Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Noreen's Birthday Lunch

Glamour is in short supply in Noreen’s life. Her son had briefly been engaged to a French girl but after being brought up on Velveeta cheese he could already foresee problems in the marriage and called it off. Noreen and her husband took a Caribbean cruise when he retired, but he contracted food poisoning on the second day and had to be flown back home. She had kept the brochure and stuffed it guilty behind the sofa cushions if he ever came in while she was gazing at all the destinations and tours they had missed. It wasn’t his fault he was allergic to foreign food and the upsetting of routines. That was Howard, a man of routines.

But today is Noreen’s birthday. She did her research at the local AAA branch in Anaheim and came away with a purse stuffed with ideas that finally solidified around a restaurant in the upscale suburb of San Marino. It was an hour’s drive, but Howard had promised to take her anywhere she liked for lunch, except the Queen Mary because he still had bad associations with ships.

Following the hostess outside to the terrace, Noreen beamed with pleasure. It was just as she had imagined it – white tablecloths, elegant women, and wasn’t that the actress? The one in the commercial for… “Give me a minute and I’ll think of it,” she whispered conspiratorially over the table to Howard. “But she’s big. Chewing gum, I think.”

Howard feigned interest. He was hot and his polo shirt stuck to his back. He had been hoping Noreen would chose lunch at the beach when he’d offered – somewhere casual where he wouldn’t have to tuck in his shirt or wear polished shoes. However, he was a good husband and Noreen’s awed happiness couldn’t fail to affect him. Perhaps he would suggest a chocolaty dessert after lunch, knowing that she’d never order one if he didn’t pretend he was going to share it. Not that her weight watching was doing much good: The whole outing was nearly aborted when she discovered she couldn’t do up the waistband of her skirt. They were only saved because she found a black and pink two-piece she’d bought for the cruise. The large tropical print seemed a little over the top among the sedate diners, but Noreen always did have flair, he’d give her that.

At exactly the same moment, Noreen was also thinking about the tropical flowers, wondering if the famous actress had noticed her matching pink toenails. What a relief she hadn’t let the girl in the salon go for the orange. Famous actresses would probably pick up on details like clashing toenails – after all, it’s part of their job to look glamorous.

Noreen clasped her napkin more tightly in her lap. Isn’t this exactly what she’d dreamed of? Lunching with the jet set of San Marino? She was so happy that everything seemed to hum with her delight. The sprig of fresh mint in her ice tea, the crisp uniforms of the waiters, even her husband’s freshly shaven chin seemed to be reverberating with song. If I could only hold on to this moment, thought Noreen, stuff it in a glass jar and screw the lid on tight, then I would have somewhere to visit when the FedEx man passes my house and the neighbors pile suitcases into a taxi, something to inhale on days when the air conditioning whirrs and I feel like I’m in a terrapinium. But Noreen, despite her frequent flights of fantasy, is at heart a practical woman. She decided to steal a menu and frame it when she got back home. She couldn’t risk the famous actress seeing her steal one of the teaspoons.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Unreasonable Women

Rupert believes himself beset by unreasonable women. The last one pummeled him with her fists, shocking his old-school sensibilities by requiring him to use force to defend himself. Then there was the former girlfriend he visited in Los Angeles who swooped and shrieked, her pashmina extended like a pair of black wings, until he was more than glad to pack her off in his chauffeur-driven car, back to the ghetto she claimed was bohemian but in his eyes was just grotty.

She called him, still furious. “You are attracted to romantics, girls who want to believe the best of people, because they are the only ones who could overlook your behavior. But eventually your manipulation and deviousness show through and they realize they haven’t found a savior, someone to protect them from cruelty and ugliness, but that you embody, make a skill even, of the very cynicism and selfishness they detest. That’s why they leave amid tears and recriminations.”
“You see a hard-headed girl, someone who’s a little more skeptical would immediately see you for who you are and give you a very wide berth. Or maybe they’d be willing to make a deal with the devil, but they’d certainly never LOVE you!”
“I’ve obviously upset you.” This line works well for him. Moral high-ground in the sense of sounding willing to take the blame but actually just accentuating the distance between his high place of moral certitude and the groveling emotional display at hand.

