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Vibing with Abbey Lincoln

June 7, 2007 1 comment

A night with the Abbey Lincoln Quintet at the Blue Note, September 4, 2004

From Koranteng’s Toli, September 8, 2004

So my cousin, Tei, and I were vibing with Abbey Lincoln Saturday night – so blissed out afterwards that the two of us didn’t seek out any additional after-midnight New York joints and capped the night with a couple of shwarmas topped with pepper sauce, going out on a high as it were. It was a three part epic:

1. Serendipity

It was a spur of the moment thing, really: heading to the Blue Note in the Village to hear Abbey Lincoln. The long lines at PS-1, the dance show at the MOMA earlier that night, didn’t augur well for much fun but when in New York, you have options. It seemed a little late for the US Open so we took the long shot and headed to the East Village. No line at the Blue Note – a good sign. We’d timed it well, arriving just as they were seating the second show. We forked out our $20 for bar seats, ordered our drinks and got ready for some jazz from the living legend.

Now mind you there was a little trepidation: when you start calling someone “living legend,” you are subconsciously wondering just how much longer she’ll be living. We saw Nina Simone (Tei’s favourite) on her last tour the year before she died, and that was prime Diva-in-twilight stuff: raucous and rousing but sadly short. Abbey Lincoln is not that old, but she was one of the great jazz voices in the fifties and that says a lot – do the math.

I’ve seen her twice before at Scullers in Cambridge over the years, and have most of her albums. She always puts on a good show. There really should have been a third time but that turned out to be the abortive Valentine’s Day date – months before “The Girlfriend” became “The Girlfriend.” The first time was simply perfect. The second time was good but you began to worry – she was forgetting a few lyrics…

She now has a quintet. James Spauling is a welcome addition on saxophone and flute – fiery stuff. Marc Cary lays down the sensitive accompaniments on the piano. Michael Bowie lays down hard bop bass and Jaz Sawyer is the drum wizard. What I like about them is that they aren’t overly respectful of her; they learn from her but also challenge her every night.

She comes onto the stage with her trademark porkpie hat (echoes of Lester Young) and starts messing with the beat – a habit she shares with Billie Holiday. She works around the beat, slowing down or picking up the pace as her fancy takes her. She’s never on the beat like these metronomic nouveau singers. If overdone it would be jarring, instead her artful manner excites your ear and keeps you alert. By the end she brings you back to where you expect and you’re elated.

There’s a grit to her voice these days. It’s there even when she laughs at, or with, the over-awed audience. If it was painful for some to contemplate Lady Day in her late period, with the damage of hard living showing in her voice, Abbey in autumn is a different affair. She has aged gracefully (like Sarah Vaughan) and the timbre of her voice suits the personal and almost political songs she writes. When she began writing the essential soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 60s, she was pigeon-holed as a “difficult” artist and her career suffered accordingly. These days, though, her blues are comforting; we pretend all those issues have been resolved and are nostalgic for the good old days.

A diva at peace with her legacy, she sings the numerous standards that she wrote for herself and others, including Hey Lordy Mama which she gave to Nina Simone.

Hey Lordy Mama
I Heard You Wasn’t Feeling’ Good
They’re Spreadin’ Dirty Rumors
All Around The Neighborhood
They Say You’re Mean And Evil
And Don’t Know What To Do
That’s The Reason That He’s Gone
And Left You Black And Blue
Hey Yeah
Tell Me What You Gonna Do Now

Looking back, it is clear that she and other artists “made” joints like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard famous, not to mention all of those prestigious record labels they spawned. It is clear that the club owners and audiences owe her the reverence that we see. At the same time, places like the Blue Note were the proving grounds for jazz musicians – the places that made her the artist she is. And so there is this fondness flowing in both directions and a sense of playfulness and looseness with the band. But there is also a sense of electricity because she feels the need to be at her best at the Blue Note; she and the band have put on their game face.

2. The Let-down

After an hour though, the hinges start coming off.

First she forgets a lyric, looks around furtively and asks the pianist to remind her where she was. She recovers quickly though. For the next song, the band begins to build a furious groove. She begins to join in, a little tentative at first, but then says out loud: “That didn’t work!” and calls for another song.

Two songs later she seems to be getting back into it but something isn’t quite right, she isn’t feeling it like the rest of us. And so:

“Thank you folks. I’m tired.”

And she walks off the stage.

And so that was that: the temperamental diva syndrome again. Still, it was a good hour of solid if not great jazz by someone we love.

3. Redemption and Ecstasy

Or so we thought.

Ten minutes later, who should come up to the bar and sit next to us but Miss Abbey Lincoln. And that’s when the vibing began as we drank and chatted for the next hour (cognac for her). With hindsight, I think we were a great combination of drinking partners. I was the music lover who would pose obscure questions trying to show I had taste and knew the musicians’ musicians. Tei was his usual argumentative self, prodding, teasing and flirting without commitment. Crucially, he made it clear upfront that Nina Simone was his thing, so there was no question of adulation – something stars get too much of anyway.

Now let me tell you a few things about our close friend, Abbey Lincoln.

  • She was the 10th of 12 children.
  • Her father midwived the last 6 children at home
  • Her “real name is Anna Marie” (Woodridge). Abbey Lincoln is a stage name.
  • She was raised on a farm in Michigan. They “didn’t have much growing up.. It was a hard life” (read: the family was dirt poor).
  • Her parents didn’t get on towards the end. “Maybe they shouldn’t have married.”

And then there was the fierce discussion of marriage and human relationships.

  • “A man should have his own house.”
  • “So should a woman.”
  • She’s not a big fan of marriage.

“We don’t need marriage.”

  • She didn’t think she’d take any more lovers.

“I don’t need the jealousy… Why should I be worrying about you? asking ‘Where have you been? I want you to do this or do that’… Have your own place! You’ll be better off.”

And then there was the musical discussion:

  • I teased her that the last time I saw her, she was talking down Lena Horne. She bristled that Lena Horne was a shining star on the stage and that she would never speak ill of her. Shirley Horn on the other hand…
  • Nina Simone didn’t look like a pin-up but was an outsized talent and good friend.

“And it had the same musicians!”

  • Clifford Brown died too young and Max Roach (her first husband) with whom Cliffie made legendary albums was completely devastated by the loss of his friend
  • Mal Waldron, Billie Holiday’s accompanist, was one of the most sensitive men she knew. And she treasured the time they spent together and the musical lessons learned
  • Ben Webster played the most lyrical saxophone although she dug Pres more (Lester Young). Not to mention that Pres was the sharper dresser and wore the same hat as her
  • “I wasn’t a peer of some of these guys [Duke, Ella, Sassy, Count Basie], but I knew them, played with them and carry their legacy… We made a joyful sound you know”
  • She identified a Stan Getz tune playing on the club sound system after barely 2 bars. “Stan Getz was a true friend. We were that close…” She later added, “We didn’t screw you know… that was a good thing – a pure friendship”

We talked of the hard times for jazz artists and black artists in general and those who were forced to leave the US: Bud Powell, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone.

