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The Same Woman (Donna Again)

October 2021.

Andrew is seventy-three and a widower now for two and a half months. Having eaten little since Luisa’s death, he is thinner than he has ever been, his gray hair full of white.

He sits on the sofa in the cozy one-room studio where Donna, tall and buxom with short red hair and also seventy-three, conducts her business as rabbi and psychotherapist.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” says Donna, sitting in an armchair facing Andrew, her accent Los Angeles Jewish.

Andrew looks at his friend and counselor of the last twenty years and for a moment sees Luisa’s face instead of Donna’s.

“Talk to me,” she says softly. “Say anything.”

They have been sitting quietly for twenty minutes.

Did Cal drive me here? No. Cal lives in Hawaii now. Diana brought me.

“Tell me how you met Luisa,” says Donna, speaking of Andrew’s wife of thirty-four years, her suicide a terrible shock to everyone who knew her.

“Kindergarten,” says Andrew, remembering the first time he saw Luisa’s daughter Lily swinging high on the swings at the Montessori. “Owen and Lily…” He stops speaking, his language center shutting down.

“She brought Lily to your house for a play date with Owen,” says Donna, knowing the story well. “And you liked each other instantly.”

Andrew nods and begins to cry, which is what Donna was hoping for, to break the dam holding back his tears.

Donna has been a widow for five years. Her husband Howard was twelve years older than she. After suffering with increasing dementia for two years, he blessedly succumbed to pneumonia. Donna is currently dating a youngster in his sixties named Herschel, and is in the midst of passing the reins of the shul to another feminist rabbi. 

When Andrew stops crying, Donna says, “You need to tell a part of Luisa’s story every day. That’s how you’ll heal. Trust me.”

“Maybe I don’t want to heal,” he says, glaring at her. “Maybe I want to die, too.”

“Maybe you do,” says Donna, nodding. “But I don’t think so. I think you want to be alive for your children and grandchildren, and for your friends and for yourself.”

“I killed her,” he says, bowing his head. “Taking on Teo and Rosa was too much to ask of her.”

“That’s not true. You both wanted Teo and Rosa. And Jalecia. Luisa’s granddaughter. She asked of you what you asked of her. Am I wrong? I don’t think so. She confided in me for twenty years. She was adamant the children stay with you and not go with Adrianna.”

“But Teo and Rosa wouldn’t have existed,” he says, crushed by his grief, “if I hadn’t stupidly mated with Adrianna. Stupid animal me.”

“Beautiful animal you,” says Donna, calmly. “God gives us life in mysterious ways. You were a vehicle for God’s desire to bring your children into the world. And you and Luisa did a fabulous job bringing them up, and you will complete the job.”

“Or die trying,” says Andrew, who always eventually reverts to his Jewish self when he spends time with Donna.

“Watch out, bubalah,” she says, grinning at him. “We might start laughing and then how will we grieve?”

“Grieve schmeeve,” he says, laughing through his tears. “I need some good deli.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, getting up. “Come on. I’ll drive us to Max’s.”

Donna pilots her electric car through the lunchtime traffic of Vancouver, the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, many of the pedestrians masked, though Vancouver and Canada have not been much affected compared to the catastrophe in the United States.

They sit by an open window in the deli and split an order of fries and a hot pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut.

“I was starving,” says Andrew, hailing their masked waitress. “Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”

“Two,” says Donna, raising her hand. “I never think I want coffee until after, and then midway through the sandwich I crave the bitter.”

“My mother always said, ‘Save the coffee for the cookies,’” says Andrew, his eyes filing with tears as he thinks of his long-departed mother, “but I just can’t wait.”

The waitress brings two mugs of black stuff and says to Andrew, “You probably don’t recognize me with my mask on. Delilah Bernstein. I was in Moon In Leo. The deli scene. You are such a good director. In fact, I got this job because I was in that movie. Max is a huge fan. He saw the movie seven times in the theatre and watches the video all the time.”

“I see you now,” says Andrew, imagining her face without the mask. “You were great.”

“I hear Character Driven is gearing up to make another movie,” she says, nodding hopefully. “Can I give you my card?”

“Yeah, sure, but you should call my son,” says Andrew, starting to cry. “You know Owen. He’ll remember you.”

“Okay, I will,” she says, touched by his tears. “I’ll tell him you told me to. Thanks.”

Andrew weeps for what seems like a long time to him, but is only a minute or so.

“Good to cry,” says Donna, crying a little with him. “Why don’t you come again tomorrow? At eleven. Then we’ll do lunch again. This is good.”

Chauffeured home by Diana, Andrew gets out of the trusty red Prius and gazes at the house he built forty-five years ago, the place feeling lifeless to him with Luisa gone and the kids at school—Teo and Rosa fourteen, Jalecia eleven.

“I have to make some calls before I go to the store and get the kids,” says Diana, stretching her arms to the sky. “You need anything before I go?”

Diana is a beautiful Eurasian, fifty-three, British, with raven black hair, a poet and artist and inveterate wearer of T-shirts and blue jeans. She has lived in the other house on the property for ten years, helping with the kids and housework and cooking.

Andrew gazes at her, having forgotten in these last few months how much he loves watching her and listening to her speak.

“What?” she asks, blushing at being so intensely observed. “Something unzipped?”

“No, I was just…” He laughs self-consciously. “I guess I could use a hug before you go.”

“Always,” she says, coming to embrace him.

“I can’t ever thank you enough,” he says, relaxing in her embrace. “Couldn’t survive without you.”

“Yes you could,” she says, giving him a good squeeze. “But you don’t have to.”

Waiting for Diana to get home with the kids, Andrew wanders into the living room and sits down at the piano, an exquisite teak upright he and Luisa bought twenty years ago to celebrate the success of a movie they wrote—this his first time at the piano since Luisa died.

He plays the first notes of the tune he was composing when Luisa died and the music makes him cry, but he goes on playing until the phone rings and he hurries to the kitchen to answer.

The caller is his son Owen who is thirty-nine now and lives in Vancouver with his wife Miyoshi and their seven-year-old daughter Mimi.

“Papa?” he says, sounding like a little boy to Andrew.

“Hey O,” says Andrew, his son’s voice bringing up more tears—the session with Donna having obliterated his floodgates.

“Just spoke to Diana,” says Owen, who is also still grieving Luisa. “We were thinking of bringing pizza over there for supper tonight. Diana said I should check with you and see what you think.”

“Yeah, great,” says Andrew, making a supreme effort to sound positive. “I may not last long tonight, O. Haven’t slept much lately, but I’d love to see you and Yosh and Mimi.”

“Good. I’ll call Diana,” says Owen, thrilled by this first Yes from Andrew since Luisa died.

Andrew hangs up and has a good long cry, and on his way back to the piano, the phone rings again—Lily, Luisa’s daughter, calling from Los Angeles.

 “Hey Papa,” says Lily, who is the same age as Owen. “How you holding up?”

“Okay,” he says, clearing his throat. “Had a good session with Donna today.”

“Donna,” says Lily, the name not registering. “Tell me again who that is?”

“The rabbi.”

“Oh yeah, the rabbi therapist,” says Lily, sounding hurried. “Good. Great. I’ve been going to my therapist every day. Can’t believe Mama’s gone. Just can’t believe it. I feel so bad I didn’t get up there more often these last few years, but I’ve been so crazy busy with the new show and the new house and… still I should have come before the fucking virus ruined everything. I’m a terrible daughter and a rotten mother.” She waits a moment. “You still there?”

