Crawled my way down the playlist from Max Frost to Natalie Merchant and suddenly I am back in 1997 opening Soundbites Cafe for the early shift, cranking the stereo before the customers come in for their first cuppa joe, hoping for some cathartic release from the grief that comes with a boyfriend who juggles fire, clubs, and women.
I pass Pauline sometimes while I’m out for my lunchtime run near the office. She sits in the front porch shade with her dog and a pile of oranges from her tree, often reading from her bible, or talking on the phone, or talking with the postman who sometimes picks up little grocery items for her.
When we talk, I ask about her hip which needs replacing, or her eyes which are doing much better since the cataract surgery last summer, and inevitably talk of Tony, her husband, the love of her life who passed away a few years ago. They bought this house on the corner in 1971, and together they decorated for every holiday from Christmas to Easter to Halloween. She smiles a lot, but when I ask about Tony, she can't hold back the tears. Last year, the week before Easter, she didn't bother wiping them away as she told me that Easter Sunday was their wedding anniversary, and how lonely she is without him. Every minute, Pauline told me, she misses Tony.
She doesn't get around very well because of that hip, and without Tony she can't decorate, but it's Valentine's Day, and so today she is wearing a pretty red top and cheerful lipstick.
Around the edges of my love for Darby is the heart-wrenching awareness that every thing in this life is temporary, that the magnificent joys of today may be the deep sorrows of tomorrow. What do I do with that? Just the thought of it ties up my belly and nearly chokes me. So today I stop by with Valentine's flowers for Pauline.
Yesterday, my sweetheart and I were in Ventura. In the late afternoon, after coffee and beignets from the little French cafe on Main Street, we walked down to the beach. If you're Facebook friends with anyone here in southern Cali, you probably saw postings about last night's sunset. All day the sky was gorgeous -- clear blue with titanium white streaks of strata clouds and little puffs of cumulus like freshly whipped cream. The air has been very warm lately from the Santa Anas that blew in last week, but in late afternoon, as the sun dipped behind the clouds, we zipped up hoodies and sat watching the 150-ish (we counted, then lost track) surfers bopping around in the waves.
"How would you describe that smell?" I asked.
"Salty, briny," my sweetheart replied.
"Ah, yes, briny. That's the word."
We shifted our gaze back to the sunset, the rosy-colored ocean, the tangerine clouds. Occasionally we twisted to take a peek at the purple mountains rising behind us. Holding hands, we kissed every now and then, cheeks, mouth, hands, and then turned back to watch the surfers and the sun.
"I always thought when I heard the phrase 'crashing waves' that people meant the physical act of the water falling, but now I understand it as sound -- booming, thundering, crashing," I said.
"Yes," my sweetheart replied.
"And the birds," I said. "So many sounds here at the ocean."
"Yes," my sweetheart replied, and kissed me again.
We watched three friends greet each other near the water’s edge, their whippets rushing in and away like kids on a playground. A lone sandpiper danced in and out with the tide. Two ducks flew south, intent on their destination. A man trained a telephoto lens on the horizon, and another couple kneeled in the sand with their cameras on the sun's glow and the silhouetting channel islands.
“Ah! Did you see that?” my sweetheart exclaimed. I’d missed it, but he told me how a surfer lifted up on a wave and spun in the air 360 degrees, and landed upright, still coasting on the edge till the wave died out in the shallows. A few minutes later he did it again, and that time I saw it.
The softness of our gaze outward, the calmness we felt as we bathed in the long moments, our relaxed bodies, these were contrasted by the pointy corners of the two boxes that I knew my sweetheart held in the pockets of his hoodie. We both knew they were there, had together chosen to take them from the navy blue bag with the rust-colored tissue and ribbon handles that we left in the trunk of the car. The boxes, I knew, were charcoal-colored, leather-bound with light grey stitches edging around the top, each enclosed in its own slightly larger black cardboard box. We had come to Ventura today – actually, had originally planned for a week ago, but there was the matter of a rescheduled rehearsal that was later canceled, but then it was too late to re-reschedule our appointment – for these boxes, but now, with our feet tucked into the sand and our faces glowing in the sunset, we pretended the boxes weren’t there, pretended that we had come here only for the most gorgeous of sunsets, that we had driven here to Ventura just to witness mother nature at the height of all her Technicolor glory.
