It’s January 1, 2011, and today I have eaten two dishes of black-eyed peas to augur good luck and fortune in the coming year. It prompted me to research the tradition of feasting on this vigilant legume. The cowpea was supposedly domesticated 5,000 years ago in Africa; its consumption spread throughout the continent and it was brought to the U.S. along with the slave trade, making it one of the staples of southern heritage. Everybody in the south eats it, even my family in Oklahoma. Its vouching of good luck stems from Jewish culture (it is associated with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year), and Southern culture (the bean supposedly was the salvation of starving Confederate families during a Union Army siege). Also, Fergie is a member.
In any case, I’m eating cowpeas today for prosperity and fortune, even though I don’t believe either is won by luck. As far as I know, only Will.I.Am has found fortune with black eyed peas. I honestly don’t remember if I ate them last year, and if I did, whether it would have done me any good. My dirty secret is that I don’t like them. But maybe more of this lucky legume a year ago would have helped me avoid one of the worst years of my life.
It probably won’t surprise you, Dear Beauty Is Imperfection reader, that I’m happy to see this hated year come to an end. It’s surprising to me how many people I know who have endured some heartache in 2010. Two people close to me got breast cancer. A friend’s father had a stroke. Other family members suffered heart problems, car wrecks, and penury. Around the beginning of last year, a friend of mine lost an application on a co-op apartment in Fort Greene she’d waited months for, likely because of her race. And she continued to have problems adopting a baby. But put aside the problems of my friends. Consider that 17% of the country is unemployed (or underemployed) and they’re also likely wanting to see this year end.
I turned to my wife in bed one night last March, feeling pangs of fresh paranoia, and said, “Too many people I know are having problems. I’ve never believed in bad luck, and yet I feel like it’s time for us to have some.” Perhaps, I hoped, we’d already paid our due to the angry Gods. We were kicked out of our apartment in early January, the second time in two years that a landlord had invoked a sale as a legal means to evict us (which is really crappy luck). And yet our relocation, one block away, went smoothly. We landed on our feet in a nice place with lots of new plans and dreams to pursue, perhaps a new Web show.
Yet, at the risk of sounding like Eeyore, I thought we still had bad luck coming and started looking over my shoulder.
How wrong things indeed went a few weeks later. I was sitting at home with some free time after finally unpacking and organizing the house, getting ready to sit down and compose some music when my sister called and told me my family had been in a car wreck in Luling, Texas. My mother, stepfather, niece and nephew and my mother’s foster daughter had been on the way to the beach. For reasons we’re still not sure about, their car ended up in the opposite lane very early one morning on the way to Corpus Christi and ran into two teenagers in a truck.
My nephew woke up in a hospital later, turned to a pretty therapist and asked her “Is this a dream?”
Within a few hours, he likely was wishing it were. My sister arrived in time to break the news that my mother had died instantly, my stepfather some 12 hours later. An autopsy suggested he had suffered a heart attack, perhaps while he was at the wheel, though we’re still not sure what really happened. The kids, all of whom survived, tell different stories about the last moments. So I have to satisfy myself knowing that the last moments of my mother’s life will always be surrounded in mystery.
I arrived in Texas two days later to see the somewhat strange sight of my niece covered in bruises with a blood stain on her forehead playing a Nintendo Wii game console in Dell Children’s Hospital, trying to dance to the Austin Powers theme. My nephew was in a wheelchair, but sometimes too giddy to stay in it, and tried to walk around with what might have been damage to the growth plate in his knee. We were at the Ronald McDonald House for days, where I was treated to free food cooked by volunteers and images of moms on the walls that caused me horrible weeping fits. I was told to write an obit by the funeral home director. He was very nice until he demanded a mid-three figure payment in cash, not easy to get in a pinch out of state. I suggest to you, reader, that you not die in Luling.
My family, especially my sister, got a crash course that week in discussing death and dying with a 7- and 10-year old. They wanted to know why they would be allowed to see my mom, who had automatically been embalmed under Texas law since she was not immediately claimed, but not their grandfather, who had died later but donated his organs and was no longer viewable. Why were we cremating them? Why didn’t the kids get a choice in these matters? What was my mother going to be like when they saw her one last time? Would she seem like herself? Would she have a smell? These were all things the children asked; and trying to help them stay strong allowed us to stay strong for ourselves.
