Whatever it Is: Not very articulate ramblings about something very serious

I asked Mark a while back what life was all about, since I didn’t have a clue. He said, “Dad, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”
“At Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, April 27, 2007”  From Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what’s happening. After a month, oil continues to spew out of a man-made hole in the ocean.

It is killing a way of life, not to mention life itself, this “accident.”

It finally occurred to me that I am feeling the same way I did when I watched the Twin Towers unravel. Only this has been going on for a month now, and there does not appear to be an end in sight.

And the consequences are even graver.

I’m sick of it.

A reporter described what it was like watching an oil-soaked pelican attempt to fly. It was heart breaking she said.

Yes. Heart breaking.

Years ago I read a book called Number Our Days. Barbara Meyerhoff, an anthropologist who had mostly studied Huichol Indians, decided when it came time to study an aging community that she would study a community of older Jewish people in Venice, California, since she, herself would one day be an old Jewish lady.

I loaned my copy of the book to someone more than twenty years ago. It is somewhere in the land of books-that-get-loaned-out-and-then-you-lose-touch-with- the-person-you-loaned-it-to. So I am writing from memory here.

The person I most remember from the book is a man called, I think, Shmuel. He was a bit of a black sheep in the community because of his socialist – maybe even Communist – leanings.

He was a tailor. He points out an older women wearing a coat to Barbara Meyerhoff as they sit on a bench at the beach.

I believe he had made the coat.

If the stitches unravel, he says, the coat will no longer keep her warm. And because it is the only coat she can afford, she will have no protection against the cold.

So, they, the woman wearing the coat and he, are connected by the stitches in that coat, he says to Meyerhoff.

That has stayed with me for thirty years, arising every now and again.

I don’t know how to articulate why it has come floating back into my memory at this particular moment.

But it occurs to me that we really need to understand that we are connected.

“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Sadly, Barbara Myerhoff did not live to become an old Jewish woman. She died relatively young from cancer. Myerhoff’s work with the elderly community was first made into a documentary titled Number Our Days, which was directed by Lynn Litmann. The two collaborated on In Her Own Time, a film that documented Barbara Myerhoff’s illness and final days. Lynn Littman also directed the 1983 film Testament, a powerful indie film about the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Heretic and Hero: H Words

Today, I read that Corpenicus has been reburied as a hero.

He had been buried in an unmarked grave 500 years ago because he was a heretic. His heresy? He postulated that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than it being the center around which the universe revolved.

I imagine that was upsetting to people: being told that they were not the center of the universe. Rather they were but a part of a larger whole.

For some reason, I find comfort in being a part of a larger whole. Oddly, or maybe not, that’s what makes me feel immortal in a very mortal kind of way.

I have no idea if I will be able to take you on the leap I am about to make, but I’m hoping that by the end of this post it will somehow make sense.

Rand Paul says that private businesses (such as the now defunct Woolworths counter) should be allowed to discriminate according to whatever prejudices they might have. That he would not patronize that business, but that the business has a right to have its prejudice.

Fox news has several pundits who agree with that point of view. Government has no business interfering with private business on this matter. Each one of the pundits claimed that they themselves would not patronize any business that discriminated like that, but that government should not pass any laws regulating such things.

Clearly, these are not people who lived through the Civil Rights struggle.

Here’s what I learned from that time period: I learned to value the Constitution as a document that could mitigate the dark side of the human heart.

To me, one of the darkest sides of the human heart is when fear of the “other” – fear of based simply because of its otherness – provides license to behave badly. When this is done in large groups, it becomes horrific – it lead to genocide.

I grew up in the shadow of World War II. I grew up believing that we had triumphed over evil – which was personified by Nazi Germany and the Death Camps. How, one wondered, could it have come to that?

I don’t remember how old I was when I first learned that Black American soldiers had to ride in segregated train cars behind cars that carried white German prisoners of war through the South. But I remember how devastating it was to me to learn that.

