24 April 2015

Both Sides Now

Tomorrow, my son turns 37. Can it be that despite a strong feeling of déjà-vu and (I'd swear) crystal-clear memory, I have never posted a blog on the anniversary of my son's birth?

I suspect my memory is accurate but either the post was deleted a year or so ago when I was cleaning up the blog with an eye toward turning it into a book; or the reflection was recorded in the Journal I kept for decades before launching this .... journal/blog.

On 25 April 1978, at 6:33 a.m., I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and my life was forever changed. Cliché?  Yes. And, also, true. I didn't sleep the night before because I was in labor. After spending nine months in, what was for me, a blissful altered state, a coworker dropped me on the doorsteps of a hospital to undergo 12 hours of the most intensely uncomfortable and challenging psychic and physical experience of my life, alone. At the end of the ordeal, I stood in the world as a mother and stepped forward into all the glory and heartbreak that role carries. 25 April 1978 was the start of a new era for me.

The effect of that night-into-day birthing experience changed the way I looked at the world and myself. Specifically:  the pain and the loneliness of the experience left an indelible mark. The perceived lessons were "Never rely on anyone else" and "People always, ultimately, abandon you."

I remember gazing out the window from my hospital bed, feeling amazed and invincible. Now I can do anything, I thought, by which I meant that after going through what I went through without companionship or guidance, I could endure anything the world threw at me from that point on.

As it has turned out, the labor of childbirth has not been the stiffest challenge of my life. Or, perhaps, in the interim I have developed strengths sufficient to triumph over more daunting challenges...

24 April 2015:  I sit on the back porch of a little house in Northern MS, waiting for work men who are at this point an hour and a half late, after a near-sleepless night. It was not physical travail that robbed me of sleep this time but psychic ("of or relating to the human soul or mind; mental (opposed to physical)"; Dictionary.com) turmoil. The catalysts: one, my housemate informed me last night that he wants to terminate our living arrangement; and, two, a friend sent email thanking me for a thank-you gift I made to her but declining to accept it, offering to ship it to me for redistribution.

No surprise that my birth-bed reflections return -- "Never rely on anyone else" and "People always, ultimately, abandon you." 

I came to MS to live in a house owned by a friend and, from that base, jointly launch an artist retreat and conference center. His announcement last night came after many months of tense cohabitation and felt, in that moment, like one more proof of the gigantic error I made moving here from CA in 2012. Nothing I hoped for has come to pass and much that I would not desire has become the defining status quo for my life.

The separation is, ostensibly, a mutually agreed upon strategy for "saving the friendship" but haunting questions continue to swirl. What is friendship? Do we have one to save? Is the ache in my heart proof that our relationship is something more than persistent respectful regard or just a measure of my emotional fragility?

The occurrence of these questions is also not surprising. Those who know me or read this blog will recognize this insecurity about "friendship" (and "love" by extension or extrapolation) as a recurrent motif in my thinking and life experience.

Who can remember when it happened? Was it after the third or the 30th time that someone I loved left me?  After which instance witnessing the disintegration of something I thought would last forever did I begin to suspect that I am the Reason and take on the identity "The One No One Can Love"? (It feels very, very old as I hear my mother's voice in my head saying, again, "If everybody but you believes it, it must be true" which over the years has distorted and translated into "If everybody leaves, there must be something wrong with me.")

It is both arrogant and ignorant to think this way. Everybody is an exaggeration. And fundamental to wisdom traditions I embrace is the appreciation of the transience of ALL things, not the least human relationships. It is the way of human psychology to place oneself at the center of every event and assume either the role of monster or victim.

And we are also "wired" to long for something reliable and lasting and to believe that a thing must last in order for it to have value or be true.

Today I learn, again, that nothing lasts forever. That nothing and no one can be known completely, only understood a little more and a little more with the passage of time.

And something else, some other lesson or awareness that feels both closer AND more far-reaching. Something that feels like part of my spiritual and physical DNA.

