BARREN

This is what it looks like when writer’s block sets in. In the morning a thought appears: I should write a piece for the blog. And then reality takes over and before I know it, I’ve tried everything to avoid doing it: writing. This has happened every day since I’ve been back and until this moment it had succeeded in making me more barren than sand dunes in the Sahara. Continue reading

BEING BEAUTIFUL

1939-6 Trip home SS Manhattan15042014 (4)My Mother was beautiful. She was a New York model way back in the 30’s. My grandmother used to take her to work so no man would tempt her away. My grandmother always talked about how beautiful my Mother was. “When she walked into a room” she would say, “everyone would turn around to look at her.” She was really beautiful. There was a photograph of her in a long dress, the clinging kind, sleeveless and with a v-neck, not a crease or wave, it clung to her body like a swim suit, her head is slightly turned, one knee just barely bent, she is looking at something off in the distance, perhaps just above the horizon, I can see the photograph in my mind as if I had it in front of me today. My Mother was beautiful. My Father said it too. He would look at her as she came towards him across the room; he didn’t have to say it. His eyes, his face said it over and over: your Mother is beautiful. My friends would say it: your Mother is really beautiful, the boys, they would say it. Fifty years later, someone I knew then said to me: your Mother was really beautiful: he remembered, fifty years later. She was that beautiful. I remember her back in the 50’ies when wide circular skirts were in, putting on a dress with a circular skirt. “Twirl for me, Mommy”, and she would spin around, the skirt flying out in a perfect circle around her, showing me her long, slim legs and the silk white panties that were worn then, up to the waist and with little legs that went down a couple of inches. She was beautiful.

In the living room, she would dance with my Father. Round and round, floating in his arms, perfectly in tune with each step, her head slightly thrown back, tilting from side to 1958-2-jan-helens-house-4side as she followed his perfect rhythm. Beautiful. I used to brush her hair. I used to watch her put on her makeup. I never tired of looking at her. There seemed to be no one else in the world; the whole space was taken up by my Mother’s beauty. There was none left for me.

I was not beautiful. I was intelligent. My Grandmother said I was intelligent. She had said that about my aunt too, my Mother’s sister: my Mother was beautiful, my Aunt was intelligent. My Grandmother did things like that: she labeled people, situations, happenings. Opinionated. My Grandmother was opinionated and her opinion was that my Mother was beautiful and my Aunt was intelligent. I discovered later that my Mother was also intelligent. My Aunt was screwed-up, her life was shitty, she was not intelligent or beautiful. Her daughter was not the favorite granddaughter, I was the favorite maybe because my Mother was beautiful and my Grandmother couldn’t stop looking at her either. It seems that no one could.

I was not beautiful, and that would not have been a problem if I hadn’t wanted to be beautiful. However, I not only wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be more beautiful than my Mother, but I pretended that being intelligent was more important because from very early on I realized that there was no way in God’s world that I would ever be even half as beautiful as my Mother. So on the outside I poo-poohed physical beauty and sang the glories of intelligence, but when I looked in the mirror, I would have given every iota of intelligence to look like my Mother or better.

My Mother was also thin. She looked to me as if she had the perfect figure. My Father drooled. He said there were Breast-Men and Butt-Men and he was a Breast-Man. My Mother had big breasts and a tiny waist that showed them off. I had a big butt and no breasts and, until I was about twenty, no waist of which to speak. I was so ashamed of my “bee-stings” as my Grandmother called them, that when “sex raised its ugly head” (which was what she attributed adolescent evils to) I was quicker to take off my panties than to unbutton my blouse. There was no way I could be beautiful, not with my Mother around and there was no getting rid of her. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway; she was installed in my head from very, very early on. I had to be intelligent so I worked at it very hard. My Mother, when I was an adolescent, informed me that “Men prefer dumb women”, that was not encouraging, but I had no choice: I couldn’t be the beautiful one. To make things worse, I didn’t even like my Aunt, who was supposed to be the one who had gotten the brains (and all I could see was that she had gotten the neuroses) so I had to find another model to be intelligent like. I might have chosen my Grandmother, who was almost my favorite person on Earth after my Father, but my Father insisted that she was common: “I could never understand how such a lady like your PERICOMother could come from someone so common” he would say.  That didn’t leave many people to choose from, so I ended up wanting to be like my Father: intelligent, and, of course, a man. I don’t have to explain the problems I faced on that front; most girls from my times wanted to be their Fathers. Even my Grandmother, who thought my Mother was the most beautiful thing alive, considered that she did not “deserve” a man as Good as my Father. “Women are devious” she stated without a shadow of a doubt in her voice: “Boys are much better than girls, more up front” and considering that I was her favorite, it was hard to figure out.

