Ode to Central Park

Views of Central Park in mid-October (photos by me!)

Oh, how do I love thee?

 

I love the juxtaposition

Nature and civilization

Bird calls and sirens

Steel and glass skyscrapers and majestic ancient trees

 

Ducks and turtles paddling the reservoir

Birds swoop

Stately pre-war apartment buildings stand guard to the west

Museum mile beckons to the east

Commerce to the south

Harlem to the north

 

Flora, fauna and culture abound

Beauty in all its forms

For the taking

 

People of every age and size

Of every skin color

Of every socio-economic level

 

Running, walking

Laying in the grass

Cycling, rowing

Reclining on a park bench

 

Riding in a pedi-cab

Or a horse-drawn carriage

Planking on a pedestrian bridge

Graceful moves of tai chi on the meadow

 

Children’s laughter

So many languages

The wind in the trees

Honking horns

The rotors of a helicopter slicing the air

 

Let me count the ways.

 

 

Who Decides?

 

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His skin is mottled,

He is 94.

He stands erect,

He walks with assurance.

He says, I feel the same as I always feel.

 

Right now, I think.

He can’t imagine feeling different,

He doesn’t remember.

 

Months before, winter of 2016, hospitalized 5 times or more in Florida,

Weakened by persistent diarrhea and congestive heart failure.

We see his mortality as he lay in a hospital bed,

Grateful to have his ‘son the doctor’ by his side.

He felt his vulnerability – then, not now.

 

Summer of 2017, Saugerties, NY.

They have a full-time aide,

Living ten minutes from their daughters.

Close to their sons.

In an apartment, furnished with familiar things,

In a new community, in an unfamiliar place.

 

I arrive to take him to his doctor’s appointment,

We leave his wife, many years into Alzheimer’s, with the aide.

We step outside into the light so bright, he shields his eyes til they adjust.

He walks with purpose to the car.

Fall is in the air, he says.

Almost time to go back to Florida, he tells me

 

I start the car and drive,

I don’t respond to his comment about Florida.

What to say?

 

When was the last time he drove?

He would not be able to navigate the roads to the doctor’s office,

Or the paperwork,

Or explain his complex medical history.

 

He might understand the doctor’s instructions,

He is a compliant patient.

He has an iron will,

Which may explain his 94 years.

 

His long life brought him from the woods in Poland

Where he fought with the partisans against the Nazis,

To fight in the Russian army,

To survive by any means necessary.

To a displaced persons’ camp,

To immigrate to the United States,

To build a life.

To outlive friends and family, still bound to Paula, his children and his faith.

 

Should he and Paula go to Florida?

What is the right balance between their quality of life and their safety?

What is the right balance between David’s wishes and the peace of mind of his children?

Who decides?

Binghamton, 1977

xcourt

 

After I retired I took a writing workshop that was an awesome experience. I have written before about how liberating that class was for me. One of the assignments we were given was to write a poem in response to another work of art – a poem, a painting, song lyrics – whatever inspired us. I wrote a poem in response to “Down to You,” by Joni Mitchell. For those who aren’t familiar with it, or if you don’t remember the lyrics, here they are:

 

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
Constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you

You go down to the pick up station
Craving warmth and beauty
You settle for less than fascination
A few drinks later you’re not so choosy
When the closing lights strip off the shadows
On this strange new flesh you’ve found
Clutching the night to you like a fig leaf
You hurry
To the blackness
And the blankets
To lay down an impression
And your loneliness

In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Old friends seem indifferent
You must have brought that on
Old bonds have broken down
Love is gone
Ooh, love is gone
Written on your spirit this sad song
Love is gone

Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
Constant stranger
You’re a brute, you’re an angel
You can crawl, you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you

Joni Mitchell from the album Court and Spark, 1974

 

I must have listened to that song, among many other Joni songs, hundreds of times during my college years. She was a mainstay of the soundtrack of that time in my life. This is the poem (or prose-poem) that I wrote after reflecting on that song:

 

Binghamton, 1977

It is a Binghamton kind of night.

The air so cold it hurts.

The sky is clear, pinpricks of light shine against the velvet blackness.

I am in exile.

 

My roommate’s boyfriend is visiting.

I will spend the weekend studiously avoiding my dorm room.

 

I am holding my pillow pressed against my chest, my knapsack on my back.

Waiting til 8:00 pm when I will meet a friend at her dorm room

where I will crash for the next two nights.

 

So, I wonder, where is the ‘pick up station’ that Joni sings about?