Later, after we asked and said yes, yes, yes, my love, my sweet love, and asked to hear it again just one more time, and once more, laughing and teasing each other, and thank you, thank you a million times for sharing your life and letting me love you and be loved more than I have ever known, after the rings were on our fingers, mine in yellow gold with three diamonds and three little chips that Hugo added of his own artistic vision, and my sweetheart’s in white gold with seven small diamonds in chocolate, champagne, and yellow-green, after we held each other’s hands and reflected again on the perfect artistry of the hammered metals, the simple beauty of the stones, later, after the sun had gone and the clouds had disappeared into the dark night, we drove back down the freeway to Los Angeles for dinner and some wine, happy to keep and hold our joy just for ourselves for one more night, and to sleep in the soft flannel sheets of the house we already share, back door open to the night chill, the cat quietly tapping across the wood floors, our bodies and dreams wrapped together like a present that reveals more facets of its gift every new day that we awaken together.
The other day, while running errands and thinking of Lovember, I passed Vendome, a local wine and liquor shop. Vendome is a few blocks from my house and I drive by every time I head to Trader Joe's, but I've only stopped in once or twice. This shop is interesting because set up inside is a little grass-roofed wine bar. Call me sheltered, but I have never seen another liquor store with a tasting room. I'm not a wine connoisseur - far from it - and have been curious to try out some tastings. As I drove by, I took note of the tasting hours.
Did I explain Lovember? I'm courting my man. Lovember is my dedication this month to take things more slowly. Savor time. Be more mindful in some areas of my life. Lend attention to my love for Darby. Like so many things, if a relationship is to flourish, it must be nurtured. Darby, his love for me, and our relationship together are some of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. Thankfully, I appreciate what I have while I have it, but to paraphrase Hafiz, the one regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I did not kiss my sweet man enough. We've had a busy few months. Now that we're in the savoring, slower, mindful month of Lovember, what better time for a wine tasting? On Sunday, I asked Darby out on a date.
We were the first ones to arrive for the tasting that evening, so for a while we had Smiley, Vendome's Sunday wine enthusiast, to ourselves. He put Miles Davis on the stereo, and as he poured told us stories about his life. Sip, talk, sip, talk. We were having a marvelous time, but I won't bore you with a play-by-play. Actually, after trying eight or ten wines, I don't know if I could. However, I do remember one moment in particular. Darby and I were sitting back, tasting the best Rhone of the evening. We were deep into Kind Of Blue. I eavesdropped on Smiley and some of the other tasters discussing Panama hats. Is there a word for the appreciation of being able to appreciate something?
I bet the French, a culture so steeped in wine, have a word for this. Miles Davis on the speakers, good wine, listening to Smiley's stories and having no need to tell my own.... In my younger days I don't think it would have felt poignant, but lately everything shows its layers, complex and beautiful. If youth is a smile, adulthood is the laugh lines that reveal a person's history. Another regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I didn't smile enough. Perhaps it's from the slowing down of Lovember. Lately I have been rejoicing in time.
Recently, Darby and I sat together enjoying a rare Saturday moment when both kids were settled in with friends and didn't need to be picked up for another hour. The conversation paused for a breath.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, looking at me from across the table.
When Darby tells me I'm beautiful, I listen. I take it in when he compliments me. I press his words into my being like leaves between the pages of a book. I want to hold them for later, but I also want to interrupt the other narrative - the negative one, the one that says I am always on the verge of failure. I've been practicing to linger on the good stuff, and let the critical mind-chatter roll away. Lately I've noticed he tells me I'm beautiful more frequently.
"Am I imagining it?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled. "You're not. It used to trigger you when I said so. You'd resist it. Now you seem to take it in."
Trigger. Nearly thirty years ago I was riding in the car with my mom through our neighborhood, when we paused at an intersection.
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked. I was perhaps ten or eleven.
It was a hard question to ask. At its root, the question is really, Am I likable? Am I worthy? Am I enough for the life that I want? Will life be good to me? Will it open to me, revealing treasures like love and appreciation and comfort? So much hinged on her answer to my simple question. I'm sure every kid wonders this kind of thing.
