Sunday, October 23, 2011


I live in a yellow house with twists and turns and steps – rooms tacked onto rooms, making it an unpredictable place. 

The floors are wood, worn.

There are animals – cats and a dog, maybe even squirrels in the walls.

As I walk up the crooked, uneven path to the front door I eye the disintegrating garden, looking for color. One of the pink daisies I bought in the Spring just put out one last small burst of flower – the color deep and strong though the bloom itself is small. 

I am disappointed in the garden this year. The zinnia – usually so reliable for color – turned brown and sickly right away – plants don't flourish here and I am frustrated, wondering do I have to spend a ton of money on fancy soil just to get flowers? That doesn't sound right, and each year I try again, always with such limited funds, and there are pockets of fleeting success, but I haven't mastered the sense of abundance and color I am hunting for.

Gardening should not be expensive, but it is. For instance, now's the time to plant bulbs so that in the Spring color will burst forth at a time when your heart really needs it, and you don't want to plant cheap WalMart bulbs, you want them from some kind of trusted source like Victoria Gardens, but they're a good $5 a pop, and I haven't done it yet.

I garden like my mother gardened. She's the only model I have. She gardened naturally, but roughly. She was not a Martha Stewart gardener.

The first time I heard of Martha Stewart was in the late 90s. I was still living in the ashram.

I had a dear friend, Amma, who had moved out of the ashram with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. They moved to an old farmhouse in New Hampshire where Amma painted a colorful sign in her perfect calligraphy for the front door that said “Welcome,” and they bought a few sheep and some chickens. 

Ruefully Amma admitted that she subscribed to a magazine put out by someone called Martha Stewart.

Amma and David and Libby were big figures in my life. Amma was tall, blonde and beautiful with an exceptional singing voice and a deep laugh. Her husband was tall, gangly, boyish and shy. Libby, when I first met her just 4 or 5, was shy too, but Libby fell a little in love with me. We were all still living in the ashram then.

Libby liked to read. When she got in the car the time I was taking her to see Little Shop of Horrors – a true aberration from ashram life – she brought her Grimm's fairytales, a paperback about 4 inches thick, small print, no pictures, and she read to herself when we weren't talking. 

Libby said she wanted me to be her godmother so we made up a ceremony, going to the Bade Baba temple on a snowy December night. 

The Bade Baba temple was the jewel of the ashram, located in the most celebrated area, the area where Gurumayi lived, where the nicest rooms were for the wealthiest guests, where the gardens were the most manicured, where the biggest meditation hall was with its glorious turquoise carpet, tiered floor and chandeliers. Everything was better in the Main Building – the name of this part of the ashram that had once been a Catskills hotel. Two other hotel complexes made up the rest of the ashram, all linked by a shuttle bus and footpaths.

But the Bade Baba temple was the nucleus, the most sacred, holy place. It was a small white building, almost circular, each side of the polygon-shaped building held a wide, tall plate of glass, looking out onto the smooth lawns and tidy gardens. 

In the center of the temple was a larger-than-life bronze statue of a man in the lotus posture, set up on a white marble pedestal and encircled by a ring of four white marble pillars. Plush turquoise carpeting made the place deeply quiet, like the inside of a shell.

So Libby and Amma and I went there for the godmother ceremony, offering Bade Baba a coconut and some prayers and afterwards we went to the Winter Garden to celebrate, a cafe that had been set up for the holidays in the lobby, complete with white tablecloths and fancy desserts, strings of white Christmas lights, menues and waiters, young people doing their seva – their selfless service. 

A few years ago I was being interviewed by a small new-age magazine about our Authentic Writing workshops, and I spoke with great enthusiasm and fluidity. “Well,” said the editor when we were about done, “would you like to say a few words about the value of service? We're doing an issue on service and asking this question of everyone we interview.” 

“No,” I said. “I don't want to say a word about service. That's totally not my subject,” and the man cracked up. He had thought I'd launch into all the predictable platitudes about service and I had refused. I had just been talking about wriing, something that really means something to me – there was no way I was going to spout a bunch of crap about how service is a good thing. 

When Fred and I were first a couple we went to visit Amma and Michael and Libby. Libby was about 10 and writing books at the computer about gnomes. There was a new baby. They gave us their brand new guest room, an addition they had built where everything was perfect – from the smooth down quilt to the two unused bottles of expensive lavender shampoo in the brand new shower. 