Anyway, as anyone can guess by now, at the age of 15 I was one hell of a mess inside while trying desperately to keep up external appearances so no one would catch on. It was around that time that, one evening at home I suggested we order Pizza Pie for dinner.

“Don’t be stupid” my Father said, fulminating me with one of his you-are-the-lowest-form-of-life looks; “ ‘Pizza’, in Italian, means ‘Pie’ so Pizza Pie is redundant” and he launched into an explanation of the origins of pizza, or something like it. When he finished, I assumed a smart-aleck look on my face and, with a wink at my Mother, asked: “Can we at least order the pizza-pie now?”

I thought he was going to go into melt-down under the heat of the rage that invaded him: “You… YOU have the sensitivity of a rhinoceros” he growled and left the room.

I was fixed. That was it. Not intelligent, not beautiful, not a man, not a figure worth commenting on (no bust, all butt): a rhinoceros. Straight and simple: the rest of the ride was downhill until about the age of 50.

By that time, I had forgotten about the problem of not being beautiful, or at least moved it into the darkest corner of the subconscious, and had taken up trying to look at least decent and clean with the wrinkles that had begun to appear on my face and the slight hang that the skin under my chin insisted on having. I had given up on becoming a man all together when I married and had two children, not because I liked the role, but because it was inevitable: it is hard to be the man when you have married one and installed yourself in a house with him and are confronted every morning with the fact of who has the “hardware”.

Life had not gotten any easier given all the “nots” (and you can spell that with a “k” if you like) that had accumulated: not beautiful, not thin, not intelligent, not a man, not a good mother, not a good housewife, not a successful writer… not, not, not. It’s a wonder I could even live with myself, as if I had had a choice.

Surprisingly enough, after years of psychotherapy and alternative systems that taught you how to hate your father out loud and how to feel superior to your mother then aged 75, at 60 I believed I had undone most if not all the knots and was living a pretty decent and peaceful (if not gloriously happy) life.

Then Chus came along. Chus is short for María Jesús, and María Jesús was only 30 to my 60, had long wavy black hair to my eternally straight, thin blond stuff, and seemed much surer of herself than I had ever felt in my entire life. Chus and I had what I term “our little encounter” when we were thrown together to staff a weekend workshop of the most recent therapy on the market. There I found a plus that gave me an unexpected status: I was a good organizer. Chus had everything else, but she was just about the most disorganized, flighty, unstable person I have ever met and she was supposedly in charge of the event (even though she kept telling everyone that she wasn’t and disappearing to prove it). I was flooded with a sense of my own superiority and set about showing it with how-can-you-be-so-incompetent looks in her direction at every chance, until finally I just took over the whole shebang and set about organizing so that we could pull the event off.

Everything went smoothly in the end, mostly because there was a marvelous team and there wasn’t much to organize as long as someone was willing to coordinate the energy and creativity of the rest. Chus and I did not fight, and ended up hugging and giving each other a big kiss and congratulating each other on the success. It was therefore a surprise when she phoned me about a week later and said: “I have done a worksheet on you and I want to read it to you”. In this therapy, when there is a conflict or resentment, we write our judgments about the other person, question the veracity of the thoughts and judgments and then turn them all around to ourselves; it is very effective. We made a date for the following day and met at the park bench we had agreed upon. Chus read her page. Her judgments about my controlling nature, my power struggles, my unpleasant looks were right on and I could only nod in agreement thankful that we had already solved those issues on our last meeting. On question five, however, one is supposed to list the “disagreeable” things that one thinks about the other person, and I was in for the surprise of my life. Chus was a little uncertain about reading her list, but decided to go ahead and do it just as it was written on her sheet:

“You are controlling, demanding, bossy, old and UGLY” she said turning slightly red on pronouncing the last words. I had no problem with the first four, there was no doubt in my mind that I was all those things, and many more as my ex husband had delighted in confirming during our rather painful divorce (is there any other kind?). But no one in my whole life, not even me, had ever used the word UGLY to describe me. Even “rhinoceros” was not UGLY. And now, there it was.

For a moment it hung there, suspended in the air between us; it echoed in my ears and everything stood still. Then suddenly it burst forth, broke out and entered my chest as if it were an enormous, beautiful, free bird opening everything inside of me for the first time.

“Oh my god!” I gasped. “I’m free.” I felt the wings, I felt the beating of those enormous wings, ugly-ugly-ugly-ugly, taking off inside of me as if my heart would burst with love and joy and freedom. I looked at Chus who was still gasping at how she had dared say such a terrible thing to me, and cried: “Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I finally heard it, that most feared word. What a gift, thank you, thank you…” and I was crying and laughing and hugging her.

“I’m sorry…” she began to stammer, but I stopped her.