"Your mother is so beautiful," teachers and sales clerks said to me all the time. It was true. She was in the prime of her beauty just as I was beginning to wonder about my own. She was 5'8" and wore 3" heels. Her eye shadow was purple, her lipstick red, and she got her nails manicured every two weeks by Violet who had two daughters in my school. The answer should have been fast and easy. Yes, you are pretty, she should have said.
"Ana is pretty," she began. Ana was Violet's daughter, and indeed one of the prettiest girls in my grade. "So is Risa," she said, mentioning another girl I was close with. "You?" She paused. "I would say you are more striking."
I didn't know what that meant. I still don't. That day in the car, though, I was fairly certain of one thing: striking wasn't pretty. And if I wasn't pretty, could I still be likable, worthy, and all the rest? It felt like my life hinged on this one question.
I can imagine now how this conversation might seem from her standpoint. In all the years she was told she was beautiful, my mother was also a voracious reader. She was a baby boomer dissident. She was a latent academic who, despite dropping out of high school has now earned her PhD. She got married young, had me soon after, and offset her career aspirations. I was a bright kid with my life still ahead of me. There would be limitless career options looming after college. Perhaps she thought striking was a greater compliment than the commonplace pretty. Perhaps she thought it would keep me safe from making the choices she made. Maybe it was a feminist decision.
As that scene in the car passed through my mind, I knew what Darby was talking about. Trigger. It used to be, when he'd say "You're beautiful", I would brush it off. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd laugh or shrug or make some self-disparaging remark. I couldn't decide if he was saying it out of obligation, or if he really thought I was. Of course now I see how ridiculous that is. After all, the man and I fell head over heels in love. To me, his is the most beautiful face on the planet. I imagine he feels the same about me. But he would tell me I am beautiful and it would stump me every time.
When we live under the spell of not-good-enough, we don its cloak. We hope it's invisible to others, but when someone truly loves us, they see all the layers, and they know that beneath the stories is the true self. They see youth and wrinkles, and the beauty of time. They see our successes and our struggles. 2009 was a good year. 2008 not so much. They see how far we've come, and what it took to get here. They know the tattered edges of not-good-enough, and do what they can to fray it more.
That Saturday I looked at Darby sitting across from me. I didn't know it until the other night, but he has been stealthily tugging at the holes of my cloak. It's a strange thing to realize that sometimes the best way to show love is to hold back. He's older than me by thirteen years. He knows better how to bide time. I'm learning.
At Vendome's on Sunday, as Miles Davis was replaced by Traffic, I let the 2009 wine roll over my tongue. I turned to Darby and said, "I just love being an adult." I was trying to say how much I appreciated everything about that moment, including all the years that came before. Shot through that, I also appreciated my ability to appreciate it. That's the best way I knew how to say it.
This morning, as we were laying in bed listening to the morning awaken outside our bedroom door, I think he may have expressed it better.
"Do you think," he asked, "there's a month of Lovecember too?"
I was taken off my yoga mat the other day mid-class to find my phone and jot down a note. My mat was rolled out in the front row at the far end of the studio room, the furthest I could be from the cubbies where we students stash our belongings. As everyone else lifted up into a warrior pose, I crossed in front of twenty or thirty mats to dig out my iPhone. I couldn't have been more distracting. One of the practices of yoga is clearing thoughts from the mind, but I didn't want to risk losing this one.
That was Sunday, and now it's the middle of the week. In these between days I've felt a tightening, like a bag I keep cinching closed. I've distracted myself with snacks and articles and jewelry designer websites, but like a kitten scratching at the bedroom door for breakfast, as much as I try to go back to sleep, the idea still lingers. There are other ideas too -- integration, which is something I've been thinking a lot about, and Lovember, which is an idea/project/mindfulness practice that I am embarking on this month -- and I'd rather write about them. Alas, Sunday's yoga interruption is the one caught in the bottle neck. Nothing else can come out until this one does. Here, then, is my attempt at loosening this bag, at softening around the idea I've tried to tie shut, at releasing some of the lurking darkness.
There was a viral youtube video that went around a few years ago. It first emerged in 2007. Perhaps you saw it? It was an experiment arranged by the Washington Post for one of the world's most talented violinists, Joshua Bell, to perform incognito during rush hour in a Washington D.C. train station. For one day, the virtuoso was virtually unknown. Spoiler alert: he was mostly ignored.
