Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Father at Hazrat Nizamuddin's Tomb

One would think that the biggest challenge of sightseeing with our four families would be keeping track of the four young children. That, however, proved less difficult than shepherding my eighty-year-old father. My father’s mind is as sharp as it ever was and he’s an adept traveler, but he never checks to see where everyone else is going and he has the attention span of an indulged king. He’s zealous about his own interests but is incapable of manufacturing even passing tolerance for things that don’t amuse him – or for events where wine and cheese aren’t served. As his daughter, I have experienced the upside of this trait. Making my father laugh is one of the greatest joys of my life because I know that there isn’t a chance in hell that he’s faking it. The downside is obvious. He wonders off, tunes out, and often stands up in the middle of a discourse, puts on his coat and heads out the door. If I’m a decent conversationalist it’s because I honed my skills by desperately searching for ways to sustain my father’s interest. When I was a child, we would accompany him to church to listen to the music.  But when the sermon started, my father would look down our pew and give “the nod”. At that point my family would rise en mass and follow him out the door.
            When Keir told us that the crowds teeming through the narrow streets leading to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Tomb for gawwali (devotional sufi singing) were intense, I wondered if there was a way we could tether my father to my mother for the walk.  Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam and Hazrat Nizamuddin is one of its greatest saints, so devotees from all over India and other countries come to hear the singing at his tomb at sundown on Thursday nights.  It would be dark, chaotic, and there would be lots of shiny things hanging in small shops and stalls to attract my father’s attention. Chances of losing him were high.
            Pat stayed home since he’d been revisited by Delhi belly that afternoon. That meant a little more room in the van but fewer adults to manage children. We parked as close as we could, but like Varnasi, there was a point where the streets would be too narrow for the van (although not too narrow for hundreds of people, motorcycles, bicycles, and livestock). We organized on the curb.  Shona helped Erik strap their one-and-a-half-year-old son, Kiran, into a backpack contraption on Erik’s back. Keir hoisted Zoe on his shoulders.  I grabbed Murphy’s hand and asked my mother to grab Spencer’s. I’d learned from Varansi that it was easier to negotiate the crowds, one adult to one child.
            “But who has Du?” my mother asked, using my father’s nickname.
            “What do you mean, ‘Who has Du?’” I asked, gripping both of my sons’ hands tightly.
            “Brett,” my mother said, “If someone doesn’t watch him, he’ll wander off.”
            Already crowds were pouring into a cobbled street ahead of us. 
            “I’ll take Spencer,” Robyn offered.
            “OK,” I said.  “Mom’s got Du and everyone’s got a kid. We’re good.”
            Keir took the lead, racing off to the top of the narrow street, all of us jockeying for position behind him as he cut a swath.  My father started to walk in the direction of a stall of trinkets. “Du,” she said sharply and he fell back in line. 
            I overheard Erik and Shona debating the merits of negotiating the crowd with a toddler in tow.  However, as soon as Kiran was settled into his pack, he fell asleep – a toddler’s first line of defense.
            It seemed that everyone on the street was going to the same place and that I could simply let my legs go slack and be carried by the jostling wave of humans rolling toward the tomb.  By now, the boys were used to the routine and skipped easily over puddles and around dogs, respectfully saying “No thank you” to hawkers. There was an old world charm to winding streets.  The crowd bustled with courtesy and benign anticipation. I only saw a couple of western tourists.  I looked back to locate my father who did, indeed, look as if he was being carried forward by the crowd’s momentum as his head swiveled independently to check out the crowd and the shops. 
            As we turned a corner, we found Keir waiting with Zoe still aloft, “Guys, leave your shoes here.”  He indicated a pile of shoes off to the side. A man squatted near them arranging them with a stick as if he were stoking a fire.
            Keir paid the gentleman as we all kicked off our shoes.
            “How will we get them back?” Du asked.
            “Don’t worry about it,” Keir said, producing paper head coverings for the men and boys.  “And put these on.”  The boys giggled at each other’s hats as we women pulled scarves over our heads.  In stocking feet we continued to walk through more streets, passing more piles of shoes being poked with sticks by their keepers.
