I’m walking around the house with my eyes closed by Miriam Sagan

I’m walking around the house with my eyes closed. Here is the reason.

I go for a standard eye exam, but not with my usual doc. Because of missing the annual exams during covid, I am now a “new” patient after 20 years. This just means I can’t get in to the usual doc. So I see a new one (Let’s call this person MD1).

MD1 announces I have age related degeneration. It sounds scary, and it might be, although I have no symptoms. The signs are brand new, MD1 tells me. Then departs the examination. It happens fast, and I am not invited to ask questions.

Although even I—-anxious and hypochondriacal—-realize it is unlikely I am about to go blind, I start practicing. This is not new. I spent much of my childhood with my eyes shut, just in case I lost my vision. I could easily dial the telephone without looking. I also practiced using my non-dominant hand, in case my right hand got cut off in an industrial accident (unlikely in suburban New Jersey after child labor laws, but still…)

As a result, I can stand on one leg for a good long time with my eyes closed. Impressive for a person my age. I can actually do many odd things, but I won’t go into them all now.

I wonder if I should learn braille—-which has always fascinated me. Granted, I’m signed up to learn Sanskrit, but I can change that. Would audio books be enough? I’m really worrying now.

Finally, I decide I need more information on my vision. I call my “real” doc—-let’s call this person MD2. MD2 says my eyes seem perfectly normal, and there is no change since 2018.

Of course this is confusing. One doc must be wrong. But I decide to believe MD2, who has helped me in the past. Plus, neither doc wants to see me for another year in any case.

I hang up the phone with my left hand, and take some barely legible notes with it as well. I’m not quite ready to give up training for…well, something.

Never Check “Other”

I went to get a baseline bone density test and I fell into a Kafkaesque intake.
First off, I have to admit: I am a crazy person in medical settings. I blame the 6 weeks in the ICU and months in the Beth Israel Hospital I spent as a young woman. Or, my personality. Anyway, I tend to lose it.
Intake forms are always a big challenge. I usually just lie. I have never had a drink, an edible, or more than one sexual partner.
This form innocently asked for my race and I checked “other.”
“What are you?” the tech asked. She was a pleasant person I was about to torture.
“Askenazic Jew.”
“They don’t have that. Can you just say ‘Caucasian’?”
Now that is a pretty rude question. Are we not allowed to self identify here? However, I didn’t need to tell her how Jews couldn’t swim in certain swimming pools or go to social dancing parties when I was growing up. But I did.
However, I’m not just insane. If X-ray Center needs me to be white, I can be white.
“Mark whatever works,” I said.
But now she was confused. It seems she wasn’t checking anything. “Your results can’t estimate your fracture risk now,” she said.
At this point even I was confused. Fracture risk assessment needs race. And I was firmly “Other.” Maybe that is why I check that box–the Jew as Other, the reason for the Holocaust.
But I just left it alone.
Turns out, my bones are normal.
It is the whole me that isn’t.

Survival

I was recently very annoyed by something I read. A well-regarded writer, whose family survived difficult historical circumstances, said something like “No one survives by accident.” And went on to say that survival was an act of creativity, intelligence, and will.
I just can’t agree. Of course survival, in holocaust type situations, might be aided by intelligence, but it often seems to be a matter of luck. At least that is what Primo Levi reported. I also once read an account of a “U Boat”–a paperless and homeless Jewish woman in Nazi Berlin. She said she was helped not by good people doing good deeds but by evil people doing good deeds. That kind of moral ambiguity is important to remember.
My grandmother Sadie came to America. Her sister Etrazy stayed behind because her husband was an imprisoned Bolshevik. He was freed, they were re-united, and eventually killed by Stalin. Or was it Hitler? No one knows.
Shall I blame Etrazy for not surviving, for her idealism, her belief in communal solutions? It turns out she was wrong, or on the wrong side of history. Was she foolish, and Sadie smart? I think not. Each was following the twists and turns of her own life as best she could.
In Yiddish we say: ikh’d ala zeyn mazldik vi klug (I’d rather be lucky than smart). To say our survival is not influenced by the random is to aspire to a level of control not given to human beings. To think otherwise is to end up blaming patients for their diseases, refugees for their historical disasters, everyone for their circumstances.
And I’m certainly not going to blame my family members who couldn’t survive. And that in no way diminishes my gratitude towards those who did.

Grandpa George, The Gangster Lepke, and a Platypus by Miriam Sagan

My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.

Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.

My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.

The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.

George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.

One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.

