Bread. It’s so primal, deep. Crusty on the outside, airy and soft on the inside. Bread: The staff of life.
This phrase confused me when I was younger. I always thought, wait, staff, like a crew of employees?
Staff means support. In Asia, rice is the staff of life. In Iceland, maybe it’s shark meat. If you break it down, we probably all have different staffs of life—yoga, eggs, pancakes, meditation, liquor, writing, theater, love.
I don’t know about you but I am being bombarded with images of bread right now—Sarah in Kingston with her gorgeous sourdough rounds, David in Virginia with his beautifully marked crusty wheat, Eve in Philly shared an 18th century bread with cornmeal and molasses. These images appear daily.
Our daily bread. Which has religious connotations. I’m not a religious person so I believe daily acts and things—whether bread or water, music or books—these things can sustain us the way religion is meant to. Feed us.
Confession, I think people with bread machines are cheaters. I mean, isn’t part of the entire purpose of bread to work with the dough? To knead and flour, put your shoulders into it? Bread making is a physical act. But here’s the thing: I’m not making bread now, am I? No. Don’t you hate a complainer? Step out of the way and let those who are actually doing the work do it—I’m like an armchair bread maker referee, calling out fouls from the comfort of my living room.
We were a whole wheat bread family. White bread was thought to be not just unhealthy but also somehow vulgar. Even today I’d be hard pressed to order a sandwich on white bread, I certainly don’t buy loaves of white bread. And yet, what is a baguette but white bread? I’ll eat a sandwhich on a Kaiser roll, a burger on a white bun. Bagels are typically white unless you get pumpernickel. When it comes to bread, I’ll take all comers: thin dark German bread, rice bread, almond bread, rye, English muffins, cinnamon raisin bread. I love croutons and stuffing, dinner rolls and focaccia. Such a great word.
Bread is, hands down, my favorite food. And I’ve given it up so many times, I can’t even guess how many—sometimes for years, sometimes for a day. But how can I live without buttered toast?
Growing up the seventies, we had some great expressions for things. Some of them were holdovers from the sixties. Old lady meant girlfriend or wife. You called your car wheels or your ride, your house your and money was called bread.
I like that—bread as currency. Going to the store and paying with a loaf of bread you made. Bartering for wool, or for car repairs, IT support.
All of the baking that’s happening now, makes us feel like we’re returning to simple times, doesn’t it? It warms us. Because in addition to flour and yeast and whatever else you’re using to make it, we all understand that baking requires love. Like anything made by hand, making bread is a meditation, as is making cookies, baking a cake, rolling out piecrust. Our minds may drift during these activities, but they come back to thoughts of the person whose birthday it is or the friends who are coming over for dinner, the beautiful summer peaches we’re going to use in the pie.
I don’t recommend distracted baking—the cake I made yesterday, Lemon Cream Cheese Coffee Cake, I’d never made it before and I was doing a bunch of things at the same time— preparing for my online writers group, getting dinner ready— Ok, I may have messed up some of the steps. The cake looks wonderful and smells amazing but—what will happen when she cuts into it? That’s part of the thrill of baking, isn’t it? How will it turn out?
People having birthdays right now—ooh, I feel codependent, I want them all to have a good day. For our friend Kelley, a small group of us are caravanning over to her house this afternoon. We’re going to sing her Happy Birthday from our cars in her driveway. I’ll run out at one point and leave the cake on her porch. And once the coast has cleared, she’ll come out and get it. But what then?
I have so many questions.
Will the cake be ok? Will she like it? I asked her earlier this week if she likes lemon flavor and she said yes, so that’s good. But will I have made it well enough for it to have worked? Is it a bad idea to give an entire cake to someone who’s stuck at home by themselves? Is this act of baking kind or cruel?
Will I bake bread at some point during all this? Will I get drawn into the yeast finding frenzy? Maybe I’ll buy a bread machine. Will we all keep baking this much once this is over? When will this be over? What will it mean, to be over? What will our lives look like then? Will I eat in restaurants again? How will we sustain ourselves moving forward? Will there be new staffs of life? And what—somebody tell me, please—what will they be?
I’m impatient by nature. Like Carrie Fisher said in her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge: “Instant gratification takes too long.”
