Babies

A couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with a four year old when I went to his house for dinner. I was purportedly there to hang out with his parents, but secretly, my plan was to play with him. I even brought my own toys.

And play we did, with his brand-new Superman toy, trying to work a puzzle, and a rousing game of Candyland, which he won handily–twice. He showed me how he lights the Menorah, and then whispered in my hear that we should buy a Christmas tree. He played physically, doing cartwheels when he was happy, climbing on the couch and onto me while we were talking, then nestled warmly into the crook of my arm while we read a Richard Scarry book just before bed. We even sang a song. It was heaven.

His parents are great–smart and funny and great company and good conversation. I really like them. I may hang out with them again sometime, even if they don’t bring their son. But the sheer pleasure of being with that boy, with his unrestrained joy and curiosity, his growing awareness of the world and his fresh view of life, cannot be matched.

So far removed now from raising my own children, I had forgotten the sensory experience of being around kids, and the Candyland playdate reminded me of the submersion of parenting, the child-bubble of the early years. I know sometimes I desperately wanted out, but because of my daughter’s fraught medical condition, I purposely reveled in the physicality of child rearing, knowing how fleeting that time can be.

Teaching piano allowed me to spend time with young minds for a while, and it was exciting to be part of them learning something completely new and challenging. But the teacher role isn’t like the playmate role, as I was reminded during Candyland. With this kid, I could just be a kid myself, and it was such fun.

My role as a baby cuddler at the hospital has been one method of getting a baby fix while waiting for my own kids to be old enoughThomasMattSophia to contemplate becoming parents. It’s not fair to put pressure on them for something *I* want, so I go up to the hospital and wrap my arms around little beings for a couple of hours.

About a month ago, I ran into a friend I used to work with, who has just moved into my neighborhood–and is pregnant with twins. And today, a close friend, who also lives three minutes away, just found out SHE is having twins.

My cup seriously runneth over.

While they will never be as important to me as my children, the idea of getting to be part of a passel of new lives is thrilling. I’m imagining the blankets I might sew for them, and spending time with the babies under the guise of giving the parents a break, and the toys, when they’re old enough, and books we’ll read, songs and games. Who knows, maybe a little piano here and there.

 

 

To a Favorite Performer

My affection for Merideth Kaye Clark is well documented; her performance of Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue,” in its precise instrumentation and note-for-note interpretation that somehow flies on its own wings was an absolute joy to behold. I had the good fortune of interviewing her a couple of years ago, and found her warmth and enthusiasm infectious.

She is playing Portland Center Stage this winter, for the second time, in a creation suited to her native abilities and personality. “A Christmas Memory/Winter Song” is custom-fitted to Clark’s voice and dynamic performance, her radiating charm and lofting soprano.

It’s time, however, for more than a few brief lines for her co-star, Leif Norby.

Norby first crept across my radar in “The Vibrator Play,” a show about a late 19th century doctor who used an electronic device to help women release tension. Yes, it’s exactly what you think. Norby’s character was a stern, austere man, with a rigid (oh please) carriage and little humor. He believed his work to be medicinal, and the play, situated firmly in the mores of the era, addressed only women’s sexuality as something to be “treated”, not celebrated or, you know, normal. I was struck then by his physical appropriateness for the role, with his sharp features and dignified comportment. He looked every bit the 19th century physician.

He popped up again in other productions, each time sliding in and out of focus as his character commandeered his appearance; he disappeared into a pioneer in “The Oregon Trail,” a shuffling drug dealer in “Wild and Reckless,” and John Astor in the two-season epic “Astoria.”

It was usually his voice that gave him away, that tenor, clear like a stream, breaking through whatever was happening onstage. In this production, his voice is used in multiple modes; in the deep South reminiscence of Truman Capote’s childhood friend and their holiday traditions (“A Christmas Memory”), in the personal wintertime stories he tells, and as a soloist on some of the songs, harmony on others.

Again, his voice cuts through like light. Clark’s voice, clear and light in its own right, is made for Broadway, for cabaret singing, for faithfully and beautifully bringing to life familiar songs. Norby, as my husband said, is an actor who sings; despite his role as attendant to the music portion, he is, rather, the star of the show.

