Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fear. The Big One.

I've been afraid most of my life for some reason or other.

When I was young, I was afraid that my parents would abandon me—that they would fail to pick me up at school one day, and that would be that. I was afraid that the school bus I rode up and down the mountain where I grew up in Tennessee would slide off the road on one of the more treacherous turns. I was afraid of dogs, particularly Max the German Shepherd who lived in our neighborhood and who did eventually kill Charlie the Poodle, the only dog I was not afraid of.

In later years, before I could drive, I was still concerned about my mom not showing up to pick me up, but at this point the fear was not that she wanted to abandon me (she had put up with my shit for years, so it was clear she intended to stick it out with me), but that something horrible would happen to her.

And then, the fears vanished for a long period, because ugly stuff I'd never spent any time fearing began to happen in my life for real, the most dramatic of which was my parents getting divorced and selling the house I'd grown up in. I had to adjust to all sorts of things that were "strange." Moving from a house into an apartment. From a neighborhood to a complex my mother could afford at the time. Trying to connect with and buoy up a father who seemed to be suffering unfathomable pain. Being the kid at school who currently had "a problem." I remember hearing a teacher refer to me as a child from a "broken home." I told her off, as politely as a Southern girl could, and felt much better. 

This is small potatoes compared to the tragedy that many people deal with, but they were personal issues, nonetheless, that knocked my fears right out of the arena. Dealing with real life left no space for fear. And as the tectonic plates that had underpinned my childhood began shifting, so did I. I became more adventurous. I tried new things. I climbed mountains in the Rockies with my biology classmates. I befriended people I'd shied away from. I got a job. Bought my first plane ticket, took my first flight alone. I also started drinking, being "wild," testing the boundaries that had so safely and wordlessly delineated my upbringing. Fear was falling out of my lexicon—for better and for worse. 

Fast forward through a decade and a half of college, more schooling, frenzied careering right up to what would come to be known later by the people who coin such terms as a "starter marriage." My husband was a terribly handsome, warm, talented young man. We moved to Portland, settled into our careers (I more happily in those days than he), and bought a dear little house complete with, yes, a picket fence. We worked on the house, began work on a luxurious garden. And what do you think happened? I started to be afraid again. Really afraid. Really, truly deeply darkly afraid. 

Of what? Well, in hindsight, I'd say many things, mostly internal. Fear of being trapped. Fear of accepting the reality of my choice. Fear of no longer being mobile, free. Fear of not being able to become myself within the confines of a relationship. (I was immature, what can I say?) But, mostly, these fears manifested themselves as one big, giant fear of earthquakes. Or the fear of being targeted by the Uni-bomber who was active in those days. Or the fear of being bombed as I slept in my bed by angry Iraqis. The first Gulf War was going on. I hated it. It was all over the news. 24/7. Seemed like sooner or later I'd have to pay for all that bombing. Wouldn't I? And what better time than when you're not dealing with your marriage like a grown-up?

Portland is situated on a fault, and after the two big earthquakes in California hit, I hammered my husband mercilessly about leaving Oregon. He looked at me like I was crazy. Our life was good. Why would we unsettle ourselves? "Because," I would stammer, feeling the panic zip back and forth between my knees, my hands and my heart. I knew I didn't have a good reason, so I didn't dare offer it. I ran away from this fear (and the actual fears it masked) in a zillion useless, reckless and self-destructive ways while simultaneously having a glorious career. Not surprisingly, after four years of marriage, my husband called it quits. More tectonic plates crashing and sliding. More upheaval. 

But what did I do? Did I move away from Oregon, the place where my Personal Big One was waiting to happen? No. I stayed there, and ta-da, the fear vanished again. As another Charlotte-earthquake and its aftershocks required me to react/act/learn with some degree of maturity, the metaphorical earthquake and all the fear it inspired receded into the background. 

I'm still afraid of earthquakes, flying and dread diseases, because (hello) what I'm really afraid of is dying. Especially when things are going so beautifully. My life is full. My marriage is good. My children are amazing. I don't want anything to mess with that; I've worked hard to have it. But my fear is not rational. Of course, one day I will die, but letting the fear of it erode the joy of every passing day is simply not an option. So I've been learning to deal with it. To live my life anyway. To keep things in perspective. 

Somewhere during the Bush administration, I, like many Americans, had a front-row seat for the demonstration of "How Fear Weakens You, Makes You Vulnerable to Manipulation, and Siphons Off Valuable Energy You Could Otherwise Be Using to Live a Fuller and Better Life in a Healthier World." This was destiny throwing up a billboard that said, "Fight the good fight, Charlotte. You're on the right track. Don't give in to the fear."

