Tag Archives: perseverance

“You Are the One That Got Me Started.”

I saw him first!

The roles reversed:  When I departed, nearly twenty years ago — so reckless in my youth and dumb — he was the last to disconnect our gazes.  

Such had to be the burden of the ones we left behind!  And such — the mindless blessing of the ones with great adventures to distract them from the pain of leaving. 

What courage it had cost him — to hold the ground and not crumble then, until I turned the corner!  And how I would never learn it, until I birthed a child, myself! 

And yet, he did:  My darling old man.  The hero of my lifetime doomed to never disappoint my expectations.

The one to whom my every love would be compared:  the ultimate ideal for a man’s goodness.  My goodness.

The one who, in tumultuous times, had to commit the ultimate, unselfish act of love — and let me leave in my pursuit of bigger dreams than our homeland could offer.  (Would those dreams turn out to be worth our mutual sacrifice?  My life is yet to reveal its bottom line.  But how I pray!)

And when my hardships happened, oceans away — the one to suffer heartbreaks of a parent’s helplessness and the titan strength of prayer.

The one to not let go, despite the distances and family feuds.  (Alas, human stupidity:  It never fails to permeate a story.)  The one to change in order to keep up.  The one — to love and wait.

And pray.

This time, I saw him first!

The crowds of tired passengers were whirling all around him:  Loves leaving, in their acts of youthful recklessness or being pulled by bigger circumstances.  The lucky ones — were coming home.  The floor tiles of the airport endured the writing of rushed footsteps, scoffed wheels of those things that people felt they had to bring along; the punctuation of chic heels of pretty girls; the patter of children’s feet, so blissful and undamaged in their innocence.  Tomes could be written if every footstep could be interviewed:  The snippets of humanity’s stories that were so often unpredictable, impossible to imagine.  But when these stories happened to make sense — when stubborn courage persevered, when love learned to forgive — they found unequal beauty.  (Oh, how we could all pray for that!  Oh, how we should pray!)

One million more of pedestrians could be packed into the terminal — and I would still recognize my father’s outline.  The mind’s a funny thing, of course:  Recently, it began to blackmail me with forgetfulness.  The first nightmare in which my father had no face — would be the turning point I’d call Forgiveness.

But when I saw him — and I saw him first! — I knew that I would not be able to forget him, ever!  Because he was the one I’d spent half a lifetime trying to get back to; the one with whose name I’d christened my every accomplishment; with which I had defeated every failure.  He was the love; the never failing reason for it.  My starting point and the North Star whose shine I followed to find my way, in and out of grace, and back again.

And when I saw him first and called him:  “Oh, my goodness!”

It had to be a prayer, for I had learned to pray — in order to come back.

No cinematic trick can capture the surreal speed with which he turned in my direction.  The mind sped up.  It knew:  This had to be THE memory of my lifetime.  This — was where my life would turn its course; and in the morning, I would no longer be the prodigal daughter looking for her homecoming, but an inspired child of one great man. 

He turned.  The smile with which he studied my departure, nearly twenty years ago, returned to his face, this time, again:  It was a tight-lipped gesture of a man trying his hardest not to crumble.  The loss had been magnificent; an the return — worth every prayer.

“My goodness!  Oh, my goodness!  Oh, my goodness!” I continued muttering.  (That’s how I prayed, for years!  Oh, how I’d prayed!)

I waved.  And then, I waved again.  The mind continued turning quickly.  It had to remember every single detail of that day, so it could last forever.  And fleetingly, it granted me a thought:  The manner of my wave was very childlike, as if belonging to an infant mirroring a kind stranger’s hand.  But in the moment, I knew no vanity.  I cared none — for grace.

When dad’s hand flew up, I noticed:  He’d aged.  His timid gesture was affected by the trembling fingers and the disbelief of someone who hadn’t realized the perseverance of his prayer.  C’mon!  There had to be some moments in his life, historical events of giant hopelessness that the entire world endured since last I left, when he, like me, would lose the sight of reason.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps, my father prayed!  Perhaps, he prayed and bargained with his gods for this very opportunity to persevere life — and see my running back into his arms.

For this one moment, all — had been worth it!  My life was worth when my father held me for the first time since nearly twenty years ago.

And I?  I kept on praying:

“Oh, my goodness!”

For that had been my father’s name, for years.

“Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy Are Drifting Through My Opened Mind…”

Sorting it out.  Bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.  An echo of facts — here.  A token of shared memories — there.

Sorting it out, for a sliver of some truth…

But that’s where it gets tricky:  My truth — does not equal their truth.