“I’m here,” says Andrew, startled to realize he has never fully forgiven Lily for leaving her baby with them eleven years ago so she could pursue her acting career unencumbered. “Please don’t think of yourself as a terrible daughter or a rotten mother. If I ever made you feel that way, I apologize.”

You apologize?” says Lily, stunned. “I’m the one who fucked up, not you.”

“Oh Lily, don’t think that,” he says, wishing he could hold her on his lap as he did when she was little and would come to him seeking solace. “You’re an adventurer. An artist. You gave us Jalecia who is the great joy of my life and was your mother’s joy.”

“Oh Papa,” says Lily, crying, “I want to come visit you and Owen and the kids, but the virus is still out of control here and if I came to Canada I’d have to quarantine in some hotel for ten days before I could even start my visit and I’m so busy with…”

“I know,” he says, seeing now that holding the vision of Lily as a defiant teenager helped her stay stuck in that idea of herself. “We’ll be together again. All in good time. We will.”

The next morning, Donna settles into her armchair, studies Andrew for a moment and says, “You look better today. How are you feeling?”

“I actually slept for a few hours last night,” he says, giving her a sleepy smile. “Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi brought pizza for supper and Diana and Rosa made a big salad. Root beer for the kids, wine for the grownups. Quite the shindig. We rioted until nine.”

“Did you dream?”

“I did, but I only remember a fragment. Owen was in the living room. He was maybe ten, searching for something. He looked under the sofa cushions and then he frowned at me. That’s all I remember.”

“Tell it again,” says Donna, knowing what the dream is about. “Present tense.”

Andrew closes his eyes and sees young Owen moving around the living room, searching for something. “He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Must be summer. He looks under the cushions, looks around the room, and now he sees me and gives me a questioning look.”

“What’s his question, do you think?”

“Where is she?”

Donna considers this. “Why do you think he’s a boy in the dream and not a man?”

“He seems like a boy to me now,” says Andrew, fighting his tears. “A boy who lost his mother.”

“So maybe he knows where she is. Maybe that’s not his question.”

“You think he wants to know why she killed herself?”

“Of course he does. Wouldn’t you if you didn’t know?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shaking his head.

“Okay,” she says, nodding slowly. “Tell me about the last three years of Luisa’s life.”

“I don’t know if I can today,” he says, bowing his head. “I don’t feel well.”

“What are your symptoms?”

“Anxious. Achy. Dizzy. Miserable.”

“What was going on at your house three years ago?”

“The twins were eleven, Jalecia was eight, Luisa and I just turned seventy, Cal and Terry just moved to Hawaii, and Owen and Miyoshi were getting their company going with Moon In Leo and…” He grimaces. “It was all too much for Luisa. Too much to ask of her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Too much work. Too much going on. She was overwhelmed.”

“Were you overwhelmed?”

“Yes,” he snaps. “Of course I was.”

“I don’t remember you being overwhelmed. I remember you loved working on the movie and being energized by the experience.”

“At Luisa’s expense,” he says bitterly. “I was off playing at being a movie director while she was all alone dealing with the kids.”

“Alone? What about Diana?”

“Okay, yes, Diana was there, but I wasn’t. And it was too much for her.”

“You mean for the few weeks you worked on the movie?”

“What are you trying to say?” He feels like he’s about to break in half. “That it wasn’t too much for her?”

“I’m not trying to say anything.” She waits a moment. “I want you to tell me the story of the last three years of Luisa’s life. Which is your story, too. I want you to tell me what you remember, not what you think you did wrong. Just the story of those years.”

He sits up straight and rolls his shoulders to loosen the grip of his demons. “I had an amazing four months working with Sakura. And directing those scenes in Moon In Leo was one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of my life. And after Sakura went back to Japan, the plays and stories and songs just came pouring out of me and I was in heaven writing them.”

“You were reborn.”

“I was reborn.”

“And Luisa?”

“She was not.”

“Did she resent you?”

“No,” he says, remembering the trip they took after Sukara went back to Japan, the glorious train ride through the Rockies to Banff, their elegant suite in the Banff Inn, their long walks in the wilderness.

“Where did you go just now, Andrew?”

“To Lake Louise,” he says, seeing Luisa reflected in the ethereal blue of the lake. “Ten days without the kids. Just lolling around and taking walks and…”

“And what?”

“She said she didn’t want to go home. Said she was tired of raising children, tired of not having time for anything else. ‘Can’t we just keep going? Stay in Montreal for a few weeks and then fly to Europe. Please?’”

“What did you say?”

“I said we’d redesign our lives to travel more and I’d do more with the kids and she could do less, but I didn’t want to just abandon them.”

“So did you travel more?”

“Before the pandemic I tried, but she wouldn’t go.”

“So from then on you and Diana were the parents.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Were the kids confused by Luisa withdrawing?”

“Yes. Especially Jalecia. She was so attached to Luisa.”

“So Luisa withdrew. What did she do all day?”

“At first she read and watered the garden and went on long drives and…” He strains to remember. “Then she’d suddenly re-engage with the kids and start cooking again and going to soccer games and say, ‘I’m back. I just needed a break. I’m fine now.’ And that would last a week or two and then she’d withdraw again. And every time she withdrew, she seemed to go further into her aloneness.” He looks at Donna. “Then you referred her to the psychiatrist who prescribed the anti-depressants, which seemed to help at first, but then she started forgetting things. She’d leave something cooking on the stove and wander out into the garden or she’d leave the hose running and flood the garden or she’d come into a room and say, ‘Why did I come in here? I knew a few seconds ago, but now I have no idea.’ So she stopped taking the meds and withdrew again.”

“And you were writing and composing and taking care of the kids,” says Donna, nodding. “Shouldering on without her.”

“Not without her,” he says, seeing Luisa in the garden lost in thought. “I spent lots of time with her during the day when the kids were at school and at night.”

“What did you do together?”

“We talked when she was willing to talk. I played the piano for her. We went to the beach. We worked in the garden. Or I worked and she daydreamed. I’d make us lunch.”

“Was she still going on long drives?”

“No, she stopped driving. She said it was too confusing. And by then we were staying home because of the virus, so…”

“So for a year she mostly kept to herself?”

“Mostly,” he says, nodding. “And she just got more and more depressed, so I arranged for her to have a thorough medical exam and they concluded she was clinically depressed and should be on meds. And when the doctor told us that, Luisa said, ‘Then I might as well be dead.’”

“How long ago was that?”

“Eight months? Seven months? Seems like years ago.”

“Did she ask you to help her die?”

“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes. “But I couldn’t.”

“You thought she’d get better.”

“I wanted her to, but I didn’t think she would.”

“Why not?”

Silence.

“Why didn’t you think she would get better?”

“She seemed more ghost than alive.”

“Then what happened?” asks Donna, moving from her chair to sit with Andrew on the sofa.

“She stayed in bed for a month and then she got up and made a valiant effort to be part of the family again, though it was incredibly difficult for her. And then one day she got very upset with the kids and threw a glass at Teo that shattered all over the kitchen and she said horrible things to Rosa and screamed at Jalecia, and she felt so terrible about what she’d done that she went on the meds, and for some weeks she seemed better and we had some nice suppers, the whole family, and some good days at the beach and then…”

“She took the car and drove fifty miles north and lay down on the sand and cut her wrists and died.”

Andrew weeps and Donna holds him.

When his tears abate, Andrew says, “She left a note that said burn my unfinished stories and tell the children and Diana I love them. You know I love you.” 

They have lunch in Donna’s kitchen—chicken soup and bread and cheese—neither speaking as they eat.

