Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Lavender Soap (and Nine Other Gifts)

1) The sliver of lavender soap in my mother's soap dish. I hated it because it looked gummy and dirty in the faux alabaster soap dish and she always saved the damned slivers to stick onto a new bar of soap. I could never understand why she wouldn't use my lovely Green Tea hand soap that squirts hygienically out of a dispenser. The last time I saw her wash her hands she hadn't bathed for a week and could barely stand up at the sink but she patiently swirled the lavender soap between her hands and then rubbed the lather carefully between each finger before rinsing every bubble away, just the way I imagine a doctor washing up before surgery. Then she smelled of lavender.

2) A black comb. When her speech was slurred and her eyes could no longer focus on me, she kept repeating, "I'm very uncomfortable. I'm so uncomfortable. I'm very." Each time I answered her. "I promise, the nurse is coming with medicine. I will make you feel wonderful."(Once she answered, "I hope so.")

During the hours of waiting for more and more medicine to kick in (the nurse warned me that once she finally did fall asleep we wouldn't talk again because there was no waking up), as she suffered in understatement, she kept scratching the back of her head. The steroids made her head itchy, so I asked her if she wanted me to comb her hair. She said yes, so I combed her hair and stroked her scalp while she continued saying, "I'm very uncomfortable."

Her lips were cracked from having been on the breathing machine so I asked her if she wanted water. When she said yes, I poured ice water into a styrofoam cup and inserted the straw between her lips.

3) A styrofoam cup.

4) Ten bottles of medicine. Pantoprazole, Furosemide, Pravastatin, Amlodopine, Dexamethasone, Fluoxetine, Ondansetron, Albuterol, Lorazepam, St. Joseph's Baby Aspirin. Because we thought they would make her better.

5) Her shoes. A pair of brown leather Liz Claiborne loafers, size 7, from T.J. Maxx, at least five years old. For the last year, she only put them on for doctors' appointments, maybe two or three times a week. My mother owned no socks; even in the winter she didn't wear them (she also preferred a sweater to a winter coat). But when I dressed her, I knelt by her bed and pulled a pair of my socks onto her feet. Afterwards, she'd always seem surprised when she confided, "So cozy!"

The empty shoes are molded exactly to the shape of her feet. They sag like a soufflé and there's a little bulge where her pinky toe pressed.

6) Her prosthesis. She'd always hated it because it was heavy and hot against her skin. I used to bug her to wear it whenever we went out, until getting dressed became too exhausting. She'd had the same prosthesis for over 30 years but she didn't wear it at all for the last six or eight months. My mother had only one breast but no one, not even the nurses, seemed to notice; every time her blood was taken, I'd have to remind them to use her left arm because she'd had a mastectomy on the right. The prosthesis is still inside the last bra she wore, before we knew it was the last.

7) My daughter's ankles. They're knobby as hell, exactly like my mother's.

8) The song the dryer plays. Any time my mother hummed I would get embarrassed and my mother used to hum this particular song to my kids when they were little, though we could never remember the name of it. Something classical. I'd start laughing as soon as she began to hum, and that made her sing louder. When we moved in with my mom two years ago, I bought a new dryer and it plays that song when the clothes are dry. By then, she didn't remember the song anymore.

9) Blackberries. Breakfast was the only meal she ate reliably. She lost her appetite by lunchtime, and often threw up by dinner. But breakfast was golden.

On her favorite tray (black plastic inlaid with wood and brass in the shape of fish—my father had picked it up from a thrift shop in Edgartown decades ago):

Coffee with foamed milk in her favorite mug, with a tiny pinch of sugar, rye toast with a little whipped cream cheese and slices of lox or rare roast beef, and a dish of mixed berries.

My mother liked raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, but I always made sure she had plenty of blackberries because they were her favorite. She was going blind and had lost her sense of taste, but the flavor of blackberries reached her, and she found them beautiful to look at, those jeweled purple berries, especially in a blue and white bowl, beside a slice of bright salmon.

10) Armenian հայերեն. At the funeral home, one is asked routine questions about the deceased so that information can be entered on a form—date of birth, place of birth, level of education, and so on. It's unlikely that anyone will ever again ask for my grandfather's name or my grandmother's maiden name. I wrote them down for the mortician on the back of a price list ("hairdresser $75, shroud [linen] $85, shiva candle $10, scattering at sea [at our convenience] $175 and up"):
Haroutoun Sanossian, Pailadzou Tutunjian
My mother, Roxanne (Araxie Sanossian)
From back left, my grandparents, Haroutoun and Pailadzou

Monday, November 4, 2013

Obstacles to Love, Part I

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find 
all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”~Rumi

"All I can say is, Love stinks."
~J. Geils Band

This time the rescue squad comes because my mother has been picking her nose; she admits as much. She is sitting up in bed, surrounded by a new white duvet.  I bought it yesterday—because she insists color and patterns are too jazzy for sleeping—but it looks just like the old one now that it's covered in blood.  I've been pinching her nose for 45 minutes;  she says she doesn't know how long she was bleeding before that.

          "Roxanne, can you tell me who is the President of the United States right now?"  The EMT who asks her is barely older than my own kids, who used to wear costumes like his to go trick-or-treating.  My mother's bedroom is jammed with EMTs in bulky blue uniforms, plus a cop, all waiting for her answer.

          "Of course," she says.  "Just give me a minute." 

          What year is it? What month? What day of the week? None of these questions has any relevance to her, and at the moment, they have no relevance to me, either.  In the ER, they'll have to cauterize again, and in a couple of days she'll pick her nose and hemorrhage again, and if it should happen in the middle of the night, I won't know till it's too late. 

          "Mom, why do you pick your nose?" 

          The EMTs hear me,  whining and shrill, the cop hears me,  and I hear it.  I don't care that I'm interrupting with my own mental test.  No one can help her and I'm fed up with it.  "Why do you do it?" I ask.

          "I just don't know," she says.

Rather than making an appointment to see my old shrink—who must be in his 80s now, nearly my mother's age—I decide to figure out what my dream about the lifesaver means. Instead of catching the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, I end up at a deserted rodeo ground with a bunch of pissed off cowboys. The rodeo's been cancelled and my car won't start so I take pictures of the lifesaver mounted in a big glass case. There's a very important word printed on the lifesaver and I want to remember it, but every photo I take is blurry. When I wake up the word is gone.