I'd call it "intuition" but it feels bigger and less personal than "intuition." "Trust people to be who and what they are" is part of it. And "trust your gut" is another part of it. 99% of the time, as something falls apart or someone leaves or a promise is broken, I catch a whiff of a scent I recognize. it was there when the thing began. I gaze unblinking at a gaping hole and remember the dangling thread I noted in the same spot when we started; and remember an inkling that I pushed to the back of awareness on Day One; an evidence I early denied...for any of a number reasons that we deny what we "know."

A beloved therapist/guide/teacher once compared life experience to a spiraling orbit, coming back round again and again to particular issues and interests and lessons; never retracing the orbit precisely but rather tracing a slightly higher or lower or wider path each time around.

The lessons I digest today are familiar in flavor and texture.

And also....new. I was 5 years old when I returned home from kindergarten to discover the caravan to the zoo had left without me. A broken promise and an abandonment. I'm 60 years old now as I contemplate the dissolution of what's been "home" for 3 years. It evokes memories of the 5-year-old disappointment but, unlike that day, I shed no tears and I don't cry out or collapse on the floor. There's less outrage. Some kind of strength, I guess.

Am I any less mystified?

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
…I really don't know life at all
---Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides Now"

22 April 2015

Earth Day

 I remember less and less about those days. There aren't a lot of photos. I had a Polaroid camera, can't remember the name but it was one of the first popular, instant picture models. The film was expensive so I didn't take many pictures.

What I remember from Earth Day 1970 is the pledge I took to never litter again. I held by that pledge for over 30 years and haven't littered more than twice since that day. And I remember feeling a great hopeful excitement about the future:  the idea that everybody everywhere in the World cared about the same thing just blew my 16-year-old mind.

The Earth was mostly an abstract concept. My family didn't spend much time outdoors. We didn't camp or hike or swim. We didn't have pets. Gardening was something my parents did for a few years before their marriage ended; we kids didn't participate in it and after the divorce my mother hired an old man to do lawn care every couple weeks.

I was finishing my sophomore year at New Albany High School. The highlight of that year was running away from home in January. I was only gone about a week and I hadn't gone far, just across the river to Louisville KY. My family played it down but it made a splash in my school/social life by diminishing my reputation as a goody-two-shoes, a reputation that had grown cumbersome and restrictive.

That Earth Day is still celebrated 45 years hence is a source of encouragement, sweetening my mostly disheartened expectations for the World. I am viewed as something of an outsider by some people but will apparently never achieve the mysterious, dangerous renegade status I once aspired to.

Earth Day still inspires and energizes me in a way I don't understand and can't explain. Anticipating the day was enough to stir me from sleep this morning and, so far, I'm enjoying a sense of wholeness and well-being today.  Wade's birthday is the 25th and, as usual, Earth Day stimulates reflections on the day of his birth....

15 April 2015


Just a note for myself here. In the event I should find myself having a hard time and feeling really low.  Today is not one of those days and here's a getting giddy recipe that apparently works:

  • a new pair of pants of some mystery fiber that makes you want stroke your own leg over and over
  • a bra that fits with matching panties
  • olives soaked with rosemary leaves
  • Brazilian coffee
  • no make-up
  • sun breaking through after two days of rain
  • temperature above 65 degrees
  • playing bossa nova music on piano
I feel tall and happy and solid.

Some of the ingredients are difficult to find, depending on the season.

*Will try to remember to devise a winter recipe....

12 April 2015

A Bra That Fits

Today I spent more money on lingerie than I have ever spent, at one time, on outer wear.

And I love my new bras.

They fit.

I think perhaps I have never owned a bra that fit me. The experience is blowing my mind.

31 March 2015

Where is this Place?

 For the last several weeks, I wake up with two sizzling questions:  Where am I? and What day is this? There's a sense that just moments ago I was somewhere far, far away from wherever I am, a distant space and time.

A slightly less intense inquiry blinks on-and-off behind those questions:  What language do they speak here? 

I would attribute the disorientation to "jet lag" (the temporary disruption of the body's normal biological rhythms after high-speed air travel through several time zones) except that it commenced before I stepped onto a plane.  In the days leading up to the Brazilian Adventure my excitement was less of the "Oh, I just can't wait" variety than a bubbling "What's ahead?!" kind of feeling. I hadn't been out of the U.S. since I was 16 and I'd never been to Brazil/South America. 