Donna makes coffee to go with their after-lunch cookies, and as she pushes down the plunger on her French Press she says, “I may have said this to you before, but it’s worth repeating. Many of us are prone to feeling we are responsible for the other’s happiness or for their suffering or both. We know intellectually this isn’t true, but as my great teacher Rabbi Orenstein used to say, ‘Our mighty unconscious laughs at our pipsqueak intellect and carries on as per usual.’ Unless we break free of our early programming, which very few people ever do, then that early programming will always be our default response.”

“I think the hardest thing for me,” says Andrew, who feels nearly weightless from shedding so many tears, “is… well, two things. First, I had thirty years with Luisa without a day of her being anything but happy to be alive, happy to be engaged in our writing and music and loving our children, so I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly she changed.”

“What’s the other thing?” asks Donna, pouring him a cup of coffee.

“I keep thinking I should do something to make things better for the kids,” he says, smiling sadly. “To ease their pain.”

“This is the illusion, Andrew. You are not responsible for their happiness or their suffering.” She looks at him for a long moment. “You were responsible when they were babies and little children, but they are who they are now, and they must suffer the loss of Luisa in their own ways. Of course you can help them deal with their sorrow. You can love them and listen to them and let them know you’re there for them. But you can’t keep them from suffering. And the best thing you can do for them now is to embrace life and follow your heart and know that Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi and Lily are all watching you and learning from you. Because if you can lovingly embrace life, you who lost the love of your life, so will they. And so will I.”

Every day Andrew feels a little less numb, a little less hopeless, and better able to hear and respond to what Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Diana say to him.

On a rainy afternoon in November, Andrew and Diana and Jalecia and Teo stand on the sidelines of a soccer field, cheering wildly as Rosa outruns everyone and brilliantly jukes the goalie and scores the winning goal—Andrew falling to his knees and kissing the muddy earth.

A few weeks before Christmas, the kids at school, Diana finishes washing the breakfast dishes and carries her tea and notebook into the living room where she sits and listens to Andrew composing a piano piece, his search for what comes next inspiring Diana to write her first poem since Luisa died.

Five months later, in April of 2022, the first truly effective vaccine against the virus plaguing humanity is deployed around the world, and Diana and Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia are among the first to be inoculated.

On a sunny morning in June, Canada having successfully vaccinated seventy per cent of her population, the other thirty per cent soon to follow, Diana finds Andrew in the garden and tells him that Simon, her boyfriend of six years, has left her for another woman.

“He’s a fool,” says Andrew, giving her a comforting hug. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’ll be okay,” she says, lingering in his embrace. “I’m mostly worried about how to tell the kids. They love Simon.”

“Do you want me to tell them?”

“No,” she says, stepping back from him and smiling radiantly. “Thanks for offering, but I need to do it so they can ask me their ten thousand questions.”

Andrew laughs. “May it only be ten thousand.”

In July, after a good session in Donna’s studio, Andrew and Donna go to lunch at Max’s, the wait staff still masked, the virus not yet entirely eradicated in Canada and still going strong in the United States.

They split an order of fries and a Reuben sandwich and Donna talks about how relieved she is to be free of her rabbi duties and how much fun she’s having creating her book of mini-sermons.

“I’ve been reading through my old sermons,” she says, her cheeks reddening. “Hundreds of them. And I am both awed and chagrined at how confidently I spouted such well-meaning nonsense and so often missed the deeper truth. So this is my chance to not only be more succinct, but to right the wrongs of my erroneous clichés.”

“I can’t wait to read them,” says Andrew, who has recently entered a sorrowful phase as the one-year anniversary of Luisa’s death approaches.

“If you will be my editor,” says Donna, smiling hopefully, “you can read them very soon.”

“I would be honored,” he says, immeasurably grateful to her.

“Speaking of honor,” says Donna, gesturing to their waitress for the bill, “I would like to have a ceremony for Luisa on the one-year anniversary of her death. Nothing elaborate. Just lighting a candle and saying a prayer and asking everyone to share a memory of her. Just you and I and Diana and Owen and Miyoshi and the kids and any friends you’d like to invite.”

“Could be hundreds,” says Andrew, his eyes filling with tears. “She was greatly loved.”

“Up to you, dear,” she says, crying with him. “You tell me who to invite.”

In August, twenty people gather in the garden at Andrew’s house to remember Luisa.

Donna lights a candle and says, “We have gathered here to kiss Luisa’s spirit with our memories of her. I will begin by sharing my favorite Luisa memory, which is that every time I came here to have a meal, I would find Luisa in the kitchen and she would give me a smile that meant, ‘Come here and taste this,’ and I would go to her and she would feed me as a mother feeds her child, something delicious she’d made, and then we would look into each other’s eyes and be one with each other in our joy.”

In October, the kids gone to bed, Andrew and Diana are saying goodnight when Diana surprises Andrew by saying, “How about we spend the night together? You and me. Just because.”

“You mean… share a bed?” says Andrew, who has lately been enjoying speaking with a Jewish accent.

“Yeah. Sleep together.”

“My bed or yours?” he says, trying to be funny.

“Either one. They’re both nice beds.”

“I would be afraid to do that,” he says, dearly loving Diana but considering her taboo.

“We don’t have to have sex,” she says, her tone suggesting she wouldn’t mind if they did. “I just want to be close to you. I’m tired of sleeping alone knowing you’re sleeping alone and we could be keeping each other warm.”

“If we got in bed together,” says Andrew, his heart pounding, “despite the fact, or because of the fact I haven’t had sex in forever, we would probably have sex. Or we would try. Or I would. Because… how could I not? And if for some reason whatever happened made you unhappy or uneasy or caused you to leave… I just… I don’t ever want that to happen. Not that I haven’t thought about making love with you. I have. I do. I’ve always thought you were… luscious. But I’m seventy-four. You’re fifty-four. We’re best friends. We raised the kids together. I don’t want to lose you.”

“It is a gamble,” she says, looking into his eyes. “A big gamble. But I still want to.”

“I’m amazed,” he says, fighting the momentum of his desire. “And flattered, but…”

“Come on, Andrew,” she says softly, knowing he would never initiate their first kiss, and therefore the initiation is up to her. “Gamble with me.”

fin

Tender Mystery

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The Same Woman (Donna)

Every so often in his life, Andrew meets a woman he feels he already knows, though he has never met her before. The first time this happened was in 1955 when he was six-years-old, the second time in 1962, the third in 1966, the fourth in 1970, the fifth in 1978, the sixth in 1987, the seventh in 1993, the eighth in 1998.

2002. Andrew and his wife Luisa are both fifty-four and have been married for fifteen years. Successful writers of stories, plays, and screenplays, they live in a beautiful house ten miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Their children Owen and Lily are both twenty now. Owen is studying Drama at Julliard and playing clarinet in a modern jazz quintet called Sentimento. Lily is a Psychology major at nearby Simon Fraser University and still lives at home, though her burgeoning career as a movie actress has greatly slowed her academic progress.

Six years ago, a movie based on Andrew’s play Their Summer Holiday, was made by the Danish filmmaker Nicolas Thorsen who became Andrew and Luisa’s good friend. When Luisa’s autobiographical novella Rainy River was published four years ago, Nick bought the movie rights, Andrew and Luisa wrote the screenplay, Nick directed, Lily starred in the role of the young Luisa, and the movie was both a critical and financial success.

