Soup & respite in a whirlwind phase…there I was, taking a little bit of solo time at last, eating Thai comfort food on a bitterly cold night at a tiny restaurant on 19th Street in New York. Called Go-Go Thai, this restaurant was so tiny it grew noticeably colder every time the door opened, and eventually I put my coat back on to eat.
Still. This interlude was restful, for it came after after the wild rumpus of the last several weeks (which had included video work in Nashville, developing and find my own voice and style in this new-for-me medium, as I begin teaching Fearless Writing in online formats in addition to live-and-in-person).
All this had been simmering for years, but with the publication of a story in O Magazine (February 2016, page 122), it had come to a full boil. Though I had known the O mention was on the way two months earlier, and though Hawa and I had been working with wiser-in-the-ways-of-sudden-attention-than-we friends to shore up our respective websites beforehand, I had only just seen it, having bought my copy in a Duane Reade drugstore the day before. (Below: me, amazed, with Guardene, who was checking out not only me but the story — of course I was burbling over with excitement and tears at that moment — at said Duane Reade).
This story, called “Her Wildest Dreams”, was about Hawa Diallo, an astoundingly gifted artist who discovered her stunning talent, to her own complete surprise, when she was past 40. This happened when she was living in the home of my late mother, the writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow, for whom Hawa was a caregiver (the two of them, on Charlotte’s 97th birthday; photograph by David R. Koff).
The story featured Hawa and her extraordinary journey — she was a rural, tribal village girl in Africa, forced into marriage at 13… a genocide survivor, a refugee camp dweller who managed to immigrate to America and eventually find work as a caregiver, a role to which her exquisitely empathetic heart, despite all she had endured, fitted her perfectly. And all this before she had discovered her artistic gift!
It was Hawa’s story. But supporting roles, pivotal but minor, were played, in the article as in real life, by me, my late mother Charlotte Zolotow, and even my late paternal grandfather, Harry.
Like Hawa, Harry was a self-educated artist who had no background or history whatsoever of art-making, had never so much expressed an interest in it to any family members. Harry, a Russian Jewish immigrant who worked in a leather piece-goods factory, also started late in life, and never stopped. He has two pieces in the Museum of Modern Art permanent collection. (One of his paintings, below).
I was thinking, as I ate my soup, about the surprise of Hawa herself: her happening on to her own “Hidden Talent” (the title of one of her paintings, the one featured full-page in the O piece).
I was thinking of the surprise of the story itself — O Magazine! And of the surprise of my own current life as, among other things, a 63-year-old girlfriend (with not a little trace of the courtesan/odalisque in the role, though wouldn’t you think 63 is a little old for that?) to a brilliant man, who just took me on a cruise to the Caribbean (and if you think those words roll easily off my tongue, you are very much mistaken… although at this moment, it just has to take a number on the long line of unbelievable occurrences unfolding in my life at present)…
And I was thinking about the following:
My longtime dear friend, the musician Bill Haymes, used to teach in a now-defunct program called Artists-in-Schools, as I did. I would come in as a visiting writer and do writing with the children, sometimes very young kids, sometimes teenagers. He would do the same, but with music and song writing. Occasionally we worked together, but more often we taught separately: different times, different schools.
He told me recently, about a group of fourth-graders in Arkansas, who came up with a song which had the following chorus:
Life is full of surprises,
Every time the sun rises
You haven’t had all your surprises yet
Bill told me about this song more than once. Each time he did so his expression was wry and wistful. Clearly, he honored both the innocent sweetness of the young songwriters, and felt the poignancy of all they could not know yet — of all life would give and take away from them. He repeated the last line to me, eyebrows raised: “You haven’t had all your surprises yet.” Then he winced. “And I felt, they probably couldn’t know, not one of them, that some of those surprises might not be happy ones.”
what life keeps repeating, whether we get it or not
God knows, I have lived long enough and had enough surprises to understand they can take every possible coloration, twist, and turn. To be blunt, I am never without awareness that fifteen years ago, one ordinary morning, I kissed my husband goodbye, and the next time I saw him, what I saw was no longer him. It was his recently vacated body on a metal table in an emergency room, nurses still mopping up the blood on the floor.
So I get the terms of life. Which are, in brief, that anything can happen to anyone at any time.
Put another way, you are not in control.
Live long enough, and life will keep underlining this for you.
negotiating the non-negotiable
Yet somehow now, at this stage of my life, for me, when the surprises are tough, painful and even terrifying, I find — and this is another surprise — I can endure.
Because I know that the nature of life is alteration, and “this too shall pass. ” Because I know that resisting life’s basic nature will only double or triple the pain.
And when the surprises turn out to be joyful? When they fill me with wonder? Oddly enough, because I know the nature of life is alteration, I now enjoy them even more, knowing they too are on loan to me for a very brief time – only for this moment, perhaps.
Earlier on, this knowledge, that all joys are transitory, in itself made me sad, anxious, clutch-y — knowing that it, whatever it was, couldn’t last even if I wanted it to, maybe especially if I wanted to. I was perennially in that state Shakespeare described with arrow-like accuracy in Sonnet 64: weeping to have that which I feared to lose.
But now? Now, in the easy moments, the good moments, the moments of satisfactions small and large, I just roll around, the way various cats I have loved in my past rolled around on a sunny patch of catmint or grass or even pebbles. Pure stretched-long luxury.(Cattywhompus, blissed out in the catmint, maybe five years back… may he and David Koff, who took this picture, rest in peace.)
It might be the way my lover looks at me, with such deep attention that I just stop what I’m doing and rest in that gaze.
It might be a ray of sun coming in through a kitchen window, illuminating a suddenly revealed mandala of tomato I was mindlessly cutting a moment earlier.
It might be watching Hawa, as she looks at the O article about her — her! She who was living in a refugee camp not all that long ago! — for the first time, her face aglow and truly stunned (and stunning) with her own wonder.
Or the two of us, glammed up and in joyful disbelief at this latest turn of events (photograph, and make-up, by Sweetie Berry).
But it might also be something as immediate and transitory as a forkful of transcendentally good truffled macaroni and cheese.
Or as large as hearing about the marriage of two friends who have lived together faithfully and enduringly for over 40 years finally being able to join legally, publicly, joyfully, without shame or hiding.
It might be, even, paying the bills: gloating in the fact that I have enough money to do so and also that online banking makes it so easy that even dyscalculaic me can do so, even when on the road.
But whatever it is, at this period of my brief ride on this blue-and-green circling dot of a planet, I know that the sorrows feel smaller to me, thus more bearable, and the joys larger and thus more exultant, despite the inherent underlying fact of endless alteration (and my fear for our planet itself).
And this morning, metaphorically, I find I’m rolling like Cattywhompus in the catmint, stretched from my toes to the tip of my head in delight. That is exactly what I’m doing. Just happy.
As last night I did spoonful by spoonful of that brothy hot Thai herbal vegetable soup.
Thankful thankful. Thankful.