Robert Bly Died Today

 

In May of 2006, I sent this email:

Hello, I have no idea if this email will find its way into Mr. Bly’s lap, but it is the only email link I can find at the moment.

I was just perusing some of my early poems (I’m actually a published novelist, but dabbled, you know…) and came across a poem I wrote in honor of Robert Bly some years ago. I’d very much like to pass it on to him.
Blessings,
lisa

ODE TO ROBERT BLY
I heard him first
in a small room in Sausalito
I discovered poetry
among beaded skirts, patchouli oil and
fading peace signs,
the sound of music boiling under water
words sculpted by the dead and brought to life
by Robert Bly.

Plucking strings of a flat wooden dulcimer he tossed
threads of silk to float across the still air in the room
in front of me.

He caught the words of Rainer Maria Rilke
like a prized swordfish, iridescent and fighting
he gutted and cleaned and wrapped
and held them out to me, a dead poet’s catch
and my feelings, like Rilke’s
“my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.”

I followed him his talks
always in San Francisco or close, a salty fog
shifting like phantoms in the parking lots
where he perched anew.
Spring geese lay fresh eggs and
now and then his own words took
possession of the dulcimer lyrics.
He shared his reflections
and I snatched at them,
his folk poems, anecdotes, stories
of sea mammals and beaches, particularly
that one I always read to
potential lovers, I hoped they would think me
deep and
easily moved. I am when I watch his story beneath my elbows,
The Dead Seal Near McClure’s Beach
I cry
as if a child again saddened by that lullaby

of fallen babies
and cradles
and all. It’s so sad the dead seal

He is so sad to find it there dead, dying,
still alive it surprises him so he feels
“as if a wall of my room had fallen away.”

Geoducks grow large with priapism
through the undulating sand—now large
enough for soup and
he had all but vanished from the horizon
(The reading schedule was bare) but
he surfaced like the far-off
submarine periscope in war movies,
clanging drums and
moving men up mountains.
Wild men taking back male impulses and banging them
into shape like
so many harriers, fitting the shoe tight.
Nothing loose will do and the girls
are better off plucking the
strings of the dulcimer
lapping the loins of Neruda and Lorca
without his help as they
whisper their delight into their hands
alone.

Robert Bly, what unnamed chorus or
menagerie back up your words now?
And have I yet thanked you for
offering your arm and showing me the colors
of the flame within the fire?

—————————————————-

Two days later he wrote me back:

Dear Lisa,

Thank you so much for writing me and sending me the poem, which
brings up by itself many memories I have of reading  in California,
presenting Rilke for the first time, plucking away at my out of tune
dulcimer.  I like to remember the dead seal near McClure’s Beach — I
mean the poem, not the dead seal.  You’re wondering what unnamed
chorus or menagerie back up my words now.  I’m being supported by the
poetic form the Muslims developed, the ghazal.  I’m sending along a
poem, the last one in a book of poems called MY SENTENCE WAS A
THOUSAND YEARS OF JOY.

STEALING SUGAR FROM THE CASTLE

We are poor students who stay after school to study joy.
We are like those birds in the India mountains.
I am a widow whose child is her only joy.

The only thing I hold in my ant-like head
Is the builder’s plan of the castle of sugar.
Just to steal one grain of sugar is a joy!

Like a bird, we fly out of darkness into the hall,
Which is lit with singing, then fly out again.
Being shut out of the warm hall is also a joy.

I am a laggard, a loafer, and an idiot.  But I love
To read about those who caught one glimpse
Of the Face, and died twenty years later in joy.

I don’t mind your saying I will die soon.
Even in the sound of the word soon, I hear
The word you which begins every sentence of joy.

“You’re a thief!” the judge said.  “Let’s see
Your hands!”  I showed my callused hands in court.
My sentence was a thousand years of joy.

With good wishes,
Robert

RIP Master Bly. May your joyous words live on for a thousand years.

 

 

What’s Going On, Lisa? Part 2

Hi there. Thanks for asking.

The last time I posted about my summer adventures was September, 2019, and well, I figured I might as well catch you up again.

To be sure: this past summer was a whole lot different than the summer of ’19. Two summers ago I wrote about, among other things, getting facials and seeing old friends; hiking in Lake Tahoe and planning college visits with my high school junior. It was an easier time. Fear of dying from a virus certainly was not on our collective minds. Back then the future seemed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was confident my newly-revised novel would interest an agent. I moved my mother, who was steadily declining from dementia, into a new, purportedly safe and supportive memory-care facility.

Before

After

After

Then, as 2019 meandered into 2020, the universe began to shift. In January, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Cutaneous B-Cell Lymphoma. Given that it wasn’t supposed to kill me, we kept our February-break plans and flew to Isla Mujeres with Loy’s pal Ella to celebrate Loy’s 18th birthday.

We spent a week lazing about on beaches, eating street tacos, and petting dogs. It was while we were in Mexico that the word COVID began to enter our lexicon.

Little did I know, as we boarded our flight from Cancun to Montreal, that as 2020 rolled on, I’d be

  • canceling all social plans;
  • buying an oximeter;
  • quitting my volunteer work for Feeding Chittenden;
  • watching countless YouTube videos to learn how to turn bandanas and old yoga pants into face masks;
  • borrowing every Louise Penny novel from a neighbor who’d leave them on her front porch. I’d return them with a thank-you note stuck inside. We have yet to actually meet;
  • witnessing my daughter’s graduation from high school through the window of a car; 

  • washing all my groceries in hot soapy water;
  • fearing ever leaving my house (more than I normally do);
  • meditating, reading about meditating, and doing walking meditations for hours on end so as to counter my ever-growing stress and anxiety;
  • undergoing two radiation treatments to my skull which would render me partially bald, but also send my cancer into remission;
  • trying out so many Korean recipes that the owner of the local Asian grocery store would greet me by name;
  • subscribing to a dozen YouTube fitness channels so I could work my body in the bowels of our basement. Some of my favorites included:

Tracy Steen
Burpee Girl
Caroline Girvan 
nourishmovelove
Body Project
Tiff x Dan

  • moving my college freshman into a rental house in South Burlington so that she and three roommates could “attend” college remotely;
  • helping a lovely woman (who I only knew virtually) determine whether or not her life story was worth writing about (it is); 
  • having to say goodbye to my mother on FaceTime, after she—along with a dozen other residents—contracted Covid-19.