Since then, Nick has made two more movies from original screenplays by Andrew and Luisa, Low Overhead and Yum City. Low Overhead is a romantic comedy set in an anarchist bookstore in Toronto and Yum City is a dramedy revolving around the denizens of a Bohemian café in Montreal. Both films did well in Canada and England and Europe, but neither film did much business in America.

Now Andrew and Luisa are back to writing stories and plays and staying out of the limelight, which neither of them cares for. Lily, on the other hand, has had several movie and television roles since starring in Rainy River and is seriously considering moving to Los Angeles. And Owen recently announced he will either stay in Manhattan after he completes his studies at Julliard or move to Berlin with his German girlfriend Sophie who is also studying Drama at Julliard.

On a drizzly September morning a few days after Lily returns from five days in Burbank playing the part of a clairvoyant skateboarder in a television murder mystery, Andrew and Luisa and Lily are having breakfast together and Lily says, “You don’t want me to move to LA, do you Papa?”

“Of course not,” says Andrew, gazing forlornly at her. “I want you and Owen to live nearby for the rest of your lives. But I know that’s unreasonable, so if you want to move to LA, I give you my blessing.”

“It just makes so much sense right now,” says Lily, who has blossomed into a rare beauty, tall and slender with honey brown skin. “I don’t want to live there forever, but with the parts coming so fast now it seems like a smart thing to do.”

“Makes perfect sense,” says Luisa, who left home at sixteen. “And if you want to continue your studies, you can always transfer to a university in Los Angeles.”

“But I don’t want to make you sad, Papa.”

“Life is sad,” says Andrew, remembering how sad his mother was when he was twenty-one and told her he was moving from California to Canada, his mother who died two years ago just a few months after his father died. “I want you to live your life the way you want to. I’ll eventually adjust to you not being here and write you lots of letters.”

“And we can talk on the phone every day,” she says, her eyes full of tears.

“Is this move imminent?” he asks, having imagined her making the transition to Los Angeles over the next year or so.

“Soon,” she says, crying. “Next week.”

Andrew keeps up a brave countenance while Lily packs to go and when Lily’s friend Janelle arrives to drive with her to Los Angeles, but as their car grows small in the distance, Andrew breaks down.

When Andrew’s grieving continues unabated for several days, Luisa suggests he see a psychotherapist, which he does for a few weeks, but he gains no relief. The psychotherapist refers him to a psychiatrist who prescribes an anti-depressant Andrew doesn’t want to take.

Two months pass and Andrew remains deeply depressed. Desperate to help him, Luisa asks Andrew’s best friend Cal to encourage Andrew to give the anti-depressant a try.

Cal comes for a visit, he and Andrew chat for a while, and Cal says, “I think you should talk to our rabbi. I think she could help you. I really do. She’s very insightful, very kind, and I know you’ll like her.”

“Does she see people who aren’t in your shul?” asks Andrew, who is descended from Jews but never practiced the religion.

“I’m sure she’ll be happy to talk with you. Shall I give her a call?”

“Yeah,” says Andrew, wearily. “That would be good. Thank you.”   

“Come in, come in,” says Donna, ushering Andrew into the spacious one-room studio adjacent to her house in a neighborhood of newish houses on the northern outskirts of Vancouver. “Sit anywhere you’d like.”

“Cal brought me,” says Andrew, unable to decide where to sit. “I’m not driving right now. Wouldn’t dare.”

“You’re depressed,” she says, taking him by the arm and leading him to the sofa. “Sit down. Or lie down.”

He sits and faces her for the first time.

“Cal said I would like you,” he says, smiling painfully, “but he didn’t tell me you were gorgeous.”

“Stop it,” she says, her eyes widening in delight. “You came to solve your problems, not hit on the rabbi.”

“I wasn’t hitting on you,” he says, laughing for the first time in many months. “I just wasn’t expecting you to be so beautiful.”

“So now we know you like tall middle-aged redheads with big bosoms,” she says, her Los Angeles accent influenced by the Yiddish inflections in her parents’ speech. “I’ve seen pictures of you on your books, so I knew in advance you were handsome.”

“I feel better already,” he says, closing his eyes. “Not really.”

“No, you feel awful,” she says, sitting in a high-backed armchair, her red Hawaiian shirt featuring green and yellow parrots, her skirt long and black, her red hair in a braid. “Old demons have risen up and taken control of you.”

“Old demons?” he says, opening his eyes. “I’m sad about my children moving away, but I don’t think this is anything old. I’ve never been depressed like this before. Well… I had a little breakdown sixteen years ago when my first wife left me, but I wasn’t depressed, I was just very upset.”

“In my experience,” she says, watching him carefully, “a depression as severe as what you’re experiencing is almost always rooted in some old sorrow. Sometimes so old it began before you were born and was passed down to you. Was your mother depressed?”

“She worried a lot,” says Andrew, nodding. “And I guess, yeah, sometimes she was depressed. But who isn’t sometimes depressed? Introduce me, please?”

“I like it when your Jewish self comes through,” she says, smiling.

“Why is that good?” he asks, feeling certain he knows her from somewhere else.

“Because being Jewish is a big part of who you are. And I happen to think the more we inhabit our true self, if there is such a thing, the happier we will be.”

“I think we’ve met before,” he says, frowning. “Did you have a child at the Montessori kindergarten in the old Methodist church in Squamish?”

“I have one child who grew up in Los Angeles,” says Donna, thinking of her daughter, a veterinarian in San Francisco. “And I’ve only been in Vancouver for nine years, so I know we didn’t meet at the Montessori.”

“I’m sure I know you,” he says, wondering if they might have been briefly involved in the days before his first marriage. “I just can’t remember how?”

“You know me and I know you,” she says, after looking at him for a long moment, “because we have what I call a soul bond. I’ve only had a few of these in my life, and I’m just being honest here, but if you weren’t happily married and I wasn’t happily married, we’d probably fall in love and have a relationship. Who knows if it would be any good or how long it would last, but we might have one. However, you are happily married and so am I, so why not use our special connection to get to the bottom of what’s haunting you.”

“Haunting,” he says, relaxing a little for the first time in eons. “And old demons. You think I’m possessed?”

“We’re all possessed by something,” she says, pleased to see him relaxing. “The ideal is to be possessed by thoughts and feelings that make us glad we’re alive, and not by visions of gloom and doom or thinking we’re not good enough.”

“I think I’m good enough,” he says, most definitely not feeling good enough.

“So what’s going on in your life right now?” she asks, handing him a glass of water. “Your children have moved out. What else?”

“Before Lily left we were writing, my wife and I, and enjoying being home and not being so crazy busy making movies and travelling all over the place, just, you know, working. Yeah, things were fine. And then Lily moved to Los Angeles and I just… gave up.”

“Gave up,” says Donna, considering Andrew’s choice of words. “What does that mean to you? Giving up?”

“It means I gave in to my sadness.”

“What else?”

Andrew wants to say stop striving but he’s afraid to say those words out loud.

“There’s not a right or wrong answer,” she says, aware of his reluctance to say what he’s feeling. “We’re just looking for clues.”

“Okay, well, giving up could mean… taking a break from writing. From…” He struggles. “Striving.”

“What do you think you’re striving for?” she asks, noticing how his chest barely moves as he breathes.

“I don’t know,” he says, shrugging. “Happiness?”

“Are you not happy?”

“Not right now,” he says, looking down. “Definitely not now.”

“When was the last time you can remember feeling happy?”

“Long time ago,” he says, his heart aching. “Not that I have any reason to be unhappy except for the kids being so far away.”

“What do you mean by a long time ago? Before you were depressed?”

