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The Rosenbergs & Me, a reflection

ethel and julius rosenberg
The Rosenbergs & Me

Ethel arrived for court that day in a wool elf hat, beaming.  Her chin had grown double; her skin was flawless and glowing.  She wore a bit of lipstick.  Julius didn’t smile or frown — he looked like a man who had just woken up from a long, dreamless sleep.  Ethel draped her gloved hand over her belly as if to shield herself from unseen bullets.

Ethel & Julius grew up poor in New York, and came of age during the Great Depression.  They grew up going to rallies for the WPA, listening to radio broadcasts by FDR.  I grew up watching the rich debauch themselves in South Florida, and came of age during the Disco Years, the anything-goes Seventies.  John Travolta, spinning like a dervish in his white polyester three-piece suit.

Ethel and Julius and I were all politically inflamed at an early age — I wrote to Nixon at age 11 to protest lax emission control standards, and got a personal letter back, signed by Rosemary Woods, Queen of the Accidental Erasure.  Julius was contacted by the KGB and asked to spy for the U.S.S.R.  He found it flattering — was he really that important? — an offer he couldn’t refuse.  There were no KGB agents contacting me, but if they had… how would I have answered?

Unfortunately, in addition to the political, I also got inflamed past all reason by my mother’s drinking — I used to fling her gallon jug bottles of wine into the canal in the backyard.  My reaction was a type of revolution:  I wanted to throw off the chains of her alcoholism and be free at last.  I wanted to throw off the chains of her drunken love just as much, if not more, than Julius wanted working men and women to throw off the chains of their capitalist oppressors.

I had an ongoing fantasy:  a mother who could be confided in, a mother who wouldn’t judge, become angry, or load me up with confessions of her own, far greater problems than mine would ever be.  Once, I dreamed Ethel was my mother and it was a relief; I knew she’d fight for me; have my best interests at heart.  She looked to be a normal mother, cooking meatloaf and mashed potatoes in her tiny apartment kitchen, smoothing her boys’ foreheads after bad dreams, murmuring soothing words in the darkness.

My father and his left-wing ardor neatly complemented the Rosenbergs.  He once ran for Santa Monica, California city council on the Communist Party ticket.  It was only a few years after Kent State, the simultaneous apex & abyss of the “age of Aquarius.”  My father and I never discussed the Rosenbergs; we were in agreement on most things.

Ethel, Julius and I all studied Marxist doctrine, and I toyed with the idea of joining the American Communist Party.  I read the Party’s official platform (from the 60s), and decided, after considering Ethel & Julius’ fate, that joining wasn’t such a great idea.  To think was private, to act, public.  Plus?  I wanted to be a lawyer someday.

The Rosenbergs had a larger purpose — to transform society from what they viewed as unfair to something more egalitarian.  This is what most political rebels have wanted.  But who defines fair?  Those in power?  The USSR  hardly turned out to be an entity worth dying for.  Are Julius & Ethel content in their graves?  Maybe I should have been sent to the electric chair.

All of us spin out of control in some fashion; Ethel & Julius got caught committing actual crimes.  The main evidence against them was the testimony of Ethel’s brother, a man who turned State’s Evidence to protect his OWN WIFE.  He didn’t actually believe Ethel & Julius would ever be executed.  The government only wanted the Rosenbergs to name names.  They, however, remained silent.

After their deaths, Julius & Ethel were laid out in religious garb.  They didn’t look dead, just asleep.  The embalmer did an excellent job.  Three hundred people came to look at them.  The dead Rosenbergs left behind two young sons — I left behind my mother, slowly dying.  She was a child who wouldn’t grow up.  I couldn’t be her mother — her own mother couldn’t even be her mother anymore.  She had worn everyone out!  Julius, Ethel, don’t ask for God’s forgiveness — I can’t bring myself to.  God should be asking us for ours.  Our enemies have already forgotten us.

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Empire State Building, a poem

Manhattan Office Vacancy Rate Drops In Second Quarter

Empire State Building

Twenty years ago we finally went to see the sights,
riding the train through flashing dim green suburb,
glassy sharp-edged slum, the skin stretched
pale and tight over your fine cheekbones —

you didn’t really know how to be afraid of death,
simply of heights and under-grounds:
you wanted always to be on the surface of the earth.
Your demise was still an abstraction,

discussed in the evening while sucking cool mints —
the natural order of things. I dragged you
all the way to the city under the water from Hoboken,
then marched you up to the roof of what was the tallest

building in the whole world when you were young.
I haven’t been here since it was built, you said,
and though the blood sank to your innards in panic,
you kept walking; I kept pushing and pulling you

forward, propelling your solid weight like a cart
loaded with spring lambs. Your hand, soft
wrinkled palm, roughened fingers speckled white
around the knuckles, gripped mine, but I showed

no mercy; I was forcing you to confront the bitter
end ahead of schedule. I was being cruel
to make you go look at the thin sparkling air
of the heavens and you knew it. But later,

my love, as you lay sweating, heavy and motionless
in your bed as though carved of wood, deprived
for weeks of even the common decency of words,
weren’t you glad you went with me once more to the top?