          I'm embarrassed later, when I finally remember the four-letter word on the lifesaver: it's LOVE. But it also makes me happy for awhile, because finally I have a doable alternative to helplessness and despair. Love saves us.

          The problem is, I haven't kissed my mother for days. I don't like the way she smells, she refuses to bathe or brush her teeth, or the way her eyes roll all the way back in her skull when she avoids the question, "What would you like to eat for dinner?"

          Before lunch she'll ask, "Do we have anything delicious to eat?" Instead of being charmed or charming, I'm determined to make her tell me what she wants. 

          "We have leftover lasagna, does that sound delicious?"

          "Oh, no."

          "How about biscotti? Blackberries, cantaloupe?"


          "You tell me something, then." And her eyes roll all the way back before the eyelids come down. "Mom?"

          "I really don't know," she says. "Just anything."

          I bring her a plate with a small square of warm lasagna and when I come back later to remove the dirty dish, she thanks me in a way that makes my throat close up. She's lying down with the covers up to her ears and her eyes are shut. Most of the lasagna is still on the plate.

          I know already that when I'm orphaned, I'll be consumed with guilt, and I will deserve it, and that maybe the guilt will even be my way of staying close to my mother. I know that all she really needs anymore is the full attention of my love. That would be enough to sustain both of us. I absolutely believe that love saves us. But I can't get around the fucking boulder that stands in my way. Or maybe, in my dream lingo, I won't use the lifesaver that's right in front of me. What is the impediment to love? In case of emergency, break glass. What's stopping me?

I fall down a flight of steps at work but land on my feet. Danny leans against the banister at the foot of the stairs, already yakking away about something boring. Sports, probably. Because I've stumbled into him, our faces are too close, but Danny doesn't notice. All he wants is my full attention and he has it.

          Danny's face is so near to mine I can see the muddy flecks in his green eyes and the reddish stubble that covers his jaw. He rubs one eyebrow, the way a child might stroke himself to sleep. He stops blinking and his nostrils flare a little because he's making some crucial point. It feels like he's talking into my mouth.

          I wake up pissed off. Why am I back there again, in dreamland, dazzled, same as always, by his indifference?

          I put a slice of bread into the toaster for my mother's breakfast and make a pot of coffee. While I froth hot milk in her favorite white mug embellished with grapevines, I don't even have to close my eyes. White, beguiling and soft as a cloud, as a pillow, I lean into Danny's face, his warm breath, and I inhale. Just like receiving mouth-to-mouth, or oblivion.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Arrangement of Dreams

"Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream..."

This is what happens every night. Objects are arranged and rearranged. On various sets, perhaps simultaneously, actors deliver their lines in different ways, sometimes making up new lines. Scenes are rehearsed out of order. Sometimes, I myself restart a scene based on new specifications—I want to be young, say, or have the leading man look more like Javier Bardem—but mostly scenes play out against my will and I have no choice but to endure them.

          I've never talked to anyone about this. Every night our dreams are under construction, but it's not what we had supposed. The meaningless, random firing of neurons? Nah. A little taste of the collective unconscious? Getting warmer. A message in a bottle? Yes, maybe something like an SOS or an answer. But who sends the message and why so cryptic?

          I stumbled onto my dream construction site by accident, when a car alarm startled me awake in the middle of the night. When I woke up, I recalled the dream and its construction simultaneously. Like a director who has spliced and edited, I had the finished product before me—the story I could smoothly narrate, with a plot, beginning, middle, and end—but I was also able to recall the messy attempts that had taken place completely out of sequence, not intended for a viewing audience. It was like a really bad first draft. I woke up feeling that something had gone wrong: I saw what had never been intended for my eyes.

          At first I thought, "How interesting, this may be a great discovery in the science of dreams, or...maybe no one will believe me and I'll get locked up."

          My fascination was replaced by deep unease.

          It might be fine if I were a Buddhist, always ready to accept the concept of no-self, to awaken to my new role as voyeur to the hidden machinations of my psyche. But how do I rid myself of that nagging sense that an intruder is afoot—and who am I now, the intruder or the other guy? We enter our private boudoir and sense something amiss, but find everything in its place and untouched. Except the window has been pried open and the curtains billow.

          Like all of us, I have plenty of other, more practical matters on my mind, problems to solve, dire situations over which I have long since lost the illusion of control. No wonder we have nightmares. No wonder we send out an SOS now and then.

          I don't want to waste our time questioning whether this is, in fact, how memory works. That leads to no place of comfort, just wormholes, time travel, and parallel universes. But still, we all secretly agree that we construct meaning out of chaos on a daily basis and rewrite endings to suit our fancy. What if we construct reality according to the whims and ideals of someone else—some petty director who hides behind his work?

          By the time The Wizard of Oz mutters, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," we no longer believe the lie. And though we've never been formally introduced, I am already convinced my petty director bears a striking resemblance to Danny DeVito. Who the hell made that up? Me or him?

Maybe I'm the stranger. Science would back me up; if all of our cells are renewed every 7-10 years, than I'm really not who I was, and neither are you.

          I haven't blundered onto the dream set lately, but I do feel like maybe I've been dreaming someone else's dreams.

          For example, last night I drove at breakneck speed to catch the ferry to Martha's Vineyard—my familiar island dream oasis—but then it's like I just drive right onto someone else's dream set.

          Instead of parking on the stand-by line at the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole, I pull up to onto a patch of dead grass that reaches out to all horizons. I'm parked between pick-up trucks near some cowboys who are kicking up the dust with their boots cause the rodeo's been canceled. They're pissed off.

          Meanwhile, I can't start my car, so I get out to take pictures of the lifesaver that's mounted in a glass box directly in front of me like a work of art. In case of emergency, break glass. The lifesaver is imprinted with a single word and I want to remember it, so I take picture after picture, but each image is blurry. When I wake up I'm annoyed that I can't remember the word. Pissed that I didn't break the glass.

          I post the dream as a Facebook status and wait for my petty director to reveal himself, but no one steps forward.

          Later on, when I remember the word, I'm too ashamed to post it.

          In fancy, embroidered script, the word Love decorates the top right edge of the lifesaver. It reminds me of the old sitcom "Laverne & Shirley," how all of Laverne's outfits had a kitschy 'L' embroidered above her left boob, over her heart.