Then, as 2020 meandered into 2021, hope sprung eternal. As did my hair. By then we’d stopped wiping down our milk cartons with bleach and knew the difference between N95 and KN95. Because our newly-elected president was far far better than the one who came before him, we allowed ourselves to dream of better days ahead. We all got vaccinated (okay: not all of us got the shots, but most of the people I had any desire to see again chose to trust the science). We started to envision what it would feel like to hug our friends again.

We made summer plans.

Which brings me to the actual catch-up part. Here is how this summer, the summer of 2021, went down. I

  • adapted many of my favorite recipes so that my home-again vegetarian child would eat more than mac and cheese for dinner;
  • rearranged my office;
  • drank a lot of gin;
  • ate at a restaurant for the first time in many months. Outside. With my friend, Margot;
  • revised my novel (yet again) and started writing a book of essays;
  • finally got to know (and adore) our house/cat-sitter Jenny. Every summer since moving to Burlington we’ve traveled west to see friends and family; have ourselves some adventures. Back in 2013, when we first needed to find someone to watch over our domain, we replied to Jenny’s Craigslist ad. Jenny, a young poetess who teaches in Arcata, got her undergrad degree at University of Vermont and because she still maintains some strong ties to the city, she wanted to spend her summers here. Other than the summer of 2020 (the summer that never was), she has been doing just that. In our house. In January, when the fate of the universe was still decidedly undecided, Jenny wrote and asked, “You still going away this summer? Am I coming?” Being the perpetual perseverator that I am, I replied, “I have no idea, but yeah, maybe. I guess. I mean, sure.”

    Jenny arrived in the middle of June. Loy and Victor did go west, but I was still too afraid to venture forth. So, Jenny and I hung out together. I cooked. She fed the cats at night. We binged on Netflix shows. We fell into a comfortable routine, like college kids in a dorm slowly getting to know one another. Other than her 20-minute-long showers in the mornings, I warmed to her presence. When Loy came back from California, she and Jenny bonded like two kittens from different litters thrown into the same cage at the humane society. They shared their passions for horror films, 70s-style clothing, falafels, and all things animals. By the time Jenny left in August, she’d become like a daughter to me and a big sister to Loy;   

  • pickled every kind of vegetable that grew up from the ground;
  • renewed my subscription to the CALM meditation app;
  • doomscrolled;
  • became estranged from a couple of folks I used to think of as friends;
  • shoved Q-Tips into my nostrils and twirled them around before placing them into test tubes—just to be sure I was still negative;
  • booked an Airbnb on the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. I biked, hiked, wrote, napped and kayaked for four blissful days;

  • got a haircut so the post-cancer hair kinda sorta looked like it blended with the old hair;
  • put on my brave face, covered it with an KN95 mask, and flew to San Diego at the end of August to memorialize my mother with my younger brother Scott’s family. We’d planned to spread Mom’s ashes in the ocean but when I pictured the crowded beach and the ashes gusting back into our faces, I decided we needed an alternative plan. After spending the day swimming in the ocean and eating really good deli sandwiches, Scott called me the next morning and said, “I just had a dream where Mom and I were at the La Costa Country Club and she asked me to dance. She loved that place. We should scatter her ashes there.”

    She did love that place; loved telling people she lived in the same hood as the world-famous, ultra-posh resort (newly renamed Omni La Costa Resort & Spa). After my dad left her she used to go dancing at the nightclub. One time I joined her and there we were sitting at the bar, scouting potential dance partners when, who should walk in, holding the hand of his new girlfriend, but my father. My mother, her mouth fixed in an angry sneer, went up to him, said, “This is my spot. You do not get to come here anymore,” and then threw her drink into his face.

    It was the perfect spot to spread her ashes.

    We met in the parking lot. Scott had the enormous bag of ashes my uncle had mailed him. The only scoops we could find were two plastic water cups we’d grabbed from a take-out taco spot (Mom would have appreciated that, given her love of tacos). Scott took one. I held the other. And then, while the seven of us strolled around the grounds, quietly talking, Scott and I stealthily dipped and sprinkled, dipped and sprinkled as we went. Next to that fountain.  Over the arbor. Under the bench. In front, near the entrance. By the steps leading up to the bar—where she met more than a few of her post-dad lovers.

    An hour or so later, as the sun was setting, we gathered in a circle on a hillside to say a few words. By the time my niece, Brianna, spoke, I realized no one was filming so I only managed to record the two granddaughters talking about their grandma;
  • traveled an hour and a half northeast to The Claremont Colleges and moved Loy into her awesome (SINGLE) dorm room at Scripps College, the all-female college in the consortium. It was hot that day, like 107 degrees hot. And the AC in her building was broken. While Loy and Victor unpacked the three enormous bags of dorm room paraphernalia which Delta kindly flew across the country, I sat in the hallway, sweat pouring down into my eyes, trying to put together a fan we’d picked up at Target. For the life of me, it wouldn’t work. Finally, cursing through my frustration, I realized that two pieces were missing. Dammit. I drove to the nearest Target, exchanged it for a new one, then, on the brilliant advice of my partner, opened the box before driving away. Sure enough, the same two pieces were missing.

