aimless love

But my heart is always propped up in a field on its tripod, ready for the next arrow. billy collins

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Floors of the Met

About ten years ago I took my grandmother, my abuela, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To most New Yorkers, this amazing institution is affectionately known as “the Met.” My grandmother had never been to the Met. She is one of those old world people who never go out for “entertainment.” These are people who still unplug all appliances and electronics when they are not being used. These people never buy something they don’t really need, barely speak English, and always think you have never eaten enough. My grandmother has never been to the movies, or to a concert, and certainly, not to a museum.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about her. She is someone who appreciates the aesthetics of a thing well made. For all of her working years, she was a seamstress. She could make anything. As a child I watched her cut patterns out of newspaper, and then with discipline and determination make a suit you’d be proud to wear. Up until her stroke at the age of eighty-nine, she never wore a store-bought dress. I believe even her undergarments were made by her own hand. And, no fabric was unsalvageable. When I was eight she made me, and my doll, the loveliest dress I ever owned from the drapes that used to hang in her living room. My doll still wore that dress long after I had moved away to college.

She is a simple woman. She has lived on the ninth floor of her apartment building since 1960, and for forty years, only occasionally took the elevator, preferring to walk the stairs. She believed in shopping every day for the food you’d need that day, and when she cooked a chicken, she caressed it clean, as if it were a baby, preparing it for a bath of garlic, onions, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and oil.

Over the course of her ninety-one years, she has only been in a car a dozen times. She came to New York City on a boat when she was eighteen, and only began to travel outside of the city in the 1980’s after her last living sister moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills. I think they moved, my great aunt and her husband, to have more room for the chickens. My great aunt Mercedes always raised chickens – she for the meat, and her husband for the cockfighting. The only other time I remember my grandmother traveling out of the city was to attend the funeral of her eldest son, my father, when he died at the age of forty-six, in New Jersey.

Before my dad moved to New Jersey, he lived in Brooklyn. I moved there too, when I was twenty-two, to spend a year doing an unpaid music therapy internship at Flower Hospital, a hospital for developmentally disabled children and adults on the upper East Side of Manhattan, just blocks from Museum Mile. From 82nd Street to 105th Street along Fifth Avenue, New York City has designated the area “Museum Mile” because of the many museums and fine art institutions that line Central Park. In those days, the museums along the mile opened up on Thursday evenings for free. And I would go.

There is no better refuge, after a hard day’s work, than a walk into the circular structure of the Guggenheim, or a time travel through the past in the Museum of the City of New York, or a rest on a bench in one of the many courtyards within the Met. The only evening better than Thursdays on Museum Mile involved a trip to my grandmother’s for a home-cooked dinner. I would try to go once a week. It was only three stops on the train.

The Upper East Side and the South Bronx are quite close and I would often take the train there to visit with my grandmother after work. I would tell her about my day, about the museums, about the movies I’d seen, or the books I was reading. While it was always a short ride to the Bronx, getting back to Brooklyn took a couple of hours by train. Despite the long trip, I came to think of it as shorter than the drives down from Boston.

After moving to Boston, I began to come down and stay with my grandmother on the weekends – about six or seven times a year. I would arrive on Friday night or Saturday morning. I’d rise early Saturday to do something in the city; visit a friend, go to the Village, walk the streets of Chinatown. My grandmother always stayed home to cook.

After I was married I brought my husband along too. On Saturdays, we usually took the train into Manhattan which was much easier than driving and parking! Sometimes, I just hung out with my grandmother in the afternoon, but inevitably, I’d tell her not to cook for us. My husband and I looked forward to trying new restaurants in the city. Dinner and a movie proved a great Saturday night pastime. We’d promise not to be home too late, as her neighborhood wasn't safe at night.

The next morning we’d awaken to a breakfast of eggs, Puerto Rican corn fritters called arepas, bacon, café Bustelo, and orange juice, before making our way to the museum. Sunday in New York was museum day for me once I had moved to Boston. After having kids I’d kept the routine simple. Come down Saturday night, stay over, wake up Sunday morning, eat breakfast, and go to the museum. Each time I would ask my abuela if she wanted to go with us. She always said no. Why would she go to Manhattan? For twenty years she had been saying no, and given that she was now in her 80’s this would mean taking the car. She’d have to dress up, and people would see her. She would be out in the world; they’d laugh at her teeth.