“You just gave me the greatest gift I have ever received” I said, knowing that there was no way I could explain or she could understand. But I understood, finally, after 60 years of trying to be more beautiful than I was, of trying to always see myself in the mirror as beautiful, of fearing that someone would find me not-beautiful, of struggling in an ever losing battle, with the frustration and impossibility of being what one is not, I understood: it was so clear, as crystal clear as the tears of joy streaming down my cheeks: She had said I was Ugly, and nothing had changed in or on me; she could have said I was Beautiful and nothing would have changed: I just WAS. What she saw or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. What I saw in the mirror or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. I was what I was what I was and someone at times would see me as beautiful, and others at other images8k7044mftimes would see me as ugly and others wouldn’t even see me, and NOT ONE CELL IN MY BODY, NOT ONE BREATH IN MY EXISTENCE WOULD CHANGE, EVER. I was just me, and in the moment I heard the word “ugly” that knowledge became an experience that expanded like the wings of the UGLY bird that nested in my chest forever. That, whatever it was, was Being Beautiful. Yes Man!!!

AWAKENING

Slowly the mind seeps into consciousness. I am awakening. Morning. A feeling of sadness creeps up towards my throat and then down to the solar plexus. Not strong, slightly heavy. Really no problem… until the mind begins, and the mind does begin.

‘Sad’ it says, and the feeling increases a bit. ‘Getting old’ it says a few times; ‘nowhere to go, nothing to do, future downhill’.  Then, as it has now defined a ‘problem’, it begins to look for ‘solutions’. I observe. ‘Maybe if I lived closer to my children’. Which one, I wonder. What for, I ask myself shaking my head lightly. Now I am fully awake and I explain to this drowsy wandering mind that I have no place in the lives of my children, that I have no life of my own at the moment in either of the places where they live, and that I do NOT want to spend these still active years taking care of grandchildren (Good God! They’re too old to need taking care of anyway; it would be more like their taking care of me and that certainly would bore them all the way out of any love they might have!). Just think what a bother I would be: a bored, frustrated bother. What in the world would I do with myself?

The mind continues: ‘Get a project. Go to Africa like Wendy, join a volunteer organization like the Red Cross, go to Haiti to help sweep up after the quake, make yourself useful.’ Africa…. hmmm, could be interesting. It could also be deadly, a woman my age. ‘Wendy went, she is your age.’ Yes, and she got kidney stones from dehydration and had to be operated on. ‘She married an African 20 years her junior.’ I don’t want to marry an African and run an orphanage; I don’t like children that much. Wendy has a hang up about never having had children; she is satisfying her frustrated maternity. Not for me.

By this time, I have opened my eyes and am running my hand over Salomé’s tummy. Salomé is the love of my life at this moment. I scratch her behind her furry ears. She closes her bright, brown miniature-schnauzer eyes and cuddles closer to me. Better than Prozac. Something begins to open in my chest and I hear myself whispering: “Thank you, thank you, I’m so grateful” over and over until I feel the gratitude filling my heart. My chest expands, all heaviness disappears, there is opening as I take a long, deep breath. “Thank you, thank you, I’m so grateful”. Salomé has sat up and is looking at me, trying to figure out if I am speaking to her. I smile; she licks my hand with her rough pink tongue. “Thank you, thank you, I’m so grateful.”

Suddenly, I am filled with gratitude and wonder. I have such a busy life, there is so much to do –and I love it all- that I barely have time to watch a film on the DVD occasionally. Where in the world would I find time to go to Africa! Suddenly I can see my life. I can see me creating exercises for the workshops I give twice a month, giving the workshops, seeing private clients who want to learn to do the work I teach, the beloved work that has brought me to this place of peace inside, this freedom that even allows me to contemplate migrating to California or Africa, knowing I could do it if the impulse moved me. ‘All this and heaven too’, my mind says as I realize that I am busy enough to almost not have time to write. Almost.

Salomé has jumped down to look for a ball in hopes that I am awake enough to play. I roll over on my side and close my eyes again. It has been almost 18 years since I began my second life. The first one –the one where I was wife, mother, homemaker- ended after 30 years. Jokingly I often say now “30 years of forced labor and I retired”. Don’t professionals get their retirement after 30 years in a company? Well, I had been in the company of my husband for 30 years and I retired. It sounds better in Spanish: we say “jubilada” which means ‘jubilated’ or released into joy, into jubilation. “Thank you, thank you, I’m so grateful.”

I love my children, I loved my family, I loved my husband (I still do, and it makes me so happy that he has found someone else to live with), and I was ready to be free and to be me for the first time in my adult life: I was ready to BE.

