No-Pants Lady

No-Pants Lady has a new hair style.

She certainly didn’t do it for me, but I appreciate it, because it makes her even easier to spot. Now, in a sea of tourists and locals, her shock of white-blonde hair is a beacon.

Sometimes, days will go by without seeing No-Pants Lady. This unsettles me. I worry about her. Precisely because I know so little about her, I worry. The routines I’ve witnessed are the same ones that scare me, but when I don’t see them, I’m concerned.

She’s often in a rage. She’ll appear to be surrounded by enemies who don’t understand her on various levels. Imagine all the profoundly unhelpful tech support reps, snotty receptionists, idiot drivers, various infuriating family members and put them hand-in-hand around you as you’re walking and that might feel slightly like it. Oddly, for the most part, she obeys pedestrian traffic signals, even when she’s yelling and punching the air.

She possesses, absolutely, an invisible shell. Everyone understands this, and everyone respects it. Her foes have made her beyond surly, so people bend around her. The handful of times I’ve walked past her on the sidewalk, I hold my breath, scared she’ll notice me. I have very little imagination about what might happen if she did, but the blank possibility of it makes my arms tingle.

Last week, I watched her cross the street holding what looked like a fairly new pair of slip-on shoes. She held them casually and almost sauntered through the intersection. She was wearing an enormous brown t-shirt and her short hair stood straight up. Under her clothing, her body is small and hard and soft in places that don’t quite make sense. I have never seen her wear shoes.

Most recently, as I was stopped at a red light, I saw her across the street. She was lying at the edge of the sidewalk, on her side, in another huge t-shirt, her head propped on her hand, her knees bent a little. The same position as someone lying on a towel in the sand, or on the carpet reading, or next to their lover in bed.

And suddenly, I had the urge to run to her and place offerings at her feet. I mean, maybe we’re all missing the point, here. At this stage in my life I’m very comfortable with the idea of no God, but who are we to say what gods actually look like? No-Pants Lady comes and goes with the kind of mystical efficiency I can’t explain, but I’m sure if I followed her around I’d find a mundane set of facts. Or would I?

Maybe some of the answer is in the way people all over the world approach a temple, a statue, a shrine – with humility and hope, with gifts and placations – tiptoeing around the sacred, with fear and love and respect. But someone still has to maintain the place. Sweep it out. Polish it. Replace candles, flowers, remove offerings. Make way for the next set of visitors who, for all the reasons, are seeking something outside of themselves.

This, too

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Two summers ago, I lived in New York.

C had already been working there for about eight months, and as the fates sometimes throw happy surprise parties, I got a job that took me there, too.

It was August, it was sweltering in that particular Manhattan way, and in a fit of YOLO (god, I hate that phrase) we decided to rent a loft in Soho and live it up. What we learned, of course, is that unless you’re financially equipped to live it way, WAAAAAAAAAY up, a loft in Soho still has some drawbacks. That’s another story.

In the summer, in the city, everything seems to just slide hazily past. There’s a sheen to all surfaces, you don’t want to sit down, and I personally found myself moving with a kind of alien economy. Once down in the furnace of the subway tunnel, I would summon every ounce of meditative power as I experimented with how much I actually needed to breathe. Maybe, if I could just slow everything down, Matrix-style, I could convince my atoms to cool, even slightly.

I started carrying a handkerchief for the sole purpose of mopping my brow. I felt like Fred Mertz.

One night, C and I met up with another couple, dear friends, and we feasted at a favorite restaurant. Happily expanded, we waddled into the navy blue heat and stood on the sidewalk, fanning ourselves and laughing.

So, cockroaches.

In Los Angeles, we got ‘em. They’re disgusting and I hate them and while I can justify the existence of most living things – in an abstract way, if needed – I don’t get why cockroaches are here. Please do not cite any profound scientific reason because I DON’T CARE AND I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. Spiders, no problem – they eat flies! Flies, okay – they eat shit! Ants – annoying if they invade, but have you seen their architecture!

But cockroaches. Nope.

One of this couple, S, had both hands full as we stood on the sidewalk, hooting at nothing. He, too, is prone to eloquent perspiration, and we exchanged sympathetic moppings. And then suddenly, suddenly, a horde of cockroaches flooded out of the nearest sewer grate and engulfed him.

When I related this story recently to a friend, he asked in horror, “A horde? Like, how many?”

