Bring The Dory Home

I’ve always been a night owl.  When I was in high school, I would wait until my mother had gone to bed, then shut the louver doors to my bedroom and flip on the light.  I’d sit up and read with the radio turned on very low.  Mostly I’d listen to Alison Steele, The Nightbird (a generational icon),  but other times I’d listen to a station that I can only believe was public radio based on what they played.  It’s where I first heard Monty Python’s “Mary Queen of Scotts” and the genius Firesign Theater.  They also played odd music from around the world, traditional American folk music and blues and Celtic songs, ancient and new.

On night, after I’d closed my book and lay there with radio on, listening until I felt drowsy, the announcer introduced a live recording by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy called “Peter Kagan and The Wind”.  It is a story-song that tells of the seal people, a legend widely known among the seafaring folk of Ireland, Scotland and the north east coast of America, and Peter Kagan, a fisherman from Maine who marries one of them.  It is a beautiful ballad of love and sacrifice and the unforgiving wind and sea.

I lay there in the dim glow of the radio, hearing this song for the first time yet feeling it in a deep part of my heart; knowing it in my bones, the harsh beauty of the sea and a life on the rocky coast.  Other than the Hoboken Ferry, I had never been on a boat but I understood how the dory rolled and bucked on the mounting waves.  I smelled the briney green of the water and felt the sting of the salted wind.  I heard the snap and rip of the straining sail. Tears dripped on my pillow as the sad banshee refrain called “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home.  Wind and sea will follow thee and all the ledges calling thee”.  And at the end of the song, when Kagan is found lying asleep in the dory wrapped in the sail with a snow covered seal blanketing him with her body, it is not just a lyric in a song, it is a real, hard, cold memory for me.  I see it in my mind.  I remember it; the fear as everyone rushes to the beached boat.  I know the relief at finding him alive and the chorus of “What the feck” at the sight of the seal curled up with him. The smell of fish and wet wood and canvas.  This is not a tale I’ve heard.  I was there.  I was there.

I never heard that song again.  There was no You Tube, no Internet, no way to Google it.  You went to a record store to buy music and the chances of finding an Irish Folk Music album at the mall were very slim.  But I never forgot it.  Now and then, I’d find myself humming “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home.”

Recently though, it’s been coming to mind a lot. And I’ve been thinking about the Seal People. As a child, my aunt would take me to the Central Park Zoo and all I ever wanted to see was the seals. And I’ve always been draw to the rocky coast of New England and the commercial fishing towns.  I even have a large painting of rusty trawlers on my living room wall.  Something about it says home to me.  So this morning, on the train ride to work,  I Googled “Peter Kagan and The Wind” and listened to it again for the first time in over forty years.  I was back in that dory on the roiling sea, trying to steer a course to the gong bouy as the wind froze the spray on my skin and hair. The tears came streaming and I felt a terrible sadness as the concertina played the melody and Tommy and Liam sang “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan”.

Maybe it’s just that Makem and Clancy were wonderful story tellers; they were.  Or maybe I have a vivid imagination; I do.  But I believe there was I time I lived by the sea. A time I knew the ways of wind and sail and how to steer for home in the fog.  When the fish jumped in my boat and the sea birds sang in time to the hauling of my nets.  When life was hard but all the more sweet for the sheer hardness of it.  I knew the Seal People. Or perhaps married one or was one myself.  I feel it in my bones.

There was a time when I would not have trusted my own memories that are not of this lifetime. I would bury them thinking they were just dreams or stories I made up.  With age comes wisdom, so they say.  I’ve learned that not everything follows the rational, scientific rules we have imprisoned ourselves with. Because there are things that are always with you, things you remember from another time and place, things that have no logical explanation but are there nonetheless.  Like the smell of salt air on a Manhattan bound commuter train.

 

Be sure to watch both.

 

 

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Beauregard

I’m an only child.  For many years, I was also the only grandchild.  I lived a very sheltered life.  At least until we moved out of Hoboken when I was seven.  Until then, I had almost no interaction with children my own age outside of school.  My friends were often inanimate objects.  I had stuffed animals and a bookcase full of statues that I talked to all the time.  I know, strange kid, right?

I’ve been home for a few weeks, recovering from foot surgery.  Since I was stuck in the house, we decided it was a good time to have some work done.  We had the downstairs popcorn ceilings removed, refinished and painted.  It made a mess.  So we’ve been slowly trying to clean up.  Tonight, I worked on the china closet in the dining room.

On the bottom shelf, I found an old friend I had forgotten about, Beauregard.  I had breakfast with Beauregard every morning for the first seven years of my life.  I drank milk and later tea with lots of milk from him.  He was the son of Elsie the cow and Elmer of Elmer’s glue fame.  I credit him with my life long love of cows.  We had many long, deep conversations.

