Dear Elizabeth @ Women’s Project Theater

There was a line late in the second act of Dear Elizabeth, where Elizabeth Bishop, played by Cherry Jones, writes in a letter to Robert Lowell, by way of expressing concern over his recent health troubles, that she is praying for him: "Praying," she then explains, "meaning 'the intensity of hoping.' "

Well. WELL. I printed that line on the inside of my eyelids, pressed it with one finger into the palm of my left hand, sketched it over and over in my head while I tried to keep up with the play. When the curtain fell (there was no curtain), I pulled my ratty wrinkled notebook out of my bag to scribble it down on paper, and I still may not have it right. It's close, though. The intensity of hoping.

The Women's Project Theater is in residence at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway at 76th Street. It's a comfortable small space on the fourth floor of a nondescript building whose first floor looks mostly abandoned. There were signs outside but still, I was confused. The box office inside was boarded up. Could this be right? Ever the lemming, I followed a couple of Upper West Side Types onto an elevator—Upper West Side Types being sure of their instincts and secure in their place in the world—along with David Aaron Baker, who played Robert Lowell. There's something magical in this, something so deliciously small-world and New York-y about an actor strolling in off the street and taking the lift right up to the theater along with the audience. (When SarahB and I saw Flyovers at a similar spot on a similar street a couple of years ago, we squeezed past Richard Kind and Michele Pawk on our way out the door approximately ninety seconds after watching them take their bows.) 

This play, though: Dear Elizabeth, created by Sarah Ruhl and drawn from decades of correspondence between Bishop and Lowell—nothing but two actors sitting at desks placed side by side, a small gulf between them as they read aloud their own letters and poems to each other, meeting occasionally at retreats or conferences or vacation homes, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, as their words fly back and forth. It isn't a sweet story, there's alcoholism and madness, divorce and suicide, professional jealousies and personal slights. Long absences, death. But it's the portrait of a friendship as the best possible love, the most abiding romance. At the end, an unseen stage manager offers a spoken coda while the actors stand silently together, leaning against one desk and holding hands—each poet cherishing the simple fact that the other exists in the world—as a cascade of hundreds of letters falls gently onto the stage from above. And then there was me, poor me, crying all the way home.


To ask what happens next

I took the subway to Brooklyn Saturday afternoon. It did not go well. When I landed I spent 10 minutes staring at my phone while trying to figure out where I was in relation to where I needed to be (a bookstore approximately 11 minutes away, where Matt Zoller Seitz was doing a 4:00 reading for his new Mad Men book). I stood outside the station and glanced to & fro, walked hither & thither, scanned my environment for landmarks, trademarks, anything that might orient me. For the life of me I could not place myself on any map that had any relation to what I was seeing with my eyes. 

And then I started to panic a little bit. 

None of this was rational. I know how to read a map. Not once did it occur to me to ask an actual person where to find this bookstore. It was a perfectly safe neighborhood on a perfectly pleasant day, but it was getting dark and I was feeling jittery and out of my element—too exposed and at the same time slightly claustrophobic. I’d been thinking about Paris all day and trying to clamp down on that nagging, niggling little thought, that “what if?” thought, that “it could happen here” thought, which so easily turns into a “we’re next!” thought, which then leads you straight down a raging sinkhole into hell, just like Don Giovanni. 

And I reject those thoughts always. I live my life and keep my eye on the prize—i.e., not being mugged or raped, or run over by a cab—because on any given day that’s the maximum number of things I can worry about vis-a-vis my own person. I can wake up at 3:00 in the morning and check the news on my phone and sob for the loss and the waste and the madness, but I can’t let that fear sink into my bones because I know once that happens I will never be able to get out of bed. I’ll never be able to go to work in a midtown high rise office building that sits right next to Radio City Music Hall. I’ll never be able to take the subway to 34th Street or 42nd Street or even 59th Street, which is where I take the subway five days a week and then some. I’ll never be able to stroll down the sidewalk or walk through the park or go to the opera or to a theater or mall or museum or restaurant if I’m thinking “what if” every time I leave the house. I mean honest to Christ, every single second in every single day in the life of every single person on earth is WHAT IF. Is it not? And the answer is always OF COURSE. Of course everything is a disaster. Of course we get on with it anyway. Of course of course of course.