            “How will we find our pile of shoes?” I heard my father mutter to no one in particular. I didn’t know the answer. If the reclamation were up to me, we’d return to the van shoeless. But I had learned to trust Keir’s instincts and to adopt his attitude that if everything failed, there would still be a story in it. After a few more twists and turns, we found ourselves at the actual tomb -- women being directed into a partitioned area to the left, men being herded through an elaborate gate. 
            “Du,” my mother yelled as my father fell in line.  She was unable to finish the thought as we were corralled behind a grate.  It was dark in the corridor.  Some women sat in front at the grate, peering through tiny holes. My mother, Robyn, and I leaned over the women and peered too.  We could see the men, ours included, making slow progress around a tomb.
            “There he is,” my mother announced.  “I see Du. He’s there.”
            I looked at Spencer’s and Murphy’s solemn faces, freshly wondering at children’s ability to soak up a mood without fully understanding the situation.  Peering through the grate made me feel voyeuristic even though the men, presumably, knew that we were there. We were the unseen presence. Females.
            “There’s Du. He’s almost at the exit. I’ve got him,” My mother said, pulling away from the grate and continuing around so she could catch him when he emerged.  I could see Spencer and Murphy placing petals on the tomb. What were they making of all of this, I wondered?  I would ask, of course. But with children, the answer is often simply a shrug.  They were purely there. Looking.  Listening. Following.
            “There’s Spencer,” Zoe called out.
            “Yes,” said Robyn. “And Murphy.  And there’s Daddy.”
            We watched the men shuffle out and followed my mother out to intercept Du. A few more steps took us to a dimly lit courtyard that was surprisingly large after the tiny streets. We padded over to a step in our socks and sat down to wait.  I wouldn’t have guessed, but we had made it there ahead of most of the crowd. We watched as more and more people poured into the courtyard.  My father looked down our row and said, “I just don’t know how we’re going to find our shoes.”
            “We will, Du,” Robyn promised. 
            As the crowd swelled, men came out to move us around and to a couple of long bolts of cloth.  From our new vantage point, cross-legged in the courtyard, we watched men arrange themselves in two rows on the cloth.  Very shortly, we heard a call to prayer and the men kneeled in unison, bowing their heads to the ground (“Like ‘child’s pose’ in yoga,” Murphy later pointed out).  This was repeated a few more times before it stopped.  The men quickly dispersed and the bolts of fabric were rolled up. 
            By this time, I was sure that the courtyard must be filled to capacity. This did not stop men in white from pressing us all back to make room for musicians. My father stood at the back with Erik and Keir flanking him so he couldn’t wander, while the women sat on the stone floor with the children.
            “Look back there,” Robyn indicated with her head.  “The fingers through the grate.” I looked back to see fingers of women poking through the holes in a grate.  I had told the children earlier that women sometimes screamed during the singing to let out demons. That must have been a special zone specifically for screaming, since women were certainly allowed to sit in the courtyard.
            When the musicians were in place, the music started. I could see a keyboard that sounded something like a pipe organ and a horn or two. But the most identifying sound was that of drums, beating out a consistent rhythm that pulsed through the crowd. Being sensitive to noise, Spencer had to periodically put his hands over his ears.  Murphy rocked to the drumbeat and even sang along with some of the call and response.  The volume rarely dipped, but when it did, we could hear wailing and yelping coming from behind the grate. When Spencer first noticed it he glanced back, then burrowed closer into my side.  I put my arm around his shoulders and said into his ear, “Don’t worry. I’ve had days like that.”
            And I have.  Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to go somewhere safe on a weekly basis and scream out my demons?
            After a few minutes, Spencer relaxed and my ass started smarting from the stone floor.  I left the kids with my mother and snaked my way through the crowd to stand with my father and brothers. As a song ended and another started, my father scanned the exits and said to Keir, “I’m done. Can we go?”
            Erik put his arm around my father and said, “Haven’t you heard?  They serve wine and cheese afterwards.”
My father taking in the scene as Keir leads

