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“Freedom’s Just Another Word — for Nothing Left to Lose.”

“It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.” 

Wallace Stegner, The American West as Living Space

“What if I walked away, right now, into these open spaces ahead?”

I wasn’t sure if every 19-year-old entertained such thoughts, but as I continued walking in the midday heat of a Southern California summer, I could see the journey clearly.  I could see myself:  A tiny figure whose outline was distorted by the heat rising from underneath the thin-soled Converse shoes, walking slowly but with certainty, fearless in the way of someone who had nothing to lose.

I had lost enough that year to not fear the possible pain of the unknown.  I had lost enough to have nothing holding me in place.  My college applications had been sent off late and only to a handful of unknown institutions with rolling admissions.  Considering it was the end of August, I had assumed I had failed to get in.

Two marriage proposals had happened that summer, by two different men, neither of whom even pretended to understand me much.  A month before, I had lost all of my cash, my car and my place of stay; and the absurdity of my pre-college summer was finished off — with a death.

As a matter of fact, it was the dead that was still keeping me in place.

She had died untimely, from a heart attack-ed.  I was called out of my Anatomy Lab to receive the message.  It was just a note, written on a pink slip that rarely meant good news.  The couple of times that I had witnessed it being delivered into my classmates’ hands, they wouldn’t return for the rest of the day.  Sometimes, they would be gone for weeks; and when they came back, I noticed the difference in their faces.  It looked either like gravity — or weightlessness.  I was about to find out which.

My messenger — an unknowing work-study student from the counselors’ office — ran out on me before I could ask him for any details.

“I have a note,” I told the receptionist in the counselors’ office, while rummaging in my schoolbag for my glasses.

“I know.  They are still on hold,” she answered.

The supervisor of the office loomed in the background, by the copy machine.  I saw his face, however blurry, and knew if I could see him any clearer, he would tell me of his sympathy.  My hands continued shaking, as they searched the bottom of my bag for an item I insisted on needing before picking up the phone.

The next few days had passed in a slow-mo waltz of minutes.  There would be phone calls and somber cards; a weeping husband on a flowery couch; a line of uninvited guests who would never be around whenever I was attacked by a slew of forms and interviews from funeral parlors.

“Whatever you need,” they promised to the weeping husband, as they too began to weep.

Nothing had prepared me for the questions that happened that week, from the people on the other end of the phone:

She was a donor, they said; and could they have my signature — to take her eyes?

Make a list of all the things, they told me:  things to be placed inside her coffin.  Did I know which she had treasured the most?

Choose the clothes she would be most comfortable in, they insisted:  Shouldn’t she be comfortable, wherever she was going?

And was I sure she wouldn’t prefer cremation instead?  (‘Cause that wouldn’t cost us as much, they would mention under their breath:  After all, they weren’t completely heartless.)

The weeping husband continued to assume I was strong enough to take his place.  No one had asked me if I was ready or willing, or knowledgeable of her last wishes.  Perhaps, I had promised more competence than the bulb-nosed man on the flowery couch, who nodded and moaned, accepted troughs of food from the still uninvited neighbors, with their solemn faces and anecdotes about the dead.

“Whatever you need,” they mumbled over his shoulder as they hugged and strained their own faces for emotions.

On the morning of the funeral, I remembered shivering.  They had wanted us to start early:  The first burial of the day.  And the morning would be so cold, and dewy.  The husband continued to weep in the front row of gray plastic chairs, while I accepted envelopes and hugs from people I hadn’t known.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you for coming.

Thank you.  It means so much.

The following week, I had promised to come back and clean out her closet.  The task of deciphering the bus schedules and routes seemed absurd and painfully sad.  I would study the indifferent faces of the drivers as they spoke gibberish about my transfers, and vouchers, and student passes.

I would get off on the last stop and study the desolate grounds and the open spaces ahead.

“What if I walked away, right now,” I thought, “into the open spaces?”

What if I followed the trajectory of black telephone lines or began chasing tumbleweeds:

Where would I end up?  And would I end up free?

And would that freedom feel weightless, eventually returning my joy; my forgiveness?

“Childhood Living — Is Easy to Do.”

Judging from what little profile I can see peaking out from behind her long hair, she could be quite lovely.  The lips — puffy and full — are enviable:  She’s got that Jolie-esque fold in her lower lip that promises that the size of it — is real.  The tiniest tip of her nose right above reminds me of that one exotic berry that starts with an “L”.

Carla Gugino for Esquire Magazine

Yes, she could be quite lovely; but ever since I’ve walked into this tiny joint, the woman, sitting at the corner table, hasn’t stopped speaking.  She’s got her iPhone, plugged into the wall, resting on the table next to two empty coffee cups.  Another device — a spinoff of the iPhone — is heavily protected with two plastic cases and a belt clip.  She takes turns dialing numbers on both things, and texting on whichever device is not being held up to her ear.

Her language — is foreign, heavily nasal; which makes her voice quite high.  And that pitch could be quite lovely if she didn’t sound like she was whining.  Whenever she switches to the iPhone, she returns to English; and I wonder if the list of her griefs, in that other nasal language, is similar:

“That guy is an asshole.”

And:  “I’ve got no fucking money!”

Oh, I get it, sweetheart:  Life’s unfair and hard.  But it’s 9:00 o’clock in the morning, and most of us haven’t even finished our coffee yet.  You — have had two.

From where I study the menu written on an overhead blackboard, I shoot her a glance.  Her hair is frizzy, unevenly straightened.  She is wearing jeans with a puffy vest.  On her feet, I see those thick-soled, oddly shaped shoes meant to shape a woman’s behind by replacing exercise.