I don’t know how to process what happened in Paris yet, where to fit what I’ve read and seen into the pictures of the city I remember best. The memory of how openly and proudly the people moved about and relaxed in their public spaces—the streets, the parks, the sidewalk cafes—all hours of the day and long into the night. That was Paris to me. The idea that anything could destroy that trust is unimaginable. What else is there? 

I think a lot about this section in the book Here If You Need Me, which is written by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universality minister and chaplain for the Maine Warden Service whose job is to accompany wardens on search-and-rescue missions in the woods. By choice and profession, she’s a witness to nightmares and wonders.

A miracle is not defined by an event. A miracle is defined by gratitude.

A string of coincidences stretching far back in human history converge to place a young woman in a parking lot at the very moment when a murderer happens by. A similar string of coincidences places a premature infant named Michael in a high-tech teaching hospital where a gifted doctor works to save him. Why? Why not?

Anything could happen, but only one thing will. If it is what we desire, what we long for so badly we feel it burning in our bones, if by chance this is given, we will fall on our grateful knees, praise God, and call it a miracle. And we will not be wrong.

Anything could happen, but only one thing will. Good or bad, lucky or no. We go out into the world again and again and again and take our chances. What else is there?

So I don’t ask “what if?” very often. Except I did on Saturday: I asked myself “What if I just turn around and go back home?” and then I did that, too. It felt stupid and sad, like a loss, which it was, however minor. It also felt safe, just for that moment. I went back into the world again on Sunday, and yesterday and today, and it was fine. Everything was fine.

Blessing the Boats

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back       may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

– “Blessing the Boats” by Lucille Clifton

The sudden sensation that you’re spinning

I have this thing called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo that comes and goes at strange and unpredictable and always unwelcome times, like (for example) 3:40-a.m.-ish this morning. It sounds stupid—vertigo, come on, it's two-thousand-fif-teen already—but it's a legitimately terrifying feeling: one minute you're deep into stage 3 of a REM-approved sleep cycle and the next you make the innocent mistake of flipping over from your left side onto your right—a maneuver you have performed successfully no less than eight billion times before in your life—and BAM! it's like your head stepped onto a merry-go-round going 95 miles an hour and left the rest of your body behind.

So that woke me up. I laid there in the dark for a minute, groggy and stupefied (it's been over a year since the last episode) and tried to wish it away but that never works. I'm not five. I don't actually believe in fairy tales. And it's not serious in any way, this thing, it's just a fact, it's just what is, like Wednesday or having freckles or hating broccoli. Some tiny gravitational-related calcium crystal—I'm not making this up—cuts loose from whatever inner ear sanctum it's meant to occupy and moves into the wrong canal and you're screwed. Momentarily.

You're not going to die from this thing, although you might puke, and you try to remind yourself that you've seen this all before and are not, in fact, having a stroke. (Isn't that the nightmare? YMMV but my nightmare is a stroke.) Your head rolls and your stomach rolls while no part of you is actually moving, and you wait for it to stop. Eventually it stops, or slows down, or you have to get up to pee. You turn on the light and hug the wall. Not a big deal. Just keep one hand on the wall and remember where the floor is. Try not to fall off the toilet.

And you don't have to be sleeping, by the way. It can happen at any time and for any reason. Or no reason at all! Just like a miracle. Hopefully not while you're driving, though. I wonder if anyone's thought about that.

You can take medication for the dizziness, depending on how much you like sleeping during the day, or you can go to the doctor. They'll have you lie flat on your back and dangle your head off the side of the table while they gently turn your noggin to and fro and side to side, in the hopes that this magic idiot crystal will eventually get the picture and evacuate. And it works! Usually. Sort of! Mostly. Until the next time! BRAVO.