“And Abbey Lincoln, you know.

It was hard. My patrons were French. They’re the only ones who ask you ‘What do you feel like doing this time, Abbey?'”

On aging, and seeing her friends pass away one after the other:

“I don’t want to be the last one… It’s getting lonely, you know.”

It turns out that the reason she cut the set short was that it had been too cold. They hadn’t turned the air conditionning off a half hour before she came on and so she was uncomfortable and couldn’t give it her all.

We also saw the perils of celebrity: the star-struck fans coming up periodically, the guys wanting advice on how to get a record deal and clasping cameraphones for the obligatory photo, the tourist: “We came all the way from France to see you. We love you Abbey. Je t’aime.”

The woman from Boston who wrote a song after hearing her in Boston three years ago and who insisted on singing her vapid tune for three unbearably long minutes. Not to mention the obsequious and sycophantic club owners next to her trying to pump her up so that she would return the next night. “You’re the greatest. Everything you do is success and pleasure enough. You’re so wonderful.” I guess the reason she liked us was that we weren’t yes-men stroking her ego.

She wanted to talk about how new artists were being led astray, especially this one, Alexis something-or-other, who had been around her house and whose manager was this dirty old man. It took me almost an hour to figure out that she meant Alicia Keys.

“Oh yes, Alicia Keys. With that old man! her manager or something… He’s a dinosaur! Why’s he making her sing about ‘A Woman’s Worth’? What does she know about struggle? When has she ever experienced loss? She’s so pretty you know. Beautiful even. That man is ruining her. Let her sing what she knows.”

Alicia, are you listening?

But then she concluded by leaning forward conspiratorially and said, “I think she (Alicia) did her hair in braids after meeting me.”

Anyway, we had our drinks and got “drunk as a skunk” over the hour, having ourselves a good old time. As we left, she hugged both of us tightly and whispered:

“Go give it to them. Go kick ’em in the ass. You guys. Really… Be strong, and go give it to them… Kick ’em in the ass.”

With pleasure, Abbey. With pleasure.

by Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah

Capoeira

June 5, 2007 2 comments

From this too, May 14, 2006

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The Capoeiristas were in Trafalgar Square when we came out of the National Gallery on the first day of wrinkled teeshirts and bare arms blinking in the sunshine and temptation to idleness. Young and multi-ethnic, enviably limber and energetic, they stood round in a circle drumming while two and two and two came forward to perform their teasing acrobatic duets. We watched them for a long time, lulled by warmth and flesh and rhythm, drawn into the shapes and patterns of their strength and playfulness.

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by Jean Morris

Categories: Greatest Blog Hits Tags:

The Silverberg Variations

June 3, 2007 7 comments

A story in twelve movements

From the vernacular body [no longer online], September 16-18, 2004

I: Chaconne

This story starts, as do so many stories in my life, with music. For many years, I have placed the chaconne from Bach’s second partita for solo violin on a peak all its own. This massive virtuoso piece is one of those musical creations that always makes my pulse race and my heart feel like breaking. Even thinking about the piece puts me in a strange sorrowful mood.

The chaconne and its closely related musical form the passacaglia are of, I think, ancient Italian origin. The forms were popular in Baroque times. They build a series of variations on a repeated or implied bass line. The theme is often stated at the beginning of the piece, and is then transmuted several times. This repetition, filtered through changes of tempo, melody and register, gives a chaconne an inexorable quality. Chaconnes are emotional and ecstatic, and their power comes precisely from the limits imposed on them, which stretch composers to be as creative as they can be. In the hands of masters like Marais, Forqueray or Bach, the chaconne or passacaglia becomes a truly astonishing thing, music that makes you jump out of your seat, music that changes your world. Brahms used the form to wondrous effect in the final movement of his fourth symphony. But, long before that, Bach had scaled the heights of the variations-on-a-theme challenge in not one but three works: a broody passacaglia in C minor for organ, the famous Goldberg Variations for keyboards, and the violin chaconne in D minor.

I once had a splendid recording of the Bach partitas for solo violin. It was a performance on Sony Classics, played by a sixteen year-old girl called Hilary Hahn. I later gave the recording away, and for long afterwards, I had the sarabande, the gigue and the chaconne from the second partita playing in my head. I heard other recordings of the work: Milstein, Heifetz, Perlman, Szeryng. But none of these great and famous violinists played with either the heart or the technical ability of the prodigiously gifted Miss Hahn. So, when I saw two weeks ago, at Tower Records, Hilary Hahn’s performance of the solo Bach pieces for sale at a substantial discount (eight dollars), I snapped up a copy quickly. I must have listened to the chaconne movement, which is eighteen minutes long, right through some five times since then.

Once at least my eyes have brimmed with tears.

II: Numbers

On the way to the hospital, we’re caught in afternoon traffic. The driver of the gypsy cab is listening to a baseball game on the radio. Yankees.

I try reading Robert Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That, which I’ve brought with me, but I give up after a while, and listen to two men call a game on the radio.

I don’t know anything about baseball, but I do know that baseball-talk is full of statistics. I listen to the game for five minutes, keeping track only of how often they talk numbers. The commentators seem to be straining for a repeated “wow”, with all their percentages and RBIs and narrowly-defined records. Everything is made to seem remarkable, and the commentators don’t seem to be able to halt their numbers talk for even ten seconds. The game seems to be more about the numerical detritus of the game than it is about the game itself as a physical activity.

It’s hot. I find the obsession with statistics childish, and peculiarly American. I am mildly irritated, but I’m also thinking about how I will write about the heat and statistics and irritation in my blog.

The hospital emerges in the sun.

III: “There’s a lot of love in that room.”

For a few hours every Thursday evening, I help at the desk, answering phones, and assisting some other volunteers in serving food to family members of the patients. I have a good rapport with the nurse aides, the registered nurses and the doctors. There are twelve rooms on the ward, and in each one, someone is dying. At the desk, people fill in charts and answer queries. There’s always laughter at the desk; there’s acerbic humor and kindness; barbs fly. This is how they get through the days. I’ve only seen momentary silence at the desk when a body, shrouded in black polythene, is wheeled out by men from the morgue.

Maria, a nurse aide, says in her lilting accent, her Jamaican English that is like singing, Oh, there’s so much love in that room, so much love in that room, why I can’t find a love like that? She looks genuinely upset. Errol, the registered nurse, who’s quite fat and, depending on his mood, either very nice or very surly, says, What, in room 712? He goes over, takes a peek, comes back.

Lordy, that’s a lot of love. There’s some banter over at the desk. Errol says, She love him. You know he been a dog before, but she love him now. Hmm, mm.

There’s a comatose man in room 712, and sitting next to him is a woman, his wife. She’s holding his hand, talking to him, loving him through the threshold to the other world.

Maria still looks miffed, almost petulant, almost bewildered. I can’t believe it, she sings, why I cannot find a love like that, uh?