In the early sixties, in Livermore, California, it was common “wisdom” that selling a house to a black family would lower the property values in the neighborhood. The only Japanese American student in my high school was paired with the only Chinese American student at the freshman dance because they were the same – non white. A sophomore from my high school became one of only a handful of people to survive jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. He did so because he was taunted for being “queer,” the proof being that he carried his books clasped in both arms across his chest, rather than by his side.

All of this was perfectly acceptable – without regard to the humiliation it caused to the individuals involved.

I have no proof of this, only some deep lurking intuition, that my generation – the post WWII generation – somehow put together the Final Solution with what was the then acceptable wisdom and came to the realization that holocausts don’t start with the Death Camps. Its beginning lie in small acts of humiliation that are socially acceptable.

I’ve felt for a while that underlying the cries for freedom and liberty espoused by followers of the Tea Party is the notion that their freedom and liberty is dependent on a world where (metaphorically) the sun revolves around the earth.

They certainly have the right to believe that the sun revolves around the earth, but they don’t have the right to shape the world in their image for the simple reason that the world cannot be shaped that way.

I believe that government not only has the right, but the responsibility to declare these streets free of unkind behavior. I think it is absolutely legitimate to take the stand that one has a right to one’s opinion, but not to ones own facts.

We live in an interdependent world. Oil gushing out of the floor of the Louisiana coast will eventually make its way to the Arctic, decimating people financially, threatening species, and altering forever a delicate balance upon which we depend.

What happens here, does not stay here. That’s why offshore drilling is not the answer to our dependence on “foreign” oil.

We cannot afford, nor do we have the time, to tolerate burying heretics in unmarked graves so that those who cannot tolerate being a part of a bigger whole, feel special – feel safe.

They reburied Corpenicus today – buried him as a hero.

What is heroic is a willingness to live in the world as it is.  Which, in my mind means, learning to live with the “other.

Small Feet for a Girl My Size: a Mothers’ Day Post

Feminism. It makes sense to me why that is a good topic for Mothers’ Day. Perhaps I will know why it makes sense to me by the end of this post.

mamamear1I got inspired to write about feminism after reading the interview page in today’s New York Times magazine. Its subject was Martha Stewart.

Two things I learned from her interview:

She suggests that women make pillows out of their husbands’ old shirts, rather than just turning them into rags.

She doesn’t consider that she is a feminist.

I’m going to riff on the pillow-made-out-of-a-husband’s-old-shirt first. It sounds suspiciously like the doll who hid the toilet paper to me. Perhaps, even as I write, former shirts worn by current husbands are showing up in living rooms all across the nation, just as the doll who hid the toilet paper showed up in bathrooms in my childhood.

I have often thought that my grandmother was an Oakie Martha Stewart. She put two orange crates together, then sewed a skirt to attach to it to make a dressing table. This was in her new home, the one she set up after she married my grandfather. She was nineteen. The year was nineteen and nine.

“It was just darlin’,’”she told me.

I’m sure it was; she very talented.

I’m assuming that the pillows forged from husband’s shirts are shirts from current husbands. Although there could be a peculiar kind of revenge, I guess from turning a former husband’s favorite shirt into a pillow and displaying it on your sofa.

What worries me about that pillow forged from a husband’s shirt is this: Did that shirt go willingly into pillowhood, or was it marched there by the wife who decided that the shirt was no longer something her husband should wear? At what point did the wife look at her husband, sitting on the sofa and think, “That goes with the furniture”?

What say did the husband have in all of this?

I do not understand homes where the woman decides when a husband’s shirt should become a pillow, or a rag, for that matter. I know a woman who will not let her husband have an espresso maker because she likes to have nothing on her counters. Her husband loves espresso.

I don’t get this.

And now for the feminism part.

I get accused of everything from being so feminist that I’m a lesbian biker’s chick to not being feminist enough. I am a feminist, but I am also a progressive, a good cook, a film lover, a writer, a director, a producer. I have relatively small feet. I wear a size six. Or, as the nasty petite girl in high school who prided herself on being tinier than anyone else said when she learned my shoe size was smaller than hers, “You have small feet for a girl your size.”

So I might also be someone who has small feet for my size.

