29th of March


It’s Chicago and I’m meeting Pam in a few hours.  This place where I’m having coffee, facing the 1600 block of Milwaukee Avenue, didn’t exist when I lived on the 1600 block of Damen, just a drunk stumble away,  ever so briefly one winter, in a 3 room apartment over what I remember as storage and studio for the only other tenants, a couple of married “artists” who I saw maybe three times at the top af the perilously steep stairs during that cold, centrifugal winter.

Also, though it’s a cliche I’ll point it out anyway – not one person in this bright and well appointed cafe existed that winter.  Not the red head with his carefully coiffured chin and peachy skin, who looks like my ex-husband.  Not the tatooed girl who brightly took my order and gently disputed with the oldest person here – a barista of at least 30 – about whether I wanted my heavy cream on top of the espresso or on the bottom of the cup.

At that time – which was 1983 just in case you doubt my reckoning of birthdays and the antique geography of Chicago – I didn’t know there was anything but Chicago.  Each block and bus stop was a self that lived in me as embodied as my gait, my appetite, my clammy sweat on the green leather bench seats of elevated train cars that I swear were launched straight out of a time machine to hurtle us around and around a dangerous fun-house track between office windows and apartment blocks until our bones shook back into some pre-historic order.

I lacked the imagination to dream of anything really, really different. But she didn’t.

And not only lacked her imagination, but lacked her courage.  And really I think the courage comes first, like a fierce friend who says, there is more to you than this.

I have tried really hard not to cling to the self and the city that used to be me.  In that, we were almost perfectly calibrated opposites as well. She wore the self she believed in like, at the very least, a balding, bespoke mink coat, rubbed to the skin but still better than that ghastly thing you’re wearing.

And, to come back where we started, everything’s changed now anyway, whether I trot out my bona fides or not.  We listen to Talking Heads and Grateful Dead in the same over-amplified mix and no one understands how wrong that is, except a few people I don’t have to explain it to.  I don’t know whether I’m here today or not.  But I actually think she is.  She would understand this dream of casual, carefully understated affluence.  She’d definitely want to visit the custom perfume boutique next door, and show off her taste. And I really, really think I should do that, too.

I remember her every day, dear.  The body of her dream is as close as our fingers, aa tender as wings, and breathing fully on the sky over Milwaukee Avenue.


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Any Backyard Will Do

The summer came on early, raising our May temperatures into the 90s, and soaking every hopeful twig and root with zone 5 rainfall.  The tomatoes and I love it.  The trees don’t know what to do with themselves, pouring out leaves like the sky’s the limit, and there was an inflorescence of spirea this year like nothing I can remember.

I invited myself into someone’s backyard to take this picture, while I was walking around my old neighborhood – a curlicue of streets that go nowhere, lined with unremarkable ranch homes gussied up by their young, trendy owners with all the midcentury touches the previous generation was too tight to bother with.  The neighbor seemed suspicious of me as I stalked across the grass toward this glorious, disheveled creature draped behind the garage.  Introducing myself only made it worse.  She furrowed her eyebrows at me and retreated to a safe distance, not eager to make friends.

I suppose I am an odd duck, in my orange floppy hat and long sleeves, sweaty and smiling for no apparent reason.  But I’ve become so accustomed to invisibility – as every middle aged woman does – that I’m sure I can go anywhere, really, completely unremarked.  “Oh, I just thought she was your grandmother!” they’d surely say, as I make off with the loot.

I have been making this picture over and over again, ever since spring broke out along branches and side streets and the green open edges that meet every human habitat here.  Any backyard will do. I suppose I am looking for the open place where you can see into the heart of what’s growing.  Yes, that is it.  The open place.  I’m sure of it.


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First of Magnolia

Yesterday was the First of Magnolia, but as it turns out the magnolias couldn’t wait another minute.  They began their celebration on the Endth of April, giving the coldly snowy spring a big, pink “F*ck Off” so loud you could almost hear the buds breaking open, all over town.

You think magnolias don’t use salty language?  Magnolias invented salty language.  They’ve survived dinosaurs and human beings and even, so far, 45.  But 6 inches of heavy snow on April 12th (or whenever)…that’s more of a challenge.  Holding back, when everything in you wants to go.  Saying no.  Saying, “Wait.”

But they’re here now, seizing the time that belongs to them.  Telling the world, in fact, what time it is.

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Un-Belatedly Yours

The sidewalk outside the supper club was icing over when we left – a slick layer of damp left by snow that slid off the roof and awning, worn down by sunshine that didn’t do much to raise the temperatures all day.  I’m careful now about walking on ice, but it wasn’t quite there yet – still crackly and slushy and easy to see in the parking lot lights.

Tonight, it was two glasses of wine, a hunk of medium rare beef –  and I even ate some onion rings and some of the fancy sundae that Delaney’s serves the birthday guest, no matter if it is a little belated.  And it wasn’t just us three at the table – there were emails from friends out of state, read as part of the conversation – and the lives of passed away parents, and the riddles of children now irrevocably grown.

“Don’t let me forget, I’ve got some bacon in the car for you.  You think it’s cold enough out there?” “It’s 35 degrees.”  “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.”  You know – this isn’t even the first time we’ve had this conversation.

So I hug the friend who tolerates my hugging, and I don’t hug the one who doesn’t, and we walk to the van and she gives me the bacon and some leftovers from the flea market space we shared – old linens as soft and thick as cream, coming back to me unwanted, just like they were when I rescued them from who the hell remembers where.