IV: A woman kissing a man’s hand

I have gone to room 712 out of curiosity, but my pretext is to find out if Mrs Silverberg needs anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water.

He lies on the bed, comatose, and next to him, she sits in a chair and holds his right hand. She raises his hand, lowers her head, kisses his hand. I love you, she says, why did this happen to you? You wonderful man. I love you. She kisses his hand again. His breathing is raspy but calm. His mouth is wide open, his eyes almost closed. His chest rises and falls with each labored breath but he is otherwise immobile. To his left and to his right, he is attached to tubes and clear bags of fluids. The tubes are connected to his arms. He looks like Gulliver on the Lilliputan shore.

My poor baby, she says, I love you.

Then she turns around and notices me standing there. And who are you? she asks. I introduce myself. She squints at my ID, and says, oh, and turns back to her husband. I ask if she wants anything, some apple juice, perhaps, or a glass of water. No, she says, I still have apple juice. I tell her that it’s wonderful that she’s talking to him. He can’t talk back, I say, but he can hear you.

He’s a wonderful man, look at him, she says, wonderful man, so full of life but look at him now. You are wonderful, she says to him, and lowers her head and kisses his hand.

There’s nowhere for me to sit. I kneel down between the bed and the chair, and Mrs Silverberg begins to talk to me.

V: The wife’s tale

I have been married to him for forty-eight years. I love him. After he came to hospital, the dog used to sleep by his bed every night. Missed him terribly. So did I.

She holds his hand adoringly. The grief is heavy on her. Elsa Silverberg tells me that her husband is a violin teacher. Mr Silverberg taught in the Bronx public schools for more than thirty years.

She’s very hard of hearing, so I have to lean close if I want to say something. I enunciate into her ear: I love music.

Oh, says she, classical music? I nod and smile.

(She shows me a driver’s license which says “David Silverberg”. He is a burly and cheerful-looking man, an image hard to connect with the one who lies before me, this silent one, pale, unshaven and with that look of permanent surprise that you see in the faces of the old: white eyebrows, gaping mouth).

Well, she says, when he was young David studied with Samuel Rifkind, who was a great teacher, and this man told my husband that if he had wanted he could have had a brilliant career as a performer.

Once, about sometime in the early 1960s, David played a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Can you believe that? He had a wonderful talent.

He played the Bach chaconne.

Do you know it?

VI: Chaconne

The chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s partita no. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

VII: Children

a: We have two children. Our son lives in New York, with his wonderful wife and their eight-year old son. Aaron, our son, he’s into computers. And when he was a boy, he sang beautifully. He was in the boys choir at St John’s Church. The best singer they had at that time. But when they did high masses, he couldn’t sing with them because of his religion. St John’s is an Episcopalian church.

a: What? You’re going to have to speak a little louder.

a: Of course, Jewish. Anyway, his voice broke, and then he stopped singing. He went to NYU. His father was so happy when he said he was getting married. Have you met our son? He comes here often, to visit his father.

a: Our daughter lives in Maine. They lost her medical records, these idiots. Now she can’t get her medicaid. She’s thirty-five, and she has fibromyalgia. She has a huge dog that helps her get around, you know, one of those service dogs.

a: We send her money. What can we do? We have no money, but we have to send her money. Because someone lost her medical charts.

a: She would like to come see her father, but there’s no money.

VIII: Accidents

One of our dogs, and we’ve had many, one of our dogs bit off David’s little finger. It was a dumb dog. Anyway, the finger was reattached, and can you believe this man, he learned how to play violin all over again. We had the dog put down.

We got into an accident last October. He was driving. We hit a tree.

They made us wait so long in the emergency room. He hurt his shoulder, I hurt my arm. That was all. But then, when they did a scan, they found out that he had cancer in his stomach.

They’ve had to take out all his insides. There’s nothing left inside him now.

Can you believe what one of the doctors said to us? That David is seventy-eight, that that isn’t such a bad time to die. Can you believe the nerve of these doctors? If they had taken better care of him, he wouldn’t be here like this right now.

Mr Silverberg agitates slightly. His wife starts, but he calms down quickly, and so does she.

She kisses his hand.

People live to be ninety, she says, why is this happening to him? I’m not ready to let him go, he has been a wonderful man. Yes, he had a bit of a temper sometimes, but he was a wonderful man.

I kneel closer to her. She inclines her head.

I say, he can’t speak, Mrs Silverberg, but he can hear you. He can receive all this love you are sending his way.

Mrs Silverberg nods and falls quiet.

It is very late afternoon now. I have been in this room with the Silverbergs for an hour. I can see the skyline of the city from this seventh floor window. There are trains in the distance, bridges, a river. It is impossible to describe the air, and the beautiful light which is just out of reach of words. Light and air are the opposite of dying. Of all the free and joyful things, I think, light and air come first. And yet, at the appointed time, one ends up with air from a tube, light from a fluorescent tube, and no hope of ever going outside again.

How strange that the same chaconne I was humming earlier in the day is the foundational piece of this man’s life. I wish I could bring the disc, play it for him. Or would that tie his spirit down? Bind him too closely to the world that his body is already trying to escape?

Night begins to fall. The air and the light take on darker hues.

I break the silence after a few minutes.

Thank you, Mrs Silverberg, I say, holding her hand. She looks surprised. Why are you thanking me? I should be thanking you.

Because you’ve shared your story with me, I say, and because you have such a love for this man.

Thank you, she says, squeezing my hand tight and holding it in the squeeze, thank you. God bless you.

God bless you too, Mrs Silverberg.

Her eyes are glassy. Eventually, she releases my hand and I leave the room.

I return to my seat at the nurses’ station, musing on this interaction.

I am completely unprepared for what happens next.

IX: Unfathomable

The Chaconne is the most wonderful, unfathomable piece of music. On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.
–Johannes Brahms

X: The nurse’s tale

a: She’s drunk, you know.

a: No, I’m telling you she’s an alchoholic, and she’s drunk right now.

a: Yes, I understand that, you talked with her for an hour. But do you know some people are at their most lucid when they are intoxicated? She’s been drinking all day. That’s why she was talking so much.

a: Believe.

a: Well, everything has a reason. And it’s all in Silverberg’s chart: her alchoholism, his abuse.

a: Beat her. Pretty badly but it’s hard to tell now, isn’t it?

a: It’s pretty certain. What’s not quite as certain is whether the allegations by the daughter are true.

a: Sexual abuse.

a: Yes, way.

a: She brought a big court case against her father in the early nineties. There was no legal resolution, but they became estranged. This was all before she got fibromyalgia. He got a PhD from Columbia, you know, in musicology, and he was a brilliant violinist. But what good is all that?

a: Probably why his wife took to drink.

a: Apparently, the daughter converted out of Judaism and became a born-again Christian in the late nineties, and that is what has allowed her to begin to forgive her parents, and make peace.

a: We don’t know if she’ll make it out. She was trying to arrange a flight to see him before he dies. There are some cheap flights on Jet Blue.

a: That’s right, you wouldn’t know it from the way Mrs Silverberg’s carrying on in 712. Medical professionals are human beings too. Sure we make mistakes. But we are not to blame for her husband’s illness. She needs to realize that.

a: You got it. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

XI: Morimur

It is 3am on a Saturday morning as I write these words. I can’t sleep. Hunger. Heat. Humidity. Thoughts.

