Friday, April 25, 2014

Looking for Thornton Wilder in A Cafeteria

It was a mid-March Friday night in 1995. In beach towns, early spring is a strange time, full of expectation at the upcoming throngs of people, bursts of activity, and openings of shuttered cabins and ice cream shops. For a few weeks, the quiet, closed world belongs to the locals and to their unsupervised teenagers in particular.  The long shadows during the lingering afternoons build space and time for observation and expectation. It is time for shivering in wet wool pea coats on deserted ocean beaches, for French kissing in the threadbare front seats of his grandfathers’ parked brown Buick, and for lingering after tennis practice in hopes of one more look at your latest crush.  This time belongs to the unlived potential of local boys and girls, waiting to grow up and live in places where life happens. The right ones know that this is when they will make the choices that make the difference between having been really quite something and growing up to be really quite somebody.
We went to a play. Everyone - the jocks, the cheerleaders, the loadies, the geeks, the wallflowers, the idiots, the punks, the nice girls, the date rapists, the merit scholars, the cheaters, the gossips, the invertebrates, and me.
The stiff back of the High School Cafeteria’s chairs could only be made tolerable by sitting Indian-style on them. I pressed my sit-bones against the blue molded plastic, saving the points of my shoulder blades from the same abuse. Even in that brown, windowless relic of 1960’s architecture, the curtain-closed stage beckoned with the promise of magic. Just for tonight.  Life stopped as the curtain opened on Grover’s Corners. The awful day, the bullying, the misunderstandings, the foggy sadness all rode back on the curtain and slept silently like a small infant giving a new mother her only respite.
The Stage Manager stepped onto the stage permitting us a glimpse into a world at a deceptively simple time. The hooting wail of a semi-distant train whistle settled on the dust specks floating on the beams of light from the spots. Whizzes of spokes tempted my ears. A whoosh of air tickled the tiny hairs on my forearm as the paperboy’s bike rolled up the center aisle. I entered their world.
Our Town always held, for me, more than the mere “magic of the theater.” It holds the magic of mystery. My father played George. It was always hard for me to imagine him as an actor. Yet, the play itself, rich in dialogue, philosophical intensity and perfect minimalism embodies all I've ever imagined him to be.
People love the simplicity of the set, the tender and innocent window-to window courtship of George and Emily, the matter-of-fact ghosts. But me, I always watch for the Stage Manager to look right at me and tell me everything I’ve ever wanted to know about love, truth, and him.
This particular night, I picture what playing George must have been like for Daddy. Did he harbor a puppy-love crush on his Emily? Did his heart really crumple at her funeral, or was he just acting? Did he embrace the power of a bare stage? Was he a poet?
After intermission, Emily has died and taken her place among the ghosts in the graveyard. For her there isn’t heaven, just a quiet place under an old Oak tree.
She looks back at the narrator. In that glance, it’s no longer about the actors, the lights or the sets. While words and glances floated above me in a high school cafeteria, the dialogue swallowed me.
I watched Emily call to her mother on her 10th birthday. No one even stopped to look at one another. The morning kept the pace of any day. Like all of our days, the magic remained lost on everyone.  I looked over the people I will have once known through blurry, wet eyes.  None of them saw.  They couldn’t. Not yet, maybe never.
Everyday, I walked the halls of the school, listened to the same records, avoided ridicule, holding back all of my existence, simply to survive. But, I was watching them, not living among them. The trap I’d fallen into was expertly constructed by my own artifice and fear. The plexi-glass wall and its visual distortions were visible only to me.
I sniffed back my tears, the moment too precious to miss. As we watched Emily float back to the cemetery, my sweaty-wet hands hands gripped under the seat slipping and sliding across it. Fiberglass tore at the pads of my fingers, but letting go meant sure destruction.
EMILY: Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"

STAGE MANAGER: No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.
He realized life. It was something about his face, that silent, gentle face that told me. He felt it, loved it, and breathed it. The flame inside me fanned by memory, not of the mind, but rather, of the chromosome, burned my thighs, toes, and lungs. This hot, red light floating inside my chest was not my own. It lived, floated, and danced within and around me. Not even the eerie blue stage light cooled it. The girl next to me shifted in her seat, instinctively avoiding the uncomfortable intensity threatening to burst through the wall of my experience into hers.
For the first time, I watched the gift he left me.  It played on, right above me, on the stage of a suburban high school cafeteria. He left me the chance to see, to feel, to love, and to seek to be one of the ones, “who do some.”  I reached up to my shoulder to hold the hand resting gently upon it. The empty seats behind me shrugged and looked away. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

On what I've really been afraid of, after all

Today, I have a rough draft of the first section of my book. 68 pages. My shoulders press down and I breathe out. Years of hiding and pushing away memory sit on a screen, right in front of me. The narrative goes from the night Daddy had a seizure until his funeral several weeks later.

