Belated Happy Birthday, Mom

My mother, Evelyn, who died thirteen years ago today, would have turned 95 years old yesterday. I had intended to write something touching about her, and started on this yesterday, but … shoot, sorry, mom.

I found myself sitting at the piano yesterday working out a song she used to sing, a popular ditty from the 1940s called Mairzy Doats. My father would be driving the car, we’d be on a longish trip somewhere, and suddenly my mother would burst into song, with only slight self-consciousness, imposed by her husband. He was also a good singer who’d soulfully croon a handful of notes, the hook of a beautiful ballad, and cut himself off after five or six syllables. My father was well-known for singing just enough to let you know that he could actually sing, but not a note more, and he was equally famous for inhibiting my mother’s singing.

Evelyn loved to sing and my father’s side-eye as he drove was not always enough to make her stop, though it did make her a little self conscious. Nonetheless, as we drove across some bridge she’d suddenly sing “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lamzy divey, a kiddleedivey too, wouldn’t you?”

Now all these years later, being a proficient guitar player finally, and surprised to find a certain facility on the keyboard lately, which helps me work out songs I’m trying to learn, I find Mairsy Doats is a pretty hip little tune to play, in a nostalgic, artfully written pop tune kind of way. The singer explains in the B part, “and though the words may sound queer to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey, say ‘mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” And this B part, if I may say, I could play the hell out of this B part on the guitar, and it works out just fine on the keyboard, thank you.

And as I played and sang the song on the piano yesterday, with the sheet music from an actual paper song book, Songs of World War Two, which also, of course, had the lyrics, I called out “Happy Birthday, Mom!”

I thought to myself what a goddamn shame I couldn’t have played this simple, jumping accompaniment thirty or forty years ago and let my mom just sing it. Same with “Do Nothing till you Hear From Me” another genius tune from the genius Duke Ellington, my father would sing just that riff, with the opening line, the riff that Ellington placed over three different sets of chord changes to such brilliant effect. I could have backed both of them on a tenor ukulele, if things had been different.

But again, as in my mother’s actual life, my love and birthday greetings for her get mixed up in a lot of bullshit that has little or nothing to do with her.

It was my mother’s love, and, as I realize now, that she never gave me reason to doubt her love, that literally saved my life in the brutal war zone my sister and I were forced to grow up in. As I emailed the day before yesterday to a genius from high school (truly, one of only two I’ve ever met in this long life of mine):

Tomorrow I’ve got to write something sensitive about my mother, who’d be 95 tomorrow.  I’ve realized only very recently that in spite of [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] she never let me doubt her love for me in that war zone I grew up in and in the end she always listened to me.  Even if I couldn’t change her mind, which I sometimes did, she always eventually heard me out — which is no small thing.  Probably saved my life, actually.

Thanks again, mom, for giving me life, and saving it time and again, by simply listening with an open mind and a loving heart.


The prison of our minds

There’s a famous story I’m thinking of, as I can’t find my way out of the loop of my two closest friends suddenly and irrevocably withdrawing their friendship from me.   The final communication was now almost four months ago, and it was just my old friend confirming that he would not be honest in trying to resolve our senseless conflict.  I have no illusion about anything involving that long running shitshow, understanding fully now how deadly any conflict is with this inexorable personality type. 

Yet, almost every day, as similar things are played out constantly in mainstreamed extremist politics — projection, incoherence, lies, vilification — I am reminded of my painful struggle to prevent the fatal falling out with my two old friends. They shocked me by continually using every familiar MAGA technique to blame and silence me.

Two monks who haven’t seen each other in many years meet in the forest.  They greet each other and one asks the other “do you still think about those sadists who held us captive and tortured us?”

“No,” says the monk “how about you?”

“I think of them every day and I never think about them without wishing karma to descend on them so that they hurt the way we did when they tortured us” says the other monk.

“Then you are still their prisoner,” says the more enlightened monk.  

True enough.

The thought that consoles me, as I am still the prisoner of thoughts of the brutal unfairness of the mistreatment I experienced at the hands of people who claimed to love me, is that I have no ability, at the moment, to blow off much  steam, to get things out of my system physically.  Strenuous exercise is always good for relieving much of that kind of tension.  In recent years I’d go for long, fast paced walks to clear my head, now I can only walk a block at a time, painfully, before I have to sit and rest.  Try clearing your head with that kind of halting walk. 

