Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Strength Prozac

I was thumbing through my coffee table book of New Yorker cartoons recently and saw a drawing of a huge pill bottle with a label reading, “Holiday Strength Prozac.” It was funny. So I smiled. But, seriously, where can I get some?

The holidays are upon us and with them are bourne so many emotions that it is often impossible to sort, identify or trace one before the next is tugging at us for attention. Case in point: I found myself yesterday standing in the middle of a wide empty room at a client’s holding a green christmas ornament in one hand tearing up for no good reason.

It suddenly ocurred to me for about the thousandth time that Christmas was coming and something was missing; I felt that I was in a taxi on the way to the airport and knew I had forgotten something critical to the trip without knowing what it was I had forgotten. Then I remembered: My grandmother was gone.

She died a few years ago, but – somehow – the coming of Christmas without her still causes a catch in my throught and tears in my eyes at the most random moments. I stood there marvelling that life could go on so seamlessly without her, and, at the same time, felt like a child who woke up in the middle of a bad dream; it took a minute to get my bearings and find my place in life and that moment again.

I find the older I get, the less I seem certain of anything and there are days when life is reduced to its most primal needs written on a wheel that never stops turning: Work. Food. Warmth. Fear. Yearning. Love. There are no words to quantify these things in real time; they are known by face, form and feel alone and if one of them is fractured we become totally disoriented.

Disorientation can be overcome, and I have a friend who, very sensibly, cooks when she is not feeling up to competing with the world. So, some weekends when everyone else is busy about things for themselves, she can be found at home listening to country music, sipping a glass of something, and turning mounds of various ingredients into a refridgerator packed to bursting with enough labelled packages to feed her staff and random hungry relatives for the next week.

They read like post-its your mom would leave in your lunch box, those packages, but grown-up: Smashed potatoes like you never imagined! Aparagus sauteed with bacon. Special shrimp oriental stir fry especailly for Linda! Turkey noodle soup with extra thick noodles. Really wild rice. The best stuffing in the world. She calls it her therapy and I know she takes comfort in the fact that through feeding people she is needed.

Everyone needs to be needed . . . almost more than anything else – more than to be fed, clothed, admired or loved – we need to be needed. But sometimes even being needed cannot fend off the lurking, malignant feeling that we are superfluous. We are extra. We are disposable. So what, then?

I don’t know, and this sometimes scares me. I feel I might disappear entirely if I let go for a second the carefully compsed image that is myself. There are moments like the one yesterday – ornament in hand – when I feel as if I were holding myself confidently in my own hands like a soapy dish that suddenly, inexplicably, slips from my fingers and falls into dangerous fragments at my feet before I can catch my next breath. I look about to see if anyone else has noticed, pick up the fragments and pretend that everything is fine, but I still know that something elemental has changed and I am a little less certain than I had been.

The days that make up November and December are like a great sink of soapy dishes waiting to be dropped while attempting to prove to others that I am worth enough to be among them and to myself that I am needed. So it’s a good thing that the holidays require so much cooking, after all.
(Note: Lori passed away aver a year ago, but this piece, written in 2007 originally, demonstrates how she just comes to mind everytime a large meal is prepared or a holiday looms.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Stairs of Home

Our house was not prepared to offer us a home when we met it about a year ago. With all first floor windows and the front door boarded over, the vestibule was almost black and most of the building’s nakedness was semi-concealed.

The only sounds in the house were the wind whipping down the street and thin flakes of plaster and paint falling now and again from the water-damaged ceilings to break with a sound like old eggshells on the dusty oak and maple floors.

The library to the left once had a detailed window part way up its main wall, but that had been stolen by looters, as had been the detailed columns in the living room opening to the right. All that was left of either were a ply-wood covered hole on one side and a wide sagging arch on the other with prints in the old shellac of bases and capitals to hint at what had once been there.

The living room ceiling had settled into a crackled grid with odd little pieces laying on the floor. The fireplace wall with its green tile looked very bare since the mantle had been stolen and someone had tried to remove some of the tile hearth resulting in a jagged edge looking a lot like teeth broken in a bar fight.

Pocket doors – miraculously remaining – led from the living room to what was once the dining room with another missing window in its bay and a Lazy-Boy-sized patch in the ceiling where the bathroom above must have caused problems in the past.

In the kitchen there was no stove, a sink in a rusted metal cabinet connected to nothing and drywall sagging from the ceiling because it was screwed up with no respect to joists.

The dust and grime of an empty house were everywhere as you headed up the stairs to the bedrooms and bath on the second floor, but at least there some of the windows that had been only cracked had been patched using acrylic sheeting and silicone so some sunlight broke into the rooms.

The bathroom had yellow-green tub connected to nothing, a toilet that had shattered from cold and a sink that had to be re-plumbed.

The house had been so long empty that even mice had moved elsewhere and scattered all through the house – mainly painted a much-grubbied flat white – were scrawled profanities, references of love to a girl named Felina and notes to a personage named Joel who was to stay out of the kitchen and bathroom.

The only space under that was possibly tame was the attic, and that possibility was only visible after tapping into the fort-building skills of a creative childhood. So we tapped. And hauled and rearranged until we were to be found squatting in our own attic. Since the budget set for the house by our broker didn’t go as far as he’d hoped before he passed away, it would be another seven months before the house had working plumbing beyond a basic toilet and it will be this Christmas before the kitchen is functioning.

But this year has been an interesting one in the development of our concept of home. Living on the third floor of a house set one-half a floor above ground meant a lot of stairs. Up from the back door to the kitchen. Up from the front hall to the bay in the landing. Up from the bay to the upper hall. Up from the hall to the attic with its pine floor, walls and ceiling.

A sofa and chair. Coffee table. Bookcases and mountains of books. Art supplies. Our make-shift dining table. Boxes of china. Paintings tucked wherever they would fit. A bed in one corner. Dressers in the back dormer. Everything involving home meant hauling up and down seemingly endless stairs to a space that was an odd hybrid of Rapunzel’s tower, Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house and Anne Frank’s annex. Home became all about stairs and waiting the winter out so we could begin expanding into the rest of the house.