|February 2nd, Two Thousand: Ruins and Old Greeks
Last night, we got back home from Chicago, and I cannot express
how happy I was to get back to Saint Paul. It made clear to me
how much I have adopted this place as my home. In the past few
years it has become clear to me that I have become a little more
staid as I have gotten older; sleeping in beds that are not mine,
and waking without the things familiar to me is horribly uncomfortable.
All in all, the trip was fairly wretched. I got sick my second
day there, spent the next day in cars with a raging fever, and
dizzy as hell, and I wanted to go home then. However, we did get
to spend time with Erika and Billy, I got to see my Dad (and for
those of you -- bless your hearts -- writing in lately to ask
how he is, he looked really well), and got a few legal odds and
ends taken care of.
However, in my mind, the best part of the trip only lasted an
hour, and that is when I got to see George. For those of you who
haven't read older work of mine and don't know who George is,
humor me while I fill you in.
Growing up poor in Chicago, I always did most of my shopping at
junk shops. If you have never experienced one, you're missing
out. George's shop, however, goes beyond the norm. For over 50
years, he has been doing estate sales in Chicago, and his shop
on the North Side (on Clark. St, Between Bryn Mawr and Foster,
on the West side of the street) is essentially a huge warehouse
for remnants from these sales. My prized antique Chesterfield
sofa is from George. When I was reupholstering it, I opened up
a crack of the old lining with my exacto blade and was transported
somewhere else. My nose, pressed inside the stuffing, was filled
with the scent of dusty attics, a grandmothers' perfume, an uncle's
cigar, clove and orange and lilac powder. This is the sort of
experience a junk shop brings to mind -- a transport not simply
from one era to another, but little windows into lives through
old shoes, a tarnished silver platter, a yellowed portrait, a
vintage wedding gown.
George's shop has two floors: the first is for most folks simply
walking in off the street who don't know the lovely old Greek
man. But if he likes you, or sees you haven't found what you wanted,
he'll offer to move the little gate that reads "KEEP OUT" from
the basement steps, and lead you down into the real boon. In the
basement (easy 2000 square feet) and aisles and aisles of old
tuxedos, dresses, boxes and boxes of hats, scarves and linens.
Once you're truly in the fold, George may pay you the ultimate
compliment, and invite you into his small parlor downstairs to
sit, and have coffee and talk. This is the real gift.
I have been in and out of George's shop since I was 13 years old.
He has recognized me still through the years, even as I have changed
from a combat-booted, purple-haired teenager, to a Botticelli-wannabe
college hippie, to whomever it is I am now. Always, I am greeted
with tremendous hugs and a kiss for each cheek, and a smile so
wide it threatens to break his face. Always, in the brief moments
of an hour or two of conversation with George, I remember who
I am, should I have forgotten, as I am sometimes prone to do.
I wrote a piece a couple years back based on a conversation with
George which was one of those instances (below) and again, in this visit, he told me more about myself -- when
we were not really even discussing me -- than I knew. I had brought
B. in to meet him (it has always been important to me that those
whom I am very close to spend some time with George), and they
were discussing B.'s recent troubles and frustrations teaching
in the high school where he works. To some comment or another
( I recall these conversations word for word, but I figure you
don't need an entire transcript ), George said,
"The thing is, it is really this simple: when you are trying to
teach someone else something, if you say what you say openly and
honestly, without trying to hold anything back for yourself, and
give all you can give sincerely and without judgment, they will
hear you. Do anything less, and most will not".
This is how he is. That was intended for B., but it was really
ME who needed to hear that, and knowing George as I do, I know
he knew that full well, and knew me well enough to know if he
had said it directly to me, I wouldn't have caught it. He also,
in discussing teen sex education, reminded me of something which
I had been saying to myself as a sex educator for some time, but
none so simply and eloquently as he put it, which is that one
must leave room -- by never giving a point-by-point how-to with
sex -- for simply enjoying life, and learning to find one's bliss
on one's own. I likened it to learning to ride a bicycle: if you
do not fall off a few times, you cannot really savor who lovely
it is to ride perfectly, in tune with the movement of your legs
and the pedals and the sheer force of gravity.
Amidst Ruins and Old Greeks
He is old, and he sees
with far better eyes than any of we.
He tells me
all of my pores are open,
that there are
thousands of openings merging with yours,
penetrated by you, at every moment.
He tells me:
I am a magnet, I am a firefly, I am a siren,
I am too feminine to touch.