Du with Spencer, Erik, and Kiran, donning hats and leaving shoes

The boys waiting with Robyn

Me waiting for the singing with my parents (photo: Erik Paesel)

Kiran looking back from the crowd as the men clear a space for the musicians (photo: Erik Paesel)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Death and Stogies at Humayun's Tomb

            Humayun’s tomb in New Delhi was built for him after his death by his widow.  Apparently, Humayun keeled over unexpectedly in his library, leaving all of his funeral arrangements to the wife. She must have thought a lot of him or wanted the world to think a lot of him, because it’s an impressive tomb by anyone’s standards--except perhaps Shah Jahan’s, who built the Taj Mahal. Upon entering the gate and gazing at Humayun’s domed tomb, I imagined Shah Jahan standing in the same spot saying, “It’s nice and all, but…how do I put this?  It needs a little something…” 
            The boys had the proper amount of irreverence for the long dead and, along with Zoe, ran across the grounds and up and down steps as if the entire building were a play structure.  Come to think of it, if I were inclined to build a massive monument to house Pat’s or my corpse, this would be the image that might make it worth it.
            As the children charged ahead of us, I wondered about the stories we make up about our loved ones after they’ve passed.  What memories do we hang onto and which ones fade? How does the deceased person’s story mutate? According to my dad, his mother reviled his father in life. Yet, after his father died, his mother kept his last charred cigar stogie propped in an ashtray like a shrine.  In death, his father became her beloved.  In life, he had been her alcoholic, abusive, son-of-a-bitch. For all we know, this is what happened to Humayun’s widow. Now that the guy was sitting up there in probably the best level of paradise money could buy, he didn’t look half bad.
            I have the usual fears about dying, including the ridiculous one that I’ll simply look bad doing it. This is not quite as frivolous as it sounds. I’m afraid of scaring the children. But all of my fears tend to swirl around the actual process of dying. I’m not remotely worried about being dead or being forgotten. Because by then I will be dead and I hope not to care about such piffling things. I mean, if death isn’t transformative, what is?
            Like all mothers, I worry about leaving my children alone too soon. I harbor the illusion that I am currently indispensible. But when they are older, I believe that I will have been successful as a parent if I am not at the center of their lives.  So a tomb would be the last thing I would want. 
Some people do want tombs and some people build them. Some preserve stogies and rewrite history.  As I watched the children charge around this ancient monument, I wished only that my children would always be able to feel like this.  Limitless and not looking back to see where I am.

Waiting for me with my parents


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Passing Through -- A Day in Delhi

