Are you feeling sad lately? Confused? Broke? Paranoid? Victimized? Do you have a nagging sore throat or sinus infection that will not respond to an anti-biotic? Is your cell phone off the hook? Is your computer slow? Are your library books and video’s overdue? Are you chewing your fingernails? Is there a hole in your sock or underwear that keeps expanding? Is your waist expanding at the same rate?
Are you aging rapidly? Do you have sudden outbursts of anger, hysterics, psychosis? Do you check Orbitz for cheap one-way flights to Morocco? Have you stopped plucking your eyebrows? After you fork some dog food in your pet’s dish, do you use the same fork without washing it off? Are you learning to juggle?
Do you make a daily trip to the liquor store? Are you padding your resume, jockey shorts or bra? Are you eating too many beans? Is there dog turd lodged in your sneaker grooves? Is your Christmas tree still up? Are you leaving the caps off your condiments so that they dribble and leave a sticky, oozing film on the floor of your refrigerator? Did you get your fingers pinched in a slot machine?
Is there a dust ball under your bed that looks like a toupee? Are you faking multiple orgasms? Have you recently changed your name legally? Instead of Sierra Club, do you have a Dunkin Donut’s wall calendar and is there a huge dripping donut staring at you for the month of March? When you use public rest rooms, do you leave stall door ajar?
Did you forget to change the oil in your car this decade? Are you trying to start smoking? Are you building a bomb in your basement? Do you need entry into a Witness Protection Program? Did you kill somebody by mistake?
Don’t worry about it. The gift of this recession is that everyone is nuts and we finally have a good reason. Enjoy!
I tore open the holiday gift basket (you know, the kind with assorted cheap toiletries from a drug store) in the usual manner. Using my teeth, a kitchen knife, all ten fingernails, I just wanted to rip into the thing for a bar of soap. I happened to be out of soap. Otherwise, I might never have opened it. I actually couldn’t believe it was still on my dresser, a month after Christmas, acting as a dust catcher. I didn’t throw it away, like I usually do with stuff that I almost want, but don’t. My life, after years of mindless shopping, was full of stuff. Stuff that I almost wanted, but didn’t. Stuff that I now could never throw away due to the recession my mother had warned me about when still alive and, must to my disgust, recycling her tea bags.
I thought about my mother and her coupon addiction as I jabbed a fork through the pink cellophane wrapping. I dug down for the soap, which was wrapped, like the basket, in a red ribbon with curly yellow tassels on the end. I pulled off the ribbon, grabbed the soap and was about to push all the wrapping into the wastebasket, but didn’t. I considered the red ribbon. It was cheap and filmy, slightly frayed where my teeth had hooked it. I saw a ribbon that might cost, new, about $3.50. My mother had always been right. I’d been wasteful in the past, ignoring the value of a dollar let alone a piece of ribbon.
I decided to save the ribbon, but where? Where, exactly, do you stash a used, torn ribbon so that you’ll find it in a few years, when you need a ribbon? We haven’t cared, have we? We could easily buy all the ribbon we needed, at CVS, 24 hours a day, in every city and town in the United States. The ribbon sat there on the shelves, all year, beautiful and neglected and begging to be bought and used. Most of the time we walk by ribbon on the way to the toothpaste or toilet paper. We know it’s there whenever we need it. We don’t panic about ribbon.
After years of throwing away stuff from abandoned apartments, stuff that I couldn’t bear moving again- to a new state, country, job, boyfriend, wherever I was headed – stuff that went into a big black garbage bag; torn, broken, tired, shrunken, ripped, or perfectly good stuff that I was sick of, I was at a loss. What to do with the ribbon? The world moved fast, and if I was going to keep up, I couldn’t drag around shoeboxes of string, wire, ribbon, rubber bands. Or could I? I tied the ribbon around a flower vase.
I will save ribbon from this day forward. I can feel it. Every object in my life has been imbued with a new value. In years to come, I will never look at a ribbon or any object the same way again, money or no money. Value has attached itself to everything I own, no matter its condition. Tonight, I almost swept a stray pitted olive, left out overnight, in the garbage disposal. I washed it off and popped it in my mouth. It tasted better than ever.
