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Emotional Hegira

Leaving California: 4) Continuing

The shift occurred while I was living with S****. S**** isn’t his real name, of course; his real name is one of those long, high-WASP-Philadelphia combinations, complete with the cutesy, prep-school nickname he still used, and that aura of full entitlement which often accompanies it. He delighted in using “Reverend” in front of his name as often as possible, even though he was not yet technically ordained in the Episcopal Church. Which is probably what inspired my own nickname for him during those few long months. It wasn’t just the passive-aggressive control queen in him–he didn’t seem to approve of kitchen sponges, so if I would buy one and leave it on the counter, he’d throw it out, never saying a word. It wasn’t just the cat, who sprayed all over my room, shed enough to bring out an allergy I never knew I had, and cried piteously–like a lost soul?–at the oddest hours. It wasn’t the icons and rosaries hung just-so on the walls, or the hours of Gregorian chant, or the clouds of frankincense that often enveloped the rooms–actually, I’m more amused to see these faux-Catholics acting more Catholic than the Pope. It was more about watching him plot, maneuver and manipulate his aspiring career in the Episcopal Church.

Not that I cared a wit for the Episcopal Church, or any church, for that matter. But I had known too many worthy people, doing good spiritual work, struggling without reward, even abused by their churches. S**** would gleefully climb over their bodies to get ahead, to satisfy his own ego. Are these the people who are entrusted with the care of souls? This was more than the classic corporate bullshit I was well-acquainted with; it was a lunge for power, for the control over people’s souls. It was the antithesis of everything I had come to believe.

What had I come to believe? Something was reawakening in me. Something I once understood. Something about the battle in our world, between choice and control. Something about trust, and about fear…

Perhaps I should have just killed him and spared the world another source of pollution. But I did not. He has his own karma to work out.

Perhaps I just needed to be reminded. Perhaps that was part of why the shift occurred.

OK, so sharing space with S**** wasn’t a happy experience. It was a fabulous apartment, it was a lively and convenient–very urban–neighborhood. And I jumped at every opportunity to leave it. Spent several weeks in New York. Perhaps that was part of the shift, too. Frank sent me a ticket to help him hang and stage his painting retrospective, which was a dazzling success despite the viciousness of the New York art world. I spent quality time with my parents and my nephews. I saw all the people and all the places I’d hoped to see. I was offered a job. I was offered a place to live. I even had a torrid, four-day affair with a charming, eminently sexy 32-year-old Brazilian who appeared out of nowhere and said, “I find you very exciting.” Then I got on my plane as scheduled, knowing I was done with the place. I no longer belonged in New York. My only reference point was gone.

And I was back in California, wondering why all those things couldn’t happen here. Life in California still made no sense, but it was beginning to feel, well, normal. I was used to seeing palm trees, and all the other lush, exotic flora of this fair place. So much so that, on the last trip East, driving down a familiar suburban street, I noticed how the stately rows of century-old hardwoods were leafless. How terrible, I actually thought, are they dying? And just as quickly I snapped back, you idiot, it’s winter coming on.

Where did I belong?

Would anything ever be normal?

So the shift began to occur with the Winter Solstice, when the feeble sun begins to stretch and grow once again. I was invited to Los Angeles by my brother and his wife, for the first West Coast family Christmas. I decided to cook the traditional Christmas Eve dinner for us and a few friends, as I remembered it from my earliest childhood, when the whole Polish and Russian clan would convene at my grandfather’s table. My brother Mike, twelve years my junior, never knew those days. I would show him, and pass it on.

Most of the days preceding the holiday were preoccupied with the ingredients for the right menu. I mean, the cole slaw alone takes two days to prepare. We ransacked Trader Joe’s, and the pissiest produce markets, and waited nearly two hours on line at the ultimate fish market in Glendale. We are sophisticated urban professionals, and we live in California. Finding just the right Muscadet matters.

