Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lunch with Mary McHugh

This week, it's Mary, my dear and truly wondrous friend, Mary. It's hard not to mention that she had her 80th birthday a couple of years ago. That's NOT what makes her wondrous. But maybe you can't escape that insignificant fact, in light of the fact that every week Mary takes herself off to the Bryant Park Grill -- after reading great literature into a tape recorder for the blind, -- for a splendiferous lunch. Following which she takes a whirl on the the old restored Bryant Park Carousel. Every week! Mary has made numerous little "performance" videos -- one about her experimentation with hats (she wore a coquettish black hat with a veil to her gynecologist some years back just to see what he would say. As you'd expect, he didn't say a thing.) And does millions of tap dancing performances which she posts on Youtube (type in Mary McHugh). Mary has great legs. Mary is also a writer, and whenever we get together she's effusing about her latest idea or telling me about the upcoming publication of one of her books of Mary (hilarious) advice. They're small books that could literally fit in your pocket with titles like Eat This! 365 Reasons to Stop Dieting or, my favorite, How Not to be a Little Old Lady.

I joined Mary for lunch last week (she had come from reading Camus -- in French -- into the tape recorder) and after the usual light chatting that you do when you meet up with a friend you haven't seen in many months, we got down to a hard kernel of common personal truth, that at the moment took my breath away.

Mary and I (and millions of others) share being "Special Siblings," which is also the title of one of Mary's books. Special siblings refers to having a sibling with an 'intellectual disability,' what used to be called a developmental disability, and before that, terms which are no longer considered politically correct. (no comment) Mary's light blue eyes fixed on me and she said, in a voice that is so light, almost frothy -- 'the really bad thing was that we had to be good. I was so good!' 'Yes!' I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Amazingly, that was the worst part of it all. It's still a problem, of course. Mary and I also shared the common fate of having had our siblings institutionalized. Perhaps that's why being "good" in ways that are so hard to describe and name, even to ourselves, may have stood out for us as the central problem, while kids today who have "special sibs" deal with much more concrete difficulties, or, anyway, different problems.

(If my parents could read this, they'd laugh hysterically. I think they thought I was plenty bad. And I probably was) But Mary and I knew what we meant. It was a moment of perfect understanding about a core part of ourselves. I didn't hear a thing other than Mary, or see anything other than her face. It was that kind of moment. So time stood still for a split second and then we went on with lunch. Mary chatted with all the servers, and everyone else who worked at the restaurant. She knew them all by name, and knew what book, or album, or trip they were working on. And then we shared a dessert and polished it all off with a ride on the carousel.

until next time,
Without Apology, a film I made about my brother

Saturday, September 18, 2010



Today I spent the better part of the day in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, an adorable, toaster-shaped shul, in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles North of New York City, and as some of the readers of this may know, it was because today was Yom Kippur, the day of atonement -- prayer, seeking and offering forgiveness. I find it's really hard to locate and identify my own "sins," (a word I"m not too comfortable with, so take it with a grain of salt) though like everyone, I'm always pretty good at identifying the sins that have been comitted against me. So I've usually spent Yom Kippur dispensing forgiveness, and not being too clear on where and from whom I should be beseeching it. If I got upset, and had a bit of a fit, well, it was for good reason! I wonder -- is an outburst always something to regret? If you seek forgiveness for something you did, does that always mean you shouldn't have done it? How do you know when you transgress? I have a feeling it happens in large and small ways a few times a day. If I only had a really good mirror I know I'd see how I'm hypersensitive, alternating with control freakishness. Small things throw me and I overreact. I see cross-eyed when Al doesn't take his shoes off as soon as he comes through the door. I'm a mess. I know.

A childhood acquaintance, Meg Charlop, who died in a flukey bicycle accident this year, was on my mind often during the week. I stood for her over and over, every time Kaddish was being recited. An extraordinary person, someone you might call out-sized, someone who embraced life and people like noone else I've ever known had a line that seems to be governing me lately -- "It's better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission."

