Letters To The Dead

Who is your audience? That’s an ordinary writing workshop question. But I think it is more common than we’ll admit–dead people. Ancestors, lost loves, dead friends and family, the unborn. Are they listening?
Of course this caught my interest–

MAIZURU, Kyoto Prefecture–Those who want to post messages to the dead can deposit their letters in a “green mailbox” at a Buddhist temple in this western city facing the Sea of Japan.
Anyone is welcome to leave a letter in the mailbox, which stands in the grounds of Daishoji temple in Maizuru’s Kitasui district.
Temple officials don’t open the letters, but burn them in a ritual in a “gomadan” fire altar.
A parishioner who used to be a postmaster donated the pillar-style mailbox about 30 years ago.
The box was installed beneath a wisteria trellis beside the temple’s main hall and was sometimes used as a collection box for offerings as it is near a sacred waterfall and the fire altar.

To read more, click here.

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So…I’m thinking about more memoir. “In Bluebeard’s Castle” will be out next month from Red Mountain–it’s about my dad, gangster and intellectual. “A Hundred Cups of Coffee” launches from Tres Chicas Books in the fall. What’s next to write about? As always, whatever I’ve been avoiding, currently, AIDS, sexuality, San Francisco in the 1980’s, and more.
It’s always an assemblage process. I’m thinking of this piece near the start–if I can connect it.

***

This Island Is Not Real

     The summer I was seventeen I took a fiction writing class at the New School. Every day I’d leave the daycare center where I worked mornings to take the number 84 bus into Manhattan and the subway downtown. On Mondays and Wednesdays I’d take a modern dance class, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it was fiction.
     After class, in the late afternoon, I’d walk crosstown a few miles west to where my boyfriend had a summer sublet in a Chelsea brownstone. This was when that neighborhood, at 23rd Street, was unremarkable and cheap, and where a secretary who was somehow related to someone my father knew had a sad dusty narrow studio apartment that was mostly furnished in a bed up against the only window at the far end of the apartment and a kitchen table. This was just fine with us–me and my eighteen year old boyfriend who somehow seemed much older than me because he was already in college. Really all we cared about was the bed.
     Except for food. He’d cook me strange little hot dinners–experimenting–chops and peas, burgers and onions, not right for the small sweltering apartment but tasty and necessary. What else did we do that summer? I can hardly remember. Once we walked around Wall Street and looked at three tiny overgrown cemeteries, scattered along the blocks like a series of weedy pocket parks, the tilting submerged headstones of Sephardic Jewish colonists unreadable. between the Hebrew and the decay. And we had tickets to several of the Mostly Mozart concerts.
     The fiction class was very disappointing. However, I did not complain–my parents had paid, after all. The instructor, in her thirties, with black hair dyed blacker still, was more Beat than hippie, or perhaps proto-punk. She spoke at length during each class about the difficulties, actually impossibilities, of being a writer. She for example, was forced to support herself by writing the captions and dialogue for comic strips. Then, she criticized our work.
    My final story, the one I had been working on all summer, was set on a mythical tropical island, probably Caribbean. At least, palm trees blew. And in a fanciful addition, flocks of black and white butterflies filled the air, pausing only to mate on the shiny hoods of the cars of the rich. There was a pair of lovers in the story, lovers who quarreled (I can no longer remember the reason) and in the final scene she pushed him backwards off the dock, where he allowed himself to drown. Or perhaps he pushed her? This is a long time ago to remember. But looking back, I do not think that in 1971 I would have written a story in which a man drowned a woman.
     When we went to the Mostly Mozart concerts, we left directly from the apartment. I had a blue and white dress of a soft slinky material, and I had to ask my boyfriend to zip up the back. I added a long strand of white beads I’d borrowed from my mother. The beads were tiny, making a shimmering rope. I saw myself in the mirror in the blue dress, with my boyfriend zipping me up, and I wondered if this was the first scene of many like it, stretching out over a lifetime.
     The teacher hated my story. She felt the setting–my favorite part–was unrealistic and unconvincing. Butterflies do not mate in a trade wind. Men born on islands do not just drown. Where was the grit, the poverty, the fried plantains? THIS ISLAND IS NOT REAL she wrote in bold black letters across the first page of my story.
     I went to a different college from my boyfriend and then I broke up with him. I married a man who had once hunted octopus off a dock in Key West simply because he was hungry. We were married for thirteen years and then he died, leaving me a can full of pens and sharpened pencils in which there was also a tiny two-pronged utensil–a lobster fork. Meanwhile my boyfriend had hitchhiked…but who cares, this part of his past is not in this story. Anyway, I married my old boyfriend and am his wife to this day.
     This island is not real.  Manhattan is an island. I’d walk crosstown, past the discount shoe bins and the lively crowds of people of all nations–Haitians, Puerto Ricans, east Indians. The big Greek selling slices of lamb off the steamy rotating grill called me sweetie as he handed me a simple sandwich–meat and pita bread–wrapped in a thick slice of paper. I loved the walk, between the mean fiction teacher and the hot apartment.
     This island is real.