As he reads the Capote story, he turns into Capote, sometimes as the boy in the story, sometimes as the adult looking back on the boy in the story. Norby infuses the story with a winsome gentleness, longing for the simplicity of pecan gathering and making fruitcakes for far-flung friends. His best friend in the story, a middle-aged cousin who lived in the same house as he did for a while. The purity of their love for each other, the sheer enjoyment of being together and planning their secret treat making, are the losses Capote feels so keenly. Norby brings out that vein of sorrow with his frank performance, and the result is 30-plus minutes of audience members both lost in the story and gathering around their own childhood memories with wistful affection.

It is a brilliant move to have Norby transition from storyteller to singer in the second half, because his voice has brought such feeling to the surface, the listener tracks the sound like stitches of thread. The whole night is a story of trying to revisit lost loved ones, straining to recall the once-felt loving warmth of being with family. It’s an ache, this show, a wish for comfort on a cold and lonely winter’s night.

And it’s that longing that Norby conveys so succinctly with the timbre of his voice, his wry smile and humble demeanor. Whatever character he plays, he brings a genuineness, a frankness, and in this intimate setting with personal stories about Christmas, it’s especially affecting.

The clip below shows Norby’s tremulous tenor, but it is his performance of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night” that melted hearts, and this clip gives hints as to why. Despite having a higher register than Lightfoot, Norby gives the song a sweet candor, as if he’s singing directly to the one he loves, sitting in their living room.

I’m glad to have had so many opportunities to see Leif Norby onstage, and to see the range of people he is capable of becoming. But I’ll always hold this performance dear, as it shows the quality Norby brings to his work, the candor and compassion that rings through every character.

And if you have the chance, do go see this show.

Socks and Sandals, or Things I Would Never Have Done When I Lived in the Midwest

My acrylic socks make my feet snug and happy inside my Keen sandals. When it rains later today, I’ll change into waterproof shoes, but right now I’m enjoying the delicious embrace of webbed shoes.

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There’s a bunch of stuff I have done in Oregon that I would never even have considered while living in the Midwest. Setting aside the coastal-state things I’ve done, all of which were not an option living in the land-locked state of Illinois (do you REALLY consider Great Lakes states to be coastal?), and living near actual mountains (as opposed to landfill hills onto which industrious skiers have pumped manufactured snow) I’ve enjoyed an array of Oregon-centric behaviors.

Let’s go.

–Ugly shoes. I gave up heels the moment I set foot in Oregon, because there were so many examples of ugly shoes on every corner, I felt released from expectations of stylishness. Keen sandals are popular, as are Bierkenstocks and Naots. I honestly thought Bierkenstocks were only worn by hippies, but maybe that’s right after all. I can’t think of a city with a more vibrant, self-sustaining hippy lifestyle. To be fair, I had trended toward ugly shoes before, but on many occasions, I really *tried* to wear stylish shoes. Shoes with heels. Now, I only wear shoes that are seriously comfortable.

–Socks with sandals. It just feels so damned good.

–Wearing a jacket–not a coat–in December. I’m not sure I even have a coat anymore. It’s only layers here, thin layers of acrylic and wool. A cute knit cap and a scarf are all I need to stay warm. It’s amazing what the world is like without significant wind chill. I no longer live in a place where the air hurts my face. I mean, we actually had a weather alert about stagnant air; no wind. Some people were greatly affected.

I’m not joking.

–Putting on tire chains. It may seem backwards that I never used tire chains while living in the snowy Midwest, but I’ve covered this before; it’s about hills and salt here. Oh, and curves. Curves while you’re driving downhill changing lanes to find your badly marked exit.

–Dancing. Many, many times. With Tim, by myself, in groups and in classes. I am sure this was available in Chicago, but not in the suburbs where I lived. I would never have felt free enough to go dancing in the suburbs; “going dancing” was about pickup bars, mating rituals, activities that constrain a person’s movements for a specific purpose. Dancing in Portland has made me free.

–Drinking with friends. For the same reasons that dancing was off limits in suburban Chicago for an plus-sized middle-aged married mother of three, so too was going out drinking. The presumption in bars always seemed to be that people went there to find someone to hook up with. Granted, my sample size is small, given that I didn’t frequent bars because even incidental visits felt so creepy and uncomfortable that I was wont to repeat the experience. But the mood in Portland bars is decidedly different. Most of the ones I’ve been to are simply a place for friends to hang out and talk and drink. That’s it. Kinda what I’d imagine pubs are like in Ireland. This kind of going out drinking I really enjoy. In fact, I’m going out for drinks this weekend with one of my closest friends, who drove to our last meeting barefoot. But that’s a different story.

