gifts of the pen

Many years ago, I worked at the New York Public Library as a Planned Giving Officer. My job was to work closely with older patrons and speak with them about how they planned to distribute their estate upon death. Would they consider bequeathing all or part of it to the future of the Library? Every morning on the subway, my boss would read the obituary section of the Times, and if he walked in particularly perky we knew a big donor had died. We would spend the morning reflecting on memories of the person, laughing and sharing stories, but would also be eager to get their Will and see what the Library had gained with their demise. It was a fascinating and slightly morbid job.

The greatest upside of the job, was building relationships with elder New Yorkers and creating wonderful behind the scenes tours of collections ranging from the Lincoln Center Library’s dance video collection to tours of former library caretaker living quarters, tucked into 4th floor attics. On these tours, ladies from 65 to 80 would take my arm and, with a twinkle in their eye, tell me about the New York they lived “when I was your age … oh, how I wish I’d known what I know now … I would’ve taken it all.” For me, I couldn’t imagine how they could’ve have taken more. These were women who had thrived, usually happily single, in the greatest city on earth, in a time when the world was filled with $5 off-broadway shows and Coney Island freak shows and white gloves with pillbox hats, dancing every night of the week, and rooms filled with the sound of electric typewriters creating a new world that we can only romanticize. It was magical.

The most magical memory, however, came on a Spring day when we went to visit the home of one of our favorite patrons. She attended almost every event since I had joined the library, but I had not seen her for a couple months. While she was a delight to interact with, she didn’t care for phone calls- even asking that we only sent correspondence to her. We abided her wishes and hoped we’d see her in Spring- once the winter’s cold lifted and events once more became well attended. However, when the season changed only a letter regarding her Will probate turned up- all of her belonging were to be given to the library.

To get to her 5th floor post-War apartment building in Riverdale, we took the 1 to the end of the line and walked through a neighborhood none of us had previously visited. The building super took us to her apartment and we entered a perfect time capsule. She’d lived alone in a pristine, one-bedroom, one-bath spot that she’d bought, on an English teacher’s salary, 50 years before. The carpet was a deep rusty red, windows were large and looked out onto trees. The kitchen had very little in terms of dry goods or cooking implements. A four piece dish set that looked to have been bought in celebration of owning her own place fifty years before sat in a cabinet. There was a simple cast iron skillet and a couple pots on the stove. And there were books, so many books. Books filled the remaining kitchen cabinets. And her living room shelves- Tall bookcases, stacked two deep, some books had two copies- a lovingly worn, well read copy, next to a pristine first edition- wrapped in archival plastic. In one corner of her living room, there was a comfortable, but not too comfortable, wingback chair with a wool blanket neatly folded over the left arm and a small table to the right topped with a good light that had an easy pull switch. Her bedroom held a perfectly made twin bed and a stunning, mid-Century writing table with a manual typewriter centered just so and a cane back chair. Also, another good lamp, more book cases, a single four drawer dresser and 2 file cabinets.

We quickly knew we had been bequeathed a treasure trove. The next week, we returned with two collections librarians and a mini-van. After looking through the small apartment for 10 minutes, one of the librarians gleefully announced, “We are going to need a bigger truck!” As it goes, people love donating their well-loved collections to the NYPL and while the books are valuable to their owners, they are rarely valuable to the library. This collection, however, was not only impressive in its size and quality, but also uniqueness. We found things like first editions signed by Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye and lesser known titles and cookbooks signed by Julia Childs, but clearly never cooked from, a shame but also a gift. Stashed on the top shelf of her entry closet, was a stack of hundred year old coffee table art books filled with Kama Sutra paintings. Like the cookbooks, they appeared to, sadly, not have been referenced much, but they existed and would reside at the main New York Public Library.

But all of that glory aside, what I wanted to know was, “What was in the file cabinets?” I opened the first drawer and my heart skipped. There were hundreds, likely thousands, of letters corresponding to dates neatly printed on the front of the drawers.

While collections librarians sorted through books, deciding what they would keep and what would be offered up for sale to The Strand bookstore, I sat at her little writing table and I read letters, so many letters. Each a story shared, each representing a mailbox opened and a letter excitedly read to learn the response to a question or the extension of a story started in a previous letter. Her sister had been a librarian who lived in central Harlem and they wrote letters every week, sometimes daily and many were posted with “morning” and “afternoon” mail service- meaning one would write before work and the other would reply after work. Often they would write to agree to meet for lunch and exchange books or finalize plans to catch an off-Broadway play together. The letters spanned decades. The letters were filled with heated debates about books, frustrations about students, or conversations about City politics- the subway or parks. But really, they were heartbeats of two sisters who clearly loved each other as deeply as they loved their City.

