Midnight Confession

My cousin Hazel is eleven years older than I, and until I reached my 20 something’s was one of the women I most admired. In my junior high school eyes, she was the epitome of chic sophistication, a secretary who for a few short years had left our small western Pennsylvania town to work in Washington D.C. It was there she learned how to smoke Parliament cigarettes with élan, walk confidently in high heels and wear White Shoulders perfume, her signature scent.

I remember her walking into my parent’s neighborhood coffee shop after Mass one spring Sunday, her stiletto heels clicking on the tile, her brown hair in an Audrey Hepburn pixie cut capped with a small veiled hat and her working girl hands demurely gloved in white. She was petite and pretty and laughing and to my mind irresistible in her femininity which was why I could not understand her spinsterhood – for at 26 she was a spinster by our Italian measurement of seasons.

That day was nearly 50 years ago and during the intervening years both of us have walked our different paths – she to stay in that small Pennsylvania town surrounded by generations of Italian relatives, and I an emigrate to distant California with its anonymity and possibilities. We have kept in touch, more in these later years than in the earlier ones.

Hazel is now in her mid-70’s and in her call last night related to me how she had broken her leg after falling from a step stool. Like a tourist listening to a travel agent, for she had always preceded me on our journey, I heard her story about home health visits and dozens of pills and doctors visits and physical therapy.

Just as we were saying our goodbye’s something was said, I don’t remember what, that prompted her to say how she had been listening of late to a local radio station that played ballads from the 40’s and the 50’s, all the old love songs sung by all of the old Italian crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Perry Como.

She said she listened to those old songs and cried and remembered a young man she had loved named Bill. They had met in their mid-20’s and dated for four years until, one day, he was transferred to California by his employer. Bill contined to see her when he came home on summer vacations and at Christmastime but the rest of the year he was silent – no late night phone calls or occasional letters.

Finally, at 33, Hazel met the man she was to marry, an verbally abusive alcoholic who would, little by little, make her life a misery. And so the step from which there would be no return was taken and a letter sent to Bill to inform him of her coming marriage. There was no reply from this distant man.

A few years later, Hazel ran into Bill’s sister, a woman she knew but slightly who, after courtesies were observed, mentioned as she turned away, “You know, Bill was going to give you an engagement ring on his next visit.”

It is this sentence that now runs through her head as she sits up listening to old love songs in an apartment all alone. Before hanging up she added she had never before told anyone this story of this secret love and I felt honored by her midnight confession.

Was it true? Had he planned to marry her? Should she have waited just a few more months? Or, would she be waiting still? How I wished Hazel had been braver that day he said he was leaving, thrown herself into his arms and wept, declared her love and risked rejection. Or, before that final step into marriage taken, gone to California to see him one last time. But Hazel, like so many of her generation, was raised to be demure not bold.

When we look back over our lives, it seems a straight line from where we were then to where we are now, an inevitability of chance and choice. But all lives have what-if’s and might-have-been’s that visit our imaginations when we are all alone. If only, we say, we knew then what we know now how different our lives would be – or would they?

Cat Walk

A stray cat adopted me several years ago and allowed me to feed her. She had arrived exactly one week after I had had to put my 12-year old Roxanne to sleep. Although I still had Mimi the Siamese, the stray must have sensed that our home had a feline deficiency syndrome. The stray had a remarkable resemblance to the recently-departed Roxanne, long silky hair with tortoise shell coloring and a no-nonsense attitude towards life.

I named my new dependent Mitzi, feeling that the ‘z’ reflected her honed edge and spiciness. It was many months before she would actually eat in the house, preferring instead the spot by the door that gave her a 360 degree view of her environment. She always ate quickly with a predator’s ferocity. Mimi the Siamese, whose forays into the outdoors were now quite limited, gave Mitzi a wide berth and her blue eyes shot out dark, piercing looks.

The other member of our household was Miss Emmie, a lovely, mild-mannered shepherd mix who had long since learned the ways of cats and knew to show the proper respect. Every morning Miss Emmie and I would go for a short walk around our condo complex and it wasn’t many weeks before we were joined by Mitzi. Emmie always made a lot of stops to investigate intriguing smells so our rate of travel was leisurely.

