Thursday, July 23, 2009


At my Jewish day school, our principal was British and preferred being called "headmaster". Occasionally, he'd visit our 8th grade classroom during the half of the day reserved for secular studies. He would knock and politely ask the teacher if he might interrupt for a moment. Then, with that dignified but musical accent, he’d read us a bit of literature – poetry, perhaps, or part of a play. Or he’d lead us on a journey into the unknown by presenting us with an algebraic problem or two.

The 15 of us in the class had moved as a group through the grades, gaining or losing one or two along the way. So I probably could have predicted who’d surreptitiously groan at this interruption (usually a boy).

I, on the other hand, adored every moment of every visit. Later, when I enjoyed all of high school algebra and geometry, chances are there was a connection. Even today, a long time later, I keep on my book shelf a plane geometry review book I once came across at a yard sale. Some day, I hope to find the time to relearn all those theorems. They can take me from a problem’s skimpy offering of givens to the seemingly impossible proof, if I just discover the necessary connecting steps and take them.

At college, I majored in English and spent a lot of my extracurricular time with the university's theatre groups. Math courses were not among my requirements. Besides, without really thinking about it, I had begun to divide the world in certain ways. Scientists and mathematicians were other people. I was in the arts.

But what makes something an art?

I don’t know if Mr. Plotnick, our headmaster, pondered such matters when, before a visit, he'd contemplate what to bring to our classroom that day. Literature? Math? Did it matter? Did he realize on a conscious level what he was teaching us? A Shakespeare play and a well-solved math challenge are more the same than different. They are both poetry.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


She phrased it differently than I’d ever heard it phrased at meetings like this before. Just slightly. Did anyone else notice how it made all the difference?

“I wish,” she said, with a longing that I could feel from across the room, “I wish they’d been inside me.”

She was talking about her twins, adopted at birth. It had been an open adoption, with a birth mother passing them along carefully, having decided that it was best for them. They were five years old now. At this adoption support group meeting, there was a clear sense that we could say absolutely anything – and we often did. And yet, this group member didn’t think of saying that she wished she could have born children, any children. These particular children were hers so definitely, that she felt the need to have had them inside – them and no one but them. It wasn’t the experience itself that she wanted for herself. It was the closeness she felt for her son and daughter that made her wish, for their sake, for that missing piece.

I realized that I would express my yearning in a different way. After all, our stories were not the same. My two adopted children, two years apart in age, had each spent time in institutional settings before my agency had discovered them. I wanted the abandonment in my children’s past to simply cease being true, before they grew old enough to think about it.

A few months after that meeting, my son developed a curiosity about his birth mother. Sitting on my lap at home, he pieced together this question in the careful words of a three-year-old::

“What . . . her . . . name was?”

I offered her first name. That seemed to satisfy him for a year. It wasn’t until he was four that he brought it up again, in a very different manner. It was bedtime. We had just finished reading a book together and perfecting our duet of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” I had turned out the light and was lying on his bed with him, waiting for him to drift off to sleep. But he wasn’t ready for sleep that night. In his voice in the dark, I sensed the same yearning I had heard from that mother a while back, at the meeting.

“I wish that I came from your tummy,” he said.

I wanted to rescue him from the deep mourning I could hear. So on went the light and right there, right then, we arranged it. At my suggestion, he tried pushing his head under my T-shirt. It startled me how very much bigger than a newborn he was already. It wasn’t easy for him to get even his head under my shirt.

Then, I went into labor.

“Ooh, the baby’s coming,” I called. “I can feel it! He’s ready to come out. He’s coming now!”

As might be expected with a birth, he had some trouble exiting my T-shirt, so there was indeed a sense of triumph when he made it. He had but a moment to glory in it, with arms stretched high and a victorious shout of, “Ta da!” before I grabbed him in my arms.
“My baby!” I said. “My baby.”

Now, seventeen years later, the woman who did give birth to him and three others has phoned them all, even before the youngest had reached the age of 18, the earliest age when the law says okay if both parties want it. (It just took one of them to give her the numbers of the other three.)

When she has called, she has opened with these words: “This is your mommy.” And then she has called them by the names she says she would have given them. They want to see her, to get to know her. They want to fill in empty spaces. They’ve been spending a lot of time with her.

I worry for all of us. Is she trying to convince them to recognize her now as their only mother? What if her reason for making contact doesn’t have anything to do with their good? She left them once already. I can’t let that happen to them again.

As for me, I comprehend, as never before, how it feels to be abandoned.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Childhood Memories: The Bath

My childhood bathroom hasn’t gone anywhere. Strangers use it now, and for all I know they may be the umpteenth strangers who’ve claimed that it’s theirs. But uh uh. It will always be mine.