No One Does It On Their Own by Miriam Sagan

I was very struck my this thought from Mia Mingus:

“With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.”

https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/

I was just out in my vegetable garden. It is a raised bed, to my waist. I don’t have to bend over. It was designed and installed by several millennials–family members and a neighbor. Part was a gift, part was paid for, all was received with gratitude. It has a great hoop shade design. And now more lemon cucumbers than one household can eat.

My parents had a rugged individualistic attitude towards life. They often rejected help from their own children, and certainly never depended upon friends or neighbors. I found this attitude exhausting.

Many years ago, when I was suddenly widowed and was raising a six year old child, I realized abruptly that although I tended to see myself as the giver I was now about to start taking–maybe without an end in sight. People did some amazing things for me–my pride was easily overcome by my admiration for both their caring and inventiveness (Who knew I needed a large homemade raspberry cheese cake? Or to have my daughter taken for a camel ride? Not me).

In terms of disability, although I’m grateful to the movement for existing I can’t identify completely. Abortion on demand and death with dignity are things I firmly believe in, and the disability movement often opposes these. I’m not about to debate these issues here, just to say they are the backbone of my social beliefs that I’m not interested in modifying. I try to show respect for other beliefs, and hope that feeling is mutual.

That said, I truly appreciate Mingus’s thought we don’t have to strive to be totally self-reliant. This isn’t just about disability, it applies to community, artistic endeavor, and more. Anthropological thinking suggests we need a group of 40-150 people just to survive. And maybe twice that to find unrelated mates. There is a mystical Jewish belief that we reincarnate in groups the size of a small village. I’m always looking to recognize my soul mates so I don’t have to go it alone.

Opening my eyes at 72 by Cheryl Marita

Opening my eyes at 72These past posts have made me think about the idea of bucket lists, and how they focus on living.  And today I accepted a challenge from a friend to join Yoko Ono in her “Cleaning Piece III” – try to say nothing negative about anybody – for 3 days, for 45 days, then for 3 months.Does this include me?  Does it include politicians?  Does it include people I work with?  I imagine the circle spiraling.  Outward to include more people, inward to give me strength to be quiet.So here I am, thinking about a bucket list of endeavors that take me more inside than traveling to the Galapagos.  A bucket list that will challenge me to grow as I age.  Slowing down like a turtle in my life may be more productive than rushing to see one in the wild.Slowing down is what my interactions with patients tell me everyday.  Bearing witness to myself and others insists that I slow down.  Certainly, discussing hopes and wishes for end of life with a fifty year old, a ninety year old, a thirty year old all deserve softness and time.   And being quiet is part of slowing down.  Having time to think, respond, reflect.Urgency, accomplishments, checklists, twitter, texts all demand quickness in response.  Sitting silent with patients as they mull over information demands slowness in response.  It requires respect for the process, for the life that we are sharing at that moment.I think this is at the top of my bucket list at 72.  Slow down so I can share a moment of intimacy with my patients, slow down so I can not respond in haste with a negative comment about a person (even a politician or a president).Takes me to a thought I want to ponder this week.  From NIMO in the “Gratefulness” blogWe arrive empty handed and leave empty handed.  So then, how do we want to spend the time in between? Even this blog has slowed down as we amble towards our goal of advanced directives, of discussing with family and friends our thoughts about end of life care.  I think I will play the “Go Wish” game this week.  It’s a slow game, and it will help me add to my bucket list and help this blog bear witness to our contemplation.https://morselsofmarita.com/

