Down Vest, aka Selective Remembering

Still-life with vest, and gardenias

This vest has traveled with me for about 20 years, making its way through each move, quietly accepting a hanger in each new closet.  I’m looking at it now and noticing the bright orange lining against the drab, green exterior, the soft pockets of down, the splatters of paint from some forgotten project.  But mostly I’m noticing neural pathways.  My own, that is.  One pathway starts with this vest and travels all the way back to Alexis.  We lived together all four years in college, a small liberal arts school with anything but small ideas about itself.  It was tucked away in the old, rolling hills of New England.  There was a single main street, and cows not far beyond that.  Spring came late, the skies heavy and low until early June when the lilacs finally burst forth, perfuming the air as we trudged through exams.   Alexis came from DC, bringing with her a quick tongue and a marvelous sense of style. She had a down vest.  She’d button it up to the top, knotting a scarf around her neck.  I badly wanted to achieve the same easy look, and a few months into the wicked cold, I ordered my own. Was the vest a failure?  It was boxy at the shoulders, and made me look a little wide at the waist.  It was warm, sure, but my arms stuck out like neglected children, the wind cutting through my sweaters.

Was the friendship a failure?  This particular neural pathway goes from the vest to Alexis to one of the final talks we had senior spring in which she told me I was insensitive.  This is what I remember?  Really?  What about the years of laughter, the Sunday brunches where we concocted homemade rice crispy treats, the endless games of Hearts, the moments of really understanding each other?  The mind might not like being observed, but it’s a must.  I looked good in the vest.  My friendship with Alexis was, for the most part, loving and fun and bright.  It’s time to redirect this neural pathway, one that slides down into a pile of psycho-emotional sludge called “There’s something wrong with me.”  This is why I’m giving away the vest.  (OK, I also live in Atlanta where, if I wore the vest, people would suspect I was a wrestler trying to make weight).  Farewell tired old thoughts about myself!  There aren’t many lilacs around here, but the gardenias are out, the blueberries are ripe and the first sweet peaches have arrived at the farmer’s market.


Wait, who am I?

I’m in California.  To get from my home to this place requires crossing roughly ten states, each increasingly large and dry.  Still, I didn’t expect to feel like a fish out of water (me being a Georgia trout, the water here supplied, perhaps, by the Tinemaha Reservoir).  I’m visiting my sister, staying in her Los Angeles home halfway up a twisting canyon.  I’ve been here before.  But today has given me an excellent chance to be that fish, to come right out of the water, flop around a bit, then realize I can actually breathe.  Like the car I drove this morning while taking my sisters step kids to school, a Porsche Panamera.  It has gills too, and does just fine on land.

But more on that later.

I got up early to meditate.  I read somewhere that putting your bare feet on the ground soothes jetlag, so I headed into the yard with no shoes, uphill to where the grass pinches off and the canyon walls grow steep.  It was 5:30, but the pool guy was already halfway done with his job.  He was surprised to see anyone else, but gave me a smile, perhaps relieved I wasn’t going for a dip.  The street my sister lives on— a favorite of drivers beating traffic on the 405—was quiet, the chaparral and sage pale silver in the growing light.  I got ten minutes into the meditation when a sputtering sound reached me.  The sprinklers were coming on.  They started at the bottom of the yard but soon more little black cylinders poked up from the sod, until one emerged just to my side, spitting and hissing, like a woozy snake.  Water spurted forth.  Keeping things green out here is serious business.  My meditation was over.

Back to the Porsche.  If you talk to the step-kids, two golden-haired beauties with enormous eyes, they will confirm several things.  First, I didn’t know how to turn on the car.  The key is one of those snub-nosed pieces of plastic with no metal parts.  Ceci n’est pas une cle.  And the hole is on the left side of the steering wheel.  My sister had to start it for me.  The sun hadn’t yet topped the ridge, and the air was chilly, but the AC blasted straight at me.  A simple fix?  Not when there are at least thirty buttons to control the interior environment.  The girls happily enabled the seat butt warmers, and I managed to turn down the air.  We rolled into the street, careful not to bottom out on the lip of the driveway.  In order to achieve its superior handling, this baby rides low.

The girls will also confirm that I was nervous, overly chatty, seeing that the car is worth more than half my mortgage.  I drive a 2004 Jetta.  Her name is Betty.  She’s a nifty girl, a diesel stick shift that runs off of fuel a local guy makes out of discarded cooking oil.  She gets almost fifty miles per gallon.  But to spare both of us, I will not bring her to these tony, serpentine canyons.  This is no place for Betty.  The Panamera, on the other hand, was a natural.  It ate up the curves.  We spun past large houses nestled into the slopes, the yard crews already at work, the gutters filled with sprinkler run-off.  Soon, driving that sleek animal started to feel pretty darn natural.  The beige leather seat was like a subtle—but polite—come on.  The speedometer, I noticed, reached 200 mph, and there was a timer built into the dash to clock the seconds around the racetrack.  I liked it.  Now I’m hoping the girls will keep a few things to themselves, like how I tested the acceleration a couple of times, and how I couldn’t resist telling the story of how Michael English drove me back to college years ago, pushing his BMW up to 120 mph on a deserted, Sunday morning highway.