Certain scholars believe that the chaconne has mystical and even cabalistic properties. The piece was written in 1720 after the death of Maria Barbara, the first wife of J.S. Bach, as an epitaph to her. The variations of the chaconne contain themes from some of Bach’s other choral preludes, each of which deals with the subject of death.

Even without the codes, the music is moody, intense and, as Brahms says, unfathomable.

I rise in the small hours and begin to sing it to myself.

XII: Resignation

I left the hospital at 7pm that evening.

Mrs Silverberg stayed by the bed until midnight, and then, according to the nurse, she reluctantly went home.

Mr Silverberg breathed his last some two hours later, at 2am on the morning of September 10.

The widow is in a bad way, and her health has taken a sudden turn for the worse. She is getting help from the bereavement counselors from the hospice.

Albert Schweitzer writes, of the chaconne: Out of a single theme, Bach conjures up a whole world. We seem to hear sorrow contending with pain until at the last they blend in a mood of profound resignation.

I’m not sure I completely understand. All I do is watch like an astonished child as the universe does what it does.

I’m going back to sleep.

by Teju Cole

Categories: Greatest Blog Hits Tags:

Responding to Poverty

June 1, 2007 3 comments

From Parmanu, January 30, 2005

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The morning after I land in Bangalore, I go for a walk in my neighbourhood. My parents live in a residential area in the old part of town, and their apartment faces a small but busy road. Next to the apartment complex is a general-store, and a colourful STD-ISD booth stands out in one corner. Outside the store a man is sitting on a stool with his sewing machine, adding a few stitches to what looks like a salwar while two young girls stand next to him, waiting. When he finishes, one of them gives him a five-rupee note and collects the dress. The tailor pockets the note, shifts his position a little, and looks around to see if the next customer is approaching.

The smallness of that transaction – five rupees – makes me wonder how many such clients he gets each day. Five, on a good day? And how much would he earn each day, on the average? Surely not more than thirty rupees. That makes it around nine hundred a month, if he worked every day. How many mouths did he have to feed? And what if he had a loan on the sewing machine?

I walk further, crossing people on their way to work early morning. Most are from the lower middle-class – the kind who commute using local buses, work in small offices or shops and earn not more than a few thousand rupees a month. The vehicles on the road are mostly bicycles, two-wheelers and auto rickshaws; occasionally, an old Maruti 800 or an Ambassador passes by. There is the sabji-wallah with his assortment of vegetables clinging precariously to baskets tied all around his bicycle; there is the paper-wallah, also on the bicycle with his load of newspapers, who stops at every gate and throws the morning edition over it; there is the doodh-wallah, returning after his morning round of milk-delivery, with large, empty aluminium cans that make a klang each time his bicycle goes over a bump or into a pothole.

The scene brings me back to reality. The image of Bangalore I have been carrying is restricted to IT parks swarming with software engineers who drive in their newly acquired Ford or Honda and who visit, after work or on weekends, the shopping districts and spend their wealth on designer labels and international brands and, through their spending, create the consumer society that generates more wealth for people in different layers of the economic continuum that spans an urban population. This image, as I see it now, is a very limited one. It is not that I expected most of the city to be transformed; a better explanation is that my focus on a small section of the upper middle-class made me forget the others who occupy most of the city. And what I now see in this scene also indicates that change in India is slow, which, among other reasons, is due to the large number of people involved.

The road slopes down a little, and soon I am at an intersection where a few autos stand in line. Across the road, in a small vacant plot of land, there is a tent with a tarpaulin exterior. A little away from the tent I see a woman squatting on the ground stirring a pot balanced on a few thin logs of wood. A trail of smoke lifts from the fire beneath the pot into the woman’s face, and she uses the end of her saree to wipe away her smoke-induced tears while continuing to stir the pot with her other hand. At a corner of the plot, next to a gutter that runs along the road, two small boys in their underwear are cleaning their teeth with fingers. They take turns to spit into the gutter and to rinse their mouth using the glass of water they are sharing. There is no sign of the father; he is either asleep inside the tent, or is away looking for a suitable spot to answer nature’s call.

I stand there for a while looking at this family preparing for yet another day; slowly my thoughts turn philosophical (as they usually do when I’m confronted with images of stark poverty). It seems plainly unfair that someone like me has a life of luxury while others like them receive such a raw deal. I turn this thought over a few times, and finding no immediate resolution, I continue walking.

*

Some weeks later I watch Swades. In the movie, a Non-Resident Indian (NRI) visiting India has a similar experience when he encounters the depth of poverty in rural India. He then goes on to empower a village with power-generating capability through a scheme that harnesses electricity from a tiny waterfall. At the end of the movie he is back in India for good, with the intention of helping the poor.

I know I cannot follow the NRI’s footsteps; I console myself that such responses are limited to the celluloid. But my own responses have been unsteady and inconsistent. I remember the night in college many years ago when I read about the reaction of a nineteenth-century tribal who comes to a city and is shocked by the disparity between rich and the poor, between those who move about in elegant horse-driven carriages and those who sit begging. He asks his friend – a city dweller – how people in the city could live like this, without caring for “one of their own kind”. For the tribal, his tribe is his family, and he cannot imagine not taking care of one of them. In the city each one is a stranger, isolated from the rest.

I remember that that innocent remark by the tribal had kept me awake for half the night, a night when I repeatedly asked myself how we had let humanity reach a state of such callousness. Something must be done about it, I told myself that night. And then, as life in college wore on, the message of this episode slowly faded into obscurity.

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On one of my last days at Bangalore, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a German colleague some years ago. After looking at some impressive pictures of our Bangalore office, and he asked me how we felt when we went out from such a plush workplace into a city that had so many poor people on the road. I thought for a while and replied that I had never looked at things that way, and perhaps living in such surroundings over a long period had numbed my senses to an extent I no longer noticed them. The surrounding poverty was part of our landscape, integral to it and one that gave it an identity. It needed a foreigner’s eye to notice the contrast, and it was they who pondered over this duality that was common in cities of developing nations.

I am walking in my neighbourhood as I think about this conversation. It is four weeks since I arrived in Bangalore, and when I look around people in the street appear normal: they do not stand out in my line of vision. I have crossed a while ago the intersection where that tent stood, and I do not remember giving it a glance or sparing a few thoughts. It is now yet another memory, like the tribal I had read about long ago.

by Parmanu

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Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer in West Point, Nebraska

May 30, 2007 1 comment

Part 5 of an 11-part series from The Middlewesterner, November 23, 2004 (see the “Focus: West Point Nebraska” category to read the rest)

“I was born and raised with a gun in my hand,” Steve volunteered. “I don’t know what it would be like to live without guns and hunting.”

