The Dreams that Break Your Heart

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE BEAUTY OF LIVING

from “The Dreams that Break Your Heart”

Chapter 24

“I am here

Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.”

 -T.S. Eliot

What follows is an excerpt from my memoir, “The Dreams that Break Your Heart.”

My parents and several of their friends are gathered around the kitchen table.  Scattered across the tabletop are pistachio shells, orange rinds, espresso cups, a bottle of Sambuca, another of limonata, and an ashtray with a lit cigarette in its belly.  A woman’s fur coat is draped over a chair in the dining room; above it, on the table, sits a man’s fancy hat, black ribbon wrapped around its width.  Two of the visitors are from out of state, the man an old friend of my father’s, a B-rate Napolitano singer he used to run with back in Italy, and then later, here, in New York, in the days when my mother was pregnant with me.  He had tried to be his manager.  It was, my father would say, the only business venture he got on board with that never took.

Because the singer is there, and because my father is proud, he says he wants everyone to hear something and starts walking toward the stereo in the dining room.  I hear him fumbling through the racks of cassette tapes and records that surround the stereo.  My mother collects music the way rich women collect diamonds.  She plays the albums of her favorite Napolitano singers whenever she cleans the house, which she does incessantly, and her voice, light and magical as communion wafer, never fails to give me pause as it breaks out of someone so strong and intimidating.  This tape my father is looking for is not of Nino D’Angelo or Louis Prima, but of me, and I put up a herculean protest.  I beg my father not to.

“Please daddy, no, please don’t play it.”

I tug on the hem of his shirt, my protests as insignificant as gnats he doesn’t even bother to swat away.  The smile on his face, on my mother’s face, and even on the faces of our visitors, is in stark contrast to the dread I’m feeling.

“No daddy! Please! Don’t!”

I give up on him as he takes the cassette case into his hand and opens it, and I try to persuade my mother.

“Mommy please make him stop. Please don’t let him play it!”

And she laughs.

“Stop that,” she says. “You sound nice. What’s the matter with you?”

Then the first few notes of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” pop into our kitchen, the frantic strum of that synthesized violin, and I run straight toward the front of the house, into the enclosed porch and slam the door shut behind me.  I fall onto the couch and try to cover my ears but I can still hear my sugar-like voice singing, because my father has cranked up the volume.

Papa I know you’re going to be upset,

Cause I was always your little girl …

I had gone with my father to the indoor flea market I usually go to with my mother, where there are aisles of booths selling children’s clothing, women’s clothing, bottles of perfume, cassette tapes, t-shirts with funny sayings ironed onto them, even an open space in the back where a man sells water beds and exercise machines.  Down the first aisle after the entrance, on the right side, past the salted hot pretzels rotating in their yellow-lit box, is the most magical booth of all, the booth my mother never has the patience to let me go into: Step to Stardom Recording Studios.

My father, with whom I have an unspoken agreement that when my mother is not around, he will buy me whatever I want, culling as much joy from the exchange as I do, waited as quietly and patiently as a monk while I looked through the binder of song options, my stomach fluttering, excited as a moth that’s just found a light bulb to sputter around.  I had only to see Madonna listed there to decide.

“‘Papa Don’t Preach,’” I said to the man who runs the booth.

DaddyandDolores

My daddy and me.

“You sure?” he asked, looking down at me. He looked to my father, “You sure?” he asked again.

My father, who, with his patchy and heavily accented English, doesn’t know “Papa Don’t Preach” from “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” or even what those words strung together mean, shrugged his shoulders.

“Whatever she wants,” he said.

I feel a kinship with Madonna because she is singing to her daddy, which means she is as close to him as I am to mine, and because, although she is a brazen American girl, in the video, for a brief moment, she is leaning against a railing, confident and proud, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Italians do it better.”  In the booth, which felt to me like a private recording studio but was in reality a cubicle, stapled from top to bottom with egg crate foam, I slid the headphones over my little head, and I did not hold back.

Daddy daddy if you could only see,

Just how good he’s been treating me …

I don’t understand what I’m singing any more than my father does.  I think I’m singing a simple love song.  I sing but my friends keep telling me to give it up, and this “it” means nothing specific to me.  Give it up Dolores, my big bothers say when I pester them about something I cannot have.  Give it up.  Leave it alone.  Whatever you want you’re not getting.  And “it” is amorphous, everything.  Not once, however, has it ever been a baby.  This is the farthest thing from my mind when I belt out I’m gonna keep my baby …  This baby she’s keeping is her boyfriend, see?  Baby love.  Baby come to me.  Tell me now baby is he good to you.  Baby you and me girl.  Baby you’re much too fast.  I’m gonna keep my baby, my boy, my movie-screen magical love.