Really, he can’t understand all the fuss. A bottle of vintage champagne had caused the misjudgment of informing her about the women he had been rogering while she was living with him. One of whom was now the mother of his illegitimate child.
“You didn’t use condoms!”
“You might want to play Russian roulette with your life, but you had no right to do that with mine!”
“I had to do something! You were refusing to sleep with me.”
She seemed to consider this, then grabbed her pashmina from the back of the chair and proceeded to prance around in what appeared to be a Red Indian war dance.

He chortled at the memory. Women! Totally unreasonable. It’s the hormones. Nutcases every last one of ‘em.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Neither House nor Home

Bob doesn’t know how it happened. One day they were laughing down at the pub, the next screaming at each other. She got their daughter, he got their cat (but he, of course, pays for both of them.)

There hadn’t been much time to contemplate life, leaving college halfway through his degree to help his father with the house building company. “That’s what we are,” said his father, in his stout Nottingham accent, “Builders of houses – homes – not some swanky developer putting old ladies out on the street or buying up dockland to build yuppie penthouses. Nay, lad. Remember that we are house builders and you won’t go far wrong.” And then he died, leaving the business to his son, who would rather have continued with his English Lit. degree, but there you are. One moment you’re discussing the meaning of life in student digs, the next you are watching your mother dress a corpse in his favorite tie and walking down an allĂ©e of doffed hard hats.

Sybil, the cat, is a comfort to Bob. He can come home any hour he chooses, connected as he is to the office via Internet. Often he returns mid-afternoon, picking up Sybil and holding her close to his nose, the soft white fur tickling his nostrils and making him long for human hair, soft hands, a silk wrap…

He doesn’t know how it happened – the Bulgarian women. He misguidedly went on a site that offered, "Meet your ideal match," and instead met Eleonora, and Leila, and Mira, who insist on sending him virtual teddy bears and satin hearts on Facebook. Gemma now, she’s a bit of all right. Boobs like ripe summer fruit and legs up to her armpits, but he doesn’t know how that happened either – South African women posting pictures of themselves in jaunty sailor outfits or in scanty dresses. He supposes there are a billion women out there who consider a 46 year-old property developer (“House builder, lad, house builder”) a good catch. Never mind that he sometimes gets caught up in the mystery that we are the only animals that can contemplate our mortality, that biology has produced Shakespeare and tears and a propensity for sunsets…

He opens his laptop to find “Alexandrina has sent you a kinky gift.” The economy must have dropped another couple of points in Bulgaria. Naturally, a kinky gift warrants a second look, but Bob doesn’t really go for the plucked and oiled curves of pornography. It’s like looking at motorbikes – all sleek molded perfection but cold and hard underneath.

He doesn’t know how it happened, how he became the Master of Kittylitter and the object of affection for skinny Bulgarian women sitting in Soviet era apartments in sunglasses and jeans. “Have my own tool belt,” he types onto the website, wondering if he might snag an English girl if he baits his trap with irony.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Lover of Beautiful but Unstable Women

“Daddy, you’ve got an email.”
“Hunh?” Michael glances at his laptop, but Tilly has swiveled it to face her at the table.
“Who’s ‘LA Lou’?”
“Oh, just some work thing, probably.” Or one more desperate middle-aged woman, Michael thinks, inexpertly dislodging French toast from the frying pan. I don’t know why I let my friends talk me into it; it’s not as if I’m really in a position to start a new relationship, what with the filming schedule and Tilly at the weekends…
“It says she’s a TV drama en-enthus-iast and would love to meet you when she comes to London.”
“Tilly, don’t you know it’s rude to read other people’s mail?”
Tilly pouts. “I was just practicing my reading,” she says disingenuously. Michael wonders if this is a learned behavior or if her mother has bequeathed her with the dissembling and manipulation gene.
“Okay, eat your breakfast now or you’ll be late for school.”
“Why does she think your glasses are sexy?”


