In my perseverating way I have been wringing my hands over the last two posts—is it that depressing here? Am I that down low? Is it just the F month? And then comparing my thoughts with the blog of another teacher—she’s here with her almost-three year-old daughter, just the two of them. She writes in a lovely way, her way, and observes some of the same disparities I witness here too: the poverty, the wild wealth, the prostitution, the posh hotel and club scene: as she says, the poetry and potential that is any city, anywhere. She references Whitman, his song in praise of humanity and New York, includes photos of the neighborhood and its people and her daughter navigating all of it. The view was familiar (the hanut, the alley across the way, the woman who sits on the sidewalk with her son who has Down’s Syndrome)—and also very much her own.
That little moment (reading her version, thinking about mine) taps a gear that has long been in motion in me. Do you want to read on? Don’t if you’re only sniffing for things Moroccan. And read on only if you like falling through the trap-door of someone else’s adolescent self, and you don’t mind the familiar dark. I struggle with how much that I already don’t like in myself am I passing on to Hazel? I struggle with those unprofitable comparisons with someone else’s life, someone else’s way (or, because of where I am in my own head, what I perceive that way to be in comparison to mine). On another friend’s blog (I’ve known her since high school; she’s an assistant professor in comparative literatures, an Arabic specialist)—she mentions briefly her gratitude to her parents for endowing her with a confidence disproportionate to her talents, such as they are. Self-deprecating, yes—but she is indeed talented, and funny, and will articulate your pants clean off. (You will be complicit, and yet not feel naked.)
I’m reading Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott’s instructions for writing and living. It reminds me that I saw her two years ago—she was in public, but privately. I was in the balcony of the Berkeley Repertory Theater watching Carrie Fisher rollick through Wishful Drinking, on a date with myself while Paul hung out with Hazel. Right before intermission, Anne Lamott’s brother Steve Lamott (I only later put it together to figure out his identity) was invited, first-name-plus-last-name, up onto the stage from the fifth row—for audience participation involving a life-sized Princess Leia doll. To open the second half, Carrie Fisher re-invited him back up to receive a “you were so game with that blow-up doll!” thank-you gift and to take a birthday gift back to “Anne”—who was there, I could see, sitting almost beneath me. Carrie Fisher didn’t say her full name, but I was guessing, especially since I’d seen a dread-locked distinguished-looking woman in the lobby. Then Carrie Fisher led us (a mostly-full theaterful of people) in a round of happy birthday. Kind of odd, but interesting. They must know each other somehow. (Famous women with lots to say whose dads were famous too?)
Lamott’s tone is wry and wise—you know that voice? And she’d had that soft presence in that public space when she was being private—though maybe, as I think of it now, there was an inaudible little rushing in-take of breath, an invisible shimmer of recognition all around her as she moved, graceful, through the intermission lobby. And she can tell a story. A friend back in the States, when I said I was reading her, said “kind of loony and high maintenance.” Which is also true. When my friend said that (chatted that—typed it) I realized I’d been clinging to Lamott’s ribbon of words—a little tight. I realized I’d been reading into her work my own desire for a mentor, some external force that validates and gratifies and encourages (and one that’s not my dear folks—Hi Mom and Dad!). She also, at every turn, exhorts the irreplaceable and all-important act of showing up at your own desk. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Cut to the music building, Hayden Hall, far southwest corner of campus, the large second-floor classroom that looks north. 1987. Mr. Appling, the music teacher, says to me (I am fifteen), “You cannot drive a car very far in first gear, can you?” He smiles. Sucks his teeth, looks out the window, eyes still smiling. “And not practicing is like staying in first gear.”
Walking with Paul and Hazel at dusk through the flashing traffic last night, a memory floated up from the depths. We’re driving up to Cleveland to see my cousin. I am maybe nine. I sit hunched in the backseat of the green VW bug, low enough so that seen from the outside you cannot tell where my hair stops. I’m using my mom’s comb (plastic, so it rasps a little) and I drag it in long exaggerated gestures through my hair so as to make all the people in the other cars (looking intently at the blond girl in the back seat as they pass us) think that my hair is long, long, long—instead of regulation-shoulder-length. I am happy, as I remember it, working away at this subterfuge. But what a goofy thing to do. Why the elaborate (delusional, pointless) charade? OK.
All that energy expended on what you think other people are thinking, and its twin impulse—all that energy expended on how you think you might measure in comparison to other people. Sigh. It’s a crushing pair when you can’t push them both off, when you can’t let yourself be humbled by another reality elsewhere.