Thursday, October 4, 2018


Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad.

To hold a baby’s hot head in your hands.  You pour olive oil on it, and scrub off the cradle cap, and the baby yells, and you wish you could do it over again.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Advocate

But though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us a profound homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!

I am a mother, and my mother is my mother.  This June, driving near her home in New York, she had a heart attack, and my father drove her to the hospital.  In California, where I live, my family and I had just arrived at the airport.  We were flying to New York to drop our older son at his summer program.  So when we got the call from my younger sister that my mother was having a heart attack, all that happened was that everything became clearer than it was before.  All we had to do was get onto the plane we were planning to board, and go to see her.

By the time our flight, delayed, took off, I knew that my mother had had a stent inserted, and that she was stable and doing well.  It was an extraordinarily fine day, clear and cloudless almost to the center of the country.  I watched the U.S. pass under us and felt things I hadn’t known I would feel, even though I think about my mother, and myself, all the time.  It turned out I didn’t think about her deeply enough.  I didn’t think about her with any accuracy.  I didn’t normally see what I saw as we passed over thousands and thousands of people, and miles, which is that from my point of view, my mother is equal to all those people and all those miles.  She has been that powerful. 

And then, at the same time, she is weak.  I hadn’t thought about her body as a mechanism I had a relation to since I was a toddler, when I needed her to take care of me.  I remembered, or anyway I remember now, the fact of her heart, as I knew it then.  It beat hard within her—almost excessively, I found.  When I came to my parents’ bed one morning, and Mom, needing more sleep, lifted me onto her chest, that heart sounded in my ear, and filled her lungs with air so that her chest rose and fell, rose and fell, and instead of feeling comforted to lie on top of her I felt jostled.  I lay awake on her, trying to match my breathing to hers, wondering why I couldn’t get comfortable.  After a little while I couldn’t stand it anymore, and had to go.  I don’t think that I ever went back.

Is telling someone about a beautiful flight on an airplane like telling someone about your dream?  When we were almost in New York the plane dropped down over Long Island, the cloud cover dispersed into strips and rags of fog, and the watery marshes below us were so still that they could have been fifteen, rather than a thousand feet below us.  In the hospital in Westchester where we saw my mother the next day—O Westchester, green and lush with spring rain and summer sun, probably the only landscape I will ever really love—she was sitting up in a chair, nauseated, unable to eat or drink.  My sisters and I, my children, my husband, my father, some cousins—eight or nine of us spread out around her room with the Sunday paper and salads and snacks from the Au Bon Pain on the hospital’s first floor and had a very good time. 

Finally the nurse cleared us out so she could check on my mother, and I saw my mother get out of her chair and climb back into the room’s high bed, where she rested on her back like a statue, arms at her side, nose presiding, under a light.

My children left, one of them for four weeks.  The other I saw the next day.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Lee Shore

Know ye, now, Bulkington?  Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

I don’t remember the flights.  I don’t remember being cold, although I must have been cold.  I do remember viewing Lenin’s Tomb, although I remember it in such a hazy and provisional way that it’s possible I’m just imagining it.  It was February, 1989, and I was in Russia on a school trip with the other students in my high school’s Russian program.  We were not supposed to buy things on the black market, said one of our teachers, who then sheepishly purchased an army jacket on the black market.  We were there at the end-ish—we didn’t know—of the Soviet Union, unable to imagine the past, present, or future of the place we stood in.  We were American high school students on a foreign language trip staying in hotels otherwise frequented by businessmen and hookers, with considerable freedom to wander around foreign cities on our own.  From our point of view, the dismantling of the Soviet Union was a time of sexual tension, personal growth, and fun.