How I Learned About Evil

How I Learned About Evil

There are things I like to write about—sex, death, love—and things I’ve had trouble writing about—being ill, my father’s gangster family. And then there are things I haven’t written about properly at all. I’ve made stabs, little forays, attempts. All have failed.
These things are connected, I realized, when once more I tried to address them. They all happened in the 1970’s. They all happened to other people—I was a bystander. They have overlapping casts of characters. And at the heart are some secrets of mine. Or, if not exactly secrets, things I have trouble…writing about.
Actually, they are about sex, death, and love. And evil.
Now, I live in a household when 50% of the people (my husband Rich) do not believe in capital E Evil. I probably mostly believe in the Jewish concept of the “evil inclination” as opposed to the good. I don’t think of evil as a personified force walking the earth (a traditional enough pursuit for the devil, though).
And when I say “evil” I see it through the lens of my own experience and society. I see it as racism, fascism, and violence. And I am willing to try and touch on one of these difficult to write about topics.
When I was twenty years old, someone I was close to lost her extended family in one night of the “dirty war” in South America. I’m not ready to elaborate and have the privacy of others to consider. Let me just say that decades later when I walked into SITE Santa Fe’s show on The Disappeared and saw the flag of Chile made out of human femurs, I blacked out.
As a result of the murders of the family by fascists I also witnessed the single greatest heroic act I have ever been close to. An individual, essentially unsupported by law or government, went into terrifying hostile territory to save some children who had miraculously survived.
As I begin to write about this, here and in my notebook, I see that I veer into fiction. A few details change. The narrative becomes more coherent and less messy—essentially less like life. I always experience this process, but here but seems more necessary. I’m not going to write a novel, but neither is this straight out confession.
I was raised to see the world as a terrible place. My father could mention Hiroshima and Auschwitz before breakfast. In many ways, I had to leave the east coast and go to California to learn that the world was also beautiful. In my family, the beauty was a secret, kept apart. I suspect that we were the reverse of others, who kept evil the secret.
This leads me to our current day. I may be easily upset, but I am not easily shocked. I could try and ignore my father’s obsession with the past, but I could not ignore what I had experienced, even if it was indirect. Actually I am grateful that I have spent my adult life trying to accept, explore, and understand both sides of our reality. This is not the time to stop.

Chapter 1,000 in The Mama Saga by Devon Miller-Duggan

Chapter 1,000 in The Mama Saga

When I left the house to have an early morning mammogram, I checked in and she was lucid and fine. When her aide arrived half an hour later, The Mama was lucid and fine. She was fine when I came home. She was fine until sometime around noon when the aide sent my daughter up with the message that The Mama was having a stroke. My daughter clearly thought one of them was being dramatic (both are maybe prone to that, and since TM has both dementia and 50+ years of MS, we can’t always tell what’s going on). But the aide, who is wise and has seen a few things, was correct. So I stuck an uncoated aspirin under TM’s tongue and called an ambulance. Dithered a bit about whether to have her taken to the Level 1 Trauma ED, where I have had a number of pretty non-happy experiences that went on for hours and hours, or the Level 2 to which I usually take her because it’s fast, nicer, and reliable. Went for Level 1, partially because that’s the hospital that has a floor dedicated to the Hospice outfit that we’ve had good experience with. It turns out that being a critical case in a Level 1 is an immeasurably different experience than being a mere kidney stone or busted something or other. Other than to say that from beginning to discharge, every human we had contact with was operating at peak humanity and peak competence, I’ll spare you the details. What was interesting was The Mama. First, in case you ever wondered, no matter how entangled/close/intimate you might be with your loved one, when they super-focus on you pleadingly in the ED and repeat “NO, NO, NO…” over and over, you will probably not know what they are saying “no” to. “Don’t let me die,” “don’t let them take me away from you for a CT scan,” “I am damn well NOT having a stroke,” and “let me go; no intervention” are all among the possibilities, and aphasia pretty likely will make it impossible, absent a Vulcan mind-meld, for you to tell what you are being asked to do or not do. This is the point where I offer a public service suggestion: you cannot possibly imagine how important it will be to have a legal directive and a POA with you, because the ED is definitely not the place to figure out that stuff, let alone have to make guesses or judgement calls. Because no matter how good you are in an emergency, you will be dumb enough to ask a neurologist you will later find out is an MD/PhD whether he has any experience with MS, and that is no predictor for good decision-making.