    With Loy finally settled (in front of a working fan), we said our goodbyes. It was both an exciting and stunningly melancholy moment: the moment I knew it was time to step aside and let my child make her way forward. I’d helped raise my baby through to adulthood. I’d tried to give her all the skills she needed to make sense of the world. I’d loved her fiercely (sometimes in unhealthy ways). I’d taught her right from wrong. I’d instilled in her a sense of curiosity, and a thirst for the written word. I’d laughed at her lame jokes. Oohed over her mediocre artwork. Cheered from the shore as she rowed toward finish lines. Applauded as she bowed after performing a Strauss concerto. Supported her as she protested society’s injustices. Held her when her heart broke.

    Her presence in my life has been nothing short of magical. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for my daughter and that astonishing mind of hers;

  • drove 6.5 hours (it should have only taken 4.5 hours but damn, traffic in CA is crazy bad) to Morro Bay, where I spent 5 delectable, fog-shrouded days with my old college roommate and good pal, Sue. Her house was a block from the beach, so when we weren’t catching up, or she wasn’t cooking for me or baking amazing loaves of bread, or bringing me to see the elephant seals and otters, (or teaching me how to keep guacamole looking and tasting fresh for days by pouring a layer of milk over it), I’d either hike along the high cliffs, or grab a chair, a sweatshirt, and a book, and spend hours on her quiet stretch of beach, close to the fuming sea and flocking birds;

  • hugged Sue goodbye and drove south to Santa Barbara, where I met up with my BFF, Lori, who I usually spend my summers in Lake Tahoe with (it’s her cabin). Lori had generously used up a few thousand of her American Airlines miles to book us into a lovely inn right across the street from West Beach and Stearns Wharf. We got takeout tacos (there’s most def a pattern there) and had a picnic on the beach. We lounged around the salt water pool, thankfully devoid of other guests. One morning we strolled to the end of Point Castillo and came upon a TV reporter setting up his camera. Coincidentally, it was the two-year anniversary of the sinking of the MV Conception. We stood around with our hands in our pockets as the local city councilwoman paid tribute to the 34 people who died in the fire. It was a sad ending to an otherwise super fun (but too-short) time spent with the girlfriend I fell for in a prenatal yoga class so many years ago;  

  • silently cursed the couple with whom I shared a row on my cross-country flight back to Vermont. They spent the entire 5 hours eating and drinking and not wearing their masks.

While the summer of 2021 had its fair share of marvelous moments, it was anything but typical. No matter where I went or what I did I found myself on guard; cautious. I fretted in every airport and on every airplane because of all the below-the-nose mask-wearers. I still kept a wide berth when passing people while walking in town, or hiking along beach cliffs. I never ate or drank indoors. There was less of a sense of ease. Less joy. Less just being.

Maybe I was/am too paranoid about catching Covid. I’m in that class of folks with an “underlying condition,” so, yeah, I’m extra fearful. (If I were to lose my sense of taste and/or smell I think I would roll into a ball and cry until my tears turned to dust.)

Like everyone else on the planet, I want everything to be normal again.

  • I want to stop worrying;
  • I want to stop being angry at the unvaccinated sick people who are sucking up all the attention and making it hard for people with cancer and other ailments to get the medical care they need;
  • I want my friends in Australia to be able to leave their homes again;
  • I want my older brother, who lives in Missouri, to be able to play cards with his buddies again;
  • I want to stop having to tell the person in line behind me to “please back up”;
  • I want to go see the Vermont Symphony Orchestra perform in October, but I know I probably won’t;
  • I want to bring my laptop to a café where I can sit for hours drinking coffee and writing;
  • I want people to stop being on opposite sides of the equation;
  • I want peace and love and understanding;
  • I want to stop having to wear a fucking mask.

I do believe things will get better. I do. I believe this nightmare will become but a memory: maybe not a distant one, but it will lose its grip over the planetary psyche. We will all start living with less fear, and we will begin to plan for future adventures. In fact, this past week I started volunteering again, and I’m already fantasizing about trips to Patagonia and the Scottish Highlands and Australia.

The summer of 2021 was a different kind of summer.
It was the summer of uncertainty. 
The summer of truths and lies. 
It was the summer of small steps and big changes.
It was the summer of goodbyes.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Mike

Reb Frost “Blonde Girl on 107 Bus Montreal” Used with permission

On the fifth and final morning of the silent meditation retreat, the people talked.

And talked.

And talked.

For five days I’d floated about the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael in an almost soundless bubble. Even though I was there with more than fifty other humans, I hardly noticed their existence. As per the rules, we ate our meals in silence. We made no eye contact when passing one another in the hallways, or while strolling meditatively around the fragrant gardens surrounding the former mission. I had a roommate in the small upstairs room overlooking the outdoor eating area, but her presence held the weight of a tissue. We never so much as smiled or nodded at one another. I heard her whenever she came into the room or went out. I listened to the rustle of her body as she dressed, or tried to gain comfort beneath the polyester sheets at night, but I didn’t affix meaning to the sounds. It was as though I was bunking with a ghost.

On the final day, just as I was beginning to pack up my clothes and toiletries, the vow of silence was officially “broken” and the bubble burst open. I closed the window, but it did not stop the unrelenting patter of voices from seeping up, like the smell of cooking grease, from the garden below. Wanting to hold on to the peaceful state I’d attained during the previous five days, I pushed my way through the clusters of chattering huggers without so much as a backward glance.