We pass some empty hog lots along a back-road. “Big guys are squeezing the little guys out,” he said.

“Eighty percent of farmers around here are at retirement age,” he said, “but they can’t afford to stop farming.”

We pulled into the yard at a feedlot. “A few dead beef here,” he said.

“When it dries up, I’ll really get busy,” he said. After all the moisture, he thinks, livestock will be dying of pneumonia.

“I have to make out some slips here,” he said. “Some feed yards want to keep track of the ‘deads’ that are hauled out.”

Two dead black beef cattle have been pulled out of the feedlots for Steve to pick up. One of them is bloated more than the other one, its legs poking out like the legs of a balloon cow, its bung-hole bulging hugely, its belly bloated in an arc. “I don’t know how your stomach is,” Steve said by way of warning. “I let the air out of them.” He poked the dead animal’s great belly with his butcher knife, and you could hear the air coming out, a stream of liquid squirted out like a lazy geyser, you could smell it. “That’s the smell you don’t get used to,” Steve said. He lets the air out of most of the bloated animals, he said – “that way I can get more of them in the truck.”

“I have to keep a record of what I pick up – for the rendering plant,” Steve said. He showed me his chart. There were columns for Beef / Calf / Hog / Horse / Other / Name of farmer he picked up from / Number picked up.

“There’s one thing you see a lot of in these feed yards,” Steve said. “Cattle dogs. A lot of yards use them to move cattle. They’ll have men on horses and a good dog to control the cattle.”

Steve had worked at a feed yard himself, working with 16,000 head of cattle. He would get up at 5:00 a.m., he’d get done work about 9:00 p.m., he got one Sunday a month off. “We took our work seriously,” he said. “We had less than one percent death loss that one year – that low a rate is almost unheard of. Of course, you don’t get paid extra for that. We’d ride horse forty or fifty miles a day; each of us would wear out four horses a day. In the winter we had to walk the lots.”

“I like driving out through this country,” Steve said. He told me about a cousin who works as an “integration manager” for Gateway Computers and likes to get out in the country too. “He’s a wildlife control fellow,” Steve said. “He’ll trap two hundred coyotes and foxes a year. He makes almost no money doing it, he does it to help out the ranchers.”

In years past Steve and Cindy raised calves. He’d get the calves for nothing from some of the feedlots, they’d be new-born. “For a while, it was twenty-two bottles in the morning, twenty-two bottles at night,” Steve recalled. He has a friend, a carpenter, who needs the income now, so Steve has been giving the calves to that fellow. “He has it worse than I do,” Steve said. “It would be a better world if we all did things like this. These values are what I like about living here.”

by Tom Montag

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Mermaids, Gargoyles, and California Quail

May 27, 2007 1 comment

From Drawing the Motmot, March 2, 2006

Gone for a week and came home to a pile of work and not enough time to do it. The litter pie is staying warm on the back burner until I get these gargoyles, mermaids, fairies and angels finished.

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Along with illustrating and painting, I design figurines for the giftware market. I actually get a kick out it; gargoyles are drawn with a glass of wine in one hand (it releases the inner demons and after a little alcohol they all want to party). Fairies need to be coaxed out with Irish music — something about penny whistles and jig time does the trick. Angels are best drawn following trips to Florence (like the one we took in December) for inspiration, and mermaids, well, I just started doing those, and I haven’t nailed down the best way to get there yet with mermaids. I might have to make a trip to an aquarium sometime soon, or maybe just out to my little pond out back with the goldfish, or as I like to put it, “prey.”

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There’s a red-shouldered hawk out here that thinks it’s an osprey and flops feet first into the freezing water and pops back up with a long strip of wriggling golden sushi. No mermaids out there that I know of, but if there were any, they’d be kept under control by the friendly neighborhood red-shouldered fish-hawk.

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While visiting my family in Los Angeles (actually, the dry hills north in Ventura County) I got to watch the birds come to the feeder: lesser and American goldfinches, white-crowned sparrows, mourning doves, California towhees, American crows, rock doves, house finches, scrub jays, yellow-rumped warblers, and best of all, a pair of California Quail attracted by cracked corn on the ground. Got to sketch one from the breakfast table.

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Oh well, back to the drawing board. Gargoyles await.

by zeladoniac

Puma

May 25, 2007 6 comments

From Creek Running North, September 23, 2004

It was the summer of 1986. I had been living in Washington, DC for two years, and was back in the Bay Area, visiting Matthew and Kathy for a two week escape from the deadening confines of the Beltway. Matthew and I had talked about spending a week or so in the Sierra Nevada, but just before I embarked at Dulles Airport, Matthew hurt his knee in a tragic seesaw mishap. We judged the gentler topography of Point Reyes more tolerant of his temporary disability.

Having been joined for the trip by Tony and KK, we hiked the short two and a half miles from the Bear Valley trailhead in Olema to Sky Camp, just underneath Mount Wittenberg.

Sky Camp’s water source looked suspicious, more so than we had been led to believe by the Ranger at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. Having thought there would be potable water at the camp, we had left Matthew’s filter in the car. This, though, was not really a problem, as we certainly had enough fuel to boil sufficient drinking water for four adults for three days. Matthew allowed as how he’d just as soon drink coffee as water, seeing as we were going to boil the water anyway. “Tony, can you get the coffee out of your pack?”

“What do you mean? It’s in Chris’ pack!”

“No, KK’s got it.”

KK didn’t have it.

I found the prospect of three days without coffee daunting enough that I volunteered to go back to the car to get it. Sky Camp lies about a half mile from Limantour Road, where I figured I could hitch a ride down to the parking lot fairly easily. A short walk along Sky Trail, past a pair of Point Reyes’ introduced white deer, and my boots hit pavement.

And hit it again, over and over, as I walked for miles down the deserted road, the only traffic being a few fast cars returning from the beach, their drivers in no mood to slow down for my benefit. I had been too optimistic when leaving camp: this paved road played hell with my good intentions.

Limantour Road is a narrow, winding two-lane that traverses the slip-strike-misplaced Salinian granite of the Point Reyes peninsula from Limantour Beach to the vicinity of Olema. That granite decomposes into fertile soil, from which grow, along Limantour Road, impressive Douglas Firs. As I walked, I watched the trees—there were certainly no cars to look out for—and noticed their needles hung down to form “drip tips,” to catch the summers’ abundant fogs and route them toward the trees’ roots: fog condensing on the needles drips right onto the root zone.