Don’t you stop loving me daddy,

            I know, I’m keeping my baby…

When I stepped out of the booth my father stood off by the aisle, head turned away from me, taking in the sights around him.  He turned, saw me and smiled, and I instantly wished I had not recorded myself singing about wanting to keep my baby.  I felt like a traitor who just documented her treason.  The man handed me the record of that treason in the form of a cassette tape, my father opened his wallet to pay for it, and he didn’t know what he was paying for.  I held the cassette in my warm little palm, and my father put his arm behind my head, right hand on my right shoulder, because the crowd had grown thicker.  He guided me toward the exit.

Growing up. Me, channeling Madonna.

Then, later: Me, channeling Madonna, and the beginnings of my self.

My voice is still bouncing through the house like a girl on too much cotton candy as the longest four minutes and twenty-eight seconds of my life draws to a close.  I hear their laughter and praise from the kitchen.  The door opens.  In walks my father’s friend the singer to give me a pep talk on how one cannot be shy if one is going to perform, on how if one is going to sing one has to be brave.  He smells like spicy cologne and cigarettes.  The gold ring on his pinky distracts me.  It’s a nice gesture, but I just want him to go away.  I feel as though a private side of me was just shown like a film across the walls of our kitchen, a secret self, a burgeoning self I hadn’t realized I needed to keep private.

Papa I know you’re going to be upset,

Cause I was always your little girl …

I was growing up, and I did not want my father, especially, to know.

Birth Day

“You must not cling to your boyhood any longer -

It’s time you were a man.”

- Athena to Telemachus, The Odyssey

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Some years are for contraction.

Some years are for expansion.

Some years we make promises to ourselves

that we forget to keep.

 

And some years we make vows.

 

And we will keep them

even if we have to leave people behind,

even if we have to leave ideas behind,

even if we have to leave our minds behind,

even if we have to leave ourselves behind,

the way a soldier leaves his mother,

the way a river leaves the ocean,

the way a note leaves its song.

Behind

all of it

leave it

behind

 

if that’s what it takes

to demonstrate -

There is another way of looking at the world.

 

This year, if you see me

don’t call out my name.

It’s a sound I must not cling to any longer.

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to the one I do not love

Let’s shout this song out to our fear, to the brutal ego,

which tries to blind us to our grandeur…

“Now I’m done believing you

you don’t know what I’m feeling

I’m more than what you made of me

I followed the voice you gave to me

But now I’ve got to find

my own…”

For It

photo

After you fight for it,

sweat for it,

beg, pray, weep

and muscle every fiber of everything you have for it,

let it go.

Give it to God.

Lean back into its flow, belly to the sky, and let it ride…

A Fire Like That

       “This is our function in each other’s lives:

           to hold the space for each other’s beauty…”

                                                                        - Marianne Williamson

^

You don’t have to be broken to be

loved,

wildly, madly loved.

Love, to be wild, does not have to be

Frieda and Diego – that old romantic story of agony, arrows to the heart, wound after wound delivered by the beloved.

Love, to be stable, does not have to be

your mother and father – an arrangement bolted into place, where passion, like a wayward teenager, slipped out a dark window long ago.

That’s a paradigm you absorbed.

That’s a story you told yourself.

 

Stop telling the stories you tell yourself.  Those stories about what you want and what you do not want; about what he needs to be and what he cannot be.

Sister, hear me: He doesn’t need to come bearing Dylan records – or whatever it is you imagined him carrying, once upon a time, when you first painted him in your mind – in order to be worthy of your love.  You painted him as your mind wants him, and so he is limited.  He is smaller than life.  He is not real.  He is a figment of your imagination.

Are you going to pass on a real man for a life spent looking for a figment of your imagination?

Let him come as he comes, carry what he carries.

Let him give you, instead of poetry, solidity.

Girlfriend, a man’s shoulders.  A man’s kind of love.

Dismantle the stories you told yourself and tear up the paintings you made to illustrate them.  Free yourself, and create space for honest, heavy, wild, real loving.

I use the verb form on purpose.  Love is an action word.

Let him give you.  Let him give it to you every way he can.  Be open as an oyster in his hand, be shucked, slid, swallowed.