She picks up her iPhone again:  The topic of the asshole guy is recycled.  Her volume could be quite normal; but the joint is tiny and she attracts attention of every human, still barely awake; including the mustached line cook who, upon my entry, asked me to try a sliver of bacon sizzling in his metal tongs.

“Breakfast, beauty?” he says and I imagine his previous life as a Navy chef.

I smile but then realize half of my face is buried in my heavy knit scarf.  So, I lift my chin and smile again.

This morning could be lovely, still.

A pretty hippie couple is lingering at the register:  He is beach-blond, she is petite and an exotic mix of something gorgeous.  Whenever he speaks to her, he lifts up his arms and folds his hands behind his head:  He is shy — she thrills him.  His white terrycloth shirt rides up every time, and in the slender torso of this beautiful young man I can see the little boy stretching in his highchair, while waking slowly.  Gently.

The sound of some old song comes on over the radio.  It makes me think of a Christmas-themed lullaby and of slow mornings that are always lovely that time of year.

And this morning could be lovely — if only we could keep quiet and still for a while.

The radio switches to some dissonant jazz tune and the could-be-lovely girl, juggling her devices at the corner table, picks up her iPhone again and switches languages:

“That guy is such an asshole,” the petite creature ahead of me quotes discreetly.

I chuckle.  I get the couple’s attention; but then realize half of my face is buried in my heavy knit scarf.  So, I lift my chin and chuckle again.

“Are we playing Cowboys and Indians this morning?” the man at the register says to me when it’s my turn to order.  I look up:  He’s wrapped a cloth napkin around the bottom half of his face and smiles at me, with only his eyes.

I smile; then, realize that half of my face is invisible.  So, I lift my chin — and smile.

“Where is your bathroom — or don’t you have one?!” the could-be-lovely creature interjects quite loudly, and with a single gesture of tongs from the mustached Navy chef, she storms off in that direction.  We wait for the passing of her busy noises and the departure of her griefs through the front door.

And when she does depart, her table is taken over by an older couple with a beautiful blue-eyed boy under their care.  He can’t be older than five, is barely awake and clutching a robot of military green.  The robot is wrapped in a baby blanket.

They could easily be the boys’ grandparents, but they don’t dote or baby-talk.  Instead, they are acutely aware, and they answer to his needs quietly.

At first, I brace myself:  The boy could be quite lovely.  But he could also be a complete riot:  His physical beauty could fully justify his bratty habits.  But he slides into the chair near mine, stretches the corner of his baby blanket on the edge of the table and rests his blond curls on it.  The older woman sits next to him and buries her gentle hand in his hair.

The beautiful blue-eyed boy stretches, while slowly waking.

The couple grabs a newspaper from the counter:  She reads the news, he skims through the Calendar section.  They speak to each other, quietly; while the boy drifts in and out of sleep.  When the food arrives, he shifts.  The mother (she IS his mother after all, I figure out) begins helping him with his utensils.

The boy whimpers:  He wants to do it himself.  With a single gesture, the woman calms him — “Hush-hush, my gentle little man…” — and the family returns to their quiet morning routine.

Ah.  This morning could be lovely, still.  And it could be quiet. And I wonder for how long I can keep holding on, today, to this gentle start of it — and to this gentle pace.

“Life Is Just What Happens to You, While You’re Busy Making Other Plans.”

What else is there to do, my darling, but to keep on going:  to keep on living?

You won’t even preoccupy yourself with the choice to stop until you’ve known some despair.  And there will be despair, in life, no matter how well I try to divert it, my darling.

It will strike you in the midst of a loss and eat up all the light illuminating the rest of your way.  It will challenge the clarity of your dreams.  Sometimes, you’ll feel like you’ve lost it:  this fleeting certainty about having a meaning, a purpose, in life.

“What is all this for, anyway?” you’ll ask yourself (although I do so very much hope that you will ask me first).

Despair is terrifying like that:  It aims at hope.  It’s quiet and dark.  It’s not like rage that clouds your vision with a rebellion against a collective sense of injustice.  Instead, it grovels.  It hungers.  It reaches for things in mere hope of someone’s last minute mercy.  And it dwells in sad corners of rented apartments where the faint smell of previous residents can’t help but remind you of irrelevance; of passing.  

Because everything passes, my darling, and every-one.

Everything passes — and this, too, shall pass.

Oh, how often I’ve wondered about what you will be like!  I try not to commit too much hubris at fantasizing about the color of your eyes, or the structure of your hair, or the shade of your skin.  But I have an idea, I think; and I hunt for it in the faces of other people’s children.

I try to restrain myself from predicting your gender.  In my younger day, I thought that most certainly you would be born a girl.  It was my duty, I thought, as a woman, to give way — to another woman.  I had already done it enough for plenty of others:  for the women I love or barely even know.  I never competed with my gender.  Instead, I devoted my life to making up for their difficulty of being born female.

It’s idealistic, I know, and a bit of a cliche.  It makes me into an easy target for those who could not find other ways of expressing their fears — but to tear down a woman’s self-esteem.  And so they did.  Some had succeeded, my darling, but not all; and not for long.  For I had shaken most of them off, by now; then spent the rest of my years repairing myself — with goodness.

Because what else is there to do, my darling, but to keep on going?

As a young woman, I was sure that I would make a better mother to one of my own kind.  I would devote the rest of my life to making up for the difficulty of your having been born a girl:  making it up to you, for life.  For your life, my darling.

But then, I had to love enough — and to lose enough loves — to open my mind to letting you be.  You may be a son, after all:  a boy whom I would teach to never be afraid.