As I walked toward the bus stop a little over a mile away, sweat began to pool beneath the shoulder straps of my backpack, making them slide off my slick skin. I thought about stopping and putting on a shirt with sleeves; instead I looped my thumbs under the straps and trudged onward. A man watering his slaked garden waved to me and said, “Hi.” Having no hand available, I lifted my chin in greeting then looked away, concerned he’d think me rude for saying nothing. For not returning his wave.

So much for letting go of my stories, I thought as I headed downhill. I’d just paid a lot of money to sit in silence and eat tasteless vegan food so that I could learn how to quell the incessant fear, the self-doubt. I’d meditated for hours at a stretch. Listened intently to the dharma talks. Practiced self-compassion. Equanimity. I thought I GOT IT. Finally understood what it truly means to LET GO. To live in the moment. To be mindful.

So why the fuck was I worried whether or not a chin nod had been enough?

“Ugh,” I muttered, stopping mid-stride, surprised by the sound of my own voice. I hadn’t heard myself speak in five days and hearing the guttural grunt hit the air sort of repulsed me. I wondered what it would be like to stay silent forever.

When I reached the transit center I was relieved that no one else was waiting for the airport shuttle. I unloaded my pack onto the concrete bench, sat down next to it and looked at my phone, making a conscious effort to not take it out of airplane mode. I still wasn’t ready to engage in the noise of life. I wanted to linger in my quiet cocoon for as long as possible.

When the airporter arrived, the driver emerged and opened the baggage compartment. I smiled at him, tossed in my pack and climbed aboard. Given that I get massively bus sick and needed to be able to look out the window, I immediately grabbed the front seat to the right of the driver’s seat.

Once settled I glanced backwards, stunned to see that I was the sole passenger. “Yes!” my inner voice shouted, excited that I would have yet another hour of calm. I slouched back and stared straight ahead, regarding the landscape’s constantly shifting motifs with a renewed sense of wonder. The gas stations, markets and malls, with their brightly-colored signage, dazzled my eyes. The mottled greens and browns of the trees and hills and empty fields relaxed me at first, but then I found myself fixating on the precariousness of their borders. How long would those interstitial swatches of nature be able to stave off the ever-encroaching development surrounding them? If I were to pass by this same stretch of highway in two years’ time would that field of wild poppies instead be an In-N-Out?

I shook my head, blinking back my cynicism. Five days of learning to let go of fear should not, I vowed there and then, go to waste. I needed to stop dwelling in the past and worrying about the future. I needed to stay present. Mindful. Observing without the need to name or care. Open awareness, Lisa. Open freakin’ awareness.

I sighed, slapped my feet up against the metal divider in front of me, and breathed deep.

“You on your way home or are you going on vacation?”

The bus driver was speaking to me. He was asking me a direct question.

I panicked. My mind raced. Did I dare say, “Um, I’ve taken a vow of silence?” Wait: I could write it on a piece of paper: let him know I was mute. I fumbled into my purse, feeling around for a pen and pad of paper, acutely aware of the seconds ticking by. What was the reasonable amount of time one should allow to lapse before having to answer a simple question? I had no idea but I was certain I’d exceeded it.

I looked at him, helpless. He was, as expected, focused on the road ahead. Did he just shrug? Had I insulted him? Slighted him with my cold shoulder as I had the man with the garden hose?

Fuck.

“Home,” I said, the word creaking out of me like sludge through an old pipe.

“Where’s home?”

“Vermont.”

“Cool. That’s one place I’ve never been.”

He was heavy-set with large, jowly cheeks and bright friendly eyes—eyes I saw for the half a  second he glanced over his shoulder towards me.

Was that enough? Had I provided the sufficient number of replies to appease the politeness gods? Could I now return to wrapping my mind with cotton-batting?

“What do you do in Vermont?”

Apparently not.

“I write books,” my mouth said before I could stop it, knowing my statement would inevitably lead to perpetuated curiosity. Had I said “seamstress” or “bank teller” or “dental hygienist” I might have stopped the convo in its tracks. But no; I said writer which meant, of course, he was going to ask—

“What kind of books do you write?”

I subtly dropped my chin down to my chest, resigned to the cessation of stillness. “I’ve published two novels and a memoir so far.”

“Memoir, huh? You wrote about your own life?”

Option 1, wherein I have a good chance of putting this thing to rest: “Yeah, it’s about how I hated my life so much I ran away and then realized running doesn’t make you hate your life any less.”

Anticipated reply to Option 1: “I’m sorry,” he says, changing lanes and growing quiet because no one in their right mind wants to engage with an angry bitch.

Option 2, wherein I am a bit more gentle: “It’s about how my family and I moved to Bali.”

Anticipated reply to Option 2: “Whoa! Bali. What was that like?”

I went with Option 2, and after he asked me what that was like, I told him it was great and not-so-great and then I threw in a short anecdote about my daughter’s bamboo bedroom getting overrun with biting ants every night, quickly cutting to the chase by acknowledging how happy I was when we finally escaped back to the United States.

“I’m definitely going to read that book.” He shifted in his seat, whether from excitement or to inject some blood flow into his large bottom, I wasn’t sure, but I felt all at once drawn to the man’s warmth and enthusiasm. Enough so that I chucked my vow of silence into the seat behind me and said, “I’m Lisa, by the way.”

“Mike.”

“Hi, Mike. How long you been a bus driver?”

“Five years, but it’s just for money. What I really want to do is voice work.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, voice-overs, like in commercials and documentaries and stuff. I’ve been taking classes in the city. I mean, sure, I’d love to be a real actor, but this is pretty fun.”

“Why don’t you be a real actor then?”

He looked back at me and smirked. “Um,” he said jerking a thumb in his own direction.