As I held him and looked fondly on his shy smile and curly forelock I thought of how resilient children are.  They can make friends with a cup.

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The Bad Patient

I have always prided myself on being a model patient.  I was the one who never complained.  I stayed cheery and upbeat.  My tolerance for pain and discomfort was a real source of pride.  Ask me how I felt and the answer would always be “Fine.  I’m doing great.”  I wouldn’t stay down for long.  Always in a hurry to get back to work and my “normal” life.

A week ago I had surgery on my left foot.  It was planned, elective surgery to correct malformations of three of the five toes.  I was sent home with three pins in my toes  (which will be removed) and two permanent screws.  I’m on antibiotics and pain meds.  I have a hard plastic air cast and instructions to rest and stay off the foot.

And I have become a bad patient.

Maybe it has to do with my age.  The older I get, the more intensely I feel physical discomfort.  What I would have barely noticed a decade ago, now stops me in my tracks.  Ask me how I’m doing and you won’t get the chirpy “Great!”  I will tell you that my foot hurts and I’m exhausted.  I will tell you that the meds sometimes make me nauseous and give me intestinal  distress.  So don’t ask unless you really want to know.

My husband stayed home to take care of me until yesterday.  He finally had to return to work after being my nurse for six days.  I knew he had to go back and I also knew that I had to start figuring out how to do for myself.  But I hated it.  I’ve never been like that.  I was always so apologetic if I thought I was disrupting another’s life.  Even though I know he wanted to take care of me, in the past I would have rushed to get back on my feet so he wouldn’t have to.  But my first day alone, I cried with frustration over everything.  It was all such a struggle and I had a very bad attitude about it.

My doctor wants me to stay home for a month at least.  But I know I need to get back to work.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been working remotely since Tuesday.  I tried to start on Monday, but was still in too much of a fog to think straight.  I said originally that I should be back after two weeks but I can’t imagine doing that now.  I don’t even want to be thinking about work.  I want to be doing the bare minimum.  The stress of work responsibility is too much on top of the stress of healing.  In the big picture, the time I need to take care of myself is really not that much but I’ve always hauled myself into the office no matter how badly I’ve felt.  I don’t want to do that anymore.

So I’ve become a bad patient, an old crank.  Or maybe I’ve discovered that my feelings have value too.  All the years of smiling and saying I’m fine when I’m not have finally worn me out.  Hiding the more unpleasant part of me to make others feel better doesn’t work anymore.  Burying those “bad” feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just hides them.  They will find a way out eventually.

For the time being, my foot hurts, it’s hard and tiring trying to do for myself, I don’t feel like doing anything and I don’t care if I ever see my office again.  And I’m cranky.  That’s OK.  Having a bad day or even a bad couple of weeks doesn’t make me a miserable person.  It just makes me human.

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The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

It was the summer most of us graduated from college. We were artists; dancers, singers, musicians, actors and migrated immediately to NYC to start our new lives. There was a building on E. 52nd Street that a number of previous graduates had cycled through. That’s where I wound up; a six floor walk-up, top floor. Three of the four apartments were occupied by us. We called it The Tucker Arms after the landlord who lived on the ground floor.

We were determined to enjoy everything Manhattan had to offer. It was a never ending party. The freedom was exhilarating. We did whatever we felt like. It wasn’t unusual to get a phone call at 11:00 pm asking if we wanted to meet up and catch the midnight show of Wayland Flowers and Madame at an Upper Westside cabaret. We’d dress up, smoke a joint and hop in a cab. Afterward, we’d stop at the all-night doughnut shop before climbing the six flights home where we’d crash for a few hours. A quick shower and then off to the various crappy jobs we had to pay the rent. Brunch on the weekends, last minute pot luck dinner parties, picnics in Central Park, dancing all night at drag clubs, sunbathing on the roof, putting on impromptu shows for each other; it was glorious.

It wasn’t just our building though. We had college friends all over the City. One of them was Mary B. She had been a part of our tight-knit group when we were still on campus but had graduated the semester before. Mary was one of those special people that everybody, man or woman, gay or straight, fell in love with just the littlest bit. She was full of life; not pretty in the traditional sense but bursting with youth and absolutely fearless. She had piercing blue eyes, thick, dark hair, fair skin and freckles. She looked like an angel but could curse like a sailor. And she was talented. She could sing, dance, act and was a hell of a photographer. She was someone everyone wanted to be around. Her energy was boundless and infectious. A natural leader, she always went her own way. Senior year, she moved in with her boyfriend, Drew. That’s pretty common place today but in the seventies, it was still considered a bold move.