So I taught Mike and Laura what I knew about preparing the foods, what was Grandma’s way of doing it, the innovations our very American Mom had introduced over her years at the task, the adaptations I had developed myself. I think they realize how lucky they are to have the gay older brother who paid attention to all these things. And I relished the role.

But the most important role for me came at the moment we all sat down at the perfectly appointed table. For the first time, it was me at its head, the senior family member. This would be the moment for grace, and I was prepared.

I carefully took the oplatek out of its envelope, and explained its significance to the other guests. Oplatek is a rectangle of white wafer, a bit larger than an index card, embossed with religious scenes, like the Nativity, and various blessings in Polish. If it all sounds so nauseatingly Catholic, it is. And that was the point. This sheet had been obtained for me by an old friend in the East–Puerto Rican, of course–who understands such things. At a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner, the senior family member (OK, the senior male, but we’ve been working on that) breaks the wafer with the next- senior member, and offers a blessing and kiss. The process continues down the line, until everyone has broken bread with everyone else, and the wafer has been consumed.

I said to the guests, “I have watched this ritual performed nearly every year of my life, first by my grandfather, then after his death, by my great-uncle, then by my father’s older brother, then by my father. Tonight, I join the ranks of those lovable old geezers, and hope my brother will continue the link and share this with his children to come.”

Of course, I would make my own mark on this. The traditional blessing repeated with each break of the wafer, roughly translated from the Polish, is a dedication to a Catholic Deity I no longer accepted, a Deity used to shame, punish and control people, to create divisions, to limit souls. I would have none of this. Instead, I offered a blessing to the return of the sun’s light, to the ongoing work of creation, to healing, to the potential of every being, to the future. I offered: “To life.” And heard it repeated, almost as a round, as the wafer was broken in each one-to-one variation.

The irony was not lost on this group. When we then poured the wine, and raised our glasses in a toast, the same blessing was repeated–this time in its original Hebrew. I’m sure there were a few graves rumbling, back in the old country.

But I felt at that moment a great sense of connection: with the past and the future, with the many dead and the many not-yet-born, with my own place in this panorama. I felt the stirrings of my own power. I felt whole for the first time in a long, long time.

And I could sense that my grandfather was pleased. I’m sure it was because I was happy. But also because he must have realized his work with me was accomplished.

A few weeks later, he would leave me.

“Grandpa?” I call out quietly, with hesitation.

“Grandpa?”

But there’s no response. I wander among the overstuffed furniture in my grandparents’ upstairs apartment. When the door is closed, I’m not supposed to come in, especially in recent times, while Grandpa hasn’t been feeling well. But exceptions get made, especially for me, the reigning grandson. I am not quite six years old, and I’m looking for my best friend, the short, stocky man with the bristly gray mustache and the big hands, the hands that built this house.

The house is dark, and nobody is around, except for my sister, not quite eleven, who is glued to the TV downstairs. The neighbors look in on us every so often, as my parents and all the relatives, local and from far away, are busy making arrangements.

It is winter, and my grandfather died today, in this apartment. My mother told me that when I came home at lunch, after my usual half-day in kindergarten. She asked if I would be a big boy, and go back for the afternoon session, since everyone would be busy. Of course I agreed. I went back to the same classroom, the same teacher, and all these unfamiliar children. I sat in the playhouse for hours and cried. No one knew what to do with me.

So I came here tonight to see if it were really true, that I wouldn’t see my best friend again, the man who always had time to play games with me, to build things for me, to drive me around in that little green Nash, to take me to his club and pass me around all his adoring old Russian friends, to laugh that funny, foreign laugh.

No, he was gone. But somehow, he wasn’t…

My sister suddenly grabbed me, and began to drag me out the door and down the stairs to where we lived. “You’re not supposed to be up here,” she said adamantly, without any sense of what was energizing the room. She would grow up to be a distinguished medical professional.

