collie, my new best friend, could lean on my leg. I didn’t mind, so long as Thing 2 remained calm and watchful, and not freaked out and hissing. The older man was chatty and handed me a card.

He: Here’s something you’ll like.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. His business card read: Joyce Kilmer Centennial Commission. Ugh. He seemed like a nice man, so I said something bland.

Tata: I had to memorize that poem in third grade.
He: Did you?
Tata: I did. My father had a piece of that tree.
He: Ah…
Tata: Yes, I know. Everyone had a piece of that tree.
He: Yes. It was cut down in 1963.
Tata: The year I was born.
He: Was it?

Fortunately for us both, before I could blurt, “I’ve written better crap on fucking parking tickets,” it was suddenly my turn to drag the cavernous cat carrier down the hallway to an examining room, where the able assistant, the same woman who tried to talk me out of putting Larry, the little black cat once bent on stealing your soul, to sleep, took out a new file. Hey, two months ago, we were traumatized. I haven’t held that against her. I opened the carrier door and out popped tiny Thing 2. The assistant, who has the whitest skin I’ve ever seen without pink eyes and whiskers, went all liquidy. I actually saw ripples pass through her body.

She: Look at those eyes!

It’s true: Thing 2’s eyes are a golden orange I’ve never seen before. I actually wondered if there might be something wrong with her because they just seemed utterly surreal. While Thing 2 and I waited for the vet, she scampered around the room, over and under and inside and through things, while I watched from a few feet away. Her curiosity was charming. She came to me now and then for reassurance, but she wasn’t afraid. I watched her and thought: Topaz. Maybe her name is Topaz.

And maybe the blue/green-eyed kitten is Drusy.

So the kitten has eye drops for her lovely tigerlily eyes.

The Wind With Its Arms All Around Me

Before cell phones, you could tell the crazy people in the street because they walked around talking to themselves. Now, all kinds of ear bud-equipped chatty strangers walk past you saying the most personal things you can imagine, if that’s sane, and the crazy people are the ones who stop and make eye contact. The week before Daria left Virginia, she talked from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning until we stopped conspiring every night. Fortunately, as I was camped out in the next room, it sounded like Charlie Brown’s mother was having a nervous breakdown on the other side of a cookbook-lined wall.

Daria: Fffaaaacch arbuchki bu bu bu wa banna? Ghippy zop nn koow!

In ways still difficult to describe, four weeks of caring for our dying father, his wife, four cats and our younger sister came to feel like a lifetime in its rhythms and stresses. After a week in the house, I believed this time would never end. We would always live in limbo, our own lives miles away and fading into obscurity. Daddy would always be dying. If not for cheap wine and Tylenol PM, nobody would’ve slept a minute. When I awoke every morning just before Ridiculous O’Clock, when it was at least light out, I’d talk to Atticus for half an hour, stumble to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Then to the kitchen, where I made a pot of tea for my stepmother. I live alone and I am used to quiet. Darla and Dad lived in a similarly quiet way; in fact, sometimes, they would go most of a day without speaking. Only in the very early March mornings was there peace in the house, which permitted me to think. I gathered up garbage, fed cats, put water into the many humidifiers and set up my laptop in a spot in the kitchen close to an electrical outlet. Everybody made the same joke at least once.

Family Member: Nobody puts Baby in a corner!
Tata: I despise that fucking movie…

The tiny variations between the days felt less like Groundhog Day experiments than Manhattan Project failures. For a while, I made yogurt every two or three days when I kept making thrilling new mistakes. When the van didn’t start two and a half weeks after Darla brought Dad home from the hospital, it seemed like one in a long series of unforeseeable little disasters. Our teeny catastrophes weren’t really important unless they created stress for Dad, so Daria’s and my function in the house was to keep drum-tight control over matters domestic, mostly the same matters, every day.