But one Sunday she decided to go. I think her curiosity finally caught up with her. She just had to know what this “museum” visit we made every time we were in New York was all about. I think the fact that the kids went gave her courage. If young children could go, so could she. So, she put on her best coat – a coat she had made of checkered black and white wool, with special buttons - over her best dress, one made from store-bought cloth, not the drapes she had used in the past, and her best black stockings with a black scarf over her head. In her day, ladies did not go out without their heads covered.

We drove the 3.8 miles from my abuela’s house to the Met, found a parking space right on 5th Ave., and walked down towards the museum. Now you have to understand my excitement and near panic when my grandmother said yes. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to make this visit right. I knew that once she had come with me to the museum, she would never come again. That this was the one time in a lifetime of living in New York that she would indulge me in my need to bring her along.

I felt so nervous. I thought – well, we’ll go to a few rooms. I knew I couldn’t overdo it, especially since my kids at the time were still quite young, three and five years old. We’d stay about an hour and go to the cafeteria, where we’d get coffee and a snack. This last part of the plan was risky. I knew my grandmother would be scornful about the coffee. According to her, Americans drink brown water, not coffee, and as far as she’s concerned, you can never trust a restaurant kitchen. They don’t know anything about food – how to prepare it with love and care, not to mention enough flavor. And restaurant kitchens are filthy!

As we drove down to Manhattan, I became wracked with worry about which room to take her to. The Met can be an overwhelming place, even for me and I had been going there for over twenty years. The place could seem like so much to take in, so much to marvel at, so much to absorb. The responsibility of deciding which art would be the only art she would ever see was nearly overwhelming.

I was sweating. Should I take her to something Modern? Picasso is amazing! I kept thinking that perhaps something from his Blue Period would speak to her. The Guggenheim has a picture of the woman ironing from Picasso’s blue period in its permanent collection and it had always reminded me of her life. But that picture was not here.

Perhaps it would be best if I took her to the American wing, with its Tiffany windows and open courtyard, its wonderful sculptures and breathtaking paintings by Homer, Sargent, and the landscape American artists. To get there we’d go through the Hall of Armor, and she might enjoy those soldiers and horses.

Or perhaps I should take her to the Greek or Roman sections– just think of all those large sculptures that had endured all these years. Classical beauty. Or maybe even something exotic – like her - how about the Japanese art?

No, I decided that I would take her to the Impressionists. Pears, haystacks, sunflowers, and cathedrals - these were scenes she could understand and appreciate. And I so wanted to share with her those gentle, soft lines.

As we passed the fountain in front of the museum, and climbed up the front steps leading into the amazing rotunda, I found myself holding my breath. We walked in to that grand atrium and I said, “Abuela look at these flower arrangements. There are ladies who do these every few weeks, new flowers, imagine. Aren’t they something.” She stood close by, hunched a bit over, hoping no one was noticing her teeth or her person, and we mounted the stairs to the Impressionist rooms.

“What do you think, abuela?” I asked.

“The floors are beautiful” she answered.

The floors? But the walls, abuela? The paintings on the walls? "Oh yes… they are nice."

Was it that she knew that someone had to clean these floors? Was it the wood and polish that she noticed? Was it easier to look down than up?

“Oh, and now I see how so many restaurants can stay open” she added. In her generation, you knew it took hours to cook a good meal. Women should stay home to cook for their families not do frivolous things like walk around a museum, and yet there were hundreds of people here. Now she understood why so many restaurants survived in the city.

I can’t tell you the month or time of year that I took my grandmother to the museum. I can’t tell you what snack we had with our “bad” coffee that day. And now, my abuelita is 91 and in a wheel chair from the stroke that she suffered several years ago. But when I remember that day, I see her holding my arm and walking with me through that atrium up those stairs. I feel the weight of her arm on my forearm. I can remember that, and the day that the floors of the museum meant more to me than any painting that hung on the walls.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

glory halleluia!

I sent my proposal out to the last two committee members yesterday!

I also miraculously got inspired to send a note to the ethics folks asking if I really needed to resubmit an application since my diss is so similar to the pilot they approved last year at this time. They got back to me right away saying I could amend the last proposal - and send it right in, without waiting for the monthly deadline!

I'm thrilled! I may get to do some interviews before I go back to work after all!

I'm thrilled and I've also been more anxious in the past few days (never let a chance for that to go by), and now I'm starting to worry about going back to work and how busy I'm going to be and how hard it's going to be to finish this thing!!!

I have a chance to go to Spain, Jan 1-13 and now I'm worrying that I should use that time for data collection rather than feeding my soul... is it that? does traveling do that for me? I wish I was more connected to the group that's going... but I'm not, so do I not go, or make the most of it. Damn, all this sense of alienation - when do I get to fit in and feel good about it unequivocally?