Love saves us. I couldn't have said it better.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Levity: Spoiler Alert

Although the movie pissed me off colossally, the first 60 seconds of Gravity are fully worth the price of admission. Behold:

          A giant, swirly Earth is reflected in your wide eyes, your very consciousness is but the tiniest particle hovering somewhere in infinite space...inside a dark movie theater somewhere in infinite space. You blink, disoriented by the deafening cacophony that fills your head like a scream, louder and louder, until suddenly—

          Perfect quiet. A floating sensation, both wondrous and petrifying. The slippery abruptness between scream and silence, the slippery, incomprehensible flicker of awareness between birth and death. Our eyes open wide in horror, in wonder, at the ineffable—
          George Clooney with a jet pack cracking a joke.

          Which might have become a rather nice, surreal counterpoint, except what follows is a bombardment of flying space schmaltz.

          The movie I'd anticipated—from reviews and trailers—somehow involved existential, angsty thrills and would fully engage my imagination in a kind of collaborative partnership to spark a profound metaphysical experience. I bought a ticket for my imagination to travel places I could never go unguided. Not merely to be put through the paces of a pretentious action film, but to participate in a transformative event.

          Spoiler alert: in no movie should Cary Grant or George Clooney ever die. And under absolutely no circumstances with a jet pack nor, with his trademark suave insouciance, by casually untethering himself into oblivion very early on in the film. (His last words are, "Gee the sun looks great rising over the Ganges. Ya can't beat the view.")

          Spoiler alert: If I was Sandra Bullock's character, battling anxiety and severe space sickness, I would have asphyxiated on my own puke as soon as my helmet filled up. That would easily knock an hour-plus off the movie.

          Spoiler alert: In fact, I would have died a thousand deaths in the first 20 minutes. Sandra Bullock survives the entire saga with a small scratch on her forehead (but the way her blood beads up and floats into space is incredibly cool). In the end, she emerges from the primordial sea like the first creature ever to crawl onto dry land, and she smiles like a champ. Gee, do you think that could be a metaphor for her evolution during the course of the movie, like, almost, a kind of re-birth? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

            In movies like Indiana Jones, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, James Bond, etc., we know we're in a preposterous world of make-believe and we enjoy suspending our disbelief. Gravity takes plausible circumstances—astronauts making repairs outside their spacecraft are caught in the path of a deadly bombardment of space debris (inadvertently triggered by the destruction of a defunct satellite)—and the next thing you know, our space-sick chick is kicking ass and taking names, shedding her gender-neutral space suit to perform languorous, fetal somersaults in her underpants, in Zero G.

          Moviegoers, Sandra Bullock is 50 years old, so suspend your disbelief in her perky breasts, rock-hard abs, and thigh-master thighs. Turns out the role was written for Angelina Jolie but she passed (but wouldn't it have been really special to watch Angie pouting and sultry in her spacesuit, or maybe Brad and Ange doing it in Zero G?—contemplate the positions they could manage in Zero G— with 3-D glasses, we could dodge their secretions); Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, likewise, passed.

          Gravity is a one-woman action film in which there is no adversary. See, that I like, because we all engage in an inner struggle with ourselves, a personal jihad. But I guess Alfonso Cuarón, the writer and director, had something more blockbuster in mind.

          Still, Cuarón tries to be deep. Bullock's character confides to George Clooney that there's no one on Earth to grieve for her when she dies and that since her four-year old daughter tripped and died after hitting her head in a playground accident, she's just been "driving around." I guess you could say since her daughter's death she's felt...untethered. [Fiendishly wiggles eyebrows here.] George Clooney tells Bullock nothing about himself, but he's still mighty helpful. He says, "You're going to make it."

          Spoiler alert:  After she puts her space suit back on, indicating that it's time to put away our sexual fantasies, Bullock gives up. She flicks a bunch of switches on the control panel and delivers her swan song. "Honey, I'll see you soon. I've missed you so much, little girl, but now we can finally be reunited." As she begins to lose consciousness there's a knock on the space capsule door.

          It's Clooney. He cracks a couple more jokes and his eyes twinkle mischievously behind his bubble-head space helmet. At this moment, my friend, seated beside me, turns to me with the surprised pucker of someone who's just been forced to swallow bad milk. Never mind, Clooney vanishes, and Sandra Bullock flicks the switches back on again with a flourish, proclaiming her desire to live. "George-Clooney-character, tell my daughter I love her very much, but it's time for me to choose life. Tell her, George-Clooney-character. You tell her I'm gonna be okay."

          Meanwhile, I'd be thinking, Why all the fuss when it's obviously hopeless? Let me just attempt to die on my own terms and come to a place of enlightened acceptance and peace at breakneck speed, maybe start believing in God. And I'd probably imagine my body being recovered and wonder if the recovery team would judge me harshly for not putting up a more robust fight. And then I'd think, No one will know what I'm experiencing. Which would lead me to search for a recording device so I can put dibs on immortality. And maybe the rest of the movie is just that transmission of consciousness.

          Spoiler alert: We get to see Sandra Bullock semi-nude again when she nearly drowns (after her landing pod plops in convenient proximity to some warm shoreline at sunrise). We get to watch her impressively firm body swimming up from the deep till she finally breaks the surface, gasping sweet air like a newborn babe. She passes out on a pillowy swath of red sand, and awakens, resolute. She actually laughs as she takes her first wobbly steps into the sunset.

          They should have billed this as a comedy.

In my metaphysical version, George Clooney and I remain tethered to each other for eternity. I would never, ever have let go. Everything else in the movie would be exactly the same, except for the very end, when you would see two spacesuits adrift, like body-shaped coffins among the stars, and realize the whole movie had been my oxygen-deprived, pre-death hallucination. The same way that much of our lives are hallucinatory, self-created stories. Or is that too...grave?

          Whaddya think, blockbuster material?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Boris and Zelda

My mother now spends her life in bed, under a white duvet, with Boris and Zelda, her Siamese cats. Some afternoons when I peek into her room, all three are asleep, blissed-out, sort of here but not-here. I imagine the three of them on an Egyptian ceremonial barge, drifting smoothly along a sacred river. It's easy now to apprehend why our ancestors liked to have their canine companions buried with them.