I do not know the physics of non- living objects and how they communicate, but my walls are talking. Not only my walls, but my bureau, bookcase, curtains and bed. The floor, ceiling, window sills. The wastebasket, mirror, door knobs. There is a loud soundless vibration pulsing through my apartment. The place has a personality, and all places do. Take a moment and hear the place that you’re at. You might think that it’s a place in your mind, the way you are reacting to your environment but I suggest that it is the environment itself. It is pressing its identity on you. You and your space are shoulder to shoulder, trying to gain an edge. As Oscar Wilde said on his deathbed, looking at the sickly yellowing wallpaper, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I go.” Well, he went. He exploded, but that’s another story. The walls were closing in on him, and they can do the same to you. Alcoholics warn of geographic cures, believing that you take yourself and your problems wherever you go, and yes, you may take your problems, but you don’t take the place you came from, and that’s the whole idea. Some places just seem right and some seem wrong, especially one’s apartment or house. The houses and apartments absorb all those who went before. They contain the stains of past, or, in the case of brand new houses or apartments, the stains of the future. Don’t ask me why. Go over to a lamp and grab hold of it. It is alive with vibes. It has a temperature, a skin, an attitude. The floor rumbling up through your sneakers, is talking to you, carrying you forward, toward the bureau. You pick up a bottle of aspirin. The bottle speaks to the palm of your hand. The plastic tingles, the pills arrange. All this activity around you, in a silent space. A message in every object. The song of your space. What is it telling you?
It is strangely warm for a Christmas Eve but a crisp, wet winter wind periodically gusts through the outdoor courtyard of the Salvation Café. As the audience begins to trickle in, I find myself privy to their expectations. “I thought it was going to be later, Laurel never performs this early.” whines a local insider trying to explain to her friends why they haven’t time to drink before the performance.
“I thought it was inside. I didn’t dress warmly enough!” utters another disappointed audience member. “I heard Laurel’s crazy, she does her show naked!” stage-whispers a friend of mine, readying herself for an EXPERIENCE.
I begin to think about how low my expectations are. I mean, this is conservative Newport.
But wait, what’s going on? The place is beginning to buzz. People are asking the confused wait staff for extra chairs. I quickly make an approximate head count and am surprised to tally about fifty people huddling together against the chill. Spontaneously, an air of camaraderie develops. People go to their cars for blankets and extra sweaters to share, still others go to a nearby liquor store to fortify themselves with brandy and other belly warming beverages. The ambience begins to take on the feeling of an artsy version of an autumn twilight football game, it’s Al Fresco Theater.
Despite a rational attempt to ground myself, my expectations soar, and just as this energy spreads and everyone nestles down, in walks Laurel Casey, on cue, of course.
So begins our evening’s roller coaster ride, into the contradictory world of Laurel Casey’s search for our cumulative position in the universe. Having enjoyed reading her work, I am struck by the extra dimension added by her performance. This is not a competitive- “I have five minutes to get your attention and be as obnoxious as possible” poetry slam. It is a jazz artist’s dynamic use of spoken word, music, comedy, and audience participation.
Laurel’s relationship with her audience is that of an eccentric cousin, as she cajoles, evokes, interviews, advises, and in this case bribes us with expensive aperitifs (At this performance she brings two huge bottles of the best cognacs and fills our glasses if we’re quiet!”) We wince at her ability to dig up emotions we’d firmly planted in the sand, with eclectic interpretations of seemingly simple standards, (Side by Side, Tiptoe through the Tulips, and Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.) She skids and coasts through ideas, observations, reflections, social and political satire, advice, and confession until we want to be her best friend. Honesty and vulnerability are rare and very attractive.
Suddenly I understand why Laurel is “politically incorrect.” It is convenient for people who need to hear her and take responsibility for creating a world where she doesn’t fit- to dismiss her as angry and crazy. Collectively we make it impossible for her to question the ideals and role models we have created. By boxing her work into a pretty package marked “inappropriate” we handily divest ourselves of any obligations of reflection, or, God Forbid, change.
William Gass, in his Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Shears of the Censor” wrote, “The self censors itself because it does not want to receive or inflict pain. The truth, of course, is a casualty.”
Laurel Casey does not believe in censorship, which is why she is considered a “loose cannon.” Instead, she is two skilled artists in one. She’s a writer, penning insightful anecdotes and essays that resonate with the rusty taste of anguish, but then she is able to improvise these texts “on her feet”, like a jazz musician.
