Saturday, December 30, 2017

Recently Read, 2017

She was a stray after all. A stray not only in its plantation meaning—orphaned, with no one to look after her—but in every other sphere as well. Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

"But Dab is gone--you know how long he's gone for? The whole rest of his life and my life, too.  I been crying for me bein by myself, too. Dab and I...Dab and I..." Tree could not finish. She had no words to describe how alone together they had been. How she loved her brother!

Virginia Hamilton, Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush

I watch Fo'ty Ounce help Mrs. Pearl. People around here don't have much, but they help each other out best they can. It's this strange, dysfunctional-as-hell family, but it's still a family. More than I realized until recently.
     "Starr!" Nana calls from the front door. People two streets over probably hear her like they heard Fo'ty Ounce. "Your momma said hurry up. You gotta get ready. Hey, Pearl!"
     Mrs. Pearl shields her eyes and looks our way. "Hey, Adele! Haven't seen you in a while. You all right?"
     "Hanging in there, girl. You got that flowerbed looking good! I'm coming over later to get some of that Birds of Paradise."
     "All right."
     "You no gon' say hey to me Adele?" Fo'ty Ounce asks. When he talks, it jumbled together like one long word.
     "Hell nah, you old fool," Nana says. The door slams behind her.
     Daddy, Uncle Carlos, and I crack up.

Angie Thomas, The Hate You Give

Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors. From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life's most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values. Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

Andrew Solomon, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

"What is truth?" Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that make you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

During his campaign, the president claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that American "media has been unbelievably dishonest." He banned many reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public. Like the leaders of authoritarian regimes, he promised to suppress freedom of speech by laws that would prevent criticism. Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself.

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century

Thursday, November 30, 2017

You Are Safe In My Heart

You know that song you hate? That overplayed pop hit? That cloying twangy country ballad? That golden oldie that makes your cringe? That song is somebody's truth.

I'm outing myself: I LOVE "My Heart Will Go On." I have stopped resisting all calls to taste and caution and I've given in to its perfect expression. I'm swept away with gratitude. Play this at my memorial service, cuz I'll be humming it at yours.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

On Fun Home and Gaining Consciousness

(Posting in September was impossible. The girls had a tough beginning to 7th and 9th grades and I've been running a low grade fever of depression since November 8, 2016. But Friday afternoon had some leaked news of charges that brought a ray of hope and last night was an inspiration.)

I took my fifteen year old Mia to the musical Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater last night. We had both read Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and loved it and I couldn’t wait to share with her the moving experience I had had watching the national tour show last year. I got to see the gorgeous (sing it, “GOR-geous!”) Kate Shindel in the lead but Mia would have a more intimate show and one directed by Chicago great Gary Griffin to boot.

But it’s not really a kid show and Mia was by far the youngest person in the theater who was not on stage so I suffered a pang of doubt whether it was the right choice for her. I glanced over at her a couple of times in the dark but I couldn’t tell if she was into it. Although the funeral home advertisement song “Come to the Fun Home” by the three sweet actors playing small Alison and her brothers is a total Brady Bunch/Jackson 5 style joy, there’s a challenging patch near the end with the penultimate tragedy songs, “Days and Days” sung by Alison’s mother about a wasted life married to closeted gay man and then Alison’s father’s “Edges of the World” (“so much damage...why am I standing here?”) sung in the moments before he steps in front of a truck.

But Mia got it, she got it.

“They shouldn’t have clapped after that song,” she said about the intense “Edges” and I said, “Yeah, it needed a moment of silence, when we're still in the story, before we praised the performance,” and she said, “yeah” and I was so happy she understood.

And back home, when we were retelling the experience to Nora and Randy, who had happily stayed home cozy on the couch for the Nebraska win, both Mia and I crowed and laughed about the manic David Cassidy/Partridge Family fantasy number “Raincoat of Love” (“Everything’s alright, babe, when we’re together/’Cause you are like a raincoat made out of love/Magic shield of love protecting me from bad weather”) and I cried all over again because the pain and the funny are so intertwined in a song that interrupts parents fighting and drowns out their awful words and I know by god something about blessed escape from awful reality into the sunny silliness of 70’s tv and its music.

Because that is it right there, the reason I am drawn again and again to this show, a musical about an utterly unique life that creates an experience so universal my breath is taken away with its familiarity. Our lead is a lesbian with a closeted and withdrawn yet talented yet criminal yet anguished father in the strangest of settings, a funeral home for God’s sake, and it thrusts me into consideration of my own need to forgive my father, to give his memory honor and “balance” as playwright Lisa Kron names it in the final line.