We kept the engine idling until the school bus came, the girls teasing that I’d need a handsome stranger to restart the car if I turned it off.  (We didn’t get into how my taste would trend away from Mario Andretti and towards Danica Patrick).   The bus came and went, I got the second girl safely to her school high on a hill.  Then it was just me and the Panamera.  Cool, dry air flowed through the sunroof.  Los Angeles unfurled below me, the traffic light, the air still clear.  The smog will rise this afternoon, inevitable as the spark of excitement I felt (me, a girl who composts, makes kombucha, resists turning on the AC in August) when I swung the Porsche onto an empty street and hit the gas.

Just an old robe

The thing about bathrobes is that—with their wide shoulders, the belt cinching at the waist, hanging on a hook at eye level—they sort of look like people.  Like you’re waiting for someone to come and fill the airiness inside.  A certain robe has been hanging on the inside of my bathroom door for at least two years.   It’s pink, the fabric soft and a bit cheap looking.  A friend of mine left it here, a friend close enough to call family.  She wanted to be ready for the hot tub at any moment, but she never ended up using it.  That was when the friendship had started to slip.  Sometimes it’s hard to see with the older ones.  Whatever the present lacks, I tend to tape it over with pictures from the past.  The photo album of this particular friendship is over twenty years thick.  And there are some glorious shots.  Like my friend sitting on the boardwalk , the sun flashing off the face of her guitar.  There’s the in-breath when she didn’t see me yet, still attentive to the campers calling out requests.  The pause when she did, the exhalation of the long hug, falling over in the grass.  There was the year of letter writing, the years of music, the years of being a little bit in love, of being friends, of being more.  There was, more recently, the year when she got so sick and I didn’t visit the hospital as much as I might have.  I’d like to think we’d both say there’s no need for apologies, that we’re different people now, and we need to be free.  But the truth is I feel rudely cracked from the cocoon, my wings still too sticky to fly.  “The thing about families,” she told me before taking her space, “is that they’re dysfunctional.”  Today I wash and fold the bathrobe before packing it in a bag and donating it to one of the big metal boxes all over town.

One unlucky grain

A kefir grain contemplates freedom, just out of reach on the other side of the screen

I consider myself a bit of a homesteader.  Not in a displacement-of-Native-Americans kind of way, but in the looser, modern sense: someone who brings traditional practices into contemporary living.  I have a vegetable garden, I love to can, various things are fermenting around the house on any given day (intentionally fermenting, that is).  There might be a dripping bag of homemade cheese hanging around, and that jar of chartreuse liquid in the fridge isn’t a urine sample gone wrong, it’s whey.  But some experiences test you to the core, and today I surrendered to the kefir grains.

They were sent to me by a woman who calls herself (and don’t we long for this to be so?) the Kefir lady.  The grains were, at first, all innocence—pillowy white clusters about the size of pecans.  They peered out from their neat little pack like orphans who realize that, if they play things right, this could be their shot at a home.  I placed them in a jar, lovingly covered them with fresh, raw milk, and tucked everything under a clean dishtowel.  The next day I had a jar of kefir, slightly bubbly, tart on the tongue.  I also had more kefir grains.  I repeated the process, and they continued to happily work their magic on the milk.  And multiply.  They continued to do this, too.  More grains require more milk.  More milk creates more kefir.  Things got Econ 101 fast, supply outpacing demand.  I used kefir in my smoothies, as a dessert, a mid-morning snack.  I considered doing kefir facials, making kefir moisturizing lotion.  By this time my gut was positively teeming with friendly bacteria.  I was probiotically unstoppable.  I was also out of milk, out of fridge space, and tired of straining and storing.

What to do?  The grains need milk to live, and the kefir purists insist that keeping them at room temperature, in full production, is the only humane solution.  Some people quietly put them in the fridge.  This turns them sluggish, stupid.  You may as well leave your children in a room with a little too much carbon monoxide.  Some people stash the grains in the freezer.  But waking them up and convincing them to live again sounds trickier than cryogenics.

