Sunday, April 22, 2018


An incredibly talented writer joins us for dinner. After a hiatus of decades, he is writing again and eager to talk with me about the experience. I admit that it’s been months since I’ve written myself, but the conversation reminds me that once I force myself to face the blank page, the process is comforting and illuminating. I realize too, that my friend is anxious to chew over the writing process with someone who he considers a writer. And that my own life is better when I consider myself a writer too.

Number One Son makes his annual trip home for the Oscars. I dust and change the sheets in his room, fully aware that he will not notice. I look around the home we’ve occupied for over a quarter of a century. After having broken down my mom’s household I try to keep the clutter to a minimum but still, we are jam packed with stuff that we’ve amassed. Will I ever need to buy another blanket? How many of the books on the overflowing shelves will be read? Will anyone ever find the sentimental trinkets that we’ve collected while traveling more than dusty thrift-store fodder?

Many friends are retiring now but I am not in a position to just throw in the towel and collect a pension. It seems that my life has always been a series of things falling together and up until recently I’ve never had to ask myself the daunting question about what it is exactly that I want to do now. While it will likely have little effect on my personal outcomes, the specter of the presidency casts a pall and keeps me on constant edge.

I spend a few days with Spuds in New York and DC. While he works, I join the March for our Lives. I arrive early enough for a spot in the front rows and am able to hear the speakers. There is an inner-city woman who’s lost a child and has mobilized her neighborhood in order to combat gun violence. The grandmother of one of the Parkland survivors reads her granddaughter’s eulogy. Otherwise, the speakers are kids and their words convince me that they will affect change. Charles Schumer marches near me but I miss Paul McCartney. The route passes Trump Tower and a Trump hotel. All but for the flaming torches, we become an angry mob. Marches scream “SHAME!” like banshees as we pass the presidential holdings. Later, I see, via aerial footage, how huge a throng I’ve been a part of.

Spuds has never been to Washington DC and for me, it’s been a while. I bristle when we pass the White House reminded of the vulgar dissembler who's taken residence There is a long line at the National Gallery to pose with the Obama portrait. I note the terse dismissal of Nixon on the card that accompanies his portrait. History will regard the current presidency as an aberration. I hope history comes soon.

I pick up now a piece started last week and left unfinished. It is unusual for me, at least writing wise, to not finish what I start. The black cloud I've been under for a couple of months is certainly seeded by all things Trumpy, but there have been other frustrations. In the scheme of things, these are problems of privilege but recent days have been fraught and attorneys are involved.

In my mind's eye my school is grim. It's the fluorescent lights and my beaten-down-by- bureaucracy cohorts (as they are referred to in the current argot). I also find myself, mid-third trimester going into automatic pilot mode. I wave at the students who were the center of my life a few months ago and for the most part I don't remember their names. Not knowing students' names has always been an embarrassment but knowing that they will be fast forgotten it plagues me less. I am weary of meetings and testing and stupid persnickety shit.

The best memory I have from the previous trimester is a student field trip to the Institute of Contemporary Art. The students are moved by the paintings of Martin Ramirez which depict his journey from Mexico to California jails and psychiatric facilities. The education staff at the gallery are thrilled by my students' response and actually arrange to provide a bus to transport my class to see the current exhibition.

I am concerned that this offering might not be as compelling. Curator Harald Sveeman converts his Bern apartment to memorialize his colorful grandfather. The gallery has constructed a replica of this apartment and fitted it it with Grandpa's possessions. I spend a day with the museum educators trying to figure out how to make this accessible to the students and also, lard in some English language acquisition.

I prepare a Powerpoint about why people create art. And veer us towards memory. I have them think about someone who they've loved and lost. I tell them to write down some memories and also to choose an object that might represent the loved one. A few of the young cool dudes are unresponsive but many of the students submit beautiful results. My grandpa's walking stick. The pan dulce that my mother made. Grandma's embroidery. This grounds them for the assemblage of Sveeman's grandfather's possessions.

In the classroom, and then later at the museum, we use the Day of the Dead altar analogy. I show them altars with bottles of tequila and packs to cigarettes and point out that we don't need to sanitize our memories of those we've loved and lost. The students are fascinated by the objects in the replica apartment. The treadle sewing machine is particularly poignant and something many remember from their grandmas.

Eddie, our bilingual tour guide poses the question about which of our possessions will represent us to our children and grandchildren after we die. I fear that my own kids will be so burdened by the funky clutter that they will feel more resentment than bittersweet nostalgia as they parse through their parent's ephemera. The students sing on the bus back to school and the bus driver gives us little cartons of milk. Next week we will make collages commemorating our deceased loved ones with pictures and include memories written in English.

I sit, rusty at writing and preoccupied with my problems of privilege. My piece is unfinished. I ruminate about what I want to leave for my children and theirs when I cease to be. Often when I'm at my lowest ,one of the kids texts me a funny picture or calls to talk about a movie. Himself finds me articles and never complains about CNN blaring through all of my waking hours. I do feel love but this writing is hard as it's difficult to focus my thoughts on my future and try to ascend from the funk that makes the recent past feel heavy and wasted.

The cats have shredded the upholstered furniture and the dogs have torn the draperies. The paint peels and and dust motes waft through open windows. Growing up on Fulton Avenue it seemed that the house and the Corning Ware, the Naugahyde sofa and the ancient walnut tree would be forever. It's all gone now, mattering only in my memory.

I work designing a lesson for my students that will help them give language to melancholy, love and reminiscence while I struggle with my own words. Number One Son sends me a little movie he's made during a visit it March. He has filmed our house. The Nixon and Eisenhower commemorative plates. The magnet covered fridge. The grapefruit and tangerine trees through the living room window. Spencer Treife, the plastic pig who usually dons a yamulke but somehow ends up with a mortarboard after some graduation, Mom, stretched out on the couch, wrapped in an afghan, glued to TV news. He senses that none of this is forever and he wants to remember,

I would do so many things differently. My future is a giant question mark. My kids are far away. What do I have to show for all of this? There is working and teaching and if I get my mojo back, writing. The comfort of marriage. Pride in my children. A home that will be remembered. I've never dawdled and procrastinated so much in completing and publishing an essay. For years the writing here has helped me make sense and gain perspective and temper that dyspepsia that often surfaces as I navigate the day to day. While it's taken a long time to get here, as I conclude here I do indeed feel better. Recognizing this, I am hopeful that I will be able to return to weekly writing but I don't know if the difficulty of writing this piece will hold more weight than the salubrious results.

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