            After Christmas my parents and my other brother Erik and his family arrived in New Delhi. This required a bigger van and our visit definitely bumped up a notch in style. My parents are troupers, but need their naps and a few comforts like some heat and a bathroom where they have somewhere to sit so they won’t topple over. Erik and his wife, Shona, were carrying around their year-and-a-half old son who also needed naps and places where he could topple over. 
            Thus began the portion of the trip that was characterized by loading eight adults and four kids into a van that Keir valiantly drove through traffic that made Hollywood freeways look like child’s play. The chances of our being sideswiped by an indifferent driver or of us completely rubbing out a family of four on a motorcycle seemed incredibly high.
            Our first day out, we started with breakfast at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. If you want to impress the folks, the Imperial Hotel will definitely do it.  It’s a gleaming example of Raj imperialism, replete with framed prints of colonial rule lining the vast, long hallways.  Restaurant 1911 is one of several in the hotel. 1911 is the year that George V and Queen Mary were crowned Emperor and Empress of India. It was also the year that New Delhi was designated India’s new capitol city. If you’re somewhat dubious about why this period of history is being celebrated in a hotel built during India’s occupation by her occupiers, you’re not alone. It felt something like eating breakfast at a beautifully restored slave plantation in the south. That said, the scones and to-die-for Indian fare are not to be missed. And I could hold a business meeting in the bathrooms. Members of my family kept popping up and down to visit the imperial loo whether the need was pressing or not.
            After lingering in the halls for a bit, we jammed into the van and headed to a stepwell (this one called, Agrasen ki Baoli).  As it’s name implies, a stepwell is a very large well with steps leading down into the water.  Agrasen ki Baoli was built in the tenth century and people have been bathing in it for centuries. Only when we visited it, it was dry. As our four families climbed around on the steps, I looked down to the bottom of the empty well.  What must it have been like, say, five hundred years ago when families gathered on the steps to pull water, while the young ones splashed each other? A simple thought occurs to me in historic spots like this – we human beings have always needed the same things and have sought to fulfill those needs in similar ways throughout our short time here on the planet. In this case, we’ve needed to cool off, come together, and relax. These days my family does the very same thing in the two saltwater infinity pools on our housing complex in Los Angeles. Those Indian folk, five hundred years ago, could not envision the palm trees and automobiles whizzing past outside walls of our private pools. But the desires that drew us to water are the same.
            With our Imperial breakfasts still heavy in our stomachs, Keir walked us down an alley from the stepwell to a hand laundry. Drying sheets anchored to wires flapped in the drizzling rain as we approached. The laundry was open air, which was probably practical when it was hot. But today was cold and watching the men scrub clothes and sheets in tubs made my hands sting. We walked up and down a bit, smiling to the workers. The work looked hard and boring. Thinking of myself doing the same work made my stomach sour. The collective mood in the place, however, seemed more practical than joyless.  Keir stopped to ask a few questions.  Spencer and Murphy somberly took in the scene. Pat stopped to talk to a gentleman who spoke a little English.  The boys and I stopped to listen. The man said that he worked from 5am to 10pm. Answering Pat, he said that they took breaks and that they sometimes sang as they worked. His father had been a washer, and so had his father, and his father, “Five generations, we wash."
            “You have a son?” Asked Pat, indicating both our boys.
            “Oh yes,” the man smiled, acknowledging Spencer and Murphy.
            “Is your son here?” Pat asked.
            “Oh no.”
            “Did he wash when he was a boy?”
            “Oh no.  My son…school.  My son, very…” he tapped the side of his forehead indicating ‘smart’, “My son work job.  Never wash.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a worn business card and handed it to Pat.  “My son in tech.  He will have better life.”
            Pat looked at the card and started to hand it back to the man who shook his head, smiling again, “You keep.”
Pat smiled politely and put the card in the pocket of his jeans.  He stuck his hand out to shake and said, “So nice to meet you.”
The gentleman took Pat’s hand in both of his and said, “So nice to meet you. Yes.”
            Later, as we walked down the alley outside the laundry, Spencer started to cry. The others were walking ahead of us. I stopped and put my hand on his head, “What’s the matter, my love?” Spencer shook his head.  “You don’t want to talk?”
            “That’s OK,” I said.  “It’s OK not to talk. But remember that sometimes talking makes you feel better and I might be able to help you work things out.”
            He paused for a minute to consider this or perhaps, simply, to find words. I stayed still, looking down at him. I slid my hand from the top of his head to his cheek and held it there. Most of the others were still walking.  Pat had turned and was watching us, Murphy hanging onto his hand. Tears trickled down Spencer’s cheeks into my palm.  Slowly, deliberately, he said, “I can’t believe that people live like this.”
            “I know,” I said, mentally searching for something to say that would be comforting. But all I could come up with was something that was true, “But some people do live like this, honey.”
            “It’s so sad,” he said, scrunching his eyes.
            “Yes,” I said. I threw Pat a look of appeal and he quickly walked back toward us, Murphy trailing.
            I said to Pat, “Spencer is sad because people live like this.”
            Murphy hung behind Pat, looking at Spencer with concern. Pat inhaled, took a moment and then said, “I know it’s sad, Buddy.  And I’m sure that those men would like to have easier jobs or better conditions.  But we shouldn’t assume that they are unhappy.  They have families and whole lives.  Remember that man I was talking to?  He was really proud of his son.  And when he was talking about his son, he sounded happy. Just like I sound when I talk about you.  We shouldn’t assume that people who have a lot less than us are miserable.”
            I wanted to tell Spencer that just because human beings are resilient doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sympathize with those who have less or work to make the world better for everyone.  But I could tell that he had a lot tumbling around in his head. I’ve learned to trust the workings of his mind and heart. He had what he needed. He would find his own answers, not mine. I also knew that the answers would change over time. My ten-year-old answers are not my fifty-year-old answers. That too, however, was his to discover.
            So I said nothing more, but slipped my hand into his and we started to walk away from the laundry, back in the direction of the stepwell and the van.  In one day, I thought, we had walked through the distant past, the recent past, today, and tomorrow. “My son in tech.”  I had a powerful sense of passing through time. I squeezed my son’s hand, hearing the words of Carl Sagan in my head, “We have traveled this way before, and there is much to be learned.”