And in the joyous songs “Ring of Keys,” and “Changing My Major,” I see myself again, and cry with the recognition. The child and the teenager who sing these songs are discovering a reflection of their identity in the world for the first time and their feelings of relief and recognition make them burst into song. “Can you feel my heart saying ‘hi?’” sings little Alison seeing a butch lesbian for the first time; “I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky.../And my heart feels complete” sings Medium Alison after her first sexual experience. It’s so lovely and such a long time coming, I weep with their joy. “I know you; I know you” sings little Alison. Me too, little Alison, I know you too. I didn't need to come out of the closet but recognizing my strange self in my strange world did not come early.

Everyone enters the world with a single possession: a story.

I forget my singularity most of the time. I travel through my familiar world of home and work and pretty Wilmette neighborhood and beloved Chicago environs like the transparent eyeball of Emerson (and discovering this concept in my childhood within the pages of my older brother Ron’s American Lit textbook was a revelation both earthshaking and one I always associate with the sloping intersection of two suburban KC streets on the way to our YMCA swimming pool. Is this where I read the words? Or talked about them with my brother in the car?) until.

I travel through this familiar world until I remember the twisting coincidence that not only is my consciousness the only one I know (!) but this body from which I look out has a history unlike everyone else. I stay with this awareness that “I” is/am the same as “Cindy,” the person moving through this world, I try to stay in this weird awareness, thinking these thoughts, try to stay with the tilting vertigo and flushing strangeness, try to understand that “I am Cindy. I am the only one in the world who is inside my head,” fail to put the strangeness that is as large as my universe into words, wonder fleetingly if I could fall to insanity if I go too far, and then slip back into transparency.

Examining my life for ethicality, kindness and meaning is a piece of cake compared to this.

Perhaps it was all the reading, the blessed escape I found in that magical work: black and white shapes transformed into letters, into words, to meaning, to alternate worlds, to immersion within those worlds, within other consciousnesses. Peter in The Snowy Day, Adopted Jane, Laura of the Little House, Homer Price, Harriet the Spy, Francis Hodges Burnett’s orphans, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s runaways, Narnia (they’re all dead!), Watership Down, The Tombs of Atuan, Algernon, Scarlett O’Hara, Stephen King, paperbacks ordered by the dozen from Scholastic book orders, pulp, trash, forgettable titles that created yet unforgettable pictures in my mind, their titles lost forever. I’ve seen the libraries toss out bags of battered books. All those worlds. Immersion into someone else's head was my pasttime and my relief. "You were always reading," says my cousin Jeanne. It was strange to her.

The adjective “understanding” is high praise to me; I try “thanks for your understanding” as a balm in bad news emails. As in, thank you not only for being patient with me, but with trying to understand what is going on. When the girls fight, I want them to understand each other, think about why her sister might be feeling bad today, the causal link between a sharp word and no breakfast or a disappointing test or a text from a classmate asking to shift their friendship to “back-up friends.” Yeah, that’s right. A child asked my seventh grader to be her “back-up” in case her other, preferred friends don’t come through. I am trying to be understanding myself. 

Here's a facinating video about the writing and adaptation process of Fun Home the graphic novel to Fun Home the musical with playwright Lisa Kron, who won a Tony for her work and Jeanne Tresorio, who wrote the score.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Summer, 2017

Let this temporary dross burn away in the crucible of time, leaving only the precious behind: enduring love, timeless art, radical compassion, persistent gentleness and these happy memories:

Nora played Mayor Shinn in our park district's Broadway Bound camp version of The Music Man and if she's missing from this photo you can bet her jaunty straw hat and energetic emoting are somewhere very nearby and you can also bet those two little cuties in the front just encapsulate all the joy I felt watching, singing along and crying through this lovely show.

Mia and Nora dressed up as Totoro and Mei for last weekend's Comic Con -- it's their fourth cos-play experience together and they still get such a kick being recognized and ooed over and asked for photos.

In between the trips to Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, Mia and I took a break for steak quesadillas  and Saga comics (for her) and Thoreau and tequila (for me) at Depot Nuevo. My favorite night of the summer.

And this shot is EVERYTHING. My dear darling grand-niece Caroline at nineteen months who stared for the longest time at the three of us from the comfort of her father's lap when we first walked in the door and then, after giving it a great deal of thought, burst into confused tears. Which just made her slow warm up to us all the more wonderful. For by the time we left Cleveland after a lightning quick weekend, she was giving long hugs to all of us and little kisses in the air next to our faces. A miracle, really, to watch her learn and think and discover before our very eyes. A walk to the park is a journey through wonderland. And here also is her little bestie, Brinkley, the gentlest and softest of sweet doggie friends. And see Maggie's welcome sign for the three of us on the mantle and on the other end of the mantle Maggie's photo album of photos from her trip to Nepal to perform corrective cataract eye surgery at free rural clinics. Maggie turned 30 in April on that trip and it makes my head spin and my heart melt to remember her at Caroline's age. Like it was yesterday. So proud, so in love, so happy to spend time with them.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sisters, Side by Side

Here are my beloved maternal grandmother and her sister Julia, off on another adventure. The sisters called each other "Mimi" and "Jule." This July 11 was the 110th anniversary of Julia's birth. Amelia's 112th birthday anniversary was July 13.

