My Beautiful Friend

I would like to be a nest if you were a little bird
I would like to be a scarf if you were a neck and you were cold
if you were music I would be an ear
if you were water I would be a glass
if you were light I would be an eye
if you were a foot I would be a sock
if you were the sea I would be a beach
and if you were still the sea I would be a fish and swim in you
and if you were the sea I would be salt
and if I were salt you would be lettuce
or avocado or at least a fried egg
and if you were a fried egg I would be a piece of bread
and if I were a piece of bread you would be butter or marmalade
and if you were jam I would be the peach in the jam
and if I were a peach you would be a tree
and if you were a tree I would be your sap
and course through your limbs like blood
and if I were blood I would live in your heart.

“Para Una Joven Amiga Que Intentó Quitarse La Vida” by the Chilean poet, Claudio Bertoni (From the Spanish) – featured in the magnificent original film Gloria, and also its remake, the lesser, Gloria Bell. Illustration: The Dream, by Henri Rousseau

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Living in a Body

I watched a film last night called “Catch the Wind.” Well, that was its English title; it was a French film, and featured a nuanced performance by Sandrine Bonnaire who I hadn’t seen in anything in probably 20 years. Whenever she smiled that impishly dimpled smile of hers, it returned her younger face to the surface, but as she was stoic during much of the film, the years of life and time showed on her features and in her eyes, especially.

I seek out these films, particularly the French and Scandinavian, and some British, too, for the aging faces of actresses and the stories imagined about women in mid-life and beyond. I love many of Isabelle Huppert’s films and Charlotte Rampling’s collaborations with the director Francois Ozon. You can see that Ozon appreciated Rampling’s beauty—age did not diminish it in his eyes—in “The Swimming Pool” and “Under the Sand.” Although, Rampling has been a sex symbol since “The Night Porter” in 1974, so it’s possible that Ozon only continued to see her in the way he had before, much in the way that Marilyn Monroe was viewed as a sex symbol until the time of her death. Whatever Ozon’s motivations, Rampling is even more alluring in these films. Her maturity and complexity are sexy as hell. And those eyes. In “Under the Sand,” she sits astride a new lover, her bare breasts exposed, her expression as enigmatic as ever.

Isabelle Huppert’s performances are ferociously sexual. A strong woman defined by intelligence and agency, her sinewy body is not lush, but desirable in its provocation, its intention. Huppert makes no concession to age. You can see that she feels sexy; refuses to be consigned to the junkheap of sexlessness. In films like “Elle” and, 15 years before it, “The Piano Teacher,” she is a lesson in female empowerment. 65 years old now and at the height of her career, she is no one’s object. Maybe that is what it takes, what is required of us as we age, in order to maintain our power (in spite of society’s never-ceasing efforts to diminish it).

I seek out these films yet find it difficult to see myself in the same way I do Bonnaire, or Rampling, or Huppert. Still, I look to them for inspiration. American actresses aren’t much help in this as they are disguised to look like younger women. I don’t say this with any judgment. I feel (and have felt) the same pressure myself. But there is no comfort in seeing a woman trying very hard to appear younger than she is. It’s like she is saying: “accept my mask because I no longer trust you to accept my face.” I understand it. I put on a full face of make-up every day. I don’t know that I would allow a man to see me bare-faced in the bright light of morning. But I would like to be more like Isabelle Huppert. This self-condemnation is something to be gotten over, to be mastered. Watching these films, I find the European actresses so beautiful, not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them. I want to appreciate my own face and body in the same light. I want to accept myself without needing to camouflage the scars and marks of aging.

While I am alive, I want to be alive.

I am living in a body that has been alive for 60 years; it’s true. But what does it mean? This was really the kernel of inspiration for my new novel, and why I titled it: While We Have Bodies. My character is called “Shel” because she is a vessel, a shell for whatever it is that is other than a body.

Imagine if we were to be only souls without physical form. Wouldn’t we kill to have bodies then? Without bodies, there would be no contact with others. No kisses, no hugs, no smiles, no hand-holding, no ruffling of hair, no discovery of ticklish spots, no arm across our shoulder, no foot rubs, no being held. No way of making any physical contact. I mean, imagine the longing, the desire to have any body at all. An old body, a disabled body. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.

My body is 60 years old but it is still a body. It is not a 30-year-old body or a 40-year-old body, but it can run around the reservoir and up five flights of stairs. It can do many things I want it to do and could do more if I allowed it to. Provided that I don’t restrict my behaviors according to an ageist culture that says my body and I are finished, that we should stay hidden, that we should forget we have a body at all.