–Yoga. Yes, there was yoga in Chicagoland, but I still never tried it until I came here. It’s difficult to explain to people who have not experienced life in the suburbs, but the culture is so controlled, so unnaturally conformist that it’s difficult to explore proscribed interests. Deviation from the norm was punished. Know the restraining bolt that kept R2D2 from wandering off? Like that, only with heavily imposed social cues; cold shoulders, gossip, laughter concealed behind judgmental glances, isolation. In Portland, yoga has been a necessary component of self-calming, of loosening my own emotional strictures through muscular release. Getting into your body and out of your brain is a theme of my Portland experiences.

–Getting lost. I’ve got a strong sense of direction, but . . . wow. Portland has some fucked up streets. They curve and become suddenly one way and change names, then the name changes back two miles later. One-way streets are plentiful and unpredictable. There is one road that’s reliably straight, and the rest present myriad challenges. I have actually gotten lost here due to the weirdo, accidental street layout, and lack of sun by which to navigate. Hard to know which way is north at any given time.

–Compassionate driving. Used to be I’d get annoyed with other drivers’ bad behavior, as I saw them as aggressive and selfish. But in Portland, partly because of the whack-ass streets, I’ve been much more forgiving. The other component, however, is that I’ve received such compassion from other Portland drivers. Chicagoans, it’s the weirdest thing: you know those stop lights at ramps onto highways, the ones designed to pace out the merging traffic? People in Oregon actually STOP at those! They take turns! And stop signs, too. Plus! Drivers in Oregon stop for pedestrians! Can you believe it? It’s like the life of a person walking into the street actually matters. I’m stunned every time I see it. And so, so grateful. This kind of experience is not 100% perfect, because dicks exist in every state, but take my word for it; it’s way better here than Chicago.

–Talk to strangers. Yeah, it’s part of my job, so I can switch into and out of community-center mode, but I like talking to strangers here. I’ve learned so much from people I just happen to strike up conversations with. More accurately, people who have struck up conversations with me. Some have become close friends. I’m still as introverty as ever, but I am open to the option of talking to people on the street. At the coffee shop. In the produce market. At the bookstore.

–Hiking in the rain. I used to exercise in bad weather before, but it was a badge of honor to go out in 7F temps for a workout. Rain in the Midwest is different from the rain we get here; these raindrops aren’t potentially deadly. In Chicago, rain comes down in sheets or buckets or pellets, or sometimes all three. It hurt. Here, rain is mostly gentle drips from an over-soaked sponge. I do miss thunderstorms, and the wild tempests that would rip through hot summer days, but I have learned that not all rain is equal.

–Leaving my house without makeup or a bra. I would not have contemplated such action in Chicago, but here, I do it regularly. I mean, I still “dress up” for work out of some residual habit, but there is absolutely no panic or shame involved when I don’t. I’m just a person doing my thing, encountering all the other people doing their things, and if the way I look causes someone distress, they’re going to have to deal with it. On their own. Maybe try yoga or something.

Portland isn’t perfect and Chicagoland wasn’t evil, but these differences have led to a change in how I interact with my fellow people.

Not long after I moved here, someone I encountered in passing said she was leaving Portland because it was too “cliquish.” I’ve watched carefully for that behavior, afraid I was too smitten to see the city clearly. In my experience, Portland isn’t so much cliquish as it is a city made of individuals pursuing the things that make them happy, and pursuing those things with extreme focus. Those individuals get together with other individuals focusing on the same happy-making things, and the rest of the world disappears. It’s the same for the makers of music that I’ve met, and the woodworkers, farmers and writers; for them, all that exists is this thing they are doing and the like-thinkers they know.

Maybe that was her definition of a clique, I don’t know. I see cliques are existing simply as a societal structure in which you get to tell other people they’re inferior. That was the whole currency of the Chicago suburbs; groups of people who felt superior and got together to exclude others. Golf clubs and sports fans, PTAs and Rotary Clubs. The specificity of the exclusion was sewn into the fabric of the culture.

I have found Portland’s mishmashed fabric to have been sewn from threads found dangling from trees or woven lovingly from alpaca wool or recycled plastic, different colors and textures and lengths. It’s a whack-a-doodle piece of fabric, to be sure, but it’s made out of pure earnestness and passion. And it’s a lot easier here to feel like myself, to explore what pieces I want to take into myself and what I want to leave out. It’s easier to see me without being surrounded by mannequins.