“Like, 20!” I shouted. “So many gross!”

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand. “I thought you meant he was literally covered in them.”

A moment. Is 20 cockroaches not 20 too many to have on your person?

However, when the horde attacked my friend, this is what he did: He closed his eyes. He closed his mouth. He stayed perfectly still.

He let me scream and do a jig and swat at him and scream some more. Those cockroaches skittered all over him like he was hiding cockroach treasure. GAHHHHHHH!!!! I eventually managed to knock them off his body, and the entire time, he remained calm. For the record, C and our other friend had scattered. As S stood there, statue-like, and I performed my screeching dance around him, we must have looked like some ritual human sacrifice.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized how completely amazing this was. In the moment, all I could do was flagellate and twitch as the memory of that gruesome violation lingered. But my god. In the face of total, disgusting, panic-inducing attack, S just stayed quiet. He must have known it would pass. He must have trusted that someone would help him. He must be some sort of zen god.

Lately, I’ve heard from a lot of friends that they’re feeling discouraged. Uncertain and frustrated and just plain exhausted. Sometimes, I’m exhausted, and I haven’t done a damn thing. I thought of this story, not because of the soothing allegorical nature – Cockroach attack! Screeching! – but because it reminded me: This, too, will pass. Maybe when I’m feeling ambushed by life, I should close my eyes, close my mouth and hope I’m next to a friend who will help me.

If that’s you, please, please get those fucking cockroaches off of me.

 

 

Our Town

Tomorrow night we open a play structured like this:

Act I: Daily Life
Act II: Love and Marriage
Act III: You can guess what it’s about

It’s a play I first did 15 years ago, and it was the play that served as a kind of starter pistol for this life I’m in now. My ties to this play feel like thin, silvery ribbons. 15 years ago I was in the second year of my first marriage, my sister was pregnant with her first child, both of my parents were alive, I discovered I had a half-sister I wouldn’t meet for another seven years.

A cast member informed me that on this day in 1938, the play premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Before it made it to the stage, however, the playwright had been in Zurich and was having trouble writing the final act. No wonder – it is devastating, and rightly so. In Act III, my character is dead, in her grave, and is doing her best to be ready for what’s ahead.

When I was watching my mother die, I remember feeling light, poreless, as if I had no texture. My mother died in Phoenix, and it was regularly 110 degrees of dry, oven heat. Sometimes I would escape quickly into the outside, only to be struck by that radiant, throbbing hot. After a few minutes, all I could stand, I would slide back into the cool dim of the hospice and smooth lotion onto my mother’s hands.

There is something untouched, unknowable about watching someone go.

Again and again in this play, all of us, all 34 cast members, watch someone say Wait! One more look. And then she says goodbye to all the things in life that we never really pay attention to. Food, Coffee, Hot baths. Mama and Papa. I think of my mother. And the mother and father I’ve never known. And the father who sends me cards at Easter because that’s what his wife used to do. And through it, I sit, and wait, and think only of what’s ahead.

Our Town.

Two Days In

I don’t think anyone, ever, lay on his or her deathbed and said I wish I hadn’t eaten such wonderful food.

Which is why I will always live for that out-of-body hover that comes while consuming beautiful dishes.

This year, C and I rang it in over several courses of delicious and laughed a lot and thought about the past year and remembered things and drank wine. Then we stopped by a party full of the kind of life you can only experience if you’re in a room of glowing, lovely young people. 

I’m some thousands of miles away from home doing a play that most people think is Quaint and Charming and Nostalgic.

Nope.

Often, the play is terrifying. Which is its particular genius. That high school drama clubs put on this classic with aplomb may be the play’s greatest feint, because the the severity of the one-two that quickly follows will knock the breath right out of you. 

So far, the play has exhausted, moved, and deeply unsettled me. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

2014 is still attached by its umbilical cord, but already I’ve seen countless resolutions and pledges and staunch statements about the future. Making public New Year’s resolutions has never made much sense to me. I guess I feel like it’s no one’s business what I’m trying to do here, in this life.

So far, I’ve seen my husband look at me with so much love it makes my eyelids ache. My stepdaughter texted me to see how the play is going and to tell me what kind of ice cream she ate. My dog just got a bath and a haircut.

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it’s ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.  