With my family, I’ve taken the easier way out, according to them.  For whom exactly have I made it easy, though?  I’ve made it easier on them, NOT on myself.  My truth — were it revealed — would break their little hearts:

“We didn’t know.  We’re sorry.  What a waste!”

Ideally, my truth would actually deserve their compassion.  For, in my truth, survival has been difficult, yes (and it is such, most of the time); but in the choices that it took to do it — my survival has been tragic.

When one starts from the bottom and walks the tight rope of having no such option as to fail, the choices suddenly become quite brutal.  They are self-serving most of the time.  They are uncivil and mostly driven by fear.  Because to fall down, in such a case, means having no place to land; no home to crawl back to, where by the means of heritage or hopefully some unconditional love one could be healed, recovered, reinvigorated.  One could begin again, and try again, if only one could have a home.  But having walked away from family — means having no choice and no space in which I could afford mistakes.

The mistakes that I have made, since orphaning myself — by choice — have taken years to actually forgive.  In most cases, that forgiveness demanded more walking away:  from the living witnesses; from those who have promised to step in, in place of missing family, and then gave up.  And from my own wrongdoing self.  And it is my truth that I hold no grudge; but in those case (of mistakes), forgiveness has demanded silence.  Because, as I have learned by walking away from my own family:  Their truth — will never equal mine.  So, I prefer to walk away, in silence — yes.

The way one justifies survival is not up to me to judge.  In their truths — in anyone’s truth — survival is difficult, yes.  (And it is such, most of the time.)  When it turns out to be tragic — it asks for myths:  Justifications for one’s actions.  And so we choose to make up our own truths, not necessarily lies, but truths — the way we see them:  Truths by which we choose to stand, in order to avoid self-judgement.  Are they delusions?  Maybe.  But when survival’s tragic — they may be the only way to go, without losing one’s mind to sorrow.

A decade of delusions in my family is ending with a crunch time.  We have been separated for long enough to acquire myths about each other.  And after all these years, I am the one to make a choice — to go back, so that we could finally compare our truths.

Their truths — will never equal mine.  I know that.  But neither do I any longer want that.  I simply want to hear their side of it, and give them mine; so that we can put it all to rest.

What made me do it?  It had to be my mother’s face that I began to see in the reflection of my own.  A lifetime of walking away — from truths — has compressed that woman’s forehead into an accordion of guilt.  And silences — from all the abandoned witnesses and failed stand-ins for her loves — are floating above her head, like storm clouds waiting to release their electrical wraths.

One day, that storm may break out.  Who could possibly survive its horror?  The flood of all the choked tears and the thunder of the silenced truths would then create a havoc.  Her truths — would break the oblivious hearts of those from whom she’s walked away.  And that’s the heritage I do not wish to carry, any longer.

I’m going back then.  I am reversing the pattern of the family — and going back.  I know better than the delusions of my mother:  That their truths — will equal mine.  They won’t.

But their truths may give me answers to the eventual questions of my firstborn, who has been murmuring into my dreams since I have managed to find a love that stays.  This time, I haven’t walked away.  This time, I have allowed for the flexibility of truths.  This time — I HAVE FORGIVEN.

So, I’m going back then:  to sort it out, bit by bit.  A crumb after a crumb.   A sliver of some truth, so that we could all move on.

“I Want to… Thank You, Thank You. Thank You, Thank You.”

If this hour — or weather — were to happen back in LA-LA, I would be the only pedestrian seen for miles.

Well, at least I started off — as a pedestrian.  Having left my dear college comrade hibernating in the cocoon of her comforters inside the generously heated West Village apartment, I stepped out into the frosty morning with that blissful gratitude that came from knowing I had nowhere else to be:  Nowhere but here, in this City that left no human heart unaffected.  Because how ever New York — the Strange Iron and Steel Beauty — came off to others, indifference was never among Her effects.

That morning, I quickly understood:  In this City, I was in the minority.  Time moved relentlessly quicker for all others; and in my aimless, fancy free wandering, I belonged to neither the tourists nor the exhausted locals, who made it a point to survive Her every day.

The street sweeper, who was swinging his broom with enough intention to cause a flurry of broken black ice against my ankles and smoking simultaneously, gave me a queer eye, from underneath his Russian fur hat.  I had just passed him and made the mistake of smiling.

“Where is your coat, girl?” he growled in response, then puffed a visible cloud of nicotine in my face.  Yep, he was Russian alright, and not in the least bit entertained by my getup of a single turtleneck, a little red hat and thin running shoes, with funkily striped ankle socks peaking out of them.

“Can’t run in a coat,” I gleefully shrugged.  I was grinning.

Since when did I become so bouncy?  Back in the days of my aspiring to be a hardcore New Yorker, this Amelie character I was currently channeling would annoy the shit out of me.  But there I was:  Having gotten older, I had managed to also get lighter.  And if there were a single chronic mood of my soul — it would be its certain predisposition for gratitude.