May you never-ever be afraid, my darling!

But if you ever were, I would teach you to keep on going — with goodness. 

Because sometimes, life is summarized in our perseverance:  not just past the dramatic and the painful; but past the mundane, as well.  (I, despite my three decades among the living, still haven’t figured out which I find most grueling.  But I have known both, my darling — tragedy and survival alike — and I have persevered.)

And what else is there to do, my darling, but to keep on going?  to keep on persevering?

Everything passes:  Despair, joy, loss and thrill.  

But goodness:  Goodness must keep on going.  It must keep on happening.

So, these days, I no longer imagine your face or your gender; your stride, style, or habits.  I don’t fantasize about the way you’ll flip your hair or tilt your chin; then, yank on the threads of my familial lineage.  No, no:  I don’t daydream about hearing the echos of my mother’s laughter in yours.  I don’t pray for accidental manners that will bring back the long forgotten memories of my self.

No, my darling:  I’ll just let you determine all of that on your own.

Instead, now, I spend my days thinking of your character:  The temperament you’ll inherit and the choices you’ll learn to make.  For that is exactly what I owe you, the most:  To teach you goodness, my darling.

It shouldn’t be too hard, from the start; because everyone is born good.  But it is my responsibility to teach you goodness in the face of adversity; in the face of despair, despite the collective sense of injustice from other people.

So, I shall teach you goodness as a way of persevering.

Because you must, my darling:  You must persevere.   And you must never-ever be afraid!

“All You Got To Do — Is Try… Try A Little Tenderness.”

And you know what I’m doing today?

Nothing.

That’s right.  I’m doing nothing, in a Kundera sorta way.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I wake up late due to the afternoon sun blazing through my window.  (The shades are helpless against this blazing.)  I wake up to sunlight, and not to the monotonous tune of my alarm clock.  I wake up to another day.  (I’m helpless against waking.)

And when I do wake up, I stay in bed, despite the habitual bounce of my thoughts about the stuff that needs to get done.  It’ll get done.  Eventually.  So, I stay in bed, reading.

The more fragmented my schedule, the lesser are the chances of my reading a book, these days.  A whole book:  Not a book of vignettes by a Parisian melancholic, or of poetry by an angry American alcoholic.  A book, a long novel, or an epic story hasn’t rested in my palms in a long time.  I still read though — but of course! — in between the fragments of my day.  But I never read in bed.

But today:  I do.  Because I’m doing — nothing.

Yes, I’m doing nothing:

Nothing, as in:  I take a scorching hot shower with a bar of handmade soap with tea tree oil and oats.  It smells like the pine tree bathhouses that my people would heat up for each other, late at night — before a generous dinner but after the hard work — and they would come out with red and calm faces of innocence, long ago traded in for survival.

I take the first sip of my black coffee:  I’m feeling peckish, I must say.  I haven’t eaten the first meal of the day, and I’m about to skip the second.  But there is no way I’m cooking today:  Because I’m doing — nothing. 

Nothing, as in:  I walk to the farmers’ market.  I do not drive.  Instead, I accompany my kind man who tells me the fables from his previous day.  His long stories.  As we walk, we study the neighborhood:  The homes that sit at an architectural intersection of San Francisco and Venice Beach.  Homes with abandoned toys in their play pins and enviable tree houses decorated with Chinese lanterns.  Homes with old vintage cars in their gravel covered driveways and disarrayed trash bins at the curb.  Homes I’ve promised to build for my people — my kind people — and my child.

I watch an older couple approaching us:  I wonder what I would look like, when I’m older.  And I shall be older, certainly.  The romantic notion that I would die young has expired with forgiveness.

And now:  I want to live, in perseverance and stubborn generosity; and every day, I want to start with a clean slate on the board of my compassion.

What time is it?  I have no clue.  I do not own a watch and my cellphone has been off since the very early hours of this morning, when I was just getting to be bed after a night of seeing old friends and playing cards until we began to feel drunk from exhaustion.

I think of them — my friends, my kind people, my kind man — as I walk, and I can see the white tents the hippies and the hopefuls have pitched behind a plastic barricade.  They’re all so specific, I get inspired to see them in a book:  A long novel about perseverance and stubborn generosity; an epic story in which its heroine travels toward her forgiveness.

“When you forgive — you love.”

Someone else has written that in a romantic story about dying young.  I don’t want to do that:  I want to live.

Yes, I want to live.

We purchase things that only speak to our taste buds:  Black grapes and persimmons.  Sun-dried tomato pesto and horseradish hummus.  Sweet white corn and purple peppers.  I watch a tiny curly creature with my baby-fat face and a unibrow dancing around her mother’s bicycle, in a pink tutu and leopard uggs.  I look away when she tickles my eyes with tears only to find a brown face, even tinier, resting over a sari-draped shoulder of her East Indian mother.  Live, my darling child.  I want you — to live.

My kind comrade and I walk over to the handmade soap store:  I want more smells of home.  We both notice her:  She is African and tall — PROUD — with dreadlocks and a pair of bohemian overalls.  How could you not notice her:  Her face belongs to a heroine traveling toward her own forgiveness.

“Are you doing okay?” a very gentle gentleman asks us from behind the counter.

I smile into the jar of eucalyptus body butter and nod:  Zen.

“How could they not be okay, here?” the heroine making a rest stop on her journey toward forgiveness says.

We laugh.  All four faces in this store are calm.  They are calm with innocence long traded-in for survival.  But then again, maybe it’s just compassion.  (And I’m helpless — against it.)

“I was riding my motorcycle this morning,” my proud heroine starts telling us a fable from her previous day.  Her long story.