I would go through the ordeal of the wake, and the funeral, and the old Russian men, full of vodka, held me but provided no comfort. I couldn’t find my father. The door to the upstairs apartment would be closed, locked, while my grandmother played her holy widow routine, and I would spend the next six years quietly, reading books, watching TV, absorbing the world, probably clinically depressed.

Then, when I was about twelve, I sat awake in my bed, dissatisfied with the limitations of my life. It occurred to me, quite suddenly, “You could change this.” And, wow, to my parents’ chagrin, I did. I began to have fun.

I don’t know what told me that. The internal logic of a twelve-year-old? A guardian angel? An overactive imagination? A spirit guide? Looking back some years later, I like to think it was him. He never left me.

It isn’t easy talking about spirit guides, even in California. But then, people don’t want to talk about death, or tears, or other quite tangible realities. Fact is, I’ve been quite chummy with several spirit guides over the past decade. It’s not just the dead friends and lovers who put in their occasional two cents. There’s the dark-haired woman in the long blue dress, who shows me beauty even in the ugliest times. There’s that scary, fiery pterodactyl thing that hovers just behind my head, who protects me, even when I’ve skidded on ice through four lanes of traffic, or had to face a hell-bent gang of toughs, or address a hall full of corporate executives. And there’s that little monkish man, whom I’ve known the longest, who encourages me to be happy and to follow my path. That’s Grandpa.

Call it madness, call it coping with trauma, call it whatever you like; I won’t pay much attention, anyway. They help me.

And so it was, during the winter of 1999, while I shared an apartment with S****, that Grandpa decided it was OK to leave. There was no grand apparition or announcement; it was like I woke up one morning and found a note: “I’ve got to move on now. You know what to do. You’ll be fine. I love you.” Had it happened at any earlier time, I might have panicked; instead, I was grateful for the forty years of assistance. Thanks, Gramps. I love you too, and I know, somehow, you remain inside me..

That doesn’t mean I felt sure I knew what to do. It didn’t help that a new guide began to make his presence known. He’s odd, somewhat Oscar Wilde-ish, and seems to suffer no fools. He wouldn’t say a helpful word, even when I specifically asked, as I could ask the other guides, what was I supposed to do now? He’d tap his fingers on a table, sigh, raise his eyes upward, then–only at inisistent prompting–would tell me, “You have all the information you need.”

I’d have to do this on my own. I admit, I floundered for a month or so, even went back to L.A. for a week, looking for some piece I may have dropped. But Oscar was right. I came back to Oakland, quit the job I hated, left Satan’s dark pit, and announced to astonished friends, “I’m moving to Colorado in the spring.”

I was back on track.

Why Colorado? Some ask if it’s love; others, money. I’d like to think both await me there, but I honestly don’t know. All I know is that Colorado is the gateway, the next step I have to take. And I know, more assuredly than ever before, that my job is to write. The rest you sometimes have to leave to trust.

And why leave this paradise? No, it would be ungallant to post a list of peeves, like insane traffic and self-absorbed men. I can be as bad a driver or as self-absorbed as the rest. I will recall, however, that many asked me the same question when I chose to leave New York. There are places of great magic and magnetism, I think, which nevertheless foster a defensive group-mentality among the inhabitants: we live in this best of all possible worlds, that’s why we put up with so much madness and annoyance, so don’t try and tell me there are alternatives. If you leave, you must be nuts.

That’s how addictive these places can be.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a permanent home? Yes, I think that often. But there’s enough fatalism in me now–I hesitate to call it wisdom–to realize that nothing is ever permanent, and that wandering has its good side: it keeps me challenged, it keeps me growing, it keeps me open to the possibilities of the world. And that’s just my path.

It’s pointless to argue how one place is better than another. Or another time, or another people. They’re just different. I like to think we can all come into a place, take what we need and, hopefully, contribute something useful.

The ditty goes: “Live in New York, but leave before you get too hard. Live in Northern California, but leave before you get too soft.”

Besides, I never said I wouldn’t come back.

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