To get my point across to the Russian, I began jogging lightly.  Right foot, left foot…  Ouch!  Ouch!  I hadn’t realized that my feet had gotten frozen in a matter of minutes of my being outside.  Stepping on my toes, as if leaping over tiny puddles, was my new running technique acquired back in Cali.  There, healthy living was merely a science; and I had actually studied it, not for the sake of getting off with others, at juice bars of some fancy, celebrity-ridden gyms of Hollywood — but for the sake of healing.

Fuck!  I didn’t even know I needed it, to tell you the truth, until I finally settled down into the natural flow of the local time, so different from New York’s.  It didn’t gnaw on my nerves and upset my inners.  Nah.  LA-LA had its own stresses and costs to the system, but at least there would be much more time — and space — to be a Self.

“‘Scuse me,” I sang out.  I made sure to smile.

(Seriously:  Who WAS that girl?!)

The bundled-up old woman, dragging her comatose Yorkie through the snow buried flowerbeds, looked back at me.  A thought had no time to form in my head before she granted me the dirties elevator look since the one I earned from a Kardashian lookalike, on my first Hollywood attempt to go clubbing.  (That young one assumed I was rubbing up against her man:  A short and hairy creature in rhinestoned jeans buying her girlfriends a round of pink drinks.  I, however, soaked from dancing my ass off next to the Go-Go Girls, was just leaning over the bar to ask for some water:  A request hated by the bartenders all around the world (but hated a little less than when I requested a cup of coffee).)

Upon my “‘Scuse me?”, not even a centimeter did the old woman move over.  Here, time and space had to be fought for; and considering she had to, most likely, persevere through mortal hell in order to own her rent-controlled apartment in Washington Square — the woman was highly unlikely to budge for my sake.

By that point, I could feel neither my toes nor my hands.  Still, it would take a lot more than a couple of dirty or simply baffled looks from the locals to snap me out of my grateful mood.

“Just look at this, would you?!” I kept thinking.

The perfectly aligned, naked and black with wetness trees were covered with sticky snow.  The skies were arguing with its fluffy clouds on whether to grant us some sun or snow that day.  The skeletons of Christmas trees littered an occasional side of the road, but the smell of trash and sewers had been put on hold until the next warmer front.

Left foot, right foot…  Right:  Ouch! ouch!  The black asphalt underneath my feet was sparkling with shards of ice.  Leaping over the tiny puddles and seemingly fallen down stars, off I went:  Navigating the seemingly different City unlike my former self claimed would have done.

But which one of us had changed more?

My every rhythmical exhale resulted in a visible cloud.  I was hardly the only pedestrian, but definitely the only runner seen for miles.  It was my new way of exploring new lands:  Right foot, then left.  Flying.  Slowing down only to zigzag in between the baffled, sleepy or plain disgruntled locals.

Grateful.

Right, left.  Right…

Yes:  Definitely grateful!

“I’m Sittin’ in the Railway Station, Got a Ticket for My Destination. Mmm…”

“And where are you driving from?”

“Um…  Los Angeles?” I said and somehow felt an immediate need to apologize.

“Ow.  I’m so sorry,” he responded.

I looked at his squinting eyes:  This one was meaning well, I think.  His skin was brown and eroded by the exposure to the sun and to the demands of manual labor.  And at the same time, I knew that there was peace in the simplicity of his survival needs.

A cowboy hat with tattered straw edges covered his hairline, but judging by the streaks of gray in his eyebrows, his head was most likely silver haired.  Against the darkness of the skin, his baby-blue eyes stood out and promised me that I was talking to a good one.  I quickly permitted for a flash of memory of my own old man — (What would he look like, now?) — and I decided that this one had to be meaning well.

“She ain’t so bad,” I said.  I shook my head and smiled from underneath my own embarrassment on behalf of the City that everyone was so willing to leave.  The moderately pleasant woman handing me my smoothie from behind the counter looked sideways at the cowboy, then at me.

So, I reiterated to them both:  “No, really.  She ain’t so bad.”

The night before I fled Her city limits, I took a risk and climbed up onto the 10 East.  I was initially going to zoom through side streets, out of habit, while circumventing the intersecting onramps and the already buzzing malls.  But when nearing a freeway underpass, I noticed the dashing by of traffic headlights.  The cars were moving for a change, and so I took a risk.

At first, my path had to be negotiated with an impatient female driver of some Japanese-made SUV on her way to the Valley:  She demanded her right of way toward the 405 merger by scowling and widening of her heavily made-up eyes at me, through her tinted, rolled-up windows.