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Doe, my love 2008-2019

I felt terrified of the moment when she would die. I have been through it with other animals and it’s never easy, but I knew losing her would be much harder. She is my companion in a deep way, I think because it’s been just the two of us. Also, she is a dog. I have loved cats, certain of them more than the humans I lived with at the time, but loving a dog is different. Their needs are constant and their attention is always on you. A cat no matter how much it loves you will treat you with some indifference. A dog, never. Its love is big and devoted and demands a corresponding feeling. A dog is both a permanent toddler and your best friend. Which doesn’t quite explain the way I love this particular dog—who is clever and funny and sensitive. She moves to curl up against me every time she wakes in the night. And in the morning rolls onto her back to have her belly rubbed. She gazes at me with intelligent brown eyes. She has the softest fur, is beautiful and elegant, and this is not only my very biased opinion. It is confirmed by strangers every day on the street who say, “What a beautiful dog!” and “What breed is she?”

“She’s a Papillion mix,” I reply, though, in fact, I’m not sure what breed she is, or what mix. She is uniquely herself, my Doe. When I ask her a question, her ears pop up to signal yes. Ears back, means no. If I say, “Do you want to visit Tracy and Jasper?” she will pull me all the way to 96th Street, right to their door. I don’t care what anyone says to dispute it; she understands what I say. When I first saw her, it was in a photograph on Petfinder.com. She was wearing a cheap red collar, standing outside in the snow, looking directly into the camera lens. I chose her from dozens of dog-photographs, for her intelligent expression, her delicate beauty, her tragic circumstances. She was 8 months old when I brought her home and we have been inseparable ever since. For 10 years, I have loved her more.

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Last Day of Summer

There were men on paddle-boards and no one else in the ocean, but the water was warm and I walked along the shoreline, ankle deep, with the seagulls who thought I was chasing them; I was, but only because they ran from me. I just wanted to talk to them, and remark on the beautiful morning we shared. The sun was shining and it was 75 degrees. The clouds looked painted on the blue sky and the waves felt soft and inviting as a bath.

My mother sat a few yards away, up on the sand, wearing her jean jacket and sunglasses. When I was sixteen, I used to beg her to drive me to the beach because seeing the ocean could always act against my depression, especially in the winter when a strong wind could blow it away and there was no one else around. I don’t get depressed the way I did then when I thought life seemed unbearably long and wondered how I’d get through it. Now I know all the tricks, and, besides, it’s three-quarters over. I still get sad though. I guess it’s the same things that get to me and the same things that save me. More than a half century of love and loss and the beauty of the world.

I walked back and sat beside my mother. She is 84 and doesn’t get depressed, not even when she has a good reason. I thought: How many more days like this? The sand was smooth and clean and we buried our feet in it and then walked on the boardwalk. I got a lobster roll from a food truck. My mother got an orange soda, but the bees liked it and chased us back to the car.

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Our Fragile Bodies

Yesterday, Doe and I were in that place in the park… just north of the bridle path, on the East Side but west of the road. The hill there slopes down on two sides to form a bowl of newly mowed grass, surrounded by trees. It’s one of our favorite places to rest and think. I never take for granted the joy of having Doe resting there, beside me. Yesterday, it was overcast but the sun kept breaking through. Still, it felt like it could rain at any moment. There was a strong breeze and it was quiet except for the noise of the trees moving in the wind. We were almost alone there except for an occasional runner, up on the bridle path, and two young women on the far side of the bowl, doing cartwheels and taking pictures of one another with a real camera. I made an effort to be where I was, there with Doe, and not in my head thinking of unreal things, or lost things, or things not happened yet.

The time with K. starts to feel like a dream. Like it didn’t happen. Or like it happened but wasn’t real. Although, every day there is the painting he gave me, on the wall, and the memory of some sweet or funny thing he said. I truly thought I was beyond it ever happening again but I should know better than to underestimate life’s surprises. It was poignant and heartbreaking for many reasons, none of them romantic. Romantically, there is no issue. I’m convinced of this, although who knows? I suppose, despite my feelings, it could be one-sided, but I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the problem this time.

Like always, it is my work that rescues me, a new novel completed (K. helped, reviewing each chapter, encouraging me to go forward). I’m looking for a new agent and will take my time doing so. I don’t want this book to be sold into oblivion. I want to find someone who will find the right place for it, respect it, and support it. The new book is called While We Have Bodies. I started it long before K. and I got together but the title resonated during that time. Our fragile bodies. They serve the purpose of containing us– our souls, or whatever it is that makes us, us.