Girlfriend – be soulful.

Say, “I need you.”

Say, “I need.”

It’s alright to say it.  That old “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” kind of talk belongs to another time.

This time we live in needs fusion, communion.

When you take communion, that holy host, you let it dissolve into you.  You surrender. Not to guarantees, but to faith and spirit.  You trust, and receive the body of God onto your tongue.  When you take me into your arms, take me the same way you take Him.

Let a woman soften you.  Brother, let her Holy Spirit move you.  Women have been working this way for centuries.  What can they not create?  What can they not heal?  She can give the love that kneads all those places your uncles taught you to harden.  A woman’s touch can open all of that up.  The way a woman’s body opened up when it brought you forth.

Give that kind of love.  A tattooed on your bicep love.  The deepest ink.

A love that kneads

your soul.

Say, “I need a woman.”

Say, “I need.”

Have mercy, good God, be that kind of lover.

That loving changes people, shifts them, saves them…

 

What else can salve the wounds of this time we live in – its anxiety, its isolation, its alienation, its never-good-enough, its never-have-enough – but throbbing, blood pumping love?

We have been looking for that salvation in all the wrong places.  It is not in our work.  It is not in our closet.  It is not in our pills.  It is not in hardening beneath hectic schedules.  It is not in drawing perimeters around our lives, and letting nothing out, and letting no one in.

Be not your mother, an icehouse when your father knocks.  That is womanhood as weapon.  That is womanhood gone mad.  Be not your father, a fortress with no entrance.  That is manhood without soul.

This is not their story.  This is not their time.

Our time is now and it needs

love.

Honey,

love.  Bursting Otis Redding kind of love.  Talking about “come to me, forget the past, think of life we have ahead, my my my baby …”  Move into Motown kind of love.

He is your soldier kind of love, and she is there, right beside you, in the deepest foxhole.

That kind of love.  The all in kind.

That’s what this time needs.

You’ll have to come out of your computer screen for this kind of love.  You’ll have to stand there live and direct, naked and unarmed.  You can’t wear armor and have this kind of love.  That’s why you don’t have it.  Yet.  That’s why you – drink, take pills, sleep with strangers, eat way too much cake, start a brawl at the bar, drown yourself in work, buy more dresses, blame everyone else, say things like, “All the good men are taken,” say things like, “I am unlucky in love.”  Distractions.  Escape routes.  Diversions.  All the ugly games we play to keep ourselves from leaping, from taking the risk, from OPENING THE FUCK UP.  You can’t play safe and feel this kind of love.

You have to choose:

A figment of your imagination, or the real hot-blooded thing?

 

This is not your mamma or your daddy and it is not Frieda and Diego.  It is not settling for either separate beds or broken plates.  It is not either milk or whiskey.

Girlfriend, balance.

This is not fireworks that burn your damn eyes out, scar your flesh, leave your hair charred and smoking.

This is not victim love.

This is love you have to own.

This is a good, strong fire that keeps burning in the hearth,

keeps you warm,

keeps you lit.

But it requires stoking, sister, attention, intention.

A fire like that is stable.  And it is still a fire.

Strike his match.  Be his kindling.  Let him slide you into those flames, let him stoke you, warm you, ignite the two of you.  Just shut up and let him.

This is something new emerging, a sublime creation.  This is art, darling; it is an orchid thriving in lava rock, something twisted beautiful.  It is sexy dressed in a grown-woman’s wardrobe: something left to the imagination, but everything bold and bursting.

Walls shaking but the house don’t fall kind of love.

Moans without breakdowns.

Giving without keeping track of what you gave.

My cup runneth over love.  And my cup is bottomless.

Rock you, baby, love,

but not to break you, love,

to heal you,

love to rock you out of your closed parts, the cordoned, the shuttered.

Holler, love.

“Come to me

for I’m begging, darling,

come to me…”

Love that transfigures.  Ascension love.

Your kingdom come kind of love.

Come, love.

Come.

Rock me baby.

I will not break.

Homeboys! I’m doing this now:

Instagram

and this:

all in service…

If you’re interested, please come along.  And bring that big ol’ heart of yours ..

from “The Dreams that Break Your Heart”

An excerpt from my memoir, “The Dreams that Break Your Heart.”

                                          ’E pariente so’ cumm’ ’e stivale:

                                         chiu` so stritte e chiu te fanno male.