Tomorrow, I leave my children and my loving rock/anchor/pillar of a husband, to board a plane and fly to New York (where I have not been since 9/11), while the media rages on about a Killer Flu and birds in airplane engines. I'm a little nervous, but nothing approaching panicky. And I know that my reason for going—to be with my mother for a few short days—is well worth setting aside the ungrounded fears I have about all of it.

Life is calling. And I'm determined not to be too afraid to answer.—Charlotte

p.s. Can't wait to hear from Janet, who will join us again soon from the Ground Zero of Swine Flu, where I'm sure she's had a lovely time.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Flying solo.

Charlotte with photo of Janet and Charlotte 
snapped 10 years ago, more or less.

Janet and I live two continents and an ocean apart, more or less. I never see her, not even using iChat or Skype. We write emails, occasionally post a letter, and send each other photos in which we are rarely present. We use stand-ins, dogs and children, to show who we "are" these days. 

But we couldn't be closer. She is a sister to me. A mentor. A rock. A shoulder. A soft and warm place. A psychologist. A fairy god mother. A measuring stick. A dose of truth and honesty. A mirror. The person who finishes, and often starts, my sentences. So many things. 

So when she goes on vacation, even though we are already more than 6000 miles apart, I miss her. Knowing that she's not at home with her dogs and her greenhouse and her wabi sabi cups and her mercurial ocean, makes me feel a little less stable than usual. Even blogging without her feels a little wobbly, even though we alternate all the time. 


Anyway, all's fair in love, war and friendship. When she gets back from Mexico. I'll go to New York. And she'll be "alone" for a week. During which you will all probably note a dramatic improvement in the quality of the posts. 

This is just to say, I miss her terribly. So, here's to Janet, my dear friend. May she travel safely, and come home rested. —Charlotte

Friday, April 24, 2009

More Susan Boyle. 10 years ago.

Something about her singing "Killing Me Softly" is just too touching for words. Take a listen. First up, "Cry Me A River" and then the Roberto Flack classic. (If you want to zip ahead to it, slide up to 4:19.) There are no comments equal to the pathos of her voice. —Charlotte

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sun, Surf, Sand, Margarita. Repeat.

A few year's ago Rick’s stepfather Bob was sitting on our deck, content, first time on the Oregon coast. Relaxing in the filtered sunshine coming through the Sitka Spruce, the tide making the rocks sing on the shore below, a hawk flying between the trees on the edge of the cape, one of those days that makes you certain everyone not living in Oregon is crazy-stupid or merely crazy-insane. We mentioned we were leaving for vacation in a week. He looked from forest to ocean, looked at us. ‘A vacation from this? Why?’ A poet in our midst. And his point was taken. But once again nature calls. In this case the small and highly intoxicating fishing village/surfing town/expat haven of Sayulita, Mexico. First Bend for three days, then a week with great friends. This means Charlotte will have the blogging to herself. Unless Mellie or one of our other one ripe friends wants to join in.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Yeast: the new Prozac.

I like to cook. I don't like the obligatory shopping / feeding / plate cleaning ritual that seems to take over my life, but when hours are long and the fam is relaxed and one job has been neatly filed away until the next one comes along, I do like to cook. In fact, I love it. But I've never been a bread person, at least not until this year. 

A couple weeks ago, for what reason I can't remember, I was feeling low. Blue. Down. And it dawned on me, in one of those rare epiphanies that occurs when you actually identify what it is you really desire, that I wanted to bake a loaf of bread. I called a trusted baker friend, got the low down on the perfect loaf of bread, and got started. By the end of the day, the last crumbs of that yeasty wonder were being wolfed down by my kids with generous portions of butter, and we were all basking in an unusual happiness that almost only comes with making things yourself. But in the case of the bread, it was more than that. It wasn't just that we made it, it was that the thing seemed to have a warm life of its own. The texture, so belly-like. The rising. The punching-down. The yeasty smell which increases over time. The miraculous elasticity of flour, water and little else. The physical exertion required to make it yield its best—an exchange of energy that, yes, is "life". I dunno. 

Today, we made pizza. Making the dough was a simplified version of the bread process with the addition of olive oil and a different ratio of ingredients. But the same magic took over again. The yeasty rising, the alive-ness of it. The ability of the dough to forgive and forget and succeed brilliantly despite the pummeling best efforts of strong hands and small weaker ones. 

