Memorial for a Neighbor: September 30th

After 24 hours of deluge in NYC–public transportation flooded, cars floating on Brooklyn streets, raging rivers along railway tracks in Westchester, rainfall records broken–dawn brought mere drizzle under soggy gray skies on September 30th.  With umbrella stuffed into backpack, I ventured outside to attend a memorial service for a neighbor who’d died a few months previously on what happened to have been my birthday this past July. The service would be at the Quaker Meeting House in the Gramercy Park neighborhood.

This was a woman I very casually knew from our communal garden. When our paths would cross in the garden (surrounded by cherry tomatoes, climbing roses, stalks of rosemary) we’d amicably chat and exchange a few words; if we ran into one another on a neighborhood street, we’d do the same after which she’d mount her bike and ride away. She always seemed to have a bicycle beside her.

Here’s her New York Times obituary:

The entrance to the Meeting House is on Rutherford Street. It’s an unadorned, red brick building constructed in 1861, built by pacifists for pacifists. When I arrived a sprinkling of people of all ages were already seated around the large room on wide dark brown wood benches. On the dot of 12 the event began.

One by one, folks got up, found a microphone, and uttered a few words. Between these shortish comments was silence. Friends, family and neighbors told of  shared interests, protests attended, lives bursting with good causes and hard fights for social justice. Most of those in attendance were residents at our ten building complex.

The wide benches, the lack of flowers or photographs or music or religious hoopla, the teenage granddaughter recounting a memory, transcended the usual stock testimonials. I experienced a feeling of pride to be one of the group and when I noticed the dead neighbor’s resemblance on the face of her daughter, I was pierced by an arrow of posterity. The daughter, a woman in her fifties with a white pony tail, stood and recounted a few memories. She unfolded a sheet of paper so as to recite the poem “An Art of Losing” by Elizabeth Bishop, but words wouldn’t come, and she crumbled, went back and sat down beside her father–a stony-faced old, old man who’d been with the departed for 60 years–and let someone else take the paper from her hand and read:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.***

I don’t know why I’d made the effort to be in that room on a dismal, wet day; I don’t know why I shed such a Niagara of tears for almost a stranger; nor way I’m always so miffed by this Elizabeth Bishop’s poem?

The service concluded on the dot of 1. Forgoing the buffet lunch, I left. Glancing back through the black fence at the Society of Friends Meeting House (where profound silence is meant to replace music or a minister’s liturgy) I saw a place that (if nothing else) encourages resolution of conflict through peaceful means. Though I’d hardly known my fellow gardener, it happened to be September 30th, which happens to be a consequential date of mourning for me, making attendance at a memorial seem apt.

September 30th had been the birthday of a great friend of mine–Rie Albertsen–a beautiful Danish woman with a dazzling mind and lightening wit who’d unexpectedly died a decade ago in Rhode Island.

September 30th is also the anniversary of the death in Athens of my great mentor and friend Lily Mack whom I’d memorialized in Sylph Edition’s Cahiers #12 “Lost and Found”* and then again in Notting Hill Edition’s “Found and Lost.”** Both of these iconic friendships (begun in 1970 in Greece) have proved irreplaceable. Each had simmered in its own pot like delicious, never dull, soup for over forty years. The ache of these absences hasn’t lessened, in fact, the opposite has been true, as more and more time passes.

Planning to pick up something for lunch on the way home, I turned west among puddled sidewalks. There were more puddles in the street, puddles on the soggy grounds inside the 15th street fence surrounding the Meeting House. Half way to 3rd Avenue I noticed a paint brush lying on wet sidewalk. It was maybe nine inches long, used up, the kind of cheap brush given with the cheapest child’s water color paint set–the kind whose hairs fall out or stick together, or stiffen and never soften up again.

I’d almost walked passed but stopped short. I  remembered  how much ‘junk’ I’d seen Lily bend and pick up from the street, or the garbage, or the beach–rusted safety pins, a plastic doll with no head, broken pencils, half crushed gardenia blossoms–during the many decades of our friendship and how, after a time, I’d acquired this same habit–a murky white marble, the Queen of Hearts from a deck of playing cards, a rusted crucifix. Looking at the sad paintbrush, I wondered if Lily’s spirit had put it in my path as a test? I thought of a poem by William Empson that Lily loved and had often recited, that had also always miffed me too –

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
It is not the effort nor the failure tires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is not your system or clear sight that mills
Down small to the consequence a life requires;
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
They bled an old dog dry yet the exchange rills
Of young dog blood gave but a month’s desires.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the Chinese tombs and the slag hills
Usurp the soil, and not the soil retires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
Not to have fire is to be a skin that shrills.
The complete fire is death. From partial fires
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.
It is the poems you have lost, the ills
From missing dates, at which the heart expires.
Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills

Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills.

