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The Spectator

December 29, 2006 2 comments

Fairfax Courthouse in my day had seventeen courtrooms, burnt orange wall-to-wall carpet, and a strong local bar. All the courtrooms but J&DR were in one building, so a lawyer could play four or five roles in one trip there, especially on motions day. Once I researched and argued two motions, submitted an uncontested order in a third courtroom, tried a lower court civil matter, and visited a court-appointed client in the county jail – all by 1:30.

Waiting for my cases to be called, I often saw one elderly neighbor smiling at me from a nearby bench. She was retired, and I was a young associate. Her pleasant, ever-present smile seemed to take in and accept all that I knew about myself: I had a low, fixed income (like her) and was living away from my family in a small efficiency in the Mosby Building (like her) a block from the courthouse. I was green but enthusiastic, and I showed promise. Her years permitted her to see my future, and she smiled at my future and me.

Her straight, silver hair, which always parted with a bright wave, seemed to complement my only gray suit, the one I wore on the first and last days of my jury trials.

I found that she often knew better than the court clerks what was playing. It came from experience. One morning, in the courthouse cafeteria over a bagel and cream cheese, she told me that, ever since she had moved to the Mosby, she had spent most of her weekdays watching jury trials and circuit court motion hearings.

One day when I was between acts, I took the advice she had given me a day earlier and caught a few minutes of a well-lawyered libel trial. When I walked in, she was smiling with the kind of a smile a spaniel might have on his lips with his head out a car window. I sat next to her; we were both only spectators now. When the court took a brief recess, she told me that the press was squeezed next door into courtroom 4C for a high-profile murder case, and that the juror voir dire was probably dragging on for hours in there. I laughed. Her smile tightened; she was staring beyond me at the empty witness chair.

I was sometimes able to help her understand a legal term or stratagem. Once I answered her question about a mistrial granted for violation of an in limine evidentiary order entered the week before the trial started. She seemed impressed with my answer. Sometimes, though, she showed up downstairs for traffic court on days I had some work in there. I felt ashamed for her to see me practice there, for some reason.

It was in traffic court that I first noticed the steel blue color of her eyes. Unsettled and expressive, her eyes seemed at odds with the rest of her face, with her dress and solicitude.

The following year, my firm added a paralegal, and my hours got more manageable. My work brought me some new acquaintances, and I went to some parties and relaxed a little. I didn’t see my neighbor around the courthouse much that year. It is possible that I was too busy to notice her, though.

It was summer a year or so later when I found her sitting in the lobby at the Mosby. She was staring as intently as she did in court, but she wasn’t looking at anything. Her smile seemed to cover some other expression, like you’d see on a clown you got too close to. She didn’t look at me when I passed her, either, so I stopped and said hello. She said hello but didn’t ask after my practice. In response to my inquiries, she said that it had been several weeks since she had been to court because of the heat. Soon she returned to the wall. She stared at it as if it were a cineplex screen.

One day a few years later, after I had made partner, the brief euphoria of a favorable jury verdict seemed to give me the space to ask a question that I had somehow never formulated during my lonely associate years: Why had the court chosen the hideous orange carpet for the courthouse anyway? I laughed out loud, and I thought of my neighbor for the first time since I had moved out of the Mosby. I wanted to ask her the question, and I realized then that I had lost touch with her. I don’t believe I’ve ever asked anyone about the carpet.

by Peter at slow reads

Categories: First Time Tags:

First Visitation

December 26, 2006 2 comments

Souvenir

December 15, 2006 4 comments

Prague

The first time I set foot in Prague I was eighteen and confusing to my companions. One moment I was guileless, enchanted by everything; the next, surly and closed-off as only a college student can be. This is, I imagine, how my mother remembers it, although I have never asked her. Probably when she recalls that trip, she remembers not my fluvial changes of mood, but her own emotional landscape. That was her parents’ last trip before their decline set in, which must have given her plenty to deal with even without my mercurial temperament.

Thirteen years later, as I prepared to return for a long weekend, I tried to remember as much as I could about that first trip. I called up a few images: cobblestone streets, the thick medieval walls of the Staronova Shul, the horse-and-rider statue in Wenceslas Square. My great-aunt on the Charles Bridge beneath one of the religious statues, a figure of Jesus whose golden crown popped out against the soot-darkened and streaky stone.

I squeezed memory of a few sensations from poems, one which compared the sunrise seen from the airplane enroute to Prague to jam spread on toast, and one which offered woodsmoke and mushroom soup and the sound of Czech folksongs.

For more than this, I turned to my journal – but my interior monologue offers mostly glimpses of me. There are pages of musings on my eagerness to return to school, mixed with anxiety about how the campus would feel with my boyfriend gone to Accra. I described my bafflement at my cousins, approximately my age but different from me in a dozen ways that seemed critical at the time. I chronicled my profound exasperation at all the places where my mother and I failed to connect. But I wrote surprisingly little about where we went or what we saw, or how the voyage felt while it was unfolding.

Even the treasure-trove of letters to Ethan written on Hotel Intercontinental stationery, which I never sent but instead tucked into the back cover of the book, say more about being eighteen than about being in the Czech Republic. A place in time I can’t revisit.

Here is what I know. My first time in Prague I liked the oldest synagogues, and the two cemeteries we visited. One was a jumble of stones eleven layers deep. The other, where my great-grandparents are buried, was serene and austere. It reminded me of Pere Lachaise, where three years previously I had made a kind of pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave. (I don’t know now what I was looking for there amid the stubbed-out joints and graffiti, but I remember the elation of sneaking out of the hotel with my high school best friend. We fooled our chaperone that we had run off in search of “female products,” a fib that sent us into gales of laughter for days.) I liked the ability to order tall glasses of crisp Pilsner, still forbidden to me in the States.

