Thursday, October 4, 2012

Remembering the Summer of Love

Write about a place that is important to you.  That was the writing prompt for last week's writing groups session.  

Is the past a place?  How about my inner world? Are those settings? I spend an awful lot of time in both of those places, especially when they intersect.  

Have you ever seen the fountain of Diana at Ephesus?  The one of a woman with many breasts, each one gushing forth with water?  

That’s what my inner world feels like when it mixes with my memory. I  have so many stories inside of me.  I am  always overflowing.

I need to stop. Nothing ever gets finished this way. 

So I have made myself a promise and I have set myself a goal – one that even feels doable.

I am going to write a draft of a screenplay for one of these geysers.

And, I am going to finish it before I am sixty.

Which is only two months away.

Small steps.




I need to plug up all of the other openings, gather any and all of the discipline I have ever mustered in my life and focus on telling this one story from this one place in my past of this one inexorable memory from when I was sixteen years old  in July of 1969, down the shore in Atlantic City staying with my girlfriends at the La Concha,  ( or was it The Dunes?) when our room somehow became the destination for all lost Jewish boys of the boardwalk who, in a contagious frenzy of hedonistic self destructive ecstasy, placed lighters under silver spoons, sucked warm substances into glass syringes, wrapped wide leather belts with thick brass buckles around the skinny, still trackless arms, plunged needles into their delicate blue veins and let their young blood splatter onto the whitewashed walls of the cheap motel.

While we girls watched.

This is the place where my past intersects with my inner world and it all confounds me.

The Summer of Love. 

I can never know what the post-Bar Mitzvah boys were thinking as they congregated in this  motel room and performed this unholy rite. I can’t ask them. Most of them are dead. The ones that didn’t die as teenagers from overdoses haven’t lived much past fifty, their bodies  unable to withstand the ravages of addiction or too many encounters with dirty needles.  The ones who survived are silent about this. I imagine that they are superstitious.  If they speak of it, their words  might somehow pull them back. 

Fate is lying in wait with some unfinished business.

There is a debt that must be paid.

So I will never know what brought these boys to this place during the summer of 69 – sons of Holocaust survivors, D-Day veterans, GI Bill doctors and lawyers, secretaries and Donna Reed housewives.

But maybe through some kind of excavation, an archeological dig into my own soul, I can find what these girls were thinking – what THIS girl was thinking and feeling as she stood paralyzed and silent witnessing this hell.

Small Steps is what I am tentatively calling it -  like the process of writing a screenplay;  like the eventual movement of the girls away from these self destructive boys;  like the journey from the joint to the needle. 

Small steps towards writing another sequence in the screenplay, when one week later,  in a dark basement in a semi-detached brick ranch house in Northeast Philadelphia, these same girls once again bore witness to the boys shooting themselves up while watching Neil Armstrong take his small step on the moon.

Another place I cannot look at anymore without seeing tracks.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cold War Summer

Cold War Summer

Let’s drop a bomb.
Why shouldn’t we drop a bomb?
Now is the time for it
While we are young
Let’s drop a bomb.

            Suzy Cohen’s mother’s voice boomed out at us through her kitchen window as we played in her rocky back yard. Suzy, her brother Robert,  my friend Ellie and I were playing “statues” – a game which required you, once “frozen” by a rival team member, to remain absolutely still until someone from your team animated you with their touch. Gladys Cohen was a Pine Valley anomaly – a Democratic committee woman and small business owner who wore an old fur coat with sneakers over dungarees when she went to the grocery store. And she was fat in a boxy kind of way. Once when I was sleeping over her house, Suzy confided in me that her mother looked that way because years ago after giving birth to her and her brother, she got pregnant for a third time and the baby turned to stone in her stomach. Like a Shakespearean fool or a deranged Chicken Little, she’d bellow her warnings of the apocalypse in song then laugh sardonically at her own black humor. 

             She terrified me.

             This was 1962, the summer of the 17 year locusts, the last summer of my life without structure or responsibilities. It was a time of surreal calm, sandwiched between the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the assassination of JFK when the children of Pine Valley would go outside and play from sun up to sun down, devising our own complex rules of engagement for every game we would create.  And as I listened to Gladys Cohen's doleful revision of Nat King Cole, I felt a shiver run up my ten year old motionless spine as I waited for Ellie to tag me and release me from my paralysis.