Letter writing is a life of loving shared in the simplest way.

We are filled with Facebook and texts and emails now. I miss the feel of a letter and, while I’ve let dozens of letters go, I am so glad I have lugged around a box of treasured letters that span the decade of my twenties. They are a permanence of the impermanence of shared memory.

Writing is a magical practice and pen to ink is a gift of the heart that matches no other. Letters tip into the heart of the receiver- you’ve taken time to sit down and construct a gift of your thoughts.

Do this for me, for yourself, for someone you love. This week, take 15 minutes and write a letter. It will be found in 5, 10, 20 years and freshly cherished.

image from The Australian

only the raven

“What is that? Is someone trying to break the glass?,” I ask with a slight panic.
With his usual calm, Tim says, “No, it’s just the raven fighting his reflection.”

I step out of the room where we are editing video to look for the raven. A two-story plate glass wall opens to a wide preserve of ancient oak trees surrounding a large pond. The pond, once full from a deep natural source, is half empty under the strain of new development encroaching on the area. Offices stretch from either side of the glass wall, all opening to the same grand view, while hallways and studio spaces line the windowless front exterior wall of thick Texas limestone. It is a beautiful space, designed in a such a way that seems the employees’ happiness may have actually been taken into consideration when it was created so many years ago. It is the first time I’ve been in the building that Tim has worked in for over twenty years. As I look across the expanse of trees and wide sky I consider that space has surely done some part in shaping his calm and measured personality.

The banging shatters my thoughts and I see the raven is standing near the door that is cut into the glass wall. His enormous body reflecting purple-black prisms as he struts, large head jutting side to side, pausing momentarily to punctuate his stubbornness before he resumes his assault on the imagined nemesis. Banging his huge beak into the glass and cawing with increased intensity, the sound reverberates shockwaves of noise through the empty building.

“It’s horrible. What do we do?,” asks my daughter.
“I’ll go down in a bit and scare him off,” Tim says while finishing his work without pause.

On the late Sunday afternoon, we are using a deserted conference room to film her half of a scene for the much anticipated annual fifth-grade play. During this unprecedented period of COVID-19 lockdowns, the play is to be produced by assembling the video work submitted by each of the kids (and their cooperative parents). All of the scenes will be joined with technological prowess or a split screen and a good dose of humor. As the saying goes, “the show must go on.” As we finish our work and re-set the room, the banging continues every minute or so, my daughter worries aloud that the sound is so bad she is afraid the bird will hurt himself.

“No, he does this regularly. There are usually just more people to stop him.”

As we head downstairs the huge raven I saw strutting in front of the glass wall seems even bigger. He cocks his head at our arrival and bangs the glass once more. We get close and he seems unfazed, banging again. Tim opens the door, and the bird seems to step forward.

“Get out of here!,” he says as he waves his arms at the bird. After a moment of consideration, the bird chooses to take flight, huge wingspan spreading and one flap pulling him to the top of a nearby oak.

“That was crazy!,” my daughter says, “Can’t he tell he’s not hurting anyone but himself?”
“He does it almost everyday, so it seems he can’t,” Tim responds.

Later, I think about that bird. Ravens are considered one of the smartest animals- their logic ranking upwards with chimpanzees and dolphins- yet we heard and watched that majestic avian repeatedly bang against its reflection in physical and vocal fight against a great foe believed to be encroaching his territory when, in truth, he was acting as his own worst enemy.

How often are we our own worst enemy? How often do we do that very same thing: Fight our own reflection? Other people see in us so much, but we look into ourselves and only see the lesser, the negative and beat down what could be great. We see the flaws and imperfections and peck at ourselves- keeping our lives small when the only thing to lose is greater experience and possibility. Why do we fight ourselves and sabotage, or not even consider, paths that could lead to more?

I am not talking just about goals and success outside of ourselves, but the inner peace we all deserve. We bang our heads against toxic relationships, bad jobs, and hold onto grievances rather than cutting loose or letting go. Our fears often cut off our dreams because it is much safer to stay in your head than take action and risk rejection or potential failure. Why strive for greatness when “good enough” will get it done?

I go to sleep thinking about that bird and myself. I consider, what are the glass walls in my life? What is it that I time and time again find myself banging up against, trying to beat down, only to realize that it is my own stubbornness and fears that I am fighting?

When I wake, that damn bird is still with me, but it occurs to me, “Maybe he was not fighting his shadow.” Maybe that bird understands more than we are seeing.