Whatever, none of these things in themselves define me. I am all of the above (though I still don’t know if my feet are small for my size, or just smaller than the average foot size of a grown woman, unless you are in Asia).

I have a problem with the pillow-shirt thing (as well as the espresso maker) because I am suspicious that it has to do with control. We all pretty much feel uncomfortable when we feel we are out of control. We want to know we have some control in our own environment. But, I think it becomes pathological when we need to control others in order for us to feel in control.

That, I believe, is what feeling powerless leads to.

To me, feminism is about owning our own power. I don’t mean this in any kind of woo woo or even political way. I mean that we don’t sacrifice authenticity to being acceptable – to being a “nice” or “good” girl; that we take the risk of admitting what we want, embracing who we are, loving as if it matters, regardless of what the rule book says.

What feminism does not mean to me is that men are the enemies or that women have the right to control them.

Martha Stewart went to jail while Jack Abramhoff was left free to rob people blind. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that sexism was at the bottom of the decision to take Martha down a peg or two, just to show the rest of us what can happen if you succeed.

It concerns me that Martha’s says she isn’t a feminist. It makes me wonder that she might be one of those women who isn’t concerned about rising so that we can rise together. I worry that she thinks that my feet are small for a girl my size, because if my feet are smaller than hers (I’m talking metaphor here; for all I know she might wear a size four), it somehow diminishes her.

I believe that we are all a part of this big confusing soup where we should be trying to figure out how we can make sure there is room at the table for everyone.

I wanted to make sure, as I directed The Vagina Monologues, that it told a story about women; not a story about women as victims. The cast member who raised a question if she thought I was wandering off into male bashing territory was a lesbian; her passionate domestic life was with a woman. She had children (including sons) from a previous marriage – a marriage with a man.

She was not bitter towards her former husband. I trusted her instincts about something veering into male bashing because I think she understood that that kind of rhetoric could damage her sons. Damage them in the same way that women’s souls have been damaged by anger towards women.

She is truly that crocodile mom – the one who carries her young to safety in her strong jaws. She understands that mothering is the presence of primal strength and creation.

So I guess that’s the relationship between feminism and Mothers’ Day for me. Mothering and feminism are the presence of primal strength and creation. The source of the strength and creation comes from within us.

I think that once we can own that, struggles over power and control fall by the wayside. And that allows us all to rise together.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

 My Mother the Speedboat

I am a motherless daughter. Betty Jean Cole Hogan died on July 19, 2006. She was 83.

Our relationship was as complicated as she was – and I am, for that matter.

I have a vague recollection of watching episodes of I Remember Mama – a fifties television series based on a memoir of a Norwegian-American immigrant’s childhood in San Francisco. Each episode opens with the daughter leafing through the family album. She remembers everyone pictured. But mostly, she says, I remember Mama.


My mother was not a Mama. She wasn’t Mother. She was Mom.

When I leaf through albums I see her at twenty wearing a swimsuit and riding a tricycle. In another, she and my father hoist a giant beer stein at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. In another, she lounges, one leg lying flat, the other bent with her foot flat on the couch, the back of her hand resting on her forehead. I think she was nineteen in that photo. It’s very sensual. I wonder what she was thinking at that moment.

In another photo, she stands with her arms around my brothers and me. She wears a coat, a scarf on her head, and dark cotton gloves. It’s the mid-fifties. We are waiting to board a plane – somewhere in Europe. Women dressed up to fly on planes in those days; they wore scarves and gloves and girdles and stockings with a seam up the back that took some work to keep straight.

Later in life, she told me that during World War II, when women couldn’t get stockings (either nylon or silk), they used eyebrow pencil to draw a seam up the back of their legs, so it looked like they wore stockings.

She also told me that at every airport she cupped her gloved hand under the mouth of one of us as, with no warning other than, “Mom, I need to throw up,” we threw up into the thick cotton. I guess she carried extra pairs with her.

The fifties and sixties were the TV era of perfect mothers. June Cleaver always wore pearls and a dress even when she vacuumed. I saw my mother vacuum while wearing a dress only once. We got out of school at noon because President Kennedy had been shot. She had been grocery shopping when she heard. The television was on when I arrived home. My mother was vacuuming.