Did Mike think that because he was a hefty guy, it was a forgone conclusion he’d be barred from the sphere of visual entertainment? I didn’t buy it. “What? What’s stopping you from trying?” I said, pushing at the delicate edge of his obvious insecurities. “I mean, you’ll never know unless you give it a go, right?” I almost added, “Television and movies are teeming with bodies of all shapes and sizes,” but that felt patronizing so I kept quiet.

He laughed. “Nah. I mean sure, I wouldn’t mind being in front of the camera, but my voice, you know, my voice is where my power is.”

His baritone voice was indeed powerful. Rich. The more I listened to him speak the more I felt—I don’t know—soothed. Here, I’d been wallowing in the purity and pricelessness of inner stillness, but now I wanted more sound. More of Mike’s sound, anyway.

“I can be anybody with my voice,” he continued, wanting as much as I did, to face me so we could engage in a real tête-à-tête. I could tell it was both annoying as well as probably uncomfortable, for him to keep twisting to his right.

“And driving this bus, you know, I meet lots of different kinds of people and that helps.”

Illustration by Eleanor Davis. Used with permission

“How so?”

“It, um, well. I live alone and when I’m not driving or taking classes I spend as much time as I can in nature. I go camping a lot. But sometimes—not all the time mind you—someone sits where you’re sitting and we get to chatting and I discover something new. Someone new. I hear their voice, like your voice, the sound of it, the way you pronounce things. Every voice is like a new story to me. A new world of sound.”

Rather than responding, I sat back and stared out the window. I suddenly had a feverish urge to write a short story about Mike. About a passenger, a stranger, falling in love with Mike during the long bus ride to the airport. It would feature a woman named Julie, a sad woman in her late 40s who’s just come from a groovy meditation retreat. She signed up hoping to find happiness, as well as a lover who wore loose cotton drawstring pants and whose aura aligned with hers. After finding neither, she boards the bus to the airport. She gets on further up north, in Santa Rosa, giving her and Mike more time to get to know one another. Mike asks her about her life in New Jersey. After five days of silence, she is happy to talk. They share preliminaries. As their journey continues, the conversation grows more intimate. Mike tells her about his yearning to be something other than a bus driver. The more he opens up about his dream to become a Voice Over star, the more aware Julie becomes of her own lost desires. At one point, she tells Mike, she dreamt of being a personal coach.

No: she wanted to be a pianist, but an accident in her twenties destroyed any chance of that.

Mike is sympathetic. He tells her how sorry he is and it’s as if his voice is a warm blanket smothering the pain the of the past.

Their connection grows stronger with each passing mile and and it’s only when Julie looks out the window and notices a sign for San Jose, does she realize that Mike never exited for the Oakland airport. She’s both disconcerted and aroused by this strange turn of events.

“Where are we going, Mike?” she asks nervously.

“I’m not sure, Julie,” Mike says, “but I just decided that this is the last bus trip I’m taking. I’m thinking someplace south of the border. A nice beach somewhere sounds good.”

“Yeah,” Julie replies as she leans back against the seat. “It does sound good.”

***

By the time Mike pulled up to the curb and put the bus in park, I’d made a few changes to the plot, but, ultimately, I was quite pleased with myself for coming up with the idea.

I followed Mike out the door and stood by while he dragged my pack out of the belly of the bus. “So, it was nice meeting you, Lisa,” he said, adjusting his baseball hat.

“It was really nice meeting you, Mike. You know what? I’m going to write a story about a woman who boards your bus and the two of you fall in love and you don’t drop her at the airport. You just keep driving.”

Mike’s eyebrows raised, as did the corners of his mouth. “I’d sure like to read that story. But first I’m going to read your book.”

I gave him a business card. “I’d love that, Mike. Good luck with everything and keep in touch,” I said, slinging on my backpack.

***

Two months later I received an email from Mike:

Hi Lisa, In case you don’t remember who I am, I drove you to the Oakland airport on the Airport Express. I read your book Rash and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Normally when I read a book I know within the first 20 pages whether I can finish it or not. Your book had me in the first paragraph. I thought it was as well written as Jeannette Walls’s book. It just flowed so easily I felt as though I was in Bali at times.

Although i think your unhappiness and complaining was justified I still thill think Victor deserves a medal😂😂 He was getting it from all sides and I like knowing there are still people who have integrity and live by their principles.

LOVED THE BOOK . Thanks for introducing me to it.

By the way how is the short story coming?

If you remember I told you I am in the process of learning to be a Voice Over Actor and was wondering if you would mind giving me your opinion on a couple of scripts I recorded. I would be very interested to see what you think?

Mike

He sent along a photo of him holding my book.

Of course I listened to his recordings and they were really good. I said as much, and told him I had not yet written the story.

***

It’s been three years since I rode on Mike’s bus that hot summer day. Three years of not once thinking about our meeting, his voice, or the short story. But then, a few days ago I flashed on the memory and decided I needed to write that story because, damn, it was a good one. I sat down, started in, then hit a wall. Getting inside Julie’s head was hard. Her sadness weighed on my already too-heavy heart. Yeah: it’s been a hard year.

Instead, I Googled Mike. Turns out he did become a Voice Over actor.

I’m thrilled for Mike. I assume he will get hired by lots of companies because his voice truly is, as he says on his website, textured, authentic, and relatable. So much so that I was willing to emerge from my silent sanctum just so I could hear some more of it.

I’d tried so hard to keep out the noise of life. To reign in the chatter within and without. Yet, because I allowed myself to dwell in open awareness, I ended up finding a new—albeit momentary—friendship. Because I let go of my stubbornly-held expectations, I conjured up a sweet story about a broken woman who discovers solace in a bus driver’s song. A story that someday I might actually write.