Maybe he was trying to shatter the glass or open the wall so as to enter and exit freely- the way the two-leggers do. They bring out food and, on hot days, a cool breeze follows them out of their cave. In winter, it is warm in their cave. They leave every sixth and seventh day, but food remains inside, as does material for nesting and shiny trinkets sit on the planks that they sit behind. Maybe that raven is being the smart bird he is known to be. Perhaps he is not fighting himself, but stubbornly banging down the obstacle that stands between him and a plethora of possibilities.

“Oh,” he ponders, “What a glorious day it will be when I break into their cave.”

memory of an aunt

She kept a tidy, minimalist apartment with only the necessities: a simple two person settee, wingback reading chair, side table for library books and her readers, dining table and four chairs, and two extra chairs on either side of a small roll-top desk. In her bedroom, there was a full-size bed and simple chest of drawers, upon which sat a jewelry box lined in purple to house her well-organized adornments- the only pizzazz she allowed herself. In the kitchen, there was a basic set of pots and pans, along with a beautiful four-cup china teapot set she’d acquired on travel group trip to China many years before. For dining, she had she never added to her wedding glassware or china and, like her deceased husband, never did she need replace it.

As she sipped from a delicate etched glass, I would gaze at the scene with awe. In our home there was nothing that perfectly simple. It called to me. How could a drinking glass be art? But there it was, art in the simplest action of one’s day. During lunch, she sipped from the glass and the afternoon sun would glance against the etchings and toss newborn stars across her wall. The Children- my sister and I- were only allowed to drink from the two jam jars she had long ago put aside for our use. It never occurred to me I would one day, in her home, drink from anything besides a jam jar. So on the day she presented me with 12 ounces of icy, orange spiced tea in a glass that birthed stars I was speechless.

She made no comment about the change, simply presented me the glass and gave my shoulder a squeeze. When I was done, I carried my rite of passage to the kitchen without word- washed, rinsed, towel dried and returned the glass to its assigned cabinet. I knew I had done well by this unspoken leveling up, when the next morning I was given juice from a short, delicate green milk glass that she kept well out of reach. My younger sister began to object to not being included in this passage and I stuck my tongue out at her. She took a deep breath that would have turned into a blustery argument at home, but Charlotte simply said, “That’s enough out of the two of you,” and the fight was over. She loved us both so completely and evenly that we never felt the need to compete in her presence. Besides, she wouldn’t have it. Grown folks didn’t behave that way and neither would her nieces.

sharing

It’s a big space, shower heads on either wall allow the option for two to comfortably bathe together- though with less water pressure for either.
I hear the water running- muffling the conversation between my housemate and her boyfriend.
They’ve been in there a long time.
It’s likely the hot water will soon be gone.
Somehow, I’m not annoyed, but if they’d been fucking I’d somehow be even better with no hot water left for me.

updates

That aunt of yours, you know she just rushes through all the time … never having time to talk. She just brought me flowers … wearing little white shorts, showing off her legs. She just wants to show me how skinny she is.

A pause falls as she takes a drag off her morning cigarette.

Mom, I am sure she didn’t pick her shorts out thinking of you.

I hear her sip her coffee.

She probably did! You know how women are … always trying to compete. Trying to prove they are better than you.

Okay mom, it was nice to talk to you … glad you are feeling better. I’ll talk to you later.

first kiss

Both wary from broken hearts, and protective of our space, and time, we were feral cats licking wounds with no desire to acquire more. After months of talking via texts and some flirting with the idea of a fling, then retreating into hiding, then peaking out from our respective hollows, we finally sat with each other. For an hour we sat close, watching musicians make magic. Then another night with music and our familiar, comfortable walls. On the 2nd night there was a feeble attempt at a kiss followed later by a teasing conversation … was it a kiss and what if it was. Then back to days of long text conversations about writing and the weight of words and friendships and how to speak to children and protecting of the weak. Then we met again.

As we parted from an evening of talking with friends and eating tacos, he swatted me on the ass and smiled, saying that it was good to spend time together. Then, he leaned down and, as sudden yet complete as every experience we had shared, our first kiss came and went. I think he held my waist, I know my hand found the nape of his neck and we kissed twice. Then we scurried away to our cars.

But there was nothing to be denied. It was a proper kiss and we immediately created space.

Fully distracted by the unexpected kiss, I drove to get groceries. As I walked into the store, I noticed, he was arriving as well. Hoping to avoid him, because I still felt his stubble against my face and I didn’t want to feel it as badly as I wanted to feel it more, I rushed into the store. He caught up with me and asked if I was just going to ignore him. I told him that he seemed to be an ass man so I just figured he’d like walking behind me. Or I tried to say those words, but the surprise of him there, and the feel of my skin ever so slightly and happily abraded by his stubble, made it so I couldn’t quite find my voice and he could not hear me. I had to repeat myself, twice. Finally, he heard and quipped back, “It’s not a bad view, even if you’re shy about it,” but he was wrong.