Looking across the San Andreas rift zone toward the Bolinas Ridge, I was struck, not for the first time, by just how different these neighboring ridges are. Inverness draped in mists, its trees sporting rainforest-style adaptations and cloaked in impossibly long Ramalina lichen like Spanish moss; Bolinas’ sere, flaxen grasslands across the way, baking in the sun. No doubt Bolinas Ridge is in Inverness’ rain shadow. A century of grazing has certainly had its impact on Bolinas Ridge, while at least this part of Inverness is off-limits to cows. This slope is oriented a bit to the north, while the ridge beyond faces a bit to the south. This ridge is made of granite, that ridge, a Franciscan area, may well have a lot of toxic serpentine in the soil. Plenty of good, logical reasons for the apparent lack of trees over yonder.

But walking down Limantour Road that day, it seemed certain that Point Reyes was an island, a mist-shrouded, moving island that had tunneled up out of the Cretaceous, bringing with it an archaean load of lichens and gymnosperms, and had plunked itself down into the arid, grassy late Pleistocene, steaming with the effort of having come all that way. Never mind that the chert and serpentine across the way were just as old, that’s how it looked to me that day.

It’s hard to dismiss the idea that La Punta de los Reyes is an island, just as the greater California that includes the Point was at first thought to be. A Sierra Club book of some importance in preserving this place bears the title An Island in Time. Anomalous soil, a populated valley between it and the mainland, not many roads connecting the Point with citified Marin County. Point Reyes, at least compared to its immediate neighbors, is a big, high, isolated and sparsely-peopled island, with abundant grass and browse for innumerable deer.

And as surely as mixing malt and hops with yeast produces beer, stirring a few deer into a large, roadless, lonely island produces, by a little-understood but inexorable process of fermentation, a being quite Cretaceous in temperament, if not in appearance.

As I rounded yet another bend in the road, the wind picked up. The breeze off the ocean had been a little gusty that afternoon, more so as I got deeper into the ravines on the east side of the ridge. That’s the only way I can explain what happened next; that the wind was too loud for the puma to hear me walking down the road. It must not have known I was there. Why else would it have leapt the guardrail to cross the road at precisely the time I arrived at said guardrail?

*

I am maybe eight or ten feet from the rail. The puma is caught in between. I am stunned. I have never before seen a puma in the wild, and here’s one close enough to pet. Wow.

It’s just a moment before I remember something from high school math, regarding the magnitude of the difference between a and b equaling that of the difference between b and a. If I can touch this puma, then, logically, it can touch me. The cat, evidently going through an equivalent mental process, grows an expression of intense displeasure on its face. It has cornered itself, and it doesn’t like that fact, and it doesn’t like me. Back arching, it hisses at me just like a house cat.

An eternity passes. The puma is just beginning to wind down its hiss. I’m growing frustrated with my inability to think of some mutually agreeable solution to this little impasse in which kitty and I have found ourselves. I could back off, but I’m not sure that wouldn’t be taken as a sign of weakness, or of flight. With my brain temporarily out of service, I’d be hard-pressed not to accidentally break and run, just what puma is looking for. Something he understands. Prey runs.

But I can’t just stand here and do nothing, because that obviously isn’t getting us anywhere. Puma’s neckhairs are increasingly standing on end, but then so are mine. Hey! Aren’t I supposed to fall to the ground in a ball, head tucked between my knees, so as to protect my internal organs from the slashing, tearing claws and teeth of the — no wait, that’s grizzly bears.

When the brain fails, or so they say, the body takes over. Unfortunately, my body has spent a lot of time walking along farm roads, the kind with barking dogs. Pick up a stone, or even just pretend to pick up a stone, and the dog cuts short its attack fearing the impact of flung rock. I reach—no, my right arm reaches—down to pick up an imaginary stone.

And the puma, seeing a chance to break the stalemate, swipes at me with a paw the size of a football, hitting me on the left elbow with its rock-hard pad. Seeing that it is likely to be eaten, my body surrenders, falling supine on the gravel beside Limantour Road.

Then comes the obligatory investigation of the kill. (“How about that,” I think. “I’m ‘the kill.'”) The cat sticks his muzzle in my throat. Sniffs and snorts.

This cat is buffed. Looks like he’s got spring steel under that fur. I want to touch his flank. Instead, deciding I don’t want to witness my final consummation, I look away, my gaze falling on a stripe of rock in the roadcut. Hmm. Laird sandstone, probably. And Diplacus aurantiacus? Growing in the shade? Odd. A great big warm whiskery sponge presses up under my chin. I go away for a while.

*

Doug Peacock, the Earth First!er and friend of the big brown bear, said once that it isn’t wilderness unless there’s something in it that will eat you. I am, quite truthfully, afraid of getting eaten. The Sierra Nevada, with its timid black bears, is the kind of wilderness I can handle. I love Yellowstone, but I’d be nervous backpacking there. Same with Waterton-Glacier, or anywhere in Alaska. Or Bangladesh, or Kenya or Komodo. I probably won’t ever go swimming in a river in Northern Australia, and I’ll pass on surfing between Mendocino and Monterey.

I know that most people feel the same way. There are grizzly bear enthusiasts, to be sure, and I’ll count myself among them from my armchair here, but at least grizzlies are reasonable. You can negotiate with them. Not all mammals are as smart and forgiving as is the grizzly. Cats, for example, are quite narrow-minded. To a cat you’re either a threat, a potential mate, or a potential meal. If you don’t fit one of those niches, a cat won’t even notice you. (I believe that most housecats have humans classified under a special subcategory of “potential meal,” in which we provide food but are not actually eaten.) And cats are still mammals, and relatively smart. Reptilian predators, for example, are even less tractable. There are no analogues of Doug Peacock hiking in Komodo dragon habitat, or at least not for very long.

But our eminently sensible fear of being eaten aside, most of us living in cities are absolutely fascinated with carnivores. If you want to sell a calendar, put a picture of a wolf on it. Want your car to project a sleek, powerful image? Name it after a flesh-eater. (Just tonight I sat at a red light behind a Jaguar with a Florida Panther license plate.) The two animals we most often choose to live with are predators. Sure, a dog’s predatory instincts are blunted by breeding and conditioning, and sure, a housecat can’t hurt us all that badly except by tripping us at the top of the stairs, but neither dogs nor cats have yet relinquished their membership in the flesh-eating guild.

Part of our bond with dogs and cats, at least, is that their innate behaviors are economically advantageous. Cats kill rodents, reducing competition for our food supply. Dogs help us hunt, they protect us, they tend our flocks. (Well, other people’s dogs do.)

Our love affair with big predators could be viewed as a relatively recent development, millennia of cohabiting with Canis familiaris notwithstanding. Until very recently, the predominant attitude toward our sharp-teethed colleagues was one of both fear and revulsion. There are indeed people who still hold predators in contempt, especially when they feel, however unjustifiably, that said predators threaten their livelihood. The lands of the Western US are littered with the bones of coyotes and pumas, killed on general principle on behalf of taxpayer-sustained ranchers, slob ungulate hunters, and their ilk. If not their elk. Conservationist icon Theodore Roosevelt once called the puma “the big horse-killing cat, the destroyer of the deer, the lord of stealthy murder — with a heart both craven and cruel.”