Living in New York City didn’t suit me in many ways, having grown up in Southern California, by the time I moved there at age 38, I was pretty steeped in California casual. New York’s lack of ease was difficult, how every daily task required extensive suiting up, negotiating the many sharp angles and hard surfaces. One thing, however, suited me well. I am a very fast walker. Through neighborhoods, subways stations, town squares—I am swift.
What comes with this trait is an almost ever-present sense of frustration. Stay on task and deal with any obstacles with quick dispatch.
I have been known to sigh heavily—I mean HEAVILY—when stuck behind a couple strolling romantically down 5th street on a narrow sidewalk in the East Village.
I have perfected the art of approaching a street corner filled with pedestrians waiting to cross: move to the side of the crowd then step off the curb at the very first opportunity, get ahead of the pack and away.
I zig when zigging is called for, zag when it’s the better option. I have approached a wall of friends 5 people wide walking toward me and split them in half without touching a one.
I have snipped loudly--and often--at families of tourists just standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, “it’s called a side-walk, people, not a side-stand.”
I learned to never, ever, unless absolutely unavoidable, visit Times Square, that hideous hive of slow moving Midwesterners, of school groups and church clubs, busloads of foreigners and gaggles of old ladies from the suburbs headed to a matinee.
One of my mottos could be: MOVE OUT OF MY WAY. I’m possessed of a frontal lobe more like a coal miner’s headlamp, leading me into the dark, through what at first seemed impenetrable but after moving through it became just a thing of the past.
And yet. There’s not a ton of grace in impatience.
Lao Tzu, great mystic philosopher of China, author of the Tao te Ching and founder of Taoism, wrote: “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”
In which case, I am a poor, poor man. I am definitely complicated, always impatient and often unkind. And here’s the funny part, I have at times in my life considered myself to be a Taoist. Maybe I should write a book called The Terrible Taost, how to fail at simplicity, patience and compassion but still call yourself a Taoist, by Chris Wells.
There are reasons why many people can’t slow down. Moving is a means of survival. It’s the flight of fight or flight. For some of us, we may have learned, before we could even speak, to move and keep moving, that being still could lead to harm.
Sometimes my shrink asks me to explore different shapes with my body, to try on different gestures. The idea is to rewire our biological patterns, right? So instead of being hunched over with shoulders curled forward, eyes looking down, brow furrowed, she asks me to sit back, to lift my shoulders, open the chest, tilt the head back slightly so it’s sort of floating at the top of the spine. How does it feel to look at the world from this vantage, instead of from this one?
Suddenly everything opens up, I can see things that are right there, but I haven’t even noticed them. My surroundings.
I worry that my writing practice might reinforce my obsession to just get things done. Over the years, I have trained my mind to open and to just follow it, recording where it goes without stopping, without worrying if it’s good or bad, rather to capture an experience of movement. I teach this, too—try to get your first draft out—a story, a chapter, a scene-- in one fluid take. Once you’ve reached an ending, see what you captured, like night fishing.
Then you can begin the real writing: rewrite, revise, edit, and finally polish. Those steps take patience.
But we must be patient with ourselves, too, right? Find the very particular ways that we function and behave and work toward compassion. You’ll recall that compassion is the third of Lao Tzu’s ridiculously impossible qualities. I mean, why did he even write that? Hand me your ancient manuscript, Lao Tzu, your Tao te Ching, Let’s see, yes, cut the part about simplicity—I mean, that’s just dumb. Then, Mr. Tzu, I see here you put patience, no, that’s not going to work either. And, I hate to break it to you, but you’re looking at a full rewrite here because compassion just isn’t realistic.
This global crisis is like one of those make-up mirrors, the magnifying kind: round, concave with the light up ring around it. Flip the switch and all of your flaws are revealed.
When exploring the pose of shoulders back, chest open, chin up, the next step is to turn the hands palm up, then tilt the head back. Take a deep breath; feel—instead of grasping, chasing, in hot pursuit—just feel what happens. Every cell in the body stops buzzing. For a moment the body says, “Ah.”
It is the arrival of acceptance.