For instance, when we arrived in Virginia, Dad wanted to get right to the business of distributing his stuff. Our jobs, as family members, were: 1. to suck it up and and make lists of objects we wanted, and 2. get stuff Dad gave us out of the way. One of the first things Dad said to me was, “Go to the ingredients closet and take the braised gluten.” I got up, got a grocery bag and tossed eight cans inside. Then I took this bag upstairs and put it with my luggage. So: good for me. I love braised gluten. Weeks passed, Dad got sicker and a Chinese supplier peddled tainted wheat gluten to pet food manufacturers. We weren’t watching TV, so it wasn’t hard to keep a lid on news around the house. When questions arose about melamine-tainted wheat gluten entering the human food supply, I was glad Dad was past caring, because he would have been frightened and homicidally pissed. In November, during our frequent talks about why bread I was baking either succeeded or simply sucked, he told me to add vital wheat gluten to my doughs. I picked up a high end brand, Hodgson’s, but only because that was what I found in the grocery store, and added several tablespoons to every loaf. Rational or irrational, logical or illogical, none of that matters when you get the idea that you might have accidentally poisoned your kid with baking tips. But all that happened later. So there I was every morning, sitting at the table reading email or trying to look in on a few of my favorite blogs, when Daria came down the stairs, talking.

Daria: I feel like a grilled cheese sandwich. Could you use a grilled cheese sandwich? You like them with tomato. I don’t think we have tomatoes. We gotta get tomatoes. Ooh! I wanted to try the stuff in that can. Maybe that’s for lunch. Do we have enough bread? We have to plan dinner now because it’s morning – it’s morning – it’s morning, then it’s 10 pm and we haven’t eaten yet. How does that happen? We don’t know/ When we go shopping today, we might have to pick up more ice cream. I think we’re down to five kinds and Italian ices. What do you think? ‘Cause, not for nothing, but we could run out, and we can’t have that…

Listen, I narrate. Say, I’m at your house. I look right at where the camera should be and say something to advance the plot –

Tata: Suddenly, we were attacked by cheese-wielding Jehovah’s Witnesses.
(SFX: ding dong!)

– do it all the time, but Daria’s chattering was alarmingly different. The strain of making sure her children were cared for, her house was still standing, getting Dad’s legal matters in order, keeping Dad comfortable and Darla fed was finally too much for her. Some people come out in spots. Daria came out in wave after wave of breathless talk. Some mornings, I stared at her. Some mornings, I tried interjecting, which didn’t help. Mostly, I kept typing or reading, though it became really difficult to blog. When her four-year-old took a powder and Daria had to leave, Darla’s parents arrived. I was terrified. I didn’t know them, but they were lovely, well-informed, brilliant people, so in that respect they were like Darla. I thought we’d have quiet. And the next morning –

Nina: We’ll be going into Staunton today to return the wheelchair. Have you been to that hospital? We’ve driven by there once before, so we’ve seen it, but we’re not precisely certain where it is. We’ll get Darla to draw us a map. We’ll also stop at the grocery store for a few items on the list. Can we pick up anything special for you? Would you know that we’re out of anything?
Tata: See that box of pink wine? Darla’s going to need a refill. And while you’re there, please, a bottle that just says WINE for me?
Nina: Anything special? We’d hate to disappoint you. We don’t drink, you see, so we’d hate to pick up the wrong thing. Do you favor one brand, for instance, or different varieties?
Tata: I like a chardonnay that doesn’t say “Bottled in Doug’s Basement, Utah.”
Nina: Oh. You don’t have any preference?
Tata: Yes, please, I prefer not to be up all night.
Nina: What are you doing on the computer?
Tata: Writing.
Nina: The traffic in Detroit was terrible! All that construction and the roads never get any better. Are we out of tomatoes? A ripe tomato is one of life’s true pleasures…

Michigan Seems Like A Dream To Me Now

Miss Sasha sent along this thrilling image from Italian New Year’s Eve, which was Christmas, Part 3: The Fattening. Perhaps I’m telling Dad to go stuff it, perhaps demanding he quit lifting heavy stuff with that backache; we don’t know. He spent the next few days in bed with excruciating back pain, but he’d done that on occasion all my life. As Miss Sasha pointed out, he’d eaten a slice of my cousin Monday’s apple pie, which is generally good, and said it tasted off to him. I didn’t remember that.

What I remember was that in the kitchen we were all making wiseass remarks about each other. My sisters Daria and Dara said, “Daddy, I’m the daughter you always wanted” and “No, I am.” I said, “I’m the son you always wanted.” Dad almost dropped the roast.