“Oh long before that.”

“A year ago?”

He reacts as if someone slapped his face.

“What was that?”

“I think I know what this is.”

“Would you like to tell me?”

“I’ve been writing things I don’t want to write,” he says, afraid to look at her.

“Hmm,” she says, considering this. “I think maybe that’s a symptom and not the cause.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean why have you been writing things you don’t want to write?”

He freezes. “Why do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she says, smiling at him. “That’s something we can delve into next time if you haven’t figured it out by then.”

“I’m better now,” he says, looking around the room as if a blindfold has just been removed from his eyes. “The fog is lifting a little.”

“Good,” she says, getting up from her chair and offering him a hand up. “I have homework for you.”

He takes her hand and she pulls him to his feet.

“What’s my homework?” he asks, the word homework making him laugh. “I really do feel better.”

“Every day until I see you again on Friday, four days from now,” she says, walking him to the door, “I want you to spend at least an hour naked in bed with your wife, not when you go to bed at night, but a separate time during the day.”

“Because?” he says, smiling curiously.

“Because I want you to,” she says, opening the door and stepping out into a light rain with him. “Just be naked with her and see what happens.”

That afternoon, after telling Luisa about his session with Donna, Andrew suggests they take off their clothes and get in bed together, and Luisa is happy to oblige.

After holding each other for several minutes, he kisses her and she returns his kiss and they make love for the first time in many months.

Preparing supper together, Luisa says, “I’d like to go see Donna. If you don’t mind.”

“I’d love you to,” he says, sensing his depression hovering nearby, waiting to take him over again.

The next morning after breakfast, Luisa makes some business calls and Andrew walks the mile to Cal’s house to pose the question: Why have I been writing things I don’t want to write?

Cal, who is usually home on Tuesday mornings, has gone to deal with a crisis at the university where he is a professor, so Andrew chats with Cal’s wife Terry and they commiserate about their children living so far away, Terry and Cal’s daughter living in Hawaii, their son in England.

And while telling Terry about his session with Donna, Andrew asks the question he was going to pose to Cal: Why have I been writing things I don’t want to write?

“Why do we do anything?” says Terry, pressing down the plunger of her French Press. “Why did I become a photographer? Because I fell in love with taking pictures and then figured out a way to make a living from it.”

“But then you gave up photography,” says Andrew, thinking of his guitar and how he hasn’t played in years, though he used to love playing.

“Yeah, because I hated shooting weddings and taking pictures of people I didn’t know.” She serves him a cup of coffee. “I got into photography to take pictures of rivers and clouds and birds and insects and people I loved. And now I don’t even want to take a picture of my grandchild. If I even touch a camera now I feel physically ill.”

“I’m sorry, Terry,” he says, remembering her as a young woman so in love with taking pictures she brought her camera everywhere. “I had no idea.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” she says, adding cream to her coffee. “I’m just giving you my two bits. Why did you write things you didn’t want to write? Maybe you thought you had to, or you thought you wanted to and then you changed your mind but it was too late, or you needed to prove something, or you wanted to make a ton of money. What difference does it make? To me, the more important question is how do you want to live your life from now on?”

Andrew walks home lost in thought and finds a note from Luisa on the kitchen counter.

I called Donna to make an appointment and she said come right now. See you this afternoon. Me   

Waiting for Luisa to get home, Andrew decides to play his guitar, but on his way to get his old Gibson out of the closet he remembers he gave the guitar away to a friend of Lily’s right after the kids graduated from high school.

“Three years ago,” he says, noticing his writing notebook on his desk and wondering what he was working on when he stopped writing months ago.

He opens the notebook and the pages are blank save for a short paragraph on the first page, all the lines of the paragraph crossed out except the last line.

nothing that would do anybody any good

 ∆

Home from her session with Donna, Luisa comes out on the back deck and looks down at Andrew digging potatoes for supper.

“Nice spuds,” she says dreamily. “Cultivate here often?”

“Hey,” he says, looking up at her. “How did you like Donna?”

“I love her. She’s my favorite person in the whole world now, right after you.”

“Did she give you any homework?”

“Yes,” says Luisa, beckoning him to come inside. “I’m supposed to make sure you do yours.”

Friday morning, feeling well enough to drive, Andrew arrives at Donna’s a few minutes early and finds her picking tiny winter roses in her wildly overgrown garden.

“Good morning Andrew,” she says, smiling as he approaches. “How are you today?”

“Much better,” he says, wondering if she’d like him to tame her wild garden. “How are you?”

“I was so glad to meet Luisa,” she says, leading the way to her studio. “Such a sweetheart.”

“Yes, she is,” says Andrew, noting the crude way someone has hacked a passage through the overgrowth to the studio door. “By the way, I was a professional gardener in my storied youth and I would be happy to get your garden under control if you’d like me to.”

“First things first,” she says, opening the door. “First we get you out of your depression, then we’ll talk about taming my garden.”

Andrew sits cross-legged on the sofa and watches Donna arrange her roses in a green glass vase.

“So…” he says, smiling at her, “how was your week?”

“My week was variable,” she says, sitting in the armchair and crossing her legs. “Monday was good in large part because I got to work with you. Tuesday was a mixed bag, the high point meeting Luisa. Wednesday crises abounded and carried on into Thursday. And so far today things have been mostly quiet and now I’m meeting with you, so there’s at least a chance I won’t flee the country by the end of the day.” She raises an eyebrow. “And you?”

“I did my homework,” he says, his eyes sparkling, “and I pondered the question of why I spent the last few years writing things I didn’t want to write. And as I’m sure you expected, one question begot another and as of this morning the question has evolved into what would I be if I wasn’t a writer?

“That’s interesting,” she says, not sounding very interested, “but before we think about that one, I’d like to go back to the original question of why you spent three years writing things you didn’t want to write?”

“Oh,” says Andrew, deflated. “Here I thought I was being so clever getting to the bottom of things.”

“No offense, sweetheart, but I think you were avoiding getting to the bottom of things.”

“Yeah,” he says quietly, his limbs growing heavy again. “I guess I was.”

“Which is perfectly understandable because at the bottom of things is the cause of your terror.”

“Terror?” he says, squinting at her.

“Yes,” she says softly. “So first tell me what you wrote that you didn’t want to write.”

“Screenplays,” he says gruffly. “We wasted four years of our lives writing eighteen of those things. Three were made into movies and the other fifteen were crap and I hated writing them.”

“Did you ever not hate writing screenplays?”

“Oh in the beginning I loved it,” he says, remembering the thrill of working with Nick on Rainy River and Low Overhead and Yum City. “But then it was just this horrible grind, this… forced march to get those fucking things done, and I had never forced my writing before. Never.”

“You wrote those screenplays with Luisa.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, reacting to a sharp pain in his neck.

“So if you didn’t want to write those screenplays, why did you?”

“Because I wanted…” He hesitates. “Because we were successful with the first three, we thought…” He hesitates again.

“You started to say ‘Because I wanted’ and then you stopped yourself. What were you going to say?”

“I don’t know,” he mutters, looking away.

“Come on, Andrew,” she says gently. “Why did you keep writing those screenplays when the writing was no longer a spontaneous outpouring?”

“Is that what Luisa told you?” he says, glaring at her.

“No,” says Donna, sensing how frightened he is. “But I’ve read your books and I’ve seen your plays and I’ve watched your movies, and they are all so full of truth and joy, I doubt very much you didn’t want to write them. So I’m guessing it’s the ones that came after those three you didn’t want to write, yet you wrote them anyway because you wanted…”

“A huge success,” he says before the muscles in his throat and chest and stomach and groin tighten violently. “So Luisa would never…” The pain is so intense he cannot speak.