“Slowness is an act of resistance”

Walking versus driving is an easy setup, but the same problem applies to most of the technological changes we embrace and many of the material and spatial ones. The gains are simple and we know the adjectives: convenient, efficient, safe, fast, predictable, productive. All good things for a machine, but lost in the list is the language to argue that we are not machines and our lives include all sorts of subtleties — epiphanies, alliances, associations, meanings, purposes, pleasures — that engineers cannot design, factories cannot build, computers cannot measure, and marketers will not sell. What we cannot describe vanishes into the ether, and so what begins as a problem of language ends as one of the broadest tragedies of our lives.
— Rebecca Solnit

These are days, or recent things I’ve enjoyed

You may, when placing an order through, elect to have deliver a package to a "second location," i.e., an off-site Amazon locker so your shit doesn't get stolen while you're away at your day job committing capitalism. I opt in to this selection when I'm feeling skeptical of the intentions of the world, although in the eight years that I've lived here I have never had a package go missing. But a girl's gotta stay on her toes in this big cruel impersonal city and not get complacent. Trust no one, etc. C'est la vie. Vive la France. Word.

Today after my nap I went to collect a book from my locker and then walked home via an alternate route—the road less traveled—which took me past a school I'd never seen before and a large playground complex filled with small packs of preteens playing at various sport in the late afternoon light: baseball here, racquetball here, basketball over there. There were no adults to be seen. There was no traffic and the only sound was kids yelling and laughing and the occasional bounce of a ball. It was, as I say, a street and a setting that were new to me, and yet—"Heavens," Elizabeth Bishop once wrote, describing a scene from her childhood that she found in a painting: "I recognize the place, I know it!"

And so I knew this scene, knew it with my eyes closed, felt it in my lungs, in the back of my throat, buried somewhere deep in the reptilian recesses of my brain. A hundred November afternoons exactly like this one, a million years ago in a small town thousands of miles away, when my friend Meredith and I would play basketball for hours in the driveway of my house. We would play until our hands got too cold to grip the ball, without noticing the sunlight dying away, while my mother made dinner and the front porch lights up and down the street began to shine. Once in a while we would drag my father out to play us—two against one—although he played dirty and liked to cheat. (Where did you think I learned to trust no one?) On those long endless days, there was nothing else to want and nowhere else to be, nothing but the sound of us laughing and the relentless bounce of a ball ringing through the air.

In the end of course it was a little thing, the two minutes it took me to walk past that playground, just a blip in the day—as a single adult there's really no way to stop and watch random kids on a playground without feeling weird—but even though everything about the place and the people and the year was different and I was standing alone in the middle of this big cruel impersonal city, I thought, there we are. There we still are.

+ I finally listened to this epic Marc Maron /Terry Gross podcast. I've been lukewarm on TG in the past because I have an irrational beef against certain voices that strike me as "too radio" (Ira Glass being another), but this interview really marked a turning point for me and my new best friend Terry. The part where she talked about how she and her jazz writer husband just sit around in the evening and on weekends reading and listening to music was a real beau ideal for me, in terms of aspirational living. Then I realized I'm basically living that life already, only when Terry Gross describes it, it sounds glamorous and adult, while to me it just feels like a regular old life. So I am my own hero, I guess. I'll try to remember that the next time I chase a centipede into the closet or roll a cockroach up in the window shade: glamour! It's all about perspective.

+ Semi-related: lifestyle porn of the highest order:

+ 10,000 Maniacs:

+ this delightful tumblr:

Smile, baby

If I had a kid, this and the soundtrack from The Nightmare Before Christmas would be all we would listen to. We'd spend the rest of our time taking naps, drinking from bottles, and whistling. Oh wait! I already do all of those things. No kid required.

The secret to life

I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor.
— Brian Eno

p.s. I went to the opera last night to see my old bananas friend Draculette play "Tosca" in (surprise!) Tosca. And I loved it! I loved it so much. At the end (11:05) I was exhausted but so happy, strolling with SarahB across the plaza on a dark November's eve, and I could actually feel something old and dear and nearly forgotten step back inside my body.