            With uncoiffed graying hair and a voice like Ethel Merman, Gladys Cohen was very different from the other women in this neighborhood.  First, she worked, side by side with her husband in a relatively successful sign painting business. None of the other mothers did that. Second, she spoke her mind in a booming voice. None of the other mothers did that either. Their role models, Marilyn Monroe if they were trashy, Jackie Kennedy if they were classy, spoke in tiny breathy voices that men had to move in close to hear.

          My mother was more the Jackie than the Marilyn type except that in addition to being soft spoken arm candy for my father, she was an aspiring domestic goddess. Our newly built split level home was always immaculate and a full course dinner fit for a king was routinely served on green Melmac dishes at 6:00 sharp every night. My father was a furniture and appliance salesman and had decorated the entire house in the French Provincial style and stocked the kitchen with the latest time-saving electric gadgets so that it looked every bit as staged as the model house that my parents had fallen in love with two years before when they sold their post World War II brick row home and traded up for their piece of the American Dream.  My mother, always the over-achiever ( she had given up a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania to marry my father – women, after all, weren’t supposed to be smarter than their husbands)  actually refused a dishwasher when my father offered her one because she thought allowing a machine to do the dishes would somehow be cheating. She was smart enough to permit him to buy her a huge stand alone freezer, making her the envy of her appliance hungry peers,  who poured through our back door into our basement with their  monthly meat orders wrapped and carefully labeled to be placed on their self-assigned shelves.
            If the women (except for Gladys of course) seemed like cardboard cut-outs from Good Housekeeping magazine, or pale imitations of Donna Reed or June Cleaver, at least they were a constant presence in our young lives. The men, on the other hand were a complete mystery, shadowy figures who came and went at will, drifting in and out of our lives like the Lone Ranger.

            I can still picture the three of them, an unlikely trio:  Bill Rosenzweig, the silver-tongued salesman who stood five feet six  and talked out of the side of his mouth, Freddie Gorman, the tall,  ruggedly handsome plumber with the mysterious eyes and Dave Braverman the young Philadelphia lawyer –who wore expensive suits and had a degree from Princeton. These three very different men were the proud owners of three successive split levels on Grace Lane, and fathers of nine of the children who vied for their attention as they stood in a tight circle near the end of our asphalt driveway on a hot summer night.

           “Hey Bill,” I heard Dave, say pointing to our house. “I think they made your roof red so the Commies will know where to bomb first!”  The men laughed and laughed as if this were the funniest thing they had ever heard and I had nightmares for months.

            Years later,  I would learn that what Freddie, Bill and Dave had in common was the fact that they were all cheating on their wives:  my father with a woman he met when my own mother’s Chevvy had hit the would-be mistress' Pontiac in the Thriftway parking lot. 

            Bill Rosenzweig abandoned his family for good on November 11, 1963, two weeks before Kennedy was killed and everyone’s lives, not just my family’s were turned upside-down.  It took a few more years for the truth about their husbands to be revealed to the Mrs. Gorman and Braverman. My mother later told me that my father had blind-sided her -making love to her the very night before he left  -- as if everything was as it always had been.  

             No wonder she remained immobile, in bed,  for the next sixteen months. 

            In the days that followed my father’s departure,  as the news of his infidelity spread through the neighborhood, I watched in still silence as the women of Grace Lane, came marching one by one through our back door and into our basement to retrieve all of their steaks and chicken parts from my mother’s freezer. Perhaps they thought that being left was contagious. Or maybe they were afraid of my mother, now a beautiful single women, adrift among their ( soon to be revealed as ) philandering husbands. She, as well as her now fatherless children, became pariahs, shunned by the community that had once embraced us.  
           And during that sad,  fearful winter of 1962, only Gladys Cohen, wearing her peculiar costume and singing her portentous songs, strode up our driveway, knocked on our front door, and offered her support to my devastated mother.

 * all of the names have been changed except for mine and my family's. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fourth Street Positively -

By the summer of 1968, smoking marijuana with my friends had become a tired ritual. Each hot and empty night followed the previous one in an endless cycle of semi-suburban tedium. First, my fifteen year old girlfriends and I would gather on the corner of Darlington and Flagstaff in our Pine Valley neighborhood. Then we’d  wait for one of the older boys to drive up in his father’s Dodge Valiant or Chevy Malibu after scoring a couple of nickel bags from the local dealer in the parking lot of the Thriftway Super Market. We’d pile into his car and he’d chauffeur us to the house of whomever’s parents either weren’t home or were so clueless that they would barely shift their gaze from the hypnotic light flickering from the television set in the center of the living room as the five or more of us dull eyed teenagers made our way past them to their child’s bedroom or their finished basement.