“Thank you for making it a festive birthday!” I holler back over my shoulder as I cross to my car, parked on the darker side street. I settle inside, my purse and good-as-new camera taking their place as passengers, perched next to me on an accumulation of library music and my embroidery project bag, which I always keep in the car in case of stitching.

It’s truly dark in here now, a welcoming darkness inside this car that I bought from a boy I like, and yeah, that is Thunder Road on the cd player, So What?  I’m going home to books I needed with no place to put them, and thoughts that do not include any professional ambitions, and a tangle of unmade covers on the bed.  And I have nearly everything I need, and maybe that’s how I come to be thinking “…I am no more grown up now than I ever have been…”  Just salty and warm, sharp and sour, sweet only on you, and happy in my little white car.

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Ok, Fifty Four

Here we are – still believing in old books and crabapple blossoms and Peace, Love and Understanding, so help me Zimmerman.  No other birthday wishes are needed as long as this one comes true.

Ok, 54.  Let’s see what you got.


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Happy Rebirthday


Corporeal resurrection begs a lot of problematic questions  – I suppose, by definition, that’s what a miracle is.  On the other hand, the idea that we can be born again seems a natural truth on its very face, requiring no special grace whatsoever, aside from courage, patience and submission – lots of submission.  As Americans, we don’t like that part.  We avoid admitting there are forces acting on our lives completely beyond our control.  But inevitably the unsolvable happens.  We face what seems like deterioration, and find green shoots peeking out from the ruins.  We move hopefully toward change and shelter, only to find the same storm in a less friendly climate.  At some point, we all linger in our disappointment like an answered prayer.

The ever-so-casual Buddhist in me has no problem with rebirth on even a moment-by-moment scale, and there’s no denying you bring all your riddles with you. Our expectation that rebirth will clear the slate – that we will no longer are the person we are afraid we were – is a little bit of wishful thinking.  But that is not the grace we are offered.

Instead, rebirth says, “You are that person and more. Nothing better has been lost or forfeited by your mistakes.”  And we are all entitled to renewal on those terms – you can’t sacrifice your way to it.  Rebirth’s not interested in your sacrifices.  She wants to know what you are going to do about love, right now.  Today.


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8 years 2 Day


She loved.  She felt her way along, listening for something sweet, something to bring the world alive in her.  She saw things through a broken glass, but she never, never stopped looking for something beautiful.  And to her, you were beautiful.

At this point, we know I am not just talking about her anymore, right?  The more I miss her, the more I understand we wanted the same things.  And I can’t help still wishing that I could give them to her, again, today.

Remember today.  Drink something, sing.  Throw yourself on the rhythm of your day and find its simple internal rhyme.  Close your eyes and see for once how close we still are to our beginning.  It’s what she would have wanted.

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Happiness Remembered Me

It would take a while to write the entire story – since mid-November, so that’s over 2 months.  And anyway, like all my stories, there’s not much plot to hang the words on.  I can just as easily tell you:  happiness remembered me, and came to find me for reasons known only to her.  It’s true some small things happened – some I can tell, some I can’t – to complete the circuitry of frayed wires and blown fuses that normally conduct the flow between my heart and its defenses.  But those events seem more like excuses than causes, more like accidental blessings than chosen prayers.

I’ll steal from C.S. Lewis and say I was surprised by this tender seedling of joy, fed by an effortless light that glowed steadily through the little actions in my day.  Indeed, unlooked for delight was its quintessence – nothing quite as expected, nothing planned, nothing working out like I thought.

And I was surprised to find the name of this feeling, a clear refrain singing along disused pathways, intact and unambiguous.   Not something else.  Close to love, certainly – but not merely a flash of kindness or even deep regard.

Happy, yes.  Happy then, happy now, happy still.  Happy, remember.


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Ah, the apple trees…

Floral objet d’art from the estate of Carol Bonnett

If you were raised by grown ups who embarked on life after the war in their early 20s – and most of you were – then you can’t help hearing Peggy Lee’s voice wrap around this indelible image of loss and renewal, like the warm breath of a parting kiss that wakes you to find you were dreaming alone. Ah, the apple trees.

Lingering on a memory of sweetness shared, maybe you even hear her lilting “…and the hive of bees – where we once got stung…,” as she lures you to trust her, then gently tears out the core of hope you had forgotten you had.

When I woke up wanting to write – a flash of desire glimpsed through a torrent of adult concerns that have recently drowned out my interest in anything but coffee and getting to the next day somehow – I didn’t imagine I would hang my hat on this song.  After all, it’s November.  Isn’t it more of a Jaques Prevert month?

But no – of course it is apple trees that I miss, now that the long branches are empty and spring is still uncertain.  And it’s not even my apple trees I miss – it’s their apple trees.  The world they saw shining, not because it was unpolluted, but because they had not yet been forced to choose between sorrow and joy, wholeness and survival, today and yesterday.

Of course, their apple trees are my apple trees now.  Our paths have joined so completely this year, I see their side of the mirror more clearly than ever before.  Infected by unintended failures and untreated wounds, maybe they even suspected the harm they were causing – but what choice did they have but to keep going? To keep remembering the orchard, and try to make it back there before the snow flies.

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Sometimes, Wikipedia nails it:

In Zen, ensō (? , “circle”) is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.

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