“I’m not the one driving with an iPhone glued to her ear,” I thought, and motioned for her to pass.

She zoomed in front of me, honked in a departing act of her aggression, then stepped on it.

“Yeah. You, too!” I muttered in response.  “You fuckin’…”

My navigation of the remaining six miles, however, lacked in adventures.  In silence, I calmed down.

The cars were moving, and for the first time, I noticed the clearness of the night.  It had been raining for a day and a half, and the asphalt in my lane was black and glistening.  On the North side of the freeway, in the crisp, clear air I noticed the square skyscrapers, all lit up in silver.  Is that Downtown?  Nope, too soon for that.

I rolled down my windows.  The air was crisp.  The City was quiet.  She smelled like sweating piles of leaves, pine sap and chimneys.  The hellish pace of the looming holidays was coming upon us; and with the exception of the City’s newcomers, flooding her with their yet un-jaded dreams, Her every resident would begin to plot escape routes.

“She ain’t so bad,” I thought, that night.

I was, however, already that someone who’d preplanned her routes out of the City.  To stick around would either turn out painfully lonely or exhaustingly disappointing.

And so, a day before the year’s first giant migration would begin, I drove out.  At first, my way had to be negotiated along the loop of the 405 merger.  But on the next Northbound freeway and for at least two hundred miles, the traffic would begin to move.

I studied the faces of the other drivers.  The further North I drove, the more relaxed the others would appear.  The permanent tension between my eyebrows softened, and I would talk myself out of my repertory of glares and profanity.

A gray-haired couple, cooped up inside their vintage Volvo hatchback along my ride through Santa Barbara, wasn’t talking.  But in their intimate silence, they seemed to be conspiring against the world.  A college-age girl in a white Honda with writing on its side window kept fiddling with her radio.  Had she forgotten the tensions at the Thanksgiving table of last year, or was she born to parents who loved her unconditionally?

Couples with strapped-in children in the backseats seemed talkative as they discussed the lengths of their future stays at each other’s in-laws.  The brown faces of Mexican workers seemed fancy free no matter the content of their weathered trucks:  Some could be working in the vineyards, others — driving to the wealthy ‘hoods of Cambria and Morro Bay.  The eyes of truck drivers appeared tired but content:  Migrating through the country always promised an escape from obligations and other people’s stress.

I realized that other travelers kept their eyes on their destinations.  They drove to:  To places and addresses of their beloveds.  To me, however, my from — was what propelled me:

From Her — I’ve learned to get away.  From Her — I’ve learned to leave and somehow learn while leaving.  But the more froms I would accumulate, the more often I found myself thinking, “She ain’t so bad” — when heading back.

“I Change Shapes Just to Hide in This Place. But I’m Still, I’m Still — an Animal.”

I would have much rather gone out for a walk.  But stubbornly, yesterday, I began to run.

I ran mostly out of habit, and because I was running out of time.  But even as I changed my stride, from one block to the next, I still thought:

“I think I’d much rather be walking, right now.”

It had always been my thing:  to run.  In junior high, I’d run long distances.  I never thought of myself as being good at it.  It was just something that came easy.  And it happened way before I knew about meditation or understood transcendence of the mind.  To me, it simply granted the easiest excuse to be alone and not talking.  Just breathing and placing down my feet.  My breath would change throughout the course, and so would the stride.

Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground:  The soggy fields of Russia, and the uneven asphalt of Eastern Germany.  I’d study the way the surface would respond to the impact of my feet.  We had no knowledge of American footwear back then, so the cloth running shoes with thin rubber soles were the only type we knew.  And even as the surfaces would change — as I would change my continents — the thin-soled shoes remained my favorite choice:  In the gravelly passages of Central Park, and the dusty hills of Southern California.  

Other times, I would look ahead.  It was best to do so on an open track.  I wouldn’t strain my eyes for a strip of color marking the end of the course.  Instead, I would let my vision get blurry, and I would study the blending of objects in the endlessness of what’s ahead.  Things didn’t matter.  People would be accidental.  So, I would find the empty spaces of air ahead, and look at those.  That’s why running in the fall of Russia’s coastal cities had always been the easiest.  The fog already blurred my vision, and all I would feel was — the change in breath and stride.

I don’t remember being tired, as a kid; and not until the first menstrual cycles of my classmates, did I begin to overhear excuses for not running.  My thin, balletic body was one of the last to be introduced to its new function that made my female contemporaries embarrassed and secretive among each other.  But even when it happened to me, I kept up with my running.  On bleeding days, I would wear longer sweaters and tighter underwear; but the slow, moaning ache in my lower stomach would not matter.  It would change my stride a little:  I would prefer to run lighter then, as if doing a chasse step across a dance floor.  I’d land on my toes, as I would when leaping over strewn blankets on a lake’s bank in my grandma’s village in the Far East, while I myself dashed for the water:  to join other sunbathing kids and to avoid my motha’s strict instructions to put on sunblock.  (But secretly, I hoped that my silly chasse step would make her laugh and shake her head, with bangs getting into her glistening eyes.)