          In this way, I'm repeatedly blindsided. As soon as I appreciate the comfort of an ordinary moment, it collides with the anticipation of horror and bereavement. Anticipation may be the wrong word. Once you know something is coming, it's already here. The moment of comfort, even as it occurs, conveys the anguish of memory.

          When she's in bed, my mother is not in pain. I know what she's not, but not what she is. What I mean by that is she no longer reads or watches TV. Every morning she asks me what day of the week it is, and then she forgets; she doesn't remember that my birthday is in three days. She's rarely hungry and long ago lost her sense of taste and smell. My mother used to sleep all day but now, quite often, her eyes are open.

          What does she see? Macular degeneration has taken away most of the sight in one eye and her central vision is severely impaired. She doesn't wear her glasses anymore; without them she can't see the vibrant bouquet of red-tipped yellow roses a friend recently brought for her. They are exquisite. A life-affirming burst of color. I place the vase of roses on a cedar chest right across from my mother, thinking of the pleasure they will give her.

          Instead, she tells me to take them into the dining room where I can enjoy them.

          "Aren't they beautiful?" I ask her.

          "I can't see them," she says.

          I bring the vase over to the bed and she peers, dutifully, into the pretty swirl of petals. "Do you see the colors?" I ask.

          "They're beautiful," she smiles. "But take them to the other room."

          I return the flowers to her cedar chest and she doesn't notice.

          Quite often, my mother pushes the cats off her now. Their constant weight annoys her; she says she can't even turn over without having to cast one off, and then they're right back again.

          Boris and Zelda find me in the dining room. They sniff around tentatively—all pointy chins, pointed ears, and high, inquisitive tails—before jumping up together to muffle the keyboard of my laptop.

          They annoy me, too, with their inscrutable blue eyes, demanding my attention. But all it takes is my index finger on Boris' chin to set him purring, heavy-lidded and content. Zelda is unhappy unless she is on my left shoulder with her nails jammed deep into my flesh, holding me tight. This has always been her favorite way to embrace my mother. Zelda's purring is so loud I can't help but smile. She sounds like a helicopter at take-off. We three are in the same boat now, purring, caressing, and already bereft.

Friday, August 23, 2013

When the Penny Drops

The Unexamined Lifestyle, The Yellow Caterpillar, This Isn't About My Daughter, The Prognosticator, The Wizard. These are the titles of unfinished stories and essays I've started in the past month. You can't easily tell what these pieces are about from their titles, but hopefully once you read them, aha!

          But no one will read them, so no aha. Unless you write your own story with one of those titles. I would love to be the one to say aha. Do it. I'm lonely and I want our thoughts to touch. I mean this.

          There's no lack of ideas, on my part, just a lack of faith. What is too personal quickly becomes confessional, trivial, ridiculous, and unworthy. But what is impersonal is even worse than unworthy, it's worthless.
What is in the narrator's heart, really? Although she allows us a glimpse into her deepest spiritual self when she first hears Azan and in the final sentences, her true intentions and beliefs are hidden from us for most of the piece. The narrator, as the piece stands now, is more or less impenetrable and non-forthcoming about her feelings til the end.
          These thoughts were shared with me by a sincere and painstaking editor regarding a piece of mine that is being considered for publication in an international journal that I love to read.
That's not to say she needs to take us on an emotional roller-coaster about her marriage, etc. Rather I think if we can see more of her insights and genuine ambivalence and spiritual longing and questioning throughout--culminating in that wonderful moment when the penny drops, so to will be a richer, more interesting piece.
         Lately, I've wanted to make something with writing that is simultaneously true and optimistic, rather than habitual self-justifications, the relentless coming-back-to-where-we-start wisdom, like a cat who chases its own tail. But I've been afraid of getting stuck in a new attitude—the more hopeful, optimistic one—because it may well become false as soon as I try it on. There are no guarantees, right?

          The piece that needs changing is about the physical experience of spiritual longing (literally azan, the call to prayer) and at the same time it's about the nagging doubt, because spiritual fulfillment is always elusive. I wrote the piece a couple of years ago, but I continue to be faithful to that cycle of epiphany and disappointment. Even though I long ago recognized there is no room for growth or fulfillment in that closed circle.

          I'm reading Krishnamurti for the first time. He's highly quotable and I see in his point of view a brilliant justification for my natural tendency to doubt and hesitate.
“The very desire to be certain, to be secure, is the beginning of bondage. It's only when the mind is not caught in the net of certainty, and is not seeking certainty, that it is in a state of discovery.” 
“Observation without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence.” 
And my fave,
"Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem."
          The journal, however, having no room for my lingering doubts, offers a more forceful prodding to awaken my own need for clarity. It seems simple, so why does it feel so hard?

          We must continue to make choices, especially where there is doubt, because uncertainty is everywhere, or we risk paralysis. We can't know in advance whether we have made the right choices, only that we must act. If we don't act—when we procrastinate or pass because we are afraid of being wrong, and call this kind of stagnation The Wisdom of Uncertainty—are we depriving ourselves of the chance to grow? There will always be doubt, if we're honest and intellectually open-minded, but doubt can be as tight a bondage as certainty.

          What if the journey and not the arrival is what matters, if longing—rather than doubt, fulfillment, or certainty—is the point? What if even the thirst for intimacy through writing, which is a transmutation of what is private to what is shared, expresses this deep longing?

          There is an idea in Sufism that spiritual longing can be regarded as an end in itself. We can look at this longing as a spiritual state of consciousness that is to be observed, honored and nurtured, not escaped or cured. In other words, the pain of unfulfilled longing isn't the same as doubting the existence of the divine—which means I no longer have to characterize myself as a doubter. For some of us, living authentically means ceasing to resist our yearning for something we can never apprehend, that nevertheless exists here and now, but always beyond our comprehension.

          The penny dropping is not the divine union that the narrator had hoped for. The penny dropping is a free fall: the unreasonable, fully conscious surrender to the anguish of divine longing. Am I a Sufi if I don't pray, but I accept that the way I know the divine is by my unfulfilled longing for it? This is how I understand the Sufi poet Rumi's words,

"Don't look for water, be thirsty."

