Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Tuesday, September 21:

Yesterday, September 20, twenty-nine years ago, Lorraine and I got married. Right now our lives are in their usual turmoil, adjusted upwards by the work and anxiety involved in trying to get new projects into the air, but yesterday we let the work and the anxiety go, in favor of the day. We gave each other funny cards. I bought her some roses. We went to breakfast at Starbuck's, which we do many days, but lingered over the NYTimes. We went to lunch at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. Ted Conklin, who has owned the place for the last forty years or so, was there, and that was appropriate, because it was at Ted's grandmother's place in Westhampton Beach that we got married; Ted comped us a piece of chocolate cake in honor of the day but had to run, so we couldn't reminisce with him. After 29 years there's so much to remember, but that day was a standout. We had a band, the late Jim Chapin's band, and I stood up and sang "Sweet Lorraine" with the band backing me up. The whole group sang "Bye Bye Blackbird," the whole group being the friends and family who had gathered. My brother came with his wife and kids. It was one of the few times I ever really impressed him, because Ted's grandmother's house was grand, with a sun room, a billiard room, a third floor full of maid's rooms, an elevator, and it was right on the water, not the ocean but the bay side of Westhampton Beach. We danced, we ate, we laughed a great deal, my son was best man and toasted us--what was he, 16?--and did it beautifully, as he has done pretty much everything his whole life, and my daughter gave me a big big hug and danced and laughed and it was a joy to watch. Then we drove away in Ted's 1963 Bentley Continental, switching to our own car down the road where it was stashed.

After lunch yesterday, which lasted until almost three, I had to run a writing workship at a cancer care foundation where I'm on the board, but that's hardly work; and then at six I went next door with a drink and we had dinner there later and the evening was special and sweet, as time spent with these old friends usually is. Altogether a splendid day.

And what can I say about this marriage after twenty-nine years? Well, what do you say of your elbow, or your hand, or your heart? We are very different people, we like different foods, we don't often watch television together, golf bores her while I find it fascinating--to watch, that is--and she likes to go to the movies and I usually don't. We think differently; I'm slow and deliberate, she's quick, mercurial. But life is unimaginable without her. She is as much a part of me now as my elbow, my hand, my heart. And we do share a great deal: our political opinions, our general take on life, what you might call the emotional core. We both cry very easily at sentimental scenes, yet we recognize in each other a hardness at the core that is the hardness the Irish poet Yeats captured in his own epitaph: "Cast a cold eye, on life, on death. Horseman, pass by!" We both understand how much luck determines happiness. We are both totally committed to the work that sustains us, and gives meaning to our lives.

Next year will be our 30th. We fought for a year or more right after we got married, and it was partly about those differences I mentioned above but mostly about power, and who had more of it in the relationship. That happens with strong-minded people. For a long time I doubted we would make five years, much less thirty. But we weathered the turmoil. We each learned how not to be right, or rather how not to regard it as all that important whether we were or not. It took a long time, but here's the result. Us. A commonwealth of two. I lead in some areas, she in others. It seems to work. So far. If we can keep it up, we'll probably have another party. Ask all our friends, our families. Hire a hall, maybe. And I'll sing "Sweet Lorraine" again. I'm getting pretty good at it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blood relatives

September 8:

Last few days I've been hearing from Cindy, my cousin Joan's daughter. Joan died this year, having lived out her last years with senile dementia, which also made our grandmother's life at the end something you might imagine appropriate for monsters or Nazis or the like, but not for human beings. I had been sad to hear it. Joan, in fact, had a tough life all through. She came to live with us when I was about ten or eleven; she was sixteen or seventeen and pregnant, at a time in this country when being single and pregnant was scandalous and shameful. She had been living in Elmira, New York, with her mother and father. She came to us to get away, hide the pregnancy, hide the shame. My mother used to spirit her in and out of the house in big coats to the doctor's office. When the baby was born my parents arranged for her to be adopted privately, through the doctor, so that there would be no public record of its parentage. Was this legal? I've often wondered. Joan was no doubt told to forget the whole thing and get on with her life. She did, of course. We all do after tragedies and miseries. But I think it affected everything afterward. Many years later, having married one of the leading figures in this country advocating open adoption records--my beloved Lorraine--I asked Joan if she wanted us to help her find the daughter she had given away for adoption. She said no. She was too scared.

Now Cindy wants to find her.