I decided to write from the child’s point of view. The most difficult challenge is that these memories are things I hid for so long, when I revisit them, I risk feeling (and often do feel) pieces of what I felt at the time they happened.

February 1987 is the month that formed the path my life took more than any other. Throughout this process, I desperately wanted to hold the child telling the story. I didn't want to tell her she’d be fine, because she won’t. Not really. Her life will unfold and be wonderful, but the hurt she feels will continue to manifest itself in countless ways.

Many times, when I tried to name the feeling I remembered, I couldn’t. Instead, the feelings took on a life of their own as foggy smoke-like substances floating in and around me. They were black, grey, and red. Even then, as a child, I contained the fog, hid it, made it small and compact.

Some days, I succeeded. Others, the tiny kernel of condensed fog expanded inside me. The fog’s outward pressure on my mind and my body frightened me. I fought for twenty-five years to keep it inside me, to control it, and to keep the world from seeing it. All that time, I grew more and more terrified of it. I let it have power that it didn’t deserve.

The greatest fear in my life is fear of self. This fog, this kernel of pain sitting under my ribs, this is who I am. Everything I’ve ever done or become flows through and arises out of that fog. This fog that scares me is a part of me. How does anyone live life afraid of who and what they are?
It’s not easy. Most of your time is spent waiting. We have to realize that we’re waiting for ourselves to stop being afraid. Bravery has played a great role in my life. Until now, I never knew what it was. Bravery is facing the kernel of deepest hurt inside you, letting it expand and inhabit your world. Now the fog and I live together. It still haunts me but it does not scare me into inaction. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

On Throwing Like a Girl

My father took me to Carl Schurz Park across from our apartment building all the time. The park had these little nooks and sections where paths wind around and under tunnels. It’s smaller that Central Park, but it was “our park.“

Once, I brought a tennis ball with us to toss around. Spring blanketed the park in warm sun and white petals from trees in full bloom looked just like a snowstorm. A sweet smell rode on the breeze from the East River.  This is the smell I now dread and can only endure with a months’ supply of Claritin.

Daddy stood a few yards from me. He wore his white sweatshirt, Levi’s and aviator sunglasses. I remember his wearing this outfit a lot. I guess it wasn’t the crime against fashion it would be now.  My mother letting him wear anything that could be considered hideous is impossible to imagine.  Then again, after ten years of marriage, I’ve learned to forgive Brian’s desire to be one with the tech industry and wear hoodies. I don’t like it, but I tolerate it. Maybe that’s the difference between five and ten years of marriage, realizing that hoodies aren’t as big a deal as I thought they were.

I tossed the ball and it landed half way between us. I was crushed. It was really hard and I was not perfect at it on the first try. Daddy could throw half way across the lawn. I couldn't catch either. He tried to control his laughter but it just exploded out of him the more he tried to hold it back. I frowned and made my signature Upper East Side pouty face.

“You’re taking yourself very seriously, Kate. It’s just a tennis ball. Try again.”

I threw it again, and again it fell way short of him. “You throw like a girl.” He laughed openly this time. I knew he wasn’t laughing at me, in a mean way, but it infuriated me just as much.

“I AM a girl.” I was indignant.

“That doesn't mean you have to throw like one.”

He showed me how to stand so that my leg moved forward and I could follow through. The ball went farther but it felt alien. I threw it again by myself and, again, I threw it “like a girl.” He shrugged and motioned for me to follow him on a walk, “We’ll work on that.” That was the last time I played catch with him.

Years later, Brian and I were at the lakefront in Evanston with Cole. It was near dusk and as much as I detested the idea and existence of Evanston, even I saw how beautiful it was. A band played Dixieland jazz in the distance.  The sky was light purple and the still Lake Michigan reflected the lavender dusk.

We brought 5-10 tennis balls for Cole because, it turns out, terriers are not retrievers. I proudly reminded Brian that his wife “doesn’t throw like a girl.”
“Yes, you do.” He smiled and laughed. I’m taken back 20 years but didn’t realize it at the time. That old familiar frustration with men laughing “kind of at me” ate at me.

“I do not, I’m just not as strong as you are.”

“No, Kate, I hate to break this to you, but you throw like a girl. You always have.”

“What does that even mean? How can you tell?”

“Your feet. You push off with the wrong foot. The ball goes nowhere. That’s called throwing, 'like a girl'.”

“Well, that’s nice, because it’s wrong, it’s ‘like a girl?’” I use air quotes to hide my embarrassment with righteous feminism.

Brian doesn’t buy it. “Whatever, Kate, just use your right foot and lean forward when you follow through.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I threw another one. It went 10 feet.

“No, your other right foot.” He grinned and burst out laughing. I winced at the familiarity of that grin-laugh.

I switched my feet and, much to both our surprises, the ball went far (ish). At least Cole had enough distance to get into his Westie flying-running pace. 

I thought to myself, “I know he’ll be a great father for a girl someday.”  I wished Daddy saw me do it.