                                          Relatives are like boots,

                                         the closer the tie, the more they hurt you.

                                                                                   - Napolitano proverb

One afternoon,  for some reason, perhaps with thoughts that he would give her money for the chore, my grandmother Addolorata goes to Carmine’s home, her estranged husband, my grandfather, to clean it.  It’s August 1947.  The war is just a few years ended, and the Germans who occupied the areas of Avella and Baiano have gone, leaving only the haunts of their presence in the minds of the people.  For the Southern Italians, nothing has changed.  It was struggle before the war began, struggle during, and struggle still.  Addolorata goes to clean Carmine’s house, and she ends up pregnant with my mother.

My mother felt no love for her father.  When she saw him sitting in the piazza, she would turn and walk the other way.  She would go home and tell her mother, “Aggia vista chillo d’Avella”; I saw the one from Avella.  She never called him papa.

“Not once have you addressed me as ‘papa,’” he would say to her when he was an old man.

“Not once have you behaved like a papa,” she would snap in reply.

She does not name any of her children after him, spurning the custom.  She tells him never will one of her children bear his name.  When my brother is born he is named Anthony, after my uncle.  When my mother is pregnant with me my grandfather tells her, If it’s a boy, you name him Carmine, after me.  If it’s a girl, Carmela.  She named me Addolorata.  He scoffed at my birth name. You named her after that worthless woman?  About my brother’s namesake, he snapped, After il muzzoneAfter that little man.

My mother is a child, maybe seven, maybe eight.  She has holes in her shoes.  She throws a fit and demands new ones.  My grandmother tells her to go to her father.  He has money, she says. He can buy them for you.  But my mother knows that her father will not give her anything freely; if she needs something, she has to live with him as if she were a willing daughter, and she hates to go stay with him.  He is a cold, volatile man reared in il tempo antico, in the old way.  He sleeps on loose hay scattered upon the floor.  He carries a switchblade, and knowing it is hidden somewhere on his person, that he can flip it open with the flick of a wrist, makes her nervous.  It is like visiting with a stranger, a dark, loveless thing that breathes but is never warm.  He takes her to the bars where he plays cards for hours, and she falls asleep at his side sitting upright, until people hiss at him to take that poor child home and put her to bed.  But in need of new shoes, my mother hatches a plan she thinks foolproof:  She will go stay with him for a few days, get him to buy her new shoes, and once he does she will leave with them and return to her mother.

My mother, center,  hiding her busted shoes.

My mother, center, hiding her busted shoes.

He does buy her shoes.  Oh but it’s even better than that!  He buys her a pair of pants, too, which in the mid ‘50s, in Southern Italy, for woman or girl, is a rarity, a precious novelty.  He buys her a coat.  She feels like she sparkles in those new clothes.  She cannot wait to return to her village so all the other kids will see how stylish and well heeled she is.  She looks down at the shoes; they gleam, shiny patent leather against the dusty streets of Avella.  Then the pants, she can hardly believe her eyes.  And buttoned atop all of it, a new coat!  She will return triumphant.

Her father does not want her to leave.  A girl child is meant to be at her father’s side, a surrogate for a wife if the wife were to die, or, in rare cases, as with my grandmother, up and leave.  A girl child is meant to keep house, scrub laundry, cook meals for her father.  She is meant to serve him out of love and devotion, but my mother feels neither, so my grandfather keeps her like a hostage, as if love and devotion are things you kidnap.

My uncle Antonio rides his bicycle to Avella.  When my mother hears his voice she rushes out the doorway and throws her arms around him, kissing him, tears gathering in her eyes.  Antonio plucks his baby sister into his arms and sits her on the handlebars, then pumps the pedals until the wind cuts a howl through their ears and their cheeks flap backward like rippling water.  Her pant-covered legs dangle; her glossy new shoes sway as they ride back to Baiano.  My uncle will rescue her this way more than once.  Throughout his brief life, he will be the stern but loving father she never had.

Now my mother has it all — the shoes, the clothes, and she is back home.  The neighborhood children surround her.  They have to get down on all fours to touch the hem of her pants.  They marvel at their reflection in the polished patent shoes.  They run their little hands down the arms of the coat, thinking that her father must really love her, and they are envious of this love.