In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.

The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.

A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.

George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.

Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.

This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.

My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.

We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”

I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
***
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.

Tooting My Own Horn

I realized my car’s horn was broken as I leaned heavily on it to signal to the driver in front of me that only a complete idiot would not be taking the left on the green arrow.

Silence.

After that, it took a while to get the car into the repair shop. A time of quiet, at least from me.

Others blare their horns at me, too. I’m incredibly wussy about left hand turns. (I know two people who got hit that way). I dither, I hesitate. People honk me.

You think I’d spare others the humiliation, but no. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

I do know you are supposed to only honk to signal danger. But that is not the world I live in.

Recently I’ve been noticing my inhibition about sharing good things in my life–success, happiness. I don’t exactly hide it, but I’m cautious. My social world runs more on complaining than kvelling. I’m realizing I need to show more gratitude.

Without my horn, I was worried I wouldn’t have it to warn of road dangers. Turns out, self-observation tells me I only use it rudely.

It should be fixed this afternoon. Honk honk.

But Have You Tried Tumeric?

Yes, there is indeed something wrong with me. A somewhat mysterious, rather difficult something. When I was 21, I almost died from what may have been swine flu. My lungs went out. Surgery saved my life and scarred 25% of my torso. I have trouble walking, trouble breathing–all kinds of trouble.
And no–tumeric doesn’t help. However, there are times when passing acquaintances prescribe it weekly.
Maybe it is because I live in a New Age town. Maybe because people are kind (or bossy and butt-insky.)
Some people don’t trust allopathic medicine. It is still shocking to me how much this involves all-or-nothing thinking. Does something have to be perfect for me to engage in it? Obviously not, or I’d never stay married, work a job, have friends, raise children, or live in my neighborhood. Or write or pray or exercise or anything else.
I am sorry to say it, but many things do not have a “cure.” They can be helped, but not completely. My right lung is cloudy and scarred on the X-ray. I know to not panic when a doctor sees it for the first time. I also know not to bother with tumeric.
Not everything has an understandable origin. Many things–physical, emotional, spiritual–are in a gray zone and will remain there.
“Health” has eluded me for 56 years. However, this is not your problem to solve. I’m not going to solve it either. I’m going to treat the symptoms, accept the rest, and never buy into any promotion of ableism. Sickness, old age, and death are not failures but the common human lot. Check out your Buddhism if you feel confused about this.
My experience has helped m a lot during covid. Here is how:
1. I already know my own mortality.
2. I respect killer viruses.
3. I believe in medical science while acknowledging its limits.
4. I don’t expect easy answers.
5. I’m fine thinking for myself while remaining part of the human community.
6. My belief in control is very limited.
But most importantly, I’m used to functioning with fear about my health. I don’t like fear any more than anyone does, but after decades of practice that fear doesn’t rule me, at least not every minute.
What do I like from the world? Mild friendly sympathy. That people realize I actually am an adult, making my own decisions. And I won’t turn down a slice of pie.
But not tumeric.
P.S. Please do not post suggested cures in the comments section!

15 Easy Minutes by Miriam Sagan

Time—friend or foe? I’ve always engaged with it. In the 5th grade, I suffered horribly from boredom and the snail-like pace of time passing, particularly the last quarter hour of the day. The big clock would click and move forward every minute. Every 60 seconds.

School let out at 3 pm. At 2:45 I’d start to watch the clock. I’d try to do 15 tiny things to amuse myself as time passed. John Cage would have loved me.

1. Hold my breath. See how long I could do that. Practice in case I fell into the water from a boat. (Not very likely, but better safe than sorry).

2. Twist the button on my shirt until it fell off. Count how many times I had to twist this. (My mother hated this, but I never told her how it kept happening).

3. See how many times I could kick my friend Mary Ann’s foot until one of her tennis-shoe shod feet would kick me back. (She was good-natured and didn’t seem to mind).

4. Stare at the back of the boy I had a mild crush on and will him to turn around. A smile was a bonus. (I loved him because he was sarcastic—unwittingly the start of a trend in my romantic life).

5. Count to a hundred fast in under a minute. (I still do this).

6. Do #5 but backwards. (100, 99, 98, etc.).

7. Scribble a line and then work it with a pencil over and over until the paper shredded and I was writing directly on the desk. (I’m sure you’ll enjoy this too).

There were more, but this is most of what I can remember. I did have a winter scarf with fringe that could be braided different ways. I don’t know if this was the start of my time-killing technique called “think about something for a minute”—what I’d like to eat, how to spend a million dollars, who I’d put a hit on, and more.

