Misadventures, partially true
….. a blog for a Tuesday…. By Erin Elizabeth Muir
Good morning and Happy New Year, everyone! I am so full of joy and dreams as I write this, and the dreams part might be because I just awoke with a brave and powerful desire to write a blog although I may still be half asleep…. 2012 was a year full of lots of planning and dreams and last night I rang in the new year with Dorothy Parker, Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and Indiana Jones. No, not at home with Netflix and a library…. I myself went to the party as the erotic diarist Anais Nin, with whom I share a birthday. It was a lovely countdown to a night of dreams!
But that is all the clearing of the sleep from my eyes because as I continue to watch my fingers move across the keyboard of my trusty old laptop- old, my little Macbook! Old at 5 years of age (gasp)…. That’s like 739 in human years…. I realize I want to share about some deeds I have done of late and write about it from a perspective of joy, if not poetry…
Recently the Chinese government passed a somewhat nebulous sounding law in which the elderly (like my computer here) must be visited “regularly” by their children (of which my computer has none, unless you count the novel, one woman show, musical, and various songs that MacBook and I have created together. In which case then this computer is in fact visited OFTEN, whether it wants to be or not.) If this does not occur, the children are in danger of being sued by said parents (I imagine it is some kind of civil offense rather than a criminal one).
So yesterday on my local Public Radio station, there was a show devoted to that idea and what it might look like here in the US, or at least here in Southern California.
I heard a lot of interesting arguments. Most people thought the idea was ridiculous, but a few people pointed out that there is a lot of elder abuse L and that opening up discussion about this might help us to become more aware (and hopefully more compassionate) toward vulnerable folks in need of some help… if not love.
There was a lot of discussion about how these days family is not always blood but people who have chosen friends as family; about how some people feel their parents were abusive and are estranged from those relationships; what about conscientious objection; and what about basic human decency?
Well, I have long been sensitive to the plight of others- something about being a Pisces or just my own inborn codependency to the world, who cares? It’s my basic template and sometimes can drive my close friends and family nuts. “What do you mean you don’t have a winter coat?” “I gave it to an organization collecting coats for needy people.” Etc. “What do you mean this strange man from the streets is taking a shower in our bathroom?” “What do you mean you baked cookies for the penitentiary and we have to skip the movie to go hand them out?” that sort of romantic, idealized, unrealistic behavior…. My life is rife with it. Anyone else want to borrow these rose-colored glasses for a moment?
So back to this elderly thing. As I was listening to the show, I thought of all the elderly people I know personally as friends or neighbors or acquaintances and I started running through the list to see if I have been out of contact with them. I thought about my wonderful former neighbor Clara, a lady who had married a Jewish man who had survived WWII and moved to NYC from Hungary to start a new life free. I hadn’t spoken with her in a while, so I called her to say Happy New Year.
“Hello,” I said, once she had answered. “This is Erin, your former neighbor?” “Yes.” Silence. “I just wanted to wish you Happy Hannukah and Happy Christmas and Happy New Year!” “Yes,” she said, “you too.” And then she hung up.
Okay! So I knew she was fine.
I thought of Manny, a sweet old gentleman who used to live in my building and always was asking me out for dinner. He would walk up to me in the courtyard of the building with a bag of grapefruits and say, “Here! These are for you!” “Thank you,” I would say, and smile. “When you are not working,” he asked often, “Do you ever eat dinner?” “Sure,” I said, not quite getting what he was asking. “I eat dinner.” “Great,” he would answer, at about 82 years of age, “I can pick you up at 8.” Manny had asked me on a date. J
One day I walked up to get the mail and he was standing there, looking disheveled, trying to open the mailbox with his car key. He had no other key with him.
“Do you have the right key?” I asked him, looking into his eyes, which, once bright blue and twinkling, now were covered with a filmy glaze.
“I don’t know, I think they changed the locks,” he said.
It turns out Manny had suffered a stroke and just a few weeks later he had died. That was a sad day.
Then I thought of an elderly person I do not really enjoy. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that. I’m supposed to be little Miss Nice Nice, right? It’s my template!
But my grandmother taught me a valuable lesson when I was a young girl. She taught me that you do not have to like everybody…. But that the value was in being kind to everybody.