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Conceived on Valentine’s Day, a poem

illustration-valentines-day-a-poem

Conceived on Valentine’s Day, a poem

In the beginning, I almost hated them for bringing me into the world…
alone as egg, one floats weightless, drifting peacefully like a helium balloon,

and as sperm, one swims in ever-widening circles with serene joy.
I never approved the union: his tiny-tailed kamikaze wriggling to oblivion,

smashing headfirst into the mammalian membrane of her egg.
But now I love my frail universe; evidence of their short, fraught marriage.

They cooked me in the kitchen, first upon a midcentury, glitter-red dinette set,
then on gleaming, spotless black & white linoleum. I remember my mother

at that exact moment, the way she arched dizzily beneath him half-clothed…
her strapless formal askew, her silk stockings awry, her feet bare

after kicking off her spike heels. Barefoot & pregnant in the kitchen, she learned
quickly to live with organized madness. A love collision, a soft accident, birthed me.

She opened her soul to my father like a flower opening to the sun & he did the same;
my hands, my feet, my face suddenly called into existence by heat & explosions.

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Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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The Analysand, a short fiction

illustration analysand short fiction

The Analysand, a short fiction

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said.

She remembered long-forgotten moments; instances of innocence, of confidence, of hope. Her analyst wanted more from her than pages in her journal, more than frozen images which may… or may not… have actually happened. Four bundles of smooth, shiny, purple rope lay on the coffee table in his office, four beautifully coiled bundles, bound & tied with intricate, ceremonial knots. His eyes met hers; bright blue lamps of inquisitiveness and Inquisition.

“Where do you get that kind of rope?” she asked.

“I make it,” he said. “I dye it with Tyrian purple and condition it with organic beeswax.”

She kept her face neutral; curious. She’d had enough of fake tourist traps for a dozen lifetimes; boring main highways hadn’t ever led her to anyplace she’d want to stay in for long. And the sun rises even after the darkest night. And the sun sets after the sunniest day. Night has its own charms. Her wounds were on the inside… and his? His… would be healed by helping her heal her own. The rope laid on the table, gleaming & inscrutable. Her favorite violin, a Bergonzi, sat silent & helpless on her lap.

She’d been dead so long; she’d wanted her to speak for herself for so long. Her mother had treated her like anything but a daughter; pupil, instructor, heathen, missionary, ghost, confessor, beggar, heir, therapist, patient. So strike a pose; strike a deal; strike a match. What difference does any of it make: preserving body & soul is not good enough; nurture your body and your soul. Peace arises where all paths meet; crossroads for weary travelers. Fevers can burn you up. Water can heal. She put the violin back in its case.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s worth a try.” She stood up off the couch and took off her clothes.

Dr. Zhu tied her up gently, kissing her as he did. Yes. He started at her ankles, and bound her up like a trussed bird. And then he helped her lie down on his soft purple couch and began his work. Where you find the water of life, is home.

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How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

How Art Thou Received? (a prayer for refugees)

Imagine: suddenly, without warning (because that is how war arrives) you are a war refugee! Simply running away from being murdered. And how are you received when you can finally stop running, when you are out of range of the guns, the bombs, the blood? No countries to take you. No one to feed you. You are a skeletal pawn in a skeletal game.

Embalmed corpses declare war on the living and fight for their “territory” against other embalmed corpses using armies of young people; embalmed corpses feeding on fresh, young blood.

I know something is very wrong, somewhere. It must be addressed, and addressed properly. Our prayer, our incantation, our spell to heal, must be more powerfully crafted, more distilled, more essential, than was the horrid spell we are trying to break: a tradition of might over right, strong but wrong, a spell of ignorance which has caused so much harm, and is trying to do more… powered by the love of power, the love of control over people.

The scarred parts of the heart can be replenished; the broken parts, glued; the weak parts, strengthened; the fear assuaged, the pain relieved. But the desire to change, to truly alchemize oneself, spin that straw into gold… the gold of the sun… the silver of the stars… the red planet… the North Star… primal navigation by looking not at the ground, but by looking up, to the sky… that kind of desire doesn’t visit often.