At the end of it, we would laugh.  Not wanting anything from each other, but having so much to give back, we laugh with lightness.

We laugh — with nothingness, in a Kundera sorta way.

I think:  We are no longer innocent.  But that’s quite alright, I think.

Because with enough forgiveness, compassion often takes its place.  Compassion takes the place of innocence.  And that’s quite alright, I think.  And I want to live — a life of that.

Yes.

I want to live.

“What the World. Needs Now. Is…”

Doing 80 on the 405, at midnight.

The Valley is glistening behind me, at a safe enough distance:  It’s pretty, like a flat lake with reflecting stars.  Kinda like in the old country.  So, naturally:  I prefer not finding myself on that side of the hill.

The Mulholland Drive Bridge ahead is a mess.  Even in the dark, the demolition site looms like a war zone — or a film set for yet another apocalyptic flick, gratuitous with violence.  What it doesn’t resemble, though, is the hopeful vision by LA-LA’s officials that it’s meant to be:  For the sake of easing our commute.  Oh, but how many delays this vision has cost us already!  And how many more to come!  (Thanks for looking out there!)

But at least, at nighttime, it’s safe to roll down the windows:  The dust of the daytime construction has long settled.

And at midnight — we are all moving.  We are trying speeds otherwise impossible, in the daytime.

Yes.  We’re moving.  We’re going.

Ow!  But not so fast!  Nearing Sunset, several pairs of standing construction lights give warnings of another mess ahead.  I’m in the right lane, at this point, mostly out of habit:  On this stretch of the road, I prefer sacrificing a few numbers on my speed dial in the name of changing my mind — and getting the fuck off this fucking freeway, at the very next exit!  Here:  I prefer to have a choice.  So, at least until Wilshire West, I hang to the right.  And I slow down.

The truck next to me seems to be having troubles staying in his lane.  Its aluminum trailer with no written indications of its product, origin or destination, keeps swaying across the neon line and into my lane.  I swear at him, back up and loom just a few meters behind — and to the most right.  As soon as this curve in the road straightens out, I’m thinking, I’ll zoom past the wheeled monster whose driver must be delirious with the lack of sleep.  Because I keep thinking:  Only the most hardened of us take on these jobs.  And in their own way — they are the most heroic.

For nearly a mile, I hang back;  and when I finally pass him, I watch myself skip a few breaths at the sensation of being way too close to the concrete freeway divider, to my right.  But, oh, how trilling it is — to be moving again!

Ow!  But not so fast!  Soon enough, I notice a yellow construction tank leading the traffic in the left lane.

“What the hell are these things called anyway?” I think of the clunky machinery of that exhausted yellow color, the sight of which on any road in LA-LA usually means bad news:  Closed lanes, “Road Work Ahead”; indifferent construction workers, dust clouds; and a cop car with a bored rookie.

And the crawl!  Alas, the crawl of traffic!  The crawl of time, in LA-LA!

“Fuck it!” I think.  “I’ll just call it ‘a tank’.”  And this tank is crawling in the left lane, with a flashing yellow arrow threatening us into yielding.

But still:  We are all moving, at midnight!  We’re going!

Yes!

The road narrows.  We’ve long passed Mulholland.  And I can no longer see the glistening Valley behind me.  It’s kinda like the old country, but slightly more brutal — in the daytime.  So, naturally:  I prefer not finding myself, on that side of the hill.

“What could they be possibly constructing at this hour of the night?!” I think.

By now, I’m balancing somewhere in between 60 and 70, but still:  I’m moving!  We — are moving.

I’m feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  And there is no cure for that.

I’m heading home.

It’s been a long day.  I’ve hustled, I’ve freelanced.  I’ve driven all over this city.  I’ve crawled in its traffic, chalking up the wasted time — to an investment in my dreams.  And when most civilians have called it a day and taken their place in the crawling drudgery of the 405, heading home, I’ve left to spend my night in the company of artists.  For hours, we’ve played, tonight; and we’ve cried.

And we’ve felt ourselves moving.  Yes:  We’ve found ourselves living!

So, yes:  I’m feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  And there is no cure for that.

By now, I’m doing 80 on the 405, at midnight.

Heading home.

I get off a few exits before mine.  Thinking:  I’m gonna cook at home.

Yes!

Ow!  But now so fast!  The roads are ridiculous, here:  empty at this hour, but always bumpy.  I start speeding again.  I’m alone, with an exception of other adrenaline addicts, in their German cars.  I’m sure they too have had to hustle, today.  But now:  They are moving.

We — are moving.

The autumnal selection of vegetables at the market snaps me into yet another degree of inspiration:  It’s gonna be one of those creamy, hearty soups that can heal a soul, or a broken heart — or to bring back my love.  To bring him back home.  The day is long gone, but I’m still feeling overwhelmingly grateful.  So, I’ll just carry it into the next day.

I load up my car.  Speed home.  Start up the chopping, the sizzling, the simmering.  I substitute.  I improvise.  I think of my love.  I think — of my loves, from earlier in the day.

And for the first time, I slow down.  Because it’s already the very next day.  And even though, I’ve carried my gratitude into it, I’d much rather start it up slowly.

I’m moving, slowly.  And I’m living, well.

Well:  I’m living!

“So, Let It Rain, Rain Down on Himmm… Mmmm…”

Oh, but it’s raining.  So, I think I’m just gonna stay in bed.

Yes.  It’s raining.