It was soon apparent that Mitzi had a special affection for Emmie and would walk beside her, winding in and out and around in a cattish way every time the dog would make a sniff stop. Mitzi rubbed her face in Emmie’s fur, watched observantly when she peed or pooped, then sniffed the spot before we moved on. After a while, neighbors started to notice our little procession – Emmie on a leash in the lead, Mitzi circling around and I bringing up the rear. “Never saw a cat go for a walk before,” was the typical observation, followed by much head shaking and smiling.

And so the years went by, one by one. Early one summer, Miss Emmie grew too tired and too ill to stay with us and I had to make the decision all pet owners dread. Our little world was diminished and for several days no walks were taken. When I resumed my morning stroll and called to Mitzi to join me, she looked around as if searching for our missing member and on not seeing her, declined.

I walked alone for many weeks until one day Mitzi joined me. Being a cat she did not crave exercise as a dog does, nor care to venture far out of her territory. Without Emmie’s sniff stops to slow me down I wanted to move faster and go further so an accommodation was reached between Mitzi and I. She accompanied me on the short walk to the edge of our complex and I proceeded on a brisk walk around the block.

When I returned I would find her waiting where I had left her, her tail twitching in annoyance and her brow sternly furrowed. Chirrup-like meows erupted as I approached. She rose at my approach and soon her majestic tail swayed in the breeze as she turned to lead me home.

Little Books

There used to be a time when I would search out big, fat books; books that would take a week or even more to read; books that would admit me to their world and quietly draw the curtains around it while I lived within its dream. But now, as I am older, I find most big books tedious and seek out the small, short, thinner volumes for these I know will most likely come to the point, say what needs to be said and depart like a friend who knows when it’s time to leave.

I search out these smaller books on the library shelves. Before I used to go to the fiction or non-fiction or mystery books sections and look for favorite authors or intriguing titles. Now my eyes scan the shelves for the little ‘cousins’ and ‘maiden aunts’ hidden between the upright, study spines of more responsible and weighty family members.

These smaller books are like haiku. More than a short story but less than a novel; more than a sonnet and less than an epic, they glide with grace over thoughts and emotions, dipping deeply enough to evoke a response but lightly enough not to be tragically morose or extravagantly dramatic.

I have also eschewed novels about passion and desire; about struggle and revenge. This, I’m sure, is a direct result of my aging. Those emotions and motives do not have the allure they once did, either as an instructional treatise or as entertainment. I do not care to read or experience second hand the emotions of love lost or found; or desire thwarted or fulfilled, for I have come to realize that neither state is preferable which has certainly removed envy and concupiscence from my emotional vocabulary. Was it Oscar Wilde who said that the only thing worse that not getting what you wanted was getting it?

The smaller book does not have the time or space or energy to deal with these big emotions and big problems but instead focuses more on the mundane and everyday; the people one meets and lives with, the small problems whose solving does not cause sleeplessness at night; the emotions that touch you poignantly, not drain you of  life.

These smaller books also seem to pay more attention to typeface and format. Their covers are less vulgar and attention-getting and more delicate and fine. While you read about the characters in a story, you find you would like to know them; in fact, you may feel you already do. Rather than characters to be adored or feared they are friends to be met and with luck, cherished. The emotions they draw forth are manageable and familiar. They remind one of childhood or good times or even sad times but without the tragedy.

One such story I am reading now is titled, “Quite a Year for Plums,” by Bailey White. One chapter relates the approaching death of an old horse named Squeaky. Roger, the horse’s owner, erects a very large Styrofoam shed out in the field where the horse waits for the end.

“Then, suddenly … she realized why Roger had made Squeaky’s house so big. It was so that when the old horse finally pitched over, there would be room for him to fall without crashing into the flimsy walls of the house, and his last thought in this world would not be one of panic as the Styrofoam panels and poles of the dying house collapsed on top on him.”

A “Gone With the Wind” or the “Fall of the Roman Empire” or a “Harry Potter” could not contain such an observation because those pages would be too big and too clumsy for such a beautiful sentiment. So my forays among the stacks at the local library will focus on the small, dusty and overlooked; in return I shall be charmed.

Dreamtime

I had the opportunity to work with a psychologist in a short “guided imagery/dream therapy” program. The point was to write down what I could remember of my dreams each morning and then discuss them during the weekly sessions.

