Archive for August, 2014

Happy Birthday, Dinah

August 29, 2014

I first met Dinah Washington in a bar.  In the winter of 1995 she’d been dead for more years than I’d been alive (and almost for as long as she’d been alive).  What she shared was the wisdom of a friend who’d been there and done that. “Oh, honey, I know,” she assured me with her warm voice while I sat on a stool, letting the owner pour me free scotch.   My boyfriend waited at home, convinced I was preparing to leave him.  I wasn’t sure.  About that, about anything.  Dinah laid out for me that there was nothing pure to love, betrayal, and whatever existed in between.  Dinah knew there were aches and itches you couldn’t explain, an impulse that drove you out of your life for an hour to flirt with the slightly seedy bar owner before you went back and made dinner for the good man who loved you.

When I learned more about Dinah’s career, I realized how fitting it was to meet her in a gin joint.  In her day Dinah was known as “Queen of the Jukeboxes.” Not only did her singles spin time and again down at the corner bar, but throughout her career she sang in nightclubs, the places people came for the consolation of a drink, a darkened room, and her voice.

That first night, her version of “Unforgettable” hooked me.  I knew I would never again think of Nat’s as indisputable.  I couldn’t recall hearing such a compelling voice, one that grabbed you by the collar and made you look life straight on.  “Who is this?”  I asked the owner, and when he gave me her name, he did me a greater favor than comping the scotch.  I would have found Dinah eventually, but finding Dinah during those dark hours was a sign the Universe was on my side.

I shared Dinah with my boyfriend, who later became my husband.  We bought her “This Bitter Earth” and played those tracks down.  It is his memory that comes back to me often when I hear those songs.  I wonder if he listens to Dinah now.  I got the cd.

Mostly, though, it is myself I remember when I listen to Dinah.  When she sings “What a Difference a Day Makes,” she reminds me of that miraculous bliss of falling in love.  “I’m Through With Love” echoes the pounding disappointment.  “Crazy He Calls Me,” sung with a drum kit, a piano and a saxophone, holds the sexiness of intimacy.  At the end of that live recording, you hear Dinah’s voice end with a knowing smile, and the applause swells, a low laughter of delight rolling in from the audience like waves to the shore.

Dinah’s friendship has lasted longer than any of my romances.  Itunes tells me I have 92 of her songs, 5 hours of her music.  What a gift she left the world, 2 years before I entered it.  What great luck it was for me to find her.  We’ve traveled some distances, she and I, and who knows where else I may listen to her in the years ahead.  Tonight, I pop up her songs on my laptop as I sit poolside in the late August sunshine and drink a toast in her honor.  Truly, the best die too young.


August 14, 2014

And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me
You would not think I still knew these things:
I get on the train, I buy the food, I sweep, discuss,
consider gloves or boots, and in the summer,
open windows, find beads to string with pearls
You would not think that I had survived
anything but the life you see me living now

from Eleanor Lerman’s “The Mystery of Meteors”

Life is both too long and too brief.  To hold such contradictory truths in our consciousness without going insane is a skill that comes with time and experience.

It is a bittersweet victory, since time and experience offer other less appealing gifts.  Age drains beauty’s vitality the way the summer sun drains the colors of a zinna’s petals.   “You would not think that I had survived anything but the life you see me living now,” yet once I taught myself to keep my gaze low, afraid men would be caught by my beauty and hold me responsible for their disappointment when they realized I wasn’t the person they imagined me to be.

Yesterday I attended the funeral service for a friend’s mother.  I find no solace in organized religion, but I could feel the comfort it gave the people around me in the church.  In general, I’m suspicious of much in communal interaction, stemming from a childhood and now an adulthood lived on the margins.  Without this connection, I worry that whatever it is I have to offer will find no audience, serve no useful purpose.

Today I begin my 50th year journeying on this blue planet.  There is much I see that disturbs me, and almost nothing I can do to change upsetting realities.  I can hardly manage to change one small, destructive behavior of my own.  All I can do is testify to what I believe is true:  that to show kindness in even the smallest interactions is as sacred as Sunday worship, that beauty surrounds us everywhere, that the point of life is not to attain happiness but to ready one’s self to recognize and appreciate happiness whenever it does appear — mysteriously, briefly, wonderfully. 

These are the mysteries I could not approach when I was younger:
the boulevards, the meteors, the deep desires that split the sky
Walking down the paths of the cold park
I remember myself, the one who can wait out anything
So I caution the dog to go silently to bear with me
the burden of knowing what spins on and on above our heads

For this is our reward: Come Armageddon, come fire or flood,
come love, not love, millennia of portents —
there is a future in which the dog and I are laughing
Born into it, the mystery, I know we will be saved