But the rabbi today didn't get into the fine points, looking for the possibility of purposeful transgression, and that was fine. You get the feeling that the day is not about parsing the word "forgive." But after hours, over a wonderful break fast meal prepared by a friend, my friend wonders, like me, "Forgive. What does that mean?!" How are you supposed to feel after you've forgiven someone? Al, in reply, quoted Robert F. Kennedy. "Forgive your enemies but never forget their names." But Rabbie Mallen, in the Kerhonkson Synagogue, admonishes us to not just "forget" about an act you regret, but to do something about it. To CHANGE. aarghhh. He looks around the small historical room, inviting personal confessions. No way. I feel like a cat caught under the sheets (panic stricken) when someone makes that suggestion. Change. It's great advice, and I'm sure what all those prayers and stories are getting at, especially Isaiah who blows my mind every year, but ... What would that mean for me? Probably get a grip on my temper for starters. (though it seems God has quite a temper) Then there's really going for it.

Hopper comes to mind. Hopper -- a volunteer with HOPE Project -- who I met in Violet, St. Bernard, La. did an amazing thing out of personal regret. A construction manager who worked for an insurance company, Hopper (aka Nate) was sent to New Orleans as an insurance adjuster, which is to say, he was told to pay out as little for damages as he could. That was his job. So for about a year, he turned down one desparate homeowner after another until he couldn't do it any more, and indeed felt pretty damn awful about what he'd been doing. And so he took a "vow of poverty," moving his home from somewhere like Wyoming, down to a gutted house in a devastated section of the New Orleans environs, and deciding that for a year he wouldn't earn any money or do any other work but help New Orleanians rebuild -- all on his own dime, except for the cost of materials.

Project HOPE (Helping Other People with Everything) was an ever-changing cast of 10 or so characters, devoted to rebuilding homes. They had as little of their own infrastructure as possible and seemed to enjoy all that came with that -- the anarchy, and even the dirt. When I met them they had just moved from the floor of a gutted church to an empty shell of a donated house. Since it didn't have running water or electricity, they camped out essentially, cooking all their meals late at night (a typical dinner was served close to midnight) over a camp fire, and capturing rainwater for essentials. Boy, those dinners. They weren't just hot dogs and hamburgers. Hopper rolled out his own tortillas, and spiced the chile filling to perfection. Somehow there were always cases of beer on hand, and other intoxicants. And during the day, Hopper and his co-Saint, Mike, managed crews of green volunteers, kids who'd never held a hammer, turning them in a week's time into competent sheetrock hangers, painters, roofers, even electrical line stringers. Maybe a half dozen homes were rebuilt over the course of a year. And the incredibly grateful homeowners, who might to this day, still be waiting for their Road Home money, served up meals and crawfish boils, medicinal plants, hot showers.

Hopper and I ran into each other three weeks ago. Actually, Hopper called me on my cell, on a hunch I'd be there, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I screamed when I heard his voice on the other end. Yes, I am here!!!

We met up the next day, on an overcast afternoon, and I showed him the acre where a few of us hope to start a community garden, named by Mama Sue, Garden of HOPE (yup). Mama Sue joined us and we all drove over to this example of a gazebo that Sue envisions claiming the center, the heart, of the garden. Can we build something like it? As soon as we walked into the space, which you need to enter on a walkway that crosses over a pond, Hopper paced the interior, eyeballed the height, made a few suggestions and said without hesitation he'd build it -- at no charge.

So that's Hopper. Redeemed.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

l'shana tova

I spoke to this seagull yesterday. Not at great length, but in a friendly way, and in a low voice so as not to frighten him. (I've decided, for no ornithological reason, that it was a he) I've found this with birds, and with small reptiles. They're interested in me. They cock their heads and we make eye contact, and they're able to hold it for an unnerving amount of time. Mr. Seagull in fact held my gaze for about five minutes, while I prattled on about something or other (I tried to be reassuring - and also honest about my ability to feed it anything.)