Spencer reading at breakfast at the Imperial Hotel
The Imperial Hotel

Spencer at the stepwell

An image of the stepwell a couple of years ago
Pat and Murphy outside the Hand Laundry
The Laundry

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thoughts on Courage at the Gandhi Museum

            There’s nothing like shivering from the cold while reviewing the life of a martyr for peace to make you feel small, I thought.  It was drizzling. We were visiting the Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi, site of his assassination and a museum. The children ran ahead to the Mahatma’s room, open and roped off, where the overhang might protect them from the drops. I slowly followed, determined to endure the rain as if this tiny amount of suffering could connect me to the tragedy of Gandhiji’s martyrdom more deeply.  I was already feeling foolish for having so little information about Gandhi to impart to the boys in the taxicab over. Most of what I did convey was gleaned from the Ben Kingsley movie that I hadn’t seen since the early eighties.  The fact that a Hollywood movie was my primary source of information is, sadly, not an anomaly for me. I have great difficulty applying myself to research about people and events to which I haven’t connected on some personal level. Those who designed the Gandhi museum must have had people like me in mind because when I walked along the path Gandhi took to meet his assassin, it became very personal. 
            The boys adopted a solemn tone as we followed the raised footsteps along the path that Gandhi took from his room to prayer, the last few minutes of his life. I’m sure that the quiet and the gray day and the fact that this was a spot where someone was shot, informed their mood.  But there was something else.  Heaviness.  Loss. Something shared. We all felt it. Later, Murphy would ask me if everyone who tried to change the world got shot.
            “Not all,” I said. “But some.”
            “Why do people shoot them?”
            “Because,” I said, keeping it simple not because he’s a child but because it really is quite simple, “lots of people don’t want the world to change. They like it just the way it is and they can get really mad when someone tries to change it even if they’re making it better.”
            “Well, I’m not going to try to change the world then,” he said.
            I could only reassure him that there were lots of people who change the world and don’t get shot – and that there are lots of different ways to change the world. Murphy looked at me sideways like he wasn’t buying it and I couldn’t fault him.
            In order to walk up to the humble monument erected over the exact spot where Gandhi died, we had to remove our shoes and walk on the cold, wet sidewalk. The boys padded toward the spot, quietly.  Pat walked, deep in thought, and stood staring the monument for a long time.  When the boys were ready to turn around, Spencer’s eyes were moist but Murphy was full of questions. Who shot him? Was there a lot of blood? How many bullets? Lots of children are fascinated by gore and death, but Murphy seemed to want to imagine this particular scene as it had specifically happened.
            Which was a challenge since, as I’ve said, I didn’t have a lot of answers. Fortunately, the museum did and Gandhi’s life story was illustrated with pictures along one long wall. Since I was starting at such a deficit, I learned quite a lot.  And, as is often the case with me, I relearned things that I had once known but had since recessed somewhere in my gray matter. One of those things was that Gandhi was killed by a right-winger, a Hindu fundamentalist. Gandhi wasn’t simply radical in the methods he chose to secure independence from Britain, he was also radical in his views for the new India. He insisted on, for example, equality for women and the eradication of the caste system. 
            I have always been in awe of personal courage.  I cannot imagine having the strength of conviction it takes to refuse to move to the back of the bus when ordered to do so. I am sure that I would have gathered my bags and slunk to the back. Why make a fuss?  What would everyone think? Maybe I was wrong in the first place. I doubt that I could have borne the daily fear that would surely take root in my timid soul while hiding Jews behind the bookcase at my workplace. I couldn’t have handled it.  I would have passed out at the first innocent glance in the bookcase’s direction.  I have crumbled when a stranger falsely accuses me of cutting in line at the grocery store.  If I can’t take on a seventy-five year old woman in a housecoat, how could I possibly lead a nation? 
            I am not complacent or cynical about my cowardice. I want to be relieved of it.  Gandhi wrote, “My life is my message.” I don’t want my message to be that I was too lazy and scared to stand up for myself and for those who are weaker than me.  And even though I’m pretty weak, there are plenty who are weaker simply because they’ve been handed so much less.
            Inside the museum, several rooms are devoted to dioramas of scenes from Gandhiji’s life.  It would be easy to dismiss these scenarios put together with dolls against painted backgrounds. But the whole is effective.  The boys ran from scene to scene of the Mahatma leading the famous salt march to the sea, spinning cotton, meeting British royalty, and many more.  As my sons dragged me from one poorly lit box to the other, I wondered. Depending upon your persuasion, you might believe that Gandhi was born with a certain amount of courage and wisdom gathered from many previous lives. Or you might believe that his wisdom and courage was simply stamped upon his DNA. I can’t say that either view is wrong since, unlike Oprah, there’s almost nothing that I know for sure. But as I looked at Gandhi’s life in miniature, it seemed huge and long and complicated – leading me to believe that he found his courage and wisdom by walking through it.
            Which meant that there was hope for me. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