Soon, there is a knock upon the door.  One of my grandfather’s neighbors stands in the doorway.  He has been sent on my grandfather’s behalf to take back the shoes, take back the pants, take back the coat.  My mother waits helplessly in the middle of the room, hemmed in by the dank walls, and weeps as the man gathers the items.  It feels as though, with each item he lifts into his arms, the color is being stripped from life layer by layer.  By the time he is done, her life is back to black and white.  My grandmother is afraid of my grandfather; he takes her to the village court when my mother refuses to stay with him.  She is scared of his hot hands and of the money he has that she does not, scared that somehow the combination of the two will snatch her daughter from her.  She does not stop the man from taking the clothing.

The new shoes, the pants, the coat, my grandfather gave to his niece.

So it was back to the old pair of busted shoes for my mother.

When I knew Carmine, he had a swollen nose and gray vines of hair shooting out of his puffy ears.  He never lost his acerbic character.  It did not peter out with old age and reflection.  There were no apologies to my mother, no mea culpas.  On a visit to Italy when I was a little girl, my brother Anthony, sister and I found him playing cards in a little trattoria near the piazza, and we had to introduce ourselves.  The trailer he lived in smelled of urine; it was dirty and dilapidated, and my mother brought him back to America with us.  A father was a father, brutta bestia he may have been, and this was something a daughter was trained to acknowledge, love or no love.

This did not last long.  From the moment he stepped foot into our home, he started spewing his trouble.  My brother Dominic had stayed behind in New York as we went to Italy.  When Carmine walked through the door, my brother, a 17-year-old muscular beauty of a young man, lifted my mother into his arms and hugged her to welcome her home.  Carmine did not know this grown grandson of his, and he hadn’t even made it into our kitchen before he beat his cane against the floor and hollered, “Take me back! Take me back me to the airport this minute!”

He turned to my father.

“What man can stand here and watch his wife be embraced by her cumpàre?”  By her lover.

If she left the house during the day, when my father returned home from work Carmine told him that my mother had been out all day with her boyfriend.  If she spoke on the telephone, he told my father that in his absence she had been on the phone with her cumpàre.  If my father had been another type of man, there would have been trouble, but he laughed and humored the old man.

Carmine smoked a pipe all his life and tobacco bits fell into the folds of his necktie.  He hollered at us when we played Nintendo, demanding we turn off the ants on the television screen.  He chased my brothers around, waving his cane in the air, threatening them for whatever infraction he had imagined they’d committed.  Soon he was shipped back to Italy.

My mother told me this story:

Before my parents were married, my grandfather went into a coma.  He lay like that for two days, unmoving, not speaking, no machines, just his body in the hospital bed.  The doctors informed my mother he was going to die, and he would not make it through the night.  In those days, you had to pay to transport a body from a hospital back home, where the dead were laid out for viewing in the beds they had slept in, and the doctors, knowing my mother had no money, urged her to take him home that very night.  Instead she left my uncle Mario, my father’s brother, to stay with him until she could plan his burial.  She went home, and in the morning, she was going to make arrangements for his funeral.  In the morning, a neighbor came over to tell my mother that my father had called to relay a message:  Carmine was awake.  When she got to the hospital, my grandfather was sitting up in bed, eating a tray full of hospital food.  He lived another 25 years.  He died when he was 92.

L’ ’evera male non more maie, my mother says; bad grass never dies.

* * *

Each year my mother receives the handed-down school uniform from a neighbor girl who is a year ahead of her.  The uniforms are different in color for each grade, so when the neighbor gets her new smock for the new school year, she gives her old one to my mother.  This arrangement works well until the beginning of the fourth grade, when the neighbor girl is left back, and needs the uniform for herself.

For several weeks my mother goes to school dressed in plain clothes.  The other children arrive in their clean, identical, pressed smocks, big bows tied elegantly around their necks, and she sits among them in the classroom in an old blouse, a skirt whose seam needs mending, and those broken shoes.

“Where is your uniform?” the maestra asks.

My mother answers, “The seamstress is making it.”

This lie can only stave off the inevitable for so long, as eventually the uniform will need to be produced.  Each day the maestra, standing before the entire class, tapping the thin wooden pointer against her palm, asks her again.

“Dov’è la tua uniforme?”

And my mother says, “The seamstress is making it.”

After school my mother goes home and yells at my grandmother and cries that she needs a uniform.  Of course, there is no money to buy one, so in plain clothes my mother returns to school and to the same banter with the maestra, humiliation accumulating with each passing week.

“But what kind of uniform is this seamstress making you?” says the maestra one day. “Is it made out of gold it’s taking so long?”