Better put my nerdy duck shoes on; looks pretty damp out there.

She was a Free Spirit

My mom’s on my mind today. Probably like a lot of people who’ve lost their parents. Thanksgiving is especially reminiscent of her because it was often her birthday, which is November 25. The smell of onions and celery and pepper sauteing at 8 a.m. brings to mind my mom, in her floor-length purple “dashiki” robe, standing at the stove singing along to whatever torch song was playing on the radio and prepping the enormous feast. God, how she loved saying “dashiki.” Really, it was just a robe.

My mother was an emotional person. I realize now that she wasn’t fully mature, that there were parts of her development that hadn’t finished yet. The definition of depressive narcissist seems to fit, but I’m loathe to lock her into a category, to dehumanize her. She loved drama, and veered toward self-pity in her arguments with my father. Holidays started with my mom preparing some feast, Dad coming home from his run and panicking that the house wasn’t clean enough for guests yet, and dragging buckets out of closets and kids out of bed to clean the floors and baseboards.

For Grandma, who was partially blind.

Dad was rough, a former Marine, son of a woman who made a living managing a staff of hotel maids, and he KNEW how to clean. It was his mission. The caustic hot, green water filled with SpicNSpan burned our skin, but that didn’t matter. Those fingerprints and scuff marks were ours, and we were going to scrub them off.

The flurry around Dad’s cleaning panic disturbed Mom’s bubble of harmonious creative cooking, and she would invariably throw up her hands and wail “Thank you for a WONDERFUL (fill in the blank holiday name)” and tromp back to bed.

I’d look around the kitchen, now evacuated by the cleaning bucket, which made its way to the entry hall, and work on what she’d started. I learned a lot about cooking this way, and have locked my mother’s recipes in memory as a result.

My parents were ill-suited. Their marriage was a failed divorce. Even as a kid, I wished they’d just split up, it would be easier. Not easy for Catholics, but easier for me, fearful of raised voices and my father’s slammed fists.

I work with artists now, and I see my mother in all of them. The colored pencil teacher has my mother’s eyes, her nose. A kids art instructor has my mother’s brightness, her joy at making messes and helping kids do the same. The art center where I work smells like her, acrylic paints and canvas and gouache and oil paints. My mother had a studio (south-facing, to her permanent disappointment) in which she painted long hours into the morning. She was a night owl, creative when the people who needed her had gone to sleep.

She was in some ways an absent mother, in failing health and lacking energy and will to attend to our needs. But she was also a marvelous mother, holding circuses for us and our neighbor friends in the back yard, piling art supplies on the picnic table and showing us how to create a picture in lentil beans and macaroni. We ironed autumn leaves between wax paper and hung them on the windows. We cut intricate snowflakes in paper and hung them on the tree. Her hands could make anything, and I longed to be able to create like her.

She sang. She also played piano, and she was very good, but had lost some skill by the time I came along, and her playing staggered along, left hand out of sync with the right, jagged melodies that still fed her heart with romance and longing. But her singing was absolute glory, rising to the rafters in church, emanating from her sad face as she worshiped in the way that suited her best, with guilt and penance.

I shrank from the attention she gathered to her with her voice, afraid of any eyes that saw me in public. But she fed on it, rising higher in her shoes, beating her chest with her rosary-clasped hand, outshining the choir and the organist and every other voice in the church.

She was a creative, my mother. She called herself a “free spirit,” but she had the soul of an artist. She flew in the moments of drawing and painting and singing, her heart light and lithe. My father tethered her, his fury and demands pulling her earthward. She should have been in her studio, or at the piano, or singing, my God, singing, and leave my father to his demons. She may have protected us in that way, or told herself she was protecting us.

I did not have enough of my mother before she died. My first thoughts on hearing she was gone were “I’m not done yet!” because I didn’t know her. I only knew what my child-self knew of her, and that’s an imperfect view. I still don’t know her, but I understand some parts better now.

This morning, I’m making her YumYum Coffeecake, a name I’m sure my mother, in her gorgeous playfulness, assigned. While the cinnamon wafts through the house, I’ll start sauteing onions and peppers and celery for her stuffing recipe. My home will be filled with the most tangible reminder of her, and I’ll sit in my own floppy robe, blow steam off my coffee, and sing some torch songs for her.

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