“Michael!” The very gorgeous Hazel is leaning over his desk.
“Haze! Sorry, I was miles away.” Actually, with a Vietnamese girl he’d met at Bar Italia. He was buying his breakfast bagel when he’d seen her reflection in the mirror behind the counter dipping a finger into cappuccino foam and licking off the chocolate flecks. I can’t help it, thinks Michael, I am essentially a painter, “Very visual,” then realizes he’s spoken out loud. He jabs at the set designs spread before him. “Very, erm, visually interesting.”
Hazel looks at him quizzically and shifts one hip to perch on his desk. “I don’t think you’ve heard a single word I’ve said. What’s the matter? Is it Nadja? Is she being difficult about Tilly again?”
Nadja is Michael’s ex-wife. A beautiful but unstable actress. I am a lover of beautiful but unstable women, thinks Michael, noting the exquisite landscape of flesh down the back of Hazel’s jeans. God, a black lace thong. Too bad she’s much too together to be his type.
“Ahem! I’m not your type, Michael.”
He refocuses guiltily on her face. Is she a mind reader?
Smiling, she shakes her head. “You men are so predictable.”
“Sadly, we are at the mercy of our hormones. But I’ve sworn off women, remember?”
“What about that Chinese girl I saw you with this morning?”
“Vietnamese, actually. Nice girl. A dancer.”
Hazel raises both eyebrows. “What she do? Give you a card with her number and a discount on a lap dance?”
“How d’you know?”
“About the discount?”
“About what kind of dancer she was.”
“Because this is Soho, Michael! You really are a disaster when it comes to women.”
“I thought she looked vulnerable.”
“That’s the trouble with you – you romanticize women. You have to learn that we’re just the same as you only without, you know, that thing.” She gestures towards his crotch. He crosses his legs protectively. “What you need is to meet a nice woman, an equal. Someone who can be a real partner.”
Michael thinks about all the unanswered emails from nice women on the dating website. I’m just too much of a romantic, he thinks. There’s something so prosaic about hanging out your shingle and matching yourself to someone else’s religion, hobbies, retirement plans…
Especially as he never plans to retire.


The soccer match is on full blast, Michael sprawled on the couch in a dirty T-shirt and sweat pants that have seen better days. At first when the doorbell rings he doesn’t hear it, the shrill sound indistinguishable from the whistles and the roars of the football crowd. Now in a lull he hears the insistent buzzing and jumps up, spilling the packet of pretzels. Damn! Who can it be? He runs a hand through his hair which only succeeds in making it stand more on end. Pulling the drawstring tighter around his belly, he staggers to the door. A female shape stands behind the rippled glass.
“Good afternoon. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m with the South Downs Flora Defense Fund. I wonder if you will join us in the fight to protect native species by banning the planting of non-native flora,” she says, proffering a clipboard of soggy signatures.
She is young, perhaps late twenties, her long black hair weighted by the misting rain and sticking in strands to her face. Tiny drops of moisture bead her eyebrows, her eyelashes, her lips, and he has a sudden impulse to kiss them away. He checks out the long, rain-darkened legs of her jeans, which are stuffed into clumsy Eskimo boots. She’s staring up at him with a rapt expression.
“You’re Michael Bessinger, aren’t you? I was a film student at Brighton and Hove College before I left to work for SDFDF. You came to lecture us on TV drama?”
“Yes, come on in! You’re getting soaked,” he says, realizing now why he recognizes her. Another beautiful but unstable woman.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Must Have Own Canoe

Peter shifts the newspaper off the small dining table. Right! No good putting off the evil hour. He opens the laptop, catching his reflection in the screen. Not bad, really, for fifty-seven. His wife had hated the cropped hair – said it made him look like a thug – but the woman had run off with a bloody property developer who dresses in open-neck shirts and loafers: So much for her taste!

