My heart is broken. Broken again, for the 3477th time this life.
“Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time,” wrote E. B. White, to a despairing Mr. Nadeau. The actual first paragraph of White’s letter said:
“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.”
I must say, on this journey, I have met some extraordinary people. Amazing, wonderful people. They hail from disparate walks of life, different races, different cultural backgrounds. Some are immigrants, no two from the same country of origin.
They share a love for Freedom.
They are passionate. They are quirky. They are independent. They tend to be wildly intelligent and creative and brimming with life.
They tend to be honest.
Right now some feel inconsolable.
I feel fortunate to have encountered these souls, who are all, as I am, beset with difficult feelings.
People I considered friends have shown their true colors. I know now who really has my back. It’s painful and it’s good.
I counseled some lovely friends: “We must think of ourselves as the Londoners during the War. They thought God had forgotten them. God-Goddess-All-that-Is hadn’t forgotten them then, and hasn’t forgotten us now.”
But E.B. White that masterful wordsmith said it better:
It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
So tomorrow I will rise too early, as always. Luminate coffee with coconut creamer and coconut sugar, beguiling and delicious. I will wind the clock.
People are sick. People are dying. The COVID-19 respiratory illness is sweeping across the globe. No place will be spared.
Italy is quarantining. Have the Italians stopped their millennia-old practice of bussing on both sides of the face in greeting?
I bet they have. Kissing is for the inviolate.
The macrocosm is a mess. In the microcosm, in the tiny whimsical, poignant slice of All-That-Is that is my personal life, a chaos stew bubbles.
One friend died of a drug overdose.
Did she intend to die?
I was close to her during grad school. I remember her talent, her intellect, and her bright smile. Could I have done anything else to help her?
A beloved family member succumbs to cancer, by degrees. He’s in palliative care now. It’s hard to watch a good man die.
A beloved friend is mentally absent. Something has claimed her wonderful intelligence. She tells me the same stories over and over, sometimes beginning the anecdote mere seconds after finishing it.
I have pulled away from a friend whom I love. I can not tolerate her lack of truthfulness and lack of consistency right now. Usually I can shrug off her failings because I remember my own flaws, and because I have in mind her many wonderful qualities: her extraordinary generosity, her capacity for lovingkindness, her playfulness. But right now, the lack of truthfulness and lack of dependability feel like too much chaos, in a world that is seething with chaos.
On a recent Saturday, my husband and I enjoyed date night at the Paris Theater. We watched the film Colette.
I’m a novelist and so the film held a special resonance for me. It’s always intriguing for me to see how other women do it–how other women wrestle with the great fanged beast of their need to write–how other women embrace the struggle of creativity and storytelling alongside the demands of partnership and self-actualization.
For me, there is no self without writing. If I’m not writing, it’s because I’m in a no-self space. That’s not a wholesome place for me.
Colette is turned on to writing by her husband Willy, who calls himself, in the film, a “writing entrepreneur.” He cheats on her and tells her to pen her thoughts and then proclaims her work to be worthless. Then he re-reads it and loves it. He pores over her prose with her and teaches her to edit and revise. At least in the film, he is instrumental to her discovering her talent.
Willy publishes her book under his own name. When it becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams, he locks her in a room to write another book.
Colette slowly wakes up to her own worth. Her self-awareness grows as she uncovers her individual sexuality. Her husband cheats but she begins to sleep with women–which he permits, as long as she doesn’t sleep with other men.
It’s comical when the husband beds her paramour and they both carry on with the libidinous lady in question.
There’s a kind of leftist-liberal-proselytizing fabric to this movie; the husband is an exploitative patriarchal scumbag and noble, victimized Colette naturally finds a supportive woman partner/lover. So many films these days are taken over by the need to preach leftist liberal values. I wish more films would focus on good storytelling and leave preaching propaganda to the politicians. It’s boring.
When a story delves deeply into the human condition, the spectrum of left-right, liberal-conservative falls away. What is left is meaning. That meaning is far more moving, far more convincing, than even the best propaganda.
In this case, the film transcends the current Hollywood piety. After all, Colette was a French novelist. She’s an archetypal French woman novelist. She actually lived the life and she did so before it was appropriated by a certain tiresome sector of post-modernist feminists–as if being a traveling mime with a woman lover is the only way to be a woman novelist.
I admire Colette but her choices wouldn’t work for me. I would never have been happy or fulfilled without children and a husband. Being a mother and wife contributes to, and enhances, my fruitfulness.
As painful as my situation is with one of my beloved daughters and with a dearly loved husband who took off for the antipodes, putting his own art before the family who needs him–despite everything–I was always supposed to be a wife and mother. And a novelist. And lately a screenwriter.
Willy exceeds his role, too, I think. Yes, he’s selfish, self-indulgent, egotistical, and riddled with vices. He’s also the fulcrum on which Colette’s own writing turns. He’s a catalyst for her. I find that real life is like this, that people are like this: marbled through with light and dark. Variegated. Bittersweet.
People are complex. They enter our lives bearing gifts, some laced with poison, some with nectar. Often the most difficult characters in our stories are our best teachers.