So I sighed. Janis. I don’t think she reads my blog but quite honestly even if she did I think she’d admit she’s a tough one. I don’t know, though. Maybe not!
She was another neighbor at my old building. She lived kitty corner from me and always confused me with the girl who lived upstairs. I know, because I would say “Hi!” every time I saw her. She moved very slowly and was mostly blind. She would look up from her dowager’s hump, bent over stance through thick, thick glasses. “Oh, hi,” she would say with a little nervous laugh punctuating the end of every sentence. “Hi, heh, heh.” “How are you today?” I would ask. “Are you that b#$% that lives upstairs?” she’d ask.
Now the first time she swore like that- by the way she always swore like a sailor, which was totally disconcerting coming out of a little old lady in pink polyester pants and a floral sweater- I was really shocked. I am not used to Grandma ladies having such salty speech! I guess both of my grandmothers were very proud ladies- still wore lipstick every day kinda gals, still had posters of Clark Gable up in their closet kinda women. So may I say, I was flabbergasted.
“No, no,” I answered on several occasions. “I’m Erin. I live across the hall from you.”
“Oh, heh, heh,” she answered, “Because I was going to tell you to shut the f#$% up! You’re so loud at night. Last night you were so loud with all your banging and noise that I couldn’t sleep so I banged my broomstick on the ceiling.”
“Uh, nope! Not me. I live in 103.”
“Oh, well tell the girl upstairs to be quiet, would ya? I can’t get any f#$%ing sleep.”
Ah, those were among the pleasanter conversations with Janis.
When I moved out of that building, one day, I had a number of flattened out boxes propping the door open to the building. I was running them into my apartment and I saw Janis come out of her unit with some garbage to throw away and some mail to send. I knew she might not see the boxes so I ran out and said, “Janis! It’s Erin. There are some boxes here in your way, I just wanted to let you know.”
“Oh, that’s not very convenient,” she said.
“Oh, they will be there only a few more minutes,” I said.
“I doubt that,” she muttered.
“Can I take care of those things for you? Mail the letter and throw the garbage for you?” I asked.
She clutched the garbage to her chest. “No, I just need to mail this letter and throw away my garbage,” she answered.
“Ah,” I said. “Well let me take your arm and help you navigate the boxes,” I said.
“Oh, okay, heh, heh.” I took her arm and began helping her walk (VERY VERY VERY SLOWLY) through the threshold of the building. “You moving in?” she asked.
“No, I am moving out. It’s me, Erin, I’ve lived here for two years?” I said.
“Yeah, I know who you are,” she said. She stopped, thought for a moment, and said, “You ain’t that opera singer, are you?”
“I am,” I said, smiling. I was smiling rather like a fool, because most of the folks in my building had stopped by to say good-bye and how much they would miss me singing in the afternoons.
“Yeah, you’ve been bugging the s#$% outta me for months,” she said.
“Ah,” I said, supporting her left elbow as she took a tenuous step. “Well, lucky for you, I’m moving out, so you won’t have to hear me any more.” I thought that was very judicious on my part and was about to congratulate my enlightened behavior (ha.ha.) when she continued:
“You know, you ain’t that good, honey. Just runnin’ them scales up and down all day. You ain’t that good.”
I thought about it for a second. That might be true. I might not be that good. Then again, I might be. Then again, she might be partially deaf.
“Well, thanks for the feedback,” I said.
I helped her down the last step toward the garbage bin and sprung back to finish packing.
My ex-boyfriend Mike used to say, “Let no good deed go unpunished.” I started to fume a bit. After all, I was helping this lady prevent a fall! What a ….
Ah, but then I was just getting sucked into the kind of attachment and conditional behavior that probably created her surly outlook in the first place. I scanned through some of our conversations. She had mentioned to me many times that she had grandchildren than never visited. One had just graduated high school but she wasn’t going to the party because she had no way to get there. I started to feel how lonely she must have been, and then I thought about how hard it must be to be blind and deaf and hunched over and alone in the world. No wonder she wasn’t very nice, she probably didn’t even realize it because the world around her was probably very harsh.