That sweltering July night we ended up at Steve’s family’s apartment. That at least was a little break from the tired routine. Steve’s family lived in an apartment building, unlike the rest of us whose families inhabited small split level boxes with red roofs, white aluminum siding and black shutters. Evergreen Towers was the only luxury apartment in Northeast Philadelphia in the 1960’s and just entering the elegant building and smiling innocently at the security guard at the night desk added a tinge of daring to our otherwise predictable escapade.

At sixteen, Steve was the youngest of three. His siblings were both grown men in their late twenties and his parents were considerably older than most of ours. They were also richer, or at least appeared to be by their lavish life style and expensive furniture. Steve was a bit indulged too – he had two cars at his disposal – a brand new Chevy Impala and a vintage green MG convertible.  He had his own room at the end of a long hallway and that was where we gathered to smoke pot and listen to music on Steve’s brand new and top of the line stereo player.

I was fifteen at the time and crazy in love with Steve’s best friend Dock. I had been in love with him for almost two years and during that time my love had become somewhat of an obsession. I thought about him day in and day out. How he felt about me was always a mystery to me. He came in and out of my life at will and would go from confiding his deepest secrets and desires in me to ignoring me for weeks on end.  And while I was more than a little happy to see him sitting on Steve’s bed, propped up against the wall and rolling a joint, I was also wary.

I never really enjoyed being high. I was the kind of person who was always worried about getting caught. So I was totally paranoid all of the time. Being high also exaggerated all of my feelings of self consciousness and I spent a good part of the time that I was high worried about how I looked, how I was sitting, how my voice sounded whether I was sitting too close to someone, whether I was making a stupid face. All of this worrying took an awful lot of work. I tried mightily not to be noticed --- not to look stupid – not to laugh at the wrong time, not the say the wrong thing. Looking back,  it was more like torture than pleasure.  Just what a totally insecure adolescent self conscious girl  needed – a drug to increase her self consciousness. 

I was just getting to the part of my high where I was almost comfortable with myself  -- the part where I could feel safe enough to go sit alone in a corner on the floor and indulge in my favorite marijuana induced activity – imagining that I was on a very slow moving and erotic ferris wheel. Just when I was settling in a pleasing rhythm, Steve’s voice jolted me to attention.

He was standing above his stereo with a record in his hand. “You’ve got to hear this,” he said. “It will blow your mind.”
          By the time the first song had finished playing, the night had changed – it was no longer just another night in a string of meaningless nights – This was the night when I heard Bob Dylan for the first time. And what a great person to listen to when you are high.  “No body feeeeeeeeeeeels any pain” was the first line I heard sung by a plaintive voice which drew out the syllables and teased and tantalized the listener, bringing me to the brink of release.

“Marsha,”  I thought I heard Dock say through the haze.

“Yo Marsh,” he said again , because I guess I was too paranoid to acknowledge him the first time just in case he hadn’t been talking to me.

“I want you to listen closely to this next song. It reminds me of you,” he said in the prolonged silence between songs.

His words had put all of my senses on alert. I leaned forward and felt my blood begin to pulsate through my veins as a cascade of electric sound poured out of Steve’s stereo.  

The first words of the song grabbed me by the throat.

Yoooooooou’ve got a lot of neeeeeeerve to say you are my frieeeeeeeeeeeend.
When I was doooooooown you just stood there griiiiiiiining.
Yooooo’ve got a lot of neeeeerve to say you’ve got a  helping haaaandto lend
You just waaaaant to be on the side that’s wiiiiiiiiiiiiniing.

The rest of the song slammed me into the wall repeatedly until by the final verse all I could do was sit numbly and dumbly accepting the final blow.

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes
Yooooou’d know what a draaaaaaaaag it is to seeeeeeee yooooooooooou

By the time the electric tidal wave of sound retreated I was devastated. To this day, I can hardly hear this song without feeling the acute meanness of the words and the sadistic glee with which they were sung. Someone else may have been the target of Dylan’s wrath and disdain, but Dock had harnessed it for himself and redirected it at me  -- barrels blazing. 

Maybe even at that time, there was a part of me that knew I didn’t deserve this attack. Maybe, a tiny voice inside my head was trying to tell me that this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him and how he felt about himself. All I had been guilty of after all was loving him far more that I ever should have and believing in him when he hadn’t believed in himself. Once during one of our telephone conversations that would sometimes last all night long, he told me that he wanted to be a lawyer one day. The next day,  I searched the Yellow Pages for a trophy store that I could get to by bus and with forty of the seventy-five dollars I had earned for a whole summer as a camp counselor, I bought him a custom made name plate for his future legal desk. It read “Alan Dockler, Esquire.”  