Though Roosevelt later recanted this calumny against Felis concolor after gaining a modicum of experience with the species, his epithet remains valid in the minds of many, who could reasonably assert that urbanites might feel differently were cougars or coyotes to take a bite out of their income. More than likely, the urban human’s present-day interest in big fierce animals has come in part as a result of those animals’ increasing rarity in our lives. Whether puma or dinosaur, these big and nasty critters might as well be extinct in Oakland.
I have to wonder how much of this fascinated horror stems from our distant past, from memories of tens of thousands of millennia past, peering with our big primate eyes through the acacia leaves as the Cynodictis ate poor Aunt Gladys. We’re still much closer, genetically and temperamentally, to the quaking prey in the branches than to the sleek, spotted, toothy beast scaling the tree trunk. You won’t live long if you take your eyes off the kitty that’s trying to catch and eat you. We’ve put them safely into pictures on the wall, but still we can’t take our eyes off them.

Keep your eyes on the predator: good advice when trying to keep from becoming someone’s treetop picnic; good advice when monitoring the health of a disintegrating ecosystem. Predators are dumping grounds for bioaccumulative poisons; they need uninterrupted habitat; they depend on the health of their prey. If a habitat loses its predators, you better pay attention: something is seriously wrong with the habitat. And the absence of predators degrades habitat further. Take away the puma, and you hurt the deer; what the puma doesn’t eat, the tick and botfly will. Legions of diseased, overcrowded, hungry deer ravage the available browse. Take out the knot at the center and the whole fabric unravels.
I’ll have to go along with Peacock on his definition of wilderness. I don’t relish the thought of being eaten. But there is something seriously wrong with any habitat that has lost its top trophic level. The land grows lions, wolves and eagles, just as surely as it grows bluestem and oak, rabbit and pronghorn. And the lion gardens the land, by eating the slowest of the deer and rabbit. An Inuit maxim describes the wolf as “the knife that carves the caribou.” Do you find beauty, supple grace, in the gentle contour of the muledeer? Credit generations of puma, who crafted that grace no less patiently than an Inuit carver shapes his soapstone.

*

I’m here to tell the tale, so, obviously, I didn’t die. Time passed, and I realized that I was still on the side of the road, still breathing, and that my fear sweat had grown cold. It had been ten minutes at least. I looked over, somewhat warily. No puma in sight. I didn’t smell enough like a deer, I guess. I got up and walked. After ten more minutes, a little green MG gave me a ride to Tony’s car, which I drove back to the closer trailhead. Matthew, KK, and Tony, to my amazement, accepted my story without apparent doubt. I had the best cup of coffee I’d ever tasted. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful. We didn’t get sprayed by the striped skunk that meandered among our sleeping bags that night, Matthew’s fervent predictions to the contrary. The next night, we dug in the sand at the beach, watching the bioluminescent glitter of the red tide micro-organisms in the deepening twilight. Then on to civilized Olema, where we feasted on oysters and beer. A few days later, I was en route to serve the rest of my sentence in Washington DC.

I didn’t report my encounter to the Rangers, for fear it would be classified as “puma attack on hiker.” There wasn’t any reason to report it. The puma had reacted out of fear, not malice. It was likely to be more cautious in the future, to look both ways before crossing the road. And I was, and am, unwilling to be one more statistical excuse for reopening the mountain lion hunt. (The press makes much of the less-than-a-handful of attacks on humans by cougars, while flat-out ignoring the numbers on the other side. In Cougar, the American Lion, Kevin Hansen cites 66,665 fatal attacks by humans on pumas between 1907 and 1978 in the western states and provinces; this is certainly an incomplete estimate, mainly reflecting bounties paid.)

Rather, I prefer to view my encounter as wholly good news: Point Reyes still grows pumas. This island of unorthodox rock, surging into the present from hundreds of miles south and millions of years before, poisoned and crowded and hemmed in by dairies and development, can yet distill from its soils the “lord of stealthy murder” — which saw fit to brush me, for just a moment, with its restrained paw, a reminder of a reality that I had managed to forget. The puma didn’t eat me, no thanks to my gibbering brain; but something will, someday, and no amount of cynicism or religion can change that fact. And I hope, on the day that I climb the Big Tree to join my prosimian ancestors, that there are still lurking, healthy savages with sharp teeth waiting in ambush behind the leaves.

by Chris Clarke

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Old Enough To Write It

May 23, 2007 2 comments

From RLC, April 11, 2006

In his twenties he tried to write a novel about old age, just to show he could. He wrote a draft in a furious three-month burst, and everyone he showed it to said the same thing: it read like a young man’s dream of old age, hitting all the predictable keynotes but missing the quirky illuminations you had to have lived through to know. It was the high-speed fury, he sensed, that had misled him.

In his forties, successful and known, he started again, but only got a few pages into it before the press of all his other commitments made him set it aside. Novels about old people didn’t fit in with the image he wanted to cultivate.

In his sixties, old age was the last thing he wanted to think about.

In his eighties, he knew he could finally do it. He wrote a couple of paragraphs every day, in longhand, and stopped when he got tired, after which he would have some tea and reread an old favorite, something Russian or English and older than he was. Although he felt he was racing against time – just as he had felt in his twenties – he also knew somehow that if he kept up steadily and slowly, time would draw itself out to let him finish. And that is what happened. He put everything in, and never worried if he was overdoing the details. When he wrote the last paragraph, he was lying in the bed from which he would never get up, scrawling half-legibly on the clipboard on his lap.

The paper rattled lightly as it crossed the small space between him and his son. In a flood, all words were leaving him. All he could say at last was: “You’ll see it gets out?”

“Sure, Dad.”

The old man closed his eyes and saw himself at the top of an immeasurably high cliff. It had taken all this time to reach the top, it had all led up to this moment of consummation. He saw distant fields, tiny pennanted castles, and far beyond, a white line of surf, a boundless sea. Down below, he could see his twentyish self, his fortyish, self and his sixtyish self struggling upwards at three different levels of the climb. It made him dizzy to recall how much they didn’t know yet, how much was still left for them to see, and this best of all. It’s wonderful up here, he shouted, but his voice scattered in the wind.

As his hand on the sheet of paper relaxed, he leaned over the edge of the cliff and lifted one foot. And as the paper left his hand, he leaned further and lifted the other foot off the ground and dove into the breathless air.

by Richard Lawrence Cohen

Separated

May 21, 2007 1 comment

From Hoarded Ordinaries, October 4, 2004

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Last week I received an updated copy of my car insurance which reflected the seemingly innocuous fact that my 1993 Subaru is now registered in my name and Chris is no longer listed as a driver of that car. And there in black and white I saw it printed for the first time: “Lorianne Schaub. Marital status: separated.”