Lost and Found

Vidmantas Goldberg “The Advice” Image used with permission.

It’s good, here with you
you in front
me in back
the dust behind us

You, with your backpack, green and hugging
your sweaty body as we chug
upwards
where even a rock or feather or piece of garbage
finds purchase because I say slow down, hold up, wait
so I can unzip the side pocket and stuff my treasure
or trash
or secret into that space and when I finish
when I store what I think needs keeping
I zip it closed, pat you on the shoulder and say
let’s go

And then, with the end nowhere in sight, I keep walking
and for a long time I wonder why I am here, now
with you, why you

why not someone else
someone else I know

And as I step forward I think about those people

I think about the friend who has stage 4 lung cancer but still knows Joy
And the friend who cooks me stew

I think about the friend who runs a non-profit
And the one who sent me flowers

I think about the friends who have lost their parents
who’d lost their pasts;
histories burned through by mitochondrial heat

I think about the friend who paints gentle landscapes
And the one who paints pain across a clean white sheet

I think about the friend who was once a lover
And the friend whose card never arrived

I think about the friend whose guide dog leads her through gardens in a distant land
And the friend whose daughter became a man

I think about the four friends I have who are doctors
Healing the sick, stemming the tide,
Catching babies with their gloved hands

As a dry wind rises to rinse the sweat from my neck
I think of my friends who work to change laws
And the friends who protect creatures who walk on all fours

I think of my friends who critique my words
And all the others who share their words

I think about the friend who adopted two babies
who have long since grown
And the friend in Peru sowing grief on her own

I think about a friend who shelters the homeless

And another who fixes computers
And another who sells computers

I think of my friend Igor

I think of the two lovelies I met in Mexico
As well as the friend who lives in Reno
And then
while stopping to retie my boots
I remember the friends I’ve had to let go

I think of a friend who works for a dentist
I think of my friend who is a dentist

I think of a friend who lost her two breasts
And the too many friends who have lost friends to death

I think of old friends who have since become new
The poet, the wealth manager, the Microsoft guru

And I think of the cousins who happen to be friends too

I think of my friend who writes stories for kids
And the one who buries the dead without cement lids

I think of the friend who at last found her one true love

Up ahead I see the lake, the sun spitting across its surface
Mayflies, alive for a second, crowding the luminous dermis

As we push ourselves toward the crest of the hill
I think of the friends I’ve never met
I see them I talk to them I write to them, yet
I have no idea how they smell
I’ve never watched them eat
I’ve never seen them walk into the room
I have no idea if they cross their legs while sitting or
If they pick at their cuticles while chatting on Zoom

I think of the many friends who have picked me up
As if I were a carelessly discarded gum wrapper or
a treasure; a pretty stone that is tucked into
the side pocket
zipped shut, safe
worthy enough to carry
like I carry them
once we leave the view from up high
and head back to the car.

I Couldn’t See The Moon

I watched the woman with the
pink pretty boots standing, trying to decide
whether or not to jump
but she jumped
And so I jumped.

Beneath the calm I saw her
           kick and writhe
I went below too
as if I’d be able to join her
although I knew
I’d see her again
on the surface
so I breathed
air, looked up, and saw the
night
the light, full and round, readying
my words my mouth to exclaim,
as if I’d been the one true discoverer,
“Look! There’s the moon!”
but I couldn’t
shout. I couldn’t lay claim.

My eyes found only
fog, as if
behind a milky gauze.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm

A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…

…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.

Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)

While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”

Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:

It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.

Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to  Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.

A nobody.

As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London.

Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery:

By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called it a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)

Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…

I will tell that Facebook writer that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
—————-
This essay was also published in the 12/18/2020 edition of Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog.  

Model Behavior

 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom apologized on Friday for attending a dinner party last week at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley, noting that
he “should have modeled better behavior.”

On a sunny afternoon in the fall of 2001 I did the same thing: I went to The French Laundry when I “should have modeled better behavior.” For one thing, there was no way we could afford it. More to the point: I was newly pregnant.

***

Soon after I finished writing my first book I ran into an old friend who introduced me to his agent who loved it enough to sign me on as a client. 

And then I got pregnant. Perhaps for most women this wouldn’t have been so momentous, but I was 40 years old and had recently suffered a first-trimester miscarriage.

Which is why, when my husband Victor suggested we celebrate our plenteous good fortune by splurging for lunch at The French Laundry, I hesitated.


“You know I have to be way careful with what I eat,” I whined, imagining being served unpasteurized French cheeses shot-through with listeria. Mercury-laden fish. Bivalves swimming with fetus-killing bacteria. “Plus, we  can’t afford it.” Between Victor’s public school teacher’s salary and my non-existent earnings, we were barely scraping by. A splurge for us usually amounted to going out to The Willo Steakhouse on Highway 49 and not paying extra to be able to cook our own steaks.


***


Victor’s college friend Jeff happened to be in Napa for a wedding and asked if he could join us. Jeff was a bigwig at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with a bigwig salary to boot. Maybe, I thought as we hugged hello before sitting down, he’d offer to foot the bill.

As a waiter placed the linen napkin on my lap he remarked, “Chelsea Clinton sat in this very chair just yesterday. She was celebrating her graduation from Stanford.”


“That’s cool. We’re celebrating too.”

“Oh? What are you celebrating?” he asked, slapping away a non-existent hair from the back of my chair.

Before I could answer, Jeff said,  “A book and a baby! They’ve got both on the way!”

We were giddy, oh yes, were we ever: so when the waiter came back and said, “Thomas [as in the Thomas Keller] would like to prepare a special menu with wine pairings for you today if you don’t mind,” we said, “Of course!”

I quietly reminded the waiter that I was pregnant and would take merely a sip or two with each course so half bottles would probably do just fine.