From somewhere, my mother manages to get hold of a ragged, torn and patched school apron.  When she puts it on the next morning, buckling the broken shoes over her feet before skipping out the door into the thin, cold autumn air, she feels it will be a victory, just as her return in the new clothes, before they were taken away, was a victory.  To her, the fact of what she looks like is obscured by the hope that buoys her.  She hopes the apron will silence the teacher, and she can get on with schooling, sitting in the classroom just like the other children.  Instead, when she arrives, the maestra stands before the class and loudly and clearly says, “Is that the uniform you paid a seamstress to make?”

My mother halts her path to the little wooden desk.

“You were robbed,” the maestra says.

The kids erupt into laughter.  My mother looks down at herself.  The sound of their laughter chases away the hope, and she sees the fact of what she looks like.

My mother comes home and says to my grandmother, “If you don’t buy me a uniform, I’m not going to school anymore.”

My grandmother says, “Fine. Then don’t go anymore.”

And that is the end of my mother’s schooling, and the beginning of a life of factory lines and punch cards.

A Brief Homage to the Jersey Shore

 

 with prayers for Sandy’s victims, both the people and the places they love

 

Every other summer or so, we head down the shore in Jersey.  It’s never just my family and me, but always a caravan of friends and relatives traveling along the Parkway toward the shore points — car after car packed with children and boxes of pasta, gallons of homemade wine, loaves of Italian bread fresh from Arthur Avenue, pounds of prosciutto and mortadella wrapped in white butcher paper, batons of homemade salami, and hunks of provolone that were toted in pocketbooks from Italy through customs in New York City.

I live among grown ups who give to relaxation the same vigor they give to work.  They put everything they have into both.  For most of them, trouble and struggle are the fixed points of their days, and these good times are the little break of light in the clouds.  They reach for the light like plants stuck in dark pots, and they’ll curse anything or anyone that tries to get between them and the light; this includes cops, hotel proprietors, and their own children.

A block of kitchenette-equipped rooms at a hotel in Seaside Heights has been reserved.  Our caravan rolls in like an invading army.  I am one in a squad of some twenty children, disembarking from station wagons, tearing into the warm salt air, screeching with liberation after the near two-hour car ride.  While the teenagers step out of the cars more coolly, slowly, than us children, aviator sunglasses hiding their eyes, fingers running through hair feathered and teased.  They help unload brown bags of groceries and luggage.  Each family sets up camp in its own room; but every room is everyone’s room, all doors are open to me.  In every photo I’m in on these trips, I am in the arms of someone different — in the arms of mothers who are not mine, of teenage siblings who are not my siblings: But they are my mothers and they are my brothers and sisters.

After the sun goes down, we move in a pack toward the boardwalk.  Its mechanical clanks, its neon and high-wattage-bulb lights create a carnival facade across the air above the thrashing ocean, making the water, all tangled with the moon’s great tug upon it, seem less menacing.  I can already smell the sweet white powder sifted atop the funnel cake my daddy will buy me; I can hear the ding of the game stands, anticipate the balloon atop the clown’s head growing and growing as I shoot the water gun into its mouth, vying for my stuffed bear.  But the grown-ups walk leisurely in their sandals and summer shorts, agonizingly slow for us children who flutter around them like wings, hoping to propel them faster toward the great fluorescent merry-go-round, the shivering roller coaster, the dizzying teacups.  Finally, we reach those wooden planks and pound across the boardwalk, mixing into the stream of sunburned people, the parade of people holding ice cream cones and slices of cheesy oily pizza, with the barkers hollering two plays for a dollar always a winner step right up…

Not the Log Floom, but still some boardwalk fun.

On one corner of the pier, my siblings and I hand our tiny paper tickets over to ride the Log Floom, which hovers over the Atlantic, and from the top of the tracks I can see the dark waves slapping against the beams of the boardwalk way below us, and how wild the ocean really is, how deep, how dark; just before the log-shaped car we sit in launches us rollercoaster-style into a pool of chlorinated water below, I look down and see my parents standing beneath the starry sky, the Himalaya behind them spinning its little cars in a blurring circle while the DJ blasts record after record of dance songs and warns everyone to hold on.  My father has his arm around my mother, his left hand on her right shoulder; my mother holds the bear my daddy shelled out dollar after dollar for me to win, and I feel giddy and loved, feel summer and the magic of the shore flitter in my belly as my big sister grabs my little hands from the metal safety bar and yells, “Hold them up over your head!” And our log floom car sails down the ramp, through the ocean wind; our screams just another high-pitched note in the chorus of boardwalk music.