So this morning I ate a grain.  How else to calm things down, slow the conveyor belt? It wasn’t easy, not only because the thing was rubbery and resilient, like a miniature Koosh ball, but also because it felt wrong.  Wasn’t I supposed to be feeding the grains, caring for them?  Instead I was eating one like a monster, like Goya’s “Saturno Devorando a Su Hijo.”  Thank goodness I never got chickens, and that I outgrew my flirtation with keeping bees.  I clearly don’t have the commitment.  Is this really a surprise?  I have a new favorite thing in the house, and it’s not a Kombucha culture.  It’s an armchair from West Elm. The leather is buttery, the color of…well…a kefir grain.  I can’t stop touching it, lounging in it, even as the garden patiently waits to be watered.  So let’s face it: at best I’m Homestead Lite.

The Red Book

A monster work by Carl Jung, “The Red Book” is roughly 200 pages of calligraphic text and illuminations.  We all have a little Jung in our back pocket, right?  Perhaps “The Red Book” contains some of his famous (and incredibly applicable) quotes?  Maybe this one: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.”  Very irritating, indeed.  But no, this bit of wisdom came from someplace else.  How about, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”  Nope, not this one either.  Or perhaps, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”  Uh-uh.  Instead, the Red Book contains such gems as “The serpent has a female nature, forever seeking the company of those dead who are spellbound by the earth, and who did not find a way across to singleness.  The serpent is a whore.”  Thanks for this.  I’d been wondering.

The Red Book was stashed away by Jung’s heirs for years; many believed it was the product of a psychotic break.   The author, however, insists that the book elaborates “what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me…the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.”  Even if I couldn’t make it past the first ten pages, “numinous” is a pretty nifty word.  And there are really pretty pictures.   No need to worry, though: “The Red Book” is going to a new friend, and she happens to be a…wait for it…real deal Jungian.

He doesn’t really know what it means, either.

A magic box?

Actually, I’m keeping the box.  It’s a very good box.  The thing is plastic inside and out, but the latch has a solid feel and the corners are shiny.  Whatever you put inside seems safe, and somehow valued.  I bought it about a year back when I was still managing a band.  They are a very good band.  Better than that.  Often brilliant.  For ten years they’d been making their dreams come true, but the thing about dreams is that they keep hatching, one bigger than the last, like a backwards set of Russian dolls that starts with a baby and grows towards some mythic, corpulent Mama.   The band had some new dreams on the table, which gave me the idea to buy the box.  (Warning: my metaphysics are about to show).  I took index cards and we wrote out all the dreams. On the front, we listing steps we would take towards each one.  On the back, we listed any steps Source took towards us, any help we got along the way.  The cards came in eye-searing colors—orange and green and pink—and each one struck a deal with the Universe.  We do our part; You do Yours.  For months we kept at the cards, updating front and back, until we got distracted.  That was awhile back, during that sweet spot when you start getting clues it’s time for a change and everything holds its breath waiting to see if you’ll notice.  The clues start small—a funny feeling, a nicked pinky from cutting onions.  If nothing changes, they get bigger—a worse feeling, a dead car battery, a leak in the bathroom that refuses to be fixed.  The box lived under my coffee table, and each time we left it unopened was a little nudge in my side seeming to say, “What an adventure it’s been, this job supporting people I love.  We went from nothing to so, so much.  Now it’s time to move on.”

And so we have.  I’m reading the old dream cards now, knowing they’re just that: old.  The band has started their next chapter and so have I.  Time for fresh cards and fresh ink.  I’m letting these old ones go, saying a heartfelt goodbye, but turning my eyes forward.

A hailstorm just came through like a train, the wind strong enough to knock last season’s nests from their hiding places.  Now the gutters are dripping and the sun is out.  And that flash of red?  A cardinal zipping past, a bit of straw in its beak.

tent and camping stove

The tent and stove have been in the basement of my parents’ house for years.  I have another tent I use, and the stove needs some professional love, but I’m still not sure how Montana will feel about me letting them go.  Montana is one of my “Secret Selves.”  (Credit for this idea goes to Julia Cameron, that matron of artistic recovery with her copper ringlets and bestseller, “The Artist’s Way.”)  Montana is that part of me that’s in the backcountry right now, smelling like an animal and getting those wild, glittering eyes.  I wanted to ask her about giving away these things, but she didn’t return my letter for weeks.  When her answer finally came she ignored the question, writing instead about the scorpions under her sleeping bag and how she went without water for a day and a half in the high desert.  Her letter was short, perhaps because it was scribbled on a napkin from some bar in rural Wyoming where she’d charmed a weathered local into buying her a beer.  Oh, and she shaved her head.  Just makes sense in the wilderness to travel light.  So, Montana, if you need a stove when you return to civilization there’s an REI down the road.  And you may also want to consider health insurance.

Can you spot Montana?