            I can’t remember what he said after I gave it to him or even if he said anything. I can’t even guess what he thought about my incredibly naive gift or if he was thinking about all that when he told me to listen to that song.. What I do remember is that when I finally got up the nerve to look at him after the song had ended, he wasn’t looking at me at all. Instead, he was sitting in the same position, staring straight ahead with an empty look in his eyes.

That night, I had no way of knowing that the boredom would soon give way to increasingly dangerous behavior and by next summer – the summer of 69 --- the summer of Woodstock and peace and love, these middle class white boys would already be addicted to heroin. Nor could I know that I would soon stop getting high altogether but I wouldn’t stop accompanying Steve and Dock and their friends as they scored and shot scag in the same bedrooms and basements where we had once smoked pot.

In the psycho jargon of today, I became an enabler. By the time they picked up the needle, I had forsaken the joint. Someone had to remain alert as they drifted into their ecstatic oblivion. Someone had to hide the burnt spoons and throw away the bloody balls of cotton. And someone had to be there when Dock outstretched his arms to me. 

Despite his disdain for me, or perhaps because of it, my love for Dock was a constant that he could rely on for years. Things would change: national leaders would be assassinated, men would walk on the moon, his father would get fired from his job, his grandmother would die, he would get thrown out of high school, he would discover heroin and his best friend Steve would die of an overdose and we’d go to his funeral instead of Woodstock.  I’d go to college, discover the women’s movement, have my consciousness raised and one day in a righteous rage, send him a letter with the lyrics to Positively Fourth Street addressed directly to him.

            I wish this is where the story ends. I wish I could tell you that I sent this essay to the New York Times and it was published in the “Modern Love” section and that Dock read the essay, emailed me, arranged to meet, and we shared our life stories, embraced and forgave ourselves for hurting ourselves and each other in the past.

            I wish that is what happened. But it’s not. After I finished writing this, I decided to “google” Alan Dockler. I hadn’t done that in a really long time. The last time I had looked him up, I learned that he was married and living in Florida.  This time I typed his name into the search engine and found the MySpace page of a young man who called himself DJ Dockler. And in a tiny line in the space marked “heroes” was written R.I.P.  Alan Docker 12-28-51 - 10/7/02.

            He had died four years before and I hadn’t known. His surviving son’s name was Steven.

            Sometimes life just ends that way like this story – with no closure, only questions and regrets for missed opportunities.  And a burning need to know more. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Coming Apart - Coming Together

Recently, my therapist, the Jungian analyst Angelo Spoto, told me a story he had heard about James Hillman. At age sixty-five, Hillman had set off to visit his  85 year old father.  At this time in Hillman’s life, he was very successful, having studied with Carl Jung in Zurich, penned dozens of highly acclaimed books and founded a school of psychology.  In the story, Hillman recounts how when he begins the journey to his father’s house, he is 65 years old. As he gets closer, he becomes 55, then 45. As the miles accumulate, he regresses further to 35 and 25. When he pulls into the driveway, he is 15 and by the time his aged father answers the door, he is five years old.

     I know what this feels like – how one can be fifty-nine and nine at the same time in the presence of your family – especially a family filled with people who have never really understood you at all.  

 * * * * * * * * * *
I spent the entire last week of January inside – inside my house and inside myself, creating four mixed media collages for a collaborative exhibit by local artists at the Muse Gallery in Olde City, Philadelphia.

I am not an artist. At least I wasn’t trained as one. And I know that some artists try their entire lives to have their work exhibited in a public gallery. So I know how lucky I am. This opportunity found me. Knocked on my door like the travelling Kabbalah salesman from over a decade ago, who when I told him I had recently become curious about Jewish mysticism said with a gleam in his eye and a lilt in his voice, “When you’re ready to learn a teacher will appear.”

I bought the entire Zohar for over five hundred dollars.  

There are no coincidences.

I signed up for a four week collage course last summer at the Main Line Art Center at a time when my sense of outward identity was falling apart, causing acute disruptions on the inside. Without a plan, I brought in images of myself to use for my collages – pictures of my face from all different stages of my life.  I also brought in my photography - pictures I’d taken of trees and shadows, altered to reveal hidden images and surprising connections.  In class, I cut and pasted my photographs onto each other in varied ways – an eye here, an upside down mouth there, my shadow hanging from branches of anthropomorphic trees, two right halves of my face, glued together.