I want to tell you about the place where I live. Built in 1902 as part of the Byrdcliffe Art Colony, the cottage has two bedrooms, a walk in closet, a large living room, loft, kitchen, two bathrooms. A huge upgrade from the 440 sq ft apartment in the city.
Designed and built by artists, hand stenciled peaches trail along the wooden beams up at the ceiling.
The walls are painted white except in the living room where there’s a kind of wainscoting, and the bottom half of the walls are painted teal, not as bright as the blue of the trim on the outside windows—that color is called Byrdcliffe Blue, and many of the cottages have this detail, from years back, maybe since the founding of the place.
The colony was founded as a place where craftspeople and artists could come, leave the city, live and work in the woods. And come they did—furniture makers, ceramic artists, weavers, painters.
It’s funny how art thrives in cities—that is where culture is thought to reach its highest level. Moving here has softened my ambitions—the art I make now is simpler, folksier, less elevated, is that the right word? Maybe not. I’ve always been a populist, I guess. One of the reasons I stopped doing traditional theater—where I made my home for most of my life--is I wanted to step off the stage, to connect directly with the community.
For the first many years of adulthood, having a stable home was something I struggled with. I spent my twenties spent couch surfing, dog watching, house sitting—I didn’t rely on the kindness of strangers, I relied on the kindness of friends.
One day in the summer of 2012, Bobby and I drove out of the city to Woodsdtock, just to check out the cottage We had put our name on a waiting list but who knew if we would get it. My niece Elizabeth was visiting from California and was with us.
We pulled into Woodstock--cute shops, tourists crowding the sidewalks, tie dye tshirt shops, a produce stand. Then, continuing on the main road through town, we came to Ricks Road, and turned. Woodstock is in a valley—but you wouldn’t have known it that day--lush trees and foliage crowded the road, making a cover we drove under, meadows opened up with deer eating grass, old fence posts lined the road; houses could be seen tucked into the woods.
We’ve lived here nearly seven years now, and sometimes in the winter as we’re driving on our way somewhere, Bobby will ask, “Where do the animals go in the winter?”
I answer as if I know. “Well, the bears are hibernating, of course.”
“But what about the deer?”
“Well, they’re all tucked in.”
“Tucked in? Where?”
“They have burrows and hidden spaces.”
“Hm.” He sounds dubious.
But they must, right? Everything has somewhere to stay, to live. Even if that place is outdoors. Whenever I stay at my friend Celeste’s in Venice Beach, there are so many homeless people: sidewalks like living rooms with tents, remnants of stained carpets laid out, music playing from a small tinny machine. These gatherings are scary—but, why? Without a place to stay, an indoor place, a place we recognize as a home, whether it’s an apartment or a shack or a palace—we’re all aware that our humanness can slip, we are closer to the wild than we know, or care to.
I didn’t know until this morning that the world shelter comes from the word shield, like what a soldier would have carried into battle, wearing chain mail and visor. Some of the recent pictures of people working in hospitals resemble those of soldiers. One picture I saw showed a doctor who had fashioned a protective head gear out of a welders helmet, another was wearing ski goggles.
What shields us? What protects us? Especially when we can’t see the threat— When the threat is microbiotic? The strongest shelter, after physical safety, is trust. We want to be able to trust the people around us to not do anything that might compromise our safety or the safety of our family.
Those years ago, approaching this cottage for the first time, we turned off Ricks Road and soon came to Upper Byrdcliffe Road. At a row of old mailboxes we turned onto a dirt road. This ersatz driveway took us past two small wooden shacks and a long two story wooden building, and then, we saw it: the cottage.
“That must be it, huh?” I asked.
“Yes,” Bobby said, “that’s it.”
We didn’t live here yet, it was still only a possibility. But, like remembering the first day of a beautiful relationship, that was the moment we first met this place, this cottage. I’m good with directions but getting out of the car and looking around at the woods, hearing the rushing the stream, the birds singing--I thought, how did we get here?
It’s almost as if it called to us.
We were still living in Manhattan and it was Bobby’s birthday. I decided to throw him a surprise party in our apartment. His sister, Meredith was flying in and I invited a small group of people to come over. Bobby had a standing meeting every Friday night so it was perfect, I’d ask everybody over, we’d get the place set up, after his meeting, he’d come home and we’d all scream and eat cake, red velvet, ordered from Penelope, a cute restaurant in our neighborhood, with delicious baked goods.