“So Luisa would never what?” shouts Donna. “Say it, Andrew!”

“Leave me,” he cries. “Never leave me.”

And having confessed this to Donna, his terrible pain is washed away by a torrent of tears.

Seven months later, on a balmy evening in August, Andrew and Luisa have Cal and Terry and Donna and Donna’s husband Howard over for supper. They eat on the deck overlooking the garden—a gorgeous mackerel sky presaging rain.

Howard, a short balding man ten years older than Donna, tells the story of going to the airport nine years ago to pick up Donna, who was one of three finalists to replace Rabbi Mordecai Silverstein, the shul in danger of dissolution, only a few dozen diehards keeping the little ship afloat.

“By the time we got to her hotel,” says Howard, his accent distinctly Toronto Jewish, “I wanted to marry her. Not only is she beautiful, she’s funny. Instinctively funny. Have you noticed?”

“Were you similarly smitten?” asks Cal, who idolizes Donna and can’t imagine what she sees in Howard.

“I was too preoccupied with my interview that afternoon and my trial Torah reading the next day to fully appreciate Howard’s magnificence at our first meeting,” says Donna, smiling sweetly at her husband. “But I liked your car.”

Everyone laughs and Howard says, “This is what I’m talking about.”

“It’s her timing,” says Luisa, clinking her glass with Donna’s. “You have impeccable timing.”

“Leaven the bitter truth with humor,” says Donna, sipping her wine. “Else we will only know the bitterness.”

“That’s true,” says Howard, looking at Luisa. “So how did you two meet?”

“We each had a four-year old going to the Montessori kindergarten in the old Methodist church not far from here,” says Luisa, taking Andrew’s hand. “And after my daughter bothered me night and day to make a play date with Andrew’s son, I finally did, and Andrew and I fell in love. Then he divorced his wife and we got married.”

“You make it sound so simple,” says Andrew, recalling the terrible shock of his first wife leaving him, his nervous breakdown, his parents coming from California to save him, Luisa there to meet him when he emerged from his desolation.

“And how about you two?” asks Howard, looking at Cal and Terry.

“Terry and I met a couple days after Andrew and I got here from California in 1968,” says Cal, putting his arm around Terry. “Thirty-four years ago. I was dodging the draft and Andrew drove me up here, and one night we went to hear some music and Terry was sitting at the table next to ours. She and I got talking and we’ve been together ever since.”

“But we didn’t sleep together until the third date,” says Terry, kissing Cal. “He was shy.”

“Fantastic,” says Howard, shaking his head. “Isn’t it amazing how people find each other? It seems so random, but I don’t think it is.”

“What do you think it is if not random?” asks Cal, who is a professor of Philosophy and thinks about this sort of thing all the time.

“I have no idea,” says Howard, shrugging. “But it can’t be random or Donna would never have given me the time of day. Look at her. She’s beautiful and brilliant and funny and a rabbi, no less, while I’m a schlemiel on my good days.”

“Howie?” says Donna, raising her eyebrow. “Who put himself through college and optometry school? And who is one of the most sought after optometrists in Vancouver? And who held the shul together until I got here and we turned things around? You. Schlemiels can’t to that.”

“You’re right,” he says, shrugging again. “But I still don’t think it’s random.”

“Do you think it’s random, Donna?” asks Andrew, who also wonders what she sees in Howard. “How we meet our partners?”

“I don’t think it matters if it’s random or not random,” she says, looking up at the white clouds turning gray. “I think what matters is we are made of love, and the more we inhabit that truth, the more fulfilled we will be.”

When darkness falls, they move into the living room and Andrew lights the fire. Luisa serves pumpkin pie and decaf, and Cal and Terry request that Andrew read one of his stories.

“I will,” says Andrew, fetching his new guitar from its stand by the piano, “but first Luisa and I are going to sing a song for you, the world premiere.”

Now Andrew plays a sweet run of chords and Luisa sings the first verse of their new song—these last six months given to making music and gardening and walking on the beach and traveling to visit their children, neither of them writing unless the spirit moves them, both as happy as they have ever been—Andrew joining her on the chorus, their voices made for each other.

Lounge Act In Heaven

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Bird In Hand

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)

“For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.” D.H. Lawrence

Three days ago I was settling down on the living room sofa for a much-anticipated afternoon nap, when a bird smacked into one of the seven big windows that make our living room feel so light and airy. Alas, this sickening thud usually presages a dead bird or one so stunned that our cat, if he can get outside in time, makes short work of. And so it was with some trepidation that I got up to look out the various windows to see what I could see.

To my surprise and chagrin, the bird in question had not smacked the outside of a window, but had flown through our open sliding glass door and struck the inside of a pane; and there she was, a little gray sparrow with pretty white markings, standing stock still on a window sill.

“Hello beautiful,” I said to the bird, hoping to catch and release her without hurting her and without causing so much commotion that our cat would come running to capture this high protein snack.

But how could I catch the bird without scaring her into frantic flight? I picked up the big straw basket I use for shopping and thought I’d somehow put the basket over the bird and then…then what? Wouldn’t the bird just fly out from under the basket and zoom around the room and smack into another window and break her neck or bring our cat running or…

Yet even as I was entertaining such unpleasant scenarios, I got closer and closer to the bird until I was right beside her and she remained standing absolutely still. So I slowly reached out and gently encircled her body with my fingers, carefully gripped her just tightly enough so she couldn’t escape, and carried her to the doorway where I opened my hand and she sprang into the air and winged her way across the meadow to the forest.

And two seconds after I released that little bird, our big gray bird-killing cat came sauntering into the living room and gave me a most disparaging look, or so it seemed.

Then this morning on my way to get the newspaper that magically appears at the mouth of our driveway every Sunday morning, a bird who was the spitting image of the bird I saved, accompanied me along the drive, flitting from branch to branch and staying close to me for the entire hundred yards, fluttering her wings and chirping away as if trying to communicate something to me, or so it seemed.

Was she the same bird I rescued? Was she thanking me? Or was she perhaps trying to repay me with information she thought I might find useful—truths about the universe we humans have overlooked or forgotten.

“Probably not,” says my logical mind, but “Maybe so,” says the part of me that believes Nature is far more fantastic than we can possibly imagine, so that a bird wanting to thank a person is every bit as likely as the evolution of a gigantic tortoise or elephant or human from a single-celled predecessor scrabbling around in the primordial soup. After all, if whales saved by people from entangling fishing nets frequently hang around after being rescued to express their gratitude, might not that little bird have been doing the same?

Indeed, I think animals and trees and insects must be hollering themselves hoarse trying to get through to us humans, hoping to set us straight about how to live on the earth without wrecking everything. The indigenous people of North America certainly believed animals and insects and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones were talking to them, teaching them the laws of nature, and that if a person listened and observed carefully enough, the animals and insects and fish and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones would reveal everything Great Spirit wanted us to know, Great Spirit being their name for God or Nature or Universe.

The funny thing to me about the idea of our existing within the body of a vastly intelligent universe, and by funny I mean both amusing and perplexing, is that so many people find the idea idiotic and even dangerous. Yet assuming we do actually exist, we do so within the body of the universe. Right? So the perceived idiocy of the idea must be about whether or not the universe is intelligent; and before we can answer that question we would have to agree on a definition of intelligence, and since we will never be able to agree about that, the discussion ends here.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. A.A. Milne

I was once saved by a bird, and for all I know I was saved again by that little sparrow I saved a few days ago, my saving of her being my salvation though I didn’t know it was my salvation at the time and don’t fully know it now, though I have an inkling. The bird I know that saved me was a ptarmigan, a large pigeon-like bird I encountered in the Canadian Rockies.