The days of tiredness that would seduce me out of running would happen much, much later.  They would happen in the late mornings of waking after a graveyard shift at a Westchester diner.  A pair of ugly nursing shoes with sole support and splatters of dried foods would be the only visual reminder of the night before.  And the heavy lead-like weight of my calves would talk me out of running.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I’d holler down the hallway with three other doors.

And if the bathroom at the end of it was free, I’d forget about the lead-filled feeling in my calves and make a run for it, while pounding my heels into the carpeted floor.

Much later in my running history, I would begin to study people.  It had to happen in California where exercise is fashion; and depending on one’s routine, we all belong to little clans.  When running with others, it would propel me, out of competition, anger or inspiration.  Sometimes, I’d follow their footsteps like a shadow of compassion:  The sweaty faces of lonesome hikers in the Hollywood Hills, or the bright eyes of those rad people of San Francisco who’d made a life out of NOT giving up.

When running stubbornly, yesterday, I thought of the history of my strides; and then, began trying them on.  At first, I ran tiredly, as if I was back to working my way through college, in Westchester, New York.  Then, I began to push, hitting the ground with my heel (so unhealthy!) — out of anger and never wanting to give up.  The chasse step would eventually take over, and the lightness of it spread up my body, up to my lungs and face.

That’s when I saw him:  A headless man walking slowly ahead.  At first, I thought he may have dropped something to the ground and was now retracing his steps.  But as he continued slowly placing his feet onto the smooth pavement of the quiet neighborhood, I realized he was a victim of arthritis, age, and most likely incredible loss.  He was hunched over so low, I could not see his head, as I ran up on him, from behind.  I slowed down and began following his footsteps.

A pair of khaki shorts revealed his thin, brown legs, covered with sores and age spots.  His shoes were worn out and the thick white socks were pulled halfway up his calves.  I studied his stride:  He dragged each foot ahead, then struggled to gain balance.  Then, repeat.  Stubbornly.

He would much rather have been walking, yesterday, alone and not talking.  I shook off the idea of offering help (this was the time when charity would have been offensive); passed him quietly, and began to run.

Stubbornly.

“Except, Around Hollywood and Western — We Have to Keep Doing It!”

“Oh, but everyone’s got these stories!” a man of tired compassion told me as he heard my saga of homecoming, this jolly holiday season. “I mean, after all,” he said, “this country is made entirely of immigrants!”

I wondered, as I studied his ethnically ambiguous face:  Was he East Indian, a couple of generations removed from his native land and now free from all the confines of his original tradition — to make what he could of it?  It not, how ever did he find his way into my yoga class?

Was he like me:  Tasting all religions in his youth, in hopes of finding a recipe to peace?  Some religious texts had tempted me with their poetry before; others — with their majority.  I’d always wanted to belong, so I kept looking.

Was he, like me, at liberty to pick and choose between the details of his heritage, only wearing it when most convenient for his now American identity?  Did he carry his comedy routines in side pockets:  At the expense of his immigrant and heavily accented parents, he could whip ‘em out at gatherings of curious American friends?  Did he practice the routines on paper first, or did he merely get addicted to the laughter he could cause — and so he’d work them out in public?

The evening city hummed and sparkled outside the windows.  Across the street, I could see a casting space where I had once nearly died of shame by bumping into an ex-lover from a disastrous affair.  He sat in the corner, with his giant legs stretched out ahead, sounding every bit like that one asshole actor who must practice his lines out loud, at full volume, in a waiting room filled with his competition and the rookies from Ohio.

That morning, I had announced official warfare against my acne; and my Hollywood haircut refused to cooperate at covering it.

I saw him first, pretended not to, and thankfully got called immediately.  That’s when he must’ve heard my name; because by the time I had stepped out, he was standing by the doorway.

“I thought that was you!” he said and shifted on his feet as if leaning in for a hug.

Our story was so typical, it should’ve made it into a sitcom about actors in LA-LA:  He wanted a rebound with someone with his ex’s Slavic face — another actress — and I had wanted more.

“No fuckin’ way, American buddy!” I thought.

But out loud, I said, “I’ve gotta run,” and blew my bangs out of my eyes.  He noticed the stampede of pimples across my forehead:  stubborn and multiplying.  “Another audition!  Gotta run!”