Friday arrived. Bobby left at around 6:30 saying he’d be back later. “Bye,” I said, super casually. As if I had barely even noticed he was leaving. His meeting got out at 8:30 so he’d be home at 8:45.
Once I heard the downstairs door click shut, I sprang into action. Our apartment was small—440 square feet. So getting the place ready wasn’t such a big deal. But I had to run out to pick up the cake, flowers, candles. I ran back to the apartment, jumped in the shower just as the buzzer started.
“Come on up!” I yelled down the stairwell once I’d buzzed the person in. Up came Jonathan and Jack with more baked goods, then Leah with non-alcoholic beverages, Meredith arrived with a big gift wrapped in beautiful paper. And a bottle of white wine.
I opened it, poured her a glass and handed it to her.
“What if Bobby comes back early,” Meredith asked me, sipping.
“Oh, he never comes back early.”
“Well, but, he might.”
“No, trust me, he’ll be back at 8:45, and if not on the dot, then adjacent to it.”
Bobby is a very regulated individual: he does the same things at the same time almost every day. Leaving and coming, eating and showers, when he takes his walk. All of these activities adhere to a regimented schedule.
Meredith smiled slyly, one eyebrow raised, “Hm, you might not know him as well as you think you do.”
I laughed off Meredith’s cautionary air and went to fill the nut dishes. The place was filling up—I mean, with 440 square feet, 8 people made it feel packed—but the lights were still on and the confetti bags weren’t finished being prepped. I had asked several guests to blow up balloons while I was putting candles on the cake for later. I hadn’t lit the candles in the apartment yet and still had to change into my party shirt, which I didn’t want to wear for prep because I sweat a lot and wanted to be fresh for the actual party. Also, the music hadn’t been turned on yet so when the downstairs door opened and closed I heard it. Probably a neighbor, I thought. It was Friday night and folks were heading out, only I hadn’t heard anyone on the stairs, tromping down the old wooden steps in our walk-up, where people going up and downstairs walked right past your door and you heard them, coming and going. It was a small apartment building, an old brownstones, with 6 units, only 5 of them occupied.
I heard steps from the bottom of the stairs, so it wasn’t someone going out, it was someone coming in, strange for New York City on a Friday for someone to be coming back home at, what—I checked my phone, 8:20, and while looking at my phone I also saw that Bobby had texted me 15 minutes before to say he was on his way home. Early.
“He’s coming,” I hissed.
“He’s coming, now.”
I lunged for the light switch, a couple of people tried to finish blowing up their balloons, I shoved messy little portions of confetti at people and threw noise makers across the room, hitting a couple of friends. I tried to get the music on but couldn’t find the remote—the candles would have to wait. I was wearing my sweaty prep shirt and was not at my best when the door opened
The revelers lamely shouted, “SURPRISE!” I just screamed. Enraged. How could he be there, 25 minutes early. off-schedule?
The cheering had been half hearted and one person got a noise-maker to her mouth just in time but her lip placement hadn’t been great so she had made a sad squeak. Our rushed attempt at getting confetti in the air, was the worst-- people didn’t even have enough time to put down whatever they were doing, and cock their arms and throw—confetti must be thrown, that’s what its for, throwing is confetti’s birthright—but, no, this confetti was sort of gently tossed, underhanded, like a proper Victorian lady in a park on a mild summer day, gently scattering seed to a pair of swans floating a ways off.
Our confetti never had a chance, really, of fulfilling confetti’s greatest aim, to fall from a height, signifying celebration. All of our attempts, by which I mean, my attempts, were clumsy.
I’ve been making theater for well over half my life and one of my most favorite elements of theater is that of surprise. But, timing is crucial. A lot of planning goes into well-executed surprise, with details organized and coordinated. I felt ashamed.
“Happy birthday.” I said to Bobby, trying to keep my voice light, “What are you doing here?” I lay my sweaty arm around his shoulder and squeezed, trying to temper my quivering rage.