Fortunately, my sister, a powerful force of nature herself, seemed to know how to handle all of these matters. As we tried to explain to children some of the most profoundly philosophical things humans have to grasp, weighty subjects that tax even the Kants and Nietzsches of the world, my niece doodled in a coloring book and my nephew very quickly slurped on a lollipop. To watch two developing brains compute tragedy was an eye-opening experience. My niece, who is younger, processes things more analytically. Try, if you can, to imagine a pretty little seven-year-old girl saying “Grandma died, but life goes on.” My nephew, who is older, who understood its permanance a little more and who processes things more emotionally, would be a different story.
If these problems weren’t enough, my mother took a smattering of small businesses down with her, and my family and I had to come together to save what we could after we returned to our home town of Oklahoma City. Two days after burying my parents, I walked into their offices and was accosted by renters asking me if we were selling the building, by clients wanting money back even though the accounts were frozen and creditors acting suddenly tight-fisted, if not like swine. With little business acumen, no real understanding of what we were facing–no idea how much paperwork we had to sift through, how many mortgages there were, what the phone passwords were, where the keys were or how much my mother had in assets (or debt) I had to open my mouth and say something inspiring and comforting. My first triumph that week was learning how to pick some of the locks. Later, I had to yell at a tenant who I believe was ripping off my mother and turn into the kind of mean-spirited landlord I’d fulminated against when I’d been kicked out of my apartment two months before. There were lots of people in my mother’s town to pray with, thankfully. Great people she’d helped who came out to help us. When my wife went back to New York, I spent two weeks patrolling my old neighborhoods and looking through pictures. I became obsessed with images of my mother when she was in her 20s or so, back when I first met her, and letters she’d written and any thing that might sum of a life in some way, even though few objects really can.
When I’d finally got back to New York, I received word that my mother’s little sister finally succumbed to cancer. I lost another aunt a few months later to complications with lupus and the medication she was taking for it.
By summer, my new motto was: Don’t leave the house.
But of course, it’s silly to call any year “bad.” Life is full of moments, very short ones, some of them ecstatic and some of them excruciating. A calendar page doesn’t foretell bad fortune anymore than Tarot cards, the guts of a Roman bull, Nostradamus or the movie 2012. A wise man once said that there are no happy moments, only happy memories. That’s a little cynical. And perhaps it’s just as silly to call 2010 or 2001 or 1929 a “bad year.” I had some happy moments in 2010. It’s just that happiness is something I don’t think we really understand. It never lasts as long as you think. Like many other feelings, it’s a physiological phenomenon. We might be momentarily content, but our bodies are always needing and desiring. That’s their job. When we get what we want, we have joy but the joy is fleeting and we’re on to the next thing, no matter how long we had struggled before. We have things that could make us happy but then we get distracted as easily as if we had sniffed something in the air. Happiness isn’t something you ever completely achieve. Likewise, sadness isn’t something you must keep. Maybe they’re both just metabolic processes, like digestion.
What does it really mean to be “happy” all the time, anyway? Sometimes it’s more gratifying to work. To struggle. Simply to persevere. To think there is some state we could be in where we would be nothing but “happy” constantly would be a form of insanity.
So this year, to honor my lost parents, I decided to go on needing and desiring and goal-achieving, the way living people do. My family and I had to decide how much we were going to let grief become part of our lives, and we decided, as Sophie said, “Grandma died, but life goes on.” To need and desire and to be distracted by stupid shit is, oddly enough, what it’s all about.
My friend who wanted an apartment and a baby, by the way, got them both. So even though 2010 started out painful for her, it turned out later to be joyous, and that means it ought to be for me, too.
So yes, 2010, go away, don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. But I should also thank you, 2010, for some of the fleeting moments of happiness and maybe, just maybe, a bit of understanding and enlightenment. Thank you for the fact that I’m still alive and I have a wife and we still love each other and we have plans and goals and hopes. Thank you for the fact that I was able to spend New Year’s Eve 2010 driving around (very safely) in Oklahoma City with my very still healthy niece and nephew, having fun and laughing at stupid jokes.
To say anything else would be ungrateful for this beautiful accident called living.