No, not just drizzling, in a typical fashion of LA-LA’s summers, when a few dirty raindrops smear the layer of dust on the windshields and rooftops of our cars; and for the rest of that week, we all drive in polka-dotted vehicles, too superstitious to wash them.  Because the law of LA-LA-Land is such:  Washing a car — brings on new rain.  The drizzling type of rain.  The rain that smears the layers of dust on the windshields and rooftops of our cars.

But today:  It’s raining.

Now, I wouldn’t call it “pouring”, for I have seen some of the worst rainstorms, in other spots along the planet.  I’ve seen the traffic stall in Moscow, its yellow cabs glistening with rain while their drivers, numbed into indifference by common despair, would pull off to the sides of the road and wait out the chaos.  And I have witnessed the swamps that rain makes out of Russian villages, like the birth place of my father; and the people would make portable bridges with loose planks of wood to walk across endless puddles of rainwater and mud.  Because Motha Russia is notorious for its unkept roads:  She is too enormous — to upkeep.

And I have seen the New York Subways shut down entirely, flooded overnight with aftershocks of a storm going much further south.  I have walked along the black-clad New Yorkers, obeying the barely comprehensible instructions over the groveling radio; so that we could take the bus shuttles, already overcrowded, above the ground.  And I watched them endure — the owners of those magnificently strong hearts — and they rarely complained.  Because that City — is not meant for weaklings.  In the last decade, that City has learned to persevere past unthinkable tragedies.  So, what’s a little rainstorm — to warriors?

The most nonchalant characteristic of San Franciscans — is their readiness for the whims of weather.  I have been amazed before to watch their instantaneous transformation into rain-ready attire, as soon as the first heavy raindrops give them a warning.   Sometimes, it’s just a few minutes of rain.  Other times, the precipitation comes down violently and all at once, as if dumped onto their heads by buckets of an impatient laundress.

And then, it passes.  It always passes:  The San Francisco blue.  And when the sun peaks out of the gray layer, suddenly the streets are filled with girls in summer frocks and boys in flip flops.  How ever do they do that:  The exceptional residents of their exceptional city?

But today, it’s raining — in LA-LA.

Oh yes!  It’s raining!

Photography by Russell James

I heard it, early in the morning, when I woke up amazed at my uninterrupted night of sleep.  There were no nightmares today.  In my bed, I wasn’t missing my beloveds.  Neither was I stuck with my chronic prophetic visions, on their behalf.  Neither did I catch myself dreaming.  No.  Today, I rested, lullabied into the sleep of the just — the sleep of the fulfilled — by the drumbeat of heavy raindrops, outside.

And when I first opened my eyes this morning, I thought:

“Oh, but it’s raining!  So, I think I’m just gonna stay in bed.”

But then, I looked outside.

The windows appeared streaked, and the pattern of the settled down moisture reminded me of other windows I had looked through, in other spots, along the planet.

I have watched the water cascading down the tiny windows of my grandmother, in a house she had moved to, as a widow.  She would arise early, to tend to her livestock (and whatever other magical business she couldn’t help but conduct).  But before leaving her tiny wooden house, she would sit in front of a poorly isolated window and unbraid her long, graying hair.  Unleashed, the hair would fall below her waistline; and she would hum, and she would sigh, while running an ivory-colored tooth comb brush, up from her temples and down to the knees.  She could’ve been a siren — a mermaid — playing a harp for her long awaited lover.  For surely, there had to be some magical business she wouldn’t help but conduct!

The windowpanes of our apartment in Eastern Germany would leak, quite often, when rainstorms came to town.  Motha would fuss.  She would dig out all the old towels from underneath our tub, divide and distribute them along our windowsills.  Flabbergasted, she would eventually storm out of the house — “to fix her ruined manicure” — and leave me with the task of wringing out the drenched cloths, until dad would arrive home, to help.

And when he did, the blue of the day would suddenly depart, and we would have an adventure:  stuffing all the cracks with putty and cotton, covering them with tape.  Motha would return to find our windows sweating from the inside, and the two of us — flushed, soaked in rainwater and giggling.

“Well!” she’d command over us.  “I guess I’ll be in the kitchen — slaving over soups.”

And we would pretend to help, but only until motha’s blues would depart, and she would start howling with her very specific laughter.

I would do the same trick at my Riverdale basement apartment, for three years.  I would use it as an excuse to make pots and cauldrons of soups, and play house, for a while.  I would scrawl down my speed dial to check which one of my beloveds was nearby — and hungry.  And I would wait for their very specific laughter to steam up my windowpanes, from the inside.

Ah.  But it’s raining today.

Yes, it’s raining — in LA-LA.

And I think it’s just the perfect day — to stay in bed.

“You Give Yourself To This: The Longest Day… You Give It All Away.”

Every other night, after a rehearsal in Hollyweird, when driving by a local market with a display of pumpkins and straw upfront, I swing my car into its parking lot and begin wandering aimlessly along the aisles.

And I don’t really know what I’m looking for:  Sometimes, I pick up the discounted apples and try to detect the smell of the gardens from which they’ve been gathered.  Would those gardens be from somewhere up north:  From the latitude that keeps teasing me with dreams of my future home?  Or would they come from the East Coast, where the dreams of my former home have long been put to rest?

Most of the time, these perfect looking apples have been shined with some waxy substance, and the smell is long gone.  Still, I insist on trying the next batch.

And then, there are the pears!  They are starting to come in different colors, these days, and in various degrees of graininess.  And that texture:  It is unmistakable in desserts!  And they are best accompanied with some slowly simmered ganache or a fuss-deserving caramel.  Lazily, they glisten on top of paper-thin crepes, like slivers of amber from the coast of my very former home, on the Baltic Sea.  And they smell — like Indian Summer and bedtime stories, in the countryside.