It is evening’s end, and Laurel sings “Lush Life” in a smooth, luscious contralto. No one wants to leave and they say so. “We’re going to catch pneumonia when we sober up.” She warns. Everyone laughs as she goes into a story about planting a rose garden with her daughter a week before an eviction notice. The laughter turns to pensive sadness as Laurel sings “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
Photo: Laurel and Susan
-Sue Lamond, Owner, Salvation Cafe, Newport RI
Why do Chinese restaurants have the low-down, the low-mein, on delivery? I don’t feel well, and I want a steak, a baked potato and a salad. No one in Rhode Island will delivery this fare to my door. Are Italians averse to delivery? When and where exactly did the Chinese delivery phenomena take root, ginger root? I am sick with a cold, still, and wouldn’t mind a meatball or an Irish stew. Actually, I’d settle for a Subway sandwich, but they don’t deliver either. Would someone clue me in? Thank you. – a Truly, at the Moment, starving artist.
David Johnson, the retiring Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts, shot himself on January 15th. The Boston papers were full of reflective eulogies and psychological explanations. Theologians and Philosophers squirmed to find an answer, juggling existential hyperbole with earnest bewilderment as if to convince themselves of their innocence in the matter. After all, if he was privy to the same information they were and chose death over a life much like their own, what did that mean? Did this in some way threaten their integrity as intellectual and spiritual guides — the men who knew all the questions if not the answers?
How could someone explain, in less than three paragraphs, why any man, let alone a bishop who had attained the NEW American Dream would shoot himself in the head? It didn’t make sense.
David Johnson was not merely successful. He was successful in the way that Madison Avenue has recently hyped as chic. He had managed to attain status on both a professional and spiritual level. True to Hollywood standards, he also possessed a tragic hero’s’ “fatal flaw”, which, in his case, manifested itself as an irrepressible passion in a matter pertaining to the flesh. I say “passion” because it is only passion, not merely lust, that would back David Johnson into a corner with a bullet
. In our culture, passion unbridled is even more of a sin than it was 200 years ago. It contains elements of the spiritual and implies a defiance of the Good-Old-American-Boy network which fears the aesthetic, therefore dangerous, notion that a sum can be greater than its parts. Man can be swept away by something greater than himself. John Wayne wouldn’t have let it happen and if he did, it certainly wouldn’t
happen in Boston.
Lust, on the other hand, has become an acceptable, if not imperative, cultural measure of masculine competence. Based solely on physical reactions triggered haphazardly by a thought, an idea, a sensory cue, lust, at first glance, gives off a macho—glow, but is instead spineless, emotional and blood red, like a raw steak. It is considered an appropriate vehicle for free-floating aggression, a made-for-TV-movie version of the apocalyptic terrorizing, ecstatic free-fall I imagine David Johnson experienced. Of course, I am only imagining, for I haven’t seen David Johnson in over ten years and we exchanged less than one hundred words back then. But I’ve found that words, like emotions, can exist without value. They must be shaped into significance with attention paid to the awkward pauses between the words and the mystery behind the emotions. It was David Johnson whose awkward pauses and mysterious nature helped me through a particularly painful part of my life.
I was a young wife and mother in Sarasota, Florida. My days consisted of suntan lotion, picnics, sand castles and iced tea. At night, after the baby fell asleep at my breast, my husband helped me wash the dinner dishes. But it was silent in the kitchen except for the singing locusts and crickets and it was silent in our bedroom. I supposed that was to be expected with money problems and such. I considered myself indulgent with self-pity based on unrealistic expectations.
I was confused as to why a conventional but supportive lifestyle left me wanting, but I took great joy in mothering, singing in Cabaret clubs, and cleaning the house. Trouble was, my head pulsed with a dull consistent ache and seemed stuffed with a thick blue fog. This fog partially lifted at times, just enough for me to peer through it, and recognize its return.
It was through this fog that I first heard David Johnson pausing between religious references in his sermons at St. Steven’s Episcopal Church on beautiful Siesta Key Island. My husband and his family, on and off members of the islands’ Episcopal congregation, decided to dress up and start going back to church when David Johnson came to town. We all heard that there was a very handsome, distinguished man of letters behind the pulpit who knew how to please a crowd. I was introduced to he benefits of an intelligent theologian and the primal fulfillment of religious ritual that my Unitarian past lacked. For the first time in my life I sought and found spiritual solace in a “house of worship”.
No one was more surprised than I was at my regular church attendance. Even on good beach days, I sat in a back pew, watched and sometimes listened to Father Johnson. There was apprehension in his delivery and manner that seemed to torment him. He would pause mysteriously in the midst of a sentence as though he yearned to expand on it. He would then stare out at the congregation, studying a few unsuspecting blue-haired matrons with intensity and puzzlement as though looking for a clue. Sensing futility, he would reluctantly return to the sermon-as-written. I sensed he felt he was failing us in some way. He knew that words were not the vehicles we needed to soothe our wounded psyches and that neither prayer, song, or communion could begin to absolve us of our one apparent sin: existence.