“Yeah,” he said, mesmerized by my forehead.  “Yeah.  Definitely.  But let’s do coffee sometime!”

Natalia Vodianova

Everyone’s got these stories, it is true.  My friends had all suffered, at least once, from having used someone for sex, or from having been used.  And then, we’d all scrape up our dignity to have the courage to keep showing up:  to other dates and to auditions; and to the companies of friends, where we readily whip out our comedy routines and force-feed ourselves with laughter.

To be happy here, it takes discipline.  Or some serious delusion. Some of us had had those mental breakdowns that justified our flight from this fucking place.  Others would just have an episode, go home to recover — then return for more.

The ethnically ambiguous man continued:

“I’m going home myself,” he said.  “Can you believe it’s holidays already?!”

The traffic crawled along the boulevard underneath.  Two lanes of it:  one fire-engine red, another — silver.  An eatery at the corner was glistening with Christmas lights; and reflected by the changing colors of the traffic light, its giant windows would take on different shades, at well timed intervals.  With the shimmer of the hills behind it, the city looked so pretty, suddenly.  And standing above the traffic, out of it, I thought to find it peaceful.  But then, I changed my mind.

I wanted to object to my ethnically ambiguous co-practitioner of yoga:

“It’s not your turn to speak, American buddy!”

But he had been carrying on, by then.  He’s got that story, too!

And so:  I listened.

“But You Know: It’s All in a Day’s Work.”

Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those:  A slowly crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, with a book, after a rare discovery that today, you have absolutely nowhere to be.

You’ve gotta earn a day like that.  There is always too much work; work that often works  you — not the other way around.  The work of Gotta.  The work of Must.  The work that should not be rescheduled:  It could be delayed — but it’s gonna cost cha.  So, it’s always best to deal with the work now, for it might go away if you don’t.  People have choices, around here.  They might take their business elsewhere.  So, you say yes — and take the work.

I wish I knew it to be different, somewhere else in the world.  But I didn’t start working until I landed here:  In the Land of Work.  Some call it “Opportunity”.  Sure, it is.  The possibility of that opportunity tests the desire and sometimes pushes the limits of your capability.  But If you seize the opportunity, it becomes:  More work.  The work of Should.  The work of Must.

Perhaps, it’s more desirable work — work you wouldn’t mind doing for free.  Ask any artist:  an undercover poet or the girl musician with purple hair that works in the front of your office as a receptionist (but mostly, she makes your coffee and keep unjamming the copy machine).  Ask a cashier at a framing store or the teenager with dreamy eyes that bags your groceries at Trader Joe’s.  Ask anyone from the army of these tired kids working night shifts at your restaurants:  They know the drudgery of free work all to well.

Some may still have enough gratitude to go around.  If fuels them to keep showing up after a day spent chasing the work.  There is enough passion in them still — to find the reasons to peel on their hideous uniforms every day, right around three or four, when most people start watching the clock for the minute to call it quits.  But the tired kids report to work in which they rarely believe — but which they absolutely must accept until another “opportunity”, for work.

I know one.  I study her bounce around the narrow sushi joint I frequent weekly.  Every night, and sometimes during the weekend brunch, I can see her doing the work.

(Ugh, “brunch”!  If you’ve ever waited tables in Manhattan, for the rest of your life, there is no more dreaded word in your vocabulary.  It’s enough to lose your appetite for “brunches”.)

She’s got a regular name.  It’s sorta pretty, but I always forget it, and I want to call her Clementine, or Chloe, or Josephine.  She is perky, quick and funny, always ready for some improv with a willing customer.  When she appears at a booth, she tends to find a nook into which she fits her soft places like a kitten agreeing to your caress.  But you better know how to touch her:  A slight degree of nervousness or clumsy inexperience — and she bounces off, while waiving the tail of her gathered hair as a woman used to being watched every time she walks away.

Scarlett Johansson for Vogue

“You want — the salads?  Is that safe to say?”

I know for certain that just a register away, therein lies her bitchiness.  She is too tired from the work to tippy toe around me, for her tips.  And I bet she can tear into a man with eloquence and composure even grown women don’t have the courage to possess .  But she is always nice to me, at first; until she remembers my routine — and she begins to flirt.

“Are you an actress?” I hear the booth filled with older men ask her.

They look like they work in production:  There is a certain air of exhaustion, long hours, terrible diet and lack of exercise that I can smell on them.  There is always too much work, for these guys; so much of it, most end up childless or divorced. They are this city’s doctors:  Always on call.  Always ready to take the work.  Because if they don’t, the work might go away.  So, they say yes.