These dear women were the only daughters of Mateusas and Petronella Gedminas, married in Lithuania in 1892 when he was 24 and she was 20. Mateusas went ahead to America to work in the coal mines of Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania while Petronella lived with her parents. After ten years of waiting, Petronella finally took matters into her own hands and asked her parents for her share of the homestead. She made her way to Amsterdam and then to the U.S. by boat, bringing with her a down-filled feather bed and a ram's horn to shape sausage.

Petronella reunited with Mateusas in Scranton, Pennsylvania where Amelia was born on July 13, 1905 and Julia was born two years later. Mateusas worked in the coal mines while Petronella cooked on a coal stove in their coal-company owned house and carried water from a community pump for baths and washing clothes. She made a small garden for fresh vegetables and kept a few chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner. She also kept boarders to earn extra money. The neighbors would get together to help make a barrel of sauerkraut to share. The housewives made homemade soap and washed clothes on a washboard. They sewed all the clothes for the entire family and made their own bread. They managed to have a pot of homemade soup on the table every day.

As the coal mines were depleted, the family moved to Mollenauer, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburg, where Mateusas worked the No. 3 mine. The public school was on the hill near the company houses. The Catholic church and school were in the next town, Castle Shannon. The mothers bundled up the children and went down the hill past the No. 3 mine and on the road to school. The children came from Lithuanian, Polish and Slovak homes. They spoke no English when they first arrived but learned it in record time with help from the Catholic Sisters.

When Julia was nine years old, in third grade, the mines were depleted in and around Pittsburg, so the family moved farther west to Dorrisville, Illinois, to work the Harrisburg coal field in the O'Gara No. 9 mine. Sister Salatia had been a favorite teacher of Julia's and gave her several good-bye presents to Julia to remember her by. Petronella carried the family's entire life savings, $700, in a secret pocket sewn in her undergarments.

The family lived temporarily with the Klevinskas family on South Poplar Avenue before buying the Jarvis' home across the street, right next door to St. Joseph's Church. Both children attended public school and Harrisburg Township High School.

Amelia taught herself to play the piano and the organ. She put on home shows, selling tickets for five or ten cents each. The house and porch would be crowded. She made Julia play a duet with her on the piano. This started out fine, until Julia became stage struck. Her hands froze, her brain became like a big vacuum. Mimi carried on as if it were planned. She also taught a bunch of children to play an orchestra on homemade instruments. She had another group of children sing while she played the piano. The neighbors loved this entertainment.

At church, Mimi played the organ while Julia pumped the bellows in the back of the organ all through Mass. Both girls pulled the ropes to ring the bell on Sunday. They dusted and swept the church. They decorated the altar with wild flowers. Once, when they used wild cherry blossoms, the perfume was so overpowering that the priest turned deadly pale and had to cut the services short.

The mine workers were busy during the winter but were on strike in the summer. There was no welfare, no unemployment compensation, no Social Security, no disability pension, so when my great grandfather's hand was crushed, he was no longer able to work. The family moved to Cicero. When the girls graduated high school in 1924 and 1926, Amelia went to work at the Tobey Furniture Company on Michigan Avenue and Julia worked for the F.J. Sauter insurance company.

By 1931, Julia had married Victor Litwin and given birth to Victor, Jr., her only child, who would become like a brother to my mother. Amelia met Anthony Seraponas, whom she called "Tony" or "Tone" and on February 25, 1933, they were married.

Amelia's diary describes the day:

Saturday, February 25, 1933
Our Wedding Day. What excitement, what flurry! I am glad it is over. It was a lovely day, not cold. Nevertheless I was cold in church. Mother was so lovely. We had breakfast and then went to have our pictures taken. After the pictures we came back and played piano, cards until 5:00 then we cleaned ourselves up and the people started coming in. Received some lovely gifts. 2 bronze lamps, sandwich toaster, lovely crystal glasses, embroidered cloth, set of Rogers silverware, table cloth and 2 sets of dishes. The first table was served at 7:30 and 48 people were served thru the whole evening. Jule certainly worked hard. Then after the work she came downstairs and danced till 2:00 AM. The basement was a great success, with the bar and the accordion player. I was sick through the whole day. I took 3 aspirin but I got thru the day & night all right. I told Tone I certainly never wanted to get married again.