We'll do what we can, but it's going to be hard. But the whole situation makes me angry, and always has. I loved Joan. She was easy to love, spirited, cute, full of energy. What kind of country would do that to its young women, make them abandon babies to strangers instead of finding ways to help them keep them? Do you think rich girls had to endure this? Babies belong with their natural parents, the people who gave them birth. If that's not possible, and it sometimes isn't possible, we, collectively, as a society, ought to find ways to place them nearby, with blood relatives, with help from the state or private agencies dedicated to this purpose. Blood belongs with blood. It is inconceivable to me that I might have been denied knowledge of my origins by law because I might have been adopted. By law, in most states, adopted children cannot know who their parents were. This is barbaric. It benefits no one except adopted parents, who can then pretend that their adopted children didn't come from another family, another background, another way of life. I base my entire sense of who I am on the fact that my father was the son of Swedish immigrants. I have my grandfather's naturalization papers, and a photograph of his family, my father then a little boy, taken the day the papers came. I cherish these records. My mother was the daughter of a marriage between a self-made man of Danish/German origin and a woman whose family can be traced back to kings and queens. You think I'm not interested in this? Adoptees are not allowed to know this information. Their birth certificates are falsified, or locked away. Having an identity is surely one of the natural rights. But what good is having it if you are prevented from knowing it?

Cindy didn't know Joan had had another daughter, and given it away, but she told me that she had always sensed that someone was missing. I hope she finds this woman, who's now in her 60s. My Lorraine found the daughter she had given up for adoption under equally difficult circumstances; she now enjoys very nice relationships with her daughter's own two daughters. This is blood. It's fundamental; it's part of the human condition; and to ignore it, or think it doesn't matter, damages lives in ways we're only beginning to understand. We come from families, a network of relationships based on blood ties; and most of us maintain those ties all our lives. To break those ties by law is a crime against nature. Adoption records in a few states have been opened, but in the rest, no. Reform has been blocked mostly by adoptive parents, working in many cases through adoption agencies. Adoption has its place. Sometimes it's the only solution in difficult circumstances. But to keep knowledge of their origins from the people most concerned in knowing them is, plain and simple, a profound injustice.

Good luck, Cindy. Hope it happens. Hope you find her.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Empty Mind

September 5:

Last week I finished my book proposal, which required me to write not only an outline but a sample of a particular chapter, and now I am just empty. I have no thoughts, no ideas, not a whisper of insight or anything else. I must be resting. Maybe this is what the Zen people mean when they talk about having an empty mind. I've been reading back issues of TLS, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books--I have scores of them, neglected during times when I was full of thoughts and writing and working, too exhausted then to read book reviews--and that's been pleasant, but they often connect in some way to what I've been working on, and that hasn't been the case this time. Maybe it's the holiday. Labor Day weekend. The chaos threatened by Hurricane Earl, which passed us by. I've taken to watching golf, something I never did before, but I think I relate to the inwardness of this sport now, the way you play mostly against yourself and the turmoil in your mind, monkey mind, flitting from tree to tree in your patch of forest, always on the move, and never ever satisfied. Zen and the Art of Golf. There have been books along this line, Golf in the Kingdom comes to mind. Maybe that's not the title. But it must be extremely intimidating, standing on the tee, your ball before you, the hole as much as 500 yards away, and you have only five shots to get your ball in the hole and stay at par. Five hundred yards, and that hole is so small. That they can do it at all is extraordinary. They do it, furthermore, with cameras staring at them, hundreds of people nearby, muttering or holding their collective breath, all eyes on them. I finally get golf. Next lifetime, maybe I'll take it up. It may be the best test of focus there is.

Empty mind. An astrologer told me once that one of my tasks in this life was to achieve just that, higher consciousness, the empty mind, the ultimate openness. Thanks, Leor. That was his name. Any other little jobs for me? This isn't it, this current emptiness. This is more like exhausted brain. I was going for broke before I finished the proposal, cramming information in, plunking down little details here, there, that illuminated and fit and helped make sense of what was happening. In a way, and oddly, when you're in the zone as a writer you actually achieve a kind of emptiness; you yourself are not writing, something else is writing. What you are, if you stop to think about it, is in fact at those moments an open question. Lots of people have testified to this. Time passes without your being aware of it. You forget to get hungry, you forget to get thirsty. Something is playing you like a violin. You're not sure that you should be taking credit for this work. Maybe this is what Rilke meant when he advised his young poet not to rush into writing but to live, to let life get into the blood; and only then write. And Alexander Pope's advice to people who wanted to show him their work: put it away for a year, in a desk drawer, lock the drawer, don't look at it, don't think about it. When the year is up, rewrite it.

I don't have a year; I have about a week. That's when I'll go back and fix what needs to be fixed, and submit this thing, and then wait for an answer. While I'm waiting I'll be empty some more. Maybe I'll do some yard work, or go to New York and visit a museum, have lunch with my daughter, try reading a novel. Let it all go for a while. Pretend my mind is empty. Maybe then answers will come.