After the first two weeks I noticed that the division between dream time and awake time was not as sharp as I had assumed. In fact, there was an air of unreality to both states when the attention was focused. The main difference between the two realties was that the awake time had more of a sense of continuity to it. My memory connected Monday to Tuesday; connected this year with last year; with this stage of life with earlier stages. Perhaps it was also a belief in causality that enabled this seemingly seamless transition and connection.

My dream time, in contrast, at first appeared to be disconnected. Each night’s journey seemed to live within its on bizarre environment and operated according to its own laws. Everyday objects had their own meaning in the private symbology of my mind. When is a purse not a purse – why when it is a vagina, of course.

But after writing down my dream memories for a few weeks the lines of a continuity and inner consistency faintly developed. The dream journal showed patterns and arcs of topics and themes. It reminded me of the time, several years ago, when I unearthed all of my earlier diaries and reread them.

Over and over again I read of my battles with love and money and the lack thereof. Year after year I had decried the same problems with monotonous regularity. When I realized that I had not really changed or dealt with these recurring issues over the passage of many years, I was so disgusted – and bored – with myself that I ripped up these journals and threw them away.

I saw the same pattern repeated in my dream journal. There were the same figures from my past peopling my dreams – the same white and black hats bringing happiness or causing chaos. The same issues of lack and fear arose. In fact, I estimated that more than 90% of my dreams were either neutral in emotional tone, or arising out of fear or sadness. Where were the happy dreams? Where were the inner visions of better times and better days? Where dreams the fruit of negative emotions and conflicts?

There were unresolved issues in both my awake state and my dream state. I debated the value of continuing this dream record. Do not the spiritual teachers say that there are three states of the mind; the awake mind, the dreaming mind and finally the conscious mind that views both of the other states? If both the awake and dreaming states are ‘unreal’ what is the use of recording them – as if these states had an intrinsic value and knowledge?

Are not they both “stories?” Are they both not products of the conscious and unconscious mind that develops a sense of identity and continuity by casting the self and the decisions of the thinking mind in the starring role? Which reminds me of a fact, opinion, premise that has been stated about those people who reached enlightenment – that they no longer dream. One of the characteristics, supposedly, of an enlightened consciousness is the “doer” or the identity is gone (or perhaps more correctly, shown to have no reality). If there is no doer, there is no hero to the story, no star to the drama, no need to create a sense of continuity within a state or from state to state.

So should I continue this dream watching? Will it bring me important information; provide me with the fuel for breakthroughs? And, who is this “me” that is watching and wants to know?

A Bird in the Hat

For the second time birds have landed on my hat. It happened like this. I was in the back yard sitting in a chair under the big oak tree reading a book. The noon day sun was hot and to shield my face I put on my old straw hat with the yellow artificial flowers.

Even though deep in beautiful story about life and death, I heard a soft thrumming, then felt a light vibration on my head. A whirl of wings (by this time the mind had researched and categorized the thrum) and then another light dance of bird feet on the brim of my straw hat. I froze.

Delight sped through me. I felt a strange benediction given. My imagination tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together and draw a picture of the event to store in memory. A flying bird mistakes my flowered hat for a garden, alights, is confused by the stoic floral response, flutters in confusion, investigates again, then leaves.

For an instant, or was it two or three, I pretended I was St. Francis. I mentally donned his plain brown robe, held one hand up, fingers pointing upward in a blessing, the other hand providing a perch for swallows. To interact with another species, even if only in the most passive way, brings one into the present. The touch of the Other.

It is the same with the small rabbit who is currently residing in this home, a lapin sabbatical while its owner is away. The rabbit is nearly silent except for the slight thumps her feet make as she hops through the house. Careful and suspicious, it takes many attempts to lure her with carrot and greens to come nearer and be rewarded with a quick pet across her silky back.

The other day I visited to the local animal shelter for I could not longer resist the desire to connect, if only briefly, with a dog. Room after room, window after window, they looked up to see who was looking in. Some in stoic patience continued to remain aloof as if waiting for the parent who would never come; others, clambered desperately at the door to be let out and welcomed by a stranger’s arms. Endurance and optimism – the extremes of life reactions.

One can recoil from the barbs and arrows of humankind and instead take a chance on the less aggressive reaction of animals; or, if even that proves untrustworthy, the gentleness of plants. We all seek for connection, if not from our own kind, from another.