It's my new drug of choice. Not that I had one before. But let's just say that it works as an antidepressant as well as the centerpiece of a warm day spent around home and hearth. Not to mention the fact that it's the perfect antidote to so much else in life that isn't quite right and downright wrong. —Charlotte

Thursday, April 16, 2009

And then there's Saint Susan.

Some Major and Minor Saints, Part One

Some saints are highly secular. But for some of us they form our strongest religion. In no particular order whatsoever: Merce Cunningham. Diane Arbus. Kerouac & Cassady. Dickinson. Hemingway. Capote. Plath. Martha Graham. Anne Sexton. Jackie Robinson. Sandy Koufax. Julia Child. Muhammad Ali. Louis and Ella. Tenzing Norgay, because sherpas do all the heavy lifting. Jane Goodall. Harvey Milk. Tennessee Williams. James Baldwin. Langston Hughes. Robert Lowell. Billy Wilder and Kurosawa, Hitchcock and Truffaut, Polanski, Kubrick, Capra, Almodovar, Cuaron & Inarritu & del Toro. Imogen Cunningham. Lucien Freud. Francis Bacon, Botero, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Robert Crumb, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Tina Modotti, Claes Oldenburg, Meret Oppenheim, Diego Rivera, Cindy Sherman, Julian Schnabel, Wayne Thiebaud, John Currin, Helen Levitt, Richard Avedon. Hunter S. Thompson, dammit. Philip Roth. Joyce Carol Oates. Donald Barthelme. Raymond Carver. Roald Dahl. Salinger Salinger Saliger. Philip K. Dick. Junot Diaz. Nikolai Gogol. Amy Hempel. Patricia Highsmith. Shirley Jackson & Alice Munro. Grace Paley & Dorothy Parker. Annie Proulx. George Saunders. Ricky Gervais and Eddie Izzard forever amen. Christiane Amanpour. Hendrik Hertzberg and every single New Yorker writer. Rachel Maddow. Maira Kalman. Philip Petite. The French, period. While we're at it, the Italians. Anyone not going to a 'tea party' circa April 2009. The voters of Iowa and Vermont circa April 2009. Gore Vidal. Ingrid Newkirk. Michael Pollan. Fareed Zakaria. Toni Morrison. Tom Stoppard, still. Gloria Steinem, always.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Viva the Mod Squad!

It's a stunning image, isn't it? I was cruising through the New York Times slideshow on Michelle Obama's style while in Europe for the G20 summit, and this one stopped me in my tracks not because of what she's wearing but because of, well, let me count the ways. 

First, there's the hysterical size difference between the Lilliputian royals and the land-striding first couple. Second, there's the difference in complexion and all which that says about the strides we've made in the Unites States. (If the Queen and her consort were black and hip, I bet there'd be less discussion about doing away with the royal family. "What's your name? Who's ya daddy? Is he rich like me?") Then there's the décor, and the perceptible difference in smile-ability.

It was after I walked away from my morning peruse of the news to water the plants on my balcony that it struck me. It's so simple. 

The Obamas are modern. Queen & Gang, God bless'm, are not. By choice or by accident, they just aren't. Then it hit me that Bush wasn't modern either, and that was one of his major flaws. And McCain, as much as I sort of respect him, didn't strike me in many ways as modern, either. While conversations and debates raged on during the election about conservative v. liberal, capitalist v. socialist, right v. left, Republican v. Democrat, something was missing. We weren't talking about modernity, and we should have been.

Modernity is a great word. Because it's not about leaving the past behind. It's this: "The quality of being current, or of the present," and what could the world possibly need more than leaders who are "of the present"? 

Bush and Co. made me want to flee from "now," because they were essentially driving us back into the Dark Ages anyway. The Obama's, on the other hand, have so quickly restored my sense of happiness about being alive in this day. I rest my case and leave you with one more image. I'll go back to digging in my own modest—but modern—dirt now. —Charlotte

Thursday, April 02, 2009

A Wabi-Sabi Life or Nothing

The Japanese word wabi means harmony, peace, balance, what's simple and unmaterialistic by choice. Humble and in tune with nature. Sabi means 'the bloom of time'. I love that: the bloom of time. Not the waste of it, but the bloom. What's most intriguing to me, lover of The Plath and The Sexton, is that both wabi and sabi in their most original, ancient forms meant desolation and loneliness. And now mean so much more, especially when taken together.
The architect Tadao Ando says this: 'Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet. That our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, frayed edged, and the march of time they represent.'
Here's to frayed edges, loving use, and a raucous and persistent celebration of cracks and crevices and the stuff that creams and gels and even surgery will never fix. We are the wabi-sabi women. Get used to it.