Leaving New York

 

Joan Dideon was wrong.  In her essay, Goodbye to All That, she wrote, “I’m not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.”  Dideon believed that for the east coast child, New York City was just a city, “a plausible city in which to live.”  For those from other places, New York was “an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

What Dideon didn’t see was that for many us who lived just outside of the City, in a suburb, a commute away, the idea of New York City – or more properly, Manhattan – the dream of a life on that brick, glass and steel island, was as far away for us as it was for those from California.  The dream to be a part of its fabric and pace on a 24-hour basis was out of reach.  For those of us who came of age in the 70s and 80s, newly graduated with our liberal arts degrees in hand, that infinitely romantic notion of New York was right there teasing us, at the edge of our fingertips, never within our grasp. I discovered this the summer I started my first job at Fairchild Publications in lower Manhattan. I took an entry-level position in their customer service department, dreaming of being near and making connections with the creative, beautiful, high-fashion writing staff of Women’s Wear Daily and W Magazine. Instead, I found myself in a windowless basement, working as part of a phone bank with about eight other customer service reps as we took orders for new subscriptions, and tried to soothe the anger of customers not receiving their current edition Footwear News –how could they possibly run their business without immediately knowing the latest trends in heel shapes and sizes?

I took the train to the city every day at eight and I left at five, to return to my childhood home in Yonkers, with its manicured lawn and perfectly straight hedges. I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. But more accurately, I gave in to the pressure of my family, and the story I came to believe, that Manhattan was not for people like us.  It was for the few chosen ones, the rich, powerful, successful, and privileged. I was ordinary. Who was I to think I could make a life in that shining city that never slept?  My family knew what was best for me: go to college, get a job, work for a couple of years, meet a nice man, get married, have kids, buy a house a block away – “we’d be happy to look after the grandkids.”  It was what my older sister did, and if I was a good daughter, that would be my fate too. But I didn’t acquiesce with my family’s vision for my life and this didn’t go well.  As the almighty judge of all things proper, my mother would find fault in nearly everything about me, subjecting me to relentless diatribes about my hair, clothes, friends, beliefs.  And I was labeled as oversensitive.

I found refuge in my room where I listened to and read the troubadours of poetry and prose: Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins. How thin did I wear out the vinyl of Blood on the Tracks and Desire. How many times did I listen to the tape of the Dead, Saratoga 1983, my first Dead show. How many passages did I underline in On the Road and Another Roadside Attraction, their pages creased and folded, their covers taped back on. Through these artists I discovered another path.  Before me now were two seemingly impossible choices – the Manhattan skyline or the open road.

During my lunch hour, I would talk long walks, soaking up everything the city had to offer.  In Union Square, grizzled old black men would play chess; tourists would ask strangers to take their photos by the fountain; street musicians and mimes would entertain; and NYU students would sleep on the lawn, text books opened, faced down beside them. Just beyond the park was Greenwich Village, with its eclectic shops, cafes and of course, the jazz and folk clubs with their rich history – The Village Gate, The Bottom Line, The Bitter End – all filling me with a sense of nostalgia for a time that was never mine.

Walking along the tree-lined streets of the West Village, I’d admire the charming brownstones, imagining the lives within those walls.  It was along one of those streets I noticed a tan card, the size of postcard, lying in the road.  Garbage really, but I felt the need to pick it up. On the card were some words in a lovely script:

To achieve all that is possible, we must attempt the impossible.
To be all that we can be, we must dream of being more.

I stood on the sidewalk staring at that card, my hand shaking.  I knew I no longer had a choice. If I was ever to be happy, if I was ever to live my life on my terms, I could only do one thing – leave my family, leave New York.  I chose the open road.

Ironically, Joan Dideon’s love letter to New York was written because she was leaving. She wrote that she remembered exactly when New York began for her but “could not lay her finger on when it ended.” For me, it was the opposite. I remember exactly when it ended, standing on that tree-lined sidewalk, when the courage I so badly needed seemed to come from a little tan card I still have to this day.  It was a couple of years before I had enough money to take to the road and I spent that summer of 1985 driving across the country, ending up in Seattle.  I thought I’d return to New York one day, but I never did. Although in many ways, the most tender of ways, the city has never left me, and it remains a shining and perishable dream.