I saw her once that summer. I had come home from work and knocked on my neighbor Rita’s door looking to hang out for awhile. Mary was there visiting her. She was dressed in a white tee shirt and painter’s pants. Her hair hung loose and she wore no make-up but that made her even more beautiful. She seemed to glow from within. We drank wine and talked. She and Drew had broken up. She was living with her dad in the Bronx. She had been doing a little modeling and was getting more involved with her photography. She pulled her camera out of her shoulder bag to show me. She seemed so happy.

Weeks went by. I had just come home from work. There was a knock on my door. It was Rita. She’d been listening for me to come home. She wanted to catch me before I knocked on her door. Eddie, another friend was there and was pretty freaked out. Mary was dead. My first thought was that something had happened to her in the Bronx. But then Rita said “Drew killed her”. It was one of those moments when you think you must have heard wrong or misunderstood. What she was saying didn’t make sense. So she told me what Eddie told her.

After Mary had moved out of the apartment with Drew, Eddie moved in. Apparently, Drew wasn’t handling the breakup well. He was already trying to deal with his mother’s terminal illness and losing Mary had driven him into depression. That weekend, he asked Eddie to go to his parents so he could have the apartment to himself. He was going to ask Mary to come over and try to convince her to come back. Eddie obliged. When he returned on Sunday, he found Mary dead and Drew overdosed on pills. Mary had come as Drew asked and while she was sitting on the couch, Drew went to the closet, got out his rifle and shot her in the heart. Then he wrote a suicide note and took the pills. Drew was lucky. They got to him in time.

Now Eddie was here because he couldn’t go back to that apartment. Rita was letting him stay temporarily but she had another roommate who was traveling but would be home that week. Rita asked me to come and talk to him for awhile and keep him occupied. We sat and talked all night. About everything but what happened. We laughed and listened to music and got stoned. I asked Eddie if he wanted to be my roommate. The girl I had been living with, a strange androgynous creature that I rather meanly referred to as “Elizabeth the Klingon” due to her unfortunate protruding forehead and unibrow, had recently moved out. Eddie excepted.

We got through that week somehow. Calling other friends with the news, dealing with Mary’s younger sister who crashed with us because she couldn’t stand the atmosphere at home, the wake, the funeral. The following weekend, Eddie moved in. We got him unpacked and settled. We tried hanging out with friends and having fun but neither of us was really in the mood. On Sunday evening, we sat in the shoebox that passed for our living room. The window was open to let in what little breeze there was. The light was fading so we lit a candle. We rolled a joint and passed it back and forth in silence. I looked at Ed. He suddenly seemed much older. “I guess this is what it feels like to be an adult” I said. “This is how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives.” He stared at the candle. “Yeah, I guess so.”

I’ve thought about that evening many times. I truly mark that as the moment I left the innocence of youth behind. Oh I don’t mean I was naive to the pain and trouble of life. And I’d seen death before. But never the death of one of us! We were young. We were immortal. Death wouldn’t touch us for many years. But it did and it took one of the best and brightest.

This realization of our own mortality didn’t stop us from being reckless. We still did crazy, on-the-edge things. But now, the next day there might be a feeling of regret or a relief that we escaped unscathed. No more the blind freedom of invincibility. And perhaps it was a blessing that this overtook us so early. It was just a slight breeze, a warning of the maelstrom to come when a few years later so many were lost to AIDS. Even Ed.

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Sifting Through A Life

I was sick this weekend, down with some bug that left me feeling like I had been body-slammed by The Hulk. I wanted nothing more on Saturday but to remain in bed as late as possible and then to spend the rest of the day in PJs and bathrobe drinking herbal tea. But my husband is a task master. He reminded me that we needed to start cleaning out my Aunt’s house. “It’s not going to get done if we don’t do it.” Although I had a legitimate excuse to beg off, I also knew that if we didn’t get started, I would find another reason to postpone this very unwanted chore. I loaded up on Alka-Seltzer Plus, dressed warmly and slept in the car for the hour and a half trip to my family home.

There was a parking spot right in front of the house when we arrived, so we parked there instead of navigating the narrow, cheek-walled driveway. While my husband got the construction trash bags out of the back, I stood looking at the two-family brick home I’d grown up in. At one time, seven of us shared that house; my mother and father and I downstairs and my grandmother, two aunts and and uncle upstairs. It was empty now. I moved my aunt up to Connecticut with me eleven months ago. Nobody has lived there since then.  I have been back a number of times to take care of various issues and I never noticed any change. But it looked different now. Desolate. My last, living connection to it was gone. It was just a vacant building now.