He angles the computer screen to get rid of irritating reflections. Nothing really feels right in this flat. He keeps banging his head on kitchen cupboards and striking his elbow on the shower walls. But no use moping around. Better get down to business.

“Seeking woman not afraid to get her hair wet,” he writes. Clarissa never understood his wanderlust, was more the sort of hotel-with-a-beach kind of girl, whereas he wanted to trek the Himalayas. Nothing to stop him now! He types energetically, trying to put the image out of his head of Clarissa and her tanned Lothario sipping gin and tonics on a sun-baked terrace. After paying off a mortgage and putting the kids through uni Peter couldn’t compete with a villa in Ibiza and a thirty-foot yacht.

“Someone for the weekends – a ‘cupboard girlfriend’,” he writes, wondering if that looks odd. It’s what he said to his daughter Gemma when there was that unfortunate business with the married man. Clarissa was all for having a first grandchild but, “You can’t just put a child in the cupboard when you’re tired of it,” he warned Gemma. Turns out Nature knew best in that instance; not that Clarissa didn’t get her grandchildren eventually. He smiles remembering the holiday cottage in Cornwall, all three grandchildren jumping on their bed in the morning. He doesn’t realize it, but a tear is rolling down his cheek. How do you fit a girlfriend into that scenario? How do you repair a life torn down the middle? “Buck up, old chap!” he says aloud. Getting maudlin. Life’s an adventure, carpe diem!

Weekdays he doesn’t have much use for company. When he finally looks up from his accounting clients there’s usually only time to rush down to the little Thai place before they close and order something from the sweet-smiling waitress. Other chaps might ask her out, but Peter would say an English girl is more reliable. “Decent and loyal,” he types. Someone with blond hair called ‘Ginny’ or ‘Sarah,’ who reads the Guardian and knows how to fix a Pimm’s.

Trouble is, even with a weekend-only partner it’s going to be difficult bringing anyone back to the flat. The sitting room’s all right, furnished with a few odds and ends from the house, and Emily came to help her dad hang curtains, but the bedroom’s a bloody disaster. “I suppose he’s got his canoe in there with him,” Clarissa is reported to have said, which is a typical exaggeration but the limited space around the bed is jammed with a sleeping bag, rolled-up tent and two backpacks.

He uploads a picture of himself in a furry hat among a group of smiling Sherpas. That should give a girl the right idea. He hears his wife’s brittle laughter. “I could be better at expressing my emotions and saying what I am feeling,” he adds, in the interest of full disclosure; “Can worry about unimportant stuff.” Like the roses he’d tended for twenty-five years. Would the new owners of the house know to cut them back before winter? “Divorced eighteen months ago,” he finishes up. “Hurt very much at the time, but over it now.”

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Philosopher

Milky light bathes the bookshelves. It is late afternoon and the French windows opening onto the garden are drafty with birdsong. The vapors of varnished floorboards have not yet been displaced by the plump sap of summer. Philip smoothes the page of a book, words hopping like fleas around his fingers. He should get up and close the windows, pour himself a Scotch, but the peace is too precious. Poets and philosophers circle him, waiting for him to surrender into their ashen arms but something tick, tick, ticks inside of him. Is it his wind-blown heart or is it the hope that standing on illustrious shoulders he will finally see over the wall of random living to enlightenment? He shivers and closes the book, wishing that tonight he could be a lover of women, not wisdom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lonely Heart

Billy Braithwaite tucks his scarf into his coat. Bloody parky waiting for the bus on this street corner! The wind whips round the chip shop and carries with it the snow on the moors, salt ‘n vinegar crisp packets, a sniff of something curried.

He wouldn’t normally be going to the shopping centre in this weather if he could help it, but the website says it will ‘increase his chances’ of being selected. Billy finds it hard to imagine that his image will inspire passion. He thinks of blond secretaries in London or ‘fit bits’ who frequent the local pubs and can’t believe that his unruly hair and Yorkshire wind stippled complexion will inspire love, but he’s doing it for Her - the one who will see through the black and white photos of design consultants and the heavy spectacle frames of the arty types and rest on him, an honest man, “Because I'm a warm, caring sensitive soul who will give everything to the right person.” He worked hard on that line. Surely she will see. He is willing to give his everything. No games. Surely that means something.