I have never found it.

Wouldn’t know how to work it, if I did.

 

She counts lovers like railroad cars.

I’ve had none.

 

But, I would like to lay down my loneliness.

I don’t think her way will work for me, though.

Can’t imagine picking up a stranger and feeling less alone.

 

Joni is right about one thing, though.

Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow.

When I am in a tunnel, I can’t see the light.

If only the reverse were true.

When I’m in the light, I wait for a shoe to drop.

 

Right now I am clutching the night to me

And it is cold.

Starting Over

I stood at the podium looking out over a banquet hall filled with my colleagues. Since I had no prepared remarks, I was trying to come up with something. What did I want to say?

The executive director of the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), for whom I had worked for the last 9 years, had just introduced me by offering some left-handed compliments, noting my penchant for speaking my mind. Happily for him, the reason we were in the banquet hall was that I was retiring.

The party wasn’t only for me. A colleague, who had worked for NYSSBA for over twenty years, was also being honored. He had already been introduced and made heartfelt remarks about how much he enjoyed his career. He was genuinely moved and spoke haltingly, emotionally about his appreciation for the organization.

When my turn came to take the podium, I wasn’t at all sure what I felt. In the weeks leading up to the luncheon I couldn’t get myself to focus on writing remarks. After all, most of the reason that I was retiring at age 55 was that I was unhappy in my work. I was tired of fighting the good fight and getting nowhere. I couldn’t very well stand up and say that, despite my penchant for speaking my mind. I made innocuous remarks, thanking the people who I did enjoy working with and I wished everyone well. It was time for me to turn the page and start a new phase of my life.

It is unlikely that anyone reaches 55 years of age without starting over a few times. Whether the impetus is retirement, a relationship ending, or moving to a new city or changing jobs, it is almost impossible to avoid starting over in the course of a life. Some might actually seek out new starts, finding the prospect exciting and challenging. I am not one of those people. I like the idea of change in theory, but the reality is hard.

When district lines were redrawn when I was a child in Brooklyn and I had to attend a different junior high school than my elementary school classmates, I struggled. When my then fiancé, now husband, was accepted to medical school in Pittsburgh and I uprooted from New York City to join him, I had a tough time adjusting. When budget cuts closed the Legislative Commission on Expenditure Review, where I worked and enjoyed my job, I was angry and resented having to find a new job.

While those new starts were thrust upon me, the decision to retire as soon as I was eligible was a choice I made. After much ruminating, and discussion with Gary (husband, see above), I decided to retire, collect my minimal pension, and pursue writing. Perhaps that sounds simple. It wasn’t.

The decision was fraught on many levels. For one thing, I worried about how my retiring from paid employment would affect my marriage. Gary and I have spent a lot of time negotiating the balance of our relationship – balance in terms of finances, child care and household responsibilities, and attention to each other. Other than the first 8 years of our 33 year marriage (and counting), Gary has been the major breadwinner.

I supported Gary through medical school and continued to work when we started our family, but once he was in medical practice, he earned far more than I did. Gary never held that over my head, he wasn’t one of those husbands who begrudged me a new pair of shoes. He didn’t review the credit card statements. But, that isn’t the point. The point is that Gary works very hard, long, stressful hours. I think he felt a sense of relief, of shared burden, when I was working (for pay, that is).

Having grown up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I bought the idea that women could have it all – family, marriage and career – hook, line and sinker. I wanted a career, I believed I should have a career. I felt like a failure when I finally admitted to myself that I could not balance it all. I thought it would get easier when the kids got to be school-age, but it didn’t. The running refrain in my head at the time was that I was doing a shitty job wherever I was – at home or at work.

Although I had a lot invested in my identity as a career woman, the reality was that I was working for the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance in a job that made me feel like I was living in a Kafka novel. It was not the vision I had for myself when I started the master’s program in public administration and policy at Columbia University. I thought I would help people by pursuing a career in public service, hopefully in education policy. Somehow I found myself in a job that was as far from helping people as one could get. I had to do some serious mental gymnastics to connect what I was doing to the public good.

When it became financially feasible for me to stop working and stay home with the kids, I did. I thought long and hard before doing it. I still held on to the idea that I should be doing something productive to help people and get paid for it. I considered looking for a new (more satisfying) job, but the truth was, with the demands of Gary’s career and two young children, I felt like working full time might lead me to a nervous breakdown. I was already well on my way to one. So, I stopped. I spent the next 11 years mostly staying home.