I have spent my life since 5th grade playing creative tricks with my mind. And it seems time has passed. I’ll be turning 68 this spring. Click. Click.

Artist Nayla Dabaji

http://www.nayladabaji.com/

Out of reach, diaries, 2011
5 personal diaries (1992-1996) dipped in white paint.

Lebanese-Canadian artist Nayla Dabaji works in a variety of mediums. Her videos and installations are hauntingly lyrical. I’m particularly drawn to images of waves and of birds in flight. Their meaning isn’t fixed, but seems to move associatively through time, like a poem.

I was fascinated to see her sculptural piece based on old diaries. Who has’t wanted to destroy or hide the record of a younger and vulnerable self. Essentially sealing these is a strong artistic solution. They can never be opened. Never be re-read. But instead of being rejected they have been transformed. A very emotionally satisfying image.

Who Am I?

Inspired by Yoko One. One of her pieces in ACORN. I wrote this in a group–revised later. You can follow Ono’s grid to create your own piece.

Name: (Including all the names you are called by)
Miriam Anna Sagan
Mir

Past Address: 153 Dwight Pl. Englewood, NJ 07631
Present: 626 Kathryn St. Santa Fe, NM 87505
Future: One and a half grave plots. Jewish section. Memorial Gardens. Rodeo Road.

I am at the age where…
I hang suspended between vitality and death. A long pleasant autumn day but getting colder.

What you like:
Place: the desert
Time: dawn
Weather: rain
Colour: dark blue
Sound: the mallet hitting the solid heavy wooden han at the entrance to the zendo
Smell: low tide
Taste: coffee, anything bitter

Describe your world as you see it.
Inner: Chaos, dreams, pale roots shooting down into the earth, a web of…the unknown, the imagined. The presence of death, dried dusty butterfly wings. Once I couldn’t fly and I still can’t. Grudge. Hope. Compost pile.

Outer: The westside, yellow leaves and late apples in the street, graffiti and tag lines, the invisible but real networks across the city—arroyos, acequias, boundary lines, surveys, the old abandoned tunnels the kids call “Heaven” and Hell.”

Regret: that I never liked how I looked when I was young.

Pride: that I never let down a child who depended on me (knock wood).

My attachments:
a. animate: husband, daughter, grand-daughter, son-in-law, Texas red oak, two apricot trees, friends, siblings, nieces and nephews, road runner in my yard
b. inanimate: house, memory, money, dead husband, dead friends, costume jewelry earrings, Navajo rugs, Persian rugs, Pueblo pottery, justice

(Perplexed, I notice that art, poetry, and music do not appear here. Or religion. Are they perhaps not “attachments?” Also, I can’t decide if animate or inanimate!)

My wish:
1. to not be confined
2. to get my own way
3. to love

Against the Machine–Miriam Sagan

I’ve had many adventures recently. I flew for the first time since the pandemic. Two minutes into the trip I fond myself sobbing as TSA patted me down–first once, then twice, in a private area. Well, I was an accident waiting to happen and by the time I was told I had “residue” on my constantly washed hands and that I’d set the machine off by wearing a dress, I was in nervous tears. “Everyone cries” the TSA lady said in a calming attempt.

She was obviously not a bad person, but what kind of system is this? Like most systems, hard on women in dresses–traditional, modest, or chosen. Like contemporary systems, promoting the machine, including cell phones, computers, and imaging devices, not as helpful tools for life but as technological gods we must placate and please.

I had an opposite experience waiting for my flu shot yesterday. A woman in her eighties, wearing a beautiful medallion of the Virgin, started chatting. Her hugely pro-vaccine stance reminded me of my Jewish mother, despite the obvious differences. “My mom had a cousin with polio,” I offered. “And she was ecstatic when the vaccine came out.”

“I had polio as a child,” the lady said quietly. “A mild case. My right leg doesn’t work well and my left is over developed but I’ve had a long and good life.”

“How can people not get the Covid vaccine?” she asked. We shook our heads. Here was a miracle of technology that works, and yet people reject it.

Acceptance isn’t the last refuge of failure, but it isn’t my go-to either. I’m treading a narrow path between my trust in critical thinking and my need to not judge humanity every minute of the day.

It’s nice here in New Mexico in autumn. Th oak tree my son-in-law planted by the mailbox is turning a gorgeous red.

I’m well aware that more than one thing is happening at once–and I hope that in your world many of those things are good.