Life is not a dress rehearsal, he mutters, once he positions himself in the photo booth. Momentarily, he wonders if he should undo his scarf. No, he thinks, leave it as it is. This is no rehearsal, this is the take.

(Photo used with permission

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Rise and Fall of a Radical Christian

By anyone’s standards I am certifiably insane. I sold my apartment and when my consulting projects dried up, lived off the proceeds, waiting for my agent to sell my book. It’s not ignoring the ‘Don’t give up your day job’ part that makes me fear for my sanity, or even the misbegotten hope that I could sell a book in today’s ‘crowded market,’ but that it signaled another period in my life where I became the radical follower of a radical God… and seemingly destroyed myself in the process.

The first time this happened, I gave up my worldly belongings, my job in a management consultancy firm and went off to become a missionary in Spain. Two years later, I had made about two ton of marmalade from lemons donated by local nuns, watched the clothes we were supposed to distribute to the poor pile up to the ceiling, and had been accused of harboring an evil spirit because I had dared to ask a simple question: “Shouldn’t we be doing something?” Apparently not, because I was sent home with a flea in my ear and very little to show for my sacrifices. My church leaders, who had never liked the idea of tithing people to missions in the first place, had only one thing to say: “Told you so.”

It took me several years searching through the world and its riches (in case I had been mistaken and that’s where happiness really lay) before I was ready to try radical faith again. “Why not just ordinary faith?” you ask. “Why not church on Sunday and the occasional good deed?” Why indeed, but I am a person of conviction. If you tell me people are going to hell without Jesus, I’ll become a missionary. If you tell me that what pleases God is feeding the hungry and giving shelter to the homeless, well then, I’ll volunteer at a homeless shelter on Skid Row. Which I did. I gave up my job in the movie industry (recognize a pattern here?) and took a pay cut to train as an HIV counselor. This time I can point to lives that I touched – the homeless and rehab program men with whom I prayed, the Latino population who finally had someone in the medical department who spoke their language. By the time I met Francisco, I was radically invested in the lives of these men and radically attracted to someone who had beaten heroin addiction to become the darling of the Mission, loved by staff and program men alike. He was going to be sent to Mexico to head up a ministry there and I wanted nothing more than to go with him. So we got married. Six weeks later, I discovered he was radically addicted to heroin once more.

The Mission disowned us, my parents were hysterical, my film world friends had long since dropped away. A friend from missionary days invited us to stay with her in Arizona to “get Francisco away from his connections.” (You see how little we understood about heroin addiction and the likelihood of such a plan succeeding.) By now pregnant, I had once again lost all my worldly possessions and, after I began the task of raising a child on my own, all taste for radical faith.

Eighteen months ago, I was finishing my book about my marriage and my subsequent descent into hell when I grew wistful for the days when I really did believe God had ‘a future and a hope’ for me. Right on cue, my Arizona friend called excited about a new move of God’s Spirit. “It’s revival!” she said and that is exactly what my soul needed – to believe again in a powerful God who could use me to bring his love and purpose to people’s lives, not least my own.

I should have known better than to take the radical route again, but true to form, I withdrew my book from the agent, believing that the behavior of some of the Christians in my story would only reinforce the cynicism people feel towards the Church. So, having sold my apartment, here I was with time and money and, when I woke each morning, a delicious anticipation of the divine assignments I would receive that day. I volunteered with a team doing outreach to transsexual prostitutes and quickly saw the flaws in the organization – but not before I had donated a large sum of money. I threw myself into the events at a mega church (bible studies, prayer meetings, small group leadership training), tithed an even larger sum of money – and received impersonal mail asking for more. I eagerly supported volunteers and graduates from the church-run rehab center by taking them out for lunch and on shopping trips, covering a late car payment… and got burned every time. I started a bible study in my home for the local trasher and her seven children, but the kids grew bored with coloring Sunday School pictures and the mother was too exhausted from dumpster diving every night.