Still, that's not now... for now, I'm happy to have the proposal out and I'm hopeful about collecting several interviews before I go back to work!

Monday, October 16, 2006

working hard

I have to remind myself that I'm working hard. I'm so old school - if I'm home, if I can't see the concrete results of my work right away, it just doesn't feel like work! But here I am slogging through the IRB proposal... I'm sending it out to Santa Barbara today - If I understand the procedure correctly, they only review applications once a month, so this won't be done until mid-late Nov.

I also need to call my dean - who has STILL not responded to my proposal yet!!!! I'm hoping that I can send it out to my second reader and external examiner (yes, that is now resolved... I have an expert!) this week.

Then they have 30 days...

Meanwhile, I'm going to try to start sending out feelers for interviewees.

what a mess! I am so angry at how long this takes. It's just such a disempowering process. You are constantly reminded of how your ability to move forward lies completely in someone else's hands.

If I can stop whining about it - there are several other things I "should" be working on. I need to clean up my home office. I have a guest coming in less than two weeks, and I have been seriously neglecting the space. Between my clutter and inertia, there are just piles of paper everywhere. I need to try to organize things a bit down there so that when she gets here, she will feel welcome and comfortable. I just have so much junk!!!! It's unbelievable. Maybe I can actually schedule some time to do that.

I also have this newsletter (for the non-profit that I volunteer for) to do!

And believe it or not, I still have 5 papers (!!!!) from my summer class. I need to focus and try to get some of these things done. Today, I've been working on the IRB and an essay about taking my grandmother to the met. I'm really trying to practice writing seriously, not just as a free-writing-improvisational- just because kind of thing, but as a disciplined, serious writer who wants her writing taken seriously. If I was going to submit this essay as a story for the New Yorker or something like that - what would it take? What does it need?

I also spent a bit of time last week thinking seriously about and then trying to turn my proposal into articles for professional journals...I'm not really sure how to do it. And while I don't have anything to show for it yet. This is real work and hard work... if only I can only take it serious as hard work, I'll feel less depressed and more solid about the fact that I really am working!

I just wish it didn't feel quite so much like navel-gazing... I recently read the blog of a woman who used to be in our book group but has recently moved to West Virginia, and I was so impressed with its loveliness, and its focus on something other than her own internal neurotic musings - probably because she's a lot less neurotic than I am! it's just more interesting!

ok... something to strive for.

Sunday, October 8, 2006

being gloated to death

The end of last week was lost to depression - I'm talking serious blues. Hopelessness and self-pity! I couldn't even bear to consider writing about it. I realized that part of my depression is related to loneliness, and part of it is realizing that this project is much harder than I originally expected. In both cases, no easy solution. Trying to get the dissertation moving is a good distraction!

I went ahead and sent the "have I missed your email?" reminder and heard from the person on my committee who is holding things up - not that she has given me feedback for my proposal yet, but she and I have been working on trying to get my "External Examiner" in place - this is supposed to be an "expert" in the field who can comment on my proposal and then final dissertation. Anyway, I think that is on its way and now I have to get my chair to review my IRB (she's not back until Oct 12 - it should be in her box by then!), the next two people on my committee to read the proposal, get IRB (the ethics review board) approval, and then start setting up interviews.

This part is the good part! The more work I can do on this, the better I feel.

I was hiking yesterday, and a friend reminded me that having all this space and time is what is allowing me to be creative (to think of this performance piece) - and I know that's true. But I don't like bumping into all my neurotic skeletons in the closet! They scare me and put me in seriously bad places...

my consolation - reading Anne Lamott

"On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and that I would eat myself to death. These are desert days... However, after having a second cup of coffee, I realized that I couldn't kill myself that morning--not because it was my birthday but because I had promised to get arrested the next day...Also, my back was out. I didn't want to die in crone mode. Plus, there was no food in the house. So I took a long, hot shower instead and began another day of being gloated to death." Plan B (pg.3-4)

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

slow and steady?

Why is writing so hard???

It makes me want to wallow in self-pity, but not only is it not very attractive, it's not even interesting!

I'm just not sure I want IT bad enough. I want to write. I want to work on the performance piece. If I'm going to create "art" - it seems like my kind of art - storytelling, dramatic enactment, poetry, video, music...but putting this piece together will be hard!

This writing class is reminding me that to just write like this is not that hard. But to write well takes a lot of patience, re-writing, and most importantly (and for me problematic) discipline.

I think I want to write... but it is definitely not the same kind of wanting as when I want to read and go to the movies and eat ice cream. Those things don't require quite the same effort.