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On the one hand, “separated” is such a mild euphemism. When I first phoned my mother to tell her of Chris and my decision to divorce, I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded “D” word. “We’ve decided to separate,” I explained calmly. “It’s an amiable split, but things are understandably awkward.” It was only after my mom pushed for specifics–was I referring to a trial separation, or had the die been cast–that I made the situation clear: no, it’s over; he’s moved to Vermont, and the paperwork for a divorce has been filed. Even with my mother, though, I stumbled over the “D” word. In my head “divorce” equated with “failure” whereas “separation” evoked an image of an amiable parting: here we’ve come to a juncture, you and I, and I will walk this way while you go that.

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On the other hand, though, “separation” is a jarring and even violent term. Whereas “divorce” can refer to a coldly clinical legal procedure (sign the papers, pay the fee, and you’re outta there), thinking of oneself as “separated” evokes images of body parts lying bloodlessly detached from one another: here’s an arm; over there’s a leg. “Separation” sounds almost surgical, as if the act of divorcing from one’s partner of nearly 13 years is a kind of dismemberment, a cleaving apart of flesh and bone that had improperly knit.

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This latter image of separation seems particularly apt. At times over the past two months since Chris moved to Vermont, I’ve felt emotionally dismembered, as if my head is in one place and my heart in another. On one level, I live and work and interact like any other normally functioning person; on the other, I feel like I’ve left a limb or two somewhere, but I can’t remember where. How can people talk and interact with me normally: can’t they see that I’ve been cloven in two, half of my limbs and nearly all of my heart having disappeared, severed? At times as I go about smiling and chatting as if nothing has happened, I feel like a magician’s assistant: my head is smiling, my hands are waving, and my feet are dancing… but each of these parts is neatly segmented into its own clever box, a benignly bloodless dislocation.

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Some while ago, Andi [link broken] described the experience of breaking up with a partner and then moving to Korea as feeling like an unaesthetized spinal transplant: suddenly the very thing that held you upright has been ripped from you, and there you are trying to navigate a foreign airport as if nothing ever happened. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the precise permalink to Andi’s post, so you’ll have to rely on my paraphrase.) Although I’ve never had spinal surgery nor have I ever moved to Korea, I know that during that week when Chris moved out, I felt like I’d been enviscerated, like I was walking around town with a huge gaping hollow where my stomach and guts used to be. I couldn’t eat nor did I want to, and I felt oddly detached from my own body: somehow it didn’t seem real that I could function like any other normal person with a brain that was spinning from an onslaught of “what if’s” and “if only’s.”

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The metaphor of divorce being a kind of unaesthetized envisceration works on several different levels. As I mentioned, I’ve never had spinal surgery, but I have had my appendix removed, and several years ago my father had both his colon and bladder removed not long after doctors had riven his ribcage to repair a long-abused and direly blocked heart. I know what it’s like to be bent double with abdominal pain; I know what it’s like to lie abed without the energy to stand much less walk while nurses exhort you to get up and be moving. I’ve seen my father slowly recover after doctors literally severed his insides to keep the rest of him alive: I know the mixed emotions you feel toward the bastards who stole your father bit by bit in order to defeat the damn Cancer that had been eating him, unaware. When you see a man brought to the brink of death then back again at gloved and masked hands–when you’ve felt the press of those same hands as you lay on a gurney, pain ripping your insides as you clawed at your own IVs, madly animalized by pain and fear–you don’t know whether to thank medical science or excoriate it. Those bastards cut open my father after he allowed them to cut open me, and neither one of us would be alive today without such goddamned and bloody intervention.

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The deepest irony of describing divorce as unaesthetized envisceration, though, lies in its agency, for I acknowledge that I am both helpless patient and goddamn bastard doctor. This separation is one I both asked and pressed for; when Chris has asked if there’s even a chance of reconcilation, my rational half (my inner surgeon) has said No. Even as I walked the streets of Bar Harbor, Maine several weeks ago, pencam around my neck as I snapped one reflective picture after another, visual proof to myself that I Am Standing and Will Survive, an unexpected cell phone call from him brought the pain of separation immediately back, unscabbed. Was separating difficult? Yes. Did I regret the decision? No. One of the oddest parts of self-surgery is the way you can simultaneously feel yourself lying strapped to a gurney, your guts splayed and splattered, while another part of you stands logical and detached, overseeing the procedure. Really, this must be done: truly, to save the life of the patient, the cancer and contiguous organs must be removed.

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Thus I live with an odd paradox. Although I both regret and lament the pain of separation and I’m staggered at the thought of my own relational failures and my cognizance of how this split has broken hearts other than my own, I never once have regretted the decision that led to divorce. Yes, I’ve had moments of loneliness since Chris moved out; yes, I’ve had moments of depression and even despair. But none of these lonely moments is as bad as the loneliness I felt in a mis-matched marriage; never have I felt so depressed that I wanted to curl up and die, which is something I felt too often while married. This current pain feels like healing: it hurts, but there is a reason and an end in sight. The pain that led up to separation felt inexplicable and never-ending, the kind of pain that simmers and seethes and ultimately destroys. This current pain won’t kill me; that other kind surely was.

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Unexpectedly, I’ve found moments of simple joy amidst the pain of separation: the joy of a quiet house, the simplicity of a single grocery bag full of enough food for just me and the dog. Even when the pain of separation was the greatest, I found unexpected, grounding joy in tangible objects: the caress of a broom on a well-worn floor, the warmth of newly dried laundry. The silent pictures I snapped in the aftermath of Chris’s move were my way of telling the world (and myself) I was all right, that as long as milkweeds still sprouted from sidewalk cracks and vines coiled from shattered factory windows, I too would persevere. Separation is a painful and difficult process–at times your heart and your head seem entirely detached, never to reunite. But underneath the pain lies a promise, a hope that one day I will awake to find myself no longer riven, but entire.

I snapped all of these reflective photos during my recent trip to Bar Harbor, and I’ve posted three of them to the Mirror Project. I am fully aware of the irony that the girl who avoided looking at herself in the mirror as a teenager, terrified of the Ugly Duckling she’d see reflected therein, suddenly feels the need to slap pictures of herself all over her blog. I’ve found, though, that taking and posting these pictures–a visual act of independence and acceptance–is more fun than therapy, and cheaper.

by Lorianne DiSabato

All the Long Gone Darlings

May 19, 2007 3 comments

From Ivy is here, January 8, 2006

Newly-minted poems: Three Women and Sisters.

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Today, I was thinking about my oncological family history. It’s quite extensively branched on my mother’s side of the tree—grandmother, great-grandmother and ‘all the long gone darlings.’ Breast, throat, thyroid, stomach, liver, bowel, ovaries and blood… It makes me wonder what lurks in my genes. It makes me think on my ancestors from Spain and China, what they brought over from their countries into the Philippines, their bodies’ secrets.

Some of them have the most beautiful names, so mellifluous. Maria Milagrosa, Rosa, Faustino, Olympia, Generoso, Adelfa Rosa, Zenaida, Ponsing, Isias, Renato, Casimira, Candido, Mauro, Pomona, Matea, Conchita, Milagros.

Milagrosa means miraculous. She is the only one who has survived.

by Ivy Alvarez

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