Undeterred, I prayed, I fasted, I read my bible sometimes for six hours at a time; I even tried to learn the ancient Hebrew alphabet! Once I prayed in tongues for three hours straight, hoping for a breakthrough. (I was still trying to write an ‘uplifting’ book at this point.) Everywhere I went, I talked about God and prayed with people.

Several months later, despite having deleted every copy of my book and thrown away the notes (because this is how radical and insane people behave), God graciously hit the override button on my misplaced zealousness and miraculously unearthed a copy of the manuscript. Restored to my purpose, I began to revise my book. Meanwhile, I continued my daily prayer walk around the neighborhood. One day, a little woman popped her head over a fence and told me a sorry tale of poverty, abuse, abandonment... Irresistible to a radical co-dependent like me! I spent the next four months helping her out of the hole she had dug for herself, not realizing that the life she hated was the consequence of serious delusion - a princess complex - so taking her out to lunch to ‘cheer her up,’ buying treats for her children, introducing her to my (new) church of wine-drinking bohemians, did nothing but confirm that this was the life she was entitled to, and I was the agent of God who had made it all possible. Which worked well in the sense that she agreed readily to being baptized, not so well when I blew up one day, finding that even the most radical enablers can finally run out of patience.

That’s it! That’s all I have to show for eighteen months of radical obedience – a book my agent, dispirited by the contracted market, doesn't even attempt to sell; empty coffers I had believed God would refill if I were faithful (radically so) in tithing; a few people who may or may not have been better off before I tried to help them; and, watching my neighbor at church drinking her wine and hugging the people I had only just begun to know, the sense that I am the villain, the Bad Christian, for harboring the same kind of resentment you feel as a teenager when your kid sister shows up to a cool party and ruins everything!

In this mood of ‘life is sucky, Christian life is suckier still,’ I went yesterday to pick up some groceries from the Armenian store. As I was placing the items on the checkout desk, an old woman barged in front of me. The streaks of orange dye in her thin white hair reminded me of my grandmother, long dead. She was wearing a shabby cardigan over a cotton dress that revealed a few inches of lumpy, grey leg warmers. A small girl pulled on her, displaced from the beat-up stroller by a large loaf of bread. They appeared to be discussing the bananas the little girl was trying to put on the counter but in a language I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t Armenian because the checkout girl was unable to communicate her protest when the old lady suddenly upended her purse, cascading pennies onto the black conveyor belt.

I sighed and raised my eyebrows at the two men waiting behind me. The young checkout girl was valiantly attempting to count all the coins, but this was going to take a while. A woman in hunter-green cashmere and a gold necklace swooped down out of nowhere.

“No, you can’t pay with this. You have to go to a bank.” She thrust a Tupperware bowl at the checkout girl and motioned her to scoop up the pennies.
“Is money!” said the old lady, her sunken face confused and defiant.
“No! You have to take it to a bank,” repeated the Armenian owner, indicating the bowl of pennies the checkout girl held between them. The old lady made no move to take it, her lips working over toothless gums.

All through this encounter I had become aware of the song playing in the background. “…You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains...” Wasn’t that a song I’d heard at church? Or was it more New Age inspirational?
“You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas…” Oh, surely not! Despite the misgiving that I had suddenly found myself in the middle of a cheesy movie, the ceiling rose, the walls expanded, my ears began to ring, and I knew what I had to do.
“How much is her bill? Perhaps I can pay it for her?”
The checkout girl’s eyes opened wide with surprise. Understanding the significance of the proffered notes, the old lady grabbed my hand and kissed it effusively, making me turn a lovely shade of pink. I patted her shoulder awkwardly.
“…You raise me up to be more than I can be.”
The checkout girl was now trying to foist the pennies on me.
“No, thanks! I’ve got to go. Let her keep the change.”

“…But when you come and I am filled with wonder
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.”

