Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Angel of the House Has Left the Building

Here is all I know about the day my mother left:

I wasn't alive. For as long as I could remember, the family had told hilarious stories of hijinks and mayhem that did not involve me. They always went something like this:

Older sister: Mom, Dad, remember that time when we had all those jars of pennies, and we counted the pennies, and there were so many that we had enough for all four of us go to Six Flags together?
Mom: Of course!
Dad: That was so fun!
Older brother: Haha, yeah!
Me: When was that? I don't remember.
Everyone in unison (turning to me): YOU WEREN'T ALIVE.

I was six years behind my sister, seven behind my brother. For all the really epic family stories, I was never alive.

The story of my mother leaving was epic. We know it was epic because it only came out on special occasions, and was always told as if it was funny. It often came out at Thanksgiving, right after my mom had re-emerged from the marathon of dish-doing that had followed the swift blur of eating that had been the pivotal target of hours of turkey-making, which started at six a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, just before we kids got up for the marathon of interminable, inexplicable, dependably dull Parade Watching.

As we handed around the pie and coffee, Older Sister or Older Brother would inevitably say, "Mom, mom, tell the story about when you left home." And my mom would tell it. Every time she told it, the details were essentially the same. Every time, all of us laughed. Every time, I was not alive.

The story of my mother leaving was not funny at all. This I have only learned in the years since I heard it, amid those peals of relief-laden family laughter at Thanksgiving. I know now that my mother's story was not funny, because I have lived it. Many times. So has my Older Sister. Together we, the two remaining women in our once-nuclear family, understand how serious a day that was.

We know it was serious because we have never since discussed it. Never once, that I recall, have my sister or I mentioned this story to the other. Our mother is gone, and what can it prove? Only what we already know.

My mother was gone for less than 24 hours. One day, the story goes, she got so fed up that she left my dad a note, left the two toddlers who were not me in the care of a neighbor, and took the bus downtown. She checked in to the Fairmont Hotel. She booked a hair appointment for the next day at a salon. She took a bath, slept soundly, dressed with care the next day, ate a leisurely breakfast, strolled through the aisles of expensive clothing and perfumes, got her hair did, and then...

...checked out of the hotel and came home in time to make dinner.

Did she hesitate? Did she consider never returning? Did stranger, harder, distinctly more permanent solutions cross her mind, then or ever? We will never know. We enshrined the story of her brief rebellion in hilarity, as though it had been made only for our amusement. Like everything else our mother did, it was all about us.

Never once did any of us ask her a single serious question about that day.

So we will never know what made her return. We know perfectly well what made her leave.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trigger Warning: Life

To the best of my knowledge, compost worms do not experience rage. This is not a verifiable fact, of course. But after four years as a worm wrangler, I'd say that the skill sets required to be a worm are incompatible with rage of any kind.

Panic, on the other hand, seems to set in fairly regularly.

Every few months, I lift up the lid on the bin to reveal Wormaggedon. The young ones are clumping around the edges, clinging frantically to each other above the soil line, while the senior worms muck about in the dirt doing whatever senior worms can do. I can never tell if they are fighting, flailing, or finally fomenting rebellion against the vertebrates. Whatever they are doing, they are doing it together.

Let's review. To be a worm, you must:
  • snuggle with other worms;
  • spend most of your time in wet, rotting silage;
  • make of that silage a rich, black gold that powers the world;
  • prefer to live your entire life in a closed, dark, nearly anaerobic (but not quite) environment;
  • be very at ease with fouling the nest you sleep in.
The only other lifestyle in the world that requires tolerance of these conditions is that of reality show starswhich does nothing to disprove my no-rage theory but everything to make you click that link I just provided.

I think worms suffer from existential torque. The very living conditions they thrive in--wet, cramped, and fecund--also contribute to their occasional crash. Plus, their life's work is crazy-making. How would you feel if you'd been put in charge of both destruction and creation in the same plastic tub?

Something about being skin to skin and ooze to ooze with all those enormous forces of life, alongside your destructive-creative kinfolk, creating fertile ground together from half-rotted lettuce and broken eggshells and spent coffee grounds: That's got to be pretty freaky. It's the essence of intimacy. It's the urgent work of making things be. That tends to cause panic, yes? Desperation, even? The urge to....escape?

I asked my friend at Red Worm Composting for advice, and my special friend said this:

Let’s first talk about the word “escape”, since it is a crucial factor when it comes to evaluating the situation. If your worms are indeed trying to literally escape from your worm bins – especially when doing so en masse – you definitely have a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away.
If on the other hand you have a handful of worms crawling up the sides and lid of the bin, with perhaps a few dummies ending up dried up on your floor – you are probably ok! Especially if your system is brand new.

Thanks, special friend! My system is definitely not brand new, but I just counted dead dummies and I have fewer of them than panicked live ones.

So I think we will be okay for another autumn.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sometimes, She Was Not Reading Women

So I embarked on this crazy project, to read every book in my houseThe first book took me two weeks to finish. The next one took about a week. The third one, I devoured in three days. I started filling notebooks and underlining quotes and scribbling ideas in the margins. Just like my mom used to do.

Beautiful as they are, these books I am reading are not what you would call pleasure books. They lead not to escape but to confrontation. I'm not knocking escape, mind you. I just, lately, crave the real.

Blame it on the company I'm keeping these days. I am suddenly surrounded by other women who are also reading--and writing-- to save their own lives. We exchange messages on Facebook or by text, often in splurgy, unapologetic ALL CAPS that lend urgency to everything we say. We laugh a lot, because we have to. We are cracking each other up, to avoid cracking up alone:

I remember such friendships in my mom's life, back when I was one of the bunch of kids underfoot saying pleeeeeeeeease and why caaaaaaan't I? Our moms wiped our faces with one hand and ashed elaborately from their cigarettes into the big glass ashtray with the other. Sometimes, in groups of two or more, they sat at the kitchen table laughing so hard their coffees spilled and one of them would get down on her hands and knees, swatting the floor and screaming with laughter so hard they wept, wept, wept down on the linoleum.