Ooh, corn!  It’s white and super sugary this season!  I grabbed a whole batch the other night:  “10 for 2”.  How ever have I forgotten about the existence of corn, for this entire year?  Sometimes, it’s as yellow as the petals of sunflowers.  That type — is a bit denser, and it doesn’t fall apart in stews.  But this white creation should be nibbled on, after dinner, instead of a handful of honey roasted nuts.

This time of year, mushrooms take over at least half of an aisle, at the market.  The portabellas are always de-stemmed and tamed into some styrofoam and plastic containers.  But once unleashed — they are each bigger than my palm.  The baby bellas, despite being the most regular visitors all throughout the year, are especially juicy these days; and the criminis always remind me of the bellas’ darker-skinned cousins.

And what in the world are these?  They’re tiny and come in a clump, with a common root still attached.

I study the grains of soil caught in between each miniature creature; and I remember the thrill I felt if ever finding a generous gathering like this, in a forest of my most original home, left behind so long ago.

I wouldn’t call upon the help of other gatherers, back then.  Quietly, I would kneel onto the mossy ground, that chewed and slurped underneath my rubber boots; and I would twist my finds out of the soil, by their common stem.  (That’s the secret with mushrooms:  It’s best to twist them out.  That way, the fragile web of their roots doesn’t get destroyed.)

And the best part about such a find is that, most likely, there are more of these creatures around:  For they’re rarely solitary.  And so, I would continue kneeling, scanning the ground for more hidden caps.  With my heart racing, I would whisper to every tiny creature I would locate under a leaf:

“Come here,  you lil’ munchkin!”

And I would imagine some forest gnomes scowling at me from branches:  Those mushroom caps were meant to be their hats.  (Don’t you know:  Gnome are very dapper dressers!)

The black trumpets — always freak me out a little.  How can these things possibly be eatable?  They look like dog ears!

And the oyster mushrooms — I prefer them dried.

An entire basket of loose shiitakes attacked my nose with a whiff of moss.  These creatures are leathery.  They’re the earthiest and meatiest of them all.  There is a whole other flavor profile assigned to mushrooms in Japanese cuisine:  Umami.  Savory.  Earthy.  Incomparable to anything else, really.

And they caressed my palette with memories of my people’s home — from the very original homeland, on the Pacific coast.

“What a treasure!” I thought the other day, rushing home to make a stew.

No, no, no!  Actually, it should be a soup.

Yes, definitely, a soup!

A soup that could fill my current home — with the aromas of all of my former homes, and all the homes to come.

“There Is ALWAYS Something Cookin’!”

It started like a typical talk last night.  Because that was the only reasonable thing to do, with my dad’s people:  To be typical. Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices of his family.

When I resumed my weekly phone calls to Motha Russia, two years ago, I expected heightened stakes for a while.  After all, I haven’t been home in sixteen years!

And for the first couple of months of these telephoned conversations — with the family — things were indeed thrilling:  Someone was getting married.  Someone had passed away years ago.  This person was now a high ranking government official; and that one — had succumbed to full-range alcoholism.  Most of our shared excitement came from other people’s tragic tales:  immigration, disappearance, cancer, suicide.  And because Motha Russia always has had such stories in plentitude, we seemed to never run out of things to discuss.

So, for hours, dad and I would talk about other people:

“And how is Marinka, P?” I would ask him about my archenemy from high school, and that would spur another hour of gossip:  Someone was pregnant.  Someone was getting a divorce.  This person had left for Moscow.  That one — never returned from Chechnya.

But when it came to our own family, things weren’t discussed; not in any depth that revealed family secrets.  Nothing that would divert us — from being typical.  Surely, we talked about our distant relatives:  someone was cheating on his wife; another someone was graduating from medical school.  But the people in the immediate family — were not the topic for deep digging.

It was initially established by P:  He would answer the questions about his family living in the Urals with stubborn vagueness.

I could hardly remember my last visit to that middle section of Russia.  I was a teenager and bored out of my mind, on that trip.  Because just like the geography of the area itself, the common characteristic of my father’s people was an overall commitment to order and calm.  Every single one of them was always existing in the middle:  Not really subversive in any way and never disobedient.  They were — typical.

And the orderly flow of their daily events was dictated by the family’s matriarch:

Breakfast at 0700 hours.  Work at 0900.  Women cleaned the house and cooked — men left for the fields.  Bathhouse was ready by 1800 hours.  Dinner by 1900.

Having been a city-child my entire life, I was an immediate handful for my father’s mom:

“Why is she going to the library every day?” she scolded P in that passive-aggressive manner that was meant to be overheard, by me.  “What would people think?!” Because the question of “What would people think?” — always dictated the choices in his family.

So:  We walked our cows to the feeding fields by 0600 hours.  Attended Sunday church by 0800.

And, last night, it started like a typical talk:

“What are you doing right now?” P began our routine, after the initial pleasantries were gotten out of the way.

“I’m cooking,” I answered.

I was holding my cellphone with my left shoulder and running a colander full of spinach under the water.  An entire head of garlic was waiting to be peeled.  He would have heard my kitchen noises anyway.  So, I didn’t lie.  And I didn’t stop cooking.  Because I assumed:  P would have preferred for me to have a typical night anyway.

“You’re cooking?  At 2300 hours?” (P — is an army man.  He still talks in military time, so typical of his generation.)

“Yep,” I said.  “I’m cooking from scratch.”

I braced myself:  I expected him to start talking about the diversion from my typical sleeping schedule; or the noises with which I was disturbing my neighbors.  (In which case:  “What would people think?”  Right?!)

But P — chuckled.  “What are you making?”