That’s what I’ve got. Synagogues and headstones and beer. Whatever else I liked and disliked about Prague, whatever else might have moved or surprised me, just isn’t what I chose to record.

This time, I kept a detailed journal of every impression I could scribble. The restaurant we ventured into, our first jet-lagged morning there, and our laughter when we realized that our Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t include a section of useful restaurant phrases. The bright red street carts in Wenceslas Square which sell sausages and hot spiced wine. The unexpected chance to tour Parliament, which is open on weekends and is adorned everywhere with frescoes. How it felt to stand in the light rain and watch the famous clock in Old Town Square at noon, when the little windows opened and the procession of clockwork apostles whirled slowly by.

What I’m still not sure how to chronicle is the sense I had, sometimes — fleetingly, and never in the places where I was expecting it — that my grandparents were making the journey with me again. 1993 was their last time in Prague, and already their sense of place was failing. I remember overhearing my mother tell my aunt that their parents had gotten lost on the way out of the hotel restaurant, unable to find their room. They weren’t always present on our family trip: sometimes they were caught in earlier days, confused by the disjunction between then and now. I didn’t fully understand that at the time, because I wasn’t fully present, either. I was wrapped-up in my own dramas. Mindfulness wasn’t high on my list when I was eighteen.

But when Ethan and I went for a hot spiced wine on our one Saturday night in Old Town Square — rolling our eyes at the guitarist playing Bob Marley and Beatles tunes, settling in beneath the outdoor space heaters that mark the few sidewalk cafés still open in this season — it seemed to me that my grandparents might once have done the very same thing. Sat at an outdoor table in November, fingers curled around mugs of hot wine, and laughed a little at the tourists, and enjoyed each others’ company in the cold nighttime Prague air. It is possible my parents did something like this too, on their first trip together to Prague. It is possible my children will do the same.

That’s what I was really looking for: a sense of the generations unfolding, a kind of connection with my parents and my grandparents who each, in their own time, walked the old city’s nubbly streets. I didn’t find it at the old synagogues, monuments to a decimated community, Judaism under glass. I can’t recapture it from the one time when I was really there with my mother and my grandparents. But in a few ineffable moments on my second trip to Prague, that feeling of connection rose in me like early-morning mist on the Vltava. Shivery and palpable, and then indescribable, gone.


by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

Categories: First Time Tags:

Early Learning

December 11, 2006 7 comments

I was Primus,

your first shock,
first intellectual,
first seduction by
the power of mind.

Your first big mistake,
first adultery,
first hand-to-hand combat,

I brought us to
your first door slammed
leaving more than
half yourself behind.

by Jean Morris of this too

Categories: First Time Tags:

First Fear of Time

December 7, 2006 13 comments

Internal Memo

To: You

Re: Termination

Since you have consistently failed to use your creative talents for any worthwhile purpose, they have been revoked. The mental exhaustion and extreme physical fatigue you are experiencing is the actual sensation of creativity draining out of you. When it is completely gone, you may experience severe withdrawal symptoms including but not limited to depression, disorientation, amnesia, headaches, and occasional flu-like symptoms. These will eventually be followed by the sensation that you are a completely normal person. Of course, this will seem unusual to you at first, but in time you will adjust to it, and the dim and distant memory of having an imagination will fade. You will feel satisfied and content with your ordinary life,and will no longer suffer from intense cravings to express yourself artistically.

We request that you gather up all of your journals and sketchbooks and package them in plain, unmarked boxes. These should be left outside by the back gate. They will be collected and put in storage until some future lifetime affords you both the desire and the opportunity to be creative once again.

Thank you for your prompt attention and cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely,

The Powers That Be

by Whiskey River

Categories: First Time Tags:

Three from the “Point of Change” series

December 4, 2006 5 comments

Eddie

She has a moustache
and comes round twice weekly
to iron my shirts.

Today she looks up
with a twinkle in her eyes.
I smile

noticing for the first time
her beautiful eyelashes –

*

Gordon

When he first told me I gagged.
Three years have passed. Now they have
a house together, a life.
My wife visits them alone.
Still when I close my eyes I see
their naked bodies lying together.

Often my wife brings home news.
I fake indifference. Then she brings
the first sweet honey from bees
they keep in wooden hives.
It was the best I’d ever tasted.
I spread it on my toast for breakfast.

Each morning I think of my son.
The size of my love. When I scrape
the last of it from the bottom
of the pot I drive to their house.
A young man comes to answer the door,
shakes my hand and asks me in –

*

Oliver

We sit in awkward silence
side by side on the sofa.
I’m thinking I’m too old for all this

when my dead wife appears
perched on the television.
She gives me the thumbs up

so I reach across
and click off the lamp
to see what will happen.

Fingertips like cobwebs
land on my inside arm,
travel up and down –

by Fiona Robyn of a small stone

Categories: First Time Tags:

First Love

November 30, 2006 9 comments

marjaleena2selfportrait19681.jpg

I was majoring in painting at art school. In my last year, I took a printmaking
class, where I discovered – and fell in love with – the technique of drypoints.
Drawing with sharp metal tools onto copper was for me the closest to actually
drawing on paper. I made several drypoint self-portraits like this one that
year. Here my love affair with printmaking was sparked. It was then too late
for me to change my major, yet I decided that one day I would come back to the
medium. Some fifteen years later, I did. And, now, twenty years beyond that, I
still make art using many printmaking techniques. Can an artist fall in love
with technique? The answer is yes, and in this case the affair has lasted
almost as long as I’ve known the man I married, my other first love.

by Marja-Leena Rathje

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