It’s small, right at the top of the stairs, my parents’ room to the left, mine to the right. I’m in the tub at this moment, all warm in the steam from the hot water. I’m wrinkling more by the minute, and the magazine story I’m racing to finish dampens further every time I put it down for a sec on the tub’s rim, or turn a page with a dripping hand. Somewhere up ahead, after college, I’m going to meet Angelo, and in the letters he’s going to send me from prison, he will attempt to expand my education about criminal justice in the USA. In one of those letters, he’s going to suggest that people transform their bathrooms into solitary confinement cells to find out what that feels like. Among other tips, he’s going to suggest

~ Take any ornamental cover off the ceiling light and leave a bare bulb.
~ Keep the heat down so it becomes clear what a gift it is to be allowed to wear your underwear, because it can keep you that welcome bit warmer.

I’m 10 and in the tub, but at the same time, I’m an adult remembering back, and so I know that Angelo, whom I will not meet for 16 years, is 13 as I relax in the warmth. At 13, he has already endured years of punishments from his father, although he has seldom understood what he did wrong. The punishments have included sitting in bath tubs like the one I’m in. But Angelo’s have been filled with ice cubes. The punishments have also included ropes. Any connection with ropes between me and my parents is this: On days when none of my friends are around, my father is generally willing to hold one end of a rope, my mother the other, so I can jump.

If Angelo is 13, that means he’s about to be kicked out of his family’s apartment by his dad. His mother will not intervene. He is going to have to live on the streets and, as he will some day tell me, fight the neighborhood dogs for food from garbage cans. By 17, he will be under arrest for a serious crime. There will be front page coverage for days in the Spanish language newspapers. By the age of 18, he will be in prison.

I know this even years before I meet him. I am 10 and in the tub, and although I'm determined to finish this dripping story, I know that it will end as they all do, with mystery solved, family feud or friendship mended, Angelo’s fury at the world faded, and his programs in the prison to teach inmates machine repair or art well underway when, against all logic, we meet.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Economy, or: Upside THAT!

Found it!

You know that silver that’s supposed to line every cloud, economic or otherwise? I’ve seen it! More precisely, I see it all over the place.

Not that it can halt my bouts of panic, self pity or despair. It can, however, create a nice counterpoint.

So, viewers, let’s playUPSIDE THAT!"

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Imported Words

If right about now, you could use a taste of 11/4/08, I have a paragraph for ya. I came across it shortly after I'd posted my own thoughts about that phenomenon: Election Night, '08. I opened the Winter edition of the Barnard alumnae magazine. (It had been waiting patiently for a week or three on my living room coffee table.) Right up front was a stunning description by the college's new president, of what she'd encountered in the Barnard-Columbia neighborhood that night.

I'm honored to place it, with permission, right below, directly above my post on the topic. Think of it as an eyewitness report worth saving for your grandkids, as filed by Dr. Debora Spar.

" . . . My kids and I . . . sat glued to the television from the moment the pundits began opining. When the results were called, less than a second after California's polls closed, we heard a spontaneous roar break out along Broadway. Without thinking, my son and I dashed out the door and headed for the street. Outside the gates of Barnard, a huge crowd had already formed. People were screaming and crying, hugging strangers, and dancing along the pavement. Without a leader, without a destination or plan, an impromptu parade started marching -- running, skipping, cartwheeling . . . Police officers entered the crowd and gave high fives to all who passed; night cleaning crews at Tom's Restaurant and the Deluxe literally put down their brooms and started to dance along. When security crews hastily closed off patches of the street, taxi drivers got out of their cars and gleefully joined right in. I've never seen anything like it in my life."
- Debora Spar
Barnard Magazine
Winter 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Still -- Thoughts about the Election

I've been thinking about those earthshaking events of the past that have brought people out into the streets of their neighborhoods and into the hallways of their apartment buildings, to find comfort among total strangers. All such experiences that I can personally recall have been negative (assassinations, blackouts . . .) That communal reaction was always the silver lining in a very, very dark cloud. I had therefore come to assume that tragedy is a necessary ingredient in the phenomenon of strangers lowering their guard.

Then came Election night, '08. What happened after the polls closed and the results were announced had all the earmarks of what followed those crises of the past -- except for one thing: the absence of any sense of tragedy. I feel privileged to have gotten to see this more positive search for community.

People did go out looking for others. According to a story in New York magazine, one group of teens broke spontaneously and uncharacteristically into a chorus of the National Anthem. Somewhere else, a megaphone materialized and was passed around, so that people who were strangers to each other could speak emotionally of their pride and happiness. This sort of thing was happening not just around the country, but around the world.

Months later, I'm still mulling that November alteration to the usual scenario. I wasn't around for the end of WWII, but the other day it occurred to me that, judging from the famous Times Square photos, that was also a case of happiness that drew people together in the streets. My next thought was, wait, that wasn't an occasion of total happiness, because it marked the end of a a tragic time, a difficult time, a period of terrible conflict.

Which in turn led me to the question: Is that the most suitable description of the deal on Election Night, too?