And beyond the propaganda is the story of a woman coming to own her own voice.
This is the essential struggle for a woman novelist: owning her own voice. Even for women who come across as strong, as I seem to, there’s vulnerability at the root. How do we embrace, own, and integrate that vulnerability with our creative talent?
My husband and I had a rude and rough couple of years.
Sabin was briefly ensconced at the antipodes with people who thought they knew him better after 12 minutes than I did after 18 years, and they brought out his worst self. They encouraged him to forget his family–to lose sight of his integrity. I frittered away our months apart with people and pastimes that took me away from my mission in life. I wasn’t my best self, either.
Love brought us back together and our union needed repair.
There were tools that aided us. I’ve blogged about those before. I read several books and used an excellent program developed by a California-based marriage counselor.
In particular, and with some mirth because he’s funny, we watched videos of Dr. John Gottman talking about what makes a marriage work. I bought Gottman’s books and googled The Gottman Institute.
After one fierce fight that ended with me in tears and Sabin apoplectic with hurt and anger, I said, “Enough. We’re going to a Gottman workshop.”
Sabin agreed, if skeptically. He was more amenable when I assured him that there was no public disclosure.
The time came and we flew to Seattle a few days early so we could hike Mt. Rainier. I figured two days of exercise on the mountain would exorcise Sabin’s physical restlessness.
We arrived early at the Seattle Sheraton on the morning of the workshop to secure good seats, close to the front. And there began two days of extraordinary learning.
The first day focused on building the ground of being of love through Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s research-based techniques. We listened to lectures on love maps, fondness and admiration, and bids for connection, and then we practiced the skills through carefully thought out exercises. The exercises were good fun as well as good practicum for a marriage. They deepened the friendship, connection, and trust that are so essential in the union.
It was fun to tell Sabin all the good things I think about him–and even more fun to hear him describe my strengths!
We also practiced a “stress reducing conversation” according to a Gottman script. It was an effective tool. When Sabin spoke about the stresses of his life, he was able to feel my empathy; when it was my turn to confide, I felt his empathy. We finished the exercise feeling heard and cared for. Our hearts opened and we felt close to each other.
But it wasn’t just the exercises and lectures that taught us and moved us. Equally eloquent was the way John and Julie Gottman related to each other. They were at turns playful and somber and they were always palpably connected. They teased each other, finished each other’s sentences, demoed exercises together with zest and relish, touched each other affectionately, listened respectfully when the other was saying something of heightened import, admitted to fighting, owned their own parts in their conflict, apologized for hurting each other, and praised the other.
Julie and John were modeling something critical: a real marriage, hugs and warts and tears and laughs and all. A marriage wherein both spouses are deeply committed and deeply engaged in the ongoing work of building a strong and joyful shared sense of “we.”
This was most evident the second day of the workshop, when the Gottmans addressed conflict.
Around 10 am of the second day, I witnessed one of the most profound human interactions I’ve ever seen–and I attended a 4 years hands-on healing school which included a great deal of deep personal process work. But this was astonishing: Julie and John demonstrated their script for repair after a regrettable incident.
I’ve never seen two people be more real, more vulnerable, more honest, and more sensitive with each other. It was deeply soulful. It showed the power of being real, being vulnerable, being honest, and being sensitive with your mate.
Julie and John worked through an actual fight from a few years earlier, following one of the scripts they’d written. Julie dissolved into tears, remembering early life traumas that had played a part in her responses. I was in tears watching her. With candor and grace, John also talked about his triggers. I marveled at his insight into himself.
The goal was to understand each other better. It achieved that and so much more. It was a marvelous process.
In class, Sabin and I did the exercise around a recent fight. Since returning home, we’ve done the exercise around the painful episodes from the last two years.
The Gottman Institute weekend ended with presentations and exercises around shared meaning and helping each other attain life dreams. In a real way, Sabin and I are already strong in that area, because we both feel so strongly about arts and letters. He’s been the strongest supporter of my writing, and I’ve always supported his art.
For me, the best part of the weekend was being in the field of the relationship between Julie and John Gottman. So that’s what a good relationship is, I thought. Perhaps the Gottman tools could even have helped my difficult first marriage. It’s possible. It’s for certain they’re a great blessing for Sabin and me.
In his thoughtful way, Sabin voiced the most beautiful, most telling comment about the weekend. “I never before understood about the sacredness of marriage,” he told me. “Now I do.”
I had the misfortune to be the impecunious shiksa married into a well-to-do Jewish family.
My sincere conversion to Judaism, a religion I love, slightly blunted their dyspeptic view of me but didn’t resolve it. Not that my former in-laws were aware of their bias or their inability to accept me because of my differentness. They’re a generous folk. They mean well, by and large.
But the plot thickened some years after my divorce, when I did my first DNA test. The results came back with so many “Ashkenazim” notes that I thought there had to be a mistake. I phoned the company.
I said, “I don’t understand my results.”
The lady clerk said brightly, “Oh, you’re Jewish.”
I murmured, “Yes, but who knew?”