By choosing to room with each other and not, either of us, with her, Angela and I confirmed what Katharine had known, but tried not to admit to herself, but had been resentful of, ever since she moved to our town from the Midwest, which was that Angela and I were the real friends and she was the third wheel.  She had to room with Elissa, who wouldn’t share her maxipads because she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough when her period came.  Maxipads!  Not even tampons.  Meanwhile, Angela, whose boots always needed an assistant to remove, and I fought several battles of our own.  After one, I walked out of the hotel and crossed underneath the highway that separated it from the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, where I wandered around, trying to read the labels on the displays and feeling alone in the world.  Boohoo, contextually speaking.  After another screaming match, the football player staying in the room next to us came in wearing his boxer shorts to try to broker a peace.  He was good looking and the underpants thing was distracting.  Angela and I set about making ourselves less opinionated and difficult and more interesting and fun-loving, stat.

I lost a pound a day on that trip, which was like, Thanks Soviet Union, for your easy diet plan!  At meals I sat with a group of funny boys who played with their mashed potatoes.  One of them wasn’t important, one of them threw all the windows open in his hotel room so the curtains billowed in and out, sneered at people who didn’t know Sting’s “Little Wing” was a cover (I totally knew that), and also went missing for a day and a half while looking for and possibly finding, allegedly, hash, and one of them had a crush on me that I publicly rejected.  He became someone else’s nice boyfriend when we got back, while I continued to wander around in a virginal fever until graduation and then for an additional period of time I’m not going to specify here.  Not that virginity is anything important, meaningful, etc.  Obviously not.  Why would someone ever want to have penetrative vaginal sex for the first time?

Little Wing had his luggage tossed on the way out of the country.

We went to visit a Soviet high school, where we met, as one does, students our age who spoke English much better than we spoke their language.  One of the boys exchanged numbers with Amelia, a girl the year behind me I considered impossibly dramatic and pretentious, even relative to the rest of us.  They made plans for her to come to his apartment.  Maybe because I was her only option, she asked me to come with her, and for some reason—not only were we not friends, but at heart I was (am?) a chicken—I said I would.  Two boys picked us up at the hotel and we took the Metro across Moscow together.  The number-exchanger was good-looking and an excellent English-speaker; his friend was dumpy and silent.  I didn’t appreciate the implication, but whatever.  The apartment was in an area that had nothing but tall identical apartment buildings.  The boys made us mushroom soup and a second course I can’t remember.  Maybe a salad?  They did not serve us alcohol, although I had prepared myself for that possibility by worrying about it.  After this uncomfortable meal, Amelia and the alpha guy went into another room and I sat on the couch with the beta friend for a while being like Now what?  Because there is no universe in which I am making out with you.  I don’t think we spoke.  On the way back to the Metro the boys informed us that everyone in the neighborhood could tell we were Americans because we smiled.  That was one of the only moments during the trip when I noticed something significant about the country I was in.  Relatedly, I didn’t give anyone the presents I’d brought from the United States, which were copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and Sting’s latest album.  They seemed embarrassing and juvenile, suitable only for dorks.

We went to the circus and I was so upset for the animals I had to step outside.

I don’t think that is the last thing that happened on the trip, but I remember it that way: Snow was falling, beautiful, silent, soft and and white.  Angela and I had gone off on our own, but now we had to meet up with the rest of our group at a tourist shop near the Rossiya Hotel.  Again, the rules on this school-sponsored trip retrospectively continue to surprise me.  Why did we have so much free time?  Why were we allowed to go wherever we wanted?  I had been at a stranger’s apartment in Moscow without any supervision for hours.  And now what would have happened if we hadn’t made it to the store in time?  We didn’t have a map.  We stopped someone to ask her how to get to the Rossiya, and she told us a set of directions, all of which, after the first, we either couldn’t understand or promptly forgot.  So we’d walk a little while, ask someone for directions to the Rossiya, take the first direction, then stop someone and ask them directions to the Rossiya.  We arrived, finally, at the top of a set of stone stairs that led down and then up again, and we could see across this little gully to the Rossiya Hotel.  We burst into the store snow-covered and steaming with our success, to find everyone buying pins and flags from a country that to us was best understood as someone else’s mistake.