I didn’t listen much anyway, or sing or pray. I just sat motionless, half asleep, my head heavy in the thick blue fog. I tried to figure out why David Johnson had chosen the priesthood. I didn’t sense that he used his robe and collar costume as protective armor but rather survival gear that might allow him access to otherwise dangerously invisible theoretical and emotional territories. Was he a true believer? If so, in what, exactly? What was he struggling to withhold during the awkward pauses in his otherwise flawless sermons?
I knew from reading Rilke and first-hand experience with authority figures that there were no answers, only more questions, but I made an appointment for counseling, driven by the blue fog which, after a few weeks with a bible, I interpreted as a spiritually significant sign from God. A sign that only David Johnson could interpret.
On an unaccustomedly damp and overcast afternoon, I walked into the newly refurbished adobe-styled rectory. It smelled like good leather and money. I felt hopeful. A sunburned church lady, in a starchy dress the color of the inside of my head, quickly adjusted her pinched face, made irritable with unrewarded martyrdom. She smiled whitely.
He looked up at me over his bifocals for a moment and started to say something. In his accustomed manner, he paused and studied my face. He shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. He finally said, “Well…” He paused. I jumped in and finished his sentence. “I guess maybe I should just sing and see what happens.” A pause, then, “you love to sing which may mean….” The pause. He wanted to continue. I felt he wanted to, truly but he didn’t. Why not? I looked at his face. Yes, he did want to continue but — didn’t feel it was his place to do so.
So that was it. The pauses on the pulpit were moments when he concluded that it was not in his place, or anyone’s place, to insinuate that they had an answer. Answers, even attempts at answers, especially those veiled with sobrietous intentions, were oversimplifications and therefore violations of a seeker’s dignity.
He shook the snow paperweight, harder this time. The snow swirled around the caroling child again. We stared at the paperweight together until the snow settled. It took about five minutes. A stream of blazing tropical light flashed across the desk as the sun came out. The dust in the air was spinning like the snow. It seemed like we were inside a larger paperweight. He pulled a book from his shelf and began reading passages that meant nothing and weren’t meant to; just a string of words, soothing, colorful, but empty, like the sound of his voice. They wrapped around me like ribbons but then became thread-like. Threads of pain. I began to understand why I felt a sense of connection to this man who appeared so aloof and introspective. Somehow, in his own strange way, he was validating my pain instead of trying to alleviate it.
I felt his pain, but he did not suggest it. I was spared an indulgence of empathy, a mental state easily manufactured which temporarily satisfies our hunger for emotional connection. But empathy is of-the-moment, short-lived, because it is by nature, a thought based emotion. It is safe. It is passionless. What I felt that afternoon in Reverend Johnson’s office was his capacity for passion, which, in our circumstance, availed
itself as com-passion. I had somehow entered the paradoxical closet he suffered in. On one hand, a withholding – allowing me to reach towards the pauses made awkward by their naked availability, on the other hand, an offering, a surrendering, for in allowing me, or anyone else to reach towards, he could be touched. And passion is ignited not when we touch, but only when we allow ourselves to be touched by others.
I shook David Johnsons hand good-bye a decade ago and never saw him again. When I heard about his new position as Bishop of Massachusetts, I had a hard time picturing him in a passionless Puritan environment. But I wished him well and thought about him whenever I choose passion over emotion, or silence over distraction, because, ever since that Florida afternoon in the adobe rectory I stopped formatting my foggy blue brain for conventional purposes unrelated to a passion, whether it be singing, mud-wrestling or other admittedly peculiar pursuits. I let loose of the reins. Often, I forget about consequences. Sometimes they have been severe, but the blue fog in my head has faded into yellow gold, the color of my daughter’s eyes and she, too, has benefited from my connection with David Johnson.
How do you thank a man for that kind of gift? Certainly not by challenging his final decision and labeling it a tragedy. And not by participating in a psychological autopsy as though filling out the blanks on an application form admitting him into heaven.
The true tragedians are the people who insist on settling their soft bottoms around other people’s souls until they hatch, explode, or suffocate. Their own grief acts as a sturdy vessel, which they feel allows them floatation rights across someone else’s birthright. These well-intentioned emotionally alert care-takers lead active lives, manipulating their pain in warped circus mirrors or reflecting it in quiet pools of meditation and retreat. Unlike David Johnson, they choose to live on and on and on. They’re very busy. They never let the snow settle.