            The day that we arrived back in New Delhi, I couldn’t persuade anyone but Robyn to go with me to the Khan Market. Pat and the boys simply wanted to laze around and Keir would rather wait on a bus for a week in the Sudan (as he has) than spend twenty minutes weighing in on color choices for cloth napkins. Normally, I’m not much of a shopper myself, but I like to get one or two items from my travels to put in my living room. These artifacts don’t need to be expensive, they simply need to evoke memories of far off lands when I’m mulling through the many annoying tasks that attend almost every financially challenged parent of two living in the United States. Many of my friends have housekeepers, babysitters, even gardeners. I don’t begrudge them their staffs.  In fact, I wish I had a staff to fill out Spencer’s middle school forms and find Murphy’s lost library book.  Instead of that staff, however, I have a few reminders of my travels. Unfortunately for me, these totems need constant dusting.
            There is the painted egg from the Ukraine, a cut out lamp from Mexico, a china vase from England, embroidered pillows from Panama, a cat sculpture from Egypt, and a votive candle holder made from indigenous mud that looked a whole lot better in the store – from Ireland.  At night, when the kids are asleep, I light the Mexican lamp, play some beautiful music, gaze around my living room, and remind myself that I really have an extraordinary life.
            Khan Market is well known in New Delhi. By western standards, it looks shabby and disorganized. The insides of stores, however, can be quite luxurious.  Robyn and I enjoyed poking through the tiny shops and I was unnaturally excited about ordering a juicy American burger for lunch.  Possibly the most remarkable part of the venture was leaving the parking lot of cars densely crammed into a small place, with no discernable order --- like a meteor had just hit earth and folks had simply abandoned their cars to run for cover. I found out why Robyn had to leave the parking break off when the lone parking attendant started shoving cars around, shoulder to metal, to clear a path for us to finally exit.
            Robyn and I returned to the apartment laden with a couple of bags of stuff.  I doubt that I had spent more than twenty dollars but I quickly showed my purchases to Pat, who is enough of a metrosexual to enjoy fingering a great piece of fabric. 
            Later that evening Pat, Keir, and I chatted in the living room.  Keir flipped absently through some of the cards that Robyn had bought earlier.  Robyn had told me that Keir often threw away objects that they had accumulated.  She would come home and a small box that had been given to them as a gift, for example, would have vanished.
            “What exactly is your problem with stuff,” I asked Keir.
            “The more stuff you have, the less freedom you have,” he responded quickly. He’d obviously thought this one through.
            “Yeah, but what about stuff from your travels? Stuff that makes you happy?”
            “What makes me happy is not having a lot of stuff.” He jumped up and grabbed a candle, “Like this. What is it?”
            “It’s a candle,” said Pat.  “You light it and it gives the room a soft pinky glow.”
            “Yeah,” said Keir.  “But it doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s just a thing.  It’s taking up space. And this frame…” He picked up a frame that was framing a mere scribble, “Robyn loves this frame. But it doesn’t even have a picture in it. It’s just sitting there, empty. With no picture. I keep putting it in the drawer and Robyn keeps pulling it out again.” He popped the frame into a drawer.
            “Why does she keep it out?” I asked.
            Keir shrugged as if it were the most perplexing thing on the planet, “She says that she doesn’t want to forget about it.  If she keeps seeing it, she’ll remember to put a picture in it.”
            “Makes sense,” I said.
            “It does?”
            Pat leaned forward on the couch, “Oh man. Don’t even start. Of course it makes sense. If she puts the frame away, she’ll totally forget about it.”
            “And that’s bad?” said Keir, incredulously.
            “OK, OK.,” I said.  “How about this?  Is there some THING that does have meaning for you?”
            “A few.” Keir picked up a thing that was as big as a serving platter.  It was flattish and brownish, with a smoothish depression in the middle. “It’s a Neolithic grinding stone we found in the desert.”