Thornton Wilder, Our Town 

Wayan’s Mother

Almost a year ago, C and I trekked across timezones and found ourselves in Bali, Indonesia.

If you haven’t traveled to a place that makes you feel like you time-traveled, let me enlighten you:

You arrive in a kind of stupor. If you’re like us, you make your way through customs in a foreign land, past huge signs that warn of the DEATH SENTENCE if you transport illegal drugs into the country (whoa), into a hot, humid sea of humankind, and into the confident, comforting hands of a resident of the place who shuttles you into a cab and helps you on the road to familiarity.

You try to keep your eyes open while you pass through night-colored countryside, but you fail dismally and end up dozing through most of the ride. You want to be friendly and gregarious first-world dwellers but you end up snoring in the back seat just glad someone is taking you where you need to go.

Then you arrive at your destination, bleary and grateful, and are handed a freshly made juice.

I remember drinking that first juice in Bali. I was extremely determined to drink all of it and to remember each moment. Some part of me was like, okay, you’re really far from the place you call home, and it’s the middle of the night, and someone who doesn’t make very much money has made you a juice. Drink it, dammit. And be grateful.

And I was.

I just printed out a large-scale photo of maybe the most amazing woman I’ve encountered.

The mother of a friend we made while in Ubud, and someone who, even though I never was able to say anything more than thank you, imprinted me with a profound understanding of beauty, grace and strength.

Most of the time, in our relative luxury, we’re able to only imagine the kind of life that requires day-to-day attention to menial things. Sorry, but doing the dishes doesn’t count. Most of the folks in this world are concerned about a basic level of survival that we most watch as a reality TV show. Or hear about when all natural disaster hell breaks loose. It’s easy for us to ignore this kind of living, and it’s our privilege to do so. Or is it?

I just watched Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, and it was not what I was expecting. Just hearing the title I somehow thought, Oh, it’s about a really joyous tribe in somewhere remote that finds the glory in the little things and won’t I leave that viewing just being enlightened.

No.

Instead, it was about a remote village in Siberia that lives according to season and time and the whim of nature. Like, the folks there pay attention to that. Their entire livelihoods depend on it. I can’t remember the last time my life was dictated by weather.

Actually…

That’s another story.

But back to Wayan’s mother.

That’s the beautiful Balinese woman who has experienced some events that would level most of us. But it’s her life, and she lives it. I’m guessing, without a tremendous amount of fuss. Surely, when we met her, and were lucky enough to observe her (I snuck glances, mostly) she did what she set out to accomplish, and that was all.

There’s a kind of humility that is beyond the word. A kind that, I think, is so completely without self-consciousness that it becomes, dare I say, grace.

I feel like I see this in moments where I live, but that is the increment it mostly lives in. Maybe I’m not looking far enough. Maybe I should try looking farther.

Wayan’s Mother.

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Farthest from the Sun

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So the marble we all share made another trip around the fireball, and thus I am one year older.

Mercury, that fleet-footed orb, goes around in 88 Earth days. The ball of gas Neptune takes 165 Earth years. Relative, indeed, the year.

Age has always been a bit of a funny mystery to me, because I don’t actually know how old I am.

In grad school, a dear friend once gave me a card celebrating my 50th, and I whooped with delight. (Because I’m wasn’t 50 then and I’m not 50 now and hahahahahaaaaaaa!!)

My age is likely a pretty good approximation. Some people who were adopted as older children have later discovered their age was off by years. Their records were deliberately misleading, in a lot of cases. But that’s another area of murk.

As I’m around longer, I find myself bristling at various concepts that try to use age as an anchor for adults. She doesn’t dress her age. He’s not acting his age. Pfffffft. As if age, really, ever, had anything to do with it. Who cares if a woman with white hair and wrinkles is wearing a short, pleated skirt? She must like it, and it’s really no one’s freaking business. Who gives a shit if some middle-aged guy with no kids geeks out over comics?

Age tends to function as a benchmark, a way for folks to make sure they’re on track. By 25, I should have accomplished ________. By 40, ___________. But what if we were all happy Neptunians, and no one lived to be a year old? What then? Maybe life would be measured in experiences. As a baby, that would be your New Experience. And as you grew and developed, if you were lucky, you always kept a sense of that with you. Like, when you got to your End Experience, if you still found pure delight in new discovery, you would also still be in your New Experience. And all the stuff that happened in between would simply be more information, more data, more context, more curiosity, more creativity.