The flip side of this hilarity, yet connected in my mind, was my mother quietly reading, sometimes at that same kitchen table. I crept near her, afraid of her scholarly silence but craving her touch. The pictures of the women whose books she was reading--Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Judith Viorst--stared back at me as I stared at them. Sometimes, she was not reading women. Sometimes, she was underlining phrase upon phrase in another kind of book, an enormous volume with no pictures except the color illustrations of a woman's insides or a ripe new baby, umbilicus attached. After she died, we read her notes in all the old books: "YES! YES"! in the margins in all caps, in those books by women. And in the other books, the ones she read for her work as a nurse: "MEGO" ("my eyes glaze over") or, in polite looped cursive that did not need to be all caps to make its point: "Bullshit."

I might, tentatively, call her name. She would look up then and smile.

"What, baby? What?" Her eyes took a moment to adjust from the page to my face. Her hand caressed my cheek. I was keeping her from her own thoughts. I felt shame that I would do so, and gratitude that she would look up.

The name I called her was not her own, but mine for her: Mommy. Even the formal name she answered to was not hers. Evelyn Rozelle Brenner Wormser: the first two given by a woman, the last two by men.

I never asked what her true name would be, if she could choose it.

What would she have told me?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Years of Reading These

This pile of books won't t strike you as a big fucking deal.

Nothing more than a little housecleaning, you'd say. That's partly right. 

Of course, the housecleaning it represents has taken place repeatedly, and futilely, for 20 years in some cases. I harbor fantasies that I will actually read every book in my house one day. To that end, I move them around from room to room in pile after pile, always seeking the elusive thing that will make it true.

If you do the math, you know that we can only read a few thousand books in our lifetime.  Really. Carl Sagan says so.

At most, in the best of health and with all the effort I can bring to it, I will read maybe 800 more books before I hit my Last Renewal Date. A more conservative and macabre estimate I made puts me at about 300. 

So, I can't afford to fuck around anymore.

I made a list.

(You'll notice there's some stuff to do on there, too. Can't sit around reading my whole life away like that guy from Twilight Zone).

As of today, I'm at about 90 books I'd like to read before I die. It's a list I find neither too overwhelming nor too inflexible. There's room to grow, veer, revisit, reconfigure. The listings aren't in much order after the first 11 items. I suspect I'll get to Orhan Pamuk's The White Castle (34) which I found in a neighbor's giveaway box last week, long before I get to Anna Karenina (13), which I started to read about four years ago and keep meaning to finish.  Often, I listed books in order of where I found them in the house, or whether they had just occurred to me, or whether another book I do have reminded me of a book I want to have.

Anyway. The point is to begin. I'll take suggestions for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Intimate Web, Part III: Load More, Load More

Painting by Gilda Snowden
How do you pay homage to one person you've never met, one person you encountered briefly in the welter of the Internet?

How do you slow down to see as she might see, then stay to celebrate the moment when your eye first met hers?

Detroit painter Gilda Snowden is newly gone now. It's just been a day since her heart stopped in her 60th year. One of my newest Facebook friends posted her photo, and from there I went to her page, and from her page I went to explore the great wide sea with my little Internet.

There is a lot to try to know about Gilda Snowden's work. There is her Web site, for starters. You can read up on the Cass Corridor Art Movement, whose traditions she drew from and extended in her found art assemblages, works on paper, and large-scale canvases filled with exuberant color and daring juxtapositions of line and pattern. You can go back to her site and read her words:

"I have always been drawn to the complexities of nature and the fact of history, specifically the documentation of the history that is closest to my own experience."

Her experience ended abruptly on September 9. Until that moment, for 60 years, Gilda Snowden devoted herself to simply seeing and acting upon what she saw. How very hard that is, though, that.
It is a life's work, truly.

And then, even more: Gilda Snowden actually bested the words of Walt Whitman, not only containing multitudes but sharing out multitudes over the years, through the brilliance of her own work and her years of teaching at Wayne State University and the College for Creative Studies, and also by painstakingly documenting the Detroit art world:

"Snowden attended virtually every gallery opening in Detroit... documenting the events in highly popular videos posted to YouTube along with her observations.“She pretty much archived years of art production in Detroit,” [CCS professor Timothy Van Laar] said. “You’d show up at an exhibit, and Gilda was there, greeting everybody. And she always got a ‘selfie’ with you. She was famous for that.”
(The Detroit News)

I went to her YouTube feed today while preparing this post. Just to sense the scale of her archival accomplishment, of the love I'd seen outpoured for her on Facebook and in the press, I clicked the tab at the bottom of the screen that says, Load More. I was still clicking, many minutes later, when I finally hit the end. It took 17 clicks to see more than 500 videos, all on the grid. I could not even count how many openings she'd attended, how many galleries she'd documented. There were studio demonstrations and technique talks. Plus occasionally, some touching miscellany, like a video on how to separate an egg, or the day she saw a female stingray. It was all there. A life of seeing.

My new friend's feed let me see Gilda Snowden last night, and for a while I could only see what she showed me. And this:

'She says that she chose to paint because of its speed. 
“I want to see answers immediately,” she told us." 

Watching the video below, her furiously single-handed work to save as much as she could of Old Cass Technical High School, I feel I may have glimpsed the unique force behind Gilda Snowden's life and work: an unlikely combination of intense, patient regard with a firm "want to see answers immediately" energy:

Load More. Load More. Load More.