Oh, and no innards like liver or foie gras, I added before he left. Not good for the baby.

And could he perhaps mention to Chef that I cannot eat unpasteurized cheeses I subtly mentioned when he returned with the first bottle of wine.

Or raw fish, I may have muttered under my breath as he handed each of us a tuile filled with salmon tartare. (Victor ate two.)

 

We had white truffle soufflé served in a delicate egg shell (was it okay to eat pig-sniffed fungi?); lamb done three ways; peas prepared in some spectacular guise. On it went, course after course, me alternately fretting and feasting. I cannot remember much more of what we ate because, honestly, two sips of wine multiplied almost a dozen times make for a pretty tipsy pregnant chick.

Four hours later the waiter brought the check.

I opened the brown leather packet.

And almost fell out of my chair.  

***

I won’t divulge how much the bill was (and no; Jeff did not offer to pay), but it was more than we presently spend on our groceries for an entire month. Sure, the food was delicious and the service impeccable, but for weeks after that meal, all I did was worry that I/we screwed up. That something I ate was doing harm to my growing fetus. That I shouldn’t have taken even one sip of wine. That the money we spent was irrevocably reckless. 

But…a month later a slew of  New York editors read my book and fought over it, Hyperion offering me a 6-figure advance for a two-book deal. Four months after that I gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Knock wood.

***

It’s a shame that Governor Newsom’s memory of that inimitable meal at The French Laundry will be forever stained, like my own was, by the worrisome fallout that followed. He never should have disregarded his own edict in the face of this pandemic. I never should have taken a chance on eating anything beyond whole clean healthy foods in the midst of a precarious pregnancy.

But sometimes we humans forget that our behaviors have the capacity to change others’ lives. That how we act, whether we are public figures or private citizens, can change the course of history—writ large or small.

Which is why it’s more important than ever to model better behavior.

Why it’s a good idea to maintain a distance of 6 feet.

Why it’s imperative , above all else, to wear a mask.

 

 

 

She Loved

SHE LOVED TO DANCE
And did whenever she had the chance.

SHE LOVED TO HOLD HANDS
I’m not just talking about the millions of times she’d grab one of my unruly child hands before crossing a street or while strolling through a crowded mall. I mean like when I’d visit her in California and we’d be sitting side by side watching television and she would casually reach over and take my hand and place it gently in her own. I usually let her.“—Lisa

SHE LOVED TO KEEP UP WITH THE LATEST NEWS
She read the San Diego Tribune daily and religiously watched the evening news. At 5:00, no matter what she was doing, she’d “shhh” anyone within earshot and turn on the TV so she could be in the know.

SHE LOVED BEING A GRANDMOTHER
Brianna and Blake and MJ and Loy. They were her treasures.

SHE LOVED TO WASH HER DISHES TO A SPARKLING SHINE BEFORE PLACING THEM IN THE DISHWASHER

SHE LOVED COORDINATED OUTFITS
She hated the way I dressed. I still cannot rid my memory of her barring me from leaving the house one day while proclaiming, ‘You cannot wear a pink dress with black shoes!‘”—Lisa

SHE HATED HAVING TO CHANGE LANES ON THE FREEWAY

SHE LOVED A GOOD LOBSTER DINNER

SHE LOVED PLAYING GIN RUMMY
And she won far more often than not.

SHE HATED BINGO

SHE LOVED HER CHILDREN
She was forever gloating about Lisa’s accomplishments, Scott’s business acumen, and Marc’s big beautiful heart. Marc, her firstborn, called her daily and she adored hearing from him. She loved her baby boy Scott so much that when you’d ask her (in recent years) how many children she has she’d often say, “Four: Marc. Lisa. Scott. And Scott.” She must have felt that she could never have enough of him.

SHE LOVED TO BE THERE WHEN YOU NEEDED HER MOST
Even if you mistakenly believed you didn’t need her, like right after I gave birth to Loy and didn’t want her to fly up from San Diego to stay with us, but she did anyway and everything she did to help was exactly the right thing, from keeping at bay the myriad visitors (while graciously accepting their dropped-off meals) to cleaning the house to holding the baby so I could shower to teaching me the lullabies I would sing to Loy for many years to come.“—Lisa

SHE LOVED BEING THE FIRST ONE TO CALL HER KIDS AND SING TO THEM ON THEIR BIRTHDAYS

SHE LOVED TO QUOTE OLD WIVE’S TALES

SHE LOVED TO FISH
Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. She enjoyed when Marc took her out on his boat in Missouri.
Mom would never touch a fish or worm so when she was here I gave up fishing to help her. The priceless look on her face every time she caught a fish was so worth it. The excitement, the thrill, the squeal of joy she would give out I will hold forever and relive whenever I’m out on my lake. There is a point at the start of a cove that she named “crocodile point” because Mom thought it looked like a croc’s mouth. I will always call it that. Every time I look out at the lake the first thing I see is that point and it makes me think of Mom.”—Marc

SHE HATED CLOSED-MINDED, RACIST, OR SELFISH PEOPLE

SHE LOVED THE GOOD TIMES SHE HAD WITH OUR FATHER

 

 

But she hated him for leaving her after thirty years.

 

 

 




SHE LOVED A NICE PURSE
And she had quite the collection.