“Soup,” I answered.  I preferred not to elaborate, as to not give away too much ammunition for dad’s later scolding:  I was a child of an army man, and I typically don’t run my mouth much.

But then, I reiterated, while gloating a bit:

“I’m making soup — from scratch!”

“I know you are,” P got serious on me.  “You always made me things from scratch.”

He would proceed to tell me that even as a teenager, I was the cook of the family.  Oh, how it bothered his mother — the matriarch — he told me, when I competently took over making his breakfasts, in the Urals!

“Why is she crowding me out of my kitchen?‘ your grandma told me,” he said last night.

I chuckled.  Yes, I chuckled with my typical close-lipped laughter:  so typical of my generation of army brats.  So typical — of my father’s child.

“But in all truth,” P continued, “I always preferred your cooking — over my mom’s.”

God damn!  THAT — was untypical!  The family’s matriarch was being shaken off her throne; and her son was now conspiring with a woman who was anything but typical, for her entire life.  

“What would people think?!” I thought.

But then, feeling encouraged, gloating even more, as a woman proud of all her self-taught talents, I carried on cooking, last night:  Mincing the roasted peppers; adding spices to the mixture of red, brown and wild rice.

P was into it:

“And when do you add salt?” he inquired.

“Never!” I said, in my matriarchal voice.  “In my kitchen — I use lemon!”

P chuckled.  Yes, he chuckled with his typical close-lipped laughter.  But I knew:  He was choking back his tears.

Due to the untypical turn of events in his family’s history, I grew up in an untypical fashion:  On a whole different continent, one hemisphere removed from him and his people.  I had become a woman on my own terms.  And somehow, despite being extremely untypical, in my father’s eyes — I was absolutely perfect:

I was a good woman — so typical of my father’s child.

And I was the best cook — in the family:  How untypical!

“Mama’s Lil’ Baby Loves Shortenin’, Shortenin’: Mama’s Lil’ Baby Loves Shortenin’ Bread!”

It was a long and sleepful night…

That’s right:  I said “sleepful”.

It was a long and sleepful night, for a change!

And I do love to sleep so!

To this day, motha often pontificates on my possible genetic relation to polar bears.  Because I don’t just sleep:  I hibernate.  And once awoken, it is better for others to keep a safe distance until I get that first cup of coffee, in me.

Over the years, motha and I have figured out how to maneuver around each other, after I stumble into her kitchen, barefoot, in search of my caffeine fix:  We prefer to have at least a town, in between us.  It’s just better that way.  Because two stubborn, moody Russian broads unleashing their wild hair and temperament at each other — never makes for a safe situation.

So, instead, motha leaves me cryptic notes on her counter, next to the pot with burnt coffee on its bottom; and she gets the hell out of her house (about a town away):

“Went to store.  Fear to wake you.”

Or:

“Call me when you go.”

So, okay:  I do love to sleep so!

But it is always a pretty rare occasion for me to pack the mandatory 8-hour gap of rest into a night.  Because there is seemingly never enough hours in my day; and after hour of writing and tending to business, after my rituals of fitness and nourishment, I tend to retire to bed quite reluctantly.  There, I arm-wrestle with the ghosts of my nightmares first; then, I eventually drift off to sleep.

When the alarm goes off at an ungodly hour (because there is seemingly never enough hours in my night), I yank its cord out of the wall and try to nap for a bit.  But before I pass the hour at which I would start calling myself “a sloth”, I leap out of bed and stumble out into my kitchen, barefoot, in search of my caffeine fix.  The thoughts of the day flood in with the first inhale of it, and I’m off:  Chasing the hours, of which there is seemingly never enough in my day.

And I’ve heard of the luxury others entertain when they decide to spend an entire day in bed.  In order for me to do that, I must be deathly sick.  If not, the town is better be going through an apocalypse.

And every single time I’ve entertained the idea of a vacation this year:

“Ah, shit!  I gotta write in the morning!” I would think immediately after, and that idea would be put to rest.

Because there is seemingly never enough hours in my day — and just way too much work to do, in my life!

But today, it was a long and sleepful night.  And before I leapt out of my bed right at the hour at which I would start calling myself “a sloth”, I wondered:

“How ever did I manage to get ten hours of rest?”

Let’s see:  Yesterday, I wrote and I tended to business, as usual.  There were rituals of fitness and nourishment, punctuated with more writing and more business.  I’ve even managed to repack my bags and reshuffle my joint.

But right around the time when I would normally freak out about seemingly never having enough hours in my day, instead of brewing myself another pot of coffee —

I cooked!

I made a meal, for a change.

After a late-night run through a park with maple trees that haven’t yet changed their leaves — but surely seemed to be entertaining it — I decided it was time for fall.  And with fall, it was time for pots of magical thick stews with flavors of the world whispered through a whiff of exotic spices.  And although it wasn’t time to change the clocks yet, it was time — to change the pace.

So, I ran back home and I started a pot:

The eggplant was caramelized first.  The trick there was to be patient:  to give it time.  Fussing with it would ruin the slowly forming crust.  Eggplant is a vegetarian’s stake, and it demands specificity.  Because there seemingly may not be enough hours in the day, but in cooking — it is always about the time.  With time, last night, my patience paid off:  And soon enough the joint was filled with aromas of meatiness and slowness.

The red peppers were caramelized next, married with the sizzling garlic a few minutes later.  And there is nothing more domestic — than the smell of sauteed garlic:  My joint was beginning to smell like home.