The Act of Travel

I love the act of traveling.  I’m not talking about the places I travel to – that’s a whole separate thing – I’m talking about the actual act of taking a plane or a train – the act of moving from one place to another along with a few hundred strangers.  For a few hours we are together in the airplane’s cabin or the railroad car.   We don’t really speak to each other, with the possible exception of the person next to us. Yet, we are in each other’s presence, our energies merging in one confined place.  And then we arrive and we all disperse back into our own lives.  For those brief hours our lives are suspended between somewhere and somewhere else.

We travel for different reasons.  For family – to celebrate births and unions or we travel to say goodbye and grieve.  We travel for business or for pleasure, a vacation for which we’ve been saving up for years.  We travel with hopes, fears and expectations. Or we have gone and are now going home, filled with stories, contentment, disappointment or even dread.  For whatever reasons we travel, these are shared human experiences, and I believe the act of traveling, of moving in unison, can intensify our shared experience.

There is no doubt, travel can be exasperating.  The too slow family in the aisle not able to figure out where to put their luggage. The loud guy who tries to make the attendant laugh with old jokes that are not funny.  The woman in the seat beside you, who decides vent about all the ways the airline and her life is terrible, even though she clearly saw you open the book you had been planning to read.  And then there are the crying babies and seat-kicking toddlers that try the limits of their cuteness. Yes, travel can be aggravating.

But take a step back, take a look and imagine. We are all going somewhere.  What has led to this particular journey for the couple down the aisle, the two older women in the seat ahead, the solo backpacker. Once in the boarding area a Japanese woman sat across from me silently crying.  Silent, but her grief was so pure, a painful, beautiful aura surrounded her. I thought of the time I traveled back to my childhood home for my mother’s funeral, our turbulent relationship overshadowing any grief, because I had already grieved. Our grief was different, yet it came from the same place.

Most of the time during our travels we are lost in our own thoughts, or in our book or computer. We talk with our traveling companion or nap in our seats. We don’t really interact with our fellow passengers unless something happens, such as a person who decides to end their life by walking in front of the high speed train you are taking to Rome.

My husband and I were on holiday and in the business class compartment when we heard the impact, and thought we hit some kind of debris.  The train took the longest time to stop and the shrill sound of the wheels braking went right through us. We stopped in the middle of fields with nothing around.  An announcement was made in Italian but I understood the word “morto” – dead.  Passengers were mingling in the aisle looking out the window at the Carabinieri inspecting the scene.  I found an English speaking gentleman who explained it was a suicide and we’d be delayed for a few hours.  We chatted softly; everyone was talking softly, whispering.  No one seemed angry about the delay, we all seemed to understand the the profundity of the experience.  We all expressed concern for the conductor and speculated on the reasons that would lead someone to such a tragic end.  Then, after several hours, the train slowly took us to the next station at Civitavechia to transfer to another train to Rome.  I remember the still dazed looks as we all got off, walked to another platform and then disappeared into another train to complete our journey.

While traveling, for those few hours we are together our lives are not in our control. We are at the mercy of the pilot or the conductor, unforeseen circumstances like the weather, mechanical failure, or even a terrorist act, or suicide. We could die at any time. Yet we trust.  We trust completely that we will arrive safely at our destination.  All of us together, trusting.

In a state of emergency, the captain will report the number on board as souls – souls on board. Not men, women, children.  Not passengers or crew.  Not the annoying loud guy or the complaining neighbor, or the slow people blocking the aisle way.  Souls, the little bit of universal energy that belongs to all of us, our spiritual essence, the great equalizer.  So, my advice is this: the next time you travel remember the common humanity of all your fellow travelers.  We are all just a bunch of crazy humans traveling at fast speeds in tin cans, hurtling towards an unknown future.

A Guilty Pleasure is Sometimes Exactly What You Need

Recently, I was listing to the arts and pop culture radio show, Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson and he asked listeners to send him our guilty pleasures in music, books, films etc. It got me thinking about one of my guilty pleasures. There is a movie I would never admit I love to my New Yorker reading, film festival going, and non-TV watching friends.  That film is ‘Practical Magic’, staring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two beautiful but cursed witches in a family of cursed witches.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote: “‘Practical Magic’ is too scary for children and too childish for adults. Who was it made for?” I have an answer for him. It was made for women like me, women who experienced a great loss and just want to be happy again. On March 27, 2001, my husband, Jon Lindsay, passed away from cancer. Even though I had friends, family, and a support group, there were still the nights, so many nights, after Jon’s death when I was deeply lonely, the grief numbing.  I watched a lot TV the months that followed, and one night the film ‘Practical Magic’ was on. The curse, the central theme of the film, is that any “Any man who falls in love with an Owens woman (the witches) is doomed to die an untimely death.”