Averting my eyes from the little scene behind me I raced for the door, in a hurry to get to my car so I could let loose the long, shuddery sobs inside of me. He knows. He thinks it’s sucky too, all those people who’ve let me down. Radically faithful or full of doubt, he doesn’t care because he’s never stopped having faith in me.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Letter to my son

“Some parents and their children bond over museum visits or sporting events. We bond over wringing out hand washing,” I joked. “Such is our life.”
“The life you put me in!” you said, with an undercurrent of accusation.

“At least you’ve got one!” I said to your retreating figure. But what could you understand of that?

I have always known how hard it would be, raising you alone. I was under no illusions. No teenage girl hoping for someone to love her. No broody, nearly-out-of-eggs career woman dreaming of stenciled nursery walls and cradling a warm, talc-scented head. I knew it would be a struggle and one that you would probably never understand and certainly never thank me for. But I did it anyway, I gave you life because you already existed and it wasn’t my job to contradict what was so evidently and powerfully a force beyond my control.

I’m sorry you don’t have the things your friends do, that you are ashamed to invite them over because your mother sleeps on the sofa and dries clothes by hanging them from the furniture.

The fact is you have so much. You just don’t know it yet. And one day you’ll be proud of me, I hope, that I’ve made it this far when so many times everything inside of me has wanted to give up, fold in, fade out. I hope you’ll never get to feel my loneliness, anxiety, the guilt that I can’t do better for you. I’ve tried my best, and when you’re a parent you’ll know that’s all you can ever do – get out of bed, try your best and hope that you, my child, will do better. But know that no one, no one, no matter how successful at this business called life, could ever have loved you more.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Honorary Jew

“Goldberg? Ms. Goldberg?”
“Er, my name’s Godbold. Are you calling me?”
“Right this way, Ms. Goldberg. Now if you’d just take a seat I’ll pull up your medical record.”
“God-bold. My name’s Godbold.”
“Now let me see, Goldstein, Goldsmith, we don’t have a 'Goldberg, Louise.'”
“That’s because my name isn’t Goldberg.”
“I’m sorry, I just glanced at it briefly. Let’s see, Goldbold.”
“Actually, it’s God, Godbold.” I attempt a smile, “Can’t confuse God with gold,” (at least, not if you’ve been listening to the series on idolatry at my church.)
“Uh-huh.” She doesn’t look convinced. Perhaps she’s set up an altar to a golden calf in the staff lounge.
“The name means, ‘good and brave.’”
“Oh, you’ve done that genial-ology thing?”
“Er, no.”
“Your family told you?” she asks suspiciously, perhaps thinking they’d got it wrong and it was Goldberg all along.
“Yes. My family has lived in Britain since about the year five hundred.”
“Ah, they went through the Holocaust and all that?”
“No, we’re Anglo-Saxon!”
“Oh, sorry, I thought you said you were Jewish. So, Ms. Goldbold, what is the reason for your visit today?”
“Regular check up.”
“Okay.” She types something into the computer. “And what is your first language?”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bad Platitude (with apologies to Rupert Brooke)

“Idols can be many things, in fact, anything we put before God. I’m not talking carved wooden statues here, but a spouse, a career…”
“Addictions,” suggests some bright spark.
“Yes, addictions.”
“Like smoking?” asks Ohio Dave, knowing our speaker tonight has struggled and failed with giving up. There is a murmur around the room. It’s good-natured ribbing, but with a barb. Is Ohio Dave going alpha male on us?

I lean further back on the sofa and gaze at the fairy lights wrapped around the gantries. Safe in the magic of my woods I lay and watched the dying light… We are in a rehearsal space, a fitting venue for this bunch of disenfranchised bohemians who don’t exactly like church, but can’t seem to entirely escape the imperative to meet with other Christians either. At least, that was the crowd until a gaggle of putty-faced theological students arrived. How do I know they’re theological students? Well, first they wear earnest expressions and second they look really stupid trying to play the drums. I do too, but I have the good sense to leave the bongos to those with rhythm.