For here I'm a tad more interested in what happened on Sunday (but you should really read this excellent Washington Post piece about what happened that day in the train station). My sweetheart Darby teaches the yoga class. He's a well-loved teacher, and it's a popular class. Throughout a regular Sunday there is laughter, some groaning, a few f*bombs, a lot of sweat, and occasional cathartic weeping. A sense of camaraderie has developed among the students. We are all human, we are all perfectly imperfect, the class seems to say in a collective sigh. Sundays are less about silent meditation and more joyful celebration.
On this particular day, as we moved through prasarita padottanasana (wide legged forward fold) and some standing twists, Darby talked about awareness. He mentioned the recent Banksy stunt in NYC in which the elusive graffiti artist set up a stall near Central Park and sold (via an unknown gentleman) authentic Banksy prints for $60 - and had only three buyers. Oh, whoops. Spoiler alert.
Darby was pretty much asking us to wonder, how often do we rush by things of beauty, interest, poignancy? How much do we miss? He also mentioned the Joshua Bell experiment. As various articles about this ask, "If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?"
Well, that's a good discussion, if you're considering the viewpoint of the passersby. In fact, more often than not, we are the passersby. But what about when you're the busker?
In fact, this conversation on Sunday hit home because I was the busker. In the mid/late '90s I stood with my guitar on the gusty train platforms and sidewalks of Harvard Square, offering my art to anyone who had the time.
Much like the Joshua Bell event, my busking was also an experiment. I loved writing music. I loved singing. What I didn't like was the gut-wrenching, finger-numbing, throat-tightening anxiety that gripped me every time I stepped on to a stage. I wanted to love performing, and the best way to do it, I thought, was to perform as much as possible. I bought an amp with two inputs for voice and guitar, a boat battery to power the amp, and a bright red dolly to lug it all out to the street in a compact package on wheels.
The good times were when it wasn't too cold, and someone sat down on the sidewalk to listen, say a kind word, or put money in my guitar case. More than fifteen years later I still recall the night a man handed me one hundred dollars - five twenties, actually - and told me to record my songs, and the afternoon one of my local idols, folksinger Catie Curtis, stopped to listen for a few songs. There were times of encouragement, but mostly it was a practice of ignoring being ignored. Joshua Bell and I have at least this in common. When I look back on those busking days, I remember a few people resting nearby to listen, but I mostly remember the passersby.
Until this week, I had almost forgotten that getting over stage fright had been my main reason for the busking. As it turns out, my experiment mostly worked. The anxiety never entirely went away, but it certainly lessened. Yoga helped with the rest. But until this writing, when I've thought back on those busking years, I've mostly remembered them through the lens of failure. It would take a heart of steel to overlook the hundreds of people who never knowledge the music. That's what gripped me the other day in yoga. In addition to Banksy and Bell, Darby mentioned another incident of an overlooked artist: the band U2.
Years and years ago, before U2 was known by anybody here, a friend of Darby's shot a few photos of them. They were performing live at a club in Dallas as the act between wet t-shirt contests. Unlike Banksy and Bell, they were not famous at that time. Maybe they were ignored because they were unknown, or because the club patrons were only there for the other shows. Possibly they were ignored because they weren't any good. The point, I realized, is that it doesn't really matter. What matters is that they didn't stop there. The band didn't let past failures be the measure of their future success.
This is what I had walk across the yoga studio to write down: Do not base the possibility of future success on the memory of past failures. Too often I look at my past in an attempt to predict my future. After all, we are the only case study any of us really have. More often than not, I consider something a failure if it didn't meet the high expectations (and generally short time frames) I set myself. I've looked back instead of forward. I put lack of success on a pedestal and declared it The End instead of resting it on the side of the road and continuing the journey. Too many times, I've rubbernecked disasters instead of keeping my eye on the road.
So here we are. November 1. This is going to be an interesting month. For a long time now I've been looking forward and setting measurable goals. I did get into the MFA program. I did finish the marathon under five hours. I did book the gigs. This month of November I've renamed Lovember. I'm dedicating it to a different sort of growth, one with no measures. There's going to be a lot less rushing around, because Lovember is not about check lists. Lovember is about kindness. Joy. It is about showering the man I love with love, and writing because I love to write.
This Lovember I am keeping my eye on the things I hold at the center of my heart's bullseye, and not letting past failures be anything other than one lens through which to look at history.