If we didn’t count the years, if we didn’t consider some of them “peak,” or “prime,” or “the best,” I wonder what we could accomplish. You wouldn’t fear some approaching number. I’m willing to bet we would tend to look forward with greater ease. Because what would lie ahead would be full of possibility, not just arthritis.

So for now, I’m going to be a Neptunian. A Neptunian in the midst of her Mind-Opening Experience.

You are Me, Then

When I was 24, I taught summer school.

My then-husband taught at a private school in the Bay Area, and they needed a pinch hitter. Because I had an undergraduate degree in English/Creative Writing and a decent amount of what was likely hubris, the school hired me.

I was given two sections of 7th and 8th grade literature, a dusty curriculum, and a classroom. Even at the time, I kept laughing in small bursts, while alone. They were trusting me to convey information to young people. It was borderline preposterous.

By some stroke of luck, the two pieces of literature in the curriculum were ones I was familiar with. The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell, and the great American comedy by Kaufman and Hart, You Can’t Take it With You. I had really liked Connell’s short story when I had been forced to read it – the idea of a human hunting another human sort of rang with justice (I was a fierce animal rights advocate in middle school and abhorred the hunting of animals), and I had done a production of Kaufman and Hart’s play in college. So, you know, I was an expert.

Luckily, my students knew way less than me. All they knew was that I was their teacher, an adult, and therefore, old.

Unlike a lot of summer schools, these kids were actually there because they wanted to get ahead. The area we lived in was full of wealthy, academically rigorous families who wanted their kids to be shoe-ins for the Ivys. So on the first day, the students filed in with the appropriate amount of doleful on their faces, but they were also very smart.

Suddenly, I realized this was an opportunity.

Let me be clear – there was no standing on the desks, carpe diem, no standing and delivering. But what I realized I had was a relative amount of freedom. Unlike a regular teacher, I wasn’t teaching for a evaluative skills test. At the very least, these students just had to read a single piece of writing and somewhat digest it. How they digested was completely up to me.

So we had some fun. We read the short story, we read the play, we discussed, they made their own versions of The Most Dangerous Board Game, and I had each class create a class magazine and fill it with features, interviews, news articles, games, and anything they thought was important. And then, on the last day of class, I had them write a letter.

When I was 12, I wrote a letter to myself at 24. I wish it had been my own idea, but I had read some book and gotten the inspiration. Anyway, the idea had sort of blown me away, so I got out my calligraphy pen and some parchment paper (I was a weird, but funny kid. We would have been friends.) and wrote a multi-page epistle to myself, full of questions and predicaments and ramblings. Then I sealed it up, scrolled “To Myself at 24″ on the envelope, and tucked it away.

Amazingly enough, I managed to save the letter, smuggle it through high school, transport it through college, move across country with it – twice – and store it in various apartments. Earlier that year, I had opened it.

So here they were, this pack of 12-year-olds, and they were almost done with summer school, and I felt like we knew each other well enough that I could force them to do this.

“Okay!” I said, and I may have clapped my hands. “Get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil (Yes, I may have said this. I’m not proud). I want you to write a letter to yourself at 24.”

15 pairs of non-blinking eyes.

I yammered an explanation, and amazingly, they started to write. The room was quiet, with the occasional question and the muttering, This is weird. I don’t know what to write. To myself??

I had them fold the letter, staple it shut, and write their address on the outside. Then I collected them and made the rash promise, “I’ll keep these for the next 12 years and mail them to these addresses when it’s time.” The students looked at me incredulously. This was my hippie moment. I must have seemed insane.

About a month ago, I remembered the letters. I knew exactly where they were. I took them out and yowled. I was a little late mailing them, but come on – these letters had been on a much more elaborate odyssey than my own. That I still had them was miraculous.

So I typed out a missive, starting over a few times. What a strange letter to write. I barely got to know those kids, and I was sending them a piece of their pasts. My main hope was that the letters would reach them. I tucked in a copy with each, and sent them off to the addresses written on the outside.

I’ve heard from four students so far. Each was stunned to receive his or her letter. All had forgotten they’d written them. And all were moved by their 12-year-old selves.

In my letter to them, I encouraged the writing of another letter, to themselves at 40. Should I send my letter to you, to save for me? one of them asked.

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