Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Filling in the Gaps

My dad taught me a lot of things, but one of the most important things he taught me was that you are never too old to learn new things. And considering he lived to be just about 97 years old, I think he probably knew what he was talking about. Another important thing my dad taught me, more by example and the way he lived, was it felt good to be your own boss. From the mid-1930s until about 2002, my dad never worked for anyone but himself. He was co-owner of Tranks Furniture and Jewelry on Florence Avenue, in South Central Los Angeles, first with his older brother Irving, and then joined by his younger brother Uncle Sam after WWII and Uncle Zvi/Harry after the Seven Day War. The store was a testament to family and neighborhood. And to sticking with things no matter how difficult they got. When the store was burned down during the Watts Riots, my dad and his brothers were there, along with their employees and most of the neighborhood, to sweep away the broken glass and rebuild. On a Labor Day weekend in 1974, when a pair of robbers were done stealing TVs, radios and whatever else they could get their hands on through the hole they made in the roof, they decided to torch the store. By this point is was just my dad, his employees and the neighbors. Irving had died and Sam and Harry had gone into business for themselves. My dad never wanted to give up on Florence Avenue, through many changes and challenges. When the gangs arrived, he stopped them from putting graffiti on his walls by hiring them to paint a full size mural of the Virgin Mary. Not bad for a secular Jewish kid from Eastern Europe. But when crack arrived, we knew it was time for him to get out and then it was only after he ran after a robber, already in his 70s, and luckily for all of us the robber's gun turned out to be a toy. He sold the business and retired. For about two months.

After that, he returned to his original career roots as a watchmaker and opened up a little shop specializing in antique watch repair in the LA Fairfax area. He quickly became one of the most sought after in the city with a celebrity filled clientele. It tickled him, as he used to tell me, that he had been working on the same watches for 50, 60 years. And I knew, even though he never told me, that most of all, he liked working for himself.

I'm about to take a leap of faith and as I stand poised on the brink of fully stepping into my own business, my dad's presence is with me constantly. He's my chairman of the board. And as my chair, he's advising me to be patient, slow down and most of all, to learn what it takes to run a business. And in finally listening to him, I realize that while I'm outstanding at what I do, can spin a press release faster than you can say Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson in one breath, and can foster lasting relationships with key press folks, my how-to-run a business skills lag behind. Not an easy thing to admit, at least not for someone like me who thinks she has to know everything even when she's never been shown how to do it!

Happily, here in Colorado, options abound for those of us taking this leap of faith and I've found what looks to be a gold mine of a resource - the Colorado Small Business Development Centers, who run ongoing classes for people in all stages of their business development. So I've signed myself up (and my DH, as the low tuition covers two!) for "Jump Start Your Business," starting on August 6th at the Front Range Community College Westminster Campus.

Thanks, Dad, for being such an awesome example of humility, persistence and quiet fortitude. For teaching me that it is all right to not know everything and that life is about learning, always learning. And mostly, thanks for being my silent partner. I guess it's time to learn what I don't know. I came across a wonderful quote today that is good to keep in mind as I take this leap of faith:
"A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way" - Mark Twain

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Did I Forget to be Brave?

We had dinner last night with old friends, the kind of friends where the light lingers until it becomes night, when the wine bottles are emptied long before the conversations are done, when the talking continues past even after the mosquitoes have given up and gone to sleep. A perfect summer evening. So why did I end up crying as I said my good-byes? Was it just because I miss my friends and was sad to leave? Or was it because somewhere between the home grown tomatoes, mozzarella and basil and the seemingly endless bowl of cherries, I realized I was soaking up more than good food, drink and friends. What brought tears to my eyes, was this - I realized I had reconnected with the oldest friend I had. Someone I really enjoy and admire and who I used to look up to for her bravery. Who did I find? Myself.

As a mother of three young children, I've lost my artistic bravery. The process started slowly. People who I used to have passionate discussions about art stopped talking to me about anything other than being a mother. It was different for my husband, who continued to be seen and treated as a writer.

Over the last almost ten years, my artistic bravery has gotten misplaced between the unfolded laundry, the carpooling to music lessons and camp. It has fallen between the cracks of doing what I have to do to put food on the table and what really feeds my purpose. Some people look for their mojo when they hit my age. Me, I just want to learn what it is to be brave again. And to never trade in that bravery again.

What a luxury it was to sit on a flagstone patio surrounded by such warm, creative and generous people and understand that this is where I belong, this is where I left myself about 5 years ago. The kids were happily playing with one another, rediscovering each other. The conversation among the adults around the table swung from the personal - my father's death, my friend's nephew's illness, school choices and how big our children had grown - to the transcendence of art - Simone Forti, Allen Ginsberg, Merce Cunningham, Picasso's older works and so much more - people came and went, new people arrived and glasses were cleaned, plates filled and the talk of art continued.

We laughed about good-byes, about the difficulty in saying good-bye to family, to parties, to friends. We watched a video Allen Ginsberg made in the 1980's, titled "Household Affairs." The film was like a meditation to good-bye, the camera rarely moving, but allowing the visitors to enter into the space, the tender way Ginsberg preserved and archived the everyday movements of drinking coffee and cooking hamburgers, snow on Lower East Side fire escape landings and headlines from the New York Times.