SHE LOVED TO SHOW OFF HER MAGICAL GARDENING SKILLS

SHE LOVED ALL CREATURES, GREAT AND SMALL
One year a mama bird made a nest in one of her planters on her deck. She considered moving it, but knew that would be cruel. A few days after the babies hatched she woke up to find her body covered with small itchy bites: her house had been inundated with bird mites. God, that made her so mad.”—Lisa

SHE LOVED HER SISTER SHARON
So much so that she moved from her beloved California condo to a gated community in a state she very much abhorred, just to be nearer to her. Sure, they had their differences, and yes, they fought over the silliest things, but the devotion those two had for one another was immeasurable. “She was my world.”—Sharon

SHE LOVED SHARON’S HUSBAND MARTY
We had a lot of fun together. Sometimes when I had work in San Diego I’d stop by and surprise her and her eyes would light up when she saw me. I remember one New Year’s Eve, she was dating that Woody guy at the time, and we all went to a Disco. We danced the night away. She could boogie like no one else. She was my wife’s sister, sure, but she and I had something special between us.—Marty 

SHE LOVED HER EXTENDED FAMILY
Particularly her sister’s children and grandchildren: Jen and Howard and their children Cameron and Ashley and Noah; and Jamie and his children Nathan and Arianna. 

From left: Cameron, Blake, Ashley, Nathan, Mom, Arianna, Noah, Brianna

Ashley, Cameron, and Noah had their own special bond with her. Ashley and Aunt would always enjoy playing dolls or Barbies together, especially when we would visit her at her home. Cameron would enjoy the cars and trucks that she played with him and looking for the special snacks/cookies at her house. She and Noah developed a very silly relationship making up the most ridiculous names for each other. Like when she called him peanut butter he’d call her hot dog. For a long time she called him meatball and he called her pizza.”—Jennifer  

The first time I met Aunt was at a Pesach Seder dinner at Jen’s parents’ house. I really didn’t know anyone that night other than Jen, and I was a little nervous. That’s when I met her. Aunt. I called her that right away. Even before I knew where my relationship with Jen was headed. Even before I called Sharon and Marty, “Mom and Dad.”  I called her “Aunt” because that’s what Jen called her. Never “Aunt Florine.” Just “Aunt.”  Aunt had a spirit about her that made you instantly comfortable around her. And yeah, she was, what’s the right word? She was…elegant.”—Howard

When I was a young girl, Aunt used to come spend the night at our home in New Jersey. I would always want to sleep with her because we would stay up talking for hours.  Our talks were always so much fun and I recall the time we discussed where the sun rises and sets. Her makeup and hair always had to be done and she dressed to impress. I will never forget her silky pink bathrobe that she wore to have her coffee in the mornings. We had an amazing bond between us:  whether we were near or far I could always count on her. One more thing: Aunt always wrote the best birthday cards!“—Jennifer

SHE LOVED THE BEACH
But she hated that it made her hair frizzy.

SHE LOVED TO HELP OUT
When Lisa and I bought a dilapidated 1871 miner’s cabin, she immediately volunteered to help us fix it up, even if that meant donning a pair of dirty jeans. Naturally, she wore a pair of protective gloves as she cleaned 130-year-old walls. God forbid she ruin her manicure.“—Victor  

Whenever we needed help, she was there. When Jen’s back went out Aunt didn’t think twice about coming to stay with us to help with our 21-month-old twins and 3-month-old. She was selfless.“—Howard

SHE LOVED WHEN PEOPLE SHE COOKED FOR ASKED FOR SECONDS

SHE HATED BEING REFERRED TO AS FLO
Her name was Florine and even though she never loved her own name, she despised any play on it. After Loy’s godmother Ellen called her Flo, she refused to speak to her.

SHE LOVED MAHJONG

SHE LOVED HER BESTIES CATHY AND LOIS AND BOBBI AND ESTHER
They threw some crazy pool parties. Yeah. They did.

SHE LOVED TO TRAVEL

SHE LOVED MEETING NEW MEN
And oh did she ever have plenty of suitors. She opened her heart to many, but none meant more to her than Keith Anderson. Keith loved her passionately, took her on trips, and kept her comfortable. That is, until one night in a bar in Las Vegas he met a woman who looked like his dead wife and, in a drunken haze, he married her. After that, my mother began a decades-long affair with her own boyfriend. It suited her just fine.

SHE LOVED FANCY CLOTHES
She especially loved apparel that made her feel spoiled and sexy, like furs and silk and cashmere. A long time ago she bought a pink satin robe and not a day went by when she didn’t wear it.

SHE LOVED TO TALK ON THE PHONE
Growing up we all just assumed the telephone was attached to her hand.

SHE LOVED COUPONS
It didn’t matter if she needed something—it was just the idea that she could get it at a discount that made it special. Her pantry was stuffed full of expired foods, as well as things she’d only eat if the world was ending and she wouldn’t be able to get to the store—things like sugar-free pudding and canned onions. Whenever you asked her why she purchased such items she’d say, “I had a coupon!”

SHE LOVED TO READ

SHE LOVED A GOOD SALAD
Mostly she loved a crunchy salad. Before she lost her ability to cook for herself, she made a salad every night. It always included the crispiest lettuce available. She’d add whatever the bottom drawer of her packed refrigerator would offer, whether it be purple cabbage or cold tasteless tomatoes, she’d throw it in. She never ever used bottled dressing but would make her own dressing of olive oil, red wine vinegar and lots of dried herbs, always adding a pinch of sugar before tossing it. Whenever she went out to eat she ordered a salad and, if it was in any way subpar (even one small piece of brown or wilted lettuce), she’d send it back and ask for a better one.

SHE LOVED TO LAUGH
And she did, often.

SHE LOVED BEING LOVED
And she was…fiercely.

80th Birthday

Florine Lorraine (Knapp) Kusel (born June 20, 1937), late of Boynton Beach, Florida, La Costa, CA, Edison, NJ, and New York, NY, died a painful and preventable death from Covid 19 on Friday, July 31, 2020.  She was a compassionate and generous daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, and friend. She shall remain forever in our hearts and memories.