It took me a long time to meet and fall in love with Jon. I went through a series of broken hearts and sleazy men.  I was 31 when I met him.  I was 39 when he died.  It felt like a curse.  In fact, cancer is a curse, a horrible, painful curse.  There is a scene when Sally Owens, played by Sandra Bullock, begs the aunts to bring her husband back from the dead, which they refuse, saying that he would be something dark and unnatural; it would not be the husband she loved.  But Sally, crying, begs her aunts saying, “I don’t care what he comes back as. As long as he comes back.  Please do this for me. Please? Please? Please? Please?”  Her desperation, her grief is so visceral. I remember saying those exact words, “I want him back.” And I still get teary when I even think of that scene. Because the grief, so deep, so unrelenting, so hopeless, was exactly what I was felt in those days, months, years after Jon’s death. I wanted him back. I just wanted him back.

Earlier in the film, there is a scene when Sally hears the ticking of the deathwatch beetle, the harbinger of the imminent death of the Owens lover.  Ridiculous, right? Sally tears up the floorboards trying to get at the beetle, to kill it, to save her husband.  She tears up her entire floor to no avail as her husband gets run over by a truck.  Cancer trials, various chemo cocktails, a strange experimental herbal infusion Jon’s son and I managed to get from China, the deathwatch beetle kept ticking.  There was nothing I could do as I witnessed the disease taking over Jon’s body, and eventually, his brilliant mind, eating it from the inside. There’s another scene in the film that stabs at my heart. It is when Sally’s sister Gillian, played by Nicole Kidman, comes home to comfort her sister and wakes Sally up from her long grief-driven sleep. Sally looks at her sister and says, simply, “I was really, really happy,” and then breaks down into tears. I cannot recall the number of times I said the same thing over and over: I was really, really happy.  Death, cancer, rips the happiness out from under you.

You are alone a lot when you grieve.  I cannot even begin to describe the aloneness you feel when the person you love is no longer there, even if you have family, friends, dogs, a grief support group, like I had. Films like ‘Practical Magic’ provide a temporary balm for that loneliness. Even though you are only relating to a fictional character, there is someone you can relate to, and there is someone behind that character – the storyteller, the actor – a human being hidden from view that has, too, experienced loss.  Everyone, after all, experiences grief at one time during their lifetime. And grief, as terrible as it feels, when it rips a hole inside your heart, as Sally Owens describes in a letter to Gillian, is a reminder that you have loved and you can love.  And to love, with all its inherent risks, is a truly wonderful gift.

‘Practical Magic’ is a Hollywood film, and so, it has a Hollywood ending, for Sally finds love again and the curse is broken. And film snobs, like myself, pooh-pooh the Hollywood ending, because, happy endings? Come on? But in this case, at least for me, I, like Sally, did find love again. And it feels damned good that I, in my ordinary life have found my Hollywood ending. So yeah, it’s a guilty a pleasure, and I think it might be time to fess up.

The Dreaded Invitation

Dear Laura,

Our records show that you haven’t yet registered for the valuable benefits of AARP membership, even though you are fully eligible……

P.S.  You will receive your FREE WEEKEND DUFFLE BAG along with your new membership cards when you join.  This is a limited time offer.  To ensure availability of your free gift, please respond by the date on your membership form.

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First you say to yourself, I’m not old.  Then you wonder, where the hell did AARP get my address? Then you ask, when did I get so old.  Then you realize you’ve got more than 10 years before you can retire and question your eligibility for the American Association of Retired Persons.  Then you wonder how it is you ended where you ended up, working a government job, when all you ever wanted to do was write.  Then then you walk over to the recycle bin to dispose of your invitation and gift voucher for your free weekend duffle bag, hesitating for just a second, and sit down at your computer to sign up for a writing class.