I used to be brave. I used to take risks with my artistic self. I was an actress. I left the safety of my parents and moved first to Chicago and then to NYC. I switched to writing and to studying a remote body-awareness practice while my theater friends were all doing TV. I left NYC to pursue a graduate degree at Naropa University.

I kept up my writing for about three years into my early mothering, writing at night at my computer with first my oldest and then the twins nursing at my breasts. I co-wrote two screenplays and authored a collection of essays and produced quite a bit of work. But somewhere when the twins turned two, the balance between making a viable living and being an artist couldn't be sustained. My writing partner, also the mother of three children and including one the same age as my twins, had to go back to work full-time just when we had finished our second screenplay.

Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to take my creative skills and translate them into a career, into working with good and creative people dedicated to impacting the world in a positive way. I want to teach my children that it is a good thing to know how to function in the world. I'm glad I've provided a strong example of woman firmly in the world. But in the slippery midsts of fulfilling family responsibilities, and promoting other people's dreams, I traded in my bravery for something else that leaves my mouth dry.

But last night, in that garden with dear, dear friends who first and only knew me as a writer, singer and performer, that old friend emerged with a surprising ease and I suppose I just didn't realize how much I missed those parts I had neatly categorized into my life before motherhood.

The only time I've felt brave in the past 5 years was when I went ziplining in Costa Rica this past December. Swooshing across the top of a rain forest, I discovered I love the feeling of standing on the brink. Today, I'm at a different kind of brink in my life where bravery seems to be the road best taken. And I wonder, as I stand on this brink, what bravery will look and feel like. What does it mean to be brave? I have no idea who I will be, but if I'm anything like the woman in the garden from last night, I think I will be very pleased.

Who are you when you are your most brave? To the brink and beyond!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Today, Grief is a very sore hip

Grief is not a one size fit all emotion. It is a sea shift, a personal tsunami. For my mother, grief is a recurring staph infection three surgeries and six months of antibiotics haven't been able to remove. For another, it is a constant restlessness, an inability to give permission to settle into life without that person. For me, grief is in my left hip. Two days after taking the last of my dad's belongings down to the garage in black plastic bags, my lower back started to talk to me. Scream at me, to be more exact. Sitting, standing, walking, breathing hurt. Only after sleep, a wonderfully caring massage and many tears did the pain subside, but a few days later grief emerged again. This time deep in my left hip. A dull ache. A throb. Any touch on its surface and I cried. Deeply.

The pain brought me back to loss. Feeling lost as my body struggles to find it's center, it's foundation. As I lay on my stomach for another massage, my tears fell through the face pillow and all I could think was - I'm lost, I'm lost.

I've had this kind of pain before - 15 years ago when I was training to be teacher in the Alexander Technique. Years of physical and emotional holding were coming undone and it hurt like hell. A simple walk down the street became an act of courage. It took about six months for the pain to resolve itself, which it did and I was a different person, inside and out, after it was done.

As I drove the other day, I was moved by Lloyd Schwartz's piece on "Rivals in Renaissance Venice," the new exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. He spoke of Titian being the first to use canvass instead of wood and stone, of the sensuality canvas not previously allowed by flatter, more non-absorbing materials.

Mr. Schwartz's words about the weave of fabric, the small square pores serving as an appropriate surface to absorb paint as flesh, as form, brought me some comfort. I thought about my grief as a kind of paint brush, rough bristled and dry, taking many coats to cover the canvas.

If I were to paint my grief right now, it would be a Seurat - little dabs of color all joining into some form, which I have to stand far from to understand it's form. But I'm so busy painting that I can't stand back. Dab here, fill in the weave there. Red, black, brown, green. I look forward to when I can stand back a little and see what I've created. But for now I keep dabbing.

Pain is a mixed blessing, but it is a blessing. It reduces me to tears, breaks down my normal barriers of fortitude and pushing through. And because I trust that it is temporary, I can stand it, let it in, breathe through it.

Grief is another thing entirely. Because I see no end in sight, only some days where the ache is duller than on other days, I've worked really hard to keep it out. I've committed to the rigors of Bikram Yoga, built up my business, gone back into therapy, but I haven't let grief take hold. Until now. The thing about grief is that it finds its own way in. First in my sacrum and now in my left hip.

As I wait for my mother to come out of the fourth surgery to get the staph infection out of her body forever, the pain in my hip has subsided. It's almost becoming a memory as I sit here and wait.

But despite the discomfort, the pain, the tears, the immobility of the past two weeks, so much of me wants to hold on to it, having finally let it in. I already feel my dad slipping into the realm of memory, his clothes now gone from not only the closet, but from the house, except for the few pieces I captured and brought home.
I resist the memory of him, of my father receding into that slippery place. I want the shape of his life, of his life in my life. But for now, I'll take the pain in my left hip, or wherever grief travels next in my body.