My mother Bernadette was born December 9 of the same year and her sister Joan in September of 1935. Julia had one son, Victor, who became as close as a brother to Bernadette and Joan.

You can read more about my grandmother here:

Amelia and Me
 My Grandmother's Diary

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Desert Island

Remember the weeks of shock after 9/11 when we felt like we were living in a disaster movie? The fireball images on TV looked like the work of computer graphics and that fiction was easier for our stunned minds to accept than the reality that the damage and death were real, forged by real people, not comic book super villains.

I'm having flashbacks to that same floaty sense of unreality now only the movie this time is an international spy thriller mashed up with a wicked Wag the Dog/Dr. Strangelove satire about craven villains and sycophant aides who whisper mendacious scripts in bought politician's ears.

"It's just like Veep!" I yelled at Randy when the Orin Hatch's staffer coached his vapid response to Claire McCaskill.

This sense of unreality, of floating, unsure what the next morning's news will bring and where we are headed is undoing me. I've had a headache since November 8 and a heartache to match.

My fantasies are of escape, escape but where, really, is the deepest wood, the farthest mountain cave, the tiniest desert island?

Mia slipped a penny into the Highlander's CD player to see what would happen and I can't really blame her toddler-like curious impulse, it even gives me a blast of nostalgia for those innocent days of pushing the boundaries of the physical world around her so even though she is fourteen I can't scold her just wish we could turn the car up-side-down to shake the coin out.

Because that little penny has locked in the six CDs I had in the player and those six are now our only choices. I only listen to music, really, in the car so these six random picks from my CD collection have turned out to be my desert island albums, the unplanned answer to what would you listen to forever if you had to pick and it turns out they are a pretty perfect unplanned collection. Would I have chosen these if I knew they would be my last choice? Possibly.

Our Permanent Playlist:

1. Beyonce's Lemonade, which would have made the list if I had any forethought or not, even though I skip the C/W "Daddy Lessons" and most of the slow moments. But "Hold Up"/"Don't Hurt Yourself"/"Sorry" make such a searing trio of pure female rage and goddess power that Wonder Woman herself would be proud. And because "Freedom's" fuzzy 60's throwback guitars and swampy organ and "All Night's" soaring background vocals and implied forgiveness.

2-3. Both discs of Hamilton, natch.

4. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie which grows and grows in my mind the more I think about it. The slow burn of building desperation as the struggling folk singer of the title hustles his way to another gig, another place to lay his head for the night. The Gomer Pyle soldier with the voice of an angel who will surely soon be Viet Nam cannon fodder. Lovely Carey Mulligan's harshness which first seemed oddly out of place but now works in the context of a piece about motherhood and fatherhood's incompatability. How the threads of fatherhood fear and responsibility repugnance and vulnerability weave together with AND WITHIN the gorgeous music until it's Eraserhead meets Bound for Glory. Plus an indelible cat.

5. Inside Dave Van Ronk, a double album on one disc by the actual New York folk singer inspiration for the Coen Bros. film. The real singer may not have been the hapless asshole that Llewyn is, but his music, oh jeez, what a collection, funny songs and the dreamiest paean to cocaine that I've heard since Eric Clapton and beautiful violent ballads of dead children, abandoned children, a tortured and murdered ship's apprentice and all in his unforgettable raspy voice.

6. Joanna Newsome's latest album Divers. Newsome will always make my list but given a choice, I may have gone with an earlier, folkier album like The Milk-Eyed Mender yet this new one is a thing of wonder too, just witness that rising groove and climax telling the strange history of the fantasy land of Sapokanikan, her most propulsive song since "Good Intentions Paving Company."  The girls and Randy can't take her high soprano or odd twists of melody so this album is destined to be heard only when I'm alone.

Another story from Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard, probably my favorite:

The Lama of the Crystal Monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because of his legs, may never leave again. Since Jang-bu seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang-bu's question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and dancing sheep, and cries, "Of course I am happy her! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!

Mike and Christina come over on Saturday night and after steaks and trout stuffed with herbs and overdone salmon with a fantastic mustard-honey-mayo-dill sauce, Randy brings up his dusty guitar and amp from the basement for Mike and I grab Nora's sticks and we jam to shouty, sloppy versions of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Dream On." I'm just slamming the melody on the drums or matching the rhythm of any guitar riff I remember and throwing in some nonsense fills with a cymbal crash accent here and there but god it feels good to bang away and wail SEWED MY OLD BLUE JEEEEEEEEEEANS! and after ten o'clock, bring it down for the sake of our poor neighbors and croon a little misremembered "Pennies from Heaven" together. The overhead light shone down on us at the dining room table, laughing at the Instagram videos Mia just shot and labeled "Help Me" and "My parents are drunk" although I was sober as a judge, the table an island of light in the darkness.