“Oh,” he said, glaring at the pitiful gathering. “I got bored and decided to leave early.”
He seemed so blasé about the whole thing but then I realized, wait, no--the forced smile, the methodical blinking--he’s actually irritated. Was he irritated that my attempt to surprise him was lame? No, and it hit me--Bobby doesn’t like surprises—surprise!. What was I even doing throwing him a surprise party? And, a lame one, at that, to not allow for his possible early return? To not have a plan to ensure that he’d be out until the time when I expected him?
The other night sitting in the kitchen having dinner, I said, “thank god we’re not still in our teeny Manhattan apartment during all this.”
“I know,” he said.
“With your studio in Bushwick and not being able to take the subway, you wouldn’t be able to work.”
We then imagined all the people dealing with similar conditions in New York City.
I never ever imagined I would live somewhere like Woodstock. A town of 5,000 people in the woods outside of New York City. It’s a special town, with incredible community, tons of live music, and a history steeped in culture and art. Still, I was so determined to get out of the town where I grew up that just living in big cities was a symbol of success. I made it! Even if I hadn’t made it. And now I live here.
And these days being at home, week after week, not getting on a bus to the city, not planning trips to LA, just being here, with a simpler daily life.
How come I like it so much?
Who is this person enjoying being home, not having a bigger life, not being distracted by the next place I have to be. The next place I have to be right now is either the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom or the home office.
I’m not a scientist, but I know enough to know that adaptation is what leads a species to survive. Who would have thought I could adapt to this? Who ever thought I could enjoy confining my activities to this cottage, this yard, with occasional drives to get groceries or to talk Sally for a walk?
I was going to say, “No one! No one could have predicted it!” But that’s not true. I knew I’d like it, maybe even love it, but I didn’t know how to have it, or I didn’t think I could. I have tossed myself around for so long—here, there, now there, no go here—when what I always wanted to try was being still. To simplify.
This crisis has brought us such news of the world, a daily deluge of information and facts and terror—it has also brought us news of our selves and own lives, this just in: you might be enjoying your new and different life.
I love Bugs Bunny—I haven’t watched a cartoon in ages but his character and his brilliant performances will always stay with me--Bugs dancing in Carmen Miranda drag, Bugs wearing tails, conducting an orchestra. Of course the one with the monster is an all time favorite. The monster’s real name is Gossamer, which is genius, for a big, lumbering, overly hairy orange thug wearing sneakers. In one episode, Bugs gives the monster a hairdo as a means of distracting him—“Such an interesting monster.” He says while combing and teasing the monster’s hair.
I also loved Yosemite Sam—maybe it was my boyish gay self expressing desires that would flourish only years later but, in his western wear, chaps, oversized hat and extravagant, bright red, handle-bar moustache, I guess I had a crush on him. Only now can I recognize that it might also have had something to do with his outsized nature and--any time he was outsmarted by Bugs--his explosive temper and the threat of violence underscored by incoherent mutterings that implied heavy heavy swearing. I was kind of into it.
My favorite episode with Yosemite Sam has Bugs and him running against each other for mayor. They face each other on the bandstand of small town park, red, white and blue bunting hangs from the front of the stage. Yosemite Sam is uncharacteristically dressed up, wearing a clean black topcoat and big black cowboy hat. In a kind of debate, which is really a set up, Bugs says to him, “I can do anything you can do only better.”
Yosemite Sam says, “No you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Ok then, can you play the pie-anna?”
“Have ya got a pie-anna?”
“Sure have. Wait right here, varmint.”
Varmint is such a great word. It’s wonderful how literate those cartoons were…their use of classical music, allusions to art and literature, bits from Vaudeville and Broadway. I was definitely educated by Looney Tunes.
Yosemite Sam runs off the bandstand, through the park and into an old workshop with a sign that says, piano repair. How convenient. Inside he squats behind an old upright and, while laughing maniacally, plants an explosive device inside the back of the piano. We know the device is explosive thanks to the large TNT painted on its side. Yosemite Sam runs out of the shop with the piano on his back, through the park and up the stairs to the bandstand where he places it on stage.
“There’s yer pie-anna, Rabbit,” he says to a sanguine Bugs Bunny. “Now let’s see ya play it.”