          The cat still seems to be chasing its tail, but maybe it doesn't always have to be an absurd image of futility. The Ouroboros, the serpent who swallows its tail, is an ancient Greco-Roman symbol representing the cycle of infinite return and renewal. The Chrysopoeia Ouroboros of Cleopatra the Alchemist, an image from second-century Alexandria, even contains the unapologetic Sufi words one is the all

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


"The Germans have a term for what you're feeling: Weltschmerz. It means the depression that arises from comparing the world as it is to a hypothetical, idealized world."
                    ~Sheldon, "The Maternal Congruence" episode, The Big Bang Theory

There used to be a middle-aged Armenian who owned a secondhand bookstore called The Phoenix, across the river from New Hope, not too far from where I live. He had an unusual face, almost entirely covered by a purple birthmark, and he had an unusual name. He told me that one summer he and his wife drove across the country looking up everyone with exactly his first and last name; they had found perhaps five men in all, as close as Ohio and far away as California.

          He had wanted, he told me, to discover all his possible selves. Until then, they had been unaware of each other's existence, as if each was the same man leading a secret life in five parallel universes. He interviewed the men, some young and some old, one who lived in a trailer park, and none bore any resemblance to the others.

          All the while my friend boasted about his adventure, he seemed heavy with disappointment. I asked him what he had learned from his experience.

          "Well, I can say this, it's not a vacation I'll be repeating," he rubbed his beard and made an effort to grin. "They're no one I want to know."

At the heart of all melancholy is one of the ugliest words in human language: Weltschmerz. It is a compound word meaning, literally, worldpain. We are accustomed to thinking of Atlas bearing the weight of world upon his shoulders, but the earliest Greek mythology tells a different story. As punishment for his attempt to overthrow the gods, the burden of Atlas is to carry the celestial sphere, which is weightless but unfathomable. It is his task to keep heaven and earth apart. In that cosmogony, the return of heaven and earth to their primordial embrace would, quite logically, result in obliteration. This painful dichotomy could just as well describe the origin of Weltschmertz, or our longing for the divine.

          The pain of the world exists, in some sense, as a result of our imagination; we rarely accept things as they are. As a species, we are prone to fantasizing and misinterpretation. But what happens when imagination ceases and all hope is lost? Perhaps instead of despair, regret, rage, desire, or fear, we experience the kind of perfect wholeness that is only possible with obliteration. Like the great yogis and other spiritualists, we will do whatever we can to improve the circumstances of others and ourselves but, in the absence of hope, we are no longer attached to a particular outcome. In this way it might be possible for a Tibetan monk being tortured in a Chinese prison to have compassion for his captors.

          Maybe like me you are a dreamer, not a Buddhist; I seek refuge in imagined possibilities. Our private, intangible acts of creation seldom result in an outer transformation. Sometimes I wonder if there are people who are simply by nature unhappy, but I don't believe in fate. For the same reason, I am unconvinced by astrology, but I never doubt the veracity of my own natal chart. At the time of my birth, there was a rare astrological occurrence. All the planets were in retrograde, appearing to move backward through the heavens, foretelling a life of dynamic inertia. A life which is backwards-looking and progress, if any, is difficult and late—I'm always late. Of course, you don't need to have my birthday to be a procrastinator.

          Logically, given our full surrender at the impasse between real and ideal, Weltschmerz should be easily cured. But instead, hopelessness rekindles our desire. Rumi offers us advice on this type of divine madness. "Judge the moth by the beauty of the candle."

I first heard the word doppelganger from my Aunt Lottie, after whom I was named. I was 12 and so nervous at the prospect of being alone with her that I couldn't pay proper attention to what she was saying. She had been very beautiful as a young girl until, overnight, her appearance changed dramatically.

          As an older woman, Lottie had a generous, witty smile which exposed large, yellow teeth. She always wore her long, graying brown hair in a chignon and favored brownish tweed suits and clip-on pearl earrings. The wrong shade of powder often made her face look dusty and white, but she had marvelous, dark catlike eyes. Her hands were also very beautiful and well-cared for, with long tapered fingers, each oval nail varnished in the palest shade of lilac.

          Lottie lived alone in a posh neighborhood of London. Her apartment was tiny and fantastically elegant, packed with heirloom furniture, and on the walls hung old oil paintings of landscapes in ornate gilt frames, as well as some of her own exquisite watercolors. Although she was a gifted painter and writer, she was most proud of becoming vice president of a printing company. In the early seventies, it was a rarity to find women in the workplace in well-paid positions of authority.

          Because of her vocation, birthday gifts from Lottie were often sets of ballpoint pens in primary colors, each one embossed in gold by her company with our full name. Since we were both Charlotte Heckscher, the pens made me feel privileged, like we were sharing an inside joke. We were also both born in the first days of October, so when she died she left me an antique opal ring, our birthstone, surrounded by tiny, rough diamonds. Inside the lid of the ring-box was a folded slip of paper, about the same size as the fortune in a fortune cookie. It said, in her handwriting, "For Charlotte: This ring could only be for an October girl." Her gifts conveyed genuine warmth, but awkwardly, in a style that felt a bit impersonal. Perhaps it is only in retrospect that I feel this way, because I had not yet quite grown into my own personality when we met, and now I regret our missed opportunity to know each other.

          When I saw her alone that first time, which was also the last time, my lank hair was parted down the middle and I longed for a cigarette—I'd recently taken up smoking (when I was 11)—and I was troubled about my acne and the fact that I hadn't learned French or become an interesting person. Lottie set out a plate of butter cookies, poured us each a cup of Earl Grey tea and asked, in her aristocratic English accent, with a hint of German breathiness, if I believed in doppelgangers.

          I answered yes because I didn't want to admit to not knowing what a doppelganger was.

           Lottie nodded her head and said, "Good, so do I." She spooned sugar into our tea and told me about the ghost living in her apartment, that she was really no bother, once you got used to her, she was even a sort of company. I nodded my head and by the time I tuned in again, she was telling me about her favorite animal, a boa constrictor, and how they're often misunderstood.

          "They are cold-blooded creatures, you know, and so they quite naturally seek human warmth," I recall her saying. She described how cozy it was to have a heavy boa draped over her shoulders, how when she patted his giant head like a dog, he seemed to grow sleepy. "And they're so lovely to touch," she said, leaning forward over the tea tray. "Not slimy as people tend to assume, but really quite dry."