I grabbed orange juice and stuttered back that I was not shy. He winked and said he was going to get his groceries.
“Ok. Fine. See you around.”
“See you around.”

And I tried to focus. The store was bright and I needed my glasses, but all the input made my eyes hurt and I had to make choices so I could feed myself and my never-full child, but I kept feeling him against me. I tried to focus. I told myself, “I need eggs and tuna and …” My mind wandered, his lips had found mine and “I need olives …” and he swatted my ass. No one had been that bold in longer than I could recall and strawberries went in my basket because it was summer and, in summer, every trip to the store meant strawberries.

I stood in a too long line at midnight. I texted him.

“This place is a madhouse”
“I shouldn’t have left.”
“You shouldn’t have and I wasn’t shy. You flustered me.
The kiss and seeing you in the store.
It was good. I don’t get flustered.
I like that you made me feel something I was not prepared for.”

Later I ate the strawberries while I wondered what his lips would taste like on a summer morning.

Society’s Turtles

a new walking bridge flanks the wooden train bridge, that

nature is diligently dismantling.

urban decay cradled this space,

not so long ago inhabited only by feral dogs and humans

now a busy path from paycheck lofts to office cubes

connects a fabricated neighborhood of flag ship groceries and hair salons

you won’t find a bodega or $2 dry cleaner in the mixed urban use zone.

it came up with plans to be shiny and young

— a place to begin before you marry at 28 and move to a shady place with solid schools and a country club membership.

lives anchored above, dropping shade onto new concrete and old shadows

from a very different light.

amidst it all people pass through with their world’s belongings strapped to their back

turtles of humanity’s kind, rarely will they be picked up and guided safely to a place where they will be protected. and like turtles perhaps they don’t seek others help

human turtles are left to make their way, instead of depending on a pond ruled by a set of social norms and expectations, comfort that can be snatched by the whim of corporate or social court, they fold into their carried home and go about creating their pond at the edges of the rules.

Warning signals

This is how people get swindled. If you are in business and you have invested in a start-up, but it isn’t creating return, you don’t keep investing. You recognize you’ve lost a gamble and you move on. However, if there’s a really great frontman, they expertly tie the hook, run the line, and begin the cast. Sending you out and back with hopes of being part of the greatest success story. But, in a swindle, the story to end all stories ends with you over investing and losing more than you bargained for.

We had been so close to launching what felt like The Greatest Love Story ever. To let us go tore me to my core- in a way I had never experienced losing a lover. With him, I’d lost so much on my investment, but kept going back because our good days were pure magic. Finally, I couldn’t keep losing. I ended our relationship, deleted his numbers and cut all social media contact. I stopped making the coffee we shared- Cuban-style espresso with hand creamed sugar. I stopped baking the bread recipe we shared. I changed habits and forced myself to try dating and, after some time, finally stopped missing him everyday. After seven months of zero contact and new routines I was finally back in the black. I’d found myself and was truly content. Then, due to a friend of a friend situation, I let curiosity get the best of me. I sent one email. We made one decision to have dinner. With a hug and hello it all came back.

When it was good between us it was so good, it was ethereal. Then he would cast me out, shut down with no explanation, and I would feel confused because nothing had been wrong- he just needed space- then he’d draw me back with the grace of a professional fly fisherman. He never wanted to catch me, it seems, just enjoyed the sport of having me close.

I wanted to feel our magic again. I ignored the memory of being cast out and let the good overtake. I had a sliver of hope that after seven months he was ready for the magic. We sat down to dinner. He ordered cava and oysters and I finally asked if he was seeing anyone. In fact he was, but nothing serious he said, only dating a few months and, yes, they did go to Mexico, but only because he had an extra flight voucher.

I told him I still loved him because part of me does- the hopeless romantic that surfaces around beauty and good food and talk of a better world. He said he still loved me, but I could see him setting the cast- pulling me in with hope, but lining up his exits. Of course I wish I were wrong, but this isn’t a movie script and I now see that he’s no happy ending. I realize now, I wasn’t for him what he was for me and in the last seven months he hasn’t grown into what I need, but rather he’s moved on.

He’s found a new river, a younger fish with two children. Soon he can worry over whether they accept him or not. He can say he’s so happy, but … He can cast and pull and she can swim under the shadows of his line. Perhaps their story will end differently or perhaps he will always fish for sport.