My hosts in the locales on my itinerary were either people I'd never met or people I hadn't seen for decades. Everything I read or heard about Brazil suggested a culture very different from northern Mississippi. Crossing the Equator meant seasonal climate would be "the opposite" of here. Months of Portuguese language study made clear the indisputable differences between Portuguese and English.

I was pleasantly disoriented by the time I began to pack my suitcase.

The trip included lots of movement between places: by car from Holly Springs to the Memphis airport; by plane from Memphis to Chicago and from there to São Paulo; private car from SP to Rio Claro.  I traveled from Rio Claro to the rodoviario in Campinas by ônibus and by car from there to the airport to catch a plane to Rio de Janeiro....  

I often dozed en route. Amidst the unending stream and swirl of stimulation, I fell into deep, untroubled sleep whenever an opportunity presented. Upon awakening, almost always with the aforementioned questions in the forefront of my attention, an automatic sensory analysis commenced -- looking, sniffing, listening to orient myself in space and time.

On the planes, I greatly enjoyed the little monitors on the back of each seat that offered a quick and easy graphic display of where I was, including altitude and velocity.

I woke from a nap on the flight to Rio de Janeiro and looked out the window. It looked like Oakland CA at first glance. For a couple of seconds, even the sensory analysis failed to clear up my disorientation.

Once on the ground and in a taxi on my way to my hosts' home, I experienced the greatest disorientation of the entire trip. Rio is an intense city. Traffic was congested -- as it apparently always is in Rio -- and the entire scene was in motion:  throngs and queues of people, buses/trucks/bicycles/motorcycles/cars...., signs and storefronts and vendor stalls and traffic cops, colors and aromas and sounds!!!  

I'd been told it took 10 minutes to travel by taxi from airport to Rua João Afonso and that it would cost no more than 35$R. To facilitate transport, I'd printed out two copies of the directions and carried an old-school, flip-top spare cell phone on loan from my friend in Rio Claro (my newish smart phone required a SIM card to function in Brazil and I didn't purchase one). 

The cheapest taxi I could find after a quick survey wanted 55$R for the trip. I consented and got in. Language was the first hurdle. The accent of cariocas -- the affectionate nickname for residents of Rio -- is very different. Think English as spoken in the Deep South versus Boston and you have some idea of what I faced. As the taxi crawled through traffic that managed to be simultaneously sluggish and treacherous, the driver and I successfully found our way to a primitive shared language. He informed me that, given the traffic, it would take close to two hours to reach my destination using the directions given. He knew as shortcut...

I grew increasingly concerned as I struggled (and failed) to spot street names that matched those in the directions I clutched. Attempts to reach my host by telephone were also unsuccessful. As my imagination began to meander toward "hopelessly lost in Rio de Janeiro", I decided to call my hosts in Rio Claro, over 500 km away, and ask them to try to reach my host in Rio de Janeiro. 

The strategy worked. My host telephoned, I handed the cell to the driver and, between them, they mapped a course and I reached my destination safely. 

The situation was "I don't know where I am, I don't know where I'm going, I don't know anyone here, and I don't speak the language" to the nth...

In a way, it's not a unique situation. To some degree, the description applies metaphorically a lot of the time.


23 March 2015


Everyone is taking such good care of me.On the one hand, I perceived the uber protection as preventing direct engagement with the real Brazil.  Now, sitting in the UniMart watching the flow, people meeting and greeting, I think the attentiveness is part of the culture.

Kissing, embracing and touching while interacting are standard features of social interaction, of course. There's more, though. Voices overlap in conversation and, most of the time, it doesn't feel like interruption. More like caress or dance. More like ensemble jazz music.

The sound of the language....  Portuguese doesn't appear on any of the Most Difficult Languages in the World to Learn lists I just consulted. That's encouraging. It is easier and easier to read it but watching TV or listening at the party the other night I comprehend very little.