I told myself when I stopped work that I would write. Now that I was home, I thought I would try writing a fictionalized version of my childhood. I always wanted to write – I was always composing sentences in my head, describing the scenery or people I observed. At various times in my life, I wrote in a journal but I never moved beyond that. I thought I was finally ready to do it. I wasn’t. If I shared my writing I would subject myself to judgment that was too close to the bone, too close to judging my worth as a person. I couldn’t expose myself in that way, even under the guise of writing fiction.

Instead I did a bunch of other things on a freelance basis. I became an impartial hearing officer who heard disputes between parents and school districts about services for students with disabilities. I did that sporadically for about five years, until they changed the law and required hearing officers to be lawyers. I could have continued, they grandfathered the current pool in, but it didn’t seem right to me. If the belief was that a law degree was necessary, and I could see the wisdom of that, then I decided I shouldn’t continue.

I became a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League’s World of Difference Program, a multicultural, diversity education program, and I did that on a freelance basis.

I also got involved in my kids’ school. I volunteered in their classrooms and in the library. I went to PTA meetings. After about two years of doing that I ran for the school board and was elected. I served for nine years.

When our son was in his junior year of high school and our daughter was a freshman in college, I thought it was time to go back to work full time. The pressure of two college tuitions, and my desire to get back to a career, led me to start to look for work. That turned out to be complicated. It seems that the various freelance positions I held, and serving on the school board, looked like a hole in my resume.

Finally, based on my school board service and the support of someone in the organization, I found a job with the New York State School Boards Association. I stayed for nine years. During that time, in my opinion, education reform was moving in the wrong direction. Too much emphasis on tests, misuse of the tests to evaluate teachers, charter school expansion that drained resources from public schools, Race to the Top….I could go on and on. I tried to advocate within my organization to take a stand against these policies, but I rarely made progress. After 18 years immersed in public education, and reaching age 55, I decided I had enough.

At the same time, I started to think again about writing. I had never stopped thinking about it actually. Most of my days at work were spent writing, but it wasn’t the type of writing I wanted to do. I thought maybe I was finally ready.

Lucky for me, my children knew I needed a nudge. As a retirement gift, they signed me up for a writing workshop at the Capital Region Arts Center. It was three hours each night over the course of four consecutive evenings. I was both terrified and excited.

The class started on a lovely summer evening in mid July. I was nervous about finding the Art Center and parking in Troy, so I left myself a lot of time. I am chronically early and this was no exception. The classroom was still locked, so I wandered around the Center and looked at the art exhibits. I found the vending machines. I tried to distract myself.

I went back to the classroom. I felt hopeful, but unsure of what to expect. The door was unlocked and there were a few people in the room. It turned out the workshop was led by a poet. I hadn’t written a poem in…I couldn’t remember when – probably in junior high school when we were forced to. The workshop was described as ‘generative,’ which meant that participants were able to work on whatever type of writing they wished. So, poetry wasn’t required. Phew!

There were only five other people in the class, all women, several of them looked to be about my age, the others definitely younger. The poet-leader was a young man. After brief introductions, Victorio read a poem to us, which was in the form of a letter to oneself. After he read it, he asked us to take 20 minutes and write something to ourselves. The six of us spread out in the room. I took a spot on the windowsill, looking out on the Hudson River.

I did not have difficulty finding words. I wouldn’t call it a poem, it was prose, but it wasn’t a narrative either. I wrote freely. I surprised myself.

After 20 minutes, we came back together. Victorio didn’t ask for a volunteer to read first. He simply called on me. My jaw dropped; the moment of truth. I know he saw the fear in my eyes, but he didn’t flinch and he didn’t let me off the hook. I stopped thinking, looked down and read the words I had on the page. I didn’t look up until I finished.

I honestly don’t remember the substance of the comments. What I remember is that it was okay. I survived. There was criticism, all of the constructive variety. (In that I was fortunate – none of the women turned out to be jerks, and Victorio set a great example for us.) There was encouragement. And, most important, I didn’t die of exposure or embarrassment!

Driving home that night, I was almost giddy. It felt like a burden had been lifted. Ahhh, liberation…..I could finally try to do what I had always wanted to do. In that moment I certainly didn’t know if I would ever be published (and still don’t), but it didn’t matter. I didn’t know where the process would bring me, but I knew something had changed inside. I had begun a new path.

Maybe it wasn’t really starting over at all. Maybe it was a coming home of sorts, coming home to myself.

Another Poem: Search Terms

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