I was in my early twenties and living as a vagabond, running away from my parents and the material trappings of American society, living out of a backpack, working as a laborer and dishwasher and playing the guitar and singing on street corners. I was also running from a deep dark depression born of feeling like a worthless piece of shit for not bending to the will of my parents and succeeding on their terms rather than my own. However, I wasn’t keenly aware of harboring such depressive tendencies because I was always on the move, always trying to make enough money to get food, always searching for safe places to spend the night.

I had heard from others of my kind that the Canadian government (this was in the 1970’s) had set up a network of free hostels for transients all across their vast country, and so I spent the better part of a summer staying in those hostels and hitching west from eastern Canada to the charming hamlet of Jasper, Alberta on the banks of the mighty Athabasca River. I camped by the Athabasca, drank good cheap beer in the Athabasca Hotel, played volleyball in the little park in the center of town, saw an excellent performance of The Fantasticks, and spent my days fly fishing and climbing mountains alone and without rope or climbing equipment, bagging several peaks that rose from the valley in which Jasper lay.

I was foolish to hike alone, the wilderness there vast and unforgiving, but climbing mountains alone was truly idiotic, even suicidal, and I think I knew that on some level of my consciousness, for I was often afraid on my climbs, yet went on climbing nonetheless.

So at last there came a moment when I found myself balanced precariously on a tiny ledge on a cliff with nothing below me but air for thousands of feet down, with thirty feet of sheer cliff above me and no apparent way to go up. I was hot and tired and terribly thirsty, and I remember looking back the way I’d come and seeing no possible way to return. Then I looked the other way and saw that the ledge I was standing on came to abrupt end at a large nose of granite protruding into space.

I truly thought I was going to die. There was no way back, no way forward, now way down, no way up. And on the heels of the thought that I was going to die came another thought: Good riddance, you failure, you loser, you useless piece of shit. And as that deep dark depression I’d been running from finally caught up to me and grabbed hold of my spirit, I honestly think I was about to step off into space and end my life.

At which moment, on the aforementioned nose of granite at the dead end of the little ledge I was standing on, there appeared a large pigeon-like bird I would later identify as a ptarmigan. Now this bird did not fly out of the sky and land on the granite nose. No, she hopped up there from some place out of my view, and then she hopped down onto my ledge and waddled right up to me and pecked the toe of my boot. Then she looked up at me and said, “Oodle oodle. Oodle oodle,” which not only means “Hey, Buddy, you’re blocking my path,” but also turns out to be an incantation for dispelling suicidal tendencies in depressed people stuck on tiny ledges on cliffs.

I know this to be true because by the time she uttered her third oodle oodle I was laughing and climbing that last thirty feet to the top, finding handholds and footholds I’d never imagined could be there.

At the top of that cliff I crawled away from the edge into a gently sloping alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and transected by a burbling brook of the sweetest water I have ever tasted.

So maybe life is a random meaningless crapshoot, but I have my reasons for thinking otherwise.

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Disappointment

Whilst discussing my hopes and expectations for the San Francisco Giants with Mark Scaramella, he suggested I try my hand at writing about disappointment. I just hope my attempt doesn’t disappoint him.

“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy—the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” Eric Hoffer

What is disappointment? The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines disappointment as: dejection or distress caused by the non-fulfillment of desire or expectation. Substitute the word suffering for distress and we land smack dab at the outset of Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth (and I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why the Four Noble Truths are noble rather than big or unavoidable or groovy) is that life is suffering. I recently read an article in a Buddhist magazine suggesting that suffering might not be the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit word Buddha purportedly used. The article suggested that annoying might be a more accurate translation. And in some texts the First Noble Truth is stated as: Life is full of suffering (though not necessarily completely full, which would allow for the occasional pizza, chocolate bar, or delightful flirtation).

But seriously folks, the Second Noble Truth states that the cause (or origin) of suffering is attachment. If we can learn not to be attached to things and people and baseball teams winning the World Series, or even just to being alive, then our suffering will lessen and might even disappear entirely. And check this out: in the absence of suffering, we would still be alive, which is a blatant contradiction of the First Noble Truth and necessitates restating the First and Second Noble Truths as: Life is suffering (or disappointing) unless we aren’t attached to anything (very much), in which case life is…what? Joyful? Maybe. I don’t know.

Here is what I think Buddha said: “The First and Second Groovy Truths combine to say that we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome, such as owning an elephant or getting laid. Indeed, if we can learn to dispense with expectations, we will cease to be disappointed, and in the absence of disappointment our suffering will vanish.” Since no one knows precisely what Buddha said, that’s my guess.

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

The root of disappointment is appointment, a word that joined the ranks of our ancestral vocabulary shortly after Olde English morphed into Middle English and our various vernaculars mingled shamelessly with French. The French word was appointement, and meant an agreement, a contract, a decree. “We hereby make an appointment, honey, to meet in the forest for some hanky panky.” From which it follows that a disappointment was the breaking of an agreement, the violation of a contract, or the ignoring of a decree.

Thus we might construe that an expectation is an agreement we make with ourselves, i.e. that the Giants are going to win the World Series, and the violation of this agreement would be a disappointment.

“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” Ralph Charell

I expected I would be an immensely successful writer and musician. That was my conscious expectation. My unconscious expectation was that I would be a colossal failure. The trajectory of my career as a writer and a musician is a perfect reflection of those dueling expectations, with the unconscious expectation always eventually trumping my conscious efforts. For many years I blamed others for the recurring disappointments of my life; but I understand now that the sabotage of my creative efforts was an inside job.

For instance, just as my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published in 1980, I received an excited call from my editor at Simon & Schuster. Time magazine was going to run a big fat rave review of the novel, so fat and big that an additional fifteen thousand copies of Forgotten Impulses were being printed, and Sales, previously reluctant to support the book, had finally agreed to put some real money into promotion and distribution. The next day I got a call from a Time photographer arranging to take my picture for the review. The photo shoot was a dream come true, and the photographer’s last words to me were, “The buzz in New York says your book will be huge.”

Three days before the issue of Time containing the rave was to go to press, the review was inexplicably pulled. The Sales honchos cancelled all promotion and distribution of Forgotten Impulses, and cancelled the publication of my next novel, Louie & Women, for which Simon & Schuster had paid a large advance. And my mainstream writing career, for all intents and purposes, was destroyed. Why? I never discovered the outside why, but I have no doubt that in the ballroom of my psyche the demons gleefully celebrated the triumph of self-loathing.

Thinking back to that particular disappointment, and to many other similar experiences with my books and screenplays and music, I feel disappointed anew. And what I find most interesting about the sensations attendant to my disappointment is that they are indistinguishable from the telltale feelings of another emotional state I know a great deal about: depression.

Depression, one might say, is a state of constant disappointment. But why would someone be constantly disappointed? Well, according to the Second Groovy Truth, we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome. Thus constant disappointment must be the result of a constant attachment to things being a particular way. And wouldn’t constant attachment to feeling rotten have to be a deep and hardwired propensity, as in a propensity developed in childhood? I think so. I think it is only human to be disappointed about losing a game or not getting a job we wanted or getting dumped by our girlfriend. But staying disappointed, I contend, is a neurotic tendency engendered in us by those in charge of engendering our tendencies when we were infants and children.