I knew what faced us. I’d been there since my Aunt began her decent into dementia. I knew it was dirty and cluttered. But I’d always had some other purpose to occupy me while I was there. Now I was just trying to empty it out.

The stale smell of a closed up place assaulted me the moment we opened the door to her apartment. And there is an odor about the very old that is difficult to describe but unforgettable that clings to anywhere they have spent time. I looked around at the piles of random things, the signs printed in large print with names and numbers and other important things taped up everywhere and all the other tricks she developed to navigate through the jungle of her life. Truthfully, it was depressing thinking about this woman who was an executive, who worked until she was 79, struggling to figure out how to do the simplest of tasks.

Our goal was just to clean out her bedroom. We began with her clothes, just pulling them out of closets and drawers and putting them into bags for Good Will. There was a stark contrast. She had always been a meticulous dresser. Smart, tailored suits from Saks, silk blouses and casual clothes from Talbots. They were there, hung sharply on good hangers in dry cleaning bags. But there was also, stained, cheap pull on pants and dingy tops hung haphazardly on bent, wire hangers. In the end, she was rinsing out laundry in the sink because she was afraid of the washer in the basement.

The dresser held much more than clothes. She had kept every greeting and birthday card sent her, many of them from me. And photos everywhere. And all sorts of “junk” that had held some meaning for her but meant nothing to me and therefore went into the garbage bag. I felt like an intruder, a voyeur and a heartless despot tossing aside things that obviously she held close. I kept all the photos; they would be gone through at a later date. But even they would be decimated. I knew there would be many faces I would not know and therefore would end in the trash pile. I felt I was judging her life in a way, what was worth saving and what was not. I know she was more than the sum of the things she had collected and treasured but still…

We opened a second closet in her room and the bottom was full of bags of used and unused Depends and dirty underwear. I imagine she knew she couldn’t flush them but was embarrassed to put them in the trash on the chance someone would find them. She was always proud. We had to make a cursory search before just tossing them because she would put important and good things in with things to be thrown out.

In the bottom of one, I found something wrapped in tissue paper. It was a beautiful, Christmas ornament in the shape of a rose. I’ve written before of the significance of a rose  to me. It is always a sign from someone I love who has died that they are with me. I find them in the most unexpected places. And mixed in with the Depends was the most unexpected place. It was then I knew Aunt Mary was letting me know that it was OK for me to be sorting through her things. She probably felt bad that Paul and I had to do it to begin with.

That day, we threw away more than we kept or gave away and we still have a whole house to sort through. But I know now that none of that matters. It doesn’t matter to me and it doesn’t matter to my Aunt because the only thing she took with her and the only thing she left behind is the love.

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Resolution

 

This year
I will peel back
The layers of ego
That hide me from myself.

This year
I will release
All the fears and resentments
That weigh me down
And tie my wings.

This year
I will give my mind permission
To follow the magic
And chase after dreams.

This year
I will be awake
And open my heart
To everyone and everything.

This year
I will find my way closer
To The One.

This year.
This day.
This moment.

Now.

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Grandmother’s Blessing

It did not feel much like Christmas this year. There was much sadness in my home and outside, no beautiful, sparkling blanket of snow. Christmas Eve day was overcast and foggy and warm enough to walk out in a tee shirt. My husband went to run some errands and I stayed behind to work around the house. I went out back to pick up after the dogs and got side tracked. Paul tells me that I do that all the time, get side tracked, but something will catch my attention and I’m off. In this case, it was our backyard planter. I saw there was still so much that was green so I went to check it out. I was surprised to find a single pink blossom blooming in the back. As I stood there amazed and admiring the wonder of nature, I heard a voice saying, “Go look. There’s more.”

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I’ve lived here for ten years and there are still many parts of our woods that I have never walked. I went down our garden steps and saw how the plants were confused and beginning to sprout.

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I continued down the hill, following the old, stone wall that ran down to the road. I stopped, took a deep breath and decided to let my heart look. The first thing I saw was a fairy castle.

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It had a magic portal on top.

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I saw the skull of a dead tree.

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Farther along was a snake tree.

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There was a velociraptor head.

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And a miniature forest.

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And just so much green.

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A beautiful rock that seemed a world of it’s own.

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And moss dressed for the holiday.

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Finally, I stopped at Grandmother Tree. I knew it was she who had guided me on my walk. She stood there reaching up to the sky with her strong arms, her finger branches spreading out to bless and protect us all.

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“Thank you, Grandmother. You have given me so many gifts. I would not have seen them without your showing me. Merry Christmas.”
I know she heard me because as I walked across the expanse of lawn I found one more gift, a single, beautiful pine cone. I picked it up and held it to my face and breathed in the scent of Christmas.

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