Yosemite Sam then skedaddles off the bandstand and hides behind a big tree.
As Bugs approaches the pie-anna, we notice two things, first: the sheet music on the stand above the keys, it’s the old Irish song Believe Me, If all The Endearing Young Charms, a song that would have been familiar to a large part of the population at the time. Second, we see a small detonation device just under the keyboard, wired to one specific key and we figure this small device must be connected to the TNT that Yosemite Sam built into the back of the piano, making us understand that when Bugs plays the song on the provided sheet music, he will eventually hit the rigged key and the piano will explode. Bugs will be vanquished, Yosemite Sam will emerge triumphant.
The opening melody of the old song goes like this:
Duh duh duh duh---
But when Bugs plays it, he plays it like this:
Duh Dug Duh dee
And hits the wrong note.
“No, that’s not it,” yells Yosemite Sam, running out from behind the tree and quickly running back.
Bugs plays it again.
Duh duh duh duh duh duh dh duh duh duh dee.
Again he hits the wrong note and avoids the detonation device.
Yosemite Sam appears next to him, enraged and, shoving him out of the way, he says, “Ooh, ya stupid rabbit! Like this!”
Yosemite Sam turns to the keys and plunks out the melody and when he hits the right key, the one that Bugs kept getting wrong, purposefully, of course, the piano explodes and the screen fills with voluminous puffs of smoke. When the smoke clears the piano is in pieces and Yosemite Sam is charred, yes, to a crisp. All of his hair is gone, his topcoat in tatters, cowboy hat gone--he teeters momentarily and then slowly falls on to his back. Dead, once again.
The Looney Tunes guys used this same gag with the same song several times over the years. One had Bugs with Daffy Duck trying the same thing, except the exploding instrument was a xylophone. Another had Wile E. Coyote trying to fool the Roadrunner with a piano he sets up by the side of the road in the middle of the desert, but the coyote ends up exploded.
All of these enraged characters, trying to blow other characters up—god, I loved them, even with their despicable natures, they made me laugh.
Years later I’d learn that these beloved cartoons had seriously offensive racist overtones, and Bugs would often lisp and perform a kind of gay stereotype, limp wristed, coy, when he wanted to disarm anyone of his attackers.
How has that impacted my love of him and his creators? Sadness, acceptance, wistfulness, an older understanding of how life is underlies my enjoyment, my laughter.
Here in the woods, where I’ve been staying at home for six weeks now, it’s nearly May and things are blooming, beauty is everywhere, and yet when I listen more deeply to the world, sour notes hang in the air, death, crisis, loss, grief.
As we grow up, we’re asked to let go of our love for simple harmony; where notes meet easily, creating a complimentary sound. We’re invited instead to train our ear toward a more complex composition.
Today I am in Winston Salem meeting with all kinds of folks—local artists, a choir leader, craftspeople—we’re talking about our work, sharing stories, connecting. It’s part of a year and a half long residency culminating in a Secret City event in the fall of 2021.
Celeste is someone who loves to do nice things for her body—we went to a Russian spa once years ago and paid an old Russian woman to slap our bare skin with bundles of flaming hot birch leaves. We’ve known each other since we were neighbors in Echo Park, 25 years ago. She now lives Venice beach and I stay in her guesthouse when I come to LA.
Last fall I was in LA and the first morning I was there we met for coffee and at some point she said, “I found this amazing woman in Marina Del Rey, she gets rid of skin tags. I want to send you to her.”
Skin tag makes me think of a price tag, here’s the tag that shows you what kind of skin you might want to get, when you’re shopping for new skin at the skin store.
“Oh, great,” I said.
“She’s Iranian and she’s amazing.” Somehow the skin tag removal lady being Iranian inspired confidence--well, if she’s Iranian, she has to be good!
“Next time you’re here, we’ll make it happen.” Celeste said.
There’s a theory we have that a true friend is someone who will tell you the truth--you’ve got food in your teeth, or when you behaved really badly. Here’s the thing, that’s not what I want from my friends. I am less Stanley Kowalski and far more Blanche Dubois who said, “I don't want realism. I want magic!”