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Second-Hand Sweaters and Artifacts

I was at Housing Works the other day — Doe drags me in there numerous times per week: they give her dog biscuits, the shitty kind she isn’t allowed at home. Anyway, I don’t mind being dragged into Housing Works. I like thrift stores and consignment shops. Sometimes, I look down at myself as I walk along and realize that everything I’m wearing from coat to jeans has been worn by someone else first. Better second-hand cashmere than fast fashion, I say — better for the world and for me too. I continue to enjoy beautiful things though I can no longer afford them. Who can? The price of things has become absurd. I know there are many in my position. It’s the state of the changing world. There are a lot of poor people. In fact, I’m well off by most standards. I have a roof over my head and food to eat. My animals receive medical care when they need it. There are many, many worse off. And truthfully, I’m more comfortable living a bare-bones existence anyway. I’m repulsed by shows of excess. I suppose our non-president has brought into focus the grotesquery of wealth. Greed is so ugly, the opposite of compassion. What kind of fantasy do you have to live in to believe you deserve to travel by private plane while others live in refugee camps or don’t have enough to eat?

But this isn’t what I meant to write about at all. I meant to write about the strange sensation that came over me while I was looking through second -hand sweaters at Housing Works. They always have music playing and on this occasion, the song being blasted at a pretty good volume over the sound system was a David Bowie song — strangely, I can’t recall now which song it was; perhaps, it will come back to me before I finish writing this. But I was enjoying listening to the song, and that’s when it happened, this weird shift in perspective. Suddenly, I found myself feeling sad and thinking that Bowie is dead and, more and more, the music being blasted through speakers in stores, and restaurants, and everywhere is an artifact– not of the present but the past. And that increasingly we will live in a world where this is true. It wasn’t even a thought so much as a feeling. Kids will grow up loving music, art, fashion from decades before they were born. They will understand Bowie and the Beatles and Joni Mitchell as artifacts, not artists. Anyway, maybe this is not such a big revelation, but it struck me as such.

It’s possible that this sense of the world, as increasingly strange, is characteristic of aging– getting old, I mean. Unbelievably, I will turn 60 in March. I still love the world, have become increasingly appreciative of it, in fact. Not the horrible things, of course, of which there are too many. But the beauty of it: the five-story maple tree outside my window, the birds, and the rooftops. Good friends and family. My work, which continues to give me something to do and, on good days, provides meaning.

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Beast of Beauty

I’m sitting here at my desk by the window with its view of the big maple tree. All the rain this spring has turned it into a beast of beauty. I need to find other words for lush and green because I write the tree into everything. It seems sentient, alive, not only in the sense that we think of plants as being alive. But as if it has consciousness — if trees (and animals) are more aware than we know, imagine what they must think of our barbaric species? I’m ashamed to be human sometimes.

I am done with school as of last week, a graduate of 2017. I returned to Hunter to complete my degree after thirty-plus years. I wanted to be a better writer, and thought I might want to teach writing and so would need the degree. But in the end, I believe I made a good decision at twenty when I decided life was a better teacher. Maestra Vida in the words of someone I once loved. I enjoyed my classes, read literature and poetry that I had overlooked; took courses in human rights, history, philosophy, math, and science, too. But on the other end, it does feel like an indulgence or diversion. I’m anxious to get back to my own work. I’ve started a novel and would like to write some new music. I’ll probably need a job too, something part-time, but I’d rather clean houses than work in academia. I reject its small-mindedness and rigidity, its insularity and obstruction of individualism and creativity. (I know that’s harsh and probably unfair.)

As I worried about what I would do next, I got an email from Lyndsey P. about writing a tribute to Gregg Allman for Yahoo, and then G. requested my manuscript, “The Ones I Loved,” to give to his new publisher. So, I wrote the Gregg Allman piece — the link is posted on the “News” page — and now I’m revising the manuscript before sending it to G. It’s easier to see the tweaks that need to be made, two years later. I am in no danger of sitting idle. It feels wonderful, though, to be free of a schedule, for now at least.

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Something in Your Eye

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here; since I’ve wanted to write. I read an article in the New Yorker this morning about a Brazilian author, Raduan Nassar, who wrote two short highly regarded novels years ago and then quit to be a farmer. Repeatedly, he was asked why he had quit writing but he didn’t know. He tried to come up with explanations over the years but the truth was probably he just no longer wanted to. Reading Swann’s Way by Proust, I think, again, about how the best writing comes from a need to communicate. More than a need, a compulsion. All good writing is one side of a conversation, a necessary communication. Reading Proust, one has the sense that his reflections were essential to him. When you have something in your eye, you don’t have to coax yourself to remove it. Emotional disturbance, loneliness, political unrest, disappointment, longing. These things motivate an outpouring. What is the purpose of writing only to have written? I admire the writer who becomes a farmer when he has said all he has to say.