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I wasn’t yet fifty when I started receiving these little harbingers of my impending old age, declining health and subsequent death. Every time the offer comes in the mail, my husband thinks it’s funny to take a picture of the letter and text it to me, this last time pointing out the words “fully eligible”. My younger husband, although also in his 50s, has yet to receive his AARP invitation. The comedian Janeane Garafolo joined.  She advised my husband and I directly (we were in the front row of her show) that’s it a good deal, but to “hold out ‘til they offer the backpack.”

As I write this, using google docs, the google research bar has popped up to graciously provide me with a list of related topics:

Old age
Increasing age as a risk factor refers to older adults and the elderly

Also known as
Aging dog

Diseases with this risk factor
Cellulitis

There you go. Make of it what you will.

I don’t feel old.  I’m certainly many years away from retirement, and from being classified as elderly.  I look in the mirror and I still see the 20-year-old, the 30- and 40-year-old, but I also see the wrinkles getting deeper and longer, and in areas on my face that make me wonder how often I frown in a day – or in a lifetime.  The gray hairs, that up until recently have been very few, have increased to the point that makes me want to run to my hair stylist for color, my resolve to never dye my hair again shot to hell.

Somewhere along the way, I became the oldest person in my office and I really don’t know when that happened.  I feel I’ve entered this strange, ethereal place, somewhere between young and old, where time travels faster, and I have nothing to hang onto. My body is doing all sorts of things of its own accord and I have no control. I have no idea what to wear anymore – what’s too young, what’s too old, what looks good on my ever-changing body, how to look sexy in comfortable shoes.

They call this middle-age, but technically I am passed middle-age, as I have considerable doubts I’ll reach the age of 110. Yet, according to Merriam Webster (thank you again, google research bar) middle age is the period of life from about 45 to about 64.  Therefore, it appears I am in the middle of my middle age, and, I suppose, this entitles me to a mid-life crisis.

But like I said, I don’t feel old.  In fact, in many ways, I feel like I haven’t grown up yet.  I still have many of the same neuroses and insecurities I did as a young adult with more to add.  I still have issues with my mother and she’s been dead for over 10 years. I ask my therapist, so when do I get all cocky and confident and no longer give a shit what others think.  But she really doesn’t have an answer for me.  Her approach is to have me figure it out for myself. What do I pay her for?

Maybe I can find some insight into my existential angst at AARP, so I take a look at their online magazine. There is a section on cruises, not my style of vacation, and a profile of David Hasselhoff – the Baywatch Star is Still Hot.  The last time I saw David Hasselhoff he was in a car that talked to him and I didn’t really care for that show either. There is also an article entitled: Rock and Roll Recovery – Worried that your misspent youth could affect your long-term health? Here’s how to assess the damage and make a comeback.  Well, that seems to be a lot more useful.  A headline reads: Get Thinner, Put Your Home on a Diet and I have no idea what that means.  There’s even a special style edition featuring beauty tips for women 50, 60, 70, and beyond! But, alas, I must be a member to access any of these tips that could change my life.

Of course, there are the discounts. Isn’t that why people join AARP?  They offer 10% off at the Outback Steakhouse; I am a vegetarian.  They offer a free Dunkin’ donut with an extra-large beverage; what about healthy living to fight old age? But they do offer a wide variety of discounts and I’m sure I could find some I would use.  Still, I must admit, I am not yet persuaded to fork over the $16 a year to join, even with the free weekend duffle bag.

I know there must be more to AARP.  I scroll down the website, past all the visual noise of advertisements, membership pitches, and discounts, and finally get to the About AARP link. AARP was founded by a former teacher and principal, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, who witnessed retired teachers struggling to make ends meet and without health insurance. In response, she became an elder rights activist and founded the National Retired Teachers Association, the precursor to AARP, to help secure affordable health insurance for her colleagues, a humble and honorable origin. Politically, the organization has been vocal against the repeal the of the Affordable Healthcare Act and actively lobbies for affordable housing and healthcare.  These are issues I can get solidly behind, and Ethel Percy Andrus seems to be a good role model for aging women.

Here’s what I know. Growing older is an unknown and scary journey, but it’s exciting too, because there is so much to yet to do, and I do know more now than I when I was younger, and that little bit of wisdom is a gift that only requires membership in life. So, I focus on health and love and living a life of value, creativity, and generosity, because that’s really all I can do. And there’s more to AARP than meets the eye, so maybe, one day, I’ll join.  But I’m holding out for the backpack. Thanks for the tip Janeane.