          I wanted to impress her and, of course, be loved, but I was nothing like her. I was mortally afraid of snakes and wanted to grow up to have romance and children and, though I didn't see the contradiction at age 12, I wanted freedom. The thought of being a spinster vice president made me almost as squeamish as the boa constrictor. Though we shared the same name and were both Libras, secretly, we knew we were still strangers. Like my bookstore friend, I found no resemblance in my namesake.

When my doppelganger finally found me I was delighted. I recognized her at once although, of course, I couldn't see her. She had grown up in God's Pocket, the 19th-century house where I spent my solitary childhood summers on Martha's Vineyard; we had even slept in the same bedroom under the eaves and daydreamed by the same window. She found me with the words, "I grew up in God's Pocket, which was named by my mother."

          I had pleaded with my own mother for us to live year-round on the island, which has since become a haven for the rich and spoiled, but in the end we would always drive home to New Jersey. I haven't been back for many years, but I dream about it sometimes.

          My doppelganger shares tales of her Vineyard childhood—an enchanted childhood peopled with cousins and family, friends and neighbors. All the grownups seemed to play a musical instrument—guitars, fiddles, a harp, even a squeeze box. The morning after a jam session, the kids would wake up early and secretly polish off the dregs of home brew their parents had left out. She supposed the house had got its name because everything can be found in God's Pocket. The stories she tells me are far better than what I had been able to dream up myself.

          Lately, though, the tempo of our conversation has changed; she tires of nostalgia and grows restless for change.

          "I miss the Vineyard every day of my life," she says, "but this life I have now is amazing, too."

          My doppelganger is alive and well on the other side of the country, by the Pacific Ocean now. She has been married and divorced, like me. My children are teenagers while hers have grown up and had children of their own. Joan tells me her life is filled with music and wonderful cooking, a new man, lots of books, and miles and miles of beaches. She asks me to tell her about myself and I suddenly feel shy.

          When Joan had found a sentimental post I'd written last year about my time in God's Pocket, she wrote to me. We were curious about each other. I asked for stories about her childhood and she endeared me with wonderfully detailed emails. Worried about being boring, the last one was signed, "Blah, blah, blah xxx Joan." When I suggested to Joan that she write up all her stories, she said, "Not to be a brat, but I have no desire to publish." She must be too busy living life to write about it.

          Let's see, Joan. It took me five middle-aged years to overcome a ridiculous case of unrequited love. The experience was more like an embarrassing venereal illness than adoration, and I had expected to feel genuine relief when I was cured. Instead, I find myself baffled by my misguided choice of love object. But the real shock is that I feel bereaved in an entirely new way. I so miss the feeling of being in love.

          How do I sum up this life without being a disappointment to my doppelganger? Harper Lee said, "Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. It's a self-exploratory operation. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent."  To do that, of course, one must be willing to discover the truth and drag it out, kicking and screaming, across the page, or risk always remaining a ghost.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Pin Prick

The vertigo, if that's what happens when you leave your body, used to occur only when I drove my mother to her doctor's office on Tuesday mornings. At the precise moment I recall the name of her blood test, usually as I turn right onto Terhune Road, it starts. It's no use trying to avoid it. Even when I don’t think about it, or when I take a different route, my mother always asks me.

          "Charlotte, I can never remember, what's this blood test called again?"

          I tell her the three letters and she frowns.

          "That's right, INR. Just like the Latin inscription on the cross. Why can't I ever remember it? Your father would have remembered."

           I can hear her talking to me—my hearing is normal—but the trees on either side of the road blur. The sensation of driving a car, which up till then I had taken for granted, is an alien experience, how I might have imagined it would feel to be jettisoned through the chute of a galactic green wormhole without actually moving at all.

          After this happens two or three times, I find myself anticipating the shift, and I begin to notice more. I will try to describe what is so extraordinary about the experience but, because it's visceral rather than intellectual, it's difficult to recapture in words.

          The trees are still trees; in my rear-view mirror I recognize the row of immense black trunks jammed into the earth, with their vast green canopies branching out above and interlacing like a tunnel. But I'm also aware of the intricate root system holding each tree in place, spreading in all directions beneath the surface of what we see, delicate and necessary, almost unbearably detailed and private.

          Possibly because of this mirrored perception, there is a pause. I'm a still object in a moving vehicle; I am in the moving car, while the tree is in the spinning earth, and now a line connects us. For a fraction of infinity there is only this line.

          Everyone probably experiences something like it on a daily basis, only we don't dwell on it. It must be wrong to acknowledge it because people so rarely do. But why? Because it's indescribable or unmanageable, or because it makes us feel incongruent with familiar concepts of time and space, or because we experience a congress that may at last be impossible to sunder? Anyway, we try not to notice.

I try not to notice at first, but I’m afraid. All too often, fear is no real match for curiosity.

"Are you cold? Should I close the windows?" The voice, mine, sounds false, raised over the din of wind rushing past the bullet of our moving car.

          I see goosebumps rising on my mother’s arm, little hairs bristle.

          "No, I like it," she says and turns away, toward the unasked-for pleasure, the open window. I hear her flat shame, at having had to speak of it, inflected with stubbornness. Her white hair that hangs almost to her shoulders is swept up in the gale and my mother closes her eyelids.

          Something of the moment will sustain us long afterwards, like a finger holding down a piano key.

The lot is full so I decide to let my mother out at the curb and continue to circle the office complex till I find a parking space. Before pulling away, I watch my mother reach for the railing where a flight of steps leads to the entrance. My mother’s hands float out slightly, as if she is weightless, or poised on a tightrope. She is dwarfed by the floppy canvas handbag that dangles from her arm, and a tuft of her white hair remains uplifted, like a periscope.

          I scan the parking lot filled with cars and drive slowly, imagining how I’ll smooth my mother’s hair in the waiting room. Maybe I’ll suggest a haircut. As I pull into a parking space, I launch into the future.

          Soon, my mother will sit on the high chair in the lab, where her feet dangle above the floor. The image will amuse me, even though it is an image of submission, and I will take a picture with my cell phone, so I can try to pinpoint the source of my unease, I'll tell myself, when I have time later. During the click of the camera, I will feel the independent arrangement of my surroundings holding still, as if captured. It is a false impression, of course, and I imagine this is how power might feel, if such a thing exists.

          Mechanically, my mother will extend her hand; it’s small and light brown, and surprisingly smooth. She will probably ask the nurse.