My mother was not a vacuumer. And yet, there she was, wearing a dress and heels, pushing the Hoover upright vacuum forwards and yanking it backwards, making her way across the den. I was a freshman in high school. I had walked home with tears streaming down my face. But seeing my mother in her dress and high heels vacuuming in the middle of a weekday brought it home. Something profound had happened.

Mom was not known for her culinary skills. She did not bake. She claimed that margarine tasted better than butter because butter was too rich. But her beans and meatballs on a cold rainy night could not be beat.


Cook dry pinto beans according to the package instructions.

Add salt and pepper to a pound of hamburger meat.

Turn the hamburger into meatballs.

Throw the meatballs into the pot of beans and cook until done

Serve over store-bought sliced white bread (store brand works fine) that has been slathered with margarine.

Set out the bottle of ketchup because someone will want to put ketchup on it.

Things got complicated between us as I strayed further from the farm – the metaphorical farm that is – because there was nothing farm-like about my mom. The metaphorical farm was about limits; what a woman could do and what she wasn’t supposed to do.

My mother really didn’t want the limits, and stretched them pretty far given she was an Oklahoma-born Baptist – one who drank, smoked, and danced.

In the forties and fifties movies, Van Johnson married June Allyson. They had babies but no sex as far as I can tell. On the other hand, Bogie got together with Bacall. They clearly had sex, but never babies.

The movie version of my parents would have Van Johnson marrying Lauren Bacall. When my mother succumbed to the inevitable and placed my Alzheimer’s addled father into a nursing home, I gave my mother a vibrator. About a month later she took me aside to tell me how happy she was with her little friend.

Betty Jean was full of contradictions. Mostly we were close. But at the very end of her life we were not. I kept thinking we would bridge the chasm.

But for her to do that would have required that she take a stand about abuse – an abusive system that had become embedded for so many generations in my family that this abnormal behavior had become normalized. She did not physically abuse me, but she had learned to retreat in fear when the men in the family became abusive. Her son, my older brother, was one of those men.

His emotionally abusive behavior escalated over the years. In 1998 , in my mother’s house, he punched me in the jaw. Typical of the behavior – he blamed me.

She could not find a way to reject the abusive behavior without rejecting her son – and she could not do that. And so she left me to fend for myself with it, saying it was between my brother and me.

On Saturday, July 15, 2006, my younger brother got married. His wife had insisted that everyone had to be invited to the wedding, including the brother who had punched me. In her mind, I should take the high road because family togetherness trumped all. I had come to believe that sacrificing my safety to perpetuate a misguided story of family togetherness was not the road I wanted to take.

It was difficult. Some people called to tell me I owed it to my mother to go to the wedding – it might be the last time the family would all be together. I should take the high road. The high road came up a lot.

They didn’t understand the language I had learned to speak. I didn’t feel safe. It would not be fun or comfortable for me. I had to matter and the system didn’t allow for that. So I chose mattering to me. That was my high road.

As the wedding drew near, everyone felt uncomfortable, particularly my mother. We didn’t speak about it. I decided to bide my time. I figured that somehow, after the wedding, we would be able to bridge the chasm.

The wedding happened. I busied myself that day so I didn’t think about it taking place in the same town. Then on Sunday, the 16th she broke her hip

I went to the emergency room, wondering how I was going to deal with seeing my brothers. But no one was there. My older brother had dropped her off at the hospital then took off to fly back to North Carolina. My younger brother and his new wife continued their after-wedding party.

So I ended up having time alone with my mother. I saw the look on her face when the ER doctor told her that her hip was broken into four pieces. She was pretty much in end stage emphysema at that point, so recovering from a broken hip was an uphill battle that would lead nowhere for her.

I could tell she had made her decision.

I tried to ask her about it, but she didn’t want to talk. She took the morphine and drifted off.

I still held out hope we would have our final conversation, but she went in and out of consciousness the next two days. Then pneumonia set in. They moved her to the ICU. When I got there, she looked at me and said, “I thought I was dying.”