“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls

So maybe the Giants won’t win the World Series this year, and maybe this article isn’t what Mark had in mind when he suggested I write about disappointment; but now that I have explored disappointment for the last two weeks, and exhumed some of those pesky demons still inhabiting my innards, I am confident that my disappointment about the Giants or anything else will not be as great as it might otherwise have been. Why? Because the demons of disappointment lose their power in the light of conscious scrutiny. And I am now prepared to proclaim, “So what if we didn’t win the World Series? The important thing is we gave it our best shot. We played the game with all our hearts, and that is victory enough.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, October 2010)

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Getting Well

“Programming our intelligence with illusion and fantasy of there’s something wrong with us and enough isn’t enough and too much isn’t too much then turning us loose on ourselves and the world.” John Trudell

My folks are no longer alive, but the shame I feel for doing what I love still surfaces now and then to remind me of how terribly jealous my father was of his own children and how angry my mother was about having her creative ambitions so painfully thwarted. The famous quote by Carl Jung, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent,” elucidates a big part of my mother’s influence on me, while Jennifer James sums up my father with, “Jealousy is simply and clearly the fear that you do not have value.”

My parents were relentlessly verbally abusive of me, and on a few terrible occasions my alcoholic father resorted to physical violence that severely injured me. When I was eleven years old, he nearly killed me. I blocked all memory of this most vicious assault until my fortieth year when a vivid movie of the attack emerged from the archives of my memory. Watching that old footage sent me racing into therapy for the first time in my life.

Therapy saved me, and that does not overstate the case. My savior was a down-to-earth woman who could read in my facial expressions and physical mannerisms the unspoken text of my self-doubt, and she would bring my attention to these physical cues so I might become aware of them and explore the deeper feelings they were attached to.

Of the many discoveries I made in therapy, the most overwhelming one was that I was so entirely acclimated to being told I was worthless, I created most of my relationships to support my parents’ foundational message: no matter what you do, Todd, it isn’t good enough. Which meant I wasn’t good enough. For anything or anyone. So why go on living?

“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.” Malcolm X

Having known many struggling artists, I am well aware that my back-story (as they call the past in Hollywood) is hardly unique. Indeed, I have yet to meet an artist whose memoir could truthfully begin, “My parents lovingly supported me in all my artistic pursuits.” This is not to suggest that abuse and the resultant self-loathing are prerequisites to becoming an artist, though certainly such emotional history typifies the lives of many American and European artists, especially those artists creating things that don’t fit neatly into the stifling little boxes maintained by our corporate-sponsored academic/cultural mafia.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! 
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
 the meat it feeds on. 
William Shakespeare

When I lived in Berkeley I was in the habit of listening to the radical pinko radio station KPFA. Shortly before the most recent American invasion of Iraq, in anticipation of a huge anti-war demonstration, one of the radio hosts invited two of the demonstration’s organizers onto his show to talk about the upcoming march. To my chagrin, though not to my surprise, these two fellows spent twenty minutes of the half-hour show arguing about which of them was the more authentic (for lack of a better word) radical. As I listened to these two “revolutionaries” demean each other and recite extensive proof of their radical pedigrees, I recalled an old friend saying, “The Right has nothing to fear from the Left because we would much rather fight amongst ourselves than actually unite in any substantive way.”

A related phenomenon is that of outsider artists and musicians (outside the mainstream) attacking and undermining each other rather than joining forces ala The Impressionists to collectively bring their creations to a larger audience. As a former devotee of open mike nights (vaudeville enacted in pubs by anyone wishing to perform), which I’m guessing grew out of the egalitarian poetry and folk music scenes of the 1960’s, I have experienced love fests wherein every performer of every imaginable level of talent was resoundingly applauded for simply having the courage to perform, and I have suffered through hateful competitions where the audience might as well have been a mob thirsting for blood, applause begrudged, the more talented the performer, the more openly despised she was.

My favorite thing to do at open mikes, in either scenario, was to interview my fellow performers, to learn their back-stories, and to ask them what they hoped to accomplish with their performances. And I was fascinated to discover that virtually everyone who came to these open mikes—old and young, hopeful amateur and fallen professional, men and women, talented and tone deaf, told tales kin to mine and containing the same essential elements.

1. Missing or disapproving parents

2. An abiding sense of being different, not fitting in

3. Finding solace in their art

4. Idolizing social and artistic renegades

5. Criticized and rejected for their art and lifestyle choices

6. Fierce determination to succeed and prove the naysayers wrong

7. Choosing poverty over giving up or compromising their art

8. Substance abuse to numb the pain of failure and rejection

9. Lousy relationships

10. The dream/belief they will be discovered by someone who makes of them a star

Based on my open mike experiences and interviews, I eventually wrote a screenplay for a musical comedy/tragedy entitled Open Mike, though #10 (see above) has yet to befall my opus.

“Depression is rage spread thin.” George Santayana

When I turned fifty I was at the lowest point in my career as a musician and writer, and I sank into the deepest and longest lasting depression of my life. After a tortuous year of living under what felt like the gravity of Jupiter, and desperate to understand what was happening to me, I came upon a book of essays by the psychiatrists Sylvano Arieti and Jules Bemporad with a title that minced no words: Severe and Mild Depression. One of the essays by Arieti presented a case study of a novelist with a life so like mine I gasped at every sentence.

Prior to his most severe depression, this novelist only exhibited mild symptoms of depression when he was between novels, at which times he would quickly launch himself into writing a new novel. Thus he, as I, managed to outrun and subsume his depression by pouring his energy and attention into his novels for thirty years until exhaustion and failure finally caught up to him. Furthermore, his sustaining fantasy, and mine, was that he would eventually write a novel so great and successful that he would be lifted out of his dreary life into a realm of exquisite happiness wherein his previously rejecting mother and/or father, as well as their embodiment in his wife or lover, would at long last love him.

Reading Arieti’s words, I had an epiphany. I must henceforth give up the unreasonable hope of winning the approval of people incapable of approving of me, for they will never approve of anyone, least of all themselves, and I must learn to accept myself for who and what I am here and now, and not for what I fantasize about becoming.

“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

Without question, the most hateful critics of my writing and music have been fellow artists. Before I got well, to the extent I have, I maintained relations with several angry and deeply bitter artists to whom I gave money I could ill afford to give, and praise, often false, I hoped would soothe them. Our rules of engagement were that I would support and encourage everything they did, and never dare offer suggestions about their music or art. In exchange, they would feel entitled to denigrate me, and to spit on any of my creations I was foolish enough to share with them. These relationships were such obvious re-enactments of my relationship with my father and mother it seems laughable I was unaware of the parallels, but before the veil is lifted we are blind.

After many years of working hard to reform my psychic operating system, I thought I had successfully exorcised the last of these destructive folk from my life, but a few days ago I was made aware of one such person I had overlooked. Having just released my first CD of solo piano music, 43 short Piano Improvisations, the culmination (so far) of forty-five years of piano practice and exploration, I received a letter that ranks among the most sickening and cruel attacks I have ever experienced. This letter was not a critique of my music, but reviled me for daring to make music at all, and as such recalled my mother’s rage and my father’s sense of worthlessness they both so diligently impressed upon me.

“Fortunately,” I wrote to my assailant, “I am finally well enough to trust my own judgment about what I wish to share with others, so that your most unkind words will not deter me.”

Todd’s CD 43 short Piano Improvisations is available from iTunes and UnderTheTableBooks.com

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2010)