“You see, idols can’t give you real comfort, or validation, love, whatever it is you’re looking for.”
(“No-oh,” I imagine the group sing-songing their agreement.)
“These things can only be found in God,” continues our speaker.
(“Ye-es,” I hear the group chorusing, like a bunch of kindergarten kids, but wait! Someone is actually going to state the obvious.)
“Yeah, and like, when you’ve got all those things, it’s like, ‘Now what?’” says a guy grinning and shaking his head at the idea that anyone could expect to find fulfilment except in God.

My hand shoots up, but the speaker is droning on about God’s sufficiency. Finally he can no longer ignore the arm stuck in the air.
“But what about when he isn’t?!” I say, sitting up straight so everyone can hear me. “What about when God isn’t sufficient?” My mouth starts to wobble. Oh no! Too much red wine. My indignation is spilling over into tears.

I remain upright at the edge of the sofa, waiting for the tide of words coming out of the speaker’s mouth to run up against some beachhead I recognize. It takes me a good five minutes, but I realize he’s talking about suffering. He takes a comment. Then another. They’re all talking about suffering and how we don’t understand it and, ho, aren’t we glad we didn’t always get the things we prayed for, and sometimes depression can lead to secondary depression because we blame ourselves about being depressed (is he talking about me?) and the rest I lose because it’s either not relevant or just the same clap-trap, trap-clap, quacking platitudes.

I take a swig of wine and collapse back against the sofa, the blue pin-pricks of light blurring and swimming overhead. And I knew that this was the hour of knowing, and I should find soon in the silence the hidden key of all that had hurt and puzzled me…

The speaker is annoyed. I’ve derailed his agenda and it’s time to wrap up. Someone taps me on the shoulder. Ohio Dave.
“He should have stopped and prayed,” he says, retrospectively directing events. “I understand how you feel because I hurt in that way too. I’m going to pray for you.” Before I can realize this doesn’t mean later – at his house, a safe distance from me – a hand is clamped on my forehead. Fortunately, his prayer is short, but when I look up a woman is hovering in front of me.

“I wanted to share a vision I had. I think it’s for you. Well, it was for me, but I think it’s for you too.” She settles in to describe walking through a fiery furnace and Jesus waiting on one side (because he’s coming to the east gate of the Temple, she tells me, as if that explains everything). The noise of a fool in mock distress, crashing and laughing and blindly going, of ignorant feet and a swishing dress, and a Voice profaning the solitudes...

“But we’re going to Glory, such glory!” she concludes. “It doesn’t matter what happens in this life.” Oh God, she thinks this is about suffering too. Didn’t anyone hear me? Oh no, of course they didn’t – I wasn’t given a chance to speak.

My new neighbor is as skeptical as I about whether ‘pie in the sky when you die' is really of any comfort.
“God’s a bastard,” he confides, and then tells me the story of a friend dying of cancer.

“Okay, thank you,” I say, jumping up. “No more counselling, no more praying!” I watch them draw together in concern as I walk to another group. Oh, for goodness' sake! Now I’m going to be known as The One With Emotional Problems. Emotional, yes, but I blame that on the red wine. And secondary depression, of course.

The speaker drifts in our direction, not sure of what to say to me. “Ah, here’s the man with all the answers,” I say, sardonically. Unsurprisingly, he abandons the attempt at conversation and instead annexes the friend who brought me tonight.

“I don’t buy all this ‘You haven’t been in my shoes, so you can’t understand,’” I hear him protesting. Your flat clear voice beside me mouthed cheerful clear flat platitudes… My friend rolls her eyes in my direction, a signal to go.

“It wasn’t about suffering!” I shout into the night air as we hurry down the dripping sidewalk to her car.

You came and quacked beside me in the wood.
You said, "The view from here is very good!"
You said, "It's nice to be alone a bit!"
And, "How the days are drawing out!" you said.
You said, "The sunset's pretty, isn't it?"
* * * * *
By God! I wish…I wish that you were dead!