Yesterday was the day I decided to visit my mother, who died New Year's eve 1992, as a result of a cardiac surgeon's slip. This doctor admitted it to my father and me a few days after my mother's surgery (yes, incredible) But I don't want to dwell on that awful revelation, and confession, both of which should never have happened, but on how I find my mother at the beach on Rosh HaShanah. I skipped services at this nurturing, permissive, disciplined, sometimes unconventional, free-thinking and often irreverant house of worship I've joined, Kolot Chayeinu, a tiny bit guilt-ridden. I told a fellow member who asked whether I was coming to the second day of RH services nothing about my plans.

I decided yesterday, after a many year break, to partake in the family ritual that my mother had established for us. A bit of background on my mother, Mitzi, as everyone called her, or Amitia, her given name or Shulamit Bathsheba Berger, her Hebrew name, whose initials (SBB) are etched on a gold ring I've worn for more than thirty years: A non-God fearing, but Jewish-identified, somewhat self-hating Jew, with good reason perhaps in her case due to her father, a domineering rabbi she seemed to loathe. She told me more than once, her voice shaking, about the rituals that were observed to the 'T' in their home, such as plunging all the silverware in the flower pots in the week before Passover while her father, who gave her not a second's worth of religious education, and who could hurl a plate of prunes across the dining room, indulged in lobster sandwiches on his paid holiday from his congregation down in Long Beach, Long Island, hundreds of unseen miles from his home in Montreal. My mother cooked a ham for her first Passover meal. (I often wondered what my father, who was far more conventional, must have thought when the glazed ham -- and I'm sure it was perfectly cooked and irresistible -- reached the table. Actually he probably wasn't as chagrined as you might think. Probably did NOT think he'd made a big mistake in marrying my mother. He told me about how, when a teenager, he'd "tested" God by playing ball one Saturday in lieu of attending synagogue and when nothing at all happened to him, it made him think. But I know he scratched his head in misery when he came home one day and found my mother painting the piano blue. )

So, with nothing but venom in her heart for all things to do with religious observance, every year my mother, father and I drove out to Jones Beach for Rosh HaShanah, walked the boardwalk, or sometimes right along the shore and we all agreed that God dwelt here. It was usually a bit cool, and we'd buy clam chowder and find a picnic table in the sun.

There's no doubt about it, he - God -- does dwell at Jones Beach. It is a perfect choice of a place for a non-observant Jew. Yesterday, which was the first day of the year I'd made it to the beach at all, I found the scene nothing short of mesmerising. Because the cool, constantly changing colors, the endless stretch of sand, the horizon that confounds water and sky screams -- the infinite, the source of everything, the beginning of time.

I tried to think weighty thoughts like these. But I became quickly aware of thinking, which I didn't want to be doing. I wanted to be feeling, and remembering. And luckily, these thoughts didn't stick. They slid away when I began to talk to the birds I came across as I walked in my bare feet "down the beach." Which is something my mother would have done. She spoke endearingly to to all kinds of creatures, as though she were their mother. 'You poor thing!' she might have said to the miniscule sandpiper that was hopping along on one leg. I did it too, not out of a sense of modelling my mom's ways -- I think that would have been somehow a bit sappy -- but out of a sense that it was what the occasion called for. I spoke to this little bird. And I was, I'm pretty sure, terrifying the one-legged sandpiper and myself, I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I felt connected to my mother like no other thought or photograph or scrap of her writing might have done. 'How come you have only one leg? What happened to you? But look how well you're doing!' This small amazing bird, which was part of a swarm of sandpipers that flowed in and out with the waves, to snack on the grubby life that was left exposed by their retreat, kept up with her swarm remarkably well. Then suddenly, she let the other leg drop. She actually had two legs!

When I finally sat down on a towel I'd brought, and watched the sky turn dark and the sea turn to slate, and caught the alien eye of the seagull and began to ask the bird what it wanted, and to assure it I had nothing for it...I felt content. Content and completely at peace.