Some Brasileiros show their caring by at least trying to speak English to me. Thanks but please, no, I want to learn the language, I tell them. I'll get it. I'm sure.

19 March 2015


I keep searching for an orderly, linear, articulate way to tell this story. The longer I'm here, the less likely it appears that will ever be possible. For one thing, I rarely feel like writing -- and the urge usually arises about 20 minutes after I go to bed and turn off the light.

And I haven't found a writing space here. It's rained nearly every day, preventing the smoking-with-a-cup-of-coffee arrangement I favor. I am staying in a beautiful house that is not well-lit and every surface that might serve as desk is already claimed by books and stuffed animals and laptops and CDs and framed photos and etc.

My schedule has been erratic:  few, lengthy uninterrupted stretches and I have apparently lost the knack for taking notes and compiling them later.

Celia is a friend of the family. If she calls in the next hour, I will travel with her to a nearby town. Perhaps it's Curitiba? Celia talks fast and talks a lot. I catch about 60% of her intention and much less of what she actually says. But she is generous and energetic and funny and affectionate and seems to know everyone in town. She was the first to arrive for the party Sunday and took me under her wing. Actually most of the women at the party took me under their wings; but Celia has transported me around town every day but one and introduced me to pretty much every person she's made eye contact with.

Speaking Portuguese....  So I keep reminding myself that I have only about half a semester of self-guided lessons under my belt. And less than five hours of actual conversation practice. I keep reminding myself that without this preparation, the current struggle would be even more daunting. New friends here continually encourage and compliment me. Many marvel that I've had no classes, no guidance. 

Still, very few people I've met so far speak English. Even those who admit to speaking English seem shy to attempt it with me. In the main, people speak Brazilian, rapidly. Some are better than others at adjusting their speed when I request. More tend, as in the popular joke, to just speak louder; or they emphasize or explain the simplest words of their statement -- the words I already understand clearly.

It is a beautiful language. Musical and energetic. I will speak it and speak it well. Eventually. My dream now is to return within the next 12 months for a study trip -- Portuguese AND bossa nova piano.

At the party Sunday, I was given my first samba lesson. I think I will also eventually become a good samba dancer. I was also introduced to caipirinha. Love this drink!! Later in the week I was gifted a tumbler and masher by Terazinha and Valéria from their shop here in Rio Claro. Terazinha promises to send me cachaca periodically so I'll be drinking caipirinha once I return to the States.

 Earlier this week, Celia took me in search of a piano. We ended up at Jogo Instrumentos, a music store owned by the most charming Senhor Guillerme. He spends most of the day perched with his classical guitar playing, practicing the music of Brazil while his son runs the place.

He played for us and graciously consented for me to spend some time with a digital piano that sits right in front of the front door. My playing made quite the splash:  customers drifted over, one of the clerks, Mirella, proceeded to videotape the "performance" and Sr. Guillerme pulled up a chair just a foot away. The videotape was eventually published on the store's FB page with a caption describing me as a visiting professional musician who is touring Brasil...  Such dear people. Afterwards, Mirella gave us a guided tour of the store, complete with invitation to play the instruments as we made our way; and then she treated us to a 15 minute concert of some of the music she plays in church each week.

My desire was (and is) for practice time and space but I don't think I'll find it while I'm here. There won't be a room of my own to work in...and I will survive it.

Later the same day I spent some time with a neglected baby grand at the Casarão da Cultura. In a grand hall where I could easily imagine fancy Latin ladies and gentlemen dancing in their finest attire 50 years or more ago, I played the music of Clara and Robert Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy and Bach. There was slightly more privacy tan at the music store but with the doors and windows wide open, the music drifted out onto the street and drew passersby to peek in and linger a moment or two. The difference between practice and performance is keen. Difficult for friends here to appreciate and, not wanting to seem ungrateful for the efforts to fulfill my request, I won't push the distinction.

Tomorrow or Saturday I'll go up to Campinas for a few days and then fly up to Rio for a few more before returning to Rio Claro for a final day in Brasil.

Two weeks is wonderful AND also not nearly enough time to have much of this place. But I the first step -- getting out of the U.S. -- was the hardest. It's samba from here.