At times, I have clung to my identifying label “artist.” Who am I without that which I have always been? I’ve been thinking about this a long time; I wrote “Part Missing” fifteen years ago. I’m a part/of the woman I used to be/I don’t know what’s become of the rest of me/Did I leave her there with you? As a musician and songwriter, I have been genuine in my need to communicate, to connect with others in the world. And I still feel that need, despite an ever increasing hermithood. (How proud I feel to be a member of the resistance, for example, to be a woman ready to do what we must to protect our freedoms and our planet.) I still want to write, to connect, but have not felt the same need to communicate. Has it been sated by social media? That would be a shame, I suppose. I don’t know. The truth is, the answer is a mystery.

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Time and Advertising

Just in time for spring, the winter issue of 3 a.m. analog was ready. Maybe this speaks to the way musicians conceive of time, always a little late. Although, I tend to be early (which is why I’m calling our Winter issue, the almost Spring issue). It features a beautiful piece of writing by Rob O’Connor (about Richard Buckner) as well as stories by Sylvie Simmons, Jesse Harris, and me (the next installment of my serial, Cold Weather, Part 2).

Time seemed to expand the way it does when there is too much to do. Not only were we wrapping up the new issue of 3aa (as Jana refers to it), but Paul and I were working on a job for DW and, of course, there was my full course load, and lesson plans for the class I’m teaching this semester. It is an amazing phenomenon that when there is too much to do, the hours seem to stretch to accommodate it all. When I was sitting at my table all day, writing, the day flew by. It was morning. I took Doe for a walk, and then it was evening. Now the days and weeks are full to capacity, yet there seems to be time for everything.

The job for DW was kind of a nightmare. Not the composing part. I do love writing music to picture and the short film was beautiful and had a lovely slow pace to it, but DW was the worst he has been in that way he can be. I think he was being tortured by his client because he was impossible to please and it was frustrating when I felt I was giving him the best work I’ve done in a long time. I haven’t worked on music much lately and the first two pieces, and then two more, seemed to appear as if they had always existed. Thank God for Paul who said, “Wow, these are really good,” because DW was awful about everything I gave him and, in the end, cut one piece to bits, looping it needlessly, when the original served the same purpose only did it better. Advertising work is crap in the end. Not because of the work itself but because of the inherent disrespect. It’s challenging, to say the least. Of course, the money is meant to compensate for this but there isn’t as much of that anymore, even in advertising.

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January

The warm weather continues through the last days of December in New York City. These were taken in Central Park on the same day. One of the koi pond in the Conservatory Garden, the second of the hill where we stop sometimes to rest before rounding the last stretch of bridle path to 90th Street. I suppose this format has become archaic and I should be posting these to Instagram or Twitter but it seems too much bother. I like it here, writing to no one and everyone without the possibility of “likes.” It can’t be good for anything to have each tiny portion of your creative output approved or acknowledged. I don’t need to know what the world thinks every minute. It isn’t helpful and this is not just my opinion but common thought — or used to be.

The days have been running together since the semester ended. I took on too much with teaching and a full course load, and tutoring too. I’ll try to go easier next semester. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing it for, going to school, though it does fill the days with new things to learn and I think it is helping me to become a better writer, although not in the way I imagined it would. Like everything else, it seems to be just the doing — the doing and doing and doing — that makes one a better anything. No one can tell you how. Or that’s been my experience with playing music and singing too. I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this. We teach ourselves really and it takes time.

Speaking of music, I’ve started a couple of new songs recently and wonder about them. They seem to lack something I used to find easily, an emotional center, an emotional motor. They have pretty melodies and are connected to my thoughts and memories as they always have been. I don’t know what this means, but my early obsession (when I was a young teen,) about why the songs of musical artists I liked weren’t as good as they got older, seems a premonition, a personal prediction. (I can remember thinking about this for the first time at my grandmother’s house in Fort Lauderdale. I must have been about thirteen.)

I have the month of January off and am looking forward to writing and reading, sleeping and cleaning. Unstructured days are the greatest luxury in my opinion. I’ve had more than my share of them — practically a lifetime’s worth. It has been an adjustment to conform to a schedule, although I see its appeal. There is freedom in a lack of freedom — you don’t have to invent your days, only show up for them. Since classes ended on the 17th, I have watched all ten hours of “Making a Murderer” on Netflix. I have read (or am reading): “The Empathy Exams” by Leslie Jamison, “Dear Mr. You” by Mary-Louise Parker, “10:04″ by Ben Lerner, “M Train” by Patti Smith, and others. My stacks are beginning to take over the apartment and I will get rid of some books, donate them to Housing Works, along with clothing I intend to cull from my over-stuffed closets, before the end of January. But this morning I sit here writing this, surrounded by dog and cats, drinking a huge mug of black tea, and enjoying the sunshine after a few days of rain. Before the week is out, it will be a new year.

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