            “Is THAT what that is?” I exclaimed.
            “It’s probably around seven thousand years old,” he said, placing it down again.
            Pat smiled, “But does it give off a pinky glow?”
            “THAT has meaning,” Keir continued.  “The rest of this…What’s this?” He picked up a gift box with a see-through lid, “I don’t even know what this is.” Pat and I leaned over to inspect. 
            “It’s clearly a decorative plate,” I said.
            “With a floral motif,” added Pat.
            “We have plates already,” said Keir.
            “I guess it’s supposed to be pretty,” I said. “You hang it up. Or prop it up on a shelf.”
            Pat pointed, “There’s room, now that you got rid of the frame.”
            Truth was, even though Pat and I were kidding around, we got it. We’re not as hardcore as Keir, but ten years ago Pat and I threw almost every knick-knack we had into a box before our firstborn could destroy it. We put the box in the basement intending to unearth it and reunite with our stuff when the boys were older. That day never came because we couldn’t remember what was in the box. If we couldn’t remember the stuff, we reasoned, it wasn’t worth having around. And, yes, there was freedom in that divestiture.  Less to dust, for me. Less to break, for the kids. And that elusive freedom from attachment, for both Pat and me. The timing of this adjustment could not have been more perfect, because if the world doesn’t teach you that most shit is meaningless, children will.
Now we only keep stuff that has a story.  And the story can’t be, “Because it’s a limited edition print by [famous artist we’re kind of ‘eh’ about].”  The story has to go something like the one about a sculpture of a nude couple holding up a crystal ball. 
            The first year of our marriage was difficult and wonderful.  Pat and I were living in New York and acting in a show in the West Village.  It was difficult because my best friend died that year. It was wonderful because we were living in a charming garret on Perry Street that was so small we could wash dishes while sitting on the couch. We frequented a glass shop down the street where the merchandise was too pricey. No matter, we got to know the flamboyant owner and we loved the smell of the shop and the artistry of the pieces.  In early June, we paid off a student loan and were feeling flush for the first time. So we went to the glass shop and found the piece that sits in our living room today. It cost two hundred dollars and we agonized over whether to buy it or not.  I don’t think we had ever bought anything that expensive before. The thought was exciting and terrifying. The owner wrapped it carefully and we carried it home like it was the baby Moses.
            Two weeks later, we got the shocking news that the show was closing. We had gotten no warning and we were both out of a job.  I remember sitting on the couch and hating the sculpture.  How could we have been so stupid as to throw so much money away on that thing? What had we seen in it?  It wasn’t elegant, it was garish.  An embarrassment.  Throughout the following week, as we packed to return to Chicago, we could feel the sculpture mocking us – “You thought you make a living doing what you love and afford something as lovely as me?  Think again.  You’re foolish dreamers.”  We put the sculpture in a box earlier than was necessary just to rid ourselves of its silent recriminations. 
            Our last night in New York, with our future very uncertain, we lifted the sculpture out of the box and placed it on the kitchen counter. 
            “It’s really beautiful,” Pat said, putting his arm around me. “Let’s stop hating it.”
As if one could simply elect to stop hating, my young self silently scoffed. 
            “I can’t stop just like that,” I said.  “We’d have two-hundred dollars if it hadn’t made us buy it.”
            Pat slipped his arm off my shoulder and repositioned the piece so that we were looking at it from a different angle. “What if we changed the story?” he said.  “What if the story isn’t that we were stupid and spent our last dime on a silly item?  What if the story is that we were optimistic, we were in love, we were living our dream – and this is our reminder that everything is possible?”
            I’m not a woman who switches on and off that easily so Pat’s romantic comedy dialogue only irritated me at the time. But through the years, the sculpture has come to epitomize those words.  And even though it is mere stuff, it has also epitomized freedom. 
            Freedom from fear of the unknown.