Clementine says yes.  But she shifts, from one foot to another.  The lines of her curves change in a warning that she may let ‘em have it, in case of their commentary about the work she doesn’t mind doing for free.  But thankfully, the men know better than to ask her the civilian cliches of:  “How is that going for you?” or “Have I seen you in anything?”

They do know better; for they have sacrificed their forming years on putting in the union hours — sometimes, for free — in a dangerous bet that the work would pay off later.

Later.  They would build their homes — later.  They would marry nice, patient, pretty girls — later.  

But the work may not have happened later.  The “opportunity” had to be seized right then.  So:  They said yes.  

Now, newly and happily married, or unhappily divorced, they still find themselves chasing the work.  And in the midst of their private miseries, they chase the fantasy of Chloe’s possibility.  Like me, they find her youth titillating.  But it is her fire — that formed in her pursuit of the work — that makes them hope she would stay by their table just a little bit longer.

But Josephine must go:  She must go do the work.  She has to earn herself the “opportunity” to do her other work, for free.  And she has to work enough to earn herself one of these:

A slow, crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, in a tired body, with a book; after a rare discovery that today, she has absolutely nowhere to be, and that her conscience is finally at rest — from all the work.

“My Skin — Is Brown. My Manner — Is Tough.”

There is a spirit, in certain women, that lives so powerfully — it resurrects my own ways.  

I have loved many of such women, in my life:  They are essential to my every breath.

And they always have a special talent for obeying the time clock to my own destiny, whose ticking I often fail to understand.  Still, I seek them, by intuition — whenever in need of inspiration (or, of just a confirmation, really, that I am still getting it all right).

Sometimes, they reappear whenever I have a reason to celebrate.  But only in the most dire of my moments, do they seem to unite, unanimously, and come to the forefront of my days as a magnificent army of undefeatable souls.

There is a woman with her hair on fire:  She lives at a halfway point between the two coasts of my identify.  At any given time of every day, she is an expert at whipping up a meal soon after making love; and as her lovers, we make for one doomed lot because she will not happen to any of us, again.

Instead of breakfast, she begins each day with a party.  At a round table of her restaurant, she often shares a drink with her clients and her staff, late into the night.  She drives fast and laughs for so long, the windows begin to rattle like an orchestra of chimes.  Her fire-engine red lips are never smeared.  And god forbid, she tames her hair into anything more modest.

“When in doubt — be generous,” she says.  “Generous and kind.”  Nothing has disobeyed her love.  And no one — can overcome the kindness.

She is all that:  magnificent, magnanimous, braver than the rest and always in the heart of every love.

To each — her own way. 

An erudite poetess with African hair sends me postcards every once in a while, from the Mediterranean coast where she retreats to rest her skin from the abrasive gazes her beauty attracts.  From a writers’ colony, with wooden cots and tables by the window, she writes to me in stanzas.

“At work,” she’ll say.

And she will mean:  RESPECT.

In her profession, I have known no equals; and in the written word, she is much further than me:  always ahead, as it testing the ground that I am meant to follow.  She is political, on edge, and often absolute.  She is a socialist in success:  Others, she believes, must benefit.

Her people:  They have suffered way too much.  And so, she prowls, proudly:  paving the way, pounding the ground.  And it is worth the awe to see her never skips a step or stumbles.

“TO NEVER APOLOGIZE,” — she has tattooed upon her forehead (and she scribble that on mine).

In stanzas!  She often writes to me — in stanzas, even when writing about the most mundane, like laundry or her lover’s breathing.  And I watch her, moving through the world of men with a grace that is so undeniably female.

To each — her own way.  To each — her own manner.

The woman that shadows all of my most difficult choices with patience worthy of saint:  She has been bound to me by some unwritten, never negotiated rule of sisterhood.  With her, I’m never orphaned.  With her, I’m never-ever afraid; and life — is not unjust.  She is the kindest one I’ve known.  The worthiest — that I have ever loved.

It’s not that she hasn’t witnessed others error.  No doubt, she has seen me lose my own ways, as well.

“Don’t you ever question?” I used to challenge her, in my youthful disobedience.

“Question?”

“I dunno.  Question the purpose?  The faith?  The validity of it all?”

At every significant marker of each year, “God bless you,” she jots down, with a steady hand.  From her lips — and from her hand — these words never acquire comedy or scorn.  To speak the truth.  To call each thing by its own name.  She’s fine with that.  But the cost — alas, the cost — she never loses the sight of human cost.

Once, long ago, her hand had gotten lost in my growing out mane.  She had a mother’s touch.  With her, I’m never orphaned.

“Remember this!” I thought to myself, but all too soon, I drifted off to sleep.

To each — her own grace.

My Kindness, Truth and Patience.

One gives.  Another fights.  The third one — perseveres.