The spices went in next:  cumin, coriander, yellow curry, cayenne pepper and sesame seeds.  With spices, one must move quickly.  Because if the mind drifts off — they burn and lose their magic.  By then, my nose had adjusted to the unleashed aromas of the fall, and I had forgotten that I never started that last pot of coffee of the day.  Instead, I was tending to my spices, fully present and perfectly patient.

By the time the rest of the vegetables and liquids joined the stew, I was beginning to dream of cooking by a campfire, on some Moroccan adventure, with all of my comrades napping in surrounding tents.  They would wake, of course, to the smell of slowness and patience — to the smell of home; a world of difference away from the aromas of caffeine.

And I thought of all the future meals I had yet to make in the slower hours of the upcoming winter; of all the pots of magical thick stews with flavors of the world narrated through the whispers of new spices that I had yet to learn to cook.  And I thought:  There is still so much time, in my life!

According to my recipe, the stew would taste much better the next day.  So, I retired to bed quite willingly last night, looking forward to the new flavors — and to waking up in a joint that smelled more like home.

According to my recipe, the stew would taste much better the next day.

And it does.

“With You: It’s ALWAYS Midnight.”

Um…

I just woke up.

It’s noon.

It’s kinda late for waking.

So, what did I miss?

The coffee machine is already doing its thing in the kitchen, but maybe I should just have some tea.

I mean:  It IS noon.

And it’s kinda late for waking.

I gotta start packing up my joint:  I’m leaving in a week.  It’s not a move to another city or continent (not yet, at least) — just an excuse to go research all the possible next stops, and to revisit my beloved hearts.  And I should come bearing gifts.  Or food, most likely.

Someone in the building is cooking breakfast.  I can smell it through the open doors of my balcony.  Someone is cooking breakfast…  Um, wait.  It’s lunch time.  And it smells like yellow curry, pepper and paprika.  Slowly, it’s starting to feel so wonderful — to be so awake.

If it were my brother though, he would be cooking breakfast, right around this time.  I mean:  It’s noon, and it’s kinda late for waking.  But at night, he prefers to dream with his eyelids open:  an artsy insomniac like me.  For him, it is always wonderful to be awake; and whatever the rest of the world is sleeping through — he takes down onto his canvas:

“You gotta see this nonsense, Ra!” he calls me past midnight, less than twelve hours away from noon.

I come over, while bearing food, most likely; and I take a look.

It’s beautiful. 

Tormented. 

Tired.

I rarely tell him what I see splattered underneath the paint.  But it is always so wonderful — and somehow very awake.

By the time he finally takes a nap at sunrise, the apartment smells like old acrylic paints.  And a little bit like magic.  I adjust the mountain of his blankets, brush his forehead, and I slip out.

And in the morning…  Um, sorry.  In the afternoon, he walks across the drying canvas barefoot and starts making breakfast in the kitchen.  Yes, breakfast!  The smell of eggs and chocolate mixes into the air, and by the time I return bearing coffee, it feels so wonderful — for both of us — to be so awake.  And it smells a little bit like magic.

He is coming home tomorrow.

I — am leaving in a week.

So, I gotta start packing up my joint.

It’s noon.  It’s kinda late for waking.

And it’s kinda late to start packing.

But it is always just the right time — for a change.

The air — in the afternoon — is already heated through, feeling like summer, not the very next season that often smells like yellow curry, ginger, and paprika.  It’s not like the air at sunrise, these day.

Because at night, it has begun getting colder, and I go to sleep gratefully bundled up in a mountain of blankets, dreaming of love under my closing eyelids.  Because there is always time — for my beloved hearts.  And there is always time — for change.

In the fall, at nighttime, my joint starts smelling like soup or some hearty stew.  I take a whole day to make a pot.  The timing is specific, but it always starts with cooking the spices first:  yellow curry, turmeric, or paprika.  And I by time I start delivering containers of it to my beloved hearts — while feeling the peace cooked up by my generous heart — the airs smells like home.  And a little bit like magic.

Someone in the building has just started thumping music.  I can hear it through the open doors of my balcony.

I mean:  It is noon, and it’s kinda late for waking.  But it is still no excuse for this Eurobeat that lacks all magic.

The music is turned off.  Someone in the building must’ve objected:

“It’s so wonderful — for all of us — to be so awake.  Please don’t ruin it with your monotony.”

It’s noon.  I gotta start packing up my joint.

But where do I start?

The bedroom.

The joint is already in disarray:  from being so awake so late at night, from my artsy insomnia.  I’ve attempted to start packing past midnight — less than twelve hours away from noon — but in every corner I got distracted with the keepsakes from my beloved hearts.

Some gifts have been stored away, and I have nearly forgotten about them.  Because they used to belong to the beloved hearts that have departed, by choice.  Out of sight — out of memory.  But now that the keepsakes are being retrieved — I feel awakened by their stories.  And it does feel so wonderful — to be so awake.

Some stories have lost their meaning:  They’ve been stored away for too long. Their magic has expired like a drawer full of old spices.

So, I shed them.

Other items may still be worth keeping.  I stuff them into a box with “STORE AT BROTHER’S” label.

The pile of things — of stories — that are coming with me is the smallest one.

I’m leaving in a week, and I am taking very little with me.   Because it’s not a move to another city or a continent.  Not yet, at least.  It’s just an excuse to go research all the possible next stops, and to revisit my beloved hearts.  And to collect more stories.

Um…

It’s noon, and it IS kinda late for waking. 

But it is always the right time — for change.

And it’s just about the right time for the very next season that smells like yellow curry, cinnamon and paprika.

The coffee machine has stopped doing its thing in the kitchen.  The smell of coffee mixes into the hot afternoon air, and it’s starting to feel so wonderful to be so awake.

I start packing up, for change.