The next evening, at the hotel, the grown ups take it upon themselves to drag all the patio tables together to make a long, unified table at which all of us can sit to eat, because our mothers have cooked some five pounds of spaghetti and the grill has enough meat on it to feed all of Jersey.  The adults stay up long past the point when we children, sun struck, well-fed, collapse onto laps or pullout sofas.  They drink wine, then espresso, then limonata and Sambuca; they eat pasta, then steak, then salad, then nuts fresh from cracked shells; they smoke cigarettes, laugh laughter of howls, and tease each other with double entendres until the early hours of the next day dawn.

When we wake in the morning, the owner of the hotel, a middle-aged American woman who lives with her reticent husband, is angry because all the furniture is rearranged and because the other guests (there are other guests?) are complaining.

“You can’t just go taking over the place!” the hotel owner says to the grown-ups. “Don’t you know how to behave?” she asks. “You can’t just move things around to suit you!”

This is how they know to behave — eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

And they can, actually, they believe, in their infinite stubbornness and pride, transform with their own two hands any damn place on God’s green earth they set their feet upon.

When the hotel owner, not mollified, stomps away, hollering that we’re not welcomed to stay in her place again, my father sighs, says, “What does she understand? She has no family.”

The Window You Cannot Close

On Loss

Untitled

October 8, 2008 – October 8, 2012

That which is lost be not found.”

                                -  The Winter’s Tale

He’s been gone four years and now you understand what people meant when they placed their hands on your shoulder and said, “It never goes away, but it gets better.”

You wonder, however, about the subjectivity of the word, “better.”

What people mean when they say it never goes away, but it gets better is – the loss never goes away, but the grief gets better.

You are no more okay with his death today than you were the day he died.

You are angry.  You are motherfucking pissed.  If you could, you would stand on top of Mount Sinai and thrust your middle finger up at the sky.  You know that is blasphemous.  You also know that is what loss looks like, and the Lord has to accept it, even if He does not like it.  Just like the rest of us.

Where does grief go?  It’s a mystery as great as the mystery of the loss.  The way it arrives, solid as lead, and then, dissolves.

For a time, day after relentless day, you suffer, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing all kinds of evil, until one of those days you thoughtlessly stop and lift a tulip and admire it.

You are surprised when you realize your grief abated for a few minutes.  It forgot to consume you, or you forgot to be consumed by it.  You are surprised when you realize you thought of something else, felt something else, if only briefly.

And those moments become more numerous.

A little bit at a time, the way hills of snow melt as spring starts to show itself in a brighter sun, your grief begins to thaw.  Steam lifts off cold.  Water glistens as it rolls off ice sheets.

Some people have trouble with this.  Some people equate the lessening of the pain with the lessening of the loss; they think that if they’re in less pain, they must suddenly care less about who they lost.

You want to reassure those people: Nothing you can do lessens the loss.

The death of a loved one is an unsolved crime.  A crime that will never be solved, for which no justice will ever serve.

You live with what is unresolved, that’s all.

You go over the facts of the crime.  You replay the events on the evening or morning in question, wonder if you could have done this, should have done this, should have said this, what if you had tried this …

And people say, “You can’t do that to yourself.”

But all you have is memory.

Pieces of you died when he died.  Some were pieces that needed to go, anyhow.  Some were good pieces of you.

The way life once was died when he died.  Maybe you can reclaim some of those pieces, but there is no reclaiming that life.

So there is, then, a double loss – the loss of the life itself, and the loss of the life you had when that person was in it.

The world turns to winter when Demeter loses Persephone; the Wicked Witch appears when Dorothy loses Aunt Em; Orpheus descends into hell when he loses Eurydice. The landscape changes.  Life changes.  The world is different.  Enter the dark things…

The loss is compounded by the mystery, and the wound grows thick and deep.

And the wound grows thick and deep.

You now know this is what people mean when they say “acceptance,” or at least, what they should mean: You cannot accept the loss.  You must, however, accept that the life you had is gone.

           This is the way the world ends

           Not with a bang but a whimper.

Loss is a window inside of you that will not close.

You are the curtain that billows and shudders when the wind passes through.  So that some days it is harder to get out of bed because of the cold; so that some days your joints ache with the melancholy weather passing through.  But you cannot close the window.  It is in you, agape, forever, a vaporous void shaped to fit your particular frame.