It is not the effort nor the failure tires.

The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.****

 –and bent  to retrieve the water-logged brush that I put it into my jacket pocket for safekeeping.


***[One Art”  by Elizabeth Bishop, 1911-1979*]

****[“Missing Dates” by William Empson, 1906-1984]

*[Lost and Found]

**[Found and Lost] 

New addiction III

– continued –

Downtown by Pete Hamill

Caesar’s Legion: Epic Saga of Julius Caesar and the armies of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins

Pole to Pole by Michael Palin

Full Circle by Michael Palin

Around the World in 80 Days by Michael Palin

Peony by Pearl Buck

Gimpel the Fool by I.B.Singer

What I Hate: From A to Z by Roz Chast

Can’t we talk about something more pleasant? by Roz Chast

The Cigar Roller by Pablo Medina

One’s Company – Journey to Red China in 1933 by Peter Fleming

Venice by Peter Ackroyd

Dante’s Inferno a dramatization staring Corin Redgrave, etc

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David Stewart Maclean

Sahara by Michael Palin

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

OK, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea

Pedigree by Patrick Modiano

Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen

Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It by Howard Jacobson


New addiction II

–continued —

The Long Haul:  A trucker’s tale of life on the road by Finn Murphy

Inferno from The Diving Comedy by Dante

Have Dog, Will Travel: A poet’s  journey with his dog by Stephen Kusisto

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

South: A memoir of endurance by Sir Ernest Shackleton

Four Against the Arctic: Shipwrecked for six years by David Roberts

The Brother’s Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Notes from a Dead House by  Dostoevsky

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

Blue Territory: A meditation on the Art and Life of Joan Mitchell by Robin Lippincott

Lara by Anna Pasternak

The One-Cent Magenta by James Barron

Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall

Seven Ages: An Anthology of Poetry and Verse combined by BBC

Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex 

Rembrandt 400 – BBC

The Secret History of  Vadimor Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer

Vera by Stacy Schiff

Himalaya by Michael Palin

Sahara by Michael Palin

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Wrestling for

“ … After revising “Speak Memory” Nabokov would spend his last decade moving further away from the world, falling deeper into his created universes. His relative isolation in his portable Winter Palace in Montreux separated him from many of the mundane settings and human interactions that had provided a compelling present within which he could conceal the past. As a result, the past and the present wrestled for control of his work, and the coherence, often as not, was lost. …”

[from Chapter 14

“The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov”

by Andrea Pitzer]

[“Ohne Titel” 1924, by Karl Sirovy, 1896-1948

from Karl Sirovy: Zivot i djelo

edited by Nada Vrkljan-Krizic,

published by Muzej Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, Croatia (1993)]

Beginning today, 4 August 2018, seventy-four years after the surprise arrest of Anne Frank, family and friends in hiding in Amsterdam, I’ve begun my move “away”. Whether or not it’s “from the world”  or into “relative isolation” is yet to be decided. Having not thought we’d survive Nixon, in disbelief/embarrassment with Reagan, followed by nausea/implication with Bush, our momentary power-grippers have brought all of the above plus more – disbelief/nauseous/soul-sick/embarrassed/horror – in triplicate. Its tempting to throw in the tea towel, the beach towel, the roll of paper towel, and make do from here on in with the much used, frayed, fluffy, spiral, pile, no longer absorbent, Marine blue, all-purpose hand towel – one canary in my coal mine  – to sop/mop what’s wet/spilled/damp/dripping.

Should this moment in time be an iceberg, where to find a clue as to whether said iceberg floats right-side up or up-side down?

And then there’s today! 12 August, same year, same ambivalent iceberg, same hide-away, same blinds half drawn, same power-grippers pinching sour vitals. The only difference between today, and the 4th, is that the concurrent heatwaves  finally seem to have passed. Additionally: one hundred forty-nine years ago today, Katherine Lee Bates, the composer of “America the Beautiful” was born. As well: eleven years ago today Archaeologists discovered an eight million year-old cypress forest in Hungary.


