Tuesday, May 10, 2016

My scarf inhabits me

I lost my scarf somewhere between NY and Albuquerque. When I realized it was gone, it hit me hard; I've had that scarf since India 2007, wore it almost every day through CA winters, NY visits, kids’ graduations, in all my travels. I always had it by my side. It inhabited me. It was my security blanket; it kept my head in place.

my scarf holding my head on

My daughter says forget it! It's over! Maybe it's a lesson in acceptance, that it’s gone, that I can’t get it back, that I was distracted, and in that moment of looking away, it disappeared. But I can’t accept that I can’t change that outcome. I can’t move beyond wanting back what I’ve lost. But it’s gone. It’s gone. And no going back.

In NY, people walk around the city talking to themselves. I suppose in LA they’d do the same if they walked....but when you’re on the street in NY you find people staring straight ahead, gesticulating, talking to some unknown; or bobbing their head up and down to some distant music. 

This is something new, this talking and listening into thin air.  Along these lines, I noticed too that no one reads the newspaper on the subway anymore, no crossword puzzle to solve, no annoying person leaning in to read over your shoulder. Now people are looking at their phones, sitting in their bubble, bobbing and smiling to themselves.

Although the New York I once knew is not totally gone, it’s hard to find among the shiny new stores that have pushed out the mom and pops, the climbing new buildings that totter uneasily against the skyline, the fixed up parks, the swept up sidewalks, even the dirty, last-century buildings in Alphabet City have been pressure washed. Where are all the crazy drug dealers, the agile jugglers, the young, hopeful folk singers in Thompkins Square Park? Now you see families, spreading blankets, having picnics on the ground!  

I had breakfast at B&H on 2nd Ave, and am happy to report that at least there, the old is still true to itself. The challah bread is piled high on the counter, the home fries on the grill. The cook sips the soup, endlessly dipping her ladle to make sure there’s still enough salt, her hair in a net so we don’t get any strays, the big metal pot boiling up behind her. 

Young men come in on their breaks and order pancakes and chew the fat with the guys behind the counter in a language of the east shore, a tough guy vibrato, calibrated for ears that have gone soft from all the noise and the traffic.

They josh, they eat piles of potatoes and pancakes, they ask about the wife, they come to collect the rent (excuses are made), they’re there for the first time and are accepted...while I sit wondering how I can join this club. Admit it, I say to myself, you can’t join. You live in LA now, not the LES. You can't go back. 

But when I walk down 2nd Ave, my old stomping ground, oh, how happy I am to be here for awhile in the land of the everyman and everywoman, the land of the rapidly changing facade, the land where the young still go to reinvent themselves, where newcomers come lugging hope; the land that doesn’t ask much, but takes everything.

Friday, April 1, 2016

On the Rocks

I’ve got bills to pay, I shouldn’t be writing, I shouldn’t go down to my studio to paint either, because once i get into my studio I’m gone. Gone from paying, gone from time. I keep shuffling the pile of bills from one room to the other, as though a different atmosphere might induce me to open the mail. It doesn’t. 

I keep shuffling myself from room to room, too, hoping this downcast mood might change. It doesn’t.

In yoga yesterday the teacher said to open your heart and image something beyond yourself, something you wanted, although I admit I wasn’t listening closely and don’t remember exactly, but suddenly the Tree of Life appeared, in a Rousseau kind of jungle, but nothing like Rousseau. It was the monkey puzzle tree, twisted branches and all my loved ones were there: my mother and father, my old dogs Reina and Ghostie, my old rat, my cats looking up, Mekko and Maya, Tom, all tumbling around in that tree that is life. I could imagine it so clearly, and this morning, I purposely walked passed the monkey puzzle tree—the only one on the hill—to make sure nobody was in it. 

The dream was this: Tom in a checkered shirt. (His shirts are always so important to the dream; last time I had a series of Tom dreams, his shirts were red.) But this was checkered, a good looking shirt. We were stuck in a motel, waiting for Maya, but before that we were stuck in a murky pool of water sealed off by rocks and in front of us was the river to the City. Fast currents. But we couldn’t get over those rocks, literally stuck on the rocks, to where we had to go. And then some young swimmers came by and told us it wasn’t so treacherous, we should try, but instead we went back to the motel waiting until Maya came.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


(This is the last story of a 3-part series that came randomly and never quite got finished during the time period allotted. But since I'm the time keeper, who's counting? These tales appear in a place where Jews and Muslims were once neighbors, sharing many of the same customs, the same stories, the same land.) 
During a long period of unsettled, buckling ground under my feet, I found myself dreaming of traveling far from home, a pilgrimage to distant lands.  All my imaginings were leading me to the Maghreb— Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia. Although I'd only been to Morocco once, it felt like i had traveled across North Africa, the whole of it, before. Maybe the influence of the writings of William Langeweiesche in Sahara Unveiled, or the romanticism of Rimbaud when I was young. Or maybe it was the story my uncle told about his service during WWII—a Jewish guy from segregated Louisville, leading an all black troop from Marseille to the port of Algers, marching across North Africa for the Allies.

But maybe it was none of these things, maybe it was my own terra inferma taking me away.

On my pilgrimage, I would go to the capital of Algeria first, to ride the new subway line in Algiers. From the moment i heard about the subway I needed to see it, to be there underground, speeding through the city from hai el badr to el harrach centre, 4 stations, I would stop at each one. 

And, of course, I would look for a guide. Who could possibly understand the complicated routes of a foreign subway system without a trusty guide? 