          “What’s this called? A finger prick?”

          “Finger stick.

Inevitability. It means everything that will happen has happened already. Backwards and forwards in every direction, that line that connects is also cancelling. It's just a dot from our usual perspective, a pin prick, so easy to overlook. But with a slight shift, everything is connected and there is only black.

          I recall the gust of wind, without apprehending its beginning or end, imagining it is just another line in which we barely notice the subtle convergence of all points. The feeling of this is different from the thought. How can I show you?

          I was wrong; my anxiety during these moments isn't really about leaving my body. It’s a woozy apprehension of what it means to be eternal, a ceaseless, concurrent process of being and negation.

          The nurse will squeeze the tip of my mother’s middle finger and prick it with a blade, catching a drop of her blood on a paper swab before it wells up. My mother flinches but continues to watch her open hand. I can’t look.

Monday, June 17, 2013

English Lessons: On Becoming a Foreigner

The mysterious place where reader and writer meet
Duncan's painting of eyes in the sky

The distance between New York and London is 3,461 miles as the crow flies, only a six- or seven-hour flight—that's less than an honest day's work—but the emotional distance is incalculable.

          This took me by surprise when I recently returned home to New Jersey from a visit to my sister, Dida, in Walton on Thames in Surrey, not far from London. She and I are online together daily, and New York and London are, of course, both major cities in the Western hemisphere that share a common language. But so much had happened since the last time I stayed with her. Twenty years had happened.

          To give you the peculiar flavor of this culture shock, let me give you five examples of existential disturbance, one for each day of my journey.

1. Exotica.

My first clue that things were not as they seemed: a flight attendant takes my order of chicken korma from Virgin Atlantic's menu and says, "Ah, you've chosen our national dish." He is young, pale, and British, and I wonder for a moment if he is making a racist comment, but his smile is sweetly benign. He probably utters this remark to American korma eaters on every flight.

          Later on, walking through Walton, I notice most of the restaurants are Indian. What happened to steak and kidney pie? (On the other hand, we also pass an ultra-chic McDonalds with dramatic lighting, apple-green accents, and attractive seating, suggesting that American fast-food joints are squalid by design.)

          Dida's backyard contains an olive tree, a palm tree, a very fruity fig tree, and an enormous eucalyptus towers over her neighbor Josje's fence, along with a monkey puzzle tree—none of which would survive in New Jersey. Knocking lesser birds off their feeders are squawking flocks of bright green birds with drooping tail feathers and pink beaks. Their noise can be heard all through British suburbia: the parakeets have gone native.

          Bernie, Dida's good friend and colleague, spends his free time filming the squirrels in his backyard as they devise new and clever ways to violate his bird feeders. For him, the squirrels are more fascinating than all the parakeets flapping through his videos.

          In addition to the shock of chicken korma and parakeets, to say nothing of oddly shaped electrical outlets and driving on the wrong side of the road, we must make the effort to translate our own language:
kilos to pounds, pounds to dollars, boots to trunks, pavements to sidewalks, prams to strollers, biscuits to cookies, chips to fries, crisps to chips, roundabouts to circles, car parks to parking lots, flats to apartments, pubs to bars, brilliant to  awesome, sellotape to scotch tape, plasters to Band-Aids, loos to toilets, arses to asses, bollocks to balls, aubergines* to zucchini, etc. [*My editor (my sister Kathy who lives in Holland) just informed me it's aubergines to eggplant and courgettes to zucchini.]
We have the same hours in a day and the same language, but we use and spell, pronounce and interpret ever-so-slightly differently. That's what makes us foreigners. Whether we're the same or different, our assumptions are always being challenged.

Duncan's clock

Outside McDonald's looking in

Josje's eucalyptus tree

Josje's monkey puzzle tree

Turtle dove

Parakeets at Bernie's feeder, left
Duncan's parakeet
2. Becoming a caricature.

Americans are frequently accused of being xenophobes, yet we romanticize foreign accents. French is always romantic, Spanish passionate, Russian poetic and a little decadent, German's quite sinister, and British is aristocratic.

          In England, I don't speak English properly; I speak it with an American accent.

          But even my American accent is wrong. When I say I come from New Jersey, I'm occasionally contradicted because I don't speak the way I'm supposed to, like one of the thugs on "Jersey Shore" or "The Sopranos." I suspect myself of faking the teeniest British accent under duress, just a kind of minor polishing up, softening a vowel here, trimming an offensive consonant there, so as to blend in better.

          But when I forget to pay attention, I talk way too loud and guffaw when I laugh. My body takes up too much space and I can't stop hugging everyone, and my Rs just seem to drone on and on and on like a chainsaw.

          Then it hits me. I am that bull in the china shop; I'm the Ugly American.

          Tourist incarnate, I actually took out my camera in Boots to snap pictures while shopkeepers looked on warily. I explained (loudly and too enthusiastically) that everything looked different. To be honest, they were probably not laughing with me. While I'm not especially violent or attracted to firearms, I recognize in myself that grain of truth that's always embedded in stereotypes.
          Certainly not all Americans are super-sized gluttons, loud, crude and demanding, simple-minded, shamelessly entitled, overbearing, overly familiar, offensively demonstrative, wildly emotional, narcissistic oafs with no self-control who own handguns.

          I am, however, fat. And loud and crude. Not so much a simpleton, perhaps, as tongue-tied and ponderous in my speech...and, I'm an emotional wreck and quite seriously self-absorbed. I'm not a person; I'm a caricature.

          Shit. Shite.

3. When a cigar is not a cigar.

For ages I've been meaning to read Susan Sontag's essay, "Against Interpretation," but there's a problem. I'm afraid she'll build such a convincing case against ever trying to make sense of anything and, by extension, the futility of ever trying to communicate with each other that, one by one, sensitive readers such as myself will curl into the fetal position and close our eyes forever. Conversely, whatever case Sontag makes is her own interpretation of facts, which presents a self-destructive paradox, right?

          When you really take time to look at the paintings of my nephew, Duncan Mitchell, you risk losing your bearings and never again being quite sure where you are. Here are five paintings he probably didn't intend to group together.






All the walls of Dida's house are covered with Duncan's paintings. I stand in a corner of the kitchen while dinner is simmering, admiring the fourth image of the pretty cup, when Dida brushes past, whispering, Tempest in a teacup.