It's kind of like cello. I've been playing pretty much every day, and I'm definitely getting better, but it's not nearly close enough to "art" to pain me yet. Right now it just feels easy... play for 15-20 minutes a day and get better and better.

So why can't I do that with any art form? WIth poetry? or piano? or writing? It seems that if I did that with piano or writing it should make a difference, but the difference it makes is much more subtle and harder to trust and stick with, and so I don't believe it... the little "slow and steady" approach doesn't sustain me in writing the way it does for cello. I'm looking for a formula. I have to find a way to structure it that makes my writing more equivalent to cello.

Meanwhile, I continue to wait for my committee to respond to my proposal. It's been absolutely maddening to wait...but I don't want to piss someone off by sending an email that offends. So I wait. I'm giving her until tomorrow. I've already drafted the "did I miss your email? Have you read my proposal yet?" email. grrrrr....

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Lorelai and I

ok... here it is. I'm supposed to present it tomorrow in my class - for critique... not sure what I think of that. So I wanted to post this before I chickened out!

Lorelai and I

About six months ago, I brought home a DVD of The Gilmore Girls from the library. I go to the library about once a week, a throwback to the days when I would take the kids to the weekly story hour. Twelve years of Tuesdays. Now I go alone. I’m really the only one who checks out books. I love books. Always have. As an Army brat we moved every few years when I was growing up, and the first place I would go was to the public library to get a library card. But now, Amazon and iTunes have replaced the Tuesday outings. And my husband, a successful psychologist, doesn’t really read that many novels, preferring non-fiction, photography, golf, sailing, and staying active. Besides, now that my kids are 12 and 14 we don’t read together anymore. Heck, it’s a challenge to find something that we can all watch together on TV. The Gilmore Girls seemed like a good choice as I raced through the video/DVD section of the Belmont Public Library.

The Gilmore Girls is the story of a hard-working, albeit flighty, caffeine-driven mother who doesn’t cook, serves pop tarts for breakfast, and has memorized long passages from the Donna Reed show verbatim, and her studious, bookworm, ultra-responsible, 16 year old daughter who does the laundry, punishes herself when she slips up, and who despite all her naiveté is very much like her mother. Lorelai Gilmore had Rory (who she named after herself in a Demerol delirium) when she was 16 years old. She decides at 16 to raise Rory alone to the disgrace and chagrin of her wealthy, society parents, and she struggled to become the successful entrepreneur we find her to be. The series begins when Rory is 16 and trying to make her dream of going to Harvard a reality. Rory gets accepted into a prestigious private high school, leading Lorelai to agree to Friday night dinners with her parents, with whom she’s been estranged, in exchange for tuition dollars for Rory. Each episode spins a drama of parent/child angst and connection, struggles to find one’s “place” in society, the delight of a job well done, and the quest for love and acceptance of self and others. With witty banter and eccentric characters, the show has seemed to become something of an addiction in our house. We now own every season and play an episode at least once a day.

I’m not quite sure I can explain it. Is it that I too am still trying to work out my relationship with my mom? We are very different and my biggest fear is being “just like her.” It’s been 25 years since I moved 3,000 miles from her, but I still have trouble imagining how we could live in the same town. Or is it that G2 (that’s our affectionate name for the show) allows my 12-year-old daughter to both identify with the idealized mother/daughter relationship and revel in the mother/daughter rebellions? Or does it allow my hard-working 14-year-old son to fantasize about the girls he’ll be dating soon? Trying to parent adolescents has certainly been the roller coaster that people describe it as, and I’m willing to use any tactic that allows us to displace some of the difficulty of tackling the angst and joy of these years head on. Or perhaps, the show’s appeal lay in its subtle exploration of issues of social class – issues close to my heart, and by extension part of the struggle in our house of finding one’s self.

As a second generation Nuyorican, I am the first in my family to graduate from high school, much less college. Now, completing my doctoral studies, I struggle to come to terms with the disparity and dislocation I feel living with a husband whose parents drive a Jaguar and Mercedes, whose sister lives in a house with a three-car garage, and with my own choice to raise my children in a fairly affluent New England suburb.

The smart, sassy, and very independent way that Lorelai refuses to accept her parent’s wealth and social position, gives my family a chance to play with what we each accept or deny with regards to our affluence. In addition, as she struggles to speak her truth, she also thrives on being connected to others. So we too, as a family, struggle to be our true selves yet stay in connection. Language and life are her playground. And with wit and playfulness we too are trying to weather the adolescent storms and to grow up.