Amma had a spinning wheel going in the living room, using the wool from their sheep and she and Libby sang the song that Amma had written for all the neighborhood kids which had a chorus of “If you love your parents, clap your hands.”

At one point, in a private moment during our stay, Amma said something about how she'd had to come up with a story for Libby about how Fred and I could share a bed even though we weren't married. 

The ashram mantra played quietly and continuously in the kitchen.

When it came time to leave I saw that Fred was walking out of the room, leaving the bed we had slept in a tangled jumble of sheets. I knew the proper thing to do in this house would be to make that bed, even though Amma would be pulling it apart to launder everything. To leave that mess untouched seemed sacriligeous. I checked my impulse to tidy up and left it as Fred would have left it.  

A year later I invited Libby of course to be my flower girl at our wedding. 

But they had a conflict, Amma said over the phone, another wedding of someone from the ashram I hadn't even realized she was friends with. But perhaps in some stressed out way they could travel back from Nantucket in time to make our wedding – because how could they miss it? And Libby was so excited.

But they did not come. Nor sent a card or gift. It ended in silence. 

Somehow, through a vague trace on Facebook, I have picked up that Libby might be at a college now a few miles from my house. Maybe one day, by herself, she will look me up. Maybe not. 

I look back at that friendship – see some red flags along the way that at the time meant less than the substance of the friendship.

I hope for friendships that last, that are grounded on real appreciation, that don't make demands or depend on shared dogmas. 

The ashram brought so many disparate people together, brought us so close we became family, even the people I only knew by sight. Now I see through Facebook all these people scattered – the woman who was so close to Gurumayi during my time has dyed black hair, a botoxed face, and vivid red lipstick firmly in place in every photo. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Part of the reason I wanted to hitchhike was that anyone who picked me up did not know me, didn’t know that I had no friends, didn’t know I rode a school bus to a high school and sat in classrooms. When I stepped into a car or up into the cab of an eighteen-wheeler I could be the adventuress I was sure I was supposed to be.

I told Joseph I had older brothers. Not true. I didn’t mention the two actual younger sisters. Older brothers at least put me in the company of men. It implied that I hung out with them and their friends. I liked the idea of older brothers.

Days later when he was still with me and now we were going to my house where my mother and two little sisters were waiting I explained that well, now that you’re actually coming to my house you might as well know that we don’t talk much about my brothers at home, they’re kind of in trouble right now, mumble, mumble.

Joseph did not prod me, just nodded okay. Joseph in his dark beard and hippy hair, his overalls and dark eyes, his short working-man’s body that I had wanted so much to be mine from the first night when with such deliciousness he had shown me how we could sleep on the concrete ledge under the overpass of the interstate, here on the roll of cardboard we’d picked up from the side of the road in the afternoon because Joseph had said we would need it, and he was right, the cardboard made a difference, a little bit warmer than lying on the bare concrete – and Joseph saying, we have to lie close together, our body heat will keep us warm, and I am more than eager, a man, finally, to lie beside at night, I have wanted one for so long and there has been no one except dully pimply high school boys.

Joseph does not kiss me. He wraps me in some kind of bear hug in the dark on the cardboard above the lanes of traffic.

I have been hitchhiking for a few days by myself, but here has been no one interesting, and now there is Joseph and we are only in Nebraska so there are miles more to go before New York and we are traveling together, on the road, a couple, just like I wanted, and Joseph is not a kid who doesn’t know this world. He knows this world.

“You need better shoes,” he says and we get off the highway in Milwaukee and go to a Salvation Army where I get lace-up men’s shoes for free – I am so happy – and in a field he shows me how we can eat ears of corn right off the plant – we don’t have to pay or ask anyone – and best of all he takes me to a friend’s house somewhere, an old farmhouse, almost no furniture, pot growing outside, the friend picks some, spreads it on a cookie sheet, bakes it in the oven so we can smoke it. This is all exactly as I had hoped – drugs and hippies.

But I cannot talk. Even now that I am where I so much wanted to be. Joseph and his friend talk late into the night. We are in a plain room with a couple of old armchairs and we pass a pipe and the boys talk, but I cannot find a way in, and stay silent, and this I fear will give me away – that I am not at ease the way I want them to think I am.

Alone with Joseph he can make me laugh. I feel connected. He is my friend. He waits for me when we go to the bathroom in the rest stop and then get into the big tractor trailer. But even Joseph says, “You don’t talk much, do you?” and I have been discovered and must do all I can to get him off the scent. Bluff fast.