After my initial shock of Celeste alluding to my skin tags—the awareness that I was walking around with all of these hideous tags on my neck, people laughing at me in the grocery store, fellow diners in restaurants asking to be moved to a different table when they saw me sitting there with my unappetizing flesh.
Like Kubler Ross’ stages of grief, I moved through my stages, next was insult—how dare she insinuate that I need to have my skin tags removed! I refuse! I thought, and imagined myself wearing voluminous floral scarves everywhere.
But bne night back home, I stood shirtless before the bathroom mirror, surveying the forest of flaps on my neck—“Oh god, I yelled, “I’m disgusting!” And so I arrived at acceptance.
I flew to LA the first week of March and drove to Celeste’s where I’d be staying. We met in the front yard and after catching up, she told me she had made me an appointment to and on Friday I would be going to see Audrey, which struck me as a decidedly non-Iranian name. I instantly suspected her of being a fraud.
I’ve had things removed from my back before, they used a wand with dry ice at one end, a tiny wisp of smoke wafted up from its tip, which made the dermatologist look like a wizard. Those removals were very mild, hardly any pain. Celeste said Audrey uses an electronic zapper.
“It doesn’t hurt, right?” I asked.
“No,it’s like getting a tattoo.”
I have a tattoo and I remember being surprised by how little it hurt, even felt kind of sexy, buzzy.
“And after the first couple, you don’t even notice it.”
As I walked away she called after me, “focus on your breathing.”
I drove to Marina del Rey and found the place. A professional arts building filled with doctors and dentists.
The receptionist called Audrey and I went up, the door was ajar. Audrey was indeed Iranian, perhaps in her early sixties, she wore a white lab coat and had eyes like Maria Callas. She was warm and invited me in. Her office was the size of a walk in closet. She had a small bureau with a tiny scented mister going, vague tinkly music played. An elevated medical bed with white sheet took up the majority of the room.
After taking off my shirt, Audrey examined my next.
“Oh, yes, you have a lot of them…”
Oh god, I thought, I’m one of the worst cases ever. I feel this when I see any professional—I’m an extreme case.
“Good thing you came, you want to get them before they get any bigger.”
I lay back on the bed, Audrey sat on a stool at my head. She showed me the instrument—It resembled a high tech dentist drill with a very thin, firm wire coming out the end.
“I doesn’t really hurt, Celeste said,” I offered hopefully.
“No, it’s not bad at all.” Audrey lowered the wire tipped device to my neck. Remember that scene in Frankenstein, the stormy night arrives and the doctor uses the electricity of the storm to charge the the sleeping monster’s body, electrocuting his once morbid flesh.
The pain was searing, I shrieked, my body bounced off the bed. Audrey recoiled, her cool demeanor barely ruffled but noticeable still.
“Oh, wow,” I said, once I had sort of recovered but still breathing hard, neck searing. “I’m sorry.”
Audrey was silent, cool.
“It really hurts.”
“Some people have more trouble than others.” She said, the device in the air coming back in for another zap.
“Aahhh!” I screamed full out this time.
“Oh my god, it really hurts.” As if I really needed her to believe me.
“I need you to try to stay as still as you can or it will take longer because I will have to go back again and again to the same spot.”
She handed me a small towel.
“Hold this,” Se said, “Squeeze it I you need to.”
And so it went for dozens and dozens of skin tags, each one a terrible ordeal.
After it was over, I said, “Celeste said it wouldn’t hurt.”
“Yes, Celeste is the best, she just zones out.” Did I hate Celeste a little bit at that moment? Then Audrey said, “The people who have the worst time are the men, Especially the big men.”
I put my double extra are tsirt back on and too my leave. Audrey texted me photos of my neck, “ So we could have before an after pictures,” she had said.
I can laugh about it now, like a criminal heading to the gallows, dark moments invite us to make fun—it’s like a pendulum, we swing from terror to laughing, over and over, darkness, light, it means we’re alive.
During dinner one night last week Bobby said, “We’re supposed to go out and howl.”
“At 8 o’clock, we’re supposed to go out and howl.”
He said a neighbor who he sees on his daily walk ha shouted across the street to him—“Howl with us!”