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

And so they stopped everything but the morphine. She died late that afternoon. Her last words came as they gave her the first dose of comfort-care morphine. “Give me lots,” she said.

Love and life and relationships are very complicated. I was pretty much devastated that we never had the chance to get back to intimate moments she and I had experienced over my adult years. It’s the kind of intimacy that comes out of being in the same place at the same time. We were together during my grandmother’s final days and my father’s. We had had intimate talks about how she wanted to die.

But in the very end, the intimacy went unacknowledged. That’s confusing at best, and traumatic at its worst. A part of me felt like a five-year-old girl whose mother told her she didn’t like her.

Mother’s don’t get off the hook easily. I think we might be more forgiving of our father’s foibles. It’s a real shock to find out that we are not the center and be-all of our mother’s universe.

At some point, I noticed that the wound was no longer open. I no longer felt like a bereft five-year old. Instead, I had become a grown woman who understands how complicated it can be to be a mother. How imperfect that love is.

I’ve learned how to receive imperfect love, and to understand that I didn’t need to be the center of my mother’s universe for me to become a woman.

There was a TV program in the sixties called My Mother, the Car. I never saw even one episode. I have no idea how “mother” was portrayed in that series.

But about a month after my mom died, Tom and I were having dinner on the patio of a restaurant. It was in a small shopping mall, so the patio butted up against the parking lot.

An enormous pickup truck came lumbering by the restaurant, a speedboat in tow. It made no sense. Why was this truck driving through the parking lot? Taking a short cut?

As the boat passed us by we saw its name painted on the side. Betty Jean.

I could see it. My mother reincarnated as a speed boat, heading out for a good time on the delta.

I think that perhaps the gift she left me was the imperfection of her love.

Following your Bliss – the Path of Joy and Sorrow

I attended Bliss last night – the annual fundraiser for Maitri, the hospice run by the San Francisco Zen Center. The facility primarily serves people with end-stage AIDS, but it was where my friend George spent his final days last year. His life was ended by a sarcoma.

George had been a Maitri Board member for years.

The event was held at the Presidio in the Golden Gate Club. What a place. No longer a military post, the grounds that overlook the Bay and Golden Gate now is home to wonderful creative endeavors, including Industrial Light and Magic. Acres and acres of creativity, beautiful architecture, and a forest of native trees.

What a place to celebrate the work that Maitri does and the lives that have passed through its facility.

Taiko drums greeted guests on the patio as they entered the event. But these were not traditional Taiko drummers. I call them the Taiko Drum Crones. There was such joy in their performance. A Gamelan orchestra performed, then provided the music for Balinese dancers, who told a story with their hands, their feet, their body, and their eyes.

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George died five months ago today. Maitri certainly provided the house of shelter for George’s pilgrimage towards death. Their attention to the aesthetics, including their providing nourishing food that was pleasing to the palate as well as to the eye, is a reminder that we are living even as we are dying.

It is to me what compassion for being human is about.

George’s passing happened in the fast lane. It barreled down that road at lightning speed – a bare 15 months between his diagnosis and death.

Now, five months later, life continues. The lilacs that burst into bloom in my garden are already fading. They have had their moment in the sun.

A few days ago it was cold and rainy. Today the air of the blue sky is somewhere between spring and summer. It is a gentle day.

Life is change. Follow your bliss.

I used to wonder what my bliss was. I thought it had to be something big. The dictionary defines it as profound happiness.

So much of my life has been spent measuring the value of what I was doing by whether I was being nice enough. And nice meant making people happy and keeping them happy.

Which is, of course, an impossible task. Happiness is fleeting.

I don’t like that word happy, or happiness. It seems so limiting to me. For me it does not embrace sorrow, and I don’t think you can experience true joy if you are not willing to also embrace sorrow.

Joy leads to sorrow and sorrow leads to joy.

I saw that last night.

And so, my bliss is found in the answer to the question that wall keeps insisting that I answer before it will let me pass: what do you want to do with your time and your life?

Having the faith to follow your bliss – well, that is a challenge. But then, so is life.