He greeted me
with a pressed kiss on both cheeks,
then one for my forehead,
then he stepped back and he smiled slow.
The lines rose in his face
like cracks opening on a dry faultline.
He kissed me again, then,
and he laughed.
You have met a soulmate, he said,
you are no longer one,
but more than one, he said.
You are joy walking, he said,
and you will drive this man absolutely crazy.
When I have embraced you in years before,
it has been soft, and then, ice.
When I embrace you today,
he says, and he covers his eyes,
you are so open we all could fall inside.
He blushes then,
laughing at the effect of a hug from an old friend.
Oh, he says,
I cannot tell you what you do,
you are a sorceress, you.
He asks me of you,
what you say, what you do,
and I reply in unfinished sentences
and long rushes of laughter
that overtake me like waves.
He kisses me,
and cradles my face.
You have always been a dreamer, he says,
but you have never been free.
And now you are dreaming, he says,
and now you are free, says he.
You had this lock, he tells me,
this man is a key.
He is old, and he sees
with far better eyes than any of we.
He brings tears to my eyes, this little old man, who keeps a photo
of me Billy Sheahan took, posed on an old trunk he lent me, nearby
and close to his heart. He speaks about me to others in my presence
unabashed, asks B. how he handles my emotional highs and lows,
my creative passions and drive. He once told a former lover outright
that he wasn't going to be able to handle me, and I needed a far
more passionate sort. He has given me things from his shop, simply
because I must have them, like the amber crepe gown from 1930
I did a shoot in while it still held the sumptuous odor of a perfume
from an era I will never know.
Were it not for George, my trip to Chicago may not have brought
me more than a yearning to be back here. Instead, in that short
hour, I did remember how to breathe again. He reminded me of the
things most important to me. he reminded me that I cannot stop
being rave in what I say and do because I am too thin-skinned,
and that when I anger others, it is all part of a very vital process
(and one that generally has very little to do with me, and more
to do with that individuals' anger), and were I not to follow
my heart, I would not be who I am, and whether that hurts me or
makes me feel marvelous, it is something that did I not do, I
would be half a person, and an ineffectual and empty half at that.
He is a miracle and a wonder, that little man, and in those times
I spend with him, I feel more fondness and love than I feel for
others I have known on a daily basis for years. Perhaps that contributes
to the relationship we have -- I can listen to his words without
the discomfort of too much familiarity, but perhaps not. In some
sense, for whatever reason, he does in fact know me better than
people closer to me know me; in some intrinsic way he can see
right into my core. I know his stories, and he knows mine, even
though in over 15 years, we have perhaps spent no more than 72
hours in total together.
I pray that when I am the age George is (and he claims not to
know how old he is -- or how tall he is -- though I'd guess it
at about 75) I can give the same gift to someone else.
So, this morning as I catch up a bit with work, and look through
forums which I immediately felt myself vehemently reacting to,
I stop. I remember to breathe. I remember who I am, and that my
ultimate aim is not to be correct, or to lead or set examples,
but simply to be myself, to be as honest and open as I am, and
to say and do what I feel I must, and know that is the best I
can do; know that is the best any of us can do. It's funny: in
some sense, when I stopped teaching, it is almost as if I forgot
what a patient person I can be. I worked in classrooms where thirty
children declared mutiny without raising my voice once, and have
handled crises without a moment of panic, but outside that venue
I forget. B. and I were recalling the time when in the last school
I taught at, one of the children found a use condom in the playground,
and brought it to all of the teachers as we stood talking, and
every one of their jaws dropped, having no clue what to do. I
knelt, took it gingerly from the child, and returned with the
cool response, "Oh yuck. It's a balloon, and someone spit in it!
We don't want to touch other people's spit. Let's throw it away."
I need to remember how to be that cool and responsive again. I
need to remember who I am, and how to breathe, and keep that with
me, at all times. Today, I'll catch up on some work so I can feel
able to take some time for myself, and I have a spot again at
Eyada (it was so nice to be invited back) on Thursday, but other
than that, I am devoting most of this week to doing things for
myself: writing a bit, painting the rooms I have been meaning
to paint, and reupholstering that old Chesterfield from George
again. I shall be sure to set aside a few moments to spend with
my nose in the stuffing, sniffing out small remnants of lives
I will never know, but have been given the gift to experience
in my own time, and enjoy the simple wisdom that lurks in dust.