They’ve started howling every night at 8pm and have been getting other neighbors to do it, too. By neighbors I mean the people we know who live in the woods near us, they’re not people we can see from our house.
And so that night, after dinner, we stepped outside. The moon was incredibly bright, which helped, because I wasn’t feeling it. But Bobby just started right up. I’m not a good howler—you’d think I would be, but no. My howls sound like the way howls are written—How how how! Bobby, on the other hand, has a good howl, which you might find surprising, seeing as he’s more civilized than I. But no, his howls have that ragged quality that mimics actually howling, you don’t see the word spelled out in his howls. You hear wildness.
The idea was that we were supposed to be able to hear our neighbors.
“Wait, do you hear that?” I said. Bobby stopped.
We listened and then it came—it was our dog, barking at us from inside the house.
Our dog is a rat terrier and she’s vigilant the way terriers can be—she barks at the wind, at leaves rustling. Sometimes she’ll start barking in the middle of the day and we’ll realize she’s barking at us—something I moved in a kitchen drawer, or Bobby shuffling around in his studio.
“It’s me!” I will holler.
“It’s just me,” Bobby says from upstairs.
I felt stupid standing there howling. Makes me wonder if there are stupid animals—and not in the way that humans like to say certain animals are smarter than others. I mean like in a pack of wolves, is there the smart one? And then the stupid one? Or many stupid ones?
Years back when I was living in the city, I had to howl in a workshop for a new play. I did so many plays, which seems so strange now—theater, that thing we used to make in dark spaces, wearing costumes and pretending to be other people, acting out stories, this practice must have descended from our ancestors telling stories by the fire. Is that what we’ll be returning to? This play was about New York City and gentrification, the recurring motif was a wolf that had gotten loose and was roaming the city. This is where I learned my howl wasn’t good.
“Ok,” the director said to me after the first time I tried it, “let’s see if you can do it again and really dig into it.”
Again, I lamely howled.
“Right…” I looked around the table at the other actors, most of them too embarrassed to look at me. Oh god, I thought, I’m a horrible howler!
We couldn’t hear our neighbors howling so we went back in. I think Bobby went out to do it the next night, I continued to put away dinner things.
Yesterday an article came out in the local paper, which isn’t a paper anymore, it’s only published online, ever since the shutdown…the article was about folks in Woodstock and the surrounding areas howling every night at 8pm.
My friend Nancy texted me last night, attaching the article.
“We’re going to howl.” She wrote.
I wrote back that we had tried it but couldn’t hear anyone.
She said a whole group of them were going to do it. “If nothing else,” she wrote, “it will blow off some steam.” Then a few minutes later, ”they’re howling in Bearsville,” a hamlet near where we live. I guess they could all hear each other. How nice for them, I thought, bitterly, alone with my wolf husband, no pack to answer us. Do animals feel resentment, I wonder? Or is that one of those things only humans have developed.
Sometimes I think it would be so great to return to the earth, I don’t mean to die and be buried, not yet anyway. But, to live more simply, depend less on the modern world—it’s not like I’m living a ridiculously extravagant lifestyle, we live in a cottage in the woods, but we drive a car, we have our tablets and smart phones, we shop at the grocery store, order things online to be shipped to our house. Before all this I was flying to LA 5-6 times a year, taking the bus to the city once a week. Will I go back to doing those thing again?
Krishnamurti said: “When one loses the deep intimate relationship with nature, then temples, mosques and churches become important.”
Which implies that nature—the earth and its places, unruined by human civilization--is holy. I believe that. But as in most things, when it comes to worshipping the earth, I am not devout, I dabble, while longing to have greater faith, to be of greater use, I’m not there yet. I stand outside the doors of the temple, with the bad kids, smoking cigarettes. I can hear the music coming from inside the temple, though, birdsong and wind, the stream outside our front door and the trees that creek in the winter. I hear coyotes crying at night, which is not the same as howling, which I still have yet to hear. But, I will try again. Even if my howl is bad, and even if I never hear the others, I may be able to touch something wilder in me.
In my writing weekends I lead an exercise where I ask people to respond to short prompts based on the senses, one of them is When I Think of my Project, I Touch…and I always specify that I mean the physical kind of touching, not the emotional kind. And yet, they are linked.