It is almost perfect. If he would kiss me at night it would be perfect, but he does not. He says I am too young, that he could go to prison. What is he talking about?

And we stop in Buffalo for the night at a house on the street, a woman comes to the door, his wife. “Oh,” she says, “come on in. I was just going out on a date.”

His kids are there – two or three of them – and when the mother leaves Joseph and I babysit and when the kids are in bed we sit on a couch in the dark and now he kisses me, finally.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cards and Calls

My aunt in Budapest sends me two color photographs, one of my father’s grave, heaped with flowers. The second of a ribbon around one of those bouquets imprinted with my mother’s name, my name, my two sisters’ names and some strange unrecognizable name at the end.

In the photo you can’t see my father’s gravestone, which was what I looked for. Instead you can only see the gravestone next to his with the names of my grandparents. A big stone cross stands between the two stones, a grave with some status, planning and pretensions.

My father buried next to his parents as if he didn’t get far.

My mother on the phone last night saying finally, “I’ll let you go,” and me feeling almost hurt though I was aching to get off the phone, wondering why I can hardly tolerate two minutes with mymother one the phone though I always want to hear her voice and know she is there, I never want to tell he anything, never want to then hear her response which always feels off the mark, and always she keeps me on the phone longer than I want to be be except last night she actually said, “I’ll let you go,” as if she too did not want to be on the call, and we hadn’t mentioned my father, I didn’t mention the photos that had arrived just hours before, and maybe I thought as I hung up, maybe that’s what’s different that we – I – don’t want to talk about it, want that his death means nothing, in a way it’s easy to go that route – he’s been so gone for so long – out of the country for 25 years, in some kind of senility for a year, and even when he was in this country and functioning, always not someone we wanted around – me, my sisters or my mother.

But now he’s really gone and I think as I walk to my car how I will never ever see him again.

But I don’t want to talk about it with my mother.

A gravesite has nothing to do with the person. In a way, I wish my aunt had not sent the pictures. I didn’t want to see something so gruesome. But it’s real and I claim to always prefer the real.

My sister’s name on the ribbon was the name she rejected about 30 years ago and legally changed 20 years ago.

My aunt in the note she sends with the photos makes no mention of the card I sent after I heard of my father’s death.

I chose a card from the Omega bookstore. Its main image was of a strong red heart.

I didn’t know if the image would mean anything to my strict, bare bones aunt, but though I didn’t’ buy the card the first day I saw it, I chose it because the red heart said to me what I wanted it to convey to her – thank you, I appreciate the burden you carried – caring for my father for years -- though I didn’t offer to help you.

I put $20 in the card. I had never sent money before though I knew it was needed. This time I did though it was a low-cash period at home. I wanted to put in a $50 bill but just couldn’t do it, so folded up a twenty and wrapped it in tin foil – a haphazard attempt to foil the attempts of anyone who might be able to figure out the envelope held cash. I had no idea if tin foil could mask such things, but hoped it might, though it kept making me think I was sending cocaine through the mail.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Tamar the dog pants, indicating she is in pain or at least uncomfortable.

It reminds me of Claude panting in his last weeks.

It is the first time Tamar has been so unwell. The doctors say she should feel better tomorrow. She’s had the first two doses of antibiotics and today she had a B12 shot and some dog aspirin and I could tell she rallied.

She hasn’t peed or pooped all day and can’t walk.

Everything they say will clear up and I am sure that it will. Still, it is hard to see her so uncomfortable.

This morning for the first time in her life she did not get up, but stayed in her bed all day.

I went on our walk without her, to smell the woods and move. I ran into Nancy who lives across the street with a small overweight dog called Sammy. “Where’s Tamar?” she immediately asked.

Both yesterday and today we have taken her to the vet. Both times I have had to overcome my kneejerk reluctance to let medicine intervene, but both times have been so reassuring. I felt like that was why it was so expensive – because I felt so much better afterwards. Less in the dark, optimistic.

Every single person in both facilities – receptionists, assistants and doctors, about 10 people in all – were female and, except for one, very young. The assistant today had blunt nails painted silver.

I am working on my manuscript, perhaps the thing closest and most important to my heart, not counting some living breathing entities who shall here remain nameless.

This lovely three-day stretch away from the office gave me a new start on an early morning ritual that I hope will stay with me, revisiting several pages every day for a buff and polish.