I got lost in the process. There were times when I felt myself begin to giggle in sheer delight. My teacher, Francine Shore encouraged me on this introspective and mythopoeic journey. She never made me feel as if I were strange, even though the other women in the class were making pretty things with butterflies and flowers.

That was last summer. In December, Francine emailed me and asked me if I could make four collages for a show she was curating at the Muse. Each artist was to create four images a piece, on the same 12 x 12 x 1 ½ inch canvases, leaving the edges white.  These similarities would unify the exhibit and Francine would then arrange these diverse images in an artistic way that would in itself be a collaborative work of art.

Of course, I said yes, but as the weeks wore on towards the February 1st deadline, and the canvases remained blank, I began to lose my nerve. About to back out, I went to visit Francine with some of the collages I had made in the past, hoping for direction. She looked through the different things I had brought - mosaics of pretty ladies, mixed media homages to Frida Kahlo, and the surreal images of my personal journey.

“I know you’re not an experienced artist, Marsha,” Francine began. “But you tell a provocative story with these images,” she continued, pointing to my idiosyncratic self portraits.  “These other ones are nice, but they are decorative. They aren’t art. Art invites the viewers to come closer, to get into the image, to wonder what is going on and to bring their own meaning to it.”

I listened intently, trying to see my images through others’ eyes.

“Go home and do you,” she concluded.

Of course I waited until the last possible minute, but I DID create four new pieces that were deeply personal.

I went home and I did myself.

I cut out tiny images of my life - family scenes and picture of scared rituals, like bat mitzvahs and weddings and important moments like births and family functions from my childhood and pasted them onto a mask which I placed on top of a photography of my face with nothing but the eyes peering out intently thought the cut outs.  For another, I took those same images I had used for the mask, glued them on the canvas in rows like strips of film then used cut up pictures of my face to create the masks of tragedy and comedy affixed atop the smaller pictures of my life.

It was a deep, deep internal process. The placement of each tiny picture brought up old and painful memories. What drove me to place the picture of me pregnant with my daughter ( who is herself now pregnant) next to one of my father  ( who never saw me pregnant, we were already estranged) or one of my wedding pictures next to the one of me as mother of the bride?

I relived my entire life while making these images --- all of the joy, complexities and pain during this one agonizing week.

And then I was done.

I completed the final image, a tree in the shape of a woman’s body, with my solemn face growing from the trunk, eyes masked before dark on the last day of January. The entire piece was in black and white except for an upside down image of my face, cut in the shape of a womb and affixed to the body of the trunk of the tree.

I called this piece "Insight."

                                           * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I probably should not have agreed to meet my mother, her husband, my sister and brother for dinner that night. I was too churned up and too vulnerable to see them.  But I said yes because I was struck by the reality that at eighty-two my mother was cherishing every possible opportunity to have all three of her children together and my brother was making a rare appearance in Philadelphia.

So I went.

My sister was the first to start the familiar ritual. Once everyone was seated, before we ordered dinner, she took out the advance copy of her soon to be released book – a very thorough and informative guide for parents about talking with their children about sexuality and protecting them from sexual abuse.  She was able to write this book drawing on her experiences as Director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey and her work in government in Child Welfare. She also announced her recent appointment to a special research and teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.

My brother then whipped out his iPad and proceeded to show videos of himself at work as the Executive Director of Communications for the Baltimore Ravens in features the Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun had done about him. He was in town to be the announcer for the Big Five Basketball game between Temple and St. Joes.

Then there was me, with my retired self, my idiosyncratic images and all of the insecurities I have always felt in the company of my highly successful (and younger) siblings.

I shouldn’t have done it.

I knew better than to try to enter this arena. I knew I should never try to compete. But I was nine years old again, vying for my mother’s attention, trying so desperately to be seen, affirmed and understood.

So I took out my puny Blackberry and opened to the small images of my kooky collages and tried to pass it around the table to share with my family. My brother didn’t look, passing my phone off to my sister who said, “I"ve seen these before” ( she hadn’t – I’d just completed them that afternoon). She in turn passed it to my mother who just peered at the screen perplexed and said, “What’s this? I can’t make it out.”

On the verge of tears, I left before dessert and cried the entire ride home.

When I walked into my house, still a wreck from my week of manic creativity, it was filled with paper and glue and scissors and paint strewn everywhere. There were scraps of my face lying on the floor in every room.  I walked slowly into my office cum studio and I looked up on the shelf below the window. There I saw four completed mixed media collages each telling a piece of my story, of my inner journey towards integration and wholeness.

              I looked at up them and they looked back at me and we smiled.

             I was fifty-nine again.

             And I was okay.

            At least for the moment.