Back to The Mama. It was a monster arterial clot. Since, unlike invasive interventions, are on the table, I okayed TPA but no transfusions should it cause a bleed. It worked like whoever invented it dreamt it would. She was better 15 minutes after they administered it. Which meant we were back to her normal cycle of mild aphasia followed by periods of clear speech, followed by milder aphasia-Lather, Rinse, Repeat. There were three interesting bits: the first was when she spent 20 labored minutes trying to get out a sentence that finally formed into “I don’t want anything to be wrong with me that will affect anyone else!” Since this is about 8 hours after she’s been admitted and I am several flavors of gonzo-tired/wired, my unspoken immediate response to that was “too late for that one, Mama!’ But I did what you do and kissed her on the forehead and said “I know. It’s okay.” The second happened shortly after that. She’s gotten super-sensitive to discomfort as the dementia has progressed. She has a particular animus for BP cuffs and pretty much always looks at me like I am feeding her to a dragon when a nurse pumps the cuff. Having spent much of the day fretting at it, she suddenly figured out that she could slip it off, so she did. And then spend a good 2 minutes giggling maniacally. That was both hilarious and disconcerting. I was glad my daughter was there to see it. Otherwise the whole family would have accused me of hyperbole later… And the third interesting/revealing/weird moment was during one of the every-20-minutes neuro-exams—the verbal part. It went sort of like this:

Nurse: What’s your name?

TM (giggling and twinkling her eyes): Devon.

Nurse: Do you know where we are?

TM (still twinkling): Devon

Nurse: What’s your birthday?

TM (twinkling and bobbing her head happily): Devon

Nurse (with infinite patience): Do you know why you’re here?

TM (serious now): Devon

Nurse (giving up, looking at me quizzically): Well, that was interesting.

My Daughter (looking sympathetically at me, talking to the Nurse): You have no idea.

Me: blank, blurry “save me” stare at the ceiling, then nod to nurse, who then seamlessly moves on to the physical part of the exam and pretends she didn’t just witness that. I figure that the nurses in the Neuro-ICU probably see lots of weird interactions.

So here we are back home and back to what vaguely passes for normal. The world inside my house certainly runs in extremes. On the one hand, I started sobbing while carrying a basket of laundry upstairs this morning. Not a big deal—I suspect this will happen off and on for a few days. But my 19-month-old grand-daughter, who lives here and was behind the gate in her parents’ living room about 20 feet away (her parents were talking about job hunting and didn’t hear me—I wasn’t very loud) heard me and came over to the gate, leaned her head against it and started chanting “Oma, Oma, Oma!” until I took a nice deep breath and told her I was okay. Then she went back to stepping on all her noisiest toys while her parents were talking. Like a toddler should.

Say Good-bye To Something by Isabel Winson-Sagan & Miriam Sagan

Say Goodbye to Something

Goodbye to the self that I never really was, to my false future, to dreams unmet that were replaced with better dreams. You were great dreams and schemes and plans while you lasted- I was going to go to grad school, get a Scottish boyfriend, and be lonely and miserable far from home. I was going to go to Black Mesa and herd sheep and be in a lot of pain from sleeping on the ground. I was going to be an academic, isolated in an office, moving every year, mildly unfulfilled. Thank you, imperfect and flawed dreams of mine, that were replaced with healthier alternatives. Thank you for your sacrifice, alternative timelines. And good-bye for now, until you surface again in thought, reminding me of how much better off I am without you.

IWS

***

say good-bye
to my inheritance
to wanting something
money, love, approval,
a glass honey jar
shaped like a hive
it made me feel close
first child of my mother and father
to be promised
“you can have this when I die”

thank you, grandpa George—
we used to say that
paying the bill
at the nice Chinese restaurant;
he’d left us all money
and we spent every penny
even when the tax accountant
yelled at me
from Miami
for being a hippie

and so I’ll say
ciao, adios, I hope
we don’t meet again

I now possess
all I’ll ever inherit:
fear, a crooked smile, a fedora
what my father called
“the Yankee dollar”
what now seems just a breeze
in the evening
from land to sea.

MS