I did think about singing scaled right outside her window, I’ll admit. But I did not. Instead I warmed up as usual and sang my own composition, “Dream”
Well, so back to yesterday and this radio show. I started to worry about my curmudgeonly former neighbor and thought I’d do a little drive by while running errands. The echo of Mike’s old proverb about good deeds echoed in the attic of my mind but quickly got swept up in the cobwebs. I parked in front of the Zen Temple and walked half a block to the building. It was cold for an LA day and I wore my goofy Russian fur cap. I zipped my little cream-colored leather bomber up a little higher as I bounded up the steps and knocked on Janis’ window, which faces the street. She was moving around in the building and seemed to stop when I knocked, but then went back to her movements.
“Janis!” I shouted. I knocked harder. She came over to the window and looked out. She seemed to look right through me. “Janis! It’s me, Erin!” I waved both my arms in the air. “Hello!” She seemed to still not see me at all but opened the window a crack.
“Well I can see you, girl, you don’t have to f#$@ing yell. Heh. Heh.” I have never seen her smile. Ever. And for half a second I thought she was smiling but if she was raising the corners of her lips to the sky, they fell just as fast back into their habituated frown.
“Happy New Year!” I said.
“Yeah?” she asked, as though challenging me.
“I just wanted to stop by and see if you were alright,” I asked.
“Of course I ain’t,” she answered. “Whaddya want to remind me of that for?”
I stood back, surprised.
“Oh,” I said… I truly didn’t know what to say. I wondered if I should have brought flowers. Then I thought about the silliness of it all. I was trying to help but maybe I was no help at all. Maybe she hated me. Maybe I reminded her of a backstabbing friend from youth, the neighbor her husband had an affair with, the girl that competed in school, an abusive teacher, a mean mother… Maybe she just didn’t like other people getting in her business. Maybe she hated opera. Maybe she was tired. Maybe this was the way she expressed love. Maybe I was out of line. Maybe she didn’t need any help at all.
She closed the window and went back to what she was doing and I stood there for a moment, wondering just what it was I was looking for whenever I did good deeds…
See, I like being a bleeding heart do-gooder, but really, it’s all about my self-esteem. The proof of that is in this idea, that if I truly cared I would not be sitting in my four poster canopy bed in my beautiful new green velvet robe typing from the comfort of my warm house with a puppy curled up next to me. I would be digging irrigation ditches in Niger, or witnessing for a chemically dependent homeless lady at an AA meeting, or nursing a crack baby. I’d be doing…. Something.
But then again, maybe I do care. Maybe I’m just doing the best I can, trying to be a good person, trying to be of service to what is in front of me but with boundaries about my own life… the best I can… kind of like… Janis.
Maybe Janis can do better. Maybe she could be nicer. But maybe I could stop needing her to make a show of happiness on my account. Maybe I could just have room for a salty old biddy who is sick and tired of the loud neighbors.
Maybe transformation and peace isn’t always some magical story about a young do-gooder and an old lady who sat down to have tea and came to laugh together in a non-sequitur friendship akin to a Hallmark movie. Maybe transformation and peace is in the opening up to all experiences of life. If I am less attached to things going a certain way, maybe I can be funnier, more available, a better actress, more at peace in my own heart and less needy for this old world of humanity to be somehow different than it is. Maybe the revolution really is within?
Well, let us go then, you and I, as the evening is spread out against the sky…
(The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot…. Viewable/ readable here: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html)
And let us bring courage to every encounter, especially the ones that are not going to work out the way we hoped, (by the way that would be probably almost all of them). Let us be surprised by people’s behaviors and find the humor and joy in a gal who can swear better than my grandpa and who tells you her truth even though she may be deaf. Let us feel the stinging feelings of human interaction not as any truth or punishment but as a moment in time that gives us an insight into one another. Let us look into one another’s eyes, and let us be available to love in any form it takes. For I am no nihilist, no, nor was meant to be… am an attendant lover… glad to be of use… at times, the Fool.
But more often, I am Prufrock’s Mermaid, “riding seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back/ When the wind blows the water white and black….” Yes, I am singing, each to each, and I AM singing to you… ‘til human voices wake us….
Happy New Year, everyone! Have a great day, and please, let my tale inspire you to help another today just for the fun of it in your own heart. Love, of the deepest sort, to you my friend.