If you want to know where you are going, be sure your map is accurate, or at least doesn’t kill you. Migrating birds know this. Power & Liberation. Slave & free. Joy & Suffering. High & low.

Craving slaves, some are trying to roll us back to serfdom, only they can use our own science & technology to rape us! Serfdom: tied by birth to land. You are a pawn, a source of income; in thrall to your Lord and Master. Freeing serfs is always a struggle. Brute force arm-wrestles the human race, and brute force often pins people to the mat, but… you cannot keep people down for long. The oppressed will continue to spring up and defend their inalienable human rights. All people are created equal: including our ancestors, who existed long before the self-anointed first “private property” owners. Human beings are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, yes? The earth cannot belong to any one of us. Period. We own this planet. All of us.

 

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Things We Never Said, a short story

img058 alcoholics anonymous big blue book

Things We Never Said, a short story

She was beautiful, as all mothers are to their children, but it was far more than that. Total strangers told me how beautiful my mother was. She was particularly fine-boned and delicate. Her skin was the softest I’ve known, her arms and hands the most stubborn, the most lethal.

Mom was an alcoholic, of course, and the most gruesomely stubborn person I’ve ever known. She went past simple denial and created her own alternative universe. Once, some quack psychiatrist she was seeing told her she wasn’t a “true” alcoholic — that she only drank out of boredom. She clung to that unfortunate phrase of absolution, repeating it like a robot in a variety of situations, until the day she died at 44 from alcoholic pancreatitis.

The only way we ever got her into rehab was when we threatened to call the police about obtaining drugs by false pretenses. She’d call the drugstore and tell them it was Dr. So-and-so’s office, would they please fill a prescription for such-and-such, three refills, please.

She got stiff all over when she drank, not like a normal drinker who gets loose. Stiff, and with a duck-legged walk that made my flesh crawl. I can’t tell you how many times I just let her lay there on the floor where she’d stumbled in a drunken stupor. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her.

If only Mom could have been more like Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer in “Sweet Charity” who, after being pinched, pawed at, fondled, ridiculed, robbed, tattooed, thrown from a bridge, trapped in an elevator, and deserted at the altar, rather meekly accepts the cheery and somehow redeeming gift of a single daisy from a group of 60s flower children, pulling herself out of her misery yet again, and living “hopefully” ever after.

My mother and I both said “I love you,” a lot, and to no avail. Neither of us believed in love. We believed only in self-preservation. Trust was unknown. I have never learned the reasons for staying with another. All I can think of, now that I’m married, is what I’m missing, giving up for the other. How short life is, and how unhappy.

I took a developmental psychology course once, while my mother was still alive. The teacher explained that no child ever actually dreams of killing the mother. Infantile rage exists, yes, murderous anger exists, yes, but the true desire to kill can never be resident in the child’s subconscious. “The instinct for preservation is too great,” she said.

When I told her, later and in private, how I’d dreamed that very act, how in my dreams I’d taken the great butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed it viciously and repeatedly into my mother’s fine and delicately boned chest, she shook her head skeptically.

“You didn’t really dream that,” she insisted. “You only think you did.” I didn’t argue. I was still too afraid it might happen in reality to insist that it had happened in dreams.

She was never a very good mother. I was never a very good daughter. After she died, I went to confess my guilt over my record as a daughter once, to an Episcopal priest. “I let my mother down,” I told him.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. “You were the child. You had the right to go off and live your own life.” I was angry at him, and never went back.

I still feel guilty about the first time I knew I’d hurt her feelings. She made me a bunny rabbit salad – a scoop of cottage cheese for the bunny’s face, cut up vegetables for the bunny’s ears, eyes, nose, and whiskers. It was adorable. But I hated cottage cheese, and salad. I was four years old. “I don’t like cottage cheese,” I told her.

“Just try it,” she said.

“No.” I refused over and over again. Finally, she ran out of the kitchen, to the bathroom, and I knew she was crying. I sat in the kitchen, staring at the rabbit, not eating it. I didn’t follow her, I didn’t apologize, and I sat there until someone, probably my grandmother, covered the plate with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I knew I was never going to eat that bunny rabbit salad.

I mailed the invitations to my own daughter’s birthday party today. She’ll be four in sixteen days. Oddly enough, all I could think of as I wrote out the cards was how much my own mother would have enjoyed seeing my child, her first grandchild. I know exactly what my mother’s face would look like if she were at the party — lovely, tremulous, inevitably a little weepy. I also know half of my pleasure would come from seeing the tenderness in my mother’s wide brown eyes as together we would watch my little Katie blow out all her candles.

 

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