The poets, the wild-haired courageous, the gypsy-eyed saints, the ones who spit in the eye of the beast, the ones who slam their glasses down and wipe their mouths with the back of their hands saying, “Pour me another,” saying, “For the lost,” they don’t try to scrub the dark surface of life clean.

Alchemists, they turn the mystery into magic, pain into illumination, nightmares into bonfires.

For the past four years, you have tried to do the same.  Some days you are better at it than others.

With their shirts ripped open at the chest, with their hearts ripped open, they jump onto tables with their boots unbuckled and cry out and stomp and sing.

The song goes on even though the subject of the song is gone.

 it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive …

The bluesman strokes his guitar and moans a hymn; the choir harmonizes the mystery; the Irish keen.

The song goes on.

The song you sing by living is in honor of him.

You will sing for him until you have no more breath with which to sing.

You will not try to cover up the wound that grows thick and deep and you will raise your glass.  You will neither pretend the loss heals nor keep silent about that fact so as not to disturb the gentile.

For 29 years he was your comrade.

You lived in the trenches together for 29 years.

Like a soldier, you would have taken the bullet for him.

You would have given him part of your organ, would they have let you.

But now all you have left to do is sing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Through a glass darkly

Photo: Benjamin Goss

 “’Cause it’s hard to tell when you’re in the spell

  if it’s wrong or if it’s real,

  but you’re bound to lose if you let the blues

  get you scared to feel …”

                                                    – Joni Mitchell

Memory lays tracks in your blood.  If you are not careful, when a different train comes, hauling brand new cargo, you will remember what someone brought you before, and you will see the new cargo as no different than the old.

If someone, say, once brought you nothing but black top hats, then, if you are not careful, thereafter, anything someone brings you will look like black top hats.

But maybe you are being given roses.

It is hard for you to say, “roses.”  Especially when it comes to love.

You can say “black top hats” and “broken glass,” but “roses” feels like gullibility.

I’ve got a whole railroad line running through me, you say. Too much iron and steel to be fool enough to say, ‘roses.’

And so it is.  And so it will be; unless you can learn to see more than black top hats in your newest lover’s cargo.

You should talk about love simply.  It’s hard to talk about love simply.  Love can be the broom smacked against the parlor rug, sending up all the dust, unsettling all the settled things.  It gets in the air, in your hair, in your eyes, until the world around you is dusted in confusion.

To trust, to distrust.  To believe, to not believe.

Why do you believe you are more damaged than others?  When did you learn to trust black top hats over roses?

Take a minute.  Think of it.

Is it possible every lover comes hauling darkness?

Is it possible the darkness is in your eyes, shading everything you look at?

The lenses of glasses come in different colors – gray, yellow, pink.  You choose them at the department store, thinking of how you want to see the world when you look through them.

To look at love is the same.  The shade you see through is the hue love will wear.

You do not wear the shadings of disbelief well.  They taint your embraces and turn you melancholic.  You grow stronger in your independence and weaker in your openness.  You fall across chairs like a swooning woman and touch your hand to your forehead.  You look over shoulders and see nothing worth harvesting.

Maybe, this time, you are being given roses.

Maybe you deserve roses.

I don’t know, is it the cliché of the flower?  It is not a perfect flower.  Contrary to the poets’ odes — with its thorns, how easily the petals bruise — it is more realistic than perfect.  More realistic than perfect.

Love is not perfect.

You are not perfect.

There are too many black top hats in the world for your heart’s doorstep to receive every one of them.

Once, you watched a dark insect hauling a bright green cricket between its spindly legs, up to its nest.  The cricket was as large as the insect.  The insect had to rest between each attempt to lift it.  It aimed to use the dead cricket to build up its home; to make it part of its home.

The things you carry that have died must be used to build yourself into something stronger.  You must not let the things that have died rot inside of you, so that when someone hauls roses along your railroad, blowing that loud whistle in the name of your love, you open the great side doors, and, inside, see only dark things.

There are too many black top hats in the world for your heart’s doorstep to receive every one of them.

Why is it easier to believe in disbelief?

The story written on the Cross is not meant to be the story of the suffering, but the ascension from it.  You don’t have to believe in Jesus to understand that.

Your story is not simply that once upon a time you suffered.

In an infinite universe, there are infinite possibilities.

Pick one to believe in — without darkness, without memory.

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