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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Women Holding Things Holds Me

Women Holding Things by Maira Kalman

My friend Gretchen gave me treasure: Maira Kalman's paintings and text, Women Holding Things. I was paging through as slowly as possible to make first seeing last longer. Yesterday I was stopped dead.





I was looking at myself and Maya during her last 15 months of life. Just after I gave her her morning infusion, I would carry her to the park. I carried her in a hug against my breasts. My feelings of love and grief and agony were all equal. One morning right after I'd entered the park and was making my way up West Drive, two women came toward me. I had just curled around Maya in a quick kiss and I saw one woman react--BIG. "Can I take your photo?" she asked as we got nearer. Numb, I assented. I didn't pose or smile. I just stood there feeling what I felt. She snapped a photo, I nodded, wordless, and walked on.


You cannot imagine how stunned I was to see this moment in Maira Kalman's book. There was not a doubt in my mind that she was the woman who snapped the photo. But still I emailed and sent a snapshot from better times. Here is her response:


dear betsy.

it was indeed you.

i was struck by your grace and beauty.

unconditional love and devotion in the most poignant and pure form.       

thank you for allowing me to photograph you.

these moments are lessons on how to live life. gifts from the gods.

all very best to you.



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How "Merrily We Roll Along"

Yesterday I went to a 1:00 matinee of Merrily We Roll Along. It was wonderful as only Stephen Sondheim played by actors at the top of their game can be wonderful. The first scene shows a man whose life is a career success and a personal debacle, and then the music asks, "How did I/we get here as we seemed to be just merrily rolling along?" The answer plays out in reverse chronological order.


Everything about this production, from the Playbill cover to the music to the mess that ensued in the last row of the balcony behind me was perfect. But it took till this morning's contemplation to see that.


The successful mess of a character, Frank, was at a crossroads after producing a Hollywood hit: would he completely fuck up his life and his family by giving in to addictions for sex and money, or would he stop himself? It was during the church silence of the moment of this decision that the usher decided to seat an entire row of high school students behind my row. They tried to be quiet, but they were kids, so they disrupted the mood and tension that the entire play had built to.


Shortly after this, at intermission, one audience member took it upon himself to scold the students, whereupon their teacher refused to allow that they'd made the mistake which had disrupted the dramatic tension, and he reprimanded the man for his anger, deflecting with an impenetrable smile and finally accusing the angry man of intolerance, thereby enraging him more. In the teacher's mind—he later explained to me—the entire problem was upper-class theatergoers disparaging inner-city students who they believed didn't belong there. When the "Fuck yous" erupted, the usher took the two men outside.


During their exeunt, I tried to explain to the girl behind me, who'd asked a question right in the middle of the silence, that the problem was that they had interrupted a tense emotional moment; that it's necessary to understand the environment they'd entered.


"It's not my fault," she protested.


The teacher, still with his impenetrable smile, returned and explained to me about mass intolerance of his students. I pointed out that the entire balcony had been jarred out of the play, and finally, he mentioned almost as an aside that the whole thing was his fault because he had thought the show began at 2:00, not 1. (Meaning he had ignored three emails from the theater verifying the time.*)


I asked the girl who'd been trying to understand the plot if she'd like to know the plot. "Yes," she replied with gratitude and relief. So I gave her and the students around her an emotional recap. They seemed to appreciate it.


What dawned on me this morning was that we "principals" all took on mirror roles to the principal actors. I became Lindsay Mendez's peacemaker/explainer, Mary; the attacking audience member became Daniel Radcliffe's irate jilted writing partner, Charley; and the smiling teacher became Jonathan Groff's irresponsible writer, Frank.


All the world's a stage . . . It is mind-blowing how we be. But if we principals in our own plays can see this device as a principle of life, if we can admit what we're really doing, maybe we'll stop being so angry.



*And my need to point this out in this blog is me, once again, taking on the Lindsay Mendez role of being the smart one who's seeing the whole thing, cannot affect it, so she gets sarcastic. Oy vey, it never ends.

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