Next I would travel to Tunisia and camp out until the ancient Jewish festival of Lag BaOmer began on the Island of Djherba, where one of the last Jewish communities in the Arab world remains. Rumor had it the festival had been canceled, too dangerous for Jews, the Muslim population no longer hospitable; ships full of Israeli tourists sent back home. But in planning, I found the festival goes on. I wanted to be there.

The conservative Orthodox community of Djerba and their approach to girl's education is almost identical to conservative Muslims in that part of the world: girls not offered an education past primary, trained to be wives, kept confined to the home. My god, how similar these two religions are; don't they see it? They are the same story!

After Tunisia to Morocco. 

First, I'd walk in the old section of Fes-el-Bali, down Nougat Alley, eating soft pink nougat candies,

down Tanner's Row where i would finally buy a purse. Afterwards, I'd visit the Dar-el Ghalia to see if Omar Lebbar were still alive.

Most importantly, I'd look for our guide Mohammad who had been our bulwark in Fez. 

Without Mohammed we would never have found our way. He told us he'd discovered 2 British girls once, lost and crying in the middle of the medina, there for days, walking around in circles, not being able to find their way out. (If you've ever been to Fez, you know Mohammed wasn't lying!)

Traveling to North Africa would be my personal Hajj, my spiritual renewal, my moral passage, my life's... 

But then I woke up. 

I looked around and realized I didn't want to leave my home, or spend all my money on such a frivolous trip, or fly 36 hours across the world.... alone.

So that was that.

Or was it?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Last Night

(Here's another one, for the 8th and last night of Hanukkah, a story from an old journal that could have happened yesterday.)
When We Finally Arrive.

We were warned against it, a Muslim country, too risky, especially with the kids. In the end, despite everybody's warning, we went anyway. 

It was May 2003: 14 suicide bombers attacked Casablanca, killing 45 people, including 12 of the jihadist. Three Jewish sites, a Spanish restaurant and a 5-star hotel were bombed Salafia Jihadiaan offshoot of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, claimed responsibility. Out of the 100 people who were injured, 97 were Muslim.

Two months later we're on the road, driving along the highway that borders the Rif mountains, in a Peugeot 206. Mohammad our driver has assigned me the tight back seat with the kids, while Tom sits with room to spare in the front, talking man to man with Mohammad

Not that Mohammad doesn’t also talk to me: “Whatever Madam wishes,” he says repeatedly, becoming his mantra for the next four days. But he does make a point of letting me know that a women has her place, and for right now, until we get to Fes, mine's in the backseat of the Peugeot. As I look out on the olive tree studded countryside, I put the warnings of our friends on the back burner, and concentrate on my cramped legs instead. 

The Mellah 

We've just been dropped off in the mellah, the Jewish section of Fes, looking for the Cimetiere Israelite de Fes, adjacent to the Royal Palace. Before our good and faithful guide Mohammad drives away, he points down the road and says, "It's there." But where?

We find the cemetery door partially hidden behind a guy selling CDs, with the instructions, like in a fairy tale, to ring 3 times. We ring as instructed and wait. And wait. Finally the caretaker arrives and opens the door with the intensity and ferocity of a lion. He has the skin of one too, brown and leathery with a scar running down his face

At one time there were 1400 Jewish families and 38 synagogues in Fes, but after WWII, like other places, Jews went into exile. Maimoun Gabay is the third generation of caretakers to tend to this ancient cemetery and he tells us Jews are still being buried here. Twelve thousand whitewashed graves, lying above ground and rounded off like logs of goat cheese, spread out before us.  

As we walk through the maze of graves, Gabay points out descendants of Maimonides from the 16th and 17th century.  

As you may recall from your Jewish history lessons (hah!), Maimonides was a brilliant philosopher, astronomer, physician, rabbi and Torah scholar, a polymath responsible for writing the basic tenants of Talmudic law.  

(The scholar I mentioned in my last post said that Maimonides moved from Fes to Egypt with his entire family and doubted very much any of his descendants were buried in Fes. But I object: I saw their goat cheese graves with my own eyes!)

As we get ready to leave, Gabay lets us know the only way the cemetery will continue into the future is through donations...like ours. To be honest, it's hard to imagine Jews have a future in Fes, but we reach in our pockets, then say goodbye.

Tall Shadows 

It's our last night in Morocco. We'd planned to go out on the town but decide to spend it at our riad, the palatial but homey Dar el Ghalia, in the heart of the old city. The courtyard, with its 8-sided star shaped fountain, is an island of peace and tranquility, and the intensity of the Medina slips away. Hassan brings us tea.

At dusk we climb the steps up to the rooftop garden to have our meal. Here, all of Fes-el-Bali opens up before us. The mechanical call of the first prayer, slowly revving up like an old 78, travels from minaret to minaret across the landscape.  

Children play on the roof top of the building across the way, dancing to loud music on the radio. It's hard to tell exactly what I'm seeing, if it's the children themselves who are dancing, or their tall shadows cast against the wall instead

Our meal finished we rest against the comfy pillows and soak up the mystery of this medieval city and its people. I think about the owner Omar Lebbar, who grew up in the Dar el Ghalia, with 60 siblings and servants, all living under one roof (his grandfather had three wives). Now, there is only Hassan, his helper, and the four of us. Business is bad, Lebbar tells us. Americans no longer travel here. Since 9/11 and the bombings, his business has been decimated. We can attest to that: we're the only guests we've seen all week. I can't help but wonder, is it reality, or only tall shadows that we fear? (July 2003)

The End

Happy Hanukkah Everyone!