The slight morning heaviness is gone. Outside the window, the day is cloudy. Rain. ‘Don’t forget your umbrella.’ Sometimes the mind takes care of necessary details. ‘It is Wednesday.’ Wednesday… Wow! It’s Wednesday! Train Day! Today I go from Madrid to Barcelona on the AVE (which means “bird of prey”) that has a white engine car shaped like the head of an eagle, with two bright red eyes when it is in the station, and reaches a speed of over 300 km/hour. To me it is the most beautiful train I have ever seen and to ride in it once a week is a treat.   images0gxduljb That may seem strange, considering that the 3 hour ride is to see a sport’s doctor for a pain under my shoulder blade that has lasted almost a year, but the AVE is one of the gifts of having that pain. Three hours out and three back. Six hours of absolute freedom to do with what I want. Absolutely alone with myself. I don’t need to talk to anyone or take any calls on my cell phone unless I want to. Just me and the beautiful train.

Now I have leapt out of bed. Salomé has hopefully brought the old sock with the ball inside to see if I will play, but I have other things to do. Mind is busy now: ‘Don’t forget to take out booklets and program for Saturday’s conference’. I wonder what car I am in on the AVE. The tickets are on the dresser: 7. Good! I usually am in 8, and 7 is one car closer to the cafeteria car which is number 4.

Morning chores: breathing exercise, molding massage, shower, Chi Kung, walk to park with Salomé, glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in the local café –one of the few places in Madrid that allows dogs. Back home, breakfast, answer e-mails, gather material for Saturday’s conference, watch clock. Eleven a.m. and I am free! Walk to corner with bag hitched over left shoulder (spare right one). Heavy with two sandwiches and a Tupperware full of fresh lettuce, nuts and cheese, dressing: healthier than the food on the train.

Thanks to the new aches and pains that seem to appear as time pushes on, I now take care of myself much more than before. Until the body began making demands, I gloriously ignored it. However, on Wednesdays I allow myself to go to the train cafeteria and buy a bag of chips and a coca-cola. Junk food.

My bag also contains my notebook and several ball-point pens (in case one or more run out of ink). It is my writing day. I usually spend the three hours outward trip writing at least one full vignette for this book -sometimes I manage two- and gazing at intervals at the shifting countryside racing by. The multicolored earth. Tones of pale beige through gold and onto green. Olive groves and softly rising hills. Little towns whisking by, their red tile roofs and church steeples, occasionally the ruins of an ancient castle on the highest hill. I write and gaze and write some more, then breathe deeply: it goes by so fast.

I have no idea what I will write today. On the corner, I hop a cab and the minute I settle in the seat and give the driver instructions to take me to the train station, my mind begins: ‘Slowly the mind seeps into consciousness. I am awakening…’ and my hand has extracted pen and paper and is making notes.220px-invernadero_de_atocha_madrid_-_view_2

Atocha, the largest train station in Madrid, is in itself a delight. An enormously long rectangular building three stories high with an arched glass roof, it contains a tropical rain forest. Yes, a live one with a mist-making watering system that keeps it humid. At one end of the dark green forest with its huge spreading leafy plants, there is a swampy pool containing hundreds of turtles of all sizes. It is definitely overpopulated, and turtles crawl upon other turtles to take spells out of the water and dry off. The air around is filled with the chirping of myriad sparrows who find the cool, green, humid habitat more inviting than the bustling traffic outside.

Today I am late, so I don’t pause to enjoy the strangeness of an inside forest. I arrive at the gate barely 4 minutes before closing time. Another minute’s walk and I am on the train. Sighing, I settle back in my seat, release the individual table from the seatback in front of me, spread my notebook out and continue writing: ‘Sad’ it says… I know that I must get my writing done on the way out: coming back I am usually tired, my body protests the sheer torture of the treatment, the needles and painful massage, and I allow myself to watch the movie, read a book or simply doze.images2pbzar1t

A half hour later, when I glance up at the luminous panel at the front of car 7, I see we are travelling at 303 km/hr. The morning’s heavy grey clouds accompany the landscape that whisks by. And the silence, the train makes no noise, people watch the movie or doze or read or work on their computers. Silence. “Thank you, thank you, I’m so grateful.”

I wonder if this treat, this being in love with the train ride, is the reason my shoulder doesn’t seem to finish getting better. ‘Well, now: there is a possibility. I could take out an AVE ticket to different places on all my Wednesdays; write as I travel, have lunch in Sevilla or Córdoba or Aranjuez or Valencia or Jerez or Murcia and return in the afternoon.’ I watch my mind turning over the possibility and smile. I could do that, nothing to stop me now. What fun!

Yes, I whisper to my heavy mind of the morning: you see, we are free. Wednesday can be our day, no clients, no programming workshops, no answering e-mails or even afternoon walks with Salomé; no having to plan or procure lunch. All day, surrounded by strangers with whom we will not talk at all (unless they are handsome and charming and want to flirt). So you see, I tell my silly morning mind, I really do have a full life here, no need to run to children or to Africa or anywhere for that matter. For the time being there is nothing but gratitude at 300 km/hr “Thank you, thank  you, I’m so grateful.”