All — in the name of Love. 

“I Was in the House — When the House Burned Down.”

Trembling.  Waiting for clearer thoughts to come in.

Here comes one:

“How is it that I’m shivering in a 110-degree heat?”

That’ll do, for now.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently.

Standing on a street that to a bystander’s eye would appear idillic and “homey”, she wonders about the horrors that could be happening behind the closed doors of these same “homey” homes, with pretty white doors:  the quiet, muffled horrors of domestic violence.

“Beware — of pretty,” another thought comes in.

There is a reason why she has always loathed the sight of the white picket fence:  They reek of false advertisement and broken promises — of broken hearts.  And the heart that break due to the broken promise — takes longer to heal. She is now cradling her heart, in her heaving chest; but it would take her years to learn just how long the healing would take.

Her thinking is fragmented.  If only she could get a grip on this shivering:  If only she could catch her breath.  But the body takes its time.

There is a violence that lives in every body:  A violence that strikes at another — or at itself.  It always comes from the darkest corners of one’s soul and it prefers no audience.  But those whom we love the most often fall victim to it.

So, she is catching herself wonder about the suffering that others endure when love betrays its goodness.  It is much better to be thinking of others, in moments of extreme pain.  Because the end to her own pain — she cannot possibly see from here:  In the “homey” neighborhood that has broken its promise to her and found her homeless, in 110-degree heat.

Besides, the suffering of others should remind her that someone is always having it worse.

“How can it possibly be worse?!” another thought flings itself inside her throbbing head.

The chest is heaving.  The heart is beating fast:  It is not broken yet.

“Do people die — of broken hearts?” she thinks and sits down on the curb to catch her breath.  Is that what happens — in heart attacks?

A Heart:  Attacked.  That would be the name of her cause, if she were to stop breathing right now.

She stares at her feet.  The pedicure on her toes is of her own manufacturing.  She’s had a hand in that.  The chosen color is pink:  They have just passed Easter, on the calendar.  The pair of shoes, that she’s had very little time to peel on before leaping out of the house, are multicolored:  Each strap bears a neon shade.  When she first laid her eyes on them, on a shelf at Payless, she thought.

“When in the world would I wear those?!”

Now.  She is wearing them now.  And in a juxtaposition with her black tank top and blue bicycle shorts, they fail to make any sense at all.  She chuckles to herself:  Yes, she actually chuckles — while shivering — because she is thinking that she must look like a burnt house victim, right now.

And isn’t that what happened, anyway:  Her “homey” home has burnt down on its promise?  It has collapsed on itself, and no matter its false appearance from the outside, behind those pretty white doors and the white picket fence — one can only find ruins.

She shivers and looks over her shoulder at the sight of the house:

The perfectly groomed, neon green lawn — FAKE!

The deceivingly white and pink exterior — FALSE!

The beautiful rotunda window of its office space — LIARS!

A distorted face of a man has been watching her through that window.  She has just realized that.  He is puffy and unshaven, bewildered behind his thick-rimmed glasses.  His mouth begins opening once he notices her looking back.  He is that bug-eyed bottom-feeding fish that outlives the smaller bastards in a shared tank.  The existence of his type is necessary, in nature.  She knows that.  Symbi-fuckin’-osis!  But again, it would years before she sees his purpose in her life.

“GET THE FUCK OUT!” she can lipread on his gaping, bottom-feeding mouth.

“I hope I took my glasses with me,” another thought happens.

That’s when she realizes she’s actually not seeing the man:  She is remembering him, at this very moment.  The brain is taking in the memories:  The bits that it will then try so very hard to forget.

The shivering hasn’t subsided, but it has transformed into an all-over warmth that happens to the survivors of car wrecks.  This is:

The Body:  Coping.

That is the name of her current disease.

No, she wouldn’t die of A Heart:  Attacked.  Not on this day.  Her body has chosen to persevere, to survive the violence.

The shivering is violent.  The body is confronting brutality with its reserve of sudden energy.

This is what it takes — to survive:  To outlive the broken heart.

She wants to go to sleep but then realizes that it’ll be a while; for she has just leapt out of a burning home:  a “homey” home. The thought of anything too far ahead refuses to happen; and strangely calm, she is grateful for that. She thinks no more than five minutes ahead.

Not feeling her own body, she picks herself up off the curb and reaches for the giant black bag packed in the middle of the night.

And:  She.  Starts.  Walking.

It should be hard, in theory, to not know where she’s going.  She’s got no home.  She knows no shelter.

But she is only thinking of one step at a time — and only five minutes ahead.

Gently!  You must handle yourself — gently! — when you survive.

She’s chosen to survive.  It would begin when she starts walking.

Away.

“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!