I figured my mother had some Jewish progenitors. There were large murky areas in her ancestry, though we knew they largely inhabited the Southern parts of the US, with some Native American Indian thrown in. I figured some lost little Jewish girl had got off the boat in Ellis Island and found her way down South, where the crazy Scotch-Irish were boiling up squirrels in their crockpots and alchemizing moonshine in the hills. As well as marrying themselves some Indians.
My father’s family had been in the US for generations. They all had quintessential American names like Foster and Taylor. They were English-Scotch-Irish, with some Native American Indian thrown in. His mother was dark-haired and claimed Apache blood. There was no way my dad had any Ashkenazim blood.
Then my mother and I both, coincidentally, took another DNA test, 23andMe.
I was visiting my mother when she mentioned she had her results.
“Oh, let’s see your Jewish roots,” I chirped.
She opened a web browser, logged in, and opened her results.
This did not accord with the 25.5% Ashkenazim ancestry that 23andMe revealed to me.
For a moment, the room swam in front of my eyes. I had a sinking feeling that I had been switched at birth. My mother, whom I love dearly despite our sometimes fraught relationship, wasn’t really my biological mother.
She said, “I guess Jim was Jewish?”
Oh, right. My father. I said, “He had to be half Jewish because I’m a quarter and you’re zero.”
But this was all very odd. My father’s family was from Arkansas, had been there for generations, and I had a recent Jewish ancestor from the Lithuania-Poland-Russia-Belarus area. Very recent.
I returned home and shared my DNA results with my mother, and 23andMe kindly confirmed that she was, indeed, my biological mother.
That left the mystery of my father. He never fit in with his family. Looked nothing like them. Had at least 75 IQ points over them. Was basically given away to be raised by a prosperous farmer. Called himself “the black sheep of the family” because he was smart, and joined the Navy and moved away from them.
My mother says he never bonded with anyone his whole life.
I didn’t like the man. He was abusive and prone to dark, erratic mood swings. He was an alcoholic. He cheated on my mother and engaged in all sorts of nasty behavior.
But I began to think that there was more to the story than met the eye. I began to believe that he wasn’t biologically related to the people who had raised him so poorly–because none of them are Jewish.
On 23andMe, I’ve been able to eliminate all the DNA relatives from my mother’s side. The remaining DNA relatives fall into 2 camps: one is Jewish, largely Russian-Polish-Ukrainian-Lithuanian. The other side is largely British-Irish and German.
That would be my paternal grandparents. Among them, there aren’t Taylors or Fosters or Slattons, or any of the other surnames associated with the people who raised my father. There is no commonality with the Slatton family.
The question is: Who was my father?
There’s some possibility that the woman who claimed to be his mother was indeed his biological mother, and she had fooled around.
But I think it far more likely that my benighted father, may he rest in eternal peace, was swapped in the hospital. Some other family went home with the real Slatton boy. And the son of a Jew and a German-Brit went home with the Slattons.
I have raised four daughters: Empowering Women is a force close to my heart.
“A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and in all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
There are so many astounding Eleanor Roosevelt quotes that it was hard to choose just ONE. That great lady had it going on!
I travel a lot. I’ve been all over the globe, recently with my husband. Sabin has been involved with a national memorial–something that’s been all foible, all the time. But it has allowed him to seek out the means and methods for creating a world class, monumental sculpture. Note: Stay tuned for a novel called “Truth Be Told” about an author married to a sculptor who is making a national memorial!
At any rate, regarding our travels. There’s a lot of America-bashing that happens abroad. For example, in New Zealand, a country stuck in the 1950’s, where women are treated like it is 1951, it is quite the vogue to bash America and our materialism.
But those backwater Kiwis are missing the point. The point is that the United States produces innovation and ingenuity. We are a generative force for new ideas, new technologies, new strategies, new businesses. The US has ambition. It takes risks. It’s the most generous nation on the planet. It doesn’t know its place. And that’s what’s brilliant about the USA: generosity and boundary-lessness.
Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t know her place. She redefined what it meant to be a First Lady. She got out in front of the public eye and did humanitarian good. She said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “The battle for the individual rights of women is one of long standing and none of us should countenance anything which undermines it.”
I’m an American woman and proud of it. I do what I feel is right in my heart. I don’t know my place.
Plenty of men wish I did.
There’s a male fantasy of submissive women. It’s a weak male fantasy; it’s part of the attraction of porn, a visual representation of low consciousness in human sexuality.
The strong male dreams of strong females and their contribution, their partnership: “Too often the great decisions are originated and given form in bodies made up wholly of men, or so completely dominated by them that whatever of special value women have to offer is shunted aside without expression,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.
Women have something of special value to offer the world.
Now Sabin is working with an initiative for empowering women, and he would sculpt some of the Great Women who’ve done that by example. I’m so excited for him! Can you imagine Eleanor Roosevelt sculpted by Sabin Howard?
In a rich and deep way, his work has led to an extraordinary conversation between the two of us.
“What do you think an empowered woman is?” I asked him.
He gave a thoughtful reply about human beings.
I said, “Women are a subset of human beings, we have our own special contributions to make. Power means something a bit different for women.”
So here’s the cool thing: my husband and I have begun a new conversation in new terms–about Women’s Empowerment.
“Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.” – Eleanor Roosevelt