          Once she mentions it, I notice there is definitely a tornado spinning around in the cup. How had I missed that? There are even flashes of lightning. Had I mentally airbrushed the twister into a more sensible shape, like a teaspoon or a wisp of steam, so I wouldn't have to think about it, or did Duncan mean it to be subtle?

          "Look, it starts here," she points to the third painting. "And something is definitely going on there, too," Dida says about painting number two.

          Perhaps if we don't expect a storm in a teacup, we don't see it. Of course, once you've actually seen a tornado in a teacup, you can't very well unsee it and you must immediately begin to explain it to yourself.

          As a foreigner, you expect these little shocks and learn to quickly twist the experience of incomprehension into something reasonable so you can move on—so that your hold on reality doesn't slip. Once our expectations are challenged, we either forfeit the game of sense-making or we find ourselves in Wonderland chasing meaning down that rabbit-hole.
My rabbit-hole
Duncan's archway
          Why does Duncan put a tempest in a teacup? The phrase itself refers to making a big deal out of nothing, which is what I think of every art critic (or anyone else) who insists on one correct interpretation for the masses. 

          For me, that fourth painting reverses the notion of calm in the eye of a storm. Everywhere, even here in a genteel teacup, which is supposed to provide warmth and refreshment, is the threat of chaos.

          The last painting of the series seems to flip the whole concept around so that presented on a gigantic teaspoon is a mini-teacup out of which a mini-man is peeking.

          To me these paintings are intelligent and witty, whimsical and beautiful expressions of a free spirit breaking out of the alien everyday world that confines him. Why did Duncan paint teacups? What do they mean to others? I honestly have no idea, but I long to know because every interpretation is autobiographical and I crave, as we all do, the comfort of intimacy.

Certain phrases disturbed Duncan. There's a bee in my bonnet scared him because he was capable of interpreting language quite literally, and having a bee in your bonnet is, well, scary.
Duncan's father, Allan, who was a beekeeper, shared his ideas about this painting with me. He interprets the wisp on top of the beehive hat as a swarm of bees returning to the hive. Allan's explanation probably reflects Duncan's intention.

          But I can't look at the painting without thinking about obsession. When you have a bee in your bonnet, you can't let go of an idea: you are in its grip. I enjoy my obsessions as much as the next person, but at the same time, complete loss of control is always frightening. Maybe that is why the wisp Allan sees as a swarm is, for me, an image of smoking out the hive. Our opposing interpretations express the same basic optimism about returning to safety. I'm not at all sure Duncan would agree to such a happy ending, but who knows?      
DuncanLand is as real, familiar, and foreign a place as England to America. It has its own landscape and language, which is different for everyone because we make it up ourselves out of Duncan's given set of elements.

          Common motifs in Duncan's paintings include stars, starfish, moons, balloons, tornadoes, lone figures, processions (both human and animal), and flat horizons. These elements are often combined in surprising ways: a man holds a moon or starfish that is tethered like a balloon; a man carries a balloon in a tornado; a marching band journeys through the desert with a camel. These themes are repeated so poignantly and so often that we know their meanings are as significant as they are mysterious. Duncan's subjectivity and creative freedom inspire us to create, to be playful and true, and to follow our hearts.

And just for elegant woman sits before a music stand
blowing the tiniest horn, maybe a children's party favor
          Duncan's brother asked him once why he so often painted flat horizons. Duncan explained it was because of all the video games they played as kids. An art critic might be disappointed by that explanation, but I am not. Duncan was very at home in childhood and that magical quality is present in his work. I can imagine him spending hours lost in that alternate universe of video games (the way my son is), where the landscape is so simplified and direct and one's purpose so clearly defined. In video games, we always know who the bad guy is, and we know we always prevail if we just persevere. In the real world there are no guarantees.

          Freud said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," but we all know he was just defending his cigar habit. A cigar is not a cigar when you enter unknown territory—like another country or another person. Subjectivity is the human condition and the idealization of objectivity is really a cruel distortion. Freud's remark can only be as valid as it's counterpart, in René Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images. Magritte depicts a pipe, with the caption, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." This is not a pipe.

4.   Grief is a foreign land.

Grief is different for everyone, and yet also the same. Our loss is incomprehensible, so we ourselves become grief's language.

          If you met my sister, you would find yourself in the warm company of someone truly present, who is remarkably interested in the people around her, in her work, and in exchanging ideas, who listens with great attention, and enjoys laughing. And when it's time to cry, she cries.

          Dida calls weeping her hobby; she does it spontaneously, daily, openly, and often without warning. She says it is the best way to to communicate what she feels.
Sometimes a balloon is not a balloon.
At  Josje's house, as we put extra food into her fridge for our memorial gathering,
this white balloon appeared outside at the window, bobbing up and down to get our attention.   

5. Reverse culture shock.

The passenger beside me on the flight back is an attractive, youngish man in fashionably torn jeans struggling to remove his jacket without elbowing anyone. I tug at the fabric caught around his arm so he can free himself. It's a natural impulse and I don't think before touching him, but the stranger doesn't know what to make of my gesture and looks away quickly.

          There is turbulence. Far below wispy clouds is a monotonous, solid-looking surface of bottle-green flecked with white. The flight attendant looks out the window and says, "Choppy down there," like he's familiar with the area. It's the same vista for hours, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

          The last hour of the flight we are instructed to remain seated and keep our seat belts fastened. It feels like we're in an old jalopy bumping down a dirt road, hitting every pothole as fast as we can. I try to pretend we're on solid ground, but it's no use. We're 35,000 feet above the earth, traveling over 500 mph.
          Meanwhile, my neighbor turns a sickly shade of yellow. He clutches a vomit bag in one hand and with the other drapes his jacket over his head. I call the flight attendant over and she brings him a cup of ginger ale to soothe his stomach. I want so much to rub his shoulder that I clutch the armrests to stop myself. I close my eyes, concentrating on his well being with all my might, and calm down. We bounce three times on the tarmac before landing. The engine roars, then abruptly slows down. 

          I rub my neighbor's back and say, "We're almost there now."

          He takes the jacket off his head and says Thank you. Really, thank you. He's British. It's so good to be understood.
A sketch on a wall of Duncan's apartment
Duncan's way of fixing the broken lock on his door