So the pain in my ailing knees reminds me to go easy on myself for not being able to break fully out of the prison I can’t think my way out of at the moment.  Mercy is a great gift to give yourself. When I am back in shape, after my knee replacement and rehab, I intend to flush the rest of this ugliness out of my system, daily.

When the truth bites you in the ass

Sometimes you can’t avoid a truth you would rather not confront. Without looking squarely at the actual situation, and understanding how it works, no solution will ever be possible. So if you are tormented in a relationship you will need to find a way to grasp the dynamic, and assess the damage being done, before you can end the torment.

A parent’s overwhelming need to feel in control and infallible, constantly undermining your own needs is a brutal thing to look at directly. It is natural to make accommodations, learn to accept blame for things you didn’t actually do, flatter the parent when necessary, learn when to withdraw, swallow a response, put on a false smile. These do not really solve anything, but they keep the ongoing harm to a minimum since you avoid fresh conflict with them.

The next step, the painful but freeing one, is understanding that this parent is not capable of behaving any better. They are stuck in unresolved pain from their own earlier life. They may not know how to resolve conflicts peacefully. You may tell everyone that your mother is a goddess, and she may smile, and bask in your admiration, but if you explain that you were calling your mother a goddess only to avoid her rage, she will make you pay for your unappreciated candor.

There are truths we resist because they undermine things we value greatly. At the same time, there is no healthy alternative when you understand the mistreatment you’ve been forced to tolerate. Someone who forces you to tolerate the intolerable does not love you very well.

What is hateful to you do not do unto another” is an excellent and practicable formulation of the Golden Rule. We all know what we hate, we probably know it better than almost anything. So if I am doing something to you that I hate done to me, you will, and should, point this out to me. If my answer is “yeah, you hate it, maybe even I hate it, but fuck you, this is all you deserve and all you’ll ever get from me” you should very much take me at my word.

Every day that you don’t take me at my word, and hope that somehow love will prevail, is a day that the unacknowledged truth (that my final word to you is fuck your fucking feelings, asshole) is taking another giant bite out of your ass. In the end you’ll have no ass left, a very bad way to live.

beautiful comment

I was listening to the original Walter Huston recording of Kurt Weill’s haunting and beautiful September Song (lyrics by Maxwell Anderson), a melody he wrote for Huston’s limited vocal range. Houston’s version is indeed a beauty. So was this comment below the YouTube video, from seven years back.

Why I write everyday

The world doesn’t care very much about any one of us. In fact, it doesn’t care at all. We are fortunate if we have people who love us and treat us with kindness, but as for the world itself, it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any one of us. It has seen billions and billions of us come and go, often dying violently for no real reason, except that somebody else is angry and takes it out on us in a lethal fashion. The universe itself is clearly indifferent to any individual’s existence.

Hey, that’s a nice Merry Christmas Eve, fella!

That’s not the point, that’s the background. In a universe that is indifferent we have a need to connect ourselves to others who care. And so in this age of the internet, with the illusion of connection to everybody else alive and staring at their phones, we send out our beacon to find others who might have suffered the same things we have, who might care, who might benefit from our thoughts and feelings if we can set them out clearly.

At this moment in history when American deaths of despair have reached these terrible proportions, when millions of isolated people have literally given up on the idea of love, kindness, companionship, decency and fair treatment, voices of calm, voices of reassurance, are so important.

When I write, I feel a connection to people I have never met. It is in part an illusion, since few people ever read these words, but the connection is also real. These posts take on a kind of life, they can be read anytime, they can be found when you might need to find something like them and derive some sense of comfort from knowing that somebody else has gone through things very similar to what you have gone through.

It may comfort you to know that you are not the only person who spent childhood in a senseless war zone, trying to make peace with an insanely implacable foe, and although you are wounded and scarred by this kind of upbringing, it doesn’t have to destroy you.

It may comfort you to know that if you love doing something very much, writing for example, if you do it every day you will get better and better at it. I don’t know that I have much native musical talent, but after half a century of loving to play music I’m a very good self-taught instrumentalist.

Love really is all you need, it makes the world go round. Lack of love is responsible for every terrible mistake that humans make, certainly every act of violence. Loving what you do is a net good. Spend some time everyday doing what you love, you will not regret it.