Why do I think of sleep when I see them
rising angular above
their frill of slow waves?
Such width and steepness in anything else
would be dark inside —
but these have light in them
like a closed eye.
They seem utterly still — the way we want
sleep to be
but are full
of the creakings of hinge and interface
like a ship’s
invisible flex
and astounding as sleep
when they shudder
drop their sides and we can see
into deep
turquoise energies.
I feel you turning in your sleep
like ice
with its mighty keel dissolved
up-ending slow as yawn
disgorging lumps
of indigo and black
wrestling your ocean
that rears and crawls
subsides into dream
like beautifully warped sails
three or four coming together
and parting
pressing out blue from every lid and crevice
bright and stabbing
as the sheen
of live bone.
I stare at huge weathered torsos
vivid and rivetting.
Here and almost freezing to death
step outside observe

A new addiction

Not nose drops. Not chocolates. Not cashmere sweaters. Not roulette. Not porno. Not showering. Not hand-wringing. Not nit-picking. Not hair-twirling. Not pistachio nuts. Not long drives along the Oregon coast. Not $25 foot rubs. 

It’s affecting my brain and body, it’s compulsive; has disrupted my social life. Question: If left untreated over time, will it become disabling or life-threatening? Answer: I don’t care. Right now I’m swimming blissfully in its silky river, lying on my back and letting tides take me wherever they chooses. Question: I’m braced, what is it that’s gotten you by the throat? Answer: Talking books. Question: Talking books? Are you sure? Answer: Talking books! And how!

A heavenly addition to my life after I’d downloaded the OverDrive app onto my iPad, punched in the number of my NYC library card along with my password, and began browsing through thousands of choices of audiobooks – unabridged, with variations. Here are some of my very favorites, listed in chronological order, from earliest hearing to most recent. Each freely lent by the library for 14 days at a time:

A Life Like other People by Alan Bennett read by Alan Bennett

Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett 

 Eleven Stories by Chekov:

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories form my Life by John le Carré read by John le Carré

Dylan Thomas: A New Life by Andrew Lycett

Absolute Friends by John le Carré read by le Carré

Our Kind of Traitor: A Novel by John le Carre read by le Carreé

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

A short history of the World by Christopher Lascelles

Travels with Herodotus by Ryxzard Kapuscinski

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its meanings by Jonathan Raban

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas read by Richard Burton

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas read by Dylan Thomas

Lenin: The Man, the dictator by Victor Sebastyen

Al Capone: His Life, Legacy and Legend by Deirdre Beir

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier

Walking the Himalayas by Levison Wood

A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking by V.S. Naipaul

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto by Pico Iyer

In Morocco by Edith Wharton

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

The Price of Salt (Carol) by Patricia Highsmith

Lincoln in the Bardo: Dramatic adaptation of a novel by George Saunders

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

Walking the Nile by Levison Wood

In Search of Lost Time an adaptation of a novel by Marcel Proust

Loving Robert Lowell by Sandra Hochman

The Art of Rivalry by Sebastia Smee

The Boiling River by Andrés Ruzo

I’ve loved each and every one listed —- as in the Beatles song — In My Life (I’ve Loved you More).  If you need to find me, I’m reclining; without shoes; eyes open, eyes closed; am listening; and listening …. tingling with happiness.

Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?

Another song out of my parent’s songbook that’s stuck in my head. Oh so many songs stuck there. My brains must have been filled with glue:



Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
I can afford
To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I’ve got my fare
And just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina


When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

There’s gonna be
A certain party at the station
Satin and lace
I used to call “funny face”
She’s gonna cry
Until I tell her that I’ll never roam
So Chattanooga choo choo
Won’t you choo-choo me home?
Chattanooga choo choo
Won’t you choo-choo me home?

Had my parents been German, I might have had ^”Kötzschenbroda Express going round and round my brain instead. Released in 1947, “Kötzschenbroda Express” is a satirical German interpretation of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” telling of a train that never arrives because everything goes wrong. The train stops and starts, passengers need to be deloused in the middle of the night, folks who have no idea what time the train won’t arrive are also riding on the train’s roof because the train is filled to overflowing.

*[Film by Lowbrow productions with Glenn Miller’s music,

words by Mack Gordon, music by Harry Warren]

^[[Kötzschenbroda Express” written by Billy Buhlan and Peter Rebhuhn]]