Also in these three days I have drawn a line. I have said no and no more to a woman who was coasting, a woman I thought of as a friend, but a person who was draining, drawing on me, not much you could say, but a steady drip drip drip like the faucet that I walked over to Timo’s about, early on one of these refreshed summer mornings, walking down Tinker St. before the town is awake with the weekend spread out before me, hoping I would find Timo to come fix the faucet.

The woman, the friend, I let her down. Out of nowhere. She didn’t see it coming. But there was no pretty way to do it. It was something that I slowly realized really had to be done, to leave her, send her back to the quicksand of her life to let her come up with something, to withdraw the rope I had thrown and that she would not let go of.

And I painted a room in the house and found the perfect table at a yard sale for $12 and tomorrow I will go back to work and people will ask, did you have a good weekend? And I will say – it was fantastic.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


On the wall it hung, from a long leather strap a couple of inches wide, a leather strap decorated with cut-outs and fringes.  A flask covered in short brown hair, smooth like a horse’s hair, a wooden stopper sealing the flask’s mouth.

I did not touch the flask because of the smooth brown hair. I imagined it would shiver if I touched it, move, be alive.

I knew the flask was Hungarian, one of my father’s things, special, better than ordinary things. He spoke of the flask to me, in a proud voice, a voice designed to convince me what was right, what was wrong, and what was better, a voice with force and gusto, something that it would always take an effort to live up to, but that that was what was important -- living up to something, a standard, something that kept your head above water, better than other people, something that saved you from drowning.


In first grade at the new school in Virginia I am jumping rope outside. Two girls are turning the long rope and I am standing to the side, attuning my body to the rhythm of the rope slapping the ground so that I know the exact moment I can leap in and become one with that turning rope. It’s a small miracle to be able to run in at the right moment that doesn’t interrupt the rope’s smooth turning and now I am in the middle of its loop, jumping and shouting, “Paul John George Ringo! Paul John George Ringo!”

I know they are the Beatles, but I don’t know which is which. The name you are shouting when you mess up and the turning rope stops is the name of the one you are in love with, a thought that makes me and my friends squeal in disgust for a moment before it’s the next person’s turn.

I’ve only been at this school for a little while. I came in on my first day in the middle of things – the middle of the year, in the middle of the morning – I still had my coat on, the one my mother liked, navy blue, woolen, the kind of coat you could wear with dresses – and the teacher stood beside me as she introduced me to the class, the two of us side by side while everyone else sat at their desks and looked at us. The teacher introduced me, said my name and I said nothing, hating this part where I was not yet part of them, but someone separate and strange. I kept quiet always in the beginnings.

It was an old school and had a darkness to it as though it were always in shade. The floors were made of wood and there was a staircase like in a house that led up to floors I never went to. My classroom was at the bottom of the stairs.

We had come to Virginia in a truck – me, my father and another man – my mother driving in a car with my little sister. I sat in the cab of the big truck that had all our stuff in it. My father drove the truck. Of course he did. My father could do things like that, things we hadn’t done before, my father could always do these things.

There were a couple of crushed beer cans in the cab the men had drunk and then reflexively crushed before dropping them on the floor. I held a crushed can, one in each hand as we drove, me between the men, and I pretended the cans were people. First the one in my left hand talked, then the one in my right hand. I watched them. They talked silently.

And we lived in a big white house with a long driveway at the top of a hill, far away from the road and surrounded by fields with cows in them and sometimes when my father took me for walks through the fields on a weekend, the dog sometimes with us and sometimes wandering off on his own, we passed something called a silo and there was a sweet rich smell.

Walking with my father, long long walks, much further than I wanted to go, him always talking. About so many things – the story of the novel he was reading, or Budapest when the bombs were dropping, or Hungarian countryside when he was a teenager, or a story about taking a girlfriend some place fancy for the weekend not knowing how he was going to pay the bill, or how in Geneva after the war he went everywhere by bicycle.

My father was always the hero on those walks. In the stories. In my world.

Though he made me cry when we played Monopoly at night, him buying hotel after hotel while I had nothing and then buying more hotels and laughing as I could not keep up.

Under the trees my sister and I made a store selling small rocks, an acorn – for 5 cents, 10 cents – inviting my parents to come and buy by the sandbox. There was a sandbox there and a turquoise tent, a tent my mother put up for me to play in, but I didn’t go in there, the small turquoise tee-pee – a tent being something from my mother’s world, but not from mine. My mother came from a place of outdoor things – a farm, British Columbia, a garden, bicycles and tents. My father was different, from the city. I liked him better.